Part Two of DECEPTION

by Haru Windsong

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Humming the latest fad tune to herself, Dorienne left her quarters and crossed the hall. While her boss was away, occupied with whatever duties to which he had been assigned, she intended to ensure his quarters remained neat and clean. It also meant she had some privacy in which to work at her studies. Officer Development exams were not her most favourite thing in the world. But if she expected to get some say in future assignments she needed something higher than a respectable passing grade.

To try working in the same room as Len Horalle was all but impossible. She did not exactly dislike him. It was just that, given an audience, he would charge off on some topic or other at extended length. To date she had tried everything to switch him off, unsuccessfully. Even being outright rude left him unfazed. How General Madine tolerated Len, she could not fathom. Then again, it could well be that hours spent in the General's presence were the reason behind Lieutenant Horalle's penchant to verbosity.

Dori set her hand to the lock. "That's odd."

The door hesitated a fraction longer than normal before opening. Even stranger, the door leading from the antechamber into Wedge's rooms was also closed. Her soft whistle died, swallowed by certainty. Having inspected the place immediately following his departure---just to ensure Wedge had not left anything lying around---she knew that door ought to have been open. She removed her hand-held com from her belt and called in her concern.

"Cov-Ops Control, this is Lieutenant Turlat. I believe there may be an intruder in General Antilles' quarters."

Dori kept her voice pitched low and did not close the door at her back. She was not about to get caught without an avenue of escape should the uninvited intruder beyond the inner door suddenly put in an appearance.

"Copy that, Lieutenant. Hold one, please."

"Hurry it up, Control," she muttered. But Dori kept her thumb off the 'send' switch while she grumbled.

"Hey, Dori. Watcha doing."

The shout brought Dori around, heart pounding, finger to her lips. Eyes bright with anticipation, Horalle joined her. Ignoring her warning, her nemesis chattered on at parade ground level.

"What's wrong?"

Angry and frightened, Dori snapped back in a hoarse whisper. "Shut up, will you?"

"No need to be rude. And you know you shouldn't be standing here with the door open." Her roommate instructed her, finally dropping his voice a fraction. He stepped through and closed the panel behind him, cutting off escape.

"Dammit, Len!"

Too late, Dori moved to counteract his stupidity. The inner door slid open. Slapping her companion aside, Dori threw her com unit at the man on the other side, and ducked. But the trespasser made no effort to avoid the obviously innocuous item. The fist-size weapon in his hand spat twice. Its first bolt took her high in the chest, throwing her back against the wall. She slithered to the floor. As Len came up off the floor a second shot took him before he quite knew what had hit him. Seriously injured, Dori remained where she had fallen.

'Strange,' she thought. 'There should be pain.' Instead, a peculiar numbness, a lassitude trapped her, held her where she lay. 'Is this what it feels like to die?' She wondered. 'Oh, please!' Desperation raced wildly through slowing thoughts. 'Don't let me die. Not yet.'

Desperately clinging on to life, she struggled to identify the enemy. He approached her. Toed her onto her back. But Dori was beyond feeling the pain movement should have caused.

"Stupid kids. You should have minded your own damned business," he said. And knelt at her side.

Through veiled eyes Dori recognised her assailant. She nearly gave herself away as he fumbled over her clothing, checking for something. Whatever it was he sought, he failed to find it. Furtively he withdrew, slid out into the passage, and closed the door behind him.

"Dori." A groan from Len confirmed he still lived. "What the hell happened?"

Hands, strangely gentle, carefully opened her tunic. Sight of her injury made him turn white. Then green. He looked like he was going to be sick. Dori hoped he would not vomit on her. She hurt too much to risk a sympathetic reaction.

"Oh, hell, Dori!"

"You should have listened, Len." She barely managed to speak in something above a whisper. "Tell Madine."

"Tell him what?"

"Ambassador Urkhard---aide---"

"What's going on here?"

Len lifted his head and snapped angrily at the Security Guards, "Shut up! She's trying to tell me something." He bent over her again. The guard quickly joined him, holding a recorder close to Dori's lips. At the sight of it she rallied valiantly.

"Aide to---Ambassador Urkhard---" She lost the battle momentarily. Drew one breath. A second. 'Force, it hurts just to breathe.' Briefly she closed her eyes. Opened them again. "Tell General---Skywalker---Antilles---sorry. Failed them---"

"Dori? Dori!"

Desperate with grief and guilt, Len jerked at her jacket lapels with his good hand, ignoring the pain in his injured shoulder. Dori's head flopped, slack, unresponsive to his desperation. "Don't die, Dori!" He stared wildly at the guards. "Where the hell're the medics?"

"I'm sorry, sir," said the guard regretfully. He had seen too much death in his life not to recognise it now. Switching off the recorder, he rose and spoke to his companion. "Better tell Ops."

"No! She can't be dead!"

"What happened here?"

Crix Madine appeared in the doorway, pushing rudely past the guard blocking his way. Kneeling beside Wedge's BATMAN, he felt for a pulse. Fingers raced down Dori's neck, back up to touch lips. But they were already turning blue. Once bright eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. The General sadly closed her eyelids. Getting to his feet, Madine pulled his aide up off the floor.

"Always the youngest and brightest." He murmured to no one. Crix turned. Rested a hand on Horalle. "What happened, Len? Who did this?" Something sticky made him glance down. His hands came away red. "You're bleeding."

"I am?" Len stared down, saw a rapidly expanding stain spreading around his left side. Observed mildly, "Oh."

Madine caught him as he collapsed. Medics and a droid arrived at that moment. "Sir? They said someone was hurt."

"Here," Madine told them. And lowered his aide to the floor.

One of the medics caught sight of Dori. "What about her?"

"She's gone, but you better get her into stass anyway. Just in case." As the medics closed around Len and Dori, Madine addressed himself to the patrol. "Did she say anything before she died that might give us a lead?"

"Yes, sir. Made sure of it," said the first guard. And held up his com-recorder.

"Who did she name?"

"Ambassador Urkhard's aide."

"Urkhard? Bornai." Muttering under his breath, Madine patched through to Security Central. "Security, this is General Madine. I want a lock-down on Ambassador Urkhard's quarters, ship and personnel. Pick up his aide immediately."

"But, sir. What about diplomatic immunity---"

"We have a murder and a case of aggravated assault with intent to kill. Mister Bornai is implicated by the deceased's dying statement."

"Very good, sir."

"And get an Investigating Team down here immediately. Pull all the visual security records for this wing for the last two hours. I want the identities of everyone who went in and out over that time period."

"Right away, sir."

"Madine out." Cutting the transmission, he turned to the guards. "Secure this area. No one gets in or out of here from this moment on except the Investigation Team."

"Sir!"

"And stand ready. I'll want to see you both in my Ready Room as soon as the Investigating Team's been over General Antilles' suite." Madine returned his attention to the medics and their patient. "Will he live?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. How long before I can interview him?"

"Tomorrow, sir. He needs surgery and a night in the bacta tank."

"Inform me the minute he's out."

"Of course, sir."

Conscious of stares from the Security Patrol, Madine studied the inner door and wondered. 'Why would anyone break into Wedge's quarters? Is this incident connected in any way to Flit's run-in outside the FALCON's berth? And if so, is there still a security breach in my department? Or perhaps Jornik's.'

"Pray the Force it's in Jornik's department," he said under his breath. It ought to be easier to track down if it was. His department, on the other hand---

Outside he heard someone racing up the passage. Out of breath, Jornik skittered to a halt, completely disregarding protocol and dignity. Wide-eyed, he stared at the stass-sealed body that the last medic was now carefully loading on a lev plate for transport.

"By all that's holy. What happened?"

Madine went to him, drew him back into the hallway. "Let's use my quarters. They're secure."

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Beyond the city limits the countryside lay in low, undulating folds. Agrarian, the scene was highly reminiscent of Alderaan. Not entirely surprising given the initial colonists were from that world. Tall trees marched stolidly across fields forming necessary windbreaks against soil erosion and delineating boundaries. Ponds, small and large, broke up an otherwise uniform image. Some were employed for aqua-farming.

Sunlight poured over everything, lending the setting an idyllic quality. Birds, true-feathered avian life forms rather than the reptiles that most worlds boasted flitted through the treetops. Their songs were unfortunately submerged beneath a disagreeable, low-pitched whine rising from a battered and much-abused speeder.

The driver revelled in just being free at last of city congestion. For three days he had played the game; hung out at the crew centre. He had dutifully scanned the boards and went for interviews. But his engineered record precluded work of the sort he sought with reputable agencies. Just as his superiors wished.

Reaching a side road, Wedge turned off. Drew up on the verge. The speeder settled on its air cushion. Its engine sank to an idle hum, still emitting a tooth-rattling buzz. He slid out. Just beyond the verge spread a pleasant glade screened on three sides by towering bushes that would have concealed Darth Vader and an entire cohort of stormtroopers. Speeder shut down, Wedge walked out into the knee-high grass.

After days of impersonating another, even with the implant's aid, he needed somewhere to relax and unwind where he did not have to worry about being spied upon. Stretching, Wedge went through several twists and turns in an effort to release kinks in over-stress muscles. His spine popped several times. He scratched his three-day of beard and contemplated his surroundings. Finally his hearing tuned up, adjusting to the quiet of the countryside. The only thing wrong with his surroundings lay in the colours. Corell's sky had been a true blue, with no hint of the green in that bowl arching over Olgathir. And the grass needed a pale purple tint.

Birds fluttered down from the copse, winged to the ground nearby. Wedge watched them peck at seed heads. Abruptly they took flight in an explosion of wings and startled cries. Forewarned, he stepped back into the bushes, blaster springing from holster to hand. His clothing blended perfectly with his surroundings. Heart rate steadying, Wedge waited expectantly.

"Hey! You! Whoever you are. You're trespassing on private property."

A stranger stepped into view, staring around the glade. Upon failing to immediately locate the offending individual, he turned a tight circle, peering at the bushes. Everything about this person shouted 'farmer'.

'Probably a small landholder,' decided Wedge. 'And unarmed.'

Holstering his weapon, Wedge stepped out into the open. His sudden appearance made the other twitch. The farmer's eyes narrowed, indignity lining his broad features.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing on our property?" Terse and abrupt, this farmer was filled with a confidence so reminiscent of Wedge's youth that he found himself reassessing the man's age without difficulty.

"Sorry." And Wedge raised his hands shoulder high, palms forward in the traditional Olgathir gesture of apology and greeting. "Wasn't aware this was anything more than a pull-off."

"Pull-off's back there." With a jerk of his chin, the younger man indicated the semi-circle of gravel and dirt where the speeder sat. "We don't take kindly to strangers trampling the crops, mister."

Now that the other was closer Wedge could see he was, in fact, quite young. Possibly the same age as Luke when they had first met. Such suspicion in one so young troubled Wedge.

'Then again,' he considered, 'maybe Luke and I were exceptions to the rule at that age. Nave, star-eyed idealists. Too many years ago.'

"Sorry," said Wedge out loud, striving to placate the angry youngster. He slowly lowered his hands conscious of the other's continued wariness. "I was just taking a drive. Thought I'd see if anyone out this way was hiring."

"Harvest's not for another month." The farmer rudely broke across Wedge.

"I'm not a laborer," amended Wedge flatly.

"Can see that." Now the young man scoffed.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Itinerants don' bother wanderin' the countryside lookin' fer work. Usually go straight to the AG-Board in Manada to see if anythin's listed. Saves on footwear and credits."

"It would at that."

"Joel? Did you find him?" Another male voice, gruff with age, broke in from the direction of the road.

"Yeah, Dad. Over here."

"What have you got?"

Wedge kept silent, waiting for the father to arrive. On the heels of that second question, an older man shoved his way through the bushes and into the clearing. The younger man glanced at his father. To Wedge's eyes, they were as alike as two seeds in a pod. The elder's features were sun and hard labor seamed, hair turning grey. His son was a darker carbon copy, skin not quite as leathery, black hair caught back in a tail.

"Just some loopy spacer, Dad. Says he's lookin' for work."

To his credit, the father was more polite, if still on the abrupt side. He brushed a hand through his hair. "Don't know as anyone's lookin' fer crew out this way."

Wedge played the ignorant first-down visitor. "Can you suggest where I might look?"

"Well, now." Lips pursed, the farmer gazed out at the crossroads visible beyond Wedge's rental speeder. "What do you think, Joel?"

Sulky, Joel responded. "D'know, Dad. Could try east. Toward the resorts." His tone remained aggressive. "Sometimes they're lookin'. Guess you already tried the port."

With a nod, Wedge refrained from adding anything. His behavior invoked an expected reaction in the older man. He peered suspiciously at Wedge. Studied his face and clothes.

"What did they do? Blackball you or something?"

By rights, Wedge ought to take umbrage at the younger man's rudeness. Instead, he folded his arms over his chest and allowed his expression to fade to neutral. The farmer nodded.

"Okay. Your own business." He clipped that out. "Suggest you move on, now. If you're serious about work, take the next fork left. Stay on the road 'til you reach the lakes. Then go right. When you can see the mountains, you're there."

"Be almost night by then," reflected Joel.

"Any place to stay down that way?" Wedge asked even though he already knew the answer.

"Couple of places. Might be a bit rich for the likes of you." Joel made no attempt to hide his contempt.

"Might be," said Wedge, letting the insult slide off.

Not so the father this time. "Joel!"

He had not missed the biting edge in Wedge's voice. Alerted, he admonished his son, then turned to Wedge apologetic and fearful. "Boy's still got straw in his head, mister. Don't mean nothin' by his comment."

"Lucky for him I could see that." Wedge kept his tone carefully uninflected. "Someone might kill him for it one day. Or leave you with something less than useful. Best he learns to curb his tongue around strangers if he plans to live a long life."

"Dad. You gonna take that---"

"Shut up!" From the shock on Joel's face it was obvious his father seldom had reason to yell at him. Evidently he had expected his father to support him. "Just you keep quiet. Hear?"

Rather than let the situation deteriorate further, Wedge nodded to the farmer. After resting a piercing stare on Joel, he returned to his speeder. Hopped over the side and settled himself in the driver's seat. As the repulsors powered back to life, he caught the sounds of a rising argument behind him.

"But he threatened me."

"You just hush it. Damned fool. You're bloody luck he didn't kill you, Joel. Most would. How many times do I have to warn you about keepin' a civil tongue---"

Wedge put the speeder at the rise to the road and was soon out of earshot. He already knew the way to the resorts. Knew, too, a short cut that brought him out on the main thoroughfare south just below his family's old vacation home. Against better judgement, he turned the speeder north. All too soon he reached the small estate which had belonged to his uncle and father.

This time he was discreet. Although he slowed down as though sightseeing, he kept driving. What he could see of the yard through the wrought metal gates was overgrown. Little more than a weed patch. Several large limbs, torn from their trees, lay across the front path. The house was in surprisingly good shape. A sign on the gates bearing the Imperial stamp declared the property to be in receivership. It was all Wedge could do not to stop. To not leap out and tear down the notice.

Of everything he had seen this was the cruellest cut of all. That damning sign was visible evidence that he was indeed alone. No one else had survived the Imperial holocaust. Teeth gritting in impotent rage and grief, Wedge spun the controls. The speeder pivoted on its axis, pointing south once more.

Around the shore of the seven Diadem Lakes several wealthy merchants rubbed shoulders with their betters. It was here Wedge decided to pursue his cover story. Strung out like gems on a necklace, the greater and lesser Diadems marched up an ancient rift valley toward the foot of the Hazard Mountains. In itself, the range was not particularly spectacular or dangerous. They were ancient. Weathered. Their name came from a Corellian first-in scout, one Erid Hazard, responsible for the planet's first survey.

Lake Tidium was the largest body of water. Designated a public resort, many of the middle class residents had cabins around the shore. But the beach was wholly public domain. Further on lay Inish and Inash; actually one lake but joined by an isthmus so narrow no boat could pass through without scraping its keel. Hence the individual names. They, too, were public parks, resorts also dotting their shores.

Higher up lay narrow Koomadi Lake. Too shallow for anything except punting, the bottom was too murky for safe swimming. Many people used the shores for a picnic area.

Last and second largest of the lower lakes was Erid; another tribute to Hazard who had been found there, drowned. The incident remained another of the great, unsolved mysteries of the Old Republic. But Hazard's career had crossed the paths of too many dubious individuals. It was well known he had trodden on the toes of several underworld figures too frequently. Murder was still suspected but never proved.

Like the other lower lakes, Erid was pale blue. Its shores sloped gently to cool, refreshing water. Here merchants had built an array of resorts and peppered the shore with yacht clubs. Wedge remembered sailing Erid with his parents; only the rustle of old-fashioned canvass overhead, the rattle of the rigging and slap of water against the racing hull. So long ago.

"And life goes on." With that reflection he accelerated once more.

This area was specifically designed to cater to off-world tourists. Although Olgathir's middle-class occasionally availed themselves of its pleasures as well. Wedge selected a resort set well back from the lakeshore. Here he would spend the night. A droid took his speeder. He ignored the door-droid. Entered the lobby, cari-sac draped over his left shoulder.

"I want a room for one night," he told the desk clerk.

"Just the one night, sir?" The Registration Clerk sniffed as though he had smelled something bad. Wedge remained impassive.

"That's correct."

"Very good, sir. Please just fill this out."

On the keypad proffered by the clerk, Wedge carefully tapped in the necessary information, recording his previous employer's name and the address of his quarters in Manada. From the corner of his eye he caught the clerk standing on tiptoe to check for bags beyond the counter. His attention drifted to the blaster riding Wedge's right hip.

"Luggage?"

"Here." A chill note crept into Wedge's voice as he gave his tote strap a hitch from his shoulder and deposited it on the floor. But clerk refused to allow the matter to drop.

"I'm not so sure we have a single room avail----"

Wedge's hand shot out, caught the unfortunate clerk by his shirtfront. Twisted the fabric up around the man's throat. If he was to play Dorik, then he had to be Dorik. His reputation as an unkempt, ill tempered, grounded spacer was about to be reinforced. And noticed by the resident public. Several heads in the lobby turned, curious.

"A couple of minutes ago you had me fill out a registration slip. Now I want my room, mister. And I want it now."

"S---s---sir!" Stammering, the clerk's purple face reflected a level of fear that Wedge had himself experienced. He came close to releasing the man. But the implant took control and Wedge was as trapped as the clerk. It was not a sensation he enjoyed.

One of the other clerks slid from view, vanishing into the back, presumably to summon the manager. Wedge released the offending clerk with a shove that sent him stumbling back several paces. Neck cartilage bobbing the clerk nervously eyed Wedge, estimating the odds of being able to escape the confrontation he had unwittingly initiated. And realised it was useless.

"Now," Wedge demanded, "do I get my room or not?"

"Here, now. What's going on?"

Slowly Wedge spun to face the newcomer. "You would be the manager?"

"Yes, sir." A fixed smile held the manager's face in something approximating a grimace. "How may I be of assistance?"

Without turning his head, Wedge directed the other's attention to the obnoxious clerk. "I'm being refused a room for the night."

"And why would that be, Rorri?"

"He---he's only got the one bag, sir." Struggling to recover his composure the clerk shrugged his shoulders, tugged his shirt straight and backed against the wall next to the nearest exit.

"Little man," said Wedge, "my credit's good. In fact, I'm fully prepare to prepay."

"Is that correct, Rorri?"

"I---" The clerk double-checked registration. "Ah, yes, Mister Lanklo. It was just---"

"Rorri, you aren't being paid to antagonize the guests. Now I suggest you complete the necessary records and give this gentleman his key. And that will be the end of it."

"Yes, sir, Mister Lanklo."

While Rorri scurried to comply, the Corellian carefully scrutinised the clerk's actions. He was not alone. Lanklo remained to ensure everything went smoothly. Rorri all but threw the key chip across the counter. Wedge deftly stopped its mad dash toward the floor. Displeasure over Rorri's behaviour still evident, the manager smiled ingratiatingly at the hotel's new guest. Wedge bent to pick up his tote. And around the manager's feet he saw one of the individuals he had been sent to locate and track.

"Will that be everything, sir?" Lanklo inquired as Wedge straightened.

"Yes. Thank you."

"I'm terribly sorry about the misunderstanding, sir. Unfortunately we do have to be careful about our clientele, you understand."

A cold glitter appeared in Lanklo's eyes. Alerted, Wedge allowed his own congenial nature to sink before it fully surfaced. Whatever else the man might be today, at some time in the past he may well have dealt with the shadier side of life around the settled parts of the galaxy. Perhaps this very hotel was simply a cover for laundering illegal credits and merchandise.

"I think everything's acceptable---no?" Undaunted on the surface, Wedge successfully stared Lanklo down.

"Very good, sir." Appreciating the narrow margin by which he had averted disaster, Lanklo was all business. "And please don't hesitate to call on me if you should need anything."

The look Wedge rested on him informed the manager and his clerks that, in his opinion, it was doubtful they or anyone else on the hotel staff was capable of satisfying any of his special needs. He tossed the key chip in the air. Expertly caught it. Taking his bearings, he headed for his room.


Across the lobby, Danilon Pherkail studied the developing situation, fascinated by the man's audacity. Everything about this new guest shouted spacer and declared him itinerant. His clothes begged the question; why was he here and with so little gear? Such contradictions fascinated the botanist.

Beyond the pillar, just out of sight, a Weequay also viewed the confrontation with considerable interest. When something did not fit into the pattern, Clyth felt edgy. This spacer definitely did not fit in.

"What do you think, Clyth?" His master asked conversationally.

"Spacer. Hunting work." The bodyguard grunted back the obvious.

"Possibility?"

"Depends on his ticket. Need armsman. Assistant Quartermaster. Navigator. Might be pilot. Still useful, but---" The Weequay replied in staccato phrases, looking over his shoulder. "Speak to Nort?"

"Later, maybe."

Clyth shook his head. "Still don't like. Don't trust."

"Why not?"

"Don't know for sure. Doesn't fit."

"Not your business," said Pherkail, an edge to his voice. "Come. I'm hungry. Tir should be contacting us later this evening concerning where to meet with him."

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Perched on the edge of the bed, Wedge stared glumly out at the interior garden beyond his patio door. Everything about this place was archaic, deliberately so. Ornate gilding around ceiling and mirrors, fake marble pillars picked out down corners where walls met and live potted plants in the main foyer were out of place on this old settled world. Yet he remembered when the hotel had been built.

Still, the building was old enough and not as well kept as it ought to have been. Everywhere he looked signs of decaying opulence were evident; if he stared hard enough he could see chipped finish. Ancient mirrors deteriorating from behind showed hairline crazing. Business must have been particularly bad during Palpatine's reign of terror. This certainly was not a secure place for anyone with a price on their heads.

"So what's Pherkail doing here? And where's that Weequay bodyguard of his?" A little chill swept over Wedge.

He threw himself backwards, flat on the bed, legs hanging over the edge from the knees, he considered his next move. Late afternoon sunlight paled towards evening shadows through the skylight above the garden. Still Wedge could find no suitable justification to alter his initial plan. He continued to muse under his breath.

"Of course we expected some of them to be in the area. If Dorik can afford to stay here a night or two, Pherkail can."

At length he launched himself off the bed. Rummaging through his tote, he hauled out one of his two changes of clothing. Washed and dressed, he armed himself with the more subtle weapons supplied by Cov-Ops. They had assured him that these would not set off most detectors, unlike his blaster. Reluctantly he shoved the more familiar holster and weapon into the tote, sealed it and headed off to find supper.

Rather than eat at the hotel where the cuisine would be expensive, Wedge checked out other local options with the door droid. "Is there somewhere around here where a person can get something to eat at a reasonable price?"

"Yes, sir. As a matter of fact, aside from the attached restaurant---which I presume doesn't interest you?"

Wedge shook his head. "Correct."

"There are some twenty-six establishments catering to a wide variety of tastes. Many include live entertainment."

"All I want is a plain, low-cost meal. Good cooking."

"Ah. Well, now."

The droid paused. Its ability to sound and act human was perhaps a touch too familiar for Wedge. Most tourists expected and were charmed by such programming. Wedge was not. But he tolerated it, accustomed as he was to See-Threepio's eccentricity.

"Let me see, sir. There's always Jokiana's. They profess to a suitably varied menu. I've never heard anything bad about the fare. No entertainment, though."

"That's fine. Prices?"

"Oh, very reasonable, sir."

"They better be," said Wedge. "Where is this place?"

"Just follow this lane to the front road, sir. Go right, on three blocks. Take a right and on for three more blocks. You can't miss it."

"Thanks."

"You're most welcome, sir. Would you like your speeder brought round?"

"I'll walk."

"Very good, sir. Have a pleasant evening."

Shoulders hunched against the rapidly cooling day, Wedge set off in the direction the droid indicated. Generally when people said you could not miss something, you did. But a droid's sense of direction and landmarks were, on the whole, sound instructions. Street glows came up as the sun set. Pink laced clouds drifted up from the horizon, scudded across a magenta darkening sky, heading for the Hazards. Without pausing, he turned up his collar against the rising evening breeze, and kept going.

When he did find the restaurant the more dubious side of him was highly critical. The exterior certainly did not look like much to write home about, as the old Corellian saying would have it. Inside there was a PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED sign which alternately flashed in several languages, including galactic standard. He halted, studied the interior through the fretwork screen. While Wedge was debating leaving a droid appeared.

"Reservations."

"No."

"Alone, sir?"

"Yes."

"Would you mind waiting just a minute, sir? I believe we can accommodate you. However, I must check with the proprietor first."

"Of course."

'What else,' thought Wedge. It appeared he was going to have to be obnoxious again. Putting up a front totally at odds with his real character was rapidly wearing him out. The droid disappeared around the corner, leaving Wedge wondering if he had possibly stumbled on one of those nondescript places that was actually a low-key hang out for the upper class.

"Good evening, sir," said someone pleasantly. He turned. Before him stood a short, lean, balding man, whose fresh-scrubbed moon face looked as though it smiled more often than it frowned. "You were wanting supper?"

"Yes." He was finding it increasingly difficult not to genuinely snap.

"If you'll just follow me, sir. I do have one place left. It's near the kitchen entrance, I'm afraid---"

"That's fine. I'm not here for the scenery."

"Very good, sir. Right this way."

To his relief, Wedge was shown to a table at the rear of the restaurant. Upon reflection he realised this was an excellent location, affording him an uninhibited view of the entire interior while being in an area most people avoided scanning while eating. He chose to sit facing the room and the view outside the far windows.

The main floor spread out around him to his right and front, with the entrance at the right-front corner. Directly to his right was a raised room, screened for private parties. Behind him were the entrance to the kitchen and the restrooms. The place was neat. Clean, but not ostentatious. Pale silver accents added life to forest green and cream decor. Through the window he watched the mountains darken until they were outlined against the evening sky; black on deep blue.

"Menu, sir?" A standard waiter droid held out a keypad on which were displayed a number of entrees. "Might I suggest the local dish. Erid fillet with cress garnish. A specialty of the house."

After some reflection, Wedge chose the house salad and a rack of nerf ribs with a side of tubers. The meat came from a nerf herd imported to Olgathir years before Alderaan's destruction. Although nerfs survived being transplanted, they did not breed well out of their native habitat. Subsequently, on Olgathir nerf herders were forced to cross breed them with the local umnolik. After certain genetic manipulation, the resulting cross now bred true with both nerf and umnolik. Wedge tasted the difference in the meat; sweeter but it was enough like what he was accustomed to that it satisfied an inner craving.

Refusing the alcohol list, he settled for a carafe of filtered, chilled local water. Halfway through the main course, he nearly choked on a mouthful of meat. Being escorted to the private dining room was none other than Pherkail and his bodyguard, Clyth. With them was another of the scientists on his list: Bio-engineer, Lotha-Waryn Sirdson. This was almost too much good fortune.

'Who's tracking whom?' He wondered faintly.

Hairs on the nape of Wedge's neck crawled. He hurriedly fixed his attention on his meal. While striving to appear just another casual diner, he slid a look toward the private room. For all he had a right to be where he was, and this encounter was wholly accidental, Wedge felt he stood out like a wampa on a shale bed. He caught Clyth performing a sweep of the patrons. The Weequay's gaze swept over Wedge, passed on, then returned to him. Although Wedge studiously kept his head down, their eyes met.

Unable to avoid that stare without looking suspicious, Wedge straightened and returned Clyth's gaze levelly. Then pointedly returned to his meal. A slight frown touched the Weequay's brow. But when Pherkail touched his shoulder, the bodyguard dismissed Wedge and stepped up into the private room, his braids bobbing against padded vest. The door closed behind them.

His appetite gone, Wedge had to force himself to finish his meal. No longer able to enjoy what was the best food he had imbibed in a very long time. He followed it with a hot mug of chall, the spacer's standby. Nursed the last third as Hazard's Reach vanished against the night sky, the saddle blending to black. The warning he had suffered beneath the Weequay's scrutiny slowly faded. Gradually the restaurant filled to capacity. Wedge's nerves settled. He paid his bill, left a tip for the human employees whom he suspected worked in the kitchen, and departed.

On his way out Wedge's eye caught sight of an electronic notice board. Intrigued, he paused. There were the usual swap and second-hand items for sale listed for the locals who apparently frequented the restaurant. In addition, there were several job notices. He peered at them, curious.

"Looking for work?" The manager joined him.

"Yes," Wedge admitted, glancing over his shoulder. "But not this sort of thing."

"Well, now. Those are for the local youngsters looking for first-time employment. But I may be able to help you. There are other positions---"

"I'm crew." Wedge clipped that out. Several locals waiting for tables to come available glanced at him, intrigued.

"Ah. A zoomie---pardon."

It was an expression Wedge had never thought to hear at the resort. One he thought common only among the farmers. It left him momentarily speechless. Seeing his expression, the manager held up a hand.

"My apologies, sir. Just a local colloquial term for spacers that's become something of a catch-phrase on Olgathir these past few years."

"I see." Stifling a sigh of relief, Wedge realised just how close he had come to blowing his cover. The slang term had originated on Corell, arrived on Olgathir with tourists, and was a hold-over from early colonisation times when spacers travelled most of the way between exploration points in cold-sleep.

Determined to get beyond the awkward moment, the proprietor continued. "However---crew. Hmm. If you care to call back in a few days, I might be able to assist you."

"I won't get stuck flying in-system milk runs."

"That could prove a bit more difficult. But," the man brightened, "you never know around here."

"Thanks. If I strike out myself, I'll take you up on your offer."

"Have a good evening, sir."

With a dip of his head, Wedge left. A summer breeze flowed in off the lake, lifted his hair, tousling it. Wedge was tempted to play tourist. To wander the streets of this small village he had known as a rebellious teenager. But a persistent tingling between his shoulder blades poked at him. Duty first. Survival was paramount. Sightseeing could be dangerous. Every world had altered during the years the Imperials had ruled the galaxy.

Ears pitched for any unusual sounds, he walked the streets back to his hotel at a fast clip. Nightlife had drawn most patrons away from the lobby. There were only two night clerks on duty, along with several droids. Yet Wedge was unable to shake the feeling that someone, or something, was watching him. He forced himself to chalk it up to a simple case of nerves. Still, it would do well to leave nothing to chance. Presenting the very image of someone with nothing to hide, he sauntered idly across the lobby and down the hall to his room.

The instant he opened the door he knew the place had been searched. Rummaging through his tote, he experienced a grudging admiration for his intruder. Meticulous care had gone into ensuring everything was replaced exactly as he had left it. Only his blaster lay wrong. He had left it with the safety down, butt-end toward the end that opened first. Now it was flipped over. Deliberately left so? That gave him considerable pause for thought.

"Very interesting," he murmured, a trifle unnerved. Impossible not to wonder if the investigation had been carried out by the hotel staff or by Clyth.

Fortunately for him the things remaining in the tote were innocent enough. What he wore now would have given him away. Just in case the intruder had left a snooper, Wedge covered his inspection of the tote by removing his toiletries and took them into the bathroom. Back in the bedroom, he picked the tote off the bed. Using the bed and his body to shield his actions, he slipped the micro-recorder from the handle tube. Then he tugged off his boots and bounced onto the bed. Settled against the headboard, Wedge activated the snoop sweep in the device. Nothing.

Satisfied, he turned on the recorder and updated the recording he had begun at the port hostel. "Room at Erid's been searched. I'm spending one night here on the pretext of job hunting. Plan to visit the upper lake estates.

"Spotted Pherkail and Clyth quite by chance in the lobby. They arrived later at the restaurant where I was eating. Sirdson was with them. Coincidence? Either way, I must be riding Jedi luck on this one."

Considering whether or not he had left anything out, Wedge concluded he had not. He hit the encoding switch. Now if someone did stumble across it, all they would get out of the recording was a travel log. And a lot of other pleasant garbage a traveller might keep in a personal journal. Then he returned the recorder to its place in the cari-sac handle.

Three days and four nights in Manada lay behind with their associated necessity of hanging out around some of the bars and the local work exchange. In Erid, however, Wedge was beginning to enjoy himself. Not even the unexpected encounter with his objectives could completely dampen his elation. In less than half the time his superiors had expected it to take, he had achieved two-thirds of his mission. Safely back in his room, high on adrenaline, he was unable to even consider sleep.

Tonight the hours dragged by. He stared out the sliding door at the quadrangle garden. Several couples wandered by, admiring the plants and enjoying each other's company. Slowly Wedge unwound. Emotionally wrung out, he fell asleep. Remote light sensors picked up the change in his breathing pattern and dimmed the glows.

        Wedge woke during the night.  Cold and cramped, he tugged off his clothes and crept beneath the covers and slept once more.  His internal alarm, developed over years with the fleet, roused him at first light.  Washed and clothed in his original travel attire, cari-sac in hand, he left the room and checked with the desk.
        "Good morning, sir."  A day clerk, not Rorri, smiled pleasantly at him.  "Leaving us?"

        "Yes.  Thank you."  He slid the door chip across the counter.  "My account's paid in full."

        "I see that, sir."  After scanning the chip Wedge passed over the countertop, the clerk nodded and returned it.  "Have a nice day.  Do come again."

        A sharp rejoinder hovered on the tip of Wedge's tongue.  Instead, he forced a smile.  "Maybe I will at that."

        Before the local girl could read anything into his parting remark than was actually there, Wedge was crossing the lobby.  Outside the front door he found his speeder waiting, a droid having been summoned with it while he was still inside.

        A first he was uncertain it was actually his rental, the engine sounded so different.  But a quick check of the registration affirmed it was his.  Apparently bored and with time of their own, the droids in the parking garage had serviced the speeder.  Now the droid stared at him strangely.  That woebegone look reminded Wedge of Artoo-Detoo.

        "Sir," the droid advised him, "I suggest you have the rental agency see to the coupler ring on the repulsors.  It's wearing very thin."

        In keeping with his character, Wedge snapped back, "If I needed your advice, I'd ask for it."

        And immediately wished he had not, even though the implant refused to let him recant.  Not normally rude by nature, even to droids, Wedge was deeply troubled.  Dorik, on the other hand, possessed no such scruples.  Forced inescapably into a mould other than his own, Wedge did the only thing left to him.  He powered up the speeder and put it in motion.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Beyond Lake Erid the road split. Wedge took the right fork and, before the sun cleared the horizon, was cruising up the picturesque switchbacks. Remnant of a near forgotten era at the start of settlement, the road remained little changed. Quaint, it proved the classic tourist attraction.

Soon he was above the valley, looking back over the lower lakes. Forest closed in around him. Touted as virgin growth, in reality it was the third arboreal forest on the site. The pervious two stands had been logged off, raped of the limited mineral wealth underneath. Ultimately the residents eradicated all traces of mining and replaced their forest. Something most people, except a few of the locals who genuinely cared, knew to be the truth.

Now designated a nature preserve, this third stand was resident to transplanted wildlife. The higher he travelled, the cooler it grew. For a period Wedge passed through a lush transition zone rich in a wide variety of plant and animal life, each zone specially contained by sonic fences. That, too, was good business sense. To allow the natural inhabitants to come to grief, or bring grief on tourists or residents through accidental encounters, went against good business acumen. Tunnels beneath the road afforded ambulatory wildlife accessibility to all areas of the preserve without endangering any lives. Sonic warn-offs planted in over-lapping sweeps diverted birds when the road was in use by vehicular traffic.

Although the day was clear when Wedge started out, by the time he reached Miggle Lake, lower of the two alpine Diadem Lakes, clouds were rolling in. Since there was no telling whether or not the weather would simply pass on through, Wedge paused and drew out his poncho. Should he be caught in a cloudburst he would have time to get the top up before getting soaked.

Locals seldom complained about the weather. Rain in just the right proportions to sunshine produced their crops. And it was the rain that was indirectly responsible for the booming tourist trade. Once Alderaani had made up the largest percentage of visitors since Olgathir was so very like their home world. For once no twinge of sadness accompanied memory. Grateful for that tiny concession, Wedge dragged himself away from the past. This was no time for morose reminiscing.

Between one breath and the next he passed from the forest's embrace onto open scree and rock. Baffles contained rock slips. But at least once a year a major slide either buried or carried away huge sections of road. On either side Wedge read telltale signs of winter's havoc. Those who insisted upon living year-round at the alpine lakes kept hover cars and other more extravagant modes of transportation to ensure they were seldom stranded.

Topping the lip of the cirque, Wedge paused for one last look back at the view below. Lakes, fields and forest filled the panorama. It was as breathtaking as the tourist brochures promised. Above and beyond the upper slopes gravid storm clouds sagged ominously. Wedge cursed his luck. Pressed on. It was too late to turn back.

Large mansion estates, fifty-two in all, flowed back and up from the shores of two clear blue lakes. Nestled three deep the vast properties covered the entire habitable area. Not one fingernail of lakeshore went unclaimed. Rugged rock slopes sporadically dotted with wind tortured, stunted trees occupied the rest of the glacial cup.

As construction overtook this region, designers and developers banded together to ensure buildings did not over-whelm the scenery. Hardy off-world arboreal stands were imported and planted in an effort to conceal the damage imposed by sentient determination to own a slice of this region, all in vain. Though centuries later most buildings did tend to blend into the surroundings the most impressive homes were those built by the more ecologically- minded inhabitants. Subterranean, the only witness to sentient intrusion were transparent bubbles that peered out of slopes. No building in the cup had stood less than sixty years.

Determined to maintain his cover, Wedge started calling at the various estates. Some proved empty despite it being the height of summer. Staff on others firmly escorted him from the premises of those grounds he did enter. Still more wholly ignored his efforts to attract their attention. The further up the cirque he drove, the lower the clouds dipped.

Mid-afternoon and fog shrouded the area, making it all but impossible to see more than a speeder's length in front of his vehicle. Under persistent drizzle, Wedge's progress slowed to a crawl. The speeder's battered canopy leaked steadily. Precipitation formed a puddle on the rear seat beneath his waterproof cari-sac, tricked steadily down the inside of the forward transparency. With a scrap of cloth from under the driver's seat Wedge wiped it clear every few minutes.

Just when he was certain matters could not get worse, disaster struck. One minute he was following the road slowly around the upper shore of the top lake. The next instant his speeder went into an uncontrollable slide. It dropped to the roadbed. Belly scraping the ground, the vehicle spun around madly like a child's top inside a hollow which had suddenly formed in its repulsor field. Somehow Wedge fought through the centrifugal force and killed the power. For a minute he sat, letting his heart slow.

Although he climbed out to inspect the damage he suspected what he would find. As the hotel droid had warned, the retraining bolt on the ring that held the repulsor field in check had snapped. Breaking free, it released the field and, at the same time, freed the air cushion. Consequently, the speeder had fallen to the road. Still held above the ground by a mere hand width of squished field, the speeder was unable to propel itself in any particular direction. Trapped into an uncontrolled spin. There were no spare parts. But Wedge did not expect to find any. Giving the crippled vehicle a vindictive kick, he shouldered his cari-sac and set off.

The first three mansions he called on for assistance were vacant. Outward signs suggested the places were empty. Like his family's old vacation home, the grounds here were unkempt. Much of the imported flora was dead. Native plants, on the other hand, ran rampant. However, the intruder fence still operated. He made not effort to enter. At the fourth the droids strictly refused to allow him to contact the owners. Whether there was only a nominal sentient staff living in at the time, or the owners were actually there, it was impossible to tell. A small, irritable sigh escaped Wedge as he switched his tote to the opposite shoulder and pressed on.

With the back of his free hand he wiped rain from the end of his nose. Now beyond the top curve of Lake Athelia, heading back down the opposite shore, he mounted a tiny saddle and paused. A childhood jingle danced through his weary mind.

"Aw, what the hell," he said and used it to select his next option. "Okay. You it is."

Two-thirds of the way back to the valley access road sprawled an impressive estate. Although not the largest, it was certainly among the most ostentatious. And eye- catching. Dusk had fallen by the time he arrived at the front gate. He depressed the call button. A droid appeared promptly.

"Do you have an appointment, sir?"

"No, I----"

"We do not accept solicitors." The droid's declaration emerged in flat tones. "Move along."

"Look, I---"

"If you do not leave, sir, I shall be forced to enact my protection mode."

"Listen." Wedge rushed his words in the hopes that there was some form of logic programming in this droid. All too frequently there was not. That being the case, he was fully prepared to duck several high-charged stun bolts if he was wrong. "My vehicle broke down up the valley. I'm stranded."

To his surprise, the droid halted its menacing advance on the gate. Apparently its programming allowed for some independent thinking. Head pivoting back and forth, it examined him from head to toe. Encouraged, Wedge continued.

"Lost the restraining bolt on the repulsor ring. It's a rental job. Cheap. No spares, otherwise I'd not be troubling you now."

He suspected the droid read that last line as a partial lie. But there was just enough truth in the rest of it for the droid to accept the story.

"Wait here. I will see what the master says."

The droid vanished into the steadily thickening mist. Left outside in the gathering gloom, Wedge could only hope he would not have to hike back to the speeder and spend the night cramped in its damp interior. He was partially equipped to spend a night out in the open if worst came to worst. But he had no food. And his last meal had been a light snack at dawn.

"Name?"

Caught unprepared, Wedge cursed himself for day dreaming. He must be more tired than he realised. "Anitol Dorik."

"Occupation?"

"Navi-com. Stevedore. Mercenary. Presently grounded." There was no harm in plugging his unemployment while he had the chance. It might serve to win him additional sympathy.

A Sullustian appeared out of the fog. Clipped to his collar was a sophisticated translator. He eyed Wedge warily. "What do you here?"

"Lost my transportation." A cold raindrop finally found its way past Wedge's protective hood, trickled down the back of his neck. "Look." He snapped, his irritation no longer feigned. "Like I already told the droid; my rented speeder broke down. Can't fix it so I left it at the other end of the valley."

Blank eyes gazed unblinking at Wedge through the gate. Then the Sullustian asked, "Why you up here?"

"Looking for employment," Wedge said. "I was calling around the estates up here, hoping someone needed an extra ship hand. It's been a very long day. I'm cold, wet, tired and extremely hungry. And I don't particularly relish going back up there to sleep in a leaking, drafty speeder. So what's it gonna be?"

Another pause. "You wait."

Now the Sullustian withdrew. Once more abandoned to the elements, Wedge considered tossing it all in and trying to hike back to the valley on foot. Of course it would take him most of the night. Light suddenly spilled across the road. All along the narrow thoroughfare cleverly concealed glows were coming on with the advent of nightfall. At least if he were forced to walk out he would be able to see where he was going. Until he reached the bottom end of the cirque, anyway. Boots crunched on gravel. This time Wedge was not caught unawares. The Sullustian returned.

"Come. Boss says he'll see you."

To his right a small gate opened. The hum of the security field died. He went in. His guide shut it behind him and reactivated the security field. Once inside, however, the droid, or one similar, appeared at his left shoulder. There it hovered, keeping pace with him as he was escorted indoors---as it turned out, through the servants' entrance.

Along the way Wedge studied the grounds, a difficult prospect to carry out surreptitiously in the gathering gloom, compounded as it was by precipitation and fog. Twice he was certain he spotted camouflaged sensors. Once it was a security-cum-attack globe. Where there was one of those, there would definitely be more. Whoever lived here numbered among the wealthy if they could afford such high-tech equipment. In fact, the entire grounds appeared to be laid out with an intricate web of criss crossed narrow band detector beams. Trip one of those and---well---

They entered behind the kitchen, passed along a narrow hall. Food smells set Wedge's stomach grumbling, painfully reminding him it was extremely late and long past due time for another meal. He forced his mind onto more pertinent matters. The corridor they traversed was interrupted part way down its length by a cross passage. Like the kitchen, the door to this area stood open. A quick glance inside revealed three guards seated in an antechamber of sorts. Beyond them stretched another hall.

But Wedge's guide did not turn aside. They reached the end of the first passage and stepped out into the rear of a massive foyer the ceiling to which rose two floors. A balcony encircled three sides on the upper level.

"You go there," said his guide simply. And pointed across the way to another open door. This one, unlike the others he had thus far seen, was fashioned from real wood. A definite luxury few could afford these days except on rim worlds where forests were abundant.

"Not coming?" Wedge dared ask his guide.

The servant sniffed. "The master does not like to be kept waiting. You are fortunate he has not yet sat down to dinner."

Something told Wedge he should take the comment seriously. He headed for the door, paused before crossing the threshold. At his shoulder, the droid waited. When he stepped into the room, it accompanied him. One brief glance told Wedge he stood in a large den or small office. His attention was immediately captured by the presence of the individual behind the desk. Obviously the man had great faith in his security for his back was to the door. He stared out at the weather.

"So, Dorik. I'm told you're a man in unfortunate circumstances, and looking for somewhere to spend the night." The owner did not turn, but rather continued watching beads of moisture on the outside the transparency as they slithered down the slick surface in fits and starts.

"Yes---sir." Prudence dictated politeness. But Dorik would have resisted anything but grudging admittance to rank. So Wedge's implant held him true to character.

"And didn't you say something about work?"

Now Wedge remained silent. This time he left it up to his host to take the lead in the conversation. The man swung about and Wedge's breath caught in his throat. This was not the sort of good fortune he had anticipated on this mission.

Fortune favoured him with her own fickle twist; a cough erupted in his chest. He hacked for several seconds, shoulders convulsing uncontrollably. A shudder shook him as he struggled to throw off the chill and damp that seemed to have accompanied him inside. Running a hand across his face, Wedge wondered whether fate or the Force was responsible for this peculiar twist of events. Here was the one person in five he had been sent to find that he had no wish to meet, Manalior Tir'Nngan.

Perhaps the most notorious virologist of the shattered Empire, he looked so unassuming to the casual observer that many were shocked to discover his dark side. Madine had particularly warned Wedge away from any encounters with this man. And here they were, face to face, within the confines of Nngan's own property.

"You were looking for work, Dorik? Isn't that what you told my droid?" Wedge nodded, his actions stiff. "Looked up your record while you were on your way in. It's quite an impressive bit of history. I must say you are something of an argumentative sort. Almost volatile."

"Whoever says that lied," began Wedge, allowing an edge to creep into his voice.

"Yes, yes, of course. I see here that you lodged a counter complaint against your last employer. Now why would you contend your attack on his person was justified?"

"Bastard stiffed me a third of my salary."

"Three thousand. My, my. Pretty steep for three days as a warehouse guard."

"You pay for what you get."

Another coughing fit racked Wedge and he realised precisely what was wrong. His nose was stuffed up and his ears were starting to ring. Mentally he made a hurried tally of the last date on his immune shots. And discovered he had missed his appointment some time shortly prior to the battle at Bakura. Which meant he had just caught one of the local flu viruses. He suppressed a groan. Looking up, he discovered the security droid had closed in on him. Extended on the end of a retractable claw was a medical scanner.

"What? Take that damn thing away." He tried to wave it aside. The droid ignored his actions.

"Person has mild temperature which is rapidly rising. Severe congestion forming in chest and head, and no nourishment in the last sixteen hours. Recommend food, bed rest and antibiotics, Doctor."

Tir'Nngan chuckled. "Well, let it not be said that I'm a heartless person. You may stay the night, Dorik. Tomorrow we'll check out your speeder, and I'll decide what to do with you. If you're telling the truth about wanting work---well. We shall see."

The virologist's hand moved along the surface of his desk. The Sullustian appeared. "Yes, Doctor?"

"Nimal, our guest will be remaining the night. See that he's housed in the off-duty ship's crew wing. Ensure he gets a good meal and plenty of fluids. And break out a pack of troulabiotic. An injection now, before he eats. The second should be administered overnight and the third first thing before breakfast."

"Yes, Doctor." Nimal eyed Wedge doubtfully. Then he jerked his head so hard his jowls waggled. "Droid stays or goes?"

"Oh, I think Kay-See should remain with Dorik for the time being. In fact, load him up with the necessary antibiotics and let him care for our guest." The Doctor turned to the droid. "Kay-Cee, take good care of Mister Dorik. Nimal will ensure your programming is adjusted accordingly."

"Very good, Doctor."

"Oh. Dorik. I do hope you aren't prone to sleepwalking."

A thinly veiled threat, it was not wasted on Wedge. He managed a nod. Wished he had not as his head started pounding. When Kay-Cee circled back to his left shoulder it was as though a dark hand clutched at his heart. Briefly he wondered if this was how his father had felt when VENGEANCE had overtaken the TANTIVE IV at Tatooine. When Darth Vader had boarded the rebel vessel.

"This way."

Too sick to argue, Wedge meekly followed the Sullustian back across the foyer and into the back passage, trailed by his new shadow. This time they turned up the side hall. The guards were still there, occupied with a hand of sabaac. They glanced up, curious, as the odd trio went by. But no one voiced a single question. Several doors gave off this hallway. Nimal halted outside one of them.

"You stay here until the Doctor calls for you tomorrow. Kay-Cee will remain to give you medication as required."

"Oh, great," said Wedge. "How's his bedside manner?" When the Sullustian refused to rise to the jest, Wedge continued. "The 'fresher?"

His guide pointed across the room. "Everything you need is attached. This room is shielded. Rest. Food will be sent. If there is need, the droid will get help."

With that, the Sullustian departed. Unsure exactly what to make of that last remark, or what exactly he had walked in to, Wedge slowly entered his temporary quarters. A thought occurred to him too late. The door slid shut, sealing him in. But he was not alone. Kay-Cee hovered ominously just inside the room.

"You don't suppose you could find somewhere else to hang out?"

In response to his question the droid moved into one corner and took up a position near the ceiling. Wedge frowned. This was some mess he had got himself into, however unintentionally. He only hoped he would have the opportunity to pass along what he had discovered.

"Oh, what the hell."

Wedge tossed his cari-sac on the small bedside table that was merely a shelf built into the wall. Evidently the good Doctor did not entire trust his employees; the room appeared designed to withstand the use of a moderate size explosion. Door, ceiling and walls were also blaster-proof. Which suggested the place was probably bugged although listening devices were entirely unnecessary with the droid present. Then again, a competent tech could foul the security droid's circuitry so no one was the wiser. Of course Tir'Nngan would have rigged the droid to alert his security control, so speculation into that possibility was equally a waste of time. And would merely serve to inform his host that he was not what he purported. Disgusted with himself, and frustrated with the apparent no-win scenario into which he was trapped, Wedge went through the motions, getting ready for bed. The door slid open.

"Food."

The Sullustian returned with a large tray just as Wedge emerged from the 'fresher. Sweeping the cari-sac from the bedside table with his elbow, Nimal set the tray in the empty spot. Next he went to Kay-Cee.

"Antibiotics," he explained needlessly as he opened a compartment at the droid's waist and inserted something. "Droid will administer under Doctor's orders. Says make sure you eat. Sleep lots."

"Wait a minute," Wedge called as the Sullustian scurried for the door once more. "I gotta get a message back to my flop in Manada. I've got some stuff stashed there. If I don't tell 'em I'm coming back for it, they might decide I've skipped. I don't want to lose my kit. Haven't got much as it is."

Indecisive, Nimal hovered on the threshold and considered his statement. Nodded. "Will tell Doctor. He take care of it."

"Say. Don't I even get to know what this Doctor's name is?"

Wedge's final inquiry produced a hoarse cough that might have been the Sullustian version of a smothered laugh. He had never gotten to know the Sullustian contingent all that well prior to Endor. Nien Nunmb had flown with Calrissian at the time.

"Doctor maybe say in morning---if decides he likes you."

On the heels of those words Nimal stepped back and let the door close between them. Standing naked in the middle of the room, Wedge shouted, "Hey! Wait a minute!"

But he was again trapped in the room, alone except for the silent droid. Rage washed over Wedge, threatened to spill out. Cold and hot rippled across his body, dashing all resistance. He shivered violently and Kay-Cee moved in, needle extended. Before Wedge could react he was injected, whether for good or ill.

In the far recesses of his mind he prayed the implant would do its job now as it was supposed to when he lost control under interrogation. It was designed to help an operative evade spilling important information throughout questioning under most forms of persuasive drugs. Whether or not it would work during an illness was anyone's guess.

"Eat," ordered the droid as it bumped him with amazing gentleness toward the bed.

Too sick to resist, Wedge sank onto the bed. He felt foolish. Desperately wished Luke, or someone, anyone would pull him out of this fix he was in. A phrase his grandfather had used during the telling of a story rose unbidden.

'There I was, caught in the crags. The enemy were searching the heights and scouring the lowlands. I couldn't go up or down.'

'What did you do, grandpa?' One female cousin had asked for the other wide-eyed children at the old man's feet.

Their grandfather had chuckled. 'I went to sleep.'

"Went to sleep," murmured Wedge. Incredible as it seemed, the advice made sense. "Why the hell not?"

The sickness rampaging through his body dulled his appetite, but Wedge forced himself to consume the bowl of hearty soup and plate of tubers. Obviously the Doctor knew his job. Everything was designed to provide maximum nourishment, with minimum bulk and was unlikely to upset his stomach. There was even a soothing hot drink.

It took time but eventually he consumed every bite. All the while the droid silently studied his actions. Giving the tray a little push, Wedge lay back. Scooting his feet beneath the covers, he turned on his side. The glows dimmed.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Through fever-filled sleep, Wedge alternately fled and confronted nightmares. Images from the past, real and conjured, haunted him. He tossed and turned, unable to escape their clutches, fighting the therma-cover as though it was the enemy. At one point he hunched in a smoke-filled corridor watching men around him frantically preparing a last-ditch stand. Out of nowhere appeared a black glove. Vader's visage blocked out his view of everything else.

'Why did you abandon my flank?'

'I never---"

'Why? Why?'

As Vader shook him, the mask faded. Was replaced by Luke's infuriated face. Blue eyes, dark and malevolent, pierced him. 'You left us. Left Biggs alone back there. He's dead because of you.'

'No. It's not true. You know it isn't.'

'Glory hound.'

'No. You told me to go.'

'I didn't know what I was saying under pressure. You knew better. You should have stayed.'

Fading, the vision was replaced by Hoth. Luke's snowspeeder plowed into the glacier at the very feet of an Imperial Walker. One of the AT-AT's feet rose, came down on the disabled speeder.

'I could have died because of you.' His accuser returned. 'Why didn't you protect me?'

'I tried. We all did.'

'No. You didn't. You went after the other Walker.'

'Not true. Go away. Luke would never say that. He knows the truth.'

Head tossing from side to side, Wedge wrestled with his personal demons and doubts. In and out of the past he wove. Clawed his way back to sanity. Eventually they left him alone and he sank deeper, into more restful sleep.

Suddenly he was wide-awake, his fever broken. The therma-blanket was wrapped about his legs, restricting his movements. He struggled free of it and sat up. Something pricked the flesh on his thigh. Wedge turned with a resigned sigh. Saw the empty hypodermic vanish into the droid's casing.

"Couldn't you at least wait until I was up?"

Kay-Cee fixed its unblinking stare on him, literal as all droids in its response. "You are up. It is now morning. Breakfast is here. The virus has run its course. Last injection will remove any vestiges from your system."

"Oh. Great."

His sarcasm was lost on the droid. Anything but appreciative, Wedge glanced around at the tray. On the verge of refusing the meal because he seldom ate breakfast, his stomach over-rode him; it complained loudly. Curious, he lifted a lid. Steam rose from hot cereal. Alongside was a mug of vita-juice and some quaff. Wedge ate. Everything went down and stayed down. As soon as he finished, the droid removed the tray. Once the door shut behind it, he left the bed and went to use the facilities.

A fresh change of clothes cut from serviceable, deep forest green fabric awaited him when he returned: they were not his own. Briefly considering the offering, Wedge dressed. Then checked out his cari-sac. Those watching his actions would expect this. Someone had definitely gone through his things, but the results of his cursory inspection revealed the micro-recorder had not been tampered with. Still, he kept his hands off it, just in case. He straightened.

"Hey. Do I get out of here, or what?"

On cue, the door opened. "Come."

Cari-sac in hand, Wedge traipsed after the Sullustian. Nimal moved quickly through the halls, giving Wedge even less opportunity to speak to anyone they passed. Again he was left at the den entrance. This time his host was not present. Daylight poured through the window, affording him the opportunity to examine and admire the contents. Bag deposited out of the way of the door, Wedge toured the room, touching nothing but using his experienced eye to examine each item.

Pale blue and sand carpeted the floor wall to wall, the pile finger tip deep. A fitting accent to pale wood desk, chairs and small occasional tables. Bookcases filled with real books reached floor to ceiling covering two walls. On the third wall hung a solitary painting. No holo-cast this. It was a genuine oil canvas, executed centuries past.

"What do you think?" Tir'Nngan softly entered and stood, hands behind his back, watching Wedge.

"Well." Wedge admitted over his shoulder, not moving from in front of the painting. "I'm no art connoisseur, but I'd say it's worth a pretty credit. If it's genuine."

"Oh, it's real enough," declared the virologist. Only a hint of pride coloured his words. "Which is why I must be extremely careful about who I permit inside my home."

"Sorry." Wedge turned to face the scientist. "I had no choice."

"So you say." Tir'Nngan sat at his desk. With a limpid gesture of his left hand he invited Wedge to sit also. Still shaky after his twenty-four hour illness, Wedge was more than happy to comply.

"I sent out one of my security patrols. We located your vehicle with considerable difficulty. At the far end of Lake Athelia, as it so happens. Quite the hike for a spacer."

"I keep myself fit."

"But ignore updating your inoculations," said the Doctor. "Well, no matter."

"Yeah, well---you know how it is."

"Yes indeed. Seems the bolt on the repulsor field restraining-ring did snap. We found it." Disgusted, the Doctor shook his head. "Why there isn't better control over those rental agencies and their equipment---"

Wedge cut across the diatribe. "What about my flop?"

Unconcerned by the rude display, Tir'Nngan continued. "Contacted the proprietor last night. Congenial fellow, but he absolutely refused to release any of your belongings to my people. So you will have to collect them yourself."

'Thank the Force.' Wedge mentally heaved a sigh of relief. Then added, "So I can pick them up today?"

"Of course. First, however, there's the matter of business."

Elbows resting on the desktop, Tir'Nngan leaned forward and set his chin in the palm of his left hand. In his right he held an electronic stylus. Between his elbows lay a large keypad of the sort used in business transactions for recording legal documents.

"Business?"

The Doctor frowned. "You did mention last night that you were seeking employment."

Everything hinged on this moment. Wedge's decision would affect his entire future. No matter which answer he gave, his life would be drastically altered and would be in jeopardy. And yet, the little voice inside taunted him. Accused him of being too old, afraid to live the adventure.

"Sorry, Doc---the Sullustian called you that. Is that all right? Still not over that bug, I guess."

"Certainly. Understandable. You were saying?"

"I'm in the market, if the pay's right and the job suits."

"I see." Amused, Tir'Nngan sat back. "Choosy, aren't you, for someone who's unemployed and unlikely to pick up an out-system berth quickly?"

"Got to have standards." Wedge declared firmly as his character rose once more to the fore. "Let those slip and you've lost everything."

"A man of principals. My, my. I like that. You are full of surprises, Dorik." In response to Nngan's words Wedge shrugged. His attitude apparently appealed to the virologist. But he knew he had to tread carefully. "All right, then. Top wage once you've proved your worth. Until then, you get one-third."

"One-third!" There was no faking Wedge's outrage at the insult. Then he snapped his mouth shut. Considered the offer and countered with his own proposal. "When I do meet with your satisfaction I get full back pay, up to top salary, for the entire time I'm in your employ."

"A man after my own heart." The Doctor reflected. He pushed the pad forward a little bit. "You're pushy, Dorik."

"Haven't said I'll take the job yet." Wedge reminded him.

"Too true." Tir'Nngan considered the counter-proposal. His fingers ran across the keypad, amending the proposal. "All right. I agree. It's all there: Terms, conditions and your amendment. All you have to do is sign."

Unprepared to rush into anything, Wedge took the slate and carefully examined the document. He stoically ignored the tapping of the stylus. Deliberate or not, if he allowed it to interrupt his concentration, he might overlook something vitally important in the wording. And no spacer worth his weight in cargo would permit that. But there proved to be no hidden clauses.

"Seems in order." He conceded at last. "But allows little leeway. Suppose I want to break contract? Leave to work somewhere else?"

"Few do." Something in the way the virologist spoke implied this could well be a life-long position. Now Wedge knew he had stepped off the deep end. For better or for worse, he was in up to his neck and would have to swim. Or drown. It was all up to him.

"Right. Where do I sign?"

There was a split second when Wedge was afraid he had acquiesced too quickly. But Tir'Nngan merely pointed to the appropriate spot at the bottom of the text. Passed over the stylus. Wedge signed with a flourish. The imp within blessed his ill-spent youth. As a boy he had taken a fiendish delight in forging handwriting. On occasion it had proved useful at the Academy, too. And Cov-Ops had been particularly pleased with his unexpected talent. One less thing to over-lay in the real Dorik's files. With no one the wiser that his stolen persona belonged to a corpse now in stass twenty days.

"One of my drivers will tow the speeder back to the rental agency. You'll be pleased to know your account has been credited a fifty percent refund."

"How did you manage that?" Considering the person under discussion was a typical tightwad, Wedge was amazed.

"Oh, I merely pointed out that you could sue him for endangering your life. If that accident had happened on the road up from the lowlands---"

There was no need for the virologist to continue. Wedge considered the possibility, blessed the Force for once again watching over him. His host stirred.

"Well, then. Got all your things?"

"Yes. By the way." Wedge fingered his new shirt and jacket. "Thanks for the clothes."

"Not at all." The Doctor flapped a hand as though flustered by the show of appreciation. "It's nothing. A mere trifle. Besides, my people are a reflection of me. I expect them to dress accordingly. Oh, Dorik. I prefer my people clean-shaven."

Wedge stroked his stubble. "I don't know, Doc. I sorta thought I'd grow myself a beard, if you don't mind."

Tir'Nngan considered the request and conceded. "All right, Dorik, as long as it's one or the other, and neatly trimmed. I won't have you looking like something I hauled out of the gutter. Now, if you're ready to go, Kay-See will drive you back to Manada so you can close out your room."

"And then what? Back here?"

"No. You'll go directly to my ship. Wait for me there."

"What about the droid?"

"You'll find Kay-See's a highly competent chauffeur."

Unable to argue his way out of it, Wedge hitched his shoulders again. "You're the boss."

He stood, shook hands with the Doctor and retrieved his tote. As he picked up the cari-sac, the den door opened. Kay-See floated in.

"Kay-See, drive our new crewmember to the CRAG RAPTOR. On the way, take him past his port accommodations. He'll be closing out his account there."

"Very good, Doctor."

Without bothering to wait to see if Wedge would accompany him out, the droid drifted away. Wedge tipped the side of his temple with his fingertips in a known Dorik salute, then caught up with Kay-See. Rather than departing via the side exit behind the kitchen, they went straight back to the rear of the house. Here lay the garage. Three five-passenger speeders and a large, heavy-haul hover car occupied the floor space. There was room left over for another large vehicle. From the stains on the floor, Wedge deduced it was there frequently.

The trip back to Manada took three hours at top speed. Wedge's attempts at conversation met with only nominal success. He did manage to drag his employer's name from the droid; interest which would, without doubt, do him credit in Tir'Nngan's eyes. Finally he scrunched down in the front passenger seat and dozed off.

How long he could safely ride this present string of luck Wedge hated to contemplate. Despite the inherent dangers, he felt he had made the best of what he had been offered, albeit not necessarily the wisest move. His major stumbling block lay in passing along the information he presently had in hand. Once that was safely on its way to his superiors he would rest a bit easier.

Not that he wanted to die. But should the worse happen, they would be one step further along to uncovering what Tir'Nngan was up to, and if he was indeed in league with Pherkail and Sirdson.

On the other hand, if he played his hand right, he might get lucky and find out for them. Either way, as Wedge saw it, his superiors could not entirely fault him. Of course he planned to get back alive and in one piece. Every operative did.

The follow-on thought caused him to flinch in his sleep. Not everyone was so fortunate. If Luke was incapable of surviving unscathed, and he was a Jedi, then what were the odds that Wedge could expect otherwise? Whatever came up in the toss he would just have to roll with the blows. Trust to fate and the Force to see him safely through.

"We're here, sir."

Kay-See's metallic voice shook him out of sleep. Reproach tinged the mechanical's voice as Wedge snorted and woke. "What's the matter. Was I snoring or something?"

"Or something," said the droid sourly.

Ignoring the remark with its accompanying suggestion of sarcasm, Wedge clambered stiffly from the speeder. Droids were not supposed to be programmed for emotions. But experience with one certain astro-mech made him believe otherwise. As he entered the tenement, his chauffeur floated in behind.

"Hey. We don't allow their kind in the front," began the Hutt. It hurriedly hit the call-button summoning his boss.

Wedge called out. "Hi, there, slithery. Where's my old buddy, Tollivan?"

The proprietor emerged from the back room at the sound of Wedge's voice. Sight of the security droid brought him up short. His eyes narrowed.

"Heard you got stranded up country."

"Yeah. Damn rental busted out on me. Had to walk." Wedge told him, "Worked out for the best, though."

"Oh?"

"Landed a job. On the RAPTOR."

"Not the CRAG RAPTOR?" From Tollivan's tone it was evident he was familiar with who owned the ship.

"That's the one." Maintaining a jovial air, Wedge gestured to his guard. "Meet Kay-See. Boss loaned him to me so I could stop by on the way to the ship and settle my account and grab my stuff."

"Oh."

Tollivan's dubious response implied he was not as confident over the situation as Wedge appeared to be. From the look he rested on the agent it was equally evident he thought the other had lost what little wits he might once have possessed.

"Balba, run up Dorik's account. I'll go with him to make certain everything's in order."

"Yes, sir."

Much as the translator leant the Hutt's voice a subservient overtone, Wedge was unconvinced. Balba definitely did not like him. But Tollivan apparently saw nothing amiss in Balba's borderline insolence. Still riding the morning's adrenaline rush, Wedge headed for the stairs. Tollivan started after. Then Kay-See brought up the rear.

"Boss." Balba called out a warning. "The droid."

Swinging around, Tollivan glared at the droid. "I told you I don't allow droids above the ground floor or in the tap room."

"Can't help you there," Wedge said lightly. "The Doctor told it to stick with me. Watch my back. And you know how security droids are. I couldn't get it to stay downstairs even if I tried."

Displeased with the prospect of breaking his own rules, Tollivan scowled. Should he attempt to block or deactivate the security droid, it would doubtless create sufficient disturbance as to summon the authorities. And he had no intention of bringing them down on his establishment. Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, he capitulated.

"All right. But it stays with us. And you are in and out. No stopovers."

"Fine by me," said Wedge.

They went upstairs, two at a time. Kay-See kept pace just behind them on its repulsors. Wedge keyed open his cubical, took the one step up and threw his cari-sac in ahead of him. Somehow Tollivan innocently interposed himself between the opening and the droid. Now its view of the interior was partially blocked. Activating the recorder in the tote handle, Wedge went about clearing out his things. Still cautious, he folded up the last of his clothing. As he stuffed them into his bag, he chatted about his experience of the night before. Then, in closing the bag, he switched off the micro-recorder and wriggled it free. He turned.

"That's it."

"Looks okay," Tollivan said, critical. "But then, you were hardly around long enough to do any damage."

"I admire your faith in you clients."

"Pays to be cautious."

"Guess it does at that. I'm the cautious type, myself," said Wedge. And held Tollivan's eyes before shoving his tote forward. "Here. Grab this for me, would you?"

The proprietor leaned forward, palming the recorder along the way without Kay-See the wiser. Grabbing the cari-sac, he hauled it out. Feet swinging over the doorsill, Wedge pushed off. He landed lightly in the center of the hallway just missing the droid as it hurriedly shifted aside. Behind him, his contact resealed the cubical, took the door chip and stepped down. He passed Wedge his tote.

"This is yours, I believe."

"Thanks."

Back downstairs, Wedge scrutinised the bill. He haggled a bit over the carrying charge, but eventually paid it. After all, as Tollivan pointed out, he had left some things behind. Finger tipped the side of his head in mock salute and Wedge headed out to the speeder. Kay-See passed him, settling into its place behind the controls.

"Safe voyage," called Tollivan.

"Thanks again."

Wedge vaulted over the speeder's side and settled down in the passenger seat once more. The droid set the vehicle in motion. Troubled by the unexpected turn of events, Tollivan returned to his chores. For a time he hung out in the taproom, overseeing sales. Then he tagged one of the passing waiters.

"Got a supply run for you to make."

"Right." Unquestioning, the runner prepared to deliver Wedge's information into the appropriate hands.


High up in the Hazards, Wedge's employer eavesdropped, as his newest employee suspected, via an audio-visual pickup the virologist kept installed in Kay-See. This was a standard procedure in security droids. He grinned as the droid let slip his identity.

"So you don't trust him either," said Pherkail, watching the monitor over the Doctor's shoulder.

"I seldom trust anyone on such short association." Voice flat, devoid of emotion, Tir'Nngan was not about to let a subordinate instruct him in security matters. "Trust is something which must be earned. Nimal inspected his luggage last night after Kay-Cee slipped him a sedative with his second inoculation. There was nothing in Dorik's things one wouldn't expect from someone of his background and experience."

"You checked out his story?"

"Of course. When we questioned him during his second sleep period, all we got were the same answers he gave us last night. In fact, my neighbours confirmed he has been something of a nuisance, pestering them for work yesterday. Even turning up here last night, on foot and sick, shows every indication the accident was genuine."

"Then why was he at my hotel and dining at my restaurant?"

"Pure coincidence."

"Clyth doesn't think so."

"That Weequay's perpetually paranoid, Kail. Everyone knows they're an unstable race. Why you keep him on, I don't know."

"Well, I'm afraid I don't agree with you. Just how deep did you delve into his background?"

"As far as was possible without setting off those damned New Republic watchdogs. We checked out his credit rating---matches his story. Large transactions in and out. A typical high roller. Got himself thrown off a ship on Coruscant. The authorities gave him one-way passage here because he was creating a disturbance in some of the mid-class drinking establishments."

Kay-See's pickup indicated they were entering Manada. After eyeing the snoop-vid one last time, Tir'Nngan switched it off.

"Just so you can rest easy, Kail, we'll leave tonight. Clearance is already approved. We'll follow them down directly after lunch. I do so hate travelling on an empty stomach. And with it three days to the rim, I'd rather have one last good meal before we have to partake of ship's fare."

"If you insist."

Still not entirely satisfied, Pherkail realised he could do nothing to dissuade his companion. Disgruntled, he accompanied the virologist into the steam room. He really did need to unwind. But he refused to leave off prying into Anitol Dorik's convenient appearance on the scene and subsequent employment by Tir.

"What about the speeder?"

"A rental." Relaxing back on the wood bench, Tir'Nngan shut his eyes. "Broken restraining ring bolt, as Dorik said. Not an accident that's easily simulated. I'll run you the footage of our investigation before we leave."

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Several days in hyperspace and two brief stopovers on Briggia and Agamar to install code keys at the embassies now lay behind them. With several days buffering their expected arrival time at Calamar, Luke insisted upon a side trip, a place with which he alone was intimately familiar. As they emerged from hyperspace beyond the Dagobah system, Luke tapped his brother-in-law on the shoulder.

"Better let me take the controls, Han."

"Look, kid," said Solo, "this is my ship---"

Luke Skywalker rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "But you don't know Dagobah. I do. And I want the FALCON to get down and out in one piece just as much as you do."

Something he saw in Luke's eyes warned Han that the Jedi Master was not over-reacting. Seen in that light, Solo capitulated. But he did not abandon his own seat. Rather, he signaled Chewie to move. The Wookiee moaned once, but did as he was told. Luke took control of the freighter. Although primarily familiar with fighters, he had flown shuttles and slightly larger vessels. Now he automatically reached out through the Force, sensing the MILLENNIUM FALCON's idiosyncracies and adjusting to them with as much ease as Han. With difficulty the Corellian concealed his approval.

Turbulence greeted them the minute they pierced the upper ionosphere. Cloud closed around them. Sealed them in an impenetrable envelope. As time passed, jostling increased, tossed them roughly from side to side. Still Luke rode the storm down. One minute they dropped the next they rose, with all the unpredictability of a half-broken tauntaun. Locked down in the lounge, Artoo released a piercing whistle. Chewbacca howled his objections to the rough ride.

"Hey, kid. Were you expecting this?"

Recalling his first trip, the Jedi Master found it difficult not to impart the truth of his first encounter with the jungle world. A grin briefly flicked across Luke's lips, but his eyes never left the controls. "The last two times I was here it was worse."

"Oh, great."

Again Chewie growled, then whined as brilliant blue-white static raced across the shields. Even with that protection everyone felt the surge of raw power. The Wookiee's fur stood on end briefly. He shook himself.

"It's all right, Chewie," Han struggled to reassure his partner. Heedless of the static electricity in the Wookiee's fur, he reached back a hand to scrub his partner's furry neck. "Luke knows what he's doing. Don't you, kid?"

"Sure, Han."

All Luke's concentration focused on locating a certain glade in the swamp below. Sensors were off-line, but he did not tell Han. It was probable the Corellian already knew, anyway. A measure of Solo's confidence lay in his making no attempt to wrest back the controls now they were flying blind. He simply hung on and prayed they would come down in one piece.

"Fog's as thick as mud out there," Han commented. But the edge in his voice belied his apparent lack of concern. Again Chewie complained.

"It's always like this." Luke informed them. "To one degree or another. Lots of rain, too." Another whistle split the cockpit air on the heels of his statement. "Yes, Artoo. We're landing on Dagobah." The astro-mech 'wheeped' back. "No," said Luke, doing his best to ease his droid's anxiety. "You won't have to leave the ship."

Artoo-Detoo released an audible mournful whine that drew a smile from Luke. His paramount confidence only partially eased Han's concern. Left hand flying out, Luke hit the power switches. Their forward momentum diminished appreciably. Then they were slowly settling, landing gear extended, nose slightly raised.

Heavy foliage loomed out of the mist. Slapped thin shields. Leaves showered the ship. Were blown clear by the breeze of their passage. Something flew across their bow from right to left on membrane thin wings. To Luke's relief there was no precipitation beyond fog condensation. Mist tore and faded through the lower jungle regions. Alternately concealed and revealed the miasma laid out below. Under the Jedi Master's expert guidance the FALCON settled comfortably to the soggy ground. Their landing gear sank to the first joint before locating solid bedrock. The freighter rocked forward, nose gear coming to rest. All movement ceased.

"We're here," said Luke them unnecessarily.

"Wherever here is," said Han. He released the safety straps. On his feet, he stood and leaned forward, pressing his face against the transparency in an effort to get a better view of the surrounding area. What he saw produced the expected sarcastic appraisal. "Some vacation spot."

Studiously ignoring the remark, Luke left the co-pilot seat and went aft. Han followed. "Hey, kid." He put out a hand and gestured, uncertain, halting Luke in the narrow connecting passage between cockpit and lounge. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

"It's all right, Han." The Jedi insisted when Solo looked doubtful. "Really. I've been here before. Twice. Remember?"

"Yeah. Sure. If you say so."

Drawing away from the Corellian, Luke continued aft. Chewbacca's growls followed him. As he entered the lounge, Artoo waddled into view. Luke paused to toss his cloak and gloves on the couch. He briefly rested a hand on his astro-mech's dome in passing. Then he released the ramp. Warm marsh-scented air flooded the freighter. Confident, eager, Luke strolled down the ramp and stepped off onto solid ground. He inhaled deeply. The ramp rang with more footfalls.

"Cut it kind fine, didn't you?" Solo joined him. Head tipped back, he examined the incredibly narrow opening through which they had descended. "Like threading an asteroid field."

"You should know." With a mischievous twinkle, Luke shot back the rejoinder.

"What about you?" Han asked his friend, and watched Luke's face intently.

"Hah!"

"Right." Han grunted. "Just like Beggar's Canyon."

When Luke echoed him word for word, Solo landed a friendly punch in his young friend's shoulder. "Just hurry it up, okay? I wouldn't want to spend a night here."

"It's not that bad," began Luke. Saw Han's dubious expression and laughed. "Sure, Han. Look after Artoo."

"I ain't no babysitter," said the Corellian. "'Specially when it comes to droids."

But Luke was already threading his way into the maze of towering tree roots. Solo turned. Artoo crouched at the foot of the ramp. Incredibly, the droid looked miserable. Concerned about his master's safety and melancholy at being left behind. Something screamed, hoarse and shrill, in the leafy canopy. With a shrug of his shoulders, he turned his uneasiness into irritation, aiming it at the first available target.

"Okay, Artoo. Back inside." The astro-mech responded by sinking down on his stubby legs until his base rested on the ground. Han planted himself in front of the droid, fists on his hips. "You heard Luke. Move it! If you don't get back inside, I'll send Chewie out after you."

Had it been Threepio, the threat would have sufficed to send the droid scurrying back inside, grumbling and complaining. But Artoo simply rose slowly, extended his third leg. Reluctantly trundling up the ramp into the ship, his dome swiveling back and forth, the little astro-mech eloquently expressed his displeasure. Silent and rebellious, both supposedly impossible attributes for a droid. But Solo knew better. He trailed Artoo, feeling incredibly foolish as he shooed the droid into the lounge. Then he closed and locked the hatch.

Swamp and rainforest closed in around Luke. There was no need to search for what he sought. The Force was a leash, drawing him across bog and time. He passed the spot where his X-Wing had splashed down. Next to it was the clearing where Yoda had demonstrated the true meaning of focusing oneself. A large reptile slithered away underfoot. Luke ignored it and pressed on. Overhead came the familiar harsh calls of avian lizards. His left hand rose to brush aside trailing moss strands. And then he was there.

Time and the elements were rapidly working to erase all signs of habitation. Frozen, Luke strained to hear the voices in the Force he so desperately longed for. When they came they were so soft a tiny part of his mind was not entirely certain he was actually hearing them. And not simply conjuring them because he wanted to hear them.

'Last of the old Jedi are you. First of the new.' Yoda spoke serenely. 'The sect must you rebuild.'

"But how, Master Yoda?" All Luke's uncertainty resurfaced now that he was alone. "I don't know how. How do I train new students? Where am I to find the knowledge?"

'Luke.'

"Father!"

'Have faith in yourself. In your abilities.' Anakin's encouragement renewed Luke's confidence.

'Trust in yourself. Trust in the Force,' said Obi-wan Kenobi.

And they were gone. No images confirmed they had actually been there, only the certainty that came with feeling their presence within the Force. A tremulous sigh escaped Luke's lips. Last of the Jedi---of the trained Jedi. It was a daunting concept. Over this past year he had pressured his sister to learn to make use of her potential. For a while Leia had put him off, fearful of her birthright. But logic was finally asserting itself. Still, as Head of State and, more importantly, Princess of Alderaan, she found little time to spare to apply to training.

Still despondent, Luke made his way back to the freighter. He was halfway there when soul-biting cold attacked him so swiftly he almost panicked. Doubt, anxiety and fear assailed him before he reasserted control. Slowly he swiveled to confront the tree. Without knowing why, Luke set aside his weapon and somersaulted into the hole.

Slime made the footing treacherous. As before, luminescent fungi provided some illumination. He pursued the same path, yet not quite the same. Darth Vader emerged from the shadows, but the illusion did not attack this time. Rather, it halted and stared at him. Before Luke could react, the figure removed its helmet. Once more he stared at his own visage.

Still---something was not quite right. There was no time to grasp the intangible. Between one blink and the next the illusion melted in the ravaged features of the Emperor. Palpatine gloated over Luke. Then he threw back his head, silently laughed and vanished.

Shaken, Luke drew tattered courage about him and pressed on, determined to see this encounter to its conclusion, as he had not the first time. Ahead, set into the tunnel wall, was a dressed-out flank of stone. A door brace fashioned by sentient hands. He halted once more. Stared at it, intrigued by something palpably real, yet mysterious and more than willing to be distracted at this juncture.

When last here he had never thought to ask Yoda about the race which had risen on Dagobah, constructed buildings of which this was one of the last tangible vestiges, then sank into oblivion. Indeed, this might well be the only remaining sign of their passing. His cyber hand rested on the brace. Felt the spongy consistency of the stone. It would not last much longer.

'I couldn't do it. You shouldn't have expected me to meet their expectations.' A woman's voice angrily accused him. 'I was too inexperienced.'

"Dori?"

Startled, Luke spun. He failed to countenance the image before him. Skin stretched parchment fine across high cheekbones. Eyes like bottomless wells of night gaped back at him. Death in all its malevolent corruption had wasted Dorienne to skeletal gauntness. Left nothing of her beauty in its wake. And she, too, was gone.

'Luke! Help me!'

Beyond the riser lay Wedge, sprawled on rock and sand. Hand out-stretched, it was evident his old wingman was too weak to move. Flushed with fever, he was dying.

"You, too, Wedge."

'What's happened?' Time writhed across his vision. 'What's going to happen for you to wind up like this?' Luke's eyes raked the vision for clues. Felt possible futures elude him. He concentrated on the immediate.

"Sand."

Something flitted quickly from sight, too fast for Luke to get a definite impression. Squatting, he struggled to remain objective as he watched his friend die, flushed with fever. Nearby, in the darkness, a desiccated corpse huddled against the rock, its shape all too familiar.

"A jawa!"

And close beside it, also dead, another of the same species of creature which had fled Luke's sight. A creature Luke would never have expected to see in such a setting simply because it was not native to that world or climate.

Dori dead, Wedge dying. Goaded by the images from within the Force, Luke rose. To his right there came a muffled groan. He started, torn from sorting through the puzzle, and stared. A hairline fracture zigzagged up the beam almost faster than his eyes could follow. The Jedi Master whirled and ran. Behind him came a sharp report of shattering stone. Flinging himself up, he grasped the lip of the hole. Slipped back. With the Force, Luke launched himself clear. On hands and knees, Luke scrambled madly out of the way just as the massive tree gave a convulsive shudder.

Before his incredulous gaze, the arboreal giant dropped a full story. Off-balance amid shattered roots and splintering trunk, it teetered. Conscious of the impending peril, Luke grabbed for his lightsabre with the Force and caught it without halting his retreat. Behind him the ancient tree toppled in his wake like a voracious beast seeking his life. It collapsed with a deafening crash, its thunderous fall a death roar that seemed to go on forever. Limbs fragmented, spitting in all directions as the tree came down. Instinct took over. Hands over his head, the Jedi Master curled in a ball. Hastily constructed a Force wall between him and the deadly projectiles. Hunched there, he waited out the unnatural storm. A shower of leaves gently cascaded over the area.

In the wake of the catastrophe silence enveloped the swamp once more. Nothing stirred. Only the soft, persistent plop of released gas bubbles disturbed the quietude. With considerable difficulty he gathered his scattered wits, and slowly got to his feet. Leaves continued to drift down, pattering across his head and shoulders. Caught in his fair hair.

Inspection of the damage led Luke to believe the giant swamp dweller was a victim of its own appetite for survival. Its root system had, over the centuries, infiltrated the subterranean halls of the buried building. In overwhelming that work of sentient hands, it had undermined its own foundation. Now its huge bole lay, torn in half, the fragmented remains inundating the glade.

"Damn." Resigned, Luke muttered his frustration.

He had returned to Dagobah hoping to utilize the potential of this source with which to begin training new students. It had seemed only logical that he would also be able to use it to expand his own knowledge of self, an ideal location for meditation and introspection. But loss of the tree and Yoda's home precluded such efforts. Deep inside he was certain there was an additional message here. If only he could read it.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Chewie's roar ripped the air. No less deafening than the tree's downfall, it re-silenced native denizens which were just recovering from the first onslaught of noise. The howl snapped Luke from his reverie. He raced back through the humid forest. Clouds of insects flew up, disturbed by his heedless feet, and he plunged through them. As he neared the clearing, he could hear Han shouting.

"Damn it, Chewie! I said repulsors. Not jacks."

Luke slowed. His companions were all right but Han's words hinted at what had transpired. Suspicions were confirmed as he rounded a huge root formation and halted at the edge of the clearing. In landing, one of the freighter's landing gear must have come to rest on a slope beneath the rich loam. While Luke had been struggling to find himself and chart a course for his future, the FALCON had found its own course of action. Now Han Solo's prize vessel rested on its port hull struts. Ranting, the Corellian turned. Caught sight of Luke.

"This was a really great landing site you chose, kid!" He advanced on Luke, oblivious to the muck staining the Jedi's black clothing, the debris caught in his hair. "Do you see this?"

"Yes."

Determined not to be rushed, Luke slowly circled the ship, examining it from all sides. The highly agitated Corellian dogged his steps, watching. Waiting. Luke ran a hand through his hair. When his fingers encountered some leaves and a bit of twig, he absently shook his head. Scrubbed at his hair to get the rest of the debris.

"Well, this was a really great idea you had. Just a little side-trip, he says. Absolutely no problems. Safe as sitting at home."

"Easy, Han. It'll be okay," soothed Luke. He halted on the far side of the ship. Head tilted to one side he assessed the seriousness of the situation.

"Sure it will. Look kid. I hate to tell you this but," Han stabbed a finger at the buried side repulsors, "if we can't free those thrusters, we ain't goin' nowhere!"

Trailing in their wake, Chewie added his own roar of agreement. When Solo thumped a fist against the hull, Luke glanced at him. Nothing in the Jedi's expression indicated any concern for either the freighter's plight or Han's tirade.

"Nothin' short of a lev-crane's going to haul this outta here." Solo ground on relentlessly. "And I don't see any ship yard facilities within easy calling distance. Do you?"

For several minutes Luke did not respond. As he considered the problem, he sympathized with Han. From the Corellian's standpoint Luke had betrayed his trust in him. Unable to look either Han or Chewie in the eye, Luke turned away and made a show of once more studying the problem. In truth, he was covering a smile that strained to break free. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, this would have seemed an impossible task. But a wizened little non-human Jedi Master had proved him wrong.

"Thank you, Master Yoda." Luke murmured in gratitude, humbled.

"What did you say?"

"Nothing, Han." Emotions once more under control, Luke faced his friend. "You and Chewie get back on board and put the systems on standby."

"Are you nuts?"

"Trust me."

Doubt and anger warred with friendship. Patiently Luke waited. "I shouldn't," said Han finally, unable to argue further. "Not after this."

Luke continued to wait, knowing Solo would eventually give in. Too much had happened over the years, too many debts owed on both sides, for the Corellian not to trust in him. A soft growl from Chewie broke through Han's stubborn front. He threw up his hands in defeat.

"All right. It's all yours. I haven't a clue what you're planning but, just so you know, the pneumatic jacks won't work. We've already tried. The ground's too soft."

"I won't need the jacks," said Luke.

Intrigued, Han paused. Stared at his brother-in-law. "But---"

"Han. Please."

"Your funeral," he said after several seconds. "Just as long as you don't make it ours, too." Shaking his head, Solo turned. "Come on, Chewie. Let's go."

The Wookiee snarled something, stared at Luke. "I don't know, Chewie." Han urged. "Come on."

A 'boop' at Luke's back reminded him of something. "Han?"

"Yeah, kid?"

"Take Artoo with you."

An undisguised snort of irritation escaped Han and he waved a hand. "Come on, Artoo."

Most droids were obedient to their programming. But if Han had learned one very hard lesson since meeting Luke, it was that not everything was as it appeared on the surface. And this little astro-mech was loyal to only one person: Luke Skywalker.

"Artoo."

A hint of annoyance tinged Luke's voice, accompanied by the stab of a finger. Dome rotating back and forth, the droid came close to rebelling. Yet he was unable to win any direct confrontation with his master. After several seconds the silent battle of wills ended. Luke emerged triumphant and Artoo trundled off in Han's wake. Just in case the droid should attempt to double-back the minute it was out of Luke's sight, Chewie hung back. A chuckle escaped Luke as he watched the strange cavalcade disappear from view.

Once certain the crew was back on board, Luke re-examined the dangerous list. For once he had good reason to be relatively unconcerned. He knew he could do this. There was only one possible stumbling block. The repulsors might be so severely fouled that, once the ship was free of its predicament, Han would be unable to activate them. Or worse. Yoda's words echoed through his mind.

'Do or do not. There is no try.'

Bolstered, Luke circled the MILLENNIUM FALCON and entered the ship. Sound of lock releases being activated alerted Han Solo to his return. "How's it going back there, kid?"

"All right, Han. Stand by." A familiar thump resounded through the vessel as the lock closed.

"Stand by." Han Solo muttered to his co-pilot. "Aren't we doing just that?"

Chewbacca growled in agreement, but neither of them quite knew what to expect next. In passing the ramp controls on his way to the cantered lounge, Luke slapped them, closing up the ship. He settled on the couch and shut his eyes. He took a slow, deep breath, then another. Reopening his eyes, he stared off into mid-distance.

Tendrils of the Force appeared before his altered vision. Came to him, invisible wisps drawn inexorably by his call. Thread by thread, the young Jedi Master gathered them in. Wove a cradle along the entire length and breadth of the ship. He knitted them together, testing the finished product and himself. Drawn deeper into the stillness within, Luke gathered himself. Poised. Concentrated. And lifted.

A startled shout and a Wookiee roar from the cockpit rewarded his efforts. Artoo whistled shrilly and quickly extended a claw, clamping down on the table center leg. Slowly the freighter came level. Without releasing his grasp, Luke called out breathlessly.

"Now, Han!"

Repulsors flared. One died as an overheated circuit breaker blew. The FALCON wobbled dangerous. Solo swore. In desperation, he chanced everything and powered up the offender to full thrust before releasing the energy stream in an effort to stabilize them.

"Here goes everything!"

Energy exploded through the repulsor tube. As Luke had feared, it encountered a mass of vegetation and mud rammed into the tube as the freighter had settled. There it backed up. Confined thrust expanded in the narrow exhaust chamber. If the obstruction were not immediately released they would blow the tube. Problem located, Luke moved swiftly. Although it meant diverting some of his tightly meshed control, he had to take the risk. If not, they would never get off Dagobah. In fact, they risked damaging the freighter beyond repair. Releasing a short burst of the Force, he popped the plug.

"That's done it." Solo's exuberant yell rang through his ship. He hurriedly compensated when the dangerously listing freighter surged to starboard. "Now let's get out of here." He paused. "Or are you particularly attached to this place, kid?"

"No, Han. We can leave."

The Corellian's only response was a command. "Punch it, Chewie!"

Even as the MILLENNIUM FALCON shot up through the thick foliage and into the cloud base, Luke released the tangle of Force threads. Once positive he had not unduly upset the region with his heavy-handed intrusion, he dragged his eyes open. Took a deep breath. Every inch of his body ached as though he had physically manhandled the ship back onto an even keel.

"Which I guess I did." He reflected on that out loud as Dagobah rapidly fell away behind them.

Rather than join his friends up front, Luke sagged back on the couch. Concerned, Artoo released his hold on the table and inched as close as he could to his master. He bumped against Luke. Emitted a soft, inquiring whistle. The sound pierced Luke's temples like a red-hot needle. Eyes squeezed shut, Luke forced himself to relax. By so much he had come close to over-extending himself. He might be a Jedi Master, the only trained Jedi left in the galaxy, but he was not as proficient with the Force as either Ben or Yoda. Not by a long stretch. Still, his accomplishment buoyed him. Hyper entry gave his stomach a familiar wrench.

"I don't know how you did it, kid, but you---" Han was saying as he entered the lounge. One look at Luke's pale, blood drained face stopped him in his tracks. "Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine, Han. Just give me a few minutes."

"You sure?"

"Yes."

Unconvinced, Solo slid onto the seat before the back-up nav-puter. A war raged inside the Corellian: doubt against conviction. He was fast losing the notion that the Force was just a hokey religion. However he might struggle to bury that terrifying moment when Vader had yanked his blaster from his hand it remained foremost in his thoughts each time he watched his brother-in-law. Too many times Luke had also proved it otherwise. And proved, too, that a lightsabre was an equal to a blaster any day. But Han hated to lose a good argument.

"What are our next coordinates?" Luke's question emerged barely above a whisper.

"Halfway point. Calamar mid-way transit beacon."

"Reset the minute we emerge."

Startled, Han stared at his friend. "For where?"

"Tatooine."

"Tatooine?" Astounded, Han came to his feet. His abrupt move halted Chewie in the hatchway between lounge and cockpit. "Oh, no! Not this time."

"Have to, Han." Wearied beyond belief, Luke felt himself losing his grip on consciousness. "Got to help Wedge."

"Wedge? But he's on Olgathir."

"Saw him---just do it, Han. Please." The enigmatic plea left Han floundering.

"What about the code keys? Mon Mothma's gonna have a fit if I'm late delivering them to Bothawui."

"All you have to do is drop me off at Mos Eisley." It was clear to the Corellian that Luke was struggling just to remain awake. His speech was slurred, almost incoherent.

"And just how do you plan on getting back to Coruscant?"

"Seems I managed once before with nothing but two droids and a crazy old man. Remember?"

"Cheap shot," said Solo. Chewbacca moaned, tipped his head on its side as he eyed the worn-out Jedi. "No, Chewie. Guess we'll have to go along with him on this one." The Wookiee growled. His partner responded to that inquiry. "I know it'll make us late at Bothuwai, Chewie. Just do it."

As Chewbacca returned to the cockpit to comply with Han's instructions, Solo turned back to Luke. "So, kid. What's Wedge doing on---"

But exhaustion had finally overtaken the young Jedi Knight. He was sound asleep, fair hair forming a halo across the black sleeves of his crossed arms. Only now did Han notice the dirt smears, the leaf fragments still adhering to Luke's trousers. Compassion filled him.

"Just what the hell happened to you out there, Luke?"

The Corellian wondered out loud, but made no attempt to disturb his friend. From one of the overhead emergency compartments he took down a thermal survival blanket and gently draped it around Luke's shoulders. Artoo watched, emitting a soft boop, as worried as any sentient.

"He's okay, Artoo. Just worn out, I guess." Then, realising he was dignifying the droid with feelings, he grumbled to himself out of habit. "What the hell am I doing talking to a droid?"

But he did not mean it. And Artoo, reading the intonations in the pilot's voice, overlooked the insult. Squatting down on his base, the little droid took up his vigil at his master's side, his dome swiveling back and forth in short jerks.

CHAPTER TWENTY

"He's done what! Is he insane?"

Jornik launched himself to his feet and stared at Madine across his desk. Crix Madine shook his head. It was a good thing the room was sound proof, reflected the head of Covert Operations. Their shouting was certainly loud enough to wake the dead. Now Madine brought himself under control. Lowered his voice.

"Young Antilles has signed on as crew on the CRAG RAPTOR. At least that's what the message said from our contact in Manada."

"Do we know why?"

"No." Madine paced the room, hands behind his back, brow knitted in thought. "But he was pursuing that cover story we gave him."

"He's lost his mind."

"Very probably."

A sudden suspicion overtook Jornik. "You didn't, by chance, put him up to this did you, Crix?"

"Me?" Madine stopped pacing. Turned to face his companion, beard jutting forward as his jaw stiffened. "Hardly. In fact, I specifically ordered him to steer clear of Tir'Nngan. If you remember?"

"Damn it all!"

"Well, at least he got the information out." As exasperated as Jornik felt, his feelings in no way matched Madine's frustration. "Look, Al. It's done. There's nothing we can do now except hope the young fool can get clear of that twisted unmentionable before he comes to grief."

"Some hope. And we still have absolutely no idea where the RAPTOR's headed?"

"None."

Slowly Jornik sank back into his chair. "What about the others?"

"They ought to be arriving at their Calamar transition point within the next day."

"Can we get the news to them?"

"Doubtful. Not in that short a space in time. But I've already squeezed off a transmission to Bothawui for Mon Mothma. She's out there to oversee the installation of the new code keys. She'll see they get it."

"That was their last stop?" Madine nodded. His expression indicative of somebody who had just eaten something extremely sour, Jornik continued. "Do what you can, Crix. I'd hate to lose one of my best pilot's because of this mess."

"I will. But I'm making no promises concerning Antilles," said Madine firmly. "After all, he's not a kid. He walked into this eyes wide open. Now it's up to him to get himself out, if he can. I'll not risk my other operatives because he made an error in judgement."

"Damn waste of a promotion." Heaving a short sigh, Jornik asked. "How's Horalle?"

"Recovering."

"I know he's taken Dori's death pretty hard. Is that why he's visiting the psyche people?"

Madine drew an audible breath. "Not entirely. It seems my aide blames himself for Lieutenant Turlat's death. I've been unable to shake anything else out of him concerning it. That's why I've recommended the sessions."

"I see. What about our good Mister Gaviol Bornai?"

"Protesting strenuously. Begging diplomatic immunity." A cold smile glittered deep in Madine's eyes. "But we managed to grab him and clamp a lid on things before anyone realised what was happening."

"Urkhard's been asking around. Seems he's a bit put out that his aide pulled a vanishing act." Jornik drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. "Any problems there?"

"Nothing we can't deal with."

"Have your people any idea how we're going to extract what we need from Bornai?"

"There's no need for you to know that," said Madine firmly.

"Crix."

General Madine stood. "No, Al, just this once leave it in my hands. I promise you there will be no evidence."

"No Imperial tricks."

For once Madine's expression was unreadable. But Jornik knew he had gone too far. Of all the people from the days of the Rebel Alliance, Crix Madine was one of an unfortunate few who had suffered at Imperial hands, and survived to tell the tale.

Except Crix had told no one what exactly he had gone through. That is, not everything. He had merely advanced a new method of training and indoctrinating operatives. Still, it would not be the first time that those tortured to the brink of insanity instigated their version of the same inquisition techniques. And that was where Alfiar Jornik's department came in. They were the watchdogs on Covert Operations. Ensuring the New Republic did not slip down the same road. Jornik refused to apologize. Simply fixed Madine with a knowing look until the other nodded and left.

Once outside, General Madine slipped off down a side passage that led to little known regions of the palace. During the dark days of the Empire many people, human and non-human, had vanished in these hallways. Upon their initial investigation of the place his people had uncovered the remains of several prisoners who had died around the time of the Battle of Endor: all the more poignant in their deaths because of the timing. There remained certain areas where no one traveled by choice in this building, alone or otherwise. Areas where it was rumored Palpatine and Vader had amused themselves.

"Amused themselves."

Crix repeated that thought, shook off the dark hand that clutched and churned his stomach with resurrected memory. Whenever he felt himself leaning toward the darker side of questioning, he reflected on his own past. But Dorienne Turlat's senseless death maddened him. Particularly when it was obvious Ambassador Urkhard was innocent of any knowledge of his aide's actions. And that was why Madine had made his people move Bornai into a certain wing beneath the palace. Now he prayed that the residue of all those deaths at the Emperor's hands would work in the New Republic's favor, breaking Bornai as he could not bring himself to do. So oppressive was the atmosphere in that area that no one went there by choice. Or remained long if they could avoid it. And they certainly never traveled there alone.

"Except Skywalker," muttered Madine. And scowled as those words conjured thoughts best left alone.

As he entered the wing, one of his men approached at a trot. Alerted to trouble, Madine stopped. "Report."

"Sir! The prisoner's found a way out."

'Damn it.' Madine swore to himself. 'Looks like he knew more than I gave him credit. That was a serious error in judgement. Must be slipping with old age.' Aloud, he demanded, "Have you located him?"

"Yes, sir. We're tracking him now. We got his accomplice, but----" "Alive?"

"Sorry, sir." His subordinate looked genuinely regretful. "Had to kill him. He was fighting a delaying action. They collapsed the exit before anyone could get through. That's forced us to look for alternate routes around. It's slowing us down."

"How are you tracking him?" Madine was far from pleased to hear Bornai had an accomplice who knew what was transpiring. He prayed there was only the one.

"That transponder you insisted we attach to his scalp beneath the bacta bandage."

"Still operating, is it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Where's he headed?"

"Down below."

"Double damn him!" Considering his alternatives, Madine spun away. "Continue tracking him. If you reach him before anyone else, try to take him alive."

"Alive, sir?"

"I'd prefer it. If he opens fire on you, though, kill the little worm."

"Yes, sir!"

Madine raced back to his quarters and dug out his encoded transmitter. "Flit. You there?"

He waited, hoping his prize agent had not already lifted from Coruscant for his next assignment. Time was of the essence. They dared not let their quarry send any information on to his superiors.

"Flit here."

Relieved, Madine snapped back. "I need you to track someone for me. He's headed down. Should be easy enough for you to find him. We've got a transponder on him for now, but he may realise it when he finds time to recoup and think. Track him on five-six-seven point seven-two-five."

"Copy that."

"If possible, put him in storage for Security to collect."

"And if not?"

"Terminate with extreme prejudice."

"Understood. May I ask who it is?"

"Bornai."

Silence. Then, "Managed to give you the slip, did he?"

"Just get him, Flit!"

"On my way."

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

As yachts went, CRAG RAPTOR was a large vessel, bigger than the FALCON. Still, it could not rival the TANTIVE IV for size and confirmation. But then, the TANTIVE IV had been a blockade-runner, constructed for that purpose during the Clone Wars. There were certain unexpected perks to life on board the RAPTOR that Wedge discovered the moment he settled in.

Crew cabins were necessarily small, yet each member had his own space. Wedge suspected this alleviated much of the squabbling and in-fighting that often occurred within the ranks of the motley adherents drawn to the likes of Tir'Nngan. Additionally, there were miniature entertainment systems in every cabin. A trial run on his personal display turned up some of the latest and hottest trashy vid-flicks. As well, there was a tie into the ship's copy of the Coruscant Interplanetary Library.

Under Kay-See's watchful sensors, Wedge toured such portions of the vessel as the droid permitted. This did not include the bridge, engine room or escape pods. Until the Doctor boarded, only essential staff was allowed in those areas. Restrictions did not appear to hold elsewhere, so Wedge rambled. He discovered a gym; equipped for grav adjustment for most species, a steam room and a mud bath. Not surprisingly there were also two laboratories---both off-limits. Wedge fought an urge to pry and moved on, hoping he had not exhibited anything above marginal interest.

There was also gunnery and torpedo armament, not unusual during these turbulent times. With the collapse of the Empire there were hordes of pirates stalking the shipping lanes along the rim. Anyone venturing off the beaten track, as it were, for whatever reason, went well armed. Just as Wedge concluded his tour, the ship's com whistled.

"Now hear this. All leave is cancelled. Second shift to your posts. The Doctor is coming on board."

"Interesting," said Wedge. "One would almost think they were on some sort of military vessel."

Kay-See pivoted around Wedge as though on a leash tethered to a central pole. "The Doctor prefers to keep discipline at all times. There are specific regulations you would do well to review, Mister Dorik. Until then, you are to remain out of the way."

Wedge raised an eyebrow. "Really."

"You will find punishment meted out swiftly among the crew." Kay-See warned him. "I suggest you do not step over the line."

Whether the droid's programming terminated with Tir'Nngan's arrival, or someone recalled it, Wedge could not say. But the security droid abruptly departed. The minute it vanished from view, Wedge headed off in the opposite direction. His surge of bravado dared him to seek out the Doctor, but conditioning dictated he return to his cabin. He settled for caution. For lack of anything better to do, he logged on to the RAPTOR's Standard Operating Procedures and Terms of Reference for Senior Crew; the Doctor's own version of the Imperial Code of Discipline. In fact, it paralleled the latter so closely it gave Wedge quite a nasty turn. He was in the midst of reading the text when the ship lifted and went to hyper.

Some time later Wedge reflected on his observations. "The man definitely runs a tight ship."

In spite of himself, Wedge felt grudging respect for the virologist, tempered with the knowledge of the man's past crimes against all sentient beings. Had Tir'Nngan been almost anyone else, Wedge would have been quite comfortable with his unusual turn of fate. But being who and what the Doctor was, Wedge impressed upon himself that he dare not let down his guard.

Wedge passed a day and a half in idle speculation. He made good use of the gym, then soaked the aches out of his muscles. Regretfully he would never regain the physique of his youth prior to Yavin Four. But he had honed and strengthened himself until he recovered the military conditioning. There were times when he could almost keep up with Luke.

"Almost." Ruefully he reminded himself that the Jedi Master could physically surpass almost everyone they knew.

He took his meals in the crew mess surrounded by cautious, yet equally curious strangers. Dorik was not a mixer. And Wedge's implant forced him to subvert an otherwise gregarious nature. After his second midday meal in hyperspace, Wedge's study of a weapon's diagram was interrupted by the soft 'ping' of his door chime. Without bothering to raise his head, Wedge ordered the door.

"Open."

It slid aside. On the opposite side stood Clyth. With feigned disinterest, Wedge continued pouring over the cut-away. Clyth waited for the other to acknowledge his presence. Eventually Wedge did.

"Coming in or not?" Without lifting his head, he let the Weequay know he was aware of him. "If you're not coming in, kindly close the door."

The Weequay stepped into the room but Wedge perversely left the door open. For lack of anywhere to sit---Wedge was occupying the only chair---Clyth perched on the edge of the berth.

"What are you reading?"

"Schematics, an ancient form of projectile gun. Fired a solid metal round quaintly referred to as a slug."

"Antiquated."

"So are lightsabres. But that doesn't make them any less deadly. Or less efficient under certain conditions."

Unimpressed, Clyth continued to study Wedge. The outsider was something of an anomaly, intelligent but volatile. Clever, but bordering on self-destruction. That is, if one believed what the file Galactico Records had compiled thus far on one Anitol Dorik.

Unable to maintain his pretence of disinterest any longer, Wedge shut off the display. Faced about to confront his uninvited guest, he allowed a modicum of surprise to creep into his features. Most mercenaries were cognizant of their peers and their background. So, too, would Dorik have known the Weequay, if only from rumours and data files.

"Didn't I see you at Lake Erid?" He asked that, knowing to pretend otherwise would be a serious mistake. "Clyth, isn't it?" The Weequay grunted an affirmative. "So tell me. What's Pherkail doing on board the RAPTOR?"

Clyth blinked once, very slowly. "What makes you think he is on this ship?"

It was only natural; Wedge laughed sarcastically. "Come off it, Clyth. Everyone knows you're his perpetual shadow. Or---" He leaned forward as though eager for gossip, "has someone actually snuffed the little unmentionable?"

There was just enough of a flicker of irritation in Clyth's eyes to inform Wedge he had scored a direct hit. Albeit in the wrong direction. However, he was not about to betray any knowledge to that effect. Instead, the imp within him pressed the issue.

"Of course not. Sorry. You certainly wouldn't be here now if that were the case. You've sworn to protect him to the death, or the termination of your contract by him. Isn't that how the story goes?"

Still Clyth did not rise to the bait. But his rage grew visibly by the minute. A finger set against his lips, Wedge pretended a flash of inspiration.

"Then again---the good Doctor didn't happen to buy up your contract, did he?"

Pushed to the brink, the Weequay rose stiffly. His fingers twitched at his side, indication that he was restraining himself only with a great effort of willpower. "I wonder, Dorik. Would you be so bold if we weren't on this ship?"

Wedge barked a laugh. "You've made a pretty big reputation for yourself around Pherkail, Clyth. But you're still just a large fish in a very little pond."

At that moment he never found if he had pushed Clyth too far. If the Weequay would actually ignore the Doctor's rules about passengers and crew fighting on board ship. Kay-See appeared, hovering in the hallway outside his room. Its electronic sensors inspected the issue. The timing was so perfect Wedge suspected his cabin was being monitored.

"The Doctor wishes to see you, Dorik."

"Sure, Kay-See." Pushing off the chair, Wedge let a slow, sly smile touch his lips. His eyes, however, were ice-cold as he stared at the Weequay. "Been nice talking to you, Clyth. Close the door on your way out, won't you?"

Without waiting for Clyth to respond, Wedge left his room. Followed the security droid through the ship to the forward OUT OF BOUNDS section. The door to a large boardroom slid open. Seated with the virologist at an oval table were Pherkail and Sirdson. By now Wedge had lost all sense of surprise. He approached the table, stopped just short of it. Kay-See remained outside. Amusement tempered the scrutiny Tir'Nngan visited on his new employee.

"Few are so foolish as to push Clyth to the breaking point, Dorik." Those words were sufficient to confirm Wedge's suspicions. "Either you're a complete fool. Or you have an edge of which I am not aware." Tir'Nngan paused. Eyed Wedge more intently. "I prefer to believe the latter."

His shoulders giving a little hitch, Wedge conveyed disinterest in the subject. "As you say, I have an edge. Now, would you mind enlightening me as to what my duties are? I didn't sign on to sit around in my cabin, reading rules and regs, and turning my brain to mush watching cheap flesh vids."

Laughter exploded from the virologist. He slapped his palms down on the table so loudly Sirdson started at the unexpected explosion of sound and stared at Tir'Nngan. Pherkail scowled, but Tir'Nngan was unaffected.

"There," said the Doctor. "I told you he wasn't just your ordinary run-of-the-bars mercenary. Kail. You owe me fifty credits."

Arms folded across his chest, Wedge slouched. "Fifty credits? I'm insulted, Doctor. Thought for sure I was worth more than that."

On finger wagging at Wedge, the Doctor admonished him. "It never pays to upset your co-workers by fleecing their pockets, Dorik. Remember that." He redirected himself to his fellow scientists. "I believe our business is concluded for now."

Sirdson appeared almost eager to quit the room. He pushed past Wedge as though he did not exist, shoulder brushing him in passing. Paused at the door. "You did say I'd have the run of Lab Two?"

"Of course, Lotha. Just make certain all the correct seals are in place."

With a disdainful sniff, offended by the suggestion that he was negligent, Sirdson departed. Pherkail remained for several more minutes. The look he rested on Wedge was anything but complimentary. And Wedge's implacable mien only served to further annoy him. Finally, Pherkail conceded, shook his head and left without a backward glance.

"Cheerful pair," said Wedge as the door slid shut.

"They suit my needs."

Without waiting for an invitation, Wedge dropped into a vacant chair. There was a second when he thought he might have misjudged the virologist's mood. But to the Doctor's credit he ignored that tiny push against his authority. He gestured to the carafe. Offered an empty mug from the tray on the table.

"Help yourself, Dorik. You'll find the juice particularly thirst quenching. Imported from the Wookiee home world."

With a show of disinterest in the information, Wedge casually poured half a mug. Took a sip. When he replaced the mug on the table, the Doctor stretched back in his chair.

"When I hired you, I initially thought to use you as a stevedore in my hold. Allow you to work you way up through the crew."

"My nav experience---"

"Would have been wasted down there, no doubt. True. But everyone has to start somewhere. However, after watching how you handled my best security droid and dealt with Clyth, I'm inclined to believe I have something geared more to your other---talents." The Doctor grinned mischievously, momentarily destroying Wedge's earlier character assessment. "It has come to me that there's really only one place where I can benefit fully from your particular leadership qualifications."

"And just where would that be?"

"At my newest research facility."

Wedge was glad his mouth was not full of juice. He would have sputtered it all over the tabletop. "Is that where we're headed now?"

Curiosity pricked, Wedge carefully reined in his eagerness, afraid to trigger Tir'Nngan's suspicious mind. Instead, he shifted his weight forward so as to imply veiled interest. But his stomach remained a mass of nerves.

"Yes."

"Where?"

"Well, now. To be quite frank, I needed somewhere that offered isolation. A dry climate which would prevent most bio-hazards."

"Whoa. Wait a minute." Still in character, Wedge leapt to his feet but there was no faking the anxiety that clouded his words. "Is that what that guy meant? You never said you were playing with germ warfare."

"As in genetically engineered viral infections? Yes. I'm afraid so." When Wedge took a step back, Tir'Nngan shook his head. "Really, Dorik. There's absolutely nothing to concern yourself with. My safety measures are the best."

Again the virologist let a long pause ensue. But Wedge had his measure now. These lengthy breaks were all part of the Doctor's affectations. Meant to warn off the weak-hearted and keep the overly rambunctious in line. Wedge was not impressed. But Dorik would have been mildly intimidated. He sank back into the chair and rubbed genuinely sweaty palms down his trouser legs.

"This particular habitat also has a certain number of natural and indigenous hazards which help deter the curious."

"And just where would this---installation be?" Wedge wanted to know.

"Tatooine."

"Tatooine!" Taken aback, Wedge considered something Luke had once told him during their early years together following Yavin Four. 'If there's a furthest point from the center of the galaxy, Tatooine is it.'

Until the Doctor smiled, Wedge was unaware he had voiced that sentiment out loud. "Precisely why I chose to situate my laboratory there."

"So why do you need me? I didn't hire on to be no test subject."

"Of course not." After a sip from his mug, Tir'Nngan explained. "You're aware of the hazards native to the planet?"

"Yes." Wedge elaborated. "Besides the lack of water and persistent sandstorms, you've got sarlaacs, krayt dragons---"

"Nasty things, those. Fortunately they seem to prefer canyons to open ground."

"There's Sand People."

"Ah. Now therein lies the problem." The Doctor rubbed a finger along the side of his nose. "My last senior guardsman ran into a pair of Tuskens which had unexpectedly circumvented my original security precautions. Naturally I've added to those since then."

        "I take it he came out on the losing end of the encounter?"
        "You might say that."  Tir'Nngan waved his nearly empty mug in Wedge's direction.  "I need someone strong and capable."

        "Why not one of your own people?" 

        "A reasonable question," said the virologist, not at all insulted by Wedge's prying.  "Too much familiarity in the ranks might stir up more trouble than it's worth in promoting one of them.  I've no time to waste on petty bickering and dissension.  It's dangerous and wasteful.  You're a fresh face and will have a fresh outlook on things.  Also, you don't strike me as the type who gets cosy with subordinates.  I like that."

        The more Wedge considered the proposal, the more he liked the idea.  Installed in that position, it should afford him the freedom he required to fully investigate this secret installation toward which they were headed.  If nothing else, he would definitely be able to cut and run, should it come right down to it.  And he planned to ensure from day one that he had more than one escape route.  In particular, an emergency contingency to fall back on, just in case.

        "Wasn't what I originally signed on for," he began, watching the scientist for any sign that he was misjudging the direction he was pursuing.  Tir'Nngan's face remained expressionless.  "But I like the offer, Doc."

        "Excellent."

        "There is one more thing, though."

        Now it was the Doctor's turn to grow cautious.  "Which is?"

        "My pay."

        "Oh, that."  Relieved, he tossed off the last of the juice.  Set the empty mug aside.  "Of course you'll receive immediate and retroactive upgrade."

        "Plus danger pay once we're on the ground."  True to Dorik's nature, Wedge haggled.

        "At the installation and not before."  Determined to pick every piece of Wedge's counter proposal apart, the Doctor bartered with all the expertise of the best.

        "En route."  Wedge amended the offer, hoping he was not over-playing his hand.  "That is, I take it we'll be landing at Mos Eisley?"

        "Of course.  My ship's crew has absolutely no requirement to be in the vicinity of the lab.  I'm taking only my associates and my personal guard."

        "Then it's settled?"

        Tir'Nngan hummed and hawed to himself before nodding.  "Acceptable."

        "Done."

        "Now then.  I'll forward the appropriate personnel files to your terminal immediately.  That ought to keep you suitably occupied until we reach Tatooine."

        "What about Clyth?"

        "What about him?"  Sight of Wedge's expression caused the Doctor to chuckle.  "All right, Dorik.  I'll see he stays clear of you.  Should he push the issue of honour that you've raised, however---Well, I'd hate to have to find another person to oversee my security staff."

        No more need be said.  Granted free rein to deal with Clyth should the Weequay pose an encumbrance, Wedge signalled his satisfaction.  He downed his juice in a single gulp.  Got to his feet.

        "In that case I'd better get back to my cabin and start going over my terms."

        Tir'Nngan extended his hand.  One more hurdle passed. Wedge shook the virologist's hand, turned and went to the door.  Outside, Kay-See waited patiently.  Now on firmer footing with the Doctor, Wedge glanced back over his shoulder.

        "Doc.  Can we dispense with the watchdog now?"

        It almost seemed as though Tir'Nngan would comply.  But then he shook his head.  "No.  I think you'll need someone to cover your back until we get to the installation.  I'll amend his programming, though."  The Doctor lifted a hand.  "Kay-See, identification mode.  Prepare for reprogramming."

        "Yes, Doctor?"

        "From this point on you will protect Anitol Dorik at all times.  Warn him of impending danger and threats on his life.  You will remain in his company, or immediately outside his cabin, until we reach the lab on Tatooine.  At that time your duties will be terminated and you will revert to your basic programming."

        "Yes, Doctor."

        "Ensure you inspect his quarters after every absence, enter before he does.  Immediately report anything out of the ordinary to Dorik and to me.  Is that understood?"

        "Understood, Doctor."

        "Good."  Beaming at Wedge, the virologist sat down once more.  "That should about cover it."

        "I suppose."

        Disgruntled, Wedge left the room.  This time the droid kept pace with him as he returned to his cabin.  Well versed in human emotion, it translated his body language and commented on his thinly veiled displeasure.

        "You do not approve of the Doctor's arrangements," Kay-See said when they were out of hearing.

        "No."

        "Strange.  You do not wish personal security?"

        "I see to my own security."  Wedge scoffed.  "Any spacer worth his weight in cargo watches his own back.  I don't need a droid to do that."

        "Why not?  Surely having an extra pair of eyes and sensors with capabilities far exceeding you own would ease your fears of being followed or harmed?"

        "Maybe.  But it also makes you lazy.  You lose the edge.  The survival instinct."

        "I see."

        Evidently the droid did not entirely comprehend what Wedge was driving at.  But Kay-See did not pursue the matter either once Wedge fell silent.  When they reached the cabin the droid entered first, completed its sweep and returned to the corridor.  There it took up position near the ceiling, out of the way.

        On his cabin vid-console, waiting for him, Wedge found the promised dossiers.  With nothing better to do before dinner hour, he sat.  When he keyed in his name a security response came up.

        'Better see what other little surprises we've stumbled onto,' he told himself.  And began reading.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

"RAPTOR has now entered the Tatooine system. All hands to ready stations. Passengers and all non-essential crew to your cabins."

Ensconced at his desk, reviewing the natural hazards of the rim world they were approaching, Wedge advised ship operations of his location. Then he returned to the topic on his screen, he went back over the particulars.

'Karsh: A patch of dry sand particles of the same consistency, with even, round sides. Forming over an area of near-surface ground water, karsh presents a hazard particular to this planet for explorers. Virtually undetectable from its surroundings, except as a slightly darker patch of sand, karsh has been known to swallow small speeders whole.'

"Nice place." Wedge mulled over his observation and switched off the viewer. "Sandstorms, drought, karsh, sarlaacs and Sand People. I'm surprised Luke lived long enough to get off this dust ball."

Beneath him he felt the ship's vibration alter. The vessel shuddered; they were entering the atmosphere. CRAG RAPTOR was of the largest variety of vessels that might safely make planet fall. Anything bigger, such as the average Imperial vessel or long-haul freighter, employed a variety of landing craft to transfer personnel and cargo. As the vibrating increased, Wedge frowned. He was wholly unimpressed with the bridge crew. Certain in his mind that most of them had come from deep-haul vessels that had never left space. It astonished him that the usually particular Tir'Nngan suffered such incompetence.

"Then again." As they descended toward Mos Eisley he dressed in the desert gear supplied by his new employer and considered the alternatives. "Maybe they're the best he can hire."

A muffled thud shook the yacht from stem to stern. Cursing under his breath, Wedge hastily grabbed the sides of the small desk and hung on. Several minutes passed. Finally, all was still.

"Idiots."

Wholly unimpressed, Wedge revised his assessment of the crew. Decided he would prefer being permanently stranded here to risking his life in their hands again.

"Ship has planeted, all systems to standby. Open vents." An uninflected, computer-generated voice instructed ship personnel on their assignments. "Third watch to duty stations. All rotation personnel for Tatooine report to your departure point. Quartermaster, prepare all necessary stores and vehicles for immediate departure."

Prepared to vacate the cabin, Wedge checked over his things, rummaged through the two desk drawers, and emptied it of his meager personal belongings. He made a final round of the cabin just in case. A last inspection of his tote and he strapped on his blaster.

"Mister Dorik. Report to number two port side hatch. Please respond."

Wedge depressed the call-button alongside the vid screen. "Dorik here. I copy that. On my way."

Tote slung over his left shoulder, Wedge clapped his desert hat on his head before he left. Outside, hovering at eye-level was Kay-See. The droid dropped down to shoulder height as Wedge passed it and kept pace with him, half a stride back of his left shoulder, just out of peripheral range. Under other circumstances Wedge would have been unnerved. But three days of the droid's constant company had somewhat inured him to its presence.

He forged on toward his destination. Nor did he draw aside in the two-person wide corridor. Off-duty personnel saw him, leapt back to clear the way and watched him pass with a mixture of irritation and resignation. In space or preparing to lift, they held sway. Dirt-side, ground personnel took precedence. General ship policy, even on an Imperial craft.

Upon reaching the lock, he discovered his small party of five new guardsmen whom Tir'Nngan had specifically hired to augment those personnel he kept on staff at his new laboratory facility. Wedge had never quite got around to inquiring whether or not the replacements were due to attrition. Somehow he rather suspected that was the case, given the purpose behind his own position. Now studying his squad, he rapidly assessed the situation and his military training surfaced.

"Keep out of this." He quietly advised the droid. "Unless they all jump me at once, that is."

"Yes, Mister Dorik."

His cari-sac was an encumbrance, so he passed it to the droid, then stepped forward to inspect his men. Kay-See withdrew to watch while Wedge waded into his new duties with all the dispatch of a fleet ground strike Sergeant-Major. In fact, he drew upon his own limited encounter with the Alliance's ground assault force senior non-commissioned members.

"Squad."

Three of the five immediately jumped to attention, displaying some form of military background. If only planetary militia. A fourth was a trifle slower and not quite as prepared to present a satisfactory impression. But the last individual slouched into line with all the care of a disinterested spectator. Back stiff with disapproval, Wedge made a complete circuit of the group. Their weapons were well cared for, but they had been left leaning against the opposite bulkhead in complete abandonment of ship's regulations. Only two of the guards had made any effort to present their uniforms in a manner that might have passed first day recruit inspection at any military establishment.

        "You are possibly the sorriest excuses for ground troops I have ever had my misfortune to encounter."  Wedge began, unimpressed by their turnout.  The fifth man sneered deliberately.  For the moment, Wedge chose to ignore the slight, determined to address and deal with the least troublesome first.
        "Straighten up there.  You.  Where's your visor?"

        "In---in my pack---ah, sir," said the first man as Wedge launched his personalised attack.

        "Not going to do you much good in there when we're out on the sands, is it?"

        "No, sir."

        "Then find it, mister.  Now!"

        Only waiting until the man hastened to his pack and began digging through his effects, Wedge moved on to the second man.  Again he raked a guard with a long, slow look.

        "And just where are your macro-binoculars?"  This guard twitched.  His head half-swivelled in the direction of the packs lined up along the left, inside wall of the hatch.  "I see.  Relying on you buddies to look out for you.  Very commendable."

        "Thank you, sir."

        Whether or not the man was being facetious, Wedge did not care.  His next words snapped back.  "But not very bright."

        "Sir!"

        "Get them."

        Now that he had dealt successfully with two recalcitrant individuals, Wedge was definitely warming to his task.  Four guards were watching him intently.  Only the fifth continued insolent and sullen.  With a small belt knife he picked at his fingernails, all the while watching Wedge from beneath lowered eyelids.  At the same time Wedge studiously overlooked the offender as he made his way along the line.  The third and fourth men had all their gear, but their standard of dress left something to be desired.

        "You.  Tuck in that shirttail.  Where the hell do you think you are?  Some local whore house?  And you straighten that belt.  Take it in a notch.  This isn't an intergalactic fashion show.  Put that cap on straight.  Drop the back flap.  Or do you prefer sunburn and heat stroke?"

        "No, sir."

        "Right.  You others, fall back in."

        Finally satisfied that he had their undivided attention and grudging respect, Wedge moved to the last man.  Through slit eyes his opponent sized him up, head still tilted down.  Then, as casually as possible so as to underscore his contempt for this outsider who presumed to be in charge, the man stowed his knife.  Eyes flat, displaying no emotion, Wedge continued his inspection of this hard case.

        Clearly the man had gone out of his way to pose a problem for their new commander.  Instead of desert-camouflaged gear, he wore tropical climate pants.  His shirt was non-regulation white---by Tir'Nngan's standards---and his boots were not soft sensible desert boots.  Rather they were high black boots, of the sort ship officers wore; very likely Imperial cast-off.

        "Name."

        The guard sneered back.  "Gant."

        "That's 'Gant, sir'."  In his best parade discipline voice, Wedge countered the insult.

        Now he had Gant's attention.  No other head turned, but he felt their eyes on him.  From the corner of his eye he noted curiosity and a trace of respect on their faces.  Only Gant remained relatively unconcerned.  There existed a need to make an example of this offender, and quickly, if he was to achieve control and respect from the squad.  Wedge waded in.  He pushed his face forward until he was nose to nose with the man.  Unwilling to back up so much as a step, physically or mentally, Gant leaned his torso back from the waist as far as he dared.

        "So, tell me," Wedge said softly, flipping his fingers across Gant's shirt, "what the hell you call this, mister."

        "Clothes."  Gant slurred back his answer, still impertinent.

        "Clothes.  Very good, Mister.  A comedian, I see."  Withdrawing, Wedge re-inspected the odd assortment of attire.  He allowed a touch of a sneer to curl on his lips.  "Those boots will prove interesting the minute you have to do any significant walking on the dunes, I should think."  He paused to let that sink in.  "I'll be interested to see your feet after a day patrolling the exterior of the installation.  I hear we'll be out where the dunes grow ship tall."

        Again he broke off.  Slowly sauntered around behind Gant.  The guardsman's eyes tracked his every move until he was out of line of sight.  Still unwilling to bend in any way, Gant refused to turn his head.  That Wedge could, and did, use to his advantage.  The minute he was behind Gant he leaned forward, placed his lips within a finger's width of the man's left ear and whispered.

        "And just how long do you suppose you'll last without a hat?  And wearing those pants?  If you don't get heat stroke after the second hour, your shirt'll attract every Tusken Raider in the vicinity.  Did you perhaps think about that, Mister?"

        Not giving Gant time to respond, Wedge moved on down the line, rounded the far end and came to a halt directly in front of the squad.  All five watched him intently now, though only four were prepared to take orders without hesitation.

        "Squad.  Fall out."  Wedge's head turned.  Froze the miscreant before he had taken so much as a single step out of line.  "Not you, Mister Gant.  The rest of you grab your gear.  And if you ever abandon your weapons like that again, I'll personally have your guts for musical instrument strings.  Do I make myself clear?"

        "Yes, sir!"  Four voices responded in unison, eyes locked to the front.

        "To your duties---dismissed."

        To their credit, they scrambled for their kit.  Conscious that their new commander was watching their every move, they hurriedly checked each over, grabbed their gear and headed for the hatch.  Gant stirred.  Froze when Wedge's gaze pinned him where he stood.  To the Alliance officer's right a hatch opened as one of his squad activated the controls.

        Heat.  Odours of sun-baked metal, spilled lubricants and sand poured into the passageway.  A thin veil of omnipresent dust, inhaled by the first in-rush of equalising pressure, hung in the now unmoving air.  Someone gasped, clearly not having expected quite this intensity.  Almost immediately the ship's ventilation system in that section went into high gear, vainly fighting to hold Tatooine's influence to a bare minimum.

        Sweat started across Wedge's body.  It formed in his armpits and between his shoulder blades.  Trickled unpleasantly down his back.  His primary advantage lay in that his back was to the opening, keeping the bright, reflected light out of his eyes.  Plus Kay-See kept watch there.  For once Wedge was grateful for the droid's presence.

        "All cargo has been off-loaded.  Vehicles are standing by.  The Doctor is disembarking."  Ship communications advised all personnel.

        Not altering his stance, Wedge noted the information.  Directly before him stood Gant, squinting against the brilliant glare of Tatooine's twin suns.  In spite of everything the man remained silent and surly, not about to give an inch.  It was apparent to Wedge that brute force might well be his only recourse.  Not the sort of persuasion he enjoyed employing or seeing applied, it could be the only thing this renegade understood.  By now spots would be dancing across Gant's vision.  He was definitely uncomfortable.  But during Wedge's Academy years he had once stood on parade at attention for two hours while the Emperor had inspected the troops via vid-com.

        'Now that,' Wedge recalled, 'was a decidedly nasty experience.'

        Footfalls announced the arrival of Tir'Nngan and his associates.  While the other two scientists filed politely past the tableau, exhibiting only mild curiosity, the virologist paused to inspect the scene.  It took only a minute for him to assess the situation.

        "Problems, Dorik?"  He inquired congenially.  Then pinned Gant with a glare, memorising every facet of the offender.

        "No, Doctor.  Nothing I can't handle."  Wedge clipped out his words.

        Was there just a slight suggestion of a sneer in Gant's eyes?  Wedge was unsure.  Whether or not Tir'Nngan saw it, he made no allusion to the problem.  The scientist moved forward three paces.  Halted directly in Gant's line of sight.  Clyth passed them.  Went down the ramp, sparing the tableau no more than a brief glance.

        "I want us to leave in five, Dorik.  Think you can wrap it up by then?  I'd hate to get a late start.  We've a long way to go."

        "Be happy to accommodate you, Doc," said Wedge congenially, never taking his gaze off Gant.

        "Very good.  Carry on."

        "Thank you, Doctor."

        Not once throughout the conversation did either Wedge or Gant back down or break eye contact.  By now the offender was sweating profusely.  The Doctor's arrival on the scene had produced a slight change; Gant had straightened properly to attention.  Evidently he at least feared the virologist's displeasure.  As their superior left, Gant's eyes followed him out.  His shoulders relaxed slightly, just the opening Wedge had been waiting for.

        Wedge Antilles struck.  Fist shooting out without warning he caught Gant squarely on the bridge of his nose.  Cartilage snapped.  A fine spray of blood spattered across the guard's face.  Down he went, as though butt-stroked across the head.  Feet straddled and ready should the guard choose to pursue the issue further Wedge nursed bruised and stinging knuckles.  With a groan, Gant crawled to his hands and knees.  One hand cupped beneath his nose, he stared in disbelief at the blood dripping into his palm.

        "You busted by dose."

        Unrelenting, Wedge coldly advised him.  "I'll break something else if you ever show disrespect to me again in front of the other men.  You may hate my guts, mister, but the Doctor appointed me to this command.  And, like it or not, you're stuck with me.  You'll obey my orders or suffer the consequences.  Do you understand?"

        "Yeah."  Gant got to his feet, wavering slightly, and wiped his sleeve across his face.  It came away bright red.

        "Yes---what?"  Not about to give in now, Wedge demanded respect.  Expected it.

        "Yes---sir."

        Taking two steps back, Wedge waited until Gant looked back up at him.  "Now, get your sorry ass down to sick bay and have the medic patch you up.  Then change into your desert gear and get back here."

        "Yes---Mister Dorik."  Still hesitant, Gant continued pushing the limits.  He slouched to where his things lay.

        "Double it, mister.  You've kept the Doctor waiting long enough."

        Wedge's voice flayed the guard like a lash.  And it got Gant moving at long last.  As the mercenary vanished down the corridor into the ship, Kay-See dropped down alongside Wedge.  The droid pivoted; all its electronic sensors seemed determined to view the results as individuals rather than members of one entity.

        "Fascinating."

        With a glare aimed at his watchdog, Wedge left the ship.  Immediately outside, between ship and docking bay tunnel, stood the squad.  Concealed in the tunnel shadows was Tir'Nngan.  Sight of Wedge emerging from the RAPTOR as though nothing untoward had just occurred, he nodded.  A shadow of a smile tugged his lips before he turned and headed out to the waiting speeders.

The remainder of the Guards appeared disappointed to see their new commander unscathed. No one among them dared look for Gant. Halting in front of the men, Wedge was pleased to note all were now almost regulation. At least in appearance and outward response to this recent turn of events.

"Now, who's senior here?" He asked that pointedly.

"Gant, sir," said one. Immediately knew he had said the wrong thing.

Wedge allowed two heartbeats to pass. Voice like ice, he repeated. "Who's senior?"

This time, the man swallowed. His eyes shifted nervously and he licked his lips. His neighbor hurriedly responded. "You are, sir."

"Thank you." Now Wedge barked. "Squad. To the vehicles---on the double, move."

His men broke ranks and went through the lock, gear in hands, at a speed that came close to rivaling Rebel ground assault forces scrambling to 'quarters'. Wedge paused, checked the ship. Gant emerged on the run, kit in hand and out of breath. Although swollen, the break in his nose was no longer evident. He went by Wedge without a glance. Satisfied that he had temporarily gained control of the situation, the undercover operative followed them out at a jog. Kay-See brought up the rear.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Outside the docking bay two speeders waited, their repulsors on idle. One was a standard, five-passenger run-about with climate control canopy retracted. The other was a large troop transport, Imperial issue. It took all Wedge's nerve to enter the open door of that vehicle, half- expecting to encounter stormtroopers inside. Only the three scientists, Clyth and a driver awaited his arrival.

"Good of you to join us, Dorik."

"Sorry for the delay, Doc."

"Not at all," said the virologist as happy as a child with a new toy. "These things happen."

Still poised on the step of the heavy transport, Wedge gazed back at the other vehicle. After a brief review of his guards' disposition he said, "I'd like to request a slight change in the status of the men, Doc. If you don't have any objection?"

"What exactly did you have in mind?"

"I'd like Gant to take first stint as your driver. Four on, four off, as relief driver." The Doctor nodded. Wedge added. "And Clyth and I will do turn about in the forward pax seat to ensure we remain on course."

When Pherkail would have objected to this suggestion, the virologist raised a hand, effectively silencing him. Upbringing automatically asserted itself. The botanist subsided. From the same world as Tir'Nngan, Pherkail had lived his entire formative years within those cultural strictures. Born to the middle class, he was, by upbringing, subservient to the other's superior breeding. Only the arrival of the Imperials at his lab shortly after Palpatine's rise to power had altered his perspective. But the 'Tir' honorific still produced near unquestioning loyalty in Pherkail, for all he answered to Captain Niant. Even his incredible achievements in his field had failed to completely shake years of careful sociological indoctrination.

"Very well. Who takes first ride up front?"

"I'll take the first watch---with Gant." Wedge advised him. "That'll give Clyth the opportunity to study the lie of the land."

"Sounds reasonable to me," said Sirdson lazily. "As long as we get moving soon. It's hot."

"Doctor?"

Wedge's inquiry brought a nod. He stepped back outside, shouted to the guards. "Gant. Front and centre."

Gant clambered from the five-pax vehicle and came to stand in front of Wedge. "Sir?"

"Better." Wedge commended with a short nod. "You'll be riding with us as relief driver. You're taking first stint up front."

"Yes, sir."

"Grab your kit."

Soon they were on their way, threading Mos Eisley's narrow thoroughfares to the port outskirts. Their cavalcade drew only nominal interest from the locals and transients. What did catch Wedge's eye, and give him pause for thought as they left the port, was a party of stormtroopers. That the Imperials still held sway over some of the rim worlds was a disturbing discovery. It left him wondering just how much news---real news---got through to the residents.

Dragged back to more pertinent matters, he studied the forward view. They made no effort to investigate the port proper. Rather, their cavalcade circumvented the outskirts and headed straight out onto the alkali plain. Although a road led over the summit their immediate route lay along an arid valley between towering stone ridges.

Beyond the mouth of the valley the real Tatooine greeted them. Sand dunes, greater and lesser, rolled relentlessly away to their right. To their left and slightly ahead of them a small plateau halted the advance of all but the highest combers. Soon they were skimming across hard pan. Fine drifting sand raised clouds in their wake that slowly dissipated. Wedge made the mistake of glancing at the twin suns. Even though his visor quickly adjusted to the added glare, compensation proved too slow and was only nominally successful. He blinked away spots that formed before his vision.

"Mid-afternoon," he said to Gant. The other grunted, disgruntled at being segregated from his peers. From his expression he was well aware the switch was deliberate on Wedge's part. Twisting to face the rear compartment, Wedge checked their progress with his superior.

"How long 'til we make the installation, Doc?"

Tir'Nngan looked quickly at his chronometer. "Won't be there before nightfall. Most likely shortly before midnight."

"Better hope the weather holds then," said Wedge. Between him and Gant was a small vid-screen. On it was the geological survey read-out. Curious, he tightened the overview.

For the most part of the daylight hours their route lay across the hard pan. They would bypass several vaporator stations along the way, Tir'Nngan informed them, only taking to the real dunes near the end of their journey. A roundabout itinerary designed to avoid most of the desert hazards along the way. Krayt dragons were a real possibility, hunting the edges of the canyon wasteland as they did. And sarlaacs were a very real threat, for all they tended to be found most often in the deeper sands.

Wedge traced the pre-plotted course. On the final leg of the trip they would swing around a promontory of the Jundland Wastes. A series of great rocky fingers clawed at the edge of the dunes. Something caught Wedge's eye. A solitary dot on the map.

"What's this?" With a fingertip, Wedge pointed to the undesignated point on the side of the map and queried Clyth who sat just behind him.

The Weequay glanced quickly down, before returning his eyes to the scene outside. "Anchorhead. Trade market for supplies. Locals use it and neighboring Tosche Station instead of going into port."

"Anchorhead operates as a vaporator distribution centre, too," Gant said, surprising Wedge by offering up information. "There's a couple of stores. One garage for speeder and droid repairs, and the like. Tosche Station's nearby, a meteorological outpost. Tracks weather patterns and alerts locals to large storm fronts."

"Been here before?"

"Once," said Gant.

But Wedge's mind was already whirling with the possibilities. Anchorhead. The place where Luke and Biggs had hung out as kids, and where Gavin Darklighter, Biggs' cousin, had grown up. Automatically Wedge calculated the distance. Best part of two days by speeder from the wasteland, following the foot of the promontories. Too far on foot. He shied away from that prospect. And yet---his eyes flicked across the canyons---there might still be a way.

"Time to change." Clyth's announcement broke across Wedge as the Weequay leaned forward, ready to replace him.

The guardsman needed no additional urging. Slowing their pace, he set the auto-pilot and left his seat. As soon as their drivers switched places, Wedge relinquished his spot to the Weequay. Clyth rested a look on him that told Wedge the other still did not trust him. Ignoring the bodyguard, Wedge went aft. In the rear compartment he found a comfortable spot in which to catch a nap.

Day wore on. In spite of the speeder's heavy-duty air conditioning, the heat grew oppressive. Sirdson complained incessantly until Pherkail threatened to turn Clyth loose on him. Only Tir'Nngan's cool discipline ended the potential altercation. Heat sapped strength until even Gant lost all interest in pursuing his quarrel with Wedge. Each break, when not required to drive, he settled himself across the compartment from his commander and subsided into a stupor.

Born on Corell, Wedge had spent a number of summers in equatorial regions of several worlds. Further conditioned by his years with the Rebel Alliance, he adapted to the heat better than most present. Only the Weequay appeared to suffer little distress. And he eyed Wedge thoughtfully. This was something no one could possibly have planned for. By right, Dorik would be all but prostrate with the oppressive cabin air. Yet Wedge knew that to fake heat exhaustion would prove fatal. Particularly with Tir'Nngan on board. He thought fast and arrived at a logical solution just as Clyth broached the subject.

"Seen some tropical climates lately, Dorik?"

Wedge nodded at that observation. "Had to do a long stop-over here a few years back. Decided to get some conditioning treatments after. Just in case."

"Lucky you," said Gant, breathless and limp in his seat.

"Some think to plan ahead, Mister Gant." Tir'Nngan's observation further irritated Gant. Prodded to reply he muttered under his breath. "Not everyone's got the credits to throw away."

If the virologist heard, he chose to ignore that veiled insubordination. Night closed in around them at long last and Wedge ordered the drivers of both speeders to switch to blackout running lights. Those were less likely to attract any nocturnal hunters. As a direct result of his decision, their progress slowed appreciably.

When Gant once more took the controls, he activated their long-range sensors. Wedge refrained from commenting. Out here the terrain was rougher and unpredictable. They needed what little help the sensors could provide.

"Doesn't it ever cool off?" His head rotating from side to side in an effort to loosen stiff muscles, Pherkail checked the internal thermostat.

"Be cold pretty damn soon." Clyth informed his boss. "Desert always like this. Holds heat for short time after sun goes down. Then too cold."

"Clyth's right." Tir'Nngan confirmed the observation. "Another reason I chose Tatooine to conduct this experiment. Lorean don't withstand abrupt temperature changes at all well. Too delicate. They aren't so inclined to get loose. Which makes them the ideal subjects for what I had in mind."

"Kind of expensive lab animals," said Gant.

Even Wedge concurred. Was amazed the virologist would use a lorean for experimentation. Once, as a child, he had seen loranni. Their neighbor's pet had reproduced and Wedge's parents had been invited to bring their offspring over to see the litter, obviously with an eye to selling at least one kit to the Antilles.

Soft, plump and furry, loranni were charming creatures. Tiny heads had barely visible round vestigial ears. Four short legs conveyed the roly-poly creature at incredible speeds over short distances. Patterned in beige along the spine and tail, the colouring faded to creamy white under-parts and white or black feet. With a little black nose and gem-bright, highly inquisitive eyes, loranni looked as though a toy designer had created them.

Although principally herbivorous, loranni also ate insects and small reptiles. Consequently they possessed a set of very sharp teeth which they could, and sometimes did, use to defend themselves. As Wedge's little brother had discovered to his chagrin. Domestic loranni had short tails. But Captain Antilles was quick to point out the one fact that prevented their mother from giving in to her children and buying one for a pet.

Despite two centuries of domestication, a litter occasionally produced a throwback; a kit with a series of bards concealed near the tail tip. When provoked, the lorean would slap its enemy, leaving a barb in the flesh. Poison sacs in the barbs discharged sufficient quantities of a virulent substance to sicken a healthy adult for forty-eight hours. They could, in fact, kill a young child or someone with a depleted immune system, in as little as a couple of hours or as much as a day. Time to death depended upon body mass. That fact alone made Wedge wonder to what extremes Tir'Nngan had gone with the animals.

"What the hell was that?"

Terror in their driver's voice sent Wedge forward instantly. Crouched between the two seats, just aft of the scanner and vid-console, he peered outside. Only the tops of dunes met his gaze ahead and to their right. Along their left loomed cliffs, black, featureless in the moonless night.

"Couldn't see it properly." The driver stammered, sweating profusely. His eyes darted back and forth across their path.

"What did you see?" Wedge wanted to know, and pressed for an answer from the Weequay when the driver did not immediately respond.

"Not sure. Just a shape. Large." Clyth admitted to that slowly. "Very large."

Both of them gazed at the scanner. But before either could say another word, a noise reached them through the vehicle's insulation. Hoarse, booming. The shriek raised Wedge's hackles. This was a sound he had heard Luke imitate in the mess on Hoth over a bet. Everyone had lost on that wager except Wedge and Han.

"Krayt dragon." The virologist proclaimed that from the rear, apparently unaffected. Scanner read-out confirmed his statement. "They hunt mostly at night. Shouldn't bother us. Probably heading up country after womprats."

"What about the other speeder?"

"As long as their canopy's up they'll be okay," said the Doctor. "Now, let's get moving, shall we? We're almost there. No need to waste time."

Just over an hour later they drew up in front of a large bulge in the cliff face. Not bother to wait for the others, Tir'Nngan released the door and stepped out. When he paused at the foot of the three steps, Wedge caught sight of his face. The Doctor looked as happy as a child on vacation. Interested as he was in viewing the installation, Wedge hung back. He waited for the last person to disembark before following.

Mist, visible in light spillage from the installation's open garage, drifted up the cliffs. There it was caught by huge vaporators projecting from the cliff face before it could dissipate fully. Several small speeders were parked nearby in a blind designed to conceal them from Tusken Raiders and jawas. The faint throbbing of machinery caught Wedge's hearing.

"Used the escarpment." Tir'Nngan informed his guests and new guards. "Built in and up. Best insulation there is against the elements."

"Vaporator farmers do the same," said Clyth, unimpressed. "Only they build down."

"That they do," said Tir'Nngan.

It seemed impossible to irritate or deflate the virologist now that he was on his own turf. He led them through a high security checkpoint. Introductions were made. Wedge studied the small room. Nodded to the guards on duty. Mentally he tagged each individual to the dossiers he had perused on the RAPTOR. Deeper within the installation he was taken to the primary Operations Centre. Locked into Cov-Ops training, he studied the room, its monitors and duty staff. Relieved, he sighed, knowing he could break into it with comparative ease, and out again. But for now he would stay and play out the cards he had been dealt in this ultimate sabaac hand.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Hydraulics hissed. Hot metal crackled as it cooled despite the glare and heat of twin suns. Early morning was always the best hour on Tatooine. Before the night breezes dissipated and day became almost unbearable. By midday no one in his right mind would be out and about unless it was absolutely necessary. Solo professed to prefer evenings, the consummate gambler speaking. Luke recalled sunsets on this rim world with melancholy. At least, he had thought so during his youth.

"I don't know, kid." Han spoke slowly, running a hand through his hair.

"I'll be okay, Han. Really. Besides, you've still got to deliver that last set of code keys to Bothawui."

"Sure. If you say so."

Luke grinned. "I grew up here, remember?"

"How could I forget?" The Corellian laughed. "Took you a while to shake the sand out of your ears, if I remember. A roll in the snow with a wampa, wasn't it?"

They both laughed at the reminder. Fell silent as one, their previous trips to Tatooine pressing upon them, making them uncomfortable. Chewie whined, not liking the sombre mood. At the base of the ramp Artoo added his own soft comment. Brought back to the present, Luke glanced at his droid.

"Sorry, Artoo," said Luke regretfully. "Not this time. You'd just be in the way. Besides, Han needs you to help with the installations. Right Han?"

"Uh, yeah." Their eyes met and Solo read the look in Luke's eyes. The Corellian quickly recovered. "Yeah. Could sure use your help on the next jump, Artoo. Isn't that right, Chewie?"

Not about to be drawn into this discussion, the Wookiee woofed, before fading back inside the ship. Unconvinced, but unable to countermand a direct order from his master, the astro-mech assumed a woebegone aspect. Stung by the droid's silent rebuke, Luke hastened to pat Artoo on his dome.

"It's all right, Artoo. I'll see you soon."

"Luke."

Han Solo extended a hand, wanting to say something, anything to dissuade his friend from pursuing this present course of action. Luke Skywalker shook his head. Gloves stored in his survival pack, Luke swept his cloak around his shoulders. It covered his black Jedi attire, settling gracefully about him. His movements were assured. Unhurried.

Images out of time over-laid the present. An old man rested a quiet smile on a know-it-all smuggler. Entered a docking bay to board his charter accompanied by a naive kid and two droids. Little reminders out of the past kept catching up with all of them far too much lately. Giving himself a hard shake, Han tried again.

"Just wish you wouldn't insist on going this one alone."

"More than one would draw attention," countered Luke. He left the obvious unsaid. Han Solo's presence would arouse far too much unnecessary speculation, not to mention sight Chewie. The pair would make it impossible to blend into the background.

"Okay. If you're sure." Doubt remained.

"I am."

"Got your gear in case you get stranded out there?"

"You know I do." A grin warmed his features, corner of the Jedi Master's mouth twitched as it lit up his blue eyes. One hand lifted he edge of his cloak, displaying the pack with everything he would need to survive in the wastelands. "Now quit playing mother and get out of here before someone realises this ship isn't what it purports to be."

"Take it easy," said Han. Added, "And may the Force be with you."

Aware of how difficult it was for his friend to utter that sentiment, Luke's smile widened. "Thanks, Han. Take care of yourself."

He was gone before Han quite realised it, his cloak caught close about him in much the way Ben Kenobi had done. Hood drawn down to shade his eyes, Luke moved through Mos Eisley's streets with all the confidence of the total native. Behind him rose the muted roar of a departing ship. The MILLENNIUM FALCON was outward bound for Bothawui.

Luke kept moving. Hood drawn well forward to conceal his features, he passed two parties of stormtroopers. The Imperials still held sway here, as on other rim worlds, he grimly noted. They glanced at him, but a touch of the Force convinced their subconscious that he was of no interest to them. He threaded a somewhat convoluted path through the back streets. Oppressive heat hung heavily in the narrow confines, breathless. En route he passed the skeleton of a wrecked ship, a passenger liner that had missed its drop point. It had lost its drive and subsequently crashed, with the loss of all life on board.

From the depths of its skeleton diluted light gleamed off eyes. Scavengers, sentient and otherwise, furtively studied him. The Jedi Master ignored them. At this time of day there was little he had to fear from them. His destination lay at a certain popular cantina. Two towering rontos muttered to themselves outside.

Cool darkness beckoned as Luke descended the steps. Years fell away. Only the bravado and naivete were missing. 'No,' Luke silently amended. 'Ben and the droids should be here, too.'

He side stepped at the foot of the stairs and waited for his eyes to adjust. As before, a band was playing to the right. There was the usual crowd of dubious characters. Near the rear, next to the band, Luke spotted a vacant cubical. He edged carefully toward it. A touch of the Force here, a nudge there, and he surreptitiously cleared himself a path. Sat quietly in the booth. The bartender sent a midget over to take his order. Luke kept it mild, to the other's disgust. But he got his drink.

Nursing the concoction, the Jedi Master studied the gathering from beneath lowered eyelids. Watched the comings and goings, the drunks who passed out and were dragged outside to clear the way for more prospective patrons. Midday came and went. As afternoon drew on, Luke pitched his hearing about the room; an ability still being refined. No mean feat on his part, it required considerable attention to pick out specific individuals. Finally he caught on one particular conversation.

"---just dropped out of sight."

"So would I if Tir'Nngan was lookin' fer me." Unable to see the speakers, Luke refined his touch. Located them in a booth two over, concealed by the high back.

"No, no. Listen. You got it wrong. Last thing he told me was he had a job. A good one, good pay."

"So maybe he decided to lay low. Or maybe that crazy scientist doesn't let his people off long enough to party."

"Doesn't fit. Behrail always sent credits home to support his old lady and kids. Got word from her yesterday. Nothin' s gone into his account in almost twenty days. She's real worried." Speech slurred, it was obvious even to the most unobservant that the individual was well beyond his limit.

"You want to go lookin'?"

"Out in the Jundland Wastes? You think I'm sun-touched or somethin'? Not on your life," retorted the concerned drunk. "I'll see the others about chipping in to help out his woman, but I ain't sticking my fingers into no zath fly nest."

"Count me in," replied the other spacer.

Now Luke had them pinpointed by their accents. A human, a prospector or ship crew, his companion was a resident of Ehapah. This was what he had come to discover. Hints in the Force confirmed that Wedge had somehow become entangled with the notorious Imperial virologist.

'What did Crix send you into?' Luke wondered and worried.

The possibility of Wedge being here no longer lay in the future. Whatever course of action Luke took from here on in would determine his friend's life or death. He slid from the booth and left the cantina.

Outside, he discovered the twin suns were low in the sky, though not yet approaching sunset. There were only two means of getting out to the Wastes. One was via dewback or ronto, a time-consuming prospect at best. The other was by speeder. His steps turning toward the rental agency, he moved purposefully. Every action warned off those who might otherwise try to divert his attention. Living on the fringe of society, pickpockets and slavers learned which individuals were likely targets. This stranger, his every movements assured, confident, warned them off.

Along the street leading to the rental yards, Luke encountered a party of jawas. The little scavengers were dickering with a merchant over some scrap metal they had brought in. Luke paused, drawn by another possibility, perhaps a better one. He changed his nebulous plans.

The jawas concluded their transaction. When they scurried off, the Jedi Master followed. Mounted on stolid rontos, the jawas left the port outskirts behind. Beyond the first ridge of low dunes stood a massive sandcrawler, home to an entire tribe of jawas. Once more the Force had led Luke true. On the outside were markings indicating this band was related to, or once had boundaries overlapping those of the group that had sold Artoo and Threepio to his Uncle Owen. Now he pressed forward.

Simple-minded creatures, the jawas were easily manipulated into accepting him on board their vehicle as a paying customer. He was not, however, permitted beyond the second level where the jawas' had their living quarters. Nor did he press the issue. No one he knew had ever professed to having been into that area of any sandcrawler.

Even the most proficient customer discovered bartering with jawas a tricky business. It took all his formative years' experience to discover they did indeed know of a place where humans had intruded into a place where they should not have been. The Force twisted deep inside Luke. This, then, was the region he should investigate. He pursued the bargain to it completion.

Once certain they would indeed convey him to that specific territory of the Jundland Wastes, Luke concluded the deal; his back-up mini-vaporator was exchanged for the ride to the location of his choice. Ignoring the stuffy atmosphere and near stifling stench of unwashed bodies and persistent sand flies, he settled in an out-of-the-way corner to meditate and sleep. Twice he woke to the touch of sly fingers attempting to divest him of his survival equipment. Each time the offending party fled with high-pitched cries the moment his eyes opened. The second time he shook his head, smiled to himself, rolled over and went back to sleep. Night came and went.

Luke woke with dawn, refreshed, his internal alarm warning him they were nearing his goal. Unsuccessful in their attempts to relieve Luke of any of his goods, the jawas could not get rid of him fast enough. In the long dawn shadows cast by towering cliffs that bordered the wasteland, the crawler ground to a halt. A small door opened in the craft's side. Luke stepped out.

The second he was clear, the hatch slammed. Groaning and clanking, the jawas' mobile habitat lumbered slowly away across the shifting sands. Left to his own devices, Luke made a slow turn where he stood.

Out here it paid to check out the terrain before moving. Sarlaac pits dotted the deeper sands, death to the unwary. There were other, more subtle means of dying. Karsh was decidedly nasty. Krayt dragons and womprats lived, hunted and died in those canyons. Sand People were everywhere. Add to that sandstorms and a dearth of water, and Tatooine presented an environment so hostile it never ceased to amaze Luke that anyone would want to live here year round. But they did, eking out meagre existences on vaporator farms, or prospecting what limited mineral resources lay in the Jundland Wastes and other mountainous regions of the planet.

Both moons had risen, one still low on the horizon. By the fading light of the dawn moons and rising suns Luke made out a narrow defile where ghostly fingers of moisture trailed up the stone. Drawn by that promise of water, he investigated. Found concealed, deep in a crag, gourd plants huddled around nearby crevices, jealously hoarding the liquid their rubbery roots sucked from the crack.

Luke sipped. Rinsed out his mouth and swallowed slowly. Then repeated his actions three more times. Certain now the jawas had not lied to him concerning this region, he returned to the edge of the desert. After inspecting the cliff face for a likely perch, Luke scrambled part way up the rock. Rolled up in his cloak, he snoozed until the suns rose, their light washing across the sky and chasing night before them.

Awake, he drank deeply. Drawn further onward, he hiked along the base of the escarpments, eating some of his rations as he went. Eventually the Force tugged him into another narrow defile. Here he hunkered down once more. Settled into a patch of shade, Luke considered the desert horizon. In spite of the rapidly rising temperature he remained relatively unaffected, shedding unwanted heat with the aid of the Force. Patiently he examined the wind and sand ravaged cliffs and the desert beyond. Eventually something caught his eyes that ought not to have been there. In the middle distance light winked off something highly reflective. His eyes narrowed against the glare.

"Jawas?"

It was highly unlikely a second crawler would be passing this way. The country further along was far too rugged for their unwieldy machine. The little scavengers preferred to stick to the dunes along the perimeter of the heights. Reaching into his small pack, Luke removed his macro-binoculars. As the image cleared, the corners of his mouth tightened.

"Transport speeders."

Three to be precise. One bore Imperial markings. Intelligence reports labelled the insignia on one of the others as coming from the yacht LASH: Aranil Ithom of Chandrila was here. Next to it, a larger vehicle with the CRAG RAPTOR's name emblazoned across its side. Identifying that second craft, Luke experienced a strange tug through the Force.

"What the hell are you doing here, Wedge. With them?"

Lowering his binocs, Luke stored them in his pack. Unfortunately, for all his concern for his friend, day was no time to be prowling the wastes. Already the rocks around him were radiating back heat. To remain up here was unwise even for the most accomplished Jedi. He slithered down to the canyon floor and set up his remaining mini-vaporator for evening. Then he located a handy spot beneath a ledge where wind and sand had scoured away softer rock just off the canyon floor, forming a half-cave. Here Luke settled, safely holed up for the day.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Engines straining to make up for lost time, racing the chronometer, the MILLENNIUM FALCON lived up to her name. She tore through hyperspace out-stripping speeds the creators of her now aged hull had never thought her capable of achieving. And dropped to system speed just outside Bothawui's perimeter. Chewbacca growled relief as indicators came off redline. Locked to a stanchion behind Solo's seat, Artoo-Detoo whistled a note of amazement and admiration. They had cut a fraction of a parasec from the record. Not that they would ever be able to officially log that feat.

"Knew the old girl still had it in her," Han congratulated himself. But covered his own concerns that he might have over-stressed the drive systems. Chewie rumbled a comment. "Well, get Artoo to run a systems' check before we leave. We ought to have time. This is our last stop and we're in no great hurry to get back to Coruscant."

Leia's face invaded his thoughts. A stab of guilt caught him. Han Solo quickly redirected his attention to the in-system traffic. Carefully he altered their trajectory so they slid by a tug hauling ore from the asteroid belt. Still shedding speed, they dropped toward the primary planet.

"Bothawui port control, this is Han Solo on board the MILLENNIUM FALCON." He transmitted in the clear. "Request permission to set down."

"Bothawui port control to MILLENNIUM FALCON. You are cleared for primary approach to the capital city of Thaer. Beacon now transmitting your landing instructions."

"Solo to Thaer Control. Thank you for your assistance."

Not one for small talk, Thaer's Controller cut connection. Han shrugged the moment aside. Concentrated on the task at hand. Bothawui filled the forward view port. Blue and white, green and brown as with most of the worlds which humanity had chosen to settle. Here the land-to-water ratio was a thirty-two to sixty-eight percentile. Far higher agriculture space than most planets. Consequently, Bothans treasured their fresh water supply nearly as much as the hard scrabble moisture farmers of Tatooine did.

"MILLENNIUM FALCON to Thaer Control, we are on final approach," Han said. An unnecessary advisement because they were tracking his every move. But it was still considered a courtesy. And here he had no reason to conceal his intentions.

"Copy that, General."

Announcement of his rank caused the Corellian to stiffen. His partner growled, his more sensitive auditory senses detecting the new voice. "You got that right, pal," Han said off-com. Added to the tower, "Problems, Control?"

"No, sir." A significant break in transmission followed. Then a third voice came on just as clouds broke across the freighter's shields. "Please be advised, sir. You will be met immediately upon arrival."

"Oh, great, just what I wanted. A reception committee." Again Han kept his comments to himself. Told the port control authority, "Thank you for the head's up, Thaer Control. FALCON out."

Chewbacca howled a complaint as they switched from thrusters to repulsors. Annoyed, Solo glanced at his co-pilot. "I know. I know. You think I like all the fuss they're making?"

Another grumble from the Wookiee was rewarded by silence. There was nothing either of them could do to avoid receptions and diplomatic functions. These days it came with the territory. But that did not mean they had to like it. Solo had hoped this last leg of their delivery run would be identical to the previous three: get in, exchange keys, reprogram the facility with Artoo's assistance, then out again. He desperately wanted to get back to Leia. But this time it appeared they would not be so fortunate. Not the best diplomat---like his Princess or her brother---Han resolved to be on his best behaviour.

A tiny shake rocked the FALCON as she settled into her assigned berth. That uncharacteristic motion reminded her crew that she would need a solid going over once they were back on Coruscant. One by one, Han and Chewie ran through systems' shutdown. Much of the wear and tear on the freight had resulted during their smuggling years due to their inability to apply correct precautions. Now, whenever time permitted, Solo ensured they did it right.

"Power down. Levels nominal. Switch to solar back-ups, Chewie, and take her off-line. Artoo, unlock and get aft. See what you can find on the power couplings and engine stresses then join us outside. Make it fast. I'll check out our reception committee."

Han slid from his seat. Conscious of his status as consort to Princess Leia, he straightened his clothing with several impatient tugs. "Come on, pal. Let's get this over with. We might as well find out what they're planning to put us through."

Warm rich scents filled the vessel when Solo released the ramp and opened the inner hatch. He was somewhat surprised to see Mon Mothma herself, alone, as he stepped out. She came forward, a tall, lean, aging woman. Auburn hair was heavily greying with time and the weighty burdens of state. Green-brown eyes held more than their usual level of concern.

"Madam, is something wrong?"

Chewbacca descended the ramp in Han's wake. Mon Mothma waited expectantly. Agitated, she glanced beyond him, alerting Han to the degree of intensity existing in whatever problem had prompted her to meet him. Agitation was a highly uncharacteristic display on her part, experienced diplomat that she was. She frowned when the fourth member of the ship's roster failed to materialise.

Her gaze returned to Solo. "I was informed General Skywalker was with you."

Han cleared his throat. Shot a glance at his co-pilot. The Wookiee tipped his head to one side. Fixed his partner with a look the Corellian knew all too well. He chose his words carefully.

"Luke had business elsewhere, ma'am."

To that, Mon Mothma made no reply. In its infinite, if questionable wisdom, the New Republic had placed the young Jedi Master on the unattached list immediately following Endor. As such, no one had claim to his time. He came and went, drawn by the tides of history and the prompting of the Force. Mon Mothma covered her exasperation equitably.

"Have you the equipment?" Still puzzled by her behaviour, wary, Solo nodded. She ordered them. "Come."

That command brooked no response and no argument. Fortunately Artoo emerged from the freighter at that moment. With a jerk of his head, the Corellian sent his partner and the astro-mech after the departing dignitary. Behind them, Han paused just long enough to lock down his ship.

A speeder bearing diplomat markings rested in the street outside the docking bay. Several passing pedestrians rested casually curious stares on the odd assortment of emerging individuals. A guard sat at the vehicle controls, his expression impassive. The minute everyone was on board, Mon Mothma tapped her driver on the shoulder. They drew away from the bay, headed toward a parking area beyond the landing field. Here they transferred to a waiting air-car that took them up and over the city.

Below them Thaer lay spread out. Streets geometrically aligned, fanned out from the central point. Homes were roughly the same configuration; the cooking, eating and entertaining rooms on the ground floor, sleeping quarters above. Bothawui had been settled by a religious sect with very strict notions of family planning. Conservation was a natural offshoot, evident in the number of parks. In the discipline which had gone into maximizing land and water resources. Pollution had never been a problem.

Bothans tolerated the spaceport as a necessary evil. Restricted the amount of traffic allowed onto their world. This explained why they had suffered so cruelly under Palpatine's hand and had been willing to give their lives for the Alliance. Except now they constantly harped back to their sacrifice and expected all manner of concessions as their due because of it.

"Now I'm free to speak," said Mon Mothma, breaking the silence she had imposed on the trio until they were airborne.

"What's this all about?"

"Please, General." Ever conscious of rank, she addressed Solo stiffly. "Let me tell you what has transpired during your delayed arrival. That you presumably undertook an unscheduled side-trip for General Skywalker explains much. And has, perhaps, worked to your advantage.

"Yesterday we received a coded transmission from General Madine, to be delivered directly into your hands. Obviously, as it was in the new codes we made no attempt to decipher it. This morning a hyper message capsule arrived. Also for you and General Skywalker."

"A hyper capsule." Han Solo's eyes widened, all pretence vanishing. Chewbacca growled. "You're right, Chewie. I wonder what the hell has happened back at Coruscant to light a fire under Crix's tail?"

"We shall know soon enough," said Mon Mothma dryly. Their vehicle banked. Came around to front a roof top landing pad. Flaring slightly, their driver set them down as lightly as a feather drifting to earth. Two guards leapt forward to open the door.

The building on which they stood was unimpressive and blended with its surroundings. There was nothing to distinguish it from its neighbours. To Solo that meant that it had been specifically constructed to that purpose. At his side, Chewie rumbled a question.

"I know, Chewie. I've noticed, too." He turned to Mon Mothma. "The streets are pretty quiet, ma'am."

Sadness filled the emissary's brown eyes. She turned away. A breath of wind stirred her short brown hair as she stared in the general direction of a wide boulevard and its neighbouring green swath. Han followed her gaze to a park filled to over-flowing with Bothans.

"However unwitting your delay," she said, "you have arrived most propitiously. Today Bothawui remembers its dead. The greater and the lesser known."

From the catch in her voice Han knew she was recalling a certain briefing not so very long ago. In her words he heard again her pained declaration of the lives lost to obtain plans and information that, as it turned out, had been deliberately leaked by the Emperor.

"We didn't know," said Han, uncertain exactly what else to say.

Mon Mothma waved him to stillness with a gentle lift of a hand. "How could you? It's not something they tend to broadcast. This is a private affair. Come."

Another quirk of Bothan society was the inordinate number of stairwells they used. Lifts were kept for rushed traffic and supply transferral. However, this time the FALCON's crew was escorted to a turbo-lift, primarily in deference to the stubby droid accompanying the party. For once Han was grateful to have Artoo along.

One of the guards stepped into the lift. Two of his companions took up positions on the roof on either side of the turbo-shaft entrance. The doors closed. After receiving a nod from Mon Mothma, the guard inserted a code chip into a slit in the lift controls. Keyed for access, the controls activated. They descended. From the number of times he swallowed to adjust the pressure in his ears Solo knew their destination lay far beneath the city streets. At length, they arrived. The doors parted. Outside stretched a long, featureless corridor. Mon Mothma stepped out. Her companions followed. Only the guard remained behind, stationed to one side of the turbo-shaft doors.

"Interesting," said the Corellian after a short backward glance. Chewbacca rumbled softly, tilting his head back and forth. "I don't know, Chewie. I'm sure there's gotta be another way out. Probably more than one. Standard Alliance procedure."

Mon Mothma ignored the exchange. Proceeding up the passage, she halted before a blank wall. This slowly parted, allowing her party access to Bothan Intelligence Corps quarters. Artoo wasted no time. He scooted across the room, located the correct conduit and inserted his interface. Seconds later he was trilling high-pitched beeps, his dome casually rotating, light rapidly blinking red and blue as he up-linked necessary data prior to commencing his portion of their assignment. Joining the droid at the console, Chewbacca lowered all seven feet of his gangly, hairy figure into a sitting position on the floor. Han joined them.

There was a tiny hesitation in the otherwise smooth operation of the nerve centre as the unlikely trio went to work. Someone brought out two portable decoders. One was embossed with Mon Mothma's sigil. No sooner was the mainframe updated than Chewie withdrew. Due to the delicate nature of the work involved in changing the hand-helds, he left the task to his partner. Tonal qualities for Bothan access required humanoid speech to key initial vocal encoding components. Time slipped away. Around them routine continued the pace picking up once more.

"That's it," the Corellian finally said. And passed back the last decoder.

"Your messages, sir."

A technician stood ready, two miniature chips in hand. Gingerly accepting them, Han glanced around. His escort wordlessly moved toward a small cubical. "If you would, sir?" He waited for Solo to join him.

"You may read them with impunity in there, General," Mon Mothma told him.

"Thank you, ma'am." Behind Solo, his co-pilot 'woofed' that he would wait with Artoo. Han glanced over his shoulder. "Okay, Chewie. Whatever you say." With a shoulder shrug to Chewie, Han entered the room alone. The door slid shut, cutting him off from the rest of the facility. On a tiny desk-like shelf attached to the far wall rested an extension of the mainframe computer's decode-encode digitizer and a vid-screen. Han Solo settled in the chair. Inserting the chip, he input his personal code.

"General Solo," Madine's features appeared on screen immediately, expressionless in a way only he could achieve. "General Skywalker. We have received disturbing news from Olgathir that Wedge Antilles has undertaken to expand his assignment to locate certain scientists known to have worked with the Imperials. Last intelligence rumored they were banding together on a major assignment, headed up by Tir'Nngan. I don't believe I need say further on this individual. Save that young Antilles has now joined his staff."

Han hit the 'pause' control. Stared at the screen and Madine's frozen image. "Holy mother of space. Nngan, yet. Wedge, have you completely lost it?"

Eventually he set the message on forward. Madine's paced speech continued. "The day of your departure one of our operatives spotted a lurker near your docking bay. Unable to detain the individual for questioning, our agent was forced to terminate them with extreme prejudice rather than run the risk of information being leaked."

"Cute." Solo reflected on the exact meaning behind that information. Fell silent again and re-prompted the readout.

"Two days later, Wedge's aide stumbled onto someone investigating his new quarters. Although she alerted Ops, Lieutenant Turlat was unfortunately killed in the altercation."

"Hoth's frozen hell!"

"We captured the spy, but they were aided in escaping. Before this person was able to transmit a warning, our people cornered them. Again we were forced to terminate the Imperial agent. However, we were able to ascertain their message was to go to Captain Horst Niant on board the star destroyer SPITEFUL, on course for Tatooine."

"Son of a sarlaac! Luke."

"Request you return to Coruscant post-haste."

"Forget that." Han muttered as he slid the second chip into the slot.

"General Solo. Reference my previous message, disregard those orders. We have just learned Tir'Nngan is on Tatooine. At all costs, you and General Skywalker must pull out Antilles. He may have vital information---"

Not waiting for the message to end, Han slapped the off-switch, grabbed the two disks as the recorder spit them out and tossed them into the disposal. He waited only until certain they were reduced to melted slag before he bolted from the room.

"Chewie. We're outta here." To Mon Mothma's startled face, he said, "Gotta run, ma'am. Artoo, hustle it."

No questions were asked. The Bothan Embassy Security Officer called ahead for the lift, air-car, and immediate clearance for the FALCON. From the rooftop Mon Mothma watched the ungainly freighter roar heavenward a short time later. And wondered.

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