The next thing I knew was Thrawn’s hand on my shoulder and his voice in my ear telling me we were about to come out of hyperspace. I got up slowly, because every part of my body ached. I changed into clothes that hid all the bandaged wounds, cleaned my teeth and brushed my hair, putting it up with the Zenji sticks. By the time I was fully awake we had come out of hyperspace and were in orbit above Tatooine. I sat down in the pilot’s chair and punched in the right co-ordinates. Put the headset on and opened up the direct channel for my father’s docking bay.
“Docking Bay 49, docking Bay 49 this is the starship Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma requesting a Kiss and Cry.” I grinned as I said the words. Thrawn gave me a look. I just smiled sweetly at him. That was a family code and it meant clear the dock, I am coming home.
“Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma this is docking Bay 49, we are clearing space for you now. You have landing slot two. Merlyn, is that you?”
I laughed. “Hi Belkin.”
Thrawn quickly made a cut the comm motion.
“Bel, stand by a moment.” I said and I cut the comm. “What is it?”
“Your family's docking bay would not happen to have a very good ship scanner would it?” he asked. I knew what exactly what he meant but not why he was asking.
I gave him a look. “Everyone knows those kinds of scanners are illegal.”
“Yes or no?” he pressed.
“Use it” he told me.
I opened the comm again wondering just what that was all about. “Bel, is papa around?”
“He’s out on the bay at the moment you want I should get him?”
I shook my head even though Bel could not see me. “No, can you have him ready the scanner for me?”
“You pick up something?”
“Maybe.” I said glancing at Thrawn who nodded. “I’ll also need a tool kit ready, we took some damage to our starboard shield generator and thruster so I am coming in on manual.”
Bel laughed into the comm. “This I gotta watch, have not see you do a hot landing in a long time, girl.”
“Better get out there fast then because I am starting to style now. Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma out.” And I shut off the comm System while I concentrated on the landing. It had been a long time since I had done a manual landing with a faulty thruster. It was kind of fun, actually. Thrawn said nothing as he sat and watched calmly. I wondered if anything ever unsettled him, if he ever lost his temper or freaked out. The ship came down with a gentle bump and I was grateful to be on land again. I looked over at Thrawn who unbuckled himself.
“Do what you need to do, Miss Gabriel.” He said as he left the cockpit area. “Please bear in mind we do have a rendezvous to make.”
“Aye aye, captain.”
I shut all the systems down and then opened the ship. It was late afternoon and the first thing that hit me as I stepped out of the ship was the heat. I had forgotten how hot Tatooine really was. The second thing that hit me was the scent of the air. I breathed it in deeply, home, it whispered to me and I could tell the day had been still, holding its heat close to its skin. I stood at the foot of the landing ramp and looked around me, it seemed as though nothing had changed. The usual chaos lay everywhere and then I saw my father and behind him came Bel. I flew at him and wrapped my arms around him. I tried not to wince as he squeezed me tightly. I was determined that none of my family and friends should notice that anything bad had happened. No matter how much I hurt.
“Merly,” my father sighed. “You are so pale and you are too thin, child. Does the Empire not feed you?” he asked letting go of me and looking me up and down.
“Papa, don’t fuss.” I said. “I’m fine. It’s the ship that isn’t. Can you scan her first?” He nodded and pulled out the very illegal little toy he had acquired shortly before I had left to work for the Empire. I watched him for a moment then turned to Bel and gave her big hug as well. She had been working for my father for as long as I could remember and was more like a sister of sorts to me than one of his employees. She was a crazy Rodian with a big heart and an even bigger sense of humour. She manned the comm and coordinated all the landings, among other things.
My father walked around the Ahnkeli ’Su’udelma. He whistled softly. “This is some little ship, Merly.” He said. “must have taken some fire power to knock that thruster out of alignment.”
“We ran into Raz Drillon and the Doxy Jane.” I said casually. “He’s playing pirate out near Mimban now.”
“That’s a name I have not heard in a while.” Said my father with a quiet anger. It was then that I understood he had known all along what had happened to me.
“Well, he’s probably having an interesting time of it explaining to the Imperials what he was doing there. I pulled a slice on him he won’t forget.” I said. “Jyrki would have been proud.”
My father stopped for a moment and looked at me. “A good lad that. We miss him around here. I told you he came by a while ago?” he asked as he resumed his scan.
I nodded. “Yes, papa you did.” I said then added because I needed to confirm it. “He told you about what happened with Raz, didn't he?”
“Yes, but only because I threatened to fire him if he didn’t tell me what was going on. You, all white like a ghost wearing Jyrki’s clothes and he looked like he had swallowed a nest of bees. What was I supposed to think?”
I shook my head. “He saved my life that night and what he taught me has saved it a dozen times since then.” I told my father. “I didn’t want you to know, I was ashamed.”
“I know, pet, but you had nothing to feel shame for. That man was a rat bastard and he got what he deserved. I doubt there are many docks or people who would have him after Jyrki and I were through with him. ” He said and he stopped when the scanner peeped loudly. “Ah, here it is. Nasty piece of hiding that, someone knew what they were about, let me tell you.” I watched as he dug something out of the hiding place and brought it to me.
“What in the name of Sarlacc is that?” I asked.
He held the tiny disk between his forefinger and thumb. “Not sure. Some sort of tracking device would be my guess but unlike anything I have seen so far.”
“May I?” asked a voice from the ramp. I looked up at Thrawn. He was dressed in his uniform. He came down to where we stood and held out his hand, palm side up. My father was momentarily surprised but then dropped the tiny disc into Thrawn’s waiting hand. The captain studied it carefully. I saw that jaw clench and knew he recognized what ever it was that had been stuck to the ship.
“Captain Thrawn, may I introduce my father, Captain Kitga’ar Gabriel, owner of this docking bay.” Thrawn looked at me then at my father and smiled. “Papa this is my …uhm…passenger, Captain Thrawn of the Imperial Navy.” I watched as the two men, sized each other up, shook hands and then went back to looking at the tiny disk.
“Captain, you know what that is?” I asked.
He nodded slowly. “I have a good idea, Miss Gabriel, but further tests back on board Vengeance will confirm my suspicions. Shall we see about getting the damage to this ship repaired?”
I nodded. “Yes, Captain.” Repairing ships was something I could do. Solving mysteries about strange tracking devices I would leave up to Thrawn.
I had a look at where the Doxy Jane had hit us and sighed. It wasn’t that bad but it was fiddly to fix. I hauled the toolkit over and began to get to work. Thrawn and my father walked around the ship and surveyed the damage.
“Take a while to fix, few hours maybe.” I said. I pointed out the problems.
My father smiled. “Guess that means you’ll be staying for supper then.”
I looked at Thrawn. “Captain?”
“The offer is Kind, Captain Gabriel. It will be a welcome change from the fare we have had lately.” He said.
My father nodded. “Ah yes, our Merly can fix ships but she's not much of a cook.” He grinned. “Please, call me Kit, no one is that formal around here.”
“Papa!” I said, but it was true. I hated to cook and I was not all that good at it.
Thrawn just smiled. “There wasn’t much time for gourmet meal making, I am afraid.”
My father turned to me and asked. “Merly, did you get my last letter?”
“When did you send it? I have been out of contact for a while.” I pulled off the housing for the shield generator and began to sort out the mess.
“About three weeks ago.”
“No, I guess it will be waiting for me when I get back. I have been traveling around a lot so maybe it just is still trying to catch up with me.”
My father shuffled his feet and played with his beard. Thrawn watched us both as though he were watching a sport’s event.
“What’s up papa?” I asked and then looked at Thrawn. “Captain, hand me that h-spanner, please?”
“You remember Bedi Nuale?” my father asked.
I nodded. “Yep,” I said and then told Thrawn. “Bedi is the one who taught me how to put my hair up with the Zenji Sticks.” Thrawn merely nodded.
My father looked at the Captain and then back at me, I knew he was wondering what that had been about and would probably ask later but for now he continued. “Well, she came back a month after you left.”
There was something in my father’s voice that made me stop what I was doing and look at him. Bel had joined us and was grinning from ear to ear, which for a Rodian was quite something.
“What is it papa?” I asked. I had never seen my father look so sheepish before.
Bel laughed. “He and Bedi got married last week.”
“Bel!” my father hissed.
“What?” I asked in amazement.
Thrawn could not stop the smirk from touching his lips and I gave him a stare that said. ‘Not one word.’
“I wrote to tell you about it, honey. I was hoping you could come for the ceremony but when we didn’t hear from you…” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “It was just a small gathering, Bel, Tigann, Marsaille, as well as some of the other pilots. I…” he started.
I thrust the spanner I was holding in may hand at Thrawn and threw my arms around my father. “That’s wonderful, Papa!” I said and I meant it. He and Bedi had always gotten along really well and he had been sad when she had left. He had hidden it well but I had known.
“I am so glad you think so.” My father said, relieved and a little sheepish. “I will just go and let her know we have two extra for supper. She will be thrilled to see you again.” He said. “Bel,” he scowled at the Rodian, “don’t you have work to do?” he asked as he turned to leave.
The Rodian grinned and squeezed my arm with her hand. “Merly, it is so good to see you again. He's missed you terribly.” She looked over to where my father had vanished. “It hasn’t been the same since you left, you know.”
I sighed. “Oh Bel, I miss you all too.”
She nodded. “Ya, we know that but you could write more than you do, you know. I mean come on Tatooine is NOT exactly the capitol of the galaxy, news once in a while would be good! Your dad worries sick about you and you never write! You can’t be that busy are you?” she told me off.
I glanced at Thrawn, who made a point of studying the damage on the side of the ship. Bel caught that look and poked the captain on the arm.
“You keep her too busy? If this is your fault then you should be ashamed, she has a family who would like to hear from her!” Bel, with her hands on her hips, half the size of the man she was barking at, was as fierce as any Dantassi Bone Trader.
Thrawn gave Bel a steady look. “Shall I order Miss Gabriel to write weekly reports to her family then?” he asked in his cool, cultured tone.
Bel looked at him for a second deciding if he was playing her for a fool or being serious. “You should do that.” She nodded deciding that he was not making fun of her.
Thrawn gave Bel a look that said ‘you and I know better.’ “Tell me Miss Belkin, do you think that Miss Gabriel would obey such an order?”
Bel opened her mouth then closed it again, then said. “You’re smarter than you look, for an Imperial.”
Then it was my turn to look away and bite the giggle back.
“Bel, Bel I promise I will write more.” I said. “Leave Captain Thrawn alone, he can’t order me around anyway, I am not Imperial navy.”
That got me a raised eyebrow from Thrawn and a hard stare from Bel. After a moment she relented and mumbled something about missing me too then headed back to the office.
Thrawn said nothing until we were quite alone but the twinkle in his eyes told me that this whole thing amused him greatly. He handed me the spanner and I went back to work.
“You have a good family.” He said after a moment.
“I know.” I said.
“Family is important, Merlyn, keep in touch with them.”
I looked at him for a second. “That an order?” I gave him back the spanner.
He shook his head. “Consider it a request, on behalf of your friend Bel. She pokes even harder than you do.”
I looked at him and smiled. “Who do you think I learned that from? Hand me that micro-welder will you.” He did and the glasses to go with it. I slipped them on and started the weld process. “What was that device my father found on the ship?”
He sighed. “Its design is Imperial.”
I stopped welding. “I figured that. What was it doing on the ship?”
He sighed. “Good question. I am still working out all the facts. Things are not adding up.”
“How did you know it was there?”
“Just a feeling.”
“Who put it there?” I asked. He was being evasive.
“Another good question.”
“Someone working for the Empire?” I pressed.
“That is a serious possibility. Possibly someone with inside help, someone who has access to things that most don’t. There are many within the Empire who would love nothing more than to see me fall from grace.” He shook his head. “You have no idea what truly goes on behind the scenes.”
“Why would someone want to go after you? I mean, aren’t you really good at what you do?” I asked.
“Yes, and there is your reason.”
I made a face. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Then something else occurred to me. “You think, perhaps, the whole thing with the cake is part of that?” I asked.
Thrawn regarded me thoughtfully for a moment. “The thought has crossed my mind. You have no enemies within the Imperial Court, yet and poisoning you serves no real purpose but using you to get to me is a possibility.” He said coldly. “A coward’s way of doing things and when I find who is responsible I will deal with them swiftly.”
I nodded and went back to what I was doing. “Remind me never to cross you or get on your bad side. You are as unforgiving as the desert and I am betting you never forget anything, ever.”
He laughed. “How was it you put it? We are evenly matched.”
I finished the weld I was working on, shut the torch off and lifted the goggles from my eyes to look at him. “Is that a good thing?” I asked.
He smiled, leaned towards me and whispered in my ear, “I hope so, Akiana’myshk’a, I hope so.” The warmth of his breath made me shiver despite the heat in the air.
“I can’t work when you do that.” I told him hiding my surprise and sudden case of nerves behind crossness.
He just smiled, looking a little like a jax that has just been offered its favourite meal. I handed him the micro welder and pointed to the little screwdriver set.
I rolled my eyes. “What about Raz, you think he just found us by accident?”
“You don’t?” he asked.
“I don’t know what to think any more and right now I am not thinking clearly at all.” I confessed. “I just find it hard to believe that it was a coincidence.”
Thrawn drew a deep breath. “I don’t think there is any connection between the tracking device and that pirate, if that is what you are asking. That it was sheer coincidence is also something I don’t believe in. There are no coincidences from my point of view. Everything has a meaning in it, no matter how small. We are just sometimes too close, or too far away to see, it that is all. I don’t think that your encounter with that pirate was coincidence, more like luck I would say, since you did have a score to settle with him. The Mimban lane sometimes suffers from these petty thieves. It is not unknown in that part of space. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, picked on the wrong ship. Not so improbable, really. He was sitting just off the beaten track for some days, waiting for some smuggler ship with less fire power than his to wander by and we fit the bill. It was his bad luck he picked on you.” He said. “That you don’t know what to think or feel right now is of no surprise. It isn’t as if you have had an easy few days.”
A retort about whose fault that was about to burst out of me but before I could say it out loud he placed a finger on my lips.
“Just fix the ship.” He said softly. “Stop worrying about the galaxy, that’s my job.”
I just gave him a look and probably would have found a suitable reply but Bel appeared and yelled that supper was ready.