Dragon's LibraryGhost Ships
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 Bright Center of the Universe #2 1993.

***

PART I: SECTOR 3478.29, VECTOR 01859, LEAVING THE COMMERCIAL SPACE HUB ARTASH GAMBLE

The Millennium Falcon accelerated and broke the bonds of speed and time, disappearing as if she had never existed.

Luke Skywalker helped a protesting Han Solo down the corridor and into the Corellian's cabin. "Dammit, Kid, I'm fine. Leave me alone."

"Yeah, right." Luke let him down on the bunk and said, "Stay put while I get the medipack."

Han grabbed the edge of the bunk and watched the cabin do a long slow spin. He didn't need an admonishment to stay anywhere. He undid the buckle and tiedown on his gunbelt, pulling it off and draping it over the hook attached to the upper bunk.

His pantsleg had torn open when he'd injured his knee, so he widened the hole in the fabric and examined the injured area. His knee was swollen and bruised almost black and generally looked like hell. He winced and let himself fall back on the bunk. They had been caught in the middle of a pitched battle between two rival Sith Lords, and had escaped intact if not unhurt. It can't get much worse than that, Han thought. I hope.

Out in the corridor he could hear Luke asking about Wedge. He closed his eyes a moment and when he opened them again the young Jedi was standing over him worriedly fishing through the contents of one of the Falcon's medipacks. "So how's Antilles?" Han asked.

"Not too good. He's still unconscious." Luke sat on the bunk beside him. "I'm going to put synthflesh on that burn."

Han had almost forgotten about that. He winced as Luke applied the chilly stuff to the reddened and blistered skin on his upper arm. The young Jedi was more than a little the worse for wear himself. Han asked quietly, "You okay?"

"Huh? Oh, I'm fine. I'm tired." At Han's skeptical expression, Luke said, "They didn't have time to do anything to me. They were too busy worrying about you."

Han shook his head wearily. "Wasn't me they were worrying about."

Luke let that go without comment. There were some elements of their escape that he was none too comfortable with. He finished with the synthflesh and picked up the medipack again. "I don't think Chewie remembers much of what happened. They stunned him pretty bad, and he was out most of the time we were in the cell."

Princess Leia appeared in the doorway. She was dressed in a plain brown spacer's outfit, with hair escaping her coronet of braids in handfuls. There were pronounced circles of weariness under her eyes. She looked as tired and worn as Han felt. "How is he?" she asked.

"I'm fine," Han told her.

"No, he's not," Luke disagreed.

"He's lying."

Ignoring Han, Leia asked Luke, "Isn't there anything in the medipack for muscle regeneration?"

"There's this bacta kit but the instruction module is missing."

"Damn secondhand supplies." The princess moved to look over his shoulder. "Isn't there a dosage chart?"

As Luke shook his head, Han took Leia's hand. The usually carefully tended nails had been bitten to the quick. "Nervous about something, your holiness?"

Exasperated, Leia recaptured her hand and took the kit from Luke. There was a compact diagnostic scanner, vials of various hibernating bacta colonies and hypos to apply them. She shook her head slowly. "It looks like what we need, but I've never used one before. I'd be afraid to try it without at least a dosage chart. Han?"

"Never needed it before."

"I know how to use it." Tully Sander was standing in the hatchway. She glanced briefly around the comfortably messy cabin. She had short reddish hair and was a tomboyish figure in a bulky grey astromech's coverall. Her wide-set blue eyes were hard to read. She said, "We didn't have meddroids where I lived. I trained as a med tech."

Han met Leia's worried gaze. They both knew he and Tully didn't exactly get along. Sander had all but accused him of being an Imperial collaborator. Han knew he would rather crawl into the gunwell to die in peace than play doctor with her.

The problem was that he didn't realistically expect to die anytime soon.

It was still a long trip to the fleet rendezvous point. Han knew the depleted supply of pain killers would barely be enough for Antilles, who had a blaster burn that had seared his leg to the bone. He rubbed his face tiredly and said, "Sure. Who wants to live forever."

Luke, who hadn't been around to pick up on the byplay, gave him an odd look before relinquishing his place to Sander.

As Luke and Leia left the cabin, Han thought about how much he hated feeling vulnerable. He also thought about how much he hated being touched by someone he didn't like and didn't trust.

Sander had opened the kit and was carefully examining the contents. She said, "You don't have to look at me like that. If you hadn't lost the instruction module we wouldn't have to endure each other."

I'm glad the sentiment is mutual, Han thought. "I didn't expect to have to equip a field hospital." Actually this was nothing new for the Corellian. In most of the medcenters he'd been treated in, you had to refuse all medication and have a drawn blaster on the meddroids to avoid being conscripted into an experimental laboratory or an organ bank.

She slipped the diagnostic scanner over one hand and carefully ran it over the abused tissue. Han fixed his eyes on the underside of the upper bunk and started thinking through the equations for power allotment to the hyperdrive. It was made worse by the fact that he could tell she wasn't being intentionally ungentle. When she finished he sighed a little louder than he meant to and she glanced up at him, brief sympathy in her expression. "It's all right," he told her. "I love it. I'm a masochist."

Sander selected a hypo and filled it from one of the canisters of bacta colonies. As she carefully sent a mild electric pulse through the bacta to wake them, Han noticed the Princess had stopped in the doorway again. She was frowning with concern. That reminded him of the explanations he owed her and Luke. Damn, but he didn't want to talk about it.

Deadpan, Han said to Tully, "If you make a mistake, my copilot will eat you."

Sander looked back at him, equally without expression.

One corner of Leia's mouth twitched involuntarily. She pressed her lips together and stared determinedly at the bulkhead, then turned and left the cabin.

Sander used the hypo to inject the small bacta colony directly into the damaged muscles. Han winced, but the powerful local anesthetic the bacta exuded took effect almost immediately.

Tully packed up the kit. "It'll look worse before it looks better."

"I'm not worried about how it looks."

"Oh," she stared at him guilelessly. "I thought you would be." And promptly left the cabin.

Two points for you, honey, Han thought. And he had so obligingly walked into it. Well, I never said she was dumb, just stiff-necked.

Leia stepped back into the cabin, folded her arms and stared at him. She had gotten control over herself again, and her expression was somewhat frosty. Her caring for her friends occasionally expressed itself as anger, and right now she appeared to be very angry at Han. "That was the most dangerous thing you've ever done..."

"It wasn't, you know. I've done things much worse than that," he said, struggling into a sitting position.

"...and you almost got yourself killed..." Leia continued, ignoring the interruption.

"I almost get killed a lot, it's an occupational hazard."

"...which is hardly surprising since you have no sense of your own mortality..."

"Tell that to Luke, he's the one who got caught."

At that moment an unsuspecting Luke entered the cabin and dropped into the chair at the small desk with a tired sigh.

Leia favored him with a glare and continued, "You and Luke have no sense of your own mortality, and you take ludicrously, ridiculously dangerous risks..."

Luke started to protest, realized he was unable to argue the facts, and subsided. Han, who lived by the axiom that the best defense was a good offense, interrupted her with "But it's fine if you take stupid risks, right? What about Stagri IV, and the Camaran Fringe Zone, huh? What about that one? Everybody thought you'd had it that time, your worshipfullness. Dodonna was planning to hold your memorial service."

That got her attention. She snapped, "Well, Dodonna's an idiot," without thinking, then slowly turned what Han thought was a very attractive shade of pink.

The Corellian fought to keep from laughing, though he couldn't conceal the amused glint in his hazel eyes. Luke snorted.

Leia said, "For the sake of the Alliance, try to be more careful in the future." It sounded lame even to her own ears. She damned Han's uncanny ability to make her blurt out whatever was on her mind, despite common sense and years of diplomatic training. "I didn't come in here to argue."

Luke looked sharply at Han, but the Corellian just managed to control himself.

Leia continued, "I think Sander told you about the report she's planning to make when we reach the fleet."

"She mentioned something about it." At the time, Han had thought he was going to have to commit suicide to get Luke and Chewie out of Lord Adarin's ship, so he hadn't paid much attention to Sander. "And?"

"And when I try to explain to the other members of the high command exactly what did happen and why, it would be helpful if I knew what I was talking about."

"She has a point," Luke added. "And you did tell me you'd explain it." They weren't likely to get Han partially incapacitated and trapped in a confined space again anytime in the near future, so it was important to get the story out of him while they could.

"Yeah, I know," Han sighed. There didn't seem to be any help for it. "Remember Ord Mantell, when Boba Fett killed the courier I was sent to pick up and I was captured by him when I got to the rendezvous?"

"I dimly recall the occasion," Leia said dryly.

"Look, do you want to listen or do you want to be witty? I told you how I came to in the hold of Fett's ship. We were fighting, then Lord Arandu's ship locked on to Fett's and in the confusion I got away in an escape pod, right?"

"Yes." Leia nodded encouragingly.

"Well, that wasn't exactly true."

"Wait." The princess reached over and hit the release, closing the cabin hatch. "Go on."

"Fett was the one that got away in the confusion. When Arandu came on board, Fett jettisoned the main hull of the ship and escaped in the cockpit. I was still trapped in the main section."

"Oh." Leia said. She didn't quite know what to think.

"What happened then?" Luke said, leaning forward in his chair.

"When the cockpit separated from the rest of the ship, the tie fighter that Arandu came in was knocked loose, so he was trapped there..." Han reluctantly went through the rest of the story, explaining how Fett called them on a subspace frequency, gloating over the fact that the jettisoned section of the ship had a limited air supply and that he fully expected them to kill each other. They hadn't. In an attempt to lure the Hunter back to his ship, Arandu had put himself into a trance state so Fett's sensors wouldn't pick up his life readings. Instead of coming back himself, the Hunter had sent a string of Gank Killers in after them. During the struggle with the Ganks, Han had been wounded.

"You were shot? But you weren't hurt when you got back to base," Leia protested.

"Yeah, I know."

"Were you hurt badly?"

"I was shot in the gut with a needle beamer."

"So what happened?" Leia pressed, holding onto her patience with both hands. It's like trying to wring water out of a rock! Why can't he just tell us? she thought, exasperated.

"He did...something and I... wasn't shot anymore."

"Did something..?" Leia repeated, confused.

"With the Force?" Luke asked suddenly.

"You want a diagram? Yes, with the Force."

Leia looked at Luke in astonishment. "I didn't realize that was possible."

"Neither did I," Luke said. He didn't want to think about any of this, suddenly, either. It was hard to ask the next question. "But why did he do it, Han? He didn't need your help any more."

The Corellian hesitated. He had been afraid that somebody would bring that up.

"C'mon Han, just tell us. It can't be that bad," Luke persisted.

"The Gank that shot me was aiming at Arandu. It didn't know I was there."

"And..." Leia prompted.

"And I yelled 'look out.'" Han winced.

There was a short silence. Luke shook his head. "He could've killed you."

"You yelled 'look out,'" Leia repeated slowly. I don't think the rest of the high command is going to appreciate the humor in this situation, Leia thought. I'm not even sure I appreciate the humor in this situation. Well, she could handle the high command. "I know I'm going to regret asking this, but why did you do it?"

"I don't know." Han looked at her as if she was the daft one for asking the question. "I got caught up in the moment."

Leia shook her head in amazement. Han began to look argumentative so Luke interrupted quickly, "But I don't understand what happened after that. I know you two and Chewie went to Commenor to try to pick up that other courier, but how did you know you had to get to Artash Gamble to warn me when I was meeting Wedge and Tully?"

"Arandu told me that he was after Boba Fett because somebody in the Empire had hired Fett to lead a shocktroop attack on one of Arandu's strongholds. When we got to Commenor, we found out that our pal the Sith Lord Adarin was after me because he thought I was working for Arandu. Well, there was only one other person besides Leia and Rieekan who had any idea that I'd even been within parsecs of any Sith Lord, let alone Arandu. And that was Boba Fett."

"So Adarin hired Fett to attack Arandu," Luke said slowly.

Han nodded. "And Adarin had a Sith spy in the Commenor sector outpost, and he was the one who was paying Fett off with information on rebel sympathizers who have bounties on their heads, like me. That's how the whole thing got started."

Leia said thoughtfully, "But why did Adarin come to the Artash Gamble after Luke?"

"After me?" Luke looked startled.

"Yes, before we closed in on the Adarin spy in the sector outpost, he sent a transmission with your name and the location of your meeting with Wedge and Tully," Leia explained.

"Adarin came after me specifically?" Luke frowned. "I don't get it. Why would he do that?"

"Beats me," Han said. "But he was dumb enough to call Fett in to help him, and Arandu had already caught up with Fett."

"He must have known you had some Jedi training." Leia got to her feet. "But Adarin's dead now, so that's the end of it."

Luke looked at Han and started to say something. The Corellian gave him a look that should have made his friend fall dead onto the cabin floor.

Leia, who had been rubbing her tired eyes, missed the moment. She said, "I'm going back up to the cockpit to see if Chewie needs any help, then I'll check on Wedge. You two should get some rest."

"I think that's pretty funny coming from a woman who's been awake for the past three days," Han pointed out.

"I'll worry about that later."

When the princess was gone, Luke said, "You should have told her what Arandu said to you before we got away."

Before they had left the Artash Gamble, Arandu had said that there was little future in rebellion, and told Han that he had an offer of long-term employment for him. That moment had truly chilled the Corellian's blood, and it wasn't something he wanted to think about right now. It also wasn't something he wanted Leia to think about at all. "She has enough to worry about. And I mean it, kid, don't tell her."

"I won't, I won't. But I think you're wrong."

As his young friend left the cabin, Han thought, I can do enough worrying for both of us, I don't need any help with it. Not that he didn't enjoy a good fight with Leia. He and the Princess did have a certain spark to their discussions. Maybe more than a spark.

Han was a light sleeper at best and four people wandering around the small ship didn't exactly help, but he was too tired not to drift off eventually.

Several odd dreams later, Luke was shaking his shoulder. "Han, there's a problem."

***

When the alarms went off Princess Leia had raced to the cockpit and flung herself into the pilot's seat. A glance at the board told her the worst: one of the ship's computers had detected an imbalance in the hyperdrive motivator and was attempting to drop the Falcon out of hyperspace. Another computer was trying to override it. A look at the fuzzy readings from the sensors told her why. They were passing through the edge of an immense asteroid field. There's too much debris, Leia thought. No time to get out of the field completely.

She hit the sequence that allowed the manual overrides to engage and suddenly all the gauges were reading red. She activated the longrange sensors, looking for the fringe of the field where they could drop out of hyper without dangerously altering course. She barely noticed when Chewbacca appeared in the co-pilot's seat. The big Wookiee's paws flew over the controls, delicately flicking switches as he readied sublight systems. Leia bit her lip. The readings were inaccurate in hyper, and the gaps she could make out weren't nearly large enough to allow the ship to slow to a maneuverable speed. They could come out of hyper and impact on a chunk of rock before the sensors even had time to register the obstacle. Then Han reached over her shoulder and put his hand on the hyperdrive controls. "You're doing fine, your holiness. Give me a high sign about a tencount before the next big gap. It'll take us that long to drop out. Chewie, shields up as we come into realspace."

Leia nodded briefly, eyes on the sensors. Then she said, "Now." Han pulled the levers and a normal starfield phased into view. Sensor readings became clear as the ship slowed. Alarms clanged, protesting the dust and small rocks impacting on their deflectors. Chewbacca switched off the racket with a snarl. The gauges went to green as the sublight systems took over. Leia wiped sweat off her forehead and said "Your ship's computers are insane." She slid out of the pilot's seat so Han could take over.

"No, they just don't integrate too well, like some people I know."

"How long were you here?"

"Long enough. You were doing fine, your worshipfullness."

Despite the compliment, Leia felt irrationally irritated that Han and Chewbacca seemed to consider the ship's attempt to drop out of hyper and slam into an asteroid as a commonplace occurrence.

The Wookiee muttered worriedly and Han said, "Yeah, the damper's worse than we thought. It caused the drive to overcompensate and throw the motivators into imbalance. We're gonna have to pull the damper and adjust it."

Leia was looking over his shoulder at the navigation console. "We're close enough to the fleet to send a subspace message."

Han glanced at the screens. "Hell, if we'd managed to stay in hyper we'd have been there by now." He hesitated. Yelling for help wasn't a pleasant prospect, but it beat spending six hours pulling the alluvial damper. And at this distance, in this unpopulated system, a short, carefully directed message burst wouldn't be picked up by any unfriendlies. He decided to compromise. "Send the message, and I'll start on the damper just in case. Chewie, run a systems check before you come back to help."

Leia took the com console, and Han watched her long enough to be sure she knew how to send the transmission in one short burst that would be difficult to intercept. True to her upbringing, she hadn't forgotten to send it in code. She glanced up at him and asked a little stiffly, "How are you feeling?"

"Better." That was an understatement. The bruises were still there but the swelling had gone down and the pain was diminished to a minor discomfort. "Don't worry about me, Princess, I always land on my feet." I wish.

***

Luke was doing it again.

Han accepted the tool the young Jedi was handing him, glared, and said, "Will you stop reading my mind?"

Luke stared at the tool as if he'd never seen it before. "You asked me to get that."

"I did not."

Luke shrugged irritably and went back to the technical schematics. It wasn't mindreading by any stretch of the imagination, but he did get flashes of insight, usually about unimportant things. More often than not, it tended to happen around Han and Leia. "So stop thinking so loud."

They were in the compartment next to the starboard escape pod slot. The access grill on the bulkhead was down and the Falcon's interior was exposed and dangling out onto the deckplates. Luke didn't know enough about hyperwave mechanics to be much help, but he wanted to learn as much as he could. They were silent for a few moments as Han struggled with a particularly difficult connection on the motivator. "You know," the Corellian mused, "I never did teach you how to pilot the Falcon. I should've gotten around to that."

Luke said quietly, "You are thinking of leaving."

Han glanced up at him. "Uh-huh."

"Because of what Sander's going to report when we get to the fleet? She just made a mistake. Leia already explained things to her and she'll take care of it when we get back..."

"Kid, it's not like I haven't been thinking about this for a while. I've got to get Jabba off my back, one way or another. It's not money anymore with him; he wants my ass. And I've got to take care of some other things before I can deal with him. I can't run missions for Leia with bounty hunters dropping out of the ductwork."

"You know, Leia doesn't have any other friends. You, me, Chewie, the droids, we're it. Everyone else she was really close to died on Alderaan..."

"Guilt won't work." Why did I tell him, Han asked himself ruefully. With preternatural stubbornness and the persistence of a limpet, Luke would try to talk him out of it. You'd think I wanted him to talk me out of it...

Luke idly traced a grease stain on the deckplate, apparently lost in thought. Han figured that he was planning his attack. Finally the Jedi said, "But what are you going to do about Arandu?"

"Yeah, well, in light of recent events, it might be better if I moved around more."

"What do you think he wants from you?"

"I don't have any idea, and I'm going to dedicate the rest of my life to not finding out."

"It worries you, doesn't it?"

"It worries me, but I'm not going to hide in a corner in a foetal position because of it."

"What if something happened? I'd never find out in time. Dammit, I'd never even know."

Han gestured with a tool. "I've been out in the big bad world alone before, kid, and nobody's collected my scalp yet. Besides, once Arandu gets busy killing people for the Empire again, he'll forget about whatever plan he had that included me, all right?" That one didn't even reassure himself; Han was hardly surprised when it failed to reassure Luke.

"It's not okay. You're my friend, I care about you..."

"I care about you too. Want to get married?"

"...and people I care about don't tend to live very long." Luke hesitated. He hadn't quite meant to say that.

Han pulled his head out of the Falcon's innards and looked at Luke seriously. "What do you mean by that?"

Luke shook his head. "It's nothing. I didn't mean anything. And you're just trying to distract me from..."

Han leaned back against the wall and tossed the tool into the box. "Luke, what happened on Tatooine, and Kenobi and Darklighter, that didn't happen because of you, that happened in spite of you."

Luke nodded. "I know. I believe that."

"You do, huh? You're not very convincing about it."

Luke put on a good show of mock indignation. "Are you calling me a liar?"

"Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?"

"Tell Chewie. Anyway, that's not what we were talking about."

"What were we talking about?"

"Han..."

"All right, all right. I told you about Jabba..."

"Can't you let us help you? Or at least come back afterwards and let us know what happened..."

"I'm not sure I'd want to. Sander's made some accusations that are going to make people wonder, and I can guess that Imperial collaboration is a sensitive subject to knock around the rebel fleet."

"You're paranoid."

"Yeah, but I keep it under control with medication."

"If you leave when we get back to the Tantavie IV, you'll look guilty, no matter what Leia tells the council."

"If I was guilty I wouldn't go there at all. I'd dump the lot of you out the airlock and go my merry way. Unless I wanted to bluff it out which, I'll admit, doesn't make a lot of sense for an agent who's already been targeted. Too easy to get tripped up. But it is a possibility."

"Still, it would look better if you stayed awhile. We could use your help when the new base is finished."

Han shook his head. He'd thought this through a hundred times. Rebellion wasn't a hobby for a working Corellian smuggler who had a growing Wookiee and a starship with a frantic maintenance schedule to support. He and Chewie were continually risking everything and then some for no more than what they could scrounge from the Reb supply dumps. But with this problem with Jabba, he'd have to set up all new contacts before he could get a decent high-paying spice run again. He knew who to go to, but those things took time. And leaving now stunk of unfinished business. There was also the intriguing and thoroughly confusing problem of the Princess to consider. "All right, I'll stay until this thing blows over," he said finally, adding to himself if it does.

"Good." Luke said, and handed Han the hydrospanner he hadn't asked for yet.

***

INTERLUDE: IMPERIAL CENTER

"You're certain it was him?"

"Yes."

Darth Vader looked away from the transparisteel port and the panoramic view of the SD Defender, the largest of the orbital platforms of Imperial Center. "It changes nothing."

"Then you'll let the Emperor have him?" Emil Arandu let a little of his vast store of impatience creep into his tone. It was more than enough to make his point.

Vader's hands tightened on the railing, denting the corundum alloy. The catwalk the two stood on and the vast chamber of the station's receiving area below were empty, quiet except for the hiss of the ventilation system, the hum of machinery. "Never."

"Then what? That idiot Adarin wasn't terrorizing a civilian space station for the joy of it. His operative in the Alliance targeted the boy for him, and young Skywalker was a prisoner on Adarin's ship. If he hadn't escaped he would be at the Emperor's mercy this instant and you would be dead, my old friend, a discarded tool."

"What would you have me do?"

"Complete the second half of our original plan. Finish what was started twenty years ago. Kill Palpatine."

"It is not yet time. You have waited this long, you will wait a little longer."

There was a moment of silence, of decision. Then Arandu said quietly, "Twenty years ago, when we expressed our disgust over the actions of certain members of the Jedi, and the leadership that allowed us to become political pawns of the Republic, Kenobi told us to wait, to be patient, to let the problem solve itself. We grew tired of waiting."

Vader's helmet faced toward the port, and the starfield. "What are you telling me?"

"I grow tired of waiting."

***

PART II: SECTOR 5786.99, VECTOR 02054, THREE MONTHS LATER.

The Millennium Falcon dropped out of hyperspace into a trap.

A burst of energy impacted on the ship's starboard quad, punching a hole through the deflector and overpowering the shield generator for that quarter. Han swore and hit the emergency signal on the comm, then brought the sublight engines back online to fight the ship's uncontrolled tumble. Chewbacca was howling his distress at the top of his lungs and his big hairy hands flew over the controls as he tried to regain some control over the ship.

Han glanced at the data beginning to scroll across the sensor outputs and thought we're dead. There was something big out there, and in the comp's considered opinion, it was much too close. Five rebel ships were following them out of hyper and there was no way to warn them until they were in realspace.

The rebel x-wings in their escort came out of hyper in the Falcon's wake. Their attacker fired again and two of the fighters blossomed into radiation stars on the sensor screens and disappeared. The third was caught in the edge of the blast and fell away, leaving a rapidly fading energy trail.

With no time to spare to think of who might be alive and who wasn't, Han felt the Falcon begin to respond and worked to turn their headlong plunge into a deceptive roll. The Alliance cutter dropped out of hyper, picked up the Falcon's signal and veered away on an evasive course. Good boy, Antilles, Han thought. But the less maneuverable shuttle appeared on the screen and was immediately caught by a proton burst that sent it spinning out of control, tumbling after the spiraling path of the damaged x-wing.

"How the hell did they know we were here?" Han raged. The starfield wheeled by outside the canopy, and trying for a visual ID was useless. Chewbacca had started the main batteries charging after the first impact, but the attacker was so huge the Falcon's guns would be unable even to tickle it. Han didn't need to know any more. He said, "Don't drop any velocity, I'm programming another jump," and unstrapped to move back to the nav seat. He hoped Wedge Antilles was doing the same. Hell, Luke's on that ship.

Chewbacca said that was fine for him but could Han hurry because he had plans for the next few years that didn't include being some Imp bastard's rug. "They'd more likely hang you on the wall," Han said over his shoulder, and the Wookiee put the ship through a hard port turn and dive, keeping the next two bursts from turning the Falcon into component particles.

The third burst took the Falcon in the now unprotected starboard quad.

The compensators kicked out for a second and Han was knocked out of the navseat and slammed down into the deck plates. He pushed himself up off the deck in time to see half the boards in the cockpit go dark. Chewie howled as if he'd been mortally wounded and Han pulled himself back into the pilot's seat. From the readouts that were left, he knew they were tumbling again, out of control. Comm was out, sensors were out, the engines shutting down from overload. Blind, deaf, and helpless, Han thought. This is not the way I wanted to go.

"Go back to auxiliary systems, try to get us some power for the main weapons." His partner looked down at him. Han said, "Don't say goodbye, Gruesome, we're not dead yet."

Chewbacca tore himself out of his seat and went aft, and Han broke open the tool locker and started ripping up panels, trying to patch power into dead systems. When he bothered to look up star orientation told him their tumble was slowing, but that only meant less trouble locking a tractor on to the defenseless freighter.

Han stood to reach the heads-up panel and another concussion threw him sideways and into the comm console. He struggled to get to his feet, ignoring the pain of bruised ribs. Through the canopy the starfield was deceptively stationary. Their tractor had the Falcon, and now he could see them.

Feeling like a small furry animal trapped in the headlights of an oncoming ground transport, the Corellian saw the long, long triangular shadow out there, light from the system primary picking out the distinctive flattened plane, the aft control castle... It was a Star Destroyer. There had been a small rebel outpost in this system. Not anymore, he thought.

Then Han realized he couldn't hear Chewie banging around in the hold anymore and turned. The cockpit hatch had sealed itself.

Oh, no. Not Chewie. Not like this. He kept working, fed power from what was left of the sensors into the internal systems monitor.

The rest of the ship still had atmosphere, and lifesupport was still functioning, but pressure had dropped 25%, triggering the hatch-seal. The Falcon's outer skin must have been breached and, because Luck was ignoring them today, ruptured one of the air system's conduits. But pressure had stabilized at the lower level, meaning the self-sealing air system Han had paid a fortune for and spent days planetside installing was paying him back for his trouble in triplicate.

It meant his partner was still alive back there.

He set the hatch back to manual and forced it open, his ears popping as the cockpit pressure equalized. The companionway was choked with smoke, lights fluctuating to half-strength, and circuits sparking in the wiring overhead. He was too worried about Chewbacca to care what they'd done to his ship; that would come later, if he had a later.

The bulkhead doors around the central core had dropped as well and Han lost more time forcing the one at the end of the companionway.

He found Chewie slumped over the engineering station in the repair bay. The Wookiee was alive but unconscious, and there was blood matting the hair around his ears. Wookiees were more sensitive to pressure changes than most species and the drop had been abrupt.

Han snagged a breather off the nearby rack and got it on his copilot. He didn't remember he needed one too until the constriction in his chest started to bother him. He eased the Wookiee back in the chair and lifted his eyelids. The pupils were dilating, but he didn't show any sign of returning consciousness.

The ship shuddered one more time, and Han felt a low-frequency vibration travel through the hull. They were being pulled into the Destroyer's hanger.

Han looked down at the engineering station. The patchboards for the hyperdrive were dark; the larger ship had a damper on the Falcon's main systems to drain power, so he couldn't fire the drive inside the Destroyer's bay. Likewise the quad guns and the light cannon.

Standing there listening, Han realized he had one hand knotted in the long fur on Chewie's shoulder. He let go and smoothed it down. The Wookiee rumbled deep in his chest without waking.

It was too bad. This wasn't the way Chewbacca would've wanted to go. I'll have to pay the life debts for both of us.

He left Chewie there, and went to open one of the storage lockers. If he'd had a proton grenade he could have dropped it into the power core, but at least there was a bandolier of concussion grenades to make things uncomfortable for the unwelcome guests he was about to have. He slung it over his shoulder, and put a fresh energy pack in the Kell Mark III blast rifle.

Han forced the bulkhead into the empty hold and let it seal behind him, then cut the lights so the only illumination came from the emergency strips overhead. Then he opened the hatch in the opposite wall and jammed the controls so he'd have a clear view of the entry ramp.

He could hear them opening the main hatch. It sounded like they were using a code breaker to unlock it, instead of simply blasting it open. He wondered why, but the answer didn't immediately come to mind.

Leaning in the open cargo hatch Han pulled the first concussion grenade off the bandolier. He heard the outer door slide open and the lock cycle, and the smell of another ship's air mix drifted down the entryway. He armed the grenade for 10 seconds.

At 6 seconds the first helmet peeked around the corner. Han tossed the grenade and ducked back into the hold.

The boom was muffled; the concussive explosives were meant for close quarters, boarding actions and structure fighting. It wouldn't damage the bulkheads but it would play hell with people, even armored people. What worried Han most was the helmet he'd caught a glimpse of. It had unpleasantly resembled a shocktrooper's hat instead of the stormtrooper's he'd expected. Shocktroops weren't standard equipment, even on Star Destroyers; they were special units. Then Han shook his head, irritably dismissing the question. We'll be just as dead. He armed the second grenade for 5 seconds and tossed it without silhouetting himself in the hatch.

After it blew, energy bolts splashed against the far wall of the bay. The Corellian winced. The carbon scoring would never come off.

He armed the third grenade for 3 seconds and tossed it. The energy bolts resumed right after the blast. Damn, but there's a lot of them.

The first trooper came in with a dive and roll. It was a shocktrooper. Han fired two short bursts knocking the shocker back into the bulkhead he'd been decorating with blast scars, then armed and tossed the fourth grenade.

It didn't go off. By the time he realized it he was already moving back, but two more shockers were through the hatch and more behind them. Han braced the blast rifle against his hip and kept firing, waiting for the bolt that would cut him in half. Two of them dropped, another one, then something flashed besides blaster fire in the dark hold.

Then Han was sprawled on his back on the deck plates, staring at the arch of the cargo bay's ceiling, tasting blood.

A shocker with sergeant's color tabs on the breastplate of his armor leaned over him. Han had lost the breath mask and his blastrifle was gone; he tried to draw his pistol and his arm only twitched. The shocker jerked the bandolier off his shoulder and tossed it aside, then unsnapped the buckle of his gunbelt and dragged it off.

Two more shockers yanked him to his feet and shoved him face first into the bulkhead. Another one pressed the nozzle of a blast rifle against his temple and they started to search him. The Corellian gritted his teeth and opted not to express his resentment of this process.

His ears were still ringing but the shock was wearing off. The sergeant said, "Put your hands behind your head and turn around."

He did. They led him out of the hold, past more dead shockers, and down the ramp. Outside was the big metal cavern of a Victory- Class Ship-of-the-Line's hangar. There were small ship bays on all three levels, and six shuttles in docking clamps and a full squad of TIEs in launching racks overhead. The Falcon was in a docking clamp suspended above the magnetic field-sealed port, her ramp stretching down to touch the deck. The damaged x-wing hung in another clamp. It was missing two engines and the starboard side was burned black with the force of the blast that had destroyed its two wingmates. The pilot lay crumpled and unmoving on the deck, face still obscured by his helmet, one side of his flightsuit singed.

They took Han to about the center of the hanger, under the windows of the gantry office above. The sergeant, who was apparently the only one who knew how to talk, said, "Stop here."

Han stopped. Then the sergeant said, "On your knees."

Han decided to pass on that one. The shocker on his left was standing a little too close. Han tackled him and grabbed his rifle, swinging him around so he was blocking the others' fire field. The two struggled for the gun but Han realized almost immediately he wasn't going to win. The shocker armor was power-augmented and Han wasn't nearly as healthy as he used to be. The others were moving to get behind him, and he shoved the nozzle of the rifle up under the struggling shocker's helmet and triggered it. It made a terrible mess.

He didn't have a chance to shoot anyone else. The stock of a blast rifle between his shoulder blades knocked him flat, and one of them kicked him solidly in the ribs when he rolled over. Han looked up to see a shocker bringing a blastrifle to bear on him. Then the man staggered, hit by a narrow energy bolt that glanced harmlessly off his armor. Someone was yelling "Stun only, stun only!" and there was the characteristic whine of a stunner blast. The sergeant knocked the homicidal shocker's blastrifle up, snarling, "Not yet, you idiot."

Han looked around to see who had temporarily saved his life.

The x-wing pilot was laying stunned on the deck, a palmgun near her outstretched right hand. She had pulled her helmet off and it rolled free next to her. It was Tully Sander. The shockers had missed the tiny gun, if they had bothered to search her at all. They must have thought her almost dead, but her tough flight suit had protected her from energy burns.

Han ended up on his knees, hands behind his head, surrounded by ten shockers standing off about four meters and pointing rifles at him.

This is not going to be pretty, Han thought. Shocktroops were notorious for amusing themselves with prisoners and then dumping the remnants out the nearest airlock, still twitching or not. You knew this was going to happen eventually, Solo, you knew it was only a matter of time.

The sergeant moved off and spoke into his comlink.

Eight troopers came down the ramp awkwardly carrying Chewbacca between them. They carried him into the bay and dumped him on the deck. Han winced when his head hit. Wookiees had thick knobby skulls that were not readily susceptible to injury, but he still didn't know how badly the pressure drop had hurt his co-pilot. The Wookiee lay in a big furry heap.

The sergeant moved back with the other shockers. It looked like they were going to wait. Sweat and the last dead shocker's blood was sticking the front of Han's shirt to his chest and he was starting to feel the effects of minor oxygen deprivation and being slammed into various bulkheads, decks, and consoles with pointy corners.

From here he could see what they had done to the Falcon. The starboard quarter had a dark raw blast scar that stretched almost but not quite to the lip of the drive. He could smell the scorched metal. Looking at the damage made him feel violated, but not as violated as he was going to feel when the shocktroopers got around to doing whatever it was they did to helpless Corellian ex-pirates.

"Are we waiting for anything in particular?" He asked the shockers.

The sergeant answered, "For someone who's anxious to see you," and laughed.

Very amusing, Han thought. Well, the party's over. Now Captain Han Solo and Chewbacca are history and who do I have to blame but myself. At least there wasn't an Alliance Cutter stored in any of the shuttle bays. Not yet.

The elevator from the gantry started to drop to the bay level. The officer turned toward it and a couple of the other shockers actually shifted restlessly, as if they were nervous about the new arrival. The techs who had been working on the shuttles, or around the fringes of the bay, scattered to various exits. Han began to have a very bad feeling about what was about to happen.

The elevator door opened and Emil Arandu stepped out.

Han muttered, "Oh, shit."

The shocker sergeant looked down at him, surprised. Now Han knew why they had taken him alive, and kept him alive, despite his deliberate provocation, despite Sander's valiant attempt to blow one of them away with a palmgun. A Sith Lord's implied "or else" beat being shot by a Corellian smuggler any day.

Arandu crossed the bay toward them. He was tall and strongly- built, but looked older than Han remembered him. The shockers moved out of the way as he came closer. He looked down at Han, and the Corellian looked up at him, and he said, "What are you doing with yourself these days, Han?"

"Oh, nothing much," the Corellian lied. "Really, Emil, if you wanted to talk to me, couldn't you have just put in a comm call?"

Arandu chuckled. The shockers backed off another meter or so, because seeing a Sith Lord in a good mood was like witnessing some bizarre and frightening natural disaster, like a sun going nova or a massive planetquake that made rivers run backwards. He said, "I'm only partially responsible for your being here. These aren't my shocktroops."

Han remembered Arandu had reasons not to like shocktroopers. The Sith Lord paced around behind him, and he didn't try to turn to watch him. It would have been a tactical error in the game of wills they were about to have. Arandu said, "I've watched the security tapes that were transmitted off the Death Star before it was destroyed. Why do you persist in behaving as if you're not very bright?"

Han decided he meant the episode in the corridor with the stormtroopers. He looked up at the bay ceiling and said, "Gee, I don't know." Han had never personally met an Imperial Officer who could tell his asshole from the Great Mishtaran Crater, though he understood there were a few. He knew it was because they drew their officer core from an extremely limited mainstream human gene pool in the systems near the Capitol World, which were practically joined at the hip with Imperial Center. Entrance into the officer core was obtained by political pull, not merit, and officers with command know-how but not political savvy died quickly, and no one came up through the ranks anymore. That was why you saw no nonhuman officers, and the rest all seemed to look alike compared to the wide variance in pigmentation, size, shape, and secondary characteristics of a normal mainstream human population in the well-travelled systems like Commenor or Sullust. This was one of the reasons Arandu scared the hell out of him, aside from the obvious. He was extremely intelligent, and Han suspected the Sith Lord could easily out think him.

Arandu said, "The offer I made you on the Artash Gamble is still open."

"My answer is still the same, so we can just move on to the part where one of these protozoa-brained shockers shoots me and dumps me out the airlock."

The shocker sergeant was staring at the Corellian and though his expression was anybody's guess, Han had the feeling he was doing a serious reevaluation of the situation and wondering if he had made a mistake in roughing his prisoner up. Han hoped the shocker was sweating it as much as he was.

"That isn't one of the options. And I really don't see what your objection is, Han. You've been under my protection before," Arandu said. His voice was patient and amused.

Han's arms were getting tired. "No, I have not, Emil."

Arandu moved back to where Han could see him. "Yes, you have."

"You sent me in to Adarin to keep him and Barris occupied, so they'd be too busy to pay attention to you."

"If I had done that, you would be dead."

"Well I'm not dead, for the moment, and that is what happened."

The shocktroop officer touched his comlink receiver, then cleared his throat and said, "M'lord, the Lord Tion requests your presence on the bridge."

Arandu ignored him so completely the shocker was probably left in doubt of his own existence. The Sith Lord said, "Why did you do it then? Did you become too caught up in your favorite role of ignorant spacer?"

"You know damn well why I did it." Then Han remembered why he had done it. Because Lord Adarin had taken Luke and Chewbacca prisoner, and Han had had to get them away and get them away right then, because Luke was a Jedi and there was no telling what they would do to him, and Chewie was a Wookiee with a temper and he could very well imagine what they would have done to him. And there's Chewie lying over there now, alive and unconscious and maybe badly hurt. Here with his partner at a Sith Lord's mercy again, he had as little choice now as he'd had on the Gamble. He said, "Why don't you just threaten him outright, why do you have to dance around it?"

"Because that is not the tone I want to set for this relationship."

"We're not going to have a relationship, Emil." But Han couldn't take his eyes off that heap of fur.

The shock officer cleared his throat again, and said, "M'lord, Lord Tion is again requesting..."

Arandu held up one hand and the sergeant moved hastily back. Arandu said, "He's not dying. He's in shock, apparently caused by temporary low oxygen content in the bloodstream. A restorative hypo would bring him out of it in moments." He paused, "Many lifeforms are not suited for space travel."

"He doesn't understand that," Han whispered. He didn't bother to ask how the Sith Lord could tell all this without going near Chewie. It had been brought home to him in a very personal way that Arandu was a better diagnostician than any meddroid.

"There's something else."

Han looked up at him. "You're kidding."

"I am technically not in command of this task force. Lord Tion is on his way here now, and unless you accept my protection, I won't be responsible for what happens."

"Oh, won't you?"

He ignored that. "Really, Han, it won't be pleasant. Once it becomes known who you are, you and the Wookiee will be questioned as rebel agents, by Tion, who badly needs the prestige your capture and the information you have will bring him. The rebel shuttle that was damaged in the attack has been picked up by my ship Imperator. That gives me some control over the fate of the crew. I will have to comply with Tion's wishes and transfer them onboard this ship, but I can prevent him from questioning them, and the young woman over there. If you cooperate."

Han had heard of Tion. Another Sith Lord, he thought. That's all I need. And Tion's reputation was far worse then Arandu's. "What kind of deal are we talking about here?"

"A medtech's services for the Wookiee, and he can leave now, in your ship. I can see the drives are still functional, and I assume he could effect repairs."

"Yes, he could." Damn, that's more than I was expecting. He looked over at his partner again. There was the hull breach, but Han knew it was only the outer skin, or they would have lost all the air. Chewbacca could use the auxiliary control until he got power back to the cockpit and then limp out of the system, and back to the rebel fleet for free repairs. Which is the least they can do, considering what's about to happen to me, Han thought. "What about the others, the shuttle's crew and the fighter pilot?"

"They will have to be discussed later. In the meantime, I will agree to shield them from Tion."

Later. When I'm even more desperate than I am right now. He saw Sander was conscious again, and she had sat up on one elbow to watch them. It was worth a try. The fewer hostages Arandu had the better. "Let her go with him. You don't need her if you've got the crew of the shuttle."

"No, not her. Anyone who will attempt to attack a shocktrooper armed with only a palmgun is worth further study."

Ah, hell. Too bad he couldn't see Sander's reaction to that from here. "How do I know my co-pilot doesn't get blown up as soon as the ship clears the magnetic field?"

"Details. I'll guarantee his safety out of this ship's reach." The elevator had started down from the gantry again. Arandu said, "The decision has to be made now, Han."

The words stuck in his throat for a second. "All right," he said finally.

"You accept my protection. Say it, Han."

"Okay, okay, why do you have to be so damn particular? I accept your protection."

Arandu turned back to the shocktroop officer and said, "You're dismissed." The shockers withdrew back to the bay wall.

Han stood up slowly, and stumbled over to Chewie. The shockers still guarding the Wookiee didn't try to stop him. Chewbacca was breathing hoarsely, and whining a little to himself in his sleep. Han sat down beside him and pulled his head into his lap, and looked for fresh blood around his ears. There wasn't any. Maybe he would be all right. With nothing else to do for him, Han started working the mats out of his mane, trying not to think about anything in particular.

The elevator door opened and the man who stepped out wore an Imperial High Admiral's dress uniform. That had unpleasant associations: Lord Adarin had worn an Admiral's uniform, but on him it had been an affectation. Tion actually did command the home sector fleet. He was a heavy worlder, big enough to be just this side of mainstream human, the bones of his face thick and prominent. There was an aura about him of barely contained physical power, as if he were perpetually on the edge of an explosion. He crossed the bay and bore down on Arandu. For a moment Han didn't think he would stop. "I will not tolerate any more of your interference," Tion shouted at the other Sith Lord. "What right do you have to take my prisoners?"

"What sort of right?" Arandu asked. "Philosophic, moral, legal, or political?"

Tion stopped for a moment as if nonplussed, probably as much by the question as by his total failure to intimidate the older man. He said harshly, "This is not a debate. I command here. Rebel prisoners are my province."

"You command here. I have never disputed that. But you must allow me control over my operations that are already in progress, if this arrangement is meant to work. Is this arrangement meant to work?"

Ignoring the question, Tion said, "You're claiming this ship is part of one of your intelligence operations?"

"'Claiming?' Are you suggesting I might be lying to you?"

Tion snorted. Apparently he knew better than to go down that route. "No games, Emil. Who is he?" Tion's hard gaze went to Han, who felt a rush of useless fight/flight reflex adrenaline. The look in Tion's eyes should have been able to peel flesh from bone.

"No one of importance to you."

Han watched Tion's rage build. Finally the Sith Lord snarled, "Keep your pet Corellian then, for all the good that will do you in the end," he stepped closer to Arandu. "Where were you all that time, Emil? Where did you go that the rest of us couldn't follow? The Emperor wanted you dead, and now you're back and you're the Dark Lord's favorite again. What did you do?"

And where's Lord Adarin, he might well ask, Han thought. He wondered what answer Arandu would give to that question.

Imperturbable, Arandu said, "There was something I had to find."

Tion shook his head, battling frustration and rage. Arandu watched him. After a moment, Tion said "The reason I called you to the bridge was a message just received from Imperial Center. Three ships did not arrive at the Bestine system as ordered. They are not responding to comm, and there has been no sighting of them for the past six timeparts."

"And?"

Tion's eyes narrowed. "They had one astonishing thing in common. Each was under the direction of a former apprentice of yours. Lady Karadon, and the Lords Tlingit and Haida."

Arandu smiled down at the deck. "You suspect some sort of connection?"

"Only that they were your students in the Dark Side, and obviously you imparted your own brand of lunacy to them."

"Obviously. Then they will return when they're ready, with or without a plausible story." He looked up. "As I did."

"Do you ever wonder if you have outlived your usefulness to the Emperor?"

"I outlived my usefulness to the Emperor twenty years ago."

Tion had been thinking out his next move, and now he said, "I was preparing to make a hyperwave transmission to the Dark Lord. Should I tell him of your latest impediment to the progress of this mission?"

"You and I both know what this 'mission' is."

Tion went absolutely still. Stiffly, as if the words were being forced out of him against his will, he said, "If the New Order is to succeed, the Emperor must be served. Political necessity..."

"Please, as a last request, don't quote rhetoric written by some propaganda officer at me. The Emperor wouldn't know a political necessity if one bit him on a tender portion of his anatomy. His only motive is overwhelming greed."

Another long moment of silence. Whatever Tion had expected from this confrontation, it hadn't been this. And while it's fascinating to watch history in the making here, Han thought, it's not like I'm going to live to tell anybody about it.

Then Tion said in a low growl, "You've brought this on yourself."

"I certainly can't argue with that."

Tion stood there, his blunt features impossible to read, but Han knew what he was thinking. What could you possibly do with someone who thought it was funny when you bullied him, agreed with all your arguments but still wouldn't give in, and who kept inviting you to attack only to expose your own weaknesses? Especially if you were Tion and had no sense of humor.

Tion couldn't do a damn thing. "I won't listen to your treason." He turned and stalked back to the elevator.

Arandu called after him, "Then whose treason will you listen to?" As soon as the elevator doors shut, he said, "Now, that was enlightening."

Han looked down at Chewie. A few minutes ago he would've said the situation couldn't possibly get worse, but now it appeared that it had. One of Lando Calrissian's only valuable pieces of advice was that you could run a game on anybody. (Han didn't know this at the time but later, after Bespin, Lando would add the qualification "almost anybody.") The idea was to be waiting for your mark every time he turned around, but never to corner him, because a cornered mark could kill you.

Every time Tion had turned around, Arandu had been waiting for him.

Arandu looked back at Han and said, "I hope you're not going to let your sense of injustice get the better of you," then started for the returning elevator.

Han didn't think that needed an answer. The shockers guarding Sander had backed off as well, and she took the opportunity to stand and make her way over to Han. She was a little unsteady, and sat down a few feet away. Han asked her, "How much did you hear?"

"Most of it. I didn't understand it. He's going to let your co-pilot go in exchange for your cooperation, but in what?"

Han shrugged, not wanting to discuss it with her.

Tully sat quietly for a moment, hugging herself. "They got the shuttle, I saw that," she said suddenly. "Did the Cutter get away, do you think?"

"So far."

The medtech arrived then, crossed the bay and kneeled down next to the two smugglers, pulling a hypo out of his Imp-issue medipack. Han slapped it out of his hand. The medic flinched back, startled, and Han said, "Give yourself that hypo, let me watch you fill another one, and then hand it to me."

After a second the nervous medic nodded, rolled his sleeve up, and gave himself the hypo without any apparent reluctance.

Sander said, "Well, I'm glad to know you're like that with everyone."

Surprised, Han almost smiled at her.

The medic filled the second hypo and handed it to Han, then retreated a few meters back. Han combed hair out of the way until he found a patch of dark brown skin on Chewie's arm, and gave him the hypo.

The Wookiee stopped whining and made an urf noise. A minute later his hand came up and grabbed the back of Han's head. "Ow, it's me," the Corellian said.

Chewie opened his eyes, woofed happily to see Han, then took a look at where they were. "Ooh."

"'Ooh' is right," Han told him. His eyes were watering. Probably because Chewie smells so damn bad, he thought. "Listen to me. They're going to let you go with the Falcon, but the rest of us have to stay here..."

The Wookiee howled a protest that started Han's ears ringing again. He grabbed a double handful of his co-pilot's beard and said, "Listen to me. This is it. You're leaving, I'm staying here." The Wookiee let go another howl and Han could've punched him. This was hard enough as it was. The Corellian pulled on Chewbacca's beard until he got his attention again. "Shut up and don't scream when I'm trying to talk to you. That's an order."

Chewbacca told him where he could put his orders, a procedure he would be happy to assist with as soon as he could stand up, then he wanted to know why Han was talking like this. It was a reasonable question.

Han said, "First, it's the only deal I could work, Chewie, and it's just not going to get any better. Not now. Second," he thought for something Chewbacca would accept, that he couldn't argue with. "It's a life debt."

Chewbacca shook his head, moaning.

"Yes, listen to me. I used it to buy you and the Falcon out of here, and to keep them from using mindprobes on us to find out what we know about you-know-what." At least for the moment, Han thought. Speculating about what would happen to them if the balance of power shifted abruptly was useless.

"Uuh?"

"The Rebellion, you dumb ape." Han shook him again, he was so mad. Chewbacca stood up suddenly (Wookiees might have been unfit for space travel by human medical standards but they recovered from injuries rather quickly) dragging Han with him and shook him until his teeth rattled, then wrapped him in a hug that almost smothered him. Han pounded on his shoulder until the Wookiee let him go and Han shoved him away, with the result that Chewie stayed where he was and the Corellian staggered back a couple of steps. Han wondered if the watching shockers were finding all this highly entertaining. He said, "You know we have obligations."

Chewie was finally thinking, Han could see that. In one timepart Leia's transport would be arriving here, in what the Alliance assumed was a safe system, unless someone warned them. The Cutter might have escaped by now, but they couldn't take that chance. Chewie didn't give a damn about many humans, but he had moved Leia Organa from his list of people he tolerated to the list of people he was personally responsible for, and he would consider warning her a sacred trust. It might just save both their lives. Han said, "There's a hull breach, but she's not leaking anymore. And the Falcon's yours now." He couldn't remember if he'd told him that yet or not.

The Wookiee wailed as if Han had dropped dead at his feet.

"Tell Luke..." Han stopped. Hell. "Tell Leia... No, don't tell them anything."

The shocktroopers had disappeared, and been replaced by guards wearing the black fatigues of Imp regulars, but unlike the techs who had been working in the hangar bay they all wore sidearms, and five of them had lightsabres.

One of them came toward the rebels now, stopped at Chewie's warning snarl, and said, "It's clear. He can take the ship out and they won't fire."

Chewie made another interrogative sound and Han said, "No, no more questions. It's a life debt. I'm dead, you're alive, and you have a ship to patch up."

Chewbacca moved uneasily toward the Falcon's ramp. The big Wookiee looked back one last time, and Han shook his head at him. No, it's over, go on.

Chewbacca went up the ramp and the hatch closed behind him. In a few moments the ramp retracted, and the docking clamp dropped the Falcon. Han watched in relief as she slid through the magnetic field and out the port, saw her tip down and her subs come to life, then she was gone.

Sander had crept up to stand next to him. Hesitantly, she said, "Can we do anything?"

She had been awfully quick to whip that palmgun out before the shockers could stop her. Han decided he could have done worse in the way of company. "Get killed."

"Well, I'm sure I'll regret it later, but I'd like to put that off for the moment." She was shivering.

"You're going to have to trust me."

"Okay."

"As if you have a choice."

"Exactly."

He glanced down at her and decided she could do with a little irritation to take her mind off her fear. "Don't worry. I always make it a policy to leave with the same woman I came in with."

That earned him the more familiar expression of disgust, this time mixed with irony instead of mistrust. "Too bad I don't prefer men."

Suddenly there was blaster fire up in the gantry office, one shot that sounded as if it had impacted on a bulkhead. Can't hear the sabres at this distance, Han thought. That was interesting. Sander had flinched, and he explained, "Arandu's Sith are killing the shocktroopers who were down here, so Tion can't question them about anything they might have overheard."

"Oh," Sander said. "Oh damn. I just realized... The other x- wings... Cherne and Evan are dead."

They were taken up in the elevator out of the hangar area, guarded by five of Arandu's men, including one of the ones armed with a lightsabre. Han felt the elevator shift into a horizontal passage, moving back to the Destroyer's aft control castle, and thought about the difficulties inherent in being a prisoner on a ship with a crew of over two thousand. It made him feel claustrophobic.

The elevator opened onto one of the decks of what an informed guess told Han was Systems Control.

The guards split up, one of them starting to lead Sander away. Han caught her arm and pulled her back to him, and the startled guard let go of her. "Sorry guys, she's with me."

The Sith glanced around the deck irritably, trying to note who was watching them, who was close enough to overhear. He said, "We have our orders."

"That sounds like your problem."

"Look." The Sith took a step closer. Han eased Sander behind him but the Sith only said, "He wants to talk to you alone."

Han tried to estimate how much trouble he could make at this point, but Sander said, "No, it's all right. I'll go."

He looked down at her. Her eyes said that it was anything but all right, but she was doing a good job of faking a demeanor of calm determination. He didn't want to give them the bright idea of using her to force him into anything, but he didn't want her handed over to Tion to keep the other Sith Lord from pushing too hard either.

He let her go, and she walked away with the guards, managing not to look back.

The others led Han through Systems Control. The techs were staring at him, but they probably didn't get to see bloody and disheveled Corellians wandering around the control deck every day. Han knew engineering would be directly below and to stern, with Detention in between, and the bridge straight up several more levels.

He was led back to the circular platform of a command center above and partially walled off from the rest of the deck. Through the arch out the back he could see the rest of systems control, four tiers of decks leading down. There was an aft observation port in the far bulkhead, small in that it was only ten meters across. There were more of what he assumed were Arandu's people working in the command center, more Imperials dressed like techs who just happened to be packing lightsabres. The Alliance had discovered that some of the routine physical and intelligence testing now performed at the Academy were actually tests for Force sensitivity. If you tested positive, you disappeared, sometimes permanently, sometimes to reappear with a lightsabre, as part of a Sith Lord's retinue.

On another elevated platform was a holotank displaying a sensor- generated view of the system along the ecliptic plane superimposed with the ship's current status reports. Around it were banks of unattended consoles, locked and dark, ready for the transfer of primary control if the bridge systems went down.

Arandu was pacing around the holotank, and looking at the chrono-readout that was floating above it. He muttered, "What are they waiting for?"

Han had heard the engine build-up but it was so muted from here he didn't immediately realize what it was. Then the observation port dimmed to shield the crew from the flare of the drive, and when it lightened again the stars were strobing with hyperspace. The Destroyer's internal gravity and compensators were so strong Han hadn't felt anything. He sat down in one of the chairs at the locked consoles. The adrenaline that had been keeping him functioning since the attack was beginning to dissipate.

"Your little Jedi friend uses the name Skywalker, doesn't he?"

Han didn't look away from the port. The jump had startled him. Maybe I was cherishing the idea that when Gruesome caught up with the kid, they would come up with some crazy-but-brilliant plan to get us out of here. Now the Destroyer was heading out of the system at .3 light, and rescue was impossible.

"I recognized him on the Artash Gamble," Arandu was saying. "He has his father's nose."

The fact that Luke's father had been a Jedi Knight was no secret, as far as Han knew, but he was unwilling to give away anything. Ignoring the implicit question, he said, "You put yourself out to get me here, Emil. Why?"

"In a moment. We're about to have a visitor."

If it's Tion again, Han thought, I'd like to be excused. But it was an Imperial General coming up the steps to the Command Center. He was young for the uniform, but he had the cold lizard eyes seen so often on the most successful Imperial Officers. A survivor in a snake pit. Han noted he was wearing an energy pistol in a side holster. The General stopped with an expression of disgust when he saw the Corellian. "What is he doing here?"

"He's sulking," Arandu answered. To Han he said, "This is General Tagge. You remember his brother the Governor, one of Lord Adarin's more fortunate victims."

"Oh, yeah," Han said. Tagge was reining his temper, but the strain was beginning to show in the reddening skin above his uniform collar.

"Did Tion open the sealed orders?" Arandu asked the general.

"Of course." Tagge smiled, and there was a malicious edge to it. "When we rendezvous with the Resolution, I'm to transfer my troops and proceed to Botha." He added, "I came to convey my condolences on your imminent demise."

"How very kind. Is that all?" Without looking up, Arandu said, "And if you're going to wear a sidearm up here, please keep to the other side of the platform."

Han slumped back in his chair, angry that he could be read so easily. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off he was starting to hurt, and he probably couldn't have taken the general's gun anyway. He was also hardly competent to go after Arandu in his present condition and who else was he going to shoot? Himself?

Tagge moved to the other end of the platform, eyeing the Corellian speculatively. Han looked back, not giving him any help. Tagge wanted to know why he was here almost as bad as he did. Han filed that away for future consideration. Tagge said, "Our escort of cruisers has remained behind to search for more rebels, a search complicated by your refusal to allow any of the prisoners to be questioned. Lord Tion is most disappointed."

"Lord Tion will have to learn to live with disappointment. Especially if he continues to support you in your schemes."

Tagge forgot about Han and leaned forward on the rail of the holotank, almost snarling. "But I stand on firm ground. You've pushed the Emperor too far this time. You know those orders are under Darth Vader's personal seal. Can't you guess what else they contain?"

"My death warrant, of course," Arandu looked up, holding Tagge's eyes. "If you think that comes as a surprise to me then you are even more ignorant of the situation than I assumed."

Tagge straightened up slowly, as if he were straining to get his self-control back. Han thought he was a good actor. "Very well. You know. At least send the boy Erin with me to the Resolution. He belongs with his mother's family."

"I have no intention of sending Erin anywhere. Now that he is past adolescence, I find I am almost able to tolerate him." Arandu sat down in the officer's hotseat next to the holotank.

Han had noticed one of the Sith below look up when Tagge said the name "Erin." He was a few years younger than Luke, and by far the youngest in the group below. The resemblance to Tagge was there in his eyes and the structure of his features. Watching the general the young Sith unconsciously touched the hilt of his lightsabre.

"If you keep him with you," Tagge insisted, "He'll be killed with all the others. I have influence. I can protect him."

He could protect him. Yeah, right, Han thought. And Tagge hadn't even recognized his beloved nephew or cousin, whatever the relationship was, standing in the crew pit below and looking up at him with contempt.

"Out of your intense familial affection, of course," Arandu said, "And the fact that as my heir he would bring to the Tagge name over a million credits in property, corporate holdings, and share portfolios within the Empire alone is totally irrelevant."

No Imperial taxes on that, Han thought. Bored with the Tagge family floor show, he looked back at the viewport. At .3 light how far had they gone, just in these few minutes? How long would the ion trail that could show their heading last? Han could do the equations in his head, but he decided he didn't really want to know.

"But you would find Erin a poor tool, Tagge. I haven't kept him with me for five years simply because I enjoy his company. He's not as biddable as you remember."

Han believed that. If the boy wasn't a complete sociopath by now he had nerves as strong as corundum alloy.

Tagge sneered, "Very well. I hope your sorcery helps you, Arandu. Nothing else will." He turned and went down the steps of the command center.

After a moment, Han said, "This 'don't mind me, I'm only marking time till I fall over dead' act of yours is really something. Just the right touch of pathos. I think he believed you."

Arandu turned his chair around to face him. "I rather enjoyed it myself. Tagge is very good at this, but he has a tendency to perceive what he wants most to believe. It's the one flaw in his thinking. But it makes him ideal to carry the news back to the Emperor that I was honorably and stubbornly set on playing the game to the end, just as if all the other players weren't petty, scheming cowards."

In the hangar bay, Han had formed the theory that the two Sith Lords, a volatile combination at any time, had been put on this ship together to give Tion a chance to kill Arandu. That Arandu apparently knew this and was not overly disturbed by it worried Tion. As well it might, Han thought now.

He considered asking again just why the hell he was here watching Arandu bait Imperial Generals instead of down in Detention having horrible things done to him. Is he really not going to let them question the shuttle's crew? Hell, if they even do ID searches on them, this whole deal could be finished right here, regardless of why he wants me alive. "Where's the crew of the shuttle?"

"They were brought aboard before we went hyper and are being held in Detention."

"I want to see them."

"Do you doubt my word?"

Oops, Han thought. "No. I doubt my ability to read your intentions and anticipate your next move. So I have to do things the hard way."

Arandu considered that a moment, then said, "It isn't possible to see them now. I don't want Tion's attention drawn to them."

Got over that difficult minute fairly well. Han decided not to push his luck any further in that direction. "Does that have anything to do with the sealed orders?"

"No. I'm the one who sealed the orders."

"I thought he said they were under Vader's personal seal."

"Of course. Tion would hardly accept orders under my seal."

Han suddenly had a headache. He wondered if Arandu's gray eyes were just a little more mad than when he had last seen him, after Adarin's death. He said, "Now I see. You brought me here to watch you commit suicide."

Arandu thought that was funny. There was a beep from the comconsole and he glanced at it. "Speaking of Tion. But there's ample time. Considering our course and speed we won't be arriving at the rendezvous point for two timeparts at least. Corin, take Captain Solo to rejoin the young lady. It appears I'm going to have to take care of a few other matters."

***

Corin, who was the young Sith who had brought Han and Tully up from the bay, led the Corellian out of the main area of the deck and into the maze of interconnecting corridors. Several more of Arandu's people accompanied them, and the crew and troopers they passed on the way kept a respectful distance. Han realized his guards were treating him like a dangerous animal that had to be watched carefully but kept unhurt. He didn't think this boded particularly well for the future. They took him to a spacious officer's lounge, the chairs and couches covered in dark blue fabric. Tully was perched on the edge of one of the chairs, watching the wall-sized screen tuned to a view of hyperspace. She looked up at Han, her face white and pensive. The guards left, sealing the door behind them, and Han asked her, "You okay?"

"They haven't done anything to me, if that's what you mean. I'm terrified," she admitted.

"Join the club." Han checked the computer terminals and the controls for the screen, but they were locked from within the system and refused to respond. He dropped down onto one of the couches, winced at the pain from various bruises and his sore ribs. "I take it that other door is not an unguarded exit."

"Only a 'fresher. I examined it carefully when I was in there throwing up. You didn't look afraid down in the bay. You just looked..." She searched for a word. "Irritated."

"It's an act." He didn't have any real comfort to offer her, and he knew she wouldn't believe any false promises. Moving carefully out of respect for the shocktroopers' handiwork, he eased himself into a reclining position on the couch.

"Did you find out where the others are?"

"Detention. They were brought over from Imperator." Propped up on one elbow, he took a good look at her and decided she hadn't been kidding about being sick in the 'fresher. "What are you doing with the Alliance, Sander? You don't strike me as the suicidal idealist type."

"I'm not. I want to live too much to be suicidal. But I've seen what the Empire's done. I was in a civilian prison camp on Rialla. My family wasn't even involved in the uprising, but they took everybody. When they finally released the camp, I was the only one left. My parents, my brothers, all my family, all gone. I'm just doing what I can to keep that from happening to anyone else, and ignoring the fact that I'm a coward and I'm terrified every minute. I'm ordinary. I don't belong here, or with the Rebellion. But here I am. And I don't know why I told you that when I don't even like you."

Han privately thought this was a much healthier attitude than the gung-ho revolutionaries he encountered too often in the Alliance, who really understood nothing of what it was they were fighting, or the consequences of failure. Leia Organa was the only rebel he had met so far who managed to be idealist, pragmatist, and tactician at once without compromising on anything. Curious, he asked Sander, "Were you serious about what you said down in the hangar, you don't prefer men?"

"Yes, I was serious," she answered warily. "Why do you ask?"

"It seems to be the only thing we have in common." He rolled over and added, "Wake me if anything happens."

"You're going to sleep?" Sander was incredulous.

"Um."

"Tell me one thing first. Why am I up here with you instead of in Detention with the others?"

"He likes you because you tried to ice that shocker who was beating the crap out of me."

Han left her to worry over that, and let his exhaustion take over. He dreamed that Luke was trying to talk to him.

***

When Han woke Tully was curled up on the floor next to his couch, her head resting on her knees.

The Corellian realized almost immediately what had awakened him. He had adjusted to the muted hum of the Destroyer's drive, and this time he had heard the change in pitch. On the screen the distorted view of hyperspace strobed and dissolved into a starfield. An unfamiliar starfield, and without knowing their orientation he hadn't much hope of recognizing it. He noted there was no visible traffic, and wondered what he would have done if the screen had dissolved into an image of the orbital platforms and battlestations surrounding Imperial Center.

He sat up and tapped Sander on the shoulder. She flinched and woke, and her eyes went to the screen first. "Where are we?"

"Beats me." Han stood and stretched and took a turn around the room, checking the screen controls and the computer terminal again to see if they had mistakenly been activated. He was sore all over and not looking forward to the confrontation he suspected was about to occur. The Alliance infobases had little data on Arandu. He had been a Jedi Knight and a military attache under General Obi-wan Kenobi (Now that, Han had thought, when he'd read the file, was a personality conflict looking for a place to happen. Luke's late teacher had had a terrible track record). Arandu had surfaced as a Sith Lord after Palpatine declared himself Emperor and Darth Vader had made his appearance. As Vader's second he had put down the early uprisings in the Hammeriad Systems, so effectively the Imperial Provisional Government had disbanded due to lack of population. He had stopped early rebel activity on Rialla, hunted Corellian pirates in the Cron Drift until they had all packed up and gone home, and ran one of the largest sectors in the Empire through the Territorial Governor Bin Essada. Then his rival Lord Lan Adarin had ordered an attack on one of Arandu's bases, and Arandu had disappeared for two years. Good question of Tion's. What did he do with all that time? It didn't take him two years to find Boba Fett. So what was he doing? One of the other things that still puzzled him was what the Sith Lord could have done with the heavy cruiser that had been detected off the Artash Gamble. It must have cost even Arandu some effort to crew a ship of that size, and to keep her operational. What do the other Imperials think, that he wrecked her out of spite? Or that he misplaced her? Maybe. If I was the Imp Admiralty and some Sith Lord like say, Adarin, ran off with a heavy cruiser and then turned up without her, I'd probably write her off as breached and drifting into a system primary somewhere. No, the reason the heavy cruiser hadn't shown up was that Arandu was hoping Tion and the others would forget about her, forget how many people he must have aboard her. Think about that. Whoever they were, whoever they used to be, they've been out of Imperial Service for two years playing Sith pirates with Arandu. Maybe he can't bring them back. And maybe that cruiser was following the Destroyer through hyper, even now.

The corridor door slid open suddenly and Arandu entered with Corin. The younger Sith leaned back against the far wall.

"All the pieces on the board?" Han asked.

"Almost." Arandu touched a switch on the viewscreen and the locked controls came back to life. The view of empty space dissolved into an Imperial Cruiser approaching at sublight. It had a tractor- lock on a smaller vessel, a blockade runner nearly half the size of the cruiser with a non-reflective black hull that made it almost invisible. That they could see it at all at this distance and against the blackness of space was because the Destroyer's comps were using sensor data to enhance the image.

"A derelict, discovered by the patrols in this area. Tagge and his troops will transfer to that cruiser, the Resolution. We will take the derelict in tow for eventual transfer to Imperial Center, where the Emperor anxiously awaits it." Arandu paced away from the viewscreen, thoughtful. Han looked over at Sander and saw she was sitting on one of the couches, hands together in her lap, and knuckles white. I wasn't feeding you a line Tully, you are really not the only coward in the room at the moment. Arandu continued, "It was one of Lord Adarin's ships, and there is something on board which belongs to me. I learned of its existence from Barris, but the Resolution found it before I could ascertain its exact location. You remember Barris?"

"I thought he was dead," Han answered warily. To be accurate, Han thought he had killed Barris.

"He is now. He was only badly wounded, when you shot him aboard the Gamble, and two of my rather enterprising young people were able to take him prisoner. He didn't last very long, but he did part with some revealing information before he died. This ship was where he said it would be, and there was other evidence that most of what he told me was true." He paused a moment, then looked back at Han. "Tion doesn't know what is on the ship that is so important to the Emperor. He will want to investigate it for himself, and he will order the ship brought up to Subjugator's bay within the magnetic field. The window of opportunity will be rather small."

Han considered it, but refusal didn't seem to be a viable option. He asked, "Why does it have to be me?"

"It's not something I can trust one of my own people with. Not now. I meant to do it myself, which would have involved some complications. Your presence makes it much simpler."

For some people, yeah, Han thought. He folded his arms and leaned back against the console. "And if I do this, you'll release the rebels."

"Yes, even the General. Oh, of course I know who he is, I'm not as senile as all that."

Han heard Sander's dismayed gasp. He asked, "Tion doesn't know?"

"Tion doesn't know. Not yet. I saw Rieekan years ago when he was in Bail Organa's service on Alderaan. Of course, his identity cannot remain a secret for long. But Tion is very busy at the moment. He has just discovered that the hyperwave comm is no longer functioning properly, possibly due to the close presence of the Astaran Nebula. The rest of the task force is too far away for regular subspace communications."

He paused, looking out the viewport. "The item I want should be in a stasis chamber in the Adarin ship's main hold. Remove it, bring it back up to the hangar bay, and I'll release the rebels in one of Subjugator's shuttles. Tion will not be able to recapture them. He will have other things on his mind."

"Is this before or after he kills you?"

"Before, possibly during. I've left allowances for unanticipated changes in the schedule."

Han was glad somebody was keeping their sense of humor through all this. Then Arandu said, "I cannot, will not allow that ship to arrive at Imperial Center. If it becomes necessary, I'll destroy this ship, and everything on it, including myself, to keep it from the Emperor's hands. Do I make myself clear?"

"Very. I don't need to be convinced," Han said, hoping to head off any demonstrations of sincerity.

Arandu came back to the screen. "It isn't visible from this angle but there's a small transport attached to one of the derelict's locks. A ship I thought destroyed, brought to this place by a woman I thought killed in Adarin's attack. Her name was Sanja Traviay, and she was captured by Adarin and later escaped. He told me that much himself, before I killed him. I can only suppose that she arrived here before the Adarin crew were forced to abandon ship, that she made a foolish and desperate attempt... I don't know why she didn't try to contact me. Perhaps Adarin told her I was dead. She had a very low degree of Force sensitivity, to the point that she was almost blind to it. She would have believed him. But that doesn't matter now. She was possibly the last person to enter that ship before it was abandoned."

"Which brings up the question, why did the crew leave?"

"I don't know. Following orders he received from Center after reporting his find, the Resolution's captain allowed no one to go aboard."

Han had remembered why the name Sanja Traviay was familiar. Contrary to popular myth, not all Corellians were pirates, smugglers, or corporate robber barons engaged in hiding profits from the Imperial tax collectors on the good old homeworld. Sanja Traviay had been Corellian, and a famous courtesan on Imperial Center, and rumored to be a sector Governor's mistress, and then Grand Vizier Sate Pestage's mistress, only to drop out of sight a few years ago. If Han had ever stopped to think about her, which he hadn't, he would have assumed she was dead. People, even senators, generals, and famous courtesans, tended to disappear regularly in the vicinity of the Imperial Court. That she had had a connection to Arandu was interesting, but not really surprising. And useless to the Alliance, now that Traviay was dead.

"One more item of note," Arandu said. "The escort cruisers left behind to search the system you were captured in turned up the deserted hulk of a Sullustan-built cutter, registered out of Commenor, its logs blank and comps destroyed by blaster fire. The hyperdrive had been disabled by ship combat sometime earlier, by one of the TIE Fighters missing in the search no doubt. I thought that might be of interest to you."

It was. So Commander Skywalker and his daring band of rebel refugees had dumped their damaged cutter and gone limping around the system playing hide and seek with Imp cruisers in the almost equally damaged Millennium Falcon. Luke, Han thought, if you get yourself caught after all I've been through I will never forgive you.

His expression must have betrayed something of his thoughts, because the Sith Lord smiled and said, "Believe me, Han, I don't give a damn about the Rebel Alliance." Arandu turned and strode toward the door. Halfway there he stopped abruptly, and looked at Sander. "It was Lord Rasalon who was in charge of the Riallan prison camps, and you needn't worry about meeting him here."

Sander swallowed in a dry throat, and managed to say, "Oh?"

"I killed him two months ago on Imperial Center. He was most annoying."

As the door closed behind Arandu, Sander looked over at Han, and said, "Is there any way that we can get out of this alive?"

"I doubt it."

***

Corin and a group of guards took Han and Tully back down to the hangar. They went by maintenance lifts and lesser used corridors, and saw only techs and low-ranking crew, no one who would think it their business to report them. At one corridor intersection Corin had held them back, waiting until two officers deep in conversation passed.

In the bay General Rieekan and the two rebels who had piloted the shuttle waited under guard. Han felt a surge of relief; he hadn't been looking forward to the eleventh hour protest he would've had to stage if the rebels hadn't been present. All three of the men looked exhausted and battered from the shuttle's crash.

"You okay?" Han asked Rieekan.

"We're fine. We've been treated very gently, considering. What's going on?" As Sander came up Rieekan put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a brief hug.

"I'm trying to get you out of here," Han told him.

"Solo, don't do anything you'll regret. We've each been trained to resist mindprobes..."

"Look, don't start second-guessing me now. You can do that back at the fleet."

One of the other rebels asked tensely, "You have a plan?"

Both of Rieekan's companions were watching Han suspiciously. Great, the Corellian thought. He started to answer and hesitated. Neither a blunt "No" nor a "you've got to be kidding" would tend to induce confidence, or encourage them to listen to him when the situation got tight. Then Sander answered for him. "Yes, of course. But it's a secret."

The other three rebels stared at her.

At the far end of the bay was a housing for an expandable docking tube. The tube had been extended and warning lights flashed around its rim. The Adarin blockade runner would be below, the tube fastened to one of its airlocks, Subjugator's smaller docking tractor holding it in place and keeping it from blocking the bay entrance for emergency launches.

Corin was betraying increasing impatience by pacing in front of the docking tube and staring at them. Han decided they had pushed things as far as they could. "Come on," he told Sander.

They crossed the bay under the eyes of Arandu's men. Han noted that techs and bay officers were scarce.

"Weapons?" He asked Corin.

"Down in the tube."

That figured. "Any contingent plans if Tion gets on to us?"

An explosion reverberated through the hull and Han grabbed the rim of the hatch as the deck seemed to sway: the internal gravity fluctuating, trying to compensate for the vibrations. The drive blew, he thought. Then no, can't be, we're still alive.

"Lord Tion is otherwise occupied," Corin said. He gestured and the Sith moved back. The alert klaxons began to wail and warning lights flashed above hangar bay hatches.

Han caught the ladder as the deck swayed again and swung into the docking tube. He reached back to give Sander a hand, and when she had her footing he hit the switch to close the hatch. "What the hell was that?" she asked.

"Probably the bridge."

"That's some distraction. We'll be lucky if he doesn't blow up the ship."

Yeah, Han thought. That will be lucky.

There were two blaster pistols tied to the tube ladder near the bottom. Han hooked his arm through a rung to disentangle them and check the charges. He handed one up to Sander and tucked the other into his belt.

The hatch below was a small round one, probably the topside emergency access for the Adarin ship. It was freezing cold to the touch and beaded with moisture. Han used the keypad at the bottom of the docking tube to release the locking bolts. It opened into a short vertical accessway. The Corellian climbed down, Tully following him.

The somewhat clunky equipment and the concussion pads on the bulkheads told Han the blockade runner was recommissioned Clone Wars surplus. In the corridor the lights were at half strength and the air smelled stale, as if the regeneration system was long overdue for maintenance. The ship must have been derelict before Adarin's death three months ago to be that far gone, Han knew. He wondered what could have caused the vindictive Sith Lord to abandoned his property.

"Which way?" Tully asked, interrupting his thoughts.

"Down here." Han led the way down the corridor, looking for a drop shaft that would take them to the right deck.

"What do you think is in that cargo hold?" Sander asked. Unconsciously, she'd lowered her voice to a whisper.

There was only one likely explanation that Han could see. The one chance Adarin would have had to capture something belonging to Arandu was the raid he had hired Boba Fett to stage on Arandu's base. He said, "I think it's not..." Han stopped abruptly, holding out a hand to halt Sander.

Ahead in the gloom of the corridor, he could see a dark unmoving form stretched half out of a maintenance hatch. Han moved cautiously closer until he could see it was the dead body of an Imperial crewman. The long-dead body. A glance down the maintenance hatch revealed at least two more bodies piled within. The lack of micro- organisms and the dryness of the filtered ship's air had slowed decomposition, but still it looked as if the crewmen had been dead for months at least.

Han sat on his heels to take a closer look at the nearest corpse. After a moment he asked Sander, "Do you feel all right?"

"Compared to what?"

"Compared to breathing normally."

"Yes. Why?"

"So do I. Which is funny, because I can't find a mark on this guy, and toxins in the air system is the first explanation that comes to mind." He stood to look at the at. readout on the nearest tech station. No toxins, and the ox level was normal, and there was nothing in the mix to kill the crew, unless it had dissipated. But it wouldn't dissipate, not in a closed air system. He couldn't imagine a concerned bystander coming along, flushing the poisoned air, restoring the mix to normal, and heading off for parts unknown, without taking the ship or at least parts of it for salvage, or doing anything about the messy deceased Imperials.

Han looked back at Sander and she shrugged her own bewilderment.

They found more bodies along the corridor and in the drop shaft to the next deck. In the corridor below that led to the hold, they found two dead stormtroopers who bore blaster scores in the chest pieces of their armor, the only evidence of physical injury they had seen so far. It would have been illuminating to stop and look for the sick bay and the medical log, but they didn't have the time to waste, Han decided. Not so near their goal.

There were two bodies near the hatch into the hold, a black- uniformed man and a woman. The woman had been killed by the man's lightsabre, and there was a blaster pistol near her right hand. Her dark clothes weren't a uniform, but spacer's gear.

Han turned the man over with the toe of his boot. Not a mark on him. He was betting the woman was Sanja Traviay, that she had been the one to put the blast holes in the two troopers up the corridor. She made it this far, then this creep pegged her. And then he dropped dead of remorse, along with everyone else on the ship. Unlikely.

The hatch to the hold was wedged half-open. When Han stepped through the temperature dropped so abruptly he thought someone had opened a port to vacuum. Reflex made him step back into the corridor.

In the corridor the air was dry, slightly stale ship's mix. In the hold it was damp and freezing.

Tully put out a hand to feel the difference. "What...?"

Han shrugged. It was as unexplainable as everything else. Or it had the same explanation.

"You never did finish telling me what you think is in there that he wants back so badly."

"Not something," he told Sander, "Somebody," and stepped into the hold. It was dark and empty except for the stasis canister, lit by the green and amber glow of its own LEDs. Han crossed the shadowy chamber, Sander trailing behind him. The transparent lid was opaqued by a layer of dust and grime. He looked at the controls. They were set for slow rejuvenation. Exquisitely slow, maybe one degree a cycle. With a rejuv level like that, the being inside could die at any moment. Tion might have been presenting a corpse to the Emperor. Han wondered if Arandu had known it.

Then he made the mistake. He brushed the dust away and looked inside.

It was a girl, maybe eight or nine standards if she was mainbreed human. Blond hair like the dead woman outside, skin so pale she might already be dead. But she wasn't dead. Han saw that the canister controls were reading a painfully slow heartbeat.

"Oh, damn," Tully said. "These people are all monsters."

Han stared down at a hostage Arandu would know he couldn't use. He knows me better than people who have known me most of my life. Han could never claim to kill this child if Arandu didn't live up to his part of the bargain and let the rebels go. It would be a bluff, and a bluff just wouldn't be enough. Han put the rejuv control on full.

Tully ran a distracted hand through her short hair. "I don't understand. Why did he want you to do this? Why couldn't he trust one of his own men?"

Han shook his head angrily. "Because this is his daughter. He couldn't do it himself, because Tion would have been right behind him. And no matter how loyal his people are to him, they're still Sith. He couldn't risk it. And here I am. He knows I pal around with a half-trained Jedi Knight, so I'm definitely not secretly working for anybody in the Empire, and I'm not the crazy revolutionary type who could blow a kid away for principle's sake. Neither are you."

"That was why he let your co-pilot go. He wanted you to owe him a life. But... If he does mean to let all of us go, even Rieekan, how is he ever going to go back to the Empire after all this, after the bombs on the bridge, and killing that other Sith Lord Tion?"

He said he didn't give a damn about the Rebel Alliance, and he was telling me the truth. "He's not going back to the Empire." The rejuvenation cycle was finished. Han popped the latches on the case and lifted the girl out. Her eyes flickered but didn't open. It was like handling a dead body. She was wearing a dirty gray coverall and didn't weigh anything. He handed her to Tully.

Han led the way out of the hold and headed back for the drop tube. He didn't know how long they had, if Tion had realized yet what Arandu was after and if he had any time to do anything about it.

In the corridor leading to the drop shaft, Tully said, "Wait."

"What?"

Tully had shifted the unconscious child so she could see her face. "She said something. I think she said, 'the monsters are everywhere'."

Han took a step closer. "Are you serious?"

"Why would I make that up?" Tully brushed the fine blond hair off the girl's brow, and suddenly found herself looking into a pair of wide gray eyes. Their expression was mild, vaguely curious, oddly empty of fear under the circumstances. Tully said, "Hello there," which was the first thing that came into her mind.

In an almost inaudible whisper, the girl said, "Monsters live in trees."

Tully and Han exchanged a look. She said, "You think the stasis...?"

"Maybe." There were more unpleasant possibilities, considering that the girl would have been Adarin's prisoner before she ended up on this deserted hulk.

A clanking sound echoed down from one of the decks above and both of them started. Han listened intently, but the sound wasn't repeated. It didn't need to be. Tion was on to them. Hold it, Han thought suddenly. "Wait, what did you say when you saw her in the case? 'These people are monsters?'"

"Something like that." Sander nodded, puzzled. Then she looked startled. "You think she heard me?"

The girl reached up and put her hand on Sander's mouth briefly.

"She's trying to warn us," Sander whispered.

It didn't seem possible, but... But hell, what do I know? Han thought. He looked speculatively at the hatch that opened into the drop shaft, their access to the upper decks. It was a perfect spot for ambush. "Put her down and cover me."

Sander moved back to set the girl down on the corridor floor. As soon as Sander let go of her, the girl immediately curled up into a ball against the bulkhead. Sander shook her head, then followed Han back to the drop shaft.

The Corellian stepped past the hatch, circling around the ladder area, trying to stay out of the line of sight from above. He'd almost worked his way around to the opposite wall before he saw a shadow along the edge of the drop-hatch, a shadow that moved just a hair. Han took a couple of slow steps sideways. If the shadow was there, then the shocker had to be...

Han caught Tully's eye, and let her see that he was changing the setting on his blaster to narrow beam. She nodded understanding and adjusted her grip on her pistol. Then Han fired up through the hatch. There was a yell and a shocker fell through the opening above and crashed into the deck. A second came down almost behind him, firing short deadly bursts that slagged the bulkhead behind Han as the Corellian dove out of the way. Sander squeezed off two shots, hitting the joints of the armor and sending the shocker crashing into the bulkhead. But the third one landed almost on top of Han, power- armor letting him control his fall. Han rolled away and Sander dove for the hatch, but there was no time to get to cover. Han snapped off a shot that missed and toasted the outside of the man's armor. The rifle swung toward him and Han aimed at the shocker's chest knowing they were going to fry each other. Then the shocker dropped his gun. He made a surprised, awkward grab for it before Han's shot knocked him across the deck.

Han sat up slowly, breathing hard, and tried to figure that one. That was too much dumb luck, even for him. Then he looked over at the girl. She was staring at the body of the shocker, blinking her eyes, her expression blank. No, it hadn't been dumb luck.

Han sat there for a minute, rubbing his temples, then got to his feet. He rolled over the last shocker, and removed two proton explosives from his utility belt and tucked them into his own vest pockets. The shockers blast rifles were attached to their armor and powered by energy packs built within, so the extra firepower was useless to Han and Tully. They couldn't use it to disguise themselves either; unlike stormtrooper armor, it was code-locked and they wouldn't be able to get it off without a fusioncutter. Not much help here, Han thought. Unless he wanted to blow up the blockade runner. "You okay, Sander? We need to move."

"Yes, I'm fine." Tully staggered a little standing up and had a new bruise on her forehead, but she collected the girl and followed Han up the drop tube ladder without complaint.

Han knew the crew must have been alive when Traviay had boarded and tried to reach the hold, because she had had to shoot her way through some of them, because she had been killed by one of them on the doorstep of her goal. If the girl had been aware enough of the outside world to hear Sander, she could have known that Traviay had been killed. And then the crew had started to die. Han felt a chill progress up his spine, and resisted the urge to look down at Sander and the girl. Adarin wouldn't have given permission to either kill their prisoner or abandon ship, and so most of the crew had died, probably without knowing what was happening. It was a disquieting thought, that a child's semi-conscious, dreaming mind might be capable of this much destruction, but Han found it impossible to feel any moral outrage over the death of the crew. Anyone in Lord Adarin's employ was not likely to be a bright-eyed young innocent and he doubted very much that this group had gotten anything they hadn't asked for. The girl could barely communicate, maybe she could barely even articulate her thoughts, but in some way she understood that she was being rescued. She must, or we'd both be dead by now.

Han shook his head and turned his attention back to the more immediate problem. He told Tully, "Those shockers didn't come down the docking tube. If they had, there would've been a whole squad and we'd be toast by now. They came from outside. Shocker armor is pressure-sealed. They popped out one of the belly hatches near the hangar, used personal jump-jets to reach this ship and came in through one of the other hatches or an empty docking bay slot."

"A scouting mission? Then they reported that we were down here before they jumped us."

"Exactly, and there's a hell of a lot more where they came from."

"Arandu's people are holding the hangar bay. If they take us, use her as a hostage, they can go right up the docking tube and..."

And Rieekan and the others are still up there, Han finished her unspoken thought. And will be lucky if they're only killed in the crossfire.

They reached the top deck and Han took a careful peek through the overhead hatch. The dimly-lit corridor above was empty, silent, and suspicious. Han climbed out of the shaft and took the girl from Sander while she scrambled up beside him.

While Han checked the tech station next to the shaft Sander tried to look in every direction at once, the girl held tightly in her arms. "Han, what is Arandu doing? Is he insane? What can he possibly hope to gain by all this?"

"I don't think he wants to gain anything." Han was checking the air flow rate around each hatch and escape pod slot. The shockers were experienced at boarding actions and would disable any security alarms that alerted the interior of the blockade runner to the fact that one of its hatches had been forced from the outside. But the shockers would only be able to enter two at a time at most, and continuous cycling of a hatch would cause the maintenance comps to log it as a possible trouble area. "I think this is his way of turning in his resignation. Hah, here they are. Portside, this deck." And on their way here right now. This next part is going to be tricky. "You take her and make for the docking tube, and get back up to the hangar. Watch your back."

"But..."

"There's no time to discuss it, Sander, just go."

He gave her a shove in the right direction and Sander snarled with exasperation but she started to run down the corridor to the docking tube. Han headed in the opposite direction, toward the Shockers.

He knew there was no time for anything fancy now. He thought, you're out of excuses, Solo, this isn't survival anymore, it's cooperation. But if he was right, it was such an audacious, desperate plan. He knew now what Arandu had done with those two missing years. He had built a new stronghold, somewhere beyond the Empire's official borders, the Rim maybe or the Drift, or past the boundaries of the Corporate Sector. Somewhere far enough away that the Emperor, with resources already committed to searching out the bases of the Rebel Alliance, would not be able to dig him out.

Han reached a segment of corridor sectioned off by open blast doors and halted, pressing back against the bulkhead and listening. After a second he was rewarded by the click and static buzz of a comlink, audible from around the curve of the bulkhead.

The first shocker appeared on the other side of the blast doors, saw Han, and raised his rifle. Han fired first, two shots sending the shocker staggering backward. The Corellian hit the controls for the blast door with his elbow, firing constantly to keep the others back as the doors slowly dilated shut. Then he stepped back and blasted the control mechanism to slag. Now would they wait and jimmie the doors from the other side or blast through them? Han knew the answer to that one. Using the plastic adhesive handily included in a compartment on the proton grenade's case, he attached it to the center of the blast doors and ran back up the corridor.

There was no sign of Tully or the girl near the docking tube. Han stopped for a minute to look down the adjoining corridors, hoping Tully had obeyed him and gone back up to the Destroyer. This would be a lousy time for her to mutiny.

A muffled boom from up the corridor sent a vibration through the ship's skin that staggered him. He held on to the end of the accessway's ladder for support. The shockers had found the proton grenade by burning through the blast doors. The heat would have activated the explosive just before the doors gave way. Stupid bastards, Han thought, and started to climb up the accessway to the docking tube.

A blaster bolt from below struck the ladder just above his reaching hand and sheared the metal in half. Han fell back against the side of the tube, caught one of the projections there and braced himself awkwardly. Another energy bolt struck the opposite side of the tube, spraying sparks and hot metal shrapnel at him. Holding on one-handed he fired downward, forcing the shockers below to stay to the side and not come up the tube after him. They were being cautious because they still wanted him alive, he realized.

Han was too angry at himself to be afraid. Talk about stupid bastards, he raged inwardly. Stupid to think they wouldn't send a squad the long way around the deck to cut him off, stupid to stop to look for Sander, who really did know better than to argue in the middle of a firefight and had obediently headed for the comparative safety of the hangar bay. Then he remembered he still had the second proton pack.

He fired down the tube again to hold them back, then tucked the gun into his belt and pulled the explosive out of his pocket. He hesitated for an instant, but set it for thirty seconds, unwilling to solve all his problems permanently by setting it for a shorter time, then dropped it down the tube.

There was a moment of obvious consternation below, as the shockers realized what had clattered to the floor, and Han took advantage of it to stretch up and catch the still-hot end of the ladder and scramble up. The shockers would have the choice of picking the pack up and trying to defuse it, blasting it and setting it off prematurely, or running. Han made it past the tube safety blast seal halfway between the blockade runner and the Destroyer, and knew they had chosen to run.

There was a blast from below that made the tube shiver and nearly lost him his precarious hold on safety. Air rushed past him suddenly with the strength of a gale, and he knew the blast had knocked the tube free of the blockade runner's hatch and the bottom end was now open to vacuum. He held on for one second, two, then it tore him off the ladder. An instant later he fell against hard metal with stunning force, and knew he had used up the last of his Corellian luck. He'd held on just long enough for the tube's safety blast doors to detect the breach and close. Then he was unconscious.

Han realized dimly he was being slung head down over somebody's shoulder and hauled up the tube toward the hangar, but he was too dazed to decide if this was a bad turn of events or a good one. His instinctive attempt to fight free of whoever was carrying him was mostly ignored, and reality faded out again for a time.

He woke abruptly to find the warm metal of the deck beneath him was shuddering continuously, and the distant roaring was the sound of a ship in its death throes. He pushed himself into a sitting position cautiously, so his head didn't fall off. They were back in the hangar bay, and Tully was seated cross-legged on the deck a few feet away, holding her pistol, the little girl curled into a catatonic ball in her lap. Corin and the other Sith were grouped around them, but at several meters distance. Tully saw Han was conscious and asked worriedly, "Are you all right?"

"Sure. What's up?"

"Rieekan and the others are in that shuttle." She jerked her head towards an Imperial shuttle in launching position above the bay. "They said we could go, but I'm not handing her over to them until Arandu gets here. If he couldn't trust them to go and get her I don't see why we should trust them now. If we're going to do this at all we might as well do it right."

"Good thinking. You've been holding them off with one blaster?"

"Not exactly." She patted the girl's shoulder. "That's as close as they can get."

"That's what I thought." Han rubbed his eyes, trying to get his thoughts together. "All right. Give her to me, then you go get on the shuttle and get them out of here."

Tully stared at him. "Han, there's a minor problem with that plan. I'm not going to just leave you here..."

"Sander, there's no choice."

"I think there is."

"Look, this deal..." He was almost too weary to argue the point. "It never included me leaving with you. They won't let me get on that shuttle."

"Huh?"

"Think back."

She shook her head stubbornly.

"He didn't let Chewie go just to keep me happy. It was a trade. Me for my partner."

"But..."

"Look, you need to get Rieekan out of here or all this is for nothing. I don't want to die for nothing, Sander. How about you?"

"Dammit, I..." She looked defeated. "All right. But... But... You'd better get yourself out of this, or I'm going to be in mortal danger from a certain Alderaanian senator." Sander handed the girl to him then stood and started toward the shuttle.

Han looked over at the Sith and met Corin's eyes. Would they let the rebels go without Arandu's permission, or did they already have it? Han knew Sander and the others had to escape while they could; Arandu would not want witnesses for the next part of the program. Corin watched Sander cross the bay, but made no attempt to stop her.

The hatch opened for Sander as she reached the shuttle. A few moments later the small craft dropped from its clamp and disappeared through the bay door.

The girl's head lifted suddenly, vague eyes alert for the first time since they had awakened her from stasis. Then Corin came to his feet, staring at the wall beneath the gantry. A 2-meter circle of metal bulkhead was turning red.

Han was on his feet, snatching up the girl, and running in an instant. He made it only ten steps to the nearest shuttle bay before the bulkhead exploded. He managed not to fall on the girl, letting go of her before he was smashed to the deck by the force of the blast. He rolled over, his head aching intensely, and saw that Corin and the others were sprawled on the deckplates, just as incapacitated as he was.

Tion was coming through the jagged hole in the bulkhead. The Sith Lord was bloody, his uniform scorched and torn, but his eyes were blazing with fury. Han wondered if he had already fought Arandu and won. There was only one figure still standing between them and Tion. It took Han a second to recognize Erin. He must have just arrived in the bay, and had been far enough away from the bulkhead to avoid the blast that had flattened everyone else. He was facing the Sith Lord with only a lightsabre and grim determination. Han was suddenly and vividly reminded of Luke Skywalker.

The girl was sitting up near Han, unhurt and looking vaguely off toward the bulkhead. Han sat up painfully, and turned her head toward the two Sith. He said, "That's your brother. That's a monster who's going to kill him. Do something about it."

Tion's sabre had beaten Erin back two paces already and the next blow would carve the boy in half. Then Tion stumbled, driven backward by an invisible blow that startled as much as staggered him. Erin lunged, and a second later Tion collapsed. Erin turned off his sabre, stumbled once, and sat down heavily on the deck, apparently from sheer amazement.

A moment later Arandu stepped through the opening in the bulkhead, took in Tion's corpse and the rest of the situation, and walked toward Han and the girl. He looked as if he had been in more than one firefight as well. Reaching them, he said, "You can see why it would be unwise to allow the Emperor to tap a resource of her potential."

Han got to his feet by using a handy support pylon for one of the launchers as a ladder. He said "I see why, but I'm not sure I understand why you do."

Arandu looked down at him a long moment. "I always understood that Palpatine was too dangerous to be allowed to live. But I let myself be convinced to hold my peace. I didn't understand the extent of the influence he held over the Dark Lord, even at that time. He is killing us, one by one, piece by piece, openly, or through treachery, or by insanity caused by his manipulation through the Dark Side. Eleven Lords of the Sith have gone mad and died in these past twenty years. I do not intend to be the twelfth." He glanced around at the carnage in the hangar bay. "The Emperor will unravel this mystery soon enough. Likely he will have the audacity to be surprised." He held out one hand and the girl came to him. "I've seen the possible futures, and disaster for all is the most likely outcome."

"Uh, don't tell me the future. I'd rather not know." Han found it ironic that there was no doubt in his mind that Arandu could see the future. He believed in Arandu's powers completely, in a way he had never believed in Kenobi's. Perhaps because the old Jedi had dropped dark hints like a mystic trying to hold an audience, and Arandu was so matter-of-fact it was frighteningly real. "You know, things might have gone a little smoother if you'd told us what you were doing."

"If I told you I was deserting the Emperor's service, you would not have believed me. But I assumed you would eventually figure it out for yourself." The Sith Lord eyed him for a moment, amused, "Are you sure you won't come with us? It is the best reward I can offer you at this time."

Han felt light-headed. Arandu was very good at what he did. In the middle of all this chaos, the man had somehow simultaneously managed to arrange his daughter's rescue, destroy Tion, confuse whatever pursuit the Emperor would send after him with the remains of the Star Destroyer, and put Han in a position where it would be very easy to say yes to this offer. Easy if had never met Leia Organa or Luke Skywalker. "No, I can't. I've got... Commitments in another direction."

"I won't tell you of the uncertain future. But you would come to less harm if you trusted yourself to me."

Oddly enough, Han believed him, but it was too late to matter. "Thanks, I appreciate the offer, but... I can't." This is it, Han thought. The one thing he wants from me that he can't take is my loyalty. So he'll either let me go, or he'll kill me.

"Very well. It will be a great shame when your luck finally runs out."

Erin appeared with Corin behind him. "Father, we only have ten minutes before the hyperdrive explodes."

"And we still have things to do." Arandu looked back at Han once more. "Good luck, Han. You're going to need it."

He and the others disappeared in the deepening haze of the bay, and Han leaned against the pylon for a moment in relief. That was a near thing.

Han reached the airlock of the nearest shuttle just as the next explosion hit. He braced himself in the inner hatch and hit the seal for the outer. It cycled as air rushed past outside to the new hull rupture. He made it to the cockpit, strapped in and started powering her up. A glance out the transparisteel port showed him the damn Adarin blockade runner was now partially blocking the port. He worked with the sensors, trying to get a better picture of the widening tear in the floor of the hangar bay. The sensors could read through the smoke and fire, but not the free energy that was flying around; the readings on how wide the gap was kept changing. I never wanted to live forever anyway, Han thought.

He hit the emergency override that transmitted a pulse through the shuttle's skin, shorting out the docking clamp. It fell away and he set the shuttle's orientation as best he could with the destroyer shaking around it and its fluctuating gravity interfering with his. Then he set the sublights on full and sent her shooting for the narrow gap of free space.

More explosions, on board the shuttle this time, and then it was free and tumbling. Then another blast impact, and that was the last thing Han remembered for a while.

***

Han woke sometime later, for a moment thinking he was on the Falcon, just after the Destroyer's first score. He had a terrible headache and thought well, explosive decompression will do that to you.

Then his surroundings penetrated. He was still in the hotseat of the shuttle, held in by the straps and nothing else; the grav was out. The board was partially dark, warning lights blinking. The screens were still working, and he hit switches until he got a view of Subjugator. I seem to have this problem lately with ships getting shot out from under me or blown up around me.

The Star Destroyer was drifting about 1000 klicks off the shuttle's bow. Power readings were minimal; it was leftover force from the explosions that was making her rotate. The shuttle's sensors focused on the blackened hole in the control castle where the bridge had been, and a tear in the hull forward above the hangar bay. Chunks of the Adarin ship drifted by. Han was willing to bet that ship was now wearing Imperator's ID codes in her carefully preserved control sec.

Two thousand crew on that ship and I helped kill them, he thought. But how many people had died on the Death Star? No, that's not a fair comparison. Ask yourself how many civilians died on Rialla and the Hammeriad Systems. Sweeping generalizations will get you every time.

Han unstrapped and used the overhead partitions to pull himself aft to look for tools. The shuttle had internal power but the drive controls were out. He'd lost too much time already. He had to get out of here.

Both the subs and the hyperdrive had been badly toasted on the way out of the destroyer. Han got the grav back then worked for a couple hours on the drive, interspersed with intervals of sitting on the deck with his head in his hands feeling sick and dizzy. He found the medipack and took the capsules that were supposed to do something for concussion, but they weren't intended to work while you were hanging upside down in an access panel replacing burned circuitry.

Finally the subs came back online, but he'd run out of onboard supplies and still needed to repair the hyperdrive. With the subs up he could get back to the destroyer and scrounge parts out of its repair bays, or even take another shuttle if he could find one that wasn't in pieces.

Han was so damn glad to be off that destroyer he didn't want to go back, but it was beginning to look like he didn't have a choice. He decided to stretch out on the cool deck for a minute before he did anything else. He couldn't afford to rest for long. The destroyer would have kept in constant communication with the flight of heavy cruisers that used it as a mobile base, with any of a hundred possible planetary bases in the sector. After a few more missed check-ins the local task force would get antsy and start looking for it, if they hadn't already.

Han had started to drift off, when the sensor-suite beeped for attention.

He staggered up to the cockpit and checked the screens. There were two ships moving into the debris area, scanning. One of them was an Imperial shuttle. The other was a sensor trace Han recognized without even checking the ID scan. It was the Falcon.

***

Later, when Han asked Luke how they had managed to find the Subjugator again, Luke got quiet. He explained that after abandoning the Cutter and jury-rigging repairs to the Falcon, they had ducked the Imperial ships still searching for them and followed the Destroyer's ion trail until it dissipated. While Wedge used the navputer to work out possible routes, with hypothetical destinations like Gyndine and Cordevant, Luke had tried the Force. He didn't think he was getting anywhere with it, but when he stopped trying and looked down at the screen of the tech station, he found he had typed in a set of coordinates. He ran them through the navputer and discovered that not only were they not random numbers, but they were the outsystem of Kanda Alerandi, which was on one of the possible routes that Wedge had worked out. Luke had talked the others into taking a look, (Chewie had been the only one to really believe him, and that was only because he was desperate enough to try anything, even Luke's offplanet magic. Wedge and the others were ready to give their captured friends up for dead, and were just humoring him.) But entering the system they had jumped right into the edge of the spreading debris field, and minutes later had been hailed by Rieekan and Sander.

We were lucky, Han thought. But they get closer every time. He noticed Luke was looking at him like he didn't expect belief from Han either. So Han told him what happened on the destroyer. Then they had a fight about it.

Han told Luke that one day he was going to find out that everything wasn't black or white the way Kenobi said it was, that occasionally people did things for reasons that weren't metaphysical, and that one day he was going to run up against some hard facts that he couldn't put into a neat category, and if he wasn't prepared for them he was going to be one dead-and-very-surprised-about-it Jedi. Luke had replied that Kenobi knew more about it than Han did, that he was well aware everything didn't fit into neat categories but there were things he was certain about, and that Han was only talking like this because he was half dead and so he should shut up anyway. Han told him to go to hell, then fell asleep.

When Han woke up he decided to let it go. There were some things you had to learn for yourself.

Chewie was keeping the Falcon limping along with bailing wire, string, and propitiatory libations to the Forest Spirit Han would have to scrape off the deck later, but the battered freighter held together long enough to reach the new under-construction rebel base.

On Hoth.

End

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