SALVAGE: Part Three of the SUBTERFUGE Trilogy

by Haru Windsong

SALVAGE

Part Three

Of

SUBERFUGE

By Cary A. Conder
(c) January 1997
CHAPTER ONE

Trainer Three rounded a particularly wicked promontory of grey and brown rock and dipped beneath an overhang, hugging the canyon floor. Lighter than normal gravity on this, Trebbil, the system's second habitable world, aided the pilot in applying speeds beyond the Skyhopper's usual capabilities without undue stress to systems or frame. Unfortunately, it also meant her reaction time had to increase to compensate for the additional sensitivity in her craft's response time. Their Course Senior had already dented the top stabilizer on his ship while attempting an unorthodox manoeuvre. As a direct result he was now classified Cease Training and awaiting the shuttle back to Coruscant.

"Too bad. He was a good pilot, too." Momentarily distracted by that errant thought the present victim on the training range glanced away from her instruments. "Would have made a great pilot."

And probably still would, although he would be confined to freighters and cruisers rather than single and twin-seater fighter craft. Which was the aim of all potential pilot candidates. While Second Lieutenant Marica Winolder---Windy to her friends---had no intention of winding up in a like situation, she also wanted desperately to prove she could fly well enough to make the grade. At the time she had requested sponsorship into the New Republic's military the one-time Tatooine moisture farmer had only considered the ranks of Non-Commissioned member. Farthest from her mind was the much over-vaunted realm of officer. Among that rank and file was her childhood friend, now Jedi Master Luke Skywalker.

'But then,' reflected Windy, 'when I left Tatooine I had never envisioned any of this. As little as a year ago offworld was fantasy. Like panning Kessel spice from the Great Western Dune Sea. Farthest from my mind was service with New Republic's military. Or any military, for that matter.'

Immediately ahead the canyon cut sharp right, then left. Attention snapping back to matters at hand Windy slid the skyhopper through the S-bend. Came out the other side into a wider box canyon. Two branch canyons gave off this route. One was longer, an easier route. The unspoken code among the trainees held that taking that canyon was tantamount to admitting defeat. Even though the brass did not consider such an act a total failure.

But Windy felt no pilot worth her weight in spice would capitulate without a fight. And she was not about to give in. Teeth clenched, she plunged into the short sharp turn. Everything about this run was acutely reminiscent of Beggar's Canyon. She could not help wondering if some bright brain during the Old Republic had selected this training course because they had seen Tatooine's infamous canyons.

Cannon fire spattered the wall just above, splattering rock shards across the landscape. Not powerful enough to cause real damage to the careening skyhopper, it was nevertheless sufficient to put Windy back on full alert. Intent upon instrument read-outs, she sent her craft skimming the surface. Dropped low enough to weave between the house-size boulders littering the gorge floor. Hot in pursuit screamed the enemy. No matter how Windy twisted and turned her skyhopper she simply could not shake her pursuer.

Aware the course finish line was only a short distance ahead, Windy poured on the power. "Come on. Just a little further. You can do it."

A damning shrill filled the cockpit. She listened, stunned and infuriated with herself, at the shrill warning indicating the craft so tightly glued to her tail had locked on. Too late she jerked the nose up.

"Score three cannon strikes on aft shields. Shields diminished to thirty-seven percent."

Her onboard flight recorder advised her of what observers back in Operations would now see on their boards. Reflex made her yank back on the yoke again. She pulled up, looped over a ledge and jammed the nose back down, to no avail.

"Enemy torpedo away," came the death knell report. "Trainer Three destroyed."

"Dammit all to Tatooine's sun blasted dunes! I was sure I lost him back there."

Scenario over, Windy hauled back on the control stick and soared up out of the range. Depressed at her failure to evade her pursuer, she slowed her forward momentum to within standard flight parameters. They were a scant kilometer from the end of the run. Windy thumped the palm of one hand against the control yoke.

"Sith spawn!"

She employed one of the most familiar oaths presently favored throughout the inhabited worlds. The Ace who had so unerringly taken her out appeared off her starboard stabilizer. There was no identifying the instructor whose entire face, except for his chin was concealed by the helmet visor. Even without verbal instructions, the gesture he made was clear.

"Return to base." Operations reinforced that gesture unaware she had already received those orders.

"Roger that, Ops. On my way." A stickler for obeying orders since the assault on RUTHLESS, Windy confirmed she had received the instructions. At the same time she banked her skyhopper toward the Base.

Trebbil Base consisted of a semi-pressurized set of interconnected buildings on a rise overlooking the plain beyond and above the canyon reaches. It was here trainees with more than thirty solo hours on Skyhoppers refined piloting techniques. They learned attack and evasion tactics and, in some instances, came to terms with their own mortality. More experienced crews, pilots and gunners, also came here to maintain their proficiency checks.

Just beyond the canyons lay the live firing ranges were Windy had demonstrated her skill with cannons and dummy torpedoes. Her marksmanship had suitably impressed her peers and satisfied his instructors. But then, she had more than her fair share of experience in that range, chasing womprats off vaporator farms. Today, however, she was discovering there was far more to being a combat pilot than taking out targets on the ranges or mock enemy in the simulators.

Off Windy's port stabilizer her instructor circled Training Base One, holding back to allow her to set down first. That, too, was regulation. Windy banked in, picked up the ground guide and followed instructions. Her skyhopper settled into the assigned slot between two other trainers. Not far away another pair lifted off, another rookie making his final flight. Windy shut down power, ran a systems-check, released the canopy and pressed the safety strap release. Then she sat for a couple of minutes, muttering maledictions to herself under her breath. A mechanic approached her craft to perform a walk-around before returning to speak to Windy. Reluctantly Windy climbed out.

"Doesn't look like you strained anything, kid."

From anyone else Windy would have taken exception to being referred to as a kid. But the mechanic was almost old enough to be her father. And was a veteran of the conflict against the Empire. So she accepted what from others might have been a derogatory moniker and let it slide off.

"Promised you I'd look after it, didn't I?" Windy's verbal repartee caused the mechanic to pause.

"Yeah." The mechanic conceded. "I guess you did at that."

Then he grinned. Windy gave the man a friendly shoulder bump. Others might frown on fraternization in the ranks, but she preferred to maintain a congenial working relationship with the ground crews, particularly in light of her own familiarity with land vehicle mechanics.

"Not a bad flight, kid."

This time the remark, called across the intervening space between her and the line facing her skyhopper, came from her pursuer. On the ground there was no mistaking the identity of her lanky, dark haired pursuer.

"General Solo. What are you doing out here? I mean, how come they've got you instructing?"

"Keeps the old grey matter ticking over." So far no recruit Han had gone up against had survived to mission end. Windy was one of three who had come close.

Helmet tucked under his left arm, the Corellian scratched his head. The unfamiliar flight helmet always left his hair stringy and made his scalp itch. Solo waited for his student to accompany him back to debriefing. After a moment, Windy tugged off her own helmet, tucked it beneath her arm and fell in step with him.

"So how come Luke's not here?"

Away from other personnel Windy felt sufficiently confident to refer to her old childhood companion by first name. Nor did Han Solo take umbrage with that liberty where Windy knew Wedge Antilles would. The Corellian replied readily enough.

"Luke's taking a long needed vacation."

"Luke? On vacation?"

"Yeah. Took off for parts unknown over three weeks ago. Within three days of us capturing the frigate. Said he'd probably be gone five weeks or so. Left Fleet holding the bag with the frigate. They're not too pleased that they're going to have to wait on his return before they dare make a move at going after those explosives."

"I'll just bet they're not happy." Windy barked a short laugh. Turned sombre almost immediately. "Think he'll really be gone that long?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. He was as close to burnout as I've ever seen him. And now he's back on unattached duty he's pretty much free to come and go as he pleases." Han paused. Muttered under his breath, "Unlike some of us."

That comment led Windy to suspect the restrictions of married life were chafing the once foot-loose Corellian just a fraction. From time to time she overheard exchanges among the instructors concerning the fiery Princess Leia and her equally volatile consort. Not that there was ever any genuine animosity behind the altercations. To all accounts each gave as good as they received; a mutually satisfying arrangement, to the best of any outsider interpretation. They also did their utmost to confine their quarrels to those times when they could have out their grievances in private.

This was not always the case, hence the rumors. Windy slid a sidelong look up at her companion. But what she saw convinced her Solo was merely grousing in a good-natured way. That he was simply seeking an outlet to let off steam. Not entirely surprising, if half the stories Windy had heard were true. This ex-Imperial officer, ex-smuggler was not one to remain idle indefinitely.

"So where's Chewie?"

"Keeping an eye on the work on the FALCON."

"Think she'll be up and flying soon?"

"Hell, I hope so, kid. I really do."

They entered the building, Windy insisting her instructor precede her, and went straight to the locker room to strip out of their flight gear. This was Windy's second mission of the day, more than sufficient flying time to wear out a pilot. There would be no more flights now until she either graduated to active status or was transferred out to another branch of the fleet. Under genuine combat conditions she would probably have been expected to do a prompt turn-around the moment her ship was rearmed.

Not about to look askance at flight crew perks, Windy smothered a yawn. Once her flight suit was hung up, she stuffed her helmet onto the locker shelf above it. While things were quiet it was deemed unproductive to wear out crews and craft. Half a day flying was considered more than adequate, particularly for the trainees.

A debriefing would follow. Then Windy would be expected to return to her quarters to rest and study for tomorrow's final written examination. She trailed Solo into the debriefing room and took a seat. Her Flight Commander who, coincidentally doubled as the debriefing officer, accompanied the Officer Commanding the course into the room. They sat next to Han.

On cue someone activated the holo-projector. Satellite recorders combined data down-loaded from the chase craft with that of the student's onboard video, providing an excellent over-view.

'No doubt about it,' thought Windy. 'Duplicated and canned, I could probably have made an excellent living off the proceeds by selling this to entertainment centres for the planet-bound adventurer.'

"We see the classic error of a rookie." That introduction shattered Windy's daydream. The briefing officer followed up his observation with a direct question. "Why didn't you simply pull up and come down behind your pursuer at this turn, Lieutenant?"

As she studied the replay, Windy struggled to recall what had been going through her mind at that precise moment. She automatically checked the instrument playback at the bottom of the projection and realized the obvious.

"I was going too fast, sir. If I had attempted that particular manoeuvre you're suggesting, I'd have lost stability at the very least, and more than likely careened into one or other of the cliff faces. My best option at this point was to attempt to out-manoeuvre the enemy."

"Which, as you now realize, would only have worked had you been up against someone your equal in the cockpit."

"Yes, sir."

"Didn't you consider the feasibility of firing nose thrusters and cannons in a short burst to bleed off enough speed to accomplish that manoeuvre?"

Windy turned deep red and dumbly shook her head as she abruptly arrived at the same conclusion. She had overlooked what now seemed an obvious out. There was no getting around it. She had blown it in the heat of mock combat. Force knew what she might do under real battle conditions. Heedless of her embarrassment, the replay continued. Suddenly the Platoon Commander hit 'Pause'.

"Here you very nearly lost him. That was a nice move. Where did you learn to fly like that?"

Without thinking, Windy replied, "In Beggar's Canyon back home, sir."

"Beggar's Canyon?"

Too late to retract her words, Windy reluctantly nodded. "Yes, sir."

Now the Officer Commanding the course stared at her across the dimly lit room. "Where's that?"

One look at Han told Windy she should have either kept quiet or prevaricated. Or given an indirect answer. Now it was too late to back out. Trapped, she answered truthfully.

"It's on Tatooine, sir."

"Tatooine. You know Jedi Master Skywalker?" When Windy reluctantly nodded, the Commander grunted. "Just remember you're not General Skywalker, trainee."

"Yes, sir." In the back of Windy's mind a little voice added a codicil. 'As if I could forget.'

This was a constant reminder thrown up at every Cadet and junior Second Lieutenant throughout flight training. Students might tire of hearing that line, but there was always at least one on each course who seemed determined to prove they were equal to, if not better than, the Jedi Master. A ludicrous notion at best in Windy's mind now that she had seen Luke in action. At worst, the futile efforts proved deadly.

"All in all, not a bad flight though." Her Commander finally conceded with the suggestion of a smile. "I suggest you review both play-back chips and see if there's anything you could have done differently."

"Sir."

"Dismissed, trainee."

Relieved to hear her performance was acceptable, Windy rose and took her leave of the senior officers.

Han watched her go. Then he turned to Captain Herli Wickon. "She's got promise."

"I agree." Wickon rose. "Might even give Antilles a run for his worth in a few years."

"Always providing she survives that long," said the Debriefing Officer.

"There's always that." The Captain reluctantly agreed to that inevitability though he disliked the morose note in that grim reminder. He switched off the holo-projector now that it had run its course and had gone back to stand-by mode in preparation for the next session.

"You gotta admit she almost gave me the slip there. Not once, but twice. And if she'd had just a couple seconds more lead time, she would have reached course end before I could take her out," said Han. He was not about to see them downplay Windy's achievements. Before either of the others could respond to his rebuttal, one of the briefing room desk pagers chimed.

The Captain requested, "Hold that thought," and responded to the pager. "Captain Wickon speaking."

"Corporal Danit in Ops, sir. We're trying to locate General Solo. Would he be there?"

"He is. Wait one."

With a jerk of his head to Han, Wickon stepped aside and picked up his notepad. "I'll take your comments under advisement, General. And just so you know, if Winolder makes the grade on her last written, she's assured a position with fighter command."

"Good," said Solo, aware Luke and Wedge would be equally pleased when they received the news. With the Debriefing Officer at his heels, Wickon departed. Han waited until they were out of earshot before responding to the call from Operations.

"Solo here."

Operations replied with the last thing he wanted to hear. "General Solo, we have a priority request for your immediate return to the Palace."

Chill fingers clutched at the Corellian's heart. "Is something wrong?"

"Please, sir. That's all I've been told."

"All right, Corporal. Thanks. Inform them I'm on the way."

"Will do, sir. Safe flight."

Concerned as much by what had been left unsaid as by his orders, Solo hurried through to the flight deck. There were no shuttles waiting for the return trip. But across the apron, on the opposite of the field, a Y-Wing was preparing for departure. Its pilot was performing his walk-around on his own. Han made a snap decision.

"Hey!"

Uncertain whether or not the shout was aimed at him, the pilot turned. Caught sight of the Corellian trotting towards him. He waited beside the fighter until Solo joined him.

"What can I do for you, General Solo?"

"You making the trip back to Coruscant?"

"Yes, sir. Right now, as a matter of fact." The pilot missed a single beat. Asked, "You looking for a ride down, sir? I've got a spare seat."

"Great. When are you leaving?"

"I can wait until you're packed."

"Thanks. Be right back."

With little except his over-nighter in his quarters, Han was back in short order, flight helmet tucked under his arm. When he checked out with Training Operations they professed regret over losing his expertise but assured him they would find a replacement. Solo hid his irritation at riding rear seat for the trip down. He spent the time to lift-off reminiscing about flying his freighter. Still trapped in repair dock, the MILLENNIUM FALCON would be grounded for another three days if---and Verjel had been very specific---the parts arriving today would mate with the various bastardized components on the FALCON.

Han trusted Chewie to ensure the New Republic's maintenance personnel did not go overboard on upgrading the aging freighter. It might be true that too many years, too many owners and too many special modification had given the freighter an ambience all her own. It also meant she was exceptionally cantankerous, requiring a special touch on repairs. Many a top mechanic had failed where Han Solo succeeded simply because they were unsympathetic to the freighter's moods.

"All ready, sir?"

Yanked back to earth by the Y-Wing pilot, Han answered readily. "Any time, Captain."

"Flight Ops, this is Green Two with two on board requesting clearance."

"Green Two, that's a roger. Who's your passenger?"

"General Solo."

Flight Ops paused at that rejoinder. Then confirmed, "Copy that, Green Two. You are cleared on vector zero plus niner. Clear skies, sirs."

"Thank you, Ops. This is Green Two on departure."

Outside the Y-Wing ground staff cleared the area, turned at the perimeter of the field to watch the departing fighter. Someone raised a thumb. Han's pilot signaled back and kicked in the retros. They rose gracefully. At just over two metres above the ground the fighter reverberated softly with the thump of retracting landing gear. Their drive came up.

Acutely conscious of his passenger, the pilot paid strict attention to regulations. He never deviated from their assigned flight path, much to Han's disappointment. Bored with nothing to do throughout the hour and a half sub-hyper trip, Han Solo settled his head against his seat back.

"Wake me when we're down, Lieutenant."

Helmet turning slightly to acknowledge the request, his pilot replied. "Yes, sir."

Accustomed to senior officers who insisted they wanted to pilot at least part of the trip, the Captain was relieved not to have to argue against giving up the controls. Consequently, he ignored a challenge from a patrolling flight of B-Wings who would have liked nothing better than to match wits on the return run. Before they pierced Coruscant's ionosphere he switched to a forward seat channel only and requested a hover-car for his auspicious passenger. Then he eased his fighter through the atmosphere and into its berth.

"General Solo?"

Han responded. "I'm awake. Thanks for the ride down."

"Not at all, sir. My pleasure."

"I'll bet." Laughter tinged Han's words. "By the way, nice approach."

"Thank you, sir." Flushed with the praise, the Captain popped the canopy. "There's a hover-car waiting to take you to the Palace, sir."

"Thanks. Have a good one."

Not bothering to wait for the ladder, Han stood, sat on the cockpit sill. He tugged off his helmet, stuck it on the now vacant seat. Intrigued, the Captain watched as Solo swung onto the side of the cockpit and he launched into the air. The Corellian landed with a solid thud, knees slightly bent, on the plasti-crete apron.

"Sir. You should have waited." An abashed mechanic objected to Han's actions as he hurried to attach a ladder to the fighter's side.

"No time."

Urgency pricked Han. He unzipped his flight suit on the go, crossing the floor of the large docking bay that accommodated several fighters. At the tunnel he paused just long enough to shove the flight suit over his boots and step out of it. He handed it to a passing technician and kept going. Bemused by the unexpected acquisition, the man stared after Solo, the suit clutched in one hand.

CHAPTER TWO

As promised, transportation awaited. The chauffeur was not inclined to discuss why Han had been ordered back to Coruscant. Continued vacillation by everyone he met only served to disturb the Corellian far more than he let on to the driver. Of course, he reasoned, the man might have come straight from the Duty Pool. In which case he really would not know why his passenger had been ordered back to the Capitol.

Right now Han desperately wanted nothing more than to get back to Leia. Chewbacca met him at the parking area flanking one of the two private entrances to the massive Palace complex. Seldom had Han seen his co-pilot as distraught as the Wookiee was now. Fear stabbed him. Alerted, he jumped from the hover-car before it came to a standstill.

"What's wrong, Chewie?" The Wookiee moaned and growled, almost incoherent in his distress. "Missing? Leia? What do you mean, she's missing?" Frightened, Han lashed out at his partner. "You were supposed to be looking after her while I was gone. What the hell happened?"

Threepio emerged from the building entrance, his arms fanning the air emphasizing his anxiety. "I'm afraid it's all too true, General Solo."

"So what happened? She wasn't planning to go anywhere before I left for the ranges."

While plumbing Wookiee and droid for answers, Han plunged into the Palace. Threepio skittered along, arms jerked as he struggled to keep pace. "I really don't know what happened, sir. The night you sent the message that you wouldn't be returning directly from the ranges she was quite upset."

Han paused in mid-stride. "Upset about what? Me?"

"Oh, no, General Solo. Over her failure to secure a consensus on her reconstruction proposal."

Unable to make sense of where the information was leading, Han demanded. "What has that got to do with her going missing?"

"Apparently everything," said Mon Mothma. She emerged from a side passage halfway down the hall leading to the nearest turbo-lift servicing the Royal apartments. Evidently she had also been awaiting his return.

"Would you mind explaining, madam?"

"Of course. Please." She gestured toward the open door of the lift. "I'll talk as we ride up."

On edge, wanting immediate answers, Han was still sufficiently cognizant to realize he would get nothing more from the ex-Ambassador until he boarded. They squeezed inside, two humans, a droid and a massive Wookiee. Their lift began its ascent.

"All right, Mon Mothma. What happened?"

"To tell the truth," she said, "we're not quite certain how it happened."

"Dammit! There has to be a reason. How the hell did someone snatch Leia from the Palace? What happened to all the security measures everyone's been so proud of?"

"Absolutely nothing," said Mon Mothma truthfully. Her next words took the wind from Han's sails. "You see, Her Royal Highness was not in the Palace at the time she went missing."

"Not in the Palace? You mean, you let her go wandering outside alone? Unguarded?" Solo rounded on his partner. "And where the hell were you when this happened?"

Mournful with what he saw as a monumental failing, Chewie admitted he had been at the repair dock overseeing installation of several major hydraulic pumps. Aware he was only adding to the Wookiee's already heightened anxiety, Solo brought his anger under control. Channeled it more constructively.

"So how did she get out without a guard?"

Their turbo-lift slowed to a halt and released them on the Royal apartment level. As haste was clearly not going to produce a solution any faster, Han preceded his group at a walk. He stopped in front of the guards flanking the main entrance to the suites. Before pursuing his interrogation, he waited until they were into the antechamber, the door shut behind them.

"Will someone tell me how she got past her guards?"

Something suspiciously like irritation appeared and, as quickly, vanished in Mon Mothma's face. "I suspect Princess Leia is becoming considerably more proficient in exercising her---other talents than any of us realized."

The diplomatic fashion in which she referred to Leia's Jedi bloodlines stopped Han in his tracks. Tiny hairs on the nape of his neck crept at the suggestion that his wife had employed an old Jedi trick to elude those individuals whose sole duty was to protect her from just such incidents. Frustrated, Han entered the suites, closely followed by his miniature entourage. With more than his usual predilection for reading his partner's moods, Chewie ordered Threepio to pour some Corellian brandy. Han sipped it absently rather than gulping it as was his usual bent. A clear head was required if they were to find his wife.

"Why would she want to go into the city on her own?"

For Han there appeared no clear answer. Threepio supplied a possible. "Before she left, General Solo, Mistress Leia said something about acquiring some sort of information."

Across the room, Mon Mothma's hand rose, unbidden, to her lips. "But what? I was in the process of compiling that myself."

Han caught on that instantly. "Exactly, madam. Why would Leia suddenly decide to do something so---irresponsible?"

Face pale with shock Mon Mothma sank into a nearby chair. "I fear our present Council session may have spawned this excursion."

Rage darkened Han's face. Eyes narrowed, he glared at her across the suite. "Madam, if you have something to say, I suggest you do so immediately. Too much time's all ready been wasted."

"Of course." Drawn and pale, she struggled to gather her unusually scattered wits. Threepio handed her a small snifter of brandy also. Grateful for the droid's consideration, she produced a wan smile. "Thank you, Threepio. I think I need this."

Patience was the farthest from Han's mind at that moment. Yet, strangely, he found it somewhere. He waited while the old woman took a fortifying sip of brandy.

"Certain members of the Council are dead set against any manner of reconstruction which predisposes space to the less fortunate." When Han raised an eyebrow, she explained. "Many of them have finances tied up in Coruscant realestate."

Given a situation where he was relatively knowledgeable Han Solo could command, and sometimes over-whelm, those present. With Mon Mothma, he was generally on equal terms. This time, however, she appeared subdued. Almost over-borne by the situation. Still uncertain what Mon Mothma was aiming at, Han prompted her.

"Okay. So?"

"Her Royal Highness is determined to replace some of the more dilapidated structures either with parks or with structures given over to housing the less fortunate."

"Sounds reasonable." Han had to admit the logic behind Leia's project. "Unless it's your property that's being appropriated and razed by the State of course."

"Quite." Composure recovered, Mon Mothma continued. "Unfortunately, the only way we will be able to sway the fence-sitters is to produce incontrovertible proof to counter the platitudes and arguments of the opposition. And that will be no easy chore. Particularly given that some members pointedly refuse to acknowledge the obvious."

"Which is?"

Now Mon Mothma leaned forward and delivered the information Leia found impossible to stomach. "General Solo, were you aware there are, and always have been, poor and homeless on Coruscant?"

A short snort escaped Han. "Only an idiot would believe otherwise."

"So most of us agree." A barely audible sigh escaped her. "Unfortunately, one of the greatest myth Emperor Palpatine ever successfully perpetrated was that on Coruscant no one lacked for a home or a job."

"You can't be serious?" It took several seconds before Han realized she was deadly serious. "You are, aren't you?" Dumbfounded, he shook his head. "How can anyone be so gullible---?" He broke off and tried again. "I don't believe it. No wonder Leia slipped out of the Palace. It also tells us exactly where she went."

"Yes." Mon Mothma agreed with him. "Down. Unfortunately, we have few contacts in the nether regions, General Solo. The further one descends toward the foundations of this monstrosity of which the Imperium was so proud, the less stable are the ceiling supports over certain sections. And the more rampant the crime. Repair parties are always accompanied by a guard party and travel in armoured vehicles."

"She wouldn't have walked the entire distance." Already working on the problem, Han applied only half his attention to Mon Mothma.

"We found the vehicle she borrowed from the Palace pool."

Solo caught on that. "Then we have a starting point."

Mon Mothma dashed that hope. "She parked at the junction of four main thoroughfares. There's no telling which direction she took once she left it and set out on foot. And, although she was apparently wearing her transponder, we've been unable to pick up any trace of its signal."

"Have you questioned any of the locals?"

"Several. She spent about an hour in one of the local cafes."

"All right. That's where we'll start. Chewie, bring Golden Rod."

"General Solo." What Han was suggesting brought Mon Mothma to her feet. "You aren't planning to go down there alone?"

"Of course I am, madam." Undeterred by her objections, Han retorted. "You forget who I am. What I am."

Unaffected by his parry she retaliated. "I do not, General. But it's too dangerous. Even for you." Han remained stubbornly silent. She insisted. "At least take some guards."

Steadfast in his knowledge of the quarters where he and Chewie intended to tread, Han refused to be dissuaded. "The fewer who go, the more likely we are to get answers. Right now the entire underworld probably knows you're looking for Leia. If those who snatched her didn't know what they had in the beginning, they probably do now. Time's now of the essence. We have to find her."

Chewbacca growled agreement. Only Threepio remained dubious concerning their prospects. Resigned to being unable to shake Han's conviction, Mon Mothma closed her eyes for a moment. The pain at the base of her skull was almost unbearable. She waited for it to subside before bringing him completely up-to-date.

"This hasn't become general knowledge just yet. We've been successful in confining the information to a few. Our investigations downtown were discrete." Han's expression suggested otherwise, but Mon Mothma pushed on. "Only Crix knows."

"Has his department begun inquiries?"

"Yes." Grief and anxiety weighed the old woman down, emphasizing the lines already deeply ingrained in her features from her years with the rebel Alliance. "I wish Master Skywalker were here."

"Speaking of Luke, does anyone know exactly where he can be contacted?"

"I'm not sure," said Mon Mothma uneasily.

Han snapped. "Then you'd better find someone who does." He stared around the room as though the answer lay somewhere within it. "Locate Wedge. He might know something. We're outta time, Madam! Come on, Chewie. We're going downtown."

Nothing about the conversation endeared it to Threepio. But the protocol droid was dragged unceremoniously back to the turbo-lift and was hustled, protesting all the way, to a run-down hover-car. When his complaints irritated Han past an acceptable level, the Corellian rudely suggested he 'switch off'. Stunned that a human would employ a droid oath, Threepio promptly shut up.

Uncertain it would do any good Mon Mothma placed the call to Wedge Antilles' apartments. Flit responded to the chime. Startled to see the BATMAN, Mon Mothma recovered quickly.

"Lieutenant, I must speak with General Antilles immediately."

No less astonished to see the retired Ambassador on the other end of the communication, Flit responded. "Just a moment, Ma'am." Muted colours swirled briefly across the screen. Then it cleared again.

A no less astonished Wedge stared back at her. "Madam Mon Mothma, what can I do for you?"

She broke across his pleasantries. "General Antilles, thank you for speaking to me so promptly. This is most urgent."

Sight of her strained face killed Wedge's pleasure at being honoured by her unexpected call. "Something's wrong. What is it?"

"I must ask you something very important."

Her blunt question was sufficiently uncharacteristic to alert him to the seriousness of the problem. He responded readily. "Certainly, Madam."

"Do you know where the Jedi Master went?"

"No." Wedge answered carefully but his mind raced. Something was drastically wrong if Mon Mothma wanted Luke recalled. "But I may know how to find him."

"Please. It's most urgent he returns immediately. This channel isn't secure so I'm afraid I cannot tell you the nature of the emergency at this time."

"Very well, Madam. I'll do my best and will get back to you the moment I have an answer."

"Thank you, General."

She cut the connection, leaving Wedge unsettled. He left his desk and went into the sitting room. Curious, Flit watched him. Waited for him to explain why Mon Mothma had called. Instead, Wedge questioned her.

"Flit, you've still got a pretty good pipeline into Cov-Ops, don't you?" She nodded. "Good. I want you to see what you can find out. Something's wrong."

"Bad?"

"From the look on Mon Mothma's face, I'd say we have a serious problem to be solved. But she's not saying."

"I'll get on it right away, sir."

"Good girl. If you find out anything and can't locate me, try General Skywalker's apartments."

Astounded by his audacity, Flit stuttered. "You're not going in there, are you sir?"

Like many others, Wedge knew all the rumours concerning the safeguards Luke had purportedly installed against uninvited intrusion. In all the times he had visited the Jedi Master, though, Wedge had never seen any evidence of anything sinister. That Flit believed they existed startled him. Much to his irritation it confirmed stories filtering through Fleet and elsewhere.

"What's this? Don't tell me the brave Flit, one-time fearless covert operative for the Rebellion, actually believes those myths?"

She stared at him levelly. "Suffice to say, sir, I wouldn't want to be the one who went in there without an invitation."

The manner in which she voiced that told Wedge more than he wanted to know. Whatever security measures Luke employed, he had set some form of internal sensor to permit certain of his friends to come and go as required. That knowledge both pleased and concerned Wedge. Particularly as Luke had specifically singled him out this time. Had even shown him exactly where to find his itinerary and how to extract it and contact him should an emergency arise.

"I'd better go," Wedge said. He headed for the door.

Flit called after him. "Be careful, sir."

CHAPTER THREE

Indistinct shapes moved through a shadowy realm, threatening but elusive, all in the same breath. Admiral Thrawn flailed against them, his every move sluggish. Strangely restricted. As though he were wading through a particularly viscous Huttese mud bath. Pale green light cut the darkness. Briefly it illuminated blue eyes and fair hair, features that vanished again into the murkiness attempting to smother him.

"No!"

Heart racing, Thrawn bolted upright in bed. A sweep of one hand brought up the cabin glows. Unable to slow his pulse he stared about him. Nothing out of the ordinary interrupted the sparse furnishings of his bedroom on board the executive star destroyer, CHIMAERA. Anger gradually replaced fear. There was no Jedi Master here. Lately Luke Skywalker had all too frequently haunted his dreams. Annoyed, he flung off the covers and went to the small observation window in the lounge off his bedroom.

Here the ambience was equally austere, although a few artifacts acquired over his years of service adorned the walls: reminders to visitors that his career had its remarkable anecdotes. In the far corner of the room was another chair where he could sit and watch space, his contemplation area. Several chairs fronted a desk just off-centre in the room. A computer terminal provided him access to the mainframe as well as to the bridge. This was also where he worked when not occupying CHIMAERA's bridge or his ready-room. Nothing about his ship-borne residence invited visits by his subordinates. Which was exactly as it should be. And how he liked it.

Beyond the window drifted the fleet. CHIMAERA and its escort had completed their transition through hyperspace while he slept. Dropped to normal space at the designated coordinates and were now in parking orbit around a massive nebula. Mauve gas clouds spilled light outward. Played across deep metallic blue-black, adding an eerie quality to the empty stillness of space.

He never tired of the view. And yet, nothing quite irritated Thrawn so much as the knowledge that his fleet, almost all that remained of the once awe-inspiring Empire, was forced to skulk around the galaxy. Ever on the run across a realm where the Empire had once held sway: absolute power reigning supreme. Emperor Palpatine's rule ought to have spanned an eon or more. Been passed down from dark knight to dark knight. A realm where military logic ensured peace was the order of the day. Where anarchy was promptly suppressed and offenders severely dealt with, all with a modicum of fuss.

Many of Thrawn's contemporaries were skeptical that anyone could adequately fill the void left by Palpatine's unexpected demise. Or step into the shoes of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. Iceheart had tried. And failed. None of their failures touched him, however. Thrawn experienced no feelings of inadequacies. Was confident his profile more than fit those requirements.

Unlike the Emperor, however, Thrawn was not about to permit himself to become reliant on the abilities of the dark shadow he had inherited. However much he enjoyed Jade's services being at his beck and call, the minute she out-lived her usefulness he planned to dispense with her.

His cabin pager 'pinged' and he responded. "Yes?"

"Sir, this is the Duty Officer, Lieutenant Marrison. I thought you should know RUTHLESS and SPITEFUL are late reporting in."

Foreboding struck Thrawn. Was this the hidden warning in his nightmare? He shook it aside, all business. "How late?"

"Two hours, sir."

Not at all like Boralle. If nothing else, the man was punctual to the extreme. The Admiral quickly weighed the options. "All right. Send Jade to my quarters immediately. And ready a TIE Interceptor with jump capability for her use. Have it serviced and standing by in the forward hangar."

"Yes, sir. Shall I assign two wingmen to accompany her?"

"No. Whether there is or isn't a problem, one pilot is sufficient to investigate and report back the nature of the difficulty."

"Understood, sir. I'll get right on it."

Savagely cutting the connection, Thrawn returned to his bedroom. He glanced at the chronometer. Three and a half hours' sleep. 'Not good,' he mused while he dressed. He ought to be averaging more than five while things were this quiet.

Jacket in hand, Thrawn returned to the small lounge that doubled as an office away from the bridge and switched on his desk computer. Thrawn shrugged into his jacket and buttoned it with military precision. The day's general correspondence traffic held his attention until someone requested permission to enter. He released the door lock. The Emperor's Hand entered. Halted across the desk from him.

"You wanted me, sir?"

"Yes, Jade." Settled in his seat, the Admiral studied her for a minute. "I need someone to make a quick turn-around jump out to the Tatooine-Corell-Coruscant transition point."

Alderaan had also once been a reference at that hyperspace jump point. Now the name was whispered among Imperials. Held up as the ultimate sacrifice to oppression; martyrs all. He saw Jade thrust aside the analogy and rationalize the tragedy.

If Alderaan had not supported the rebels, had not assisted in theft of the DEATH STAR plans, that world might still exist. Might. The qualifier hissed through the halls of her mind, troubling her. Beneath his watchful eye she stiffened, doubtless remembering the Princess of Alderaan as the indirect cause of the demise of both Lord Darth Vader and her master, Emperor Palpatine.

Conscious of Thrawn eyeing her, Jade delicate probed for an answer to the why of her unscheduled mission. "Isn't that where Admiral Boralle's stationed?"

She was quick as ever. Eager, but keeping tight rein on her enthusiasm. He nodded. "You're to do a sweep, then report directly back to me."

"You're expecting trouble?"

"Perhaps." When her eyes narrowed, speculation rampant, the Admiral raised a finger in warning. "If," and he emphasized, "if you should encounter trouble, you are not to hang around, Jade. I want answers. Not a dead hero."

"Sir."

Disappointed, but trained to absolute obedience by her now deceased dark master, Mara Jade stiffened to attention. Stared straight over his head at the far wall and the observation window. Conscious of her frustration at being denied the opportunity for battle should it arise, Thrawn waited, watching until Jade unwound sufficiently.

At length, she inquired, "When do I leave?"

"As soon as possible. You will find a jump-capable Interceptor prepared for your use waiting in the forward bay. Hyperspace coordinates should already be in your nav-puter."

Attentive to every nuance in the Admiral's voice, Mara considered what might lie behind her orders. Still, any excuse to be out and about on her own, behind the controls of a ship, was welcome. Unfortunately a Twin Ion Engine fighter, any TIE for that matter, was highly inferior to almost every other vessel plying the in-system or out-system spaceways. That he was permitting her to make the inspection alone, in one of the newer fighters able to make a hyperspace jump, was encouraging. But she would have preferred her own vessel. Another faint warning that he might not entirely trust her.

Memory of Darth Vader's experimental fighter teased the periphery of her thoughts. To have one like that---but only one had ever been built. Soon afterward the Imperium switched to design and construction of the brand new twin-seater gunships. Fast. Tough. Heavily armoured and armed to the teeth. These were fighters worthy of her skills. Still, the Admiral had issued only an Interceptor that possessed jump capabilities. Clearly he meant what he said about a quick turn-around at her destination.

Aware she was being studied, weighed, Jade nodded. Blue fingers flipped, dismissing her. She headed for the exit. Thrawn made no comment on the fact that she had failed to come correctly to attention. As the door closed between them, she glanced back. Once more engrossed in his paperwork, the Admiral ignored her.

Marginally pleased with her tasking, Jade hurried to her quarters to secure her things prior to departure. She locked away all personal items and headed to the hangar. In the forward bay reserved for senior personnel, technicians and mechanics hurried about their assignments. Someone had ordered up her flight gear from Stores. She quickly donned it, tugging the black flight suit over her slacks and shirt as there was no time to strip. It took a minute to adjust her hair so it fit comfortably under the flight helmet when she tugged it on. For the moment, she carried it.

Unlike her contemporaries among the Imperial flight crews, Mara performed a walk-around. This was something that invariably upset maintenance personnel. Pilots who checked out their own craft were rare. The act bordered on insult. Except when it came to Mara Jade. All the techs understood why she inspected every craft she was about to take out whenever the opportunity availed itself.

For her part, Jade trusted no one but herself in these matters. If something went wrong later she would know precisely were to lay the blame. Given the level of open aggression aimed at her as a female within the Imperial elite forces, she left nothing to chance. Of course only obvious tampering would be picked up during this sort of inspection. Anything else would have to be carefully concealed. Done with deliberate intent to harm the pilot, namely herself. And there were those in the fleet who disliked her sufficiently to attempt just such an act.

Finally satisfied, she clambered up the ladder. Slid into the tight-fitting cockpit and strapped in. Helmet snug, she inspected suit connections and intercom. Linked up to cockpit systems and ran an in-cockpit diagnostic. Everything appeared fine. As a last check she dipped into the Force. Found nothing amiss. The canopy came down and locked into place, sealing her inside. Systems came on as she powered up the fighter.

"Systems optimal. Shields at full strength. Repulsors on." Jade ran through the crew checklist. "Drive coming up. Power levels are good."

Outside, on the hangar floor, the mechanic who had assisted her flashed a familiar sign. She was cleared to release from the overhead clamp securing the TIE in position in the hangar. The overhead crane came to life. It removed her craft from its rack and transported it into drop position.

The minute the crane halted, Mara contacted the ship's Fighter Flight Control centre. "CHIMAERA Fighter Flight Control, this is Mara Jade in Interceptor Five-Five-Two requesting launch instructions."

"CHIMAERA Fighter Flight Control to Interceptor Five-Five-Two. You are cleared for launch. Clamps releasing now."

There came the familiar sickening lurch as the fighter dropped from its mooring, passed through the opening in the belly of the executive class star destroyer and out into open space. Accustomed to the slightly disorienting sensation, Mara activated the drive but waited until she cleared CHIMAERA's shield perimeter. Then she cut in thrusters and soared up, out from under the mother ship. In keeping with regulations, she brought her fighter around for a fly-past salute to the executive destroyer's bridge before locking in the coordinates in her nav-puter. Starlight burned to streams and the familiar warped light of hyperspace surrounded her.

CHAPTER FOUR

Jump time through hyperspace in the modified Interceptor was near double that of other vessels. With little other than instrumentation to occupy her, Jade slipped into a state between meditation and sleep. Whenever she entered that place, where the physical became intangible and the subconscious took control, she sought out her dark master. The Emperor had promised her she would be able to find him there, no matter what physical realities separated them. But this had not proved the case.

To dip too deeply into those grey regions was to court death. Mara jerked away from the over-powering strength of the whirlpool whose edge she skirted. Once more she eluded its siren grasp. Slid deeper into sleep.

There she found the face of her most bitter enemy, though he was still unaware of it. There was no knowing where he was at this moment. Jade's only clues lay in a lush, verdant background. In attempting to broaden her view through the Force, she inadvertently tickled his perception. The Jedi Master turned. Stared about him. Before he could seek her out, she hastily withdrew.

Heart fluttered with exertion, she regrouped and awoke, to the annoying penetrating rasp of the proximity alarm. "Oh, shut up."

Too close, that aborted encounter through the Force. She slapped the alarm OFF switch. As yet she was unprepared to confront Luke Skywalker. That would come at a time and place of her choosing. The Interceptor slowed. Dropped out of hyperspace.

A frown pinched her brow. Eyes narrowing, speculating, Jade studied her destination, first visually, then with instrumentation. Nothing greeted her initial investigation but empty space. Not even the marker buoy remained where it ought to have been for Imperial ships on patrol in the area to access.

"What the hell?"

Double-checking coordinates in the on-board computer, Jade programmed a route that would circumvent the area. The longer she was in the sector, the more she was subconsciously convinced someone had played a gigantic joke on her. Had actually fed erroneous data into her ship. But that would have meant facing an infuriated Admiral Thrawn once she returned to CHIMAERA. In any event, everything insisted she was definitely at the right coordinates.

Treacherous thoughts assailed Jade. Made her run another, deeper check through the Force on her ship. Everything checked out. Which meant she was where she was supposed to be even though RUTHLESS and SPITEFUL were not. 'Why' was the biggest, as yet unanswered question to what might have transpired here in the depths of space. Mara pursued the solution with a single-minded purpose she knew Thrawn expected of her.

Back and forth, she wove a tortuous route, segmenting the region. Quite suddenly, her TIE fighter's shields came up. Metal particles spattered against the Interceptor's shields. Tumbled away in her wake. She brought the fighter back around, slowing to a crawl to inspect the debris with onboard sensors.

"Ah."

Read-outs confirmed the fragments were Imperial ship metal. But what ship? There were far too few pieces to account for a star destroyer, let alone a frigate. Puzzled, Jade postulated a point of origin from the direction of the trail and headed back along it.

Before long she encountered the drifting centre pod of a standard TIE fighter. Both its solar vanes were stripped away and damage to the fuselage was so extensive she knew without checking that the pilot was dead, still at his fighter's controls: a fitting floating coffin. More debris battered her ship's shields.

Between one breath and the next she was in the midst of an awesome, ever-expanding field of metal bits and pieces. With sensors set on full sweep, Jade killed all forward momentum. Even before the data came in she suspected the awful truth. Here was all that remained of at least one of the missing vessels. Telemetry continued to pour in. Until she was positive of her findings, Mara knew she could not leave.

Horribly bloated and distorted corpses bumped against the shields. Space did not differentiate between friend or enemy, rebel, pirate or Imperial. Anonymous corpses slithered grotesquely aside, clearing her path. Swept away into space behind her. Intent upon her task, she strove to ignore the grotesque forms.

"One ship."

There was no denying the information pouring into her onboard computer. Compilation of the data led the computer to postulate only a single ship had been destroyed in this region of space, a fairly large one. Probably a star destroyer, or something of equal mass. But she remained dissatisfied with the findings.

"Where is RUTHLESS?"

Kicking in the drive, Jade departed the debris field. Cruised toward the far perimeter. Eventually she encountered an item she half-suspected she might find: parts of a Y-Wing. Two engine pods tumbled end over end, maintaining rough proximity to one another even though the remainder of the fighter they had once powered was now no more than fragments. There was no ignoring the markings clearly emblazoned on one pod.

"Rebels! Damn them all to the dark side!"

Much was explained, although the mystery of the missing frigate remained. The fighter's timer 'pinged' a warning. She was out of time. This investigation would require a second, in-depth flight. And she planned to be the one who performed it. Recalculating the nav-puter data, Jade set course back to the waiting fleet and CHIMAERA.

Throughout the return journey she neither meditated nor slept. Instead, she set about consolidating all data stored in the small computer. By the time she reached the nebula her report was ready for delivery.

Thrawn was on the bridge when she returned. Without bothering to change from her sweaty clothes, Jade headed up to speak with him. No one attempted to intercept her. Many preferred to pretend she did not exist. Most turned their backs on her or looked through her when all else proved unavoidable. Jade let it slide off. She concentrated on delivering her report. He was expecting her, taking her into the small ready-room at the rear of the bridge.

"From your expression you have some answers for me, Jade."

"Yes, sir." Mara slid the data chip across the table to him. "It's all there."

Without acknowledging the presence of the chip, he ordered. "Tell me in your own words. I'll review that later."

"Very well, sir." Eyes locked on the featureless tabletop, Mara began her report. "Initially following my arrival at the coordinates I failed to discover any sign of the two ships. Since the fighter's sensors are short range only I was forced to spend some time sweeping the area."

In so many words, Mara subtly informed the Admiral that she was less than pleased with the ship assigned to her use. He admired her daring, but allowed a trace of warning to surface when she glanced up at him, then away.

"Continue."

Jade's teeth flashed, dragging at her upper lip. She went on. "Eventually I came across a small cloud of debris. Extrapolating trajectory, I traced it back to a much larger one."

"The ships?"

She nodded. "One, sir."

"One? That's all? You're absolutely certain?"

"In the short time I was out there, yes, sir. The on-board computer's conclusion---one which I agree with at this time despite the necessary cursory nature of my investigation---is that the remains, such as I discovered, belong to SPITEFUL."

"Quirtelle's command." Disturbed, Thrawn paced the length of the table. Eyes tracking her superior, Jade remained silent. Waited for him to prompt her. He came about. "Go on."

"From the size of the area across which the debris is scattered, I'd hazard whatever overtook the ships happened several days ago. Exactly how long ago will have to be determined by the techs."

Thrawn nodded. Gestured sharply. "What else?"

"Beyond the star destroyer's debris field I discovered the remains of a Y-Wing with New Republic markings."

"Rebels!" Admiral Thrawn fairly spat that epitaph. Had Jade found the star destroyer drifting, badly damaged, Thrawn might have suspected pirates. Renegades had been known to act with incredible daring on occasion. And they were capable of drawing on Y-Wings purchased shortly after the Clone Wars. But they seldom utterly destroyed Imperial ships. Nor drove them off their patrol sector. Only the one-time Rebel Alliance was that bold.

"So it would seem, sir." Unconsciously taking two steps forward Jade added. "Which still doesn't explain what happened to RUTHLESS."

"Hmm. I expect you have your own theory on this?"

Mara's shoulders gave a little shrug. "In all likelihood they made a run for it. Were damaged and are presently hiding out until they can make repairs."

"Possible."

There was no denying Thrawn was not quite prepared to believe that supposition, although a severely crippled communications array could account for Boralle's silence. That, and continued harassment by the enemy. Both of them preferred to believe the frigate either in hiding or destroyed. Anything else was almost too diabolical to stomach. Jade refused to even contemplate the feasibility of what loomed so large in the forefront of her thoughts.

Thrawn scowled. A finger tapped against the tabletop. "We need answers." Still Jade hovered, uncertain whether she should leave or not. The Admiral looked up. "Go. Go." He flapped a hand at her. Forced a smile to assuage concerns. "Freshen up, Jade. Change and get some rest. I'll call you when I need you."

"Yes, sir."

As she headed for the door, he called after her. "I will be sending you back out for a more thorough scan of the area." She nodded, having expected that announcement. "And Jade?"

"Sir?"

"Well done."

Mara Jade paused, hand hovering above the door release. "Thank you, sir."

CHAPTER FIVE

With the pointed end of his digging stick the shaman carefully excavated a plant root. Enthralled by the old one's actions, his apprentice observed his every gesture. With the point of his knife, Logray cut away part of the root, then carefully replanted the top of the harvested bulb. Reverence for life was foremost in every Ewok's mind. That and balance. All Ewok young were taught from the beginning not to strip more from their surroundings than was necessary to sustain them. And never to remove more growth than would return within a year.

The shaman patted the soil back around the base of the plant and dribbled water over it from the gourd slung on a thong over his shoulder. Harvested bulb in hand, he straightened. Shook his stick at his apprentice. Bright eyed, the younger Ewok indicated he understood what the old man had done. But Logray was not satisfied. He demanded and received a lengthy verbal recitation from his pupil. Satisfied with the results, he released his student.

Gratified that his pupil was indeed learning the ancient healing lore, the shaman chased the younger Ewok away. Attention span among the young was limited. Best held for short periods of intensive learning, then permitted to relax in the frivolities of youth. Smiling to himself, Logray headed for the stream.

Beyond a thick screen of low brush and ferns he caught the excited chatter of more youths. Water splashed. Laughter resounded throughout the thicket. They were either fishing or filling water gourds with which to top up the village reservoir. Aquatic plants were also included in his various concoctions, so Logray decided to investigate the activity at the stream.

Generations of busy Ewoks had worn a broad path through the underbrush to the water. Fruit shrubs lined the stream, the fruit plentiful but as yet too green to eat. In fact, most were barely out of flower. Hard little nodules promised succulent fare by fall. Insects still hummed busily around the last few blossoms. Pressing beneath laden boughs, the shaman emerged on the stream bank.

Wicket, youngest of the blooded warriors, frolicked with companions across large boulders. These rocks served the villagers as stepping-stones to the opposite shore. Presently the eldest were sparring with sticks; playing at mock battles. Back and forth across the stones danced the children, giggling and shrieking with mirth whenever one of them lost their footing and tumbled or was pushed into the water. There was no danger inherent in the game so long as it remained good-natured. And Wicket was, if nothing else, a marvelous peacemaker when the situation required it.

Logray shook his head at their antics. He turned and headed upstream to where a large quiet backwater provided certain sedges with perfect growing conditions. On the bank he knelt and reached beneath the water. Cut his selections. Tucked his harvest into his pouch and went back for more. Moisture beaded on the striped thick fur covering his arm and hands. Soaked through to the skin beneath. His pouch was nearly full when he happened to glance up. He froze.

In a small glade on the opposite side of the river was their visitor. This one, Ewok friend named Skywalker, had been resident in their village now for a double-double span of Ewok fingers. Seldom speaking, this tall one would disappear for days at a time. Returned from each trip more introspective. Unlike most of his kind he chose to spend many long hours in Logray's company. Especially unusual given the shaman had once ordered Skywalker and his companions prepared as the main course in a great banquet in honour of the Golden One. Skywalker did more than tolerate the presence of children. And was not beyond assisting the hunters in bringing food to the village tables.

Today, however, Logray saw the first real evidence of the truly awesome powers this tall one possessed. Intrigued, the shaman closed up his pouch. Finding a route across the water's flow to the other side, he forded the stream. With stealth unparalleled by any save Ewoks on this world beneath Endor's gravid bosom he crept softly up on his quarry.

Skywalker was indeed meditating as Logray had often seen him do. Unlike other days, however, today he sat a half-Ewok height off the ground. The long flowing robes he had donned his first day at the village were draped around his crossed legs, concealing them. Yet, when the shaman daringly passed his staff of office back and forth beneath the tall one, it met only empty air.

Fascinated by the experience, the Ewok circled around their guest. He was careful to maintain a cautious distance in case the suspended guest should suddenly drop from the air. Now he suspected the truth behind what had transpired that first day the warriors had brought this one and his companions to the village. It had been Skywalker who was responsible for the miraculous levitation of the Golden One they called See-Threepio.


Deep in meditation, the Jedi Master reached out across space inspecting Endor's solar system. Still present were remnants of the Alliance's last major conflict with the Empire. Bits and pieces of cruisers, star destroyers, fighter craft from both sides and the second Death Star littered the region. Whenever Endor or its moons passed through portions of the debris field spectacular meteorite displays lit the moon's skies.

Less savoury were the remains of the fighters themselves who had not been recovered. In sensing them Luke wondered how anyone, least of all himself, could ever think of war as glorious. Yoda was right. Wars did not make one great. Too often it left dead and maimed on both sides. War did not discriminate. In the thick of battle, when emotions ran high, too often the innocent suffered as well. Like the Alderaani. And the Ewoks. Pain was a tangible thing, tugging him back into his body. Back to where the shaman was studying the anomaly presented by the levitating Jedi Master.

Blue eyes flickered open. Fastened on Logray. Smiling at the Ewok, Luke stepped down from his suspended position. He squatted before the shaman, his hand out-stretched so his visitor could see what he held. The mystical box no larger than an Ewok knife rested on his palm. Through this they could communicate. A concession the hard shell oppressors had never employed.

"What brings the great shaman to this side of the river?"

"Eeh hah, shah tu chee sha," Logray responded. <Gathering those things which are necessary for healing the sick.>

"May I see them?"

"Nee tcha," said the shaman. <Certainly.>

Stretching out his free hand, Luke Skywalker accepted the shaman's pouch. Delicately he examined samples of sedges and root that the Ewok tendered for his inspection. A touch of the Force to each confirmed some of the medicinal properties inherent in the plants. He returned them. Inclined his head in thanks.

<Does Skywalker visit the resting place of his father?>

Luke settled back on his haunches. He studied Logray for several seconds. "I have been to that place."

<You have seen the honour we have paid him?>

"Yes. I thank you and your people for the honour you do us both."

Displaying all the foresight primitive peoples often possess, the Ewoks had sensed the relationship between Luke and the one they knew as Darth Vader. Despite what they had suffered at his hands, the Ewoks insisted upon erecting their version of an honour mound over the spot where Luke had cremated his father. Thereby presenting an enigma that the young Jedi Master could not quite comprehend. He did not inquire, considering it impolite to ask. Evidently the Ewoks believed an explanation was unnecessary.

<It is right that the father should be honoured,> the shaman replied.

'Where's this all leading?' The Jedi Master could not help wondering. Again, he would not ask. It was for Logray to tell him. Which he would no doubt do in his own time, to pressure him was ill advised. No Ewok elder would be rushed into anything. The reason it had taken them so long to capitulate to Wicket's demands for assistance on behalf of their newly acquired friends when the rebels had run afoul of Imperial forces.

<You have been much alone here,> continued the shaman. He plumped himself down on a nearby rock. Waited for Luke to settle also before continuing. <Your friends did not return with you.>

This was a statement, to which Luke nodded. "I wished some time alone to reflect."

<Why here?>

'Good question,' thought Luke. Out loud, he replied, "Because it's peaceful. There are many growing things here." He gestured to the forest. "This is a good place. It is a world where the spirit can grow."

<And heal,> added the shaman with a sage nod of his furry head.

Mildly surprised, Luke raised an eyebrow and read between the lines; Logray was not fooled. He knew why the Jedi Master was here. The tip of his staff tapped Luke's left knee in a gesture all too reminiscent of Luke's greatest instructor.

<You have been much in need of healing, I think.>

To that, Luke inclined his head. No use lying to this astute individual. Others might question the level of intelligence among Ewoks. His experience had taught him that buried beneath primitive superstition lay minds as sharp as a Wookiee, or his own.

Head tipping, setting the bones fringing his headdress jangling softly, the shaman asked him. <How much longer will you remain?>

"I don't know," Luke told him truthfully.

<Tonight there is a great feast.>

"Oh?"

<We remember,> said Logray simply. And gestured toward the sky.

Faded to a thin silver sliver against the brilliant blue summer sky Endor loomed like a mother watching over her children. Yet Luke sensed the Ewok was not referring to the huge world ever present in their world's sky of whom they thought as the All Mother. When he cast back over time, Luke suddenly realized what day it was.

As understanding dawned in the bright blue eyes, the shaman nodded. Solemn, respectful, Luke swept a hand through the air between them. He asked the old Ewok. "Have you always done this?"

His head nodding, the shaman insisted. <Since that first night after you and your friends took the evil moon from our skies and drove away the slayers. It is right to remember such things.>

"We are indeed honoured," Luke managed.

Ever embarrassed and uncomfortable with the notoriety that had sprung up around him following his ongoing exploits, Luke realized he was again going to be trapped into speeches and, more than likely, gift giving. He wished now his friends were here to share the acclaim.

<"You will come?>

"Yes."

To do otherwise would have been an insult of the greatest magnitude. Better to suffer the little deaths for the sake of others than avoid them and be haunted by the greater.

<Good.> Giving himself a little shake Logray propelled himself to his feet with a bounce. "Chah hah."

"Chah eh hah," returned Luke in his limited Ewokese. He was rewarded by a shake of the shaman's stick, the accompanying pass of his hands signifying the pronouncing of a blessing. Luke bowed his head to accept it. Stubby fingers gingerly rested on his hair and withdrew.

He watched until Logray vanished into the foliage on the opposite side of the stream before getting to his feet. Material swished around bare legs and booted feet. Upon his arrival on Endor, following his meeting with the Ewoks to explain his presence, Luke had changed into the long robes affected by Ben Kenobi. Strange as those robes initially felt they were now as much a part of him as his lightsabre. However, they were not the sort of attire he would maintain when he returned to Coruscant.

Coruscant. Just thinking the word sent a surge of misgiving racing through him. Pensive, he considered the source of the feelings. Unfortunately, the harder he tried to grasp them, the more the sensations eluded him. Even through the Force matters remained vague, as indistinct as mist rising over the river at dawn. And just as chilling.

"Hah chah!"

Wicket burst into the open, several of his friends at his heels. Their cries of greeting interrupted Luke's introspection. As one they skidded to a halt, forming a loose semi-circle around Luke. The small warrior tugged at his tall friend's robes and pointed toward the village.

"Chah nea hah." Luke greeted the young Ewoks with the traditional hello generally employed only with elders. Even beneath their fur it was obvious his manners made them blush. Equally evident was their fear and anxiety. Alerted, Luke asked, "What is it, Wicket?"

"Gorax!"

"A gorax?" This was a serious matter. "Where?"

<This way.>

All notions of retreating to a more isolated spot to meditate in privacy before the evening's festivities vanished. The small party of warriors scurried through the forest. Luke mended his paced to accommodate their short legs but his thoughts far outpaced them. With a gorax on the prowl the need for haste was paramount. There was no time to alert the village elders. It would be up to this oddly assorted band to do what they could to avert disaster.

This was one time Luke wished he had brought a speederbike. Then again, he had not planned for this contingency. In fact, until the Ewoks had told him harrowing tales of gorax attacks on their village, and shown him hard evidence, Luke had been unaware such hazards existed on the verdant moon. It was logical; every emerging sentient race had, at one time in its history, a predator its near equal.

They covered only a short distance before squeals of terror and pain were audible. Also discernible was the crashing of a large body forcing its way through the forest undergrowth. Branches snapped and cracked beneath awesome weight.

Not wanting to risk the children, Luke ordered the young Ewoks, "Stay here."

To command an Ewok warrior or warrior-hopeful to stay out of a fight, however, was like telling the river to stop flowing. As he flitted forward, using every piece of available cover, Luke was acutely conscious of the rotund shadows that disobeyed him, following close on his heels. He dared not waste time trying to convince them to remain in safety or return to the village for the adult warriors.

They reached the edge of a great bay. On his previous trip to the moon of Endor Luke had failed to make it to the sea following the great battle. Since his return, though, he had spent many days wandering the shore or simply sitting beneath the boughs of one of the many shoreline trees watching the waves roll in and out. Or studying the flotsam and storm wrack left in the wake of tidal surge. So much water in one place never ceased to amaze him. Especially salt water. Until recently, like the oceans of Calamar, it was something he had only seen on vid-screens.

His gaze fixed on a hulking figure lumbering along the seashore. Although Luke knew he should have suspected this Ewok predator to be humanoid, he had failed to anticipate just how sentient it would appear. Nor had he imagined it would rival a rancor in size. Massive tracks gouged the once pristine expanse in the gorax's wake. By the depth of the imprints Luke estimated its weight to be over one hundred kilograms. In one hand it bore a cage. From the wickerwork emanated tiny terrified wailing; cries that sent sharp stabs of anguish through Luke Skywalker and caused his erstwhile comrades-in-arms to jabber almost unintelligibly. Inundated with speech from all sides, the translator gave up any attempt of making sense of the noise.

"Quiet!"

Luke's restrained, stern warning quelled the anxious youngsters. Eight sets of bright, dark eyes gleamed at him through the underbrush. Unlike their elders, the young Ewoks were fully prepared to take orders from the Jedi Master. And unlike others with whom Luke had teamed with over the years there were no questions.

With succinct hand signals, Luke urged his impromptu assault force to accompany him in pursuit of the gorax. There was no turning back. Nor was there any way to deter the young Ewoks had he tried. All were determined to stick with him as he trailed their cruel tormentor, spread out in pairs under his guidance, Wicket with Luke. The little party stalked the gorax.

Abruptly, the gorax halted and set aside the cage with its terrified captives. Not quite believing what he was seeing, Luke gestured his party under cover. As they watched, the gorax settled on the ground alongside the mouth of a tiny stream. Quickly sizing up the situation Luke Skywalker formulated a plan.

"Wicket. Take half the group down the beach. Keep to the forest. Get around behind the gorax and set up as many trip snares as possible before he finishes his break. He'll probably see them, but they'll slow him down."

"Sah eea!"

Furry head nodding, Wicket selected his party and took off at top speed. For all their comical, roly-poly forms, Ewoks moved with surprising speed and dexterity through forest undergrowth when required. Unlike the great gorax whose size and conformation Luke suspected were better suited to alpine mountain and desert terrain.

While waiting to make his move, Luke studied the gorax carefully. There was much he did not know about this curious, sadistic creature. Through the Force he sensed low intelligence and a warped sense of property. For the gorax, Ewoks were little more than living toys. To be replaced whenever they wore out---which was to say, when they died.

Horrified by the murderous simplicity of its mind, Luke completed his analysis of his quarry. He watched while the gorax dug some hapless creature from the sand, ripped it from its protective shell and devoured it live. However dispassionate Luke tried to be, sight of that vicious act turned his stomach. Nauseated, he looked quickly away. Around him the Ewoks actually turn green beneath their fur. One youngster lost his lunch, winning Luke's sympathy.

A sweep of the area with the Force informed him Wicket's team were well on their way to setting up several traps of the nature used to bring down Imperial scout walkers and speederbikes. In addition, Wicket and one other Ewok were attempting to dig a pit.

Several more hapless beach inhabitants suffered the same fate as the first. Satisfied, the gorax slurped water, glanced at his captives and gave their prison a cursory shake. Evidently he was testing to ensure they were still alive for he stopped the rough handling the minute they cried out. An expressive belch, audible even above the wave of surf, signified the gorax had finished its repast. Massive frame uncoiling, it gathered in the cage of now quietly weeping captives and turned up the trail Luke and the Ewoks had suspected he would use.

With a wave of his hand, Luke urged his company in pursuit of their prey. It took considerable skill to hold back the over-eager youngsters until the gorax stumbled into the first set of the traps erected up by Wicket's group.

A thunderous roar shook the forest. Triumphant Ewok shrieks accompanied several crashes. Gorax howls of rage and confusion mingled, creating a deafening cacophony of sound. All nature fell silent beneath the auditory onslaught. Not wanting his party to accidentally run into the now thoroughly disoriented, infuriated gorax, Luke slowed. It took all his mastery to order his companions to spread out, but keep each other in sight.

For all his preparations, Luke was wholly unprepared for what happened next. Bewildered, assailed from all sides, the gorax dropped its captives and made a dash for freedom. Back the way it had come. It exploded through the undergrowth directly in front of the Jedi Master. Unable to avoid being run down by the huge creature, Luke reacted on instinct. He levitated the gorax off the ground and suspended it in the air where it thrashed impotently.

Ewoks pursuing their life-long enemy burst upon the strange scene. Excited and awe-struck, they gathered around the breathless Luke. Several appeared on the verge of launching an assortment of missiles, homemade and natural, at the now helpless gorax. But Luke forbade it.

"Stop it. He's not going to harm anyone now," the Jedi Master said firmly.

<You can't keep him in the air forever.>

However astonished the little Ewok warrior was by this incredible sight Wicket kept his head. Quick to grasp the level of complexity into which Luke's hasty plans had suddenly mushroomed he shook his little spear to emphasize his point.

History had taught Luke long ago that even the best-laid schemes often went awry at the least expected deviation by some element involved. Resigned to the inevitable, he considered all possible options and realized there was only one. Again it was a decision whose innumerable outcomes the Force seemed only too willing to amplify in far too many directions at once. The only other alternative lay in killing the gorax, something Luke refused to consider. He clamped down on the Force-fed flow of information and acceded to what he believed to be the best for all concerned.

"No," he said. "But I can take him back to the mountains. Somehow I don't think he'll try another raid on any Ewok village for a very long time. And I'm sure he'll spread the word that Ewoks are no longer easy prey."

This was not something the Ewoks youngsters thought right, given the gorax's propensity for raiding any Ewok village it came across. A couple grew quite belligerent, protesting that the Jedi Master's actions would only foist off the problem on some other, poor, unsuspecting community. If not immediately, then at a later date.

"Not if I take him far enough away," said Luke "Look. I doubt he's going to want to come back here again. And that should be our primary concern."

It required all his skill to convince them the gorax was completely subdued. To prove his point he lowered the massive creature to the ground. There it huddled in on itself, knees drawn up, head burrowed deep into the hollow between its chest and knees. Completely over-whelmed by its harrowing experience, the gorax shuddered and shook, deep in shock.

Luke went to one knee in front of the brave Ewok warrior. "Wicket, I'm entrusting the gorax to your care. Watch him. Make certain your friends don't hurt him. But don't let him escape."

Head cocked to one side in a manner Leia had found so endearing, Wicket asked, <Where are you going?>

"To get my ship and a large net. With them I'll take him back to the mountains where he belongs. I'll make certain he's far enough away that he won't find his way back to the forest."

Still dubious, the little Ewok warrior reluctantly agreed. Confident Wicket would comply with his instructions Luke headed back to the village where he appropriate the largest net the Ewoks had on hand. Puzzled adult Ewoks scratched their heads and murmured to one another as Luke, burdened with a large rope snare borrowed from the villagers, headed for his snub-fighter. The X-Wing fighter the New Republic fleet had released for his permanent use at his sister's insistence rested in a nearby glade.

CHAPTER SIX

Artoo was performing a routine systems check when his master burst into the clearing. Amazed, the droid whistled and watched while Luke strung a giant net from landing struts beneath the sturdy snub-fighter. This was not sound operating procedure, but his master ignored Artoo's observations, even when the little droid bumped against him, seeking attention and reassurance.

To attempt flight in this manner meant flying with gear down, increasing drag. But Luke was positive he could safely compensate if he took it slow. Before Artoo could complain, his master was levitating him into his socket. Once certain his astro-mech was properly seated in its slot, Luke clambered up the hand and foothold indentations to the cockpit.

Because he was operating on a short time fuse, Luke dispensed with his flight suit. He drew on his flight helmet. Hair he had not cut in the weeks since leaving Coruscant nor for two months prior to that, made wearing the helmet awkward and somewhat uncomfortable. He shoved it back out of his eyes, ignoring the discomfiture. His lightsabre clinked against the left circuit breaker panel and he adjusted its position into his lap so it would not interfere with the controls. A tug tightened the harness over his shoulders.

They would not be flying above an altitude where the gorax could safely breath so there was no requirement for life-support, only communications with Artoo. To the droid there was nothing quite so incredulous as the sight of his master clothed in the same long robes he had seen years earlier on Obi-wan Kenobi, combined with a flight helmet. Nor would Luke explain his peculiar actions when Artoo's questions appeared on the droid-translator screen.

"No time, Artoo. You'll see when we get there. Just fire up the converters."

Engine whine filled the air, silencing forest wildlife. They lifted off and tracked a short distance across the forest, guided by the Force as much as by instrument readings. Once over the spot where he had left the Ewoks, Luke was faced with the difficult task of descending low enough through the thick foliage to where the net would reach the ground. Then it was up to the Ewoks youths to chivvy the still bewildered gorax into the net sling.

To Artoo, trapped in his slot behind the cockpit, the entire operation was highly reminiscent of their unpredictable descent to Dagobah on their initial trip to the swamp world. Artoo did not like it and he made certain his master was fully aware of his displeasure. Luke ignored his complaints. He concentrated on inching the X-Wing down through the forest canopy past branch spikes that sought to impale them and the fighter.

Below, they discovered Wicket, his friends and the freed and now rapidly recovering victims all dancing around the gorax. In their minds their antics were keeping their enemy cowed. Luke sensed quite the opposite was true and realized he would have to act fast. He brought the fighter to within two metres of the ground.

To use the Force to control the gorax went against all Luke's training. Yet drastic circumstances called for drastic actions. He had no desire to see either the ignorant gorax or the naive Ewoks injured. The great creature was recovering quickly and this was the best way to ensure protection for both species. Between them, Jedi Master and Ewoks goaded the uncooperative gorax into the sling.

Speed was now essential. Unpredictable as it was proving, Luke found he had to maintain his hold over the gorax through the Force. At the same time he had split his attention, applying himself to flying the X-Wing. Their passenger was less than cooperative. The cool, high altitude air rapidly dispersed the remaining shock in its system, reviving it. It struggled against the restraints imposed on it by its captor. Each violent squirm caused the X-Wing to shimmy in the air and Luke found himself tested to the limits of his capabilities.

Now, more than ever, Artoo proved his worth. Whenever his master became too distracted to concentrate on keeping the fighter flying straight, the faithful little droid conscientiously set to the task. Luke did not need to ask. He and Artoo had served together too many years not to intuitively understand the other's requirements.

Distance that must have taken the gorax over two days to accomplish on foot required only three hours for the fighter to cover. Under normal flying conditions it would have taken less than one. Drag from extended landing gear, combined with the weight of the sling and its unruly occupant added a whole new dimension to the equation. One Luke hoped he would not have to repeat in a hurry. They wobbled on through the air as sling and prisoner swung like a diviner's pendulum beneath them.

It was not enough to simply return the gorax to its original territory. Luke was determined to move the creature as far from the Ewok villages as possible, while still ensuring there was sufficient food and shelter to sustain the creature. He directed the fighter through a series of connected passes, then over two high mountain ridges. Beyond the second, glacial crowned rim he found a likely secluded valley. Carefully Luke brought the snub-fighter round in a second pass and slowed their forward momentum.

Beneath them the sling oscillated wildly back and forth, threatening to off-balance the X-Wing and send them all crashing to the valley floor. With no other option open to him, Luke quickly stunned the gorax with a Force bolt. In those vital seconds, during which he was distracted the fighter went into an uncontrolled flat spin. They lost altitude rapidly, the ground rushing up at them. Unconsciousness threatened to overwhelm Luke as he fought centrifugal force and leveled out. By the time they were on an even keel again and settling in to land, Artoo was frantic.

"It's all right, Artoo." In spite of his own rapidly pounding heart Luke did his best to soothe the distraught droid. "I know that was a close call. But we're almost done here. Once he's on the ground we'll head back."

Dissatisfied with that answer, Artoo was adamant they do more than simply head back to the Ewok village. He wanted to return to Coruscant where droids were relatively safe and necessary, if not always respected members of society. There were laws to protect them from unwarranted damage. Burbled complaints filled the air behind his master as Artoo eloquently expressed his distress and displeasure.

Unperturbed, Luke put the X-Wing on hover so that only the gorax actually brushed the ground. "Easy, Artoo. Just hold us steady while I turn him loose."

That was not what Artoo wanted to hear. He was positive the gorax was only feigning unconsciousness. But his master ignored his continued objections.

To release their prisoner meant diverting some of the Force so Luke could disconnect one side of the net. As though contact with the ground summoned it back to consciousness the gorax woke. It fought the imposed restraints, struggling the harder to be free now it could stand. Luke took a deep breath, steadied his nerves and flipped loose the ties. Circumstances meant he was forced to abandon the net. The gorax tumbled to the ground. Cargo dropped, the Jedi Master quickly soared up out of range of the gorax's long arms.

Furious at being thwarted and imprisoned by beings less than half its size the gorax lunged to its feet and staggered free of the net. An ear-shattering roar erupted at the sight of the hovering X-Wing and its pilot. Mountain slopes amplified the infuriated challenge. A miniature avalanche started high up one peak where a snowy cornice had escaped mid-summer's heat. Infuriated by the manhandling it had received and by the loss of its catch, the gorax cast about the ground at its feet.

Knowledge of what was about to happen flashed across Luke's perception. He risked jamming the landing gear as he hit the retracting mechanism and kicked in the thrusters all in one motion. At the same time he banked sharply, just as the gorax located a sizeable boulder and lobbed it at its tormentors. Even with his quick actions Luke barely averted disaster. The apex of the boulder's arch missed grazing the underside of the fighter by scarcely a foot. Air pressure from its passage jostled the fighter.

Artoo released a shrill, terrified whistle. His master required no further encouragement. They gained altitude rapidly, heading away at right angles to their original route over the mountains until well out of the gorax's view. Only then did Luke turn back toward the Ewok village. When Artoo questioned their course the Jedi Master readily explained.

"There's no use letting him know what direction we brought him in from, Artoo. He might simply head over the mountains and back the way we came. And we'd have to start all over again."

En route to the village they over-flew the remains of several long-dead settlements. Regions where Ewoks had attempted to build, only to be driven out by constant gorax raids. Sight of the devastation weighed heavily on Luke reminding him of his return to the vaporator farm he had called home from childhood. Of the remains of his aunt and uncle left as an Imperial warning on the burned-out doorstep of their shattered home.

Sunset painted the horizon pale pink and orange, easing down to deep purple. Darkness closed in around them as he homed in on the clearing near the village, now visible only because of the numerous bonfires burning on platform open hearths. Wicket awaited him; eager, bouncing with youthful exuberance as the fighter slowly settled to the ground. Before Luke was out of the cockpit the Ewok was unfastening the ropes left from the net.

"Yub nub. Yub nub. Ee hush chuh?"

"Yes, Wicket. The gorax is gone. And I doubt you'll see that one back this way again."

Luke lifted Artoo from his housing and set him on the ground nearby before sliding down the fighter's side to join the droid. Sounds of music, the smells of cooking food and voices raised in excitement informed him the celebration was getting under way. Somewhere celebrants were practicing drumming, the noise fitful as the players finished a short run,before trying a different set of rolls and patters.

"Ya sha chee-a na."

"All right, Wicket. I'll be along as soon as I've finished here."

"Ah hah."

Sound of the human words from the Ewok brought a grin to Luke's lips. Chuckling, Wicket scurried away. "You might as well go too, Artoo."

Not entirely certain he wanted to precede his master, the droid decided that in light of the harrowing experience just past, he would comply without argument. Left on his own, Luke slowly walked around his fighter, carrying out post-flight checks on external systems, foils and cannons with an expert eye. He closely inspected the landing struts for damaged that might have been caused by the gorax. Suddenly Luke halted in his tracks. This post-flight was fast becoming a pre-flight check.

"Why am I doing this?"

Indeed his every action begged the question, urging him to seek an answer to the puzzle. Yet every time he touched the Force he received back only a vague uneasiness. And that only served to increase his disquietude. Yoda had repeatedly counseled patience. As had Ben. Left with no other recourse Luke concluded his inspection and purposefully headed off to the village.

Cries of welcome greeted him when he reached the foot of the rope ladder leading up to the village. Once Luke had expertly scaled the rope he levitated his droid to the nearest platform behind him. Confident in Luke's capabilities, Artoo suffered the indignity in solemn silence.

This was no place for anyone with acrophobia. Huts built in the treetops occupied several layers. Swaying bridges and ladders connected various platforms. Infants and very young children were confined to certain areas by means of harnesses and carefully constructed enclosures near which their mothers spent large portions of their days performing household chores. By the time an Ewok reached age three he was completely at home scrambling between huts and various arboreal levels.

On their first visit to the village Chewie had commented to Han that it reminded him of home. Wookiees, for all their immense size and seemingly ungainly, gangly forms, also built almost exclusive in the branches of the towering forest giants of their home world, Kashyyyk. Luke recognized the parallels each time he ascended to the Ewok village, strangely comfortable among the lofty, swaying community.

But where Wookiee society was on a par with space-faring sentients of the galaxy, Ewoks were still in the primitive stage. Their encounter with the Imperium had raised their awareness of technology far more rapidly than would have been permitted during the age of the Old Republic. It was growing increasingly evident their own intellectuals were expanding their horizons far more rapidly than might otherwise have been the case had they been left to develop normally. Their rapid perfection of gliders, fashioned with crude tools, was a prime example.

"Ayha ya." Wicket eagerly begged his friend to keep him company. < Sit with me.>

Prestige was important to a warrior. In befriending Luke and his companions before anyone else in the village, Wicket had made fighter status far more quickly than the average Ewok juvenile. And he was not above playing on that advantage whenever possible. If Luke chose to sit with him, it meant the elders would be forced to join them, thereby elevating him still further, and prematurely. Conversely, if Luke denied his little friend that privilege Wicket would be demoted to what many of his elders considered his proper place amongst the juveniles.

Neither was an option Luke preferred. Conscious all eyes fastened upon him, Luke rested a hand on Wicket's head. Regretful, he deferred. "I wish I could sit with you, Wicket. But the shaman asked first."

This was not quite a lie. Disappointed, Wicket's shoulders slumped. He scuffed a pudgy foot across planks worn smooth by years of traffic. To ease the sting of the rebuke he had administered the young warrior for attempting to capitalize on their relationship, Luke continued.

"But I would be very happy if you would sit close by so we can talk during the banquet."

From the corner of his eye, Luke saw the chief's stern expression slip just a fraction. The twinkle in Logray's eyes inferred he approved of their guest's diplomacy. The moment was not lost on the rest of the village. Conversation began again. Pleased that he was not being banished to the far end of the circle, Wicket hurried off to talk to his friends.

<That was well done,> said the shaman.

<Children must often be reminded of their place among their elders.> Equally solemn, the new chief watched Wicket. His predecessor had died during the battle for Endor.

"Yet Wicket is no longer truly a child." Gently Luke reminded his audience of that fact. And considered his own abrupt introduction to adulthood. "As was evidenced by his deeds during the war."

<True, friend Skywalker. Please.> The chief gestured. <Sit here.>

Women and young children brought baskets and spits laden with food. Drinks were passed up and down the table; fruit juice, cool spring water, and an alcoholic beverage Luke had not previously encountered, filled fired clay pots. His companions informed him the latter was brought out rarely. And was only for consumption by the shaman, warriors and honoured guests on special occasions.

Luke's trial sip was rewarded with burning lips and throat. He swallowed. Felt mellow warmth in the pit of his stomach reminiscent of Corellian brandy. Forewarned, he knew he would have to go carefully with this and limit his intake less it interfere with his ability to remain in contact with the Force.

Throughout his meditation periods on Endor he had grown increasingly aware of the seductive nature of the Force's dark side. Time and again he had battled down temptation. Even today the urge to simply kill the gorax as the Ewok's wanted had been there, just below the surface of what was right. And he was doubly conscious that somewhere beyond Endor the dark side of the force was gaining adherents. That he had an enemy waiting for him. Someone whose face he could not quite see. Once he had been so close, but had been cut off before he could grasp an image.

<Friend Skywalker?>

Caught back from personal concerns, Luke forced himself to concentrate on those around him. Once the feast was well advanced, the servers settled a short distance away, imbibing their fill of food and drink. Drums softly rolled. Every movement calculated for maximum effect, the village storyteller rose to his feet. An expectant hush fell across the crowd. They settled back to listen while the bard began his tale.

First the bard narrated their myth of Ewok creation. It was a surprisingly short story, for all its richness in detail. Then came a tale of a great Ewok warrior. All this Luke knew was for his benefit, a build-up toward the most recent exploits on their world. Small bodies stirred, restless. Familiar with this myth they eagerly awaited the newest edition to the village recitals. All the skill and cunning of the consummate storyteller in play, the village bard paused. Took time to drink half a mug of juice. Luke hid a smile at the way the storyteller capitalized on being the centre of attention. The bard set aside his mug. Looked across the entire gathering.

<This,> he intoned expansively, both arms spread wide, <is the tale of the great Skywalker. And how he and his friends changed our world.>

Once more the bard paused, this time to bow toward Luke. Soft excited squeals followed his introduction. Were cut off as though someone had hit a switch. Flushed with embarrassment, Luke forced himself to remain impassive while the bard launched into an extensive, much embellished rendition of the battle. Ewoks too young to have been cognizant of events while they transpired leaned forward. Dark eyes bright with enthusiasm, they hung attentive on every word. Several of Wicket's friends jostled him good-naturedly.

The bard concluded, <And so with the help of Skywalker, his sister and his friends, we drove away those who wore the hard white shells. This was our world again.>

No sound except the crackle of the nearby bonfire broke the night as the storyteller sat once more. No one could fail to hear the underlying inference. These people wanted to govern their own destiny.

'Which is as it should be,' Luke silently mused. Even as he tried to think of something appropriate to say his thoughts were interrupted by engine whine shattering the twilit quiet.

They came to their feet, Ewoks and human, staring into the darkness above the treetops. The Jedi Master's hearing, long attuned to the different engine pitches of various craft identified two approaching vessels, both A-Wing class. Through the Force he identified the lead pilot. His lips silently shaped a name. Disconcerted by their unexpected arrival he leapt over the railing, startling shouts of alarm from his hosts. Ewoks pressed rapidly forward, fearful for his safety. Amid incredulous cries from above Luke floated to the ground. Artoo called frantically to his master. Before Luke touched the ground he levitated his droid down. By the time he turned toward the clearing where his own ship sat, the two new fighters were on the ground next to his. He hurried toward them, meeting the lead pilot as he emerged from the underbrush.

"Luke?"

Chem-light in hand, Wedge Antilles thrust through several low branches and halted. Amused and amaze, he stared at the vision his friend made; the uncustomary robes, sparse beard, the long hair caught back at the nape of his neck. Curious as to the identity of the wingman, Luke glanced beyond his friend, waiting for the other pilot to appear. Flit emerged from the forest undergrowth, helmet in hand, short hair disheveled. No sign of a limp remained. And there was no denying her fascination in her surroundings. Because of active assignment with Cov-Ops, Flit had never made it to Endor's moon. Now she peered about her with undisguised interest. She glanced toward the Ewok village staring, fascinated, at the bonfires glowing atop platforms within the arboreal regions. Behind Luke, Wicket slithered down a rope ladder.

"Ee cha nooba?"

To the little warrior's inquiry, Luke held up a hand, silencing the inquisitive Ewok. "What's wrong, Wedge? What're you and Flit doing here?"

"We've got problems."

"I gathered that. You wouldn't be here otherwise. Why did you bring Flit?"

Wedge glanced at his BATMAN. "Al wouldn't let me come unless I had a wingman. This part of space is still patrolled pretty heavily by the Imperials."

"So why are you here?"

"Had to drag it out of Han against Madine's orders. Your sister's missing."

"Leia, missing? I've felt---"

Not waiting for further explanation, Luke brushed past his friend. He had not turned off the translator and, catching the conversation, Wicket realized they would be leaving immediately. He called a farewell to the Jedi Master. In passing, Luke rested a hand on the little warrior's head.

"Make my excuses to the elders, Wicket," he said through the translator.

"Ooya." Wicket reluctantly agreed. Saddened, he watched Luke take off at a run.

Aware of their need for haste Artoo raced after his master. They reached the X-Wing together. Before Artoo's circuits quite realized what was happening he was flying into his position atop the snub-fighter. From the fighter's belly storage compartment, Luke removed his black clothes, pulled off his robes and changed. By the time Wedge and Flit caught up with him he was already stepping into his flight suit. They went past him, hurrying to their fighters. Luke jammed his meditation robes into storage and closed the compartment. As Wedge and Flit boarded and powered up their A-Wings, Artoo fired up the snub-fighter's converters. They were ready to leave.

Strapped in, canopy closed, Luke keyed the com. "Tell me what happened once we're clear, Wedge."

"Go, then." His old wingman urged he take the lead. "We'll follow you up."

There was no argument from Luke. A-Wings were decidedly faster than any other Alliance fighter. They would catch up with him before his X-Wing left the atmosphere. He kicked in the gravs, then the thrusters in well-timed precision. Part of him regretted leaving Wicket to explain as best he could the reason for their guest's abrupt departure. But the fighters were gone before the other Ewok villagers reached the ground.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Darkness, velvet soft, cocooned the sleeper. It held her in its embrace. At first she welcomed it. But several times in trying to wake she found herself forced back into it, and now she objected strenuously to its confining embrace. She struggled against it, reaching deep within for lessons never fully learned or understood. There she found the key and turned it.

Leia woke but made no attempt to move. Eyes still shut she strained with her other senses in an effort to discover where she was. To recall how she got wherever it was she now lay. Memory eluded her for the moment and she turned back to putting together the pieces that would tell her about this place.

Cold metal about wrists and ankles resurrected terrifying memories of helplessness. Of watching her brother vanish before her eyes into the rancor pit on Tatooine. Heart pounding, Leia grappled with the nightmare. That was past, over and done with. Jabba was dead by her own hands. But the frightening parallels brushed across her mind repeatedly and she lost precious time putting them to rest before she could accurately assess her surroundings.

Darkness, but no natural light. That was simple enough. A suggestion of damp, so she was either below ground or somewhere humid. Cool, too. And it took considerable control to prevent a shiver running up her frame. Quiet. That led her to believe she was alone for now. Undoubtedly there would be some sort of electronic surveillance keeping watch on her. Such Jedi instruction as she had allowed time for around affairs of state helped her moderate her heart rate and breathing once more to trick any sensors into believing she remained unconscious.

Carefully easing eyelids open a fraction Leia peered into the darkness. Prison it was. Old fashion bars formed one wall of her enclosure. Luminescent lichen covered grey stonewalls. She shortened her perspective and realized she was lying on her side on a wide divan. Nor was she wearing the clothes she had selected before leaving the Palace. That meant no one at the Palace would be able to track her whereabouts. A second, larger chill crept up her spine at that revelation.

The most obvious reason for her being here was ransom. Someone in Coruscant's under city had recognized her while she roamed the streets collecting data for her battle against the Council. Or had somehow trailed her from the Palace in spite of her use of the Force. Had snatched her and was holding her until the New Republic capitulated to whatever demands were being made for her safe return. She had been a fool to return more than once to that particular part of Lorus.

The reason why she was being kept drugged insensible was evident. Her jailers would have no desire for her to identify them once she was freed. If indeed they meant for her to go free. Alive.

'And yet,' she reasoned with herself, 'why was I allowed to revive at all?'

Somewhere a metal door shrieked open on rusty hinges. For three beats her heart rate jumped. At length it resettled. Dim glows came up in the passage outside her cell. Expectant, Leia kept perfectly still. Through half-shuttered eyelids she stared in the general direction of the sound. There was no telling how long she had been here---wherever here was.

"I'm quite certain this latest specimen will more than meet with your approval." That introduction purred through a translator. The metallic undertones were unmistakable. So was the self-effacing manner of the speaker.

"This you've said numerous times in the past," said another, bored and possibly a bit irritated by their companion's unctuous nature. "Since your selections seldom meet my standards I shall reserve judgement until I have seen the consignment."

A shipment. They were discussing an order of goods. Realization dawned as the conversation continued. They were speaking of her. Leia momentarily lost control. Her heart raced. She had fallen into the hands of slavers. Not good. But then it was not as bad as being a prisoner of Imperial sympathizers or of the Imperials themselves. This would definitely not be the first time it had happened. But in the past Han had always been close by. As had Luke. And others upon whom she could rely for help. This time she was on her own. Desperate, she reached out to her brother.

'Luke!'

'Leia! Where are you?'

A slit opened in the wall above and behind her. Sensors extended. Her captors must also be monitoring her synapses. For the moment she was trapped. She halted all betraying thoughts and exerted fledgling talents, focusing every effort into tricking the devices into believing there was nothing to concern them. That she was still safely restrained by whatever injection they had employed. Clearly the physical shackles were only secondary measures. Her efforts met with success. The sensor pack withdrew into its slot in the wall.

"Here we are."

Through her eyelashes Leia caught sight of a humanoid and a Hutt. Presence of a wriggling Huttese did not surprise the Princess. That race had its hands, part and parcel, in almost every underworld dealing in the known galaxy. The pair halted outside the cell. Stared in at her still figure. The Hutt sniffed. He wriggled back and forth across the front of the enclosure exuding those disgusting pheromones that indicated his degree of excitement.

"I would see her up close. The master is quite particular. As you are well aware."

"Of course."

A door in the cell swung open. But neither individual attempted to enter immediately. As Leia had subconsciously feared, there was an additional restraint; a stun field lined the cell front. Probably as much to prevent unwanted intrusion from outside, as it denied prisoners any hope of escape.

After a brief pause, slaver and prospective buyer entered the cell and approached the side of the divan. When the Hutt reached out to touch her, his companion made a noise in the back of his throat. Discouraged from making physical contact with the merchandise, the Hutt writhed from side to side. Finally he turned to the slaver.

"Blemishes?"

"None visible when the women inspected her."

"Hmm. A moment while I consult my employer. He may wish to view for himself."

From a satchel slung across his chubby serpentine form, the Hutt removed a miniature communication device. There must have been a baffle built into the device for the conversation, entirely in Huttese, was unintelligible. Discussion was confined to short sentences. That much Leia ascertained. Then the Hutt turned the device around so its monitor would pick up her image. Call concluded, the Hutt replaced the com-pad.

"Satisfied?"

To the slaver's question, the Hutt nodded. "Apparently. However, if he discovers you have deceived him in any way you will suffer."

The slaver spread his hands. "Come, now, Unbabbu. Would I be so foolish as to lie to your master?"

There was some logic, however, twisted, to that grandiloquent question. However, Leia lost all track of their subsequent conversation. Unbabbu was a name she had heard on several occasions during her short stay at Jabba's palace on Tatooine. This unsavoury Hutt was no better than the deceased gangster. Rumour was that his employer, name unknown, worked for a collector who specialized in compiling several personal museums holding rarities from all across the galaxy. He was not above sending thieves into planetary museums to remove priceless artifacts that he subsequently installed in heavily protected vaults at obscure locations through the inhabited worlds.

"Your payment has been transferred as you requested. Have her brought to my ship within the hour. My master wishes me to return with his newest acquisition at the earliest possible moment."

"A word of warning, Norisz," said Unbabbu. "Don't attempt anything foolish such as a switch or insisting upon additional credits. He will not take it kindly."

"I'm an honest dealer." All protestations aside the look in the slaver's eyes, quickly veiled, declared otherwise. Something along those lines had indeed crossed his mind, however illusionary the consideration.

Silence. Assurances aside Hutts were not a trusting race. Given to deceit and perfidy themselves, they were incapable of believing truth in others even when the individual dispensing it was known never to lie. Even the most nave could see prevarication came as readily to this slaver's lips as it did to the Hutt. In Leia's eyes they were well matched.

"These things she's wearing. Where did you find them?"

"They're what she had on when she was brought in by my people," said the slaver. "It was considered far more appropriate attire than the mannish clothing she wore when my people---acquired her."

"Curious. One would think a woman of her obvious refinement would wear clothing which would accentuate her obvious physical assets." The Hutt paused. Only then did the slaver inquire further. "Where exactly did your people pick her up?"

"Coruscant undercity."

Uneasy with that revelation, the Hutt double checked the slaver's statement. "You collected her on Coruscant?"

"Don't worry yourself, my friend. There are many such sentient detritus in the under-city these days. No one will miss her."

"What if they do?"

"They'll never know what happened to her."

"I see."

Their exchange answered several questions racing around Leia's brain. She had already determined she was not on board a ship. But that she was no longer on Coruscant, and probably not even within the system frightened her. Of course, she reasoned, Coruscant's sister worlds were too well used by fleet to serve as a staging station for slavers and other renegades and mercenaries. Except for one certain mercenary.

For a moment Leia's thoughts turned to her husband. By now Han must be frantic, not to mention poor Chewbacca. Only Luke would know for certain she lived. And he still had not returned to Coruscant. That much she had ascertained through her brief touch with him.

'So where am I?'

There was no immediate answer to her question. Nor was it entirely relevant, since the Hutt was about to transfer her elsewhere. Intent upon learning as much as she could, she concentrated on what else they might unwittingly pass on. But their footsteps moved away.

"Have your women see she is more---appropriately attired before she's delivered to my ship."

"Of course."

They withdrew from the cell. Bars and shield barrier returned, locking her inside once more. Now more than ever Leia wished she had perfected at least one of the special talents Luke had tried to teach her. Voices of captor and buyer were diminishing with distance. Somewhere that door squealed again.

"How certain are you that she is still unconscious?"

They had apparently paused at the end of the outside passage.

"Sensors in the cell wall above the bed monitor her at all times."

"But she could be waking."

"There's always that possibility."

"Then induce another sedative. I would not want her damaged before my master has an opportunity to inspect his newest acquisition."

"Naturally."

'Luke!'

No answer met her desperate plea for help. Sedative gas poured through the chamber. As its sweet, cloying taste filled her nose and mouth Leia's mental scream cut off before she could repeat it. She was driven back down into darkness. Hemmed within her mind. Shut off from all attempts at recovering any touch with the outside world.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Debate was rapidly degenerating all around her into another long-winded haranguing session between the usual chamber members. This massive hall, wherein sat all those planetary governments represented in the New Republic's Senate, was barely over half full since the collapse of the Empire. Tier upon tier, seats and environmental chambers rose to the ceiling. Lined two complete walls and the upper half of a third. Translators, cunningly concealed amid frescos, picked up and passed on dialogue in each member's dialect with unerring accuracy. Here it was that Princess Leia Organa had cut her diplomatic teeth, as it were. And had replaced her foster father, Bail Organa, as Alderaan's representative.

At the hub of the hall, seated in splendid isolation, was the Speaker of the House. A position Mon Mothma had been training Princess Leia up to. With the Princess missing Mon Mothma was forced to suffer through each session alone. Already her head ached with the rapid-fire exchange of barely veiled insults and innuendoes. Nerves frayed beneath the ongoing diatribe.

Old enough to have served alongside Bail Organa in the old Senate, Mon Mothma was beginning to feel the weight of years. Unlike Bail she had seen, early on, which way the wind was blowing before Palpatine took the title of Emperor. She had been among the first to begin planning insurrection. And it was she who had been responsible for rescuing a number of those within the Senate who, unbeknownst to themselves, were on the Empire's list of undesirables.

It was a shame she had been unable to protect the Jedi as well. But they had been wholly blind to the viciousness with which Palpatine and his proponents brought to bear against them until too late. Too late, that is, for all but four.

'And now there are only two left.' Fear left a sour taste in her mouth. 'Two hopes for our future, and one of those missing and space alone knows where.'

"The Honourable member for Delalt is attempting to confuse the issue. Those sanctions are strangling my world's economy."

"Sanctions which were imposed because Lahara is illegally imposing tariffs on our freighters."

"Which are illegally transporting cargoes of priceless, unfinished green-vein woods contrary to---"

"Woods that are on your own export lists."

"Green-vein is not to be transported before it has been treated and manufacture into---"

"Wholly unnecessary steps which further increase---"

"Measures instigated to ensure our people have employment."

"Preposterous."

"If Lahara had its way, they would milk our world dry of all its natural wealth! That is why we instigated the sanctions."

"On trade routes that, by tradition, are ours."

Frans Molhar, representative from Lahara, leaned over the railing. He followed up his tirade by yelling verbal abuse at his opponent two levels down and three across. The New Republic Senate promptly dissolved into outright bedlam. Unable to make herself heard above the hubbub Mon Mothma abandoned all subtle efforts to call them to order. She hit the switch shutting off translators on all sides. This left approximately one-third of the gathering in isolation. Their soundless mouthing caused the majority of the remainder to blink and settle back in their seats. This left only the Laharan and Delalt representatives, plus their supporters to deal with.

They, too, gradually became aware that they had been singled out. At last falling silent they stared around them at the other Senators, before directing themselves to the Senate moderator. Mon Mothma waited until all eyes finally came to rest on her. She rose. Slowly her gaze ran across the tiers until she had touched on everyone present.

"Obviously this session is getting nowhere. Gentle beings, I call a two-day recess. I pray that during that time all shall review the additional references brought before this congress."

Without further comment, she left the dais. At her departure all microphones automatically turned off. Several voices, deadened by the vastness of the hall, called out in an attempt to halt her departure. Mon Mothma refused to be dissuaded. She swept from the hall in what she felt was one of her better departures. Perhaps lacking in finesse.

'Still,' she thought, 'given my age, only Princess Leia would have done so with more presence.'

Once in the antechamber, Mon Mothma turned abruptly right. She cut across a tiled oval rotunda around which towered an impressive colonnade. Her shoes tapped a brisk staccato on the intricate paving stones, echoing off the vast vaulting overhead. The noise pierced her temples, accentuating the pulsing agony in her head. Several passages gave off the area and Mon Mothma escaped into a relatively quiet one.

Because it was older, it wound a more circuitous route through the back ways to the Palace. Since droids generally frequented this way, most other visitors and residents of the building tended to avoid it. She had stumbled upon it quite by accident during her early years in the Senate. It was here she and her coconspirators had exchanged information and arranged clandestine rendezvous off-world.

"I should be thankful the Princess put the Caucus meetings on hold indefinitely," she said.

In a small alcove part way up a narrow hall she leaned back against a wall. Eyes closed, she massaged the back of her neck and her temples with her fingertips. The pain was almost unbearable, unsettling her stomach. Footfalls approached, rudely intruding on her solitude.

"Madam senator?"

Han Solo waited patiently for the one-time Ambassador to open her eyes. How he had found her would require an answer, but not yet. She spoke without looking at him.

"What is it, General Solo? Have you located the Princess?"

"No, ma'am," he said quickly, slurring the honorific slightly in his haste. Grief and anger coloured his words, carefully controlled in a manner Mon Mothma had never previously seen him exhibit. It was sufficient to make her open her eyes. "But it's not for lack of trying. Lando, Chewie and me put out feelers all over the under-city."

"Have you had any success at all?"

"Some." Bitterness tangible between them, Solo admitted to his dissatisfaction.

He had her undivided attention. Headache forgotten, Mon Mothma drew away from the wall. "Walk with me."

Nor was Solo entirely surprised when Mon Mothma led him further into the back routes through the Palace. Although droids they passed seemed accustomed to her presence in the hallways, several did appear to inspect him a bit more thoroughly than he liked. No hesitation marred Mon Mothma's movements as she drew him along.

"Tell me what you've uncovered," she said at length.

Concerned by the edge in her voice, Han glanced sideways. For the first time he noticed how pinched and wan she appeared. Additional creases delineated the corners of her eyes and across her brow, drew down the corners of her mouth. Every time they passed a particularly bright glow along these otherwise dimly lit corridors she seemed to wince from it.

"Are you all right?"

She flapped a hand at him. "A small headache, that's all. Stress. You were telling me what you found out about Her Highness' disappearance."

Uncertain whether he should take her at her word, Han decided to allow her that unspoken request, and did not pry further. "As I said, not enough. It's not an easy task trying to dig up information on someone when you aren't able to reveal their identity."

Mon Mothma insisted on their present course of action. "We dare not let anyone know she's vanished."

"I'm not arguing with that decision, madam," said Han. He broke off, watching an approaching droid, suspicious of anything out of the ordinary in his frantic concern for Leia's safe return.

"I apologize, General. I didn't mean to sound as though I was criticizing you."

Aware he was unfairly visiting his grief and anxiety on his wife's advisor, Han regained control of his rampant emotions. He deferred. "We're all on edge, Madam."

"Too true. If Princess Leia is lost to us, then the entire Republic could come crashing down."

In this the Corellian knew Mon Mothma was not over-reacting. Much of what the New Republic was built on had come from the spirit with which his petite wife was imbued. Luke might well insist it had to do with the Force. More often that not, Han referred to it as stubbornness. Few individuals in his experience possessed the same turbulent, yet constrained nature of his Princess. She and her brother were, in most ways, diametric opposites. And yet, seen together they were merely two halves of a whole. The primary reason he had mistaken their relationship for something deeper, until Leia had enlightened him at Endor. Not that he was complaining. He could not have wished for better family than Luke Skywalker.

"Which may well be the reason for her disappearance," said Mon Mothma, unaware of his drifting thoughts.

At that supposition Han stopped so suddenly that Mon Mothma was several paces further up the passage before she realized he was no longer at her side. She halted. Turned. Nor did Han Solo immediately join her. Instead, he threw his next question across the intervening space.

"Do you honestly believe that?"

After a moment's consideration, she slowly shook her head. Her response was blunt. "No. Torture her, yes. Hold her for ransom, definitely. But simply kidnap her and make her vanish? I don't really believe so. It might throw the government into turmoil for a short period. But it would definitely rouse all the fence sitters to our side. And killing her would simply provide a martyr of the magnitude the Imperials have no desire to create. Her name would become a rallying cry the likes of which this galaxy hasn't seen in generations."

"At least there's no word of any unidentified---bodies turning up." In spite of the pain it caused Han put their greatest fears into words. He closed the gap between them. They moved on before Han spoke again.

"Incidentally, apparently it wasn't the first time she slipped out."

Mon Mothma shot him a look filled with consternation. "I beg your pardon?"

"It was the fourth, in as many days. Threepio has been able to provide us with information on what she wore when she slipped out."

"Why didn't that thrice-cursed droid go with her?"

Undisguised frustration filled his voice as Han bit out the bitter truth. "Because Leia ordered him to remain behind."

At a loss to understand Leia's actions, Mon Mothma gave her head a tiny shake. "Why ever would she do that?"

"Because, as you originally suspected, she was determined to gather proof for the Caucus that there is---and always has been---poverty and slums."

"An admirable task, worthy of her upbringing." Mon Mothma reflected on Leia's pet project, but a tiny knife pierced her heart. She hurriedly looked away, blinking back tears.

"Somehow I knew that's what you'd say." Solo stared at her. "I simply cannot understand what in the world induced her to undertake such a foolhardy task on her own."

That revelation was one Mon Mothma knew they would probably not have answered until Leia was returned. She scowled against stabs of pain and struggled herself to understand why Leia had insisted upon putting herself in harm's way when she could have sent someone else, even her husband, into the nether regions of Coruscant.

"I don't know."

Unaware her thoughts were drifting, Solo continued. "Threepio's next to useless. Every time Chewie or I try to get information out of him, he starts moaning and carrying on. I finally ordered Chewie to switch him off."

"Was that wise? He was the last one to speak to Leia."

"Yeah. But he can't keep a secret no matter what the situation."

There was no denying the logic behind Solo's reasoning. See-Threepio was one of the most eccentric and verbose droids Mon Mothma had ever encountered. It was beyond her why the Princess did not have her protocol droid's programming altered to eradicate the defect. However, there was also no refuting the asset Threepio provided to Leia whenever she went on a diplomatic mission.

"Was he any help at all?"

Shoulders shrugging, Han reconsidered just what Threepio had said. "The most we could get out of him was something she muttered about her family getting their information first-hand from Alderaan's populace."

Again Mon Mothma halted. This time it was all she could do not to cry aloud her frustration. "General Solo. Now I know I'm definitely responsible for this mess we're in."

"What's that?"

Exasperated, she shook her head. "Alderaani politicians always instigated an extensive---walk-about, I believe is what they termed it. A fact gathering tour, if you will, amongst their people before finalizing any decisions which impacted on the populace in general. There's no doubt now that Her Royal Highness undertook just such a personal fact-finding mission. What a fool I am."

"Madam." No less exasperated than Mon Mothma, Solo rounded on her. "This self-castigating---"

Mon Mothma appeared not to have heard him. "It was that last Cabinet meeting. We were getting nowhere. None of the ministers could agree on what to do concerning replacement of buildings being torn down. Most simply wanted the same style, newer of course, built to continue providing rich income from commerce. Her Highness was all for the construction of parks and housing for the under-privileged."

"She would be."

Patiently Han listened while Mon Mothma rambled on, repeating herself from their first meeting. Many of the poor could not help being destitute. Leia frequently expounded the axiom that when civilization had the means to supply proper housing and some sort of employment, it should do so. For all his sympathies were definitely not with bleeding heart liberals, Han did support his wife in this area.

"But there are those ministers whose personal fortunes are tied up, to a greater or less extent, in Coruscant property." Mon Mothma concluded, struggling to recall exactly what she had said. "I believe I said something to her about producing first-hand evidence---"

"Hoth's frozen hell!" Unable to believe his ears, Han stared at Mon Mothma. "What you said---she wouldn't---Yes. It would drive her to do something foolish."

Anguish and helplessness dulled what little strength remained in the woman who had been one of the Old Republic's greatest stateswomen. "It never dawned on me that she would take it as anything other than what I meant it be. Encouragement for her to continue pursuing her present course of action."

"Which was?"

"Beginning a lengthy probe into the financial standings of each minister. And to bring in a cross-section of individuals drawn from the under-city dwellers to interview here at the Palace." Grief-stricken, Mon Mothma protested. "I certainly never meant for her to do what she did."

Much as Han wanted nothing more than to rant and rave at the elderly Senator, he discovered he was strangely reticent to give in to that desire. Instead, he turned away. He marched up the passage toward its end. Acutely distressed, Mon Mothma caught up with him before he had gone very far.

"General Solo." When he refused to acknowledge her presence, she touched his arm. "Han, please." It was the first time he ever recalled her using his first name. And it was sufficient to make him glance at her.

She persisted. "I am dreadfully sorry about this. Twenty-twenty hindsight is a wonderful thing. One often wishes to retract an ill-timed phrase or a misspoken word. You can't tell me you've never been in that position."

"Apologies won't bring back Leia, madam."

Logic might dictate otherwise, but anger made him lash out. Han struggled to keep his voice low now they were near the more heavily frequented passages. That Mon Mothma was repeating herself without being cognizant of those repetitions doubly troubled him. Aware Leia would be livid with him for his verbal attack on Mon Mothma, Han still could not find it in himself to apologize.

Nor did she respond to his otherwise somewhat abrupt dismissal of her repentance. She dropped back a couple of paces and followed at his heels as they entered the heavier population areas of the Palace. Heads turned, noting the unusual sight. Princess Leia and Mon Mothma in company was one thing. Han Solo and the Senator were quite another. Their presence provided a source for considerable speculation over the ensuing days. Still silent they took the turbo-lift to the Royal floor.

Chewbacca met them outside the apartment Han shared with Leia. The Wookiee's report was lengthy, punctuated by coughs, grunts and moans which set Mon Mothma's head pounding once more. Unfamiliar with the Wookiee dialect, she was forced to wait until he was finished and Han could translate. As soon as Chewie was finished, Mon Mothma inquired.

"What was that all about?"

Han spared her a quick glance. "Lando's discovered someone who may have seen Leia. Seems he turned Threepio back on temporarily right after we left and found out exactly what she was wearing when she disappeared."

"That's good news---isn't it"

"Maybe. That outdoor cafe in one of the low-town plazas where she spent some of her time? It's a watering hole for some pretty unsavoury types. When she got up and left---the guy ain't certain, it's been a couple of days since she disappeared---but he thinks she may have been followed. Not once, but three times."

"Followed?" All manner of possibilities raced through Mon Mothma's mind, vied for priority until she shut them out. "By whom?"

"That's what Lando's trying to find out. He's still down there, using a couple of his personal contacts to trace where she went. And what she did." Chewie emitted a woeful moan. "I know, pal. It doesn't sound good. We'd better hope she's still on Coruscant."

Incredulous, Mon Mothma drew a long, slow breath before following up that announcement. "Do you really believe that's possible? That someone took her off-world?"

"At this point, madam, anything's possible. Particularly as Cov-Ops has had no luck tracing her transponder. I just wish Luke were here."

Under normal circumstances no one would ever have wrung such an admission from the ex-smuggler. But when the chips were down Han knew he could rely on his brother-in-law, for all he ribbed Luke about the Force. If ever there was a time when they could use the young Jedi Master, now was it. Chewie growled something.

"He's what?"

Excitement filled Han's voice, alerting Mon Mothma. "What is it? What did he say?"

"It's Luke. Wedge is on his way in. Luke's with him."

"Praise the Force!" Mon Mothma blurted the Old Republic prayer.

The Corellian was all ready moving toward the door. "Come on, Chewie! Quick! Which docking bay are they using?"

CHAPTER NINE

Not above pulling rank, Han ordered priority clearance and grabbed the first available hover-car. Head still pounding, Mon Mothma elected to await their return in the Royal suites just in case Lando came back in their absence. Accompanied by his partner Han Solo broke every regulation and speed limit between the Palace and Fleet docking bays. They arrived just as the X-Wing and its companion A-Wings settled from sight, in tandem, on the opposite side of the blast wall. Chewie remained in the vehicle while Han raced through the tunnel to greet Luke. He drew up short at the sight of his brother-in-law.

In the weeks since Luke had gone on the inactive list he had sprouted enough hair to draw back in a tail that was now caught at the nape of his neck just above the collar of his bright orange flight suit. A sparse growth of beard covered his face. Above it, solemn blue eyes completed a picture so reminiscent of Ben Kenobi it took Solo's breath away. At the same time, had the situation been any less grave, he would have laughed outright at the incongruous picture painted by the Jedi Master. With Artoo, Wedge and Flit at his heels Luke halted in front of him.

"Wedge tells me Leia's disappeared," he said quietly.

Han nodded, not quite daring to answer at first. Then he managed. "I still can't figure how she got out of the Palace without anyone noticing."

There was no doubt in Luke's mind. He suspected his sister had finally tried out her embryonic Jedi talents. Unfortunately, she had elected to use them at the wrong time, however well meaning the purpose. His observation was succinct. "Obviously someone did."

To his surprise Han shook his head. "Lando's still below checking out a lead. But right now it looks as though this was a fluke incident."

Voice bleak, Luke countered. "Nothing ever happens by chance. Were you able to get anything constructive out of Threepio?"

"No."

About to press Han to explain, Luke read sharp impatience and swallowed his question. "Let's get back to the Palace."

Behind him Wedge called out. "We'll do the walk-around." He gestured to his BATMAN to accompany him back to the fighters.

Luke shook his head. "No, Wedge. I want you both with us." His order halted them in their tracks. "I've got a feeling we're going to need you both this time."

Flit and Wedge exchanged looks. Neither was about to argue with Luke when he used that particular tone. Without bothering to strip off their flight suits, they joined Chewie in the hover-car. When Luke insisted they load his droid he won a disgruntled look from Han and resignation from Wedge. They waited while the Jedi Master stowed the stubby astro-mech in the luggage area. Artoo wheeped and beeped, expressing his pleasure at being included without argument.

Air traffic was considerably heavier than on the out-bound trip. Impatient, Han shifted their flight path between vertical routes several times. His unauthorized, unannounced actions drew several choice remarks from Traffic Control that almost bordered on insubordination. Han ignored the tart comments and concentrated on weaving through various obstacles.

Sight of Flit's white-knuckle grip on the door next to her made Wedge smother a grin. For all her time in Cov-Ops, his BATMAN was unaccustomed to the ex-smuggler's swerve, dip and side slip method of flying. Luke was too caught up in concern for his sister to notice their erratic flight pattern emulated the MILLENNIUM FALCON-style evasion tactics.

Priority One transit accessed one of the upper-most landing levels. First from the hover-car, Luke quickly extracted his droid from the luggage compartment. Happy as he was to be included in this rushed excursion, Artoo was not amused at being treated like so much excess baggage. In spite of the seriousness of the situation the little droid's disparaging whistles and burbles drew a grin from his master.

Unfamiliar with the Jedi Master's talents, Flit's eyes nearly popped from her head at the sight of Artoo floating through the air. Wedge surreptitiously touched her arm. Catching her attention he jerked his head toward the Palace. Behind them a duty droid arrived to take over the hover-car and convey it back to the parking pool from which Han had summarily removed it.

"Come on."

Han urged the group to greater speed. Fortunately no one attempted to interfere with them as they hurried to the Royal apartments. They found Mon Mothma pacing back and forth at the far side of the room when they entered. Not far away, frozen with his arms raised in a comical stance, was See-Threepio. Light slithered across his golden carapace causing him to resemble some stylistic statue.

"Master Skywalker!" Relieved to see the Jedi Master, Mon Mothma made no attempt to conceal her emotions.

Luke held up a hand, forestalling anything further she had to say. Momentarily ignoring the ignominious vision presented by Threepio, Luke summoned his astromech into the suite.

"Artoo. Scan for eavesdropping devices. When you're done I want you to produce a sensor block for this entire room."

Artoo Detoo beeped twice, raised his scanner and went to work. Without waiting for the others to say a word Luke went to the protocol droid and switched him back on.

"---really cannot see why you're so upset with me---." Threepio broke off. He hurriedly took stock of his surroundings and performed a credible double take. His head jerked rapidly from side to side, scanning the group on one side of the room over to the Senator, and then to Luke and Artoo.

"Artoo! Master Luke! Oh, my! What has happened?" A second later, after inspecting his internal chronometer, Threepio answered his own question before anyone could respond. "He switched me off again! Of all the rude---"

"Threepio." Startled by the uncustomary snap of command from the Jedi Master, Threepio halted in mid-tirade. He skittered back two steps on the veneer floor scuffing up a throw rug. Voice lowering now he had the droid's attention, Luke brought See-Threepio back to business. "I want you to tell me exactly what Leia said before she left here that last evening."

It took all Luke's expertise to soothe the droid's outraged sensibilities and draw out every nuance of those final hours before his sister disappeared. At the same time he had to placate his brother-in-law, quieting Han's exasperated protestations each time Threepio said something with which the Corellian disagreed or which further upset him. Anxious, Chewie, Wedge, Flit and Mon Mothma watched and listened, and patiently waited. Aware a transcript would most likely be required later Artoo recorded everything. It took more than an hour, but eventually they had everything possible from Threepio.

"I gotta hand it to you, kid." Han commended Luke on his expertise. "You sure got more outta Golden Rod there in ten minutes than I have in the last five days."

"Now we definitely know why she went down there." Heartsick, Mon Mothma sighed. "I only wish I wasn't responsible---"

"Senator." Not about to accept her taking full credit for the burden, Luke rounded on her. "There's more than enough guilt to go around. It's time we all stopped flailing about and combined our talents to discover who is behind her disappearance. And where they've taken her."

Startled by Luke Skywalker's undiplomatic approach Mon Mothma stared at him. Unable to bear the hurt on her face Wedge tried a different track. "Clearly no one from the Palace is responsible."

"Not if she did use the Force to cover her actions." Finally drawn from wallowing in misery and guilt, Mon Mothma accepted that truth.

"Doesn't necessarily follow." Flit argued against outright acceptance of that statement. Then she blushed as she realized she was instructing others of higher rank.

But Luke gazed at her, intrigued. "Go on, Flit. You were saying?"

Unnerved, Flit turned to Wedge. Saw him nod. Encouraged, she ventured what little she knew from her time with Cov-Ops. "Well, we know not everyone is affected by the Force."

Much as he hated to agree, Luke nodded. "That's true. The Huttese, for example are extremely difficult to influence. Conversely, some races are more easily coerced than others."

"So doesn't it follow that someone perhaps did spot her leaving and followed her?"

As Flit voiced her theory, the door to the suite opened. She broke off and looked up. Lando entered the room. He halted just inside the doorway and inspected the gathering.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. Are you busy?"

Blunt to a fault, Han told him, "You were and we are. Do you have something to contribute?"

"Good to see you back Luke." Temporarily ignoring Han's acrimony, Calrissian greeted the Jedi Master. Once Luke acknowledged him with a nod, Lando adeptly switched tracks. "If you're discussing the Princess, I've got quite a bit of information I'm sure you'll find very interesting."

"What?"

Before Lando had finished speaking Han was on his feet, advancing on him. Hand shooting out, Luke caught his brother-in-law by the arm. For a moment Han was tempted to jerk free. Then common sense prevailed. He nodded to Luke and the Jedi Master released him.

"Easy, old buddy." Sympathetic to Han's distress, Lando unconsciously raised his hands to fend him off. He cautiously joined the group. "Give me a chance and I'll tell you what I've found out."

"Then I suggest we all sit," said Luke.

With a shrug Han dropped onto the nearest chair. Chewbacca settled on the floor alongside him. Wedge made a quiet suggestion to Flit. While her superior got comfortable along with the others, Flit went into the small office Leia used when she was not closeted in session with Council or government. Lando raised an eyebrow at that, but divested himself of his trademark short cloak, tossed it over a chair back and sat on a chair facing the others.

"Do we wait for her? Or shall I start?"

"Better get started," said Luke. "We can bring Flit up to speed later, as required."

"Right. Feet stuck out before him Lando outlined his actions. "After you left, Han, I hung out round that little cafe we found in Lorus. Got the waiter talking some more. Seems he noticed a lot more than he first figured when we originally talked to him."

Someone stirred slightly. Luke thought it was Han until he glanced at his brother-in-law. The Corellian was perched on the edge of the couch, unmoving, staring expectantly. Even Chewie had not twitched. It was Mon Mothma who shifted uneasily, tense with expectation.

"When Leia left the cafe, some guy got up right after. The waiter said he didn't think much of it, but when I pressed him he was pretty sure the guy took the same route Leia did. Seemed to hang back."

"Who was the guy? Did he recognize him?"

"Now there's the interesting part. The waiter insists he'd recognize the guy again if he saw him but he doesn't know his name. This guy hangs out around that particular area quite a lot, off and on. Always watching. Sometimes he's there through the night. Other times he leaves after only a short time."

"There definitely seems to be a pattern here," said Flit from the den doorway.

"What pattern?" Intrigued, Lando turned to her. Flit crossed the room, a tray of snacks and drink in her hands. She set it on the low table at the centre of the sitting room and settled on the floor next to Wedge.

"Well," said Flit, her covert training rising to the surface, "consider the facts. He spends his evenings at the cafe watching---what? A lot of the time he's there all night. Other times he leaves soon after he gets there."

"So?" Han shook his head. "I fail to see where this is getting us."

Luke, in the midst of diversting himself of his flightsuit, disagreed. "No, Han. I think I see what Flit's getting at. Lando, did you ask if this person left right after someone else did?"

A slow, calculating smile touched Lando's face. "Yeah. I did, Luke. And you're on the right track. Each time this guy left real quick he was always on his way out right behind some woman."

"I don't like the sound of that," said Mon Mothma. In the room's diffused light her eyes were dark in pale features, age lines more deeply ingrained.

"Are there specific nights he's at the cafe?"

Insistent, Luke drew the information out of Lando. Accustomed to narrating things in his own way, at his own pace, Lando exhibited a degree of resentment. At the same time he understood Luke's determination. Even though the Princess was now happily married to Han, the one-time administrator still harbored certain feelings for her and was just as anxious to discover what had happened to Leia.

"That's something he wasn't sure about, Luke."

They all fell silent, introspective. Each mulled over the information Lando had gathered. While munching on a bit of cheese, Flit considered her own contacts in the under-city. Finally she nudged her superior.

"Sir?"

Mouth full, Wedge mumbled, "Yeah, Flit?"

"I'd like to see what I can find out---"

"No."

"But, sir. I have the necessary training."

Still adamant, Wedge countered again. "No, Flit."

"Wedge." As much as he disliked interfering in other people's business, Luke intervened. "She's right. Long before she came to you as your aide she was putting her life on the line daily in far more delicate situations than most of us have done. I think it's time we put Flit's original training to use."

More annoyed with himself for trying to protect Flit than he was with Luke interfering in his command, Wedge stared down at the nearly empty platter of snacks. There was truth in Luke's statement. Nor would Flit be venturing into the under-city on her own this time. Unless he missed his guess, the Jedi Master planned to shadow her the entire time. The minute he caught Luke's eye, Wedge knew he was correct.

"All right." He grumbled, grudgingly capitulating. "Just over-reacting, I guess."

Flit was clearly affected by his concern. With great daring, she touched his arm for just a second. "I understand, sir."

Personal concerns pushed aside, and not about to remark further on the manner in which Wedge had initially over-reacted, Luke broached the next aspect of their hunt for Leia. "Any idea how you're going to handle this, Flit?"

Intrigued by the prospect of Flit putting her specialty training to use on Leia's behalf, Han waited for the ex-spy to outline her plan. It was evident to everyone in the room that Flit's mind was working overtime on a plan. Nor did she rush into things. She took another snack, nibbled it and sipped a drink. Finally she laid out her plan.

"Generally I'd go in, hang around, and wait for this guy to make his move. But we haven't got the time to waste on a slow approach. So we'll just have to attract his attention."

"What exactly did you have in mind?"

Mon Mothma frowned slightly, considered the suggestion and wondered which direction this spur of the moment operation was about to take. A tiny grin caught one corner of Flit's mouth. Every part of Wedge tingled as something in him recognized Flit at her most conspiratorial best.

"Well," said Flit, sly beyond her years, "I'd hazard he's looking for a specific type of female. Nothing too dowdy or made up."

"No lady of the night." Lando readily agreed, warming to her suggestion.

"Definitely not," Luke concurred.

On a roll, Flit considered options for her disguise. "There's a possibility he wants someone fresh. Not necessarily pretty but definitely attractive."

"The sort of woman who turns men's heads when she walks into a room," said Wedge. And promptly wished he had either kept his mouth shut or stuck with refusing to let Flit go. Now he had heard her out he definitely did not like this plan of attack.

"And probably with special talents. I'm sure Cov-Ops can dig up the right wardrobe and make-over." Distracted and worried over his missing wife, Han was eager to pursue their quarry by any means open to them.

Years of living on the edge meant Flit could read body language and intonations like an open book. Eyes meeting, she and Luke exchanged concerns. Wedge felt suddenly left out. Without missing a beat, Luke pressed on.

"You're sure you want to risk this, Flit?" When she nodded, Luke heaved a sigh. "Okay. We'll only have the one opportunity to nail this guy. Let's lay out a game plan now and go over it until we've covered every possible variable, and prepared, as best as possible for the unexpected."

Mentally Luke summed up the strengths and weaknesses of their particular group. From experience he knew that together they were well matched, unparalleled in their triumphs. He did not discount what he could count on from Mon Mothma. Flit was the only unfamiliar quantity.

"Madam." He caught Mon Mothma's eye. "Can you continue holding the curious at bay?"

A sub-vocal sigh escaped her, noticed only by Luke. "I'll do my best. But it's growing increasingly difficult to throw up a smoke screen. In particular the Caucus is pressing for Leia to produce substantiation towards her proposed planetary renovation and rejuvenation project. Today I had to resort to highly unorthodox behavior to control the Senate's first session."

"In what way?" Intrigued, Han stared at her.

"I walked out."

Solo blurted, "You did what?"

Every eye fastened on her. Even the droids were struck dumb by her statement. A bark of laughter escaped Lando. He clapped his palms against his thighs, further amplifying his amazement. Disbelief paramount, Han struggled to say something. Was at a complete loss for words.

Faintly amused by the image her words conjured, Luke remarked, "Do your best, Mon Mothma. It's all we ask."

She nodded. "If necessary, I'll resort to a filibuster to hold them. But, I warn you it won't be easy. I'm not as young as I used to be."

"None of us are," said Han sourly.

Not about to be drawn down that track, Luke brought them back to business. "Wedge, you and Flit better get over to Cov-Ops. See what you and Crix can dig up for her to wear. He may even have something to add to our scheme."

"Sure, Luke."

For all Wedge sounded anything but confident in their arrangements, it was equally evident he had not entirely recovered from Dori's unexpected death. The last thing he wanted now was a mistake on Flit's part. He had a right to be concerned. Flit had been out of fieldwork just long enough to lose that vital edge. Luke took a moment to reach out to him through the Force. To ease Wedge's fears enough that his friend would not make any further attempts to interfere. Once certain Wedge would not hinder their plans, Luke turned to Lando.

"You've been down there asking a lot of questions over the past couple of days, Lando. You can't go back again."

Startled, Lando stiffened. "What? Why not?"

"He's right." Han immediately grasped what Lando failed to see. "If you turn up again, someone'll figure out we're looking for this guy and warn him off. As it is, we're going to have to avoid the place like the plague for a couple of days."

"That's the truth." With a firm nod of her head, Mon Mothma reinforced her support of the Jedi Master and his brother-in-law.

"I don't like it, old buddy. But you guys seem to know what you're talking about." Unhappy, but willing to defer to their judgement, Lando resettled in his chair. "So what do you want me to do? I'm not going to sit around here while you guys are working on finding Leia."

Prepared for that contingency, Luke parceled out tasks with all the adeptness of a general planning a battle campaign. "You could check out registration on all ships that departed over a four-day period following Leia's disappearance. Start with the evening she went down there, although I doubt if she has been taken off-world they'd have removed her right away."

"Why not? If we're right about this guy's motives," said Lando, "it's high unlikely they knew who they had snatched."

"And it's because of that," said Luke, his reasoning sound, "that they would hold her here for a couple of days."

"To make certain no one notable expressed concern over a missing woman," said Han, his mouth tight with controlled rage. He gazed off into middle distance.

With a quick glance from one to the other, Lando commented on the direction they were taking. "That's if our suspicions are correct and we are dealing with slavers."

"Have you any better ideas?" Mon Mothma waited until Lando shook his head before she pressed the issue. "No ransom demand's been made. And if Imperial factions were holding her, we'd have heard about it soon enough."

Attacked from all sides, Lando hitched his shoulders. He tugged at his tunic to straighten it even though there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. "All right."

Now the Jedi Master steeled himself to tackling their most difficult problem. "Han, I want you and Chewie to remain here, too."

Immediately the Corellian was on his feet, towering over his brother, objections hot on his lips. "Whoa! Wait a minute, kid. I'm coming with you. That's my wife out there."

"And my sister," said Luke. Hand held up, Luke cut him off. "I'm sorry, Han, but you can't come. You're both too conspicuous in the lower levels. Everyone knows Chewie's your co-pilot and friend. He seldom goes anywhere without you. If they see him, they're going to start wondering where you are. And why he's down there even if you aren't. The last thing we need is for people to start speculating on what's happening between you and Leia. Someone's sure to start prying and we'll lose what little advantage we've gained."

'Such as it is,' thought Solo.

Angered that he would be left out of this most vital stage of the operation, Han locked gazes with his brother-in-law. In spite of the sense behind that argument he struggled to convince Luke he was wrong, that they needed him along. Aware of the silent conflict of wills, the others watched. Waited anxiously for the outcome.

Lines tightened and deepened at the corner of Han's nose and mouth. His eyes hardened and narrowed. But however he tried to impress his will upon Luke, the softer and more sorrowful the Jedi Master's expression grew. Finally Han growled a sub-vocal note.

"Han. Please."

With all the subtly gained from years of dealing with Han Solo, Luke pleaded with the Corellian. His expression begged Han to see the logic of his decision. Too much hinged on what they were about to undertake to risk it all on one person's personal desires.

Reluctantly Han acquiesced. "Okay, kid. If you insist."

Relieved that he would not have to apply the Force to achieve his aim, Luke broke his grip on Han. "Thanks, Han. If we need you, I'll let you know immediately."

Solo nodded. Pain he could not conceal from his companions dragged down the corners of his eyes and mouth, tore at his friends. Lando offered his own suggestion, sensing his old friend needed something more to ease his pain.

"You and Chewie could always help me, old buddy. The more eyes on the job, the quicker we'll have the list."

Good intentions and sympathy were the last things Han wanted from anyone just now. His first desire was to find those responsible for kidnapping his wife and make them pay. At the same time he could not argue with the wisdom of those around him. To rescue Leia from whatever fate presently separated them he would have to go along with the others.

"Han." With wisdom beyond his years Luke rested a hand on his brother-in-law's arm. "It's better to be busy than sit here and let grief and worry eat you up."

To wait idly while others worked towards discovering Leia's whereabouts was the farthest things from Han's mind. It was equally obvious they were not about to let him off on his own recognizance. They knew him too well for that.

'If,' he silently reasoned, 'they are going to refuse to let me to help in the under-city, then I'll do whatever else I can toward achieving their joint end; rescuing Leia.'

Not bothering to hide how disgruntled he felt, Han nodded. "Okay. Let's do it."

CHAPTER TEN

The moment they left the room however, it was obvious the best-laid schemes of all concerned were about to receive a minor setback. General Rieekan, completely recovered from his ordeal, awaited them in the hall. Unable to contact them, but knowing where they were, he patiently paced the passage across the front of the Royal suites. The minute they emerged from the suites he intercepted them.

"General Skywalker. A moment, if you please."

Unlike the rest of the group, Luke was not surprised to see Rieekan in the passage. He halted, but gestured to the others. "Get started. I'll catch up with you."

Carlist watched them go, thoughtful, assessing the looks on their faces. From the manner in which Flit and Wedge refused to let him catch their eyes he realized something was definitely afoot. And even should he press the Jedi Master and his friends he would probably fail to receive a satisfactory answer until they were ready to give him one.

"I'm pleased to see you looking well, sir," said Luke, casually distracting Rieekan.

The General was not put off, even though he realized what the Jedi Master was doing. "I understand I have you to thank for much of my recovery, young Jedi Master."

Two were playing the game, now, and Luke realized it. He braced for the expected. "What can I do for you, sir?"

"There's that little matter of the explosives on board the Fleet's newest acquisition." Rieekan reminded him of his promise. "You did say you were prepared to assist the EOD team in removal of the devices?"

Trapped, Luke considered the alternatives. He knew there were only two: to put it off indefinitely and thereby start even more people speculating on what was diverting his attention. Or put to good use the time while Flit was preparing to go undercover. In brief retrospect he realized this would provide the perfect explanation to cover his abrupt return to Coruscant.

"How long should it take them?"

Pleased Luke was expressing an interest Rieekan hastened to reassure him. "Two---three days, at most."

"Two," said Luke.

His declaration took Rieekan by surprise. "Why two? Is something wrong?"

"Nothing that you can help with," said Luke levelly. And with a firm stare he implied Rieekan was prying into personal matters he was certain the old man had no right to press him on.

"Very well. I'll inform Fleet you're on your way up," said Carlist, not about to risk questioning Luke further.

"Give me two hours," said Luke. "There're some matters of urgency I have to take care of first."

"Two hours it is." With a nod that expressed his satisfaction, Rieekan withdrew.

Time was of the essence, inexorably trickling away. Luke took a separate route to Cov-Ops where he discovered Wedge and Flit already in deep discussion with Madine. From the outset no effort had been made to keep General Madine in the dark concerning Leia's mysterious disappearance. Now he was gearing up his department to assist them in their endeavour.

Unlike Wedge, Madine had absolutely no reservations about using Flit. Crix went further, commandeering one of the smaller briefing rooms for their preparations. When Luke entered the room, Madine and Flit were hard at work, their heads together. Wedge hovered behind them, injecting suggestions from time to time. They broke off. All eyes turned to Luke.

"Wedge, we've got a minor snag," Luke informed his friend.

"Already?" That came from Flit.

"Only one?" Crix hid an uncharacteristic smile.

Aware they were not going to favour his absence, Luke explained. "Rieekan wants me up-Fleet. Now."

Arms folded across his chest, Wedge planted himself against the table, his back to Madine and Flit. He snorted. "Let me guess. EOD is getting themselves all in a knot over the frigate, and they want you up there like yesterday so Fleet can finally get that ship on line."

"Something like that." Eyes twinkling, Luke teased him. "Might make a Jedi out of you yet."

"Force forbid! Thanks but no thanks." The words were out before Wedge could retract them. But Luke did not appear upset by his retort. Heartened, Wedge said, "I've no inclination to go through what you have."

Luke parried. "What? And miss all the fun?"

"Hah! What fun? After what you've been through you have the audacity to call it fun?"

Incredulous, Flit and Crix listened to their banter, amazed the pair could find any humour given their anxiety for the Princess.

"Okay, Wedge." Luke clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Until I get back you're in charge of things."

About to say something concerning Luke's decision, Madine caught the look in Luke's eyes and changed his mind. "How long will you be gone?"

"A couple of days," said Luke. "I told Carlist they had me for two, tops."

"We should be ready to put this plan into operation by then."

Madine's confidence reassured Luke. Too many paths lay open to them, shifting, merging and splitting over and over through the Force. Luke forced himself to remain positive. "Good. Keep on it, Wedge. Crix, unless there's a problem, or some emergency, don't bother contacting me."

"Business as usual?"

"Right." Slowly Luke drew a deep breath and released it. "And, Wedge?"

"Yeah, Luke?"

"Keep an eye on Han."

"Sure, buddy. Will do."

"Thanks. See you in a couple of days."

Cloak gathered about him, Luke left the Operations Centre. He caught the Duty shuttle to the fighter docking bays. Artoo was waiting for him when Luke arrived to sign out an X-Wing. Two technicians saw the little droid was secured in his slot and prepped the fighter for the Jedi Master while he climbed into his flight gear. Cleared second for lift, the aging snub-fighter and its legendary pilot slipped Coruscant's gravitational bonds to rendezvous with a massive Calamari cruiser.

Already on line in a transport, the EOD team was pleased to see Luke Skywalker when he joined them, his droid in tow. On board the as-yet-unchristened frigate the group gathered in the engine room just forward of the drive chambers. Half the demolition team wore pressure suits, sans helmets, for the first shift outside the ship. Luke settled himself in one of the four seats in the engine room, noting repairs made to the damage he and his assault party had inflicted on the vessel when they captured it.

"Okay. Here's how it'll go." Now they were all present the Team Leader began his briefing. "We work from the outer layer in."

"Excuse me, sir?" One member interrupted. "Suppose there's a multi-layer, sequential trip built in? You know the Imps favour that sort of timer."

"When we took the frigate I disabled the relays," Luke said. "But I'll be monitoring your progress the whole way."

Only a few of the demolition team appeared comforted by his reassurances. Not about to let them question the Jedi Master's apparent competence, their leader ordered the first shift out the nearest lock.

Several repair tugs hovered around the external drive tubes. Ordinarily occupied by only two individuals, a pilot and one worker, each tug now carried a third person: a watcher. In cradles suspended beneath each tug were tools and special explosives' containment receptacles.

Encumbered by their pressure suits, the demolition teams moved in pairs along the ship's hull until they reached access hatches. Tethers secured loose hatch covers so they did not float away while teams entered each of the maintenance wells.

"How are they doing, sir?"

In spite of all direction from his superiors not to disturb the Jedi Master, the team leader could not help inquiring after his people's progress. Due to the nature of the explosive devices his teams were up against, it was impossible to send in any sort of vid-links. Use of com-links was also ill advised. So the captain was forced to rely on this unknown element of Jedi expertise. He was no more comfortable with that than the rest of his EOD personnel.

"They're fine."

Faint, distant, that reply was an after-thought, produced hesitantly, with an obvious delay factor like a time-stretched old-fashion communications relay. Warned against further intrusion, the captain settled on a neighbouring seat to watch, wait and sweat it out.

Although annoyed by that single interruption, Luke narrowed his field of concentration. Determined, he blocked out all external stimuli. It took all his strength and training to keep track of seven teams working simultaneously. Initially the groups worked on removing the remaining layer of the intervening plates.

There was undoubtedly no more dangerous a task. Working in null gravity, in cumbersome pressure suits, several hours were required to remove the armour. Tedium and impatience could result in serious mistakes being made when the end of the job was in sight. Because of that, Luke quickly broke the connection as the groups reached the last weld.

His order startled the Team Leader. "Call in your teams, Captain."

"But they're almost---"

"Now. Or do you want to risk losing someone or this ship?" The sharp edge in Luke's voice alerted the Captain this was no time for questioning orders.

"No, sir. Right away, sir."

By prior agreement the Captain sent the single pulse signal through the headsets of the first team's pressure suits. There were no arguments from the outside teams over the recall. In pairs they shuffled wearily back along the frigate's exterior and entered the lock.

Their Captain met each pair with the same question as they removed their helmets. "How did it go?"

"Good, sir."

Hair, dark with sweat, was plastered flat to each person's head. Several exhibited glazed expressions that told the Captain it would have been extremely dangerous to leave them out any longer. Some fumbled with fastenings, incapable of uncoupling snaps and seals. Teams of two technicians to each man moved forward to assist, sympathetic and fully cognizant that their turn was soon to come.

Luke firmly declared. "It's time to take a break. "We'll review what you've uncovered so far."

The Captain did not miss the thinly veiled sighs of relief that greeted that order. Stripped of their pressure suits the first team joined their comrades, Commanding Officer and the Jedi Master in the primary engine room.

Spread out across one large vid-screen was a multi-layer cut-away of the frigate engine pod. Differences from the usual representation were immediately evident. One look at the image confirmed to even the most ardent disbeliever that Luke Skywalker knew exactly what was happening on the hull even without the use of monitors with which to maintain surveillance. Every tool, every plate and weld and tether were exactly where the team had left them. Incredibly, the illustration even allowed for drift.

Amazed, the group gathered round, exclaiming over what they saw depicted there. Luke produced stimulating drinks and snacks he had ordered the minute he knew they were on their way back in. While the first team refreshed itself, Luke went over their progress.

"Many of you are wondering why you were called back in just when you were ready to pull off the last plates."

No one spoke, but several heads nodded. Determined they understand the enormity of what they were dealing with, Luke touched a key and brought up a visual representation of the next level.

"Immediately beneath these plates are the first series of triggers. Although quiescent a delicate touch will, no doubt, be required to safely cut their connections to the explosives."

One of the team peered at the display. "Sir? If the explosives aren't under the plates, where are they?"

"There are actually two levels of detonators."

Someone choked on their drink, then blurted. "Sith spawn!"

"The Imperials are, if nothing else, efficient," said the Captain. But for all his cool assessment he was equally shaken by Luke's information. "Please continue, sir."

"Thank you, Captain." Now Luke surveyed the group. "You're all tired."

Someone in the rear protested. "Not that much, sir. We've worked twice that long in the past."

"Maybe." Undeterred by the objection, Luke reasoned. "But not in null gravity, in pressure suits, faced with a task of this magnitude, multiplicity and delicacy. See here? And here." He pointed to the cut-away as it altered. "Beneath the first level of detonators you're going to encounter a series of interconnected trigger mechanisms. You'll also find a number of secondary and blind triggers."

Humorless, one of the women reflected. "Looks like a stroll in the park."

"Right." For all the woman's grim expression, Luke's mouth twisted in a sour grin. "So from here on you'll be working in shorter shifts and taking longer breaks."

Three of the team protested his decision in unison. "But that'll double the time it's going to take us to remove them."

Sympathetic, Luke was nevertheless adamant. "I also have a deadline to meet," he said, and hated what he next told them. "Our lives and the lives of those tug operators are far more important than any deadline Command may have."

"How long do you want us out there, sir?"

That question came from the second team's leader. Without hesitation Luke answered. "Three hours, tops. If I determine you're tiring, getting lax in your attention to detail, I'll recall you sooner. It may be that some teams will be brought in earlier than others. Don't consider it a disgrace. From this point on some of you will encounter far more difficulties than your companions may find. Those who finish first will help spell the groups encountering more complicated sections." He gazed around the room. "That's it, then.

The Jedi Master's briefing concluded the EOD officer clapped his hands together. "Okay, people. You've got your instructions. Let's do it. Second Team. Clean up and suit up. You're next on deck."

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Towering tree ferns mixed with other sub-tropical growth to shelter an exotic array of blossoms, massive and miniature, gleaned from myriad worlds. Droid gardeners specifically programmed in the maintenance of each individual plant's idiosyncrasies daily inspected and cared for their specific charges. Every piece of flora and fauna was chosen for its preference for humidity and warmth; blossoms for their long-term production and majestic blooms. Daytime temperature was balmy, humid but warm. By night, it was marginally cooler.

Three tiny streams wended their way through the large arboretum from conduits at the base of the dome. Each trickled over artificial gravel beds before passing through tiny ponds. Colourful aquatic life forms filled each pool. No two were quite the same; their species prevented from leaving by a cunning series of barriers and filters. Non-biting insects flitted on diaphanous gossamer wings from leaf to branch to limb. Lived out their short life spans, hatching, feeding, and passing through a pupae stage to their final, brief moment of glory. Once they mated they laid their eggs and died, to be replaced by their offspring. Overhead, brilliant feathered and scaled avian creatures flew or soared free within the confines of the building. Liquid songs added to the soothing atmosphere.

Central in the building was a waist-deep pool of recycled water. Sky blue and white tiles lined the bottom and ringed the sides, providing the residents with the ideal place in which to relax. Fashioned of common granite, the surrounding pool deck was polished to a high sheen so that mica flecks winked like hints of silver from the stone. Thinly layered overtop of the polish was a transparent, non-skid surface to prevent bathers from taking nasty spills.

Two fountains stood at opposing corners. Sculptured in pale rose stone, each represented a pair of the more graceful Calamari aquatic creatures. Water spouted up between them during the day. By night they produced a fine mist that floated across the nearby forest, providing much needed moisture to the sycophant life forms growing in clumps along the limbs of broad-leaf tropical trees. Balancing their placement were two shallow hot pools.

High overhead arched an opaque dome through which natural light entered during the day. At night contrived constellations and three simulated moons trod a solemn dance throughout the evening hours. Underfoot, five stone pathways ran out to the perimeter of the arboretum. Here a track encompassed the entire circumference. Several more walkways meandered away from these. Artificially simulating game paths, they rambled beneath the bows of the carefully tended forest.

Two beings leaned on the railing of a catwalk which spiraled up the exterior from the ground and circled the dome two-thirds of the way up its curvature. Both were males of their species. On the left towered a spindly humanoid whose actual race was questionable. Slit-pupil eyes stared out of sharply oval features from behind anti-glare goggles, accentuating the almost non-existent nose that consisted of a raised cartilage ridge that ended in two skin flaps. A short shock of sandy red hair stood straight up off a narrow skull.

To his right bulked the muddy-green hulk of a Gamorrean. Like most of his race, this Gamorrean was stout, rotund. Outward appearances were deceptive. Considerable muscle lay beneath the seeming of fat. There was, however, no concealing his present mood.

Host and guest were clothed in loose caftans that fell to their knees, ideal attire in the midday heat and high humidity outside. Had anyone been present within the dome, the two on the outside walk would have been invisible. In fact, any view of the outside world was invisible from within the structure, providing the ultimate illusion of a self-contained universe. For the moment, however, the interior was empty save for the flora and fauna.

"What do you think, Courewl?" Unconcealed pride in this, his greatest accomplishment cued the guest as to how he should react.

"A handsome achievement, Tshukon." Courewl commended his host. He continued his inspection of the display below.

In truth, he was quite over-awed by this structure, and by the expense lavished on it. He was equally dazzled by what it enclosed. Of itself, the magnificent garden was an impressive achievement. All the more amazing because each element was a rarity on each home world. Some were difficult enough to domesticate in their native settings. To have successfully cultivated them in an artificial environment, in conjunction with plants alien to its own world, was a stupendous feat in itself.

Combined with that was just the right mix of reptiles, birds, insects and aquatic creatures. All formed a delicate balance that went beyond amazing. Particularly when the whole was designed to display, not to breed endangered species. Specifically contrived to accommodate a collection of humanoid females unparalleled throughout the now-dissolved Imperium.

"So where is this incredible bevy of femininity you've gathered from the corners of our galaxy?"

"Ah!"

Tshukon was openly amused and pleased that he had caused the usually unflappable Courewl to finally admit that his complacency was shaken, if only just a fraction. The Gamorrean preened and basked in that reaction, wandering further around the walkway. His actions drew his guest after him. Unable to contain himself, Courewl followed.

He failed to comprehend the attraction humanoid females had for this Gamorrean. Most of the race was coarse, slovenly creatures. Given more readily to selling their services as whores, mercenaries or bodyguards, they seemed happiest in combat or stuffing their faces at a banquet table.

"Look there."

Directed by his host's gesture, Courewl peered down through the foliage surrounding the large pool at the structure's centre. It took a couple of minutes to pick out exactly what Tshukon was pointing at. Suspended between the trees were hammocks, littered with dainty cushions and gaudy throws. More cushions were strategically placed around the pool perimeter.

"All this just for some female slaves?"

"Ah, but what slaves." Tshukon crooned with pride. A peculiar sound when emitted through the tusked mouth of a Gamorrean. It rumbled up from deep in the broad barrel chest. Hissed around razor sharp incisors and across flabby lips. "Wait. They're coming now."

Unaware they were being observed from above, a covey of females, nine in all, were ushered into the enclosure by three female Gamorreans. Blond, brunette, auburn, ebony tresses, each one was strikingly vibrant. Every one wore a loose robe that flowed from shoulders to ankles, leaving arms bare. Although the caftan covered their bodies, the manner in which it clung to their frames as they moved only served to accentuate their individual shape.

Uneasy in the exotic surroundings, they halted just inside the entrance to stare about, nervous and wary as any wild thing released in a new enclosure. When their guards withdrew, closing the lock, several cried out. Two tugged at the airlock hatch, begging for reassurance.

Minutes passed. It soon became evident they were alone within the structure. Nervous but curious, they moved slowly up the path in a loose group. While their master and his guest spied on their every movement the women inspected their new surroundings. Hands delicately stroked leaves, cupped flowers and sniffed exotic fragrances. The more wonders were discovered, the higher their voices rose, excited by what they saw and heard.

"They seem pleased with their surroundings." Unlike his host, however, Courewl noticed one woman appeared distracted. She was not as genuinely bemused by her new accommodations as were her companions. Within minutes that particular female faded from view beneath the taller foliage.

"Yes. Don't they?"

Enthused by the sight of the women darting through their specially contrived wonderland, the Gamorrean rested one hand against the dome. Spread stubby fingers possessively across its surface as though he caressed each person and thing trapped within.

"But I thought you liked round numbers? I see only nine women."

Courewl's observation drew Tshukon from his distraction and produced a momentarily frown of displeasure from the Gamorrean. He soon recovered.

"One of the reasons I asked you here today to share in my pleasure."

Smug with this minor triumph, Tshukon eased back around the walkway until he was once more staring down into the centre of the structure. Courewl accompanied him. Three women were testing the pool water. Two more dabbled their fingers in the hot pools. Still another held a hand up to spray from one of the fountains. The remaining three drifted about the garden within sight and sound of their companions, examining the plants.

"My latest acquisition is even now on its136

way."

"Implant in place?"

"But of course, my friend." Astonished his companion should even consider questioning that, Tshukon blinked gravely. "I would not want them to harm themselves, or these magnificent surroundings. I've invested far too many credits in my collection to risk such a thing."

"Of course."

"There. See?"

His eyes slit further, the better to peer through the transparency Courewl inspected the newest specimen. As with the others, she was slender, if perhaps a trifle smaller than the rest. But she was attractive nonetheless. Red-brown tresses were caught up and back, falling in a waterfall of rippling waves down her back. She appeared dazed. That was the only term Courewl could conjure to describe her actions. Not an uncommon occurrence for someone so recently awakened. The implant employed by his Gamorrean host locked all the individual's memories safely away in the furthest recesses of their mind. He would not erase them.

To perform so radical a procedure as a mind-wipe generally left the recipient a mindless vegetable. And even with other instructions and false memories filling the blank, the specimen required constant care for more than a standard year; the length of time it would take for the individual to recover some semblance of normalcy. Even after that they were never entirely capable of functioning outside a carefully controlled environment.

No. Tshukon wanted the perfect trophies for his collection. There was dark Chilali of the lilting voice. Palila's skill with any musical instrument was unequalled throughout the settled galaxy. Adamina, auburn hair reminiscent of a blood-red sunset, possessed the ability to weave song so that it drew every nuance of emotion from her audience. Fairest of face was Tirsa. In dance, none surpassed Falda.

In fact, each woman possessed attributes the Gamorrean collector craved. Yet, the harder Courewl stared, the more puzzled he was over what this latest acquisition offered to the collection. He voiced his doubts.

"Ah." Snorting and grunting his pleasure, Tshukon gestured. "Look, my friend. Watch Mansi and you will see why I selected her for my collection. She is perfection in every line. Small. Intense."

"Melancholic." Unable to stop himself, Courewl inserted his observation, momentarily catching sight of the small, upturned face. The bleak expression in those dark brown eyes was undeniable even at this distance.

"Mysterious."

"If you say so," conceded Courewl, unwilling to be drawn further into a verbal contest with his host.

"And, unlike the others, highly educated. Intelligent." Tshukon rubbed his hands together, anticipating the moment. "Oh, the discussions we'll have."

'Dangerous,' thought Courewl. But he did not voice that out loud. "An---admiral acquisition."

"I'm pleased you agree," said Tshukon. "Her principal asset is her mind; keen. She's sharp-witted. Highly erudite."

Now Courewl dared tentatively voice his concern. "Aren't you afraid she might her wonder about her present condition? After all, she wasn't raised to this life like some of the others. Nor brought to it as a child."

"You forget Varina." Gruff at being questioned, Tshukon reminded the other of the woman who had vanished into the foliage.

Courewl grunted, noncommittal. He had not forgotten. Varina the loner, whose hands turned common clay into works so marvelous they alone brought in profits worthy of the most famous artists of the galaxy, New Republic or Imperium. Still he felt it necessary to express his continued concern over his host's refusal to acknowledge a possible drawback in this latest acquisition.

"Come now, Courewl. Do not concern yourself. If she proves a problem I shall simply replace her. As I've done with others."

About to slap Courewl on the back, the Gamorrean recalled, just in time, the fragility of his guest's frame. He turned the spontaneous movement into as graceful a gesture as any Gamorrean could render. "My females are preparing a sumptuous banquet. I would hate to have it spoiled by our tardiness."

Aware Tshukon was more concerned for his own hide should he fail to appear on time, than with wasting food Courewl covered a smile. They descended the walk via a lift provided to comfortably accommodate no more than four average size sentients. Dusk settled rapidly over the equatorial region. Nocturnal creatures stirred. Inserted their voices into the world.

As the lift conveyed them back to ground level, Tshukon rested a final look on the dome. Self-gratification over his achievement with the dome was out-weighed by the information he had accidentally stumbled upon concerning his latest acquisition. Knowledge that he hugged to himself, reveling in it.

'If only you knew the truth, Courewl.' And the Gamorrean's tusked mouth drew back in a secretive smile.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Disoriented, yet drawn by the lilting sound of female voices, Mansi tottered up the path toward the centre of the dome. At the edge of the pool area she paused, one hand resting against a nearby tree trunk for support. She stared at the strangers with wide, dark eyes; there were eight in all. On the other side of the pool a woman with fair hair turned and caught sight of the newcomer.

"Hello. You're new, aren't you?" Mansi nodded, afraid to speak. The blond came quickly around the pool, but stopped when she realized her abrupt nature was instilling more uncertainty in the newcomer. "My name's Tirsa. What's yours?"

"M---Ma--Mansi."

With difficulty the stranger forced out the word. Just voicing her own name drove a wedge through Mansi's brain, seeming to separate it into two hemispheres. One side readily accepted the name. The other vehemently denied any knowledge of it. Pain lanced through her head just beneath her scalp as she sought to sort out contradictory messages. She winced and shut her eyes against the soft light emitted by glows cunningly placed amongst the foliage around the pool.

"Are you all right?" Greatly concerned, Tirsa reached out and, putting an arm around Mansi, drew her across the polished stones. "You aren't sick, are you?"

Something told Mansi not to draw too much attention. Quickly she denied that suggestion. "No."

"Good," said a woman with tresses so black they gave back indigo highlights. "Our master would be very upset if you were."

"Oh." The off-hand comment deeply troubled Mansi. That anyone was her master caused tiny alarm bells in the recesses of her brain and set off another series of sharp stabs in their wake.

"Don't mind Chilali." Tirsa sniffed. "She tends to get above herself sometimes."

"Well!" Nose in the air, Chilali minced away into one of the small forest alcoves. Several of the other females giggled at that display of hauteur. From the sheltering bows Chilali shot back. "At least I'm not like Varina. She's quite the social snob."

All outward concern for their newest member, Tirsa gathered together several large cushions in a mound. "Here, Mansi. Sit. We can talk here. Someone will bring supper soon."

Cautiously lowering herself onto one of the cushions, Mansi gazed at her surroundings. Several large insects fluttered across the pool. More hovered above the plants camouflaging the lights before moving on. Somewhere overheard came the haunting call of a nocturnal creature. Head tilted back Mansi stared at the artificial night sky. She knew it for a travesty and realized she hated what its presence symbolized: Captivity. Another acute stab of pain left her momentarily dizzy.

"Is something wrong, Mansi?"

"My head." Unable to stop the pain she stammered. "It hurts."

"Oh. I think we can help with that. Tabia. Come quickly." A gesture to a red head just leaving one of the hot pools brought her to them. Tirsa hurriedly explained the problem. "Mansi's having headaches. Like the ones Palila suffered when she first arrived. Remember?"

"Of course I do."

Sympathetic, Tabia wrapped her towel about her shoulders and settled behind Mansi. Fingertips lightly resting on Mansi's temples, she began a gentle massage. Content beneath the other woman's ministrations, Mansi closed her eyes. Gradually she relaxed.

"There." Tabia released her patient. "Better?"

"Yes."

"Good. Here's supper," Tirsa told them. "Hungry?"

"I could eat a nerf whole," said someone from the shadows behind.

Mansi started and jerked round to face the strange voice. Into the open stepped a towering female. Like the other women, this one was also slender. Lithe. Hair, so pale gold it would fade into snow, streamed down her back and shoulders. Was caught up over her left arm to prevent it trailing in the dirt.

"Gauri. There's no need to frighten us all half to death." Tirsa's admonishment was delivered with a trace of humour. She turned to the new girl. "Is there, Mansi?"

A tentative smile touched Mansi's lips. Unrepentant, Gauri unceremoniously dropped to sit with them. "You're Mansi?"

"Yes."

"Welcome."

Another flare of pain caught at Mansi. This time she managed to conceal it from the other women. Someone passed her a cup of juice. Food was set nearby. Careful not to jar her aching head, Mansi picked over what the others had brought. She nibbled a few morsels and drank the juice.

"Not hungry?"

"Not really."

"Well, most of us felt that way at first."

"Oh?"

"Yes. I'm Karida, by the way." Green eyes danced in delicate round features. Freckles generously sprinkled the bridge of Karida's nose, added charm and heightened her femininity. "Tshukon considers me his beauty."

"Tshukon?"

"Our master." Chilali re-emerged from her alcove, gave another disdainful at her ignorance. "Don't you know anything?"

"That's not fair, Chilali." Tabia rose to the defense of their newest member. "After all, she's only been here a short while. Perhaps the master hasn't had time to interview her yet."

"And perhaps she simply chooses to be ignorant," said Gauri. "Like Varina."

"Let Varina alone." Adamina countered, "She's just shy."

Gauri retorted, "Varina was never shy. Even the master knows that."

"Who's Varina?" Mansi wanted to know.

"Oh, just another one of our little family. She's not here right now."

Chilali scoffed at the absent member. "She's probably off hiding in the forest. Like she did the whole time we were on the master's ship."

Tirsa laid a hand on Mansi's arm. "You'll meet Varina when she's ready to meet you. Tshukon finds her shyness quite engaging."

A dark blond woman asked, "How would you know that, Tirsa?"

"He told me. Of course her primary asset is her gift for pottery. But then, we all have special gifts." Hands clapping for attention, Tirsa summoned the rest of the group from around the pool. "Now let's have some proper introductions for Mansi."

"I doubt she'll remember all of our names," said one the women who now joined them for supper.

"Perhaps not right away, Palila. But it's only proper we show our manners. Just in case. Who knows?" Tirsa considered other traits their master would find engaging. "Perhaps Mansi possesses perfect recall."

The manner in which Tirsa rolled her eyes toward the dome brought the other women to heel as though someone had cracked a force whip over their heads. At last Mansi determined Tirsa's place in the subtle hierarchy of this bevy of females. Not only was this woman the head of this peculiar menagerie, she was also responsible for keeping their master apprised of all petty bickering, disputes and contrary behavior. Best to walk softly in her presence.

Introductions were made. Once the meal was finished, the dishes were removed by two hefty Gamorrean females. These, Tirsa informed Mansi, Tshukon's wives. Their presence did not terrify Mansi quite so much as a stirring in the murk in the back of her mind. Indistinct images wavered there just out of reach, but fled whenever she strove to make sense of them. When the others began settling for the night, Mansi rose and quietly faded into the forest.

Away from the lively chatter the atmosphere was surprisingly refreshing. Soothing. Yellow and red blossoms caught her eye and drew her. From time to time she crouched to smell their sweet perfume and appreciate their shape and colour. Further along she came upon a cluster of tiny light blue buds peeking from beneath knee-high ferns. Something rustled nearby. Frozen in a crouch, Mansi slowly turned.

Just up the path stood a dark, slender shape returning her gaze. Neither of them spoke at first. Then Mansi carefully rose. She advanced two steps and peered at the shadow in a vain attempt to discern features.

"Hello. Are you Varina?"

"They told you about me." A statement tha required no answer. Nonetheless Mansi nodded. The other woman stepped forward. "I heard them talking earlier."

"I'm sure Gauri didn't mean to sound cruel," said Mansi.

"I don't care what they say." Bluntness was clearly one of Varina's faults. Not that Mansi disliked her for it. "It's all a trap."

"Yes. I know."

"You feel it too?"

"We all do."

"Perhaps." Varina hesitantly conceded. "But you and I don't want to be here. They do."

"Are you certain?"

"Of course." Varina broke off, winced and clutched at her temples. "It's always the same. Think rebellious thoughts and the pain comes."

"Why?"

"Because we belong to him!" Angry, Varina spat back that answer. Immediately there followed another wince accompanied by a tiny whimper.

"The implants?"

"What else?" Gradually Varina recovered. She took another step closer and lowered her voice. "But don't let Tabia know how you feel. She tells everything to Tshukon."

"Who is Tshukon?"

"Our master." At the trace of irritation that rose in Mansi's eyes, Varina apologized. "Sorry. Of course they would have told you that, too. He's a Gamorrean. Like those females who bring our meals and provide other so-called necessities we want or request. A collector of rarities."

"Why?"

"Why all this?" Varina gazed back up the path past her companion. "Come. Walk with me."

At first there appeared to be no direction to their rambling stroll. But as time passed, Mansi sensed a subtle purpose behind which paths Varina selected. Eventually they left all sounds of the others behind. Only the sleepy call of night active creatures tinged the air on either side of the path, interrupted briefly by their approach.

"Here we can speak without being overheard," Varina told her companion.

"You're afraid."

Unsettled by that unguarded observation, Varina faced her companion. "You're new here, Mansi, so you must remember everything I tell you." She waited until Mansi nodded. "Guard your tongue around the others. Every word goes back to Tshukon. Your very life depends upon how well you fit in. No matter how you hate this place, don't let them know."

"Why? What will they do?"

"Tabia will tell Tshukon and you will---disappear."

Mansi caught on that. "Disappear? Has it happened before?"

"Yes. Once before that I know of. Most likely it's happened before. I'm certain the others have known no other existence. It's easy for them to ignore the gilded cage in which they live. Either they've known no other life or they cannot remember one, having arrived as young children. You and I are different. We came here as adults. Somewhere in our heads there are memories which are kept from us by the implants set on us by Tshukon's med-droids."

As much as everything Varina said stirred fears within her, Mansi knew she was telling the truth. Conscious acceptance of that secret sent a series of sharp pains through her brain. Unable to conceal her reaction to the punishment she stiffened and ducked her head aside. She squeezed her eyes shut.

"Think restful thoughts." Varina quickly advised her on the best cure. "Massage your temples with your fingers and concentrate on flowers, the fountain, the stars. Anything but what caused the pain to begin."

"Does it ever stop?"

"No. Not if you insist upon trying to remembering who you are, and where you come from. But there's a trick to avoiding the worst of it. That I can show you."

Someone called from the centre of the dome. "Mansi?"

"Later. That's Gauri. They've missed you. Quickly! You must go back."

"But I want to stay with you."

"Not now. It's too soon to begin showing any form of independent thought. We'll try to meet tomorrow. They all sleep after the midday meal. Meet me then."

"Where? Here?"

"No." Voice lowered to a whisper, Varina ushered her companion along the footpath in the direction of the pool. "When it's safe, take any main footpath. Follow it to the dome perimeter and walk around the edge. Don't worry. I'll find you. Okay?"

"Yes."

"Good. Now go!"

Again the voice called from the woods, closer this time. "Mansi, are you all right?"

Breathless, Mansi whirled. Not wanting to risk Gauri finding her with Varina, she responded. "Yes. I'm fine. I was just admiring the flowers. They're so beautiful."

She glanced over her shoulder. Varina was gone. Foliage rustled. Gauri stepped into view, ducking beneath some low branches. A smile as artificial as her surroundings curved Mansi's mouth as she joined Gauri.

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