The Millennium Falcon put verdant Kashyyyk behind her. Jaina and Leia sat side in the outrigger cockpit, with C-3PO, quieter than usual, behind them in the navigator's chair. At Streen's unexpected request, Luke was taking everyone else to Yavin 4. Jaina might have gone along, but Leia had said she didn't want to pilot the Falcon home alone.
While the navicomputer calculated lightspeed coordinates for the jump to Coruscant, Jaina glanced at her mother, who looked small and fragile in the oversize seat Chewie had occupied for so many years. She had scarcely said a word since lifting off from platform Thiss.
"Not often I get to fly Dad's ship," Jaina said casually, hoping to open a conversation.
Leia reacted as if she had been yanked from a trance. "What?"
"I said I was surprised Dad asked me to fly the Falcon home."
Leia smiled at her. "Record holder at Lando's Folly...
Rogue Squadron pilot...Your father thinks very highly of your skills."
Jaina was quiet for a moment. "I hope he gets home all right."
Leia laughed. "Don't worry, he'll hop a freighter or a trader's ship and probably beat us back to Coruscant. He doesn't need help in that area."
"Or any other area," Jaina said, frowning.
Leia made her lips a thin line and took her daughter's hand. "Don't confuse refusing help with not needing it."
"Why is he like that?"
"How much time do we have?" Leia joked. "The short answer is that your father wasn't raised the way you and I were. He didn't have the support of a family or the comfort of a stable home." She shook her head. "He's been so many things--a swoop racer, a pilot, an officer in the Imperial Navy, a smuggler--but all those occupations have one thing in common: they require extreme self-reliance and a certain amount of aloofness. He didn't grow up accustomed to getting help, so he's certainly not about to ask for it."
"But he's been acting like he's the only one who misses Chewie."
"He knows that isn't true, and he's aware of how he's been acting. When he and I returned to Sernpidal after Chewie died, he told me he suddenly felt that the world had become unsafe--that he'd always thought of our family and close friends as almost immune to tragedy, living in a kind of bubble. How all of us have managed to survive the things we've been through is nothing short of astonishing. But all the narrow escapes, the flirting with death, only made Hand feel more invulnerable. Chewie's death changed that. Your father even included Mara's illness as evidence of how insecure and unpredictable everything has become."
Leia paused, recalling something. "It didn't occur to me until later on that I'd heard him express the same doubts once before--just after you and Jacen and Anakin had been kidnapped by Hethrir. Do you remember how protective he became?"
Jaina shook her head. "Not really."
"Well, you were pretty young. But trust me, your dad wouldn't let any of you kids out of his sight for months." Leia glanced at Jaina. "He'd like to have everyone believe he's a hardened skeptic, but the fact is, he runs on faith."
"Then why is he keeping such a distance from everyone?"
"Because giving in to his pain would require him to break down and really grieve, instead of shutting himself off from the world. And he's too slick for that."
"Is that how he got that nickname?"
Leia shook her head. "That's another story."
Jaina tortured her lower lip with her teeth. "Mom, he will come home, won't he? I mean, we're all he has right now, right?"
"Of course," Leia started to say, when C-3PO interjected, "I only hope it's enough."
Mif Kumas, Calibop sergeant at arms of the New Republic Senate for two terms running, spread his wings as he rose form this commodious seat on the dais of Coruscant's Grand Convocation Chamber.
"Senators, I would caution you to refrain form disrupting these proceedings with vocal displays or outbursts, warranted or otherwise." Kumas waited until everyone had fallen silent, then inclined his maned head toward the speaker's rostrum that stood opposite the dais on the polished stone floor of the great hall. "Director beldar-Nolek of the Obroan Institute has been recognized, and he deserves to be heard out."
Nodding curtly to Kumas in appreciation, bel-dar-Nolek resumed his tirade. "Furthermore, it is the Institute's contention that the New Republic has failed to honor its obligation to provide defense where needed."
A human of considerable girth, he affected custom-tailored suits and a walking cane hand-carved from greel wood. His jowls quivered as he spoke, and he frequently punctuated his remarks by stabbing the air with a chubby forefinger.
"It was clear to the member so this body that Obroa-skai was imperiled, but nothing was done to safeguard us from attack. The Yuuzhan Vong descended on us like velkers, picking our cities clean." He paused to clear his throat. "I was tending to business on Coruscant at the time, but I have seen the holo reports."
Hushed utterings, few of them flattering, spread through the hall, prompting Kumas to repeat his appeal for some measure of decorum. Gratified by the commotion his remarks had elicited, bel-dar-Nolek folded his stout arms and rested them on his ample abdomen.
Tiers of randomly positioned galleries, boxes, and balconies loomed on all sides, rising clear to the domed ceiling, with page, protocol, and interpreter droids moving along the ramps, bridges, and stairways that linked them. While placement was not an indication of rank, many of the senators seated in the upper levels represented worlds only recently admitted to the New Republic and were frequently regarded by the lower-tier delegates as audience members rather than participants. As an appeasement to them, there was talk of equipping some to the loftiest galleries with detachable hover platforms, such as had been used in the waning days of the Old Republic, but no one gave the rumors much credence.
From one of those galleries came the voice of Thuv Shinev, spokesperson for 175 inhabited planets in the outer reaches of the Tion Hegemony. Simultaneously, a life-size hologram of the human senator resolved from a projector well on the chamber floor between the speaker's rostrum and the advisory council's dais, with its tight arc of heterogeneous chairs. Anyone in doubt as to the senator's identity could access information on small displays built into the armrests of every chair in the hall.
"I submit to this body that a task force was deployed to protect Obroa-skai," Shineve argued, "and that all within reason was done."
Bel-dar-Nolek addressed Shinev's hologram. "A pair of reconditioned Golan Defense Platforms and a couple of antique warships hardly constitute a task force, Senator."
"That was all that could be spared, Director," Bothan Chief of State Borsk Fey'lya growled from his seat on the dais. His violet eyes flashed. "What's more, I find such recriminations reprehensible, in light of the enemy's erratic movements and often unpredictable strategies."
Bel-dar-Nolek spread his hands placatingly. "Chief Fey'lya, I'm simply trying to prevent further errors in judgement. It's one thing to ignore the pleas of Outer Rim worlds, but to allow a world of Obroa-skai's prominence to fall into enemy hands--"
"I object to the director's blatant chauvinism!" the senator from Agamar interrupted. "And by what right does Obroa-skai portray itself as a cynosure?"
Bel-dar-Nolek glowered at the human and flung his words with brutal carelessness. "Obroa-skai's dedication to the perpetuation of cultural diversity makes it more important than other worlds. I demand that something be done to rescue what remains of our historical documents before it's too late."
"Secretary Kumas," a deep and mellifluous female voice rang out, "I ask to be recognized."
Kumas spread his wings. "The senate recognizes Senator Viqi Shesh of Kuat."
A slender, handsome woman of indeterminate age, Shesh flipped radiant black hair over her shoulder as she rose form her balcony seat. Relatively new to politics, she had quickly become known as a clever deal maker, with a knack for keeping all sides happy. The media had taken an immediate interest in her, to the point where she had been the subject of countless news stories, and her face was almost as widely recognized as that of Chief of State Fey'lya.
"On the matter of rescuing data, Director, it is my understanding that shiploads of important documents were relocated to the Institute's facility on Coruscant well in advance of the attack on Obroa-skai. Was I misinformed?"
"A fraction of what we had hoped to save," Bel-dar-Nolek countered nastily.
Shesh beetled her fine brows and nodded in a way that combined gravity and conceit. "Forgive my saying so, but the past concerns me far less than the future. While the loss of Obroa-skai is a terrible blow, the New Republic military is hardly in a position to spare ships to retake a world when it is already overextended in defending so many others. The Yuuzhan Vong are widening their hold of key sectors in the Outer and Mid Rims, and unless their advance is thwarted, they could reach the Colonies or the Core in a standard year, leaving even Coruscant itself vulnerable to assault."
Bel-dar-Nolek studied her stonily. "I see through you, Senator. Obroa-skai was surrendered because it lacks strategic value. When Yuuzhan Vong warships begin to close on Kuat, Chandrila, or Bothawui, I doubt very much that the New Republic fleets will be other wise engaged. The military was in force at Ithor. Even the Imperial Remnant."
"And Ithor was despoiled in spite of our efforts, "Shesh said "I sympathize, Director, but I certainly don't see what can be done now."
Bel-dar-Nolek slammed his fist into his open hand.
"We can appeal to the Yuuzhan Vong to allow Obroa-skai to remain accessible to scholars."
Denunciations flew from every quarter. While Kumas was attempting to restore order, Borsk Fey'lya got to his feet, his cream-colored fur bristling. "It is not the policy of this body to bargain with aggressors," he pronounced, in a way that left little room for argument.
But bel-dar-Nolek was unmoved. "Then I'm afraid you leave the Obroan Institute no choice but to forge a separate peace with the Yuuzhan Vong."
"I strongly advise against that, Director," Shesh said.
"The most recent attempt at appealing to the Yuuzhan Vong's sense of fair play ended in the grisly murder of one of our own--Senator Elegos A'Kla."
"I hold Luke Skywalker and the Jedi accountable for the death of Senator A'Kla," bel-dar-Nolek said in disgust, "and all that has befallen us. Where were they when Obroa-skai fell? Anyone would think they would have been the first to protect a center of learning."
"Even the Jedi can't be everywhere at once," Fey'lya said.
"Still, I blame them. I blame the Jedi and the Bothans' own Admiral Traest Kre'fey, who has become a dangerous rogue!"
"I demand a retraction," Fey'lya fulminated. "Such remarks are blatantly inflammatory and provocative!"
"What information do we have about the genesis of this war?" the director said, playing to the audience. "We have only the word of the Jedi that the Yuuzhan Vong wiped out the ExGal outpost on Belkadan and attacked Dubrillion and Sernpidal. But who is to say that the Yuuzhan Vong weren't provoked to such actions by the Jeci Themselves? Met with hostility, perhaps they simply responded in kind. Perhaps this conflict is nothing more that a perpetuation of that initial misunderstanding, fueled by the subsequent actions of the Jedi at Dantooine and Ithor, in league with certain elements of the military, including Admiral Kre'fey and Rogue Squadron, along with other hapless units that have been dragged into this struggle."
Bel-dar-Nolek paused dramatically and gestured broadly to the hall. "Where are the Jedi even now? Where is Ambassador Organa Solo? Wasn't it she, senators and representatives, who first brought the Yuuzahan Vong to your attention?"
Aderaanian doucilor Cal Omas spoke up. "Ambassador Organa Solo is attending to personal business."
"And may I remind Director bel-dar-Nolek and other members of this assembly that she does not represent the Jedi Knights," Shesh added.
"Then just who does?" bel-dar-Nolek pressed. "Why are they permitted to take whatever actions they see fit, without having to answer to this body or to the Defense Force? We are alleged to be members of a New Republic, and yet it seems to me that we are weaker than the Old Republic, which at least had the Jedi under rein."
He looked around the hall. "I ask you, too, what are the Jedi waiting for? Do they fear the Yuuzhan Vong, or is it that they harbor secret designs of their own? I suggest that you put an end to their reckless conduct, and that you open negotiations with the Yuuzhan Vong, without using the Jedi--or anyone with ties to the Jedi, like Elegos A'Kla had--as intermediaries."
Viqi Shesh was the first to speak when the hall had quieted sufficiently for anyone to be heard. "Senators, if nothing else, I think we can all take some consolation in the fact that Director bel-dar-Nolek is neither a politician nor a military strategist." She waited for the laughter and applause to subside. "We must not allow ourselves to be undermined by divisiveness, nor should we allow the fall of Ithor and now Obroa-skai to undermine our confidence in the Jedi. I know that you will agree with me when I say that by weakening the Jedi Knights, we only weaken ourselves."