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The last time Han Solo had been here, the planet had had no name. The air had been thick and boggy, and there had been a ribbon of muddy water purling through the marsh grass, bending lazily toward the dark wall of a nearby conifer forest. A jagged mountain had loomed in the distance, its pale summit gleaming against the wispy red veil of a nebular sky.
Now the air was filled with the aroma of sweet membrosia and slow-roasted nerf ribs, and the only water in sight was rippling down the face of an artificial waterfall. The conifer forest had been cut, stripped, and driven into the marsh to serve as log pilings beneath the iridescent tunnel-houses of the Saras nest. Even the mountain looked different, seeming to float above the city on a cushion of kiln steam, its icy peak almost scraping the pale-veined belly of the Utegetu Nebula.
“Interesting, what the bugs have done to the place,” Han said. He was standing in the door of the glimmering hangar where they had berthed the Falcon, looking out on the nest along with Leia, Saba Sebatyne, the Skywalkers, and C-3PO and R2-D2. “Not so creepy after all.”
“Don’t call them bugs, Han,” Leia reminded him. “Insulting your hosts is never a good way to start a visit.”
“Right, we wouldn’t want to insult ’em,” Han said. “Not for a little thing like harboring pirates and running black membrosia.”
He crossed a spinglass bridge and stopped at the edge of a meandering ribbon of street. The silver lane was packed with chest-high Killiks hauling rough lumber, quarried moirestone, casks of bluewater. Here and there, bleary-eyed spacers—human and otherwise—were staggering back to their ships at the sore end of a membrosia binge. On the balconies overhanging the tunnel-house entrances, glittered-up Joiners—beings who had spent too much time among Killiks and been absorbed into the nest’s collective mind—were smiling and dancing to the soft trill of spinning wind horns. The only incongruous sight was in the marshy, two-meter gap that served as the gutter between the hangar and the street. A lone insect lay facedown in the muck, its orange thorax and white-striped abdomen half covered in some sort of dull gray froth.
“Raynar must know we’ve arrived,” Luke said. He was still on the bridge behind Han. “Any sign of a guide?”
The bug in the gutter lifted itself on its arms and began to drum its thorax.
“I don’t know,” Han answered, eyeing the bug uncertainly. When it began to drag itself toward the bridge, he said, “Make that a maybe.”
The Killik stopped and stared up at them with a pair of bulbous green eyes. “Bur r rruubb, ubur ruur.”
“Sorry—don’t understand a throb.” Han knelt on the street’s glimmering surface and extended a hand. “But come on up. Our protocol droid knows over six million—”
The insect spread its mandibles and backed away, pointing at the blaster on Han’s hip.
“Hey, take it easy,” Han said, still holding out his hand. “That’s just for show. I’m not here to shoot anybody.”
“Brubr.” The Killik raised a pincer-hand, then tapped itself between the eyes. “Urrubb uu.”
“Oh, dear,” C-3PO said from the back of the bridge. “She seems to be asking you to blast her.”
The bug nodded enthusiastically, then averted its eyes.
“Don’t get crazy,” Han said. “You’re not that late.”
“I think it’s in pain, Han.” Mara knelt on the street beside Han and motioned the insect to come closer. “Come here. We’ll try to help.”
The Killik shook its head and tapped itself between the eyes again. “Buurubuur, ubu ru.”
“She says nothing can help,” C-3PO said. “She has the Fizz.”
“The Fizz?” Han echoed.
The Killik thrummed a long explanation.
“She says it is very painful,” C-3PO said. “And she would appreciate it if you would end her misery as soon as possible. UnuThul is waiting in the Garden Hall.”
“Sorry,” Han said. “I’m not blasting anyone this trip.”
The Killik rumbled something that sounded like rodder, then started to drag itself away.
“Wait!” Luke extended his hand, and the Killik rose out of the mud. “Maybe we can rig an isolation ward—”
The rest of the offer was drowned out as Saras porters turned to point at their nest-fellow’s frothy legs, drumming their chests and knocking the loads out of one another’s arms. The Joiner dancers vanished from their balconies, and startled spacers staggered toward the gutter, squint- ing and reaching for their blasters.
Luke began to float the Killik back toward the bridge. It clacked its mandibles in protest and thrashed its arms, but its legs—hidden beneath a thick layer of froth—dangled motionlessly beneath its thorax. A steady drizzle of what looked like dirt specks fell from its feet into the gutter.
Han frowned. “Luke, maybe we’d better leave—”
A blaster bolt whined out from down the street, taking the Killik in midthorax and spraying a fist-sized circle of chitin and froth onto the hangar’s milky exterior. The insect died instantly, but another uproar erupted on the street as angry spacers began to berate a wobbly Quarren holding a powerful Merr-Sonn Flash 4 blaster pistol.
“Ish not my fault!” The Quarren waved the weapon vaguely in Luke’s direction. “Them Jedi wash the ones flyin’ a Fizzer ’round.”
The accusation diverted the angry looks toward Luke, but no one in the group was membrosia-smeared enough to harangue a party that included four beings dressed in Jedi robes. Instead the spacers staggered toward the hangar’s other entrances as fast as their unsteady legs could carry them, leaving Han and the Jedi to stare at the dead Killik in astonished silence. Normally, they would have at least taken the killer into custody to await local law enforcement, but these were hardly normal circumstances. Luke just sighed and lowered the victim back into the gutter.
Leia seemed unable to take her eyes off it. “From the way those spacers reacted, this is fairly common. Did Raynar’s message say anything about an epidemic?”
“Not a word,” Mara said, standing. “Just that Unu had discovered why the Dark Nest attacked me last year, and we needed to discuss it in person.”
“I don’t like it,” Han said. “Sounds more convenient all the time.”
“We know—and thanks again for coming,” Mara said. “We appreciate the backup.”
“Yeah, well, don’t mention it.” Han returned to his feet. “We’ve got a personal interest in this.”
Strictly speaking, the pirate harboring and membrosia running in which the Killiks were engaged was not Han and Leia’s concern. But Chief of State Omas was using the trouble as a pretext to avoid keeping his side of a complicated bargain with the Solos, saying that until the nests of the Utegetu Nebula stopped causing so much trouble for the Galactic Alliance, he could not muster the votes he needed to give the Ithorians a new homeworld.
Han would have liked to believe the claim was just a big bantha patty, but someone had leaked the terms of the deal to the holopress. Now both the Solo name and the Ithorian homeworld had become linked in the public mind with the pirate raids and “tarhoney” dens that were blighting the frontier from Adumar to Reecee.
Once the street traffic had returned to normal, Luke said, “We seem to be out a guide. We’ll have to find Raynar ourselves.”
Han started to send C-3PO into the street to ask directions from a Killik, but Luke and the other Masters simply turned to Leia with an expectant look. She closed her eyes for a moment, then turned down the street and confidently began to lead the way deeper into the shimmering nest. Fairly certain that she knew exactly where she was going, Han fell in beside C-3PO and R2-D2 and followed the others in silence. Sometimes hanging out with Jedi was almost enough to make him feel inadequate.
For a quarter of a standard hour, the nature of Saras nest did not change. They continued to meet long lines of Killik porters coming in the opposite direction, to crave the roasted nerf they smelled in the air, to marvel at the iridescent sheen of the sinuous tunnel-houses—and to gasp at the purling beauty of the endless string of fountains, sprays, and cascades they passed.
Most of the Killik nests Han had visited had left him feeling creepy and a little sick to his stomach. But this one made him feel oddly buoyant and relaxed, perhaps even rejuvenated, as though the most pleasant thing in the galaxy would be sitting on a tunnel-house balcony, sipping golden membrosia, and watching the Joiners dance.
It made Han wonder what the bugs were up to now.
Gradually, the streets grew less crowded, and the group began to notice more froth-covered bodies in the gutter. Most were already dead and half disintegrated, but a few remained intact enough to raise their heads and beg for a merciful end. Han found himself torn between the desire to stop their suffering and a reluctance to do something so drastic without understanding the situation. Fortunately, Luke was able to take the middle road, using the Force to render each victim unconscious.
Finally, Leia stopped about ten meters from an open expanse of marsh. The street continued, snaking through a brightly mottled sweep of bog flowers, but the road surface turned dull and frothy ahead, and the ends of the nearby tunnel-houses were being eaten by gray foam. In the center of the field stood a massive spinglass palace, its base a shapeless mass of ash-colored bubbles and its crown a braided tangle of iridescent turrets swimming with snakes of color.
“Tell me that’s not where Raynar was waiting,” Han groaned. “Because there’s no way we’re going—”
“Raynar Thul could not be waiting there,” a gravelly voice said from a nearby tunnel-house. “You should know that by now, Captain Solo. Raynar Thul has been gone a long time.”
Han turned around and found the imposing figure of Raynar Thul standing in the tunnel-house entrance. A tall man with regal bearing, he had a raw, melted face with no ears, hair, or nose, and all of his visible skin had the shiny, stiff quality of a burn scar. He wore purple trousers and a cape of scarlet silk over a breastplate of gold chitin.
From the Paperback edition.