STUFF CHAPTER 3
This waking up in strange situations was going to have to stop. This time, Luke awoke first, and it took him a long moment to remember who he was twined with, where and why. It was just another bizarre left turn in their tortuous association. Sure, you know Mara Jade, the one who wanted to kill me for so long. Well I'm paying her a finder's fee if she can find me a wife. And in the meantime we sleep together, no sex, just sleep together.
Absolutely, no problem, made perfect sense. Never mind trying to explain it to anybody else, he had no idea what to make of it himself. And the slim arms wrapped around him and long firm leg slung over his own were not adding measurably to clarity of thought.
He wondered now, under the present, errr, more intimate circumstances, how he could have ever thought Mara's looks a bit too predatory for his tastes. He paused for a moment to indulge in a frank appraisal her lumpy flight suits did not permit. The strap of her sleeping shift had slipped off her shoulder, offering a glimpse of certain features that, although not of the oversized proportions of the statuesque Tara, were, to his mind, far more captivating. Projecting into the future what might happen if the strap slipped further down occupied him for some time -- the future, was after all, always in motion, and some possible futures certainly involved more motion than others.
Luke knew without a doubt that Mara would filet him for his pleasant discovery and subsequent more thorough perusal of the remainder of her marvelous body -- it was a luxury a conscious Mara would have never permitted. Nor, all in all, was it a particularly gentlemanly thing to do. Yet, he was equally certain that her long efforts to conceal any hint of true sensuality from him were quite calculated. He was sure she had no such inhibitions with other men, and she should not always feel so confident in his good manners and restraint.
As he considered his options, somewhat incongruously old Master Yoda came to mind -- "Control, control, you must learn control." Yoda had never contemplated the control required for moments like this -- or had he? Now this would be a demanding test for a young Jedi, he thought. It certainly was for an old one.
In the end, it was not Yoda's admonishments which stayed his hand from acting on a very compelling impulse, but a far more serious threat -- Mara's uncertain morning temperament. He would not be surprised if she stashed a blaster within easy reach. In her typical morning stupor, she would be most likely to aim and fire first and only later, if ever, come to regret the fact that she did not open her eyes before administering a fatal blaster burn.
More fundamentally, he knew, as they had both known last night, now was not the time to resolve this latest twist. Never, ever, try to decide whether you should be, when already you are, in a woman's bed.
So he gently, pulled the strap back up over her shoulder. Better go now, before he began to regret the decision, or she woke and made it for him.
* * *
Luke was thoroughly bewildered. He burned himself twice and boiled the tea into oblivion on the third try before getting a passable brew. And just in time. Following a routine established over the past thirteen days, he kept an 'ear' out for Mara. When he heard her stirring, he took a hot cup down to her cabin, leaving it outside the door. He sent no message apart from three words to that bleary mind -- "Hot, tea, door," knowing from experience that more complicated messages were beyond her comprehension at this point.
He retreated into the cabin, struggling to still his trepidation. He knew what to say to a woman he had made love to -- he just did not know what to say to one with whom he had only slept. Hi? How'd you sleep? Did I snore?
Luke belatedly realized he had been foolish in not thinking this out more carefully before agreeing to leave Yavin. On the other hand, he and Mara had been on missions before, alone and with others, in closer quarters than this, and for longer periods of time. So why was this one different?
It seemed that in the crazy, aberrant swings in their long relationship, certain normal, critical stages had been omitted. Why didn't they ever just talk about winter wheat, or shut up and do the deed billions of loyal fans were expecting? Instead they had gone from mortal enemies to saving each other's lives; from student to master and back; from a wary acquaintance to an intimacy so close one could wound the other with a word. And now the pendulum was swinging again, and sometimes, even when you have known someone for ten years, it moves too fast.
He had been sitting at the table, with his back to the corridor immersed in these thoughts, and was therefore truly alarmed when he felt a tap. He whirled around. "How long have you been standing there?"
Mara was leaning against the wall, having used a Force, rather than physical, touch. "Not long. You know, I could probably teach you something about splitting your concentration. Being that focused is important, but could be dangerous."
"At this point, you probably could and it certainly is. How much did you overhear?" Luke asked guardedly.
Mara might have tried uttering a denial, but could probably not lie any more successfully to him than he could to her. "Not much. Even when you're that distracted, I hear very little. Once your barriers are up, I hardly hear anything."
"You didn't answer my question."
"No, because mostly, like you, I was trying to figure out what to say."
" 'How'd you sleep' did not seem quite adequate."
He laughed and held up the carafe, "I rejected that one myself. Want some more?"
"Please. It seems too early for a stiff drink, but if I could have snuck one out of the cabinet without you noticing, I would have."
She walked over to the table, cup in hand and then stood at the table. He felt her hesitation, "What?"
"This is going to get old really fast. I'm standing here wondering, do I sit across from you, or next to you, and if next to you, how close?"
"How about across, it's where you've been the whole trip, and it's better for talking."
"I would think 'better for talking' would be one reason not to sit there." But she did just that, sitting while he poured and then cautiously sipping her hot brew. They sat in silence. Finally Luke broke the impasse. "So who goes first?"
Mara glanced at him over the rim of her cup, "It was your dream, you go first."
"But you asked me to stay, so you go first."
She sat for a long moment, eyes downcast, then said slowly, weighing each word, "Your dream scared me to death. Thanks for staying and seeing it through with me."
Amazing how she could turn a supposed thanks into a vehicle for assessing blame. Well then, he would not yield the point either, "Even though it was only a dream, I was glad to stay when you asked, and..." he paused, considering the advisability of the next statement.
What the hell, he gave her a playful nudge under the table with his foot, "If you asked, I'd gladly do it again."
She looked up with a wink, "Okay." They both started laughing. Mara returned the prod, and then she was all business again, "Come on, let's get to work." She slipped out of the booth, and headed to the cabin terminal where Artoo had been encamped. "So, has it loaded every data bit in my computer?"
"Probably. He's helped me find all of your personal files. I've been reading them in the mornings."
Mara did not miss a beat. "Then you've found my 'to do' list?" She disconnected a data pad from the access terminal and returned to the table, this time scooting in next to him. She located the file, and "to do's" began scrolling down the screen -- "Verrat background," "Trading protocols," "Tell S about F social conventions," "NRI report," "Navigation issues," "Prepare port documents," and so on.
He managed to say blandly, "I found the list," as the entries "Locate brandy in hold," "Hide brandy from Mara," "Argue about who pilots through belt" and "Alter to do list" scrolled by. "Alter to do list" had a check mark by it.
She snorted in disgust, "So apart from screwing around with my computer, have you been doing anything else useful?"
"Oh, you mean like reading the files 'Verrat general,' 'Verrat political,' 'Verrat economic,' 'Verrat geography,' and 'Verrat social?'"
"Something like that."
"Well, you can fill me in. It's pretty much as you said, small planet orbiting a yellow star, 28 and change standard hour rotation, 402 standard day orbit. Humans, against their better judgement, colonized it in the days of the Old Republic with the help of the Jedi. They had the bright idea of protecting everyone from possible annihilation by erecting Class three energy fields over four areas that have now become the population centers for about three million permanent citizens."
"Standard NR credits accepted, but economy among the native population operates mostly on barter, Basic spoken, and a local pidgin dialect -- the courteous but rather ominous hello and good bye 'no cazut i shtea' roughly translated as 'may the stars not fall.' I'm not very clear on how people can support themselves, or why they stay. And I'm very curious about the Jedi influence."
"Like I told you, the economy is mostly agrarian. Despite the belt, 'stars' as they so poetically call them, do not fall out of the sky that often, and it's not as if they can't detect them before they do. One of the pluses of generations of asteroid debris is very fertile soil. There are thousands of square kilometers of arable land, just outside the cities. The farms aren't, by the way, protected by the energy fields."
Luke interjected, "That's an unusual variation on the risks of living off the land." Mara looked at him curiously. "As you so often remind me, I grew up a farm boy. Apart from the more typical rain, drought, insects, and disease, an asteroid falling out of the sky is a sure fire way to wreck your harvest."
She nodded, and continued, "Traditionally, the original colonists had their own farmsteads, and were able to support their families, or trade what they didn't have for what they needed, augmented by the occasional imports."
"And the Jedi?"
"They came, they left. The colonists stayed. Most important thing though, is Force courtesy, and I'll tell you about that now, so then I can cross it off my list."
"Of course, make sure you do that."
"Don't make fun of my list. Don't you ever write things down?"
"If you have Force recall, why do you need a list?"
She looked at him coolly. "So you never become dependent on that faculty, and for the satisfaction in being able to cross things off."
"Well, you notice I did add some things, and crossed one off as well."
"In the future, I will remind you to keep your grubby paws of my lists. So do you want to know how to avoid mortally offending the Verratan population or are you just going to make fun of me?"
"I'd prefer to do both."
Mara scowled, and Luke privately thought that the score for that morning so far was Skywalker 2, Jade 1.
"A significant percentage of native Verratans are Force sensitive."
"Is that because the Jedi mixed with the colonists?"
"Probably, but it's also a survival skill, natural selection and all that -- some ability to anticipate the future or at least act on accurate hunches is useful with asteroids orbiting over head."
He said slowly, "I might be able to find some students."
Mara was fiercely emphatic. "You'll do no such thing. Force sensitives are very valuable to the community -- to its survival. You shouldn't presume to remove them just for the sake of getting another acolyte."
Luke thought she was going a little far. "I don't see what the problem is in identifying a few likely candidates, and offering to train them."
"Because it's not right. The Verratan view of the Force is very complicated, a simultaneous blessing and curse -- it helps them stay alive, but they are burdened with foreknowledge many would simply rather not have. They would never discuss it with an outsider. And don't try to probe anyone, they will know if you are, but I've never met anyone trained enough to prevent it. It is considered a terrible affront -- both an invasion of a person's personality, and an arrogant abuse of power."
She took a deep breath. "Besides, start throwing your Force ability around, and someone's likely to figure out who you are."
"I've been wondering about that. The whole reason you go there is because of those rich Imps. Do you think we're likely to have any problems?"
"I've thought about it, but I really don't think anyone would be likely to recognize you. I'm known there, and known for having a co-pilot along." She paused, waiting for some unfunny witticism on his part, but he didn't rise to the occasion. "And, with the popularity of the 'Jedi' series, most people think you like look that actor, and not like you do."
"How very flattering."
Mara grinned. "And I checked before we left -- no one is offering a bounty for you."
"It is. It might have been worth turning you in, especially if I can't get a commission for finding you a girlfriend." Luke awarded her a grimace as Mara began laughing at her own joke. Skywalker 2, Jade 2. "Besides, if things get hot, I don't think there's anything there we couldn't handle."
"It doesn't sound as if you think much of the Imp population there."
Mara pulled on her lip thoughtfully. "I don't. It's just a bunch of fat, lazy, wealthy, top of the food chain type customers sucking the life out of the unfortunate people beneath them and whom without, they could never maintain their comfortable, complacent lives."
"Not that you have an opinion of them or anything."
"Well, I can let you draw your own conclusions. Did you read my Verrat Imperial file?"
Luke shook his head, steeling himself to avoid smirking at her sincere question.
Mara went on, ignoring his suppressed mirth. "If you think about it, there is an odd combination of factors that make this a strange place -- founded with Jedi, extreme inaccessibility, Force sensitive population. All sorts of unusual and dangerous people willing to risk the belt have found sanctuary on Verrat. An early rebel group founded a base there, and a much younger Palpatine was concerned enough to wipe them out. He left a governor and a few commanders to patrol the planet. The Imps really liked the place, and spread the word. It became a much sought after favor from the Emperor -- if you serve well, Palpatine would grant you a home and estate on Verrat."
He wondered at the bitterness in Mara's final sentences, "That influx of new people must have changed life there -- were there purges?"
"Purges might have been preferable. Palpatine confiscated the family farms, consolidated, and parceled them out to the loyalists. People who had been working land for generations were forced off and became tenants on the farm they had once depended upon for their livelihood."
"I still don't understand why your typical Imp would want to leave the luxury of a Core World to become a lord farmer on Verrat."
Mara sighed. "You have to understand the Imp mentality. It was an opportunity for them to return to some bygone era and live in sartorial splendor. It appeals to an Imperialist's romantic notions of conquest and acquisition -- driving out across these vast and lovely fields, able to say, 'This is mine.'"
She had to stop for a breath. "And the Imps can do it all on Verrat with very little expense. It is far too costly in other parts of the galaxy to maintain huge homes and estates, have fleets of servants, throw lavish parties. But on Verrat, it's so easy if you have money -- your credits will go a lot further there than just about anywhere else. Sure the really exotic things have to come off planet, but everything local, including both goods and labor, are incredibly cheap in comparison to other places."
Luke thought that he must have just found another button and cataloged it as "Verratan Imperial." He added aloud, "It must make for very difficult conditions for others."
"The exploitation of the Verratans is the main reason it's so economical for the Imps to stay there. With so many people displaced from their farms there is this large and terribly poor native work force to cater to your every whim and need. Why pay for the cost and maintenance of a kitchen droid, when you can get three or four local Verratan cooks for a few credits a week? In fact you hardly see any droids at all; technology is at a very low level. It's expensive to replace machines -- on Verrat, it's the people who are cheap."
"Is there any other industry or employment?"
"No, at least not yet. Practically the only other places to work are in the homes of other Imps, or the humiliation of working land you once owned and paying a rent for the privilege of doing it. Hell, the rents an Imp family collects from tenanted farm land, whether in goods or credit, are enough to support them without ever having to draw on personal capital. Any money left over goes off planet. No Imp would invest in industry; no Verratan has the capital."
Luke added, "And of course, the locals are only paid enough to survive, and probably not enough to save to hire passage off the planet."
"It is really like some old colonial era -- most of the places in the galaxy just don't operate like that any more."
"There's no government to speak of. The Imps all contribute a sum each year to support the energy field and the space port. There are no levies, no taxes, no central authority and no support or services for the local population. If the Imps want something for their convenience, they will build it or pay for it. Once the Empire fell, they didn't even have to contend with the occasional Corsucant bureaucrat or tax collector."
During her last little speech, Luke had been listening carefully, resting his chin on a hand and gazing at her with a bemused expression. Mara began shifting uncomfortably under his stare, and finally raised her head defiantly, clearly expecting a quarrel, "What?"
"Nothing, really. I'm just surprised -- I've never thought of you as holding any particular political views. You sound like quite the populist."
Her response was defensive. "You mean because I was once a stooge for the Emperor, I must think that how he subjugated entire systems is a good thing?"
"You know Mara, every conversation we have needn't end in an argument, especially when we actually agree on something. All I meant was that although it wouldn't be surprising that I voted for my sister, I never suspected you might too."
"Well aren't Jedi supposed to be defenders of peace and justice in the galaxy?"
He tried not to smile at her earnestness, "Yes, I have heard that before."
"What the Imperials have done to the local Verratans offends my sense of justice."
"And mine, too."
She jutted her chin out further, "You don't need to be so condescending."
"And you shouldn't be so apologetic or defensive," he countered, taking hold of her wrist and shaking it slightly. "I told you, I agree with you."
"Oh." Even as her wariness slipped slightly, she pulled her hand away, and became engrossed in checking items off her data pad list, leaving Luke to wonder how he could think he ever really knew or understood Mara.
"So how does trading work there?"
Mara looked up, "What do you mean?"
"Do you go direct or through brokers? I couldn't tell from your historical margins; they are so much higher than anything I've seen before. Even paying a hefty commission wouldn't affect your bottom line."
Her eyes opened wide, betraying a surprised and amused respect for this wholly unexpected observation from him. "Very good, Skywalker. I thought you lofty Jedi never mixed with the things that really make the galaxy spin."
He shrugged, inwardly pleased that Mara actually thought he had some skill she could admire. "I spent the first half of my life as a farmer, and selling water to the highest bidder."
"I usually sell about half direct and half through middlemen. You probably noticed that not all the goods are covered by sell contracts?" He nodded. "I usually contract with the middlemen in advance; they're stable, their deposits fund most of my purchasing, and the balance usually my costs. The remainder, my direct sales, are mostly pure profit." Her eyes gleamed. "I don't like to lock in too many contracts because prices tend to fluctuate -- if just one freighter bites it in the belt, demand rockets."
"I bet you also like bargaining with those fat, top of the food chain Imps too, and squeezing every last credit out of them for that vine-silk and 50 year old brandy."
Mara giggled maliciously. "Oh, how they plead. You know, we have plenty of time and cargo, I might let you try some of the bargaining. You may not be half bad."
"Me?" This vote of confidence from her was startling.
"Sure, except it'll be harder than you think. You can't use the Force."
Although Luke had never considered it before, he knew why, "It would be unfair, wouldn't it?"
Mara nodded, quite serious, "It isn't right to use the Force to the disadvantage of another, even in a bargain, and even if they are Imps." She frowned at him, "You're surprised at my ethics." It was a statement, not a question.
Luke had hoped, absurdly, that his wonderment would escape notice, "A little."
Mara scolded him, "Just because you can't get through a simple conversation without the advantage of reading someone's emotional state, don't make the same mistake about me."
If he had not been paying attention, if had not already spent thirteen days with her, if the link they shared had not permitted him to learn how her flip answers could conceal deep fervor, Luke might have missed it altogether as just another sarcastic outburst. But at that moment, he discovered yet another way to hurt her, and deeply.
Luke struggled to think of something to ease the pain he had caused and then stopped; to do so would mean admitting again that he had the power to wound her, and he was no more prepared for that responsibility, than Mara would be to acknowledge it. He inched slightly away from her, thinking he was going to be really glad to get off the ship.
Mara, absorbed in her lists, seemed oblivious to the little internal war raging within him.
"Should we look at that NRI report?" She nodded, sliding out of the bank to find the cube.
Skywalker 3, Jade 2 -- this time, there was no satisfaction in it, and he decided to stop keeping score.
She returned, slipping next to him again on the seat. "I loaded the report onto the pad, so we can both read it."
"I haven't looked at it yet, have you?"
She called up the file. It began with a cover note from Han:
"Hi Luke. I hope Mara hasn't murdered you yet even if you deserve it, because Leia would blame me. The attached is the most recent report from the missing agent on Verrat. I don't know how NRI got it but it appears to have been prepared at least two standard months ago. The agent missed the last two scheduled message drops -- and NRI's been trying to figure out what to do. I've told them that you are going, and will look for the agent."
Luke felt a twinge of irritation at Han, "Rather confident I would be joining you wasn't he?"
Mara shared his annoyance, "Solo is very sharp. I'm surprised he doesn't cut himself more often than he does." They returned to the report:
"NRI wouldn't tell me much, but I think that is because they don't want to admit how little they know."
"The agent is a 24 standard year, male going under the name Witten Borkin. Verrat may have been his first solo assignment. His pic is at the end of the report. He had been on Verrat less than eight months, and was supposed to be working out of Tirgu Muresh. The agent runner there is a woman, known to NRI as Dazern Kyle; standard protocol requires that if something happens to an agent, she does nothing to endanger her cover or other agents, although I doubt NRI would bother with more than one agent on Verrat. Kyle's instructions are to keep a watch at the Sunspot Cantina in Tirgu and wait for NRI to contact her. If Kyle's still around, she should show up there. Your code word is "sunburn" and she should respond with a comment about the weather. Your reply is "Not this time of year." Crude, but on Verrat, it's the best NRI can do.
"One thing, Mara, NRI knows you do the run and Kyle may find you first. I found this entry in NRI's Verrat briefing protocol: "As a last resort, agents and runners may consider contacting Mara Jade. Jade lived on Verrat, is known there and appears to be engaged in legitimate trade with persons, like herself, once associated with Palpatine. See Jade file code clearance restricted classified for more information. She usually travels there one to three times a year. In a true emergency, it may be possible to prevail upon her to ferry messages out system. Although she will certainly read any communications, (and for these reasons caution in the content of any messages is called for) she is also likely to deliver them directly to Chief of State Organa Solo, General Solo, or most likely, Jedi Master Skywalker. See Jade file code clearance need to know restricted for more information."
"Mara, I thought you would be interested. I tried to get a copy of your file, but just set off a bunch of alarms. HS."
Mara was thrilled at this last part of Solo's massage. "Oh great, I'm a runner for NRI."
Luke read the entry again. "What's this about 'Jade file codes'?"
Mara shrugged, "Cross references to my NRI file, probably. Evidently they've attached security clearances to different parts of the file -- my Verrat trading activities meriting only a 'classified.' Isn't 'need to know' the highest level they have?"
"I think so. Interesting that information on your contacts with Leia, Han and me is accessible only on that basis. I wonder what's in there?"
She snorted in disgust, "No doubt all sorts of things we'd be very surprised to find out about ourselves."
Luke added, with a knowing guffaw, "They probably have you related to Han or bearing my children. Do you know the Sunspot Cantina or Kyle?"
"Never heard of her, but I know the Spot. It's a local watering hole, few pilots, grunt types from the port, mechanics. If an NRI agent runner was in Tirgu, that's where you're likely to find her. Nice to know she won't be shocked if I show up, makes it easier to find her. It's where I would have started regardless."
The blurred picture of Borkin revealed a nondescript young man with brown hair, brown eyes, and a light complexion. Completely forgettable -- his looks shouting "NRI spy."
The report began scrolling by. Monthly Status Report by Borkin. Large credit transfers continue to be reported from sources in the Tirgu Credit Exchange. Unknown where credits are coming from and what they are being used for. Possibly evidence of smuggling. Luke observed critically, "Not very literate, is he, crafting sentences that way?"
Mara agreed, "Definitely a youngster. He makes smuggling sound as if it's a revelation of covert activity."
The report continued: Credit transfer activity continues primarily in the account of The Bacchanalia Trading Co. SRL.
"That's strange," Mara tugged on her lip again-- a gesture he had come to associate with Mara preoccupied.
"I've never heard of Bacchanalia before."
"Hmm. That is curious."
"Seriously ..." Mara began to object.
He interrupted her, hoping to forestall another argument on something they could already agree upon. "I know, I wasn't being sarcastic, you've been trading there for a long time. How long since your last trip?"
Mara made the query on the pad, "203 standard days."
"Is it likely a new company could have formed in that time?"
"Possible, just unusual."
"I don't remember any of your brokers trying to cancel or renegotiate sell contracts."
"They haven't. That's why it's so odd. If I had new competition, I would have expected to hear about it from them."
Will begin working as a loader at Bacchanalia warehouse. Defense perimeter above Tirgu Muresh failed twice in last 30 standards. Reasons unknown. No sources have information.
Luke humped contemptuously. "Well, that's enlightening. I can't say I think much of Mr. Borkin or his descriptive and analytical skills. Could he have at least speculated on whether it was a mechanical failure? Sabotage? Described who he talked to, when this occurred, who was on watch, how they discovered the problem?"
Mara cupped her chin in her hand, studying the cryptic entry for some further insight. "I'll be curious to see what the Bacchanalia warehouse is. It wasn't there the last time I was in Tirgu. And I've never heard of a failure of the net before. The population, if they knew, would be in a panic. It would be interesting to look at outgoing passenger manifests. If Imps were leaving in droves, that might tell us something about who knew about it and when."
"Who has authority for maintaining the net?"
Mara made a disparaging sound in her throat. "It's under Imp control, of course, housed in the same building as the space port. I know someone who works there. We'll have to ask him about it."
"Who's your contact?"
She smiled. "I have lots of 'contacts' if you want to call my friends that. But this particular friend is Yur Remschi. He's part of that family I told you about. I lived with him, and his wife, and their children when I was in Tirgu."
Luke had been very curious about Mara's revelations from the night before; it seemed he really knew so little about her. "What were you doing there?"
Mara made a great show of pretending to be lost in thought. "At the time, let's see . . . it was about a year before I met Karrde. So..." she glimpsed at him with flashing mischief, "I was probably figuring out ways to track you down and kill you."
"I was working as a mechanic, and my boss moved to Verrat. So I came too. I lived with the Remschis, Yur got me a job at the port, and I worked as a dancer at one of the clubs. I had thought being around Imps would be useful, that some of them might know who I had been, and help me out. But that didn't happen. Instead, being around so many Force sensitives just sent me over the edge. The nightmares returned with a vengeance, and alas, no one was interested in killing you, so I saved some credits, signed on with a trader and caught a ship out of there."
Luke shook his head, "You seem so matter of fact about it now."
Mara retorted, "Killing you? Oh, sure."
He rolled his eyes.
"Hey, Skywalker, how many women do you know who fantasized about you day in and day out for years?"
He hoped he favored her with an appropriate leer. "Billions if Duke's exploits are any indication. I just prefer the fantasies to be less lethal than yours were."
She elbowed him in the ribs. "I don't know if I would use the past tense if I were you." She started laughing.
The poke was not a gentle one. He rubbed his side. "Hey, waitress, don't you have some tables to clear or something?" He tapped the pad, "Pay attention, you're not that funny."
"I think I am."
He rapped the pad again, "I wonder what the smuggling might be. Has there been much of that type of activity historically?"
Mara wiped the grin away, once again somber. "Not that I'm aware of. Profits are high enough as it is, without the need to bring things in surreptitiously. Besides, for smuggling, you are either trying to get something in, or something out. There is nothing on Verrat that is profitable enough to justify the cost to export it. And the most interesting things that come into Verrat are the holiday presents the Imps order for one another. It really doesn't make much sense to me."
Luke remembered her earlier comment. "You said that your brokers have not been trying to alter your standing contracts. If there was much illicit activity going on, you would probably have noticed it too."
"Assuming that there are all of these credit transfers in and out of the Bacchanalia account as our not so competent Mr. Witten has observed, what goes with those credits, goods, people, land? Something else?" Mara asked.
"I think maybe we should pay a visit to both the Credit Exchange and the Bacchanalia Trading Company SRL."
"Hmmm." Mara was absorbed, staring across the cabin at Artoo.
"What is it?"
"Well, I usually don't bother with droids and I had intended to leave your unit on the ship while we were in Tirgu. But I'm reconsidering that. If we do get into the Credit Exchange or the Bacchanalia, I think you should bring your Artoo unit to get at those records."
He did not say anything immediately, then replied in a flat voice, "Whatever you think is best, Mara."
Mara jerked out of her musings, surprised at his surly comment. "You know, Skywalker, sarcasm isn't very natural to you. You don't have the finesse required."
Luke's response was mild but frosty, "I really haven't had the opportunity to hone it to the fine art form that you have. And Captain though you may be, I suggest that you be a little more diplomatic when ordering me or my droid around. You are more likely to get a cooperative response."
Bitten by his rebuke, Mara's temper blazed, then abruptly cooled. She did not want to weather another angry outburst; fighting with a Jedi Master was too draining. And even as he had been busy cataloging her flash points, she had suddenly located one in Luke, discovering just how far she could try to dominate him before he dropped that dreaded passivity and fought back.
Her apology was genuine and contrite, "Sorry. I can be a little over zealous at times. Allow me to rephrase. I was concerned that bringing Artoo along might attract undue attention. On the other hand, I believe that it would not be that unusual for a trader to bring one planet side. If we need to root through someone's data bank, an Artoo unit could be very useful. What do you think?"
"I'll defer to your opinion on whether or not we will draw unnecessary attention to ourselves by bringing a droid. I don't know this place the way you do. But, I agree that if we need to review passenger and shipping manifests or credit records we may want him along." His next comment indicated that he bore no lasting resentment, "Make sure you enter 'Bring Artoo' on your list so we don't forget him."
"A fine idea." Mara dutifully made the entry on the data pad.
Luke looked over her shoulder as she did so, "I think that next we argue about how to navigate the belt. I looked at some of the displays of your last few runs. You usually enter about the same spot in the belt?"
She nodded. "I don't really know why. Anyone who does it has their own preferred way of going in. I usually drop out of hyperspace, orbit the planet a few times, and come in a few degrees off a signal from Tirgu. I..." she hesitated.
"Well, I usually sort of hover at the spot, thinking about Tirgu, about the signal, and then a path seems to open up, and I follow it. It's hard to describe."
He nodded. "No, I understand. I've done something similar before. I was hoping that you would share some of the fun."
Mara twitched her mouth into an ironic smirk, "It's either pretty degenerate or we are getting really cocky when we start thinking that navigating through an asteroid field is fun. What did you have in mind?"
He thought for a moment, then said slowly, "We could do the same thing you normally do, except that I could find the path, and then you could pick it up from my mind and fly through it. If you're actually piloting, I could probably keep enough of a surface tension on the outside of the ship to repel most of the rocks that come our way."
Mara dropped her sardonic expression, considering his proposal in wonder, "So you would be aligned with the belt and the ship, and I would link with you?"
"In a way, yes."
She whistled in admiration, "With a link controlling the ship, the belt and the course, we could do some really fancy flying." Her eyes glittered with anticipation.
Luke's own imagination quickened, considering the thrill of that kind of ride, "We could try going through a really dense part of the belt, or dusting some of the really big asteroids."
"Or," Mara injected enthusiastically, "next time, I could find the path and handle the ship tension and you could pilot through it."
A strange expression crossed Luke's face, "What's wrong?" Mara asked, as she felt his mounting exhilaration ebb.
He shrugged. "Nothing, really. My old Jedi Master used to abuse me for craving this kind of excitement. I was wondering what he would make of all this."
Mara shook her finger at him, "Don't get all pensive and depressed. I told you on Yavin this trip might be fun, so just enjoy it. Stop looking for deeper meaning in everything you do. It's very annoying."
"Maybe. But I do have to consider whether it's right to want to risk my life for the thrill of piloting through an asteroid belt."
"Sith, I hate it when you do that." She shoved him in the arm to emphasize the curse. " Listen, first, you are not risking your life. To do that, you would have to risk my ship, and my life, and I would never, ever let you do that. Second, if I may be so bold, you haven't acted this normal in years, so lighten up. Finally, and on a more serious note, maybe if the Jedi had craved a little more excitement, or at least been less acquiescent, Vader and Palpatine wouldn't have been able to wipe them all out."
Only the night before, he had been furious with her for expressing these same derisive opinions. Today, her critique of the Jedi passivity seemed less threatening.
"So can I cross 'navigation issues' and 'argue about who pilots belt' off my list?" She arched an eyebrow inquiringly, hand poised over the data pad.
Luke delayed in his answer, considering; Mara, he realized, did not fully comprehend the gravity of the decision. She was not a Jedi Master, and probably, for all of her skill, never would be. She had made the extent of her commitment clear, unwilling to fully embrace that ethic. But to some extent, she had to be right. Allowing the Force to guide his actions did not necessarily also mean abdication of personal accountability and it should be possible to avoid the dark side without also lapsing into fatalistic, passive submissiveness. When were a Jedi, restrained and controlled, and when was he merely senselessly compliant? Mara may have known the answer to that query better than he.
She said nothing verbally, but he heard her whispered challenge, "What are you afraid of?"
He said aloud, "Fear has nothing to do with it."
"Don't be too sure of that."
He heard her again, in his mind, subtly taunting him, "Are you the master because you have control, or because you never risk it?"
He answered her question by reaching over, and entering checks next to the entries on the pad.
Mara smiled her approval and shoved him again with her elbow, "Great."
"So, what's next?"
"My least favorite part of trading," Mara groaned. "We need to fill out the Verratan Customs forms, and attach one copy to each crate in the hold, and present the form, in triplicate to the Port Authority. Leave it to Verratan Imps to come up with a bureaucratic record keeping requirements useful to no one, and different from the data chip system everyone else in the galaxy uses. It's on the basis of what's on the forms that determines the duty I have to pay for the privilege of trading there. It's a pain, and I am sorry for inflicting it on you, but it really takes two people. I didn't have time to do it before I left, and if it's not done right, the port authority will have my hide and assess a fine for trying to smuggle."
"So, I will be able to locate the brandy after all." He had to duck as Mara smacked him with the data pad.
Even with Mara's ordered hold and files, and even with the Force ability to move crates around, the task still took all day. For Luke, the tedium was lifted marginally by the fun of opening up crates to peer inside at the exotic contents, and then quickly sealing them back up before Mara noticed. He did find the brandy and in a variation on Mara-baiting, secreted it away, in places she was certain to find it; it was not that he was that eager for more brandy, he simply enjoyed riling Mara over so small a thing. Mara did permit the liberation of one bottle of better wine for later.
* * *
Dinner was over and they were finishing the wine. Each had staked out territory at opposite ends of the couch. Luke sipped the wine, thrumming his approval. "This is much better than the other stuff we've been drinking."
Mara stretched her legs, sunk deeper into the couch, and sighed deeply, contentment washing over her as she rolled the wine in her mouth. "It should be. Even in the Core, this would run well over 150 credits a bottle. Can you tell how it's different?"
"Ummm, not as sweet."
"The flavor is drier, more intense, rounded, and tastes more of ripe fruit, earth, and sun. The feel on your teeth comes from the aging. This bottle, if you notice from the label, is almost as old as we are." She sighed again, "I love this wine."
Her almost sensuous pleasure from the drink was entertaining and unexpected. "I didn't know you were such an authority."
"One of the consequences of hanging around the Emperor -- acquiring tastes that up until recently I could not afford. A wine to savor, it spoils you for anything else."
They lapsed into a companionable silence, music floating through the cabin. His chuckling interrupted her quiet reverie. "What?"
"I was thinking about the first time I was drunk, that it was not on so exalted a vintage."
She chuckled. "The perils of youth."
"That's about right. It was a party in Anchorhead; I drank way too many of some sort of sweet sour drink. Typical adolescent pick. I kept asking my friends, am I drunk yet, am I drunk yet. When I got sick, they told me yes. My last coherent memory was of leaning against an upturned table, singing religious hymns. Woke up on the front door step of home."
Mara's laugh was rich. "Let's see, first time for me was not nearly as enjoyable. It was after Endor -- when the Emperor died, I crawled into a bottle and didn't come out for a week." She yawned, pushing him lightly with a bare foot. "What's the best party you've ever been to?"
"To the extent I remember them, which is very little, the pilots' parties, no question."
"They are fun, aren't they?"
"Some of the ones during the war were really frenzied. They were also the hardest -- you felt you had to have a good time for the ones who didn't come back."
"Dancing and drinking for the dead," Mara said softly.
Luke stared into the depths of the rich red wine he swirled in his glass. "Both for the friends who died, and the enemies you killed." The melancholy passed with a sigh. "What about you?"
Her second languid stretch was probably unintentionally provocative. "Smuggler's parties, generally. Exotic food and drink, very interesting people, unusual music, usually terrific dancing. Karrde used to throw great ones. It's not a good smuggler party unless you break at least one piece of furniture. We smashed a dining room set at one when we all tried chair dancing. The next day I found bits of the chandelier in my pockets."
Mara's contrasts were baffling to him, and rather unwisely, Luke verbalized his incredulity, "Unbelievable."
"What is?" Mara's previously conversational tone suddenly developed a slight edge.
In crafting his reply, Luke chose what he deemed the more tactful approach, and in so doing, confirmed that he would never be a diplomat. "I just have a hard time imagining you swinging from a chandelier."
"Well, what's so unusual about it?" came the testy challenge.
"I dunno, it's just that ..."
Mara gave a low, warning growl.
Here we go again, Luke thought. "Well you keep surprising me. I think I've got you figured out, that there is some measure of predictability, and then --"
She interrupted him sharply. "So you think I'm unpredictable?"
Luke thought as privately as he could that of all things he could do, calling Mara "unpredictable" was surely the fastest way yet to provoke her. "Uhh, yeah, I do, like today with the politics on Verrat, or how you felt about me looking for candidates, or some of the things you said last night about having children, or chair dancing. I can never guess what you will do, what will set you off."
"Well you're not in any position to label me unpredictable, given the stunts you pulled yesterday," she accused. .
"That was different," he replied reasonably.
"I was being fun."
Mara fired back, "So you're fun and I'm just manic."
"I hadn't thought of it in those terms before, but sure, I can't argue with that assessment. I'm fun, and you're, well I don't know what you are."
Mara raised a sarcastic eyebrow. "I see. Well, let me explore just who is the one being unpredictable here. I've been swinging from chandeliers for years. I have a long, long record as a fun person. You," she paused to lean over and poke him in the chest with a finger, "on the other hand, are not supposed to be fun. You are sanctimonious, critical, retiring, boring, passive or depressed." With each cataloged negative attribute, she poked him again. "You've been barging into my life for ten years, and you've never been fun before, why the change now?"
Luke affected astonishment, innocent eyes wide with feigned hurt. "I've been barging into your life? Excuse me, but who's the one who drops into Yavin for a day or two and then takes off again? If I'm so boring and sanctimonious, why do you keep coming back?"
Mara did not even have to pause for a breath, swinging back at the ready, pronouncing with immense satisfaction, "I like the night life there."
As if he could ever hope for a straight answer from her. Luke replied in kind. If it's so great for partying, how come you never take me?"
Mara responded patiently, the answer obvious, and he too obtuse to comprehend it. "Because, you'd be boring, and you didn't know how to dance until I taught you."
He had an inspiration, it was time to call her bluff. "Well then, we should go out somewhere. Is there anywhere in Tirgu?"
Mara's metamorphosis from mocking amusement to intense consternation was swift. "Sure, there are places, but what do you mean, 'go out?' With you? Like on a date?"
"Sure. We've lived together, camped together, eaten, slept, and gotten drunk together, cut down clones and crazy Jedi Masters, fought how many air battles? Why not?"
Mara's voice edged up several octaves in a near panic, "But with you?"
"What's wrong with me? It's not like I'm a Gamorrean or something."
Her discomfiture was comical. "Wait a minute, we are supposed to be looking for a girlfriend for you."
Luke was ecstatic, he had her on the run now. "We can do both. Besides we weren't talking about my prospects, however dim they may be. We were talking about why you think I'm boring and giving me the opportunity to prove otherwise."
"Geez Skywalker, you are bor..."
"And another thing, why don't you ever use my first name?"
Even he was wondering from what depths that question emerged. But as soon as he said it, he knew it had, that it continued to, irk him. "It's always some slight or slam or insult, 'Jedi,' 'farm boy,' 'rim worlder,' or 'Skywalker' if I am being particularly aggravating. You never use my first name."
Her response was petulant, "I do too."
"When? Use that long term recall. Can you think of a single time? I can't."
Mara furrowed her head, her brain laboring in the effort -- "With Tionne, probably with Solo, or your sister, maybe Calrissian."
"But never to me, right?"
Mara hung her head, red hair curtaining her face. She stared into her empty glass and whispered "No."
"What was that?"
She didn't look up, but repeated more firmly, "I said no."
During this latest spat, the distance between them on the couch had closed. Luke reached out, and brought his hand to her chin, to tilt her face up. Mara resisted, turning her head away, eyes down. "Why don't you ever use my name?" Too late, he realized how dangerous his gesture was; like yesterday, he had trapped her, and then did not know what to do once she was cornered.
Under his fingertips, Luke felt Mara's pulse racing in her throat, and then steady to an even beat as she pinpointed her control. She slowly raised her eyes to return his gaze unblinkingly, finally replying evenly, "Why do you keep trying to box me in," and then a pause, "Luke?"
So she knew what he was doing, even if neither knew why. Luke stilled his own yammering pulse, and responded in the same measured tone, "And why are you always running?"
She lay bare the ruse, "Ahh. And of course, you have no reason to run, when you can simply be the Master." Mara then launched her counter offensive, raising her arm and curling it around his neck, her message unspoken, but clear --Don't play this game with me unless you're prepared to lose. They sat, unmoving, laced together, exquisitely contained, bloodless, each frozen in implacable calm.
This time, Luke yielded. He dropped his hand from her face, disengaging the tense contact. Mara's arm lingered a moment longer before she slowly retracted it from around his shoulders. They both rocked back, each withdrawing again to opposite ends of the couch, exhaling deeply as the control required for this contest drained fractionally.
Luke stood, "Early start, long day tomorrow."
Mara nodded, her voice gruff in response, "Yeah."
Luke turned to head aft.
"Wait, one more thing." He pivoted back around to face her.
The impish Mara had rebounded, grinning fiendishly. "Ship tradition. We have to toast the end of the jump." She gestured to the liquor cabinet, "Co-pilot's prerogative, pick your poison."
Right, he thought, not manic at all. Well, if Mara wanted to pretend nothing happened, so could he. He saluted her, "Aye. But this time, we use glasses." She jumped up, and disappeared, returning with two clean cups.
His selection was a surprise, "Bakuran nectar?"
He shrugged. "We've drunk all the Corellian, most of the ale and I'm not up for the pink wine after that bottle we just had. There isn't much left, and I for one, don't want to go back into the hold tonight if it means you'll put me to work again."
Luke poured and they raised their glasses. "Ladies first."
Mara whipped her head around, "Ladies? I don't see any ladies around here."
"Captain first, then."
Mara for a moment, considered actually trying to encapsulate something of the intricate mosaic that was their relationship. After this latest skirmish, it seemed impossible, "To fun and profit. To good hunting and my 22 and a half percent commission."
Luke laughed, "To fun and profit, to a lovely captain and a good friend."
Mara looked about again, "Who are these other people you keep referring to?" She paused, obliged to return the gallant gesture, "To the best of my many co-pilots."
"High praise from you."
"I didn't send you out the airlock; that counts for something." Glasses clinked and they drank.
They dawdled briefly in the corridor before finally retreating each to their respective cabins. Some time later, Mara was still tossing in her own bunk; she caught a similar restlessness in the cabin next door. It was very convenient to be able to have a conversation without leaving her bed, "Am I keeping you awake?" she asked.
"No. I thought I was tired, between hauling those crates around, the wine and the nectar, I expected to drop right off."
Mara rolled over and punched her pillow, "Whatcha thinking about?"
"That I want to go to sleep and can't." This was not completely accurate, he had been wondering what she was wearing, but did not feel compelled to share that not-so-idle curiosity. "What about you?"
"Same." She was no more candid than he. Mara had been thinking that Luke actually bore very little resemblance to a Gamorrean.
"That was a nice toast by the way."
"You mean the part about profit."
She didn't bother gracing his comment with a reply, but burrowed more deeply into her bed, and with enough vigor that he was certain to sense it.
"Well you are lovely. I've always liked redheads."
"I thought you preferred women in reptile skins."
"Where did you get that idea?"
"After Vader mentioned it, I went back and read my Dathomir file."
"Do you have my whole life cataloged in your computer?"
"No. Not all of it anyway," came the sly reply. She added, "Accurate information is very important when you are planning to kill someone. But it's always been hard to keep you in the right file."
Luke had a vivid image of Mara moving and dragging files with his name on them into different places in her ordered existence. He wondered whether she even used his entire name there. Mara was quiet for a moment, than fitful again. He asked, "What is it?"
There was a long, long pause. He could sense a powerful struggle, then, "I could come over. I mean well, ah, like last night."
It was tantalizing. As his mind flew to the disappointed impulses of that morning, he would have answered "yes" and far too quickly. The morning's memory battled with discretion, reason, restraint and judgement, with memory finally the loser, and buried in a mighty effort. "Do you really want to keep testing our control?"
"Ha. Don't flatter yourself. It wouldn't take that much control on my part."
Luke guffawed at her ego. "More than you might think. You're the one who just decided I wasn't a Gamorrean."
"So you've been eavesdropping?" Mara kept her answer flip, but was profoundly disconcerted.
"If you can't control your thoughts better than that, it's your problem."
"Well, try eavesdropping on this one," and she projected an image of his hand on the strap of her shift, and the effects of gravity when straps are relieved of the feminine shoulders they rest upon.
Luke returned the favor, sending an image of what he would do to her, of which particular parts would receive special attention, when her strap fell. He caught a fleetingly muffled groan of protest, and felt the movement of a pillow sailing through the air and thudding against the cabin wall. It was, however, impossible to savor the victory because at that moment he had to dive under his own pillows and covers as he felt a Force fingertip graze his neck and back.
He growled a complaint, "I'm duly impressed with your clever Force applications. Will you get your hands off me and let me sleep now?"
He heard her smug, "Yes," in his mind.
Mara retrieved her pillow with a flick and settled back into her bed. The Force as a flirtation device. She prided herself on a certain uninhibited creativity in this arena and played out the fanciful possibilities in her mind; the implications were intriguing, potentially very pleasing. She luxuriated in a muscle snapping stretch. Gamorrean indeed. Her control was equal to his, it would be fun to test it, see how far she could push him, how far he could push her. . .
Abruptly she ceased these avenues of speculation, appalled, horrified, embarrassed. Mara groaned again, this time in intense mortification. What was she doing? Oh she had to get off this ship. Tunneling deeper into her bed, she pulled a pillow over her head. Keep thinking like this and I'll get pulverized by an asteroid -- and deserve it. She willed herself to sleep.
* * *
Morning came soon enough. Mara, still nestled deeply into her bed, felt a slight tug and caught the aroma of tea drifting toward her. She sensed a presence heading back to the cabin. Damn morning people, annoying, cheerful, energetic morning people. People better off dead. Shoot them just on principle. Blaster, near. Shoot. No. Stay. In bed. Forever. My place, my bed. Mine, mine. She sniffed again, hot, stim. Want. Need. Her desire for the stimulant warred with warm, muzzy inertia. Stay, up, stay, up, stay, up. Solution, bring tea to bed, stay in bed.
She reached out with the Force, intending to open the door, and bring the tea to her, without leaving her nest. Unfortunately, her command was as bleary as the rest of her; she hit the light instead of the door control, blinding herself. Cursing she fell out of the bed and bumbled to the door, finding both the proper control and her salvation. She sat on the deck in her night shift, barefoot, hair in wild disarray, cradling her precious tea. Just another typical morning for Mara.
Several sips into her cup, Mara remembered her name. A few sips later, she remembered that she was on her ship, and a few sips after that, remembered that the only good reason for having Skywalker around was that he did brew a decent cup in the morning. Half way through the cup, her fog lifted marginally, permitting her to remember why she was on her ship, and why Skywalker was there too. By the time she finished the cup, she was washed, dressed, and knew that they dropped into Verrat today.
When she joined Luke in the cabin, he was concentrating on Artoo, securing him down for the ride to come. Luke chirped a "Morning," and ignored her grunted greeting, knowing that the parts of Mara's brain responsible for communication would not connect with the rest of her until she had a second cup. "There's more on the table." Another grunt. "Better take your time and drink the whole pot, you want to be alert when we do the run."
This time, speech, "Good idea."
"I've been stowing things. We don't want anything banging around. Cargo is secure too."
He joined her at the table, nursing his own drink and waiting for the raving bitch lunatic to recede. By her second cup, Mara no longer looked as if she was a nocturnal animal stunned by a speeder's headlights. By her third, normalcy, at least for Mara, returned.
She looked over at Artoo, finally saying, "Does it has all my trading data stored?"
Luke nodded. "I'm bringing the data pads, but will there be a computer and an access port somewhere?"
"Like everything else there, the computer systems are pretty primitive. Which might be helpful if we plan on looking at someone else's data. But the hotel rooms they set aside for Traders are equipped with decent ports, networks and displays. Before we leave the space port, we will also want to update what I have with data from the customs office -- might as well get all incoming and outgoing shipments over the last year. They'll have price lists too. Those will tell us what goods are currently trading at, so we'll know where to start bargaining."
They sat silently for some time, each absorbed in focusing exercises as the chron timer in the cabin ticked down. By the time he had cleared the table she was ready, "Let's go."
In the cockpit they began running the systems checks. Luke could feel his own anticipation level rising, and detected that Mara, for all of her deft, competent movements in the captain's chair, was experiencing the beginning of a similar rush. He heard her unspoken thoughts, really directed to herself, and not to him, "This'll be great." He had to agree.
The chron ran down, and he disengaged the hyperdrive control. Blue lines tapered into glittering stars, and there, before them, a tranquil green-blue planet, and between them and the planet, an enormous swath of slowly circling and turning rock. It blanketed the planet, seemingly impenetrable.
He set their course into an orbit, a respectful distance from the belt and powered up the shields. Mara was already manipulating the comm. "Tirgu control, this is Jade's Fire, Tirgu control, this is Jade's Fire . . ."
A booming voice erupted from the comm, "It is about time. Have you drunk all my brandy, you wench? How is our favorite dancing corsair?"
In response to this extraordinary greeting, Mara's eyes lit. She was beaming ear to ear, "Hey, old man. It's still my brandy until you pay for it."
"Droom boon, Inta?"
"Droom boon, Yur."
"We have pined for you Inta. I have not seen my wife for a week -- she says only that she must cook for our corsair. The children are clamoring for Auntie Inta, Auntie Inta. No respite for the old man until your light graces our stars, dear." Mara laughed, delighted.
"Give us a nice strong signal Yur, and we'll follow her in. We'll see you on the other side."
"No cazut i shtea Inta. We will wait for you." The voice clicked off.
Luke was dumbfounded. "Inta?"
In response to his question, Mara started, the shine dimming in her features. She shrugged, "Just a nickname."
"What does it mean?"
She was suddenly serious, "Promise you won't tell anyone?" Luke nodded, very amused. "It's a diminutive. Means 'little one," or more precisely, 'little girl child.'"
"How very fitting." It took tremendous effort to avoid smirking. "He's quite poetic."
"Well that's a Verratan for you, never says in two words what can be said more gracefully in ten." The soft affection she emanated belied her seemingly censorious answer.
"And 'droom boon?'"
Mara adjusted the ship's navigation, finding Yur's signal. She arced the ship into a wide ellipse, bringing it around, toward the signal, and the spinning deadly stretch of frozen rock, trapped in the planet's gravitational pull, a forbidding menace between the universe, and the quiet place beneath. She nodded to him, "Ready?" Luke placed his hands on the ship's console, breathed deeply, and reached out, through the Force.
He found the pulsing signal and traced it, through the impossibly spinning morass. The signal became a cord weaving through, in, out and among the asteroids. Settling even more deeply into the Force, he found where the signal united with the ship. He reached into the ship, and felt its own pulsating rhythm, the icy vacuum of space against its metal hull. As his Force awareness widened, it searched further and found Mara, strong and familiar. He opened to her, and she flowed into his own awareness; as before, he felt her Force sense intensify and augment his own.
Mara joined him in the vision of the cord threading through the field to the planet below. What had been slight and dim suddenly became, with the heightened awareness she gave him, clear and sharp. The path opened up before them, complex, wild, dizzyingly intricate. At some elemental level transcending speech or mind, Luke asked, "Do you see it?" Mara offered no words, or even coherent thought as a response; instead her confidence and breathless excitement at the challenge ahead surged over him. As Mara, entered the belt, her connection to the ship and its controls melded with his own.
Two minds and the ship fused into a single crafty, slick creature. As they tracked the signal down, the ship seemed to dissolve, following in the wake of the consciousness that winded its way through the treacherous maze. They became a slippery, small, resilient thing, that, like opposite ends of a magnet, repelled the perilous turning rock. As the asteroids plummeted toward them, their merged consciousness wove through the hazard, fearlessly, dodging, darting. The ship was no longer a thing of metal and energy, pelted by boulders that could crush it with a blow, but a fish arrowing through water.
Luke felt Mara spy an enormous hulk of rock that dwarfed the ship in its immense size. Even as she thought it, the ship responded, skimming the surface impossibly, recklessly close. She flipped the ship on its side, sliding it through a long narrow chasm. He concentrated on easing the tension between the ship's hull and the rock seemingly only meters away. As he did so, the ship increased speed, rocketing down the canyon. Mara swooped up the walls to meet and loop around another hurtling asteroid, then plunged back down into the canyon, then rose again, diving and soaring, reveling in the power, in the union of mind, metal, and energy.
And then suddenly it was over. They burst out, into the clear space beyond the belt. Mara whooped triumphantly, flew out of her chair and threw her arms around his neck, their link still such that he felt every nuance of her effusive elation. He was drenched in sweat, reeling from the rush, the excitement, and the elevated awareness the effort had demanded to survive it. It was without a doubt one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.
Mara pulled away with an "Ughh" before he could respond. Luke wiped a shaky hand over his wet face. She tugged her flight suit loose from her own sweaty body, "I'm disgusting." Then she looked up, exultant, "Let's do it again."
Luke shook his head, blinking, trying to clear his mind, to modulate the heightened sensitivity between them. Mara narrowed her eyes in concern, and leaned toward him, resting a hand on his shoulder, "Are you O.K.?"
He nodded, finally finding the synapses responsible for speech, "That was an amazing run."
Mara gave him a crooked, shy smile, "We do work well together sometimes." She was damp with sweat, her hair, uncontrolled under most circumstances, now plastered to her head, and sticking out at all sorts of improbable angles. Luke felt his already rapid pulse inappropriately jump another beat or ten.
The comm picked that blessedly opportune moment to come to life, "Jade's Fire, this is Tirgu control, you are in one piece, I see?'"
Mara looked at Luke curiously for a moment, frowning. "Jade's Fire ...." She jerked, and turned back. "Patience Yur, we'll be down with your brandy soon enough."
"Welcome back, Mara. We will lower the shield at minus 0935 on my mark."
"Got it Yur. See you soon."
She turned back to him, "You sure you're all right?"
"Fine," he was unwilling to cede any weakness. "When we link like that, you really boost my Force sense. It just takes a minute to bring it back under control." He let loose of some of the thrill he had felt, "Brushing by that big one was really wild."
Mara looked quite smug and gave him a sound clap on the arm, "I told you it would be fun. I liked racing down that canyon, good idea to grease the sides of the ship the way you did."
Luke pried at his own gummy flight suit, "I'll be glad for a real shower though."
She grinned, "Me too."
By the time they descended to the Tirgu Muresh space port, they both had cleaned up. Mara no longer looked as if she had bathed in her flight suit, and the pink flush had faded from Luke's features. Luke gathered their gear and readied Artoo, joining her in the cockpit as they received their clearance to land.
As soon as they touched down, Mara bounced up; her eagerness and enthusiasm were palpable. Right before releasing the hatch, Mara turned to him, "One more thing I forgot to mention. Don't be surprised if a Force-sensitive Verratan tries to probe you. It's not like what we are capable of; it's almost like a greeting, an attempt to identify a similarly sensitive person. Try not to overreact; if your barrier slams into someone, it will scare them to death."
Luke nodded, pretending to understand what she meant.