The Imperial Star Destroyer moved silently through the blackness of space, its lights dimmed, its huge sublight engines blazing with the urgency of its mission.
The man standing on the command walkway could feel the rumble of those engines through his boots as he listened to the muttered conversation from the crew pits below him. The conversation sounded worried, too, as worried as he himself felt.
Though for entirely different reasons. For him, this was a personal matter, the frustration of a professional dealing with fallible beings and the capriciousness of a universe that refused to always live up to one’s preconceived notions as to what was fitting and proper. An error had been made, possibly a very serious error. And as with all errors, there would likely be unpleasant consequences riding in its wake.
From the starboard crew pit came a muffled curse, and he stifled a grimace. None of that mattered to the Star Destroyer’s crew. Their worries stemmed solely from their performance, and whether they would be facing a pat on the back or a boot in the rear at journey’s end.
Or possibly they were merely worried about the sublight engines blowing up. On this ship, one never knew.
He shifted his attention downward, his gaze leaving the grandeur of the starscape and coming to rest on the bow of the Star Destroyer stretching out more than a kilometer in front of him. He could remember the days when the mere sight of one of these ships would send shivers up the spines of the bravest of fighters and the most arrogant of smugglers.
But those days were gone, hopefully forever. The Empire had been rehabilitated, though of course many within the New Republic still refused to believe that. Under Supreme Commander Pellaeon’s firm guidance, the Empire had signed a treaty with the New Republic, and was no longer any more threatening than the Bothans or the Corporate Sector or anyone else.
Almost unwillingly, he smiled as he gazed along the Star Destroyer’s long prow. Of course, even in the old days of the Empire, this particular ship would probably have inspired more bewilderment than fear.
It was, after all, hard to take a bright red Star Destroyer very seriously.
From behind him, audible even over the rumble of the engines, came the sound of clumping boots. “Okay, Karrde,” Booster Terrik grunted as he came to a halt at his side. “The comm’s finally fixed. You can transmit whenever you want.”
“Thank you,” Talon Karrde said, turning back toward the crew pits and trying hard not to blame Booster for the state his equipment was in. An Imperial Star Destroyer was a huge amount of ship to take care of, and Booster never had nearly enough personnel to do the job right. “H’sishi?” he called. “Go.”
[Yes, Chieftain,] the Togorian called back from the comm board, her fur fluffing slightly as her clawed fingers touched the keys. [Transmission complete. Shall I begin alerting the rest of the network now?]
“Yes,” Karrde said. “Thank you.”
H’sishi nodded and returned her attention to the board.
With that, Karrde knew, he’d done all he could for the moment. Turning again to face the stars, he folded his arms across his chest and tried hard to cultivate his patience. “It’ll be all right,” Booster murmured from beside him. “We’ll be around this star in half an hour and be able to jump to lightspeed. We can be in the Domgrin system in two standard days, tops.”
“Assuming the hyperdrive doesn’t break down again.” Karrde waved a hand. “Sorry. I’m just—you understand.”
“Sure,” Booster said. “But relax, all right? This is Luke and Mara we’re talking about, not some fresh-hatched Neimoidian grubs. Whatever’s going on, they’re not going to be caught flat-footed.”
“Maybe,” Karrde said. “Though even Jedi can be surprised.” He shook his head. “But that’s not the point, is it? The point is that I messed up. I don’t like it when that happens.”
Booster shrugged his massive shoulders. “Like any of the rest of us do?” he asked pointedly. “You have to face the facts, Karrde, and Fact Number One is that you simply can’t know everyone who works for you anymore.”
Karrde glared out at the mockingly cheerful red ship stretched out in front of him. But Booster was right. This whole thing had gotten completely out of hand.
He’d started out modestly enough, merely offering to provide timely information to the leaders of the New Republic and Empire so that both sides could be assured that the other wasn’t plotting against them. And for the first couple of years everything had gone just fine.
The trouble had come when the various planetary and sector governments within the New Republic had woken up to the benefits of this handy service and decided they wanted aboard, too. After the near civil war that had broken out over the Caamas Document, Karrde hadn’t really felt like turning them down, and with permission from his clients on Coruscant and Bastion he’d gone ahead and expanded his operations.
Which naturally meant expanding his personnel as well. In retrospect, he supposed, it had only been a matter of time before something like this happened. He just wished it hadn’t happened to Luke and Mara. “Maybe not,” he told Booster. “But even if I can’t handle everything personally, it’s still my responsibility.”
“Ah,” Booster said knowingly. “So it’s your pride that’s hurt, is it?”
Karrde eyed his old friend. “Tell me, Booster. Has anyone ever told you you’re truly irritating when you try to be sympathetic?”
“Yeah, the subject’s come up once or twice,” Booster said, grinning. He slapped Karrde’s back. “Come on. Let’s go down to the Transis Corridor and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Assuming the drink dispensers are working today,” Karrde murmured as they headed back along the command walkway.
“Well, yeah,” Booster conceded. “Always assuming that.” ...
As cantinas went, Mara Jade Skywalker thought as she sipped her drink, this was definitely one of the strangest she’d ever been in.
Part of that might simply have been due to the locale. Here in the Outer Rim, culture and style weren’t exactly up to the standards of Coruscant and the rest of the Core Worlds. That might explain the gaudy wall hangings juxtaposed with ancient plumbing woven around modern drink dispensers, all of it set against a background decor consisting mainly of polished droid parts dating back to before the Clone Wars.
As for the unbreakable mugs and the heavy, stone-topped table she was seated at, the smoothed-over blaster scars in the walls and ceiling were more than enough explanation. When the patrons dived under the tables in the middle of a firefight, they would want those tables to afford them some protection. And they wouldn’t want to find themselves sitting on bits of broken crockery, either.
There was no rationale at all, of course, for the very loud, very off-key music.
A brush of air touched her shoulder, and a heavyset man appeared from behind her, pushing his way through the milling crowd. “Sorry,” he huffed as he circled the table and landed his bulk back in the seat across from her. “Business, business, business. Never lets up for a minute.”
“I suppose not,” Mara agreed. He didn’t fool her for a second; even without Force sensitivity she would have spotted the furtiveness hidden behind the noise and bustle. Jerf Huxley, master smuggler and minor terror of the Outer Rim, was up to something unpleasant.
The only question was how unpleasant he was planning for that something to be.
“Yeah, it’s crazy out here,” Huxley went on, taking a noisy swallow of the drink he’d left behind when he hurried off on the mysterious errand that had taken him away from their table. “ ’Course, you know all that. Or at least you used to.” He eyed her over the rim of his mug. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing,” Mara said, not bothering to erase the smile that had caught the other’s attention. “I was just thinking about what a trusting person you are.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, frowning.
“Your drink,” Mara said, gesturing to his mug. “You go away and leave it alone with me, and then you just come back and toss it down without even wondering if I’ve put something in it.”
Huxley’s lips puckered, and through the Force Mara caught a hint of his chagrin. He hadn’t worried about his drink, of course, because he’d had her under close surveillance the whole time he was gone. He also hadn’t intended for her to know that. “All right, fine,” he said, banging the mug back onto the table. “Enough with the games. Let’s hear it. Why are you here?”
With a man like this, Mara knew, there was no point in glaze- coating it. “I’m here on behalf of Talon Karrde,” she said. “He wanted me to thank you for your assistance and that of your organization over the past ten years, and to inform you that your services will no longer be required.”
Huxley’s face didn’t even twitch. Clearly, he’d already suspected this was coming. “Starting when?” he asked.
“Starting now,” Mara said. “Thanks for the drink, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Not so fast,” Huxley said, lifting a hand.
Mara froze halfway to her feet. Behind Huxley, blasters had abruptly appeared in the hands of three of the men who had hitherto been minding their own business at the bar. Blasters that were, not surprisingly, pointed at her. “Sit down,” he ordered. Carefully, Mara eased back into her chair. “Was there something else?” she asked mildly.
Huxley gestured again, more emphatically this time, and the off-key background music shut off. As did all conversation. “So that’s it, is it?” Huxley demanded quietly. In the sudden silence, even a soft voice seemed to ring against the battered walls. “Karrde’s going to toss us aside, just like that?”
“I presume you read the news,” Mara said, keeping her voice calm. All around her, she could sense the single-minded animosity of the crowd. Huxley had apparently stocked the place with his friends and associates. “Karrde’s getting out of the smuggling business. Has been, for the past three years. He doesn’t need your services anymore.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t need,” Huxley said with a sniff. “What about what we need?”
“I don’t know,” Mara said. “What do you need?”
“Maybe you don’t remember what it’s like in the Outer Rim, Jade,” Huxley said, leaning over the table toward her. “But out here, you don’t split things three ways against the ends. You work for one group, period, or you don’t work at all. We burned our skyarches behind us years ago when we started working for Karrde. If he pulls out, what are we supposed to do?”
“I expect you’ll have to make new arrangements,” Mara said. “Look, you had to have known this was coming. Karrde’s made no secret of the direction he’s been taking.”
“Yeah, right,” Huxley said contemptuously. “Like anyone believed he’d really go straight.”
He drew himself up. “So you want to know what we need? Fine. What we need is something to tide us over until we can get back in the business with someone else.”
So there it was: a simple and straightforward pocket-shake. Nothing subtle from this bunch. “How much?” she asked.
“Five hundred thousand.” His lip twisted slightly. “In cash credits.”
Mara kept her face expressionless. She’d come here prepared for something like this, but that number was way beyond reason. “And where exactly do you expect me to get this little tide-me-over?” she asked. “I don’t carry that much spending money on me.”
“Don’t get cute,” Huxley growled. “You know as well as I do that Karrde’s got a sector clearinghouse over on Gonmore. They’ll have all the credits there we need.”
He dug into a pocket and produced a hold-out blaster. “You’re going to call and tell them to bring it to us,” he said, leveling the weapon at her face across the table. “Half a million. Now.”
“Really.” Casually, keeping her hands visible, Mara turned her head to look behind her. Most of the cantina’s nonsmuggler patrons had already made a quiet exit, she noted, or else had gathered into groups on either side of the confrontation, staying well out of the potential lines of fire. Of more immediate concern was the group of about twenty humans and aliens who had spread themselves out in a semicircle directly behind her, all of them with weapons trained on her back.
All of them also showing varying degrees of wariness, she noted with a certain malicious amusement. Her reputation had apparently preceded her. “You throw an interesting party, Huxley,” she said, turning back to face the smuggler chief. “But you don’t really think you’re equipped to deal with a Jedi, do you?”
Huxley smiled. A very evil smile. A surprisingly evil smile, actually, given the circumstances. “Matter of fact, yeah, I do.” He raised his voice. “Bats?”
Copyright © 2004 by Timothy Zahn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.