Talon Karrde clasped his hands beneath his goatee and studied the scene on the Wild Karrde’s command deck viewscreen through pale blue eyes. “Well, Shada,” he told the striking woman at his right hand, “It appears that our baby-sitting chore has become some-what more…interesting than anticipated.”

“I would say so,” Shada D’ukal replied. “The sensor shroud shows at least seven ships in orbit around Yavin 4 and another six on the surface.”

“None of them are Yuuzhan Vong, I take it.”

"No. A mixed bag, but I’d lay odds that they are Peace Brigade.”

“Gambling is a foolish occupation,” Karrde said. “I want to know. And I want to know what they’re doing.” He ticked his finger against the armrest. ”l knew we should have found some way to leave sooner. Skywalker was right.” He sighed and leaned forward, studying long-range sensors.

“There’s some sort of firefight on the surface, yes, H’sishi?”

“Looks like it,” the Togorian mewled. Solusar?” Karrde wondered. “Maybe. How long before we can be there?”

“They outnumber us badly,” Shada pointed out. “We should call the rest of our ships before we do anything.”

“We should certainly call them, but we can’t wait for them. Someone down there is fighting for his life, most likely one of the people I told Skywalker I would protect. What’s more, the fact that there are still ships on the surface suggests they haven’t finished what they came here to do. That is, they don’t have the Jedi children yet. If we wait until they have them aboard, in space, the job of rescuing them will become much more complicated.”

“I see that,” Shada said. “But it will be more complicated yet if they blow us out of the sky.”

Karrde laughed. “Shada, when will you learn to trust my instincts? When have I ever gotten you killed?”

“You have a point there, I suppose.” Karrde pointed at Yavin 4, at the moment a dark disk silhouetted against the larger orange profile of its primary. “So I want to be there, now. Dankin, keep full cloak, but let me know when they notice us.”

“Of course, sir.”

That point came an hour later, when they were almost sitting on the nearest of the orbiting ships.

“They’re hailing us, sir,” Dankin told him. “And powering up weapons.”

“Put them on.

A moment later, a thick-featured human male with thin, graying hair appeared on the communication holoscreen.

“Freighter, identify yourself.” He chopped the words out in even syllables.

“My name, sir, is Talon Karrde. Perhaps you’ve heard of me.”

The man’s eyes pinched warily. “Yes, I’ve heard of you, Captain Karrde. It’s rude to sneak up on someone like that. And dangerous.”

‘And it’s rude to be given a name and not offer one,” Karrde returned.

A look of annoyance crossed the fellow’s face. “Don’t try me, Captain Karrde. You may call me Captain lmsatad. What do you want?”

Karrde favored the man with a wan smile, “I was going to ask you the same question.”

“1 don’t follow you,” Imsatad said.

“You seem to be having some sort of trouble. I’m offering my assistance.”

“We need no assistance, I assure you. And to be blunt, Captain Karrde, I don’t believe you. I remember you as a smuggler, a pirate, and a traitor to the Empire.”

“Then perhaps you remember, as well, what became of those who treated me with disrespect,” Karrde said icily. “But if we are being blunt—and perhaps that is best here, since you seem to lack the education for more civilized discourse—I am undoubtedly here for the same reason you are—to collect the bounty on the young Jedi below.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Karrde leaned toward the screen, eyes glittering dangerously. “You are a liar, Captain, and a poor one. I see no reason for us to play games.”

“I trust you’ve noticed you’re outnumbered.”

“I trust you noted I was able to drop in on you in, shall we say, an unannounced fashion. Do you really think I brought only one ship?”

lmsatad glared at him, then cut his visual. Karrde waited patiently until, a few moments later, the image returned. “This is none of your business,” the man said.

“Profit is always my business.”

“There is no profit here, and if there were, you would already be too late.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. Why are your ships still on the surface? Why do my sensors show what seems to be protracted search activity? You’ve let your quarry slip through your fingers, Captain.” Karrde smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Consider my offer of help. I ask little in return, and I could be a nuisance if you spurn my kindness.”

“That sounds like a threat.”

Karrde spread his hands, “Take it however you please. Shall we discuss this further or not?”

“You say you ask for little. What, exactly, would that be?”

“A few kind words in the ears of the Yuuzhan Vong. An introduction. You see, Captain, for some years now I’ve been retired from my chosen profession. But these are very interesting times, exactly the sort of times my kind thrives on, if you know what I mean. I’d like to come out of retirement.”

“Go on.”

Karrde stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “The Yuuzhan Vong have promised a truce if the Jedi are delivered to them. I would like to bargain for passage through Yuuzhan Vong space, once the borders are established.”

“Why should they allow a smuggler to use their space?”

“There may be things they need. I can get them. If not, I would be doing them no harm, all of my activities would be aimed at the scattered remnants of the New Republic. But those remnants are separated, at times, by Yuuzhan Vong-occupied systems. The cost of circumventing them, frankly, would be prohibitive.”

lmsatad nodded, and a brief look of disgust wrinkled his features. “I see. You realize I can promise none of that.”

“I only asked for a mention of my help in this affair, you can promise that.”

“I could,” lmsatad acknowledged. “What exactly can you offer me?”

“Better sensors than you have, for one thing. Detailed knowledge of Yavin 4 that I believe you lack. A crew that is very, very good at finding things. Certain special defenses against Jedi—and the means of finding them.” lmsatad stiffened, and his voice dropped low. ”l was with Thrawn at Wayland. You still?...”

“Ah. You know what I mean, then.”

“I know you betrayed him.”

Karrde rolled his eyes. “How tiresome. Very well, Captain, if you don’t wish my services, there are others who will.”

“Wait!” lmsatad chewed his lip for a moment. “I need to consult with my officers on this.”

“Take a few moments,” Karrde said, lifting a finger. “But do not bore me.” He cut the transmission.