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A mere kilometer beyond the transparisteel wall, the antenna-strewn horizon plunged away into a bottomless abyss of tumbling asteroids and drifting stars. Tiny blue halos winked into existence and slowly swelled into the backlit rectangles of enormous cargo barges returning with loads of durasteel from outlying fabrication plants. Crew transports laced the darkness with long tails of ions, racing from task to task on more than a hundred orbiting dry docks, and enormous welding droids traced ship skeletons in brilliant spark storms.
On the way in, Han Solo had counted nearly five hundred war-ships under construction in the old Bilbringi Shipyards. They were mostly escorts,
corvettes, and other small stuff that could be finished in a hurry, but there were also two Imperial-class Star Destroyers. While these huge ships probably would not be ready before the Yuuzhan Vong captured the facility, the hulls were nearly closed and the drive units already mounted. Clearly, young General Muun was a Sullustan with a plan, just the sort of careful deskpilot who always impressed Coruscant Command—and seldom failed to exhaust Han’s limited supply of patience.
Wishing he could use one of those Jedi calming techniques his son Jacen was always talking about, Han forced an insincere smile and turned toward the center of the room. Leia sat on a small couch with the general, her face glowing with the same stunning brown-eyed intensity that had caught Han’s eye so long ago. Though he would never understand how she had kept that fervor burning so brightly through thirty years of service to the galaxy, it had become a mooring for him, the one constant that never seemed to change through so many decades of struggle, loss,
and death. Now, when occasionally her legs—healed from her near-fatal ordeal on Duro but still sometimes weak—tired and stumbled, the pain of almost losing her made his heart stop, and he swore he would never, ever shut her out again.
". . . hundred thousand lives are at stake, General," she was saying.
"The Vray are a gentle species. Without an escort, the evacuation convoy will be defenseless against the Yuuzhan Vong."
"And how many lives will the New Republic lose if Bilbringi falls before the fleet is completed?" Muun asked. His heavy Sul-lustan jowls rippled gently as he spoke, but his feelings remained otherwise hidden behind his flat mask of a face. "Whole worlds will perish, and that will mean millions."
"She’s only asking for twenty ships," Han said.
The general turned his black eyes on Han. "She is asking for five cruisers and fifteen corvettes—a quarter of Bilbringi’s defense, and the
Yuuzhan Vong are already probing our outer security posts." "We’re letting you keep the Dauntless." Han spoke in his most reasonable tone.
"And the other ships will be back in a week stan-dard. . . two, tops."
"I am sorry, no." Muun shook his head and started to rise.
A buzz sounded from the secure comm station on the general’s desk.
C-3PO, who had been standing behind the couch, raised his head and inquired, "Would you like me to take that for you, General?"
Muun nodded. "Unless it’s urgent priority, I’ll reply in a few minutes."
"Thanks, Threepio," Han said. Any interruption would only reduce their chances of getting the escort. He dropped into a seat opposite Muun.
"You seem to be forgetting who you’re talking to, General."
Leia’s brown eyes flashed in alarm. "Han—"
"It wasn’t so long ago she could have demanded the ships," Han continued. "If anyone deserves—"
"I know what the Princess deserves." Muun reluctantly re-turned to his seat. "I studied the history vids at the academy."
"History vids?" Han growled. "So they activated you when? About last year?" He glanced through the transparisteel dome at the bustling dry docks. "You must have had some test scores to get a command like this."
An indignant shudder ran through the Sullustan’s jowls, but before he could reply, C-3PO spoke again.
"Excuse me for interrupting, but there is a Yuuzhan Vong emissary asking to see Princess Leia."
"What?" Han and Leia asked together.
"Tell him no," Han said.
And Leia asked, "How did he find me?"
C-3PO spouted a millisecond of digital squeal into the comm station. The reply came a moment later.
"The Yuuzhan Vong emissary refuses to reveal that information to the picket officer, but he does swear in the name of Yun-Yammka to do you no harm. He wishes to discuss the fate of some refugees."
"No," Han said.
to the Yuuzhan Vong, he was determined not to lose his wife. "Or maybe you’ve forgotten Elan and the bo’tous attempt—or how close you came to losing your legs last year on Duro?"
"I haven’t forgotten," Leia said evenly. She turned to their host. "But
I’m sure General Muun wants to hear how the Yuuzhan Vong knew I was here—almost as much as I do."
The Sullustan nodded. "Indeed."
"You can’t let a Yuuzhan Vong into Bilbringi!" Han said, realizing that
Muun was his best hope of preventing Leia from taking such a risk. "The ship counts alone—"
"Will be of use to our enemies only if they are accurate." The Sullustan did not even look in Han’s direction. His jowls lifted into a sort of stiff grin, and he said to Leia, "We have been waiting for just such an opportunity."
"Then it is my pleasure to give it to you." Leia turned to C-3PO. "You may relay to the Yuuzhan Vong that we will grant him safe passage."
"As long as he presents himself unarmed and unmasked," Han added glumly.
Leia’s Noghri bodyguards, waiting in the corridor outside Muun’s office,
would like this even less than he did, but they stood no chance at all of changing her mind. "And if there’s any funny business—" "He has already promised honorable conduct," C-3PO replied. "Though, if you ask me, a Yuuzhan Vong’s promise is worth precisely as much as a Jawa’s."
General Muun stepped over to his desk and opened a comm channel to his security chief. "Commence Operation Restbreak. This is not a drill."
Han and the two bodyguards spent the next two hours converting one of the base’s old Imperial interrogation chambers into an interview room he considered safe enough for his wife. The main safety feature was the transparisteel panel through which the discussion would be held, but there were also the biosensor arrays
Leia flashed him a scowl, then said to C-3PO, "Tell him I’ll send instructions shortly."
"Have you gone spacesick?" Han knew he would never win this argument,
but he had to try. Having already lost his best friend to monitor the
Yuuzhan Vong’s body state, the negative air pressure to confine any poisons he might release to the original room, and a "void button" that would open the chamber to the near-vacuum outside.
General Muun’s preparations were just as thorough and twice as fast. He had barely given the order before the orbiting dry docks began to fall dark and still, making the shipyard look more and more abandoned. By the time the picket ship appeared above the planetoid, only three dilapidated dry docks remained in operation, skeleton crews scurrying about their work as though rushing to put the final touches on half a dozen inconsequential corvettes. The vast majority of the dry docks were not even visible, and the few that could be seen contained only half-built craft that appeared to have been abandoned in the haste of an over-early evacuation. Whether or not the general deserved his command at such a young age, Han had to admire his cleverness; based on what could be seen from the surface, the Yuuzhan Vong would be in no hurry to attack the Bilbringi Shipyards.
C-3PO announced the emissary’s arrival, then a dozen guards entered the interrogation chamber with their charge. The Yuuzhan Vong had been afforded few diplomatic courtesies; something that looked like an artificial eye had been confiscated and now rested in a security officer’s hand, and in place of his own clothes, he wore a thin fleet watchcloak with the hood up. In his hands he carried a spongelike creature that resembled the villips Yuuzhan Vong used to communicate over long distances, though this one was larger and more gelatinous. The shipyard science officers had screened the creature for every known form of Yuuzhan Vong attack and con-firmed it to be an organic communication device, but Leia’s Noghri bodyguards, Adarakh and Meewalh, insisted on performing their own inspection, sniffing, prodding, and squeezing the thing until Han thought it would burst. He put his hand over the void button anyway; until someone could tell him how an overgrown proto- zoan could send messages across the galaxy as efficiently as the HoloNet, he wasn’t taking anyone’s word for anything.
Once everyone was satisfied, the escorts pushed the emissary into the room’s single chair, then left and locked the door.
Leia stepped to the transparisteel. "I am Leia Organa Solo."
"Yes, we have met before, on the planet Rhommamool." The emissary’s voice was throaty and arrogant, and it instantly caused Leia’s face to go white. He set his creature on the table and peeled back his hood,
revealing a smashed Yuuzhan Vong face with one empty eye socket. "And at
Duro, we even worked together for a time."
"Cree’Ar?" Leia’s hand dropped instinctively to her lightsaber— the one
Luke had made for her years ago. Tsavong Lah had destroyed her other lightsaber on Duro. "Nom Anor!"
"You have an excellent memory." The Yuuzhan Vong glared at Leia coldly.
"How is your son Jacen? And Mara, is she still in remis-sion? As you know, I have a special interest in your sister-in-law’s condition."
Han felt the void button tickle his palm and realized he was dangerously close to pressing it. "Keep talking, fella." During the fall of Duro,
Nom Anor had attempted to kill Mara and Jaina, tried to orchestrate the deaths of Leia and Jacen, and before that he had infected Mara with a deadly disease that had required more than two years to overcome.
"There’s nothing I’d enjoy more than vaccing you."
Nom Anor’s smile remained snide. "Before you hear what I came to say?
Besides, I do not think Leia Organa Solo the type to break a promise of safe passage."
"My promise, not Han’s," Leia said. "And his self-control isn’t what it used to be. How did you know I was here?"
"With the Vray evacuating, where else would you look for a convoy escort?" Nom Anor gestured at the creature on the desk.
"If I may?"
"The Vray have been evacuating for weeks," Leia said, continuing to press for an answer. Han doubted Nom Anor would tell them if there was a spy inside Bilbringi, but what was left unsaid would prove just as useful to General Muun. "We’ve only been here a few hours."
"We are, of course, watching Bilbringi—and that is really all I am going to say on the matter." Without asking permission this time, Nom Anor coaxed his creature awake with a brief stroke. "Tsavong Lah wishes you to see this."
The creature melted into a flat disk, then began to glow with yellow bioluminescence. The light coalesced into a long starship with a blocky stern and the distinctive hammerhead bridge of one of the Corellian
Engineering Corporation’s large civilian cruisers. Judging by the lack of efflux from the ion drives and the open doors of its docking bay deck, the ship was standing dead in space.
"The starliner Nebula Chaser," Nom Anor said. "The image is current."
Han’s heart leapt into his throat. The Nebula Chaser was the ship Mara and Jaina had gone to meet. The mission was supposed to be simple, a quick rendezvous in a safe sector and then home— but something had clearly gone wrong. He put on his best sabacc face and forced himself not to look in his wife’s direction.
"Very impressive," Leia said. Though she had to be just as worried as
Han, her voice remained dry and mocking. "You’ve learned to transmit holograms. I’ll look forward to your holo-dramas on the ’Net."
"The Yuuzhan Vong have made living light for centuries," Nom Anor snapped. "I am showing you this ship because the war-master thought you might wish to trade."
Here it comes, Han thought. He moved his hand away from the void button,
not trusting himself to resist if Nom Anor announced the Yuuzhan Vong had his daughter.
"Tsavong Lah thought wrong," Leia said. Her voice was a little too cold,
the only hint of the ice ball that had to be filling in her stomach.
"I’d rather trade with a Hutt."
"The Hutts do not have what you want." Nom Anor stabbed a clawlike finger into the hologram. "There are ten thousand refugees aboard, and their peril is your doing."
"I doubt that. If this is what Tsavong Lah wished me to see, our business is done."
Leia turned her back on Nom Anor and stepped away from the transparisteel. It was all Han could do not to remind her that their daughter’s life might be at stake, but he held his tongue, knowing she was only trying to undermine their opponent’s confidence.
She made it as far as the door before Nom Anor called, "You can save them." He rose to peer over the living light. "Just tell me where to find the Jedi base."
Leia glanced at Han, clearly wondering whether Nom Anor meant they could save the refugees or Jaina and Mara, then said, "There is no Jedi base."
Nom Anor sighed theatrically. "Princess Leia, you discredit me again in the eyes of Tsavong Lah." He let his chin slump. "I advised him you would never sacrifice so many to save so few, but he believes you are willing to sacrifice more—much more—to protect the Jedi."
As Nom Anor spoke, a salvo of plasma balls streaked into the hologram and erupted against the shieldless starliner, opening flash-melted holes in the durasteel hull. Dark clouds of speck-sized flotsam and atmospheric vapor began to jet into space, and another salvo of plasma boiled into view. Many of the balls entered through the same holes as the previous fusillade and tore through the ship’s interior bulkheads.
The clouds darkened as more flotsam poured into the cold vacuum, then the image shifted, magnifying the breach area and revealing the specks to be the tumbling, pressure-ruptured bodies of the ship’s passengers.
"Truly, the wisdom of Tsavong Lah is as boundless as the galaxy itself."
Nom Anor rolled his one good eye as though sharing a joke, then gestured at the starliner. "They are dying because there were Jedi aboard. If the
Jedi do not want more to die, they will surrender within one of your standard weeks."
"More?" Han knew it was exactly the question Nom Anor wanted him to ask,
but he could not restrain himself. He had to know what had become of
Jaina. "How many more?"
"Your scouts will confirm that our fleets have surrounded the world of
Talfaglio; for the next week, all refugee ships are being held in orbit.
If the Jedi surrender, the convoy will be allowed to leave. If the Jedi do not, it will be destroyed." Nom Anor glanced down at Han’s hand,
which was hovering over the void button, then added, "As they will if I
fail to return."
"You expect the Jedi to surrender?" Han asked. He was too relieved by
Nom Anor’s failure to mention Jaina or Mara to feel any real outrage at the deaths of ten thousand strangers. Maybe he should have felt guilty about that, he didn’t know, but all that mat-tered at the moment was that Jaina and Mara were safe. "Won’t happen, fella. I might as well get things started."
Han locked gazes with Nom Anor and lowered his hand toward the void button, grinning crookedly and taking his time to give Leia a chance to stop him. The Yuuzhan Vong met his gaze with a sneer and did not look away, even when Han’s palm touched the button. He paused there, waiting for Leia to stop him, but she said nothing. Han glanced over and saw her glaring at the emissary, her brown eyes burning with raw rage.
"What are you waiting for?" she demanded.
Leia nodded. "Do it."
The edge in her voice unsettled Han, and it occurred to him that Nom
Anor might have failed to mention Jaina or Mara for another reason—a reason Leia had already thought of. It was entirely possible the pair had been aboard when the Nebula Chaser was destroyed, and the Yuuzhan
Vong simply did not realize who they had killed.
Han pushed the void button, and a seal hissed open along the edge of the ceiling panel. Nom Anor’s one eye grew wide.
"Are you mad?" He jumped to his feet. "You’ll kill millions!"
Leia reached over and depressed the void button again, stopping the ceiling panel where it was. "Not us, you."
The air continued to hiss out of the chamber, causing the image of the
Nebula Chaser to flicker out of existence as the villip creature curled in on itself. Nom Anor glanced at the ceiling, then back to Leia, his gruesome face slack with surprise. She waited until he pressed his fingers to his ears, then hit the void button again and closed the panel.
When Nom Anor took his hands away from his ears, Leia said, "Go back to your warmaster and tell him how you were treated. Tell him the Jedi accept no responsibility for the lives he threatens, and that any emissary issuing a similar threat will not be returned."
Nom Anor nodded, if not meekly, then at least not haughtily. "I will tell him, but that will change nothing." He went to the door and waited until it opened, then added, "The warmaster believes this will work, and he has not been wrong yet."
From the Hardcover edition.