by Haru Windsong
Sound of CHIMAERA's magnetic clamps locking onto the TIE fighter resounded through Jade's vessel. Her tiny ship rocked slightly as it was moved through the hangar above the floor and halted alongside the catwalk. Life-support disconnected from her helmet and suit, Jade set her flight helmet aside then went to work on the flight data recorder. Fingers flew across the computer keypad; she rapidly downloaded all information acquired during her second flight through the patrol zone into a tiny data pack. Before the technicians and mechanics arrived to open the cockpit, she erased all pertinent information to that flight from both the upper and lower memory cores of the fighter. Then she locked down the controls.
Release catches popped out. The canopy opened with a pneumatic hiss. Fresh ship air flooded the cockpit, erasing the stale odor of too-long confined sweaty body encased in a flight suit. Safety harness unstrapped, Jade stood. With the data pack concealed in a pocket of her suit, she stepped over the sill of the TIE cockpit onto the catwalk. She paused to stretch out the kinks.
"Good flight, ma'am?"
Most of the techs either refused to address her at all, or chose to speak only when spoken to. There were a few, however, whose civility Jade cultivated. And this was one of them.
"Uneventful," she said. Her scalp itched. Jade scrubbed a hand through her sweat-sticky hair.
"That's what we like to hear." Teeth flashed white in a deep tanned face, his natural skin colouring rather than sun enhanced. "Never can tell with these jury-rigged babies. Sometimes they get cantankerous."
"There were no flight control or computer problems that I was aware of. Either before, during or after transition."
"Great. Still." He frowned, leaned over the cockpit sill and tapped out a command on the keypad. "Just to be on the safe side I'll run a full diagnostic. You may need it again soon."
"No problem, ma'am."
Although aware Admiral Thrawn expected her promptly for debriefing after this, her second trip to the sight of the Imperium's latest defeat, Jade stubbornly turned her footsteps towards the crew hatch. She went through it, along a short corridor and into the change rooms. Time spent confined in the long-range TIE had left her hot, sweaty and decidedly uncomfortable in her own proximity. Divested of the flight suit, she opted this time to shower and change before meeting with Admiral Thrawn. The data chip accompanied her wherever she went, not once out of sight.
Paramount in the back of her mind throughout her ablutions was concern over irritating Thrawn with taking too great a liberty. Hurriedly pulling on a fresh change of clothes, Mara took the shortest route to the nearest com-unit. There she discovered the Admiral's whereabouts through a discrete inquiry. It only remained for her to make her way to CHIMAERA's bridge and his small duty office.
As she exited the turbo-lift, Jade was conscious of an unpleasant undercurrent. No one met her eye. In fact, the Duty Officer and Communications Officer studiously avoided looking in her direction after noting her arrival. Puzzled, Jade curbed an urge to question them. Instead, she slapped the release on the office door. The door opened. She stepped into the room.
Apart from his desk and a small transparency looking out on space to his right, Thrawn's office was as spartan as every other briefing room and work area on board his flagship. Seated at his desk, Thrawn looked up when Jade entered, unannounced. His expression told her he was expecting her, which did not surprise her. What did set her back momentarily was his lack of comment on her uncustomary tardiness. She crossed the room, suddenly nervous and unsure. His uncertain temperament at this moment rippled across her Force perception. Silently he extended his hand for what she carried.
Jade quickly tendered it. She stood at attention before him while he reviewed the contents gleaned from her in-depth second survey. Much as she longed to ask him about the bridge crews' present emotional status she held her tongue. She did not belong here. In fact, she was not a member of the fleet and therefore was an outsider. Which, truth be told, was exactly how she liked it.
At length the Admiral settled back in his chair, leaned his elbows on the desk. Blue fingers formed a steeple, stark against the white cuffs of his uniform. He tapped their tips against his lips.
"Speculate," Thrawn ordered her.
Mara spoke carefully but with conviction, weighing each word. Yet she knew she was trapped into retracing ground covered after her initial sweep of the area. The sour note in her voice refused to be controlled and she tasted bitterness with every word uttered.
"My best assessment is that the rebels launched this particular assault as a counter-offensive in direct retaliation for our attack at Coruscant. SPITEFUL was definitely destroyed; either while under attack or, more likely, Quirtelle scuttled her to prevent the corvette being boarded and captured."
"So confirms the data you retrieved at the scene." Thrawn acknowledged her assessment, apparently willing to accept that as gospel. "An impressive extrapolation for your initial search pattern, by the way."
"Thank you, sir. As you can see, I expanded it upon my return to the sector."
He waved aside her response and urged her to go on. "Yes, yes. Continue."
Quickly recouping, Jade picked her train of thought and outlined the remainder of her theory concerning the outcome of the engagement. "Further, it's my belief RUTHLESS was seriously damaged during the engagement but escaped."
"If they escaped destruction, why haven't they made contact with us yet? It's been five days."
As the Emperor had frequently done, Thrawn deliberately played devil's advocate. This did not make Jade's task any easier. Thoughts racing, she reconsidered all her personal speculation throughout the journey back to the fleet. Only then did she elucidate the other various possibilities.
"There could be any number of reasons, sir. More than likely their communications' relays have been severely crippled." Thrawn's implacable expression caused Jade to pursue the topic further. "Repairs while under weigh are difficult under ideal conditions."
"Of course," Jade extrapolated, "it is possible they are still being pursued. Conversely, if they are holed up somewhere rebels might be continuing their sweep of the area. That being the case, they would not wish to betray their position by breaking communications' black-out at this juncture."
Again Jade paused. Something in the Grand Admiral's cold red eyes caused her to capitulate and voice the remaining, worst-case scenario. "Or the rebels somehow managed to board RUTHLESS and captured the frigate and its crew."
Intrigued by her obvious reluctance to accept that particular outcome, Thrawn pursed his lips. Weight shifting forward, he rested his chin in cupped hands and studied Jade for several seconds. Uneasy beneath his intense gaze, she looked quickly away from the Admiral. Fixed her attention on a point to her right, on the star field outside.
"That possibility troubles you, Jade."
This was a statement of fact to which she retaliated without thinking. "Shouldn't it, sir?"
Her daring, spontaneous counter-thrust bordered on insubordination. Curious, Thrawn elected to overlook it. Instead he responded in kind. "Why?"
"Surely it isn't possible."
"Why couldn't it possible?"
"Because---" In spite of her conviction, Jade found she was stuttering and grabbed for control through the Force. "Admiral Boralle's too efficient an officer to allow his ship to be taken by the enemy. He'd destroy RUTHLESS before letting that happen."
"Hmmm." In light of that declaration, Thrawn dropped his gaze to the damning information on the computer screen before him. His head tipped slightly to one side, mirroring his reflection of the problem. "And yet, unfortunately ships do get captured. Boralle's command would not be the first to fall victim to rebel cunning and stratagem. Surely your studies under the Emperor taught you as much?"
Something in the way Thrawn spoke froze objections on Jade's lips. She reconsidered her argument and swallowed pride. To capitulate for the moment appeared to be the best course of action. At least until she was able go better support her objections to the contrary.
Jade's dissembling came as close to catching Thrawn off-guard as anything ever had. Eyes narrowed, he watched her face. Read the internal war behind her eyes. Disagreement lay close to the surface for all her seeming admission. He allowed one side of his mouth of curve up in just a hint of a smile but no warmth touched his eyes.
"Don't be too hard on yourself, Jade. Yours was an admirable assessment of a probable scenario. However, just prior to your return I received a communiqu from our people on Coruscant." One blue finger reached out. Thrawn terminated the data stream before him. The screen went blank. "As you hypothesized, our patrol ships were ambushed by a sizeable rebel force. During the engagement SPITEFUL was destroyed: whether by Quirtelle's hand or through damage sustained during the assault is still unknown. All logs concerning the skirmish are under heavy security seal. For the moment, impregnable."
His gaze unfocused, the Admiral mused over just how much to tell Jade. Judgement dictated the truth be told. Even so, he elected to give her an abbreviated brief to the one he had delivered to his department heads in her absence.
"To our shame, I'm afraid RUTHLESS and a large number of her personnel were captured by a rebel task force."
Beliefs shattered in one sentence, Mara protested. "But Admiral Boralle---"
"Doubtless Winn was incapacitated or killed during the initial assault. In any event, his crew was unable to carry out their duty to the Empire. I give credit where it's due. The surviving bridge crew probably did follow regulations and commenced the auto-destruct sequence."
Stunned, Jade demanded, "Then how could the rebels take RUTHLESS intact?"
"Our enemy had a trump card. Our agents have determined Skywalker was among the boarding parties."
"Skywalker!" The Jedi Master's name spat from Jade's lips. Skittered across Thrawn's desktop like a spray of acid. Her gorge churned with outrage. This explained the tension among the bridge crew.
Thrawn accepted her rage. Understood it. "Somehow he managed to deactivate the system without the security codes."
"With the Force. Damn him to all the Sith hells!" Infuriated by the news, Jade's eyes danced from side to side, attuned to her reflections. Loose ends of hair twitched as though blown about by a minor gale. The mad play halted abruptly. "Couldn't our agents get on board? Reinitialize the self-destruct somehow?"
"An agent did successfully board RUTHLESS at the Coruscant security space dock. Unfortunately Skywalker's tampering has effectively thwarted our agent's attempts to do just that. Since that time rebel demolitions teams have successfully removed all charges from the frigate. The vessel is presently undergoing refit prior to being re-christened and deployed with their fleet."
"Spawn of the Sith!" Thoroughly enraged, Jade broke her stance. Palms on the desktop between them, she leaned toward the Admiral. "What about the crew?"
"As yet we've been unable to locate their whereabouts. Meanwhile, our contacts are working on several leads."
With no outlet for her rage, Mara stalked to the single, tiny observation window to the left of Thrawn's desk. He watched her actions, speculating on what preoccupied her thoughts. That she wished to pursue Skywalker, track him down and kill him was obvious even to the untrained eye. But deep within Thrawn doubted the Emperor's tutoring had gone far enough toward that end. In fact, he had heard rumours that just prior to his death, the Emperor and Darth Vader had sought to take the young Jedi Master alive. For what purpose he could only guess.
"That will be all, Jade."
Satisfied he had everything he required of Mara, Thrawn dismissed her. She went without hesitation her lips still compressed with rage at the humiliation their forces had suffered yet again at their enemy's hands. Admiral Thrawn filed Jade's report, along with all the data retrieved by the TIE fighter's in-flight computer before, returning to his daily routine. Some time later the door chime interrupted him.
His second-in-command entered. "Sorry to disturb you, sir. Priority transmission coming in via hyper-capsule."
"Coded." Now he had his superior's undivided attention, Pallaeon told him the source. "Splicer."
Nothing altered in Thrawn's face, but there was no doubting the intensity of his interest. Or the importance of what the capsule might contain. "Bring it on board immediately. I want it up here, in my office, unopened."
"Yes, sir." Captain Pallaeon performed a regulation about-turn and departed. Hurriedly sorting through the remaining dispatches awaiting his attention Thrawn took care of the most pressing. The rest he set aside for a later time. His timing was perfect. Just as he finished clearing the deck, a stormtrooper arrived bearing the compact transmission package from the hyperspace message capsule. The trooper set it on the Admiral's desk, backed, saluted, spun on heel and left the office.
Thrawn locked the door behind him. Once the pack was connected to his terminal, he input two sets of codes and downloaded the information to that portion of the memory core now locked off to him alone. Only then did he key the de-scrambler.
"Greetings, Admiral." Unlike previous transmissions, this time Splicer's computer-distorted voice held none of its usual complacency. "First off, all our operatives have failed in three attempts to reactivate or destroy RUTHLESS through any available means. The rebels have the frigate too well guarded. I'm afraid the fleet will have to write-off the ship and its crew."
"Undoubtedly." Loss of the ship was serious enough. But Thrawn was highly displeased with the loss of one of his more competent senior officers.
"Further to matters on Coruscant, it may interest you to know the Princess has failed to attend several high level meetings. All Caucus meetings are presently in abeyance. Nor has the Princess been seen anywhere in the Palace. On the other hand her brother, who has been absent for several weeks, returned abruptly in the company of Antilles and his aide. Since then Skywalker has been occupied with the removal of the self-destruct devices from RUTHLESS. Solo's activities have taken an unusual turn. He and the Wookiee have been absent from their usual haunts. A peculiar situation at best when their freighter is shortly due for a shake-down flight following a major over-haul."
Intrigued, the Admiral leaned forward. "Now that is interesting."
"I have sent two of our best operatives to investigate this peculiar turn of events."
Before Thrawn could shut off the recorder, a signal flashed, indicating an addendum to the earlier narrative. Once again that peculiar, metallic voice delivered its report.
"Suggest you send out scouts to check on the activities of the three vessels you will find listed at the end of this report. They are apparently of considerable interest to Skywalker and Solo. Discrete inquiries made to Palace staff is that the Princess remains sequestered in her apartments, taking her meals there and delivering reactions and instructions through Mon Mothma and the rest of her advisors. Rumour has it she has taken seriously ill. It is my belief she may well be suffering the onset of pregnancy."
Thought of heirs to the New Republic's figurehead caused Thrawn to slap a hand down on the terminal controls in reflection of his irritation. Trapped by that inevitability, he swiveled his chair about and stared out the portal at his command as their vessels jockeyed for position around his flagship. Eventually he returned to the end of the report and the list Splicer had included in his report.
"I shall continue monitoring the situation and sending you the standard progress reports. Should anything further develop on this particular matter I shall, of course, forward another high priority transmission capsule. End of communication."
For the fifth evening in a row the man in flowing robes sat at an outdoor table at the cafe in Coruscant's lower city. His attire blended perfectly with that worn by the populace of the lower city. Fair hair flowed loose, curled against his neck just below his jaw line. Brushed his sideburns. A finger-width band of nondescript fabric around his forehead held the otherwise unruly locks in place.
Although seated in plain view of customers and pedestrians, the gazes of most passed right over him. If asked later if they had seen him, none could have attest to his presence at the restaurant. Only the droid who waited on him knew he was there. Manipulating its circuits so it, too, would not remember him, was far simpler and did not trouble his conscience as much.
Not far from him sat a young woman. Beneath a cloak of commonplace material it was possible to catch glimpses of far more expensive fabric whenever she injudiciously shifted her weight. The soft clinking of equally exquisite jewelry at shapely ankles, wrists and neck further cast her as an anomaly. Even her hairstyle was out of place down here. Nor did she seem cognizant of the whispers and stares cast in her direction. That she was being remarked upon. Many considered the possibility that she was an ex-Imperial courtesan in hiding and seeking a new patron or, if all else failed, a job.
In keeping with her role Flit had entered the establishment late, just as most diners were departing and the serious drinking crowd were just getting started. Before long she managed to ingratiate herself into the company of a rather portly woman of questionable repute. Now Flit's elegant false fingernails flashed with gem-glitter in the tawdry tavern lights. They traced delicate, expressive patterns in counterpoint to the dance of light from rings on several fingers as she expounded her tale of woe to another woman who appeared sympathetic.
The watcher in the corner hid a grin. The sympathetic ear was growing impatient with the lengthy recitation. No doubt about it, Flit's audience was about to leave. This was Flit at her best, something few had ever witnessed in the field.
"So now I have nowhere to spend the night." Outwardly oblivious to her companion's escalating irritation, Flit rambled on. When it became obvious the other woman was about to depart, Flit rested a hand on her arm. Clutched at her in desperation. "I don't know what to do. I can't stay here. If I don't buy something more than this frisz," she looked mournfully at the remains of her cheap drink, "they'll order me away. And I am so tired."
"I'm sorry, my dear. There's no space in my one-room flop, even if my mate allowed me to bring home some strange female." Firmly extricating herself, Flit's audience bluntly informed her she was on her own. The woman got to her feet. "Excuse me."
"Please! Don't go."
Flit's plea was so plaintive that had Luke been other than who and what he was, he would have been tempted to go to her aid. No one else in the patio area moved, but several heads turned. Sympathy was evident, yet that was where their emotions ended. They were not about to get involved.
"Some of us have to make a living," said the woman.
She left the plaza without a backward glance. In desperation Flit cast about her seeking someone else in whom to confide. Those closest looked quickly away. Rebuffed, she blinked away tears, rose from the table and left the cafe. Cloak drawn tightly about her worn but elegant robes she headed off down the street in the last known direction Princess Leia had taken over a week past. Luke casually rose.
Buildings crowded the tiny plaza, hemming it in on all sides. Towers overhung the streets fanning out from it, each base still innumerable levels below where they trod. Decay was patently evident all around them. Even plasti-crete walls eroded over time. And time and the elements had certainly had their way with the nether regions of the worldwide city; in some places more than others. Like here.
Windows gaped empty, silent, sealed against unwarranted intrusion. Here and there it was equally clear enterprising individuals had intruded. No doubt the interiors were well ransacked of anything worthwhile. Possibly even provided tenement for the less fortunate inhabitants of Coruscant. Not all of the buildings were derelict. There were plenty of signs declaring businesses open during normal daylight hours for residents and transients alike. Stores that provided subsistence level inhabitants with the bare necessities of life.
It was still relatively early. Trained eyes caught movement; sentient predators skulked in the shadows, haunted alleys and unlit doorways, watching pedestrians hungrily, sifting the odds. Eyes glittered in the darkness determining which passerby was the better mark. Several eyed Flit but rapidly withdrew as though something warned them off. Intent as he had been in following Flit, Luke realized someone else had left ahead of them. His Force senses tingled in warning.
A shadowy figure slipped through the poorly lit street half a block ahead. Someone who had not only been closer to the street front in the caf, and quicker to slip away in her wake, trailed her with some definite purpose in mind. Occasionally Flit's stalker was forced to pass through a patch of light. He did so quickly, his actions indicative of someone who had no desire to be spotted trailing Flit. If Flit paused to stare aimlessly in the window of one of the few shops lining the street, her shadow also halted. Concerned for her safety Luke closed the gap.
Unexpectedly the figure between them stiffened and glanced back. Luke hurriedly clouded their prey's mind just in time to avoid detection, and blended into the darkness of an unlit doorway. At length the shadow moved on. Something Luke discerned from his mark's thoughts caught his interest. He edged closer as the man caught up with Flit. At this distance he could hear what passed between them.
"Excuse me, my lady?"
With a little squeak as if in fear of the unexpected, Flit started. She looked back. The stranger behind her approached yet seemed to hug the building walls where the shadows were thickest. Luke's nerves screamed 'danger'. He sensed rather than saw Flit's left hand close around the haft of a needle thin throwing knife. However long she had been out of the field her survival instinct remained sharp. Unperturbed by her reaction, the man addressed Flit as though they were at an auspicious gathering.
"Your pardon, lady. I did not mean to frighten you. My name is Juthan. I couldn't help overhearing you voicing your troubles to that other woman in the cafe. Is it true you've nowhere to spend the night?"
"Well, actually---" Flit played the game out. Feigned an uneasy glance up, not quite meeting Juthan's eyes, then nodded cautiously.
"Come, come." Juthan soothed. He played this game well and probably frequently. "I mean you no harm. I only wish to be of assistance. A lovely woman such as yourself shouldn't be forced to sleep on the streets."
Flit faked a sniffled. "Well---I don't know."
Juthan continued. "I have a place---with two rooms, one of which is free, as it so happens."
As tall as Han Solo, Juthan was dark, swarthy. Set in angular features, curiously light green eyes caught the light and reflected it back. No expression showed in their depths, for all Juthan's broad mouth curved in a soothing smile beneath a hooked nose.
"Oh. I---I'm not sure."
Air of distress, uncertainty and confusion still evident, Flit shifted her weight back and forth. She twirled her right fingers around folds of loose fabric. Her hesitancy drew the expected response from the stranger.
"I am not unsympathetic." Now Juthan purred. "Won't you let me be of assistance?"
When Flit continued indecisive he rested a hand on one of hers. Her immediate urge was to yank away from the unsolicited touch. Somehow she controlled herself. Instead, a not entirely feigned nervous tremor made the fingers of her free hand flutter impotently in the air. 168
"Please." Uneasy, she begged understanding. "I don't work the joy shops and I'm really not looking for a hand-out, you know. I do have certain talents."
That faltering made Juthan remove his hand. He eyed her narrowly. "And just what sort of things do you specialize in, if not those of a courtesan?"
"Oh!" Worried she had overplayed her hand Flit gave a nervous laugh. "I've received extensive training as a hostess. And I can sing and play several instruments quite well. My previous---patron," Luke grinned at the delicate manner in which Flit inferred she had been a high-class hostess, "was quite particular that I learned how to prepare certain special dishes for which he had a particular liking: confections and other culinary delicacies. He professed an intense distaste for pre-packaged meals of any sort."
"Are you a good cook?"
She feigned embarrassment at professing her accomplishments. "Well, I have been awarded several certificates acclaiming my expertise with confections."
"A genuine chef. Now that is interesting." Her announcement had hooked the self-proclaimed employment agent.
Distracted, he temporarily ignored the young woman who continued to hover in the street. Overhead the sound of late travelers in hover-cars punctuated the night. Somewhere a kris-bat sent out a high-pitched shriek. Its shadow crossed overhead, breaking up pale light patterns. Then laughter split the air. An inebriated couple wandered by, leaning into one another for support and giggling whenever one or the other stumbled, jostling their companion.
So sudden and unexpected was the noise that Flit started in spite of herself. She recovered quickly, glancing about as though her uneasiness had grown. Which, in truth, it had.
"I---really should go," she said.
Not about to lose such a prize Juthan advanced. His right hand emerged from beneath his waist-length dress cloak, fingers curled to conceal something in his palm. For all the bulk he massed Juthan moved so smoothly Flit almost missed his actions. Just in time she shifted aside. The tip of what he held snagged her clothing between waist and arm. In perfect counter, she expertly trapped his hand against her side. The device he held failed to contact her flesh. Flit exerted herself, preventing him breaking free as he twisted in her unexpectedly strong grasp. Her reaction proved no less surprising and unexpected to her would-be assailant.
Juthan blurted, "What the---"
With no time to waste, Luke moved. He reached out with the Force and froze Juthan before Flit's attacker could break free. As shocked by the stranger's sudden immobility as she was caught so nearly unprepared when Juthan first grabbed her arm, Flit released her now unconscious attacker and leapt back. She stared past his shoulder just as the Jedi Master extricated himself from the shadows and came forward. Sight of Luke Skywalker eased her fears. She drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled.
"Are you okay?"
In answer to Luke's question, she nodded. "Yes, thank you, sir. That was stupid of me. General Antilles was right. I'm getting rusty all ready. And I've only been out of the field a short time."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Flit," said Luke. "He's got a special talent for ingratiating himself into the company of others when he wants. Almost caught me off-guard, too."
"You mean he's a Jedi?"
Flit jumped to the obvious conclusion, but Luke shook his head. "There are lots of other races out there with similar psi-related abilities."
Relieved by that explanation, Flit reverted to training. She walked slowly around their captive, examining him from every side. Her expert eye picked out several concealed subterfuge devices and weapons. These she removed and tucked into the decorative satchel, describing each to Luke as she relieved Juthan of his deadly hoard.
"Electronic pick. Needle shiv---great for eliminating targets quickly, silently. Close range weapon, though, so you've gotta be good at working in close to your target. That takes guts. Standard blaster, two throwing knives and---what have we here?" Lastly, she worked open the fingers of Juthan's right hand. Delicately extracted what their prisoner held. "Now this is particularly nasty."
Flit held up what could only be a hypodermic. Eyes narrowed, Luke peered at it. Out loud she speculated. "I wonder what's in it?"
"Could be a sedative."
"I'm not sure."
"I'd gamble for the probability. Particularly since he seemed far more interested in taking you alive than injuring or killing you." He took it from her. "We'll get it analyzed when we get him back for questioning."
"Just how are you planning to accomplish that, sir? Carry him?"
"Don't worry. It's all arranged." A tight smile, lacking any humour, caught at his mouth. Sight of it sent a chill up Flit's spine. Luke pulled out a com-link. "Wedge? You there?"
"Yeah, Luke. Got something?"
"I believe so. Lock on to my signal and come and get us. Three for pick-up."
While waiting for their ride in the quiet of that low city street every ounce of Flit's survival instinct resurrected. Subtle noises caused her to strain to identify them. Not even the Jedi Master's self-assurance was sufficient to make her relax. Feral creatures lurked in the darkness, sentient and otherwise. Loose bits of trash fluttered about on the ever-present breeze, rustling like living things. And all around them the empty buildings watched with haunted windows agape to under-city, hard scrabble subsistence existence.
During the wait their captive woke. He remained frozen, eyes blinking. Clearly he was aware of everything that transpired but was incapable of moving. An unnerving sight from which Flit kept her eyes averted. Sweat formed a fine sheen over his features. Green eyes, once flat and emotionless, now reflected a host of emotions back at them. Most obvious was fear.
A large shadow passed over the trio, accompanied by the high whine of a hover-car. For all her readiness, Flit shrank two steps towards the shadows before halting. Luke Skywalker lifted a hand, easing her anxiety. The vehicle braked sharply, pivoted on its axis overhead and settled gracefully to the ground nearby. The rear side door on the near side opened automatically. Wedge emerged, joined them. He studied Juthan narrowly, jaw taut, his eyes hard, measuring.
"This the one?"
"Quite probably," said Luke, his voice devoid of emotion.
There was no further affirmation. Wedge clamped binders on Juthan. "Might as well get him back for interrogation."
Immediately the Jedi Master released his hold on his captive, Juthan staggered slightly. A gasp of terror that may or may not have been feigned escaped their prisoner. For the moment he was apparently too frightened even to attempt to flee. Instead, shoulders hunched, he stared at them.
"What did you do to me? Let me go. Who are you? What do you want?"
"Mister," said Wedge, unrelenting, "we'll be asking the questions. Now get moving. Flit. Take the controls."
She nodded. Wedge took hold of one of Juthan's arms and hauled their protesting prisoner toward the hover-car. When Juthan dug in his heels and appeared on the verge of shouting for help, Wedge drew his blaster. A prod from the muzzle urged their reluctant prisoner into the vehicle. This time Juthan went without further physical encouragement. Flit slid behind the controls while Luke and Wedge flanked the prisoner in the rear compartment.
Throughout the trip to Covert Operations Luke and Wedge presented expressionless facades to their captive. Both refused to speak to Juthan at all when he attempted to question them or demanded his legal rights. Nor was Juthan able to see outside. All windows in the aft compartment were now opaque. A shield raised between forward and rear areas of the craft completed the terrifying atmosphere of anonymity. By maintaining a light but firm restraint on their prisoner, Luke gauged their progress through the Force.
Juthan eyed his captors warily. For all his outward appearance of being cowed, Luke sensed this was an act; at least in part. It was easy to read the thoughts flitting through Juthan's mind as he sized them up and considered the odds on escaping. Evidently he found his options thin at best for the present. And that realization stirred genuine fear within the man for the first time since his miscalculation in his attempt on Flit.
Beneath them the hover-car banked, slowed and rapidly settled. As pre-planned, they disembarked right into a side entrance, allowing their prisoner no outside view of his surroundings. They passed up a corridor whose flat blank metal walls, floor and ceiling betrayed nothing as to their whereabouts. Two-thirds of the way up an opening broke up the blank facade.
Wedge and Luke thrust Juthan inside and locked the door. Left inside the tiny room, empty of all furnishings and only dimly lit, real fear took hold. Anyone would recognize it for what it was: a standard interrogation cell. Shouts resounded back at them through the closed door, muffled and barely discernable. Juthan threw himself repeatedly against the door.
"Hey! What's going on here? Why are you doing this? Where am I? Who are you people?"
They ignored the demands. Someone approached. Luke and Wedge turned to greet the new arrival. "Is that our suspect?" Madine inquired.
"I believe so," said Luke.
"Good. Now we let him stew for a while."
"Think he'll break?"
"Doubtful," said Madine to Wedge's question. "At least, not immediately."
"He's definitely a professional at what he does," said Luke. He proffered the items Flit had recovered from Juthan.
Madine looked each article over carefully and nodded thoughtfully. "I think we'll give him a little longer than usual. He'll be closely monitored. Time with absolutely no outside contact can cause even the most hardened radical to lose their certainty. We need every edge we can get before we attempt to crack this callali nut."
Luke considered Madine's statement. His teeth pulled at the inside of his mouth. Then, "How are Han and Lando coming along with their investigation?"
"I'm not sure. Can't get a thing out of either of them. And the Wookiee's not much better."
"You'll find me with them when you want me."
With a curt nod, Madine relieved the Jedi Master of the items taken from Juthan and disappeared back the way he had come. Lips pursed, Wedge aired his observations.
"Looks like this entire affair's got Madine in a real knot."
"With good reason," said Luke. "As far as he's concerned Leia shouldn't have been able to give her guards the slip the way she did."
"But she's your sister. And Jedi."
"True, though marginally so. Which isn't a good thing." Luke explained soberly. "But Crix doesn't entirely believe in the Force. Any more than Han."
Wedge avoided that reference to Leia's apparent ongoing avoidance of applying herself to learning to use the Force and why that was. "Han Solo never believes in anything until it's bitten him in the---"
The Jedi Master cut him off. "Yeah. Well. We both know Han."
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Luke grinned at his old wingman. A short bark of sarcasm scaped Wedge, his only admission to knowing his fellow Corellian, now ex-smuggler, all too well. Though perhaps not as well as Luke Skywalker.
"Let's get back to the suites and see what they've come up with so far."
"I only hope they've managed to keep Artoo out of trouble," said Luke, falling in step with Wedge.
His friend countered as they hurried through Cov-Ops. "It's not Artoo I'd worry about."
Along one of the enclosed passages connecting it to the Palace they located a turbo-lift, went up three floors, exchanged lifts and continued to the Royal apartments. There was no need for Wedge to say further concerning Threepio. Both were all too aware of the protocol droid's penchant for irritating Solo to the brink of violence. The worse punishment Han was permitted to stoop was switching off Threepio. However, there where times when the Corellian threatened to either scrap See-Threepio or ship him off to the Kessel spice mines. Either way, in a sentient such actions would have been judged mental abuse. The lift hissed to a halt at the level of the Royal apartments. They disembarked and headed for Leia and Han's quarters.
Upon hearing the door, Lando looked up. He waved a hand at them and returned his attention to the computer screen. Han rose and met his brother-in-law halfway across the room.
"Did you catch him?"
"We caught someone," said Luke, too cautious from experience to tell Solo he was positive they had the right person. "Flit'll be up as soon as she's turned in the vehicle and changed."
"Great. Now we're definitely getting somewhere." Exuberant over the possibility they actually had caught his wife's kidnapper, Han gestured to Lando. "And we have three good leads."
"Just three?" That did sound promising. But Wedge, like Luke, remained slightly skeptical.
"Yeah. Come see what you think."
As they joined Lando at the computer, he broke off what he was doing to explain. "Right now I'm eliminating all the others through one last cross-check. Looks pretty certain we're on to something, though."
"Okay." As Lando worked Luke examined the information on the screen. He paged down, scanned each element and cross-referenced it in the data file. "Did you get all this with Threepio's help?"
The response made Luke check the room. He frowned. "Where are the droids?"
"Out getting us something to eat," said Han.
The tight-lipped manner in which he voiced that explanation told Luke volumes about the stress his friend was under. And the incredible restraint Han must have used not to resort to his usual tactics with Threepio when the protocol droid became too irritating for patience.
Alarmed, Wedge blurted, "You sent them out unsupervised."
"You think we're crazy?" Solo shook his head. "I sent one of the guards and Chewie along with them."
"Wouldn't it have been wiser to simply order the food up?"
In response to Wedge's inquiry, Han glowered. "If I had to put up with that interfering, self-opinionated, mobile scrap pile---"
"Easy, Han." Luke realized that, given the present situation, Han had acted out of sheer self-defense. "You know Threepio means well."
"Sure. Sure. It's just---he never shuts up."
"He's as worried as the rest of us about Leia."
Behind them the suite door opened. They turned as one. Framed in the doorway were Threepio, Artoo and a catering droid. Chewbacca towered behind them. Arms gesticulating, See-Threepio announced, "Master Solo. I'm dreadfully sorry we've taken so long. We did manage to find almost everything you asked for. However, I'm afraid the kitchen is quite unable to reproduce the feli-fal---"
"You sent Threepio out for feli-fal?"
Astonished, Wedge stared at Han. It was incredible that anyone would attempt to get a reputable cooking staff such as the Palace employed to provide a highly noxious dish fashioned principally from curdled nerf milk. Although whey from most other ruminants could be substituted, it was a so-called delicacy that even the most discriminating of nerfherders seldom consumed. In fact, only a humanoid with high lactose intolerance, or Hammerheads, actually professed a taste for the dish. From his youth Wedge continually maintained it was an acquired taste that he planned never to acquire. And he was not alone in his sentiment.
Certainly Solo could not have acquired a liking for it. Suspicious, he glanced at Han. Something that might have been laughter flickered in the freighter pilot's eyes in response to his reaction. Mildly outraged at being caught out, Wedge turned away.
Luke Skywalker merely shook his head and pointed to a nearby table. "Put the food down there, Threepio."
"Of course, Master Luke. Artoo."
Artoo waddled into the room, beeping and tootling as he carefully negotiated the steps. With Threepio assisting, the trays were carefully eased onto the appropriate table. Satisfied, Luke looked back at the computer screen.
"All right. Let's see what we've got on side-by-side display," Luke murmured. And commanded the terminal to do just that. Behind him the droids set out dishes, then stepped back so the sentient beings in the room could make their own selections from the meal provided. Chewbacca took a handful of sliced meat. Positioned behind the humans so he could see over their shoulders, he munched and watched with equal attention given to food and data stream.
Pictured in three columns on the screen before Luke, images of the ships at the top of their respective statistics were Han and Lando's choices. Each flew under different registration, as diverse in origin as was conceivably possible. Although he could not fault the selections, the more Luke Skywalker inspected the vessels, the more he dismissed the notion that any of the three were involved. There was nothing definite to support his feelings concerning their extrapolations, only a gnawing certainty that they were on the wrong trail, and that those responsible were banking on them drawing just those conclusions. He turned to his companions.
"What parameters did you use to weed out those not of interest to us?"
"Why---" About to respond, Han met Luke's eye and instantly bit back his questions. He joined his brother-in-law at the terminal, food forgotten. "We started with military vessels and known allies. Ships we know are loyal to the New Republic."
Lando took up the explanation. "Next we added to those slow freighters which habitually ply the inner systems. Then we dismissed all ships whose activities for the last six years have avoided all Imperial and affiliated worlds."
As logical as their extrapolation was, Luke returned his attention to the initial file. Here the compilation of ships numbered over thirty. Not surprising, considering the amount of traffic in and out of Coruscant on a daily basis.
"We also took into account all diplomatic vessels---"
Now Luke's attention caught on something. He hurriedly reconstructed the initial list. Skimming through it, his fingers flew over the keypad as he ordered the computer to pull all diplomatic ships and those with political ties. Intrigued, the others grouped tightly behind him. Even Threepio remained silent, watching the Jedi Master at work. Eventually Luke had compiled everything he wanted.
In the course of extracting his choices he unconsciously slipped onto the chair in front of the console. Now his head tipped forward until the ends of his fair hair swept around his cheekbones, accentuating the peculiar light in his eyes. Wedge reached out. Also drawing up a chair, he edged in until he was seated at Luke's left elbow. While Luke worked Wedge passed him a drink. Intent upon his investigation, the Jedi Master idly sipped as he perused the unlikely trail. Han flanked Luke on the other side while Lando hovered at his left shoulder.
After several minute of silence Han prodded his brother-in-law. "Mind explaining what exactly it is you're looking for?"
"The Calamari have a saying." Luke reiterated sagely. "If you wish to divert the enemy from discovering the truth, you throw out bait into a cross-current to draw them in the opposite direction to that which you've taken."
"I get you." Eagerly leaning past Luke, Lando inspected the diplomatic vessels. He rapidly skimmed through the ships, pulling those that had gone out-system and returned soon after. Nor did the Jedi Master attempt to stop him. For his part, in something of an unexpected move, Luke selected two freighters.
"Why'd you pull them, kid?"
At Han's question, Luke directed their attention to the ships' schedules. "There are anomalies in their itineraries. See?"
Only after several minutes inspecting the itineraries drawn from the freighters' logs did Han pick up on just what had his brother-in-law's attention. One ship, NGURO, elected to layover at a world whose loyalties was suspect. When considering time was credit, and freighter crew survival was contingent upon the speed with which they loaded, delivered and unloaded cargo at each end of their runs, this action was curious in itself.
The second freighter, INTERPALADIUM, had diverted from its usual path to swing past a planet firmly nestled in the no-man's land between the core worlds still staunchly loyal to the old Empire and the loose-knit New Republic planetary alliance. Also in port at that time was NGURO. After that stopover INTERPALADIUM had headed out to a world with which Flit was all too familiar.
In the years preceding the battle at Yavin Four, Ghorman's ruler had suffered an untimely end at the hands of the Emperor's envoy. To this day the Rebel Alliance's actions, which had brought about his demise was a fact known only to the upper echelon. In his studies of back-files several years earlier, Han had inadvertently stumbled across the information. Solo peered at the list of supplies and goods unloaded there.
"Mandorel. Why the hell would they be unloading grain supplies there?"
Unable to restrain herself, Flit followed that soft exclamation with a muttered an oath. Wedge looked up at her. "You've been there?"
This time she made no effort to prevaricate. "I should say, sir. It's where I picked up the information I passed to you the first time we met. And they need grain on Mandorel about as much as Tatooine needs sand."
"Or Hoth needs snow," said Solo.
"Try comparing it to Kessel needing raw spice." Flit quipped, amazed that she could find humour in this time and place.
Not about to be distracted, Wedge commanded her. "All right. Brief us."
Computer temporarily on hold, they faced her. More nervous under scrutiny than she was working covert operations, Flit swallowed heavily. Found she dared not look at any of the New Republic's heroes while she spoke. Her eyes performed a dance across the inanimate objects in the room beyond her audience.
"Most of what I know you can find in any Galactic Travelers Guide."
"Just the high points," said Han, his arms folded across his chest. At his back, Chewie whined softly. Shaggy head tipped to one side, his blue eyes were a shade darker than normal.
"Sure." She blinked rapidly. Tongue momentarily pressed against the back of her upper teeth she organized her thoughts. "Mandorel's warm from polar-regions to equator. In fact, because of its placement and lack of notable axis tilt, there's almost no snow. Except on the highest mountains. And make no mistake. Mountains on Mandorel are pretty spectacular." Heads nodded. Flit continued. "Little tidal motion in her oceans, but there are some serious storms. There are three major landmasses, plus five smaller, and a whole string of islands between. When storms build, the adjacent region turns muggy right before the weather breaks. You sweat a lot.
"Although settled early on in the Old Republic's second migratory wave, it wasn't over-built. In fact, the Jedi were responsible for helping create a mandate, which prevented over-populating the planet. Mandorel, like Olgathir, was considered more important for its unique flora and fauna. Later on it proved an ideal world for breeding and maintaining endangered species for other planets with similar geo-spheres."
"So why did they go over to the Imperials?"
"Figures." Wedge snorted, angry.
"What's wrong with credits?" Han glared down at him, on the defensive.
"Nothing," said Wedge, "in moderation. But too many people get greedy. And greed begets greed."
"Which, more often than not, begets violence," said Luke sagely.
There was no arguing with that. Defeated, Han leaned back against his partner. The Wookiee rested a hand on his shoulder, sympathetic but not entirely in agreement with his friend's annoyance over being caught out. It had been greed, after all, which had landed them firmly in the laps of the Rebel Alliance.
"Sorry, Flit," said Luke. "Please continue."
Unconsciously rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, Flit thought back over indoctrination she had received prior to her trip to Mandorel. Her last off-world mission seemed a lifetime away, even though only weeks lay between then and now.
"Once the Empire took control, Mandorel went the way of Coruscant, but in reverse. As I told you earlier, sir," Flit nodded to her superior. "They concentrated on agriculture to the detriment of the wildlife. What remains now is largely in a few scattered preserves. Many of the large estates built prior to that time were---appropriated by the Empire about fifteen years ago from their original owners." In that assessment Flit demonstrated far more tact than was common for her. "They were distributed among a number of junior, promising officers."
Unimpressed, Lando blandly observed, "As reward and to encourage them to continue their pursuits supporting the Imperial terror campaign, I suppose."
"Yeah, well. We all know how that works," said Han. His eyes never left Flit.
"Some of the Imperial officers turned their estates into work camps. Political prisoners who weren't considered a serious threat to the Empire landed there working on the farms, in the fish plants and sea-mines."
"Anyone in particular we should know about?"
In response to the Jedi Master's question, Flit nodded. "Possibly. Niant had a large estate on Mandorel."
Solo turned to Luke. "Isn't he the guy you said you and Wedge ran into on Tatooine?"
A weighty pause ensued. When Luke failed to respond, uncomfortable, Wedge admitted. "Yes."
Out loud Lando mused. "I wonder what happens to those estates when the owner kicks the big one?"
"More than likely it's passed on to his successor."
"The estate's aren't our concern," said Wedge, determined to divert the others from a potentially dangerous topic. He encouraged his aide to complete her mini-brief. "Is there anything else about the place you can think of that might be useful to us, Flit?"
"Just that Tshukon commissioned a bio-sphere on one of the smaller islands. In fact," Flit thought back, "it's probably finished by now."
"Tshukon. The Gamorrean collector?"
Mildly surprised that Solo knew of the Gamorrean, Flit gave a short nod. "That's him."
"What the hell would he be doing in the thick of Imperial dominated space on Mandorel?"
Mention of Tshukon stirred something deep inside Luke. He swung his chair back to face the computer and inspected old log records from the freighter under examination. No one except Artoo noticed the Jedi Master's preoccupation, everyone else being caught up with discussing Tshukon's predilection for cornering the market on anything that could be considered rare, unique, or one-of-a-kind. While they talked, Luke worked.
"Way I heard it through my contacts," Flit said, "he was constructing it to hold a very special collection."
"What kind of collection?" Lando wanted to know.
Flit shrugged. "Sorry, sir. Your guess is as good as mine. I don't have the contacts anymore."
Suddenly Han realized his brother-in-law was not part of the conversation. "Hey, Luke. Got something?"
"I'm not entirely certain, but---" As he enhanced a segment of the screen, Luke directed the Corellian to several entries from INTERPALADIUM. "Look. Here. And here."
"Hmmm. Could be they were running black-market supplies for Tshukon."
"Maybe. But this last trip; see how they slid out during the night from Ghorman rather than waiting for their standard jump time? And here, all other trips were short turn-around times; in, unload, pick up payment and next load, then off again. This time there was a significant delay on both ends."
Suddenly Lando stabbed a finger at INTRAPALADIUM's roster. "Hey! Do you see who boarded INTERPALADIUM on its out-bound trip from Ghorman to Mandorel?"
A name breathed from Flit's lips. "Mangus."
"Who's Mangus?" Confused, Wedge stared at the computer screen.
"Tshukon's advisor," said Lando. Cold contempt left nothing to speculation concerning how the one-time administrator felt about the Gamorrean's associate.
"More than that," said Han bitterly. "Mangus is responsible for locating items Tshukon might well be interested in. Once he's found something he tight-beams a message to his boss. If Tshukon wants it, Mangus procures it for him and accompanies it back. One of their go-betweens is a Hutt who goes by the name of Unbabbu."
Darkness surged up inside. Luke slapped it back down. "Anyone happen to know what Tshukon's acquiring for his private collection these days?"
A deathly hush fell over the room. Threepio looked from one person to the next, clearly expecting someone to have the answer to the Jedi Master's question. No one did. Into the silence Artoo interjected a soft whistle of inquiry, unintentionally breaking the tableau.
Wedge got to his feet. "I think Flit and I can handle this."
On hand leaning on Luke's shoulder, Han tore his eyes from the screen. "You'll be wanting to go to Mandorel."
"Krayt dragons couldn't keep me away. But Ghorman's first," Luke said. "We still don't know where, or even if Mandorel fits into this."
"But Tshukon," began Han. He saw the look on Luke's face. "Okay, kid. It's your show. Chewie and me'll get the MILLENNIUM FALCON ready to leave."
"Whoa. Wait a minute, old buddy." Lando put out a hand to forestall them. "The FALCON hasn't had a shake-down since those repairs---"
"She's my ship," said Solo, refusing to be deterred. "If I think she's ready to go, she's ready."
"That might be good enough for you and Chewie," said Lando. "But you've got other people to think about."
"Luke's used to---"
"I wasn't thinking about Luke. He can take care of himself."
"Then what are you---"
"We're going to need a small strike team," said Luke without turning his head.
Motionless, Han stared down at the Jedi Master. "Who said anything about a strike team? We've done well enough on our own in the past. What the hell do you want a strike team for?"
"Because there are going to be too many areas for us to cover on our own." Unaffected by the fingers tightening their grip on his shoulder, Luke reasoned with Han across his objections. Somehow he drew free of that grasp with his actions being obvious and pivoted in his seat to face the Corellian.
"First we have to determine whether or not Leia was really on board either of those ships."
"But I thought we were agreed," said Han. But his voice lacked conviction. Although he fought the obvious, Han inevitably acquiesced to reason. He paused then asked, "Have you picked up anything from her yet?"
It took considerable effort on Han's part to acknowledge the Force tie between the Skywalker twins. Luke appreciated that and wished he could offer something solid in return. Instead, he slowly shook his head.
"No, Han. I just know she's alive and all right---for now."
"You think Cov-Ops will give us a team just like that?" With a finger snap Lando emphasized his point.
"Crix and Jornik won't argue with me on this one." The Jedi Master returned his attention to the screen. "I'll be asking for a small group comprised primarily of young personnel. On Ghorman they can remain in port. If need be, play the tourist."
"Too expensive," said Han almost as an after-thought.
Luke glanced up, then back at the screen. "Or, better yet, the transport can hang back somewhere out of sensor range until we're done."
"Yeah, well," said Han. "You seem to have all the bases covered. Anyway, we all know there ain't much to see on Ghorman aside from that fancy tourist centre of theirs at the port and the governor's summer palace just off shore."
"All the better," said Lando under his breath. When Wedge looked at him, he quickly justified his remark. "Personally I can't see turning loose a bunch of green kids in that place. Just isn't my idea of logic."
Her back stiff, Flit countered his statement, a sharp edge to her voice. "Who said anything about green kids?"
"Master Luke." Drawn by the direction the conversation was taking, and alerted by what he saw on the computer, Threepio finally dared speak. To Luke's relief, the protocol droid's interruption diffused what could have dissolved into an all-out verbal battle.
"What is it, Threepio?"
"Am I to understand the Princess has been kidnapped by Imperial forces?"
"Not that we know of."
"Then why would Mistress Leia leave Coruscant for Mandorel without informing---"
Solo snarled at the droid. "Shut up, Golden Rod."
"Really, General Solo." Justified in speaking now that Luke was present, Threepio aired his grievance. "I find it quite rude that no one has explained what exactly is going on. Why has Her Royal Highness disappeared? And why all this secrecy? Surely the proper authorities should be informed? Coordinated searches undertaken?"
Not even Han's raised finger silenced the droid. Luke stood and stepped between them. "Threepio, you haven't been told because at this point we don't know what exactly has happened."
"Oh, my!" Head jerking rapidly from side to side, See-Threepio flapped his arms in distress. "Master Luke. Do you suppose it was the Empire? Please, sir. Artoo and I are completely at your disposal. Anything we can do---"
"We're working on it, Threepio."
The extent of Luke's patience with the droids went beyond what Han Solo considered reasonable. Even Lando never ceased to be amazed by the Jedi Master's ability to soothe the temperamental human-cyborg-relations droid when no one else was successful. Artoo exploded in a series of loud whistles and whoops.
"What do you mean, I'm being unreasonable." Threepio rounded on his counter-part. "I think I am being quite reasonable." Artoo argued the point with another electronic stream. "Oh---switch off!"
The minor crisis at an end, Luke set their plans into motion. "Wedge, you know what to do." His old wingman nodded, jerked his head at Flit and headed for the exit, his BATMAN in tow. Behind him Luke continued. "Han. Get the FALCON ready for immediate departure. I'll meet you there with Wedge and Flit as soon as I can. Lando, come with me."
Information erased, the terminal switched off, Luke headed for the door. With a shrug at Han, Lando grabbed up his cape and hurried after the Jedi Master. There was a moment's hesitation. Before Threepio could interject anything, Solo moved. Hand sweeping out, he grabbed up his holster and weapon. He strapped it on. Throughout the entire conversation Chewbacca remained silent. Now he barked at his friend.
"Your guess is as good as mine, Chewie. But the kid's plans usually work out in the end. Let's go."
Throughout their walk to Covert Operations Luke did not speak. Nor was Lando particularly inclined to draw the Jedi Master out. Something in the grim set of his features curbed all thought of questioning what his companion had in mind. Luke led him to the room where their reluctant guest was housed. Their presence was picked up on a monitor and announced. Madine met them outside the cell.
"Ready to crack this tough nut?"
"Whenever you are, General." Nothing in Luke's expression betrayed anything. "But we have to move fast. Time is of the essence."
"I'm well aware of that, Master Skywalker."
Blue eyes met brown. Remained there for the briefest moment out of time. Then Madine released the door. No sooner did the door open than Juthan lunged at them.
In their absence he had succeeded in pulling his bound hands from behind his back. Hands swinging, Juthan sought to club the first person through the door. Lando dodged. Close on his heels Madine adeptly sidestepped. He caught their captive by one arm, using Juthan's momentum against him, and spun him around. Crix slammed their prisoner against the corridor wall alongside the opening. Pinned him there with a knee in the small of his back.
Stunned by the impact, Juthan gasped for breath, desperate. He struggled to understand where he was and who his captors were. And why they had brought him to this place. The hands and knee that pressed him against the wall abruptly drew away. Juthan rolled around to face the strangers where they stood, then backed through the opening back into the cell. Confused, Juthan studied them.
Minutes passed. Still the trio watched him, silent, betraying nothing. Again and again Juthan found his gaze returning to the man in uniform. A New Republic uniform. In spite of himself, Juthan began to sweat. Before long a tiny crack appeared in his carefully cultivated veneer.
"Tell me what you want."
"We ask the questions here, Mister Juthan," said the impeccably attired officer. He pushed Juthan further into the cell. The rest of the group accompanied him in, the last one shutting the door against intrusion.
This man with expressionless eyes shattered all illusion of escape. In the face of that implacable, cold glare Juthan quailed inside. He shot a look at the younger man. And encountered an equally inscrutable look in return. Nor did he discover anything to bolster his rapidly fraying nerves when his eyes slid across the dark skinned man. His gaze froze there recognizing this immaculately attired person as Lando Calrissian, one-time Administrator of Bespin Cloud City. A faint inkling of the identity of those he now faced invaded his perception, forcing him to re-access the situation. Matters definitely did not bode well.
Eyes darting back to the fair-haired man with the beard, Juthan experienced doubt and increased fear. Unrelieved black suggested his identity but Juthan dared not believe he could possibly have had such great misfortune as to run afoul of the great Jedi Master. Still, suspicion alone worried Juthan. When he recalled what had transpired below city when he had accosted his prospective target his concerns greatly increased.
Well-versed at this portion of what he considered the ultimate game, Madine patiently waited, watching their prisoner, studying Juthan's reactions as the smuggler identified Lando. Although Juthan did his best to cover, Madine saw the manner in which he instinctively flinched from sight of the Jedi Master. Only those with a guilty conscience had real reason to fear Luke Skywalker. Now certain Juthan's resolve was shaken, Crix Madine began interrogating the low-city dweller.
"It has come to our attention," said Madine bluntly, his soft delivery causing Juthan to twitch violently, "that you have been aiding and abetting in the illegal traffic of residents off-world for the purpose of personal profit."
"That's not true." Juthan responded to the allegations with outrage, fighting down fear so strong it brought the taste of bile into his mouth. But there was a hollow ring to his denial. "Whoever says that is a liar."
Madine advanced to the centre of the chamber and halted. Casually at ease he allowed his gaze to drift across his prisoner. "Really? Then perhaps you would explain why you have been selling people off world? Trafficking in sentient beings is against the New Republic Charter, Mister Juthan. And, as such, is a serious crime punishable by transport to a penal colony of the judicial system's choosing."
This was not the first time Juthan had been tripped up by local authorities. But it was the first time since arriving on Coruscant. He presented the vision of someone being maliciously slandered. "All lies. I've never sold anyone."
Unimpressed by Juthan's posturing, Lando folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the far wall. Raised one eyebrow. "But you don't deny you've shipped people off Coruscant? Those who could ill-afford the fare of even third-class passage?"
There was no alternative but to admit the truth. Juthan shrugged. "No, I don't deny it. Why shouldn't I help the unfortunate find employment?"
Disbelief prevalent in his voice Lando parried. "You actually expect us to believe that you paid for these individuals to transfer off-world out of the goodness of your heart?"
Now Juthan stuttered slightly. "Well---no. Actually, I'm a procurer. For my services I am paid a retainer's fee."
"A procurer of slaves." Madine was quick to counter.
"No! No." Frantic, Juthan protested his innocence. Strove to justify and explain his actions. To gloss over the truth with thinly veiled lies.
"Then explain where all these people disappeared to and for what purpose."
There was no pretending his rage. Crix Madine leaned toward the prisoner. His unguarded wrath achieved its purpose. Juthan slid several steps sideways along the opposite wall. Collided with Luke Skywalker and skidded back in the opposite direction, determined to get away from the person he suspected was the Jedi Master.
"No. You don't understand. I offer them---job opportunities."
However hard Juthan struggled to piece together a plausible rationalization, the more deeply he became mired in his shallow efforts at subterfuge. It was obvious none of his audience were buying his excuses. He floundered, eyes darting wildly about the bare room.
Eventually he admitted partial truth. "Sometimes."
Lando thrust himself away from the wall and stalked to the prisoner. "So everyone went willingly?"
"Ye---yes. Of course."
"I see," drawled Lando, clearly not accepting that declaration.
Not about to allow the slaver time to think, Madine pressed the issue. "What about the hypo-spray taken from you this evening?"
Desperate to pull another lie to bolster his thin alibi, Juthan waved his bound hands. "Merely insurance. Sometimes individuals attack before I can fully outline my proposal. And you're aware of how dangerous it is below city. I have the right to protect myself and my interests."
"Uh huh. So what you're saying is that no one goes under duress." Nothing in Lando's voice or posture revealed belief in Juthan's story.
"I would never force anyone."
"No one?" That quiet inquiry from the fair haired man was so softly inserted into the interrogation it shook Juthan far more than the aggression displayed by Calrissian and the unnamed officer.
"No one." Juthan struggled to recover his tattered composure, certain he was making headway in his defense.
"No? What about this woman? Do you recognize her?" From a uniform pocket Madine drew a small holo-portrait of a woman with laughing brown eyes and warm brown hair. He held it up. Sight of his latest acquisition made Juthan's heart sink. "Did she willingly accept your job offer?"
To reinforce his failing bravado, Juthan forced a laugh and shrugged. "Naturally. How else? No one is pressured to take any employment opportunity I offer."
"Now that," said the younger man, stepping away from the wall and into Juthan's view, "is a bald-faced lie."
Balanced lightly on the balls of his feet he demonstrated the casual grace of the consummate fighter. There was ice where his eyes ought to have been. A very dangerous man Juthan realized. And he quailed.
"My sister would never have gone off world without informing us of her actions. Nor was she in need of any sort of employment."
Faced with an irate relation, and still uncertain of this man's identity, Juthan opted for the only response possible. He countered with a forced scornful snort. "Have you ever considered the possibility that perhaps she wanted to get away? There are lots of people who prefer to leave their old lives behind."
"But not Leia. Establishment of the New Republic is her whole life."
"Leia?" Something inside Juthan struck home with a vengeance, grabbed his gut and twisted it hard. Suspicions now confirmed he fully understood why he had been unable to complete his attack on the woman this man had referred to as Flit. "Princess---Leia?" Luke nodded just once, jaw muscles locked against anger. Juthan stammered, "Then you're---"
"Luke Skywalker," said Lando as casually as if he were proffering iced quaff to a guest on a hot day.
"So, Mister Juthan," said Crix Madine, knowing their prisoner was now so rattled they would have no difficulty extracting the truth from him, "please be so good as to tell us exactly what happened to the Princess after you met. Our patience is wearing extremely thin and I don't believe you have any wish to experience the more forceful methods of interrogation at our disposal."
"I never---Please!" Sweat started across Juthan, darkening his clothing. He nervously licked his lips. Sought to appease the justifiable rage emanating from his captors. Now he knew he was in the hands of Crix Madine, Chief of Covert Operations. Although no one moved, Juthan felt the walls press in around him. Desperate, he blurted, "She wasn't hurt. Really."
"All we want to know, Mister Juthan, is the name and registration of the vessel on which the Princess was shipped out. And it's destination."
There was no evading the issue. They had him dead to right and Juthan was left with no other recourse but to tell the truth. He swallowed hard. He considered his options and what his contacts would do to him were they to discover he was responsible for betraying their confidences.
"Ah---good sirs," he began. His effort to smile was a miserable failure, producing a sickly grimace. "If word of this should get out, my clients---"
"Will naturally wish to exact suitable recompense for your duplicity," said an unsympathetic Crix Madine.
"Just so," Juthan said. "Therefore you must understand my position."
The oily sheen covering his features only served to accentuate his unpleasant nature. Quite suddenly Lando discovered he preferred to be anywhere at the moment than in the same room as this unctuous person. He forced himself to remain outwardly impassive. Watched for any sign that Juthan might suddenly prove more dangerous than was presently apparent on the surface.
Unperturbed, Luke demanded, "Which ship?"
Hoth winter cold hung in the room, chilling the atmosphere. Juthan visibly shivered. He croaked, "A little on the cool side in here, don't you think?"
Crix snapped. "Stop vacillating, Juthan. My patience is very thin."
All further attempts to soothe his inquisitors abandoned, Juthan blurted, "Promise you'll protect me!"
However calculating that request, Luke exchanged glances with Madine and Lando. There was no doubt Juthan knew the Jedi code and was playing on it. Caught by his ethics, Luke nodded heavily, once. Relief filled Juthan. When a Jedi gave his word, he never recanted, particularly if that Jedi was Luke Skywalker. In his elation he missed the inquiry in Madine's eyes and the silent assurance, in turn, from the Jedi Master.
"Your---ah, the Princess was placed on board NGURO."
"I don't know."
A hand shot out. Lando Calrissian grabbed fabric at Juthan's collarbone, balled it and wrenched upward, cutting off a good portion of the slaver's oxygen supply. Juthan turned red. Then purple. Bound hands flapping ineffectually he gasped for air. Unaffected by the display, Madine watched, dispassionate. But Luke knew the head of Cov-Ops was prepared to interfere should Lando go too far.
"Luke might be above petty revenge, Juthan." Lando growled remorselessly. "But I'm not. Now which ship was it? And bound for where?"
Either unable, or unprepared, to grant them that information, Juthan released a gurgle. "Arrgg."
A black glove encased hand came down on Lando's wrist. "Lando. Wait."
Stunned, Lando stared at the Jedi Master. "This miscreant's responsible for your sister's disappearance and you want me to lay off?"
"If you choke him to death," said Luke bluntly, "he can't answer our questions."
"Yeah. Well---" Lando considered that statement, his eyes fixed on Juthan. Reluctantly he conceded the point. With a backward thrust he released their captive. Staggered and breathless, Juthan sought the wall at his back. Finding it, he slumped against it, wheezing, rubbing his bruised throat with his fingers. Gradually his purpled complexion faded back to normal.
"All right, Juthan." Lando continued to confront him. "Who collected the Princess at the other end? And where?"
"I don't know."
"Don't give me that." Madine cut in. He stalked forward once more and Lando stepped aside. Crix jerked the prisoner toward him. "Someone must have put in an---order."
"No---I mean---they tell me what they want and I try to find it for them."
Abruptly Juthan stopped answering questions. It was as though a tap had been shut off. Eyes narrowing Crix realized his suspicions were correct; there was more to Juthan than met the eye. Frightened as the slaver might be, in unfamiliar surroundings and confronted by the Jedi Master, he was far more terrified of his employers.
Once more darkness threatened to engulf Luke. Before Crix or Lando could react Luke spun Juthan to face him and fixed their prisoner with a piercing stare. His voice altered subtly. In response, tiny tremors raced up his companions' spines.
"You will tell me for whom you procure people."
Juthan wavered. "I---"
"There is nothing to fear."
Intent as his attempt in Jabba's Tatooine palace, Luke forced his will on Juthan. Where he had been unsuccessful with Jabba, he found the opening with the slaver. Caught off-guard by what was transpiring Madine and Lando could only watch silently in their astonishment. Crix was over-awed at the power now displayed by the Jedi Master.
The slaver lost the battle. Voice uninflected, he responded to Luke's control. "I am not afraid of anything."
"No one will harm you."
"Of course no one will hurt me."
"Who took delivery of this woman?"
Still maintaining absolute control through the Force, Luke held up the holo once more. He sensed it was best to eliminate all actual identification of his sister from his question. As he hoped, Juthan responded readily.
"Alstar Kalik helped me slip her on board. It was quite simple, really. The drug kept her quiet and malleable. I use it on all my cargo."
The complacent manner in which Juthan spoke of Princess Leia caused Lando to take a step forward. His face twisted with rage at the slaver's callousness. Madine hurriedly grabbed him. A hand covered Lando's mouth. The head of Cov-Ops froze him where he stood. A sharp shake of Madine's head silenced him, halting him before he jerked free.
"Alstar Kalik?" Luke applied the Force like a surgical laser, drawing Juthan out. "Who is he?"
"Quartermaster on board NGORU."
Now they were getting somewhere. "And where exactly was Kalik supposed to unload her?"
"All my produce is transshipped on Ghorman."
"Really?" Interest no longer feigned Luke made himself continue grilling Juthan when everything inside him screamed to eliminate the unmentionable filth under his control. "Why is that?"
"It's the clearing centre for all our cargo."
"And who's responsible for that end of the processing?"
Every sentence Luke spoke roiled his stomach. Vomit threatened to overwhelm him. By manipulating anyone, even someone as slimy as Juthan, he was going against every tenant taught by Ben and Yoda. But circumstances and lack of time did not allow for other alternatives.
"Norisz!" Incapable of restraining himself longer, the name hissed from Lando's lips. It filled the entire room, ominous and sibilant.
Luke held up a finger in warning, too late. Juthan broke free. Dazed, he shook his head. Blinked and stared about him. "What---what happened? What's going on?"
Released from the mesmerizing effect of the Jedi Master's interrogation technique, Madine turned to Lando. "You've heard of this Norisz?"
"Yeah. Alganin Norisz. And he spells bad news. Big time. If he's got Leia---" Lando spread his hands. "Luke, we've got big trouble. Norisz procures anything, anytime, for anyone---if they can meet his price."
"Even the Empire?"
"Even them. Most definitely them, since they've got the credits."
"That's not good."
"You can say that again. He's also been known to supply for various collectors." In that single statement Lando brought Luke back to their earlier discovery concerning Tshukon and Mandorel.
Ignored throughout their exchange Juthan listened with growing horror. Somehow they had made him blurt out information he never intended to betray. It had to have been that thrice-damned, Sith-spawned Jedi who had twisted it out of him. Not only that, but he had apparently admitted duplicity and guilt in kidnapping Princess Leia Organa-Solo.
Madine spared their prisoner a single withering glance before jerking his head toward the door, signaling the others to follow him. They abandoned Juthan to isolation once more. In the hallway outside the cell they regrouped.
"Now we know who, how and where," said Lando.
Crix stared up the passage. "Even if we don't know precisely why."
"I'm not so sure we don't know the reason," said Luke after a time. The others turned to him.
"What do you mean, Luke?" Puzzled, Madine demanded an explanation from the Jedi Master.
"Let's look at this logically, keeping in mind the information Lando, Han and Chewie gathered earlier."
"I fail to see the connection---"
"Wait, Lando. Think a minute, sir." Luke urged, seeing Madine's confusion. Quickly he filled in the head of Cov-Ops. "Just before Lando and I got here we discovered two freighters whose flight paths deviated from their normal routes."
"They made no attempt to conceal their movements."
Lando asked, "Isn't that kind of stupid if they're slavers?"
"Not if they had no reason to be afraid of anyone looking for them," said Luke even though it pained him to discuss his sister's abduction with such cold calculating.
"Makes sense." Madine concurred. "Which freighters are we talking about?"
"NGORU and INTERPALADIUM." Lando turned back to Luke. "It's not unusual for freighter runs to cross. And sometimes they do go off their normal routes, given sufficient incentive."
Determined to get his point across, Luke argued, "Yet they did meet at Ghorman. And wasn't it you and Han who said the man who shipped out from Ghorman to Mandorel on board INTERPALADIUM was a procurer for Tshukon."
"Tshukon. Now there's a nasty character." Impressed, Madine proved he knew quite a lot about the various underworld figures. "Not as vile as Jabba was, but getting up there. If one of his people met those ships on Ghorman you can bet they were up to something on the sly."
"Like procuring special items for Tshukon's newest collection." Resigned, Lando capitulated. "All right, Luke. Given the information, what do we do next?"
"First we check out what connection, if any, Mangus has to NGORU's presence at Ghorman. And whether or not INTERPALADIUM has anything to do with it."
Quick to read the trend of the conversation, Madine offered his department's services, even Luke had known he would. "Tell me what you need."
No matter how pleasant the surroundings, how challenging and stimulating the intellectual conversations Tshukon insisted she participate in, and which a portion of her relished, Mansi remained unhappy. She could not explain the reason for her melancholy. Nor the certainty that she did not belong in her present setting, which Varina repeatedly reinforced during their clandestine meetings. True, Tshukon was kind. In fact he appeared to understand her despondency and ignored it where others might not. Meals were luxurious, the conversation stimulating. Like her other companions in the incredible garden, Mansi's every need was seen to. Still she could not enjoy any of it beyond the initial appearance.
What she did enjoy and eagerly looked forward to with cautious enthusiasm were her nightly discussions with the other loner in the group. Varina remained aloof from the others. She continued to prefer solitude such as it existed within the dome. Everything about Varina drew Mansi to seek her out.
No sooner did the rest of the women retire at night than Mansi silently slipped away to meet with Varina. Behind her she always left a simulated sleeping form surreptitiously fashioned from cushions. Why she performed this ritual, Mansi could not say. That it was necessary, she was equally certain. And there was considerable danger in not successfully hiding her nocturnal movements. Frightened though she was by the unknown quantity in what she did something in her thrilled to the artifice.
This evening Mansi paused at the edge of a small clearing in the dome's arboreal forest, waiting expectantly. When there was no immediate sign of Varina she dared a soft inquisitive call.
Only the sleepy calls of night flyers greeted her initial effort. Deep inside spread stillness. Like ripples on the surface of a pool, it swept out, filling her. With three deep breaths Mansi slowed her breathing. She closed her eyes and sensed Varina's approach.
Abruptly pain lanced through her head. It drove her to her knees, nearly senseless with agony. Varina found her there with her hands clasped to her head. Something had clearly set off the implant. Concerned, the taller woman began dutifully massaging Mansi's temples.
"Are you okay? What did you do?"
"I---don't know." Mansi answered truthfully. "I was just standing there." She pointed vaguely to a spot a short distance away. "Listening, like you taught me, to see if I could hear you coming. And I did. Then the pain started."
"There's no reason the implant should have been set off simply by you trying to hear my footsteps." Ministrations complete, Varina settled back on her heels. "You must have been doing something else."
"But I wasn't."
"Then you were thinking about something."
"No! In fact, I wasn't thinking of anything."
"Shh!" Terrified they would be overheard Varina hurriedly clapped a hand over her companion's mouth. Eyes equally wide and dark as those Mansi turned on her, they check to be certain no one had heard. Shaken, Varina took a deep breath to steady her nerves and released it.
"All right. I won't argue with you. It's just---I've never heard---" Consternation mounted in her companion. Varina broke off. "How's your head?"
"It's okay now."
"Good." She gestured. "Enough said for now. Come on. I've found a little place near the perimeter where we can sit. I even smuggled over some snacks and something to drink when no one was looking."
Delighted by the prospect of this covert romp, Mansi eagerly accompanied Varina through the forest. The misting system came on, and it was all both women could do not the squeal as their hair and gowns were quickly soaked through. They raced up a narrow path, giggling softly, and took the perimeter walk. Each examined the other's appearance, trying hard not to laugh outright at their companion's dilapidated appearance.
Beneath the spreading branches of an umbrella tree Varina had set out several cushions, a pair of shawls, some food and drink. They settled on the improvised picnic spread. In between bites of food and sips of juice, each woman ran their fingers through their hair, combing it out, fluffing it. In the dome's warm air it dried quickly.
Varina said nothing for quite some time. Simply watched her companion and, from time to time, winced as her thoughts set off the implant at the base of her skull. Eventually Varina picked up their conversation.
"Where did we leave off yesterday?"
Mansi adjusted her position so she could better see her companion. "I believe we were discussing inter-species relationships and diplomacy---"
Hands twitching, Mansi winced the minute those words left her lips. Her eyes partially shut she turned her head aside. Varina waited patiently, knowing the moment would pass. With each twitch she was gaining a more concrete idea of this woman's background. In fact, strange as it had initially seemed to her, Varina was now certain that somehow, somewhere, they had known each other. She was equally positive their acquaintance had been casual at best. A puzzle Varina meant to unravel if it took her the rest of their lives under Tshukon's control.
"If it causes you pain to think about it we can always discuss something else," Varina told her companion
To Varina's surprise, Mansi did not reply immediately, as was usually the case. Invariably when this happened there would follow several minutes while Mansi fought to control the implant. Then they pursued the topic that had set it off, or some other. This time she remained silent. When Varina stared at her, it was evident Mansi had not heard a word she had said. Curious, Varina stretched out a hand, of a mind to shake her companion back to the present. Something stopped her before she completed the act. Withdrawing her hand, Varina watched and waited.
Mansi's eyes lost their focus. She stared toward the twilight forest. Slowly her eyelids drooped until they were half shuttered. Her breathing modulated. Images fluttered just on the periphery of consciousness. Through them moved the figure of a young man. Here lay the key to her past, somewhere in these impressions. Desperately Mansi struggled to bring them into focus. And failed.
She grappled with scenes that frayed to tatters with each attempt. Determined and frustrated, she selected a single element among the many and latched on to it. Gradually the image came into focus; not the whole person, just their face. Blue eyes stared at her, at once serious and mischievous. Nerve endings abruptly quivered with agony, dashing the scene. But not before a voice in the farthest reaches of her mind screamed out across the void a name ripped from the very depths of her subconscious.
To her credit, Mansi managed to strangle back the pain-filled cry surging up from inside, harboring it in the back of her throat. Hands flailing, she collapsed over her knees and slumped onto her side in a semi-fetal position.
For all her concern, Varina tempered her call with the knowledge that others, whose presence was unwelcome at this moment, would hear and seek out the source of her cry. She bent over her companion. Checking for a pulse she found one, rapid but strong. The sides of Mansi's temples throbbed visibly. Pain pinched features had gone grey, further frightening Varina. A thin thread of blood trickled from both ears. Fearful of discovery, yet far more worried that Mansi would die, Varina set to work. Agile fingers worked flesh, massaging, stroking. Knowledge of where to look helped her soothe away pain and summon her companion back to consciousness.
A little moan eventually rewarded her efforts. Eyelids fluttered. Mansi flinched from the fingers working at her scalp as though even that thoughtful ministration caused her discomfiture. Still Varina persevered deeply troubled that perhaps she was inadvertently responsible for her companion's affliction.
For far too long there was no other outward sign of life in the body on which Varina worked except for an occasional tiny groan in response to her conscientious efforts. Just when Varina was resigning herself to seeing yet another potentially sympathetic inmate removed from the dome, a hopeless invalid, Mansi twitched slightly. Encouraged, Varina continued her ministrations. She rolled her companion onto her stomach and stretched her out, returning to work. Up and down the other woman's back, legs, buttocks and shoulders, she applied her technique, extending her assault on tensed muscles and tendons back up the neck to the scalp and temples.
Ever so gradually, Mansi relaxed. Drew a long, deep shuddering breath. Slowly released it. Drew another. Further heartened, Varina concentrated her efforts on Mansi's shoulders and head. Sensitive fingers detected an easing in pain-contorted nerves. Eventually Mansi drew away from the soothing massage. Varina settled back, waiting while her friend pushed herself into sitting position. Legs drawn beneath her, Mansi wrapped her arms around them and rested her forehead on her knees. No fresh blood appeared in her ears.
Experienced in reactions in those reviving from a severe implant punishment, Varina refrained from interfering. Intuitively she knew it was best to let Mansi take the lead on when she felt up to talking about her experience. Finally Mansi did look up. The agony of her experience greyed once bright, intense features. It had left shadows beneath her eyes and deep creases at the corners of her eyes and nose. Cautiously Varina tendered her question.
"Can you tell me what happened to bring on this attack?"
A frown deepened the lines on Mansi's face in response to the inquiry. "I saw something."
"I think so---yes."
Attentive to the slightest sign that another attack was imminent, Varina pushed a little more. "Did you recognize anything?"
Slowly, carefully Mansi shook her head, mindful of the throbbing in her temples left in the wake of the implant's assault. "No---maybe."
Not expecting confusing signals, Varina abandoned a more cautious approach. "No or maybe? Which is it, Mansi? I'm sure you called out a man's name."
Impatience was tempered with care. Varina kept her tone mild. Coaxed rather than bullied answers from her companion. If Mansi suffered a second violent attack from the implant too soon after the last one, her brain could well be scrambled beyond recovery. And Varina had no intention of risking her companion's sanity through haste.
On reflection Varina also realized that Mansi did not appear to be suffering any adverse effects in recalling the moments that had set off the implant. For all her frowning there did not seem to be any additional agony.
Unaware of her friend's amazement and eagerness, Mansi concentrated on the misty images and elusive scenes. "There were a lot of different people. Some wore strange, hard white clothing. There was someone else like them, but all in black."
A massive tremor shook Mansi so violently that Varina feared they had set off the implant again. She gripped Mansi's shoulder but, sensing her concern, the other woman shook her head.
"I'm okay, Varina."
"If it starts hurting again, stop thinking about it."
"There's no pain," said Mansi. Her brow furrowed more deeply. "I was just suddenly terribly afraid."
"The one in black." Again she shivered. Tightened her grip around her knees. "He was so big. Evil."
"I---I'm not sure but---I think he's dead."
"Well." Varina breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good. Isn't it?"
"I don't know. I think so."
Certainty coloured every word; these were memories, repressed by the implant, unsettling memories, but memories nonetheless. Heartened, Varina urged Mansi. "Go on. What else did you see?"
"There were so many scenes, I couldn't see them clearly. It was all a rush." Again Mansi paused. A far-away look filled her eyes. "But the last thing I saw---"
"Careful." Forewarned, Varina cautioned her. "If it starts to hurt--"
"I'll stop. I promise." Mansi forced a flickering smile. Then the dreamy quality returned. "There was a young man---about our age, I think."
"Yes? Go on. Tell me."
"He had light brown, almost fair hair and such warm blue eyes."
"Do you know him?"
"I believe I do---yes. Oh, yes! His name is Luke. Luke----"
As eager as she now was to continue with the session, to press for more information, Varina quickly shook Mansi. "Stop! Stop now!"
Startled, Mansi sat up. "But why? I was so close---"
"That's exactly why. We have to go slowly." Thoughtful and slightly breathless with excitement and anticipation, Varina explained. "You know I've been a member of this---these slaves for several years, Mansi. Before Tshukon built this dome for us to live in."
"Yes. That's what you told me."
"Well---" Varina broke off. She peered at the forest, listening intently for any hint of unwelcome intrusion. "There have been others who recalled real memories."
"From before their implants?"
Something in the way Varina spoke cut through Mansi's desire to discover the truth about her past. Excitement faded. Was replaced by fear as a tiny voice told she really did not want to know where these other women were.
"What---what happened to them?"
"All of them went insane."
"The implant did that?"
Expression bleak, Varina glanced back to her friend, then away again to the forest. "At least, I believe so." She took a sip of juice before continuing. "We have to take this slowly. It won't do us any good to rush it. I know. It took several years of careful experimentation before I found I was recovering some of my old memories. Even so, I have an attack now and then."
"Of course. You're right," Mansi concurred, surprising the other woman with her amazing display of patience and versatility. Had it been her, Varina was certain it would have taken every ounce of willpower not to seek clarification immediately. "If I'm the first to survive this far, and remember so much so quickly, then perhaps I'm different from them in some way."
"And dangerous to Tshukon." Unafraid of being blunt, Varina said, "Don't tell anyone."
"Good." Cup set aside, Varina got to her feet. "You better get back. Someone might wake and discover you're missing."
Mansi nodded. She stood. Reluctant as she was to leave Varina, she saw the sense of returning to the poolside. Tshukon might find Varina's behaviour fetching. But two slaves with that trait who met repeatedly could only prove a threat to his private little world. They exchanged hugs and parted without a backward glance.
Only when she was almost back to the dome's central patio and its forest bowers did Mansi realize she had never seen where Varina spent her nights. Nor had she ever thought to question not only her decision to segregate herself from the others, but that Tshukon did allow it. The anomaly served to take her thoughts away from the potentially perilous quest for more memories.
Pressure leaked incessantly from hose connections. On his last minute walk-around inspection of his vessel the pilot shook his head and ducked through a dissipating frigid cloud of escaping coolant. Attachments seldom mated with the perfection touted by manufacturers each time new and improved versions came on the market. Too many worlds and too many shipyards: as a result no two classifications of vessels boasted identical sockets for some peculiar, inexplicable reason. It did not matter that most worlds were generations into intergalactic travel. Such peculiarities meant leaks during servicing. Lubricant leaks, fuel leaks, coolant leaks, all were considered acceptable hazards of the space age. Even though loss of fluids meant additional costs to the recipient who was expected to bear the burden of those inefficiencies.
"Must be some sort of unwritten law." Han Solo muttered to himself as he shook an external hose and found it tight. "No two couplers shall be compatible."
A familiar voice interrupted him. "You seem light years away."
Han glanced over his shoulder. Beneath the bay overhang Wedge grinned back at him. Solo straightened. "Yeah, well. Inspection kind of gives you time to reflect."
"Know what you mean," said Wedge. He tore his own drifting thoughts away from idle rambling and brushed several stray strands of hair off his face. Voices echoed through the nearby entrance passage into the docking bay.
"They're here, sir." Flit appeared at their side.
Wedge turned expectantly toward the opening just as Luke emerged into the late afternoon sunlight. At his heels was Lando. Artoo Detoo brought up the rear as usual. The unlikely trio halted just inside of the docking bay. The Jedi Master's cloak rocked gently back and forth across his ankles at his back. For all the seriousness of the circumstances that drew them back together, there were smiles on all their faces, grim humor that would have left an outsider cold. Wedge was surprised to note Luke had neither cut his hair nor trimmed his beard. They congregated at the foot of the freighter's ramp. Han called up into the ship.
"Switch it on, Chewie."
Moments later the Wookiee emerged. His great head brushed the underside of the overhead metal as he descended. After a nod to the others, he growled a comment to his partner.
"Good." Han acknowledged the information and translated for his friends. "Got a scrambler installed. Anyone trying to overhear us---even if they've got specialized equipment for eavesdropping---won't get anything except a lot of mechanical interference from the ship and docking bay."
"Nice." Lando approved the addition.
"Glad you like it," said Han.
A check of the ramp and bay revealed one member of their party was missing. Luke gestured. "Where's Threepio?"
Han jerked his head. "I ordered him to stay put inside. We don't need him out here right now."
It was obvious Han had been sorely tempted to do more than simply order Threepio to stay put. Luke refrained from voicing his opinion on the subject and Artoo Detoo wisely kept silent, not wanting to follow his counter-part into exile. Instead, he hunkered down behind his master as Luke began briefing the group.
"There's a small transport freighter standing by on the military field." Quickly he explained what Cov-Ops had supplied. "It's loaded with all the necessary should we need to pull off an assault in Imperial-held territory."
"Pray we don't have to go that far," said Lando in an aside to Wedge.
"Got that right." Personally Wedge Antilles did not hold out much hope they would be able to avoid some sort of confrontation in their efforts to recover the missing Princess.
"Our back-up's on board, too. Jornik hand-picked them."
"Jornik? I thought Crix was going to take a personal hand in this one." Genuinely surprised Intelligence was taking a hand Han considered the wisdom of so many people now being privy to their secret.
"As a matter of fact," Wedge said, "Crix did have one choice for this trip."
Disgruntled, Wedge jerked a thumb at his aide. "He insisted we take Flit."
"Makes sense. 'Specially if we have to attempt an insertion at Mandorel." Solo winked at the ex-spy. A twinkle of amusement caught in the depths of her eyes at that which did not reach her lips. A look quickly quelled. Luke pressed on.
"Lando, Wedge and Flit will travel with the assault team, with Threepio along for technical assistance. They'll hole up off Ghorman in the asteroid belt and wait for us to send them word concerning the go or no go for Mandorel."
"Hope that ship's got more than standard defense weaponry on board."
"I wouldn't be riding in her if she didn't, old buddy," said Lando, his reaction deceptively mild. Then he nodded toward the FALCON. "You aren't planning to land at Ghorman's port in her, are you?"
A slow, lazy smile pulled one corner of Solo's mouth. "Got it all worked out, buddy. We're picking up some little additions once we start out-system."
Alerted that the Corellian was referring to camouflaging, Lando could not help needling him. "Hope it won't slow her down."
"Don't you worry about us." Unfazed, Han countered, "The FALCON's as good as new. Better, in fact. Besides, Chewie and me put a few more---essential adaptations into her this time round."
A witticism trembled on the tip of Wedge's tongue. He bit it back and fought off temptation. Sliding a long look toward the Jedi Master, he saw Luke battle his own reaction to that statement. Both recalled all too well what had happened at Hoth. Like his old wingman, Luke successfully choked down words he wanted to blurt in counter to his brother-in-law's reassurances. Now was not the time, however humour might alleviate the seriousness of the moment. They were not alone. From the expression of studious contemplation playing across Lando's face, he also was being diplomatic. Only Artoo dared express himself. And he confined himself to a single electronic titter.
Whether or not he read the astro-mech's comment for what it was, Han ignored the expressive silence that had followed his remark. "So what's the game-plan, Luke?"
Right shoulder against one of the freighter's landing struts, Luke folded his arms across his chest. His cloak slithered off his shoulders. Fell about him, leaving only his head and neck visible in the gathering gloom of oncoming dusk. Lights came up around the docking bay. Chewie growled into the com-link in his left hand. The exterior lights dimmed until the group was enveloped in elongating shadows thrown by the high blast walls and equipment protruding from the inside and wall tops.
"You know your way around Ghorman." His eyes fixed on Han, Luke waited for confirmation. Solo nodded. "A few judicious inquiries in the right places should get us to our first lead."
Impatient as always, Han prompted Luke to explain. Nor was the Jedi Master remiss. "Alganin Norisz."
Chewbacca growled a low, menacing note in response to the name. Few things could shake Han Solo. Mention of the slaver rattled him badly. Pale, fists clenched at his sides, Han took several deep breaths before he dared speak again.
"This is the first time any one of you have mentioned his name. What's he got to do with Leia's disappearance?"
A hand appeared from beneath Luke's cloak, rested a finger against the Jedi Master's lips. "Easy, Han. Keep it down. I'm sure the scrambler'll work fine for what we need. But it won't do us, least of all Leia, any good if you shout the news so everyone outside can hear."
"Yeah. Sure. Sorry." Incredible as it seemed to Lando, Han apologized. But his right hand reflexively came to rest on his blaster butt.
"It's okay, Han. Just---keep it down," said Wedge. Unfamiliar with why mention of Norisz should unsettle their companions, he was no less concerned by their reactions.
"It appears our erstwhile---procurer of desirable items---"
"Substitute kidnapper and slaver." Unable to stop himself, Lando filled in less pleasant details.
"---picked up Leia without knowing exactly who she was," Luke said without missing a beat. "He subsequently passed her on through certain hands to Ghorman---"
"To Norisz." Furious, Han clenched and unclenched his right fingers around the butt of his blaster.
Luke nodded. "From there it's our belief she may have been sold to Unbabbu."
"Who sometimes procures for Tshukon," said Lando.
Eyes narrowed, Han caught on that. "The Gamorrean collector?"
"Seems Tshukon's primary agent was on Ghorman at approximately the same time Leia may have been." Lando found he could not meet Han's gaze when the ex-smuggler tried to catch his eye. "And the latest rumour I picked up under city has it Tshukon's presently in the market for certain types of exceptionally talented humanoid females."
"Son of a---" Suddenly conscious of Flit in their midst Han cut short his curse. "What are we waiting for?"
Han spun and ran into his partner before he had taken two strides toward the ramp. Luke's hand shot out, caught his shoulder and halted him even as Chewie gently fended off his partner.
"Hold it, Han. I haven't finished," Luke said. He was not about to release his friend until he had his attention once again.
For once Han did not attempt to jerk free of restraint. He pivoted slowly back to face his brother-in-law. "So what other happy news do you have for me?"
"We aren't entirely certain Tshukon's got Leia."
"And even if he does," said Lando, "Tshukon's got estates spread all across the Imperial quadrant." Determined to prevent Solo doing something rash to imperil their shaky rescue plans, Wedge reminded Han. "Not to mention the border worlds."
"Some nine in all, I believe it was at last count," Flit said.
Han stared at each of them in turn. "So how do we find out where she is?"
"You aren't thinking clearly, Han." Still gripping Han's arm, Luke impressed his words on the other without using the Force. "That's why we have to find Norisz. We're fairly certain she passed through his hands."
Annoyed at being backed into a corner by everyone around him, Han forced himself to stop fighting them. "Okay. So you want Chewie and me to shake the information out of him."
"No." Luke was adamant. "When we reach Ghorman, Chewie stays on the FALCON. Out of sight."
"Anyone sees Chewie they'll know you're on Ghorman, Han." Lando reasoned with him. "And you won't get close enough to Norisz to even see his shirt tail."
"Quite aside from having every stormtrooper and bounty hunter in the sector down our throats before we've got the information," said Luke. The left side of his mouth twitched with a wry smile meant to ease his brother-in-law. "And, personally, I have no intention of wasting time fighting my way through them to get to Leia."
"Then explain why you're putting Flit on our back-up instead of her riding with us."
"I know Mandorel," said Flit in no uncertain terms, "Not Ghorman."
"Great." Anger adding an edge to his drawl, Han glowered at his opposition. "So I'm gonna fumble my way around trying to locate someone who'll lead me to Norisz."
"Not exactly." No one liked the look that glittered in the back of those blue Jedi eyes. "I have a plan."
"Wonderful. I seem to remember another plan you had." Han reminded him. "On the DEATH STAR, way back when."
"This is different. Besides," Luke countered Han's objection, "I didn't do so badly pulling you out of Jabba's clutches on Tatooine."
"Right. Tell me another good one. Didn't you spend some time dancing with a rancor?"
"Got a better plan?" Annoyed with the ex-smuggler's defeatist attitude, Wedge glared at Han.
"Not right now."
"Then maybe you should hear Luke out."
Behind Han, Chewbacca tipped his head to one side and whined a familiar complaint. "Yeah, Chewie. I know." Expression wary, certain they were getting in way over their heads, Han urged. "Okay, kid. Tell us."
Distracted, Thrawn glanced up from his terminal and glowered at Captain Pallaeon. "I thought I left distinct instructions not to be disturbed."
"Yes, sir." Unrepentant, Thrawn's Second-in-Command refused to back down. Or be be dismissed before he had imparted the information which had brought him to his superior's cabin.
"Well, what is it this time, Pallaeon"
"More news out of our operative on Coruscant."
Thrawn impatiently flapped a hand. Red eyes gleamed dangerously in reflected light from his computer. "Coded?"
"No, sir. Not this time."
"It appears Princess Leia was not simply keeping to her apartments with some unspecified ailment. She has disappeared."
Slowly Thrawn straightened. One hand went out automatically to his computer touch pad, saving whatever it was he had been working on. The computer went to standby mode. "What did you say?"
"Our operative was quite definite, sir. The Princess has vanished. She's not keeping to her quarters due to the early stages of pregnancy or illness. In fact, nobody seems to know where exactly she went. Or when."
"Two days ago Solo, the Wookiee and Skywalker also vanished."
"Ah." A blue fingertip tapped a soft staccato on the metal desktop.
"At the same time, Antilles and Calrissian apparently went on manoeuvres with a number of hand-picked veteran ground assault forces and several of the more promising graduates from their latest officer training program."
This in itself was not particularly unusual. On the other hand, when taken in conjunction with the news of the Princess' disappearance it was definitely cause for speculation. The Admiral settled back in his chair and considered the prospect. Thoughtful, he stared at his subordinate across the small cabin.
Pallaeon delivered his report matter-of-fact. "Yes, sir. Some of the junior officers selected to accompany Antilles and Calrissian were the same ones responsible for taking RUTHLESS."
"On a footnote," Pallaeon continued, "among the scum in the lower city a certain person noted for obtaining cargo for slavers has likewise disappeared."
"Well, well." Once random pieces fell into place amusement took the place of calculation. "It would seem someone may have unwittingly done our dirty work for us."
"Locate Jade and send her to me immediately."
"You're going to send her after Skywalker and the others?"
"No, Captain." Determination filled the Admiral's words. "She's going on a mission all right, but not after them. I want her as far from here as possible until we find and deal with them."
"She won't like it, sir."
'I don't give a credit's worth of thermal combat gear in a Hoth blizzard what she likes,' thought Thrawn. Out loud he delivered an ultimatum, his tone surprisingly soft. "Of course she won't. Who would, given the circumstances? But Jade is too useful to us to throw away on a personal vendetta. No. I have another mission for her. See to it no one drops even the slightest hint that she's being left out of something big." When his first officer appeared on the verge of arguing the point, Thrawn held up a finger in warning. "No one, Pallaeon. If it gets out, I'll know where to look first."
Back stiff in the face of that unspoken rebuke and thinly veiled threat the Captain nodded. "Very good, sir."
"You're dismissed, Captain."
Outside Thrawn's cabin, Pallaeon paused to tug his jacket straight and compose himself. His superior had been too specific for him to permit himself even the slightest sneer at Jade. Any emotion out of the ordinary during his exchange with the Emperor's Hand was likely to arouse her suspicions. She was far too good at reading those around her.
'Her and that thrice-damned, Sith-spawned mystical talent.'
Pallaeon was furious at being forced to admit there might be some truth to the stories concerning the means by which the Emperor and Vader had consolidated and held the reins of control for so long. On his way back to the bridge he set a blistering pace. From there he piped an all-channels order throughout the ship, summoning Jade to the bridge and his small office alcove.
To her credit, she appeared promptly. But nothing Mara Jade did would ever put her in Captain Pallaeon's good graces. He disliked everything she represented: The antithesis of law and order in the Empire. He hated having her under foot at every turn. Let the rebels weaken their forces by including females in their ranks. The Imperium was not so foolish. Of the old school, he was firmly of the opinion that no woman was combat worthy. Fit only for bearing children and caring for the household. To appear gracious at functions, making idle conversation, obedient to her husband, supporting him in his ambitions. And Pallaeon made certain Jade knew his opinion.
"You summoned me?"
Expressionless, Jade awaited instructions, as always successfully irritating Pallaeon. She was conscious of his hatred for her presence on board ship. That he despised her the special training Palpatine had ensured she received. Not to mention the tutoring by Imperial Academy instructors which went against the grain of everything Pallaeon and his fellow officers were taught. But she was determined not to permit petty dictators like this officer push her to the point where she would do something that would terminate her career. Too much lay behind.
And then there was Skywalker. Without the support of these self-important fools it would take her a very long time indeed to confront the Jedi Master. And from that meeting she planned that only she would walk away the survivor.
"The Admiral wants to see you immediately."
Clearly the Grand Admiral was not on the bridge, so Jade waited patiently for Pallaeon to enlighten her as to Thrawn's whereabouts. She was familiar with Pallaeon's habit of baiting her. Sensed it now in the manner in which he supplied her with information, fragment by fragment.
"He's in his cabin."
Without waiting for official dismissal, she inclined her head in the merest suggestion of a salute before departing the bridge office. Behind her Jade sensed rising rage in CHIMAERA's Captain, his black mood feeding the dark side of the Force. She hid her satisfaction. Nor did she allow the bridge staff to impede her progress.
Jade ignored their startled glances when Pallaeon appeared in the doorway, features suffused with rage. There was nothing the Captain could do in retaliation. Worse, by displaying uncontrolled emotions, he compounded the effect of her minor triumph.
Upon reaching Thrawn's cabin, Jade paused outside to collect herself. It was ill advised to allow the Grand Admiral to witness her level of satisfaction at her personal triumph over his second-in-command. That would immediately betray her actions to him. Yet when she entered the cabin it appeared the Admiral was well aware of what had transpired minutes earlier.
He pushed one side of his vid-screen until it faced toward her. Displayed on it was the bridge. "You do seem to enjoy baiting Pallaeon, Jade."
"Sir?" Mara did her best to appear contrite, but failed. She did not exacerbate the error by attempting to excuse her actions.
"Don't pretend remorse with me, Jade. It doesn't suit you." He waited. Saw her gaze drop to the floor, still unrepentant. But at least she had the good grace not to argue with him as others might. "If you and Pallaeon continue this senseless feuding I shall have to permanently remove you from the ship. I will not have you undermining the efficient operation of my command vessel."
"Nor have I any wish to waste talent in something so useless as petty vengeance. Which is precisely what will happen should you continue pushing Pallaeon." In the face of that statement Mara Jade remained absolutely motionless. Thrawn continued. "And that is what will most assuredly happen if I do not step in now. It would be tragic if something---untoward happened to you. And anything could happen on board ship, much of which could not be conclusively proved as other than a tragic accident."
He need not make the matter any clearer. Accidental decompression was not unknown, particularly on TIE fighters. Jade muttered acceptance of whatever decision he made. "Yes, sir."
Terminal facing him once more, the Admiral pursed his lips. It appeared he was giving the matter considerable thought, although Jade suspected he had already decided what he was going to say next. Nothing Thrawn did was ever left to chance or last minute. Except during combat.
"As is," Thrawn informed her, "I have your latest assignment before me. Fortunately. Before I give you the data chip, I must impress upon you the importance of your mission. You must succeed in uncovering the truth behind the information encrypted on this."
"Yes, sir." Even as she responded, Jade eyed the wafer the Admiral tendered for her to see. "I'll do my best."
"I know you will." He tossed her the chip. She expertly fielded it. Stared at it. "Your first stop will be Endaba. Check in with Base Commander Garial. I've released a gunboat for your personal use, plus a writ with considerable authority to obtain whatever you believe you require during your assignment." As Jade prepared to respond Thrawn held up a hand, "Take care you don't abuse this discretion I'm imparting, Jade."
"I won't, sir. I won't fail you."
Satisfied with her answer, Admiral Thrawn nodded. "It satisfies me to know you will perform to the best of your ability. Now, go on. Gather your belongings and get off my ship, trouble-maker."
He was actually teasing her, uncharacteristic for Thrawn. Mara stared at him. She hovered, uncertain. The Admiral flipped a hand at her twice, reinforcing his dismissal. She left the office.
For all her hasty departure, she did not miss the presence of a junior officer lurking in the passage outside the Grand Admiral's cabin. Their eyes met. Her mouth curled in a sneer before she casually headed off in the opposite direction, not bothering to see whether or not he followed her or reported directly back to Pallaeon.
In her cabin she inserted the data chip into her computer terminal and settled herself to read what was on it. Hours later, she sat back and stared, unseeing, at the now blank computer screen.
"A creature capable of deadening Force talents? That's not possible."
And yet, Grand Admiral Thrawn obviously believed there was some truth to the myth. Here was her task: Find the world on which these creatures existed and bring him back samples. As much as she cringed from the thought of having her own abilities stunted in such a fashion, Jade realized what an awesome weapon such creatures would be against the New Republic's Jedi Master. Enthralled, she prepared to depart the fleet in pursuit of that first, tenuous lead listed on the chip.
On board the MILLENNIUM FALCON Luke Skywalker came instantly awake. Through sleep fog he groped in an effort to recapture that ethereal touch, familiar and yet different at the same time. The Jedi Master lay in the darkness ignoring the low-key boop Artoo emitted when the droid realized his master was awake. He raised a hand, quieting his droid. All external input now blocked out Luke reached back through memory and time. Again he sensed that momentary, plaintive cry through the Force. Into the darkness of the cabin he whispered his sister's name.
He had known it from the first, but needed to be certain. Now positive she had called out to him, Luke tried again to reach her. Hyperspace provided too much interference. Resigned to waiting, he schooled himself to sleep once more. But it eluded him. At length he tossed back the thermal cover.
Dome rotating to track his master's activities, curious, his solitary eye and diodes left blurry red and blue tracks in the darkened room as Artoo watched while Luke dressed. When he quietly made his way out to the freighter's lounge, Artoo followed. The absence of See-Threepio seemed strange, somehow. But prudence dictated the protocol droid travel on board their sister-ship for the majority of this mission. After all, as ordinary freetraders this vessel's crew of two could scarcely afford an astro-mech droid, let alone a droid as sophisticated as a protocol droid. The only reason Artoo was permitted to remain on the FALCON was due to the ease with which he could hide and his ability to remain quiet when necessity dictated. Despite these reasons, Threepio had not been easily banished to the transport. Luke did not envy his friends on board the other vessel.
Unable to sleep, Luke resorted to meditation exercises. He rested his head against the low back of the couch, shut his eyes and let go, sinking through the first level. Gradually his breathing and heart rate regulated. Second level was attained. His eyes snapped open, staring into infinity.
All around him ship systems cricked and crackled, hissed and sighed. Circuitry monitored and fed back systems responses to the automatic pilot. Shields automatically rotated and adjusted strengths to accommodate for where and when space debris was thickest. Beneath it all thrummed the low-pitch vibration of the hyper drive.
Further out, beyond the ship's skin, Luke felt the abrasive push of minuscule dust particles brushing across shields as they plunged through space. Starlight, warped to streamers on either side of them, rushed away and vanished off their stern.
Although twisted and distorted by hyperspace travel, the Force pulsed all around him. Yoda's teaching showed him exactly where to look for the intricate, delicate fabric of life. Within its fragile web he rested. Ripples spread out from disturbances, major and minor, throughout the galaxy, washing over him even here. Life forms lived and died within the natural order of things. It was only the cruelty of sentient life that created black ripples; rings which shriveled the connecting strands, threatening to destroy the very balance within which they all dwelt. Somewhere within that seeming limitless expanse was Leia. Trapped. Cut off from her brother, her husband and friends. And he meant to find her and return her to where she belonged.
"Luke?" A hand touched him, tentative, worried, dragging him back. "Hey, kid. Are you all right?"
Eyes refocusing, Luke forced a small grin. "Yeah, Han. I'm fine."
"Just meditating," Luke explained. In truth he felt as rested and refreshed as he would after ten hours sleep. He stretched then slid from behind the table.
Uncertain, Han studied his brother-in-law. He sought further reassurance in Luke's face before retaliating with a familiar drawl. "Sure you were. With your eyes wide open. Millions wouldn't believe you, kid. But I do."
At that dubious note, Luke asked him. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Been up almost an hour. Found you sitting there when Chewie and I got up to check the instruments. You looked like a statue. Eyes wide open, staring at nothing. Spooked Chewie pretty badly. Made him start talking about forest spirits."
"Ah." Annoyed that he was showing more concern than he felt acceptable, the Corellian brushed it aside with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry about it. Just---try not to make a habit of it. Okay?"
"Sure." Relieved Han was no longer pressuring him about his exercises, Luke turned their conversation to a safer topic. "How much longer to Ghorman?"
"That's what I came to tell you. We're coming up on our drop coordinates now. Chewie's in the cockpit with Artoo."
Han in the lead, Luke entered the cockpit. He slipped past his droid and slid into the nav-puter seat. Artoo greeted his master with a short beep, his dome swiveling from side to side as he watched Han take his place in the pilot's seat. Chewie woofed at the pair then gestured to the view beyond with a waft of long hair whisking the air. A red light flashed on the control console.
Han announced their approach. "Right. Here we go. Let's hope those hull additions do their job, otherwise we won't get past first toss."
'There's no such thing as luck,' said a calm voice in the Jedi Master's head.
Another voice added, 'Life is what you make of it.'
It took all Luke's self-control not to seek out the authors of those words. For a moment he shut his eyes and saw Ben Kenobi's quiet smile. He felt the presence of the old man like a comforting hand on his shoulder, along with the ghostly poke of a gimmer stick in his ribs.
"Hey. Kid." Someone shook him. Luke blinked. Startled, he met Han's troubled look. Chewbacca growled and shook his own hairy head. "You sure you're not sick or something?"
"I'm all right, Han." When his brother-in-law continued doubtful, Luke insisted. "Really."
Skeptical, Han slowly redirected his attention to inspecting the readouts before his position and muttered, "If you say so."
"Thought I told you not to scare us like that."
"I'm sorry. Something distracted me is all."
Starlight stretched, wavered, and abruptly snapped back to normal pinpoints. All business, Han's attention turned from what Luke considered a potentially dangerous subject. The crew went about their normal duties as they entered the system. A nav-buoy flashed by.
Their forward speed slowed appreciably. Ghorman hung before them. Its system consisted of five planets. Only the second was habitable without artificial enhancements, moonless. The innermost world was a cinder, far too close to its sun for any known sentient. The third and fourth worlds had long since been mined out and were now used for shipyards and penal colonies respectively. Between the third and fourth worlds tumbled a sizeable asteroid field.
Conversely, the real beauty of this region in space lay in its neighbouring twin systems. Seen from space, they were amazing. From Ghorman, at the time of High Festival, which occurred once every thirty-five years, they produced a spectacular, awe-inspiring display of twisting nebulae and arching gases against a star filled backdrop.
Preprogrammed, the FALCON took them on a circuitous route beneath the Ghorman asteroid belt. Along the way they passed several hardscrabble miners and their tugs and rigs. Certain asteroids were rich in desirable metals, gemstones and precious alloys. Though definitely not plentiful enough to support large corporations, there were more than sufficient quantities of semi-precious stones and metals to warrant the attention of individual stakes. While Han admired the miners' tenacity, thought of spending most of one's life in vacuum repelled him. His body gave a reflexive shiver.
Han shook his head to Luke's question. "No. Just thinking what it must be like making a living doing that."
He pointed, drawing his companions' attention to a nearby tug. To the miner scooting between his tug and a massive chunk of frozen rock and ice looking like a parasite by comparison to his claim. Head tilted back, Chewie emitted a subdued howl.
"You said a mouthful." When his brother-in-law grinned at that remark, he did not bother translating. Enough years lay between for Luke to have picked up a smattering of Wookiee. And when he did not fully understand he appeared to sense the underlying meaning.
Luke let drop a remark. "Strange sentiments coming from someone who, I seem to recall, once decided to hide out in an asteroid field."
"Yeah, well. You had to be there at the time."
In response to those words, Chewie released a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort. Before Han could say another word Chewie got busy with ship functions. Luke was not so subtle.
"Ranks right up there with hiding out on the backside of a star destroyer."
Han Solo went stiff. Then he slowly twisted at the waist to stare at his brother-in-law. Briefly he raised a finger in warning. "Don't get smart. I seem to recall a cocky kid who went chasing through Bespin Cloud City after a certain Sith Lord."
"As you said," Luke retaliated with an impish grin, "you had to be there at the time."
Totally nonplussed, Han stared at him. Finally he managed a more down-to-earth retort. "Right. So why don't you make yourself useful? Check out sensor sweeps and see if you can pick up GEM LITE on our inter-ship band."
Unfazed, Luke turned his seat to face the console on his left. Attention bent to the board controls he keyed the communications link to the special tight band installed and encoded to the two ships by Cov-Ops on Coruscant. Certain everything was on line, Luke sent out a questing signal in search of their shadow vessel. At first, nothing greeted his attempts. Chewie shifted uneasily, coughed a remark to Han.
"They're out there, Chewie," Han said, unshaken. "GEM LITE's just slower than the FALCON, is all."
"RUSZTIGUZ to GEM LITE." Luke tried again, using their cover call sign. "You out there, guys?"
"RUSZTIGUZ, this is GEM LITE. Yeah. We're here." Stress and frustration tinged Lando's voice as he finally responded to their call. "Did you have to pour on the power that way?"
"Sorry, GEM LITE," said Han. "Must have been that over-haul."
"Sure. I believe you buddy. Millions wouldn't, but I do." Lando unintentionally paraphrased words the Corellian had spoken short minutes earlier.
"Glad to hear it."
Aware they could not continue wasting time, Luke asked him. "Have you picked out a spot yet?"
"Sure have. Got a really big mother out here. Two-thirds ice, one third dust ball," said Lando, all business once more. "And just enough of the right metal content to play havoc with all but the most sophisticated sensors. We'll just slip into the terminator and match speeds with her. Patching through our coordinates now."
As the figures appeared, Luke affirmed. "Got them."
"Right. Watch for us on your way out."
"Okay, GEM LITE. Will do. RUSZTIGUZ out."
"All right," said Han. "Since we're all ready, let's get this show on the road."
Ghorman loomed ever larger before them, until it swallowed any view of space. In keeping with procedures Han opened official channels and requested landing authorization and instructions. More suspicious than some worlds, Ghorman Port Authority ordered them into a holding pattern in company of several other vessels of varying classifications. Meanwhile their recognition beacon was confirmed. As ever, Han muttered maledictions under his breath and Chewbacca nervously played his fingers across the circuits, double-checking everything.
Outwardly unconcerned Luke waited, apparently content with the proceedings. Inwardly he sent a questing tendril out through the Force across the planet below. As expected he encountered the usual diversity of life, living, dying, breeding, giving birth, and being born. There were no curious blanks or telltale peculiarities within the population, sentient or otherwise. Nor was there any sign of his sister.
With a blink, Luke looked forward and discovered they were already descending through cloud layers to the port. Han glanced back, a slight frown creasing his brow.
"With us again?" For all his concern over his missing wife, he still found the ability to tease Luke. "I really wish you wouldn't keep doing that."
Rather than dignify the remark, Luke said simply, "She isn't here."
It took several seconds for his words to sink in. Then Han's shoulders slumped slightly. "She isn't?"
"Then maybe we should just call it quits. Try another lead."
Luke shook his head. His right hand blocked his friend just as Solo reached out automatically to take them back out of orbit. "No. I still sense our best bet for information lies here."
Reluctantly, Han conceded. "Okay, kid. It's your call."
Much as he hated relinquishing control of any situation to another, Han recognized Luke was the only one who had any real notion of where to start looking for Leia. A witness to the close tie that brother and sister possessed, he could no longer entirely discount certain aspects of what Ben Kenobi had called the Force. In fact, more and more he was accepting the Jedi Knights possessed very real, if generally unnerving, talents. One very over-powering Sith Lord had been most persuasive on that point at Bespin.
"RUSTIGUTZ, this is Ghorman Port Authority. You are cleared to land. Transmitting your landing frequency now."
"Thank you, Ghorman Port Authority." Han Solo watched for the telltale. "Copy receipt of your transmission. Descending on beacon nine-four-nine-two-one."
Bent forward between the seats, Luke rested his left hand on the back of the pilot's seat for balance as he sought a better view of their destination. The Wookiee crooned in the back of his throat before continuing with his tasks. They broke through the cloud cover. Spread out below them was their port of call.
Unlike other worlds no city had been allowed to spring up around Port Halkeon. Structures were confined to ship repair facilities, docking bays, speeder rental services, warehouses, employment centres for the itinerant, purchasing and sales agents, and the ubiquitous Port Authority, Customs and Excise, and emergency medical and crash facilities.
Nestled as it was in a depression that had once formed an alkali plain, and surrounded by high hills, it afforded the locals excellent protection from all but the worst accident. Its location reminded Luke somewhat of Mos Eisley. Except for the stunted forest cresting the hills he could have been back on Tatooine.
"Doesn't appear to offer a lot," he said as they settled into their assigned docking bay. All too quickly the blast walls rose up, cutting off the view with uniform grey plasti-crete.
"Halkeon doesn't. But there are other, better settlements in the vicinity, though you can't see much with this fog." To that observation Han gestured in the general direction of northwest, giving the young Jedi Master a quick geography lesson. "Nearest city's Bwinto, just over those hills. There's a second set of rises beyond the ones you saw on the way down."
"Yeah. Occupies a wide bay on the shore of the Miradei Ocean. Real show piece."
"What do you mean?"
Han did not reply immediately. He and Chewie quickly went through their systems check prior to putting the freighter on stand-by power source. Outside a droid trundled into view and began connecting external power couplings. Lights winked out or switched from green to amber all across the FALCON's consoles. Here and there a few remained green, permanently on stand-by. Cockpit lighting dimmed. The Corellian spun around.
"Time for you to disappear, Chewie."
Reluctantly the Wookiee left his spot at the controls, moaning and barking his complaint. He pushed past Luke, and halted just inside the lounge. Luke and Han caught up with him. Chewbacca whined another complaint to his partner.
"Sorry, Chewie. You aren't on the registration for this ship. And there's no way we could explain you away as a charter." Solo paused. Glowered at the astro-mech that was trying to make itself impossibly small behind Luke. "You, too, Artoo."
Still grumbling, Chewie accompanied Han down the passage toward the cargo holds. Equally displeased with the arrangement, Artoo Detoo objected to his master, stubbornly hunkered down on his tripod legs. Luke was no less insistent than Solo. With a mournful electronic sigh, the little droid hurried off after the freighter crew. This was a situation all appreciated though none of them liked. It was definitely not the first time this group had resorted to concealing themselves in the smugglers holds: a special addition to the freighter installed by Han to carry illegal cargoes of Kessel spice. All recalled their first sojourn which had found them crouching in cramped quarters below the real decks, their life signs masked by special electronic scramblers, as they were drawn into the first DEATH STAR.
"Better hurry." Luke remained by the primary access hatch. "Customs is just entered the docking bay."
"Right with you, kid."
"I'm opening the outside hatch."
"On my way."
Loud clanking announced the deck plates being fitted into place. Han reappeared moments later. And just in time. There was barely enough time for both to glance over their disguises. Then the ramp completed its transition and the airlock cycled.
To the Halkeon officials this ship was much like other free-lance tramp freighters, its crew a motley pair dressed in clean, if worn tan jumpsuits. While the youngster slouched against a nearby bulkhead, his eyelids drooping over neutral blue eyes, the elder haggled over port tax, landing fees and the day-to-day cost of the docking bay and its utilities. Around them the inspectors scoured the ship, emerging at last to give it a relatively clean bill of health.
Although considered among the best at bartering in the known galaxy, the three Ghorman officials knew they had come off on the short end when they eventually departed. Indeed none of them had initially expected that two such scruffy, bearded individuals with a dilapidated freighter could drive so hard a bargain. Looks could definitely be deceiving. Impressed by the pilot's abilities, the officials made note to check with resident shipping firms at a later date to see what came of the impending encounter. And who came out on top.
Once the Customs officers were gone, Luke stepped away from the strut. "Was that wise?"
All innocence, Han countered. "What? Bartering? It's a way of life here. If you don't barter they treat you like an outcast. You'd never get any business done here. Or else they'll stiff you for everything they can get."
One of his best cryptic looks lighting his face, Luke grabbed up a lightweight jacket. One pocket dragged at the jacket, his lightsabre making its presence known. He trudged off down the ramp to the outside. While Han performed a walk-around of the freighter, Luke drew on his jacket and sauntered out the tunnel to the street. In the soft light of an overcast sky, he found a small niche in the docking bay wall. From that vantage he watched the street in both directions and the sky above.
Behind him, Han continued checking connections and inspecting the hull for any obvious damage or loosening of the protrusions which altered the FALCON's outward conformation to something less likely to attract unwelcome attention. Finally satisfied with the condition of his vessel, he joined Luke in the street.
"How do we get where we're going?"
There was no obvious visible means of suitable ground transportation in the immediate area that the Jedi Master could see. But he also knew Han habitually preferred mechanized transportation to foot travel. Given their destination was a considerable distance from the port Luke knew there had to be other means of getting to the other city.
"What? You mean your all-powerful Force isn't going to conjure us transportation?" Remarkably resembling a holo-vid tragic hero, Solo rolled his eyes toward the gravid clouds sagging over the port.
Aware his brother-in-law was needling him Luke released an exasperated sigh. "Han."
"Can't you take a joke?"
"Don't know about that." Unaccustomed to the ratty beard now doubly itchy with the damp, Han scratched vigorously at his chin. "You've been too damn serious for words lately."
An eyebrow rising, Luke repeated his earlier question. "So how do we get to Bwinto?"
"Call a rental."
With a grin, Han led off down the street between docking bays. Overhead, clouds both muffled the sounds of incoming ships and, strangely, amplified the roar of outgoing vessels. Fog thickened. Moisture condensed out of the atmosphere onto their skin. All too soon their hair was sodden. Propitiously the weather was warm, as well as humid. Unfortunately it did not mean they were comfortable. Water tickled in cold dribbles down their necks and cheeks.
Han turned aside. Stepped beneath an overhang. Set into the wall was a two-person size booth. They squeezed in, conscious of how wet they were and the odour of soaked synthetic fabric. Through a rental agency, Han secured them a speeder with canopy.
"Best I can do." He apologized to Luke.
"Never mind," said Luke.
After the incipient precipitation of Dagobah this weather was bearable. Although he would never admit it to Han he could easily have dissipated the moisture drenching them. But dry clothes in such conditions would be far too noticeable. He could and did hold the chill at bay. Caught up in attempting to second-guess their next move, Han failed to notice he no longer felt cold.
Their transportation arrived. Set on automatic, it required no driver, sentient or otherwise. Nor could they take possession until Han released sufficient credits to cover rental for two days standard.
"Rip off," said Han sourly. "A Ghorman day's longer than galactic standard. But most tourists wouldn't know that."
"I can see how they might turn an unexpected profit," said Luke as they climbed in. "Tell me some more about Bwinto."
Talking detracted from the adverse weather conditions and Han readily set to instructing his brother-in-law on the idiosyncrasies of their destination. To their credit the rental agency had sent them a vehicle with built-in blowers. Soon they were dry and reasonably comfortable. Luke wrung excess water from his ponytail over the seat back. His actions drew a grin from Solo. Elbows resting on the locked controls, Han told Luke what he knew.
"The previous governor's predecessor was quite particular about his surroundings. Early into his tenure he had his personal guard and the local militia roust out all itinerants and the poor, raised every building that did not suit his needs or criteria and rebuilt the entire city centre. By his edict, which survives to this day, no building may rise above five stories for an apartment or office complex. Houses may have a tower or spire of a height not to exceed eight stories."
"Keeps the skyline visible." Mindful of Coruscant's grotesque urban sprawl Luke could not help drawing a comparison.
"Yeah. Well, it didn't mean they couldn't build down. And a lot of the rich did. Made considerable use of hydro-construction because of the water table." They surmounted the first rise, dipped toward the fold between. "Wait 'til you see the governor's residence."
"He lets people tour the place?"
"No." Solo shook his head. "Remember that grain shipment Rieekan's people---liberated just before the entire rebel operation shifted to Hoth?"
"Right. The Emperor wasn't at all forgiving. Sent Vader in to discuss the matter with the resident governor."
"I take it there was a change in authority?"
As they crested the second hill, Han requested the speeder draw off to the side of the road and park. From here they could see the lights of the city, kept on due to the gathering gloom of the storm. Artificial light gleamed from rain slick surfaces and flowed out across a sea that to Luke's amazement was pale pink.
"Happened to overhear a conversation not too long ago back on Coruscant about the residence. Seems everyone's convinced it's haunted. Won't go near it as night."
"Interesting." As he scanned the expanse of shoreline Luke picked out a line of buildings that seemed to hopscotch out into the bay: pavilions linked by arched, covered footbridges. "What's that?"
"That, brother mine, is the governor's residence."
Once more on their way they descended the last slope into the outskirts of the metropolis. Everywhere Luke looked the plasti-crete surfaces of buildings appeared dusty pink with glitter finish. The whole effect took on a surrealistic aspect given the weather.
Han broke the reflective silence. "Request personal control of vehicle at this time."
A metallic voice confirmed the request was granted. "City limits have been achieved. Controls now released to rentor."
As they neared the city outskirts, Han steered sharp right, skirting the perimeter. They headed away from the Governor's residence. Luke did not question his decision, content to let the Corellian take the lead at this juncture. In watching the locals Luke quickly discovered two things. Traffic discipline was strictly adhered to. Pedestrians crossed at either end of a city block or at the middle. Secondly, the streets and buildings were meticulously clean.
"Not too many vehicles."
"That's 'cause permits are tough to come by for use within the city. Lots of public transport. These babies," Han thumped on hand against the control column, "are robo-driven from port to out-lying communities. But you have to get one with a real driver going back to the port."
"Why is that?"
"If you can give me a good answer, I'll take it as gospel." Reluctantly Han admitted ignorance. "I ain't entirely figured out their regs yet myself."
Fascinated, Luke gazed at the buildings, seeking the least obvious places. Spots where electronic surveillance must certainly be employed to ensure unswerving obedience to regulations. Before long he located points where he was positive such devices were situated. A quick check with the Force confirmed his suspicions.
He commented on the general appearance of the metropolis. "Clean place."
"Stiff fines for breaking the rules," Han said glumly. "Place is riddled with security surveillance. Gonna make our job harder."
"It won't be a problem, Han."
"And just how do you figure to disable them?"
"Trust me." Luke borrowed a phrase from his friend that did nothing to reassure the Corellian.
Not entirely comforted by that, Han could only hope Luke knew what to do if it became necessary for them to slip away unmonitored. "Whatever you say, kid."
Aware Han did not share his confidence in his abilities, Luke refrained from pursuing that topic. Their transportation slowed. A left-turn and they passed through a gap between two buildings, over which ran two stories, and entered an inner courtyard. Here there was no room for more than two vehicles. In fact, there was no sign of any parking at all. Han braked. Their forward momentum halted, he switched off the drive. The speeder promptly settled on its repulsor cushion.
"Here we are," he said. "Cheapest flop in the city. Which, trust me, ain't saying much."
Familiar as he was with inexpensive portside housing, first impressions of this place led Luke to believe the exact opposite. However, his two mentors had taught him one very important lesson: appearances could definitely be deceiving. Still, Han expected him to say something.
Luke voiced his initial observation. "Looks pretty expensive to me. You sure we can afford it?"
"Oh, it's reasonable enough by Ghorman standards," said Han. "As long as you don't expect any frills."
"Like food?" Luke could not resist the dig.
"Very funny, kid. Come on."
Inside, the small alcove was pleasantly apportioned, with a single entrance from the outside. To the left was a second doorway. The Jedi Master surreptitiously nudged Han. Mouthed, "One way in."
"And out," Han said from the side of his mouth.
Neither of them enjoyed the feeling of being trapped in a dead-end, Han least of all. His back to the concierge, Luke lounged against the counter while Han paid for two days up front.
'Everything here appears to come in pairs,' Luke reflected. Two days initial landing clearance. Two days booking required at any rooming establishment, the remainder refunded should the individual depart early. Then there was the two-hour rental requirement for the speeder. And so it went. Outside the front entrance Luke noticed their speeder was gone. He made a mental note to ask Han later about rental policies.
"Come on, kid."
Yanked from his inspection of the area, Luke turned. Found Han holding up two key chips. The Jedi Master accepted one. With the casual demeanor of the well-traveled trader, he sauntered after his brother-in-law. Beyond the second door rose a flight of stairs leading up off their right. A balcony on the upper level circled the tiny foyer. Several conform-seats, a couple of tables and a holo-vid jockeyed for space with a number of large potted plants on ground level. Pale green and cream was the over-all motif, a most peculiar, if psychologically pleasing hue.
He kept his inquiry for his companion alone. Han gave a short shake of his head. They took the stairs with all the unhurried pace of two weary travelers seeking bed. Once on the upper landing, Han readily answered Luke's questions.
"No speeders are allowed to remain longer than ten minutes outside any establishment."
"Guess that means tourists are pretty well trapped into foot travel."
"Yeah, or public transport. Ghorman goes in for a lot of that. Real health fanatics. Early on they settled that no buildings four stories or less would employ turbo-lifts for anything except cargo transferal and the severely handicapped. Only senior government officials are permitted the privilege."
"What about the infirm?"
"Oh, there are plenty of ground floor rooms."
"Must be a real problem if the place is pretty well full up."
"Nope. They start with the upper floors."
"Well, I suppose it can't hurt."
"Unless you're in a hurry." Han obliquely reminded him of their mission.
"Then we'll just have to make sure we don't have to make a run for it," was Luke's response to that statement.
They halted outside their assigned room. Chip inserted into its slot, Han released the door. Inside were two single beds on opposite sides of the room, a low commode between. Two conform-chairs faced the foot of each bed. Han threw himself onto the first available bed without bothering to remove his boots. Arms folded behind his head, he crossed his feet and stared at the Jedi Master.
"Okay, kid. Now what?"
"We wait for nightfall."
"Sure. Why the hell not. Meanwhile Chewie and Artoo are gonna go stir-crazy on board the FALCON."
"That can't be helped. Besides, they don't have to stay inside the compartments."
"Easy for you to say. There are some of us who have this problem with interfering droids."
"You're too hard on Threepio."
"And I suppose Artoo's no problem."
"Not for me."
"Hah!" When Luke did not follow up on his brother-in-law's scornful snort, Han continued. "Okay. We wait for night. Then what?"
"You know the best spots for the local night life."
"Didn't know you were so interested in the local colour. Should have told me sooner, kid. There're a couple of bars on Coruscant I could take you---" Sight of Luke's studious expression made Solo break off with a laugh. "All right. If we're going bar-hopping tonight we better get some sleep."
Without getting up, the Corellian levered off his boots with his toes and kicked them on the floor. His blaster holster and belt went onto the small table between the beds. To his amazement, however, Luke settled on the floor between the beds. Unbinding his ponytail he shook out his shoulder-length hair, crossed his legs, and shut his eyes.
Han leaned over the side of his bed. "You aren't planning to spend the rest of the day down there, are you kid?"
Without opening his eyes, Luke responded with a quiet smile. While Han watched, fascinated, the Jedi Master went through breathing exercises to slow his heart rate. Soon it was difficult to tell whether or not he was alive. Gradually his fair head sagged slightly. Out of nowhere a pale blue nimbus formed around Luke's upper torso. The ends of his hair lifted and danced as though teased by a breeze only he could feel. Pale sparks danced down the length of his arms.
"Son of a sarlaac." Afraid of breaking the spell, Han confined himself to a soft curse.
But nothing appeared to disturb Luke. Time stretched away. Not a muscle twitched. Only the flit of tiny sparks moving up his body and through his hair disturbed the tableau. By straining, Han was positive he heard a faint crackling as with a mild, contained electrical field, although Luke would deny any existed was Solo to broach him on the subject. Hairs on the nape of Han's neck stirred and quivered in sympathetic response to that vision. The sight was so eerie it was a long time before the Corellian could force himself to look away. Every nerve screamed in protest against his actions as he purposefully turned his back on Luke Skywalker. Rolled onto his side, Han eventually slept.
Phosphorescence slithered back and forth across the surface of the ocean, pale gold and pink. The rain had moved off some time during the afternoon while they rested. Now the city smelt freshly scrubbed. Appreciative, Luke inhaled deeply, savouring the moment. He caught the faint scent of flora displays in window boxes, street displays and the dainty trees lining each primary boulevard. Soft lights illuminated every street. The Jedi Master gazed upward. Like a milky bow the asteroid belt arched across the twilight bowl, cutting the sky one-third, two-thirds, partially blotting out the stars. Puddles splashed beneath their feet.
"What's the name of this bar?"
"Huh?" Deep in thought, Han initially failed to hear the question.
"The bar. What's it called?"
"That's it? Just---Gaylor's?"
"Uh huh. Gaylor's a retired spacer. Runs a clean joint. Serves mostly cheap booze. Prices are outrageous, of course."
"But if you want information, Gaylor can get it for you."
"For a price."
"Can we afford him?"
"Probably not, but the New Republic sure can. And Madine made sure I had the necessary credit access before we started this jaunt."
"That's nice to know," said Luke. He had no desire to rook anyone out of finances unless pushed to it by extreme circumstances.
On the heels of Luke's words Han led him down five steps, through a narrow entrance and into a dimly lit, smoke-filled room. After the fresh night air adverse odours assailed Luke from all sides. Aphrodisiacs struck the back of his mouth the moment he drew his first breath in the fusty room; thick, cloying amid the acrid aroma of sweat. The stench of spilled food and drink, the blue haze of tabacc sticks further compounded the nose-twitching atmosphere. Perversely, the interior of the place was actually cleaner than the bar in Mos Eisley. Even so it was all Luke could do not to sneeze. At his side he heard Han sniff. Sniffed again as they threaded a narrow path between tables.
Halfway along the right side a booth stood empty. Before anyone else could claim it, Han drew Luke to it. They sat down, conscious of glares from several patrons leaning against the bar. Unlike most establishments Solo frequented, particularly when he required information, Gaylor's patrons were a cut slightly above average. It took a crew with a comfortable credit balance or those with contractual business to afford to visit Ghorman; only diplomats, military personnel on assignment, or wealthy tourists tended to stop over here. Itinerants were clearly not tolerated. After reviewing those present, Solo shook his head reflectively.
"Or," Han amended under his breath, "they weren't."
Adeptly reading his brother-in-law's body language, Luke scanned his surroundings. The manner in which Solo's eyes narrowed upon studying the room alerted him to something out of the ordinary. At least from Han's experience.
"Just inspecting the clientele. Looks like things are slipping around this joint," said Solo. They were interrupted before Luke could query him further.
"What's your pleasure?"
Both glanced up at the waiter. Without skipping a beat Luke purchased a mild concoction while Han demanded Corellian brandy. His order caused Luke to tip his head. Han grinned. Their waiter returned in short order with their drinks. Han sipped it. Time slipped by. Gradually the bar filled until it was nearly impossible to move. From somewhere a band appeared and struck up a fairly popular number. Still they waited. And watched the crowd. A figure abruptly cut off their view of the other patrons.
"Are you two gonna order something else? Or are you just gonna nurse those glasses? If so, you'll have to leave. Can't have non-paying customers holding down space paying customers want."
Luke half-expected Han to rise to the challenge. But a glance at his brother-in-law revealed Han Solo knew this man. He allowed the other to finish his spiel. Then he slowly looked up.
One hand resting against the edge of the table in their booth, Gaylor stared down at them. He, in turn, was prepared to call the bouncer to toss this pair out should they prove difficult. Once possessing the rangy build of a spacer, he was now on the pudgy side. Years of tending bar, with limited staff to make ends meet, and taking meals when and where he could, fast put Gaylor on the losing end of the battle of the bulge. A fringe of hair circled the otherwise bald crown of his head. There was no doubting the strength in his bulging biceps.
Shrewd green-brown eyes missed very little, his assessment of character was flawless. After intense examination he recognized the older man in spite of the ragged beard and drooping mustache framing his mouth. On the other hand the younger man with shaggy fair hair and seemingly guileless blue eyes remained an unknown quantity. He sensed that, for all outward appearances, this person was a first-timer to Ghorman. His eyes drifted between the two customers, fixed on the younger once more.
His inspection of this patron provided Gaylor with an enigma. An individual whom he was unable to categorize beyond the fact that the young man was possibly as innocent as they came of the world and its hazards. Why the generally shrewd Corellian would company with someone so naive was beyond Gaylor. Also missing was Solo's partner. Absence of the Wookiee troubled Gaylor further. About to speak, Gaylor found himself staring into the younger man's eyes once more. Something in the stranger's demeanor caused the proprietor to redirect himself to the Corellian.
"You've put on a bit of weight since I was through here last," said the object of Gaylor's scrutiny before he could question his presence.
"Is that really you, Solo?"
Unable to lie to this man with whom he had done business over the years, Han greeted him. He kept his voice low. "Hey, Gaylor. How's business?"
"Good. Can't complain." Gaylor glanced toward the bar. Gave his one helper a sign that he was not to disturb this pair. Then he leaned on the table and stared down at Solo. "It's been better since the Empire collapsed."
"Customer quality's dropping off though."
"Yeah. Well. Their credits are good." Gaylor shot another quick glance around the busy taproom. "What brings you here? Who's your quiet friend? And where's Chewbacca?"
"In order, information. My brother-in-law," Solo told him flatly in order. "Around."
Before Han could continue, Gaylor broke in. "You? You're really married? Spice and kaiburr crystals! Well. This certainly deserves a drink on the house." On the verge of summoning the waiter Gaylor felt a surreptitious pressure on his arm. He looked down. Found the younger man's left hand resting firmly on his arm.
"I don't believe that would be a good idea," the youngster said in a manner that brooked no argument.
Intrigued, Gaylor stared at Han's companion, casually locking glances. More often than not he could stare down his patrons. Sensed when to avoid making such an attempt. This time round he felt as though he had grabbed a Calamari naragyl by the tail in a free-for-all wrestling-match in the naragyl's natural element.
Distant relatives of the gentle Calamari, naragyl grew up to three metres. Their mouths were a quarter their length and lined with three rows of serrated teeth. No one in their right mind hunted these deadly denizens. Although the teeth were prized by the Calamari for scrimshaw work, the razor sharp teeth were usually gleaned from specimens discovered washed up on beaches.
A shudder sped the length of Gaylor's spine. His legs trembled as though he had just raced the entire length of the city with a speeder full of blaster-happy stormtroopers hot on his heels. Knees locked to prevent him collapsing he leaned heavily against the table. Eyelids blinked, cutting off that blue-eyed stare. Abruptly, the frightening sensation dissipated. Gaylor blinked rapidly, wiped sweat from his brow.
Unable to stop himself he demanded. "Who---are you?"
Concerned for his old acquaintance's welfare, Han glared at the Jedi Master. "Luke, what the hell did you do?"
"Nothing." Gaylor raised a hand. "He didn't do anything. I was stupid, is all." He swallowed heavily. Nodded toward the bench. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Sure. Why not?"
Curious, Solo moved over, giving him room. The proprietor sagged onto the seat next to Han and found his gaze drifting back to the man across the table. Gaylor hastily averted his eyes, not about to risk another encounter.
Still shaken, he turned to the Corellian. "I take it this isn't a social call, Solo, and you're not looking to advertise your presence here."
"Fine, just as long as I understand the situation. Now, then." Gaylor gave his head a minuscule jerk toward the quiet man across the table but refrained from looking in his direction. "Before we go any further I want one question answered up front. Just who the hell is he?"
Han remained enigmatic. "My brother-in-law."
"That's what you said before." Dissatisfied with that answer for all he knew Han Solo was telling him only the necessary truth, Gaylor insisted on knowing everything he could about the unreadable quantity in his taproom. "Now tell me exactly who the hell he really is."
Still determined not to give away all he knew, Han kept his answer short. "His name is Luke."
"Got a last name?" When Han hesitated, Gaylor insisted. "Look, Solo. You and me go way back. I thought we were friends. You want information, you're gonna have to trust me with the truth. Tell me who he is or I leave and you find what you need from someone else."
They had arrived at a temporary impasse. One in which there were only two options left them. In this instance Luke felt certain of the trustworthiness of their contact. Where Han remained reticent, the Jedi Master decided to play above board with Gaylor.
"I am Luke Skywalker."
Han's hissed admonishment was too little, too late. Incredulous, Gaylor slumped back in the seat. He shook his head in wonder, eyes automatically searching for, and failing to find, the telltale lightsabre.
"The Jedi Master. Damn me to every black hole in the sector and beyond. I should have known." Over-awed, the barkeeper discovered he was speechless. For a long time all Gaylor could do was study the Corellian, astonished to find Han Solo in such auspicious company. One finger idly traced whorls in a damp spot on the table between them. Finally he found his voice.
"Heard about you, Skywalker, but never thought I'd get the chance to meet you." Gaylor turned back to the Corellian. "Is he really your wife's brother?"
"Yeah," said Han, terse with contained anger. He glared at the Jedi Master. "And you'd think after all these years he'd know better than to shoot off his mouth."
Luke turned Han's anger aside with mild reproof. "I believe we can trust Gaylor."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," said Gaylor. Luke tipped his head, and Gaylor glanced around the taproom again. "So where's your old partner? Gone back to Kashyyyk?"
"Where I ought to be." Han growled back, prevaricating, and continued to glare at Luke. The Jedi Master remained unaffected, almost serene in the face of Han's continued accusation.
Astutely reading between the lines, Gaylor muttered, "Ah."
He gazed from one to the other, watching the play of emotions across Solo's face. Was stymied by the lack of any readable aspect in the Jedi Master. At length, Gaylor asked Han. "What exactly do you want, Solo? Is it someone or something you're seeking?"
There was no beating around the bush with Gaylor, particularly now Luke had let the proverbial out of the bag. Han answered without hesitation. "Someone."
In the wake of that admission Gaylor remained silent for several more minutes. To the rear of the bar the band struck up a fresh set. A potential brawl was quickly defused by two nondescript, unobtrusive characters who appeared as though from nowhere and ejected the belligerents. Gaylor returned his attention to Han.
"You staying at the usual place?"
"Under what name?"
"Riasko. Ship's the RUZTIGUTZ."
Without further comment, Gaylor pushed away from the booth. "Okay. Thank you for your hospitality, gentlemen. Excuse me. I have a business to run."
After their contact left, Han gestured the waiter to bring a second round. This time he ordered the same as Luke and was rewarded with a disdainful sniff from their server. They took their time finishing their drinks, then left the bar with much the same nonchalance with which they had entered. No one followed them. But even prior to their departure Luke was positive no one would. They returned to their room without incident.
Once in their room the Jedi Master asked him. "What do you think?"
At that question, Han shook his head. "Too early to tell. Gaylor'll come, or else he wouldn't have asked where we were staying. Whether or not he'll be able to tell us anything is another question altogether. What about you? Pick up anything?"
"At the bar? No. No one present recognized either of us---apart from your friend."
"Not a quiver. A few interested parties along the way back here. But I received the impression we looked a little too thin on the credits to be worth rolling. And I reinforced that."
"Good to know. Place really must be going down hill when an honest citizen should start worrying about getting rolled on Ghorman." Han reached out and gave Luke's shoulder a nudge. "Next time don't go blurting out information like that."
"If I hadn't told Gaylor what he wanted to know," said Luke calmly, "we would now be hitting every bar in town and probably striking out everywhere we went."
Their room vid-console buzzed before Han could pursue the subject further. He flicked the switch. On the screen appeared the concierge, the vid angle tight, accommodating only the person immediately in front of it.
"Excuse me, sir. I'm sorry to disturb you at this late hour."
"It's okay. We weren't in bed yet. What is it?"
"There's a---gentleman downstairs who wishes to speak with you and your companion."
In response to the question, the vid-screen promptly split. On the right third the concierge's image remained. The other two-thirds displayed a wide-angle view of the entire lobby. Accustomed to such methods of security, Gaylor faced toward the pick-up. H raised his right hand in greeting toward the viewers.
"It's okay. Send him up."
"Very good, sir."
The concierge disappeared from the screen. Now the images shifted. The left continued to hold a view of the lobby while the right tracked Gaylor into the hotel lounge, up the stairs and along the corridor.
"Impressive," said Luke. And meant it. This establishment, for all it was at the lower end of the rental spectrum, left very little to chance. "Very trusting people."
"It tends to keep uninvited guests from the doorstep."
"I didn't say I disapproved."
Luke stepped to the door. Caution foremost in mind, he used the Force to sweep the hallway outside but found nothing. By the time Gaylor reached it the Jedi Master was holding it open. Their contact slipped quickly inside and Luke shut the door behind him.
The first words out of Gaylor's mouth irritated Han more than anything else that had transpired since their landing on Ghorman. "So tell me, Solo. Is there any truth to the rumour that you married the New Republic's Head of State?"
Expression completely blank, Han stared back at Gaylor. Their contact held his gaze levelly and was amazed when he realized the story was fact. He grinned at the Corellian. Then abruptly he recalled the connection between the young Jedi Master and the Princess. Slowly he looked at Luke Skywalker. Dared eye contact and was relieved when nothing untoward came of that encounter.
Impressed, he pushed for more information. "So how does that make you her brother? Never heard tell of anyone else from Alderaan's first family surviving the destruction."
"It's a long story."
From the evasive reply Gaylor understood they were only interested in business. "Too bad there's no time. I always enjoy a good yarn. Thanks for confirming some of the stories I've been hearing, though." He got down to business, yielding to their determination. "All right, then. Let's cut through the pleasantries. Who exactly are you and your friend looking for, Solo?"
No longer concerned with mincing words, Han said, "Noritz."
Gaylor blinked and found himself unable to respond immediately. Then he found his voice. "Alganin Noritz?"
"The same," said Luke blandly.
Head shaking, Gaylor dropped into one of the two chairs. "I must admit, Solo. You never were one to pull your punches."
"Yeah. Well. You know how it is."
"Sure. But you guys aren't half asking a lot."
"But you know where we can find him."
"Why do you want him?"
Thoroughly irritated with the liberties Gaylor was taking, Han snapped back. "That's our business."
Accustomed to dealing with individuals like Han Solo, Gaylor pursed his lips. Considered the wisdom of releasing knowledge of Noritz's whereabouts to them. In retrospect it was evident this pair would eventually find the dealer given sufficient time. And since Gaylor had no liking for anyone who dabbled in slavery, he delivered the information.
"You know the price, Solo."
"I do. And you know I'm good for it."
"Just so we understand one another." Once more Gaylor risked a glance at the Jedi Master before telling them what they wanted to know. "He doesn't come into my place much anymore. Keeps to the southwest end of town. There are a couple of bars down that way---"
"If you can afford them," said Han, letting Luke know the district bordered on an area the Corellian would never previously have visited. Except that his financial status was better these days than it had been prior to becoming involved with the Rebel Alliance and its struggle for freedom. Marriage to Princess Leia had added to his credit range; a stipend from the New Republic, fitting for the husband of Her Royal Highness, sole survivor of the House of Alderaan. Something Gaylor suspected because he snorted.
"What are you worried about? Your wife must have brought in enough to keep you from worrying about losing your ship."
Suddenly Gaylor realized he had overstepped himself and was in serious peril. A deadly light flickered in Solo's eyes. The Jedi Master's mouth set in a thin, disapproving line at that indiscretion. Instantly on his feet even though there was no escape, Gaylor sought to make amends for his indiscretion.
"Sorry, Solo. Master Skywalker. Bad joke." Neither of them said a word or moved a muscle. Eyes shifting nervously, Gaylor swallowed hard. Uncertain what else to say he stated the obvious. "Yeah. Well. I think I've just overstayed my welcome. Solo, you'll find Noritz at the Gambler's Hand most nights."
Cold, implacable, Luke followed up. "And during the day?"
"Rumour has it he sometimes hangs out around the Governor's Residence."
Intrigued, Han let his anger fade. "Why the hell would he be out there? It ain't nothing but a tourist trap these days."
"Your guess is as good as mine," said Gaylor. He glanced at the small wall chronometer next to the vid-screen, relieved to have defused the potentially dangerous moment. "Look, I better go. Anyone sees me out too late's gonna wonder where I've been. And that's not good for business."
"Or us. Go on, then," said Han. "You'll find your usual in your account tomorrow---if your information's good."
"It's good, Solo."
For all the sharp edge to his voice, Gaylor played the game with the Corellian. They had known one another too many years. Had relied upon each other for help too many times to hold any genuine animosity for one another. He headed for the door, accompanied by the Jedi.
"Any time, Solo. Master Skywalker." Glad to be leaving, Gaylor managed to grin as Luke held the door open. "Just---not too soon, okay?"
Although the cloud cover was lifting, rain was falling once more when Luke and Han headed out in search of Noritz. This time they rode a rental speeder, canopy up, Han at the controls. Moisture sheeted down the overhead transparency, blurred the scenery until everything took on a surrealistic facet. Few people were abroad, local or tourist, which suited the pair.
First thing they drove into the commerce district. Familiar with the merchants, Han selected those most likely to be interested in shipping goods on an independent freighter. The first three declined, having all ready cleared their warehouses. The fourth, a Devonian named Molieb, was irritated by their approach.
"You've got a lot of gall, pilot." Horned head tilted slightly down, eyes glittering in the subdued lighting of his warehouse, he raked the pair with a piercing gaze. He refused to be intimidated by their attitude that matched his disinclination to back down. "The only human I'd trust with my cargo doesn't freight for the likes of us any more."
"Whatever he could do, I can do better," said Solo. Thumbs hooked in his blaster belt he appeared unimpressed with Molieb's declaration.
"No one," bit back the Devonian, "can equal the exploits of the great Han Solo."
Han choked on that. As he moved to argue he felt something poke him in the back. He glanced at his companion. But Luke was actually standing several feet away. Yet, when their eyes met he knew Luke was somehow responsible for the nudge.
Given that, Han was barely able to manage a limp counter. "Too bad. Everyone knows Solo's playing cozy with the New Republic's head of state. I'm just as good."
"But you're not Solo. And your ship isn't the FALCON." With those words, Molieb turned his back on them and walked away. He called over his shoulder as he departed. "Leave now. And I suggest you do not come back."
Again Solo made to counter that command. Felt a hand physically draw him out the door into the street. "Leave it." The Jedi Master softly cautioned him. "We don't need that much attention. Besides, we really don't want the cargo."
Never one to overlook an available credit, Han reluctantly conceded. "Yeah, well. I just can't believe I've been out-manoeuvred by a Devonian."
"It isn't easy fighting your own shadow," said Luke.
"You got that right." Unaware of his companion's introspection, Han considered their next move. "What now?"
"Now I suggest we go sightseeing." Anxious to be away and not about to let his brother-in-law know he was personally responsible for every one of their failures, Luke urged Han back to their rental vehicle. Necessity had dictated they substantially deplete their obvious finances with a self-drive rental.
By playing tourist, faithfully visiting each historic monument and natural wonder, they spent much of the remainder of the morning travelling from one location to the next. They broke for a mid-day snack and something to drink. Hiring another self-drive vehicle immediately following lunch, they headed toward their goal.
"Did you check on the ship?"
Not taking his eyes off the Heads-Up Display, Han nodded. He double-checked the readout of local attractions to ensure they were going in the right direction. Since the display consisted of a spider tracery of lines over-laying the forward windshield, all Han had to do was shorten his vision briefly. The momentary distraction failed to detract from his driving skill.
"Are they okay?"
"Yeah." Han turned right up a connecting street and drew up at a T-junction facing the ocean.
"What makes the water pink?" Curious, Luke watched the surface, fascinated by rills where the colour appeared darker.
"A bunch of really nasty micro-organisms," said Han. "First explorers discovered you don't want to even consider swimming in that ocean."
"Wouldn't think of it," said Luke. Without thinking he admitted, "Besides, I can't swim."
It took a minute for the announcement to sink in. When it did, a wicked grin twisted Han's lips. Something poked him in the ribs again. This time it was flesh and blood that made him flinch.
"Don't even think about it." Aware of what was passing though Solo's mind, the Jedi Master warned him, "I have no intention of finding myself floundering around some pool or pond in front of an auspicious gathering just for your gratification."
"Hey. Luke. Would I do that?"
"Right. Sure you wouldn't."
"Aw, you take all the fun out of it, kid. Anyway, you'd probably just levitate yourself out and spoil the suspense." A spin of the controls brought the speeder and its occupants down the water front drive with the ocean to their left. Ahead loomed the Governor's residence.
"There it is."
Through the Force Luke sought definitive answers to their most imperative question, but found only more questions. He shook his head. "I can't help here, Han."
"So we rely on our own resources." The irony of the moment was not lost on the Corellian. "Hell. There's nothing to it. We've done this before. Lots of times."
This time Luke grinned sheepishly, recalling previous exploits. In spite of himself, Han responded in kind. As they drew up the parking lot outside the Residency grounds they discovered they were not alone. Three large transport speeders were before them, each emblazoned with the logo of a different tour agency; one large party of tourists was just departing as they arrived.
Han ruefully observed. "Looks a little crowded."
"We'll take our time. Look through the rooms," said Luke, nonplussed. "I doubt they'll be here very long."
"Hope you're right."
They disembarked and wandered up the steps into the residence. A massive openwork metal fence barred their path. Inset in it was a controlled opening guarded by two droids. They paid their fee and passed through. Voices of guides explaining various facets of the building and its long departed occupants echoed throughout otherwise empty halls. Further into the building the feeling of being watched overtook them. Han glanced back repeatedly, the persistent tingle between his shoulder blades intensifying progressively as they made their way through the grand entrance hall.
Luke quietly remarked. "You feel it, too."
Unable to deny the uneasiness riding him, Han paused. "Yeah. Like someone's peering over my shoulder."
Neither commented on the probability of surveillance equipment, although they were now positive the Residence was not as abandoned as the locals believed. Luke quietly insisted they move on.
From room to room they wandered, viewing furniture and effects, portraits, ornaments and the small plaques set up for each item. Eventually they reached the ocean end of the main building. Here a series of humpback footbridges led across three tiny islands. On each island stood a pavilion. The first two were large enough to accommodate over five hundred people each.
"Kind of went in for the grandiose," said Luke lightly as they continued across the final span. The eerie atmosphere of the place enveloped him ten-fold, raising his hackles. He halted. Eyelids drooping, he dipped into the Force. All around him vibrated evil. Death's presence, filled with an awesome darkness was magnified over and over: his father's handiwork. His mood switched from humorous to serious so quickly it froze Han where he stood.
"You okay, kid?"
"Just---give me a minute." Luke requested privacy.
Interested in their surroundings, Han inspected the pavilion. His eyes lit on the dais directly across from them. Luke read the plaque set at its base and suppressed a shiver. He had to force himself to turn away. While Luke was preoccupied Han checked the small electronic brochure they had purchased outside for a couple of credits.
"Says here this is where the Governor received the Dark Lord of the Sith on the last day of his life. An hour later his advisors found him slumped in that chair, dead." Only when Luke snapped about to face him did Han realize he had spoken out loud and exactly what the content of the narration inferred. "Sorry, kid. I didn't mean---"
Rampant emotions set loose by the few moments he had been in rapport with the dregs of his father's murderous nature threatened to over-ride Luke's self-control. He grappled with them. Brought them under control and locked them away once more.
"It's okay, Han. That's in the past. It's just---the residue of so much evil---" Luke struggled to explain but was unsure whether or not he was succeeding.
"Yeah. Ghosts. I know." Sympathetic, Han urged him back toward the exit. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
"No. Wait." Luke's hand came down on Han's arm. "There's something else here."
"I'm not sure."
Slowly Luke paced the pavilion. He shook his head and retraced their route until he halted in a small antechamber to what had purportedly been the Governor's bedroom. Something in Luke's demeanor advised against interruption and Han waited while his brother-in-law circuited the room's perimeter. Once more Luke halted.
"Sorry. I've lost it."
"What was it?"
"Just a trace. Some residue---" Luke whirled, eyes wide. "Han. I'm sure there's another entrance here somewhere."
At one time Han would have simply employed the quickest method possible for locating the hidden doorway, at the point of his blaster. With Leia's life hanging in the balance, along with the entire fate of an embryonic government, he controlled that impulse and resorted to using the old fashioned method of searching it out. Luke watched him for several minutes then copied him. Together they gently thumped the wood paneling the walls, twisted ornate carvings and brackets.
"Damn it!" As time elapsed and they failed to make any progress, Han cursed repeatedly.
"Easy, Han. We'll find it."
"Easy, he says." Han muttered to himself. "Every time we get into a situation like this he tells me to take it easy."
His friend's ranting aside, Luke continued his inspection of the entire room. The Force brought him back to the same conclusion. They were missing something. At length, they met in the middle. Han drew a long, slow breath in an effort to ease his frustration. Released it.
"Any more bright ideas?"
"It's here. I know it is."
Equally disheartened by their failure to locate their objective, Luke considered their surroundings. He dared not allow frustration to take hold. His personal battle for control over the darkness still nibbled at him continued, making his quest all the harder.
"Fine," said Han. "Where?"
"I don't know."
In those three words Luke unintentionally conveyed the irritation he was struggling so hard to submerge. Han relented. "Okay. Let's try another angle. What haven't we examined?"
Once more they circled the room. As he passed a low bookcase, Han caught it with his hip. It moved slightly. Something mechanical grumbled. Before Han said anything Luke was at his side. Rather than move the bookcase out from the wall and risk leaving evidence of their intrusion, they pawed through the shelf contents. Their persistence was rewarded when the shelves moved in response to the removal of a particularly thin volume. Noiselessly rotating on a section of floor, it dragged open, revealing a narrow doorway.
"Now that's impressive." Still on his knees, Luke examined the tiled floor, then the wall. "This entire section was specifically constructed to conceal the entrance."
"I see that. Come on," Han ordered, voice sharp with anxiety. Without waiting to see if Luke followed him, Solo ducked through the opening.
Beyond, it was pitch dark. The minute they were both through the panel swung shut. Unable to see anything they halted, waiting to see if there was any form of natural or artificial illumination. After several minutes it was obvious there was no automated light to alleviate the darkness. They remained blind to their surroundings.
Han swore loudly. "Damn it. Where's my repair light?"
While Han fumbled about his pockets, Luke had his own answer to their dilemma. "Just a minute, Han."
Something brushed across fabric. A hiss filled the air next to him and pale green light gleamed off stonewalls, temporarily washing out their vision. Eyes blinking rapidly, Han recovered. He stared around him, took in the lightsabre and grunted.
"That thing comes in handy for all sorts of stuff."
"Uh huh. Here. Look." Luke lowered the blade to reveal a series of stairs. "Shall we?"
"After you. Just---Be careful."
"Sure, Han." With Han at his back, Luke moved cautiously forward. His blade lit only three steps ahead of their feet. Beyond yawned a black bottomless void: a fantastic maw waiting to ingest them. Given some of the situations in which they had found themselves over the years, the analogy was far from comforting.
Their route descended through a passage scarcely wide enough for two abreast. Instinct told them they were dropping below ocean level. Still their way remained dry. Silently Luke counted twenty-three steps before he encountered a corridor. Next to him Han's lead foot hit harder than he had anticipated, jarring his body as it came to rest unexpectedly on a flat surface.
Here the passage divided to their right and left, vanishing into darkness. Weapon raised above his head, the Jedi Master brought the blade to rest horizontal to the floor. Its light reflected off inactive artificial glows set in the ceiling at widely dispersed intervals. Spilled back across walls and floor.
"So, there is artificial lighting down here," said Han. "Wonder where the switch is?"
It was a rhetorical question to which he expected, and received, no answer. "Got a preference?"
"Sounds good to me."
Nerves tingling with the double indemnity of the stairwell and hallway behind them, Han slid his blaster from its holster. For once he was grateful Luke was at his back as he led the way down their chosen route. All too soon he drew up short. A thick door barred their way, a hand-size opening in it at roughly eye-height. Inset into the wall on the left was a control panel. On a whim, Han thumbed the release. To his surprise the door opened.
"Well." He exclaimed quietly at that and consulted Luke. "What do you think?"
Shoulders shrugging, Luke considered what had happened above. "It might be a good idea to try blocking this open before we investigate further."
"Sure, but what with? I don't see any loose stones just lying around here, kid."
"Can you handle waiting in the dark 'til I get back?"
Mischief filled the Jedi Master's voice, stirring the side of Han Solo that always responded to a dare. "What are you planning?"
Rather than explain, Luke favoured the Corellian with that quiet, enigmatic smile unwittingly acquired from his first master, Obi-wan Kenobi. It did not alleviate Han's uneasiness.
"Be right back."
Before Han could react, Luke faded away into the shadows, taking the light with him. Highly inventive maledictions rolled off Solo's tongue. Survival instinct in full play, Han ran a hand across the various pockets on the unfamiliar jumpsuit.
"Great, kid, just great. Nothing I like better than hanging out in the dark with who-the-hell knows what down here with us. You might have waited 'til I found my work light."
Somewhere he knew he had a hand-size light. Fingers finally encountered a bulge in the jumpsuit fabric. Relieved by that small victory, Han pulled out the repair light and thumbed it into life. Useful for emergency work in tight spaces on board ship, it cast a pallid pool of light about his feet barely large enough to reach the walls on either side of him.
"Beggars can't be choosers," he said to himself.
Even so he was sweating slightly from a mild attack of claustrophobia by the time Luke returned. Under his left arm the Jedi Master carried three old-fashioned books. He set them on the floor, deactivated his lightsabre and began stacking the books where they would block open this next door. Han inspected the titles on the top-most two. What he saw startled him. Curiosity pricked, he took the nearest and checked out the publication dates.
"Hey, Luke. Do you have any idea how much these things are worth on the open market?"
Without stopping his arrangement of the volumes Luke asked him. "Are you interested in the credits? Or in finding Leia?"
Aggrieved, Solo retorted. "In finding Leia. Besides, I was just commenting, kid."
Luke got to his feet and re-ignited his weapon. His repair light restored to its pocket Han took up rear guard as they entered new territory. Cells lined either side of the passage. Damp left shining rivulets edged by mould on the walls, testament to gradually failing hydro-technology. Hand-size pools filled depressions in the floor, the whole affecting a miasma of decay that was inconsistent with the relative newness of the construction. Outside the fifth cell Luke paused, set his hand to the bars fronting the containment area. He pushed. A section opened.
"Here, Han. She was here."
The Corellian joined him. They peered into the dark interior. A cold, hard knot formed in the pit of Han's stomach. "Leia. In this place?"
Lights came up automatically as Luke took a single step into the cell. He deactivated his weapon when they found there was sufficient illumination to make out their surroundings. Slowly they inspected the room. Han pointed out where a small force shield could be activated to reinforce the bars forming the door. Both stared bleakly at the raised divan, the chains lying in a heap atop ragged fabric remnants that might once have been blankets.
Flesh shriveled beneath the assault of frigid claws; dense residues of adverse emotions even Han felt. Fear, despair and anxiety beat at them from the walls. To the Jedi Master each was a sharp, bitter flavour, sour on his tongue: nerve-searing, raw rage, terror and hopelessness. Over it all lay an undeniable resonance of the Force. Contained, somehow. Numbed, he suspected, by drugs.
Fury built deep within Han until it reached near-volcanic proportions as he surveyed the squalid conditions in which his wife had been imprisoned. Splatters of food and other substances best left to the imagination marked the floor and walls. High up, near the ceiling, Han made out vent slits. He pointed up. Drew Luke's gaze to the grills.
"What do you think? Anaesthetic gas?"
Images overlapped. "Probably. She was only able to briefly make contact with me. And I suspect it was from here."
In the darkest corner of the room Luke halted, all but invisible against the wall within the shadows. Unable to vent his rage Han picked up one length of shackle and flung it against the wall. Metal rang off stone before it dropped with a muffled thud to the divan.
"Lovely accommodations, don't you think?"
Startled, Han spun, hand on his blaster butt. His fingers twitched. Froze before he drew his weapon. Both the individuals confronting him were well armed. And they had the jump on him. Humanoid, well dressed, they covered Han from the doorway. Gradually he removed his hand from the vicinity of his weapon. Held both hands well out from his side.
The nearer person was squat but slim, and balding. No one coming face to face with this mild-mannered individual would ever believe he was involved in slavery. Not about to be fooled by appearances, Han grew doubly wary. Eyes fixed on his unexpected intruder the slaver stepped into the room. He kept well clear of Han and did not make the mistake of blocking his companion's field of fire.
"You need not berate yourself for failing to hear our approach," he said. "There are several ways into these tunnels. Although I do find it quite incredible that anyone else would even think to look for them."
The slaver's name slipped from Han's tongue. "Noritz."
Eyebrows shot up at that identification. Noritz chose to overlook the accompanying disgust. Slowly the slaver approached Han, intrigued. Just beyond arm's reach, he paused. "You've heard of me."
"There are few on the fringe who haven't," said Han, unable to contain his bitterness at being caught flat-footed. Even as he fought for time he realized Noritz and his partner had no idea there was another person in the chamber.
"Really?" Noritz edged closer, moving to Han's left, peering intently at him. Suddenly he sensed the Corellian's evasiveness. "By the way, just how did you get down here? And why are you here? Are you alone?"
"I should ask you the same thing," said Han.
His laconic nature resurfaced. Self-preservation and years dodging Imperial patrols finally reasserted itself. He recovered quickly, careful not to betray the presence of his companion who had somehow thus far successfully eluded detection. Although there was nowhere for Luke to hide in the far corner, the Jedi Master remained unobserved. Now he knew he had the winning card in this crazy sabaac game, Han pretended he was alone. At the same time he waited for some sign that Luke was about to act. Han concentrated on his adversary and their verbal battle of wits.
"But I asked first," Noritz said, his amenable nature fast fading.
"So you did." Still feigning lack of concern, Han gestured broadly with his right hand. "I was seeing the sights. Like any tourist to this fair world."
"I don't think so," said Noritz. "Good tourists know better than to venture into these subterranean regions. After all, Governor Hael's shade is known to make the over-curious---disappear without a trace."
On the periphery of his vision Han finally sensed movement. Luke slipped stealthily through the shadows. Determined to win time, Han concentrated on keeping slaver and guardsman distracted. Watchful of the guard, Han kept his hands carefully away from his blaster. He settled on the edge of the raised platform and countered with aplomb.
"My, my. So I take it you are the perpetrator of the local legend." Amused despite the deadly situation, Han waited, drawing Noritz out. "And, like any good opportunist, you haven't been above helping the dearly departed in his mission of terror."
Ego clearly inflated by his endeavors, Noritz acknowledged his part in the charade. "I merely---how shall we say---reinforce it."
"So business must be improving."
"You might say that." Still striving to identify the intruder. "By the way, do I know you?"
"We've never met." Han told him the truth.
"No. I'd definitely remember you if we had." Now Noritz waved his weapon hard, emphasizing his turbulent thoughts now visibly heightened as he struggled to solve the puzzle presented by Han's presence. "But I think I should know you. I've seen your face somewhere, but the beard's all wrong." Again he paused. Rocked on the balls of his feet as his brain worked at the puzzled. Then, "Yes, of course. Solo."
Spreading his hands as though admitting defeat, Han conceded. "That's me."
"The great Han Solo. Well, well. I must say this is an honour. Were you aware there's still a tidy sum to be made in certain quarters should you be brought in?"
Han forced a laugh. "I'll just bet there is."
Something 'pushed' Han, cueing him. Before Noritz realized something was wrong, the Corellian threw himself sideways. Solo tumbled across the platform and sought cover behind it. His blaster leapt into his hand as though of its own volition. He came up firing.
Caught off-guard, Noritz and his companion scrambled for cover. The bodyguard went down, a blaster burn in his shoulder. Another took him in the chest before his body measured its length on the floor.
Green light hissed into life. A glowing arc marking its passage, the lightsabre sliced the air. Its ghostly blur left an intangible wake. Noritz cried out, staggered two steps and collapsed to his knees, the cauterized stump of his left forearm clutched against his chest. Eyes fixed on the slaver Luke Skywalker stepped from the shadows.
"It's okay, Han. Are you all right?"
"Yeah, Luke." The Corellian rose cautiously from behind the divan. At the sight of the dead and defeated, he holstered his weapon. "You're pretty handy with that thing."
The friends met on either side of the slaver, staring down at him dispassionately. Thumb deactivating his weapon, Luke tucked it back inside his jumpsuit. Shock from his injury left Noritz numb, temporarily unresponsive. As they loomed over him he stared back at them. Dispassionate, Han grabbed a handful of shirt and hauled the slaver to his feet. Unconcerned that his actions were causing the slaver excruciating pain, he pushed Noritz down on the edge of the platform. Every movement sent needle sharp lances of pain surging through the slaver's damaged arm. Neither captor displayed any remorse. Further compounding his torment, Solo roughly frisked him for concealed weapons. His search turned up a set of electronic key chips that he tossed to his companion.
"The Wookiee," said Noritz thickly through dry lips once they were done. "I expected the Wookiee when I realized who you were. But not a Jedi."
"You snooze, you lose," said the unrelenting Han. "You should have kept up with the galactic news. We're related." Noritz looked from one to the other with disbelief. Solo continued. "Now, Noritz. We've got some questions. Answer them truthfully and you might just walk out of here, the rest of you intact."
Pain in the cauterized stump subsided to a dull, gnawing, persistent throb. Noritz was surprised to find himself quite clear-headed. "And if I don't?"
Head tipped back, he peered up at Solo, blinking against the glows. Han growled, "I'll let my friend here take you apart, piece by piece, with his weapon."
Unimpressed by the hollow threat, Noritz laughed harshly. The sound was like a slap in the face to Han. It was all he could do to restrain himself, wanting nothing more than to slowly choke the life from the slaver.
Eyes devoid of emotion fixed on Noritz, cold and still, unreadable, as Luke considered the problem. The dark side of the Force gibbered through the back of his mind, cackled as images of him taking Noritz apart bit by little bit flitted across his perception. Gripped by the darkness, Luke felt for his weapon, unconsciously considering where to make the first cut. A shiver raced up his spine. He stiffened and turned his face aside. Shaken to the core, Luke broke free of the seduction, mentally gasping as he realized how close he had come to succumbing to the easy way out of their predicament.
With his remaining hand, Noritz pointed to the Jedi Master. "Everyone knows Jedi don't torture their prisoners."
Somewhere inside temptation urged Han to reveal Luke's parentage. He choked it back. Allowed his gaze to slide across their captive to Luke.
"True." Self-control recovered, Luke replied to Noritz's remark, effectively quelling Han with a barely visible gesture. "But I can---and will leave you to Han's tender mercies. He is the primary injured party here."
"Thanks, kid." Han picked up that thread. "And I can always call in Chewie."
Initially prepared to laugh off any threats by the Jedi, Noritz took a second, long hard look at the pair and abruptly reconsidered alternatives. He found none to his liking. His gaze drifted to the corpse in the doorway. Passed over it, flinching away from sight of his dismembered hand. Death clutched his heart; he had run out of options, time and bravado.
"Now." Han Solo started remorselessly in once more. "We want to know about a certain female who reportedly passed through your hands quite recently."
Shoulders hunched defensively, Noritz insisted upon prevaricating, certain if he played for time he would win his way free. "Lots of women pass through here. All ages. All species."
"We're looking for a specific female," said Solo, his jaw muscles constricting.
"Humanoid." Without missing a beat Luke continued the interrogation. "A little shorter than me, with dark hair and eyes. Came through here a week or so ago."
Noritz continued to waffle, playing on the theme of too many faces over too many years, until Solo stuck a holo beneath his nose, and forced him to stare at it. Only then did the slaver know he would never forget the image in the liquid crystal depths. Almost he had refused to sell her. But the offer from Mangus, through Unbabbu, had been sufficiently substantial to twist his greed. Avarice was an all too familiar vice that had swayed him.
"This one, Noritz." Solo hissed the question, not about to permit any further vacillating. "Remember her?"
One look at the Corellian's rage twisted features convinced the slaver he could no longer conceal the truth. Admitted the truth. "Yeah. I remember her. Feisty little thing. Good fig---urh!"
Han's hand shot out, twisted the neck of the slaver's shirt up beneath his throat. Noritz gagged. He struggled ineffectually for breath.
"You were saying, you little piece of filth?"
Mildly concerned by Han's actions, Luke watched Noritz's complexion shade from white through red. When the slaver's face turned purple he intervened. "Han. Release him."
Quietly as the words were spoken, Han heard. Unrelenting he stared at his brother-in-law. In the brief moment neither Jedi nor slaver were entirely certain the Corellian would acquiesce. Noritz felt his eyes bulge from his head. A ringing built in his ears and his chest hurt. He clawed at the Corellian ineffectually with his remaining hand.
Still softly insistent, Luke said again, "Han."
With an enraged grunt, Solo thrust Noritz back across the platform and released his grip on the shirt. Throat raw, bruised inside and out, Noritz gasped. He flinched from proximity to the Corellian pilot.
"Where is she?"
The measured manner in which the one-time smuggler spoke was wholly at odds with his fury, and it left Noritz with no illusions. By so much he had escaped death. Caught between a rock---Solo---and a hard place---his customers---Noritz elected to risk life on the run from prospective infuriated clients to being worked over by a Wookiee. Particularly one with a blood debt owed this pilot.
"Unbabbu bought her."
Silence fell for the full count of five in the wake of the Jedi's demand. Eyes closed, Noritz whispered, "For Mangus."
Mention of the name by the Jedi Master forced a nod from Noritz. "For his new exhibit."
"I don't know."
"Stop lying." At the end of his patience Han shook Noritz hard.
"Han." Luke quietly interrupted. "He's telling the truth this time."
Relieved by the tiny respite, Noritz leaned away from Solo. "Can understand why you want her back. I almost added her to my----"
"You bastard. That was my wife."
Han Solo lunged. Horrified by the implications, Noritz shrank back. Unguarded terror filled his eyes. But Han found his way blocked by Luke. Incredulous, he attempted to push his brother-in-law aside. Luke refused to budge. One hand pressed against Han's chest, he enforced his will on the Corellian.
"Leave him, Han. There's no time for revenge."
Unable to believe what he had just heard Han bit back. "You're a fine one to talk."
Something ugly twisted behind blue eyes, emotions so quickly masked Han blinked, uncertain whether he had actually seen that frightening vision. But when he looked again no trace remained. Only Luke's unreadable expression met his gaze.
Calmly Luke insisted they cut short their time with the slaver. "This is neither the time nor the place to worry about him."
To Noritz's overwhelming relief the Jedi gently urged his companion from the cell. And Solo went without further argument. Relief quickly faded to bewilderment when Luke bent and shoved the dead guard into the cell. He retrieved the blasters and passed them to Solo. Then he walked away up the passage, disappearing from view.
Behind him, Han Solo casually closed the door and locked it. Suddenly aware they were about to abandon him in the subterranean prison, Noritz leapt for the door.
"No! Wait!" His injury temporarily forgotten, he pressed against the door. Handless stump stretched through the bars, he waved it in horror at the Corellian. "You can't leave me down here. No one else knows about this place. I'll starve."
There was no sign of the Jedi, but Solo remained on the other side. While Noritz watched with growing horror, Han Solo studied the weapons, then the slaver. Finally Han pursed his lips.
"Guess we can't have that, can we? It'd be inhuman." As though making idle conversation Solo conceded the cruelty of death by starvation. "And Luke would never forgive me."
While heaving a silent prayer in thanksgiving, Noritz sneered at their gullibility. Not about to leave anything to chance, Solo drained the small needle blaster until certain there were perhaps two charges remaining at best. Then he stepped back up to the door.
"Here." Voice pleasant, as though carrying on idle conversation at a social function, Han passed back the blaster with the nearly exhausted power charge. "Just in case you're telling the truth and no one comes looking for you. Can't have you suffering, can we? There's enough power in that to get out of the cell. Just---not too soon, huh? My friend and I might react badly to finding you behind us in the dark."
With a wave of his hand, Han headed off after the Jedi Master. Unable to speak, Noritz watched the Corellian until he vanished in the gloom. The solitary set of footsteps was joined by a second; the Jedi Master had been waiting all this time, just out of sight. The door to the cellblock closed. Slowly Noritz dropped down the door to sit on the floor, blaster lying almost forgotten in his left hand. The remaining power was barely sufficient to take out the door lock, certainly not enough to get him out of the subterranean tunnels now they had his keys.
"But they would not have known that." Noritz whispered to the dead. He could forget trying to exact revenge on Solo and the Jedi.
Outside the cell the hall sensors detected an absence of body heat and shut down all but the cell lights. Alone in the cell the slaver stared at the corpse, then at his severed hand and the blaster. Maniacal laughter cackled through the prison.
Halfway up the stairs Luke paused in mid-stride at the fearsome noise echoing from the depths. Hairs on the nape of his neck crawled. He stared at Han. "What did you do?"
"I left him a weapon."
Eyes narrowed, Luke demanded a truthful answer. "Can he get out?"
"Yes." Their eyes met. Han looked quickly away. "Of course he's lost a lot of blood. He might not make it this far."
Determined not to let the darkness have its way, Luke said, "Just in case, we leave the hidden door open enough so someone'll get curious and go looking."
Much as Solo preferred to see Noritz permanently out of the picture, death by starvation was too painful to wish on the worst criminal. 'Getting a conscience in my old age,' he said to himself. Reluctantly he nodded. When Luke used that particular tone of voice there was no arguing with him.
In the governor's bedroom they set one of the books they had brought back up from below between door casing and bookcase. It was sufficient to hold open the panel so a palm-width crack was visible. Satisfied with the results, they returned the remaining books to the stacks and left the palace.
Behind them fate took its own perverse turn. A stray rodent scuttled up from the tunnels, drawn by fresh air. At the unusual opening it paused, nose to the crack. Behind it, in the subterranean level, Noritz's insane cackling rang out again. Startled, the rodent darted forward, up and over the book, seeking the safety offered by the darkness beneath the canopied bed. Its feet scuffed the book, knocking the thin tome backwards. The door closed. Whiskers twitching, the rodent stared out of its refuge at the now barred passage.