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Han Solo leaned forward in the pilot's seat of the Wayward Girl. "Entering atmosphere, Captain," he said. He watched the system's big, pale sun slip into the great curve of ruddy light at the world's edge and disappear behind the planet's limb. Bespin's huge, dark nightside loomed up to blot out the stars. Han checked his sensors. "They say Bespin's got some big flyin'--or should I say, floatin'--creatures in its atmosphere, so keep those forward shields at maximum strength."
One-handed, his co-pilot made an adjustment. "What's our ETA to Cloud City, Han?" she asked, a hint of strain in her voice.
"Not long now," Han replied reassuringly, as the Girl sliced into the upper atmosphere, swooping over the planet's dark pole, lightning far below making a flickering fog of dim light. "ETA twenty-six minutes. We ought to be in Cloud City in time to catch a late dinner."
"The sooner the better," she commented, grimacing as she flexed her right arm in its pressure-sling. "This thing itches like fury."
"Just hang on, Jadonna," Han said. "We'll get you straight to the med-facility."
She nodded. "Hey, Han, no complaints from me. You've done great. I'll just be glad to get this arm into bacta."
Han shook his head. "Ripped cartilage and ligaments . . . that's gotta hurt," he said. "But Cloud City's sure to have adequate meds."
She nodded. "Oh, they do. It's quite a place, Han. You'll see."
Jadonna Veloz was a short, stocky, dark-skinned woman with long, straight black hair. Han had met her two days ago, after she'd advertised from Alderaan on the spacer-nets for a pilot to fly her ship to Bespin. Veloz's arm had been injured when it was struck by a malfunctioning anti-grav loader, but, determined to meet her tight shipping deadline, she'd postponed real treatment until she delivered her cargo.
After paying Han's passage from Corellia on a fast shuttle to Alderaan, he'd taken over as pilot, and brought them to Bespin right on schedule.
The Wayward Girl was through the wispy exosphere now, and plunging deeper, moving toward the evening twilight, blue sky building above them. Han altered course, heading southwest, toward where the setting sun must be. As they streaked along, the tops of the piled, puffy masses of clouds far below began taking on colors, deep crimson and coral, then yellow-orange.
Han Solo had his own reasons for needing a ride to Bespin. If it hadn't been for Jadonna's ad on the nets, he'd have had to dip into his rapidly dwindling stash of credits to buy passage for himself on a commercial vessel.
Veloz's accident couldn't have come at a better time, as far as Han was concerned. With the credits she'd promised him, he'd be able to afford a cheap room and a few meals during the big sabacc tournament. The buy-in alone was a staggering ten thousand credits. Han had barely managed to scrape those credits together by fencing the small golden palador figurine he'd stolen from the Ylesian High Priest Teroenza, plus the dragon pearl he'd discovered in Admiral Greelanx's office.
The Corellian wished for a moment that Chewie was here with him, but he'd had to leave the Wookiee behind in their little flat on Nar Shaddaa because he couldn't afford to buy his passage.
They were deep into the atmosphere now, and Han could actually see Bespin's sun, a squashed looking orange ball just clearing a massive bank of clouds. The Girl was surrounded by a golden glory of heaped clouds--as golden as Han Solo's dreams of wealth.
Han was staking everything on this big gamble . . . and he'd always been lucky at sabacc. But would luck be enough to let him win? He'd be playing against professional gamblers like Lando.
The Corellian swallowed, then resolutely concentrated on his piloting. This was no time to get an attack of nerves. Han made another adjustment to the Girl's approach vector, thinking that he ought to be within range of Cloud City traffic control any time now.
As if in answer to his thoughts, a voice spoke up from his com. "Incoming vessel, please identify yourself."
Jadonna Veloz reached left-handed to activate their comm. "Cloud City traffic control, this is the Wayward Girl out of Alderaan. Our approach vector is . . ." she glanced at Han's instruments and reeled off a string of numbers.
"Wayward Girl, we confirm your vector. Cloud City is your destination?"
"That's an affirmative, traffic control," Jadonna said. Han grinned. From what he'd heard, Cloud City was about all there was to Bespin. There were the mining facilities, of course, and gas refining, storage and shipping facilities, but more than half of all incoming traffic was probably bound for the luxurious resort hotels. In the past few years, bored tourists had made the city in the clouds one of their favorite vacation playgrounds.
"Traffic control," Jadonna continued, "We have a priority shipment for the Yarith Bespin kitchens. Nerf tenderloins in stasis. Request a landing vector."
"Permission granted, Wayward Girl," came the voice of the traffic controller. The controller's voice took on a more informal note. "Nerf steaks, eh? I'll have to take my wife out this week. She's been wanting something fancy, and that's a treat we don't get too often."
"These are prime cuts, traffic control," Veloz said. "Hope the chef at the Yarith Bespin appreciates them."
"Oh, he's good," the voice said, then the controller reverted to his of ficial tones. "Wayward Girl, I have you slotted in at Level 65, Docking Bay 7A. Repeat. Level 65, 7A. Do you copy?"
"We copy, Cloud City Controller."
"And your assigned landing vector is . . ." the voice hesitated, then gave them more coordinates.
Han punched them into the navicomputer, then they settled back to enjoy the ride. He found himself looking forward to seeing the fabled Cloud City. Bespin itself had already been famous, even before the resort was built. They mined tibanna gas here, which was used in starship engines, and in powering blasters.
Han wasn't sure how they actually mined the gas, but he knew that tibanna gas was very valuable, so the miners must be doing well. Before it was discovered in Bespin's atmosphere, tibanna gas had usually been found in stellar chromospheres and nebular clusters-- which made harvesting it hazardous, to say the least. Then somebody had stumbled across the fact that Bespin's atmosphere was loaded with it.
Picking up a sudden burst of electrical activity on his sensors, Han hastily changed course. "Hey--what's that?" He pointed at the viewscreen. To their right now, was a monstrous, half-seen shape, drifting amid those incredible aurulent clouds. The thing was so large that it would have dwarfed many small Corellian cities.
Jadonna leaned forward. "That's a beldon!" she exclaimed. "They're really rare. In all the years I've been flying through these clouds, I've never seen one."
Han squinted at the mammoth creature as the Girl streaked by it. The beldon resembled some of the gelatinous ocean creatures he'd seen on some worlds, with a huge, dome-like top, and many small feeding tentacles hanging down beneath it.
Han checked his landing vector. "Right on the credits, Captain," he said. Behind them, the leviathan faded into the distance. Han saw another, smaller shape ahead of them that almost resembled an upside-down beldon, and realized it was Cloud City.
It hung in the clouds like some kind of exotic wineglass, topped with a jeweled crown of rounded towers, domed buildings, communication spires, and refinery stacks. In the last wash of sunset, it glowed like a corusca gem.
From the Paperback edition.