"The Jade Sabre has made orbit," Shok Tinoktin informed Nom Anor that night. "Leia Organa Solo is aboard her, along with her daughter and Mara Jade Skywalker."

"And a Noghri," Nom Anor added. "always at least one Noghri if Leia Solo is about."

"The Noghri are worthy adversaries," Tinoktin agreed. "But I fear the others more. So should you."

Nom Anor turned a glare upon the man, reminding him of who was the boss here, and who the mere attendant. And Shok Tinoktin did shrink back, the blood draining from his face. He had been around Nom Anor long enough to fear that glare as much as, perhaps even more than, he feared death itself.

"They are Jedi," he stammered, trying to clarify his warning, trying to make certain that Nom Anor did not note any lack of confidence in him. Speaking doubts about Nom Anor had proven a fatal flaw for several previous advisers.

"Leia is not true Jedi, or at least, she has not embraced her Jedi powers, from what I have been told," Nom Anor replied with a sly grin, one that allowed Shok to relax a bit. "Nor is her daughter a proven Jedi."

"But Mara Jade is counted among the strongest of the Jedi Knights," Shok Tinoktin pointed out.

"Mara Jade has her own problems to consider," Nom Anor reminded.

Shok Tinoktin didn't take any comfort in that; in fact, the reminder of Mara's disease only heightened his trepidation about letting her see Nom Anor at this time.

"She should be long dead," he dared to say.

Nom Anor smiled again and scratched his head. He had been wearing his ooglith masquer for a long while and was literally itching to take the thing off. But he hadn't the time, of course, and in truth, he didn't want even the trusted stooge Tinoktin to see his true, self-disfigured face, with its strange eye, a reflection of Nom Anor's highest show of devotion on the day he was awarded the position of executor among the Yuuzhan Vong, and first advance scout for the Praetorite Vong invasion force.

He had taken the eye out with the sharpened end of a burning stick. Of course, he had filled that hole in his face with yet another marvelous organic innovation, a plaerin bol, a creature that looked much like a normal Yuuzhan Vong eyeball, but its pupil was really a mouth, and one that could spit a venemous glob accurantely across ten meters at the command of its host, by a simple twitch of Nom Anor's eyelid.

"I am impressed with Mara Jade's ability to resist the spores," he admitted.

"Everyone else you tested them on was dead or dying within a few weeks," Shok Tinoktin replied. "Most within a few days."

Nom Anor nodded. His coomb-spore formula had indeed proven wonderfully effective, breaking down the victim's molecular structure and causing horrible death in short order. If only he oculd find a way to make the not-so-subtle shift from simple poison to disease, where the spores could become self-propagating, spreading on their own from being to being and thus infecting large populations.

Nom Anor sighed and scratched his head again. The spores-coomb, brollup, tegnest, and a dozen other varieties--were but a hobby, one that he had been able to insert into his official duties in attempting to develop some method for easily killing the super-creatures, the Jedi Knights. Also, such alchemical work, if successful, could prove critical in Nom Anor's ascension to the rank of high prefect. But in those endeavors and aspirations, to date at least, it appeared as if he had failed, for Mara Jade Skywalker had somehow defeated the spores, or at least had held them at bay.

"Do you have the shlecho newt?" he asked.

Shok Tinoktin nodded and reached into his pocket, producing a small brown-orange lizard.

"Make certain that it gets near to Mara Jade's mouth," Nom Anor explained, and Shok Tinoktin, who had heard the explicit instructions several times already, nodded. The coomb spores Nom Anor ha dused in his lethal were the favored delicacy of the shlecho newt, and if there was any trace of them at all on Mara Jade's breath, the little creature would surely detect it.

"I shall escort them in," Shok Tinoktin offered, and after a confirming nod from Nom Anor, the man turned on his heel and walked from the room.

Nom Anor rested back in his chair, considering thee upcoming meeting and the potential gains he might find. He thought it quite humorous that Rhommamool's enemies on Osarian were so fearful of the meeting that they thought Leia's recognition of Nom Anor in such a manner would strengthen his prestige and, therefore, power. For, in truth, Nom Anor hardly cared for any such gains in prestige at this time. In fact, his thinking went to quite the opposite. He carried all the emotional weight and influence he needed to control the weak people of Rhommamool, or of any other planets on which he planned to stir up trouble, but beyond that immediate sphere of influence, Nom Anor preferred anonymity.

For now.

No, Nom Anor was looking forward to this meeting simply so that he could gauge the effect of his infection upon Mara Jade, and so that he might learn more of the jedi in general, including Leia, a woman he knew would prove pivotaal in the upcoming events, and Jaina, who might prove to be a weak link to get to Leia Solo, perhaps even to Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. That was one of his missions here, to identify those most dangerous foes and to find some way to minimize their effectiveness. Occasions such as the Osarian-Rhommamool conflict, where Nom Anor could also further the effects of the internal squabbles among the humans and their allies, could bruk tukken nom canbin-tu, or "weaken the hinges of the enemy's fort," as went the common saying in his native tongue, were then all the better. There were other agents doing that very same thing, after all, though in Nom Anor's estimation, it wasn't even a critical component of the Yuuzhan Vong's overall plan. These humans and their pitiful allies would propagate their own problems by their very nature, he knew. They had no sense of structure and order, not in terms of the regimen and hierarchical code to which his own people adhered, at least. He had witnessed disinformation campaigns waged against political enemies, even one that had basically accused Leia organa Solo of treason. He had witnessed coup attempts on many, many worlds and had seen supposed authorities profiting many times from the activities of less-than-legitimate business contacts. These infidels did not understand the law, or the need for unbending adherence to it.

That would make it all the easier for the disciplined Praetorite Vong, he knew, and all the more justifiable.

Nom Anor noticed on one of his many security holocams then that Shok Tinoktin was returning, with Tamaktis Breetha, the former mayor of Redhaven and now a member of Nom Anor's independent senate, and Leia, Jaina, and Mara. He noticed the movements of two others, as well: a golden droid--and he would have to remember to punish Shok Tinoktin for allowing a droid into his complex!--and a ghostly gray creature seeming almost to float behind the others, hanging close to Leia, as if it was nothing more substantial than the woman's shadow. The expected Noghri bodyguard, Nom Anor knew. He nodded at the sight and made a mental note to keep careful watch on that one. In many ways, Nom Anor held much more respect for the Noghri, those deadly warriors, than for any humans, even Jedi.

Then he let his gaze shift back to Mara, studying her every movement, trying to discern some hint of instability, some hint that the infection was fighting on. He did see Shok Tinoktin's shlecho newt on the man's shoulder, eyeing Mara directly, its eyes wide, its tonggue darting and its head a brilliant shade of crimson, a clear sign of sxcitement.

So, he mused, the coomb spores, at least, continued their assault on the woman, and Nom Anor's respect for Mara heightened even more.

He went to his closet then and took out his great black cape, throwing it about his shoulders, pulling the hood up over his head, cowl low and concealing, then reaching in and lifting the black screen he used to completely cover his already-masked face. Though this was his usual public dress, Nom Anor chuckled as he completed the outfit. He knew the history of his guests and understood that the sight of him dressed like this might play interestingly upon them, particularly upon Leia, for it was hard to miss the likeness of Nom Anor to another foe Leia had once battled.

In a box on a shelf hidden deep in that closet, Nom Anor kept his remaining infectous agents, and it occured to him though only briefly, that he might use this opportunity to infect the other two, as well. How Crippled might the New Republic become if Leia Organa Solo suddenly succumbed to the same disease Mara Jade Skywalker was fighting? How debilitated might Leia and Luke, Mara and the always dangerous Han Solo become if Jaina Solo fell ill and died?

Pleasant thoughts, no doubt, but Nom Anor couldn't take the chance of linking himself so obviously to the deadly infection. Along that same line of thinking, particularly given the sensory powers of the Jedi and the evasive nature of the Noghri, Nom Anor realized that it would be a mistake to allow Leia and the others into these private quarters. He hustled to his door and pushed out into the hall, arriving just as Shok Tinoktin led the group around a bend in the corridor.

He saw the spark of recognition on Mara's face, and he knew as she turned quickly to Leia that she was informing the other woman of his identity. In the back, Tamaktis Breetha bowed and held his position.

Nom Anor nodded to Shok Tinoktin, and the man moved out of the way, allowing Leia a clear path to Nom Anor.

She sucked in her breath; Nom Anor saw the recognition, the surprise, even horror, upon her face. He looked like Darth Vader!

"I bring greetings from the New Republic," Leia said in formal greeting, and the fact that she spoke so quickly, and with her voice controlled and even, offered Nom Anor a bit of insight into the strength of this woman. She was one to respect.

"You bring interference where it is not wanted," he countered. Tamaktis Breetha gasped, and even Shok Tinoktin was a bit taken aback at Nom Anor's sudden surliness and brusque attitude.

"We have come as arranged," Leia said. "An agreement between you and Borsk Fey'lya, I believe."

"I agreed that an emissary could come," Nom Anor admitted. "To what end, I do not know. What can you contribute, Leia Organa Solo, to the dispute between Rhommamool and Osarian? What flame of hope can you light within the Rhommamollians that their desperate cry for independence shall not be ignored by the New Republic, who speak of freedom as the greatest of all virtues?"

"Perhaps we should retire to more private chambers," Leia suggested. Tamaktis Breetha seemed about to agree, but a look from Nom Anor cured him of that suicidal urge.

"What have you to hide?" Nom Anor mocked her.

"More comfortable quarters, then," the woman persisted.

"Will a chair make you more comfortable?" Nom Anor asked. "Physically, perhaps, but will it make you more comfortable with the truth?"

Leia looked at him incredulously.

"For that is all that I have to offer you," Nom Anor rolled on. the truth that Osarian has no claim over the people of Rhommamool. The truth of the frailties and failings of your New Republic. the truth of the false heroes, the Jedi Knights."

"Your truth," Mara interjected, and Leia glanced back at her.

Glad of the confirmation that his little tirade was wearing thin on them, Nom Anor didn't even try to hide his smile, though it was hardly visible through the black face screen.

"There is only one truth," he said calmly. "It is when one does not like to hear it that one concocts other, more palatable versions."

"If I may, Princess Leia," C-3PO began, moving forward. "There is ample history of the Jedi Knights to show them as true--"

"Silence!" Nom Anor growled at the droid, and the powerful being trembled visibly, as if he was about to explode into murderous acyion against poor C-3PO, who was also trembling, though not in any threatening manner.

"Are we to discuss the situation between Osarian and Rhommamool?" Leia asked, her tone diplomatic and soothing. She moved as she spoke to gently push C-3PO back, and nodded to Jaina to collect the Droid and to keep him quiet.

"I thought we were doing just that," Nom Anor said, under complete control once more, as Leia turned back to him.

"This is not a meeting," Leia countered. "It is a lecture in a hallway."

"And even that is more than Borsk Fey'lya deserves," Nom Anor was quick to answer. "Would you not agree, former Councilor Solo?"

"This is not about Borsk Fey'lya," Leia retorted, keeping her calm, though Nom Anor saw the fringes at the edge of that calm beginning to unravel. "This is about the fate of two worlds."

"Who need nothing from the hypocritical New Republic," Nom Anor added. "The New Republic that speaks of peace and prosperity, when it means peace in terms of the lower classes having no power to gain wealth or power, and prosperity only for elite friends of the New Republic."

Leia shook her head and muttered a few undecipherable words.

"Order your battle cruiser to destroy the Osarians' ability to attack Rhommamool," Nom Anor said in all seriousness. "Shoot down their starfighters and cripple their missile pads, and forbid them to rebuild such offensive weapons."

Leia stared at him hard, and the depths of her expression, he knew, carried more than the frustration of the immediate circumstances, carried in it the remembered weight of long-ago enemies.

"And when they leave us alone, the conflict will be at its end," Nom Anor went on. "Peace will prevail. And so will prosperity." He pausedand brought a hand up to his black-masked face and struck a pensive pose. "Ah, yes, then prosperity will prevail, but it will be prosperity for Rhommamool and not Osarian, not the favored elite of the New Repulic."

"You can't believe what you'e saying," Leia returned dryly.

"Can't I? Nom Anor asked, his voice dripping sarcasm. "A plausible read of the situation. Go out yourself among the streets of Redhaven and ask."

"If you cared for the people of Rhommamool, you'd sit down and negotiate away this budding war," Leia said bluntly.

"I thought that was what we just did," Nom Anor said.

Leia's expression again turned incredulous.

"I told you how to stop it," Nom Anor went on. "A simple call to the commader of your intervening terror weapon..."

Leia looked back at Mara and Jaina and shook her head.

"Not what you expected?" came Nom Anor's sarcastic, taunting reply. "But more than you, or the new Republic, deserved. I think our positions are clear, and so I bid you turn about, back to your silly little flying box, and away from Rhommamool. I am afraid that I have lost patience with your foolishness."

Leia stared at him long and hard, then turned on her heel and stormed away, sweeping up Jaina and Mara in her wake. Bolpuhr, too, turned about, but not until he had given a long and threatening stare at Nom Anor, who merely smiled widely in reply. C-3PO, too, turned to leave, but he lingered there a moment, wilting under Nom Anor's glare, perhaps the coldest stare he had ever felt.

"Excuse me, sir, but may I inquire if there is a problem?" the droid gingerly asked.

"One I could easily rectify," Nom Anor answered ominously, coming forward a step, his stance threatening.

"Have I somehow offended you?" the droid politely asked, although he was quaking with fear.

"Your mere existence offends me!" Nom Anor growled, and, C-3PO, having heard enough--to much, actually--wheeled about and hustled away, calling for Princess Leia.

"I did not expect such an encounter," Tamaktis Breetha dared to say, moving beside Nom Anor.

"Nor did I," Nom Anor replied, I had thought the meeting would be boring, and hardly that much fun." He looked at his former mayor and recognized the doubts on the man's face.

"Speak your mind," Nom Anor bade him. "Your questions will only strengthen me."

"Rhommamool will indeed need the help of the New Republic," Tamaktis Breetha said after a long pause.

Nom Anor chuckled. the man didn't understand. This wasn't about Rhommamool--Nom Anor would hardly care if he left the place and then later learned than Osarian had completely obliterated it. Of course, he would never go one record making such a statement.

"Our cause is bigger than the civil war between a pair of planets," he told Tamaktis. "It is about the basic freedoms of citizens of the New Republic and basic fairness to the exploited masses everywhere. When that truth comes out, then Rhommamool will find all the allies it needs to crush the theif-lords of Osarian."

The former mayor squared his shoulders as Nom Anor spoke, taking pride in the cause--the greater, if impractical, cause. "I will see that our guests depart promptly," he said, dipping a bow and, after Nom Anor motioned for him to proceed, starting away.

Nom Anor went to Shok Tinoktin and gently patted the head of the still-sxcited shlecho newt.

"The scent of the coomb spore was strong on her breath," Shok Tinoktin remarked.

"And she wasn't as strong," Nom Anor added. "I could see it in the way she walked and held herself," Supremely pleased with himself, tthe executor headed for his private quarters, Shok Tinoktin moving to follow.

"Make sure that their course away leads them past the square," Nom Anor said to him on sudden insight. "I want them to witness the devotion."

Shok Tinoktin bowed and turned away. Nom Anor went into his room. He started for the two villips he had concealed in his closet. but changed his mind and went to his skylight instead, staring up at the stars that were just beginning to peek out as the sun disappeared. Had they made contact? he wondered. Had the yammosk set up a controlling base?

"He looked like Darth--" Jaina started to say.

"Don't even talk about it," Leia cut her off, her tone leaving no room for debate. "Try to keep up, Threepio," she said, more sharply than she had intended, when the droid came bounding around a rounded corner in full flight, nearly crashing into one of the metal support girders that lined the hallway like a giant rib cage. "And try not to get lost."

"Oh, never that, Princess Leia," C-3PO said, as sincere as he had ever been, and he glued himself to Leia's side.

They continued along the winding maze of corridors, up stairwells and through heavy doors, and it occured to all of them how defensible this place truly was, a bunker more than a statehouse. Also, given the number of stairs they had climbed, and where they eventually came out, they realized that Nom Anor's private chambers were quite far below ground, something that had been lost on them in their trip down, a journey that had followed a more meandering route, along corridors they now understood to be gently, almost imperceptibly, sloping.

They arrived at the Jade Sabre without incident, and the guards standing before the shuttle's hatch briskly stepped aside.

"I wish that it could have gone better," Tamaktis Breetha remarked to leia after Jaina, Mara, and C-3PO went aboard to begin departure preparations.

"Perhaps you should tell that to Nom Anor," Leia replied, and the gentle-eyed old man bowed.

"You must understand that Osarian has been ruling us as a virtual slave colony for decades," Tamaktis began.

"I know the history, and the current standing," Leia replied. Your intractable leader does not help the situation."

Tamaktis, obviously unconvinced, didn't respond.

Leia shook her head and moved into the ship. Bolpuhr gliding in behind her, the Noghri never taking his wary gaze from Tamaktis or the two sentries.

"We've got a course change," Mara informed Leia as soon as she joined the others on the bridge, taking her customary seat behind Jaina.

"They want us to fly low across the city, then vector out from the west," Jaina explained.

"A trap?" the wary Leia asked.

"I don't see the point," Mara asked. They could have taken out the shuttle while we were with Nom Anor, and could have easily captured us inside the complex."

"Unless they're trying to make it look like an accident," Jaina put in.

Leia nodded, reflecting her similar concerns.

"They haven't got a thing that will take us out of the air once we're up and fully powered," Mara said firmly.

"Nothing that we know about," Leia added, and that truth gave Mara pause.

"We could signal the Mediator for an escort," Jaina offered.

Leia shook her head. "Just follow their course," she offered. "But be ready to blast out of here at the slightest sign of trouble."

They heard Bolpuhr give a low hiss in the hallway, apparently not pleased with that choice.

"Maybe your Noghri noticed Nom Anor's resemblance to Darth Vader, as well," Mara said with a tension-breaking grin.

But Leia shuddered visibly at the awful thought.

The Jade Sabre lifted off and skimmed above the city, barely above the rooftops, as the departure controller ordered. A few moments later, Leia understood the design of this course change, as the great square of Redhaven came into view, where a celebration was in full swing, great bonfires burning.

"What is that?" Jaina asked, pointing down at the huge pit, and Mara, equally curious, brought the Jade Sabre in for a low flyby.

C-3PO wailed and the three women crinkled their faces when the truth of that pit became apparent, when they saw the battered, pitiful droids, some still moving or sparking, and every motion invariably drawing a new volley of stones from the crazed crowd that ringed the pit.

"Barbaric!" C-3PO cried. "The inhumanity!"

"Get us out of here," a disgusted Leia instructed, but Mara was already spinning the Jade Sabre up on end and punching full throttle, the roar of the twin engines making many of the fanatics in the square dive for cover. A squawk of protest came over the comm, but Mara jusst clicked it off.

"Well," she said as they soared far, far away, "I warned you about Nom Anor. Still think I was exaggerating?"

"He is about as infuriating as any being I've ever met," Leia agreed.

"And once again, my sensitivity to the Force revealed nothing about him," Mara added. "Nothing. I even tried to silently call to him, just to get a reaction, but he didn't respond at all--I don't even know that he heard it--and so completelt did he ignore me that there was little I could learn about him."

"Sama with me," Jaina admitted. "It's like he was totally devoid of the Force. I didn't like the feel of that other one, Shok Tinoktin, either."

Mara nodded. "But I don't have the feeling that there was any hint of a bluff in Nom Anor's rebuttal," she said. "He brought us here for no better reason than to snub us, and even if Osarian puts the pressure on. I doubt that one will ever negotiate."

Leia got up and rubbed her eyes, shook her head in utter frustration, and gave a helpless sigh. "I admire you," she said to Mara. "Truly. You met him once and agreed to do so again. You're a braver person than I."

Luke and Jacen found the Millenium Falcon right where they left it, Docking Bay 3733, and judging from the sounds coming from the bay, the clank of metal wrenches, the hum of turbo drivers, and the stream of muttered curses, they figured that Han and Chewie were still trying t figure out how to fix the thing.

On the way to Coruscant, Han had given the controls over to Anakin, who was more than a bit jealous that Mara often let Jaina fly the Jade Sabre, and the fifteen-year-old, predictably, pulled a few hotdogging maneuvers on the way down. But while the Millenium Falcon was surprisingly agile for a ship that looked more like an old garbage scow than a starfighter, she was also much, much more powerful. The Falcon had the agility to pull the turns Anakin put her through--though with his inertial compensator dialed down only 2 percent, everyone on board had nearly passed out from the g's--but the boy had apparently throttled up a bit too hard coming out of more than one. By the time Han had managed to take back the controls for the last remnant of the flight to dock, the Falcon was listing badly, with one engine and several repulsorlifts firing intermittently and unpredictably. Even now, secured in the bay, one of those repulsors popped off now and again, jolting the ship's edge up a few degrees, to bounce back down as the repulsor sputtered back out.

Luke and Jacen exchanged a smile as the Falcon went up yet again, higher this time, nearly onto its side, then dropped fast to horizontal, slamming down against the floor.

"Weeow!" came the screech of R2-D2.

"Chewie!" han cried, from somewhere above the open lower landing ramp, followed by a thud, a swear or two, and a wrench bouncing down the ramp to clang out into the docking bay.

Han staggered down behind, covered in grease and sweat, muttering every step of the way. He bent to retrieve the wrench, but stopped and glanced up at his returning son and brother-in-law.

"Teenagers," he muttered.

"I thought you'd have it fixed by now," Luke replied.

"All but that number-seven repulsor," Han explained. "Something crossed and shorted in one of the kid's rocker-rolls. Keeps firing off and on even if we power her down. Artoo got a bit of a shock when he plugged into the nav computer."

Luke smiled widely. Ever since he had met Han and set eyes on the Falcon, he considered the two, pilot and ship, to be almost spiritually linked. Both were a patchwork of seemingly unrelated skills, and both were far more formidable than they appeared. And both, Luke thought now, always seemed to be breaking down and defying logic in the repair mode.

"Try it now!" came Anakin's voice from within, answered by a Wookiee wail.

The Falcon hummed to life, repulsorlifts firing in test sequence: one-ten, two-nine, three-eight, four...seven.

And seven fired beautifully.

"Kid's got talent," Han remarked, but even as he said it, something inside the Falcon exploded and thick smoke poured down the landing ramp, accompanied by another R2-D2 "Weeow!"

Chewie wailed again.

"You pushed it too fast!" Anakin yelled at the Wookiee, and Chewie's wail became a growl, and a moment later, Anakin came running down the ramp, waving the smoke from his face, as filthy as if he had just dived face-first into a Tinuvian tar pit.

He skidded to a stop before his glowering father.

"He pushed it too fast," Anakin sheepishly tried to explain.

"You pushed it too fast," Han countered, anger rising.

"You said I--"

"I said you could fly it," Han interrupted, poking his finger at the boy. "I din't say you could try to outdo your sister, because yopu can't, you know. And you can't turn the Falcon the way you turn a landspeeder!"

"But--" Anakin paused and looked to his uncle and brother for support, but while the two weren't smiling any longer, neither did they have anything to affer against Han's assessment.

With a sigh that sounded more like a snarl, Anakin waved his hands in frustration and stormed back p the landing ramp.

"Teenagers!" Han cried.

Now Luke did smile again, for he could envision a young Han Solo in exactly the same situation, hearing the exasperated cry of "Teenagers!" from every adult around him. There were many differences between Anakin and Han, with the son seeming far more introspective. But concerning many matters, like flying the Falcon, apparently, Anakin Solo had his father's unbridled spirit. In cases like this, it almost scared Luke how much Anakin was like Han, in appearance and in temperament.

Chewie greeted the returning Anakin with a disapproving growl.

"We'll fix it!" the boy replied with a sigh. "It's just a stupid ship."

Even before those last words had left his mouth, Anakin found himself up in the air, his head uncomfortably close to the myriad of wires in the Falcon's main power grid. The powerful Wookiee held him there easily, with just one hand, while his other hand reached down to Anakin's belt and pulled free his lightsaber.

"What--" Anakin started to ask, but then his surprise multiplied many times over and he yelled out, "Hey!" as Chewie brought the lightsaber into his mouth and made a move as if he meant to bite the thing.

Aside from the risk of blowing his head off if he released the energy within that hilt, Chewie's threats to scratch or damage Anakin's precious instrument unsettled the boy profoundly. He yelled at Chewie again and reached up for the lightsaber, but the Wookiee elbowed his hand away and scolded him profoundly.

"Okay, I get it," Anakin replied, head down, for the Wookiee's comparisons between Anakin's feelings for the lightsaber and Chewie's own for the Falcon certainly hit the point. "I get it," he said again.

Chewie howled, hardly seeming satisfied.

"We'll fix it!" an exasperated Anakin assured him.

For a few moments, Luke continued to envision the problems a younger Han might have caused to those adults around him. Han cocked his head at him, apparently noting the expression, and smirked. "How'd your meeting go?"

"Wonderful," Luke answered sarcastically. "How else could any meeting chaired by Borsk Fey'lya go?

"They've got their problems," Han said. "Borsk and his friends are finding that managing a galaxy isn't as easy as they believed."

"So they find scapegoats," Luke said.

"Such as...," Han prompted.

"A problem along the Outer Rim," Luke explained. "Someone's banging blasters with smugglers. Jedi, they believe, and that's not to the liking of Fyor Rodan or Niuk Niuv."

"Probably costing them a fortune," Han reasoned with a wry grin.

"Whatever the reason, the council's not happy about it."

"Which means they're laying it on you," Han said. "Well, what are we going to do about it?" Han's tone made it pretty clear that he didn't think highly of intervening.

"Didn't you tell me that Lando was out there, mining asteroids or something?" Luke asked, and Han's expression soured.

"He's out there," Han replied. "Pair of planets called Dubrillion and Destrillion, near an asteroid system he modestly named Lando's Folly."

"I need a thread to hang on," Luke explained. "Maybe a little insider information."

"That'd be Lando," Han agreed. He didn't sound particularly enamored of the idea.

Luke understood the man's apparent reticence and recognized it for pure bluster Han and Lando were friends--dear friends--but there always seemed to be a reluctance from both to publicly admit it. "Maybe," Luke said. "Lando always seems to know what's going on, and if I find out the inside story, I might be able to use it to persuade a couple of councilors to see things my way."

Han started to nod, then blinked and stared at Luke curiously. "You been hanging around me too long," he remarked. "What are you smiling at?" he asked Jacen, who was beaming at Luke's side.

"The belt," Jacen said. "Jaina's going to be pretty happy about this."

"The belt?" Luke asked.

"Running the belt," Jacen explained, but Luke's expresion remained curious.

"Lando's got an operation going on the side," Han explained. "Calls it running the belt. It's a game--and there's probably more than a little betting going on around it--where pilots test their skills by zipping around the asteroids, seeing how long they can stay in tthe place before getting bumped away."

"Blasted away, you mean," luke said. "Into little pieces. Doesn't sound like a promising career."

"Only one pilot's been hurt," interjected, drawing a surprised look from Luke. "Jaina told me," he explained. "Lando modified some TIE fighters with walls of repulsor shields so that they can take a hit, or two, or ten, and just bounce away."

"It's supposed to be one of the highlights of the galaxy," Han replied. But I'm betting there's mroe to it than just a game."

Luke nodded and didn't have to ask for clarification. He had heard a couple of reports of smugglers diving into asteroid belts to evade pursuit. Perhaps Lando's game was providing some interesting training.

"You want to go and visit him?" Han asked. "He's not on especially good terms with the New Republic these days."

"Is he ever?"

"He's likely running a few side businesses the New Republic would see as less than legitimate," Han added.

"Isn't he always?"

That brought a chuckle from Han, but just for a moment. "What about Mara?" he added seriously. "They'll be back soon, and from what I hear, things didn't go very well."

That hit home to Luke, a reminder, as everything else seemed to be a reminder, that his beloved wife was not well. The best doctors in the galaxy were shaking their heads helplessly, able to do nothing but watch as something inside Mara continually altered her molecular structure. No medicine, no therapy, had come close to treating the rare disease, and only her own internal strength, her use of the Force, was somewhat keeping it in check. Those others who had contracted the disease had not been so fortunate.

So what would a trek across the galaxy do to her? Luke had to wonder. Would it be too much? Would it put her in a dangerous position?

"Aunt Mara just went to Rhommamool," Jacen reminded. "That's three days' travel, and she didn't find any vacation once she got there."

"True enough," Han said. Maybe a run to the Outer Rim, far away from the council will do her, and my wife, some good."

Luke shrugged and nodded, and so it seemed settled.

They heard R2-D2 beeping wildly then, Chewie wailed, and the number-seven repulsorlift coil fired to life.

And then there came another explosion from inside the Falcon, and the lift coil sputtered out.

Anakin came storming down the landing ramp. "That's it!" he grumbled. "I'm done."

Before Han could even begin to yell at him, though, a huge, hairy paw landed on the boy's shoulder and yanked him back inside, and Anakin's feeble attempt at any protest was blasted away by a tremendous Wookiee roar.

"Teenagers," Luke remarked, tossing a wink at Jacen.