"Help me," a voice echoed in the distance, faint, but eerily familiar. "Luke, I need you. Please hear me..."
"Who are you?" he shouted, his voice reverberating metallically across the surreal dreamscape surrounding him. "Where are you?"
"Come on Luke," the voice, barely more than a whisper, pleaded. No, not a whisper... more like a shout through a barrier. "You have to get me out of here!"
"Out of where?"
"I don't think I can make it out by myself," the voice continued, as if its speaker hadn't heard his shouts. "Please help me!"
"Tell me who you are!" Luke demanded.
"Luke, where are you when I need you?"
"I'm right here!" he yelled. He couldn't tell who was calling him, but somehow, he knew he had to help this person. The desperation and anguish in the voice penetrated his being, causing him to feel a sense of urgency of the scale that only family rated. But it didn't sound like Leia. Mara? No, it couldn't be... "I'll help you! Just tell me..."
"Answer me, Luke," it went on, oblivious to his presence. "Please, please answer me..."
"I'm trying!" he replied, looking around him in the futile hope of seeing Mara... or whoever it was.
"Please, Luke, please..." the voice said as it faded away into nothing.
"I'm here! I hear you! Don't go away!"
It was too late. The voice was gone, leaving Luke alone in his thoughts.
Mara... could it be? From what tone of voice he could make out, there didn't seem to be much room for error. But she wouldn't try to contact him unless...
Luke sprang to consciousness as Han gave him a hard shake.
"Hey, kid, are you all right?"
"Huh?" Luke answered disorientedly. "Han? Uh, yeah, I think so."
"I would have left you asleep, but when you started mumbling and thrashing around, I figured you might accidentally hit something dangerous. Hope I didn't interrupt anything... important."
"No, the important part was already finished," Luke said, pulling himself back up into a proper sitting position. When he noticed Han looking at him funny, he added, "Someone was trying to contact me through the Force."
"I'm not sure. I... I think it might have been Mara."
"It was strange, Han. I couldn't really tell who it was, but I have the feeling that it's someone close to me... but for some reason, they didn't hear me."
"Maybe one of your students?"
"No. At least, I'm pretty sure it wasn't. This voice was... much too close for just a student. I'm almost certain it was family."
"Which leaves only Leia, Mara, and my kids."
"It definitely wasn't your kids. They don't have enough skill for that kind of thing, and besides that, whoever it was didn't call me 'uncle.' Han, put in a call to Leia."
"Sure," he said, turning toward the comm console. Noticing the timer, he turned back to Luke. "Actually, we're coming out of hyperspace in about five minutes. By the time we get a message through, we'll be back in realspace, and the whole thing will be pointless."
"Fine. I'll take care of it myself," Luke said, closing his eyes in concentration.
Fynn Torve had had far more than his fill of lower-level Coruscant night life over the last few weeks. Besides that, he was getting downright claustrophobic in among the tightly packed structures of the capital city's underbelly. Sure, he had made several new, potentially very profitable contacts, but he longed to be back on some frontier world where there was room to stretch his legs. And to think, not a month ago, he was looking forward to spending a good, long time on a "civilized" planet for a change.
He had been ready to leave when a message from Karrde came to him, through an appropriately untraceable path, of course. He was quite surprised and more than a little annoyed when Karrde instructed him to stay put until contacted by Skywalker or Solo, or told by Karrde that he could leave. Though he had half a mind to ignore it and leave anyway, he couldn't bring himself to deny the wishes of his former employer. He didn't like the idea of keeping himself so easily traceable for any long period of time, but Karrde wouldn't have told him to stay accessible for Skywalker and Solo if it wasn't important.
On this particular evening, he had decided to spend some time lounging around the Rynnalli Tapcafe, one of the more tolerable establishments he had happened across. He had been there often enough that people were beginning to recognize him. It bothered him immensely, but he knew it was what he had to do.
Some halfway decent music filled the room, played by the same band that had been there since Torve's first visit. Redundant, yes, but at least it hadn't gotten worse. He idly waved at a sensibly dressed Twi'lek waitress to bring him another drink, then reached into the bowl of salted nuts on his table.
At least this place serves good nuts, he thought as he munched on the whole handful at the same time. His next handful went straight into his pocket, which already held a good amount of them. When the waitress returned with his drink, he handed her the bowl.
"Another one?" she asked with a look and tone of mild frustration. She spoke perfect basic, so perfect that it was likely that she had never spoken Twi'lek in her life.
"You got it! Now hurry along, I'm hungry."
It was always the same routine, every time he came in. "Don't you mean you're going to be hungry tomorrow morning? I swear, we ought to start charging for these things. At least, we ought to charge you."
"Why, then I'd have no reason to come in here and buy drinks," Torve replied with a mischievous grin. "You wouldn't want to lose my patronage, would you?"
"That depends on how much we're making selling you drinks versus how much we're losing giving you free nuts."
"Fine, then. Bring me another drink, too, while you're at it."
"Oh, all right," she conceded.
"That's a good girl," Torve said, giving her a quick pat on the backside as she headed away.
She turned back around in surprise, but then merely shook her head with a look partially of annoyance, but mostly of amusement. "Watch it, Torve," she said with a smirk, then proceeded on her way.
Torve chuckled softly as he lifted his glass to his lips. She really was a pleasant one, and in all likelihood the most redeeming quality about the Rynalli. Though not especially good looking, she was friendly enough that he felt quite easy about hassling her and being hassled in return. From what he had overheard, she came across that way to most people who had visited the tapcafe. Though for some reason, he could never quite remember what her name was...
While he pondered that question, someone walked up to him and tapped his shoulder.
"Is this seat taken?"
"Uh, no," Torve replied uneasily. He thought he had heard someone approaching, but he had expected it to be someone else. The scruffy looking man in front of him looked vaguely familiar, and it took him a few moments to finally put a name to the face.
"I've been asking around, and they told me I could find you here," the man said, now sitting on the opposite side of the table from Torve.
"Yeah, well now don't you go spreading that around any more than it already is... Haygn, isn't it?"
"Right, but keep it down. I don't want a lot of people knowing I'm here, either."
"So," Torve whispered. "Why are you here?"
"On behalf of a friend of yours. You used to work for Karrde, right?"
Used to? "Yeah, so?"
"And you were pretty close to Red..."
"Red?" Torve puzzled for a second. "Oh, you mean Mara."
"Shh!" Haygn urged. "Yes, her. She's in trouble. Some of the others are fixing to off her."
Torve shifted uneasily in his seat. He knew something was going on concerning Mara, but Karrde had yet to fill him in on all the details. "Just a minute, Haygn. As I recall, you don't like her very much, either. Why are you telling me this?"
"Keep it down!" Haygn hissed. "Yeah, I don't like her, but I don't want her dead."
Liar, Torve thought. "Then what do you want?"
"I want Red to step down, or at least ease up on the regulations. She's gotten a lot of us upset with the way she's been running things, what with all the blacklisting and stuff..."
Torve snorted in mild disgust. "You've been talking to Raylic, haven't you?"
"Maybe I have," Haygn replied, hoping he had suppressed his initial surprise quick enough to avoid Torve's notice. "What of it?"
"Oh, nothing!" he said with a sarcastic intonation. "Except that Raylic always tends to leave out a few little details. Like the fact that the deal he was trying to push through had already been negotiated by Mara three months earlier. Besides, it wasn't the Yarnothi account that got him into trouble, anyway. Did you know that he was smuggling parts of Spaarti cloning cylinders to Imperial factions in the Core?"
"What?" Haygn nearly shouted, then remembered himself and calmed down quickly. "When was this?"
"Apparently, he started making trips to Wayland within a month of Grand Admiral Thrawn's death. How he found out where it was so soon I have no idea, but the man's got his sources."
This was all news to Haygn. He paused to think it over for a moment before continuing. "Now wait a minute. If that's why he was blacklisted, why isn't it common knowledge by now?"
"That's because a mark like that could seriously impede his life span. The New Republic doesn't take too kindly to that kind of business, you know, and Mara's not too hot on it, either. Now, ordinarily she gives a good stern warning and a fine for the first infraction, but, well, Raylic's case is a bit more serious. And when she found out..."
"Gee, I wonder how that happened," Haygn drawled out sarcastically.
"Hey, she didn't pick his brain, if that's what you're thinking. One of his guys goofed and passed a piece off while she was watching. She recognized it, and took action. Quietly, of course."
That made it perfectly clear. Of course Red used her mystical powers to read Raylic's mind. She only went light on him to cover her own tracks. If she came down hard, others might start to wonder just how much she's been checking up on them, too. Raylic himself certainly wasn't about to say anything. Even if he didn't fear the New Republic's penalties, there were many smugglers - even among his own co-conspirators - who would do far worse to those even remotely involved in the spread of cloning technology. Perhaps Raylic was acting out of vengeance, but then again, maybe there was something much more sinister behind his call to arms. Very interesting, and very disturbing.
"Now, you just keep this quiet, okay? Mara really didn't want any of this getting out. I'll deny everything, and she will, too."
"Then what happens to Raylic? He just stays on the blacklist, and doesn't get to work again?"
"Hey, Raylic got a much better deal out of this situation than he was entitled to. What, is he actually going to try to kill Mara over it?"
"I never said that. I only said that she's in danger. But 'I' really didn't say it, clear?"
"Perfectly," Torve answered easily. Playing both ends against the middle. He's scared to death of her; and he's scared to death of his "friends," too.
"You just be sure to let her know about it before it's too late," Haygn said as he rose to leave. "I don't want her to die, but this is all I can do."
"I understand. I'll inform her as soon as I can." No, pal, you want her dead, all right. You're just too scared of being caught with a smoking blaster if it fails.
Torve watched in silence as Haygn wound his way out of the Rynalli, a cold lump settled in his stomach. Mara hadn't been heard from since about the same time Aves and Ghent disappeared, and if what Haygn said was true... but Haygn's words hadn't even hinted that she was being held prisoner or anything like that. Could this be what Karrde was worried about? Well, maybe Skywalker and Solo could shed some more light on the matter.
"Yes, sir," Pellaeon answered promptly. Thrawn had kept him waiting quite a while in the darkened chamber, and the smooth-as-usual modulation in the Grand Admiral's voice once he finally spoke sent a chill up his spine. He had expected it; Thrawn's usual vent for anger was to concoct an intricate, devious, but always strategically sound raid or infiltration; but it chilled him nonetheless. "The last of General Odosk's troops has just arrived aboard the Vengeance. The withdrawal from Yavin 4 is complete. Debriefing is underway, and the ysalamiri handling teams are already returning them to their shipboard positions."
"Yes, the ysalamiri crews... Captain, have you identified the person or persons responsible for removing them from the detention block?"
"Yes, sir, I have," the captain replied uneasily. He had a hunch what was coming, and he didn't like it at all. "Apparently, Lieutenant Thams took the initiative."
"But sir, he's one of our best handlers. If he's executed, we'd lose..."
"Yes, but it will be an example to the others of what happens when anyone disobeys my orders. This kind of behavior can not be tolerated."
"Admiral, I..." Pellaeon started, but stopped when Thrawn turned a glowing-eyed glare in his direction. It hadn't really been Tham's fault. In reality, Thrawn should have specified the detention block ysalamiri as off-limits, and not tried to deceive the crew. Besides that, why shouldn't there be ysalamiri left in the detention center in anticipation of a large number of Jedi captives?
That would be the logical conclusion, not that there was an extremely powerful, but top-secret prisoner already there. However, it was clear that Thrawn wasn't going to listen to him this time. He swallowed hard, then finally spoke again. "Very well, sir. It will be done."
"Good," Thrawn replied, thankfully turning his head away. "Now, is there any new information about Skywalker?"
"The most recent update came an hour ago, sir. She's awake, and her doctor is certain that the danger period is over. The stun blast appears to have had no ill effects on her or the child," Pellaeon said evenly. Just as Thrawn was about to give him further orders on the matter, he added, "But I've instructed him to keep her under observation until tomorrow morning, anyway, and send word immediately if even the slightest problem arises." He enjoyed the rare occasion when he actually beat Thrawn to the punch.
Thrawn sighed as he leaned back into his chair. A sigh of relief? "Excellent work, captain. Excellent indeed." Thrawn sat quietly for a moment, idly fingering the lightsaber that lay across his armrest while he thought about something.
In the interlude, Pellaeon, realizing that he had forgotten to do so earlier, took the opportunity to look around at the artwork the Grand Admiral had been studying before he came in. Though he was getting better at it, he still had much to learn about using art in the way Thrawn did, and therefore took every opportunity he could get to see what his commander was studying. This time, though, he was surprised to discover that the artwork was not so dark and subtle as to evade detection, but that it was not present at all. Thrawn hadn't been studying anything. Had recent events disturbed him so greatly?
"And now, Captain, there is another matter I wish for you to attend to." Thrawn said at last.
"What matter might that be, sir?"
"Why, the matter of Lieutenant Commander Daala, of course," he replied with a hint of an evil grin.
For the first time since the beginning of the botched Yavin operation, Pellaeon felt a genuine smile of pleasure tugging at his lips. He quickly stiffened his countenance, silently scolding himself for assuming something that had not happened yet. "You've come to a decision?"
"After thorough consideration, I have determined that, despite whatever knowledge she may possess concerning the technology we have acquired from the Maw, she is far too great a liability to continue serving the Empire. She is due to appear before me in a few minutes, and after our... conversation... you are to terminate her. Immediately. Unless you have some objection, Captain?"
"None whatsoever, sir," Pellaeon answered, feeling that smile tugging harder than ever. About time the Admiral got around to that! "Um, sir, if I might ask, what method of execution would you prefer?"
"That is completely at your discretion, Captain."
"Thank you, sir," he answered. Images filled his head, pictures of things he'd been imagining doing to Daala ever since she'd stepped aboard the Chimaera. That smile had broken out at last, but he didn't really care at the moment. Besides, Thrawn seemed to be appreciating the mood, too...
...until, suddenly, the Grand Admiral stiffened and gazed in Pellaeon's general direction with a deadly seriousness. With the pupil-less red glow of his eyes, it was difficult to tell precisely what he was really looking at. The white-clad being rose to his feet in a swift, sharp motion.
"What are you smiling at?" he commanded, his voice booming across the room.
Pellaeon, the grin gone already gone from his face, merely stammered, "Sir... I... uh..."
Thrawn didn't speak. He turned and grabbed the lightsaber from his armrest, ignited it, and charged.
Pellaeon dropped to the deck like a sack of grain, just before Thrawn reached him. He heard the belated slashing of the saber, and desperately attempted to scramble out of the way of the next attack. He was afraid this might happen... the Admiral had gone mad. Too soon. It was too soon...
He came to an abrupt stop when his head hit the wall. No, not just a wall... a corner! No where to go! The only choice now was whether to die like a coward with his back to the assailant, or bravely face him. There was no way the next attack could miss as the first had. He swallowed hard, clenched his eyes shut, then turned slowly to accept his fate...
Halfway through his turn, he heard the lightsaber shutting down, then footsteps coming in his direction. While he was debating whether or not to finally look, something small bumped into him. His eyes opened involuntarily to see a rounded, gray object laying on the floor, leaning against his arm. Curiosity temporarily overpowering is fear, he picked up the object to examine it...
And tossed it away with a yelp when he turned it around to find a pair of large, black eyes. He watched it roll away until coming to rest against a pair of perfectly polished black boots. A white form with glowing eyes crouched down and lifted the head, raising it to eye level and staring at it for a while.
"Not smiling now, is he, Captain?"
Pellaeon pulled his trembling form back up to his feet. His heart was beating so rapidly he was afraid it would burst, and his breathing was nearly as fast. He tried to respond, but couldn't squeeze the words in between his panting.
Thrawn calmly made his way back to his chair, then sat back down, still looking at the severed Noghri head. A few moments later, he set the head down on his right arm rest, facing forward, and the lightsaber on his left, and rested a hand on each of them.
"Yes, sir," he finally managed, bringing himself to not-quite attention in front of his commander once again.
"Rukh here has given me an excellent idea. How many Scimitar Mark IIs do we currently have?"
"Scimitar IIs?" he answered in bewilderment. What was Thrawn up to? "I... I believe we are currently equipped with a single squadron of twelve, plus a few spares..."
"No, not on the Chimaera. Back at base."
"I really don't know, sir. I haven't checked on their status in quite a while."
"Send a signal to base. Tell them to step up production. Also, I want the escort carriers Corsair and Intruder loaded to full capacity with Scimitar IIs. They are then to rendezvous with the fleet at Tangrene in exactly four days."
"Yes, Captain, Tangrene. They are still loyal, and I have some contacts there. We should have no problem setting up a forward base for our siege on Honoghr. And after the attack, I want to pay a visit to Boelis."
Pellaeon nearly choked. "Honoghr? Admiral..."
"A perfect target, don't you agree?"
"Sir, I must respectfully disagree," Pellaeon said, barely able to keep his composure. What in space was Thrawn thinking? "I agree the Noghri need to be punished for their betrayal, but I do not believe that now is an appropriate time. Besides that, the Noghri have relocated. There's no one on Honoghr but a few hard liners that refused to leave!"
"But it will make the rest fear us. We will demonstrate the might and resolve of the Imperial Navy."
"Sir, perhaps it would be best to wait," Pellaeon offered, "until the Maw data has been thoroughly analyzed. Or at the very least until the Gorgon project is completed." This felt entirely wrong. Thrawn had made similar sudden moves before, but deep down, something told Pellaeon that this time was different.
"Too long. No, we must strike now while our guns are warm. I have several new tactics that need to be tested, and besides, the troops need a quick victory to boost their morale after the recent failures."
No... you do, Pellaeon thought, then suddenly caught himself. What was he thinking? After such a long time of trusting Thrawn implicitly, to doubt his motives now seemed treasonous. Was it warranted, though? If it were anyone other than Thrawn, absolutely. But it was Thrawn... although technically... And what about the fact that he hadn't been pursuing his usual art studies after the Yavin debacle? Not to mention the manic beheading of his favorite decoration. He needed time to calm down. That was it. It would be about a week and a half before the attack, so he might change his mind by then... but what if he didn't? There had to be a way to reduce the risk. Maybe if attention was drawn elsewhere...
"Admiral, a suggestion?" Pellaeon submitted, feeling his heart sinking even before he said it.
"If we are to attack Honoghr, I advise that we do so under a different identity. We could have..." he couldn't bring himself to say it. "...well, you take my meaning, I'm sure."
"Have Lieutenant Commander Daala pose as an Admiral again? But Captain, I thought you were going to terminate her?"
"Sir, I feel it is very unwise to let it be known that you are behind the attack."
"Afraid of Noghri retaliation? They can't get aboard the Chimaera."
"Maybe not, but I'd feel better if they were looking for a chance to kill her instead of you. And if we let them catch her, it would make an effective and interesting method of execution." As a matter of fact, it would. Not such a bad idea, really.
"Hmmm... yes, I enjoy the irony. My treasonous former servants will render service to me once again, and it truly is a devious and altogether satisfying demise for the incompetent Lieutenant Commander. Killed by the knives of a people she doesn't even know for a deed which she really had nothing to do with, and masking our involvement in the process. A fate she more than deserves. But we must have a proper court-martial first, to complete her humiliation before delivering her to the Noghri."
"Of course. So you approve?"
"Yes, Captain. It is a sound plan. Lieutenant Commander Daala's sentence shall be suspended for the time being so that she may perform as my decoy in the Honoghr attack. And speaking of the Lieutenant Commander..." Thrawn said, checking the chrono on one of his armrests, "she should be waiting outside right now. That is, if she arrived on time, and if she's been patient enough to wait for the last ten minutes. Though with her record I wouldn't count on it." He pushed the button to unlock and open the door. "Let's see, shall we?"
The door opened to reveal Daala standing at attention. She really had been waiting there.
"Well, Lieutenant Commander, you're on time. What a surprise."
"Though by no means a pleasant one," Pellaeon mumbled, only to be hushed by a wave of Thrawn's hand.
"Come in. We have some matters to discuss."
Daala walked in sharply, obviously trying to salvage what little respect she had with a show of military discipline. A limp was just slightly noticeable, but the four deep, parallel scratches on the left side of her face showed very clearly.
"Lieutenant Commander Daala, after all due consideration, I have found your actions to be unforgivable. Your performance since serving under my command has given me ample evidence of your worthlessness as an officer. You have blatantly disobeyed orders and have demonstrated little capacity for taking initiative, aside from ambitious and ill-advised attempts at self-glorification. What I have gotten from you in return fails to outweigh the risks you present. Such ineptitude deserves death."
Daala flinched just noticeably. She must have been expecting it, but it's not something that's easy to hear, anyway.
"However, Captain Pellaeon here has intervened on your behalf," Thrawn said with a hand motion toward Pellaeon. "And I have decided to grant his request."
She certainly wasn't expecting THAT. Daala's jaw dropped open as she turned to look in disbelief at the elderly captain. I thought he hated me, she thought. What possible reason could he have for... oh, I get it. He wants... well, he's not going to get it! If he thinks I'm attracted to older men in general just because of Tarkin...
Pellaeon, in response, turned his nose up in a huff, silently envisioning the look on her face when he sends her screaming out of an airlock. Or worse.
When Daala finally regained her composure and turned back to face Thrawn, she could see the annoyance on his face. She tightened her at-attention stance accordingly.
"If you are through with your overdeveloped reflex reactions, I shall continue."
"Um, yes, sir."
"We will soon be commencing a major strike," Thrawn announced, tapping the silver cylinder on his armrest. "You shall pose as the commander of that force, as you have before."
"As you wish, sir," Daala said absently, concentrating more on the device at Thrawn's fingertips. Could that be one of the lightsabers she had heard about?
"Now, as I have stated earlier, I am most unimpressed with your record," he continued, shifting his hands somewhat.
Yes, I do believe it is a lightsaber, Daala thought excitedly. And I've got a pretty good idea of who owns it. In fact, this could...
"You shall stay in your position in the shuttle bay for now, but another reduction in rank lies certain in your near future. How much of a reduction depends on you." He paused a moment to let her ponder that, though she was more interested in figuring out how to get a holo of that saber. "And I will tell you right now, it will take an awful lot to impress me enough to let you remain an officer."
"You would take away my commission?"
"Actually, I've been toying with the idea of knocking you down to private fourth class and putting you under General Odosk's command. Maybe then you'd learn the difference between the Imperial Navy and the Imperial Army."
Daala forgot about the saber for a moment. To lose her commission AND be transferred to another branch... it was unheard of! Just the thought of being merely 'enlisted' turned her stomach, but Thrawn was set to put her all the way to the bottom! She felt slightly dizzy as she pondered being at the very base level of the ranks. Private, fourth class... fourth class!?
"Sir? There is no such rank as private fourth class. It only goes as low as third."
"Well, well," Thrawn said sarcastically. "Maybe she does know a little about military ranks, after all. Though to mix up the Army and Navy..."
"You mean my decision to place Commander Kratas in charge of the walker advance on Dantooine, don't you? That was done deliberately to increase cooperation and understanding between branches. It wasn't a mistake."
"No, it most certainly was a mistake. The first ground action your troops had seen in over a decade, and you put a Navy commander in charge of the operation instead of the Army general who should have been. Assigning Kratas as an observer would have been acceptable, but to give him command?"
"No one challenged my decision."
"That's because General Odosk was respecting the superiority in rank which, deserved or not as the case may be, you held at the time. You made an enemy that day, Lieutenant Commander. However, General Odosk is a model officer, so he kept his peace."
"But then he complained to you?"
"I specifically requested him to give his impressions of your leadership capabilities. He actually spoke rather highly of your discipline while inside the Maw, but when you came out... well, that's another story, isn't it?"
Daala stood silently.
"Isn't it?" Thrawn repeated forcefully.
"Yes, sir," she muttered.
"You know, Lieutenant Commander, despite all your faults, there is one thing that amazes me."
"What's that, sir?" she asked merely to humor him. She was getting quite fed up with these games. That red eyed, blue skinned freak was obviously having a good time insulting her. Well, let him have his fun. She would have the last laugh. Now, if only Thrawn would move...
"Why, the fact that you are still alive. You always manage to escape death somehow." Thrawn rose, picking up the round, gray object that had been sitting on the armrest opposite the lightsaber, then started walking in Daala's general direction.
Now was her chance. The saber lay alone on the chair, and Thrawn and Pellaeon weren't paying enough attention to catch her subtle motion. She quickly, but carefully, moved her hands to her belt buckle and pressed the concealed button that triggered the holocam hidden within it. Such amazing devices they used in Intelligence...
"About face, Lieutenant Commander," Thrawn said sternly.
She turned with a startled quickness, but found the Grand Admiral in no worse of a mood than he was before.
"If I want you to remain at full attention, I will tell you. But otherwise, I always want you facing me. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir!" she barked out, completely covering her relief. He wasn't suspicious, after all. Now, if only he could finish his lecturing and let her go...
"It really is a pity that Rukh here is no longer available for assignment to your case," Thrawn continued, standing next to his former bodyguard. His headless former bodyguard...
Suddenly, Daala inhaled sharply as she realized what it was he was holding
"Hmm? Oh, this!" Thrawn turned the head's face toward Daala.
"Yes, I suppose you could say that Rukh and I had a little disagreement earlier. But I think I've convinced him to see my point of view. Now, as for you, Lieutenant Commander. I have nothing more to say to you. Return to your post. I will call you when it is time for your 'performance'."
"As you wish, sir," Daala answered, then headed for the door, hardly able to believe her luck. Still alive, and with the holo of that woman's lightsaber to boot.
"Admiral, I think she's up to something."
"Possibly... but I wouldn't worry about it. She is incapable of successfully executing any sort of plan that isn't written in a textbook, and mutiny isn't in the Imperial navy's curriculum."
"But sir, it's not mutiny I'm worried about," Pellaeon replied uneasily.
"Sabotage? No, Captain, she wouldn't resort to something so petty. She will attempt a grand, complicated scheme to try to prove her worth, then fail miserably. She'll be dead before then, though. For now, I think we can count on her obedience, at least until the Honoghr operation is over. Her fear will guarantee that."
"I hope you're right, sir," Pellaeon said, his own fear rising to critical levels.
"I am. Now go, Captain."
"Yes sir," Pellaeon said with a slight sigh of relief.
"And another thing," Thrawn added just before Pellaeon reached the door. The captain turned just in time to catch the severed Noghri head. "Have someone re-attach that. And send for Skywalker. I'd like to have a word with her, too."
"Umm, yes, sir," he gulped, holding the head in one hand and clutching his chest with the other.
"What do you mean, Mara hasn't called in yet? Where is she?"
"I told you, Han," a very flustered Leia answered. "I have no idea."
"Are you sure you checked ALL our comm channels? She could have..."
"Han, she really doesn't know, and Mara really hasn't called," Luke answered in a voice far too calm for the situation.
"Sorry, I'm just trying to conduct an investigation here. Seeing as how nobody else seems interested enough to do it..."
"Han!" Leia scolded. "That's enough! You know good and well why Luke and I aren't getting as bent out of shape about this as you are."
That he did. Though it didn't make him feel any better about it. All during the walk from the Falcon to his suite, he stole glances at Luke, hoping to see some sort of concern on his face. But no, there was nothing. Just that bland, "peaceful" look that had become typical for him. Well, if that's what being "at peace" was to a Jedi, all the better reason to not be one.
However, recollecting his brief time with old Ben, he couldn't help but wonder about his brother-in-law. Ben was never so withdrawn and antiseptic. True, Luke did loosen up on occasion, but only to a limited extent and in the exclusive company of family. Though he couldn't speak for others, he knew that for someone to act THAT unconcerned would certainly make him more, not less, suspicious.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. The 'I Wanna Be a Jedi When I Grow Up' Club is still around and you want to keep it quiet." He paused for effect. "But I think it's gone too far. I told you before that this was a bad idea, but no, nobody listens to me. I can't feel the Force, so my opinions don't mean anything."
"Han!" Leia shouted. "Stop it right now! You don't..."
"Yeah, I know," Han interrupted gruffly. "I don't understand. That's the way it always is. 'Stay out of it, Han, you don't understand.' 'No, Han, leave it to me. You don't understand.' Well, you understand this, both of you: I'm no Jedi Knight, and I never will be. But that doesn't mean that my sense of duty and justice is any weaker or less important than yours. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try to find Torve. I'm sure he'll be willing to help me find Mara." He took two quick steps to reach the door and hit the controls hard. "And he'll definitely be more fun to talk to," he shouted as he stormed out.
The two remaining occupants of the room stood in disturbed silence for a few minutes. Finally, Luke stepped over to his sister and put an arm around her shoulders.
"Leia, I'm..." he started, hesitating when he noticed a tear fall down her cheek. He took a deep breath and swallowed hard before continuing. "Leia, I'm sorry. It's my fault..."
"No, Luke. He just doesn't understand. It frustrates him, but it's true. Sometimes I wish that he could..."
"Feel the Force?"
"Well... yes," she sobbed. "I mean, I love him as he is. You know that. But occasionally, it would make things so much easier... if only..."
"But he's right. He's not a Jedi, but it doesn't mean he's not important. And I HAVE been treating him that way!"
"Luke, you've had a lot of Force heavy problems lately, and Han really can't help you with those."
"Do you realize what's happening to me? I'm turning into C'baoth!"
"Luke, don't say things like that!" Leia scolded sharply.
"It's true!," Luke replied, grabbing her arms and shaking her slightly. "My priorities are in the wrong place. My devotion has not been to the Force, but to being a Jedi."
"Isn't it the same thing?" Leia asked, looking quite confused, and more than a little concerned.
"That's what I thought, but now, I see that it isn't. The Jedi Academy wasn't for the good of the Force, but for the good of the Jedi Order. And what did I teach my students? Did I teach them to go out and do good for the galaxy at large, or to be an exclusive and elitist club of Force users? Tell me, Leia!," he demanded, shaking her again, a bit harder this time. "What did I teach them?"
"Luke, I don't know!" she answered, prying his hands off of her. "I wasn't at your Academy enough to answer that question! Besides, I'm still a little confused."
"So was I! I didn't recognize the difference when I was teaching them, so I have no idea what message got across. But if they've been using my behavior as a pattern of what a Jedi should be..." He sighed heavily. "I've already lost two of them. I'm alienating Han," he stopped briefly to take a deep breath. "And then there's Mara..."
"Luke?" Leia asked gently, resting a reassuring hand on her brother's shoulder. She could feel him trembling. She embraced him, and he returned the gesture.
"Han's right," Luke said softly. "Even if she were just another student, I would be obligated to do whatever I could to help her. How much more so since..." he paused for a moment. "Students or no, I've got to reach her. Excuse me, Leia."
"Luke?" she asked timidly as he pulled away. "Could I be of any help?"
"No, I should..." No, he shouldn't. He needed help. "Yes, Leia, I'd appreciate it."
The stormtroopers were noticeably gentler this time around, Mara noticed. None of the usual jabs with blaster muzzles or shoves through doorways. In fact, they were so 'polite' that escape might have been as simple a proposition as asking them for a tour of the main hangar. Well, she grimaced, maybe not THAT easy. But easy enough, at any rate. She would have tried it, too, had this been a day or two ago.
To say that the outcome of her last attempt had frightened her would be a severe understatement. That doctor's words had been soothing and gentle, and really did help, she had to admit. However, even he couldn't completely dispel the fear of what that stun blast could have done.
Though they didn't tell her, she knew exactly where they were taking her. She knew good and well that Thrawn would be having a word with her sooner or later; and that time was now. He would no doubt try some new fear tactic to scare her into submission, and probably succeed this time, she reluctantly conceded. Still, she was determined to try to defy him as long as possible.
Ahead of her loomed the door to Thrawn's command room. She swallowed hard, already a little more shaken than she had anticipated. The door slid open, and a stormtrooper gently nudged her forward.
"Ah, Mrs. Skywalker. Please join us."
He must really get a kick out of saying that. "Well, I was on my way to the grocery store and to pick up the dry-cleaning," she teased. "But I suppose I could stop and chat for a while."
"Good to see you back on your feet again," Thrawn replied, idly playing along. "I trust all is well?"
"Oh, sure. Yep. Everything's just dandy. And how are things in your neck of the woods?"
Thrawn had just opened his mouth to reply when the sound of a low groan interrupted. The Grand Admiral and his "guest" simultaneously turned to see Captain Pellaeon shaking his head in frustration. After a few moments of total silence, Pellaeon lifted his gaze, noticing in utter embarrassment that his gestures had not gone unnoticed. The red-faced officer straightened to attention.
"Is something wrong, Captain?"
"Because if there's a problem..."
"No, sir. Everything's fine. Never mind me."
"All right then," Thrawn said, shifting his eyes back to Mara. "Back to the matter at hand. Where were we?"
"Uh, I think we were about to discuss what sales are going on this week in the Monument Square Mall. That, or the latest dirt on the daytime holo dramas."
"Ah, yes. Well, maybe we'd best let that wait until another time," Thrawn replied, taking a side glance at Pellaeon. "Now, you must be aware, Mrs. Skywalker, that I'm a little disappointed with your recent behavior."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"Here we've extended our hospitality, not to mention providing you the very best prenatal care available in the entire Empire - for free, mind you - and how do you thank me? You try to run away."
"Hey, you kept me cooped up for so long, I decided I needed a little exercise."
"If exercise was all you wanted, you could have asked."
"Really?" Mara said in the most obnoxious cutesy little kid voice she could manage, all the while batting her eyelashes and horribly over-acting. "Do you mean it?"
The inane banter hadn't cracked Thrawn's composure like it had Pellaeon's, but the cutesy routine was just too much. "All right, Skywalker, enough of this foolishness!" Thrawn nearly shouted.
Mara grinned, ever so slightly, as she made a mental note of this new way of getting on Thrawn's nerves.
"That escape attempt of yours was the most ludicrous thing you could have done. How could you even think of such a stupid course of action? Such irresponsibility..."
"Irresponsibility?! And just how do you figure that?"
"How? You dare ask how? Maybe I've given you too much credit. Maybe you really don't know of the possible effects of a stun blast when someone is in your condition."
"Oh, I know, all right. That's why you gave that 'no stun' order."
"Well, then, this proves your recklessness. To willingly take that kind of risk... you are not fit to be a parent. I pity any child who calls you 'mother'."
Mara was at a loss for words. It was a thought she herself had frequently pondered of late, but to actually hear someone say it hurt far more than she had ever imagined.
"No," she finally managed in a weak voice. "No, that's not true. I'll be a good mother. I'll..." her voice caught.
"I'm afraid actions speak louder than words, and I've seen plenty of evidence to back up my assertion."
"Why..." Mara started, her voice catching again. "Why should I believe you? Who are you to tell me that?"
"Of course you are still free to believe whatever you like. But you'd do well to remember what happened the last time you didn't believe me."
That left her quiet. Thrawn grinned in satisfaction, knowing that he had won again. After a few minutes of letting her contemplate that last exchange, he rose from his seat.
"Now, I think you'd best be going back to your cell for some rest. I trust there will be no more escape attempts?"
Mara didn't answer. She may have shaken her hanging head, but the Admiral couldn't really tell.
"I'll give you one last chance to prove yourself, but if you ever do anything again that makes me doubt your competence, I will not hesitate to put your child into more capable hands. Perhaps Master C'baoth wouldn't mind..."
"NO!" she screamed. That name penetrated her fog of confusion like a laser beam. "No, not that! Please, don't..."
The Grand Admiral smiled wickedly as he silently congratulated himself on correctly anticipating one of her vulnerable spots. "I won't, just so long as you cooperate. But one mistake, and C'baoth gets a new apprentice to raise from birth in his own way."
Neither noticed Pellaeon swallowing hard and sweating slightly.
"Not C'baoth," Mara continued, her panic slowly abating. "Anything but C'baoth... I..." Suddenly, her expression changed from panic to startled confusion. "Now wait a minute," she said, her voice abruptly strong and challenging, a smug grin spreading like a shadow across her face. "Uh-oh, Admiral. You really had me going there for a while, but you just blew it big time."
"Is that so?" Thrawn replied, thrown slightly off-guard by her newfound confidence. "May I ask how I've 'blown it'?"
"Y'see, blue-boy, I killed C'baoth two years ago."
Thrawn was thrown more than just slightly off guard this time. This was HIS turn to be speechless. His eyes shifted rapidly as he tried to come up with a response. Twice he started to say something, only to shut his mouth and reconsider. In actuality, it only lasted a few brief seconds, but to Mara, it was plenty long enough to prove that Thrawn could actually be stumped.
To Pellaeon, it was an eternity. What was Thrawn doing? Why did he bring up C'baoth, anyway? Most importantly, what would he do next?
"What you don't know," Thrawn finally said in an air of feigned certainty, "is that I have had C'baoth cloned again."
Mara thought she saw Pellaeon twitch out of the corner of her eye, but ignored him. "No, I don't think so. Somehow, I don't think he let you take a clipping of himself. And there wasn't enough of him left for you to do anything with, once I finished with him."
"Who said he 'let' me? What makes you think he even knew?"
"You're grasping at straws this time, Thrawn," she smugly proclaimed. "In fact," she added thoughtfully, "I'd sooner believe that you are a clone!"
Captain Pellaeon definitely choked at that.
Thrawn shot to his feet, his eyes burning like fire. "You dare to suggest that I am a clone? Oh, no, Skywalker. I assure you, I am the genuine article, and not some pale imitation. Furthermore, I've had enough of your insolence." He pressed a button on the arm of his chair, causing the chamber's door to slide open, then pointed forcefully in its direction. "Get out of here."
"Certainly. I'd be happy to," Mara muttered as she turned to rejoin the company of her escorts.
Once the door slid shut, Thrawn returned to his chair, and sat for a moment in quiet contemplation. Bit by bit, his eyes dimmed as his rage drained away. Finally, with a sigh, he leaned back in relative calm, and turned toward Pellaeon.
"Captain, are you quite all right?"
"Uh, yes, sir," Pellaeon answered, trying hard - and failing miserably - to sound convincing.
"Captain, perhaps you should take some leave time."
"No, sir, I'll be fine. It's... just a little stuffy in here, that's all."
"Very well, then. Go back to your post. Keep me informed of our progress."
"As you wish, sir," Pellaeon replied with a curt nod, then turned to leave. He felt a great weight lift from his shoulders the instant he stepped out of the Grand Admiral's chamber, but an even greater one remained. As he stepped into the turbolift that would take him to the bridge, a lump caught in his throat. He had a bad feeling about this...
The fleet replenishment vessel Procuror had arrived earlier in the day with provisions for the Chimaera, and was currently halfway finished unloading. Though the name sounded impressive, and indeed, its role of critical importance to the fleet, it was nothing more or less than a glorified freighter, hauling food and supplies from bases to ships. Lieutenant Commander Daala knew this perfectly well, but still couldn't help but envy her former second-in-command. As distasteful as third-in-command of a clone-crewed Dreadnaught had sounded at first, Daala had long since passed the point of caring what kind of ship or crew she would be assigned to, just as long as it got her away from the Grand Admiral. And now, here was Commander Kratas's assignment. Boring and unimpressive, but oh, did she wish she could be there instead.
She turned away from the viewport and back to the task at hand: finding Kratas. She was technically supposed to be on-duty in the shuttle bay, but with the resupply going on, all the shuttles were locked up, anyway. Thrawn was really paranoid about security during resupply, for some reason...
Finally, she spotted Kratas. At least, she thought it was Kratas. An officer stood with is back to her and a datapad in his hand, checking the supplies that were being offloaded from the Procuror. She quickly walked over to him.
"Excuse me, Commander Kratas?"
"That's Captain Kratas," he barked out as he turned to face her. Once he saw her, though, his gruff expression gave way to embarrassment. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know... Please forgive me, Admiral... or..." Kratas paused as he studied her uniform. "Lieutenant Commander?!"
Though tempted to ask him to keep it Admiral for now, Daala reluctantly nodded her head. "Uh, yeah. Can we go somewhere to talk?"
A few minutes later, they were at a corner table in the officers' lounge.
"That's right," Daala said in a clearly depressed voice. "Thrawn demoted me. I'm in charge of the shuttle bay now. I... I see he promoted you."
"Said something about me being overdue. I didn't say anything, though, Admir... ah, I mean..."
"Never mind. So what do you do on the Procuror, Captain Kratas?"
"Actually, it's my command."
"What?" Daala gasped, not believing it. "You've been given command of a ship?"
"It's only a cargo hauler. I..." he trailed off, distracted by something, then shook it off and resumed. "Uh, what I mean to say is at least you're still on a warship. I'd gladly switch with you."
"I wish I could arrange that, but it's not up to me anymore."
"It's not your fault, Captain."
"Why didn't he give you a command? You're being wasted in the shuttle bay."
"I've tried to tell him that, but he's unreasonable. He and I have so much in common, I thought he'd understand. Sure, the Emperor liked women a little better than nonhumans, but only barely. That we both made it to the rank of admiral..." Daala cut off in mid-sentence as she noticed Kratas looking at her in that strange way again. Once she stopped, though, he shook his head slightly, then looked away.
"Yes, Captain Kratas," she corrected. "What are you looking at?"
"Nothing, Admir... I mean, Lieutenant Commander."
"No, it's not 'nothing', Captain," she continued. She knew well enough what he was looking at. "Go ahead. Say it."
"Go ahead and say it. Get it off your chest."
"Well, I don't think..."
"Just say it, and get it over with so we can move on."
"Well... I don't really want to be rude, but since you asked," he started, then took a deep breath. "What happened to your face? What were you trying to do? Pull the ears off a gundark or something?"
"Well," she answered, gently rubbing her scars, "you might say that. Is that all?"
"Um, yes, ma'am."
"Good. Now to business."
"Just what kind of business did you have in mind?"
Daala looked around cautiously, noting whoever might be in earshot. Satisfied that no one had heard Kratas's last question, she faced him and spoke in a hushed voice. "Do you have any of those furry lizards on your ship?"
"Well... yes, there are a few. Why?"
"I want you to make a delivery and pick-up for me."
"What?" he answered in a surprised, but appropriately quiet tone.
"I have an item that I want you to deliver. You remember when we were scoping out smugglers as sources of information?"
"Yes, but... wait, you don't mean..."
"Yes, him. Do you remember the contact information?"
"Here," she said, discreetly sliding a datacard to him. Oh, would Thrawn have a fit if he ever found out how she had obtained that holocam from an... overeager ensign in Intelligence. He wouldn't talk, though, if he knew what was good for him. "Get this to him."
"Well... all right," he conceded at last. It wasn't exactly a legitimate use of fleet resources, but it wasn't as bad as he had first thought. "I think that can be arranged. But what do those animals have to do with anything?"
"Those will be necessary for the pick-up."
"I don't follow."
"Here," she slid another datacard to him. "This one's for you. It has all the instructions. We really shouldn't discuss the details here."
"Now wait just a minute! What's going on here, Admir... um, Lieutenant Commander?"
"Nothing to worry about. I'm just trying to earn my ticket out of here."
"By sneaking around behind the Grand Admiral's back? I don't like this."
"Trust me, Kratas. Please. Have I ever let you down before?"
"I'll do anything, Kratas! Anything! Please do this favor for me."
"I... well..." Kratas stuttered, struggling with the options before him.
"Listen Kratas, if anything goes wrong, I'll take the blame. I won't force you to stick your neck out for me."
"But technically, I'm your superior! If anything were to happen, the responsibility would automatically fall to me!"
"No, Kratas, all you have to do is tell Thrawn that I was acting without your knowledge, and you'll be off the hook. Trust me on that."
Captain Kratas continued to be torn by the conflicting interests. However, after a few moments of hesitation and fumbling over it, loyalty to his former commander won out. "All right," he said with a weary sigh. "I'll do it."
"Thank you, Kratas. I promise, everything will be fine. I'll see you in a couple weeks when you come back for the next scheduled resupply. And if all goes according to plan, things should get really interesting."
"Somehow, I'm not looking forward to this."
"Don't worry so much. Now, I should be off." She stood at attention. "Congratulations on your promotion, Captain Kratas. I hope to see you again soon." She left without saluting.