Dragon's LibraryThe Artash Gamble
by Martha Wilson

This story was written just for fun and is not an attempt to make money or infringe on any copyrights or trademarks. Only the original ideas contained within the works on this nonprofit web site are the property of their authors, and please do not copy these stories to any other website or archive without permission of the author.

First appeared in On A Clear Day You Can See Dagobah #4 1988.

***

The Millennium Falcon fell out of the sun like a blazing fragment of star. The nimbus of fire that surrounded her faded as the Corellian freighter began to spiral, rotating on her axis as she accelerated outsystem.

Princess Leia Organa relaxed her white-knuckled grip on the padded arms of her acceleration chair at the nav-station and said dryly, "That was exciting."

"The Artash Gamble's longrange sensors aren't what you'd call precise. They won't read us as an incoming ship until we're right on top of them." Han Solo switched off the last of the red warning lights and jangling alarms. His Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca was shaking his furry head at the toasting their hull had taken.

Leia wiped her sweaty palms on her pants. The Falcon had popped out of hyperspace closer to the system primary than any starship had a right to be. "What if they shoot at us when we don't answer their commhail?"

"I know their fire pattern. Besides, hardly anybody answers their commhail."

"In this area? They must be attacked by pirates constantly."

"Yeah, but those were the good old days." Han glanced up at the port only briefly, most of his attention going to the telemetry data the sensors were picking up.

Chewbacca tapped one of the readouts and growled hopefully, but Han shook his head. "No, we're close, but we didn't beat Luke here. It's that damned alluvial damper. I didn't have a chance to adjust it before we left and now it's cutting into our time."

Leia wanted to lean forward and put her hand on his shoulder and tell him Luke would be fine, but dismissed the impulse. They both knew there was a good chance they were already too late. She could still see the marks on Han's wrists, left there during his short acquaintance with the Sith Lord Adarin's torturer, Barris. On Commenor, the Corellian had evaded the first trap set for him by Adarin, only to be captured by him while trying to discover the identity of the spy in the Alliance's sector outpost. But if Adarin hadn't decided to try to capture Han, they would have learned of the spy's existence far too late to even attempt to help Luke.

As it was, Rin Takeda had had just enough time in the post command center to send one last message to his master. The post computer had been able to log the transmission, revealing that the spy had sent the location and time of Luke Skywalker's meeting with Wedge Antilles and Tully Sander, who were trying to make their way back after a failed mission in the Sutar system. Luke was to meet them on the Artash Gamble and bring them back to the rebel fleet.

If they're still alive, Leia thought. If it's not too late.

It had to be Luke, Han Solo was thinking. Of all the rebels they had to go after him. What happened to the famous Solo luck? Chewbacca rumbled a warning and Han said, "Yeah, I noticed that too. Those are sensor anomalies. They're everywhere."

Leia leaned forward between the pilots' chairs to look at his screen. "Could they be cloaking devices?"

"Oh, you bet they could. But we can't tell for certain without running into one of them." Han made a delicate adjustment to the sensors.

"Let's not do that," the princess said.

"Do my best," The Corellian muttered. "There's a big one out there, too. Could be a heavy cruiser." This place is too hot. If it wasn't for the kid I'd back off right now. Why in hell did Antilles have to pick the nastiest piece of real estate in the quadrant to get stranded on? He asked Chewie, "You think Fett has a cloaking device in that hunk of Mandaloran garbage he travels in?"

The Wookiee shrugged. Leia frowned, "You think Boba Fett is here? Why?"

"Fett's been working for Adarin. And this is right up his alley."

Leia sat back in her chair and tried not to ask Han how he knew that. He had promised her he would tell her everything when they got back to the rebel fleet and she had promised not to ask him until then. She knew it all went back to Ord Mantell, when Han had been trapped on Fett's ship with Lord Arandu, a Sith Lord whom the Alliance had hoped long dead, since he had been absent from the Imperial Capital for almost two years. Han had somehow escaped with his life, only to find himself in an even worse situation. Adarin and Arandu were apparently bitter enemies, and Adarin had for some reason decided that Han knew where Arandu could be found. It had led to the incident on Commenor, and Leia wasn't sure it was over yet. She wished Han would tell her exactly what had happened, but she knew his reluctance was due to the fact that he simply refused to trust anyone in the Alliance's High Command. The habits of most of a lifetime were hard to break.

They passed into the station's close range and the crackle of static resolved into a confused clatter in a multitude of languages. The station itself became visible as a huge torus, bristling with sensor equipment and docking apparatus and glittering with pinpoints of light from ports and bays. It didn't shoot at them.

Han let the Falcon drop velocity. "So far so good."

***

In the deeper silences of the isolated system, two ships drifted under minimal power, elaborate sensor-jammer arrays screening them from electronic detection. One of them was an Imperial admiral's flagship, a light fast craft modified for blockade running and other activities unusual for a ship of her beauty and dignity. Her sister was a battle cruiser, and deadly power seemed integral to her design. They were Imperator and Right Hand, and they were patiently waiting.

They were not concealing themselves from the Artash Gamble's meager defenses, but from another ship of the line that was hanging off to the opposite side of the civilian space station, also protected from the sensors of approaching spacecraft. The disturbance in the Force was intense. All the area of space around the system seemed prey to a roving, searching consciousness.

To the finer control of a more practiced Force sensitive, that questing intelligence had an identity. Its name was Adarin.

Sufficiently warned that his old enemy was too close for comfort, Lord Emil Arandu waited aboard Imperator, concealing his own presence from the Force and biding his time. Since the death of his last wife, all but one of his children, seven of his best students and half of his household, he had learned to wait for the inevitable. In this case the inevitable was the mistake Lord Adarin would inevitably make.

Suddenly there was a feeling of release, a sudden dissipation of an invisible tension, as Adarin's awareness faded from open space and concentrated intensely at some point within the station. "I was waiting," Arandu said, answering the impatient question his son had just put to him, "for Adarin to find what he came here to look for." He was enjoying the expression on Erin's face. "How did you think we happened to be here, boy, dumb luck?"

***

The Millennium Falcon glided through the darkened, old fashioned airlock and into one of the station's small-ship bays. As the freighter gently touched down on the ancient blast-scarred floor, the princess leaned forward between the pilots' chairs and murmured, "Oh, my gods."

"Don't let this fool you. The further in you go the worse it gets."

The Artash Gamble was ancient. The deck plates were pitted and burned, and in places whole sections of the flooring had buckled from pressure leaks. Against one of the bay bulkheads there was a rusted, disintegrating heap that had once been a set of cargo lifters.

The unshielded bay entrance lead directly into the station's commerce and repair areas. Craning her neck a little, Leia could see there were six or seven levels of open galleries above the station floor. "That's insane. The bay is completely open. What if someone damaged the magnetic field?"

"About every fourth bay or locking port there are blast doors. If they close during a blow out, only about a third of the people on the station would be breathing vacuum. Oh, the hub where the owners live is completely sealed -- they're not that crazy."

Han stood and fixed the tie down on his low-slung gunman's holster. He was thinking about Leia. She had dressed in a tan spacer's outfit in an effort to make herself look more like an ordinary mortal than a princess. But despite the clothes, the slightly frayed condition of her coronet of braids, and the dark smudges of fatigue under her eyes, she was still a monument to the lost Alderaanian royalty. On a civilized world like Commenor it hadn't mattered, but the Gamble was a whole other game. The Corellian said, "This is the part where we have the little discussion about who stays, who goes, and who does what with who. But today, I don't have time for it, and I'm not going to make time for it. You, princess, are staying on the ship with the shields up, and you, Chewie, are coming with me. Is that perfectly clear?"

Leia knew that he was right, that time was critical, and it was best for her to stay on the ship, but she couldn't help answering in a way calculated to bother him the most. She looked him directly in the eye and said with perfect seriousness, "You're right, Han, of course. I'll do whatever you say."

She watched the expression in his hazel eyes go from resolute to incredulous to suspicious, all the while he struggled to keep his face blank. He said, "Well fine then," and stepped past her out of the cockpit.

Chewbacca wrinkled his brows at her as he followed his partner out. Smiling a little to herself Leia moved up into the pilot's chair and picked up the headset.

Han stopped in the lounge and pulled two breath masks off the rack while Chewbacca collected his bowcaster. The Corellian tossed one of the masks to his co-pilot and hung the other on his belt. The Wookiee grunted agreement; better safe than sorry.

As soon as the Millennium Falcon's outer hatch slid open the two spacers were assaulted by the Artash Gamble's distinctive odor: a combination of rotting spice, smoke, ozone, mynocks breeding in the air circulation system, and various human and other sentient bodily fluids. Chewbacca wrinkled his sensitive nose and grumbled a long complaint.

"I know, I know," Han said on his way down the ramp. "If I'd known we were coming I'd've picked up some of that disinfectant for the ship's air system, but I ain't a prophet."

As they reached the entrance to the docking bay, Han took out his comlink and said into it, "Leia, we're past the perimeter. Activate the shields."

"Got it," the Princess replied. "Be careful."

Han was in a hurry but knew better than to show it here; attracting attention on the Gamble's open docks could be fatal. Although Han and Chewbacca were too big, too mean and too well-armed to interest any but the most suicidal sort of dock-robber, they didn't have time to waste dealing with one.

Walking along the wide, open space next to the bays made them poor prospects for an ambush, and Han could see nothing much had changed since he and Chewie had last been here. A line of small- ship bays and locking ports for larger craft faced a wall of decrepit merchant galleries, mostly occupied by bars, hockshops, brothels, and a few crowded dark places without any definite purpose. Many of the storefronts were empty and vandalized, others had been bombed or burned out. Human and nonhuman toughs, derelicts, and disreputable droids crowded around the arched entrances on the station floor. Conversation in a number of languages, threads of music, and laughter echoed against the metal bulkheads.

The two spacers reached an area of the dock that was oddly quiet. Most of the businesses in the gallery seemed to have been abruptly vacated. Suddenly Chewbacca pushed Han behind a support grid and dived after him.

"What is it?" the Corellian hissed, drawing his blaster. His shoulder ached from the strength of the Wookiee's grip.

Chewbacca, crouching, peeking cautiously around the edge of the grid, mumbled something incoherent. Han pushed him down and looked for himself. The ship docked in the bay across from the quiet part of the gallery was Slave I.

"Ah, hell," Han muttered. Sometimes he hated being right.

Chewbacca woofed a hopeful question and Han shook his head impatiently. "No, it's not a gods-sent opportunity to blow his ship up and do away with him. We don't have time to go back for a thermal detonator." He glanced quickly up at the empty gallery above them. "Besides, what if he's not in there?" What if he's after Luke? "C'mon."

They made their way back into a bombed-out storefront, found the interior stairs, and climbed to the second level gallery. Pools of coolant and other fluids had collected on the metal- plated floor, and broken spot lumas still floated on weakening repulsars, bumping into walls occasionally. Between the empty shopfronts, corridors with pressure-sealed hatches led deep into the station interior.

When they were directly opposite Slave I, Chewbacca staggered suddenly, and something on the gallery floor gave an outraged shriek. Han swung around as his co-pilot recovered his balance and shook an angry fist at the pile of rags that had suddenly coalesced into an intoxicated Ubese. The little creature snarled back at the Wookiee, but gradually subsided into a motionless heap again.

"Will you watch it?" Han snapped at his co-pilot, and continued down the gallery.

Chewie barred his teeth at him but hurried to catch up.

When they descended to the station floor again, they were only fifty or so meters from the bar where Luke was to meet the two rebel agents. I don't like that, Han thought. Slave I is practically parked right outside. Still, that was less worrisome than the thought that had troubled Han since they had left the rebel outpost. The last time he had seen Arandu, the Sith Lord had been following Boba Fett, intending to capture the bounty hunter and discover who had hired Fett to destroy Arandu's family. Han had found out on Commenor that Lord Adarin had been the one to hire Fett, and that the Sith Lord had partially paid the hunter off with information gotten from his spy in the Alliance. But if Arandu was still following Boba Fett, and if Adarin had sent Fett here to capture Luke... Han shook his head. He didn't like the answer to that equation.

When they reached it the bar was a large noisy place, which seemed to indicate that Fett was nowhere around. There were a few derelicts and a couple of port toughs lounging outside the entrance. Han passed them by, then stopped himself just before doing a foolish double take. One of the toughs was a young woman gaudily dressed, but under the garish makeup her skin was as alabaster clear as Leia's and her arms in the short-sleeved tunic were muscled like a fighter's.

It was much harder for a woman to disguise the fact that she was a professional soldier than it was for a man. It was one of the reasons Han had insisted Leia stay in the ship.

When they had stepped into the shelter of the bar's entranceway, Han asked Chewbacca, "Did that bunch outside smell like liquor?"

The hirsute Wookiee considered a moment, mentally separating the different odors, then told Han that no, they had smelled of ordinary human scent, soap, metal, leather, and clean hair.

"Even the derelicts?"

At Chewbacca's short nod Han shook his head. "Great, just what we need."

The inside was a large, oddly shaped chamber with plenty of recesses for booths and for taking cover during firefights. It was dark, crowded and noisy with a babble of conversation from sentients of all species, yet Han spotted Luke Skywalker almost immediately. A half-second later he recognized the man at the table with him. He had long blond hair, was older than Luke by a few years and was dressed in a nondescript Imperial uniform. He was Barris, Lord Adarin's torturer.

Han slowly scanned the room, looking for Wedge Antilles and the other rebel who was supposed to be with him. They were nowhere to be seen. He told Chewbacca, "Stay here," and started across the room towards the young Jedi.

Luke had both hands flat on the table. His eyes were half- closed in concentration and sweat beaded his brow. Barris' eyes were glassy and glazed over. The right side of his once-handsome face was disfigured by a fresh burn scar that had probably been made by a lightsabre. Han realized that Barris' Imperial uniform wasn't even getting a second look from anyone in the place, when it should have been causing a riot. In fact, no one was paying any attention at all to the two men, despite their strange motionless silence.

Han reached the table and leaned on the back of an empty chair, outwardly casual. He wondered if anyone else could see the two men; perhaps the only reason he could was because he had been looking for Luke.

Luke said, "Han," in a strained voice.

Up until that moment the Corellian hadn't been sure if Luke was aware enough to know he was here or not. He said, "I know. Where are they?"

"Over there."

Han looked up. In a recessed booth not visible from the doorway there were four men dressed in the same uniform as Barris. Sitting with them were Wedge Antilles and a young woman with short brown hair that Han assumed was Tully Sander. Then Han focused on the fact that one of the men was holding a disrupter pistol to Sander's head.

Nothing like a calculated risk, he thought The noise and confusion of the crowd seemed to fade as Han dropped a hand casually to his blaster, flipping the toggle that changed the setting to narrow bolt. "Is Barris doing this to you?" Han asked Luke.

"No, he's just a focus," Luke said, his voice almost a whisper. "It's coming from someone else."

Time to see if I'm as right about this situation as I think I am, Han thought. "Try to break loose."

"I can't, he'll..."

"It doesn't matter, Arandu's here."

The reaction was better than Han had hoped. Barris' eyes snapped into awareness and Luke dived out of the way as an energy bolt struck the chair he'd been sitting in. Han had already hit the floor and rolled to take cover next to a nearby table as blaster fire erupted all over the room. He tried to aim at the man holding the disrupter on Sander and swore as fighting figures obscured his view. The line of sight cleared abruptly and he squeezed the trigger. The narrow energy bolt struck the unshielded handgrip of the disrupter pressed to Tully Sander's head, drilling a neat hole through the plastic and striking the man behind her, sending him spinning back against the wall.

Han struggled to his feet and started through the crowd toward the two rebels. Wedge Antilles had exploded into action as soon as Sander was free, turning and attacking the guards nearest him.

From the comparative safety of the doorway, Chewbacca could see that Han would reach the rebels without running into enemy fire. Most of the action centered around Luke, who had drawn his lightsabre and was desperately deflecting energy bolts. Chewbacca fired his bowcaster, trying to keep a clear path to the door for the others. Several innocent bystanders scattered but the real combatants ignored it. As a dark-clad figure with a lightsabre leapt over the bar to strike at Luke, Chewbacca snarled and plunged into the crowd, heading towards the young Jedi.

Han fought his way to the recessed dais in time to shoot the man who was about to take Antilles out from behind. Sander had just finished bashing the last guard with a chair. The Corellian yelled, "Antilles, c'mon!"

Sander froze, staring at him. She was a tomboyish figure in a bulky grey astromech's coverall and her eyes were wide and frightened. Wedge pushed her forward and they ran toward the door.

They had almost reached the exit when Han realized neither Luke nor Chewbacca were with them. He looked back in time to see a heavy stun burst hit his co-pilot and send him crashing backward into the bar. He couldn't see Luke Skywalker anywhere.

As Han started back for the others, Wedge tackled him out of the way of a disrupter burst that collapsed half the doorway. They rolled into the shelter of the foyer and Han shoved away from the rebel and scrambled to his feet. He yelled, "What the hell are you doing? They're still in there!"

Wedge stood, shaking his head. "You can't do anything for them now! Half the people in that bar were Adarin's men. I saw them get Luke."

"Is he dead?"

"I couldn't tell. We can't help them now anyway."

Then Sander gasped a strangled warning, and Han pushed Wedge aside and snapped off a shot at the figure in the doorway that was taking aim at them. Both fired at the same time. The Imperial in the doorway dropped and Wedge fell back against the wall and slid to the floor.

Swearing, Han leaned over him. The bolt had struck Antilles' leg, and the smell of burnt flesh was sickeningly sweet.

Wedge's face was pale and tight with pain. "I can't walk. Leave me and get the hell out of here."

"Shut the hell up." Han shouldered one of the rebel's arms and pulled him to his feet. Sander grabbed Wedge's other arm and they staggered outside.

The galleries and the open docks were frighteningly deserted, but blasterfire echoed from the interior of the station. "This way," Han grunted, and they tried to urge Wedge into a stumbling run.

"It's sounds like a war back there," Antilles gasped.

It is a war, Han realized. His guess had been accurate. Arandu had followed Fett here. Now Adarin's troops would be travelling through the station's inner corridors, returning to their ship with their prisoners and waging guerrilla warfare with Arandu's people in the station's interior.

"You could've gotten us killed," Sander said.

"Save it for later."

They couldn't take time to bypass Fett's ship, and Han didn't want to be caught between the two factions of Sith on the dark, narrow catwalks. They would have to take their chances and pass in front of the docking bay.

Chewie and Luke, Han thought. What capture would mean to either of them was material for a nightmare. Gods knew if they would even consider Chewbacca a sentient being. And Luke... He would be the first Jedi, half-trained or not, that the Sith would have in their hands since the purge. Han pushed that thought to the back of his mind. He didn't have time for hope or self- recrimination; he had to get the others out of this alive.

They reached Slave I and slowly crept past it, and Han felt like he had a target on his back. The air blowers began to go off and on, indicating the station interior was taking damage. The firing was getting closer. They're having a running battle somewhere up ahead and moving a hell of a lot faster than we are, he thought. If Fett's not here then where the hell is he?

Slave I remained a silent, inert shape in the dimness of the bay. The next docking bay was empty; it was possibly the most beautiful thing Han had ever seen in his life.

Then the background noise of blasterfire ceased abruptly, and the lights fluctuated. Han thought, temporary power drain -- sleeper bomb, and yelled "Get down." He pushed the two rebels toward the shelter of the wall. As they reached it an explosion in a gallery two levels up and almost directly over their heads showered the deck with debris. They huddled against the bulkhead and watched half-melted metal shards rain down on the dock.

The silence after the reverberations faded was almost as intense as the explosion itself. Abruptly the main lights went to half strength and stayed there, and the dock became a dim cavern.

"Close," Sander whispered. "How did you know?"

"The lights. It was a sleeper bomb. You find an outlet for a small scale power supply and stick the bomb into it. It pulls power out of the source until it reaches the same level as whatever it's attached to, then boom."

"They could have blown up the entire station!"

"Yeah, but they're all crazy bastards, they don't care." Han waited for the gunfire to resume, but there was nothing. Even the normal background chatter echoing from the other levels was gone. The Artash Gamble's inhabitants had all gone to ground. The Corellian wished to hell they could go to ground.

"C'mon." Han took a step and realized Wedge Antilles had slumped against him, unconscious. They lowered him to the ground and Han hurriedly checked the rebel's pulse. It was weak and fluttery. "It's shock." He pulled the breath mask off his belt clip and put it on Antilles. It would filter out the smoke and just might keep him breathing a little longer.

Sander's face was as pale and drawn as Wedge's. If she passes out, Han thought, I can't carry both of them. She said suddenly, "If you'd missed, you'd have killed me."

It took Han a moment to realize she meant his shot at her captor in the bar. He shook his head. "It was a better chance than you'd have if you were still back there."

"Luke Skywalker and your friend are still back there."

From her sudden start Han knew his expression had turned momentarily savage. He said brusquely, "Let's go."

There were only three more bays before the Falcon but with the two of them half dragging Antilles their progress was much slower. The air smelled strongly of ozone and it was still too quiet. It didn't figure and Han didn't like it. The fighting hadn't lasted anywhere near long enough for a victory, especially in the labyrinthine levels of the station interior. He remembered the eerie suddenness of the ceasefire immediately before the sleeper bomb blew, as though all the combatants had somehow known what was about to happen.

They reached the Falcon's bay. The ship's running lights were on, a circle of welcome illumination in the darker pit of the bay, and the low-power hum of the shields was reassuring. At first glance it seemed to be empty but an inborn sense of caution made Han stop in the cover of the support pylons. Then he saw a dark flutter of movement in the shadows against the bay wall; an intentional betrayal. The Corellian quickly looked back up at the galleries and saw rippling motion in the upper levels. Sander whispered, "Oh, gods."

Han was glad she didn't have a gun; he didn't trust her not to panic. He said, "The shields are up, so the ship is safe if we can get to it."

"If..."

Wedge interrupted her by moaning and showing signs of regaining consciousness. Han lowered him to the floor so the wounded rebel could lean back against the pylon. The burn on his leg had torn open a little from the stress and begun to bleed sluggishly. Swearing under his breath, Han looked hopelessly around for something to cover the open wound. Sander dug a fairly clean rag out of her coverall pocket and handed it to him.

Han began to bandage the wound as gently as he could. Sander knelt beside him and watched the other rebel with frightened concern. Antilles suddenly opened his eyes and gasped, "No, I can make it."

"We can't," Han told him. "We're surrounded."

Sander looked around at the dark crannies of the gallery and the bay. "Is it Adarin?" she asked nervously.

"No, but I think I know who it is." Han rubbed his forehead. "I should've known this would happen. Don't anybody make any sudden moves." He raised his voice to carry and spoke to the shadows near the Falcon. "I thought we were even, Arandu."

"We are even, Han. From now on consideration costs the going rate." The Sith Lord's voice echoed against the metal bulkheads. It was as frightening as it was inevitable; Han had used Arandu's name to escape Adarin's men in the bar, and now he was paying for the privilege.

"You know him," Sander whispered. There was incredulous accusation in her tone.

"We met once," Han answered, low-voiced.

In a conversational tone Arandu was saying, "I was watching you and the little Jedi. You knew what was about to happen three minutes and twenty-five seconds before I intended to give my signal to attack. In fact, your action caused me to move sooner than I'd anticipated. How did you know? I ask for educational purposes only."

"I saw Boba Fett's ship. Then I spotted your people outside the bar. I didn't think they belonged to Adarin; I've seen his operatives before and, no offense, but they're obviously better than yours. I didn't spot Adarin's group until I recognized Barris. Adarin didn't know you were here, did he? How did you manage that?"

"I object to the term 'obviously' but I bow to your greater experience in the area. And I think you have a very good idea how I managed to evade my old friend's notice."

Han had finished bandaging Antilles' leg. The rebel's eyes were closed, and the Corellian couldn't tell if he was listening or not. Sander was watching him with a kind of wary fascination. He said, "You waited until Adarin was distracted."

"Yes. He was quite taken with your little Jedi friend. Apparently he was so enthralled with the prospect of capturing a light side Force sensitive that he hired a bounty hunter to make sure of his prize. It is so hard to get good help these days."

"Speaking of good help, is that your heavy cruiser orbiting the station in cloak or Adarin's?"

"Mine. I arrived prepared this time."

I'll bet you did, Han thought. He sensed they were being watched from all over the dock. I know something you want to know real bad, but if I dangle it in front of you, you'll have me on my back in an interrogation room so fast it'll make my head spin, but if I blurt it out like an idiot I'll lose what little advantage I have. "You guys are all so buddy-buddy. It's always 'my old friend this' and 'my old friend that' and all the while just waiting for the chance to murder each other."

"The point is granted, but I am curious about something. Adarin knew your Jedi would be here. How did he know that, Han? My sources of intelligence are very good and I didn't know there was even a possibility such a person still existed."

"Maybe he had a spy in the rebellion."

"Maybe. Very odd how he chose this particular bounty hunter to hire. But Fett is said to be the best, and if one had committed the indiscretion of strangling the Imperial Governor of Commenor in a fit of pique, one might possibly redeem oneself by capturing a Jedi."

News travels fast, Han thought, uneasy. Arandu must have information sources on Commenor, to know about the Governor's death so soon. He said, "Fett gets around. Besides, I think offing an Imperial governor wouldn't be nearly as indiscreet as taking all of one's toys and going home in the middle of a rebellion against one's government."

"Yes, well, that was a little indiscreet," Arandu admitted without a trace of reluctance. "You get around, too. You've just been to Commenor, in fact. I have a villa on the northern continent. The summers are a little humid but otherwise quite acceptable." There was a slight pause. "How did you recognize Barris, Han?"

If Han's blaster had been in his hand at that moment, he probably would have shot himself. He answered without hesitation, "He does intelligence work, so naturally the rebels have a file on him." And if you believe that I have some waterfront property on Tatooine...

"Oh, very good. For a moment I thought you were going to say 'Barris who?'"

So you caught me out, Han thought, exasperated, you don't need to rub it in. He said, "Just for curiosity's sake, are you going to let us reach my ship?"

"Oh really, Han. You're a better opponent in this game than I thought you would be, and I can't afford to give up that advantage. But now that I've been nicely distracted from the Commenor issue, I can point out that if I did not care to buy my way back into the Empire, and if my only motive was to put an old friend into such a position that he would tell the truth if asked a few questions, an accommodation might be reached. You understand, there are no witnesses whose word could be taken under Imperial law. This is really between he and I, and has little to do with the Empire and nothing at all to do with the Rebellion."

The Corellian was beginning to get an idea what all this was leading up to, and he didn't like it. "I think I understand. If you let us take this wounded man to my ship, I'll come back out and we could discuss it."

"You are a bit too unpredictable for me to allow that, Han."

That was it, then. The Sith Lord wanted him, alive, and he wanted either Antilles or Sander as a guarantee of his cooperation. I'll be damned if I let him have either one of them. Wedge's breathing was still shallow, even with the breath mask. The Corellian shook his head. "They're useless unless they complete their mission. Let them go to the ship, and then we'll talk."

"I could let the man go, if the woman stayed here."

"He can't walk that far alone, and you won't let me take him. Besides, a dead woman isn't worth anything."

Sander's expression now clearly said traitor.

The silence lasted an uncomfortably long moment. May have just overplayed my hand a tad, Han thought. Nothing warned him, not until Sander's eyes went wide.

Han managed not to flinch when the silken weight of the Sith Lord's cloak brushed against his upper arm.

In a conversational tone, Emil Arandu said, "I'm not quite so careless as that." He looked down at Sander a long thoughtful moment. The young rebel couldn't seem to return that gaze. Han knew what she would see if she did: a handsome man, old enough to be her father, tall and well-built, with greying hair and cold, mocking eyes. Look at him, Han urged her silently. Show him you've got a backbone. Arandu seemed to enjoy playing with people more than he enjoyed killing them, but a broken toy would interest him not at all. The Sith Lord said, "She's very young. She thinks of you as a traitor and she would almost rather stay here. Almost."

Sander looked up at him furiously.

The wicked old eyes were amused. "I know much of what happened on Commenor, though not all, and I don't think you intend to leave this station any more than I do, Han. We both know that Adarin takes particular delight in his prisoners." He turned away, his cape sweeping in a full circle. "They may both go to your ship. I begin to believe this matter is better discussed in private."

Han leaned over Wedge and patted his face to make sure he was conscious. "Can you make it to the ship with just Sander? There's someone inside who'll lower the shields for you but I don't want her to have to come out." He thanked luck and every god there was that Leia had stayed on the ship; so far it was the only mistake he hadn't made.

Antilles blinked, and struggled to sit up. "We can make it. But are you sure you want to do this?"

"Hell no." He helped the rebel to his feet. Sander avoided Han's eyes as she and Wedge made their slow, halting way to the safety of the Falcon.

***

Luke Skywalker was vaguely aware of listening to a very interesting conversation.

"Are you going to accept Adarin's offer, Vandien?"

"He's not going to make me an offer."

Luke's body felt as if it weighed hundreds of tons. After incredible effort he managed to slide his left hand a few inches across the cold metal floor. He lay on his stomach and his right side was pressed against something large and furry and warm; it had to be an unconscious Chewbacca.

"He'll make the offer, Vandien. Are you going to accept it?"

"Why should I?"

The events of the last few hours swam in and out of focus, memories made hazy by the effect of the stun. Luke knew he was in a cell; the cold metal floor told him that much. He remembered the nightmare struggle with the unseen Sith Lord, and that Han, Wedge and Tully had still been free when he and Chewbacca had been stunned. He was certain that Han at least was still alive, though how he knew that was something he couldn't explain, even to himself. He just hoped the Corellian wasn't a prisoner. If Han Solo had escaped, he would come after them.

"He'll give you the title, make you Lord Karadon."

"I already have the title."

"Your sister has it."

"I'm her only heir. I'm not giving that up to take oath with Adarin. No, I'm not going over."

"Good."

The stun was wearing off. Luke shifted his shoulders slightly, then froze, realizing his mistake.

"Dunstan?"

"Hmm?"

"The Jedi's awake."

***

Somehow a signal had been passed to stand down now that the initial confrontation was over. Han counted about thirty dark-clad Sith materializing around the bay with several more conventional Imperial regulars. They were heavily armed.

A young man wearing a comlink headset approached Arandu and said, "M'lord, the station commander is threatening to destroy the magnetic seal."

"I was wondering when we'd come to that. Tell him we're all standing about in vacuum suits and that I welcome the destruction of the magnetic seal. It will merely make the station that much easier to blow up when I'm finished with it. What is Corin's report?"

"Vandien and Dunstan are still missing, but he says Kitar doesn't think they're dead. They may be trapped in the station interior due to the explosion. He'll have a casualty count for you as soon as..."

Han stopped listening when the Falcon's shields went down, but no one made any move toward the ship. The ramp lowered and Han aged at least a decade while Sander and Antilles made their slow way inside. The Corellian felt like a planet's width separated him from the people in the ship, and he knew that Arandu would recognize that and use it against him. The lock was safely shut and the shields back up when Arandu turned his attention back to Han.

The Corellian had to look up at the taller man. The Sith lord asked, "What else did Barris tell you, by the way?"

Han folded his arms. "He thinks you and Vader are still pals, despite the rumors. That's one of the reasons he thinks you'll win."

"Yet he remains loyal to Adarin."

"I wouldn't call it 'loyal.' He strikes me more as the suicidal type."

Arandu's eyes narrowed slightly. "All sorts confide in you, don't they?"

"He didn't expect me to be around to discuss it with anybody after he was finished. Why don't you just tell me what you want from me?"

Arandu looked away for a moment, toward the magnetically sealed port. "Adarin has retreated into his ship, which is locked onto one of these docking bays. I hold a substantial part of the station, but I've ascertained that a frontal assault on a ship is impossible. A small ship attempting to board them from the outside would be detected and destroyed." He looked back at Han. "You left two companions in that place. I can tell you now that the little Jedi is still alive. I don't know about the other one, but I don't believe you want to take that risk. And I... I need to get onto that ship, to face Adarin. To do this, he will have to be distracted again."

Han felt a sensation of cold that started at his skin and proceeded right down into his bone marrow. He knew exactly what Arandu meant. The Corellian had seen enough of Adarin on Commenor to know that the Sith Lord was a frightened, fidgety man, dependent on his power, on people like Barris, and in love with his own ability to do violence. He would expect a complicated trick; he would never look for something simple and straightforward. And he would never realize how much Arandu would risk to get to him -- until it was too late. It'll work, the inspired, insane part of Han's mind whispered. It's got just the right feel to it. "You think he'll fall for that again?"

"I think so." Arandu smiled. "Of course I can't be certain until it's tried. But he sent a message after the first attack was over. He wants to talk to you."

That was Barris talking, I can tell that right now. Me and my talent for making friends, Han thought. "How long will it take you to get inside?"

"I don't know. His ship is overcrowded, and I'll have to deal with quite a few people, many of them Force-sensitives, before I reach him."

"While he's turning me into dogfood," Han said.

"I have slightly more faith in your abilities than that. I will have created enough confusion by that time to allow you to escape."

"And you won't try to stop us, any of us, even the Jedi? Even after you're finished with Adarin?"

"You have my word on it."

Yeah, right. It would be easy to die from trusting this man. Han rubbed his temples. He was getting a tension headache right when he needed to think clearly more than anything. He probably has something to do with that, too. Arandu had tried to influence his thoughts once before, when they had both been trapped on Fett's ship. Han found himself wondering if the Sith Lord was trying it again, perhaps with a more subtle method. No, thinking that was one way to go quietly crazy; Han either trusted himself or it was useless to go on, and he knew this was the only real chance he had to free Luke and Chewbacca. "When?"

"A three quarter hour, station time. I talked him into allowing you to go armed."

"Well, that was damned nice of you. I have to go back to my ship first."

Arandu looked at him.

"Look, there's no way I can pull this off if I don't walk in completely on my own. Any other way, and he's gonna know it, so if you don't trust me now we might as well forget the whole thing." He turned and started toward the Falcon.

Everyone in the bay looked toward Arandu, but he didn't do anything more than raise a thoughtful eyebrow. After a moment the young man with the comlink asked softly, "M'lord, will he really do it?"

"Oh, yes. He's just as serious about this sort of thing as I am."

***

The hatch slid closed behind him and Han leaned against the cold metal of the bulkhead. Okay Solo, use the time. Think. After the muck in the station the ship's air felt cool and fresh.

Without warning Princess Leia tore around the corner and almost slammed into him. "Are you all right?" she demanded.

"Yeah," he straightened up slowly, stretching to ease tense muscles. "It wasn't as bad as it looked."

"I was watching. I couldn't think of anything to do."

"Funny, neither could I." He started toward the cockpit. "There's some things I have to take care of. You in the mood to fly this ship by yourself?"

"I could, but..."

"Hard stuff, like taking her out of the bay, matching up with the station again, like that?"

"If I have to, yes. Tully said Luke and Chewbacca..."

"Luke is still alive. I have to believe that Chewie is too. They're in Adarin's ship but there's a chance I can get them out."

"How?"

There wasn't going to be any easy way to say it so he stopped in the corridor and just told her.

They were standing outside the cabin nearest the cockpit. On the bunk inside he could see Wedge Antilles sleeping quietly, his wound covered by a synthflesh burnpatch and the small diagnostic comp from the medipack blinking on the bed beside him. Sander had stepped into the doorway and was watching them. Her expression was stony.

Leia shook her head determinedly. "You can't."

"I have to."

"There has to be some other way."

"Like what?"

"I don't know." She said urgently, "Han, think about what you're doing."

"Leia, if I thought about what I was doing I'd stand on a chair and scream."

"But even if you do get them out, how can you trust Arandu to let you all go?"

Good question, Han thought. He shook his head wearily. "I don't know. When I was trapped on Fett's ship with him, he didn't have to let me go, or help me... The way that he did." That was still an uncomfortable thought, especially now. "I don't know if he did it out of some weird sense of obligation or if somehow he knew that in the future I'd be in a position to help him like this." Talk about uncomfortable thoughts. "I don't have a choice. If there's any chance that either one of them is still alive, I have to try to get them out."

"I know that, but I don't want to lose..." The princess stopped abruptly, confused. Her skin was lightly flushed and she was as embarrassed as if she had just blurted out that she wanted to have his children. I don't know what's wrong with me, she thought. I've sent people -- friends -- on dangerous missions before. This is no different, and it's his own idea. But this is different. "I'm sorry. I think the waiting... I'm used to taking action, not..." She stopped herself, closed her eyes for a moment, then said, "What do you need me to do?"

Han Solo, faced with the prospect of Princess/Senator Leia Organa behaving like a normal emotional human in a dingy corridor of the Millennium Falcon, felt at once shocked, amused, and flattered. Probably she considered her mild protest as much of a lapse as if she had fainted or fallen down on the deck plates in hysterics. For once since he had first met her, he had no idea what to say to her. So he said, "I need telemetry and schematic data for the station. Things like where Adarin's ship is, if there are any empty bays near it, and if we can get there without passing in front of a gunport."

"All right." Leia stepped briskly past him into the cockpit.

Han found himself facing Tully Sander. She said, "The princess seems to believe you."

"Yeah." He wasn't worried about Sander arguing with Leia once he was gone. When the princess put on her business-like attitude she'd flatten anybody who interfered with her.

"When we get back to the fleet I'm going to tell General Madine what I heard. I have to. It's my duty."

If we get back to the fleet, you damned optimist. He couldn't really blame her for her attitude towards him, but he didn't have any room right now for charity. "You do that, honey. I'll be shaking in my boots about it." And he went aft to check through his weapons locker.

***

If it doesn't end here, it will never end, Lord Arandu thought. He had to finish Adarin now and return to the capital world, or there would be nothing left to return to. The last report was everything he had dreaded: Darth Vader keeping control of the younger Sith Lords with fear and physical power, his allies either scattered or helpless. And now that the Dark Lord was more occupied with the Rebellion, the Sith were becoming more chaotic and uncontrollable. Doubtless the damn fools were even now climbing into bed with anyone who promised them more power in the Empire. And the Emperor... The Emperor's machinations were evident in every move of the game.

Arandu turned and headed back toward his command post. Corin Marcus materialized out of the shadows and followed him.

Arandu knew that the current situation on the Capital had been mostly his own doing. He should have been present when Lord Karadon had been challenged, if only to prevent interference from hangers-on. If he had come charging in to Karadon's side the old man would still be alive, and he would not have lost such a true ally. But the old lord was dead and his daughter Keice had inherited, and now the new lady of Karadon was continually besieged by challenges. The last politely worded, heavily coded message from Keice had not been encouraging. Keice Karadon had killed more Sith in defending her person and her young, rapidly dwindling household than any rebel or Jedi ever had, but still the challenges came. She had sent her brother Vandien to him for training and safekeeping, but if Arandu didn't go to her aid soon there wouldn't be anything left for the boy, either. If Vandien was even still alive.

But Adarin had to pay. It was not a matter of revenge, or of cutting his losses or guarding his back, or not only that. The last dispatch had also contained one piece of information that Arandu could not ignore. Before Adarin had left the Capital for Commenor he had spoken personally with the Emperor.

In the Dark Lord's absence, Adarin could be doing anything, from receiving secret orders to undermining Vader's position. And it certainly put the abrupt death of Governor Tagge in a different light. The Emperor might have set his own trap for Adarin, ordering him to commit an act that would result in the end in Adarin's own death. Or he might be preparing to raise Adarin in power, to play him off the Dark Lord.

But would I still kill Adarin if I knew him loyal to Darth Vader?

Yes.

In the end, perhaps revenge is the only motive any of us have left.

Arandu turned abruptly to Corin. "You have permission to state one argument against this plan."

Corin stopped, folded his arms, and said, "M'lord, Barris is too good. He'll know what you're planning. And you can't trust this Corellian."

Correct, Arandu thought, but there was no answer for the man. He said, "That was two arguments," to frustrate further discussion and kept walking.

A moment later one of the communications couriers caught up with him and said, "M'lord, the pirate ship is requesting telemetry data for the station."

"I don't care if they want the floor plans of the Imperial palace, give it to them."

***

When Han came back to the lounge area, the Princess was punching up a schematic of the Gamble on the techstation's vidscreen. When he had realized he still had Wedge Antilles' blood all over him, he had taken a minute to change shirts, and now he checked the chronometer in the console, gauging the time he had left.

Leia glanced at the gun he put down on the console top and asked, "Where did you get that?"

It was a compact, Imperial issue blaster rifle, deadly, tough, and powerful. It was also one of the last relics of Han's military career, and the handgrip contained a small compartment exactly the right size for something he had been saving for a special occasion. He said "It was a present from Chewie for our anniversary."

She snorted. "Right. Is this the information you wanted?"

"Uh-huh." He reached past her and used the key pad to program a course across the outside of the station. "Give me enough time to get there, then take her out of the bay and bring her along this course. You're gonna have to watch it right here: that's a magnetic field tower and the vanes stand out a couple of hundred meters. Bring her into this empty bay here."

"Next to Adarin's ship." She looked up at him. "You don't trust Arandu, do you?"

"I trust him. I trust him to nail me to the wall if I'm stupid enough to give him half a chance. The only thing that's keeping me alive through this is that I'm useful to him, but past that I don't mean anything to him. I don't think he'll go out of his way to kill me, understand?"

"Yes," Leia said, thinking no.

"I want the Falcon as close as possible so we can be aboard and out of here before he gets a chance to think about anything besides killing Adarin." He straightened up and collected the rifle. "It's about that time."

"Be careful," Leia said automatically, then realized how ludicrously inadequate that was.

"I'm always careful." Casual, very casual, he thought. That's the way to do this. "Bring the shields down as soon as I get past the perimeter."

All she could do was watch him go.

***

Luke sat up slowly and eased his back against the wall. His head was pounding and he felt bruised and battered. The cell was a small oppressive chamber, without air system ducts or light fixtures except for strips of dim glowtape on the ceiling. The door was narrow and barred.

The two Sith were watching Luke in poses of outward relaxation but with absolute stillness, like two cats sizing up an intruder. They were both young men, one a little older than Luke, one a little younger. Either could have passed as a local in the hangouts of Anchorhead, except for something older and darkly knowledgeable in their eyes. He couldn't guess how they felt about him, but the young Jedi's dislike was instantaneous. For the moment, they weren't making any hostile moves.

Chewbacca was still a heap of unresponsive, deeply breathing russet fur, but he didn't appear to be hurt in any way. At least Luke hoped he wasn't injured. He knew the Imperials had blasted the Wookiee with heavy stunners, over and over again. Casual cruelty, something they would both become very familiar with if they didn't manage to get out of here soon.

More than just the cell was oppressive. Luke had instinctively tried to close his mind off from the Force as soon as he had regained consciousness, but he could still feel the presence of the dark side around him. It was disquieting to sense the nearness of the Sith Lord who had attacked him at the rendezvous point. That the Sith had been able to channel his power through another person had taken Luke completely by surprise, and was another demonstration of how inadequate his training had been. But which Sith Lord held them prisoner? It's not Vader, Luke thought. I'd know Vader.

The two Sith stared at Luke and he stared back, but the moment for possible aggression seemed past.

After a moment Luke asked the most innocuous question he could think of: "Which one's Vandien and which one's Dunstan?"

The younger one blinked at him, and said, "I thought eavesdropping was immoral." The other turned his head slowly to look at the far wall.

Great, Luke thought. He couldn't ask for better cellmates than a couple of Sith who also happened to be jerks. But there had to be some way to get information out of them. Changing tactics, he asked, "So what's next?"

The younger one shifted back against the wall, relaxing a little. Apparently this was a more comfortable subject. "Lord Adarin will want to take care of you personally, but we're not so important. Unless Vandien decides to join..."

Vandien had obviously about had it with Dunstan. "If you don't shut up, I'm going to kill you myself."

Dunstan shut up, smiling a little. Apparently this was the reaction he had been hoping for.

Luke tried to think of a way to ask them if there had been any more prisoners that had already been dealt with.

***

Adarin had done some remodeling on the Artash Gamble. The bay walls for some distance on either side of his ship had been dismantled by high intensity fusion cutters. It wouldn't help the station's pressure integrity any, but it made a nondescript approach to the Sith Lord's ship much more difficult. The ship itself was visible only as a hatch locked on to the docking port. A large rampway projecting into the bay was guarded by an impressive number of stormtroopers and a few officers in Imperial grey. The area around the ramp was brightly lit by spotlumas.

Since they were expecting him, Han Solo didn't try for a cautious approach. He went openly towards the ship, managing to project an attitude of arrogant confidence he didn't feel. The surviving civilians had deserted the area, like a downport after it had been cleared by Imperial troops. The air system still functioned in this section, and the breeze from the ducts blew bits of trash down the dock. He spotted snipers in the upper levels of the gallery, but nobody shot at him.

"Stop there," an officer motioned for Han to stay back from the end of the rampway, then spoke for a moment into a comlink. Just then there was a crash from inside the airlock and a corpulent, gaudily dressed man stumbled out, almost tumbling down the ramp in his efforts to get quickly away. It would have been comic except for the troopers who followed the man carried the severed heads of two other humans. There was no blood; the cuts had been made with a weapon that cauterized as it killed.

The troopers dropped their grisly burden off the edge of the ramp and disappeared back inside. The fat man stumbled past without glancing at the Corellian. He was one of the station owners, Han realized suddenly. He recognized him from the bad old days. Maybe I'll go back to piracy when this is over, he thought. It's safer, less messy, and the pay is better. He wondered how far the man would get before Arandu's people picked him up to discover what deal had been struck with Adarin. If somehow the Artash Gamble survived intact, the inhabitants would never be the same.

The officer motioned Han to come along.

"My turn?" He muttered to himself, and followed the Imperial officer up into the Sith Lord's ship.

The corridors of the old combat vessel were narrow and low- ceilinged. It had been designed for boarding actions, to be easily defensible against entry by another ship. It was a design that would function equally well when an attack came from a space station.

Down side passageways the Corellian caught sight of officers and Imp regulars crowded into cramped quarters. Han, who always had to fight latent claustrophobia in any place under Imperial control, felt his nerves start to jump. Even armed they could take him at any one of a hundred turns or crossways in the corridors. It became apparent why Adarin had allowed him to keep his weapons; it emphasized his helplessness. For all that, the lack of control was what he hated the most. This was Arandu's plan, and the next move was his.

A dark-uniformed man with a lightsabre abruptly appeared around a corner ahead of them. The officer and the stormtroopers in the corridor quickly stepped back against the bulkhead.

Han found himself staring at the man. He hadn't seen such facial scarring anywhere outside the burnward at the Fornaxport medcenter. The Corellian stepped out of his way too, but not hurriedly. The Sith stopped and glared back. Han remembered a similar expression on the face of a trader who sold children of several species to brothels on Estara. The Sith said, "I dislike dealing with Corellian scum."

Han, who had been called worse, couldn't find it in himself to be impressed. He said, "Go tell your boss that."

The man's expression stiffened slightly, and he walked away down the corridor.

After a few more turnings they reached a double-sized hatchway guarded by two stormtroopers. There was a moment's breathing space.

Han banished his fear for Luke and his partner, his anxiety for Leia and the Falcon and put personal survival out of his mind. The core of the problem was that Barris knew Arandu. He'd learned that much on Commenor. The interrogator had a feel for how Arandu would react when he was pushed, and how far he could be pushed. If the episode on Slave I was any indication, one of Arandu's common strategies was to take care of the situation himself. Barris had to realize that. And Arandu had to know that Barris wasn't a fool. Or does Arandu just not care? Is he so close to what he wants that survival just doesn't mean anything anymore? I know he's ruthless but under that urbane exterior is he just as crazy as Adarin or any of the other Sith Lords?

The doors slid open.

Han shoved the Imperial officer aside and dove through the entrance, rolling to his feet and putting his back against the bulkhead. He had moved almost before his conscious mind realized that Boba Fett stood at the front of the room. The bounty hunter was aiming his blast-rifle at the Corellian, but hadn't fired.

Standoff. It was a long arched chamber, crowded with Sith and Imperial crewmen. On a raised dais Lord Adarin sat in a dark metal throne, leaning one elbow on the chair arm and resting his head in his hand. He was a dark-haired man, wearing an Imperial Admiral's dress uniform. He said, "I didn't think he would send you. He gets so attached to things." His voice was soft but it carried to every corner of the room. He lifted his head slowly and his eyes were sober and for a moment held the illusion of sanity. Then something minute in his expression shifted and the illusion was gone. There was a sense of pressure reflected in that gaze, a sense of frustration and anxiety that rode on a current of power.

The doors slid closed.

Barris stood behind Adarin, and his eyes were merely burning.

Adarin said, "You escaped from Barris on Commenor. I thought that interesting."

"I'm better than he is," Han said, quietly. Cold sweat made the grip of the rifle slippery. Most of the Sith had facial scars and other physical evidence of Adarin's impatience with failure. Two of them moved towards the Corellian, coming up on him from his right side. He shifted down the wall a little way, refusing to be forced away from the bulkhead.

"Perhaps you are."

Barris glanced down at Adarin, a look of mixed contempt and dismay. Han felt his skin start to crawl in earnest.

"Perhaps he sent you because he is afraid to provoke me. Is that possible?"

Stick to the truth, Han thought. Adarin wouldn't believe anything else, not even to compliment his ego. "No, it's not possible."

"I thought it unlikely." Adarin almost seemed pleased. It was the answer he had expected.

Without taking his eyes off the Corellian's face, Barris leaned over Adarin and said something inaudible. The Sith Lord waved him back impatiently and snapped, "Not yet."

That's right, bastard, Han thought. Get greedy and piss him off. He had put a small detonator into the compartment of the rifle with Barris in mind. There was no way Han was going to let that conniving sycophant get his hands on him again. It was his hole card. One of the Sith who was stalking him from the right moved a little closer. Han gave up another few inches to stay out of lightsabre reach.

Adarin was leaning forward, tapping impatient fingers on the chair arm. "There are several things I intend to ask you..."

If Barris was the one likely to guess the plan, then the trick should be to discredit Barris. But thinking it out aboard the Falcon was one thing, implementing it in a roomful of Sith practically panting for his blood was another. "Why don't you ask me what Barris told me on Commenor?"

It was so unexpected even Fett glanced a second at Adarin. The Sith Lord's face held frozen suspicion. The hand Barris had on the back of the chair turned into a fist. "Tell me," Adarin said softly.

"We had an interesting conversation. He told me enough to know that he's playing you and Arandu against each other." Careful, careful, Han thought. An embarrassed Sith Lord would be even more dangerous than an angry one.

Adarin had twitched when Han said his rival's name. Now he leaned back in his chair, eyes hooded, steepling his fingers. "Explain."

"He wants you to destroy each other."

As Han had suspected, Adarin did not ask why. A reason for someone not to cause havoc when presented with the opportunity would not readily occur to the Sith Lord. Adarin looked up at Barris.

The interrogator was almost hyperventilating. "He's lying."

"Why should he lie? He knows he's not going to leave here alive," Adarin pointed out reasonably.

I'm glad we finally got that out in the open, Han thought.

Barris said desperately, "He's distracting you while Arandu carries out some plan."

There was a pause as the Sith Lord poised on the brink of awarding Barris another scar, then Adarin's expression slowly turned thoughtful. "What could he..."

An officer with a headset comlink stepped forward suddenly, "Emergency, my lord. Station status. Two ships have embarked from the station."

Adarin sat up abruptly, "Which ships?"

"A small freighter, no ID, moving parallel to the station," the officer's eyes widened, "And Imperial registry Imperator, heading outsystem."

Adarin surged to his feet and backhanded Barris into the wall. "You fool! You've let him get away."

Han popped the compartment of the rifle open and let the tiny capsule of explosive slip unobtrusively into his palm. As Barris slid to the floor the Sith Lord's attention turned to the Corellian. "So you are less valuable to him than I thought. That is a surprise. Emil has never been one to know when to cut his losses."

Somewhere deep in the ship an alarm sounded for a few seconds and was abruptly cut off.

Fett's helmet turned away from Adarin to regard the Corellian. Then the hunter took a step backward, off the dais, and left through a door at the back of the room.

Like mynocks leaving a breached ship, Han thought, then coldly we're a little off schedule, but not by much. The Imperial ship's apparent retreat was probably a contingency, a last ditch effort to create confusion if Han had failed. Adarin would never believe another Sith Lord would order his ship out of his reach.

Adarin appeared to be listening to something no one else could hear. Anger crossed his face, and oddly enough a look of betrayal.

Arandu was close, and now Adarin knew it.

Han put the explosive against the bulkhead behind him and activated it. This was his contingency plan. It was set for seven seconds and he started to mentally count them off.

Adarin stepped off the dais and said, "Kill him."

Han fired in to the midst of the stormtroopers and dodged away from the return burst. He reached seven and hit the deck. The explosive went off with a muffled thump, taking out a three meter section of the bulkhead and spraying the room with hot shrapnel.

Han got to his feet. The room was full of acrid smoke, but he could see Adarin leaving through the door at the other end. The Corellian didn't try to shoot at him; that was Arandu's problem. He stepped over the bodies of two Sith and went out through the hole in the bulkhead.

The corridor was choked with smoke and dangerous with confusion. Warning sirens were shrill and insistent. Han dodged crew too confused to notice him and reached a tech station in a wide area of the passageway. He hoped to hell that even in a Sith Lord's ship such an elemental bit of information as where the prisoners were kept wasn't password protected. He keyed in a request for the location of the detention area, thinking that if it asked him for clearance he was going to blast it. It didn't. The screen came up with a schematic map of the ship, with a blinking red cursor two decks down and near the elevators.

Han took off at a dead run. They were almost home free. Almost.

***

The young Sith collapsed over the console, his neck neatly broken, and Emil Arandu reached over him to flip the alarm system off. That was unfortunate, he thought. I would have liked more time. Another Sith rushed him and Arandu parried his sabre away and sliced the man in half.

After that, the corridor was empty. There was no longer any need for concealment, and he took the opportunity to send a thought out past the metal skin of the Adarin ship to reach Kitar. Child, tell Corin to start the attack.

He waited until he was sure of her response, then continued his way deeper into the ship. A few seconds later a muffled explosion echoed down through the corridors. Obviously Han Solo was creating his own distractions.

Arandu was aware he was breathing hard. Reaching the ship unseen past the lights and the Imperial troops had been more difficult than he'd expected, and a constant draw on the Dark Side for power was sometimes too much for flesh and blood to tolerate. He had a sudden unpleasant recollection of Lord Karadon reaching too deeply into the Force for too long and having a heart attack in the middle of the Battle of Tion.

If that happened to him, then it happened. He had gone too far to turn back, even if he had wanted to.

Lan Adarin had never taken the formal oath of a Jedi Knight. He had joined the Order only a few days before the purge, and he had had little of the formal Jedi training. His control had always been poor, but he had a strong affinity for the Dark Side, and he was younger than Arandu.

Arandu sensed the other Sith Lord somewhere up ahead. Adarin was coming towards him now.

He reached a wide deserted corridor and stopped to wait. This was a good place. The sounds of battle had begun to echo up from below, from the direction of the hatch. It would keep the others occupied while they settled their differences.

The hatch at the other end of the passageway cycled and Adarin stepped through. He said, "You should have run, Emil. I've waited so long for this."

Overconfidence, Lan, who taught you that? "You're a fool. You should have fought me openly, I could have respected you for that. I might even have allowed you to survive it."

"I was satisfied with my way, old man."

"You admit you hired Fett to attack my home?"

"Admit it? I revel in it."

"Very well. Now we will see if you can get away with it." Arandu drew his lightsabre, and went deeper into the Dark than he ever had before.

***

The elevator opened directly into the wardroom of the detention area. Han knew he was doing this the hard way but he didn't have time to think of anything clever.

As the elevator door slid open the first guard died instantly from a double blast of the Corellian's rifle. Han dived and rolled, coming up in the shelter of a console and snapping off a second shot at the next moving target. He had no idea how many troopers were in the room.

The guard dropped, and a sudden sting of pain made Han realize his opponent had gotten off at least one return shot. There was a painful burn across his upper left arm made by the nimbus of a near-miss blaster bolt, and it would soon stop tingling and settle down to hurt like hell. Han hesitated, looking around cautiously. He couldn't hear anything over the damn sirens. Can't they turn those things off? Don't they know people are trying to stay alive down here...

There was no one else in the wardroom. He got to his feet and reached the guardstation, grabbed the codekey out of its slot and then started down the hall past the detention cells. The doors were barred with an opaque fusion-bonded material instead of being sealed with huge slabs of metal as in newer Imperial craft.

There was a shout from one of the cells ahead.

"Han!"

Luke looked the worse for wear but he was standing up and he was alive. "Chewie here?" Han asked.

"Yes, he's still groggy, but he's all right. They used heavy stun on him, and... I'm sure glad you're here."

"So am I." Han started to slide the codekey into the lock. He couldn't believe they were actually going to make it.

Luke's shouted warning was almost in time.

Han stepped away from the door and felt a hammer blow strike his back. He hit the deck hard, unable to catch himself. His entire right side was numb and he felt like he'd had a stroke. He'd been caught in the edge of a widely dispersed stun blast.

He heard the roar of an enraged Wookiee, and managed to turn his head. Coming towards him down the corridor of cells was Barris.

The torturer said, "You see, I know you're really not working for Arandu, so you had to have another reason for coming to the meeting."

Straining against the dead weight of his own body, Han moved his left arm enough to lever himself up a little. It was as far as he could get. He had landed with much of his weight on his left knee, and it felt like it was on fire. The blast had not been very strong. Barris wanted him crippled, not unconscious, and it would begin to wear off in a few moments. He didn't have a few moments.

Barris dropped the stunner. He had come prepared this time. He wore a blaster in a side holster and had a disrupter rifle slung over one shoulder. He drew the blaster and carefully set it to low power, with a constant, narrow beam, making sure Han could see what he was doing.

Chewbacca had shouldered Luke aside and was holding the bars, his powerful muscles standing out beneath his fur. He was panting, his eyes were pinpoints of charcoal, and he looked completely enraged, incapable of rational thought. Luke Skywalker leaned back against the wall of the cell, and reached for the Force as he never had before, but the dark side surrounded him. The light wouldn't answer his call, and he slammed a fist against the wall in angry frustration.

The pain in Han's ribs told him he had fallen on the rifle, but it lay under his right arm and he couldn't move it. Barris stopped, looked at Chewbacca, and disregarded him as an animal. He smiled, the scar on his face distorting the expression into a grimace, and took another step towards Han.

Chewbacca's long arm shot out between the bars. Barris was too far for him to reach but one of the Wookiee's blunt claws hooked his blaster and sent it spinning away down the corridor. Barris turned toward Chewbacca, bringing the disrupter to bear on him.

Han used all the strength he had left and rolled onto his back, grabbed the rifle left-handed and fired.

It wasn't a clean shot. The blast struck Barris in the legs and smashed him back against the wall. He slid to the floor in a heap, and the smell of charred flesh filled the corridor.

Han slowly levered himself up and crawled back toward the cell door. The effect of the stun blast was fading but his knee felt like hot coals had been buried beneath the skin.

He reached the wall and had to rest. Chewbacca put a rough, hairy paw through the bars and patted him on the head.

"How's it going?" Luke asked softly, kneeling on the other side of the door.

"Oh, fine," Han answered. He looked back up at Chewie. "The crazy act always gets 'em, huh? Gods, you're stupid. Are you trying to get killed?"

The big Wookiee chuckled.

Luke shook his head in relief and glanced back at their two fellow prisoners. Both Sith had retired to a corner of the cell when Chewbacca, who hadn't appeared to be that big until he stood up, had become conscious. They were Imperials, but killing them in cold blood was not something he cared for. "We'll let you out," he said, "But don't come after us, or try anything. Understand?"

Dunstan opened his mouth. Vandien put an elbow in his ribs and said softly, "You've got it."

Holding on to the bars, Han was able to stand up. He found the codekey again, and put it into the slot.

The bars slid up. Chewbacca and Luke were out of the cell, the Wookiee immediately going to collect Barris' weapons. Two other people ducked out past them and ran down the corridor.

Leaning against the wall, Han asked, "Who the hell was that?"

"It's a long story," Luke said, taking the blaster Chewbacca handed him.

"Tell me in the Falcon." Han started to limp down the corridor.

***

Vandien and Dunstan waited up one of the other corridors while the rebels searched for their own weapons in the wardroom. The Jedi, of course, had to recover his lightsabre. When they had gone, Vandien asked, "Now what are you talking about?"

"We got caught, you idiot. Do you want to end up as designated target in sabre practice?"

"No."

"Then we have to come back with something."

"Like what?"

"Barris was burned very badly," Dunstan explained. "But he's not dead."

***

Arandu twirled his sabre and Adarin's weapon went flying. Before Adarin could reach it Arandu called the sabre to him and smashed it against the bulkhead. They faced each other. Arandu had lost track of the time they had been fighting. It could have been forever. His sabre drew circular patterns in the air near Adarin's face. The younger man was breathing hard now, and sweat matted his hair. He said, "If you stop this now, and..."

"Let you live." Arandu supplied the words carefully.

Adarin hesitated, eyes narrowing. It was hard, but he was a desperate man. "Let me live, and I'll tell you what happened to the woman."

"What?"

"Your word on it, Emil. Give me your word on it. I know your precious honor. But as the Dark Lord's pet, you can afford honor."

Slowly, slowly, Arandu eased away from him. "You have my word," he said softly.

"She's not dead, Emil. I took her and her child to use against you. I told her the girl was dead, and then I had her taken to Ashtar, but of course the idiots let her escape. She took that damn blockade runner of yours..."

"You're lying. Heart of Darkness was destroyed, I found the ion trail..."

"Faked. My men were never able to break the codes on the ignition system and I had it lifted by tractor beam, but you knew it wasn't just the ship I was after. I wanted to keep Sanja for a few years and then surprise you with her. And perhaps even sell you back the child alive."

"Is this the truth?"

"You know it is."

"Good." Arandu thrust the lightsabre in through Adarin's sternum. He watched the other man's eyes dilate with shock and said, "I'd hate to think you died a liar." He twisted the sabre once to make sure the spine was destroyed, then brought it up laterally and flicked it off as Adarin's corpse hit the floor.

You were a great fool, Lan. A very great fool. You know enough to call me the Dark Lord's pet, yet you have spoken in secret to the Emperor and believed I could let you live. Arandu started back toward the main hatch; there was one matter left to attend to.

***

"You did what?"

"What else was I supposed to do?" Han's voice was a tense, annoyed whisper. He was leaning back against a bulkhead and looking cautiously around the corner. The corridor ahead was clear. He could feel a vibration in the metal of the bulkhead, telling him the ship was still live. That meant the attackers hadn't reached engineering yet, and would be busy for awhile. "You wanted to stay here?"

"Not really, but you're still out of your mind to try something like this." Chewbacca seconded Luke's opinion with a low emphatic growl.

"You're welcome. Sit on your butts in a cell for a few hours and suddenly everybody's a critic." Han limped around the corner and down the corridor, Luke and Chewbacca close behind him. The Corellian knew he was slowing the others down, and that wasn't improving his temper any.

The lower corridors of the ship were in chaos. The three rebels had met few crewmen and no Sith or stormtroopers. From the sound of firing in the upper decks, the Sith were otherwise occupied.

Han recognized the passage that approached the main hatch and said softly, "This is it. Watch your backs."

The hatch had been blasted open early in the battle. The ramp had been broken off and lay in a twisted wreck, and the edges of the lock had been melted into slag.

There were bodies on the blast-scarred station floor: stormtroopers, Imperial officers, and black-clothed figures. There was still firing in the galleries where Adarin's men had tried to retreat. Leaning out of the hatch Han could see three Sith chasing another up the catwalks. They were fast and extraordinarily agile, swinging and leaping on the narrow metal bars like acrobats. It looked like a game. Maybe it is, Han thought. And murder just happens to be part of it.

"Why are they killing the other Imperials like this?" Luke asked, looking around in disgust.

Witnesses whose word might be taken under Imperial law... "They might have talked, and somebody might have believed them," Han said.

Down the dock, one of the ports began to cycle, its red and yellow warning lights flashing.

To avoid putting weight on his bad leg and falling on his face, Han caught hold of a stanchion and swung down from the hatch. Luke leapt down after him. "The Falcon?" he asked.

"The lady has good timing."

They started down the dock at the fastest pace Han could make. Chewbacca ranged ahead, scouting for trouble, but he kept throwing glances back over his shoulder at Han. The Corellian wanted to yell at him to pay attention to their surroundings, but he knew the Wookiee could tell how much pain he was in by the smell of his sweat. The Falcon seemed miles away, and the cavernous dock made him feel exposed and vulnerable. They were a little more than halfway there when suddenly Luke gasped a warning and shoved Han to the ground. The Corellian heard the report of a powerful blast-rifle as they landed in a heap on the deck. An energy bolt splashed against the plates a few bare inches away from them. Chewbacca whirled into a half crouch, levelling his bowcaster.

The familiar, mechanical voice said, "Drop it or they're dead." Boba Fett was moving towards them slowly. He'd been concealed behind a stack of packing crates and his rifle was carefully aimed at Han and Luke. Dammit, at this distance he'll get both of us, Han thought. His mind was racing, searching for a way out. Chewbacca growled deep in his throat, but slowly lowered the bowcaster to the deck.

"Very good. Now back away."

The Wookiee reluctantly complied.

"You two push your guns away."

Luke and Han exchanged a look. Luke started to get up and Fett's weapon twitched. "Don't move. I like you where you are."

The young Jedi stopped, waiting. His lightsabre could block the energy bolt and give them time to act, if he could draw it before the hunter fired. Han braced himself to move. He knew Luke would take the chance.

Fett was impatient. "I said..." He abruptly halted, his helmet jerking away. Almost involuntarily Han followed his gaze.

Lord Emil Arandu was standing only a few meters away. His gauntlets were covered with blood and he was fastidiously stripping them off and dropping them on the deck. He affected not to notice the hunter.

Fett fell back a step, another, then bolted for the shelter of the galleries.

Arandu didn't follow.

Another piece of the puzzle slipped into place for Han as Luke helped him stand. Arandu had known Adarin would be at the Artash Gamble. He had been prepared for the confrontation that had taken Adarin by surprise.

There was a click as Luke snapped his sabre free from his belt and Han grabbed his wrist. Some other time, Kid, but not now...

Arandu appeared to see the young Jedi for the first time. The Sith Lord stood quite still, resembling something between a statue and a thermal detonator about to explode.

Han said quickly, "So you got to Fett. Did you keep him entertained until you let him go?"

"His mind is uncomplicated. He is only a predator, after all." The Sith Lord smiled, an acknowledgement that there were superior predators. "It was important that there be no warning to Adarin. But I did leave a few subconscious suggestions."

"Adarin's dead?"

"I will report to Lord Vader that he met with an accident."

Luke hadn't moved. Han hadn't realized until this moment how much Luke trusted him and the knowledge made him uneasy. He said, "You gave your word you wouldn't try to stop us." He had a sinking feeling that he had made a major miscalculation somewhere.

"I recall it. But I need to speak to you again." The pause was calculated. "On my ship."

"No," Luke's voice grated. "I don't think so." The young Jedi was holding his temper in check with a self control learned late in his young life, but there was no way he was going to let Han be taken anywhere.

"We'll talk here," the Corellian said, and let go of Luke's arm.

Arandu looked at Luke a moment. The Jedi's threat was implicit yet the Sith Lord did not appear worried. He took a casual step towards them and ignored the rumbling growl from Chewbacca. He said, "Very well. I have an offer for you."

"The answer is no." What the hell can he want now? Fifty or so meters away the Falcon was coming in to dock, metal steaming, the hum of antigravs echoing against the bulkheads.

"It is an offer of employment. Long term employment."

"The answer is still no." Arandu had been more interested in him than he'd thought. Hell, Solo, you did too good a job with Adarin and Barris. Of course Arandu wants you working for him. The prospect was slightly less attractive than ending up as convict labor on Kessel.

"Reconsider. There is little future in rebellion, and little use in pursuing it. I speak from experience."

"Your concern is touching but I think I'll take my chances."

Luke said, "We're leaving now."

Arandu was regarding the young Jedi again. Though the Sith Lord had to be exhausted after infiltrating the Imperial ship and killing Adarin, he had years more training and experience than Luke. But you know, Han thought deliberately, knowing Arandu would sense his intention, the first second the kid distracts you I'll blow your head off. And if I don't get you Chewie will.

Arandu appeared genuinely amused, and if he was hiding his anger he was doing it well. He said, "I see."

There was a shout from the direction of Adarin's ship. Arandu looked that way intently for a moment, and the three rebels took the opportunity to start backing toward the Falcon. Arandu turned back to Han for a moment and said, "We will discuss this later, Han. Try not to get yourself killed in the meantime," and he started back toward the wrecked Imperial ship.

They reached the Falcon safely.

The hatch snapped shut and the ship lurched as the antigravs propelled it toward freedom. Han slid down the bulkhead to sit on the deck, hoping the ramp had had time to retract.

Chewbacca leaned over him to help him up but the Corellian shook his head. "Get up there and coordinate the jump for her. Make sure she doesn't run into anything solid."

As his partner headed for the cockpit, Han leaned his head back against the bulkhead and closed his eyes. As the adrenaline rush faded, all the little bruises and burns he had been able to ignore began to make themselves known, and the pain in his knee was truly incredible. He wanted a shower, he wanted to sleep, he wanted someone to amputate his leg. But at least I have job security, he thought sardonically. It was an axiom that you couldn't meet a Sith Lord under any circumstances and walk away unscathed.

He had no idea what Luke was going to say to him.

The Jedi sat down against the opposite bulkhead. He was still trembling, a reaction to the intense, unaccustomed anger that the confrontation with the Sith Lord had stirred in him. But Luke pushed the uncomfortable thoughts away, smiled tiredly and said, "We can't take you anywhere, can we?"

The Corellian chuckled. "Little old me."

"You want to tell me about it?"

"Sure. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away..."

"Funny. Very funny."

***

In the Imperator's retiring room Emil Arandu stood in front of a holoportrait of his last and dearest wife. She was a young woman, but she was not particularly beautiful. Her face had too much character for conventional standards of beauty on the inner worlds. It was a face that had seen much of life in a very short time, and had made difficult choices. It was also a face with a very definite Corellian cast to the features.

The door slid open behind him and Kitar entered, flushed with excitement and exhaustion. "Barris is ready to talk," she said.

"Pity." Despite the terrible extent of his wounds, Barris had been difficult at first, but the session hadn't lasted nearly as long as Arandu would have liked. "What has he said so far?"

"He really doesn't know if m'lady Sanja was killed or not. It's difficult to believe, since it's so at odds with everything they've told us before, but I went very deep and I couldn't find anything to contradict it. But..." Her smile was triumphant, and he knew what she was going to say. "Her daughter is definitely alive. She was put into stasis so she couldn't be found through the Force. It felt like death, but it was only a variation of coldsleep."

"Very good," Lord Arandu said, "Now find out where. And child, take your time."

End

Rate this story!

(with 10 being best)
© 1998-2002 Dragon's Library maintained by Ulrike Großmann