Read an Excerpt
Leia literally took a backseat during the flight to Esfandia. Trying to compete with her husband and Droma was too exhausting, and, ultimately, pointless. At times it seemed their affinity wasn’t entirely amicable, but it was perfectly natural. They’d hardly stopped talking since the Ryn had come aboard. Bringing each other up to date on events since they’d parted at Fondor, they covered everything from sneaky tactics to Anakin’s death. After the latter, Droma had left the bridge for a while, to sing a plaintive lay in a language Leia didn’t understand, but then he’d returned with a story about one of his exploits in the Senex sector. The tale was as tall as a Bolenian hillspinner,
but it served its purpose by easing the pall of melancholy that had engulfed the Falcon.
“So they started taking apart the tanker module,” Han was saying now, relating one of his own stories to Droma,
his mood far removed from the grief that had consumed him earlier.
“Which you said was filled with liquid hydrogen.”
“Yeah, but destroying the tanker didn’t stop the hydrogen.
If anything, it spread out a little, exactly as planned.”
“Why?” Droma asked, frowning. “Hydrogen won’t burn without oxygen.”
“That’s what Goldenrod said. That’s the trouble with droids: no imagination. As our shields failed, I told Leia and Jacen to punch holes through the cruiser’s hull with our quads. Before I could tell those scarheads to eat ions,
there was more than enough oxygen for the hydrogen to react with. The cruiser went up so fast we had a tough time dodging the pieces. After that, it was just a matter of getting out of there. The few skips we left behind weren’t putting up much of a fight.”
“Understandably. I hear Vong skips are useless once they’re cut off from their yammosks.”
“Well, they’re not completely useless,” Han said, “but it does give you an advantage.”
Droma shrugged. “Speaking of yammosks, I’ve heard some stories about them that would make your tail stand on end!”
Leia listened to the banter but offered nothing toward the conversation. Instead, she concentrated on the information
Droma had provided them: communications had indeed been lost with the Unknown Regions. The destruction of the base on Generis and the attack on Esfandia appeared to be the source of the disruption. A free-floating proto-world, Esfandia had long since cut free from whatever star had given birth to it, but still had enough radioactivity bubbling in its core to sustain a liquid atmosphere.
It wasn’t the most hospitable of places, but it didn’t need to be. A skeleton crew of about a dozen people, mainly technicians, normally inhabited the relay outpost, which had been hastily converted from a scientific station at the beginning of the war with the Yuuzhan Vong. Since
Luke’s mission had entered the Unknown Regions, the
Galactic Alliance’s military presence around Esfandia had been upgraded to two squadrons of X-wings and a frigate by the name of Corellian Way. What had happened to those forces was unknown. The relay staff only had time to broadcast a message alerting their superiors on Mon
Calamari that they were under attack by the Yuuzhan
Vong before all communications had been lost.
That wasn’t necessarily a sure sign of disaster. The relay base was designed to resist such attacks. Imperial
AT-AT technology had been adapted to the cold soup of
Esfandia’s environment, creating a giant, mechanical, crablike construction capable of moving from place to place at a slow but steady pace. Such mobility was an advantage,
given that most of the world was studded with receivers sensitive enough to detect transmissions from deep in the Unknown Regions. The base was designed to circumnavigate the globe, maintaining the receivers, while the technicians remained safely inside. That the ability to move made it easier to hide when attacked was a bonus.
The base, therefore, could have simply gone to ground,
tucked away in a crevasse or under the thick silt of the atmospheric soup. If it could be found, it could be reactivated.
Assuming, of course, that the Yuuzhan Vong hadn’t found it first and destroyed it for good.
Leia sent her thoughts outward, far beyond her location in hyperspace, beyond Esfandia and whatever awaited them there, to her brother, Luke. The last message Cal
Omas had received from him suggested he’d found a promising lead and was setting off to investigate. He hadn’t specified what that lead consisted of or where he was headed, and now there was no way they would know unless they repaired the communications outage. Leia had no doubt that, were anything terrible to happen to him, then she would know about it. She would feel it,
just as she had in the past. Nevertheless, she was concerned.
So much was invested in his mission—personally,
and on a galactic scale—that if something were to go wrong, it would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.
The conversation between her husband and his old friend shifted as the Falcon’s console began to beep and flash, announcing that they were nearing their destination.
“Right on the nose,” Han said proudly, flipping switches in readiness for the return to realspace.
“And we didn’t even have to get out and push,”
Droma said dryly.
“Yeah, that’s real amusing,” Han returned without smiling. “Now you want to move your funny, fuzzedup self out of that chair so Leia can come forward and help me?”
“No, that’s all right, Han,” she said as Droma began to stand. “I’m sure Droma can manage.”
She couldn’t say that she was enjoying the break from routine, but it was interesting to watch Han’s interaction with the Ryn. Memories of the terrible time when Han had pulled away from her while grieving for Chewbacca still stung, but only Droma had witnessed how low Han had really sunk back then. If having the Ryn aboard did remind Han of those painful times, he certainly wasn’t letting it show.
“You remember how to operate the copilot’s board?”
Han asked Droma without looking up from what he was doing.
“Follow orders, and curse when something goes wrong,” Droma replied with a smile. “Which it invariably does.”
Han affected an indignant expression on behalf of his beloved freighter. “Hey, she may be old—”
“But she’s still got it where it counts, right?” Droma said.
“What have I told you about doing that?” Han said irritably.
Droma laughed. “Anyway, it’s not the age of the ship that worries me,” he said, flicking a couple of switches of his own. “It’s the age of the pilot I’m more concerned about.”
The navicomputer bleeped, cutting off any retort Han might have been about to offer. Both faced the front just as the sweeping streaks of hyperspace dissolved into a cold and distant starscape. There was no primary to dim the stars with its glare; the nearest inhabited system in this section of the Mid Rim was more than ten light years away, and the nearest star of any kind was half that distance. There was nothing for trillions of kilometers but space dust, and the tiny bauble that was the lonely world of Esfandia.
Or so it should have been. As Pride of Selonia along with Twin Suns Squadron emerged from hyperspace alongside the Falcon, Droma’s eyes checked the sensor console for the orphaned planet. The Falcon’s sensor suite was still ahead of standard tech, and it soon acquired the target.
It was covered with thick clouds, and glowed a burnt orange in artificial colors that looked wrong to Leia’s eyes until she realized what was missing: because Esfandia had no sun, its sole source of heat lay at its core. And with no orbit to follow, that meant it would have no seasons,
either—which in turn meant no icy poles, and no broiling equator. It would be the same temperature all over.
Closer scans, however, revealed that not to be entirely the case. There were at least six hot spots on the hemisphere facing them, and even as they watched, another blossomed into life.
Droma zoomed in closer to examine the cause.
“Aerial bombardment,” he said. “Someone’s dropping mines from orbit.”
“They’re taking out the sensors,” Leia said. “The Yuuzhan
Vong are still here!”
Han’s eyes darted across the displays in front of him.
“I’ve got a strong presence in close orbit. Seven capital vessels, nine cruisers. Not many skips detached, though.
No sign of the local defenses, or the reinforcements from
“I think I can guess why not, too,” Droma commented.
Leia knew exactly what he meant. The Yuuzhan Vong force in orbit over Esfandia was enormous by any standard.
Against the two squadrons and one frigate Esfandia had possessed, plus the two squadrons Mon Calamari had dispatched to investigate, it was almost obscene.
Overkill didn’t cover it.
“I thought the Vong’s resources were stretched,” Droma said.
Han just grunted. A crackle of information flowed across newly reopened communications lines. Captain
Mayn and Jag were looking for instructions.
“Tell them to hold off for a moment,” Leia ordered.
“We can’t go in like this. It’d be suicide.”
Han turned in his seat to face her. “We can’t just leave,
She nodded in agreement. “The relay base must still be down there, otherwise the Yuuzhan Vong wouldn’t be wasting time taking out the sensors. Without the base,
none of it would work.”
“So what are we going to do?” Han asked. “They’re going to see us any second.”
Leia stood to look over Han’s shoulder, placing a hand gently on his neck. The Yuuzhan Vong forces were formidable.
“If we can get past the capital ships, we might be able to make it down into the atmosphere and find the base before they do.”
“Then what?” Droma asked. “We’d be in exactly the same position as the base. It would just be a matter of time before they find us.”
She could feel her frustration mounting as a solution to the dilemma failed to present itself. If they had to abandon Esfandia, they might still be able to jury-rig another relay base elsewhere that would allow them to reestablish contact with Mon Calamari.
She shook her head irritably. It would still mean leaving innocents here on Esfandia to die, and the thought of that simply made her feel ill, reminding her as it did of the time back on Gyndine, where so many had to be abandoned to a cruel fate.
There has to be another way, she thought.
Almost in answer to the thought, a bleeping sounded from the sensor suite, announcing hyperspace emissions from the far side of the planet.
“Incoming,” Droma announced, his tail wrapped around the base of his chair, gently twitching.
“That’s all we need,” Han muttered. “Maybe it’s time we bid a hasty retreat, after all.”
“Hold on.” Leia switched vantage points to look over
Droma’s shoulder. “I don’t think they’re Yuuzhan Vong.
Broadcast an emergency on the Imperial codes.”
“Imperial—?” Han started, but clammed up at a glance at the scanner display. The corner of his mouth curled up into a grin as he sent off the coded transmission. “Well, I
never thought I’d be glad to see a Star Destroyer.”
Not just one of them, Leia noted. Two of the massive vessels were lumbering out of hyperspace over Esfandia,
fully equipped with support vessels and TIE fighters already streaming from launching bays. The way they swooped in to engage the Yuuzhan Vong filled her with an immediate sense of optimism and kinship.
She didn’t immediately recognize the markings on the
Star Destroyers, but judging by the blast scoring and other minor damage, it looked like they’d both recently seen combat.
The Falcon’s comm bleeped, and Han quickly answered it. It was Grand Admiral Pellaeon.
“I should have known I’d find the Millennium Falcon
here,” he said. “You’re always at the heart of trouble.”
Leia felt a smile creep across her face. “It’s good to hear from you, Gilad.”
“As it is you, Princess,” he said.
“That’s not Chimaera you’re flying,” Han put in. “It looks too old.”
“It’s Right to Rule,” Pellaeon said. “One of the oldest in the fleet. We’ve been chasing this sorry bunch halfway across the galaxy, trying to restrict the amount of damage they inflict. We lost them at the last jump, which is why we’ve only just arrived. Our intelligence data on your remote stations is sadly out of date.”
“Not as good as theirs, obviously,” Leia said.
“We’re here to try to turn our luck around now.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Are you joining us?”
“We’re at your command, Admiral.” Leia said.
“I’ll have targets for you shortly. Commander Ansween will relay them to you.” Then, almost as an afterthought,
the Grand Admiral added: “Nice to be fighting beside you finally, Captain Solo.”
Han looked up at Leia when the line closed a moment later. “We’re taking orders from an Imperial now?”
“Things have changed,” she said. Her heart was telling her that Pellaeon could be trusted, and the Force was telling her the same thing. “He’s defending a Galactic Alliance asset. Think how strange that must feel to him.”
Han chuckled ruefully. “I guess. It’s just that I’ve never been one for taking orders—from anyone. I hope this newfound camaraderie between us isn’t going to make him think that’s about to change.”
Leia smiled at her husband; one hand fondly massaged his neck. “I’m sure Pellaeon’s fully aware of that, Han.”
The comm unit crackled back to life, this time with a female voice—obviously the commander whom the Grand
Admiral had mentioned.
“Your primary target is the destroyer Kur-hashan,”
she said. A flood of charts and other data accompanied the message on the Falcon’s monitors. “This is a yammoskbearing vessel. Secondary targets are support vessels. Engage at will. Right to Rule out.”
Han punched a course into the navicomputer. “You got that, Selonia?”
“Loud and clear,” came back the voice of Captain
“Twin Suns awaits your orders, Captain,” Jag said.
He sounded calm and controlled, but underneath the cool exterior Leia knew he was primed and ready for combat.
“Are we about to do what I think we’re about to do?”
Droma asked, somewhat nervously.
“You’re the one always second-guessing everyone,”
Han replied. “You tell us.”
“It doesn’t take much foresight to know we’re still outnumbered. While it’s nice that we have company and all, it still only makes two Star Destroyers against sixteen of the big uglies.”
“I know,” Han said, a wide, familiar grin settling onto his face. “It makes it so much more interesting when the odds are stacked against you, don’t you think?”