"Cold?" Karrde asked, handing Lando a steaming mug.
"Not really," he lied. After a momentary hesitation, he took the mug.
"No side effects from Ghent's devices?"
"Nope," Lando answered, taking a quick glance at his scrambler. "Of course, I have no way to tell if the blasted thing is still working."
"So, what's the layout?"
Lando took a sip from his mug, and stared at several spots around the landing pad. It took a moment, but at last he thought he saw what he had been looking for.
"Over there," he pointed with a finger raised from the mug, "is one group. Three of them, I think. After it lands and the welcoming party comes down the ramp, they'll slip inside."
Karrde studied the area Lando pointed to, but could see nothing in the poor lighting. The sun was on its way up, but the early morning colors were clearly insufficient. Besides, Noghri knew how to hide.
"And the cargo squad?"
"I'm not quite sure," Lando confessed. "I thought I saw them a few minutes ago, but now I'm having my doubts. Even so, I'm sure they got to where they need to be. What about your people?"
"All in position. Just wish we knew when they plan on getting here."
"I hear that," Lando replied. He shivered slightly as a cold breeze blew past. "Would also be nice if we knew what kind of ship they're coming in. Might not need so much redundancy in our tactics."
"Speaking of ships, Calrissian, I have a small business proposition for you."
That perked Lando's interests. "Is that so?"
"Yes, but I think we'd best discuss it some other time. Remind me about it when this is all over, and we'll work the deal. And if something..." he paused, sighing, "unfortunate... should happen in the meantime, ask Aves about it. I've given him contingency instructions."
In other words, Lando thought, you've appointed Aves as your successor in the event that neither you nor Mara get back alive. "If you don't make it, what makes you think I will?"
"Well, Calrissian, in that case," Karrde replied with a shrug, "the point would be moot."
Lando swallowed hard. "Yeah. I guess it would be."
Noghri, eh? Clever move.
Far atop an abandoned tower overlooking the landing pad, another pair of eyes watched through the morning mist. However, these eyes were watching through a blaster scope.
Raylic studied the scene intensely, even though he knew that locating all the Noghri and smugglers would be a futile task. If those shadows really were Noghri, but he was pretty sure they were. Off to the right, the human in black... must be Skywalker. Hair looked about the right color, and he was certainly short enough. Surprising how many people thought the great Jedi Skywalker was a towering and imposing figure. Perhaps this also meant that Darth Vader wasn't nearly as intimidating in real life, either...
Skywalker, however, wasn't his concern. Certainly, in the broader sense, but not at the moment.
The long barrel of his sniper rifle would have looked comical to anyone who didn't know what it was for. However, Raylic knew what it was capable of, and had in fact become quite the marksman with it over the years. Yet here, this high precision weapon was well out of effective range of the landing pad. Its target would be something else entirely.
Though he had been extremely skeptical at first, he was now feeling the surge of excitement of having the chance of a lifetime handed to him, and taking full advantage of it. Dravis's story sounded too far-fetched to be believed. Its origin was so convoluted and untraceable that it sounded almost like a setup. Passed verbally through who-knew-how-many mouths, starting with someone who could allegedly open a secure message cube, then perfectly reseal it; an unknown "someone" who just happened to know an Imperial snitch, who worked for just the right Imperial.
And then there was the involvement of this Admiral Daala character... perhaps the still-missing Moruth Doole had something to do with it as well. She was, after all, Doole's primary concern, and no one had seen any sign of him in weeks.
Suspicious though it was, the thought of Red Jade being a prisoner of this Daala was too attractive. It had to be verified. The scene below wasn't quite verification, but pretty darn close to it.
Raylic checked the charge on his rifle one more time, as if it might have suddenly gone dead in the last ten minutes. Much as he'd love to actually kill her, screwing up this ransom meeting could mean even more much-deserved agony for Red, if the tales of her torture at the hands of Daala were to be believed...
"Is something troubling you, Captain?" Thrawn asked calmly, then added with a subtle smirk, "or are you just getting anxious?"
"Sir?" Pellaeon asked, taken slightly off-guard. His mind had indeed been wandering. "Oh, uh... I'm fine, sir. I just..."
"You may speak frankly if you wish, Captain. You are officially off-duty at the moment."
Pellaeon glanced around the bridge of the Inexorable, noting just how many ears might overhear him. "No, sir, I... it's nothing."
"Hmm..." Thrawn concentrated. "Indulge me, Captain. Somehow I don't think this is a purely personal matter."
Pellaeon tried to say something, but a side glance at the nearest crewers changed his mind. "Sir, I..."
"You have been acting strangely of late, Captain," Thrawn noted, his hand at his chin in thought. "Ever since... Honoghr."
"Sir," Pellaeon hissed desperately, trying to get Thrawn to drop the subject. "I really don't think now is the time for this."
"It is as good a time as any," the Grand Admiral said with a wave of his hand. "There is still an hour to Boelis."
"That's not what I mean, sir."
"At any rate," Thrawn continued, ignoring him, "something about the Honoghr operation disturbs you."
Rather than answer, Pellaeon stared out the nearest bridge window, hoping against hope that Thrawn would drop the subject.
No such luck.
"Though it is puzzling as to what that might be. I have known you for quite some time, Captain Pellaeon. I have seen you dismayed about my actions before, but only when you could not understand them. What could be bothering you about a clean, thorough, and efficient attack against a most despised enemy?"
"Efficient?" Pellaeon asked, not believing his ears. "Admiral, with all due respect, it would have been more efficient to let Lieutenant Commander Daala just drop one of our Star Destroyers on them."
Pellaeon took a quick step back, and shut his mouth tight. He hadn't meant to say that, but it had just come out. There was going to be trouble now...
For a moment, Thrawn just stood there staring at him. His face was a complete blank, the glowing red eyes totally still. Pellaeon swallowed very hard. Knowing his recent mental state, this could be very bad indeed. But nothing could have prepared Pellaeon for what came next.
Little by little, Thrawn's stern expression cracked. The corner of his mouth twitched a few times, before finally pulling back into a lopsided grin. A couple of small convulsions accompanied this, soon developing into silent puffs of air through his nose. At long last, sound started escaping from his throat. A sound Pellaeon had never heard before. The Grand Admiral was chuckling. Before long, he was laughing out loud.
"Well said, Captain," Thrawn managed to wedge in to his almost uncontrolled laughter. "Well said indeed!"
So much for keeping the crew from noticing. They were all staring at Thrawn and Pellaeon now. Captain Ardes was even now heading over to see what had transpired.
"Captain Pellaeon," Thrawn gasped, clutching his now aching gut. "I must remember this one. Now come along," he entreated, finally catching his breath. "We must ensure that our shuttle is ready as soon as we arrive."
"Of course, sir," Pellaeon muttered as he followed Thrawn to the turbolift. More than ever, he needed to be by the Admiral's side at the meetings at Boelis. Unfortunately, the spur-of-the-moment cover story he had come up with didn't exactly allow for that. Please Sir, he thought, don't ask me what her name is...
As it happened, there was no need for worry about being late. An Imperial fleet freighter arrived in-system around noon local time. Before its shuttle had even launched, the position and identity of the Procuror had already been privately transmitted to Karrde by his associates in orbit, and the freighter Etherway (currently under the alias "Investment Galactica") began its in-system micro-jump and "entry" into orbit that would place it between the Procuror and the planet. Its crew also began warming up the multi-band transmitters that would soon be spouting the loudest, most obnoxious get-rich-quick investment scheme advertisement this section of the galaxy had ever heard.
On the ground, Karrde made a quick hand signal to all respective parties, and the mood around the platform turned from tense anticipation to even tenser anticipation. Solo stopped pacing and checked the charge on his blaster. Skywalker... opened his eyes. Of course he must have been meditating, but Karrde couldn't help but entertain the thought that the troubled Jedi might have been taking the opportunity to catch some sleep.
Raylic awoke suddenly with the impact of his head against the hard, cold metal of his rifle. He shook it off and scolded himself for nodding off. He had felt it coming on for hours now, but had, until now, not succumbed to it. He reset his rifle and took a quick look at the landing pad... good, they were still there.
He pulled back from the gun sight to take in the bigger picture - especially to see if there was anyone watching him from other towers. Seeing nothing, he turned back to the platform, just in time to catch the shuttle on its final approach. Almost missed it!
Raylic pivoted the rifle to draw a bead on a fuel tank at a different, closer landing platform. Satisfied at the ease of his actual target, he refocused on the inbound shuttle and the people awaiting it, eager for the game to begin.
The Imperial shuttle came down slowly, its rather homely, box-like shape moving smoothly through the air, then coming to a stop, pivoting a full 360 degrees as it hovered before beginning its final repulsorlift decent to the platform's surface. Smaller by far than the better-known Lambda-class shuttles, it really was just a utility craft for the smaller, less glamorous ships of the fleet. Most of these types didn't even include a hyperdrive unit. However, despite all appearances, it was still big enough to carry plenty of trouble. Even more troubling was the fact that Luke couldn't tell what exactly was in it.
"Yes," Luke answered, his eyes shut in concentration. "There are definitely ysalamiri on that shuttle."
"Great," Han muttered. He made a predetermined hand signal to the Noghri on the far side of the platform, who in turn passed the signal to the smugglers. "Million to one says they've got 'em on the freighter, too."
"Not surprising, really," Luke replied, his eyes finally coming open again. "How else could she keep Mara locked up this long?"
"There are ways, Luke. Believe me, there are ways..." Han started, then silently scolded himself as he noticed the hopeful smirk that had just crept on to Luke's face turn back into a hopeless gloom. The kid finally livens up a little, and I bring him right back down. Yeah, a real friend I am.
"One thing troubles me, though."
"The ysalamiri... how did Daala find out about them? And how did she get them? Karrde never mentioned anything about Imperials visiting Myrkr lately."
"Beats me how she got them. But all you have to do is ask anyone on the fringe about how to beat a Jedi, and he'll tell you about 'em."
"It's that widespread?" Luke asked, with more than a hint of apprehension.
"Afraid so. And now that I think of it," Han said, suddenly slowing down and sounding almost... ashamed, "she may have heard about them from me. In fact... oh, great... Luke, I... I just might have told her about..."
"It's okay, Han," Luke answered, his head hanging another notch lower. He certainly didn't look like it was okay. "You couldn't help it. I've heard a lot about those interrogations and what they can do to you. It's just... the thought of Mara..."
"No! Don't think about that!" Han urged. "It'll only make things worse."
"Then again, it could put things in the proper perspective," came a familiar voice from behind him.
Han spun to find Lando standing right next to him. How had he gotten here so quietly? Better yet, why was he here? This wasn't part of the plan!
"Daala's going to pay for this, my friends," he continued. "You can bet on it."
"You're not supposed to be here, you know," Han replied, his voice clearly showing his displeasure.
"Technically, neither are you, old buddy. Or the droid," he added as an afterthought, jerking a thumb in the direction of Tumor. The gaudy gold and silver protocol droid was standing about three meters behind Han, and was, for once, being thankfully quiet. At least it obeyed Luke well enough. "So, I figured, if they wouldn't mind a second high-profile hostage, a third one, like yours truly, won't make any difference."
"But Lando," Luke asked urgently, "your scrambler... you could give us away!"
"Relax, I turned it off. I'm just as detectable as you two are."
"Lando..." Han growled.
"No time for this now, I'm afraid," Lando interrupted, pointing a finger at the shuttle, which was now only a couple dozen meters above them. "It's showtime."
An Imperial captain stepped out of the shuttle, flanked by a pair of black clad, ysalamiri-equipped fleet troopers. Quite possibly the entire security complement of the Procuror, but it would be more than foolish to count on that. He paused for a moment, scowling at the three humans and one droid where there should only have been one human. There was also a blue and white astromech droid off to the side of the platform, but he discounted it as property of the starport. For a moment, he studied something on the datapad he carried, then finally started toward them again.
Han couldn't help but think this officer looked very familiar.
"Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, correct?" He asked. Once Luke had nodded, he turned toward Han and Lando. "Solo and Calrissian, I believe. You were not invited here, but your presence is not surprising. As for the droid..."
"G-2M0 has information regarding the Sun Crusher, which we wish to discuss with Admiral Daala, per her message," Luke answered. "You can scan him if you like. He is nothing more than a protocol droid." Though not when you hear him talk about it, Luke didn't add.
"Hmm... I suppose that will be acceptable. Very well, you are to come with us to meet Admiral Daala."
Odd, Han thought, did he falter when he said 'Admiral'? "Not so fast, Captain," Han cut in. "First, we want to see Mara."
"Mara?" The captain repeated, sounding almost like he had never heard the name before. "Oh, of course," he recovered. "I'm afraid you won't be able to see her until we get back to the Admiral's flagship. We are only here to transport you."
"So she's not here, with you?" Lando pressed.
"No, certainly not."
"That makes us a bit wary, you understand," he replied, letting his left hand fall to his side. "We need proof that she is unharmed," he said, while making an especially subtle hand gesture. Though it was actually supposed to be Han or Luke giving that signal, Lando had made sure he knew it just as well as they did.
"I'm sorry, but I can offer you no proof. You're just going to have to trust me," he replied, the corner of his mouth twitching wryly. "If you want her back, of course."
"Looks like you hold all the cards," Han agreed, even as he saw the first of the Noghri creeping into the shuttle, and the next group with their canvas-draped "package" getting ready to make their move once the first squad was in position.
The Noghri were definitely making their move, Raylic was certain. Though how the Imperials could possibly be missing them on their sensors he could not fathom. Granted, the shuttle was a utility type not known for its sophistication, but they couldn't be that stupid as to assume Skywalker would deal completely straight with them. Though, to their credit, he was almost certain those bulges on the fleet troopers' backs were nutrient frames for those Force-eating critters from Myrkr.
So, while Skywalker and Solo are talking to the officer, the Noghri slip in and rescue Red. Decent plan. Too bad it was about to get complicated.
Raylic gave them enough time to get near the shuttle, and the next squad enough time to start edging their way forward, before turning away to take aim.
He squinted through his sight, adjusting the magnification and drawing the crosshairs carefully onto the fuel tank. Satisfied, he switched off the safety and began to slowly apply pressure to the trigger, being careful and deliberate, not wanting anything to go wrong with this shot.
A pity the others couldn't be here, he thought just before the shot went off. Sometimes, you just have to take the initiative yourself...
It was felt before it was heard, a sudden jolt that even bounced the utility shuttle a few millimeters into the air. Windows shattered, containers of all shapes and sizes fell over. G-2M0 clattered into a heap on the ground. The organics fared better, balance-wise, but were no less surprised by both the jolt and the 50 meter high fireball that was now mushrooming over the city.
Quickly shaking off the shock, the fleet troopers immediately brought their rifles to bear on Han, Luke, and Lando who, when they turned back to face them, were obliged to put their hands up.
"What's the meaning of this?" the captain demanded.
"We had nothing to do with that," Luke quickly answered. Fortunately, he didn't add the "Did we?" that he was thinking. Curse those ysalamiri, he didn't sense it coming!
"I don't believe you," he retorted, drawing his own sidearm. "And you have just made a terrible mistake." He pulled out his comlink and brought it to his mouth. "Chief Nelt?" He barked...
...and immediately jerked the comlink away from his ear when a loud squawk of static come out instead of the Chief's voice. But before he could level an accusation of jamming against his "captives," a voice began to come through. Rather, several voices...
"...don't miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!" a male voice boomed.
"It sounds so good," replied a mock-cautious sounding, unnaturally rushed female voice. "But what's the catch?"
"There is no catch! There is no risk! Cancel at any time! Just send..."
The ad was cut off abruptly as Captain Kratas threw the comlink to the ground hard enough to shatter it. For a brief while, all that could be heard were the sounds of emergency vehicles rushing to the site of the explosion. Actually, a welcome sound, compared to that ad.
"Hey, now, you can't go blaming us for that!" Lando said before Kratas had a chance to speak again. "Though I must admit it does sound like something I tried once, years ago. The investment plan, I mean."
Kratas stood fuming for a moment, but once he had calmed himself enough, he gestured to the two troopers with the order, "Stun them. Now."
"Wait!" Luke urged, a hand stretched to each side as if to hold Han and Lando back from taking any violent action. It also served to inform Karrde's men that things were still under control... sort of. "Let's not do anything rash, Captain. We are still willing to come with you peacefully. If you'll just take a minute or two to calm yourself..."
"Silence! You've delayed this long enough. Men..."
Long enough indeed, Luke thought, a smirk twitching at the corner of his mouth. "You don't need to stun us."
"I give the orders here..." Kratas started, but he was interrupted by the synchronized voices of both troopers.
"We don't need to stun them."
"You can lay down your weapons," Luke continued.
"We can lay down our weapons," the fleet troopers repeated.
Kratas stared in awe as the troops knelt down and set their blasters at the Jedi's feet. What in space was happening here?
The answer was immediately obvious. As the troopers knelt, his attention was drawn to a wet streak of blood running down each of their backpacks, originating from the ysalamiri that were now neatly sliced in two.
He spun around to see nothing. Until he looked a little lower, that is, and came face-to-face with two of the most frightening aliens he had ever seen. Or, more appropriately, never seen, until now. With a barely audible yelp he took a sudden hop backward, right into Lando Calrissian.
"Easy there, friend," Calrissian said as he pushed Kratas away with his free left hand. His right currently held one of the troopers' blasters. "They're not going to hurt you." With an evil grin, he added, "Unless we ask them to."
Raylic turned away from the scene of Imperial incompetence to feverishly disassemble his sniper rifle. Some fleet troopers! Instead of springing into action, they just kept staring stupidly at the pretty fire! Could these Imperials have really been that poorly prepared? He'd immediately assumed the ramshackle shuttle was just a cover, but now it was obvious that looks did not deceive. And Skywalker...
Inconceivable! He had played right into Skywalker's hands! No, not Skywalker, Jade. She knew. Somehow, she must have known...
With the rifle safely back in its case, he swiftly made his way back to the roof access ladder he had come up from. Red would be loose soon, and that meant he had to put as much space between them as he possibly could, and quick.
"Now, Captain, if you'll just take your seat..."
Kratas sluggishly complied with Solo's demand, seeing no alternative with a BlasTech in his face, a Jedi staring at him, and alien killers all over the shuttle.
"You'll never get away with this. Once Daala finds out about this, the woman will die. And so will you."
"Oh, how original," Han scoffed. "I can't remember how many times I've heard that one. Luke, you wanted a word with 'Captain Clichˇ' here?"
"Ah, yes, Han. Thank you," he replied. "Now Captain..." he trailed off, waiting for the officer to give his name.
"Hmm... well, then," Luke muttered, then closed his eyes in concentration. "...Kratas," he said after a few seconds.
"How...?" Kratas bit out, then held his tongue, having realized he had given himself away.
"Captain Kratas, eh?" Han repeated thoughtfully. Then recognition struck. "Hey, I know you! Figures she'd send her number one toady on this job. I still owe you for that little ordeal you and your lady boss put me through in the Maw!"
Kratas squirmed a bit at that.
"Easy Han," Luke said calmly. "The Captain here is just a subordinate, acting under orders. So, Captain, what are your orders?"
Kratas again kept his mouth shut.
"Now, Captain Kratas, I don't want to have to pull the information from you. I really don't like doing that. But you know that I can do it, if I have to."
"I'd listen if I were you, Kratas," Han added smugly. "Jedi have a way of 'forcing' people to cooperate."
He still said nothing.
With a sigh of clear discomfort, Luke made a subtle hand motion toward Kratas, as he had to the Gamorrean guards at Jabba's palace years ago. He might not like it, but better this than to let Han use the Noghri to handle things.
Kratas felt his throat tightening, gagging. His hands flew to his neck instinctively to pull away the strangling grip that wasn't physically there. Soon after it began, it was gone, and air flowed freely again.
"You've never seen a Jedi before, have you?" Han asked, a satisfied grin on his face.
Kratas slowly shook his head, barely believing what he had just experienced. He had heard tales, certainly. Then there was Daala's insistence on the ysalamiri. Tough, powerful warriors, sure, but he had never expected this. Or, rather, just chose not to believe it. However, he no longer had that option.
"I... I told you the truth. I was asked to pick you up here and transport you back to Admiral Daala. She told me to keep these creatures around at all times, but didn't get very specific as to why."
"Is that her in orbit?"
"Again, no. We are on a cargo run, and will be meeting her Star Destroyer elsewhere."
"Told you so," Han muttered. Luke ignored him.
"How many crewmen are on your freighter?"
"Twenty. That includes the five of us here. Or is it just me now?"
"Relax," Han reassured. "Your men are fine. A bit scared, maybe. They're in this thing's pathetic excuse for a cargo hold."
Kratas' body language revealed relief, though whether it was for his men or for his own neck was hard to tell.
"Now Captain," Luke said calmly, "are those other fifteen all stormtroopers?"
"No. Just the freighter's crew."
"She sure didn't give us much credit, did she?" Han snorted.
"Well, we are here," Luke offered. "She did figure us out at least that far."
A series of beeps and whistles from the cockpit of the shuttle drew Luke and Han's attention up from Kratas.
"What is it, Artoo?" Luke asked.
"From what the screen says, I think he's telling you he has full control," Lando replied. "Maybe even access to the freighter's central computer, but I'm not sure."
"Where's Tumor when you need him?" Han grumbled. "Nah, never mind. Not worth it."
"Now that that's done..." Lando said as he stepped back into the passenger compartment.
"I don't think there's any reason your other men need to know about this," Han said to Kratas, waving his finger in a circle to encompass the passenger compartment's current occupants.
"That will be a bit difficult, I think."
"Not really," Luke answered. "We can be your 'guests,' and as far as the crew will know, everything will still be according to plan. We'll need some excuse to keep the four here out of sight, but I think you can arrange something."
"Even if I could, you think these aliens are going to go unnoticed?"
"You didn't notice them," Han pointed out.
"And with Artoo plugged into your ship's systems, we can be certain they're not disturbed, wherever they decide to hide. Oh, by the way, how many ysalamiri are on the freighter?" Luke asked.
"Ah yes," Kratas replied, his voice a bit stronger now. "You'll have some trouble with them, won't you?"
"Not when they're all dead," said Lando. "So, how many? And where?"
"This has gone far enough," Kratas huffed. "Name, rank, and serial number is all you'll get from here on out."
"Six," Luke stated, his voice sounding distant. "All in the shuttle airlock hallway and an adjacent room."
Kratas stared in shock again, horrified at what the Jedi was capable of. His name was one thing, but for him to pull out this?
"There's nothing you can do, you know," Han observed. "Cooperate, or he makes you cooperate. It's that simple."
"Never!" Kratas shouted, pulling himself to his feet. His upward momentum abruptly stopped, and he sat back down, fighting the invisible push the whole way.
"See what I mean?"
Kratas stared defiantly for a second longer, but then hung his head in total defeat.
"I think we're done here," Luke said, getting up to leave.
"Where is Mara?" Lando butted in. "Is she safe?"
Kratas looked up slowly, turning his gaze toward Luke, as if expecting the Jedi to provide his answer. But Luke didn't say a thing, didn't even look like he was concentrating like the last times. The strangest thing, though, was that Kratas thought he detected a hint of a hurting or longing in his eyes.
"Well?" Lando persisted.
"Look," Kratas sighed at last, "I don't know. I've never seen her. I don't even know who she is. I didn't even know her name until you mentioned it."
"Why you, I'll..."
"Enough, Lando," Luke said, holding up his arm between Lando and Kratas. "He's telling the truth. I know it's not what any of us want to hear, but it's the truth."
He may have accepted it, but not gracefully, as he promptly slammed his fist against the nearest bulkhead. "Let's get out of here."
Another twittering from the cockpit interrupted further conversation. Han went forward to check it out, and quickly returned with the news.
"Looks like they've gotten around the interference, and want to check on you," he said in Kratas' general direction.
"We have a very tight time schedule. They are already suspicious, and worried about missing our rendezvous with the fleet," he explained.
"Well, then, it's time for your first performance, isn't it?"
"Understood. We're just about ready to go anyway," Karrde said into his comlink. Etherway was rapidly overstaying its welcome in the Yenwod system, and had local patrol ships closing in even as they spoke. The annoying ad continued, however, making a secure tight transmission easy to conceal in the middle of it. "By the way, any takers on that fake investment?"
"You'd be surprised," Dankin replied. "We might want to try this again for 'real' sometime. By the way, what's with the fireworks?"
"Fuel tank explosion not far from here," Karrde answered, looking back toward the commotion. There were no flames to be seen, but thick black smoke was still billowing above the roof line. "At least that's what it looks like. I've sent some people to check it out. Almost blew our operation. So did Calrissian."
"Calrissian? What did..." Dankin started to ask, but decided to drop it. "Well, that freighter didn't so much as flinch. We've had 'em blocked good."
"Good to hear." The whine of the shuttles repulsorlifts coming back on-line caught his attention. "Skywalker and Solo are about to lift off. Hopefully, we'll all meet back at the rendezvous point."
"Copy that, Chief. Dankin out."
Karrde put away his comlink and started toward the shuttle. Once Torve turned his head away from the not-so-distant smoke plume and noticed Karrde, he hustled alongside him.
"You sure you want to come along?"
"Mara's my friend, too."
"Could be dangerous."
"Danger is my middle name, you know."
"I thought your middle name was 'Igan'?"
"Eh... that's just the silly name my mother gave me."
Karrde just chuckled.
"Okay, looks like they're on their way," Han observed in a loud voice.
"It's about time," Lando countered. "Sure took their time."
"It's all right, Lando," Luke reassured. "Everything is working out fine. I can feel it."
"Nothing personal, Luke, but I don't feel any better about this," he retorted firmly, then stood up and leaned closer to the viewport to get a better angle on Karrde and Torve.
"This has got to be the loudest set of repulsorlifts I've ever heard," Han said just loud enough to be heard. "You might want to have Captain Kratas here fire his maintenance guy."
"No need to do that. I'd gladly space him of my own free will," the currently tied-up Kratas replied.
"Could be worse, you know," Luke pointed out, almost shouting over the hum. "Could have that pulse vibration thing that the Falcon picked up last month."
"No kidding... and thank you very much for reminding me," Han muttered in response.
Luke listened a bit closer, then observed, "It does seem to have that same knocking, though."
Han concentrated on it for a moment, and thought he heard it, too. It really was hard to tell with the humming, though. "You really ought to do something about these problems when you first hear them, you know," he commented over his shoulder to Kratas.
"This is only the second time I've ever used this shuttle. Didn't make that knocking sound last time, though."
"So," Han went on, this time to Luke. "What does our system slicer have to say about it?"
"Huh?" A puzzled Luke asked. "Oh, Artoo!"
The droid, still plugged in to a jack in the cockpit's side panel, turned to face Luke and Han. He twittered something, but there was nothing available at the moment to translate it. Fortunately, Luke got the gist of it well enough.
"He says it's fine for now. The rest was probably an assessment of what the problem is, and an offer to fix it."
"No time now," Han said. "Lando, are they...?"
"Uh... yeah," he replied, pressing his face against the transparisteel as much as he could in an attempt to see back to the shuttle's hatch. He couldn't quite see the hatch, but he definitely did not see Karrde and Torve out there. "They're in."
"Let's check the hatch," Han mumbled, then punched up the hull condition report on the shuttle's control panel. It showed the hatch tightly sealed. "Good. Time to go. Our receiver here tells me that the commercial assault has just ended, and looks like it is being run out of the system." He manipulated the appropriate controls, and the shuttle slowly pulled away from the landing pad, with a remarkably smooth ascent considering the noise the repulsors were making. Though on the plus side, applying power to them did seem to stop the knocking. "They can see us, so let's all be on our best behavior. No turning back now."
What had started as just another boring leg of their patrol circuit had just become more intense and deadly than Rogues Seven and Eight had ever anticipated.
The X-Wing fighters, both carrying extra strap-on sensor packages, had entered the outskirts of the Nedrag system three hours earlier, and were scheduled to depart in one more hour after setting up a spy satellite to monitor future activity in the system. The next system would have been more of the same.
All of Rogue squadron had been split into two-ship elements and sent to scout through a string of Imperial-sympathetic star systems on a search for the elusive Sun Crusher. Direct orders from General Antilles himself.
None of the Rogues actually feared getting caught in a Sun Crusher induced nova, having hyperspace escape coordinates preprogrammed even before entering any given system. Neither were they overly concerned about tangling with the Sun Crusher itself, since with its non-indestructable token laser cannons torn off long ago, the only thing it could do was ram them, and X-Wings could certainly outrun that thing.
At least, that was the way it looked on a datapage.
Unlike all the other systems they had visited, this time, the Sun Crusher showed up. A brief flurry of nervous interstellar transmissions came from the primary planets within minutes, hoping to alert any other Imperial systems within range to the danger. A few short minutes after that, the transmissions slacked off, and seemed to indicate the dreaded ship had left already. While the Rogues chatted about the meaning of it, the Sith Lord struck.
A perfectly timed... rather, sensed... micro-jump had brought the Sun Crusher to within a couple dozen kilometers of the X-Wings.
Proximity sensors howled at the pilots, nearly causing Seven to choke on his lunch. The Sun Crusher bore straight in at them, traveling at an alarming rate. Both X-wings had been in standby mode, but were still warm enough to kick in their engines with time to spare.
They pushed their throttles to full, quickly matching and then outpacing the Sun Crusher, which grew thankfully smaller and smaller behind them. Seven gave the order to plot the jump, and was about to pull his hyperspace levers when it happened.
"Seven, this is Eight!" his wingman said in an apprehensive tone. "I'm turning around."
"Eight, this is Seven, continue on your course. That is an order."
"Sir, I can't. I... I can't explain it," Eight stuttered. "My hands are... I can't control them!"
Impossible! Seven thought. That guy's supposed to be some sort of Dark Jedi, but never thought he could...
"Eight, let your droid take control!"
"Yes, sir!" Eight replied, hope clear in his voice.
Seven watched his scope, noting Eight veering off of his previous course. He sighed in relief. But it was premature.
"Sir! My droid... he won't respond! I can't... Aaahhhh!"
The signal burst into static. Rogue Seven looked behind him to see a ball of flame in the distance, and the silhouetted shape of the Sun Crusher emerging from it. Sadly, he reached again for the hyperspace levers.
"Leaving so soon?" came a haunting voice.
Seven kept silent, his arm muscles tensing to pull the levers. But... nothing. He was feeling the resistance, but not the motion. He tried again and again, but his arm was locked in place. He tried to bring his other arm up, but it, too, was immobile.
"Ready to listen now?"
"Do I have a choice?"
The Sun Crusher's pilot chuckled. It was a sound Rogue Seven could have done without. "No, you don't. How astute of you. You are a fortunate one."
"And just how do you figure that?"
"Because I have chosen to let you live."
"Well, then" Seven said sarcastically, as he noted that his X-wing had stopped moving, and that his own hands had done it without his knowing. "I suppose I ought to thank you."
"I have a task for you. Carry it out, and your debt shall be considered paid."
"Really. And if I refuse?"
"You don't want to do that. Trust me."
At that moment, Seven felt pressure being applied to his left hand. To his horror, he saw his little finger bending further and further in the wrong direction. As it got to the painful level, the motion slowed, but the pain level increased ever so slightly. It must have been a hairsbreadth away from breaking when the pressure was released.
"There's nothing to be so worried about. I only want you to deliver a message for me. And it's not the type that gets delivered at blaster point."
"As I said before, looks like I've got no choice," Seven replied bitterly.
"This is what I want you to tell Coruscant, and Skywalker in particular..."
"What do you mean, you can't find them? You told me they got aboard just fine!"
"I thought they did!" Lando retorted, not at all enjoying being the recipient of Han's blame. "It's not my fault!"
"So, that must have been the knocking we heard," Kratas suggested.
"Not a word from you," Han ordered.
"Easy, Han," Luke urged. "Captain Kratas has been very cooperative so far, and there is no call to snap at him."
"Sorry," Han mumbled. "Look, can you go back there and find out if any of the Noghri saw what happened?"
"Sure. Be right back," Luke said, stepping back into the passenger compartment.
Now this is what I expected, Han thought as he stared out into space, the freighter just now coming into view. I thought things had been going just a little too smoothly.
He was just about to tell Lando about that observation, when a shout from the aft cut him off.
"He did what?!"
Luke shouting... not a good sign.
"You're never going to believe this," Luke huffed as he stormed back into the cockpit. G-2M0 shuffled along in the way protocol droids do, his head held just as high as ever. "No, on second thought," he muttered as he dropped into his seat, "you'll believe it just fine. Care to take a wild guess?"
"Tumor!" Han growled at the droid.
G-2M0 ignored him and just glanced about the cockpit.
"I'm talking to you, Tumor!"
"Oh," the droid replied, acting mock-surprised. "Am I to take it then that you are using that immature nickname to address me?"
"See anyone else here that acts like one?"
"I believe I may be looking at one this very instant."
Things might have gotten very unpleasant... or at least more unpleasant... had Kratas' burst of laughter not broken the tension.
Han and Lando's blasters in his face shut him up quickly.
"Go ahead," Luke admonished the droid. "Tell him."
"Must I?" G-2M0 asked innocently. "It will only aggravate his condition."
"Yes, you must. Tell him now."
"Oh, very well," he sighed. "If you insist."
"Well?" Han asked. "I'm waiting."
"I merely secured the boarding hatch," G-2M0 said matter-of-factly. "The shuttle was preparing for departure, and it had not been done."
Han took a few deep breaths, then said, "Fine. But didn't you hear the knocking?"
"Of course I did. I was not about to allow those two ruffians into the ship. It would not have been proper."
"Wait," Luke broke in. "You saw them coming, and closed the hatch anyway? You didn't tell me that!"
"I am terribly sorry, but you did not ask. Unlike an esteemed Jedi Master such as yourself, I am but a humble protocol droid, servant to the Royal Court of Anderra, and can not read minds."
Luke paused a moment to control his emotions. He massaged his forehead with his right hand. "Why did you close the door on them, G-2M0?"
"These vile Noghri creatures are bad enough," he explained nonchalantly. "However, by the time I became aware of their presence, it was too late for me to act on the matter. Now that I am in a position to act, I am not about to allow a mission of this importance to be compromised by the presence of a known information broker and smuggler, and his accomplice."
"Tell me," Han hissed, "why you didn't think to ask one of us first."
"As a matter of fact, I did think about that. Unfortunately, at the time I was under strict orders from Jedi Master Luke Skywalker to refrain from speaking until we had departed the spaceport."
"That explains the peace and quiet until now," Lando groaned.
Han just stared at Luke... then at G-2M0... then back at Luke... then just gave it up and turned back to piloting the shuttle.
"I was also eager to express my gratitude to you, Master Skywalker," the droid continued, unfazed.
"Gratitude?" Luke almost choked. "Gratitude for what?"
"Why," he said, taking a step back and gesturing to the R2 unit plugged into the computer terminal in the back of the cockpit, "for purchasing this servant droid to repair my damages. Come along now," he said to Artoo, "I have dents that need mending and scuff marks that require polishing."
Artoo's dome swiveled slowly around to face G-2M0. After a few tense seconds of the protocol droid's inability to take a hint, a hatch opened on the astromech droid's cylindrical body to reveal an arc welder arm, which promptly zapped the taller droid in the thigh. Then with a rude blatt Artoo turned back to his work.
"Why, I have never been so insulted in all my life! For that, I shall..."
"That's enough!" Luke shouted. "G-2M0, come with me. Now." With that, Luke led the droid back into the crew compartment, and closed the cockpit door.
Fortunately, the linkup with the Procuror went smoother than they could have hoped for. The crew seemed to have no inkling of what this stopover was really about. Better still, they seemed perfectly willing to accept Captain Kratas's orders to stay out of the shuttle bay compartments, due to his "potentially dangerous prisoners." All his words were, of course, fed to him by Han and Lando, with blasters in his face to make it clear to him that even if they did get in range of the Procuror's ysalamiri, they could still kill him if he misbehaved.
As soon as docking was complete, Kratas, with a gun at his back, stepped out into the empty hangar. When the eyes behind him saw that it was clear, the Noghri swiftly fanned out to kill all the ysalamiri Luke had mentioned. It took them all of three minutes, and Luke felt the Force at full strength again.
As the entire group made their way to the "guest room" that had been prepared for only Luke, they felt the slight acceleration that signified the jump to lightspeed. Once there, the three troopers and shuttle pilot were securely tied to the piping in the room and gagged, minus their uniforms. Lando promptly dressed himself in a black Fleet Trooper uniform. Han chose the shuttle pilot's uniform, which was actually just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill crewer's outfit, providing a nice degree of anonymity. Luke remained as he was, though he did arrange one of the trooper uniforms for later use.
With Artoo plugged into the room's computer terminal (after turning it back on, of course), crew positions and duties were easily monitored and even modified. Before long, Kratas was headed back to the bridge, with Luke, his "guest," in tow. Meanwhile, Han, Artoo, and three Noghri were off for the ship's powerplant, lugging along the largest crate they had brought with them.
Thankfully, G-2M0 remained completely silent, or Lando might have gone crazy on his guard duty.