THE HANDMAIDEN'S STORY by Linda T


Despite existing beyond the realms of Imperial control, Cloud City was as sophisticated and modern as any city that might be found in the core worlds. While its architecture was definitely influenced by Coruscant, it had a touch of the pristine that was common to Alderaan and the spires and towers that embellished its skyline was certainly in keeping with the Bimmisari designs that were popular at the time of its construction. Indeed, Cloud City prided itself on its cosmopolitan atmosphere and as the new arrivals to the urban centre departed the upper levels where the docking port was located, it was hard not to impressed by the beauty of it.

Docking authorities had not given them much notice after they had cleared customs since the registration papers that Buck had produced appeared genuine, still the pilot was not eager to remain here for very long. Cloud City for all its skyscrapers, manicured lawns and terraces was built on illegal currency. The reason for its opulence was that it did not pay the high tariffs required of the Spacing Guild and thus it remained out of Imperial control. However, such a place tended to invite a specific type, being those who did not wish to be noticed and those who in turn made their living from the sale of information, found Cloud City to be a place where fortunes could be made. Buck knew that if anyone of these informants so much as thought that there might be a profit in any of them, the Empire would be here faster than he could blink.

"You been this way before Buck?" Nathan inquired as they travelled through the white hallways that led into the heart of the city.

"Once or twice," Buck remarked, maintaining that façade of indifference even though he was noticing everything. "Too expensive in my opinion."

"I didn't know Tibanna gas was so profitable," JD remarked, having learned something about the industry when he was in school.

"It is but these people are selling to clients who can't afford to go through the Guild channels," Chris explained. "So they can charge whatever they like and it's usually quadruple the normal price."

"Wow," JD whistled softly even though he was fascinated by everything he had seen so far to feel much trepidation at the possible danger that might be awaiting them here. "Why couldn't they go through the normal channels?"

"For any number of reasons," Josiah explained. "Usually those who can't go through the Guild have been blacklisted for poor commercial practices, political embargoes, the usual."

They entered what appeared to be the main promenade, a crowded place surrounded by shop fronts selling all manner of things. Crysosilk clad mannequins peered through display windows at them, while the aroma of exotic spices wafted at them from the restaurant next to it. Unlike Cordoba, there was not the bazaar like atmosphere he had come to know. Here the scent of opulence overrode everything else. This was not a place for bargain hunters, for the women who moved past in their expensive clothes and the men who regarded them distastefully all reeked of aristocratic indulgence.

Chris Larabee was also paying close attention but not because he was playing tourist to his new surroundings. He could feel something drawing close, pressing in on them even if he could not for the moment discern what that was or whether or not that it was danger. All he could feel was this eminent sense of arrival. He let his gaze sweep through the crowded promenade, attempting to make a visual confirmation of what his mind was telling him. Not that he doubted the tremor in the Force that gave him such insight but sometimes, it was necessary to rely on one's other senses as well.

Unaware that Chris was engaged in the same activity, Vin Tanner had picked up the scent as well, except what he noticed was far different than the sensations presently experienced by his Jedi companion. Vin's insight was more observation. He was no stranger to Bespin, having followed the trail of many a bounty here on occasion. Since Cloud City and Bespin was not governed by Coruscant, they had their own version of law enforcement in place of storm troopers. It was common to see the Cloud City Security forces wandering about the busy promenade keeping order. However, ever since they had made their arrival in the city, Vin had not seen one at all. What he did see were a number of plainly dressed men, too plainly in his opinion for this fashionable crowd. It was as if they were attempting to blend into the background but the effort was too forced and easily spotted by someone who knew what to look for.

Imperial agents, Vin decided and judging by the number of those he had suspected of being more than what they were, a lot of them.

"Josiah," Vin spoke up. "Are we far from your niece?"

The tone of the bounty hunter immediately put Josiah on guard and he averted his eyes towards the younger man immediately. "Why?"

"We're being watched," Chris stated. "We have been since we walked into the promenade."

Reflexively, Josiah almost turned to look but Chris stopped him immediately. "Keep walking," he ordered. "Don't let them think we've seen them."

Josiah swallowed thickly and faced front again, continuing their journey across the crowded promenade while feigning ignorance at their discovery. "What do we do?"

"Hell," Buck Wilmington swore. "I knew it! I knew it was too easy. Bespin port authorities are usually absolute pains in the asses when a ship docks in. For them to just take my registration papers and just let it go at that without any questions....."

"Buck, we had no choice," Nathan quickly moved to assuage the man's guilt. "We had to land to get to Casey."

"So how far away is she?" Vin repeated his question.

"She's in the Level 14 of the Residential Sector," Josiah answered quickly. "She and Nettie have a suite there under the name of Felisa Dar."

"Buck," Chris responded after considering what their next step ought to be. Obviously the Imperials had no wish to make their move in a crowd full of people. It was likely they were waiting until Josiah and his companions had exited the promenade before making their attempt to capture him. "You, Nathan and Josiah need to stay here for awhile, mingle in the crowd and make sure you're being seen by a lot of people."

"I have to go find Casey," Josiah said firmly, not at all liking the idea of being shielded when his niece was in danger. He did not care about the consequences to himself but he did care about Casey and was willing to risk anything to ensure her safety.

"Vin, JD and I will do that," Chris said smoothly, already anticipating the protest. "Right now, you need to stay out in the open. They're waiting for you to move out of the promenade to close their net. We're not giving them the chance. You three wait here, make them think that you have no idea about their presence while we go get your niece."

"You have no idea what she looks like," Josiah retorted.

"Yes I do," Chris responded, having already seen the image of the girl in Josiah's mind. The senator's fears for his niece were so overwhelming, he was broadcasting his fearful emotions clearly. "I have my ways."

Josiah seemed reluctant still but had to concede the point because he knew Chris was right. If this was a trap than he would do more harm than good, not just to Casey but to all of them by insisting he go retrieve her himself. Chris' plan made sense, they were expecting Josiah to appear, not a Jedi Knight, an ex-bounty hunter and a boy.

"We'll find her Josiah," Vin reassured the older man. "It's what I do," he remarked cockily, trying to assuage Josiah's fear and his guilt for not taking part in her safe return himself.

"Alright," Josiah smiled wryly. "Just be careful."

"Sure dad," Vin retorted and was rewarded with a stern frown from the dignified senator.

"Listen all of you," Chris gave the three members of their group remaining in the promenade a hard glare conveying that what he was about to say was to be obeyed and he was hearing no argument otherwise. "If anything goes wrong, if they decide to take the risk and come after you here, clear out. Get back to the Rogue and return to base."

"We're not leaving you behind," Buck said firmly.

"Yes you are," Chris returned sharply. "At the moment, you, Nathan and Josiah are on the Imperial's mot wanted list. JD and Vin are still low priority, JD is just another rebel foot soldier as far as the Empire is concerned, Vin is a bounty hunter who reneged on a deal and they won't sent Imperial agents after me, they'll send heavy guns used to dealing with Jedis. You on the other hand, have intimate knowledge of rebel collaborators and sympathizers and don't even let me start with you and Josiah, Nathan."

The second command of the rebel enclave in the Territory fell silent at that statement because the Jedi was right as much as he hated to admit it and once again, Mary Travis' words surfaced inside his mind. For the cause to succeed there had to be sacrifices and not always ones that were easily stomached. "Alright," Nathan nodded begrudgingly, understanding better than all why Chris' orders had to be followed. "If things get to hot, we'll take off but only if things get too hot," he insisted. "We're not running out on you at the first sign of trouble. We'll make back to the ship and prep her to leave but we will remain until the last possible minute for you before we go, is that clear?"

This time it was Nathan who was not going to stand for an argument on this issue and waited for Chris' response. The Jedi and the soldier locked gazes for a few seconds as a silent battle of wills was exchanged between the two and Chris realised that on this matter Nathan was going to be quite intractable.

"Okay," Chris conceded defeat, deciding that they could not afford to waste any more time debating the issue. "You win."

"Thanks," Nathan sighed, pleased that he had did not have to press his point any more than that.

"We'll be back as soon as we can," Chris remarked as he, Vin and JD broke away from them.

"We'll be waiting," Buck retorted and gave Chris a long stare, which though not as forcefully stressed as Nathan's stance earlier, was nonetheless as determined to proving that he meant what he had just said.

Casey and Nettie had not managed to get very far because once their escape was noted, there were Cloud City guard patrols everywhere. She had hoped to have at least escaped out of the Residential Sector by now, intending to reach the upper levels where there were more people on the move in which she and Nettie could lose themselves. What alarmed Casey the most however, was the fact that while she had been boosting the energy output to the door which had incapacitated one of her jailers earlier, she had managed to access a coded transmission being sent from docking control to the central command. The message relayed that Josiah was already here and was presently under surveillance.

She and Nettie had been hiding in a maintenance closet, trying to discern of someway they could get through the patrols and had so far yet to arrive at any bouts of inspiration like the one that had managed to see them escape out of their suite. Casey knew they could not remain indefinitely where they were for the urgency of the situation was mounting with Josiah's presence in Cloud City. It was no longer her own well being that concerned Casey so much but rather the fate of her uncle. Casey had a feeling that now that he was in Cloud City, she was no longer a priority and the enemy would expend all their time in attempting to apprehend him.

"We can't stay here much longer," Casey whispered inside the dark confines of their hiding place. "We've got to reach Josiah before he walks into the trap."

"He's already walked into the trap Casey," Nettie replied grimly. "That's what Cloud City is to him now, a big trap."

As a foreboding as that sounded, Casey had a bad feeling that Nettie was right but the young girl was not about to give up just yet. She still had the gun in her hand and while she was happy to fire it a while ago to escape the room, the loss of adrenaline now filled her with all sorts of fear in regards to its use. "Then we have to warn him." She took a deep breath and pushed open the compartment door, peering through the vein of light that bled into the space to gauge whether or not it was safe to emerge.

Unfortunately, it was not.

"There!" someone yelled and Casey pulled back but too late.

No sooner than she had retreated into the darkness did the door swung open and the first guard who made the attempt was soon thrown half way across the corridor when Casey aimed the blaster in his direction and pulled the trigger. Casey kept firing; not even sure that she was hitting anything but the volley of sound and energy blasts slamming into the walls of the corridor created enough confusion for she and Nettie to escape the compartment.

"Run Nettie!" Casey shouted.

Nettie ran forward, afraid to leave the girl but also knowing her age made her a liability to Casey. She had to put enough distance between them so that when Casey caught up, they would still be far enough from their captors to remain out of their reach. She hurried forward and could get no further because around the corner she saw more guards converging on them. Nettie turned around and saw Casey laying enough fire between herself and the guards attempting to reach them to be able to break away to join her. However, the young girl had not seen what was coming from behind her.

Casey's hands were shaking each time she pulled the trigger but what she could not achieve aiming, she more than made up for in volume. The blasts came so rapidly, mostly because she was utterly terrified that she hardly noticed whether or not they were meeting their mark. The weapon was still set on stun to which Casey was terribly grateful because she was not ready to kill anyone yet.

"Casey, behind you!" Nettie cried out.

Casey turned around and saw the guards coming from behind her and ahead. With a sinking feeling she knew that she and Nettie would soon be surrounded and there was nothing she could do about it. Once again, she scolded herself at the foolishness that had brought her to this situation.

"Get out of the way!" Casey shouted at Nettie and the lady ducked behind a corridor wall as Casey started shooting at the Cloud City troops that were coming at her from the opposite direction. The blasts impacted near them but did nothing to stop them from closing in and suddenly she realised she forgotten about the ones she had been attempting to escape. She turned around just in time to see a Cloud City guard swing the butt of his rifle into her face.

Casey let out a soft squeal of pain as her cheek flared in agony, the impact against her skull was so hard she felt her teeth rattle. Casey became conscious of falling and marveled by how the blow had robbed her so quickly of the ability to stand. She heard Nettie screaming somewhere in the background and turned her head far enough to see another guard bringing down his weapon on the back of the old lady's neck. Casey cried out in horror as she saw Nettie's eyes rolling backwards as she dropped to her knees, her frail body going limp before she fell face first onto the hard floor. The sound seemed to drain from her world as she forced herself to crawl forward, aware that there was something wet and warm making its way down her cheek.

She had to reach Nettie because Nettie was not moving.

The gun was still in her hand and when she realised that Aunt Nettie could be dead, Casey turned around slowly and saw the man who had hit her coming forward. Without even thinking twice, Casey swung the gun around and this time something more than adrenaline was at work. She pulled the trigger with little or no reluctance, sending energy straight into his chest. From a suitable distance, the stun blast would have knocked him unconscious but at this range, being less than a foot away from her, it had the power to do some serious damage. She heard him scream, saw him stagger back, his eyes opened wide with shock before the injury took hold and forced him to succumb.

She saw another about to fire at her when suddenly, there was a blur of movement over her head. It sailed across the air in a neat arc before landing directly in front of her in the form of a man she did not recognise. The new arrival was clad in dark robes and Casey tried to recall when she had seen someone like him and found that she could not. However, the mystery of what he was disappeared the moment the light sabre came to life in his hand. The Cloud City guards recognised him too because suddenly they forgot all about her and started shooting at him. Somewhere in the distance, Casey heard someone calling out.

"JD, get the girl!"

Casey followed the sound of the voice and realised it was coming from behind her. She turned her injured head painfully and saw a dark haired stranger making short work of the remaining guards by the deadly accuracy of his marksmanship. Upon seeing him shoot, Casey realised how unskilled she had been because when he pulled the trigger, the blasts did not go helter skelter in all directions. Each blast met its mark. From his vantagepoint behind the corner Nettie had taken refuge briefly, he picked the guards off one by one, until their bodies covered the floor where they had fallen.

"Hey," she suddenly heard a voice in her ear. "Are you okay?"

Casey looked up and found herself staring at a young man not much older than her. He seemed just as overwhelmed by everything taking place around him although to his credit, he was holding his fear at bay enough to carry out what had been asked of him. His hand slipped under her arm, attempting to lift her from the floor or at least help her to her feet. Casey was grateful for the assistance and she scrambled to her feet, realising that help was at hand.

She heard shots being fired and the distinct hum of a light sabre. The young man was pulling her out of the way, dragging her to the safety of a corridor that seemed to be free of the shooting for the moment. She was conscious of his taking the gun out of her hands and in all truth, did not mind so much that he did. She was happy to relinquish it and noted with some measure of comfort that he handled the thing as if he knew how to use it.

"Stay here," he ordered.

"No!" Casey pulled him back as he was about to return to the fighting. "You've got to help my Aunt Nettie!"

JD groaned with exasperation. "What do you think I was gonna do?" he grumbled.

"You need a gun to go help my Aunt Nettie?" she barked back, the whole day fraying her nerves and her temper somewhat.

"No I need a gun to make sure I don't get my ass shot off while I'm trying to help her!" JD retorted before hurrying forward, keeping his head down as he crossed the hallway attempting to avoid being caught in the cross fire of stray shots that were being deflected by Chris' light sabre.

JD paused to see Chris cutting his way through two remaining guards. At the Jedi's feet were the remains of blasters that had been sliced apart by the light sabre. Their masters lay next to the metal fragments just as useless. JD could not help being awed as he watched Chris moving, leaping into the air, spinning gracefully before landing and wielding the elegant weapon in his hand like it was all apart of an orchestrated ballet. The Cloud City guards never had a chance and some had even started running, deciding that it was not worth their trouble to die in a futile effort to take on a Jedi Knight. For those who yet to come to that decision, Chris was more than ready for them. He moved like lighting, seldom in one place long enough for them to fire at him and when they did, the blasts bounced off the light sabre as Chris swung and parried while he deflected each one.

Vin on the other hand did not have to move as much. The bounty hunter was more than comfortable where he had positioned himself and he kept the guards off Chris' back as they came down the corridor. Vin's prowess as a marksman was reaching near legendary status among the members of the Rebel Alliance. Indeed, JD had been taking a few lessons from the man and knew just how proficient Vin was behind the barrel of a gun. No sooner than more reinforcements arrived in his sights, Vin pulled the trigger on his blaster and cut them down before they could even cross the space to reach him. His positioning made it possible for him to hold them off indefinitely but really, it was only required for as long as it took for JD to take care of his part of the plan.

On that note, JD reached the old woman who was lying unconscious on the floor. He could see the slight heaving of her body which indicated she was still among the living but he did not at all like the look of the soggy patch of hair on the back of her head which indicated a serious injury. A surge of anger filled him wondering what justification there could be in assaulting a woman of her years in this manner. JD immediately tucked the weapon he had taken from the girl into his belt, having faith enough in both Chris and Vin to keep any stray shots from reaching him while he took the old woman to safety. She did not stir as he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her up.

Nettie did not weigh very much but she was gravely wounded for she did made no reaction to his presence and must be very unconscious if she was that unaware of anything taking place around her, especially with all the excitement occurring at the moment. JD was careful to remove her frail form from the scene of the commotion and once he was past the crossfire, JD shouted out to Vin and Chris collectively.

"I've got them both!" he announced.

Chris glimpsed briefly in his direction and then turned to the remaining guards who were still shooting. Choosing to waste no further time with them, the Jedi focussed himself for a moment of calm even though it was exceedingly dangerous for him to do so. However, the pause was all he needed and when he looked up at his adversary, he could sense their fear when they saw him switch off his light sabre. There was no warning at all as Chris sent them flying through the air with such force that when they landed on the smooth floor, they did not stop, continuing to slide forward in their unconsciousness as far as their momentum would take them. Once he had finished with them, he turned around and started towards Vin.

"Vin!" Chris called out. "It's time to go."

Vin nodded slightly in Chris' direction before turning back to the guards he had been facing. He squeezed off a few more shots, making sure they met their end in soft flesh before retreating behind the wall to join Chris and JD.

"Aunt Nettie!" Casey cried out when she realised just how badly her aunt was hurt.

"We have to keep moving," Vin stated upon joining them and then noticed the state of the old woman JD was holding. "She looks bad."

"She does," Chris agreed making a quick examination of the wound. "She needs a bacta tank and quickly. We have to get out of here, right now."

"Who are you?" Casey demanded, suddenly remembering that there were dangerous people after her and sense demanded that she trusted no one, even if these men appeared to be under the guise of trying to save her life and that of Nettie's for the moment. "How do I know you're not after my Uncle Josiah too?"

"Are you kidding?" JD exclaimed. "We're not getting shot at for the hell of it you know, Josiah's here, going crazy with worry about you!"

The group had started moving, running at a brisk pace as they turned down corridors and new junctures with Casey in the lead. The young woman seemed to know where they were going, not that Chris was surprised. He sensed a staggering amount of intelligence in this girl's head, much more than most would give her credit. Suddenly, he was starting to agree with Nathan Jackson that Casey Wells could be of great use to the Rebel Alliance. When they had put a little distance between themselves and the guards, Chris paused a moment to take stock of themselves and to check on the injured member of their party.

"JD, are you alright with her?" Chris asked, aware that they had very little time before the entire complement of Cloud City's law enforcement was upon them, not to mention the Imperial troops that were keeping close eye on Josiah. This was all the incentive needed for them to close their net on the Senator. He hoped that when things had started to get rough, Nathan had heeded their advice and gotten to the Rogue.

"Yeah," JD nodded quickly. "She's not very heavy, I can manage. Besides, you two are better at keeping those guards off our tail than I am anyway."

Chris placed a hand on JD's shoulder and remarked. "Maybe so but only for the experience," he said with enough feeling in his voice to make the young man swell with pride. "Now young lady," Chris turned to Casey, "what's the fastest way to the launch bays from here?"

"Through the maintenance section," Casey replied quickly. "Some of the doors are restricted but that will mean they don't expect us to go that way because they're sealed."

"Sealed?" Vin exclaimed. "What good is to us if they're sealed?"

"Well they won't expecting us to go that way," Casey responded with a little smile "And they also don't know that I know the master codes to all restricted systems."

"Of course," Vin retorted before they started moving again, wondering what other surprises Miss Wells had for them.

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