The day had started out... different. A feeling of being more... awake. But the invigoration of that feeling was swiftly swept aside when her typical bout of morning sickness came upon her...
No, she scolded herself. It's not morning sickness. That's what Thrawn wants me to think.
And he had certainly been doing a good job reinforcing that illusion. The Grand Admiral had instructed her guards to provide her with anything she asked for, within reason. Of course, Mara lost no time in pushing the limits of "reason." The guards were obviously upset about playing servants to a prisoner, but carried out their orders to the fullest. Even the most exotic and ridiculous of her requests were fulfilled, frustrating her in her attempts to stump them. (Though they were still working on the Hitian garnd roast. But given their record, it would come eventually.) She intended to ask them for a satchel of thermal detonators sometime, just to see what they'd do.
Her cell was filled with amenities unheard of in even the nicest of New Republic holding cells, much less a full-fledged Imperial detention block. Apparently, Thrawn was serious when he said he would make her stay as comfortable as possible. The only thing that could make it better was to be out. But that was clearly on the other side of the "reason" boundary.
In addition, she was given frequent medical examinations and a personal doctor, who seemed to be genuinely happy to be working in his field of specialization again after years of general Imperial Fleet medicine. The rest of the charade was somewhat convincing, but Mara had to hand it to Thrawn on this one. That guy was one good actor! He almost did make her feel like an excited mother-to-be. It was a feeling that scared her more than anything else since her capture.
It was quite disorienting, to say the least. From time to time, she caught herself actually staring at her own belly, stretching and inhaling, looking for signs of expansion. It was ludicrous, really. Even if it was true... which it wasn't... it wouldn't be visible for a while yet. And even if a bulge were visible, it would be nothing more than a sign that the doctor was tampering with her body, as she already had good reason to believe he had.
The never-ending state of boredom and loneliness was fertile soil for such absurdities, requiring vigilance on her part to keep those thoughts from taking root. She took solace in knowing the truth, reminding herself of it constantly.
At the moment, she was reclining on the cell's bunk, idly twisting her hair around a finger, trying to keep her mind occupied on less disturbing matters. She saw with satisfaction that her hair was finally back to its natural red-gold sheen. The brown dye she had used more than a month previously had taken forever to finally wash out, an annoying reminder of why she hated doing that so much. But as she had discovered the hard way, two years before on Rishii, her normal color was a dead giveaway in situations requiring undercover work. It would have to be a wig next time. Though she had yet to find one that she felt comfortable wearing.
But even the worst wig she had ever tried fit better than that stupid spacesuit she wound up wearing to Yavin. At her last stop on the way to Luke's academy, somebody had the audacity to steal her old one right out from under the nose of the port manager. The only thing he had to replace it with was a shiny silver one, a few sizes too small. At least, that's what he said. She didn't have the time to argue the point, so she just took the thing.
On Yavin 4, once they were alone, Luke gave her a hard time over showing up at his academy with a new hair color and form-fitting apparel. He accepted her reasons, but refused to provide a replacement suit for fear of arousing suspicions. She understood and agreed, but still didn't like it. Thinking back on the situation, she chuckled at the mental picture of Luke choking in surprise at the landing pad. A visible shock, not the barely Force-concealed one he did have. She sighed heavily. She had been as much in favor of secrecy as he had. But now, as a prisoner aboard the Star Destroyer Chimaera, with Grand Admiral Thrawn on to them, the old "safety in secrecy" arrangement did her little good.
The pull of her finger against knotted hair broke her train of thought. As she untangled it, her thoughts drifted back to the last wig she had used. She remembered how she had wound up being allergic to something used in it, and how much her scalp itched. Much like that guard's out there...
She shot to her feet. The guard... his head itched... but how... Then it hit her. The strangely refreshing feeling when she awoke. Could it be? She concentrated, reaching out in a Jedi technique she hadn't been able to perform in weeks...
She gasped in surprise. It worked! The Force was back! They must have moved the ysalamiri. But why?
For a brief moment, she pondered that question. Why would Thrawn move them away? He knew what she could do. Then again, maybe that's why he did it. To get her to try to contact Luke for help. But she wasn't about to play decoy. Or perhaps it was another part of his deception. A sign of goodwill, to prove he wanted the "best" for her.
She smiled. That's where he made his mistake. Now that she could feel the Force again, she could reach inside, prove that it was a lie. Thrawn couldn't possibly fake something like that. But why check? She knew it was a lie. It had to be. But if it wasn't...
"No," she said determinedly. But even as she said it, doubt permeated her entire being. Perhaps verification would be in order.
"No," she repeated, a little weaker this time. But it sounded hollow and without force in her own ears. She stood silently for a minute, going over the same rationalizations she had gone through hundreds of times before when doubt had threatened to ruin her sanity. But never before had there been a way to settle it once and for all... and she could no longer deny her uncertainty. She could only answer it.
Taking a deep breath, she concentrated. She reached deep into her own body. After a scant few seconds, a smile spread across her face. See, she told herself. Nothing to worry about...
A sudden flicker of something different drew her focus like a homing beacon. There it was, something partially herself and partially not. A presence unlike any she had ever felt before, a tiny being, growing even while she stood there. A new life, forming inside her body...
She sat down hard on the bunk, her legs devoid of all strength. Mara's face was a blank, pasty white, a perfect mirror of her emotions: not in the way that white paint lacks color, but in the way that white light is a mixture of them all. A tear slowly blazed a trail down her cheek.
For a long time, she sat trembling, fighting the emotional cyclone that was twisting across her mind. Tears continued to wind their way from eyes to chin. Not tears of sadness, nor joy, nor pain. Not exclusively, at any rate.
"No," her voice came at last. A whisper, really. "Not now. Not like this." She buried her face into her hands. "Why did it have to be true?" Mara fell silent for a few minutes, then took a deep breath, raised her head, and wiped her eyes. After a few more deep breaths, she felt stable enough to stand again. It still felt like peeling herself off the ground after being on the wrong end of a bantha stampede.
Back on her feet, she paced around her cell, thinking about the implications of her predicament. The time limit for secrecy had expired by chance, not by mutual consent, as originally planned. Or maybe it wasn't pure chance. Perhaps it wasn't entirely unplanned after all. She had yet to figure out the full extent of a Jedi's manipulative powers. Maybe...
She shook her head. No, he wouldn't do that. Especially considering the extreme importance he put on secrecy. But regardless, if it hadn't been for him...
As an unhealthy wave of rage began to wash over her, her hands unconsciously balled into fists. Through clenched teeth, she growled softly.
"When I get my hands on him, I'll..." she cut herself off, anger bleeding off rapidly as she silently scolded herself for the outburst. "...I'll have a nice - long - talk with Daddy," she finished softly, gently patting her belly and looking around the cell. Such ideas would be of no use as long as she was still held prisoner. Reprisals could wait until later. Now was the time for escape.
A quick glance up and down the detention block corridor proving that no one was looking, the lone guard reached up under his enormous helmet to scratch his head. With the sound of footsteps at the end of the hall, his hand snapped back into place at his side in hopes of avoiding notice of his breach of protocol.
It had been another long shift, standing for hours by this particular cell. But that was his job, and he really didn't mind that. What he did mind was the fact that he had been ordered to act as a sort of butler to the prisoner he was guarding. In all his years of Imperial service, he had never heard of such a thing. True, the Grand Admiral had his own ways of doing things, and always with good reason, but regardless, he couldn't help but silently burn with contempt every time he stepped inside that cell where the cold efficiency of a proper detention center had been converted into some sort of luxury hotel room.
Between himself and the other two shift guards for this prisoner, speculations had arisen regarding her relationship with the Grand Admiral. He had issued orders to them to bring her whatever she asked for, and to make her cell as comfortable as possible. Obviously, she was more than just a prisoner. And he seemed to summon her very frequently. Too frequently for a mere private interrogation. The guards that escorted her away claimed that she was brought to sick bay, but there was no way the "Imperial Fleet Servants," as they had begun to call themselves, could verify that, so the speculation continued.
It was quite clear to them what Thrawn saw in her. She was beautiful, they all agreed. Likewise, they were unanimous in their reading of a certain air of danger and intrigue about her, certain to be of interest to the Admiral. But what they couldn't decide was what she could see in him, besides power, especially when compared to three fine fully human specimens, like themselves. In fact, they all enjoyed bragging to each other about what had happened on their shifts, despite the fact that they knew it was always a lie. Though they never admitted it to each other, they all knew it to be true that they were all too scared of her to actually attempt any of their boasts.
Abruptly the paging light by the cell blinked and pinged. The guard turned to open the door, muttering to himself. He was moving anyway, so he scratched his head again. He keyed the control, and the door slid open.
"What is it this... time?" he said, suddenly distracted.
The prisoner leaned seductively against the wall, her blouse open a little more than usual, and a warm, welcoming smile on her face. Swaying gently, she approached him.
"Uh... Uh... stay back," he managed, clumsily drawing his blaster.
"Oh, come now," she said smoothly. "There's no need for that. Put it away."
Even while he was thinking what a ridiculous idea that was, his hand nevertheless eased the pistol back into its holster. By the time he realized it, the prisoner was right next to him, softly sliding the back of her hand across his jaw.
"Could you do me a little favor?"
"Uh..." he swallowed. "What kind of favor?"
"Oh, just a little thing. There's no need to even mention it to anyone. I want you to bring me a stormtrooper."
"A stormtrooper? B...but why?"
"Don't be concerned with it, silly. I just need to see one. Alone. You do want to help me out, don't you? I can make it worth your while."
The guard swallowed again, harder. "Okay. Sure. I'll get one."
"Good," she said, stepping around to face him. She cradled his face in her hands, and brought hers to a scant few centimeters from his. "I'll be waiting for you."
The guard hurried off to carry out Mara's request, completely oblivious to the full extent of her manipulation of him. Once the door closed, she sat down to wait for his return. It would take far more concentration to make a stormtrooper do what she wanted. This time, she wouldn't have the luxury of listening in on her target's thoughts and custom-fitting an approach for the greatest effect. That guard had been so destabilized that he barely required any use of the Force. Unfortunately, she couldn't count on the stormtrooper to be a fellow graduate of the Lando Calrissian School of Fat Chances. This time, it would take some serious concentration.
A sudden, wicked grin crept across her face. Since it had been so easy to play that lust-smitten guard for a fool, it would probably be just as easy to send Calrissian walking out an airlock. Yes, that would be wonderful. But no, she wouldn't give in to this urge. Lando was, after all, Luke's friend. Besides, it would be even more gratifying to see Luke himself straighten out the situation. A fight for what was his might just make him appreciate it more.
"Well," she mumbled, closing up her blouse. "At least I've still got it."
Kyp's arrival on Ithor had gone undetected, as it had the first time. He carefully brought the Sun Crusher down into the depths of the forest, hidden under the foliage where no Ithorian would ever look. The tree-hugging fools wouldn't dare touch the ground of their own planet! All the better for intruders such as himself.
He exited his ship into the cool air of dusk, inhaling deeply after such a long time of breathing stale, recycled air inside the Sun Crusher. But when he did, he cringed as a jolt of pain ran up his body. Unconsciously, he gripped his wounded side. When he finally straightened up, rage had once again bubbled up, obliterating the calmness that the surroundings had started to inspire. He looked toward the western horizon to see the immense and not too distant shape of the herdship Tafanda Bay silhouetted against the red sky of sunset. With a fresh wave of determination, Kyp took up his gear, including his newly completed lightsaber, and began the hike toward his prize.
The cell door hissed open abruptly, and the guard entered with a stormtrooper in tow. Right on time.
"Go now, and close the door," Mara said to the guard, a definite strain in her voice. With an equally strained smile, she added, "I'll let you know when I'm ready for you."
The guard was gone and the door closed again before the stormtrooper could turn his head, even if his alertness wasn't currently being impeded by Jedi powers.
"What do you want?" he managed, sounding a bit confused and somewhat drowsy.
"I need you to do something for me," Mara said calmly. "Take off your uniform."
Mara leaned her concentration into him harder. "Take off your uniform."
"No, I..." the stormtrooper started. Then he seemed to change his mind. "All right," he said, setting his blaster down. He proceeded to loosen and remove pieces of his white armor in slow and very artificial motions.
When the trooper removed his chestpiece, Mara cleared her throat to get his attention. He turned toward her in the same dopey manner he had been exhibiting, but snapped to complete alertness when he saw the muzzle of his own blaster pointed at him. The bright blue flash of a stun bolt sent him to the ground before he had time to shout.
"Well," Mara sighed in relief. "At least that worked." She sat still for a moment, regaining her strength after the intense concentration. A few deep breaths later, and she was back to work, removing the rest of the uniform from the unconscious body. "Got to make sure Lando never hears about this," she muttered. "He'll never let me live it down."
At long last, the paging light blinked and chimed. The guard looked up and down the hallway. Satisfied that no one was looking, he turned to the door. He gave his head a final scratch, straightened his uniform, and opened the door.
Of all the strange things he had imagined finding inside the cell, an extremely out-of-uniform, unconscious, tied-and-gagged stormtrooper laying on the mattress wasn't one of them.
"What's going on here?" he cried, rushing into the cell.
He stopped in his tracks and snapped his head around when the door slid shut behind him, only to find himself looking down the barrel of a blaster rifle. And behind it, wearing the stormtrooper's white armor and smiling at him wickedly, was the prisoner.
"Your turn," she said seductively, smiling even wider before a blue flash sent the world into darkness.
A dense flock of birds arose from the trees as an explosion reverberated across the jungle. On the distant northern horizon, a narrow column of smoke wound its way skyward toward the immense orange ball of the gas giant Yavin.
General Odosk lowered his macrobinoculars, satisfied that all was proceeding well. At the moment, his troops were infiltrating pyramids all around the moon, taking up positions where the creatures they carried with them would have the most effect, and hopefully already capturing some of the surprised and suddenly powerless Jedi students.
The troops nearest to him were busy working their way through the biggest temple on the moon, which had been left completely open, unlike the one to the north. They soon reported finding communications equipment in some chambers and living spaces in others, mostly in such a condition that indicated recent use.
But they hadn't seen anyone. And when Odosk himself went inside, he saw that recent use didn't mean this morning. A thin layer of dust coated everything the stormtroopers hadn't thrown around. He pulled out his comlink to order the troops to find a way to the top of the temple, but the comlink spoke first.
"Yes, what is it?"
"This is FB-132. Sir, I think you'd better have a look at this."
With a stormtrooper on either side, Odosk strode swiftly through the ancient stone passages to rendezvous with trooper FB-132. He found him in one of the living quarters, staring at a blackened spot on the floor.
"On the floor, sir," he said matter-of-factly. "It looks like someone got electrocuted... or something," he added.
Odosk crouched down to get a closer look. Indeed, the stormtrooper's reading appeared accurate. A ghostly silhouette of a humanoid form lay in the center of the singed stone, and a subtle smell of ash hung over the place.
An interesting mystery, but not one to be concerned with right now.
"Trooper, I want you to file a complete report on this finding. But not right now. We need to get to the top of this temple and back in contact with the rest of the units. Let's move!"
It was even easier than last time to get past the Ithorians, Kyp noted with satisfaction. His powers had greatly increased since then. It took only the barest amount of concentration to avert the attention of passing Hammerheads.
Almost completely unimpeded, he came closer and closer to the hospital section of the Tafanda Bay, and a certain Omwati scientist by the name of Qwi Xux...
Captain Pellaeon approached Thrawn, taking quick glances as he did so at the myriad of holographic displays detailing the operation underway on Yavin's fourth moon. Reaching the Admiral, he held out a datapad.
"Status report from the fleet, sir."
The Grand Admiral took the pad from him and punched up the information.
"As you can see, sir, the last of the recon craft have been launched, and should be entering the atmosphere about now. Also, the picket forces are in place, and the interdictors are at full power. They have reported no sign of either escaping spacecraft or any rebel security forces, though they have been having some sensor trouble with Death Star debris."
"Yes, I see. Good work," Thrawn replied, his voice betraying some strain.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, not at all, Captain," he said, but Pellaeon knew it wasn't true. The Grand Admiral was getting impatient. General Odosk's forces had yet to encounter anyone on the surface, much less a Jedi apprentice, and it was beginning to bother him. Pellaeon knew, because he felt it as well. From time to time, he noticed some of his own habits and personality quirks subtly showing up in Thrawn's behavior. It was unavoidable, of course. With all the time he had spent with Thrawn, training him and bringing his mind back up to speed, a bit of personality would have to rub off. But regardless of the inevitability, it nevertheless bothered him immensely. But he mustn't appear to be constantly apprehensive.
"I didn't think so, sir."
A blinking light on his chair cut him off. Thrawn pressed the intercom button on the right armrest.
"Admiral," a tense bridge officer's voice said. "We have a top priority message from detention."
Pellaeon braced himself. He had a very good idea what that message involved, and wasn't surprised in the least when the officer said:
"Sir, the prisoner in cell 138 has escaped."
Mara made her way toward the hangar bays, a lone stormtrooper walking through the corridors of the Chimaera. Carefully, she looked behind herself to see if anyone was following. Using the Force had proved unreliable, as there were apparently still some ysalamiri scattered around the ship, but she checked with it anyway, as a backup. Satisfied that she was being left alone, she continued on.
It hadn't taken very long for her to reach the main hangar. But then, when you can just walk through the halls without sneaking, of course you'll progress faster. Up ahead, she saw a viewport. She didn't alter her pace in the slightest, though she did feel her heart speed up. She was getting closer to her freedom.
The viewport presented her with a view of the entire main hangar bay, and beyond. But her hopes of sneaking aboard a docked freighter were dashed when she saw that there weren't any. Furthermore, from what she could see, it looked like some sort of military operation were underway. Technical and support personnel could be seen in the various docking slips, preparing landing craft for launch. And from the look of things, this was probably the second or third wave.
She stared out into space, hoping to get a glimpse at what their target was. Finally, she found it, a narrow sliver of dark green, straight below. So they were attacking from the night side. Mara reached up to the sides of her helmet to adjust the lens tinting, affording herself a clearer view of the darkened orb.
A stray thought entered her mind. She smiled under the helmet. Well, she thought, no wonder farmboy couldn't see out of these things. The genius must've left the lenses darkened.
A small chuckle escaped her throat, which she quickly stifled. Now she had to get moving. Real stormtroopers didn't stand around looking out viewports laughing. But she wanted to take one more look at the planet, to take one last chance to identify where she was.
The planet below could have been any of a million worlds. Dark green foliage, and only a narrow band of it at that, was not nearly enough to identify anything. She looked around for other signs: space stations, moons, asteroid belts...
Right then, an orange line took shape along one edge of the hangar bay. A moment later, it could be seen to be a smoothly curved surface and not a straight line at all. And it was too close and not bright enough to be a star, which left only one possibility: a gas giant.
Mara inhaled sharply. A big, orange gas giant with a jungle or forest moon orbiting it. Yavin. It must be Yavin. There were other planets that matched the general layout, but somehow, she knew it wasn't any other.
"What's he doing at Yavin?" she muttered, not realizing she had spoken aloud. She pondered the implications of this new information until the sound of footsteps snapped her back to the business at hand. She could find out what Thrawn was doing later, after she escaped.
She headed forward again, this time toward the smaller shuttle bay. Since there were no big ships to stow away on, stealing a shuttle was the next best thing. And maybe even better.
She entered another corridor, trying to evade the footsteps she had heard before the person making them had any idea she was in front of him. Her disguise was holding so far, but if whoever it was had seen her standing at the viewport, she'd rather not have to try to explain it. And besides that, the Force seemed to be gone in this area, and she couldn't hope to fall back on her mind tricks.
It seemed to work. The steps got quieter and quieter, sounding more and more distant until they couldn't be heard at all over the clattering of her armor. Though that didn't exactly make her feel good about it.
Her period of semi-relief ended suddenly with the emergence of an Imperial officer from a side door 20 meters ahead of her, who started heading in her direction. She carefully pulled herself up straighter and put a bit more discipline in her strides, just for good measure. Her charade had worked so far, but no point risking detection for being sloppy.
The closer they got, the more obvious it was to him that something was amiss. He wore a puzzled look on his face as he swept his eyes up and down the approaching stormtrooper, trying to determine what exactly it was that was out of place. The armor didn't seem to fit quite right, riding a little strangely in some areas. At one point, he thought he saw a slight sway in the hips, but that didn't mean much, since that armor wasn't exactly the most comfortable stuff in the galaxy. But what was undeniable was that this stormtrooper was far shorter than normal. He was used to looking them in the eye, but walking past this one, he could see clear over the helmet.
He turned his head to watch the stormtrooper from behind, still puzzling over how someone so short could have made it into the ranks, when he noticed a few conspicuous strands of red hair hanging halfway down the trooper's back. He turned to follow.
Oh, great, Mara thought. The officer did suspect something. She tried stretching out with the Force, only to find that it was still gone. Up ahead, she spotted what could be a maintenance access door. Perfect. If she could just duck into it, she could lose the officer if he decided to keep going, or dispatch him quietly if he opted to follow. Just a little further...
"Trooper!" the officer barked.
Mara stopped cold, back erect, rifle held at ready, but she didn't turn around. His footsteps came closer, until finally he passed and turned to face her.
"Trooper, you are to face me when I talk to you, is that clear?"
"Yes, sir!" she said in the gruffest voice she could manage. But even through the helmet, it sounded lame.
Apparently, the officer thought so, too. "You don't sound so good, trooper. Maybe you'd better check in with medical."
"And another thing," he said, reaching over her shoulder. He yanked his hand hard, and a sudden jolt of pain erupted from the back of her scalp. He pulled his hand back and dangled some long strands of her hair in front of her eyes. "Care to explain this, trooper?"
Before she could say anything, a chime from the intercom cut her off, and the voice of the Grand Admiral filled the hallway.
"Attention all hands. This is Grand Admiral Thrawn. A human female has escaped from detention, and she must be recaptured. She is to be considered extremely dangerous. But I want her taken unharmed, and she is not, under any circumstances, to be stunned. I repeat: no stunning. Do not attempt to apprehend this prisoner alone: call for help immediately. Suspect that she is heading for the hangar bays, possibly wearing stormtrooper armor. Further details and pictures are available at duty stations. That is all."
The officer lost no time figuring out who it was under the armor. He fumbled for his blaster and comlink, not quite knowing which one was the most important one to have in hand at the moment.
Mara took a quick look up and down the hall to see if anyone else was looking, then slammed the butt of her blaster into the officer's gut. As he stooped over in pain, she brought it crashing up into his chin, throwing him to his back, where he lay unconscious.
Quickly, she dragged him inside the maintenance hatch, where she tied him up. She felt around the back of her head. Sure enough, some of her hair had come loose from the tight bun she had woven. She removed the helmet, only to pull the hair pins out with it, letting her hair spill full length down her back. She reached up to tie it back again, but gave it up when she saw there was no point in taking the time to re-do the bun, or even to tie it up to her usual shoulder length "helmet hair."
By now, everyone on board would know what she looked like, and unless she ran into a TIE pilot or gunner, she had no way of disguising herself, since the stormtrooper armor was out of the question, and nothing else would allow her to cover her face. She would have to do it the hard way. And the first thing to do was to decoy the Imperials away from her actual destination.
Once out of the armor, she carefully inspected her surroundings. Just inside the door was a computer terminal. She knew the Emperor's personal backdoor access codes from her days of serving as his Hand, and had used them before with great effect on the Chimaera, but there was absolutely no doubt that Thrawn had flagged them by now, if not rewired the system entirely. But what she had in mind would make use of that fact.
Toward the back of the compartment were a pair of tunnels of the type that required one to lie flat and roll along on a small trolley. The labeling on them indicated that one went back to the main hangar bay, and the other forward to the shuttle bay. A quick study of the trolley revealed remotely activated tracking circuitry that was currently turned off. Perfect.
She hauled the Imperial officer to the tunnel and placed him on the trolley, along with the armor. She then attempted to gain computer access with her old code, getting a little ways in a data search for the ship's current position before the system shut her out with the whole screen flashing, "Access Denied: Unauthorized Code." Well, she thought, that ought to set off the buzzers up top. She took a quick look around to make sure she wasn't leaving anything important behind, and went to the tunnels. After giving the trolley a good, hard shove aft, and throwing a few pieces of white armor down the same tunnel to look like they were discarded from the trolley, she started her crawl forward.
From the top of the Great Temple, General Odosk could see several more columns of smoke rising out of the jungle. Pride welled up within him. To see even a hint of Imperial glory raised his spirits, after being kept so long away from it all in the Maw.
At Dantooine, his first opportunity to lead his troops into battle in almost twelve years had been stolen from him, given instead to a navy... a NAVY... officer. But at least Thrawn appreciated the proper order of things. It had been good to see Thrawn again after such a long time.
Unfortunately, the operation wasn't going quite as expected. There had been very few casualties, all the results of accidents, but that much had been anticipated and was nothing to either worry or gloat about. What was troubling was the complete absence of the intended targets. All signs pointed to the moon being abandoned. But then, they could just be hiding in the jungle. Which was what the recon flights were there for.
The general checked his datapad again. The latest report indicated that, though some squads were still working their way through temples on the other side of the moon, all the ones within his view were done. He raised his comlink.
"Squad leaders, light your flares."
One by one, bright green lights lit up at the apex of the temples, standing out very well against the orange sphere of Yavin in the directions where that was a concern. Odosk held up his macrobinoculars again, searching for unmarked temples. Data had been somewhat sketchy on Yavin 4, as only the largest of the ruins showed up on any of their maps. But there were bound to be smaller ones that the Jedi could hide in.
Every now and then, Odosk spotted a stone pyramid's peak over the trees without a green light, promptly noted its position, and assigned a nearby squad to split off several troops to check it out. Once through all the ones he could see, he made another 360 degree sweep for good measure. He was about to set down is binoculars when something odd caught his eye. In the distance, a black point could be seen poking out of the jungle. It could just be a mountain - at this range, it was hard to tell - but Odosk wanted to be sure, so he called for a recon flyover, and put some nearby troops on standby.
He finally lowered his binoculars and tried to spot the black spire with his naked eyes, but failed. He turned to pace back to the other end of the temple top, and noticed, for the first time, a spot of scorched stone around a humanoid outline. It was in most ways reminiscent of the one that had been discovered inside the ruin, but the shape was more definite, as if this one hadn't burned all the way through as the other apparently had. Something strange had happened here...
Qwi Xux awoke with a start, having been deeply involved in a nightmare involving a man in a black cape attacking her mind. She sat panting, her body covered with perspiration, frightened at what she had seen. It was real. It was a memory of what had happened to her, not a dream. Of that, she was somehow, inexplicably certain. A memory had returned. And from what she had just seen, she wasn't sure if she wanted the rest to return.
After a moment of calming down, she had the unpleasant sensation that she was not alone. She looked around in the darkness, but could see nothing but shadow. She timidly pressed a button at the edge of her bed for the lights...
And screamed when she saw the dark man from her nightmare standing in front of her. A scream that was cut off almost before it began when he pressed his hand over her mouth.
"Calm yourself, Dr. Xux," he chided. "I'm not here to hurt you. In fact, I'm here to apologize."
She was trembling with fear, but had stopped screaming, so Kyp pulled his hand away. "There, we can be reasonable."
"What... what do you want with me?" she whimpered.
"As I said, I want to apologize for what I did to you. I want to restore your mind."
"I was a fool. I let myself be misled by faulty reasoning. Your mind is of use to me," he said, then added as an afterthought, "for the good of the galaxy."
"I... I don't know..."
"Don't you want to know once more who you are?" He paused for a brief second, mentally probing what little of a mind she had left. "Or who Wedge is?"
"Wedge? I... yes. Yes, I do want to know. Can you really make me remember?"
"Then please, make me remember."
"Sir, should I shut down the computer system near the docking bays?"
"No, Captain. No need," Thrawn replied, waving his hand. "As she's no doubt discovered, her old access codes no longer work. And I doubt she will try to slice them. She knows we are aware of her attempted access, but then, I believe she intended for us to know."
"Ahh. I see. Trying to mislead us. Lure the search parties to her last position and decoy them away from her next destination. How are you dealing with it?"
"She was there, Captain. No doubt about that. But, as you've pointed out, it's her next destination that we must determine." He pointed to a holo plan view of the room she had been in. "Notice the tunnels in the back of the room."
"But would she do something that obvious? Seems to me she's too clever for that. An air duct, perhaps?"
"No, Captain. The air ducts in that room are too small for her to fit into. And it would be too easy for us to pump gas through the air system to sedate her. I'm sure she's aware of the fast dissipation gasses that we could use that wouldn't affect the crew. No, she took the tunnels."
"But which one?"
"For that, we must wait for the capture troops to arrive. Captain, how did she get loose?"
"I'm not entirely sure, sir," Pellaeon answered. "But from the look of things, I'd wager it has something to do with Force manipulation. The statements from the guard and stormtrooper indicates..."
"Yes, yes, I've read their statements," Thrawn cut him off. "They couldn't resist. But that's not my question. Why was she able to use the Force at all? The ysalamiri in the detention level were obviously removed. I want to know who did it and why."
The tunnel was long and dark, only large enough to crawl through. And even then, Mara's back was rubbing against the top of it. The rails on the floor didn't make her knees feel very good, either. She soon discovered that at semi-regular intervals, a gap opened up in the ceiling, at which times her back would get a brief respite from abrasion, only to then scrape painfully against the lip on the other end of the hole. She had tried standing up in one, finding that she could almost, but not quite, stretch upright in them. It was far too dark in them to determine what their function was, but it was reasonable to assume it was maintenance access to some system or another. She kept them in mind as possible hiding places, in case someone started down her tunnel. After all, if someone pointed a glowrod and her hindquarters, she'd be kind of hard to miss.
Somewhere along the way, the Force had come back again. She actively searched with it for signs of trouble. Ahead, she saw lights of what appeared to be another maintenance station. At her current pace, it would be a few more minutes...
She jerked her head up in alarm, bumping it hard against the tunnel ceiling, as her danger sense sparked. Someone was coming. She scrambled forward to reach one of the overhead access ports, hoping that the next one was of the average distance from the last, instead of one of the particularly long spaced ones.
Finally, she came to one and leapt into it. She braced herself in tightly facing down, made sure nothing was hanging out into the tunnel, and hoped that she wasn't touching anything that might electrocute her or sound an alarm. She accomplished her feat just in time, as a beam of glowrod light cut through the tunnel a split second after she got up.
She could see the light moving, and heard the "oofing" of a man crawling through the cramped space toward her. Apparently, her decoy had failed. And when they recaptured her, she knew there would be no second escape on her own. There was only one way she could get out again, and risky or not, getting out was too important for her to dismiss it. She had the Force at the moment, and the tunnels were too small for anyone to be wearing a bulky ysalamir nutrient frame in it, so it was now or never. She concentrated, stretching out her feelings through the Force.
Luke, she projected. Luke, where are you? Luke, help me...
She kept it up for a few moments, but got no reply. A group of ysalamiri in the way, perhaps? But there was no time to worry about it now; whoever was in the tunnel was getting closer. If there was just one person, she might be able to take him down and continue on her way. But if there were more, well, there was no way she could avoid capture in that case. But she wasn't going to go without a fight.
Her heart was pounding, anxiety gripping her body. She breathed deeply, performing one of Luke's Jedi relaxation techniques. She held her chin against chest for a little while with her eyes closed in concentration. When she opened them, she found herself looking at her belly. She carefully pulled one hand away from its bracing position and brought it up to gently caress it. "Don't worry," she whispered inaudibly. "I won't let them touch you.
Wedge had arrived at Qwi Xux's room promptly at midnight, as planned. He had arranged such personal safety checks with the hospital management, feeling that it was his duty to Dr. Xux after his failure to protect her from harm before. It had taken quite a bit of pulling rank and playing political games, but he had succeeded in obtaining a keycard and permission to check up on her at certain set times during the night. Times like right now.
He slid the card through the reader slot, and the door slid open. He quietly entered the darkened room, not wanting to wake the sleeping scientist. Once inside, he pressed the button to close the door, and finally raised his eyes to look at Qwi.
The scene that greeted him was far from the serene sleeping of a beautiful Omwati woman that he was used to seeing at this time of night. In the dim light, he made out the form of two people standing up, one slender and fragile looking, and the other dark and menacing, wearing a cape, and holding his hands at the sides of the first one's head.
"What's going on here?" he shouted, slapping the lights on. Slowly the dark man turned toward him, his hands never leaving Qwi's head.
"Leave us now," he said, a strangely persuasive lilt in his voice.
"I will leave..." Wedge started, then shook his head hard. "No, I'm not going anywhere. Get away from her," he said, drawing his blaster.
"But I am restoring her mind. Isn't that what you want?"
"Yeah, sure you are. And I'm a singing hologram."
"I don't think you know who you're dealing with."
"Oh, I know who you are. Though I must admit it wasn't obvious at first. You're that Force gifted kid that Qwi and I dropped off on Yavin 4 at Luke's academy, right after you sent the Sun Crusher into Yavin itself. But you're a whole lot uglier now than when I met you. Now," he said, gesturing with his blaster. "Get your hands off her and step away."
"Not a lot of good that will do over... there," Kyp replied, with the final word heralding the yanking of the blaster from Wedge's hand and its subsequent journey through the window. "Now, leave us," he said, turning back to concentrate on Qwi.
"I don't think so," Wedge replied, lunging for Kyp. A step later, he staggered to his knees, choking.
"A foolish move," Kyp said, not even looking at him.
Wedge gasped and looked up at Qwi. Kyp's hands were still at the sides of her head, doing who knows what to her mind. A new burst of determination came over him, and he pulled himself off the ground. Still unable to breathe, he nevertheless made his way over to Kyp, reached out, wrapped his hands around the Force user's neck, and squeezed.
Kyp let him try it for a while, obviously expecting him to expire first. But then he grimaced and gagged, Wedge's grasp affecting him more than he anticipated. He pulled his hands away from Qwi's head at last.
Her limp body crumpled to the floor. Distracted by her fall and his sudden ability to breathe, Wedge released his grip, only to immediately regret it. Kyp turned around suddenly, a bolt of blue lightning flashing from his hands at Wedge.
Wedge yelped and stepped back. Kyp circled around, getting between him and the door, his hands raised to release another volley. After a couple of feints that made Wedge flinch, he finally did.
Wedge was driven to the floor under the bombardment. He writhed in agony for a while, but pulled himself to his feet yet again.
"I am impressed," Kyp congratulated. "You are probably the bravest person I've ever seen. I admire your tenacity. But alas, I have business to tend to, and you... well, since you're not part of it, you're in my way. Farewell."
With that, Force lightning tore into Wedge. He screamed in pain and staggered back, futily trying to shield himself with his arms. He backed up further, and further...
With the shattering of glass, he fell through the same window his blaster had sailed through, and plummeted several stories down to come to rest in a heap in the middle of the hospital's garden.
Kyp looked down, resting his hands on the windowsill. Not what he had intended, but effective anyway. He turned back to Qwi, who had since awoken from her trance.
"What happened?" she asked, rubbing her temples.
"Nothing," Kyp comforted. "Nothing at all. Shall we continue?" he asked, waving his hand, turning the lights off again.
"Yes, please. I remember so much now. I want more."
"And you shall get more," Kyp said, placing his hands back on the sides of her head. "Much more."
Mara was about to strike when the squawk of a comlink stopped the advance of her target. She could just see the top of his head at this point. Over the comlink came orders for the man to return. He argued for a moment, but then proceeded to back out, having no room to turn around.
Several minutes later, Mara sighed in relief. Somehow, her decoy had finally worked. With her pursuer so far down the tunnel, she could afford to make a little noise. She felt around the sides of her hiding place, and noticed an opening big enough to fit into. It was just as well that she hadn't found it earlier, as she had to step back down into the tunnel to reposition herself for entry.
It was a tight squeeze, but she made it. She crept along flat on her stomach, not having enough room to crawl. The absolute darkness made her sometimes wonder if her eyes were even open. What was worse, she was starting to feel claustrophobic, and found herself debating whether it would be worse to be recaptured or stuck in this passage. But when a faint glow appeared ahead of her, a new wave of hope took over, and she pushed on toward it.
What she found was the grating of an air duct, with the duct itself coming in at a right angle to her passage, supplying air to both the passage and the room below. Looking through the grating, she saw that she was directly above some sort of storage closet. A piece of transparisteel mounted in the door let in a sliver of light the came between two large crates outside.
Unfortunately, visual inspection was all she could manage. The Force seemed to be disrupted again, starting sometime just before she had reached the grating. But it wasn't exactly gone this time. It had a mottled feel, somewhat like the strange, random mosaic of colors that one might see after looking at a bright light, then closing one's eyes. She dismissed it to stress and perhaps light-headedness from her inability to breath deeply in the tight passage, but remained wary nonetheless.
There didn't seem to be anyone in the closet below, so she opted to drop in, then figure out how to move those boxes away from the door, rather than go back the way she came. Actually, she doubted she could go back, anyway.
She pulled the grating loose and squeezed her way through, tearing her blouse slightly in the process. It took a few moments of twisting and turning to get her hips angled the right way to pass through the rectangular hole, after which she fell hard to the floor. She sat for a moment, rubbing the knot that was forming on her head, then stood up and stretched for what seemed to be the first time in ages. She grabbed her belt and hiked up her pants slightly, mumbling, "Yeah, Mara. You've still got it, all right."
A look around the closet told her very little. The vertical slit of light that she had seen earlier provided her with minimal visibility. All she could really see in the room were a few boxes and tubes. If they were marked, she couldn't tell. She then went to the window to try to see what was outside.
She winced at first, her light-deprived eyes being overwhelmed by the sudden brightness. Once adjusted, she noticed a pair of Lambda-class shuttles far across the chamber, and another one closer up, just barely peaking around the crates at her. Her heart skipped a beat. She had made it to the shuttle bay! She would be out in no time...
She jerked her head back as an Imperial officer and two black-clad fleet troopers came into view much too close for comfort. Listening carefully, she heard them talking with someone else, possibly the shuttle bay deck officer. She made out very little of it, the conversation taking place too far away to hear without Force enhancement. But she did hear clearly the footsteps of the troops coming back in the direction of the closet. She backed away from the sliver of light to insure they wouldn't spot her as they walked by.
Then it got worse. The sliver of light started growing. They were moving the boxes. She tried to remain calm, reminding herself that they might just be loading them, and didn't come here to search the closet. This thought was soon shot down when she heard the deck officer, a woman, as it turned out, complaining loudly about wanting the crates left alone. But despite her protests, they seemed to be taking one of them. Mara slowly backed farther into the closet, around the corner of a set of shelves. She took another step back...
And stepped on something alive. A guttural squawk nearly made her shriek in fright as she lost her balance and fell back into a stack of boxes. She would have stayed quiet right there were it not for the fact that her right hand was covered with a bunch of small, furry, squirming things. She leapt to her feet and pressed her back against the shelves, shaking her hand wildly in case something was still on it. Her heavy panting almost prevented her from hearing the return of the troopers. Just in time, she caught her breath. She cringed at their approach, certain they had heard her...
They went for the other crate instead. By some stroke of luck, they hadn't heard her. She made a mental note to thank that obnoxious deck officer, if she ever met her in a cantina or tapcafe somewhere. And it was clear that she was still at it. From what Mara could hear, it seemed that the deck officer had blocked the troopers' path, demanding again that they leave things alone. They, in turn, told her about their orders to check for an escaped prisoner in all possible hiding places. Mara listened intently, hoping to glean some useful information from their argument.
Just as it was getting interesting, something flopped across her shoulder. She froze, even stiffer than before, and held her breath. An animal of some sort walked around her neck, its claws pricking her skin and its fur tickling. Behind her, it tugged against her hair. After one slow lap, whatever it was paused to emit a crackly hiss into her ear, and shoot its tongue out across her cheek. Her fear was barely containable. She stood trembling, a tear running down her cheek, but not daring to make a sound. She clenched her teeth together and squeezed her eyelids tightly together as the creature resumed its journey, its long body trailing behind it, rubbing around her neck, and headed down her blouse, possibly in search of a warm place to sleep.
Mara's attention was drawn away from the critter making itself comfortable in her shirt by a loud crash; a large crate had been slammed against the outside wall so hard it sent miscellaneous items falling from shelves above her. Startled, she looked toward the door, where she could see the troopers and their officer, hands on his hips, facing down the deck officer. Mara wasn't nearly calm enough to pick out what they were saying, but when they stomped off, there was no way to miss the heavy footsteps: three pairs in one direction, and one pair in the other.
When they had finally faded out into nothing, she let out a barely controlled yelp and pulled the animal out, dropping it on the floor and dashing to the other side of the closet. She stared at the side she had just come from, hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of it and determine what it was, but the creature never came into the light. She edged closer and closer to the door, eager to make a break for it. And at this point, even being captured was preferable to staying in this zoo.
General Odosk himself led the invasion of the strange black obsidian temple. It was like no other on the moon, with twin spires rising by the sides of a large statue of what looked to be a human with some sort of mark on his forehead. The entire structure lay in the center of a still, deep lake. When the recon flyby had sent him the holos of the site, he knew there was something very important about it.
It had taken the stormtroopers a couple hours to construct a bridge, but now that it was complete, the operation could begin. A dozen stormtroopers took the lead, fanning out into the temple the moment they reached the end of the bridge. Odosk followed, a trooper to either side of him.
Inside the temple, etched markings in some ancient language adorned the walls. Moss grew in some places on the polished black stone, and a cistern stood near on of the walls. There really wasn't anything there, though. So why did the place seem so important? Probably just let curiosity get the best of himself, Odosk decided. But though there was nothing tangible in this place, there was something that didn't feel right. Something dark and sinister, almost in the way he remembered feeling when standing in the presence of the Emperor.
"All right, men, let's go," he commanded. "There's nothing else here. Just a big waste of time."
The troopers filed out onto the bridge past the general. As they passed, Odosk could have sworn he saw some of the shadows in the structure move aside. But he shrugged it away, crediting it to a long day in the jungle's heat and humidity.
The reconstruction process was taking far longer than Kyp had thought. And the occasional interruptions by Ithorian hospital staff members didn't expedite things any, either. It had taken precious time convincing them to forget about the disturbances they had come to investigate, and the floor was littered with the bodies of several Hammerheads who were too stubborn to take his Force-enhanced hint. But at least the moronically peaceful aliens were too complacent to put together a real security team. It would have had no chance of stopping him, of course, but it could have been quite an annoyance.
It was almost daylight already, and Qwi's mind was only now regaining its general advanced technical knowledge. It would take a while establishing those basics in order to prepare her to piece back together her specific projects.
He felt Exar Kun's presence, his power, helping him along the entire time. But it seemed weaker than usual, even a little shaky at times. He had tried talking to him, but when he finally replied, his instructions were not to bother him until the job was done.
So Kyp kept up with his pace of mental rehabilitation. He saw everything that went through Qwi's mind, from her terrifying childhood of studying under the supervision of Grand Moff Tarkin to her love for Wedge, and her initial pride in the unveiling of the Sun Crusher. But the specs for it were not back in her head yet. The time for it was nearing, though. He knew it would be in the next half hour. Then his crusade to sow his vengeance on the galaxy could resume!
But then something happened. He suddenly felt a large amount of power leave his body. His shoulders slumped with fatigue, and his wounded side started aching again. He felt tired. And furthermore, nothing else was happening in Dr. Xux's mind.
He drew his hands back, as Qwi fell gently to her knees. He looked at them in disbelief. What was happening?
"Master! Master, where are you?" he asked aloud. "Master Kun, please!"
He pleaded, but to no avail. Exar Kun was gone.
As Kyp stood dazed, Qwi opened her eyes, no longer with a vacant look to them, and stood up. She looked directly at Kyp.
"Kyp! This is incredible! I have my memories back! Thank you!"
"But I'm not done," Kyp replied, sounding much more like a little boy pleading with his mother this time than a supposedly all powerful Sith Lord. "There is more you need to know. Your projects..."
"I remember enough about them now that I know I don't want to remember how to make them. As you yourself said when you mistakenly attacked me before: there must be no more of them."
"But I was wrong about that too!" Kyp pleaded. "Your knowledge of how to make them will be instrumental in reorganizing the galaxy!"
"No, Kyp, I don't want to remember them."
Kyp grasped her upper arms and shook her. "You must. I need that information. You must be made to remember it."
"No. Please let go of me."
"You are going to remember," Kyp said forcefully, placing his hands against her head. "I need more torpedoes, and you're going to make them for me.
"NO!" she screamed. "No! Let me go! Help! Wedge!"
"Wedge isn't here. In fact, he won't be going anywhere again."
"Oh, no! No! Not Wedge! Not my love!"
"Yes, now stop fighting. I must concentrate."
He pressed harder against the sides of her head, concentrating with the Dark Side. He felt his own power, not Exar Kun's, flow through his hands into her head. Tears poured down her cheeks, and she moaned in pain as he tried to perform the task that Kun had been doing thus far.
"Come on!" Kyp shouted angrily. "Remember! Tell me your secrets!"
Images started forming again. It seemed to be working. Death Star designs appeared in her thoughts. Good, on the right track. Then World Devastators. Almost there. At last, the Sun Crusher appeared. Kyp's excitement had reached its maximum. He concentrated a little more, willed more power to flow through his hands into her mind...
Abruptly, everything went dark. He heard a groan come from Qwi's lips. He tried forcing some more power through his hands, but it had no effect. Her mind was completely unresponsive. The soft hissing of slowly exhaling breath enticed Kyp to open his eyes and inspect the scientist. He saw that her limbs had gone completely limp, the grip his hands had on her head being the only thing keeping her vertical.
He carefully laid her down on the floor, then Force scanned her body, trying to figure out how to revive her. But though his lightning may have worked to restart her heart, he had nothing that could repair the damage done to her brain. She was dead, thanks to his impatience and misplaced anger. And with her died the secrets of the Sun Crusher, and much of Kyp's plans.
"NO!" he screamed in an inhuman voice. "NOOOOO!"
Mara keyed the pre-flight warm up sequence on the shuttle. Her dash from the closet seemed to have gone unnoticed, but when she started the engines, there would only be a few seconds to make her move before the whole ship came down on top of her. She turned her head to check her back. With the Force gone again, she had to keep an eye open for trouble.
There was no time to go over a detailed checklist, so she cut to the basics: hull integrity, air supply, power system, and the likes. She had just punched in a request for air supply information when she heard the click of a blaster's safety going off.
"Hold it right there!" a female voice said.
Mara turned around, startled. Somehow, the woman facing her had snuck in since her last check. Mara started putting her hands up.
"That's right," the woman said. "Get to your feet and step away from the controls."
Mara paused for a moment, studying the woman. She had short, coppery colored hair and a vicious, angry look on her face. Her uniform sported the bars and rank cylinders of an Imperial Navy lieutenant commander.
"I said move!"
"No," Mara said calmly. "I think I'll stay right here." She turned back to her work. "In fact, why don't you sit over there." She pointed to the copilot's seat. "You might as well help me get this shuttle ready for all the good that blaster's going to do you."
The Imperial jabbed her blaster against Mara's head. "You've got an awful lot of nerve for someone with a blaster at her head."
"No, you've got an awful lot of nerve trying such a bluff."
"You are," Mara said, still calm. "Or else you're really stupid. The Grand Admiral wants me alive, unharmed, and unstunned. So go on back to work and leave me alone, unless you figure on trying to capture me yourself somehow. And by the way, thanks for making so much noise when those troopers were searching for me. I couldn't have hid in that closet without you. Oh, and you may want to call maintenance and have them pick up the mess I left in there. An exterminator might be a good idea, too."
"Don't you know who you're dealing with?"
"Why no," Mara said sarcastically while turning to face the officer again. "Should I?"
Anger boiled behind the officer's eyes. "I am Admiral Daala. And you WILL do as I say!"
"I'm impressed. You must be so intimidating that no one dared mention to you that you put on the wrong uniform this morning, Lieutenant Commander."
"You dare to mock me?"
Mara turned back to her work with a simple, "Yep."
"That does it," Daala said, grabbing Mara's arm and yanking her out of the cockpit.
"No," Mara replied, getting back to her feet. "That does it." With that, she let loose an uppercut that connected solidly with Daala's jaw, sending her reeling back a meter.
Daala recovered quickly, ducking down and rushing at Mara, tackling her back into the seats of the shuttle's passenger compartment.
Bringing a leg up, Mara succeeded in flipping the former Admiral over her head and onto the next row of seats. She got up and walked around the row, her back aching from the impact. But Daala had already gotten back up, and tackled her again.
Her head slammed hard against the wall, and her vision briefly went dark. During that time, Daala landed a right then a left fist across her face. Before she could land a third blow, Mara gave her a swift jab in the side with her right knee. Daala staggered back just enough for Mara to let loose a swift kick to her chest. She landed hard on her back and slid a few dozen centimeters down the aisle, coming to rest barely in time to keep her head from hitting the aft bulkhead.
Daala scrambled to her feet and jumped up onto the rearmost seat just in time to evade Mara's rush. She took the opportunity to step quickly across the seat backs to put some distance between herself and Mara, but faltered somewhere in the middle of the compartment, losing her balance and crashing down across several sets of armrests.
Mara quickly made her way to the row Daala had fallen into, finding her laying face up on the floor with her eyes closed. She grabbed the feet of the unconscious, if not dead, body to drag it out of the shuttle...
Then shouted in pain and surprise as the deck officer sat up and swung a broken off piece of armrest at her. She jumped back, clutching her left arm. A long tear in her sleeve provided a view of a bright, red scratch leading up to a deep puncture wound near her shoulder.
Daala was up again, wielding the armrest like a spiked club. Mara barely managed to pull back in time to avoid being slashed across the belly by the vicious looking screw protruding from it.
"Hey, watch it!" she shouted, dodging the backswing. "That zone is off limits!"
"Fine," Daala spat. "If disembowelment doesn't suit you, how about a lobotomy!" With that, Daala brought her weapon down in a drive for Mara's skull, but she easily ducked away from the clumsy, rage-fueled swing.
Behind her, Mara heard the "thunk" of punctured metal. She turned around to see Daala struggling to free the armrest from the wall, a perfect opportunity to land another blow.
But her swing didn't connect, as Daala dropped to the floor at the last second, throwing herself into Mara's legs.
The fall was painful, but not as painful as the yank on the back of her head as she tried to stand back up. She shouted in pain, spinning around to see Daala standing there with a handful of her hair.
"Well," she chuckled. "I guess short hair does have its advantages after all."
A fight like this and she wants to talk fashion? Faster than Daala could react, Mara brought her right hand across that grinning face, leaving four parallel, oozing red slashes.
"Oh, look," she said with infinite sarcasm, holding her hand up to study it. "I broke a nail."
With a scream of rage, Daala rushed her again, driving her back. But she was ready for it this time, and managed to sidestep Daala's charge, leaving nothing between her and the bulkhead.
Daala stood dazed after her impact, trying to shake it off. But it was Mara's right hook that managed to bring things back into focus. With a fierce scream, Daala swung her fists wildly, like a child throwing a temper tantrum.
Though fairly easy to dodge or block most of the blows, Mara found herself slowly losing ground to the few that did connect, her own counterpunches proving ineffective against the animal ferocity of her adversary. Now a leg sweep, on the other hand...
She was about to try it when she bumped into the forward bulkhead. The surprise of it allowed one of Daala's blows to connect, but Mara moved her head just in time to evade the second, which contacted the metal bulkhead with a reverberating clunk.
Daala reeled back, grasping her injured hand with the other and moaning in pain. Mara took advantage of the opportunity to give her a swift jab in the gut, knocking the wind out of her. As she stood doubled over, gasping for breath, Mara brought her knee up into her face, and she staggered back against the wall. A kick to the knee dropped her to the ground.
"Enough is enough," Mara declared, grabbing Daala's belt with one hand and her collar with the other. She pulled her over to the still open boarding ramp. "Get out of my shuttle," she said, shoving her out and sending her rolling down the ramp. She hit the ramp control button and watched it close to be sure Daala didn't climb back aboard.
Mara limped back into the cockpit, her injuries more severe than she had realized under the influence of adrenaline. Her now throbbing left arm looked especially bad. She wiped her hand across her face, expecting to wipe away perspiration, but it came away bloody. Probably nose or lip, she thought. But it could all wait until she hit hyperspace.
She strapped herself in and resumed her startup sequence. She had just started the engines when she heard a noise behind her. She turned...
"When you're the deck officer, you can open any shuttle you want" Daala answered. She looked hideous, her uniform a mess, a blackened right eye, the bloody gashes on her left cheek. But more importantly, she held her blaster again. And in such a condition, she was likely to use it.
Mara frantically tried to unstrap herself, but it was too late.
"Say good night," Daala said, pulling the trigger and sending a blue stun flash into her that send the world into oblivion.
The entire day had gone poorly. Reports coming in from Yavin 4 hinted very strongly that the jungle moon had been completely abandoned at least two weeks before. Added to that, the escaped prisoner had yet to be found.
"Sir, might I suggest again that you send the troops to the shuttle bay instead?"
"Suggestion noted again. But I will keep the balance of the search party in the main hangar. She is very clever, Captain. She knows that a decoy would lead the average search team commander in the wrong direction. Therefore, she went with the decoy, since she knows she's not dealing with just the average."
"But sir," Pellaeon said nervously. "Couldn't she have anticipated that as well?"
"Possibly, but I doubt it. I take it, Captain, that you don't you trust my judgment?"
Pellaeon swallowed hard. This wasn't going to be easy. "Respectfully, sir, I don't. We should split the team, send half of them to the shuttle bay and leave the other half at the main bay. Both ends could be covered."
"Captain, Skywalker is very resourceful. The entire squad might be needed to subdue her. No, it must not be split. And it will stay where it is. She's playing a waiting game, Captain. And we shall wait for her."
"As you wish, sir," Pellaeon managed. A feeling of contempt had started forming within him. The Grand Admiral had his own ways of doing things, and was usually right. But this time, something told him that Thrawn was wrong. And he wouldn't listen. Since his return to power, he had typically been willing to take advice. Much more so than before... But perhaps it was time to start trusting him implicitly again.
A chime sounded from the Admiral's command chair, interrupting the eerie silence that had occupied the room for several seconds.
"Yes?" Thrawn said, pressing the intercom button.
"Admiral," the bridge comm officer answered. "I have a message for you from the shuttle bay."
Pellaeon cringed at the words. Part of him felt the excitement of being proved right, but the other part feared the Grand Admiral's possible anger at being proved wrong.
"What is the message?" Thrawn bit out.
"I don't know, sir. She insists on talking to you directly. Shall I put her through?"
She? Pellaeon thought. Shuttle bay? Oh, no...
"Admiral Thrawn," a female voice said. "This is... Lieutenant Commander Daala."
Great. Just great. It just had to be her, didn't it?
"What do you want, Lieutenant Commander?" Thrawn replied, a tone of slight annoyance in his voice.
"Sir, I am proud to report that I have recaptured the escaped prisoner."
Thrawn stood up in alarm.
"Stay right where you are," he almost shouted, shooting to his feet in alarm. "I'm sending a squad to assist."
"Don't worry, sir. It shouldn't take more than two to carry her."
Thrawn paused for a moment, his eyes narrowing into glowing red slits.
"And why would anyone need to carry her?"
"Well, sir," her voice came back, sounding a little apologetic. "I had to stun her. I know you didn't want that, but there was no other way I could have..."
"Stay right there!" Thrawn commanded. "I will meet you myself."
He turned off the intercom and turned to Pellaeon.
"Captain, have the search party meet me at the shuttle bay in 5 minutes. And send for Skywalker's doctor. Have him meet me there as well."
"Yes, sir," Pellaeon replied to the back of Thrawn's head as the Admiral stormed out of the room.
Daala saw the approach of the Grand Admiral and his entourage through the shuttle's canopy. Good, time to make her entrance. She hoisted the unconscious body over her shoulder, her injured knee nearly collapsing in protest. But she clenched her teeth against the pain and made her way to the ramp.
Getting down the ramp was quite a struggle. Either the prisoner was a lot heavier than she looked, or Daala wasn't quite as strong as she thought. Must be the former, she decided. Once she reached the deck, she leaned forward, letting the prisoner flop onto the hard metal floor.
"Doctor, quickly," Thrawn barked out. The doctor accompanying him rushed forward, opening his portable med kit on the way.
"Thank you for your concern, sir. I really..." Daala started before realizing the doctor was not for her. She gazed in disbelief as the man knelt down over the prisoner, rapidly administering medications and scanning her bodily functions.
"Doctor," Thrawn asked, the concern in his voice undeniable. "Is she all right?"
"I think so," the doctor replied, sounding somewhat relieved, "but we'd best get her up to medical to be sure."
"You two," Thrawn said, indicating two of the fleet troopers standing next to him. "Carry her up to medical. Gently."
They swiftly carried out his orders. Once the doctor, his patient, and the assisting troopers had entered the turbolift, Thrawn finally turned his attention to Daala.
"What could you possibly have to say in your defense, Lieutenant Commander?"
"Sir," Daala said nervously. "As I said, I had no other choice but to stun her. But she's back in custody now, so there's no harm done."
"That is irrelevant, Lieutenant Commander. You blatantly disobeyed my orders."
"But I had no other option than to let her escape."
"Wrong. As the deck officer, you have remote control over every shuttle in the bay. You could have sealed her in and overridden the shuttle controls, trapping her until help could arrive. But you had to try for personal glory."
"But sir, the order made no sense..."
"What does it matter to you?" Thrawn said, glaring at her. "All you need to do is obey."
"Obey an order I don't understand?"
"You don't have to understand, just obey!"
"But sir, she's just a prisoner..."
Thrawn's eyes flared up to a level she had never thought possible. His face took on a demonic facade as anger took over his usually calm, orderly demeanor. Daala felt herself getting weak in his presence, and started to take a step back when his hand shot out impossibly fast and grabbed her throat.
"That prisoner," he hissed between clenched teeth, "just happens to be the pregnant wife of a Jedi Master, and infinitely more valuable to me than you will ever be. Your disobedience could have cost me that child. You are a worthless officer, Lieutenant Commander. Worse than worthless, you're a disgrace, and a danger. I should just correct this error right now."
Daala's face glowed red, partially from reflected light from Thrawn's eyes, and partially from the backup of blood flow. The Grand Admiral's grip got tighter and tighter. Any moment now, her throat would be crushed. She gasped for breath, hoping that maybe she would faint first and get to skip the agony...
Suddenly, the grip was released. She fell to her knees, her entire body feeling limp. Breathing was painful, but welcome.
"No, Lieutenant Commander, I won't kill you yet," Thrawn said, his voice almost calm. "I must not act while angry. All too often mistakes are made in such times. Mistakes which can not be corrected. I will consider your usefulness to me very carefully, and decide whether you shall live or die. Pray I can find something of redeeming value."
"Uhhh... Thank you... Sir," she replied hoarsely.
"Now stand up."
It took a few seconds, but she managed to get upright.
"Now, get back to work."
"But sir," she said. "What about my injuries?
"Do you have any injuries so severe as to prevent you from carrying out your duties?"
"I... no, sir," she conceded.
"Then return to your post. You can visit medical on your off time."
With that, Thrawn and his troops turned to leave. Daala stood and watched them enter the turbolift, leaving her alone in the shuttle bay. Anger burned within her. Anger and absolute contempt.