Rear Admiral Pellaeon stared in horror at the scorched and pockmarked bottom of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera. Everywhere across the darkened expanse there were the flashes of welding sparks, as hundreds of crewers in zero-G worksuits worked side-by-side with the ship's entire complement of power-armored spacetroopers to repair what damage they could.
For his part, Thrawn stood just as silently as Pellaeon. But the new Admiral could tell by the way his glowing red eyes pulsated like a flame that there was fury just beneath the Grand Admiral's otherwise calm facade.
Fortunately, the Chimaera's shuttle bay was shielded enough from the blast that docking was still possible. The closer they got, though, the more miraculous that seemed. A good deal of the hull plating was not just scorched, but actually warped and even melted. None of the lower sensors or weaponry had survived, and many compartments were now open to space.
All this had happened in their absence - and not a word of it had reached them at Boelis. In fact, long range communications were completely down, as they had been for nearly a week now. Short range communications were hardly better, if the amount of static that nearly drowned out the voice of the flight control officer guiding them in was any indication. And where was the Stormhawk?
Someone was going to pay for this. And Thrawn was sure to collect. This wasn't going to be pretty.
"I greet you, Consort of the Son of Vader," Elkh'nimh said with a formal Noghri bow as Mara entered Senator Bel Iblis's situation room for his Sun Crusher task force. Bel Iblis himself sat patiently at the opposide end of a round, polished black conference table.
She almost jumped back, after very nearly running right into the Noghri on her way in. "Would you please stop doing that?" she requested.
"I apologize, Consort of the Son of Vader," the Elkh'nimh said as he backed out of her way. "I meant no offense."
"Consort of the Son of Vader?" came a voice from off to the side. "So it's true, then."
"True, yes, but only the Noghri call me that," she said as she turned to face whoever it was that had spoken to her. She came almost face to face with a relatively short, black haired man who looked awfully familiar. In fact...
"Easy, Colonel Antilles," Bel Iblis admonished. "There will be time for catching up on personal lives later."
Colonel Antilles? Suddenly, her memory clicked.
"Wedge Antilles, of course! How could I forget?" She stretched out a hand to him, which he eventually shook. "It's been too long, I'm afraid."
"Mara Skywalker, I presume," Wedge grumbled.
"Antilles, there's no call for that," Bel Iblis warned.
"No call?" Wedge exclaimed. "His student blows up systems, kills Qwi, then challenges him, but he can't go because he's off getting married. In the middle of a crisis he created. I'd say that's plenty reason to be angry."
"Antilles! Stop it."
"No, that's all right," Mara said with an almost sinister overtone in her voice. "Despite the fact that we were married almost a year ago, if he wants to think I was enjoying my honeymoon in the Chimaera's cell block, while a few thousand light-years away from my husband and without any means of communication, let him. Not to mention that Daala was using both me and Sun Crusher information as bait for Luke. But if getting angry at me will make him feel better, then by all means, he's welcome to be angry."
Wedge stared at her defiantly for a while until, little by little, his head began to droop. Eventually, he was looking at his feet in shame. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Mara," Bel Iblis started after a moment of respectful silence, "thanks for coming back. Something new and extremely important has developed."
"Glad to be of help," she replied, "but I think I already told you everything two days ago."
"Yes, but I confess I didn't entirely believe your claim. I suppose seeing is believing." With that, he flipped a switch mounted in the table just in front of him.
A holo image of a blue-skinned alien in a pure white Imperial uniform materialized in the center of the table.
"Colonel Antilles recorded this image four days ago. Along with this," he narrated as he pressed one of the holoprojector control buttons.
The image panned off of Thrawn and passed across what looked like a Star Destroyer's hangar bay until it came to rest on a crew of techs working on... something. It wasn't clear just what. Then the image zoomed out until the shape of the thing became apparent.
"Unless I miss my guess," Mara said after pausing a moment to recover from the surprise, "that's the Sun Crusher."
"Which is exactly what Wedge here reports it to be."
"So then," Mara concluded, a sick feeling overcoming her, 'Thrawn has the Sun Crusher."
Wedge stepped forward. "Not quite," he corrected as he pointed to something in the holo. "Look closely at what they're doing."
Mara did as she was told, but at first saw nothing other than techs working on the superweapon. However, when one of them stepped away, she caught a glimpse of the ship's engine exhaust vents. More importantly, she spotted the hole in one of them.
She was about to ask about it when the holo image started moving, as the camera got closer to the Sun Crusher. Closer and closer it drew, until it was actually going in to the hole. Total darkness existed for a second before the camera's light was activated. And what she could see...
"It's empty! A fake?"
"No, not a fake," Wedge assured her. "The genuine article. Here's a piece of it."
Mara took the curved strip of metal Wedge offered her. For such a small piece, it was incredibly heavy. A tap with her knuckles told her that it was also incredibly hard. Far harder than such a thin piece of metal had any business being.
"So, what happened to it?" Mara asked, gesturing toward the holo.
"Gutted by a proton torpedo."
"Which Wedge here happened to fire," Bel Iblis filled in.
Mara studied the now paused image for a while before turning back toward Wedge. "How did you do it?"
"Lucky shot," he readily admitted. "But then we both got picked up by Thrawn, so I guess it wasn't so lucky after all."
"Both of you?"
"Well, both ships. The other guy managed to steal the shuttle Thrawn sent to pick him up."
A chill ran down Mara's spine. Kyp was still on the loose.
"That's actually not confirmed," Bel Iblis corrected. "Thrawn made that claim, but there's no way to determine if he's telling the truth.
"Until Kyp Durron shows up again," Mara added.
"Well, yes," he conceded.
"But Wedge, how did you get this holo?" she asked the pilot. "For that matter, how did you escape?"
Wedge chuckled. "That's the weird part. I didn't escape. He let me go. And he told me to record it. Thrawn, that is."
Mara was speechless.
"She's taking it the same way I did," the Senator noted.
"Sure is," Wedge agreed.
"Are you feeling ill, Consort of the Son of Vader?" Elkh'nimh asked after a few more seconds.
At last, Mara shook her head clear. "That makes no sense at all! He was trying to keep his existence secret. Why do this?"
"As he told it," Wedge explained, "he was acting for the good of the galaxy and wanted me, as the official representative of the New Republic, to observe and record the destruction of the Sun Crusher."
"But that's ridiculous!" she exclaimed, then stopped and reconsidered. "Then again, it's just the sort of off-beat thing Thrawn would do..."
"Colonel Antilles," Bel Iblis explained, "Mara was held by Thrawn for the last few weeks, and was in his presence frequently enough to develop some useful insight into his behavior."
"So that's what he meant..."
"What who meant?" Mara asked.
"Thrawn," Wedge replied. "He said that he had been in contact with you. Though when he said 'Skywalker,' I naturally assumed he meant Luke. Of course, I found it hard to believe when he mentioned your name."
"Yeah, lots of people are saying that when we tell them," Mara informed him. "It took both of us, plus Han and Leia, to convince the Senator here."
"She's exaggerating a bit there," Bel Iblis rebutted.
"Well, maybe, but not by much," she continued, then turned quite serious. "Just how much did he tell you about us?"
"Just that you were married," Wedge replied. "Nothing else, really. In fact, he told me to just forget he said it. Kind of hard to forget something like that, though."
"This is Thrawn we're talking about, though," Bel Iblis reminded them. "He wouldn't have said it if he didn't want you to know it."
Wedge nodded in agreement. Mara started to... then stopped suddenly, her eyes growing wide. A bizarre smirk twitched at the corner of her mouth.
"Wedge," she asked, her tone on the edge of excitement, "was there another Imperial officer accompanying Thrawn?"
"Was there an elderly captain, with white hair and a moustache?"
"No, not that I recall," the mystified pilot replied. "The Captain of the Inexorable was closer to 40, I think."
"What are you getting at?" Bel Iblis queried.
"The key to this puzzle," she said triumphantly. "Captain Pellaeon."
"Captain Pellaeon?" Bel Iblis repeated, clearly not recognizing the name.
"He was the Captain of Thrawn's flagship," Elkh'nimh offered. "Not a very important person."
"That's where you're wrong," Mara corrected. "Pellaeon's the one who had him cloned. And he's the one who's been keeping him stable."
"He seemed awfully stable to me," the skeptical Wedge commented. "And very competent. Just unpredictable as usual."
"I spent even more time around him and Pellaeon," Mara countered. "Thrawn was in charge, but was far too talkative, and even absent-minded at times. Absent-minded for Thrawn, I mean," she noted. "Anyway, Pellaeon was almost always right next to him, like some sort of referee."
"And you think," Bel Iblis concluded, "that this Pellaeon is the one actually calling the shots?"
Mara stood with arms crossed for a moment, contemplating the correct answer to this question. "No," she said at last. "He's not. Not entirely, I mean. There were several times when Thrawn made a decision that Pellaeon disagreed with, but couldn't sway him. Pellaeon went ahead and obeyed. And in cases where Pellaeon is not around at all, anything could happen."
"Captain Pellaeon is not the Grand Admiral," the Noghri said. "He lacks Thrawn's genius."
"Which is why he needed to clone Thrawn," Mara explained. "And obviously you lose something in the process. It's surprising he's not even more forgetful. Take, for example, the fact that he revealed his existence, then mentioned me to you. He himself decided to keep me a secret, in part to blackmail Luke; and he agreed with Pellaeon to use Daala as a stand-in so that he remained hidden."
"You mean," Bel Iblis gasped, "that was really Thrawn behind the Kessel and Honoghr attacks?"
Elkh'nimh practically jumped to attention at the mention of his old homeworld. "Honoghr has been attacked?"
"It's not a very reliable report," Bel Iblis revealed, "but word did filter through that Admiral Daala had aggressively attacked and destroyed all remaining settlement on Honoghr. It did seem a bit out of character for her, and the amount of force supposedly used seemed exaggerated, but now..."
"So that's what the ruckuss was," Mara said partially to herself. "Thrawn did something major just after I tried to escape. That must have been it."
"So, let me get this straight," Wedge asked. "This clone Thrawn is a bit on the crazy side, talks too much, and forgets important details, but is still a tactical genius; and he's guided along by this Pellaeon person."
"More or less, yes," Mara answered.
"Interesting theory," Bel Iblis interrupted. "But couldn't Thrawn be the same, original Thrawn? If the assassination by his bodyguard failed to kill him, he might have recovered with some brain damage that would yield the same behavior."
"Possible, I suppose," Mara conceded, "but I'm not an expert on mental health."
"So, regarding the Sun Crusher holos?" Bel Iblis brought the discussion back to the original issue.
"All things considered," Mara replied confidently, "I believe Thrawn really did destroy it, as he said."
"I concur," Wedge said. "Everything I saw and recorded points in that direction."
"I see," Bel Iblis stated, though he didn't sound too happy about it. "We'll have to keep on our toes nonetheless, just in case he really isn't as eccentric as he's letting on. And we've got the added problem of figuring out just what Thrawn will do and where he'll go next."
Silence reigned once again as the room's occupants found themselves lost in contemplation. Mara soon felt a small twitch in the back of her mind. The Force? she thought. Possible...
She decided to go ahead and open up to it, like Luke had taught her. It was hard, she found. Not at all comfortable. But she did it anyway, easing her mind and emotions, calming herself...
She opened her eyes to find that her head had turned, leaving her facing Elkh'nimh, off to her right side. Was there supposed to be some meaning to this? No, that was absurd. She was about to start mulling the issue over again when inspiration struck.
Noghri. Honoghr. Stuffed Noghri in Thrawn's quarters. Thrawn angry after Daala pulled that stunt with the stun blast. And now the prisoner had actually escaped, and blown up the Chimaera with the last of the Sun Crusher's torpedoes...
"I know where he's going next," she announced abruptly.
"I can't believe it," Pellaeon muttered in shock. "I just can't believe it. Her... a hero?"
Thrawn keyed open the door to his command room, then shook his head. "You're not alone in that matter, Captain... excuse me, Admiral."
"I can't believe it," Pellaeon repeated, then suddenly set his face in a scowl. "No... I DON'T believe it. Something else happened here, sir, but I don't know just what."
"That much is clear," Thrawn agreed readily. "All we've been told so far is that intruders stowed away on the Procuror, sliced the systems, and escaped on a shuttle. But what were they after?"
"Perhaps the survivors of the Procuror will be able to fill in some of the details," Pellaeon offered. "If they ever get out of the bacta tanks, that is."
"And just what was Lieutenant Commander Daala doing in the main hangar saving the Chimaera from an exceptionally powerful bomb, rather than in the shuttle bay preventing the infiltrators from escaping? She knew something."
"I doubt she intended to get herself blown up," Pellaeon countered.
"No, she's not the self-sacrificing type," Thrawn agreed. "She thinks herself far too valuable to commit suicide. Though there's always the chance of a sudden change of heart."
"True," Pellaeon allowed, but sounded like he didn't believe it for a second. "But regardless, the crew seems to think she saved them all."
Thrawn stepped through the doorway and activated the command room's light panels. "This will require careful maneuvering. A martyr can be an extremely powerful rallying point, but to rally around one that is a certain fraud... yet, to dash the excitement and beliefs of the crew by discrediting her could possibly lead even to mutiny."
"Careful maneuvering is right," Pellaeon commented as he followed Thrawn into the room. "And to think I tried so hard to avoid politics by focusing only on the military..."
"Did you find out what became of the Stormhawk, Admiral?"
"Yes, in fact. It left the system the same morning as the incident. The scheduled departure time was the following day, but the captain cut the crew's shore leave for losing to the Chimaera's crew in a shockball match planetside."
"His prerogative, to be sure," Thrawn admitted, sighing in surrender to that fact. No blame to be leveled there, at least not yet. "Now, what of the manner of this bomb? It was certainly more powerful than any conventional weapon known to be in use by the Rebellion. Even a reactor overload couldn't have done this, given the size of the Procuror."
A disturbing thought crossed Pellaeon's mind. "Sir, you don't suppose it could have been from the Sun Crusher?"
"Impossible, Admiral Pellaeon," Thrawn dismised his concern. "I know exactly where the Sun Crusher was at the time. Unless someone else stole one of its torpedoes..."
He stopped walking when he noticed Thrawn had frozen in place. He cautiously side-stepped to get a glimpse of Thrawn's face. What he saw frightened him.
Thrawn's face had frozen into a fierce look of simmering rage. His jaw hung slightly dropped, but with muscles tensed as if ready to bite a steel bar in two. Once again his eyes pulsated. He took in disturbingly long and deep breaths. Most importantly, he was staring at something. Or rather, the blank spot where something should have been...
His favorite decoration. Pellaeon felt like the gravity of the ship had been cut off; his innards were in a psychological free-fall. His favorite decoration was gone. Thrawn could do just about anything right now...
Pellaeon swallowed hard as Thrawn finally began to move again, in the direction of a certain compartment where he stored...
Thrawn gasped when he opened the compartment to find it empty. He staggered back two steps before stopping to calm himself. He faced the wall for a few moments longer before uttering a single grunt of laughter. A strange lopsided smirk had appeared on his face by the time he turned to face Pellaeon.
"Admiral Pellaeon," he ordered, "check on the prisoner."
Pellaeon was about to ask which one, but answered his own question almost instantly. He quickly crossed over to a computer terminal and entered the information request. A few computer glitches occurred, and part of the display was a jumble of static or scrambled characters, but enough was visible to confirm what Thrawn must have expected.
"She's gone, sir."
Thrawn said nothing. He merely took another deep breath and shook his head in silence for a while.
Pellaeon, meanwhile, continued working at the terminal. He noted with satisfaction that long range communications had in fact been restored, as the Chimaera's communications officer had promised them. Bit by bit, he managed to cut through the security layers, as well as the remnants of the slicer attack, to call up video images from the cell block. That promotion sped things up remarkably.
Finally, he got the camera he wanted. He accelerated the playback speed until a flash of red caught his eye. He paused it, getting an image of Lieutenant Commander Daala standing at the security desk. He noted the time for the purpose of further study, then set the playback running again. Not long after Daala was pictured, the image fell into nothing but static. Only a few shadowy images could be made out, and it was well beyond Pellaeon's area of expertise to make out what they were.
"Sir," Pellaeon announced as he started a different information search, "it seems Daala was in the cell block just before if not during the escape."
"Not surprising," Thrawn replied, as if he didn't care anyway. He headed for his chair, looking about ready to collapse from frustration. Rage to fatiguing frustration in seconds. Not a good sign, Pellaeon noted.
Pellaeon turned back to the terminal, bringing up the static-soaked image from the security camera nearest to the command room door. He brought the timer up to near the same time as the image of Daala, then proceded to watch the accelerated playback. Typical static and shadow... but then a set of shadows caught his eye. He turned back the timer and played it in real-time.
A crewman had walked past at one point, giving a good reference for proper shadow size. However, the shadows he thought he had just seen were far too small to have been a crewer. After a few seconds of nothing, he saw it: a short, lean shape, moving slowly and carefully. Behind it came another, and another... then they seemed to enter the command room's door. The shapes and the way they moved looked almost like...
"Admiral!" Pellaeon shouted. "Don't sit there!"
Thrawn had been halfway into his seat when the alarm came. Fortunately, he stopped just in time. Pellaeon made his way to the chair as Thrawn stood back up.
As Pellaeon had suspected, embedded in the back of the chair in just the right spot to pierce the heart was a long, slender knife blade.
"Clever, aren't they?" Thrawn observed while Pellaeon worked the knife hilt back and forth to dislodge it from the seat back. "It's what made them such good servants, after all."
"Less admiration and more caution would be better," Pellaeon advised. Finally he had the knife free. He held it up to show Thrawn.
"Rukh's own knife," he observed. "Quite symbolic, don't you agree? Very honor-bound, these Noghri."
"Admiral, if the Noghri were involved..."
"Yes, Admiral Pellaeon, I think I know who was here. However, continue with the investigation, and let me know what you find. Also, I want the Chimaera ready to return to base as soon as possible. You might want to take the opportunity to name the ship's new captain as well. Now carry out your tasks. I wish to be alone for a while."
"Yes sir," Pellaeon said uneasily. He had come to expect violent outbursts, but the strange calm was just as disturbing. It was possible that Thrawn might be stabilizing again...he could hope, at least. He snapped to attention, then turned to leave and carry out his orders, satisfied for the moment that with Thrawn in such a contemplative and fatigued mood he would do no more than plan and scheme, or perhaps even take the time to study art again.
Once Pellaeon had left, Thrawn began typing out mobilization orders to his fleet. He greatly valued his new Rear Admiral's advice, but there were some times when the aged officer was not the right person to burden with the planning of an operation of the type this one would be.
Luke Skywalker stopped and turned toward the familiar voice. Quickly, Han jogged up to where he stood in one of the palace's larger hallways. Lots of people, mostly political staffers and guards, with the occasional media type and maintenance droid, milled about. Evening sunlight still pored in through the large windows lining the hallway, allowing for lush vegetation to line the walls. However, few passersby took the time to stop and take in the breathtaking view of the city.
"Han!" Luke exclaimed as he shook his brother-in-law's outstretched hand. "I haven't seen you in days! Where..." his friendly question became abruptly more serious when he noticed Han's bruised knuckles, "...have you been?"
"Huh? Oh, this," Han replied, holding up his hand, back toward Luke. "You probably don't want to know. It would probably disturb you."
"Disturb me?" Luke replied quizzically. "Han, what have you been doing?"
"Uh, never mind that," he replied. "Let's just say Mon Mothma is making good progress in her recovery."
Luke gave him a long, blank stare, unable to see how the subject of Han's knuckles and Mon Mothma's recovery from her mysterious illness were possibly connected.
"So," Han said in a tone implying his desire to change the subject, "where are you going?"
"To talk with Lando about the latest developments. You're welcome to come along."
Han fell in line next to Luke without delay. "So, what are these 'latest developments,' or do I have to wait?"
Luke looked across the hallway, noting who was where, then beckoned Han to follow him with a jerk of his head. Han followed him to a nearby balcony.
Satisfied that no one would pass by too close without warning, Luke began.
"General Bel Iblis called me in."
"New Sun Crusher stuff?"
"Yes, but you're going to want to hear this first: He just received a message from General Madine's task force."
"What happened?" Han asked urgently. It had been far too long since anyone had heard from the fleet sent to secure the Maw facility. "Is Chewie all right?"
"They took heavy losses, but I think he's okay," Luke explained. "Someone else made it in before they did and sabotaged the place. Whoever it was might have run off with the research files and prototypes as well. Since he now believes it was Thrawn who attacked Kessel..."
"This just isn't getting any better, is it?" Han sighed.
"Well, this might cheer you up a little: the Sun Crusher had been destroyed."
"WHAT?" Han yelped before hushing himself. "How? When?"
"He advises caution, but it seems that Wedge disobeyed orders and attacked the thing. Cost him his General rank, but somehow he blew its engines."
"I don't think Wedge minds the exchange."
"That's not all," Luke continued. "Thrawn picked them up, then shot the Sun Crusher into a star. Wedge was allowed to record the whole thing and return.
"Got to be a trick," Han speculated.
"Mara doesn't think so," Luke replied.
"Yeah, Mara. How is she?"
"Getting along well," Luke answered. "The doctor said she and the baby are doing fine. In fact, he was surprised there hasn't been a miscarriage already with all that's happened."
"Leia told me about your reaction to that news," Han told him with a chuckle. "Wish I could've been there. How have other folks been taking the news?"
"The ones I have told reacted about as well as Karrde did. Maybe a little better. One of the women in Rogue squadron took it awfully hard, though."
"Oh yeah, Lieutenant Kyla Duneraker. She's had a crush on you for years. She's from Tatooine, you know. Quite the farmer's daughter, too."
"She's had a..." Luke repeated. "Why didn't anybody tell me?"
"Uh, Luke, you might not want Mara to hear you talking like that."
"What? No!" He exclaimed. "Oh no, I didn't mean it like that...."
"Okay, okay," Han said as he fought down a laugh. Luke, however, looked far more ashamed than he ought to. Han decided to drop it. "Any word from Karrde yet?"
"No, not yet," Luke replied, glad for the change in subject. "He took off looking for Bossk and Raylic, but hasn't found them yet. Raylic's face is all over the wanted postings now, so he probably won't be showing it here any time soon."
"I'd be careful," Han warned. "The guy's got to be warped to try something like that."
"We will," Luke replied. "As if we need another madman chasing after either of us. At least this one doesn't have a neary indestructible superweapon."
"So then," Han asked in a very serious, and sad, tone. "Kyp is dead, isn't he?"
"No," Luke answered, his voice turning to the same emotional setting. "At least, we don't know. Thrawn claimed he somehow stole a shuttle and escaped."
Han looked out over the city for a moment. The setting sun drenched the endless sea of buildings in red and orange light. The long shadows of tall towers stretched toward them like fingers. Off to north and south sides, the much larger shadow of nightfall could be seen, slowly but surely engulfing this side of the galactic capitol in darkness.
"So," Han said at last, "we still have to kill him. At least it should be easier now."
"No, Han. We don't have to. He's lost the Sun Crusher. He's vulnerable now. In other words, he can be reached."
"Hmm," Han grunted. "Remember that he nearly fried you before he had it in hand. And Winter tells me that he liked spending his free time wandering around Imperial stations looking for fights. Doesn't seem too vulnerable to me."
"I have to save him, Han. I have to."
"I don't know everything about the Jedi or the Force," Han admitted, "but I know this guy's gone bad."
"I can turn him back to the Light Side," Luke insisted. "I have to. There's no other choice."
"There is another choice, and it's to use that lightsaber of yours and save the galaxy from him. Permanently."
"No Han, I mustn't."
"Look Luke," Han said with a sigh of frustration, "You saved your father. You saved Mara. But just because it worked with them doesn't mean it's going to work for everyone."
"Kyp's fall is my failure," Luke insisted. "I can't kill him for a mistake I made. Yoda would..."
"Yeah, let's talk about that," Han said sternly, pressing his finger hard against Luke's chest. "Didn't you once tell me that Ben and Yoda, your own masters, didn't believe Vader could be turned?"
"But what? They told you to go after him anyway. If they didn't think he could be turned, just what do you think they wanted you to do to him? Have a nice, quiet reunion? Talk it out?"
Luke thought back to that fateful day in the Dagobah swamp, to the pain and betrayal he had felt when Yoda had confirmed Vader's words on Bespin. The agony of Yoda's death when he needed the Jedi Master the most. And his own conversation with the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi: "I can't kill my own father," he had argued. To which old Ben had responded, "Then the Emperor has already won."
Luke had been proven right in the end, but now Ben's words hung heavily on him. As did Yoda's warning: "For once you start down the Dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."
Perhaps it was a fluke. It was, after all, the bond of father and son that had swayed Vader in the end. And with Mara... Mara may have been a dedicated servant of the Empire, but she was not a full fledged Dark Jedi. Her alliegance was to the Emperor himself, not the Dark Side specifically. In revealing his deception, she had come around.
But this time, what could be used to turn Kyp?
"Luke," Han calmly asked his troubled friend, "did you ever think about redeeming the Emperor?"
Luke was stunned for a moment. "No," he replied at last. "I never even thought of it before."
"I..." he paused, trying to come up with an answer.
"You had no reason to," Han answered the question. "Palpatine didn't mean anything to you, but your father did. And since you meant something to him, it worked. Now, could you have turned the Emperor, if you had wanted to?"
"No," Luke answered automatically, then stopped and pondered what he had just said.
"He was unreachable," Han concluded. "You've taken that as a given. Kyp's your student and my friend, so it's natural that we don't want to admit that. But I think it's time we both face the facts."
"I've got to try, Han."
"Fine, but be sure you're willing and able to do what you have to if it doesn't work."
Luke silently nodded his head in agreement. The words of Yoda came to him again: "Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."
As they turned to re-enter the hallway and continue on to find Lando, neither noticed the battered Lambda-class shuttle that crossed the sky toward a relatively nearby commercial starport.
From the viewport on the Chimaera's bridge, Rear Admiral Pellaeon could see no sign of the damage that had so crippled his command. The upper surface of the vessel was without blemish, having been shielded from the blast that had ravaged the bottom. However, the bridge itself showed the damage clearly, in the form of technicians working at almost every computer station in attempt to re-activate or descramble vital systems.
Fortunately, the sublight engines and hyperdrive were fully operational, as was the navicomputer and communications. Sensors, weapons, and shields were another matter. For a trip straight back to Enigma, however, it was enough.
It would take at least a month, if not more, just to fix the hull plating. In the days of Palpatine, the Chimaera might even have been written off entirely, scrapped and replaced instead of repaired. Not now. Star Destroyers didn't just grow on trees, after all, and none could be merely wasted. Even the Gorgon was being repaired, and it was damaged far worse than the Chimaera. Then there was the near miraculous salvage of the Inexorable.
What a fool Daala had been, wasting three perfectly good ships. And to think that the last one had already been slated by the incompetent admiral for a suicide mission even before it had been destroyed at the Cauldron Nebula!
The way the crew treated her as a hero galled him to no end, but he consoled himself with the thought that the rebellious and troublesome Lieutenant Commander was dead at last. Someday, he promised, the truth will be known...
"Admiral Pellaeon!" crackled his comlink.
"Pellaeon here," he answered.
"Sir, this is Major Himmer in the main hangar. All work crews are inside, and all equipment is secured."
"Thank you, Major Himmer," Pellaeon replied. Ready at last. Time to get the ship limping back home. "Comm, signal the Inexorable with our flight plan..."
"Belay that," Thrawn said as he entered the bridge from the turbolift. "I have already issued orders to the Inexorable. Admiral Pellaeon, come with me."
"Come with you?" Pellaeon repeated. What was this about?
"Yes. I want you to accompany me on the Inexorable. We have a schedule to keep."
"But the Chimaera..."
"The new captain is to take the Chimaera back to base. You, Rear Admiral Pellaeon, are not needed for that work, but I require your assistance on my flagship."
Which meant it was pretty much official, Pellaeon thought with a touch of sadness. The Chimaera had lost its place as Grand Admiral Thrawn's flagship. Expected, yes, but sad nonetheless.
"As you wish, sir," Pellaeon said at last. "If I may sir," he said as they entered the turbolift, "where are we going?"
"Once the Chimaera is safely away," he explained, "the Inexorable will make the jump to lightspeed. Once in hyperspace, I will tell you."
Why didn't he tell us? Kam asked himself again. Rumor had it that Master Skywalker had returned several days before, but those rumors were hardly reliable. Yet with the preponderance of them, Kam found himself unable to contain his curiosity any longer. Streen had, of course, advised against it, noting that Master Skywalker would come to talk to them when he felt it right, but then Streen always was the shy and reserved type. Sometimes, in Kam's assessment, he bordered on spineless. No offence to species lacking internal skeletons, of course.
Finally reaching his destination, he pressed the door buzzer at Skywalker's suite. Maybe, just maybe, he was finally ready to start teaching again. But this time, Kam decided not to press the issue. He would welcome the Master back, and let him broach the subject himself. It would be enough to just let him know that his student was still loyally waiting.
He pressed the buzzer again. Perhaps Master Skywalker hadn't heard it the first time, or was indisposed. Hopefully, he had worked out those issues that prevented his return to teaching. Perhaps he had even saved Kyp in his absence. However, he thought with regret, it was doubtful he had given up on Jade yet.
Kam decided to buzz a third time before admitting defeat. This time, he heard a voice.
"Just a minute, I'll be right there!" the unidentifiable voice said, muffled by the door.
Kam straightened up again, ready to meet his Master. But it wasn't his master who answered the door. In fact, it was the last person he wanted to see.
There in the doorway to Master Skywalker's suite stood a barefoot Mara Jade, wearing a white bathrobe with dark blue trim. Her obviously wet hair was wrapped in a towel.
"Hello. You're... Kam, right? Sorry about that, but you caught me in the shower," she explained with an embarassed smile. "Come on in," she cordially invited.
Kam's mouth hung open. What in space did she think she was doing? Despite his confusion, Kam went ahead and stepped inside. He would get to the bottom of this.
"Have a seat," she told him, waving a hand in the direction of what looked to be a new couch. "Luke's not in right now, but he'll be back soon."
Kam opted not to sit. He stood his ground, staring her down.
It seemed to rattle her. "Well, if you'd rather stand, go right ahead," she said, her voice betraying a bit of frustration or disappointment. Kam wasn't sure which, but he was satisfied that he wasn't letting her get her way.
"Can I... get you something?" she asked uncertainly. "I think there's..."
"What do you think you're doing?" Kam finally spoke, his anger no longer containable.
"Offering you a drink," Mara replied, perplexed by his outburst. "Is there a problem with that?"
"Yes, there's a problem," Kam replied. "What are you doing here?"
"Kam," she replied pointedly, "I live here."
"Now listen, Jade..."
"Skywalker," she interrupted.
"I go by Skywalker now," she replied, but then her dismay suddenly abated to be replaced with a forgiving smile. "Luke didn't tell you, did he?"
"I haven't seen Master Skywalker since he returned. That's why I came here." Kam took a few paces, then turned to face her again. "But what do I find? You, acting like you own the place."
"And why shouldn't I?" she insisted. "This is my home."
"You're certainly making it look that way," he said, as he glanced around at the obviously recent additions to the suite that differed sharply from what Master Skywalker would have wanted. "Does Master Skywalker know what you've done to his place?"
"Not exactly," she replied with a smug grin. "He's been gone all day, and I've been redecorating. But I think he'll approve."
"A smuggler and war criminal like you has no business being here. I expect these things," he said as he stared at an expensive-looking painting, "are all stolen. And this..." He said as he reached down to pick up a miniature Z-95 Headhunter from an expensive-looking real wood table, knocking over a bottle of Intermediate Mantellian Red paint in the process. Fortunately (for him), the bottle's lid was on tight.
"You put that down right now," Mara ordered.
Kam stared at her defiantly for a few seconds before going ahead and setting it back down. As he did, an engine fell off, bounced off the table and landed near the bottle of paint on the floor. Mara glared daggers at him.
"A little touchy, aren't we?" he mocked.
"My husband bought that for me," she growled.
"Your husband?" Kam said. "You can't be serious. It's just too ridiculous."
"Well, believe it, pal. Luke and I have been married for a while now. This is my place as much as it is his."
Kam studied her face for a while, looking deeply for any sign of deception. He even tried to Force-read her emotions. But aside from her growing anger, which she was trying desperately hard to keep in check, he sensed no deceit. Given her old life as the Emperor's Hand, she could be subverting his mental probe, but that was merely unprovable speculation on his part. He didn't like it in the slightest, but he had to come to the grudging realization that she was probably telling the truth.
"He's been taken in by you, hasn't he?" Kam said with a disappointed tone. "Well, obviously. I just can't believe he fell for it."
"I love him," she retorted. "This isn't a one sided thing."
"The Emperor's seductress," Kam said, moving his head in an exaggerated way as he looked down then back up over her current clothing, "expects me to believe that?"
"That's it," Mara proclaimed, her shell of indifference finally cracking. "I invite you into my home, and you insult me. Get out."
"I'm here to see Master Skywalker," Kam declared defiantly. He sat on the couch and spread his arms over the top of it. "And I'm not leaving until he gets here."
Mara stared at him, casually slipping her hands into the robe's pockets. She fingered the lightsaber hidden in the right side pocket, and for a brief second she considered drawing the weapon. To wipe that smug look off Kam's face...
No, she thought, releasing the lightsaber. Kam was a nuisance, but he was not a threat. If it were Raylic or one of his bounty hunters, that would have been another matter. She could sense Kam's dislike - in fact, near hatred - of her, and even a hint of a desire to fight, but no intention. He was holding himself back, probably out of respect to Luke.
As long as he was holding back, there was time to defuse the situation. Kam was one of Luke's better students, on the Jedi skills scale, and very dedicated. She knew that much from the brief time she had spent at the Academy. In fact, she had little doubt that he could very well be the first of Luke's students to advance to the level of Master himself. But if he fell back to the Dark Side...
"Kam," Mara finally asked in a soft voice, "what did I ever do to you?"
"To me?" Kam snorted. "It's not what you've done to me. It's what you've done to them."
"Who?" she asked.
"Master Skywalker, for starters. You've seduced him, and are using him toward your own ends. He's totally blinded to what you're doing. Then there's Kyp, and the way you've turned him into your puppet."
"I... I don't believe this," she gasped. "Why would I have anything to do with Kyp? He stole my ship!"
"And promptly returned it, just in time for you to 'save' Master Skywalker. Then you disappear again for months during Kyp's reign of terror. I knew Kyp, and I know he's not clever enough to work the kind of systematic subjugation he started after Caridia went up. Now, who knows better than anyone else how to control Imperials than the former Emperor's Hand?"
"It all comes back to that, doesn't it?" Mara huffed, her hands on her hips. "No one disputes that Luke turned Vader. But why not me? I'm held under suspicion everywhere."
"Might it be because you are a known spy, assassin, and saboteur? Vader was a vicious killer and deceiver, but his role as the Emperor's right hand man was never in doubt. But you... you have a history of false identities a lightyear long."
She couldn't argue that. In fact, she still made use of them on occasion.
"Look, Kam, I'm starting over here. I admit, I've done some awful things, but it's all behind me now."
Kam grunted and crossed his arms across his chest. He wasn't giving any ground.
"Nothing I say is going to penetrate that thick skull of yours, is it? Fine, have it your way." Mara conceded. "Go ahead and wait there. But don't expect me to lift a finger for you. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to get into something more appropriate."
"No," Kam said gruffly. "Stay right here."
"Now you're giving ME orders? Just who do you think you are?"
"A Jedi," Kam answered confidently. "A Jedi who stands for justice."
"I've had enough of this. Out," Mara commanded, pointing to the door. "Out now."
Kam simply stared at her and said, "No."
Mara stood silent, her jaw set. Her hands clenched and unclenched as she tried to calm herself. Her training-honed instincts told her to protect what was hers, by ownership or assignment; but weighing against this was her Jedi training. She continued to take deep breaths until she felt controlled enough to make a rational decision.
"Kam, leave now, or I'm calling security."
"No, you're not. Sit down."
"Now there's an idle threat if ever I heard one."
"Is that right?" Kam exclaimed as he lept to his feet. However, he stopped short of whatever he was about to do as a strange feeling overcame him.
Mara was confused for a split second until she felt it, too. It was as though the temperature in the suite had suddenly dropped to near freezing. Coupled with it was a feeling of dread so deep they both fought to suppress shivers.
As they stood in silence, the feeling got ever stronger. It was clear to both that it did not originate from within the room, a fact which mystified Kam. Mara knew better than to pin it on Kam to begin with, but was overwhelmed by it nonetheless.
Suddenly, through the deathly silence, came a knock at the door.
The two looked at each other, as if to ask if the other knew what was happening. The knock came again, a little louder this time. Kam gestured for Mara to go to the end of the room farthest from the door while he moved in front of it, lightsaber in hand.
"Kam," she whispered, "what..."
He stretched his hand back toward her, signaling her to stay put. He was radiating a totally different sense than before, his anger having been replaced by... she couldn't tell what.
There was no third knock. The door motors whined against the stress and the door itself buckled in several places as it was violently shoved back into its retraction slot.
The person responsible for it, the one the darkness eminated from, stepped into the room almost casually, his black cape waving malevolently behind him despite the fact that there was no perceptible airflow and he wasn't moving very fast. He hung his shaggy black-haired head as he entered, then brought it up suddenly to face Kam.
The face, ugly far beyond its scars, frightened Kam. He trembled momentarily before he reclaimed his nerve. He stared back at the horrible visage, stared deeply into his eyes. Realization slowly dawned on Kam, and he eventually found his voice.