Far below, the darkening surface of the planet sparkled. Bright flashes of red, yellow, orange, even pure white danced across a small section of the hemisphere. Further out, there were bright red, snaking lines of light, encircling the glittering center. Occasionally, a larger area would illuminate, blooming like some exotic flower, only to wilt away swiftly.
If he didn't know any better, Pellaeon might have found it beautiful.
The Noghri deserved it. No doubt there. Pellaeon himself had planned to wipe them out with a massive attack ever since the betrayal at Bilbringi and Wayland. Actually, even before that. However, he had always figured it would happen from space, with a fierce bombardment from the capital ships, in a sense, saying, "you're not important enough for us to even look at." Besides, the Noghri certainly didn't rate the honor of a hand to hand fight. At least, as close as Imperial AT-ATs came to being "hand-to-hand." But such a decision was not his to make. Not with Thrawn back in charge.
In his typical manner, Thrawn had acted in a way that Pellaeon could never have anticipated. Thrawn did not, to Pellaeon's relief, order columns of ground troops to massacre the Noghri face to face. However, neither did he conduct the nice, clean standoff bombardment that Pellaeon favored. A third stated option, the use of some exceptionally frightening chemical agents developed in the Maw, was dismissed immediately, as was Lieutenant Commander Daala for even suggesting it.
No, Thrawn had done something to straddle the lines between all of these options. A very visible attack that the Noghri could possibly defend against - if they still had the means to do so... and with their air and space weaponry negated in the first moments, they didn't. It was like tormenting a chained animal. Pellaeon feared what would happen if that chain were to break.
Though he did not attack with individual weapons of mass destruction, the sheer quantity of firepower being delivered was close enough. Even now, the fires were searing across the kholm-grass plains of Honoghr, well on their way to leaving the entire world with a charred black surface. What scared Pellaeon the most was how much Thrawn was enjoying it.
The Grand Admiral still stood at the viewport as he had since morning, almost without interruption. How he could keep on watching that, Pellaeon couldn't fathom. Even the megalomaniacal Daala had long since returned to her quarters, having watched a grand total of less than an hour of the operation following her "Admiral" act. Pellaeon actually shuddered at the thought of what would happen to her if by some chance some Noghri elsewhere managed to see her transmission. As he pondered why he was suddenly sympathizing with that wretched woman, he realized it was probably due to the fact that his own neck was now third in line for the Noghri chopping block.
To make matters worse, the person who was second in line (unless the Noghri found out about him first, that is) seemed to be having the time of his life. Could he actually see something artistic in that inferno?
No, Pellaeon decided at last. He had never seen Thrawn get as excited about art as he was now. A grin had been glued to Thrawn's face almost all day, and his glowing red eyes pulsated with every heartbeat. At least, that's the best explanation Pellaeon could come up with.
He glanced around, noting that the bridge crew had been professionally going about their tasks. Good. It would certainly not do well for anyone aboard the Chimaera to take notice of the Admiral's uncharacteristic lack of total discipline. Especially the nervous tick he appeared to have developed. The tick that coincided with each planetside explosion far too well to truthfully be described as "nervous."
It was his fault, he belatedly realized. When he had re-trained Thrawn, he had gone out of his way to instill a distrust of the Noghri in the Admiral. After all, he had told Thrawn years ago that the Noghri couldn't be trusted, but he wouldn't listen, and look what it got him. Unfortunately, it was now obvious that he had gone too far out of his way, as that "distrust" had developed into an irrational hatred for the species and anything related to them.
The destruction of Honoghr was, by now, essentially complete. The last attack wave would be returning soon, and Pellaeon longed to get back to more important issues. Certainly Thrawn had worked this out of his system by now. In fact, with the Admiral in such an obviously good mood, now would be a good time to suggest it.
"Lieutenant Maril!" Thrawn said sharply, abruptly turning from the viewport to the crew pit.
"Yes, sir?" the comm officer asked as the Admiral stepped toward his station.
"Lieutenant, I see the last wave has completed their attack."
"That is correct, sir. The flight commanders all report mission accomplished."
"Excellent. Excellent indeed."
"Do you have a message for them, sir?"
Pellaeon's jaw nearly dropped when, rather than the expected, "Job well done" message, Thrawn instead said, "Prepare for the next wave."
"Solo! A word with you!"
Han had been in a hurry to get back to Luke's suite, but nevertheless turned toward the voice that had addressed him.
"Glad I caught you!" Senator Bel Iblis said, slightly out of breath. "I knew getting back into politics was going to be bad for my health, but I never expected it to be so soon," he grinned at his fellow Corellian. A grin that was clearly nothing more than an attempt to throw a little cheer into what was otherwise one of the bleakest situations he had faced in a long time. "To the point, though," he said, the smile gone as his face took on a deathly serious expression. "Leia says you and Skywalker might have a lead on the Sun Crusher."
"Well, yes, sort of," Han stuttered. Why had Leia told him? "It's not exactly something that's supposed to be spread around, though."
"So she said," the elder statesman nodded. "It goes no further. Trust me."
"I... of course," Han said. He knew he could trust Bel Iblis.
"I don't exactly like the idea of just the two of you going off to meet with Admiral Daala like that, though. She's up to something."
"Obviously. Don't worry, sir, we'll be careful."
"I think it would be best if we coordinated our efforts, Solo. We've been studying the Sun Crusher situation, and have come up with some of what, we feel, are reasonable conclusions. It would be extremely beneficial if we could check these against what she tells you. See what is confirmed and denied. What she does and doesn't want you to know. Ideally, if you could bring her back here with you."
"Oh sure," Han said sarcastically.
"If anyone could do it, I'm know you and Skywalker could," he replied with a sardonic grin. "But I don't really expect it. Still, this could be the breakthrough we need. General Antilles has just placed Rogue Squadron at our disposal for the Sun Crusher hunt. If we could discover a weakness in the blasted thing, we'd have a chance. And with the death of Dr. Qwi Xux, Admiral Daala or one of her Maw scientists is the only way we've got to discover what it is."
"Like I said, we'll see. Now, exactly what do you want me to do, sir?"
"I have all the data ready to send with you. All you need to do is study it while en route, and keep it in mind during your meeting with Daala. Try to see the cards she's holding, but don't give away any of our hand. So, will you do it?"
"That's it?" Han answered, not quite believing it. "Just study the data?"
"That's it. So?"
"Sure. I'll do it."
"Great!" Bel Iblis said, as if it were the first good news he'd had in a month. Which it probably was. "I'll send the data to Leia right away. Be sure to check in with her before you leave."
"You don't have to worry about that, sir."
Scattered across the Chimaera's view of space only a few of the strike craft could still be seen, in marked contrast to the enormous wings of them earlier in the day. The stretched, but clearly TIE-derived shapes of Scimitar Mark II assault bombers zipped past the Star Destroyer's bridge in groups of four, close enough to make out the additional gunnery positions that distinguished them - at least externally - from the Mark I. For this mission, however, the enhanced defenses proved superfluous. As had the scattered escorting TIE fighters.
Meanwhile, the Escort Carriers were tractoring in earlier arrivals, generally keeping up with an appropriate pace of recovery. The bulky but lightly armed ships huddled together in the middle of the fleet formation, allowing the more potent Star Destroyers to surround and protect them from any potential attack. Though that precaution, too, had proved redundant.
The few thousand... or perhaps it was only hundred... Noghri never knew what hit them. The first attack had come at Nystao daybreak, a complete surprise to the die-hard residents. Now, a full Honoghr day later, the last wave of Scimitar II bombers were headed back to their Escort Carriers and Star Destroyers with the orbiting Imperial task force.
Captain Pellaeon leaned forward, his face nearly touching the screen, as he tried to make out the details of the latest target zone observation transmission. Though fuzzy and heavily obscured by smoke, the early morning sunlight broke through enough to see that the effectiveness of the strikes was not in doubt. All significant buildings - and many of the insignificant ones - had taken direct bomb hits, and the city had been burning out of control since the first strike of the day.
The attack had gone, incredibly, exactly according to the best-case-scenario. The spyships had knocked out the entire early warning and interstellar communication facilities right on schedule, and with a precision unrivaled in all the campaigns he had ever served in. Of the nearly two hundred fifty Scimitar II bombers that had been launched, multiple times, only two had been lost, both due to mechanical difficulties, possibly caused by smoke contamination, and not enemy action. One escorting TIE Fighter had gone down for the same reason. In fact, there had been no enemy action whatsoever. With the crews being safely picked up by search and rescue, the loss in manpower was zero. A few TIEs had been damaged in launch and recovery mishaps, even one in the Chimaera itself, but nothing serious there, either.
Pellaeon knew all along that it would be a seriously one-sided fight, but had expected that the Noghri would put up at least a little bit of resistance. They hadn't. And this was bothering him.
Thrawn, on the other hand, was beaming with pleasure. Few, if any, of the Chimaera's crew could remember ever seeing the Grand Admiral so satisfied.
"Admiral, sir!" a communications officer interrupted, having just come up from the crew pit.
Thrawn gazed out the viewport for a moment longer before responding. The nearly uniform brown world of Honoghr had become a charred orb, its atmosphere a thick black cloud hanging over a large enough area to be visible from space. Though the attacks had now ceased, the smudge continued to grow larger, though less dark, as prevailing winds carried it from its sources in the fires that still raged in Nystao and the scattered smaller settlements.
"Yes," he said at last, turning reluctantly from the viewport. "What is it?"
"Sir, the Corsair reports the last Scimitars have been recovered. They are awaiting your orders."
"Are there any other ships' squadrons still out, Lieutenant?"
"No, sir. The Corsair is the last. But there are still some escorting TIEs out there."
"Hmm..." Thrawn mumbled as he turned back toward the viewport. "Captain, a word with you?"
Pellaeon cautiously strode toward Thrawn, joining the Admiral as he studied the carnage below with a disturbingly intense interest. "Yes, sir?"
"Captain," Thrawn started, not actually looking at him. "I am quite pleased with the performance of this strike. However, I am undecided... shall I launch another wave?"
"Sir?" Pellaeon asked, surprised by such a question. Thrawn, undecided? "It's not my decision to make..."
"No, it remains my decision. I merely ask whether or not, in your opinion, another wave is warranted?"
"In that case, sir, I believe..." Pellaeon trailed off, pondering the situation. Why in space was Thrawn asking him this? Could it be that he actually was having trouble deciding... no, that was ridiculous. Yet, the mere fact that they were all here at Honoghr in the first place... Enough, he scolded himself. The Grand Admiral has asked a question.
"I'm waiting," Thrawn intoned.
"Oh, yes, sir, I..." he trailed off again, trying to piece together his thoughts. Considering the general success rate of the mission, the lack of resistance, and the severe overkill applied...
"No, sir, I don't believe another wave is warranted. We've already launched four waves since the last clear signs of life were extinguished. Any more is a waste of firepower on what is already nothing but rubble." In fact, he had been thinking that about all four of those raids.
"I suppose you're right, Captain. Another wave won't accomplish anything more. Lieutenant!"
"Sir!" the lieutenant barked out from behind them.
"Signal all ships. Tell them to begin recovering all escorting fighters, and prepare for hyperspace. I will designate our destination when they have finished."
"Yes, sir!" the lieutenant replied, then turned away sharply and returned to his station to carry out the order.
"If I may ask, sir, what are we doing next?"
"The Chimaera is scheduled to pick up supplies in two days, is it not, Captain?"
"I... believe so, sir." He stepped over to a computer station. Thrawn, conveniently, followed. "Yes, here it is. A stop-off in the Icu system, plus some scheduled shore leave for the crew. The Inexorable and Stormhawk are also scheduled to be there. They are on-schedule, but I had assumed that we wouldn't be making it, with this operation we've just concluded. I hadn't really thought about it since you announced this Honoghr raid." Of all the things Thrawn somehow managed to remember...
"No, the Chimaera will be there. The crew has certainly earned some time off. I, however, will be paying a visit to the Boelis system."
"Sir?" Pellaeon asked, a puzzled expression on his face. "May I ask why?"
"As you may or may not know, Boelis was recently visited by the Sun Crusher. The encounter with the lunatic who possesses it resulted in the death of the planetary governor, along with several other high-level bureaucrats. That in itself is not of particularly great concern to me. However, I have an operative on the planet, who has given me some very interesting news."
"If it was concerning the death of that lunatic, sir, I'm afraid he's mistaken. I know about the Boelis attack, but I also know that he's more recently been sighted on a space station in the Pelten system."
"True. But what my informant has for me is nothing of the kind. He has, in fact, planted a tracking device on the Sun Crusher itself. I need to go there to receive the tracker from him."
"A tracking device?" Pellaeon gasped. "That could put an end to that scourge! What took him so long to tell you about this?"
"Nothing, actually. He was quite prompt with his report. Until now, however, I have been concerning myself with more pressing matters."
More pressing matters? Pellaeon thought in horrified silence. The Yavin operation was certainly important, albeit a total flop. But this raid - no, make that pointless slaughter - on Honoghr certainly did not count, in his estimation, as a "more pressing matter" than stopping a madman from blowing up stars and killing Imperial officers and officials, not to mention troops, at his whimsy. However, here, on the Chimaera's bridge, was not the place to be discussing it.
"At any rate, Captain," Thrawn continued, "between the Inexorable and Stormhawk, which is most overdue for leave time?"
"What?" Pellaeon asked, his frame of thought having been abruptly broken. "Oh, yes." he said, belatedly comprehending what he had just been asked. He entered some commands into the computer, calling up duty lists for the two ships. After a minute, he had what he wanted.
"The Stormhawk has been on constant duty for a full eight months since her last significant down time. Inexorable, on the other hand, has only been on-duty for a little over four months. Although," he pointed out as an aside, "several of our spyships have been on-station longer than either of them."
"And they will receive leave time in due course. For the moment, however, make preparations to transfer my flag to the Inexorable. It shall be my flagship for the Boelis journey, until I rendezvous with the Chimaera again at Icu."
"As you wish, sir," Pellaeon answered, a slight waver in his voice.
"Is there a problem, Captain?"
"No... no problem sir. It's just that... with your permission, sir, I'd like to accompany you to Boelis."
"But Captain, you've more than earned your own leave time as well. Are you sure you don't want it?"
"I... I have a... friend on Boelis, sir," Pellaeon lied nervously.
The obvious nervousness apparently worked to his advantage. "Ah..." Thrawn responded with a slight smile, his voice with the inflection of acknowledging the desire to keep a secret. "In that case, I welcome your company on the journey. And we shall make certain you have adequate time to visit this 'friend' of yours."
"Thank you, sir," Pellaeon answered without making eye contact. It had worked, and if the Admiral wanted to think about it that way, he was welcome to, just as long as he never caught on that the real reason was nothing more than the desire to keep an eye on him. A pity though, Pellaeon thought with a silent sigh of loneliness, that he didn't actually have a 'friend' on Boelis. Or, for that matter, anywhere else.
"Captain, I'll be in my quarters if I'm needed. Otherwise, keep me informed of our status. Signal the Inexorable with the change in orders, and make best speed to Icu. Also, prepare for me an after-action report on today's battle. I want to know all the details."
"Yes, sir. Any other orders, sir?"
"None at the moment, Captain. Although..." he trailed off briefly, deep in thought. "No. Skywalker will be fine where she is. However, I believe I shall pay her another visit before our departure. For now, Captain, you have your orders." With that, he turned away and headed toward the turbolift.
"Yes sir," Pellaeon answered, swallowing hard to push down the bile that had been rising with his doubts and fears.
Though he had expected it, the sight still frightened him. Luke's suite was darkened, with shadowy figures everywhere. Though he probably knew each of the Noghri here by name, they were still unsettling.
"Glad you could make it," Luke said as Han entered.
"Yeah, well, there's not much time left. Especially not with Senator Bel Iblis giving me errands."
"I'll tell you later. So, how's it going? Are they going to help the 'Son of Vader'?"
"We are always honored to serve the Son of Vader, Han clan Solo," one of the Noghri replied, nearly startling Han.
"I'm trying to ask for their help without using that reason, Han," Luke said in a hushed voice. "The sooner they stop their Vader worship, the better."
"I know, but now is not the time for splitting hairs, kid."
"But... no, you're right. I just feel like I'm taking advantage of them."
"We are honored to serve the Son of Vader by choice," a different Noghri assured. "For the Son of Vader and the Lady Vader have done much for the Noghri. Even more than did the Lord Vader before them."
"Thank you, Takh'nir," Luke said uneasily, unable to think of any better way to respond.
"What then is the task, Son of Vader?"
"I need your help to rescue someone held by the Empire," he said with a sigh of sorrow. "It will be dangerous."
"We do not fear the Empire. The Son of Vader will always succeed in his endeavors."
Luke swallowed hard. Yes, it was flattering, but if they only knew the truth.
"Who are we to rescue?"
"Well, I..." Luke started, then took a deep breath, and started over. "A very good friend... some of you know her, she's..."
"Luke," Han cut in. "Just tell them. If you want them to keep it a secret, they will."
"She's my... my..." he paused a moment, considering his words. Perhaps even choking back a tear. He looked at Han briefly, and the word he was looking for finally came to him. "She's my... consort, I guess you'd say."
Han grimaced. 'Consort of the Son of Vader'? Yeah, Mara's going to LOVE that.
"And you wish your consort to remain secret, Son of Vader?"
"It's not exactly like that," Luke said, realizing just how confusing this must be for the Noghri. "But for now, yes. Please."
"We understand," the Noghri answered, leaving Luke wondering just what exactly the Noghri understood. "We will help the Son of Vader to rescue his consort."
"Thank you," Luke said with a sigh of relief.
"How are we to know your consort? Do you have anything we can use to track her?"
"Track her? Oh, you mean by her scent?"
"Yes. Do you have anything of hers we can use?"
"I don't think I have..." Luke started. "Oh, wait... yes I do. I... I'll go get it," he finished, brushing past Han toward his bedroom.
Strange, Han thought. Was he blushing?
"Luke, I'm going to swing by home, then I'll meet you at the Falcon. Will you be all right until then?"
He thought he heard a grunted affirmative, then left.
"Oh, Han! I was beginning to worry!"
"What's the matter, sweetheart?" Han replied with one of his patented sly grins. "Afraid I'd skip the planet without saying good-bye?"
"No, never," she said from the comfort of his embrace. "The guards have standing orders to prevent you from doing that."
"I was just afraid Senator Bel Iblis might have been a bit too forward."
"He was blunt." Han muttered, not sure what she was getting at. "But that's understandable."
"Of course. Well, he's here already, and says he's ready to go immediately."
"He?! Now wait a minute!" Han blurted out, taking a step back from Leia. "Bel Iblis didn't say anything about coming along himself!"
"Han," Leia urged. "Calm down! Of course, the senator isn't here. It's only the droid he's sending with you!"
"Droid?" he repeated slowly, with a biting tone that made it sound like the situation had just gotten far worse. "What droid?"
"The droid Senator Bel Iblis is sending with you. G-2M0, come here, please."
"He never said anything about a droid."
"Garm called about a half hour ago, and said everything was all right by you, then he sent G-2M0 up."
"He never said anything about a droid!"
Just then, G-2M0 entered the room. "Yes, your Highness?"
"Oh, no. No way. This has got to be a joke."
"There is nothing humorous about this situation, sir," the droid chimed in, it's voice not as prissy as Threepio's, but much more haughty. "...and the term "has got" is an improper grammatical construction, reflective of an unrefined upbringing."
Han merely glared at the droid.
"Garm said he discussed this with you, Han."
"He did not! He only said... oh, no... he wouldn't..." Han swallowed hard, then turned back to the gold and silver droid. "You... you wouldn't happen to know anything about a certain... weapon, would you?"
"Of course I do, sir," the droid answered dryly. "Why else would I be here?"
"He really didn't tell you this, did he?" Leia asked sympathetically. Or perhaps she was mocking sympathy.
"You wouldn't have agreed otherwise, would you?"
"Please Han, just take him. There's no time for petty squabbling."
"Yeah, you're right," he sighed in resignation. He embraced Leia again. "There'll be plenty of time in hyperspace for that," he said with a smug grin.
"But right now," he said, his grin getting bigger and his eyes motioning in a particular direction, "is the only time we have."
A tap on his shoulder broke the mood.
"Sir, I am afraid there is no time for this."
At least Threepio had the excuse of being excited and not thinking clearly. This droid's dry, all-business voice was downright condescending.
"I say there is," Han replied firmly.
"I maintain that there is not," G-2M0 retorted, equally firmly.
"Now listen here, you."
"Enough, Han," Leia sighed. "Look, it would be best if you did just go. I know," she persisted, as he was about to interrupt, "I know how you feel. I feel the same way. We never have enough time together between emergencies, do we? But he's right. You only have ten minutes before you have to meet Luke at the Falcon. There's no time now. But there was last night."
"That's true," Han said with a smirk. "But there would've been time if you," he said, turning suddenly to the droid "hadn't made such a mess of things."
"I had nothing to do with it," G-2M0 answered. "I am not the one with an irrational hatred of automatons and a barbaric temper, not to mention..."
"That's enough, G-2M0," Leia ordered, luckily succeeding to silence the droid before Han did it permanently.
"But I AM saying good bye to my kids."
A fierce glare from Han and a subtler shaking of Leia's head convinced him to remain silent. He huffed and turned his back on them. If a droid could roll his eyes, G-2M0 certainly would have. In fact, Han could have sworn he did.
The voice stopped Luke dead in his tracks. Of all the wrong times and places...
Before he even started to turn and face his former student, the Noghri walking with him asked quietly, "Is there a problem, Son of Vader? Shall I..."
"No, it's fine, Elkh'nimh. Go on ahead, and tell the others to finish loading the Falcon and get aboard."
"As you wish, Son of Vader," Elkh'nimh answered with a bow.
As the Noghri hurried along, Luke finally turned toward the person who had called him. No, make that people.
"Kam, Streen, what are you doing here?"
"Master, we know you are about to leave on an important mission. We have come to ask that you bring us with you."
"How... did you arrive at that conclusion?" Luke asked, a terrible sinking feeling coming over his entire body.
"It's very obvious from your behavior," Kam replied.
"You've been secretive," the soft voice of Streen confirmed.
"Secretive. I see. And how long have you been watching me?"
"Ever since we came to Coruscant. It's about Jade, isn't it?"
Luke almost choked. "Wh... why do you say that?" he barely managed to mock disbelief.
"That's obvious, too. After that 'rescue,' stunt she pulled with you, she disappears. Then you and Solo disappear for weeks. Now, still no Jade, and you're obviously leaving again."
"I'm not sure where you're going with this," Luke responded, his unease slipping through despite his best efforts to contain it. "But at least tell me why you want to come along."
"To help," Streen almost whispered. "And train."
"Now look, I told you all," Luke said in frustration, "training is on hold for everyone. I need to get certain things straightened out first."
"Exactly," Kam said triumphantly. "Which is why we're here. We can help you clear up those matters, so you can resume teaching."
"Ah ha. So that's it, isn't it?" Luke sighed. "There's a lot more to it than that, Kam. But there's no time to get into it now. Please, go home. Let me go about my business."
"So you won't let us come, then?"
"That's right. You're not ready for this."
Streen hung his head, sadly accepting his Master's judgment. Kam, however, did not.
"Master, I understand how you feel."
"Oh, you do," Luke bit out, then mentally scolded himself for letting his anger start rising.
"Yes, I do. I know it's embarrassing for you to have been deceived that way, but it wasn't just you. She made fools of us all."
"Except Kam," Streen pointed out quickly. "He knew."
"Knew?" Luke gasped in actual disbelief. "Knew what?"
"That she put him up to it," the aged prospector answered.
"Put who up to what? What are you talking about?"
"Kyp, of course," Kam took over. "She let him steal her ship, then arranged for him to get the Sun Crusher. An intricate plan, and well executed. But now that we know what she's up to, we can put a stop to it!"
"Why do you..." Luke sighed heavily, then more calmly rephrased, "Why would Mara do such a thing, Kam?"
"To restore the Empire. To make herself Empress in Palpatine's place."
"She doesn't want that, Kam. She isn't like that. At least, not any more."
"Master Skywalker, I really do understand," Kam offered, his voice suddenly taking on a much softer, humble tone. "You told us all about how you saved your father from the Dark Side, only to see him die in the same instant. Since then, you have striven to rescue the prisoners of the Dark. You saved me, for which I am eternally grateful. You want to save Kyp. But more than anything else, you want to save Mara."
Luke wanted to say something, but couldn't. The surprisingly earnest, even emotional, quality of these words taking him by surprise. Not to mention the truth in them.
"After all," Kam continued, after a brief pause, "she is just like your father, in a way. A close associate of the Emperor himself. His "Hand," as I recall. You desperately want to bring her to the light, and help her survive. To achieve that total success that tragically slipped through your fingers at Endor."
Kam paused again, taking a slow, deep breath and letting it out before continuing.
"And I think you might..." he swallowed hard. "Master, please forgive me if I'm mistaken, but I think you might even have some feelings for her." Unfortunately, a hint of his distaste could still be detected. "However," he said, taking a deep breath and girding himself for the hard part, "not all Dark Siders can be saved. Sometimes, no matter how much you yearn for it, it can not be done. I'm afraid Mara is one of those cases."
"Is that so..." Luke said, starting to regain his bearings in this conversation.
"Yes, Master Skywalker. You want to save her so much that you overlook the danger she represents. You don't want to give up on her, but Master, you must face reality. You care so much that this is hard for you. That is why I am here."
What was that last bit? Was Kam actually proposing...
"No... no, I don't believe what I'm hearing. You think..."
"Yes," Kam nodded, his voice still frighteningly earnest. "I think I can take Jade down. Or, at least, help you do it. And perhaps break the influence she has over Kyp."
"You... you will do nothing of the sort!" Luke half shouted, belatedly realizing that this darkened hallway of the Imperial palace wasn't exactly the best place to be discussing this. Not that they had given him much choice in setting. Blast, if only the hidden tunnels connected directly with his own room. "Look, Mara just so happens to be... she's..." He drew in, then slowly let out a deep breath. "She's not what you think."
"But then what..."
"Just drop it, all right?"
"But Master, if she..."
"Leave Mara alone. And stop calling me Master."
He waited a few moments to cool down. No, scolding them wasn't right. Kam didn't like Mara as a person, that was clear enough; but like it or not, he did have a point... given the incomplete picture he had.
"Look, Kam, there is more going on here than you know. I will explain it when the time is right. But until then, just leave it be. Now go. I have a job to do."
With that, Luke strode away. Fortunately for him, he had finally managed to intimidate Kam enough to prevent him from following. At least for now.
"What's keeping him?" Han muttered, squinting against the darkness as he searched, as of yet in vain, for his brother-in-law.
"The Son of Vader was delayed by two of his students," Elkh'nimh answered from further up the Falcon's entry ramp. "We were instructed to proceed without him."
"Great," Han grumbled. "I knew something like this would happen."
"Shall I go back for him, Han clan Solo?"
He considered it for a moment, but then shook his head slightly. "No, he'll be here. I know what he's doing. I just hope he's not making matters worse."
"He appeared to be confident when he sent us away."
"Yeah," Han sighed. "I'm sure he did."
Han trudged back in to the Falcon, figuring on running another pre-flight check. Unfortunately, he ran into an impatient droid first.
"Captain Solo," a firm voice greeted him. "Need I remind you that time is of the essence? While I fully appreciate the honor inherent in being accompanied by the great Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, I assure you that this mission is important enough to the fate of the Republic to forego that honor."
A clang resounded through the Falcon, and maybe even the hangar, as Han shoved G-2M0 against the nearest bulkhead. "Listen Shiny, we don't leave 'till Luke gets here. Got it?"
"Captain, I understand that you have a familial interest in bringing the Master along," the droid said in a tone far more calm than Threepio ever managed. "I, of all droids, understand nepotism. However," his voice became even more calm. Almost... icy. Almost... threatening. "This is neither the time nor place for it."
"That's it, "Han seethed. Wrapping the fingers of one hand around the droid's torso plate at the neck socket, he hoisted the droid several centimeters into the air, slamming him into the bulkhead again. "I'm not quite sure what you just said, but I ain't takin' it."
"Han clan Solo!" an urgent voice interrupted.
He turned to face the perplexed pair of Noghri. "What?"
"We... we heard you shouting. Do you..." the Noghri slowly turned his head to look at the droid, then back to Han "...require assistance?"
"I fear Captain Solo has lost control of his emotions. In his current condition, he is unfit to conduct this mission."
"You shut up," Han snapped. "No," he said to the Noghri. "I can take him apart myself."
"You, sir, shall do no such thing!"
"Oh yeah? Just watch me!"
"Han! What are you doing?"
Han turned to see Luke staring at him and the droid in not-quite disbelief. "Luke! It's about time."
"Indeed it is," G-2M0 snorted. "Might we depart now?"
He was about to respond, but Luke cut him off. "Han, just let him down."
"The captain is incapable of detaining me much longer at any rate," the droid said, idly looking in another direction.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?"
The droid sighed. "Merely the fact that your arm is about to collapse under the weight. Captain."
"What..." Han started, then realized the droid was right. In fact, now that he noticed it, a cramp was starting to develop. With a huff, he let go of the droid, but wasn't rewarded with hearing him clatter to the ground, as he managed to remain upright.
"Vile barbarian. I can not fathom what Her Royal Highness sees in you."
"Han," Luke cut in again. "Just take off. No," he scolded as Han opened his mouth, "just take off. It's not worth the effort."
"I quite agree, Master Skywalker."
"You go to the passenger compartment, and stay there. Please," Luke added as an afterthought.
"Well, since you asked nicely, I shall comply. He," G-2M0 jerked his head in Han's direction, "could certainly do with a few lessons in manners from you."
Han muttered something vile under his breath, but thankfully, the droid didn't turn around to make any more snide remarks.
"Never thought I'd miss Goldenrod..." he mumbled as he strode to the cockpit. He slipped into his chair, with Luke taking Chewbacca's usual seat. Even before he was fully seated, Han was working the Falcon's controls.
"So..." Luke asked, with a casual glance back over his shoulder. "Who was that, and what's he doing here?"
"Bel Iblis's sick idea of a joke, that's what he is." Han pulled back on the repulsor lever, causing the Falcon to rise, not quite evenly, from the hangar deck. "G-2M0 is his designation, but don't call him 'Toomo.' He hates it. Though now that I think of it..."
"Han," Luke said with a mock-scolding tone, "you know you're only making it worse."
"Don't know how it could get much worse," Han retorted idly, reaching up to flip a couple of switches. He then steered the Falcon into a quick rotation, and sent her racing toward space.
The buildings of Coruscant zipped past the cockpit windows in a smear of grays. Once above the line of structures and into "open" air, there came the deceptive feeling of flying slower, with things so distant not moving by nearly as fast. All around, inbound and outbound starships moved along their flight plans, while seemingly endless lines of airspeeders crisscrossed the immense cityscape in what seemed to be a perfectly choreographed dance.
That choreography could be a bit too intoxicating, however. It was fortunate that Han looked forward again just when he did, else the Falcon might have become another statistic.
Though he was flying his proper course, the inbound shuttle obviously wasn't. He veered hard to starboard just in the nick of time to dodge, then managed to miraculously jerk the Falcon back to port just before sideswiping an outbound Star Yacht.
"What..." he gasped, trying to regain his breath. "What was that lunatic thinking?"
"Han," Luke said, his voice taking on a soft and contemplative tone.
"Can you believe that guy?" he raved on, ignoring Luke. "Full throttle, on MY vector, and he has the nerve to flash his lights at ME?"
"Han," Luke said again, slightly more authoritatively. "There's something about that shuttle."
"You're telling me. You see any registration markings on him?"
"No, but... never mind," Luke answered, staring out the side of the canopy as the blue sky started turning the black of space. "I thought I felt... something."
"No, not danger. More like..." He paused, trying to choose his words. "I don't know," he conceded. "It's gone now."
The two sat in silence for several minutes as the Falcon rapidly closed on her hyperspace jump point, clear of both Coruscant's gravity well and the orbital traffic. After what had seemed an eternity, Han finally pulled the hyperspace levers. Outside, the stars stretched into endless lines as the Millennium Falcon made the jump to lightspeed.
Han sighed heavily and leaned back in his seat.
"Well," Luke whispered, "now all we can do is wait."
"Right," Han bit out sarcastically, sitting upright. "Don't you have some things to discuss with our mob of accomplices back there?"
"Yes, I know. I didn't mean it that way."
"Luke," Han cut in, his voice mischievous. "You know you're only making it worse."
"Hey, no problem," Han replied, leaning back again. "Just pointing out the obvious."
"Sometimes, I need it."
"Yeah. You can say that again."
An unexpected tapping on the door broke up the conversation. Han sat up and keyed the door open. One of the Noghri, he wasn't quite sure which, stepped in.
"What is it?" Han asked.
"Han clan Solo," the Noghri replied, "the droid G-2M0 wishes me to inform you that he has been badly dented, and requires you to repair him. He claims that your poor piloting is at fault."
"Repair him? Why that..." An evil grin spread across Han's face. "Sure, I'll repair him. Just you wait, Toomo, I'll fix you good..."
"Han," Luke urged. "Easy."
"Oh, uh, right," Han said, then took a deep breath before turning back to the Noghri. "Well, I suppose it could be worse. Anything else?"
"General Calrissian requested that you, in his words, 'Treat his ship better, or he will take it back.'"
"Well, you can tell Lando that... wait a second! You mean that Lando is..."
She'd been expecting it. She was always expecting it. So when she saw it was Thrawn coming through the door, she merely grunted and went back to what she was doing. This time, it was writing a particularly scathing behind-the-scenes history of the Imperial high command.
"So, Mara Skywalker, I see you've gotten comfortable in your cell."
"Oh, yeah," she replied, giving Thrawn and Pellaeon a bored glance. "It's a regular slice of heaven."
Pellaeon, for his part, was silently surveying the cell, his mouth slightly open. Probably wondering just what she had done to the largest cell on the Chimaera. Mara allowed herself a subtle smirk. The cell hardly looked like one. A comfortable mattress had been set on top of the cold metal slab that served as a bed for ordinary prisoners. Some frilly curtains hung where windows might have been in an ordinary room in an ordinary house - frilly not so much because she liked things "frilly," but more for the embarrassment it was sure to cause her guards in obtaining it. Mara herself was currently sitting in a rather large, padded chair in one corner of the cell, a real wooden desk in front of her upon which her impressively large clamshell-type datapad rest. In the opposite corner, to the right of the doorway the Imperial officers were now standing in, was a good sized holoprojector unit. A pair of narrow tables with an odd assortment of objects on them were pushed against the open walls. The effect was overall...
"Tacky," Thrawn observed, "but if it makes you comfortable, then who am I to argue?"
"Of course, you mean 'as long as I'm not trying to escape'?"
"In not so many words," he agreed. "What, if I may ask, are you writing?"
"I..." she gasped in an imitation of embarrassment as she shut the datapad as if to shield her work from the Admiral's prying eyes, "I happen to be writing my autobiography!" Blast! she thought. I meant to say diary!
"Your... autobiography?" Thrawn repeated, with a surprisingly genuine interest. "Now that is sure to be fascinating."
"Well, yes, you'd think so," Mara agreed. "Unfortunately, since I don't remember much about my childhood, and since I had to leave out all the sensitive material that would get censored anyway, it ended up being only a page and a half long. And I really don't think you want to read about my visit to the buffet table at a Coruscant social event last year. Believe me, there's only so much I could say about the all-you-can-eat nerf ribs."
"Hmm," Thrawn grunted. "At any rate, I've come to tell you that I will not be able to visit for a while. Urgent business."
"Well, have fun. Drop me a line. Or don't." Mara smirked again when she noticed the rather nice color Pellaeon's face was turning.
"Unfortunately," Thrawn continued, his tone suggesting a reprimand, "it also means that your special privileges will be suspended until I have time again to keep track of you. So if you have any last minute requests, make them quickly."
"Sure, I'll think of something," she said, rubbing her chin contemplatively as she looked over her cell. "But I'm a bit upset with the service, I'm afraid."
"Oh?" Thrawn intoned. "You haven't been asking for anything unreasonable again, have you? Though I must confess, the 'his and hers matching E-Web set' was amusing."
"Of course not! I just wanted a bottle of paint. That's all."
"A bottle of paint? That's simple enough."
"That's what I thought. But apparently, they can't seem to find the right shade of Mantellian red."
"Admiral!" Pellaeon interrupted at last. "Hasn't this game gone on long enough? Look at this cell! And now she's getting upset over a manicure!"
"A manicure! You must be joking, Captain," Mara replied before Thrawn could open his mouth. "This is clearly neither the time nor the place for a manicure!"
"Is that so?" Pellaeon replied, finally getting drawn into the conversation. Victory! "Then why, pray tell, do you want it?"
"Simple. How do you expect me to finish building Colonel Vel Riktor's Z-95 Headhunter as of the Battle of Tanaab without the Intermediate Mantellian Red paint for the nacelle bands?" As she said this, she gestured toward one of the narrow tables, and the miniature, nearly-complete Headhunter sitting propped up on a wire.
Pellaeon didn't respond. He simply about-faced and left the room, his face nearly the right shade of red.
"Skywalker..." Thrawn said firmly, then took a deep breath, and seemed to calm down. "I'm afraid I don't have any more time to chat with you."
Red-eyes retreats, red-head wins the round! "Good. It's time for 'As Coruscant Turns' anyway. Today we get to find out if Jarek's evil double is really his twin brother..." she paused for emphasis before adding darkly, "...or just a clone."
She was sure she heard Pellaeon gag out in the hallway. Well, pretty sure. Okay, maybe she was imagining it. It definitely affected Thrawn, though.
"Enough, Skywalker. I must take my leave. But we shall definitely continue this conversation when I return."
"Have a nice trip," Mara said as she waved at the departing Imperials. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do. Well, on second thought, go right ahead."
When the door finally shut, Pellaeon could take it no more. "Sir, this is getting ridiculous! A little appeasement is one thing, but this? This has gone too far!"
"Captain," Thrawn said softly, menacingly. Pellaeon swallowed hard, realizing his loss of proper military bearing, particularly in talking back to his superior well within earshot of several guards. He braced himself mentally for the expected reprimand.
To his utter surprise, Thrawn merely said, "You're right."
"Was General Calrissian not to accompany us?"
"Not... exactly," Han muttered.
"If his presence is unwanted, we could..."
"No, it's all right, he'll be useful," he tried to assure the Noghri. He sighed as he mulled over his next words, blankly staring at the sky of hyperspace flashing past the cockpit. "You didn't know. Just... be discreet, okay?"
"Discreet? We are always discreet."
"Yes, well... I mean about..."
"The Son of Vader's consort?"
Takh'nir looked puzzled. "We have not mentioned anything to him yet. That is the purpose of this talk. However, if he does not know the purpose of this mission, how can he be anything but a hindrance to us?"
"Well, he..." Han stopped in mid sentence. This was not going to be easy. Blast those two! "Look, I'll explain it to him. You guys listen in, and don't tell him any more than I tell him, got it?"
"I... believe so."
"And don't tell that droid anything at all."
"We have no intention of speaking with the droid," Takh'nir said, pulling himself into a more upright and defiant posture. "He has insulted the Noghri people."
"How... what did he..." Han shook his head. "Never mind. Toomo's just a can of hot air."
"Can of..." the Noghri repeated, pondering the meaning of the statement. Just as Han started thinking he should either explain it or tell the alien to forget it, Takh'nir chuckled in amused comprehension. A Noghri chuckle... now there was a rare and unique sound. "Yes. Indeed. But not all his words are empty."
"What do you mean? Has he been telling you about the Sun Crusher?"
"Sun Crusher? No. However, he actually has been preparing a bill for you to cover removing the dents and polishing out the scratches you caused."
"What? Why that..." He rapped his fingers on the control panel for a moment. "Oh, just you wait, Tumor. Don't think I won't blast you into a million pieces when we get back."
Meanwhile, in the back of the Falcon...
"It is such an unparalleled relief, good sirs, to be in the company of such cultured and upstanding beings as yourselves."
Luke and Lando glanced at each other, barely able to contain themselves. One might be cultured, and the other upstanding, but not nearly the way G-2M0 meant.
"It's, uh... it's okay," Lando offered, patting the droid on the back.
"Why," G-2M0 continued, "in all my years of service to the Royal Family of Anderra I have never been treated with such disrespect from a commoner! Nor have I ever been surrounded by such a brutish looking lot of creatures!"
"But shouldn't a protocol droid," Luke replied, eyes closed and rubbing his temples, "strive to be socially graceful in any setting?"
"Certainly, Master Skywalker! Now you understand why it is so hard for me to work in such an atmosphere! Try as I might to maintain an air of dignity, I am thwarted by the crass and boorish nature of the company I am forced to keep. Obviously, the only way to get through to such vermin is to treat them with the same 'toughness' they subscribe to. That Solo is so typical of his type it's almost amusing..."
"So what you're saying..." Lando began.
"My considerable social graces are wasted in this place! Oh, to be finished with these duties on Coruscant and back at the palace of Anderra!"
"Gee, I wonder why they dumped him," Lando muttered.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing, G-2M0. Um... tough break."
"I was never meant to do such mundane tasks, with such mundane lifeforms. Why, did you know that I was specially ordered by the Crown Prince of Anderra himself?"
"Yes, you mentioned it a little while ago," Luke answered.
"Then you see that I was meant for grander things! Why must I be placed in the company of smugglers and cutthroats who are incapable of appreciating my value!"
"Yes, yes, why indeed," Luke said mock-sympathetically, moving his arm up as if to wrap it around the droid. G-2M0 didn't seem to mind, making it that much easier for Luke to flip his power off. G-2M0 abruptly slumped forward, hitting his head with a loud klang against the holotable.
"Thank you," Lando said, rolling his eyes as he stood up.
"Don't mention it," Luke replied.
"Royal house of Anderra, huh? I thought I'd seen that design somewhere."
"You mean the gold crest on his torso?"
"That's the one," Lando confirmed. "I've had a few dealings with them. Let's just say it's obvious where he gets his personality."
"Talk about your temptations of the Dark Side."
Much as Han would have loved to see G-2M0's response when the Falcon arrived at the meeting point slightly ahead of schedule, the mere thought of hearing another word out of his mouth was enough to cancel that idea. Besides that, the less Tumor knew about the whole truth, the better.
Han set the Falcon's transmitter to send a short range squawk of static on a predetermined frequency to let Karrde know they'd arrived. Before he could send it off, however, the Falcon received the same "static" it was about to send out. Han gazed out the viewport, eventually noticing the shape of the Wild Karrde not far from where the Falcon was. Early though he was, Karrde had still gotten there first.
Sending a slightly different confirmation signal, Han turned the Falcon to meet the freighter.
"I'll believe it when I see it!"
"Now, now, Calrissian," Karrde scolded. "You should know better than to doubt Ghent. Besides, the technology is well established."
"It's not the theory," the flustered Lando retorted. "It's the fact that these scramblers are the size of a gornt seed. And what's in that shell is supposed to essentially cloak a Noghri to a sensor focus. And last for three days at a time!"
"Cloak him, or make him look like something else," Karrde confirmed. "Human, Rodian, hole-in-the-wall, you name it. Of course, they can't fool the Eyeball Mark 1. They'd have to be at least twice as big, or so Ghent tells me. That just means whoever's using them needs to be discreet. They may not be Defel, but Noghri are sneaky enough."
"They're doing wonderful things with miniaturization these days, aren't they?" Han chimed in, even as he squinted at one of the tiny devices held between his fingers.
Over in another corner, Artoo twittered his own assessment of Ghent's work. He went essentially ignored, however, as no one was particularly inclined at the moment to turn G-2M0 back on even for translation purposes.
"To be honest," Torve offered, squinting at yet another one, "I'm with you, Calrissian."
"And it took Ghent how long to make them?"
"A full forty hours, Solo. And I do mean full. He did nothing else the whole time. He's quite dedicated to this cause," Karrde answered with a grin that ever so slightly betrayed the fact that he, himself, was not 100 percent convinced.
"Dedication or not," Lando assessed, "somehow that doesn't make me feel any better about this."
"When one of the Noghri gets back from their sweep, we'll test it, of course," Karrde answered. "Or has the gambler lost his nerve?"
"I've done no such thing!" Lando declared. "In fact..."
"Easy! I'm not trying to pick a fight! Just trying to keep us focused."
The whoosh of the door sliding open cut through the building tension.
Luke, as well as the Noghri at his side, gazed in stunned awe at the mess on the deck of the Falcon. Several crates lay open, their contents - mostly packing material - spilled out in heaps. Devices - some of them clearly weapons, the rest probably weapons as well - lay scattered almost everywhere. A stack of empty food containers sat in a corner. It looked like some kind of scavenger's cave - that, or a couple of the dorms back at the Yavin academy. And in the middle of it all, hunched over the game table, which was covered in what appeared to be tiny beads, were four of his co-conspirators.
"What..." he gasped, caught his breath, then started again. "What is going on here?"
"Luke! How'd it go?" Han asked earnestly.
"Fine, the Noghri are all in place and... what is all this stuff?"
"Ghent and Aves have graciously donated to our crusade," Karrde answered, a slight hint of embarrassment behind his smirk. "Though we did leave some of the bulkier pieces back on the Wild Karrde."
"We can't bring all this junk along!" Luke proclaimed, reaching for the nearest miscellaneous device.
"Of course not," Karrde replied. "Which is why we've separated it all out."
"You mean," Luke muttered, taking a full 360 degree look around the compartment, which still looked as unruly as before, "there's supposed to be some sort of order to all this?"
"Sure is, kid," Han said, getting to his feet. "That pile there," he pointed, "is..." He paused, trying to remember.
"Is...?" Luke repeated.
"It's..." Han broke off, scratching his head. "Great. What was that pile again?"
"Detonators, of course," Torve answered, then thought better. "Or were they comlinks?"
"Neither, actually. They're electronic lock picks," Karrde finally clarified.
"I rest my case," Luke huffed, absently waving his hands, and the object they held.
"That," Karrde pointed out with a bit of urgency, "is one of the detonators."
"Oh," Luke breathed as he quickly - but carefully - put it down.
"You're right, of course," Karrde said. "Time is short, and we must get this plan in gear. In fact, " he trailed off as he checked the time, "I've got to check in with my men. But first, if you..." he gestured toward the Noghri.
"Elkh'nimh," Luke filled in.
"Right, Elkh'nimh. If you could step over here, we need to test something."
The Noghri looked worried, but stepped forward nonetheless.
"By the way," Karrde asked as he pinned the tiny device to the Noghri's tunic, "what's the situation at the pick-up site?"
"There has been no sign of listening devices or spies. This alone makes us uneasy."
"We must be careful, of course," Karrde said as he pushed the power button on the scrambler. "But I don't think we need to worry too much." He stepped back, and turned to Artoo. "Okay, scan him."
The droid beeped a response and popped open a hatch on his dome. A scanner dish elevated on a telescoping pole and swept across the occupants of the compartment.
"So, how many lifeforms are in the room?" Torve asked.
Artoo beeped his reply. Unfortunately, no one understood what he said.
"Artoo," Luke asked calmly, "does your scan show a Noghri in here?"
Artoo beeped again, but this time everyone could understand it as a negative.
"Does it show five lifeforms?" he continued.
Another beep came from the droid, clearly positive.
"Just have to ask the right questions," Luke explained.
After a few more tests to confirm the scramblers' camouflaging capabilities, Karrde left to make his calls, and the remaining four humans and one Noghri turned their attention back to sorting through the mess.
"So, then," Luke asked, "when we're done with this, we pack it up and take our positions, right? Or is there something else that you've neglected to mention?"
"No, this is it," Lando answered in a strangely authoritative tone. "And the sooner we get done, the better. I don't intend to let Mara stay in their hands any longer."
Luke merely nodded in silent agreement.