Part Three of SALVAGE

by Haru Windsong

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

"Waiting," Wedge Antillesr remarked to his companion, "is not my favourite pastime, particularly not in the middle of a mission. It ranks right up at the top of my list of pet peeves, alongside being away from Rogue Squadron for any extended period. And right now my unit desperately requires my personal attention."

Since the taking of Coruscant his top priority was the replacement of pilots and fighters lost during the series of engagements leading up to that assault and following it. Not to mention those casualties suffered during the fight for what had once been the Hub of the Empire.

Second on his list of 'Must Do' was assigning a comprehensive training schedule for a potential back-up string. Something there had simply not been time, or available manpower, to consider prior to now. He planned to draw them principally from his old wing, Red Squadron. In turn, the deficit in the other squadrons would be filled with new pilots fresh from Basic Officer training. Time was again the principal factor. Thoughtful, he scrutinized the three potential candidates across the freighter-cum-transport lounge from where he sat. A smile tugged one corner of his mouth.

"What are you grinning about?" Curious, Lando intruded on Wedge's thoughts and took a seat next to Rogue Squadron's new Commander-in-Chief and senior pilot. His eyes followed Wedge's gaze, apraising the group of junior officers playing a friendly hand of sabaac. Desserts appeared to be the favored stake.

"That's two desserts you owe me, Winolder," said one full Lieutenant. Disgusted, Windy threw in her card chips and leaned back.

"Count me out. You've got all my desserts for the next three weeks."

Voice pitched low, Wedge told Lando what had preoccupied him. "I was considering prospective second stringers."

"For what? Rogue Squadron?"

"And Wraith. Yes."

More intent upon the group now he understood what was under consideration, Lando made his own observation. "Well, if they survive this mission I'd say Lancar, Varikat and Winolder are excellent prospects, for all Windy's barely blooded her nose. But be it farthest from me to tell you your job."

A soft chuck escaped Wedge. "Those were my sentiments exactly. You've just confirmed them."

When Wedge's grin broadened, Lando pressed, "I'll bite. What's so funny about your choices?"

"Just that I keep getting stuck with Tatooine farm boys. Or, in this instance, farm girl."

"What---Oh. Right." Belatedly Lando recalled Luke and where he had grown up. "A guy tends to forget things like that, given the years and campaigns."

"You can say that again." Deep inside, however, Wedge could not quite reconcile himself to that mode of thinking. Every battle and skirmish, every lost comrade remained fresh in his mind.

'Strange.' He considered the paradox. 'It took so long for guilt over abandoning Biggs to rear its ugly head. By so much I came close to losing everything in failing to deal with the problem. Including my sanity. Only Luke really knew just how close it was.'

"Sabaac!"

Lancar again. Appreciative of an amateur with a natural talent for the cards, Lando aired his observations. "You'd think they'd have learned by now."

Alerted, and concerned that Lando knew something he should also be aware of Wedge stared at him. "Is there something going on here that I'm missing?"

"Nothing you'd know about unless you're good at cards. Then again, you're his superior." Settled back in the chair, Lando watched the ensuing hand as it was dealt. Suspicions confirmed he nodded slightly. "Now that's a nice move, if ever I've seen one."

Annoyed he was being led on, Wedge hissed. "Lando."

Well warmed up, Calrissian continued evasive. "Of course I'd never attempt a middle deal myself with anything but a batch of greenies."

Alerted, Wedge stared at his companion, then across the room at the card players. "Are you inferring Lancar's cheating?"

"I'm not inferring anything," said Lando with a shrug. "Takes a professional to know another, is all."

"Son of a double-dipped nerf." Wedge pushed out of his chair and stalked across the room. One hand gripped Lancar's nearest arm. He snapped a command. "Mister, I want a word with you."

"Not now." Intent upon his card chips, Lancar protested the intrusion, unaware of exactly who was demanding his attention. When the hand failed to lift from his arm he glanced up, irritated and prepared to demand the intruder push off. The sight of his superior looming over him, expression grim and unrelenting, made him blanche. All around him his peers froze, shocked by his insubordination, and fearful of exactly how their superior would react.

Lancar hastened to apologize for his effrontery. "Sorry, sir. But---I'm ahead and---"

"Now."

Training dictated he obey without question. "Guess I'm out, guys."

Groans greeted his departure. Some had envisioned an opportunity to win back what they had lost but were not about to argue with the hero of Endor. Several who were suffering more than others displayed less regret over his withdrawal from the game.

As Lancar moved to rake in his winnings Wedge commanded him, "And leave the chips."

Distracted by the unusually sharp tone Lancar froze with his hands and arms around the gambling pot. Reluctantly he set aside his winnings.

Wedge pointed toward the door. "Meet me in the passage."

"Yes, sir."

As Lancar headed for the exit Wedge stared at each face in turn around the small table. "Distribute that amongst you. Take only what you started with. Leave the rest with General Calrissian."

"Yes, sir." That came from Windy who suspected Lancar might have been putting something over on the rest of them.

Butterflies assailing his stomach, Lancar preceded Wedge from the lounge. When his Commander joined him, he fell in behind like an obedient pet called to heel. Privacy on board the cramped transport was at a premium; they were berthed six to a cabin generally allocated to three. Wedge made straight for the first available cabin with an open door. Three startled non-commissioned troopers seated on two berths stared at the intruding officers.

"Out."

One jerk of his thumb emphasized his point. The order sent the Non-Comms scrambling from the room. Lancar barely had time to clear the way to avoid being run down by the minor stampede. Beneath the studious glare of General Antilles, the Lieutenant warily edged into the cabin. The door swished shut, blocking out any view of the hall.

"Explain your actions, mister. And you better make it good."

Dumbfounded by the unexpected vehemence in the order, Lancar gaped at Wedge, temporarily stupefied to immobility. His thoughts raced. Precious seconds flew by. Still he failed to comprehend the reason for the General's wrath.

He managed a stutter. "S--s--sir?"

Not about to let his junior officer off Wedge growled back. "Does cheating at cards come so easily to you, Lieutenant, that you fail to consider the seriousness of your actions?"

"Ch--ch---cheating, sir?" Mortified that Wedge knew Kris Lancar blanched. His stomach performed an impossible back flip.

"I'm waiting for an explanation, mister."

Lancar frantically floundered, seeking a way out of his predicament. What emerged was the last thing he expected to hear tumbling from his own lips. "It was just fun, sir."

"Fun?" Expression darkening, Wedge crossed his arms and glared at his subordinate. "Did you say fun?"

"It was only for desserts, sir. Nothing important---"

"Let me get this straight, Lieutenant." Unable to countenance what he had just heard, Wedge demanded further explanation. "You consider cheating your team mates at cards to be fun?"

"Sir?"

Infuriated by Lancar's continued obtuseness, Wedge gathered his resources and responded with considerable distaste. Animosity dripped acid from his tongue. "Let me tell you a thing or two about that rank you're so proud of wearing, Lieutenant."

Before he could get any further with his lecture, the ship all-points intercom buzzed. "General Antilles. Report to GEM Ops."

"Hold that thought." Wedge ordered his subordinate. He took a deep breath to calm himself and went to the wall com-unit. "Antilles here."

"Sir, would you please report to Ops personally?"

Something about the tone of the request made Wedge decide against pursuing an explanation in light of present company. "On my way." He released the button and turned on Lancar once more.

"I'm not finished with you yet, Lieutenant. Until we speak again you will refrain from participating in any and all games of chance. Nor will you comment or speculate upon the subject of this conversation. You will also make amends to your comrades by deferring to collect on their losses. Do I make myself understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

With one more scowl at Kris Lancar, Wedge spun away and left the cabin. Behind him, the Lieutenant found himself saluting blank air space. A bewildered look creased his brow, but he was not about to put his superior to the test by ignoring the warning. Rather than return to the lounge, Lancar headed for his cabin. He stretched out on his bunk and stared at the rack above, his stomach in knots. When a couple of his bunkmates returned, he remained introspective, ignoring their attempts to make idle conversation.

Regulations in abeyance, Wedge sprinted through GEM LITE's hallways, weaving through the few individuals abroad between shifts. People hopped clear with practiced fluidity and stared after him. Although small, the transport was sufficiently large to house both cockpit and a small communications-cum-operations room just aft and port of the flight crew deck. Lando glanced up as Wedge entered.

"What have you got?"

"Miner gettin' nosey," said Lando.

On the vid-screen Wedge made out a small prospecting tug edging around a nearby asteroid. Sensor probes from the one-man craft raked outlying chunks of rock and ice for likely gem and ore bodies.

"He gets much closer and we'll be sitting right smack in the middle of his scope."

"And," said the Communications Officer, "we've got an Imp patrol vessel vectoring in on Ghorman. Star destroyer class."

"Siths and sabres."

Those observations drove a knife through Wedge. Their options were thin. The spark of a plan presented itself. However nebulous, it remained their best option. Without bothering to air his idea, he plunged.

"Tell the Watch to break me out a vacu-suit."

"What are you going to do?"

"Play miner." Wedge shot back an ambiguous response. He leaned toward the Comms Officer. "Lieutenant. Have them assemble everything I'll need at the aft port airlock. I'm on my way."

"Yes, sir."

Even as he raced aft, the Communications Officer was ordering up the necessary gear. Hot on Wedge's heels followed Lando. Two technicians awaited their arrival, equipment spread out around them. On the rack behind them was draped the vacu-suit. While dressing, Wedge checked over what they had scrounged from the on-board lockers.

Not above voicing his opinions plainly Lando casually observed. "You're crazier than Xizor, you know that?"

"Maybe." One arm still out of the suit, Wedge looked up. Saw Lando shake his head in wonder. "Got any better ideas?"

"Nope. But that still doesn't mean you haven't lost it."

Still dubious, Lando watched Wedge finish suiting up. The techs double-checked his connections, life-support and equipment hooks. A hastily modified transponder was the last item passed to Wedge. Someone had found the time to alter it so it emitted the standard prospector stake identification code. Clumsily patting over himself one final time with his pressure suit gloves, Wedge nodded to the technicians.

"That's everything. I'm ready. Lando, my suit's secondary band is on tight circuit to this comm-link." He pointed to the hatch console. The ex-administrator nodded comprehension. "Okay. Open her up."

Gradually the inner door yawned open. Once the inside hatch shut behind him, Wedge rechecked the suit systems and read-out of his own vitals on the suit's internal monitor. Received a thumbs-up from a tech inside the ship. Then he cycled the outer hatch.

"This is a comms check. Scavenger One, do you copy?"

"Scavenger Two, this is One. Loud and clear, Wedge." A hint of laughter in his voice at the choice of call sign, Lando responded. "Better move it, buddy. Time's getting pretty short."

"On my way."

Suit thruster pack activated, Wedge aimed for the asteroid terminator. Behind him, attached to him by a short tether, dragged the transponder. By the time Wedge curled over the shadow terminator into sunlight he was acutely conscious of his own measured breathing thrumming inside the confines of his helmet. He never relished working in the vacuum of space. In truth, though, it was only one step off sitting in a fighter cockpit.

'Except there,' he reminded himself, 'I've got the life-pod for backup.'

Carefully examining the pockmarked, frozen rock face beneath him for a likely ore body with his hand-held scanner, Wedge edged around the slowly tumbling asteroid. Space-blasted metals had slagged beneath the heat of the system's sun, frozen again as the visitor orbited outward once more on its rambling route through eternity. Time had repeated the process over millennia, providing the chunk of rock with an appearance that rivaled the polished sheen on a new ship. Blue, black, rust brown and metallic green, intermittently interspersed with flecks of some, as yet unidentifiable, intrusion which caught the sunlight and winked back at him.

Caught by that intrusion Wedge spiraled down toward a visible fracture line with the awkward grace equaled only by other veteran space-suited individuals. He planted himself. Piton set, he activated the tiny explosive pack that drove a piton into the surface, fixing the transponder firmly in place. Certain it was well seated he switched it on.

"Hey! Who the hell are you? And where did you come from?"

Static crackled over the suit comm's free-link. It took all Wedge's self-control not to attempt a quick twist. One hand as a balance point, Wedge crabbed around one foot at a time to face the miner. The prospector whom GEM LITE's sensors had detected now hovered just above him off the terminator. Even through the anti-glare finish on his visor it was clear he was infuriated at being beaten to staking claim to this particular asteroid.

"I asked you who you were."

Wedge gathered himself and babbled back, striving to emulate the fever pitch often exhibited by someone who is certain they have just struck it rich. "This is my first grub stake!"

"Oh yeah?" Cautious, the miner swung around Wedge, edging closer. Legally he could do nothing about the transponder. In truth there were unscrupulous prospectors. Fingers on the butt of the cutting tool on his belt, Wedge warily followed the miner's movements. While he kept the miner in view he prayed this man did not have a partner preparing to ambush him. Fortunately the miner proved to be alone and Wedge's eager response appeared to satisfy the man.

"Well, welcome, pilgrim." Aware he was out-manoeuvred the miner grudgingly flashed a 'well done'. "Beginner's luck, buddy. Got a good one here. You know that?"

"Figured. Tug sensors reported high yield."

For a minute the miner remained there, watching, drifting slightly in the minuscule pull of gravity exerted by the asteroid. Then he added, "Watch your stake, stranger. There're some bad ones in the belt."

"Thanks. I will." Before the man departed, Wedge dared ask him for identification. "What do they call you?"

Surprised that someone who had initially appeared to be a recalcitrant greenie would ask, the prospector said, "Flint. Gerilt Flint. Out of Endaba, by way of Corell."

With an exaggerated nod of his head, Flint slowly turned and jetted away. Once certain the dwindling spot was not about to brake or about-turn, Wedge jetted back to the transport. Inside the ship, the inner lock cycled. Lando met him and helped him divest of his gear.

"That was too close," was Lando's comment the minute Wedge tugged out of his helmet.

"You've got that right." Sweat-soaked hair tangled across his brow. Wedge pushed several stray locks out of his eyes. "You guy's wouldn't happen to have done a metal survey while I was out there, would you?"

A sly look slid across Lando's face. "Well, now---"

"Let me guess. We hit the jackpot."

"Best wild sabaac hand I've played in a long time." Lando confirmed his suspicions with considerable satisfaction. "Maybe we ought to go into business together. You survey and mine, I'll register the claims and take care of sales."

Unable to countenance Calrissian's suggestion, Wedge stared at him. But Lando appeared serious. Wedge stepped from the vac-suit trousers and passed them to a waiting technician. "I want it formally registered."

His statement astounded Lando and the technician. "To the Alliance?"

"Fifty percent," said Wedge. He ignored the incredulous looks of those around him.

"You keeping the other fifty?" Lando wanted to know.

With a snort and a firm shake of his head, Wedge stepped past Lando and headed toward the cockpit. Curious, Calrissian hurried after him. "So? Are you gonna keep the credits?" Again Wedge shook his head.

"Then what?" When Wedge still did not respond, Lando prodded him. "You aren't planning to split it amongst the team leaders, are you?"

"Nope." With a single word, Wedge shattered all hopes. "The Alliance has a very strict policy about such matters."

"So tell me what you're going to do."

Without looking at him, Wedge explained. "I'm posting the other half to the account of one Gerilt Flint."

"And just who the hell is the lucky stiff?"

"Our friendly snoop," said Wedge, gesturing obliquely toward the exterior of the transport.

"That bum?" Incredulous, Lando stopped dead in the passage outside Operations. It was all he could do to keep his voice modulated to a reasonable level. "You're not serious? You're actually going to release fifty percent of the profits to some hard-scrabble, no-name rock head?"

Unimpressed by the demeaning designations, Wedge nodded. "The Council takes a pretty dim view of its members profiting at the expense of a mission. However they might come into the credits."

Lando reflected out loud. "Man. It's no wonder you fly-boys are always broke."

"General!"

The shout from the cockpit disrupted their banter. "Problems?"

"'Fraid so, sir. That Imp destroyer's headed our way."

"How long before they're within sensor range?"

Concerned, Wedge stepped into the cockpit and leaned across the navigator's shoulder. He peered down at the tracker. Conscious of the senior officer at his back the navigator managed to maintain professionalism in spite of his youth and freshness to active duty.

"Extrapolating his present course, sir, and adjusting for intervening obstacles I'd say we have perhaps fifteen---maybe twenty minutes to clear the area. After that they'll pick up our engine signature."

"Okay." Thoughts flying, Wedge drew back and turned to the flight crew. "Captain?"

Without turning in his seat, GEM LITE's pilot glanced over his shoulder. "Yes, General?"

"I need you to do two things."

"Yes, sir?"

"I want our transponder registration and present location filed with Ghorman mining registry."

"Under whose name, sir?"

"Pass me the data pad."

While the pilot obliged, Lando studied Wedge Antilles. Sight of Wedge blithely signing away a small fortune in rare gems and a vein of pure crisa-steel base metal made him wince. Half went to the miner. The other half was deposited to a special account on which the New Republic drew, unbeknownst to the Imperials. From the lack of hesitation displayed by the young General it was obvious he was either oblivious to the exact amount, or he really did not care. Either way, it raised Lando's hackles.

A thinly restrained sigh of frustration and exasperation escaped Calrissian. Despite his efforts to conceal his feelings, Wedge heard. He glanced at Lando but kept his own emotions under control, making no allusion to that display of disapproval. Deliberately he locked in the information and returned the data pad.

"Now put us on passive transponder and shut down all unnecessary systems. That should give us an additional five to ten minutes before that star destroyer's sensors detect us."

Everyone knew the decision meant a trade-off. In buying time by lying low, they risked a cold drive. That meant they would have insufficient time in which to run up the engines before fleeing the system ahead of any pursuers. Still, a competent crew could attempt a cold start, even though it was not recommended in any ship manual. With a nod, their pilot confirmed the order.

"Yes, sir, right away. Going passive. Standby systems on emergency reset now."

Lights abruptly dimmed all over the ship. Such interior lighting as remained modified to red. Under the pilot's direction all nonessential staff were immediately ordered to go to ground in their cabins. Amused, Lando accompanied Wedge back to the cabin they shared on the upper of the two levels in the cramped vessel. Along the way Wedge realized his companion was inordinately pleased about something.

"What are you grinning about?"

Unable to resist, Lando chortled. "Threepio."

"Huh?"

A chuckle in his voice, Lando quoted regulations. "All non-essential systems shall be shut down. Amplified, that includes droids."

Now Wedge also grinned. Sure enough, upon entering their cabin they discovered the protocol droid standing in one corner. His photo sensors were dimmed to power-down mode, head and arms sagging.

"Silence." Lando breathed an exaggerated relief and dropped onto the bottom bunk in reclining position. To his surprise Wedge went to the desk ship com-link. "What are you doing?"

"I have one more item to attend to while things are quiet," came the somewhat terse answer.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

On board the MILLENNIUM FALCON, Chewbacca went through the stand-by checklist one more time. His diligence had all ready caught one small mechanical problem; a minor item only if things remained uneventful. Somehow he doubted it would continue quiet. Not given present circumstances. Artoo Detoo released a high-pitch whistle and a whoop from the cockpit entrance. Before Chewie could bark at him, the little droid plugged in and displayed his announcement in Wookiee-speak on the nav-puter monitor.

<Stormtroopers are making spot checks of all ships presently on the ground.>

As inventive as his partner, Chewie uttered Wookiee maledictions and pulled out his com-link to transmit the pre-agreed upon emergency recall. At the same time he hoped Han and Luke were not trapped in a situation where his actions would prove detrimental to them. Then he gestured to the droid.

<Uncouple all ground lines and get back on board.>

Artoo whistled softly, disconnected from the onboard translator and hurried outside to comply with Chewie's instructions. Meanwhile the Wookiee prepared for immediate lift-off.

As it happened, still several blocks south of Gaylor's Bar, Han heard the tiny beep and drew out his com-link. At his side, Luke halted and patiently waited. Neither said a word at the sight of the flashing red diode. They flagged down the nearest hover-cab, this one driven by a human. Han paid the driver the standard fee. Then he slipped over an exorbitant sum and made a fairly common request.

"See how fast you can get us back to port."

Unimpressed, the driver advised him. "On Ghorman speeding carries a serious fine, sir."

For a moment Luke was afraid they had encountered an honest cabbie. That he would have to resort to 'leaning' on the man. More credits changed hands. Their speed increased. Pleased with the results, Han settled back and projected a casual air.

As though unimpressed by their present pace he remarked to Luke. "Last guy drove me there made it in just under twelve minutes."

Without missing a beat Luke responded to the cue. "Really?"

Beneath them the hover-cab obligingly leapt forward. Han gave his brother-in-law a lazy wink. Landscape flashed by, a blur through which individual objects were indescribable. Outside the city they surmounted the first ridge and momentarily left their stomachs behind. Apart from a mild grunt, Han made no comment concerning poor compensators in the passenger cabin. Two sharp switchbacks threw them against one outside wall, then the other. Sight of Han's disgust made Luke supress a laugh. They swerved again and he hurriedly grabbed a handhold just in time to prevent lurching against the door padding again. Somehow he ignored muscles bruised by the impact of Han sliding into him. Again Han thudded into him. Their hover-cab roared up and over the second hilltop, and sped downslope into the spaceport.

As they crossed into the port outskirts, their driver slowed to within acceptable speed limits. He wove through pedestrian traffic, maintenance droids, cargo-levs, other hover-cabs and official traffic with equal alacrity. Everywhere Luke looked he caught flashes of white.

"Stormtroopers." Under his breath he muttered that observation aware Han had also seen them. Groups of three to seven were halting all traffic for inspection.

"Stop here."

His order produced an immediate response. Thrown forward by the unexpected cessation of movement, Han grabbed for a hand strap, missed and flung out his hands to brace himself. Somehow he successfully arrested his perilous projection toward the rear of the front seat at the cost of a wrenched shoulder.

"Dammit, kid. Warn a guy, will you?"

Unrelenting, Luke commanded him. "Out."

That tone was not one he employed lightly. Without pausing to question the Jedi Master, Han tossed a handful of credit chips at the driver just as a traffic control droid appeared. Solo scrambled clear of the hover-car before the droid drew alongside the driver's side.

The Jedi Master urged him on. "This way."

They faded into the maintenance road; a route generally utilized only by droids and smaller, automated servicing vehicles. Footfalls rumbled back to them off curved metal walls, hollow echoes as they entered a narrow tube and worked their way through it. Overhead conduits and cables forced them to run hunched over. Unexpected protrusions caught at them. Once Han grazed a hip on a droid access housing which had been left open. The incident made him mend his pace for several seconds before the ache in the bruise dissipated.

Abruptly Luke came up short. Forced to halt, Solo peered past his shoulder. A booster cart blocked their way. After a moment's hesitation Luke clambered on top and crawled over it. Still trusting him, Han stuck to his heels. Once past it they paused to catch their breath.

"I sure hope you know what we're doing."

In the dim emergency lighting he saw Luke's head turn. "Trust me."

Han retorted with disgust "That's my line."

"Usually."

Undeterred, Luke set off once more, leaving Han to bring up the rear, a position the Corellian was beginning to dislike. He was certain this dubious avenue was a far more circuitous route than the road outside. His internal clock insisted it was taking them nearly double the time to cover the distance to where they had left the FALCON.

When Luke halted a second time, Han drew his blaster and inched up alongside. Ahead the way branched once more. This time Luke pointed to a number incised alongside two hatches. Neither opening appeared large enough to accommodate them. Yet Luke silently implied they were to crawl through the larger, leaving Han imagining himself incurring all manner of scrapes and bruises, not to mention torn clothing. He turned dubious eyes on his brother-in-law.

"Luke, you've gotta be kidding."

"Unfortunately not."

"You do insist on getting us into more tight squeezes."

"Hey." Luke countered amenably. "It's not my fault this time. How was I to know the Imperials would decide to conduct a snap inspection of the port?"

"So where's your all-mighty Force?" To that, Luke refused to respond. He merely stared blandly back at Han. Solo conceded. "Okay, what now? Always supposing we can fit through that tube into the FALCON's bay."

"We'll have to make a run for it."

"What else is new?" Resigned to the inevitable, Han unfastened his holster. "What about GEM?"

"We'll squirt them a broad beam message to get under way weigh immediately for the jump point."

"Okay---Wait a minute. Did you say a broad beam?"

"Yes."

Sabre drawn, Luke slashed the locking bars off the exterior of the largest tube. Both fell to the floor with a reverberating, repetitious clatter. Han winced as warning sirens whooped throughout the tunnel. Red warning lights came on all along the tube.

"You do realize you'll be telling everyone out there that we're not alone?"

"Sure," replied Luke. He grabbed the covering plate, yanked it off and tossed it aside. "But they won't know where to look for our companion ship, only that there is someone else out there. It'll provide an additional distraction. Perhaps give us an edge."

"Somewhere. Smart, kid. Guess you've picked up a few things from me over the years."

Luke drawled, "Right. In."

He stood aside to allow Han to precede him. "Great," observed the Corellian. "So I get to stick my head out first."

"Of course," said Luke. "You're the one with the blaster."

"Very funny, kid. You watch it or you'll find yourself walking to Mandorel."

"I'll take that under advisement."

Unperturbed, Luke jerked his head toward the opening. Still muttering, Han inched into the tube, his blaster held before him, holster in his other hand. The conduit proved to be a distance of a little over two body-lengths. Fortunately, unlike the inner hatch, the outer cover was not locked.

Grateful for small favours, Han released the latch, eased it open and crawled out onto his hands and knees inside the docking bay. Straightening, he jumped back. And unintentionally caromed into his companion just as the Jedi Master dropped from the tube, knocking Luke sideways into the docking bay plasti-crete wall.

"Son of a---"

"Han, what the---"

Over the Corellian's shoulder, not three paces away, Luke caught sight of his astro-mech. Artoo released a shrill series of rising whistles, the notes so imperative even someone unfamiliar with droids would have recognized the urgency behind it.

"Go!"

A hand planted between Han's shoulder blades shoved him onward. Unprepared, Han almost fell over Artoo as the droid rapidly back-pedaled to clear the way. With a disgusted look over one shoulder, the Corellian raced for the ship ramp. Satisfied Han and Chewie would ready the ship for immediate departure Luke resealed the maintenance hatch. Then he whirled and sprinted toward the main entrance. At the foot of the freighter ramp Solo paused.

"Where are you going?"

"To buy us some more time."

Not breaking stride Luke disappeared from view. Uncertain exactly what the Jedi Master intended, but determined to be prepared for immediate departure on his return, Han bellowed an order into the freighter as he raced up the ramp.

"Chewie!" A Wookiee roar greeted him. "No time for that. Compute the quickest route up through present traffic." Han spun on heel and halted at the top of the ramp. Below, Artoo bobbed up and down on his stubby legs. "Artoo. Get the rest of those couplings clear."

For once Artoo did not question Solo's right to order him about. The droid took off across the bay to where several lines and hoses still connected the FALCON by umbilicals to port servicing facilities. He hurriedly shut off and disconnected each one. Before boarding the ship Artoo took a minute to plug into the port interface.

While crew and droid were preoccupied preparing for rapid departure, Luke pressed himself up against the wall at the street mouth of the entrance. His spare maintenance of coveralls, pale blue and oyster-grey, blended with the walls behind him. In either direction along the road parties of stormtroopers were meticulously inspecting landing permits. They moved toward the centre of the port, each taking bays along one side.

"No bluffing our way out of this one," Luke said to himself. He rechecked the street. Not far away he discovered an angular maintenance droid, one large cargo lev-plate complete with crates of goods that someone was off-loading, and a small land speeder. Several loose hoses lay along the wall across the road. Nearby, a group of troopers was questioning two members of a neighbouring vessel.

'Made to order.'

Although he took no pleasure in harming anyone or damaging property, enough of the boy remained in Luke Skywalker for him to experience a touch of mischief. And the imp in him readily set to work creating instant chaos at either end of the road. First he removed the brakes from the cargo-lev. He overrode its proximity alarms and auto-response system and set it in motion, careening down the street. Its speed was not excessive or sufficient to do any genuine damage, particularly as he 'nudged' a trooper in time for the man to spot the out-of-control, driverless vehicle. Everyone scattered, stormtroopers and ship's crew alike, with total disregard for one another as crates tumbled from the lev-plate.

Next Luke froze servo-motors on one side of the droid. This set it spinning in wobbly circles. The hapless mechanical lurched about, gobbling frantically, armatures flailing as its systems vainly sought guidance. Unable to jump clear, one stormtrooper was thrown sideways. He bounced off a wall. Helmet connecting with a protrusion, the man staggered and sat down. Dazed, he shook his head, confused by his precipitous, unexpected trip.

With a flip of the Force, Luke disconnected the landspeeder's restraining bolt just as two troopers launched themselves into it. About to set off in pursuit of the cargo-lev they discovered themselves trapped instead in the midst of a minor dust storm. Out of control, the speeder settled into its uncontrolled grav-cushion, and spun wildly around on its axis. All efforts by the driver to disable it proved futile.

Satisfied with his efforts, Luke retreated into the docking bay. Inside, the walls were reverberating with the throaty roar of engines. Through the cockpit transparency he made out a frantic hand gesture. Luke went up the ramp, clearing the top just as it rose into place. He slapped the lock seal in passing. Jostled by the lifting ship he used every available handhold to claw his way forward. En route to the cockpit he passed his droid.

Artoo sounded and looked inordinately pleased as he whistled at his master. There was no time to pause for translation, but Luke found himself wondering just what the little droid had been up to in his absence. Solo glanced back as the cockpit door hissed open.

"How'd it go, Luke?"

"Left them with a few things to preoccupy them for a while," said Luke.

He took his place at the nav-puter and began feeding in computations for their hyperspace jump, fingers flying with incredible speed across the board. Unable to spare time to question him, Han concentrated on flying his ship.

As they cleared the troposphere Han asked his partner for a report. "What have we got upstairs?"

Over the shake and shudder of the FALCON under lift stress, Chewie growled back at his partner. Solo scowled. "Not good. What class?" Again the Wookiee responded. "Definitely not good."

Luke spared them a glance. "Problems?"

"Yeah. Got a star destroyer out there on patrol at the edge of the asteroid belt. By the way." Han re-scanned the communications board. "Ghorman Flight Control didn't squawk a peep during our unscheduled, unauthorized lift-off. Your doing?"

"Nope."

"Any ideas?"

That brief moment in the lounge flashed through Luke's mind. "I've got a feeling."

The Corellian twisted still further around. Glanced at the entrance to the lounge from the corner of his right eye. "Artoo?"

"Odds are even on that."

Nor was Han Solo above appreciating the little astro-mech's handiwork. "Man, I would definitely not want to be the Garrison Commander."

As she burst from Ghorman's gravity well, the freighter scooted beneath two huge ore tugs towing crushed rock from the asteroid belt to an orbital refinery. Furious shouts split their communications as startled, angry crews hurled curses after the intruder's retreating engines. A shuttle frantically heeled over and fled their immediate proximity even though it was well off their flight path.

"Are you broadcasting our message yet?"

Distracted by the inquiry, Han sounded terse. "Yeah, kid. They know we're to rendezvous at the third option coordinates. How're those computations coming?"

"In the nav-puter."

"Okay. Looks like---uh, oh." Solo pointed to port, drawing Luke's attention to the view outside. "We've got company."

"Want me to man the topside guns?"

"Nope. Just hang on. This could get rough."

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

RAVAGER came around with agonizing slowness. Bulk was mass. The more mass, the harder it was to manoeuvre in space. To alter course quickly was out of the question. For all his pride in his command Mal Harriher, Captain, waited with increasing impatience for his vessel to complete its wallowing about-turn and lock on an intercept course with the delinquent freighter. Ground-to-ship communications from the port came in garbled although Imperial security channels remained clear. From the latter came blistering demands for RAVAGER's Commanding Officer to detain said freighter for standard 'search and interrogation' procedures.

"Bring sensors to bear on that vessel. I want a complete breakdown of type, registration, crew and cargo."

"Sensors coming to bear now, sir."

"Comms."

"Sir."

"Open a channel to that ship. Tell them to kill their forward thrust and stand by to be brought on board."

"Yes, sir."

With well oiled precision RAVAGER's bridge crew bent to their assigned tasks, preparing for when the star destroyer drew abreast of their quarry, snared it with the tractor beam and drew it in. Below decks technicians and engineers stood by tractor beams and cannons. TIE fighters were readied for launch on a moment's notice. Flight crews sat in their cockpits waiting for the inevitable command.

Harriher had every bit of confidence in his people, having captained the star destroyer since shortly prior to the Battle of Endor. Only bad timing on the part of his superiors had put his ship in dry dock for a minor over-haul and re-supply at a point when every available vessel ought to have been waiting to pounce on the rebel fleet as it emerged from hyperspace.

Despite recent failures Harriher believed whole-heartedly in the Empire's manifesto. Was positive the fleet could regain the precious ground it had lost, given time and resources.

"Time," he murmured to himself.

"Sir?"

At his side his Second-in-Command twitched then studiously averted his gaze when Herriher failed to acknowledge the inquiry. After a minute the Deputy Commanding Officer made his rounds, acutely conscious of his Captain watching his every move. From the corner of his eye he caught sight of the bridge runner; a junior officer responsible for delivering updates to himself and the Captain.

The Sub-Lieutenant hurried to Herriher's side, saluted smartly and proffered a data pad. While the Captain skimmed through the information, the junior officer verbally delivered a summation.

"Ship was registered as RUZ-TI-GUZ." Although the Sub-Lieutenant mangled the delivery, Herriher automatically corrected the pronunciation. Nor was the humour behind the choice of name lost on him.

"RUSTY GUTS, huh? Someone's got a warped sense of humour."

Trained to await instructions, the Sub-Lieutenant broke off at that almost sub-vocal observation from the Captain. He watched his superior. Intrigued, Herriher followed the pinpoint of light now slowly struggling to elude them. At length he nodded. "Continue."

"Sir." The youngster acknowledged the command. "Configuration is correct but the mass is anomalous with type."

"Say again?"

Now he had the Captain's complete and undivided attention. And did not like it one bit. Throat cartilage bobbing as he swallowed hard, the runner hurriedly concluded. "Sensors predict the vessel is camouflaged. Nine-tenths probability that it is actually an older type Corellian class freighter---"

Caught by that news the Captain stared beyond the bridge, past the bow of his command in the direction of their prey.

"Could it be?" His whisper cut off the Sub-Lieutenant. Eagerness pressed upward. Needed to be reined in. Herriher snapped out, "I want tractors beams locked on to that ship the second we're within range. Launch two wings of Interceptors. Order them to close on that freighter. Slow it down. Impede its progress. Damage but do not destroy it."

"Sir! Yes, sir."

"And summon the ADVOCATE."

On the bridge the pace of activity grew almost frenetic, matched below decks by the rest of the duty staff. However close they were to shift change there would be no hand-over until stand-down, or until performances visibly flagged. Watch Commanders kept close tabs on their personnel.

"Are they responding to our hails?" Herriher demanded a report from his Second-in-Command.

"No, sir."

In one pit a technician turned. "Sir. A second ship has just crossed the asteroid belt terminator between us and the freighter."

"Disregard---wait. Headed in which direction?"

"It's a transport, moving at flank speed. Closing fast on the freighter." The technician paused. "Reading a wide dispersal of encoded message traffic from the freighter. Code is old---rebel communications. Predict positive: they are travelling together."

"Secondary sensors on that ship. Give me its status now."

"On it, sir." Accustomed to such orders the back-up technician responded calmly. He leaned into his board as though coaxing readings to faster output. Without lifting his head, he reported clearly and concisely. "No transponder reading. However, it's carrying a heavy load, sir. Troops, sir, heavily armed! High energy flux. It's carrying several guns, including one ion cannon."

Under his breath the Deputy Commanding Officer countered. "That's not possible. All that mass would slow her down considerably. But she's nearly matching the freighter's speed."

"Our fighters are away, Captain."

"Very good. Do we have registry on that transport?"

"Just coming in now, sir. Configuration indicates she's a light freighter registered as GEM LITE." Data continued pouring in. The technician's head spun. "Alliance registry!"

Herriher demanded amplification. "Where did she originate?"

"Trajectory places her as having emerged from the asteroid belt."

Someone across the bridge crudely exclaimed. "That pilot's either an idiot or he's got more balls than a Briggia juggler."

Under normal conditions Herriher would have reprimanded the speaker for that crude innuendo. Not this time. He shook his head at the Deputy Commanding Officer as his Second moved to admonish the culprit. "Where's ADVOCATE?"

"There, sir."

With a stab of a forefinger, the bridge runner indicated their starboard mid-ships quarter. Just emerging from out of the corona of Ghorman's rising sun the corvette loomed into view, eyeblinding white in reflected light. Unable to stare at it long, Herriher hurriedly tore his gaze away. He blinked sunspots from his eyes and adjusted his stance slightly.

"Any further information on the freighter?"

"Yes, sir. Confirmed. It is the MILLENNIUM FALCON." All over the bridge a collective sigh of expectation and desire went up.

"Our fighters?"

"Unable to over-haul her, sir. We'll still be out of range when she makes the jump to light speed in roughly two minutes thirty-five seconds. GEM LITE will follow a minute behind."

"Damn." Careful to keep his frustration to himself, Herriher refused to acknowledge defeat just yet. "Continue pursuit until the last possible minute. Have ADVOCATE attempt to cut off their escape."

"Yes, sir."

"And I want to know exactly why they were here. Find out who was on board."

"Solo travels with a Wookiee," said the Second-in-Command.

Portside information finally made its way up to them. The technician manning the primary communications board fed them what he was gathering. "There are no reports of any Wookiees being sighted at the port, sir."

The Captain reflected. "No, of course not. Solo's too smart for that. Our people would have picked them up immediately in accordance with the Grand Admiral's orders had Port Authority registered the Wookiee."

"Solo sometimes flies with Calrissian, sir," said his Second.

"Hmmm."

"ADVOCATE reports they are unable to intercept, sir." The unwelcome announcement irritated Herriher. Stymied, the Imperial Captain clenched his fists, felt his nails bite into the palms of his hands. Unable to avert the inevitable he watched the forward viewport.

"Sir. The FALCON's gone to hyper."

Now would come the reckoning. His voice level, uninflected, Herriher responded. "Very good, Lieutenant. Maintain course and pursuit pattern until it's confirmed we have lost both vessels. Have Ground Control do a follow-up investigation. I want the names of anyone seen in Solo's company. And I want to know where he went while he was down there. The minute all data is compiled I want a hyper-squirt message sent to Admiral Thrawn including a detailed account of our encounter."

On the heels of his orders came the damning follow-up report. "GEM LITE is gone, sir."

Irritation evident despite his best efforts to conceal it, Herriher drew a deep breath. He held it then gradually released it. "I'll be in my ready room. Have the report delivered to me the moment you're finished. Return to our previous patrol pattern."

"Yes, sir."

"And I want to see all senior staff in the bridge briefing room in two hours."

"Sir."

His Deputy Commanding Officer saluted and Herriher left the bridge. Slowly both massive ships came about. ADVOCATE drew in on a parallel course. They gathered in the disgusted, disgruntled fighter crews who had been unable to get off so much as a single shot at the fleeing enemy.


Two weeks passed before someone among the Imperial investigation team stumbled upon information concerning concealed passages beneath the Governor's Residency. Intrigued, a squad was dispatched to investigate and map the area for their records. In locating the cells they discovered a grisly sight. Crouched in one corner was a dead man. In his right hand lay a blaster, its scorch mark on his temple clear evidence the individual had committed suicide. What horrified the explorers was the severed arm resting in the corpse's lap. Medical examiners identified it as coming from the victim. Next to him were the badly gnawed remains of a second corpse. How both had come to be there, in that condition, was anyone's conjecture. But upon hearing the tale from an inebriated stormtrooper on leave, a certain bar tender developed a personal theory.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Unable to communicate ship-to-ship, the occupants of both vessels could only speculate on how their companions had fared during their time at Ghorman. Jump time to Mandorel was approximately seventeen hours. Time enough for the crew to take a power-nap, use the small 'fresher facilities and, for Han and Luke, a change back into familiar clothing.

Some time later, alone in the lounge with his faithful Artoo unit, Luke drifted into meditation. Each time he took this journey it was easier to achieve his goal. His ability to read the fine network of life force connecting all living things expanded. But as yet his efforts to locate Leia were thwarted, evidence as to her whereabouts, inconclusive. The only constant certainty was that Leia lived. Imprisoned, somehow, against any intrusion from without. She appeared incapable, except at those far-spaced sporadic intervals, to touch him in return.

Strength flowed through Luke. Imbued him with more energy than eight hours solid sleep would do for the average person. Stretching and flexing his still embryonic abilities, the Jedi Master ran his own diagnostic, first on himself.

Memories of his recent struggles with the dark side of the Force caused him considerable mental anguish. Each time its seductive nature had lured him toward certain disaster. And each time it had proved harder to draw free. Over and over Yoda's warning reverberated through his thoughts.

'Once you start down the dark side, forever will it dominate your destiny.'

His attack on his father loomed foremost in his thoughts. 'Is that what I did at Endor?'

The implications were profoundly frightening. Worse was inference that his time spent on Endor striving to strengthed himself against the dark side had proved fruitless. Not about to be snared by that defeatist voice nibbling within, Luke focused himself. First he levitated various items around the lounge, juggling the suspended articles, shifting them from one spot to another, alone or in massed groups. At one point he included Artoo, turning the droid end for end in the air. His astro-mech stoically suffered the indignation with only a long undulating whistle.

Satisfied with his physical and mental recuperation, Luke turned outwards into the MILLENNIUM FALCON's circuitry. This was an exercise in which he delighted. Soon, however, he would have to find alternate means of exercising and expanding his talents. Encountering a potential short circuit in the ship systems he shunted power, located melted insulation and frayed conduit bundles. Under extended periods of stress the damage would prove detrimental to the freighter's performance. He would have to let Han know as soon as time permitted.

Attention turning to the twin cargo holds he touched the walls. Flexed another aspect of his talent. In seconds he knew within a micro-gram the exact unit of weights, wet or dry, crated or uncrated, each could safely bear.

On the periphery of his perception a proximity alarm sounded. Luke withdrew into himself and stretched. After hours spent staring into middle distance his eyes felt dry and scratchy, and he blinked to moisten them. Another notation went into his mental diary; ensure he blinked normally while meditating. Another, as yet unsolved, irritant were the stiff muscles in his shoulders and neck caused by hours of immobility. He rotated his head. Felt vertebrae click into place. He headed into the cockpit where the FALCON's the crew were preparing for the drop into real space. At his appearance Chewie snarled a comment to his partner without looking up.

In reply to the Wookiee's remark Han admonished his brother-in-law. "Thought I asked you not to do that when we're around?"

Unable to hide his grin, Luke shrugged and settled himself at the familiar nav-puter position. While he checked the read-outs he mumbled back. "Sorry. I'm working on it."

"Yeah. Sure you are," said Han, his attention focused on the freighter's instruments. "Others might not believe you, kid. But we do, don't we Chewie?" The Wookiee chuffed but continued to monitor his controls. Solo continued. "We're coming up on our drop point. Shields to full."

In response to information locked into the onboard computers, the MILLENNIUM FALCON slowed, dropped from hyperspace and came to a standstill. Instantly aware something was wrong, Han double-checked their coordinates. Their position startled him.

"What the hell---where are we?"

Communications crackled to life. "FALCON, this is GEM LITE. Do you copy?"

"GEM, this is the FALCON. We read you loud and clear," said Luke. "How'd it go back there?"

Tense as though they had just come through a firefight, Wedge made no attempt to conceal his reactions. "Man, that was too close for comfort, Luke. Thought for a bit we were gonna have to jump without you."

"Got no faith in us," said Han. He continued to stare at the tight-knit debris field surrounding both ships. Massive boulders, chunks of ice and dust particles all jockeyed for positions within the region, frequently intercepting one another and the ships' shields with spectacular results.

"So, kid." He pointed forward at the unexpected display. "Would you mind explaining to me just exactly where we are? And why?"

Unaffected by Han's reaction, Luke explained what he had done. "I brought us out inside Mandorell's ort cloud." Seat pivoted to face the crew, he continued. "At this time of year the cloud is at its closest range to the planet, providing us with excellent cover for this stage of our mission. It also affords us the opportunity for GEM's personnel to come on board, unobserved, to discuss the next step of this operation."

"Great. You might warn a guy." When Chewie bellowed displeasure at being excluded, Han amended his statement. "Sorry, Chewie. I meant he should warn us."

Unperturbed by Han and Chewie's outburst, the Jedi Master calmly deflected their anger. "GEM LITE's crew knew. And I was handling navigation." Without waiting to see if the crew was satisfied with his explanation, Luke turned back to the com-board and casually dispensed new instructions to the transport crew. "GEM LITE, this is the FALCON. We're ready here. Prepare for docking procedures."

"Roger that, FALCON. GEM LITE standing by to receive you."

Time was precious. Rather than waste it airing his wrath at being excluded from this abrupt change of plans, Han spared Luke a glare and settled to the chore of matching speeds with the transport. By no means an easy task amid the mess of ort cloud debris. He refrained from asking Luke just how he had managed to determine so precisely the exact position of the ort cloud.

A tribute to his skill was the speed with which they settled into place. The transport's docking collar extended, locked onto the freighter's upper hull. Pressure came up and matched. Throughout the manoeuvre Luke tested everything through the Force. Again he sought the presence of his twin sister. For the briefest moment out of time he located her: a ripple that was at once familiar yet alien, warped.

"We show green lights across the board." Han announced success to the transport command crew.

"Copy that. Stand by to receive passengers."

Freighter on autopilot, Han slipped from his seat. Chewie followed him from the cockpit but Luke was ahead of them as they entered the lounge. The FALCON's hatch opened and the ground team leader, Captain Nils Paradin, dropped first down the ladder into the lounge. Left shoulder settled against the side of the back-up navigation console, Solo looked him over.

Veteran of numerous ground assaults during the years of the Rebel Alliance, including the Hoth evacuation, Paradin was not the grizzled old man most people would have expected. Salt and pepper hair and deep lines about mouth and nose were the only age-betraying factors. Direct and pragmatic, he matched gazes with Solo. Behind the dark brown eyes Han read an ingrained wealth of experience, wear and tear of combat. The same look that haunted Luke these days, making him seem older than his years. Nils stepped aside to make way for Wedge and Flit to slide down into the lounge.

As they dropped into view Han casually commented. "Thought we were coming up."

With a noncommittal hitch of his shoulders, Wedge countered. "Figured it was more secure down here for the briefing. And there's more room."

Although the others sat on the available, limited furnishings, he remained comfortably at ease near the ladder. Determined not to get sidetracked Paradin insisted. "Right. Let's get this show on the road."

"Fine with me," said Wedge. "Flit's got a contact on Mandorel. I think you should add her to your team on board the FALCON. Take her down and let her feel out the situation."

"Now wait a minute." Fully prepared to argue against any deviation in what they had already discussed, Han felt Luke stir. Their eyes met and Solo bit back his objections.

Uncomfortable beneath the intense scrutiny, Flit glanced quickly from the Corellian to the Jedi Master and then to her superior. One finger traced concentric circles on the holo-table while she ordered her thoughts before speaking. There came a slither-thump, effectively distracting everyone; Lando belatedly dropped into view.

"Nice of you to join us," said Han.

Lando parried the tart remark. "Wouldn't miss it for the world, old buddy. Sorry I'm late. Had to clear up a couple of things with the crew first."

His precipitous appearance eased the tension in the lounge. Grateful for small favors Flit plunged. "My contact's got a good finger on the pulse of everything going on down there. It shouldn't take me more than a day to get what we need concerning Tshukon."

"And just what exactly will you be looking for?" Unable to accept someone else doing reconnaissance for him, Han probed for specifics.

Flit ticked them off on her fingers but refrained from looking in his direction. "Placement, security systems, personnel type and quantity, armaments---"

"And a way in and out, I hope." Unaware of her prior experience, Paradin was not entirely confident of Flit's abilities, his concerns echoed by Lando and Han. Even Artoo released a soft burble. Paradin and Solo glared at the droid for his temerity, making Artoo scrunch down as though trying to appear invisible. It was all Luke could do not to grin over the exchange.

"Our only difficulty lies in that the Imperials appear to have an all-points out on us." A jerk of his thumb at Chewie, Luke and himself, drew frowns from the others in response to Han's comment. "They were checking every ship on the ground on Ghorman. That's why we came out of there like the proverbial greased and sheared nerf at a fall round-up celebration."

"Damn." Palms slapping the chess table, Wedge glared hard at the surface as though the answer to this new wrinkle lay there. "So now what do we do? We can't just land GEM LITE with a full compliment. Mandorel's Imperial territory, pure and simple."

"Nothing simple about it," said Lando quietly. When the ground force leader turned on him, Lando presented an innocent expression.

"Besides," said Wedge. "Any Imp would recognize GEM right off for what she is. That's why we were planning on a rapid insertion and withdrawal before they could respond. And then only if you guys couldn't pull this off without back-up."

"Yeah. Well, don't get yourself all knotted, Wedge. Chewie and me have got a couple of little surprises cooked up when we had the techs on Coruscant disguise the FALCON."

Something flickered in Luke's eyes that made Wedge wonder what the Jedi Master had up his sleeve. And whether or not Solo knew. Unaware of the undercurrent between Wedge and Luke, Lando voiced his curiosity.

"Like what?"

Han shot back enigmatically. "You'll just have to wait 'til we use 'em."

A long minute of silence fell. Then Paradin got back down to business. "Alright, since you're certain you can get down there without any problem, or very little, how do we monitor your progress? We can't scan Mandorel. The planet's got a hyper-sensitive sensor net shielding it."

This was the moment Luke had been waiting for. It was an all-or-nothing gambit. If what he failed in this attempt they would be back to square one. He centered himself and focused on his old wingman.

'Wedge.' When nothing happened, he leaned harder, enforcing his will on his friend.

Body jerking slightly, Wedge turned. "Yeah, Luke. What do you need?"

Puzzled expressions appeared on those around them. Artoo bobbed up and down on his metal toes, equally bewildered. All eyes lit on Wedge. A slow, quiet smile touched Luke's mouth. Curved his mouth, skewing the beard he still had not shaved off.

Suddenly the centre of so much attention and confused by their peculiar reactions, Wedge shifted uneasily. "What? Why is everyone staring at me?"

Uneasy, not wanting to make him seem the fool, Flit quietly explained. "General Skywalker didn't say a word, sir."

One hand resting on his friend's shoulder, Luke belied that statement. "Oh, but I did. And Wedge felt it."

"That damned Jedi thing again." Relieved now he understood, at least in part, what had transpired, Han scrubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know, kid. Are you sure that's gonna work?"

Positive, Luke nodded. "I am now."

"But what---how---" Still puzzled, Wedge turned to the Jedi Master. "I'm confused, Luke. I know I heard you, but no one else did. What did you do?"

"Don't worry about it, old son." Han consoled him, his expression bland. "Luke's just using you as a glorified Force powered com-link is all."

Conscious of the air of apprehension filling the room, Luke went over his change of plans. "Han, Flit and I will insert Mandorel and find out what we can. When the time comes I'll let Wedge know to expect a tight-beam message. It'll be a hyper-squirt. Roughly three seconds long."

"No time for the Imperials to catch on," said Lando. Although he approved the idea in theory, he knew it was a long shot. "But we'll definitely have to be on line for it."

"You miss it," said Han sharply, "and we'll all be in deep bantha poodoo."

For a long time no one said anything. Then Luke stood. His actions were a signal to the others. Lando raised both hands in submission. "Let's do it."

For a moment they hesitated. But when Lando ascended the ladder, Paradin followed him. Han and Chewie headed forward to ready the freighter for separation. As Wedge set foot on the bottom rung, Luke caught him back.

"I'm sorry, Wedge. I should have warned you."

More bemused by the incident than anything else, Wedge shook his head. "It's okay, Luke. You just surprised me. I didn't know you could do that with just anyone."

"I can't---normally. But with close friends---" Luke paused, waiting for reassurance. When Wedge remained silent, he continued. "You're sure it's okay? If you like, I could use one of the others. I'm pretty certain I can touch Lando."

"And Windy, I suppose."

"Probably. I doubt either of them would mind."

"Neither do I." A little laugh escaped Wedge. "Siths. Channeling for a Jedi! That's something else. Kind of takes a guy's breath away. No." Wedge shook his head again. "I'm okay with this, Luke. I'll be listening."

"You'll have no more than a couple of minutes after you sense my presence. It won't be a verbal command. Just a strong feeling." Luke waited until Wedge nodded carefully before continuing. "There'll be just time enough for you to make it to Comms if you're elsewhere in the transport."

"All right."

"Thanks, Wedge."

Concern and a touch of uncertainty tinged Luke's voice. Alerted, Wedge removed his foot from the rung. Faced the Jedi Master. He appeared on the verge of exchanging a hug of comradeship but could not quite initiate the first move. Silent, unmoving, trapped behind the chest table and feeling like an intruder, Flit watched the tableau.

"We've been friends a long time, Luke. Been through a hell of a lot together. I really don't mind." He dropped his voice so Flit failed to hear his next words. "No matter what your father did."

His eyes searching Wedge's face, Luke read truth in his words and nodded. He slapped Wedge on the shoulder in thanks and farewell, and released him. A grin that was eight-tenths bravado flashed across Wedge's face as he turned and went up the ladder with the speed of a snow skid on a Hoth ice slope. Hatches closed. Latches were sealed. The docking collar disconnected and the two vessels parted company. Soon the ort cloud separated them.

"Come on, Flit."

Accompanied by the Jedi Master, Flit went forward and nervously slid onto the seat behind the pilot position. Twice now she had witnessed the awesome power at Luke Skywalker's command. And each time it had shaken her confidence.

Once they were strapped in Han reached out for the controls. "Okay. This is where it gets interesting. Ready Chewie?" The Wookiee growled an affirmative. "Right. Kick the release catches on three, seven and fourteen and warn GEM."

Diverted from reflection on the Force, Flit examined the extra control panel mounted to Chewbacca's right. "If you don't mind my asking, sir, just what are you doing?"

Without glancing around, Han gave her a quick overview. "We're going to jettison some of the camouflage sections Cov-Ops installed back on Coruscant."

"You're going to alter the hull configuration in flight? Brilliant." She commended the decision, but frowned. "And dangerous. What about the weights and balances?"

"Already programmed. Hey." Han stared at her, appreciative of her knowledge. "Hear that, kid? Now there's someone who knows brilliance when she sees it. Right, Chewie?"

Chewbacca tripped the release catches alongside his right knee, his actions punctuated by a restrained howl. It was evident the dig was aimed at Luke, and the Jedi Master hid his reaction from Flit. Face tipped aside, he concentrated on the nav-puter. Dull, muffled thuds and bumps vibrated through the hull as metallic modular segments tumbled away. Velocity increasing, Han angled the FALCON down ten degrees, putting distance between them and the fragments.

"By the way, kid," he said over his shoulder, "Got any bright ideas how we elude planetary security? If they were looking for us---" he quickly amended that when Luke stirred on his seat, "or other Alliance ships on Ghorman, they'll sure be doin' the same here."

Amused that it had taken the Corellian so long to broach the topic, Luke quipped. "I was wondering when you'd ask."

Unable to keep from rising to the little dig, Han repeated, "So? I'm asking now."

"You're probably not going to like it. But it's the only way we can make the surface without tipping our hand," said Luke.

Slowly Han twisted around in his seat. He stared hard at his brother-in-law. Nor was he alone. Chewie and Flit turned their attention on the Jedi Master also. Fascinated by the exchange, that anyone would have the temerity to address the Jedi Master as 'kid', Flit's eyes darted between the two.

"Already I've got a bad feeling about this," said Han as he watched the light dancing in Luke's eyes. "Go ahead. Tell me I'm right."

"You, Flit and I are taking an escape pod down."

"We're what?" Now Luke had their undivided attention. Finger raised in warning Han shook his head hard. "No way. Now I know you've completely lost it."

Chewbacca concurred in no uncertain terms. Even Flit found herself wondering if the Jedi Master had gone completely off the deep end. Undeterred, Luke insisted. "I know what I'm doing, Han."

Fingers of his right hand curling around the side of his seat back, Han demanded. "Where have I heard that line before?"

"You should know," said Luke. He allowed a suitable pause to ensue, then parried. "Got any better ideas?"

Slowly Solo responded. "No. But just for the record, I really don't like this plan of yours."

Undeterred, Luke outlined what they would do next. "Chewie and Artoo will hold the FALCON back until they receive the signal to join us. That'll come from Wedge."

"Now I know I hate this plan. Just where are they supposed to hide?"

"Here. With GEM LITE."

"In the ort cloud."

"Where better?"

In response to that Chewie released a series of short barks and a cough, followed by a whine. Free hand reaching out, Han scratched behind an invisible ear beneath the thick fur. "You're right there, pal. Look, Luke, this crazy scheme sounds like something I'd come up with."

To admit that was difficult for the Corellian. Sympathetic, Luke let him know he was open to suggestions. "If you've got anything better in mind, I'm willing to try it."

At a loss for words, Han admitted defeat. "No. But that doesn't mean there isn't one."

"Excuse me, sirs. If I might interrupt?" They turned to Flit and she experienced an attack of nerves that went far beyond anything she had suffered while in the employ of Covert Operations.

Conscious of her uneasiness in their presence, Luke coached her. "Go ahead, Flit. You had something to add?"

With a nod, she licked her lips. "First off, the idea of using the pod is excellent. But only if you know of some way to dictate where it lands. Mandorel's a pretty big place and the locals can spot a stranger right off the mark. And if you aren't hanging around the tourist spots or employment exchanges---"

"Point taken," said Han and caught Luke's eye. "I suppose you've got an answer to that, too?"

"Of course. That's my department," the Jedi Master told the Corellian.

For the moment Flit let that ride. Since her superiors trusted the Jedi Master's abilities, she would have to do the same. "Okay. Let's assume we can govern where we're going. We'll want to land in the equatorial belt. It's kept sparsely inhabited because of the natural sources of several antibiotics and a number of highly prized foods found only there in the wild. To build at those latitudes you require considerable funding, a special license and a lot of pull in the right places. There are, however, a number of roadside establishments to house travelers. And the locals use them to break up the boredom."

"I'll just bet." Han Solo rubbed a hand down his pant leg. "So Tshukon'll be fairly easy to locate."

"Maybe." Flit remained noncommittal. "There's a small port on one of the off-shore islands. That's where we'll find one of my contacts."

Slowly Han inhaled then exhaled. To cover his reaction to Flit's information he slapped his hands against his legs. There was little he hated more than playing anything by ear. Head tipping from side to side, Chewie considered what they had been told. Obviously Han felt the odds were rising slightly in their favour.

"You realize it'll take the FALCON ten minutes to reach the upper atmosphere after we call," he said after he had given Flit's briefing due consideration. "That's if Chewie can get past their defense system."

Luke had a ready counter. "Not if the Falcon does an in-system jump."

Incredulous, Han was unable to countenance what he had just heard. Neither Chewie nor Flit spoke. All three stared at Luke as though he had transformed before their eyes into something wholly unrecognizable. When at last Solo found his voice, he spoke with considerable deliberation.

"Kid, did I just hear what I thought I heard? You're proposing the FALCON perform an in-system jump from here to just above the planet?"

"Yes."

"No way! Absolutely not!" Han flung his hands in the air. "Not in my ship. Even I wouldn't attempt that."

All logic, Luke pressed his case. "I'll preset the coordinates before we go."

Han refused to listen. "That's a three person job---even if you're insane enough to attempt it."

"Chewie'll have Artoo to back him up."

"A droid. No, Luke, it ain't gonna happen. You'll tear the guts outta my ship and where will we be?"

"Han, trust me. It'll work."

"It won't."

"It will. It has to."

They locked gazes, Corellian and Jedi Master, in a silent contest of wills. Breathless, Flit and Chewie watched, afraid to speak out or attempt any form of interference as the battle stretched out interminably.

Patience was bolster and shield for Luke. He waited. Sensed his brother-in-law begin to waiver. Something in Solo's face alerted Chewie; the Wookiee knew he was losing the battle. As dubious as his partner over what Luke proposed he whined softly, protesting.

But Luke's soft insistence beat down their resistance. "You know there's no other choice, Han. Not if we expect to rescue Leia."

His remaining resolve shattered at that announcement, Han slumped in his seat. "She's here, then?"

"Yes."

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Outside the FALCON's starboard life pods, Luke appeared particular concerning his selection between the pair. His actions intrigued his companions who, as far as they were concerned, considered one pod identical to the next. Until Luke activated the hatch and Han got a good look at the interior past his shoulder.

"What in Hoth's frozen hell is that doing here?" Solo demanded, "And just what is it?"

Like all life pods, this one was well padded inside against injury to victims of a ship tragedy. Compartments overhead and beneath the seats contained everything survivors would need upon arriving on a world off the beaten track. But there was an additional something that did not exist in other pods.

Sight of the guidance system brought an unguarded exclamation from Flit. "It's a FERHTE!"

Her statement won her a sharp, reproachful look from Han. "So what's a ferret?"

"They're brand new. Calamari design. F-E-R-H-T-E." She spelled out the acronym. "Falsified Emissions on Re-entry High Tactical Excursion. Better known around Cov-Ops as a ferret."

"Madine." Solo sighed. "I should have known."

Not liking the manner in which the Corellian spoke of her previous superior, Flit hurriedly explained the craft's purpose. "Basically it is a life pod, but it's got a guidance control systems."

"Plus a little bit extra. And it'll comfortably hold seven, in spite of its apparent lack of space inside," said Luke. Even though he knew a Jedi should not seek self-gratification, he looked inordinately pleased with himself over this acquisition. "Let's go. Time's wasting."

In answer to Chewbacca's subdued roar Han spread his hands and admitted all other options were now closed. Much as he did not like it, he would have to go along.

"Damned if I know when he got that on board," he told the Wookiee.

Nor did Luke elucidate further. He disappeared up the corridor in the direction of his cabin. When he returned he was shrugging into a dark blue flight jacket. Startled by the sight of the Jedi Master wearing something other than his trademark cloak over his jumpsuit, Flit stepped back to clear his path. He slid into the FERHTE and moved to the forward to controls. As he strapped in Flit steeled herself and joined him. Han took the time to give Chewie some last minute instructions before taking his place in the FERHTE. The Wookiee slammed the pod hatch shut, the loud clank sounding like a death knell in Solo's ears. A muffled thud announced the closure of the freighter lock.

Luke ordered them, "Strap down. Make sure you're in tight. She'll still feel like she's out of control. At least until we hit the atmosphere. I'm programming our coordinates."

"Then we'll still resemble a ship on controlled entry," said Han, unimpressed by a nebulous plan he could already see falling apart.

But Flit shook her head. "No, General Solo. Once the coordinates are locked in the ferret inserts the atmosphere like a meteorite. There's an additional coating that'll burn away on entry. Unfortunately," she rolled her eyes at him, "we'll still come down---"

"Hard." Han finished for her, sarcasm emerging in the face of adversity. "I just love those types of landing."

"If I read the coordinates right that General Skywalker fed into the onboard computer, we'll land in a sparsely populated area relatively close to a small tourist centre." Undeterred now she finally had the Corellian's measure, Flit managed a jest of her own. "You'll just have to watch out for the last couple thousand feet."

"It'll feel like an express turbo-lift out of control," said Luke and launched them from the FALCON.

Han responded. "Great."

"Short retro bursts on maximum power cushion the drop," Luke told him. His fingers flew across the controls. "Anyway, they taught me in flight training that any landing you walk away from is a good one."

"Which school of flying was that?" Solo wanted to know.

"Tatooine." Luke responded with an unguarded grin, daring Han to retaliate.

"Oh. Now I'm supposed to feel reassured."

Eyes dancing, Luke countered. "Shouldn't you be?"

To that Han had no answer. Their dubious conveyance shook and shuddered with all the stomach-churning tumble of its life pod counterpart. Attention intensifying, Luke monitored their vector.

"Hang on. Here we go."

In keeping with its programming the FERHTE plunged, seemingly out of control, toward the nearest planetary body with a breathable atmosphere. Cocooned within its internal inertial field the occupants were spared the worst of the erratic ride, kept oriented by tiny alluvial dampers and their safety harnesses. All the while Luke maintained course corrections with minute jets. Just to watch one of the Alliance's top pilots at the controls left Flit breathless with anticipation. Even Han grunted grudging approval at the Jedi Master's dexterity.

Luke knew Mandorel Ground Control was monitoring the approaching foreign body and concluding it to be natural in origin. Its trajectory would bring it to earth some distance from any settlement. They allowed it to slip by, tagged the probable landing site for future scientific research and returned to monitoring the space lanes.

Sensors picked up a slightly higher than usual percentile of metal in the ort body passing through the outer planetary orbital paths, but otherwise discounted it as debris accumulated in transit. There were, after all, a number of wrecks drifting outside the system, which could have been picked up by the ort cloud's minor gravitational field. Ships entering and leaving the system were regularly notified of these obstacles and rerouted where necessary to avoid an encounter with them.

On board the FERHTE Han studied the vid-screen to the left of Luke. He scowled at two tropical storms spiraling across the equator. The closer they drew to the ionosphere, the more evident turbulence and lightning flashes became. Then they were passing over the nearer of the two fronts. Dropped between them.

"Hold on." With that warning, Luke grabbed for the crash webbing securing him in his seat.

His companions copied his actions. Felt the sudden burst of raw power as the auto-programming took over. Thrusters kicked into life then died. Retros fired a second time, cutting their descent rate. Once more they fell out of control. Clouds broke across trans-steel. Shredded. Lightning arched across the FERHTE's hull.

"Twenty-five thousand." Luke read off their descent. "Nineteen. Thirteen. Ten. Seven. Coming up on third burst."

Another jolt shook the FERHTE like a raptor dispatching its prey. In spite of all her efforts, Flit smacked her head against the wings of the headrest. She clung to her seat, winced and licked her cut lower lip, tasting blood.

"Twenty-two hundred. Final burst in five---four---three---two---"

None of them heard the final announcement. To Han it was as though someone tried to ram the base of his spine up through the top of his skull. Teeth rattled unpleasantly in a head that snapped wickedly back and forth. Turbulence and thruster power tossed them against their restraints until the Corellian was positive his wits were permanently scrambled. Abruptly silence gripped the craft.

"Hold tight!"

On the heels of that warning shout from the Jedi Master, Flit counted six before they slammed to earth. Several loose items flew from overhead compartments to shower the hapless occupants. Lights flickered. Died.

From the darkness that surrounded them, Han observed. "Nice landing, kid. Remind me not to let you ever fly my ship again."

Hysteria caught Flit up and she doubled over in the restraints, giggling uncontrollably. Somewhere up front they heard Luke moving about. Green light flared, accompanied by something that hissed like a Talerian serpent. Sight of the activated lightsabre sobered Flit.

Luke ordered them. "Out. Now."

"Hell, kid. You don't half believe in giving a guy a chance to recover, do you?" Still grumbling, Han fumbled with the webbing. He found the release and extricated himself from his seat. The Jedi Master reached into an overhead bin and hauled down a satchel.

"We've got five minutes to self-destruct."

"Whoa! You never said anything about that."

Unperturbed, Luke countered. "You didn't think I was going to leave evidence lying around for the Imps to find, did you?"

Spurred by the new information Han yanked open another compartment. As he suspected additional weaponry was stored within. Flit, meanwhile, hauled out survival packs. Luke keyed the escape hatch. Daylight poured through the narrow opening. Partially blinded by the light they lurched outside, stumbling through knee-high grass as quickly as possible to get clear of the blast zone.

Nor did Luke permit them to stop once they reached the edge of the glade. He urged them through thick brush that caught at their clothing and scraped boots and unprotected flesh. Behind them the pod went up with an ear-deafening howl. Bits of metal showered the area, pattering down through foliage overhead. At long last they were into the forest. Luke halted.

"Okay. Let's get our bearings."

Breathless, Flit rummaged through the three satchels she carried. She removed a data pad from one and keyed it. "All right, sir. What were our last coordinates?"

"Let me." He reached across and tapped in the information.

"Thanks." More relaxed in her own element, Flit dared a fleeting glance at him. Then blushed when he smiled. Flustered, Flit ducked her head and concentrated on working out their present position. It was exceedingly peculiar to suddenly feel like a novice.

"How does it look?"

While they worked Solo paced back and forth. Here and now he felt left out and could not stop glowering at the pair and the surrounding woods. Finally Flit tapped a finger on the display.

"All things considered, sir, it looks pretty good. Shouldn't take us more than four hours. More likely just over three." She indicated their bearing as roughly northeast. "If we head in that direction we should reach a village where we can hire a speeder. Do we have any local Imp credit script?"

"Yes."

Han turned. "Thought of everything, didn't you?"

"Tried to," said Luke, refusing to let Han fluster him.

"So what do we do when we get to this village? Besides renting a speeder?"

"Once we've got a speeder," Flit said, cautious in the face of the Corellian's displeasure over their present situation, "we'll head for the coast. That's where I can call my contact."

"I'm not hiking anywhere." Settled on a nearby log, Han stuck his legs out before him. "I'll just wait here until you two pick up our transport. You can swing back and pick me up."

"But sir." Flit protested his decision, unaccustomed to the Corellian's mercurial moods. "That'll delay us by one whole hour."

Familiar with Han's occasional stubborn reactions to situations beyond his control, Luke gestured Flit to leave the problem to him. While she repacked their direction finder, he reasoned with the Corellian as only he could.

"Han, that storm we skirted on the way down is coming in pretty quick. It'll reach us in roughly two hours. If you stay here, not only will we lose time swinging back to collect you, but--"

Thoroughly disgusted, Han exploded. "I'll get soaked. Great. Thanks a lot, kid. You sure know how to manage a mission."

"Well, walking is good exercise."

On the verge of flaring up again, Han caught the mischievous grin playing across Luke's face. His shoulders sagged. Astonished by the impish boy that briefly emerged from inside Luke Skywalker, Flit stared, breathless.

'No one would ever believe me,' she silently said to herself. 'Even if I dared tell them.'

Luke continued in that vein. "And you're always complaining about how out of shape you've been getting since you joined the Alliance."

Out-manoeuvred Solo growled back. "Very funny, kid."

He thrust away from the log, back onto his feet. That was all Luke had been waiting for. "Shall we go?"

With a sarcastic sweeping gesture, Han said, "Lead on."

Just over two hours later, with blisters forming around both heels, Solo lost what remained of his congeniality. Further compounding his growing irascibility, the weather lived up to Luke's prediction. It started raining. Mandorel country roads were as well maintained as the streets of Mos Eisley: dusty and filled with ruts. Once the rain began their route turned into an ankle-deep quagmire.

Further exacerbating Solo's foul temper was the introspective mood into which Luke slipped. The Jedi Master pressed on as though unaware of his surroundings, distant and unapproachable. Just as Flit began to fear the Corellian would lose his temper completely they caught sight of one of the promised Mandorel roadside drinking establishments through the curtain of rain. Against Flit's best judgement, Luke directed them into the building.

In the alcove between the front door and taproom Luke dug some credit chips from a pouch on his belt. The lightsabre at his hip went into one of the flight jacket pockets, his only concession to blending into their surroundings.

"Flit, see if you can raise your friend from here. Something's happened and I don't think we should be looking for Leia at Tshukon's anymore."

"How do you---" she began.

"It's their twin thing." Han interrupted her, looking and sounded somewhat mollified now they were in out of the weather, with the prospect of a drink nearby. "Don't argue with him, Flit. Just do it."

"Yes, sir."

Still bemused, Flit headed to the inner door. After a single glance back at the Jedi Master, she stepped through. Her old training surfaced. She went to the bar and queried the whereabouts of the public vid-phone. The bar tender directed her to an alcove toward the rear of the room. Behind her the door opened again. Conscious of her companions now entering the establishment Flit kept moving and did not look back.

In the alcove, she slipped several chips into the appropriate slot. Keyed a number burned into her brain from previous operations and waited for the connection to be made. Her eyes roved the room in a manner expected of any visitor. Took in the presence of Han and Luke now seated at booth not far away. To her growing amazement no one appeared to be paying any attention to the Jedi among them. His trad-mark attire should have warranted some speculation, even with the jacket over it. But not even the bartender standing next to their table taking their order seemed fazed by the presence of a Jedi Knight in his establishment. It was all Flit could do to recover her composure and reply to person who responded to her call.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Four large ground troop transports encircled the massive dome complex and halted at predetermined positions around the perimeter. Overhead, their drives muffled by cloud cover, hovered atmosphere fighters. Sensors swept the area prepared to track anyone who should attempt to escape. The lead vehicle drew into the parking lot. Its escort blocked all speeder access from the ground area to the main road.

Seated next to the driver, Captain Arrin Validan, newly appointed Base Commander of Mandorel, eyed their objective. Unlike his predecessors, he was about to demonstrate a hard line toward interlopers and those whom the Empire considered second-class citizens. His perspective on these subjects was the primary reason Grand Admiral Thrawn had conveyed the position on him. Had passed Validan the additional responsibility of the labour camp and estate once belonging to Horst Niant.

Validan had known Niant personally. They had been classmates at the Imperial Academy. Consequently he was not entirely surprised by the discovery that his predecessor had permitted such intrusions on Mandorel. After all, Niant had grown up dirt poor on a rim world. Unfortunately it had made him fair game for graft. This Validan had no intention of stooping to. Creche-raised, he was a 'by the books' officer, pure and simple. Secretly he hoped his handling of matters on Mandorel would eventually lead him to the coveted position Horst had achieved: Captain of a corvette or star destroyer.

To that end, Validan pursued with unflagging determination the project of removing from positions of authority on Mandorel all undesirables. The Gamorrean, Tshukon, a collector of antiquities and sometime slave owner, topped that list. The Captain was specific in his orders. His people were to proceed with caution. After all, the Empire's remaining museums would benefit immensely from what was rumoured to be in the Gamorrean's latest collection. In fact, he relished the idea of reclaiming priceless relics for the Imperium. There were also the females to be considered.

Lieutenant Agamel, his aide, instructed their troops over the com-link. "Take up your positions."

White armoured personnel decanted from the other transports, surrounded the building and grouped at the three airlocks accessing the installation. Satisfied with their display of discipline, Validan stepped down from the command speeder. Two more stormtroopers closely trailed him.

'Lead by example.' An ancient axiom drummed into him by his favourite crche tutor, now dead these past six years. It was supported by Academy instruction and reinforced by the memorable valedictorian speech given by Grand Moff Tarkin. And Validan stuck to it.

At a predetermined signal the stormtroopers broke the locks sealing the dome and entered. By pairs, the remainder followed. Validan caught up with the first team just inside the nearest lock.

"Remember," he ordered over his com-link, "do no more damage than is absolutely necessary. Take the females and any guests alive if at all possible. Even the plants are precious in this place. Lieutenant Agamel is responsible for the Gamorreans."

Instructions clear the stormtroopers pressed in from the dome perimeter, and fanned out. Parties of two and three wended their way through meandering paths toward the centre. Upon reaching it they discovered Tshukon in the company of his three wives and several guests. One elegantly attired humanoid female was singing an aria to the strains of a string instrument played by a companion. Around the pool danced and swayed a third woman. In the pool a fourth performed an intricate water ballet in counter-point. Six more women reposed on cushions nearby, watching silently. Obedient slaves.

Dumbfounded by the scene, the stormtroopers froze at the edge of the ordered forest, uncertain. Not wanting to break the absorbing tableau. Even their Commander was momentarily enthralled by the vision. Sight of them caused the singer to break off mid-note. She gave a little cry and skipped back toward her master, staring wide-eyed at the interlopers. Her actions effectively shattered the mood.

Captain Validan impatiently ordered his men to carry out their assignments. The stormtroopers forged forward. Guests scrambled to their feet, belatedly seeking a way out. Surprise was complete. There was no escape. They were hemmed in. Binders came out. In shock over the suddenness of the attack, unprotesting, the guests paraded from the dome under the watchful eyes of five troopers.

Equally stunned by the invasion of his privacy, Tshukon shuffled from one stubby foot to the other. Surrounded by his wives and slaves he struggled to comprehend what was transpiring. Slowly advancing on the group, the Captain studied each individual. He halted on the opposite side of the swimming pool while his remaining men fanned out around their prospective objective. At Validan's gesture the women were quickly and neatly separated from the Gamorreans and ushered aside. The swimmer was gently but firmly hauled from the water.

"So, slave master." Contempt coloured each word, leaving Tshukon with no doubts as to how the Imperial officer felt toward him. "This is how you spend your days; wallowing in decadence amid the spoils of your ill-gotten gains."

"Good Captain," grunted Tshukon. He spread his pudgy fingers in supplication. "You are more than welcome to take your pick of whatever you like with which to improve your accommodations. In fact, I insist."

"There is nothing here that I personally desire." Cold, impersonal, Validan advised the Gamorrean. "And bribing an officer of the Imperium is a capitol offence."

"B---bribe? No, Captain! I would never dream---"

"Of course not. No one ever does." His decision already made on how he was going to handle the non-humans, Validan considered the Gamorreans. "You won't mind then if we confiscate your holdings and donate them to the Imperium?"

Jaws working furiously, Tshukon struggled against blurting objections. Foam flecked thick lips and tusks, amplifying his frustration and rage. On either side his wives shifted forward, placing themselves between their husband and the stormtroopers. Validan gestured. Three well-laced bolts took down the Gamorrean sows.

"No!" Unable to countenance the callousness of the Imperials, Tshukon dropped to his knees. He groped at each lifeless body in turn, weeping. One hand held up in supplication, he stared at Validan. "Why? Why my wives? Isn't it enough you're taking everything I own?"

Impassive and unrelenting, Validan leveled his own blaster at the great tusked head. Dispassionate in his determination to be done with the matter, Captain Validan made no effort to conceal the awful truth.

"No," said Validan.

In the Imperial's eyes Tshukon read his death. He grabbed desperately at the one trump card he held. "Captain, please. I have information the Empire would pay well for---"

"There is no room in the Empire for non-humans." Unimpressed by the offer Validan informed the astonished Gamorrean of his disinterest in anything he might have for sale. And pulled the trigger.

'And I don't bargain,' followed the after-thought.

To his left a figure moved, speed so incredible she was a blur. The Captain spun to meet the attack, reflexes taking control. Just in time Validan dropped flat on the pool deck, barely avoiding a death kick from the tall blond woman. She twisted in mid-air, landed on all fours and spun. And died beneath blaster fire. Slowly the Captain got to his feet. Smoothing his tunic, Validan silently nodded to his men.

"Are you all right, sir?" Breathless, anxious for his superior, Agamel stared at the body over the muzzle of his own weapon. "She moved before we realized what was happening."

"Fortunately she never touched me," said Validan. "Incredible. Such a waste and a pity." He prodded the body with his toe then inspected the remaining women. "Get them out of here. Take them back to the medical centre. Have the medical staff examine them fully and perform a DNA scan. It's possible we may be able to identify where they came from. Some may still have families to go to."

"Very good, sir."

"See that the contents of this place are catalogued but don't damage or remove anything."

"Yes, sir."

"And send a team over to his house to collect the remainder of his belongings. Anything not considered worthy of the museum will be sold at auction. All proceeds will go to the Imperium."

Dogged by his bodyguards, Validan left the dome and returned to his vehicle. The women, several of whom were quietly weeping, were escorted to another transport. The others remained silent, their expressions blank, whether from shock or fear, he could not ascertain. Loaded up, the vehicles drew out of the parking lot and headed north, travelling in tandem.

Five hours later, seated at his office at the garrison, Validan completed his report to Fleet Headquarters and forward it to Admiral Thrawn regarding the Imperial crackdown on Mandorel. Well pleased with the results of the First Phase, he leaned back. For all he was positive he had done the right thing he remained mildly troubled by Tshukon's last words.

'Did I act with too much haste?' He wondered and played back those final moments in the dome. Uneasy, he ordered his aide to bring him some quaff. When his aide returned he brought news of the arrival of the Base Senior Medical Officer.

"Major Chandra to see you, sir," announced the aide, setting the mug of quaff on the desk before Validan.

"Very good, Lieutenant. Show him in."

The Lieutenant returned to the door and gestured. The Medical Officer stepped past him. Once the aide had left, closing the door behind him, Validan greeted the physician. "Chandra."

"Captain."

Fleet rank of Captain out-weighed that of any army major a fact not lost on the ground forces. A tradition, it went back generations, to a period prior to when their species made the leap into space; back at a time when the word 'fleet' was synonymous with ocean-going craft. This did not mean the Army liked it.

"Sit," said Validan. He took a sip of quaff while waiting for the Doctor to make himself comfortable. Set the mug aside with deliberation once the Major was seated. "I take it you have the preliminaries on the women we took from the Gamorrean's establishment?"

"Yes." Not bothering with discussion, the Major pushed his data pad across the desk. As expected, Validan did not initially review what it contained. Rather, he connected it to his own terminal and proceeded to download the information. While waiting, he instructed his subordinate.

"Give me your results in brief."

Annoyed by the Captain's insistence at doubling the work, however prepared he was for the demand, the Doctor began his abbreviated report. "All of the surviving females are in excellent health."

"Good." The Base Commander nodded with satisfaction. He had not entirely expected otherwise, given his agents' reports on the Gamorrean's activities.

"Three are suffering side-effects of inhibitor implants. The primary reason why I'm so late in arriving." Blunt as always Chandra explained his tardiness without a hint of apology. "We removed all of the inhibitors, of course."

"Side-effects?"

"All are still under sedation, in the bacta tanks, but they will be out by this evening. One suffered some brain damage due to the extended period of the device's attachment to her brain stem. However," he hastened to reassure the Captain who was frowning, "she will only suffer minor memory loss. Certainly there will be no significant brain damage to affect her ability to function normally in society."

"Excellent."

"One of them was of mixed species origin, I'm afraid."

"Which one?"

"The woman your men so unfortunately killed." Chandra watched the Captain for reaction. When he saw his superior give a mental shrug he continued. "All of the survivors should remember something of their pasts. But those without inhibitors were evidently kidnapped and sold as very young children, raised with this specific requirement in mind. Unless we turn up something through our DNA scan---"

"What about a deep probe?"

"Possible, but not advisable." Chandra rubbed a hand across his chin. "I dislike pursuing such drastic measures. It frequently leaves the recipient prone to attacks of acute paranoia."

"Use whatever means are at your disposal," said Validan. Suddenly he realized the Doctor was building toward something important significant. "What else?"

The Major gestured toward the terminal. "I believe you should refer to the second to last paragraph of my report. You will find it most---enlightening."

For a moment Validan was tempted to chastise the Medical Officer for evasion. Curiosity got the better of him and he keyed the pad that had completed absorbing the lengthy report. Upon arriving at the reference, Validan experienced a terrific shock as he found he had to read through the phrasing three times, each time slower than the first before its full import struck home. This then, he realized, was what Tshukon had referred to when the Gamorrean had sought to barter for his life. Validan's head rose.

"You're certain?"

"Absolutely positive. There is no doubt whatsoever concerning her identity."

"Princess Leia?"

"Yes, sir." Now Chandra reached and tapped the last line of his report, all business. "And there's this to consider, also."

"Yes. I see. Admiral Thrawn will be pleased. How long will it be before I can question her?"

"Unfortunately the Princess was the last to undergo surgery. We discovered some highly unusual feedback problems in her implant that caused severe corroding of the control nodes at the base of the skull. This created certain---difficulties in the operating procedures."

"Speculate."

Chandra pursed his lips and ordered his thoughts before speaking. When dealing with medical problems he disliked speculation, preferring cold, hard facts. Still there was one possible reason he could give Validan. At the same time he knew his superior would not like to hear it.

"Given her brother's capabilities," said Chandra, "it could well be her dormant talents are surfacing."

"You suspect her ability to tap into the Force is responsible for the deterioration?"

"Well, sir, that's not my professional opinion of course. However records concerning Jedi capabilities are fairly extensive. There are several other possibilities, all of which could be pursued at length were we to keep her here and run a series of tests."

"Quite impossible, Doctor. The Admiral will expect us to forward her on to him immediately she's fit to travel. When can I expect to speak with her?"

Resigned to the inevitable rush, Chandra conceded. "Later this evening."

"Excellent. The minute she's conscious see she's clothed accordingly. Something other than what we found her wearing. And arrange an escort to bring her to my estate."

"Wouldn't it be safer to confine her at the base?"

As he reviewed the last line of the medical report one more time Validan shook his head. "Not if this is true. There are, unfortunately, Alliance adherents within our ranks whom we have as yet failed to uncover. If they should happen to discover we have Princess Leia at the installation---"

"And you feel you can conceal her presence from them out here?"

"I do. At least until I receive orders pertaining to her disposition from the Grand Admiral. Until then I shall conduct my own interrogation of her Royal Highness."

Distaste briefly surfacing, Chandra nodded. He watched while Validan disconnected the data pad from his terminal and pushed it back to him across the desktop. "As you wish, sir. I trust your judgement in this matter and will keep you informed of her progress."

Chandra rose, picked up his data pad and moved toward the door. His superior was already reviewing the downloaded report in its entirety. Without looking up, Validan flipped a hand at the Major, dismissing him. Once Chandra was gone the Base Commander broke off his pretence and stared into space. Here, indeed, was a prize that might well provide him with his ticket off this dust ball, back into space where he belonged, on the bridge of his own command.

CHAPTER THIRTY

Belly-down behind a rise overlooking three local workstations, concealed by a bramble thicket more than an hour's hike away skulked Luke, and Flit. Through macro-binoculars they took turns studying patrols, noted shift changes and memorized various escape routes. In between they discussed a number of alternate options for their proposed attack plan.

Several hours had passed since they taken up their present positions. Behind them the sun was slipping down the horizon. Within an hour it would set. Sunset blush was giving way to deep purple-blue high above and in the east. They had already run through the various possibilities and permutations of their skeleton scenario. Now Han threw himself over onto his back. Cocked an arm beneath his head.

"Luke, this plan of yours is about as full of holes as the second Death Star," he said without turning to look at his brother-in-law.

Only a grunt signified the Jedi Master had heard. Stretched out on the Corellian's right, her attention centred on the estate immediately below their position, Flit frowned attractively. Prone on Han's left, minus the beard, his hair once more regulation length Luke calmly inspected the workers' compound to the rear of the estate. A double line of trees formed a natural boundary concealing everything on the opposite side. Beyond that rose a force field fence. Flit informed him the trees lined a shallow stream that provided an intermediate boundary along the perimeter fence of the workers' compound.

Enlightened by Flit on the vagaries and security precautions installed by the Imperials, Luke refrained from using the Force to check the accuracy of her information. Some sensor systems could be triggered by it and he was not about to risk that at this late date.

'We're coming, Leia.' He whispered that to himself but made no effort as yet to contact his sister.

"Good thing these bushes don't grow low to the ground," said Han. "Are you sure this contact of yours knew what he was talking about, Flit?"

Never one to trust any informant at face value, Solo was unable to shake the uneasiness assailing him since they had abandoned their original objective. To her credit Flit was no longer upset by the Corellian's display of doubt. She would not have had it any other way.

"Erron has inside sources." Without leaving off her ongoing scan of the estate and the road running past its entrance, she insisted on the information's viability. "The Gamorrean's estate was raided early this morning. Apparently its the first of several taking place planet-wide. Seems the new Base Commander is rabid anti-non-human."

"What did they do with Tshukon?"

"Dead. Along with his wives and one of the slaves." Flit momentarily lowered the macro-binoculars. "That's the be-all of the available info right now. The official line'll come later, I'm sure."

"Nice." Han rolled his head on its side to stare at his brother-in-law. "Luke?"

"Leia's all right. She'll be arriving soon." His expression solemn, the Jedi Master confirmed what he had discovered a short time earlier. "Whatever was interfering with my ability to reach her is gone now."

"Okay. So what do we do until then?"

Rolled on his side, Luke caught Flit's attention away from the scene below. "Have you got the recorder and high-speed encoder/transmitter?"

"Right here, sir." Flit groped around her utility belt and came up with the compact piece of Covert Operations regulation equipment.

Luke took it and sat up. "Give me a couple of minutes to set this up, alert Wedge and send the call. Then we'll be ready to move in. Have you picked out any weak spots, Flit?"

"Apart from where I slipped through security last time I was here, no sir." She concentrated on the estate positive Crix Madine had never considered she would be breaking back in to this place. Movement below caught her attention. "Now that's interesting."

Intrigued by her quiet tone, Han rolled back onto his stomach and peered down the slope. A small speeder bearing the Imperial logo drew into the estate and halted immediately in front of the main entrance. Without raising her head above the brow of the hill, Flit pointed to a senior officer descending from the official speeder.

"That's definitely not the Imp officer who owned this place when I was here last. Maybe he's just visiting."

Han asked her outright. "Who is the owner?"

"Horst Niant. He was assigned the place. At least, he was when I was here last," said Flit.

She watched a trooper hurry ahead to open the front door. Saw the officer disappear inside as though he owned the place. Macro-binoculars dropping down, she turned to Han, her gaze thoughtful and curious.

"No. This is one of several places I got to know quite well during my tenure with Cov-Ops." Now she jerked her chin. "There are a couple of compounds along this road belonging to Imp officers, but this one was definitely Niant's. I got to know his profile quite well."

"Tank---Horst is dead," said Luke, his voice so flat it won him a narrow-eyed stare from Han.

"You knew him?"

Luke made no effort to check out the estate as he told Flit, "We grew up together on Tatooine."

"Was he the Imp officer you and Wedge had the run-in with?"

When Luke nodded to Solo's question Flit asked without thinking. "What happened, sir?"

"Horst---went to the Academy," said Luke. His voice remained flat, words terse in spite of his best efforts to remain objective. "Same time as Biggs."

Well-versed with Horst Niant as an Imperial officer from her excursions to Mandorel, Flit could not restrain her desire to close the book on the man whose habits she had studied for almost a standard year. "How did he die, sir?"

"We had a run-in with him on Tatooine. Wedge killed him."

Now she understood. Full of questions but with the wind taken out of her sails, Flit felt her mouth drop open. Over the Jedi Master's shoulder she caught the Corellian's surreptitiously gesture to refrain from pursuing the matter. Left to puzzle out those final words, she reluctantly returned to her ongoing inspection of the estate.

Acutely conscious of their surroundings, Han listened intently to the sounds of nature and watched Luke quickly enter instructions into the hand-held recorder. Task concluded, the Jedi Master raised the device above the ridge and panned it slowly from right to left and back again. That done he brought it back down and tapped the encrypting switch. Then he closed his eyes.

Aware of the attention focused on him, Luke eased all outward concerns aside. Drawing inward, he concentrated on an image of Wedge and exerted his influence. At first there was nothing. Luke expanded his search, focus centered on their mutual experiences over the years. That did it. He located his old wingman and filled his mind with images that conveyed his instructions.

'Wedge, incoming message. Pass the information to Chewie. We're a 'go' for insertion.'

Cramped and cold, Luke opened his eyes. In his hand the chronometer counted down the time to transmission. Deep within Luke was positive Wedge had received and understood his message. At the prescribed moment he directed the transmitter toward the sky. Even if the Imperials accidentally picked up the transmission it would be hours before they decoded the encrypted information. By then, Force willing, the Alliance strike team would be safely in hyperspace. Or captured.

'Or,' a betraying whisper insisted, 'we'll all be dead or captured.'

The latter were not options he wished to dwell on. Han tapped his shoulder. "Now what?"

Guileless blue eyes fastened on the Corellian. "We wait for dusk."

"That's a little over an hour away," said Flit. And suddenly wished, in light of what they were about to undertake, that she had kept her mouth shut.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

There was a terrifying moment when, upon opening her eyes, she discovered herself in a medical ward. An Imperial Medical Officer was leaning over her. A cry strangled in her throat before it emerged.

"It's all right, Your Highness." The enemy hastened to reassure her. "I'm Doctor Chandra. You're all right. You're in the Imperial medical facility on Mandorel. Please don't exert yourself just yet. You've only just come out of the bacta tank. And," grey eyes turned sympathetic for a brief moment, "please don't try to escape. It's quite impossible."

Leia accepted that as fact. She allowed her eyes to roam the immediate vicinity. Across the room two stormtroopers bracketed the entrance and two orderlies watched her from nearby. Very carefully Leia supported herself with her left arm, slowly levering herself upright. Determined to see she did not harm herself, the Doctor hurried to help her sit up.

"Are you all right, your Highness? Any dizziness? Severe headache?"

Head erect, Princess Leia Organa-Solo struggled to ignore the pounding headache at the base of her skull. Sickly sweet bacta fluid continued to cloy her tongue. When her mouth unconsciously worked to rid itself of the vile taste the Imperial physician silently handed her a mug of fresh water. While Leia gratefully drank the contents she fought desperately to understand exactly where she was. And how she had come to be there. In all, it was a wonder she retained her sanity. A strange woman moved cautiously into her field of vision.

"Highness, my name is Varina."

"Should I know you?" It was an effort to voice that inquiry.

Was it her imagination? Or did the unfamiliar woman appear hurt by that lack of recognition? Although somewhat uncertain, Leia refused to recant. Numb she might be, presently devoid of all emotion, but she was sufficiently cognizant to move with caution.

Varina responded. "We were---friends for a brief time."

"When?"

"Not long ago. Until---they," Varina's eyes slid toward the Imperial officer, "rescued us."

The irony of that statement was not lost on Leia. She took a deep breath to steady herself. "Where were we when we---"

"That's enough." A junior officer emerged from the shadows behind the Doctor. "Since she appears well enough to question her present situation, sir, the Princess is obviously capable of coming with me."

"I'd like to perform one more check," said Major Chandra.

The younger officer shook his head. "That's quite impossible, sir. You know the Captain wants her at his estate."

"Very well." Chandra acceded to the demand. He took the mug from Leia.

Face stiff, the Lieutenant signaled two stormtroopers in. One reached out to drag Leia off the examination table. She jerked away instinctively.

"I'm quite capable of moving without your assistance," she said. Chin high she slid from the table. The moment her feet touched the floor Leia regretted her impulsive act. Her head swam. She staggered. One hand caught the table edge for support.

"Your Highness." Concerned, Varina put out a hand. Steadied the Princess.

"I'll be fine," said Leia, hating her weakness.

Annoyed, the Lieutenant demanded confirmation from Chandra. "Will she be all right, Major?"

"You're the one who's in such a hurry to drag her out of here."

"Doctor."

"There will be a bit of disorientation and probably a headache for the next couple of hours." Aware the Lieutenant would report everything that happened here to Validan, the Doctor reined in his irritation and cautioned the aide. "Otherwise, she should be quite all right. But no rough handling or she may have a relapse, and your Captain would not be pleased."

"Come." The Lieutenant took hold of Leia's left arm, ignoring her when she tensed in silent objection to his manhandling. "Your Highness, my Captain wishes to speak with you."

"I'm sure he does. I have questions of my own."

They headed for the door. Before they had gone five steps a stormtrooper whirled on their uninvited shadow. "You will remain here."

Everyone halted and turned. Varina had moved forward. Now she shook her head. "Where the Princess goes, I go."

"Varina, no," said Leia, faintly concerned for the other woman's safety. Until she had an answer to what was happening, how she had come to be on Mandorel and into the hands of the enemy, Leia accepted this stranger at face value. She could not yet trust her and would as soon not have to worry about this unknown variable when all her energies needed to be centered on survival.

The Lieutenant insisted. "You will remain here."

"I'm coming with you," said Varina, strangely unintimidated by the stormtroopers.

Doctor Chandra intervened. "Take her with you, Lieutenant. At this stage I'm not certain what other side effects may crop up in the wake of the operation. Stability is the most important factor in her Highness' recovery. I'm sure the Admiral would be quite displeased were the Princess to suffer a relapse."

"What sort of relapse?"

"Psychological damage due to delayed shock is the primary concern at this point. I've never known anyone to survive with their sanity completely intact following the lengthy period these unfortunate women suffered those implants."

"Implants?" The word whispered from Leia's lips but no one enlightened her. Instead, the Lieutenant recanted. Jerked a hand at the guards.

"All right. Bring the other one, too. Let the Captain decide what to do with her. She may be of some use to us at a later date."

Ushered from the ward, Leia remained disassociated with her surroundings as she struggled to make sense of what was happening. Disjointed bits and pieces flitted, dream-like across her mind's eye, sharp pricks into her subconscious: Memories of the low-city streets of Coruscant, a dank, subterranean room, forest and birds, and several Gamorreans. These, she was certain, belonged to the blank period in her memory. All the while she was keenly aware of her shadow.

Still vainly seeking coherency, to mesh past fact and past dream state with present, Leia passed from the Base complex into late afternoon sunlight. She blinked and paused. Saw three speeders waiting. The hour was early twilight. They were given only seconds to adjust to daylight before they were escorted, none too gently, into the middle vehicle. Their guards disposed themselves on the seat facing the women, weapons trained on them. Satisfied, the Lieutenant took his place next to the driver.

Outside the medical facility they pulled out into a broad thoroughfare. From somewhere Leia drew information. This was the northern continent port city. Quickly leaving it behind, the transport raced out into the countryside. Beyond the settlement lay open farmlands, carefully groomed. Gently rolling hillsides reached away on either side. Few trees dotted the landscape as miniature groves or solitary sentries, presenting minute alleviation to an all too groomed appearance.

Without intelligence on Alliance loyalists it would be suicide to attempt an escape. Quite aside from the scenery presenting scant cover in which escapees might hide, Mandorel was an Imperial stronghold. Leia shelved the notion. She turned to watching the scenery and prayed some sensible idea would surface. Dusk drew its veil down around the countryside, heralded by pink and pastel orange blush along the distant horizon.

Past the farms encircling the port lay the labour camps fenced with force fields. Row upon row of bleak huts supplied the condemned with a place to eat, sleep and perform the necessary sanitary functions, lending a melancholy air to an otherwise pastoral landscape. Each designated estate was assigned to a senior official of the Imperium.

Something tickled Leia's thoughts. She was yanked her from her reverie to the knowledge that somewhere close by was someone she knew could help her escape this nightmare. Yet none of those around her appeared aware of what was happening to her. So warned, she forced herself to relax. As though wearied by her ordeal Leia eased into a corner and closed her eyes the better to concentrate.

A voice sighed with relief across her thoughts. 'Leia.'

Princess Leia grappled with the voice in her head. It took considerable effort to keep from crying out loud. Instead, she concentrated harder. 'Who---who is this?'

'Leia.'

The unknown repeated her name. His voice gently filled her mind, releasing a flood of knowledge. With it came information on everything that had transpired since her aborted excursion into Coruscant's low-city. For a brief moment she felt incredibly violated; even more than when Jabba had sought to possess her. She shook it off.

'Luke! How---where am I? What happened?'

'Easy, Leia. Time enough for explanations. We're here, all of us. We'll get you out.'

Concerned for their safety she retaliated. 'Luke, this is insane.'

Cognizant of her surroundings, once more in control of her faculties, she realized the perils and obstacles present in this situation. Not to mention the risks those she loved were committed to on her behalf.

'Please, Luke. Don't risk yourselves because of me.'

'We aren't leaving without you.'

The connection severed so quickly she felt abandoned, adrift once more in a sea of unknowns. Yet she retained those one-time suppressed memories awakened by her twin's touch. Seated across from her, Varina immediately noticed the slight change in her companion. In spite of herself the Princess smile warmly at her for a brief instant for the first time since their association. Quickly veiling her eyes, Varina also pretended to doze.

Twilight gave way to night just as their convoy pulled into the driveway in front of one prison station and drew up. Sight of security droids clutched cold hands about Leia's heart, contracted Varina's spine. Still without speaking the guards chivvied the women out. They entered the building through the front entrance and mounted stairs to a second story. Their guards paused outside a room with an impressive, ornately carved wood door. The Lieutenant thumbed a call button while his companions kept their prisoners under close guard.

A voice over the door com-unit ordered. "Send them in."

Now the door opened and they were ushered inside. Under direction they halted just inside the door. Behind the desk across the room sat a tall, lean officer. He gestured to the stormtroopers.

"One of you remain. The rest may leave."

"Sir."

Obedient, the Lieutenant saluted, delegated a guard to stay, and withdrew along with rest of his complement. Fascinated by his unexpected acquisition, the officer emerged from behind the desk and advanced on the two women. He paused while not quite within arms' reach.

A call placed by Major Chandra shortly prior to the women's arrival had forewarned him of the presence of the addition to the party and the reason behind the decision to include the Princess' companion. After a brief inspection of Varina he dismissed her from his thoughts.

Slowly he circled his prize, inspecting Leia from every possible angle. As though he were at a livestock auction checking out a prospective purchase. Galled by his rude behaviour, Princess Leia refused to acknowledge his presence. She kept her gaze studiously fixed on the opposite side of the room, distracting herself by letting her eyes drift across the sparse collection of objects that passed for ornaments on a set of shelves, the holo-landscapes hanging on two walls.

"Your Royal Highness." In due course he halted directly in her line of vision, greeting her with all the pleasantness of a formal function. "This is indeed an unexpected pleasure. Grand Admiral Thrawn will be most pleased. Won't you sit?"

As though they were presenting a holo-production he paused, allowing her time for rebuttal. Determined to remain aloof, Leia refused to demean herself by reacting to the sarcasm in his voice. Again the officer needled her.

"When my men raided the dome I scarcely expected to find you in Tshukon's little menagerie. However did you come to be there? Was there perhaps some little slip-up on a secret diplomatic mission? Or did someone betray you?"

This time there was the barest suggestion of a flicker in her cool brown eyes. Satisfied with that marginal victory the officer withdrew. All business once more he returned to his desk.

Seated at his data link to the Base he introduced himself. "Please," he insisted. "Sit." When Leia resolved to remain where she was, he sighed. "Very well. Remain standing if you wish. I am Arrin Validan, Captain in the Imperial Navy." Hands spread in a welcoming gesture, his tone remained congenial. "Commander of this base and your host, if you will, for the duration of your stay on Mandorel." Leia blinked rapidly, twice, her only outward show of emotion. Unperturbed, Validan tried again. "If you choose to behave yourself I will permit your companion to remain, and I shall see to it your quarters meet the standard expected of someone of your political stature until I receive further orders as to your disposition."

A tart rejoinder trembled precariously on the tip of her tongue, but Leia was acutely conscious of the manner in which Validan alluded to her lack of height. Wisely she bit back the retort before it emerged. She buried frustration and irritation in cool brown eyes before they surfaced. Exasperation brought strength and a renewed determination not to succumb to his almost laughably clumsy attempts to annoy her. So bolstered, she met and held his gaze levelly. Behind her Varina stirred then stilled once more when she realized the Princess was more than capable of handling this uncouth oaf.

Surprisingly Validan was unaffected by their continued refusal to respond to his small jibes. In truth, he had not expected it. He settled back in his chair, tapped his fingers together then pressed them against his lips as he considered his prisoners.

"I'm curious that no rumor of your mysterious disappearance has stirred Coruscant. Why would the Council keep it a secret?" Validan mused out loud. "Is it because they actually don't know you're missing? I am correct, am I not Your Highness in my belief that your vaunted Cov-Ops and Mon Mothma have actually successfully concealed your disappearance from everyone? I wonder how the Senate will react to that subterfuge once news of your arrival here, as our guest, reaches them?"

Intrigued, he unconsciously pulled at his lower lip with his fingers, watching for any betraying emotion. He was rewarded with only a measured blink in counter to his frank stare. Saw her jaw settle into an unrelenting line that Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin had known only too well before their deaths.

"I wonder if that jumped-up Jedi brother of yours has a clue where you are right now? No doubt he and your husband are tearing up worlds searching for you. And here you are, right in the lap of the Imperium."

Every ounce of control went into keeping fluctuating emotions in check. Leia allowed her eyes to track beyond the Base Commander as though he was wholly beneath her contempt to acknowledge. For a minute it appeared Validan would lose his composure. But the moment soon passed.

"Have it your way for now." He conceded to her continued defiance. In spite of his best efforts, there was a trace of irritation in his voice. "I only meant to help you pass the time with idle conversation and pleasantries until a shuttle is ready to take you to Fleet Headquarters."

Now Leia chose to speak. Cool, calculating, matter-of-fact. "Captain Validan, anything you might have to say is of no interest to me. I am fully cognizant of what to expect at the hands of your master."

Her audacity and forthrightness quite took away his breath. Unable to countenance her statement at first, to accept it at face value, Validan rose. He stared down at her. Gradually the truth behind her words sank in. This woman, a Princess and de facto heir to Alderaan, sister to the sole Jedi Master, and titular head of the New Republic had twice survived capture at the hands of the Dark Lord of the Sith. Had suffered the ignominy of enslavement and degradation by Jabba the Hutt. And now, helpless in his grasp, she remained unbroken. Unwavering in her resolve, the ultimate challenge to Imperial fleet authority and interrogation techniques.

"Admiral Thrawn was correct in his assessment." Validan allowed at length. "The only way to crush the Alliance is from the top."

Despite her predicament, Leia parried. "When will such as you understand that one individual means nothing in the greater scheme of things?"

"One?" In that moment, Validan realized he held trump. That he was in possession of a priceless tidbit of information. "Perhaps not your life, your Highness. But what will the Alliance pay for the return of your heirs?"

Stunned, Leia blurted out, "What?"

"Oh. Did I neglect to tell you the results of my physician's examination?" Smug, Validan settled back in his chair once more and let the suspense dangle between them before he thrust home his coup. "My dear Princess, I'm quite certain even the most stalwart agent of your Alliance will do their utmost to see you and your precious---how shall I phrase it---burden are returned safely to their bosom."

'Pregnant!'

The news coursed through her, accompanied by a spurt of wild exhilaration that instantly died. It was immediately replaced by rage that this contemptible individual should be privy to such precious news before she or Han was. And that the tattered remnants of the Empire would go out of their way to utilize that information to their advantage.

"You will never use me---us to destroy the New Republic. I would rather die first."

Spine stiff with suppressed rage Leia waited, half expecting her death at that moment. Somehow she refrained from clasping her hands protectively across her, as yet, flat belly. A hand closed on her left arm. Determined to remain at her side to the end, Varina silently offered her support. Nor was the Base Commander remiss in translating that covert act for what it was. Varina's audacity astonished him.

He observed, "Even here you continue to inspire revolt, your Highness. Amazing how someone so diminutive, so innocuous, can command such unswerving loyalty and devotion. How do you do it?"

Chin rising, brown eyes flashing, Leia deigned to respond. "Through something you and your kind can never comprehend."

"Which is?"

"Love and freedom of choice."

Astounded by her response, Validan found no words to counter her verbal thrust. He did manage a harsh bark of laughter, startling Varina and the guard. Unmoved by his dispassionate display Leia waited for the spell to run its course. Before Validan could recover his composure, an explosion rocked the grounds outside.

"What the---"

The Base Commander propelled himself from his chair with such force it toppled over. He ignored it, turning to the small plasti-steel window. Flame silhouettes cast obliquely around the estate from his left, dancing across trees and shrubs in the twilight. More explosions followed, accompanied by the high-pitched whine of ship repulsors. His hand went to the com-link button on his computer. Punched first one, then a second. But the unit remained stubbornly silent. From a drawer he removed a small hand blaster.

He snapped commands at the guard. "Communications appear to be out. Leave the women with me and get out there. I want an immediate update on what's happening out there."

"Sir!"

The trooper bolted from the room. Infuriated by the shambles into which his compound was quickly devolving, Validan turned on the Princess. "Well, your Highness. It seems I've underestimated the determination of your friends."

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Not about to give an inch, Leia remained silent. Something about the disturbance outside led her to believe it was diversionary, designed to draw off the majority of the guards within the house. On the heels of that thought the office door burst open and an aide dashed in, unannounced. Uniform smudged and torn, the man presented an ashen visage to his commanding officer.

"Sir!" In his distress he sketched a partial salute. Validan ignored the omission. "The compound's under attack by a large force. We count over thirty ground troops. Two craft were detected emerging from hyperspace just above Mandorel shortly before the power plant went down."

"What about the planetary shield?"

"Down, sir. Sabotaged half an hour ago. There's a running firefight in progress in that vicinity at this very moment. Rebel adherents. We've driven them back and repairs are under way, but it'll be a good two hours or more before---"

Behind the aide one side of the doorframe abruptly disintegrated beneath a barrage of blaster fire. Injured and unconscious, the trooper was flung across the room. His limp form landed in an ungainly heap against the wall to Leia's right. Instinct took hold. The Princess grabbed Varina and spun her into the opposite corner of the room, out of the line of fire. There they huddled with no more protection than the walls at their back and side.

Prisoners temporarily forgotten, the Base Commander ducked behind his desk, blaster held ready. Although the finish resembled wood it was, in fact a cunning metal replica, designed to provide him with maximum security should the need arise.

Before smoke from the smoldering doorframe cleared, a figure in unrelieved black hurtled through the opening. He rolled across the floor and to his knees against the opposite side of the desk without quite touching the surface. Unaware of his opponent's proximity, Validan peered around the desk, checking for any sign of threat. A huge Wookiee appeared in the outside hall. Validan leveled his blaster and took aim at the all too convenient target.

Even as his finger tightened on the trigger a hand snaked out of nowhere and plucked the weapon from his grasp. Shocked, the Captain started halfway to his feet. And found himself staring into clear, cold blue eyes framed by light brown hair. Out-manoeuvred, the Base Commander slowly drew himself up. With an unconscious jerk at his tunic to straighten it, Validan recovered his dignity. He swallowed hard to moisten a throat gone strangely dry.

"Skywalker, I presume?"

"Captain."

They eyed one another, sizing each other up. Aware of his vulnerability, Validan gave his chin a self-conscious twist. He screwed up his courage and stepped around the desk, right into an unexpected roundhouse from a fist wrapped around the hilt of an unlit lightsabre. Down he went. Knuckles stinging, the Jedi Master bent to check the man was definitely unconscious. Convinced the Base Commander was no longer a factor in the battle, Luke turned.

With a glad cry, Princess Leia pulled free of her companion and leapt across the room with a glad cry. "Luke!"

"Leia." Luke Skywalker gave her a swift, warm hug.

Beyond his sister Luke saw a strange woman watching them. By her expression she was trying to ascertain whether he was lover or husband, a logical choice for any Princess. Then Leia drew free. Took his outstretched hands in hers and stared up into his face. The light in his eyes warmed and comforted her. She shook her head.

"Why, Luke? You could all be killed."

"We couldn't do otherwise," he said. A towering Wookiee filled the doorway behind Luke, Han at his side.

"Leia!"

Joyous, the Princess pulled away from her brother and threw herself toward her anxious husband. "Han!"

Arms enfolded her. Unabashed in the presence of a stranger, they kissed. Barely able to contain tears of joy, Han stroked her hair, pressing his lips against the crown of her head when she cuddled against his chest. Chewbacca moaned a note in greeting.

Uncertain in the face of what could only be a family reunion Varina slowly emerged from the corner. Slippers scuffed against the unrelieved wood floor. The sound brought the Princess back to her surroundings. She turned. Held out a hand to the other woman and drew her across the room with that gesture.

"Varina." Leia quickly introduced her to the mixed gathering. "This is my brother, Luke Skywalker. My husband, Han Solo. And this is Han's friend and co-pilot, Chewbacca."

"Hello." Voice quavering slightly, Varina managed to greet them but her thoughts reeled.

Adept at reading body language, Luke realized this woman could not accept the introduction. That she was unable to accept Luke as Leia's brother, no doubt because he bore absolutely no resemblance to Bail Organa. Nor was it possible that a Princess of the Royal Household of Alderaan could have married a commoner.

A com-link chirped, interrupting the reunion. "Hey, Luke."

Luke quieted the others before he responded. "Yeah, Wedge?"

"How's it going up there?"

"We've found Leia."

"Great. 'Cause we've got to get out of here. By the way, let Han know we're loading as many prisoners from the camp as want to risk the run into the FALCON's cargo holds."

"He's doing what?"

To Han's demand, Luke shook his head, silencing him. Wedge continued. "Plus there are seven more going out on GEM LITE."

"Okay."

"Thought you'd like to know the Imps've managed to fix their damaged communications a little quicker than we anticipated. I suspect they're rerouting transmissions through one of their planet-side ships."

"Damn." Han swore angrily. "Let's go, kid."

Words fitted to action, Han swung Leia about and hustled her toward the door. Chewie led the way. Luke swept his hand out to Varina to automatically include her in their party. Somewhat reluctant, uncertain exactly what she was getting herself into Varina followed the Princess. On the landing two blaster bolts exploded in the wall over their heads, spattering them with fragments. They threw themselves prone behind the railing.

"This is some rescue." Unable to resist, Leia found the moment strangely humorous. "I take it there isn't another way out?"

"Don't look at me." Unintentionally drawing from the past Solo nodded in the direction of her brother. "He's the brains, sweetheart."

"Again? When are you two going to learn?"

"Ask your brother."

A pause ensued. To Varina's astonishment a short burst of laughter escaped her companions despite the seriousness of their present predicament. Even the Wookiee appeared amused. Another blaster bolt 'crumped' against the balustrade, sobering them.

"Okay. Okay," said Leia after a minute. "I give up. Luke, what do we do?"

His blithe instructions irritated Han "Stick close and follow me."

Weapon hissing into life, Luke confidently stood and stepped forward into direct line of assault from along the balcony. Behind him, a gasp escaped Varina as she perceived the ramifications of the weapon in his hands. Her lips moved shaping words that refused to emerge.

'There are no more Jedi.'

But there was. One brave Jedi Knight whom Princess Leia professed to be her brother. In rapid succession Luke parried three more shots aimed at them from along the balcony. Then he stalked across the landing toward the stairs at the far end, clearing a path for those behind him. Heads low, his friends edged forward. As opportunities presented themselves, Han and Chewie opened fire at the enemy around the Jedi Master. Eventually no opposition remained on the upper level.

Frightened but not about to be left behind, Varina rose to a crouch to follow. Behind her someone stirred. Forewarned, Varina ducked back into the office and kicked the Base Commander soundly behind the ear, twice, with the ball of her foot. Then she scooped up his blaster. Auto-safe off, Varina discharged it into the office equipment effectively disabling communications and computer console. Satisfied with her efforts, she sprinted after the others, still grasping the blaster. Bent low, Varina caught up with them at the head of the stairs. Again they crouched, heads well below the solid balustrade, waiting for her.

"Fire fight below," said Han as she joined them. Saw the blaster in her hand. "Can you use that thing?"

"I believe so," she said. "It's been a while though."

Several more shots were fired. Then silence. Anxious to get back to the ships, Han cautiously rose up and peered into the foyer below. Only lifeless bodies met his inspection.

"Han? Luke." Lando Calrissian appeared in the foyer below looking more ruffled than usual. "Come on."

"No need to call twice," said Han at Lando's urgent gesture.

The small group dashed down the stairs, through the front door and ducked into some shrubs just outside. Blaster fire erupted from various positions around the grounds as they emerged from the building. Outside at last Varina wondered faintly how they planned to escape unscathed.

"The ships are on the ground around that side of the house," said Lando, pointing to the right. "We're withdrawing everyone now. Unfortunately, sensors have detected a star destroyer just entering the system."

"It's gonna be tight," said Han, his expression grim.

"When isn't it?" Luke urged them. "Go!"

With Lando in the lead, they dashed around the side of the building. A stitch in her side, breathing hard at the unusual exertion after years as a slave, Varina gamely stumbled along in their wake. Until the Wookiee realized she was dropping behind. He paused. As she came up to him, Chewie looped out a long, hairy arm, gathered her in and slung her over one shoulder.

Too weary to complain, Varina wrapped her free fingers in his soft fur and hung on as best she could. His bony shoulder dug into her stomach. As she was jounced along she struggled against the urge to vomit. Just when she was positive all the jarring and the unaccustomed position would make her lose her last meal he set her on her feet. Varina discovered she was facing a dilapidated freighter.

"We're flying in that?"

Her exclamation to no one in particular brought Han around, a finger raised in warning. "Don't even think it, sister."

Mouth snapping shut, Varina allowed the Wookiee to hustle her into the ship. Leia followed her up, Han and Luke covering their retreat from the ground while Lando crouched halfway up the ramp. Then the FALCON's crew went up the ramp, Lando on their heels. The freighter's drive built to a throaty roar. Behind the freighter GEM LITE's repulsors added a high-pitched whistle to the MILLENNIUM FALCON's engines.

"Is that everyone?"

"No. There're a few more on the way."

On the heels of that update a small group of men and women appeared, fighting a desperate rear-guard action. Among the group were Wedge and Windy.

As they reached the freighter Wedge gasped. "I think we're all here." He performed a quick head count. Over thirty percent of his squad was dead or missing, including his demolitions expert.

"Where's Nikols?'

A voice called from the midst of the survivors staggering up the ramp. "I'm afraid he was cornered in the kitchen, sir."

"We can't just leave him," said Windy.

The senior non-commissioned trooper caught the young officer's arm as she turned to head back. He shook his head at Windy. "Best you forget him, ma'am. They won't take him."

Whatever else he meant to say was lost in a spectacular explosion. Sound, light and debris sent everyone outside the ship instinctively ducking beneath the freighter as the far wing went up. Shocked to immobility, Windy stared at what was now a smoking heap of rubble. Pieces of shattered masonry, wood and scorched metal fragments pin-wheeled to earth around them.

"Told you." The Sergeant declared to no one in particular.

Wedge turned. "Get on board. Now."

He took a step and was promptly knocked sideways as a shot exploded somewhere close by. A heavy weight bore him to the ground and pinned him there. Curses flowing fast and furious, Wedge fought to free himself in time to see Luke throw his lightsabre in a long scything arc in the direction of a tree. Someone behind the bole screamed. Seconds later a stormtrooper lurched into view clutching a cauterized shoulder, and dropped to the ground.

Face strangely devoid of emotion the Jedi Master extended his hand. Into his grasp flew his lightsabre, its blade deactivated. Luke clipped it to his belt, turned and bent to pull away the weight holding Wedge down.

"Windy?"

Shaken by what he had seen, Wedge dragged his attention back to the person who had thrown him clear. Slowly Windy found her knees and clawed her way to her feet with Luke's assistance. Wedge leapt up. A smoldering wound gaped between Windy's collarbone and right shoulder. Between them, Luke and Wedge got Windy into the freighter. The last of the task force boarded the ship, closing the ramp and hatch.

"Sith spawn!" Windy gasped Rogue Squadron's favorite oath, in shock and just realizing she was injured. "That hurts!"

Beneath them the floor lurched. Varina hovered at the end of the passage, uncertain what was expected of her. She clung to a bulkhead protrusion as the freighter shuddered roughly, lifting away from Mandorel. Luke realized someone was missing from the original compliment.

"Flit?"

In answer to his question Wedge jerked his chin. "With the others on GEM. Let's get Windy settled."

Supported by her friends, and trailed by a bemused Varina, Windy was borne aft to the one cabin of the three not occupied by refugees. They set her on a bunk. Anxious, Luke inspected Windy's injury. He was not prepared for the reaction his actions drew from Wedge.

"Leave her, Luke."

"What?"

"She'll be all right," said Wedge. "You can't keep expending all your energies on minor injuries that bacta or a med-droid can as easily tend."

With Windy batting his hands aside, the truth of those words tore at Luke. He wanted to deny it. But even as he formed an argument, a frantic shout rang down the passage from the cockpit.

"Luke. You better get up here." Torn between a desire to help Windy and the imperative nature of Han's demand, Luke hovered, indecisive. "Now, Luke! We need you."

Unable to ignore that demand any longer, Luke hurriedly dispatched orders. "Lady," he said to Varina, "Stay with her, please."

"Of course." Relieved they did not consider her a burden, Varina settled next to the patient.

With a gentle push, Luke urged Wedge out the door. "Wedge, get back to the cargo hold. Make sure the refugees are strapped down and stay with them. This is going to get rough."

"On my way."

Luke left the cabin at a run. En route to the cockpit he passed Artoo. The little astro-mech was securely clamped to a strut in the lounge alongside his counterpart. Lashed upright between two bulkhead braces was See-Threepio, his photosensors dim. Someone had thought to transfer him to the MILLENNIUM FALCON and ahd then switched him off rather than having him under foot physically or verbally.

Several half-starved children clothed in rags occupied the couch. Strapped in, their eyes were large and dark with unrestrained terror. Luke spared them a reassuring smile and a wink, and was rewarded by tremulous, tentative smiles in return.

Equally anxious in the over-crowded atmosphere of the labouring freighter, Artoo released a series of tiny whistles at his master. His dome rotated rapidly back and forth punctuated by a series of staccato blips of his solitary photo sensor.

"It'll be okay, Artoo. Stay with the children," said Luke. With no time to spare to further reassure either the droid or children, he ducked into the cockpit.

"Glad you could make it," said Han as Luke squeezed in between the two rear seats. Leia occupied the one directly behind Han, Lando across from her.

Through the transparency Luke made out GEM LITE gamely pushing toward their hyperspace jump. Even though the transport had risen in advance of the freighter, the MILLENNIUM FALCON was rapidly overhauling her companion ship. Two formations of TIE fighters were bearing down on the transport. On the FALCON's long-range sensor output Luke made out an additional three flights inbound. Beyond loomed a star destroyer.

"Got any suggestions, kid?"

To that the Jedi Master wearily responded with their time worn motto. "We run."

It was no more than they expected. Loaded down with live cargo neither vessel was capable of manoeuvring with any of their usual agility. Not unless they wanted their passengers severely injured or killed in the process. Aware of what was required, Lando lunged from his place in the cockpit.

Over his shoulder he called. "I'll man the top turret."

"I've got the belly," said Luke.

A glance at Leia and Han, Luke briefly rested a hand on the Corellian's shoulder before following Lando. Leia touched him as he turned away. Their eyes met once more. Warmth flowed between them. Soothed some of the jangling nerves churning her stomach before he disappeared.

Ahead of them GEM LITE gamely surged out of Mandorel's gravity well. Still the FALCON continued to close the distance. Just as the first TIE fighters caught up with them, they passed the transport. Aside from his encounter with Vader on Bespin, this was one of the worst moments of his life, and Han swore long and hard. The first of many cannon bursts shook the FALCON, trapping Han into flying and rotating shields. His hands flew across controls as he bled power from a few redundant systems to reinforce their shields as one fighter after another scored hits. No more time remained to worry about their companion vessel. At this moment it was every ship for itself.

Just forward of them, a TIE shattered in a shower of glittering fragments. Another sloughed away barely in time to avoid a wicked burst of power from above, made the mistake of jinking into the path of a TIE Interceptor, and came apart. Leia anxiously clutched the back of the pilot seat unaware her fingers were white from the pressure she exerted.

"How long to our jump?"

"Too long." Never one to hide the truth from his wife, Han was blunt. Determined to ease her anxiety as best he could he flashed her one of his famous smiles. "We'll make it, love."

"I know."

Somehow her declaration of faith in his ability to get them clear shook Solo. But when he looked back she had left the cockpit. Gone, he was certain, to check on their cargo of refugees and those of the ground force who had boarded with Wedge and Lando. Perilously close to being distracted at a critical time he yanked himself back to the fight. Han concentrated on positioning the freighter to maximize the effectiveness of firepower from the turrets. At his side Chewbacca moaned and whined a litany in his own dialect as they dipped and swayed.

Again and again the plucky freighter jostled and jarred beneath enemy fire. Each jounce was punctuated by shrieks from terrified children. No triumphant shouts filled the intercom as in times past. Only an occasional grunt from Lando signified he had scored a hit, dispensing with a pursuer. There was absolutely no sound from the opposite turret. The Jedi Master fought in total silence. Even with their expertise it was far too evident they were rapidly being over-hauled by the enemy. Frantic ship-to-ship communications crackled to life.

"FALCON. This is GEM LITE. Do you read?"

"Go GEM," said Han.

"We've sustained heavy damage to our shields." Static filled the channels. Cleared. "---now down. Some damage to hull integrity. Casualties---"

"Hang on, GEM. We're on our way," said Han. He prepared to come about. Chewie snarled a comment. Han rounded on his partner. "I know! I know! But we can't just leave them to the Imperials."

"Negative, FALCON." Breathless, all hope gone, GEM LITE's flight crew countermanded his response. "Leave us. Get---Princess---safe--. We're dead in space. Their---beam engaging. They're----us in."

"GEM."

Flit's voice echoed back to them. "Remember---sir."

In the belly turret, Luke watched as the star destroyer reeled in the helpless transport. Even if he snapped that umbilical, as he knew he could he would only postpone the inevitable. They were too far from assistance, and the FALCON was over-loaded and out-gunned. Ultimate frustration and defiance vibrated across the Force, sweeping over him. He knew the outcome before he witnessed it and shielded himself barely in time as GEM LITE dissolved into twinkling metal fragments, plasti-steel and shattered bodies.

'Flit. Force take you.' Eyes closed against prickling tears of anguish he breathed that prayer. His voice thick with emotion, he passed on the disheartening news to the rest of the crew. "We've lost GEM LITE."

Unable to believe that report, Han sought sensor confirmation. The loss numbed his reactions and was equally evident in Luke's monotone delivery of the news. Now the young Jedi Master knew how Obi-wan had felt at the destruction of Alderaan. Pain from so many deaths all at once, particularly at such proximity, was physical as well as mental.

Starlight warped, streamed into the familiar safety of the hyper light tunnel as hyperspace jerked at their bodies. Inertial dampers rapidly compensated and gravity reasserted itself. A mournful note escaped Chewie as the Wookiee turned to his friend for consolation. But Han Solo was incapable to comforting his co-pilot, in shock and momentarily unable to speak. He stared blankly out the forward cockpit expanse. Fifty-seven lives, among them seven refugees, including three children, fugitives of Imperial tyranny. Gone in an instant out of time.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Slowly Luke dragged himself from the turret and climbed back up the ladder. He passed a silent, ashen Lando who was doing his best to comfort the children in the lounge. Outside the cabin where he had left Windy, Leia met him, features ashen.

"Luke, what---what happened? I felt something awful."

Face tipped away from her searching eyes, Luke told her the truth. "We lost GEM LITE."

"Oh no!" Stricken with guilt that so many had lost their lives to rescue her Leia could only shake her head.

"They were trapped." Her brother bleakly gave her the bitter news. Drawn by his friend's pain he moved to the lower bunk where Windy now lay. "They were being drawn into a star destroyer. They chose self-destruct rather than be capture."

"Son of a Sith!" Windy blurted the epitaph, unaware of the impact the phrase had on Luke and Leia. Drugged to alleviate the pain in her shoulder, she reacted to news of the mass suicide of the team members and refugees as she knew the surviving rescuers would once they heard what had happened.

Hands trembling, Leia joined her brother at the bunk. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and briefly rested her cheek against his back. Seated at the head of the bunk, monitoring the med-pac read-out, Varina turned quickly away. She could not bring herself to watch the play of naked emotions on their faces. Torn by Leia's grief and guilt, Luke forced himself to attend those he could help.

"Hi, Windy. How're you doing?"

"Pretty good, all things considered. Never thought it would be this bad." Windy shifted slightly. Winced. "Hurts like hell, your know, but they tell me I'll live. And I won't lose the use of my arm. Stupid move, huh?"

Slightly annoyed over Windy's self-flagellation, Luke shook his head. "Saving another's life is never stupid."

A short, shaky snort escaped Windy. "Should know better than to say something like that to you, huh? Especially after the things I've heard."

When Luke stirred, Windy reached out without thinking to slap him on the arm. She gasped as she unintentionally shook her wound. Unable to ignore this hurt that he could ease, as he could not help those on GEM LITE, Luke responded. Hands pressed over the bacta bandage, he concentrated.

Warmth flowed over Windy. Nerve endings twitched and tingled like the strings of a musical instrument. Gradually the worst of the pain faded.

"That'll do, Luke." Leia softly admonished her brother, concerned for his welfare as his face drained of colour.

Fascinated, Windy tilted her chin down as far as it would go, straining to see her upper chest. She was not entirely surprised to see the wound was no longer an angry, red-black raw mouth against her flesh. Although not healed, the edges appeared a healthy pink. Most of the pain was also gone.

"Sarlaacs and sand people. Is that what you did to Wedge on Tatooine?"

Before Windy could get an answer from Luke, however, the Jedi Master withdrew. With a little shake of her head, Leia wordlessly informed Windy not to pursue her questions at that time. She left the cabin.

"I have to do something," said Varina. "Will you be okay by yourself?"

"Sure." Windy feigned bravado she did not feel. "Go on. I'll be fine."

After a check of the monitors to confirm her patient's condition, Varina hurried to catch up with the Princess. Too many questions pressed for answers and she was certain now they were in hyperspace she could get some of them sorted out, as well as supplying a few of her own.

"Luke?" Wedge met them outside the starboard cargo hold. "I think you should see this."

Something in the way Wedge spoke alerted Luke to potential problems. He followed his friend into the cargo hold but said nothing to Wedge about GEM LITE. There would be time enough later to fill him in on what had happened to Flit. Leia stepped through behind them, intent upon keeping an eye on her brother. Unnoticed, a shadow dogged her heels.

Upon entering the cargo hold they were assailed from all sides by moans from the injured and wails from panic-stricken children. Several escapees had lost control of their faculties, filling the air with a noxious stench. It was all Leia could do not to vomit in sympathy as she stepped carefully over and around the press of bodies, each foot placed with care. She nodded to people who reached out to them for comfort. Touched a hand here, nodded to others as she passed them.

Abruptly Luke halted. Gaze intensifying, he went to one knee beside one woman. Blue eyes searched behind matted, grey-streaked hair that partially concealed strained features, a face that was pale in spite of leathery sun tanned skin. Knees drawn up to her chest, the woman rocked rhythmically back and forth, crooning to the man stretched prone between her and the wall. Gently Luke pushed aside the hair over one cheek. Green-yellow bruises mottled the flesh. His hand tilted her face up to the cargo hold's diffused lighting. He gazed into vacant eyes.

"Camie. Deak."

Their names whispered from his lips. Remorse sent a sharp stab through his heart at finding them in such a state. When neither responded to his voice he eased into Camie's thoughts, soothing anxieties and calming shock to a level where she was able to deal with her condition. His companions watched, breathless with anticipation. Slowly the spasmodic rocking ceased. Eventually her eyes focused on him.

"Luke?" A trembling, dirt-streaked and bruised hand rose to trace his features. "Is it---it is you."

"Yes, Camie." He took her hand in his, cradled it. "You're safe, now. I'm so sorry about this," he said. "Tell me what happened. How did you wind up on Mandorel?"

"Was that where we were?" For minute Luke feared she would relapse but Camie shook her head. She glanced briefly over his shoulder at the others grouped behind him. "After you left I had a fight with Fixer about Windy staying through the sandstorm."

Luke nodded, a sad smile catching one corner of his mouth. "We heard you."

"Did you? Oh." Taken aback, she blinked rapidly. But tears of grief failed to spill over. "Anyway, I got mad and left. Went with Deak to help him fix the speeder you had abandoned. When we got back to Anchorhead stormtroopers were arresting Fixer."

She paused. Behind them Wedge stirred, wondering whether or not he should disobey a lawful command from Jornik and tell Luke what he knew. One look from the Jedi Master silenced him. Camie drew a deep shuddering breath and continued.

"Deak insisted we make a run for it. I don't know what he was planning. We only got as far as Mos Eisley before they caught up with us. Took us to a ship; RUTHLESS, I think someone said it was." Intent upon recalling events, Camie missed the startled look Luke shot Wedge. The way Wedge Antilles avoided direct eye contact. "Good name for that nameless piece of space garbage. Their officer was a soulless bastard. They---tortured us, Luke. We told them everything we knew. Everything. We couldn't help it. And still they weren't satisfied."

"Of course you couldn't help it," said Leia, sympathetic to their plight. "No one can. They're experts at what they do."

Experience filled Leia's voice. Camie blinked hard and stared at the Princess over Luke's shoulder. "You his sister?" When Leia nodded, Camie managed a weak grin. "Should have known. You look like him. Darker, though."

"Thank you," said Leia. She encouraged the other woman to continue. "Tell us what else happened then."

"They didn't believe us." Lower lip trembling, Camie broke off and swallowed hard. Tears trickled down her cheeks. "They put Fixer in an airlock."

Even though Wedge knew from the file he and Flit had decoded that Fixer had died, he was horrified. Never had he expected the term 'terminated while undergoing interrogation' to mean what Camie's statement implied.

"Mother of us all." Wedge gasped. "You can't be serious?" A dry heave shook him.

Someone across the hold was not so fortunate. They lost what little remained of their stomach contents.

"Wish we weren't," said Deak, finally finding strength to speak. Emaciated, over-worked and abused to the limits of his endurance any little movement was an effort. All the horror of their experience filled his words. "They spaced him."

One hand resting on Deak, Camie quieted him. From somewhere she discovered the strength to finish her tale. "Afterwards they sent us to that place. The guards took special delight in beating us over every little excuse. 'Specially when they found out we were friends of yours, Luke."

"I'm so sorry." Contrite that he had brought them to such a state Luke repeated himself.

"S'not your fault, Luke." Deak insisted, his voice a shadow of its former strength. He stared up at Luke. "One of them said you killed Tank. They were real mad about that." Their gazes locked. Deak's did not waver. "Did you?"

A sharp inhalation caught Luke's attention. On the periphery of his sight he spotted Windy clutching a wall strut for support. How Windy had made her way aft, and why, was beyond the Jedi Master. Aware of what had to be passing through Windy's mind, Wedge rested a sharp look on his subordinate and answered the question for his friend.

"No. Luke didn't kill him. He didn't want to."

"But Tank is dead." Windy insisted on the truth, unable to countenance what she saw as the perfidy behind that statement.

"Hell, yes!" Not about to pander to his subordinate, injured or not, Wedge snapped in his best parade ground voice. "What else did you expect would happen, Lieutenant? Your one-time buddy, Tank, was an officer in the Imperial fleet. Dedicated to the perverted ideals of a dead Emperor. And I'll have you know, mister, Horst was not above murdering his old friend, Luke Skywalker, even though Luke wanted him to live."

"Tank? Tried to kill Luke?" Stupefied by the strength of Wedge's retaliation, Windy shook her head. "I don't believe it."

"You better believe it, 'cause that's what happened. We were downloading sensitive information from their computers when your old pal caught up with us. Unfortunately Niant and I went through the Academy at about the same time. He thought he recognized me earlier and tailed me. Like a good little Imp officer he tried to knife Luke even though we had him dead to rights. That's where I got one of those wounds in my side. Remember those?"

Vaguely Windy recalled the injury. Yet it was difficult to reconcile this new perspective on an old friend. Deak stirred.

"I believe it." He whispered back, his voice thin, barely audible. "You never knew Tank that well, Windy. Too much of a kid when he and Biggs left for the Academy. He was pretty bitter when he found out the Imperial Academy was his only ticket off Tatooine."

"Easy." Aware the conversation was draining Deak, Luke ordered him to stop. "No more now. You'll be all right once we reach Coruscant, but you've got to rest. There'll be time enough later for explanations."

"Sure, Luke."

Drained beyond weeping Camie nodded for both of them. She turned her attention back to keeping watch on Deak. Apologetic, Windy silently sought permission from Wedge to remain and received it. Careful of her shoulder she settled cross-legged next to her cousin and friend.

Camie's eyes focused on her. She forced a weak grin at the sight of the battered military shirt. Her fingers plucked at Windy's uniform. "Well. Will you look at you, Windy; all military spit and shine, and an officer yet. Wonders never cease."

"Yeah, well." Windy blushed. She fell silent.

"So what happened after you guys left Anchorhead?" Deak prodded her for information.

Flushed with her recent escapades, Windy began quietly narrating everything that had transpired since her flight from Tatooine. Acutely conscious of her superior's presence, even after Wedge left the hold, Windy carefully trimmed out everything she knew was classified information.


Satisfied they would be all right Luke led his sister and Wedge back into the companionway outside the cargo area. There they encountered Varina. At some point during the conversation inside she had withdrawn. Now she blocked their path, her eyes searching the face of the man at Luke's side. A faint smile flickered across her features. Slowly, tentatively, she stretched out a hand to him. She jerked it back when his face went blank.

"You're Wedge Antilles, aren't you?" Wary, Wedge nodded. Her hesitancy increased. On edge, she pushed a stray strand of hair from her eyes. Incredibly she blinked back tears. "Oh, Wedge. Don't you recognize me? Has it really been so long?"

Shaken, Wedge struggled to dredge up memories to go with this individual but could find nothing that matched. Evidently she knew him very well. His continued lack of recognition shook her badly.

Determined even in the face of his rejection she stumbled on. "I didn't think I had changed so much. Wedge, it's Biawn."

"Bee?" Words caught in his throat and he stared back. "Force. Is it---Bee. It---I thought---Alderaan." Nothing he tried to say came out in its entirety. He stammered to a halt before finding the words. "It is you."

Delighted by his admission, Biawn cried. Incredulous, he hugged her, awkwardly at first. Beyond her Wedge saw confusion and struggled to explain to his friends. "Luke. Your Highness, this is my sister---Biawn Antilles."

"Now I remember." Eyes bright, Leia exclaimed as the past re-asserted itself. "You were presented to my father just before---"

"Just before you were confirmed to the Senate," said Biawn. She drew out of her brother's arms. "The whole time we were in that miserable collector's control I was positive we knew one another."

"Somehow I sensed the same thing," said Leia. "But the implants prevented me from recalling where and how."

"Well. Old home week," said Han gruffly from the passage. His mild sarcasm at the display of so much emotion did nothing to detract from the happiness of the newly reunited siblings.

"Oh---you!"

Lips curved in a brave smiled, Princess Leia gave her husband a tiny shove before moving into the protection of his arms. The act was so natural no one could doubt they were meant for each other. Never mind Han Solo had once been a near-creditless spacer on the edge of the law.

"Han," Leia could barely contain herself as she recalled Validan's report on her condition, "I have something to tell you."

"Oh?"

"Luke. Wedge," the Princess glanced at her brother and his companions. "Would you please excuse us for a few minutes?"

"Wedge." Varina whispered to her brother as the couple disappeared up the companionway. "How can they possibly be married? Isn't he a commoner?"

Not at all surprised by her bewilderment, Wedge reassured her. "I'll explain everything. Let's go back to the lounge. I'm going to need something to drink because this is a very long story."

Behind Wedge, Luke stared after his sister. His first contact with her had produced some interesting information, news he left Leia to impart to Han before she made any formal announcement. A quiet smile playing about his lips, the Jedi Master accompanied Wedge and Biawn back to the FALCON's over-flowing lounge.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Snow lay cold and crisp across the landscape, gripping once-verdant fields in its wintry clutches. 'Unlike Hoth,' Luke Skywalker reflected, 'there's something exhilarating about the cold season on Olgathir. Even enclosed beneath the protective canopy of a speeder.'

At his side, Wedge Antilles guided them into the outskirts of a vacation community now partially depleted of its commerce. Most visitors preferred late spring to early fall on Olgathir. Particularly as there were no ski or power-boggan slides in this region.

"Quite the view," said Luke.

Wedge nodded. Over the past few weeks he had dealt with Flit's death far better than anyone had expected, even though he had refused all proffered replacement candidates. Crix Madine, on the other hand, had taken a brief sabbatical, returning to work two days before Luke and Wedge departed for Olgathir. He never again mentioned Flit.

'And so we all deal with our losses,' Luke thought.

Beyond the resort the towering Hazard peaks glowered down through dark grey clouds. Once sharp edges were blurred; blue-grey and slate frosted with white. All the buildings in the cup above would be empty now, abandoned to the maintenance droids until the next warm season.

"I wonder what Madine's people found up at Nngan's place?"

Reticent to explore that course, Luke responded. "You don't want to know."

"Hmm." Wedge grunted at that advice. "Probably not."

Again they fell silent. They passed the first of the lakes before Wedge inevitably broke the quiet. When he spoke it was to repeat himself for the third time since departing the MILLENNIUM FALCON at the port.

"I still can't believe the Princess managed to get the Council to do it."

"Leia does have a way about her." Luke patiently reminded his friend of his sister's tenacity. He scrubbed absently at a chin, the ghost of the beard still plaguing him. It would be a while before he used that disguise again. "She can be pretty stubborn about certain things. Of course, she wasn't alone in this decision."

'Particularly now she's pregnant.' But Wedge kept that thought to himself as he replied. "I know. But getting the government to foot the entire bill. Have you any idea how much the combined property taxes, back taxes, tariffs and realty fees amounted to?"

"As she said, Wedge; the New Republic owes you and your family a great debt."

"Yeah. Just the same---"

"I thought you would be happy to get it back. Particularly now Olgathir's a full member of the New Republic."

"I am. But it is over-whelming."

With a familiar, casual shoulder bump, Luke chuckled and admonished him. "Give it a rest, Wedge."

In response to the knock Wedge pretend to temporarily lose control. He swerved wildly back and forth before correcting their course. "Hey, Luke. Take it easy, old buddy. You nearly made me drive into that front yard."

A grin caught the corners of Luke's mouth and lit his eyes. "Sure I did. So what happened to the hot-shot pilot who flew right through the core of the DEATH STAR at Endor?"

As one they laughed, the moment capturing them until they turned up a side street and drew up in front of a silent, two-story house. Solemn once more, Wedge switched off the engine. They sat for a long minute in silence, staring at the place before Wedge could bring himself to move. Luke made no effort to rush him.

Eventually Wedge opened the canopy. They got out, Wedge moving slowly, as though trapped in a dream. Apart from the weather, nothing had changed since his last sojourn past the estate. The gates remained locked. Still affixed to them was the Imperial seal. A quick back-slash of Luke's lightsabre blade removed it. The metal plaque fell with a soft clunk into the mounded snow. The Jedi Master gave the central supports a swift kick and the gates yawned open just enough to let them pass. They squeezed through.

Side by side, the heroes of the New Republic walked up the pristine expanse of calf-deep snow toward the small building. Their breath puffed in soft clouds before them. Etched against the white world Luke was a stark spectre. The hem of his black cloak swept the snow, leaving curious waves in its wake. For once Wedge failed to notice the contrast.

Where the previous season had displayed an untended tangle of plant life gone rampant, winter created a fantasy of weird shapes: soft mounds, suggestive shadows and unidentifiable lumps. Here and there a tree sagged beneath its burden. Dead tree limbs torn down by heavy weather jutted accusing fingers at the sky.

"It'll need a good gardener," said Luke. Something tugged at him in the Force. He reined in the urge to let it take him.

Wedge sourly admitted. "It needs more than that."

For all the New Republic's generosity, he and his sister lacked the capitol to hire a full staff such as once cared for them and their uncle's family in those short years following his father's promotion to captain. It would take a lot of backbreaking labour to put this place to rights. But Biawn was determined she could manage with a skeleton staff of two locals on part-time salaries.

Upon reaching the house they stared up the plain facade. There was nothing fancy about the place, just solid honest construction that Luke could appreciate for its simplicity. With the Force Luke deactivated the lock so the front door responded to Wedge's touch. They stepped inside.

Indoors the temperature was barely above that outside. Wedge sought and found the climate control, bringing up the temperature to within tolerable limits. It was obvious his companion did not suffer from the adverse weather as much as he, strange in someone who had been raised on a desert world.

Then he got a good look at the interior. Slowly Wedge surveyed the damage. Little remained of his family's possessions. All the furniture and ornaments were gone, no doubt stripped by Imperial officials. Shattered fragments of a few items littered the floor. Heartsick, Wedge drifted from one barren downstairs room to the next, eventually winding up in the rear sitting room. Here his family had once gathered after supper to talk, read or watch the latest holo-vids. Ice crystals in his hair rapidly melted, dripping water down his nose. He flicked it away.

Stubbornly clinging to the wall above the antique fireplace, tilted acutely to the left, abandoned, hung a portrait of Alderaan's last Royal family. Executed by one of the few artists still working with brush in pigment medium, the canvas had been considered a masterpiece. An appreciative customer had presented it to his uncle. Someone had slashed it twice, ironically splitting the fabric so the rips bisected deceased members of the Organa household, while leaving the adolescent Princess Leia curiously untouched. Solemn brown eyes peered out of round features framed by looped pigtails.

Caught by the images Luke was unconsciously drawn to the painting. He halted with Wedge at his heels, gazing upward with unconcealed delight. "So that's what she looked like."

Trapped in the past, Wedge ignored the remark. He reached out and tried to straighten the picture. Sorrow enwrapped him like a blanket. Luke Skywalker put out a hand and gathered up the dangling strips.

"The Princess would have liked that," said Wedge. Reality struck home. Disheartened by the senseless destruction he broke off and heaved a heavy sigh. "If it was still whole. What a mess."

"It can be mended."

"Sure," said Wedge. Sufficiently distracted he failed to hear the alteration in Luke's voice. Pained by the wanton waste, he drifted away, across the room. "If you have the credits. And can find someone who knows how to repair that kind of artwork. There isn't much of a demand for it these days, you know."

"No." The Jedi Master softly insisted. "It can be fixed."

Drawn by the unreadable tone in Luke's voice, Wedge slowly turned. Fascinated, he gazed, transfixed, as the battered picture appeared to writhe. All around him time slowed to a crawl. His vision blurred until he was uncertain if what happened next was reality or his imagination.

Frayed edges fluttered in the air. Sought one another out and melted back into each other. Pigment appeared to briefly liquefy and flowed along the tears until the portrait was whole once more. Then the room snapped back into focus. As whole as the day he had first seen it, the portrait graced the small sitting room once more. Incredulous, Wedge stretched out a hand, dared to touch the picture, and discovered the reality of what he was seeing.

Eyes bright with wonder, he turned to his friend. "How'd you---Luke, that's incredible. Thank you."

Unaffected by Wedge's awe, Luke stretched up a hand to touch to now-repaired portrait. His fingertips brushed the image of the young Princess. "I think you're right. Leia would like this."

Slowly Luke pivoted then to face his friend, his blue eyes dancing with unconcealed delight at Wedge's unbridled amazement. This was what made being a Jedi worthwhile: The little things that brought pleasure to others. He inspected the rest of the room.

Beneath the more recent turbulence of violent rage and senseless brutality other emotions remained. They comforted and welcomed. This house had known considerable familial love. Acutely conscious of what must be passing his friend's mind, Wedge watched and waited.

Finally Luke put his thoughts into words. "It must have been nice growing up here."

To his surprise, Wedge shrugged. "Actually, we only had the place for a few years before I went to the Academy. Wouldn't have been able to afford it before Dad was promoted. And we only got it when we did because my uncle bought in with us."

He broke off, his eyes catching sight of something out of place. Intrigued, he bent down. Trapped in the molding in a jog in the wall next to the fireplace his fingers encountered a metal frame. He straightened. Stared at what he held. No larger than a ship bridge data pad used for recording daily logs and routines, were the remains of a holo-portrait. Its sides were badly warped. Once it had held images of his family. Nothing now remained.

"Damn. Bee would have wanted this." He turned to Luke. "I don't suppose you could---"

Regretful, Luke shook his head. "Sorry, Wedge. I can only work with what is. Not with what's been destroyed."

Resigned, Wedge laid the empty frame flat on the mantle. "Never mind. It was just a thought. It was the last one taken of us before I went off to the Academy."

Determined to draw Wedge back from the past, Luke redirected their conversation. "Won't your sister be lonely here?"

"I doubt it. Besides." Wedge reasoned. "What does a career officer in the New Republic's fleet need with a house like this? I can't leave Coruscant or the Fleet for more than a holiday. And Bee hates Coruscant, not that I blame her. She always preferred the outdoors. The endowment approved by Council will pay for a couple of servants. Maybe even help her find a husband. Force knows she needs something to take her mind off what's happened to her these past few years. This place ought to provide her with the necessary outlet."

"If you say so."

"Hey. Who knows? Maybe Camie would like it here. You think? Particularly after everything she's been though."

"Perhaps."

It was definitely something Luke knew he should put to his friends. "By the way, thanks for finding Deak that job with the civilian side of Fleet's maintenance department."

"Fair turn-about, buddy," said Wedge. "You've done a hell of a lot for me. Wish I could help you out with Camie."

"There's always hope," said Luke. But he ached for Camie who remained at loose ends on Coruscant, still trapped by her ordeal and unable to make a decision beyond day-to-day existence. Windy, now confirmed to a position with Blue Squadron, took time whenever possible to visit her and Deak.

Undeterred, Wedge went to the window that looked out on the grounds at the left side of the house. Behind him he heard Luke move away. The Jedi Master's footfalls receded as Luke explored the remainder of the downstairs. Mind a curious blank, Wedge continued to stare out the window. In gaining new friends, he had lost some good ones. No one could take the place of Flit and Paradin. But that was life in the military under wartime conditions. You took the good with the bad, cherished the moments as they came and moved on.

An imperative call echoed through the empty house. "Wedge?"

Drawn back to the room, Wedge looked around and discovered he was alone. "Yeah, Luke? Where are you?"

"In here. At the back of the house."

The Jedi Master's voice echoed through the vacant interior. Wedge tracked him to the kitchen. His mother had insisted upon an old-style facility to prepare 'real' food for her family whenever the servants had the night off. More memories surfaced. He pushed them aside.

"What's up?"

"Something's not right." Luke pointed. "Why would Imperial stormtroopers remove every ounce of food and only some of the cooking utensils?"

Put on the track of the anomaly, Wedge stared around the kitchen. Pans with blaster holes, twisted, useless metal utensils and shattered plates littered various surfaces. But there were additional scorch marks with no corresponding item.

"They wouldn't. It'd be all or none. And from the way in which the rest of the house was ransacked---"

"Yeah."

Their eyes met. Voice dropping almost to a whisper, Wedge put their suspicions into words. "Someone's living here."

"But there's no one in the house," said Luke, prepared to search the area with the Force. Wedge beat him to the possible explanation.

"But there is a two-room bungalow out back, Luke. The previous owners housed their servants in it. We used it for guests. Our domestic help was hired from the surrounding community when there was a major function. We couldn't afford to keep any full-time staff. Just a couple of house-cleaning droids."

"Come on."

Together they pressed up against the wall on either side of the back door. Cautiously Wedge opened it. A narrow trail, as wide as a single footpath, cut the snow from the back entrance. It wended a betraying path through the back garden to the guest cottage. In silent accord they followed the tracks, flitting from one patch of cover to the next. As they neared the out-building Wedge stepped off the path into a knee-deep drift and began edging along one side of the building. To his surprise Luke halted directly in front of the main entrance.

Wedge's hand fell to his blaster. "Careful, Luke."

"It's okay, Wedge," said the Jedi Master after a couple of seconds. "There's no threat here."

"You're sure?"

"Completely."

Head tilted to one side, Wedge considered that statement and found that, given who and what Luke was, he had to accept it at face value. He retraced his steps. Unaffected by his friend's doubt, the Jedi Master eased the door open and stepped into a small alcove off a sitting room.

Blaster concussion nearly deafened them as Luke deflected a bolt just in time with a lift of right his hand. As wood splinters from the wall spattered their faces, Wedge crouched and brought out his blaster. On the heels of that shot a woman's tremulous voice called out.

"No, Demia! Don't. It's no good."

Head down, Wedge glared at Luke. "Thought you said there wasn't any danger here?"

"There isn't," said Luke.

Weapon drawn, Wedge slowly straightened. Across the room a girl of approximately twelve confronted them. Her clothes were threadbare, clearly patched together from remnants of other attire. Clutched in her hands was a weapon far too large for her grip. Wide, fear filled dark brown eyes stared at them from the far end of a settee.

Luke patiently waited for her next move. Aware his weapon only made the situation worse Wedge carefully holstered it and stepped to one side, the better to watch for her next move. And to allow her to see his hands were empty.

The atmosphere of the small sitting room reeked of decay held at bay only by dint of much effort, simple day-to-day tasks performed by people existing on the verge of privation and starvation. Dust marred lintels and insect webs gathered at the corners of the room. His heart went out to the occupants.

While Luke and Wedge waited a minute passed, then two. The muzzle of the blaster trained on them finally sagged. Still cautious, Wedge moved forward two steps. His actions caught the girl's attention. The blaster started to rise. Then sight of him aroused some unidentifiable emotion in her. Lower lip trembling, she struggled to form words. Finally she found her voice. Stammered out his name.

"W---We---Wedge?"

Before Wedge could react, the invisible woman spoke up. "What was that? Who's there, Demia?"

Voice shaking as much with reaction as age, an elderly woman pushed up onto one elbow and stared over the intervening arm of the settee. Like the child her clothing was worn and patched. Gray hair straggled in wisps from crude braids coiled about her head, and deep creases and shadows marred once handsome features: indelible testimony to the bare subsistence diet on which she and the child behind her had suffered for some time. Her gasp equaled Wedge's reaction. Their cries of astonishment echoed as one.

"Mom, it's Wedge!"

"Wedge?"

"Mom?"

Before anyone else moved Wedge covered the distance to his mother's side. He bent and wrapped his arms around her, his face pressed into her hair. Speechless, Demia set aside her weapon and hesitantly touched Wedge's shoulder as he knelt beside the couch. Each was clearly fearful the other would vanish. Tears trickled down the old woman's cheeks as her son finally released her. He lovingly eased the frayed coverlet up beneath her armpits. Eyes glistening with more tears his mother cupped a hand along the side of Wedge's face.

"Wedge. I can't believe it. It really is you. Force knows I prayed often enough that you had survived," she said. "But this."

And her fingers drifted down to his uniform. Rested briefly atop his rank insignia. A faint smile flickered across his features as Wedge attempted to restrain his embarrassment in the face of his mother's unconcealed pride.

"An officer in the Rebellion? But you were at the Academy." When he nodded, she stared at her son with such pride Wedge ducked his head away. "I can hardly believe it. Your father would be so proud."

Concern rapidly replaced all other emotions as Wedge took stock of grey tinged flesh, the dark shadows beneath her eyes. He glanced at Luke and saw the Jedi Master give his head the smallest suggestion of a shake. Like an ancient mechanism kept on display, Wedge's mother was beyond all but the most radical surgical help. And Luke suspected she would never accept such actions on her son's part to keep her alive beyond her natural life span.

Much as Wedge wanted to shout denial at that damning, silent observation, he had seen far too much death over the past years not to realize the accuracy of that judgement. Despite his care his mother caught the exchange. She shook her head wearily.

"I know my time's almost up, Wedge. It's not sickness, just old age. I'm worn out. Actually, I think I've only held on this long because of Demia. I was so afraid of leaving her alone before she was really old enough to look after herself."

"Did you know about Syal?"

"Yes. We heard. I couldn't even consider leaving Demia in the care of that---unmentionable person she's married. Now at least I know she'll be well cared for. By family rather than strangers."

"Mom." In spite of the obvious, Wedge objected to her fatalistic attitude.

"Hush." She commanded him with some of her old strength. Found another smile. "It's no good denying the truth. I'm just too old, Wedge. I'll be fortunate to see another year in. There's an old saying, son. To everything there is a season."

"Mom," he said again.

Wedge's mother drew a shaky breath. "Your father and I always believed in letting nature take its course rather than fighting it with rejuve-treatments and organ transplants." Again she paused. Then she said, "I want to know everything. But let me tell you what happened to us first. You deserve a proper explanation."

From somewhere inside Wedge found the strength to tell her he knew some of the missing past. "Security released some of it to me a couple of months ago."

The sensation of being extraneous, almost unwanted, made Luke withdraw to the window. He wrestled unreasonable emotions aside. Gaze fixed on the scene outside he listened while his friend's mother quickly outlined what had transpired since they had parted. Family reunions were for the relations after all.

"After you left for the Academy, a move you know your father and I regretted you making," said Wedge's mother, her eyes blurring slightly, "your father was approached by an agent of the Rebellion. Naturally at the time we couldn't tell you or your brother and sisters."

Images from the Cov-Ops tape rewound through his head and Wedge found words tripping, unguarded, off his tongue. "So that's why he was on the TANTIVE IV."

"You've seen him, then?"

Hope glimmered in her eyes. Silenced by his mother's expectations, Wedge forced himself to ignore her diminished capacity. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mom. He didn't make it. A star destroyer overtook them at Tatooine while they were trying to get back to Alderaan with information vital to the Rebellion."

"Ah." With a little sigh, she settled back. "There's no need for you to say anything more. Somehow I knew he was gone. Were he still alive he would have found a way to return or send for us." Again she paused, gathering her remaining resources. "Demia, Aeden and I barely escaped the sweep they made at the port shortly after we arrived here. But Biawn was out shopping at the time. We were later told she was among those rounded up and shipped off-world."

His mother halted, her throat choked with emotion. Anxious to alleviate some of her anguish, Wedge hastened to reassure her. "We found Bee."

"Bee---Biawn's alive?"

"And well." Wedge insisted. "Right now she's on Coruscant---"

He got no further. Demia released a tiny terrified squeal. His mother gasped and lurched up. "Oh, no! Wedge, what about the Emperor? What were you thinking to send her there?"

"Easy, Mom." Wedge eased her back flat. "Palpatine's dead. So is Darth Vader. The New Republic controls Coruscant now."

"A New Republic?" She shook her head. "So much change. There's been so little news. We couldn't go out for fear the wrong people would find out. One of the neighbours, a very old friend of the family, hid us for several years at their old hunting lodge. She smuggled us food---what she could afford---but she refused to tell us what was happening off world. I think she was as afraid as we were that the Imperials would catch up with us. And if they did we would tell them she had helped us. Poor woman, she died right after the first snowfall last autumn. When things got quiet we moved back in here. Since then, Mia's been---making do." She gave a quick laugh that turned into a short, harsh cough. Patiently Wedge waited until she was able to continue. "We have so little and the place has crept up on us, I'm afraid."

Determined not to let her become trapped in the past Wedge pressed for news of his younger brother. "But where's Aeden?"

Head shaking, Wedge's mother whispered the damning news. "Four years ago it was. He went out looking for work at harvest because we needed the credits. You know how I hate owing anyone. Your brother never returned."

Head bowed in grief, Wedge let the pain wash over him and pass. Time, the great insulator, permitted the moment to ease by. His mother's hand rested on his head, drawing him back to the room. Gradually the pain subsided. In accepting the loss of his entire family not once, but twice, he now felt blessed with an unexpected bounty. He looked up. Was rewarded by a the touch of his mother's hand once more against his cheek in passing as it drifted down to rest on the couch.

"Thank the Force the rest of us survived."

"Yes."

"Now, Wedge. You've been very remiss." Once more in command despite her debilitated condition, his mother gently remonstrated. "And I know I taught you better manners than this. Before you tell us anything more about what you've been doing since we last saw you, please introduce your friend. He's been standing there so silent and patient."

Beneath his mother's stern gaze Wedge blushed. He stood. Gestured to Luke, drawing him to his mother's side. "Mom. This is my good friend, Luke Skywalker. Luke, I'd like to present my mother; Lady Katrina Antilles."

Luke approached the couch. There was no concealing the lightsabre at his hip as he pushed back his cloak and went to one knee so as not to over-stress the old woman. Wedge stood behind him, one hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Welcome to my home, young Jedi." Wedge's mother joyfully greeted Luke. "Such as it is."

"Madam," said Luke, graciously inclining his head. "Good news and good company make for pleasant surroundings, no matter what the circumstances."

"Silver-tongued, like all the Jedi before you." Heartened by his diplomacy she smiled. "Just knowing there's one left is heart-warming enough for this old woman. It's hard to believe the Emperor and his darkness failed to destroy all of the Jedi Knights. And such a comfort to know some light yet remains in our benighted galaxy."

"Mom." Wedge hastened to intervene, sensing Luke's growing discomfort. "You're embarrassing Luke. And you did say you wanted to hear what happened to me."

A tolerant smile lit his mother's face. "I'm sorry, Wedge. Good Jedi. Of course we do."

She reached behind her and drew Demia close. A nervous smile flitted across Demia's face and Luke returned it. He rose and stepped aside to make room for his friend. When Wedge settled on the nearest chair, Luke perched on the arm. The Jedi Master's presence leant Wedge courage as he launched into an abbreviated historical update.

"I was halfway into my second year at the Academy when something happened that made me realize I was on the wrong side."

EPILOGUE

Toward the centre of those worlds yet under the sway of the decaying Empire was a system whose three habitable planets produced the fresh food that supplied the fleet. Most of those so employed in the fields and enclosed environments were not there by choice. The most troublesome were relegated to the domes; contained and controlled, inescapable prisons surrounded by wholly hostile environments. In most instances those incarcerated within were worked to death. Prison labour was cheap and expendable. Here only the strong and quick-witted, or those with rare talents, survived.

A scrawny, elderly man wearing ragged coveralls and worn boots scurried along a path between fields in one such dome. Fearful, he cast repeated furtive glances over his shoulder. There was no sign of the over-seers. But that was not necessarily an auspicious note since dome security was sixty percent managed by droids and vid-screens. He ought to be working, weeding one of the plots. But the news he now bore was of serious importance to one member of his extended 'family'.

Off to his left he caught the sound of someone humming. Only one person he knew could find joy in anything to do with these surroundings. Drawn by the melodious sound, Jaz wended his way between towering rows of vegetation. Ahead of him a manually operated, old fashion three-wheel cart blocked the path.

"Hey! Kid!"

The old man called out softly, imperative. And the young man in the cart tilted it back slightly, before pivoting on its two primary wheels to face the messenger. "What is it, Jaz?"

"News just in from the zone."

Aware Jaz was referring to the region hotly contested by Imperial and New Republic forces, the young man waited for the update. In spite of their imprisonment, information still managed to seep back to the prisoners. And they lapped it up eagerly.

"So?"

"There's a new batch just in from Mandorel. Got picked up in a sweep. News they've brought in means you'd better walk small for the next few days or so."

"Walk?" A hollow laugh escaped the young man. He pointed to legs that terminated just below the knees. "I haven't walked in over two years, Jaz. Not since my last escape attempt. You know that."

"Figure of speech." The old man flapped an impatient hand. "You know what I mean, kid."

"Sure. Sure. So what gives?"

"Word is Alliance forces slipped in to Mandorel and pulled out a whole bunch of people from a work camp there."

Intrigued, the paraplegic peered at Jaz. "Now why would they do that?"

"Seems the Imps somehow got their hands on Princess Leia. She was being held at the same estate. When the rebel force rescued her, they broke out those interred in the camp."

"Interesting. A wonder the New Republic would risk the attempt, though."

"Not when her brother's the Jedi Master. Anyway, they got most of 'em safely back to Coruscant, although some of 'em apparently blew up with the second ship; a military transport." Jaz was all but bouncing from one foot to the next with unrestrained excitement. "But here's the kicker, kid. Among the rescue force was a senior officer." He dropped his voice to spectral tones. "A certain General. One Wedge Antilles. Any relation of yours, by chance?"

Jaz stared at his companion, hopeful, seeking a reaction. Instead of excitement or disbelief, his companion remained strangely unaffected, almost reticent.

Disappointed by the negative response, Jaz huffed and stalked off. But the moment he was out of sight, Aeden Antilles straightened in his chair. Eyes glittering with joy, he stared up at the opaque dome overhead.

"Wedge."

THE END

FINAL NOTE:

For those of you interested in puzzles, the names of several ships in Parts Two and Three are anagrams of actual names. And for those of you into Terran Naval history, one is ship is named for a cashiered Canadian vessel. If you figure it out, let me know.

Your comments are appreciated and welcomed.

caconder@islandnet.com

CONDER          SALVAGE
                SUBTERFUGE Part Three

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