Separated At Birth
Spoilers for (new) Doctor Who through Let's Kill Hitler, and The Silence In the Library/Forest of the Dead (consistent (I think) with The Wedding of River Song); spoilers through Star Wars Expanded Universe, Thrawn Trilogy, the Last Command and Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future.
An old friend from my Star Wars days had a Facebook entry asking if River Song and Mara Jade were pitted against one another, who would win? And I decided that the obvious answer was that they would win, everyone else would lose, and smart people would get out of their way.
For those of you (if there are any of you) who remember the Luke and Mara fics of the 1990s, you may very well recognize some "stuff" in here. If so, it is deliberate. I wrote that story a long time ago under another pseudo but I still can't imagine Mara any other way. If you want the link, PM me and I'll provide it. As for River Song, I don't fully comprehend her timeline. This fits with what we know and saw from Let's Kill Hitler and The Silence in the Library. It is not inconsistent with The Wedding of River Song (at least I think so after watching it). If this doesn't meld with her timeline, we'll just call it timey-whimey.
Thanks to jedishampoo for the beta!
With a sigh of disgust, Mara rubbed her eyes and forced her wandering attention back to the transactions scrolling by on her data pad. There was a thread there, some combination of credit transfers, intermediaries, dummy corporations, and hyperspace jumps to nowhere that led from a supposed blast armor factory to what looked suspiciously like an Imperial-sympathizing cell arming to make some trouble. On the admittedly sound theory that it took one to know one, New Republic Intelligence thought the Smugglers Alliance could piece together the links. Who would exterminate the womp-rat nest and clean out the ballast tanks once the gunrunners had been run down was something still to be decided.
Why again had she agreed to be the liaison between the NR and the SA when she really loathed politicians? Smugglers, at least, did not pretend to get along. Smugglers did not fake honesty. You always knew where you stood with a smuggler – quicksand – but at least it was reliably quicksand.
Unlike politicians. And the farm boy Jedi who flew with them. Never mind him at all. Fine, go wander off into the jungle to be at one with mold growing on walls and look for dregs to train. Fine, ignore the talented, partially trained Force-sensitive who was already right here.
Did Skywalker think he was really going to find Jedi at blob races?
Granted, Mara had only recently exorcised herself of the desire to kill Skywalker, so she understood that she was not a comfortable person for him to be around. And if her options were to either commune with fungus on Yavin IV or continue making her own way with the SA and Karrde's organization, the choice wasn't a hard one. Still, it would have been nice to have been asked. Or, maybe she'd read too much into it all. Maybe Jedi were always in the habit of doling out priceless family heirlooms to their would-be assassins and then not bothering to stick around to make sure they knew how to use them? Yeah, that was probably it.
Mara shifted in the hard chair of the terminal and the lightsaber clipped to her belt clunked, a welcome weight she was still becoming accustomed to. I have Darth Vader's lightsaber. It was too big for her grip, and heavy, but Mara would give her arm – she stifled the malicious glee – before ever giving up what the Dark Lord of the Sith had not been worthy of.
Irony. It was very sweet.
A green light on her console started flashing. Mara studied the sequence and punched in a response.
The door pinged a few moments later – just long enough for Talon Karrde to have walked from his office to hers at a much faster than leisurely pace.
"Come on in!" Mara called.
Karrde immediately had her full attention as he came in holding a data reader. She followed his cue and waited until the door was securely shut behind him.
"Who's making you nervous, Karrde?"
He would not ask anymore how she knew. Even without the rapid pace and the code he had used to signal her, Karrde was projecting a real, well, not tension, exactly. But, under that seeming calm, Mara could sense he was concerned and preoccupied.
"There is someone in my office. She wants to retain us to help her locate the odd piece of tech."
"And?" Mara asked, swiveling in her seat. "Something not look right?"
"On the contrary, that is precisely what concerns me."
He looked down at the data pad in his hand. "Her credentials are impeccable."
"Oh? Too perfect, then?" That could happen. A good cover needed a life behind it, a legend. You could create one, but there was often a sense that it was just too new and not deep enough. There was a real art to it and Karrde was a master of it, except for his habit of creating too-cute cover names. "You think she's a fraud?"
Karrde shook his head, and now seemed frustrated. "Not precisely. I mean that if I were to create credentials for an operative, they would look just like this. It's as if I'd made them. They are exactly what I want to see in someone I would trust."
Mara held out her hand and took the reader. The screen shimmered and tensed and Mara sensed a peculiar surge of energy. She squinted, focused harder and felt something … else. She blinked, slammed down a mental barrier, and dropped the pad on to her console.
Whatever had been on the data screen blanked and dissolved into waving and fractured lines.
"Mara?" Karrde asked, staring at the pad. "What is it?"
"That's pretty remarkable," she replied. "Tell me, what do you see?"
"What was there before," Karrde replied. "A special permit issued by the New Republic Institute of Antiquities to one Doctor River Song of the University of Byblos authorizing her to conduct survey and archaeological work and to collect artifacts for documentation and preservation." Karrde looked down again at the data pad. "What do you see?"
"A blank screen with fractal lines," Mara said.
Karrde started. He wasn't someone to be surprised very often. With a squint of mental effort, she was able to lock her mental shield in place. She felt whatever was in the data reader push at her – it wasn't pushing so hard as to be a threat, but the damned thing was persistent.
"The device is showing what I most trust?" he asked. "Is she doing this? All the way from my office? Because if she is …" Karrde let the threat dangle dangerously.
"No, that's what's so strange about it," Mara said. "It's coming from the pad itself, not a person."
"I've never heard of psychic manipulation through a device like that. Have you?" This was Karrde's quiet exploitation, both of her Jedi abilities and her Imperial history.
Mara stood. "Nothing like this." That was true enough. "We shouldn't leave her alone. If she's carrying around something like this, who knows what else there is."
"I didn't leave her unguarded,"' Karrde said mildly. They hurried together back in the direction of his office.
The meeting started off badly. The moment Karrde's office door slid open, Mara was assailed by a profound sense of wrongness. The woman who claimed to be River Song was as wrong as Joruus C'Boath had been, as wrong as the Clones had been. The woman's whole being was out of focus with the rest of everything around her.
Karrde had also had the brilliant idea of having one of his strong, very, very loyal techs guard Dr. Song with a blaster in one hand and Drang's leash in the other. The moment the vornskr perceived Mara and her Force sense, Drang's growling preoccupation with River Song became a snarling hunger for Mara.
Karrde hauled the biting, snapping vornskr menace into a corner by the collar and ordered the tech out.
River Song rose from her seat and Mara had to push back the unsettled, vaguely nauseated feeling. Doctor Song offered her hand.
"You must be Mara Jade. I'm …"
"Lucky I didn't vape you the moment I saw you," Mara said, offering her blaster instead. She pointed to the seat with her blaster. "Sit. Keep your hands where I can see them and explain this."
Mara tossed the data pad on to Karrde's desk and River sat back down with a glance at the snarling Drang.
"My data pad?" River asked. "Is there something wrong with my credentials?"
She was good, Mara had to admit. She was a very, very good liar.
"I don't see any credentials," Mara said, still keeping the blaster focused on the woman.
"You don't?" River asked, sounding arch and surprised. "That's very interesting." Her gaze went down to the lightsaber on Mara's belt. "That's also fascinating. Either that's the largest tube of lipstick I've ever seen, or you're a Jedi?"
"Why are you here, Doctor Song?" Karrde asked. He could not be quite his normal, composed self as he was holding firmly to the lead of a spitting, angry, hungry vornskr. "Assuming that is your name?"
"It is the one I am most of fond of and I am growing into it," River said. "My identity and the names that go with it are very much a work in progress."
As ambiguous, but truthful, answers went, that was a good one.
"As to why I am here, I can show you if you would allow me to push up the sleeve on my left arm?"
"Go ahead," Mara said. She could tell there was something on the woman's wrist. Her Force sense was telling her River Song was strange, not completely human, and not safe. She was not, however, a personal threat at the moment. These were subtle distinctions but useful for purposes of assuring longevity.
River pushed back her black sleeve, then unstrapped a wrist comm from her arm and set it on the desk next to the data pad. Mara stared at it, frowning. It had been a long time since she'd seen such a thing.
"You recognize it?" River asked her.
"It looks like a vortex manipulator," Mara replied.
"Impressive," River replied. "You are the first person I have met here who knows what it is."
Mara had only seen one once and would have never believed it was anything but a fraud until now. The possibility of a working vortex manipulator, however, would explain what the Force was telling her. River Song was wrong because she wasn't from here. She was like a nightmare alive in the waking world. She shouldn't be real, she shouldn't exist, except that she plainly did.
For Karrde's benefit, because he would not want to ask and show his ignorance of something that was as impossible as River Song's very existence, Mara said, "A vortex manipulator is supposed to make instantaneous movement across time and space possible."
"Time travel?" Karrde scoffed.
"And teleportation," Mara confirmed. "All in one technologically impossible package."
"It's my newest toy – so bright and shiny – and I obtained it from a very reputable source who no longer needed it."
Mara knew what that meant, too. The tone was as bright and shiny as her toy, but the hard glint was there, too. River would kill to get what she wanted.
Karrde glanced at her, frowning. Is she serious? Mara nodded.
"Just how far have you traveled, Doctor Song?" Karrde asked.
Karrde looked at her and again Mara nodded.
"I wanted to test how far I could travel with it." River sighed dramatically. "I overshot by hundreds of thousands of light years and I have no idea what timeline I'm on. I ended up here."
Mara's opinion of River dropped a notch or ten. Risks like that were stupid, especially if, as she said, this was a new tech for her. "You are lucky you weren't splattered over every system between here and the Outer Rim." Or blown to molecule-sized bits in whatever galaxy she was from.
River shrugged, unconcerned. "Where is the fun in playing it safe?" She ran a finger over the device "The time field damper blew when I passed through the vortex," River said, pushing a button that probably should do something but just sat there, gray and cold. "I need to find one and replace it, or I am stuck here. Which might not be such a bad thing."
She smiled winningly at Karrde. Drang growled. Karrde arched an eyebrow. "Please cease with the games, Doctor Song. It does not serve your cause."
"I am not your type, Talon?"
"My type is anyone who does not irritate me or my people, who pays what is owed, and who keeps her mouth closed," Karrde said blandly. "If you persist, you will have to pay more for our services. Or I will just hand you over to the New Republic as one less problem for me to deal with and collect the reward for whatever of their laws you have already broken."
"As vortex manipulators are not exactly standard issue here, I'm sure NRI would be very interested in even a non-functional one and they won't let you keep it," Mara added. "You and it would be the NRI's permanent guest."
"Well, I don't want that." River dropped her flirtatious act for a practical competence that was more reassuring and much less grating. "I've been scrounging the markets for days and, Mara, you are the first to even know what I'm talking about. Do you think we can find another damper, because without a working one, it might be a long time before someone comes looking for me."
"And someone might come looking?" Karrde asked. "Could come looking?"
To her surprise, River answered, and honestly, as far as Mara could tell. "If you are asking, would someone skilled enough to find me so very, very far from home also be irritated if you killed me, I will have to say the answer is definitely yes. And he isn't someone you want as an enemy."
It was a threat, but an honest one. Mara would have said the same thing of Karrde in a similar situation – breaking someone out of a Star Destroyer tended to induce reciprocal loyalty.
"Mara?" Karrde asked. "Is any of this remotely possible, or do you just want to escort Dr. Song to the nearest airlock?"
"She's telling the truth," Mara replied, holstering her blaster. She nodded at the wrist comm. "I don't understand the tech of a vortex manipulator, and I don't think anyone we know of would. The good news is that I have seen a non-functional prototype before."
"Where?" River asked in the same eager moment Karrde said, "And the bad news?"
"The bad news is that last year we blew up the site that last had the prototype."
"Ahh," Karrde said, understanding that she was speaking of the Emperor's storehouse on Wayland. "Yes, I see that."
"Oh," said River, sounding genuinely distressed. "Did anything survive? Is there any salvage being done? Is there an inventory we can review?"
They were good questions.
"Yes, yes, and yes," Mara said. In fact, the NRI had been combing through the site for months. Their slicer, Ghent, had hacked into the inventory NRI had been compiling so she'd been able to keep an eye on what they were unearthing from the Wayland storehouse wreckage beside clone bits.
"So what do you recommend?" River asked.
"Either we find it already identified in inventory, so we know what we are looking for and where it is when we break in to steal it, or we blunder around in the ruin of a warehouse buried in a mountainside dodging NRI security until we find it, get caught, or give up the search." Mara looked over at Karrde. "I think that sums up the job?"
"Nicely," Karrde said. "Now, how are you going to pay us, Doctor Song, as I don't imagine your credit account transferred here when you did?"
"I have opened a new one!" River replied airily.
"For your sake, Doctor Song, I hope your finances are more real than your credentials."
It took Ghent a full day to unravel the string of transactions that led to River's fake accounts. Fortunately, the credits in them were real, however they had gotten there. They were also considerable. She and Karrde knew better than to ask how River had acquired the funds. They promptly took a huge transfer and Karrde got to work breaking the sum up, spreading it thinly across their network and pushing it into their legitimate businesses.
Mara decided to keep Ghent well away from Doctor River Song. The slicer was far too admiring of the person who'd set up the complex web that was keeping River swimming in a deep credit stream.
Mara kept River on a leash shorter than the one that tethered the vornskrs. She followed River everywhere and kept her under a guard at night, though she suspected River could have thwarted any of it if she'd wanted to, just as Mara could have done so. She found she was awarding River the same respect that she would have wanted someone to award her; Mara imputed to River how she herself would act in similar circumstances.
River surprised her, though. Stronger than her desire to cause trouble – and Mara could feel that – was River's desperation to go home. As long as the inventory and the possibility of finding the damper remained, River was focused on the task at hand and the tedious data read outs.
They'd moved River into a spare office. Outside the office, there was a lock on the door and a guard. Inside the office there was a sleeping cot, a table, two chairs, a data reader disconnected from everything else, and the Wayland inventory file. River had traveled light for her journey across time and space. She'd had one bag with three guns. The two blasters River brought were so appealing, Mara promptly sent them off to R&D to copy, as best they could. The third gun was something very odd Mara had never seen before and which River said wasn't "loaded." There was no power pack – Mara thought it was an antique and mechanical.
Together they searched the inventory and reviewed thousands of charred and unrecognizable objects, all scanned and documented.
"Did you ever move beyond a prototype?" River asked on their third tedious day into the search.
"No. I don't think the techs even understood the theory well enough. But the look of it was very similar to yours. I wonder now if maybe someone used it to come here from the same place you did and never left."
"They are standard issue for the Time Agency," River said, running her finger along the scrolling screen. She paused the screen and took a sip of tea with a grimace. "First thing I do when I get back is have a proper afternoon tea in a proper English shop. I shall wear a hat just for the occasion. What passes for tea here is bloody awful."
"Time Agency?" Mara prompted, working through her half of the inventory, and knowing she wasn't quite as fast as River about it.
"The men are very attractive," River said. "Pity most of them bat for the other side, though they can pinch hit."
This happened frequently – Mara could infer what River meant, even if she had no understanding of the actual words she used.
Before Mara could press again, and River by this time knew she would, River added, "As for the Time Agency, I've not yet had the opportunity to get to the bottom of it. They send agents to investigate anomalous time events and clean up the messes. The agents are all equipped with vortex manipulators. That's how they travel."
Had a Time Agent come here? It was not out of the question. An agent might have blundered in by mistake, as River had. Or, perhaps the Emperor had been powerful enough in his control of the Force that this Time Agency had worried he would create some sort of time event, whatever that was. Someone wandering into the Imperial Palace not understanding what a Sith could do would not have lasted long.
"And wearing a hat in a proper English shop, that serves tea that is not bloody?" Mara asked.
"English refers to the culture of England, a country on a human-populated planet in the galaxy I'm from. England is known for gravity-defying hats, superior tea, bad dentistry, terrible cooking before the introduction of tikka masala, a terrific sense of humor, and a stiff upper lip."
"Bloody is metaphorical?" Mara asked. She slowed in her scrolling to concentrate harder. Something was nudging her Force sense.
"An adjectival form of 'blood' used as an attributive expletive."
"As in, bloody hell, I think I found it?" Mara said. She slid her data pad over to River.
"Bloody fantastic!" River exclaimed. "Yes! That's it!"
"So, Mara, I think it's time!" River had been buffing her nails, going through her data reader, and checking the standings in the Smugglers' Alliance smashball betting pool.
"I'm busy," Mara retorted shortly, engrossed in her own data reader. Since she'd been minding River, who hadn't done anything more extreme than clog a drain with her hair, Mara had missed a lot of the news.
She didn't want River's distractions while trying to catch up on the latest NR gossip. Given their penchant for screwing up, she always kept an eye on the Solos and Skywalker in case some crazy clone of a Jedi Master, Dark Side Emperor-wannabe, Grand Admiral bent on galactic domination, superweapon, or giant, orange Force-sucking blob suddenly materialized. She didn't trust them to avoid being eaten or kidnapped unless she was there to get them out of the jam. Besides, if anyone was going to kill Skywalker, she wanted to know about it and reevaluate her priorities.
"And why are you suddenly so impatient anyway?" Mara asked. "You know we can't leave yet. Our slicer has to rig the transponder on the shuttle we'll be using so we don't bring NRI down on us before we even land." They also didn't want anyone tracing the shuttle carrying thieves back to Karrde's organization. "And you may have a psychic data pad, but I need an identity and Ghent needs a day or two to build one for me."
River used her file to move some numbers about on her data pad. "I'm putting a hundred down on that Chadra-Fan team to take the sixth match in the Corellian Sweepstakes."
It was embarrassing that River was doing almost as well as she was in the smashball standings. They were both doing better than Karrde, too.
"I'm not impatient – well, not exactly," River said, teasing her enormously curly hair with the nail file. "However, I have all these credits and if all goes well, I'm not going to need them here and I can't take them with me. And I'm in the mood for some retail therapy and drinking this galaxy's equivalent of sambuca before we set off."
It was that linguistic problem again. "Retail therapy?"
River leaned forward and grabbed Mara's sleeve. "Shopping! I want to get a pair of fabulous red shoes and a hat to wear to that London tea shop." River waved her nail file around. "I want you to take me to the store that custom designed the jump suit you are wearing, because it's smashing and I'm sick of wearing men's clothing that does not fit!"
They had not had a lot in their smugglers' stores for women and River's considerable "assets" did not fit in Mara's own …
"How did you know I have flight suits made for me?" she asked.
It was not something Mara discussed with anyone but, in fact, she did have a weakness for well made things, good designs, and fine craftsmanship – whether in a blaster, boots, or evening dress. It was one of those regrettable results of growing up in the Emperor's company. Mara had a taste for the best quality money could buy and did not have the money now to afford it.
"Of course I can tell, Mara. I love shopping, so let's go together and you can show me where you got it."
As for the sambuca, Mara could guess what that was and where it could be found. Shopping with River. Mara had never shopped with a woman before.
She thumbed her comm. "Karrde – you there?"
"Yes, Mara?" her boss asked. He always took her calls and was probably looking for the pool results, but with her plan for some "retail therapy," now was not a good time to tell Karrde that his smashball team had crashed and burned in the semi-final.
"River and I are going into the City to get some supplies for the job."
"Can't you get what you need out of our stores?"
"She's an archaeological consultant and I'm her research assistant and bag carrier, so no, we can't. What we need for our cover to work on Wayland with the NRI isn't going to be in our supply closet." She'd need to dye her hair, too, and she wasn't going to trust her hair to a bottle of propellant from the company store.
"Oh, Karrde," River put in. "Congratulations. You just pulled ahead in the smashball pool."
Mara kicked River.
He did! River mouthed.
And you cheated!
"That's fine, Mara," Karrde said. "Draw what you need from our account."
"We might stop and get something to eat afterwards, Karrde. Would you like to join us?" River asked.
Mara kicked River again.
"Thank you, but no," Karrde said and abruptly disconnected.
"Why did you …" Oh.
River nodded. "I thought of mentioning we were going to stop at a beauty shop first, but he'd never believe it and get suspicious."
The store did not have a name. The clothing within it did not carry prices. There were no displays. You went in, you discussed with the staff what you wanted, the staff told you what you needed, and they produced it. Then you emptied your account directly into the store's coffers.
Having taken up the first hour, now it was River's turn to pose and gush. Mara sat back in a very comfortable chair, enjoyed sipping the gold-hued wine, and wondered how she was going to hide her shopping spree from Karrde. The silver jumpsuit she could justify – she'd never seen a fabric like it. It appeared ridiculously shiny in full light, but the darker it got, the more the light the suit absorbed. In low light conditions you were almost invisible, and it dampened heat signature and was fireproof. It was the most comfortable thing she'd ever worn.
The Brovonri gown, matching strappy sandals, and clutch bag just large enough for a hold-out blaster weren't so easily explained. But there would be some event in the future that would require her to be undercover as a Countess. Surely. Eventually.
Maybe they could find something else in the Wayland storehouse, steal it, sell it, and replenish Karrde's account before the banking statement arrived.
The red, high-heeled shoes River was twirling around in were amazing. Mara wondered if they had a pair in silver or green. In silver, she could accessorize with the lightsaber. Really, why did Jedi have to wear robes and cover everything up? Not that she was a Jedi, of course.
"There's a nice drape in that skirt," Mara said of River's gown. "It would be fun for dancing."
"I like the cut in front," River said with satisfaction.
Cut was not the right word. Plunge was more apt.
"Mara, do you want to try it on?" River asked. "I love it, but it's not as if you and I will be attending the same events."
Mara shook her head. "It's perfect for you and I prefer Brovonri's simpler lines."
"Well, yes," River agreed, tugging the front so it fell even lower. "That minimalist style does work well for you. But where do you put your blaster? Or that big tube of lipstick?"
Mara was really looking forward to telling Skywalker that his father's – Darth Vader's – old lightsaber was really just a "big tube of lipstick." Assuming she ever saw the farm boy again.
"Carrying concealed is a problem with Brovonri," Mara admitted. Brovonri designs showed a lot more skin than they covered and had been a favorite since her years with the Emperor. "I usually use a thigh holster."
"We can modify side panels and leg slits to your specifications," the polite clerk murmured helpfully.
River shook the sleeve of her black gown and offered her arm to the hovering clerk. "Could we alter this to accommodate easy access to a wrist holster?"
"Of course, Doctor Song."
After experimentation, River decided that Gralish liquor was most like sambuca.
Mara stuck to alternating between brandy and ale, both Corellian. The bar was smoky and not too loud and there was a good band. The barkeep was attentive once they threw down some credits. A few patrons harassed them, at first. Mara threatened the first one, River injured the second one, and after that, everyone gave them a wide berth.
"So that hat," Mara began, again, as the bar management hustled away a pilot groaning from what was likely a broken hand that had gotten too close to River. "You are really going to wear it?" It was the oddest thing – tiny, shaped like a crustacean, with little jewels and net, and it perched on the side of the head like an insect.
"They are called fascinators, and I never thought to see one here. It's completely over the top for English tea, but I shall look fabulous when I return."
"English," Mara repeated. "Did you live there?"
She sensed River's discomfort spike and saw the tense grimace.
"Sorry," Mara muttered. "Never mind. Forget it. I didn't mean to get personal."
River tossed back her Gralish and set the glass down on the bar. The barkeep refilled it and she waited until he went back down the bar before speaking. "I don't mind you asking, Mara, but my personal history is very complicated."
River was so intensely serious. But complicated personal history? Sure, right. She couldn't help it. Mara choked back a guffaw.
River's look and sense turned dangerously sharp. "What's that for?"
"Just that my personal history isn't exactly a holovid of normal family life, either," Mara replied.
"Is that so?" River challenged.
"It sure is."
River turned on her stool, looking irritated and casting off belligerence like a pissed-off rancor. "I was taken from my parents as a baby and brought up by monstrous people who turned me into their delinquent assassin!"
Mara stared at River. Maybe it was the alcohol and really it wasn't funny at all. Except it was. Mara burst out laughing, nearly spitting her drink out all over the bar. River wasn't lying and it was hilarious.
"Why are my personal tragedies so amusing to you?" River's nasty little gun dropped into her hand. It was an antique, mechanical slug thrower. When they had gone to Karrde's practice range, Mara had found River's gun had a hard recoil and enough power to kill as effectively as her favorite hold-out blaster.
Mara had to wipe the tears from her eyes. "Put the gun away, River. I'm not laughing at you at all."
"You're doing a good imitation of it," River hissed.
She raised her glass but River was still glaring and didn't raise hers. "Believe me, really, I do understand."
"How could you possibly understand?" River asked, cool and angry.
"Because it's pretty funny that you and I were both raised from childhood by people bent on turning us into weapons in a private arsenal."
"Oh really?" River retorted sarcastically. She still hadn't holstered her gun. "And your tragic story is?"
"Same as yours, it sounds like. I don't remember my parents," Mara said with a shrug. She might feel more of a loss if she could remember it, but she couldn't. "Carried out my first assassination before age fourteen." She paused. "At least I assume it was fourteen since I don't have an actual birth record."
Now it was River's turn to stare in shock. "Truly? You were taken? Raised to be a killer?"
"Not just a killer, of course. I trained with guard units in weapons and hand-to-hand combat. I also learned tech, mechanics, piloting, infiltration, munitions and demolition, breaking, entering, and extraction. The usual for any highly effective commando, spy and assassin."
Mara felt River's anger give way to the same grim and ironic amusement she felt herself. She also put the gun away. "So, you were a secret weapon, too?"
"Yes," Mara said.
River finally raised her glass and they clinked in toast.
"To childhoods ruined by megalomaniacs," River said. "Did you have an evil overlord controller? Or were you managed by committee?"
"Evil overlord," Mara replied. "You?"
"Mine was a woman," River said, taking a deep, steadying swallow of her drink. "She had a metal eye patch, too much make-up, and a horrible fashion sense."
"Dark Lord of the Sith," Mara said. "Yellow eyes and long fingernails he never washed."
"My evil controller also had minions," River said, sounding mockingly superior. "There were skull like aliens who made you forget everything and could shoot blue lightning from their fingertips."
"Dark Lord of the Sith?" Mara repeated. "Lightsaber, robe with cowl, evil, cackling laugh, mind tricks with the Force, and could shoot blue lightning from his fingertips."
"My evil overlord also had monks with laser weapons."
"Clones in white blast armor," Mara countered, not to be outdone.
"My evil overlord's monk minions didn't have heads," River said smugly.
Mara waved a napkin. "You win!"
River swirled her blue drink, looking thoughtful. "I was supposed to kill a very great man," River spoke in a tone that was quiet but the emotion beneath it was anything but. "I almost succeeded."
As irony was on the evening's menu, Mara took a wild guess. "But you saved him, instead."
"Yes, of a sort. It's complicated." They both drank at the same time. At that terribly inappropriate moment, a man came bumbling up trying to introduce himself.
"Hello ladies! How about I get you both a drink and we go watch some star lines together?"
"Your turn," River said.
"Hello, you drunken pond spawn!" Mara said, sliding her hold-out blaster into her hand where it settled with comfortable familiarity. "I already have a date for this evening. Her name is Blas-Tech." She pushed the blaster toward the man's too-ample gut. "Would you like to get to know her better?"
The interloper, incoherent with terror, bumbled off.
"What about you?" River asked. "Were you a specialist in general evil-doing and mayhem, or were you made for a specific target?"
"At first, I was doing whatever needed to be done. At the end, I had a single objective."
You will kill Luke Skywalker.
Mara hesitated in the long pause that followed. River was waiting, curious to hear the reciprocal disclosure but was not going to press for it either.
"The last command I received from my Master before he died was to kill someone. I heard the order all the time and it nearly drove me mad. Besides that, as I saw it, the man I was commanded to kill was also responsible for the wreck of my life. I hated him."
"The opportunity came. Several times. And I didn't take them. Like you, I saved him, instead. Several times."
"Why didn't you kill him?" River asked.
That part was easy. Mara would always remember that freeing realization. "I wasn't going to be anyone's tool. I didn't like him, but if I was going to kill him, it had to be for my own reasons."
"And not the ones fed to you by a dead Dark Lord of the Sith."
"Or an evil overlord metal eye patch lady," Mara said. She raised her glass to River again. "So, how about we call it a draw on the complicated personal history?"
River laughed, downed her Gralish, and wiped her lips on the back of her hand. "Obviously the two of us were separated at birth. I'm your evil twin!"
"That explains where my breasts went!" Mara exclaimed, pounding on the bar. "My evil twin got them!"
"It's a cosmic allotment! I got the breasts, you got the legs, and we both got fantastic hair."
Mara would drink to that. She drained her brandy and was contemplating ordering them both another round when her wrist comm pinged. She set her glass down. "The ship's ready. Time to go."
River grinned and stood. "Let's go break some laws."
It was so strange coming back to Wayland. Mara had wondered if there would be residual Dark Side energy and bad memories but it was just like any other NR base established on some distant world. Ugly, pre-fabricated buildings hastily erected with poor heating and cooling systems, lots of droids, and a few staff who had been exiled for various misdemeanors and now had the ignoble duty of combing through wreckage. The NR staff, when sober, got to record what they found, upload the information, and wait for someone smarter than they were to tell them what to do with it.
In a huge improvement over her prior visit, the rigged shuttle got them choice landing privileges. River marched down the plank in her impossibly high heels and ridiculously cut suit.
"Come along Celina!" River barked. "Don't dawdle! Bring my bag!"
"Yes, Doctor Song," Mara replied dully. River was enjoying these undercover guises far too much. Mara hefted the bags and trudged after her.
They were escorted to the HQ, which was a slightly larger and slightly newer – but no less depressing – pre-fabricated building. It was furnished with what were surely items that would have been lovely before they had been blown up a year ago. The office also showed signs of having been very recently cleared – it smelled of ethanol, smoke, and food stuffs. An NRI contracted researcher and her assistant had not been expected.
Mara cast about in the Force and sensed lots of sloth, some sobriety, and as a consequence, significant anxiety. There was no recognition and the only hostility was from those who had been sleeping it off, now rudely awakened. She gave River their agreed-upon signal. No Force users. Which meant their credentials shouldn't be a problem. Theoretically. In all likelihood.
The Administrator was of the worse sort. When he rose from behind his work station, they saw he was male, pale, dumpy, squinty eyed, and very dim – the very image of narrow-minded bureaucrat. River did not take the offered seat; neither did Mara.
River rammed right through his stammered greeting. "In the time it took for us to be purposefully delayed by your staff in walking from my shuttle to your office, you have undoubtedly learned I am Doctor River Song of the University of Byblos Department of Antiquities." She smartly handed over the psychic data pad.
"The NRI has sent me to examine some very rare artifacts identified in your salvage from the Early Hyperspace Age period. We have reason to believe they are relics of the Unification Wars, possibly even the Ratakan Infinite Empire, and are of immense historical significance."
River wouldn't have known those things if she had tripped over them in her high-heeled shoes. Mara wouldn't have recognized them either, but they were both in good company as none of the dregs working in this operation could have gotten within a thousand years of the Unification Wars.
The Administrator hemmed and hawed and sweated and his fingers were twitching – probably for the liquor Mara thought he had poured out the window before they arrived.
"Of course, Doctor Song," he wheezed. "This is highly irregular, however. We've never had someone arrive before unannounced."
"I can see that," River replied blandly.
He ran his fingers through thin, greasy hair. "If you would allow me a few hours to confirm your request and speak to our NRI commander with oversight of this…"
"What time is it at NRI headquarters, Celina?" River tossed over her shoulder.
"The middle of the night," Mara replied, taking a wild guess. It wouldn't matter so long as she said it very confidently. "I'm sure someone will be up to take the holo for such an urgent matter and wake the Director, or take him away from whatever entertainment he is enjoying in the City."
"No! No!" the Director cried. He rubbed his eyebrows so vigorously it was no wonder he had none left. "That won't be necessary. But might you…"
"I assure you, Administrator, I do not want to be here any more than you want us here," River said, cutting off his tedious excuses. "I'd much rather be out in the field than sifting through this wreckage."
River turned toward the door. "Well, we shall just be going. Byblos is a long way and I shall be sending NRI my bill along with the report that regrettably we were denied access to the artifacts. Celina, do you have our expense report for the Administrator to sign?"
Mara held out the data pad with an outrageously inflated fuel charge.
There was more stammering and hemming but the Administrator finally assigned them a tech and slammed the office door behind them. Undoubtedly the first thing he would do would be to dive into the liquor cabinet hidden in his work station. Mara might have confiscated his stash but, from the smell, they had better spirits on the shuttle.
They followed the worried tech out of the HQ to an adjacent building. It was freighter-sized and decrepit, and surrounded by weeds and debris. Insects and lizards crawled all over the walls.
"We're still working on organizing it," the very nervous tech muttered. She keyed upon the door and a draft of stale air flowed out that set them both to coughing.
"Sorry, we don't have any temperature control in there. And, well …" She gestured about helplessly. "I guess you can see the problem."
"Oh Sith," River said as Mara added, "Bloody hell."
The lighting was bad and it was very warm and damp and stank of mold and burnt metal. What they could see was bad enough. The artifacts were supposed to be unearthed, recorded and inventoried, separated from the debris, and then carefully stored for further study, use, or destruction. Instead …
"It would have been better if they'd left it buried in the mountain," Mara muttered. What a mess.
"Is this what it looks like in here?" River asked.
"Well we can identify every piece!" the tech said with forced cheer. She picked up a random bit of junk from the top of burned out droid at the entrance. "I could scan this and …"
"Thank you, no," River injected abruptly. "What if we wished to locate an artifact already in the inventory that has been scanned, recorded and," she paused and her words were heavy with scorn, "carefully stored. Is there any way to accomplish that?"
"No, Doctor Song. We know it's all in here, but we can't tell you where it is."
The cavernous warehouse was enormous and filled with buckets, and bins and junk everywhere. Shelves and barrels and piles went back to the walls further than the eye could see. The NRI staff had a meticulous record of every piece they had ever identified. They had no record of where it was.
They sent the tech scurrying away and locked the door behind him.
River had pulled out some sort of a scanning device she had brought with her along with the blasters, slug-thrower and one change of clothes. "I'd have it scan for presence of alien technology." She smacked the side of the device with her hand. "But everything in here is registering as alien." She sagged against the dusty wall, deflated. "I can't do it. There's no way to find one vortex manipulator in all this mess."
Mara looked out through the low light and floating dust motes and the aisles and piles of detritus and droid pieces, wiring, tubing, and the odd bit that might be something if not charred beyond recognition.
"Would you let me hold it?" Mara asked.
River unstrapped the vortex manipulator from her wrist and Mara took it in her hand. Mara had been shielding the dissonance to avoid the constant, low grade buzzing pressure and the fundamental sense of alien-ness that emanated from River. Now, Mara opened herself to the strange sense of wrong. River and her vortex manipulator were more alien than the most exotic and unusual of non-human species Mara had ever met.
Mara closed her eyes and settled fully into the Force. The thing in her hand wasn't working but it wasn't dead, either. She focused upon it, registered it, let it fill her sense. Then she reached out into the warehouse with the Force, both as a guide and as a tool, searching for something like what was in her palm.
There. And there. And there.
"It's here," Mara said aloud. "And other things like it – maybe from the same place."
She began walking to the closest thing prompting her in the Force. It was under a blaster helmet, a few meters down a dark aisle. Mara lifted the helmet off the shelf. What was there wasn't a vortex manipulator, but it did exude the same feeling.
"Well look at that!" River exclaimed. "I wonder if it came with the Time Agent and if he or she stopped in early 21st century Earth?"
Mara would not have just put her hand out to touch an alien object, even if it didn't feel dangerous. River had no such compunction; she grabbed the thin, little black thing. "I wonder if it's charged!"
River pushed and turned a dial and pressed the screen of the device. "Dead, but that's to be expected and easily fixed. I wonder what's on the play list? Maybe some Lady Gaga or Coldplay."
She held it up. "Do you want it?"
"I have no idea what you are saying," Mara told her. It was gibberish.
"It's an iPod. It plays music." River rooted around on the filthy shelf. "And …" From a pile of data cards, she teased out a long, thin white cord. "Ear buds!"
"So you don't want it?" she asked again. The "iPod" was already on its way to her pocket.
"I don't think so, no," Mara replied, feeling impatient with her. There was something in here that wanted them to find it. She turned about. "It's this way."
Mara wove between the aisles and trash and followed the pulse to a crate. The closer she got, the more certain she was. It was as if the thing in her hand was pulling her to the thing in the crate.
"Can you feel it?" she asked River. Mara began pulling the garbage out of the crate and tossing it aside.
Mara reached in all the way, up to her elbows, and pulled out what looked like a simple wrist comm but what was really, if you knew what you were looking for, a vortex manipulator from another galaxy.
"That's it!" River cried. "You found it!"
As Solo would have said, they flew casual out of the Wayland airspace. Mara brought them out of hyperspace at a nice, safely dull spot in the middle of nowhere. It was a move that would have fooled any pursuit, had there been any.
She unstrapped from the pilot's chair. "Ready?"
River was staring at the view screen. "Even the stars are different. It's lovely. But it's not the same." She shrugged out of the restraints and jumped up. "It's time to go home. I'm already packed."
"Do you need to be planetside for this?" Mara asked, following her to the shuttle's small common area.
"No, it will be fine." River was studying her blinking vortex manipulator. "It's working." She looked up and smiled. "Thank you, Mara, for all your help. I've had a lovely time."
River stepped forward and gave her a strong, warm hug. Mara awkwardly returned it, wondering why it felt so strange and then realized it was because she was not sure if she had ever hugged a woman before.
"Before I go, do you want to join me for a spin about your galaxy?"
Mara pulled away, shocked. "What? You mean with you? Time travel?"
"We won't jump too far," River said, fluffing up her hair. "Ten years ahead? Thirty? You can see what it looks like here in another decade or four. We could go to a planet you've not been to before? Or, something in the past?"
River was serious and completely reckless and Mara was truly horrified.
"No!" Mara cried. It took a moment to master herself. "Sorry – no thank you, River. It's very generous, but …" She groped for the words, trying to sort through why the very idea of it appalled her and why she was so very glad River was taking this bit of technology far, far away. "The past is past. I've learned from it, but I was stuck in it for five years. I'm not going back."
"Forward then!" River said, holding out her hand. "Somewhere new!"
That was even worse and the full awfulness of time travel hit her in a breathless realization. The Jedi got this one right. "Thank you, but no," Mara replied firmly. "The future is always moving and seeing one version of it isn't something I need to do."
River smiled. She looked a little too smug. "So you don't believe in fate and destiny, Mara Jade?"
"I believe in making my own way, Doctor River Song."
"Fair enough, my less-evil twin," River said. "We were obviously separated at birth in a desperate act of galactic preservation. One universe isn't big enough for the two of us."
Mara laughed and impulsively, leaned forward and hugged River herself. "Other than you blowing to a million pieces here on my ship, is there any way I'll know if you made it?"
"I'll try to get something across your Holonet," River said. "I don't even know if it's possible. I'll consider it a long-term project."
One final hug and Mara took a healthy step back. The vortex manipulator began popping and humming as River entered a sequence. She took a firm grip on her shopping bag.
"Oh, and Mara – if if someone shows up here in a big blue box, tell him I'm looking for him, would you?"
"I will, River. Good bye."
"As they say in England, 'cheerio and ta-ta!'"
River pushed a button on her wrist, there was a shiver and a rippling sound, and then she was gone.
Mara tarried a little while in the middle of nowhere. The silver, high-heeled shoes she had so admired in the shop she found dangling from a lever in the cockpit. An entry on her data pad showed a huge credit transfer into her account.
She organized the ship, tried on the shoes (they fit perfectly), notified their SA comm center that the operation was a success and she'd be back soon, and moved the credits into various accounts, including a goodly amount back into the organization's expense account – Karrde would be pleased with that. She mused on what to do with the balance in her own accounts; the heap of junk she was drifting in provided the inspiration. It was time to start saving for her own ship and River had given her a good start.
She could not stand another moment with the dull brown hair so she went and rinsed out the dye.
Mara hoped River would send a message about the England tea and the hat.
Finally, there was nothing left to do. Mara entered the coordinates in the nav, squeezed the levers, and the starlines of hyperspace filled the screen.
It was time to go home.
The message had been sitting for a day or two but, as it wasn't a signature and account she recognized, Mara had ignored it at first, assuming it was a fraudulent offer for a vacation home, miracle cure, or weight loss that had slipped through their screening.
When Mara finally had a moment to turn the Starry Ice over to Faughn, she went to her cabin. She needed to think about what the Force had been trying to tell her in the form of a fierce headache the last two days. She saw, again, the message blinking.
The Force pushed her and so she keyed open the message. An image of River Song in a puffy, white enviro suit stared back at her. Mara rocked back in her chair, shocked. It had been almost ten years.
Hello, Mara. I hope this finds you well. It's River, in case you can't tell. I'm off on an archaeological expedition to a library, if you can believe it, and I've just figured out how to send this to you.
I did make it back, obviously, and I've had quite the set of adventures in the meantime. There has been this problem with serving a jail sentence, but I won't bore you with that. I have found the man with the blue box.
It's odd, Mara. I thought a lot about how you believe there is no fate and destiny and how much you hated the idea of knowing the future. I think you may have the right of it. I wish I didn't know what I do. Some things can change, but others are fixed points in time and space and we cannot change them.
Somehow, there is never enough time. I'm a time traveler. He's a time traveler and we never have enough time.
So, Mara, seize the moment. Don't wait. If you haven't killed that Jedi you were trying so hard to not think about, maybe you should be thinking about him more and telling him that you are. Or not. My point is, whatever you decide, move on it. Don't wait. There's never enough time.
And now my shuttle is here and I am off. I hope to see you again, Mara, but I doubt I will.
Mara stared a long time at the frozen image of River Song. There's never enough time. And the Force told her that a Jedi farm boy was running out of it.
She keyed open the comm to the bridge of the ship. "Faughn, put in a course to Kauron."
Skywalker was out there and needed rescuing, again.
It's strange to return to Mara Jade after all this time. When I last wrote her, my focus was her eventual hook up with Luke. Now, I wonder if Mara had any women friends and concluded that a year out of Wayland, she probably hadn't. River Song, to the extent I can understand her very convoluted timeline, here is within some time after Let's Kill Hitler and before The Silence in the Library. She and Mara have a lot in common, they've both undergone significantly cathartic experiences, have failed in their lifetime goal of killing a man (the man each will eventually marry), and the two of them obviously needed to hang out for a while.