SKIRMISHES Part Two of the SUBERTFUGE Trilogy

by Haru Windsong

SKIRMISHES

Part Two

Of

SUBTERFUGE

By Cary A. Conder
(c) December 1996
CHAPTER ONE

While Han made his way aft to the engine room, Wedge went forward to the lounge. Inset in the floor next to the back-up navigation console was a latch that he unlocked. Wedge lifted away a trap door grate and set it aside against the console. Artoo Detoo trundled into the room. The moment he saw Wedge the droid released a series of trills. He peered into what spacers euphemistically referred to as the hellhole and swiveled his dome back and forth. His optical scanner blinked rapidly.

"It's okay, Artoo." Wedge soothed Luke's astro-mech. "I'll get inside. You hook up to the mainframe and keep us apprised of systems' condition."

From the cockpit came a shout. "You got that hatch open yet, Wedge?"

"Yeah, Han."

The ex-smuggler re-entered the lounge. Paused to peer down into the maintenance well past Wedge. In his left hand he held a com-link. "Here."

"Thanks."

Com-link in hand, Wedge slid over the edge and lowered himself inside. Solo vanished into the cockpit. Content for once to follow orders from someone other than Luke Skywalker, Artoo plugged into the computer link at the console. Once Wedge was settled in the maintenance well, he opened a two-way connection on the com-link to the cockpit.

"I'm in the hole, Han."

"Right. Stand by. Chewie, bring her up slowly to full standby systems."

Somewhere deep inside the MILLENNIUM FALCON's frame rumbled a low note that built and swelled until a familiar hum filled the ship. To any seasoned spacer it was the most beautiful sound in the galaxy. Until that moment Wedge had sensed the silence without being consciously aware of it, the reason for them being on edge. Relieved, he studied the relays.

"Now that's more like it." Solo's satisfaction emanated from the cockpit. "What's it look like where you are, Wedge?"

After scanning the various hydraulics, dampers and booster connections, Wedge made note of the readings. He watched the power levels rise almost to the red line then settle to mid-range. No power spikes were evident.

"Looks good back here, too, Han."

"Artoo?" The little astro-mech released a stream of unintelligible vocals and fed the information across the computer tie-in to the cockpit. "Good."

"Have we got long range sensors on line yet, Han?"

A lengthy pause met Wedge's question. Then, "Nope. Short range are up and running, though."

"Oh, great." Wedge muttered to himself, tracing fluctuating power readings while struggling to make sense of the convoluted mess Han Solo considered a smooth running system. "If the Imperials find us, it'll be just like shooting penned nerfs." He called back. "How long 'til our long range sensors are ready?"

Not one to mince words, Solo gave him the rest of the bad news. "Won't be until we can get the yard crew to check 'em out on Coruscant."

"Wonderful." This time Wedge made absolutely no effort to tone down his voice. "Is there anything else that can go wrong?"

"Uh, oh." On the heels of that exclamation, Han broke off. Almost immediately he let out a yelp. "You better get up here, Wedge."

"Sith spawn! Now what?"

A quick check to ensure Artoo was not in the way, and Wedge threw himself up and out of the hellhole. He rolled to his feet and hurried forward to join the pilot and his partner in the cockpit. Silently pointing forward, Solo directed his attention to where an Imperial sensor buoy was just sliding past off their starboard side.

"Double damn!"

Without waiting for further instructions Wedge whirled and dashed aft to Luke's cabin. Windy leapt to her feet as Wedge burst into the cabin. There was no time for explanations. Not about to give the Jedi Master an opportunity to rouse Wedge grabbed the hypo-spray from the med-kit and slapped it against Luke's neck.

'Just a precaution,' he said to himself.

His decision proved timely. Startled by that second betrayal, Luke scrambled back to full consciousness. Eyes wide at the unexpected sting in his carotid muscle, he stared up at his friend, dumbfounded by his actions.

"Wedge. No. Don't. You need---"

Silently Wedge swore, waiting as the Jedi Master's speech slurred away into silence and his friend slumped back on the bunk. Once again Luke had fooled them into complacency. Allowed them to believe he was still completely under the sedative. Fortunately the new injection took effect too quickly for the Jedi Master to react. It drove him back down into unconsciousness.

"Sorry, buddy. But you're gonna sit this one out. It's only for another hour, for better or worse." For a brief moment Wedge rested a hand on Luke's shoulder. Then he turned.

"What the hell are you doing?" Confused, Windy stared wide-eyed from the once more unconscious Luke to Wedge. "Why did you---"

"Shut up and listen." Caught by the bark of command, Windy closed her mouth. "Luke said you guys used womprats for target practice on Tatooine when you were kids. That right?"

"Yeah, all the time. Still do. Damn things migrate right through the vaporator farms sometimes. Occasionally they'll stop to snack. They've developed a taste for cable insulation so we have to go out and drive them off. A skyhopper's the best thing for that. Dual nose cannon---"

"Good. Come with me."

With a slap to the rim-worlder's shoulder, Wedge was gone at a run and Windy was hard put to catch up. In the lounge, Wedge pointed to a circular opening in the floor.

"Belly cannon. Get down there and strap in. Warm up the guns and stand by. They're almost on us."

"What the hell---"

From the cockpit came a bellow. "Wedge! Now!"

"On it, Han." Wedge slapped the rim-worlder hard between the shoulder blades. "Go!"

Unable to argue, Windy complied. Awkward in the unfamiliar environment, she slithered down the narrow tube ladder leading to the gunner's chair. To get into the seat she had to clamber over the back. Once seated, she strapped in and located the headset. Donned it. Then swung her seat. And found she was staring straight out the FALCON's underside, effectively hanging against the straps, face down, on the periphery of the freighter's gravity compensation. Nausea from the weak field set her stomach dancing until she adjusted to the lighter G-forces. Pitch-black night glared back at her.

"You in yet, kid?"

Solo's inquiry yanked Windy back to reality. "Yeah, Han."

"Wedge?"

"Bring 'em on, Han."

"Good. 'Cause here they come!"

Without warning something large and white that resembled an alien eyeball raced across Windy's limited perspective. Sight of the TIE fighter made her thumb automatically twitch. Too hyper to aim properly with the unfamiliar equipment, she missed. But the undisciplined spatter of fire so startled the enemy pilot that the TIE jittered upward, straight into Wedge's precision fire.

"Got him!"

"Here comes another."

This one Windy tracked with far more accuracy. She relaxed a fraction as adrenaline flowed. Sighting down the crosshairs, she fired. The TIE Interceptor fragmented in a glittering shower of parts, and a slowly pin-wheeling, vacuum-contorted corpse. Shock poured bile up her throat as the vision tumbled away.

"Oh, frag---"

Sound of the rim-worlder gagging produced a shout from Wedge. "Don't you dare vomit!"

"You throw up in that turret, you weak-livered excuse," said Han Solo, wholly unsympathetic where his ship was involved, "and I'll make you sleep in there for the next week."

"If I live that long." Windy gasped out the remark, but regained control. She swallowed sour saliva and concentrated, spotting a third TIE fighter, complete with escort. "Poodoo. Wedge! Two more---"

There was no time. Windy repositioned her guns. The two attackers broke, one crossing the other's path, and vanished around their stern and bow. A spate of fire from the direction of the bow startled Windy. Until she realized there was a cannon somewhere beneath the cockpit.

"Great shooting, Chewie!"

A Wookiee roar of satisfaction almost deafened those manning the turrets. Wedge's cool-headed comment alerted Windy not to get complacent in the face of their minor victories.

"Let's not get too comfortable, guys. There's still another out there."

"I've counted four so far," said Windy.

Wedge demanded clarification. "You sure about that?"

"Positive."

"Then we can expect another two, plus the one we missed," said Han. "And we still don't know how big a convoy we're dealing with."

Wedge shot back. "How long until we make the jump to hyperspace?"

"A few more minutes. Don't dare over-stress that patch job."

"If we don't get out of here soon," said Windy, surprised by how calm she sounded, "we won't have to worry about over-stressing this ship. And I don't know about you but I'm in no great hurry to inspect the inside of an Imperial cell block."

"She's got a point, Han."

"I know. I know. But the nav-puter's got a glitch and I'm having to cross-reference the check points."

"Can anything else go wrong this trip?"

"Just shut up and keep an eye out for those fighters."

At that moment Windy located something small far off to their port side. She blinked, uncertain whether she was seeing things. But even as she stared it grew rapidly in size. Altered from a dot into a more definitive shape: something that more clearly resembled the business end of a gaffe-stick with a superstructure.

"I've got a very bad feeling about this," she said to herself. She tipped his head back to stare up the well in the direction of the top turret. "Wedge."

"Yeah, Windy. Got something?"

"Damn right! Bigger than those fighters. And coming this way real fast."

"Where?"

"Left, er---port and down."

"Got it. Han!"

"I see them. Chewie!" A frantic whine-growl answered Solo's shout. "We're out of time. Okay. Punch it!"

The MILLENNIUM FALCON responded, straining against frail connections. She heaved her bulk forward, struggling to reach the necessary speed to make the jump. Sirens sounded. Lights flashed throughout the cockpit. Streams of oaths colored the ship frequencies as Solo worked to counter the effects of their actions. He rerouted as many primary systems as possible. Shut down those that were unnecessary. In the lounge, Artoo did what he could to stave off small electrical fires and patch burst hydraulic lines.

Out of nowhere, three more TIE Interceptors swooped in, their pilots determined not to lose their quarry. Laser bursts spattered across the freighter's ragged shields. One buckled. Han rapidly shunted power to protect the damaged quarter. Nose cannon redirected, Chewbacca opened fire on an enemy ship that elected a run on their bow. Unable to get clear, the TIE fighter lost one of its solar panels as Chewie stitched up the pylon. Out of control, the fighter tumbled, careening across the fire field into the range of Windy's cannons. It came apart, still moving away from the fight in an ever-expanding ball of metal bits. Starlight winked back off the fragments.

"Another one bites the big one." Windy yelped, unaware excitement made her usually throaty voice squeak as though she was a male teenager just out of adolescence.

"Watch our flank," said Han soberly. "They'll try for the starboard forward shield. Keep them clear, if you can."

"Will do," said Wedge. No excitement edged his voice. Only cool assessment of their situation. "How long 'til we jump?"

"Any time now."

"Better make it fast, Han."

Breathless, Windy asked, "What's that?"

Han came back, "What's what?"

"Where?" Wedge demanded.

"Below us." Ship orientation now at her command, Windy clarified. "Starboard."

"You got it, Chewie?" The Wookiee growled menacingly as sensors finally locked on to the fast-moving killing machines accompanying the awesome, anvil-shape behemoth now emerging from the surrounding star field.

"Gunships!" Solo exclaimed. "Damn! As if that frigate wasn't bad enough---Chewie! We're outta time. Here goes everything."

Wedge breathed a prayer to the Force as Han Solo ignored the red line on the power grid and slammed down the hyper controls. Beneath them the FALCON gave one final buck in protest. She fought past shunts and crude repair work for the necessary fuel and information. Frayed hydraulic lines spat a fine stream of fluid. Screaming toward them in a last ditch attempt to halt their escape, a TIE Interceptor roared across their bow, closely trailed by two gunships. The freighter's forward shield clipped the over-bold enemy. Tossed it aside like a predator with its prey as she leapt into hyperspace.

Slumped in the belly turret, wrung out, Windy gazed out at streamers of light. "Are we safe? Did we make it?"

"Yeah, Windy. We made it." Exhaustion lined each word. Wedge squeezed his eyes shut. He tugged his harness undone and peeled himself out of his seat. "You did good."

"Thanks."

"Might just make a fighter out of you yet," said Solo.

Not about to dignify that with a comment, Windy undid her straps and hung up her headset. She swiveled the seat. Bone-weary, she stood on it and clambered, hand over hand, up the access tube to the lounge. And came face to face with Wedge. The Alliance agent greeted her with a warm slap on the back in silent approval of a job well done.

"Got a twelve hour run to Coruscant ahead of us." Han joined them, Chewie at his back. "And we're a full day behind schedule."

Fear pricking at him, Wedge stared at the nav-puter. "I only hope we're in time."

Windy stared at them. They were deeply worried about something, and she hated being left in the dark. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing that'd do you any good knowing about," said Han. "It doesn't concern you, kid. So keep out of it."

Reminded in so many words that she was still an outsider, Windy fell silent. After a brief pause Wedge drew a deep breath and released it.

"I think I'll go back and catch some more shut-eye. Coming Artoo?"

With a faint beep, the droid trailed Wedge out. Han shook his head. "Guess I'll check out the damage aft. Chewie?"

The Wookiee whined and lumbered off. Sounds of their rapidly diminishing conversation drifted back to Windy until they were out of earshot. She sighed and stared around the lounge. Deep inside her the adolescent stirred; she was half-tempted to sneak into the cockpit for a look forward. But something told her the freighter pilot would make her regret such audacity.

An expansive yawn caught her unawares. Quite suddenly she felt as though she had been working all day on vaporators beneath Tatooine's twin suns. Sleep seemed like an exceptionally good idea. Before returning to her assigned cabin she decided to check on Luke, but the cabin was dark. Wedge was already asleep on the floor between the door and the bunk. Only the faint blink of Artoo-Detoo's diodes lit the interior. Rather than risk disturbing Wedge Antilles, Windy backed out and retired to her own quarters.

CHAPTER TWO

Fists clenched at his sides, Captain Boralle watched his promotion slip through his fingers as the freighter kicked up its heels and vanished into hyperspace. Only a line of hydraulic fluid globules remained, marking the ship's passage to freedom. The bead trail shattered against the hyperspace barrier and dispersed at that point. TIE fighters and gunships continued to sweep the area.

A shuttle was dispatched to bring in the pilots from the two damaged ships. Not a word was spoken on the bridge. All duty personnel were suddenly intensely interested in their assigned duties. Others coming off shift made themselves scarce. Graszer waited expectantly, alone, fearful of his superior's wrath.

"Inform Admiral Thrawn." Boralle spoke at long last, his voice a whip across the backs of his personnel. "Special report."

"Yes, sir." Graszer unwound marginally. "Hyper squirt? Or capsule?"

"Capsule."

Glad of the excuse to be free of the oppressive atmosphere on the bridge, Lieutenant Graszer hurried to the small, high-security communications room. Eyes followed his every move. In the face of their barely concealed curiosity, he sought to appear unconcerned by this most recent turn of events. But he knew everyone present was wondering who would bear the brunt of Thrawn's ire.

On the bridge, Captain Boralle was sunk deep in thought. Beyond the tiny phalanx of remaining fighters from the TORMENTOR, their escort star destroyer performed a pirouette on her central axis and dropped in alongside RUTHLESS. A small voice in a corner of Boralle's thoughts commended that beautifully timed manoeuvre. From a nearby pit he caught movement. A technician raised his head and carefully caught his Commanding Officer's eye.

"Well? What is it?"

"Sir. We have a report just in from Tatooine. Captain Niant has been killed, sir. He was inspecting a high-security installation. Several stormtroopers were also lost."

"Niant. Dead? How is that possible?"

"Apparently he had identified and was pursuing a known rebel officer: Rogue Squadron's Commander, Wedge Antilles. When his men located him, the Captain was dead, sir. Antilles had already fled. Shortly after recovering the Captain's body the installation they were inspecting was demolished by a series of pre-programmed charges. Several more personnel were lost during the incident, including the XO who was overseeing the investigation and the return of Captain Niant's remains."

Loss of SPITEFUL's Deputy Commanding Officer was plain stupidity as far as Boralle was concerned. "Sabotage?"

"Apparently, sir. Further to this account," said the technician, "is a report by one of our agents in Mos Eisley spaceport. They're positive they spotted Han Solo at the local cantina."

"I see." Boralle's eyes narrowed. The XO should have known better than to abandon his command to pursue personal vengeance. He should have delegated responsibility, given the circumstances. One never left one's vessel under-commanded. "Damn the luck."

"Stormtroopers have picked up several locals who may have sheltered Antilles. They are presently on board SPITEFUL."

Head turned toward the primary communication console Boralle passed the order. "Have SPITEFUL rendezvous with us here. I will oversee the interrogation of the prisoners personally."

"Yes, sir."

"Who is presently commanding SPITEFUL?"

"Lieutenant Quirtelle took command, sir, as senior among the surviving junior officers."

"Very good. Ensure this information is included in our transmission to Admiral Thrawn."

"Right away, sir."

For a moment Boralle considered his possible alternatives. Knew there was no excusing his loss of the MILLENNIUM FALCON. But if he could extract sufficient information from the prisoners, he might yet save face when next he spoke with Thrawn. Suddenly aware he was pacing to cover his uneasiness, and that his crew was conscious of his distress, Boralle halted. He peered out into space once more before turning on heel and heading toward the turbo-lift.

As he passed his Second-in-Command, he issued an order without halting. "I shall be in my quarters. Inform me the minute there is any further news."

"Yes, sir."

From the corner of his eye Boralle caught the salute but chose to ignore it. Let his crew make of that what they wished. He was furious enough with himself that he dared not remain longer on the bridge for fear he would visit his wrath on them. Something he had never previously stooped to, and did not plan to begin now, no matter how dire the circumstances.

CHAPTER THREE

At a soft chirp from his wrist the Minister of Protocol dipped his head. Scowled as he examined his chronometer. Princess Leia knew without him saying a word that she could delay no longer. See-Threepio's arms jerked in response to his distress.

"I really cannot understand why they aren't here, Mistress Leia. It's quite unlike Master Luke and General Solo to be so remiss in their duties."

"It's all right, Threepio. I'm certain Han and Luke would be here if they could."

Expression distant, concealing the depth of her concern, Leia considered all the reasons for the absence of her brother and the MILLENNIUM FALCON's crew. There was no denying the stab of fear that something had gone drastically wrong on what should have been an uneventful trip. Their absence was all the more frightening because Mon Mothma had been unable to offer her any real clue as to where her brother had been at the time of the freighter's arrival on Bothawui. Leia's lips silently shaped her husband's name.

"Your Highness?"

Again the Minister disrupted her train of thought. Dragged, all unwilling, back to the present Leia drew a deep steadying breath and reluctantly nodded. A stiff smile bent the Minister's mouth but failed to reach his eyes. He gestured. Somewhere along the hall leading to the Balcony of Audiences a sensor picked up his signal. Cued the music.

Ground Troopers of the New Republic paraded out of two side passages and took up positions at carefully spaced intervals leading to the balcony; her Honour Guard. They came to attention, eyes to the front. Behind Leia, those few dignitaries permitted to share the balcony with her found their places. Two by two they filed in, falling in behind her at the prescribed distance.

Slowly, reluctantly, feeling incredibly alone for the first time since her abortive first trip to Tatooine, Princess Leia Organa-Skywalker-Solo moved forward. She carefully schooled her features, ever conscious of the visual pick-ups. Sedate, head held high, she made her way to the balcony between the rows of honour guards and emerged at last onto the balcony. Halted exactly three steps from the railing.

Another fanfare blared out across the broad palladium below; a sweeping square fully sixty stories above actual street level, it was paved with sev-marble blocks imported from Lahara. Spidery pedestrian and speeder overpasses provided direct access to the plaza for five blocks left to right and thirty-seven blocks to the east. No one had bothered to replace the monstrous statue that had once towered fully three stories below where she stood.

In the wake of the Alliance victory at Endor hysteria had gripped Coruscant's inhabitants. Rebel loyalists had rioted in the streets. Someone had even had the audacity to set off celebratory fireworks. Most of them had forgotten that death of an Emperor did not necessarily dictate the immediate demise of an Empire. Imperial troops had moved in and ruthlessly quashed the uprising. Several more years and campaigns were required for Coruscant to regain its freedom.

Constructed under Palpatine's rule the grand square reflected his flare for the dramatic. He disliked the sun in his eyes. Had held all major ceremonial functions either at noon or in the afternoon so the light was behind him. No spectator would ever have had a clear view of him from below. Even if they had been able to properly see him perched another seven stories above the square.

As she emerged on the balcony micro-transmitters threw a grossly enlarged image of her into the air alongside the palace. Princess Leia studiously avoided glancing at it. Thunderous applause, whistles and shouts rang up from below, audible despite the distance and the shielding surrounding the balcony.

Voices rose from below, extolling Leia and wishing her all the best on her birthday. She gazed out across the multitude. Delicate Massassi candle trees lined the broad boulevard and one side of each upper level overpass. Concealed within each tree were more mundane forms of illumination. But tonight all artificial lights were extinguished so as not to diminish the coming spectacle in any way. An expectant hush fell over the crowd.

An explosion of rainbow lights erupted across the sky. Fireworks studded the early evening expanse. Meant for her pleasure, the exhibition only served to remind the Princess of other times. Moments when, but for the ever-present threat of the Empire, she had felt free. Not hemmed in by protocol and ceremony. Pressured daily from dawn until long after sunset with affairs of state, there was no time for herself, no time to catch her breath.

For now, she drew on her solitude. Revelled in the minuscule isolation afforded her by these precious few minutes as the central showpiece and figurehead of the New Republic. But if her advisors thought they could govern her thoughts and actions, they were rapidly realizing they were sadly mistaken.

"Oooh!"

Caught by the gasp from the multitude, Leia was rudely yanked back to the festivities. She stared up at the night sky. Two squadrons of X-Wings and A-Wings executed a spectacular aerial show that outstripped their earlier demonstration. Appreciation rang out for the fleet's exhibition and Leia sensed the feelings running extraordinarily high in the military. Felt the belief that the worst was behind them.

"I wish it were true." Her whisper echoed the ambitions of her subjects. More than ever, she wished Luke and Han were there with her. And her fears momentarily resurfaced.

"Pardon, Mistress?"

See-Threepio moved closer, but remained carefully behind the Princess so as not to distract the crowd below. Leia gave a tiny shake of her head to indicate he should not concern himself. Another incredible acrobatic manoeuvre diverted the droid.

Swooping in from six different directions at once, the X-Wing fighters came together. Shot upward, then broke apart while still barely within view. All six rolled completely over, reformed, and came past the balcony. This time they slowed to a crawl. Each pilot touched the forefingers of his right hand to his flight helmet brow as they passed the Princess. She lifted a hand. Watched as they soared up and out of the atmosphere. A-Wings followed close behind. Again Leia took the salute, then bent to wave to the crowd once more before withdrawing.

"A most impressive display, Minister."

From Princess Leia, that sounded of gentle praise. But Minister of Defence knew it for what it was. He inclined his head. "We are always happy when we please your Royal Highness."

A rare, genuine smile lit Leia's features. She led her entourage back through the corridors in the direction of the Grand Audience Chamber. To the chagrin of those accompanying her, the Princess pointedly refused utilizing any turbo-lifts. But she did pause long enough to insist the more infirm of her advisors be conveyed ahead of her to the great hall via turbo-lifts. The others were expected to join her while she inspected the staff along the way. Every able body was also forced to descend several flights of stairs between floors. All breathed a hearty sigh of relief when they finally reached the Grand Audience Chamber. Most were unaware that this was Leia's way of finding liberty for self-reflection. By the time they were at the hall, she was ready.

Curtains swept back. Alderaan's sole remaining member of Royalty stepped through into a tumultuous acclamation. Her eyes swept the room. Noted the last minute changes she had insisted upon. Down both sides of the hall stood large tables loaded with food and drink. Servers waited to accommodate the multitude filling the hall to capacity. Dead centre in the lyceum a huge dais groaned beneath the weight of the gifts brought by diplomats and sent by grateful citizens from across the settled galaxy. The sight came close to over-whelming Leia for all the time she had taken to prepare herself.

"Your Highness." Threepio moved up alongside his mistress. "The Atrivisi Ambassador apologizes for his earlier insistence concerning seeing you prior to the festivities. However, his gift is quite fragile and he's afraid it might be harmed by so large a gathering."

"I see." Clearly Leia did not. But she decided she could now afford to defer to the ambassador's idiosyncrasies. "Tell him I will meet with him following this function. He may present his gift then."

"Very good, Mistress Leia."

"Watch for me to slip away, Threepio. When I do, bring him to the main briefing room. And alert Mon Mothma. I know she's here somewhere. She'll have to run interference for me once I leave."

"Of course, Mistress."

Moving away from Threepio, Leia filtered slowly up the room. While her ministers watched with approval, she worked the crowd. Spoke glowingly of the feats by one world in its recovery from Imperial atrocities, commended another for making peace with a neighbouring enemy and thereby assisting the New Republic in its drive toward democratic peace. A halt there and she congratulated a third Ambassador on the birth of a fifth child. Extended condolences to still another on the passing of his wife.

All this she had learned from her father. Her mind performed a peculiar skip. Bail had been a father to her, although she now knew no blood tie lay between them. A dark visage loomed before her in reminder. She thrust it aside. Yanking herself back to her duty, she smiled and dipped her head in greeting. After several minutes she made her way to the food. On this signal the rest of the dignitaries joined the line.

It was, Leia later reflected, probably the most enjoyable diplomatic function she had ever attended, relaxed and far less stressful. There were several occasions when members of the gathering attempted to corner her into serious discussions concerning matters of state. Each time she was adeptly rescued by her own people, offending parties redirected to other matters. Rather than risk upsetting anyone by opening presents during the audience Leia opted to peruse them the following day with, of course, the exception of the Atrivisi Ambassador. Eventually she excused herself and quietly withdrew from the gathering. She seated herself in the small briefing room. At her signal Threepio escorted in the Ambassador.

"Ambassador Koorliven, your Highness."

When Leia extended her hand, the Ambassador bowed over it. His lips lightly brushed her knuckles. For some peculiar reason Leia could not fathom a shudder of revulsion gripped her spine at that greeting. She controlled her reaction. Produced a winning smile.

"Your Royal Highness." Koorliven was cheerfulness itself. Which made the Princess wonder exactly what was behind this desire of his to present Atrivisi's gift separate from the rest. "My world has acquired two very fine specimens which we wish to present to you and your honoured brother, Master Skywalker."

"Specimens, Ambassador?"

The Atrivisi snapped his fingers. Into the room stepped a man bearing a large live animal carrier. He set it carefully on the desktop and drew back. Ambassador Koorliven gestured to the carrier.

"Two live loranni, your Highness, results of our top breeding lines. A male and a female, so you and your brother might breed litters for your future children."

"I---see."

"They are still four months short of maturity, your Highness. Time enough for them to grow accustomed to you both." Koorliven turned, realized the container was still closed. His smooth delivery ruined, he snapped at his assistant. "Well, open it, man. They won't hurt you."

For a moment Leia wondered about the inflections in the Ambassador's voice. Particularly when she witnessed the look that flashed across the assistant's face. However, the servant moved readily enough to unlatch the lid on the container.

"Servants," Koorliven said to the Princess, evidently exasperated. He produced another ingratiating smile, his effort at pleasantry wearing thin. "Very difficult to get adequate help these days."

"I'm sure."

Leia made a show of commiserating despite her irritation over his rude display. His response to his assistant's behaviour, however, assuaged her misgivings. Intrigued by what they offered, she moved closer. Peered into the box. Two tiny faces stared back at her, whiskers twitching. Inquisitive bright eyes winked at her from a rag nest. One sat up on its hind legs, placing forepaws against the box side. And Leia quite lost her heart to the tiny creatures. Cooing softly, she reached in and petted each loranni in turn.

CHAPTER FOUR

Once again Luke Skywalker dragged himself back to consciousness. Came instantly awake this time as his body quickly eradicated the dregs of the sedative. He was rested and refreshed after almost a day of imposed sleep. Darkness pressed around him, alleviated only by the familiar play of diodes next to his bunk. He sat up. Artoo released a soft whistled inquiry.

"I'm okay, Artoo."

His little droid reassured Luke's hand swept the darkness. Located his clothes. He pulled them on. While he dressed he automatically reached out to check on the FALCON and her occupants. Although relieved to find everyone was alive and well, what he sensed about the freighter and its general condition deeply concerned him. At least the work the crew had performed would see them through to Coruscant. That much he sensed.

Someone---he suspected it was Wedge---had thoughtfully tucked his lightsabre between the pillow and the wall. When he started for the cabin door, Artoo extended his third leg and accompanied his master. Outside the cabin, Luke paused. Cheerful voices echoed down the passage from the lounge. All conversation ceased the minute he entered the lounge. Four heads turned as one. A low whine from Chewbacca was the first greeting.

"Hi." Han hailed the Jedi Master as though nothing untoward had transpired. Luke was not fooled. He felt the difference in Wedge. Saw it in Windy's eyes.

"Would someone mind bringing me up to date?"

His gentle question surprised Windy who was positive her old friend would be furious at what Wedge had done. A now clean-shaven Wedge looked a bit taken-aback and encouraged in the same breath. Now that the unexpected minor crisis was past, Chewie stuck his long legs out from under the tiny chess table. One long arm nonchalantly looped around behind his head, he released a low woof.

"Nice to know you were so confident in our abilities to handle things that you slept through the excitement."

"Very funny, Han."

A mischievous grin and a wink greeted Luke's mild reproof. With a short laugh, Solo launched into a lengthy rendition of their exploits, expanding on the issue so outrageously that Windy choked on a mouthful of saliva and Wedge failed to keep his face straight. However much Han glossed over the danger, Luke was not fooled. Reading between the lines, he realized just how close all of them had come to being captured by the Imperials. Deep within the dark side of the Force extended insidious fingers. Rage thrust upward, threatening to spill over. Their heavy-handed reaction to his collapse might have cost them all their freedom, possibly their lives. Darkness blanketed his mind and passed a red veil across his vision. Horrified, Luke grappled with it, and successfully brought the unreasoning wrath under control. Pressed it safely back down inside. Inner calm restored he gently remonstrated his friends. "You shouldn't have made me sleep through it."

Wedge retaliated. "If we had needed you, Artoo would have administered a counteragent."

"You were worn out, kid," said Solo, the same concern on Wedge's face mirrored in his eyes. "You needed the rest."

"It might have back-fired."

"But it didn't," said Windy with considerable daring.

"No. Fortunately for all of us it didn't." A faint smile lit Luke's face. "So what did you think of your first firefight, Windy?"

Excitement resurfacing, Windy blurted, "Incredible!"

"Yeah. So incredible she nearly threw up in the turret," said Han as he rested a jaundice eye on the rim-worlder.

"Did not!"

But whatever else Windy might have said to counter the Corellian's jest died in her throat. The look on Luke's face told Windy there was no lying to her old companion. That Luke instinctively knew what had happened. Briefly Windy read something else there. Luke, too, had experienced this same victory.

"Well. Almost." Windy ruefully admitted at last. "But I didn't."

"No," said Wedge pleased that their newest member was able to capitulate when necessary. "You didn't. And that's what counts."

"Got my first TIE fighter, Luke. And I even took a zero-gee walk."

There was no diminishing Windy's joy at her achievements. Nor did anyone try. Luke congratulated her on her first kill then turned back to Han.

"How long to Coruscant?"

"About five minutes. We were just going up front. Care to come?"

"Have you decided how you're going to handle this?"

Solo nodded gloomily. "We're programmed to drop out on the system edge. We'll go in full throttle, warning broadcast on full sweep, and set down in that massive square out front of the palace."

"Port Authority's not going to like that," said Wedge.

"I don't give a half credit in a sabaac game whether they do or not." Fiercely defensive the Corellian rounded on Wedge.

Luke waded into the breach, smoothing over rising tensions. "Easy, Han. Wedge wasn't arguing with you."

"I know," said Han. "I guess I'm just worried."

"We all are," said Wedge.

Han Solo shot Wedge a silent apology. "Come on, Chewie. Let's get her ready. This is gonna be rough."

Wedge ordered the rim-worlder, "Better strap in, Windy. If Han says it's gonna be rough, it will be."

"No need to tell me twice," said Windy. "See you guys when we're down."

Envious, but resigned to being abandoned in the lounge with the astro-mech, Windy stared after the others as they entered the cockpit. "Well." She turned to Artoo once they were alone. "Here we are again. Know any good stories?"

Artoo shot back a short stream of incomprehensible whistles and beeps. Settled next to the back-up navigation console he locked himself down to a brace. The droid looked so comical he made Windy laugh in spite of the seriousness of the situation.

In the cockpit, Han and Chewie took their places before the controls. Luke slid into the navigation seat and Wedge took the spare. They strapped in. With years of experience, Luke studied the readouts. Did not like what he saw.

"The FALCON looks like she took a lot of damage, Han."

"Mostly blown lines, kid. She'll hold together."

However unconcerned Han sounded, it was evident he was considerably worried about how their trip was going to end. Chewbacca rumbled a deep-throated comment. Solo shook his head.

"It's all or nothin', Chewie. Okay. Here we go."

The proximity alarm sounded. With a sweep of his hand, the Wookiee killed it. Redirected his attention to the outside view. Starlight reasserted itself. And Coruscant was suddenly before and slightly below them. They emerged directly in front of a mock skirmish consisting of two squadrons of light fighters and one of heavy.

"Son of a---" Hand sweeping the transmission switch, Han released a bellow that scattered the rookies and their instructors in every direction. "Clear this sector!"

Outraged yelps ranged up and down the communications link. Startled trainees and veterans howled with indignation. Infuriated by the unexpected, unauthorized intrusion into an area of the system that had earlier been cleared of all traffic for their specific use, Fleet Fighter Control raged at the offenders. Unhindered, the FALCON screamed through their midst trailing miniature beads of lubricant.

"Who is this? What the hell do you think you're doing?" Fleet Control's wrath scorched communications between the headquarters frigate, WINDCHIME, and the FALCON. "You're not authorized for this sector."

There was no repentance in Solo's voice as he snapped back. "This is the MILLENNIUM FALCON. I've got Generals Antilles and Skywalker on board. We're declaring a priority emergency."

Familiar with the Corellian's sometimes-outlandish behaviour the duty technician paused. Conscious of the fact that Solo and his companions had missed the official birthday celebration, the technician was dubious. Despite the Corellian's status, he was also wary of allowing Solo to get away with a breach of regulations. At the same time, he was concerned the freighter's crew might be justified in their unauthorized intrusion. Not wanting to be reprimanded by higher authority, he stuck to procedure.

"What is the nature of your emergency, MILLENNIUM FALCON?"

"No time to explain, Fleet. We're coming in hot. Clear all traffic between us and the Palace and standby for further instructions." Han altered frequencies. "Coruscant Port Authority, do you copy?"

"Coruscant Port Authority here, General Solo. What do you need?"

"I want the plaza to the east of the palace cleared of all personnel and ground traffic. We're coming in hot. There's no time for explanations. Suggest you pass word to the repair yards to have cranes standing by."

"Copy that, General."

"Hang on."

There was no need for the warning, but Han voiced it anyway. Pressed forward against the restraining harness, Luke stared ahead of them. Wedge glanced sideways. From the far-away look in Luke's eyes, he suspected the Jedi Master was trying to send a message to his sister on the world below them. Coruscant rushed toward them at blinding speed.

They approached on the night side. Lights twinkled up at them through the atmosphere, peeked through clouds beckoning them home. Then they were over the terminator into late afternoon. True to their word, Coruscant Port Authority cleared all traffic from the area. Nor did they attempt to pressure the MILLENNIUM FALCON's captain for an explanation. When Fleet Control pestered them to elaborate the nature of their emergency, logging onto their present communications link, Han switched frequencies again. His actions caused Wedge to grin. Either unaware of the incident or determined to ignore it, Luke strained against limitations, his lips shaping words Wedge could barely hear even when he listened very hard.

"Leia. Hear me. Danger." Abruptly, Luke's eyes refocused. He straightened, met Wedge's unguarded stare.

Embarrassed at being caught eavesdropping, Wedge stammered, "Did she hear you?"

"I don't know. I think so," said Luke, blue eyes deeply troubled as he stared out the forward transparency. "I pray the Force she understood me."

"We're almost there kid," said Han. "Thrusters, Chewie."

Forward momentum arrested, the MILLENNIUM FALCON reared up on its nose thrusters like a balky tauntaun scenting a wampa. Everyone on board slammed against seats and restraints. In the lounge Windy let out a startled shout at the unanticipated manoeuvre. From Artoo there came a series of piercing whistles. Groaning as though sentient, the freighter shuddered and shook. Slowed her forward progress to a crawl into the lower atmosphere. Chewbacca snarled.

"I see it, Chewie. Ready to cut in repulsors."

The landing gear appeared. Was locked into place. Unimpeded, the ship passed through banners still festooning the square and reached out for a landing surface. She settled with a harder-than-normal jarring thump next to the five-tier fountain. Word had gone before them. No sooner was the FALCON on the ground than a crowd of incensed people surged from the palace's lofty main entrance. They gathered a short distance away, waiting for passengers and crew to disembark.

Nor did they have long to wait. While the freighter, incongruously draped with the remnants of several banners, continued to spit fluid from re-split hydraulic lines, the ramp dropped. The hatch opened and those on board emerged on the run; Luke Skywalker, minus his cloak, led the rush.

"General Solo." One of the ministers attempted to block their way as the travelers raced past. "What's the meaning of this?"

"Master Skywalker?" A guard broke into a run as they swept by the ministers, matching his stride with the Jedi Master. "What's wrong, sir?

"Where's the Princess?" Wedge demanded sharply.

Overhead several security craft dipped low. Once the intruder and its crew were identified and cleared, they swooped up and away, returning to their scheduled sector patrol.

"Her apartments," said the guard.

No one paid the least attention to the unfamiliar member of the group as the FALCON's crew and passengers burst through the main entrance. En mass they tore along the nearest corridor to the first turbo-lift. Clerks, duty personnel, human servants and droids threw themselves out of the way. Within seconds the passage was cleared for the small party thundering through. Ch'hala trees abruptly altered their pigment as though sensing the life-or-death fears hemming in the unruly group. Somehow the entire group, plus one palace guard, crammed into a small turbo-life. There was insufficient room for Artoo Detoo who wheeled bravely along in the rear.

Irate over being excluded, the ministers hurried off to the next turbo-lift. Abandoned, Artoo caught up with them but the ministers refused to permit the droid entry. To their chagrin they discovered that having ascended as far as was permitted to the ordinary palace occupant, they lacked the tight security code key to ascend to the Imperial Wing and its precious occupant.

"I knew we should have brought Skywalker's damned astro-mech," said the Minister of Internal Affairs.

Thwarted, the group disembarked, unwilling to be left and wondering about the outcome of whatever had sent the FALCON's personnel scrambling. One went to a wall communications link and summoned the Princess' protocol droid. As concerned as the ministers for his mistress' safety, Threepio acceded to the advisors' wishes and obligingly keyed them into the restricted area.


"I hope you realize I don't have the access code to the Imperial Wing," said the guard to his companions during the ride up.

"Don't worry," said Luke. "It's taken care of."

True to his word the turbo-lift did not halt at its usual point below the security zone. Rather, it continued upward until they arrived at the level of the Imperial Wing. The door slid open. How Luke managed it, Windy was unsure, but when they all disembarked the Jedi Master was again in the lead, Solo and the Wookiee hard on his heels.

Boots made little impression on the springy floor surface lining the halls of the Imperial Wing. And, because the genetic codes for four out of the five were on file, no alarm sounded. They skittered to a halt just outside the door leading to Leia's suites. Unnerved duty Honour Guards automatically brought their weapons to bear. Stared in astonishment at the motley assortment of breathless individuals confronting them. Then one of them sorted out the faces.

"Master Skywalker. General Solo. General Antilles." Weapons relaxed as the identity of the unexpected intruders asserted itself. "Is something wrong?"

"No time for explanations." Luke interjected before further time was wasted. "Let me by."

The guard shifted aside. "Of course, sir. I'll just announce---"

Luke blurted, "No!"

As the man raised his com-link, Wedge slapped it aside. The small hand-held unit flew from the startled guard's hand. Chewie snatched it out of the air. Bewildered, the guard stared at his empty hand.

"I don't understand."

"You aren't paid to understand." Wedge's tone brooked no disobedience. "Now, open that door and let General Skywalker past."

"Yes, sir!"

Luke held up a hand. "Han. Wedge. I don't want anyone else entering this room until I give the word."

"I'm going with you," argued the Corellian.

A shake of his head to emphasize his words, Luke impressed the danger on his brother-in-law. "No, Han. If the loranni have been activated, if they've carried out their primary mission---"

"But Leia---" Grimly Luke remained steadfast in the face of that argument. For once, Solo capitulated. He growled, "All right. Shut up and get moving."

As the guard reached out to open the door, Luke rested his left hand over it. "Activate the manual over-ride. Then open it just enough to let me slip through. Keep an eye on the floor. Don't let anything escape."

"Yes sir."

CHAPTER FIVE

Through the Force Luke did his best to inspect the area beyond the panel but could sense nothing within proximity to the door. He nodded to the guard. The door eased open and he slipped inside. Once in he collected his lightsabre from its clip and moved stealthily across the outer room. Past heavy furniture that could conceal a whole array of nasty surprises Luke eased toward the bedroom.

Although unable to yet see him, his sister sensed his presence and swung about at her desk to face the outer room. She was alone. But any movement on her part might cause the loranni to attack. Luke called ahead.

"Leia. Stay where you are."

"Luke! You're back. I thought I felt you trying to contact me a short time ago. What's wrong?"

As he neared the door, Luke spotted one lorean. It sat almost dead centre in the bedroom. Soft buff fur made the animal almost impossible to pick out against the gentle pastel hues and large, open design on the throw rug. Directly opposite the bedroom door, seated at her small worktable, was Leia. Puzzled by his behaviour, she stood and took a step towards her brother. Movement caused the visible lorean's stubby tail to flip in warning. Leia failed to notice that cautionary but Luke held up his left hand, palm out.

"Whatever you do," he said to his sister, "don't move."

"I don't understand." The Princess obeyed, trusting him implicitly. "What's wrong, Luke?"

"Are both loranni with you?"

"Yes." She glanced around her feet, spotting the one in the middle of the room. "I'm not quite sure where the other one is, but it was here a minute ago. What's wrong, Luke? How did you know about them?"

"They've been genetically engineered by the Imperials." Before Leia could request an explanation Luke continued. "Let me deal with this now. There'll be time enough later to explain everything in detail."

Eyes tracking Luke while he judiciously worked his way toward the lorean, Leia continued speaking. "They're supposed to be a birthday gift from the Atrivisi to us."

"Unlikely," said Luke softly. For the moment his quarry was unaware of his presence. Intent upon Leia, the lorean edged forward. "Tir'Nngan devised these little darlings."

"Nngan?"

Luke nodded. "With a little help from some of his friends."

Fear tightened an iron band around Leia's heart. "I think I understand why you missed last night's celebration. And just what is their purpose?"

"Well," said Luke, his voice dropping even lower, "if they don't kill you outright, the virus they're carrying will apparently mutate after it runs its initial course. Each lorean was infected with a slightly different strain. While mutating, the two will combine to form a plague."

"But Customs and Quarantine---"

"Wouldn't have picked up anything out of the ordinary before the correct code released the viruses into the loranni's bloodstream. They were designed to appear as normal microbes until that moment. Something common vaccinations would control."

Horrified, Leia stared down at the innocuous creature. Haunches gathered under it, the lorean prepared to launch itself at Luke. There was nothing cute about its stance. Fur bristling, whiskers stood straight out from its muzzle. There was a fearful alien hardness to the lorean's black eyes.

Luke was already moving. Lightsabre out, he slashed. The pale green sabre blade flashed, out and down. Swept across the lorean, severing its head so neatly almost no blood spilled. Nor was the stinger expended. Stench of scorched rug fibres filled Leia's nose. A burn line bisected the carpet.

But the Jedi Master was not finished. Even as he eliminated the visible lorean, he turned his leap into a light sideways move. Nimbly avoided the second creature as it shot from under the bed. Luke landed on the mattress and turned to confront the surviving lorean.

As it struck the throw rug, the lorean attempted to alter its course, to spring up and spin about. Instead the surface beneath it shifted. Claws scrabbling for purchase on the sliding carpet, the lorean flew across the room. Living and dead loranni smacked into the far wall and ricocheted off. The corpse remained where it landed while the living animal back flipped clear of the crumpled mass. Sought its target.

In spite of lightning speed and agility it proved too late. Luke descended on it, finishing it before it could reorient itself. Its tail jerked once, reflexively. A loaded stinger remained embedded in the carpet barely a finger-width from the body of its companion. Breathing lightly but rapidly, Luke went to his sister. Wrapped an arm about her.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Luke. Thanks to you."

They hugged. Luke pressed his cheek against the top of her head as she rested it against his shoulder. For several minutes they stood, finding comfort in each other. Then Luke gently drew free.

"We better let the others know you're okay," he said.

Leia nodded. She slipped an arm around his waist and fell in step with him as he headed for the door. Outside waited a crowd of people and droids. Artoo had finally caught up with their party in the interim. To his annoyance, Luke also discovered someone had allowed the ministers upstairs while he was preoccupied. From the complaints Threepio was explicating, he had apparently arrived just as Luke vanished into the suite. It took no genius to realize who the culprit was responsible for bringing up the ministers.

Now they clamoured for an explanation. Heedless of anyone else's reaction, Han Solo swept the Princess up in his arms and held her close. His fingers curled possessively over the braids coiled around the crown of her head.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Han. Really."

Solo glanced at Luke for confirmation. Received it in a small nod. "The loranni?"

"Both dead."

"We're going to have to be careful how we dispose of them," said Wedge.

"Space them." Han's suggestion was simple enough.

"I think we should incinerate them," said Luke. "We have no idea how dormant those viruses are. Or what they're capable of."

"Then let's place them in a capsule and jettison them into the sun." Wedge looked from one to the other.

"That should work." After giving Leia another squeeze, Han released her. "If someone will get the necessary equipment, Luke and I will handle it."

All around them the noise level increased. Voices raised in a multitude of questions, counter-productive arguments and useless discussion. Confounded by the tumult, Leia drew out of Han's arms and raised her voice in a shout wholly out of character with her usually dignified stance.

"Quiet!"

For a moment it seemed she had worked the impossible. But the ministers started in again. This time Chewie roared at the top of his lungs. That effectively stunned everyone within hearing range. It even caused Threepio to back up several steps, his arms waving wildly as his audio- sensors were momentarily over-whelmed. Windy wisely kept behind Chewie, out of sight, and listened with ever-growing amazement as the petite Princess deftly took control.

"Now," said Leia more sedately into the silence, "will everyone please calm down. I think we should seal off my apartments until the matter has been dealt with. While the hazardous waste team cleans up the mess, we shall retire to the main briefing room."

"Sounds like a plan," said Han casually.

"And would someone please be good enough to summon General Jornik and General Madine," put in Luke. "General Solo and I will meet you in the briefing room as soon as we've ensured the HAZMAT team's taken care of the mess."

Leia nodded. With a sweep of her hand, she directed the ministers to accompany her. There was no arguing with her. Surrounded by her advisors, the Princess led the way back to the turbo-lift. Stranded, Threepio struggled to decide where he should be.

"I think you ought to stick with Leia, golden rod."

Solo's remark set Threepio at ease. "Thank you, sir. I think that's a very good idea. I shall be with the Princess should you need me."

Try as he might, Wedge failed miserably in his attempt to smother a grin as the protocol droid hurried after the disappearing entourage. No sooner was Threepio out of hearing than Artoo released what could only have been a derogatory burble. Windy shook her head.

"You'd think they were human," she said.

"Just ain't natural." Han Solo sourly agreed with that sentiment.

Across the exchange, Luke instructed his astro-mech on what needed to be done. "Artoo. See if you can find a message capsule large enough to hold the loranni. Bring it straight back here. Han and I'll be in Leia's bedroom. Okay?"

More than happy to prove useful to his master, Artoo set off down the hall quietly whistling and burbling. Unsure what he should do, Wedge considered his options. He glanced at Windy.

"Ah, Luke?"

"Yeah, Wedge?"

"I think I better take Windy down to the briefing room, too. They're gonna want to hear what she has to say once we've explained our end of things. And I really don't think you need her up here."

"Good idea."

"See you down there."

"Right. Oh. And Wedge?" Wedge paused. At his side, Windy unwittingly took three short hops in stride and halted also.

"Yeah, Luke?"

"Get Fleet Control to find out if our false Atrivisi Ambassador's already left. I suspect he has. But they may not yet be out-system."

"Right on it."

As Wedge and Windy hurried off, Han and Luke returned to Leia's apartments. The Jedi Master led the way into the bedroom. His companion took in the disarray in the room. Grinned at the sight of the foot impressions on the bed and the tangled bedspread. Then his nose wrinkled as the offensive aroma of burned flesh, fur and rug over-whelmed his incensed olfactory senses.

"You might have tried being a little neater, kid."

"Very funny, Han." Luke gave him a small shove in the shoulder, making Solo rock on his heels. "I can just imagine how you would have handled it."

Visions of blaster bolts exploding against the floor and chintze patterned walls flashed through both their heads. The Corellian's mouth twisted in wry humour. Eyes hardening, Luke went to one knee beside the second lorean. Lips compressed, he unclipped his lightsabre. Used the tip of his unlit weapon to inch the corpse carefully aside, revealing the stinger embedded in the carpet. Han kept his hands off, visually examining the still quivering barb.

"Nasty."

"We'll have to include the carpet in the capsule." Luke ruefully observed. "I hope Leia's doesn't mind too much."

"Doesn't make much difference if she does," said Han. "And the ministers can chase themselves if they have any objections.

With a grunt, Luke turned back the edge of the rug. Poison also stained the woodwork beneath it. They eyed the wet patch. Solo glanced up at Luke.

"I suppose you're going to suggest we cut up the floor boards, too, aren't you?"

"In light of what we do and don't know about this nasty little present from the Imperials, it might be a good idea."

"Now wait a minute," said Han.

Settled back on his heels, Luke locked gazes with his friend. "Look, Han. We don't know what we're dealing with, here. The mere fact that the loranni were to be activated only after the delivery boys were well clear of the capitol suggests even Nngan was uncertain of the potency of what he was unleashing."

"I guess."

"Floors can be replaced."

A short sarcastic laugh exploded from Solo. He flung up his hands. "There speaks the farm boy. Have you any idea where this wood comes from?"

"Even if it originated on Alderaan," said Luke, grimly conscious of his sister's attachment for the shattered world, "it isn't worth risking Leia's life, or the lives of everyone else on Coruscant, just to preserve it."

With a shake of his head, Han enlightened him. "Hope you can convince her. These floor boards are Alderaani wood."

He watched while Luke diligently sliced a square around the impregnated wood. Burning resin released by the passing lightsabre blade scented the air. Behind them a soft whistle announced Artoo's return. And with him were several palace employees in HAZMAT environmental suits. Luke nodded his approval. He rose quickly and rapidly explained what he wanted done.

"But, sir! These floorboards are priceless!" One workman strenuously protested the proposed demolition, staring in disbelief at the irreparable damage the Jedi Master had inflicted.

"Do you want the lives of millions on your hands?"

Both men were visibly shaken by the Jedi Master's argument. They exchanged glances. Aware he was blocking access to the area under discussion, Han stepped aside, clearing the way for them to work.

"Don't touch the bodies or that stinger," said Luke sombrely. "Pick everything up with the carpet."

"You want us to include the rug in the capsule?"

"Yes." On that note Luke withdrew. He paused by his droid. Said softly, "Keep an eye on them, Artoo. Don't let them miss a thing."

The little astro-mech 'booped' once. Settled in the doorway, Artoo prepared to ensure the HAZMAT team implicitly obeyed Luke's orders. Certain that the matter would be properly taken care of, Luke and Han left. Made their way down to the briefing room where Leia and the ministers awaited them.

As they entered the turbo-lift, Han muttered under his breath. "Maybe now I can convince them to let Leia and I use the suites down the hall."

Eyes dancing, Luke pretended not to have heard. Everyone knew the Ministers were doing everything in their power to disrupt a marriage they continued to frown upon. That Leia and Han wanted shared apartments was understandable but wheels of State ground incredibly slowly when opposition was strong. Council condescendingly permitted Han to move into a suite at the opposite end of the corridor. It was nearly as large as the one allotted Leia. More masculine and sensible in decor it suited the Corellian perfectly. At the same time, Luke knew his sister would be far happier to move into them also. Playing musical apartments at night was ludicrous but a situation Han and Leia had so far dealt with equitably. Now circumstances had played into their hands to their barely concealed joy.

"Oh, Master Luke!" Distraught at the news of the near disaster, Threepio waved his arms in articulate gestures as they entered the briefing room. "Are they dead? Will we have to evacuate?"

"No, Threepio. Everything's okay, now." Luke joined Leia who was seated at the head of the table. He remained standing while Solo slid onto a chair at the opposite end.

See-Threepio heaved an exaggerated, mechanical sigh of relief. "Thank goodness you stopped those horrible creatures before they could do any harm."

"Generals Jornik and Madine are still up at the fleet," Leia said quietly, and explained the continuing absence of the two generals. "Word's been sent. But they were overseeing manoeuvres from the INDEPENDENCE---"

"Not any more," said Wedge, sotto voce, from her left. He exchanged amused looks with the Jedi Master and Han Solo. In spite of quiet observation, Leia overheard. A frown marred her features.

"Guess we're going to hear about that."

Han's observation, coupled with the expressions on their faces sufficiently intrigued Leia that she made a mental note to ask her brother about the matter later. Before she could address the gathering, however, one of her cabinet ministers broke in.

"Would someone please explain what's going one?"

Hands on the tabletop, the Minister Without Portfolio for In-System Affairs rose to his feet and leaned forward. He stared directly at the Jedi Master, exasperated with the disruption in Palace routine.

"Minister, sit down."

However quietly Leia spoke there was no mistaking the hard edge in her voice. Quelled by the look in her eyes, the Minister slowly settled into his seat. He was not afraid to permit his displeasure at the manner in which she chastised him in front of everyone to show on his face. Leia refused to apologize.

"Since we are still waiting for two more people you will have to be patient a little longer. I would rather the tale was told once, rather than rehashed several times to the inconvenience of all."

The door swished open. "Excuse me, your Highness?"

From the entrance Madine caught her attention. Waited for her to gesture him and his companion into the room. Crix Madine's gaze swept the gathering and lit on Wedge, remaining there. Pinned beneath that relentless stare, Wedge felt himself shrink inside. For several seconds he wished he were a child again so he could crawl beneath the table. He might now be equal in rank to Crix Madine, but that did not prevent him from dreading the debriefing to come. Jornik also caught his eye. Gave his head a smidgen of a shake. The significance of that action escaped Wedge. He was left to suffer in silence, not daring to inquire into it even when Jornik settled next to him.

"Now that we're all present you may close the door, Threepio," said Leia. "And remain by the door. I want no intrusions except for emergencies. You are to record these proceedings."

"Yes, Mistress Leia."

From his position beside the sealed entrance, Threepio listened while Luke and Wedge took it in turns to explain their actions. No one berated the protocol droid for his repeated exclamations of horror that punctuated each narration. The Ministers were shocked speechless by the report. Heads nodded in unison. Madine and Jornik appeared only mildly surprised by the information imparted to the gathering. Like Princess Leia, they had escaped the destruction of Alderaan by sheer chance. In fact, Madine had been within visual range at the time and still bore the scars on his conscience. Nothing the Imperials dreamt up astounded him any more.

"Further to that," said Madine heavily, "the Atrivisi vessel---or rather the ship purporting to be under Atrivisi registry---just left the system. We were too late to prevent their departure."

"Damn!" Han's oath clearly reflected the sentiments of everyone at the table.

"Master Skywalker," said the Minister of Foreign Affairs. "General Solo. Once again the New Republic has you to thank for averting disaster. That anyone should have attempted this is---unthinkable."

"Is it any worse than what befell Alderaan?" Windy spoke without thinking and instantly wished she had held her tongue. All eyes came to rest on her.

Eyebrows rising at this stranger's effrontery, the Minister of In-System Affairs glowered at her. "Would someone mind explaining who this person is? And why they are privy to this sensitive meeting?"

Luke moved to stand between his sister and Windy. "This is an old friend of mine from Tatooine, Marica Winolder. She's here because she assisted us in escaping Imperial ground troops on Tatooine. She's also requested permission to enlist in our forces. I told her I would advance her application."

"And I'm seconding it," added Solo to Wedge's relief. At this moment Wedge wanted to draw as little attention on himself as possible.

"Hmmph." Jornik rested the flat of his palms on the boardroom table. "Well. I think we've learned everything we need to know. Keep me apprise of how matters fare cleaning up this mess the Imperials have again elected to dump in our laps, won't you?"

"Certainly, General."

With a nod to acknowledge Luke's response, Jornik rose. After one more glanced around the room, he headed for the exit. Threepio hurried to unlocked the door as the General approached, stood aside to let him pass. To Wedge's immediate relief Madine was close on his heels. Unfortunately Crix halted in the doorway, turned and stared at Wedge.

"Antilles! Debriefing! Fifteen minutes!"

"Sir!"

In response to that barked command---he caught Windy's unguarded amazement---Wedge was instantly on his feet even as he acknowledged the order. At full attention, eyes straight ahead, Wedge Antilles waited for Madine to depart. Once the door closed between them, he gingerly resettled in his chair. The tiny sigh he heaved was audible only to the Skywalker twins. Leia appeared sympathetic. A hand rested briefly on Wedge's shoulder from behind. He glanced back up at the Jedi Master. But, strangely, Luke's gaze was solely for Windy.

"Wedge will escort you to the Recruiting Officer." He told his childhood friend, "I'm afraid, given this turn of events I haven't the time. And unfortunately, once you're in it may be quite a while before we have an opportunity to see one another again."

Resigned, Windy nodded. "Yeah. Well. Wedge did kinda warn me about that, didn't he?"

Undeniably, it took all Windy's courage to summon the ghost of a smile. For all her years and experiences on Tatooine nothing compared with the kernel of fear taking root inside her. Now she faced the great unknown: Would she succeed or fail?

"You'll do fine, Windy."

That evidence of confidence in her abilities somewhat bolstered the rim-worlder. On cue Wedge silently headed for the door, Windy at his heels. For once Windy was so distracted she was barely cognizant of her surroundings. Made no attempt to gawk at the opulence surrounding her as they left the Palace behind them. They emerged through a smaller side entrance, many stories lower than the one through which they had originally entered the building. Once outside, Wedge paused.

"You can still back out, Windy," Wedge said. "None of us will think the worse of you if you do. Or say anything. Military service isn't for everyone. Most often it's a short, hard life. There are other jobs you can do on Coruscant besides working in the Fleet."

Confronted by that statement, Windy was unconsciously tempted to reinforce her earlier declarations. Instead, one look at Wedge's expression left her tongue-tied. With her gaze fixed on a point beyond Wedge's shoulder, Windy reconsidered her decision. Thought seriously about that resolution. Now the rush of excitement over saving the Princess and Coruscant was past she felt curiously deflated, adrift. And Wedge saw it in her face.

"Having second thoughts?"

"Not really." Windy paused. She stared across the great open space beyond. Why so much wasted space lay there she had no idea. "It's just---I don't know. In all the excitement back on Tatooine it seemed like the right thing to do. You know?" Wedge nodded, encouraging Windy to continue. "Now I'm not so sure."

"Combat has a way of doing that to you." Wedge informed her soberly, commiserating with her reflections.

"Then it's always like this?"

"Not always. Most times it lets you down more slowly. Some of us get beyond that rush."

"And some don't?"

A rhetorical question, but Wedge answered it anyway. "There are a few whom we refer to as adrenaline junkies. It's like a narcotic high from spice or glim-dust. They can't function properly without it. You'll find them pulling stupid stunts during training or volunteering for the most dangerous tours of duty after graduation. You never want to be in their sections or units once they receive a command. Body counts mean nothing if they can come out covered in glory. That sort should be avoided like a plague. Worse yet, most of their troops can't see it. Are blinded by the record and medals. They fail to see the atrocious attrition rates."

His answer was clearly not something Windy expected. Brow furrowed in a frown, the rim-worlder turned and walked away. Wedge watched her cross the parade-square. Respect for her need for a measure of privacy while maintaining security kept Wedge at a distance. He scrutinized Windy as the other studied her surroundings.

Across the square a platoon of recruits appeared at a run. All halted in perfect unison at one end. Once certain the square was free, the Drill Sergeant put his squad through their paces. Further away, another group arrived, trotting in tight formation. From their uniforms Wedge knew these troops were halfway through Basic training. Weapons held chest-high across their fronts, they passed along one side of the square, en route to a transport that was waiting to convey them to the practice ranges.

Everywhere there were people in and out of uniform crisscrossing the area sidelines. None of them ventured onto the square now occupied by the drilling recruits. No one spared Windy so much as a glance in curiosity. Several recognized Wedge and nodded silent greeting in passing. With time growing short to when he would have to report to debriefing, Wedge caught up with Windy.

"Well? Do you still want in?"

"Yes."

In direct counter to Windy's certainty, Wedge said firmly, "Just remember something. Once you're out on the flight ranges, keep in mind you're no Luke Skywalker."

Stung by the remark that hit closer to the mark than Windy liked, the rim-worlder spun. She glared at Wedge. But Rogue Squadron's Commander was not about to let her argue with him.

"That's not fair," said Windy, unaware that Wedge had just fired a litany at her that she and her peers, like their predecessors since Yavin Four, would hear repeatedly from various instructors throughout training.

"Life's not fair." Wedge countered that objection, a bite to his words. "Best you remember that. Remember, too, that Luke always had the potential to be Jedi. Something you and I," he stabbed a finger at Windy's chest, "haven't the option of relying on."

"Luke never knew---"

"Doesn't follow. Ben Kenobi started him on the right path on the way to Alderaan, sure. It's probably what kept him alive when most of us would have been killed. But I suspect it goes back farther than that."

In retrospect, when she recalled some of the hair-raising escapades into which Luke had plunged in his youth, Windy had to admit Wedge Antilles was more than half-right. Several times their companions had pulled their Skyhoppers out of a particular manoeuvre and watched, astonished, while Luke flew the pattern to its conclusion and emerged successful. And having been a passenger on numerous occasions, Windy realized just how fortunate she had been.

"One more thing before I take you inside," said Wedge. He waited until Windy met his gaze. "From now on you will address me as sir. You will not argue with me. If I give you an order, you will follow it without hesitation. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"Yes---sir."

For all Windy's resolve to respond instantly, the 'sir' emerged with a degree of hesitancy. But Wedge appeared satisfied. He nodded, escorted Windy into the large building across the parade-square and witnessed her signature and oath. Then he turned her over to a bunch of complete strangers.

"I'll be watching your progress, Winolder." With no display of sympathy he let Windy know exactly where she stood.

"I won't fail you, sir."

"We'll see," said the Recruiting Officer when Wedge refrained from commenting. He gestured to an older man across the room. "Sergeant, get this recruit kitted out immediately and assigned quarters. Let her use today to get oriented, then fit her into the present bunch of trainees."

Eyebrows raised, the Sergeant stared at their newest acquisition. "Excuse me, sir. I realized we're short manpower on the ground, but that'll put her a week behind the rest."

The Recruiting Officer, Captain Kordhan, studied Windy. Noting the determined set of the rim-worlder's mouth he hid a smile. But Wedge was not blind to the slight twitch at the corners of those discerning murky green eyes.

"Only in drill and a couple of basic mutuals. Make sure she's got a tutor to bring her up to speed during off-hours. She's older than the rest. That ought to stand her in good stead. I doubt we have to worry about fitness."

"If you say so, sir."

"I do. And if it doesn't, we'll recourse her where and when necessary."

Why the officers were so insistent upon ensuring this recruit had the best opportunity to complete training without forcing her to wait three months for the next course was beyond the sergeant. Still dubious, but not about to argue further with the officer, Sergeant Vuryk saluted.

He rounded on Windy. "Fall in, Winolder. And don't get lost. I haven't got time to baby-sit."

At the bark of command, Windy stiffened obediently. "Sir!"

To her credit, she managed a credible response this time. Came to attention in a fair imitation of how she had seen Wedge respond to General Madine's command. She even carefully avoided making eye contact with Wedge as she followed the sergeant out.

Sergeant Vuryk's retort drifted back to Wedge as the pair left. "I'm not a sir. It's Sergeant. Understood?"

Kordhan turned to Wedge the minute the others were out of earshot. "What do you think, General?"

Antilles shrugged. "You never can tell. She's determined, I will say that."

"Rim-worlders are tough stock. Where did you say she was from?"

"Tatooine." It was out before Wedge could swallow it.

With a frowning, Kordhan said, "Thought that's what you said, General, but I wasn't sure. I don't suppose she knows General Skywalker?"

Aware there was no hiding the truth, Wedge admitted the truth. "Let's just say I suggest you keep a close eye on her if she makes pilot grade."

"Like that, is it?"

But Wedge silently let Captain Kordhan know he had revealed as much about Windy's background as he was going to. In the silence that fell, the Captain came to attention and snapped a salute. Wedge returned it and left. He had just enough time to double-time it over to Cov-Ops for debriefing.

CHAPTER SIX

Severe trepidation assailed Wedge as he approached the briefing room. Unlike previous times when he had passed through the Operations room, this time several heads turned slightly. Glances flitted across him, then away. The Operations Officer was expressionless but gave Wedge a nod as he went by. Outside the briefing room Wedge paused. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves and scrubbed sweaty palms against his jacket before opening the door. Strange that his latest promotion had failed to prevent the sudden wash of uneasiness.

Behind the table sat Madine. General Jornik was nowhere to be seen. Not a good sign. Aware he was about to be placed under a microscope, Wedge halted in front of Crix. He kept his eyes fixed on the wall. Slowly Crix Madine rose, moved into view and deliberately took a stance where Wedge was forced to stare at him. That they were the same height and over-all stature only served to emphasize the moment.

"Would you mind telling me just what the hell you thought you were playing at?" There was no doubting what the head of Cov-Ops referred to. Cold fury washed over Wedge. Somehow he managed to lock his gaze on the wall beyond Crix Madine's shoulder. To say Madine was not amused would have been an understatement. "Why did one of our newest Generals opt to go off half-cock, against all orders to the contrary?"

"I had no choice," said Wedge levelly.

"Like hell you didn't."

"You weren't there---sir."

Startled by Wedge's uncustomary defensive stance, Madine moved out from behind the table. "You weren't trained for deep cover, Antilles."

"Unfortunately, as it turned out there were several things I wasn't trained for that would have proved beneficial once I was in over my head."

"Watch it, Antilles." The unusually sharp edge to Madine's voice warned Wedge he was treading a thin line. "You're already dangerously close to being charged with insubordination. Now, kindly explain why you found yourself in over your head."

"Yes, sir." Aware there were others listening in on their conversation, Wedge ordered his thoughts before beginning his report. "You will remember my cover story was that of a down-on-his-luck spacer?" Madine nodded stiffly and settled himself on the corner of the metal table. "I was making a show of looking for work when the speeder I rented at the port broke down. It was late. Raining. And I was at the top end of the Diadem Lakes district."

When he paused again, Madine conceded. "I'm familiar with the area. Continue."

"I took a chance, picked a likely estate and walked down to it. There were patrol droids of course. Most of the places around there have them. Anyway, when I explained what had happened the estate owner let me in. Turned out Tir'Nngan was the owner. By the time I discovered that I was in too deep. And sicker than the proverbial nerf with spring cough."

"How did that happen?"

An ironic smile flickered briefly around Wedge's lips. "Appears I missed my inoculation updates due to the Bakuran skirmish and our operations to take Coruscant."

"I see." Madine glanced at the nearest monitor. "We'll have to get after our medical people to ensure they get a handle on this." He redirected himself to Wedge. "Go on."

"Nngan was quite---solicitous."

"I find that hard to believe."

"So did I. But he insisted I stay the night. Fed me, gave me a bed. Even had one of the sentry droids administer medication throughout the night."

"How sick were you?"

"Feverish. More unconscious than awake most of the night."

"So we can presume the implant works."

"Fortunately." Desperate for a breather, Wedge licked dry lips and launched into the rest of the story. "By the time I woke the next morning he had already checked out my story. That's when he offered me a job. If I had turned him down, sir, it would have blown my cover. And you'd never have received the information concerning the presence of Pherkail and Sirdson in the area."

Disgusted that Wedge was correct, Madine waved a hand at him. "Right. Give me the rest of it."

Slowly Wedge narrated the remainder of his time as a member of Tir'Nngan's staff. With a prayer to the Force, he glossed over the incident with the Imperial officer. Left out the information concerning the Jedi Master's relationship to Niant. By the time he was done Madine was pacing the confines of the room. Head bowed. Hands clasped behind his back.

"All the spirits of space must have been dogging your footsteps, Antilles." Madine halted. Pivoted to face Wedge across the room. "You're damn lucky to be here."

"I know that, sir."

"Take a seat."

"Sir?"

"We're questioning everyone connected with your mission." Raising his voice slightly, Crix called out. "Send in the next one."

The door opened. Luke Skywalker entered, exuding confidence Wedge wished he possessed. His eyes flicked across Wedge, found Madine and the primary monitor, and remained focused on them. Cool, calm and collected, he responded to Madine's probing questions factually. To Wedge's astonishment, Luke was not reticent about their encounter with Horst Niant. In concise, clipped phrases he outlined what he knew of Niant from his youth. In light of that revelation, Madine shot a look at Wedge that made him scrunch down in his seat. And yet, Wedge felt he was justified in allowing Luke to reveal this information.

Once Luke's narrative was concluded Han Solo was brought in. Then Chewbacca: the Wookiee's statement was monitored, translated and recorded by a high security translator droid elsewhere in the complex. Finally Windy entered, dressed in a spanking new recruit uniform, hair band dispensed with. Although clearly uncomfortable in the stiff collar, she replied readily to Madine's questions. Nor did she offer comments on their actions. Not once did she look at the other participants. When Windy was done, Madine pointed.

"You may return to your barracks, Recruit."

"Sir."

Flashing a creditable salute, Windy departed. In the hall waited Alfiar Jornik. Wedge suspected Jornik would escort Windy back to her section to ensure she did not get lost labyrinthine halls within the bowels of Cov-Ops. Alone with the four heroes, Madine surveyed them. Eyes drifting over the foursome, he shook his head. There was no contrition in their faces. All appeared to feel justified in the course of action they had chosen.

"Do any of you wish to add to your prior statements?"

His inquiry elicited negative head shakes and a, "No, sir," from Wedge.

A sigh escaped Madine. He locked his hands behind his back. "My grandfather once advised me against inspecting a gift nerf too closely," he said. "For now I'll overlook this blatant disregard for instructions. The information you secured from Nngan's computer, plus the invaluable service you've once again rendered this fragile government far out-weighs your refusal to stick to the letter of regulations.

"However, one of you had better not make this a habit. Antilles, you've effectively blown your cover." When Wedge attempted to offer an excuse or explanation, Madine held up a hand. Wedge snapped his mouth shut. "It means you're now useless, to all intents and purposes, for any further use by this department."

"Excuse me, General Madine." Correct in the way he interrupted the head of Covert Operations Luke countered the accusation. "Tank---Horst had already recognized Wedge by the time we encountered him in Nngan's operations centre. I believe it most fortuitous that Wedge managed to escape. Had I not arrived when I did, it's entirely probable he would now be in the hands of the Imperials."

Wedge silently added a codicil. 'Blurting out Force knows what secrets.'

The Jedi Master had Madine backed into a corner on that one. And Crix knew it. One look at Solo and Antilles reinforced Luke's defence as fact. However, Madine was not about to acquiesce.

"Master Skywalker." Although Madine's address was within the bounds of etiquette the tight set of his jaw left no doubt in anyone's mind where Luke stood in his books. "For all the services you have performed, and continue to perform for this Republic, there are times---"

On the verge of expressing thoughts best left unspoken, General Madine broke off. He was unprepared to take on the Jedi Master. Ready to meet Madine's verbal attack, Luke locked gazes with him. To Wedge's astonishment Crix Madine broke.

"You were saying, General?" Luke prompted Madine. For once Crix was at a loss for words. Finally he muttered something under his breath that might have been an apology or a retraction. Only Luke knew for certain. And he elected to let the matter drop. Thankful for small mercies, Madine called to the invisible audience.

"Al?"

Several moments later Jornik joined them. He appeared no less annoyed by Wedge's unauthorized sojourn than Madine. Yet he made no reference to it. Balanced on the balls of his feet, Crix just behind his left shoulder, Alfiar addressed them bluntly.

"Generals." Once he had their undivided attention, he continued. "We've only partially downloaded and decoded the information procured from Nngan's installation. It's proving far more extensive than we initially envisioned. Goes well beyond this nasty bit of work on Nngan's part. It seems that at the time Wedge was hooked into the system the Imperial star destroyer SPITEFUL was also on line."

He paused significantly, allowing them to digest that startling revelation. "As a result there may well be a further requirement in the immediate future for your combined---special talents. Therefore it's requested you hold yourselves---all of you," and Jornik rested a particularly meaningful look on the Jedi Master, "in readiness for short notice recall."

"What time frame are we looking at, General?"

Luke's inquiry caused Jornik to purse his lips in thought before he responded. "Approximately three to four weeks, Master Skywalker. I believe we can count on all of you."

"General."

Under other circumstances the chorused reply from three of the four might have seemed humorous. Today, though, there was nothing amusing about it. Nor was the news Jornik held in abeyance, waiting to impart it to Wedge in a more private setting. Already he had picked up the unspoken confirmation from Han Solo that Antilles was unaware of his BATMAN's murder.

"Wedge." He spoke less formally now. "I want a word with you, privately. Meet me at your quarters after you've seen the med-droid to have your implant removed."

Puzzled, Wedge responded. "Yes, sir."

Rather than risk saying anything further that might alert Wedge to a problem, Jornik shook his head. Indicated the other would have to wait. Exchanging brief glances with Luke and Han, Wedge left the room. The door hissed shut behind him.

Madine stroked his beard once in reflection. "I take it you haven't told him about Dori, General Solo?"

"Damn!" Irritated with himself, Han slapped at his pant leg. "I knew there was something I forgot to pass on to him. Unfortunately we were kind of busy, General---"

"So I understand. Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. Dori's replacement has all ready moved in and is waiting to pick up where she left off."

"He's not going to take the news easily, sir." Sensitive to his ex-wingman's moods, Luke shook his head.

"I'm aware of that." The pain he was going to inflict on Wedge so soon after his return troubled Jornik. He looked quickly away from the Jedi Master's piercing stare. "I won't keep young Antilles waiting."

"Thank you, sir. Should you need me, you know where to reach me."

In response to Luke's solicitous offer, Jornik tipped his head and departed. Abandoned with the remaining trio, Madine spread his hands in a gesture of defeat.

"I cannot, for the life of me, fathom how you lot continually stumble into these situations; predicaments which would normally have resulted in anyone else's death. And still you come out the other end smelling like Kashyyyk night lilies."

"Fortune favours the foolish," said Han casually. Beside him Luke blinked hard as Ben Kenobi's voice over-laid the Corellian's for a moment out of time. Chewbacca's rumbled unintelligible comment snatched him back to the present.

Crix Madine missed the Jedi Master's momentary distraction. "You wouldn't, by any chance, be paraphrasing an old Alderaani adage?"

"Which one's that?" Solo shot back. "The Alderaani had a nasty habit of acquiring a number of old sayings and swearing their people originated them."

About to take umbrage at that slight, Madine caught the sly gleam in Solo's eyes just in time. He held up a finger in warning. Caught out, the Corellian grinned openly.

"It was said during the Clone Wars," Crix continued, undeterred, "that only fools rushed in where even Jedi feared to tread."

"Who? Me?"

Fingers of both hands pointing to his chest, Solo stared, wide-eyed at Madine. Innocence definitely did not become Han Solo. His affectation produced a scornful snort from Crix. Luke kept his face perfectly straight, but failed to cover the twinkle of mirth dancing in blue eyes.

"I give up." With a jerk of a hand, Madine surrendered. "Get out of here. I'm sure you've all got better things to do with your time than waste mine."

CHAPTER SEVEN

A slight ache behind his left ear the only reminder of his visit to the medics, Wedge stepped from the turbo-lift on floor where his new quarters lay, and sauntered down the corridor. His confidence seeped back anew and he whistled as he headed for his rooms. Only a messenger droid was evident along the entire length of the passage. Due to the lateness of the hour only every third light bar was illuminated. Between towering potted plants lining the hall at irregular intervals and the deep forest hued walls, floor and ceiling, it was like walking through an Endor forest at dusk.

Upon reaching the door to his apartment, Wedge paused. He glanced across the way to where his BATMAN was quartered, reconsidered waking her but punched in personal access code to his rooms instead. Nothing happened.

"What the---" He tried again. Still the door remained stubbornly closed. "Of all the stupid---"

Annoyed and confused, Wedge wandered back up the hall, turned and retraced his steps to what he was certain was his door. Again he input his code. In the face of his efforts it refused to budge. Complacency now thoroughly shaken, Wedge moved on down the corridor. Only two other doors interrupted the wall. One definitely led to the arboretum. The other led to the rooms assigned to the Mon Calamari who was currently off world. Around the opposite corner were Madine's quarters. Wedge returned to the intractable door and keyed the computer for inquiries.

"Computer, confirm this apartment is assigned to General Wedge Antilles."

"Inquiry confirmed. Apartment outside which you are now standing is that of General Antilles."

Tight-lipped, Wedge advised the computer. "This is General Antilles. Confirm."

"Voice print and DNA scan are consistent with General Wedge Antilles." The computer's tone altered from metallic to a more congenial response mode. "How may I help you, sir?"

"This is General Antilles and I want to know why the hell it is I can't get into my own rooms."

"My apologies, sir. Normally your request would over-ride all previous commands on this system. However, Security has attached a new, temporary persona-lock to your quarters. Special authorization is required before it can be assigned to your access code. Suggest you contact Security for that information."

"Sith spawn!" He exploded and stormed across the passage. Hit the chime pad. The door slid open. "Dori, what the hell is going on---"

Wedge broke off when he discovered he was staring down at a complete stranger. Sandy hair, cut in a short bob, framed an oval face. Bright green eyes sparkled with pleasure at the sight of him. The woman was petite, coming to just beneath the bridge of his nose. A pert mouth and slim nose leant an attractive air, but her unusually muscular frame detracted from what beauty she possessed. When she shifted her weight, she exhibited a slight limp wholly at odds with her otherwise athletic build.

"Sir."

Although she did acknowledge Wedge's presence she completely destroyed his first impressions of her by peering around him. She hurriedly checked up the hallway, obviously looking for someone else.

"Lieutenant, what is the meaning of this? Where's Lieutenant Turlat?"

"Wedge." Jornik burst into view at a jog, slightly out of breath after having run from the turbo-lift. "Sorry I didn't get here sooner. I see you've already met Lieutenant Ana Grange."

Not about to be diverted by introductions, Wedge countered. "Where's Dori?"

Sadness spread across Jornik's face. Lieutenant Grange backed up two steps. Not out of fear of the anger edging Wedge's voice, but rather out of respect. Her face was carefully neutral.

Jornik delivered his news as gently as possible. "I'm sorry, Wedge. Really I am. We tried to get a message to you at the time."

Reading between the lines, Wedge went cold at the implication behind those words. His expression hardened. "She's dead?"

General Jornik nodded heavily. "I'm afraid so."

"What happened? Was it a training accident?"

Mishaps on the ranges were not unusual, an unfortunate fact of military life of which few civilians were aware. But such accidents seldom involved individuals above the rank of Second Lieutenant. By the time junior staff reached that level they had passed the point of recklessness. Still, an inadvertent move, a sneeze or mechanical failure occasionally accounted for losses among even the most highly experienced personnel: inexcusable, unfortunate but understandable.

"No." Jornik's denial sent a knife through Wedge's gut. The Lieutenant watched his reaction, wary and curious, all in the same breath.

"What, then?"

"Just after you left Dori entered your apartments. Apparently she was performing a daily check of messages. She happened to stumble on an intruder searching your rooms. Crix's BATMAN was also there. I'm afraid we've been unable to get a clear story out of him. Poor lad's still in shock therapy."

"This intruder killed Dori?"

To that, Jornik nodded heavily. "Yes. She was gone before the medics could reach her. The damage was too extensive to revive her even if they had placed her in stass almost immediately."

"Did you get the bastard?"

"We did."

"Good."

"Sir?" With a great deal of daring Lieutenant Grange briefly rested her left hand on Wedge's arm. She withdrew it the second she had his attention. "I'm really sorry about Dori. She was an excellent officer, and a friend. We went through flight training together."

"Thank you, Lieutenant."

Although his association with Dori Turlat had been confined to a few hours Wedge felt a gap suddenly yawned in his life. Dori's cheerful, expectant face loomed in his mind's eye. Tentative, earnest, struggling to make a good impression with an officer of whom she was uncertain.

"Her last words were for you and Master Skywalker," Jornik finally said. "She apologized for failing you both."

Angry, Wedge snarled back. "Who gave her the idea she was a failure?"

"Easy, Wedge." Concerned by the unreasoning rage surfacing in the young General, Jornik sought to calm him. "No one said anything of the sort to her. It's just how Dori felt before she died."

"But she lived long enough to tell us who was responsible," said Ana softly. "Because of her, we rooted out a nest of Imperial adherents."

"And a mole in Madine's department." Jornik concluded his briefing.

For the first time Wedge really looked at his new BATMAN. Heard the passionate note in her voice and saw the fierce gleam in her eyes. There was something about those tonal inflections that held his attention.

"What did you say your name is?"

"Grange, sir." She responded readily. "Lieutenant Anaflitar---"

"Flit?" Something in her voice startled that out of Wedge. He stared at her then turned to Jornik for confirmation. "It is, isn't it? She's Flit."

"I told you he was sharp, sir." Grange addressed General Jornik with a twisted smile.

"You did at that." With a short nod, Jornik confirmed Wedge's suspicions. "This is your contact. During her pursuit of Ambassador's Urkhard's aide---"

"Bornai was the traitor?"

In recalling the unctuous little man, Wedge found he was not entirely surprised. He had never liked Pietran Bornai. Had always found the man too glib. Oily was the term his grandfather would have used to describe the aide.

Lieutenant Grange nodded. "And murderer. Yes, sir."

Determined to finish this mini-brief, Jornik gave Wedge the rest of it. "Flit cornered him. Tried to take him down so we could question him."

"But he had a persona-bomb. Detonated it before I could stop him." A grim look warped her features as she remembered the incident. "I did prevent his calling and alerting his superiors, though."

"And got herself injured in the process," said Jornik.

"How badly?" Flit's limp worried Wedge.

She slapped her thigh, clearly irritated by the injury she had taken in the line of duty. "Got a replacement. Won't keep me from flying, sir, but it impairs my movements too much for me to continue on the active list with Cov-Ops in my previous capacity. Not as limber as I used to be."

"Oh." That was all Wedge could find to say.

Jornik asserted. "I thought she would be an ideal replacement to Dori."

With a glance from Jornik to Flit, Wedge considered the offer. Decided he liked it. He smiled. "Sure, why not. You seem to know a fair bit about me. Better than breaking in a complete stranger. And we can discuss that---payment I owe you."

Flit blushed and looked quickly away. The interplay intrigued Jornik, but he refrained from inquiring. Clearly this was something between the two of them from a previous encounter. Wedge continued. "By the way, I don't suppose you happen to have the access code for my rooms, do you?"

Glad to be let off the hook, at least temporarily, Flit nodded. "As a matter of fact, sir, I do."

"Then would you mind letting me into my apartment, Lieutenant?"

"Oh, of course, sir. Excuse me." Only slightly flustered, Flit pushed between the men, went to the keypad and input the necessary code with a flash of fingers. She announced, "There you are, sir. It'll recognize you now."

"Thank you." Wedge shook hands with Jornik. "And thank you, sir."

"Cut out the 'sir' bit, Wedge. It's Al," said Jornik.

"Yes, si---Al."

Amused, and aware the less formal address would take time, Jornik left. In turning to Flit, Wedge caught her lop-sided grin before it was brought under control. Not about to start their acquaintance on a sour note he chose to ignore her impudence. He released the door lock and entered his apartment.

"Join me?"

Suddenly unsure of herself, Flit slowly limped through the antechamber. She accompanied her new superior into his quarters. When he moved to the transparency, staring down into the arboretum she hovered uncertainly in the background. For a long time it seemed he had completely forgotten about her.

He glanced over his shoulder. "Hungry?"

His question made her blink. "Ah---not really, sir. I ate just a couple of hours ago. But if you need something I'll have a droid bring it up."

"That would be nice." To her great consternation, he suddenly seemed distant.

"Anything in particular, sir?"

Wedge shook his head. "No. A light snack, perhaps. We did eat on the FALCON---"

Flit cut across him without pausing to consider what she was saying. "If you call freighter rations food, sir, you've been out on assignment too long."

Her acrimony shook Wedge out of his distraction. The look he shot her over one shoulder set her mind at ease. "You've got that right. I suspect Solo's choice of supplies is governed more by what Wookiees consider edible."

"Sounds really---appetizing. I hear Wookiee tastes favour things only wampas would find palatable," Flit quipped. She turned to the domestic computer link. "This won't take long, sir."

"Thanks. Think I'll check out my messages."

"Shall I have it sent to your office?"

"Suits," replied Wedge.

Confident of her capabilities he headed toward his small den. Flit waited until he was occupied at his desk, wading through screen after screen of messages, the inevitable congratulatory notes, after-action reports and suggestions from his personnel. Satisfied that he was dealing with Dori's death, she summoned a meal from the catering service.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Heartsick, Han Solo and Chewbacca stood to one side in the night shrouded grand plaza sadly watching as two massive grav-cranes settled over their beloved MILLENNIUM FALCON. The freighter rested in a huge, steadily expanding puddle of hydraulic fluid and lubricants. Flustered custodial droids continually scooted around the vessel, vainly struggling to keep ahead of the expanding pool. They were making absolutely no in-roads into the mess. Nor would they until the freighter was removed. Chewie moaned. Gestured as the crippled ship, its dribbling hydraulics finally bound in a large shield, was hoisted into the air and borne away in the direction of the shipyards.

"Yeah, Chewie. Know what you mean. Never thought I'd see the day either when the old girl couldn't limp her own way to the repair facilities." Han felt the Wookiee's comforting hug. Gentle, as though Chewie were cradling his own child. "Let's get over there. I don't trust them to do anything right if we're not there to keep an eye on things."

Luke emerged from the palace. He caught up with them beside the air car someone had thoughtfully procured for the crew's use. The Corellian paused. "Han."

"Something wrong, kid?"

"No. Just thought you might like a bit of company, is all."

"Well, don't go mourning the departed." Han automatically retaliated, gaze unwittingly tracking his disabled vessel. "'Cause she ain't out of it yet. Not by a long shot."

"I wasn't about to suggest she was," said Luke. He rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Come on. Let's go see if we can lend a hand getting her back in running order. Besides, I forgot my cloak on board."

"Losin' your memory in your old age, kid?"

Luke snorted in the back of his throat at Han's jibe. Amused, he drawled, "Right."

They piled into the aircar. The Jedi Master pre-empted the seat at the controls before Han could slide into them. Sight of his partner's sour expression produced a low rumbling Wookiee laugh from Chewie. Eyes twinkling, Luke dared Han to complain. For once the Corellian shrugged his shoulders. Luke activated the controls. Behind them additional clean-up droids emerged from the Palace and joined those already involved in the laborious task of mopping up the huge pool of system fluid.

Under Luke Skywalker's guidance their transportation banked up and over. Soon they were keeping pace with the grav-cranes hauling the freighter across the darkening city skies to the planet-bound shipyards. All nerves, Solo voiced sotto voce instructions in a running monologue as he watched his beloved ship being lowered into a repair bay. Several technicians ducked out from the cover of an overhang to release the skyhooks. One waved off the cranes. Hooks retracted they banked away and headed back to their garage. Luke brought them around and set their vehicle down in the street outside. A huge hairy hand clapped him on the shoulder; Chewbacca commended him on an expert piece of driving.

"Not bad, kid. Almost as good as me." Han's reflection elicited a laugh from his brother-in-law. All three climbed from the car and entered the repair bay.

"Hey! What are you doing?" The senior technician broke off as he recognized the interlopers by the towering Wookiee at their back. "Sorry, General Solo. Thought it was a bunch of nosey sightseers. That ship of yours is too popular for words."

"No problem, Verj. Thought we'd give you guys a hand with the old girl."

Smiling, Senior Ships Systems Specialist Verjel Irvyn waved a hand toward the freighter. "Looks like we've got our work cut out for us this time. Just what the hell were you guys doing to tear the guts out of her like that?"

"Long story." Han dissembled quickly, redirected the technician. "Had a chance to run a diagnostic on her yet?"

"Just in the process. Come on. I was about to check out the results."

"Don't mind if we do."

They traipsed into the repair bay where they joined the senior technician at the diagnostics display screen. As the report ran up the vid-screen Han's face turned gloomier by the moment. Even Verjel shook his head in disbelief.

"I can't figure how you guys got her all the way back here in that condition, let alone set her down in one piece." He told the trio, "By rights all of you ought to be spread across hell's half-acre of space."

With a sidelong look at Luke the Corellian gave his shoulders a noncommittal hitch. "Guess you could say the Force was with us."

Verjel glanced at Han. Saw the direction his gaze had taken and nodded. "Maybe you did at that." He ran up a list of replacement parts and factored time. "I'm afraid I haven't the personnel I can designate to this job for a short fix time, General."

"Just tell me how long?" Solo growled at that observation.

"Four---five weeks." The black look on Han's face made the technician wish he could reconsider. "Three weeks just for the exterior stuff. I'm really sorry, sir. It's the best I can do. Fleet's assigned other priorities and I can't argue with them."

"Now just a minute---"

A hand rested on Han's shoulder. He broke off and looked at Luke. The Jedi Master shook his head before addressing the technician.

"Verj, at the moment we're on recall status. Can't go anywhere. We've got time on our hands, so to speak."

Well-versed with the freighter's captain since Hoth, Verjel countered the only way he dared respond. "If you're offering to help---"

Luke Skywalker's rebuttal was expected. "Do you actually think Han would let you work on the FALCON without him being there to oversee what you were doing?"

"Not likely," said Han across Verjel before the mechanic could respond.

"All right, then." Pleased with their offer, Verjel clapped his hands loudly and bellowed across the bay to his men. Once he had their attention he jerked his thumbs expressively over his shoulders. "Right. You've got the parts' list. Get moving. Haress, start with that patch-job over the port side, forward of the main junction."

"On it, Verj."

Now the mechanics were in motion Luke took a step towards the ship. He paused. "We'll start on the interior electronics. Come on, Han. I'll give you a hand checking the relays and wiring."

"What the hell do you think you know about my ship?" Despite Han's retaliatory remark he followed Luke up into freighter, Chewie at his heels. A shrill whistle echoed out of the tunnel at their backs effectively halting them in their tracks at the top of the ramp. Luke turned expectantly.

"What is it Artoo?"

The little astro-mech scooted across the repair bay floor bay, his dome rotating madly from side to side in short jerky movements. Nor did he slow until he reached the foot of the ramp. There he halted, beeping and whistling more softly now that he had Luke's attention. On his dome his primary sensor light alternated between red and blue.

"This one's all yours, kid. Come on, Chewie."

With a short snort, Han headed into the freighter. Chewie woofed and followed. That left Luke to deal with his droid. He squatted on his heels, one hand resting on Artoo's cylindrical casing.

"What is it, Artoo? Is something wrong?" Artoo whistled and bobbed up and down on his legs. "Did they remove everything?" Again Artoo responded with a whistle. "And they're sending it sunward in a drone?"

From inside the freighter, Han listened to the one-sided conversation. To his partner he commented, "I don't know how he does it but you'd think the kid actually understands droid-speak." Chewbacca growled quietly. "Yeah. You're right. After all these years I should know better."

With a small shake of his head, Solo got down on his knees and opened the hellhole. Chewie knelt next to him. Two tool kits clanked on the floor alongside the hole. Han lowered himself inside and began unfastening console fronts. Each panel removal was accompanied by a groan of agony at the mass of scorched circuits. Melted insulation and fried circuit boards met his gaze everywhere he turned.

Above, Luke appeared beside Chewie at the edge of the pit. He called down to the Corellian. "How's it going, Han?"

"Don't ask."

"Okay." Luke peered inside and grunted at the disarray on three sides of Solo. He knew better than to prod his brother-in-law at this juncture. "I'll start in the cockpit."

"Yeah. Sure." Distracted, Han Solo made no effort to cover his distress at the disaster in the hellhole. Even the Jedi Master was dismayed by the extensive damage evident to the naked eye. Not about to further disturb Han, Luke left the crew to work on it.

In the cockpit the Jedi Master began with a cursory inspection of his own deep beneath the panels. A standard diagnostic tool, augmented by his use of the Force, helped him trace one relay after another. On an electronic notepad he noted each shorted lead in the schematic readout before moving on to the next problem. Some filaments merely required his specialized delicate touch to straighten and smooth the ends to repair them. Other leads had to be physically replaced.

Dusk slid into night. Outside the ship the technicians finished their assigned tasks, stored their things and left. Only Verjel remained. Intrigued by the industry within the freighter, he stuck his head inside to check on their progress. In the lounge he discovered a begrimed Solo and a much-dishevelled Wookiee just closing up the hellhole.

"How's it going?"

Startled by the voice from the ramp, Han spun so quickly he barked his shin on the chair in front of the console. He swore then relaxed as Verjel entered the lounge. Heedless of the filth coating his hands he wiped the back of his left hand across his brow. In its wake it left a smeared steak of hydraulic fluid down the side of his temple.

"About as good as can be expected," Han said wearily in answer to Verjel's question. A loud crash resounded from the cockpit. Both men jumped and whirled. Chewbacca whined. Concerned, Solo yelled forward. "Hey. Kid. You okay up there?"

"Fine, Han."

Not about to let the incident pass, Han headed into the cockpit. On the floor alongside the nav-puter lay a loose cover-panel. From all appearances it must have slithered down the chair against which it had been leaning; the source of the noise. Why it should have fallen, however, at first proved a mystery. He examined the cockpit further. Initially Han failed to see any sign of the Jedi Master. Then he caught sight of Luke's black boots sticking out from beneath the navigation console. Scuffed boot toes twitched. Stilled. Jerked again.

"What the hell are you doing under there?"

"Replacing this junction," said Luke, his voice muffled by the confined space beneath the station.

"Let me see that."

The Corellian dropped to his knees, stretched out on his back and pushed himself up under the console. Squeezed in alongside Luke to inspect the repairs, he felt grudging approval. Even he had to admit Luke had performed a masterful job. All leads were neatly set into the junction, the joins smooth. There were no overlapping lines that Han could see. Nowhere was anything evident that could chaff during a rough passage through some world's atmosphere or during combat. Everywhere he looked was evidence of Luke's handiwork.

"Not bad, kid," he said following his examination. "Not bad at all."

"Thanks, Han."

They scooted back out from beneath the navigation console in perfect synchronicity. Side by side, they replaced the two panels Luke had removed, stowed the tools and stood. When they got to their feet facing one another Verjel was hard put not to laugh. It was like looking at a mirror reflection, although which was the original was hard to say. In spite of the disparity in height and colouring and clothes both were smudged with dust and grime. Their hair was equally mussed, snarls of tangles, fair and dark.

"Well, don't you two look wonderful," said Princess Leia from the doorway. Like her husband she wore casual dark blue slacks. A loose cream coloured shirt peaked through the open front of a waist-length jacket.

She nodded to Verjel. Taken aback by her appearance, the senior technician blushed. Tried to step back and instead caught the backs of his knees on the seat. Unable to keep his balance he sat in the chair.

"Hi, Leia." One grubby hand running through his hair, further streaking it with lubricant stains, Luke smiled at his sister. "We were just finishing up."

"You're late for supper," she informed them.

"Sorry."

"I suppose you also forgot to tell Han."

Fists jammed into her hips, Leia stared at her brother and dared him to deny it. Flushed by her criticism, Luke muttered, "Oops."

Han clapped him on the back. "Great going, kid. Guess that answers my earlier question about your memory going in your old age."

Unable to resist, Luke countered. "You know how it is, Han. The memory's great."

"Uh huh."

"Just real short." Luke's right forefinger and thumb measured a distance barely wide enough to peer through.

"You got that right."

"Oh---you two!" Exasperated, Leia waggled a finger at them. "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up."

"If you insist, your Highness."

"I do," said Leia, her tone brooking no arguments.

The same finger with which she had seconds earlier remonstrated him, now traced the dirty trail down his cheek. He playfully grabbed for it. Missed as she gracefully twisted clear and ducked behind Luke. But her brother, a mischievous light in his eyes refused to protect her. Like a teenage girl on her first date Leia fled aft, Han Solo in hot pursuit. Verjel could only watch, dumbfounded by their antics. A squeal, followed by a burst of high-pitched laughter, implied the Corellian had caught his Princess. Luke casually drifted back into the lounge, Verjel and Chewbacca in tow.

Amused with his sibling's antics, the Jedi Master leaned against the back-up nav-puter. Arms crossed over his chest, he awaited the return of Han and Leia. Husband and wife emerged from the aft cargo area several minutes later looking somewhat flustered. There was a betraying smear of hydraulic fluid on Leia's nose. A faint grin flitting across his face, Luke made a show of wiping away the smudge. Leia slapped his hand aside with a mock show of irritation. Uncomfortable, Verjel cleared his throat. Suddenly conscious of the stranger watching their every move, the Princess ducked her head and blushed.

"Guess I better get home." However unintentional, Verjel felt he was intruding. He mumbled self-consciously. "Wife's gonna wonder what's keeping me."

Four pairs of eyes watched his departure. The minute he was beyond hearing, Chewie released a roar of Wookiee laughter. Han's mouth twitched uncontrollably. Luke and Leia exchanged amused looks.

"I hate to think what he's going to tell his wife," said Leia, reflecting on how the Senate would react if news of her unseemly behaviour reached the interplanetary news nets.

"Only that Her Royal Highness, Princess Leia, is as human as everyone else," said Luke. He gave her a small hug.

"Mistress Leia? Mistress Leia. Are you there?"

Solo rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you brought Threepio with you?"

"Of course I did," said Leia.

Luke teased her. "He told you not to tell him that."

"Oh---you're incorrigible!" An unladylike sniff escaped Leia as she stomped off down the ramp, feigning irritation at being treated as something other than royalty. In light of her previous antics, the affectation lost most of its impact. She called ahead to the protocol droid. "We're coming, Threepio."

"I suppose we're going to have to go through with this." Not at all amused by the thought of a state dinner, however small, Han glared at Luke.

His friend spread his hands defensively. "Don't look at me. It wasn't my idea. You know how the Ministers are."

"Do I ever." Chewie growled a comment to which Han nodded and continued ticking off negative descriptions. "Meddling. Opinionated. Officious, interfering---"

Still grumbling derogatory descriptions under his breath, Han accompanied Luke from the freighter and out to the waiting diplomatic transportation. Entertained by his partner's comical display, Chewie trailed them.

"So," said Han as he joined Leia in the vehicle, "just how many people are going to be at this---private little function?"

"Just us," Leia said firmly.

"Us?" Han glanced around at their companions then shot a look at their chauffeur. Familiar with his auspicious passengers' penchant for verbal frolics the driver studious ignored the conversation. He awaited the Princess' order to convey them back to the Palace. "As in just the four of us?"

"That's right." With feigned astonishment at his disbelief, Leia pouted. "You don't believe me."

"It's not that I think you're lying," said Han. Then something in his wife's expression told him she was teasing him. "Very funny, your Highness!"

His rebuttal lost to Leia's sharp repartee, Han turned his attention to Luke. "By the way, Luke. Didn't you forget something?"

Only then did the Jedi Master realize he had, once again, left his article of clothing on board the MILLENNIUM FALCON. Her head tossed back, Leia laughed at her brother's bemused expression.

"Hang on," he said. Hopping out, Luke vanished into the access tunnel. Seconds later he re-appeared, cloak draped over one arm. The minute he was back in the vehicle Solo tapped the driver on the shoulder.

"Might as well get us back to the Palace, Arithel."

CHAPTER NINE

On board LASH, Aranil Ithom peered at read-outs on the secondary displays at his elbow. Quarters within the little ship were luxurious. Plenty of space allotted to senior crew, as well as the owner and such passengers as he wished to convey; up to twenty-six extraneous individuals could be accommodated, if required, plus more than adequate facilities in which to feed them. The dining lounge doubled as a recreation area between meal hours.

During this run LASH wore an Imperial contrived disguise. Extra bulges and false plates converted her otherwise recognizable lines into those of an Atrivisi diplomatic ship, proof that the one-time rebels were not the only ones versed in camouflaging techniques. If necessary, the additions could be jettisoned. It made for additional problems under weigh; weights and balances were seriously affected, requiring delicate compensation. There was also the problem of extra fuel drain with the uncustomary weight and skewed balance. But that was the crew's problem. And for this trip the Imperium had loaned Ithom specially trained personnel to replace his own people.

Up front the crew worked toward preparing the yacht for hyperspace jump. Ithom was far more concerned with the project. Unlike the mercenary pacing irritably back and forth behind him, the scientist was relaxed, keen to conclude the experiment commenced by Tir'Nngan and implemented by his co-conspirators. Fingers racing across the sensor pad, Ithom keyed through codes necessary to activating the loranni's implants.

To the communications link to the cockpit, he demanded. "How long 'til we jump?"

Unfazed by the scientist's pompous manner, the captain replied. "Coming up on system departure in ten minutes, Doctor."

"Very good. Keep me advised."

"Will do, sir."

At Ithom's elbow, someone stirred. He glanced at the mercenary. Gant was picking his fingernails with the fine point of a deactivated vibro-blade. Under other circumstances Ithom would have ignored the obvious attempt at making him uneasy. This time he could not.

"Still mad?"

The mercenary's actions ceased. Slowly looking up, Gant glared at the specialist. "Shouldn't I be?"

"How many times do I have to tell you; you were in absolutely no danger until the implants were activated."

"You can't be sure of that." Still recalcitrant, Gant argued the point. His weapon removed from proximity to his free hand, he thumbed the vibro-blade switch on and off several times in reflection of his nervousness. Its high-pitched hum reverberated about the cockpit.

Irritated by the mercenary's persistence, Ithom slammed both hands down on either side of the terminal. The co-pilot glanced back. Turned to the pilot. Both shrugged and ignored the altercation.

Ithom snapped at the guard. "Will you get it through your thick skull. The loranni were specifically bred to be passive, non-aggressive. Only the implants can trigger the primitive side of their nature. And the viruses."

"Easy to say when you aren't the one handling them," said the mercenary.

He made a show of inspecting his nails once more, then casually returned his vibro-blade to its sheath. A nasty piece of weaponry, when activated it literally vibrated its way through a victim's flesh until it exited the opposite side. Not even an encounter with bone or carapace could halt its progress. Damage to internal organs was almost always extensive. More often than not the victim failed to survive the attack.

"Suppose something had gone wrong with the implants while that damned female kept us waiting?" Testy, edgy over their prolonged stay in the system, Gant wanted an explanation.

Unable to produce a satisfactory response, Ithom fell back on the standard answer. "Well, it didn't."

In reflecting on their stay on Coruscant, Ithom had to agree with one minor facet of Gant's complaints. Even Tir'Nngan had not expected the Princess to refuse a private audience with them prior to the function. True to her nature, as outlined in reports from her imprisonment on Bespin, Princess Leia had refused to risk an unscheduled switch in timings that might have been viewed as favouritism.

"Such the little lady. Quite the head for appearances." Ithom mused. "And with a keen sense of self-importance for so diminutive a figure head."

"You gotta watch the small ones, Doc," said Gant, sour inflections implying he might be speaking from experience. "They generally make up for their lack of size one way or another."

When one considered the stories floating around the known worlds concerning Princess Leia Organa-Solo's accomplishments, the bacteriologist had to admit there was truth to Gant's warning. Particularly in light of the accessible portions of her file in the Imperial Security banks. Still, she and her cabinet were a problem soon removed.

"Doctor Ithom?"

"Yes?" Ithom started back to the present. Responded to the call from his ship's bridge.

"Sir. I suggest you get up here."

"On my way."

Pushing back from the console, Ithom hurried forward. He slid onto the seat left free for him under all but emergency situations and eagerly waited for the ship's captain to brief him. Gant trailed him as far as the hatch.

"Got a ship coming in fast. It went right through a training exercise on the perimeter."

"Is anyone making an effort to intercept it?"

"No, sir. And," the captain turned, "I think you ought to know; it's the MILLENNIUM FALCON."

"So?"

"Doctor, ground control made contact with them. Skywalker and Antilles are on board."

For the space of several heartbeats, Ithom failed to place the names. Then they clicked. "That transmission we intercepted as we were leaving Tatooine."

"Right. Antilles was at the installation."

"But---how?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Well they're too late," said Ithom flatly. "I've already activated the loranni. All they can do now is die. Along with the rest of the rebels."

From the cockpit entrance Gant spoke up. "But the boss wanted us to be certain the plague started before we leave."

"Shut up!" The pilot quelled further conversation, determined to hear the transmissions from Coruscant. "Orhen. See if you can tie in that patch link to their Operations."

As ordered, the communications officer went through the motions. He attempted to patch into first one link, then another, trying several alternate methods of tying in to Fleet. Finally he shook his head.

"No good, sir. They've gone to secure channels. Everything we get is garbled. And there's a worm in it. That's been standard Alliance procedures since Hoth. If I attempt to record any of this gibberish we're liable to lose our computer memory."

"Isolate the core and down-load what you can to our secondary back-up memory."

"But---"

"Do it!" Before Ithom could speak out, the pilot retaliated. "You may want to tell the Admiral everything went as expected, Doctor. But I want proof before I face that red-eyed beast from the Dirian Nebula."

To Gant's mind it was an apt description of Thrawn, if injudicious. There were only two systems in the Dirian Nebula. Both were only marginally habitable; their suns produced light well down the spectrum, forcing ordinary humanoids to go about outside wearing infra-red goggles even at the height of a summer's day. How anything survived on either world was a mystery to anyone but the scientific community.

It was generally known that most of the local fauna died instantly when exposed to normal sunlight. Few people visited either place. Only a scientific outpost remained all year round. Tourists and big game hunters, most on short-term visit permits, saw little of the native species except a brief glimpse of eyes picked out in a blue-light torch, red against the eternal night, plus pallid sickening green and blue patches of luminescent lichen.

"Got the secondary core locked off from all primary systems, sir," the technician hastened to advise the captain. "Picking up a lot of communications traffic out of Coruscant. Their fleet's going to full alert status."

"There. See?" Ithom glowered at Gant. "The loranni have done their jobs and the Imperium has achieved its ends. Before the week is out the New Republic's forces will be decimated, their Princess and leaders, including Skywalker, dead or too sick to resist. And no way any of them will dare attempt to leave Coruscant. Glorious. Absolutely glorious!"

Determined to wait for further feedback from communications, the captain ignored the chortling scientist. Too often in the past he had seen obvious triumphs turn to dust. Suddenly the co-pilot caught his eye.

        "Sir.  I'm picking up a sensor sweep aimed toward this sector."
        "Damn.

        Ithom leaned toward the crew.  "What's wrong?"

        "They might all be on the verge of dying down there," said the captain.  "But their fleet isn't about to let us escape unscathed."

        "Isn't there a debris field out here?"

        Much as he disliked being told his job, the captain considered Ithom's inquiry.  He inspected his navigation information and discovered the scientist was correct.

"Thank you, Doctor, yes. There is."

"Then take us into it. Match speed with the largest piece you can find and hold us there until we get the word that the infection's started spreading." Unaware he was irritating the crew, Ithom instructed as he would a subordinate.

"I still don't see how they could---" began Gant. A sudden thought nibbled at the mercenary. He leaned over the communications technician's shoulder. "Can you pull up files on Antilles and Skywalker?"

Intrigued, the communications technician nodded. "Sure. Why?"

"Just curious."

Since there was always a chance the mercenary was onto something, the tech rerouted a portion of LASH's memory and applied it to securing the required information. Before long he had what Gant wanted. As the images appeared, side by side, on the screen, the mercenary swore.

"Nova take that slimy little excuse for a Huttese parasite!"

"Now what?" Ithom pivoted on his seat to stare at Gant.

The mercenary banged a fingertip against the vid-screen and its damning visual. "No wonder that bastard Dorik got the better of me."

"What are you babbling about, Gant?"

"You wouldn't. None of us realized it, not even Nngan. He had a mole in his organization."

"Impossible. How is that possible?"

"The mole got in because that idiot Nngan put him there himself."

"Impossible. He always screens everyone with the same meticulous care the Imperials use."

"Maybe. But he wasn't expecting a damn spy to walk right into our midst. Certainly not one with Republic Covert Operations training."

"What are you talking about?"

"Dorik, that's who."

"What about Dorik?"

"Dorik, as he called himself, is Antilles. See for yourself."

Stepping aside, Gant gave Ithom an uninhibited view of the screen. On a split-screen image were two individuals. To the right was the man they knew as Dorik, scruffy beard blurring his jaw line, on the left, a clean-shaven Wedge Antilles. Above angular cheekbones and narrow chin, serious steel grey eyes stared back at them, almost as though he were really scrutinizing them at that moment. Unable to control himself, Ithom shuddered. Gant manipulated controls until the computer had erased all the differences between Dorik and Antilles.

"Disconnect that link," their captain abruptly ordered, "before they get a line on where the transmission's going."

"Too late, sir." The co-pilot pointed to their sensor display. "Just picked up two A-Wings headed out this way."

"That does it. We're out of here," said the Captain, his tone brooking no argument.

Still Ithom refused to acknowledge defeat. "You can't!"

"Can't?" The Imperial officer snarled back. "We can. And are. Now stay out of our way, Doctor. This ship will make its rendezvous with the fleet. Admiral Thrawn's orders."

Ithom countered. "This isn't Thrawn's ship."

"But we are under his orders, Doctor. Now, stay out of the way."

When Ithom appeared on the verge of attempting to physically countermand those instructions, Gant grabbed him and hauled him from the cockpit. Furious, the scientist jerked free. He staggered several paces across the passage before fetching up against a wall. There he steadied himself. Scowled at the mercenary. But Gant spoke before Ithom could say a word.

"Have you lost your mind?" Gant hissed at the scientist, his gaze sliding in the direction of the cockpit and back to Ithom. "Fighting with Imperials---what's going on in your head, Doc?"

"This is my ship."

"Yeah, maybe. But they're at the controls. And I, for one, am not about to find myself confined to my cabin for the duration. Or risk being sent off to one of their work camps."

"They wouldn't dare."

"Don't bet on it."

After making certain Ithom was not about to return to the cockpit and further attempt to impede the crew in the performance of their duties, Gant headed aft. Just as he reached the lounge a stomach-wrenching sensation swept over him. They were into hyperspace and safely beyond the clutches of the New Republic.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Spread out like baleful eyes across the black of space, the stars watched; disinterested observers to the movements and intrusions by the galaxy's sentient inhabitants. From the observation deck of the frigate's bridge, Captain Winn Boralle remained motionless. Hands behind his back in classic military fashion, he surveyed the scene outside RUTHLESS.

TIE fighters crisscrossed the frigate's path. Swept to his left, between RUTHLESS and her solitary escort, the star destroyer TORMENTOR. Boralle remained where he was, his mood bordering on morose. Off their starboard bow starlight seemed to bend and twist. A second star destroyer dropped from hyperspace and slowed its approach.

"Lieutenant Graszer."

Without turning, Boralle summoned his Second-in-Command to his side. Graszer left his position alongside the communications console. He halted a respectful distance from his Commanding Officer.

"Meet Lieutenant Quirtelle's shuttle, Filyp, and check on the transport. See that the prisoners are properly incarcerated one per cell. When you're done, locate Lieutenant Rynkon. You will monitor while he interrogates the prisoners. Sign out a droid. I want everything these rim-worlders know concerning what happened on that gods-forsaken backwater."

"Yes, sir."

Anger vented, Boralle refocused the direction in which his orders had been taking, much to his Second's relief. "Have arrangements been made for proper honours to be paid when they bring Captain Niant's coffin on board?"

"They have, sir. The Sergeant-at-Arms should have the appropriate Honour Guard standing by."

"Very good." Swinging about, Captain Boralle eyed his Lieutenant. Although very close in age, rank discrepancy made Boralle look and feel older. "Ensure all respect is shown when they bring out the casket. Wouldn't want Admiral Thrawn hearing we've been remiss in our duties.

"No, sir."

"And send Quirtelle to see me."

"Yes, sir."

"Dismissed, Lieutenant."

However frustrated Boralle might become during operations, for whatever reason, he continued to restrain his temper. This time he and his staff knew he had come perilously close to overstepping that margin. He forced a slight smile, setting the Lieutenant's mind at rest. Graszer came to attention, held the position for a count of three, spun and hurried from the bridge.

'He's a good man.' Boralle reflected on his Second-in-Command. 'Bright. Well suited to command. He would do well with a ship of his own.'

Three turbo-shafts serviced the bridge for the use of duty personnel. On prior instructions Graszer used the security lift to the rear of the bridge. Time being of the essence, the Lieutenant set the controls for the hangar level and locked off all stops in between. It whisked him down, obediently bypassing the other decks. At the bottom Graszer quickly made his way to the nearest hangar bay door, intent upon meeting the two transports from SPITEFUL. He arrived just as the shields went up around the bay.

A shuttle and a smaller, box-shaped, all-purpose transport rested on the floor. As yet there was no movement on board the transport. Tradition would be served first.

'Which is as it should be,' reflected Lieutenant Graszer. He made his way into position at the head of the Honour Guard. Came to attention, eyes locked on the shuttle.

Stabilizers folded against its topsail, concealing the bright blue Imperial insignia, the shuttle took up very little horizontal space. Fifteen strong, the Honour Guard faced the shuttle, their weapons at 'order arms': regulation numbers when bringing aboard a deceased officer above the rank of Lieutenant. Graszer's arrival brought their strength to sixteen, signifying death through combat.

The nose ramp yawned open, releasing its passengers. The Honour Guard snapped to attention. Pivoted as one to form an aisle on which they faced in two ranks. Niant's coffin descended the ramp suspended on two small grav plates. Two to a side, four of the five remaining junior officers from SPITEFUL escorted the container. Behind the coffin walked the star destroyer's new Commanding Officer.

Lieutenant Graszer saluted the coffin. Stepped aside to let it pass, his eyes fixed on a space just above the casket. Acting Captain Pietar Quirtelle halted in front of Graszer. The Lieutenant dropped his gaze to meet the new Captain's eye and saluted again. Quirtelle returned the salute uneasily. They faced each other, not speaking until the casket had left the hangar. Uncertain what to do the Sergeant-at-Arms kept his men at attention, waiting until they received some sort of sign from RUTHLESS' Second-in-Command.

"How are you, Filyp?"

"Well, sir."

They were the same age. Graduates of the same Academy class. But a gulf had opened between them in the past week, placing each firmly on opposite sides. For the time being nothing would alter that fact. Quirtelle jerked his head toward the ceiling.

"What's his mood like?"

"Not good." Quirtelle's nervousness increased at that statement. Graszer hastened to reassure him. "It's not you, sir. There was---an incident yesterday. It's got him running on edge."

"Can't be pleasant for the rest of you."

"He's not like that. He doesn't take it out on us---like some we could both name."

"So I've heard." Evidently Quirtelle did not entirely believe his companion. A whistle piped over the ship's intercom.

"Captain Quirtelle. Report to the bridge. Captain Quirtelle to the bridge."

"Guess I better go."

"Yes, sir."

"Well, then. Carry on, Lieutenant."

"Sir."

The minute Quirtelle left the hangar, the Honour Guard stood down and departed. Two stormtroopers appeared almost magically at Graszer's elbow. Ignoring them, he marched across the bay to where the transport still waited. Behind them a crane hummed into life. It moved into position overhead. Clamps descended and locked on to the shuttle, lifting the vessel off the floor. Guided from a gantry room, the crane conveyed the shuttle to one side. There it was set into an appropriate storage slot along one wall.

As Graszer and his escort reached the transport the hatch opened. In the craft's side a ramp extended to the floor. Above it the hatch opened. Two stormtroopers jogged down the ramp. They took up positions on either side at the bottom. Another pair of troopers descended the ramp just ahead of three prisoners.

Their reluctant guests were an unimpressive trio; torn and rumbled clothing suitable to life on a desert planet was out of place on board the frigate. Binders secured the wrists of all three. In addition, binder rods pinned the men's biceps against their sides from behind. The heftier of the males appeared dazed by their experience, the woman at his side, confused. Equally bewildered but angry, the younger man moved more slowly than did his companions. Contusions about this prisoner's face led Graszer to believe he had made a serious effort to elude capture. He breathed cautiously. Controlled his movements. All actions were indicative of someone who was suffering from either a severely bruised abdomen, or had fractured or broken ribs. Three more stormtroopers came down the ramp, the last halting in front of Lieutenant Graszer. They exchanged salutes.

"This it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Unimpressive lot," said Graszer, contemptuous of anyone who broke Imperial law. "Escort them to the detention level, Sergeant-At-Arms."

"Sir."

The sergeant rejoined and directed the escort across the hanger. They urged their prisoners toward the large, primary iris lock which opened. Lieutenant Graszer brought up the rear. Interest concealed, he monitored the manner in which the troopers bullied their captives onward. Their direction led forward, along the frigate's spine. Eventually they entered the bow section and took a cargo elevator down to the detention level.

Here there were only sixteen cells, eight to a side along a narrow catwalk. Dark grey walls sloped sharply in from a low ceiling to the raised floor. In the exterior alcove a duty corporal glanced up. His upper lip curled slightly at the sight of the rim-worlders. Sight of the Second, however, caused the Corporal to hurriedly cover his unprofessional actions. He reviewed the information on the terminal before him.

"Put them in A-three, A-seven and B-four," he said.

While the guards pushed their now stumbling prisoners toward the designated cells, Graszer went to the console. Once he had opened the appropriate file he stepped aside and allowed the visiting Sergeant to download all pertinent information on the prisoners brought from Tatooine. Several minutes passed. The Sergeant stepped back, data chip in hand.

"That's it, sir."

"Very good, Sergeant. Dismiss your men. See they get a meal before you return to SPITEFUL," said Graszer.

"Thank you, sir."

The troopers returned from depositing their captives and the Sergeant led them away. In obedience to the last of his orders, Graszer headed for Security. Waett Rynkon glanced up as he entered the office. RUTHLESS' Second refused to give his principal rival the opportunity to question him.

"The Captain wants you to question the prisoners brought on board from SPITEFUL."

"They're here?"

"Of course."

"Why wasn't I informed?"

"At Captain Boralle's orders I have just told you they are now on board. You're to use an interrogation droid. I will monitor your progress and record all information gathered throughout."

"Isn't that a little beyond your tender stomach, Graszer?"

Expression carefully neutral, Graszer stared at the Security Officer. "Lieutenant Rynkon. If you have observations to make concerning your assignment you may do so. Otherwise you will confine your comments to pertinent matters. Now are you coming?"

Not bothering to await Rynkon's response, Graszer left the office. He stopped off at the Security Supply Outlet and signed out an interrogation droid. By the time Rynkon caught up with him, Lieutenant Graszer was already en route back to the cellblock, the droid trailing him two paces behind his left shoulder. An unnerving prospect at best but Graszer refused to allow Rynkon the pleasure, to let him witness his discomfort at the droid's proximity.

Back in the detention alcove, they perused the files from Mos Eisley. True to Rynkon's nature, he initially selected the woman. Graszer immediately over-ruled him.

"This one, I think." He pointed. "Ethan Krayl. The one they call Fixer."

Rynkon eyed his companion sourly. "Why him? Why not the woman?"

"According to what little we have from the Detachment Commander on Tatooine," Graszer addressed the Security Officer in much the same tone he might apply to a truant child, "this---Fixer, had very little contact with the escapees. On the other hand, he's married to the woman. By questioning him first we ought to appreciably break down her resistance."

Disgusted, Rynkon sniffed. "Oh. Have it your way. Which cell is he in?"

"A-four."

CHAPTER TEN

Although the binders were removed at the time of incarceration Deak continued to experience the pinch of metal around wrists and arms. The sensation might be purely psychosomatic but it felt no less real. Deak repeatedly rubbed his flesh, struggling to eradicate the impression. With every passing minute he prayed he would wake and discover it was only a nightmare.

But the nightmare continued and he was inexorably trapped in it. He thrust to his feet to pace the confines of the room; five strides across, six from the shelf-like bunk with its hard pad to the foot of the two steps up to the door. Directly in contrast to the low ceiling in the corridor outside the cell ceiling vanished above glaring light bars.

On board the star destroyer the lights had remained on throughout the trip. He had slept twice, but woke feeling doubly weary. Here circumstances were no different. There was no denying he was as confused as his companions at the miscarriage of justice that had landed them in their present predicament. Unlike Fixer, though Deak felt no resentment toward Luke nor blamed him. He was just glad Windy had escaped.

Outside his cell there came a loud clatter of footsteps of stormtrooper boots on metal. The rhythmic clanging echoed through the area in accompaniment with something else, something sinister. Beneath the sound of precision footfalls was the angry hum of machinery, like the buzzing of infuriated desert sand flies when their nest was disturbed. Deak peered through the grill but was unable to discern anything. Not surprising considering he was at the top end of the line, in one of the last two cells. Metal buttresses flanked each cell door, further blocking his view of the narrow aisle.

Although unable to see anything, he could still hear the muffled murmur of voices. A cell door swished open. By holding his breath Deak was just able to pick out Fixer responding to questions. Then the annoying throbbing hum picked up.

Someone cried out in protest. There followed an indeterminate pause. Voices droned on, instructing, demanding. Questions, and still more questions. A cry of pain pierced the air. Somewhere up the row Camie called out Fixer's name. No one responded. But the cries, certainly belonging to Fixer, escalated. All too quickly they turned to screams of raw agony. Sweat started out all over Deak's body. His heart rate accelerated in direct proportion to the shrieks.

Most terrifying of all was the manner in which the sounds modulated from one extreme to the next. One minute, pain resounded through the cellblock. Abruptly they altered to those of someone in the throes of unimaginable ecstasy. It was at once incredible, inexplicable and nerve-wracking.

When those cries ended Deak could not tell. By that time he was back on the bunk, pressed into one corner, knees drawn up, his fingers stuffed in his ears. He stared in stark terror at the featureless door, unable to halt the tremors shaking his body. Never, in all his life, had he ever envisioned being reduced to such a state by helpless, nerve-searing screams.

Emotionally drained, he expected the appearance of their tormentors at any moment. But nothing happened. The door remained closed. Still he waited, fearful and expectant. Until the cycle of cries of protest, the screams of agony and horror began again.

This time it was undeniably Camie being assailed by the zauthorities. Numb with disbelief, Deak returned to the door. Coarse laughter echoed along the companionway. Goaded by what the sounds implied, Deak gripped the bars. Face pressed against his hands he yelled obscenities at the Imperials through the grill.

"What are you doing to her?" There was no immediately response. Desperate, he tired again. "Camie?" Screams rose to an unbelievable pitch. "You bastards. Leave her alone. Camie!"

A shadow fell across his cell door. Something hard crashed against his knuckles. Deak stumbled back, sucking blood from split skin. When he glanced up, stark white battle armour filled the view on the other side of the door.

"What are they doing to her?"

Only the slight shift of the trooper's body indicated the other had heard the question. More shrieks rent the air. Impotent to help his friends, Deak collapsed on the bunk. Knees drawn up to his chin, he wrapped his arms around them and settled his forehead against his knees. He stuffed his fingers back in his ears in a desperate attempt to shut out the noises but his efforts were only marginally successful. Senses battered by the unimaginable, Deak lost all track of time.

Eventually the door to his cell swished open. He jumped. Heart pounding, Deak leapt from his bunk and stood, staring at the two men at the top of the steps. Both were junior officers, tall and lean, sporting short cut brown hair. But where the brown eyes of one were relatively warm, if determined, the other showed absolutely no emotion whatsoever. A chill shook Deak. The first officer consulted the notepad in his left hand.

"Now, Mister Dennig." Cold, uninflected words dropped into the stillness of the cell. "We will discuss just what it is you know."

"I don't understand." Deak stuttered before a modicum of courage seeped back. "Why did you arrest us? We haven't done anything."

"No? Amazing how the guilty always profess innocence." Unimpressed by Deak's objections, the officer countered. "Lieutenant Rynkon, read the charges."

"The accused did provide shelter and food to known enemies of the Imperium." Astounded, Deak listened as each item dropped like rocks to the floor of the cell. "They aided and abetted those same enemies of the Imperium to flee capture---"

Part of Deak switched off. The voice in his head whispered a triumphant litany. 'They made it. They got away.'

Unaware that he had fuelled rebellion and instilled determination into his prisoner, the officer ground on with his attack. "So, Mister Dennig. What do you have to say to these charges?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't pretend ignorance with us, Dennig." The first officer was fast losing patience.

"I had nothing to do with any enemy of the Imperium."

"What about the two individuals who spent the night with your friends?"

"I never saw them."

"I scarcely believe that, Mister Dennig. We know from statements extracted from your friends that you are well acquainted with the self-styled Jedi, Luke Skywalker."

A scornful snort escaped Deak. "Luke's no Jedi."

It slipped out and Deak instantly regretted it. Rynkon stepped closer. "So you admit you know him?"

"Knew him. Past tense," said Deak with far more daring than he thought he could possess at this stage. "Last time I saw him was years ago. Right before his guardians were killed and their farm burned out---by stormtroopers."

"But you don't deny you were driving a speeder registered to Doctor Tir'Nngan?"

In light of the testimonies they must have already obtained under duress Deak dared not deny it. Did not bother trying. "That's what they told us when we were picked up in Mos Eisley."

"Explain where you got the speeder, Mister Dennig."

"We---Fixer and I---found it. We were driving back to Anchorhead, to Fixer's place after a sandstorm and came across this broken-down speeder. At first we thought some dumb tourists had ignored the weather warnings. Driven out from the port before the storm and, when their speeder quit, wandered off. Got lost or something. Fixer went home to put together supplies. I went over to Tosche Station to start organizing a search party. Standard procedure."

Deak paused, realized he had the Imperials' undivided attention. It was useless holding back any of it. He told them the rest.

"When I reached Fixer's garage, he and Camie were having a real knock-down drag-out fight. Finally Fixer stormed out. Camie insisted on helping me fix up the choked speeder. That's when she told me about Luke turning up sick, with some other guy. I didn't catch the name."

"Antilles."

Deak shook his head. "Maybe. I honestly didn't pay much attention. When I first caught up with Fixer he told me we wouldn't need the rescue gear. I returned it to the station. That's when I got to thinking. There was that perfectly good speeder sitting out there. If I got to it before the jawas, fixed it up and took it into Mos Eisley, I could probably sell it. And Camie went with me to help, like I said before."

"Didn't you consider that dishonest, Dennig?"

His shoulders shrugging, Deak deferred the point. "I thought they owned it. Found out later they didn't."

"Why was the woman---Camie---with you when you were brought in?"

"How may times---" Deak broke off in the face of the expressions on the officers' faces. "Look, I've already told you; she and Fixer had a bad fight. She didn't want to hang around the garage while he cooled off so she went out with me. Fixer's like that. Blows hot. Blows cold. Give him a bit of time by himself he cools off real fast. Remind him what started the fight in the first place and he'll hold a grudge 'til Tatoo One and Two turn to cinders."

"Go on."

"When I went out to work on the speeder, she helped out. Made it easier---and quicker. Meant I could take a speeder out there with the tools instead of having to hike it."

"Why didn't you return to station?"

"Because we saw some of your bully boys roughing up Fixer and dragging him away, okay?" A lie, and he prayed their monitors would not pick up on that. Enough innocent people had suffered for a one-night visit by a childhood friend.

"So you made a run for it."

"That's right. What the hell else were we gonna do? We couldn't understand why you were raiding the station. We were scared."

"And when the garrison arrested you in Mos Eisley, you attempted to escape."

Speechless, Deak stared at his inquisitors. The question was redundant since they already had the answer. But Rynkon refused to let him off that easily.

"Did you or did you not resist arrest in Mos Eisley, Dennig?"

"Yeah. I guess I did. But your guys started roughing up Camie."

"Add 'Resisting Arrest' to the other charges," said the unknown officer to his companion.

"Hey! Wait a minute!"

"It's already logged," said Rynkon and passed the data pad to the other officer.

Satisfied, Rynkon redirected himself to Deak. He advanced a step towards Deak. "Now, shall we go over your story again?"

Incredible as it seemed, even to Deak, he lost his temper. "What's wrong with you people? Don't you know the truth when you hear it? What else do you want from us?"

"The truth," said Rynkon unimpressed by the display of indignation, "is relative. We have your truth, now I want what really happened."

"I've told you the truth." Terrified by their blatant refusal to accept his words at face value, Deak yelled back at his accusers.

"So you say." Rynkon exchanged meaningful glances with his companion. Insisted upon a replay of what was just past. "Tell me again what happened at Anchorhead."

"This is just plain stupid. I've had enough." Arms folded across his chest, Deak sat on the edge of the bunk. Somehow he discovered the courage to stare Rynkon in the eyes. "You've got my statement. Why don't you just leave us alone? Send us home."

"I still have a few questions to ask, Dennig."

"Well I've got nothing left to say to you," said Deak.

"Very well."

In the face of Deak's stubborn refusal to cooperate further, Rynkon appeared pleased. He turned and wordlessly gestured to someone outside. A technician entered, stepped aside quickly to clear a path for something else. That irritating throbbing sound approached. Before Deak's incredulous gaze a droid appeared. Cylindrical in shape, mounted and propelled by a self-contained repulsor unit, the orb was perhaps twice as large as Deak's head. It floated into the room, its black surface glistening in cell's garish lighting and he lurched to his feet. Images of its surroundings were reflected back, distorted and menacing. As the globe approached, it buzzed incessantly. Several devices, including a syringe emerged from its equatorial regions. This, then, was what he hd heard earlier.

Terrified, Deak recoiled in spite of himself. The backs of his legs connected with the bench and he sat, pressed against the wall. At some unseen signal the droid halted, hovering just out of arm's reach. Two stormtroopers stepped into the cell behind it. A nasty smile glittering in the depths of his eyes, Rynkon watched expectantly as the troopers passed him.

"Now, Mister Dennig. We will have the truth." Rynkon crooned expectantly, evidently relishing what was about to come. His voice hardened. "Hold him."

Before Deak could so much as twitch the stormtroopers pinned him against the wall. Hypodermic needle extended, the droid advanced on him, filling his vision. Senses reeling, Deak struggled to find his voice. To cry out against the obscenity as it closed in. He was barely aware of the needle entering his flesh.

At first nothing happened. Their assigned task completed, the troopers released their hold on him and withdrew from the cell. The door came down behind them. Across the room the technician keyed his notepad. To his left Rynkon watched their prisoner for signs that the injection was taking effect. Strangely, the other officer appeared uncomfortable. Strained. As though he would rather have been somewhere else than in this cell overseeing the interrogation.

Breathless with expectation Deak waited. There was no escape. He could only endure. A flush washed over him. Heat raced through his veins, spread out along his extremities and wound around his internal organs. Light flared behind his eyes. Flashed vibrant colours across his brain.

His inquisitors continued to watch and wait while the droid went to work. Its functions became patently clear with all too frightening clarity. The drug, or it might have been a combination of drugs, attacked Deak's cerebral cortex, invading those centres responsible for memorizing and reacting to various outside stimuli.

Pain; piercing, nerve-rending, inescapable agony clawed its way through his brain. Flared out along his limbs. For all his best resolve not to give them the satisfaction of hearing him cry out, a scream burst past Deak's resisting lips. Shrieks continued to emerge, ranging up and down the scale, raking his throat raw. Again and again his body arched in response to the droid's expert invasion of his neural pathways.

Just when he was certain his brain would explode the pain vanished. Was replaced by a curious sensation that seemed wholly out of place. With growing horror, Deak realized his body now writhed to other, erotic suggestions. He vomited.

Throughout it all, his jailers watched and waited silently. By studying his reactions they worked out the best sequence within which to apply their skills. Then they set to work with earnest. Wracked by a repeated rotation of assaults by the interrogation droid, Deak found he was incapable of withholding answers to any question.

Finally his senses were pushed beyond endurance and he collapsed. As the suddenly unconscious form slithered to the floor with a muffled thud, Rynkon sighed. The technician withdrew the droid and waited patiently for instructions.

"You might as well return it to Stores," the Security Officer said. "We're not going to get anything more out of this one."

With a nod, still silent, the technician directed the droid to close down its functions. Under his guidance it accompanied him from the room. In the wake of their departure, Graszer swallowed. He switched off the notepad on which was recorded all three sessions. The Security Officer turned. Too late, Graszer brought his emotions under control. At the sight of the Second's unguarded expression, Rynkon made no effort to hide his disdain.

"Something wrong, Graszer?"

Lieutenant Graszer carefully schooled his features. He looked up, met and held Rynkon's eyes. Not quite trusting himself to speak, he opted for the opposite reaction; refused to say anything that might indulge his sadistic companion's desire for gratification. Annoyed by Graszer's failure to rise to the veiled taunt, Rynkon went to the prisoner. With his left toe he lifted the limp form several inches off the floor. Allowed it to slump back.

"Too bad. I was hoping we might discover something enlightening." Lips pursed, he reflected on what they had learned.

"As borne out by the Detachment Commander's report from Tatooine," Graszer said levelly, "the woman appears to have spent more time in the rebels' company than her companions did."

"Pity."

In unspoken accord they left the cell and stepped up onto the companionway. With the cell door still open, Grazer reviewed his own set of notes. Rynkon was decidedly dissatisfied with the results of the sessions. If nothing else, the Security Officer was ideally suited for his position. Cruel and sadistic, he was given to experimenting. Which was why Graszer preferred to spend as little time as possible in his company. The guard on duty outside the cell released the door. It came down with a clang.

"The Captain will want to see our report right away," Graszer said to Rynkon. "I'll take it up."

"Hmmm."

Only a noncommittal grunt emerged from the Security Officer. Graszer squashed a desire to flee. He refused to permit Rynkon's behaviour to affect him. When the Security Officer continued inspecting their victim through the small grill, something inside Graszer snapped.

He barked at the stormtrooper. "Get this mess cleaned up."

That received Rynkon's complete attention. Satisfied he had regained some of his own self-respect Graszer headed for the reception area. Somehow he kept his stride down to its usual pace. And yet, he sensed Rynkon read his retreat for what it was. Read it on the Security Officer's face as he turned to face the lift door as it closed between them.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Relieved to be out of the detention block, away from Rynkon and his unconscionable sadism, Graszer used the privacy of the turbo-lift to recover his composure. He drew several deep breaths, clearing his lungs of the fetid cell air. But nothing seemed to alleviate the queasiness in the pit of his stomach. Two-thirds of the way to the bridge he halted the lift and leaned his forehead against the cool metal wall. Questioning under drug coercion was vicious enough. Rape was uncalled for. Yet there were those like Rynkon who persisted in that particular vein, insisting physical intimidation provided far better results. In Graszer's eyes it was simply a means to an end: self-gratification.

He had signed on in Imperial service because, as an adolescent, he had seen only the glamour of the military. The flash of the uniform was a strong draw to many youngsters who might otherwise have been trapped in a life of drudgery. So it was with him. Born to human parents on Ryloth, he was orphaned at six by a plague that had decimated a serious percentage of off-world inhabitants. In response to desperate and repeated calls for assistance from their garrison, an investigating Imperial star destroyer discovered utter chaos. Few non-locals survived and most of the survivors proved to be their offspring, principally those under fifteen.

Astonished by the results of the infection, the Whippids were uncertain exactly how to respond to the multitude of crippled and bewildered survivors. For the natives the virus was merely an irritant on a par with the common cold. That it should have attacked off-worlders so ferociously and with such devastating results was unbelievable. In its wake the virus left hundreds of orphans, Graszer among them. Only one option for dealing with the situation appeared open to him. The ship's commander placed the survivors in quarantine on board his vessel and took them to an Imperial research facility. With a viable antigen pool on hand Imperial scientists soon developed a vaccine and distributed it Empire-wide.

Efforts were then made to locate relatives of the children. Many had none. The less fortunate were placed in a creche-school where they were raised and trained by the regime into obedient servants. For Graszer, those were relatively happy years. This was not to say he did not miss his family. He did. Yet his tutors challenged him as no other instructors had. He proved himself time and again, always placing within the top four of his class. When a recruiting officer arrived in his second to last year of adolescent studies Graszer jumped at the opportunity to enrol in the Academy.

He had not signed on for this, though. Had never expected to have to torture human civilians to obtain information. Intimidation employed against members of opposing, rebellious factions he could understand, even accept to a degree. But what had just taken place in the detention block went beyond all reason.

Left hand balled into a fist, Graszer pounded it against the elevator wall several times. Pain helped drive the horrific scenes into the recesses of his mind. It would be a serious error to face his Commanding Officer in his present condition. Certain he had regained his self-control he released the lift and completed the journey to the bridge. He glanced guiltily at his chronometer. A full five minutes had passed since he had left the detention area. The Captain would not be amused. Obviously Rynkon had already advised him of his departure. Captain Boralle glanced around as his Second-in-Command emerged from the turbo-shaft.

"Well?"

Graszer proffered the notepad. "We've interrogated all three prisoners, sir. They know little, if anything concerning the rebels except for rumours and second-hand stories. Only the woman actually had any prolonged contact with the two fugitives and, at that, mostly with Antilles. It seems Skywalker was suffering the effects of a lorean sting and only regained consciousness the morning he and Antilles left Anchorhead."

"I see."

Briefed by Quirtelle on Tir'Nngan's project, the Captain was intrigued that the Jedi Master had not only encountered one of Nngan's test subjects, but had survived. While his Second waited, Boralle scrutinized the visual printout of the examination. He reread the woman's statement twice in the hopes that there might be something viable between the lines. It was, as Graszer had warned him, meagre fare at best. Not at all what he had hoped. Most of what the rim-worlders knew concerning Skywalker was years old, pre-Yavin Four, and not worth the memory in which it was stored.

"Let's speculate for a moment, Graszer." Boralle caught the Lieutenant's eye and held it. "How much value do you suppose the Jedi places on his friendship with these three?"

His Second-in-Command answered readily. "Very little, sir. Otherwise he would have taken them with him when he left. He took one. A woman. Winolder, I believe, cousin to the one they call Deak."

"Fair enough. As bargaining chips they're worthless. So." Rocking on the balls of his feet, Boralle considered the revelation. "Perhaps we should try an alternate method. Something I learned during my post-Academy tenure on Calamar."

Wary, Graszer watched his Commanding Officer for any hint of emotion that might reveal what exactly lay behind his comments. Instead, Boralle went to the communications console.

"First things first. Pipe the ship. There will be a memorial service in the officers' mess in two hours. All senior off-duty, as well as all non-essential personnel, will attend."

"Sir."

"And have Lieutenant Rynkon report to me immediately with his prisoners at port airlock three on the detention level."

Shocked by what his superior's implied next course of action would entail, Graszer protested. "Sir. Is that really necessary? I don't mean to tell you your duty---"

"Of course you don't," returned Boralle, his voice dangerously low.

Ignoring the warning note, Graszer continued. "They're just ignorant rim-worlders, sir; mechanics and moisture farmers. Unconcerned with what's going on around them except where their next credit's coming from."

"You really think so?"

"Yes, sir."

"Surprising to hear you say that." Boralle's thinly veiled reference to his Lieutenant's dubious background caused Graszer to snap his mouth shut. "I'll thank you not instruct me in procedure, Lieutenant."

Stiffly correct in the face of that dressing down, Graszer responded, "Yes, sir."

One finger crooking at his Lieutenant, his Commanding Officer drew him across the bridge to his side. "It will pay you to keep in mind that Skywalker was also, according to these three, an ignorant little rim-worlder. Consider the damage he's wreaked thus far."

His own words thrown back in his face, Graszer swallowed nervously. Back poker-straight, he kept his hands clenched at his sides, thumbs pressed against the side seam of his trousers in best military posture. This was a side of the Captain he had heard rumours about, but never quite countenanced. Now it was revealed, in the open. And he did not like it. Found it difficult to stomach having his personal impressions of his Commanding Officer shattered so rudely.

"Now then. Since you're so obviously squeamish, you may remain on the bridge. Take over, Lieutenant. We shall discuss this later. After the memorial service."

"Sir!"

Captain Boralle departed the bridge. The ride to the detention level afforded him plenty of time to review matters pertaining to the prisoners. But his thoughts did not revolve around them. Rather, they concerned his Second-in-Command. In retrospect he supposed he ought to excuse Graszer's momentary lapse. After all, he had been raised among non-humans on a rim world.

"Perhaps I was wrong to promote him." He considered that possibility aloud in the privacy of the lift.

Numerous research projects over generations confirmed that the formative years, from birth to twelve in humans, were most decisive in setting mental orientation in individuals. Despite his time at the creche school and passage through the Academy, Graszer would continue to revert to form on occasion. The only question plaguing Boralle was whether or not this would prove detrimental to the struggling Imperium. A matter that required definite consideration when time permitted.

In the frigate cellblock there was no easing back to consciousness. Awareness exploded across Deak's brain. It flared on pain-raw synapses and jarred through a body that ached even when he breathed. Deak peeled open his eyes. Instinct made him flinch from the white booted feet he discovered immediately in front of his face. Very slowly he stared up at the blank, emotionless helmets of the stormtroopers towering over him.

"On your feet."

The snap of command was a lash laid across ragged emotions. Although certain he was numbed to insensitivity, Deak found himself struggling to obey the order. He tried to rise. Somewhere he found the will to lever himself upright and finally stood, swaying precariously, until iron hands clamped down on his forearms. Binders were roughly affixed, pinioning him in the same condition he had arrived from Tatooine.

"Bring him."

Deak easily identified that voice as belonging to the degenerate officer who had taken such fiendish delight in observing the degradation inflicted on his prisoners. An uncontrollable shudder of revulsion clenched Deak's spine. Stormtroopers drove him up the cell steps with repeated blows from their blaster butts, heedless of the additional damage they inflicted on his already ravaged flesh. If nothing else, walking removed much of the stiffness from his muscles. By the time he reached the companionway his head was throbbing but the dizziness was gone.

Outside he discovered Camie and Fixer also in the narrow aisle between the detention cells. Fixer appeared numb, unable to comprehend what was transpiring. He moved when ordered with all the perceptions of an automaton. Even a droid displayed more emotion. Dark circles shadowed Camie's haunted eyes. She cringed from the men surrounding her, evidence that she had been brutally assaulted. If he felt dirty, violated, Deak could only imagine what it was like for her. Rage flooded him, driving out fear for his own life.

"Are you all right?" He asked that even though he knew she was not.

Incredibly, Camie managed a stiff nod. "I'll be okay. Why are they doing this, Deak? What do they want from us?"

"They think we know something about Luke's recent activities." Intuitively knowing it was best, he responded truthfully.

Unfortunately, his voice rose above a whisper, winning him a sharp stab in the ribs from a blaster muzzle. Pure white fire came close to doubling him over. Deak glared from the corner of his eye at the trooper towering over him.

"No talking." The trooper commanded them. "Move."

This time Deak paid strict attention to his surroundings. Made note of the alcove layout and how only one elevator accessed the detention area. They were crammed into the turbo-lift, faces pressed against the rear door, blasters digging into their spines. None of them dared move. Assessment of their situation drove home the futility of escape. That kernel of defiance in the recesses of Deak's brain died instantly. He was a fool for even contemplating escape from this Imperial vessel.

Eyes darting to their captors, Camie dared a whispered question to Deak. "Where are they taking us?"

"Don't know." Rather than risk another blow he mouthed his reply back to her.

Terror gleamed out of her eyes, a reflection of his own dread. Only Fixer failed to react in any way to their situation. That worried Deak more than Camie's reaction. Her behaviour was natural. Fixer's was not. The door in front of them abruptly opened without the lift moving between floors. All three staggered, support lost. Under direction they stumbled forward. Were chivvied on down the corridor to the left. Went left again at the next intersection.

Unmarked hatches broke up either side of the hall at irregular intervals. Apart from themselves there were no other personnel in the area. Deak kept his eyes fastened on the way ahead and on keeping his feet moving. Their destination turned out to be a dead-end. Set into the end wall was a heavy-duty airlock, a head-size transparency at roughly eye-level broke up an otherwise unrelieved metal surface. And waiting for them was someone who, by his insignia, could only be the frigate's Commanding Officer.

Under their guards' direction the prisoners were lined up against the wall across the passage from the Captain. He studied them, dispassionate. Calculating. Speculating on their weaknesses and strengths. Boralle watched how they reacted to the circumstances in which they found themselves. Witnessed how inquisition had affected them.

It took brief moments to complete his assessment. Hands pressed against her chest, the woman shivered repeatedly, unmistakable evidence that Rynkon had attempted his own particular brand of persuasion on her prior to subjecting her to the droid. He caught the Security Officer's eye. Let Rynkon know by his expression that he was displeased with the other satisfying his personal cravings without specific permission.

Rynkon did not enjoy being chastised in front of prisoners and guards. Like a child caught with his hand in the sweets his expression turned sullen. At his superior's gesture he took up position behind his Captain's shoulder. Boralle returned to inspecting the prisoners.

Since the woman, unlike her companions had spent considerable time in the company of the rebels, Boralle dismissed using her for his experiment. To kill her would prove self-defeating. The older man appeared to be in shock, unresponsive to outside stimuli. Shoulders sagging, eyes glazed, he stared straight ahead, a definite possibility. Next to him the one they called Deak was a subject in contrast. He met Boralle's gaze when it swept over him. Chin lifting a fraction, Deak refused to shrink from that scrutiny, returning it defiantly. Unlike his companions, this one was not completely cowed.

In Boralle's estimate this prisoner was a very dangerous man, unpredictable. If it were his decision, Boralle would have spaced the rim-worlder then and there. But it was not his choice. Thrawn had given him specific instructions and he dared not over-step those bounds. Briefly reconsidering the alternatives, he stabbed a finger at the one nicknamed Fixer.

"Him."

Binders were removed and Fixer was pushed forward. As he approached the airlock, the Security Officer activated it. The metal oval hissed aside. Fixer stumbled over the raised rim, staggered forward several steps and halted. Suddenly cognizant of his surroundings, he spun. But the airlock slid shut, trapping him on the opposite side. Camie's mouth worked. For several seconds she struggled unsuccessfully to speak before any words actually emerged.

"Why? Why are you doing this?"

Hands casually clasped behind his back, Boralle rested a mild look on her. "I want the whole, uncensored truth."

A tiny sob escaped her. "But we've already told you everything we know."

"Have you?"

"Yes!"

Bent forward from the waist, restrained by the iron grip on her shoulders, Camie all but shrieked that at him. Boralle remained unimpressed. His eyebrows twitched in the face of her fear and frustration. Rynkon leered at her over his Commanding Officer's shoulder, to no effect. Terrified for her husband's life, Camie was rapidly losing fear of her inquisitors.

"We have!" Incredibly, she actually stamped a foot to emphasize the truth of her words.

"We shall see."

One hand resting against the bulkhead alongside the airlock, he gazed through the lock portal. Fixer stood just the other side, staring back. No readable expression lit the prisoner's eyes. Somewhat disappointed, Boralle redirected his attention to the other captives.

"You are both familiar with the purpose of ship airlocks, I presume?" A redundant question, he neither expected, nor received, a response. Undeterred, Boralle continued his recitation.

"These locks permit work crews access to the exterior of the ship. They enter in environmental suits." He paused meaningfully. No one stirred. Boralle continued. "Air is removed and pressure bled off until it's low enough to allow the outside door to be opened without causing collateral damage to surrounding areas. Of course, there are times when we use these areas for drills. During those periods we alternate between removing the air and merely dropping the pressure while leaving the air intact."

At once Camie realized what the Imperial Officer was about. She objected, "No!"

But that denial whispered from Camie's lips. She and Deak watched in horrified disbelief as Boralle calmly keyed the airlock controls. While he worked, he studied their faces and noted their reactions.

"I can control the time it takes for the pressure to drop; fast or slow. What shall it be? A quick death from explosive-decompression?" He laid a finger against his lips as though seriously considering the possibilities. "Or shall it be a long, slow, lingering expiration by suffocation?"

"Perhaps slow decompression, sir." His sadistic nature rising, Rynkon favoured the more suspense-filled option.

"No! Please." Camie begged for her husband's life. She took a step forward, was immediately yanked back against the wall by the nearest guard. Wide-eyed, shaking her head in short, sharp moves she stared at the officers. "You wouldn't. You can't!"

"Can't. Can't?" Captain Boralle's forefinger depressed the last key. "Watch. And learn what I can or cannot do."

"No! No!"

Somehow eluding her guard, Camie threw herself forward. Boralle held up a hand, forestalling his troops. Intrigued, he watched her lurch to the portal and placed her bound hands against the transparency. Fingers spread against it on the opposite side, Fixer gazed back at her. His lips moved, shaping words only his wife understood. Tears trickled down Camie's cheeks. She shook her head more slowly. Then she turned to Boralle.

"We don't know anything more than we've already told you."

Expressionless, the Captain watched the trapped captive and his wife. The third rim-worlder's reactions still bothered Boralle, but he elected to ignore Deak for the moment. His guards would prevent the man from attempting anything rash.

"All you have to do to stop this is tell me what you're hiding." In his mind Boralle thought he was being very reasonable in his request. "What was Skywalker doing on Tatooine?"

"How many times do we have to tell you we don't know? He and the guy with him never told us anything."

Panic-stricken, Camie whirled back to her husband. Beyond the hatch, Fixer was displaying the first signs of decompression. Surface capillaries were swelling, darkening. Spidery red traceries showed beneath his skin. Aware of what was happening and what was to come, he held Camie's gaze firmly. Carefully he shaped words in an effort to pass her some message. Then he did something wholly out of character with the man Camie and Deak knew. He withdrew from view.

"What's he doing?"

Astounded by the rim-worlder's audacity and sudden display of courage, Rynkon roughly hauled Camie aside so as to have an uninhibited view through the portal. Face pressed against the window, he sought out their prisoner's position. But a hand came down on his shoulder. Startled, Rynkon glanced back. Found his Commanding Officer at his shoulder. Silently Boralle ordered him to step aside. The Security Officer complied, sulky as a child denied his favourite toy.

By craning his neck, the Captain was just able to make out the victim. Seated on the floor to the far right of the hatch, Fixer leaned against the inside wall. In that location he was impossible to adequately monitor. Additionally, his knees were drawn up.

There was no doubt he was already suffering a steady nosebleed. Red stained his trousers, visible despite the acute angle. Painfully blood-shot eyes blinked rapidly. Upon seeing the Imperial officer staring in at him, Fixer flashed him the crudest gesture he knew. Then, turning his face to the opposite wall, he rested his head once more on his raised knees.

Still the pressure dropped. And Boralle was no longer favourably inclined toward ending the experiment before the rim-worlder died. Fixer's display of bravado worked against him, annoying the Captain to the point where he preferred to make a lasting example of this particular prisoner.

While Boralle watched, the rim-worlder's body twitched, contorted horribly as its internal pressure began to exceed that of the airlock's atmosphere. Pink froth bubbled from Fixer's lips. With one final, violent heave Fixer went limp. Blood and other bodily fluids spattered across the bulkhead as the pressure continued to drop. Satisfied that he had learned everything he needed to know, Boralle gave the order.

"Space it."

Numb with disbelief, mouth gaping, Camie leaned against the restraints imposed on her by her jailers. Rynkon watched, a cruel leer twisting his features. Beyond his shoulder she saw the outside hatch slide aside. Something vaguely resembling a contorted, bloated human body drifted out into space, forced out by the rush of pink tinted air and moisture vapour exploding through the open airlock. The hatch closed. Deak jerked against the iron grasp on his arms. But his guards held him in place as firmly as a speeder-size hydro clamp.

"No. Fixer." In that place Camie displayed more feeling for her deceased husband than Deak had witnessed in the past two years. "You murderer! I'll kill you!"

With an unexpected twist and wrench, Camie eluded the troopers. She flung herself at Boralle, screaming insanely as she clawed at the Captain's face with her bound hands. He fended her off easily. But not before her broken nails raked one cheek, leaving three bloody scores in their wake. Two guards hurriedly dragged her back, slamming her against the wall. She slowly collapsed onto the floor, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The pitiful scene failed to impress Boralle. Only marginally ruffled by his guards' momentary lapse, he straightened his tunic. "Return them to their cells."

Amused by their prisoners display, a sneer twisted Rynkon's lips. With a jerk of his chin he gestured to the guards. Angry with themselves for not keeping better control of the woman, the guards took out their frustration on their prisoners as they escorted them back to the detention block.

Winn Boralle dabbed his ravaged flesh as the guards hauled the remaining prisoners away. He refastened the one button that had somehow come undone during the aborted attack on his person. Deep in thought, the Captain made his way up to the bridge. He had been so confident the woman was concealing some tidbit of information. Now he would have to answer to Thrawn, not only for his failure to extract worthwhile information, but also for the useless demise of one prisoner. As he stepped from the turbo-lift Lieutenant Graszer saluted him.

"Do you wish to relieve me, sir?"

"No, Graszer."

"Were you successful in extracting any further information from the prisoners, sir?"

With a brief shake of his head Boralle strolled to the observation alcove. Back to his crew he stared, unseeing, at the star field outside. Familiar with this particular behaviour, Graszer waited further instructions.

Eventually the Captain spoke. "Transmit a message to Admiral Thrawn advising him of our success. Inform him I shall send him a detailed report shortly."

"Yes, sir." Graszer hesitated. Asked, "What do you want done with the prisoners, sir?"

After a moment's consideration, Boralle ordered his Second. "Have them conveyed to TORMENTOR and transport them."

CHAPTER TWELVE

Blue-grey against the backdrop of space, the massive, elite star destroyer moved majestically in convoy with its smaller counterparts. Corellian cruisers flanked the fleet, while TIE fighters patrolled the perimeter. The majority of the ships jockeyed for position, moving out to ready status or shifted in to stand-by around the behemoth at the apex of the fleet. It alone remained stationary.

Interior walls on board the Executive Class star destroyer were only marginally lighter in colour than the vessel's exterior. And those of the boardroom, by Admiral Thrawn's direct order remained unrelieved blue-black metal sheets. Nothing broke up the uniformity or provided distraction to anyone present. The better for those present to apply themselves whole-heartedly to the subject of meetings held within.

Twelve senior officers occupied chairs in the Admiral's personal briefing room. At the head of the boardroom table sat Thrawn, his alien eyes red pinpoints in the subdued lighting. Above the pristine white of his uniform blue flesh tended to merge with his background. Enigmatic, he inspected his subordinates and noted their reactions.

Within the shadows at his back another stirred: Mara Jade, the Emperor's Hand. Her mere presence in the room was an objectionable interference that the others tolerated because they had no say in the matter. No female had ever risen within Imperial ranks, aside from Ysande Isard and Mara Jade.

"I've called this special meeting of the Fleet Branch Heads for a two-fold purpose," said Thrawn at length. "Immediately following this meeting there will be a memorial service for Captain Horst Niant who, as many of you already know, was killed while attempting to apprehend two rebels on Tatooine who had invaded our research facility. Our project on Tatooine was subsequently destroyed. Additionally, a number of other personnel also lost their lives at that time."

Murmurs filtered around the table. Those in the know hurriedly and quietly elaborated to companions who were not. Thrawn permitted the noise to die of its own accord. Their attention returned to him.

"Three suspects were detained on Tatooine, two of whom were attempting to elude capture. All were placed on board SPITEFUL and delivered to Captain Boralle who is patrolling near that sector. I shall be paying him a visit shortly for an in-depth briefing reference the interrogation of these individuals."

The Security Officer shifted his weight. "Do we know who was responsible for Horst's death?"

"Information obtained by Winn suggests our nemesis, the Jedi Luke Skywalker and the Commander of the rebel's elite Rogue Squadron, Wedge Antilles, were the direct cause."

"Skywalker. And Rogue Squadron." Captain Nialle Parriken, Fleet Personnel Officer leaned forward to look at the Admiral along the length of the table. "How is it possible? How do they---particularly Skywalker---do it? How do they know when and where to strike so precisely?"

"Never underestimate the power of the Force," began Jade.

"You and your Force." Irritated by her attempts to instruct him, the Personnel Officer scoffed at Jade.

Mara shifted a step forward. Twitched a finger. But beneath the edge of the table, visible only to her, Thrawn's hand moved in a gesture ordering restraint. Unaware that he had narrowly escaped being made an example to the very real powers of the Force, Parriken settled back in his seat. He made little effort to conceal a sneer. Around him, his companions exchanged amused glances.

"Enough." However quietly he spoke, there was sufficient power in Thrawn's voice that no one in that room dared consider further pursuit of embarrassing Jade. Once certain the meeting was back on track, the Admiral continued.

"Because of this latest fiasco I requested each of you to submit to me a draft brief outlining suggested future plans of operation. I have carefully reviewed each one and have selected two that best suit our immediate needs. Today we will deal with the one that requires the least amount of preparation to implement and, while achieving the projected results, appears to incur the least costly losses. Please refer to your screens."

Set into the table at each position was a small vid-screen linked into the ship's mainframe computer. Across this appeared the Imperial military logo, followed by an 'EYES ONLY' warning flash. Thrawn encoded the necessary cipher to release the operations' outline.

"Marikest. You have the floor."

"Thank you, sir."

Head of Fleet Operations, Captain Kearan Marikest rose and viewed his peers. He was not entirely surprised to see the Admiral had selected his outline from amongst those submitted for review. Unfortunately there remained certain points of his brief with which even he was not entirely satisfied. Not willing to permit anyone to suspect he was uneasy, Marikest dropped his eyes to his desk screen.

"What you see before you is a rough outline of my proposal. This," he tapped three keys and brought up his complete precise, "is the broader over-view. Naturally it is incomplete at this stage. However, I believe it is more than sufficient to give you all the necessary basics of a viable plan. I've included a break-down of minimum materiel requirements for the operation to succeed."

Thoroughly intrigued, Jade examined the read-out over Thrawn's shoulder. No specific target was yet named, but she suspected the Admiral already had a suitable one in mind. Once this discussion was over she intended to request permission to be included in one of the fighter groups. She had been out of the action for far too long. And there was a score that needed settling---with a certain Luke Skywalker.

"Fleet will be required to provide two corvettes and a star destroyer, plus associated TIE Interceptor wings and all necessary personnel. I feel a direct, rapid assault of this nature will result in maximum damage with minimal losses."

"Ridiculous." Commander Laeren Toriffen, Senior Staff Officer Fighter Operations ridiculed the outline. "You might as well write-off every squadron assigned to this farcical operation."

"In my opinion," said Marikest, placed on the defensive, "they will be acceptable losses."

"Not from what we know of rebel fighter capabilities." Aware his crews would suffer horrendous attrition rates Toriffen argued angrily in their defence. "We'll be lucky to retrieve any of our craft after such a skirmish."

Marikest countered that with a less than subtle reminder. "The rebels seem to have successfully employed just such strategies against us over the years."

"But their fighters are better equipped to withstand an intense fire fight, unlike the bulk of our fighter force that still relies heavily on the original version of the all but defenceless Twin Ion Engine fighter. Production of gunships is far behind original projections. And sacrificing any of them to this---farce would be ill-advised."

Already determined to implement the plan, Thrawn once more allowed the fracas to die down of its own accord. Into the tense silence that followed he stated his decision.

"The point of this meeting is not 'will we attempt this assault'. It's to formulate the best option from what we already have on the table to carry out the assault."

On the face of that announcement Toriffen subsided into his seat. Helpless, he glowered across the table at Marikest. Supported by the Admiral, the Operations Officer concluded his briefing.

"I've submitted a proposed list of personnel requirements for this operation. However, I'm positive all department heads will have their own suggestions to put forward so we can inflict maximum damage on whichever target is selected."

"Thank you, Marikest." Admiral Thrawn waited for the other to sit. "Ensure your expanded brief reaches my desk within three days."

"It'll be ready, sir."

"Good." Elbows on the table, Thrawn pressed his fingers together. Tapped their tips against his chin. "Now we come to the target for this operation. It's been my experience that the best way to strike a blow at the enemy is to go for the soft underbelly."

Around the table heads nodded. What he said was standard military knowledge. Behind the Admiral Jade waited in breathless anticipation for enlightenment. She was not alone in her anticipation. Every person at the table was leaning forward, the better to see the Admiral. Speculation ran rampant throughout the gathering. Without a word, Thrawn keyed the small holo-projector set into the very centre of the table. There came several rapid inhalations among those present. All eyes fastened on the star system displayed in the hologram.

"This will be your target. In my estimates, it's the last place this so-called New Republic will expect us to strike."

"Sir." Mortified by what he saw, Marikest was on his feet. "I never intended this plan to be aimed against them there. We know they've improved upon our original specifications. How do you propose we get past their defences?"

"Take your seat, Marikest." Reprimanded by those four words, Marikest blushed and slowly sank back into his chair. "Thank you," said Thrawn. Face devoid of expression, he continued. "Despite your outburst, you do have a valid point. I must point out that a strike at this particular location will serve a two-fold purpose. It will seriously cripple their defensive and offensive capabilities. At the same time it will severely damage morale throughout their government."

"Deterring further worlds from rallying to their support," said Jade, confident in his command decision. Although more accustomed to operating in circles frequented by pirates and the underworld, Mara felt no compunction over adding her own thoughts at this time. Her observation caused several sour looks to be directed her way.

Admiral Thrawn hid a smile and carefully studied the faces of his subordinates. Several pointedly ignored Jade, while others fixed blank faces on her. Thrawn silently applauded her timely intrusion.

"As Jade has pointed out, there is that third probability, although I suspect such aspirations are somewhat premature. However, we are going ahead with the operation. I've had our astro-navigation and astronomical departments working on selecting the best possible time during which to carry out the attack. They've concluded that in precisely two and a half weeks conditions will be ideal for our purposes. Additionally, INDEPENDENCE is slated to return with the newest graduates at that time. Our primary objectives will be both headquarters frigates and as many of their fighters as is possible. Naturally your pilots should consider the mirror array as part of their objectives. It is imperative we cripple planetary energy resources as well as their fleet."

Another tap on the keypad produced an alteration in the system. Around the table eyes narrowed, each person calculating, chilling in the level of cruel anticipation. A vicious smile pulled at the corners of Jade's mouth. It glittered in the depths of her eyes.

"Additionally, our intelligence operatives inform me that Rogue Squadron, as well as their fleet's newest batch of misfits known as Wraith Squadron, will not play a factor. Their operations will have them out-system at the time we launch our attack. Everything hinges on that." The Admiral paused. Turned to his Senior Staff Officer and pinned him in his seat. "Commander Marikest." Thrawn demanded. "Please provide a break-down of what you can spare for this operation."

On his Admiral's orders, Marikest accessed his personal files. Ships' status marched across the vid-screen. He rapidly scanned the numbers. This was merely a formality to confirm what he already knew. He took a subtle, deep breath and looked up. Met the Admiral's eyes.

"I can assign four squadrons of basic TIE fighters, the same of Interceptors, and three squadrons of bombers for the assault."

"Gunships?"

"We can commit two squadrons without undue strain on the remainder of the fleet."

"I'd prefer three." Toriffen was insistent.

With a shake of his head, Marikest explained. "Gunships are relatively new off the drawing board and at a premium, as I've already stated. Presently production barely out-weighs our losses in the field. Two is all I can safely provide."

Thrawn broke into their argument. "Two is all we need." He concealed his displeasure at their bickering and over production shortfalls; a matter he would have to address later. "What about transports and shuttles?"

Cautious, Marikest considered his options. "Did you want reinforced transports?" When Thrawn nodded, his staff officer glanced back down at the screen. "Five are on the line right now. But that's the sum total. Shuttles I can give you, two squadrons. They're fast."

"Their shields are insufficient to withstand the firepower of rebel Y-Wings," said Toriffen.

"Plus they now have the new B-Wings." Now Parriken spoke up. "They're faster than those lumbering old Y-Wings and pack comparable, if not more firepower."

"But the shuttles can be utilized to back up the fighters where necessary." Unwilling to yield the point, Marikest countered with what he knew their superior would see as sound assessment of their ships' capabilities.

"They'll be useless against veterans."

"Then hold them in reserve. Eight shuttles are ideal for what is required of them. They're speed and firepower is more than sufficient to create havoc among the new recruits immediately on the heels of the initial thrust."

To his relief, Thrawn nodded, apparently satisfied. The Admiral redirected his attention to the Ordnance Officer, effectively muzzling all further arguments.

"Captain Futhern, have we the ordnance necessary for the assault?"

Unlike his counterparts around the table, Gyvel Futhern took a more studied approach to all matters. Years of military service and accompanying experience had taught him when to argue a point and when to let it go. He had also learned when discretion and acquiescence were advised.

While his subordinates shifted impatiently, Thrawn waited for Futhern's report. Futhern had been with his staff since before the destruction of Alderaan. The Admiral was well versed with his subordinate's calculating manner. Upon receiving assignment to CHIMAERA he had personally approached Imperial Fleet Command to have the man transferred to his command, wanting only the best on board his vessel. Ironically, that transfer was directly responsible for Futhern being alive today. Had he remained with his original posting, he would now be just so much indescribable matter orbiting Endor's moon.

"Our present ordnance supply is more than sufficient to outfit a mission of this nature, sir. It will require several days, however, to have a substantial supply of torpedoes brought in to restock our own stores immediately in the wake of the operation."

"I leave that in your hands, Futhern." Thrawn moved on to the Maintenance Officer only after he had received a nod of acknowledgement from the Supply Officer.

Captain Suryl Shivik tapped a forefinger on the table top, a slight frown marring his brow. "We're on target with most repairs, ahead in several other areas. But I must tell you, sir. The skirmish at Bakura has severely depleted our spare parts stores. And re-supply is in arrears. Has been since the Battle of Endor."

"Thank you, Suryl. Captain Hiam?"

"Plans and Operations are up to speed, sir. Just give us the word and we'll put together whatever you need. We must keep in mind, however, that the target date is a done deal. Our optimal window can be waived a couple of days either way. Personally I'd rather err on the side that gives us more time to consolidate our plans."

With that, Hiam looked down at his hands folded neatly before his console. On either side of him his neighbours settled back in their seats. Everyone had aired their opinions and committed such resources as they could scramble on such short notice. Their eyes came up and rested on their superior.

"Thank you, gentlemen. All right then, we have the materials and personnel necessary to carry out this operation." Thrawn wrapped their agenda. "I suggest you set aside any other matters you feel are pressing in favour of this project. Anything that might take precedence is to be cleared from your slates within twenty-four hours. You are to apply your undivided attention to this mission." Placing his hands on either side of the vid-screen before him, Thrawn rose. "This concludes our meeting. Keep me apprised of your progress."

All around the table officers stirred. In pairs, or singly, they stood and left the room. On Thrawn's orders, the Seconds-in-Command of Fighter Operations and Fleet Operations had accompanied their immediate senior officers to this briefing. On the way out they were in soft, urgent consultation with their respective superiors. Marikest and Toriffen studiously ignored each other. Thrawn was quick to note the way their subordinates looked at one another, rolled their eyes toward the ceiling, and flashed tight little grins.

Behind Thrawn his shadow moved. Came out from behind him and faced him, undaunted as others were by his piercing gaze. For the moment the Admiral ignored her, intent upon reviewing the read-out of facts and figures. In selecting this plan he had chosen what he felt was the most feasible, short-term operation. Like Toriffen, the Admiral did not attempt to deceive himself. This was, purely and simply, a suicide mission. They would be fortunate to retrieve more than the corvettes and the star destroyer.

"Sir?"

Unable to contain herself in patience any longer, Jade broke the silence between them. Thrawn looked up. "Still here, Jade?"

"Please, sir?"

That was Jade's way of letting him know she wished to ask a favour, an uncommon occurrence. Sensing what she was about to request, Thrawn felt a flash of pride. Others might discount the ability of any woman to perform adequately under combat conditions. But he was not so misguided. One always used the best resources on hand.

"What is it, Jade?"

"Sir." She hesitated. Let the words out in a rush, afraid she would lose courage if she attempted to be diplomatic. "Sir, I'd like to go with them."

Before she was quite finished, Thrawn was already shaking his head. "No, Jade. I've another project in the works. One that is far better suited to your special talents. I prefer to hold you in abeyance this once. I'd rather not waste what I foresee I shall need in the not so distant future."

"But---"

One hand rose effectively stilling her protest. "You have my decision, Jade. Don't press me further."

Disgruntled, but doing her best to conceal her feelings, Mara conceded. "Yes, sir."

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Haru Windsong