"So, how was the flight?"
Han merely grumbled, not in any sort of mood to talk to Lando.
"Come on," Lando continued, huffing as he tried to keep up with Han's rapid strides, "how much did you fleece ol' Luke for?"
"You know, in Sabacc games during your long hyperspace jumps. Must've gotten pretty boring, and I can't imagine a better way to pass the time."
Han merely grumbled again, and sped up his pace. Maybe Lando would take a hint.
"You mean he beat you?" He waited for a reply. Getting none, he pulled out the stops. "So, what's Luke going to do with his own YT-1300? Use it as an academy school bus, perhaps?"
Han stopped in his tracks. That was it. It had been a stressful enough day without Lando suddenly showing up while he was talking with Torve. After the hours of searching, he only managed a scant few minutes with the man before Lando interrupted. Little was accomplished in that meeting. And now, Lando was following him around, making a general nuisance of himself like some small animal.
"Lando, what do you want?" he growled.
"Only to welcome you guys back and ask how things went," Lando replied, clearly taken aback. "What's the matter with you?"
"Sorry, Lando. I've just been having a really bad day."
"Come on, Han. It can't be that bad. Hey," he said with a mischievous grin, "it's not like you're going to have to sleep on the couch tonight, right?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't think..."
"No, you didn't. But I guess I shouldn't be so rude. I'm just really not in the mood to talk right now, okay? Maybe later."
"Uh, sure, whatever you want. I guess I'll go and bug Luke, then."
"Go ahead. Good luck, though. He's in one of his Jedi moods again," Han said as he headed off, leaving Lando to wonder just what in space he meant by that.
Han heaved a heavy sigh of fatigue and disappointment as he entered his suite, only to literally jump back in shock when an alien face greeted him just inside the door.
"Would you guys cut that out?" he scolded. "How many times do I have to tell you not to surprise me like that?"
"I apologize, Han clan Solo," the Noghri mewed. "I meant no offense."
"Uh, none taken, I guess. How are the kids?"
"The Lady Vader's heirs sleep now. They have not left the home, as you and the Lady Vader have specified."
"Thanks," Han replied. He couldn't help feeling guilty about using them as babysitters. Sure, they saw it as being bodyguards, but that didn't change what he knew to be true. Ironically, though, it was Leia who had come up with this scheme. And she called him a scoundrel. Speaking of which...
He looked around. "Hey, where is 'Lady Vader,' anyway?"
"The Lady Vader is visiting the Son of Vader. Some of us wished to accompany her, but she wanted her heirs to have our undivided attention."
She was with Luke? But what were they...
"I've got to go. I'll be back later. Be sure to keep dinner warm for me," Han said urgently, heading out the door, and leaving behind a puzzled Noghri who wondered how cooking a meal counted as a part of bodyguarding.
Numbness. That's what it felt like. Sure, there were pains in his body, but they were dulled by his mind.
But not by any use of the Force. No, this wasn't a conscious effort to relieve his physical discomfort. He was a man with a troubled mind; ambitious, yet simultaneously hopeless. Confusion and uncertainty reigned supreme. The question of what to do next had weighed heavily on him when he wasn't actively doing anything, so he lashed out in rage. In this anger he could find solace from the confusion, a refuge in which he could focus on a single task. A state in which pain seemed to vanish.
Ahead of him, he saw the form of an Imperial fleet trooper, drawing his blaster and taking aim from behind a computer console. Pathetic, he thought with a grim smirk. The fool thinks he can stop me.
The black robed man pulled his lightsaber blade out of the dead stormtrooper he had been standing over, the white armor glowing eerily from the deep purple light of the energy sword. The blade moved smoothly and effortlessly to deflect one, then two blaster bolts. The trooper paused momentarily in disbelief, verifying that his blaster was on the correct setting.
In the interlude, the dark man thumbed a sliding switch on the longer-than-normal handle of his lightsaber, sending a surge of power up the blade, then back down in a repeating loop. He eased the knob further, and the speed of the pulse increased more and more until it was impossible to distinguish the pulses from a continuous blade several times the thickness of the original. The original, even hum had likewise given way to a crackling buzz.
He stood there, silently inviting the trooper to press his attack. Eventually the trooper resumed fire, having seen no other way out. Indeed, there wasn't. Every spacecraft aboard the station had been destroyed, and there was little hope for reinforcement or rescue. Not in the time needed, at any rate. But better to go down fighting than in silence.
Which was fine with the intruder. The next volley of blaster bolts were intercepted just as easily by his lightsaber. However, this time, they were not deflected into the surrounding walls. Instead, the buzzing blade absorbed them instantly, the only change to the saber being a glow near the bottom of the handle where the energy would be stored for re-use.
The stand-off continued for some time. Exactly how long he didn't know. Nor did he care. It was... entertaining. If he couldn't see, then he could feel the cornered soldier's fear increasing with every shot that failed to connect with something other than the saber blade. He closed his eyes to truly savor the feeling. Like some sort of drug, it made him forget everything else, blissful oblivion to the outside word. The numbness turned to a feeling of pleasure and excitement.
Then he felt something wrong. The fear stopped building. A plateau had been reached, and soon, it actually started declining. Not much, but enough. He opened his eyes to see the trooper in the same place he had always been, but with his blaster laying on the floor, wisps of smoke drifting off of it, and a fading red glow on its muzzle. On the man's face, a look of grim acceptance of his fate.
"Oh, no. Not yet you don't," the Sith Lord said softly. "Here, try this one." With that, and a curt wave of a hand, he floated a blaster from the side of a dead stormtrooper to come to rest in easy reach of the cornered soldier.
He just stared at it. One didn't need the Force to recognize the feeling of confusion that came over him. But it passed quickly, and he never so much as reached for the weapon. He knew he was going to die. He knew he was being played with. He just didn't want to play any more.
"What are you waiting for? Take the gun!"
Not a twitch. The man may as well have been dead already.
"That is an order! Take the gun!"
A long pause ensued, seeming as an eternity next to the all-too-short period of active resistance before the first blaster had overheated. Finally, the trooper glanced down at the new weapon, and slowly reached for it.
"It's about time!," the dark man said, bringing his saber back into a defensive position.
The soldier very gradually rose to his feet and stepped out in front of the console he had been using as cover. He brought the gun up to aim and held it...
...but he never fired. Instead, he opened his hand, one deliberate finger at a time, and allowed the blaster to fall to the deck.
"You DARE defy me?" the Dark Lord screamed in rage. "You will pay for your disobedience!"
He flipped a switch near the bottom of his lightsaber. The glow of the energy cell in the saber's pommel ceased, the energy being converted into a lightning-like discharge surrounding the saber blade, adding a grotesque sizzling crackle to the already hideous buzz.
He lifted it high above his head and brought it down more like an ax than a sword. An agonizing scream might have been heard in the split second before the computer console exploded. Debris ricocheted off everything exposed in the room.
Kyp took a few steps back to admire his handiwork. A half meter wide gouge divided the console, even penetrating into the floor. At least ten centimeters of burnt, twisted metal rimmed the gouge, and the remnants of the coronal discharge continued to flicker across the entire panel. As for the trooper, well, he didn't care to attempt to identify the charred parts, not that there were many.
A chuckle escaped him. It worked. The saber was perfect. Better still, he had managed, in that last moment, to elicit a final climax of fear from the fleet trooper. That look in his eyes... priceless.
He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he concentrated on his surroundings. So much death and destruction. But wait... there was something... alive. Someone else was still clinging to life. Kyp grinned and turned in that direction, tuning his saber back to normal mode. It was good to be the Dark Lord.
Han had a fairly good hunch about what was going on in Luke's apartment, so it didn't surprise him at all when Artoo-Detoo answered the door. What did surprise him was how adamant the droid seemed about not letting him in, until Luke himself intervened.
"It's all right, Artoo," Luke said in a somber, almost dreamy voice. "Come in, Han."
The droid hesitated for a moment, then backed away. Han entered the room slowly, not wanting to interrupt whatever was going on inside any more than he already had. He carefully made his way toward a couch... well, toward where he thought there was a couch. After all, Luke may have rearranged the furniture for whatever Jedi thing he and Leia were doing in here. About the same time Han's eyes had adjusted enough to see that the couch wasn't there, someone turned the lights on, briefly blinding him again.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Leia exclaimed, rushing to her squinting husband's side. "I guess I should have warned you first."
"That's okay," Han replied, giving his eyes a few good hard blinks. "I'll live."
"So, what's the word from Torve?" Luke asked, still a little too calmly in Han's opinion, but definitely more concerned than he had been previously.
"Not much, I'm afraid. Obviously, he doesn't know where Mara is, but before I could press him for any sort of leads, Lando showed up."
"Yes, he's been doing a lot of that lately. He's been stuck here without a ship for a while now, and he wasn't exactly thrilled with being drafted into Garm's Sun Crusher research team."
"And a bored Lando is an annoying Lando," Han sighed.
"Well, he stopped by here just a few minutes ago," Luke mentioned.
"So where is he now?"
"Luke sent him to pick up something to eat," Leia answered, blushing slightly.
"Something to eat?" Han repeated, an amused grin on his face. "Well, I suppose he might as well be playing grocery boy. At least he won't be making a nuisance of himself that way. Then again, the cashiers might disagree..."
Leia stifled a chuckle. Luke, on the other hand, voiced a clarification.
"Oh, no, Han, I didn't send him out for groceries. I just asked him to pick up something quick, hot, and ready to eat."
Han almost gagged trying to contain himself. "Fast food to go, huh?" he finally managed.
"Well, I was hungry," Luke offered as an excuse. "Jedi have to eat, too, you know."
Han chuckled for a few more seconds before clearing his throat. "We'd better get back to more important matters. Like what you two were doing."
"I was trying to contact Mara, and Leia was helping."
"About time you did that. And?"
"Nothing," Luke sighed. "Like she's just vanished. That, or she doesn't want to talk to me."
"I doubt that. She sounded too desperate... well, it sounded like she sounded desperate, from the way you were talking in your sleep back on the Falcon. Um... did that make sense?"
"I know what you mean, Han. And I think you're right."
"Unfortunately," Leia interjected, "that means she's unable, and not unwilling. Not a good thing."
Silence fell over the group as they pondered that last insight. Indeed, what could make a Jedi unable to communicate...
"Hey, Luke," Han yelped out abruptly, as inspiration struck. "You think she might be on Myrkr?"
"I don't think so. Why do you..." Luke's voice trailed off, catching Han's drift. "Wait a minute. You don't suppose..."
"Maybe she went to visit with Karrde..."
"But Han," Leia interrupted. "Karrde left Myrkr over two years ago."
"Yeah, but what better place to hide than in the last place anyone would look."
"Could be," Luke agreed. "But she always told me that even she didn't know where he was. She only talked to him over special coded channels."
"But suppose he needed her there in person for some reason."
"And if something happened to her before they were able to meet..."
"That would definitely explain his concern. As I recall, the Myrkr jungle wasn't a very nice place to crash land in. But then, you know more about that than I do."
"Han, could you go back to find Torve..."
"Yeah, just what I was thinking."
"Han," Leia said, stopping his departure. "Before you go, I was going to ask whether you had heard anything from Chewbacca and Threepio."
"The task force that was sent to the Maw hasn't checked in for days, and we, that is the Senate, are beginning to get concerned. I have a transcript of their last report," she said, nodding in the direction of her datapad, which was sitting on an end table. "Unfortunately, it doesn't help any."
"Great. That's all we need. Mara disappears, and now Chewie and Threepio are playing hide and seek." He sat back down and rested his head on his hands. "Can't we just deal with one crisis at a time? I swear..."
The chime of the door interrupted Han's thoughts. Luke headed down the entry hall as it chimed again.
"Must be Lando back with the food," Han said with a sigh. "I'd better be going..."
A particularly vicious sounding "smack" cut him off, and he and Leia both shot to their feet in shock as Luke's body skidded halfway across the room.
"What's going on here?" Had demanded, heading toward the door. But it wasn't Lando he ran into. "W-Wedge?" he managed in stunned disbelief.
He had never seen such anger on the pilot's face. An insane rage burned behind his eyes.
Fynn Torve casually reclined as he pondered his abortive encounter with Solo. Odd that he was so eager to break off the meeting when Calrissian showed up. Obviously, there was something important in that, and perhaps even something that Karrde might find interesting. (That is, worth paying for.) He'd have to be sure to attempt to glean all he could about it when and if Solo came back.
Though the meeting had been exceedingly brief, it seemed that Solo was very disturbed about something. From what few words had been exchanged, Torve had the hunch that Solo might just be even more in the dark concerning Mara's whereabouts than he was. Which didn't make him feel much better about the situation, especially given what Haygn had told him. Disturbing. Very disturbing...
The scent drifting off his recently-served meal snapped him out of his contemplations. He realized, to his surprise, that he hadn't even noticed it being delivered to his table. Well, he conceded, that's what happens sometimes when you have a lot on your mind. Absent-mindedly, he started probing the omeletesque object on his plate with a utensil.
"Never knew you had an interest in traditional Ukian cuisine, Torve."
Torve's head shot up to look at the hooded stranger that had just walked up to his table. "Actually, I've never tried it before," Torve replied easily, trying to play along until he could find out who this guy was. "But I figured that I've had enough free bar nuts, and ought to move on to something new for a change."
"House specialty, unless I miss my guess. Good choice. I know the chef. She's an excellent cook."
"Is that so?" Torve commented, an odd sense of deja-vu cropping up. That voice sounded familiar... if only he'd show his face... "Care to join me?"
"Certainly," he said, taking a seat opposite Torve. "But please, don't let me interrupt your meal."
Don't let me interrupt, he says. Yeah, right. "Oh, no, don't worry about it," Torve replied, hiding his true thoughts, then took a cautious bite of his meal. Turned out it was rather good. He went for another...
"I must say, though, that you look like you've been putting on some weight. Skywalker and Solo have been keeping you waiting quite a while, haven't they?"
"Now wait a minute," Torve said, leaning across the table. "How do you know..."
"That's easy enough," the man replied, pulling back his hood just enough for Torve to see a shadowy glimpse of his face.
"Karrde?!" Torve hissed. "What are you doing here?"
"I have some urgent, but confidential, information, and I needed to check with you in person about whether or not you've met with Skywalker or Solo yet."
"Yeah, I've seen Solo," Torve answered, still shaking off his surprise. "But we didn't get to talk much before Calrissian showed up. Solo didn't seem to want to talk to me with him around."
"Interesting. I wonder why..." Karrde trailed off, rubbing his chin contemplatively while staring at a fascinating array of spatulas hanging on the wall behind one of the larger griddles. "Well, maybe we'll find out later. I've got some things to discuss with Calrissian as well. Right now, though, I've got to know what exactly Solo told you."
"Like I said, we didn't get to talk much. And we never got around to anything real specific. But I did get the feeling that he and Skywalker have no idea where Mara is, either," Torve replied, then took a quick drink. "From the way he was acting, I think he was worried about something, though."
"If Solo's worried, it must be something serious. Have you heard any more from... Haygn, wasn't it?"
"No, nothing since I sent that message to you. But at that time, he didn't seem to know that she'd vanished."
"Doesn't mean his cohorts didn't have anything to do with it, and just didn't tell him." Karrde stared off toward the wall, sighing in serious contemplation.
An uneasy feeling began creeping over Torve. "Karrde... there's more to this than you're letting on, isn't there?"
Karrde remained silent for a moment before turning back toward Torve. "Yes," he said in a voice so low and ominous it made the room feel like a Hoth midnight. "A lot more." Karrde pulled his hood back over his head and rose to his feet. "I think it's high time to quit sneaking around. If Skywalker and Solo won't come to us, we'll go to them."
"You sure you want to do that?"
"Yes. This has gone on long enough. Eat fast, Torve. We're going to pay a visit to a Jedi Master."
For such a small guy, it sure was difficult to hold Wedge back when he was angry, Han found out the hard way. It was taking all the strength he could muster to keep the enraged pilot from pounding Luke to a pulp.
Fortunately for Han, Lando chose that particular moment to return. Though Lando certainly didn't see it that way. Though completely baffled at what he saw, Calrissian rushed in to assist.
With Han and Lando restraining him, Leia attempted with all her might to calm him down out of his rampage. Oddly enough, Luke, after getting back up, did nothing more than quietly and sadly rub his aching jaw. It seemed to take forever before Wedge was finally back under control enough to let him go.
"Now, Wedge," Leia said in the calmest, most soothing voice she could manage. "Tell us what exactly is wrong. I know you're a little upset..."
"I'm a LOT upset," Wedge growled. "She's dead, and it's all his fault." Wedge pointed an accusatory finger at Luke.
"Yes, you've told us that," Leia said. ('Screamed is more like it,' Han managed to keep to himself.) "Who's dead, Wedge?"
"Qwi! Qwi is dead! And he's to blame!"
"Qwi?! Oh no!" Leia gasped. "How... Why?"
"That blasted Jedi creep came back to finish the job he started, that's how! He... he just walked right in and... started frying her brain... I tried to stop him, but..."
"He's right," Luke said in a pained voice. "it is my fault."
"There!" Wedge shouted. "You see? He admits it!"
A brief, awkward silence followed, as the shock of the news settled in and Wedge caught his breath.
"So," Lando piped in cautiously, "what happens now?"
"What do you mean?" Wedge grumbled.
"What he means," Han answered, much more forcibly, "is what, exactly, do you intend to do about this? You're angry, we know that. You came in here and started beating on Luke. Now that you've gotten your confession out of him, what comes next?"
Wedge staggered back a little, surprised at the unexpected confrontation. "I... I'm going to ki... I'll ki... Luke has to d..." He gulped hard, unable to say what he intended. Actually, it was more due to the fact that he actually hadn't thought it out that far.
"Easy, Wedge, easy," Lando soothed. "Why don't you and I take a walk. There's a nice little club a couple floors down. We could get some drinks, calm down a bit, then discuss things like civilized beings, what do you say?"
Han quietly groaned. But to his surprise, Wedge seemed to like the idea.
"All right. I'll go," Wedge answered, still sounding angry and distraught, but somewhat more controlled. "But when I get back, I want you," his finger pointing sternly at Luke, "to tell me what you plan on doing about this." With that, he and Lando stepped out the door.
Luke stood in the doorway for a moment, sadly watching his friends... or was it just friend now? As he hung his head in grief, he caught sight of a small steel-colored box sitting on the floor just outside the door. Puzzled, he picked it up and brought it inside.
"We'll set this right, Luke. You'll see. I know it," Han started, before noticing the odd device Luke was carrying. "Hey, Luke, what's that?"
"I'm... not sure," he said, turning it over a few times in his hand. "Leia, have a look at this..."
Just then, the box opened along a perfectly disguised seam. Inside were electronic connections and a datacard.
Luke pulled out the datacard and handed the box to Han. "What's going on here?" he said, studying the card. No markings whatsoever, not even a brand name."
"Here," Leia said, offering Luke her datapad. "Let's have a look."
"But it's probably not even for me..."
"Oh, it's for you all right," Han interrupted. "I've seen this type of system before," he said, pointing to the devices inside the box. "See, there's a hidden fingerprint and genetic scanner. Nothing overly complicated, but enough to make sure it'll only open for the person that's supposed to have it. Oh, and this part here..." he cut off abruptly as he noticed, for the first time, the inside of the lid. "Oh, great."
"What is it, Han?" Leia asked apprehensively.
"See for yourself," he answered holding the box open so they could see the inside of the lid...
...and the Imperial emblem etched into it.
A few scattered drive trails of patrol and cargo ships, distinguishable from the stars only due to their movement, was all that could be seen in the darkness of space above the almost uniformly brown and nearly lifeless planet. But what couldn't be see was much more important. And deadly.
The Dreadnaught-class heavy cruiser Shapeshifter had been on-station for three months now, having relieved the Illusion in the perpetual task of keeping an eye on the Grand Admiral's arch enemies. Despite the priority Thrawn placed on this duty, every crewer and officer who was assigned to this station invariably found that there was nothing more boring and pointless than keeping an eye on the scant few thousand Noghri hard-liners who refused to leave their original homeworld. Not that any would express this opinion aloud, of course. When relieved from this station, the entire crew would make it sound like the most glamorous and important task, a task that accorded the highest possible honor to a spyship crewman, so that the next group of... honorees... would believe they'd just won a jackpot. Just as the crew of the Illusion had done to them.
At least, that was the plan as of a week ago. Now, the crew was looking forward to boasting about how they were the last spyship to be assigned to Honoghr Station.
With the receipt of a heavily coded signal, the long-planned attack was finally being put into motion. The Illusion was probably back in-system now, along with the Poltergeist and Shadow Weaver. A few others should, according to plan, be hanging around somewhere. Even in this operation, fellow spyship captains were never told where all the others would be. The coming action would finally put the full capability of the modified Dreadnaught-class spyship to the test of actual combat.
An orbital scanning station lay a good distance ahead of the Shapeshifter, too far to be seen with the naked eye, even if the ship wasn't currently cloaked. However, the ship's passive sensor masts could tell exactly where it was from its emissions, and an ion cannon had been locked on target for a while now, merely awaiting the order to begin the attack.
They watched with apprehension as a shimmering, polished silver (and obviously computer-generated) Imperial emblem appeared on the video screen, a moving light source causing glare and shadow to dance across and around the gear-like shape. It remained on-screen for a full thirty seconds, by which time it had begun to look almost too official.
Finally, the scene changed. Though hazy, the shape of a dark gray chair could easily be made out. And in marked contrast was the silver tube lying on the armrest. A very familiar silver tube...
"Jedi Master Luke Skywalker," came a female voice.
"Oh, no," Han groaned, knowing without being told who it was.
"I am Admiral Daala. I'm sure your friend Solo has already told you all about me. I have a proposition for you. As you can see, I have in my possession something that, I believe, belongs to you." With that, the picture zoomed in dramatically on the lightsaber, highlighting it just in case it hadn't been noticed before. "I figure you'd probably like to have it back."
Luke's mouth was now hanging open, moving ever so slightly as he tried to find the words to say.
"Now, I've heard," Daala continued, as the scene changed in a protracted dissolve from the grainy zoomed-in shot of the lightsaber to a finely lit, high-quality view of herself, in full dress uniform, standing in front of a royal blue wall banner emblazoned with an Imperial emblem. "That you have been seeking information about the Sun Crusher. I, too, would like nothing better that to get it out of the wrong hands, and I'm sure you know whose hands I mean. Perhaps, if we compare notes, we can put a stop to this madness. I am, after all, the commander of the entire Maw facility. I know a few things about our products."
Luke's expression had turned to puzzlement, as had Leia's. Han merely scowled.
"Please, don't misunderstand me," she said with phony civility. The camera began slowly zooming in on her face. "I've only sent this message to invite you aboard my flagship for a brief chat, and to return your weapon. A family heirloom, isn't it? At any rate, I do hope you'll accept my invitation. The directions are inside the box, as are the identification codes you'll need." She paused briefly, a smug grin on her face. "Oh, yes," she added, "I mustn't forget. There's someone else here who would also be very disappointed if you don't come." She brought her hands up near her face, idly fingering through a lock of long red-gold hair, quite in contrast to her own short-cropped auburn. "She's been so looking forward to seeing you again. Even screaming your name on occasion. And a few others. Apparently, she has quite a few close friends." She let that soak in for a moment, while her eyes drifted skyward. "Ah, yes, she screams quite nicely." While saying it, Daala's nostalgic smile melted into a grin of pure evil.
Luke trembled, making a quasi-sobbing gasp, and slowly sunk to his knees.
"Please be on time for our appointment, Master Skywalker. And let's just keep this meeting between ourselves. I think you know what I mean. I look forward to meeting you."
The screen faded to black, and the playback stopped. Deathly silence hung over the room for what seemed like forever.
"No..." Luke's weak voice finally came. "Oh, no..."
As Luke leaned his tear-streaked face down to the floor, Leia knelt beside him.
"Well," Han growled. "Now we know."
"Mara..." Luke rasped. "I've lost her..."
"No, Luke," Leia attempted, through her own tears. "Not lost..."
"What have I done? What have I done? I've lost her. It's all my fault..."
"Now stop that!" Leia hissed. "It is not all your fault, and I don't want to hear any more of that!"
"But Leia, I..."
"But if I'd been with her..."
"Luke," Han said sternly. "It's as much her fault as yours. I told you it was a bad idea from the beginning, but both of you... BOTH of you... insisted on this insane arrangement. Maybe Jedi don't know better after all..."
"Han!" Leia scolded sharply. "Now is not the time nor the place for that. Shame on you."
"He's right, Leia. He told me so..."
"And let me tell you something else I'm right about," Han cut in before his wife could rebut. "We're going to get her back. Besides, I owe Daala a visit, and now's as good a time as any to do it. She'll be sorry." Han paused as a smirk grew on his lips. "Though from the look of those scratches on her face, I think she may already be sorry for messing with Mara."
"But how can we do it?" Luke asked weakly. "She said..."
"Yeah, I know what she said," Han replied curtly. He picked up the message delivery box and started searching for the directions. "But don't rule out anything until we see," he trailed off for a moment as he pulled a very generic looking sheet of printed plastic out of a just-discovered secret compartment and unfolded it, "what we've got to work with."
It came at an hour before daybreak, ship-time. A mere squawk of what to anyone else would appear to be static. But that seemingly random burst of nonsense was, in its precisely formulated mixture of frequencies and amplitudes, the code to begin the operation.
Even before the hastily awakened captain arrived on the Shapeshifter's bridge, the on-duty personnel had already begun charging the ship's only ion cannon. As per schedule, the gun would be ready to disable its target at precisely fifteen minutes after the receipt of the signal.
As the mission timer ticked away, general quarters was sounding throughout the ship, spurring crewers to their stations. Though there were rather few of the Dreadnaught's original batteries still aboard, they would be fully manned and ready, should the need arise to drop cloak and fight. Say, if the shot missed, and the Noghri sensors then picked up the antenna array protruding outside the cloaking field. A last resort, of course. Spy ships were ill-suited for fleet combat, with so much of their space taken up with sensors and the cloaking shield. That's why everyone aboard hoped the Grand Admiral's attack fleet would be on-time.
"Ready..." the captain said slowly, a bit of excitement evident in his voice and not-so-subtle gestures. The timer got lower, and lower. "and..." he continued as the final seconds ticked away. "Fire!"
A blue bolt was immediately visible through the forward viewport, emerging from the fixed, axially mounted ion cannon below the bow of the vessel. In a split second the ion shot had disappeared through the cloaking field into open space, heading for it's intended endpoint.
"Begin recharge for a second shot," the captain ordered. Like a sniper's rifle, the long-range heavy ion cannon was not a rapid fire weapon.
"Sir," the chief sensor officer reported. "We are detecting a cessation in emissions from the target. I believe that's a hit, sir!"
"Are we being scanned?"
"Not yet, sir. Wait..." The officer paused for a tense moment, listening to the sounds in his earphone and watching the readout on his monitor. "We've detected the cessation of emissions from two other orbital stations as well. And no scan has been detected. Sir, I think it worked!"
"Good work, everyone, but it's not over yet." He checked the mission clock again. The timer had begun to count up from the zero point. It was now reading one minute and 50 seconds past operation commencement. "If Grand Admiral Thrawn is prompt, he should be arriving..."
"Sir!" the comm officer interrupted. "Detecting numerous hyperspace exits. Several consistent with those of Star Destroyers. They're here."
"Confirm that. Use a single active pulse."
"Yes, sir," he answered, keying in the command to commence an exceptionally brief active scan.
"Helm, get us moving. If it's not them, I don't want to be caught lying down."
"Captain, I'm reading three Imperial Star Destroyers, two escort carriers, an Interdictor cruiser, several smaller capital ships, and a few fighters, though they're probably still being launched."
"That's them, all right. Transmit our confirmation signal, and proceed to phase two."
"Not very considerate of her, is it?" Han, muttered.
Daala had scheduled a shuttle to pick up Luke in 5 days from the spaceport at Nerraw in the Yenwod system. A system that it would take, on average, 4 days to get to.
"Han, it's hopeless," Luke sighed. "To get Mara back, I'd have to do what she says. But if I did..."
"She'd never give her back, and she'd have you. Probably kill you both."
"Exactly. It's hopeless," he reiterated.
"The Falcon'll give us some extra time. We can figure out something. Leia, do you know if Page's commandoes are available?"
"That's what she'll be expecting, dear, and no, they're not."
Han paced for a moment, considering his options. "We need some help, but it's got to be something she won't expect. Hmm..."
The beeping of Leia's comlink interrupted the stagnating brainstorming session.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Lady Vader," a Noghri voice mewed. "I regret to inform you that your heirs have shattered the vase that was resting on your largest table."
"They did what?!"
"They have shattered..."
"Yes, I got that. How did it happen?"
"Accidentally, though I question the wisdom of commencing mock sword fights near fragile objects."
"They were playing Jedi Knights in the house again?"
"Were they not to be doing this?"
"No, they're not to be doing that!"
"But your firstson and firstdaughter told us you allow them to."
"I most certainly do not!" Leia gasped, realizing belatedly that she had forgotten to mention Jacen and Jaina's knack for tricking their babysitters. Not to mention that, given the reverence the Noghri had for her and her honesty, they probably expected the same from her children.
"If that is the case... uhh..." the Noghri voice trailed of in a soft sigh of... pain?
"Kakh'mir, is there something wrong with you?" Leia asked urgently.
"No... nothing to concern yourself with. It is only a slight headache."
Headache... no, they wouldn't. They couldn't...
"So," the Noghri resumed, his voice taking on a disconcerting chill. "They have purposely deceived us. We shall administer punishment immediately."
"Now hold on a minute," Leia urged. Punishment, yes, but Noghri punishment? "Kakh'mir, I'll be there in a few minutes. Don't do anything until I arrive. Got it?"
"Yes, Lady Vader, but..."
"No buts! See you soon."
"Yes, my lady," the Noghri signed off.
"Uh, Leia. That vase. It wasn't, by any chance..." Han started.
"Yes, it was my Alderaanian crystal vase that I got as a gift from the Ithorian ambassador last year. I've got to go."
"I think Jacen and Jaina would be better off with the Noghri," Han whispered in a supposed aside to Luke.
"I heard that," Leia growled. "It's really obvious where your children get this disobedient streak from, you know."
"Sorry. But I thought you liked scoundrels."
With a final "Humph," Leia turned toward the door. She stormed outside, only to run head-on into a man that had been about to knock.
"Why don't you watch where you're going," Leia huffed as she got back to her feet.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to... hey, wait a minute!"
"Oh, that's all right, now if you'll excuse me... do I know you?"
"Well, yeah," he answered, staring back at her.
"You really look familiar, but I can't place a name..."
"Torve!" a surprised Han exclaimed behind her.
"Ah, Solo, you're here, too. We've got to talk. Can we come in?"
"We?" asked the still befuddled Leia.
From beside the door stepped a hooded figure, startling her.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't intend to scare you."
"That voice... Karrde?"
"Shh. Yes, it's me. As Torve said, we need to talk. Privately, not in the hall."
"Come in, then" Han invited, belatedly remembering that it was in fact Luke's place, not his.
"Thank you," he said, stepping through the doorway. "Councilor," he inquired of Leia, "were you in a hurry to get somewhere?"
"Just headed home to kill the kids," Han commented wryly.
"That's enough of that!" she scolded. "I really do need to get home," she said, turning toward Karrde. "Fill me in later?"
"Karrde?" Han asked.
"No problem. I'm here mainly to talk with these two anyway."
"Thank you," Leia said as she finally got on her way.
"What's this all about?" Han demanded the moment the door slid shut.
"The mystery of Mara's disappearance has just taken a serious turn for the worse," Karrde replied gravely.
"What... How did you know?" Han nearly shouted.
"You mean to tell me you already knew?" Karrde retorted, on the verge of shouting himself. "Why didn't you tell Torve?"
"Tell me what?" a confused Torve interjected. "Karrde, when do I get to know what in the heck is going on?"
"Now look here, I don't have to tell anyone anything if I don't want to, and besides..."
Luke's hand was suddenly pressing against Han's chest, prompting him to stop his rant. The other hand was pushing against Karrde, as Luke attempted to widen the distance between the two, which had been getting perilously tight.
"What Han is trying to say," Luke said in an eerily soothing voice, "is that we just heard about it a few minutes ago. He didn't know when he met Torve earlier today."
For a moment, it looked like Luke's plea had fallen on deaf ears.
"I..." Karrde started, then took a step back. He inhaled deeply, and let it out slowly. "I guess I should apologize. We've had a misunderstanding, and fighting each other will get us nowhere."
"Han..." Luke prompted.
"Uh, yeah, I'm sorry, too."
"Now," Luke continued after a diplomatic pause. "Karrde, how did you hear about Mara's abduction?"
Karrde looked about ready to argue that Han should divulge his sources first, but when he glanced back at the oddly depressed, but sincere, Luke, he apparently decided that a full exchange of information was guaranteed here, regardless of who went first.
"A couple days ago, I was contacted by Aves and Ghent. I swear, that guy can slice into anything! Anyway, they'd been on the run since getting chased out of Aves's hotel on Sacrota by a squad of stormtroopers and a Star Destroyer. Mara helped them escape... practically saved them single-handedly. However, that's the last they saw of her. And this happened not too long after you told me she'd left Coruscant."
"So that's what happened," Torve said.
Han and Luke merely nodded their heads with mumbled affirmation.
"Obviously, this comes as no surprise to you."
"Well, we didn't know the exact circumstances," Han explained, as he reached for the opened message cube. "But we were aware of the Imperial angle. We just got the ransom note... well, kind-of." With that, he tossed the cube to Karrde. "Here, might as well show you."
"Excuse me," Luke said, heading out of the room as Han prepared to start the video replay. "I've got to... take care of something."
Han knew he just didn't want to see it again.
The message certainly didn't please Karrde, either. Or Torve.
"Just wait till I get my hands on that harpy Daala. She'll be sorry she ever messed with Mara. I'll..."
"Looks to me like she might already be sorry," Karrde interrupted, unknowingly echoing Han's sentiments from earlier. "I'd say that she's already gotten acquainted to Mara's bad side, judging by that interesting pattern on her face. So, about these instructions?"
"Oh, right," Han answered, retrieving the plastic sheet and handing it to the smuggler chief. "We've already decided we'll need more than just the two of us, but Leia tells me... hmm..." a sly grin began to spread over Han's lips. "Leia... that gives me an idea..."
"Looks like the standard lure for a more important person to me. Well, more important in their eyes. Hmm..." he trailed off, rubbing his beard.
"What's wrong?" Luke asked, just returning.
"Something's not right here. But I'm not quite sure what..." he paused, pondering the information again. "This Admiral Daala... the one that's been throwing a hissy fit lately... the one that you found in the Maw..." Abruptly, he snapped his fingers. "That's it! That's what's wrong!"
"Care to explain?" Han inquired.
"Certainly. She's not the one in charge here. And I think she's acting on her own, without her superior's knowledge."
"And how do you figure that?"
"For starters, the equipment. She's been in the Maw for over a decade, right? This message cube... it's a fairly ordinary concept, as these things go. Certainly existed ten years ago. However... certain components," he paused for an instant as he pulled a small electronic connector out of it, "or should I say, brand names, didn't." He tossed it to Han, who squinted at it briefly before deciding to take Karrde's word on it. "This thing's of recent construction. Last... oh, 3 years, I'd say."
"She could have picked it up somewhere else," Han pointed out dryly.
"True, but where did she get the assault gunboats she used to chase Aves and Ghent off Sacrota? Not to mention the Star Destroyer in question being of recent equipment standards. And undamaged. At least, that's what Aves' recordings show. Then there's this story I've heard about how an Imperial fleet, supposedly under her command, beat the stuffing out of Kessel. A fleet, mind you, complete with a good number of Interdictor Cruisers."
"So she picked up some subordinates from somewhere. She's an Admiral. Any Imperial captain would have to submit to her orders."
"Or would they? From everything I've heard, she's not exactly the most competent flag officer in the Imperial navy. By the last count, she's already lost 2 of her 4 Star Destroyers in easily avoidable mishaps. And that was before these supposed sightings of her with a fleet."
"She seemed to do pretty well against Mon Calamari, though," Torve pointed out.
"Just proves that any idiot with a Star Destroyer can break a few things. And that raid to capture Aves and Ghent? Do you seriously think she's smart enough to pull that off? No, she's a blunt instrument, not a surgical scalpel. It's nearly impossible for her to inspire loyalty in anyone outside her own original command, and I find it baffling that they haven't mutinied yet."
"So, then what do you propose?" Luke inquired.
"She's not in as much control as she'd like us to believe... her message drips overconfidence. And arrogance. Her need to emphasize her officialness is just slightly less than blindingly obvious. We can work with this... Solo," he snapped, "what was that idea you mentioned a few minutes ago?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah. I just thought we might be able to get some short help on this one."
"Short help?" Luke asked, as a memory of another time Han had used that term came to mind. "You don't mean..."
"Huh? Oh... No! No, not THAT kind," Han eagerly insisted, finally catching Luke's drift. "No, I meant the Noghri."
"Noghri... perfect," Karrde muttered. "She may know of them, but I seriously doubt Daala actually knows them. This could work..."
"But they're sure to be detected," Han said. "Even if we could take control of the shuttle and 'convince' the pilot to cooperate, they still might run a scan just in case, and Noghri don't register anything like a human. Kind of a big tip off, you know?"
"No problem there," Karrde assured. "Ghent's got a fascinating array of devices for giving false scans. And he's already been working on a limited slicing program that'll work on most Imperial systems. A little help from Mara on that one, I think."
"But can we get it all together and sneak in into Nerraw in 5 days?"
"I think it can be arranged. Ghent is actually closer than you think. He's been working on this stuff harder than I've ever seen him work, and I'm sure you know how he usually gets."
"I know he had a tendency to skip meals and lose sleep."
"I don't think he's slept in two weeks, and I haven't the faintest idea how he's getting his nourishment. He figures he owes Mara his life, and he's basically obsessed with it. It wouldn't surprise me if the next thing he does is slice into Daala's computer systems and change her official rank to private 4th class," Karrde replied, a shiver abruptly running down his spine. "A slicer's life-debt just might be the only thing more frightening than a Wookie's."
"So, then, what's the plan?" Luke asked, eager to get back to business. Interestingly enough, his voice seemed to have lost that morose edge of late, and a new feeling of hope and purpose had crept back in.
"First of all," Karrde said, pacing the floor in thought. "I'll need to borrow your astromech. Ghent can download his programs into its memory. His programs weren't designed to slice ten year old systems, but I seriously doubt that's what we're going to find, anyway. Besides, I hear that R2 unit did well enough on the first Death Star without any special programming."
"True enough," Luke answered. "What else?"
"Solo, how soon can you get a Noghri team together?"
"By tomorrow, easily."
"Um, if I might point something out?" Torve interrupted.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Torve," Karrde replied. "Yes, go ahead."
"Yeah, thanks. I just thought I'd mention that, last I knew, those Noghri didn't seem to like Mara all that much. Well, not enough to chase after her like this. At least, that's the impression I got."
"Well..." Han answered, pondering what possible ring of gossip led to that conclusion, "I'm not sure I'd put it that way. In fact..." he started, but then shook his head. "Oh, never mind. I know a way to motivate them. Trust me."
"Fair enough," Karrde replied. "I assume you're taking the Falcon?"
"Good, that ought to give us a little more time to prepare. Let's see..." he trailed off, closing his eyes in thought. "Coruscant to Yenwod, meeting in five days... should take... four to get there on commercial flights... Falcon could do it in... three?"
"Sounds right," Han confirmed.
"The hyperdrive is working, right?"
"Yes, the hyperdrive is working," a slightly annoyed Han droned. "Why does everyone always have to ask me that?"
"All right," Karrde continued, treating it as a rhetorical question. "Let's meet at the outermost planet of the Yenwod system in 4 days. Ghent ought to have the programming for the R2 unit done and the sensor filters ready by then. You get the Noghri rounded up. I assume that both of you are going?"
"Can't let the kid go in by himself, can I?" Han answered, getting a dirty look from Luke.
"Fine. Then if you'll lend me your droid..."
"Sure. Artoo?" Luke said.
A beep came from a corner of the room, a sarcastic-sounding beep that Han could have sworn he could understand as, "Oh, am I in this conversation?"
"I want you to go with Karrde. He's going to load some programming into you, and I want you to let him. Understand?"
Artoo popped out his third leg and rolled out of the corner toward Karrde, beeping something that most likely translated as, "Yeah, sure, whatever."
"Four days, then," Karrde said as he, Torve, and Artoo headed toward the door.
"Solo, Skywalker," Torve could be heard muttering as he left, "Mara, a mob of Noghri... and Ghent. Man, I'd hate to be in Daala's shoes."