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Instead of bed, where she usually awoke from her dreams, Leia found herself slumped forward in her crash webbing, ears hissing with static and eyes aching from the glare of two G-class suns. Han and Chewbacca were still busy at their stations, Han plotting approach vectors and Chewbacca setting sensor filters. The planet Tatooine was just drifting into view, its yellow sodium-rich sands glowing so brightly it resembled a small sibling star in orbit around the big twins.
A metallic hand tapped Leia’s shoulder. She turned to see C-3PO’s photoreceptors shining at her from the adjacent passen- ger seat.
“Pardon me for asking, Princess Leia, but are you well?”
“Don’t I look well?”
“Oh dear,” C-3PO replied, a diplomatic subroutine activating in response to her tone of voice. “Why yes, you do look as splendid as ever, but it seemed for a moment as though you might have overloaded your primary circuits.”
“My circuits are fine.”
“I’ll need to confirm that later.” Han twisted around and glanced over his seat with the same crooked smile that had alternately charmed and worried Leia since their first meeting on the Death Star. “Princess.”
“Oh, really?” Leia straightened herself in her chair without fully realizing she was doing it. With his tough-guy good looks and eyes sparkling with trouble, Han still made her sit up and take notice. “And you think you can read my schematics?”
“Sweetheart, I know your schematics by heart.” Han’s smile faded, and his expression grew concerned. “Threepio’s right. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Something like that. A bad dream.”
Han looked doubtful. “I’ve sat in that chair. That chair isn’t comfortable enough for dreams–good or bad.”
“It’s been a long trip,” Leia said, perhaps a little too quickly. “I must have nodded off.”
Han regarded her a moment longer, then shrugged. “Well, see if you can stay awake.” He looked forward again, to where the twin suns were slowly being eclipsed by Tatooine’s steadily swelling disk. “Until the sensors come up, we need to keep an eye out for other traffic.”
Leia gazed out the canopy and began to search for the rapidly swelling silhouette of blocked starlight that would mean an approaching vessel. Her thoughts remained focused on the strange dream. It had a similar feel to the Force-vision she had experienced nearly five years earlier at Bakura, when her father had sent an apparition begging for the forgiveness she would never–could never–grant. But that had been his doing, not hers.
Han’s hand rose into view between the pilot and copilot’s seats, pointing toward a blocky silhouette floating some distance to one side of Tatooine’s yellow disk. The twin suns were now completely hidden behind the planet, and Leia could see that the tiny silhouette was growing larger as they approached. It seemed to be staying in the same place relative to Tatooine, deliberately hanging in the shadow of the planet.
“That’s too square to be a moon,” Han said.
“And it’s no asteroid, not hanging in one place like that,” Leia added. “But at least it doesn’t seem to be coming our way.”
“Yet,” Han replied. “How about those filters, Chewie?”
An impatient rumble suggested that the Wookiee was still struggling with the filters. Anyone else might have been frightened, but Leia found the groan reassuring, a touch of the familiar in a time of shifting alliances and random annihilation. When she had married Han six months ago, she had known Chewbacca would be an honorary member of their family, and that was fine with her. Over the years she had come to think of the Wookiee as something of a furry big brother, always loyal to Han and protective of her, and now she could not hear him growl without feeling that she lived in a safer place, that with Chewbacca and Luke and Han–when he was in the mood–and millions of others like them, the New Republic would beat back the Empire’s latest onslaught and one day bring peace to the galaxy.
That, and she liked how Wookiee fur always smelled of tril- lium soap.
The comm hiss finally fell silent as Chewbacca found the right combination of filters. He brought the sensors up, fiddled a moment longer, then let out a startled ruumph.
“The mass calibration is off,” Han said. “That reads like a Star Destroyer.”
Chewbacca oowralled indignantly, then sent the data read- out to the auxiliary display beside Leia’s seat and glanced back for her affirmation. She had to look only a second to see that he was correct.
“Sixteen hundred meters, six comm bands in use, and a TIE squadron circling on station,” Leia said, feeling a little sick and worried. When the Millennium Falcon came across a Star Destroyer these days, it was usually because one was stalking the other. “I don’t know, Han. The mass calibration looks fine to me.”
As she spoke, the Falcon’s computer found a profile match in its military data banks and displayed the schematic of an Imperial-class Star Destroyer. Below the image appeared the vessel’s name.
“The Chimaera,” Han read. “Isn’t she still in service to the Empire?”
“As of two months ago, she was one of their most efficient Destroyers.” Leia did not need to look up the information. The death of Warlord Zsinj eight months earlier had emboldened the Imperial fleet, and the Provisional Council had been mired in war minutiae ever since. “Admiral Ackbar has been wondering what became of her.”
“Deserters?” Han caught her eye in the canopy reflection. “Another captain wanting to set himself up as a warlord?”
“Please, no! The situation out here is already too confused.” With the New Republic battling the Imperials over the scraps of Zsinj’s empire and the surviving warlords exploiting the war to enlarge their own territories, confused was an understatement. Several times, the New Republic Navy had moved against one enemy to find itself engaging another, and sometimes two or three at once. “And the Chimaera’s commander isn’t the type. By all accounts, Gilad Pellaeon is both loyal and competent.”
“Then what’s he doing at Tatooine?” Han asked. “There isn’t a conflict zone within fifty systems of here.”
Chewbacca groaned the opinion that it was someone else’s job to analyze Imperial objectives, then began to plot hyperspace coordinates. Leia braced herself, more concerned with Han’s reaction than Chewbacca’s when she explained why they still had to risk a run planetside.
She was spared the necessity when Han scowled at the Wookiee’s flying fingers.
“Chewie! I can handle this, no problem.” Han looked vaguely insulted. “It’s only one little Star Destroyer.”
Chewbacca grunted doubtfully, then added a yawl about the folly of tempting fate for a piece of art.
“Killik Twilight means a lot to Leia,” Han said. “It hung in the palace on Alderaan.”
Chewbacca growled a long question that suggested they might be flying into a trap; the painting might not even be real.
“You can’t forge moss-paintings,” Leia answered. “Not anymore. They require strains that don’t spread or reproduce, the cultivation of which was a closely guarded secret even in Aldera. That secret died with the rest of Alderaan.”
“You see?” Han asked. “Besides, if the Imperials were trying to lure Leia to Tatooine, they wouldn’t leave their Star Destroyer out in the open like that.”
Han pointed at the tiny silhouette of the Chimaera, which had started an edgeward drift across the canopy as the Falcon eased past it toward the planet. Chewbacca stubbornly shook his head, reminding them of the syren plant on his native Kashyyyk, which drew victims to certain death with a scent so alluring it could not be resisted.
“Not a certain death,” Han corrected. “Or there wouldn’t be so many Wookiees in the galaxy.”
Never one whose purpose could be deflected by humor, Chewbacca reiterated the questions that had been troubling them all since learning of the auction. Why was such a valuable painting being sold in a seedy spaceport like Mos Espa? Where had it been all these years? Why was it surfacing now?
The answers were a mystery–as much a mystery as the Star Destroyer’s appearance here. At the time of Alderaan’s destruction, Killik Twilight had been returning home from a museum loan on Coruscant. It had dropped out of sight, and Leia had believed the painting destroyed with her home–at least until Lando Calrissian reported that it would soon be offered at auction on Tatooine.
Chewbacca continued to press his case, maintaining that the Chimaera’s presence was no coincidence. With an Imperial Star Destroyer hanging off Tatooine, there would almost certainly be Imperials at the auction. The argument was all too sensible, and–though Chewbacca clearly did not realize this–one that made it all the more imperative that Leia attend the sale herself. She leaned forward and grasped the Wookiee’s shoulder, and his tirade rumbled to an end.
“Chewie, everything you say makes sense. The Star Destroyer worries me, too. If this were just any piece of Alderaanian art, I wouldn’t ask you to take the risk. But for Killik Twilight, I must.”
Chewbacca studied her in the canopy reflection. He was a ferociously brave Wookiee–one who would never deny a friend’s request for aid once he knew a matter to be important. Leia only hoped she could win his help without having to explain herself now. Han was still stinging from that whole Hapan incident eight months ago, and being asked to risk his beloved Falcon on behalf of the Provisional Council would not sit well with him at the moment. Maybe not ever.
Leia held Chewbacca’s gaze with a sober expression that came to her face all too readily these days. Finally, he wrumpffed softly and nodded.
Han glanced over, his jaw dropped in disbelief. “That’s it? She says must, and you don’t even want to know why?”
“But you’ll argue with me?” Han glanced at Leia’s reflection in the canopy. “Those are some powers of persuasion you have there, Princess. You been studying with Luke when I’m not looking?”
“I’m no Jedi,” Leia said. Then, slipping back into the flirty mood that had been the norm between them since their wedding–it had to be driving Chewbacca mad, judging by how he turned away to look out the viewport–she gave Han a sultry half smile. “Just your common everyday Princess.”
“There’s nothing common or everyday about you,” Han replied in a tone so cloying that it made Chewbacca groan. “Or your hidden agendas.”
“Hidden agendas?” Leia cringed inwardly as she vacillated between sounding innocent and playful and came off as neither. “We’re just here to buy a moss-painting.”
“Yeah?” Han’s eyes assumed an amused twinkle. “Maybe Chewie’s right.”
“I didn’t say he was wrong,” Leia said, trying to sound cool–and failing. He had her, and he knew it. She hated that. “Han, I really want that painting.”
Han shook his head. “Something here smells wrong.” He began to ease the Falcon’s nose away from the planet. “In fact, I’m sure of it.”
He glanced again at her reflection. “Yeah?”
“You’ll draw attention to us.”
Han shrugged. “What’s it matter, if we’re leaving?” He turned to Chewbacca. “You about done with those hyperspace calculations?”
Chewbacca snorted and, clearly not wanting any part of what was to follow, threw up his hands. Tatooine began to slide across the viewport, and Leia knew she had to call Han’s bluff. He was too good a sabacc player to blank his cards without making her show her hand.
“Han, we need to be at that auction,” she said. “If Killik Twilight is down there, we have to buy it. Thousands of New Republic lives depend on it.”
“Really?” Han did not look at all surprised. “Imagine that.”
Tatooine stopped drifting toward the edge of the viewport, but Han did not turn the Falcon back toward the planet.
Leia took a deep breath, then said, “There’s a Shadowcast code key hidden in the painting. In the moisture-control circuitry.”
Chewbacca’s eyes grew as round as bubbles. Shadowcast was a secret communications network that had sent Rebel messages, encrypted within the commercial advertisements that paid for Imperial propaganda programming, via the HoloNet. The system remained undiscovered, and the New Republic still used it to send instructions deep behind Imperial lines to its most delicately placed spies.
Han’s eyes only hardened at the corners. “Honey, I think we’re about to have our first married fight. Why didn’t you tell me the Provisional Council was behind this trip?”
“Because it’s not,” Leia said, sounding more defensive than she would have liked. Why did her political skills always desert her with Han? “I’m the one who said Killik Twilight would be a good place to hide the code. I’m the one who thought the painting had been destroyed with Alderaan. This is on me, Han. The Provisional Council has authorized purchase funds, but only because Mon Mothma strong-armed them. She’s the only one who knows why we’re really here.”
“Oh, that makes me feel better.”
Eight months earlier, Mon Mothma had been among those urging Leia to cement an important strategic alliance by marrying the prince of a powerful consortium of planets known as the Hapes Cluster. Han still felt so betrayed by the Chief Councilor and the rest of the council that, despite several generous offers, he had so far refused to reactivate his military commission or assume any other formal role in the New Republic.
Han’s reaction was only one aspect of the Hapan matter that Leia regretted. Had she made it clear to Queen Mother Ta’a Chume that marriage to her son, Isolder, was not really a possibility– and that, given her genetic heritage, she had no interest in bearing children–she might well have salvaged an alliance via some other arrangement, and she would not have hurt Han.
Chewbacca yawled a warning, and Leia looked over at the auxiliary display to find an assault shuttle and three TIEs departing the Chimaera.
“Nothing to worry about,” Han said, studying his own display. “They just want to see if we get nervous.”
Leia was nervous, and a little exasperated, but she didn’t say so. Maybe Han had drawn the Chimaera’s attention, and maybe he hadn’t. Appearing too relaxed was just as likely to raise suspicions as appearing too worried. Anything could raise Imperial suspicions.
“Han, I didn’t mean to put the Falcon at risk,” Leia said. “I only wanted to spend some time together, and I thought this trip would be a good chance.”
“On a mission for the New Republic?”
“I didn’t know it would be a mission,” Leia said. “I’m sorry.”
“So you thought we’d enjoy a little trip to scenic Tatooine, pick up the lost code key, maybe swing by Jabba’s palace and relive old times?”
Chewbacca reported that the shuttle and TIEs were approaching on an intercept vector. Han adjusted the Falcon’s course enough to keep their line of escape open, then looked back at Leia.
“I don’t see why this code key’s so important anyway,” Han continued. “They must have updated it by now. It’s ten years old.”
“Nine years old,” Leia corrected. “And the code is updated every sixth broadcast. But even an old key would help the Imperials break the new codes. Worse, it would alert them to the existence of a network they haven’t detected in nearly a decade. It would cost the lives of thousands of former agents still living on enemy worlds. And there’s no telling how long it would take us to replace Shadowcast–or how many current agents we’d lose in the transition.”
Han looked away, his gaze dropping to his instruments, and Leia knew she had him. He would play hard to get, pretending to think it over, but Han Solo always came through when it counted. That was his weakness, and she loved him for it.
“Han, I really do want Killik Twilight back,” Leia said. “When you see it–”
“When I see it?” Han interrupted. “You’re taking a lot for granted.”
Chewbacca stopped monitoring the incoming assault shuttle long enough to turn and growl.
“I know she’s my wife,” Han said. “That doesn’t mean I’m responsible for dragging us out here. I can’t control what she does.”
Chewbacca dropped his eyes in exasperation, then awrooed at Han . . . twice.
“Me? I’m being Huttish?”
Chewbacca snorted an affirmative, turned back to the sensors, and reported that the TIEs were starting to accelerate ahead of the assault shuttle. Han spent a moment considering his copilot’s charge, then glanced at Leia again.
“Me?” he asked. “Huttish?”
Leia held her thumb and forefinger a few millimeters apart. “Maybe,” she said. “Just a little.”
Han’s expression turned from disbelieving to chagrined. He nudged the Falcon’s nose back toward Tatooine, angling for the planet horizon, where the twin suns were casting a crescent of white brilliance.
“I’m not doing this for the council,” he said. “I’m doing it for you.”
“I know you are.” Leia’s smile was perhaps a little too broad, and she could not resist adding, “And the council is grateful.”
Han scowled, but his retort was cut short when the comm speakers crackled to life.
“CEC transport Regina Galas,” a gruff Imperial voice said. “Maintain position and stand by for inspection.”
Regina Galas was one of a dozen false transponder codes the Falcon used when traveling anonymously. Han turned to C-3PO.
“You’re on, Goldenrod.”
C-3PO tipped his head. “On, Master Solo?”
“Stall.” Han pointed to the microphone above the auxiliary navicomputer interface. “Try Gand. They’ll have to rig for ammonia, and that’ll buy us some time.”
“Of course,” C-3PO said. “Perhaps I should suggest–”
“Regina Galas,” a smoother voice said. “This is the Star Destroyer Chimaera. Stand by for boarding, or we will open fire.”
“Threepio!” Leia pointed at the comm unit.
C-3PO activated the transmitter and used his vocabulator to emit a staccato burst of drones and clicks. There was a long pause while the Imperials summoned a translator droid.
Han smiled, satisfied, and rose from the pilot’s chair. “You know what to do, Chewie.”
Chewbacca groaned and took the yoke, continuing to angle for the bright crescent at the planet horizon. Han reached past C-3PO’s shoulder and linked the comm speakers to the Falcon’s intercom, then motioned for Leia to join him.
“I’ll need you in back with me,” he said.
Leia unbuckled her crash webbing, her heart rising into her throat. “Han, I don’t know if shooting our way out of this–”
“Do I look like a gundark?” he asked. “If we shoot, we’re dead.”
Happy to know they agreed, Leia followed him down the access to the rear hold. By the time they opened the hatch, the Imperials were back on the channel with their translator droid, and it was conversing with C-3PO in a cacophony of buzzes and clacks. Han retrieved a small cargo pod, then took it into the main ring corridor and opened one of the smuggling compartments in the floor. He began to extract the cases of fine Chandrilan brandy that he kept to pay off spaceport masters, passing them to Leia to stow in the cargo pod.
“What are we going to do, bomb them with intoxicants?”
“You might say that,” Han said. “It’s called ‘bribe-on-the-run.’ This stuff is good currency, especially to a junior officer who probably hasn’t seen a payment voucher in months.”
“Han, didn’t you hear what I said about Pellaeon?” Leia asked. “He won’t go for that.”
Han smiled. “He won’t have to.”
By the time he explained the details to Leia, the cargo pod was loaded and the Chimaera’s officer was back on the comm channel, sounding as irritated as only C-3PO could make a sentient.
“Regina Galas pilot, our droid assures me there is no reason a Gand can’t speak Basic.”
C-3PO replied with a long rattle of a question.
There was a momentary translation delay, then the officer replied, “My point is that I know you understand our instructions. Maintain position or you will be fired upon. Our targeting computers have you locked in.”
Leia nearly fell as Chewbacca suddenly decelerated and started what felt like a turn back toward the Chimaera. She knew it was really a maneuver to put the assault shuttle between them and the Star Destroyer’s powerful turbolasers. Han and Chewbacca had been running Imperial checkpoints since before there was a Rebellion. They knew every smuggler’s trick in the data banks–and a few more.
“I said maintain position, not come about,” the Chimaera officer barked. “And speak Basic!”
C-3PO replied with a stream of flustered clicking. Han and Leia chuckled with appreciation; they knew how frustrating the droid could be when he was agitated. They sealed the pod and ejected it through the air lock. When they returned to the engineering station in the main hold and brought the tactical array up on the display, Chewbacca had already brought the Falcon around and was accelerating away, with the assault shuttle now squarely between them and the Chimaera.
The officer began to yell. “Halt! Halt, or we’ll open fire!”
“Open fire?” C-3PO said, still in the voice of a Gand but now speaking Basic. “Oh my!”
Chewbacca closed the channel and, laughing so hard his roars rumbled out the cockpit access tunnel, continued to accelerate. Unable to make good on the officer’s threats without risking her own assault shuttle, the Chimaera held her fire. The Falcon’s new bearing ran roughly parallel to Tatooine’s surface instead of toward it. But Leia knew that once they were beyond turbolaser range, or masked by the electromagnetic blast of the twin suns, Chewbacca would turn. Leia continued to watch the tactical display, expecting the Star Destroyer to maneuver for a clear shot or divert her shuttle, but she did neither.
“Good,” Han said. “They think we’re just spice runners. They’ll stop to collect our jettisoned cargo, and then we’re home free. The boarding officer won’t want prisoners around to tell Pellaeon what was really in the pod.”
“You’re sure about that?”
Leia watched with growing alarm as the three TIEs passed the cargo pod, now angling to put themselves between Tatooine and their quarry. As long as Chewbacca continued on a straight course, they would be unable to catch the Falcon–but the instant she turned toward the planet, the TIEs would be in good position to cut her off.
“They don’t look all that interested in a bribe.”
Han studied the display, his jaw falling a little more with each kilometer the TIEs put between themselves and the ejected cargo. For a moment, it looked as though the assault shuttle would also ignore the pod and stay behind the Falcon. Then a tractor beam activated in its stern, and it veered toward the bribe. Han sighed in relief, but grabbed Leia’s hand and started for the laser cannon access tunnel.
“Han, what happened to no shooting?” Despite her protest, Leia allowed herself to be dragged along. “ ‘If we shoot, we’re dead.’ You said that. I remember.”
“I say a lot of things.” They reached the access tunnel and Han jumped in, not climbing down so much as using the handholds to slow his descent. “But they’re trying to grab the pod on the fly. The boarding officer needs us to make this look good, or his commander won’t buy our escape.”
Leia was already climbing into the upper turret. “How good?”
“Good. That Pellaeon must be a real stickler.” The Falcon shuddered as Han test-fired his weapons. “Just don’t hit anything. Hit something and we’re–”
“Dead.” Leia buckled herself into the firing seat. “I know.”
From the Hardcover edition.