There was only me and a lot of cargo waiting at the landing pad by the retreat at 3:30am. It was dark and cold and I was very tired. I watched as two Imperial soldiers loaded the shuttle and then waited until the pilot showed up. At ten minutes to four he was there. Apart from the slight nod of acknowledgement he all but ignored me until he had done his external preflight check and then when he was finished and satisfied with it, he asked for my documents, which I gave him. He was an older man who gave me a brief once over and a curt nod.
“Captain Tjenn Wolfhr,” he said shaking my hand. “Better get onboard then, Miss Gabriel. Looks like it is just you and me and this pile of stuff. You can ride up front if you like.” He said gruffly. I liked him immediately.
I sat in the co-pilot’s chair and had strapped in by the time he finished making sure everything was ship shape, so to speak. I watched as he went through the checklist before requesting departure clearance. He smiled as he noticed my undivided attention.
“Don’t suppose you’d let me fly her would you?” I asked quickly before I had a chance to think about it and not ask.
“Can you fly her, would be the question Miss Gabriel.” He said with a grin.
“Lord Vader seemed to think I could when he let me pilot out of Coruscant.” I said with a smile.
To my great surprise he laughed. “Yes, I heard about that, didn’t realize that was you.”
“You heard about that? What exactly did you hear?”
He punched a few controls and spoke with flight control and started the ascent. “Just that Lord Vader seems to have great trust in you. You gave a few of the noncoms a good scare though. Buddy of mine is on board the ISD you landed on, said you put the shuttle down like a pro. Only afterwards found out you’d never flown one before. People talk you know and that story has gotten around. Lord Vader doesn’t usually like to be piloted around although much of the time he doesn’t have a choice.”
“Oh.” I said. “Well, it is not as if I had never flown anything before.”
He smiled. “If you wish to practice, I don’t mind.” He said switching over the controls to me. “I used to teach at the academy before I was reassigned. Usually, I shuttle the Emperor around, this is a nice change in routine.” He said. “ Get ready and I will pass off control to you.”
I put on the second headset and took over the shuttle controls. The flight was a long one. We were to rendezvous with the ISD Vengeance which was currently near Corellia. The journey would take almost six hours even with Hyperspace.
Captain Wolfhr was a good teacher. Unlike Lord Vader and his learn by being thrown into the fire method, the captain was patient and made lots of corrections. Explained things and seemed genuinely happy to be teaching someone. I wondered why he had left the academy but wasn’t going to ask that. I learned a lot about the finer art of flying a lambda class shuttle and with a whole lot less panic. He even taught me some of the tricks the better pilots used to get past some of the more cumbersome controls. The time passed surprisingly quickly. He was easy to be with and easy to talk to.
I learned that he was married, lived on Naboo with his wife and had two children, a son and a daughter. His daughter was almost the same age as I was and had just entered the Academy as an Intelligence Officer. His son was still too young but would be following in his father’s footsteps as a pilot in the Imperial Navy. He showed me holo images of them both. I talked about Tatooine and my father and my life as a docking bay brat. I talked mostly about my mechanic work and my own love of ships and flying. While I would never be the best pilot in the world, I loved it. He told me I had a natural touch for it almost as if I could talk to the ship. Lambda Class shuttles, he had said, were notoriously picky to handle and so far I had done well considering how little flying time I had ever had in one. I wondered if he had ever flown some of the older freighter ships, now they were not only picky they were fat sluggish bantha cows.
I was almost surprised at how fast the time had gone by and jumped when the nav computer gave the alarm for the exit from Hyperspace. There was that amazingly dizzying swirl of stars and hyperspace and sub-light met and then we were in Core space. Captain Wolfhr punched in the co ordinates for the Vengeance and the last half hour of the trip was basically me trying not o get nervous.
“You want to land her?” he asked.
I grinned. “You trust me enough?”
“You have a nice touch with her. Just remember to watch the dorsal wing.” He said.
He had just finished pointing out some very clever tricks when the Landing control from the Vengeance came over the comm requesting Identification and clearance codes.
“ISDVengeance, this is Imperial shuttle FuryII requesting docking permission. Identification code being transmitted now, over.” I said as captain Wolfhr transmitted the codes.
“Copy that FuryII, stand by for clearance code confirmation, over.” Said a very bored sounding voice.
“FuryII, standing by.”
And we waited for what seemed forever but were only about a couple of minutes.
“FuryII, this is the ISD Vengeance, you are cleared to land in the main hanger bay, Vengeance out.”
With a nod from Captain Wolfhr I started the whole landing bay entry procedure. He talked me through it and kept me calm. It was a nice change from the last time I had done this. He even taught me how to style the ship so that it faced the right way for departure. That was a cute trick. I almost wished I could have seen the maneuver being done.
Once she was safely down and the engines shut off, I unbuckled myself and got up and stretched. He did the same, grabbed his flight data pad and made his way to the gangway. I followed behind him, picking up my travel bag along the way.
The deck officer saluted the Captain who saluted back. “Welcome on board the ISD Vengeance, Captain Wolfhr.” He said and then with a curt little nod to me extended the same courtesy. Wolfhr handed the deck officer the data pad and told him about the supplies in the cargo hold. They saluted again and the deck officer vanished inside the ship.
“Captain Wolfhr, a pleasure to see you again.” said a voice that brought goose-bumps to my skin. Captain Thrawn stepped forward and the two men shook hands. They obviously knew one another and seemed to actually get along.
“A pleasure as always Captain Thrawn.” Wolfhr said. “I see the Vengeance is treating you well.”
Thrawn smiled. “Space treats me well, Captain, as well you would know.” Then he turned to me. “Miss Gabriel. I trust your journey here was a pleasant one?” he said with just a hint of a smile on his lips and something else in his eyes.
“It was an excellent journey, Captain Thrawn.” I said in a tone of voice that made him arch one of those blue black eyebrows at me.
“Indeed,” he smiled, giving me the full benefit of his eerie red eyes. “Then I shall look forward to hearing about it later, during dinner perhaps. Captain Wolfhr, will you be joining us this evening or must you return to Naboo?”
“Ah sadly I must return. Another time perhaps.” Wolfhr said, then turning to me he extended his hand and I shook it. “It was a genuine pleasure to fly with you, Miss Gabriel and any time you wish to get some more experience in a shuttle I would be delighted to give you space time in the Fury there. You have a genuine touch with her and you are a most enjoyable co-pilot. I wish you well on your journey with the Captain here, he is a good man.”
I blushed at his praise. “Thank you Captain Wolfhr, you are too kind. I would love to fly with you again sometime, I learned a lot.” Thrawn merely watched the whole exchange with a bemused look.
Wolfhr gave me a nod, turned and gave Thrawn a salute which was returned and then vanished back into the shuttle to prepare her for the turn around journey. I did not envy him this was a long day’s work.
Thrawn surveyed the amount of cargo being unloaded and frowned. He looked at the large travel bag at my feet. “Wait here a moment please, Miss Gabriel.” He said and before I could reply he was off to talk to the deck officer and examine the data pad. After some serious discussion he left the deck officer and the men who were helping unload and came back over to me.
“That is all you brought?” he asked.
He was about to say something more when Captain Wolfhr appeared again holding a rather large flat box.
“I almost forgot, this was sent up for you, Captain. Corellian Spice cake I believe. Came from the Emperor’s Kitchen, a gift, although there was no name attached to the requisition slip but the seal is genuine.”
Thrawn smiled. “Ah, our chef no doubt, thought to honour our guest. I hope you enjoy Corellian Spiced cake, Miss Gabriel.”
“I am not sure I have ever tasted it, Captain.” I said. I had actually never even heard of it.
Wolfhr grinned. “Then you are in for a real treat. I hope the Captain sees fit to open a bottle of that fine brandy he always hides away, the two go well together.” He said. The two men exchanged a look and a smile that made me so curious about their past friendship I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking.
“Enough of this chatter, I need to be back on Naboo and fit for work by tomorrow evening.” Wolfhr said and with a nod to Thrawn and a wink thrown in my direction he walked back into the shuttle and the gangway closed up behind him.
Thrawn handed the cake box to one of his men with strict instructions that it was to be hand delivered to the chef and then he picked up my bag.
“If you will follow me, Miss Gabriel, I shall show you to your quarters.” He said.
He was quiet for the walk to the quarters that had been assigned to me. I got the impression that there was something on his mind but he was not about to speak about it and I wasn’t going to ask. Only when we walked down a very quiet, deserted part of the ship did he say anything at all.
“I took the liberty of giving you quarters in the quiet part of the ship, I know how you value your privacy and quiet. There is a training room just down the corridor from where you will be staying and a small recreational room as well.” He said opening the door to my assigned quarters with a keycard which he then handed to me.
I followed him in. These were VIP quarters, I knew that from my time onboard Lord Vader’s ship. Impressive, large and quiet. There was an enormous view port and plenty of space. It was a bit of over kill really, I did not need all this space but I was fairly certain he had not assigned me to these quarters for the space but rather for their location, away from the main part of the ship, away from prying eyes of the crew.
“I trust you will be comfortable here.” He said dropping my bag at the door of the bedroom. He opened all the doors to check that the quarters were in suitable condition, clean sheets on the bed, towels and so on. He was being a little scary, but then I had never seen him truly at work or on board his ship before. It was a whole new side of him.
“It is fine thank you.” I said.
“There is a small kitchen facility just down the corridor where you may make tea if you wish. There will be a formal dinner in the Captain's dining room tonight at 18:00 hrs and I expect you to attend, please dress appropriately. I will send an officer to escort you.” He said.
“I will have some food sent to you, you must be hungry after your journey.” He continued.
“You also look tired, perhaps you would do well to rest before dinner this evening.” he said a little less formally.
“Do you have any questions?” he asked.
“Yes.” I said and wanted to continue with asking about food instead what popped out was “What the hell am I doing here?”
For the first time since Captain Wolfhr left Thrawn smiled. “All in good time, Miss Gabriel.” He said almost smugly.
“Yes, of course.” I replied. He was right though, I was tired. “It is pleasant to see you again, Captain.”
He laughed. “Miss Gabriel, it is always a delight to be in your presence.” He said more gently stepping a little closer to me.
I fought the urge to back away one step from him. He saw that and grinned.
“I must return to the bridge, I have much to attend to, I do however look forward to dinner this evening. You will get to meet some of the fine Officers who serve aboard this ship. I trust you will enjoy it. I know they are all curious about you”
“I am certain it will be very interesting,” I said. “Although I am not entirely sure what there is to be curious about me.”
His smile turned feral and broadened. “You work closely with the Emperor’s Iron fist and you live to tell the tale. I expect they are all dying to know your secret.”
I raised my chin a notch defiantly. “Oh? And what about you aren’t you also dying to know that as well?” I asked.
He stroked the side of my face making me shiver. “Oh, eventually I will unravel that little mystery on my own.” He said softly. “All in good time, my dear.”
I stepped back from him, my heart suddenly racing, annoyed that he could do that to me with the barest of touches and tone of voice. The tension between us was sparking, and I knew he felt that too. We stared at each other for a moment until I looked away.
“Until later, Miss Gabriel.” He said. I nodded at him and watched him leave.
After taking a few deep breaths, the first thing I did was unpack and sort out my things, hung up the clothes that need hanging up and put away everything else. The second thing I did was lie down and nap, I was exhausted. I did not think I would get much sleep but I did and woke up with just enough time to shower and dress before this stupid dinner thing.
The dress I had brought was one that Cati had made. A pretty purple dress that draped over one shoulder while leaving the other one bare. The one sleeve hid the bruise on that arm and that was what I wanted. The dress was feminine and elegant. I hoped it was not too formal but since the word formal had been stressed I wasn’t going to worry about it too much.
I put my hair up with the Silver zenji sticks from Thrawn, a touch of my favourite perfume and applied enough make up too take away some of the oh-my-stars-when-did-you-last-sleep look I always got from traveling. I was just finishing up when the door chime rang.
The young midshipmen who did not say a single word after “Good evening Ma’am, I have been assigned to escort you. Please come with me.” From the shake in his voice he had been practicing these lines a lot and he was scared to death of me for what ever reason.
I could only assume it was because of who I worked for. Anything remotely connected to Lord Vader inspired fear. This included me as well, I guessed. I did not think I was actually all that scary, but I could never really tell how others saw me, so it would have been hard to say.
I was met at the dining room by Thrawn who did not hide his smile when he saw me. He offered me his arm which I took. It was all very formal. He introduced me to the other five officers. I would never remember their names but I smiled at each one as they each in turn did that heel snap together polite nod thing. I think they were even more nervous about having me there, a woman and Lord Vader's assistant than I was nervous to be there. I was seated next at the left hand side of the Captain and as he pulled my chair out for me to sit down I was grateful for all my mother's lessons in manners and etiquette.
The dinner started off with soup and was very nice. Served by silent waiters and followed by a nice meat dish that was so elegantly prepared it seemed almost a shame to eat. All the way through out the dinner I was asked polite questions which I answered with polite answers. It was all very polished- glass pretty but I was very much aware that all eyes watched me. I suppose as Lord Vader's Personal Assistant I was as much a curiosity as anything else. I am pretty sure what they really wanted to ask me was something no one would dare ask. What was it really like working for Darth Vader and why was I not dead yet. Everyone followed Captain Thrawn’s lead and he was the very model of elegant, courteous, politically correct politeness. Manners were a big thing at this dinner table. I was glad I had remembered to pack mine.
As the main course was done and the dishes cleared away, the wine glasses removed to make way for a dark some what bitter version of Jawa juice, so the men decided it was time to ignore me and get down to business. I was not giveing them any news of information about what they really wanted to know so the turned their conversation to other topics, such as ship news and work and although they were very careful not to exclude me, they no longer made me a part of their conversation. I was grateful for this and happy to be left to my own thoughts. I caught bits and pieces of information that was interesting and some gossip that was meaningless to me. All the while I was being studied by the captain who I thought looked very amused by the whole turn of events. The only moment of silence came was when the Chef himself brought in and served the Corellian Spice cake that had been delivered earlier.
Thrawn smiled and complimented the chef on his forethought to have it made.
“I cannot take the credit for that, Captain.” he said with a smile as he sliced the delicate looking cake up and served it. He left as soon as each person had been served and we waited for Thrawn to begin.
“Please, Miss Gabriel, you must tell me how you enjoy this delicacy, seeing as how you have never had it before.” He said.
I looked around the table. This little bit of information surprised everyone there and I wondered just how special this desert was and why it was so coveted. I took my cake fork and neatly sliced a small section off and ate it slowly.
The cake was truly like nothing I had ever tasted before and I could understand why it was so popular but when the delight of the new taste suddenly gave way to the sensation of something I could not describe but was definately not pleasant I guess everyone thought I hated it at first. That would have been simple.
“Is the cake not to your liking Miss Gabriel?” Thrawn asked sounding a little displeased.
I wanted to answer him, but now I had broken out into a clammy cold sweat and I was having trouble focusing on his face. Breathing was becoming difficult. He was speaking to me but I could not seem to understand him clearly and I could not speak to tell him something wasn’t right. I guess it didn’t take him long to figure out something serious was going on.
“Miss Gabriel, are you alright?” he had gotten up from his chair and was at my side. “Jenson, get the Doctor now.” He said with remarkable calm.
I felt as though my heart were about to burst it’s way through my chest. Anxiety and fear flooded through me and I felt as though I were being strangled from the inside. I was struggling gainst the fight and flight sensation that rushed through me while desperately trying to get air into my lungs. It was as if I were suddenly drowning. I stood up too quickly, knocking the chair backwards, dizzy and unsteady on my feet. I could not breathe and I was panicking. I felt the room spin and felt the brush of Thrawn's hand as he tried to grab for me but I collapsed on the floor before he could catch a hold of me, there was a terrible sensation of nausea and then mercifully everything went black.