The Star Destroyer remained suspended above Orron 3 unmoving and unaware that in the wilderness it currently occupied, it was being watched with as much scrutiny as it continued its vigil over the planet. The Rogue also remained frozen above the skies of Orron 3's dead moon, its occupants uncertain about what their next move ought to be with the advent of this latest complication. Minutes stretched into hours as the limbo of indecision lingered within the Corellian freighter. At the time of their retreat, it had seem like a wise idea to remain concealed in order to ascertain what it was a ship of the line was doing so far from the core systems. However, the unknowing was playing havoc on all their nerves, especially when their purpose for coming to Stars End still waited for them on the planet below.
"We can't stay here forever," Buck Wilmington declared. He hated being forced to stay in one place when his natural impulse was to get his ship and run from that huge Imperial cruiser.
"I am afraid we have little choice," Ezra Standish countered the big man's disdain. "The minute we leave the refuge of this moon, their sensors will detect us."
"He's right Buck," Chris returned. Nathan added. "We got to sit put until we know what they're planning."
"They could be there for days," Buck pointed out, refusing to concede the point.
"Look," Vin added his voice into the mix. "We know that they're probably here for Travis but we can't just go barging in down there. Mary can't have been too far ahead of us. I don't know about you but any fool is gonna know something is up if we suddenly appear just hours after she did. Orron 3 is not that popular at the best of times. We just show up and we'll get her killed," Vin said not too kindly. However, he knew the enemy and he liked Mary, he did not want to see her harmed because of their impetuousness. Vin had not become the best bounty hunter in the galaxy by rushing in where angels feared to thread. He was a man accustomed to waiting out his prey and striking when the moment was opportune.
"I wonder what they're waiting for," Josiah mused as he stared at the large ship on the scanner.
"I believe Mr Larabee was correct in assuming that they are here to collect Mr Travis. Perhaps, the appointed for the exchange is drawings close," Ezra remarked.
"Which mean," Nathan said grimly. "Wherever Mary is in all that, she'll have to make her move soon."
"And we're stuck here with no way to help her," Buck reminded.
Ezra could see that Buck was not going to let the issue rest until his ship was far away from here and he turned to Chris Larabee. The Jedi had been silent all this time, most likely considering their next move and keeping counsel to himself until he came up with a solution. Chris was seated with hands pressed together beneath his lips in silent contemplation, looking very much like a Jedi. As dangerous as Buck's desire to leave the moon might be, Ezra could not deny that it was unacceptable that they remain here if they wanted to help Mary Travis in any way. A way had to be found to avoid being seen by those sensors. The Empire was keeping watch for good reason, no doubt to ensure that no one left the planet before they could claim their prize.
"Yes," Chris nodded. "I think you're right," the Jedi said firmly, meeting his gaze, aware of what had been running through his mind. "I think it would work."
"What would work?" Vin looked at them both.
Ezra was as equally mystified since the thought had only been swirling around his head and not solidified into any coherent shape. "It was just a random......"
"It makes sense," Chris said coolly. He had not intentionally intruded upon Ezra's thoughts but sometimes, it was difficult when some thoughts had such potency, they possessed an aura of their own. Ezra's in particular was difficult to read because the man had trained to keep his emotions and thoughts buried deeply to maintain the façade of indifference he wore like a shield around himself. However, the spark of inspiration that had flared up in Ezra's mind at an unguarded moment was so strong that no matter how fleeting it was, it still managed to capture Chris' attention almost immediately.
"How about letting us in on it?" Buck retorted, now that all eyes were on the Jedi and the Imperial commander.
"Would you?" Chris glanced at him with a little smile.
Ezra nodded somewhat dazed and managed to speak after a moment, "I was thinking that perhaps the purpose of that warship is not to keep anyone away from the planet but rather keep in. If Lauren Chase had indeed made an offer to the Empire for Steven Travis, it would not be difficult for Imperial agents to find out who she is and with whom her affiliations lie."
"With Stephen involved, they would use any means necessary to find out everything there is to know about Black Sun," Chris added.
"You mean, this isn't an exchange?" JD asked, starting to catch on. "They're not here to make some kind of rendezvous?"
"They're here because they know that Black Sun in here and if Black is here so is Laurel Chase and Stephen Travis," Vin understood though what he knew did not make him feel any better. "They're not going to pay any ransom or let her dictate terms to them."
"Precisely," Ezra nodded. "The Empire does not pay ransoms, especially those made by gangsters, even for a morsel as tasty as Stephen Travis."
"Hell," Buck cursed, understanding what the others were trying to tell him. "You mean...."
Chris nodded. "They're going to attack."
Mary and Alex found themselves in the operations control of Black Sun. From here, Black Sun's primary defenses were controlled and coordinated including the planetary sensor grid which had detected the Tracker the minute it had entered Orron 3 space was located here, not to mention the short range scanning equipment that sought out ships on an approach vector to the planet. Laurel had spared no expense fortifying her bastion on Orron 3 and Mary had to confess that she respected the woman even though she held no illusions to how dangerous it was to make an enemy of the Black Sun's beautiful leader.
They had been summoned to the operations center shortly after Alex and Mary had brought the Tracker back to the Domicile's private hangar. Although Casey had complained bitterly, Mary had ordered the girl to remain on board, giving no reason for anyone to believe that the Tracker was being inhabited in their absence. Everything about the Domicile told Mary that she did not want Casey involved in what they had to do here. Besides, the young girl was their only salvation if anything went wrong.
With the rest of Laurel's private guard, including Glorith Dal, Mary and Alex discovered what it was that had suddenly sent the entire fortress into such a state of flux. She saw the readings on the console and while the scanner did not show what was waiting for Black Sun in space, Mary knew instantly what she was looking at.
"It appears we have company," Laurel remarked as she stared at the readings. "A large Imperial vessel."
"That's not just a large Imperial vessel," Mary spoke up. "Energy readings that high can be from only one type of vessel; an Imperial Star Destroyer."
"That's impossible," Glorith hissed. "The closest Imperial ships to Stars End are busy protecting the Hydian way."
"Impossible or not," Alex returned. "If my friends says that's an Imperial Star Destroyers, then that's what it is."
"For many years, I was bodyguard to an Imperial officer," Mary responded, explaining her knowledge. "That's a Star Destroyer and by the looks of those energy readings, a warship. That means," she glared at Glorith. "There's four squadrons of TIE fighters, a legion of surface shock troops and enough fire power to annihilate us from orbit. A ship like that does not come out here for no reason unless it's preparing to destroy something."
"I suppose it was too much to assume that they would play by the rules," Laurel let out a sigh and glanced over her shoulder at Glorith, her face illuminated by the screen before. "I am afraid our Mystral is quite correct Glorith, that ship is here for us."
"If that is true, we need to evacuate," Glorith retorted.. "Immediately."
"That won't be necessary," Laurel said not in the least bit perturbed. "However, we should be prepared for some posturing. Men are so predictable that way."
"Laurel," Mary cleared her throat because she also knew why a Star Destroyer would be here. No doubt, the Empire had decided they would not wait for Laurel to deliver Stephen to them and would take him by force. They would attempt to frighten her at first with the threat of aerial bombardment, then perhaps they would actually launch an obligatory force that would create something of a light show. If by then, Laurel had not seen good sense and produced Stephen, shock troopers would land and they would take the Domicile by any means necessary and kill anyone who tried to stopp them. "You cannot remain here. They will come after you. Shock troopers are not deployed without good reason. I do not know what you have done to incur the Empire's wrath in this way but they have entered the Corporate Sector in order to reach you."
Laurel studied her for a moment. Her eyes seemed to cloud over as if she was hiding her feelings from her minions so that she could make a decision without their deciphering what was on her mind. "You are of course correct. I have what they want and they will use any means to acquire it. No doubt they must have employed similar methods to obtain this location. In truth I was rather expecting them, though not so soon. However, since they are here, we shall have to deal with them. What do you suggest?"
"Me?" Mary asked. "I am a body guard, I do not know anything about battle strategy.'
"And yet you have made some rather astute observations already," Laurel retorted smoothly. "More astute than my trusted associated Glorith. However, one cannot expect much from Selonians," she gave Glorith a depreciating look which the reptilian did not at all appreciate.
Mary could see that Glorith was accustomed to being Laurel's counsel on such matters and the fact that she might have usurped that position had earned the Selonian's further dislike of the new arrivals. Although Mary was reluctant to help Laurel in any way not only because it might endanger her cover but also because she wanted the freedom to roam about and search for Stephen instead of being trapped here in Laurel's operations room, helping the insidious creature fight off would be predators. However, the reality of the situation soon impressed itself upon her that she had no choice. For the moment any way, she was Laurel's creature.
Letting out a loud exhale, she saw Alex giving her a look which silently instructed her to be exceedingly careful with how she conducted herself from this point on. "First off, raise your shields if you have any. If they aren't scanning us yet they soon will. You don't need them to know just how defenseless you are."
"We have shields. Not military grade of course but enough to keep us cloaked," Laurel explained before turning to the young woman operating the shield generators. "Do as she says."
Mary thought quickly and then added. "If you have some kind of evacuation procedure, I suggest you get it into motion. When they come, they'll come in force and quickly. Shock troopers are known for speedy penetration of supposedly impregnable fortresses. Any surface batteries?"
"A few," Glorith found voice enough to speak, knowing that the Mystral was making sound statements. "Not enough to fight a vessel like that," she countered, challenging Mary to respond to that.
"You won't stop a destroyer that way and they won't waste the time when their TIE's will do the job well enough down here. I'm not offering you a way to beat them, just to stall them long enough to get away. I did not see any fighters of your own in your hangar so I assume you are in no position to fend off an aerial attack when it comes. The best that you can do is put them on defensive, at least until the evacuation is done."
"Well," Laurel stared at her. "I am impressed."
"Save your admiration for later," Mary said wearily. "If we survive this. For the moment, however, I suggest you make contact with them and start talking terms. They want something from you, if they did not they would already attacked. You need to buy yourself and your people some time."
"That my dear," Laurel said with a smile. "Is what I do best."
Mary had no doubt of that.
Laurel had ushered everyone out of the operations center when she prepared to contact the Star Destroyer and Mary guessed it was likely because she did not wish the others to know what it was that had brought the Empire to Orron 3. Laurel struck Mary as someone who would keep her secrets guarded because she trusted no one. It was uncertain whether or not she would confide in a trusted lieutenant like Glorith about her deal with the Empire just as it was entirely possible that no one knew Stephen was here and even if they did, were in the dark about his value. As Mary and Alex drew away from the operations center, Mary feared that she might have given herself away by her military prowess in assessing the threat of the Star Destroyer to Black Sun.
"That was not wise," Mary said softly as they started down one of the many catacombs that made up the Domicile. Laurel had assigned them quarters for the duration of their stay and until she had completed her conversation with the Imperials, everything was trapped in a state of limbo. Mary and Alex had made some excuse to retire to their assigned accommodation as they intended to make good use of the time away from the woman. Mary wanted to know what was the source of all that pain and wailing she had heard when she first entered the Domicile and Laurel's presence. She was terrified that it might be Stephen who was enduring such agonies and needed to see what was there just for peace of mind.
"I agree," Alex replied as they left the others behind them and turned down another dark, stygian corridor. "You may have blown your cover."
"Even if I did, she can't kill me just yet," Mary retorted.
"Why is that?" Alex looked at her skeptically. "That woman is capable of anything."
"That she is," Mary conceded Alex that point. "But she likes to win and she knows with me, she can."
"I don't follow you," the operative replied, confused. "What do you mean."
"She's not going to give up on her 10 million credits if she can help it," Mary whispered. They turned into another corridor, further and further away from the main chambers. The sound of that terrible wailing became louder, coupled with new sounds of growling, loud, harsh and bitter. The roars made both of them shudder a little even though their brisk pace did not falter one bit.
"If she can get ten million credits for Stephen, imagine what she can get for me? She'll use me long enough to keep the Empire at bay and then around and serve me to them," Mary replied tersely.
"I hope you know what you're doing," Alex sighed loudly. "I've got a real bad feeling about all this and what is that?" she exclaimed in the darkness of the cave like corridor. The walls were grey and uneven and reminded Alex of a dungeon from one of those fairy tales of her childhood. The way was lit with dull lamps at every hundred paces and from this corridor, there was nowhere else to go but straight to the end. The path gradually sloped so they were walking down an incline.
"I've been hearing it ever since we got here," Mary answered, her voice hushed as if their surroundings demanded it.
"You think Stephen is down here?" Alex asked quietly. The length of the passageway made their voices echo and she could think of nothing worse at this point for her words to reach someone else's ears in this way.
"I hope not," Mary whispered, her stomach hollowing at the very notion he had spent the last year in this hell, locked away from everything in a dungeon of darkness with that terrible sound of anguish that seeped into the walls with every sorrowful wail.
They finally reached the end of the corridor and the way their voices echoed as they spoke told Mary they were deep with the heart of the Domicile. The corridor emptied into what looked like a cellblock. There were doors on either side; all controlled by heavy security doors no locks. Mary had seen such doors before. There was no lock to pick, no control panel to access. The locking mechanism controls were probably not even here, needing to be accessed from the upper levels of the fortress, possibly even the operations room they had just come from. The doors were made from pure beryllium. It would take nothing less that a laser torch to even mark the finish of its high-density steel surface.
"By the stars," Mary gasped at she faced the near impregnable obstacle before her. "What could she have in here that justifies this?"
"I don't know," Alex shook her head and stepped forward to the nearest door and peered through the small opening that allowed the jailer to see the prisoner.
"Lex be careful," Mary warned instinctively. "You don't know what's in there."
No sooner than she said that, a large furry hand had forced its way through the orifice. Alex staggered back and fell down on her rear as the large arm, flayed wildly, trying desperately to grab something. An angry roar followed, propelling Mary forward.
"Lex!" Mary cried out as she rushed to Alex's side who was more shocked than she was hurt. "Are you alright?"
"I haven't been the same since that idiot kissed me!" she growled. "Getting blindsided, letting big hairy things almost rip my head off and not shooting teenagers who giggle every time the word kiss is mentioned! It wasn't that great a kiss!"
Mary rolled her eyes. "I guess that means you're okay then," she said sarcastically and turned her attention to the creature bellowing within its cage. It was one of many although this one at the moment was the angriest and most vocal. Mary saw the arm withdraw back into the cell and despite herself, took a step forward because she needed to see what was inside it. The edge of anger had evaporated from the occupant's bellowing and the roars that emanated from the room soon became like all the others, despair trapped in frustration and futility. It was a feeling Mary knew all too well. Taking a deep breath, she braced herself to move if it tried to attack again. Mary peered inside the cell, expecting to see something terrible trapped within its confines.
Instead, she found herself looking at a Wookie.
Judging by the deep russet pelt and the shape of its seven-foot tall frame, the Wookie was a female. She was growling mournfully and the sound reached inside Mary because there was so much anguish in it. That low growl whispered so much sorrow that Mary felt her fear dying at its hearing even though she knew it was a bad idea to let down her guard.
"Mary, be careful," Alex offered the same warning she had refused to heed when given earlier.
Mary did not answer. Instead she took a deep breath and spoke. "Hello." Her translator was working and she hoped it would be able to reach the female on some level.
The Wookie turned to her sharply as the small device Mary wore on her person, allowed her words to be understood. The Wookie growled back.
<What do you want? Have you come to take me now?>
"Take you?" Mary asked confused. "Take you where? What are you doing so far from Kashhyk?"
<I do not speak with our jailers!>
"I am not your jailer. I don't even know why you're here," she asked, trying to sound sincere so this Wookie would not believe Mary was here to harm her.
Alex listened to the growls being exchanged by Mary and the Wookie. She did not have a translator herself but knew that some kind of a conversation was taking place between her sister in law and the sentient trapped inside the cell. She listened closely as she backpedaled, ensuring that no one was coming down the corridor to find them. There was only way into this place and should anyone discover them here, there would be no place for them to go except into a cell and at the moment, that was an eventuality that Alex wanted to avoid. After ensuring that no one was indeed coming, Alex continued her investigation of the cellblock, always keeping Mary in her view.
She had not even finished peering through half the cells to discover that all the prisoners at present were Wookies. They came in all shapes and sizes, female, male, adolescent, even the old. Grey pelts, russet and deep mahogany faces peered at her, some angry and enraged for their incarceration but most were despaired and suffering. Wookies originated from a world where sunlight was their constant companion. Being trapped in this dark place must have been the closest thing to hell imaginable for these poor souls and Alex wondered what they had done to deserve such torture.
"LEX!" Alex heard Mary almost snarl. The sharp intensity of her voice immediately stopped Alex dead in her tracks and she ran all the way back to Mary.
When she reached Mary, the rebel leader was barely able to conceal her rage; her anger smoldered off her skin like smoke. Even before she spoke, Alex could see the fury in Mary's eyes and she wondered what terrible thing the woman had discovered to engender that kind of a reaction. There was a heart stopping moment when Alex thought Mary had learned something about Stephen, something final and fatal that made their whole quest pointless.
"What is it?" she asked in a soft voice.
"She's using them." Mary was so outraged she could barely speak. After being in the Rebel Alliance, hearing stories about Imperial cruelties and atrocities, she thought that there was little that could inspire her anger any more, that she was too jaded to let anything truly reach inside of her and clench her heart with such a stomach churning intensity. She was wrong.
"Using them?" Alex looked at her confused. "What do you mean?"
"The Venom," Mary managed to say, revealing it to Alex as the Wookie had revealed it to her trapped in the cage behind her. "The narcotic that Black Sun makes. Its primary ingredient is the adrenal secretion found in Wookies! She's extracting it from them!"
Alex's jaw fell open from the horror. "Kessel!" she uttered a strangled gasp.
"She's been paying slavers to abduct these people from their homes to be brought here so she can take their adrenal glands and extract the substance. All these Wookies in here are going to die!" Mary's gaze moved across the expanse of the cellblock.
"We have to help them," Alex exclaimed. "We have to get them out of here. This is illegal even by Imperial standards. This is murder!"
"I know that," Mary hissed, a new hatred forming for this woman, not just because she had taken Stephen from her but what she had done to these poor souls and so many others that had died since. "I'm not leaving here without Stephen or them. Somehow, we're going to get all these people out of here."
Alex nodded, not about to argue with Mary on this point, however there were realities they had to face. "It's not going to be easy. Laurel might already suspect who you are."
"She doesn't even know the half of what I am," Mary retorted, her eyes blazing. "She'll find out soon enough."
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