Part Three of SKIRMISHES

by Haru Windsong

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Silence greeted his demand. Behind and to either side his men consolidated their positions, reloaded weapons and prepared for what would be the final thrust, if it came down to that. Secretly everyone prayed the enemy would be sensible and capitulate. Across the bridge, fabric brushed against metal. Someone nervously shifted position. A voice called out.

"I hear you, rebel."

"This is General Antilles of the New Republic," returned Wedge. "Is that the Commanding Officer?"

"No. Admiral Boralle is unconscious."

"Interesting," muttered Windy. "Think he's lying, sir?"

"Not likely." Rising to his knees, Wedge called back. "To whom am I speaking?"

"Captain Graszer, Second-in-Command of RUTHLESS."

"Well, Graszer, we appear to be at something of an impasse here," said Wedge lightly.

"Say what you mean, rebel."

"He's some pissed off," commented Windy with a fierce grin. "Does he know you, sir?"

"Not personally. At least, I don't think so. I suspect he's no angrier than you or I would be given reverse circumstances," Wedge told her. He redirected himself to the Imperial officer. "There's only two ways off this bridge for you and your people, Captain. What'll it be? Surrender?"

No immediate response answered his call from the other side. Prepared to wait, Wedge slipped back down the bulkhead and sat. No further blaster fire spattered their position. Windy nervously double-checked her weapon. Patted pouches and checked over her remaining ammunition.

"How's it going, kid?"

"It's going," replied Windy, not about to umbrage at the insinuation of youth for all the minimal disparity of ages between her and her Commander.

"Scared?"

"Damn rights, sir."

A slap to Windy's leg informed her Wedge approved her ability to tell the truth under fire. He dropped to his belly and edged his head back out to check on conditions at the opposite end of the bridge. No fire greeted his actions. Nor were there any Imperials anywhere in sight, at least no one living. However hoarse whispers, some louder than others, rose from somewhere beyond the communications alcove. Wedge withdrew.

"Antilles?"

"Here."

"What assurances do you give us that you won't shoot us as soon as we step into the open?"

For a stunned second, Wedge was unable to respond, dumbfounded by the question. Then he sent back a blistering answer. It took all his years of experience dealing with the enemy not to resent the inference. Nor did he comment on the fact that only Imperials, bounty hunters and renegade pirates slaughtered unarmed prisoners and innocent non-combatants.

"I ought to be insulted that you even asked that, Graszer. But given who's asking, I'll overlook it."

"I don't give a kris-bat's ass what you--"

"Careful, Graszer. In case you haven't noticed, I'm holding trump."

Again silence. Someone amongst the Imperials hissed a few unintelligible words. Then, "All right, Antilles. I'll just have to trust you. We're coming out."

"Hold it, Captain."

"Now what?"

"I want you to send out one person with your weapons. No one else moves until I'm satisfied."

Once more there followed a hasty, hushed conference across the bridge. Eventually a nervous youngster, an Officer Cadet from his epaulettes, emerged from hiding. Rifle blasters and several hand weapons were stacked in his out-stretched arms. Wedge let him advance until he was almost up to the console where he and Windy crouched.

"Okay, kid. Drop them there." Dark eyes stared back at them. The youngster let the weapons slither to the floor with a loud clatter. Cautiously removing his hand blaster from its holster, he added it to the pile.

"Just stay right there," Wedge ordered him. "Down on your face. Put your hands out at your sides. And don't move."

Blanched with suppressed fear, the Cadet slowly lowered himself to the floor to lie spread-eagle on the deck, his face turned toward the spot from which the commands were emanating. Slowly Wedge rose to his knees. His movements caused the Cadet to twitch.

"Don't move."

Terrified by the snapped command, the Officer Cadet froze. Muzzle of his rifle blaster poking around the console, Wedge raised his voice.

"Okay, Graszer. Get the rest of your people out here."

"What about the wounded?"

"Bring them, too. We'll get the med-droids to check them out."

"And the Admiral?"

"Quit stalling, Grazer."

Behind the bridge boarding party the express elevator hissed into life. Its door opened. Half the original assault party jerked round, weapons trained on the opening. At first glance the interior appeared empty. Then several of their companions cautiously emerged, joining them in securing the bridge. Accompanying them was the Jedi Master.

"Luke!"

Expression solemn, Luke Skywalker slid into position across the way from Wedge and Windy. He flashed them a high-sign indicating success on his teams' part. Somewhere along the way he had divested himself of the objectionable battle armour. Even so, sight of his trademark black attire stilled all remaining opposition from the enemy. Wedge returned his attention to the cornered Imperials.

"Come on, Graszer. There's no use stalling. It serves no purpose. Meanwhile, your injured may be dying."

"We're coming."

Sullen, wary, the Imperials slowly rose into view. In all, nine remained able to move under their own power. Three others appeared supported by comrades: walking wounded suffering burns and shrapnel lacerations. Two of the nine carried their still unconscious Admiral between them. They halted, grouped around the feet of the prone Cadet.

Wedge and his men gradually rose into view. One officer's eyes flicked to the Jedi Master. Widened appreciably as Luke stepped into the open. If he had meant to say anything he momentarily forgot it. Giving the Cadet a gentle poke with his boot toe, Wedge jerked his head.

"On your feet, kid."

His gaze locked on Wedge, the youngster inched back to his feet and joined his companions. Inspecting the prisoners while his men secured them with binders, Wedge picked out Graszer as one of the two supporting the Admiral.

"Captain."

"Antilles."

"That's General Antilles," one of the other assault party reminded their captive.

"General." Graszer fairly spit back the title.

With a leaf from Luke's book, Wedge ignored the obvious slight. "Sergeant."

"Sir."

"Order up the transports. I want two men assigned to the Admiral. See he's returned to CONUNDRUM for immediate medical attention."

"Yes, sir." The Sergeant jerked a thumb. "You and you, take the Admiral. Get back to the nearest hatch and stand by to get him off."

One group of Alliance troops continued their round up of Imperials, fastening binders on the majority. Behind them New Republic technicians went about their own tasks. Locating specific conduits, they attached miniature devices specially designed to download any and all possible information from the ship's computers. At the same time the devices picked up any viruses the Imperials might have planted against just such intrusion. An alarm went off. Wedge spun.

"What's that?"

"Trouble, sir." The three technicians removed the electronic worms and drew back. Luke and Wedge joined them at the nearest terminal.

"What have you found?"

In response to Luke's question, the senior technician explained in a rush. "Looks like General Rieekan was correct about a 'self- destruct'. They've activated one here. We've got roughly ten minutes, sir."

Graszer stirred at Rieekan's name. Eyes narrowed, he inspected each face and realized reports of Rieekan's death had been exaggerated, no doubt a smokescreen laid down to cover up this fiasco. Expression bleak, he glared at the Jedi Master. Luke returned his hatred with implacable calm that only served to heighten Graszer's ire.

Slowly Wedge turned. He confronted the remaining Imperial prisoners. Back stiff with rebellion, the Fire Control technician sneered at the enemy. From the corner of his eye, though, he watched Luke Skywalker as though he were an unpredictable, highly deadly creature poised to attack. Graszer stared at their captors, fiercely defiant.

"You lose, Antilles."

"I don't think so," said Luke gently. "Wedge. Get everyone else off the frigate---just in case."

"But, Luke. What about you?"

"Leave this to me," responded the Jedi Master.

His tone sent a shiver of terror through the Imperial technician, destroying his remaining bravado. Having served for a time on board AVENGER the man saw, not Luke Skywalker, but a Dark Lord of the Sith. Nothing in his career had ever terrified him quite like Darth Vader. Now, shell-shocked, his breath coming in short gasps, he backed away in the direction of the nearest turbo-lift. A blaster muzzle halted him in his tracks.

"And just where the hell do you think you're going, mister?"

Coming up short, the technician stared wildly at his captor. "Do you know what he is?"

Intrigued, the assault trooper shrugged. "General Skywalker? Sure. He's a Jedi."

"They're not safe, you know," the technician whispered hoarsely.

"What are you talking about?"

"Him." The prisoner jerked his head toward Luke. "They're insane, all of them. You don't know what you're doing, letting him run loose."

"You're mad. General Skywalker's done more for the New Republic than anyone else I know," began the guard.

Head shaking wildly, voice pitched high with unconcealed terror, the prisoner argued. "You don't know what he's capable of. I do."

"You're insane."

"Am I? What about Vader? Did you ever meet him? Can tell you didn't. You wouldn't be here now if you had. I was on the AVENGER before Alderaan and I saw! I know what they can do."

"You are crazy," affirmed the guard, and backed up two paces, warily studying the now raving prisoner.

"You're the crazy ones. Relying on him."

"Trooper!" Angered by the direction in which the conversation was going Wedge snapped an order at his surviving Second. "Winolder, get them out of here. Now."

"Yes, sir."

"Wedge." As the remaining guards ushered all but Captain Graszer and the senior technician from the bridge, Luke rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Take it easy. You can't blame the man. It's not his fault. They have a right to fear the dark side."

Drawing a deep breath, Wedge recovered his composure upon hearing the pain his friend suffered as he avoided voicing his sire's name. "Sorry. You're right."

"Have our techs got everything they need?"

"Excuse me, sir?" One of the technicians approached. "We're done."

"Good. Get them out of here."

"What about you?"

A half-smile tinged his lips as Luke reassured him. "I'll be all right. If I'm not successful, I'll use one of the life-pods."

"I don't like it," objected Wedge.

"Wedge, go."

Still Wedge hesitated as he met and held his friend's gaze. Reluctantly he nodded, corralled the last of his people and the prisoners, and herded them all into the turbo-lifts. Three decks down they found two transports sealed against the hull. They loaded their prisoners. In the passage alongside the opening rested Luke's battle armour. While his men boarded the transport, Wedge stared at it. After due consideration, before anyone could stop him, he stepped away from the opening, back into the frigate. Windy stared at him. "Sir?"

"Get out of here."

"But Luke---General Skywalker said---"

"I know what he said. Right now he's alone up there without anyone to cover his back. I've been his wingman since the beginning and I won't leave him now. Besides," Wedge toed the objectionable armour, "he may need this."

"If you're staying---"

"No way, Lieutenant. You'll do as you're ordered. You're in charge now, so get going. See this lot gets back to the cruiser. Tell them to stand off, just in case."

Still uncertain, Windy rested a hand on the door control, staring at Wedge. But her commander snapped, "Move it, Windy. You're wasting valuable time."

The door came down between them. Hefting the armour, Wedge withdrew behind an airtight door and closed it off against the vacuum that would suck the life from the area the moment the transport broke its seal. Returning to the lift, Wedge backtracked to the bridge.

He found Luke seated on the edge of one of the command pits, feet dangling over the side. Eyes closed, the Jedi Master could have been mistaken for a statue except for the sweat starting out across his brow. To Wedge's amazement loose strands of light brown hair rose and twitched as though in response to a draft. Yet no air moved on the bridge.

Uncertain what to do, Wedge set down the battle armour and took a position where he could watch the turbo-lifts and Luke at the same time. By his chronometer only three minutes remained to detonation. What Luke was doing he could only guess. As time slipped away, his grew progressively more nervous.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Deep within the bowels of the frigate's systems, Luke located the network of charges and their command sequences. The majority of the explosives were set around the drive chambers, insulated away from volatile fusion materials but buried too deeply beneath ship plating to be accessible via conventional methods. All were set in cascade sequence. To deactivate them required the correct codes, or sufficient numbers of engineers to deactivate them with precision timing.

Once he tracked them down, Luke knew he could halt the command. With the same feather touch he had employed on Dagobah to extricate and expunge plugged retros on the FALCON the young Jedi Master teased his way along the relays. Centred, he extended himself and cut them all in a single, lightening stroke. Back-up connections took several more seconds to identify and disconnect. He raced the clock, barely a step ahead of the command to halt the inevitable. A final check of all systems and Luke breathed a sigh of relief and withdrew.

The Jedi Master twitched suddenly, partly to alert Wedge that he was aware of his presence. With a mild, mental shake, Luke glanced toward his silent friend.

"You really should have gone with them, you know."

"Windy took them off." Eyes fixed on the bridge chronometer and the time remaining to detonation, Wedge shook his head. "Cut it kind of fine, didn't you?"

Unperturbed, Luke said, "Bridge to turbo-lift to life-pod would have taken approximately forty-five seconds. I'd say just under two minutes is plenty of time to get clear."

Wedge countered without thinking. "Right. Rather you than me."

"But you stayed too," said Luke. He got to his feet. Eyed the battle armour with distaste. "I suppose I should put it back on."

"Not if you don't want to."

"They'll expect it. Besides," Luke reasoned, "they put a lot of work into it."

"Your choice." While Luke dressed, he sensed Wedge carefully weighing his next words. "Did you see the way that Imp tech reacted before they took him away?"

Fingers working at a last fastener momentarily halted their work. However much Luke wanted to avoid revealing how disturbed he was at that memory he knew Wedge had seen his hesitation. Had read it for what it was.

"Yes. We've both seen it before. Medics refer to it as shell-shock."

Wedge grunted. One toe scuffing through the patina of dust and debris marring the decking, Wedge idly traced a series of meaningless lines and whorls. After a bit he looked out the corner of his eye at Luke. The Jedi Master waited expectantly.

"Windy knows."

"About what?"

"Your father."

Startled, expressionless, Luke stared at his friend. He managed to ask, "How?"

Arms folded across his chest, Wedge told him what he had discovered. "When we thought she was safely in her cabin on the FALCON she actually doubled back on us after Han and Chewie went aft."

"She overheard?"

"I guess."

"How much?"

"Don't know. Didn't ask. There wasn't time."

"When did you find out?"

"Just before the assault, on board CONUNDRUM. I thought you ought to know."

Uneasy now that he had aired a potentially new problem in Luke's life, Wedge crossed the bridge. He stared out into space, clearly struggling to shake the feeling that perhaps he ought not to have spoken out. Although beyond Wedge's sight, Luke sensed the transports now en route to the cruiser and corvettes, even though he could not see them either. Two X-Wings swung past RUTHLESS at a safe distance.

Without turning, Wedge said, "I told her to keep the information to herself."

"Hmmm."

"Look, Luke." Suddenly Wedge turned. His back to the observation window, Wedge confronted the Jedi Master across the bridge. "It might be better if more people did know." Try as he might to keep his expression blank, Luke knew his body language gave away his defensive position. Wedge insisted. "Suppose someone in the Imperium finds out? Or already knows? Think of the damage they could do with that information. Not just to you. Think of your sister."

'I am,' thought Luke.

Unable to form a suitable reply, Luke turned away. Wandering along the narrow strip of walk between the two pits, his head bowed so his chin almost touched his chest. His father had often paced just such places. That much he knew from their final shared moments at Endor. Time lay again in planes, one atop the other, on the periphery of his senses. He thrust it away.

"Perhaps you're right. Maybe I am being selfish," he managed eventually. "But this isn't the time."

"When will---"

Beyond the bridge something flared brilliant white and gold across space. Caught unawares, they flung hands up to ward off the worst of the glare, faces turned aside. When he could see again, Wedge checked out the scene.

"What the hell?"

"SPITEFUL just blew," said Luke, distant and distracted.

"Han? The others?"

"Most of them got out all right."

A little whistle escaped Wedge. "Dips and galls. I thought we'd lost them all." As Luke came back to himself, Wedge caught the look on his face. "Okay. I should know better with you around. How'd you warn them?"

"I didn't. Windy did."

Wedge reflected on that. "Guess she'll make a good officer after all."

"You had doubts?"

"Always." Wedge's response was automatic. As was Luke's counter.

"Hah!"

Their camaraderie returned erasing tension and worry. Luke glanced toward the lift. "We're about to have company."

Intrigued, Wedge left his place by the transparency. "You know, there are times when I really wish you wouldn't do that."

"Like now?"

"Only if it's a problem."

"They're friendly."

"Good. 'Cause I'd sure hate to find myself trapped up here."

"Comforting of you to display such faith in my abilities."

"Well, you know how it is." Wedge shot back that repartee.

Amused by the contradiction present in the moment, Luke countered. "This from the guy who hung about to see whether or not I'd get myself blow to bits trying to disarm an entire frigate." When Wedge looked surprised, Luke jabbed a finger at him. "Gotcha!"

They exchanged crooked grins. Behind them a voice casually observed. "Well, isn't this cozy?"

They whirled. His thumbs hooked in his belt, Han Solo studied the sole occupants of the bridge. Their grins widened at the sight of him. Chewbacca loomed behind his partner, growling at them over Han's shoulder. As unconcerned as if they were on board their own vessel, the Corellian and his partner came onto the bridge to inspect the damage. Wedge and Luke waited for Solo to join them near the view ports. Behind him were seven of their people.

"What are you doing here?"

Luke's inquiry made the Corellian snort. "When the frigate didn't appear on the verge of rolling over and dying like the corvette we decided to come looking for you two."

"Kind of risky, wasn't it?"

"You gotta have faith in someone," said Solo.

"You, Han?" Unable to resist, Luke teased the other. "I thought you didn't trust anyone except Chewie and your blaster?"

For once Solo was speechless. Wedge quickly looked away, not wanting to risk laughing in the ex-smuggler's face. Chewbacca found it equally amusing and was not as concerned that Han know it. A finger raised in warning rewarded the Wookiee's amused chuffing.

"Very funny, fuzz ball." Han gestured around him. "Brought the techs. The engineers are in the engine room working to get them back on line. Apparently you did quite the job disabling them."

Shoulders shrugging, Luke explained. "When my team got into engineering we discovered they were in the process of putting the engines back on line. In fact, this ship would have escaped if we hadn't used concussion grenades where we did."

"Jornik's not amused."

"He wasn't there." Wedge automatically defended his friend.

"He is now," said Alfiar, entering the bridge. He halted, glaring at the foursome standing amid a hive of industry. "Would you mind explaining to me, General Skywalker, why your people found it necessary to destroy two of the primary control panels in engineering?"

Luke's response was succinct. "When we arrived on the scene, General we discovered their engineering staff had nearly succeeded in putting the engines back on line."

"Which meant the Imperials would have gone into hyperspace with a large compliment of us on board," said Wedge, for once unconcerned by Jornik's disapproval.

Equally undeterred, Luke concluded his explanation. "Concussions grenades were necessary to route the guards and decommission some of the repair work."

"I see."

Clearly Alfiar could find nothing more to say. And with additional technicians and troops appearing on the bridge to relieve Luke and Wedge, he was reluctant to continue berating his peers in front of subordinates. He stalked around the outside of the left pit. Halted facing them across the open space.

"All right. Get yourselves back to CONUNDRUM."

"Sir."

In the process of leaving, Wedge took two steps and stopped, realizing Luke had not moved. The Jedi Master continued to face Jornik across the pit. Curious, Wedge hovered. He was not alone. Han and Chewie had not moved either. To all appearances, Jornik was equally puzzled by Luke's refusal to depart.

"Is there something else, General Skywalker?"

"Yes, sir." Luke gestured toward the nearest working control panel. "I think you should know that while I was deactivating the self-destruct I altered the access codes."

"All of them?"

"Yes, sir." A small electronic note pad in hand, Luke joined Alfiar on the opposite side of the pit. "They're in here, under my Priority Two pass code."

Speechless, Jornik accepted the pad and tapped out the necessary instructions. Satisfied with what he read, he nodded. "Thank you, General Skywalker."

"You're welcome." A faint smile twitched one corner of Luke's mouth. "I also made sure the Imperials won't be able to reactivate the self-destruct."

Heads whipped round. Quiet conversations died. Everyone stared at the Jedi Master. Forewarned by the tone of voice Luke employed, Jornik eyed him uneasily.

"Exactly what are you implying, General?"

Unconsciously rubbing the back of his neck, Luke allowed his gaze to drift to the view outside. "There was a second series of codes planted deep in the computer core. Given the opportunity, any Imperial vessel carrying the correct sequencing could drop from hyperspace, squirt the code and escape."

"Meanwhile, this ship's crew would have had absolutely no clue what was happening until it was too late." Shocked by Luke's information, Wedge stared around the bridge.

"Wonderful," said Han not at all surprised by that startling revelation.

For several minutes after Han's comment, no one spoke. Jornik's gaze fastened on the cruiser hovering off the captured frigate's port bow. He tracked the fighters seeking out the few survivors from both sides who had safely ejected from their disabled craft during the battle.

"What about the explosives?"

The question dropped into silence, sending ripples outward like a stone thrown into a pond. Technicians glanced at one another. Soft remarks whispered about them, and stares of unbridled awe tracked the Jedi Master.

"There's not much we can do about them out here except to disconnect all leads. They've buried the majority of them beneath a layer of plates surrounding the drive chambers."

"I don't like the sound of that," said Han.

With a wave of his hand in the general direction of the ship's stern Luke continued. "There are several fail-safe devices connected to the leads which will require experienced EOD personnel."

Mention of the Explosives Ordnance Disposal team was sufficient to send a fear-filled tremor through everyone else on the bridge. Anything serious enough to warrant EOD attention generally sent any sane person running for the nearest cover. Except here they were trapped aboard a ship which, according to everything they had just heard, was a flying bomb waiting to be ignited.

Terror radiated in palpable waves across Luke. Determined to ally their fears, he continued. "Once we get a team on board I'll assist them in locating all the trip points. However, nothing can be done or should be attempted until we get her back to the ship yards at Coruscant."

"Given the enormity of the explosion that's liable to result if someone makes a mistake," said Han laconically, "I suggest you get Operations to shift one of the docks as far away as possible from the rest of the space repair yards."

Solo's concise observation irritated Jornik for no conceivable reason. It took all his self-control not to round on the Corellian and order him not to tell him his job. Instead, Alfiar drew a deep breath and reined in irritation. He glared at the tight-knit group. Let his frustration and anger fade.

"Thank you all for your observations. Now, kindly get back to CONUNDRUM. Admiral Ackbar wants you present when they begin interrogating the prisoners."

"Sir."

Dismissed, Luke turned and headed around the bridge toward the turbo-lifts. On the way past communications he collected his helmet. Wedge, Han and Chewbacca joined him as he stepped into the lift. None of them spoke throughout the descent. Nor did they break that silence en route back to the Calamari cruiser.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Ackbar was there to meet them as soon as the transport ramp came down, Windy two steps behind. Never before having seen the Mon Calamari so excited, Wedge was fascinated by the degree of agitation evident in the Admiral. But he was too polite to comment on the vision Ackbar presented. Whiskers twitched wildly, bulbous eyes protruded further from his head than Wedge thought possible. And he was wheezing far more than usual in an effort to breathe the unfamiliar oxygen atmosphere.

Principally aquatic, Calamari were far more accustomed to life under water. Evolution had provided them with the ability to spend time on the surface but they were never wholly comfortable out of water. Which was the reason they wheezed when they spoke. It also meant every ship with Calamarian crewmembers were fitted with large tanks and a moist atmosphere to provide for their comfort.

"Congratulations, Generals."

"Thank you, sir." Luke responded for all of them. "Is Lando in yet?"

A voice answered from behind Ackbar. "He is."

Lando stepped into view around the Admiral, teeth showing in a broad grin. At his side Nien Nunb looked equally smug as only a Sullustian could.

"Han, old buddy. I hear you guys had quite the time over there."

Unaffected by the jibe, Solo confirmed the rumour. "It was---interesting."

"I'll just bet it was." Lando laughed. "I promise I won't tell Leia."

"You won't have to." In so many words Han reminded Lando that his wife would know exactly what had transpired before they landed.

Not about to be put off, Lando insisted on hearing how they had escaped. "So tell me, what exactly did happen?"

Admiral Ackbar held up a hand. "Please, Generals. This can wait until debrief. Shall we go?"

In the briefing room once more, Luke was more than relieved to discover all the Squadron commanders had survived the attack on the Imperial vessels. Two of the new Seconds had not been so fortunate. The third wingman from one squadron and the fifth of another replaced the luckless pilots. Luke knew how many he had lost on the frigate. As yet he had to hear the tally of those surviving from Wedge and Han's respective groups. They eased onto seats in the front row. Ackbar assumed a position at the front of the room.

"General Solo. Summary please."

Han used both hands to shove himself upright. Now the heat of battle was past he found himself so bone-weary it took considerable effort not to sway on his feet. At his side the Jedi Master silently applauded his friend's effort.

"Insertion went as planned. Once on board the corvette our task force split into three groups. We succeeded in securing the armouries, engine room and bridge. Unfortunately, Captain Quirtelle, SPITEFUL's Commanding Officer, managed to activate a self-destruct just as we entered the bridge. Upon discovering this, and receiving the heads-up confirmation from Second-Lieutenant Winolder, I ordered all assault members off the ship.

"While evacuation was underway our people managed to download much of the classified information in the star destroyer's memory core. We reached optimum safety range just before the star destroyer blew. Our losses were minimal, due strictly to combat." He glanced down at those around him. "Sorry we lost the ship, sir."

"Don't concern yourself, General."

However much Command might have wanted SPITEFUL, Ackbar was serious. In his estimates no amount of Imperial secrets gathered on this mission were worth the cost in troops. Equipment could be readily replaced. Lives could not. Balanced against that, their primary objective had been secured.

"Thank you for your briefing. General Skywalker?"

As Han sank back into his seat, Luke rose to address the assembly. "I broke my team into two groups immediately after boarding RUTHLESS. Our primary assignment, securing the ordnance armouries, was accomplished with the loss of seven team members. I personally led the assault on the engine room. We slipped in behind their blockade and entered engineering where we discovered the Imperials in the process of completing repairs to the drive. At that time I made the decision to ensure the ship was disabled."

Uneasy with the oblique delivery which Luke employed outlining his actions, Ackbar requested clarification. "Would you mind explaining just how you accomplished that, General?"

"I tossed in two concussion grenades, sir."

"Two---"

Dumbfounded, the Mon Calamari stared at Luke. No wonder Alfiar was furious. Repairs would take best part of a day, rather than a couple of hours. In retrospect, though, he knew the Jedi Master had no choice. To attempt any other means of taking engineering might well have spelled disaster for all boarding parties. It would not be the first time their forces had gambled and lost. Only the vigilance of Luke Skywalker had saved them all from probable disaster.

"I see," Ackbar said slowly. He inhaled a deep, rasping breath. "Please continue."

"Leaving most of my team to hold the area, I took three members and headed to the bridge to support General Antilles' group."

On that Luke took his seat once more, wordlessly informing the Admiral that he preferred to say nothing more concerning his duties on board RUTHLESS until Wedge made his report. Stymied, knowing better than to press the issue, Ackbar gestured to Wedge.

"General Antilles. Please."

Stiff and weary, Wedge dragged himself to his feet. Once up he found he had to lock his knees to keep his feet. To those facing him, waiting for his portion of the debriefing, he might appeared calm and collected. For him it felt like he was swaying precariously. Without the fever pitch of battle to sustain him, Wedge knew he had to keep his report short and concise.

"We made insertion on schedule and proceeded to secure the corridors leading to the bridge turbo-lifts. Along the way we lost five members of the team. Once we locked off the lifts from access below I sent two sections aloft ahead of me to lay down covering fire. We took the third lift up and succeeded in capturing the bridge with only the loss of two more men. At that time General Skywalker arrived to assist in persuading the surviving enemy to surrender.

"As with General Solo's team, our specialists discovered the Imperials had initiated a self-destruct sequence on the frigate. I immediately ordered my surviving Second-in-Command to remove of all team members and captives."

Uncertain exactly how to explain what had happened next, Wedge paused. Admiral Ackbar glanced from Luke to Wedge, uncertain which of them to prompt for a conclusion to their briefing. Although concerned by Wedge's announcement concerning the self-destruct, Ackbar was puzzled by the group's apparent indifference.

"But our recovery teams are on board the frigate now. You must have prevented the detonation from occurring; how did you accomplish that?"

Not about to be drawn into this one, Wedge let Luke know he had the floor once more. Without bothering to get to his feet, Luke responded. "I stopped the countdown, sir."

"You---stopped it." Doubt and faith in the Jedi's capability visibly warred in the Calamari. "Exactly what did you---how did you manage that, General?"

"With all due respect, Admiral, I'm afraid I must defer that information. I've outlined the particulars to General Jornik on board RUTHLESS to ensure his people do not mistakenly trip anything in their examination of the ship's systems."

Unfortunately for the Jedi Master, the Mon Calamari was not so easily dissuaded. "Although I sympathize with your reluctance, General Skywalker, I'm afraid I must insist you conclude your report now."

Aware the debriefing was being recorded for later analysis, Luke paused to consider how best to explain the way in which he had dealt with the explosives. In retrospect he realize that whatever he said now would either be believed, or not. It really made no difference.

'In for a credit, in for the farm.' Unwittingly one of his Uncle Owen's sayings caught up with him. He drew a deep, cleansing breath and plunged. "When the specialists discovered the frigate was set for self-destruct I requested General Antilles remove everyone from the vessel. As soon as the bridge was empty I concentrated on locating the relays and anti-tampering triggers. Then I deactivated the triggers.

"Explosives have been set at three different points throughout the frigate. Two of those can be safely disarmed and removed by our personnel en route back to Coruscant. Those are situated on the bridge and around the arsenals. However, as I explained to General Jornik, the majority of the explosives are literally built into the area surrounding the ship's drive chambers. Sealed between the layers of armour plating."

"Mother Sea, protect us all." The Mon Calamari breathed a prayer from his home world.

"It will require several days work by construction engineers, working in close association with qualified EOD personnel to remove those charges. Of course, time involved will be considerably less than that required to build a frigate from scratch."

All around Luke dark eyes stared up at him from pale faces. Most were simply battle weary. Others belonged to frightened, confused youngsters blooded in their first battle. The need to ease their fears was very real.

"Before withdrawing, I altered the command security codes. That way the Imperials won't be able to send in an agent to re-trigger the self-destruct before our people remove all of the explosives."

He might not entirely comprehend how exactly Luke had secured the frigate, but Ackbar accepted what he had heard. He only hoped those responsible for the archives would be as willing to believe.

"Thank you, Master Jedi."

Weariness reflected back at him from every face in the ranks of bleacher fronting him. They desperately needed food and sleep, not necessarily in that order. Ackbar relented.

"There will be a more in-depth debriefing once we return to Coruscant," he said, sympathetic to their needs. His words produced faint moans from a number of the younger members of the group. "For now---you're dismissed. Get some rest. You've all earned it."

Singly and in pairs, the crews rose and stiffly filed from the room. Before the familiar five departed, Ackbar called to them.

"Generals. If you please."

"What is it, Admiral?"

Nonchalant as usual, Solo slouched against the holo-projector, his left thumb hooked in his holster belt. His Wookiee co-pilot towered over his shoulder. The others grouped beside him, waiting expectantly. To the experienced eye all looked worn thin. Dark shadows haunted the hollows beneath their eyes.

"We won't be questioning the Imperials until we return to Coruscant. Did Alfiar speak to you about this?"

Han nodded. "He did mention he wanted us there when they interrogated the prisoners."

"Good. I was afraid he might forget to mention it."

"Is there anything else, sir?"

"No." Ackbar released them. As they left the room, the Mon Calamari stared after them. A deep sadness filled his heart. "So many young lives lost," he said to the empty room. "And yet, without their sacrifice where would the free worlds be today?" Deep within he knew the answer. He raised his voice for the automatic pick-ups. "Debriefing is concluded. Recorder off."

In the hallway outside the briefing room, the assault groups congregated in small knots, exchanging stories. Wedge scrubbed at his eyes. "You certainly put the wind up everyone, Luke. Archives is definitely going to have an interesting time explaining exactly how you deactivated the explosives."

A tentative voice spoke up behind them. "Excuse me, sir?" They turned to find Windy hovering at their heels. "Luke---General---exactly how did you do it?"

Astonished Windy should even bother questioning Luke about the incident, one of the other flight commanders stared at her. "Are you questioning the Jedi Master, Lieutenant?"

Luke moved to quell further verbal discipline. But it was Wedge who ultimately responded, regretting his earlier reprimand. "You're asking that, Windy? Even after witnessing Luke's accomplishments at Anchorhead?"

In spite of herself, Windy blushed. Yet for all that she still could not quite accept what she had seen. Somehow it seemed like a dream. She glanced down at her boot toes and mumbled, "Dumb question."

The Jedi Master shook his head. "There's no such thing as a dumb question, Windy." Around him several of the crew appeared irritated that he had undercut them. Not surprising, Han was resigned to the lecture he suspected was coming. Lando smothered a grin.

Before Luke could say anything further, Wedge broke in. "Sorry, Luke. I should know better, too. Personally Windy, I'd rather you asked us than accept second-hand information from someone who hasn't a clue."

"Yeah," said Solo and jerked a thumb toward his brother-in-law. "You should hear the wild tales some people tell about him."

Suitably rebuked, the other crewmen faded away. Several glanced over their shoulders as they left. Inclined to leave with the rest, Windy was pleasantly surprised when the heroes of the New Republic invited her to join them in the all ranks mess. Their entry temporarily halted all conversation. Windy's presence with the group caused considerable speculation. At least until Wedge's other junior officer and the surviving Cadet from Luke's group were invited to join them also. A droid arrived, took their orders for food and drink, and left.

"So tell us." Wedge prodded Solo as soon as the droid was gone. "Was resistance stiff on board SPITEFUL?"

"Stiff? Let me tell you," said the Corellian. He launched into a colourful, if lengthy recitation of his assault party's exploits. Occasionally Chewie uttered something like laughter, although no one, with the possible exceptions of Luke and Lando knew for sure.

Throughout his narration Han Solo displayed all the trademarks of a top-notch bard, regaling his audience at considerable length concerning his own exploits. Several times expressions of disbelief registered amongst the younger pilots and members of Luke and Wedge's teams. But the studied looks from their leaders soon made believers of them. Their meals arrived, but that did not halt the conversation.

Once Han was done it was Lando's turn. His narration was punctuated throughout by Orrin's running commentary, often resulting in their audience being reduced to gales of mirth. All except Luke, who listened attentively, studious and enigmatic as only the Jedi Master could be. In mid-sentence Han glanced up, caught Luke's eyes, and found Ben Kenobi staring back at him. He blinked twice before the vision vanished.

No one took offence when they realized other residents of the lounge were edging closer to listen. As time wore on, so their audience diminished. One by one wearied members begged off and disappeared. Eventually only the five companions and Windy remained. An expansive yawn caught Windy. She glanced at the ship's chronometer on the opposite side of the lounge.

"Hell. I never even realized we went into hyperspace. When was that?"

"Right about the time Lando was explaining how he eluded that three-prong attack," said Wedge. A yawn caught him in mid-sentence. He slapped a hand over his mouth. "Sorry."

"I think we all better call it quits." Han rose. "From what Ackbar said, we're going to be pretty busy over the next week or so."

"You figure?"

"Yeah. Well." Solo stared at Windy. "You'll have your studies."

Wedge added, "Not to mention flying."

Hands above his head, Lando stretched. "And we're going to be tied up with all the mess that follows the end of a battle."

"Administration." Unable to stop himself, Wedge groaned. "And more administration."

"At least you've got a BATMAN." Solo casually reminded him.

"There's that." Sleep prodded Wedge and he excused himself. On wood peg legs he headed off to his quarters. The others followed soon after.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Days later the assault force slowed toward Coruscant and dropped from hyperspace. Ships entered the system and moved into parking orbit around the inner planet. Only the captured frigate and its escort split away from the main group. RUTHLESS swung toward a space dock segregated from the rest by a wide expanse of space. Flanked by three Y-Wings and two X-Wings, the frigate slid into the space dock. Its forward momentum halted. Grapples settled around it.

Tugs moved in, juggling leads and hoses into place. Systems went onto stand-by and all nonessential personnel disembarked. Security forces were detailed to patrol the decks. Droids and other automated surveillance equipment were installed by Fleet Security as rapidly as possible. Only the primary stations had live patrols assigned. And even their routes were monitored.

Never one to leave anything to chance, Madine went on board immediately, taking with him only his most trusted technicians. Over a three-hour period they copied all files logged in the ship's computer core and secondary systems. Then they erased every bit. Unprepared to quit quite yet, he delved further. As he suspected, Crix uncovered a backup memory camouflaged beneath several layers of false leads.

Each fascinating layer of codes was peeled away by Madine and his staff. Eventually the master commands for RUTHLESS were stripped bare. What they discovered impressed the head of Cov-Ops.

"Hah! Ingenious."

"What do you make of it, sir?"

"It appears to be a series of scenarios, complete with time table. There's no time to check them now. Ferret out what you can but be careful. The Empire's certain to have left all manner of nasty little worms in this mess and I wouldn't want to inadvertently corrupt our systems."

"No fear, sir." The technician looked up at the Head of Covert Operations. "Do you want us to copy it all, sir? Or strip it?"

"Do you have an isolated memory core?"

"Yes, sir." Mildly surprised that Madine would even consider his department personnel to be that lax, the technician affirmed. "Wouldn't have it any other way with the stuff that generally comes out of these ships, sir. Can never be too careful."

"Good man. Strip it. Then frag it. Erase it and frag it again."

"What about the command codes General Skywalker set into the memory?"

"Leave them. But add those I gave you as an underlay. Until those charges are removed, and we've had the opportunity to inspect every inch of this ship, we take no chances enemy agents might attempt to sabotage our efforts."

"Very good, sir."

Satisfied his instructions would be carried out Madine made his way down to the hangar level. His seeming aimless rambling possessed a rationale, although those witness to his movements saw no purpose to them. He visited the armouries and ordnance storage areas first, and saw first hand evidence of Luke Skywalker's able hand in securing the areas. Despite Jornik's reports, Crix was surprised to discover only minimal damage and loss of stores.

Next he examined the hangar decks. Two of the four had survived the conflict unscathed; one would require removal of damaged equipment and replacement of its magnetic seals. A guard stepped from the shadows and intercepted him just as he was about to enter the third hangar.

"Sorry, sir. I'm afraid I can't let you pass."

"What's the problem, soldier?"

"Magnetic shields and ship's shields have completely failed in this area, sir. You'll need a pressure suit."

"Where can I get one?"

The soldier jerked his head. "Up the passage, General. Four doors down you'll find the Quarter Master."

"Thanks."

"Not at all, sir."

As promised, Madine located the Duty Quartermaster and two assistants inspecting their windfall. Each held an electronic notepad on which they listed what they found stacked on the shelves. There was as much flotsam littering the floor as there was still snugly stored. For the time being the detritus was ignored.

Madine waited patiently for someone to turn. Eventually one of assistants caught sight of him from the corner of her eye. The young woman recognized Crix and immediately called over her shoulder to her supervisor.

"Sergeant?"

"Yeah. What've you got?"

"It's the General, sir."

"General?" Footsteps hurried up the aisle. Fleet's senior Quarter Master emerged from amongst the stores. "Which General---General Madine. Welcome to our little home away from home, sir."

"How are you, Staff Sergeant Cheaphen?"

"Not bad, sir. Quite the mess, ain't it?" The Sergeant gestured behind him but did not turn to survey the disarray.

"No more than can be expected," replied Madine.

"Yeah. Our guys did a right good job on this lot. But I know you didn't come here to shoot the breeze. What can I do for you, sir?"

"Have you got a pressure suit to fit me?"

"Have I got pressure suits. Big ones, small ones, even over-sized ones. Unfortunately most of 'em need cleaning and minor repairs, you understand?"

Familiar with the aftermath of combat, Madine nodded. Most of the suits were probably in use at the time of the assault. No doubt about it, he was thankful he was not working in Stores or in the cleaners.

"Come with me, sir."

Cheaphen emerged from stores and led the General along the hall. Two doors up they entered a room on the opposite side of the hall. The air was redolent with disinfectant. Just inside, on the left, three young supply technicians wearing protective gear and masks were sorting through suits. Nor was Madine surprised to discover Jornik also sorting through suits on the opposite side of the room. Jornik glanced up and paused, a suit torso dangling from his left hand.

"Afternoon, Crix."

"Al." Madine nodded in the direction of the suits. "You here for the same reason?"

"Thought I might check out the damage."

"Same."

"Might as well go together, then."

"Why not." Madine turned to the Quartermaster. "You might as well head back, Cheaphen. I'm in good hands."

"I know that, sir."

Pleased his routine would not be further disrupted by VIPs the Sergeant grinned and disappeared back the way he had come. Crix puzzled. "Now what was that all about?"

Madine's question was rhetorical. And Jornik knew it. He gestured to the untidy pile of pressure suits. "Help yourself. Tell me if you find one that fits."

"I take it these are the clean ones?"

A grim smiled played about Jornik's lips. "You could say that."

Together, they inspected the suits until they discovered two that were almost the right fit, if a touch on the large size. They helped each other into the suits, inspecting seals and clamps. The interiors reeked of disinfectant and an underlying hint of other, less desirable effluents. Suited up, they clumped off down the hall, side by side, to the sealed hangar. This time the guard merely nodded and let them into the airlock.

Inside, the hangar was chaos. Shattered TIE fighter parts, smashed droids and assorted other, semi-identifiable and unidentifiable equipment littered their surroundings. Mid-floor a crane was slowly hoisting a damaged shuttle as they entered. They moved with infinite care through the shambles. In the airless environment everything was sepulchre stillness. Not surprising, considered Madine, once he noticed dried puddles of blood and other unmentionables mingled with the mechanical debris.

"Most of it's been cleaned up," Jornik said over the headset. "I understand it was quite---unsavoury when we took control after the fight."

"I can imagine."

They floated more than walked in the airless bay. Not only were the magnetic shields out, but some of the alluvial dampers appeared to be off-line, too. Madine displayed remarkable control in the zero-gee environment, working his way across the hangar. This was no place to risk snagging his suit. At length, they had seen everything that needed to be seen after receiving a run-down on the hangar status from the repair crew.

"Two days." Alfiar told him as they stripped off their pressure suits and handed them in.

"Not bad, considering the damage."

"You should see engineering." Jornik was sober in his reflection.

"Oh?"

"Hmmm." The studious look on Jornik's face gave nothing away.

"I take it our resident Jedi was quite thorough?"

"You might say that." Jornik leaned against a wall, crossed his hands over his chest and, incredibly, resembled Han Solo at his most recalcitrant.

"I've read his report. And those of his team." Madine gave his companion a slight push. "Come on, Al. Even I had to admit they were left with no other choice. Besides, this ship we---liberated---is going to take a couple of months to sort out so we can use it with impunity."

"I know. It's just---"

"Sometimes it really irritates to be so appreciative."

"To the same people."

"You've got that right."

"Might I remind you of something you have said in the past, Al?"

One of the Non-Commissioned ranks turned his head. Aware his words were carrying, Crix dropped his voice so he could not be overheard. The Supply Technicians abruptly became exceedingly industrious, applying themselves to completing their chore with added zeal. Their attention to detail amused Alfiar no end.

"Wasn't it you who once said, 'Use your best resources to the fullest'?"

Face twisting, Jornik sourly, silently informed Madine he did not appreciate having his own words tossed back up at him. However appropriate they might be, given the circumstances. Madine gave him another little nudge. Was rewarded by a lop-sided grin.

"All right. I concede the point."

They followed the passage around a corner. Took the next left toward the rear of the ship. Alfiar unconsciously moved in the direction of the engine room, drawing Madine with him. As they walked they discussed the mission past. Outside the engineering section, Crix paused.

"This it?"

"Want a look?"

"Why not. We've come this far."

There was no one inside but several panels had been pulled. A ventilation grill had been left leaning against a wall, evidence of how the team had made their initial assault. Scorch marks and shrapnel scoring from concussion grenades marred other control consoles, floor and walls. Madine's analytical mind noted there were no bloodstains. If anyone had died here---and someone must have judging by the interrupted patterns left by explosive dispersal---all indications had been meticulously removed.

"What was damaged?"

"To begin with, the starboard side alluvial dampening field."

"Noticed that in the hangar."

Jornik grunted. "Hmm."

A wave of his hand indicated the various controls that had been stripped out and would have to be replaced in whole or in part. The list was fairly extensive. Madine also realized the most sensitive equipment had somehow emerged almost entirely unscathed.

He muttered, "Curious."

A patrol of the room proved revealing. Throughout his stroll Crix examined everything, particularly the manner in which the concussion grenades had left their marks. Equally intrigued, Jornik watched, silent and observant. At length, Madine halted in the centre of the room. A frown furrowed his brow.

Unable to contain himself any longer, Jornik spoke up. "What's wrong?"

"Have you checked these out?"

Crix Madine pointed to the blast marks. Jornik nodded. "Yes. So?"

"By all rights, Al," Madine executed a slow circle, sweeping his left arm out dramatically, "none of those panels ought to have survived the explosions."

Drawn by the observation, Jornik re-examined the marks. He frowned more deeply than Madine as the truth behind that statement became clear. He crouched, staring up beneath different consoles, and traced the radiating detonation scoring from their source. Finally he looked up.

"You're right. Why didn't I see this before?"

"Too close to the wood."

"You've got that right. What I don't understand," Alfiar stood, "is how this could have happened? Got any ideas, Crix?"

Madine nodded. "Just one."

"You're not suggesting---"

"Skywalker."

"But---how?"

"As old Jan Dodonna used to say---"

"Never underestimate the power of the Force." Jornik paused. "By the way, have you heard anything concerning Carlist's progress?"

"They tell me Carl's still recovering, but slowly. Mind you, his physicians aren't particularly impressed with his insisting upon joining you on that jaunt."

"They're right, of course. He's not young any more. But I'd like to have seen anyone keep him away."

"True. His survival is considered nothing short of incredible given his age and the severity of his injuries. His being up and about, in spite of protests from medical staff is nothing short of miraculous."

"Or Force sent." Jornik countered, acid on his tongue. When his companion glowered and turned away, Jornik grinned. "Another thing to be thankful for."

Still scowling, Madine retaliated. "Explain something for me, if you can, Al."

"What's that?"

"Why is it I feel so irritated whenever he pulls us out of a nasty situation?"

"Who? Skywalker?" When Madine nodded, Jornik responded, "I'm not sure. I do know you aren't alone."

Madine grunted. "I've noticed."

As though he had not heard, Jornik continued. "Maybe it's because he seems able to come out of everything unscathed."

"Not completely unscathed." Madine reminded him.

"Huh? Oh. Right."

"It's more than simply physical damage." Strangely reticent all of a sudden, Crix Madine actually checked the corridor outside engineering. It proved to be empty. He stationed himself where he had an unobstructed view up the passage. "Perhaps it's time I passed on a bit of information my people recently uncovered in the Emperor's personal files."

"What information? I thought you lost most of it when someone accidentally tripped a memory snare?"

"We did. But this I retrieved personally just before everything was irrevocably fragged."

"What is it?"

Deadly serious, Madine pointed to a nearby chair that had somehow escaped damage. "You better sit down."

"Bad as that?"

"Let's just say, this isn't information we should allow to become general knowledge for at least a decade or so. Unless otherwise unavoidable."

Sober and more sombre than usual, Madine's mood affected Jornik. Convinced, the Senior Operations Officer made himself comfortable. Like most of his peers, he had always assumed he knew almost everything there was to know about Luke Skywalker.

"All right." He prodded, masking his curiosity with jocularity. "I'm sitting down. What catastrophic information did you uncover in Palpatine's personal files?"

"What do you know about Skywalker's parents?"

Alfiar Jornik rubbed a hand across his chin. "Not much. It's general knowledge his mother died roughly three to four years after he and his sister were born. That Kenobi separated the twins and hid them, to be reared individually where Palpatine and Vader couldn't find them."

"And succeeded."

"For the most part." Not about to lose a point, Jornik added. "For all Kenobi's precautions they both came close to dying."

"True." Again Madine paused. Seemed to collect his thoughts. His beard jerked, indicative of tightening jaw muscles. From his expression it was obvious whatever he was mulling over was considerably distasteful. "Neither of them ever knew their father. To all reports Luke remembers nothing of his mother."

"So I've been given to understand. I heard from Solo, though, that Obi-wan told Luke his father was killed by Vader."

"Hmmm." Madine briefly cupped at hand over his lower jaw. "That's not entirely true. And to tell the truth, I can't help wondering why the old man lied to Luke that way."

"Lied to Luke? General Kenobi?"

"Apparently. At least, he twisted the truth somewhat to make it more palatable." Now Madine moved back into the room. Settled against the nearest console, he placed his hands behind him against the top and stared across the room. "According to data I retrieved---Darth Vader is---was Luke's father."

"Vader! Luke's---Impossible."

Madine held up a hand. "Think about it, Al. Try to be objective for just a minute."

Dubious, but intrigued in the same breath, Jornik slouched further down in the chair across the room. "Okay. The remote's in your court. But you're going to have to do some damned fancy talking to convince me."

"All right. Fact." Madine ticked off on his fingers. "When Vader had Solo and the Princess in his clutches on Bespin, he did not kill them. Nor did he bother to question them."

Cruel and blunt, Jornik shot back. "No. He just tortured them. But we all know he was sadistic."

With a curt nod, Madine continued. "Right. But why?" From his expression, he clearly did not want his companion to answer that. Instead, Madine pressed on. "Fact: To all accounts he had Luke at his mercy on Bespin. Why didn't he kill him?"

Jornik shook his head. "No one knows how that twisted Sith's mind worked. And we don't know exactly what passed between them. Anything concerning that is pure conjecture. Luke's not talking."

"Right. But you explain to me how Skywalker escaped. Why didn't Vader kill him outright? He clearly had the advantage and the opportunity."

"The obvious answer is Vader and the Emperor hoped to twist him for their own purposes. A second dark Jedi---"

"Yes. But how would they get Luke to join them? By what means? What incentive could they possibly offer to induce him to that end?"

Intrigue slowly turned to horror. Jornik bit out, "By convincing him his father was still alive."

"And you can't lie to a Jedi."

"I wouldn't go quite that far."

Madine instantly countered. "In this instance I would, given the connection between father and son."

"All right." Not about to give up just yet, Jornik considered the possibility. "Just for the moment, let's say you're right. I'm interested, but I'm still not convinced."

"Fact: Why does the Princess so readily accept her relationship with Luke but refuses to speak of their father whenever discussion of their common parentage comes up?"

That point did intrigue Jornik. He had to admit, whenever he overheard any conversations dealing with the Skywalker twins' paternal parent, Princess Leia never appeared comfortable. In fact she frequently, and actively, redirected dialogue to other topics. Nor did Luke speak of his father without due consideration given beforehand to what he said.

"Fact: And this is the most telling point," concluded Madine. "Why did Skywalker bring Vader's body back from the Death Star at Endor? Why bother to cremate him when he could as easily have left him on the Death Star with the Emperor?"

"He what? How did you---" Jornik broke across Crix. "Did you actually have Luke tailed after the battle?"

Nonplussed, Crix Madine addressed the issue matter of fact. "Do you think I'd allow the Alliance's rarest, possibly most valuable resource, to wander around Endor alone so soon after the battle?"

"You certainly have nerve, Crix."

Madine raised both eyebrows. "Which brings me back to my earlier question. Why did Luke retrieve Vader's remains and immolate them?"

'Why indeed?' thought Alfiar, and knew the answer even when his thoughts shied repeatedly from the horrible truth. His lips moved in silent denial. The harder he tried to convince himself Madine was wrong, the more he knew the opposite to be correct. He slumped in the chair. Shook his head.

"Spirits of space." Cold of death seemed to suddenly permeate the engine room. "How could he---how could any father---"

"Consider whom Vader served." Ever the objective observer, Madine stared down at his hands. "We know nothing of what passed between that Sith-spawned devil and Palpatine. Why there was such a falling out between him and Kenobi. I suspect even Luke doesn't know. All records from that period are pretty much a mess. Not even my specialists have been able to sort them out yet. But we're getting closer every day."

Crix looked up. Saw his companion was sick to his stomach. Alfiar Jornik continued shaking his head, like a prizeighter dazed after receiving several head blows.

"For Luke to have survived all that. And still forgive him. It borders on unbelievable." He looked up. Their eyes met. "The Princess; she knows?"

"Apparently."

"What about the others?"

Now it was Madine's turn to reveal a lack of knowledge. "We can only assume Solo and the Wookiee do. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine."

"He has my sympathy and my admiration." Point made, Jornik conceded. "I doubt I'd have been able to forgive my father the same atrocities."

"Nor I." Madine concurred. "But then, we're not Jedi."

"Thank the Force." It left his lips without thought, and Jornik chuckled in spite of himself. "Space. Listen to me."

"Force of habit," said Madine. And they laughed the more at the unintentional pun. Stress flowed away. Left them almost limp in its absence. First to recover, Madine straightened away from the console. "I know I need not caution you about releasing this information to anyone else."

"Of course." A sudden thought caught Jornik. He glanced toward the surveillance system. "What about---"

"Oh, that." Madine held up his right hand, revealing a small hand unit concealed in his palm. "I'll reactivate it when we leave. My people know we're in here."

"Is that why you stayed in the doorway most of the time?"

"Partially. Mostly because I didn't want the uninitiated to accidentally overhear this discussion." He turned to the door. "Shall we go?"

"Whenever you're ready."

CHAPTER THIRTY

Glows simulated the arrival of dawn, coming up slowly until a mild light flooded the chambers. Disgruntled, mumbling displeasure at the intrusion, the man rolled onto his stomach and drew the covers over his face. Next to him, a woman stirred. Brown eyes flickered open to face oncoming day. She sat up, the covers caught beneath her armpits. Bare shoulders still displayed a hint of the tan she had developed during her stint on Tatooine. Flesh gleamed in the pale light.

"Do you have to go right now?"

The covers muffled Solo's words. Blindly reaching behind her, Leia found his nearest hand. Squeezed it gently, sympathetic. His fingers wrapped around hers and held tight. A sigh of resignation escaped her. She drew free.

"I'm afraid so. In another half an hour I'll be expected to attend a breakfast meeting with several ministers. Then there'll be time to review documents concerning various petitions. Afterwards---"

"All right. All right." Han grumbled at the facts and flung himself around onto his back, covers tossed aside. He watched her pull a wrap over her head. Dark green pleated fabric fell to her ankles. She caught the belt in about her waist. "I get the point."

"There's no need for you to get up, though."

"Of course not. There's nothing I like better than lying alone in bed, while my wife--"

"Han." Lightly springing back onto the bed, Leia knelt beside him. She jounced the bed up and down roughly, her brown eyes dancing with mirth. "You knew what you were getting into when you married me."

"Knew what I was getting into when I fell in love with you."

"On Hoth?"

The Corellian ruefully admitted just how far back his feeling for her stemmed. "On the first Death Star, if you must know, your Highness. Right after Luke pulled you out of the cell block."

"As far back as then?"

"Of course I didn't know it at the time. But there was something about you yelling orders when Luke conned me into walking into that detention block to rescue you."

"That was some rescue."

"So you said at the time." Left arm curled behind his head, Han grinned. "I seem to recall you said a lot of other rather derogatory things then about your brother."

"Well, given the situation---"

"Said a lot of nasty things about me, too."

Palms pressed against her husband's chest, Leia bounced him up and down on the bed several more times. Han laughed. He grabbed her wrists and tossed her onto her back on the opposite side of the bed and pinned her there. She wriggled ineffectually in mock anger.

"You're still a scruffy-looking nerf herder," she said. Then she grinned as he released her. "But you're my nerf herder."

Fingers wrapping around the back of his head, Leia drew him down and kissed him. Han warmed to her embrace, began to think perhaps they could catch just a few more minutes alone. A door opened and closed in the outer room. Startled, they drew apart. They stared toward the open bedroom door.

"Mistress Leia. You're late for---"

Outraged by the interruption, Han reached for a pillow and threw it, full force, at the protocol droid just as See-Threepio appeared. "Get out!"

The impromptu missile struck Threepio in the face with a soft 'smang', slid down his front and dropped with a 'plop' to the floor. Quite unprepared for the vehemence of the Corellian's reaction Threepio skittered backwards, hastily retreating from the bedroom. His bewildered protestations drifted back clearly from the sitting room.

"Master Solo! I fail to understand why you insist upon behaving in this manner."

"You come walking in here unannounced again, Golden Rod, and you'll find yourself being used for spare parts."

Indignant in the face of Han's threat, See-Threepio argued. "It is quite within my terms of service to ensure Mistress Leia keeps her appointments."

"He's right, you know," said Leia. She extricated herself from beneath her husband.

"Maybe." Although reluctant, Han made no effort to stop her. "But from now on he can do it from outside the bedroom."

"Begging your pardon, Mistress Leia." Threepio called from the relative safety of the sitting room. "You're first appointment is within twenty minutes and---"

"I'm coming, Threepio."

Before her husband could say a word, Leia disappeared into the 'fresher. Thoroughly disgruntled, Han flung himself from bed and followed her. Not too long after, they both emerged and went into the sitting room.

"General Solo," began Threepio, "I have ordered your usual breakfast---"

The droid halted, staring at Solo's upraised finger. That was a warning he knew all too well. Photo sensors dimming and brightening repeatedly, his head swivelled rapidly from side to side. Leia hid her amusement and finished winding her single braid into a loose coil around her head. An arm around her waist, Han pulled his wife against him and gave her a kiss.

The minute he released her Leia stepped back and headed for the door. On the way she called back over her shoulder. "Coming Threepio?"

"Oh. Yes, of course, Mistress Leia. Right away."

Only too pleased to be out of Han's sight and away from his wrath, Threepio hurried stiffly up the three steps to the landing and left the apartments in Leia's wake. As the door shut behind them, Han caught the droid's trailing comments.

"Excuse me, Mistress Leia. But would you please explain why General Solo behaves in such an atrocious manner?"

"There's nothing wrong with my behaviour," said Han around a mouthful of breakfast.

If nothing else, he had to admit the irritating droid was consistent in seeing to it that he was provided with the foods he preferred. Particularly whenever he and Leia were able to eat together, rare as those times were. He set down his mug with more than his usual force. Some of the contents slopped over the rim, scalding his hand.

"Damn."

In grabbing for the serviette lying next to his plate, his other hand knocked over the container holding the rest of his morning drink. Han grabbed for it. Missed. The entire pot spilled across the breakfast table and onto the floor.

"Space motes and blasters."

"Something wrong?"

Luke's soft, amused inquiry from the entrance caused Han to leap half up from his chair. His knees contacted the underside of the table, tipping over his mug and sending it, along with the bowl and its load of fresh fruit, cascading onto the floor to join his pot of quaff.

"Dammit, Luke. I really wish you wouldn't creep up on people like that."

"Sorry, Han. Need a hand cleaning up?"

"Yeah. Sure. Most considerate of you since you helped cause the mess."

Han reached for the quaff jug. Before he touched it, it rose from the floor and landed on the now righted table. He turned very slowly, sourly eying his brother-in-law. "Very funny, kid. Cut the parlour tricks and get down here and help me."

Mirth dancing through his blue eyes the Jedi Master joined Han and lent him a more mundane hand in sorting out and cleaning up the mess. It took the housekeeping droids to remove the stains and dry out the quaff patch soaked into the sitting room rug. While the droids worked, Han and Luke headed over to Cov-Ops and a meeting with Madine.

In the hallway immediately outside the Operations Centre they found Crix Madine waiting. The minute he saw them, he crooked a finger in their direction. Wordlessly drew them to the turbo-lift and down four levels to where the high security cellblocks were located. Outside one of he interrogation rooms he halted and turned to face them.

"I asked you both here because we feel you will be able to greatly assist us in procuring information from the prisoners without our resorting to more---conventional methods."

Suggestion of being employed as coercion in questioning the captives grated on Luke's sensibilities. And yet, if he refused he removed any hope that those about to be interrogated would avoid a far less savoury method. Albeit, the New Republic never had, to the best of his knowledge, employed torture as Imperial inquisitors did.

Unlike his brother-in-law, Han Solo had no such qualms. "Who's first?"

"I had thought to start with the Fire Control technician who, according to Wedge Antilles' report, was so terrified in your presence, Master Jedi." Sight of discomfort on Luke's face made Madine quickly conclude. "However, just the suggestion that we were bringing you down proved sufficient to extract from him such information as he possessed."

Han grunted and observed, "Never known you to scare anyone before, kid."

Madine's voice dropped to a spectral whisper. "It would appear he feared a return of the Sith."

Something in the way Madine spoke alerted Luke even as the suggestion turned his stomach. All emotion drained from his face. "How did you find out?"

The head of Cov-Ops was suitably impressed by Luke's quick mind. Nor did he attempt to vacillate. "While perusing the Emperor's personal files I stumbled across an interesting bit of information which he apparently considered too sensitive for any eyes but his own."

Just as adept at reading between the lines, Solo demanded, "Then there wasn't any truth to the rumour that those files were wiped before your people got into them."

"Oh, they were wiped, all right," said Madine. "But I happened to make a record of a couple million bytes worth before they fragged. One of them dealt with the identity of a certain Dark Lord of the Sith."

"I---see."

Face a pale mask Luke stared at Madine. Eye to eye they stood in frozen tableau. For the first time in his association with the Jedi Master, Crix Madine witnessed that expression which, on occasion, so terrified those who threatened the existence of the New Republic. Or imperilled the lives of those closest to Luke Skywalker. A cold finger crept up his spine. Pressure squeezed his chest until he found himself incapable of drawing a breath. All blood fled his face. Footsteps in the hallway behind him brought him around, away from Luke's penetrating stare. Relieved, he found he could breathe again. Jornik joined them. One look at those three faces was sufficient.

"You've told them."

"Not everything." Madine was unable to completely suppress a reflexive shiver.

Infuriated by what was implied by the conversation between the two Intelligence officers, Solo closed on the head of Covert Operations. Toe to toe with Madine, Han Solo glared down at Madine. Cold fury radiated from the Corellian.

"You told him, too?"

"I thought it best---"

"Excuse me, General." Through gritted teeth, Han bit out, "Correct me if I'm wrong. I thought the purpose of Covert Operations was to keep secrets. Not broadcast them to the entire galaxy!"

Beyond Han's shoulder the Jedi Master stood statue still, his expression as blank as a statue. Chill waves surged out from the ice blue eyes staring back at Madine and Jornik. Unable to avoid the backwash, Han hurriedly drew back out of reach. He folded his arms across his chest.

"The information goes no further than you wish, Luke."

In addressing the Jedi Master by his first name for the first time since Hoth, Jornik succeeded where perhaps nothing else would. A tiny crack appeared in Luke's armour. That daunting stare gradually eased. Not by much, but just enough that Crix Madine felt he dared relax a fraction.

"Perhaps you should have consulted him before you decided to tell anyone else." Undaunted, Han continued his verbal attack on Madine.

"You're right," said Jornik, doubly regretful that his companion had neglected to speak to the Jedi Master before passing on sensitive information. "But there were extenuating circumstances."

Not placated, Solo demanded. "What extenuating circumstances? What could have been so important that you would release highly sensitive information concerning Luke's background? Not to mention my wife who---"

A hand closed on Solo's forearm. His eyes dropped to the black glove resting so lightly there. Traveled up the black sleeve to Luke's face. Brown eyes met blue and dropped away. In so much, the Jedi Master convinced his friend he should let the matter rest.

"What's done is done," Luke said quietly. "It can't be retracted, however much we would wish." Resigned that others knew his dreadful secret he asked, "Who else knows?"

"Just us." Madine replied instantly, not daring a repeat of his earlier experience.

Conscious of the delicate nature of their present situation, Jornik considered it best to lay all the cards on the sabaac table. "But we would very much appreciate knowing who within your close circle of friends also knows."

"Why?"

Affronted by Jornik's further intrusion into their private lives, Han uncrossed his arms. His right hand rested on his blaster, casually informing them that he felt they had seriously overstepped their authority. Jornik, however, was not about to be intimidated into silence. His gaze remained fixed on the Jedi Master.

Aware the Force had moved unexpectedly, and that he had to grasp the moment to recover, Luke deferred to the inevitable. "It's all right, Han. They might as well know." He looked away, down the hall, back in the direction they had come. Somehow he could not bring himself to look at them while he gave up the truth. "I told Leia at Endor."

"I suspected as much once I realized what the data inferred." Madine apologized. "I'm sorry, Luke. Is there anyone else?"

"Chewie and Wedge."

"Antilles knows!" That did surprise Jornik. "When? How?"

"He stumbled on the truth on our return trip after shutting down Tir'Nngan's operation," said Luke. Now he caught Han's eye and impressed upon his brother-in-law the necessity of not revealing Wedge's initial reaction to the revelation. Unaware of the undercurrent, Jornik leapt to the next logical stage.

"What about Winolder?"

"If she knows," said Han, "I wouldn't know where she picked up the----"

"Windy knows, Han."

"What?" Caught completely off-guard by that unexpected announcement, Solo could only stare in amazement at Luke.

"On the FALCON. At the same time Wedge found out." Sadness tinged Luke's face. Drew down the corners of his mouth. "Instead of staying in her cabin, Windy decided to find out exactly what we had been up to on Tatooine."

"And got an earful about Vader instead. Just wonderful." The Corellian flung up his hands. "I'm surprised the whole damned Republic doesn't know by now."

"Windy's not like that."

"No? I realize she's an old buddy of yours, kid, and she may be your age, but I'm surprised she hasn't told everyone she's served with so far."

"Don't sell her short, Han." Mildly insulted for his childhood friend, Luke argued Windy's defence. "She's got a good heart. And I know that's a failing she'll not let herself repeat."

"If I had a credit for every well-meaning person whose slip of the tongue betrayed good people to the Imperials." Solo began sharply, then stopped and shook his head in the face of Luke's stubbornness. "All right, kid. It's your funeral."

"If you like," Madine cautiously offered, "I can see to putting a curb on young Winolder's tongue."

Not about to let Windy fall under Cov-Ops, Luke swiftly countered. "That shouldn't be necessary, Crix. From something I saw on CONUNDRUM, I rather suspect Wedge has given her an earful on the subject."

Han snorted. "You might be satisfied, kid. But I'm not. But since you don't want anyone doing anything more about it, I'll go along with you. At least until I'm given reason to change my mind."

"Thanks, Han. We'll leave it be for now. If I find it necessary, I'll speak to Windy about it myself. After all, she's my friend. And she wouldn't be here now, in this position, if I hadn't insisted you and Wedge let her come away with us."

"You got that right," said Solo. He glanced around him. "So what's on the agenda?"

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

By evening Luke was wrung out mentally and emotionally from time spent in the interrogation chambers. Just his presence shook information from most of the younger officers and non-commissioned captives. From his vantage in the observation room Han was able to sift through the lies and half-truths as readily as Madine. But when the young Jedi Master finally stepped into the hallway following the final interrogation, sight of his strained and pale features deeply worried the Corellian. Hand slid surreptitiously slid beneath Luke's elbow. Han helped him back to his quarters.

Outside Luke's apartment he asked. "You gonna be okay, kid?"

In reply, Luke released the lock and stepped inside. Han followed two steps over the doorsill. "I'll be fine, Han."

As always, Solo read his brother-in-law like an open book. Knew, too, that what Luke wanted and urgently needed was solitude to rejuvenate his seriously depleted resources. Solo silently withdrew. Behind him the Jedi Master secured the outside door against intrusion. Desperately tired Luke headed through the receiving room and into his inner sanctum. Along the way he removed his cloak and gloves and unfastened his belt. He set everything aside on the low table just inside the entrance. Foliage closed about him. Amid the lush growth Luke slowly lowered himself to the floor.

Few people were privileged enough to enter these rooms. Since taking up residence, guests had been confined to his sister, Han, Chewie and occasional appearances by Wedge and Lando. No one else made it past the reception alcove. Which was exactly how Luke liked it. Most had to content themselves with tracking him down through Operations or hoping to catch him at his office in Flight's primary administration section.

This inner retreat was a place of refuge; its tranquillity was rarely disrupted by outside concerns. Potted plants transformed the main sitting area into a veritable jungle. Blooms vied with head-high tree ferns for space in massive tubs. Vines, flowering and otherwise, trailed haphazardly from beams suspended from the ceiling. Automated atomizers misted the plants, maintaining a humid atmosphere reminiscent of both Endor and Dagobah.

Nor was the man-made forest confined to the sitting area. It spilled over into the bedroom where creepers spread up the walls toward artificial light sources. Landscaping droids entered occasionally to assist in the maintenance of his quarters, but only when Luke was absent for extended periods. A genetically engineered grass that grew only to ankle height carpeted the entire apartment.

Artoo Detoo was not particularly pleased with the apartment climate. To prevent rust over-taking his astro-mech, Luke thoughtfully set aside a special area where Artoo received maintenance, could perform self-diagnostics, recharge and generally remain out of the adverse conditions. This was the only spot wholly exempt from nature's intrusion. It was here, too, that Luke's concession to Fleet protocol sat: a computer up-link connected him to the outside world.

Seated, back against one huge tub, Luke closed his eyes. He gradually stretched out with his feelings along the lines of the Force and shook off the pain, fear and anguish that had saturated him throughout the day gone by. Allowed rage and frustration exuded by the captives to drain away. Into the void left in the wake of dissipating adverse emotions flowed peace, calm and strength.

'Father?' Not for the first time, Luke strove to re-contact his parent and mentors. 'Ben? Yoda.'

Apart from that one minor incident on Dagobah, though, there was no response. Sorrow washed over him. Somewhere concern flickered against his perception.

'Leia?'

'What's wrong, Luke?' The distance was nominal, enabling her to speak and hear him clearly.

'Nothing.' Doubt reverberated back and he hastened to reassure her. 'Really. Just getting a bit morose, is all.'

'Join us for a late bite?'

Humour rose readily at her invitation. 'Don't you think you should spend a bit of time alone with Han?'

'But you're my brother.'

'Leia.' The burgeoning diplomat in Luke found a suitable reply to her request. 'I just need some time to myself.'

Still doubtful, yet knowing she would not be able to bully her brother into acquiescing, Leia gently withdrew. Left Luke alone once more within the Force. Eventually he drifted into a light sleep, still seated in the midst of the jungle.

From his cubbyhole, Artoo monitored his master's vital signs, noting when his respiration altered from meditation to sleep. Systems switching to standby, the stubby astro-mech hunkered down for the night.


Feet propped up on a hassock, Han watched his wife move about their apartment. Every so often she frowned slightly, as though mulling over the day's sessions. Then again, he considered, she might be in silent conversation with someone. After several minutes he ventured. "Is something wrong?"

Leia halted in her tracks. Her eyes refocused on him. "Did you say something?"

"Were you talking to Luke?" She looked quickly away and he knew his latter suspicions were correct. "Is he okay?"

"I think so." Leia answered hesitantly, further troubling Solo.

"He did look kinda tired when I left him." Han admitted to her. "Wrung out." Unrestrained thoughts ran on, unspoken. 'I wish they wouldn't ask him to hang around during interrogation. It ain't good for him. He's too sensitive.'

'In more ways than one,' mused Leia silent, unaware her thoughts were paralleling her husband's. Aloud she said, "I asked him to join us for dinner but he won't come."

Feet dropping to the floor, Han rose. He took his wife in his arms and held her against him as he had done in the Ewok village when Luke went off on his own to confront his father and the Emperor. She leaned against him. A solitary tear trickled down her cheek and dropped from her chin to his bare arm. The dampness prompted Han to tip up her chin. Concerned, he sought an answer to her unhappiness.

"Hey. Why the tears? Is something wrong?"

Leia could only shake her head, floundering. Taught diplomacy as a child at Bail's knee, she suddenly found herself unable to adequately express herself. "Yes. No. I don't know."

"Is it Luke?"

"Yes---and no." Eyes shut, Leia pressed her face against her husband's hand. "I guess it's everything."

"Damn politicians running you ragged?"

"What else?"

"Well, then. You'll just have to throw your weight around a little and insist they give you a bit more space," said Han.

Thought of trying to throw all of her petite five foot four body around like a trained wrestler struck Leia as strangely humorous. Perhaps it was simply that she was so exhausted after repeated rounds of arguments with various officials, but she began to chuckle. And could not stop for several minutes.

That Han also found the image equally amusing did not help. Visions of his diminutive wife tossing ministers around Council Chambers with the Force like so much wind-blown fluff for some reason tickled his funny bone, setting him off also. By the time Threepio arrived with one of the Palace catering droids and their evening meal, Han and Leia were slumped on a couch, faces streaked with tears. Both were too limp to move when the droids entered the room.

"Oh, my! Mistress Leia!" Acutely concerned, See- Threepio came quickly down the apartment steps and stopped just the other side of the low table. "General Solo. Are you all right? Should I call a med-droid?"

Han flapped a hand at the protocol droid. "It's okay, Golden Rod."

"Can I get you something?" Still certain there was something drastically wrong with the couple, Threepio sought to assist their recovery.

"Threepio, really. It's all right." Leia insisted. The diversion allowed her to finally regain control of herself.

Not entirely convinced, Threepio reluctantly supervised the catering droid while it set out the food and withdrew. "If there's anything else, Mistress---"

"We'll call." Han pointedly stared at the door.

"Well!"

Insulted, See-Threepio drew himself up to full height, turned and stiffly exited the room. Disapproval radiated from him as he left. The Princess raised an eyebrow. She grinned at Han. More often than not Han's adverse reaction to Threepio's officious manner was purely show, as with this occasion. Pleased with himself, Han joined Leia at the table.

"So I take it Luke definitely isn't joining us."

Mouth full, Leia shook her head. She swallowed and managed, "I think he was meditating."

"Kid needs to get out more. Have some fun."

"Perhaps."

"That brother of yours takes life too seriously, Leia."

"I know. But you can't blame him. Being the last of the Jedi---"

"Yeah. Kinda puts a damper on things, though." Han waved a fork with a bit of salad on it back and forth. "You know what us Corellians say?"

"No," said Leia, leading him on. "What do they say?"

"All work and no play makes you a pretty dull person."

"That," she said solemnly, "sounds very much like something a certain ex-smuggler I know would expound."

In response Han set aside his fork and clapped both hands to his chest in mock injury. "Shot down in flames by my own wife."

Leia kicked him under the table, setting off another mock go round during which their dinner very nearly wound up on the apartment floor. It ended as abruptly as it had begun with Han covering one of Leia's hands with his.

"Do you know what's really wrong with Luke?"

A tremulous sigh left the Princess. Elbows resting on the table on either side of her plate, she stared at the artificial panorama on the opposite wall. Solo waited, displaying far more patience than anyone might have thought him capable of. Eventually Leia ventured tentatively.

"I think Luke's deeply concerned the Imperials are capable of locating potential Jedi as readily, if not more so, than he. Of twisting them into shadows of---Vader."

As always, she stumbled over the name. Han's fingers tightened around hers, comforting. That other power, inherited from the man she should love but instead feared and reviled, sensed the strength in Han. Instinctively she drew on it just enough to bolster her inner self.

"However much he desperately wants or needs to rebuild the Jedi, Council and Fleet can't seem to find it in themselves to give him that time. And it's eating him up from the inside out, Han."

"That's what I suspected." Much as he hated to admit it, he knew she was right. He released her and settled back in his chair. "Well, I'll see what I can do."

"You'll speak to Jornik?"

"And Rieekan and Madine." Han stared down at his plate, shuffling his food aimlessly back and forth. "There's no reason for him to be present day in and day out, silent intimidation, while they question the prisoners off that frigate."

Leia gasped. "Is that what he was doing all day?"

"Yeah. Just standing at one side of the room. You can imagine what effect his presence has on the Imps under questioning."

Mortified that Fleet would use her brother in that manner, Leia's indignation flared. "Of all the---Don't they realize what that does to him? What effect it has on him? No wonder he's so upset."

"Easy, Leia." Solo reached out to his wife once more, soothing her as best he could. "I'll talk to them."

"Talk isn't any good with them, Han. You know that. You have to demand they leave him alone."

"If I have to kidnap Luke out from under their noses, I will." Intent upon reassuring her, Han found his thoughts running ahead of him. A plan took form. "And I know at least three people who'll help me."

"You do?"

"Not including you, of course," he said bluntly. When Leia protested, Han countered. "Can't have you knowing what's going on. That way you can honestly tell everyone you haven't a clue who's responsible for Luke's disappearance. Or where he's gone."

"Plausible deniability. You are devious," she said. Relief gradually chased away distress.

"I thought that's what you liked about me?"

"What?"

"The scoundrel in me."

Leia mumbled something noncommittal and made an attempt at being interested in her food. Her husband was not fooled. With his own fork he casually snagged a choice piece of meat from her plate and put it in his mouth. Startled by his unexpected attack on her meal, Leia glared at him.

"Hey! That was mine."

Unperturbed, he retorted, "Thought you Alderaani were real big on not wasting food?"

"You---"

Fork darting out, Leia retaliated by removing something from his plate. Before long they were reduced to trying to steal whatever their partner was attempting to eat. Laughter and squeals of mock outrage drew Threepio back into the apartment. To his amazement, Princess Leia and Han Solo were rolling around the floor like a pair of unruly children. Rather than risk another dressing down from the Corellian, Threepio hastily withdrew to the alcove where visitors waited for special audiences with the Princess.

"Humans." He remarked to the catering droid that was patiently waiting to collect the dishes. "I shall never understand them."

Unlike the eccentric Artoo Detoo, the catering droid's limited programming did not even permit it the luxury of sympathizing with Threepio. Fortunately the odd noises soon ended. But to Threepio's consternation lights in the apartment dimmed, a sure sign the humans had gone to bed.

Instructions from both the Princess and her husband were specific. When the lights were out there were to be no intrusions. Barring emergencies.

"Well!" Quite upset by this abrupt deviation from their usual routine, Threepio hastily considered his options and discovered there was only one. "You might as well leave."

The other droid countered with an objection. Its programming was equally specific. It was to remain until it collected the dishes. Threepio gestured stiffly, irritated.

"Never mind that. You'll have to wait all night." Again the catering droid protested. "I really cannot understand why anyone would produce something with such limited programming." Threepio complained to no one in particular. "If you don't leave, they will be looking for you downstairs. Your replacement can collect the dishes in the morning."

Even among droids there existed a hierarchy. Certain droids were capable of issuing orders to other droids and being obeyed. And See-Threepio belonged to that elite. Something he was quite pleased with. Still not entirely certain it was doing the right thing, the catering droid acquiesced, complying with the protocol droid's instructions. In keeping with his usual night routine, Threepio located a power outlet in the reception alcove, plugged in and powered down for the night.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Housed high in the top security tower of Covert Operations, Admiral Boralle impatiently paced the confines of his cell. Although they were prisoners, he and his men were surprisingly comfortably housed. All his junior non-commissioned personnel, along with most of the junior officers, had been shipped to a penal world in the Coruscant system almost immediately upon arrival. Given how he was quartered, Boralle suspected the rest of his people were being likewise well treated.

"Weak," he said himself.

And yet, given the reverse he knew any rebel prisoners would never be kept so comfortably, particularly not someone of his rank. Bile soured his saliva. Burned his throat. Loss of his new command was impossible to stomach. Better they had left him to die with his ship. Nor had their captors allowed him time following his recovery on board CONUNDRUM to confer with his people so he could confirm RUTHLESS and SPITEFUL had been destroyed.

Another concern; Thrawn would never forgive him if this trumped-up excuse for a government had taken possession of both ships for their own use. Especially immediately following on the heels of the Imperium's victory.

"Damn!"

Restraint vanishing, he lashed out, kicking the one chair across the room. Fashioned of lightweight, preformed alloy, it was useless as a weapon. His prison bed was much like those on board ship; locked to one wall and fitted with a pad to make sleeping comfortable. There were no windows. His captors did allow him some comfort, providing a simulated scene on one wall. This slowly shifting space scene never altered; subtle mental manipulation on the part of the New Republic's Covert Operations, much of which they had learned from the Imperium. Although it seemed they refused to employ all the Empire's technological expertise in breaking prisoners.

In the wall opposite the bed was a narrow food slot. Through this Boralle received all his meals. Whether these arrived at regulation hours or not, he could only guess. He suspected he had been here five days, though.

Behind him the featureless door slid open. He turned to face his inquisitor. Framed in the opening was a slender man of medium height. Gray intrusions marred otherwise sandy hair and the matching, neatly trimmed beard. Intense brown eyes peered at him from either side of a hawk nose. There was no need for introductions.

"General Madine." He could be no other.

The head of the New Republic's Covert Operations remained motionless. Several seconds passed before he spoke. "Admiral Boralle."

"Come to gloat?"

Crix Madine failed to rise to the taunt. Simply remained where he was, studying their prize catch. Seldom had the old Alliance been fortunate enough to bring in alive a high-ranking military official. Now faced with this challenge, limited in how his department attempted to extract information, Madine was presented with one of the greatest challenges of his career.

In the face of his enemy's silence, Winn Boralle ceased his pacing and confronted Madine. There was no conscious effort to stare one another down. But the battle of wills occurred nevertheless. To Winn's surprise it was Madine who gave first. Startled, he was not foolish enough to believe he had won a victory. Crix Madine had merely been testing his prisoner's metal. Determined to display no fear, Boralle turned his back on the Madine.

The head of Cov-Ops addressed him as he might a guest in his own home. "Are your quarters comfortable?"

"Satisfactory."

Madine's gaze lit on the tumbled chair and Winn realized he had actually lost part of the battle. Without mentioning the obvious, Crix entered the room and righted the chair. He sat, straddling it back to front, arms resting on the back. Boralle refused to relent. Instead, he went to the far end of the room, placed his back to the space scene. From that defensive position he glared at his enemy.

"Are they treating you well?"

Trapped into the unwanted conversation, Boralle countered with a question of his own. "I want to know how my people are. When may I see them?"

"I'm afraid you cannot be permitted to speak with your personnel, Admiral." Steel in Madine's voice informed Boralle this was not a bargaining point. "I will confirm your senior staff are housed much the same as you are."

"And the others?"

"Alive. Working to support themselves," said Madine flatly. "There are no shirkers in the New Republic's penal system."

Winn grunted at that. "My ships?"

This was a subject Madine had debated with himself and his personnel at some length. There were those who saw no value in revealing the true disposition of the frigate to its ex-commander. Others believed news of its capture would provide a shattering blow to the Admiral's ego. Would well weaken his resolve to remain silent when they began administering drugs in an effort to shake loose Imperial secrets. Madine was of the latter school. He relinquished half the truth.

"RUTHLESS is now at our repair docks undergoing conversion to replace the frigate we lost to your forces last week."

Visibly shaken despite his best resolve, Boralle retaliated vehemently. "Impossible."

"Why do you find it impossible, Admiral?"

Dissembling came easily to Madine. Very early in life he had discovered he had a special knack for it, an ability that had served him well while combating the Empire and its minions. He allowed several heartbeats to pass before pretending to recall something that had apparently slipped his mind.

"Of course. You're referring to the self-destruct device which you activated just prior to our people taking the bridge." Crix stroked his beard, an affectation meant to unsettle prisoners. Boralle was not so easily perturbed. But there was no doubt Madine had his prisoner's complete and undivided attention. He stabbed. "We disarmed it."

"Not possible." Still disbelieving his enemy, Boralle retorted, but without the same degree of confidence he had earlier displayed.

"Why isn't it possible?" Elbows on the low chair back, Madine cupped one palm beneath his chin. Fascinated, he inspected every nuance of outrage and conviction emanating from the Admiral. "Because there were innumerable security trips? Or that there are special, multi-layer codes?" Each question was delivered with calculating cruelty meant to rip another support from beneath Winn Boralle. "Perhaps you're referring to the plating beneath which the charges lining the engines were housed?"

One by one, Madine ticked off damning evidence that the New Republic knew exactly what they were dealing with. That incredible as it seemed, they had disarmed the self-destruct. Boralle could not quite bring himself to believe any of it. Now Madine played his trump.

"We, too, have our specialists." Implacable, his words mild, as though what he said was inconsequential, Madine reminded his prisoner. "And among those are some with---how shall I say---highly selective abilities."

For a minute longer he studied Boralle. Then he casually stood, turned the chair around so its seat faced the Admiral and walked back across the room. At the door he knocked. The panel hissed aside and he went through without looking back. The silence in the wake of what had just passed between them thoroughly unnerved Boralle. Alone, Winn mulled their conversation.

Confidence dangerously shaken, the Admiral slumped onto the bed, his face buried in his hands. There was no doubting the truth of Madine's words. The New Republic's Chief of Cov-Ops had been too nonchalant. Too assured to the point of smugness.

'Well.' Boralle automatically amended. 'Perhaps not smug. Madine's too much the consummate officer to permit pettiness to mar judgement and professionalism.'

No. He, Admiral Winn Boralle of the Empire, had failed. Failed the Imperium and Thrawn. Failed in his responsibility to carry out his final duty. How exactly these rebels had accomplished that particular feat presently eluded him. But he planned to find out. And, above all, he would escape this prison. Would return to wreak revenge on this infuriating enemy who continued to drive the Imperium further into defeat.

A meal arrived. Depressed, he picked at the bland contents of his tray. Even the type of food they presented him allowed him no clue as to the time of day. Lights dimmed, encouraging him to sleep. But this 'night', Winn Boralle tossed and turned endlessly on his narrow prison bed. Piercing red eyes haunted his dreams. Drove him through nightmarish landscapes. He woke, saturated with sweat, and no closer to a solution.

After surveying recordings taken of the Admiral's movements in confinement, Madine concluded two days later it was time to interrogate him. They did not bother removing him from his cell. Rather, Madine brought in two specialists and three guards, waking their prisoner from yet another night's troubled sleep.

Groggy, Boralle woke to the hand that shook him from a nightmare. Too late he realized the significance of so many individuals at his bedside. In his sleep fogged state he scarcely noticed the injection. Hands pinned him to the bed while the drug---or combination of drugs---took effect.

At first it was possible to evade direct answers to their questions. To dissemble, providing partial truths or responses that they obviously already had on record. As time passed, however, and more drugs filled his system, Boralle discovered it increasingly difficult to fight them, or to resist blurting unadulterated truth.

Never, in all his years as a career officer, had he envisioned being subjected to such depths of humiliation. Far in the recesses of his mind an objective voice coldly informed him this was how prisoners had suffered under his unfeeling hand. Turn-about was fair exchange. The greater part of him railed against the indignity of it.

As the drug wound him tighter in its remorseless grip, he railed against circumstances within the recesses of his mind. 'No Imperial officer should be subjected to this!'


Still another injection followed. Unable to stay in one place while he waited, Madine paced the narrow room. With half an ear he listened to everything his people extracted from the Admiral. Although he never permitted feelings to show, he was always uncomfortable watching anyone being reduced to a mindless, babbling lump of flesh.

"Sir." One of the Specialists caught his attention and gestured urgently. "You better hear this."

Anything his team felt required his personal attention generally proved to be important. Madine stooped over Boralle's twitching form. They had strapped the Admiral to the bed to prevent involuntary muscle stimuli jerking him onto the floor. Winn Boralle tugged against the restraints securing his head. He would have tossed wildly except for those straps, possibly even torn muscles had it not been for that confinement.

"Tell me again about the last prisoners you had on RUTHLESS." The second specialist gently coached their prisoner to reveal his secrets. Captain Valera Tiayr took her duty seriously. Was proud of the fact that her husky feminine, crooning voice could coax many a stubborn prisoner into surrendering vital information.

"Brought in from Tatooine. Damn rim-worlders."

"How many were there?"

"Three."

"Do you know their names?"

"Can't---remember."

Tiayr glanced up at her superior. "He doesn't want to remember, sir."

"Rim-worlders." For several seconds it seemed as though Madine had not heard her. But she realized she was mistaken. That he was, rather, considering possibilities. "Try again, Captain. Find out what happened to them."

She quickly informed him, "They were transported."

"To where?"

"Not sure, sir. But that ought to be in ship's records, surely?"

Since it was a waste of valuable time and effort worrying about something they could glean from other sources, Madine asked the attending medic, "How's he doing?"

"Not good, sir. I think we ought to leave him for now."

"Very well, Captain. Administer the antidote."

Satisfied with their results thus far, Madine watched his people clean up after themselves and leave. Once they were gone he settled in the chair, watching Boralle gradually recover from the effects of the drugs. A faint groan issued from the Admiral's lips. Crix released the straps. Although only partially conscious, his captive was sufficiently cognizant to realize what had transpired. More time passed. The Admiral rolled onto his side, face to the wall. For several minutes he remained in that position.

Since it availed him nothing to continue feigning his earlier condition, Boralle finally rolled back over. Very carefully he levered himself up. He sat, swaying precariously. Head slowly turning, he scanned the semi-dark room. His eyes lit on Madine. Clung there as though this enemy had suddenly become an anchor. When he spoke, his words were thick and initially difficult to understand.

"So, General. Did you get everything you wanted? Did it please you to see the mighty grovel?"

Madine refused to respond. His eyes traced bruises left by the straps. Pity on his enemy's face was the worst cut of all. Rage suffused Boralle's face. He lunged, lost his balance and sprawled face down on the floor between bed and chair. Instinct tempted Crix to spring to the Admiral's aid. Another part of him insisted he remain where he was. To allow Boralle a measure of dignity, however little that might be.

Enraged at having embarrassed himself, Winn dragged himself to his knees and glared up at Madine's impassive face. One hand groped behind him for support. Found the edge of the bed. Carefully shifting back across the floor, Boralle halted once his back connected with the bed bench. He sat, legs stuck out in front of him and stared up at Madine. It was then that his enemy did something that completely threw Boralle. General Crix Madine left the chair and seated himself, cross-legged on the floor, facing his prisoner. Neither spoke for quite some time.

To observers in Cov-Ops it was a peculiar sensation, watching these two great opponents size each another up in absolute silence. As Madine suspected, his small concession confused Boralle. Left him wholly adrift. When next Madine spoke, the Admiral found himself incapable of answering with anything other than the truth.

"SPITEFUL brought three prisoners from Tatooine just prior to our arrival."

"Yes."

"You questioned them?"

"Of course."

"To what purpose?"

        Admiral Boralle spat back.  "They helped Antilles escape."
        Several questions were answered by the Admiral's response, although he was clearly not aware of it.  Nor did Madine enlighten him.  Rather, he asked only two more questions.

        "You transported them?"

        Boralle nodded.  He suspected Madine already had the answer to that.  Either way, it made no difference whether he gave him the truth or not.  That brief pause gave him sufficient time to marshal his meagre resolve.  Now came the final inquiry.

        "Where?"

        Some of his inner strength recovered, Boralle regained his composure.  Once more an officer of the Empire, he retorted.  "Find out for yourself."

In response to that, Crix nodded. He had expected no less. Satisfied, he rose, went to the door and knocked. A guard let him out. Behind him, Boralle clawed his way back onto the bed and sat, head hanging, depressed. They had wrung vital information from him. How much he could only guess. He knew they would come again. They did come again.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Four shifts worked without break readying the Fleet's newest acquisition for its maiden launch. Even with the mass of technicians, mechanics, electricians and other specialists coming and going through all hours, there remained areas within the frigate where only the occasional droid or guard patrolled. As yet, no one had completely addressed the problem of shifting engine plating to reach explosives buried deep in the hull surrounding the drive.

By direct edict from Her Royal Highness, Princess Leia Organa-Skywalker, the one person Fleet specifically required to assist in attacking the problem was now on extended leave. If she or her husband knew where the Jedi Master presently was, they were definitely not saying. Nor dared anyone inquire. Fleet's senior staff could only grin and bear it. And wait for Luke Skywalker to put in an appearance.

Prior to departing for points unknown, Luke informed everyone necessary when they might expect him back. Time enough for him to assist them in removal of the explosives. He was not heading off on a particular mission. Rather, he was simply taking a long required break away from duties and responsibilities. Until then only the usual maintenance expected after combat was being processed.

Among those few tasks undertaken by droids was the refinishing of corridors and cabins. Unlike their Imperial contemporaries, New Republic forces preferred a more congenial atmosphere in which to live and work while in space. So droids altered metallic blue-grey to a lighter hue. Cabins were refitted to accommodate two rather than four crewmen for senior non-commissioned ranks, and from six to four for junior ranks. Conversely, only the senior-most officers were permitted solitary housing. Anyone beneath the rank of full commander doubled up, while Second Lieutenants and Officer Cadets were expected to bunk three to a cabin.

All of this the intruder noted as he worked his way through the frigate. His efforts to avoid surveillance were successful due in part to the miniature device he carried which deactivated any electronic scanners until he was beyond their sensor range. Confident no one would notice his intrusion, in spite of the cascade effect caused by his sensor nullifier, the man continued toward the backup engineering and communications centre.

Although this area was usually low on the list for repairs and maintenance due to the problems inherent in working on the primary systems most of the work here was complete. Which suited the intruder quite nicely. With a miniature hydrospanner taken from a pocket, he accessed a computer conduit outlet. On the end of the spanner he fitted a small keypad and code chip.

"Now let's see just how far you get with this ship." Pleased with the expected results, he chortled under his breath. And fed in a series of over-ride commands. Minutes passed. Nothing happened. Forewarned this might occur the intruder carefully re-input the commands and added a second set of codes. Still nothing happened. Annoyed, the man made a third attempt. This also proved a failure.

Now assuming the worst, he stripped off the upper level commands and examined the network underneath. There his fears were confirmed. Not only were the old codes entirely missing but three sets of strange commands filled the void. There was absolutely nowhere for his computer virus to go, blocked as it was from infiltration by highly sophisticated and totally unfamiliar directives. A sub-vocal string of curses escaped the intruder. He quickly erased all trace of his invasion, unclipped his miniature device and abandoned the sub-station.

Elsewhere on the frigate further attempts to sabotage the ship were stymied by intense security in all areas sensitive to invasion. Frustrated, the intruder made his escape, heading down world to the orbital power station. There he was just in time to make shift change. No one commented on his absence from the mirror facility. It was far from unusual for workers to seek distractions on the planet during their off-duty hours.


Before heading to his quarters at the end of a particularly emotionally draining day, Crix Madine swung by the Cov-Ops Data Retrieval and Examination Centre. Several specialists were busy going over the day's high priority data streams with the aid of a number of droids designed for that purpose alone. Madine strolled past them, his gaze raking scanner monitors, printouts and stacks of storage chips. Something on one DREC monitor caught his eye. He halted. Frowned at the display.

"What was that?"

"Sir?" Familiar with the General's habit of turning up at odd hours, the junior Duty DREC Technician examined the discrepancy that had attracted their superior's attention. "Oh, that, sir. We've experienced a small series of minute cascade failures on the ship's monitors. Nothing to worry about."

Usually Madine would have concurred with that observation. Would have trusted the instincts of his personnel. In this instance, however, something about the data troubled him. His analytical mind noted the direction in which the failures led. The sequence in which they occurred and the length of elapse time it took for surveillance to recover. More frightening was the lapse in the back-up control centre and the manner in which the failures recurred leading away from the sensitive area.

"That's no cascade failure!" He fairly exploded at his people. "Of all the thick-witted---"

Stunned by the outburst, the DREC Duty Officer stared at General Madine. "Sir?"

Startled personnel froze where they were, disbelief prevalent in the face of his wrath. One hand shot out. Madine keyed the replay. He inspected the recording. What he read only served to strengthen his suspicions.

"Did no one except me notice there was a definite direction to those failures? Where they terminated? Or the fact that they were sequential---in both directions."

Several heads shook. Most of the specialists and technicians were too stunned to react. Seldom had any of them witnessed Madine reduced to ranting and raving when confronted by a problem. Then again, neither had the disposition of a newly liberated frigate ever previously been the source of his displeasure.

"Look. Here. And here."

One finger jabbing at the data stream, Madine drew their attention to the now obvious course that the cascade failures had taken. Even the most junior among the staff realized what had transpired. Eyes darted about the room. The senior Duty Officer stepped forward.

"I must take the blame for the staff, sir," he said.

"I'm not looking for guilty parties, dammit!" Madine swore at his staff. Knew they were weary beyond words and required replacements immediately to prevent just such complacency from recurring. "I want to know who got on board. How and why. Now!"

"It had to be someone not previously authorized by Cov-Ops." said the Duty Officer, his pulse racing.

"That doesn't necessary follow." Experience came into play and Madine countered sharply. "Track that back to where it started and ended. Find out what vessel docked at those times and who got off and on. And send someone over to find out what the intruder was doing on board the frigate."

"Immediately, sir!"

"I'll be in the Duty Room," Madine informed them. "Sleeping. Rouse me the minute you have something concrete."

"Yes, sir."

No one dared move until their superior had departed. Then the DREC operations room became a hive of industry. Abashed at being caught lacking, the Duty Officer hurriedly detailed personnel to the various tasks. He assigned one person to assist him while he personally perused the data records of the intrusion.

The DREC officer's duty room was furnished with a small desk, two chairs and a bed so the Duty Officer could, when things were quiet, catch some sleep. In fact, anyone working extended hours in Cov-Ops was expected to use this and the other two rooms set aside for that purpose so as to maintain the level of attentiveness required to man surveillance.

"Only this time the system failed." Livid over the inexcusable lapse, Madine swore. "Damn! Damn! Damn!"

How it could have happened, he was uncertain. Quite possibly it was simply due to a degree of complacency creeping into what was now becoming something of a day-to-day routine. Without the desperation of constant evasive action personnel lost their edge. Grew apathetic as emergencies decreased in frequency.

"Have to do something about that," he said to himself as he stretched out on the bunk. Within seconds he was asleep.

A voice penetrated the stillness. "Sir?"

Soft, penetrating, it interrupted Madine's rest. He stirred. Came instantly awake with the expertise of a soldier who has lived too long on the edge, one arm instinctively lashing out. Familiar with his superior's idiosyncrasies, the Duty Officer remained carefully out of arm's reach until certain Madine was awake. Then he brought up the lights to dawn level.

"You've got something?" Crix rubbed sleep from his eyes and swung his feet off the bed. Perched on the edge of the bunk he waited for his subordinate to brief him. His mouth tasted metallic, his tongue, gummy.

"Yes, sir. We tracked down the ship that docked at that particular lock during the time period when the sensors were affected. It was a repair tug, sir."

"A repair tug?"

"Yes, sir." The Duty Officer repeated himself. Anxious to redeem himself in Madine's eyes by providing a thorough report, he continued, "It appears only one person was involved. At least, that's all we've turned up at this time."

"All right. Do we know who was responsible?"

"External surveillance which you ordered installed around all locks immediately after the ship was brought in recorded the serial numbers of the tug. An extensive search revealed it originated from the mirror station."

"You've located it?"

"We did, sir. Unfortunately, as is to be expected all memory banks and records of who signed it out have been expertly erased. The person responsible was extremely thorough."

"How thorough?" When the Duty Officer remained silent, Madine demanded, "Imperial Special Forces thorough?"

"It would appear so, sir. Yes."

"Then it could have been anyone."

"There are over two dozen personnel who purportedly left the station for rest and relaxation on Coruscant during that time period."

        "I see.  Are they being tracked down for questioning?"
        "We're bringing them in now, sir."

        'Another mole rooted out by pure chance,' thought Madine.  "Good.  Anything else?"

        "We've just received back the report on the intruder's activities.  They apparently attempted to insert a virus into the ship's systems."

        "Any idea what its purpose was?"

        "At this time it's pure speculation, sir.  But given the manner in which the intruder examined the underlay of new codes," said the Duty Officer, dreading what his superior's reaction was going to be, "in particular those worked into the system by General Skywalker---"

        "It's safe to assume his purpose was to reinitiate the self-destruct sequence."  It took no stretch of the imagination to arrive at that conclusion.  Madine let his head drop back.  Eyes closed, he mused.  "Very clever.  Skywalker was correct.  Damn good thing he was on board when we captured the frigate."

        "That it was, sir."

        Only then was Crix aware he had spoken out loud.  For once, he forgave the pride in the Duty Officer's voice.  In spite of his own personality conflict with Luke, there was much for which to be thankful to the young Jedi Master.

"All right, Captain. Here's what I want done. Just in case we have a repeat visit."

"Sir."

"Set up another set of codes. I want them worked in separately from those General Jornik installed. Add an early warning system to all three levels. The minute a virus attempts an insertion, that alert should sound here. Also, provide back-up warning devices for surveillance so no such supposed cascade failure can be triggered again. And run diagnostics on all systems, including the droids, at the earliest possible convenience. I doubt the Imperials will try that again, but given their recent propensity for making repeated stabs of a similar nature I don't want any further surprises. Fleet won't be happy, but they'll just have to put up with it."

"Right away, sir."

"And I want a complete report of this entire incident on my desk first thing in the morning."

"Sir." Suitably dressed down, the Duty Officer fled.

'Truth be told,' thought the Chief of Cov-Ops, 'the man will castigate himself for weeks to come. Which will probably result in one of two things: Either an improved performance rating from all concerned, or a serious fall-off. Should the latter occur, I'll have to see about instigating a major turnover of personnel.'

His brain ground to a halt as he tried to recall just how long the present shift had been assigned to Covert Operations High Security department. Exhausted, Crix Madine closed his eyes. Carefully he rotated his head back and forth in a vain attempt to alleviate the kinks that had formed over his short sleep period. A massive yawn overtook him. His thoughts were fuzzy, mildly incoherent. It surprised him that he had been able to issue any form of logical commands at all, given his present conditions.

"Getting old," he said to himself. "You're slowing down, Crix."

Not a fact he could argue. Lately more grey was creeping into his beard and hair. Fine lines had deepened to creases around the corners of his eyes and nose. Dark shadows betrayed long hours and disrupted sleep patterns. He stretched out once more on the bunk.

Madine ordered the automated controls. "Lights off."

The room plunged into darkness once more. But sleep was not so readily recaptured. Stray thoughts tumbled keeping Crix awake long after his body wanted to drift off. He struggled repeatedly to come to grips with the reality that the New Republic was riddled with Imperial traitors. Individuals who would continue doing their utmost to topple the infant government before it could secure its position in the galaxy. At long last, worn out, Madine slept.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

In another area of Cov-Ops, Wedge Antilles rubbed sore, red eyes and returned his blurry gaze to the vid-screen in front of him. There were other tasks he would as soon be performing than working in DREC. Nevertheless, for the moment Jornik had attached him to Cov-Ops who, in turn, relegated him to inspecting various files stripped from RUTHLESS' databases. However ridiculous the notion, he could not help wondering if this was punishment for his unintentional slip-up with his one and only mission.

Several junior officers also occupied the room, including Flit, who sat at his elbow. They occupied the banks in pairs, double-checking one another's work so as not to miss anything. Often what one individual might consider wholly non sequitur, another would sense to be a cover for something more important.

It was a time-consuming, tedious task. Unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of the material only a select few were assigned to the chore. With another shake of his head Wedge took a break. He tipped his chair back slightly and shut his eyes.

"Checking out the backs of your eyelids, sir?"

Flit kept her observation to a stage whisper well aware the Duty Officer would frown on her levity. A flicker of a smile rewarded her. Wedge rocked forward again. Scrubbed a hand across his face.

"Damn, this is boring work."

"Really?" Flit glanced back down at the streams of data presently frozen on the screen in front of them. "Actually, I was just thinking how fascinating it is."

"Are you for real?" That anyone would find this tedium interesting was beyond Wedge. He stared at her. Spotted the suggestion of a twinkle in her eyes and realized he had been caught out again. "Was that disrespect for rank I saw just then, Lieutenant?"

"Me, sir? No, sir. I'd never be disrespectful." She batted her eyelids at him.

"Cute. Let's get back to work. The quicker we get finished, the quicker we're out of here."

"You've got that right," she said out the side of her mouth.

Just then the Duty Officer re-entered the room, his expression indicative of someone who had just eaten the sourest fruit in the galaxy. Flit hunched back over the vid-screen, apparently all business. Only Wedge caught the slight pull at one corner of her mouth where she dragged her teeth across a lip to smother a giggle. The DREC Duty Officer patrolled past them, glanced over several shoulders before settling at his desk across the room.

Suddenly Wedge's eyes lit on a file heading: Prisoner Roster. Immediately below it a second file summarized the results of various interrogations. For a moment he considered simply flagging them. Then curiosity got the better of him and he activated the worm program.

The frigate's Security Officer had made no attempt to lock off the files. Evidently he considered them low priority. To most individuals they would have provided little of interest. Wedge's eyes flicked down the short list. Identities of the last three unfortunates incarcerated on board RUTHLESS arrested his gaze.

"Son of a---"

"What have you found, Wedge?"

Startled by the unexpected inquiry at his shoulder, Wedge glanced back and discovered Alfiar Jornik hovering behind him. He directed Jornik to the bottom of the list. "These three, sir."

"What about them?"

"They're friends of Luke Skywalker. From Tatooine."

"Are they?" Jornik reached out, snagged an empty chair and snaked it over between Wedge and Flit. He sat. "Let's take a closer look at that."

Together, they scrolled through parallel documents, initially scanning the contents. Then, reaching transcriptions of the interrogations, they slowed. Descriptions were graphic. In addition to recounting responses to questioning, records precisely outlined the physical reactions of the three prisoners under torture. In all cases, there were vid-records as well.

Jaw locked in rage at Imperial injustice, stomach churning, Wedge forced himself to continue through the material to its conclusion. A codicil at the bottom of the file directed them to a third document. This one took some digging to retrieve and was security locked. Under Jornik's expert manipulation they soon opened it. What Wedge read there concerning Camie in particular brought bile surging into his mouth. Sheer willpower alone prevented him losing his supper. He grieved for her when he read the line stating one prisoner, Fixer, had died under interrogation, and how. Jornik blanched and hastily looked away.

"Turn it off," he ordered.

"I don't believe it." Despite what he knew of Imperial atrocities Wedge still whispered denial at the report. "Why would anyone do that, given the results outlined in the report?"

"There's no accounting for what the Imperials do." Jornik reflected on recent history, staring at the now blank screen. "So many innocents suffered---died at their hands to no apparent gain. Still do."

"Like Alderaan."

"Like Alderaan." Distracted, Jornik pushed back from the desk. His next orders took Wedge off-guard. "That goes directly to Madine. Not a word to Skywalker, or Winolder. Understand?"

"Sir---"

"No, Wedge. I realize Luke's a close friend of yours and theirs. But it'll be up to Crix to decide just how much to tell him and Windy, and when. Now isn't an opportune time."

The belated report concerning his own family reared up and Wedge glumly countered. "When is?"

        To that Jornik did no answer.  Nor did he leave until certain Wedge had flagged the related files and forwarded them for the specific attention of the Chief of Covert Operations.  As Jornik got to his feet, he caught a sidelong look from Flit.
        "You're both to keep this between you.  At least until Madine releases it."

        "Yes, sir."  Difficult as it was to follow those orders, Wedge acknowledged receipt of them.  He met and held Jornik's gaze so that his superior knew he would obey instructions however much he might disagree with them.  With a short nod, Jornik moved back to speak with the Duty Officer.  Soon after he left DREC.

        "Did they kill them?"

        Flit's soft inquiry brought Wedge back to his surroundings.  He reacted, shaking his head negatively.  "No.  Not all of them, anyway."

        "What happened to the others, sir?"

        "Transported."

        "Ah."  A surreptitious check revealed the Duty Officer was preoccupied with something at his desk.  Flit hurriedly tapped out a serious of commands on her keypad.  "Here.  A list of planets to which prisoners have recently been sent."  Intrigued, Wedge edged his chair up against hers.  Ran down the list.  Her finger halted him at the second to last line.  "This looks promising."

        Someone had made a notation alongside the designation.  Quickly checking the reference, Wedge nodded.  "You're right.  Looks like they may have been shipped to Mandorel.  At least for the time being."  He glanced at his BATMAN.  "What do you know about the place?"

        Face screwed up with concentration, Flit's analytical mind kicked into high gear.  "Mandorel:  Sub-tropical to sub-arctic climate.  Equi-balanced growing seasons but requires considerable irrigation north of the equator to provide sufficient cash crops for export off world.  Also known for its aquaculture.  Seas are shallow.  Massive rifts cut through them, indicative of considerable seismic activity during its formative eons.  There's little tectonic or volcanic activity now.  Calamari explorers ventured to the bottom of the sub-aquatic realms during the time of the Old Republic.  However, the rifts are among the deepest encountered on habitable worlds."

        "Minerals?"

        "Low priority.  Either too exposed and weathered to be valuable, or so deep beneath the crust as to make them too expensive to pursue."

        "Sort of like Alderaan."

        "No.  Unlike Alderaan early settlers to Mandorel organized the entire planet into an agrarian society."  Seeing his puzzled expression she searched for a comparable analogy.  "More like Coruscant in reverse."

        "So the natural flora and fauna suffered?"

        "Big time," said Flit.  "What's left is confined to large wildlife reserves.  DNA samples for breeding purposes are taken from every animal.  That way, even after it dies they can use it to inject fresh blood into the species."

        Eloquent as always, Wedge wordlessly let his BATMAN know what he thought about any race that would decimate a world's ecology for personal gain.  For all Corell was famed for its shipyards.

        "So the work camps are farms?"

        "Land and sea."

        "Can't entail more than keeping droids repaired." Travels having taken him across numerous worlds over the recent years, Wedge failed to see the obvious until his BATMAN put it into words.

        "Don't bet on it, sir."  Flit's voice was rough with adverse emotions she rarely displayed to anyone other than her superior.  "Mandorelli don't believe in wasting finances on planting and harvesting droids that'll break down."

        Something in her voice made Wedge insist upon a broader explanation.  "What exactly are you inferring, Flit?"

        "Sir, suffice to say they employ cheap labour, feed and clothe them as inexpensively as possible."

        Expression hardening, Wedge grasped brutal facts.  "In other words, they employ slave labour, starving and working them to death."

        "Pretty much."

        Beyond that, Flit did not elucidate further on the failings of Mandorelli.  Everything was there in her expression for anyone to see.  One elbow against his console, Wedge pressed his chin against his fist and stared, unseeing, at the monitor before him.  Eventually he asked the question Flit expected.

        "I take it the Imperium's still well entrenched?"

        "'Fraid so, sir."

        "Then they have to be dealing with pirates as well, since their labour force turn-over must be fairly high."

        "That's a safe assumption," said Flit.  "Of course, you'd never know, were you to visit Mandorel as a tourist."

        Her tone of voice betrayed her, something that would never have happened during her active duty with Cov-Ops.  Wedge caught on that, "You've been there, haven't you?"

        Head ducked aside, Flit returned to pursuing her assignment.  It was enough.  Wedge did not pressure her for a direct answer.  Determined to finish and get away from the miasma he always felt incorporated the essence of Cov-Ops, he applied himself to completing his allotted time.  They annotated the information they had just uncovered, and sent it across the net for special attention.  The end-shift chime sounded.  Their respective tasks finished, Flit and Wedge wrapped up their portion of the work and logged off their respective terminals.  On the way out they passed their replacements.

        One called out to Wedge in passing.  "Much left to do?"

        Not about to be trapped into conversation when he most to be back in his quarters, Wedge told a half-truth.  "I don't think so.  I doubt we'll be back for another session."

        "Great.  That's a relief."

        No matter how often he entered the building, Wedge was always thankful to escape Covert Operations.  It was a peculiar sensation that he could not quite put finger to.  And he was averse to mentioning to Jornik his disaffection with working in the building.  Outside, he paused on the walkway reaching between the building and the Palace.  Drew a deep breath to clear his lungs.

        "I think it gets most of us like that," said Flit quietly, cognizant of emotions held in check.

        'Not Madine,' Wedge mused.  That thought he kept to himself.

        Side by side, he and Flit leaned on the railing, staring out across the endless cityscape.  Hover-cars passed back and forth carrying passengers to various portions of Coruscant.  Several levels below a hover LRT whipped by.  Beyond Fleet Headquarters a shuttle lifted with a familiar rumble of retros.  No sooner had it disappeared than another shuttle appeared, this one descending gracefully into Fleet's landing rings.

        Farther off, in the direction of another district, two shuttles lifted almost simultaneously, followed quickly on their heels by a small private ship approximately the same tonnage as the MILLENNIUM FALCON.  Although a pilot, Wedge suffered from acrophobia.  Determined to battle it, he peered down into the unfathomable depths of the multi-layered city.

        Lights winked back at him from regions where sunlight never reached.  A kris-bat planed back and forth in search of food, using artificial and natural air currents as an energy-saving device.  Light-headed from that self-imposed inspection of the depths, Wedge brought his gaze back up.  Noted the angle of sunlight.

        "Supper?"

        Flit's suggestion produced a sympathetic rumbling deep in her superior's stomach.  Even had Wedge pretended disinterest there was no denying the audible growl thought of food spawned.  He thrust away from the railing and headed towards his quarters, his BATMAN at his heels.

        Once in Wedge's quarters, Flit ordered food for two.  Technically they both ought to be utilizing their respective messes.  Work more often than not precluded regular hours.  And this was one of those times when they had worked through the scheduled mealtime.

        "Do you think Fleet or Cov-Ops'll do anything to rescue General Skywalker's friends, sir?"

        A much earlier conversation concerning Alderaani refugees sprang to mind.  Wedge shook his head.  "Doubtful.  Remember that last footnote?"

        "The one where the Security Officer maintained the prisoners probably weren't worth the General's notice 'cause he left them behind on Tatooine when the rest of you escaped?"

        "Yes."

        "They obviously don't know General Skywalker very well," she said.  Back initially turned toward him, she failed to see his expression.

        "Probably just as well," said Wedge.  "The last thing I'd like to see is Luke tearing off to give his life for them."

        Shocked, Flit whirled, denial hot on his lips.  "He'd never do that!"

        For all her experience as a spy, Flit found it inconceivable that the Jedi Master would sacrifice himself in what she considered so meaningless a fashion.  She watched Wedge for some sign that he concurred with her objection.  To her surprise and consternation he did not.  In fact, he appeared exceptionally worried.  For several minutes she busied herself setting out the food the Palace catering service had sent up.

        "Surely he wouldn't, sir?"

        "I'm afraid I know Luke well enough, Flit, to say he most definitely would do just that if he found out."

        "But we---the New Republic needs him."  Flit set out the plates of food and settled on a settee across from her superior.

        Wedge refused to refute his earlier statement.  "Luke values his friends' lives above all else, Flit.  That's why he let Windy join us when we left Tatooine.  It's why Vader came so close to capturing him on Bespin Cloud City.  Luke couldn't stay away.  Not when Han and Leia were in danger."

        "Sith spawn!"  Astounded by that revelation, Flit gazed toward the window and its view of the inner garden.  Nightglows came on outside, one by one, illuminating paths in case someone should wish to use the area.  "So that's why General Jornik ordered us not to tell General Skywalker about our discovery."

        Depressed, Wedge picked over the contents of his plate  "More than likely.  He's very perceptive when it comes to reading other people."

        "That's almost too incredible to believe, sir."

        "Not if you knew General Skywalker as well as I do," said Wedge.  "I've fought alongside him through the worst of it.  I know."

        And his tone brooked no further pursuit of the topic.  Forewarned, Flit concentrated on her meal, but her appetite was gone.  Once they had eaten Wedge dismissed Flit.  In her absence he poured through his paperwork, sorted it with an eye to the following morning, and then dragged himself to bed.  But their conversation haunted his dreams.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Another morning had arrived with all too swift regularity. Leia rolled onto her back. Eyes closed, she listened contentedly to the slow, rhythmic breathing of her husband. All too soon he would wake also and head off world for the in-system training ranges to help instruct the newest batch of Officer Cadets and Second Lieutenants in evasive tactics. Slowly opening her eyes, she allowed herself to trace the intricate wood carved border trimming the room. Scrolled by hand, delicate accents crowned plaster cupolas, antiquated reminders of ancient times. A warm room. Thankfully it lacked the fripperies of her previous accommodations, welcoming life.

Han mumbled in his sleep. Rolled onto his side face to her and, in that state between sleep and consciousness, his left arm fumbled across the bed in search of her. She captured his hand in hers. Held it against her face and waited, eyes fixed on his face while he slowly peeled open his eyes.

"Time?"

A single word. She reluctantly nodded. But she did not immediately release him. Rather, she curled herself around until her head rested in the curve of his body, luxuriating in the touch of his fingers stroking her shoulder. All too soon their alarm announced they were past allowable time.

A wordless complaint escaped Han in the form of a groan. He crawled out of bed and disappeared into the 'fresher. This morning Leia allowed him first use of the facilities. While waiting her turn, the Princess went out to the sitting room and switched on her computer terminal. By the time her husband emerged from the bedroom, she was already well into the morning's workload. Another plus side was being able to dispense with her Lady's Maid except for formal functions. At that time even Han had to put up with an Official Dresser. Much to his undisguised annoyance.

His program adjusted to deal with the needs of serving a married couple Threepio arrived in perfect timing with breakfast. Before heading for the 'fresher and her wardrobe, Leia gave the protocol droid a series of instructions that sent him off once more. This allowed her a few more minutes alone with Han. Then he was gone and she rushed to prepare for the day.

For several days Leia had been putting off dealing with a distasteful and, unfortunately, equally delicate problem: that of rebuilding the rapidly decaying Coruscant. Too many of her advisors and Councillors had financial interests firmly seated in commercial holdings across the planet and system. This augured for one verbal altercation after another.

Today was the day. No further evasion was possible. Shoulders thrown back, her chin high, Leia swept into chambers with all the presence her petite figure commanded. Her thirty-member Council rose as one; greeted her with the usual pleasantries. Unaffected, Leia maintained a congenial air. She took her seat at the head of the table alongside Mon Mothma. Her advisor and confidant silently greeted her and waited patiently for proceedings to open.

"My friends." Expression forthright, she began by grasping the prize bull nerf by the horns. "First on today's agenda is the matter of reconstruction."

Princess Leia got no further. Voices around the table rose in disaffection and argument. Objections showered her from all sides. Leia knew they were correct in their assumptions that this particular article would effectively toss any other matters out the window.

"Whether you agree or not," she said bluntly, "is not the point. This particular matter has been repeatedly put back in favour of other affairs. I will not permit this to continue. However long it takes, a consensus will be reached relevant to this subject. And debate begins now."

Confronted by Princess Leia at her most determined, the Ministers dug in for the long haul. Quietly amused, Mon Mothma continued as the silent observer throughout the morning, listening and making notes of her own. By mid-afternoon they were still no closer to a decision. A solid opposition front against any logical proposal toward reform was maintained by the Ministers of Finance, Transportation, Housing, Tourism and, surprisingly, the Minister Without Portfolio for External Affairs.

As always, straddling the fence between the traditionalists and those considered radicals by their opponents were the Ministers of Internal Affairs, Defence, Customs and Excise, Out-System Affairs and the Minister of Internal Security. Leia's greatest consternation stemmed from the members who remained baldly in absentia.

Tempers frayed all round. Particularly when the Minister of Internal Affairs repeatedly harped back to one line whenever pressed to take a side. In the midst of a substantial argument for change, Mik Liarten leaned forward. Thumped a hand against the tabletop and successfully broke through the rhetoric once more.

"Here it comes again," said Mon Mothma to the Princess from the side of her mouth.

"As I have repeatedly reiterated throughout this debate," contentious to the point of nausea, the Internal Affairs minister repeated his favourite wheeze, "under Emperor Palpatine there were no poor or homeless on Coruscant. That being the case, surely we must be doing something wrong and should reconsider the manner in which this world's economy was managed under Imperial rule."

This line was one Princess Leia found particularly distasteful, if not impossible to swallow. It was her personal experience that any government professing to have no poverty among its populace was either lying to itself, or hiding a dark secret.

She lent forward. "Then perhaps, Minister Liarten, you have an explanation for these figures before us compiled by the Minister of Vital Statistics? How is it that so many destitute to have sprung up over night, as it were? Even you must accede to the physical impossibility of that probability. Particularly as Immigration has monitored all emigrants and transients and has been so forthcoming with the necessary figures."

No less annoyed by her attack and the fact that his word was being publicly questioned, Liarten thumped back in his chair and pointedly refused to respond to her rebuttal. Every ounce of diplomacy was necessary for Leia to rein in her irritation at his childish behaviour. She sipped from her water glass and surveyed the now silent gathering. Where possible, she met eyes levelly. Some looked quickly away. Others pointedly refused to meet her gaze. A few appeared sympathetic. Here and there among her proponents she encountered open belligerence.

"Right. Since we seem unable to make any further headway, I suggest we break and consider the matter outside chambers." Stymied, Leia ordered a recess until the following morning. "We shall gather here again at the same time tomorrow. I am determined that we reach an equitable and mutually agreeable decision before government returns from recess. Until then, we stand adjourned."

Voices rose in dissent, but the old-fashioned gavel came down, ending the session. Since the chairman had terminated the meeting they had no other recourse than to move on to other matters outside chambers.

"That was quite the show, your Highness." Mon Mothma commended the Princess as the gathering broke up. "But do you believe you will be able to extract a majority vote on this?"

Blunt to a flaw, Leia advised her confident of her intentions. "If I must, I will pursue it without break."

"Thank you for the warning," said Mon Mothma. Chair pushed back from the boardroom table she got to her feet. "Nevertheless your Highness, might I suggest you acquire some first-hand knowledge of what you're up against before you attempt an all-night filibuster?"

"I'll take your suggestion under advisement," said Leia. "Thank you."

"You're most welcome."

Bowing slightly, Mon Mothma withdrew. Had she known what her counsel stirred in Princess Leia, she would never have voiced that particular suggestion. Ignorant of the events she was about to set in motion, Mon Mothma retreated to her quarters and began a study of the financial empires based in the Coruscant system with an eye to providing the information to the Princess at a later date should it be required.

Thoroughly annoyed with the lack of progress, Leia remained in the otherwise empty chamber for several more hours, perusing notes she had taken, arguments tabled by opponents, and counter proposals from adherents and neutral parties. It took her best part of two hours to trim out the fat and forward the remainder to her personal files, another to organize them for research purposes and reference at a later date. Only then did she head back her rooms.


Immediately following dissolution of the session, two ministers boarded a hover-car in the diplomatic parking lot. Unlike many such vehicles, this one was chauffeured by a droid. Robyl Wohnit allowed Garyn Terk to precede him in a move the Minister Without Portfolio knew was calculated to put him at ease. Still, he permitted Robyl his small concession to protocol.

"Will you join me for supper?"

Terk sniffed slightly, disdainful but opportunistic. "Might as well. We certainly aren't going to get much accomplished tonight."

He settled back to enjoy the twenty-minute ride to the tower where the Minister of Internal Security lived. Diplomatic vehicles were assigned specific airways and they experienced no difficulty obtaining clearance. For some time Terk elected to ignore his companion and studied traffic flow. There was a distinct fall-off from the capitol's heyday.

"I dislike the trend implied by the Princess' discussion, Garik."

"She's inexperienced." Determined to ally what he saw as unfounded fears, Terk attempted to soothe Wohnit. "All that's necessary is a little judicious manipulation at the right time."

An unexpected bark of scorn-filled laughter interrupted him. Terk angled his body to his companion. Was astonished by the sarcasm he read on Wohnit's face.

Undisguised scorn coloured Robyl's next words. "If you seriously believe that, then you're more the fool than I thought."

Garyn argued his point, struggling to keep his voice uninflected. "She's still young," he said. "Her experience as a Senator is limited---"

"I ask you to cast your mind back over this particular young lady's accomplishments." Terk remorselessly ground out unwelcome facts. "She was the youngest member elected to the old Imperial Senate before its dissolution. She survived capture by Imperial authorities, Garyn. By the Dark Lord of Sith, no less. Not once, but twice. And, if you believe the reports, which I do, escaped the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, having strangled him to death herself with the slave chain he put on her." Irritated by Wohnit's belittling, Garyn glared out the forward view port. Undeterred by Terk's stubborn refusal to accede, Robyl continued. "Don't delude yourself, my friend. Her Royal Highness is a highly capable and most dangerous opponent, inside chambers as well as out. Don't let her youth blind you to her accomplishments. She's nobody's dupe. Never forget who her brother is."

Uneasy, Garyn's voice dropped as the name tripped from his lips. "Skywalker."

"Just so."

Fearful of the potential opposition now fronting him, Terk turned to his companion. "Then what should we do? If she succeeds in drawing a majority to her side we risk losing everything. I don't know about you, but I certainly can't afford the sizeable dent her proposal will make in my personal finances."

"Softly." Ever conscious of his surroundings, even though the droid was one of his own, the Minister for Internal Security rested a sly look on his companion. "Leave this to me. I have the resources to ensure her Royal Highness does not interfere with our holdings. If need be, I'll draw on those. Until then we watch and bide our time. Agreed?"

Still uneasy, Garyn drew a long, slow breath. Released it through his nostrils. His mouth worked back and forth. Then he nodded. "All right."

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Landing gear contacting its designated pad with a gentle rumble, the transport settled to the ground. Up front the crew went through post-flight checks while the Loadie released the boarding ramp. Han Solo stretched and gave himself a little shake to clear sleep from his eyes. He methodically unclipped the safety harness, grabbed up his over-night bag and rose. All around him officers and non-commissioned service members were getting to their feet. A final check of the hand luggage, they chatted with one another. Alone amongst them, Han waited for the press of bodies to shift aft and disembark.

"Going to be with us long, sir?" One of the junior officers dared address the legend among them.

Solo shrugged. "Haven't seen the training schedule yet."

Still wanting to chat with this hero of the Rebellion against the Empire, but not quite knowing what else to say, the officer nodded. When Han made no attempt at continuing the idle conversation the junior officer wisely turned to his companions. They came to his rescue, drawing him away from the Corellian and down the ramp. Solo followed more slowly. At the bottom he stepped off onto plasti-crete and paused to assess what this planet had to offer.

Further in toward the sun than Coruscant, Trebbil was habitable for short periods of time without environmental suits in the polar zones. Hotter, which was to be expected, and more arid than its sister world, Trebbil provided excellent training facilities. Rotation on its axis was slower despite its being marginally smaller than Coruscant. There were polar caps, though nominal. Two oceans occupied forty-seven percent of the planetary mass, principally confined to massive submarine rifts. Such natural vegetation as existed above the level of lichen hugged crevasses in equatorial regions. Taller, fleshier plants grew in the sub-arctic climate. It was here previous generations of military were housed, the base monitored constantly by several ground and space based weather stations.

Somewhat lighter on his feet, Han took his first steps with more caution than the others disembarking their transport. Experience governed his actions as he allowed his body to adjust to abnormal gravity and a thinner atmosphere. He squinted at the sun. Felt his skin contracting slightly beneath its rays.

"No sun tanning." He muttered to no one in particular.

"Can I help you, sir?"

At that question Han turned. Found he was face to face with a non-comm. "Yeah, Corporal. Point me in the direction of Ops, would you?"

Belatedly recognizing Han Solo, the Corporal blinked. "General Solo, sir."

"Yes, Corporal."

"You'll find Operations across the opposite of the field." The Corporal recovered and gestured. "Between those two buildings and up one level."

"Thanks."

"Not a problem, sir."

Dismissed by the flashing of a grin and salute, the Corporal hurried off in the direction of the shuttle. Han resolutely hitched his over-nighter higher on his left shoulder and set off. Before he quite reached the buildings a Captain emerged from the shadows.

"General Solo?"

"That's me." Patient with the repeated round of formal greetings, Han took it in stride, his old Academy training standing him in good stead.

"Captain Carthin," said his escort, pronouncing his name Karten. "The Commander asked me to meet you, sir, and escort you to Ops."

Much as Han was tempted to retaliate that he could find his own way to his destination, he recognized the necessities of rank. He nodded. "Thank you, Captain."

"Just follow me, sir."

Two steps in the lead, Captain Carthin escorted Han between the projecting wings of the main building. Along the way he kept up a running monologue. "To the left is our primary servicing area where the techs wait for each craft to return. Every skyhopper's given a thorough going-over between missions. And the same craft never goes out more than twice in a day."

"Efficient." Aware he was expected to say something, Han remarked on the obvious.

Carthin flashed him a quick smile. "On the other side's the crew lounge for flight staff. That's where we get our orders. Every mission is laid out by senior personnel then sent down to students and instructors. That way both parties are fresh to the scenario. The only time we don't do this is during the canyon chase."

"Canyon chase?" Intrigued, Han pressed for an explanation. To his surprise, Carthin grew strangely reticent.

"You'll receive a complete run-down in Ops, sir." Captain Carthin opened a door. Guided Han up two flights of steps and through another door. "Here we are, sir."

Carthin stepped aside and gestured Han into a large, pleasantly apportioned room. Along the two opposing walls, right and left, were ranks of computer banks for transmitting instructions and monitoring trainees and their instructors on the ranges. Three junior officers were comfortably ensconced, apparently on a break. Two were playing a computer game. Dead centre in the room rested a holo-tank, presently switched off. Set into the far wall was a large transparency granting occupants an uninhibited view of the landing field and rugged terrain beyond. To the immediate right of the door through which Han entered rested two couches for the convenience of flight crews waiting return to Coruscant.

Sight of the Corellian brought the pilots off the couch to attention. Their actions effectively diverted the pair at the computer. Game forgotten, they stared at the new arrival. Han ignored them. Tucked to the far-left rear of the room was another doorway. A man stepped from the back office. He greeted Han respectfully.

"General Solo."

"Commander Farilae."

They had met at previous combat briefings since Hoth. That Han remembered him by name proved a personal kudos for Farilae. "Welcome to Trebbil Base, sir. Glad you could come."

"Thank you, Dael. It's a pleasure to be here."

"Please, sir. Won't you join me in my office?" Once in the office Farilae shut the door behind them. "Would you like some refreshments, General? The air conditioning on those transporters can be somewhat debilitating."

"Thanks. Quaff, if you've got it."

"Certainly." Farilae poured a mug of quaff and passed to Han. "I must admit, General, I was very surprised to see your name on the duty roster of new personnel arriving from Coruscant. Mind if I ask why you elected to come out to train recruits?"

Settled in a chair, feet thrust out before him, Han took a sip of quaff. To the ignorant he appeared unconcerned that his appearance on the base would cause considerable speculation amongst staff and students. Farilae knew better and Han sensed it. He made no effort to dissemble.

"I've been put on standby recall status, Commander."

"Ah. Enough said, sir."

A warrior himself, Farilae recognized the inability to accept inactivity. In every soldier and pilot there existed a desperate need to find some appropriate form of enterprise through which to burn off excess energy to remain in top form. What he knew of Solo indicated the Corellian was no different from the rest of them.

"We appreciate your being here, sir. Do you have a preference in where you wish us to utilize your expertise?"

Over the rim of his mug, Han said, "I'm rather interested in taking on any hot-shots you might have in your present batch of up-and-coming pilots."

He had Farilae's undivided attention. A wicked gleam lit the Commander's eyes. Lips pursed, Farilae nodded. "I believe I have just the ones, General. Would you care to peruse tonight's roster? Or wait until tomorrow morning?"

"Wherever, Dael."

"Frankly, sir, my staff's been run a little ragged with this latest bunch nearing graduation. Several of them have already seen combat. Five of them are older than most officer candidates traditionally are. As such, I'd like to use you starting this evening."

"Show me what you've got."

Empty mug set aside, Han pushed to his feet and followed Farilae back into Operations proper. Heads turned as they entered. Bodies stiffened. Someone actually appeared on the verge of calling the traditional 'room' that would bring everyone present to attention.

Before anyone could recover sufficiently to shout the command, Han ordered, "Carry on."

Ill at ease with the degree of respect being paid, Han refused to further disrupt routine. He ignored the stunned duty staff, trailing Farilae to the nearest console. The Operations Duty Officer logged off the game presently in play and brought up the daily roster.

"These trainees have been thoroughly checked out on Skyhoppers over moderate and rugged terrain. Their final test prior to graduation from flight school will be a mock chase scenario through the Trebbil canyons."

Dael Farilae displayed the list of potential graduates. Over his shoulder, Han hurriedly scanned the names. Three he recognized from the attack against SPITEFUL and RUTHLESS. One was Marica Winolder.

"These are our top five candidates." Farilae glanced back at Han. "I believe you're familiar with Winolder."

To that rhetorical question Han nodded. "How's her progress?"

"Good." Carthin slid a quick look at Solo. "In fact, excellent. She's fifth in her class. Has the potential to place higher, except her education is somewhat lacking. It's held her back when she ought to have out-stripped her peers."

"How does she take that?"

"Oh, she accepts it with remarkable grace. That's not to say she coasts. Quite the contrary; she really pushes to make the grade."

"Well, I guess the kid was right about her," said Han under his breath.

"Say again, sir?"

"Nothing, Dael. Just tell me who's first up. And show me what this much-vaunted canyon of yours looks like."

"Of course, sir. You'll have the opportunity to fly it a few times, both on the flight simulator and actual, and as a passenger in a twin-seater to accustom yourself to some of its idiosyncrasies. Wind shear can be quite severe. And there are the storms. At times we pull the missions."

"Understandable."

Unaware of it, Han unconsciously issued a challenge. Farilae eagerly summoned the hologram of the high intensity training range. Focused on the place veterans referred to as The Shredder. Topographic maps labelled it Oregge Canyon. From pilot perspective the imager swept through banks and turns. Every so often Han froze a section. Panned the scene around so he could view it from all angles before continuing. At his side, Farilae watched his face. The minute the simulation ended, Han Solo turned to the Commander.

"Dael. I want a skyhopper outside, on the pad, ready and waiting within five minutes. Then tell me where I can pick up flight gear."

"You're planning to fly the canyon?"

"You know it."

"But regulations dictate at least one fly-through on the sim, sir."

"I know." Solo flashed a sly grin. "Been there. Done that before I arrived."

"That's cheating, sir." The Captain objected, but found he could not help smiling at the Corellian's audacity.

A finger pointed it at the last section of the display, frozen in the air above the projector. Han held his gaze. "No, Commander. Expecting me to go up against your candidates cold, now that's unfair. Your other instructors are familiar with this topography. I'm not. If you're expecting me to give these kids a run for their credits, then I have to acquaint myself with that nightmare outside."

"Very well, General. RHIP."

'Rank has its privileges indeed.' Han reflected on that, one of the oldest military adages. Unconcerned, he informed Farilae, "And after I've familiarized myself with this canyon, I plan to grab a couple hours sack time."

"As you wish, sir." Farilae snapped his fingers. "Lieutenant Prako, escort the General to Stores. Then show him to senior officer transient quarters."

"Sir." The Lieutenant darted into the Commander's office. Returned bearing Han's over-nighter. He saluted Han. "If you would please follow me, sir?"

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Two days of an empty bed. No evening verbal sparring matches. The Princess hurried to get back to their suite, certain her husband would be back from his inspection of the pilot training ranges. Instead, Leia discovered a message waiting for her.

'Night flying tonight. Schedule erratic. Operations is short-staffed with the training program. Won't be back until at least next week. Sorry. Will use range quarters. Miss you.'

Irritated, but understanding his need to keep his edge, Leia slumped at the console. "Han Solo you can be the most infuriating---"

"I beg your pardon, your Highness?"

"Nothing, Threepio."

"I'm certain General Solo was not to blame for being detained." Threepio attempted to mollify his mistress. "Would you like me to order dinner?"

"Please. Something light." Distracted, Leia tapped the wrong key on her console and promptly erased half her work. "Frag it."

Open use of profanity by the Princess was highly uncommon. Threepio's photoreceptors flickered in imitation of a human blink in surprise. "Pardon, Mistress Leia?"

Fingers flying over the keys as she hurriedly fought to reclaim the work, Leia countered. "It's all right, Threepio. I'm not angry with you or Han. I just can't seem to get this precise up to speed, that's all."

"Perhaps I can be of assistance." Ever ready with suggestions, Threepio took a step forward. "If you explain the problem---"

"This isn't something I can't handle, Threepio." Although she appreciated his well-meaning offer, Leia deferred. "It'll just take valuable time that I so hate to see wasted when reconstruction could be taking place right now. Too many people are suffering for lack of proper housing and work. But all the Ministers want to do is debate the issue blue in the face. There are even those who insist there are no poor or dispossessed on Coruscant."

Intrigued by the subject and his Mistress' irritation, See-Threepio moved closer to the Princess' desk. "Am I to understand Council is finally examining proposals for reconstruction in those zones about to undergo demolition?"

"That's correct."

The door chimed, announcing the arrival of Leia's meal. Threepio took the tray from the catering droid himself, this time. Shooed the kitchen help back out the door reassuring it he would summon it when his Mistress was finished.

"Well, your Highness," he set the tray before her and removed the covers, "if I may say so, the answer is obvious. What I have seen of the draft proposal you have compiled is more than logical. Coruscant does indeed suffer from an inordinate lack of accommodations for the poor and sufficient parkland to offer recreation for the population."

"It's not that simple, Threepio."

Fragrant steam rose from the plates. Leia sniffed appreciatively and took a mouthful. She chewed and swallowed. Fork lifted to emphasize her point the Princess explained the difficulty presented her.

"Anyone can sit back and pontificate on suggestions, apply rules and regulations for the so-called benefit of the inhabitants, Threepio. But unless one really understands the wants and needs of the populace, the economic, as well as ecological impact on the planet, it's impossible to do what's right."

"I really don't understand the difficulty, your Highness. You have all the facts and figures---"

"Facts and figures can be manipulated, Threepio."

Fork aside, Leia massaged aching temples with her fingertips and struggled for a solution. Then she attacked her meal again, making considerable inroads into it before speaking again. In between bites, she tapped away at her computer terminal, working on her project.

Content to potter around the room, rearranging things that always seemed out of place, Threepio waited for further input from the Princess. When she did break the silence it was as though her thoughts were miles away. And, in a way, considered the droid, they were.

"On Alderaan we used to go out among the people and speak to them personally. First-hand information is always best when preparing to make decisions with such wide-reaching consequences." Leia paused, recalled something Mon Mothma had mentioned in passing. The Princess caught on one phrase. "Acquire some first-hand knowledge. Mon Mothma, you're a genius."

Leia leapt to her feet. One hand brushed across her terminal, hitting SAVE and OFF so quickly Threepio could not believe she had successfully activated either function. Startled, his upper torso twisted back and forth. Mechanically stilted movements amplified his bewilderment. Belatedly he realized he had been abandoned in the sitting room. Threepio hurried after the Princess.

He found her in the process of changing into a nondescript shirt, pants and jacket much like the ones she had worn beneath her camouflage poncho on Endor. Thrown across the bed beside them were a blaster belt and weapon. The explanation that his transistors provided for her peculiar actions did nothing to ally his concerns.

"Excuse me, your Highness, but might I inquire where you are going?"

She replied enigmatically. "Into the field."

It took Threepio's matrix all of three microseconds to comprehend what she meant. "Oh, my! Mistress Leia. Are you certain it's safe? I'm sure General Solo would never agree. Perhaps I should summon a detail to accompany you."

"Don't be silly, Threepio. What could possibly happen? No one will recognize me in these. And one person is far more likely to go unnoticed than an entire party. Particularly an armed party that will draw all sorts of attention."

"Well, I'm sure I don't know. But there are all sorts of disreputable characters in the nether regions of Coruscant." Threepio instantly noted the stubborn set to her mouth in the face of his objections. "Reports are---"

"Damn the reports, Threepio." One of Han's favourite epitaphs tripped off her tongue, erasing the start of an attack of nerves. She belted the blaster about her waist, settled it more comfortably onto her right hip. Sight of the weapon did nothing to alleviate Threepio's uneasiness. Leia continued. "If I'm to apply a sensible, definitive solution to this problem, I have to compile first-hand data."

"But surely simply bringing individuals to the Palace and interviewing them would suffice?"

Princess Leia shook her head. She caught up the short cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders. Drew the hood up to conceal her features. When she passed Threepio in the doorway, he automatically started after her. The Princess halted.

"Not this time, Threepio. I have to do this alone."

"But Mistress Leia, it's not safe down there."

"Luke and Wedge do it all the time."

Everything in Threepio's programming demanded he counter that statement with logical reasoning. After all, Luke and Wedge were highly trained in the ways of blending with their background. Were well versed in slipping into, and out of, unfamiliar situations without arousing suspicions of the natives. But there was no arguing with the Princess.

"I want you to stay here." There was no countering her direct order. "If Han gets back before me---but he won't. He's spending the week at the ranges. That gives me five days to compile my case." Leia paused. Considered what she had been about to say. "Anyway, if Han or Mon Mothma should inquire, tell them where I went. I'm wearing my persona-link in my trouser cuff." Again she paused. See-Threepio remained agitated but said nothing. Leia shrugged. "It's unlikely anyone will miss me at this hour. Anyway, I'll be back well before dawn."

"Are you certain this is wise, your Highness?"

"Trust me, Threepio," she said without thinking. Against his better judgement, See-Threepio watched her leave without making any further attempts to stop her.

It proved ridiculously simple to escape the palace undetected. At each guard position Leia faded into the shadows, took several deep breaths, and concentrated. Heads turned from her and she slid past. No one remarked upon the cloaked figure quietly gliding past them, or noticed when that individual left the building.

Something about the methods she employed both attracted and repelled the Princess at the same time. She knew her brother used it when necessity dictated. But she was equally aware of the manner in which Vader and Palpatine had employed it. Common sense warred with her revulsion as that memory resurrected. She suppressed her aversion and continued out of the building.

In the parking area set aside for use by civil service personnel her persona key card accessed a hover-car. Half an hour later the Princess banked toward Lorus District, having put a safe distance between her and the Palace. Only now did she attempt to find a way to the city's lower levels. At that point she wasted best part of another hour before simply dropping through the multiple zones.

As fast as night was approaching across the planet face, transition was almost instantaneous as Leia descended the multiple levels. She requested and was granted permission to move cross-traffic, frequently being held at one position for several minutes before moving on down. Patience wearing thin, Leia eventually arrived at her destination.

Pedestrian traffic rapidly altered from casual to almost furtive, even among those who were clearly out for an evening on the town. Artificial illumination was sporadic. Transportation links were minimal at this depth; only the LRT ran with any frequency and hover-cabs were non-existent. Those few personal vehicles evident in the area sported heavy automated security measures.

Here Leia switched on her transport's headlights. Street maps for these areas were dubious at best. Just ahead she made out a plaza of sorts forming the base of a crown. From it ran five narrow streets. Forward speed slowing, the Princess picked out a likely spot and set the hover-car down. She disembarked and took time to examine her surroundings. For half an hour she played at window-shopping, all the while studying the furtive movements of this level's inhabitants. At length she headed toward a small cafe at one side of the plaza.

For approximately an hour and a half she nursed a hot drink, a non-alcoholic beverage once favoured by her adopted father and allowed conversation to wash over her while she studied the people and surroundings with a critical eye. Beneath the concealment of her cloak her free hand recorded her observations on a pocketsize electronic notepad in diplomatic shorthand.

"Well. This is very interesting." A quick review of her findings left her dissatisfied. "But it looks like I'm going to have to check out more than one district if I'm to convince the fence-sitters in Council."

Eventually Leia rose. She sauntered down the dimly lit boulevard, trying to blend with her environment. Tiny prickling fingers danced along her nerves as she wandered through the district. Against better judgement the Princess put it down to nervousness over unfamiliar surroundings. Behind her an indistinct shape flitted through the shadows.

To Be Continued In

SALVAGE

Part Three

Of

SUBTERFUGE

CONDER          SKIRMISHES
                Suberfuge Part Two

70

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