"Princess Leia is indisposed at the moment, General. She sent me to fill in for her."
"Were it anyone else, I'd insist otherwise. Good to see you again, Winter," Bel Iblis said with a grim smile. With an extended hand, he ushered her through the door.
"Likewise," she replied, then turned all-business. "So what is this all about?"
"A new breakthrough in the Sun Crusher situation. Do I need to fill you in on recent events?"
"The Princess told me all that she knew about it, and I heard a little more from General Antilles," she answered, nodding slightly toward Wedge, who had been waiting inside. He gave a small nod in reply. "Sorry about your loss, General."
"Thank you," he sighed.
"By the way, has Ambassador Furgan been told about Carida yet?"
"I don't think so," Bel Iblis replied cautiously. "But I don't have anything to do with that. You might want to ask Colonel Bremen about anything concerning Furgan. I did hear, though, that the Imperial officer you brought in looks like he's going to pull through."
"Good. So, about this new information?"
"Right," he answered, then entered a security clearance code on the display set up in the secret office. The screen showed a hazy image of the Sun Crusher, and to the side of it in a little box there was the face of a man, only slightly better focused. "We received this about an hour ago from one of Rogue Squadron's pilots. As you may or may not know, we've had them scouting for the Sun Crusher for about a week now. Rogue Seven sent us this message after he and Rogue Eight encountered the Sun Crusher in the Nedrag system. Rogue Eight didn't make it. It seems the only reason Seven survived was to deliver this message." He pushed the key to start the playback.
"Master Skywalker," the fierce-looking man sneered, "I hope this message finds you well. I have decided that we must meet again. Perhaps for the last time. You know that I hold the power to destroy a star system in the palm of my hand. I have used it, and I will continue to use it, unless you, and you alone, can stop me.
"I wish this to be heard by the leaders of the New Republic as well, that they shall bear witness to this challenge. In five days, I will be back in the Caridian system... or, rather," he corrected with a sickening grin, "what once was the Caridian system. I want you to be there. Don't bother bringing reinforcements - you're well aware by now that no weapon can stop the Sun Crusher.
"If you can defeat me, Master Skywalker, the Sun Crusher threat is over. If I am victorious, I solemnly vow to never threaten any system belonging to the New Republic, but the Empire remains mine. However: if you refuse this challenge, I shall destroy a major system of the New Republic. Mon Calamari, perhaps. Sullust. Bothawui. Yavin. Endor. Perhaps even Coruscant itself. You'd be well advised to take me very seriously. Hope to see you there," he concluded with the most evil-looking 'friendly' gesture imaginable.
Silence filled the room. Finally, Bel Iblis spoke.
"As you can no doubt tell, we are quite disturbed by this turn of events. From other recent reports, it has become all too clear that this man's mode of operations has become increasingly erratic of late."
"From straight out destroying strong Imperial systems, to intimidation and blackmail of Imperial systems, to random butchery of Imperial facilities, and now a challenge to single combat against his former Master, with an attached threat against the New Republic," Winter summarized from what she had been told earlier. "A significant change of focus... or loss of one."
"Precisely what we have been thinking. We know for a fact that revenge is his primary motivation. For a brief time, he appeared to have developed some sort of organized plan, but then abandoned it for a campaign of wholesale carnage. But," he said, gesturing with his hand for emphasis, "what is most notable in that, is that he has not destroyed another system since then. As fierce and seemingly mad as he has become, no systems are being destroyed. Why?"
"Saving his missiles, no doubt," Wedge answered. " He doesn't have an unlimited supply, and he knows it. That's why he came to Ithor."
"You are quite right," Bel Iblis said after a brief moment of silence. "However: we believe his mental state has become unstable, to the point that such logical courses of action may be beyond him. Trust me, you don't want to know some of the things he's done lately."
"I'll take your word on that, General," Winter replied. With her perfect memory, she'd rather not add any more of that than necessary. "So what you are saying is that you believe that the Sun Crusher is completely out of ammunition."
After taking a deep breath, he nodded. "Yes, that is what we believe. His behavior appears to be a panic. When he..." Bel Iblis paused, knowing this was going to hurt Wedge. "When he accosted Dr. Qwi Xux in a hospital on Ithor, it appeared that he was calm and rational - relatively speaking, of course - until she died. His string of almost random brutality only began after this specific event. Since Dr. Xux was quite possibly the only person in the galaxy who knew how to make the Sun Crusher's torpedoes, it would seem that he did not retrieve the information from her, and now has to deal with that loss."
"Makes sense," Winter agreed, "but do we have any other form of confirmation? Do we know how many he had to start with? Do they match the number of systems destroyed?"
"As a matter of fact, they don't match. There is the distinct possibility of duds, of course. Or even multiple shots at the same target - remember, he is far from rational most of the time. For instance, he may well have used one on each of the seven stars in the Cauldron Nebula when he destroyed it. From recent sensor data, it does seem that they all went nova simultaneously and not in a chain reaction as first suspected. Though we still don't know what he was trying to kill there."
"Point taken. However, it's possible that he may still have one left, and is saving it with a passion."
"Unfortunately, that is also true. But my gut instinct tells me he's bluffing."
"From all I've heard, your gut instincts are rarely wrong," Winter conceded.
"So," Wedge cut in, "let's grab Luke and send him on his way."
"Can't" Bel Iblis and Winter said simultaneously. They stared at each other briefly, until Winter motioned for the General to go ahead.
"Thank you, Winter. Fact is, Skywalker is on a secret mission, with no way of contacting him. And if his mission succeeds, it could also solve this problem."
"How?" Wedge asked, his arms crossed.
"He went with Solo and Calrissian to meet with Admiral Daala, the one who commanded the Maw installation. She offered to discuss the Sun Crusher with them, saying she wanted to stop it as much as we do, and implying she might know a way to do it."
"It's a trap, you know."
"Possibly," Bel Iblis agreed. "But she does have good reason to want him stopped. Reports say that in every system the Sun Crusher visits, an inquiry is made concerning her whereabouts. Our madman wants to find her, and I don't think he's interested in a date."
"So then, we're just going to let him destroy Coruscant?" Wedge fumed.
"Of course not. Even if he still could, which I'm not too sure about, I think we can successfully stall him. We only need to tell him that Luke is attempting to bring Daala back with him, and he must be patient."
"You've got to be kidding me," Wedge nearly shouted. "You think he'll buy that?"
"He just might," Winter offered, "if it's worded properly. Despite all his apparent madness, his obsession with finding her remains consistent. I get the feeling that she might have been his target at the Cauldron Nebula. Why else would he destroy an uninhabited star cluster, then not even claim it as an example? Target practice? I doubt it."
"Also, it would be the truth. He has immensely strong Jedi powers, and could easily check for a lie."
Wedge turned away to think for a moment. Perhaps it would work. But Luke should be the one to do this. It was his responsibility after all. But Qwi deserved more immediate action...
"General Bel Iblis, I would like to deliver our response."
"Out of the question, Wedge. You have a personal grudge against this guy, and it shows all too well."
"No. That's final."
"Yes, sir," Wedge muttered.
"Winter, will you please consult Princess Leia about this?"
"Yes, of course."
Through the bridge window the Star Destroyer loomed, growing ever closer. Luke could feel the hair on the back of his neck bristling in anticipation. This was it. The Gorgon, with Admiral Daala aboard.
Larger and larger it grew, its length soon exceeding the width of the viewport from where Luke stood next to Captain Kratas at the aft of the bridge. He saw the drive trails of another freighter emerging from beneath it, having just finished its unloading. A flight of TIE fighters could be seen heading for the Star Destroyer's hangar, ready to change shifts with the next group on rotation.
These "fleet replenishment ships" were theoretically the largest ships that could fit in a Star Destroyer's main hangar and still allow TIEs to launch, but as far as anyone knew, it had never actually been done outside of experiments and carefully organized demonstrations. As a result, the ship's fighter screen was launched before the freighter docked, then could only return after it left the hangar. As unloading could take several hours, and patrol duty was typically very boring, the standard procedure was for squadrons to be cycled through a rotation, switching between replenishment ships. Despite the awkwardness of it, resupply by these ships meant the Star Destroyer had to be in one place for only as long as one day for a complete restock, rather than the week plus for total resupply by shuttle and light freighter.
Not that total resupply was needed all that often. But the planet below - Icu, as Kratas had informed Luke - had a pleasant climate, and offered an excellent site for shore leave. With much of the crew occupied down below, it was as good a time as any to cycle through old stocks and bring in an entirely fresh supply of food, spare parts, power cells, and miscellaneous other items.
Finally, the last of the TIEs entered the hangar, while a squadron of Interceptors poured out, and made for their patrol circuit. According to procedure, Luke thought, they should be hailing us right about...
"Approaching freighter, identify yourself. State your cargo and destination," the comm crackled.
"Fleet Replenishment Ship Procuror, reporting. We are carrying food and TIE fighter replacement engines for the flagship."
"Maintain your present course while we verify your cargo. Stand by," the Star Destroyer's docking control operator said.
Luke swallowed hard. This was it. Would the scramblers succeed or fail? If they somehow detected the Noghri, this would all be over.
In the tense moments, Luke found himself studying the hull of the Gorgon, trying to find the sensors, weapons, and tractor beams, all of which would now be targeting the freighter. Ghent had promised that his scramblers could fool even current, state-of-the-art Imperial sensors, and the Gorgon's were over a decade old. Doubt still gnawed at him, though. Some people thought of Lightsabers as obsolete, outdated technology, too, but that only meant that no one had thought to design defenses against them in years.
He picked out a sensor dish at last. Using the Force to improve his sight, he studied it. Odd... it looked like a late model KDY design, definitely not more than two years old. Though it wasn't surprising. If Daala had been able to enlist the aid of other Imperial forces like this freighter, then getting sensor upgrades were no problem. A new sensor set could sometimes plug right in to the old one's mount, making upgrades remarkably fast and easy.
When it came to the weapons positions, however, something was definitely amiss. Luke focused on one of the ship's heavy turbolaser batteries, and recognized it as being about twice as large as it had any business being. True, the Gorgon was stationed in a research facility, and might have added some of the benefits of that research to its systems, there was still something gnawing at Luke. Not the presence of massive numbers of Ysalamiri aboard - he had expected that, though not nearly so many. It was something else. Whether through the Force, or just his eyes, he knew that something was wrong here.
Come to think of it, when did Daala get her hands on TIE Interceptors?
Finally, the comm crackled again. "Procuror, your cargo is verified. Please turn off manual controls and lock on to our signal."
"Acknowledged, Chimaera, fleet replenishment ship Procuror now handing control over to you," the freighter pilot said lazily, as if it were only natural for him to say it. Which it was. However, it was the last thing Luke Skywalker had expected to hear.
After a few stunned moments, Luke regained his composure enough to whisper to Kratas, "Captain, you will be indisposed for the next few hours. Make arrangements. Now."
"Conveniently forgot to mention that, didn't he?" Han muttered. "Why didn't you pick that up, Luke?"
"Because I never lied to you," Kratas announced proudly. Or, at least, as proudly as circumstances permitted. "Of course, I wasn't about to offer information I wasn't directly asked about." He grinned smugly, savoring his small triumph over his captors.
"So, then, if Admiral Daala... excuse me, Lieutenant Commander Daala... is no longer in charge, who is?" Lando asked, a blaster waving menacingly in Kratas's direction.
"Don't give us that," Han growled. "You know what he means."
Kratas turned his head and closed his eyes, determined to say no more. Probably trying to clear his mind as well.
"Luke," Lando entreated, his hand waving toward Kratas.
"You know, I really don't like this," Luke said, but the words weren't directed at Kratas this time. With a sigh, he said, "All right, just one more time."
Luke concentrated deeply, probing Kratas's mind for the information he sought. It turned out the Captain was doing an admirable job controlling his surface thoughts on the topic, requiring Luke to probe deeper, much to his unease.
Kratas, for his part, remained still. He thought he felt a pressure in his head, but dismissed it as imagination. A slight bump and metallic thud broke his concentration, and his thoughts immediately turned to the docking process with the Chimaera. A definite opening for the Jedi! He quickly cleared his mind again, but feared it to be too late. The pressure was gone... if it was ever there at all. Meaning he had failed, meaning the Jedi now knew...
Kratas opened his eyes to find Skywalker shaking his head.
"No good," Luke said regretfully. "I couldn't find it in time. There are ysalamiri in the hangar - lots of them."
"Wouldn't you know."
"Well, Han, looks like we get to handle it, then," Lando said with a smile and raised blaster. "So, Captain, the name of the person in charge here?"
For a few moments he refused to answer. Eventually, though, he gave in. "Pellaeon," he answered in a tone of total defeat. "Grand Admiral Pellaeon. He captured Admiral Daala and demoted her."
"Looks like you got treated a bit better, then," Han pointed out, holding Kratas's Captain's bars.
"Given command of a freighter?"
"You mean, this ship actually is your command?" Luke said in disbelief.
"Yes," Kratas admitted.
"That answers that, then," Lando observed. "No wonder the two of you hatched this little scheme. Too bad it all comes crashing down on top of you. So then... if Daala isn't actually in charge, just how was she planning to meet with us? Or is this actually Pellaeon's doing?"
Kratas turned his head in defiance once more.
"Oh for the love of..."
Suddenly, one of the sentry Noghri popped through the door. "Han clan Solo! Docking is complete. We are still secure, but the crew has begun unloading. Is it time to depart?"
"No, not just yet," Han answered. "First, we need..." A smile spread across his face. "Oh Artoo?"
From the other side of the cabin, the droid twittered a question. G-2M0 only looked on in silence.
"Could you unlock this closet?" He asked, pointing to a narrow storage locker.
Artoo's beep sounded strangely sarcastic. The droid rolled to the locker, extended a claw arm, and swung the door open.
"No one likes a wise-guy droid," Han scowled. He shoved Kratas into the closet, then shot him with a stun blast before the Captain could get out much more than a yelp. "Now lock it, and make sure he can't unlock it from the inside."
As Artoo complied, he turned back to his compatriots. "Luke, you'd best get into one of the uniforms. This is it!"
No one in the hangar paid any significant attention to the two fleet troopers that strode out of the Procuror, nor the blue and white astromech that accompanied them. They found the officer of the deck and presented their orders to him - orders lifted from the real troopers still aboard the Procuror in another locker.
The deck officer checked them over and pointed them in the direction of the hangar's lounge, where they were to enjoy some R & R, since a Replenishment Ship during unloading procedures had little need for its own security with an entire Star Destroyer's complement of fleet troopers and stormtroopers to guard it.
The lounge was actually rather nice. Some well-cushioned cots were arrayed against one wall, with a couple of TIE pilots - identifiable only from the helmets on the floor beside them - resting on them. Probably just back from their patrol. Several crewmen sat around a table playing sabacc, while others watched a holovid. The strangest thing, at least from Luke and Lando's perspective, was the amount of crewers in civilian clothing. It was soon clear why: the last shuttle they could catch before their shore leave ran out brought them back to the Chimaera with several hours of time off left, and they were determined to make use of it.
"Care for a drink?" one crewman, still or just back in uniform, offered.
"Well, as a matter of fact," Lando started.
"Thank you, but no," Luke replied, as pleasantly as possible. "We go back on duty soon."
"Sure, suit yourselves," the man responded calmly enough. Actually, he was probably a little too calm to be completely sober. "But I always heard those Replenishment Ships were a bit more lax on certain regs..."
"Got ourselves a new skipper," Luke said matter-of-factly.
"Still figures he can clean up our image," Lando added with a sly grin. "We'll disillusion him soon enough."
The crewer chuckled. "I hear that. Say, what's the droid for?"
They were ready for this one.
"Got a couple of messages to send to some buddies of ours. But we wouldn't want to make everyone wait for us to finish writing them here," Lando said, jerking a thumb in the direction of the private comm stations in a currently unoccupied corner of the room. "Private" being the official designation only. "So we decided to record 'em before we left our ship, and have the droid transfer the data."
"Clever idea," the crewer said, with an odd fascination in his expression. "Well," he said, raising his mug. "Here's to your crusade against stiffnecks, and to whatever gets past the censors!"
Luke and Lando nodded in appreciation and headed toward the comm stations.
"This place bringing back any memories?" Lando asked, if just to make small talk.
"Yes," Luke replied, "but I never made it to this place last time. I guess resupply shuttle crews have to wait on their own ships, but fleet freighter crews get to come here. Easy enough to keep an eye on either group, of course."
"Of course," Lando agreed. Now at the comm station, he pressed a few buttons to activate the message recorder. A prompt appeared on the screen, ready for him to type in his message. Instead, he ushered R2-D2 forward. The droid eagerly plugged in to the terminal and began uploading his data.
Luke felt a little better, knowing that his fears about Ghent's program not being compatible with old Imperial systems were now moot. He still worried, though.
It took at least five full, nerve-wracking minutes before Artoo made another sound. But with his single beep, he confirmed that the program had been fully uploaded. The Imperial intelligence computers that the fake personal messages would undoubtedly be routed to were about to get an injection of the computer version of a mild tranquilizer. Nothing the human censors would immediately notice, of course. The program would allow them to carry on their usual routines while it worked its way in to the other systems monitoring the lounge and the nearest corridors. Particularly, the "secure" main computer access room nearest to them.
It was nearly another five minutes before Artoo beeped again, to signify that the monitoring systems in the lounge were now adequately subverted. Lando took a quick glance around and then, satisfied that no one was paying attention to them, pressed a combination of keys to bring up a local deck map on the monitor.
They quickly identified their target computer terminal, thankfully within the boundaries of the very limited map. Another keystroke deleted the map, and Artoo disengaged two minutes after that. From his confident twittering, it seemed that at least he was satisfied with the results.
As Luke and Lando left the lounge, returning a friendly wave to that same crewer before exiting, they knew that the clock was now ticking. As soon as anyone noticed that the security systems were running through old recordings, the hammer would fall. Next step: to pad that hammer.
According to the shuttle bay chrono, the Procuror was due in a half hour ago. Accounting for the uncertainties of hyperspace travel, the competence or lack thereof of the stock crew, and miscellaneous other mishaps, it may not have even arrived yet.
Or so Daala rationalized. In fact, she had lost track of the time, despite the fact that she had been watching the clock ever since she woke up. A brief lapse, and she had nearly missed her cue. But all would work as planned. It would be her moment of triumph. Deep down, she could feel it. Tarkin's words echoed in her mind.
Sometimes, he had said, your victory is destined. When that happens, you will feel it to the very core of your being.
At long last, it made sense.
She had already arranged for the rest of the shuttle bay crew to be on shore leave at this very moment. And though she was supposed to be on duty the full time they were away, she was now making her way to the main hangar. Any moment now, and...
There, through a hallway viewport, she saw what she had come to see. Positioned high and to the port side of the hangar, the transparisteel window provided an excellent view of the enormous bay, were it not so full at the moment. The Procuror filled up almost the entire opening, leaving just a sliver of space visible directly below her. By pressing her face against the pane and looking forward, she could see a thicker white speckled black patch, with a hint of a blue-green planet. Looking aft, she could just barely see the hangar deck with a multitude of crewmen, droids, and repulsor sleds hauling away crates at a rapid pace.
If Kratas had fulfilled his mission properly, one of those crates would contain her appeasement offering or going-away present for Grand Admiral Thrawn. She hadn't quite decided yet.
She took a step backward, lost in thought. She weighed the pros and cons. Yes, Thrawn would be pleased, and might finally see her value. On the other hand...
Daala absently stared at the viewport, pondering this question. Slowly, as her thoughts came back from the possibilities to the current reality, her sight came back into focus on the ghostly reflection in the transparisteel. She studied the person that stared back at her; the too-short hair, the Lieutenant Commander bars, and especially the four scars on her face. She brought her hand up to rub the slightly raised lines, as if to confirm that they were really there. They were.
Daala drew her hand away from her face, balled into a fist. No, it was definitely a going away present. With a gift like that, there was no way Thrawn would pursue her. No matter what else she did before leaving.
The former admiral strode down the hall with a fierce determination and clear course of action.
"Are you ready yet?" Han hissed into the comlink. "These guys are getting itchy, and it ain't pretty."
"Almost," Luke whispered back. "Just a couple more minutes, and we should be in control of everything we need."
"You're sure they're not monitoring us?"
"Artoo says they're not."
"Guess that'll have to do, then."
"Han clan Solo," a Noghri interrupted. "Can we depart?"
"Not yet, Elkh'nimh. Look, Luke, hurry it along, huh?"
"We're doing the best we can. Over."
Han clipped the now silent comlink back to his belt. All around him, the Noghri were... twitching, for lack of a better word. He had never seen them so agitated. Some of them seemed to be sniffing the air for some reason. Probably trying to pick up Mara's scent.
Wonder what Luke gave them, Han thought.
"Sounds like the Noghri are about ready to storm the ship without us," Luke reported. "How much longer?"
"Almost there, I think," Lando answered. "But then, how would I know?"
Artoo beeped something, probably a confirmation of Lando's words. Though there was no way of knowing which ones he was confirming.
"How can these fleet troopers possibly fight in these helmets?" Luke muttered, peeling the oversized inverted spoon from his head and sitting on a nearby operator's chair. The operator was currently lying in a stunned heap in the corner.
"No idea," Lando admitted. "But it's got to be better that those stormtrooper helmets."
"Well, you can see out of these at least," Luke conceded. "But they're a lot heavier."
"That's true. Well, well," Lando said, turning his attention back to the computer terminal. "Looks like we're in! Let's see now..." he trailed off, pressing keys in rapid succession.
Schematics of the detention levels appeared on screen. He entered his first query, but without result.
"Luke, you know any of Mara's aliases? She's not listed under her real name."
"Not surprising," Luke replied. "Can't use the Force to... wait! Let me try something..."
Luke squeezed past Lando and typed in his information request. Soon, a single cell was highlighted.
"She's there, cell 138," he said firmly.
"How do you know?" a startled Lando asked.
"It's the only cell surrounded by ysalamiri."
"Not taking any chances with her, are they?" he chuckled. "That's my Mara."
Luke opened his mouth as if to object, but then shut it and let the matter rest.
"Okay, Artoo, let's test this," Luke announced. "Lando, go out the door and two doors to the right. I'll monitor you from here, and open it as you get to it."
"Right," Lando confirmed. A quick walk down the hall and back, and he confirmed the test.
"All right, then. From here, we can watch how our little party is progressing. Here," he said, punching a few keys and bringing up a wire-frame plan view of the main hangar, "are Han and the Noghri." Nine bright green dots appeared hovering over the hangar's opening. Obviously, the Procuror was not included in the display. "Their scramblers are still working, but Artoo knows how to recognize them. Here," he pressed a few more keys, "is where we are. Now we don't have direct access to the security cameras, nor can we access other computer terminals along the way. Artoo has to stay here the whole time, until we're ready to leave."
"What about alarms?"
"That's the funny thing," Luke replied, though his voice implied no humor whatsoever. "The alarms have already been tripped. The program Ghent put into Artoo is allowing him to retard the circuit. They will go off eventually, but it may take anywhere from 50 minutes to a couple hours. Of course, once he unplugs, the effects of Ghent's program will wear off much faster. Artoo," Luke asked, suddenly turning back to the screen and entering some more commands, "can you put up a low-end estimate of how long we have?"
With a beep of affirmation, the droid caused a countdown clock to appear on the monitor, counting down from 63 minutes. It abruptly changed to 57 minutes as the astromech refined his estimate based on new input.
"All right, then," Luke said as he stood up and reached for his helmet. "Lando, you ready?"
"Sure am," Lando answered, already standing at the door. "Don't worry, milady, your prince is on his way!"
"No! Wait a minute! I'm..." Luke started, but it was too late. Lando had already left.
For a moment, he considered going after him. But no, someone had to monitor the operation from here, and Artoo couldn't do it alone. Well, technically he could, but no one could understand him over the comlink.
With a heavy sigh, Luke slumped back into his chair, letting the helmet fall noisily to the floor.
"What do you mean it's all right?" Han said, a little too loudly. "You're the one who should be doing this! Go after him!"
"I can't. Someone has to observe from here."
"So you just wait there, and I'll relieve you."
"No time Han. We've just got to go with it."
Blast that kid, Han thought. He was right, but still...
"Fine. Are you ready for the Noghri?"
"Yes. I'm ready with the door nearest the freighter's starboard emergency exit. Be sure to remind them that they need to get to the shuttle bay when I give the signal."
"Got it. Anything else?"
"Not at the moment. Good luck."
"And may the Force be with you," Han concluded.
"It is time, Han clan Solo?" Elkh'nimh asked, the anticipation clear even in his alien voice. More anticipation, really, than he had any business feeling. There was a hint of something else it in. Something... sinister.
"Yes it is. Out the emergency exit, through the hangar side door, and then make your way to the conning tower. Try to find Daala, capture her and bring her back with you. And before you ask, no, I don't have anything with her scent on it. Just look for the woman you saw on the holo we showed you. If you should happen upon the, uh, 'Consort of the Son of Vader,' be sure to free her. Get to the shuttle bay when he orders you. These fancy comlinks we gave you can display a map if you need it. Find Daala and Mara if you can, then back to the shuttle bay. And stay out of trouble, got it?"
"We shall not fail, Han clan Solo," Elkh'nimh answered, giving the now familiar Noghri bow.
Han watched the Noghri file off, realizing belatedly that Elkh'nimh hadn't actually answered that final question.
Han stood and straightened his officer's uniform. Before heading off to the shuttle bay to secure their escape route, he stepped over to the storage locker Captain Kratas had been sealed in.
"Well, Captain Kratas, I wanted to keep this a surprise, but I know Luke wouldn't like it if I didn't tell you." He paused, waiting for a sign that Kratas was hearing him. None came. He shrugged and continued. "Well, we decided it would only be proper to return a Sun Crusher missile to you. It's on this ship somewhere, but if you should get out and find it, don't mess with it, 'cause that'll just set it off. Have a nice day," he concluded with a friendly rap on the locker door.
"You know, Karrde," Torve pointed out, "maybe there was a 'greater purpose' for us getting left behind after all."
"I don't entirely agree, I'm afraid," Karrde replied, stroking Drang's ears through the cell bars, "but this is at least something of a consolation."
In the farthest corner of one of the Wild Karrde's cells, a man cowered, hiding his face from both the light and the two Vornskrs chained to the bars - on the inside.
"You are aware, aren't you," Karrde said loudly, in the direction of the man, "that I don't take kindly to threats against my people, much less actual attacks on them."
"Funny," the man muttered. "Last I heard, Red wasn't one of 'your people' anymore."
"I may not be in the front lines anymore," Karrde retorted, "but I'm still around. And I still keep tabs on my employees, past or present."
"You telling me that you think you're the one pullin' Red's strings? Or is she really pulling yours? Here I thought you had retired. But now, looks to me like Red's been 'Forcing' the issue."
"Give it a rest, Raylic," Torve bit out. "Haygn may have believed your load of dung, but don't even bother pushing it around here."
"Haygn? Why that backstabbing little..."
"Can't blame him for wanting out of a murder plot."
"What murder plot?" Raylic asked innocently, now looking at them. "I never tried to kill anyone. I was only doing some target practice."
"Easy, Torve," Karrde said, his hand on Torve's shoulder. "I already know exactly what you were trying to do, Raylic. What I want to know is, how did you find out about this meeting in the first place?"
"I ain't tellin' you."
"Help us track down the source of the information, and maybe we can forget this whole thing ever happened. Maybe even get you off the 'blacklist,' as you call it."
"Yeah, like I believe that."
"You can believe what you want," Karrde said as he turned to leave. "And from what I hear, you're really good at that. But I want you to remember something: I only execute people who have committed a serious crime against me and my organization. And you most certainly have."
Lieutenant Commander Daala exited the turbolift in the 100 level of the detention block and pulled out the authorization card she had appropriated from that same overeager Intelligence Ensign she got the belt holocam and message cube from. Though to be fair, he didn't actually know she had borrowed the card. Having been an Admiral for over a decade, she knew such things existed, and where in an intelligence officer's room to look for one. At the block's desk, she presented the card, and awaited approval for her 'visit' with a prisoner.
"That's strange," the Lieutenant behind the desk muttered. "System's running a bit slow today."
Daala felt as if a hundred eyes were staring at her. She thought she knew quite a bit about those Imperial Intelligence cards, enough to slice her name on to one at the very least, and even add a bit more access than the card should have been good for. Tarkin had made sure she knew how to do that. This one in particular, though, was a much newer design than she was used to, but the fundamentals should have been the same. It might not stand up to a concentrated investigation, but she should be long gone before that came to pass. But if it failed at the beginning...
"No, wait... here it is. All right, Lieutenant Commander, you're approved for questioning the prisoner in cell 138. Do you require an escort?"
"No, it's all right. I already know how dangerous this one is, and I can handle her."
"I'll have to ask you to leave your blaster here."
"What? Oh, of course," Daala said, pulling her service pistol out of her holster and handing it to the Lieutenant. He motioned for her to go on ahead.
Daala felt her heart beating heavier and heavier as she approached the cell in question. The numbers got closer and closer... 130, 132, 134... She took a deep breath. There it was at last. Cell 138. She took a sideways glance back down the hall, noting that the Lieutenant's attention was focused entirely on a dark skinned fleet trooper who had just come out of the turbolift. The other trooper on patrol for this cell block was down at the far end, standing with his back against the even numbered cell wall. At last, Daala pressed the key to open the cell door.
"You didn't knock first... why Thrawn, you sly devil. Trying to catch me at an awkward moment?" Mara teased from around the corner from the door. It actually was pretty close to an awkward moment, at that. She put on a playful grin and turned to meet her company. Even if it wasn't Thrawn, this was sure to get some... interesting rumors going among the guards. "Sorry, but you didn't quite catch me this time. I... oh, sithspawn, what are you doing here?
"My, my," Daala mocked, stepping fully into the cell, allowing the door to slide shut behind her. It wouldn't do for anyone to casually walk by and see this. "What will your Jedi Master think when I tell him about you and Thrawn?"
"Oh, please don't tell!" Mara begged sarcastically, then turned dead serious. "Get real. And get out."
"Not just yet," Daala continued. "I have unfinished business with you, Emperor's Hand. Or shall I call you Mara Jade? Or perhaps Mara Skywalker, as that fool Thrawn seems to think? Or just Traitor?"
"If you were any more intimidating, you'd scare yourself," Mara said monotonously. "Now, if you don't mind, my holos start in a couple minutes, and I'd like to get settled in," she said, gesturing to the very comfortable looking chair in the corner.
"You think this is all a joke, don't you?"
"In a word, yes. Unless you're even dumber than I thought."
Daala flushed for a moment, then tried valiantly to regain her composure. "I don't know why we should be on such bad terms, Emperor's Hand. We are very similar, you and I."
"Oh really?" Mara asked. This ought to be good. "And how do you figure that?"
"Why, you were to the Emperor exactly what I was to Tarkin. Protˇgˇ, assistant, confidante..." She paused for effect. "...lover."
So, Mara recounted something she had overheard from Thrawn, that really is all she ever thinks about.
The suggestion was far from foreign to Mara's ears, of course. Her secret court identity as one of Palpatine's favorite dancers lent itself to that. But she always took the greatest pleasure in savoring the irony, and let them think whatever they wanted. What surprised her, though, was that she felt especially defensive about it now. The effects of trying to become her true self, perhaps? A true self that she had only become aware of two years previously, one that had been obscured by devotion to the Emperor for at least two thirds of her life. Sometimes she wondered if even her name was truly her own. But there were some things that, 'under the influence' or not, she knew to be true about herself, and this was one of them. "I'm sorry you think so," she growled.
"That is the only way a woman - any woman - could achieve a position of power within the system. You know it, and I know it."
"Don't even try to deny it. It's plain to anyone with eyes to see. So tell me," Daala said with a knowing grin, "is your Jedi Master better to you than the Emperor was?"
Mara stood silent. Daala clearly thought she was at a loss for words. In fact, she was struggling to keep her anger in check.
"Out," she said at last. "Get out. Or I call the guards."
"Can't handle the truth, can you? But I'd advise against doing anything rash," Daala replied, punctuating her statement by drawing a hold-out blaster from her sleeve.
"I can handle the truth, Lieutenant Commander," Mara said, emphasizing the rank, "were there any truth to be handled. What do you think you're going to do with that?"
"Oh, I have something in mind. Why don't you just have a seat?"
"I'd rather stand."
"In your condition? Best to get a load off your feet, mommy," Daala advised, emphasizing the last word in retaliation.
Mara felt a slight twitch of amusement tug at the corner of her mouth, but fought it back. That Daala would think that to be an insult...
"Lando!" Luke hissed into the comlink. "Lando! Do you hear me?"
"Uh huh," came Lando's reply. Obviously trying to downplay the conversation he was having through his hidden headset.
"Lando, someone just went into Mara's cell. I don't know who it is."
"Wait, did you hear that?" Lando said loudly, for the benefit of both the block officer and Luke.
"Artoo, make a noise in the detention block. Any small noise will do. Make it move around if you can."
Artoo beeped some sort of reply, but went at it. Soon, he was rewarded with Lando's words, "Listen, there it is again!" through the comm.
"Wait here, sir. I'll go check it out," Lando continued. The sound of him drawing and taking the safety off his blaster rifle could be heard. "Watch in case anything comes this way." After that came only the sound of Lando's heavy footsteps down the cell block corridor. Not running, for fear of arousing too much suspicion, but definitely faster than a normal pace.
Luke found himself involuntarily holding his breath. Someone was there with Mara. Who knew what for. And he wasn't there for her.
He could feel the old sense of uselessness and failure engulfing him yet again.
"Fine," she said at last, taking a seat. "Have it your way for now. I really have no idea what you hope to accomplish here, though. Has the thought ever entered that deluded mind of yours as to what Thrawn will do to you if he finds out about this?"
"Of course," Daala assured her. "Which is why I've invited a guest to join us."
"Guest?" Mara repeated. That smug look on Daala's face worried her. "Who?"
"Why, your dear Master, of course. He's here, you know."
"You're lying," Mara accused. Deep down, though, she felt both hope and dread rising. Could he really be here? Come for me? Or... stars, he didn't give in to a ransom demand, did he?
"No, I'm not. When Thrawn sees the new prisoner I've brought him, I don't think he's really going to care what becomes of me."
"You obviously don't know Thrawn very well."
That seemed to give Daala pause. After a moment, she shook it off and pretended she never heard Mara speak those words. "I do wonder, though, why Skywalker really came. I offered him two lures, you know; you and the Sun Crusher. Which does he value higher? His mistress or his duty?"
"I am not..." Mara started, then shook her head in defeat. "Forget it, there's no point."
"Just as I suspected," Daala said triumphantly.
Mara scowled at her. It doesn't matter what she thinks, she reminded herself. The truth was the truth, and Daala would probably never accept it. Though there was one thing that Daala said that troubled her: why did Luke come to her, as she apparently had requested?
Mara's heart sank as she acknowledged the truth on that matter. Luke probably had come out of duty. He was a Jedi Master now... at least, nearly one. He had been humbled recently, but that would only increase his dedication and sense of duty. To recklessly drop everything and chase after one person, a person who did not have the answer to the current galactic crisis, was to ignore, and even to harm the greater good.
Then again, this was Luke Skywalker. A man who had been known to drop everything on occasion to rescue a friend. Or to redeem his father. Or, she remembered with a tear forming, to find a single damaged ejection seat to save the life of a person who had sworn to his face that she would kill him.
"Can't take it, can you?" Daala mocked. "All your secrets poured out in the open like this. Don't worry, it will only make you stronger in the end. If Thrawn doesn't kill you, of course."
"Or if you don't kill me first. That's what you're getting at, isn't it?"
"Not quite, actually," Daala replied, twirling her blaster by its trigger guard. Mara watched the motion carefully, considering the possibility of lunging at and overpowering Daala. Which reminded her...
"You know, picking at it only makes it worse," Mara advised, pointing a finger at her own cheek.
Daala, who had been subconsciously rubbing the scratches on her face with her unoccupied left hand, abruptly pulled said hand down to her side in a fierce jerk.
"I've got it!" Mara declared triumphantly. "I know why you're here! You came to ask me to even you up!"
Daala glowered at Mara for a while, no longer twirling her blaster, but tensing her fingers as if to take a shot.
"Maybe, just maybe, your Master did come for you," Daala said at last. Her tone had a finality to it, as if gearing up for her conclusion. She had certainly taken her time getting around to it. "In that case, I wish you a lasting happiness that I never got to have with Tarkin."
Sarcastic was an understatement. While maintaining eye contact with Daala, Mara worked a hand under the chair's seat cushion, ready to use it as a shield against the impending blaster shot. It should be good to absorb or at least reduce one shot from that type of holdout blaster, but one was all she'd need to deflect. Daala would never get off a second shot.
"You didn't tell him about your little surprise yet, did you? Well, of course not," Daala continued. "You yourself only found out after you were captured."
Mara was fully ready to act, but focused on Daala's words nonetheless. A sense of discomfort was creeping up on her. The Force may have been inaccessible to her, but the standard feelings that everybody got were still at full strength, and in Mara's estimation, sometimes just as effective.
"Let's just say that when he finally finds you, he needn't worry about illegitimate children."
"No, you're wrong," Mara started, but then the real meaning hit her like a Death Star blast. All strength drained from her body, her plan of action completely forgotten as she sunk like a dead weight into the chair, unable to move. Her face grew pale, her stare blank, her voice, once she found it, hoarse.
"No..." she whispered, wrapping her arms around her belly defensively. "You wouldn't. You can't." She wanted to act, but could not overcome the surge of emotions that now weighed her down like a ton of bricks.
"I can and I will," Daala assured her, bringing up her blaster.
"Please... don't... I'll scream..."
"You can barely talk right now. No one will hear a thing. Now, say goodnight."
Mara curled into a protective ball, and gritted her teeth for the blaster impact sure to come. But instead of a blaster, she heard the cell door open. She opened her eyes and looked up just in time to see the butt of a blaster rifle flash into view directly above Daala's head then disappear below it, accompanied by a muffled thud. Daala had just started turning to see who was at the door, but never made it around before she was struck unconscious and collapsed into a pile on the floor.
Behind Daala stood someone in an Imperial fleet trooper's uniform. At the moment she first saw him, he was leaning back outside the door, trying to see if anyone down the corridor had heard the commotion.
"L...Luke?" she asked tentatively. Hopefully. "Luke, is that you?" A tear fell down her cheek, but she didn't care.
"Luke?" came the surprised reply as an entirely different face turned to look in her direction. "No, the name's Lando Calrissian," he corrected, flashing a gleaming smile. "I'm here to rescue you."
"You're almost there. Just three more levels," Luke whispered into the comlink. The Noghri squad leader acknowledged, and with a whistle brought his troops out of their defensive crouches and through the door as Luke opened it.
The Noghri had quickly and cautiously made their way up the Chimaera's tower, quietly eliminating any Imperial who happened to spot them. With Luke monitoring their progress and controlling the doors ahead and behind them, there hadn't been many at any rate.
Luke watched intently as the green dots on his monitor moved through the doorway and into defensive positions in the next room. After all the dots had reached their positions and had been still for a few seconds, one made for the stairway. Though it would have been faster in a turbolift, taking the stairs meant much less chance of being accidentally spotted. After all, no Imperial Luke had ever known took the stairs in a Star Destroyer.
He thought he heard some sniffing from the Noghri, beyond just their regular breathing. His heart rate increased in anticipation. Could they be picking up Mara's scent? Was she in the conning tower after all, and not in her cell at all? Lando... must check with Lando.
He was just about to press the transmit button on the comlink for Lando when the Noghri suddenly spoke again.
"He is here!"
He? They weren't supposed to be finding any "he"... "Elkh'nimh, what was that last?"
"He is here, Son of Vader. We must be swift. Justice for the Noghri people!"
"What are you talking about?" Luke said urgently. "Who's here? Where are you going?"
The Noghri didn't answer, just surged down the hallway. Of all the things that could go wrong, Luke never expected the Noghri to be one of them.
"Artoo, go ahead and open the doors for them. I don't know where they're going, but I'll trust their judgment on this one." He picked up the other comlink again. "Lando?"
"What in space is going on here?" Lando asked as he stared in absolute shock at the decor of Mara's cell.
"Later, Calrissian. Where's Luke?"
"Well, he's..." Lando started, but broke off in puzzlement. Here he was, having just rescued her from what appeared to be imminent peril, and the first thing out of her mouth isn't 'Lando Calrissian, my hero," or even a simple 'thank you,' but 'where's Luke?' Didn't she always call him 'Skywalker'? Could it be?
No, Lando decided firmly. No, that couldn't be it.
"Is Luke here, on this ship, at all?" Mara asked. Pleaded, maybe...
"Yes, of course he is," Lando finally answered. "Hey," he flashed his famous smile as he reassured her, "you didn't think good ol' Luke Skywalker would just leave you here, did you? He doesn't abandon his friends."
"His friends," Mara repeated softly. "No, of course he doesn't."
"Come on, let's get out of here," Lando urged, then took another glance around the 'cell.' "If you really want to, that is."
"Don't have to ask me twice," Mara replied. "Just one minute. Why don't you check to see if anyone's coming?"
While Lando complied, she quickly grabbed a jacket, a couple data cards, and the hold-out blaster that had fallen from Daala's hand. She stood over the unconscious body and pointed the blaster at it, contemplating a permanent solution to the nuisance that lay before her. She pulled back the blaster and slid it into a pocket, deciding that whatever Thrawn did to her would be far worse than what she could do right now. However, she did take the opportunity to deliver a quick kick to Daala's gut.
"Let that be a reminder," she whispered, crouching down next to Daala's ear. "No one calls MY children illegitimate."
"Still clear, Mara. What..." Lando said as he popped back into the cell to see her beside Daala.
Mara didn't explain anything. She just stood up and started walking.
"After you, madam," Lando gestured politely, deciding it would be prudent to drop the subject.
"Can it, Calrissian."
Ouch, Lando thought. Awfully moody for someone who's just been rescued.
The door had just slid shut behind him when his earphone crackled.
"Yeah, I'm here," he whispered.
"Who are you talking to?" Mara asked.
Lando just held up his hand to tell her to wait.
"Lando," Luke continued. "I see you're out of the cell. Was she there?"
"Yes. There was a little bit of trouble, but it's okay. She's here with me now."
"Could I..." Luke started, sounding like he was making a request. Apparently, it wasn't really that important. "No, never mind. Look, you're going to have to go back out the way you came in. The only other way out is through the trash chute, and that will definitely give you away. Bluff your way out, or stun the guard if you have to. I think Artoo can keep the alarms quiet."
"Is... is that Luke?"
"Uh huh," Lando said, answering both parties at once. A glance down the hall told him that suspicion was already aroused, at least partially. "Let's continue this some other time, shall we? Out." He drew his blaster and pressed it into Mara's back. "Sorry, Mara, got to make it look good. Please don't think ill of me."
"It's all right, Calrissian," she reassured. "But you don't have to do that. Put the gun away."
"What?" That made no sense whatsoever!
"Holster it. We'll be fine. Trust me."
"I..." Lando started to protest, but then a thought popped into his head. Here was a chance to show her how much he thought of her. A simple request - to trust her. "Okay," he said, returning the blaster to his belt.
Following Mara's lead, he walked toward the turbolift. The guard at the far end was still on station - he had checked that earlier. The Lieutenant, however, was quickly coming their way.
"What do you think you're doing?" He demanded of Lando with his gun drawn. "You said you were chasing after that noise. You never said anything about taking this prisoner anywhere."
"It's all right, Lieutenant," Mara said, much to Lando's surprise. Even more surprising was that the Lieutenant wasn't stopping her. "There was a rodent of some kind going through the ventilation system. He came in to look for it. Showed up just in time, too. I was just about to call for a guard to escort me to see my doctor."
Lando gave her a curiously concerned look, but remained silent for the time being.
"Of course. I apologize," the Lieutenant said, then stepped aside to let them pass.
A few steps later, he spoke again as he remembered something.
"Excuse me, wasn't there someone else..."
"Oh, yes, that's right. I meant to tell you," Mara interrupted before he could finish. "She decided to wait in the cell until I get back. Shouldn't be long, but the door is unlocked so she can leave whenever she wants."
"All right, I suppose," he said after a moment's contemplative pause. "Well, hope there's nothing wrong."
"Just the usual precautions," Mara assured him.
To Lando's utter astonishment, the Lieutenant merely sat back down at his desk and let them enter the turbolift without further delay.