THE HANDMAIDEN'S STORY by Linda T


It was not hard for Buck Wilmington to ascertain the precise moment it became expedient for them to leave.

Suddenly klaxons were sounded across the promenade, blaring through the ordered walkways around the observation windows that allowed visitors a panoramic view of Cloud City at its best. The alarms sent people scurrying in all directions, retreating for the multiple exits that existed throughout the place. The disarray did the service of creating some small measure of confusion, heightened by the electronic voice above that called for more guards to report to the Residential sector, in particular Level 14. Buck had no doubt that they were being ordered to that section of the city because Chris and the others must have got the girl and were no small way, fighting their way out.

Despite the natural compulsion to go help his friends, Buck remembered what Chris had said and knew as much as he might hate to do it, he had to get Nathan and Josiah out of here. Both were too vital to the fledgling Alliance to be captured and with the present pandemonium, it was the perfect opportunity to remove themselves from the vicinity and from under the vigil being maintained by the Imperial agents. At this moment, Buck was certain they were attempting to sort through the running bodies to locate their prey. The confusion would not last long however, once the promenade was evacuated the leash be set off the Imperials because there would be no one left to notice them.

"We have to go," Buck called out to Nathan and Josiah as he gestured them towards the nearest exit. "Now."

Nathan and Josiah were thinking the same thing although Josiah's thoughts were clouded with worries about Casey and her guardian Nettie. However, he had presence of mind to get moving quickly because if Chris, Vin and JD had successfully liberated his niece and her aunt then it was vitally important that their rescue be no complicated with worries about his welfare. Buck was right, they had to get to the ship now and prepare it for launch because they would almost certainly need a quick getaway. Following Buck's lead, he and Nathan insinuated themselves into a large crowd of people moving swiftly towards a near by exit. He looked over his shoulder and could see the faces of dour looking men scouring the group for a familiar face and immediately dropped his head out of view in an effort not to be seen. Although he could not say for sure, Josiah was certain that Nathan and Buck were doing the same thing.

The crowd advanced to the nearby exit like the rising swell of a wave, sweeping towards the doorway in a tide of bodies. Josiah glanced behind him and saw the Imperial agents brandishing their weapons, probably at the realisation that the prey was making its bid for escape and unless they acted now, it would slip out of their reach. Josiah faced front again, keeping Nathan and Buck in sight as the crowd pushed out of the doorway, leaving the Imperials behind who were on the move now and were no doubt, not far behind. Josiah saw the doorway rush at him, then sailed over his head before rapidly descending behind him as he made his way through.

As the crowd emptied out into the corridor beyond the promenade doors, it began to break up into smaller groups; scattering as they prepared to continue their journey through the diverging corridors that than ran to other parts of Cloud City. Josiah immediately made his way to Buck and Nathan, who had unholstered their weapons in anticipation of the Imperial troops that would soon make their appearance, no longer restrained by the need for concealment, since the crowd was so panicked they would notice nothing anyway. Josiah did the same, his eyes shifting towards the doorway from the promenade, watching the rest of the inhabitants pushing their way through and knew that the agents sent to apprehend him would be among their number soon enough.

"What are we doing?" Josiah asked although it was somewhat a redundant question.

"We're heading straight to the landing bay," Buck retorted with no hesitation in his voice. "We'll prep the ship and wait as long as we can for Chris and the others. If I know that crazy Jedi, he's already on his way there with your niece."

"I hope so," Josiah responded, not wanting to question Buck's faith in Chris Larabee but Casey was his kin and he could not help but worry when it came to her welfare.

Buck did not waste time with words and immediately broke into a run down the corridor that would take them towards the landing bay. Josiah and Nathan fell into pursuit and progressed almost to the end of the long passageway when suddenly a harsh voice, full of authority and menace barked at them.

"HALT!"

The order was capped off with a blast from a laser rifle. The bolt of energy slammed into a wall behind Josiah when he did not stop in his tracks. It made a screeching sound as energy impacted against the duralite covering, melting the material all the way to the steel plates beneath it. The corridor quickly filled with the acrid stench of burning metal and a cloud of white fumes quickly obscured the passageway. Buck Wilmington who was first to reach the end of the corridor immediately paused and use the curve of the wall for cover as he shouted at his lagging companions.

"Hurry, I'll cover you!" he shouted and began firing past them, being careful not to hit them by mistake. He sent a barrage of shots at the approaching Imperial agents, limiting their pursuit as they retreated to keep from being hit. Nathan and Josiah hurried past him and Buck squeezed off a few more shots at the enemy to lengthen their lead a little more before he pulled back and started running himself. Those in the corridor who had not been wise enough to leave the area upon the outbreak of shooting, were pressed up against the walls, determined to give them as much of a wide berth as possible.

"Where are we going?" Nathan demanded, unfamiliar with the maze that was Cloud City and feeling it more than ever now that Imperial agents were hunting them.

"There's an bullet lift at the end of this corridor," Josiah responded, knowing the city a little better than his companions after his numerous visit to Casey. Although it was dangerous for him to do so, Josiah knew that his niece needed to feel she was not totally alone in this galaxy and sometimes, such things could not be conveyed by way of transmissions. Such reassurances needed to be made face to face and though he risked much, he cared for the girl too much to deny her that comfort. "It should take us straight up to the landing bay."

His statement was punctuated by another blast of energy that sailed past him and impacted on the wall directly ahead. Bystanders in the corridor immediately screamed in fright, high pitched wails of women crying out as they dropped hastily to the floor in order to avoid being caught by stray fire. Nathan did not answer Josiah but instead swung around and pulled the trigger on his weapon, giving Buck who was behind him, some measure of protection as the pilot caught up to them. The Imperial agents, there were at least a dozen of them, were forcing their way through the bystanders in order to reach them and Nathan could not believe they would open fire when there were so many civilians about.

The bullet lift was up ahead. The few civilians who were standing in front of it, waiting to escape the shooting scattered upon sighting them. Overhead, Buck heard the same voice that had alerted the city that there was trouble in Residential Section, Level 14 was not warning people to vacate Corridor 23 of the Promenade Section, citing extreme danger while at the same time, calling security forces to converge upon their location.

"Just in time," Buck sighed as Josiah slammed his palm on the panel of the device and sent the door sliding apart.

They stepped into the glass enclosure as the Imperial soldiers sighted where they were and raised their weapons to fire at the closing doors.

"Damn!" Buck swore and prepared to drop to his knees to avoid being shot when the doors close that moment to seal them inside. He heard the impact of the blast on the metal and felt the entire capsule shudder. However, the nature of Cloud City's precarious location made it necessary for her original designers to construct a city that was able to maintain its structural integrity at all costs. In truth, Cloud City was constructed to withstand a Level 10 shockwave, shrugging it off the way a Wookie would shake the water from his coat and continue on as always, with business as usual. A single blaster shot to the outer doors of a bullet lift was going to do very little to hamper its operations.

The glass capsule surged upwards, the moment its passengers were safely aside. Constructed to run against the façade of the city, they sailed upwards, leaving the towers, the spires, the promenades and manicured terraces behind as they reached for the landing bay at the highest peaks of Cloud City. Buck leaned against the side of the glass wall, taking in nothing of the view as he faced his companions.

"I hope Chris is on his way," Buck sighed. "Because I don't know how long we're going to be able to wait for him."

"He'll be here," Nathan said confidently, having an unshakeable sense of belief that if anyone could make it through the enemy to reach them, it would be Chris.

Buck did not answer because he was not so much afraid of the enemy trying to capture them in Cloud City as he was of the ones who were no doubt waiting for them in the space above it.

The hydraulic door released with a loud hiss and revealed another corridor, this one definitely darker and grimier than the last. Certainly it was not plated with duralite sheets or white nor have any of the soft, ambient lighting that filled most corridors of Cloud City. This one with its steel grills, open ventilation shafts and exposed conduits was a maintenance corridor and for their purpose extremely useful for it was led directly to the landing bay. Casey looked at her male companions with more than a hint of satisfaction at being able to work her magic on the control panel that allowed them access into this restricted zone. Indeed their journey here had progressed as far as it did because of the young woman's ability to access such places and although none of them had spoken it out loud, they were all singularly impressed by her abilities as a slicer.

"This should take us straight to the landing bay," Casey replied as JD hurried through the open doors with Aunt Nettie who was still unconscious. They had not seen any Cloud City guards in the last ten minutes and Chris was starting to wonder if there was reason for concern. He had expected the entire complement of guard coming down on them by now, however, as of yet, they had been pursued with drips and drabs. The optimistic would think that this was just luck but Chris could tell even Vin was dubious about their supposed 'good fortune'.

"Good," Vin drawled, his eyes averting toward the direction they had come to see if any more guards were on approach. "The sooner we're out of this place the better. I got a real bad feeling about this."

"Me too," Chris remarked in agreement at his insight. "Something's coming at us. I can feel it."

"I hate it when you do that," Vin grumbled as the doors slide close behind them after they had stepped into the maintenance corridor. "You're usually right."

Chris shrugged and flashed the bounty hunter a grin of mischief. "It's a gift."

Vin rolled his eyes and chuckled slightly, feeling somewhat indulgent displaying such humor considering the situation they were presently embroiled in. Facing front, they caught up quickly with Casey, JD and the unconscious Nettie still in his arms. Admirably, the young man had managed to keep pace with them even though he was carrying twice the load. The strain was starting to show but fortunately, they did not have far to go.

"How are you doing JD?" Vin asked as they reached him.

"I'm okay," he said panting hard. "She's not that heavy."

"Come on!" Casey, who had gone up ahead of them, retreated when she realised that she was alone. "Let's get moving! Aunt Nettie needs a doctor!" With that, she started running forward again, leaving the three men to look at each other with resignation.

JD turned to his older companions with a completely serious expression on his face and replied soberly, his eyes narrowing as he spoke. "I hate her."

Neither Jedi or bounty hunter spoke as JD let out a sigh and started following the young woman, like a man being led to his death or finding himself faced with a path for which there was no turning back. For a few seconds they allowed the footsteps to grow more distant before Vin finally deigned to speak.

"Sure he does."

They arrived at the landing bay to hear the sound of gunfire smashing against metal and knew that the source of it had to originate from whatever hangar the Rogue was presently occupying. It appeared as if the Empire had discarded its covert attempt to retrieve Josiah because as they hurried towards the berth where the Rogue was awaiting them, they could hear the call for more troops to the landing bay. Very soon, this entire area would be brimming with Imperial agents and Cloud City guards and not even Chris, with his Jedi abilities would be able to stand against the onslaught. Unfortunately, the berth in which the Rogue was waiting had been cordoned off by the troops attempting to reach the ship.

Even though the Rogue had access to blast it's way out of Cloud City by now, Chris knew of only one reason why the ship was holding its position. Buck was waiting until the last possible minute before he would take off, refusing as only Buck would to leave them behind. For once, Chris was grateful of his old friend's vigilance for the old lady in JD's arms could not wait any longer for medical attention. Even now, he could sense the sand of her life slipping away and the margin of time where she was capable of being saved was dwindling rapidly.

They made their approach stealthily, barely noticed because of all the pandemonium caused by the guard's efforts to breach the Rogue's defenses. Chris could hear the low explosions of sound that occurred periodically as they closed the distance between themselves and the ship. Louder and more percussive than the mere shots from blasters being fired, each time the rumble was heard, it sent a shockwave through the structure.

"Buck's firing his lasers at them," Vin exclaimed, recognizing the sound as those made by his own ship, the Tracker.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, "it's the only way he can keep them from reaching the ship."

"How are we going to get past them?" Casey demanded. She had got them here this far but she knew as well as her companions that there was no way they would get into the berth. There was only way into the stall the Rogue was occupying and at present that door, was bottlenecked by Imperial troops trying to get past the laser bombardment Buck was using to hold them back in his desperate bid to maintain his position while waiting for his friends to arrive. "There's only one way in."

"I know," Chris answered having considered that already. "You think you can get us to the berth directly next to it?"

Casey stared back at the Jedi, confused even though she nodded in response. "Yes, but why?"

"Can you or not?" JD bit back, wondering why it was necessary for her to question everything. Chris would not ask unless he had a reason for doing so.

"Of course I can," she snapped back at him, not caring whether or not he was carrying Aunt Nettie, no one spoke to her that way. She was a member of the aristocracy. Her family had connections to the Republic Senate for as long as the Council had existed. Who was he to talk to her like some kind of commoner? "I just don't understand why." She turned back to Chris.

"There isn't time for explanations," Chris returned firmly. "Just get us there now."

His tone penetrated all her haughty stubbornness to register the seriousness of her situation and how it was completely unacceptable that she questioned him at this time. Besides, even Casey Wells had sense enough to know you did not argue with a Jedi. She swallowed thickly as she heard more weapons fire sounding closer than she would like and too much shooting and killing had taken place already, she did not want any more nor did she wish to lose any more people to its sting.

"This way," she said quietly and darted into another juncture leading away from the direct path towards their destination. As they retreated from the shooting, Casey made a series of twists and turns, down unoccupied corridors that had been evacuated because of the violence being carried out. Fortunately, the lack of bystanders ensured that no one would be able to report to those in authority at having seen them. Still Chris was certain that the Empire had not completely forgotten about them and was conducting its own search for them in a more limited fashion.

The berth that was directly next to the one being occupied by the Rogue was empty when Chris, Vin, JD, Casey and Nettie Wells reached it. Like the rest of the facilities in Cloud City, there was no ceiling and as they looked up above, they were greeted by the amber skies of Bespin with just enough twilight in them at this time of day to add a twinkle of stars in the canopy. Chris immediately went to the wall that was being shared by the two berths, his Jedi senses picking up the gamut of emotions beyond. All sorts of feelings, from fear, anticipation, worry and determination exuded through the duralite surface with his even needing to touch it.

"Seal the door!" Chris ordered Vin.

The bounty hunter nodded and immediately activated the door panel, sending the steel doors sliding shut and keeping them confined inside its four walls. Just to make certain that they would be completely uninterrupted, Vin aimed his weapon at the control pad and squeezed off one shot. One shot was all he needed. The blast more or less vaporized the mechanism and fused all the controls into an amalgamation of steel, duralite and plasteel. No one would be barging in on them unless they were armed with a laser torch any time soon.

"What are you going to do?" Vin called out to Chris as he jogged over to the Jedi, who was running his hand across the surface of the wall, almost as if he was examining his texture.

"You can't be thinking of cutting through that," Casey blurted out, guessing what he was intending. "That's almost five inches thick!"

"Will you shut up and let him do what he has to?" JD retorted with more than a hint of exasperation in his way. "Chris would not have brought us here unless he knows what his doing!"

"Hey!" Casey whirled around and glared at him, her voice full of imperious outrage. "Don't ever talk to me like that okay? I don't care from what backwater hick planet you crawled out of?"

"Backwater hick planet?" JD blazed back, his voice smoldering with as much menace as either Vin or Chris had ever heard the young man exude. "I may not be from Coruscant or wherever it is that you came from but at least I didn't have to the Rebel Alliance's most important members risking their lives to save your scrawny butt!"

"My but though scrawny is none of your concern!" she said haughtily just as JD started to sputter with fury.

"KNOCK IT OFF!" Vin Tanner exploded, having reached the limits of his patience, which in actual fact took some doing. "Knock it off or I swear to Feetal's Giz, whether or not the entire Imperial fleet is outside that door, I WILL put both you kids over my knee and give you the trashing that you deserve!"

"You would not dare...," Casey returned.

Vin took one step forward and looked down at the young lady with an expression of pure ice reserved for those he had hunted in the past. "Try me."

"We don't have time for this," Chris Larabee commented seemingly oblivious at the antics of his younger companions as he brandished his lightsabre. Activating it, the beam of energy extended from the hilt and Chris wasted no time in impaling the entire length of the weapon into the wall. The blade disappeared through layers of duralite and steel like a hot knife if butter. The tremendous heat generated by the weapon, not to mention the power of the Force melted the duralite first, sending rivulets of Duranis ceramic and dye sliding down the surface to pool at the base of the wall. The metal around the incision began to superheat, turning red at first as it made the initial penetration. As Chris began to cut his way through, it shifted from that primary stage to an amber shade, indicating the increasing temperature.

Vin motioned JD and Casey to take a step back as sparks began to fly in tiny embers across the floor. Chris continued to cut, working his way through the wall, cutting them opening needed to reach the Rogue. The lightsabre turned the steel around the cut from amber to white, until its color was almost milky to the touch. The heat could be seen on Chris' skin as his face dampened with sweat as he continued to cut, almost three quarters of the way done. The path of the cut upon cooling had reverted to the char color of burned metal and Vin could see the pinpricks of light appearing through the fissures created by the lightsabre's precise work.

By the time the blade had reached the end of its journey, the metal around it had turned blue and Chris knew after that, it would complete its journey into molten steel. Fortunately, what he had so far accomplished was enough. Taking a deep breath as he deactivated his lightsabre, Chris took a step back, wiping the sweat from his brow. The others had been watching with awe the magnificent superiority of the Jedi weapon and hardly noticed Chris had closed his eyes to concentrate until the newly cut section of the wall began moving of its own volition.

"This is where we leave this party," Vin responded, realizing what Chris was about to do and felt just like JD did at that moment, a great deal of pride in being able to safely say that he had utmost confidence that the Jedi would find their way out of this present predicament.

The section of torn metal began shifting where it stood for a few more seconds when suddenly, an invisible force shoved it violently forward. It traveled a few feet into the next berth before slamming onto the floor with the loud clang that could only be produced by metal against the metal. Beyond the newly formed passageway, Chris could see the laser rifle underneath the hull of the Rogue firing away mercilessly at the Imperial troops trapped at the doorway. It would only be a matter of time before they brought larger weapons to deal with the threat so time was of an essence.

"Move!" Chris barked at them and ushered the others forward.

"Get going!" Vin ordered, liberating Nettie from JD and Casey. The youths ran forward, pausing briefly at the door to get further instructions from Chris.

"I'll go first," Chris replied, speaking not only to JD and Casey but also to Vin. "I'll keep them off you and you long enough to get to the ramp. Understood?"

Both of them nodded quickly and Chris turned to Vin. "Make it fast. I'm good but I'm not that good. There's too many of them out there."

"I hear you?" Vin nodded in understanding just before Chris raced out into the open.

As anticipated, all gunfire turned in his direction at the moment of his appearance. Chris had already activated his lightsabre and immediately set down to the daunting task of deflecting the murderous bolts of energy. Moving through the air with lightning speed, his speed was such that it was hard to see where he began and where his lightsabre ended. However, none of those who were with him paid any attention, remembering his orders to them first and foremost because it was necessary to save his life as well as theirs. JD grabbed Casey's hand and bolted forward, ignoring her protest to let her go as he raced towards the ramp way and forced her to keep up. In a matter of seconds, they were bounding up the extended walkway into the belly of the ship.

Vin was the next to follow, unable to move as fast because of the lady in his arms but making good time nonetheless because he had to. He looked up long enough to see Chris deflecting the blasts of the Imperial troops as well as the Cloud City guards and knew that even for all his speed, the Jedi could not maintain that devastating pace for long. With that in mind, Vin found a renewed sense of strength as he raced forward, intending to come to Chris' rescue as soon as he could. However, he need not have worried, he had just felt his foot touch the steel plate of the ramp way when Josiah and Nathan appeared, taking enough cover to start firing past Chris.

"Chris!" Josiah shouted at Vin ascended the walkway into the ship. "Get up here! We'll cover you."

The Jedi did not show any indication that he heard them but suddenly, his lightsabre deactivated and he leapt up, performing a back flip in mid air that sent him tumbling towards them. He landed on the ground a scant few feet from the ramp way and made a running start that sent him flying towards them once more. This time when he touched ground, it was not the floor of the berth beneath him but the walkway that led into the Rogue. He dropped heavily, driven almost to his knees before he composed himself a few seconds later.

"Close the hatch!" Chris heard Nathan yelling and glanced behind him long enough to see the ramp retracting into the ship. The deck below him was already vibrating; indicating that Buck had the engines prepped and ready to blast off for some time now. If the Imperial agents knew what was good for them, they would be leaving the immediate vicinity about now. It was not wise to be at the tail end of a freighter about to blast into space.

"Get us out of here Buck!" Nathan shouted once more.

He needed not have made the demand for Chris could already feel the Rogue lifting off the floor of the berth. The ascent was smooth as it soared into the sky beyond the perimeter of the city below. Once suitable distance was placed between the vessel and the floating metropolis, its turbo engines would ignite and the Rogue would streak out of the atmosphere like a comet reaching for the stars.

"Casey!" Josiah finally caught his breath enough to regard his niece. "Thank the Force you're safe." The big man embraced her warmly and Chris did not have to be a Jedi to sense just how grateful the both of them were to see each other again, alive and well. The tender moment gave warmth to everyone who witnessed it, even to JD who had been at such logger heads with the young woman until Buck Wilmington's voice filtered through the ship's com system.

"Get up here all of you," his voice was full of tense foreboding. "We've got trouble."

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