Part Three of DECEPTION

by Haru Windsong

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Over five days, around assigning patrols, Wedge memorised the installation's three levels. He inspected what he could of the Control Centre and its security system. Took time to make the rounds, night or day spot inspections of sentries, inside and outside the installation. Whenever possible he also familiarised himself with the local lie of the land.

Not once was he permitted inside the lab. Nor were his guards. Kay-See and his twin droid, Kay-El, monitored all traffic there. From everything Wedge witnessed, both on his tours throughout the facility and in memorising the schematics, his appreciation of the Doctor's deviousness grew. And with it surfaced fears that he might never give the virologist the slip. Let alone uncover the reason for this secret laboratory.

The entire upper floor was given over to the scientists and their laboratories. Below lay the heart of the installation: barracks for the guards, briefing and screening rooms, and the control centre. Communications and mainframe computer were housed on the second level. From there technicians monitored integrity seals, security and kept track of the encoded memory where Tir'Nngan recorded the results of his team's work. Environmental control was also located in the central environs.

In the course of his inspection Wedge's interest was aroused by the manner in which Tir'Nngan had cunningly riddled his installation with a complex array of explosives. Designed to collapse and seal the structure, there were also included sufficient quantities of irradiant to neutralise almost any variety of bacterium or viral infection. It would certainly eliminate any sentient or animal life left inside. Make the entire area and its immediate surroundings inimical to all forms of life for several years. Tir'Nngan was, if nothing else, ruthless in his efficiency.

"File that for future reference." In the privacy of his quarters Wedge encoded the information and logged it. That was one alternative he really did not wish to be forced to.

On the ground level next to the guard quarters, were a security center for arrivals and departures, and the armoury and indoor repair facilities for the speeders. Only the small runabouts could actually fit inside. But ample room existed up a side canyon, with sufficient shade, in which mechanics could comfortably work during morning hours.

At the rear of the installation lay a peculiarity that repeatedly drew Wedge on his inspection rounds. A pit dropped sharply away alongside the outside corridor. Twice the height of a Wookiee lay to the pit floor below the walkway with nothing between save smooth, sharply canted rock. Fortunately a waist-high natural ridge of rock ran along the rim, preventing inadvertent slips. Only the occasional live patrols passed through the area and there appeared to be no electronic surveillance. Two tunnels led off the pit. One pointed deeper into the hillside. The other opened onto the outside world. This natural passage was the way the Sand People had once infiltrated the facility. Now a small shield generator sealed the inner tunnel.

"Say, Doc?" Wedge questioned Tir'Nngan reference the pit his first morning on Tatooine. "What's the tunnel for? Why didn't you just seal it off when your people dug out this place?"

With a customary sly smile, the virologist brushed his concerns aside. "Don't worry yourself about it, Dorik. The other end's sealed against outside intrusion by wildlife. And the rock face is too smooth and steep for anyone to climb. Besides, no sentient can possibly get past your patrols up here."

"Shouldn't we at least patrol the area?"

"Not necessary, Dorik. Trust me. There's no reason for you to fear intrusion via that route." And with those words, Tir'Nngan declared the matter closed.

Wedge stared into it but could discern nothing beyond the obvious; rock with a thin coat of sand. That Tir'Nngan was unconcerned bothered him. The virologist touched his shoulder. "Come, Dorik."

Their conversation was three days past. Now peering once more over the rock sill into the darkness below, Wedge gave his head a small shake. This place was filed for future reference as well. Here lay his way out. All he needed was transportation and survival gear. Plus an opportunity to splice into the computer and obtain the information on the Doctor's project.

For two days Wedge saw little of the scientists. Whenever he did, it was evident they were extremely excited about something. Left much to his own devices, he took care to make the time to set aside those things he would need when he made his escape. It proved ridiculously simple.

Late the fifth afternoon he conducted his customary tour of the command centre. By now the technicians were comfortable with his presence and were expecting him when he did arrive. Today, however, his slicer was concealed in the hilt of the throwing knife sheathed in the top of his left boot. Cov-Ops most prized tool for its agents the miniature device was specially crafted to break through intricate computer security locks, extract pertinent information, record it and withdraw without setting off alarms. Wedge had spent best part of an hour the previous night programming it for his next move.

"Good afternoon, Mister Dorik." The senior technician greeted him with a smile. "Come to help man the post when we go to essential manning this evening?"

Allowing himself to smile, Wedge watched the scanners. "Not particularly. It's quiet. Thought I'd drop by and see how things are going."

"All quiet here, too," said the senior duty tech.

"Incoming message, sir." The junior tech intruded, shooting Wedge a silent apology.

"Identity?"

Tedium broken, Wedge casually strolled around the small room, listening and waiting his chance to slip the slicer into one of the subsidiary computer access ports. "Captain Niant, sir. Imperial star destroyer SPITEFUL."

"Niant!"

Upset, the senior duty tech muttered oaths under his breath. However much Niant's arrival upset those on duty, their reactions rated far below Wedge's own emotions. Cold sweat broke out across his body. He strangled a surge of panic. Niant had been in the same platoon as Biggs Darklighter. If they met it was probable he would instantly recognised the New Republic agent, beard or no.

"What does he want?" Wedge demanded information.

There was nothing wrong in Wedge's inquiry, given his position on Nngan's staff. The communications tech replied. "He's demanding to speak to the Doctor."

"Tell him to stand by." Taking the initiative, Wedge tapped open communications to the laboratories. At the same time he wondered at his own audacity. "Doctor?"

"Yes?" Tir'Nngan answered his call. Impatience mingled with undertones of exhilaration. Strange.

"Dorik, sir. I'm in the comms centre. We've just received a transmission from an Imperial star destroyer."

Silence. Then, sharply, "Which one?"

"SPITEFUL."

"Niant!" Not surprisingly, the virologist fairly spat the name back over the linkage. Again he paused. "All right, Dorik. Confirm receipt and transmit our coordinates. He's going to want to visit. Then send Gant to me immediately."

"Yes, sir."

Wedge released the control switch and nodded to the comms tech. "You heard the Doctor. Advise the good Captain we would be honoured to have him drop by."

Somehow Wedge concealed his feelings and kept his tone professional. From the look on the tech's face, though, the man was uncomfortable with the thought of stormtroopers on the premises. Now Wedge rolled his eyes at the ceiling, wordlessly informing the techs that he understood and commiserated with their feelings. While communications were reopened with SPITEFUL, Wedge went below to the barracks. He located Gant lounging in the mess, feet on a table. Upon entering the mess hall, Wedge bellowed.

"Gant!"

Alerted, the guard looked up. "Sir."

More respectful, but still unwilling to wholly acknowledge Wedge as senior, the guardsman dropped his feet to the floor. Something in Wedge's demeanor brought Gant out of his chair as his superior approached.

"What's wrong?"

"The Doctor wants to see you immediately. Lab Two. Double it."

Goaded by the urgency in Wedge's voice, the guardsman hurried from the mess. Only one other guard was present. He looked at his superior, a question on his lips. But Wedge turned and left. Time was now of the essence. Every action planned against just such a contingency, Wedge moved with haste to put together all the necessary items for a quick departure. These he stored on a high rock ledge near the pit in an area he knew the electronic sensors did not monitor because foot patrols covered it regularly. It was now doubtful he would have the opportunity to employ the slicer. Not that it really mattered. Getting out alive was paramount.

"Mister Dorik." Communications demanded his attention over his personal com-link. "Report to the main entrance. Confirm."

There was no avoiding this encounter. Frightened, but unable to push forward his tentative timetable without completely blowing his cover, Wedge responded to the call.

"Dorik here. Confirm that. I'm down by the pit, completing my rounds. On my way up."

Now steeling himself against the inevitable, Wedge headed for the rendezvous. And prayed. An Imperial inter-atmosphere, heavy transport speeder drew up outside even as he joined the small gathering at the mouth of the main entrance. While his attention, by rights, ought to have been on the enemy, Wedge discovered it diverted by Tir'Nngan and Pherkail. The virologist was extremely annoyed, ranting at the botanist.

"Damn you, Kail. Why?"

"Because I, at least, am loyal to the Empire." Pherkail retorted in the face of Tir'Nngan's rage, his back stiff.

"The Empire is dead. When will you accept the facts?"

Tir'Nngan's response drew a rapid parry from Pherkail. "I wouldn't let Admiral Thrawn hear you say that."

"Thrawn be damned."

The hiss of the speeder door opening made the virologist break off and turn. By the time Captain Niant arrived with three stormtroopers, both scientists had recovered their composure. They presented agreeable demeanours to Niant as though they had both been expecting him and were looking forward to his presence at the installation. Tir'Nngan's dissembling amazed Wedge.

"Ah, Captain Niant. How good of you to come."

SPITEFUL's Commanding Officer appeared much as Wedge remembered him: small, heavy-set, his black hair regulation short above grey eyes that had narrowed at Tir'Nngan's greeting. Every ounce of body fat had been converted to muscle, and from the set of his square jaw, he was unimpressed by the scientist's efforts to placate him.

"Enough pleasantries, Nngan. Admiral Thrawn sent me to oversee your research. And to review your results."

"Of course." Wedge was positive he was not the only one who spotted the vicious glance the virologist briefly fixed on Pherkail before leading the Imperial officer indoors.

"And just what did you think you were doing hiring Vogiess? The Admiral gave you no such permission."

"I use what resources I need to achieve the ends your good Admiral desires."

Flanked by the two scientists, Niant was escorted through the entrance. As they came level with him, Wedge deliberately stepped back into the shadows. Initially Horst would be too sun-dazzled to properly see anyone or note his presence. It worked. The trio moved rapidly through the lower cavern, both scientists speaking in earnest, arguing across Captain Niant as they went by Wedge. He heaved a mental sigh of relief.

Tir'Nngan glanced back. When the scientist crooked a finger, Wedge no alternative but to follow in their wake. Frustrated, he obediently brought up the rear. He strained but their voices were too low for him to overhear their conversation except in all too brief snatches of a word here, a phrase there. Unable to extricate himself from the group, Wedge cursed under his breath.

At the lab entrance the Doctor gestured, ordering Wedge to remain outside with the stormtroopers. Then the virologist and Pherkail ushered the Captain inside. They were gone a very long time, far too long for Wedge. Proximity to Imperials at the best of times left him cold. Now he sweated and strove to look unconcerned by their presence. Just when he thought he was going to snap, the lab seals hissed. Scientists and officer emerged.

"So you dispatched the first pair already?" Niant's eyes narrowed his expression tense with suppressed rage.

"Of course. They'll arrive just in time to be officially presented prior to the ceremony. There will be no way for her to refuse them without slighting the emissary. Within twenty-four hours the implants will activate and the loranni will carry out their primary function."

Conscious of Nngan's guards and his own, Niant eased the scientists out of earshot. "Surely Customs will detect the implants when they screen your cargo?"

"Until activated they will remain inert. Undetectable, unless you know exactly what you're seeking. And lorean are, after all, on the list as safe for transport between worlds so long as they have all their inoculations and their papers are in order."

"Which these are," put in Pherkail.

"Hmm. You're positive the test results will not be compromised by less than ideal conditions?"

"No, absolutely not. We've tested them several times under as many different scenarios as we could think up. Each time we achieved the same results, with very little lag time between. Even should the first individual survive the initial encounter, they will communicate the mutation through contact to others. And by third mutation there will be no stopping it." The doctor paused in his rapid preamble. Met Pherkail's smug gaze with his own self-satisfied demeanor. "Of course, the planet will have to be quarantined indefinitely."

Captain Niant responded. "At least until you discover an antidote."

No effort was made to conceal just how pleased he was with himself. The virologist nodded. "But that's already in hand."

"So where do you---"

An alarm went off nearby. Soft but persistent, it intruded upon the conversation. Excusing himself, Tir'Nngan depressed the respond button on a nearby wall com-unit. "Yes?"

"There's been a breach in security on the lower level, Doctor. Rear of the garage, toward the pit."

"Very well." Tir'Nngan turned to Wedge. "See to it, Dorik."

"Right away, Doc."

Even as he spoke, Wedge knew he had made a serious error. Niant's head turned. Eyes narrowing, the officer peered at the agent. But Wedge rapidly spun away, shoulders twitching as he kept his face averted so all Niant caught of him was his back. He hurried toward the guardroom, holding to a fast pace. Wedge knew he would have to reach the compromised zone first. Knowledge that someone had broken in again intrigued him. With the present security system in place it ought to be impossible for a jawa or a Tusken Raider to penetrate the facility.

Not only his guards waited expectantly just outside the turbo-lift entrance near the guardroom. Both security droids were also present. Determined to utilise the distraction to his benefit, Wedge directed the men off in twos. One pair went up each of the two parallel corridors, while the third was sent above to prevent further penetration above the second level. Kay-El took the main hallway. That left Wedge paired with Kay-See. Now familiar with the security droid's weak points, he knew he could take it out if necessity dictated.

They moved out, each watching every nook and doorway that might conceal someone. At a cross-junction Kay-See suddenly pivoted and fired. A thread-thin red beam lanced along the passage to explode against something. But Wedge was more concerned with his own objectives; he took out the two electronic surveillance devices. Confused by his strategy, Kay-See hesitated. Its next shot at the intruder went wide. Something green, intangible, further deflected the beam. Then Wedge's third shot destroyed the droid's service pack and repulsor unit. Out of commission, Kay-See struck the floor and bounced twice, before rolling up against a wall. Dancing clear, Wedge realised he had just placed himself in full view of whoever was up the passage. He flung himself back out of sight.

"Well, that was a nice piece of work." Luke's voice commended him. The Jedi Master appeared from the shadows.

Dumbfounded, Wedge stared at his friend. "Luke! What the hell are you doing here?"

"Might as well ask you the same thing," said his friend with a humourless grin. "Mind explaining exactly what this place is?"

"Later." With Luke to back him up, Wedge was now confident he could secure the necessary information for Cov-Ops. "Gotta get something. Will you cover me?"

"Any time," said Luke.

"All right. We've got to move fast. Control room's up one level. If we disable surveillance, I've a slicer."

"Let's go, then."

Personal knowledge of the layout put to good use, Wedge led the Jedi Master up through back ramps to the second level. These ways were used to move large loads where the small turbo-lift could not.

"Handy," Luke quietly remarked. He chuckled softly, bringing a grin to Wedge's lips as they discovered the way empty. At the top, however, they encountered the two guards Wedge had sent up. Neither quite knew what hit them as Luke knocked them down with a Force bolt.

Fascinated, Wedge toed one of the unconscious forms. "How long will that hold them?"

"I don't know," said Luke. "Long enough, I hope."

"So do I. You're a great comfort."

"This place is big enough. How many people does it house?"

"Normally about twenty-seven personnel. Got visitors right now."

"Oh?"

"Imperials." To that, Luke merely grunted and Wedge realised the Jedi Master had probably seen the transport outside. "Here." Wedge pointed at a door. "I'll go first. Try to distract them."

"Right."

Pressed back against the near wall, Luke waited. Confident, Wedge sauntered to the door, keyed it open. Surprisingly, only two duty staff was present. Clearly the Doctor had complete faith in his security arrangements and did not fear the Imperial presence.

"Mister Dorik." Half turning in his seat, the comms- tech looked at Wedge before turning back to his duties. "Thought you were checking for an intruder, sir?"

"I was," Wedge informed him, joining him at the console. "But Kay-See's already dealt with it."

"Another jawa?"

Behind Wedge a cloaked figure flitted into the room. "Not exactly," said Wedge. And regretfully reached out to break the tech's neck with a quick twist. In the same moment a blow from the side of Luke's hand took out the man on security surveillance.

"Your turn." Glancing at the door, Luke nodded to the passage. "I think we'll leave this open. I'll cover it while you work."

"Right."

Designed to read codes and slice through them to the matrix they protected, the electronic virus Wedge released into the installation system went to work. Despite Tir'Nngan's belief that he had constructed the ultimate protective overlay, the virus ate through it within seconds. It took longer to download the research files. With each passing second Wedge grew uneasy. Sweat made his scalp itch. His fingers unconsciously drummed the edge of the console before which he sat. Suddenly the slicer emitted a soft chime.

"That's it," he told Luke.

"Duck."

Luke's warning was no more than a whisper in Wedge's ear. But it sent him diving for cover, slicer in hand, just in time. A blaster bolt exploded in the chair he had vacated. Disintegrated half the back. From the corner of his eye he saw Luke draw further from view, shoulder against the wall just inside the door. Glancing at Wedge, Luke gestured briefly with his left hand: Stay down. In his right he held the hilt of his deactivated lightsabre. A blaster muzzle came into view. Then a head bobbed around the corner. Sight of Wedge crouched, unarmed, by the computer console, brought the attacker into the open.

"Thought I recognised you, rebel," said Niant from the doorway. "Wasn't sure at first. The beard threw me. Last records show you as being heavier, Commander."

"Horst." Not daring to glance at the Jedi Master, Wedge slowly clambered to his feet. Confronted by the Imperial officer, he allowed his eyes to travel slowly over the uniform. "Surprised you remember me. I was in a different class to you."

"Your face was all over every vid-comm from the moment you went A.W.O.L. Figured you'd turn once they executed that infiltrator. You never did have the stomach for interrogation." Captain Niant stepped into the doorway. "Getting lax now you rebels hold Coruscant, aren't you? Or have you taken a sudden aversion to weapons?"

"Actually," said Wedge, ignoring the second question, "I had already switched sides before our agent at the Academy died."

"Really? Hah." Distracted, mentally off-balance, Horst considered his opponent in a different light. Shook his head in wonder. "I never thought you'd try to bull it through like you did today, though. Got guts, I'll give you that."

"Thanks."

"Not that it'll do you any good," said Horst.

Determined to lead Niant on, Wedge continued. "You've come a long way, too."

One more stride carried Horst into the communications room. His every action spoke of his ignorance of a second person in the room. How Luke had accomplished that trick was beyond Wedge, but because of it they had an edge. Horst jerked his blaster at Wedge. Before he could say anything, a name slipped from Luke Skywalker's lips.

"Tank?"

Startled, Niant turned. Unaware of what had caused his companion to speak, Wedge launched himself across the intervening space before they lost their slim advantage. He caught the enemy high and flattened his opponent. Astride the dazed Horst, Wedge Antilles wrestled the blaster from his hands. SPITEFUL's Commanding Officer twisted ineffectually beneath Wedge. Struggled to throw him off. Unsuccessful, he slumped flat and glared at Luke Skywalker now standing over him.

"So it's true." Horst stared at the Jedi. "Heard the rumours. Couldn't quite believe it would be you. How---"

"My father was a Jedi," Luke said simply. With a wave of his hand, he requested Wedge release his prisoner.

"You should have killed me while you had the chance," Horst told them as he drew his feet beneath him.

"Why, Tank? Why this?"

A snarl contorted Horst's lips. "Because of you and Biggs. You drove me to it."

"How?"

"The two of you had it all planned. The Academy. Officer training. Big dreams, especially you. I went along with it, but only because it got me off this hole." He scoffed, eyes flashing. "And where's the great Biggs Darklighter these days? Pushing papers at some rebel desk, no doubt."

"Dead." Unable to restrain himself, Wedge angrily blurted the news. "Over the DEATH STAR at Yavin Four. His X-Wing was destroyed by a TIE fighter while he was covering Luke's back."

"Yavin?" Shock drained colour from Horst's face. "It was you? You did that? You destroyed the DEATH STAR and killed Grand Moff Tarkin?"

"Yes." Luke nodded, distracted by memories he thought he had dealt with.

"Look out!"

Too late Wedge realised Horst had been playing for time. His final words covered his actions. For all his bulk, Niant moved incredibly fast. Thin stiletto in hand, he lunged for Luke. Shifting his weight, Wedge moved between them with micro-seconds to spare. Grabbed instinctively. Fire burned across his ribs as he twisted aside, caught Horst's arm against his side and forced it around. Carried forward by his own momentum, unable to draw away or evade Wedge, Niant grunted. He stared, wide-eyed, at his opponents.

Wedge drew back, gazing in shock at Luke's childhood friend, then at the blood on his hands. Gradually Horst's eyes moved down, drawing their attention to the knife now standing out between his third and fourth ribs. Across his grey tunic spread a red stain, rapidly soaking his front. A high-pitched giggle escaped him. With a little cough, he collapsed sideways against the doorframe.

"Funny," murmured Horst. "Never would have thought---Wormy---"

Before either Wedge or Luke could react Horst slithered down the doorframe. He was dead before he hit the floor. Luke went to one knee and rested a hand on the Imperial's chest. There was no need to use the Force to discover no life remained in his one-time companion. The Jedi Master sorrowfully shook his head. As he rose, Wedge's stricken gaze met that of his friend.

"Luke, I'm sorry. But he was going to kill you."

"I know. It was his decision, his destiny." Resigned to seeing another door to his past irrevocably closed, Luke pointed down the hall. "Let's get out of here."

They retraced their steps. The other guards were still unconscious, but beginning to stir. Luke put them back under just to be on the safe side.

"We better get out of here fast."

Something in Luke's voice caught Wedge's attention. "What did you do?"

"While you were busy with the computer, I rigged the explosives' network."

"Good plan." Wedge flashed his friend a nervous grin. "Better hope we get clear in time. Come on. I know a back way out of this hole."

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Tir'Nngan viewed the pair's furtive movements over his back-up system. That he could have been tricked so royally fascinated the scientist. Although not as comprehensive as the primary, the monitors could track them, if only sporadically. Concerned as he was with his inability to deactivate the explosives, his mood was not improved by having to divide his time. Nor was it improved by yet another unprecedented discovery.

"Incredible. A Jedi." Pherkail put that into words as he stared over his shoulder at the vid-screen. "Aren't they all dead?"

"Apparently not."

"Well, aren't you going to stop them?"

"Not at all."

"Why not?"

"Don't you see where they're headed?"

After due consideration, Pherkail decided there really was no need to pursue the rebels. His concern was not diminished, though. "What about the self-destruct? Were you able to terminate it?"

"That is none of your concern." Both eyebrows shooting up, Tir'Nngan looked surprised that the botanist had even bothered with what he considered inconsequential details. "Come. We're leaving."

"What about Clyth?"

"What about him?"

At the virologist's demand upbringing took control. For all his own family was proud of their breeding, Pherkail could not escape his environment. He reverted to nature. Followed his superior through the back halls to the speeder-park, avoiding several parties of infuriated stormtroopers.

"They've discovered Horst's body," said Tir'Nngan. "Hurry."

To Pherkail's astonishment Tir'Nngan failed to stop at the garage. Nor did he take the tunnel leading to the exterior park. Instead, he passed by the larger vehicles, leading the botanist out a side tunnel to where two twin-seat speeders were concealed beneath a cam-shield. The virologist deactivated the shield. Imperiously gesturing Pherkail into the driver's seat, Nngan climbed into the passenger seat. No one noticed their departure.

They skimmed the edge of the dunes, the botanist initially attempting to follow orders, and retrace their earlier route. For a time he hugged the foot of the cliffs. All too soon it became patently clear they would add half again their travel time back to port. With Tir'Nngan hunched down in his seat, apparently asleep, Pherkail drew a direct bearing on Mos Eisley using onboard sensors. With the speeder off auto programming, he aimed it out across the sand dune incursion. Rather than surmount the dunes, he wove between them, picking up time.

Eyes closed, deep in thought, Tir'Nngan failed to realise they were no longer retracing the route originally programmed into the vehicle. He dozed in the heat, preoccupied with the disaster in his wake. Already low in the sky when the Imperials arrived at the installation, Tatoo One and Tatoo Two now tipped the horizon. Red, orange and gold, the suns painted the sky as Tatooine spun away the dregs of the day. One silvery sliver of a moon edged the opposite horizon.

Behind them there was no evidence of Imperial pursuit. Nor any sound of explosions. Unworried, Pherkail kept his eyes fixed on the distant horizon, intent upon any sign of the port. His inexperienced gaze picked out a heavy curtain of brown and deep gold roiling up the horizon from their left. When the first airborne sand granules stung his face, Tir'Nngan snapped out of his stupor. Stared about him.

"Sandstorm. Turn up the first available canyon." He hurriedly checked the horizon as the sunset vanished behind the looming storm. "Where are---Kail. Raise the canopy. Now."

Pherkail complied, but kept their speeder moving. He was determined to make port by midnight and get off Tatooine, away from the Imperials. And the sooner the better, as far as he was concerned. Afterwards he would make himself scarce until the fiasco with the loranni was over.

"How long have we been driving?"

"Four hours."

"Where are we? Where are the cliffs?" Conscious that they were no longer on track, Tir'Nngan glanced at the direction indicator. He stiffened. "What have you done?"

"Put us on direct heading," said Pherkail bluntly. "That should cut our travel time in half. We'll make Mos Eisley in three more hours."

"If we don't hit a patch of karsh. Or a sarlaac. You fool. The pit of Carcoon's out this way."

Still unaware of what his superior's words implied, the botanist refused to capitulate or feel remorse for disobeying instructions. His companion sank back down in his seat. It was too late to turn back and the sandstorm was rapidly closing in around them. Night drew down far more quickly.

"It's coming this way," Pherkail said. In spite of his earlier assurances he realised they would have to find somewhere to stop until the storm passed. "What now?"

The virologist studied the dunes closely. Finally he pointed. "Stop there. We can't risk clogging the intakes."

This time Pherkail did question the other's logic, even as he understood what the other was about. "Why? If you're planning for us to spend the night out here, shouldn't we park on the lee side of the dune?"

Tir'Nngan shook his head. "Dunes travel in these winds. We'd be buried by the time the storm passed."

Pherkail brought the speeder about. Thickening sand blanketed their craft, was clogging intakes. Several of the gauges were beginning to tip the red line as he deferred to his companion and brought the speeder to a halt. The drive whine died.

"What now?"

"We wait it out," said the virologist.

Neither was aware of the gentle settling of the speeder until the storm passed. Only then did they discover they were deeply mired in a small patch of karsh. And on the dune above, watching with considerable interest their futile efforts to free the speeder, were five Sand People.


Behind them, in the lower level of the installation Wedge led Luke back, deeper into the hillside. To his credit Luke asked no questions. He trusted his friend implicitly. Both were positive they were being followed. Knew it was only a matter time before they stumbled across one of Tir'Nngan's guards or a party of stormtroopers. And time was against them.

"Here," said Wedge suddenly. He halted where finished walls and ceiling gave way to natural features marginally enhanced by sentient hands. Lighting was sparse, principally emergency glows, forcing Wedge to grope along an overhead ridge of rock. His hand withdrew, grasping a pack by one strap. "Survival kit."

"Well prepared, I see." Luke flashed approval. "Mine's outside. We can collect it on the way."

"I take it you're familiar with the area?"

An imp grinned back at Wedge and Luke nodded. "I grew up around here, remember? Where to now?"

Wedge pointed. "We'll need this." He hauled a small repair light from his pack. "There's a pit along here. A tunnel leads off it to the outside. All we have to do is hop down and follow it out. Shield at the end might be a bit of a problem." A look at Luke brought an additional twinkle to Wedge's eyes, for all of the peril of their present situation. "Then again, I doubt it'll pose a problem for you."

There was no reply to that. When Luke saw the drop below the ridge, he refrained from telling Wedge this was the very route by which he had entered the installation. Unlike his trip in, something about the area now sent a peculiar tingle racing through the Jedi Master. Time wavered. Wedge eased onto the rock ridge, prepared to go over the edge but Luke held him back.

"Let me go first."

"But---"

"Trust me."

After a brief hesitation, Wedge nodded. Luke swung over the outcropping, let go and dropped. He slowed his descent so he landed with little more than a crunch of gravel under his boots. Wedge kept the light on him throughout his descent, incredulous at what he saw, unable to move until Luke turned and gestured. It took Wedge a minute to recover his composure. Then he dropped the packs down to him and climbed onto the rim. A furtive scuffling up the passage alerted him.

"Look out."

With those words of warning Wedge launched himself over into the air without preparation. Barely escaped death by a hair's breadth as a blaster bolt passed between his outspread left arm and his side. Hitting bottom, he rolled. Lost his grasp on the light. It rolled away across the floor, out of reach. Pain burst in Wedge's side. Blaster burn took his breath away and sapped his strength as he struggled up alongside Luke, his weapon out.

Green light flared. The Jedi Master deflected another shot with his lightsabre. Sound thundered in the confined space, all but deafening them as another blaster bolt exploded against rock.

"So that's how you do it." Wedge gasped, astounded.

This was the connection between his friend's training session on the FALCON and real life scenarios. Luke ignored the remark. Instead, he pointed to the light illuminating their defensive position. It went out. Above, something moved along the ridge, just a glimpse in the darkness. A mere suggestion of a shadow, but both friends spotted it. While Luke went on the defensive, Wedge edged around the pit perimeter, his left arm tightly pressed against his side. Again there was movement. It was a tricky shot but he sighted, found the angle and fired at the sound.

His bolt deflected off rock driving the Weequay into the open. Clyth dashed forward, intent upon reaching the cover of the ridge. Again Luke's weapon flared, scythed through the air, up and over the crest. Beyond the rock, Clyth screamed once before everything went dark.

Shaken, Wedge called out cautiously. "Luke?"

"Back here, Wedge."

"Keep talking. It's blacker in here than the Calamari deeps."

"Move to your right and back. Keep your hand out. You'll encounter the wall. Follow it on and it'll take you around two bends to a smaller cave."

Wedge located the Jedi at the mouth of the tunnel to the outside, tracking him by the sound of his voice. Breathless with pain, aware he was going into shock, Wedge pointed. Then wished he had not as pain and vertigo washed over him.

"We better get moving." That emerged through gritted teeth but Luke, distracted by something, failed to notice.

"Okay. The shield's down."

"What about your lightsabre?"

"Got it."

Even as Luke spoke Wedge realised the Jedi was re-clipping the weapon to his belt. Wedge eyed it with a measure of disbelief.

"But I thought you---" He shook his head, wondering why Solo continued ribbing Luke about the Force. "I won't ask."

A corner of Luke's mouth curved upward briefly. "Shall we go? Since we're headed this way, I know where we can secure impromptu transportation."

"Good. I don't feel much like trying to walk back to the port." For a moment Wedge considered telling Luke about his injury, then decided to wait until they were on their way.

Grateful for his friend's faith in him, Luke turned up the tunnel. White ghosted across the periphery of his vision. His toe struck something soft, slid forward onto something else in the darkness. Something brittle crunched under his boot toe. He halted. Luke reached out through the Force.

"Jawa!"

Hand out, he spun and shoved his friend aside just as the loranni struck. One took Luke high, in his right hand. The second connected with his calf immediately above the top of his boot. His right hand came down on the nearest, snapping its neck. A blaster bolt from Wedge killed the second.

"Too close." Wedge gasped. Then, "Son of a Sith! Lorean. So that's what Tir'Nngan meant. Are you okay? Did they get you?"

"Sort of," said Luke. He ignited his sabre and inspected the damage. Wedge flinched as the Jedi Master shook an impotent, pulsing stinger full of poison from the back of his cyber hand.

"That was lucky."

When Luke winced and plucked an empty, still twitching barb from his leg, Wedge realised he had spoken too soon. Down on his knees, he carefully inspected the wound. Deeply concerned he gazed up at his friend.

"Can you make it to the speeder?"

"That far, yes."

Although Luke was positive he could travel, he had no illusions that all too soon he would begin feeling the effects of the poison. Knew Wedge was as cognizant of this additional wrinkle inserted into their plans. Already the venom was spreading through his body. His Jedi training could eradicate it but it would take precious time they did not have. It was unlikely the poison would kill him, though it would make him exceedingly ill. And so he chose the path that would take them beyond the range of the Imperial forces.

"Let's go. Time's short." Luke urged Wedge on.

Despite the liquid fire stirring in his veins as the venom worked its way through his system elation filled Luke. He stepped from the tunnel into the long shadows of sundown and inhaled deeply. Wedge lived. He had beaten the Tree again.

"So where's our transportation?" Wedge wanted to know.

"Just up here," Luke said. "I stumbled on them while I was looking for a way in. They should be under a cam-shield."

At that moment Wedge spotted the cam-shield. He halted and peered underneath. "Did you say there was more than one?"

"Yes. Two."

"Only one left. Someone got away." He and Luke stared at each other. They spoke as one with conviction. "Tir'Nngan."

"Nothing we can do about it now," said Luke, pointing up the draw. "See that outcrop that looks like a tauntaun head?"

"Yeah."

"My survival kit's there."

"Gotcha."

Forced to ignore his own growing discomfort, Wedge trotted across the canyon floor. He found Luke's satchel and returned to the speeder to discover the Jedi Master already in the passenger seat. Pain clawed down Wedge's left side as he slid behind the controls. It took all his self-control not to hiss. Cloth, melted into the wound by blaster burn, pulled with every injudicious movement causing real problems as seared nerve endings remembered how to feel. Every action tugged scorched tissue. Beneath his vest, blood glued his shirt to his flesh, further complicating matters. He suspected he was still bleeding, but dared not let Luke know.

Ever conscious of their dwindling safety margin, Wedge powered up the speeder. At maximum thrust they raced from the cleft, almost running down a stormtrooper. Driver and trooper instinctively ducked. Wedge jinked to the left. The trooper dove right. Behind them arose shouts. Several wild blaster bolts flew past them. Keeping his head down, Wedge cursed under his breath. Intent upon the cliff-face along which they raced, Luke ignored the incident.

"Here. Turn here."

Instinctively responding to the urgency in his friend's voice, Wedge spun the controls. He rotated the speeder ninety-degrees on its axis. They sloughed sideways, nearly caroming into rock, before shooting up a canyon, out of range of their enemies. An otherwise unprepossessing gorge was made impressive by undulating bands of deep red-brown, ochre, pale gold and sand. Like a writhing, dying serpent the rift twisted and turned. Sandstone and rock had been transformed by erosion into weirdly contorted shapes that threw strange shadows across the canyon in the final rays of sunset.

"Hope you know where we're going, buddy," said Wedge.

"This'll cut off over half a day's travel to the station."

"Station." Wedge nearly hit the brakes. "I thought the port---"

"Too far," Luke said flatly. "Can't trust night travel in something this small. Keep going."

"Great. Super." From the tone of Luke's voice Wedge knew better than to argue. "You need a doctor, Luke. Is there one at this place?"

"Maybe. Not necessarily." Luke insisted. "I just need time, Wedge. Somewhere to lie low while I fight this off."

"I hope you're right---Whoa!"

This time Wedge did slam on the brakes, halting the speeder in a somewhat nose-down attitude. The rear settled on its air cushion with a bounce. He stared in awe at the massive stone ramp that rose ship high above them.

"It's all right. Keep going."

Encouraged to continue, Wedge cautiously edged their transport forward. Closer examination revealed the speeder was able to take the rise with only a modicum of difficulty. Beyond, a stone arch briefly cut off any over-view. Cast darkness across the canyon floor and an illusion of coolness the breathless heat did not possess. Just past the natural bridge lay a small depression in the defile floor. Where the canyon narrowed almost to a bottleneck, a flash of metal caught his attention. He slowed.

"Keep going." His friend urged him on. "That happened a long time ago. That's why my uncle used to tan my butt whenever he found out my buddies and I were out this way in our skyhoppers."

Another series of tight curves and narrowing faces above drew a sharp breath from Wedge. "Don't tell me. This is--"

"Beggar's Canyon." Luke's head tipped back, examining the tortuous route. "A wonder more of us didn't get killed."

"You can say that again," said Wedge. Thought, 'Was I really that reckless as a kid?' It was growing increasingly difficult to see. Darkness was rapidly drawing around them. He commented on his observation. "Looks like its almost dusk. Must have taken us longer than I thought to slice into the mainframe."

"No." Luke snapped his jaw open twice. Swallowed hard and shook his head in a typical spacer move used to adjust to sudden changes in pressure. "Pressure front. Sandstorm moving in."

"Damn it." Wedge swore and caught a yawn. His ears popped as the pressure equalized in the inner ear canals. "What else can go wrong?"

"Keep going," said Luke softly.

Concerned, Wedge looked at him, then back at the canyon floor. "You sure you're okay?"

"Will be. It's catching up with me, though. May lose it for a bit. Just make sure you hold our heading at three-two-seven once we clear the canyon."

"Three-two-seven?" Wedge repeated the numbers back, got a nod from his companion. The Jedi Master's increasing lack of lucidity troubled him. Some poisons were faster acting than others were and he had no idea exactly what the poison, in conjunction with a genetically engineered virus, might do.

"Yes. That bearing will bring us into Tosche Station. Can't trust Anchorhead."

Without thinking, Wedge asked him. "Did you go back when you were here last?"

Luke gave his head a slight shake. "No. Avoided the port, too. Put down at Ben's place. Its not far from here."

After several rapid breaths, Luke rested his head against the seat back. Eyes closed, he drifted in a semi-conscious state. Wedge did his level best to concentrate on driving. By the time they left the Jundland Wastes behind they were racing the storm and rapidly losing ground. The leading edge caught them all too soon for Wedge's liking. He raised the canopy, activated running lights and kept going. Before long it was like flying a snowspeeder in a Hoth blizzard.

They slowed. Slowed again. Next to him, Luke was flushed. His breathing, laboured and hoarse, filled the tiny cockpit. Worst of all, their vehicle's intakes were fouling with sand particles. There was a roughness to the engine noise. Repulsor warning lights glared a baleful red at Wedge. Driven by desperation and concern for Luke, he pressed on, determined to get the most out of the vehicle before it died.

Eventually it sputtered out its life. Repulsors coughing ineffectually, the speeder settled to the sand, metal grinding against the desert as repulsor field and air cushion faded. Slumped at the controls of the useless vehicle, Wedge uttered a long stream of maledictions. Next to him Luke proved he was just conscious by producing a wraith of a smile.

Hands slamming against the control column, Wedge swore again. Grunted as red-hot pain abruptly lanced up his side and fought off a sudden attack as vertigo. Carefully easing around in the seat, he reached back and hauled their gear from the back seat. Every movement put him through sheer agony. He pared their things to essentials and slung the pack with care.

"Come on, buddy. We can't stay here."

Cajoled, bullied, urged on by Wedge, Luke staggered from the lee side of speeder. Dust and sand particles whipped their faces nearly blinding Wedge before he got their goggles on. He wrapped Luke's cloak tightly about him, slung the small pack of water and rations, and looped the Jedi Master's left arm across his shoulders. They set off, leaning into the wind. Sand abraded exposed skin until Wedge felt certain he was being flayed alive. His concentration narrowed to the here and now, keeping them on course with the wind against their left, his eyes fixed on the location director in his free hand.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

"Damn tourists." A woman's voice blurted that accusation seemingly out of nowhere.

"S'not right." Wedge weakly objected as strong hands assisted him out of the sandstorm and down stone stairs into---bless the Force---a climate controlled building. "'M not a tourist."

Vaguely he remembered his outstretched hand slamming into plasti-crete. Bruised and bleeding fingers and knuckles stung. Senses still groggy he shook sand from his head. Someone removed his hat and goggles.

"Here. Drink." A second woman ordered.

Bleary-eyed with pain and weariness, battered almost insensible, Wedge accepted a mug and drank. Cool, delicious water. He was tempted to gulp. Restrained himself and sipped instead. Wracking his brains, he sucked at his knuckles between mouthfuls of water. Struggled to recall the nightmare through which he had brought Luke. Of encountering that wall and clawing his way across it in an attempt to find a latch.

"You're hurt."

Without thinking, Wedge attempted to deflect the woman who restrained him. The stranger brushed it aside. Gently eased his left arm away. Cool air brushed burned flesh. Wedge hissed at the flash of pain. First aid kit in hand, the first woman appeared.

"Let me look at that. Push over Windy. You're in the light. There." She shifted aside Wedge's vest, lifted his shirttail. Commented, "That looks like a knife wound. And a flash burn."

Wedge bit back an amendment and refrained from telling her it was really a blaster wound. He blinked away sand particles encrusting his eyelashes and gazed around him. "Where am I?"

"Anchorhead. Near Tosche Station." The woman with short hair told him. "You must have been crazy trying to race a sandstorm at night, mister."

"Wedge." He automatically corrected that, not caring that they knew his real name. Memory asserted itself. He lunged out of the chair. "My friend!"

"Easy." Hands forced him back into the chair. The woman with long hair held his arm still. "He's okay. Windy's put him in the back room. Looks real sick, though."

"I have to see him." As he tried again to stand, Wedge felt Windy's hands push him down again. This time they pinned him in the chair.

"When I'm done." Remonstrated the first woman, "And if you don't stop trying to hop up every other second, this is going to take a hell of a lot longer than necessary."

Subsiding, Wedge studied her. "What's your name?"

Green-brown eyes turned up at him from beneath a fringe of her bangs. Sun-seamed flesh surrounded them. Although she could not have been more than few years older than he there was considerable grey streaking sun damaged, mousy brown hair pulled back in a tail. On her feet she would have topped him by half a head height. A mouth more accustomed to scowls than smiles curved a fraction. No doubt she had once been considerably attractive. But years on this desert world had robbed her of her beauty. Left behind a wiry, parched frame more suitable on a man.

"Camie." She used her chin to point to her companion. "That's Windy. M'husband's Fixer. Owns this place."

"Where is he?"

"Visiting. Be back on the storm's trailing edge, no doubt." She concluded slowly. Sensing Wedge would now remain seated Windy released him and perched on the couch back. Short shaggy brown locks were caught back by a brow band. Elfin features belied the stubborn set of her jaw. The same height as he and Luke, Windy's frame held a suggestion of muscle far more common among fleet troops who pressed weights. These rim-worlders, Wedge absently reflected, did not run to fat.

"When do you figure he'll be back? Tomorrow?"

Gently Windy scoffed. Melodramatically rolled her eyes. "Tomorrow, he says. Be lucky if this blow don't last two days or more."

"Two days!"

"Sure, mister." Camie concentrated on his injury, speaking without looking up. "Could be upwards of four, five days. This is the start of Tatooine's winter."

That made Wedge laugh, then wince. "Never thought of Tatooine as having a winter."

"Every world's gotta have a winter," came back Windy's reply. "Least ways, that's what the library chips say. Just different, depending upon the planet. Sure would like to see snow sometime."

Upon seeing the eager light in Windy's dark brown eyes and hearing the wistful note it was all the Alliance agent could do to bite his tongue. To not start narrating his own experiences. Camie unwittingly came to his rescue, slapping her palms on her trouser covered thighs.

"There. Done. Should see you 'til you can get to a proper med facility, as long as you don't over-exert yourself."

"Thank you, Camie." Carefully getting to his feet, Wedge glanced around the room. It proved to be a combined living-entertaining area, with a kitchen nook off to one side. Two bedrooms, a fresher between, lay directly across from him. A small guestroom lay between the bedroom on the right and the kitchen.

"Now may I see my friend?"

"Sure," said Camie. "Just go slow."

Carefully, heeding her advice, Wedge made his way across the room in the direction of the guestroom, even though all his instincts urged him to run. Luke lay on a low bed shelf in the darkness still muffled in his cloak, face shadowed by its cowl. The back room was too small to accommodate more than one person comfortably and had probably been a storage area at one time. A chair, small side-table and a ledge built into one wall consisted of the sum total of the furnishings.

"Yoda. Ben." Fever-crazed, Luke tossed and turned, muttering all but incoherent phrases. "No, father! I won't let you hurt her!'

Those fevered rambling fascinated and repelled Wedge all in the same breath. Gently he removed the goggles. Luke's hood fell away. Wedge tugged the cloak free and threw it over the chair. Then he unclipped the lightsabre and laid it almost reverently at the back of the bedside table. One by one, he wriggled off Luke's boots. By the time he was done Wedge was as sweat-soaked as his friend was.

"Does he need anything?" From the doorway Camie watched while Wedge carefully shook out the covers. "Wait." She objected. "You can't put him to bed fully clothed when he's running a fever like that. Windy, come give him a hand getting his friend undressed."

"No problem, Camie. You better get a pitcher of water. Fever's going to dehydrate him."

Water. A commodity on Tatooine as precious as Kessel spice. Wedge remembered his supplies. "There should be two full water containers in my pack."

In the wake of that statement Wedge wondered if he had lost their survival gear somewhere along the way. But Camie withdrew. When she returned she passed the containers to Windy. Windy entered the small room, placed the two canteens on the floor, and straightened. She froze.

"Holy bantha---" She broke off. Stared at Wedge in wonder and bit out three measured words. "Who are you?"

"My name's Wedge. Wedge Antilles." Wedge replied truthfully. "And this is my friend, Luke."

Windy's mouth worked but no words emerged. Curious, Camie entered the room. "What is it, Windy? What's wrong?"

Speechless, Windy pointed. For the first time since hearing the strangers scrabbling at her front door, Camie got a good look at the man in the cloak.

"It can't be." She hesitated. Drew nearer for a closer inspection and blurted. "It is! Windy! It's----"

"Wormy!" They blurted the word in unison. Camie nearly dropped the pitcher and glasses.

"Look," Wedge rounded on the shocked locals, stung by the derogatory manner in which they addressed the Jedi Master. "I couldn't give a wampa's pelt who or what's eating you two. He's my friend---Luke Skywalker, and he's sick. Now help me get him to bed."

"But that's Luke." Still Windy could not move.

"Please." Desperation elevated by their continued inaction, Wedge begged.

His desperation reached Camie. All business once more, she pushed Windy aside. "What do you need?"

"Can you sit him up?"

Finally Windy acted. She quickly bent forward, clearly more capable of dealing with Luke's mass, and raised his torso. Between them, Wedge and Camie got the unconscious Jedi out of his shirt and trousers. Wedge did not miss the awe on Camie's face. A hungry light filled her eyes as she took in the muscled torso, trim waist and broad chest. Recalling the gawky kid barely out of adolescence who had reached Yavin Four, one step ahead of the first Death Star, Wedge appreciated her amazement. That day seemed a lifetime away. And perhaps, in retrospect, it was. Surprisingly, Windy appeared surprised but less over-awed by the change in Luke's appearance.

Another moan drew him out of the past. He concentrated on making certain Luke was comfortable. Dribbled water past parched lips before settling him back down on the bed. It was Camie who solicitously arranged the covers.

"No!" Hands came up to beat off imagined evils. She leapt out of the way as Luke's flailing hands nearly struck her. "I won't let you! Father! Please! Don't!"

Next to Wedge the lightsabre rattled. Actually shifted its position slightly on the table. Frightened by what the feverish Jedi might do in his delirium, Wedge Antilles hurriedly grabbed the weapon and affixed it to his own belt. If need be, he would sleep with it.

"Can't help---Biggs---get out! No!"

Eyes wide with wonder, struck by the Jedi Master's incoherent raving, the three bystanders continued to hover at his bedside. Luke's head tossed back and forth, eyes screwed tight shut. Tiny agonized moans punctuated each sentence.

"Please, Ben. Don't leave me. Why? Why did you die?"

"What's he talking about?" Windy finally found her voice. Yanked Wedge out of his reverie as rudely as a life-pod being thrown clear of a disabled fighter.

"You better come outside," he said. "I've a feeling our being here could be setting off his nightmares."

"But he's unconscious," protested Camie.

"Jedi sense a lot of things," said Wedge.

"Jedi? Who's a Jedi?" Camie demanded.

In the face of her disbelief, Wedge gestured. "Come on. This is going to take a while."

With a short harsh bark of laughter burst, Windy countered. "We've got nothing but time, mister."

The sudden, high-pitched explosion of sound sent a violent spasm through Luke. His entire body jerked. Camie's eyes flashed. She hurriedly hushed Windy and conscientiously replaced covers thrown clear by the violent movement.

"All right, mister." She declared. "We'll listen. I've always enjoyed a good story."

"Would that it were a tale," said Wedge under his breath. But they failed to hear him.

They congregated in the living room. Camie brought out a tray of juice and some snacks. Settled on the sparse furniture, they whiled away the night. The Tatooine residents on the couch, Wedge took the chair as he launched into the recent history of the Alliance.

'Amazing.' He considered two and one-half hours later, 'I never would have thought it possible to compress all those years and events into so short a space of time.'

He had, though. But only by trimming the bulk from the narration and keeping to the highlights. And he had carefully left out certain items, such as Luke loosing his hand. Nor had he mentioned Biggs Darklighter's cousin presently serving with Rogue Squadron. When Camie or Windy punctuated his rendering with questions concerning Luke's reasons for doing much of what he had, all Wedge could do each time was shrug.

"So what you're telling us is he's a Jedi," Windy finally said.

To his way of thinking the shrug should have sufficed. Unfortunately it did not. Not to these news starved rim-worlders. So Wedge struggled to explain.

"Yes." He affirmed. "They say the Force governs their actions in ways we can't even begin to imagine. All I know is, he's survived hell more times than I like to contemplate. And emerged stronger."

"But Luke---a Jedi?" Windy shook his head. "And that crazy old hermit---Kenobi---was actually a General."

"During the Clone Wars."

"I still can't get over Luke having a Princess for a sister," said Camie, a sardonic note tinged her words. "That makes him a prince, don't it?"

Wedge shook his head. "Doesn't follow. Near as I've figured out, she was adopted into the Royal Family. I think Bail Organa married their mother not long after she left their father. Few ever understood how he could take to Leia so strongly. Makes sense now."

"Everything tends to make sense in hindsight." Windy reflected, incredibly perceptive for a barely literate rim-worlder.

Suddenly feeling self-conscious, Wedge stood. "Excuse me. Got to check on Luke."

He returned to the guestroom. Windy trailed him as far as the doorway and watched, fascinated, while the Alliance agent placed his hand on his friend's brow. It was hot to the touch. Luke's breathing rapid and thready, too shallow for Wedge's liking. Sweat matted light brown hair, glued it to feverish flesh. That his condition continued to deteriorate deeply disturbed Wedge. The whole situation left him feeling as helpless as their situation had on Hoth. Incapable of doing more to help the Jedi Master when he so desperately wanted to. Too often he felt he had let his friend down in the past even though he knew Luke would deny that attack of self-flagellation were he conscious.

"No. I'll never join you. I'm a Jedi. Like my father."

"Hang in there, buddy." Wedge pleaded softly. Troubled, he glanced over his shoulder. But the doorway was empty. The rim-worlder had withdrawn. "Come on, Luke! You've gotta beat this thing. We have to get home."

Home was a word that left a bitter taste in his mouth. Neither of them could ever go home again. But then, at least he had the advantage of having known a real home. Parents. Not like Luke. Orphaned. Abandoned to relations who had not really wanted the responsibility of raising him when his mere existence courted the attention of the Emperor and the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. Hunted across the galaxy by a remorseless Emperor and his dark minion. Wedge could only imagine the depths of loneliness the Jedi Master knew. Grasp at hints of the emptiness. And understood why Luke so valued the few true friends, the one surviving family member in his life.

"I won't let you do it, father. Not Leia! Why are you letting him do this to me? Help me, father! Don't let him kill me! Please!"

Anguish filled those whispered words. Luke's hands clenched and unclenched. Horrified, Wedge watched in silence while his friend struggled, incoherent with fever. Finally Wedge dragged himself away. Fled back to the outer room, right into a confrontation.

"I don't care if he's the Emperor himself." Camie railed, struggling to keep her voice low. "He left Biggs to die."

"Be reasonable, Camie. You heard him. It must have been chaos. They were outnumbered. And he had a malfunction." Windy objected on their guest's behalf.

"If you choose to believe him. I'd as soon toss him right back outside for deserting them."

"I'll go if you want me to," said Wedge simply from just inside the lounge. Here it was. All his self-doubts rolled up in Camie's accusations. "To tell you the truth, it'd probably be a blessing."

His statement was like a slap to her face. Camie stared at him, unable to form a reply. Now Windy rose and stepped between them, her hands held up.

"That's stupid, Wedge. Who the hell are we to judge your actions? We haven't a clue what it was like." Mouth twisted out of true, she looked from Wedge to Camie and back again. Appraised the reactions of their unexpected guest.

"Seems to me you're carrying around enough guilt for the whole galaxy." After a significant pause Windy asked, "Does Luke hold you responsible for Biggs dying?" Dumbly Wedge shook his head. "Well, then. He should know. After all, he was there. And Biggs was his best friend. So let that be the end of it."

"Easier said than done," said Wedge. Yet even as he spoke he felt as though a great weight had lifted from his heart. Perhaps this was what he had needed all along. To clear the air with those who had known Biggs Darklighter before Yavin Four. People other than Luke or Rogue Squadron.

Into the awkward silence that fell, Camie grumpily interjected. "Guess we should get some sleep. It's late."

"I'll camp out with Luke," said Wedge. "Keep an eye on him."

From the look on Camie's face it was evident she had a low opinion of his ability to watch over anyone. But she did not argue the point. Instead, she disappeared up the tunnel, returning a short time later from the garage with two sleeping bags.

"Here." She thrust one at Wedge, pressed the other on Windy. "Take the couch, Windy."

The sleeping bags smelled strangely musty, considering the dry climate. Briefly he wondered where they had been stored and for how long.

"Sure, Camie." Obviously this arrangement was not new to Windy. "Just hope Fixer doesn't kick me from here to Mos Eisley when he finds out."

"Jealous type, is he?"

Stung by Wedge's question, Camie threw back her shoulders, stuck her nose in the air and marched into the main bedroom. The door closed behind her. Windy and Wedge exchanged amused looks. Not about to inquire further into Camie's personal life, Wedge shook his head. He returned to the guestroom. Spreading the survival sleeping bag on the floor---black market, Clone War issue by the appearance---he got ready for bed. Before crawling into the sleeping bag he carefully placed Luke's lightsabre next to him, within arm's reach. Then he wriggled down inside the bag. In spite of himself, he was asleep almost immediately.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Trapped by the virus and poison, Luke battled against the whirlpool that sought to drag him into eternal darkness. Past and present over-lapped, contorted and merged with possible futures. Colours ebbed and flowed, flickered and sparked around his vision like so many electrical short-circuits. Words spawned impossibly brilliant images. Distracted him repeatedly. Determined, Luke drew on rapidly dwindling energy and concentrated. Recalled the parasites he had unwittingly swallowed before Bakura. He focused his inner senses on the source of the illness.

Like insidious weeds that multiplied using a dual system of sub-surface runners and airborne spores, the paired enemy was infiltrating his body. It was gaining ground rapidly. There was no other way to combat it except to attack each segment separately.

When he grappled with one, sending antibodies flooding to threatened regions, nightmare images from his past rose up to bar the way. Unending permutations of what might have been assailed him from all sides. Luke waded in, viciously thrusting aside each vision. Gradually he beat back the poison.

But the virus proved far more insidious. It camouflaged itself. Hid in his kidney, liver and at the base of his skull and threatened to invade his brain through the stem. Forced to retreat, the Jedi Master consolidated his remaining strength. Re-launched his attack.

Now dreams became reality. Again he watched Ben bring his lightsabre to rest. Saw his mentor struck down. He raced the trench on the DEATH STAR and was still helpless to help Biggs. Faced Darth Vader along the length of the catwalk at Bespin. Numb with the double shock of losing his hand and discovering the truth about his father, he made his decision. Let go. And fell. And fell.

Came to rest on the floor of the second DEATH STAR. Again his father read his thoughts. Learned that he had a twin sister. Released by frustration the dark side of the Force surged through him as he battled his father back across the throne room and beat Darth Vader down. Once more the Emperor offered him the choice and he refused. Screamed in agony, his tortured frame arching uncontrollably beneath Palpatine's assault. Purple lightning danced across him as he cried out for his father.

Again darkness swirled up, engulfing him. Luke let go. Drowned in the certainty of death. Just as he reached the precipice overlooking the bottomless well a tiny pinprick of light pulsed high above.

'Luke!' For a moment he did not respond. Again she called out. 'Luke?'

'Leia?'

'Please, Luke. Don't die.'

'Leia.'

At first he could not turn to look at her. But slowly, inexorably, his head came round. Clothed in the white gown she had worn on board the medical frigate, his sister stared back at him. Distressed and fearful of losing him, she held out her hands.

'Come back to us, Luke.'

'So tired,' he told her.

'You mustn't die.' She ordered him to remain. 'You're a fighter, Luke! Don't give up now.'

Unspoken was her need for his physical support. The knowledge that he would be there for her whenever she needed him. Spurred by her entreaty and her desperation, he drew deeper into himself. Found the last remaining dregs of strength. He balled up his resolve and drove upward.

To fight the maelstrom was like plowing through a massive snowdrift in a winter storm. Determined to survive, Luke slogged upward. Inch by precious inch he clawed his way back toward consciousness. For every gain, there was loss. But at long last he drew free of the pit. Lay gasping on the edge. Finally honest sleep claimed him.

Hours later his eyelids flew wide. Luke held himself absolutely still. He was still weary, but sufficiently rested to head for Mos Eisley. Darkness pressed all around him. Beneath him his senses read the firm surface of a bed. Two therma covers were tucked around his body. He touched the consciousness of three other individuals in the building within which he lay, all asleep. His eyes picked out Wedge curled up on the floor at the side of the room.

Gradually the Jedi Master expanded his awareness of his surroundings. Sat up carefully to minimize the rustle of the covers. Of his clothing, only his underwear remained. In searching for his belongings his eyes traced plasti-crete coated sand forming the lower half of the walls. Metal made up the rest.

"Anchorhead."

He spoke out loud, softly so as not to disturb Wedge. Parched lips cracked. Licking them, he glanced around. Found the water and poured himself a mug. After sipping most of the contents, he took stock of things.

Clearly Wedge had not been able to make Tosche Station. Unfortunate, but then, matters did not always resolve themselves as one would wish. Resigned, he inspected the room. Across the only chair was draped his cloak. Shirt, trousers and socks were neatly folded on the narrow ledge near the foot of his bed. His boots stood directly beneath them. But there was no sign of his sabre.

"Now where's that? I distinctly remember---"

Through the Force Luke located it among Wedge's clothes on the floor next to his sleeping bag. His friend's hand lay across the weapon.

"What in---"

Wedge jerked awake as the weapon twitched in his grasp in response to the Force. He came bolt upright on the floor, fingers tightening reflexively around the hilt, and stared across the room at Luke. Their eyes met in the darkness. The Jedi Master grinned at his friend's astonishment.

"Luke! You're okay!"

"Shhh." Luke hushed him. "You'll wake the whole house."

"Sorry." Wedge struggled to tone down his voice. "How do you feel?"

"Better. Thought I told you to head for Tosche Station."

"Sorry." Wedge repeated himself. "But it was kinda hard keeping a direct bearing on foot in that storm."

"S'okay, Wedge." Conscious of their surroundings, Luke glanced at the door. "I hope you haven't disturbed anyone."

"Too late." Windy grumbled as she appeared in the door. Luke was not entirely surprised to see her. Somewhat the worse for wear after a night on the couch the rim-worlder ran a hand through hair bobbed to just below her ears. Luke remembered it being almost waist length. "Good to see you with us again, Wormy. You gave us a bad scare yesterday."

"Sorry about that, Windy."

Arms folded, Windy leaned against the doorframe. But her attempt at nonchalance fell flat. There was too much excitement in her eyes. Peeled out of the sleeping bag, Wedge went to Luke. Under Windy's watchful eyes he checked Luke's pulse and temperature. The Jedi Master suffered his ministrations in silence. Made no effort to pull away.

"No fever. Pulse is good." Now Wedge drew aside the covers to inspect the puncture wound left by the lorean. Or tried to. "Sith spawn! It's---gone!"

"What's gone?"

Windy joined him in examining Luke's right calf. Where there had been puffy red flesh, streaked dangerously white from poison the night before only clean flesh met their eyes. Wedge probed the area with incautious fingers until Luke smacked his hand aside in friendly rebuke.

"Okay, Luke." Wedge demanded and explanation. "Just exactly how can a lorean stinger full of poison leave no mark even though it caught you yesterday afternoon and went untreated?"

Unprepared to be trapped into a long explanation, Luke kept his response to something his friend did not expect; a silent, forbearing expression acquired from Ben Kenobi. He was wholly unaware just how much he resembled Obi-wan in that moment. Astonished, Windy stared. Her breath caught in her throat at the tableau.

"A lorean?" Finally Windy found her voice. "Where in the great dunes did you find a lorean on Tatooine?"

"Long story. Which you don't need to know the details of," said Wedge. "Sorry, Luke. I should have kept my mouth shut."

"It's okay, Wedge." The Jedi Master gazed around him, certain he recognised the place. But if it was the same garage, there had been some significant changes made to it over the years.

"Is this your place, Windy?"

"No. It's Fixer's. He and Camie---"

"Finally got married, did they?"

Satisfied with that tidbit of information, Luke slid from bed. Grabbing his cloak, he wrapped it around him as though he did this sort of thing every day. Beneath his bare feet the floor felt cool. Air conditioning sighed, a familiar susurration reminiscent of his childhood.

"Is there a needle shower handy? I feel like I've been dragged through a sand dune."

"Try a sandstorm." Camie sourly remarked from the doorway. Her hair, longer than Windy's, was caught back in two braids that fell to her shoulder. Wisps had escaped the braids and drifted about her face. She pushed them aside. "Some people might try keeping their voices down in the morning."

"Good morning, Camie."

In the face of Luke's pleasant greeting, she took a half step back. Stammered, "Luke."

Uneasy with Camie's reaction, Wedge confined his greeting to a nod. Then he pointed the way. "The fresher's on the right. Just outside."

Grateful for his intervention, Luke thanked him. "Great. Back in a bit."

He caught up his things and left the room. No one tried to stop him, although the look Camie trailed in his wake concerned Wedge. She still did not believe everything ---if any, he silently amended---of what he had told them the previous night.

"Got any breakfast for this hungry Tusken, Camie?"

Experience sent Windy into the breach, effectively distracting their reluctant hostess. With a sniff of disgust, Camie went into the kitchen. Windy followed. But Wedge remained behind. While Luke freshened up he repacked their survival gear. Shook out and rolled up the borrowed sleeping bag. The last thing he did was replace Luke's lightsabre where the Jedi Master could find it.

"Was I really that bad?"

Heat racing, Wedge whirled. "Son of a Sith! Luke. I wish you wouldn't creep up on a guy like that."

"Sorry."

For all his admonishment, Wedge was not put out. He slapped his friend on the back with his good arm. "Just glad you're okay."

"Thanks for looking out for me."

"I owe you," said Wedge.

"Cut that out. You don't owe me anything."

"Okay."

For once Wedge realised he meant it. Knew, too, that Luke heard the difference in his voice and approved. The Jedi Master hung his lightsabre from his belt.

"Storm's almost blown itself out." Luke advised him.

"How the hell do you know?" A rhetorical question, it set Luke's eyes dancing. "All right. Just let me get cleaned up. Don't know how I slept with all that sand in my hair."

"Breakfast?"

Mugs of bantha milk filling both hands, Windy appeared in the doorway. She looked at them expectantly. Taking his cue from Luke, Wedge accepted a mug and guzzled it down. Then he swept up his things and headed for the facilities. Or tried to. Injuries he had thought successfully numbed returned with a vengeance. One hand against a doorframe for support, he halted, wincing and gasping as the scab on the burn tore beneath the bacta bandage.

"Wedge. You're hurt."

Before he could wave Luke off, the Jedi was at his side. Luke examined the clear gel bandage Camie had placed over the wound as a temporary fix, and pursed his lips. He was not pleased by the extent of the damage; the knife wound was relatively deep. Ravaged flesh had been further savaged by blaster burn. Infection was setting in.

"When did this happen?" His expression brooked no evasion.

Wedge swallowed hard. Ruefully admitted, "Horst and Clyth---"

"At the installation? Dammit, Wedge. And you never said a word."

"Knew you were in no condition to drive." Wedge went on the defensive. As Luke's cool hands rested lightly against his side, he hissed with pain. Unconsciously flinched away from the unexpected cold of contact. But Luke moved with him. Suddenly, unexpectedly, warmth gently flowed across his ribcage and up his side, easing the pain.

"Great krayts!" The oath exploded from Windy.

Incredulous, Windy and Camie watched as a pale blue nimbus formed around Luke's hands. When Wedge attempted to draw away he found he could not move. Light spread outward until it encompassed the entire affected area. Played along the edges of the injury. Slowly, visibly, savaged flesh drew together. Scar tissue formed and, just as quickly faded, leaving a pallid white, jagged line. As rapidly as it had begun, the moment ended. Luke sagged, energy reserves drained. He took two half steps and sat with a slight thump on the raised doorsill between living room and invalid room.

"Of all the stupid---" Wedge blurted, exasperated. He whirled to crouch beside the collapsed Jedi, unaware of the lack of pain. "Even I know you can't keep exerting yourself like that when you were an invalid just yesterday."

He took Luke by the shoulders and gave him a short shake, berating his friend. Slowly Luke inhaled, then just as slowly released the breath. Drew another before speaking.

"Need you in one piece. Who else is gonna drive us back to Mos Eisley?"

That vain attempt at levity came close to falling flat. With a shake of his head, Wedge ran a hand across his face. Squeezed his eyes shut. Relief from pain and restriction of the wound was a blessing. He reopened his eyes.

"You're too valuable to keep pulling dumb stunts like that," he whispered back.

When Wedge drew him back to his feet, Luke briefly retained his grasp on Wedge's hand. Placed his free hand against the doorframe for additional support. He shook his fair hair out of his eyes. "We're all valuable, Wedge."

At long last daring to approach the pair Camie peered at Wedge's now healed wound. "How the hell did you do that?"

"Jedi." No doubt remained for her companion. Breathless with astonishment, Windy exclaimed. "I've read about them, but I never---You really are a Jedi!"

"I gotta get dressed," said Wedge, suddenly uncomfortable beneath the renewed attention. And escaped into the needle shower, leaving Luke to handle the situation. Which the Jedi Master did in the best way possible; he remained silent.

By the time Wedge returned Camie was feeding Luke. Perched on the couch back, Windy watched the scene and ate her own food. From the charged air in the room it was evident neither rim-worlder would continue questioning Luke's past since his abrupt departure from Tatooine or his present. In the bedroom Wedge found Camie had replaced his scorched shirt with a worn but serviceable shirt that must have belonged to her husband. It proved a size too big but he gratefully donned it. He stuffed the shirttail into his pants and fastened his blaster rig about his waist. When he emerged, pack in hand, Luke was watching for him. Their eyes met. The Jedi Master nodded and set aside his mug.

"Thank you for the meal, Camie. Windy. Hate to eat and run, but we have to leave."

"You'll be all right?" That came from Windy.

Camie added, "Are you sure you can't stay just a bit longer?"

Luke shook his head. Despite the effort he made to reassure his childhood companions, the rift between them was all too obvious. More than years separated them. Wedge's heart went out to Luke. The Jedi Master glanced toward the entrance, his eyes frozen.

Pressure altered dramatically in the room as the front door opened and interrupted their farewells. A fine cloud of dust and sand blew in eliciting a scowl from Camie as it settled over everything.

"Camie!" Fixer's bellow reverberated down the tunnel in accompaniment to the stamping of his feet. "Better break out the search gear. Deak and I came across an abandoned speeder on the way in. Gonna get a search party together. Deak's already up at the communications centre checking for anyone listed missing. Some stupid tourists no doubt. They never learn."

As her husband entered the room, Camie gestured. "No need to go looking, Fixer. They banged on the door just as the storm hit. Good thing Windy hadn't left yet."

"Thought I told you not to make a habit---" Fixer caught sight of Luke. Mouth sagging open, he stared at the Jedi Master. "Wormy?"

As casually as though he had only been gone a few days, Luke greeted the mechanic. "Hello, Fixer."

"Great gaffe sticks. Just look at you, kid."

Fixer stalked around Luke, studying his old acquaintance from all sides as though he were some new version of a speeder on the market. Plucked at the black shirt and peered at the lightsabre.

"Will you look at you? We all thought you were dead. Didn't we, Camie?" Unable to speak, Camie nodded. Fixer continued. "So why the get-up?"

"I'm afraid Camie and Windy will have to explain," Luke said firmly. "We have to get to the port."

"Hell, Luke. Don't be a stranger." Fixer insisted with forced joviality colouring his tone. In those few words Wedge read the truth and realised these two had never really been friends. The over-bearing Fixer must have taunted Luke in his youth. Hazed him, pushed him and encouraged him into all sorts of mischief. Propelled him to such extremes it was no surprise Luke had yearned to escape.

"Sorry, Fixer."

Determined to be gone, Luke swung his cloak around his shoulders. Wedge followed him, a silent shadow. There was no need for him to interfere. The Jedi Master was handling the situation quite nicely. Faced with a follower who had suddenly become a leader in complete command of the situation, the burly, bewildered mechanic backed up several steps. He nervously ran a hand across his balding head as the pair passed him and went up the stairs to the entrance. With a silent apology to Camie, Windy hurried after them.

"Hey! Luke, Wedge, wait up." They halted at the top, just inside the entrance. Windy caught up with them. "How are you gonna get back to the port?"

"I thought we might rent a speeder from the station. Or exchange ours. Only thing wrong with it is clogged intakes," said Wedge.

"No can do." The rim-worlder shook her head to emphasize the point. "The Imperials confiscated all but essential equipment."

Startled, Luke demanded, "When?"

"Right after---Owen and Beru died." Windy's gaze jerked from Wedge to Luke and back again. "But I'll be happy to drive you there."

"Are you sure?"

Even as Wedge asked, the Jedi Master stiffened. At the shift in the Force, Luke was tempted to reject the offer. But he immediately realised it was already too late. It had been too late the moment he had made the decision on Dagobah to help Wedge. Even as he dreaded what might come of his actions he acquiesced.

"All right, Windy. Thanks."

"Great! Be right back."

Bounding up the final step, Windy headed out into the final dregs of the sandstorm. Thoughtful, Wedge stared after the moisture farmer. "Are you sure we're doing the right thing?"

Solemn, resigned, Luke released a small sigh. "There are some things which are inevitable, Wedge."

It was obvious there was no countermanding that decision. Wedge leaned against the wall while they waited. Stared beyond the minuscule patch of shade offered by the building into the glare of early morning. Behind them an argument erupted; Camie defended herself over Windy dropping by and spending the night. Fixer made insinuations.

"You never listen. What do you think everyone's gonna say with her hanging around every spare minute! Bad enough she won't settle with anyone."

"I don't give a trader's oath what everyone thinks. Windy's just a friend, Fixer."

Wedge rolled his eyes. "How long do you think they'll go at it?"

Luke shook his head. He drew Wedge away so they were no longer eavesdropping. "Hard to say. Could be an hour. Maybe longer."

"I take it they've always been this way."

To that Luke only grunted. Added, "What do you say we leave?"

"Sounds like a plan."

Outside the station they were met by Windy, back with her vehicle. The battered speeder caused Wedge to smother a smile. "What kept you?" demanded Windy jauntily.

Neither friend dignified the jest with a reply. They hopped in; to Windy's surprise Luke dropped into the rear seat. Before she could question the Jedi's choice, Luke stretched out across the space and shut his eyes.

Wedge perceived his earlier assessment had been correct. In his concern for his old wingman, Luke had indeed come close to over-extending himself, particularly so soon upon the heels of fighting off a combination of poison and unknown virus. To the rim-worlder's credit, she asked no questions. Without encouragement she opened the throttle on the repulsors. The engine produced a throaty whine signifying a well-tuned vehicle, further assuaging any fears Wedge secretly nursed. Somewhere along the way Wedge also fell asleep.

Several hours later he woke to Windy's nudge. "We're almost there."

Cramped muscles pulled as he sought to straighten. Wedge stretched and peered ahead through the sand-pitted windscreen. They were atop the massive butte Nngan's cavalcade had bypassed. Below, low buildings lined a bowl hemmed in from basin to horizon by yet more palisades. Sunlight reflected off metal. A thin spire pierced the air, delineating the exact centre of the spaceport. Sun on sand and alkali produced additional blinding glare. Engine roar from a lifting ship momentarily rumbled through the air. Quickly dissipated as the vessel vanished into the troposphere. Speeder top down, their forward motion created a breeze that made the last leg of their trip almost pleasant. Wedge glanced back at Luke as they swept down the long incline.

"Still sleeping?"

"Yeah. Must have been some sick to give out like that."

"Hmmm?" With a soft snort and a blink, Luke Skywalker stretched as though their conversation had summoned him. Which it may well have done. He sat up. "Mos Eisley?"

"Just ahead," Wedge said. "Got any ideas how we're going to get off this ball of sand?"

Something in Luke's demeanor alerted Wedge that the Jedi Master would find a way. For the Alliance's newest general it was sufficient. Somewhere in Mos Eisley Luke had a contact or a ship prepped to take them off-world. He did not, however, expect the next words out of Luke's mouth.

"I had thought to look for a charter, but I believe we're in luck. Try docking bay twenty-seven, Windy. I think we may find a friend there."

"How---"

        Before Windy could finish that question, Wedge ordered, "Just do it."
        Since Endor Luke had grown increasingly enigmatic and cryptic.  Nor did the Jedi Master appear outwardly concerned by the effect he was having on an old acquaintance.  Not quite as wet behind the ears as Luke had been his first time into the port, Windy kept her eyes on navigating the streets.

They avoided two banthas, skirted a dewback and the wreckage of the ancient freighter. Pedestrians shifted aside at their approach, but exhibited little more than passing interest in them. Heat and dust were rapidly driving all but the hardiest indoors. Only those residents with businesses to run remained outside after mid-morning. As they turned into the road servicing the docking bays, Wedge pursued the question that Windy had broached.

"You're sure about this, Luke?" His friend nodded, expression sobering. Intrigued, Wedge pressed. "Have any idea who we'll find?"

"No," said Luke. He caught and held Wedge's gaze when the other swiveled to stare at him. Suddenly Luke stiffened in his seat. His next words sent a chill of dread through Wedge. "Stormtroopers."

Aware his passengers would be instantly identified, Windy asked, "What'll I do?"

Nervousness telegraphed to Wedge, amplifying his own uneasiness. They certainly did not need to blow it because their driver decided she was going to be a hero. Windy was unconsciously slowing as they approached the three troopers.

"If they want us to stop," said Wedge, "do it. The last thing we need is for them to start chasing us." To Luke he asked, "Think they're looking for us?"

"Doubtful. You, maybe. But their pick-ups will tag us both regardless, that's for sure."

"Maybe I should try going around," said Windy, her face suddenly pale with uncertainty.

Luke shook his head. "That won't work. They'll be strategically positioned to cover all routes leading in. Particularly the ones to the docking bays."

"Then---"

Afraid the rim-worlder might try something foolish, Wedge gripped her right arm firmly. Shook his head. The warning in his eyes was sufficient.

"We play it cool. Bluff it through," Wedge insisted.

"And trust in the Force," said Luke.

"Halt!"

Whatever else Windy might have contemplated vanished in reflex obedience to authority. She braked. Swore at herself under her breath as one of the three troopers approached their vehicle. The others kept rifle blasters casually pointed in the passengers' direction. There was no escape.

"Name."

Swallowing to moisten throat gone dry, Windy managed, "Marica Winolder."

"Occupation?"

"Mechanic. Moisture farmer."

"Residency?"

"Anchorhead."

"Your passengers?"

"Friends." In spite of herself Windy stammered. She somehow kept her voice within reasonable parameters for someone who was surprised at being questioned.

"There's no problem here," said Luke conversationally. In front of him, Windy twitched, stunned by the absolute authority professed by her friend's voice. Only Wedge managed to appear unaffected, even though he was not wholly immune.

"There's no problem here," the stormtrooper echoed back to his companions.

Again Luke said casually, "There's no need to detain us."

"We don't need to detain them further."

"Move along."

"Move along."

At the trooper's gesture, Windy scrambled to regain control of her scattered wits. When Wedge surreptitiously nudged her in the ribs she put the speeder at the entrance to the docking bay access road. Once certain they were out of sight she glanced back at Luke.

"How the hell did you manage that?" She turned to Wedge, excitement pitching her voice abnormally high. "Did you see that?"

"Yeah," said Wedge. "I saw. An old Jedi mind trick, wasn't it, Luke? I've heard about it."

"Comes in handy," said Luke, trying to keep the moment light. "Actually it shocked me when Ben used it."

"When was that?" Windy wanted to know.

"It's how we evaded the Imperials with the droids." Suddenly his eyes grew distant, almost vacant. He repeated himself. "Droids."

"What?"

Visibly shaking himself, Luke blinked. Apologized. "Sorry. Where are we?"

"Almost to our destination." Wedge considered his friend. "You still look tired, Luke. Want me to check it out first?"

"There's no need," said the Jedi Master as they drew up outside. "There's no danger here."

"Huh!" With that comment, Wedge hopped over the side of the speeder. Not entirely convinced, especially after their encounter with the stormtroopers, he allowed Luke to precede him into the docking bay. Before joining Luke, Wedge ordered Windy, "Stay put. We'll be back."

"Uh, sure."

An ear-piercing whistle of elation that could only belong to Artoo-Detoo greeted Wedge as he passed through the tunnel. Immediately on its heels came Chewie's roar. Buoyed by the knowledge he was indeed among friends, Wedge burst into the open.

"Spirits of space!" Solo's greeting further cheered the delinquent agent. "Here we've been using every contact we've got left on this dust ball to locate you, Luke. No mean trick with stormtroopers all over the place. And you come sauntering in like you expected to find us waiting for you."

As he took the step down, Wedge's toe hit a pebble. Sent it skittering across the bay floor. Han glanced up and shook his head in despair. "Should have known. What did I tell you, Chewie? Where there's one, the other can't be far behind."

"What are you doing here?" Wedge asked across Chewbacca's chuffing.

"Might ask you the same thing." The ex-smuggler countered. "Except you've managed to get Crix in a knot because you disobeyed orders. Just what kind of stunt was that you pulled? Hiring on with Nngan?"

Unrepentant, Wedge slapped his belt where the microchip was stored. "Couldn't avoid it. Besides, I got the info he wanted. Have you got your encoder on board?"

"Dumb question," said Han. His gaze slid past Luke's shoulder, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "And just who the hell are you?"

Everyone turned to stare at the newcomer. Astonished, and more than a little wary at the sight of the giant Wookiee, Windy hovered in the mouth of the docking bay passage. Puzzled that his childhood friend had followed them inside, Luke went to her.

"You should have waited," he said simply. And knew Windy had not heard him the second he saw the look in the other's eyes. Still, Luke strove to deflect what he knew was coming. "We'd have come back to say goodbye."

As he expected, Windy shook her head. "I don't want to stay here, Luke. Take me with you."

"I ain't runnin' no passenger shuttle," retorted Solo. Slouching against his ship, he resembled, to any casual observer, a disgruntled freighter pilot.

Windy ignored him. "Please, Luke."

"It's not a good idea," Wedge said, as eager as Luke to ensure Windy was left on relatively safe turf. "We may have knocked the Empire out of power in most regions but there's still a war on out there. You're better off here."

The minute the words were out Luke knew they were a serious mistake. Not that Wedge could have known. In fact, the declaration proved detrimental. Like stoking a blaze with fuel, it fired up Windy into a passionate plea.

"Who are you to say where I belong? Where I'd be better off? Look, Luke, I'm going nowhere here. You have no idea how bad it's got. You've seen the stormtroopers. They've put a strangle hold on business, and communications with off-world is almost non-existent. It's nearly impossible to get spare parts for equipment. I almost went broke last harvest trying to make ends meet. This year I'll lose everything for sure.

"What we're getting in the way of news is mostly distorted facts. Just what they want us to hear, and almost nothing else. To tell the truth, Luke, what Wedge told Camie and me last night was the first real news we've heard since you disappeared."

She trailed off, realising she was dredging up old tragedies and reopening old wounds best left alone.

"Just what exactly did you tell them?" Luke asked Wedge, brow furrowing.

"I gave them a quick historical over-view, is all," said Wedge, trying to look unaffected by his friend's question.

Feet shuffling, Windy stared at Luke expectantly. There was no need for Han to say a word. From the look on Luke's face it was clear which way matters would fall. Exasperated, he flung his hands in the air. The Corellian exploded.

"Do what you want. I'll be on board getting clearance. But hurry it up, will ya? There's an Imperial star destroyer out there and I kinda suspect we're gonna have to make a run for it. Again." Mounting the ramp into the freighter, he called back over his shoulder. "Come on, Chewie."

The Wookiee moaned at Luke once more. Tipped his head from side to side, blue eyes darting across the trio before he headed back into the FALCON. Thoroughly disgusted with what he saw as a giant mistake on Luke's part should the Jedi acquiesce, Wedge shook his head.

"Do what you will, Luke. But you know my opinion."

He joined the crew on board. Several minutes later Luke ushered Windy up the ramp. To his credit, Solo never said a word concerning the unexpected addition to their compliment.

"Get strapped in." Luke pointed Windy toward the couch in the small lounge. "And whatever happens, stay put."

Excited but obedient, Windy slid behind the circular table and fastened the safety harness about her. When she looked up, she found Luke had vanished. Once Luke took his place in the cockpit, Han's expression spoke eloquently of his doubts concerning Luke's sanity. But his next words were directed to his co-pilot. "Punch it, Chewie."

Beneath them the aging freighter shook and shuddered and groaned as she fought free of Tatooine's gravity. The minute they cleared the stratosphere Wedge and Luke bolted from their seats. They hurried aft past the confused Windy and disappeared into the gun turrets. Breathless with anxiety but heeding Luke's warning Windy awaited the inevitable. She stared about the confines of the lounge and worried.

But their departure proved anticlimactic. They slid uneventfully past SPITEFUL. Three TIE Interceptors paced them at a distance for several minutes. Sweat stained Wedge's clothes as he studied the enemy's peculiar actions. Forefingers twitching, he watched them expectantly. He longed to take out just one. Every instinct rebelled against the self-imposed command to refrain from firing unless threatened. Then the enemy peeled away. Wedge sagged in the restraints.

"Looks like our camouflage worked, everyone. We're outta here," said an elated Han. Stars converted to the familiar safety of hyper distortion.

CHAPTER THIRTY

By the time Wedge scrambled up from the belly turret, the others were already gathered in the lounge. No need for any comments from the Corellian. The jaundice look he rested on Luke was rewarded with a tiny shoulder shrug.

"I know. I know." Solo leaned against the wall beside the entrance to the cockpit, Chewie at his shoulder. "But are you sure you're doing her any favours, Luke?"

Luke countered. "Her choice, Han. We all have to live with them."

Safety harness off but still trapped on the curved bench, Windy stirred uneasily. She intensely disliked being spoken of as though she was somewhere else. "Look, I'm right here. If you've got something to say, say it to me." When Solo glared at her, Windy went on the defensive. "So why's a freighter pilot so upset over an extra passenger? I'm just another fare."

It was all Han could do not to smack the impertinent rim-worlder up the side of her head, for all Windy was a woman not a child. Not so concerned with appearances, Chewie bared his teeth, leaned forward slightly and roared at the rim-worlder; an alarming display that caused Windy to flinch back against the seat. Even Luke was silent in the face of the ex-moisture farmer's indiscretion.

Wedge took the initiative. He took two long strides across the lounge and halted directly across the table from Windy. When Luke opened his mouth, Wedge gave him a short, sharp shake of his head.

"Stay out of this, Luke." Then he addressed Windy. "Last night you mentioned you were interested in joining the New Republic's forces. To help us beat back the Imperials. That right?"

"Yeah." Windy cautiously admitted to that question, wondering where Wedge's interrogation was leading.

"Then let's get a few things straight right now." Wedge Antilles stabbed a finger at their crew. "First off, Han Solo is not just a freighter pilot. He holds brevet rank of General. You will treat him accordingly. This ship belongs to him. It may not look like much," Wedge informed the rim-worlder, unwittingly paraphrasing some of Solo's own words, "but the FALCON's got it where it counts. She's been through more skirmishes than I like to remember. Some of them, pretty hair raising. Plus, General Solo is Consort to her Royal Highness, Princess Leia."

With that declaration he had Windy's undivided attention. "As for Chewbacca, he may not hold any specific rank in the forces---Wookiee's don't generally join military service---but he's Han's co-pilot and partner. As such, you will accord him the same respect you would General Solo."

Uncertain what Wedge wanted of her when he paused, Windy dared an uneasy nod. Surreptitiously she eyed the Corellian and his hirsute partner with carefully controlled interest. And noticed Solo was mildly amused by Wedge's tirade.

"As for Luke---you may have been friends with him years ago, lady. But once you sign on the line you will discover the fleet and ground forces frown on fraternization. You'll address him as General Skywalker, or Master Skywalker in deference to his status as Jedi Master."

"Take it easy, Wedge." Luke attempted to intervene. Was promptly rewarded with a glare that did Crix Madine justice. One eyebrow rising at that admonishment, he nevertheless let Wedge conclude instructing Windy in correct etiquette.

"No, Luke. She's got to know where she stands before we get where we're going. If she doesn't like it now, maybe she should reconsider her decision. Besides, if she does enlist it's likely she'll wind up under my command. And I hate morale problems."

"Know what you mean," said Solo. There was no doubt he was enjoying the show. Behind him, Chewie shook his great shaggy head from side to side, watching the interplay with considerable interest in his bright eyes. Something that might have been a chuckle escaped the Wookiee.

"So you're an officer, too? Is that what you're telling me?" Now thoroughly chastised, however unfairly in her eyes, Windy waited for Wedge's confirmation.

"That's right."

"Is the rebellion---sorry, the New Republic," Windy hastily amended, "so hard up for personnel that they send three senior officers out to snoop around the rim?"

"That," said Wedge angrily, "is none of your business. And you'll learn to keep your curiosity in check, Winolder. Or wish you had by the time your superiors get finished with you."

Unable to keep quiet any longer, Han winked at Windy. "Don't let him completely run rough shod on you, kid. He's just feeling big for his britches. Got a new promotion right before we left Coruscant."

To his disgust, Wedge realised he had been neatly under-cut. And made an effort to recover at least some lost ground. "Just remember what I said. Until you're fleet, it doesn't matter how you address us, any of us, just as long as you're respectful in front of officials. Afterwards, however---"

"I'll remember." Windy promised, having finally got the measure of Wedge. The rim-worlder felt a grudging respect. Some small portion of her thought it might be worth the challenge to be in his command. The grin she flashed the four heroes said as much.

"Look, Windy." Luke came to her defense finally as things began to cool off. "Don't take it hard."

"It's okay, Luke. Really. Wedge is right. I've always had this thing for putting both feet in it. Remember? Deak always got on my case for speaking without thinking things through first."

Not entirely convinced, Luke let it ride. When Windy tried to cover an expansive yawn, he remarked, "You seem kind of tired. Wasn't Camie's couch comfortable?"

"Sure," said Windy. "About as comfortable as the back seat of a four pax speeder."

Her statement produced grins and chuckles from the others. Nor was the humour of the moment lost on Luke. "Han's got a couple of cabins aft. Why don't you go grab some sack time?"

It was all too obvious they wanted to be alone. Having seen the same expressions on her parents many times when they wanted privacy, Windy got to her feet. "Okay. I can take a hint. Someone mind showing me the way?"

Solo nudged his partner. "Chewie?"

Emitting a low growl the Wookiee took two steps past the table. Paused. Reluctantly Windy accompanied the towering sentient. Much as she would rather remain in the lounge, discussing old times with Luke, she sensed enough to know her presence was not welcome at this time.

The minute their passenger was out of the way, Wedge removed the slicer from his belt. He passed it to Artoo and joined the droid at the back-up console. Hunkered down by the panel, the little astro-mech got to work. With Wedge supervising, Artoo rapidly translated the stolen information. Encoded it rapidly, feeding the scrambled data into the MILLENNIUM FALCON's secondary computer system.

He was nearly done when he became highly agitated, his dome whipping back and forth in time to sharp piercing whistles. Luke responded immediately, joining his droid at the panel. Wedge squeezed in next to him, peering at the small screen in front of Artoo.

"What is it, Artoo? What's wrong?"

Without further prompting, Artoo-Detoo began feeding translated information from the chip directly onto the small screen before encoding it. Over Luke's shoulder, Wedge watched the rapid play of words. Found he had difficulty breathing.

"Mother of space! Do you realise how lucky you were?"

"Do you?" Luke emphasized.

His remark stopped Wedge from making any further comments. But not before Han demanded, "What are you talking about?"

"Not now," said Luke. He pressed his droid for further information. "Is there anything else, Artoo?"

The droid whistled. Again a series of paragraphs raced across the screen. This time Wedge blanched. "Oh no. They couldn't. They wouldn't. Not again."

"They have," said Luke bleakly. "LASH left half a day ahead of us. If those loranni turn loose the viruses before we can stop them---"

"Coruscant'll be a plague world the likes of which even Iceheart never imagined," said Wedge.

"What are you two talking about?" Unable to see the screen around the pair, Han demanded an explanation. Chewie gawky form entered the lounge just in time to catch the end of the conversation. Confused, he struggled to understand why his friends were so upset.

His back to the console, Luke explained. "Tir'Nngan pooled the resources of three other scientists who have worked with the Empire. Together they genetically engineered two new strains of viruses. On their own they'll simply make a person very ill. It's definitely potent enough to kill the already weak and sickly. The young or the very old." He glanced at Wedge. "That I can attest to."

"But this time they transplanted them into several loranni," said Wedge. "When released, along with the lorean's natural defense, the virus will kill or severely incapacitate an adult. As we found out the other day."

Not elaborating on that last remark, Luke added. "But the two viruses, released in close proximity, will mutate after they've run their initial course. Unlike what Ysanne Isard infiltrated into Coruscant's water supply, these are indiscriminate once they fuse to form an entirely new strain. When they do---"

"A plague." Chewbacca howled. Shaking his head as though someone had just struck him, Solo blurted. "Leia!"

"Yes. They're presenting the infected loranni to her at her official birthday function. Fortunately for us there may be time. An electronic signal activates implants in the animals. Until then, they'll remain passive. The perfect domestic pets. And the virus will remain dormant. Undetectable."

"Are you certain we will have time, though?"

His question sent Luke deep into thought. "I'm not sure, Wedge. This is definitely a point of infinite variables. It's doubtful the emissary presenting the animals will attempt to leave before the celebration's over. That would look suspicious. Make people wonder concerning his motives and possibly stir our people to delay the consular vessel's departure until it's too late. Whoever it is wouldn't risk that."

"So you're saying we've got time," said Han.

"I hope so," said Luke, his response not entirely comforting. He returned to studying the material. Trapped in hyperspace he could not reach his sister to warn her of the impending danger. And at these distances, with her lack of training, it was unlikely she would comprehend the meaning behind his message. All he could do was fight against dwelling on the various permutations within the Force.

For several seconds Han Solo hovered, not knowing quite what to do. Then his love for Leia drove him into action. He jerked his head at his co-pilot.

"Come on, Chewie. Let's get aft. See if we can't get this old lady to produce a bit more speed. Just maybe we can pare our run time to something less than three days. We've done it before."

They were gone at a run, leaving Wedge and Luke alone in the lounge. Emotionally and physically exhausted Luke at long last left the data stream. Dome swiveling, Artoo watched his master cross the room. The Jedi Master settled on the edge of the couch. Let his head to drop against the low curved seat back. With one hand Wedge spun the back-up console chair to face across the room, and settled onto it. Artoo completed his task. Unplugged, he waddled across the room to settle near his master.

"Luke. Did Windy know Niant?"

That was not the most unwelcome question. Nor something with which Luke was comfortable. But he responded anyway. "Yes."

"Will you tell her what happened?"

Luke straightened, looking thoughtful. "I don't think so."

"Sooner or later she's bound to discover the truth. And when she does---" Wedge broke off, the inference hanging between them. "You aren't doing her any favors by concealing it, Luke."

"I know."

"If you know, then why won't you tell her?"

"Because sometimes there are things best left untold until the moment's right."

"When is the right time?" To that, Luke looked away. Wedge sighed. "Well, I won't question your decision further. It's your choice."

Weight shifting, Wedge fidgeted, twisting his seat back and forth. There were times, like now, when it seemed an impassable gulf yawned between them. He disliked it, but knew there was little he could do to get around it. Except try to keep the lines of communication open by making conversation.

"That lorean poison came pretty close to killing you, you know," he said quickly into the silence between them.

Those words reminded Luke of something. He glanced up. "By the way, why did you take my lightsabre?"

"You noticed."

"Couldn't miss it."

Uneasy beneath Luke's scrutiny, Wedge ran his finger back and forth along the chair back, tracing the grooves. "You were hallucinating. Delirious. I wasn't sure what you might do, so I thought it best to---hang onto your weapon."

"I was delirious?" He had Luke's complete attention now. There was a measured quality to what he said next. "Did I say anything?"

"A lot of things. Some of it didn't make any sense."

"Oh."

"You talked about your father."

Luke was suddenly strangely wary. "Did I?"

"Yeah. I thought you didn't know your father?"

"I didn't."

"You---" Something in the way Luke spoke caught Wedge's attention. "Say that again."

"I didn't know my father. Not until---recently."

"So where is he?"

"Dead."

Ill at ease, Luke stared down at his hands. Drew Wedge's gaze to where the fingers of his right hand unconsciously clenched and unclenched within its black glove. His actions dredged up the past, the incident at the Academy. Abruptly Luke realised what he was doing. Knew the impact it might well have on his friend and stopped.

It was too late. With the lucidity that sometimes accompanies exhaustion, physical and emotional, Wedge pieced everything together. Every word Luke had blurted under the influence of the toxin and fever fell horrifically into place. Answers abruptly coalesced. He understood what had puzzled many of the senior Alliance command after the battle at Endor. Not even aware he had risen to his feet, Wedge stalked slowly across the lounge.

"So that's it. Vader was you father, wasn't he?" He bit out the question in rising rage. Not waiting for a reply, he raved. "No one could figure out why you bothered to rescue Vader's body from the DEATH STAR at Endor. Why you brought it back. Sith spawn! He really was your father. Wasn't he?"

That Wedge had puzzled out the truth sent a stab of emotional agony through Luke. Unable to look his friend in the eye, Luke nodded heavily. "It's true. I didn't know until---"

"Damn you!"

Everything else was blotted out as Wedge's impotent wrath against the Empire surged to the surface; rage which had failed to rise in the wake of the revelation that his father had not died at the hands of pirates. Had, in fact, been aboard the TANTIVE IV on its last mission. Foremost in his mind was the image, repeating over and over in all its grisly detail, of Darth Vader throttling the life out of his father. Bottled up emotions boiled over, directed against Luke Skywalker.

Grief-stricken that his friend should have stumbled on his secret in this fashion, Luke could only stare up at him. Uncertain what to say or do, he slowly got to his feet to face the infuriated Rogue Squadron Commander, unaware of the true source of Wedge's wrath.

"Your damned father murdered my dad. He destroyed my family. A whole world!"

Rocked by that declaration, Luke sought an answer, "Wedge---"

"All those helpless people---You bastard!"

Red rage blinded Wedge. Before Luke could react a fist connected with his mouth. Split the Jedi Master's lip and staggered him. A second blow thudded against his chin, slamming him back into the couch. Luke sat down heavily. Wedge Antilles loomed over him, face contorted with fury and grief. Left hand pinning Luke against the couch back, his cocked right fist rose to strike again. Luke made no effort to defend himself. Determined to let Wedge's anguish run its course, he turned his face aside and did his best to roll with the blows. This time Wedge caught him across the cheek even as Luke pulled back to avoid the full force of the descending fist.

"Wedge." Luke sought to penetrate his friend's rage. This time he failed to find the words he desperately needed. Licking his lips, he winced. Tasted the coppery flavour of blood.

A Wookiee roar barely penetrated the fury that fogged Wedge's brain. But not even Artoo's shrill whistles failed to halt him before he struck again. Strong hands suddenly wrapped around him. His arms pinned against his sides he was hauled off Luke Skywalker. Wedge fought the restraints imposed by Han Solo, lashing out with his feet. When he snapped his head back against the ex-smuggler's chest, staggering him two paces across the lounge, Han was tempted to call on his co-pilot for assistance. With a snarl he jerked Wedge around so his prisoner faced down the rear access way.

"Sweet spirit of space! What the hell happened up here?" He stared at Luke over Wedge's shoulder. "Why did he hit you?" When Luke refused to respond, the Corellian shook his captive. Spun Wedge around to face him. Caught and held his gaze, diverting that hatred onto himself. "Snap out of it, Wedge!"

Wedge attempted to leap at Luke again, but Chewie stepped between them. Unable to physically attack the young Jedi Master, Wedge railed. "I should kill him. Vader killed my father. Do you know that? That damn twisted, black-hearted, Sith-excuse for a Jedi murdered my entire family!"

Still confused by what had started the confrontation, Han sought to reason with Wedge. Solo chose his next words with care and snapped back angrily. "What about his family? Vader murdered his aunt and uncle. Remember?"

Chewie snarled in Wedge's face to further emphasize the point. Resigned to being unable to get at the target of his vindictive wrath, Wedge stopped struggling. He glowered at the FALCON's crew. But Han was not finished.

"Vader also tortured his sister. Or have you forgotten Leia? Not to mention Chewie and me. And he delivered Luke to the Emperor."

Those words finally penetrated and reinstated a semblance of sanity. Around Wedge time stood still. That part of him that held Luke responsible for his family's demise also wanted him to fight back. To provide the catharsis he so desperately needed. But there was truth in what Han said. What Darth Vader had subjected his own son to abruptly erased the remainder of Wedge's wrath.

Shame overtook him. His shoulders slumped. Feeling the change in Wedge, Han slowly, carefully released him. Chewbacca moaned softly, concerned and confused. The grief that gripped Luke was frightening.

At long last Wedge understood what drove this lone Jedi to repeatedly throw himself in harm's way. In his own fashion Luke Skywalker was striving to expiate his father's guilt. To repay those crimes meted out by the Dark Lord of the Sith. Tears threatened to spill down Wedge's cheeks.

"Oh, Force. Luke, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

Battered and bloody, Luke Skywalker slowly extricated himself from behind the chess table. He wrapped his arms around Wedge and held him. "It's all right, Wedge. I know. Blood ties."

Fist repeatedly thumping against Luke's back, Wedge felt the last of his anguish finally ran its course. How long they stood that way, watched by a silent Han and Chewie, neither knew. Grief was a surging tide that choked Wedge breathless. Burned his throat and eyes until he thought he would never survive the explosion of grief. But Luke hung on to him, helped him ride it to its conclusion, even as he had in the past.

When he felt self-control reasserting itself Luke released him. Wedge stared at the Jedi Master, at the split lip and bruises beginning to purple his jaw and cheek, Wedge flushed deep red.

"Sweet space! I don't believe I hit you."

"Actually, more than once," Luke said, mildly amused. He delicately wriggled his lower jaw from side to side. Dabbed at the blood trickling from split lips.

"I still don't understand. Why this sudden animosity toward Jedi, Wedge?" Sight of Luke's expression momentarily froze Han. He shook his head. "Would someone mind explaining what the hell's going on here?"

Not bothering to reply to Solo's question, Wedge asked, "Does he know?"

Luke said simply, "Yes."

"What about the Princess?"

"Yes."

"Space!" Unable to stand any longer, Wedge sank back onto the chair by the back-up nav-puter. "Who else?"

"Chewie. Artoo. I suspect Threepio knows."

"That's it?"

"Yes."

"Excuse me," said Han, pointing at his chest. "Mind if I butt in here, Luke? What is it I know? And why did Wedge punch you?"

Scarlet with embarrassment, Wedge explained. "I received information about my family just before I left Coruscant. I thought they had all died in a pirate raid. Then I found out my father really was Captain of the TANTIVE IV on her last run and that everyone else was actually on Alderaan when---" He halted. After a brief pause he managed to finish. "Until now, I had no idea who Luke's father was."

That rocked Solo back on his heels and caused Chewie to growl softly. The Corellian pursed his lips. He shot Luke a look from the corner of his eye.

"No wonder. Must have been quite a shock. I thought you had snapped or something. He sure caught you a couple of good ones, kid."

"Guess I did snap---kinda. Look, Luke." Wedge blustered. "I didn't mean it. What I said earlier."

"Yes you did," Luke said. Unafraid of the truth, he gave his friend a gentle cuff across his shoulder. "And I do understand."

Wedge shook his head heavily. "How can you live with that? Your own father---"

"In the end," Luke said softly, "he saved my life."

"He what?"

"He killed the Emperor when I couldn't."

"Vader---"

"Anakin." Voice stiff with emotion Luke corrected him. "Anakin Skywalker was my father."

"But---you're saying he was Darth Vader."

"Yes. And no."

"Wait a minute." Confused, Wedge shook his head. "I don't understand. How could he be both?"

"The Emperor twisted my father. Dragged him down to the dark side of the Force." Luke wearily explained, "That person, the one who---hurt Leia and my friends---wasn't my father." Again Luke paused. Silently he mused. 'It took me a while to understand what Ben meant, too. Why he said my father was dead. Now I do. Even if it's still difficult to swallow.' He continued out loud. "But there was still some good in him. And it was that goodness which ultimate saved us all."

For a long time Wedge could find nothing to say and silence filled the lounge. No one moved. It was as though they were frozen in time. Then Wedge found his voice.

"I don't envy you."

"You can say that again," said Han.

"In the end he turned back to the light," said Luke. His eyes were distant, staring beyond his friends into the past. He shook himself. "But it's over with. I'm sorry, Wedge. I wish there was something more I could say."

"Just say you forgive me for hitting you."

A sad little smile lit Luke's face. "Of course I do. You couldn't help it."

"I don't know." Arms folded across his chest, Han made the most of the moment, trying to lighten the atmosphere. He directed his observations to Chewbacca. "Still. Assaulting a fellow officer. Seems like a chargeable offence to me."

Chewie woofed and grunted. Eyes sparkling with mirth, Luke retaliated. "What assault?"

As the others stared the bruises swelling Luke's jaw and cheek visibly paled and vanished. Cut lips healed, leaving only the bloodstain on the white flap of his tunic. Nothing remained to mark the places where Wedge had landed his punches. Unable to restrain himself, Solo chuckled, accompanied by Chewie's throaty chuffing. And Wedge joined in, his own laughter slightly hysterical with relief that he had not alienated his friends.


When Chewbacca left her at the cabin and lumbered away, Windy made a show of getting ready to kit down on the bunk. She even went as far as removing her shirt. But the minute the Wookiee vanished on the way back to the lounge, curiosity got the better of the rim-worlder. She switched the door mechanism to manual. Eased it open a crack, her ear to the opening. Although it was difficult to make out much apart from muffled sounds, her patience was soon rewarded with the sound of Solo and his partner heading toward the rear of the ship. Taking a deep breath, Windy slipped into the passage and edged up to the entrance to the lounge and drew back against a bulkhead brace. With mounting amazement she eavesdropped on the altercation spawned by Wedge. When Wedge actually assaulted Luke, Windy took a step forward, prepared to defend her old friend. But footsteps in the corridor sent her instinctively into the forward-most cabin.

By the time Windy felt it was safe to emerge, the scuffle in the lounge was over. Relieved to hear Wedge stammer an apology, she was even more shocked that Luke accepted it without recrimination. Her childhood buddy would never have let the matter drop so quickly. She peered around the brace for a better view but the towering frame of Chewbacca blocked any view of Luke or Wedge. Disgruntled at being left out, Windy withdrew to her cabin. As she fell asleep she heard the others coming down the passageway on their way to the remaining two berths.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Three huge rooms formed the suites assigned to the Royal Princess Leia, Organa-Skywalker. A small boardroom and a den completed her quarters. Immediately prior to taking up residence, the New Republic had sent in hordes of decorators. Leia's suites were done over fit for her station, at least as seen by her senior advisors. This meant swathes of fripperies, drapes and lush carpeting. Ornaments and books filled all the rooms to over-flowing. Heavy furniture was sent from all across Coruscant to provide her with what was considered suitable for her lodgings.

Upon seeing the over-powering feminine display she had sighed. Then ordered the drapes replaced with something more sensible, left the rugs in the reception area and living room. But her room was pared to bare essentials. A majority of the ornaments were shifted to other, more high profile regions of the palace.

Too many years of living on the run, of sleeping in chambers hollowed from ice or in berths on board ship, made her uncomfortable with such extravagances. Her private sitting room was also trimmed to something more livable. Homey; a reminder of Alderaan. Only the window was missing. For all her protestations everyone, even her closest and dearest friends, refused to permit her an outside room. Fear of assassination was all too real. Since the only chambers with a safe view of the outside were Palpatine's old suites, and she had no intentions of living up there, Leia was forced to accept the situation. A simulation took the place of a real vista. Of course any actual view would only have afforded her a look across a planet-wide city on one side and the enclosed garden with its modest size swimming pool on the other.

Although Leia never admitted it to anyone, her sensibilities rebelled every time she viewed Coruscant. In retrospect, the simula-screen proved infinitely more satisfying. Its present conjuring depicted a forest glade complete with sound. Wildlife moving about it. A waterfall at the upper right side fed a meandering brook.

To this day she was annoyed that she had been unable to get anyone to agree to remove the massive bed from the bedroom. It was pointed out by the Minister of External Affairs that, to do so, would be construed as an affront to the system which had donated it. Never mind the fact the monstrosity was large enough to comfortably accommodate three; she had remarked upon that to Luke on his first visit to her apartments. Han had retaliated with a comment that her ministers obviously thought her brother would be housed in the same apartments. His statement had produced one of Luke's rare quiet smiles.

Accustomed to feeling the sides of her bed without having to roll more than once, the Princess found it difficult to sleep most nights even though since her marriage Han Solo did, on the occasions he was home, fill a portion of the remainder.

Tonight was no exception. Dreams assailed her from all sides, unpleasant and haunting. Each tugged at her, drawing her back and forth; first into the past, then back to the present. Down the ties of the Force that bound her to Luke and her closest friends. Then Leia experienced a tremulous sense of foreboding.

'Luke! Luke?'

Staring out over the lip of a vast chasm stood her brother. Flesh was drawn parchment thin across his features. His cheekbones stood out starkly, cheeks vast hollows. Dark shadows delineated his eye sockets. When she tried to look into his eyes there was a vacancy that frightened her.

Death was so close. He was on the verge of slipping away, beyond her reach. Sick. So very ill it frightened her. She desperately wanted to be near him. To draw him back before he took that final plunge. Reaching out, Leia grappled clumsily with the threads that bound them.

'Luke!'

'Leia?'

'I'm here, Luke.' So ill from infection and poison, Luke seemed incapable of properly hearing her. The Princess strengthened her call. 'Please, Luke. Don't die'"

'Leia?'

Now she could see him clearly. Saw herself attired as he had first met her; that cumbersome chalcedony gown her parents had thought ideal for her in the capacity of Alderaan's ambassador. She had so hated it because it made her appear young and vulnerable. Never mind Bail had insisted this to be an asset, that her opponents in the Senate would under-estimate her. It had caused her so much grief on board the TANTIVE IV. And later, during their escape.

'Come back to us, Luke.'

'So tired,' he said.

'You mustn't die.' Frightened, she ordered him. 'You're a fighter, Luke. Don't give up now.'

There was a moment when they both hung motionless in the Force. Gradually the haunted look left his eyes, was replaced by a gleam closer to normal. He squeezed his eyes shut. Withdrew deeper still into himself and as he did, Leia focused her own energies. Fed them into a core so drained she doubted he would survive. Abruptly their connection snapped.

"No!" With that cry, she woke. Stared about the room, certain she would find him there. Sweat glued her nightgown to her body. Bedclothes tangled about her legs. One of the three pillows was a mangled ball beneath her head.

For a long time she stared into the darkness in the room. Three nights running now the same dream had plagued her sleep. The first time she had lived the dream; been physically and emotionally part of the interplay with Luke. Since then she had been an observer. Watched herself and her brother playing out the drama from a distance.

"Which must mean that whatever was happening lies in the past." Leia murmured to herself.

She rolled onto her stomach and pounded the sorely abused pillow back into shape before resting her head on it once more. Part of her hated the inheritance bequeathed her by their mutual sire. The other half was seduced by what it offered. By the special tie it gave her to Luke no other they knew could claim. Sleep eluded her. Again she sat up.

"Time?" She called into the darkness.

"Three hours, twenty-three minutes until commencement of the reception," came back the implacable computer in dulcet tones.

With a barely audible groan, Princess Leia turned back onto her side. Slipping her feet from the covers, she sat up on the edge of the bed. Toes located slippers. One groping hand caught up her wrap. She stood, drew the housecoat around her and belted it at her waist.

"Lights up one-third," she said.

The housekeeping computer complied. Leia went to the mirror. Stared into it. Her mid-afternoon nap had left her fuzzy around the edges of her perception. She blinked several times before her eyes focused. Wished she had not. Sleep puffy eyelids and cheeks made her look like an old hag. Wisps of hair strayed about her cheeks and neck. No matter how hard her maid tried, it was impossible to keep all the strands confined. Her mouth tasted as though an entire expeditionary force had tramped out of a Hutt bog, and through her mouth.

One thing she never forgot after years as a fugitive was her husband's axiom; sleep whenever the opportunity permitted. All the more important with a day closeted with high level officials behind her and an evening reception and banquet ahead. In between lay more of the same, this time negotiations with the Alliance's closest trade partners. And tomorrow---she would as soon forget tomorrow. Wished it were already over.

Activating the lights alerted her servants that she was awake. Before she had completely organised her thoughts, the private door to her suites opened.

"Mistress Leia." See-Threepio, human-cyborg-relations droid, appeared at the entrance to her bedroom. In his hands he held a tray. "As you requested earlier; clear soup, juice and some slices of bread. Lady Olethin will be here shortly to see to your hair and help you dress."

"Thank you, Threepio. Just place the tray there."

"Yes, your Highness. The evening's program is ready for your review---"

"I've already been through it three times," she said.

"But there have been several minor changes while you've been asleep."

"All of which will, I'm certain, meet with my approval."

Determined not to deal with state issues just yet, Leia headed for the 'fresher. Unable to follow, Threepio hovered in the dressing room, picking over brush, comb, cosmetics and perfumes. He rearranged things repeatedly until they were to his satisfaction.

'Humans really do lack a sense of order.' Pleased with the results of his tampering, he moved back by the door to the outer room.

Leia emerged from the 'fresher. Housekeeping had put her bed straight during her absence. She settled at the small side table where Threepio had placed the tray and quickly ate the light snack. By the time she was done, her Lady's Maid was laying out her attired for the evening across the bed.

"Please leave us, Threepio." Leia requested politely.

Ever conscious of protocol, the droid performed a stiff bow, turned and left. The minute the outside door closed behind him, the Princess released a tiny, exasperated sigh.

Lady Miarel Olethin gazed at the dressing table. "I suppose you can't find anything now?"

She shook her head as she watched Leia rearranging everything on top, replacing it as she had left it prior to See-Threepio's intervention. Finally the Princess located what she sought. Passed it to her maid.

"I don't know why you put up with him, your Highness."

Again Leia shook her head. "He means well." Miarel made a noise in the back of her throat. The Princess ignored it. "This perfume I think, Miarel."

"Yes, your Highness."

Patience itself, Leia sat calmly while her maid began dressing her hair for the evening function. Try as she might, however, she could not put aside the repetitious nightmare. The 'not knowing' bothered her far more than all the perils she and Luke had already passed through.

"Is something wrong, your Highness?"

"Hmm?" With a little shake Princess Leia summoned a smile. "No, Mia. Everything's fine. I'm just---distracted."

"I'm not surprised." Miarel carefully placed one final pin. Stepped back to survey the results. Several times she was tempted to comment on the Council's insensitivity toward newlyweds but held her peace. "There. What do you think?"

"Anything you do is wonderful, Mia." But Leia made a show of examining the other's handiwork.

Her Lady's Maid had indeed done an excellent job, an exquisite creation of braids. Through it Miarel had scattered the tiny gem stars the Princess had worn at her private birthday party. Once she was dressed a delicate tiara would surmount the whole array. A touch of colour to her cheeks and lips, some shadow for her eyelids, and the years rolled away. Except for the lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth. Those remained. Would never go. In fact, with all likelihood, they would deepen as time passed and the affairs of state wore her down. Bail Organa, her foster father, had taught her they were battle scars, to be worn with honour. She unconsciously raised her chin and stared herself in the eye with inborn determination.

"Your dress, my lady."

Leia stood and dipped her head. Carefully Miarel worked the fabric over her mistress' head, gently settled the neckline into place and assisted Leia in locating the sleeves. At long last she stood before the mirror. Pivoted back and forth examining the finished effect.

Chalcedony, Alderaan's signet of office. It hung full from neck to hem. Brushed the tops of her slipper encased feet and was caught in at the waist with a silver and diadem belt. Pleated sleeves expanded from shoulder to wrist, completing the diaphanous effect. The door chimed.

"Come," said Miarel. But she continued settling the folds of Leia's dress, evenly distributing it about her.

"Ah, Mistress Leia. Here is what you require." Box in his hands, Threepio appeared in the bedroom doorway. As long as Leia's forearm, the jewel case was as deep as her finger to the first joint and palm wide.

"Oh. Thank you, Threepio."

Accepting the box, Miarel snapped open the lid. Inside reposed the necklace and earrings confiscated from the TANTIVE IV by the Emperor's shock troops. Memory formed a lump in Leia's throat. This was how she had felt that first day General Madine had returned the jewelry her. Miarel was conscious of her mistress' emotional state as she carefully hung the necklace and earrings on the Princess.

"Thank you, Mia. As always, you've done a splendid job."

"It's my continuing pleasure to serve you, your Highness."

Alderaani by birth, Miarel Olethin grew up as a member of the upper class. Trained for most of her youth to serve the Royal Family, she took pride in her present position. Fortune had favoured her family in that they had been on holiday off-world when Alderaan was destroyed. As with all other survivors, she, her parents and brothers were hunted across the Imperium.

Eventually they had stumbled into the arms of the Alliance and freedom. Her youngest brother died in one of the innumerable skirmishes between Yavin Four and Hoth. Worn out, her father passed on shortly prior to the battle at Endor. Today, her eldest brother was employed in Operations. Their mother ran a finishing school for would-be debutantes.

"Your Highness." Threepio accepted the empty box from Miarel but made no move to leave. Aware he was waiting for her to acknowledge him, Leia glanced at him.

"What is it, Threepio?"

"Mistress Leia, the Atrivisi Ambassador requests a private audience with you prior to this evening's function."

"This is highly irregular," began Miarel.

Leia gently lifted a hand. Miarel obediently stilled. "Why would the Ambassador want a private audience immediately before the banquet?"

"I believe he wishes to make a special presentation," said Threepio.

Outraged by the impropriety, Miarel muttered angrily. "Surely he's aware everyone has been told to present gifts at the ceremony?"

"Hush, Miarel."

Curious and perturbed by Threepio's news all in the same breath, the Princess considered how best to respond to the request. Deep within a part of her disliked people who attempted to manipulate their way into positions of prominence. And that little voice within suggested this was exactly what the Atrivisi Ambassador was trying to do.

"Threepio, please convey my appreciation to the Ambassador." Leia chose her words with considerable care. "But explain to him that I prefer he wait until the appropriate time tomorrow."

"But Mistress Leia, the Atrivisi are principle trading partners with the New Republic. Refusing to accept the Ambassador's gift---"

"I'm not refusing it, Threepio." Leia countered his arguments levelly. "I'm simply refusing to grant him preferential treatment."

"But, Mistress. He's quite insistent concerning the importance of---"

"No, Threepio. To do otherwise would show favoritism where there is none. That sort of speculation the New Republic can well do without." Leia shook her head firmly, setting braids dancing. "And that I simply will not that."

"Your Highness." Threepio pressed the issue. "This could well be construed as an insult to the Atrivisi."

"How so?" Brown eyes met sensors and, to Miarel's amazement, it was the droid who looked away. Threepio actually appeared agitated. "No one else has made such a request, have they?"

"No, your Highness."

"Then I won't make an exception." When it appeared Threepio would pursue the point again, the Princess shook her head once more. Too hard this time. Her maid hissed softly with displeasure as several pins dislodged. She bent to retrieve them. Once certain her lady would remain still for a minute, Miarel attempted to reinsert the pins. Missed with the first as Leia unexpectedly moved away from her.

"This is a highly unusual request. Something of which the Ambassador is fully aware. He has no right to expect a special audience, and I have no intention of granting him one."

Puzzled by the problem, Princess Leia paced back and forth across the room, seeking to understand why the Atrivisi would attempt such an action. Failed to arrive at a satisfactory answer. As she pondered the problem her previous night's dream returned to prod her. Nor was she conscious of Miarel half a step behind her reaching out repeatedly in vain attempts to replace the errant pins each time she appeared ready to come to a halt. Han Solo would have found the scene hilarious. For Leia, it was far from amusing. The Force pricked her again.

'What is it, Luke? What are you trying to tell me?'

But there was no answer within the Force. Left to her own devices, Leia decided that to recant now would be a serious error in judgement. She halted, spun on heel to face the droid. Miarel adeptly dodged her Mistress.

"Convey my respects to the Ambassador, Threepio. And extend my regrets that I shall be unable to meet with him before tomorrow evening."

Horrified by what might result from such a message, Threepio blurted, "But, Mistress Leia!"

"That's my final decision, Threepio. I will not be manipulated by anyone."

There was no backup in the Princess voice. Aggrieved by her refusal, but realising there was no getting around his mistress once she put her foot down, Threepio capitulated. "If you insist, Mistress Leia."

"I do. Now, how much time is left before I put in my appearance at the banquet?"

"Forty-eight minutes, sixteen seconds---"

"Very good." She cut him off. "Before you carry my message to the Ambassador, I want to go over the changes to today and tomorrow's schedules."

"Yes, Mistress Leia. Of course."

Aware of what to expect, Miarel deftly replaced the delinquent pins and dropped a curtsey. "Do you require anything else, your Highness?"

With a glance at her maid, Leia shook her head, gently this time. "No, Miarel. I believe that will be all for now."

Sympathetic, Leia released Miarel. Her maid gathered up the tray with its empty dishes and hurried from the room. Threepio went to the computer terminal in her den, somehow conveying a long-suffering expression as he waited for her to join him. Inner reserves marshaled, Leia hurried into her office and began reviewing the schedule.

"This evening dinner has been scheduled to last two hours. Speeches will run approximately an hour and a half." Leia stifled a groan at the droid's announcement. Unaware of her reaction, Threepio forged on. "Of course, an additional forty-five minutes have been allowed for over-run.

"Tomorrow at midday there will be a parade through the five adjacent districts. It will commence shortly before noon at the Grand Entrance to the palace and terminate at the Memorial Arch dedicated to the fallen of the Clone Wars. Wreathes will be laid in memory those slain during the rebellion against the Empire. During this time the fleet will perform a low-level fly-by."

"Is this all really necessary?" The Princess muttered under her breath. Caught Threepio about to respond and stopped him. "Rhetorical question. Continue."

"Yes, Mistress. Of course." A half-beat passed before Threepio launched back into the schedule, scrolling the itinerary up on the vid-screen. "Two hours have been allocated in the afternoon for minor affairs of state. I have ensured you will have three hours when you may rest for the evening's function."

"Another banquet."

Indigestion was foremost in Leia's mind. Too much rich food crammed into three days of functions prompted her to make a mental notation to take something prior to each meal. Her sigh of resignation caused the droid to straighten. His head tipped slightly, indicative of his bewilderment that she should have expected otherwise.

"Go on, Threepio. We might as well get this over with." With all the rich foods she was expected to imbibe Leia suspected she would also have to make time in her busy schedule to increase her allotted exercise period. Or suffer the consequences. The thought of presenting the image of a dowdy dowager Princess to the people of the New Republic repelled her. At least she was not a particularly big eater and would be given a smaller portion than the guests.

"Of course, Mistress Leia. You will notice the time frame for the banquet is quite extensive. This is when gifts will be presented. No speeches."

"A small blessing."

"Pardon, Mistress."

"Nothing, Threepio."

Slightly flustered, Threepio struggled to regain his dignity. Decided to pretend she had not interrupted him. "Following the banquet you will appear on the balcony for public viewing. Security will naturally be extremely tight. No members of the Galactic Press will be permitted in the vicinity and there will be a special shield to protect you." Sensing his mistress' frustration, Threepio emphasized. "General Madine is highly concerned for your safety, your Highness. Imperial agents are definitely still at large."

"I'm sure he means well," replied Leia, privy to the reports concerning the incidents prior to Luke's departure. "Is there anything else?"

"Yes, Mistress Leia. While you are on the balcony the fleet will perform a high altitude display during which fireworks will be set off."

"Another one?" Threepio moved to respond. Leia cut him off. "Very good. Now let's see if we can tighten the banquet schedule slightly." Her determination sent Threepio skittering back three half steps. "No arguments, Threepio. You can tell the Planning Committee I'm reinforcing my decision concerning dinner. It will be served as a casual affair. Have tables set out around the Grand Audience Chamber. Servers will be responsible for ensuring food and drinks are kept replenished. Gifts shall be set on the dais for my inspection later."

Horrified that Princess Leia would modify all the careful arrangements on such short notice, See-Threepio waved his arms in distress. "Your Highness, I don't think this is a good idea."

"I'm sorry, Threepio. But I refuse to change my mind. This is, after all, my birthday celebration. It will be kept as casual as possible, no formal speeches. And I absolutely refuse to be trapped for one more evening at a banquet table listening to only two people. It's time I mingled with the representatives of the New Republic's member worlds and allies. Not be confined to listening to the same self-serving comments from the same individuals."

"But---"

Leia did something she had not done in years. She stamped her foot down hard. Sensed Bail Organa would have been horrified by her reversion to childhood tantrums. "No, Threepio! And I will not back down! You can pass that along, too!"

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Adjusting the angle of her hat, Camie considered the midday heat and the incident that had driven her outside. Deak worked diligently around the opposite side of the abandoned speeder. Muffled clinks and clanks were punctuated by the occasional colourful expletive. Fingers digging at her eyes behind her goggles, Camie scrunched down further in the minuscule shade offered by the vehicle. Guilt at being able to escape the punishing glare of the twin suns prodded her as she listened to Deak working.

The heat was another matter. Sweat trickled uncomfortably down her forehead. Pooled between her ample breasts and glued her shirt and jacket to her body; the material bunched and bound around her whenever she moved. Another loud clank sounded from the other side of her impromptu shade followed by a crude obscenity.

"Need a hand?"

Her question produced a cessation in activity. Deak grunted. "Sure. Hand me that angle wrench."

Searching through the tool kit, Camie pulled out what he wanted and passed it to him over the top of the vehicle taking care to avoid metal hot enough to bake pasties on. Deak leaned on the far door to take it from her out-stretched hand, his jacket sleeves protecting his arms.

"So what exactly happened, Camie? You haven't said a word since you ran out on Fixer."

For a moment Camie as tempted to tell Deak to mind his own business. At the same time she discovered she desperately needed to air her grievances to someone. Ever since childhood she had found Deak easy to talk to. Someone in whom to confide whenever Fixer got into one of his moods. Like Windy. Which, of course, meant both her friends were frequently the subjects of Fixer's numerous scorn-filled diatribes.

"I just don't understand him, Deak. Why does Fixer insist on being so suspicious?"

"About you and Windy?"

Camie shook her head, but not in denial. "There. See? You know I've never been anything but faithful. Yet even you---"

"I'm just repeating something someone else said, Camie." Deak too a deep breath. "You're not the type to cheat on your husband. Especially with another woman. Even I know that."

"Then why doesn't Fixer know it?"

"Because he's your husband," said Deak logically. "And because Fixer's always been like that."

"Not that I ever noticed." A peculiar expression swept over Deak's face. Seeing it, Camie rested her elbows on the top of the opposite door, taking care to ensure there was fabric between her and the speeder. "And just what is that look supposed to mean?"

"Promise you won't get mad?" Mouth settling into a stubborn line, Camie glared at Deak. He nodded. "Okay. The reason you've never noticed how possessive Fixer's always been is because you're in love with him."

"That's ridiculous."

Deak shook his head. "Everyone can see it except you, Camie. You're too close to see the dunes for the sand. And all that talk around Anchorhead about Windy---well, you've got to understand how it looks when the two of you are always hanging around together when Fixer's away."

Confused and hurt, Camie struggled with self-denial. She considered every incident out of the past. Remembered how her husband looked whenever Windy came to visit. Or when tourists, passing through Anchorhead, had looked at her a certain way.

"Sorry, Camie. But you know I'm telling the truth," said Deak.

With a heavy sigh, Camie rested her chin on her hands on the doorsill. Jerked her head affirmatively. "Yeah. Well---"

"And Windy's success, at least until this year, as a solo farmer only makes it worse."

"Windy's straight!"

"Think I don' know that? But Fixer's always ready to listen to talk. Anchorhead's a small place. People need an outlet. Even when there's nothing behind it, others enjoy juicy gossip. Storm knows there's little enough to occupy spare time out here. It doesn't matter that Windy's my cousin. Or that we've all known one another since we were kids, hanging out with you guys and flying Beggars Canyon. In fact, at times that only seems to exacerbate the problem."

"Fixer ought to know me better," said Camie defensive and put out.

"Maybe. But, like I said, Fixer's the jealous type. He doesn't like anyone else taking an interest in what he owns."

"No one owns me!"

Stung, Camie turned around and sat down, back against the stranded speeder. She kicked a toe against the alkali and sand. Scuffed a ridge while Deak watched her feet and legs over the speeder. Eventually, he joined her.

"Camie."

His tentative inquiry received no immediate response. He settled down next to her. Removed his hat and scrubbed the back of his forearm across his forehead. Then he rested his head against the cooler side of the speeder.

At length he observed, "Almost midday."

Camie cast a glance toward the sky but made no attempt to look directly at the suns even with her goggles on. Tatoo One and Tatoo Two were high overhead. The patch of shade they had been resting in was almost non-existent. If they were here much longer they would have to take shelter under the tarpaulin they had erected earlier off the side of Deak's speeder.

"So you never did tell me what you two were fighting about."

Although a part of Camie would as soon forget the altercation, the other half of her recalled the previous evening. And the words tumbled out of her.

"During the sandstorm Windy and I thought we heard something outside."

"The guy that rented this speeder?"

"Yes. There were two of 'em. One was really sick," Camie said. She picked her words with care, now. "The other had a bad flash burn across his side and a knife wound. He sort of took our attention off the sick guy. Windy put the sick one in the back room while I patched up his friend."

"A burn?"

"Yeah. Turned out later it was a blaster burn. I treated him with what we had on hand in the emergency first aid kit."

"The injured guy have a name?"

"Yes. Wedge---Antilles, I think."

Brow puckering, Deak considered the information. Failed to recognise the name. "Okay. Go on."

"Well, Wedge insisted on checking on his friend right away. Windy went with him---to help. You know who the other guy was?"

"No."

"Guess." Well warmed up to the story, Camie was not about to give away her secret quickly.

"Camie, quit playing games." Irritated, Deak refused to be drawn in. Disappointed, Camie told him.

"It was Luke."

"Luke---Skywalker?" Camie nodded. Deak hitched himself around to better meet her gaze. "Not---Wormy?"

"Yes. It was like---oh, I don't know, weird. Something out of a dream." She floundered in an effort to express herself. "We never had a chance to get a look at him when we first brought them in out of the storm. He had this cloak wrapped around him. Kinda like the one old Kenobi used to wear except it was black."

"What the hell was Luke doing---I mean---where's he been---what was wrong---?"

"That's exactly how Windy and I felt, unable to get out a straight question at first. Luke was sicker than a sun-struck tourist from a lorean sting. At least, that's what Wedge said it was."

"Where the hell did Wormy get stung by a lorean on Tatooine?"

"Wedge wouldn't tell us. Said it was for our own good."

"Did he tell you where Luke's been all this time?"

"More or less." Legs drawn up to her chest, Camie wrapped her arms around her knees. "He's been fighting with the Rebellion."

"How the hell did he get mixed up with the rebels?"

"Remember old Kenobi?"

"That crazy hermit who lived out by the Western Dune Sea?" When Camie nodded, Deak added. "Thought he was dead. No one's seen him in years."

"He's dead, all right." Camie told him, "But he didn't die here. Apparently he took Luke off-world. Got him mixed up with the rebels and died along the way."

Deak was justifiably dubious. "You sure you're not making this up?"

"Nope. There's more. You want to hear it?"

"Sure. We've got lots of time."

Taking a deep breath, Camie continued. She outlined everything she had heard the night before, and proved she was a credible storyteller. She concluded by narrating what had transpired with the vanishing wounds. Incredulous and enthralled, Deak listened attentively. He was amazed by what Luke had accomplished since they had last seen him. Camie concluded with Fixer's encounter with Luke and Wedge.

"Well, that's it, then. My guess is that's what set Fixer off. You know how he liked teasing Luke. Couldn't resist getting a rise out of him. And always did." Deak reminded her. "If Luke ignored him---"

"Luke didn't exactly ignore him," said Camie thoughtfully. "He was so---controlled. Nothing Fixer said so much as fazed him."

"He actually took charge?" To Deak's question, she nodded slowly. Deak looked away to the heat-blurred horizon. "Yeah. That would really make Fixer mad. Mad that he couldn't intimidate Luke anymore. And mad that Windy went off with Luke. Fixer never could stand anyone else being the leader."

"I remember. He couldn't wait for Biggs and Tank to leave."

Both rim-worlders fell silent trapped in their separate thoughts. As the suns rose higher, they shifted under the tarpaulin. Deak brought out a large thermos filled with everything they needed to replenish depleted moisture and minerals leached out by the suns. Finally he crawled back outside.

"Well, all I've gotta do is close her up, Camie. Then we can head back to the station." His suggestion brought a bleak look to her face. "You're going to have to face him sometime."

"I know." She admitted quietly. Depressed, she got to her feet and pulled her hat back on. Before helping Deak replace the vent cover and pack up his tools and the tarp, she adjusted her goggles against the glare. Under her breath she muttered, "I wonder where they are now?"

"Damn this metal's hot." Deak swore again and jerked on his mechanics gloves, preferring sweltering inside them to burning his hands.

"Wish you could have seen Luke, Deak." Unable to stop herself, Camie blurted out. "Remember what he was like?"

"Sure do." Deak laughed. "Nave, scrawny. Always dreaming. Owen used to get real mad at him."

"Yeah. He sure was a real unimpressive, skinny, immature kid." She paused. Finished, "Not now."

"Uh, huh?" Deak caught the look in her eyes. To her credit, Camie recovered quickly.

"Must have been a shock for Fixer, seeing Luke all grown up. Matured."

"Probably. Look. You take my speeder," Deak said, not wanting to get drawn into speculations he would as soon avoid. "I'll drive the rental."

"Okay."

They hefted his tool kit into the rental vehicle, broke down and packed the tarp in the small storage compartment in Deak's speeder. Climbing into his vehicle, Camie warmed up the repulsors. Deak brought the other speeder up to power more slowly. Watched for telltale readings. But everything appeared nominal.

"Let's go." He shouted to be heard over the noise of the combined drives.

With a nod, Camie opened the throttle. They traveled across the flats side by side, reveling in the little bit of freedom the respite afforded them. As they drew into the parking area behind Tosche Station, one of the weather trackers met them. Upon seeing Camie, he gestured urgently.

"Get out of here."

"What's wrong?" Deak demanded.

"They're looking for her."

"Who's looking for Camie?" Deak wanted to know.

"Stormtroopers."

"Stormtroopers?"

Puzzled by the meteorological technician's behaviour, Camie climbed from the speeder. The met tech gave her a push toward Deak. "Get the hell out of here. Now."

"But why would stormtroopers---"

"You had visitors last night, didn't you?"

The instant she understood what the tech was inferring, Camie bolted across the flat toward Anchorhead and the garage. Deak tackled her before she had quite covered three feet. Face down on the sand, she squirmed madly, frantically trying to get free.

"Camie!" At first his hoarse whisper failed to reach her. A snarl escaped her before his hand came down over her mouth. He shook her. "Camie! Stop it!"

Beneath him she went limp. Tears left trails through the salt crystals and sand filming her skin. Once certain she would no longer resist, Deak got up. Pulled Camie to her feet behind the building. He glanced at the tech.

"What about Fixer?"

"They've taken him already. Look." The man glanced nervously over his shoulder. "They're all over Anchorhead and the station. I'm taking a risk just warning you, Deak. Get her out of here, will you?"

"Okay. Thanks."

Determined to get Camie to safety, he dragged her back to the rental speeder and forced her to get in. Deak scrambled over the side and swung the speeder away, back the way they had come. Anchorhead soon faded into the heat haze behind them. His world narrowed to the sun blasted plain and the rugged highlands that heralded civilization, such as it was, on Tatooine.

"What'll they do to him?" Camie found her voice at last.

Deak shook his head. "I don't know."

"They'll kill him, won't they?"

He met her wild-eyed stare. "Don't say that."

"Why not?" She rounded on him. "You know it's true. Look what they did to Luke's aunt and uncle. Wedge said they didn't even know where the droids came from. Bought them second-hand from jawas. And even the jawas were slaughtered."

"You're hysterical."

"Am I?" When he did not answer right away she gave his shoulder a hard push. Made the speeder slew sideways before he regained control. "Am I?"

Angry, Deak scowled at her. "Maybe."

"Maybe, he says." Arms crossed over her chest, Camie stared at him. Frightened for herself, angry and worried about her husband, she snarled at him. Demanded he find a solution to the mess they had found themselves in. "So what do we do? They probably already know about me. Most likely they've found the marriage records."

"Quiet." Mind spinning, he stared ahead at the rapidly approaching mountains. "We'll go to Mos Eisley."

"Great. Smart man. I don't suppose you've considered the possibility that the patrols in the port will have been alerted?"

"Don't worry," Deak said. "I've got a plan."

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Something was definitely wrong. It woke Luke from a sound sleep. Quickly he checked his surroundings. All was still in the cabin. He lay unmoving, heightening his senses, determined to locate the source of the disturbance. A subtle change in the engines brought him off the bunk and out the door immediately. Along the way he vaulted over the soundly sleeping Wedge Antilles who was stretched out on a sleep pad on the floor between the Jedi Master's bunk and the door.

"Han!" Luke's initial shout failed to summon the Corellian. But his second bellow brought the freighter pilot into the passage. "Han!"

"Wha'sa matter?" Solo grumbled groggily, one hand out-stretched to fend off the doorframe into which he had so nearly stumbled.

"The ship," said Luke, giving him a shake. "There's something's wrong with the FALCON."

He never finished. Finally conscious, Han Solo detected the unnatural change. "Son of a---Chewie!"

Unlike his partner, the Wookiee was wide-awake and cognizant of impending disaster the minute he emerged from his berth. Growling and coughing, Chewbacca stared around him.

"Yeah. It's that problem Artoo warned us about on Tatooine."

"What problem?"

"Put too much stress on the hyperdrive chasing you and Wedge across the galaxy and back again." Han snapped back, gesturing to his co-pilot. "Come on, Chewie. We've got to bring the FALCON back into normal space."

As they started forward a violent shudder shook the MILLENNIUM FALCON. With an indescribable, agonized groan the ancient freighter prescribed a manoeuvre which, to Luke, felt incredibly like the buck of an annoyed tauntaun. Han and Chewie staggered across the hall and caromed off the far wall as the vessel skewed sideways, supposedly a physical impossibility in hyperspace. Luke rode out the violent motion with one hand braced against the nearest wall. Alluvial dampers failed to compensate sufficiently. Curses and startled shouts erupted from the two spare cabins. Their stomachs lurched. Twisted as though someone had gripped and yanked them violently up, down and sideways all in the same motion.

Luke felt as though someone was viciously trying to wrench his brain out of his head. Doubled up with pain, he grabbed the sides of his head. Again the FALCON bucked. Concerned about his vessel, Solo failed to notice Luke's distress.

"Chewie! Get the alluvial dampers off line! I'll take care of power coils and energy conversion couplers!"

Still gasping with agony, Luke managed to clear the passage for the crew as they headed aft. Wedge emerged from the cabin. Grabbed the open door frame frantically as another spasm shook the ship. Seeing Luke almost incapacitated, he thrust himself across the hallway.

"Luke. Are you okay?"

"Pain." Luke grunted. Eyes squeezed shut he leaned against the wall for support. Red-hot spikes lanced through his head.

"What the hell's wrong with the ship? That last shake threw me right out of my bunk." As she fumbled her way from the other passenger cabin, Windy stared around her. "Luke? Wedge? What's going on?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out," said Wedge. "Are you all right, Luke?"

"I will be." The Jedi Master waved Wedge off and drew from his inner resources to ease the pain. Relief was like fresh water after a day working on Tatooine. Control reestablished Luke straightened. "There's a serious problem with the ship's power grid. Artoo! Get back here."

Whistling and booping the little astro-mech scooted into view from the lounge. He paused in front of his master to inspect Luke, then the others. Satisfied with their physical condition, he whistled again.

"Yes, Artoo," said Luke. "I know there's a problem. Can you do anything to help?"

Without waiting to see if Luke was accompanying him, Artoo took off down the passage in the direction of the engine room. One final lurch and the MILLENNIUM FALCON dropped from hyperspace. Engines at a dead stop, the freighter drifted in space.

"What the hell? That didn't feel right." Dismayed by what had happened, Wedge turned to Luke. "Did we just leave hyperspace?"

"Felt like it." Luke Skywalker concurred with that observation. "Come on."

Even Windy felt the difference. When the others raced after the droid, she followed. To their horror they found Han and Chewie unconscious on the floor of the tiny engine room, Artoo standing over them. An over-powering stench of scorched flesh and singed hair assailed them as they entered the room. Quickly Luke went to one knee beside Han. While Wedge and Windy checked over the power readings, the Jedi Master examined the crew. Artoo-Detoo continued to hover near the centre of the room, refusing to approach any of the computer interfaces.

"How are they?" Not bothering to turn his head, Wedge asked for an update.

"Unconscious. There are electrical burns on Han's hands and Chewie's feet. Looks like there was an unexpected arch in the current."

"They must have been caught in a power surge," said Windy.

"That would explain why Artoo's so reluctant to hook up with the ship's systems." Wedge added, watching the anxious droid pivot around the middle of the chamber. "Can you do anything to help them, Luke?"

"Yes. See what you can do with the console."

A hand on each unconscious friend, Luke concentrated. Wookiee and Corellian were in shock, their hearts fibrillating. Focused on Han Solo's injuries, the Jedi Master reached deep down to draw on the Force. He shut his eyes and centered the stream of healing energy on each of the wounded. Several minutes passed before he relaxed.

While Luke was preoccupied with the crew, Wedge hurriedly examined the damage to the circuits. Hairs on the backs of his hands and arms stood on end the minute he got within arm's reach of the panels, forcing him to back away.

"Keep clear, Windy. I didn't like the feel of that. How's it going, Luke?"

"They'll be fine." The Jedi Master announced his success, struggling to keep the weariness from his voice. He dared not let Wedge know his short sleep period had done little to recoup his depleted resources.

"Good. Because we could definitely use your help over here," Wedge said. "Artoo's not about to come anywhere near these controls. And I don't blame him."

Gamely struggling to his feet, the Jedi Master joined the others at the console. Wedge had made no attempt to touch the controls. There was only one obvious reason for the droid refusing to link into the ship's network. If that were the case, none of them would be able to get close enough to do any work until the power was completely shut off. On the other hand, starting a ship cold was almost impossible in deep space. Then again, this would not be the first time he and Han had accomplished the near impossible.

Luke hurriedly checked over the panel. Severe energy discharge was evident but he was unable to visually spot the source of the problem. Gradually he allowed his other perception to take over. Force-augmented senses slid effortlessly through the console cover, examining the conduits one by one. Wild sparks of loose power surged, drawing him to the primary source.

"There's a short in the coupling circuits immediately beneath this panel." He pointed without quite touching the console. Felt all the hairs along his arms try to stand on end beneath his tunic. "Once we get that locked down we should be able to access the rest of the problem."

"But how are we going to get at it?" Windy gestured. "I don't know about you guys, but I haven't a clue where to look for the gear we need to keep from getting electrocuted like your friends over there. Or if Han's even got what we need on board."

"Wait," said Luke softly. Carefully feeling his way down along the snapped cables, he located the grounding wires. "Get ready to ground off the connections, Wedge."

"Now just a minute, Luke. What the hell are you planning?"

"Just do it," said Luke sharply.

Still concerned, but not about to disobey the Jedi Master's order, Wedge got down on his hands and knees in front of the console overhang. Windy joined him, the ship's available tools in hand. Both itched abominably, as though they were suffering a massive attack of hives.

"Now!

Luke 'grabbed' for the loose power coupling. As energy arched through him down the lines of the Force, he grappled and found the grounding wires. This experience was not dissimilar to what he had suffered at the Emperor's hands at Endor. This time, however, he was able to ground off the erratic current. Intent upon his own task, Wedge went to work, unaware of what was happening above him. He spliced severed cables and sealed each patch with non-conducting sealant before moving on to the next. Each time he held out his hands to Windy, the rim-worlder silently passed tools as Wedge requested them. Sight of an officer actually getting his hands dirty fascinated her.

They were almost finished when Wedge insisted they take a short breather. Sweat was getting in his eyes and his back and shoulder muscles ached. Settling back on his heels, he glanced up at Luke. He froze his eyes wide with disbelief. Drawn by Wedge's astonishment, Windy also looked up.

"Sarlaacs and krayts!"

She gasped at an unbelievable sight. Streamers of purple electrical current shot up from the disabled panel. Raced up one of the Jedi Master's arms and down the other, illuminating Luke's features with a ghastly glow. A study in concentration, Luke was perfectly immobile, eyes tight shut in a face that appeared to be no more than parchment drawn across bare bone.

"Sith! Sith! Sith!"

Galvanized back into action by the terrifying sight, Wedge returned to work. The oath muttered like a charm, he frantically applied himself until he had finished. Since they would undoubtedly have to get at the circuitry again, he left the access panel off. Slowly climbing to his feet, he contemplated what to do about his friend.

Even as he watched the electricity ceased its play across living flesh as though a switch had been thrown. Luke abruptly sagged. Would have fallen had Wedge not caught him. The fair head dropped back against Wedge's chest.

"Luke? Luke!" Wedge patted his friend's cheeks, but this time there was no rousing the Jedi Master. Beneath his touch Luke's flesh felt cold and clammy. "Damn it all. Not again."

"Sand storms and sun burn." Senses confounded by what she had witnessed, Windy gasped, "How did he do that?"

"If I knew that," said Wedge, his expression bleak, "I'd probably be a Jedi."

"Will he be all right?"

Deeply trouble by Luke's pallid features, Wedge slowly shook his head. "I honestly don't know, Windy. He's really done a number on himself this time."

"What happened. Where am I?"

Behind them Solo rolled onto his side, shoved himself back to his feet and gazed blankly around the chamber. Chewbacca moaned and sat up. His great hairy head shook in bewilderment. Sight of the open access panel brought them instantly across the room.

"Who the hell's been foolin' around with my ship?" The Corellian stared at the Jedi Master. "And what's wrong with Luke?"

"While you two were napping," said Wedge far more calmly than he felt at that moment, "we fixed several snapped electrical conduits."

"Without a neutralizer?"

In the face of the Corellian's skepticism, Wedge hitched his burden higher. "I don't know exactly what Luke did, but somehow he diverted the current. Now would you help me get him back to the cabin?"

"Chewie."

The Wookiee needed no encouragement. He took Luke from Wedge, scooping up the unconscious Jedi Master in his arms as though Luke was a child. As Chewie lumbered from the engine room, Windy gestured.

"Is he going to be okay? I mean, isn't there something we should do for him?"

Solo shook his head. "Chewie'll check him over with the med-kit. If Luke needs any medical attention, my partner'll look after him. Now, kindly explain to me exactly what you did."

While the others got on with the job of repairing the freighter, Chewbacca conveyed his burden to the cabin and delicately deposited Luke on the bunk. A scan with the med-kit indicated there was nothing seriously wrong. The Jedi Master had simply over-extended himself in the face of the emergency, and collapsed.

As tenderly as a mother caring for her child, Chewie used some of their water ration to mop Luke's face. While he worked he whined quietly. Han Solo might be a brother to him. But Luke Skywalker's status came close enough to that as to be indiscernible.

Part of the great Wookiee experienced guilt at not being with Solo to work on the ship. At the same time he knew the three humans could get into places his gawky frame found almost impossible to access. So he stayed with Luke, repeatedly running the scanner over the young Jedi Master until he had assured himself that there was no serious damage.

"How is he, Chewie?"

His partner's inquiry from the cabin entrance made Chewbacca glance round. He growled his report, expressing his concern that Luke remained unconscious. Equally worried, Han crossed the room to make his own examination. Wedge arrived, Windy in tow.

"Is he okay, Han?"

"Don't know. Chewie says there's no evidence of injury---though why there isn't, is anyone's guess. But he won't wake up."

Silent, reflective, Wedge considered the wisdom of telling Solo about their narrow escape on Tatooine. Eventually he gave the Corellian an abbreviated version.

"What the hell were you thinking, letting him try that right after a run-in with a lorean?" Solo's demand raised Windy's hackles.

"Hey, Solo. You weren't there. Nobody could have stopped Luke once he decided to work on Wedge." The rim-worlder defended Wedge.

"He's right, Han," said Wedge. "I was pretty mad at Luke at the time. But you know what Luke's like when he's determined to help."

Exasperated, Han shook his head. "Yeah. I know. The kid never seems to know when to cut his losses and leave the table."

"You can say that again," said Windy. "If you had seen him running Beggars Canyon back home. Man, there are times when I wonder why I flew with him."

Wedge raised an eyebrow. "After seeing that place, from the ground, I might add, I'm surprised any of you are still around."

Intrigued, Han peered up at them. "That bad?"

"Remember the DEATH STAR trench?"

"Yeah?"

"Well, it had nothing on Beggars' Canyon." Wedge informed him.

But Windy added the telling touch with a wry grin. "Of course, womprats don't shoot back."

Just the thought of womprats firing at skyhoppers set Windy off. Over-tired, Wedge and Han were equally struck by the ludicrous image. Dumbfounded by the humans' laughter at so serious a juncture, Chewie barked and shook his head.

"All right." Worn out, Windy quickly regained control of herself. "Will he be okay if we leave him alone for a while?"

"Should think so. We can leave Artoo with him."

Wedge's suggestion met with resistance from Han. "I need Artoo in the engine room. Chewie'll have to sit up front and monitor the primaries from there, as well as our progress."

"What are you planning?"

"The only way to get this old girl back on course to Coruscant is for us to suit up."

"You're going outside?"

Windy was aghast at the suggestion. But Wedge merely nodded. "Thought you might say that. Han, how many environmental suits do you have on board?"

"Four," said Solo. "But one of 'em is adapted to fit Chewie."

"Wait a minute." As she read between the lines, Windy realised what they were both insinuating. "Guys. I don't know the first thing about working in zero-gee."

"Hands-on is the best way to learn. Don't worry," Han reassured him with a grin in the face of his reluctance. "You'll be on a tether the whole time. I ain't about to let no rookie go floatin'."

"And there's no time like the present," said Wedge.

"Oh, great!"

"Just don't throw up in the suit. Okay?"

"What do I do? Open the helmet?"

Wedge laughed outright at that question. "Can you breathe vacuum?"

"No." Windy retorted, but there was no animosity or sarcasm in Wedge's humour. Instead, she managed a wry grin.

"Well, Windy." The younger Corellian pointed out. "You said you wanted to join the fleet. Here's an opportunity to get ahead in the game."

"Thanks. I'd rather not."

"No choice," said Solo bluntly. "I need two extra sets of hands out there to do this job."

On the bunk, Luke tossed restlessly, still unconscious. Attention drawn to Luke, Wedge realised his friend's lips were moving. It was as though he was speaking to someone none of them could see. After a moment's deliberation, Wedge retrieved the med-kit from Chewie and inspected the contents. He found what he needed.

"Ah."

Han eyed the hypodermic Wedge removed from the kit. "What are you doing?"

"Making sure Luke stays under until we reach drop-out at Coruscant. I'm giving him an injection now," he told the others, fitting action to words. "He gets the second once we know just where we are and how long it's going to take us to finish our run home."

"I don't know, Wedge." Dubious, Solo exchanged glances with his co-pilot. "He ain't gonna like it."

"I'll deal with the consequences when the time comes," said Wedge. "Right now I'm more interested in seeing he gets back to Coruscant in one piece. And in condition to locate and kill those loranni."

"Han's right." Now Windy took opposite side of the argument. "If Luke's still as stubborn as he was when I knew him back on Tatooine, he's going to be pretty pissed off when he finally wakes up."

"A live, angry friend is preferable to a dead hero."

To Wedge's retort there was no reply. While Chewbacca expressed his own feelings on the matter, the group retired to the lounge. Han pulled up the exterior schematics of his ship. Smell of singed fur permeated the lounge. Proximity to Chewie meant a constant reminder to the others of their close call.

"Right. Here's where the fun starts," said Han. He drew their attention to the aft section of the FALCON. "We have to make our way along the exterior hull to this point. With the spare parts in the cargo hold, we'll replace the damaged ones."

"Doesn't look all that difficult."

Windy's observation elicited a grunt from Han that could have been construed either way. Somehow Windy suspected the task was going to prove far more arduous than the Corellian was letting on. From the look Wedge quickly hid Windy knew she was right. Still, if they were to get anywhere, they had to jury-rig a shunt for the hyperdrive engines. Otherwise they were liable to be drifting in this region of space for a very long time.

"While we're outside, Chewie, see what you can do with the nav-puter. Find out where we are." Solo instructed his partner on his requirements. Chewbacca roared---softly. "I know. But we don't have a hyper-capsule to send a message on ahead. The quicker we get the FALCON repaired, the sooner we get back to Coruscant and save Leia."

"Looks like it's up to us." Wedge concluded, "Let's get to it."

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

With a mental groan, Luke Skywalker dragged himself back inch by pain filled inch, toward consciousness. Every synapse throughout his body screamed at the abuse to which he had subjected it. As he always did upon waking he reached out and heard voices. About to open his eyes, he paused to listen and take stock. Something stung his neck. Too late, he tried to sit up. Found himself restrained, his every attempt to move held in check so he could only touch the Force.

'What the---'

Investigation of the cause was paramount to survival. Before long he homed in on a foreign substance infiltrating his body. Gradually pain subsided. Exasperated, Luke recognized the restricting agent for a sedative and realized what the sting had been. Trapped by the drug, Luke struggled to himself free. But the effort drained his diminutive resources. He stopped. Considered what his friends had done. Although he understood their reasoning, a tiny part of him was furious over their heavy-handed intervention.

In forcing him to rest, they had unwittingly cut him off from his sister. Prevented him from warning Leia of impending danger once they were closer even though, due to her lack of training, his message would have been received as little more than a premonition of danger. Now more than ever Luke wished she had applied herself more conscientiously to learning about the Force.

Of course there was logic in his friends' actions. And Luke discovered he could not remain angry with them. He successfully submerged the rage that stemmed from and was fed by the dark side of the force. Eventually he accepted the situation. Turned inward. Although the sedative restricted his actions, he was still able to draw on the Force to a minor degree. Could still sense what his friends were about even though he was unable to help.

In the stillness of deep space, far from settled worlds, the lines of the Force were tenuous, delicate. By drawing on them he gradually renewed expended energy. But the task required extreme care and diligence. Slowly Luke took what he needed. As he drifted he touched the consciousness of a passing ship; its crew and passengers, en route to Corel, were unaware of the MILLENNIUM FALCON's presence in their transition through hyperspace. Nearby he discovered asteroids and, at the perimeter of his touch, a sensor-buoy. Unwilling to waste what he had gleaned Luke made no effort to investigate its nature. There were many such buoys about the galaxy; some were holdovers from ancient explorers. Burned-out hulls which once had monitored transition points or sent out cries of help in vain on behalf of the unfortunate long dead.

At long last withdrawing into himself, Luke drifted, unprepared to return to his corporeal state. The sedative in his system remained strong. Designed to keep someone suffering from shock safely asleep until a med-droid could examine the patient or while one was suspended in a bacta tank. To combat its effects would undo what little good it had thus far provided.

'Real sneaky, guys.'

Cocooned and insulated, protected against himself---or so his friends believed---Luke observed their actions. And prayed he would not have to resort to battling his way out of the sedative's influence should something go seriously wrong and they require his assistance.

He was surprised to note Windy in the company of Han and Wedge outside. Inexperienced with ships, the rim-worlder was something of a burden. In fact her presence slowed their progress, forcing them to keep a constant eye on her movements.


Considering the amount of hardware the more experienced members were towing from the hatch, it was obvious they needed the extra pair of hands. If only to pass them tools. Han bit back impatience as he listened while Wedge instructed their rookie in null-grav procedure.

"Just lash down to that ring in the hull, Windy." Wedge coached their rookie.

He and Solo waited while the inexperienced rim-worlder groped her way to the indentation in the hull. There were several of these. All were designed to take safety line attachments for a variety of purposes and could bear several times human weight.

Parts drifted aimlessly along behind the workers, held in check by tethers worn by Wedge and Han. Everything the Corellian envisioned they might need, given a worst case scenario, floated around them in space. The toolbox was fastened to Windy's belt. Once the rim-worlder was clipped to a ring Han removed the line connecting them. The free end drifted outward. Hung in a frozen, contorted snake just overhead, wafting ungainly and stiff, back and forth in echo of his movements.

"Okay, Chewie. We're over the coupler panels. I'm fastening the parts to the hull now. We'll start removing panels. Wedge? Got those spare tethers?"

"Right here, Han."

"Connect them here and here." Solo pointed with thick vacu-suit gloves, emphasizing his orders by turning the inset rings up for easy access. "Chewie. See what you can get from the nav-puter." The Wookiee's growl vibrated back over their suit links. "Now we're talking. Any power at all?" Another growl-whine answered him. "Great. Where are we?" This time Chewbacca let out an ear-splitting snarl that almost deafened Han encapsulated within the spacesuit. "That's not so good."

"What did he say?"

Unable to watch the Wookiee for body language, Wedge felt cut off. On the outside of a conversation he desperately wanted to be part of. Han quickly brought him up to date.

"Too close to an Imperial controlled sector. We must have dropped out between folds. It'll take us longer to plot course to Coruscant from here, too."

"I don't like the sound of that," said Windy, uneasy at the stress she heard in their voices.

"Just keep your eyes on that tool kit. You lose my tools, I'll kick you all the way back to Tatooine," Solo bit out.

"Uh---right."

But Windy was far more fascinated with the pitch-black space surrounding them. Distracted, she let Han's snarl roll off and gazed up and out at non-winking stars. Like many before her she was drawn to their hypnotic, baleful glares. Until she made the mistake of peering over the edge of the hull.

"Great sarlaac!" The exclamation of abject terror breathed from her lips. No one had told her that, in space, up was in every direction. There was no ceiling. Nothing to provide direction or an anchor.

"What's wrong, Windy?" Alerted by that muffled gasp, Wedge demanded an answer. Receiving none, he turned and found the Tatooine native frozen against the hull. Gloved fingers were tightly clutched her tether. "Siths and sabres. Han. We've got a problem."

"What sort of problem?" Solo swung slowly about. At the sight of the petrified Windy, he swore. "Of all the---Give me a hand. We'll pull her back, Wedge, away from the edge. Maybe that'll snap her out of it."

"I hope you're right," muttered Wedge.

Carefully crabbing his way back alongside Solo, he made it to Windy's side. There was no sense unclenching her hands from the line. Instead, they unclipped the tether from the hull ring and began the laborious task of easing their would-be assistant up the hull. Away from the bottomless well beneath them.

"Must have mynocks for brains," said Han, angry over the additional delay to repairs. He took hold of the sides of Windy's helmet. Gave it a slow-motion shake. "Hey. Windy. Snap out of it."

For a long moment there was no reaction. Then Windy blinked. Gulped. Drew a long shuddering breath. "Bantha poodoo. I couldn't move."

Strangely sympathetic, Han nodded. "Get's you like that some times."

"There's no bottom."

"What were you thinking?" Wedge launched a tirade at her.

"Sorry," said Windy. Apologetic, she continued to shake with reaction to her view into infinity. Gradually she loosed her grasp on the line.

Still furious, Wedge snapped back. "You're a frazzing rookie out here. So stop pulling dumb stunts. We haven't time to keep an eye on you like you were some addle-brain kid."

"Enough said." Solo was willing to let the incident slide now the crisis was past. "Let's get on with it. Pass me the hatch key, Wedge. And lock on a tether line. Make this fast. We've only got so much air."

"Right with you."

To Windy's credit, she now kept her attention firmly centered on their instructions and made no further attempts to sightsee. She passed the necessary tools, diligently replacing those they no longer required. Her one unobstructed view of the bottomless well of the universe had been more than sufficient.

Which left an abstract part of Wedge's mind wondering if their potential recruit would ever make pilot status. Some never did after their first encounter with space outside the confines of a ship. A few never even got that far: acrophobic to the extreme. Not that he particularly blamed them. No pilot was ever comfortable when forced to eject from a dangerously crippled vessel. Just the thought of drifting aimlessly through space, with air running out and no immediate hope of rescue, was a highly unpleasant thought.

'Like the time I was dumb enough to get snagged by that thrice-damned booby-trap. Good thing Luke was around to come get me or I'd still be out there. Or in a million pieces, drifting amongst the stars.'

"Got it." Han brought Wedge back to the present. "Thanks. Pass me that spare coupling and the hydrospanner. Then clamp down the ends."

Stray beads of hydraulic fluid popped out from beneath their hands. These orbited randomly away, bouncing off suits and visors and sometimes interfering with their view of the equipment and damaged sections. While he worked, Han kept up a running dialogue on their progress with his co-pilot. The Wookiee responded with information concerning his various systems checks. Occasionally they received feedback from Artoo in the engine room as he monitored their work. Finally they were done, the hatch locked back down. As Han took a breather, Wedge settled on the hull.

"Chewie? See if you can spare a moment to check on Luke, would you?" Chewbacca responded with a woof to Wedge's request. "If that's a yes, make sure he's still under. If not, give him another injection. Half dose this time. Got that?"

Upon receiving a growl, Wedge looked to the Corellian. Han translated. "He understands, but he's kind of tied up right now. If there's a problem, though, he'll let us know."

"Luke's gonna be as mad as a Tusken with an itch he can't scratch," said Windy, a part of her intrigued by the prospect.

"Probably." Wedge acknowledged the fact.

"You don't sound very worried."

"Maybe that's 'cause Wedge and I know Luke better than you do," said Han, his patience rapidly wearing thin.

On the verge of objecting, Windy reconsidered those words and swallowed her argument. The Luke she had spoken to the morning following his recovery from the lorean attack was not the person Windy had known. In fact, very little remained in the Jedi Master of her childhood companion. Luke Skywalker as a teenager had been adventurous and reckless to the extreme. Always pushing the outside of the envelope. Willing to let others draw him into hair-raising escapades and let the chips fall where they would when Owen Lars found out.

But no longer. This quiet, self-contained Jedi who battled the Empire, rescued friends from the clutches of the Imperials and who had lost a hand in the bargain, was almost a stranger. Then there was his father. In retrospect it must have been a shattering experience discovering his paternal parent was responsible for a murderous campaign across the Imperium that had cost millions their lives and destroyed an entire world.

'No. Solo and Antilles are right.' Windy conceded the point. 'It's me who has to get to know Luke all over again.'

"That's got the couplers replaced and on line, Chewie. When you're finished checking the guidance controls, adjust the alluvial dampers to compensate for any power spikes. And give the vertical and horizontal boosters a test run." The Wookiee snarled back at the Corellian. Whatever he said met with Solo's approval. "Good. Wedge. Let's see if there are any ruptures in the exterior hydraulics forward."

Without waiting to see if the fleet officer was following, Han performed a quick double-check on the hatches they had removed. Certain they were secure, he unlatched the tool kit from Windy's belt and started across the hull.

"Right with you, Han." They had reached a point where a third pair of hands was no longer necessary. Wedge made a snap decision. "You better get back inside, Windy. You can't do anything more out here."

For a second Windy was tempted to counter that she was all right. That she could help. Of course, having an inexperienced grounder to worry about meant the pair's efficiency was greatly impaired; they were constantly keeping an eye on her just in case she took a misstep along the way. She capitulated gracefully.

"Okay, Wedge."

"And thanks for your help."

"Sure. Any time, Wedge."

To prove she had listened to their guidance, Windy slowly retraced her steps to the top hatch exhibiting infinite care. A surreptitious glance back, around the edge of her visor, confirmed her every move was being tracked. Before this trip she would have been insulted at so blatant a display of distrust in her ability to follow instructions. But in the short time she had been with the FALCON's crew she had learned a very important lesson. No matter how knowledgeable she was about Tatooine, in space she was a novice.

Air lock open, Windy wormed her way back inside. She envied the ease the others displayed while operating in zero gravity. Once the lock recycled, she double-checked the seal before releasing the inner door. Chewbacca awaited her. With the Wookiee's help she soon shed her environmental suit and returned it to the locker.

"How's Luke?" In reply, Chewie ruffled the mane surrounding his massive head and moaned. Windy immediately feared the worst. "Is something wrong with him?" This time the Wookiee shook his head. "Oh. Did you have a chance to check on him?" Again a shake of that great hairy head, followed by a shoulder shrug. Windy headed for the corridor, heaving a sigh of relief. "It's okay. I'll do it."

With the Wookiee in tow, Windy made her way to the cabin Luke shared with Wedge. Acutely conscious of Chewbacca's presence, Windy did her best to examine their patient using the emergency med-kit. Luke's respiration remained slow and shallow, but it was definitely stronger. Color had returned to his face. His cheeks no longer appeared gaunt and the shadows beneath his eyes were fading. Windy turned to the FALCON' co-pilot.

"Looks like he's all right. Sleeping like a baby."

The rim-worlder's confidence and pleasure eased Chewie's own concerns. With one huge hand, he patted their passenger on the shoulder as gently as he could. Even so, he staggered Windy. Caught off-balance, Windy hurriedly put out a hand as she lost her balance and connected with a bulkhead. She released a shaky laugh.

"It's okay, Chewie. Tell Han and Wedge he's gonna be fine. I'll stay here, if you like. Keep an eye on him. If he stirs, I'll shout."

With a nod, Chewie disappeared back up the companionway in the direction of the lounge. This was something Windy could do and she settled herself on the only chair in the cabin.

On the verge of consciousness, Luke fought down a smile that threatened to betray his return to self-awareness. While their concern gratified him, he still disliked this feeling of helplessness. Again he submerged a desire to erase the dregs of the drug. So long as he could trick them into believing he was under its effects he could revive sufficiently to send a warning to Leia before they re-entered hyperspace.

A thump resounded through the hull, followed by a loud clattering. Pressure fluctuated slightly. Windy stirred certain it signified hatches being opened and closed. Voices echoed up the passage outside Luke's cabin, confirming her suspicions. Interested in the state of repairs, Windy went to the door. Stuck her head round the corner.

"How'd it go?"

"Looks like we're on our way," Wedge said with considerable satisfaction.

"Damn, I'm good." His mood light, Solo verbally patted himself on his back. From the lounge came Chewie's gruff comments. The Corellian laughed. "Wasn't quite as bad as we first thought, Chewie. But it's gonna take a few minutes to bring all the systems back on line. Tell Artoo to stand by. When we're up and running, I want him back in the lounge."

"Still want me in the hellhole 'til we make hyper, Han?"

"Yeah, Wedge. Here. Take the hydrospanners." Solo passed the kit to Wedge. "Artoo'll help just in case things start coming apart."

"Thanks. You're all heart."

"I know."

"Get going."

"On my way."

Han Solo turned to Windy. "You better stay put."

"Sure thing."

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

On the bridge, Captain Winn Boralle paced its length and considered the matte black of space through which his frigate, RUTHLESS, manoeuvred. Short of stature, Boralle was wiry. Wide set blue-green eyes peered out of a square face. Dark brown hair curled up around the edges of his cap like some vid-comedian. But no one dared suggest his appearance was comical, for all his diminutive size. What he lacked in height was more than made up for by temperament. Boralle's very presence seemed to fill any room he occupied. There was no wasted energy in any task he undertook. A fact not lost on his superiors.

Rapid promotions following the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader finally placed Boralle where he always wanted to be, in command of a frigate. Although generally good-natured, there was that about him that attested he would brook no failures by his staff. He was known throughout the surviving Imperium as a man who got things done. This included bringing his ship up to ready status in less time than any previous new vessel. Work-ups were undertaken with serious attention to detail, to the amazement and annoyance of his peers who had been at the helm far longer. Admiral Thrawn's approval left the commander and crew of RUTHLESS basking in glory for some time.

His crew was extremely loyal as a result of his fairness. In expecting only the best of them he, in turn, gave back complete attention to their needs. Personal problems could be brought to him and, more often than not, were dealt with expeditiously. Further cementing crew-command relations.

Which left the Captain puzzled as to why his command was now assigned to patrol this particular region of the old Empire. Two wings of standard TIE fighters crisscrossed their bow in precision formation, outward bound, replacements for those rotating in off patrol. Boralle's piercing gaze tracked their movements. With considerable satisfaction he watched the exactitude of their movements. Then he allowed his eyes to travel the length and breadth of the bridge. Noted the crew shift working with their usual diligence in the pits.

Ensigns on their first active assignments kept a running tally of figures at various posts. They were expected to make their own observations. After checking them against the computers' findings, they carried their figures to the senior cadet officer. He, in turn, made note of their successes or failures. Fire pickets moved about the bridge perimeter monitoring damage control. Wholly unnecessary, given the sector his vessel had been assigned. Nothing ever happened here.

Too late in grabbing a command position, Boralle had just missed seeing action at Endor. Work-ups preoccupied RUTHLESS at the time of the Bakuran skirmish. After the conflict his ship was deployed to replace more experienced commanders on the rim while they fought at Coruscant. Each was a lost opportunity toward securing further advancement in the ranks. Stuck out near the rim, monitoring hyper traffic, Boralle envisioned a long, uneventful career. Stagnating. Trapped forever as a Captain. To the unconcealed glee of his adversaries who early on foresaw him as a potential threat to their own ambitions.

All this humiliation and delay because of the New Republic. Mere thought of the rebels' successes, of their audacity in taking control of Coruscant and most of the settled worlds, brought bile to his throat. He swallowed. Bit down on rage. To fight for the Emperor, to win glory in the Empire's name, had been Boralle's driving ambition.

Now their depleted forces were scrabbling to regain lost ground. Yet it seemed for every victory they won, there were an equal number or more losses. And still this upstart New Republic continued to gain adherents to its cause. Consolidated pacts with one-time Imperial allies. And then there was one certain Jedi Knight. He snarled silently.

"Sir?"

Lieutenant Filyp Graszer stepped in front of Boralle to catch his attention. The minute his superior's eyes lit on him he saluted. Annoyed by the interruption, Boralle halted his pacing. Glowered at his Second-in-Command.

"What is it, Graszer?"

"One of our long range buoys is picking up a ship."

"How far away?"

"Just outside our long range sensors, sir."

"What are they doing?'

"There's very little movement, sir. Suggests they may have stopped to make minor repairs."

"Or they may be dead in space," said the Duty Officer helpfully.

Graszer fixed an intense look on the other. There was no love lost between them. Lieutenant Nijil Irimor was bucking for a promotion. Only Graszer stood in his way. And Graszer was not about to make a mistake that would cost him his position of authority.

All of this jockeying for favour was noted by their Captain and filed for future reference. So long as their feuding did not affect the smooth operating efficiency of his ship and crew, he overlooked petty rivalry. To his credit, Irimor ignored his competition. Waited patiently for his observation to be acknowledged.

"Always a possibility." Boralle locked his hands behind his back in semi-relaxed at ease. "Plot us a course to intercept. Have a transport and technicians standing by to assist in repairs." He paused, thoughtful. "And have our patrols standing by just in case."

"Yes, sir."

Once more snapping a salute, Graszer stepped past Irimor. One shoulder brushed the Duty Officer. Not quite hard enough to be construed as a blatant attack, yet sufficient to inform Irimor he had better be on his guard in the future. That Graszer did not approve being under-cut in front of the bridge crew.

RUTHLESS pivoted on her axis, dipping her nose a fraction as she headed off toward the suspect vessel. Long range scanners eventually picked up their target. Locked on and began sorting through available data on known ships of that specific type and registration.

"Well?"

Joining his Second-in-Command at the sensor pit, Captain Boralle awaited the report. Readout from the sensor log hit a snag. Puzzled, the technician on duty reran the information.

"What are they doing out here?"

The technician examined the readout. "Picking up two individuals on the hull, sir. It appears they've been making repairs."

"Ship name and registration?"

At length he reported back. "No known match to that particular hull configuration, sir. And they're not broadcasting an identity transponder at this time."

"Curious." Boralle's eyes narrowed.

His head tipped down, the technician glanced up, then back down. He dared a suggestion. "It could have been damaged by the same mechanical difficulty that brought them out of hyperspace here, sir."

"Try again," ordered Graszer. Subordinate Non-Commissioned personnel were not permitted such free rein. "And this time make allowances for any abnormalities in mass and configuration ratios."

Chastised, the technician blushed and hunched over his assigned board. "Yes, sir."

Once more their scanners swept the stranded vessel. Whatever he saw caused the technician to stiffen in his seat. He leaned further forward, peering intently at his vid-screen, brow knit in a frown.

"Those unusual additions to the hull, sir? It appears to be sophisticated camouflaging."

That announcement had Boralle's complete attention. "How good?"

"It would probably pass a visual and cursory planetary scan, sir," the technician said them. "But any in-depth sweep, such as ours, would reveal the anomaly."

"Have the computer extrapolate the ship's actual configuration taking into account the additions to its hull."

"Sir."

Their Commanding Officer moved away from the pits to take up position immediately in front of the forward view port. His gaze locked on the scene outside, as though he might summon their prey into the net they were fashioning with fighters and frigate.

In compliance with Lieutenant Graszer's orders, the technician's fingers flew across the console. Intent upon his task, he worked to feed in all information they had gathered so far on their quarry.

"Looks like an old freighter, sir, Corellian shipyard product. Possibly Clone War issue. I think---." Whatever opinion the technician might have made died in his throat. Data received back from their files made his eyes widened appreciably. His head jerked up.

"Sir! It's the MILLENNIUM FALCON!"

At that news every head on the bridge whipped around or up. Boralle spun on heel and took four long strides that placed him directly in front of the technician. He stared down, ignoring the shock and amazement on faces all around him.

"Solo. You're positive?"

"Absolutely, sir."

A vicious grin caught the sides of the Captain's mouth. Was mirrored by his staff. "Ready the tractor beams. Send in two squadrons. I want them alive."

"Yes, sir!"

"And standby to inform Admiral Thrawn the minute we have them."

"Right away, sir."

Picking up speed, RUTHLESS bore down on the hapless freighter and her unsuspecting crew. TIE fighters already on patrol swung about. Directed by the frigate's transmissions, they descended on the disabled ship's location.

To Be Continued
In

SKIRMISHES

Part Two

Of

SUBTERFUGE

FOOTNOTE:

Many of you will argue two points in this story. One, Wedge was promoted in the field according to the ROGUE SQUADRON novels. As an active member of the military I know you never promote your senior officers in the field if it can be avoided. And even if you do, you bring them home for a "formal promotion" function. Given Wedge's stature within the ranks it would definitely behoove the New Republic to do just that.

Second, Windy is most definitely a girl. Two pieces of evidence I have are, first and foremost a child's book published in 1998 which shows Windy as female flying in a skyhopper with Luke. Secondly, those of us who are old enough should recall the 1960s tune; Windy.

May the Force be With You --- Always.

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