DECEPTION: Part 1 of the SUBTERFUGE Trilogy

by Haru Windsong

DECEPTION

Part One

of

SUBTERFUGE

By Cary A. Conder
(c) November 1996
CHAPTER ONE

Despite Mandorel's mild equatorial climate and the pleasant surroundings, this was the last place the lurker wanted to be, perched thirty plus feet above the ground, motionless in dark in the crotch of a tree. All around spread its leafy canopy, concealing and cradling the spy. This, as always, begged the question; what was the allure that constantly drew the rare few to undertake such assignments? Old timers---those who had survived more than a year and a half---maintained it was the adrenaline rush.

'And that's the truth,' thought Flit.

An anticipatory shiver wriggled up his spine. Tapped by Crix Madine shortly after graduating from Basic Training following the retreat from Hoth, the young agent had proved most versatile. So much so that only Madine knew his agent's identity or had met his prize agent after Flit had concluded Covert Operations' deep cover training. Slender and compact, Flit could easily fit into places others found impossible to penetrate. And Flit possessed other specialised talents.

Above Flit branches rustled. "Hssst!"

That imperative hiss quieted the creature lurking above. Fearful someone below might have heard Flit listened intently. Outside the enclosure walls night's stillness was disturbed only by the hush of the occasional speeder passing along the thoroughfare between the spaceport and points east. Behind the estate trickled a stream. Across that lay the workers' compound, immediately adjacent to vast orchards and fields where the labourers spent their days tilling, planting, pruning, and harvesting. Trees encircled the grounds, further muffling the sounds of the outside world. Beautiful by day, imported extravagances of by-gone decadence, the arboreal screen lined the fence and spread out haphazardly across the grounds. This created additional problems for security.

For five hours now Flit had held this cramped position. Clothed in black, a tight hood encased his head leaving only camouflaged face free. Gloves of ultra-thin material covered his hands. All were vitally necessary to concealment given this world was an Imperial hotbed.

Electronic surveillance at this estate was always tight. Had to be since this was the home of Captain Horst Niant, Commanding Officer of the Imperial star destroyer SPITEFUL. Inevitably, upon his return last night, he had ordered an immediate sweep of house and grounds. Then doubled security by adding stormtroopers on twenty-four and seven patrol. Two of the luckless to draw sentry duty in those chill hours immediately before dawn drew together at the top end of their sweep. Their communication carried clearly up to Flit on the still night air.

"Anything?"

"No. You were expecting something?"

One trooper shrugged. Battle armour rattled. He jerked his blaster barrel in the direction of the house. "Know who he's got in there?"

"Nope. Don't know, and don't care."

"You would if you saw them arrive."

Before the other stormtrooper could respond there was a metallic click on his headset. "D7-635-92, this is Control. What is your present location?"

"Lady's breasts," muttered the first trooper. "Better get moving."

His companion nodded. Responded to the inquiry. "Ah, Control, this is D7-635-92. I'm at the top end of my sweep. Just starting back now."

"Right. Copy that."

'I'll just bet you did,' mused the trooper designated D7-635-92. Uncharacteristic rebelliousness emanated from the guard.

"Check out the cover along Sector K3. Sensors are having difficulties again with the Kashyyyk night vines."

"They would be," said D7-635-92.

"What was that, D7-635-92?"

"Nothing, Control. Confirm I'm on my way to that location. Please advise T1-337-33 that I will be late returning to this location."

"Copy that, D7-635-92. Message read and passed."

Careful to muffle the sigh of irritation, the stormtrooper headed back around his designated perimeter. Set back beneath the trees in Sector K3 was a particularly thick set of vines. Brought from the Wookiee home world's temperate-zone by the estate's previous owners, the vine had found Mandorel's warm climate to its liking. And had flourished. The only problem lay in its night blooming and pollinating aspects. For some reason the pollen fogged all sensors, playing havoc with readings. Frequently there were ghost images of non-existent intruders. More often than not the pollen simply blanked the sensors entirely.

Unknown to Flit, this stormtrooper was well versed in the plant's idiosyncrasies. The trooper kept clear of the vine, circumventing it at a wary distance. Once before he had been foolish enough to get too close. When first posted to Niant's ground force, the trooper had been suckered into searching the ground beneath the vine while on a night round. The resulting mist of spores had clogged helmet sensors, promptly removing him from patrol duty. Consequently he had wound up on report for the next two planet-falls. Which meant no leave and no ground time either.

Nor could he substantiate his claim that he had been ordered to carry out the inspection. All the logs had been conveniently doctored. Of course their section senior suspected what had transpired. But without justification, he could not place the rest of the night duty staff on report.

"Find anything?"

That was his nemesis; the person D7-635-92 suspected was his principal tormentor among his immediate seniors. Taking one more pass around three sides of the vine mass --- the fourth side pressed right up against the security fencing despite the electronic repellors---the trooper withdrew.

"Nothing here, Control."

"Very well, D7-635-92. Continue your sweep."

"Copy that, Control." Satisfied with his cursory inspection, the stormtrooper moved on.

High in one of the trees along the inside of the fence flanking the vines Flit carefully uncurled. Waiting only until the trooper was at the corner of the house, he wriggled further out along the branch. From a pocket in his tunic he removed a thin, telescoping blowpipe. Balanced precariously, only his thighs keeping him securely in place, the spy set a miniature device into the mouthpiece of the blowpipe. Flit took aim and puffed.

Few on any world could quite match him for accuracy over this distance. But Flit, the consummate agent, had perfected the technique simply because it was so archaic. In his line of business the antiquated sometimes proved superior to technology. It was this, among his other unexpected talents, which had caused Crix Madine of the Rebellion to enlist him.

A thin smile touched Flit's lips. Collapsing the weapon, he returned it to safekeeping. Then he took out a transmitter/receiver and inserted it into his ear.

'Right on target.' He congratulated himself. With the tip of one finger he tuned the device to transmit everything he was hearing to an outside location. Just in case. But a tiny, conceit-filled voice denied detection was a possibility. Still, it paid to be cautious. One never knew. Only the extremely foolish trusted entirely to fortune.

"---don't like chancing meeting at so obvious a location."

'Pherkail!' Flit's lips shaped the name but no sound emerged. Amplifying the natural concealment capabilities of the moon vine was simple. But there were other sensors that would pick up the slightest noise out of the ordinary.

"Well, you can meet with your peers where you choose. So long as I know where you plan to brief them should my superiors inquire."

"Hmmm." The botanist was not amused by Niant's order but capitulated. "Manalior Tir'Nngan has insisted we meet on Olgathir."

"Olgathir?" Niant was mildly surprised. "Did he say where?"

"Not yet. He's going to tight-beam me the necessary information when he has it. Until then, I'm to wait in one of the tourist spots up around Lake Erid."

"I'm sure Clyth will enjoy that." Clearly the Imperial officer was amused as was evident by the sour note in the scientist's voice. "Any idea what he's planning?"

For a moment silence encompassed the night. Flit envisioned the botanist shaking his head. Then, "I only know he's very excited by the project. Seems to think this is just what Admiral Thrawn's been looking for in your efforts to eradicate this so-called New Republic's high command. We---my compatriots and I---have had virtually nothing to do with his venture thus far. Except to advise him in certain capacities. Well. I shall keep you informed."

"That won't be necessary. The good doctor has assured me he will inform us the moment he's prepared to conduct a series of tests. At that time I shall visit wherever it is he has this secret installation of his to review the results. Should they prove satisfactory, I shall urge my superiors to pursue phase two."

Although Captain Niant appeared to overlook Pherkail's minor hesitation in his recitation, Flit was not so remiss. In the short silence following the officer's statement, he appended his transmission. By moving his jaw in slightly exaggerated movements, he silently shaped words onto the recorder.

'Pherkail appears to have deliberately left something out of his report at this point. Does he know more than he's letting on about Tir'Nngan's project?'

Next to him another shadow moved. Flit quickly gestured the little morra to be still. Conformation resembling a child's stuffed toy, the morra was a highly intelligent creature, for all it ranked below sentient level. It was also popular among the inhabitants of this world. Locals moving away were known to turn their pets loose rather than put up with the cost and time involved in quarantine. Morras were too common to be worth selling for profit. They also thrived on Mandorel.

This one suited Flit's purposes well. He had acquired it some years before, trained it to his needs. Now the knee-high hairy simian occasionally acted as additional hands and feet in areas where he could not otherwise go. Its prehensile tail was extremely useful. True to its training, the morra hunkered down just above him.

"By the way, what did you do with that last batch of refugees I sent your way?" Intrigued, Flit listened intently.

"I would like to know what that group of displaced Alderaani were doing on your estate in the first place?" Intent upon an answer, Horst's question brooked no evasion.

"Stumbled across them quite by accident in my travels," said Pherkail. Sounding lethargic, he was wholly unconcerned with the lives of others that did not fit into his plans.

"I do hope for your sake, Kail, that you didn't accept payment to conceal them from the Empire."

"Now would I do something so foolish? Besides," the botanist's total lack of concern left their eavesdropper cold, "I'm certain your people are seeing they are gainfully employed."

"That is none of your concern." Horst's retort allowed no further attack on that subject.

"As you wish." Pherkail shifted his weight. Walked across the room. The sound of his feet on uncarpeted floors pierced the transmission, staccato in Flit's ear.

"When do you leave?"

"The day after tomorrow. But I must return home first. There are some things I need before meeting with the others."

"All right. Advise me the moment you know what Tir's up to."

"Suppose he withholds that information until we get to his new laboratory?"

"Then we shall all have to await his decision to reveal his newest research break-through," said Horst.

There was a short pause. "Were you aware that he's invited Vogiess?"

"That genetic pervert?" Not only did Pherkail have Horst's undivided attention he left Flit nearly breathless with shock. There was no denying the contempt all three felt toward the geneticist.

"Tir insists Vogiess' pre-Imperium studies bear consideration in regards to solving our problems with the New Republic. It appears Vogiess has taken out a personal vendetta against this particular group of fanatics who have done so much to damage our advancing research."

"Yes, yes." Determined to halt Pherkail before he went off at a tangent, Horst broke across him, effectively silencing the botanist. "I believe dinner is ready, now. Can I interest you in something to tempt your palate?"

"Now what have you had your staff concocting, Horst? The last time you hosted a gathering you presented us with some particularly fascinating variations on Calamari dishes."

Humour high in his voice, the Commanding Officer of SPITEFUL refused to be drawn out. "Suffice to say I've made excellent use of the---how shall we say---free labor you were so good to deposit in my lap."

Above Flit the morra's attention span was beginning to suffer. Not only that but it, too, was hungry. They had already been here best part of the night. And now the New Republic's spy was out of treats with which to divert the morra. It was equally evident, however, that Horst and his guest were heading off to a very late dinner. Having just arrived planet-side, though, ship time might well put it late evening for them. Flit's own stomach gurgled irritably at the thought of food.

'Enough of this.'

Already having remained in one location far longer than his survival instincts deemed wise, Flit knew it was time to wrap up for the night. He signed to the morra. A soft chitter, carefully contained, fluttered the fur at its throat. Flit smiled. With a short wave of his hand, he sent it after the mechanism embedded in the wall of the building directly outside Horst's study.

True to form, the morra scurried along a limb stretching in that direction. From the wildly bouncing branch tip, the simian launched itself at the decorative balcony. Ornamental and not designed to hold a person's weight, the external embellishment safely supported the morra. For a moment it sat on the balustrade, studying the situation. Then it reached out. Pulling the listening device from the wall, the morra popped it in its cheek pouch.

Pure misfortune and bad timing brought the sentry back on his rounds just as Flit's pet leapt back across the open space. As luck would have it, the morra selected a neighbouring tree to the one in which Flit hid. But the trooper spotted the fleeing shape. A single, well-aimed blaster bolt brought down the morra. It fell, mortally wounded. All around them nature hushed at the violent noise. The little creature remained faithful to its master; it swallowed the transmitter even as it died.

Silently cursing, Flit hastily withdrew. There was no time to check whether or not the morra was dead, or if the stormtrooper would discover the transmitter. With all the grace of a well-seasoned snoop, the agent flowed over the wall. Dropped to the ground outside and hugged the wall until certain all was clear. Crix Madine might disapprove of any undercover agent being referred to by outsiders as snoops, but Flit seldom minced words.

Behind him the guard called in his discovery to Watch Control Centre. "Control, this D7-635-92. Just brought down a morra."

"Quit fooling around, D7-635-92. You know how the Captain feels about unnecessary blaster fire."

"It was snooping around the Captain's office window," replied the stormtrooper sharply.

"Right. Maybe it's a rebel spy in disguise." Muffled titters of amusement, barely audible, impinged on the transmission. The operator's voice sharpened, cutting off those chuckles. "Get rid of it before he finds out. How the hell am I supposed to explain to the Captain that you were shooting at intruding nocturnal game?"

"What should I do with it?"

"I don't know. Dump it in the disposal."

"Okay."

"And get back to your patrol! You're already five minutes behind schedule."

"Copy that, Control."

Tight-lipped with contained anger, the trooper used his rifle blaster to lift and bear the carcass of the morra to the nearest disposal chute. Dumping it inside, he turned and hurried back around the building unaware that behind him sensors in the disintegration chamber registered a foreign object within the carcass, too late to prevent its destruction. Since authorised personnel had sent the electronic device into the disposal unit, the computer recorded the anomaly but did not alert Control. Days passed before someone, screening the records prior to sending them on to Fleet Records, stumbled on the information. Due to the intervening time factor, the researcher hurriedly erased the anomaly from the tapes.

CHAPTER TWO

As senior officer, Wedge Antilles was last in off routine patrol. Rogue Squadron's Commander, and presently also temporary Officer Commanding Recruit Flight Training, killed his craft's forward momentum. In passing through the magnetic shield surrounding the cruiser bay mouth static electricity built up through flight in space arched across the shielding and dissipated. At his command the landing gear extended. The aging T-65 Incom X-Wing fighter entered the ship, pivoted, then settled into its allotted berth. Although his squadron and three others were based at Coruscant, their headquarters were on board two huge Calamari ships high in orbit. Presently both his squadrons, Rogue and Wraith, were elsewhere, out-system under the guidance of his Second-in-Command, Tycho Celchu.

One finger tripped a switch; Wedge killed power to all thrusters. While the engines whined down, he popped the canopy. The technician who had guided him into position now hurried forward with a crew ladder and fitted into place. Wedge took his time. He ran through his post-flight check, noting the grumble of the overhead cranes moving several ships into standby racks. Among the surviving old-timers there was the unvoiced opinion that techs were responsible for giving the ships a good going-over following every mission. But although the ship might not belong to him, Wedge felt it was his life that was on the line. Therefore a basic systems' check was his responsibility. Behind him his astro-mech droid, not his own Whistler who was in for general maintenance over-haul, emitted a series of burbles.

"Looks good, D3. I'm almost done here." What Wedge would not admit is that in undertaking this chore he also momentarily buried his curiosity over why the Deputy Chief of Security, General Jornik, had contacted him on the final leg of his patrol. Over a secure channel the General had requested a meeting with Wedge immediately upon his return to the Base ship.

Releasing a small sigh of irritation, Wedge concentrated on the job at hand. All systems proved nominal. 'But they should be,' he told himself. 'After a standard, uneventful patrol, only a thruster-jock would have come in with something out of whack.'

He frowned. Most of the New Republic's fighters were old, older than he was. A scary thought when one stopped to consider the enormity of that revelation. Only the B-wing was truly a new ship. Although the more reliable fighter all of the X-Wings would soon have to be replaced. Unfortunately, no one in the new government seemed particularly keen on worrying about craft they considered relics of a more violent era. A time they would all as soon forget now that the Empire was defeated.

"Damned blind-sided fools," muttered Wedge.

His eyes automatically traced the pitting on the fighter's nose. Someone among the airframe techs had made an effort to fill and conceal the worst damage following each mission. But every flight produced more. It was an unavoidable fact of space flight. The uninitiated might choose to believe space consisted of vast empty reaches between systems, but crews knew better. Dust particles and miniature meteorites were everywhere. Passing through clouds of them resulted in a peppered ship's skin, even more deadly to anyone with the misfortune to be performing minor maintenance en route. Something as tiny as a stylus tip could pierce an environmental suit. There were more deaths on record attributed to that type of unexpected encounter than he liked to consider.

Sialel Morinag, Wedge's assigned technician, scrambled up the crew ladder. Before disconnecting the astro-mech from its input-output relays, he glanced at the Flight Commander. Overhead, the cargo crane was moving into position preparatory to lifting the droid from the X-Wing's back. Tubing rattled and clanked. Compressed gasses hissed from nozzles.

Wedge chose to continue his instrument checks, oblivious to the familiar atmosphere civilians would find confusing. Seated behind the cockpit R2-D3 released a stream of burbles and whistles but Wedge ignored him. Although acquainted with this particular astro-mech, Wedge did lack the affinity he had formed to his own droid.

To any outsider's perspective, emotional attachment to a mechanical seemed unusual. Yet those crew whose lives relied upon such a relationship could not be faulted in this peculiarity.

'Still,' Wedge considered, 'Luke Skywalker is probably the only sentient to actually profess friendship with droids.' In fact, he had witness the young Jedi Master distraught when his astro-mech, Artoo-Detoo, was seriously damaged.

"And that," Wedge muttered aloud, "isn't natural."

"Pardon, sir?" In the process of guiding the suction clamp into place on Dee-Three's dome, Sialel paused to check if his commander was speaking to him.

"Nothing, Sial." Wedge flashed the tech a quick grin. "Just daydreaming."

"Long patrol?"

"The usual. Dull. Put a couple of the new kids through the grinder."

Comprehension dawning, Sialel grinned. With that, Wedge unclipped his restraint harness and life-support connections. After removing his flight gauntlets, he rotated his helmet forward and off. He took a couple of moments to slowly twist his head. Stiff neck muscles complained, crunching softly as he gave them a workout. After a final shoulder shrug, Wedge stood and set his helmet on the nose of the fighter. Had the Squadron been at combat readiness he would have taken it with him. As it was, the helmet could do with a good going over by the Safety Systems techs. By leaving it with the X-Wing, he was directing his tech to see the in-depth check-up was carried out.

"Would you see the Systems techs give my helmet a once over, Sial?"

"Sure, sir."

Sialel hurriedly shifted onto the STEP area of the starboard S-foil, vacating the ladder for his superior. Wedge nodded his thanks. As the vacu-hose hoisted Dee-Three from its housing, Wedge scrambled over the side of the cockpit. Boot toes hooked around the side rails, he expertly slid down to the hangar floor.

"One of these days you're going to lose your balance, Wedge."

That comment came from one of his peers. His fellow officer passed between Wedge's fighter and a neighbouring A-Wing, heading toward the duty shuttle headed down-world. In reply a grin caught at one side of Wedge's mouth, giving him a lop-sided, mischievous look. For a moment he looked young again.

"Maybe." He tossed back the remark, unconcerned, and continued on his way across the hangar bay without pausing to gossip.

Everywhere about the hangar floor was organised confusion. Techs rummaged around several fighters with a variety of tools. Three fighters over a welder worked on a fuselage damaged by some rookie. Then again, it might well be one of the last ships from the Bakura skirmish. Sparks showered the tech's protective poncho, reflected off the ship's dull finish like miniature stars. Nearby, a Systems tech tinkered with electronics. Closer inspection revealed the guts of a Y-Wing navigation computer dangling from the fuselage, some of its miniature components strewn around the tech's feet.

"'Scuse please. Coming through."

Instinctively Wedge leapt sideways, clearing the way just as another pair of techs passed him. Between them, they escorted a tool cart bound for yet another fighter, a battered A-Wing. Several more techs were similarly employed further across the hangar, heading toward vessels, or returning their tools to Tool Control. In so congested an atmosphere automated power carts were more hazard than help.

A messenger droid scurried through the chaos, somehow expertly avoiding being trampled or run-down. Two box-shaped mech droids waddled along, stoically heading to or from their duties. Several refuelling hoses coughed nearby, expelling small air pockets before their seals clamped shut. Nearby, drive whine built to take-off pitch. As Green Flight lifted from their berths, Wedge Antilles paused and turned. He pumped a fist over his head in the silent, universal gesture for 'good flight, successful mission'. The Flight Commander flashed Wedge a 'thumb's up' as his Wing swivelled and peeled off in regimental order, heading toward the hangar mouth. Then they were gone. In the wake of the ship's shield compensation releasing the A-Wings, Wedge's ears popped. He swallowed twice to alleviate the pressure. Behind him, Dee-Three whistled shrilly. Wedge turned.

"Got to report to General Jornik, Dee-Three." Wedge instructed the droid. "You better go ahead to de-brief. Then head back to the mech pool."

Without waiting for the droid's response, Wedge punched the appropriate release code on the keypad alongside a hatch. It hissed open. He stepped through, clearing the way quickly. Behind him, the hatch slid shut with a soft, echoing thud.

Two rings of corridors encircling the docking bay on three sides were given over to maintenance personnel. Here lay the electronics shops, main engine repair bays and Safety Systems. Everything was brightly lit by regularly spaced light bars inset into the ceiling. A fine metal mesh protected each against inadvertent damage and double pressure hatches cut them off from other areas of the vessel against accidental hull breach for whatever reason.

Wedge threaded his way through the steady stream of personnel moving to and from the various maintenance areas. Passing through another hatch, he entered the ship's secondary access ways. Here it was quieter. Fewer personnel impeded his progress as he moved purposefully inward. On either side now stretched temporary quarters for duty personnel whose permanent homes were planet-side, plus briefing rooms for crews and mechanics, and the mysterious, seldom visited domain of Intelligence.

'And there's a contradiction in terms, if ever anyone heard one.' His mouth twitched in a tiny grin at the age-old military wheeze.

But what humour that thought conjured died all too quickly. Why General Jornik wanted to see him personally, immediately, remained a mystery, despite his having wracked his brains since receiving the message. Nor was the order---phrased as a request---to be taken lightly. Alfiar Jornik had been around since pre-Empire days' service with both Bail Organa and, for a time, with Wedge's father before the treacherous attack by pirates that had wiped out his immediate family.

Wedge rapidly thrust aside those thoughts. Turning right, he halted outside a nondescript door which resembled all the other doors on either side of the passage. Only the hatch number betrayed it. Before he could touch the door chime, however, the hatch slid aside.

"Come in, Antilles. Have a seat."

Not good, that. The General was definitely all business if he was using Wedge's last name. Coupled with that was evidence that Jornik had been monitoring his progress through the ship, and Rogue Squadron's Commander entered, nerves on edge. Perched on the edge of the seat, he faced Jornik across a small metal desk. But the General did not speak at first. Rather, he flipped through a thin dossier spread out on the desktop. Just when Wedge thought he could stand the silent treatment no longer, the General glanced up.

"I've got a job for you, Commander."

"Sir?"

"Something which isn't in your usual job description but to which you're not a complete stranger."

That statement set Wedge back mentally. He hurriedly reorganised his thoughts and regrouped. "If you don't mind my asking, sir, what exactly do my Terms of Reference have to do with it?"

"Very little, actually. You'll be reporting directly back to me---"

"But the CO---"

"I've already briefed your Commanding Officer." Jornik's expression brooked no further interruptions. "As of now, and for the duration, you are attach-posted to my section."

Wedge chewed over the information. Digested it, for better or for worse. Taking a deep breath, he plunged. "For how long, sir?"

"Could be a month. Might be longer. Should be less than half a year."

That meant all the plans he was compiling concerning updates to rebuilding the much-depleted reserves and resources of his beloved Rogue Squadron were about to take a back seat. Several heartbeats passed during which Wedge hastily hid his irritation. He found he was unable to meet Jornik's eyes. Rather, he fixed his gaze on the General's head, tracing iron-grey hair edging a receding hairline atop a gently round face. Those features, combined with a short, broad nose, merry green-brown eyes and chunky build leant Jornik a cheerful aspect. His very appearance made most people underestimate his espionage and subterfuge capabilities, to the benefit of the old Rebel Alliance.

"Shall we get on with it?"

"Yes, sir."

Although Wedge Antilles sounded as though he was capitulating, Jornik was unconvinced. From years of experience watching this young Corellian grow from an energetic, over-eager youth into a dedicated officer, the General knew all too well the restrained impatience lying just below the surface. For several minutes the Chief of Security studied Wedge Antilles in silence, aware that Wedge studied him in turn.

In spite of dark brown hair sweat sticky and rumpled from hours confined beneath a flight helmet, no denied Rogue Squadron Commander's good looks. Hazel eyes lit up Wedge's face when he laughed, alleviating otherwise angular cheekbones and sharp chin.

In the years immediately following the death of his family by pirates, Wedge had lost some of his zest for life. Alderaan's destruction had further compounded that. Jornik's thoughts came up short. He considered certain information Madine had passed him that morning, finally released by Covert Operations for general security files. That would have to be passed to young Antilles very soon. When it was, Jornik hoped Wedge would not give in to those emotions so carefully held in check all these years.

Until shortly prior to the fiasco at Hoth, only Wedge's desire to exact vengeance against the unfeeling Empire had kept him going. But a close, if somewhat unlikely, friendship with the young Jedi Master had gradually drawn Wedge back from the fine edge leading to insanity into which he plunged following the Battle of Yavin Four. Now he was once more the lean, active pilot who had first joined the Rebellion. The only thing missing was the original idealism. He had steadied. Lost the need to throw himself, recklessly, into every project.

Nor was it entirely surprising that many females, inside the service and out, cast longing eyes in Wedge's direction at the various functions he attended. As yet, however, Wedge had not formed a firm attachment with anyone of the opposite sex.

Abruptly aware he was losing his audience, the General cleared his throat. "When you initially defected from the Academy you did some work for Covert Operations. And your performance since then, during the taking of Coruscant and shortly after, has been commendable."

Wary, Wedge nodded a silent appreciation for the kudos. That living on the edge back when they were based on Yavin Four had very nearly terminated his short stint as a rebel. All too obvious in a crowd, constantly afraid of being caught, it rapidly came to Madine's attention that the Rebellion was wasting material better utilised in other areas. He had removed Wedge from Covert Operations and sent him over to Flight Ops instead. Initially Jornik had been annoyed at Crix's intervention. That Wedge had thrived in that branch of the service only served to further annoy him, but only until after the destruction of the first DEATH STAR. Those experiences had stood him in good stead through the Bakura crisis and the taking of Coruscant and defeat of Ice Heart.

Jornik quickly keyed the console built into the desktop. A projector threw a schematic onto the wall to Wedge's left.

"Olgathir!"

It slipped out before Wedge could prevent it. Jornik simply nodded. "You recognise it. Good. Think you could find your way around, if you had to?"

"Yes, sir." Words tumbled from Wedge's mouth, now. "In---later years my parents had a vacation home there outside the secondary port, Manada. They bought it out of receivership along with my uncle, Theo. Without his backing we wouldn't have been able to afford it. We took turn-about time with Uncle Theo and his family."

"I remember."

Wedge studied the holo. "I doubt it's changed very much."

"That's something you'll have to discover for yourself, I'm afraid." Hurrying on with his briefing, Jornik allowed Wedge no time for open speculation. "As you know, Olgathir was once a primary trade partner with Alderaan. With the home world's destruction, shipping lanes have shifted to accommodate other systems. Olgathir now finds itself on a little-used route. Its economy is in a shambles. Even tourism is failing. Because of these factors, the system has begun a slow slide toward ruin. Certain unscrupulous parties are eyeing it with their own interests in mind. Something the New Republic plans upon persuading them are better pursued elsewhere."

Wedge nodded but remained silent, absorbing the information. A cold finger crept up his spine as he belatedly remembered Jornik's 'other hat' meant he worked hand-in-glove with General Crix Madine's Covert Operations department. Better known as Cov-Ops, to the rest of the military, it was a branch of the service most active members preferred not to talk about.

Then, on the heels of those thoughts another pushed forward as a tiny, distracted corner of his mind wondered whether or not his family's property remained. Had any of the servants stayed on, or had the place been confiscated by the Imperium? Then again, it might be abandoned and falling into decay. Too much time had passed. A large void yawned dangerous at the back of that thought. Wedge clamped down on it. Yanked his thoughts back to the present with difficulty.

Suddenly Wedge was conscious of the General's penetrating stare. Jornik asked, "Think anyone will recognise you after all these years, Antilles?"

"Doubtful, sir. My last trip back was when I was seventeen. Once I reached my senior school years there was no time for off-world vacations. I was pushing too hard to make the grade for Academy entrance exams. And we only had it for about three years."

Jornik nodded absently. "I followed your progress," he remarked with approval. "You graduated high in your class, if I remember correctly."

"Third out of forty-six, sir." Wedge was justifiably proud of his achievement. But memory brought back pain as well. "A term behind Biggs."

Again Jornik nodded. He had helped recruit both Wedge Antilles and Biggs Darklighter into the Rebellion. "Darklighter was a friend of Skywalker's, wasn't he?"

In spite of the rhetorical nature of that comment, Wedge responded. "Yes, sir. From Tatooine."

Even as he affirmed the General's information, Wedge frowned. What lay behind that question? But Jornik continued the briefing, effectively distracting Wedge. Nor did he bring up the subject again.

"We've received information from our contacts on Olgathir that certain agents of the old Empire are gathering in or near Manada. We suspect in the region of Lake Erid. Unfortunately, its likely most of our best people are known to them."

"You want a new face?"

"Just so. General Madine thinks we ought to add a few---casual operatives. People we usually employ at other tasks, but who have the necessary prior experience." Jornik shuffled the old pages of the old-fashioned dossier together and closed the cover. "I'm sending you into intensive training."

Wedge's thoughts automatically amended that statement to read, 'Crash course.' At that moment he realised his attach-posting was already in effect, otherwise the General would not be briefing him to this extent. "I'm afraid I'm pretty rusty, sir. It's been a while. Except for when we took Coruscant, I've been little more than an errand boy running messages, not serious subterfuge. Not alone."

'You're selling yourself short, Antilles.' Thought Jornik.

From Jornik's expression, Wedge determined his new superior was not altogether displeased with the manner in which Wedge downplayed his part over the past few months.

The General continued. "Don't worry. Everything's been laid on. You should be ready to leave within eight days." Before Wedge could object or comment on the short time frame, the General said, "It'll be tough, lad. I know you're up to it. It's like learning to fly. Once you know how, you never forget. And you're more seasoned now. Just don't do anything stupid. No taking unnecessary risks. What we need are numbers. Names, too. But only if you can get them without betraying yourself to the enemy. Got that?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good." Jornik rose to his feet and extended his right hand. "Report dirt-side immediately. You'll be met by one of our people. When they're sure you're ready to go, they'll complete your briefing."

"Who---"

"You'll know when you meet them."

"Yes, sir."

As Wedge rose to leave at that dismissal, the General froze him in place on the opposite side of the desk. "And, Wedge?"

"Sir?"

Their eyes met. Wedge felt his hand enveloped by Jornik's in a warm, firm clasp. "Be careful. We need you here, too."

"Yes, sir."

The instant the General released his hand, Wedge turned and left the room. His head spun. Never before had he been involved in subterfuge to this degree. Unless one counted the days spent trying to disable Coruscant's defences prior to the Rebellion's attack. Although every weary muscle in his body begged for the comfort of his bunk in the Flight Commanders' quarters, Wedge headed for Flight Debriefing, still deep in thought. Juvenile male voices, elevated with excitement to non-masculine pitch, burst into his reverie. A shadow unexpectedly fell across him.

"Hey! Watch it!"

Without missing a beat, Wedge jumped sideways at that shout and looked up. The cheerful chatter abruptly cut off. A group of seven young rookies in flight gear clustered in the hallway directly in front of him. Upon noting the identity of the person whom they had so rudely accosted, several of the trainees blushed. All seemed to have their hands unaccountably full with helmets and suit pack attachments. And all were equally conscious of how gawky they all appeared to the more seasoned crews. Wedge simply stared at them, knowing his expression was unreadable, cold.

"Sir!"

The Course Senior, identifiable by the red, blue and white hatched patch on his left breast, snapped to attention and tried, unsuccessfully, to shuffle everything into his left hand so he could salute. Instead, he succeeded in dropping his helmet on the floor. It clattered loudly across the decking. Rattled off the nearest wall, before coming to rest in the middle of the corridor. The helmet pirouetted once like a spotlighted dancer before coming to a stop.

Visor turned toward the ceiling it stared pathetically up at Wedge. Several dark scuffmarks marred a surface which moments earlier had been pristine. The rookie turned deep crimson. All the cadets stiffened to attention. But Wedge Antilles noted how the offender held himself more stiffly than his peers. Although his chin did not drop his eyes darted nervously from the helmet to his Officer Commanding and back again. Wedge slowly looked his subordinate up and down.

"Well, mister?"

Flashing a smart salute, the Course Senior sputtered, "Sorry, sir! We didn't recognise---er---see you---"

"Never mind that, mister. Is this the way you were taught to behave in ship corridors? Or how to look after your kit?"

"Ah---no, sir." The cadet's eyes fell to his feet, then instantly snapped back to Wedge.

A name surfaced. "See to your gear, Cadet Harriwen."

"Sir!" Red-faced, Harriwen grabbed for his helmet, missed, lunged again and got it.

"I suggest you write me a thousand word essay on the care and maintenance of flight helmets. Have it on my desk in," said Wedge, doing a quick calculation, "five days."

"Yes, sir."

"And when you report to your training officer, advise him that I said cadet instruction in ship protocol is exceedingly lax."

"Ye---yes, sir!"

"Very good, cadets. Carry on."

As Wedge headed off up the corridor, memories pressed in around him. Academy days, and all the accompanying embarrassment and awkwardness, flooded back as fresh as if it had all happened yesterday. There was no sound behind him as yet to indicate the cadets had relaxed from attention. Wedge was half-tempted to turn around, to creep back up to the bend in the hallway and eavesdrop on the rookies. But he just as clearly recalled the terrors of his days at the Imperial Flight Academy; fear of being spied on. And he knew what Captain Ehrnal would have to say to the cadets when Wedge's message was dutifully conveyed. Resisting temptation, he allowed the rookies their privacy and kept moving.

CHAPTER THREE

Towers clawed the sky. Magnificent silhouettes in the night unless one was aware of the truth behind the illusion. Most of the buildings were empty. In truth, Coruscant was a monumental testimonial to sentient folly. Surface construction begun in the early years of the Old Republic, had been expanded upon by the Empire until opalescent grandeur was now nothing more than a symbol of grotesque avarice. Layered upward, most of the structures conformed to a pyramidal appearance.

Tiers of structures, pole to pole, they girded the planet. There was no longer a true east to west. Even the oceans were primarily subverted. To anyone raised on Alderaan, Coruscant must appear the ultimate abomination. The world was now one massive city. Luke Skywalker wondered how his sister could live here.

Seated in the shadows afforded by a building buttress, silent, still, the Jedi Master permitted conversations to wash over him. By day no sunlight penetrated these subterranean levels, even at the height of summer. Only artificial light illuminated the thoroughfares. Such mechanised traffic as exited at this level flowed quietly past him. This was the third spot he chosen since nightfall. Although he was not blocking the sidewalk, his position commanded an excellent position. Despite the late hour the street was crowded.

'Or early.' Luke Skywalker mused. It was, after all, well past midnight.

Most pedestrians, intent upon their own affairs, ignored the nondescript individual huddled in the black cloak. They skirted him. Some glanced down, but otherwise paid little attention to his presence. There were many such in Nittar, Lorus Sub-District, beggars, panhandlers, the destitute, detritus of the Empire. When someone displayed a touch too much interest in him, Luke reached out through the Force. A touch here, a gentle nudge there kept the pedestrian traffic moving.

Just up the thoroughfare an impromptu group of entertainers were attempting to scrounge up credits. While one member of their troupe officially worked the crowd for credits, a small, light-fingered child darted through the attentive audience picking over pouches and pockets. Although the Jedi Master disliked such pilfering he made no move to interfere. All too soon this group of pickpockets would run afoul of New Republic law enforcement.

He redirected his attention to the passersby. In the short time since the New Republic had liberated Coruscant Luke had discovered a wealth of knowledge might be obtained in this manner. Yet few possessed the patience or the skills required to accumulating information in this fashion. His head lowered, he feigned sleep. The Force tugged at him seconds before a boot toe connected with his knee.

There was no denying the blow was intentional. Luke slowly raised his head, his features shadowed by his hood, invisible in the diffused street lighting. Through veiled eyes he inspected his assailant. A spacer, roughly humanoid, most likely a stevedore by the cut of his clothing glared down at the Jedi Master.

"Damn beggars. Always getting underfoot. Why the hell don't you go somewhere else instead of bothering honest people?"

Hands spread in an outward act of submission, Luke deferred. "My apologies, good sir. I was but sitting here enjoying the evening."

"Go enjoy it somewhere else." When his potential victim failed to immediately respond, the spacer kicked Luke again, harder this time. "Hey. Didn't you hear me? I said, go somewhere else."

Beyond the stevedore curious onlookers were gathering, including three more crew, all intent upon seeing the confrontation through to its outcome. No one would interfere or assist the innocent at the centre of the altercation. Luke restrained a sigh. He read this bully's character as clearly as if it were carved in plasti-crete and realised his evening of intelligence gathering was ruined. And yet, the Jedi Master was determined to do his best to slide out of the situation without being forced to retaliate. Slowly he rose. On his feet he was still a full head shorter than the stevedore was. Belligerence increased in his opponent. This person was not about to let the matter die. Particularly now the aggressor knew he was dealing with someone shorter and lighter.

"I'm sorry if I disrupted your evening," said Luke politely. Only one avenue in the Force suggested the possibility of avoiding any further escalation to this unprovoked attack. He turned to leave. Felt the other man move. A hand came down hard on his left shoulder.

Pure instinct governed Luke's next move. One second the stevedore was hauling the Jedi Master around. The next the spacer sprawled flat on his back, screaming in pain. His intended victim clutched the offending hand, drawing the spacer's right arm up and twisting the hand at an excruciating angle. Arm effectively paralysed, in agony from the unlikely grip, the stevedore begged for release.

In the process of reacting to the attack, Luke's hood fell back, revealing fair hair and blue eyes. Few present did not instantly identify him. Whispers hissed through the gathering. Several individuals hurriedly faded away. The luckless stevedore gaped up at the Jedi Master. On the fringe of the crowd the man's three cronies drew together, fearful of repercussions. Beneath Luke's hands muscle and tendons began to tear.

Malicious pleasure swept over him, along with a desire to continue twisting until the man's arm tore from its socket. Blood lust emanated from those about him, feeding the drive to further inflict pain. Deep inside Luke felt the dark side of the Force rear up, seeking to ensnare him. In spite of the agony he must be experiencing, his captive recoiled, driving home what was happening. Sickened, Luke slapped the dark side back down. He eased up on his grip and stooped over the man.

"In future think twice before you assault someone without provocation."

After a brief pause he released the spacer and stepped back. Spirit bruised, Luke swallowed and tasted bile. It was time to leave. No more would be accomplished this evening now the local populace was aware the Jedi Master was present on their streets. News was already spreading like wildfire. Wrenched arm clutched to his chest, his assailant dragged himself back against the building and began clawing his way to his feet. His friends remained where they were, too terrified of drawing attention to themselves to help. As Luke turned away murmurs around him rose to audible level.

"It's Skywalker."

"The Jedi Master."

Awe and fear replaced curiosity and bloodlust. Balance upset, his meditation thoroughly destroyed, Luke drew his hood back up and settled his cloak about him once more. That the dark side was so seductive deeply troubled the Jedi Master. Once again he had nearly succumbed to its lure.

Two blocks down the street his gaze lit on an item in a shop window. Distracted, his worries briefly faded. Lips curled in a quiet smile. Perhaps here he would find something for Leia. Their birthday was not far off and he would be remiss if he did not present her with something. Hand to the door release, Luke paused. Again the Force tugged at him. From the corner of his eye he saw someone clothed in a tight-fitting, dark jumpsuit move past him. A loose shirt, also dark coloured, and partially laced at the neck, effectively distracted the eye from the obvious. Softened the outline of the form beneath making it sexless.

To the untutored observer the object of his scrutiny presented an otherwise unassuming appearance to the outside world. But something about them held his attention. Something in the manner in which they moved projected determination mixed with copious quantities of caution. Most would believe this individual to be on their way to work or a business meeting.

A freighter lifted off from a nearby docking bay but the Jedi Master refused to let that momentary distraction break his concentration. Through the Force he sensed a deeper purpose in this brief encounter, subterfuge. Still, he sensed no accompanying threat. Not even when muscles beneath cloth tensed as the object of his scrutiny glanced in his direction, then as quickly looked away. In spite of everything Luke contained his curiosity. He watched until the figure passed from view, then stepped into the shop.


Alderaan's inhabitants had reputedly revered the land. They had built underground wherever possible. Placed surface structures where their impact was minimal. The only significant structure had been the royal palace. Early inhabitants had constructed it on the side of a magnificent gorge. When the Clone Wars wreaked havoc on their world in a final strike of madness, an entire continent was wiped out. Alderaani had stoically rebuilt and reclaimed what they could. And mourned the violation of their agrarian world. That was why they had chosen neutrality in the early days of Palpatine's rule. To save their world this sort of mechanised invasion, however foolish and vain the attempt might be.

'Not that I have quite that same aversion to urban sprawl,' Wedge silently considered, all unknowing, not five blocks from the Jedi Master. Edging cautiously through the shadows, Wedge selected a likely pool where the least light fell and settled in to wait.

High overhead winked the running lights of a number of late night travellers and duty personnel shuttling to and from various parts of Coruscant via aircars. Mag-lev people movers whisked by with subdued throaty roars. During daylight hours traffic control posed a nightmare as personal vehicles lobbied with inter-atmosphere shuttles and dip-craft for position on the air lanes. There remained a sufficient percentage of the population, however, who preferred hovercars and speeders, not to mention the subterranean all-personnel lite-rapid transit and mag-lev systems, by which to get around.

Around building bases, and at various levels overhead, were facilities for use by residents and visitors alike. Pedestrian walkways criss crossed the middle layers. Rapid transit ran beneath, just above the slums. Shops, restaurants, drinking establishments, conference centres, even tourist sights and entertainment arcades all jostled and competed for the attention the inhabitants, layer upon layer. Dotted throughout were designers, artisans and speciality stores, each confined to specific regions to deal with the races housed in those sectors.

Every area had its own mini-port for the use of diplomats and their entourages. Alien races, not generally welcomed under Palpatine's rule, had kept at a distance and continued to maintain a buffer zone between themselves and the humans. Nearer to the sector that claimed to have been settled first lay the Imperial ports.

Hard about the Palace were Fleet Headquarters, now the property of and used by the New Republic's fighting forces. As well, the High Council was housed here. And at the center, on Coruscant's equator, toward which all roads led towered the magnificent, if grotesquely opulent, grand Palace. If he lifted his head, Wedge could just see the upper levels of that oppressive structure. Not a patch of this world had remained unscathed beneath Palpatine's heavy-handed efforts to eradicate all signs of poverty from his capitol.

For every decadent sector there were an equal number of slums, once kept carefully ignored. Screened from unwary eyes. These days there were too many buildings and too few wealthy inhabitants to occupy them. And, with the collapse of the Empire, few were interested in remaining at Coruscant in the hopes of currying favour. Many of the once-opulent towers were little more than decaying derelicts. At various levels trailed neglected gardens; producers of rampant weed plots where hardier vegetation persisted against all odds.

It took the entire undermanned force of street workers to maintain some semblance of order to the main ramps and thoroughfares; pruning back wayward tree limbs preoccupied a sizeable portion of the labour force, as did repairing roadways, pedi-walks and overpasses. But little care was given to proper maintenance below the more prosperous levels. Cracked, weed overgrown pavement made up most major side streets. Massive potholes broke up lesser-used streets, making footing hazardous for pedestrians. Sewer and water mains were looked after only because negligence was harshly dealt with by the powers that be. And a breakdown in one area usually affected the entire system to a greater or lesser degree.

Far below street level plumbing and power conduits were in slightly better stages of repair. But where work parties went they were accompanied by heavily armed guards. Eking out marginal subsistence within the vast catacombs dwelt the poor: Coruscant's derelicts, the poor, fugitives and the worst of the underworld. Thieves, smugglers, cutthroats, assassins struggled to subsist and profit within the maze-like rodent-warrens. Long overlooked tunnels, neglected conduits, not to mention plazas and earlier buildings built upon by lazy construction companies rather than turned under, now supplied inexpensive quarters for innumerable itinerants.

Homes away from the constant scrutiny of the local police, an unsurveyed, untallied population. These were zones Emperor Palpatine had sworn did not exist, but which had always been there. Ignored by officials who had turned a blind eye to their existence and lied to the Emperor. It was doubtful Palpatine had ever actually believed their tales. In an effort to alleviate the problem, the Council was planning a number of housing projects. Princess Leia had hopes of reclaiming the empty structures. Putting them to use for the benefit of the less fortunate and remunerating the scavenger population harboring there.

And it was one of that dubious underworld inhabitants for whom Wedge suspected he now waited. Crouched in a back alley, amid the refuse of generations, he listened intently. Night formed an all-encompassing shroud. Faint fingers of light pierced the shadow in places, groping their way in from the larger thoroughfare beyond the alley mouth. Somewhere nearby tiny claws scrabbled through litter. Something chattered a sharp warning to its kind or a reflection of concern upon scenting the intruder.

Otherwise motionless within the shadows, Wedge Antilles cautiously ran a nervous gloved hand across the fabric encircling his face. Dark stretch fabric fitted glove-like over the bulk of his frame. A cowl ran up from the collar, holding his hair back and leaving only his face flesh visible. Night cam-stick took care of any betraying flash of fair skin. Beneath the cowl his scalp sweated and prickled. He buried an urge to scratch an itch. But when the muscles in his thigh cramped he surreptitiously massaged his left leg until the pain and tightness eased.

Hours passed. Still he waited. This was to be a test mission; picking up information dropped by an agent. Even so, Wedge remained uneasy and uncomfortable. For once the meteorological report was correct. A late rain shower wet down the district, making him wish for less accuracy. Fortunately his clothing shed water. On the up side, no more rain was expected tonight.

In the wake of the shower, however, the stench of garbage intensified. Nose wrinkling with distaste, Wedge wished his contact would hurry. Wondered if his contact would even show. Had he been a fool to make that payment, small as it was, as a gesture of good faith? Jornik had insisted he carry this through to its conclusion since it was a relatively simple introduction back into covert operations; a baptism, as it were. Nor had Jornik or Madine been critical of his decision to make partial payment on what was, to all intents and purposes, unsolicited information.

Wedge considered the circumstances that brought him back to the same position he had been in shortly prior to the destruction of the first DEATH STAR. His eyes probed the darkness. Struggled again to locate any movement that might herald another sentient.

'That,' he reflected, 'is the crux of the matter. Not only do I not know the identity of my contact, sex or race, I have no proof of the validity of the information in the note I received two days earlier. The credits I paid might well be a write-off.'

Still he crouched, cold, stiff, and no little bit apprehensive. And yet, there was hope, too.

CHAPTER FOUR

Diffused light flickered across the face of several high-rises lining the main boulevard. Pale blue-white fingers thrown by passing vehicles rippled across dark reflective surfaces. At points the reflection vanished as they struck holes where transparencies no longer filled the gaps. Ghostly fingers traced their path and were gone even as the muffled rumble of an ascending ship echoed, hollow and hoarse, up the alley. Caused abandoned buildings to vibrate with decibels too low for human ears.

Engine doppler boomed across the city above. It took all of Wedge's concentration not to glance automatically skyward. His pilot's instincts wrestled with self-control. But Wedge held firm. Did not attempt to mark the ship's passage or identify its port of origin or type. He knew without looking up that the vessel was a medium-weight freighter; possibly the largest size ship capable of making planet-fall. Certainly larger than the MILLENNIUM FALCON was.

Stifling a sigh of irritation he settled himself further back in the shadows. On the periphery of vision something moved. Wedge held his breath. Released it, feeling foolish as a scavenger cried out and fled through the trash. Hot in pursuit raced a slender, feline form. Someone's abandoned pet, gone feral, dashed by. Moments later, screams tore the air, testament to the hunter's success.

'Get a grip, Antilles,' he berated himself.

A larger figure moved through the dark alley in the wake of the hunt. Alerted, Wedge's nerves tingled with anticipation. Fingers clutched the miniature weapon Covert Operations had issued him at the start of his training. Quelling rising impatience, Wedge hunched further down, waiting for the other to initiate contact. The intruder paused. Against the dark wall behind it, the figure was blurred. Misshapen. It shifted and Wedge realised his contact wore a cloak.

"Red to blue four." A weirdly modulated voice whispered from the darkness.

However foolish it seemed, Wedge responded with the correct countersign. "Red takes blue in two moves."

"Not if blue covers with a crown."

Sign and countersign meshed, were confirmed. Whoever this person was they had been trained by the Rebellion's Cov-Ops department too; 'blue covers crown' response was employed strictly by their operatives. Irritated that he had not been forewarned, Wedge rose carefully to his feet. Silently cursed the stiffness in his knee joints. As little as four years ago he could have crouched in a back alley on any world for an entire night and scarcely felt the worse for wear. Age was catching up with him. That, and the inordinate wear-and-tear of the ongoing war against the Imperium and all manner of trumped-up warlords.

Across the alley his contact raised a hand, warning him off. "Come no closer, Antilles."

To display his good faith---and no little uneasiness on his own part---Wedge froze. Felt fear clutch at him at the sound of his name. His contact had the upper hand in that. Evidently this individual also meant to continue concealing their identity. In fact, they had gone to great lengths; their voice modulated, metallic, coarse and high-pitched from the effects of a synthesizer. Princess Leia had used just such a device in the past. Disguised as the Bounty Hunter Bousch, she, along with Luke Skywalker, Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca, had penetrated Jabba the Hutt's palace on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo. Wedge gestured.

"You set up this meeting. What's this information you want passed on? You know the New Republic will pay well if it's good."

Hoarse laughter rattled across the intervening expanse. "Payment?" Again the bark of mirth, strangely softer this time. "You can pay me the rest later, Antilles. And, trust me. I will collect---if you survive."

Now Wedge's irritation pushed fear aside, threatened to overwhelm caution. "If you have something to tell me, spit it out! The longer we stand here, the more chance we'll be seen. Or overheard!"

"You're right, of course." His informant shifted their weight again. "My sources tell me you're headed for Olgathir." When Wedge stirred, the stranger gestured broadly. "I'll not ask you to confirm it. Suffice to say there's a leak in Cov-Ops. Pass that along to General Madine for starters."

"Whom shall I say sends the warning?"

A pause. "Tell him Flit's back and offers that word to the wise. Now listen well. Once I leave, check along the wall on this side of the alley. You'll find a small ledge at roughly head height---to someone taller than you." Humor caused Flit's voice to tremble. Wedge kept silent. "Take what you find there back to Madine. He has the code. Don't try to decipher it yourself. Without the exact matrix, it'll scramble past retrieval. And I charge triple to rectify errors caused by stupidity."

"Thanks," muttered Wedge. "I appreciate your confidence in me."

"Not at all. If I didn't trust you, I wouldn't be talking to you now." Flit's voice remained light, informing Wedge he should feel honored. Strangely, the Corellian did. "Something else you might like to tell Cov-Ops. I suspect whoever checks up on this information will uncover more than what Madine sends them out to confirm. Rumor is there are Alderaani survivors and political refugees out there somewhere, still being held by the Imperials."

"What?" After a beat Wedge continued. "Well, I guess that figures."

"Think so?" Flit let the moment slide by. "Just tell them to keep their ears peeled, Antilles. If they're lucky ---real lucky---you might even pick up something about the refugees. They could use some help, but I'm in no position to pursue it further. One thing more; you better grow eyes in the back of your head."

Before Wedge could react, Flit was gone. No sound marked the informant's passage. Only the flutter of material brushing a wall betrayed Flit's departure through the upper end of the alley. Still stunned by the other's audacity, Wedge stared toward the city lights lining the thoroughfare.

Hope against hope rose and faded. Even if Flit's information was correct, his family was long gone. Murdered by marauding pirates. Of his surviving relations most had been rounded up by the Empire following the Battle of Yavin Four. Small wonder, considering his name had been blatted all over ship-to-ship communications frequently during the conflict. And again at Hoth. Of those who attempted to escape, only two cousins survived to reach the Rebellion. One of them died at Endor. The remaining distant cousin was presently well employed in the Fleet Records Office.

Off to his left something unseen squalled in protest in the darkness. Wedge gave himself a mental shake and eased down the alley in the direction of the boulevard. He moved carefully, scarcely making more than a rustle in the rubbish as he sought out Flit's drop. A message capsule no larger than his finger to the first joint rolled off the ledge into his fumbling hand. He very nearly dropped it. With racing pulse, he opened the case, removed the micro-chip and safely stowed it in the slit in the top of his left boot. Then he shoved the capsule into the pouch at his belt.

Satisfied he had accomplished that much of his mission he headed for the safety of the pedestrian thoroughfare. While still well back in the alley training took over. Pausing, he shucked his gloves and the confining hood. Tucked into his waist pouch was a lightweight cloak. Pulling it out, Wedge draped it about his shoulders. Gloves and hood took the cloak's place. From a secondary pocket he drew out a special cloth and used it to meticulously wipe the cam-stick from his face. Then Wedge resealed the pouch and tossed the wipe into a nearby trash pile. Satisfied he had obeyed all instructions he stepped into the light. Now he resembled other pedestrians out at this late hour. Several blocks away was a mag-lev transit station. Wedge headed for it.

Flit's seeming off-handed parting remark preoccupied him. At one point he failed to notice when he accidentally trod in something particularly ripe. Nor did he see the disgust reflected on others who haunted the late night hours. Most wrinkled their noses and hurriedly put distance between them and him. Still Wedge mulled over Flit's words.

"Wedge? Hey, Wedge!"

Low but penetrating, Luke's call snapped Rogue's Flight Commander back to reality. Turning, Wedge discovered the Jedi Master pacing him in a hover car.

"Luke!"

Startled and pleased, Wedge paused. His friend grinned back. The flash of humour temporarily wiped away all traces of wear and tear embedded in Luke's face from his many trials. Briefly resurrected the youth Wedge had first met on Yavin Four.

"Want a ride?" Luke gestured. "There's no need to take transit, you know. I'm heading back to the barracks."

For a minute Wedge hesitated. Then he conceded. "Sure."

As he clambered into the hovercar, Wedge experienced a momentary aberration: here sat the legendary Jedi Master of the New Republic, clothed in his trademark black tunic, slacks and boots, his hands encased in black gloves. With the coarse-weave black cloak over top, Luke was the epitome of a Jedi Knight.

And here he was, dressed in near deep blue. Luke had fair hair where Wedge's was dark. Where his eyes were light brown, the Jedi's were blue. Luke was muscular, Wedge more slender of build. Both were athletic, each the perfect foil for the other.

At that point, Wedge's mind shied away for a second from thoughts he would as soon not recall. Following the destruction of the first DEATH STAR he had found time to grieve over the loss of his family. Not surprisingly, he began over-eating. Became a recluse, turning to drink as an anaesthetic. All too soon he was trapped in a vicious cycle; over-weight, lethargic, drinking heavily. Nor was he alone. The Rebel Alliance lost a number of veteran pilots and ground troops in those years.

Like many before him, Wedge rapidly discovered it increasingly difficult to drink himself into a stupor at night. In fact he was on the verge of seeking out something stronger when Luke came to his rescue. Together, they dealt with Wedge's psychological problems. And consequently drew closer as friends.

By the Battle of Endor Wedge was well on the road to recovery. Following Endor Wedge received two promotions through the ranks. Eventually Fleet Command handed him responsibilities due his expertise and knowledge. But several of his superiors remained wary of further advancing him, afraid that he would revert to his old ways. It was an unfounded concern. Nowadays, when he and Luke attended social gatherings Wedge avoided alcohol like the plague. As a pair, Jedi and Rogue Squadron's Commander drew females like flies to syrup. Particularly now Han Solo was no longer eligible. Wedge dabbled, playing the field. But he knew Luke did not.

Quiet, self-contained, the Jedi Master generally scared off all but the most persistent or discerning females. Unless he happened to be in the company of someone else the huntress could use as an excuse. To anyone that knew him well it was evident Luke Skywalker was not about to jump into a relationship. His friends suspected he was patiently waiting for just the right woman. But where and when he might find her was anyone's guess. Only old General Dodonna, before his disappearance, had pressed Luke to wed quickly: to extend the Skywalker line and increase the Jedi Knights. And he was not alone in his opinion. Personally, Wedge felt his friend had more than enough on his plate without adding marital difficulties to it.

"Credit for them." Luke broke into Wedge's introspection. His nose twitched slightly as though covering his amusement at something only he was privy to.

"Huh?"

"You're pretty quiet tonight," observed Luke.

Wedge released a small sigh. "Just thinking."

"So I noticed." Not surprisingly, Luke added, "Working for Madine does tend to have that effect on people."

For a space Wedge was tempted to deny Luke's inference. He opened his mouth object, snapped it shut. The look on the young Jedi's face brought him up short.

"Yeah. Well." Grinning self-consciously, Wedge muttered, "That obvious, huh?"

"Only to the educated."

When Wedge glanced at Luke again, he thought he caught the suggestion of a wink. Once again Luke's nose twitched. Although everyone received inoculations it was not unusual for someone to come down with a cold. Wedge doubted even Jedi were immune to that ageless irritant. Another ship entered Coruscant's atmosphere, engine roar giving way to repulsors in deference to noise abatement regulations.

"So, Luke. Where did you rent this thing?" Wedge struggled to make idle conversation. Anything was preferable to having the Jedi inquiring into his own whereabouts this night.

"Got it in Nittar." Luke ignored the sharp look his companion shot his way at that casual reference to the seediest section of Lorus under-district on Coruscant. "Thought it blended better than what the Dip Corps provided for my use."

"Looks like it's seen better days."

A laugh bubbled from the Jedi Master. "And here I was just thinking it reminded me of my old landspeeder back on Tatooine."

"Yeah," conceded Wedge. "Well you might have had them clean it out a bit before you took it."

With a studied look indicative of Luke making a pretence at covering a grin, the Jedi remarked, "Actually, I suspect it's something you brought with you."

Startled, Wedge considered the statement. Tracked the source of the offensive aroma. The incredibly obnoxious stench rose from the area of his feet. Finally he traced the source to a brown and green smear marring the patina of his black boots.

Luke teased. "So what did you step in back there?"

"Aw, poodoo!" Wedge blurted.

"Probably," agreed Luke.

Shrugging helplessly, Wedge stared at his old Wing Senior for a long moment. For an instant their old camaraderie returned and they both laughed. Reaching into a small compartment in the padded board running along behind the controls beneath the windscreen, Luke pulled out a grubby mechanic's cloth.

"Here. Use this." He flipped it at Wedge. "We'll get rid of it at the next available disposal."

As he scrubbed at the unmentionable mess on the side of his left boot, Wedge watched his companion from the corner of his eye. "I guess my clothes were pretty much a give-away."

"Not really. They're about the right cut for the middle class. Chameleon cloth's good at remembering its alternate tones when out in good lighting. That dark blue's fairly common around here. Blends well to black at night. Plus the short cloak goes a long way to distracting the eye from the obvious. Only someone who knows you well might be suspicious."

"You think?" Sitting up, Wedge checked out the curb. He spotted what they were looking for. "There's one."

They drew up alongside a disposal unit. Wedge tossed the noxious rag in and they drove on. By now he was taking stock of his surroundings. His friend was taking a very roundabout route back to the barracks.

CHAPTER FIVE

"So what are you doing in Nittar?" His eyes scanned the registration chip. "In Lorus district?"

Again that ghost of the past surfaced in Luke's eyes. "Would you believe me if I said I was out shopping?"

"No," admitted Wedge truthfully.

"Well," declared Luke, "I was."

A jerk of his chin over one shoulder directed Wedge's attention to the rear seat. When he checked there proved to be several packages littering the back of the vehicle. Unable to help himself, Wedge laughed.

"I guess even Jedi Masters shop."

"Occasionally." Luke grinned back.

"Mind if I pry further?"

"Not at all." Breaking off, Luke deftly spun the controls. They skirted a crowd of late revellers staggering into the street from a neighbourhood bar. When he did reply, Luke was astonishingly forthcoming---in his own way. "Rieekan casually let drop this morning that the Council's decided upon a date for Leia's official birthday. However, tomorrow is her actual birth date."

"Really?" Startled, Wedge performed a double take. "That means it's yours, too."

His observation elicited a resigned grunt from Luke. But he neatly sidestepped being drawn further into that line of conversation. "Needless to say, the Council's cooked up a massive function to surprise her next month."

"I'll just bet she'll be surprised," put in Wedge. Their vehicle skirted the lowest levels of the huge palace complex, now. They were nearly at their destination. Without missing a beat, Luke continued.

"In the meantime, those closer to her are trying to put together something a bit more private for tomorrow evening. How they think the function'll remain a secret that long, I don't know."

"Some secret. All the servants must know."

Luke gestured with his left hand. "Not to mention they've invited everyone who's someone from Leia's past who's within the immediate vicinity. Guests have been arriving since dinner hour."

Beyond the bulk of high-rises, the thin spire or the locator beacon for landing vessels drew Wedge's eyes. Sure enough, still another ship was easing down through the atmosphere, settling into a berth at one of the three spaceports ringing the capital city of Coruscant.

"So that's why all the unusual traffic." Wedge muttered to himself. "Some quiet gathering."

Ignoring the rhetorical remark, Luke said, "And then there's Threepio."

That made Wedge raise an eyebrow. "You're right. Of course, if he doesn't let it slip, someone else is sure to tip her off with an inadvertent remark before the formal announcement's made."

"And that's not supposed to happen until everyone's assembled."

"How the hell are they going to accomplish that?"

"Oh, there are ways." This time Luke gave his friend a long, slow, deliberate wink.

"Don't you think she'll noticed the heavier-than-usual traffic?"

"I believe Mon Mothma's got that covered."

"Hope you're right."

"Han's already pumped me for information."

"Oh, great."

Grimacing, Wedge wondered what the Corellian smuggler-turned-hero of the New Republic, might do with the information. Or how he would handle it. Then again, knowing Solo he might foul up the Council's plans out of sheer spite. He hated crowds and considered diplomatic parties a bore. No matter how hard Han Solo and the Princess tried, they seldom managed to find time for each other lately. Leia was constantly tied up with affairs of state. At the same time Solo was kept occupied with a flurry of missions the Council deemed necessary and appropriate to his particular talents.

Wedge was not alone in his opinion that the Council was doing everything in their power to keep the pair apart. Whereas the majority of Fleet personnel were more than happy now the pair was married, the Council remained far more interested in a marriage of State. And Han Solo, hero though he might now be remained, in their minds, an ex-Imperial officer, ex-smuggler. He certainly did not fit their notion of the ideal husband to the sole surviving member of the House of Alderaan. Even if Alderaan no longer existed, and Leia was a member by adoption. Of course, now they were married, neither Leia nor Han were about to let anything get between them. Neither duty nor, certainly, irritating Councilors.

Their speeder passed the plasti-crete platform that once supported the three story high statue of the Emperor. Suddenly Wedge realised Luke had, until that moment, successfully diverted his attention from something. He retraced events leading up to their chance encounter.

"By the way, you don't make it a habit of shopping this late, Luke," began Wedge. There was no visible reaction from his companion. "So what's got you hanging around Lorus lowtown during quiet hours?"

A soft laugh trickled from Luke's lips. "You're good. I'll commend Cov-Ops on their crash training course," he said.

Again Luke avoided a direct reply. He was so adept at neatly evading the moment that Wedge almost let the topic drop. But he could feel something was not quite right.

"So what gives, buddy?"

For a moment it seemed Luke would not reply, and Wedge was afraid he had over-stepped the bounds of their relationship. However, the Jedi Master only shrugged.

"Out doing my usual."

Wedge knew Luke Skywalker reasonably well---which meant Wedge knew his friend's habits almost as well as did Princess Leia and Han Solo---Wedge read between the lines. Luke had been out blending into the background. Listening, watching, gathering information for the New Republic as only a Jedi could.

"Trouble?"

"I believe their top agent, Flit, is in the area." Luke's eyes drifted toward his companion. Wedge ducked his head away from that penetrating gaze, but felt the young Jedi saw right through him.

"'Nough said," deferred Wedge, anxious to avoid blurting out the tidbit of information Covert Operation's spy had imparted.

Nor did Luke pry further. Again the boyish grin surfaced and Wedge responded with a playful punch to his friend's shoulder. Luke chuckled. "Fair turn-about, Wedge."

"I guess."

They surmounted a ramp, turned a corner and drew up at a side gate. A guard house and security fence blocked their way. Beyond the gate lay the parade grounds and Fleet off-duty barracks and administration buildings where Rogue Squadron was housed when on furlough. The military accommodations were extensive, quartering the palace at its four-corners. This arrangement effectively created a security buffer between the heart of the complex and all outsiders, including what had once been the preferred diplomat quarters. Those lay immediately beyond the security facilities.

Irritable at being disturbed by the late intrusion the guard glanced up. Wedge suspected the man had actually been watching some vid-flick on a personal hand-held secreted from immediate view inside the guard booth. Lax security troubled him. He made note to mention it to Jornik. Seeing Luke Skywalker at the speeder controls brought the guard to attention. The man did not spare the Jedi Master's passenger so much as a glance. Startled by Luke's unexpected presence at the side gate, the guard automatically dropped the barrier and waved the vehicle on through.

Disgusted by that blatant breach in standard security procedures, Jedi Master notwithstanding, Wedge muttered, "I'll have to mention this to Jornik." Then he cursed himself. "I must have tauntaun brains!"

"What's wrong?" Luke wanted to know.

"Nothing. Except---" Embarrassed by his failing, Wedge swore again. "Damn it, Luke! I wasn't supposed to be seen returning to the barracks."

"I take it your absence wasn't general knowledge?"

"Not by any stretch." Doubly annoyed, Wedge gestured at his inexcusable lapse. "Under the wrong circumstances, that could have got me killed. Dammit all to hell."

A hand settled on Wedge's forearm. Glancing down at the black glove, he felt strangely comforted. His gaze travelled up. Met and locked with Luke's clear blue eyes. Lighting those eyes was a spark that warmed Wedge further.

"No one will know."

Confidence and certainty were so strong in Luke's voice that Wedge had no doubts whatsoever that he spoke the truth. Abruptly he realised his friend must have expended a portion of his incredible powers to assist him. Somehow Luke had diverted all attention and knowledge of Wedge's mysterious outing from the minds of those who might have noted that deviation from routine.

A shudder raced the length of Wedge's spine. He rarely witnessed evidence of his friend's awesome talent. Although he did not physically withdraw from his touch, Luke sensed the change, the inward shrinking. His smile abruptly vanished, replaced by a bleak look. Chagrined, Wedge reached out in turn.

"I'm sorry, Luke. Please don't take it wrong. It's not that I don't appreciate what you've just done. It's just---the Emperor and Vader---"

Floundering to a halt, Wedge blushed beneath his companion's intense stare. No one, least of all Luke Skywalker, needed reminding what that pair of twisted dark Jedi had done with their warped power. How it had been the mainstay and source of dreadful control the Dark Lord and his Master had drawn upon to first wrest control from the Old Republic. And then had employed it to subvert and terrorise the known worlds.

"I understand," began Luke. His voice was monotone, face devoid of emotion.

Stung to the quick, Wedge ordered, "Turn in here."

Taken aback by the sharp tone, Luke complied. He drove down a narrow lane between two dark buildings. Once they were well within the shadows Wedge reached out and flipped off the power. Their speeder promptly halted. The engine whine died.

"What---"

"Shut up!" Angry with himself, Wedge snapped at his friend. "And let me speak."

"All right."

Now no more than a shape within shadows, Luke Skywalker turned to face his friend. For a space Wedge was unable to control his emotions or organise his thoughts. But eventually he had shaped what he wanted to say.

"I'm sorry I hurt you when I flinched."

Wedge paused. This was going to be slow going he belatedly realised. Putting feelings into words was proving difficult. Never before had Wedge found it so necessary to make something beyond a nominal apology, not since his Academy days. Fortunately Luke did not appear ready to interrupt, a small mercy for which Wedge was grateful. He plunged on, afraid to stop lest he lose courage. But chose his sentences with utmost care and consideration.

"You know why I flinched like that. I couldn't help it."

"I know."

"Hush!" This time Luke relaxed back and waited, arms folded across his chest. Wedge went on. "So many of our people died at Vader's hands." Again he paused. Licked lips suddenly dry from an attack of nerves. "For the longest time all I ever knew about the Force---until I met you---was that it---the dark side---could humiliate, hurt and kill.

"At the Academy, Darth Vader demonstrated his power. They caught a rebel who had infiltrated the system. He had actually made it all the way up to a position as a senior instructor."

Even with the words tumbling out, Wedge left out the part that the man had been indirectly instrumental in encouraging him to break away. To go absent without leave and await contact by the Rebel Alliance.

"When news went up through channels, Vader arrived to oversee the interrogation. It was thought the rebel spy would prove an excellent object lesson for those of us aspiring to be officers."

Again Wedge paused. The horrific scene filled his memory fresh as the day the incident had occurred as though it was yesterday, not five years past. At his side Luke stiffened, the only outward sign of his own distress.

"They interrogated him, Luke. Tortured him with that obscenity they quaintly referred to as a persuasion droid. First that, then---" Bile rose in Wedge's throat. He swallowed it. "Then Vader---demonstrated. I---"

Comfort and warmth flowed from Luke. Washed over Wedge Antilles like a tangible wave, cresting and withdrawing only as the pain at the base of his skull and temples faded. The knot in Wedge's throat eased.

"It's nothing to do with you, Luke." He struggled to express himself.

"Just the memories my abilities resurrect," Luke quietly acknowledged. "I know. I've seen enough of it recently."

Spoken softly but with conviction, his words proved more than sufficient. Still, Wedge was determined to finish explaining.

"You, more than anyone else, know the demons I lived with after Yavin Four." The tiny catch in his voice did not go unnoticed. Luke refrained from commenting, though. "You're my best friend, Luke. Force alone knows how often we've watched out for each other. At Yavin and Hoth. And elsewhere." Laughter, sour with bitterness, emerged. Died. "Although these days it seems you're taking the majority of the burden. And not just for me."

"Wedge---"

"Quiet!" Once more there came that snap of authority. This time it lacked conviction. Drew a small grin from Luke in the darkness. Courage in tatters, Wedge shook his head. "Siths and sarlaacs, let me say the rest of this, will you? I should have said it years ago."

Although the Jedi Master made no verbal response, Wedge sensed his discomfiture and hurried on before Luke could stop him.

"I appreciate what you did tonight. Really. Getting me back into the compound, without anyone the wiser, was quite the feat. You're my best buddy, even though there are others here I've known longer. I can't think of anyone I'd sooner trust with my life. Maybe I shouldn't feel that way. But when you're on my wing, leading me into battle or covering my back, I feel like nothing can go wrong."

Unable to continue, Wedge looked away. A long stillness stretched between them. Foremost in Wedge's mind was the poor betrayed rebel at the Academy. Had it not been for that object lesson in obedience, he might well have completed his officer training. Gone on to serve in the Imperial forces and, ultimately, betrayed his principles. Or died foolishly trying to defend them. So, for that matter, might Biggs. A frightening thought: how one tiny act could so influence the course his life had taken. He stifled another shiver.

"Wedge, I do understand what you're saying. And," Luke paused as though gathering his emotional resources, "thank you. I value your friendship."

In turning Wedge caught movement: Luke's cyber hand extended out of the darkness. Without hesitation Wedge grasped it firmly. Laid his left hand over their clasped hands. In reply his friend covered them with his left hand. For several heartbeats they sat, wordlessly reaffirming their comradeship and faith in one another. Then Wedge slowly withdrew.

"I'd better go."

Luke nodded. "They'll be expecting you back."

With a nod, Wedge finished disengaging his hands. Both experienced a reluctance to let the moment pass. But duty called, urgent, compelling two warriors to their separate tasks.

"This is a good spot," Luke remarked. "Lots of cover."

"Yeah. Right."

Flashing a grin, relieved and bolstered, Wedge slipped from the hovercar. He eased up the alley and peered around the corner. There was no one in sight. Without a backward glance he flitted out of sight.


Behind him, Luke Skywalker sat for several more minutes, letting Wedge get clear. Reflecting on the evening's events and the past, he realised how deeply, how adversely Wedge's reaction to his use of the Force had affected him. And just how hurt he had been. Although he had valued their friendship over the years, he had not felt it necessary to express it out loud. Now he was daunted by the depth of faith Wedge professed to have in him and in his Jedi abilities. But this was something he was gradually coming to terms with. However difficult the acceptance. He could not escape it, any more than he could deny his birthright.

Eventually he reactivated the hovercar, reversed out of the alley. Circumventing the parade-square, Luke drove down the street at the end, turning at long last into the parking area in front of the barracks. No one even noticed the dilapidated hovercar until he was well out of the area.

CHAPTER SIX

Working his way along the buildings, Wedge kept low, utilising every minuscule bit of cover. By staying attuned to the normal night sounds he successfully evaded two foot-patrols. Dodged a sensor. Found the release to the 'back door' into Cov-Ops. He keyed the pad. Slid inside the minute the door opened. As the door closed behind him, Wedge leaned against the wall in the darkened passage. His heart was working over-time. He drew one deep breath. Two. A third. Slowly his curbed his heartbeat, calming hypersensitive nerves. Then he walked softly up the corridor.

Here within the heart of Cov-Ops a momentary chill washed over him. Wedge realised it resulted from suddenly finding himself bereft of Luke's presence. Angry with himself, he shook it off. Now he moved rapidly, aware that the longer he took reaching his objective, the more the likelihood another agent might stumble on him. And that just would not do.

'Oh, no!'

No groan issued from his lips, but Wedge swore at himself again for being a fool. Of course no one would bother watching for him. He must have triggered every security droid and camera between the alley and the back entrance. Shaking his head, he halted. Jornik must think him a prize idiot.

'Jornik! What about Madine? Damn it, Antilles! You are some kind of addle-brained nerf!'

Even as he berated himself, a little voice in the back of his head countered. Might Luke not have taken care of that minor detail as well? Had he not assured Wedge that his friend's return would not be noted by anyone? Considering his friend's words the corner of Wedge's mouth curved up ever so slightly.

'Yeah.' He congratulated himself. Then just as quickly admonished, 'Don't get too cocky, buster. You very nearly blew it.'

Feeling a bit better, he continued along the passage. Avoided a clerk and two off-duty members of the briefing staff by a hair's breadth. Wedge breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the briefing room. His hand-held sensor pack informed him there were two individuals inside, neither of whom set off the alert. He entered, appearing far more confident than he ought, all things considered.

Wedge stepped up to General Jornik's desk. "Antilles reporting back, sir."

Across the room Madine started, astonished. "Antilles!" Speculation rampant, the senior officer of Covert Operations eyed Wedge narrowly. Wedge's immediate superior went straight to the point. "And just how did you manage to evade our surveillance? Or haven't you been out, yet?"

"Sir."

Jornik's demand elicited no other response from their operative. Tight-lipped at implications that he was derelict in his duties, had neglected his first assignment, Wedge stood stiffly to attention. Both his superiors studied him, then turned their attention to a small screen set into the desk. General Jornik tapped something onto the pad. He frowned.

"We're going to have to get security to run a check of the perimeter sensors and droids, Crix."

Something Madine saw on the screen put a sparkle in his eyes. He gave his head a barely perceptible shake. Whatever he had seen had alerted him to how Wedge had escaped detection. But Jornik was still bewildered and concerned.

"Could the weather have affected our systems, do you think? It's been pretty damp."

Madine shook his head. "Nope. Recheck the late returns, Al."

Alerted, Wedge realised what had twigged Madine. For several minutes Jornik fast-forwarded through the recording. Then he rolled his eyes. Released an exasperated sigh.

"Skywalker. That explains a lot."

Evidently this was not the first time the Jedi Master had left and returned to the installation, leaving few to the wiser. Appreciation for Luke's talents increased immeasurably in Wedge. It took all his control to keep a grin off his face. The piercing stare his father's old friend now rested on Wedge came close to unnerving him. Erased all mirth from the situation. But just as quickly a chuckle escaped Madine. In so much, General Madine eased Wedge's fears that he would be in trouble.

"Using a Jedi to escape detection." Alfiar Jornik shook his head. "You're getting lazy already, Antilles."

"You taught me to use the handiest tools, sir. General Skywalker just happened to be passing and offered me a lift."

Wedge's audacity only served to intensify Jornik's glare. However, Madine laughed outright. "He's got you there Al. Loosen up."

"Stay out of this, Crix. He's my man."

"On loan to me."

But Jornik had lost his hold over Wedge. Despite the bark in his voice it was evident the other officer was pleased. Not that Wedge relaxed his stance. They were not done with him yet. He dropped the message chip on the desk.

"Report!" Jornik snapped the command.

The order elicited a steady, comprehensive stream of information from Wedge. Released by the correct intonation voice patterns locked into Wedge's subconscious through a miniature transponder implanted just behind his left ear. As though he was simply a larger version of the micro-disk he had retrieved, Wedge covered his movements from the moment he had left the base that evening. His report covered everything. Every detail of what he had seen and heard.

He outlined the hours spent crouched in the alley near the entrance to the subterranean city. Finally he reached the point when Flit arrived on the scene. There was no indication from Crix Madine that the news interested him. When Wedge dug out the micro-disk that had recorded his activities and the empty storage capsule, Jornik accepted them. While Wedge continued with his report, the disk was fed into a slot. It vanished. So did the capsule and micro-chip. But when he repeated Flit's information concerning Alderaani refugees, Jornik stiffened, his expression turning neutral

"Sorry, Antilles. I sympathise with Flit's sentiments, but this other matter takes precedence. Rest assured, though, if we do discover where these refugees are, and can rescue them, we will."

"Sir, I'd like to---"

General Madine shook his head, silencing him. Disappointment stabbed through Wedge. Somehow he kept it off his face. Watched Madine thoughtfully stroke a red beard heavily stranded with grey. "You have your assignment, Antilles."

"Yes, sir. That's it, sir," he concluded.

"Except for your encounter with Skywalker," added Jornik.

"Yes, sir."

"And that was unintentional? Not something you had previously arranged between you?"

"No, sir. Luke---General Skywalker and I haven't seen much of each other since Bakura."

In the face of that indiscretion, Wedge stumbled over the Jedi Master's name. He and Luke might be friends, but the Jedi now out-ranked him. And there was one thing General Jornik was a stickler about: respect in the ranks. Familiarity was severely frowned upon at all times, whether between members of the opposite sex or individuals like Luke and Wedge. Only under times of extreme stress was it overlooked. Strangely, though, the General failed to take Wedge to task this time over his inadvertent slip-of-the-tongue.

"That true, Crix?" Jornik turned to Madine for confirmation. Received it in a curt nod. "All right, Antilles. Now we'll go back over your report again. This time without benefit of that damned device they insist upon implanting in all our agents."

Madine defended his department. "We've found it useful in retrieving information our people sometimes believed wasn't pertinent to the assignment. And later proved extremely beneficial."

With a noncommittal grunt, Jornik waved a hand at Wedge. "Continue."

Once he had repeated his report from his personal viewpoint, Wedge discovered he was not done even then. The two officers grilled him repeatedly on every aspect of his assignment. Madine was particularly interested in the mood of the up-towners and such mid-town locals that Wedge had come into contact with that evening. And the Corellian pilot-temporarily-turned-agent talked until his mouth dried out and his saliva thickened so it was difficult to swallow. Finally satisfied, they released him. Neither officer made any allusion to the news that the New Republic's Intelligence Department had been compromised.

'But then,' reflected Wedge, 'it's none of my business. And it's unlikely I'll hear the outcome of the investigation they're probably going to launch right after they've dissected my debriefing.'

"You're dismissed, Antilles." That came from Madine. "Take a day. Get your kit in order. Then report back here. General Jornik will brief you on your next assignment following tomorrow's---excuse me," he automatically corrected himself, "this evening's function."

Uncertain how to react, Wedge hesitated. His superior explained. "There's a birthday celebration this evening for Her Royal Highness, following the early dinner hour."

"I thought next month---" began Wedge, amazed how well he covered his knowledge of events.

"Yes, yes. The official one is next month. The important event is tonight. Wanted to make certain all the right people were present."

"Sir?"

"Don't try the innocent routine with me, Wedge." General Crix Madine gently admonished his operative. "You don't do it very well."

'Siths and blasters.' Wedge mentally swore. "Yes, sir. Sorry."

"Just how much do you know?"

"Ah---well---"

"Skywalker." One word. Madine gave his head a shake. "Did he explain about the ceremony?"

"Not entirely."

"All right. Suffice to say you are to be there until we break the real news to the Princess. Then you may slip away as soon as it's convenient, and your departure won't be noticed."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Jornik gestured. "Get out, you impudent rascal!"

Strangely comforted by that familiar reproof from out of his childhood, Wedge managed a salute and spun on heel. He left the room as quickly as he dared. A sigh of relief escaped him once he was clear of his superiors. Now permitted freedom to move normally, he passed through Cov-Ops, out into the standard Operations Room. Only the Duty Officer took note of his presence. He nodded. Wedge kept going, unprepared to strike up casual conversation. He was worn out.

In the corridor leading past Flight Ops briefing room he encountered several acquaintances just in on leave. Another was preparing to head back on the early morning departures. Each called his name or raised a hand in greeting. Waving back to acknowledge them, Wedge kept going. Outside he paused to glance at the sky. Dawn was turning the horizon red and gold.

"Red in the morning, herder's warning."

The ancient Alderaani axiom automatically tripped from his lips. Strange how so many little things pertinent to that shattered world continually invaded his thoughts these days. Not that he had that much of an attachment for Alderaan, aside from its obvious place in New Republic history as the driving force behind the vehemence exhibited by rebel pilots against the Imperium in the latter days of their struggle prior to the fall of Emperor Palpatine.

More rain on the way. Well, he was going to be indoors for the rest of the day. Back at the barracks he discovered a recall to duty notice on his door. An old fashion method, but it was merely a 'heads-up' to check his computer console for further information. While stripping off his filthy subterfuge gear, Wedge activated his electronic notice board on the computer.

"More orders from Jornik." He muttered. Yanked his tunic off and tossed it aside. To remove his boots he was forced to perch on the edge of the chair. He kept reading. "What the hell? Dress uniform with medals? Nerf dips and herder galls!"

There was nothing military personnel abhorred more than official functions, parades and dress uniforms. Even if it did go with the territory. The chair rocked dangerously several times before he succeeded in shedding his footwear. Slacks dropped to the floor. Disgusted with the prospect of the proposed evening's events, Wedge gathered up the clothes he had just removed. Tossed them all into the cleaning chute. Taking Madine's suggestion to heart, he organised his things. A spare set of covert operations gear lay locked up in the bottom of his travel trunk. He took it out and packed it in his short-haul tote. Then he set his filthy boots outside the door.

For a moment he was tempted to clean them himself. But senior officers performing such mundane tasks were looked upon very strangely. In fact, after being caught out shortly after being promoted to full Commander, Wedge never again attempted to side step the system. Someone had, in fact, already seen to his flight gear. It hung in his closet, freshly laundered, hoses and attachments cleaned, the worn ones replaced.

"Traditions," Wedge told himself. Stripped to the buff, he stepped into the 'fresher. He made short work of getting cleaned up.

His quarters were not particularly large, but they were definitely more spacious than those on a frigate. At one time he had shared quarters with five other crewmen. Now he had quarters all to himself. This room came complete with a bed, desk and chair, a footlocker, high-security weapons lock-up, and closet for his personal kit. There was also a personal shower and toilet annex.

Set into the desk was a monitor and keypad for such workload as senior staff was expected to have, as well as direct access to Flight Ops. There was even a small chronometer which kept galactic standard time as well as Coruscant time and a third time piece to monitor the time from whichever planet the individual might originate. Wedge had his set to Fleet time. Alarm set, Wedge dropped into bed. The door buzzed.

"Damn!" Muttering further maledictions under his breath, he propped himself up on one elbow. "Yes?"

"Wedge, it's General Jornik."

Curious, Wedge brought the lights up to dim, trigged the door release. The General entered. Paused just inside the door. Jornik's eyes flickered across the room, noting the contents, the younger man's state of undress. Sensing his superior's discomfiture, Wedge waited for him to speak.

"Sorry to disturb you, Wedge."

"Not a problem, sir," Wedge responded automatically. He swung his feet out from under the covers and sat on the edge of the bed.

"Yes. Well." Again Jornik appeared to be having difficulty finding the right words for whatever was troubling him. "You're aware Cov-Ops has been decoding Palpatine's personal files?" Not daring to interrupt, Wedge simply nodded. "Some of the information has been declassified. General Madine thought you should see this. If you should wish to discuss the contents, call me."

Reaching out, Wedge accepted a micro-chip from Jornik. Strangely, Jornik appeared reticent to go into further details or to remain while he viewed whatever was on it. Uncertain what else to say, Wedge managed, "Thank you, sir."

Nodding once, the General withdrew. Flipping the chip back and forth thoughtfully, Wedge considered what might be on it. Decided to view it now, before he slept. The document was short and concise, and contained a small excerpt from a visual recording; the former came up first.

'Antilles family removed from place of residence under cover of a pirate raid. Placed on Alderaan. Captain Antilles transferred to command of TANTIVE IV. Replacement accepted as genuine article by all contacts. Information held in abeyance until higher authority authorises release to surviving family member.'

"Son of a---!"

For several heartbeats Wedge was unable to move to key in the remaining data. Implications too horrible to contemplate flew through his brain. When he did find he could move, could bring up the rest of the data, he was thrown into a nightmare.

Sight of his father confronting Darth Vader locked Wedge in place. Until now everyone, including himself, had denied the Captain Antilles in command of the TANTIVE IV had been any relation to him. Truth pinned him where he sat. Horrified, he watched as the Dark Lord of the Sith methodically reach out and inexorably lifted his father from the floor as though he were no more than a child's toy. Unable to look away throughout the interrogation, Wedge continued staring at the screen while Vader slowly, mercilessly, throttled his father. Cartilage audibly snapped; the grisly popping as his father's larynx was crushed brought Wedge close to vomiting. His hand shot out. Hit the deactivation switch too late. Contemptuous, Vader threw the lifeless corpse across the ship hall where it thudded against a wall and slithered to the floor, forgotten.

Mute, ignorant, the blank screen stared back at Wedge. Questions he had in plenty but no one remained to explain. Knowledge left him numb. Too many years lay between this much belated revelation and now. And the only person who might be able to supply some of the information was in a position beyond contact. His oldest sister, and only surviving family member, Syal; married to the enemy and Force knew where.

"Unless---maybe Luke could ask."

But he knew this was a subject that would have to wait for a solution until the following day. Somehow he got back into bed and, strangely, was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.

All too soon an annoying noise roused him from sleep. Not surprisingly, his covers were tangled about his legs. Although he could not immediately recall his dreams, a fine film of sweat covered his body. Hair stuck to his eyebrows, its unusual length necessary to his present assignments. And led to no end of needling by his peers. Not that the New Republic forces were particularly strict concerning such little matters. The old guard still complained that it 'just wasn't military'. And most of the corps did tend to keep their hair short, including the majority of the female pilots. After all, it was far more practical beneath a flight helmet.

Sleep logged he checked his chronometer. "Nine hours." He lay back, tempted to request another two hours. Then discipline exerted itself.

"Out!"

Wedge dragged himself from bed and crawled back into the 'fresher. The needle shower soon revived him. For once he forewent a real shower. Water on Corell had always been considered a luxury and conservation was drummed into every child from their earliest, formative years. Such discipline tended to remain. On the other hand the old Empire had been full of such inconsistencies. Its officials had dictated restraint to their oppressed subjects while revelling in decadence. Memory of the revelations regarding his family lurched up through his thoughts. Were swiftly thrust back down.

Somewhat more prepared to face the evening, Wedge ordered a quick snack through the off-duty receptacle. For its part, the New Republic had not yet entirely done away with all of these luxuries. Sterilisation and recycling plants had been over-hauled and improved to maximise returns on wastewater. Those officials adamant about dispensing with inappropriate luxuries were accommodated with their replacement. Troops above a certain rank, on the other hand, were afforded this dispensation as reward for their hard work. Wedge found it strange, but not unpleasant on the few occasions he had lathered up with an old fashioned bar of soap.

Taking down his dress uniform, Wedge laid it out. Checked over his decorations; fruit salad was the colloquial terminology amongst military ranks. He would not dress until he finished his meal. All too soon his food arrived, brought by a catering droid. While he ate he completed his reports and scanned the essay appended to his files by Captain Ehrnal.

"Not bad," he reflected. Cadet Harriwen had been perhaps a tad too diligent in his composition, if eager to expedite the extra assignment. But it passed muster. Wedge added a note to the new Rookie Flight Commander.

Unable to put matters off any longer, Wedge Antilles completed his ablutions. Upon setting his tray outside the door for collection he discovered his clean and shining boots standing to the right. As expected. He brought them in, dressed and stamped his feet into the high boots. Then he left, closing the door behind him.

CHAPTER SEVEN

While gazing out across the gathering, small by the usual state function standards, Wedge surreptitiously shook his head. As far as he was concerned this was an incredible waste of time, manpower and credits. Of course, two hundred dignitaries and service personnel were far cheaper and easier to accommodate than the massive affair planned for Princess Leia's official birthday next month.

What he really would have given his eye-teeth to know was who was responsible for imparting that information to the Council. Leia and her brother had more than enough to do without being wrapped up in brightly coloured packages to appease the masses.

`Then again, the masses have to be kept happy,' he told himself. And went back to studying the gathering.

On his immediate right stood Han Solo wearing midnight blue slacks and jacket over a white shirt, the jacket picked out with thin gold trim. To his left was Lando Calrissian, one-time administrator of the tibanna gas mines of Bespin Cloud City in the Anoat system, immaculate in soft grey and a lighter shade of blue. Like Solo, Lando had received a commission in the Alliance's fleet shortly prior to the attack on the second Death Star. He was also on unattached assignment. Tonight he was impeccably attired with not a crease out of place. Darkly handsome, he drew eyes wherever he went.

Behind Wedge a tiny 'wheep' informed him that Artoo-Detoo had just arrived. He and See-Threepio were not the only droids present. But Artoo was the only astro-mech permitted at such auspicious gatherings and immediately identifiable to many civilians. A glance back confirmed Chewbacca was not in his usual spot, looming behind his partner. Highly unusual to anyone who knew the pair.

"Now I wonder where he's got to?" Wedge half-turned to Solo to inquire. Changed his mind when he saw the studied look on the ex-smuggler's face. None of them really wanted to be here, Wedge realised. And felt he was in excellent company for the first time since entering the lesser of the two audience chambers.

It was somewhat reassuring to note Artoo was behaving himself, keeping out of sight and out from underfoot. There remained a large percentage of humans and aliens who merely tolerated or suffered the presence of droids as a necessary evil, property of heroes notwithstanding. At most diplomatic functions, ambassadors and their aides got by with their proficiency in 'galactic', for good or ill. Protocol droids were used only when important speeches or pacts were on the agenda. Presently neither was required.

Bodies shifted slightly. Courtiers hurriedly cleared a path for a giant Wookiee now carefully threading his way toward Han from the main entrance. Several humans glowered. A couple grinned and greeted Chewbacca. He bared his fangs in an approximation of a smile but refused to stop until he reached his objective.

"Did you bring it, Chewie?"

To Lando's consternation, Han's question elicited a low roar from the Wookiee. A small group of visiting Sullustians frowned in disgust and withdrew, halting only when they had put considerable distance between them and the heroes.

"Cool it, Chewie," Lando requested, ever conscious of his image.

Chewbacca responded with another roar, one that was a fraction more restrained. Regardless, it was attention grabbing. Lando shook his head at Solo. "Isn't there something you can do to quiet him down? They're going to throw us out."

"Good. I could use an excuse to escape this circus."

Solo's retaliation amused Wedge. It also drew a throaty growl of agreement from the hirsute co-pilot. Hurriedly raising his hands in a gesture of defeat, Lando back-stepped a pace and capitulated to whatever it was Chewie had said.

"All right! All right. I can take a hint. Just---try to be a little quieter, okay?"

Whining, Chewie tipped his head from side to side. Shrugged his massive shoulders. Then directed himself to Han. He lifted his large leather satchel, a male Wookiee's only concession to clothing, and opened the flap. Solo glanced inside and grinned up at his partner.

"Thanks, Chewie."

As the exchange was a private one Wedge ignored their conversation. Nor was he particularly concerned whether or not Chewie's loud voice did get them all thrown out of the gathering. Like Han, he would welcome the opportunity to leave. Instead, he suffered in silence. Studied the ebb and flow of diplomats, their attaches and escorts. One learned a lot from body language, who spoke to whom, and which way the traffic flowed during a function. A lesson taught him by his grandfather that had stuck.

Solitary individuals and small parties eddied and swirled about the polished stone floor. Marble, a prize commodity on most worlds, had been laid out with meticulous care in a random pattern. Overtop the slippery stone had been added a non-slick surface which did not detract from the artistry of the stone-layers. Along both sides of the rectangular hall pillars rose one and a half stories to support the base of an incredible, vaulted ceiling. Coruscant's night sky was mimicked on the inside of the dome in minute detail, even to accurately tracking the movements of the moons, stars and system planets. Below the dome the overall theme was picked out in a soft eggshell pink and pale blue, with gold and silver relief. Underneath, bas-reliefs added depth to the effect. At one end of the hall was a grand entrance for major functions; this was supposed to be a low-key affair. Weaving through the low-key tumult of voices tinkled a scintillating orchestral piece. Not immediately recognising the movement, Wedge stretched to pick it out while continuing his inspection of his surroundings.

Directly opposite the grand entrance rose a dais, elevated two steps above the main floor. Curtains draped the rear and half way around the curving sides, effectively cutting off any distraction in the hallway outside. Behind the colonnade, on either side of the room, were several doors that allowed servants access, whether they were sentient or droid. And it permitted attendees to slip away unobserved, as circumstances dictated. Which was just what Wedge wished to do. Then his eyes caught sight of a uniform. Two. More.

In fact, nearly all the off-duty upper brass was present, each resplendent in their military best. Light glinted off medals almost as brightly as it did from the jewels bedecking the civilian ladies in the gathering. Mingling, putting on their best social manners, the officers groomed the crowd. Admiral Ackbar stopped just in front of the dais to speak with a number of Bothans and Wedge caught sight of Mon Mothma in their midst.

'That figures.' He observed the group, not surprised.

Across the room was General Carlist Rieekan, several elderly ladies grouped about him attentively. Fluttering on this party's perimeter were a number of younger ladies, dancing attendance, Wedge suspected, on elder relations. No doubt waiting to be formally presented to Princess Leia Organa-Skywalker should time permit.

For some reason Wedge found his attention centring on that group. Rieekan was carrying on a particularly intense conversation with the more staid dame in the bunch. The elder lady shifted slightly and Wedge finally caught her face in profile: Mon Mothma's replacement as Speaker of the House from Condorra. And in that instant he realised who the younger women were even as they left off all pretence of listening and began searching the gathering. Furthest from him was Dame Annonil's granddaughter. Her companions were distant cousins. Wedge struggled unsuccessfully to stifle a groan.

"Finally spotted them, did you?"

Someone spoke softly in his left ear from just over his shoulder. Even before he automatically glanced back, he knew Luke had somehow eased into the hall, unobserved by the majority of those present. For once his stark Jedi attire was resplendent with a baldric sash bespangled with battle decorations. Other honours and awards occupied the remaining space between throat and left breast. He looked as out of place as a fish on Tatooine. Only the black gloves and cloak were missing. No doubt removed in concession to his sister. Like Han, Luke hooked his thumbs into his belt on either side of his waist, the left just above his lightsabre. Another concession permitted the Jedi Master: no one outside the Royal Guard was allowed to wear weapons in the presence of any Government official.

"Yeah." Wedge responded to Luke's comment. He gave an exaggerated shudder. "You don't suppose we could lose ourselves elsewhere, do you?"

A familiar twinkle in his eyes belying the deadly seriousness of his tone, Luke firmly shook his head. "Not a chance, Wedge."

"For two credits, I'd just go," continued Wedge rebelliously. At that precise moment the three ladies discovered the heroes. There was no attempt at discretion. Another groan escaped the Rogue Flight Commander. He attempted to edge back, to distance himself. To, at the very least, place Lando between him and the advancing females.

"No you don't," said Luke pleasantly and dropped his hands to his sides.

"What? Are you my watch dog all of a sudden?"

"Sorry, buddy. General Rieekan was quite insistent that I don't let you escape tonight."

"Nerf balls!" Wedge blurted rudely. "Why did he---"

Before Wedge could pry anything further out of Luke, the trio of giggling vacuum heads descended on them. And just as quickly he and Luke discovered themselves alone with the socialites and one very lonely droid.

"Space rats deserting a holed ship," muttered Wedge. Felt Luke give him a little push in the small of his back. He forced a congenial smile.

"Such a lovely occasion, Commander," tittered the fairer of the ladies.

"Yes, it is, Lady Jaisene," managed Wedge around his affected grin.

"And so nice of the Princess to invite us. Don't you agree, Master Skywalker?"

Patience itself, Luke responded, "My sister was too kind."

How he kept that socially correct mask in place was beyond Wedge. His own was already beginning to slip. In fact, he would have given his X-Wing to be as ingratiating when circumstances dictated. Lady Nirtia took up her sister's conversation.

"She always invites us, you know."

Even a fool could have read the inference. Wedge hurriedly bit his tongue. It was altogether too tempting to inform the ladies that Princess Leia had very little to do with the social roster drawn up by her advisors. Occasionally she was known to reject certain suggestions, but on the whole she approved the draft. From the look on the Jedi Master's face it was evident his thoughts paralleled Wedge's.

"And we're always the first to hear about special functions," continued Lady Horialteana. For once Wedge experienced a twinge of pity as he wondered what relation had been responsible for her being blessed with such a mouthful. Horialteana giggled. Wedge sensed rather than actually spotted the foot that tapped hers.

"But it's true," she insisted, refusing to be hushed. "Take next month's---"

Nirtia's frown did nothing to hush her cousin. Rather, it only made her more adamant. She pouted at the others. "But surely no one keeps such secrets from a great Jedi Master?"

It took every inch of will power for Wedge not to roll his eyes. Incredibly, the ladies failed to read the mirth dancing in Luke's eyes as he rested a solemn look on them.

"Ladies, Jedi do not pry where necessity does not dictate."

Luke's sage rejoinder came very close to making Wedge choke on a mouthful of saliva. Wide-eyed with awe, dazzled by Luke's presence, the ladies gazed at him in wonder.

"Oh!" Lady Nirtia released a gentle exhale.

For one brief second, Wedge was on the verge of edging back into the crowd. His jaw was beginning to ache from his effort to remain pleasant. But a fanfare blared out across the assembly. Conversation ceased as though someone had thrown a master switch. Everyone turned to face the dais.

Huge drapes behind the dais were drawn aside. Princess Leia entered, took the steps up and paused. The curtains dropped, cutting off all distraction. Her raiment, an under-spoken gown in white, deep blue and silver, was cut to precisely outline her figure from the waist up. Whoever had designed the outfit had taken care to be discreet with the decoupage, creating a vision of royalty. Silver filigree caught her brown hair up and back. Waves of shining hair flowed down her back, rippling with auburn highlights, reminding Wedge of the coiffure during the short-lived awards ceremony on Yavin Four. Tiny silver gems twinkled from her free tresses. At her neck hung a necklace of beaten silver. Chalcedony, Alderaan's signet of office, offset its silver setting. Trapped by the past, Wedge's breath caught in his throat.

"Aren't those---"

"All that remains of Alderaan's crown jewels," acknowledged Luke wistfully. He had never known what it meant to be wellborn, but had apparently adapted with all the readiness of a master actor to his present station.

"Madine's people located them in one of the Emperor's show cases in a special wing. Apparently they were liberated by the Imperials from the TANTIVE IV."

Incredibly, none of the ladies overheard their discussion. Fortunately, thought Wedge, submerging the shiver of revulsion the TANTIVE IV's name brought to mind. He was half-tempted to tell Luke about the news Jornik had given him concerning his family. Something froze up inside him. He could almost imagine what sort of conversation and speculation that might have inadvertently spawned. Fortunately the women were gazing down the hall, enthralled by the Princess' regal appearance. By the time Lady Jaisene redirected herself to Wedge, he had recovered his composure.

"Don't you think she's absolutely the most beautiful person you've ever seen?"

Nirtia's enthusiastic exclamation drew a quiet snide aside from the other cousin. "A bit on the short side, though."

"And perhaps a shade too thin," amended Jaisene, ever ready to support Horialteana. Neither seemed particularly concerned that they were slandering the Princess in front of one of her subjects and her twin brother. The fanfare switched to the Old Republic's anthem; resurrected and modified slightly to reflect the new regime, it projected an air of hope.

"Being the head of state for so many worlds, concern for their welfare and the well-being of their inhabitants," reflected Nirtia politely, "must be terribly wearing."

In spite of her attempt to cover her companion's faux pas both men saw the frightened, sidelong look she cast in the Jedi's direction. Although Luke remained impassive, there was no doubt how he felt at her exhibition of terror. Uncertain exactly what to do, Wedge stirred a fraction. It proved sufficient. The two ladies on his left promptly fell silent. Drew into a tight knot with their companion.

Wedge longed to say something to Luke, but Leia had taken her place at the front of the dais. The music died on cue. Protocol droids promptly appeared at the sides of those diplomats who were not completely fluent in galactic standard. Lacking the ability to clearly comprehend the necessary nuances they were forced to rely upon translators.

When he sneaked a peek at the ceiling dome, Wedge picked out minute light refraction high above. Suspended aloft on a cushion of air was a sparkling network of miniature transmitters. Programmed to pick up the voice of anyone on the dais, they project it throughout the hall without the speaker having to raise their voice.

"I think we should make our way toward the front," Luke quietly advised.

Something was definitely afoot and he was unable to correctly discern what it might be from his friend's expression. Wedge frowned. "What's up?"

"Come on, Wedge."

Luke's insistence convinced his companion there was no escape. He started forward, only to pause as Lady Jaisene heaved a wistful sigh in a fashion he was certain had worked for her on other occasions.

Oblivious to their earlier monumental insult, Horialteana gasped eagerly. "Oh! Master Skywalker! May we accompany you to the dais?"

This time the young ladies received a nasty shock. "I'm afraid that is quite out of the question, girls."

Dame Annonil arrived, a firm look freezing her flirtatious relations where they stood. She graciously inclined her head to Luke.

"A good evening to you, Master Jedi." Calculating eyes fixed on Wedge. "Commander."

Remembering himself, Wedge briefly accepted and bowed over the Dame's proffered hand. Then he withdrew and hurried after Luke as his friend slipped away. They made their way down along the side of the hall, keeping to the perimeter, away from the heaviest congestion. Somehow Wedge kept one ear tuned to Leia's speech. A feat in itself as he adroitly sidestepped repeated attempts to waylay him.

Just as they arrived at the front and slipped into place to the right, Leia switched from welcoming the assembly to praising the New Republic's achievements. The Princess quickly and succinctly brought her address to the victory at Bakura, covering their allies' accomplishments in that conflict and the truce. Concluded with the repatriation of Coruscant from Imperial domination.

"For this, we again have the Jedi to thank," she said solemnly. Leia rested a sisterly grin on her brother. In response, Luke winked back. No one in the hall begrudged them that non-stately exchange of sibling affection. For so many years neither had known the other existed. It was only right they made up for lost time.

"Once again we have successfully staved off the assault of those who continue to adhere to tyranny and oppression as a means to authority. Yet again we have lost many young lives and experienced personnel in this senseless conflict. And once more there are those among us who must be thanked appropriately for their ongoing contributions to the New Republic."

Wedge lost the battle and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. He muttered from the corner of his mouth. "I'm going to get you for this, Luke. Who does her speeches?"

"She does." Only a suggestion of a grin tugged the corner of Luke's mouth in response. His eyes remained on Leia. To that, there was no counter and Wedge wisely bit down on his tongue. Leia sedately continued her address.

"Although there are so many who deserve rewards for their hard work and accomplishments, it is unfortunate that only their commanding officers may receive recognition here. But in so doing, we remember their subordinates as well and hope they realise they are not forgotten.

"Admiral Ackbar. Come forward."

Down the hall echoed the crisp clip of the Mon Calamari coming to attention. Soon after he emerged from the crowd, slipping beneath the hands of well-wishers who reached out to touch him in passing as though hoping some of his success would rub off. Bulbous eyes bulged slightly more than usual betraying the height of penned emotions generally only experienced during battle. A courtier appeared from behind the curtains, cushion held before him. Resting on the sumptuous material was a medal, its ribbon carefully draped above and around two sides of its circumference.

Reaching out, Leia grasped the ribbon. Lifted the medal from the cushion, allowing it to drop to the end of its ribbon. Ackbar bowed his head low. Princess Leia slipped it over his head, smiled at the General as he straightened. They quietly exchanged a couple of sentences. Then the Admiral stepped back as applause rang out, saluted and moved to the rear of the dais. There he took a stance correctly and militarily at ease. Leia summoned the next recipient.

"General Rieekan."

CHAPTER EIGHT

One by one recipients' names were called, summoning twenty-one senior officers and flight crew. With each announcement, Wedge twitched uncontrollably. No one was surprised when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker joined the honoured. Witnessing Solo's discomfiture, Wedge had difficulties smothering a grin. The Corellian took his place at Luke's side, seeming to draw strength from familiarity and numbers. Gradually Wedge unwound. Relaxed. As a result, he was wholly unprepared for Leia's final announcement.

"These before you are the principals in our continued victories against tyrants. However, there are always a few whose achievements are overlooked. Today we take the opportunity to rectify just such an oversight."

Leia paused meaningfully and gazed out over the throng. For a brief minute Wedge held out hope he had escaped being drawn into the circus he always felt investitures engendered.

"For continued bravery in battle. For his ability to quickly and correctly assess deteriorating situations and act accordingly as evidenced by his actions in recovering our advantage at Bakura, and for leading the advance force against Coruscant, we award the Medal of Valor, Order of the Star of Alderaan, to Commander Wedge Antilles."

Applause rippled up the hall, swelled. But Leia raised her hands, stilling her audience. Her gaze dropped, she pinned Wedge where he stood. In spite of all his years of service, terror shot through him. Usually when ceremonies of this magnitude were to be performed the recipients received a couple of dry runs prior to the occasion. Left flat-footed, Wedge experienced a mad urge to flee. To run somewhere. Anywhere. Leia smiled warmly, further disarming him.

"With this presentation goes a promotion." He stared up at her, slack-jawed. He dared not look at Ackbar for confirmation that this was the real reason behind his so-called demotion, but this had to have been it. "Battle-field promotions are expected, and are for the good. But when time allows, there should be ceremony. Formal recognition beyond one's peers. General Antilles? Would you please come forward?"

What had started as a polite acclamation now altered to thunderous uproar. Shouts, whistles and cheers rang out, uninhibited. Somewhere a female squealed with delight; a distracted portion of Wedge's stunned mind identified Lady Nirtia.

Only training saved Wedge. He drew himself smartly to attention. Stepped forward. As he approached Leia, he glanced past her shoulder. Han seemed inordinately amused by his discomfort while Luke remained studiously straight-faced. Halted at the prescribed distance, Wedge saluted the sole surviving member of Alderaan's Royal House. Then he took a step forward. From the corner of his eye he saw two courtiers appear. On one cushion rested the same medal with which Luke and Han had been invested at Yavin Four. On the other reposed General's pips.

Head bowed to receive the medal, Wedge's breath caught repeatedly in his throat around the large lump that had suddenly formed there. The ribbon settled over his shoulders. Its medal dropped to rest, heavy against his chest. He raised his head. Still solemn, Princess Leia removed his old insignia, epaulettes and all, and replaced them with the new.

"Congratulations, Wedge," she said quietly in his ear while she worked. "Your father would be proud of you."

"Thank you, your Highness."

Words choked in his throat. Sounded lame. Yet it was all Wedge could find to say. Clearly she expected nothing else. She stepped back, signifying she was done. Saluting her again, Wedge joined the others. Without turning her back on the assembly, Leia gestured gracefully.

"My friends and associates, I give you the heroes of the New Republic. And of the relief of Coruscant."

Tumultuous acclamation temporarily over-powered the micro-speaker chips. As the clapping faded away, all the recipients left the dais, except Luke. Although this was supposed to be a formal occasion, he slid an arm around his sister's waist. The familiar smile he rested on her tugged at Wedge's heart. Brought back memories of his last visit home to Corel. Time with his sisters and young brother.

Overlying those were other memories; of an eager, fresh-faced Tatooine farm boy thrust into war with all the brutality that strife can employ. Of the Princess' return from Bespin Cloud City with a feverish, badly battered, mutilated Luke. So much had transpired in so little time. Quickly Wedge shook off the vision.

"My friends," began Luke, "we've all played something of a small joke on my sister. I believe it's time we let her in on the jest."

A mild ripple of humour went through the crowd. Bewildered, Leia stared at her brother. "Luke, what---"

"The real reason we're gathered here today, Leia, is that it's your birthday---our birthday. And we decided you should have the opportunity to celebrate with friends before the official function."

"Luke!"

That hoarse whisper in mortification carried to the listeners in spite of Leia's best effort to restrain it. Good-natured chuckles rippled through the gathering. Trapped, she could only blush as two hundred plus human, alien and droid voices rang out in congratulations and felicitations. The consummate diplomat, Leia recovered quickly thanked her subjects and friends. Several more Palace droids, supervised by See-Threepio, wheeled in an array of birthday confections. Gifts suddenly appeared. Everyone waited with anticipation for Leia to leave the dais and join the crowd.

"Artoo."

Only Wedge realised Luke had accomplished the impossible. Without the micro-speakers picking up his summons he drew his personal astro-mech to his side. Artoo-Detoo waddled forward, whistling happily. As he reached the twins, a panel in his side popped open. Inside nestled a package. Intrigued, Wedge watched. Fascinated and unashamed that he might be intruding, he was unable to move away when other guests politely withdrew to the food and beverage tables.

"Happy birthday, sis."

Luke pressed his lips to the crown of Leia's head. She hugged him back, then stooped to remove the gift. A shadow fled across Luke's features, momentarily erasing his pleasure. That look sent a chill racing over Wedge. What had Luke seen? What memories had that moment resurrected?

Then Leia was standing, opening the gift. Suddenly lost, feeling strangely out of place, Wedge turned away. Looking up the hall he caught sight of the three Condorra ladies studiously searching the gathering. And the object of their quest was obvious.

"Enough's enough," Wedge told himself.

There was no one near enough to stop him. Now that the opportunity had presented itself, he edged away through the crowd. Just as Wedge reached the pillared perimeter, Crix Madine caught his eye. Looked pointedly up the hall, grinning sympathetically. On that formal release from duty, Wedge escaped the function. He paused once in the shadow of the colonnade to look back at the Skywalker twins. Somehow Luke knew exactly where to find him. Their eyes met. The Jedi Master half-raised a hand.

"You never miss a trick, do you?" Wedge mouthed the question at the Jedi Master.

A broad grin lit his features. Luke gave his head a minute shake and returned his attention to the assembly, all business. Lady Nirtia discovered Luke. Began casting about for Wedge. Her target hurriedly located a door and left the hall. Nor did he slow once outside. He moved on through the maze of corridors until he reached the familiar domain of the flight crew areas, out-of-bounds to unauthorised personnel. Safe at last, he stopped to catch his breath and recover his composure.

"Guess I better see Accommodations." He reflected ruefully, fingers of his right hand brushing across the new pips. "They're probably going to want me to move again."

The moment he entered Housing, prepared to speak to the Senior Staff assignments, cries of congratulations greeted him. It had been no secret here, where all changes in status, appointments and postings were a matter of course. Several of the non-commissioned junior ranks grinned as he approached the counter.

"Congratulation, sir!" Beaming, one cheerful Corporal slid a record slate towards him. "Just sign here, sir. We've already got your room all lined up. Lieutenant Dorienne Turlat has been assigned as your aide."

'Nuts!' That was something he had failed to take into consideration, lacking the time to properly adjust to his abrupt change in status. All senior officers were appointed a BATMAN. 'Where did that title come from,' a distracted thought wanted to know.

"Sir?"

Turlat saluted him respectfully, shook Wedge's hand when he held it out. Then his aide picked up the keypad. Blond, intelligence and curiously bright in muddy green eyes, Turlat was decidedly female. This was another disconcerting development to which his hormones could not help but respond. Wedge ruthlessly brought himself under control. The Lieutenant keyed through the display.

"They've placed you at the far end of the Royal Wing, sir, probably because of your association with---"

"Excuse me, Lieutenant." Removing the pad from her hands, Wedge checked the assignment.

"Royal Wing, Second Level. With a small garden access and briefing room," she continued. And deftly but politely retrieved the pad from his grasp. But Wedge had seen enough. He could come and go with impunity. Much like Luke Skywalker and Crix Madine, he would need freedom of movement.

"Shall we collect you luggage, sir and get you settled in your new quarters?"

That was undoubtedly a rhetorical question. Before Wedge could respond, his BATMAN escorted him from the office. Like a lost child he trailed her out, struggling to muster his senses. The halls back to his old room seemed strangely empty. Of course most of his contemporaries would be on their way to bed at this hour or back to the ships in orbit. Yet a tiny part of him wanted to encounter someone from his old Squadron. To his disappointment they reached his room without interruption. Under Wedge's watchful, amazed eye Dorienne quickly and efficiently packed up his meagre possessions in his large kit bag and its smaller counterpart. There was no doubt she was experienced in this part of her duties. It was equally evident she was surprised by the lack of gear and personal possessions.

"You'll need a sash, of course," she briskly informed him while she worked. "And an additional pair of high boots."

When her hands paused over his worn flight boots, an expression of distaste on her face, Wedge attempted to intervene. "Dorienne---"

"Just Dori, sir," she said without looking up. Added almost as an after-thought, distracted as she was with her chores. "Please."

'But those are my favorite pair of flight boots,' Wedge silently protested. But could not force out the words. Evidently she knew what he was thinking. She shook her head to let him know he would not get his way in this.

"Sorry, sir. These will have to be replaced. Can't have the enemy thinking the New Republic's so short on funds we can't afford to keep our senior officers looking the part."

A resigned sigh escaped Wedge. He tried again. "Dori. You'll have to be patient with me. I'm a bit new at this. As to those boots, I promise I'll only use them when I go flying."

"I don't know," she began. Quickly recovered, "Yes, sir. I'm sure that'll be fine. You're on active duty, too, most of the time so it's understandable you'll want comfortable footwear when flying." Now she did pause to look up, her hands resting on the top of his short-hop cari-sac. A slight flush coloured her cheeks beneath his penetrating stare. "I requested the position to BATMAN, sir. But, to be honest, I never expected---"

Wedge misread her intentions. "If you'd rather someone else. Another appointment---"

"Oh, no, sir! This is---an honor!"

And she meant it. The words rushed out of her, heightened by conviction. Amazed by her forthright reply, Wedge could only stare. Dori blushed, a deeper red, ducked her face away and busied herself with the last of his kit. Then she went into the washroom to check he had not left anything on the small counter or in the one cabinet.

"Was there someone else you would have preferred to serve in this capacity?" Still a bit off base, Wedge pried further. "If you don't mind me asking?"

She did not immediately respond. Instead, she returned to strip the covers from his old bed and fold them on the foot of it for the custodian droids to collect. The door buzzer sounded. Dori hurried to open the door. A droid waited outside, two null-plates in tow.

"Take those two containers," ordered Dori, hefting them across the room to the doorway. She was not to escape Wedge's grilling so easily, though.

"I wouldn't want you to feel you've accepted second best." Wedge insisted upon an answer while watching the droid fasten the null-plates to the weapons and footlockers. "And I won't take it personally, whatever you say."

"Well, sir." Compelled to answer, Dori paused long enough to shoulder his cari-sac. "I had hoped General Skywalker would----but---"

"A Jedi does for himself." Sympathetic, Wedge grinned at Dori when she looked up. In as much he erased her fears that he would take it wrong in spite of his earlier denial.

"Yes, sir. And, of course, he's unattached now, off-world more often than not." Dori reached down and hefted the larger kit back. When Wedge reached for it, she took a step back. "Ah, that wouldn't look right, sir."

"Well, let me carry something," he requested.

After a moment's consideration, she passed him his cari-sac. "Shall we go, sir?"

Wedge's ability to pass off his BATMAN's admission of preferring duty with another officer went far to ease her anxieties. Flushed with her new superior's candid appraisal, Dori seemed to sprout additional confidence. Only then did Wedge realise her earlier display of bravado had concealed a great deal of insecurity. Some newly promoted senior officers could be tyrants. Wedge had his own history of run-ins with a number of those self-same individuals. Fortunately the war against the Empire had served to weed out a good number of them. Although, by his estimates, not quite enough. However, he was not about to stoop to that level. The droid trailed along in their wake, a silent, obedient satellite.

Along the way back in the direction of the Palace they passed through several corridor intersections. One passage off to their left led from Flight Operations. Here they finally encountered someone who knew Wedge.

"Hey! Wedge!" The swaggering, masculine voice suggested an irritating leer at the sight of a female in the Corellian's company. "Where're you going? Got lucky?"

Wedge performed a swift about-turn to confront the other pilot. That halted the entire party. His expression cut the man off before his run-away witticisms progressed further. Nor was Wedge particularly surprised to discover he was face to face with Blue Flight's new Commanding Officer.

Rathe Alerston approached the group still wearing his flight suit. An odor of sour sweat permeated the air, preceding Rathe as he reached them. Pale, angry over this officer's offensive implications, Dori struggled against insubordination. Bit down a hasty retort.

"Just in off patrol, there, buddy," continued Rathe, his attention momentarily on one hose connection that had somehow got loose and was flapping down his front. He got himself in order. Glanced up right into the face of Wedge's unconcealed outrage. About to rib his one-time flight comrade further, sight of the new rank epaulettes froze him, eyes wide.

"Son of a Sith---Sir!" Mortified over his personal effrontery to a superior officer, albeit one who had only recently been elevated to seniority, Alerston had the presence of mind to snap to attention. Produced a creditable salute. "Sorry, sir! I wasn't aware---"

"Obviously."

Wedge cut him off in mid-sentence. Although he had generally got along with Blue Flight's senior officer in the past, Wedge always felt Rathe Alerston was a touch too familiar with the junior ranks. And too crude and vulgar even before he over-imbibed, particularly now he had advanced to senior status. With authority finally behind him, Wedge decided it was time to do something about it.

"I want you to report to me within the hour, Commander!"

"Sir!" Rathe blanched. He had suspected the Corellian could be an unholy terror, given sufficient superiority and justification. And now he was about to be proved correct.

As much as Wedge yearned to give this individual the dressing-down he richly deserved right here in the hallway, he knew better than to do so before a junior officer. Without deigning to acknowledge Rathe further, Wedge turned to his BATMAN. "Shall we proceed, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir."

As they moved off there was no doubting Dorienne's satisfaction. But she was well trained and made no allusion to the incident. Instead, she pointed out landmarks so he would be able to find his way to and from his new quarters without getting lost. Behind them, Rathe beat a strategic retreat. They reached Wedge's new quarters without further incidents. When the door slip aside, he was dumbfounded. Even though he should have known what to expect, the sheer enormity of the space he had been allotted left him speechless.

He stepped through into a tiny antechamber and halted. Dorienne signed the droid past her and closed the outside door before opening the inner one. Wedge hurriedly inspected the waiting area. His gaze swept over the chairs and low table in the annex provided for the comfort of those awaiting his pleasure. Beyond the inner door lay more surprises.

These new quarters allotted him were luxurious by comparison to what he was accustomed on board ship. In a sweep from right to left, the sitting room where he would be expected to entertain his guests there was a bar complete with food dispenser and a half-unit 'fresher for guests. Directly in front of him and down a step were a couch and two chairs, a low table separating them. On his far left, side by side, with a full 'fresher unit dividing one from the other was a small office and a bedroom.

"If you'd like to make an inspection, sir, I'll just see to your things," said Dori. Before he could react she took his tote from his unresisting fingers and, droid in tow, headed towards the bedroom.

Intrigued, Wedge moved across the sitting room to the large transparency. A garden occupied the 'dead' space between the wall to the outside world and his quarters. Its ceiling reached one story above him. Converted sunlight provided simulated day and growth stimulation to the flora and fauna of this unexpected luxury while ceiling sprinklers mimicked rain. Two paths wound between floral borders, beneath dwarf trees and around carefully tended shrubs and grass; from appearances most of the species were native plants: Pathetic survivors of Coruscant's ravaged flora. All of which provided relative seclusion. But further inspection revealed it was accessible from three entrances, his own and two others just out of sight.

From the bedroom Dorienne observed the object of his inspection. "The grounds are swept four times a day, sir, and once at night, by security. Only three others use the garden."

"Who?"

"I believe the others are Admiral Ackbar---when he's here---General Rieekan and General Madine."

"Madine," said Wedge. "And me. Figures."

But he kept his words pitched for himself. Still, he somewhat doubted he would find much time to use the garden. He turned away, went to the bedroom where he found Dorienne hanging up his spare dress slacks. Three flightsuits and four sets of work dress shirts, slacks and two jackets already lined the closet. Boots and shoes were marched neatly across the closet floor, toes in to prevent inadvertent scuffing.

"That's it, sir. Except for your new boots," said his BATMAN. "Unless you'd like me to unpack your cari-sac, too?"

"No, Dori. That'll be fine. I can take care of the rest."

"Are you sure, sir? It's no problem."

Wedge shook his head to emphasize his words. "I'll take care of it, thanks."

"All right, sir." She gathered up his work dress. "And I'll see about getting these exchanged while I'm about it. And order the rest of your kit."

Not quite knowing how else to react, Wedge opted for the expected. "Thank you, Dori."

"Not at all, sir." A smile flashed across her face. Clearly she was genuinely enjoying herself in her capacity as his aide. "If you need me there's a call button at your bedside. And there are others set into the desk and boardroom table. I'm quartered directly across the hall."

"Oh."

"They've put me in with General Madine's BATMAN, Lieutenant Horalle." She paused as though waiting for him to say something, but Wedge only nodded. "Oh. Along with the usual link to Records, Ops, the library and Fleet you'll find there are transmission codes for your new position. In addition to the system in your private office at Fleet Ground Headquarters you'll find another in the boardroom."

"Very good, Dori."

Given everything Lieutenant Turlat said, Wedge read volumes between the lines. He suspected she had just inferred by her mentioning Madine that she had received Cov-Ops training. Perhaps was undergoing it at this time. When Wedge made no further comment, Dorienne came to attention, paused for the correct silent count of three, and departed, ushering the droid and its empty null-plates ahead of her. She reminded Wedge for all the world of a nerfherder from classic children's fiction. As the door closed behind them, Wedge went into his office.

An inspection of his personal messages already awaiting his attention revealed one flagged immediate. His initial attempt to open it resulted in failure. Feeling foolish, he keyed in his special access code.

"Antilles reporting in, sir."

Voice recognition and retinal patterns accepted, the computer spat out a written message. "Report to my office at first hour after you acknowledge receipt of this. Have your short-hop kit ready to go and wear dress of the day."

The sigil at the bottom belonged to General Jornik. "Damn," muttered Wedge and erased the message and its back-up files. "So much for R and R."

He changed into his work dress uniform as ordered and packed his special assignment gear. While dressing he took a minute to admire the military precision with which his BATMAN had laid out his kit on the bed. With the remainder of his personal effects stowed, Wedge re-locked both lockers and set his personal seal on them just in case. Only Security had access. And in light of Flit's disturbing news, Wedge prayed the breach were not in that branch of Covert Operations.

Back in his office he considered his next task. He double-checked the Duty Roster and, noting his Wing's range practice time was being cut back by several missions, he sent a curt reminder up to Flight Ops. There were too many rookies newly assigned to Red Squadron, Rogue Flight's primary source for recruits, to permit that over-sight to go unchallenged. Unrest was still prevalent throughout the galaxy. No time to undercut flight readiness. He added a request for additional ground and atmosphere time on speederbikes, snowspeeders and other tactical flight equipment his people would be expected to use during full alert status. As a final note he insisted upon a one-in-four mock battle, scrambled from ground base or frigate and jumped by opposing forces in the asteroid belt beyond Coruscant. Ops would not like it, but Wedge decided to see just how much weight his new promotion carried. He wanted his people, primary and backup, flight crews and technicians prepared for the worst.

Then he dealt with the matter of his run-in with Rathe Alerston. In his memo to General Jornik, which he appended until after his assignment, Wedge precisely outlined the details of the incident, making particular mention of previous discipline problems. Rathe would, no doubt, hate him for it. But an example needed to be made. And there was no better individual with which to make the point, particularly in light of where the New Republic was recruiting its new crews. He made no suggestions. Jornik was fully capable of deciding how best to deal with the situation.

As a last he composed a careful note to Dorienne. Rather than calling her back to his quarters, he elected to append it to her message file. It was short and succinct.

'Have meeting in one hour. Short notice orders, no doubt. Pass on to Commander Alerston that I will speak with him at a later date. In case of an emergency, leave word with General Jornik. See you when I get back.'

"Let Rathe make of that what he will."

Satisfied, Wedge keyed in his aide's security code. Shut off the terminal. Cari-sac slung over his left shoulder, Wedge left, locking the door behind him. As he made his way back to Cov-Ops, he wondered, 'Just what do aides do when their officers are away?'

A grin tugged at his lips. Certainly there were other duties which occupied junior officers, such as studying toward their next promotion. Primary on the list, he recalled from his own days as a junior flight officer. He certainly could not fault Dorienne for her 'go-ahead' personality. Nor was he honestly hurt by her preferring to 'do for' Luke, as it were.

'Must be quite a let-down to all those aspiring aide-de-camps,' he reflected.

Had he been in the Lieutenant's place, he was positive he would have sought the same position. Then shook his head. 'Youth and ambition. Where has ours disappeared to, buddy?' There was no answer immediately forthcoming.

CHAPTER NINE

Although the principals had long since withdrawn, the birthday festivities continued. Having watched Wedge make his escape, Madine was wryly amused. He sympathised completely, knowing the determination of the Condorra ladies. No doubt about it, they were extremely irritated and no little slighted by Wedge's disappearance. Nor dared they intrude upon the quiet gathering now centred on Luke and Leia. Han, Chewbacca and Lando, presents in hand, posed too formidable an opposition. They knew better than to intrude upon Princess Leia's good graces when it was evident to all those present that she wished some time alone with her closest friends and sole family member.

Solo rested his right hand on Leia's shoulder. Ever the accomplished flirt, it was strange that he should so thoroughly dismiss his earlier years as a rake. Particularly when one considered the reason for his faithfulness. Intrigued by the possibilities, Crix quickly checked out the dignitaries. Speculation, curiosity and a flash of jealousy were noted, filed for future reference. Several ministers frowned, disapproving of that exhibition of affection from the ex-smuggler. Eyes on the couple, the officials put their heads together and discussed the matter.

"What are you thinking, old friend?" His interest as keen as Madine's, Ackbar joined the head of Cov-Ops. The matter of the Corellian and the Princess made the Calamari's face whiskers twitch uncontrollably.

"Where it my decision," commented Madine without hesitation, "I'd say they should be allowed to do as they wish. He has the training, for all he's a bit rough around the edges."

"Matters of state," began the Mon Calamari.

"I know." The General waved a hand impatiently.

"But there must be a way to resolve this to our favor. They are a good match, Crix. Even you have to admit that."

"Hmmm." No hint of emotion betrayed denial or affirmation. He managed to make it seem he was clearing his throat in diplomatic surrender. Ackbar's bulbous eyes remained fixed on the scene near the dais. "That judicious investigation into his background---

"Well called for, my friend." Ackbar's breath rattled over lungs more accustomed to water than oxygenated atmosphere. "Am I correct in determining your people had a hand in that particular matter?"

His inquiry brought a twinkle to Madine's eyes and Ackbar let the matter drop. He studied the rest of the now thinning gathering. "So where's young Antilles?"

"Fled."

"Ah." And the Calamari coughed to cover laughter, wheezing in spite of himself. "Understood."

Without altering his stance, Madine asked Jornik. "You passed on that information?" Alfiar nodded. "How did he take it?"

Jornik shook his head. "I didn't stay. I did tell him to call me if he wanted to talk but he hasn't, so I can only assume he hasn't viewed the information yet."

"Never assume anything," said the Mon Calamari. He stiffened slightly, eyes appearing to bulge still more, if that was possible. "Now where did---"

Madine hurriedly inspected the hall and realised what had happened. Yes. However they had managed it, the remaining heroes of the Rebellion had discretely withdrawn without anyone being the wiser.

"Skywalker and his Jedi tricks." Crix Madine reflected with more irritation than he generally cared to display.

"Tricks we would all well do to possess at times," reflected Rieekan, joining them in their huddle.

Crix pursed his lips. "I don't belittle the Jedi, Carl. But---"

"I know." Rieekan conceded. Realised there was an edge of irritation to his own voice and hastily covered his disaffection. "Still, he needs freedom go where and when he chooses, I suppose. The Jedi are an integral part of our future."

"As they were of our past," affirmed Ackbar sagely.

"Still," Madine shook his head, "one lone Jedi rebuilding the entire sect? Is it possible?"

General Salm, under whom Wedge's Rogue Squadron fell, appeared at his side in time to overhear that comment. He raised an eyebrow. "You ask that after what he's accomplished so far? Fresh off a rim world?"

"Tatooine, wasn't it?" The Mon Calamari gave a tiny shudder as he recalled the rim world was principally desert.

Salm nodded. All three officers recalled Dodonna. The tired smile which could softened features worn with age and the stress of fighting the Imperium from the day it abolished democracy eased heart-ache not so quickly eradicated. His comrades waited patiently.

"Naive as they come. Or so Jan once told me," commented Salm. "Full of ideals. Bright with dreams of rescuing princesses and destroying evil."

"Which he did," put in Carlist mildly.

"That he did." Madine reluctantly admitted defeat.

"Even with the death of his teacher only a short time before, he went on to succeed at something none of us thought anyone could accomplish."

Memory of old Jan Dodonna misted Salm's eyes. He struggled against the surge of emotions. Around him, the others stared at him in consternation. In all his years of service with them, Jan Dodonna had never confessed his fears that they would fail in their punitive strike against the DEATH STAR. Until the day he disappeared, Dodonna had been their mainstay, holding faith and belief in the Force as a torch to support the flagging Rebellion during its darkest hour. Salm voicing that fear held so long a secret shook everyone that last day.

Uncomfortable in the face of recalling Dodonna's weakness, Crix raised his hands as though to fend off his companions. "All right! I surrender!"

They laughed. Madine noticed Mon Mothma making her way in their direction. Then his chronometer chimed, paging him. Regret at being forced to abandon their tete-a-tete so quickly was a sour taste in his mouth.

"Please excuse me," he said. "Duty calls. Enjoy the rest of the evening. And extend my apologies to Mon Mothma."

He slipped away into the crowd, pausing only briefing to make the appropriate excuses to other acquaintances. Once clear of the place, however, he was all business. The Operations Center was a hive of industry when he entered.

"What have we got?"

With a glance over his shoulder, the Duty Officer gave Madine the information he hoped to hear. "He's in briefing now, sir. The others are standing by. They'll lift as soon as he joins them."

"Anyone notice his departure?"

"No, sir." The Duty Officer paused. "He did advise his BATMAN of the possibility, though."

"He would." General Madine considered the wrinkle in their carefully laid plans. "Have you prepared the standard message drops?"

"Yes, sir. The moment you gave me the word. His aide will carry on as though he's simply touring the Fleet. Programmed a grand tour of our orbiting forces for his transport's departure so it will appear they dropped him off along the way. As you ordered." Waiting only for the General's nod, the other continued. "We've even fed his name into the long range duty roster he drafted up before leaving."

"That ought to fool most of the suspicious for at least three days."

"Got him leading one of the attack formations that will jump the rookies out in the asteroid belt in five days' time."

"Good man!" Madine clapped the Duty Officer on the back. "What else?"

"That's it, sir."

"All right, then. Let's just hope nothing goes wrong."

Several minutes later and two floors away in a briefing room, an attack of nerves made Wedge's stomach jump as he anxiously studied the layout of a city he had only visited in his youth. Suddenly he felt older than his years. Chill fingers of uncertainty poked at him from every side. Taunted him for his attack of nerves. Several faces appeared on the viewer.

"Among these are the individuals we believe will be meeting on Olgathir. Study them. Sooner or later some of them should turn up in the resort community around Lake Erid. If more than two of them do show it'll confirm Intelligence reports."

        "You only want three to confirm suspicions?"  Wedge insisted upon clarification.  He wanted no doubts in his mind.
        "Three of the seven will suffice for Int-Rep's purposes."

        "Do we know which resort they'll be using?"

        Jornik shook his head.  "Afraid not.  You may have to canvass all the major resorts.  We do know this one," he switched back to the second profile, "Danilon Pherkail, never stayed at anything less than a four-star.  However, these days he hasn't the capitol to book in at even a three-star."

        "When I was last there," put in Wedge, "there were six three-star hotels, plus two five-star.  That's a lot of ground to cover for someone whose cover doesn't afford him a lot of spare cash."

        "Do your best.  We're relying on you, Antilles."

        "Yes, sir."

        "Make certain you get the holos, if possible.  But don't blow your cover.  And don't put yourself in harm's way.  The information has to get back to us.  Use whatever drop point is handiest as a backup, regardless of whether you're sure you'll get back to Coruscant.  Take no chances."

        "Right, sir."

        "That's it, then."  The General rose.  "You'll find your transportation at Berth Twenty-one, Ring Two.  There's additional information concerning your contacts, and all of your supplies are on board."

        "The crew---"

        "I'm sure you'll find them trustworthy."  Something Jornik said was making the General grin in spite of the seriousness of the moment.  "We've taken care of Lieutenant Turlat.  She won't be bored in your absence."

        "Thank you again, sir."

        "Not at all."

A strange look passed over Jornik's face as Wedge rose. They shook hands across the desk. Wedge turned to go.

"May the Force be with you, young Antilles."

He paused. "And with you, sir."

There had been a time when that sentiment had seemed little more than a worn-out cliche. An empty salutation from a dead past that had little left in it than the dust of history. But Luke's incredible feats had revived belief in the sentiment. Now Wedge welcomed the well wishing for what it was. He left Covert Operations, warmed inside by General Jornik's farewell. No one spared him a glance as he went out. It was as though he had ceased to exist.

Innumerable back ways and main routes led to the ships' berths. Wedge employed the one he felt beside suited his needs, all the while praying it would throw off any skulkers. He remained outwardly calm, combating his increasing nervousness. To most observers he was off for a couple of days' furlough across town, away from the restrictive barracks lifestyle. His clothing was low-key but something he usually wore during off-duty hours.

Finally certain he was not being followed he cut up a side road which connected the third and second ring. Ducking behind a slow moving freight-lev, he turned right. Just ahead lay his goal. Only when almost past his objective did he sidestep into the shadows. Again Wedge paused to check his back. Nothing. Drawing a deep breath to steady his nerves, he fought to look casual and unconcerned as he entered the docking bay.


For all Wedge's caution he was seen. Hidden in the shadows, the Imperial spy who was habitually assigned to tracking the movements of the ship in this particular bay now stiffened with surprise. With the Awards, Promotion and Birthday Celebration not an hour past, he was astonished to see the newly promoted General now hurrying into the docking bay.

"Antilles!" It was all the intelligence source could do to remain concealed in the shadows. "Very interesting. And just where might we be headed, General? With only a flight bag?"

By tapping a slicer code into the keypad he removed from his pocket, the spy locked into Coruscant's Flight Information Center. Several desperate seconds later the information spat back coordinates and flight path. The skulker scowled.

"Grand tour of the fleet?" He snorted. "Somehow I think not. So just where are the rest of them off to?"

Again he reviewed records, mentally cursing the time it took to download through the buffers which were designed to protect him from detection. Once more the news seemed unlikely.

"Bakura, Condorra, Calamar, Bothawui. With what?" The manifest came up. "Ah. That would make sense. Better get this information to the boss."

Pricked by urgency, the spy forgot to watch his own back as he faded away up the street in the wake of the object of his interest. Face a study in concentration, Flit's eyes narrowed appreciably. Crix had been correct in his fears. Someone had been interested enough in this docking bay to set a permanent watch on vessel and crew. The head of Cov-Ops would not be amused when he heard. Even less so if Flit did not prevent the agent from passing along whatever information he was carrying. He started after the Imperial snoop.

"Flit." Madine's voice was a whispered in his operative's left ear. "Someone just broke into Fleet Flight Operations."

"Already on it," Flit mouthed back.

"What have you got?"

"Tell you in a minute." He broke off as his quarry suddenly climbed into a hovercar. "Damn. Hang on."

Knowing better than to interfere, but on edge at the same time, Madine waited breathlessly on the other end of the transmission. Meanwhile, Flit took the only course of action left to him. He took out his blowpipe, hastily extended it and set a dart in the end. One hard exhalation sent the point at its target. The Imperial spy gasped. Clapped a hand to the side of his neck. But he had already engaged the hovercar's drive. As the sedative rapidly took effect, the enemy agent lost control of his vehicle. Out of control, the speeder careened down the street. It slammed into the side of a bowser carrying hydraulic fluid. There was a brilliant explosion as a spark ignited the spill.

"Damn it all to hell!" Flit blurted out loud, throwing up a hand against the glare which effectively destroyed night vision.

"What's happened?" Madine demanded an immediate update.

"Sorry, sir. I just blew it---literally."

A pause, then, "There's a report of an explosion."

"Yes, sir. He got into a hovercar. I'd have lost him, so I tried to stop him with one of my darts. Sorry."

Since there was no use crying over spilled bantha milk, Crix ordered his operative. "Okay. Meet me at our backup. I want a complete report."

"Sir." Eyes narrowed against the glare as he surveyed the flickering firelight and the port fire fighting patrol rapidly approaching, Flit mused. "Guess that takes care of that leak. I hope."

CHAPTER TEN

"What kept you?" Solo pushed away from the MILLENNIUM FALCON's leg strut against which he had been leaning. He was wearing his familiar flight clothes; white shirt, vest, Imperial high boots and black pants with the Corellian blood stripe running down the outside of the legs. A blaster rode low over his hip.

Casually he informed Wedge, "We've been waiting for over an hour."

Startled, Wedge lost his hold on his cari-sac strap. Slipping from his shoulder, it hit the plasti-crete next to his feet with a muffled thud. Then the humour of the moment struck him. "Now I see why no one was concerned about the trustworthiness of the crew with whom I was shipping out."

"Hah!" Han waved aside the remark. "Artoo! Grab that and let's get out of here. We're gonna lose our window if we don't call in our clearance now."

With a dozen questions pressing on him, Wedge followed Solo towards the freighter. He noticed something odd about the vessel's conformation. Paused. Blinked hard. The peculiarity refused to go away. At the top of the ramp Solo turned.

"You coming?"

"Uh, yeah. Sure."

Artoo-Detoo scurried past Wedge and he trailed the little astro-mech into the ship. Tote clutched firmly in his mechanical arm, Artoo trundled ahead of him, beeping and whistling happily. When he entered the lounge, Wedge was not entirely surprised to find Luke in the cockpit, seated at the navigation controls behind Chewbacca's seat. The Wookiee turned to their passenger. Growled a greeting.

"Hi, Chewie." Wedge responded to that unintelligible sound. The meaning was clear to anyone had been around Chewbacca any length of time.

"Have a seat," ordered Solo from the lounge. Hydraulics hissed. The ramp retracted against the ship's underbelly and the hatch closed. "Artoo, stow that thing and lock down."

There was no arguing with Han Solo. Artoo and Wedge followed his orders; Rogue Flight Commander took up position in the gunnery chair. In spite of his earlier suggestion that Wedge's tardiness would result in them having to wait for another opening in traffic, Han took time to make a final check of the back-up systems in the lounge. Then he joined them in the cockpit.

He slid into his seat. "Chewie, fire up the converters. We ready?"

"So what are you doing here?" Wedge asked his best friend as the crew went through their systems checks with fine tuned precision.

"Headed out in your general direction on other business," said Luke. "Crix asked us to make a short detour and drop off one of his people."

"Me."

"Uh huh."

"Short detour. Hah!"

That exclamation from Han was accompanied, and somewhat drowned, by Chewbacca's bark. Although Luke did not speak Wookiee, it appeared he caught the gist. He laughed.

"Better get strapped in," Luke warned. "Han's had us on primary standby ever since we boarded."

There was no need for further explanation. Familiar with Solo's impatience when it came to getting back into space, Wedge grabbed for the straps.

"MILLENNIUM FALCON to Ground Flight Control, requesting immediate clearance."

"Control here. It's yours, General. Good hunting."

A standard enough response from Control, the final well wishing vanished in the throaty roar of a finely tuned engine. Once upon a time the FALCON had preoccupied a healthy portion of her crew's down-time on patch repairs. As an unofficial member of the New Republic's fleet, she was kept as well serviced as she must have been back when her original configuration came out of Corell's ship yards. Throughout intervening years the vessel's previous owners had added on to her hull, expanding on her design, refining the FALCON to suit their specific prerequisites.

Solo, too, had made a lot of personal modifications. As he had once told Luke, 'She might not look like much. But she's got it where it counts.'

Beneath Wedge the gunnery seat vibrated madly as they shot skyward, barely within planetary bylaws for speed and noise abatement levels. Clouds rapidly blocked out any view of Coruscant. Blue blended to indigo. Turned black almost too quickly to pick up the transition. Stars cast baleful, non-winking stares at the new intruders. They came around. Directly before them was spread an array of vessels; three fleet frigates, several Calamarian cruisers and a smattering of shuttles, transports and fighters. Chewie keyed their identification code. A massive base ship slid by on their port side. Wedge leaned forward to watch until it was out of sight.

Several B-Wing and A-Wing fighters from Blue and Raptor Squadrons flitted up alongside. A shuttle paralleled them for a time, speculation ran rampant through Wedge. Something prevented his querying the others even after their shadow turned away in the direction of WINDCHIME, the primary headquarters frigate. There were four other such vessels in the New Republic's fleet, one of them was the INDEPENDENCE; more were in the shipyards under construction. The one they passed now was PERPETUATOR. While in orbit, her crew was taking a long awaited and well-deserved rest. Meanwhile, the frigate's taskforce was in for refit. This was to be Wedge's new posting. When, and if, he returned.

He thrust aside worry. But the patrol fighters' unusual antics continued to intrigue him. Wedge glanced at Luke. Was rewarded with a mischievous grin. Chewie growled at Han, got a chuckle in return. They were almost out-system before the fighters peeled away.

"Safe trip, MILLENNIUM FALCON," came back Green Flight Commander's parting call.

"Thanks, Green Leader. FALCON going to hyper."

No sooner had Han spoken than he activated the hyperdrive. Stars seemed to standstill for a hair's breadth of a microsecond. Then they were streamers tearing past the freighter; a tunnel of light through which their vessel plunged toward its first assigned destination.

Once they were in hyperspace, Wedge unfastened his harness. "I'm afraid I'm going to be unsociable. Mind if I use one of your cabins, Han?"

"Sure," said the Corellian. "Be my guest."

"Tired?" Luke looked concerned.

"Yeah. Last few days have been pretty busy, all round. See you later."

"Sleep well," said the Jedi Master, smiling at Wedge as their passenger headed aft.

Those words left Wedge wondering if perhaps Luke knew he still occasionally suffered nightmares out of his past. Dreams assailed him rarely these days. Except when he was under unusual pressure. Then they rose to haunt him with merciless vigor.

This time, no doubt triggered by the information produced by Jornik and his impending mission, he dreamed of vainly trying to urge his family to board a transport. Desperate, he begged them to follow him, while in the sky loomed a silvery moon which Alderaan had never possessed: The DEATH STAR on final approach preparatory to releasing its world shattering power. He woke with a start.

Next to the bunk rested a small, DNA print-locked bag. Before drawing the thermal blanket about his shoulders once more, he checked over his additional kit. A tiny needle in the handle activated, drawing a pinprick blood sample. Screened and accepted it. Everything he needed was inside. It was not that he did not trust the Cov-Ops staff. It was simply good sense to double-check in case he needed to pick up additions to the enclosed items once he grounded. Satisfied, he turned over and settled back determined to get more rest.

Sleep accommodations on the MILLENNIUM FALCON were not first class; the ship was a freighter first, carrying passengers only as a last resort. But the bed was at least as comfortable as the ones he had used in the fleet for several years. It served its purpose. Wedge dropped off once more.

Blessedly, nightmares failed to find him this time. Perhaps the initial bout had driven them out of his system. Then again, he usually slept best while in hyperspace, no matter what the alert status on board ship. When he woke, he was refreshed. Using a portion of the meagre water ration set aside for washing, Wedge refreshed himself, dressed in the clothes provided for his cover and headed for the lounge.

Han and Chewie were seated on the curved couch on the port side of the lounge making a show of playing chess. Luke occupied the centre of the free space. Lightsabre ignited, he stalked a remote. Or rather, the remote was stalking him. Wedge performed a double take. Never having witnessed a training remote programmed in such a fashion, it unnerved him. He froze, eyeing the Jedi warily.

"Reminds me of another time." Solo teased Luke at the moment Wedge appeared. Chewbacca released his version of a laugh, then caught sight of their passenger. Han followed his partner's gaze. "Sleep well?"

"Yeah."

Unsure exactly what to do, Wedge continued to hover at the entrance to the lounge. It was several seconds before he realised the remote was frozen in place. Luke deactivated his weapon, straightened and pushed a lock of hair off his forehead.

"It's okay," he reassured Wedge. "It won't attack you."

"Sure. Millions wouldn't believe you, kid, but we do," said Han. "Don't we, Wedge?"

Determined to display more faith in Luke's capabilities than Solo was exhibiting, Wedge nodded. Even so he worked his way around the perimeter of the lounge, a wary eye on the remote, and squeezed onto the edge of the couch beside Han. No sooner was Wedge out of the way than Luke jumped sideways. A stun bolt passed directly through the spot where he had stood not one second earlier.

"I keep tellin' you, kid," said Han nonchalantly, "but you won't listen."

A little laugh escaped Luke as he returned to his training session. He refused to rise to Han's bait by telling him the truth; he had deliberately released the remote on short notice to test his own reflexes.

What truly amazed Wedge, more than the initial test of dexterity Luke displayed, was the manner in which the Jedi Master could concentrate on answering questions at the same time as evading the remote. That took an incredible amount of mental agility and concentration.

Han reflected, "I still don't know how you do it, kid."

"It's the Force, Han. Remember what Ben said."

While speaking, Luke's eyes remained fixed on a spot immediately in front of him. With his sabre still deactivated he waited, attention nowhere near the remote as it circled behind him. Hairs on the nape of Wedge's neck crawled, sending a reflex shiver racing up his spine. Concentrating, he could almost sense where and when it would strike next. He was off by a tiny margin, but Luke as not caught flat-footed.

"If I can't see it," said the Corellian after a brief pause, "or touch or taste it---"

But the sentence remained unfinished as the remote went on the defensive. Spellbound, Wedge watched in awed silence. There was no denying the equal fascination exhibited by his companions. Back and forth wove the lithe Jedi Knight, twisting and turning with all the deftness and fluidity of a krayt dragon. Bolts flew from the remote. Were adeptly avoided. Eventually Luke reactivated his weapon, igniting it with a deadly soft hiss.

Time blurred. Eyes dazzled by the flare of stun bolts and the slashing pale green sabre blade, Wedge found he could scarcely discern Luke's movements. The way the Jedi Master shifted his weight, the tiny moves he employed to just barely evade the stun beams, were astonishing. For the longest time the only sounds in the lounge were the hum of the lightsabre, angry buzz of the remote, and the zip and spatter of bolts. Light footfalls of the Jedi tapped a faint counterpoint as he wove an intricate dance. More often than not he chose to evade rather than attack, electing the offensive mode.

Finally Luke decided he had had enough. In a single move he deactivated his weapon and hung it from his belt. But the remote continued to circle, seeking an opening. Wedge waited, wondering where the hand-held controls were. But Luke simply held out his hand. Like a well-trained pet the remote froze before him, switched off and dropped into his outstretched palm.

"Wow!"

Wedge gasped. Was suddenly aware his chest hurt. Though wholly unnecessary, he had unintentionally held his breath as often as possible throughout the display so as not to offer any outside distractions.

"That was incredible, Luke!"

Solo downplayed the entire display. "Not bad kid. Still, I remember your first time against that thing."

His remarks succeeded in drawing a smile out of Luke. The Jedi Master was not fooled, or put out when Han needled him, even if Wedge was.

"But how good are you against a real opponent?"

"Han!" Annoyed, Wedge rounded on the Corellian. Luke shook his head, eyes sparkling with controlled mirth.

"It's okay, Wedge. Inside joke," Luke said. Even more incredible, he was barely breathing hard.

"Yeah. Well." Somehow Wedge refrained from reminding Han what Luke had suffered on Bespin Cloud City in his efforts to rescue his friends and sister.

"So tell him where the setting was on the remote." Resting his elbows on the chest table, Han gently taunted Luke. Wedge waited expectantly. When Luke said nothing, Solo enlightened their passenger. "Suffice to say, if he had slipped just once, he'd have been out from here to Calamar, our next stop after dropping you off."

"Frazzing Siths, Luke! He's not serious?" Luke's shoulders lifted in a noncommittal shrug. "Are you nuts? A jolt like that can kill you."

Wholly unconcerned by his friend's distress, Luke shook his head. "I wasn't in any danger."

"Yeah. Sure, kid." Snorting to cover a laugh, Han got to his feet. At that unspoken signal, Chewie shifted off the couch and vanished into the cockpit. After resting a pointed look on Luke, Solo went forward also.

"Coming up on your drop point," Luke told Wedge. He stared absently at the remote for a second before storing it in a compartment above the back-up nav-puter. It was obvious he considered the matter concerning the remote closed.

"Wish we had had time to talk," Wedge told him.

"You," Luke said, his tone mild, and gave Wedge a friendly punch in the shoulder, "shouldn't have slept so long."

"I guess."

Luke rested a hand on his shoulder. "You be careful down there, Wedge."

Something his grandfather had told him concerning the Jedi surfaced. Wedge caught Luke's eyes. "Do you see something about me in the future that I should know?"

His question produced a frown. Luke's expression grew distant, unfixed. Then he visibly shook himself. "It's impossible to say, Wedge. The future's always in motion. What you do right after you leave the FALCON, or tomorrow, or even now, will alter what might have been. In fact, it may be changing simply because of what I'm telling you at this juncture."

A question forming in Wedge's thoughts vanished as the re-entry buzzer sounded. Han called back. "Better strap in. We're coming up on Olgathir."

Wedge insisted Luke precede him into the cockpit. As they strapped in, he realised his appreciation of what the Jedi were capable had increased dramatically. In watching Luke train he had witnessed an entirely new side to his friend. By responding to what could have proved a potentially dangerous question, Luke displayed all the trappings of a burgeoning diplomat. As they dropped from hyperspace Wedge found he could not stop glancing at Luke Skywalker.

"Olgathir Control calling ship on approach vector through Sector Six, please identify."

"Olgathir Control, this is GASPAR'S METEOR," responded Solo without hesitation. "Request permission to land at Manada. Am passing through en route to Calamar and require a couple hours down-time to inspect the external hydraulics."

"Anything serious, METEOR?"

"No, Control. Minor maintenance due to meteor dust abrasion. But I'd prefer not to make the next leg of the jump without patching any damage."

"Copy that, METEOR. Feeding coordinates on beam now to your nav-puter."

"Thank you, Control. We have the coordinates."

The relaxed manner Luke displayed through the standard request for landing procedure reminded Wedge this was not the first time the trio had entered a region of space under false colours. Once it had been at Endor on board a stolen Imperial shuttle. Again he gazed at Luke. Discovered his friend watching him in turn. Self-conscious, Wedge grinned. And was abruptly aware that Luke sensed what had been going through his mind.

"Nothing to worry about," said Han over his shoulder in between conversations with Ground Control.

Now that the peculiar additions to the FALCON's hull were explained Wedge felt the knot in the pit of his stomach vanish. "I take it Cov-Ops made the minor alterations?"

A grunt-cough came from Chewie that Wedge assumed was an affirmative. Anything done on short notice would pass a cursory inspection. But a detailed sensor sweep would definitely betray the camouflage job. Fortunately no one in Manada would be expecting the MILLENNIUM FALCON to drop in without advance warning.

The planet rapidly filled their forward view port. By staring hard, Wedge's sharp eyes made out several other vessels on approach or departure. There were two other vessels closer in, but both of them appeared to be headed for the older spaceport at the northern-hemisphere capital. Their ship was now on primary to Manada.

Able for once to sit back and watch someone else fly the ship, Wedge enjoyed the experience. Free to admire the scenery offered by this solar system. Usually he was either in bed or on duty during planet approach on larger vessels, or in his own fighter cockpit. And it just was not the same when one was preoccupied with flight checks. Suddenly Wedge had the time to think. To wonder whether his promotion would result in removal from active flight status. No one had said a thing to him about it prior to leaving Coruscant. Then he chuckled, drawing Luke's attention.

"What's so funny, Wedge?"

"I was just wondering if the brass will remove me from the active fighter ops list," he said to his friend, the irony of his promotion catching up with him. "Then I remembered."

"You're one of the brass now," said Luke, appreciating the irony.

"Yeah." Han sympathised. "Tends to shake you up, don't it?"

"You've got that right, although it doesn't answer my question. Guess I won't get one 'til I get back."

"You're too good a pilot to be sidelined," said Luke.

"Maybe. Doesn't necessarily follow. You guys are lucky, you know."

"Huh?" He had Han's complete attention. Wedge reflected it was just as well Chewie was a competent co-pilot, for all he was a sentient incapable of galactic standard speech. "How do you figure that?"

"Because he's Jedi, Luke's on permanent unattached assignment. Free to come and go as he pleases. Or as the Force takes him." Wedge quickly amended his statement as his observation caused Luke to stir. "And you and Chewie can pretty well write your own ticket. Lando's the same. You can quit any time you want, too. Go off and do your own thing. Not me. I'm regular military. If they tell me to go somewhere, I have to go."

"Seen in that light, I guess it is kind of rough." Luke conceded the truth of those words. Yet there was a certain lack of conviction that made Wedge wonder just how driven this young Jedi Master really was. Did he command the Force? Or did it command him?

"Know what you mean," said Han, not realising there was a silent interplay going on behind him. "You jump when they say. And ask how high before you do."

His voice spoke volumes concerning his own experiences in the Imperial guard as a junior officer. When Solo looked back over his shoulder, Wedge nodded quickly. Ahead, through the cockpit, the planet now filled the entire view. They were headed straight for a major storm system. As they dropped through it, rain smeared the transparency. Turbulence played havoc, jostling them despite the competent hands on the controls. Electricity played across their shields, blue arcs lighting up the cockpit. An irritated sigh escaped Wedge as their shields went down.

"Nerf galls." He muttered under his breath one of his favourite oaths.

Luke laughed lightly. "Look at it this way, Wedge. At least only essential personnel will be around when you get off the ship."

Solo shot back a quick repartee. "There speaks the farm boy from a desert rim world. You're all heart, kid."

"Hah!"

Not about to be drawn into the banter, Chewie continued going through well rehearsed motions. He throttled back the engines, switched on repulsors as they dropped into the lower elevations. Gradually the MILLENNIUM FALCON settled into her assigned berth. For all her mismatched hull, she displayed far more grace than anyone watching might have thought possible.

"Kill the power, Chewie."

Engines powered down, Han's hand went to the another set of controls on the leading edge of the gunnery control panel. Normally these were switched off. Now he activated them.

"Time for you to get out of sight, Wedge," he said. "Go get your gear. I'm putting you in storage for three hours. And don't forget to take your uniform. Might be hard to explain where we picked up that."

"You don't expect me to---" Wedge stopped. Over the years the FALCON's smuggling compartments had concealed a wide and unexpected range of cargoes; including two droids, one crazy old man, a wide-eyed kid, a Corellian smuggler and his co-pilot. One look at Han resigned Wedge to the inevitable. "Okay, okay. I'm going."

"Wouldn't want the Port Authorities coming on board with Customs and discovering I've an unregistered extra crewmember or two. You too, Chewie."

The Wookiee released a low-pitched howl in protest. But he hauled himself out of the co-pilot's seat and headed aft. Wedge followed. Belatedly realising he was going to be squished into the compartment along with Chewbacca, he decided he was not looking forward to the next three hours.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Admiral Thrawn paced the deck of his ship, hands clasped behind his back. To anyone who did not know him he appeared to be absorbed with the smooth operation of his crew. But at one side of the bridge stood Captain Niant. Before coming on board he had made a point of inspecting his uniform to ensure it was immaculate. Black boots gleamed even in the subdued READY lighting.

Every crease was perfection, outlining a taut, trim frame. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Horst worked hard at remaining fit now he was senior staff. Blond hair was trimmed exactly to regulation length. His cap rested squarely on his head. Not set jauntily to one side as a few of the older officers insisted upon wearing theirs since the loss of Coruscant.

Uneasy in Thrawn's presence, Horst forced himself to remain at attention. Nothing less would please the Admiral. Only his hazel eyes tracked his superior's movements back and forth across the bridge.

Thrawn spoke without turning. "So you have no idea what Nngan's doing?"

"No, sir. Nor where he's constructed his newest laboratory." Niant admitted, uneasy in Thrawn's presence.

"I'm not pleased, Horst. I placed considerable trust in you. You assured me you would uncover the information before Pherkail departed for this meeting of his on Olgathir."

"Sir, not even the botanist was privy to that intelligence."

"Perhaps you failed to ask the correct questions," said a feminine voice from across the bridge.

For a long moment Niant could only stare, startled by this woman's unexpected appearance after so many years absence. Although reported to be active in smuggling circles, no one had reported seeing Mara Jade since shortly prior to the fiasco at Endor.

With difficulty, Horst controlled himself. Like many of his peers he failed to share Thrawn's confidence or high opinions of Palpatine's pet. The Emperor's Hand took a step forward into the lights illuminating the raised catwalk that ran between the pits. Technicians on station below glanced up at her with mingled curiosity and animosity. A female on a command vessel was bad enough. One whose word held considerable power within the Fleet was unheard of and, to the hard-liners, untenable. The Admiral raised a hand, silencing her.

"Patience, Jade," he counselled. Turned to the Captain. "Were you able to plant a tracker on Pherkail?"

"Yes, sir. In his personal effects, as well as on the vessel he's using to reach Olgathir."

"Very good." However expert Horst was at keeping his face impassive, he failed to hide his consternation from his superior. Admiral Thrawn scrutinised his subordinate. "They found them."

There was no denying that fact. And, swallowing hard, Horst nodded. "Yes, sir."

The short snort from Mara Jade did nothing to alleviate Niant's fears. For a long time Thrawn said nothing. Instead, he quietly paced the length and breadth of his bridge. Crew silently shifted from his path, flowed back into place behind and went on with their tasks. Technicians studiously kept their heads bent over their consoles. Occasionally someone shifted as they lost the battle to control their interest. No one wished to draw the Admiral's displeasure on them. But Horst caught the occasional gleam as someone's eyes drifted back up to the tableau.

Frozen in place, Horst ignored the growing pain in his back and knees from the inordinate period held stiffly at attention. He momentarily allowed his gaze to drift to the scene outside the forward view port. Their entire surviving wing of the fleet was jockeying for position within the nebula. Vessels coming off duty were shifting inward, toward the centre of the cluster. Exchanged places with ships taking over their positions on the fleet perimeter. Like so many white daggers of death, each bore a name equally fearsome: ARBITRATOR, VINDICTIVE, ENFORCER, RUTHLESS, SAVAGE, DISSEMINATOR, FURIOUS and his own SPITEFUL were among that task force.

At length, the Admiral returned to stand before his subordinate, forcing Niant to belatedly yank his attention back to the business at hand. Thrawn's eyes narrowed at his officer's momentary lapse in concentration.

"I see now why the Emperor failed to defeat the rebels," he said coldly, quietly so no one else heard. "With such idiots as you under his command it was impossible to succeed. Perhaps we would have been better off if you had remained an ignorant rim-worlder."

There was no response to that verbal assault. Stung to the quick, Horst's lips went dry. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and his throat felt parched. It was almost impossible to swallow. Not daring to meet Thrawn's infuriated gaze, Captain Niant stared past the Admiral. Fixed his eyes on the forward view once more. Several TIE Interceptors dropped from the belly of corvette, HELLION, crossed their bow and peeled away in tight formation.

"Unfortunately, at this time we are greatly in need of every trained member we can draw upon."

"Sir, I have no idea how they located the devices," Horst dared say, desperate to cover his failing. "We used state-of-the-art---"

"Obviously they weren't good enough. Consider who you are dealing with, Horst." The Admiral turned his back on the Captain again. Paced off five strides. Halted. Hands clasped behind his back, he rocked thoughtfully on the balls of his feet. Red eyes gleamed in the bridge's subdued illumination. "I would very much like to see what our erstwhile allies have invented to detect or nullify our trackers."

"Yes, sir."

"Against my better instincts, Horst, I'm leaving this matter in your hands. Get me that information." The sharp edge to Thrawn's voice left no doubt as to his mood. "And find out how they discovered our trackers."

"Yes, sir."

"And, Captain?" On the verge of saluting and departing, Horst stiffened again. Found the Admiral now facing him, his face dark with anger. "No more failures."

Shoulders back, expression unreadable, Captain Horst Niant saluted. He waited until the Admiral nodded, then spun and left the bridge. As he passed Mara Jade, her lips curled, disrespect for his rank evident in her open display of contempt. But Thrawn was watching. Horst kept going. There would be another time. His people were loyal. And the Admiral would not always be around to protect the Emperor's Hand.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Fog lay thick all around him. Wedge moved cautiously along the access road between landing rings, hoping he would reach the field perimeter soon. His sole reference point were the lights dotting the spine of the antenna array at the south side of Manada port. The thin spire stabbed an accusing finger at the sky, as though admonishing the weather. Its upper tip disappeared into the low cloud cover. If the ceiling dropped much lower, no atmosphere craft would go up. Except emergency response vehicles.

Fog, cloud, rain formed a haze making everything beyond two blocks away indistinct. Whenever Wedge lifted his head to check his bearings, rainwater cascaded off his poncho hood. Fortunately his cari-sac was also waterproof. He skirted several hoses left lying on the ground outside a number of docking bays. Once it was a maintenance droid left shut down, stored under a tarpaulin.

Voices echoed through the fog, distant and indistinct. He drew back into the shadows. The low hum of a two-man speeder accompanied the discussion. It coasted by at sub-normal speed, filled to over-flowing with five crewmen. Obviously returning from leave, three were still excessively inebriated, rolling about the tail of the vehicle. No doubt they would catch extra duties---unless one of them happened to be the senior officer.

Wedge smothered a grin, more from habit than in fear that he might be seen. No matter what world or race spacers claimed as their origin, crew was crew. Like military personnel, when they worked, they worked very hard. And when they played, they played hard. Usually it meant a short life, living each moment to its fullest. Forever balanced on the knife-edge of reality.

"And then there's me." He reflected and continued on his way as soon as the mist had swallowed the intruders.

Mist thickened until he could scarcely see beyond a rifle blaster length on any side. In hugging the bay walls so as not to lose his way, Wedge nearly came to grief several times against unexpected protrusions. Once he did stumble into a second deactivated droid. Only an out-stretched hand, held out before him to fend off just such obstacles, saved him.

This droid had been carelessly left, uncovered and well out from the wall in the middle of an expanding puddle, next to an unfinished weld job. Wincing over barked knuckles, Wedge danced sideways, moving rapidly out of proximity to the bay just as a security droid appeared. It floated down to check on what had caused the noise. Head down, Wedge hurried on through the murk. Another vessel grumbled down through the sodden atmosphere. Its repulsors set the entire area rumbling. Walls vibrated, spilling water from slanting dome roofs. Then, he was free of the landing rings.

Here a ring road ran the entire circumference of the landing field. Directly across it stood an array of buildings. Most had their fronts masked by hideous signs proclaiming their businesses. These flashed at irregular intervals, each insisting their wares as the best. Even through the fog their garish lights stood out, unsightly for all the weather.

This was the side of the port where he was supposed to be, but it was not an area with which he was familiar. Large passenger vessels set down their shuttles on the opposite side. Not near the bawdy houses and drinking establishments of dubious repute. Once, during his youth, on a dare and shortly prior to entering the Academy, Wedge and several friends had spent an evening on the fringe of this district.

By the time his father and some of his crew located them, the group were well inebriated. And on the verge of stumbling straight into more serious trouble than any well-born seventeen year-old could have imagined existed. In hindsight, Wedge blessed his father's timely arrival. But at the time he and his four cronies had been angry. Rather, self-righteous and sullen throughout their dressing-down. They had been chivvied into the Antilles' family speeder, unaware of the highly charged atmosphere. Of the confrontation going on around them as the crew had held proprietor, several annoyed members of a press gang, and a number of patrons at bay until they were safely clear.

Out here the low-lying cloud proved thinner. Even at this hour the streets were crowded. Despite adverse weather vendors hawked their wares from beneath ragged tarpaulins that had seen better times. Bounty hunters, smugglers and pickpockets strolled, staggered or prowled the thoroughfare. Wedge dodged one particularly persistent food vendor. Slipped through a group of carousing spacers who were weaving up the street with several expectant call-girls in their midst.

"Hey!" One of the crewmen halted. Stumbled around to confront Wedge. "Watch it!"

Although Wedge had actually done nothing, the belligerent man took umbrage over his having dared pass between him and a buddy. This was something the Corellian could not have counted on. He skipped back and away in an effort to get clear. Before the drunk could press the imaginary flight further, however, one of the others grabbed his arm.

"Come on, Daile. Don't pick a fight. Patrol's due."

"Don't care," countered Daile, swaying slightly on his feet. "Damn pushy little runt."

Being referred to as a runt swept Wedge back to his childhood. Although eldest in a family of four siblings, he had never sought to laud it over anyone, least of all his peers. Corell, however, was not a place to cosset introverts. Shortly after starting mid-school he was forced to prove himself. Returning home one day sporting a black eye, Wedge confronted his parents. Waited for their disapproval and a dressing-down for fighting. Instead, his father handed him over to his ship's Arms Master. The next time the local bullies cornered him they received a nasty surprise. Not that Wedge went out of his way to pick fights. He simply preferred to be left alone.

"Please, love." One of the joy-girls hung off the drunk's arm, fluttered her eyelashes at him. "Don't spoil a good time. Let the little creep go."

Her remark further raised Wedge's hackles. But he let it pass, sensing what she and Daile's companion were doing. While they talked, diverting Daile's attention, he continued to sidle through the crowd. By the time the drunk refocused on where Wedge had been, there was no sign of him. Expelling a soft sigh of relief, the Alliance's agent kept going.

A hand appeared, plucking at Wedge's cari-sac. He smacked the would-be thief away, then made a grab. Missed. He caught a fleeting glimpse of a boy clothed in cobbled-together rags as the youngster bolted from view. Something about the thief stopped Wedge in his tracks just as he was about to make an effort to catch him.

This looked like a sure-fire recipe for trouble and could be leading him into a trap. In retrospect the attempt on his meagre possessions seemed almost deliberately inept. He suspected somewhere along the alley a well-organised pack of street waifs waited. If he followed the thief they would attack, beat him senseless and roll him for everything he had, including the clothes on his back. But Wedge was sufficiently experienced not to allow himself to be drawn into that sucker play. He moved on. Behind him, the would-be thief stuck his head out of the alley and grimaced with irritation at the missed opportunity.

Underfoot the street felt greasy. Slick with liquid refuse and rainwater. Choked gutters gulped, more water bypassing the sewers than went down them. Sluggish streams filled run-off ditches on either side, flowed away. Fortunately Manada's port was built over the crown of a large hill. Ploughing on through the wet, Wedge continued to look for a specific establishment.

Eventually he located the building that Madine had instructed him to use as a base of operations. A replica of a sarlaac formed the doorway, its tail winding up the front. Patrons were forced to walk through the mouth. Passing simulated cilia that writhed in all too realistic an imitation of the real thing. Wedge was grateful he had not been drinking. He entered the lobby and paused, shrugging off his poncho.

Old-fashion stairs ran up to another level on his left. Straight back through a doorway there appeared to be a small bar for the use of patrons and their guests should they elect to entertain at the flop-house rather than at a bar. Directly between Wedge and that entrance was a free-standing counter with a bad-tempered, scrawny Hutt in attendance. The Hutt glared at him.

"Don't block doorway!" The voice was metallic. No doubt originating from a low-cost translator.

Wedge was already moving forward as the Hutt spoke. He leaned against the counter and picked out the vodder resting on the divan alongside the Hutt. Not a cheap model, but definitely far from quality merchandise, for all it adequately performed its function.

"What do you want? Room? Food? Drink?"

Two could play that game, decided Wedge and clipped out his response. "Room."

With a deep belly grunt the Hutt took out a small electronic chip and inserted it into a keypad. "Place ident here, hand there. Look at screen."

Wedge complied. His false particulars came up. Again the Hutt grunted. His tail tip jerked. Stubby fingers flashed across the pad. Then the chip was spat back out.

"A-19-L." Tail tip indicating direction, the Hutt gestured up the stairs. "No lift. Use stairs. Two fifty---in advance."

"Two fifty!" Fingers hovering above the key chip, Wedge stared in disbelief, justifiably outraged by the price.

"Whatcha grumbling about? S'five nights, in advance," said a surly voice. "Balance remitted if you pull out early."

A man, human, stood in the doorway to the back room. Coarse, roughly dress and unshaven, the man looked bored, unconcerned. But Wedge recognised him from his holo. This was the proprietor and one of his safe drops.

        "Seems a bit steep, is all."  Still grumbling, Wedge collected his identity chit.  He pocketed it, fumbled in his belt pocket for the credits.
        "Take it or leave it."  The man gestured.  "No girls, no drugs, no droids.  You bust it or damage it you pay for it.  This is a law-abiding establishment.  Customers get what they pay for."

        The standard reply tripped off Wedge's tongue without effort.  "I'll just bet it is."  Then quickly added the first contact phrase.  "As legal as an old Imperial credit chit in Coruscant these days."

        Was it his imagination, or did the proprietor's eyes actually narrow.  They flicked across Wedge's worn, rust-coloured flight jacket and slacks and boots that had seen better days.  "Been to the Hub lately?"

        That was the first correct response.  "Not recently.  Been kicking around.  Seen a lot of sun though."

        Now the proprietor moved forward two steps, further into the light of the lobby.  A gleam lit his eyes.  He assessed Wedge in a blink, calculating the odds.  Every nerve in Wedge's body tensed.  If Madine was wrong about this man, he was in deep poodoo.

        "And sand?"

        Second phrase.  Dry-mouthed, Wedge hitched his shoulders.  Strove to look bored and unaffected by the cautionary.  As though he was merely making idle conversation.

        "Yeah, well.  Tatooine ain't no resort, that's for sure."

        A sharp laugh burst from the proprietor.  "Heard the great Jabba got himself strangled by a slave girl."

        "So they say in Mos Eisley."  Relieved, Wedge allowed himself to unwind just a fraction.

        "Lot of people must be happy about that.  Name's Marik Tollivan.  I own this hole."

        In spite of himself, Wedge grinned.  "Anitol Dorik."

        They shook hands, ignoring the irritated Hutt.  News of the crime lord's demise clearly did not sit well with him.  Untroubled by his employee's mood, Tollivan lifted the key and held it out.  Wedge handed him the credits.  Accepted the coded chip.

        "Thanks."

        His chin jerking toward Wedge's cari-sac, Tollivan asked, "Looking for work?"

        "Could be."

        "Don't know as you'll find any here.  Wrong season.  Could try the merchants, I guess.  Some of 'em are lookin' for front men."

        "I'm a spacer."  Spoken with unpretentious conviction, Wedge made certain there were no doubts that he would only accept a berth on board ship.  And it better be a position worthy of his expertise.

        "Beggars can't be choosers," said Tollivan.  Reading Wedge's expression, he pursed his lips.  "Your funeral."

        "Like you said."

        On that, Wedge took the stairs to the second level two at a time.  At the top he halted and inspected the layout.  A hallway ran left to right; windowless but brightly lit, it offered no hiding places from which someone could jump another.  Double-banked sleeping cubicles with sealed doors ran in both directions.  Some thirty in all in one tier, two levels to a side, ran in either direction.  If there was another level of the same above---a second flight of stairs suggested there was---this establishment could house upward of two hundred plus clients.

        Resigned to feeling packaged like dried fish out of Calamar, Wedge followed the sign to the left.  Almost at the end of the corridor he located his assigned flop, an upper berth, and keyed it open.  Tossed his cari-sac and poncho over the lip and resealed the door.  Then he quietly made his way upstairs.

        Six obvious exits existed for his benefit should he require them.  But all were far too obvious for his liking should there be a raid.  Each exit could easily be covered by a single man armed with a good blaster.  Soft footfalls brought him about.

        "You'll find another route out inside the floor of your cubical," said Tollivan.  Wedge's caution and quick reflexes were rewarded with a nod of approval.  The proprietor gestured.

        "Top floor's empty right now.  Got security situated where only the best could locate and disable it, and there's a telltale in the system against tampering.  That's so I always know what's going down."

        "Handy," said Wedge, and unwound as Tollivan folded his arms across his chest.

        "Pays to keep the law advised.  Keeps only the right customers comin' in."  A pause.  "Cubical under yours is fake.  Seldom rent it.  Then only to the right person."

        Wedge nodded now, waiting for Tollivan to continue.  Instead, the other crooked a finger and walked away.  Uneasy, but drawn irresistibly by that gesture, Wedge accompanied him.  Halfway along the opposite wing, Tollivan halted.

        "Don't look up," he softly warned.  "Make note of the numbers on either side.  Just over your head there's a removable panel.  Crawl space in the ceiling leads next door, sensor nullifiers in the walls.  Down one level, through a passage between the walls, you'll find a chute that'll take you to street level behind a vendor's stall."

        "Taking a chance telling me all this, aren't you?"  Wedge prodded the man.

        In reply, the proprietor flashed him a humourless grin.  "Been here since the bad old days, kid.  I'm older than I look."

        "Rejuve?"

        "A little credit in the right places, a few favours.  Goes a long way when there's need.  Don't trust the Hutt.  Rest of the staff's been with me since pre-Alderaan."

        In two simple sentences the proprietor gave Wedge all the information he needed.  Tollivan had informed the other, too, that he recognised him despite his disguise.  Cold fingers stalked the length of Wedge's spine, fearful that others would also know him for what he was.  But Tollivan shook his head.

        "Most wouldn't make the connection.  But I got a right to know my own."

        Relief spread through Wedge at that admission.  Still every fibre of Wedge's body vibrated with survival instinct.  "Aren't you worried someone might be eavesdropping on your surveillance system right now?"

        "No.  Got it persona-coded.  Nothin' gets past that without my ident and DNA.  Same's your kit."

        "So you say."  Unconvinced, Wedge knew that any security system could eventually be broken.  The Alliance had proved that when they stole the original DEATH STAR plans.

        "You're a bright kid.  Just watch your back."

        With those words, the proprietor left.  On the verge of retorting he was no kid, Wedge decided to let the matter slide.  Deep in thought, he returned to his cubical.  Before entering he ran a scan of the interior, then carried out a visual and tactile search.  Nothing.  Finally convinced he had done his best to ensure it was safe, he took the one step up---built into the door of the bottom cubical---and pushed himself over the lip.  The door hissed softly shut as he drew in his feet.  Glows came up

        Once secure inside Wedge got his first good look around.  To his astonishment the end wall became transparent.  Examination revealed it was actually a two-way.  His view lay through the sarlaac's coils.  Unobstructed, it was a perfect spot from which to watch the street below.  Suitably impressed, Wedge went through his tote.  He sorted out what he would need the following day and stored the rest.  Undressing, he placed his folded clothes on the ledge set into the door.  His tote went up against the transparency next to his head.  Then he curled up under the therma-cover.

        "Lights off."

        Obedient to voice command, glows dimmed to an acceptable night illumination.  Used to such from board ship time, Wedge turned over and went to sleep.
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