Dragon's LibraryShadow of the Hunter
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 The Renegade and the Rogue 1994.

***

"Give me a hand, Leia," Han Solo said. "What's the approach?" The Millennium Falcon had made the distance from Commenor to the deep outsystem with a short and dangerous hyperspace hop.

Princess Leia edged forward in her seat in the Falcon's cockpit and leaned against the acceleration straps, pointing to one of the possible approach vectors scrolling across the sensor screen. "That one," she said. "The 3529..."

"Got it, Chewie?"

The Wookiee woofed an acknowledgement.

"There's no beacon," Leia explained. "We come in on that approach and then send the post a recognition signal."

The Falcon fell toward a moon-sized chunk of icy rock, a planetoid drifting barely within the influence of Commenor's system primary. The Alliance sector outpost was buried somewhere inside it, the still-active veins of volcanic activity deep in the dying little planetoid masking post communications from any curious sublight traffic.

Han glanced back at the princess. Leia's eyes were intent on the transparisteel port, as if she could speed them on their way by sheer force of will. "Take it easy," he told her. "We're almost there."

She shook her head, uneasy. "This is an important sector. An Imperial agent in the outpost as second in command -- it couldn't be worse! There's no telling the information he's passed on, the damage he's done."

They knew that the agent had almost gotten them captured on Commenor, and before that, he had probably been the one to reveal Han's meeting with rebel agents on Ord Mantell. Han didn't have any comfort to offer her. It was a disaster, all right.

The outpost rock was coming into clearer visual range, a rough dark shape, rounded on one side but with a huge craggy crater covering more than half its surface on the other, probably the remains of whatever cataclysm had knocked it out of its orbit centuries ago. "About time for that code?" Han asked.

"I'll send it," Leia said. She turned to the comm console. Before she could change the setting to the rebels' band, a burst of signal transmission startled her almost out of her seat. "What...? Was that another ship?" She looked at the settings. "This isn't an Imperial channel."

"No, that wasn't Imp," Han told her. "It's, uh... Private traffic. Nothing that's going to mess with us."

Chewbacca grumbled an inquiry and Han shrugged. "Probably. This is their prime territory."

"Pirates?" Leia asked, adjusting the headset. Commenor and its outsystem were famous for pirate activity.

"How would I know?" Han asked irritably.

"Fine, fine, don't tell me," Leia muttered under her breath. She busied herself with sending the recognition code. And they say I'm hard to get along with.

Leia sent the code and the Falcon dropped velocity, coming in low over the gray airless surface of the planetoid. They skimmed over a crumbling mountain range and the Falcon dove to stay close to the ground. They could see the entrance to the post now. It was a circular depression in the broad, flat valley, and the dim light of the distant sun glittered on the blast doors that shielded the bay, the only visible evidence of the rebels' presence. Leia sighed in relief. In minutes she would be ordering the arrest of Rin Takeda, the Imperial agent working for the Sith Lord Adarin. An instant later the Falcon rocked, her shields grazed by an energy blast.

Han swore and Chewie snarled, as they broke off the Falcon's approach and angled her sharply away from the surface.

"They shot at us!" Leia shouted, indignant.

"Yeah, I noticed." Han checked readouts, and grimaced at what he saw. "Toasted us nicely, too."

The Wookiee grumbled at Leia and waggled his brows at her fiercely, blaming her for the rebels' reaction.

"It's not my fault," Leia objected, pushing the loose hair back from her forehead and further disordering her braids. "They should recognize the Falcon."

I bet they do, Han thought, and that's the problem. If he was right this wasn't going to be nearly as cut and dried as Leia had hoped. "Takeda's been warned," he told her. "Barris or somebody figured out what we were after in the Admin Complex and sent him word to watch for us."

"Yes, dammit, I just didn't expect them to be able to communicate with him so quickly."

"They had a sweet setup out here. Only makes sense they'd try to hang onto it as long as they could." Han adjusted a few controls, channeling more power to the Falcon's shields and bringing her about for another try. He considered initiating the warm-up sequence on the guns, but the post's sensors would pick that up and it would only reinforce whatever suspicions Takeda had already managed to plant. "Try to contact them on voice," he told the princess.

Leia worked over the commset for a few moments. "They won't acknowledge our signal." She tapped her fingers on the console, to keep from hitting it with her fist. "If I could just talk to someone... They must not realize I'm on board."

"Barris never managed to ID you," Han reminded her. He shook his head. "Takeda could've told them anything, but he probably told them I'm the one who's an Imp agent."

Chewbacca snarled a comment, and Han said, "Yeah, I'm getting tired of hearing that too."

As the Falcon angled down toward the base again a second energy burst crossed her bow, deflected by the shields. Han swore. He was getting mad, and he didn't have anything to shoot back at except a post full of deluded rebels. "You call it, your worship. Break off or attack."

"No, don't attack." Leia bit her lip, worrying about the Alliance personnel in the post and wishing Han would call her by her name, or anything but that sarcastic epithet. "Break off until we can think of something."

The Falcon changed course sharply, veering up and out of range. Leia leaned back in her chair. "We need to get into that base before the courier ship arrives. Now that Takeda knows he's about to be caught, that must be all he's waiting for before calling in the Empire."

Han switched his controls over to Chewie's board and stood to lean over the comm suite. He did a quick scan of base communications, testing a theory, then swore under his breath. "We can't jam their transmissions from here; their setup is too frequency-agile."

"I know," the princess said, holding the bridge of her nose as if she had a headache. "That's one of my standing orders for isolated outposts."

Han grimaced. "You have to think of everything, don't you?"

"How was I supposed to...? Oh, just never mind."

"When's the courier due?"

Leia looked at the Ship's chrono and did some quick calculations in her head. "Twelve timeparts, roughly."

Han dropped back into the pilot's seat and took back control functions. There was no time to return to the rebel fleet for reinforcements. With Takeda's Imperial bosses as close as Commenor, they had only so long to act. "That's not a lot of time, Leia."

"Yes, Han, I know that. We could try to contact the courier before it docks at the base, but..."

Han finished her thought. "But the courier won't accept transmissions until it comes out of hyper, and the first thing Takeda will do is warn them about us."

Leia shook her head, trying to make herself think faster. "There are over seventy people stationed there now, and if he takes that courier..."

Han muttered something under his breath, and distracted, Leia asked, "What?"

"All right, all right," Han said, as if she'd been trying to talk him into something. "Run that message burst we caught on the other channel, Chewie, and get me a direction."

The Wookiee leaned over the controls, chortling happily to himself, as he transferred the data from the comm board. Leia felt she had missed something. "Have you thought of a plan?" she asked.

"No, but I'm going to get us some help."

"Who?"

"This area is a good place to find...free traders of independent means." Han found himself oddly reluctant to use the more exact term. "Commenor's a busy system. The big, slow-moving freighters have to exit hyper out here sometimes, so they don't disrupt the traffic patterns."

"You did recognize that signal. Why didn't you say so?" Leia demanded.

"Because it wasn't your business, your holiness. Can you just get a hold of yourself and let me do this?"

"I'm not... Oh, forget it." At least they were doing something constructive, or at least Leia hoped they were. Han's ideas were usually bizarre, but they worked more often than not. Leia managed to contain her curiosity and impatience for all of two minutes, before she had to ask, "You really think those people will help us?"

"Sure, it's their line of work."

"Their line of work?" Leia could only think later that she hadn't put two and two together immediately because she was distracted with worry over the rebel outpost. "Wait a minute," she said. "Are these pirates?"

"Can't get much by her," Han said to Chewie, and the Falcon shot deeper into the dark.

***

To anyone else it would have been open space, but Han Solo knew the Millennium Falcon was passing into a crowded neighborhood.

The commsuite picked up scattered message bursts, and the sensors read ghosts at the edges of their range. They had been scanned several times, probably by drifters on the fringe of the Flight. They would see the Falcon was too small and too gun-heavy for prey, too old and too jury-rigged for an Imp predator, and make caution the better part of curiosity.

Pirates had always made the Commenor outsystem their home, preying on the system traffic and using it as a meeting point for forays all throughout the sector. The inner planets were good places to do business, with some of the best merchandisers in stolen goods making their headquarters there, and plenty of downport maintenance shops that didn't ask hard questions about licenses. The Imperials in charge of policing the system had long been paid to look the other way, and some of the money from pirate ventures often found its way back to pockets in the planetary governments. The particular Flight of ships Han was tracking had made their base here for years.

Once they were close enough to pick up the Flight's communication as a steady buzz on the comm suite, Han decided it was time to announce himself. It felt odd; it had been years since he had broadcast the Falcon's real ID.

As the transponder sent the name Millennium Falcon toward the clustered ships of the pirate flight, the IDs started to come back. Micanna's Gold, Kisaran Random, Seeker-to- Infinity, Sandarra's Victory...

...and Starshine Sister. Finally, a little luck, Han thought. The presence of the Falcon's old base ship should make this go much smoother. Of course, if he kept track of everything that didn't go as it should have, he wouldn't have time to get into these situations.

They were close enough to see the Flight now through the port, and Leia asked, "What is that?"

At this distance it looked like a lot of space junk, collected in a giant, elliptical shape that was rotating gently under its own power. Hulls that were more ancient than the Falcon's locked against those of shiny unpitted metal, with sensor vanes, dishes, and more than an occasional gunport protruding.

"That's a lot of independent freighters, lighters, whatever, stuck together by their airlocks. We got here at a good time." Han stood to hit overhead switches, preparing the Falcon for the delicate docking maneuver. "They probably had a good haul from another system, and they're resting up and dividing the take. Means everybody will be in a good mood and ready for some fun."

"Oh," Leia said, nonplussed. It was like looking at what you thought was a rock and having someone tell you it was actually a nest of scorpion-ants. "You mean, it's a Corellian pirate Flight."

"Yes, that's what I mean. What's the matter?"

"Nothing," Leia snapped. "Han, do you really think this will do any good? Can't we..."

"Can't we what, your worship?" Still standing at the console, Han glared down at her. "If you had a better idea, you should've said something before now."

Leia gritted her teeth, biting back a retort that would've escalated the argument from skirmish to open war and gotten them nowhere. "I don't have a better idea, I'm merely trying to discover what exactly your idea is."

Han leaned his forehead against the warm metal of the overhead panel. It was stupid to get into an argument with her now; neither one of them had had a particularly easy day. He said, "Look, we need help to get into that base. We need ships they won't recognize. We need to come in so fast Takeda can't think of a way to stop us, and we need to do it before that courier hits the outsystem. I'm not thrilled about doing it this way either, because a reunion with old friends isn't my favorite pastime, but this is all I can come up with right now. So you'll just have to trust me."

I hate it when he says that, Leia thought. "All right," she agreed reluctantly. "You're right; we don't have any choice."

Chewie rumbled a comment, and Han saw that Sister was sending them clearance for the lock on her belly, a prime spot. Han dropped back into the pilot's seat and gave the jets a low power burst to gently nudge them closer. "We've got an invite from the lead ship," he told Leia. "That's good."

She shifted uneasily. "I hope so."

"Didn't you tell me you went to a Captains' Council once? Hell, you might see some familiar faces."

"Yes, but they held the Captains' Council at the Hub on Kishieran's Moon, not in the middle of a flight of pirates."

"There's just as many pirates on Kishieran's Moon as here. They're just not so easy about admitting it." Han spared a moment to wonder what his reappearance would do to the up and down politics of the Flight's hierarchy. The Falcon waltzing up out of nowhere and being immediately invited to cozy up to Sister would undoubtedly put some noses out of joint.

As he brought the Falcon in closer, he saw a ship that hadn't bothered to broadcast her ID. It was the Sun Chaser. If Han had come back to stay, his first action would've been to blast her off of her moorings. From Chaser's position relative to Sister, Kyle might just have managed to make himself Ace. That could mean trouble.

Docking like this always took forever, but eventually, after some hit and miss with the maneuvering jets, the Falcon matched airlocks with Starshine Sister.

Han locked down the boards and stood up, checking the tiedown on his holster. He was having to fight a surge of habitual paranoia at opening the lock while in this vulnerable position -- he always did. But Sister had allowed the Falcon to dock at no more proof of identity than an ID and a familiar shape in her sensors. The least he could do was open the hatch and prove who he was.

Leia found herself a little nervous. All the stories about vicious pirate attacks on unarmed passenger transports were coming to mind, scenes of mass spacings of helpless civilians, hulled ships, the carnage of the aftermath of an attack. But as far as she knew Corellian pirates targeted only shipping lines and freighters, stealing cargos but leaving passengers and crew alone. It was one of the reasons the Alliance had tried to open negotiations with them, years ago, but it had never worked out. Leia's role in the Rebellion had been only a minor one then, and she knew the High Command had had mixed feelings about the whole operation, which was probably one of the reasons why it had failed.

She followed Han up the companionway to the lock where the Falcon's top hatch was, fighting the urge to start an argument with him to distract herself. Chewie trailed along behind her, slinging his bowcaster over his shoulder and hooting with delight. Evidently the Wookiee didn't share Han's dislike of reunions.

Leia stopped Han at the hatch and asked, "Do you really trust these people?"

Her face was serious and looking down at her, Han answered honestly, "As much as I trust anybody."

Leia bit her lip. She could see she was going to have to rephrase the question. "Should I trust these people?"

"If you pay them, and you don't double cross them, yes."

"Oh. Good. I think."

The princess still looked uncertain, and Han thought, irritated, What does she want? They're pirates. He ran a quick diagnostic on the lock's control pad to check the pressure seal between the two hatches, then threw the bolts. The hatch above them slid back overhead with a faint pop of displaced air. A few feet above it Sister's hatch began to cycle and Han started up the ladder.

The hatch opened into Sister's belly hold, a chamber large enough to hold most of the Falcon comfortably, lit by glow strips on the bare struts overhead. There were a lot of people standing around waiting; Han was surprised at how many of them he remembered.

Ryan Allen was leaning against the bulkhead, grinning down at him. Han hauled himself up to sit on the edge of the lock, and found himself grinning back. Elis was standing next to Ryan, a tall, beautiful woman with skin the color of dark honey and long black braids, who had been the Sister's First mate as long as Ryan had been Captain. "Finally made it back, huh?" she said, smiling down at him.

"Just passing through," Han corrected, getting to his feet. "And I need a favor."

Ryan rolled his eyes. He was a tall Corellian with light hair and a close-trimmed beard. "Am I supposed to look surprised now?"

Jakus Kyle, the Captain of Sun Chaser, was standing nearby, a few of his crewmen to back him up. He was younger than Han by a few years, big but fast, dark-haired and sharp- featured. He didn't look happy, but then, he never had. He said, "What are you doing back here, Solo?"

"You made him your Ace?" Han asked Ryan, ignoring Kyle. "I think I'm insulted." Leia appeared in the hatch, looking worried, and he leaned down to give her a hand up.

Ryan shrugged. "He won it, fair. Well, sort of fair."

"You left, Solo, and I'm saying you don't have any right to come back." Kyle folded his arms deliberately.

Nobody else said anything. Han could tell they were waiting for him to do something about this. Kyle wouldn't go along with any plan he proposed, or even shut up long enough for him to talk Ryan and the others into anything. Not that he really needed an excuse; his gun hand was itching just looking at his old enemy.

Chewie's head popped out of the lock and he howled a greeting.

"Hey, Chewie, you're looking good," Elis said with a grin.

Kyle said, "Well?"

Chewbacca saw Kyle, made a horrible grimace and a noise of disdain. Kyle made a succinct gesture back at the Wookiee, who replied with a short hooted comment.

"He says 'No, thanks, he's trying to cut down,'" Han translated, deadpan.

Kyle's jaw tightened. He said, "You gonna let the animal talk and fight for you?"

Han took off his gunbelt and handed it to Leia, saying, "Don't worry. This won't take too long."

The Princess cleared her throat, and said uncertainly, "I don't think I'm quite following what's going on here."

"Chewie will tell you," Han said, then launched himself across the hold at Kyle at the same time the other pirate came at him.

People scrambled to clear a space. Chewie, dragging himself out of the hatch just in time, stretched out a long arm and herded the princess back out of the way.

Han got the first blow in, but Kyle retaliated immediately, blocking Han's second punch and landing one that rocked him back into the bulkhead.

Leia watched nervously. Chewbacca was telling her something that she couldn't seem to translate properly from his language into standard, something about position within the clan and rights and conflict between dominant males. It probably made sense to him, but it wasn't something an upbringing on Alderaan, no matter how progressive one's education, prepared one for. "Now I understand why you two get along so well together," she muttered, and the Wookiee patted her on the shoulder, pleased by the compliment.

Han and Kyle circled each other, more wary now after the first exchange. Han wanted to get this over with quickly but not at the expense of a few broken bones. He ducked a punch to his jaw, tried to come in underneath and slam Kyle against the bulkhead. Unfortunately, Kyle was fast too. Han barely avoided a kick that would have broken his knee, and shifted his weight abruptly, tumbling them both into a stack of plastic loading crates.

"So what's up with you, Chewie?" Ryan Allen asked casually. Chewie shrugged and made a complex Wookiee gesture meaning "Nothing much."

Han broke Kyle's hold on his neck and flipped the other pirate over his shoulder. Kyle hit the deck heavily, made one attempt to get up, and then collapsed. Han staggered, breathing hard and tasting blood from a bitten lip. His head hurt, and none of this had helped repair any of the damage he'd gotten on Commenor in his famous airbike wreck. Then Ryan slapped him on the back and almost knocked him down, saying, "Hell, you didn't give us any time to make bets."

***

Starshine Sister had originally been a heavy stock freighter, but there was no disguising what she was now. The companionways had once been roomy, but piping and conduits for the augmented systems stretched overhead, and cabin and hold space had been sacrificed for the powerful drive and the extra weapons.

Han was trying fill Ryan in on why they were here, but kept having to stop to greet old comrades and to pretend to remember which kids were whose. The Flight was celebrating the liberation of three large cargos from a string of bulk freighters in another system, and Sister was a madhouse with the party still in full force. Crews from the other ships wandered through, most of them Corellian but with a few non- humans sprinkled through, and no one seemed to be sober. Chewie had vanished almost immediately, hauled off by enthusiastic friends. Then at a joining of two companionways one of Ryan's crew fought his way through the crowd and said, "Sun Chaser broke off, Captain."

Ryan raised an eyebrow at Han, who shrugged and said, "Sorry about that."

"No, you're not. But it doesn't matter. I'd had about all of him I could take." Ryan leaned back against the bulkhead. "So what's this favor?"

Before Han could answer, Elis put her arm around his shoulder and conspiratorially stage-whispered, "And who's the new lady?"

"That's not 'the new lady,'" Han told her, resisting the urge to look around to see if the princess had heard. "That's Leia Organa, from the Alliance, and I need to help her crack that Alliance outpost you've got in your backyard."

Ryan and Elis exchanged a look. Ryan said, "I get the idea this needs to be a private conversation. Wait here a second."

As Ryan and Elis moved on up the companionway, Han turned to find Leia, and a small child took the opportunity to leap onto his back.

The princess had been watching from a discreet distance, sensing a private conversation. Now she stepped closer to ask Han, "What does 'ace' mean and why did that man want to fight you over it?" She had to raise her voice to be heard over the din, but so far no one else had seemed hostile, and she was feeling greatly reassured about coming here.

"The Ace is the pilot of the point ship in an attack, and he gets the biggest percentage of the take. Kyle knows he wouldn't be Ace at all if I'd stayed," Han explained, disentangling himself from the protesting little boy and depositing him on the deck. "He didn't like it when I joined up the first time, way back when. He always said it was because he didn't think Ryan should trust a loner like me, but it's just that he thinks he's a hot pilot and can't stand knowing I'm better."

"Oh." Leia rethought several of her assumptions. Some of these Flights were said to be decades old, and she had been wondering if perhaps Han had grown up here, if Ryan and Elis were relatives, but that didn't seem to be the case.

The little boy looked up at her with big green eyes and asked, "Are you my aunt now?"

Leia blinked, and said, "Um, no, I'm not. Sorry." She looked inquiringly at Han.

"That's okay," he told her. "I'm not his uncle." He caught sight of Elis waving from the hatch to Sister's galley, and added, "Come on. Time to do your diplomatic bit."

Diplomatic bit, Leia thought, reluctantly following him. Right. I just hope this doesn't cost too much...

Ryan and Elis had already chased out the revelers who'd congregated here and taken seats at the long galley table. Ryan gestured for Leia to sit down at one of the benches and said, "Let me get this straight. You're from the Alliance, and you want us to help you crack an Alliance base?"

The galley wasn't that much larger than the Falcon's hold area, and the exposed ducting and the worn condition of the acceleration chairs and concussion padding were certainly a familiar sight. Leia leaned across the battered table and explained, "The second in command of the post, Rin Takeda, is an Imperial agent. He's convinced the others that we're the traitors, and they won't allow us to land. Now there's another Alliance ship arriving in just under eight hours. I think he's waiting for that ship to land at the base before he turns all the personnel over to the Empire."

"And?" Ryan prompted.

Han dropped into a chair at one of the nearby tech consoles, leaned back and propped his feet up. He decided he was going to find it entertaining to watch the princess work on Ryan Allen, who was no stranger to this kind of negotiation. He said, "Leia has the recognition code for the post, but they won't let the Falcon land. But if another ship comes in, sending the recognition code and pretending to be the courier, under fire by a bunch of nasty pirate ships, the chances are the base personnel will let her in before Takeda can think of a good reason why they shouldn't. Once we're down, Leia can take care of Takeda."

Elis was lounging on the bench next to Ryan. She said, "Sounds reasonable to me."

Ryan looked at Leia. "These rebels, they'll listen to you?"

The Princess nodded grimly. "They'll listen to me."

Ryan glanced at Elis. She nodded, and shrugged as if to say, "Why not?" He said, "So it sounds like it might work. What do we get out of it?"

"The base will have to evacuate in a hurry," Leia said. She had pegged Elis as the second in command, or at least as someone with a lot of say about what went on, and she was glad the older woman had decided to support them. But this was the part she hadn't been looking forward to. Start small, she thought. Maybe they won't want that much. "That means they'll have to abandon some equipment. Components, maybe some fighters..."

Ryan shook his head. "And we won't have time to collect it, with the Empire coming in any second. I'd like to talk cash."

"I don't..."

"There wouldn't be any currency coming in on that courier, would there?"

Leia hesitated. He'd caught her off guard, and it was against her principles to lie to potential allies. She looked at Han, hoping for some help.

He shrugged. "Ryan's a professional. It's his job to know things like that." He'd guessed much the same thing himself, when he first heard about the courier's impending arrival and the precautions the rebels were taking.

Leia took a deep breath and nodded. "All right. I can give you as much as twenty thousand in marketable precious metals."

Ryan shook his head. "We can't do it for less than forty."

"That's ridiculous," Leia said flatly. The courier would be carrying far more than she had offered, but the rest was needed to support the other outposts and twenty was all she could afford to spare.

"You wouldn't be here if you weren't desperate, lady, but I'm not cheating you. This Flight isn't a dictatorship and I'm not the King. I have to show a profit and I have to divide it up so everybody's happy. What you're talking about is going to mean power consumption, and wear and tear on all the ships involved, paying for time, repairing anybody who gets shot up if things don't go right. I have to be able to cover expenses or I don't boss this Flight anymore. And you might consider that once you're under contract to me, I'll be holding off any of the part-timers who might be sniffing around for your courier."

Leia looked at Han again. He explained, "Part-timers are ships that aren't allowed to dock with the Flight but follow it anyway, picking up quarries that are too small for the big pirate ships to bother with. He's right; they'll smell that courier coming a parsec away."

Leia sighed, turning back to Ryan. It was made worse by the fact that she didn't really believe he was trying to cheat her, or that Han would let him if he did try. She had no one to blame for this but herself and Takeda. "I see your point, but the Alliance isn't that wealthy. I can't produce that much cash immediately. Would your people be willing to wait?"

"It doesn't all have to be in cash. We could take the twenty in specie as a down payment, and the rest in transferable securities."

Leia blinked. "Excuse me?"

"The Alliance must have planetary money backing it, am I right?"

"Yes..."

Ryan leaned back. "So transfer the other twenty directly from your hidden accounts to ours, which is at the Citizens' Trust on Commenor. I'm guessing you have a Commenor banking connection too. Half the ill-gotten gain in the Empire is laundered there. Since you're a friend of Han's, I'll trust you to make the transfer. How's that?"

"That could work," Leia said cautiously. These people were full of surprises. Han was smiling at her discomfort and she could've hit him. "I'm a little surprised that pirates have bank accounts on Commenor," she admitted.

Elis shrugged. "The rates are terrible, but we need the credit on hand to pay our insurance premiums."

"Oh." She didn't know whether she was in a Corellian pirate flight or at a board meeting of Planet Hoppers, Inc. "I agree to those terms. When can you leave? You realize it has to be soon."

"Yeah, but this party has to go on for a while, or we'll have mutiny." He glanced at the chrono. "I'll break it up at 0700. Space everybody who isn't on the right ship, that shouldn't take too long..."

Leia glanced quickly at Han, who mouthed the words "Figure of speech."

"We can leave by 0900, that suit you?"

Leia nodded. "It's a deal."

As Ryan got up to get the account numbers for her, Elis said comfortingly, "We're playing straight; Han can tell you that."

Leia raised an eyebrow at Han, who ostentatiously looked the other way.

There was a shout of "you bastard!" from down one of the companionways and a fight interrupted with no more warning than that. Elis cursed and bolted off to intervene, and Leia leaned back on the bench and blew out her breath, grateful for the moment of respite.

In a voice just low enough, Han said, "What did you expect them to ask for, princess, some nice shiny beads maybe?"

"Han, shut up," she hissed at him. "I've got enough to worry about without anyone thinking I'm insulting them."

"Okay, okay." He shifted in his chair, a little uneasy suddenly. "So, you all right with this?"

"Well, yes," she said, after a moment's consideration. "I think it's going to work. Kind of you to ask, now that I'm already committed."

"You're welcome."

Leia sighed and looked around the cabin again. High on the bulkhead, above some clamped pressure hoses, were six, no, seven skulls, with heavy ridges over the eyes and knobby projections that might be horns. Some sort of animals, Leia thought. "What are those?"

"Those were slavers."

"Oh. I see." She blinked, adjusting to the idea with difficulty. Then she frowned and asked, "But I thought slavers never went after Corellians."

Han leaned back in his chair and stretched extravagantly. "Not for labor, they don't. But occasionally they get requests for novelties. Especially certified-real Corellian pirates."

Leia looked away to hide her expression. She was surprised at the pure intensity of the protective rage that went through her like an energy bolt at the thought. Maybe she was overwrought, letting her anger at the casual cruelty of the Empire get the better of her; maybe seeing that thought in context with people she knew would have affected anyone like this. Maybe sometimes she just remembered why she was with the Alliance in the first place.

She knotted her fingers and resolved to reveal none of her feelings. If Han noticed her reaction he would probably interpret it as disgust at the trophies.

But Han saw the muscles in her jaw tighten and knew exactly what her reaction was.

***

"Han, I don't get it," Ryan was saying, again. "What are you doing with the Rebellion? What are these people to you?"

Han shrugged. "It's a job."

"That's no kind of job. That's an artistic way to commit suicide."

They were in the Sister's lounge, and the victory party was still going on strong. Leia had gone back to the Falcon already, and Han had been a little relieved to see her go. He wasn't too keen on having it get around the Alliance that he had been a pirate. Right now plenty of the rebels suspected it, but that was mainly because any Corellian with a hot ship and a less-than-legal way of making a living was automatically thought to be a pirate. Nobody knew anything for sure. Well, now they will, he thought. In less than a timepart Leia would probably hear about every score the Flight had ever made with him as Ace, in detail. Sometimes Corellians didn't know when to shut up.

The problem was that the Alliance was filled with people who had been planetary heat: senators, generals, military, civilian proctors, what have you. People who at another time would make it their business to put people like him out of business permanently. Though there were also people like General Rieekan, who had been heat at the highest level on Alderaan, but who still treated him like just another expert with specialized knowledge, and never asked uncomfortable questions.

Of course, Leia Organa didn't ask uncomfortable questions either. You could trust her a little, he told himself, remembering that she had asked him to do just that in the Admin Complex on Commenor. Then he wondered if too long an association with Luke Skywalker had driven him crazy. The only way he had survived all this time was by expecting just about anybody to turn on him at any moment.

Elis asked skeptically, "So how much do the rebs pay?"

"Enough. What is this, an interrogation?" Han turned his cup around on the table. "This is a hell of a brandy. Where did you get it?"

"The homeworld. It'll be the last for a long time. They tightened up the picket ships." It was Ryan's turn to shift his drink around on the table. "This Leia. I know you said she was playing straight, but can she really convince the rebs not to blow us away once we ground? I hate the thought of taking a ship into a situation like that. And some of the Flight's buzzed the reb ships a few times, just to see what they were made of. We never took one, though. I always figured they probably didn't have anything we'd want, and hey, the more trouble they give the Imps, the better for us. But they could hold it against us."

Han understood his concern. Trying to get into a place as well defended as the Alliance post without hurting anybody, when they were feeling no such scruples about you, would be difficult at best, disastrous at worst. He shook his head, smiling to himself. "If Leia had been in charge of the retreat from Comaris," he said, thinking of one of the biggest military disasters of the Clone Wars, "Not only would they all have got out alive, but they would've all had clean socks and underwear. If anybody can do it, she can."

Ryan accepted that with a nod, then asked, "So you involved in the Alliance because of her? She seems like a nice kid, but..."

Exasperated, Han slumped back in his chair. "Ryan, dammit, what are you, my mother? Will you mind your own business? Look, it's temporary, all right? I got mixed up with them by accident, when they needed some specialized kind of help. I've got to leave soon anyway. Jabba thinks I owe him for a load of spice, and I need to get him off my back."

"Jabba?" Elis shook her head and sighed. "I don't know about you, sometimes, honey. You've got a death wish."

"I do not." Han did his best to look wounded and abused, and Elis stuck her tongue out at him.

Ryan was more direct. "The Hutt? That's the problem with smuggling. You have to deal with those kind of people."

Elis set her drink down suddenly, an odd look on her face. She reached across the table, took Han's wrist and turned it over, exposing the red marks still etched into his flesh. "What's that?"

"I noticed, but I was too polite to ask," Ryan said, eyeing him thoughtfully.

"It's nothing," Han told her, pulling his arm back. He didn't want to even think about Adarin, much less explain that situation to anybody.

"That's not nothing." Elis grabbed his other wrist and looked at the almost identical mark there. She ran her thumb over it gently, and Han said, pointedly, "Ouch."

She let him go, but said, "You got that from binders. What the hell happened?"

"Nothing," Han told her again. "And besides, it's over." And asked himself Is it, Solo? He wondered what other tidbits of information Rin Takeda had passed on to his Imperial bosses. The spy had almost gotten him captured twice so far, on Ord Mantell and Commenor, with consequences unpleasant in the extreme. Han wasn't looking forward to the next surprise.

***

Leia knew Corellians were supposed to have an abnormally high tolerance for alcohol, though she'd always believed it was a myth. But a few sips of whatever that was they were drinking up there had given her shooting pains up and down her spinal column, and she had escaped from the celebration early for fear of poisoning herself. And Elis had taken her aside and given her some graphic advice on handling Corellian men, despite Leia's protests that she and Han were only friends. Leia had fled before it had gotten to the point that she would've been unable to speak to Han without blushing uncontrollably, at least until the initial shock wore off.

She leaned back in the chair at the Falcon's tech station, feeling the tension as a tight band across her shoulders. She couldn't believe she was preparing to launch an attack on a rebel outpost with a force of pirates. But it was the only way.

Later she started awake at a sound from the hatchway. A quick glance at the chrono told her she must have drifted off. She got to her feet unsteadily. She hadn't meant to fall asleep sitting up and her neck was sore. "Han, is that you?"

He didn't so much walk into the cabin as fall around the corner of the bulkhead and fetch up against a stanchion. "Hi," he said.

Leia bit her lip, containing the impulse to laugh. She had never seen Han drunk before, even though he had been present for the few celebrations the Alliance had held. "Hello," she said. "Having a good time?"

"You missed a great party," he told her.

Leia was finding this fascinating. Except for being a little vague and apparently unable to stand upright without help, it was hard to tell he was drunk. Then she frowned. There was a small round bruise just above his collarbone that hadn't been there before. Her adolescence on Alderaan had been painfully circumscribed by the duties of government and the senate, but even she could tell that it was a lovebite. What the hell was going on up there? No, no, it's none of your business! Don't be an idiot. Still her voice was a little cold as she replied, "I've never been very good at parties. Real parties, I mean, not diplomatic ones."

"Oh," he said, and slid down the wall a little.

He wouldn't be so far gone if he wasn't so tired, Leia thought suddenly. He couldn't have recovered from the airbike wreck and the capture by Lord Adarin as quickly as he pretended. Maybe she could talk him into getting some rest. "Do you want me to help you to your cabin?" she asked.

He thought about it so long she wondered if he'd forgotten the question, then he said, "Okay."

That was easy, the princess thought. But helping him down the companionway, Leia found herself wondering suddenly if this was a mistake. She had never been this close to him before, unless someone was shooting at them. This journey had started as a quick trip to Commenor, and she hadn't expected it to go on so long. She hadn't meant to spend so much time alone on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo, with only Chewbacca for a chaperon. She could feel his body heat through the thin fabric of his shirt. The musty smell of Wookiee fur clung to him, overlaying his own scent which was warm and male and unnerved her terribly, though it wasn't him she was afraid of. Be careful, Leia, be careful, and don't be an idiot, she told herself again.

But once in the cabin he obligingly fell over into his bunk without her help, throwing one arm over his eyes. There was a controlled grace in his movements even now, and Leia found herself lingering to look down at him. She so seldom saw him relaxed. He trusts them, and he still doesn't trust us, she realized suddenly. He doesn't relax with us.

When they were docking with Starshine Sister, he had said that seeing old friends wasn't his favorite pastime. What did he mean by that?

And that thought led to: If he leaves the Alliance, will he ever come back? "Why can't you be more like Luke?" she asked aloud.

Unexpectedly, Han replied, "Because one of Luke is enough. If you ever spent three days trapped in a survival tent with him on Torana during the monsoon, you'd know that. And he snores." Suddenly he was looking at her directly. His eyes were intense and green-gold under the cabin lights. "Leia, I don't get this. I've been running from people like you all my life."

"What do you mean, 'people like me?'" she asked, indignant. At least he was using her name, and not 'your holiness' or 'your worship' or something else equally irritating.

He had already drifted off. He wasn't going to answer her. Dammit, why do I bother? she asked herself, tired and frustrated. Whenever I want him to talk to me, he won't, and the rest of the time I can't get him to shut up. But Leia found her hand moving apparently of its own accord, to brush that thick russet-brown hair back from his face, and relented. She said softly, "Well, flyboy, you don't have to run from me. I'm on your side."

Leia dimmed the cabin lights and stepped out into the companionway quietly, then the humor in her situation struck full force. She had to bury her face in her hands. I'm tired. Too tired. If I start to laugh, I won't be able to stop, and who'll help Chewie when he comes staggering back from wherever he is?

She made her way back to the lounge, occasionally bumping into the bulkhead. She didn't believe any of it. Here she was, the last Princess of Alderaan, the martyred rebel senator, in the middle of a Flight of Corellian pirates, plotting the forcible takeover of a rebel outpost, sitting out the drunken brawl or orgy or whatever was going on in the other ships with Han passed out in his cabin, and she was still reasonably confident that at the appointed time they would all be mostly sober and ready to go. What would my father say if he could see me? she asked herself suddenly. Now there was a frightening thought.

And standing in the Millennium Falcon's lounge, Leia lost the urge to giggle uncontrollably. Bail Organa had always pictured his Rebellion as the province of established planetary governments and disgruntled senators; he would never think a band of pirates had anything to contribute. Well, the more fool he, Leia thought, taking a seat at the tech station again and resolving to try to get some more rest. The more fool he.

***

The ship chosen to be the apparent quarry of the other pirate craft and to attempt the landing at the outpost was the Starshine Lady, a lighter owned by Ryan and Elis. It was a pretty little vessel, with a mostly unscarred hull and gunports that were not at all obvious. Leia suspected it had been used as a decoy before.

Han was busy coordinating the other ships with Ryan and his crew, and Leia, with no part to play until they arrived at the outpost, found herself wandering the little ship from holds to gun wells, aimless and getting into the way. She decided to remove herself voluntarily before someone did it by force, and went on up to the cockpit. There she found Elis, running diagnostics on the control boards and occasionally talking into a headset. The older woman gestured for her to take one of the crew seats and Leia dropped into it gratefully, glad to have some place to get her thoughts together.

After a time Elis pulled her headset off and rubbed her temples. "Almost ready," she said. "Sister is charging her guns now."

Big guns, Leia thought. And probably an Arrakyd missile launcher too. The Falcon had one even though Han chose not to advertise the fact. I just hope we don't have any reason to use them. She said, "I wasn't worried. I knew you'd be ready to leave on time. It's me. Unless I have something to do I drive everyone crazy."

Elis turned her chair around and grinned at her. "For a politician, you're all right."

Leia chuckled. "I'm not a politician, I'm a..." She let the sentence trail off when it dawned on her that she had no way to finish it. Senator or Princess, as if either title meant anything now. General, maybe? The High Council wouldn't say so. They wanted her to be a figurehead. To hell with that, Leia thought, grumpily, then decided she had been hanging around with pirates too much.

Elis was watching her thoughtfully. She asked, "How did you meet up with Han?"

Leia sighed. "It's a long story. I'll tell you after this is over, if there's time." She shifted in the worn leather chair, uncomfortable suddenly. "But he's only with the Alliance temporarily."

Elis snorted and turned back to her board. "Han is never anywhere unless it's temporarily."

For some reason that wasn't something Leia wanted to hear, though she knew Elis was only telling her the facts. Quietly, she asked, "Why did he leave the Flight?"

"I don't know." Elis shook her head. "It's like he can't stand to get comfortable anywhere. As soon as you get used to having him around, he starts getting antsy to leave. If you're going into a fight, you couldn't pick somebody better to come with you, but as soon as the fight's over, he's gone. Some people are just like that." Elis shrugged. "Ryan and me, we don't mind if we go to Hell together, but Han, I don't think he minds if he goes to Hell alone."

"He stays with Chewbacca..."

"Oh, he tried for years to scare off old Chewie, but that Wookiee has got reserves of stubborn he's never even used yet." Elis leaned over to Leia and in a lower voice said, "You wouldn't believe how I met Han. I was..."

Han ducked through the cockpit hatch at that inopportune moment, and eyed them suspiciously. "What?"

"Nothing," Elis said, straightening up and reaching hastily for her headset again. "Just girl talk, honey."

***

One burst came too close, sending a flare along Lady's starboard quarter shield, and Han and Elis exchanged a look. "He probably thinks it's funny," Elis muttered.

Han had never before been on the receiving end of Sister's powerful guns and he didn't like it. He was glad Chewie was holding the Falcon out past the base's sensor range and well away from anybody's line of fire.

At the comm suite, Leia said, "Finally, they're answering our commhail. Han, I'm switching it to your board."

"Got it."

After much discussion, they had decided that Han would do the talking. No one on the post was likely to recognize his voice, and he knew they couldn't be sure that Leia had never been identified on Commenor. The last thing they wanted to do at this point was alert Takeda that a member of the Alliance High Command was on her way in to kick his ass.

Han flicked a couple of switches and adjusted his headset. "Post Controller, post controller, this is the Freedom Wing, we're under fire by pirates! I need clearance now." His voice was breathy and just on the edge of panic, all the while he was calmly studying the sensors to make sure Sister didn't get cute with another near miss.

A buzz came from the comm's speakers, then a voice from the post said, "Freedom Wing, this is post controller. We can't cover you, you're blocking our line of fire on your pursuer. Can you adjust your path seven degrees..."

Han spared a grin for Elis; she had plotted their course to match with Sister precisely. He said, "There's no time, post controller. Here, I'm transmitting the recognition signal." On cue, Leia bent over the comm board and sent the code. "You've got to give me clearance, post," Han continued, as if making a heroic effort to control his fear. "If they hit me now I'll crash right on top of you!"

"Receiving your signal, Freedom Wing. You have clearance and we're opening our bay doors now. Good luck."

Han cut the transmission and Elis said, "Good job, honey."

"I liked it. Are their cannons still tracking us?"

"Yeah, but I'm reading power transferring into the blast doors. Hope they open them or we're going to make a nice splat. Was that the Imp jerk you're after, Leia?"

"I don't know." Leia put the commset on standby and turned her chair toward the port. "I've never met him. Somehow I don't think so."

"Our timing's nice and close," Han told her. "The controller had to decide to let us land on his own authority, with no time to call anybody in to second-guess him. Makes me think Takeda isn't in the command center."

"But if he's not in the command center, where is he?" Leia muttered unhappily.

Han brought the Starshine Lady around in a landing pattern and on cue, Sister and the other ships broke off their attack. The large round doors were cycling open beneath them and Han guided the Lady in a gentle low-grav drop through the magnetic field and down into the bay.

As the little ship settled onto the landing pad, Han scanned what he could see of the bay through the port. It was good-sized, with rock walls, and he marked the location of the one exit he could see from this angle. The place had the look of a temporary facility; the bay floor seemed to be formex- bonded, which was fine as long as the ships lifted and sat down on their anti-gravs. One good blast from a hot drive would melt half of it. Two transports and three Y-Wings were grounded here and nothing else. He could also see about ten rebels, most of them armed and watching the ship warily. At least they looked like rebels; they were all dressed in rumpled tech's coveralls or civilian gear, and two of them were female. It would've been just too lucky to trick our way down here and find out the Empire had already moved in and set up housekeeping, he thought, putting his board on standby.

Han stood and checked the charge again on his blaster. "Leia, we need to get you out there. Lady may look like a lady from a distance, but..."

"But up close," Elis finished for him, flicking switches rapidly as she took her own board through a hurried postflight, "She's gonna look like the little pirate whore she is. I'll cover you with the drop gun if they try anything."

"I'm right behind you." The princess was already freeing herself from the straps and the comm headset.

At Lady's lock, while Han tapped in the sequence to lower the ramp and pull back the locking bolts on the hatch, Leia was practically hopping with impatience. He said, "Take it slow. The drop gun is right under the cockpit; don't get out of its firefield until we're sure they're not going to blow us away."

"I know that," she snapped.

"Good; just don't forget it," he snapped back.

The hatch lifted and Han dragged Leia back when she tried to go out first. She snarled in frustration, but didn't try to get past him. Han stepped out onto the ramp cautiously. More rebels had appeared; there were more like twenty in the bay now, most of them holding blast-rifles. Han kept his hands away from his gun and didn't make any quick moves; he would've hated to be shot that many times by accident.

One man was standing near the ramp, wearing a light brown Alliance uniform jacket with a commander's color tabs. His hair was graying but he still looked young for the job. He asked, "Who are you?"

Leia stepped out past Han. She didn't move too quickly either, and showed the man her open hands as she started down the ramp. "Commander, I..."

A disrupter burst splashed against the edge of Lady's lock, missing Leia by far too small a margin. Han moved before he thought, sweeping Leia off the ramp and dumping both of them down onto the bay floor. The second disrupter burst hit directly where he had been standing. Han pulled his blaster and took a bead on the Commander, but he was facing the other way and yelling, "Cease fire! Cease fire! Who the hell's shooting?" Leia wasn't moving under him and Han had a moment to hope she was only dazed; the ramp provided little cover and the next disrupter burst would take them both.

Then from behind and above him the Lady's drop gun fired, the heavy energy bolt opening a crater in the formex not five paces away from the post Commander. The man staggered and turned to stare at the ship. Elis' voice boomed out over the bay on the ship's loudspeaker, "Don't anybody move. Next shot that's fired, I'm raking this place."

Han seconded the motion, yelling, "Drop your weapons. She means it." I knew there was a reason we brought her along.

For a moment nobody moved, and the heat from the blast crater turned a few more inches of formex to liquid. Then the Commander held up his hands, showing he was unarmed. "Look, I didn't order that. I don't know who fired at you."

Elis asked, "Han, you okay? Did Leia get hit?"

At that moment Leia poked Han in the chest. "I need to breathe."

"Sorry." He eased off of her, still keeping his body between her and the direction the disrupter fire had come from. He was trying to watch everyone in the bay at once, but he had to glance down at her. She was blinking up at him, her eyes watering from contact with the deadly weapon's nimbus. "You okay?" he asked.

"I feel awful and I'm being stabbed all over with little needles."

"Elis, hang tight, we're okay," Han yelled. He told Leia, "You were caught in the edge of a disrupter burst."

"Oh, then this is normal."

Uh-oh, Han thought. A near-miss with a disrupter could send a charge through the brain, causing any number of odd and painful side-effects. But it can't be too bad, he told himself. She was talking coherently.

Leia was rubbing her eyes. "Is the Commander still there? Elis didn't shoot him?"

"No, he's there," Han said, vastly relieved. She remembered who she was and what they were doing; it wasn't bad at all.

"Well, help me up and tell him to get over here."

Han motioned to the Commander, "You, get over here."

The Commander moved forward slowly. Han lifted Leia to her feet, and as the rebel came within reach she grabbed the front of his jacket and shook him. As weak as she was at the moment, this had little physical effect, but Han noticed the psychological impact seemed to be just what she was aiming for. She said, "As I was saying, I'm Leia Organa, I'm from the High Council, and you're under arrest. Wait a minute, who are you?"

"I'm Den Querlin, the post Commander. You can't be Leia Organa..."

"You're not under arrest. Where the hell is Rin Takeda?"

One of the other rebels, a young woman dressed in a fighter pilot's harness, put down her rifle and started forward, stopping when Han's blaster moved to cover her. She said, "Commander, that's Leia Organa, the princess of Alderaan."

"You're sure?" the Commander asked, seeming stunned by the news.

Leia looked over her shoulder at Han, eyes wide and not well focused, and whispered, "Do I look that bad?"

"Why is it so damn hard to believe?" the Corellian asked, exasperated. He wanted to get Leia back into the ship; there was still a disrupter-wielding unfriendly out there somewhere, and the princess obviously couldn't take any more close calls.

Nobody bothered to answer him. "I'm sure," the woman pilot insisted, "I helped in the evacuation from Yavin."

"Oh, hello," Leia said, focusing on her suddenly. "You're name is Asme, isn't it?"

"Uh, Han." Even through the ship's speaker Elis sounded embarrassed. "Ryan picked up the firing on his sensors, and he said if they don't open the doors so he can bring Sister into the bay, he's going to slag them. I thought you should know."

"Do it," Leia said.

Querlin relayed the order, then turned to look down at Leia again. "Takeda..." the Commander said, his expression still confused. "Takeda told us you were dead."

Leia tried to shake him again, and shouted, "Takeda is an Imperial agent in the pay of the Sith Lord Lan Adarin and there is probably an Imperial Task Force on their way here right NOW!"

That finally did it. The Commander turned and shouted, "Find Takeda! He's under arrest as an Imperial agent. Use caution, he's probably the one who fired on them!"

"Thank you," Leia said, and her knees started to buckle. Han caught her, holstered his blaster and lifted her up, carrying her back toward the Lady.

Elis met him at the hatch. "What happened?"

Leia was saying, "I don't want to go back to the ship, I have to help organize the search. Anyone can see that man doesn't know what he's doing." Or at least that's what Han thought she was saying. She had buried her face against his chest and her voice was muffled.

He told Elis, "She caught a near-miss off a disrupter and her head's a little scrambled. Take care of her until I get back, okay?"

"I will."

Han handed the still-protesting princess over and Elis lifted the much smaller woman easily. Han caught Leia's chin and turned her face towards him. "Leia, you stay here and argue with Elis and I'll find Takeda, all right?"

"I don't know..." Leia said doubtfully. Her eyes were having trouble focusing again.

"Trust me."

Elis said, "Go on, she'll be okay. She's tough. I'll send Ryan and the others after you when they get here."

Han took off across the bay, catching up with the Commander again. Querlin gave him a wary look. "Who are you?"

Han remembered that some of the Flight had buzzed rebel ships before, out of curiosity and to see if they were worth fighting. Possibly the Commander thought he was one of them. "I'm Han Solo."

Querlin stopped in his tracks, staring like Han had suddenly grown another head. The Corellian tensed and took a step away, automatically giving himself some distance in case he was attacked. Then the Commander shook his head and cursed under his breath. "Takeda, again," he explained. "He said you killed Princess Leia."

"I... Where is he supposedly getting this stuff?"

"He said it came from a courier on Commenor."

"We've just come from Commenor. That's where Takeda's boss Adarin was, before he left for Gyndine." If he's not on his way here now, Han thought. The last thing he wanted to do was tangle with a Sith Lord again.

Querlin cursed again and started walking. Han followed, his nerves a little less jumpy. It looked like Querlin believed them now, though they were damn lucky that fighter pilot had recognized Leia.

They had reached the arch that led into the rest of the post when the landing alarms went off and Sister dropped through the magnetic field to execute a neat landing next to Lady, looming over the smaller pirate ship, the transports, and the rest of the bay, the guns and the heavy plated shielding making it very plain what she was. Querlin stopped again. "What the... That's one of those pirate ships."

Is this guy slow on the uptake or what? Han thought impatiently. He was tired of explaining. He said, "So?"

Querlin didn't look happy, but he led the way down the corridor anyway.

Not so much care had been lavished on this part of the post: the walls and floor were bare rock and cold, with no formex-bonding to insulate them from the planetoid's sunless surface. They came up to a set of double blast doors, where several rebels were gathered, talking to each other worriedly. One tech was kneeling down by the controls for the doors, burning into the corundum panel with a fusioncutter.

Oh, great, Han thought. If it was what it looked like...

One of the pilots spotted the Commander and said, "Sir, Takeda's sealed himself inside the Command Center, with the two people who were on duty as hostages."

"Dammit," Querlin muttered. "The comm equipment's in there. Somebody get over to the defensive system control and stop any transmissions he tries to make."

It's what it looks like, Han thought in disgust. A couple of techs bolted off down the corridor, but it was probably already too late.

There was some noise from the direction of the bay, then Ryan Allen came around the corner with what looked like half his crew, all armed, all suspicious. The rebels looked uneasy, but no one quite dared to voice an objection. "So what's going on?" Ryan asked Han.

"Bastard's locked himself up in the command center with a couple of hostages," Han answered, thinking hard, discarding one plan after another. He was glad for the backup; he didn't think Querlin would be much help. "Hey, can you put a guard on Lady? Leia's there with Elis, and if this guy's recruited any help since he got here, they might try for her."

Ryan took out a comlink and said, "Skory, I want a perimeter around Lady. Nobody gets in but us."

"Wait a minute," Querlin objected. "How do I know..."

"Quiet," Ryan told him, reinforcing the order with a casual not-quite-pointing-at-you-yet gesture with his blast rifle. "Somebody's thinking." He asked Han, "Well?"

Han glanced up, and saw a round grill covering a ventilation or maintenance hatch set up into the rocky ceiling of the corridor. "Where does that go?"

"I was looking for the damn plans but I can't find them," Someone was saying from behind the group of rebels gathered in the corridor. "The security office has been ransacked." One of the oldest rebels Han had ever seen not wearing a general's uniform pushed his way to the front of the group. He wore a greasy coverall and had tools hanging out of every available pocket. "Here," he said, squatting down and hastily smoothing the footprints out of a stretch of the fine-grained gray sand that covered the floor of the corridor. He took a stylus out and began sketching a technical schematic in the dust.

Han and Ryan both crouched down to look at it. "So that's an air-flow vent." Han pointed, careful not to ruin the drawing.

"Yes, comes out right here," the old man pointed to the grill over their heads. "As I remember, it runs above the command center, comes out in the ready room just past it, but there's a connecting door."

"But this is the only way in to both those rooms?" Ryan jerked his head toward the double blast doors and the tech who was still trying to cut his way into the control mechanism.

"That's what he'll think, son," the old tech answered, tapping the part of the drawing that showed the long straight cut of the air duct. If he had noticed that he was talking to two Corellians and that the corridor was filled with armed pirates he gave no sign of it. "You can take this way in and come out right behind him."

Han's thoughts had already gone past that point. He stood up. "Tell them to start burning a hole through the doors; that'll get his attention and cover up any noise I make going through the duct."

Somebody handed him a fusioncutter and a couple of Ryan's men boosted him up so he could cut the grill off.

Querlin said, "I'm going with you. How many others..."

"Not a good idea," the old tech interrupted him. "Most of that duct isn't drilled through the rock; the section that crosses the ceiling of the command center is resting on sheet metal and plastiboard. I don't know that it wouldn't support more than one man, but it would sure as hell up the chances of him hearing you."

Two more techs were already bringing up a high-powered beam drill and starting to set it up in front of the blast doors. Han finished cutting the grill out and clipped the fusioncutter to his gunbelt, then handed the grill down, singeing his fingers on the hot metal. "I'll go alone. Just keep burning through that door." It was just as well; he didn't want Querlin behind him in that narrow passageway. He stretched up and caught one the supporting bars that ran across the interior of the duct, putting a little of his weight on it to test its strength. It seemed firm enough.

"You sure you want to do this?" Querlin asked.

What a dumb question, Han thought, and hauled himself up into the duct.

The old tech was right. After the first scramble through a narrow rocky tunnel, the duct turned into a plastiform tube that seemed to be supported by metal bars cutting across it at odd angles and not much else. Dim light came up from below through cracks in the plastic, and if it was resting on the flimsy ceiling of the command center than Takeda's chances of hearing him were very good indeed. After a moment's thought, Han squirmed around and slid into the tube on his back, pulling himself along by the support bars. His thin shirt and vest didn't do much to stop the cold, and condensation made the metal bars slippery. He hadn't gone more than a meter or so when he heard a man's voice, from below, speaking urgently. He couldn't make out the words. If it was Takeda using the commset he hoped like hell the rebels had managed to jam his outgoing transmissions.

Han hesitated, knowing that if he could hear Takeda, Takeda could hear him, and his awkward passage down the duct was not likely to be silent. Then from below and back toward the way he'd come he heard the whine of the beam drill, and grinned tightly to himself. Good, that should keep him occupied. He hauled himself along again.

The tube bored through another layer of rock at what he assumed was the far wall of the Command Center, then into a far shorter passage ending in another grill opening downward. Rolling over and peering cautiously down through it, he could see a table with a couple of mugs on it and somebody's jacket thrown over a chair, some pressure crates stacked against a formex wall, and not much else. He couldn't hear anyone talking now, though from this distance the whine of the heavy drill wasn't nearly so loud. Using his fusioncutter at its lowest, quietest setting, he melted the bolts in the grill and carefully lifted it aside.

Shifting around for a better angle, he got a look through the door into the Command Center. Rock and formex walls, lined with consoles and data storage cabinets. He could see one woman half-sprawled across a sensor board as if she had been struck either unconscious or dead in the act of standing. On the far side of the door it looked like somebody lay in a heap on the floor. Those must be the two hostages; hopefully Takeda hadn't been dumb enough to kill them already, but Han didn't have time to worry about that. He didn't see the Imperial at all.

Moving as quietly as he could, he took a firm hold of the edge of the grill, and rolled forward and out. He held on to it for a moment, swinging until he had enough control to make his landing silent, then dropped to the floor. His blaster was out the instant his feet hit the ground, but nobody came obligingly charging through the open door at him.

It was unnerving that Takeda was so silent, that he wasn't talking on the comm anymore, or pacing back and forth, or trying to negotiate with the rebels on the other side of the door.

Han sidestepped carefully, coming up on the door from an angle, trying to get a better view of the rest of the other room. The back of his neck was prickling from tension. Takeda must've heard him, despite the noise from the rebels' beam drill. Now he's waiting to one side of this door ready to shoot the first dumb Corellian who comes through. But the wall the door was set in was only a partition, separating the ready room from the bulk of the Command Center. Take a good guess, Solo, Han thought, and fired not through the door but through the flimsy wall just to the right side of it.

There was a blur of color and motion, someone spinning away from the wall, and a flash of returning blaster fire. Han dived to the side just before the energy bolt hit the wall behind him, punching a neat hole through the formex and blackening the rock beneath. Han rolled over to cover the door again, thinking what the hell... The return fire had been too quick, almost instantaneous; if he hadn't already been moving, it would have killed him easily. It was almost as if the energy bolt from his own gun had been reflected back...

The man who stepped around the door held a glowing three meter blade of orange-red energy, a lightsabre. The low-power hum of it had been hidden under the noise from the beam drill on the other side of the door. Han came to his feet, keeping his blaster pointed squarely at the man, though he didn't fire. The ready room wasn't big enough to dodge reflected energy bolts for too long. Takeda said, "I was expecting someone, sooner or later. Too bad for you that it's later; I've already sent a message to Commenor, and there's a task force on its way here now." He was a mainbreed human, tall, dark-haired, blunt-featured, still dressed in an Alliance uniform jacket, nothing unusual about him except for some odd, indefinable strangeness in his light blue eyes.

Han backed away, slowly, and Takeda followed. "You waited too long," the Corellian said, and hoped he was telling the truth. You should have guessed this, he was berating himself. Adarin was a Sith Lord; of course he would have sent one of his own kind on such a delicate mission, instead of relying on a merely Imperial-trained intelligence agent. "They've been jamming your transmissions since you locked yourself in." The sabre was drawing little glowing circles in the air and he made himself watch the man behind it instead of the weapon. After Yavin when Han had been teaching Luke Skywalker the finer points of unarmed combat, he'd shown him how careful he had to be when using his sabre, how many ways there were for someone to get under his guard and take the weapon away if he wasn't alert for it.

Demonstrating this for someone who was holding an inert practice tube had been one thing, doing it for real when the actual sabre was humming and turning the air to ozone not three feet away from you was quite another.

Then the sabre's point dropped and Takeda rushed forward and Han didn't have any time to think. He grabbed the fusioncutter off his belt and threw himself sideways, half- falling against the wall and firing continuously. He only got off two shots before the sabre struck the shielded surface of his blaster and spun it out of his hand. Then Takeda was standing over him, the sabre was coming back down, and Han swept upward with the fusioncutter.

He'd set it on low power to cut the grill quietly, but the focused beam cut across Takeda's bare hands. The Imperial snarled in pain and rage, taking one injured hand off the sabre hilt to knock the fusioncutter out of Han's grip and smash it against the wall. He took another step closer just in time to get Han's bootheel in his kneecap.

Takeda staggered and landed hard, and the sabre went flying. The weapon fell about a meter or so away from Han, the blade vanishing as it struck the metal floor. The Corellian grabbed for it and missed, barely brushing it with his fingers. Takeda kicked him in the ribs and Han rolled away from the blow and tried to stand, which turned out not to be a good idea when Takeda immediately tackled him. Han went over backward and hit his head on the edge of the table on the way down.

Han blacked out for a few seconds, coming woozily back to consciousness when Takeda hauled him up by the front of his shirt and dumped him on the table. "You're good at this," he snarled down at him. Han was glad to see he was breathing hard, at least. He could smell blood and burned flesh from what the fusioncutter had done. The inert hilt of the sabre was jammed against the bottom of his ribcage and if he moved he'd be dead before his heart could take another beat. "Before you die, tell me who you are," Takeda demanded.

"Why do you care?" Han said. He didn't struggle, deliberately trying to seem more incapacitated than he was. The back of his head felt like one solid knot of pain, but his vision wasn't blurry so it couldn't be too bad. "They'll be in here any minute, and they're not going to be happy to see you."

Takeda obviously hadn't expected to survive his mission and looked unimpressed by the thought of any vengeance from the rebels. The sabre hilt, if possible, was shoved harder into his flesh. "Who are you?"

Oh, why the hell not? Han thought suddenly. Arandu knew who he was, Adarin and Barris knew who he was, why should it be a secret from Rin Takeda, who was going to kill him long before the idiot rebels managed to break through the door? "You ought to know. You told Querlin I was busy wasting members of the Alliance High Command on Commenor. You're lucky he was dumb enough to believe you."

For just a moment Takeda's frightening eyes were confused. He said, "You're Solo. Lord Adarin wants you alive..."

The instant of distraction was all Han needed. He brought his knee up with all his strength.

Takeda reeled back and Han rolled off the table and grabbed his blaster off the floor. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the sabre's blade start to appear out of the handle and fired without aiming at the moving blur that was the Sith. The first bolt caught Takeda in the lower arm, spinning him helplessly around, and the second hit him square in the back. He fell against the wall of the ready room and hung there a moment, as if still making the incredible effort to turn and fight, then slowly toppled over.

He'd better be dead, Han thought, sprawled on the floor and wondering if the room was really rotating around him, because there's no way I'm getting up on my own. He reached up and felt the back of his head. No blood, though he'd smashed into that table hard enough; it must have been plastic instead of metal. Then somebody was leaning over him. He blinked and saw with relief it was Ryan Allen.

Han said, "He said he got a transmission out to Commenor..."

"No, he got one out but it was hyperwave. It'll be a couple of timeparts at least before it gets wherever it's going. They were able to jam the subspace to Commenor."

"Good." Han managed to sit up. He took a moment to make sure he still had all his fingers. Between the lightsabre and handling the fusioncutter so carelessly, it had been a near thing. He looked around, seeing that the blast door into the command center had a large hole drilled in it and Querlin and the others were standing around shaking their heads at the damage, and at Takeda's body. The two hostages were being helped up; they were conscious now, if bleary-eyed and confused.

"So," Ryan said, glancing critically around the chaos in the command center. "This is what working for the Alliance is like?"

"Pretty much," Han agreed, letting the other Corellian haul him to his feet. "Pretty much."

***

Han walked back across the bay, not too fast, and went up Lady's ramp, ignoring the questions from Ryan's crewmen who were guarding the lighter.

Leia was sitting on the bunk in the little cabin, holding her head in her hands, but she looked up eagerly when he stepped through the hatchway. "You got him?"

"He's dead." He sat down at the foot of the bunk and slumped back in the corner, using one of the pillows to cushion the knot of pain in the back of his head. Nobody except a couple of the rebel pilots and techs waiting in the corridor outside the command post had bothered to thank him for taking care of Takeda for them, and he was too punchy at the moment to be more than slightly miffed. On Querlin's part it might be embarrassment, but for the others... Han would be the first in line to admit that having any dealing with a Sith at all was uncomfortable in the extreme; maybe in some people's minds, that feeling extended to people who killed Sith, too. He probably couldn't have taken much gratitude at the moment anyway; he felt awful.

Leia didn't look so great either. Her skin was far paler than usual and there were dark hollows under her eyes. She asked, "Can you tell me what happened after we landed? The most coherent memory I have of it right now is of telling Elis something that happened to me when I was a little girl."

Han told her what Querlin had told him, and Leia snorted when she heard about the premature news of her death. "I can see why they didn't want the Falcon to land. Takeda was clever."

"Takeda was a Sith."

Leia looked up at him, stunned. "Really?"

"Lightsabre and everything." He decided not to tell her how close he'd come to getting whacked in half with that lightsabre.

"I suppose, knowing Adarin was the one who sent him, I should have expected... " Leia was muttering. She shook her head, disturbed. "But the Empire has never used Sith as intelligence agents before. That we know of."

Han grimaced. He wished she hadn't added the "that we know of." But he asked, "Why not?"

"There's so few of them. And they aren't really very reliable. I suppose Takeda was an exception." Leia frowned. "It's hard to tell if this means a change in policy or not. You can't expect someone like Lord Adarin to follow Imperial rules. Oh, Han... We got here just in time. If we hadn't found out about him..."

Querlin appeared in the hatchway, stopping when he saw them. Han could see the Commander was trying not to take any special notice of the fact that Han was sitting familiarly on the bunk with Leia. The Corellian wondered if the princess was aware what this whole episode was going to do to her all- business reputation in the Alliance. "Princess Leia, the courier ship is here," Querlin said. "I'm not sure we should allow it to land with...well, with..."

"No, you have to let it land. Tell them to offload twenty thousand credits worth of the specie they're carrying and give it to Captain Ryan Allen. It's only a down payment, but ask him to give you a receipt; I may need it when I talk to the High Command. Then the courier should return to the fleet. I want them out of here until I find out what kind of damage Takeda's done to our operations in this sector. And how is the evacuation going?"

"We're loading the transports now. We should be ready to lift in two timeparts."

"Make that one timepart."

Querlin left, and Leia rubbed her temples. "I still have the worst headache of my life. How long is this going to last?"

"Let's go over to Sister; she has a full combat med- setup, and you can get an electrolyte shot that'll help you shake it off. That's about the only thing you can do for a disrupter injury. Fortunately you didn't get too scrambled." Han was surprised at how difficult it was for him to get up again, and decided he could maybe do with a little medical attention himself.

Leia let him help her up, thinking how does he know these things? You'd think he'd been to the Academy. She found herself wondering if she had said anything embarrassing during the worst of the disrupter effect; she seemed to remember babbling like an idiot. "Well, at least we're even," she said, thinking of when she had helped him to his cabin and he'd said some odd things to her.

"What do you mean 'even'?" Han asked, glancing down at her.

"Oh. Nothing."

***

After a quick session with Sister's combat autodoc, Han felt almost normal again, with nothing wrong with him that twelve hours of sleep wouldn't cure. He was sitting perched on Sister's galley table, watching Ryan divide up the neat little squares of market-quality precious metals that had been delivered from the rebel courier, which had already taken off again for the Fleet.

There was a buzz from the comlink, and Elis's voice reported, "The Falcon's grounding now. Chewie's still hacked off because he missed all the excitement."

Han rolled his eyes. "Chewie can have the excitement."

Leia walked into the cabin, looking much more like her normal self, just in time to see Ryan push Han's cut across the table to him. "What's that for?" she asked, frowning.

"That's his cut, since he flew Ace," Ryan explained helpfully. "It's only seven percent instead of ten because he used one of my ships instead of the Falcon, and Elis flew as copilot."

Leia looked at the money again, then looked at Han. Her brows drew together and her expression grew stormy.

"What?" Han asked.

"If I had known..." Leia began, with enough heat in her voice to melt corundum.

The ship's comm interrupted her at that point, saying, "Ryan, that rebel guy wants in. He says it's important."

Ryan leaned over to smack the reply button. "It's okay, let him in."

"What's the matter with you?" Han asked Leia again. The seething princess folded her arms and didn't reply.

Querlin came into the lounge, clutching a sheet of hardcopy. Ignoring the others, he went immediately to Leia. "Princess, that hyperwave transmission Takeda managed to send before he was cut off..."

Ryan leaned over to Han and asked in a low voice, "She's a princess?"

"Yeah, sort of." Han shrugged. "It's a long story."

"So what does she want with you?"

"Dammit, we're just friends. How many times do I have to tell you..."

"Then why is she living on the Falcon with you?"

"She isn't..."

"Han!" Leia grabbed his arm, and Han, guilty and thinking she was about to hit him, protested, "Hey, I tried to tell him..."

"Look at this." She spread the hardcopy of the transmission out on the table. "It's about the mission Luke is on." She pointed to the computer-logged destination. "It was sent to Gyndine. That was where Adarin was going when he left Commenor."

Han took it away from her, and read it through. He thought about the Commenor to Gyndine route, how long it was likely to take in a fast Imperial Cruiser that must have all kinds of insystem right-of-way priorities, setting aside the fact that Adarin would probably blast through anything that blundered into his way. Dammit, this'll be waiting for him when he gets there. The transmission described the place and time of Luke Skywalker's meeting with two rebels who were making their way back from a failed mission. The meeting place was a civilian space hub called the Artash Gamble. The time was... "Somebody get on the comm to Chewie and tell him to keep the engines hot," Han said grimly, "We've got to lift now."

End

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