I had packed a small back pack with the bare essentials. I was ready when Thrawn came for me. Wordlessly, we walked through the corridors of the ship in the very early hours of the dawn watch. The deck officer greeted him with a salute which Thrawn returned.
“Everything is as you requested, Sir.” The young man said.
“Very good, Athael, thank you.” Thrawn said and I wondered if he knew the names of everyone on board this ship. It would not surprise me at all if he did. The young man saluted again and left smartly.
“Well, Miss Gabriel, there she is.” He gestured towards the scruffiest looking ship I had seen in a long while. “The Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma.” He said.
I raised both eyebrows. “Big name for a little ship.” I retorted looking at the little HWK light freighter. “Where on earth did you dig this up from? It must be at least ten years old.”
Thrawn smiled. “I take it you are familiar with this kind of vessel?”
I nodded. “More than I would prefer to say actually, saw a lot of them before the newer freighters came out, more people used them because they had better shielding, heavier fire power. Does she even still have her hyper-drive?”
He nodded. “There have been significant modifications to this ship, I am sure she will surprise you.”
“She looks like a wreck.” I told him flatly.
He purred in my ear “Looks can be deceiving, Miss Gabriel.”
“Hmm!” was my only reply. I did not doubt that this little ship was probably wired and fired up to the teeth. The HWK series were, despite a bad reputation for being touchy little ships with big personalities, a line of tough, fairly versatile freighters, which was why many smugglers used them.
I dropped my back pack at his feet and began to do my own fairly serious preflight check on the ship, I hadn’t asked if I could but I didn’t care. I had been taught never to fly a ship I had not personally gone over and I wasn't about to start changing that now. I figured out pretty quickly there had been some substantial modifications done and most of them would not be picked up by a standard Imperial patrol. She was the perfect smuggler’s vessel. It made me raise my eyebrows even more. I wondered exactly who he thought we would be going up against, if anyone at all.
When I was satisfied I walked back to where the Captain was standing watching me with a thoughtful expression on his face. I picked up my backpack.
“Shall we?” I asked. He gave me a slow smile.
“After you, Miss Gabriel.” He said and we walked up the small gang way.
The Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma was a fairly small ship, room for six passengers plus a crew of two, usually, a pilot and a co pilot. There were no extra places for gunners and turrets, this was a ship for drop and go. She could carry up to one hundred and fifty metric tons of cargo if the holds had not been altered, which in this case they had. I walked through the ship and checked her out from the inside. I tweaked some of the engine systems and Thrawn had watched me with his usual raised eyebrow. I had cut my mech teeth on ships exactly like this. It was a sort of home coming. I tossed my backpack on one of the bunks in the small crew cabin and headed up forward to the cockpit. I was surprised to see the captain sitting in the co-pilot's chair.
“You seem to have far more experience with this type of vessel than I do,” he said. “That makes you the designated pilot.”
I grinned. Sat down strapped in and got my headset on. We were cleared for departure and we left quietly. It didn't take me long to sort out exactly what he had meant by significant modifications. Her engine was twice the power it should have been, I wasn’t even sure it was possible to do that and her hyper-drive had been jacked up to the max. Forward fire power had been boosted and the regeneration rate made my eyebrows rise as did the included counter measures.
“You expecting trouble?” I asked. This little ship was armed to the teeth, should not be someone’s prey but rather the preditor if we got into a fight.
“Covering all possibilities.” He quipped as he programmed the nav computer. “We will make several hyper jumps, no direct line.”
I shrugged. “What ever you say, Captain.” I maneuvered the ship away from the Vengeance and got a good view of the ISD in the process. I whistled softly. The ISD was a thing of deadly beauty. “Before you hit the go button I want to test her out a bit, she has a touchy feel to her and I need to get used to that.” he nodded his consent and I took the Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma for a quick joy ride. She was fast and responsive and I think I made him a little space sick.
“That's enough.” He said tersely and punched the nav computer’s go switch.
I laughed. This was sheer joy and I had forgotten how much I loved just flying. The nav computer ticked over and the stars distorted as we went into hyperspace. Once we were in the hyper space lane I unclipped and got up. The ship was on autopilot and I wanted to make some Jawa juice. According to the nav computer's calculations the next jump would be in five hours. I did not know the coordinates he had punched in and I didn’t ask. He had his reasons for being secretive and I just didn’t feel like arguing with him about it.
The Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma had a small galley, well it was more like an after thought of a galley actually, but good enough for two people, a pain when you had to cook for passengers, though. It had been well stocked and it didn’t take me long to get Jawa-juice sorted out. While it was brewing I fetched the book I was reading from by backpack. I poured two cups, remembering how Thrawn had taken his the day he had taken me to lunch, strong and black. I handed it to him and sat back down. He nodded his thanks and went back to studying the data pad he had in his hand. We were not really very conversational and hyper-space was very dull so I was glad I had brought a book to read. I sat the same way I always had when I was flying, feet wedged up on the consol, slouched back in my chair, my nose in a book and a cup of sweet milky Jawa juice in one hand. If my complete lack of military decorum bothered him, he didn't say anything.
Every hour on the hour I got up and wandered about. Ship-check, my father had always called it. He had drilled that into me from the very first time I could ever remember flying with him. Always check the ship, he had said, always, even if everything seems to be running in perfect order. System fail and things can go wrong very quickly, just keeping an eye on stuff once an hour might save your life.
He had shown me what to do and made it a point that all his pilots implemented an hourly check. A walk-through the ship, a look at the systems readouts, smell for leaks and simple things, get a feel for the ship and know when stuff was just not right. It was as if by doing these little checks you developed some sort of relationship with the ship and got to know her well enough so that when things did happen and go wrong you were not scrambling to find things or know where what was. It seems like such a small thing and most pilots would say they know their ship inside and out but I have been in the co-pilot's seat on a couple of runs for Jabba’s people and I can tell you when a pilot doesn’t really know his ship but thinks he does and something goes wrong you are so screwed. They all laughed at me for doing my routine ship checks but in then it saved our lives and they stopped laughing and started doing checks of their own.
Plus it helps to pass the time if you have some sort of routine scheduled thing to do, because any trip longer than two hours in a small ship is dull, even with a good book or board games… that is if you have someone to play games with. Thrawn was silent almost the whole first jump. Deep in thought and studying the various datapads and books he had brought with him.
We ate cold sandwiches for lunch that I had made from the tin of mystery meat and bread from the supplies on board and all I got out of him was a polite thank-you.
The route he had chosen had taken us just off the main trade routes into quieter space. Not so back water that we would look suspicious but off the main pathways. When I checked the star chart as we came out of hyperspace I saw we would pass near Kuat. We cruised at sub-light for about half an hour and then Thrawn punched in the second set of hyperspace coordinates and we jumped again. This time we would be traveling for six hours.
“How long will we be gone for?” I asked after cleaning up the lunch dishes.
Thrawn thought about it for a moment. “If the calculations are right not more than seventy two hours.” He said. “But of course there is margin for change depending on circumstances.”
“What languages do you speak, Miss Gabriel?” he asked suddenly.
I had to think about it for a moment. “Basic, High Court basic thanks to my mother, Huttese, Rodese, Rodese thieves’ cant, some Bocce , and some pirate and smuggler cant.” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Impressive list, most humans speak one maybe two languages. You seem to have a gift for them.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know about that, it was never really hard for me to learn a new language, it is a little like music I sort of see it rather than hear it.” I could not explain it better than that.
“Interesting, but you left one out of that list.” He said.
I looked at him, wracking my brain trying to think what other language I knew. Nothing came to mind so I shook my head, biting my lip in the process, “No, I don’t think so.”
He smiled slowly. “Now, that is very interesting.”
“You’ve lost me, Captain.”
When he spoke next I knew he was no longer speaking basic but I still understood him and the language he spoke made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I just sat in the chair across from him and stared into his eyes.
“That book about the myths I gave you to read, Miss Gabriel, is unreadable by most people and yet you did not even seem to notice this, but that was not my first inkling that you are not all you appear to be.”
My heart had begun to speed up a little. I did not like this little turn of conversation much and I still was not sure of what he was getting at.
“Any time you wish to get to the point Captain…”
He smiled and nodded. “The night you were in my flat, you picked up a book lying on the table and flipped through it.”
I remembered, just in passing, because it was sitting there and had a beautiful old binding. “The little book with fables in it, I remember you asking if I wished to borrow it.”
“And your reply was not, that you did not wish to take it because you could not read it but rather that you didn’t wish to borrow something so old and precious. How you would know that it was both old and very precious was beyond me at the time, but you were nervous enough and I thought perhaps you were just being shy about not wanting to admit you could not read it. Now I understand the truth of the matter you truly don’t see it do you?” he said more to himself. “You hear and see this language as if it were basic.”
My father had said more or less the same words to me just before I had left Tatooine.
“Mandalorian?” I asked feeling suddenly very afraid of him. I got slowly out of the chair and backed away.
He sat there quietly. “I was not certain until now.”
“So, I understand Mandalorian, so what?” I asked standing there with my arms folded over my chest.
He was going to say something but he changed his mind, I read it on his face and felt it in the air as certainly as if he had held up a sign. Instead he said, “Where we are headed will be an outpost for smugglers and thieves, people on the fringe of society who do not wish to be noticed. I wanted to know if my theory was right because I will need a way to communicate with you that no one else will understand. I am quite certain that none of these people we will encounter will speak Mandalorian, much less Old Mandalorian which was what I spoke to you just now. While you have an extraordinary repertoire of languages to call on, all of them are used by these people in some form or another. I had to be sure.” He spoke quietly, calmly as if he were speaking to some frightened animal, trying to sooth it down.
I remained standing. “You could have just asked.”
“You would have lied about it.”
“What makes you say that?”
He shook his head slightly. “You carry some secret about with you as though it were an ice-bear on your shoulder. I don’t even think you realise it, but it is there sometimes, in your eyes, a haunted uncertain look. It seems to crop up when you are near Mandalorian artifacts.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “You study me like I am one of your pieces of art.”
“I make it my business to know all I can about the people who are close to me.”
“Merlyn, we have already had that particular conversation.” He said gently.
I nodded. So we had. “So, you know all there is to know about me while you remain a big mystery is that it?” I was angry now and glad of it. Anger was easier for me to cope with than that gut culling fear I had felt a moment ago. Even the name Mandalore seemed to cast some dark shadow over my heart.
“I remain a mystery to you because you never ask about me.” He said softly. “What do you want to know?”
I opened my mouth and then closed it again. He was right I never asked but how could I explain that he always appeared closed to me that his body language and manners almost screamed do not ask anything personal. That I was scared to shatter what seemingly fragile bond there was between us by prying.
He got up and walked over to me. “You question nothing about me, someone you allow such close physical intimacy with.” this puzzled him.
“Physical intimacy is one thing.” I said with a shrug. Not that my experiences in this particular area were vast, and most of what I had experienced had not been pleasant. Tatooine is a rough place especially if you are female and if you are stupid enough to dance for a living.
“Are you saying you would allow anyone to be this close?” he cupped my face with his hand.
“No, in fact, I usually go out of my way to avoid it.” I said backing away from him a step.
He smiled slightly. “Easier to break away from physical contact than to tear away from someone you allow into your soul, is that it?”
I was not at all sure where this turn of conversation had come from or even why. I looked away from him. He had a nasty knack of breaking down my walls and seeing the truth beyond. I shuddered to think what he would have been like had he been even the slightest bit force sensitive. He studied my face for a very long time.
“I forget that you are so young.” He said quietly, more to himself.
“And just how old are you then?” I asked, hating to be called young, I had never felt young, not even as a child. As though I had somehow been born with a different sense of what age and responsibility meant.
He smirked. “Old enough to know better than to get tangled up with you.” He quipped. “Is age important?”
“You brought it up.” I snipped ignoring his first remark.
“Yes, yes I did.” He acknowledged. “Merlyn, what do you want to know about me that will settle some of this angst?”
I stared at him because now, put on the spot I couldn’t think of the right questions to ask.
He sighed and walked over to the galley to make some tea. He poured two cups and motioned for me to sit with him at the small dining table.
“I am a very private person. I have to be. Too many people pry into everything when you have been noticed by the Emperor. I am sure you have your own experiences with this. It is neither in my nature nor my upbringing to be open and giving with information I deem unnecessary, this includes all personal information. The less people know the better. I notice you are also fairly careful with what you tell people about yourself. I often get the feeling that you grew up very quickly, did not have much of a childhood on Tatooine, perhaps that is in part what draws me to you.” He paused to sip at the tea. “My home world is old and steeped in tradition. Discipline and self responsibility are highly valued among my kind. Children are taught from an early age to view the world with logic and a cool head. We also do not have much of an adolescence.”
I watched him as he thought about what to say next.
“My full name is Mitth’raw’nuruodo, a far too complex name for most of the morons at the Academy so I shortened it for them. Not many people know this or know what it means. That Mitth is my birthright name, Raw is the primary one, you might say it is what my mother calls me when she writes to me, and Nuruodo is the family line I was adopted under for the work I do. I come from a long line of warriors and strategists. Believe when I tell you, I am very very good at what I do.” He paused. “Some time ago I was banished from my home world because the ruling families were too short sighted to see the choices I had made were in their own best interest. A great deal of this has to do with Jedi Masters on something they named the Outbound Flight project, so you must understand I have little faith and less trust in the words of those who call themselves Jedi light , dark or otherwise.” He said with a slight shrug. “It was shortly after this I chose to work for the Empire.” He stopped. He had given me a brief outline and left many many details out. I felt this but still it was more than I suspected he had told anyone else and I knew that was all he had to say unless I asked something.
“Do you miss your home?” I began, knowing I had asked this question before but wondered if this time the answer would be different.
“Sometimes, about as much as I suspect you miss yours. I have family there and those ties are not easy to cut, but the Chiss prize intense focus and logic and suppress emotions that are considered hasty such as anger, hate and so on. I draw on this training to avoid longing for a home that is no longer my own.”
He smiled. “I have parents and siblings which include an older sister, who is an artisan, as well as far too many extended family to mention. My people are very family oriented. Chiss families have long histories and value this greatly”
“Then you are lucky, I don’t know where I am really from.” I told him.
He watched my face carefully and held his silence, waiting, knowing that I would tell him what it was he had wanted to know right from the start of this whole conversation.
“Just before I left to work for Lord Vader my father told me that I was not his or my mother's child. I am a foundling, left behind on one of his transports during Jedi Purge. The only thing I have to tie me to my true past is a journal written in Mandalorian and that I am force sensitive with some abilities that probably should have been kept quieter than they have.” I paused. “No one but I, my father and now you know this.”He nodded, letting me know he understood the trust I was giving him.
“And you were the only one who could read this journal?” he asked.
I nodded. “The book would not even open for my father.”
“Does it hold any clues about who you are?”
“I know who I am.” I said sharply making him raise an eyebrow, “What I don’t know is where I came from.”
He smiled slowly. “At every turn you continue to surprise me.” He said.
“Well, keeps you interested I guess.” I said wearily.
His smile turned a little predatory, making me shiver. “Many things about you keep me interested, Miss Gabriel.” And I wondered how long we could keep playing this particular game before one of us caved in, went mad and shot the other.
“You didn’t answer the question.” He reminded me.
I shook my head. “None that I can decipher, it is very old, older than my birth parents I am guessing and written by someone studying the arts of a Jedi but he was failing. Maybe one day I will show it to you seeing as how you can read it and you can tell me what you think.”
He gave me a solemn look. “I should be honoured to do so.”
“I don’t know how it ties in with the language though.” I said.
“Neither do I but that would bear investigating, perhaps there is something in the Mandalore gene that makes the language a racial memory. You do seem to connect with the artifacts from that culture.” He said.
I sat back and drank the rest of my tea. I was suddenly exhausted, having forgotten the ordeal I had been through three day previously.
“Go and rest.” He told me. “I will take the next watch.” He paused and then said, “Your father and the other pilots you have flown with have taught you well, but you are no good to me tired. Later on we have much to discuss as I can fill you in on what we have ahead of us.”
I nodded, and was not going to argue with him about it. I crashed almost the moment I lay down on the bunk and slept through the next two hyperspace jumps. When he came to wake me up we were three hours away from Myrkr and he was no longer wearing an Imperial uniform.