Added on December 12, 1999
Category: Science Fiction/Star Wars
Author: Commander Antilles

Mara Jade - Emperor's Hand

MARA JADE - EMPEROR'S HAND
The Rebel Alliance has won a great victory
with the destruction of the Death Star.

There is no time for celebration, however.
Their base on Yavin revealed, the Rebels
must flee before the Imperial fleet arrives.

Far greater danger awaits them, though.
Lord Darth Vader, ordered to crush the
Rebellion by his master, leads a mighty
taskforce against the Alliance and seeks
to discover the identity of the Rebel pilot
who thwarted him at Yavin...


PROLOGUE:
Four days after the Battle of Yavin...

Luke Skywalker sprinted through the hangar of the Massassi Great Temple from where the Rebel Alliance had so recently launched its near-suicidal mission against the Death Star. Now it was facing an equally desperate mission to evacuate from Yavin 4 before the Imperial Fleet could arrive. Outside the Great Temple, swarms of transports were ferrying personnel and equipment up to the Rebel capital ships massed above Yavin. X-wings and Y-wings were lifting off from the hangar in steady waves, raising the already deafening noise inside the Temple to an almost unbearable pitch. He stopped as he somehow managed to hear his name being bellowed above the din, and turned to see Han Solo and Chewbacca fighting their way towards him through the chaos. "General Dodonna says we've almost finished the evacuation procedure," Han yelled over the roar of fighter engines as he reached Luke.

"We've nearly gotten all the fighters and equipment away now. We've just got to get the remaining personnel lifted out," Luke shouted back.

Han nodded. "Chewie and I'll be on the Falcon. We're going to get some unwelcome company if we stay here much longer. We'll see you at the rendezvous point."

He turned away and nearly ran into Princess Leia. "Leaving so soon, Captain?" she asked with one eyebrow raised in a manner that Han found intensely insufferable.

"Sure am, your worship," he retorted. "I don't especially like the idea of hanging around to give the entire Imperial Navy a wave."

Luke sighed. Since they had met, Han and Leia had constantly been trying to score points off the other, a process that they had only briefly suspended during the celebrations following the destruction of the Death Star. He turned away, leaving them to bicker, and was halfway to his X-wing when a voice called him. Wedge Antilles approached, wearing an ornate medal around his neck. "I see you've still got your medal," Luke said with a grin. "They finally got round to giving you one for your part in the Death Star attack. I thought it seemed unfair you didn't get one when Han and I did."

Wedge laughed. "Well, better late than never, I suppose. I'll see you at the rendezvous. Take care."

"You too," Luke said, and jogged to his X-wing, one of the few still in the hangar. A fusillade of anxious beeps and whistles greeted him as he climbed the ladder to the cockpit. "Yes, I know, Artoo," he said. "I'm sure you've calculated the ETA of the nearest Star Destroyers to a microsecond. Don't worry, we're going, we're going."

The X-wing left Yavin for what would be the last time for many years, and climbed through the atmosphere towards the Rebel fleet.

A sombre mood pervaded Coruscant, the capital of the Empire. Ten Star Destroyers lay in orbit around the planet, ready to tear apart any rioting or insurrection with a savage bombardment from space should it break out. Coruscant was quiet, though, the population venturing out as little as possible to avoid the detachments of Imperial stormtroopers that were everywhere.

Inside the Imperial Palace, the sombre mood reached a peak. The normally thronged Grand Corridor was almost empty, save for platoons of Imperial stormtroopers every few hundred metres. Grim faced Imperial officers hurried through the Palace, issuing quiet orders to their troops. Deep inside the Palace, a turbolift rose swiftly through the myriad floors to the very peak of the vast building. Finally, it stopped at the very highest level, where only a very select few were ever permitted. The turbolift doors slid open without a sound to reveal two figures. One, clad all in black, stood taller even than the Emperor's Royal Guards. Wheezing breaths broke the silence. The other was smaller but no less distinctive. Red-haired and with a slim dancer's figure, she nevertheless had an air of formidable competence. She had been trained in all forms of combat and other skills, such as espionage, starship piloting and maintenance, and last but not least, basic force skills.

Both of them entered the dimly lit throne room of Emperor Palpatine, passing the red-cloaked Royal Guards standing silently along the walls, and crossed the wide floor between the doors and the stairs leading up to Palpatine's throne. They climbed the stairs and knelt at the proper distance from the throne. The throne was facing away from them, completely hiding the Emperor. They waited.

Eventually the Emperor spoke. "The Death Star has been destroyed," he said coldly, ignoring Vader. "A small group of Rebels found a weakness which enabled them to destroy it. Grand Moff Tarkin, General Motti, and General Tagge were all killed. As of an hour ago, I have imposed galactic-wide martial law. This pitiful uprising will be ruthlessly stamped out. Too many systems already support the Rebellion, and others will no doubt follow once the news spreads." He addressed Vader, his voice as sharp as a vibroblade. "You failed to stop the Rebels succeeding. I do not accept failure, Lord Vader. Have you any reasons why you were unable to stop such a weak group of traitors?"

Vader bowed his head. "My Master, I took my own fighter and a pair of TIE fighters against the Rebel attack, and managed to destroy two Rebel fighter groups. I was about to finish the last survivor of a third group when the same Corellian freighter on which Kenobi had been travelling destroyed one of my wingmen and the other panicked and crashed into the trench, hitting my fighter and sending it out of control. As a result, the Rebels succeeded in their attack. There is, though, a new development of grave importance, far more troubling than the loss of the Death Star. The Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star had a strong connection to the Force."

There was a grim silence as the throne turned slowly to face them. The Emperor leaned forwards on the throne, his yellow eyes burning into Vader. "Are you quite sure, Lord Vader?" he demanded. "The Jedi have all been destroyed."

"He was not a Jedi, Master," Vader answered. "The Force is with him but he is untrained."

The Emperor appeared to relax slightly and nodded thoughtfully. "Good. Without training, he will be no threat. The Jedi Masters are gone. Nevertheless, he must be hunted down and destroyed."

"Yes, Master," Vader said. "Not even Obi-wan Kenobi can help him now." He rose and came forwards, taking an object from his belt, which he held out to the Emperor. "Obi-wan's lightsabre."

The Emperor smiled. "At least we have gained something from this disaster. Perhaps you have not failed as badly as I first thought, Lord Vader." His gaze turned to the woman kneeling next to Vader. "Rise, my servant. Come closer," he ordered, beckoning. She obeyed, coming forwards silently and gracefully. The Emperor's eyes passed over her, appraising her thoroughly. Her Force skills were able to sense his probing her mind and she stood calmly while he did so. Finally, the Emperor nodded approvingly. "You have trained Shira Brie well, Lord Vader," he said. "You have taught her well indeed. She has control of her fear in my presence. I am almost tempted to test her against Mara Jade. They are equals in skill."

He spoke to Shira. "You have studied the files on Mara Jade?"

"I have, my lord," she replied. "My feelings in this matter are clear. My loyalty is to the Dark Side and the Empire only."

"See that it remains so," the Emperor warned. "It is a pity that Jade cannot be allowed to learn the truth about you and her past. Our experiment in creating Force sensitive agents has done well so far though, Lord Vader, with my own Hand and your agent here. You will use Shira Brie to help hunt down the Rebellion and eliminate this mysterious pilot."

He rose from his throne. "Come with me, my servants."

R2-D2 shrilled in alarm. "All right, I see them," Luke snapped. He pulled his X-wing hard to one side, barely avoiding the three TIE fighters that were intent on blowing him into space dust. "Wedge, Dack, pull in," he ordered.

"I'm on them, Luke," replied Dack, a cadet who had barely learnt how to fly an X-wing, but who now found himself pressed into active service due to the Alliance's desperate need for pilots after the losses in the Death Star attack. He dived in behind the TIEs and managed to score a direct hit on one. The other two immediately took evasive action, but not quickly enough for one to escape Wedge.

Luke took a breath. "Thanks, you two." He took a second to examine the strategic situation, which had worsened considerably in the two minutes since he had last checked. The fleet had been on the verge of making the jump to lightspeed when six Star Destroyers and an Interdictor Cruiser had come out of hyperspace and a desperate battle erupted, with the Rebels trying frantically to drive the Interdictor away before they were annihilated. The Star Destroyers had so far destroyed four of their capital ships, and it looked like they were just about to add the Strike Cruiser Valour to the list.

On board the frigate Redemption, Princess Leia stared at the tactical display grimly. The Valour's shields were failing rapidly under a bombardment from two Star Destroyers. It already had hull breaches in several places, and the turbolasers were being systematically knocked out by precision firing. "Give me that comlink," she snapped at an aide. "Captain Tanh, this is Princess Leia Organa. Get your crew to the escape pods now."

On the bridge of the Valour, Captain Tanh looked down to the damage reports on his board and then around at his command crew. They met his gaze quietly, and he knew they would follow him to the death. "Negative, Princess," he replied. "We don't have enough intact pods. May the Force be with you all." He turned off the comlink, cutting off Leia's frantic pleas. "Divert all power to the engines. Helm, turn to course 3-7-50 and proceed full ahead." He walked to his command chair and sat down, ignoring the fact that the bridge lights had gone dark as power was channelled to the engines, and stared calmly ahead until the end.

"Valour, this is Princess Organa," Leia nearly screamed. "Please respond!"

A hand fell on her shoulder. "It's no good, Princess," said General Rieekan, who was co-ordinating the battle, sombrely. He could see what Captain Tanh was planning. "Order all ships to jump to hyperspace on my mark," he told an aide. He put an arm around Leia and watched the Valour making its final attack. Turbolasers blasted from the Star Destroyers in an attempt to stop the Valour, but somehow the dying ship withstood the fire and moved relentlessly ahead until it found its target. Leia swallowed hard as she saw the Valour plough into the Interdictor Cruiser, and both ships erupt in a fireball second only to that of the Death Star. She lowered her head for a minute, tears pricking at her eyes. So many brave men, women and aliens had died fighting for an inalienable right, the right to live in freedom.

"The gravity wells are gone, sir," one of Rieekan's aides announced unnecessarily.

Rieekan nodded. Comm chatter had ceased for a few moments as the Valour exploded. "All ships jump to lightspeed," he ordered over the silence. "Captain Tanh and the crew of the Valour are hereby declared Heroes of the Alliance."

The Star Destroyers intensified their attack in a last attempt to stop the Rebels from escaping, but in vain. In a few seconds, the entire Rebel fleet jumped to hyperspace, leaving the Star Destroyers behind.

The Emperor's royal Lambda-class shuttle had left the atmosphere of Coruscant and was now rising past the massive hull of an Imperial Star Destroyer that was lying quietly in space. The Emperor, seated at a viewport, turned and beckoned Vader and Shira to his side. "Your fleet has already assembled, Lord Vader," he said with a cold smile. "Behold your flagship."

The shuttle rose slowly over the hull of the Star Destroyer. Beyond it, the distinctive knife shape of the bow of another Star Destroyer began to appear, although this one seemed much more elongated and sleeker, Shira noted. She frowned as more of the hull appeared. It wasn't a typical Star Destroyer, she realised. Her gaze moved along the hull as it emerged, to the point where the command superstructure should be. It wasn't there, she noticed with a shock, and still the hull kept lengthening and widening. Finally, the bridge structure came into view and she let out a breath of amazement. The ship was truly immense. It didn't end there, though. A hilt like extension jutted out behind the bridge, on the underside of which three immense drive nozzles could be seen. A score of Star Destroyers could be seen in an escort formation beyond it. The ship utterly dwarfed them, by a scale factor of almost eleven, Shira quickly estimated, comparing it to the Star Destroyers.

Vader leaned forward, almost touching the viewport transparisteel. "Most impressive, Master," he said.

The Emperor nodded, satisfied. "The first of a new class of warships. Super Star Destroyers." His voice hardened. "This ship, the Executor, was intended to be used in conjunction with the Death Star to force the galaxy into absolute submission. Instead, it will now be used to exact revenge on the Rebellion for the loss of the Death Star. You will use this fleet to ensure that the Rebellion is utterly stamped out, Lord Vader."

***

THE ARCAZ SYSTEM:
Sixteen Months Later...

With a flicker of pseudomotion, twelve X-wings dropped out of hyperspace.

"There it is," Wedge Antilles breathed, staring out at the enormous bulk of the Star Destroyer Repressor as Red Squadron moved into attack formation.

"Red Squadron, lock S-foils in attack position," Luke Skywalker ordered, reaching up to toggle his S-foils open. "All fighters, target and fire torpedoes at the Repressor." Behind him twelve Y-wings came out of lightspeed and began following the X-wings towards the Repressor. "Blue Squadron, we'll cover you."

"I copy, Red Leader," Blue Leader acknowledged. "We're starting our attack run now."

"Targeting solution acquired," Wedge reported.

"Red Squadron, fire on your marks," Luke said as six torpedoes shot away from Wedge's fighter towards the Repressor.

"TIE fighters launching," Red Six reported as Red Squadron began launching other torpedoes. "12 marks at point 115. No, 24 now."

"Copy, Red Six," Luke acknowledged. He studied his displays. The TIEs were launching in two groups, one further ahead of the other. "Artoo, designate them as Alpha and Beta. Red Squadron, accelerate to attack speed."

The two groups of fighters closed rapidly. Red and green laser blasts erupted as they came into firing range, and the formations broke apart into individual battles between fighters.

"Steady, Red Two," Red Eleven warned. "You've got one on you."

"I see it," Wedge acknowledged. "Red Leader?"

"One moment," Luke replied. A sudden flash briefly lit up Wedge's cockpit. "Okay, you're clear."

Wedge glanced around. He could see fifteen TIEs left, but then a hail of red and blue bolts appeared as Blue Squadron entered the dogfight, firing their lasers and ion cannons. The TIEs, unable to match the Rebels either in skill or firepower, proved easy prey.

"Red Leader, we're clear," Blue Leader reported three minutes later.

"Thanks, Blue Leader," Luke answered. "Red Squadron, reform on Blue Squadron. Any losses?"

"Red Eight's gone," Red Ten reported.

"Lost Blue Four and Seven," Blue Leader said.

There was a brief moment of silence.

Artoo whistled. "I see it, Artoo," Luke acknowledged, glancing at the image of the Repressor on his display. "Blue Leader, our torpedoes have taken the aft starboard shield down."

"Got it," came the reply. "Targeting that section."

Luke saw the blue streaks of more proton torpedoes racing towards the Repressor. One by one, they slammed into the unshielded hull. Explosions erupted on the hull, sending pieces of hull armour plating flying out into space. Secondary blasts flared deep inside the Star Destroyer.

"Look at that!" Dack shouted as the explosions died away.

"Good work, Blue Squadron," Luke said, looking at the damage. A huge hole had been torn in the Repressor's hull. "All fighters, move in."

"More TIEs launching, Red Leader," Red Seven announced.

"Copy, Red Seven. Red Two to Ten, follow me," Luke ordered as he turned his X-wing towards the incoming TIEs. "Eleven and Twelve, keep an eye on the Y-wings and suppress any turbolaser fire."

Once again, the two opposing forces met in a dogfight. The TIEs were slightly faster and more manoeuvrable, but Red Squadron had shields and greater skill, so they were evenly balanced.

Dack pulled his X-wing into a weaving flight pattern as the fighters reached each other, in order to avoid enemy fire. At the last second, he pulled straight in front of one of the TIEs, firing all four lasers at once. Unable to evade in time, the TIE took all four shots in the cockpit and exploded spectacularly, as Dack's X-wing shot through the fireball.

Zev and Hobbie swept in behind a pair of TIEs and blew them into twin clouds of red and black.

One TIE came in behind Red Four and scored a direct hit on the fighter's port S-foils, and there was an agonised scream as Red Four plunged towards the Repressor. An explosion flared as the X-wing smashed into the Star Destroyer. Janson dropped in behind the TIE, which had made the mistake of forgetting to watch its six, and two shots crumpled a solar panel, sending the fighter spinning out of control through space until a stray shot from the Repressor blew it apart.

A few minutes later, the fight was over. Wedge's X-wing shot through the twin clouds of space dust that had been TIE fighters a few seconds ago, and headed for the Y-wings, which had been making continual attack runs on the damaged section of the hull. The crippled Star Destroyer was beginning to pick up speed as it prepared to make the jump to lightspeed, its turbolasers blasting in an attempt to keep the Rebel fighters at bay. Wedge watched it moving away. They could nothing to stop its escape, but then they didn't have to. His astromech whistled as a counter reached zero.

A second later, the Rebel Nebulon-B frigate Sertina came out of hyperspace next to the Repressor, its turbolasers opening up immediately on the damaged hull. The Repressor began manoeuvring to bring its own intact turbolasers to bear in the knowledge that it considerably outgunned the frigate, but even as it did so, Red and Blue Squadron began making strafing runs on the turbolaser emplacements. Waves of torpedoes were launched from the Sertina, tearing into the breached section of hull and weakening the shields and intact hull. Under the relentless assault, a bright glow began to build up inside the Star Destroyer as gunnery, shield and control systems started to overload. New explosions began appearing as an energy feedback began building up and travelling through the systems.

"Look at that," Red Ten said in amazement as an explosion ripped apart a portion of the centre of the upper hull.

"Cut the chatter," Blue Three said. "TIEs launching at point 231. No, wait. They're heading away from us. Looks like they're running."

The abrupt disintegration of the Repressor's command superstructure confirmed his theory. A few seconds later, the Sertina ceased fire and began to move away from the Repressor at flank speed. Escape pods began shooting away from the dying Star Destroyer.

Artoo beeped urgently. "I know," Luke answered curtly as the image of the Star Destroyer on his display began flashing red. "All fighters, pull out now."

X-wings and Y-wings fled away from the Repressor at maximum speed, barely in time, as moments later, the Star Destroyer blew apart in a tremendous explosion and shockwave. Not all the Rebel fighters escaped. Two Y-wings, unable to get clear in time, were caught in the explosion and disintegrated. Luke grimaced briefly as the signals from the fighters vanished.

Ahead, the Sertina was running up to lightspeed velocity. With a flicker of pseudomotion, it vanished into hyperspace.

"All craft, jump to lightspeed on three," Luke ordered. "One, two, three...."

In perfect synchronicity, the Rebel ships jumped to hyperspace and vanished.

***

A grinning Wedge Antilles climbed onto the S-foil of his X-wing and turned to face the pilots of Red and Blue Squadron. "Do we know where in Vader's name we are?" he shouted.

"No!" the pilots roared in unison.

"Did we let the Repressor escape us?"

"No!"

"Are we going to let the Empire win the war?"

"No!"

"Did we blow up the Death Star and kick the Imperials from here to Coruscant?"

"YES!"

Princess Leia stood a short distance away in the docking bay of the Alliance command frigate, smiling as they celebrated. The destruction of the Repressor by the Sertina and Red and Blue squadrons had left both squadrons feeling jubilant, a feeling which, despite the destruction of the Death Star, had been in short supply since the Alliance had fled Yavin. In that time, they had been driven across the galaxy by Darth Vader's fleet. Base after base had been discovered and hastily evacuated. The pressure on the Alliance had been relentless. Knowing they could not possibly hope to match the Imperial fleet in a pitched battle, they had adopted guerrilla warfare tactics, luring ships away from the main part of the fleet and destroying them, or launching sudden surprise attacks. The destruction of the Repressor had been the latest such attack, and one of their most successful, as the Repressor was one of the best crewed and armed Star Destroyers in Vader's fleet.

The victory had not been easy, however. Two pilots from Red and four from Blue had died in the attack, not many against such a formidable Star Destroyer, but the loss of a quarter of the attacking pilots was a considerable blow when they needed every pilot they could get.

She nodded at the people standing around her, and walked towards Wedge. A cheer arose as the pilots saw her approaching. "Congratulations on taking out the Repressor, everyone," she said. "I'm sorry to hear about your losses. I know they can't be replaced, but we have some new pilots here to take their place. Yet again, we have some recruits to join us who have lost family and friends at the hands of the Empire." She indicated four of the small group of six standing behind her. "Dal Ryukyuan, Deb Shiba, Cerda Yisl, and Osar Nyarrin will join Blue Squadron. The other two, Shira Brie and Jotunn Sinter, will join Red Squadron." She looked at Wedge and smiled. "Finally, General Rieekan and I have agreed to Captain Antilles' request for Red Squadron to be renamed Rogue Squadron for killing the Repressor."

Her expression became serious. "High Command has decided to establish a new base in the Marriss system. Our advance scouts have indicated that it is a long way from any Imperial bases or outposts. General Rieekan has chosen you to help set up the preliminary outpost. You'll leave as soon as you're ready. Good luck."

Shira felt elation fill her as the pilots split up, heading to their quarters to get ready for an imminent departure. Finally, she was getting somewhere. She had infiltrated the Alliance nearly fourteen months ago, and had spent the time since in a small outpost on Jortal III. Finally, her piloting skills and other abilities had prompted the commander of the outpost to recommend her for transfer into Red Squadron. Finally she would be able to hurt the Alliance, she thought. The outpost personnel had soon revealed who had been responsible for the destruction of the Death Star, and she had taken great pleasure in reporting it to Darth Vader. Being posted to Red Squadron was greater luck than even she had hoped for. She would be able to destroy the greatest heroes of the Alliance from the inside.

"Excuse me," she said to Luke as he walked past her, giving him an embarrassed smile, "could you tell me where Commander Skywalker is?"

"Sure," Luke said. "I'm right here."

Shira went red. "Oh, Kessel!" she exclaimed. "I'm sorry..."

"It's all right," Luke said a grin. "Look, I've got to get ready. See you around."

"Sure," Shira said, giving him a dazzling smile before he turned away.

***

Darth Vader stood on the bridge of the Super Star Destroyer Executor, deep in thought. Despite the Emperor giving him command of a mighty Imperial task force, the Rebels had not been manoeuvred into a pitched battle which they would inevitably lose. They had instead chosen to attack lone Imperial ships, gradually wearing down his command by a process of attrition. Then two months ago, following the destruction of the Repressor, the Rebel fleet had vanished into the galaxy, and no amount of work by Imperial Intelligence could produce any leads...until now. The transfer of Shira Brie to Red Squadron had been an amazing piece of luck. She had identified the pilot who destroyed the Death Star as Luke Skywalker, which had given Vader much to think about. His son's sudden appearance with the Alliance was unsettling, especially if Obi-wan Kenobi had been guiding him. Potentially, he was a very dangerous threat to the Empire.

He held a datacard in his hand, which contained the latest information that Shira had sent. His cloak swirled around him as he turned and strode down the walkway towards Admiral Ozzel, standing as usual at the back of the bridge.

"Set a course for the planet Asola in the Marris system, Admiral," he ordered, and left the bridge.

***

Alarms erupted in the Rebel barracks and Luke Skywalker rolled out of his bunk, grabbing his blaster and lightsabre as he did so. The rest of Rogue Squadron were already up and assuming defensive positions in the two doorways, not knowing what was happening but assuming the worst.

Wedge toggled the comm he was holding. "Headquarters, this is Captain Antilles. What's going on?"

"Antilles, we have three Star Destroyers in orbit around the planet," one of the headquarters personnel announced. "The rest won't be far behind. Get to your fighters and prepare for a ground assault. The Star Destroyers are launching landing craft right now."

The Star Destroyers Avenger, Retribution, and Nemesis were in orbit around Asola.

On the bridge of the Retribution, which was leading the preliminary assault, Captain Nade Mazzin studied the sensor probe data on the Rebel base. They had no shields or anti-starship ground weapons.

"The prototype AT-ATs have been deployed as Lord Vader ordered, sir," an aide reported.

Mazzin nodded. "Hold here. We will wait for Lord Vader to arrive with the main fleet."

Rogue, Green, and Grey squadrons emerged from the base hangar in their X-wings.

"Rogue Leader, multiple marks in sector 9," Rogue Six reported.

"I see them," Luke answered, checking his sensors. He pulled his X-wing around to intercept the Imperial ground attack, cursing the sluggishness of the X-wing in an atmosphere.

In tight formation, the X-wings swept forwards. "What in Vader's name are those?" Hobbie gasped as small black dots appeared ahead of them. The vehicles ahead of them resembled Imperial Flying Fortresses, but were walking on four legs instead of hovering on repulsorlifts. Bolts began spraying out from the sides and underneath of the AT-AT cockpits as the X-wings began closing in.

"Whatever they are, they're a lot better armed than Flying Fortresses," Wedge observed as he pulled his fighter up to avoid a volley of shots that were aimed directly at him.

Bolts shot past the canopy of Luke's X-wing as he made an attack run on one of the walkers. Pulling to the right, he turned his X-wing into a steep climb and then turned and dived towards the unprotected flank of the walker. Laser bolts blasted from his cannons and punched through the weak armour on the AT-AT. Wedge's X-wing followed him in, blasting at the junction between the AT-AT leg and body. A proton torpedo was fired and smashed into the top of the leg with a brilliant flash, completely severing it. The AT-AT leaned to one side as it lost balance, and then crashed sideways into the ground.

"Not so heavily armoured, though," Wedge noted.

Other pilots had seen what had happened. Hobbie's X-wing swept head on towards a walker, dodging its fire, and fired two torpedos into the cockpit. The fireball narrowly missed engulfing his X-wing as he pulled up. Sinter tried the same attack but was less fortunate. His X-wing was hit squarely by the fire from a walker, and spun into the ground, sending chunks of debris spraying out as it hit and exploded.

The base ground defences opened up as the walkers came into range, and the laser and ion shots quickly destroyed or immobilised the remaining AT-ATs.

An entire fleet of Star Destroyers began coming out of hyperspace over Asola, led by the Executor. Admiral Ozzel assessed the situation. As he expected, the prototype AT-ATs had not had adequate armour to withstand laser fire, a flaw which the factories would have to make sure was corrected, and the attack had been wiped out. It was not a strategy he would have allowed. Darth Vader had wanted to test the new ground assault vehicles, though, and Ozzel had not dared defy him or even question his decision. "All ships, form a blockade around the planet," he ordered.

       In the Rebel headquarters, Princess Leia checked the tactical situation, which was hopeless now Vader's fleet had arrived. A second ground attack force was landing, but the defeat of the first wave had given the Rebels enough time to evacuate most of their personnel and equipment. "Signal for emergency evacuation," she ordered her aides. "We'll just have to hope most of the transports get past the Star Destroyers. Instruct all fighters to give them cover."

       "Okay, Rogues, you heard the Princess," Luke ordered as a transport shot out of the main hangar and climbed through the atmosphere. "Rogues Two and Three, follow me. We'll escort the first transport out."

"I copy, Rogue Leader," Wedge and Shira Brie acknowledged together, pulling in behind him.

"Give the other transports three fighters each as escorts," Luke told Rogue, Green and Grey Squadrons. The sky began fading to stars as they climbed away from the planet. The shape of a Star Destroyer appeared, growing larger as it moved to intercept them. "Accelerate to attack speed. Try and draw the Star Destroyer's fire onto you and away from the transport."

The three fighters accelerated to their maximum sub-light speed and headed towards the Star Destroyer. "Switch to torpedo targeting mode," Wedge advised. "That should get their attention."

Streams of green turbolaser bolts began reaching out from the hull of the Star Destroyer. "Right, we've drawn their fire," Luke observed, thanking the Force that Star Destroyers were not the best ships for fighting starfighters. "Just give the transport a few seconds to make it to hyperspace." Bolts streamed past his X-wing as he made a mock attack run on the huge ship, but then Artoo beeped and he glanced out of his canopy just in time to see the transport enter hyperspace. "Wedge, Shira, break off," he ordered, turning his X-wing away from the Star Destroyer. "Well done. Jump to hyperspace on your marks. Are the co-ordinates ready, Artoo?"

The astromech droid warbled a confirmation and Luke pulled back the hyperdrive lever, watching as the stars elongated into hyperspace.

Another transport raced up from the surface, escorted by the Millennium Falcon and two more X-wings, but this one was less fortunate. A Star Destroyer and the Executor moved to intercept it, sending an impenetrable sheet of laser fire at the transport, which was torn apart in less than ten seconds by the onslaught. In the Falcon's cockpit, Chewbacca bellowed in alarm as the Executor abruptly shifted aim to fire at them.

On the Executor's bridge, Darth Vader stared intently at the tiny shape of the Corellian YT-1300 that had thwarted him in the Death Star trench as it raced away from the Super Star Destroyer. His rage had erupted when he had seen it escorting the transport, and he had ordered its capture. Admiral Ozzel stood silently at the back of the bridge, wondering how he was meant to maintain his authority and conduct a military campaign if Vader kept overriding him on a whim.

The Falcon corkscrewed wildly in a frantic attempt to avoid the turbolaser fire. Two other Star Destroyers had broken off from the main attack and were approaching rapidly from either side.

"Can we go to lightspeed yet?" Han demanded, and received a negative roar from Chewbacca. "Well, just make a micro-jump in any direction," he yelled as the Falcon's aft shields collapsed under the bombardment. "If we stay here much longer, we're going to become bantha fodder."

Chewbacca let out a bark of agreement and in front of them the stars stretched into lines.

They were safe.

***

Once again, the Alliance had been driven from another base with heavy losses. Nearly a third of their personnel and equipment transports had been destroyed. Princess Leia stood in the main docking bay of the cruiser A New Hope, which had been given its name following the destruction of the Death Star and the consequent surge of morale throughout the Alliance. She watched as X-wings and Y-wings landed in the hangar, noting the losses the squadrons had taken in giving the transports cover.

With relief, she saw three X-wings appear in the hangar entrance, recognising one of them as Luke's. She waited as the fighters touched down.

"Leia!" Luke called as his X-wing canopy lifted. He jumped to the deck, not waiting for the ground crew to bring a ladder.

She smiled at him. "You must have a charmed life, Luke - you and Wedge. The two of you seem to be invincible. You've both survived far longer than the average for Alliance pilots, not to mention being the only two pilots to live through the Battle of Yavin." She deliberately omitted Han.

Luke laughed. "You shouldn't have said that. We'll probably both get shot down next time we go out."

He stopped as Shira Brie suddenly appeared. "Come on, flyboy," she said, "you promised to buy me a drink to celebrate surviving our latest battle." She hesitated, glancing between Luke and Leia. "Sorry, am I interrupting something?"

Leia smiled politely. "Not at all," she said and walked away.

Luke hesitated uncertainly for a moment, torn between the two of them, but then followed Shira.

Leia watched Luke and Shira vanish down the corridor leading to the cantina, an odd feeling filling her. Strangely, she didn't feel jealous. Luke often felt more like a close friend than anything else. She instinctively didn't trust Shira, though. She knew it was illogical; Shira had proven herself often enough since she had joined the Alliance, seemed pleasant and straightforward enough, and checks on her background had all come up clean, but there was just something about her that wasn't right.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud laugh. Startled, she turned to see Han Solo leaning against the Falcon, grinning broadly. "I've seen Hutts who lost a cargo of 95% pure spice to a competitor looking more pleased than you," he observed.

Leia drew herself up to her full height, which didn't help much considering her small size, and assumed her most regal posture. "What makes you think I'm jealous?" she asked haughtily.

Han put on a great pretence of thinking deeply. "Well, looking like a rancor that's swallowed a poisoned womprat was a pretty good clue. Why can't you just admit it?" he demanded. "You're as jealous as anything. Why don't you forget about Luke, and try someone else, like perhaps a certain charming smuggler not a million parsecs from here? Or can't you just stand having competition?"

A thousand retorts went through Leia's mind, but she knew they would just bounce off Han. There was only one sure way of getting to him. She gave him a penetrating look. "So you think you can come up to my expectations as a princess, do you?" she asked.

Han nodded, slightly taken aback by her sudden change in mood.

"Well, let's see, shall we?" Leia asked. She stepped up to him and put her arms round his shoulders. "Not bad," she said, turning and forcing Han to duck slightly to avoid hitting his head on the underside of the Falcon. She stretched and managed to reach his ear, and whispered in it.

The results exceeded her wildest hopes. "What!!" Han roared, only to stop abruptly as he straightened up and smashed his head against the underside of the Falcon.

Leia regarded him without an ounce of sympathy, noting the dent in the hull plate with satisfaction. She had certainly got through to him. "I don't think you're my type after all, Captain Solo," she said coolly and walked away.

Han blinked several times to get rid of the tiny X-wings flying around his head, and glared furiously after her, seething over what she had said about the Falcon. He reached up and patted the Falcon's hull. "Pay no attention to her," he said. "What does she know?"

Luke and Shira stood at a viewport in the pilot quarters on A New Hope, staring out at the small uninhabited planet that the ship was orbiting. "It was terrible," Shira said quietly as she told Luke the story of her homeworld's destruction by the Empire. "We refused to recognise the Emperor's claim to jurisdiction of Shalyvane. He didn't waste any time negotiating. Star Destroyers arrived and wiped out our defence fleet. My whole family, except for my sister, was killed in the preliminary attacks. Then they destroyed every structure more than a storey high from orbit. Finally, just for good measure, they released chemicals that turned the planet into a desert. Those who survived had to eke out a living scavenging in the ruins like animals. Like many before me, I swore revenge on the Empire for what it had done to us, and so here I am."

Luke nodded grimly. "I lost my uncle and aunt at the hands of the Empire. Darth Vader murdered my father, and Biggs died buying time for me to destroy the Death Star. I swore to become a Jedi like my father. What happened to your sister?"

Shira shrugged. "The Empire took her. I don't know any more than that."

There was a long silence.

"Do you ever think about settling down with someone?" Shira eventually asked.

Luke smiled. "Is that a hint? You certainly don't waste any time."

Shira laughed. "I don't mean with me. What about Leia, for example?"

Luke frowned. "I don't know. It just feels...wrong for some reason." He reached out to push some of her hair back. "Anyway, I prefer redheads. Someone tall and slender, with long red hair and green eyes, and strong-willed."

Shira punched him lightly. "And you accused me of dropping hints," she teased. "Sounds like every male fantasy I've ever heard about. Well, I've got everything but the green eyes."

Any further banter was interrupted by a shout from Wedge to the effect of whether they were planning to stand there until they died of old age, and they reluctantly made their way towards him.

***

Three months later, Darth Vader sat in the meditation pod in his quarters, studying the latest report from Shira Brie, which contained the information that Rogue Squadron and Han Solo had arrived to set up an outpost on the planet Sed Tihonia a week ago. Shira had proved very useful so far. Her report that Skywalker was trying to learn the ways of the Jedi was worrying. Clearly the sooner he was captured and shown the true nature of the Force, the better. He had issued Shira with orders to capture Skywalker in the attack that was being planned on Sed Tihonia. A stormtrooper assault force would land to catch Rogue Squadron by surprise during the night. In the confusion, Shira would take Skywalker prisoner. The resulting loss of Skywalker, Solo and Rogue Squadron would dishearten the Alliance, for whom they were important figures. The whole attack was being carefully planned to take them by surprise. The minimum amount of personnel were being used to ensure secrecy. The Rebels would only find out that they were under attack when stormtroopers appeared in their barracks.

The pod opened as he turned to face the wall display. Admiral Ozzel appeared on the screen. "Send the Star Destroyer Revenge to the planet Sed Tihonia as planned, Admiral," Vader ordered, and the pod closed again.

***

Luke opened his eyes and looked around the darkened barracks of Rogue Squadron. The sense of someone calling him in a dream had been very strong, so much so that he had woken up. The barracks was quiet, though, as the whole squadron was asleep. He frowned, feeling a strong sense that something was wrong.

"Luke," the voice called again in his head, and this time he recognised the voice.

"Ben," he breathed.

"Beware, Luke," Ben Kenobi's voice answered. "The Imperials are attacking."

There was no more, but Luke had learned the value of Ben's advice a long time ago. Rolling out of his bunk, he seized his blaster and lightsabre, and shook Wedge awake. "We're being attacked," he warned.

Wedge blinked, still half asleep. "Are you sure?" he asked dubiously. A sudden volley of laser bolts through the door woke him up fully and dispelled any doubts. The rest of Rogue Squadron was instantly up and grabbing blasters, as the sound of firing woke them.

"Stormtroopers!" one of the Rogues shouted over the din as they returned fire.

Wedge muttered a curse under his breath. "Six of you, get to the rear door," he barked. "We'll cover you. Give us covering fire when you get there."

Half the pilots stepped back and headed for the rear door. The others, including Shira, intensified their own fire. "We're clear, Wedge," Zev called from behind him.

"Right, come on," Luke ordered. They pulled back from the door quickly, and were nearly there when a shot caught Rogue Four in the side, throwing him to the ground. Shira was immediately at his side, despite the danger, dropping her blaster and grabbing the injured man by the arms.

"Shira!" Luke yelled as stormtroopers burst into the room and the Rogues dived for any available cover. In desperation, he ignited his lightsabre, and charged the troopers in a near suicidal attack. Fortunately, he was saved from his foolishness as he was grabbed and pulled behind an overturned bed, just as a hail of bolts filled the space where he had been.

"Don't be an idiot, kid," Han snapped from behind Luke. "We heard the shooting and thought you might need some help." Blaster fire sizzled through the air above them. The Rogues had enough cover to get through the rear door, except for Shira, who had taken cover behind a table, but was cut off from them by a row of small closets.

"Keep back," Luke called to her. He used his lightsabre to cut through the closets and made a hole large enough for her to crawl through after they pushed and pulled the injured Rogue Four through.

Wedge passed his blaster to Han. "Come on, let's go," he shouted, slinging Rogue Four over his shoulder. Firing rapidly, the group managed to get out of the barracks, and fell back down the corridor to the hangar.

Laser bolts from both directions filled the corridor as Rogue Squadron retreated. Luke saw Rogue Nine take a blaster bolt full in the chest and collapse as a particularly bold stormtrooper came ahead of the main group to open fire at point blank range. His lightsabre flashed twice, first through the blaster rifle, and then through the white armour. The man went down without a sound.

"Come on," Han yelled, grabbing Luke's arm and pulling him down the corridor. "Nine's gone."

The Rogues entered the hangar and broke for their X-wings. A few moments later, stormtroopers appeared in the doorway, but got no further, as the Falcon, hovering on its repulsorlifts in the middle of the hangar, opened fire from its lower quad laser. In a few seconds, the door was piled with dead and wounded stormtroopers.

Han took the unconscious Rogue Four from Wedge and sprinted up the Falcon's ramp. Threepio was standing anxiously at the top of the ramp, and he pushed Rogue Four into the droid's arms. "Get him attached to the medical kit," he snapped.

"But Captain Solo, I'm not a medical droid," Threepio protested to thin air, as Han ran to the cockpit.

"Nice shooting, Chewie," he said to the Wookiee as he dropped into the pilot's seat.

Shira stopped by Luke as she ran to her X-wing. "Thanks for helping me out back there, flyboy," she said, smiling at him. "I know this hardly evens things between us but..." and kissed him.

Luke grinned at her. "Oh, I don't know. I'll have to save you from stormtroopers more often."

Shira laughed and ran to her fighter, and Luke climbed quickly up his ladder and jumped into the cockpit. "Close the canopy, Artoo," he ordered to the astromech, who was already doing just that. Ahead of him, X-wings were already lifting on their repulsorlifts and leaving the hangar.

Wedge's X-wing climbed through the atmosphere of Sed Tihonia to see the depressingly familiar wedge shape of a Star Destroyer in front of him. "Not again," he muttered wearily. "Okay, Rogues, let's see if we can pay them back a bit for Rogue Nine. I'm going in, follow me."

The fighters split up and began making attack runs on the Revenge, evading the turbolaser fire from the laser batteries.

Luke's X-wing swept over the top ridgeline of the Revenge as he made a strafing run on the starboard turbolaser batteries.

From her cockpit, Shira saw his fighter vanish from the sight of the other Rogues. She smiled in anticipation as she turned her X-wing to follow him. She had played Luke like a chordokeylo from the moment she joined Rogue Squadron. Trust a simple Tatooine farmboy to fall for the most blatant enticement hook, line and sinker, she thought coldly. She had been waiting a long time for the right moment to capture Skywalker, and it had just arrived. It would be a simple task to disable his X-wing in the confusion of battle, and none of the Rebels would suspect anything. The Alliance would lose one of its most revered heroes.

She shifted all power to the engines and raced after him. The fighter came over the ridgeline, easily dodging the fire from the intact turbolaser batteries. Not far ahead, she saw Skywalker's X-wing. She acquired a lock on his X-wing, which had now finished its run and was headed away from the Revenge, and gripped the trigger tightly, waiting impatiently for her fighter to come in range of Skywalker's.

Luke turned his X-wing back towards the Revenge in preparation for another strafing run. Ahead of him, he could see a lone X-wing approaching rapidly. Artoo abruptly let out an alarmed flurry of beeps and whistles. Luke frowned as words scrolled across his display.

"They're targeting us?" he said incredulously. He checked his sensors. "It must be a mistake. That's Shira's X-wing!" He hesitated, not believing that Shira would deliberately target him, and yet there seemed to be no signs of malfunctioning systems in her X-wing or distress signals being transmitted. His finger wavered over the firing button, unsure what to do.

And then Ben Kenobi's voice once again filled his mind. "Luke, use the Force," the voice urged. "Remember, Luke, let go. Trust the Force to guide you."

Luke took a deep breath and nodded. Closing his eyes, he remembered how he had seen the remotes in his mind during his first training session on the Falcon. He felt the presence of minds all around him for a brief moment, but it was long enough to sense the hostile mind in the X-wing. He opened his eyes again and acted.

Shira smiled grimly as Skywalker's X-wing came in range and her finger tightened on the firing button. She would aim for the starboard engines, which would leave his fighter out of control. It would be a simple task for the Revenge to pull him in with a tractor beam later.

A second later, the smile was gone. The X-wing pulled out of her line of fire with amazing speed and fired all four of its cannons simultaneously. There was no time for her to react. The bolts smashed into her port S-foils, vaporising them instantly. The sudden loss of balance sent the fighter into a wild spin. Frantically, she fastened her helmet seals and grabbed for the ejection lever, but even as she did so, the port engines, damaged by the attack, blew apart in a cloud of shrapnel that tore through the body of her X-wing. Red-hot pieces of metal slashed into her back, arms, and skull. For a moment she felt no pain, but then all rationality vanished in a wave of agony such as she had never experienced before. A ball of fire erupted in the cockpit, engulfing her, and the agony reached new heights for a few seconds before everything went black...

Wedge's X-wing, accompanied by the Falcon and Rogues Five and Six, came over the Revenge's ridgeline just in time to see Luke's X-wing fire on Shira's and send it spinning away into space.

"What are you doing, Luke?" Han shouted in amazement over the comm.

Luke shook his head, still not believing what he had just done himself. "She was going to open fire," he said softly, as much to convince himself as to explain his actions.

Wedge glanced at the receding shape of the ruined X-wing. Even from here, he could see the fire in the cockpit, which was diminishing rapidly as it consumed the cockpit oxygen, and the glowing remains of the port S-foils. "If she hasn't ejected by now, she's already dead," he said. "Rogue Squadron, go to hyperspace on your marks," he ordered, and the entire group jumped to lightspeed a few seconds later. He coughed nervously as the fighters raced through hyperspace. "Uh, Luke, I'm going to have to report this to General Rieekan."

Luke lowered his head for a second and closed his eyes. "All right, Wedge," he said softly, knowing that he would be facing a court-martial.

***

Luke's X-wing touched down in the hangar bay of the Rebel flagship, to see a grim faced General Rieekan and two guards waiting nearby. The three of them came forwards as he climbed down the ladder.

"Commander Skywalker," General Rieekan said heavily as he turned to face them. "Did you fire on Rogue 3 while you were engaged with the Revenge?"

Luke nodded. There was no point denying it. "Yes."

Rieekan nodded to the guards, who came forward. "Commander Skywalker, you are under arrest pending a court-martial into the shooting down of Shira Brie." He watched silently as the guards led Luke away.

By now, the other pilots and Han and Chewbacca had gathered around them. Han's face hardened as the guards left. "Look, General," he said, "I know Luke. If he shot Shira down, he had a very good reason for it. He said that he could feel Shira intending to shoot him down. I don't believe in the Force, but if he says she meant to fire at him, then I believe him. He blew up the Death Star single-handedly. If you're going to put him on trial, then you're all idiots."

Rieekan's distaste at what he had just had to do burst out. "I'm not doing this for amusement, Solo," he growled. "I don't like it any more than you do. For what it's worth, I believe Luke. Given our security measures, I have no difficulty accepting that Shira was an Imperial agent. Luke shot her down without apparent provocation, though. If we don't investigate this, we're no better than the Empire."

"So you'll send slicers to try and see what information the Imperials have on Shira, will you?" Han demanded.

Rieekan shook his head. "High Command will not authorise it. Trying to obtain such information is too dangerous. I'm sorry, Solo."

Chewbacca bellowed angrily. "I'm with you," Han agreed. "I'm sorry too, General. We're both out."

Rieekan's eyes narrowed. "You'll never going to get information on Shira from the Imperials. They don't exactly welcome you with open arms."

"We'll take our chances," Han replied. "We got Princess Leia out of the Death Star. Getting some files can't be any harder."

Rieekan smiled faintly. "It'll be easier with some help. Wedge, Dack, you are placed on leave of duty until further notice. You're a good man, Solo. May the Force be with you." He turned and strode away.

Wedge sighed. "Why do I get the feeling that attacking the Death Star again would be easier than trying to get into an Imperial database?"

***

The Revenge lay in orbit around Sed Tihonia, escorting the Executor, which had arrived shortly after Rogue Squadron's escape.

Darth Vader stood in a hangar bay on the Executor, watching as naval troopers cut away the wreckage of Shira Brie's X-wing. He was enraged by the failure of the attack. Somehow the Rebels had been ready for them, despite the planning and secrecy. He would have to find out how Rogue Squadron had anticipated and therefore escaped the attack. Shira's unmasking as a spy by Skywalker compounded the failure. Now she was useless as an intelligence source. Skywalker and Solo had escaped yet again.

He came forward as medical personnel lifted Shira carefully onto a repulsorbed. The fireball had burned her hair away and she was covered in terrible wounds from the shrapnel. An officer stepped forward. "My Lord, she's too badly injured to survive. She won't last more than a few hours. She has collapsed lungs, cranial trauma, severe internal injuries, massive burns, and at least one of her arms will have to be amputated. It would be kinder just to let her die."

"No, Captain," Vader hissed. "She will live. She is strong in the Force. Take her to Imperial Centre and begin cyborg reconstruction on her. I will hold you personally responsible if she does not survive."

The man went white. "Yes, my Lord. I won't fail you."

Fear was an admirable motivator, Vader noted, as the officer began bellowing at the medics to get moving. A sudden thought struck him. He could report to his master that Shira had been killed, and no one would dare contradict him. He would then be free to train Shira in the advanced powers of the Dark Side. She would make an interesting student. He believed that suffering and anger intensified strength in the Dark Side. It certainly worked for him. Shira would have a huge amount of pain and hate to draw on. Most of it would of course be directed at Skywalker, but Vader could control her. His son was too promising to waste on Shira's revenge. As long as he survived, Shira would not even contemplate attacking Skywalker, or she would face the full wrath of a Dark Lord of the Sith.

***

Han approached the Falcon's ramp to see Princess Leia standing waiting for him. "Well, your Highness, you finally got your wish," he said, grinning sardonically. "I'm going. Couldn't you bear to let me go without saying goodbye first?"

Leia sighed. "You really have an inflated ego, Han. Why do you even begin to think I want anything to do with you?"

To his surprise, she reached out and took his hand. "Take care, Han. Good luck on Shalyvane. May the Force be with you." She glared at him as he opened his mouth. "Get out of here before I change my mind," she said and turned away.

Han gazed after her for a moment, then went up the ramp.

Wedge and Dack were already strapped into the rear crew seats when Han entered the cockpit.

"Threepio's in the cargo hold, switched off," Wedge reported.

Han nodded. "Good. I don't want to have to listen to him the whole time. Personally, I'd rather sell him to the first Jawa I meet. I'm going to regret having let you two persuade me that he might actually prove useful for translating."

"So what's the plan?" Dack asked Han.

Han shrugged. "I was hoping you had one. Where did Shira say she came from?"

"Shalyvane," Dack answered.

Han nodded. "Then that's where we'll start and hope we learn something".

He punched the repulsorlift controls and the Falcon lifted from the docking bay and left the Rebel ship. As soon it cleared the fleet, it jumped to hyperspace.

One of the flight crew maintenance staff watched the Falcon leave the hangar bay. So they were going to Shalyvane, he thought, having overheard Han and Leia's conversation. He knew someone who would pay very well for this information...

***

Five days later, the Falcon came out of lightspeed above Shalyvane. Threepio gazed out of the cockpit at the planet. "What an awful place this is," he said. The whole world was an yellow and brown colour from space, showing the extent of the devastation.

"It used to be a cultured planet," Wedge commented. "It was held alongside Alderaan and Caamas as one of the most noble planets in the galaxy. Of course, when the Emperor demanded their unconditional allegiance, they refused point blank. He turned the planet into a desert as punishment."

"It certainly would have made the survivors sworn enemies of the Empire," Han observed, "or excellent cover for Imperial agents, of course. Come on, let's see if we can find anything out."

The Falcon descended into the atmosphere. "No technology and few lifeform readings," Wedge observed, studying the displays.

Han leaned over to take a look. "That looks like a large concentration right there," he said. "It must be a settlement. Chewie, bring us around to course 4-13-92."

A few minutes, the Falcon landed outside a collection of crumbling stone buildings. The ramp lowered and Wedge,        Han, Dack and Chewbacca came down it cautiously, blasters at the ready. A small welcoming committee had already formed, Han noted as he came down the ramp. They stood around watching the four strangers, but didn't seem hostile, although he wasn't particularly surprised. They were mostly dressed in rags, and all of them had a desperate, half-starved look. One of them stepped forwards and held out a hand, saying something Han didn't understand. "Threepio?" he asked. "Can you understand him?"

The protocol droid stepped forwards. "Oh yes, Captain Solo. He's speaking in Middle Shalyvanian. An old language, evolved from the dialect spoken by the inhabitants of the northern continents between approximately 2600 years to 470 years Pre-Empire."

"We'd be better off with an intergalactic phrase book," Han muttered in exasperation. "Threepio," he said, trying to stay calm, "I don't want to know the history of every dialect on the planet. Just tell us what he said."

"He wants to know if you had any food, Captain Solo," Threepio answered with an air of wounded pride. "Really, some humans have no patience whatsoever."

"Hold on," Han said, fumbling in a pocket of his jacket. "I've got a ration bar here," he said, finding it, and giving it to the man, who immediately seized it and grabbed Han in a joyful bear hug.

"I think we've got spare ration bars in the cargo hold," Dack said, he and Wedge trying not entirely successfully to keep from laughing as they watched a distinctly unimpressed Han trying to break free. "I'll go and get them." The other villagers had come forwards and were waiting expectantly for more food to appear. They nearly trampled Dack into the ground when he came down the Falcon's ramp with extra ration bars. In seconds, they had taken all the ration bars.

"Can't we do anything for them?" Dack asked Wedge once the villagers had seized all the ration bars. "Surely there must be something we can do."

Wedge's face hardened in helpless anger as he watched the villagers tearing into the ration bars as though it was the first meal that they had for a month. "The Alliance barely has enough food for itself. The only way we can help them is to make sure the Empire can never do this to anyone again."

The man who had first spoken to them finished eating and came over to them and shook Wedge and Dack's hands, again saying something. "He thanks you for the food and asks if he can help you at all," Threepio translated.

Wedge hesitated. From what they had already seen, there seemed precious little chance that there were any population records left on Shalyvane, and there was virtually no chance of anyone here having heard of Shira. "Ask if they know of a Shira Brie," he told the droid nevertheless, and waited as they conferred.

"He says not," Threepio announced, as Wedge had expected. "He does say, however, that some Shalyvanians were taken to the Imperial base at Ord Mantell if that helps."

Wedge grimaced. "I doubt it." Ord Mantell had once been an important Old Republic supply planet, and the Empire had built it into one of their strongest bases. The chances that anyone remembered Shira here or on Ord Mantell were slim, and the chances of finding them even more so. On top of that, it was more than possible that Shira had lied about coming from Shalyvane, in which case they were completely wasting their time. He glanced at Han. "What do you think?"

"I'm trying not to," Han answered. They had almost no hope of finding anything out on Ord Mantell, but they seemed to have even less chance of finding anything out here. "I don't think we have much of a choice, though. If Shira was an Imperial agent, though, Ord Mantell has the most extensive records database after Coruscant."

***

The bounty hunter Dengar smiled as he studied the transmission from his source inside the Rebel Alliance. So Solo and his Wookiee companion had decided to leave the safety of the Alliance, he noted with pleasure. He glanced up at the Trandoshan bounty hunter Bossk standing beside him. "Soon we will have Solo and the Wookiee," he said, already imagining the reward they would get from Jabba the Hutt. "For once, Fett won't beat us to the prize."

Bossk's scales lifted slightly, the Trandoshan equivalent of a nod. "You may do what you like with Solo, but the Wookiee is mine," he hissed.

***

Two days later, the Falcon came out of hyperspace over Ord Mantell. Three Star Destroyers and eight Telgorn Corp XQ/6 platforms lay in orbit around the planet, as befitted an important Imperial supply base.

Wedge shook his head. "I hope we know what we're doing."

Han grinned. "Can't be any worse than sneaking around the Death Star disguised as stormtroopers," he said, ignoring the sceptical look that Wedge gave him.

A voice came from the cockpit comm. "Unknown freighter, we have you on our screens. State your identity and purpose."

Han glanced at Wedge, who nodded. "This is the Corellian freighter Millennium Falcon, with a cargo of TIE fighter targeting sensors."

There was a pause, during which Chewbacca kept his hands on the controls, ready for an immediate 180-degree turn and jump to lightspeed. "You may proceed," the controller said. "We are transmitting the co-ordinates for your allocated landing site now. Do not deviate from the course, or you will be fired on."

"Friendly people," Dack commented, as the Falcon passed between two of the XQ/6 platforms. They were close enough to one to see turbolaser batteries swivelling to track them.

Wedge took a breath. "That was the easy part. Now we have to somehow get into a high security Imperial base, download files, and get out without being spotted."

The Falcon cleared the platforms and began its descent towards Ord Mantell.

Wedge came cautiously down the Falcon's ramp and looked around the docking bay, unable to shake off the feeling that an entire brigade of stormtroopers would suddenly appear. Han slapped him on the shoulder. "See, nothing to worry about," he said airily, and wished he actually felt that confident. The whole plan seemed a lot less intelligent now they were right in the middle of the largest Imperial base for a hundred sectors.

The three of them left the docking bay. Chewbacca had reluctantly agreed to stay with the Falcon after Han had pointed out that the Empire's prejudice against non-humans would surely make them conspicuous if he came and that they would need him on the Falcon in the event of a quick escape being necessary.

They found themselves standing on the edge of a teeming street. Dozens of civilians hurried along, nearly of all them keeping their heads down to avoid attracting attention. Stormtroopers stood every 50 paces along on both sides of the street. Military airspeeders and speeder bikes glided past overhead, mingling with cargo carriers and landspeeders.

"Wonderful place," Dack commented grimly.

Wedge nodded in agreement. "Typical Imperial control. Make sure no one steps out of line. Anyway, we've got a job to do, and the sooner we get out of here, the better."

"You won't catch me arguing with that," Han observed as they entered the crowd, and began heading towards the main Imperial record facility.

Twenty minutes later, they were outside the facility, studying it from inside a small tapcafe. "It doesn't look good," Dack observed. The plan, if it could be called that, was looking less intelligent by the second.

"You're right there," Wedge replied. "They've turned it into a fortress. Look at those checkpoints at the main entrance. They've got a squad of stormtroopers, identification systems, and laser turrets. And then that building on the right looks like a good spot to have some support element like speeder bikes or even AT-STs. You'd need at least half a brigade of commandos, fighting a small war, just to get inside."

"Come on," Han said, getting up. "Let's see if we can find any weak spots before you two make me nervous."

Behind them, a figure in a robe lifted a comlink and spoke into it briefly before following them out of the tapcafe.

Han, Wedge and Dack moved through the crowd when suddenly the figures in front of them stopped suddenly enough that they nearly ran into them. "Careful," Dack said, before he realised that the people surrounding them had blasters in plain view.

Wedge looked around. There were others behind them, all grim faced and holding blasters as well. He glanced around, hoping to see stormtroopers for the first time in his life, but the stormtroopers, so numerous when they weren't needed, seemed to have momentarily vanished into thin air. The circle began closing in around them, herding them towards an alley, and down it into a dimly lit cantina. Some of their escort vanished as they entered the cantina. Two stayed with them and guided them to a particularly dark corner of the room, where a cloaked figure was sitting waiting for them. The three of them hesitated briefly before the figure motioned for them to sit down. He nodded to the two men behind them, who turned and walked away.

There was an uneasy pause. "So are you going to give us to the Imperials?" Dack asked lightly, despite his apprehension.

The man laughed, his features hidden by the hood of his cloak. "If we were, we would have done it a long time ago. Are you Rebels?"

After a moment, Wedge nodded. "Yes, we are."

The man nodded. "Good. We've being waiting for the Rebels to come." He beckoned and an old man appeared beside him. "Skarl here has been wanting to fight the Empire for a long time, but we don't know how to find any Rebel bases or cells." He sat back in his chair. "We would be honoured if you would let us join you."

There was a short silence. "You've got to be kidding!" Han snorted. "A bunch of Imperial agents trying to get information out of us? Go kiss a Hutt!"

"A pity," came the reply. "You came here to get into the records centre, yes? You won't get within 500 metres of it before you're shot."

Wedge placed a hand on Han's arm, cutting off the retort. "Can you help us?" he asked.

The man nodded. "I'm an Imperial Intelligence Colonel, one of the senior staff in the records facility. If you want to get information out of there, you'll have to trust me. We'll help you get the information you want if you take us to the Alliance. There's a lot of us, but we have our own Corvette."

Wedge nodded slowly, much to Han's amazement. "You're not seriously going to trust him, are you?" he said disbelievingly.

Wedge frowned, not liking it very much either, but not seeing any other way to get information on Shira. "Come on, Han, you saw the defences around that place. As our friend here said, we'd never even come close to getting inside, let alone get to a computer. This could be just what we need. And besides, we take people on trust in the Alliance. We took Biggs on trust, and a certain Tatooine farmboy, Corellian smuggler and Wookiee."

Han scowled, but took Wedge's point. "All right, you've got a deal. Any wrong moves, though, and your name is on my blaster. One more thing, you can go with our protocol droid just so we know we're getting accurate information. Call it an insurance policy."

The man nodded and rose. "Very well. Who or what do you require information on?"

"A suspected Imperial agent called Shira Brie," Dack answered. "Who are you, by the way?"

The man pushed the hood of his cloak back, revealing a bearded face. "Madine. Crix Madine."

***

A senior controller on board one of the XQ/6 platforms was running through the list of ships that had arrived that day when the name of one rang a bell. Switching to another directory, he accessed the list of starships that were wanted by the Empire. Near the top of the list lay the same name. He rose and went to a Holonet terminal, switching to a high level military frequency, and proceeded to make a report.

On board the Executor, a comm officer approached Admiral Ozzel. "Sir, we have a report that the Corellian freighter Millennium Falcon has recently arrived at Ord Mantell."

Ozzel nodded. "Very good, Ensign. Carry on." He came up out of the crew pits and strode down the walkway to Darth Vader.

"You have something to report, Admiral Ozzel?" the Dark Lord asked.

"Yes, my lord," Ozzel answered. "Ord Mantell Space Control has informed us that the Millennium Falcon arrived there a couple of hours ago."

"They should have sent word immediately," Vader said ominously. "Set your course for Ord Mantell."

***

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