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
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 Commandand seldom failed to exhaust Hans
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 Hans 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 legshealed from her near-fatal ordeal on Duro
but still sometimes weaktired and stumbled, the pain of almost losing
her made his heart stop, and he swore he would never, ever shut her out
". . . 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."
"Shes only asking for twenty ships," Han said.
The general turned his black eyes on Han. "She is asking for five cruisers
and fifteen corvettesa quarter of Bilbringis defense, and the
Yuuzhan Vong are already probing our outer security posts." "Were 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 generals 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 its urgent priority, Ill reply in a few
"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 youre talking to, General."
Leias brown eyes flashed in alarm. "Han"
"It wasnt 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 Sullustans 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
youve forgotten Elan and the botous attemptor how close
you came to losing your legs last year on Duro?"
"I havent forgotten," Leia said evenly. She turned to their host. "But
Im sure General Muun wants to hear how the Yuuzhan Vong knew I was
herealmost as much as I do."
The Sullustan nodded. "Indeed."
"You cant 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
"Will be of use to our enemies only if they are accurate." The Sullustan
did not even look in Hans direction. His jowls lifted into a sort of
stiff grin, and he said to Leia, "We have been waiting for just such an
"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.
Leias Noghri bodyguards, waiting in the corridor outside Muuns
office, would like this even less than he did, but they stood no chance at
all of changing her mind. "And if theres any funny business"
"He has already promised honorable conduct," C-3PO replied. "Though, if you
ask me, a Yuuzhan Vongs promise is worth precisely as much as a
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
bases 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 Ill send
"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
Vongs 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 Muuns 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 emissarys 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 officers 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
Leias 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 protozoan could
send messages across the galaxy as efficiently as the HoloNet, he wasnt
taking anyones word for anything.
Once everyone was satisfied, the escorts pushed the emissary into the
rooms 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 emissarys
voice was throaty and arrogant, and it instantly caused Leias 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."
"CreeAr?" Leias 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 remission? As you know, I have
a special interest in your sister-in-laws 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. "Theres nothing
Id enjoy more than vaccing you."
Nom Anors 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
"My promise, not Hans," Leia said. "And his self-control isnt
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. "Weve only been here a few hours."
"We are, of course, watching Bilbringiand 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
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 Corporations 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."
Hans 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 wifes direction.
"Very impressive," Leia said. Though she had to be just as worried as Han,
her voice remained dry and mocking. "Youve learned to transmit holograms.
Ill 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
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
"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. "Id
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
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 daughters life
might be at stake, but he held his tongue, knowing she was only trying to
undermine their opponents 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
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 moremuch moreto 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 ships 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 ships 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
"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 Hans hand,
which was hovering over the void button, then added, "As they will if I fail
"You expect the Jedi to surrender?" Han asked. He was too relieved by Nom
Anors 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 didnt know, but all that mat-tered at the moment was that
Jaina and Mara were safe. "Wont happen, fella. I might as well get
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
Hans 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 reasona 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 Anors one eye grew wide.
"Are you mad?" He jumped to his feet. "Youll 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."