Lucinda lay on the trimmed grass between the main building and the base's storage sheds, and she pointed her macrobinoculars at the darkening sky. They were a present Mommy had bought with her first bonus working for Captain Karrde. Lucinda wasn't an official lookout—they manned the sensors inside—but it was fun to watch the ships take off and arrive. All the ships were on base, so that wasn't her current aim. She fine-tuned the scopes to see the visible stars before sunset. Then she'd have a visual for when she pretend-piloted off-planet. She had no reason to hurry. Mommy had a meeting with Captain Karrde. If Lucinda slowed down getting to supper in the mess, she'd get a later bedtime. Since no one was hurrying her up, maybe she could look at everything on the landing pads after she got her stars image. No one on crew cared as long as she didn't mess with any current jobs—including equipment and workers—to get the bulk cruisers or the Corellian Corvette back into space.
The unmarked path circled to the right from the two barrack buildings, past the cluster of four sheds before reaching the maintenance hangar, and then turning up to the main house. The buildings protected the path and the empty lawn from the canopy of trees surrounding the base. Myrkr was just as tree-covered as Varonat, but the animals were meaner and the people nicer. She couldn't stay outside after sunset; wild vornskrs wandered into the base and Mommy had made it clear that getting eaten by one was not acceptable.
The screen cleared the blue haze and showed the inky blackness of space with points of light blazing so far away. She shifted her fingers on the controls, careful not to jostle the macrobinoculars and lose the image. Something moved into the scope, blocking the stars and the black sky. The macrobinoculars shifted, trying to adjust the change in focus.
"Blast it!" Lucinda growled and shifted her eyes off the scope. That was safe to use, unlike some words spacers had used that probably expressed Lucinda's frustration better. But Mommy had already made clear if she used those words, there would be extra homework explaining the origins of those words and how they spread across the galaxy and what they meant in the other languages Lucinda was learning. And after finishing that, Luci would scrub the base with a toothbrush. She looked up at the purpling sky. It looked like ship glare up there, but all of Captain Karrde's ships were on base. She adjusted the macrobinoculars again before aiming them at the suspicious shape. The scopes focused on a long triangular shaped ship in orbit above.
THEY FOUND US! screamed over and over in her head, and she rolled to her feet. Her macrobinoculars banged against her chest as the strap around her neck stopped it from falling. She did what Mommy always did and clenched her teeth tight together to keep the fear on the inside. She knew what to do: get their things and run as fast as they could ahead of the stormtroopers and bounty hunters who were always chasing them. Who would never stop chasing them. Ice felt like it was squeezing her chest, but she pivoted and ran across the trimmed grass into the longer personnel barracks building.
She pelted down the hallway of identical doors to the door at the end of the hall. Her and Mommy's rooms were behind that door, facing each other like all the other rooms. Captain Karrde had the across-the-hall door added to give them more privacy. It slid open when Lucinda hit the controls.
Mommy wasn't there, but her packed travel bag was in her wardrobe. Lucinda grabbed it and ran to her room. Her travel bag wasn't as packed and ready to go. She grabbed clothes from the drawers in her wardrobe and stuffed them inside it by the fistful. Then she slid the datapad and her art projects off the desk and into the bag. The datacards holding all her lessons and stories and games went into the travel bag's front pocket. That would have to do. There was no time to erase that they had lived here. Mommy had fussed about never doing that step before they had to run, but Lucinda didn't know why they should do it.
She hoisted a bag on each shoulder and kept a grip on the shorter handles as she ran out of the barracks. The yard between all the buildings was still empty. Where was Mommy? Mommy was so good at coming exactly when Lucinda needed her, but ever since they moved to Myrkr, she had slowed down. But Lucinda was a big girl now. She could prepare their escape, so all Mommy had to do was pilot. She tore across the grass and ignored the macrobinoculars banging against her chest. They were tough; they could take it. Just like her and Mommy.
She ran to Landing Pad 1, which had a Skipray Blastboat sitting next to the maintenance hangar building. The unlocked main airlock opened into a tiny passageway between the cockpit and the main cabin. The main cabin was twice the size of the passageway, and fold-able benches lined the exterior walls. She paused, looking for the stowage compartments. A few crates were magnetically clamped to the metal floor of the main cabin. The last door led to the bunk room for the crew. Stowage compartments must be in there. She would stuff the travel bags in there and go get Mommy.
Her bag slipped from her grip and shoulder and hit the floor as she crossed the cabin. Her stuff flew from the still opened fasteners. "Blast it!" There was no time for delays! She grabbed her clothes and stuffed them back into the travel bag. Her foot kicked her datapad. It skidded across the cabin to under one of the fold-able benches. "Blast it!"
She dropped both bags on the floor to crawl after it. She couldn't leave it loose. If it broke banging around during flight, who knew when Mommy could buy a new one? It had skidded to a stop under the bench down for sitting against the exterior wall. She stuck her head and shoulders under it to reach it. Her fingers clamped on its narrow bulk and she felt vibrations in the deck plate.
"What hai you doing?" A male's voice, instead of Mommy's, said inside the cabin. Lucinda scrambled back and peered up. Chin looked down at her with his hands on his hips.
Behind him, Dankin rolled his eyes as he raised his wrist comlink to his mouth. "Jade, your kid was playing in the Skipray. Chin's bringing her in." He nodded at Chin. "I'll get it warmed up."
"I wasn't playing!" Lucinda scrambled to her feet as Chin grabbed both travel bags in one hand.
"Best be saving it, young one." His other hand pressed her back between her shoulders and steered her to the door and main airlock. "I got no authority over you. That be your mother and the Captain, in that order. Give it to them."
Mommy strode across the lawn toward the landing pad. She took the travel bags from Chin. "Get going," she told him before looking down at Lucinda. "Your room, young lady."
"But there's—" Lucinda pointed at the sky.
There was no arguing with that tone of voice. Mommy must not know the Imperials were here on Myrkr. Lucinda clenched her fists and trotted as fast as she could without running back to the personnel barracks.
Mommy followed her into her bedroom, setting down Lucinda's still-open travel bag on the bed. "Explain yourself, so I can go explain what happened to Captain Karrde."
"The Imperials found us!" Lucinda couldn't help yelping as she pointed at the ceiling and the sky beyond. "There's a Star Destroyer up there, and I was trying to get everything ready so we could escape!"
Mommy's stern face softened. "Luci, no. The Emperor is dead, and the Imperials left don't want us. They want something out of the forest, not us."
She had forgotten about the Emperor's death in her panic, but it happened when she was only three years old. She set her datapad on her desk. "It's been good here, but this is when it goes wrong."
"You are too young to be so cynical, young lady. I think the Jade luck has finally turned up a better sabacc hand than mere survival." Mommy pulled Lucinda against her in a loose hug. Lucinda returned it by squeezing Mommy's waist. "I'm proud of your initiative, but you're grounded for the rest of the night. Maybe longer, depending on how mad Captain Karrde is. I'll send someone with your supper while I go back to our meeting and tell him you weren't stealing a Skipray."
"We would've brought it back." Lucinda let her go.
Mommy smoothed Lucinda's braided hair, a matching red-gold shade with hers. "I'll stress that." She left Lucinda's bedroom, but turned at the door. "But you stay out of all the ships unless we're flying."
Mommy nodded and left. Lucinda flopped back on her bed with a tremendous sigh. Her stomach growled now that the danger was past. Her travel bag slid off the bed and landed on the floor with a soft thud. With a groan, she rolled over and looked at her clothes and flimsi strewn on the floor now. "Blast it."
The wake-up code from Artoo yanked Luke out of his dreamless sleep. It was too soon to come out of hibernation; that much made sense. "Okay, Artoo, I'm awake." He could use a cup of caf. His fingers hit the visor of his flight helmet as he reached to rub his eyes. "Is anything wrong?" Everything around him was dark.
Artoo stopped trilling and gave an anxious-sounding warble instead. Luke's blurry eyes realized he was in the X-wing's cockpit with all the systems shut down except power for Artoo and minimal life support for himself. The Imperial Star Destroyer Chimera had almost captured them, and the risky maneuver he had done to escape the tractor beam had broken the hyperdrive units and fried the subspace radio, leaving them stranded in deep space. Artoo was supposed to be winding a new subspace radio antenna while he conserved resources in Jedi hibernation. He twisted to look back at the droid.
He twitched in surprise. Another ship was bearing down on them, a mid-sized, slightly dilapidated-looking Corellian bulk freighter.
Adrenaline surge replaced his need for caf as he spun back around. He flipped the power switches for the shortcut powering sequence. That took nearly fifteen minutes from a cold start to any serious possibility of flight. Force willing, the intruder was friendly. Still, best not to look defenseless.
He turned the X-wing to face the approaching ship with the emergency maneuvering jets. The scopes and sensors returned information as they powered on and confirmed what he saw out the viewport. Not the class of ship the Imperials typically used, nor was their code coming up on the transponder. He didn't see any Imperial markings on its hull. So what was he facing, smuggler or outright pirate?
Artoo warbled his calculations on how fast the bulk freighter had slowed.
"Yes, I noticed that, too," Luke said. "But a normal bulk freighter might be capable of pulling that kind of deceleration if it was empty. Why don't you do a quick analysis of the sensor readings? See if you can spot any weapons emplacements."
The droid beeped affirmatively, and Luke gave the other instruments a scan. Primary laser cannon capacitors were at half charge now, even though he was down to three working cannons now. Main sublight drive was halfway through its preflight sequence.
Comm signal flashed that he was being hailed. He flipped on the receiver. "—need assistance?" A female voice asked. "Repeating: unidentified starfighter, this is the freighter Wild Karrde. Do you need assistance?"
"Wild Karrde, this is New Republic X-wing AA-589," Luke told her. "Yes, I could use some help."
"Acknowledged, X-wing. What seems to be the problem?"
"Hyperdrive." Luke watched the ship as it continued its approach. Its pilot had responded to his rotation with a sidling drift so the Wild Karrde was no longer in line with the X-wing's lasers. Probably just being cautious in case he was bait for an ambush, unless they were lining him up with a hidden armament. "I've lost both motivators," he continued. "Cracked shield cases, probably some other problems, too. I don't suppose you'd be carrying any spares?"
"Not for a ship that size." She paused for a noticeable moment. "I'm instructed to tell you that if you'd care to come aboard, we can offer you passage to our destination system."
What choice did he have? Still, he stretched out with the Force to measure the emotions behind the words. He didn't detect any deceit. "Sounds good," he said. "Any chance you could take my ship too?"
Her cool tone went dry. "I doubt you could afford our shipping rates. I'll check with the captain, but don't get your hopes up. We'd have to take it in tow, anyway—our holds are full at the moment."
Luke's lips twitched with that information. A fully loaded bulk freighter couldn't have managed the deceleration profile Artoo had recorded earlier. He still wasn't detecting deception from her. Maybe their drive system had undergone a massive upgrade, but the only ones who'd want to spend that kind of credit were smugglers, pirates, or someone who needed a disguised warship.
And the New Republic had no disguised warships.
The other pilot spoke. "If you'll hold your present position, X-wing, we'll move up close enough to throw a force cylinder out to you. Unless you'd rather suit up and spacewalk across."
"The cylinder sounds fastest," Luke said. He decided to keep her talking; maybe she would give him a clue as to what the other ship was. "I don't suppose either of us has any reason to hang around this place. How did you wind up out here, anyway?"
"We can handle a limited amount of baggage," she continued. "I imagine you'll want to bring your astromech droid along, too."
"Yes, I will," he answered.
"All right, stand by. The captain says the transport fee will be five thousand."
"Understood," Luke said as he unstrapped his restraints. He put the seals for his helmet and gloves into his flight suit's chest pockets under his flak vest. Accidents could always happen, even though a force cylinder to travel between ships was relatively foolproof. But shutting it down halfway through would be the simplest way for the Wild Karrde's crew to pick up a free X-wing. He paused in his preparations to strain his senses toward the larger ship. There was something wrong with the crew; something he could feel but couldn't target lock.
Artoo warbled his observation anxiously.
"No, she didn't answer the question," Luke agreed. "But I can't think of any legitimate reason for them to be out this far. Can you?"
The droid moaned. The translation came up on the scope. "No, and we are attractive to pirates."
"Agreed. But refusing the offer doesn't buy us anything at all. We'll just have to stay alert." He pulled out his blaster from the other side pouch, checked its power level, and slid it into the holster on his flight suit belt. His comlink went into another pocket, probably unnecessary until he reached Wild Karrde's destination and needed to arrange transportation back to Coruscant. An emergency survival pack attached to his belt behind his back, awkward in the cramped quarters. Last, he pulled out his lightsaber and fastened it to his belt.
"Okay, X-wing, we've got the cylinder established," the Wild Karrde's spokesperson said. "Whenever you're ready."
The Wild Karrde had rolled so the small docking bay on its port side was above him, its outer door gaping invitingly. According to the X-wing's instruments, there was a corridor of air between the two ships, and he took a deep breath. "Here we go, Artoo," he said before popping the canopy.
A puff of air brushed against his lower exposed face as the air pressures equalized. With a gentle push, he eased up and out and gripped the edge of the canopy to turn around. Artoo had ejected from his socket and was using his directional jets to move toward Luke, making unhappy noises about the whole situation.
"I've got you, Artoo." Luke reached out with the Force and pulled the droid toward him. He looked up before bending his knees and pushed off.
He reached the airlock inside a half second ahead of Artoo, grabbed the straps fastened to the walls, and brought them both to a smooth halt with the Force. The outer lock door slid shut while they were still moving. Gravity came back, easy enough for him to adjust his stance to it, and a moment later the inner door slid open.
A young man dressed in a casual coverall of an unfamiliar cut waited for them. "Welcome aboard the Wild Karrde," he said with a nod. "If you'll follow me, the captain would like to see you." Without waiting for a reply, he turned and opened an internal door heading fore.
"Come on, Artoo," Luke said softly as he followed their guide into a small corridor through repulsorlift generators to a turbolift nestled between them. They rode up multiple decks, but the crewer blocked sight of the control panel.
Luke reached out with the Force for a quick survey. There were four others aboard, aside from their guide, all of them in the forward sections. Behind him, the aft sections were oddly dark. He shook his head, but the strange sensation remained in place. A potential aftereffect of the long hibernation. Han and Chewie had both independently opined that depending on the hibernation trances to get through long hyperspace jumps wasn't good for him and he should upgrade to a larger ship, one with an actual bunk. Maybe they had a point. Something to check on later. He was certain there were no crew members or droids unaccounted for.
The turbolift stopped, and the guide led them into a corridor heading aft towards the oddly dark section. He stopped at a door starboard of the turbolift. The door slid open as the guide stepped aside. "Captain Karrde will see you now." He waved toward the opening.
"Thank you." Luke nodded to him. With Artoo bumping against his legs, he stepped inside an office of sorts. What looked like sophisticated communications and encrypt equipment took up most of its wall space, and a massive desk/console combination filled the center with narrow paths to get around it.
Seated behind it, watching Luke's entrance, was a slender man with short gray hair streaked with dark brown that it had been earlier in his life. The middle-aged man's skin visible around his gray goatee was an olive shade, darker than Luke's tan. "Good evening," he said in a modulated voice. "I'm Talon Karrde." His brown eyes flicked up and down Luke. "And you, I presume, are General Luke Skywalker."
How in the worlds had he known that? Luke had only used his X-wing designation. "Private citizen Skywalker," he said, keeping his voice just as calm. "I resigned my Alliance commission nearly four years ago."
The corners of Karrde's mouth twitched to almost a smile. "I stand corrected. I must say, you've certainly found a good place to get away from it all."
Luke answered the unasked how did you end up here question. "I had some help choosing it. A small run-in with an Imperial Star Destroyer about half a light-year away."
"Ah," Karrde said, with no surprise that Luke could see or sense. "Yes, the Empire is still active in this part of the galaxy. Growing more so, too, particularly of late." He tilted his head to the side, but his gaze did not leave Luke's face. "Though I presume you've already noticed that. Incidentally, it looks like we'll be able to take your ship in tow, after all. I'm having the cables rigged now."
"Thank you." The skin on the back of his neck was prickling from Karrde's lack of a reaction. A Star Destroyer in the area caused reactions, especially to anyone operating in the Fringe. Unless Karrde worked the Fringe for the Imperials. That would come clear soon enough. "Allow me to thank you for the rescue," he continued. "Artoo and I are lucky you happened along."
"And Artoo is—? Oh, your astromech droid." His brown eyes flicked down to look at the droid before returning to Luke's face. "You must be a formidable warrior indeed, Skywalker. Escaping from an Imperial Star Destroyer is no mean trick. Though I imagine a man like yourself is accustomed to giving the Imperials trouble."
"I don't see much front-line action anymore," Luke told him. It was true, and if it lowered the crew's expectations, all the better. "You haven't told me how you came to be out here, Captain. Or how you knew who I was."
Karrde's thin mouth twitched into a half-smile or a smirk. "With a lightsaber attached to your belt?" That wry tone made it a smirk. "Come now. You were either Luke Skywalker, Jedi, or else someone with a taste for antiques and an insufferably high opinion of his swordsmanship." His appraising gaze swept over Luke again. "You're not what I expected, somehow. Though I suppose that's not all that surprising—the vast majority of Jedi lore has been so twisted by myth and ignorance, to get a clear picture is almost impossible."
Now the prickling cascaded up to ring a warning bell in Luke's mind. "You almost sound as if you were expecting to find me here," he said as he shifted into a combat stance and let his senses reach out. All five of the crew he had sensed earlier were still in the forward part of the ship. Only Karrde was close enough to pose any kind of immediate threat.
"As a matter of fact, we were," Karrde agreed. "Though I can't actually take any of the credit for that. It was one of my associates, Mara Jade, who led us here." His head tilted, encouraging a response from Luke. "She's on the bridge at the moment."
Luke felt his stomach bottom out like he had pushed his skyhopper out of a dive a little too hard. It couldn't be the Mara he had known; the galaxy was too kriffing big to ever cross paths with her again. No matter how desperately he wanted to, no matter how deeply he always would. At least his Mara wasn't part of a trap created by Imperials or this Talon Karrde. He had never told Han or Wedge her name, even though both had teased him about his search. There was no way this smuggler or pirate learned about her in Luke's past.
So Karrde's associate, coincidentally named Mara, was potentially Force sensitive enough to sense his presence from light-years away. Luke had to know. Keeping his overall awareness alert, he focused a part of his mind on the Wild Karrde's bridge. The young woman he had spoken to over the comms sat at the helm. An older man ran a calculation through the nav computer at the station beside the pilot. And sitting behind them was a luminous presence, her Force abilities contained behind rigid mental shields.
A presence he knew, he remembered instinctively, even though they had met before he had training with Yoda to recognize the Force in others. His heart beat harder as he realized that there was a loftier reason he had so imprinted on this woman than the carnality he had assumed. A mix of both, perhaps? Flashes of memory, strengthened by years of reminiscing, joined the turmoil. Burying his nose in red-gold hair as they squeezed together on the narrow cot, her brilliant green eyes cutting through the shadows and through him, his lips on her neck following her directions and brushing against the slave collar around her neck.
"Yes, that's her," Karrde said with a practiced nonchalance. "She hides her talents exceedingly well—though not, I suppose, from a Jedi. It took me several months of careful observation to establish it was more than luck."
Luke pulled away from Mara to focus on the ship's captain before him. "You're very observant about your associate." His tone rose with a slight challenge.
"I have to be in order to take care of my people."
Luke's memory of Mara's slaving collar collided with Karrde's possessive turn of phrase. "Is she your employee or property?"
The older man's mouth flattened. "I don't deal in slaves, Skywalker. I compensate everyone in my organization well for the tasks they accomplish for me." He shrugged. "You grew up on a Hutt-controlled world. I have always found their way of doing business more of a cautionary tale of how not to do it." He got to his feet. "I suppose then, there's nothing more for us to talk about for the moment… and let me say in advance that I'm very sorry it has to be this way."
Luke's hand darted for his lightsaber. He had barely moved when the shock of a stun blast hit him in the back. There were Jedi methods to prevent unconsciousness, but they all took a second of preparation that it was too late for now. He felt himself falling, heard Artoo's frantic trilling moving further away, and wondered how in the galaxy Karrde had done this to him.