This is a canon story, it isn't made by me (ExtremeSSJ4). I would just like to post it here so people can read it.
"Captain Pellaeon?" a voice called down the portside crew pit through the hum of background conversation. "Message from the sentry line: the scoutships have just come out of lightspeed."
Pellaeon, leaning over the shoulder of the man at the Chimaera's bridge engineering monitor, ignored the shout. "Trace this line for me," he ordered, tapping a light pen at the schematic on the display.
The engineer threw a questioning glance up at him. "Sir...?"
"I heard him," Pellaeon said. "You have an order, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir," the other said carefully, and keyed for the trace.
"Captain Pellaeon?" the voice repeated, closer this time. Keeping his eyes on the engineering display, Pellaeon waited until he could hear the sound of the approaching footsteps. Then, with all the regal weight that fifty years spent in the Imperial Fleet gave to a man, he straightened up and turned.
The young duty officer's brisk walk faltered; came to an abrupt halt. "Uh, sir—" He looked into Pellaeon's eyes and his voice faded away.
Pellaeon let the silence hang in the air for a handful of heartbeats, long enough for those nearest to notice. "This is not a cattle market in Shaum Hii, Lieutenant Tschel," he said at last, keeping his voice calm but icy cold. "This is the bridge of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Routine information is not—repeat, not—simply shouted in the general direction of its intended recipient. Is that clear?"
Tschel swallowed. "Yes, sir."
Pellaeon held his eyes a few seconds longer, then lowered his head in a slight nod. "Now. Report."
"Yes, sir." Tschel swallowed again. "We've just received word from the sentry ships, sir: the scouts have returned from their scan raid on the Obroa-skai system."
"Very good," Pellaeon nodded. "Did they have any trouble?"
"Only a little, sir—the natives apparently took exception to them pulling a dump of their central library system. The wing commander said there was some attempt at pursuit, but that he lost them."
"I hope so," Pellaeon said grimly. Obroa-skai held a strategic position in the borderland regions, and intelligence reports indicated that the NewRepublic was making a strong bid for its membership and support. If they'd had armed emissary ships there at the time of the raid....
Well, he'd know soon enough. "Have the wing commander report to the bridge ready room with his report as soon as the ships are aboard," he told Tschel. "And have the sentry line go to yellow alert. Dismissed."
"Yes, sir." Spinning around with a reasonably good imitation of a proper military turn, the lieutenant headed back toward the communications console.
The young lieutenant... which was, Pellaeon thought with a trace of old bitterness, where the problem really lay. In the old days—at the height of the Empire's power—it would have been inconceivable for a man as young as Tschel to serve as a bridge officer aboard a ship like the Chimaera. Now—
He looked down at the equally young man at the engineering monitor. Now, in contrast, the Chimaera had virtually no one aboard except young men and women.
Slowly, Pellaeon let his eyes sweep across the bridge, feeling the echoes of old anger and hatred twist through his stomach. There had been many commanders in the Fleet, he knew, who had seen the Emperor's original Death Star as a blatant attempt to bring the Empire's vast military power more tightly under his direct control, just as he'd already done with the Empire's political power. The fact that he'd ignored the battle station's proven vulnerability and gone ahead with a second Death Star had merely reinforced that suspicion. There would have been few in the Fleet's upper echelons who would have genuinely mourned its loss... if it hadn't, in its death throes, taken the Super Star Destroyer Executor with it.
Even after five years Pellaeon couldn't help but wince at the memory of that image: the Executor, out of control, colliding with the unfinished Death Star and then disintegrating completely in the battle station's massive explosion. The loss of the ship itself had been bad enough; but the fact that it was the Executor had made it far worse. That particular Super Star Destroyer had been Darth Vader's personal ship, and despite the Dark Lord's legendary—and often lethal—capriciousness, serving aboard it had long been perceived as the quick line to promotion.
Which meant that when the Executor died, so also did a disproportionate fraction of the best young and midlevel officers and crewers.
The Fleet had never recovered from that fiasco. With the Executor's leadership gone, the battle had quickly turned into a confused rout, with several other Star Destroyers being lost before the order to withdraw had finally been given. Pellaeon himself, taking command when the Chimera's former captain was killed, had done what he could to hold things together; but despite his best efforts, they had never regained the initiative against the Rebels. Instead, they had been steadily pushed back... until they were here.
Here, in what had once been the backwater of the Empire, with barely a quarter of its former systems still under nominal Imperial control. Here, aboard a Star Destroyer manned almost entirely by painstakingly trained but badly inexperienced young people, many of them conscripted from their home worlds by force or threat of force.
Here, under the command of possibly the greatest military mind the Empire had ever seen.
Pellaeon smiled—a tight, wolfish smile—as he again looked around his bridge. No, the end of the Empire was not yet. As the arrogantly self-proclaimed NewRepublic would soon discover. He glanced at his watch. Two-fifteen. Grand Admiral Thrawn would be meditating in his command room now... and if Imperial procedure frowned on shouting across the bridge, it frowned even harder on interrupting a Grand Admiral's meditation by intercom. One spoke to him in person, or one did not speak to him at all. "Continue tracing those lines," Pellaeon ordered the engineering lieutenant as he headed for the door. "I'll be back shortly."
The Grand Admiral's new command room was two levels below the bridge, in a space that had once housed the former commander's luxury entertainment suite. When Pellaeon had found Thrawn—or rather, when the Grand Admiral had found him—one of his first acts had been to take over the suite and convert it into what was essentially a secondary bridge.
A secondary bridge, meditation room... and perhaps more. It was no secret aboard the Chimaera that since the recent refitting had been completed the Grand Admiral had been spending a great deal of his time here. What was secret was what exactly he did during those long hours.
Stepping to the door, Pellaeon straightened his tunic and braced himself. Perhaps he was about to find out. "Captain Pellaeon to see Grand Admiral Thrawn," he announced. "I have informa—"
The door slid open before he'd finished speaking. Mentally preparing himself, Pellaeon stepped into the dimly lit entry room. He glanced around, saw nothing of interest, and started for the door to the main chamber, five paces ahead.
A touch of air on the back of his neck was his only warning. "Captain Pellaeon," a deep, gravelly, catlike voice mewed into his ear.
Pellaeon jumped and spun around, cursing both himself and the short, wiry creature standing less than half a meter away. "Blast it, Rukh," he snarled. "What do you think you're doing?"
For a long moment Rukh just looked up at him, and Pellaeon felt a drop of sweat trickle down his back. With his large dark eyes, protruding jaw, and glistening needle teeth, Rukh was even more of a nightmare in the dimness than he was in normal lighting.
Especially to someone like Pellaeon, who knew what Thrawn used Rukh and his fellow Noghri for.
"I'm doing my job," Rukh said at last. He stretched his thin arm almost casually out toward the inner door, and Pellaeon caught just a glimpse of the slender assassin's knife before it vanished somehow into the Noghri's sleeve. His hand closed, then opened again, steel-wire muscles moving visibly beneath his dark gray skin. "You may enter."
"Thank you," Pellaeon growled. Straightening his tunic again, he turned back to the door. It opened at his approach, and he stepped through—
Into a softly lit art museum.
He stopped short, just inside the room, and looked around in astonishment. The walls and domed ceiling were covered with flat paintings and planics, a few of them vaguely human-looking but most of distinctly alien origin. Various sculptures were scattered around, some freestanding, others on pedestals. In the center of the room was a double circle of repeater displays, the outer ring slightly higher than the inner ring. Both sets of displays, at least from what little Pellaeon could see, also seemed to be devoted to pictures of artwork.
And in the center of the double circle, seated in a duplicate of the Admiral's Chair on the bridge, was Grand Admiral Thrawn.
He sat motionlessly, his shimmery blue-black hair glinting in the dim light, his pale blue skin looking cool and subdued and very alien on his otherwise human frame. His eyes were nearly closed as he leaned back against the headrest, only a glint of red showing between the lids.
Pellaeon licked his lips, suddenly unsure of the wisdom of having invaded Thrawn's sanctum like this. If the Grand Admiral decided to be annoyed....
"Come in, Captain," Thrawn said, his quietly modulated voice cutting through Pellaeon's thoughts. Eyes still closed to slits, he waved a hand in a small and precisely measured motion. "What do you think?"
"It's... very interesting, sir," was all Pellaeon could come up with as he walked over to the outer display circle.
"All holographic, of course," Thrawn said, and Pellaeon thought he could hear a note of regret in the other's voice. "The sculptures and flats both. Some of them are lost; many of the others are on planets now occupied by the Rebellion."
"Yes, sir," Pellaeon nodded. "I thought you'd want to know, Admiral, that the scouts have returned from the Obroa-skai system. The wing commander will be ready for debriefing in a few minutes."
Thrawn nodded. "Were they able to tap into the central library system?"
"They got at least a partial dump," Pellaeon told him. "I don't know yet if they were able to complete it—apparently, there was some attempt at pursuit. The wing commander thinks he lost them, though."
For a moment Thrawn was silent. "No," he said. "No, I don't believe he has. Particularly not if the pursuers were from the Rebellion." Taking a deep breath, he straightened in his chair and, for the first time since Pellaeon had entered, opened his glowing red eyes.
Pellaeon returned the other's gaze without flinching, feeling a small flicker of pride at the achievement. Many of the Emperor's top commanders and courtiers had never learned to feel comfortable with those eyes. Or with Thrawn himself, for that matter. Which was probably why the Grand Admiral had spent so much of his career out in the Unknown Regions, working to bring those still-barbaric sections of the galaxy under Imperial control. His brilliant successes had won him the title of Warlord and the right to wear the white uniform of Grand Admiral—the only nonhuman ever granted that honor by the Emperor.
Ironically, it had also made him all the more indispensable to the frontier campaigns. Pellaeon had often wondered how the Battle of Endor would have ended if Thrawn, not Vader, had been commanding the Executor. "Yes, sir," he said. "I've ordered the sentry line onto yellow alert. Shall we go to red?"
"Not yet," Thrawn said. "We should still have a few minutes. Tell me, Captain, do you know anything about art?"
"Ah... not very much," Pellaeon managed, thrown a little by the sudden change of subject. "I've never really had much time to devote to it."
"You should make the time." Thrawn gestured to a part of the inner display circle to his right. "Saffa paintings," he identified them. "Circa 1550 to 2200, Pre-Empire Date. Note how the style changes—right here—at the first contact with the Thennqora. Over there—" he pointed to the left-hand wall "—are examples of Paonidd extrassa art. Note the similarities with the early Saffa work, and also the mid-eighteenth-century Pre-Em Vaathkree flatsculp."
"Yes, I see," Pellaeon said, not entirely truthfully. "Admiral, shouldn't we be—?"
He broke off as a shrill whistle split the air. "Bridge to Grand Admiral Thrawn," Lieutenant Tschel's taut voice called over the intercom. "Sir, we're under attack!"
Thrawn tapped the intercom switch. "This is Thrawn," he said evenly. "Go to red alert, and tell me what we've got. Calmly, if possible."
"Yes, sir." The muted alert lights began flashing, and Pellaeon could hear the sound of the klaxons baying faintly outside the room. "Sensors are picking up four New Republic Assault Frigates," Tschel continued, his voice tense but under noticeably better control. "Plus at least three wings of X-wing fighters. Symmetric cloud-vee formation, coming in on our scoutships' vector."
Pellaeon swore under his breath. A single Star Destroyer, with a largely inexperienced crew, against four Assault Frigates and their accompanying fighters... "Run engines to full power," he called toward the intercom. "Prepare to make the jump to lightspeed." He took a step toward the door—
"Belay that jump order, Lieutenant," Thrawn said, still glacially calm. "TIE fighter crews to their stations; activate deflector shields."
Pellaeon spun back to him. "Admiral—"
Thrawn cut him off with an upraised hand. "Come here, Captain," the Grand Admiral ordered. "Let's take a look, shall we?"
He touched a switch; and abruptly, the art show was gone. Instead, the room had become a miniature bridge monitor, with helm, engine, and weapons readouts on the walls and double display circle. The open space had become a holographic tactical display; in one corner a flashing sphere indicated the invaders. The wall display nearest to it gave an ETA estimate of twelve minutes.
"Fortunately, the scoutships have enough of a lead not to be in danger themselves," Thrawn commented. "So. Let's see what exactly we're dealing with. Bridge: order the three nearest sentry ships to attack."
Across the room, three blue dots shifted out of the sentry line onto intercept vectors. From the corner of his eye Pellaeon saw Thrawn lean forward in his seat as the Assault Frigates and accompanying X-wings shifted in response. One of the blue dots winked out—
"Excellent," Thrawn said, leaning back in his seat. "That will do, Lieutenant. Pull the other two sentry ships back, and order the Sector Four line to scramble out of the invaders' vector."
"Yes, sir," Tschel said, sounding more than a little confused.
A confusion Pellaeon could well understand. "Shouldn't we at least signal the rest of the Fleet?" he suggested, hearing the tightness in his voice. "The Death's Head could be here in twenty minutes, most of the others in less than an hour."
"The last thing we want to do right now is bring in more of our ships, Captain," Thrawn said. He looked up at Pellaeon, and a faint smile touched his lips. "After all, there may be survivors, and we wouldn't want the Rebellion learning about us. Would we."
He turned back to his displays. "Bridge: I want a twenty-degree port yaw rotation—bring us flat to the invaders' vector, superstructure pointing at them. As soon as they're within the outer perimeter, the Sector Four sentry line is to re-form behind them and jam all transmissions."
"Y-yes, sir. Sir—?"
"You don't have to understand, Lieutenant," Thrawn said, his voice abruptly cold. "Just obey."
Pellaeon took a careful breath as the displays showed the Chimaera rotating as per orders. "I'm afraid I don't understand, either, Admiral," he said. "Turning our superstructure toward them—"
Again, Thrawn stopped him with an upraised hand. "Watch and learn, Captain. That's fine, bridge: stop rotation and hold position here. Drop docking bay deflector shields, boost power to all others. TIE fighter squadrons: launch when ready. Head directly away from the Chimaera for two kilometers, then sweep around in open cluster formation. Backfire speed, zonal attack pattern."
He got an acknowledgment, then looked up at Pellaeon. "Do you understand now, Captain?"
Pellaeon pursed his lips. "I'm afraid not," he admitted. "I see now that the reason you turned the ship was to give the fighters some exit cover, but the rest is nothing but a classic Marg Sabl closure maneuver. They're not going to fall for anything that simple."
"On the contrary," Thrawn corrected coolly. "Not only will they fall for it, they'll be utterly destroyed by it. Watch, Captain. And learn."
The TIE fighters launched, accelerating away from the Chimaera and then leaning hard into etheric rudders to sweep back around it like the spray of some exotic fountain. The invading ships spotted the attackers and shifted vectors—
Pellaeon blinked. "What in the Empire are they doing?"
"They're trying the only defense they know of against a Marg Sabl," Thrawn said, and there was no mistaking the satisfaction in his voice. "Or, to be more precise, the only defense they are psychologically capable of attempting." He nodded toward the flashing sphere. "You see, Captain, there's an Elom commanding that force... and Elomin simply cannot handle the unstructured attack profile of a properly executed Marg Sabl."
Pellaeon stared at the invaders, still shifting into their utterly useless defense stance... and slowly it dawned on him what Thrawn had just done. "That sentry ship attack a few minutes ago," he said. "You were able to tell from that that those were Elomin ships?"
"Learn about art, Captain," Thrawn said, his voice almost dreamy. "When you understand a species' art, you understand that species."
He straightened in his chair. "Bridge: bring us to flank speed. Prepare to join the attack."
An hour later, it was all over.
The ready room door slid shut behind the wing commander, and Pellaeon gazed back at the map still on the display. "Sounds like Obroa-skai is a dead end," he said regretfully. "There's no way we'll be able to spare the manpower that much pacification would cost."
"For now, perhaps," Thrawn agreed. "But only for now."
Pellaeon frowned across the table at him. Thrawn was fiddling with a data card, rubbing it absently between finger and thumb, as he stared out the view port at the stars. A strange smile played about his lips. "Admiral?" he asked carefully.
Thrawn turned his head, those glowing eyes coming to rest on Pellaeon. "It's the second piece of the puzzle, Captain," he said softly, holding up the data card. "The piece I've been searching for now for over a year."
Abruptly, he turned to the intercom, jabbed it on. "Bridge, this is Grand Admiral Thrawn. Signal the Death's Head; inform Captain Harbid we'll be temporarily leaving the Fleet. He's to continue making tactical surveys of the local systems and pulling data dumps wherever possible. Then set course for a planet called Myrkr—the nav computer has its location."
The bridge acknowledged, and Thrawn turned back to Pellaeon. "You seem lost, Captain," he suggested. "I take it you've never heard of Myrkr."
Pellaeon shook his head, trying without success to read the Grand Admiral's expression. "Should I have?"
"Probably not. Most of those who have been smugglers, malcontents, and otherwise useless dregs of the galaxy."
He paused, taking a measured sip from the mug at his elbow—a strong Forvish ale, from the smell of it—and Pellaeon forced himself to remain silent. Whatever the Grand Admiral was going to tell him, he was obviously going to tell it in his own way and time. "I ran across an offhand reference to it some seven years ago," Thrawn continued, setting his mug back down. "What caught my attention was the fact that, although the planet had been populated for at least three hundred years, both the OldRepublic and the Jedi of that time had always left it strictly alone." He cocked one blue-black eyebrow slightly. "What would you infer from that, Captain?"
Pellaeon shrugged. "That it's a frontier planet, somewhere too far away for anyone to care about."
"Very good, Captain. That was my first assumption, too... except that it's not. Myrkr is, in fact, no more than a hundred fifty light-years from here—close to our border with the Rebellion and well within the OldRepublic's boundaries." Thrawn dropped his eyes to the data card still in his hand. "No, the actual explanation is far more interesting. And far more useful."
Pellaeon looked at the data card, too. "And that explanation became the first piece of this puzzle of yours?"
Thrawn smiled at him. "Again, Captain, very good. Yes. Myrkr—or more precisely, one of its indigenous animals—was the first piece. The second is on a world called Wayland." He waved the data card. "A world for which, thanks to the Obroans, I finally have a location."
"I congratulate you," Pellaeon said, suddenly tired of this game "May I ask just what exactly this puzzle is?"
Thrawn smiled—a smile that sent a shiver up Pellaeon's back. "Why the only puzzle worth solving, of course," the Grand Admiral said softly. "The complete, total, and utter destruction of the Rebellion."
The voice came softly but insistently. Pausing amid the familiar landscape of Tatooine—familiar, yet oddly distorted—Luke Skywalker turned to look.
An equally familiar figure stood there watching him. "Hello, Ben," Luke said, his voice sounding sluggish in his ears. "Been a long time."
"It has indeed," Obi-wan Kenobi said gravely. "And I'm afraid that it will be longer still until the next time. I've come to say good-bye, Luke."
The landscape seemed to tremble; and abruptly, a small part of Luke's mind remembered that he was asleep. Asleep in his suite in the ImperialPalace, and dreaming of Ben Kenobi.
"No, I'm not a dream," Ben assured him, answering Luke's unspoken thought. "But the distances separating us have become too great for me to appear to you in any other way. Now, even this last path is being closed to me."
"No," Luke heard himself say. "You can't leave us, Ben. We need you."
Ben's eyebrows lifted slightly, and a hint of his old smile touched his lips. "You don't need me, Luke. You are a Jedi, strong in the Force." The smile faded, and for a moment his eyes seemed to focus on something Luke couldn't see. "At any rate," he added quietly, "the decision is not mine to make. I have lingered too long already, and can no longer postpone my journey from this life to what lies beyond."
A memory stirred: Yoda on his deathbed, and Luke pleading with him not to die. Strong am I in the Force, the Jedi Master had told him softly. But not that strong.
"It is the pattern of all life to move on," Ben reminded him. "You, too, will face this same journey one day." Again, his attention drifted away, then returned. "You are strong in the Force, Luke, and with perseverance and discipline you will grow stronger still." His gaze hardened. "But you must never relax your guard. The Emperor is gone, but the dark side is still powerful. Never forget that."
"I won't," Luke promised.
Ben's face softened, and again he smiled. "You will yet face great dangers, Luke," he said. "But you will also find new allies, at times and places where you expect them least."
"New allies?" Luke echoed. "Who are they?"
The vision seemed to waver and become fainter. "And now, farewell," Ben said, as if he hadn't heard the question. "I loved you as a son, and as a student, and as a friend. Until we meet again, may the Force be with you."
But Ben turned, and the image faded... and in the dream, Luke knew he was gone. Then I am alone, he told himself. I am the last of the Jedi.
He seemed to hear Ben's voice, faint and indistinct, as if from a great distance. "Not the last of the old Jedi, Luke. The first of the new."
The voice trailed off into silence, and was gone... and Luke woke up.
For a moment he just lay there, staring at the dim lights of the ImperialCity playing across the ceiling above his bed and struggling through the sleep-induced disorientation. The disorientation, and an immense weight of sadness that seemed to fill the core of his being. First Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had been murdered; then Darth Vader, his real father, had sacrificed his own life for Luke's; and now even Ben Kenobi's spirit had been taken away.
For the third time, he'd been orphaned.
With a sigh, he slid out from under the blankets and pulled on his robe and slippers. His suite contained a small kitchenette, and it took only a few minutes to fix himself a drink, a particularly exotic concoction Lando had introduced him to on his last visit to Coruscant. Then, attaching his lightsaber to his robe sash, he headed up to the roof.
He had argued strongly against moving the center of the NewRepublic here to Coruscant; had argued even more strongly against setting up their fledgling government in the old ImperialPalace. The symbolism was all wrong, for one thing, particularly for a group which—in his opinion—already had a tendency to pay too much attention to symbols.
But despite all its drawbacks, he had to admit that the view from the top of the Palace was spectacular.
For a few minutes he stood at the roof's edge, leaning against the chest-high wrought stone railing and letting the cool night breeze ruffle his hair. Even in the middle of the night the ImperialCity was a bustle of activity, with the lights of vehicles and streets intertwining to form a sort of flowing work of art. Overhead, lit by both the city lights and those of occasional airspeeders flitting through them, the low-lying clouds were a dim sculptured ceiling stretching in all directions, with the same apparent endlessness as the city itself. Far to the south, he could just make out the ManaraiMountains, their snow-covered peaks illuminated, like the clouds, largely by reflected light from the city.
He was gazing at the mountains when, twenty meters behind him, the door into the Palace was quietly opened.
Automatically, his hand moved toward his lightsaber; but the motion had barely begun before it stopped. The sense of the creature coming through the doorway... "I'm over here, Threepio," he called.
He turned to see C-3PO shuffling his way across the roof toward him, radiating the droid's usual mixture of relief and concern. "Hello, Master Luke," he said, tilting his head to look at the cup in Luke's hand. "I'm terribly sorry to disturb you."
"That's all right," Luke told him. "I just wanted some fresh air, that's all."
"Are you certain?" Threepio asked. "Though of course I don't mean to pry."
Despite his mood, Luke couldn't help but smile. Threepio's attempts to be simultaneously helpful, inquisitive, and polite never quite came off. Not without looking vaguely comical, anyway. "I'm just a little depressed, I guess," he told the droid, turning back to gaze out over the city again. "Putting together a real, functioning government is a lot harder than I expected. Harder than most of the Council members expected, too." He hesitated. "Mostly, I guess I'm missing Ben tonight."
For a moment Threepio was silent. "He was always very kind to me," he said at last. "And also to Artoo, of course."
Luke raised his cup to his lips, hiding another smile behind it. "You have a unique perspective on the universe, Threepio," he said.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Threepio stiffen. "I hope I didn't offend you, sir," the droid said anxiously. "That was certainly not my intent."
"You didn't offend me," Luke assured him. "As a matter of fact, you might have just delivered Ben's last lesson to me."
"I beg your pardon?"
Luke sipped at his drink. "Governments and entire planets are important, Threepio. But when you sift everything down, they're all just made up of people."
There was a brief pause. "Oh," Threepio said.
"In other words," Luke amplified, "a Jedi can't get so caught up in matters of galactic importance that it interferes with his concern for individual people." He looked at Threepio and smiled. "Or for individual droids."
"Oh. I see, sir." Threepio cocked his head toward Luke's cup. "Forgive me, sir... but may I ask what that is that you're drinking?"
"This?" Luke glanced down at his cup. "It's just something Lando taught me how to make a while back."
"Lando?" Threepio echoed, and there was no missing the disapproval in his voice. Programmed politeness or not, the droid had never really much cared for Lando.
Which wasn't very surprising, given the circumstances of their first meeting. "Yes, but in spite of such a shady origin, it's really quite good," Luke told him. "It's called hot chocolate."
"Oh. I see." The droid straightened up. "Well, then, sir. If you are indeed all right, I expect I should be on my way."
"Sure. By the way, what made you come up here in the first place?"
"Princess Leia sent me, of course," Threepio answered, clearly surprised that Luke would have to ask. "She said you were in some kind of distress."
Luke smiled and shook his head. Leave it to Leia to find a way to cheer him up when he needed it. "Show-off," he murmured.
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
Luke waved a hand. "Leia's showing off her new Jedi skills, that's all. Proving that even in the middle of the night she can pick up on my mood."
Threepio's head tilted. "She really did seem concerned about you, sir."
"I know," Luke said. "I'm just joking."
"Oh." Threepio seemed to think about that. "Shall I tell her you're all right, then?"
"Sure," Luke nodded. "And while you're down there, tell her that she should quit worrying about me and get herself back to sleep. Those bouts of morning sickness she still gets are bad enough when she isn't worn-out tired."
"I'll deliver the message, sir," Threepio said.
"And," Luke added quietly, "tell her I love her."
"Yes, sir. Good night, Master Luke."
"Good night, Threepio."
He watched the droid go, a fresh flow of depression threatening again to drag him down. Threepio wouldn't understand, of course—no one on the Provisional Council had understood, either. But for Leia, just over three months pregnant, to be spending the bulk of her time here...
He shivered, and not from the cool night air. This place is strong with the dark side. Yoda had said that of the cave on Dagobah—the cave where Luke had gone on to fight a lightsaber duel with a Darth Vader who had turned out to be Luke himself. For weeks afterward the memory of the sheer power and presence of the dark side had haunted his thoughts; only much later had he finally realized that Yoda's primary reason for the exercise had been to show him how far he still had to go.
Still, he'd often wondered how the cave had come to be the way it had. Wondered whether perhaps someone or something strong in the dark side had once lived there.
As the Emperor had once lived here....
He shivered again. The really maddening part of it was that he couldn't sense any such concentration of evil in the Palace. The Council had made a point of asking him about that, in fact, when they'd first considered moving operations here to the ImperialCity. He'd had to grit his teeth and tell them that, no, there seemed to be no residual effects of the Emperor's stay.
But just because he couldn't sense it didn't necessarily mean it wasn't there.
He shook his head. Stop it, he ordered himself firmly. Jumping at shadows wasn't going to gain him anything but paranoia. His recent nightmares and poor sleep were probably nothing more than the stresses of watching Leia and the others struggling to turn a military-oriented rebellion into a civilian-based government. Certainly Leia would never have agreed to come anywhere near this place if she'd had any doubts herself about it.
With an effort, Luke forced his mind to relax and let his Jedi senses reach outward. Halfway across the palace's upper section he could feel Leia's drowsy presence. Her presence, and that of the twins she carried within her.
For a moment he held the partial contact, keeping it light enough to hopefully not wake her any further, marveling again at the strange feel of the unborn children within her. The Skywalker heritage was indeed with them; the fact that he could sense them at all implied they must be tremendously strong in the Force.
At least, he assumed that was what it meant. It had been something he'd hoped he would someday have a chance to ask Ben about.
And now that chance was gone.
Fighting back sudden tears, he broke the contact. His mug felt cold against his hand; swallowing the rest of the chocolate, he took one last look around. At the city, at the clouds... and, in his mind's eye, at the stars that lay beyond them. Stars, around which revolved planets, upon which lived people. Billions of people. Many of them still waiting for the freedom and light the NewRepublic had promised them.
He closed his eyes against the bright lights and the equally bright hopes. There was, he thought wearily, no magic wand that could make everything better.
Not even for a Jedi.
Threepio shuffled his way out of the room, and with a tired sigh Leia Organa Solo settled back against the pillows. Half a victory is better than none, the old saying crossed her mind.
The old saying she'd never believed for a minute. Half a victory, to her way of thinking, was also half a defeat.
She sighed again, feeling the touch of Luke's mind. His encounter with Threepio had lightened his dark mood, as she'd hoped it would; but with the droid gone, the depression was threatening to overtake him again.
Perhaps she should go to him herself. See if she could get him to talk through whatever it was that had been bothering him for the past few weeks.
Her stomach twisted, just noticeably. "It's all right," she soothed, rubbing her hand gently across her belly. "It's all right. I'm just worried about your Uncle Luke, that's all."
Slowly, the twisting eased. Picking up the half-filled glass on the nightstand, Leia drank it down, trying not to make a face. Warm milk was pretty far down on her list of favorite drinks, but it had proved to be one of the fastest ways to soothe these periodic twinges from her digestive tract. The doctors had told her that the worst of her stomach troubles should begin disappearing any day now. She hoped rather fervently that they were right.
Faintly, from the next room, came the sound of footsteps. Quickly, Leia slapped the glass back on the nightstand with one hand as she hauled the blankets up to her chin with the other. The bedside light was still glowing, and she reached out with the Force to try and turn it off.
The lamp didn't even flicker. Gritting her teeth, she tried again; again, it didn't work. Still not enough fine control over the Force, obviously, for something as small as a light switch. Untangling herself from the blankets, she tried to make a lunge for it.
Across the room, the side door opened to reveal a tall woman in a dressing robe. "Your Highness?" she called softly, brushing her shimmering white hair back from her eyes. "Are you all right?"
Leia sighed and gave up. "Come on in, Winter. How long have you been listening at the door?"
"I haven't been listening," Winter said as she glided into the room, sounding almost offended that Leia would even suggest such a thing of her. "I saw the light coming from under your door and thought you might need something."
"I'm fine," Leia assured her, wondering if this woman would ever cease to amaze her. Awakened in the middle of the night, dressed in an old robe with her hair in total disarray, Winter still looked more regal than Leia herself could manage on her best days. She'd lost track of the number of times when, as children together on Alderaan, some visitor to the Viceroy's court had automatically assumed Winter was, in fact, the Princess Leia.
Winter had probably not lost track, of course. Anyone who could remember whole conversations verbatim should certainly be able to reconstruct the number of times she'd been mistaken for a royal princess.
Leia had often wondered what the rest of the Provisional Council members would think if they knew that the silent assistant sitting beside her at official meetings or standing beside her at unofficial corridor conversations was effectively recording every word they said. Some of them, she suspected, wouldn't like it at all.
"Can I get you some more milk, Your Highness?" Winter asked. "Or some crackers?"
"No, thank you," Leia shook her head. "My stomach isn't really bothering me at the moment. It's... well, you know. It's Luke."
Winter nodded. "Same thing that's been bothering him for the past nine weeks?"
Leia frowned. "Has it been that long?"
Winter shrugged. "You've been busy," she said with her usual knack for diplomacy.
"Tell me about it," Leia said dryly. "I don't know, Winter—I really don't. He told Threepio that he misses Ben Kenobi, but I can tell that's not all of it."
"Perhaps it has something to do with your pregnancy," Winter suggested. "Nine weeks ago would put it just about right."
"Yes, I know," Leia agreed. "But that's also about the time Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar were pushing to move the government seat here to Coruscant. Also about the time we started getting those reports from the borderlands about some mysterious tactical genius having taken command of the Imperial Fleet." She held her hands out, palms upward. "Take your pick."
"I suppose you'll just have to wait until he's ready to talk to you." Winter considered. "Perhaps Captain Solo will be able to draw him out when he returns."
Leia squeezed thumb and forefinger together, a wave of anger-filled loneliness sweeping over her. For Han to have gone out on yet another of these stupid contact missions, leaving her all alone—
The flash of anger disappeared, dissolving into guilt. Yes, Han was gone again; but even when he was here it seemed sometimes like they hardly saw each other. With more and more of her time being eaten up by the enormous task of setting up a new government, there were days when she barely had time to eat, let alone see her husband.
But that's my job, she reminded herself firmly; and it was a job that, unfortunately, only she could do. Unlike virtually all the others in the Alliance hierarchy, she had had extensive training in both the theory and the more practical aspects of politics. She'd grown up in the Royal House of Alderaan, learning about systemwide rule from her foster father—learning it so well that while still in her teens she was already representing him in the Imperial Senate. Without her expertise, this whole thing could easily collapse, particularly in these critical early stages of the NewRepublic's development. A few more months—just a few more months—and she'd be able to ease off a little. She'd make it all up to Han then.
The guilt faded. But the loneliness remained.
"Maybe," she told Winter. "In the meantime, we'd better both get some sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow."
Winter arched her eyebrows slightly. "There's another kind?" she asked with a touch of Leia's earlier dryness.
"Now, now," Leia admonished, mock-seriously. "You're far too young to become a cynic. I mean it, now—off to bed with you."
"You're sure you don't need anything first?"
"I'm sure. Go on, scat."
"All right. Good night, Your Highness."
She glided out, closing the door behind her. Sliding down flat onto the bed, Leia readjusted the blankets over her and shifted the pillows into a more or less comfortable position. "Good night to you two, too," she said softly to her babies, giving her belly another gentle rub. Han had suggested more than once that anyone who talked to her own stomach was slightly nuts. But then, she suspected that Han secretly believed everyone was slightly nuts.
She missed him terribly.
With a sigh, she reached over to the nightstand and turned off the light. Eventually, she fell asleep.
A quarter of the way across the galaxy, Han Solo sipped at his mug and surveyed the semiorganized chaos flowing all around him. Didn't we, he quoted to himself, just leave this party?
Still, it was nice to know that, in a galaxy busily turning itself upside down, there were some things that never changed. The band playing off in the corner was different, and the upholstery in the booth was noticeably less comfortable; but apart from that, the Mos Eisley cantina looked exactly the same as it always had before. The same as it had looked the day he'd first met Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi.
It felt like a dozen lifetimes ago.
Beside him, Chewbacca growled softly. "Don't worry, he'll be here," Han told him. "It's just Dravis. I don't think he's ever been on time for anything in his whole life."
Slowly, he let his eyes drift over the crowd. No, he amended to himself, there was one other thing different about the cantina: virtually none of the other smugglers who had once frequented the place were anywhere to be seen. Whoever had taken over what was left of Jabba the Hutt's organization must have moved operations off Tatooine. Turning to peer toward the cantina's back door, he made a mental note to ask Dravis about it.
He was still gazing off to the side when a shadow fell across the table. "Hello, Solo," a snickering voice said.
Han gave himself a three-count before turning casually to face the voice. "Well, hello, Dravis," he nodded. "Long time no see. Have a seat."
"Sure," Dravis said with a grin. "Soon as you and Chewie both put your hands on the table."
Han gave him an injured look. "Oh, come on," he said, reaching up to cradle his mug with both hands. "You think I'd invite you all the way here just to shoot at you? We're old buddies, remember?"
"Sure we are," Dravis said, throwing Chewbacca an appraising glance as he sat down. "Or at least we used to be. But I hear you've gone respectable."
Han shrugged eloquently. "Respectable's such a vague word.
Dravis cocked an eyebrow. "Oh, well, then let's be specific," he said sardonically. "I hear you joined the Rebel Alliance, got made a general, married a former Alderaanian princess, and got yourself a set of twins on the way."
Han waved a self-deprecating hand. "Actually, I resigned the general part a few months back."
Dravis snorted. "Forgive me. So what's all this about? Some kind of warning?"
Han frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Don't play innocent, Solo," Dravis said, the banter gone from his tone. "New Republic replaces Empire—all fine and sweet and dandy, but you know as well as I do that it's all the same to smugglers. So if this is an official invitation to cease and desist our business activities, let me laugh in your face and get out of here." He started to get up.
"It's nothing like that," Han told him. "As a matter of fact, I was hoping to hire you."
Dravis froze, halfway up. "What?" he asked warily.
"You heard right," Han said. "We're looking to hire smugglers."
Slowly, Dravis sat back down. "Is this something to do with your fight with the Empire?" he demanded. "Because if it is—"
"It isn't," Han assured him. "There's a whole spiel that goes along with this, but what it boils down to is that the NewRepublic is short of cargo ships at the moment, not to mention experienced cargo ship pilots. If you're looking to earn some quick and honest money, this would be a good time to do it."
"Uh-huh." Dravis leaned back in his chair, draping an arm over the seat back as he eyed Han suspiciously. "So what's the catch?"
Han shook his head. "No catch. We need ships and pilots to get interstellar trade going again. You've got 'em. That's all there is to it."
Dravis seemed to think it over. "So why work for you and your pittance directly?" he demanded. "Why can't we just smuggle the stuff and make more per trip?"
"You could do that," Han conceded. "But only if your customers had to pay the kind of tariffs that would make hiring smugglers worthwhile. In this case—" he smiled "—they won't."
Dravis glared at him. "Oh, come on, Solo. A brand-new government, hard-pressed like crazy for cash—and you want me to believe they won't be piling tariffs on top of each other?"
"Believe anything you want," Han said, letting his own tone go frosty. "Go ahead and try it, too. But when you're convinced, give me a call."
Dravis chewed at the inside of his cheek, his eyes never leaving Han's. "You know, Solo," he said thoughtfully, "I wouldn't have come if I didn't trust you. Well, maybe I was curious, too, to see what scam you were pulling. And I might be willing to believe you on this, at least enough to check it out myself. But I'll tell you right up front that a lot of others in my group won't."
"Because you've gone respectable, that's why. Oh, don't give me that hurt look—the simple fact is that you've been out of the business too long to even remember what it's like. Profits are what drives a smuggler, Solo. Profits and excitement."
"So what are you going to do instead, operate in the Imperial sectors?" Han countered, trying hard to remember all those lessons in diplomacy that Leia had given him.
Dravis shrugged. "It pays," he said simply.
"For now, maybe," Han reminded him. "But their territory's been shrinking for five years straight, and it's going to keep getting smaller. We're just about evenly gunned now, you know, and our people are more motivated and a lot better trained than theirs."
"Maybe." Dravis cocked an eyebrow. "But maybe not. I hear rumors that there's someone new in charge out there. Someone who's been giving you a lot of trouble—like in the Obroa-skai system, for instance? I hear you lost an Elomin task force out there just a little while ago. Awfully sloppy, losing a whole task force like that."
Han gritted his teeth. "Just remember that anybody who gives us trouble is going to give you trouble, too." He leveled a finger at the other. "And if you think the NewRepublic is hungry for cash, think of how hungry the Empire must be right now."
"It's certainly an adventure," Dravis agreed easily, getting to his feet. "Well, it really was nice seeing you again, Solo, but I gotta go. Say hi to your princess for me."
Han sighed. "Just give your people our offer, okay?"
"Oh, I will. Might even be some who'll take you up on it. You never can tell."
Han nodded. It was, really, all he could have expected out of this meeting. "One other thing, Dravis. Who exactly is the big fish in the pond now that Jabba's gone?"
Dravis eyed him thoughtfully. "Well... I guess it's not really a secret," he decided. "Mind you, there aren't any really official numbers. But if I were betting, I'd put my money on Talon Karrde."
Han frowned. He'd heard of Karrde, of course, but never with any hint that his organization was even in the top ten, let alone the one on top. Either Dravis was wrong, or Karrde was the type who believed in keeping a low profile. "Where can I find him?"
Dravis smiled slyly. "You'd like to know that, wouldn't you? Maybe someday I'll tell you."
"Gotta go. See you around, Chewie."
He started to turn; paused. "Oh, by the way. You might tell your pal over there that he's got to be the worst excuse for a backup man I've ever seen. Just thought you'd like to know." With another grin, he turned again and headed back into the crowd.
Han grimaced as he watched him go. Still, at least Dravis had been willing to turn his back on them as he left. Some of the other smugglers he'd contacted hadn't even trusted him that far. Progress, sort of.
Beside him, Chewbacca growled something derogatory. "Well, what do you expect with Admiral Ackbar sitting on the Council?" Han shrugged. "The Calamarians were death on smugglers even before the war, and everyone knows it. Don't worry, they'll come around. Some of them, anyway. Dravis can blather all he wants about profit and excitement; but you offer them secure maintenance facilities, no Jabba-style skimming, and no one shooting at them, and they'll get interested. Come on, let's get going."
He slid out of the booth and headed for the bar and the exit just visible beyond it. Halfway across, he stopped at one of the other booths and looked down at its lone occupant. "I've got a message for you," he announced. "I'm supposed to tell you that you're the worst excuse for a backup man that Dravis has ever seen."
Wedge Antilles grinned up at him as he slid out from behind the table. "I thought that was the whole idea," he said, running his fingers through his black hair.
"Yes, but Dravis didn't." Though privately, Han would be the first to admit that Dravis had a point. As far as he was concerned, the only times Wedge didn't stick out like a lump on plate glass was when he was sitting in the cockpit of an X-wing blasting TIE fighters into dust. "So where's Page, anyway?" he asked, glancing around.
"Right here, sir," a quiet voice said at his shoulder.
Han turned. Beside them had appeared a medium-height, medium-build, totally nondescript-looking man. The kind of man no one would really notice; the kind who could blend invisibly into almost any surroundings.
Which had, again, been the whole idea. "You see anything suspicious?" Han asked him.
Page shook his head. "No backup troops; no weapons other than his blaster. This guy must have genuinely trusted you."
"Yeah. Progress." Han took one last look around. "Let's get going. We're going to be late enough back to Coruscant as it is. And I want to swing through the Obroa-skai system on the way."
"That missing Elomin task force?" Wedge asked.
"Yeah," Han said grimly. "I want to see if they've figured out what happened to it yet. And if we're lucky, maybe get some idea of who did it to them."
The fold-out table in his private office was set, the food was ready to serve, and Talon Karrde was just pouring the wine when the tap came on his door. As always, his timing was perfect. "Mara?" he called.
"Yes," the young woman's voice confirmed through the door. "You asked me to join you for dinner."
"Yes. Please come in."
The door slid open, and with her usual catlike grace Mara Jade walked into the room. "You didn't say what—" her green eyes flicked to the elaborately set table "—this was all about," she finished, her tone just noticeably different. The green eyes came back to him, cool and measuring.
"No, it's not what you're thinking," Karrde assured her, motioning her to the chair opposite his. "This is a business meal—no more, no less."
From behind his desk came a sound halfway between a cackle and a purr. "That's right, Drang—a business meal," Karrde said, turning toward the sound. "Come on, out with you."
The vornskr peered out from around the edge of the desk, its front paws gripping the carpet, its muzzle close to the floor as if on the hunt. "I said out with you," Karrde repeated firmly, pointing toward the open door behind Mara. "Come on, your dish has been set up in the kitchen. Sturm's already there—chances are he's eaten half your supper by now."
Reluctantly, Drang slunk out from behind the desk, cackle/purring forlornly to himself as he padded toward the door. Don't give me that poor-little-me act," Karrde chided, picking a piece of braised bruallki from the serving dish. "Here—this should cheer you up."
He tossed the food in the general direction of the doorway. Drang's lethargy vanished in a single coiled-spring leap as he snagged the mouthful in midair. "There," Karrde called after him. "Now go and enjoy your supper."
The vornskr trotted out. "All right," Karrde said, shifting his attention back to Mara. "Where were we?"
"You were telling me this was a business meal," she said, her voice still a little cool as she slid into the seat across from his and surveyed the table. "It's certainly the nicest business meal I've had in quite a while."
"Well, that's the point, really," Karrde told her, sitting down himself and reaching over to the serving tray. "I think it's occasionally good for us to remember that being a smuggler doesn't necessarily require one to be a barbarian, too."
"Ah," she nodded, sipping at her wine. "And I'm sure most of your people are so very grateful for that reminder."
Karrde smiled. So much, he thought, for the unusual setting and scenario throwing her off balance. He should have known that particular gambit wouldn't work on someone like Mara. "It does often make for an interesting evening," he agreed. "Particularly—" he eyed her "—when discussing a promotion."
A flicker of surprise, almost too fast to see, crossed her face. "A promotion?" she echoed carefully.
"Yes," he said, scooping a serving of bruallki onto her plate and setting it in front of her. "Yours, to be precise."
The wary look was back in her eyes. "I've only been with the group for six months, you know."
"Five and a half, actually," he corrected her. "But time has never been as important to the universe as ability and results... and your ability and results have been quite impressive."
She shrugged, her red-gold hair shimmering with the movement. "I've been lucky," she said.
"Luck is certainly part of it," he agreed. "On the other hand, I've found that what most people call luck is often little more than raw talent combined with the ability to make the most of opportunities."
He turned back to the bruallki, dished some onto his own plate. "Then there's your talent for starship piloting, your ability to both give and accept orders—" he smiled slightly, gesturing to the table "—and your ability to adapt to unusual and unexpected situations. All highly useful talents for a smuggler."
He paused, but she remained silent. Evidently, somewhere in her past she'd also learned when not to ask questions. Another useful talent. "The bottom line, Mara, is that you're simply too valuable to waste as a backup or even as a line operator," he concluded. "What I'd like to do is to start grooming you toward eventually becoming my second in command."
There was no chance of mistaking her surprise this time. The green eyes went momentarily wide, and then narrowed. "What exactly would my new duties consist of?" she asked.
"Traveling with me, mostly," he said, taking a sip of wine. "Watching me set up new business, meeting with some of our long-term customers so that they can get to know you—that sort of thing."
She was still suspicious—he could tell that from her eyes. Suspicious that the offer was a smoke screen to mask some more personal request or demand on his part. "You don't have to answer now," he told her. "Think about it, or talk to some of the others who've been with the organization longer." He looked her straight in the eye. "They'll tell you that I don't lie to my people."
Her lip twisted. "So I've heard," she said, her voice going noncommittal again. "But bear in mind that if you give me that kind of authority, I am going to use it. There's some revamping of the whole organizational structure—"
She broke off as the intercom on his desk warbled. "Yes?" Karrde called toward it.
"It's Aves," a voice said. "Thought you'd like to know we've got company: an Imperial Star Destroyer just made orbit."
Karrde glanced at Mara as he got to his feet. "Any make on it yet?" he asked, dropping his napkin beside his plate and stepping around the desk to where he could see the screen.
"They're not exactly broadcasting ID sigs these days," Aves shook his head. "The lettering on the side is hard to read at this distance, but Torve's best guess is that it's the Chimaera."
"Interesting," Karrde murmured. Grand Admiral Thrawn himself. "Have they made any transmissions?"
"None that we've picked up—wait a minute. Looks like... yes—they're launching a shuttle. Make that two shuttles. Projected landing point..." Aves frowned at something offscreen for a moment. "Projected landing point somewhere here in the forest."
Out of the corner of his eyes, Karrde saw Mara stiffen a bit. "Not in any of the cities around the edge?" he asked Aves.
"No, it's definitely the forest. No more than fifty kilometers from here, either."
Karrde rubbed his forefinger gently across his lower lip, considering the possibilities. "Still only two shuttles?"
"That's all so far." Aves was starting to look a little nervous. "Should I call an alert?"
"On the contrary. Let's see if they need any help. Give me a hailing channel."
Aves opened his mouth; closed it again. "Okay," he said, taking a deep breath and tapping something offscreen. "You have hailing."
"Thank you. Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera, this is Talon Karrde. May I be of any assistance to you?"
"No response," Aves muttered. "You think maybe they didn't want to be noticed?"
"If you don't want to be noticed, you don't use a Star Destroyer," Karrde pointed out. "No, they're most likely busy running my name through ship's records. Be interesting to see some day just what they have on me. If anything." He cleared his throat. "Star Destroyer Chimaera, this is—"
Abruptly, Aves's face was replaced by that of a middle-aged man wearing a captain's insignia. "This is Captain Pellaeon of the Chimaera," he said brusquely. "What is it you want?"
"Merely to be neighborly," Karrde told him evenly. "We track two of your shuttles coming down, and wondered if you or Grand Admiral Thrawn might require any assistance."
The skin around Pellaeon's eyes tightened, just a bit. "Who?"
"Ah," Karrde nodded, allowing a slight smile. "Of course. I haven't heard of Grand Admiral Thrawn, either. Certainly not in connection with the Chimaera. Or with some intriguing information raids on several systems in the Paonnid/Obroa-skai region, either."
The eyes tightened a little more. "You're very well informed, Mr. Karrde," Pellaeon said, his voice silky but with menace lurking beneath it. "One might wonder how a lowly smuggler would come by such information."
Karrde shrugged. "My people hear stories and rumors; I take the pieces and put them together. Much the same way your own intelligence units operate, I imagine. Incidentally, if your shuttles are planning to put down in the forest, you need to warn the crews to be careful. There are several dangerous predator species living here, and the high metal content of the vegetation makes sensor readings unreliable at best."
"Thank you for the advice," Pellaeon said, his voice still frosty. "But they won't be staying long."
"Ah," Karrde nodded, running the possibilities through his mind. There were, fortunately, not all that many of them. "Doing a little hunting, are they?"
Pellaeon favored him with a slightly indulgent smile. "Information on Imperial activities is very expensive. I'd have thought a man in your line of work would know that."
"Indeed," Karrde agreed, watching the other closely. "But occasionally one finds bargains. It's the ysalamiri you're after, isn't it?"
The other's smile froze. "There are no bargains to be had here, Karrde," he said after a moment, his voice very soft. "And expensive can also mean costly."
"True," Karrde said. "Unless, of course, it's traded for something equally valuable. I presume you're already familiar with the ysalamiri's rather unique characteristics—otherwise, you wouldn't be here. Can I assume you're also familiar with the somewhat esoteric art of safely getting them off their tree branches?"
Pellaeon studied him, suspicion all over his face. "I was under the impression that ysalamiri were no more than fifty centimeters long and not predatory."
"I wasn't referring to your safety, Captain," Karrde told him. I meant theirs. You can't just pull them off their branches, not without killing them. An ysalamir in this stage is sessile—its claws have elongated to the point where they've essentially grown directly into the core of the branch it inhabits."
"And you, I suppose, know the proper way to do it?"
"Some of my people do, yes," Karrde told him. "If you'd like, I could send one of them to rendezvous with your shuttles. The technique involved isn't especially difficult, but it really does have to be demonstrated."
"Of course," Pellaeon said, heavily sardonic. "And the fee for this esoteric demonstration...?"
"No fee, Captain. As I said earlier, we're just being neighborly."
Pellaeon cocked his head slightly to one side. "Your generosity will be remembered." For a moment he held Karrde's gaze; and there was no mistaking the twin-edged meaning to the words. If Karrde was planning some sort of betrayal, it too would be remembered. "I'll signal my shuttles to expect your expert."
"He'll be there. Good-bye, Captain."
Pellaeon reached for something off-camera, and once again Ave's face replaced his on the screen. "You get all that?" Karrde asked the other.
Aves nodded. "Dankin and Chin are already warming up one of the Skiprays."
"Good. Have them leave an open transmission; and I'll want to see them as soon as they're back."
"Right." The display clicked off.
Karrde stepped away from the desk, glanced once at Mara, and reseated himself at the table. "Sorry for the interruption," he said conversationally, watching her out of the corner of his eye as he poured himself some more wine.
Slowly, the green eyes came back from infinity; and as she looked at him, the muscles of her face eased from their deathlike rigidness. "You really not going to charge them for this?" she asked, reaching a slightly unsteady hand for her own wine. "They'd certainly make you pay if you wanted something. That's about all the Empire really cares about these days, money."
He shrugged. "We get to have our people watching them from the moment they set down to the moment they lift off. That seems an adequate fee to me."
She studied him. "You don't believe they're here just to pick up ysalamiri, do you?"
"Not really." Karrde took a bite of his bruallki. "At least, not unless there's a use for the things that we don't know about. Coming all the way out here to collect ysalamiri is a bit of an overkill to use against a single Jedi."
Mara's eyes again drifted away. "Maybe it's not Skywalker they're after," she murmured. "Maybe they've found some more Jedi."
"Seems unlikely," Karrde said, watching her closely. The emotion in her voice when she'd said Luke Skywalker's name... "The Emperor supposedly made a clean sweep of them in the early days of the New Order. Unless," he added as another thought occurred to him, "they've perhaps found Darth Vader."
"Vader died on the Death Star," Mara said. "Along with the Emperor."
"That's the story, certainly—"
"He died there," Mara cut him off, her voice suddenly sharp.
"Of course," Karrde nodded. It had taken him five months of close observation, but he'd finally pinned down the handful of subjects guaranteed to trigger strong responses from the woman. The late Emperor was among them, as was the pre-Endor Empire.
And at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum was Luke Skywalker. "Still," he continued thoughtfully, "if a Grand Admiral thinks he has a good reason to carry ysalamiri aboard his ships, we might do well to follow his lead."
Abruptly, Mara's eyes focused on him again. "What for?" she demanded.
"A simple precaution," Karrde said. "Why so vehement?"
He watched as she fought a brief internal battle. "It seems like a waste of time," she said. "Thrawn's probably just jumping at shadows. Anyway, how are you going to keep ysalamiri alive on a ship without transplanting some trees along with them?"
"I'm sure Thrawn has some ideas as to the mechanics of it," Karrde assured her. "Dankin and Chin will know how to poke around for details."
Her eyes seemed strangely hooded. "Yes," she muttered, her voice conceding defeat. "I'm sure they will."
"And in the meantime," Karrde said, pretending not to notice, "we still have business to discuss. As I recall, you were going to list some improvements you would make in the organization."
"Yes." Mara took another deep breath, closing her eyes... and when she opened them again she was back to her usual cool self. "Yes. Well—"
Slowly at first, but with ever-increasing confidence, she launched into a detailed and generally insightful compendium of his group's shortcomings. Karrde listened closely as he ate, wondering again at the hidden talents of this woman. Someday, he promised himself silently, he was going to find a way to dig the details of her past out from under the cloak of secrecy she'd so carefully shrouded it with. To find out where she'd come from, and who and what she was.
And to learn exactly what it was Luke Skywalker had done to make her so desperately hate him.
It took the Chimaera nearly five days at its Point Four cruising speed to cover the three hundred fifty light-years between Myrkr and Wayland. But that was all right, because it took the engineers nearly that long to come up with a portable frame that would both support and nourish the ysalamiri.
"I'm still not convinced this is really necessary," Pellaeon grumbled, eyeing with distaste the thick curved pipe and the furscaled, salamanderlike creature attached to it. The pipe and its attached frame were blasted heavy, and the creature itself didn't smell all that good. "If this Guardian you're expecting was put on Wayland by the Emperor in the first place, then I don't see why we should have any problems with him."
"Call it a precaution, Captain," Thrawn said, settling into the shuttle's copilot seat and fastening his own straps. "It's conceivable we could have trouble convincing him of who we are. Or even that we still serve the Empire." He sent a casual glance across the displays and nodded to the pilot. "Go."
There was a muffled clank, and with a slight jolt the shuttle dropped from the Chimera's docking bay and started its descent toward the planet surface. "We might have had an easier time convincing him with a squad of stormtroopers along," Pellaeon muttered, watching the repeater display beside his seat.
"We might also have irritated him," Thrawn pointed out. A Dark Jedi's pride and sensibilities are not to be taken lightly, Captain. Besides—" he looked over his shoulder "—that's what Rukh is for. Any close associate of the Emperor ought to be familiar with the glorious role the Noghri have played over the years."
Pellaeon glanced at the silent nightmare figure seated across the aisle. "You seem certain, sir, that the Guardian will be a Dark Jedi."
"Who else would the Emperor have chosen to protect his personal storehouse?" Thrawn countered. "A legion of stormtroopers, perhaps, equipped with AT-ATs and the kind of advanced weaponry and technology you could detect from orbit with your eyes closed?"
Pellaeon grimaced. That, at least, was something they wouldn't have to worry about. The Chimera's scanners had picked up nothing beyond bow-and-arrow stage anywhere on Wayland's surface. It wasn't all that much comfort. "I'm just wondering whether the Emperor might have pulled him off Wayland to help against the Rebellion."
Thrawn shrugged. "We'll know soon enough."
The gentle roar of atmospheric friction against the shuttle's hull was growing louder now, and on Pellaeon's repeater display details of the planet's surface were becoming visible. Much of the area directly beneath them appeared to be forest, spotted here and there with large, grassy plains. Ahead, occasionally visible through the haze of clouds, a single mountain rose above the landscape. "Is that MountTantiss?" he asked the pilot.
"Yes, sir," the other confirmed. "The city ought to be visible soon."
"Right." Reaching surreptitiously to his right thigh, Pellaeon adjusted his blaster in its holster. Thrawn could be as confident as he liked, both in the ysalamiri and in his own logic. For his part, Pellaeon still wished they had more firepower.
The city nestled against the southwestern base of MountTantiss was larger than it had looked from orbit, with many of its squat buildings extending deep under the cover of the surrounding trees. Thrawn had the pilot circle the area twice, and then put down in the center of what appeared to be the main city square, facing a large and impressively regal-looking building.
"Interesting," Thrawn commented, looking out the viewports as he settled his ysalamir backpack onto his shoulders. "There are at least three styles of architecture out there—human plus two different alien species. It's not often you see such diversity in the same planetary region, let alone side by side in the same city. In fact, that palace thing in front of us has itself incorporated elements from all three styles."
"Yes," Pellaeon agreed absently, peering out the viewports himself. At the moment, the buildings were of far less interest to him than the people the life-form sensors said were hiding behind and inside them. "Any idea whether those alien species are hostile toward strangers?"
"Probably," Thrawn said, stepping to the shuttle's exit ramp, where Rukh was already waiting. "Most alien species are. Shall we go?"
The ramp lowered with a hiss of released gases. Gritting his teeth, Pellaeon joined the other two. With Rukh in the lead, they headed down.
No one shot at them as they reached the ground and took a few steps away from the shuttle. Nor did anyone scream, call out, or make any appearance at all. "Shy, aren't they?" Pellaeon murmured, keeping his hand on his blaster as he looked around.
"Understandably," Thrawn said, pulling a megaphone disk from his belt. "Let's see if we can persuade them to be hospitable."
Cupping the disk in his hand, he raised it to his lips. "I seek the Guardian of the mountain," his voice boomed across the square, the last syllable echoing from the surrounding buildings. "Who will take me to him?"
The last echo died away into silence. Thrawn lowered the disk and waited; but the seconds ticked by without any response. "Maybe they don't understand Basic," Pellaeon suggested doubtfully.
"No, they understand," Thrawn said coldly. "The humans do, at any rate. Perhaps they need more motivation." He raised the megaphone again. "I seek the Guardian of the mountain," he repeated. "If no one will take me to him, this entire city will suffer."
The words were barely out of his mouth when, without warning, an arrow flashed toward them from the right. It struck Thrawn in the side, barely missing the ysalamir tube wrapped around his shoulders and back, and bounced harmlessly off the body armor hidden beneath the white uniform. "Hold," Thrawn ordered as Rukh leaped to his side, blaster at the ready. "You have the location?"
"Yes," the Noghri grated, his blaster pointed at a squat two-story structure a quarter of the way around the square from the palace.
"Good." Thrawn raised the megaphone again. "One of your people just shot at us. Observe the consequences." Lowering the disk again, he nodded to Rukh. "Now."
And with a tight grin of his needle teeth, Rukh proceeded—quickly, carefully, and scientifically—to demolish the building.
He took out the windows and doors first, putting perhaps a dozen shots through them to discourage any further attack. Then he switched to the lower-floor walls. By the twentieth shot, the building was visibly trembling on its foundations. A handful of shots into the upper-floor walls, a few more into the lower—
And with a thunderous crash, the building collapsed in on itself.
Thrawn waited until the sound of crunching masonry had died away before raising the megaphone again. "Those are the consequences of defying me," he called. "I ask once more: who will take me to the Guardian of the mountain?"
"I will," a voice said from their left.
Pellaeon spun around. The man standing in front of the palace building was tall and thin, with unkempt gray hair and a beard that reached almost to the middle of his chest. He was dressed in shin-laced sandals and an old brown robe, with a glittering medallion of some sort half hidden behind the beard. His face was dark and lined and regal to the point of arrogance as he studied them, his eyes holding a mixture of curiosity and disdain. "You are strangers," he said, the same mixture in his voice. "Strangers—" he glanced up at the shuttle towering over them "—from offworld."
"Yes, we are," Thrawn acknowledged. "And you?"
The old man's eyes flicked to the smoking rubble Rukh had just created. "You destroyed one of my buildings," he said. "There was no need for that."
"We were attacked," Thrawn told him coolly. "Were you its landlord?"
The stranger's eyes might have flashed; at the distance, Pellaeon couldn't say for certain. "I rule," he said, his voice quiet hut with menace beneath it. "All that is here is mine."
For a handful of heartbeats he and Thrawn locked eyes. Thrawn broke the silence first. "I am Grand Admiral Thrawn, Warlord of the Empire, servant of the Emperor. I seek the Guardian of the mountain."
The old man bowed his head slightly. "I will take you to him."
Turning, he started back toward the palace. "Stay close together," Thrawn murmured to the others as he moved to follow. "Be alert for a trap."
No more arrows came as they crossed the square and walked under the carved keystone archway framing the palace's double doors. "I would have thought the Guardian would be living in the mountain," Thrawn said as their guide pulled open the doors. They came easily; the old man, Pellaeon decided, must be stronger than he looked.
"He did, once," the other said over his shoulder. "When I began my rule, the people of Wayland built this for him." He crossed to the center of the ornate foyer room, halfway to another set of double doors, and stopped. "Leave us," he called.
For a split second Pellaeon thought the old man was talking to him. He was just opening his mouth to refuse when two flanking sections of wall swung open and a pair of scrawny men stepped out of hidden guard niches. Glowering silently at the Imperials, they shouldered their crossbows and left the building. The old man waited until they were gone, then continued on to the second set of double doors. "Come," he said, gesturing to the doors, an odd glitter in his eyes. "The Emperor's Guardian awaits you."
Silently, the doors swung open, revealing the light of what looked to be several hundred candles filling a huge room. Pellaeon glanced once at the old man standing beside the doors, a sudden premonition of dread sending a shiver up his back. Taking a deep breath, he followed Thrawn and Rukh inside.
Into a crypt.
There was no doubt as to what it was. Aside from the flickering candles, there was nothing else in the room but a large rectangular block of dark stone in the center.
"I see," Thrawn said quietly. "So he is dead."
"He is dead," the old man confirmed from behind them. "Do you see all the candles, Grand Admiral Thrawn?"
"I see them," Thrawn nodded. "The people must have honored him greatly."
"Honored him?" The old man snorted gently. "Hardly. Those candles mark the graves of offworlders who have come here since his death."
Pellaeon twisted to face him, instinctively drawing his blaster as he did so. Thrawn waited another few heartbeats before slowly turning around himself. "How did they die?" he asked.
The old man smiled faintly. "I killed them, of course. Just as I killed the Guardian." He raised his empty hands in front of him, palms upward. "Just as I now kill you."
Without warning, blue lightning bolts flashed from his fingertips—
And vanished without a trace a meter away from each of them.
It all happened so fast that Pellaeon had no chance to even flinch, let alone fire. Now, belatedly, he raised his blaster, the scalding hot air from the bolts washing over his hand—
"Hold," Thrawn said calmly into the silence. "However, as you can see, Guardian, we are not ordinary offworlders."
"The Guardian is dead!" the old man snapped, the last word almost swallowed up by the crackle of more lightning. Again, the bolts vanished into nothingness before even coming close.
"Yes, the old Guardian is dead," Thrawn agreed, shouting to be heard over the crackling thunder. "You are the Guardian now. It is you who protects the Emperor's mountain."
"I serve no Emperor!" the old man retorted, unleashing a third useless salvo. "My power is for myself alone."
As suddenly as it had started, the attack ceased. The old man stared at Thrawn, his hands still raised, a puzzled and oddly petulant expression on his face. "You are not Jedi. How do you do this?"
"Join us and learn," Thrawn suggested.
The other drew himself up to his full height. "I am a Jedi Master," he ground out. "I join no one."
"I see," Thrawn nodded. "In that case, permit us to join you." His glowing red eyes bored into the old man's face. "And permit us to show you how you can have more power than you've ever imagined. All the power even a Jedi Master could desire."
For a long moment the old man continued to stare at Thrawn, a dozen strange expressions flicking in quick succession across his face. "Very well," he said at last. "Come. We will talk."
"Thank you," Thrawn said, inclining his head slightly. "May I ask who we have the honor of addressing?"
"Of course." The old man's face was abruptly regal again, and when he spoke his voice rang out in the silence of the crypt. "I am the Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth."
Pellaeon inhaled sharply, a cold shiver running up his back. "Jorus C'baoth?" he breathed. "But—"
He broke off. C'baoth looked at him, much as Pellaeon himself might look at a junior officer who has spoken out of turn. "Come," he repeated, turning back to Thrawn. "We will talk."
He led the way out of the crypt and back into the sunshine. Several small knots of people had gathered in the square in their absence, huddling well back from both the crypt and the shuttle as they whispered nervously together.
With one exception. Standing directly in their path a few meters away was one of the two guards C'baoth had ordered out of the crypt. On his face was an expression of barely controlled fury; in his hands, cocked and ready, was his crossbow. "You destroyed his home," C'baoth said, almost conversationally. "Doubtless he would like to exact vengeance."
The words were barely out of his mouth when the guard suddenly snapped the crossbow up and fired. Instinctively, Pellaeon ducked, raising his blaster—
And three meters from the Imperials the bolt came to an abrupt halt in midair.
Pellaeon stared at the hovering piece of wood and metal, his brain only slowly catching up with what had just happened. "They are our guests," C'baoth told the guard in a voice clearly intended to reach everyone in the square. "They will be treated accordingly."
With a crackle of splintering wood, the crossbow bolt shattered, the pieces dropping to the ground. Slowly, reluctantly, the guard lowered his crossbow, his eyes still burning with a now impotent rage. Thrawn let him stand there another second like that, then gestured to Rukh. The Noghri raised his blaster and fired—
And in a blur of motion almost too fast to see, a flat stone detached itself from the ground and hurled itself directly into the path of the shot, shattering spectacularly as the blast hit it.
Thrawn spun to face C'baoth, his face a mirror of surprise and anger. "C'baoth—!"
"These are my people, Grand Admiral Thrawn," the other cut him off, his voice forged from quiet steel. "Not yours; mine. If there is punishment to be dealt out, I will do it."
For a long moment the two men again locked eyes. Then, with an obvious effort, Thrawn regained his composure. "Of course, Master C'baoth," he said. "Forgive me."
C'baoth nodded. "Better. Much better." He looked past Thrawn, dismissed the guard with a nod. "Come," he said, looking back at the Grand Admiral. "We will talk."
"You will now tell me," C'baoth said, gesturing them to low cushions, "how it was you defeated my attack."
"Let me first explain our offer," Thrawn said, throwing a casual glance around the room before easing carefully down on one of the cushions. Probably, Pellaeon thought, the Grand Admiral was examining the bits of artwork scattered around. "I believe you'll find it—"
"You will now tell me how it was you defeated my attack," C'baoth repeated.
A slight grimace, quickly suppressed, touched Thrawn's lips. "It's quite simple, actually." He looked up at the ysalamir wrapped around his shoulders, reaching a finger over to gently stroke its long neck. "These creatures you see on our backs are called ysalamiri. They're sessile tree-dwelling creatures from a distant, third-rate planet, and they have an interesting and possibly unique ability—they push back the Force."
C'baoth frowned. "What do you mean, push it back?"
"They push its presence out away from themselves," Thrawn explained. "Much the same way a bubble is created by air pushing outward against water. A single ysalamir can occasionally create a bubble as large as ten meters across; a whole group of them reinforcing one another can create much larger ones."
"I've never heard of such a thing," C'baoth said, staring at Thrawn's ysalamir with an almost childlike intensity. "How could such a creature have come about?"
"I really don't know," Thrawn conceded. "I assume the talent has some survival value, but what that would be I can't imagine." He cocked an eyebrow. "Not that it matters. For the moment, the ability itself is sufficient for my purpose."
C'baoth's face darkened. "That purpose being to defeat my power?"
Thrawn shrugged. "We were expecting to find the Emperor's Guardian here. I needed to make certain he would allow us to identify ourselves and explain our mission." He reached up again to stroke the ysalamir's neck. "Though as it happens, protecting us from the Guardian was really only an extra bonus. I have something far more interesting in mind for our little pets."
Thrawn smiled. "All in good time, Master C'baoth. And only after we've had a chance to examine the Emperor's storehouse in MountTantiss."
C'baoth's lip twisted. "So the mountain is all you really want."
"I need the mountain, certainly," Thrawn acknowledged. "Or rather, what I hope to find within it."
"And that is...?"
Thrawn studied him for a moment. "There were rumors, just before the Battle of Endor, that the Emperor's researchers had finally developed a genuinely practical cloaking shield. I want it. Also," he added, almost as an afterthought, "another small—almost trivial—bit of technology."
"And you think to find one of these cloaking shields in the mountain?"
"I expect to find either a working model or at least a complete set of schematics," Thrawn said. "One of the Emperor's purposes in setting up this storehouse was to make sure that interesting and potentially useful technology didn't get lost."
"That, and collecting endless mementos of his glorious conquests." C'baoth snorted. "There are rooms and rooms of that sort of cackling self-congratulation."
Pellaeon sat up a bit straighter. "You've been inside the mountain?" he asked. Somehow, he'd expected the storehouse to be sealed with all sorts of locks and barriers.
C'baoth sent him a scornfully patient look. "Of course I've been inside. I killed the Guardian, remember?" He looked back at Thrawn. "So. You want the Emperor's little toys; and now you know you can just walk into the mountain, with or without my help. Why are you still sitting here?"
"Because the mountain is only part of what I need," Thrawn told him. "I also require the partnership of a Jedi Master like yourself."
C'baoth settled back into his cushion, a cynical smile showing through his beard. "Ah, we finally get down to it. This, I take it, is where you offer me all the power even a Jedi Master could desire?"
Thrawn smiled back. "It is indeed. Tell me, Master C'baoth: are you familiar with the Imperial Fleet's disastrous defeat at the Battle of Endor five years ago?"
"I've heard rumors. One of the offworlders who came here spoke about it." C'baoth's gaze drifted to the window, to the palace/crypt visible across the square. "Though only briefly."
Pellaeon swallowed. Thrawn himself didn't seem to notice the implication. "Then you must have wondered how a few dozen Rebel ships could possibly rout an Imperial force that outgunned it by at least ten to one."
"I didn't spend much time with such wonderings," C'baoth said dryly. "I assumed that the Rebels were simply better warriors."
"In a sense, that's true," Thrawn agreed. "The Rebels did indeed fight better, but not because of any special abilities or training. They fought better than the Fleet because the Emperor was dead."
He turned to look at Pellaeon. "You were there, Captain—you must have noticed it. The sudden loss of coordination between crew members and ships; the loss of efficiency and discipline. The loss, in short, of that elusive quality we call fighting spirit."
"There was some confusion, yes," Pellaeon said stiffly. He was starting to see where Thrawn was going with this, and he didn't like it a bit. "But nothing that can't be explained by the normal stresses of battle."
One blue-black eyebrow went up, just slightly. "Really? The loss of the Executor—the sudden, last-minute TIE fighter incompetence that brought about the destruction of the Death Star itself—the loss of six other Star Destroyers in engagements that none of them should have had trouble with? All of that nothing but normal battle stress?"
"The Emperor was not directing the battle," Pellaeon snapped with a fire that startled him. "Not in any way. I was there, Admiral—I know."
"Yes, Captain, you were there," Thrawn said, his voice abruptly hard. "And it's time you gave up your blindfold and faced the truth, no matter how bitter you find it. You had no real fighting spirit of your own anymore—none of you in the Imperial Fleet did. It was the Emperor's will that drove you; the Emperor's mind that provided you with strength and resolve and efficiency. You were as dependent on that presence as if you were all borg-implanted into a combat computer."
"That's not true," Pellaeon shot back, stomach twisting painfully within him. "It can't be. We fought on after his death."
"Yes," Thrawn said, his voice quiet and contemptuous. "You fought on. Like cadets."
C'baoth snorted. "So is this what you want me for, Grand Admiral Thrawn?" he asked scornfully. "To turn your ships into puppets for you?"
"Not at all, Master C'baoth," Thrawn told him, his voice perfectly calm again. "My analogy with combat borg implants was a carefully considered one. The Emperor's fatal error was in seeking to control the entire Imperial Fleet personally, as completely and constantly as possible. That, over the long run, is what did the damage. My wish is merely to have you enhance the coordination between ships and task forces—and then only at critical times and in carefully selected combat situations."
C'baoth threw a look at Pellaeon. "To what end?" he rumbled.
"To the end we've already discussed," Thrawn said. "Power."
"What sort of power?"
For the first time since landing, Thrawn seemed taken aback. "The conquering of worlds, of course. The final defeat of the Rebellion. The reestablishment of the glory that was once the Empire's New Order."
C'baoth shook his head. "You don't understand power, Grand Admiral Thrawn. Conquering worlds you'll never even visit again isn't power. Neither is destroying ships and people and rebellions you haven't looked at face-to-face." He waved his hands in a sweeping gesture around him, his eyes glittering with an eerie fire. "This, Grand Admiral Thrawn, is power. This city—this planet—these people. Every human, Psadan, and Myneyrsh who live here are mine. Mine." His gaze drifted to the window again. "I teach them. I command them. I punish them. Their lives, and their deaths, are in my hand."
"Which is precisely what I offer you," Thrawn said. "Millions of lives—billions, if you wish. All those lives to do with as you please."
"It isn't the same," C'baoth said, a note of paternal patience in his voice. "I have no desire to hold distant power over faceless lives."
"You could have just a single city to rule, then," Thrawn persisted. "As large or as small as you wish."
"I rule a city now."
Thrawn's eyes narrowed. "I need your assistance, Master C'baoth. Name your price."
C'baoth smiled. "My price? The price for my service?" Abruptly, the smile vanished. "I'm a Jedi Master, Grand Admiral Thrawn," he said, his voice simmering with menace. "Not a mercenary for hire like your Noghri."
He threw a contemptuous look at Rukh, sitting silently off to one side. "Oh, yes, Noghri—I know what you and your people are. The Emperor's private Death Commandos; killing and dying at the whim of ambitious men like Darth Vader and the Grand Admiral here."
"Lord Vader served the Emperor and the Empire," Rukh grated, his dark eyes staring unblinkingly at C'baoth. "As do we."
"Perhaps." C'baoth turned back to Thrawn. "I have all I want or need, Grand Admiral Thrawn. You will leave Wayland now."
Thrawn didn't move. "I need your assistance, Master C'baoth," he repeated quietly. "And I will have it."
"Or you'll do what?" C'baoth sneered. "Have your Noghri try to kill me? It would almost be amusing to watch." He looked at Pellaeon. "Or perhaps you'll have your brave Star Destroyer captain try to level my city from orbit. Except that you can't risk damaging the mountain, can you?"
"My gunners could destroy this city without even singeing the grass on MountTantiss," Pellaeon retorted. "If you need a demonstration—"
"Peace, Captain," Thrawn cut him off calmly. "So it's the personal, face-to-face sort of power you prefer, Master C'baoth? Yes, I can certainly understand that. Not that there can be much challenge left in it—not anymore. Of course," he added reflectively, glancing out the window, "that may be the whole idea. I expect that even Jedi Masters eventually get too old to be interested in anything except to sit out in the sun."
C'baoth's forehead darkened. "Have a care, Grand Admiral Thrawn," he warned. "Or perhaps I'll seek challenge in your destruction."
"That would hardly be a challenge for a man of your skill and power," Thrawn countered with a shrug. "But then, you probably already have other Jedi here under your command."
C'baoth frowned, obviously thrown by the sudden change in subject. "Other Jedi?" he echoed.
"Of course. Surely it's only fitting that a Jedi Master have lesser Jedi serving beneath him. Jedi whom he may teach and command and punish at will."
Something like a shadow crossed C'baoth's face. "There are no Jedi left," he murmured. "The Emperor and Vader hunted them down and destroyed them."
"Not all of them," Thrawn told him softly. "Two new Jedi have arisen in the past five years: Luke Skywalker and his sister, Leia Organa Solo."
"And what is that to me?"
"I can deliver them to you."
For a long minute C'baoth stared at him, disbelief and desire struggling for supremacy on his face. The desire won. "Both of them?"
"Both of them," Thrawn nodded. "Consider what a man of your skill could do with brand-new Jedi. Mold them, change them, re-create them in any image you chose." He cocked an eyebrow. "And with them would come a very special bonus... because Leia Organa Solo is pregnant. With twins."
C'baoth inhaled sharply. "Jedi twins?" he hissed.
"They have the potential, or so my sources tell me." Thrawn smiled. "Of course, what they ultimately became would be entirely up to you."
C'baoth's eyes darted to Pellaeon; back to Thrawn. Slowly, deliberately, he stood up. "Very well, Grand Admiral Thrawn," he said. "In return for the Jedi, I will assist your forces. Take me to your ship."
"In time, Master C'baoth," Thrawn said, getting to his feet himself. "First we must go into the Emperor's mountain. This bargain is dependent on whether I find what I'm looking for there."
"Of course." C'baoth's eyes flashed. "Let us both hope," he said warningly, "that you do."
It took seven hours of searching, through a mountain fortress much larger than Pellaeon had expected. But in the end, they did indeed find the treasures Thrawn had hoped for. The cloaking shield... and that other small, almost trivial, bit of technology.
The door to the Grand Admiral's command room slid open; settling himself, Pellaeon stepped inside. "A word with you, Admiral?"
"Certainly, Captain," Thrawn said from his seat in the center of the double display circle. "Come in. Has there been any update from the ImperialPalace?"
"No, sir, not since yesterday's," Pellaeon said as he walked to the edge of the outer circle, silently rehearsing one last time how he was going to say this. "I can request one, if you'd like."
"Probably unnecessary," Thrawn shook his head. "It looks like the details of the Bimmisaari trip have been more or less settled. All we have to do is alert one of the commando groups—Team Eight, I think—and we'll have our Jedi."
"Yes, sir." Pellaeon braced himself. "Admiral... I have to tell you that I'm not convinced dealing with C'baoth is a good idea. To be perfectly honest, I don't think he's entirely sane."
Thrawn cocked an eyebrow. "Of course he's not sane. But then, he's not Jorus C'baoth, either."
Pellaeon felt his mouth fall open. "What?"
"Jorus C'baoth is dead," Thrawn said. "He was one of the six Jedi Masters aboard the OldRepublic's Outbound Flight project. I don't know if you were highly enough placed back then to have known about it."
"I heard rumors," Pellaeon frowned, thinking back. "Some sort of grand effort to extend the OldRepublic's authority outside the galaxy, as I recall, launched just before the Clone Wars broke out. I never heard anything more about it."
"That's because there wasn't anything more to be heard," Thrawn said evenly. "It was intercepted by a task force outside OldRepublic space and destroyed."
Pellaeon stared at him, a shiver running up his back. "How do you know?"
Thrawn raised his eyebrows. "Because I was the force's commander. Even at that early date the Emperor recognized that the Jedi had to be exterminated. Six Jedi Masters aboard the same ship was too good an opportunity to pass up."
Pellaeon licked his lips. "But then...?"
"Who is it we've brought aboard the Chimaera?" Thrawn finished the question for him. "I should have thought that obvious. Joruus C'baoth—note the telltale mispronunciation of the name Jorus—is a clone."
Pellaeon stared at him. "A clone?"
"Certainly," Thrawn said. "Created from a tissue sample, probably sometime just before the real C'baoth's death."
"Early in the war, in other words," Pellaeon said, swallowing hard. The early clones—or at least those the fleet had faced—had been highly unstable, both mentally and emotionally. Sometimes spectacularly so... "And you deliberately brought this thing aboard my ship?" he demanded.
"Would you rather we have brought back a full-fledged Dark Jedi?" Thrawn asked coldly. "A second Darth Vader, perhaps, with the sort of ambitions and power that might easily lead him to take over your ship? Count your blessings, Captain."
"At least a Dark Jedi would have been predictable," Pellaeon countered.
"C'baoth is predictable enough," Thrawn assured him. "And for those times when he isn't—" He waved a hand at the half dozen frameworks encircling his command center. "That's what the ysalamiri are for."
Pellaeon grimaced. "I still don't like it, Admiral. We can hardly protect the ship from him while at the same time having him coordinate the fleet's attacks."
"There's a degree of risk involved," Thrawn agreed. "But risk has always been an inescapable part of warfare. In this case, the potential benefits far outweigh the potential dangers."
Reluctantly, Pellaeon nodded. He didn't like it—was fairly certain he would never like it—but it was clear that Thrawn had made up his mind. "Yes, sir," he muttered. "You mentioned a message to Team Eight. Will you be wanting me to transmit that?"
"No, I'll handle it myself." Thrawn smiled sardonically. "Their glorious leader, and all that—you know how Noghri are. If there's nothing more...?"
It was, clearly, a dismissal. "No, sir," Pellaeon said. "I'll be on the bridge if you require me." He turned to go.
"It will bring us victory, Captain," the Grand Admiral called softly after him. "Quiet your fears, and concentrate on that."
If it doesn't kill us all. "Yes, sir," Pellaeon said aloud, and left the room.
Han finished his report, sat back, and waited for the criticism to start.
It was a very short wait. "So once again your smuggler friends refuse to commit themselves," Admiral Ackbar said, sounding more than a little disgusted. His high-domed head bobbed twice in some indecipherable Calamarian gesture, his huge eyes blinking in time with the head movements. "You'll recall that I disagreed with this idea all along," he added, waving a webbed hand toward Han's report case.
Han glanced across the table at Leia. "It's not a matter of commitment, Admiral," he told the other. "It's a matter that most of them just don't see any real gain in switching from their current activities to straight shipping."
"Or else it's a lack of trust," a melodic alien voice put in. "Could that be it?"
Han grimaced before he could stop himself. "It's possible," he said, forcing himself to look at Borsk Fey'lya.
"Possible?" Fey'lya's violet eyes widened, the fine cream-colored fur covering his body rippling slightly with the motion. It was a Bothan gesture of polite surprise, one which Fey'lya seemed to use a lot. "You said possible, Captain Solo?"
Han sighed quietly and gave up. Fey'lya would only maneuver him into saying it some other way if he didn't. "Some of the groups I've talked to don't trust us," he conceded. "They think the offer might be some sort of trap to bring them out into the open."
"Because of me, of course," Ackbar growled, his normal salmon color turning a little darker. "Haven't you tired of retaking this same territory, Councilor Fey'lya?"
Fey'lya's eyes widened again, and for a moment he gazed silently at Ackbar as the tension around the table quickly rose to the level of thick paste. They had never liked each other, Han knew, not from the day Fey'lya had first brought his sizable faction of the Bothan race into the Alliance after the Battle of Yavin. Right from the start Fey'lya had been jockeying for position and power, cutting deals wherever and whenever he could and making it abundantly clear that he expected to be given a high position in the fledgling political system Mon Mothma was putting together. Ackbar had considered such ambitions to be a dangerous waste of time and effort, particularly given the bleak situation the Alliance was facing at the time, and with typical bluntness had made no effort to conceal that opinion.
Given Ackbar's reputation and subsequent successes, Han had little doubt that Fey'lya would ultimately have been shunted off to some relatively unimportant government post in the NewRepublic... if it hadn't happened that the spies who discovered the existence and location of the Emperor's new Death Star had been a group of Fey'lya's Bothans.
Preoccupied at the time with more urgent matters, Han had never learned the details of how Fey'lya had managed to parlay that serendipity into his current position on the Council. And to be perfectly honest, he wasn't sure he wanted to.
"I merely seek to clarify the situation in my own mind, Admiral," Fey'lya said at last into the heavy silence. "It's hardly worthwhile for us to continue sending a valuable man like Captain Solo out on these contact missions if each is predoomed to failure."
"They're not predoomed to failure," Han cut in. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Leia give him a warning look. He ignored it. "The kind of smugglers we're looking for are conservative businesspeople—they don't just jump into something new without thinking it through first. They'll come around."
Fey'lya shrugged, his fur again rippling. "And meanwhile, we expend a great deal of time and effort with nothing to show for it."
"Look, you can't build up any—"
A gentle, almost diffident tap of a hammer from the head of the table cut off the argument. "What the smugglers are waiting for," Mon Mothma said quietly, her stern gaze touching each of the others at the table in turn, "is the same thing the rest of the galaxy is waiting for: the formal reestablishment of the principals and law of the OldRepublic. That is our first and primary task, Councilors. To become the NewRepublic in fact as well as in name."
Han caught Leia's eye, and this time he was the one who sent out the warning look. She grimaced, but nodded slightly and kept quiet.
Mon Mothma let the silence linger a moment longer, again sending her gaze around the table. Han found himself studying her, noting the deepening lines in her face, the streaks of gray in her dark hair, the thinness rather than slenderness of her neck. She'd aged a lot since he'd first met her, back when the Alliance was trying to find a way out from under the shadow of the Empire's second Death Star. Ever since then, Mon Mothma had been right in the middle of this horrendous task of setting up a viable government, and the strain had clearly told on her.
But despite what the years were doing to her face, her eyes still held the same quiet fire they'd possessed then—the same fire, or so the stories went, that had been there since her historic break with the Emperor's New Order and her founding of the Rebel Alliance. She was tough, and smart, and fully in control. And everyone present knew it.
Her eyes finished their sweep and came to rest on Han. "Captain Solo, we thank you for your report; and, too, for your efforts. And with the Captain's report, this meeting is adjourned."
She tapped the hammer again and stood up. Han closed his report case and worked his way through the general confusion around to the other side of the table. "So," he said quietly, coming up behind Leia as she collected her own things. "Are we out of here?"
"The sooner the better," she muttered back. "I just have to give these things to Winter."
Han glanced around and lowered his voice a notch. "I take it things were going a little rough before they called me in?"
"No more than usual," she told him. "Fey'lya and Ackbar had one of their polite little dogfights, this one over the fiasco at Obroa-skai—that lost Elomin force—with some more of Fey'lya's veiled suggestions that the job of Commander in Chief is too much for Ackbar to handle. And then, of course, Mon Mothma—"
"A word with you, Leia?" Mon Mothma's voice came from over Han's shoulder.
Han turned to face her, sensing Leia tense a little beside him as she did likewise. "Yes?"
"I forgot to ask you earlier if you'd talked to Luke about going with you to Bimmisaari," Mon Mothma said. "Did he agree?"
"Yes," Leia nodded, throwing an apologetic look at Han. "I'm sorry, Han; I didn't get a chance to tell you. The Bimms sent a message yesterday asking that Luke be there with me for the talks."
"They did, huh?" A year ago, Han reflected, he would probably have been furious at having a painstakingly crafted schedule flipped at the last minute like this. Leia's diplomatic patience must be starting to rub off on him.
Either that, or he was just getting soft. "They give any reasons?"
"The Bimms are rather hero-oriented," Mon Mothma said before Leia could answer, her eyes searching Han's face. Probably trying to figure out just how mad he was about the change in plans. "And Luke's part in the Battle of Endor is rather well known."
"Yeah, I'd heard that," Han said, trying not to be too sarcastic. He had no particular quarrel with Luke's position in the NewRepublic's pantheon of heroes—the kid had certainly earned it. But if having Jedi around to brag about was so important to Mon Mothma, then she ought to be letting Leia get on with her own studies instead of foisting all this extra diplomatic work on her. As it was, he would bet on an ambitious snail to make full Jedi before she did.
Leia found his hand, squeezed it. He squeezed back, to show that he wasn't mad. Though she probably already knew that. "We'd better get going," she told Mon Mothma, using her grip on Han's hand to start steering him away from the table. "We still have to collect our droids before we leave."
"Have a good trip," Mon Mothma said gravely. "And good luck."
"The droids are already on the Falcon," Han told Leia as they wove their way around the various conversations that had sprung up between the Councilors and staff members. "Chewie got them aboard while I came here."
"I know," Leia murmured.
"Right," Han said, and left it at that.
She squeezed his hand again. "It'll be all right, Han. You, me, and Luke together again—it'll be just like old times."
"Sure," Han said. Sitting around with a group of half-furred, half-size aliens, listening to Threepio's precise voice all day as he translated back and forth, trying to penetrate yet another alien psychology to figure out what exactly it would take to get them to join the New Republic— "Sure," he repeated with a sigh. "Just exactly like old times."
The waving alien trees shied back like some sort of huge tentacles from the landing area, and with the barest of bumps Han set the Millennium Falcon down on the uneven ground. "Well, here we are," he announced to no one in particular. "Bimmisaari. Fur and moving plants a specialty."
"None of that," Leia warned him, unstrapping from the seat behind him and running through the Jedi relaxation techniques Luke had taught her. Political dealings with people she knew were relatively easy for her. Diplomatic missions with unfamiliar alien races were something else entirely.
"You'll do fine," Luke said from beside her, reaching over to squeeze her arm.
Han half turned. "I wish you two wouldn't do that," he complained. "It's like listening to half a conversation."
"Sorry," Luke apologized, climbing out of his seat and stooping to peer out the Falcon's nose window. "Looks like our reception committee coming. I'll go get Threepio ready."
"We'll be there in a minute," Leia called after him. "You ready, Han?"
"Yeah," Han told her, adjusting his blaster in its holster. "Last chance to change your mind, Chewie."
Leia strained her ears as Chewbacca growled out a curt reply. Even after all these years she still couldn't understand him nearly as well as Han could—some subtle level of harmonics in the Wookiee's voice, apparently, that she had trouble picking up.
But if some of the words were less than distinct, the overall meaning came through crystal clear. "Oh, come on," Han urged. "You've been fawned over before—remember that big awards thing back at the Yavin base? I didn't hear you complaining then."
"It's all right, Han," Leia put in over Chewbacca's response. "If he wants to stay aboard with Artoo and work on the stabilizers, that's fine. The Bimms won't be offended."
Han looked out the nose window at the approaching delegation. "I wasn't worried about offending them," he muttered. "I just thought it'd be nice to have a little extra backup along. Just in case."
Leia smiled and patted his arm. "The Bimms are very friendly people," she assured him. "There won't be any trouble."
"I've heard that before," Han said dryly, pulling a comlink from a small storage compartment beside his seat. He started to clip it to his belt; changed direction in midmotion and fastened it to his collar instead.
"Looks good there," Leia said. "Are you going to put your old general's insignia on your belt now?"
He made a face at her. "Very funny. With the comlink here, all I have to do is casually switch it on and I'll be able to talk to Chewie without being obvious about it."
"Ah," Leia nodded. It was a good idea, at that. "Sounds like you've been spending too much time with Lieutenant Page and his commandos."
"I've been spending too much time sitting in on Council meetings," he countered, sliding out of his seat and standing up. "After four years of watching political infighting, you learn the occasional value of subtlety. Come on, Chewie—we'll need you to lock up behind us."
Luke and Threepio were waiting when they got to the hatchway. "Ready?" Luke asked.
"Ready," Leia said, taking a deep breath. With a hiss of released airseal the hatchway opened, and together they walked down the ramp to where the yellow-clad, half-furred creatures waited.
The arrival ceremony was short and, for the most part, unintelligible, though Threepio did his best to keep up a running translation of the five-part harmony the whole thing seemed to have been written in. The song/welcome ended and two of the Bimms stepped forward, one of them continuing the melody while the other held up a small electronic device. "He offers greetings to Distinguished Visitor Councilor Leia Organa Solo," Threepio said, "and hopes your discussions with the Law Elders will be fruitful. He also requests that Captain Solo return his weapon to the ship."
The droid said it so matter-of-factly that it took a second for the words to penetrate. "What was that last?" Leia asked.
"Captain Solo must leave his weapon aboard the ship," Threepio repeated. "Weapons of violence are not permitted within the city. There are no exceptions."
"Terrific," Han murmured into her ear. "You didn't tell me this one was coming."
"I didn't know this one was coming," Leia countered quietly, giving the two Bimms a reassuring smile. "Doesn't look like we've got any choice."
"Diplomacy," Han growled, making a curse out of the word. Unfastening his gun belt, he wrapped it carefully around the holstered blaster and set the package up inside the hatchway. "Happy?"
"Aren't I always?" Leia nodded to Threepio. "Tell them we're ready."
The droid translated. Stepping aside, the two Bimms gestured back the way they'd come.
They were perhaps twenty meters from the Falcon, with the sounds of Chewbacca sealing the hatchway coming from behind them, when something abruptly occurred to Leia. "Luke?" she murmured.
"Yes, I know," he murmured back. "Maybe they figure it's just part of the proper Jedi's outfit."
"Or else their weapons detector doesn't read lightsabers," Han put in quietly from Leia's other side. "Either way, what they don't know won't hurt them."
"I hope so," Leia said, forcing down her reflexive diplomatic misgivings. After all, if the Bimms themselves hadn't objected to it... "Good skies, would you look at that crowd?"
They were waiting where the path exited the trees—hundreds of Bimms, standing perhaps twenty deep on both sides of the way, all clothed in the same tooled yellow. The official reception committee shifted to single file and started down the gauntlet without giving the crowd a second glance; bracing herself, Leia followed.
It was a little strange, but not nearly as uncomfortable as she'd feared it would be. Each Bimm reached out a hand as she passed, touching her with a feathery lightness on shoulder or head or arm or back. It was all done in complete silence, and complete order, with the aura of perfect civilization about it.
Still, she was glad that Chewbacca had decided not to come. He hated—rather violently—being pawed by strangers.
They passed through the crowd, and the Bimm walking nearest Leia sang something. "He says the Tower of Law is just ahead," Threepio translated. "It's the location of their planetary council."
Leia peered over the heads of the leading Bimms. There, obviously, was the Tower of Law. And next to it... "Threepio, ask what that thing is beside it," she instructed the droid. "That building that looks like a three-level dome with the sides and most of the roof cut away."
The droid sang, and the Bimm replied. "It's the city's main marketplace," Threepio told her. "He says they prefer the open air whenever possible."
"That roof probably stretches to cover more of the dome framework when the weather's bad," Han added from behind her. "I've seen that design in a few other places."
"He says that perhaps you can be given a tour of the facility before you leave," Threepio added.
"Sounds great," Han said. "Wonderful place to pick up souvenirs."
"Quiet," Leia warned. "Or you can wait in the Falcon with Chewie."
The Bimmisaari Tower of Law was fairly modest, as planetary council meeting places went, topping the three-level marketplace beside it by only a couple of floors. Inside, they were led to a large room on the ground floor where, framed by huge tapestries covering the walls, another group of Bimms waited. Three of them stood and sang as Leia entered.
"They add their greetings to those given you at the landing area, Princess Leia," Threepio translated. "They apologize, however, for the fact that the talks will not be able to begin quite yet. It appears that their chief negotiator became ill just moments ago."
"Oh," Leia said, taken slightly aback. "Please express our sympathies, and ask if there's anything we can do to help."
"They thank you," Threepio said after another exchange of songs. "But they assure you that will not be necessary. There is no danger to him, merely inconvenience." The droid hesitated. "I really don't think you should inquire further, Your Highness," he added, a bit delicately. "The complaint appears to be of a rather personal nature."
"I understand," Leia said gravely, suppressing a smile at the prim tone of the droid's voice. "Well, in that case, I suppose we might as well return to the Falcon until he feels ready to continue."
The droid translated, and one of their escort stepped forward and sang something in reply. "He offers an alternative, Your Highness: that he would be eager to conduct you on a tour of the marketplace while you wait."
Leia glanced at Han and Luke. "Any objections?"
The Bimm sang something else. "He further suggests that Master Luke and Captain Solo might find something to interest them in the Tower's upper chambers," Threepio said. "Apparently, there are relics there dating from the middle era of the Old Republic."
A quiet alarm went off in the back of Leia's mind. Were the Bimms trying to split them up? "Luke and Han might like the market, too," she said cautiously.
There was another exchange of arias. "He says they would find it excessively dull," Threepio told her. "Frankly, if it's anything like marketplaces I've seen—"
"I like marketplaces," Han cut him off brusquely, his voice dark with suspicion. "I like 'em a lot."
Leia looked at her brother. "What do you think?"
Luke's eyes swept the Bimms; measuring them, she knew, with all of his Jedi insight. "I don't see what danger they could be," he said slowly. "I don't sense any real duplicity in them. Nothing beyond that of normal politics, anyway."
Leia nodded, her tension easing a little. Normal politics— yes, that was probably all it was. The Bimm probably just wanted the chance to privately bend her ear on behalf of his particular viewpoint before the talks got started in earnest. "In that case," she said, inclining her head to the Bimm, "we accept."
"The marketplace has been in this same spot for over two hundred years," Threepio translated as Han and Leia followed their host up the gentle ramp between the second and third levels of the open dome structure. "Though not in this exact form, of course. The Tower of Law, in fact, was built here precisely because it was already a common crossroads."
"Hasn't changed much, has it?" Han commented, pressing close to Leia to keep them from getting run down by a particularly determined batch of shoppers. He'd seen a lot of marketplaces on a lot of different planets, but seldom one so crowded.
Crowded with more than just locals, too. Scattered throughout the sea of yellow-clad Bimms—don't they ever wear any other color?—he could see several other humans, a pair of Baradas, an Ishi Tib, a group of Yuzzumi, and something that looked vaguely like a Paonnid.
"You can see why this place is worth getting into the New Republic," Leia murmured to him.
"I guess so," Han conceded, stepping to one of the booths and looking at the metalware displayed there. The owner/operator sang something toward him, gesturing to a set of carving knives. "No, thanks," Han told him, moving back. The Bimm continued to jabber at him, his gestures becoming sharper— "Threepio, will you have our host tell him that we're not interested?" he called to the droid.
There was no response. "Threepio?" he repeated, looking around.
Threepio was staring off into the crowd. "Hey, Goldenrod," he snapped. "I'm talking to you."
Threepio spun back. "I'm terribly sorry, Captain Solo," he apologized. "But our host seems to have disappeared."
"What do you mean, disappeared?" Han demanded, looking around. Their particular Bimm, he remembered, had worn a set of shiny pins on his shoulders.
Pins that were nowhere to be seen. "How could he just disappear?"
Beside him, Leia gripped his hand. "I've got a bad feeling about this," she said tightly. "Let's get back to the Tower."
"Yeah," Han agreed. "Come on, Threepio. Don't get lost." Shifting his grip on Leia's hand, he turned—
And froze. A few meters away, islands in the churning sea of yellow, three aliens stood facing them. Short aliens, not much taller than the Bimms, with steel-gray skin, large dark eyes, and protruding jaws.
And, held ready in their hands, stokhli sticks.
"We've got trouble," he murmured to Leia, turning his head slowly to look around, hoping desperately that those three were all there were.
They weren't. There were at least eight more, arrayed in a rough circle ten meters across. A circle with Han, Leia, and Threepio at its center.
"Han!" Leia said urgently.
"I see them," he muttered. "We're in trouble, sweetheart."
He sensed her glance behind them. "Who are they?" she breathed.
"I don't know—never seen anything like them before. But they're not kidding around. Those things are called stokhli sticks—shoot a spraynet mist two hundred meters, with enough shockstun juice to take down a good-sized Gundark." Abruptly, Han noticed that he and Leia had moved, instinctively backing away from the nearest part of the aliens' circle. He glanced over his shoulder— "They're herding us toward the down ramp," he told her. "Must be trying to take us without stirring up the crowd."
"We're doomed," Threepio moaned.
Leia gripped Han's hand. "What are we going to do?"
"Let's see how closely they're paying attention." Trying to watch all the aliens at once, Han casually reached his free hand toward the comlink attached to his collar.
The nearest alien lifted his stokhli stick warningly. Han froze, slowly lowered the hand again. "So much for that idea," he muttered. "I think it's time to pull in the welcome mat. Better give Luke a shout."
"He can't help us."
Han glanced down at her; at her glazed eyes and pinched face. "Why not?" he demanded, stomach tightening.
She sighed, just audibly. "They've got him, too."
It was more a feeling than anything approaching an actual word, but it echoed through Luke's mind as clearly as if he'd heard it shouted.
He spun around, the ancient tapestry he'd been studying forgotten as his Jedi senses flared into combat readiness. Around him, the large top-floor Tower room was as it had been a minute earlier: deserted except for a handful of Bimms strolling among the huge wall tapestries and relic cases. No danger here, at least nothing immediate. What is it? he sent back, starting for the next room and the staircase leading down.
He caught a quick vision from Leia's mind, a picture of alien figures and a vivid impression of a contracting noose. Hang on, he told her. I'm coming. All but running now, he ducked through the doorway to the staircase room, grabbing the jamb to help with his turn—
And braked to an abrupt halt. Standing between him and the stairway was a loose semicircle of seven silent gray figures.
Luke froze, his hand still uselessly gripping the doorjamb, half a galaxy away from the lightsaber on his belt. He had no idea what the sticks were his assailants were pointing at him, but he had no desire to find out the hard way. Not unless he absolutely had to. "What do you want?" he asked aloud.
The alien in the center of the semicircle—the leader, Luke guessed—gestured with his stick. Luke glanced over his shoulder into the room he'd just left. "You want me to go back in there?" he asked.
The leader gestured again... and this time Luke saw it. The small, almost insignificant tactical error. "All right," he said, as soothingly as possible. "No problem." Keeping his eyes on the aliens and his hands away from his lightsaber, he began to back up.
They herded him steadily back across the room toward another archway and a room he hadn't gotten to before Leia's emergency call had come. "If you'd just tell me what you want, I'm sure we could come to some sort of agreement," Luke suggested as he walked. Faint scuffling sounds told him that there were still some Bimms wandering around, presumably the reason the aliens hadn't already attacked. "I would hope we could at least talk about it. There's no particular reason why any of you has to be hurt."
Reflexively, the leader's left thumb moved. Not much, but Luke was watching, and it was enough. A thumb trigger, then. "If you have some business with me, I'm willing to talk," he continued. "You don't need my friends in the marketplace for that."
He was almost to the archway now. A couple more steps to go. If they'd just hold off shooting him that long...
And then he was there, with the carved stone looming over him. "Now where?" he asked, forcing his muscles to relax. This was it.
Again, the leader gestured with his stick... and midway through the motion, for a single instant, the weapon was pointed not at Luke but at two of his own companions.
And reaching out through the Force, Luke triggered the thumb switch. There was a loud, sharp hiss as the stick bucked in its owner's hands and what looked like a fine spray shot out the end.
Luke didn't wait to see what exactly the spray did. The maneuver had bought him maybe a half second of confusion, and he couldn't afford to waste any of it. Throwing himself back and to the side, he did a flip into the room behind him, angling to get to the slight protection afforded by the wall beside the doorway.
He just barely made it. Even as he cleared the archway there was a stuttering salvo of sharp hisses, and as he flipped back to his feet he saw that the doorjamb had grown strange semisolid tendrils of some thin, translucent material. Another tendril shot through the doorway as he hastily backed farther away, sweeping in a spiral curve that seemed to turn from fine mist to liquid stream to solid cylinder even as it curved.
His lightsaber was in his hand now, igniting with a snap-hiss of its own. They'd be through that doorway in seconds, he knew, all efforts at subtlety abandoned. And when they came—
He clenched his teeth, a memory of his brief skiff-battle encounter with Boba Fett flashing through his mind. Wrapped in the bounty hunter's smart-rope, he'd escaped only by snapping the cable with a deflected blaster shot. But here there would be no blasters to try that trick with.
For that matter, he wasn't absolutely sure what his lightsaber could do directly against the sprays. It would be like trying to cut through a rope that was continually re-creating itself.
Or rather, like trying to cut seven such ropes.
He could hear their footsteps now, sprinting toward his room even as the spiraling tendril sweeping the doorway made sure he stayed too far back to ambush them as they came through it. A standard military technique, played out with the kind of precision that showed he wasn't dealing with amateurs.
He raised the lightsaber to en garde position, risking a quick look around. The room was decorated like all the others he'd seen on this floor, with ancient wall tapestries and other relics— no real cover anywhere. His eyes flicked across the walls, searching for the exit that by implication had to be here somewhere. But the action was so much useless reflex. Wherever the exit was, it was almost certainly too far away to do him any good.
The hiss of the spray stopped; and he turned back just in time to see the aliens charge into the room. They spotted him, spun around to bring their weapons to bear—
And reaching up with the Force, Luke ripped one of the tapestries from the wall beside him and brought it down on top of them.
It was a trick that only a Jedi could have pulled off, and it was a trick that, by all rights, ought to have worked. All seven of the aliens were in the room by the time he got the tapestry loose, and all seven were beneath it as it began its fall. But by the time it landed in a huge wrinkled pile on the floor, all seven had somehow managed to back completely out of its way.
From behind the heap came the sharp hiss of their weapons, and Luke ducked back involuntarily before he realized the webbing sprays weren't coming anywhere near him. Instead, the misty tendrils were sweeping outward, shooting around and past the downed tapestry to crisscross the walls.
His first thought was that the weapons must have gone off accidentally, jostled or bumped as the aliens tried to get out from under the falling tapestry. But a split second later he realized the truth: that they were deliberately webbing the other tapestries into place on the walls to prevent him from trying the same trick twice. Belatedly, Luke tugged at the heaped tapestry, hoping to sweep them back with it, and found that it, too, was now solidly webbed in place.
The spraying ceased, and a single dark eye poked cautiously around the tapestry mountain... and with a strange sort of sadness, Luke realized that he no longer had any choices left. There was, now, only one way to end this if Han and Leia were to be saved.
He locked his lightsaber on and let his mind relax, reaching out with Jedi senses toward the seven figures, forming their image in his mind's eye. The alien watching him brought his weapon around the edge of the tapestry—
And, reaching back over his left shoulder, Luke hurled his lightsaber with all his strength.
The blade scythed toward the edge of the tapestry, spinning through the air like some strange and fiery predator. The alien saw it, reflexively ducked back—
And died as the lightsaber sliced through the tapestry and cut him in half.
The others must have realized in that instant that they, too, were dead; but even then they didn't give up. Howling a strangely chilling wail, they attacked: four throwing themselves around the sides of the barrier, the other two actually leaping straight up to try to shoot over it.
It made no difference. Guided by the Force, the spinning lightsaber cut through their ranks in a twisting curve, striking each of them in turn.
A heartbeat later, it was all over.
Luke took a shuddering breath. He'd done it. Not the way he'd wanted to, but he'd done it. Now, he could only hope he'd done it in time. Calling the lightsaber back to his hand on a dead run, he sprinted past the crumpled alien bodies and stretched out again through the Force. Leia?
The decorative columns flanking the downward ramp were visible just beyond the next row of booths when, beside him, Han felt Leia twitch. "He's free," she said. "He's on his way."
"Great," Han muttered. "Great. Let's hope our pals don't find out before he gets here."
The words were barely out of his mouth when, in what looked like complete unison, the circle of aliens raised their stokhli sticks and started pushing their way through the milling crowd of Bimms. "Too late," Han gritted. "Here they come."
Leia gripped his arm. "Should I try to take their weapons away from them?"
"You'll never get all eleven," Han told her, looking around desperately for inspiration.
His eyes fell on a nearby table loaded with jewelry display boxes... and he had it. Maybe. "Leia—that jewelry over there? Grab some of it."
He sensed her throw a startled look up at him. "What—?"
"Just do it!" he hissed, watching the approaching aliens. "Grab it and throw it to me."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the smaller display boxes stir as she strained to establish a grip on it. Then, with a sudden lurch, it leaped toward him, slapping into his hands and scattering small neckpieces to the ground before he managed to get hold of the rest.
And abruptly the raucous conversational hum of the marketplace was split by a piercing shriek. Han turned toward it, just in time to see the owner of the pilfered merchandise stabbing two fingers toward him. "Han!" he heard Leia shout over the scream.
"Get ready to duck!" he shouted back—
And was literally bowled off his feet as a yellow wave of enraged Bimms leaped atop him, knocking the accused shoplifter to the ground.
And with their bodies forming a barrier between him and the stokhli sticks, he dropped the jewelry and grabbed for his comlink. "Chewie!" he bellowed over the din.
Luke heard the shriek even from the top Tower floor; and from the sudden turmoil in Leia's mind, it was instantly clear that he would never make it to the marketplace in time.
He skidded to a halt, mind racing. Across the room a large open window faced the open-domed structure; but five floors was too far for even a Jedi to safely leap. He glanced back to the room he'd just left, searching for possibilities... and his eye fell on the end of one of the aliens' weapons, just visible through the archway.
It was a long shot, but it was as good a chance as he was going to get. Reaching out through the Force, he called the weapon flying to his hand, studying its controls as he ran to the window. They were simple enough: spray profile and pressure, plus the thumb trigger. Setting for the narrowest spray and the highest pressure, he braced himself against the side of the window, aimed for the marketplace's partial dome covering, and fired.
The stick kicked harder against his shoulder than he'd expected it to as the spray shot out, but the results were all he could have hoped for. The front end of the arching tendril struck the roof, forming a leisurely sort of pile as more of the semisolid spray pushed forward to join it. Luke held the switch down for a count of five, then eased up, keeping a firm Force grip on the near end of the tendril to prevent it from falling away from the stick. He gave it a few seconds to harden before touching it tentatively with a finger, gave it a few seconds more to make sure it was solidly attached to the marketplace roof. Then, taking a deep breath, he grabbed his makeshift rope with both hands and jumped.
A tornado of air blew at him, tugging at his hair and clothes as he swung down and across. Below and partway across the top level he could see the mass of yellow-clad Bimms and the handful of gray figures struggling to get past them to Han and Leia. There was a flicker of light, visible even in the bright sunshine, and one of the Bimms slumped to the ground—stunned or dead, Luke couldn't tell which. The floor was rushing up at him—he braced himself to land—
And with a roar that must have rattled windows for blocks around, the Millennium Falcon screamed by overhead.
The shock wave threw Luke's landing off, sending him sprawling across the floor and into two of the Bimms. But even as he rolled back up to his feet, he realized that Chewbacca's arrival couldn't have been better timed. Barely ten meters away, the two alien attackers nearest him had turned their attention upward, their weapons poised to ensnare the Falcon when it returned. Snatching his lightsaber from his belt, Luke leaped over a half dozen bystanding Bimms, cutting both attackers down before they even knew he was there.
From overhead came another roar; but this time Chewbacca didn't simply fly the Falcon past the marketplace. Instead, forward maneuvering jets blasting, he brought it to a hard stop. Hovering directly over his beleaguered companions, swivel blaster extended from the ship's underside, he opened fire.
The Bimms weren't stupid. Whatever Han and Leia had done to stir up the hornet's nest, the hornets themselves clearly had no desire to get shot at from the sky. In an instant the roiling yellow mass dissolved, the Bimms abandoning their attack and streaming away in terror from the Falcon. Forcing his way through the crowd, using the Bimms for visual cover as much as he could, Luke started around the attackers' circle.
Between his lightsaber and the Falcon's swivel blaster, they made a very fast, very clean sweep of it.
"You," Luke said with a shake of his head, "are a mess."
"I'm sorry, Master Luke," Threepio apologized, his voice almost inaudible beneath the layers of hardened spraynet that covered much of his upper body like some bizarre sort of gift wrapping. "I seem to always be causing you trouble."
"That's not true, and you know it," Luke soothed him, considering the small collection of solvents arrayed in front of him on the Falcon's lounge table. So far none of the ones he'd tried had been even marginally effective against the webbing. "You've been a great help to all of us over the years. You just have to learn when to duck."
Beside Luke, Artoo twittered something. "No, Captain Solo did not tell me to duck," Threepio told the squat droid stiffly. "What he said was, 'Get ready to duck.' I should think the difference would be apparent even to you."
Artoo beeped something else. Threepio ignored it. "Well, let's try this one," Luke suggested, picking up the next solvent in line. He was hunting for a clean cloth among his pile of rejects when Leia came into the lounge.
"How is he?" she asked, walking over and peering at Threepio.
"He'll be all right," Luke assured her. "He may have to stay like this until we get back to Coruscant, though. Han told me these stokhli sticks are used mostly by big-game hunters on out-of-the-way planets, and the spraynet they use is a pretty exotic mixture." He indicated the discarded solvent bottles.
"Maybe the Bimms can suggest something," Leia said, picking up one of the bottles and looking at its label. "We'll ask them when we get back down."
Luke frowned at her. "We're going back down?"
She frowned at him in turn. "We have to, Luke—you know that. This is a diplomatic mission, not a pleasure cruise. It's considered bad form to pull out right after one of your ships has just shot up a major local marketplace."
"I would think the Bimms would consider themselves lucky that none of their people got killed in the process," Luke pointed out. "Particularly when what happened was at least partly their fault."
"You can't blame a whole society for the actions of a few individuals," Leia said—rather severely, Luke thought. "Especially not when a single political maverick has simply made a bad decision."
"A bad decision?" Luke snorted. "Is that what they're calling it?"
"That's what they're calling it," Leia nodded. "Apparently, the Bimm who led us into the marketplace trap was bribed to take us there. He had no idea what was going to happen, though."
"And I suppose he had no idea what the stuff he gave the chief negotiator would do, either?"
Leia shrugged. "Actually, there's still no hard evidence that he or anyone else poisoned the negotiator," she said. "Though under the circumstances, they're willing to concede that that's a possibility."
Luke made a face. "Generous of them. What does Han have to say about us putting back down?"
"Han doesn't have any choice in the matter," Leia said firmly. "This is my mission, not his."
"That's right," Han agreed, stepping into the lounge. "Your mission. But my ship."
Leia stared at him, a look of disbelief on her face. "You didn't," she breathed.
"I sure did," he told her calmly, dropping into one of the seats across the lounge. "We made the jump to lightspeed about two minutes ago. Next stop, Coruscant."
"Han!" she flared, as angry as Luke had ever seen her. "I told the Bimms we were coming right back down."
"And I told them there'd be a short delay," Han countered. "Like long enough for us to collect a squadron of X-wings or maybe a Star Cruiser to bring back with us."
"And what if you've offended them?" Leia snapped. "Do you have any idea how much groundwork went into this mission?"
"Yeah, as it happens, I do," Han said, his voice hardening. "I also have a pretty good idea what could happen if our late pals with the stokhli sticks brought friends with them."
For a long minute Leia stared at him, and Luke sensed the momentary anger fading from her mind. "You still shouldn't have left without consulting me first," she said.
"You're right," Han conceded. "But I didn't want to take the time. If they did have friends, those friends probably had a ship." He tried a tentative smile. "There wasn't time to discuss it in committee."
Leia smiled lopsidedly in return. "I am not a committee," she said wryly.
And with that, the brief storm passed and the tension was gone. Someday, Luke promised himself, he would get around to asking one of them just what that particular private joke of theirs referred to. "Speaking of our pals," he said, "did either of you happen to ask the Bimms who or what they were?"
"The Bimms didn't know," Leia said, shaking her head. I've certainly never seen anything like them before."
"We can check the Imperial archives when we get back to Coruscant," Han said, feeling gingerly at one cheek where a bruise was already becoming visible. "There'll be a record of them somewhere."
"Unless," Leia said quietly, "they're something the Empire round out in the Unknown Regions."
Luke looked at her. "You think the Empire was behind this?"
"Who else could it have been?" she said. "The only question is why."
"Well, whatever the reason, they're going to be disappointed," Han told her, getting to his feet. "I'm going back to the cockpit, see if I can muddle our course a little more. No point in taking chances."
A memory flashed through Luke's mind: Han and the Falcon, sweeping right through the middle of that first Death Star battle to shoot Darth Vader's fighters off his back. "Hard to imagine Han Solo not wanting to take chances," he commented.
Han leveled a finger at him. "Yeah, well, before you get cocky, try to remember that the people I'm protecting are you, your sister, your niece, and your nephew. That make any difference?"
Luke smiled. "Touche," he admitted, saluting with an imaginary lightsaber.
"And speaking of that," Han added, "isn't it about time Leia had a lightsaber of her own?"
Luke shrugged. "I can make her one anytime she's ready," he said, looking at his sister. "Leia?"
Leia hesitated. "I don't know," she confessed. "I've never really felt comfortable with the things." She looked at Han. "But I suppose I ought to make the effort."
"I think you should," Luke agreed. "Your talents may lie along a different direction, but you should still learn all the basics. As far as I can tell, nearly all the Jedi of the Old Republic carried lightsabers, even those who were primarily healers or teachers."
She nodded. "All right," she said. "As soon as my work load lightens up a little."
"Before your work load lightens," Han insisted. "I mean that, Leia. All these wonderful diplomacy skills of yours aren't going to do you or anyone else any good if the Empire locks you away in an interrogation room somewhere."
Reluctantly, Leia nodded again. "I suppose you're right. As soon as we get back, I'll tell Mon Mothma she's just going to have to cut down on my assignments." She smiled at Luke. "I guess semester break's over, Teacher."
"I guess so," Luke said, trying to hide the sudden lump inhis throat.
Leia noticed it anyway; and, for a wonder, misinterpreted it. "Oh, come on," she chided gently. "I'm not that bad a student. Anyway, look on it as good practice—after all, someday you'll have to teach all this to the twins, too."
"I know," Luke said softly.
"Good," Han said. "That's settled, then. I'm heading up; see you later."
" 'Bye," Leia said. "Now—" She turned to give Threepio a critical look. "Let's see what we can do about all this goop."
Leaning back in his seat, Luke watched her tackle the hardened webbing, a familiar hollow pain in the pit of his stomach. I took it upon myself, Ben Kenobi had said about Darth Vader, to train him as a Jedi. I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda.
I was wrong.
The words echoed through Luke's mind, all the way back to Coruscant.
For a long minute Grand Admiral Thrawn sat in his chair, surrounded by his holographic works of art, and said nothing. Pellaeon kept himself at a motionless attention, watching the other's expressionless face and glowing red eyes and trying not to think about the fate couriers of bad news had often suffered at the hands of Lord Vader. "All died but the coordinator, then?" Thrawn asked at last.
"Yes, sir," Pellaeon confirmed. He glanced across the room, to where C'baoth stood studying one of the wall displays, and lowered his voice a bit. "We're still not entirely sure what went wrong."
"Instruct Central to give the coordinator a thorough debriefing," Thrawn said. "What report from Wayland?"
Pellaeon had thought they'd been talking too quietly for C'baoth to hear them. He was wrong. "Is that it, then?" C'baoth demanded, turning away from the display and striding over to tower over Thrawn's command chair. "Your Noghri have failed; so too bad, and on to more pressing business? You promised me Jedi, Grand Admiral Thrawn."
Thrawn gazed coolly up at him. "I promised you Jedi," he acknowledged. "And I will deliver them." Deliberately, he turned back to Pellaeon. "What report from Wayland?" he repeated.
Pellaeon swallowed, trying hard to remember that with ysalamiri scattered all through the command room, C'baoth had no power whatsoever. At least for the moment. "The engineering team has finished its analysis, sir," he told Thrawn. "They report that the cloaking shield schematics seem complete, but that to actually build one will take some time. It'll also be highly expensive, at least for a ship the size of the Chimaera."
"Fortunately, they won't have to start with anything nearly this big," Thrawn said, handing Pellaeon a data card. "Here are the specs for what we'll need at Sluis Van."
"The shipyards?" Pellaeon frowned, taking the data card. The Grand Admiral had so far been very secretive about both his goals and the strategy for that attack.
"Yes. Oh, and we're also going to need some advanced mining machines—mole miners, I believe they're informally called. Have Intelligence start a records search; we'll need a minimum of forty."
"Yes, sir." Pellaeon made a note on his data pad. "One other thing, sir." He threw a quick glance at C'baoth. "The engineers also report that nearly eighty percent of the Spaarti cylinders we'll need are functional or can be restored to working order with relative ease."
"Spaarti cylinders?" C'baoth frowned. "What are those?"
"Just that other little bit of technology I was hoping to find in the mountain," Thrawn soothed him, throwing a quick warning look in Pellaeon's direction. An unnecessary precaution; Pellaeon had already decided that discussing Spaarti cylinders with C'baoth would not be a smart thing to do. "So. Eighty percent. That's excellent, Captain. Excellent." A gleam came into those glowing eyes. "How very thoughtful of the Emperor to have left such fine equipment for us to rebuild his Empire with. What about the mountain's power and defense systems?"
"Also operational, for the most part," Pellaeon said. "Three of the four reactors have already been brought on line. Some of the more esoteric defenses seem to have decayed, but what's left should defend the storehouse more than adequately."
"Again, excellent," Thrawn nodded. The brief flicker of emotion was gone, and he was all cool business again. "Instruct them to begin bringing the cylinders to full operational status. The Death's Head should arrive within two or three days with the extra specialists and two hundred ysalamiri they'll need to get things started. At that point—" he smiled faintly "—we'll be ready to begin the operation in earnest. Beginning with the Sluis Van shipyards."
"Yes, sir." Pellaeon glanced at C'baoth again. "And about Skywalker and his sister?"
"We'll use Team Four next," the Grand Admiral said. "Transmit a message telling them to withdraw from their current assignment and stand ready for further orders."
"You want me to transmit the message, sir?" Pellaeon asked. "Not that I'm questioning the order," he added hastily. "But in the past you've usually preferred to contact them yourself."
Thrawn's eyebrows lifted slightly. "Team Eight failed me," he said softly. "Sending the message through you will let the others know how displeased I am."
"And when Team Four also fails you?" C'baoth put in. "They will, you know. Will you be merely displeased with them, too? Or will you admit your professional killing machines simply can't handle a Jedi?"
"They've never yet met any foe they can't handle, Master C'baoth," Thrawn said coolly. "One group or another will succeed. Until then—" He shrugged. "A few Noghri, more or less, won't seriously drain our resources."
Pellaeon winced, throwing a reflexive glance at the chamber door. Rukh, he suspected, wouldn't be nearly that phlegmatic about the casually proposed deaths of some of his people. "On the other hand, Admiral, this attempt will have put them on their guard," he pointed out.
"He's right," C'baoth said, jabbing a finger in Pellaeon's direction. "You can't fool a Jedi twice with the same trick."
"Perhaps," Thrawn said, the word polite but his tone not conceding anything. "What alternative do you suggest? That we concentrate on his sister and leave him alone?"
"That you concentrate on his sister, yes," C'baoth agreed loftily. "I think it best that I deal with the young Jedi myself."
Again, the eyebrows went up. "And how would you propose to do that?"
C'baoth smiled. "He is a Jedi; I am a Jedi. If I call, he will come to me."
For a long moment Thrawn looked up at him. "I need you with my fleet," he said at last. "Preparations for the assault on the Rebellion's Sluis Van space dock facilities have already begun. Some of the preliminaries to that assault will require a Jedi Master's coordination."
C'baoth drew himself up to his full height. "My assistance was promised only upon your promise to deliver my Jedi to me. I will have them, Grand Admiral Thrawn."
Thrawn's glowing eyes bored into C'baoth's. "Does a Jedi Master go back on his word, then? You knew that obtaining Skywalker for you might take some time."
"All the more reason for me to begin now," C'baoth shot back.
"Why can't we do both?" Pellaeon cut in.
Both looked at him. "Explain, Captain," Thrawn ordered, a hint of threat audible in his tone.
Pellaeon gritted his teeth, but it was too late to back out now. "We could begin by starting rumors of your presence somewhere, Master C'baoth," he said. "Some sparsely populated world where you might have lived for years without anyone really noticing. Rumors of that sort would be certain to make their way back to the New Rep— to the Rebellion," he corrected, glancing at Thrawn. "Particularly with the name Jorus C'baoth attached to them."
C'baoth snorted. "And you think that on the strength of an idle rumor he'll rush foolishly to find me?"
"Let him be as cautious as he likes," Thrawn said thoughtfully, the threat gone from his voice. "Let him bring half the Rebellion's forces with him, if he chooses. There will be nothing there to connect you to us."
Pellaeon nodded. "And while we find a suitable planet and start the rumors into motion, you can remain here to assist with the Sluis Van preliminaries. Hopefully, their response to our activities will keep Skywalker too busy to check out the stories until after the Sluis Van part is over."
"And if not," Thrawn added, "we'll know when he makes his move, and in plenty of time to get you there ahead of him."
"Hmm," C'baoth murmured, stroking his long beard, his gaze drifting off to infinity. Pellaeon held his breath... and after a minute the other abruptly nodded. "Very well," he said. "The plan is sound. I will go to my chambers now, Grand Admiral Thrawn, and choose a world from which to make my appearance." With an almost regal nod to each of them, he strode out.
"Congratulations, Captain," Thrawn said, eyeing Pellaeon coolly. "Your idea seems to have caught Master C'baoth's fancy."
Pellaeon forced himself to meet that gaze. "I apologize, Admiral, if I spoke out of turn."
Thrawn smiled faintly. "You served too long under Lord Vader, Captain," he said. "I have no qualms about accepting a useful idea merely because it wasn't my own. My position and ego are not at stake here."
Except, perhaps, when dealing with C'baoth... "Yes, sir," Pellaeon said aloud. "With your permission, Admiral, I'll go prepare those transmissions to the Wayland and Noghri teams."
"At your convenience, Captain. And continue to monitor the preparations for the Sluis Van operation." Thrawn's glowing eyes seemed to bore into his. "Monitor them closely, Captain. With Mount Tantiss and Sluis Van both, the long path to victory over the Rebellion will have begun. With, or even without, our Jedi Master."
In theory, Inner Council meetings were supposed to be a quieter, more casual sort of encounter than the more formal Provisional Council things. In actual practice, Han had long ago found out, an Inner Council grilling could be just as rough as being raked over the fires by the larger group.
"Let me get this straight, then, Captain Solo," Borsk Fey'lya said with his usual oily politeness. "You, alone, and without consultation with anyone in official authority, made the decision to cancel the Bimmisaari mission."
"I've already said that," Han told him. He felt like suggesting to the Bothan that he pay better attention. "I've also stated my reasons for doing so."
"Which, in my opinion, were good and proper ones," Admiral Ackbar's gravelly voice interjected in Han's support. "Captain Solo's duty at that point was abundantly clear: to protect the ambassador in his charge and to return safely to alert us."
"Alert us to what?" Fey'lya countered. "Forgive me, Admiral, but I don't understand what exactly this threat is we're supposedly facing. Whoever these gray-skinned beings were, they clearly weren't considered important enough by the Old Senate to even be included in the records. I doubt a race that insignificant is likely to be capable of mounting a major offensive against us."
"We don't know that that's the reason they aren't in the records," Leia put in. "It could simply be an oversight or gap damage."
"Or else a deliberate erasure," Luke said.
Fey'lya's fur rippled, indicating polite disbelief. "And why would the Imperial Senate want to erase the records of an entire race's existence?"
"I didn't say it was necessarily the Senate's idea," Luke said. "Maybe the aliens themselves destroyed their records."
Fey'lya sniffed. "Farfetched. Even if it was possible, why would anyone want to do it?"
"Perhaps Councilor Organa Solo can answer that," Mon Mothma interjected calmly, looking at Leia. "You were more involved in the informational side of the Imperial Senate than I was, Leia. Would such a manipulation have been possible?"
"I really don't know," Leia said, shaking her head. "I never got all that deeply into the actual mechanics of how the Senate's records were handled. Common wisdom, though, would suggest that it's impossible to create a security system that can't be broken by someone determined enough to do it."
"That still doesn't answer the question of why these aliens of yours would be that determined," Fey'lya sniffed.
"Maybe they saw the Old Republic's coming demise," Leia told him, her voice starting to sound a little irritated. "They might have erased all references to themselves and their world in hopes the rising Empire might not notice them."
Fey'lya was fast, all right; Han had to give him that. "In that case," the Bothan smoothly switched gears, "perhaps a fear of rediscovery was all that motivated this attack, as well." He looked at Ackbar. "Regardless, I see no reason to make a full-fledged military operation out of this. To reduce our glorious forces to the level of a mere diplomatic entourage is an insult to their courage and their fighting spirit."
"You can dispense with the speeches, Councilor," Ackbar rumbled. "None of our 'glorious forces' are here to be impressed by them."
"I say only what I feel, Admiral," Fey'lya said, with that air of wounded pride he did so well.
Ackbar's eyes swiveled toward Fey'lya— "I wonder," Leia spoke up quickly, "if we could get back to the original subject here. I presume it hasn't escaped anyone's notice that, whatever their motivation, the aliens were ready and waiting for us when we reached Bimmisaari."
"We're going to need tighter security for these missions, obviously," Ackbar said. "At both ends—your attackers did suborn a local Bimm politician, after all."
"All of which will cost that much more time and effort," Fey'lya murmured, a section of his fur rippling.
"It can't be helped," Mon Mothma said firmly. "If we don't protect our negotiators, the New Republic will stagnate and wither. Accordingly—" she looked at Ackbar "—you will detail a force to accompany Councilor Organa Solo on her trip back to Bimmisaari tomorrow."
Tomorrow? Han threw a sharp look at Leia, got an equally surprised look in return. "Excuse me," he said, raising a finger. "Tomorrow?"
Mon Mothma looked at him, an expression of mild surprise on her face. "Yes, tomorrow. The Bimms are still waiting, Captain."
"I know, but—"
"What Han is trying to say," Leia jumped in, "is that I had intended at this meeting to ask for a brief leave of absence from my diplomatic duties."
"I'm afraid that's impossible," Mon Mothma said with a slight frown. "There's far too much work to be done."
"We're not talking about a vacation here," Han told her, trying to remember his diplomatic manners. "Leia needs more time to concentrate on her Jedi training."
Mon Mothma pursed her lips, throwing glances at Ackbar and Fey'lya. "I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "I, of all people, recognize the need to add new Jedi to our ranks. But for now there are simply too many urgent demands on our time." She looked at Fey'lya again—almost, Han thought sourly, as if seeking his permission. "In another year—possibly sooner," she added, glancing at Leia's stomach, "we'll have enough experienced diplomats for you to devote the bulk of your time to your studies. But right now I'm afraid we need you here."
For a long, awkward moment the room was silent. Ackbar spoke first. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go and have that escort force prepared."
"Of course," Mon Mothma nodded. "Unless there's something more, we stand adjourned."
And that was that. Jaw clenched tightly, Han began collecting his data cards together. "You all right?" Leia asked quietly from beside him.
"You know, it was a lot easier back when we were just taking on the Empire," he growled. He threw a glare across the table at Fey'lya. "At least then we knew who our enemies were."
Leia squeezed his arm. "Come on," she said. "Let's go see if they've gotten Threepio cleaned up yet."
The tactical officer stepped up to the Chimera's bridge command station, bringing his heels smartly together. "All units signal ready, Admiral," he reported.
"Excellent," Thrawn said, his voice glacially calm. "Prepare for lightspeed."
Pellaeon threw a glance at the Grand Admiral, then returned his attention to the bank of tactical and status readouts facing him. To the readouts, and to the blackness outside that seemed to have swallowed up the rest of Pellaeon's five-ship task force. Three-thousandths of a light-year away, the Bpfassh system's sun was a mere pinprick, indistinguishable from the other stars blazing all around them. Conventional military wisdom frowned on this business of picking a spot just outside the target system as a jumping-off point—it was considered dangerously easy for one or more ships to get lost on the way to such a rendezvous, and it was difficult to make an accurate hyperspace jump over so short a distance. He and Thrawn, in fact, had had a long and barely civilized argument over the idea the first time the Grand Admiral had included it in one of his attack plans. Now, after nearly a year of practice, the procedure had become almost routine.
Perhaps, Pellaeon thought, the Chimera's crew wasn't as inexperienced as their ignorance of proper military protocol sometimes made them seem.
"Captain? Is my flagship ready?"
Pellaeon brought his mind back to the business at hand. All ship defenses showed ready; the TIE fighters in their bays were manned and poised. "The Chimaera is fully at your command, Admiral," he said, the formal question and response a ghostly remembrance of the days when proper military protocol was the order of the day throughout the galaxy.
"Excellent," Thrawn said. He swiveled in his chair to face the figure seated near the rear of the bridge. "Master C'baoth," he nodded. "Are my other two task forces ready?"
"They are," C'baoth said gravely. "They await merely my command."
Pellaeon winced and threw another glance at Thrawn. But the Grand Admiral had apparently decided to let the comment pass. "Then command them," he told C'baoth, reaching up to stroke the ysalamir draped across the framework fastened to his chair. "Captain: begin the count."
"Yes, sir." Pellaeon reached to his board, touched the timer switch. Scattered around them, the other ships would be locking onto that signal, all of them counting down together...
The timer went to zero, and with a flare of starlines through the forward ports, the Chimaera jumped.
Ahead, the starlines faded into the mottling of hyperspace. "Speed, Point Three," the helmsman in the crew pit below called out, confirming the readout on the displays.
"Acknowledged," Pellaeon said, flexing his fingers once and settling his mind into combat mode as he watched the timer now counting up from zero. Seventy seconds; seventy-four, seventy-five, seventy-six—
The starlines flared again through the mottled sky, and shrank back into stars, and the Chimaera had arrived.
"All fighters: launch," Pellaeon called, throwing a quick look at the tactical holo floating over his display bank. They had come out of hyperspace exactly as planned, within easy striking range of the double planet of Bpfassh and its complicated system of moons. "Response?" he called to the tactical officer.
"Defending fighters launching from the third moon," the other reported. "Nothing larger visible as yet."
"Get a location on that fighter base," Thrawn ordered, "and detail the Inexorable to move in and destroy it."
Pellaeon could see the fighters now, coming at them like a swarm of angry insects. Off on the Chimera's starboard flank, the Star Destroyer Inexorable was moving toward their base, its TIE fighter wedge sweeping ahead of it to engage the defenders. "Change course to the farther of the twin planets," he ordered the helmsman. "TIE fighters to set up an advance screen. The Judicator will take the other planet." He looked at Thrawn. "Any special orders, Admiral?"
Thrawn was gazing at a mid-distance scan of the twin planets. "Stay with the program for now, Captain," he said. "Our preliminary data appear to have been adequate; you may choose targets at will. Remind your gunners once again that the plan is to hurt and frighten, not obliterate."
"Relay that," Pellaeon nodded toward the communications station. "Have TIE fighters so reminded, as well."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Thrawn turn. "Master C'baoth?" he said. "What's the status of the attacks in the other two systems?"
Frowning, Pellaeon swiveled around. It had been C'baoth's voice, but so throaty and strained as to be nearly unrecognizable.
As was, indeed, his appearance.
For a long moment Pellaeon stared at him, a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. C'baoth sat with unnatural stiffness, his eyes closed but visibly and rapidly moving behind the lids. His hands gripped the arms of his chair, and his lips were pressed so tightly together that the veins and cords in his neck stood out. "Are you all right, Master C'baoth?" he asked.
"Save your concern, Captain," Thrawn told him coldly. "He's doing what he enjoys most: controlling people."
C'baoth made a sound somewhere between a snort and a derisive chuckle. "I told you once, Grand Admiral Thrawn, that this is not true power."
"So you've said," Thrawn said, his tone neutral. "Can you tell what sort of resistance they're facing?"
C'baoth's frowning face frowned harder. "Not precisely. But neither force is in danger. That much I can feel in their minds."
"Good. Then have the Nemesis break off from the rest of its group and report back to the rendezvous to await us."
Pellaeon frowned at the Grand Admiral. "Sir—?"
Thrawn turned to him, a warning gleam in his glowing eyes. "Attend to your duties, Captain," he said.
—and with a sudden flash of insight, Pellaeon realized that this multiedged attack on New Republic territory was more than simply part of the setup for the Sluis Van raid. It was, in addition, a test. A test of C'baoth's abilities, yes; but also a test of his willingness to accept orders. "Yes, Admiral," Pellaeon murmured, and turned back to his displays.
The Chimaera was in range now, and tiny sparks started to appear on the tactical holo as the ship's huge turbolaser batteries began firing. Communications stations flared and went black; planetside industrial targets flared, went dark, then flared again as secondary fires were ignited. A pair of old Carrack-class light cruisers swept in from starboard, the Chimera's TIE fighter screen breaking formation to engage them. Off in the distance, the Stormhawk's batteries were blazing against an orbiting defense platform; and even as Pellaeon watched, the station flared into vapor. The battle seemed to be going well.
Remarkably well, in fact...
An unpleasant feeling began to stir in the pit of Pellaeon's stomach as he checked his board's real-time status readout. Thus far the Imperial forces had lost only three TIE fighters and sustained superficial damage to the Star Destroyers, compared to eight of the enemy's line ships and eighteen of its fighters gone. Granted, the Imperials vastly outgunned the defenders. But still...
Slowly, reluctantly, Pellaeon reached to his board. A few weeks back he'd made up a statistical composite of the Chimera's battle profiles for the past year. He called it up, superimposed it over the current analysis.
There was no mistake. In every single category and subcategory of speed, coordination, efficiency, and accuracy, the Chimaera and its crew were running no less than 40 percent more effective than usual.
He turned to look at C'baoth's strained face, an icy shiver running up his back. He'd never really bought into Thrawn's theory as to how and why the Fleet had lost the Battle of Endor. Certainly he'd never wanted to believe it. But now, suddenly, the issue was no longer open to argument.
And with the bulk of his attention and power on the task of mentally communicating with two other task forces nearly four light-years away, C'baoth still had enough left to do all this.
Pellaeon had wondered, with a certain private contempt, just what had given the old man the right to add the word Master to his title. Now, he knew.
"Getting another set of transmissions," the communications officer reported. "A new group of midrange planetary cruisers launching."
"Have the Stormhawk move to intercept," Thrawn ordered.
"Yes, sir. We've now also pinpointed the location of their distress transmissions, Admiral."
Shaking away his musings, Pellaeon glanced across the holo. The newly flashing circle was on the farthest of the system's moons. "Order Squadron Four to move in and destroy it," he ordered.
"Belay that," Thrawn said. "We'll be long gone before any reinforcements can arrive. We might as well let the Rebellion waste its resources rushing useless forces to the rescue. In fact—" the Grand Admiral consulted his watch "—I believe it's time for us to take our leave. Order fighters back to their ships; all ships to lightspeed as soon as their fighters are aboard."
Pellaeon tapped keys at his station, giving the Chimera's status a quick prelightspeed check. Another bit of conventional military wisdom was that Star Destroyers should play the role of mobile siege stations in this kind of full-planet engagement; that to employ them in hit-and-fade operations was both wasteful and potentially dangerous.
But then, proponents of such theories had obviously never watched someone like Grand Admiral Thrawn in action.
"Order the other two forces to break off their attacks, as well," Thrawn told C'baoth. "I presume you are in close enough contact to do that?"
"You question me too much, Grand Admiral Thrawn," C'baoth said, his voice even huskier than it had been earlier. "Far too much."
"I question all that is not yet familiar to me," Thrawn countered, swiveling back around again. "Call them back to the rendezvous point."
"As you command," the other hissed.
Pellaeon glanced back at C'baoth. Testing the other's abilities under combat conditions was all good and proper. But there was such a thing as pushing too far.
"He must learn who's in command here," Thrawn said quietly, as if reading Pellaeon's thoughts.
"Yes, sir," Pellaeon nodded, forcing his voice to remain steady. Thrawn had proved time and again that he knew what he was doing. Still, Pellaeon couldn't help but wonder uneasily if the Grand Admiral recognized the extent of the power he'd awakened from its sleep on Wayland.
Thrawn nodded. "Good. Have there been any further leads on those mole miners I asked for?"
"Ah—no, sir." A year ago, too, he would have found a strange unreality in conversing about less than urgent matters while in the middle of a combat situation. "At least not in anything like the numbers you want. I think the Athega system's still our best bet. Or it will be if we can find a way around the problems of the sunlight intensity there."
"The problems will be minimal," Thrawn said with easy confidence. "If the jump is done with sufficient accuracy, the judicator will be in direct sunlight for only a few minutes each way. Its hull can certainly handle that much. We'll simply need to take a few days first to shield the viewports and remove external sensors and communications equipment."
Pellaeon nodded, swallowing his next question. There would, of course, be none of the difficulties that would normally arise from blinding and deafening a Star Destroyer in that way. Not as long as C'baoth was with them.
"Grand Admiral Thrawn?"
Thrawn turned around. "Yes, Master C'baoth?"
"Where are my Jedi, Grand Admiral Thrawn? You promised me that your tame Noghri would bring me my Jedi."
Out of the corner of his eye, Pellaeon saw Rukh stir. "Patience, Master C'baoth," Thrawn told him. "Their preparations took time, but they're now complete. They await merely the proper time to act."
"That time had best be soon," C'baoth warned him. "I grow tired of waiting."
Thrawn threw a glance at Pellaeon, a quietly smoldering look in his glowing red eyes. "As do we all," he said quietly.
Far ahead of the freighter Wild Karrde, one of the Imperial Star Destroyers centered in the cockpit's forward viewport gave a flicker of pseudomotion and disappeared. "They're leaving," Mara announced.
"What, already?" Karrde said from behind her, his voice frowning.
"Already," she confirmed, keying the helm display for tactical. "One of the Star Destroyers just went to lightspeed; the others are breaking off and starting prelightspeed maneuvering."
"Interesting," Karrde murmured, coming up to look out the viewport over her shoulder. "A hit-and-fade attack—and with Star Destroyers, yet. Not something you see every day."
"I heard about something like that happening over at the Draukyze system a couple of months back," the copilot, a bulky man named Lachton, offered. "Same kind of hit-and-fade, except there was only one Star Destroyer on that one."
"At a guess, I'd say we're seeing Grand Admiral Thrawn's influence on Imperial strategy," Karrde said, his tone thoughtful with just a hint of concern mixed in. "Strange, though. He seems to be taking an inordinate amount of risk for the potential benefits involved. I wonder what exactly he's up to."
"Whatever it is, it'll be something complicated," Mara told him, hearing the bitterness in her voice. "Thrawn was never one to do things simply. Even back in the old days when the Empire was capable of style or subtlety, he stood out above the rest."
"You can't afford to be simple when your territory's shrinking the way the Empire's has been." Karrde paused, and Mara could feel him gazing down at her. "You seem to know something about the Grand Admiral."
"I know something about a lot of things," she countered evenly. "That's why you're grooming me to be your lieutenant, remember?"
"Touche," he said easily. "—there goes another one."
Mara looked out the viewport in time to see a third Star Destroyer go to lightspeed. One more to go. "Shouldn't we get moving?" she asked Karrde. "That last one will be gone in a minute."
"Oh, we're scratching the delivery," he told her. "I just thought it might be instructive to watch the battle, as long as we happened to be here at the right time."
Mara frowned up at him. "What do you mean, we're scratching the delivery? They're expecting us."
"Yes, they are," he nodded. "Unfortunately, as of right now, the whole system is also expecting a small hornet's nest of New Republic ships. Hardly the sort of atmosphere one would like to fly into with a shipload of contraband materials."
"What makes you think they'll come?" Mara demanded. "They're not going to be in time to do anything."
"No, but that's not really the point of such a show," Karrde said. "The point is to score domestic political gains by bustling around, presenting a comforting display of force, and otherwise convincing the locals that something like this can never happen again."
"And promising to help clean up the wreckage," Lachton put in.
"That goes without saying," Karrde agreed dryly. "Regardless, it's not a situation we really want to fly into. We'll send a transmission from our next stop telling them we'll try to make delivery again in a week."
"I still don't like it," Mara insisted. "We promised them we'd do it. We promised."
There was a short pause. "It's standard procedure," Karrde told her, a touch of curiosity almost hidden beneath the usual urbane smoothness of his voice. "I'm sure they'd prefer late delivery to losing the entire shipment."
With an effort, Mara forced the black haze of memory away. Promises... "I suppose so," she conceded, blinking her attention back to the control board. While they'd been talking, the last Star Destroyer had apparently gone to lightspeed, leaving nothing behind but enraged and impotent defenders and mass destruction. A mess for the New Republic's politicians and military people to clean up.
For a moment she gazed out at the distant planets. Wondering if Luke Skywalker might be among those the New Republic would send to help clean up that mess.
"Whenever you're ready, Mara."
With an effort, she shook away the thought. "Yes, sir," she said, reaching for the board. Not yet, she told herself silently. Not yet. But soon. Very, very soon.
The remote swooped; hesitated; swooped again; hesitated again; swooped once more and fired. Leia, swinging her new lightsaber in an overlarge arc, was just a shade too slow. "Gah!" she grunted, taking a step backward.
"You're not giving the Force enough control," Luke told her. "You have to— Wait a minute."
Reaching out with the Force, he put the remote on pause. He remembered vividly that first practice session on the Falcon, when he'd had to concentrate on Ben Kenobi's instructions while at the same time keeping a wary eye on the remote. Doing both together hadn't been easy.
But perhaps that had been the whole idea. Perhaps a lesson learned under stress was learned better.
He wished he knew.
"I'm giving it all the control I can," Leia said, rubbing her arm where the remote's stinger blast had caught her. "I just don't have the proper techniques down yet." She impaled him with a look. "Or else I just wasn't cut out for this sort of fighting."
"You can learn it," Luke said firmly. "I learned it, and I never had any of that self-defense training you got when you were growing up on Alderaan."
"Maybe that's the problem," Leia said. "Maybe all those old fighting reflexes are getting in my way."
"I suppose that's possible," Luke admitted, wishing he knew that, too. "In that case, the sooner you start unlearning them, the better. Now: ready—"
The door buzzed. "It's Han," Leia said, stepping away from the remote and closing down her lightsaber. "Come in," she called.
"Hi," Han said as he walked into the room, glancing in turn at Leia and Luke. He wasn't smiling. "How's the lesson going?"
"Not bad," Luke said.
"Don't ask," Leia countered, frowning at her husband. "What's wrong?"
"The Imperials," Han said sourly. "They just pulled a three-prong hit-and-fade on three systems in the Sluis sector. Some place called Bpfassh and two unpronounceable ones."
Luke whistled softly. "Three at once. Getting pretty cocky, aren't they?"
"That seems par for them these days." Leia shook her head, the skin around her eyes tight with concentration. "They're up to something, Han—I can feel it. Something big; something dangerous." She waved her hands helplessly. "But I can't for the life of me figure out what it could be."
"Yeah, Ackbar's been saying the same thing," Han nodded. "Problem is he's got nothing to back it up. Except for the style and tactics, this is all pretty much the same rear-guard harassment the Empire's been pulling for probably the last year and a half."
"I know," Leia gritted. "But don't sell Ackbar short—he's got good military instincts. No matter what certain other people say."
Han cocked an eyebrow. "Hey, sweetheart, I'm on your side. Remember?"
She smiled wanly. "Sorry. How bad was the damage?"
Han shrugged. "Not nearly as bad as it could have been. Especially considering that they hit each place with four Star Destroyers. But all three systems are pretty shook up."
"I can imagine," Leia sighed. "Let me guess: Mon Mothma wants me to go out there and assure them that the New Republic really is able and willing to protect them."
"How'd you guess?" Han growled. "Chewie's getting the Falcon prepped now."
"You're not going alone, are you?" Luke asked. "After Bimmisaari—"
"Oh, don't worry," Han said, throwing him a tight smile. "We're not going to be sitting ducks this time. There's a twenty-ship convoy going out to assess the damage, plus Wedge and Rogue Squadron. It'll be safe enough."
"That's what we said about Bimmisaari, too," Luke pointed out. "I'd better come along."
Han looked at Leia. "Well, actually... you can't."
Luke frowned at him. "Why not?"
"Because," Leia answered quietly, "the Bpfasshi don't like Jedi."
Han's lip twisted. "The story is that some of their Jedi went bad during the Clone Wars and really mangled things before they were stopped. Or so Mon Mothma says."
"She's right," Leia nodded. "We were still getting echoes of the whole fiasco in the Imperial Senate when I was serving there. It wasn't just Bpfassh, either—some of those Dark Jedi escaped and made trouble all throughout the Sluis sector. One of them even got as far as Dagobah before he was caught."
Luke felt a jolt run through him. Dagobah? "When was that?" he asked as casually as possible.
"Thirty, thirty-five years ago," Leia said, her forehead creased slightly as she studied his face. "Why?"
Luke shook his head. Yoda had never mentioned a Dark Jedi ever being on Dagobah. "No reason," he murmured.
"Come on, we can discuss history later," Han put in. "The sooner we get going, the sooner we can get this over with."
"Right," Leia agreed, latching her lightsaber to her belt and heading for the door. "I'll get my travel bag and give Winter some instructions. Meet you at the ship."
Luke watched her leave; turned back to find Han eyeing him. "I don't like it," he told the other.
"Don't worry—she'll be safe," Han assured him. "Look, I know how protective you're feeling toward her these days. But she can't always have her big brother standing over her."
"Actually, we've never figured out which of us is older," Luke murmured.
"Whatever," Han waved the detail away. "The best thing you can do for her right now is what you're already doing. You make her a Jedi, and she'll be able to handle anything the Imperials can throw at her."
Luke's stomach tightened. "I suppose so."
"As long as Chewie and me are with her, that is," Han amended, heading for the door. "See you when we get back."
"Be careful," Luke called after him.
Han turned, one of those hurt/innocent expressions on his face. "Hey," he said. "It's me."
He left, and Luke was alone.
For a few moments he wandered around the room, fighting against the heavy weight of responsibility that seemed sometimes on the verge of smothering him. Risking his own life was one thing, but to have Leia's future in his hands was something else entirely. "I'm not a teacher," he called aloud into the empty room.
The only response was a flicker of movement from the still-paused remote. On sudden impulse, Luke kicked the device to life again, snatching his lightsaber from his belt as it moved to the attack. A dozen stinger blasts shot out in quick succession as the remote swooped like a crazed insect; effortlessly, Luke blocked each in turn, swinging the lightsaber in a flashing arc that seemed to engulf him, a strange exultation flowing through mind and body. This was something he could fight—not distant and shadowy like his private fears, but something solid and tangible. The remote fired again and again, each shot ricocheting harmlessly from the lightsaber blade—
With a sudden beep the remote stopped. Luke stared at it in confusion, wondering what had happened... and abruptly realized he was breathing heavily. Breathing heavily, and sweating. The remote had a twenty-minute time limit built in, and he'd just come to the end of it.
He closed down the lightsaber and returned it to his belt, feeling a little eerie about what had just happened. It wasn't the first time he'd lost track of time like that, but always before it had been during quiet meditation. The only times it had happened in anything like a combat situation were back on Dagobah, under Yoda's supervision.
Wiping the sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve, he walked over to the comm desk in the corner and punched up the spaceport. "This is Skywalker," he identified himself. "I'd like my X-wing prepped for launch in one hour."
"Yes, sir," the young maintenance officer said briskly. "We'll need you to send over your astromech unit first."
"Right," Luke nodded. He'd refused to let them wipe the X-wing's computer every few months, as per standard procedure. The inevitable result was that the computer had effectively molded itself around Artoo's unique personality, so much so that the relationship was almost up to true droid counterpart level. It made for excellent operational speed and efficiency; unfortunately, it also meant that none of the maintenance computers could talk to the X-wing anymore. "I'll have him there in a few minutes."
Luke keyed off and straightened up, wondering vaguely why he was doing this. Surely Yoda's presence would no longer be there on Dagobah for him to talk to or ask questions of.
But then, perhaps it would.
"As you can see," Wedge said, his voice grimly conversational as he crunched through plastic and ceramic underfoot, "the place is something of a mess."
"That's for sure," Leia agreed, feeling a little sick as she looked around at the flat-bottomed, rubble-strewn crater. A handful of other Republic representatives from her party were wandering around the area, too, holding quiet conversations with their Bpfasshi escorts and occasionally pausing to pick through the pieces of what had once been a major power plant. "How many people died in the attack?" she asked, not at all sure she wanted to hear the answer.
"In this system, a few hundred," Wedge told her, consulting a data pad. "Not too bad, really."
"No." Involuntarily, Leia glanced up at the deep blue-green sky above them. Not bad, indeed. Especially considering that there had been no fewer than four Star Destroyers raining destruction down on them. "A lot of damage, though."
"Yeah," Wedge nodded. "But not nearly as much as there could have been."
"I wonder why," Han muttered.
"So does everyone else," Wedge agreed. "It's been the second most popular question around here these days."
"What's the first?" Leia asked.
"Let me guess," Han put in before Wedge could answer. "The first is, why did they bother pounding on Bpfassh in the first place."
"You got it," Wedge nodded again. "It's not like they didn't have any better targets to choose from. You've got the Sluis Van shipyards about thirty light-years away, for starters—a hundred ships there at any given time, not to mention the docking facilities themselves. Then there's the Praesitlyn communications station at just under sixty, and four or five major trade centers within a hundred. An extra day of travel each way, tops, at Star Destroyer cruising speeds. So why Bpfassh?"
Leia thought it over. It was a good question. "Sluis Van itself is pretty heavily defended," she pointed out. "Between our Star Cruisers and the Sluissi's own permanent battle stations, any Imperial leader with a gram of sense would think twice before tackling it. And those other systems are all a lot deeper into New Republic space than Bpfassh. Maybe they didn't want to push their luck that far."
"While they tested their new transmission system under combat conditions?" Han suggested darkly.
"We don't know that they've got a new system," Wedge cautioned him. "Coordinated simultaneous attacks have been done before."
"No." Han shook his head, looking around. "No, they've got something new. Some kind of booster that lets them punch subspace transmissions through deflector shields and battle debris."
"I don't think it's a booster," Leia said, a shiver running up her back. Something was starting to tingle, way back at the edge of her mind. "No one in any of the three systems picked up any transmissions."
Han frowned down at her. "You okay?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," she murmured, shivering again. "I was just remembering that when—well, when Darth Vader was having us tortured on Bespin, Luke knew it was happening from wherever he was at the time. And there were rumors that the Emperor and Vader could do that, too."
"Yeah, but they're both dead," Han reminded her. "Luke said so."
"I know," she said. The tingling at the edge of her mind was getting stronger... "But what if the Imperials have found another Dark Jedi?"
Wedge had gotten ahead of them, but now he turned back. "You talking about C'baoth?"
"What?" Leia frowned.
"Joruus C'baoth," Wedge said. "I thought I heard you mention Jedi."
"I did," Leia said. "Who's Joruus C'baoth?"
"He was one of the major Jedi Masters back in pre-Empire days," Wedge said. "Supposed to have disappeared before the Clone Wars started. I heard a rumor a couple of days ago that he's surfaced again and set up shop on some minor world named Jomark."
"Right." Han snorted. "And he was just sitting around doing nothing during the Rebellion?"
Wedge shrugged. "I just report 'em, General. I don't make 'em up."
"We can ask Luke," Leia said. "Maybe he knows something. Are we ready to move on?"
"Sure," Wedge said. "The airspeeders are over this way—"
And in a sudden rush of sensation, the tingling in Leia's mind abruptly exploded into certain knowledge. "Han, Wedge—duck!"
—and at the rim of the crater a handful of well-remembered gray-skinned aliens appeared.
"Cover!" Han shouted to the other Republic reps in the crater as the aliens opened up with blasters. Grabbing Leia's wrist, he dived for the limited protection of a huge but badly twisted plate of shielding metal that had somehow gotten itself dug halfway into the ground. Wedge was right behind them, slamming hard into Leia as he reached cover.
"Sorry," he panted in apology, yanking out his blaster and turning to throw a cautious look around the edge of their shelter. One look was all he got before a blaster bolt spattered metal near his face and sent him jerking back. "I'm not sure," he said, "but I think we've got trouble."
"I think you're right," Han agreed grimly. Leia turned to see him, blaster drawn, returning his comlink to his belt with his free hand. "They've learned. This time they're jamming our communications."
Leia felt cold all over. Way out here, without comlinks, they were as good as helpless. Totally cut off from any possibility of help...
Her hand, reaching automatically for her stomach, brushed her new lightsaber instead. She pulled it free, a fresh determination pushing past the fear. Jedi or not, experienced or not, she wasn't going to give up without a fight.
"Sounds like you've run into these guys before," Wedge said, reaching around the barrier to squeeze off a couple of blind shots in the general direction of their attackers.
"We've met," Han grunted back, trying to get into position for a clear shot. "Haven't really figured out what they want, though."
Leia reached for her lightsaber's control stud, wondering if she had enough skill yet to block blaster fire... and paused. Over the noise of blasters and crackling metal she could hear a new sound. A very familiar sound... "Han!"
"I hear it," Han said. "Way to go, Chewie."
"What?" Wedge asked.
"That whine you hear is the Falcon," Han told him, leaning back to look over their shelter. "Probably discovered they were jamming us and put two and two together. Here he comes."
With a screaming roar the familiar shape of the Millennium Falcon swooped by overhead. It circled once, ignoring the ineffectual blasts ricocheting from its underside, and dropped to a bumpy landing directly between them and their attackers. Peering cautiously around their barrier, Leia saw the ramp lower toward them.
"Great," Han said, looking past her shoulder. "Okay. I'll go first and cover you from the bottom of the ramp. Leia, you're next; Wedge, you bring up the rear. Stay sharp—they may try to flank us."
"Got it," Wedge nodded. "Ready when you are."
"Okay." Han got his feet under him—
"Wait a minute," Leia said suddenly, gripping his arm. "There's something wrong."
"Right—we're getting shot at," Wedge put in.
"I'm serious," Leia snapped. "Something here's not right."
"Like what?" Han asked, frowning at her. "Come on, Leia, we can't sit here all day."
Leia gritted her teeth, trying to chase down the feeling tingling through her. It was still so nebulous... and then suddenly she had it. "It's Chewie," she told them. "I can't feel his presence on the ship."
"He's probably just too far away," Wedge said, a distinct note of impatience in his voice. "Come on—he's going to get the ship shot out from under him if we don't get going."
"Hang on a minute," Han growled, still frowning at Leia. "He's okay for now—all they're using is hand blasters. Anyway, if things get too hot, he can always use the—"
He broke off, a strange look on his face. A second later, Leia got it, too. "The underside swivel blaster," she said. "Why isn't he using it?"
"Good question," Han said grimly. He leaned out again, taking a hard look this time... and when he ducked back under cover there was a sardonic half-grin on his face. "Simple answer: that's not the Falcon."
"What?" Wedge asked, his jaw dropping a couple of centimeters.
"It's a fake," Han told him. "I can't believe it—these guys actually dug up another working YT-1300 freighter somewhere."
Wedge whistled softly. "Boy, they must really want you bad."
"Yeah, I'm starting to get that impression myself," Han said. "Got any good ideas?"
Wedge glanced around the edge of the barrier. "I don't suppose running for it qualifies."
"Not with them sitting out there at the edge of the crater waiting to pick us off," Leia told him.
"Yeah," Han agreed. "And as soon as they realize we're not going to just walk into their decoy, it'll probably get worse."
"Is there any way we can at least disable that ship?" Leia asked him. "Keep it from taking off and attacking us from above?"
"There are lots of ways," he grunted. "The problem is you have to be inside for most of them. The outside shielding isn't great, but it blocks hand blasters just fine."
"Will it block a lightsaber?"
He threw a suspicious frown at her. "You're not suggesting...?"
"I don't think we've got any choice," she told him. "Do we?"
"I suppose not," he grimaced. "All right—but I'll go."
Leia shook her head. "We all go," she said. "We know they want at least one of us alive—otherwise, they'd just have flown by overhead and blasted us. If we all go together, they won't be able to fire. We'll head straight in as if we're going aboard, then split off to the sides at the last second and take cover behind the ramp. Wedge and I can fire up and inside to keep them busy while you take the lightsaber and disable them."
"I don't know," Han muttered. "I think just Wedge and me should go."
"No, it has to be all of us," Leia insisted. "That's the only way to guarantee they won't shoot."
Han looked at Wedge. "What do you think?"
"I think it's the best chance we're going to get," the other said. "But if we do it, we'd better do it fast."
"Yeah." Han took a deep breath and handed Leia his blaster. "All right. Give me the lightsaber. Okay; ready... go."
He ducked out from cover and charged for the ship, crouching down as he ran to avoid the blaster fire crisscrossing the crater—the other Republic reps, Leia noted as she and Wedge followed, doing a good job of keeping the rim attackers busy. Inside the ship she could see a hint of movement, and she gripped Han's blaster a little tighter. A half second in the lead, Han reached the ramp; and swerving suddenly to the side ducked under the hull.
The aliens must have realized instantly that their trap had failed. Even as Leia and Wedge skidded to a halt at opposite sides of the ramp, they were greeted by a burst of blaster fire from the open hatch. Dropping to the ground, Leia squirmed as far back as she could under the ramp, firing blindly into the hatch to discourage those inside from coming down after them. Across the ramp, Wedge was also firing; somewhere behind her, she could hear a faint scrabbling across the ground as Han got into position for whatever sabotage he was planning. A shot blazed past from above, narrowly missing her left shoulder, and she tried to back a little farther into the ramp's shadow. Behind her, clearly audible through the blaster fire, she heard a snap-hiss as Han ignited her lightsaber. Gritting her teeth, she braced herself, not knowing quite why—
And with a blast and shock wave that knocked her flat against the ground, the whole ship bounced a meter in the air and then slammed back down again.
Through the ringing in her ears, she heard someone give a war whoop. The firing from the hatch had abruptly stopped, and in the silence she could hear a strange hissing roar coming from above her. Cautiously, she eased away from the ramp and crawled a little ways out of concealment.
She'd been prepared to see the freighter leaking something as a result of Han's sabotage. She wasn't prepared for the huge white gaseous plume that was shooting skyward like the venting of a ruptured volcano.
"You like it?" Han asked, easing over beside her and glancing up to admire his handiwork.
"That probably depends on whether the ship's about to blow up," Leia countered. "What did you do?"
"Cut through the coolant lines to the main drive," he told her, retrieving his blaster and handing back her lightsaber. "That's all their pressurized korfaise gas floating away."
"I thought coolant gases were dangerous to breathe," Leia said, looking warily at the billowing cloud.
"They are," Han agreed. "But korfaise is lighter than air, so we won't have any trouble down here. Inside the ship is another matter. I hope."
Abruptly, Leia became aware of the silence around them. "They've stopped shooting," she said.
Han listened. "You're right. Not just the ones inside the ship, either."
"I wonder what they're up to," Leia murmured, tightening her grip on the lightsaber.
A second later she got her answer. A violent thunderclap came from above them, flattening her to the ground with the shock wave. For a horrifying second she thought the aliens had set the ship to self-destruct; but the sound faded away, and the ramp beside her was still intact. "What was that?"
"That, sweetheart," Han said, pulling himself to his feet, "was the sound of an escape pod being jettisoned." He eased cautiously away from the relative protection of the ramp, scanning the sky. "Probably modified for atmospheric maneuvering. Never realized before how loud those things were."
"They usually take off in vacuum," Leia reminded him, standing up herself. "So. Now what?"
"Now—" Han pointed "—we collect our escort and get out of here."
"Our escort?" Leia frowned. "What esc—?"
Her question was cut off by the roar of engines as three X-wings shot overhead, wings in attack position and clearly primed for trouble. She looked up at the white tower of korfaise gas... and suddenly understood. "You did that deliberately, didn't you?"
"Well, sure," Han said, looking innocent. "Why just disable a ship when you can disable it and send up a distress signal at the same time?" He gazed up at the cloud. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "sometimes I still amaze myself."
"I can assure you, Captain Solo," Admiral Ackbar's gravelly voice came over the Falcon's speaker, "that we are doing everything in our power to find out how this happened."
"That's what you said four days ago," Han reminded him, trying hard to be civil. It wasn't easy. He'd long since gotten used to being shot at himself, but having Leia under the hammer with him was something else entirely. "Come on—there can't be all that many people who knew we were coming to Bpfassh."
"You might be surprised," Ackbar said. "Between the Council members, their staffs, the prep crews at the spaceport, and various security and support personnel, there may be up to two hundred people who had direct access to your itinerary. And that doesn't count friends and colleagues any of those two hundred might have mentioned it to. Tracking through all of them is going to take time."
Han grimaced. "That's great. May I ask what you suggest we do in the meantime?"
"You have your escort."
"We had them four days ago, too," Han countered. "It didn't do us a lot of good. Commander Antilles and Rogue Squadron are fine in a space battle, but this kind of stuff isn't exactly their area of expertise. We'd do better with Lieutenant Page and some of his commandos."
"Unfortunately, they're all out on assignment," Ackbar said. "Under the circumstances, perhaps it would be best if you simply brought Councilor Organa Solo back here where she can be properly protected."
"I'd love to," Han said. "The question is whether she'll be any safer on Coruscant than she is here."
There was a long moment of silence, and Han could imagine Ackbar's huge eyes swiveling in their sockets. "I'm not sure I appreciate the tone of that question, Captain."
"I don't much like it either, Admiral," Han told him. "But face it: if the Imperials are getting information out of the Palace, they might just as easily be able to get their agents in."
"I think that highly unlikely," Ackbar said, and there was no missing the frostiness in his tone. "The security arrangements I've set up on Coruscant are quite capable of handling anything the Imperials might try."
"I'm sure they are, Admiral," Han sighed. "I only meant—"
"We'll let you know when we have further information, Captain," Ackbar said. "Until then, do whatever you feel is necessary. Coruscant out."
The faint hum of the carrier cut off. "Right," Han muttered under his breath. "Bpfassh out, too."
For a minute he just sat there in the Falcon's cockpit, thinking evil thoughts about politics in general and Ackbar in particular. In front of him the displays that normally monitored ship's status were showing views of the landing field around them, with special emphasis on the areas just outside the hatch. The underside swivel blaster was extended and ready, the deflector shields set for hair-trigger activation, despite the fact that the things weren't all that effective inside an atmosphere.
Han shook his head, a mixture of frustration and disgust in his mouth. Who'd ever have thought, he marveled to himself, that the day would come when I was actually paranoid?
From the rear of the cockpit came the sound of a soft footstep. Han turned, hand automatically dropping to his blaster—
"It's just me," Leia assured him, coming forward and glancing at the displays. She looked tired. "You finished talking with Ackbar already?"
"It wasn't much of a conversation," Han told her sourly. "I asked what they were doing to find out how our pals with the blasters knew we were coming here, he assured me they were doing everything possible to find out, I managed to step on his toes, and he signed off in a huff. Pretty much like usual with Ackbar these days."
Leia gave him a wry smile. "You do have a way with people, don't you?"
"This one's not my fault," Han objected. "All I did was suggest that his security people might not be up to keeping these guys out of the Imperial Palace. He's the one who overreacted."
"I know," Leia nodded, dropping wearily into the copilot's seat. "For all his military genius, Ackbar just doesn't have the polish to be a good politician. And with Fey'lya nipping at his heels..." She shrugged uncomfortably. "He just gets more and more overprotective of his territory."
"Yeah, well, if he's trying to keep Fey'lya away from the military, he's got the wrong end of the blaster," Han growled. "Half of them are already convinced that Fey'lya's the guy to listen to."
"Unfortunately, he often is," Leia conceded. "Charisma and ambition. Dangerous combination."
Han frowned. There had been something in her voice just then... "What do you mean, dangerous?"
"Nothing," she said, a guilty look flicking across her face. "Sorry—talking out of turn."
"Leia, if you know something—"
"I don't know anything," she said, in a tone that warned him to drop it. "It's just a feeling I have. A sense that Fey'lya has his eye on more than just Ackbar's job as supreme commander. But it's just a feeling."
Like the feeling she had that the Empire was up to something big? "Okay," he said soothingly. "I understand. So. You all done here?"
"As done as I can be," she said, the tiredness back in her voice. "The rebuilding's going to take some time, but the organization for that will have to be handled from Coruscant." She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. "Convoys of replacement equipment, consultants and maybe extra workers—you know the sort of thing."
"Yeah," Han said. "And I suppose you're anxious to get right back and start the ball rolling."
She opened her eyes and gave him a curious look. "You sound like you're not."
Han gave the outside displays a thoughtful scan. "Well, it's what everyone's going to expect you to do," he pointed out. "So maybe we ought to do something else."
"I don't know. Find somewhere no one would think to look for you, I guess."
"And then...?" she asked, her voice ominous.
Unconsciously, Han braced himself. "And then hole up there for a while."
"You know I can't do that," she said, her tone just about what he'd expected. "I have commitments back on Coruscant."
"You've got commitments to yourself, too," he countered. "Not to mention to the twins."
She glared at him. "That's not fair."
She turned away from him, an unreadable expression on her face. "I can't be out of touch, Han," she said quietly. "I just can't. There's too much happening back there for me to bury myself away."
Han gritted his teeth. They seemed to be running over this same territory a lot lately. "Well, if all you need right now is to keep in touch, how about if we go some place that has a diplomatic station? You'd at least be able to get official Coruscant news there."
"And how do we make sure the local ambassador doesn't give us away?" She shook her head. "I can't believe I'm talking like this," she muttered. "It's like we're back being the Rebellion again, not the legitimate government."
"Who says the ambassador has to know?" Han asked. "We've got a diplomatic receiver on the Falcon—we can tap into the transmission on our own."
"Only if we can get hold of the station's encrypt scheme," she reminded him. "And then plug it into our receiver. That may not be possible."
"We can find a way," Han insisted. "At least it would buy Ackbar some time to track down the leak."
"True." Leia considered, slowly shook her head. "I don't know. The New Republic's encrypt codes are nearly impossible to break."
Han snorted. "I hate to disillusion you, sweetheart, but there are slicers running around loose who eat government encrypt codes for breakfast. All we have to do is find one of them."
"And pay him enormous sums of money?" Leia said dryly.
"Something like that," Han agreed, thinking hard. "On the other hand, even slicers occasionally owe other people favors."
"Oh?" Leia threw him a sideways look. "I don't suppose you'd know any of them."
"As a matter of fact, I do." Han pursed his lips. "Trouble is, if the Imperials have done their homework, they probably know all about it and have someone watching him."
"Meaning we're going to have to find someone who's got his own list of slicer contacts." He reached over to the console and tapped the Falcon's comm switch. "Antilles, this is Solo. You copy?"
"Right here, General," Wedge's voice came back promptly.
"We're leaving Bpfassh, Wedge," Han told him. "That's not official yet—you're in charge of telling the rest of the delegation about it once we're off the ground."
"I understand," Wedge said. "You want me to assign you an escort, or would you rather slip out quietly? I've got a couple of people I'd trust all the way to the end of the galaxy."
Han sent Leia a lopsided smile. Wedge understood, all right. "Thanks, but we wouldn't want the rest of the delegation to feel unprotected."
"Whatever you want. I can handle anything that needs doing at this end. See you back at Coruscant."
"Right." Han cut off the comm. "Eventually," he added under his breath as he keyed for intercom. "Chewie? We ready to fly?"
The Wookiee growled an affirmative. "Okay. Make sure everything's bolted down and then come on up. Better bring Threepio, too—we might have to talk to Bpfasshi Control on the way out."
"Do I get to know where we're going?" Leia asked as he started the prelaunch sequence.
"I already told you," Han said. "We need to find someone we can trust who has his own list of illegals."
A suspicious glint came into her eye. "You don't mean... Lando?"
"Who else?" Han said innocently. "Upstanding citizen, former war hero, honest businessman. Of course he'll have slicer contacts."
Leia rolled her eyes skyward. "Why," she murmured, "do I suddenly have a bad feeling about this?"