The door slid open before them, as had all the others so far. The squad of Noghri swooped in like birds of prey, their knives drawn and ready to strike.
In a dark room, before their eyes could adjust, the superior Noghri sense of smell usually stood them in far better stead than a human. But the scents that greeted them were... unexpected. The scent of their quarry was strong, but not quite as strong as it should be. Unfortunately, tracking by scent through a starship of this size was not as precise as it was on the ground. There was also the smell of another Noghri, but it was an old smell, as if it had been a while ago. Consistent with this commander's former bodyguard's presence, but too strong for it to have been more than a week or two ago, not the two years it had been since the apparently unsuccessful assassination attempt. Then there was the faint scent of the one they were looking for. This was odd enough to necessitate a visual search of the room.
"Son of Vader," Elkh'nimh hissed into the comlink. "We require lighting."
The "Son of Vader" complied promptly with his request.
The questions the Noghri had were quickly answered.
"You're never going to believe this, Luke," Han whispered into the comlink. "But the shuttle bay is ours for the taking."
"Meaning there's no one here," Han answered. At the moment, he and his two Noghri cohorts were in the shuttle bay's command room, overlooking the cavernous expanse. Though not even a quarter the size of the main bay, it was still big enough to house several of the ubiquitous Lambda-class shuttles as well as a half-dozen ship's boats, small box-like craft meant only for transporting important passengers from ship to ship within a fleet or from orbit to planetary surface.
Currently, there was only one shuttle and no boats.
"Can you get me computer access here?" Han asked.
An affirmative tone from Artoo could be heard through the comlink. "All you need to do is push the buttons," Luke confirmed.
"Thanks," Han replied, quickly starting a search for shuttlecraft schedules. It would be good to know where they all were and when they would return. As well as why that one shuttle was the only one still here.
"By the way," Han mumbled while he worked, "any word from Lando yet?"
"Yes," Luke said, with a subtle, but definite cheer in his tone. "He found her, and they're on their way."
"Good. Ah, here we are. Okay, looks like most everything is planetside. One should be returning the shuttle bay crew from shore leave in about two hours, the rest following at approximately one-hour intervals. There's one that's gone out-of-system that has no return time listed, and the one that's still here... Oh great, down for maintenance."
"Oh, no," Luke moaned. "Can you check it out, see if you can fix it?"
"How much time do we have left?"
"According to Artoo's latest projection, about 20 minutes."
"Sure, I can try," Han snorted. Yeah, right. "But we'd better come up with some alternatives real fast."
"Understood. See what you can do," Luke replied, but the way his voice trailed off implied there was something else on his mind.
"Well... isn't it strange for the entire shuttle bay crew to be on leave at the same time?"
"You read my mind. Are you sure you can't feel the Force here? Anyway, I just started checking. Give me a minute..."
His fingers jumped from key to key as he searched through the system of menus that would bring him to the information he wanted. Every now and then he would have to wait for Artoo to subvert security blocks. Finally, the information showed up.
"According to this, their shuttle bay commander is still supposed to be here. Wonder if he's in the 'fresher..."
"Artoo just put your display on my screen here," Luke said, a grimness taking over his tone. "You happen to check the deck officer's name yet?"
"No, who is he... oh, you have got to be kidding me," Han swore as the name came up. He slammed his fist down hard on the console top. "Want to take a guess as to where she's gone?"
"Probably either the main hangar to meet Kratas, or..."
"The detention block," Han filled in with certainty. "Better call the others."
Ensign Dar Tria had just gone off-duty from his position at the Chimaera's helm station. As he emerged from the turbolift, his thoughts were almost entirely occupied by the shore leave he was about to go on. However, as he passed near the door to the Grand Admiral's private command center, the all-too familiar feeling of unease settled in.
At first, he thought he had been extremely fortunate to have been assigned the quarters he occupied on the Chimaera. It was far more than his bottom-level officer's rank entitled him to, and located in the part of the ship generally earmarked for only the highest of officers and their staffs.
As it turned out, the reason he had those quarters was that not many of the higher officers wanted to be so close to Thrawn.
It wasn't a matter of disrespect, nor a matter of dislike. It was a matter of fear. Not like the tales he had heard about Darth Vader, of course. Just the simple fact that those glowing red eyes and odd hours Thrawn kept tended to unsettle some people. As Tria learned (soon after the Chimaera's communications head, a Commander by rank, offered to switch quarters with him), the sight of Thrawn pacing the hallway from time to time, pausing and thinking along the way, was enough to drive anyone to paranoia. It was fine on the bridge, or anywhere else for that matter, during normal hours. But to hear a noise in the hallway, then to open the door and see Thrawn coming your way, lost in thought, those glowing eyes half-shut in concentration... He ended up spending quite a few sleepless nights wondering just what the Grand Admiral was planning.
However, Thrawn wasn't aboard right now, Tria reminded himself. But why didn't that seem to help?
With a few more steps, he was around the corner, but the feeling kept with him. The hallway had taken on an eerie stillness. Too quiet. No, that wasn't right, it was no quieter than it usually was. He tried to calm his mind, focussing on the sounds of machinery, of the Chimaera's air circulation, of the door sliding open behind him and around the corner...
Tria froze in place. Thrawn wasn't supposed to be here. And neither was Captain Pellaeon. No one should be in that room.
He thought about just walking away, but a sense of duty, or maybe just foolish curiosity won out, and he went back to peek around the corner.
What he saw was two short, nightmarish gray aliens carrying the unnaturally stiff form of a third one spanning across their shoulders.
Tria ducked back immediately. He knew who they were, all right. Noghri. There were Noghri on the ship. That could only mean trouble.
He frantically searched the hall for a manual alarm switch. He spotted one, about 20 meters away. With a hard swallow, he decided that they had probably seen him already. Hiding would do neither himself, nor the crew of the Chimaera, any good. Ensign Tria sprinted for the alarm button.
Unfortunately for Tria, the Noghri were swift. He was dying, a knife embedded in his back before he reached the alarm.
Unfortunately for the Noghri, he managed to hit the button before he expired.
"How bad is it?" Lando asked, overly concerned.
"How bad is what?" Mara asked, having ignored him much of the way from the turbolift through the hallways leading to the shuttle bay.
"Your condition. You said you were seeing a doctor."
"Huh? Oh, that," she said flippantly. "It's nothing to worry about."
"Yes it is. I'm always concerned with your well-being," Lando insisted.
"I'm fine, Calrissian."
"But if you're sick..."
"I am not sick, Calrissian. I'm... look, just drop it. It's none of your business anyway."
"No, you are NOT going to make it your business. That's final."
"Yes?" Lando asked suddenly, though not in answer to Mara's demand.
Mara watched on as he stared idly at the walls and ceiling of the empty corridor, listening to Luke through his earphone. With a dull pain in her heart, Mara wished she could get a hold of it for just a minute or two...
"No, I haven't seen her," Lando answered. "I'll keep an eye out, but I think getting to the shuttle bay ought to have priority."
Her? Mara thought. Her who? Me? But didn't he just tell Luke that...
"Right. If I see anything, I call you. Have you told the Noghri? Oh, I see. Well, they'd be the ones to do it. Okay, see you soon."
"What was that all about?" Mara demanded.
"That?" Lando asked. "Oh, Han and Luke have a theory that they want looked into."
"So, Han's here, too," Mara said, shaking her head with a smile. "That figures. So, what's this theory?"
"Well, they think Admiral Daala is headed for the detention block, and want me to try to capture her. We've got some questions to ask her. I told him that you were my top priority, of course," Lando explained, finishing with a smile meant to impress. It didn't.
"You know," Mara said sarcastically, "you really should have thought about that before you clobbered her back in my cell."
"WHAT?" Lando gasped. "That was HER?"
"Yep," Mara said with a smirk. "Nice job you did on her, by the way. She'll definitely feel that when she wakes up."
"Oh, great! Luke?"
"Why do you want her, anyway?"
"For information on stopping the Sun Crusher. Come on, Luke, where are you?"
"If she knew anything about that, she would have used it to save her ships at the Cauldron Nebula. Trust me, she's got nothing of use to us."
"Cauldron Nebula? That's why Kyp blew it up? He's even crazier than... Luke, this is urgent! Come in!"
"Shh..." Mara hissed urgently, then whispered "Listen."
Though distant and much muted, the sound of an alarm could be heard passing through the metal of the Chimaera's structure. The direction was difficult to determine with absolute certainty, but it was probably from above.
At long last, Luke's voice came through the earphone.
"Lando, we've got a situation here. Make for the shuttle bay as quickly as possible while I sort it out."
"Son of Vader!" Elkh'nimh's voice came through the comlink. "We have been detected!"
"I noticed," Luke muttered in return. "What happened?"
"We were seen by one man. Before we could silence him, he triggered the alarm. We apologize for our failure," he added meekly.
"No time for that now," Luke scolded. Later, though... "It looks like you're all in the stairwell. Get to the shuttle bay immediately. No more detours!"
"Son of Vader, Kair'yahr clan Baikh'vair and I wish to remain here. The rest will meet you at the appointed place."
"Oh, no you're not!" Luke half-shouted. "You - all of you - are to go to the shuttle bay."
"But we must, for the honor of..."
"You want to apologize for getting detected? Well, it starts now."
"No buts!" Luke insisted. "To the shuttle bay. Now!"
"Yes, Son of Vader," Elkh'nimh replied, reluctance, and maybe even resentment slipping into his tone. "We obey."
Luke sighed heavily and slumped back into his chair. He brought one hand up to his forehead and started trying to rub out the stress of frustration. Artoo humbly beeped what sounded like a question.
"Try to keep it as isolated as possible. Keep opening doors for our group, locking them for the Imperials. Or have they locked you out of the system already?"
Artoo beeped a negative, and complied with Luke's orders.
"Keep an eye on the Noghri. Make sure you only open doors that will lead them to the shuttle bay. Try to keep them from wandering off this time."
For a few moments, the only sounds were the distant alarm and the sounds of Artoo's computer jack spinning. When he had heard Mara's voice, even though it was in the background of a conversation with Lando, he felt his spirits rise immensely. She was alive. Mara was alive. How he had longed to talk with her for a while, but then it really was wiser to let it wait, and move this operation along. But now, with things about to crash down on top of them, it didn't seem so much wise as a foolishly squandered opportunity. Maybe even his last opportunity.
"What is it, Han?" He replied, snapping forward to pick up the comlink he had left on the terminal in front of him.
"What's going on? I hear an alarm somewhere."
"The Noghri were spotted up near the bridge. Artoo wasn't fast enough to delay the local alarm, but is still suppressing the general ones. Don't know how long that'll last, though. Please, please tell me you have some good news."
"Okay, I have some good news."
"Now please tell me you're not just saying that because I asked you to."
"All right, I'm not just saying that because you asked me to. Seriously now," Han broke out of the repeat-after-me tempo, "the last shuttle is completely flightworthy. Looks like the only problem is that some of the seats are broken. Looks like signs of a struggle, actually. I wonder..."
Suddenly, Han was interrupted by the sound of alarms in the shuttle bay.
Artoo simultaneously began to beep furiously.
"Just when I thought I was getting a break," Luke muttered. "Artoo just lost control over the ship from the shuttle bay forward. He's still got control over the main command sectors, though."
"Means they've got alarms, but don't know why."
"Exactly. But it also means that security systems are coming on-line in your area. In fact," Luke trailed off, leaning over to check the shuttle bay map, "the blast doors are already closing. Is the shuttle ready for flight?"
"Got it all set up for a quick-start," Han confirmed.
"All right, then take one of your Noghri and try to pry open the doors I tell you. Leave the other to guard the shuttle bay."
"Okay, will do."
"I think they're on to us," Lando observed as he ducked back behind a piece of machinery just in the nick of time. The angry red blaster bolt took a fist-sized chunk out of his borrowed fleet trooper helmet. Fortunately, the thing stuck so far away from his head that he wasn't injured.
"What gave you that idea?" came the sarcastic reply from behind him.
"Daala must have come to," Lando said, then leaned out and took a shot, ducking back in before the return fire arrived. "Told them we were here."
"Not likely," Mara replied, then paused as Lando leaned out again to fire at the real fleet trooper that was managing to pin them down. "She's locked in tight."
"What?" Lando asked, taking a shot again. "You said you left the door unlocked."
"I lied," she answered, and watched Lando take a shot and pull back yet again.
"That wasn't very nice of you," he replied with amusement. "Still, someone was bound to check on her eventually."
Another shot and dodge.
"Give me that!" Mara demanded, and yanked Lando's blaster away with a huff.
Lando just stared in surprise as she waited for the next "to dodge" shot passed, then leaned out and back far quicker than Lando had been doing, snapping off a shot just slightly later than he would have. Her shot succeeded in catching the trooper in the face just as he leaned out from his cover to fire.
"Wow," Lando gaped, standing up from the crouch he had been in. "How'd you do that?"
"Just a matter of timing," Mara said nonchalantly, taking the opportunity to stand up and stretch herself. Suddenly, faster than Lando could ever remember seeing, she twisted halfway around and into a combat crouch and snapped off another shot, slaying the stormtrooper who had just come through the doorway down the hall behind them, armed and ready for a fight. "And the Force."
"I thought you couldn't feel the Force on this ship?" the astonished Lando asked.
"Not everywhere," she admitted. "Definitely not in my cell, that's for sure. I can feel it here, but I can't feel it over where he was," she said, pointing toward her first victim with the blaster. "In other words, don't count on it."
"Okay, if you say so," Lando conceded. "Come on, let's get going," he announced, heading down the hall with Mara in tow, grabbing the deceased stormtrooper's blaster along the way. He wasn't going to need it anymore.
Once through the door, Mara stopped for a moment, staring at an unassuming maintenance door off to the side. Lando, having moved quickly down the hall, had to backtrack a bit to return to her side.
"What is it?"
"We're going to the shuttle bay, right?"
"Who drew the map?"
"Luke's using the ship's computers to..."
"I've got a better way to get there. Not quite as direct, but they'll have trouble following."
"But Luke said..."
"Look, Calrissian, I know a few more things about Star Destroyers than Luke does, okay?"
Lando looked down the hall again, at their intended route of escape. Luke wasn't going to like this, but Mara was probably right.
"All right. We'll try it your way. What, are we going through the ventilation shafts? Maintenance crawl spaces?"
"Tried that one earlier, with mixed results," Mara muttered. "We'll get to those eventually, but first there are some catwalks above the main hangar that are hardly ever used. If they are following us, this should throw them."
"Okay, after you."
"Hope you have good balance, Calrissian."
Hikh'dan clan Eikh'mir dutifully patrolled the shuttle bay, taking every detail into account. Having already checked through every crate that could be easily opened, looked through the storage lockers, and even examined the garbage receptacles, he made his way to the shuttle itself. Not wise to spend all one's time inside the shuttle and miss an intruder in the hangar itself, after all, but also unwise to fail to check the shuttle at all.
He walked cautiously up the ramp into the passenger compartment when the scent hit him. Very faint, but enough to recognize at this close range. He sniffed the air carefully, tracking the scent to its strongest source. Finally, he found it: several strands of long red hair stuck to the fabric of one of the seats. He brought the strands up to his nose, breathing in deeply, confirming the scent.
Confident of what he found, he pulled out his comlink to inform Han clan Solo of his find.
Daala awoke with a throbbing headache that mostly masked the pain of the bruise in her side. She pulled herself to her feet and surveyed her surroundings, rubbing the remarkably large bump on her head. It all came back to her quickly.
That woman had been rescued right out from under her nose, and before she could enact her revenge.
Daala let out a scream of rage, trying to get it out of her system. She pushed over the chair Mara had been sitting in, and smashed the miniature Z-95 Headhunter on the table next to the cot.
Breathing heavily, Daala stopped her rampage and tried to calm herself. Whether they escaped or not, the chaos they would leave in their wake would undoubtedly be traced right back to her. And when Thrawn got wind of that...
Well, she had planned on fleeing anyway. Now the need was greater than ever.
She tried to just walk through the cell door, but it was sealed tight. She grimaced in dismay, but not despair. Fortunately, she still had the universal access device from that Ensign.
"Lieutenant Commander! What happened?" the shocked lieutenant gasped.
"Someone clubbed me from behind!" she explained, none too gently. "He left with the prisoner!"
"They headed for sick bay," the lieutenant said, not wanting to believe this. "They said you agreed to wait for them to return."
"Idiot!" Daala fumed, slamming her fist on the desk. It really hurt. "That was a rescue! They've come to break her out!"
"But he was cleared..." he objected, turning to check his computer log. "See, right here!" he pointed, the log clearly showing a Corporal Gant having checked in and checked out, with clearance approved. Then the unbelievable happened: the "Approved" turned into a bright red "Denied" before their very eyes, and the cell block alarms went off.
"There's your answer right there. They're in the computer! Alert the bridge immediately!"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, then tried frantically to get the intercom to work.
In the ensuing chaos, Daala made her way to the turbolift, made use of her magical pass card again, and left, never to return to this place again. She hoped.
"Harrowing" was too mild. Working their way across the network of catwalks, beams, girders, and gantry crane rails above the main hangar was downright terrifying. Had the Procuror not still occupied most of the hangar, the view straight out into space, with the planet below, would surely induce vertigo even in a person with the strongest constitution.
Despite that advantage, the distance between them and the Procuror's top was still great enough to kill, or at least terribly wound, anyone on impact.
After a good ten minutes of creeping, crawling, and shuffling, they had finally made it to a relatively long and solid straight-away of railed catwalk. Obviously, these platforms were never meant to be accessed this way. Ladders led from each platform up to a maintenance access closet in the hallways above. But to avoid the hallways, one had to improvise.
They passed an intersection with another catwalk, one that led straight across the entire width of the hangar bay. A pity this one didn't go the full length of it. About a hundred meters to go, and they would be at the crawl space access Mara had mentioned. Almost there...
Their jubilation was cut short, as was the catwalk. For some reason, a 5-meter section had been cut out of it, leaving about 20 on the opposite side from them. From the look of the railing and slight warpage of the deck paneling, it appeared there had been some sort of collision here. A light chain had been draped across the open end on this side, but as yet no one had taken a similar measure on the opposite side. To make matters worse, they were now over the only part of the hangar bay the Procuror didn't manage to fill.
"Think we can jump it?"
"I know I can," Mara replied, unfastening the chain. "Question is, can you?"
"Just watch me," Lando said confidently.
The two walked back to get a decent running start. The catwalk wasn't particularly wide, so they'd have to do this one at a time.
Eager as Lando was to show off his athletic aptitude to Mara Jade, it would have been a whole lot easier if the stormtroopers hadn't chosen that moment to show up.
They came in from the port side lateral branch of the catwalk, blasters drawn, obviously alert to the presence of intruders above the main hangar. The four troopers stopped occasionally to take a long range shot while working their way to intercept, hoping to keep their prey pinned down.
"Go Calrissian!" Mara ordered. "Make for the crawlspace!"
"But... all right. You be right behind me, okay?"
"No argument here."
Lando ducked a barrage of blaster bolts and took off running. The stormtroopers tried to bring him down, but failed to achieve a proper lead on their now moving target. He took to the air with remarkable grace, and landed a good two meters past the edge. Stumbling only slightly, he stayed on his feet and made good time to the crawlspace.
Now Mara's turn, she took a quick couple shots at the stormtroopers, grazing one of them and sending him over the railing and crashing down on top of the Procuror. Now that their heads were down, she ran for the edge with all her might.
At the split second just before she pushed off, she knew she wasn't going to make it.
"Lando! Lando! Answer me!" Luke shouted. "What are you doing?"
There was no response. Lando had gone far off the path he had laid out, and now seemed to be right over the main hangar bay, and there seemed to be stormtroopers moving in. Furthermore, Artoo couldn't provide anything near a decent map of the area. He still had access to the general floor plans, but had just discovered that his access to the maintenance systems was now unavailable.
Maybe it was Mara's idea, Luke thought. She might know some tricks that would help about now. If only she were here, instead of with Lando...
Artoo's warbling snapped him out of his contemplations. A quick look at the monitor informed him that the detention sector and starboard weapons systems were now out of their influence, and alarms were now sounding there as well. Fortunately, the bridge and all communications were still affected, as were the portions of the ship from the main hangar most of the way to the shuttle bay. Speaking of which...
"Good, I found you. How's it going?"
"Slow," Han replied, "but steady. We've got 5 doors open, moving to the sixth now."
"Should be 3 more to go, then."
"Heard something interesting from Hikh'dan, the guy I left guarding the shuttle. Found a bit of Mara's hair aboard. Not sure what it means, though. How are they coming along?"
"I don't know," Luke said desperately. "Lando's not responding. They're still moving in the right direction, but they've taken an alternate route."
"And the other Noghri?"
"You should be seeing them soon."
"How is our distraction holding up?"
"About to go, I'm afraid."
"Then you get yourself down here now. I don't want to have to explain to Leia, and especially to Mara why you didn't make it back."
"Right," Luke sighed. "I'm on my way."
He put the comlink into his pocket, then tried the one for Lando again, but to no avail.
"Artoo, initiate the final escape sequence, and get ready to move."
R2-D2 beeped eagerly, even his nervousness beginning to show. In the next few seconds, he would open all the doors on the main corridor between here and the shuttle bay (those they still had control over) and give the Chimaera's computer system a final, heavy dose of the "tranquilizer" program so that he and Luke could make their escape.
Luke tried the comlink one last time, in the vain hope of getting through to Lando. He felt like kicking himself for not asking to talk to Mara when he had the chance. Just to hear her voice. Just to tell her that he loved her...
Mara came down hard on the edge of the catwalk, knocking the wind out of herself. Her blaster flew from her grip, sliding along the catwalk for about 10 meters before slipping under the railing and over the side. She frantically clawed at the catwalk deck, but slipped steadily back, hanging further and further out over the edge. Her legs dangled freely below her, with nothing but the invisible magnetic containment field at the hangar opening and the air it held in between her and hard vacuum.
Leave it to the stormtroopers to start firing at her again.
Between the all-too-slick deck plating and the sporadic rain of blaster shots, she soon found herself with only arms and head above the edge, and losing even that rapidly. The smooth, solid deck sheathing might be good for keeping maintenance workers from worrying about the open space below them, but a nice, perforated grating would have been greatly appreciated about now.
Mara had slipped to the point where only her forearms remained on solid decking, now too far gone to make a grab for the railing posts. It had all happened so fast.
"Cah.... Cahh..." She tried to call out, but struggled with her lost breath. "Cahll...risss..."
She finally managed to take a deep breath. "Calrissian! Calrissian!" she shouted as loudly as she could. "Calris... Lando! Lando, help me! Please!"
She stopped shouting as she abruptly slipped further, catching hold of the lip itself with her hands. She could feel the rough edge of the torch-cut metal biting into her fingers, and the sweat, if not blood, accumulating under them, threatening to steal her life away the moment the lubrication became enough to overpower her grip. "Lando!" she screamed.
The blaster fire intensified. Mara shut her eyes to concentrate fully on holding on to the catwalk. The blaster fire stopped somewhere along the way, but she was more focussed on keeping the tips of her fingers on the metal. But it was a lost cause. No matter how hard she tried, she felt them slip, millimeter by millimeter, until the sudden feeling of weightlessness signified that the battle was lost.
At the final locked door, Han and his Noghri assistant were hurriedly hot-wiring the control panel, hoping to at least disable the electronic lock to allow a push-open, and at best to open it outright. So far, they were running about fifty/fifty on that.
A simultaneous echoed metallic click from inside the wall and the door immediately told Han that not only was the mechanical latch unlocked, but the motors were also now disengaged, and would offer neither help nor full resistance. Unfortunately, they would still have to overcome friction and inertia.
"Come on," Han ordered, and he and the Noghri set to prying the door open a crack, just enough to get their fingers in. They worked at wedging a pair of crowbars they had taken from the shuttle bay into the supposedly airtight seam between door sections. Finally, Akh'nahm's bar bit, and he worked the door open a few centimeters.
The pair grabbed at the door and put their backs into pulling half of it aside. Little by little it moved, with a barely audible whine emitting from a motor turning in a direction opposite that for which it was last geared. If that motor was still powered, this would have been impossible.
Having done it three times already, they knew it was possible, but would undoubtedly leave them both sore in the morning.
Han and Akh'nahm nearly stumbled when the door started moving faster. Not as fast as it would were it to open itself, but fast enough to tell that there was someone else working on the other side. Could be good or very bad. Han took a quick look at Akh'nahm, who nodded agreement.
The very moment the door was open enough to squeeze through, Han and Akh'nahm drew their weapons and stood at the side of the door, ready for whoever was on the other side to come through.
Apparently, they were thinking the same thing. For a few nervous minutes, no one moved, fearing what might come through the door. Finally, Han noticed a shadow of motion and a shape suddenly emerged. He found himself face-to-face, and more importantly, blaster-to-blaster with a Noghri.
Both uttered a heavy sigh of relief.
A sudden jolt brought Mara's eyes instantly open. She glanced all around, noticing that she was still over space, but still inside the hangar bay. And most importantly, not moving. Trembling with shock, she tilted her head back to see Lando's smiling - but clearly strained - face.
He was holding her by one arm, his other wrapped around the catwalk railing. She brought her other hand up to grab his, and he went about pulling her up. It was clearly difficult for him, and more than once she could have sworn she heard something pop, though whether it was her body or his, she wasn't sure.
Finally back on solid "ground," Mara rolled on to her back and stared at the ceiling for a while, catching her breath. Her chest hurt horribly, probably a broken rib or two. But painful though that might be, at least it hadn't come any lower. She uttered a weak chuckle of relief.
"I'm so sorry," Lando finally spoke, massaging his right arm with his left hand, then reversing the process. "I was almost too late."
"No," Mara said between breaths. "My fault. Thought I could... make it."
"Well, you almost did," Lando offered.
"Almost... isn't good enough..." she gasped. "Out of practice," she explained on an exhalation. "Been in cell... too long. Stormtroopers?"
"Got 'em all. But someone's bound to notice. Can you move yet?"
"I'll try," she gasped, then rolled on her side. It took two tries. Slowly, she worked her way to her hands and knees, then onto just her knees. She paused a few seconds, taking a few deep breaths, before putting her hands down to push herself off her knees and onto her feet.
"Whoa!" she yelped as she tried vainly to achieve balance. Lando caught her as she fell forward into his arms.
"Hey, easy there!" he chided. "Don't want you to go over the edge again so soon."
She rested her head against his strong chest for a few seconds, catching her breath again and trying to reset her sense of balance. Eventually, she lifted her head and looked up at his face. It was remarkable how kind he looked. For all Calrissian's roguishness and scoundrel reputation, he could be incredibly loyal and heroic. Mara blushed, ashamed at how she had always treated the man. Realizing that, she turned away.
"Calrissian... I mean, Lando... thank you."
"My pleasure," he answered sincerely.
"I'm fine now," she said with a smile, and pulled away from him. Not violently, but he did get a certain hurt look on his face. "Come on, let's go. Follow me, I know the way."
Lando fell in behind her, wondering how - and why - he had missed his opportunity.
Luke and R2-D2 traveled casually through the corridor, just a regular fleet trooper and an astromech droid, just happening to be going the same direction. Artoo trailed behind him about 10 meters, reinforcing that impression.
They had not seen anyone on the entire journey, which Luke found rather unsettling. The sound of alarms came from almost every direction, but none were ringing exactly where he was. The clearest of the distant ones was coming from the other end of this hallway, at the shuttle bay. Hopefully, that meant that Han had succeeded in opening all the doors.
He inhaled sharply as his awareness suddenly jumped. The Force was back. He stretched out, to see all he could see. Crewmen and troopers on levels above and below, in rooms to the left and right. It was truly refreshing. Ahead, he could feel the presence of Noghri, and there was Han.
They all made it, he thought silently. But what about...
Luke concentrated on trying to contact Mara. It would be easier to find her and Lando that way. Mara... Mara, can you hear me?
Mara opted to bypass the closet she had dropped into the first time she had tried to escape in favor of another ventilation grill further down. That Force static was still here, and that probably meant the Ysalamiri were still creeping around as well. Just the thought sent a chill down her spine.
Reaching the grating, she moved to the far side of it, allowing Lando to look out of it with her.
"Looks like only one shuttle."
"Yeah, Luke mentioned that. I think he said it works."
"Come to think of it, could you give me your comlink?" Mara asked.
"Why?" Lando asked, but pulled his helmet off to comply regardless.
"I want to talk to Luke," she answered. "I wanted to earlier, but didn't get to. Might as well do it now, since we're just waiting here and need to know a few things."
"Oh, all right," Lando sighed, deciding not to protest. He knew he had definitely made an impression on her, but she still insisted on talking to Luke. Better to just let her get it out of her system, he concluded.
"Thank you, Lando," Mara said, taking the now upside down helmet and pulling off the mouthpiece and earpiece. She winced a bit at the sting in her sore fingertips, but continued on.
She had meant only to pull them loose of the helmet for her convenience, not pull them completely off. A surprised glance at the charred ends of the wires, and then at the corresponding charred hole in the helmet where the transmitter/receiver used to be explained a great deal.
"Uh, Lando," she said, holding up the helmet to clearly demonstrate the hole. "Were you aware of this?"
"What? Oh my," he said, taking the helmet for a closer look. "I knew he clipped me, but I didn't stop to see how bad. So this is why I haven't heard from Luke in a while."
"No checking in with him, then."
"Do you have the Force here?"
"Not exactly," Mara answered, unsure how to explain it to him. It was just like the last time she had been here, kind of a swirl of static. It was there, but so convoluted and fleeting she couldn't possibly grab ahold of it.
"Guess we wait, then," Lando concluded. Before another second had passed, though, he lurched forward to get a clearer view through the grating. "Well look what we have here..."
"We're clear, come on." He kicked out the grating, which slammed down on the deck with enough noise to make Mara cringe.
She soon saw why he was so bold: a startled Noghri was staring at them from the shuttle across the hangar from them. If he was out in the open, the hangar must be secured.
"Hey," Lando called. "Where is everyone?"
"They will arrive soon," he answered, jogging over to meet them. "Is this..."
"Yes, this is her. Run along and tell the others."
"Of course," the Noghri said, then hustled off.
They crossed the hangar bay in silence, moving next to the shuttle. With a heavy sigh, Mara slouched back against a pile of crates. Lando stood nearby.
Mara looked around the shuttle bay, taking in the site of her last capture. She had been so close. She had to admit, Daala had put up a good fight that time. Not nearly as good as she had, but definitely gutsy. Or stupid.
A silent chuckle overcame her. No, definitely stupid.
Staring down at her feet now, she noticed for the first time the multitude of snags and tears in her shirt from her all too close encounter with the main hangar catwalk. Out of curiosity, she lifted her arms to look at the undersides of them. Though the catwalk lip hadn't been sharp enough to slice, her forearms were scratched and scraped pretty badly. Then, of course, there were her raw fingertips and cut palms.
"Oh, Mara," Lando exclaimed in concerned alarm, "are you all right?"
"You know, Lando," she replied with an amused smile, not really concerned about the scratches. "I tried to escape a little while ago. Only made it this far. Think we can get the rest of the way?"
"I'm sure of it," Lando replied cheerfully. "But tell me, why didn't it work for you the last time?"
"It almost did, but when..."
At that very moment, something dropped onto her right shoulder from the top of the crate she had been leaning against and started crawling into her hair.
Lando had often pondered how it must be Mara's exciting unpredictability that made her so attractive to him. But the very last thing he had ever expected was for her to scream and jump right into his arms.
"Why Mara," he said after savoring the moment for a few brief seconds. "This is so sudden."
"What... Calrissian!" she shouted as if he were doing something wrong. "Put me down!"
"But you were..." he started, then reluctantly complied. "All right."
Even now she did the unexpected. The moment she was back on her feet, she got behind him and looked nervously over his shoulder.
"Is it gone?"
"Is what gone?" Lando asked, shocked at this behavior coming out of her.
"That! There!" She pointed toward the floor under the crates.
"What, where?" he asked, following the direction she was pointing and finding nothing.
"It just went around the corner."
"Mara, sweetheart, there's nothing there," he assured her, then turned to try to embrace her. For reassurance, of course.
She took a step back, out of his grasp.
"You don't believe me, do you? Luke would have believed me."
"Mara, what's wrong?" Lando asked earnestly. "This isn't like you."
"You're telling me?" she replied in frustration, still trembling. "Believe me, if you'd gone through what I have lately, you'd be on edge, too."
"Oh Mara," he soothed, taking a step closer to her. "I'm so sorry."
"It... it's all right," she assured him, but took a step back anyway. "It's gone now."
She turned to study the surface of the shuttle, then crouched under it and moved toward the nearest landing strut. After searching the gear well and satisfied there was nothing there that would attack her, she sat down, leaning her back against it. Her eyes darted across the hangar floor and to the crates, on the lookout for that thing she thought she had seen.
"Mara, look," Lando said, moving under the shuttle toward her now. "I apologize. If you saw something, I believe you. I just didn't see it myself. But don't worry, sweetheart, I won't let it get near you again," he declared, sitting down next to her and smiling brightly.
Mara didn't seem to be paying attention. Her focus was elsewhere. She looked as if she was staring straight through the walls and through the ship, right out into space beyond.
Seeing his opportunity at long last here, Lando brought his arms up, and leaned closer to her, bringing his face near hers. Soon, very soon...
"Luke," she whispered, a smile starting to spread across her face. "Luke, I'm here." Her voice was so soft Lando could really only lip read it. But he was good enough at it to know what she had said.
Suddenly her focus was back, and directed at Lando's face, mere centimeters from hers. She jerked away fiercely, a brief flash of fear in her eyes. "Lando," she gasped, "what are you doing?"
Lando slowly pulled back, hanging his head. "You love him," he said sadly. "Don't you?"
"L-Lando," she stuttered, "I... Uh..."
"Mara? Do you love him?"
"Well... yes," she conceded reluctantly, slurring the last word a bit.
"I see," he mumbled. So it was true after all. He had so convinced himself that it was impossible that he failed to see it most of the time, and the times he did, he deliberately denied it. Oh, he was happy for Luke, certainly, but that didn't help his own breaking heart much. He could only sigh, and offer her his concession of defeat.
"When he gets back, well, I won't get in the way."
"I should hope not!" Mara exclaimed, as if it were a blasphemy for him to even suggest such a thing.
"But Mara!" He objected, feeling the need to defend himself against such an implication.
"Look, Lando," she started, paused a moment, then let out a long, drawn out sigh that Lando had heard many a time before. She was about to let him have it. What she really thought about him. Oh yes, he knew that exasperated, end-of-the-line sigh very well. Her last reservations and tactfulness would be set aside and she would tell the hard truth about her feelings for him. He knew the drill. And when it got to this point, it was never good for him.
It certainly wasn't good for him this time either. But Mara succeeded in taking him completely by surprise once again.
"Lando," she said slowly and deliberately, "he's my husband."
Lando's mouth dropped wide open, and the world seemed to spin around his head. All the implications of this. All the times he'd tried to flirt with her. All the truly stupid and inappropriate moves he'd been making.
He finally turned back to stare at her in total shock.
She just smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
The journey from the detention block to the main hangar was, thankfully, uneventful. The sporadic alarms and odd mixture of open and blast sealed doors convinced Daala of the accuracy of her assessment: Skywalker must have thoroughly thrashed the Chimaera's computer systems.
Were this her beloved Gorgon, she would have been appalled, outraged, and furious.
Since this was Thrawn's Chimaera, she was simply ecstatic.
She pressed her code card against the control panel of the final blast door leading to the main hangar. With a soft beep, it retracted back into the wall.
Good thing Skywalker didn't take these into account," she thought proudly, sliding it back into her pocket. Then again, maybe he was using them himself. Interesting...
"Lieutenant Commander!" a petty officer shouted as he ran up to her. "What's going on out there?"
She studied the hangar for a moment, taking in the general confusion and slight chaos. The alarms were now sounding loudly, and air tight blast doors everywhere had slammed shut, sealing them in. Apparently, she had been the first to open one of the doors. Another point of extreme interest was the body of a stormtrooper even now being lowered from the top of the freighter filling the entire bay.
"I might ask the same question," she said firmly. "There is an intruder aboard."
"Obviously," a gantry crane operator sneered, just coming out of the crane control room turbolift. From up there, he could see the entire hangar bay from roof to floor, in most circumstances. "Saw the whole thing: two people were running across the girders up there," he pointed, "I called it in, and the stormtroopers tried to stop them. As you can see, they failed."
"Did they get aboard the freighter?"
"Definitely not," the operator replied. "They slipped off into a maintenance shaft on the far end. I've been through there myself. There's no way they could've doubled back this soon, even if the blast doors hadn't come crashing down not two minutes after they left."
"Wait a minute," the petty officer observed, "I know that catwalk. Wasn't that the one that got a chunk taken out of it by a returning TIE fighter during the last operation?"
"That's right," he confirmed. "They jumped it. The woman almost didn't make it."
"Woman?" Daala repeated. So, she almost fell to her death. Blast! If only I could have been there to push...
"Yeah, good lookin' redhead. Don't see many of them in the hangar bay. They ran right past my post."
She let that comment pass.
"The really odd thing, though," he continued, "was that the guy with her was a fleet trooper."
"So then, we have either been deceived or betrayed. Where is the officer of the deck?"
"Lieutenant Commander Jairn went to check on something a few minutes ago, before the doors closed. He's probably stuck on the other side," the petty officer related.
Means I'm in charge, Daala thought. Perfect.
"All right, I want everyone available to get those doors open. Has the freighter finished unloading yet?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied proudly. "Finished five minutes early."
"Was anything loaded back in? Anything an intruder could hide in?" She asked, already knowing the answer.
"No, ma'am. The Procuror here was delivering only."
"Where is the Procuror's captain?"
"We don't know," the petty officer said. "He never left the ship."
Blast! What had happened to Kratas?
"Lieutenant Commander?" a chief asked.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Ma'am, I remember seeing two fleet troopers and a droid exiting the Procuror just after it arrived. They checked in with Lieutenant Commander Jairn and went up to the waiting lounge. A lieutenant left a bit later. I haven't seen any of them since. Perhaps they..."
That must have been it. They were good, Daala had to concede. They were very good.
"It must have been them! And there is a good chance that Jairn was working with them!" Always useful to direct blame in another direction. "You," she ordered, pointing at about half the assembled hangar crew, "get the doors open. You," she pointed at another group, "get weapons and search for Lieutenant Commander Jairn and the mystery officer and troopers. And you," she pointed at the crane operator and petty officer, "try to get a hold of the bridge and warn them about this. I will check out the freighter for clues as to our intruders' identities and the location of its captain. You, going after the doors, take this," she held out the pass card. She wasn't going to need it anymore. And when Thrawn traced it back... Well, that ensign - whatever his name was - was going to pay an awfully high price for a little bit of her feigned affection.
"Ma'am!" They saluted and broke for their intended duties. Daala quickly made for the Procuror's hatch.
She rapidly checked all the compartments on the way to the bridge, but saw no sign of Kratas anywhere. The crewers she saw, and promptly ignored, saluted her.
Curse you Kratas, where are you? A tinge of guilt struck her, as she realized the likelihood of him having been captured and/or killed. She had asked him to do this. He didn't want to...
But then, he had been her subordinate for so long, and a good subordinate at that. He knew what he was getting himself into, and did so gladly for his former commander. Perhaps he was still locked up aboard this very ship. She would check more thoroughly later. But if he actually had sacrificed himself for her, she vowed she would never forget.
Daala sniffed precisely once, then brushed the thought aside. His sacrifice would mean nothing if she didn't act swiftly.
She burst onto the bridge, startling the crew. They got over it quickly enough, of course, but not before she had rushed to the captain's control panel and started searching through the ship's systems. Or, to be more exact, pretending to search through the ship's systems. The helmsman was about to ask what she was doing when she barked out her first order.
"Helm! Power up the engines! Now!"
"NOW! That's an order!"
"Uh... Yes, ma'am!" the helmsman replied uneasily. Regardless, he sat back down at his station and started up the process.
"Ma'am, hangar bay control wants to know why we're powering up."
Daala was impressed. Despite the chaos in the hangar, they were still composed enough to check on this irregularity. Impressive, but highly unwanted in this case.
"Patch me through to control," she ordered him. "And prepare the ship for immediate departure," she commanded of the entire bridge crew.
"All right, ma'am, go ahead."
"Thank you. Control, this is Lieutenant Commander Daala on the Procuror."
"Lieutenant Commander," the voice came through over the speakers - she didn't stop to check if the Procuror allowed visual communications. But it probably didn't. "We noticed you powering up. What's happening?"
"I've confirmed that the intruders did in fact come from this ship. Furthermore, I now know why they haven't returned to it," she rattled off rapidly. Now came the key to this. Something to ensure that no one would act rational enough to see through her deception. "They've planted a bomb on this ship powerful enough to destroy the Chimaera, and there's not much time left on it."
For a moment, the comm was silent. So, for that matter, was the Procuror's bridge.
"Ma'am," the helmsman finally said, though very weakly. "Are you serious?"
"Understood, Lieutenant Commander," the comm crackled again, the surprise clear in the speaker's voice. Probably that petty officer, Daala thought. "Get that thing out of here immediately."
"Affirmative, control," she replied, then turned to the crewmen. "You all understand what's required of you? It is up to us to save the flagship. Once we're free of the Chimaera's hangar, we must put the engines on full power and point the ship away from both the flagship and the planet. Only after that is done can we use the escape pods to abandon ship."
The crew nodded grimly as they felt the bumping signifying the Chimaera's tractor beams powering up to eject them from the mighty warship's hangar.
Luke and Mara joined in a hearty embrace while the Noghri filed on board the shuttle and Han and Lando fired up the engines. It was only the prodding of R2-D2 that finally got them to take it inside.
They entered the shuttle hand-in-hand, until Mara got a look at the passenger compartment and the interesting gaps in the rows of seats.
"You just had to pick this shuttle, didn't you?" she asked Luke playfully.
"What?" he asked indignantly. "It was the only one here!"
"Oh, never mind," she laughed. She realized she must be sounding like a fool right now, but at the moment, she didn't care.
"Hey, Luke?" Han shouted from the shuttle's cockpit. "You guys in yet?"
"Yes, we're in," Luke answered, turning his back on Mara and heading up front.
Mara stared at his back for a moment, then shook her head and muttered, "How typical."
Before she could take a step after him, she was interrupted by a Noghri voice from behind.
"We greet you, Consort of the Son of Vader."
She turned to face the eight prostrate Noghri with a quizzical look on her face. "Consort of the Son of Vader?" she whispered to herself. From the corner of her eye, she could see the shuttle's ramp retracting.
"I am honored to return your weapon, Consort of the Son of Vader," the nearest Noghri said, holding up her lightsaber above his bowed head.
"How... where did you get this?" she asked in amazement as she carefully took the silver handle from his steady hands?
"We found it in the Grand Admiral's chamber. Are you not pleased?"
"Of course I am," she assured him. "Thank you. I was afraid I'd never get this back." Truly amazing what these Noghri were capable of. She looked with admiration over all the Noghri bowing before her. Eight fierce warriors. No, nine. She saw one more in the far back...
Lying flat on his back... not moving... but oddly familiar...
It was hardly appropriate, but she couldn't help but grin at that. "I'm glad to see you've also recovered your fallen comrade. But you should know that Thrawn is going to be very angry about that."
"Even so," the lead Noghri mentioned sullenly, "It is unfortunate that Rukh clan Baikh'vair failed in his mission to bring justice for the Noghri people."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," Mara intoned thoughtfully.
"Mara!" Han bellowed from the cockpit. "You want to join us?"
It sounded like he meant to be polite, but wasn't quite in a good enough mood for it to come across right. Maybe he had been scolding Luke for ignoring her again.
"Sure, be right there," she replied, nodded at the Noghri in thanks, and turned to leave.
Once again she was interrupted, this time by a soft tug on her jacket.
"Something else?" she asked the Noghri leader. She could now feel the shuttle bobbing gently, riding on its repulsorlifts.
"The Son of Vader provided us with one of your garments to help track you," he explained. "That is how we discovered your weapon."
"Garment?" What was he talking about?
He reached into his pocket to pull something out. "I return it to you now." He pulled his hand out, revealing a rather delicate looking piece of white cloth.
The color of Mara's face suddenly matched her hair.
"GIVE ME THAT!" she yelped, snatching it away from the now frightened and confused Noghri faster than he could even flinch.
"You... Why I... Don't you ever..." she stumbled over her words. Finally, she settled on shouting, "LUKE!" and stomping off to the cockpit.
The Noghri looked at each other, trying in vain to figure out what had brought that on.
The Procuror dropped roughly out of the Chimaera's hangar bay, a poor tractor beam job compared to what she knew they were capable of. Whether it was due to the rampant computer malfunctions or just the hangar crew's frantic attempt to get the "bomb" as far away and as quickly as possible. Amazing how sloppy people got when you said the word "bomb."
Her sensors told Daala that several escape pods jettisoned almost at the very moment they cleared the hangar. It clearly wasn't the bridge crew, so it must mean that the crewmen in other sections of the ship must have gotten word about the bomb. Odd, she didn't think she had left the intercom on.
But no matter. There were still enough for the entire bridge crew to escape, once she gave them permission. It was obvious they were eager for the chance, but looked composed enough to fulfill their duty, as she had explained to them. It was sluggish, but she could still feel the Procuror accelerating as fast as it could. Probably faster than it had in ages.
Out the viewport and above, she saw the pointed expanse of the Chimaera moving both upward and back relative to the freighter. There was a slight feeling of regret, as she realized she might possibly never again set foot on an Imperial Star Destroyer.
No, she decided then and there. No, it was not the last time. She would someday reclaim her rightful place as an Imperial Admiral, and once again command a fleet of these impressive and powerful ships. She would exceed even Thrawn's notoriety. The name of Grand Admiral Daala would be feared from one end of the galaxy to the other.
Then something caught her eye. She stood up, leaned forward and squinted as she looked out the viewport at a horizontal bar of blue-white light in the distance. No, it was two bars, side by side. The engine glow of a Lambda-class shuttle, heading away from the Chimaera at high speed.
Impossible! That wretched woman and her Jedi Master lover had escaped! For some reason, the traitorous "Emperor's Hand's" words of warning about Thrawn flashed into Daala's mind.
She fell back into the captain's chair, swore loudly and slammed her fist into the armrest.
That, of course, got the entire crew's attention.
"I..." she started, then paused, frantically trying to remember her next move. "It's too late," she finally said. "It took too long to get out of the hangar." She tapped indicatively at the display panel in the armrest, as if there was a countdown timer there. As far as the panicking crew knew, there was. "We won't..." she trailed off.
The bridge crew stared grimly at her, the terror clear in their eyes.
"No, I," she corrected, swallowing hard for the effect, "won't make it. Everyone, to the starboard escape pods. Helm, I'm taking control. As soon as you're all away, I'm going to steer hard to port and get this ship as far away from your pods as I can before she blows."
"No, Lieutenant Commander!" the helmsman objected. "I should..."
"That's an order, Helm! Now go!"
Though the helmsman was reluctant, the rest of the bridge crew ran off at what was sure to be a record somewhere. Finally, alone on the bridge, Daala let out a sigh of relief and took her seat at the helm station.
It wasn't long before the escape pods were away. As she had promised, Daala turned the Procuror hard to port, getting clear of the pods as quickly as she could. She also started running a check on the nearest free-port planet (a.k.a. smuggler world) she could get to. Satisfied with one, she started the navicomputer on calculating a hyperspace jump.
As a fleet replenishment ship hardly possessed the best astrogation system in the Imperial Navy, it was going to take a while. So she went back to the captain's station to run a check on the whole ship. Though the ship certainly was never meant to be run by one person, she had no need for cargo handlers, and probably no need for engineering crew in the single hop she was making...
She snapped her head back in surprise. According to the computer, there was still someone else aboard.
"We'll be clear of the planet's gravity soon," Han assured his passengers. Luke and Mara nodded. Lando, in the copilot's seat, just kept staring blankly into space, apparently still in shock.
"Thank you all," Mara offered. "I should never have doubted you."
"We didn't have the slightest idea where you were," Han explained, "otherwise, Luke would've never left you hanging for so long." He turned in Luke's direction and firmly added, "Right, Luke?"
"Huh? Oh, right," Luke nodded stupidly. His face, with a bright red hand print on its left side, still stung. He then went back to staring at the cockpit's right panel, wondering what could have possibly made Mara so angry. Why wouldn't she just tell him? Why did she insist he knew darn well what she was mad about?
Mara, sitting to his left behind Han, crossed her arms and huffed, turning the other way.
Artoo took it upon himself to scold them both.
"He started it," Mara insisted.
"Did not," Luke denied.
"That's quite enough," Han interrupted. "Why did you slap him, anyway?" Not that it was really that hard of a slap, despite what Luke seemed to think.
Though Mara replied with a curt, "That's none of your business," it was clearly more out of embarassment than anger. On the plus side, her tone did seem to soften a bit as she went on the defensive.
"Fine, don't tell me," Han said. "But there's still something we need to decide."
"Which is?" Mara and Luke asked simultaneously.
"Which is, where do we go now? We never quite decided that. I think we were going to leave it up to you, Mara."
"To me?" she asked in surprise. "Well," she went on, now confident and sure of herself. "I happen to know exactly where I want to go."
"All right, where do I take you?"
"Take me home."
"Right," Han said, reaching for the navicomputer controls. "Take you... home?"
Han turned to look at her with that odd scowl he was famous for. Mara wanted to go home. But where did she consider home? Come to think of it, he had no idea whatsoever.
Neither, obviously, did Luke.
"Home?" he asked her, completely forgetting their little feud from a few seconds ago. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, you know what I mean."
Luke stared at her for a few seconds. Then he and Han stared at each other. Then he stared at her again. Finally, his eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open a little as the lights came on.
Mara smiled in confirmation.
"Wait, you mean MY home? On Coruscant?"
"No, no, Luke," she shook her head. "I mean OUR home on Coruscant."
"Our home... but Mara, are you sure? Is this really the right time for it? I thought you didn't want to..."
"Not at first, but it's time now," she said firmly. "I can't keep fooling people about how I feel. Look at the trouble it's caused poor Lando here."
Hearing his name, Lando turned toward the conversation. "What about me?"
"Nothing," Mara said with a friendly smile and a pat on his shoulder. "Just saying how much trouble it was not letting you know about us."
"What I want to know is, why didn't I know? Luke, I'm your friend, aren't I? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Ah, well..." Luke started, then made a pathetic attempt to deflect the question. "Artoo has the holos. I'd be glad to show you..."
"It's my fault," Mara interrupted her husband. "I... I didn't trust you to keep it secret."
"So Han, tell me," Lando asked, "why did you let me keep making a fool of myself?"
"Well," Han said, a smug look on his face, "it was fun to watch," he chuckled.
Suddenly, something crossed his mind, and he became dead serious. "Mara," he asked, "did Daala know?"
"Daala? No. Well, not exactly. She was convinced we were just having an affair."
"I'm afraid she might have heard about it from me," Han said remorsefully. "When she interrogated me at the Maw."
"Oh, Solo, don't worry about that," Mara comforted. "It wasn't your fault. Besides, she didn't know about it from that. My guess is that she never thought to ask that question. And I know Imperial interrogations well enough to tell you that a lot prisoners don't yield up their best kept secrets under truth drugs unless directly asked about them."
"But why did you keep it secret in the first place?" a flustered Lando inquired of the couple.
"It was too dangerous for both of us," Luke explained. "If people knew, then we couldn't go about our business. How could Mara be head of the smugglers' alliance if they all knew she was married to a Jedi Knight?"
"Or," Mara offered, "how could Luke be a Jedi Master if it was known that he was married to the number one smuggler in the galaxy, and former Emperor's Hand to boot?"
"I told 'em how stupid those reasons were," Han told Lando, "but they just wouldn't listen to me."
"Solo..." Mara said threateningly.
"Oh, right, Coruscant," he said, turning back to the navicomputer.
"I've got to hand it to you," the still bewildered Lando offered. "You two did a great acting job. I would've never guessed it. Heck, even your Jedi don't seem to have figured it out." He looked at them with a sly grin. "That must've taken some serious split concentration."
Luke might have blushed. Hard to tell with that hand print. Mara just ignored the comment.
"But we can't keep fooling everyone forever," Mara announced.
"Doing a great job so far," Lando commented, not to encourage it, but to compliment their act.
"Problem is," Mara explained, "it all hinged on giving no one any reason to suspect anything. But now..." she paused a bit, a really strange smirk spreading across her face, "...well, I can't guarantee that for too much longer."
"True," Lando said, "you were kind of falling apart back there."
"Well, yes, there was that," Mara allowed, "but that... wasn't exactly what I meant."
"Then what..." Lando started, then just stared in confusion at her. Just like Luke had been doing for quite a while now.
Han, however, had a pretty good idea what she was getting at. "Oh boy," he chuckled. "Uh, Luke, brace yourself..."
"Huh?" Luke asked, still lost by all this. "Brace myself for what?"
"Quiet, Han," Mara said. "Let him figure it out."
"Figure what out?" he repeated.
A few seconds later, Lando's face lit up with realization.
"What?" Luke asked desperately. "Why doesn't someone tell me what's going on?"
"Let's just say it explains an awful lot," Lando exclaimed.
"Oh, almost forgot," Han said abruptly, breaking the mood. He pulled a small transmitter out of his pocket.
"What's that?" Lando asked.
"This?" Han repeated, holding out his palm with the device in it. It was basically just a box with a button on it. "Remember that big crate you kept asking about?"
Daala stepped cautiously into the dark doorway, the blaster she had found at the ready. She carefully stretched out her left hand to hit the light activation switch, then dropped into a defensive crouch and examined the room, sweeping the blaster barrel wherever she looked.
Strange, the computer said that there was someone in here. Come to think of it, this was the place Kratas would have held the prisoners... had they ever been prisoners. Must be a malfunction. She stepped out the door...
A pounding on metal turned her right back around. There was definitely someone in there.
She was back in the room immediately, trying to identify the source of the noise. It seemed to be coming from a partially welded shut locker.
"Who's in there?" she demanded.
"It's Captain Kratas, commander of this vessel. Who are you?"
"Kratas!" she exclaimed joyfully. He was alive after all. "Captain Kratas, this is Admiral Daala. Stand back, I'll get you out!"
She waited a couple seconds for him to press himself against the back of the locker before aiming her blaster at the welded spot and firing. It ended up taking a second shot to blow away enough metal to open the door.
Kratas stumbled out, coughing from the smoke that had accumulated inside the locker from the pair of laser blasts.
"Kratas!" Daala cried out, ignoring proper decorum and embracing her former subordinate.
He didn't return the embrace. In fact, he grabbed her shoulders and shoved her away.
"Admiral," he said sternly, "we have to get out of here. They've planted a bomb."
Daala, who had been getting worried when he first grabbed her, sighed in relief. "No, Kratas, there's no bomb," she assured him. "I just made that up to get the ship out of the hangar and the crew off."
"Oh yes there is a bomb!" he insisted. "They - Skywalker and Solo - planted a Sun Crusher missile on this ship!"
"They must have been lying," she gasped. "Skywalker's a Jedi Master. He'd never..." her eyes went wide as recognition struck. "But Solo would! Kratas, we've got to get out of here!"
Lando was looking very ill. Not surprising, since he was only now informed that he'd been practically sitting on top of an undetonated star-busting solar resonance torpedo for the last few days.
"So," Mara said, having recovered from that shock herself much quicker, "Are we to destroy this entire system just to take down one Star Destroyer?"
"Of course not," Han assured her. "Only the Star Destroyer. The thing's way too small to destroy a star system on its own. It's got to use the star as fuel to do it. Won't even start to work until its outer casing melts off. At least, that's what Luke, Artoo and I figured."
"And how did you come by this? No, wait," Mara motioned with her hand, "I don't want to know."
"Anyway, pop quiz: where on a starship can you find heat and materials similar to a star?"
"The reactor, of course," Mara answered easily. "It's on the freighter, isn't it?"
"Right in one shot. May not blow as big as the Star Destroyer's reactor, but if it blows inside the hangar bay..."
"Oh, may I?" she asked.
"Go right ahead," he said, handing her the detonator button.
In an unremarkable corner of the Procuror, behind a group of coolant pipes, lay a rectangular crate. The crate itself was likewise unremarkable, looking just like any other crate. But what was in the crate could, under the right - or wrong - circumstances, destroy an entire star system.
The crate was aligned such that the small, square sides pointed directly toward and away from the containment wall of the freighter's solar ionization reactor, a spherical chamber containing a sustained fusion reaction similar to that of a star, though on an obviously much smaller scale.
At the end farthest from the containment wall was a shaped explosive charge. At the other end, the point of the solar resonance torpedo.
The first phase came with the receipt of an electronic transmission. It sparked a tiny detonation charge, which in turn initiated the larger shaped charge at the end of the crate. That was a relatively large explosion, enough to break a starfighter perhaps, but not much to worry about on a ship as large as a fleet replenisher. It blasted away the coolant tubes and dented the bulkhead behind it, knocking one door off its track. This damage, by itself, was easily reparable, though the leaking of coolant could present some trouble. However, this damage wasn't the point. The shaped charge injected the torpedo like a syringe into the reactor chamber, puncturing cleanly through the wall and into the very center itself, despite the incredible pressures inside.
The second phase came with the unbelievably high temperatures of the reactor's contents starting to melt the ultra dense quantum alloy that coated the torpedo. The Sun Crusher itself had the same coating, but much thicker, and capable of withstanding this same heat with hardly a problem. But the torpedo's thin coat, already micro-fractured from impacting the Millennium Falcon's hull, would soon be gone, allowing the devices inside to tamper with the materials and atomic processes occurring in a hot fusion environment. While the casing was melting, a powerful jet of superheated plasma burst through the hole in the chamber wall, bursting through the hull of the Procuror itself, and rapidly expanding as it vaporized more and more metal in its way.
The third and final phase obliterated the freighter in a fireball far larger than it had any business being.
All together, the three phases took less than one second.
The shuttle's passengers saw the explosion behind them only as an intense glare in their craft's transparisteel canopy, and a reflection off of the canopy framing. But for it to have been so bright under those conditions...
"So that's the end of the Chimaera and Admiral Daala," Han narrated, then pulled the hyperspace levers which sent the shuttle jumping toward Coruscant.
"Oh, is Thrawn ever going to be mad," Mara commented as she casually tossed the now useless detonation transmitter over her shoulder, folded her arms behind her head, and leaned back in her seat.
Two seconds later, the other three humans simultaneously gasped, "THRAWN?"
Mara looked at them in surprise. "Didn't the Noghri tell you?"