Note to readers: This story was the result of a 'challenge' over at TFnet site. The challenge was to write a 'first half' story, and someone else would finish it, and then you'd finish someone else's story. This is my beginning, and JediNemesis's ending. I think she did a WONDERFUL job!

My introduction

Crossing Paths

Two months after ANH...


"Don't give me that look," Han groused at his partner. "We're not Rebels, pal. "Sides, we did go back and help Luke blow up the Death Star. What the heck did that get us? A stupid medallion.... I tell ya, that's something I could've lived the rest of my life without. It's not even worth melting down and selling."

Chewie gave a long series of barks and growls, which only irritated the smuggler even further.

"We have to pay off Jabba!" Han argued back. "You don't think he's gonna wait forever, do ya?"

Chewie's blue eyes looked accusingly at his partner, and he woofed some more words.

Han shook his head, trying to keep from losing his temper. "Nah, we can't go back. They'd have left Yavin by now, and we've got no clue where they headed..." Han forced his thoughts away from the short time he'd spent with the Rebels. Thinking about the inexperienced farm kid, trying to outgun and outrun the Empire made him nervous for some odd reason. And as far as the feisty Princess..... she was just a spoiled rich girl, in the same category as Bria Tharen. At least that's what Han told himself whenever he thought about the Princess. Unfortunately, he found himself thinking about her a lot, and deep down he knew the comparison to his traitorous ex-girlfriend was unfair.

Sighing, the Wookiee stood up and headed out for some supplies to restock the Falcon. He was far from done with this argument, but for the time being, he decided to let the matter rest.

Rebel Base on an uninhabited rim world

General Rieekan approached the young man from Tatooine as he labored away at cleaning his X-Wing. "Commander Skywalker?"

Luke turned around, quickly saluting the Alderaniaan General. "Sir."

Rieekan smiled at the enthusiasm of young Skywalker. Like Leia, he had suffered and lost his family and friends in the past few months, but Luke was outgoing and had made many new friends among the Rebels. "How would you like to pilot the Princess to Corellia?"

"Corellia?" Luke asked the older man.

"We've had a communication from someone offering the Rebellion munitions supplies. Princess Leia will be heading there to make contact with this potential supplier."

The idea of getting to spend time alone with the Princess thrilled Luke more than he'd ever admit. Grinning, he replied, "Sure, I'd be honored to be her pilot."

"Good." Rieekan nodded. "You'll be taking her in a two man transport. It's pretty small and old, but unfortunately it's the only ship we can spare at the moment." The General paused for a moment, and then added, "I wish Solo would have stayed. We sure could have used a freighter like that for these types of missions."

"Yes, sir," Luke agreed. He had been disappointed that the Corellian left the Rebellion shortly after the ceremony awarding them medals of honor, and although she'd said nothing, Luke suspected Leia was disappointed as well.

"You'll leave first thing in the morning then," Rieekan instructed the young man. "Take care of the Princess, Commander. I'm counting on you."

"I won't let you down, sir."


Six timeparts later, Chewie had not returned to the ship and Han was frantic with worry. By the next morning, the exhausted Corellian stumbled back up the ramp of his ship, sick with fear. Chewie was gone - he had disappeared without a trace.

At one point during his search, Han had wondered if his friend had left him to return to the Rebellion, but he quickly discounted that notion. Chewie would never abandon him, even if he was angry over Han's refusal to join the Rebels. Another, more real fear, was that a bounty hunter had caught Chewie. But why would a bounty hunter go after Chewie and not him? Jabba would be pleased to have the Wookiee, but Solo knew the Hutt was far more interested in his hide than Chewie's.

Han walked over to a hidden panel and keyed in his private code. The panel slid open, revealing the boxes of credits the Rebels had given him as his reward for rescuing the Princess. It was a lot of credits, but if that's what it would take to find and rescue his best friend, then Jabba would have to wait.

Three days later, over Corellia

Luke dropped the ancient transport out of hyperspace, watching his scanner for space traffic. We're right on time. Do you have the landing coordinates?"

Leia looked down at the small reader. "A small landing base, outside the town of Aleyun. Fortunately, Corellia has a lot of incoming and outgoing ships, so we should be unnoticed."

The young pilot was about to agree when several Uglies came roaring around the curvature of the planet, lasers blazing.

"Pirates!" Leia shouted. "Turn around and head back into hyper."

Luke banked the bulky old craft, just as a large, battered Dreadnaught came into view. A second later, the Rebel transport shuddered as tractor beams grabbed them.


The DL-44 blaster was uncomfortable, jabbed as it was under the snout of the Klatooinian. "I'm just about to lose what little patience I have left," Han muttered. "The bartender said you'd talk, so you'd better talk.... and fast."

/Please... lower your blaster,/ the being spoke softly. /You are attracting attention./

"If I fire, I can guarantee it'll attract a lot more attention, but at this point I don't really care. But you sure as hell should."

/Your friend is no longer on Rattatak/, the Klatooinian murmured.

"Then where is he?"

/I cannot say. I can only tell you who the kidnappers took him to./

"Who?" Han snarled, not lowering his weapon.

/A human by the name of Modar Fedque. He deals in sentients./

"Sentients? You mean he's a slaver?'

/He's a supplier of slaves. He purchases them from pirates and then auctions them off to owners that desire slaves./

Han leaned back, resisting the urge to shut his eyes in despair. "Does Fedque come around here often?"

/Sometimes, but he lives on Raxus Prime./

Then Raxus Prime is where I'm heading, Han thought grimly, laying the promised credits on the table for the Klatooinian.

The being snatched up his payment and hurried away, not daring to look back at the dangerous and possibly demented Corellian.

Space, near Corellia

Leia's knuckles were white as she gripped the armrest of the co-pilot's chair. The transport was clunky and old - not made for fighting or fast maneuvering. Once caught in the tractor beam, there was nothing they could do but watch as they were pulled into to hanger of the Dreadnaught. "They were waiting for us," Leia hissed out through clenched teeth. "I can't believe we fell for a set-up."

"Maybe not," Luke argued. "These space lanes are known for pirate activity... they might not know who we are."

"It doesn't matter. Pirates aren't noted for being exactly kindhearted."

Not knowing how to respond, Luke turned his attention back to watching as the transport settled into the hanger. A group of rough looking humans appeared at the perimeter of the large room, weapons ready. "Now what?" Luke asked, looking to Leia for guidance. "Should we fight them?"

Watching the pirates pointing their weapons, Leia felt a chill of foreboding. "I'm not letting them take me without a fight," she whispered, pulling the small blaster from her belt.

Instead of blasting the door open, the pirates climbed up the side of the transport - a loud, high pitched noise filled the small ship. "What are they doing?" Luke whispered, crouching down in the main room. "They should be trying to blast the door open."

The Princess glanced up at the roof. "They're drilling into the circulation system."

Luke's eyes widened in understanding. "Poison?"

"I doubt they'd go through all this trouble just to poison us. They could have killed us outside the ship."

"Then what are they....?" Luke wondered out loud, looking up. A blue mist filtered in through the vents. "Air masks!" Quickly, Luke grabbed two breathers out of a supply cabinet.

The pair barely had put the masks over their faces when the comm board started flashing. Frowning, Leia hit the 'on' button. A male voice came over the speaker. "Good day, Princess Leia Organa. Please don't be foolish. Your breather masks can only supply you with fresh air for three timeparts, at the most. On the other hand, I have all the time in the galaxy."

"Who are you?" Leia snapped. "What do you want?"

"My name is irrelevant," the man answered. "It's my employer you'll be far more interested in meeting."

"Your employer?"

"Yes, dear Princess. A very old 'friend' of your late father..... Modar Fedque."

Leia shut her eyes tightly, quickly turning off the 'send' button on the comm unit.

"Do you know him?" Luke prodded gently.

"He's originally from Alderaan," Leia replied softly. "Years ago, my father and General Rieekan learned he was dealing in slavery, and had him arrested and convicted. The man escaped.... and vowed revenge, even if it took him the rest of his life."

"But your father's dead," Luke protested. "How can he still expect revenge?"

"General Rieekan's alive. And I don't think the fact my father is dead will have any bearing on Fedque's desires."

"What can we do?"

"I'll try to bargain with the pirate. They're only interested in credits, and if I can convince him we'll pay more...." Leia trailed off, realizing that it was unlikely the Rebellion would be able to pay more than a rich slaver - or that the pirate would risk alienating his employer. She hit the 'on' button. "Captain.... did your employer say anything about my pilot? If I give up without fighting, will you let him leave unharmed?"

"Leia - " Luke started.

The Princess slapped her hand over the microphone, glaring at Luke. "Do you think both of us should end up as hostages... or dead? I'd rather have you alive so you can return to base and come back with help."

"You could be dead by then. Or they could take you anywhere in the galaxy at all - and we'd never know where to find you."

"So tell me.... what big plan have you come up with?"

Luke flushed. "I don't have a plan."

"I didn't think so. Let me deal with this, Luke."

Raxus Prime, five days later.

Han stared with disgust at the holo of his new identity. Sure, the face was his, and the ID disk was flawless. Worth every credit he'd spent to have the professional make create it. But the man in the holo shot was bald, for kreth's sake! Why did the idiot Bith have to make him bald? Sighing, Han picked up the razor and removed every bit of hair from his head, then took a step back and stared at his appearance in the small refresher mirror. For some reason, the dark-haired Princess came to mind. Han was very glad she'd never see him like this.

Solo dressed in the expensive clothes of a wealthy businessman, and picked up a briefcase filled with credit chips - hoping he had enough to buy Chewie his freedom. Putting a breather over his face because of the rancid air, Solo exited his ship, locking it up tightly behind him. Just another thing to worry about.... the safety of his ship. This particular docking area was very pricey and promised top notch security lockups. He'd just have to trust his luck and hope his precious Falcon was still here and in one piece when he arrived back.

Trudging his way through the grimy streets, Han made his way to a large building. He glanced up at the engraving on the stone above the doorway. FEDQUE ENTERPRISES, LTD. Taking a deep breath, Han pressed the open button and entered.

JediNemesis continuation

A protocol droid met him a few steps inside. It was an expensive model and evidently in good working order, but it was grubby and looked uncared-for. Han glanced around the foyer of the building, taking in the muddy marble floor, fraying rug off to one side, and the worn-down upholstery of the furniture. Someone had clearly fallen on hard times.

The droid relieved him of his heavy overcoat and disappeared off with it. Han took advantage of its absence to remove the breather and take stock of his surroundings, letting himself relax for the first time since leaving his ship. The hard part - getting in - was over, and he allowed himself to imagine for a moment that the rest might just be as easy. Not likely, he corrected himself ruefully a moment later. Getting in was the easy bit, it was getting out again that was trouble -

"Er - if you would care to follow me, sir?"

"Hm?" Han looked around, and saw the protocol droid standing behind him. Insofar as droids could express any kind of emotion, it looked nervous. "Sure." He remembered his disguise a moment later and tried to make his voice less rough. "Er, certainly."

The droid led him through a door he hadn't noticed and along a corridor, where the white paint was beginning to peel off the walls. At the end of the corridor, it opened another door, and announced hesitantly to someone within, "Er - a visitor, Mistress."

"Let him in." said a woman's voice, irritably. The droid held the door for Han as he entered, before vanishing as fast as it could.

Han entered the room, not without nervousness, but reassured by the weight of the briefcase at his side. A youngish woman - wearing the grey jumpsuit that seemed to be the garment of choice on industrialised Raxus Prime - rose from behind her curved metal desk to greet him. She held out one hand, businesslike. "Welcome to Fedque Enterprises."

Han shook her hand, and winced. Either she was a lot stronger than she looked, or the hand was artificial. It was hard to tell under the standard-issue grey glove. He gave her a cursory looking-over, and decided that on the whole, he'd seen better. The dark-haired princess sprang to mind, as she was doing worryingly often of late.

The woman seemed not to notice his speculative look. She returned to her seat, swinging her booted feet up onto the desk, and indicated that he should sit down. "What can I do for you?"

She hadn't asked for his name, or given her own. Han was surprised for a moment, then reflected that in a business as peculiarly illegal as slavery, anonymity was often safer for all concerned. "I want to speak to Modar Fedque."

The woman raised her eyebrows, her expression guarded. "Not possible. He's conducting some very important business at his private residence at the moment."

Han stiffened. Damn. "When will he be back?"

"Couldn't say."She stretched, yawning. "I can handle any . . . transaction you may want to make, I assure you."

Han hesitated, then spoke in what he hoped was a convincing impression of a miser. "I'm a cautious man, and I don't want to end up with a heap of good-for-nothing nerf fodder. Prove I can trust you."

He reached for the briefcase handle, as if unconsciously, and the credits inside clicked gently as the case moved. The young woman's eyes followed the movement, and Han relaxed. Money-starved mercenaries, he could understand. Hell, he practically was one.

The woman seemed to think for a moment, before reaching underneath the desk for something. Han tensed, thinking for one mad second she was drawing a blaster, then breathed out again, when he saw it was only an identity disk. She flipped it across the room, and Han caught it clumsily.

The name panel had been blanked over, but the holo shot was unmistakably of the woman, and scrawled across the back of the disk in shimmering imprint-laser were the words 'Secure. Modar Fedque.'

It could have been faked, they could be - Solo grinned inwardly: he knew that - but it seemed unlikely, and he would have to trust her in any case. With the big boss himself away, he had no choice. "All right." He flipped the disk back to its owner, who stowed it away, and leaned back in his seat as though he had not a care in the galaxy. "I want to buy a Wookiee."

Space, near Raxus Prime

Luke and Leia sat opposite one another in the cramped passenger space of the shuttle, their knees practically touching. On top of that, they were forced to lean inward by the curving walls. In front, leaning over the back of the co-pilot's chair, was one of the pirates. The blaster he held was aimed squarely at Leia: the pirates had taken Luke at face value, a young and unimportant pilot, and had ignored him for the majority of the five days the pair had spent aboard the Dreadnaught. They had, however, categorically refused to free him, on the grounds that they didn't have the authority.

The pirate with the blaster had not once wavered in his aim during the shuttle trip, despite the unorthodox technique of his colleague flying the shuttle. Leia was uncomfortably aware of the weapon trained on her, however much she tried to take her mind off it.

Luke was trying to catch her attention, whispering "Leia -"

She leant a touch closer to him, blocking him from the pirate's view, and listened as he whispered "The nav screen says we're at somewhere called Raxus Prime."

Raxus Prime? The name was unfamiliar. Leia murmured "I don't know it." out of the side of her mouth, hoping Luke caught the words.

Luke paused, before whispering again. "Listen. When the shuttle lands, and he's not looking -" - he cocked his head almost imperceptibly towards the pirate with the blaster - "- we run."

Leia hesitated, tempted, then shook her head as obviously as she dared. "Too dangerous. We could both get shot."

"He won't shoot you, Fedque wants you alive." was the confident whisper of reply.

Leia sighed. Luke had a tendency towards reckless heroics, and it got irritating every once in a while. "And what about you?"

"I'll be fine."

"No, you won't." Leia contradicted him. "Luke, Modar Fedque is not a man to be trifled with. Let me handle this."

Luke's reply was urgent. "We have to get out of here."

"Luke -"

A sharp order in heavily accented Basic made them both look around. "You. No more talking."

They both snapped around, Leia's face tense, Luke's guilty.

Luke sat back, cocking his head pointedly towards the pirate, then looking up at the exit hatch.

Leia shook her head.

Raxus Prime

The woman leaned back in her chair, considering. "A Wookiee? They're hard to come by."

"I . . . heard that one had been brought in a week or so back." Han said carefully.

"Anything brought in in the last month will be in the holding compound at Master Fedque's estate." She paused, her gaze flickering to the briefcase. "They have to be - vetted, checked over, you know, given a medical and all that jizz. They're generally not for sale until afterwards."

Han gave her a long, appraising look. "Generally, huh?"

Her eyes went to the briefcase again. "It depends how desperate you are."

For answer, Han hauled the briefcase onto his knees, unlocked and opened it, then turned it around. The woman gave an audible indrawn breath as she surveyed the rows of pristine, newly minted credit chips. "I want to visit the holding compound."

"I'm sure . . ." She stopped, licking her lips unconsciously, then continued. "I'm sure that can be arranged."

The shuttle shuddered as it landed, the metal walls groaning alarmingly. Leia clutched at the seat for stability, wondering if the vessel was about to turn itself inside out. Opposite her, Luke seemed unaffected by the rough landing, but his face was nevertheless tense.

The shuddering ceased, and the shuttle hummed to a complete stop. The pirate with the blaster gestured roughly with it, the unspoken command being for them to stand up. Leia stood, unable to keep from smiling as Luke cracked his head on the low ceiling. He rubbed it ruefully, looking sheepish. "That hurt."

The blaster-wielder growled. The pilot grunted in acquiescence, and a moment later the shuttle's main hatch hummed open. Outside was . . . inside, as far as Leia could tell: a good-sized hangar, with an expanse of grubby duracrete flooring and the occasional oil patch.

Two guards were waiting outside, both of them conspicuously armed. One of them held a blaster, the other, two sets of simple but effective binders. Leia felt first nausea, then outrage, rise in her throat as the one with the restraints approached. She leant over to Luke, hissing in his ear. "Even for Modar Fedque, this is going too far."

Luke started to speak, but trailed off as the binders were clamped around first Leia's wrists, then his own. Neither of them had the space to break and run as they were ushered out of the shuttle.

Han waited tensely as the woman tapped a series of commands into her datapad. It beeped. She read something off the screen, then looked up. "Master Fedque is unavailable. But his general manager would be more than happy to give you a tour of the compound."

"When?" Han demanded, trying not to sound too desperate.

The woman consulted her datapad again. "According to him, whenever is convenient." She looked up again, and a wry grin crossed her face. It was the first time Han had seen her smile. "Actually he says I can bring you over whenever you want as long as I make sure you pay. Does that sound reasonable?"

"Sure." Han said, relieved, then cursed inwardly for the slip into casual language. "Today."

The woman considered a moment. "The soonest would be this evening. Even in a speeder it's a four-hour trip."

"Fine." Han told her curtly. "The quicker the better."

Her eyes darted to the briefcase again, before coming back to rest on his face. "Done." A moment later: "He's expecting us. If you'd like to follow me . . ."

Modar Fedque's private residence was starkly austere, in sharp contrast to the faded luxury of his business premises in the city. The décor was mainly monochrome and metal, standard Imperial design, reminding both Luke and Leia uncomfortably of the Death Star interior.

The two of them were prodded at gunpoint through a series of interconnecting rooms, finally emerging onto a wide veranda. The view was bleak, miles and miles of greyish, rocky moorland. It wasn't helped by the lowering clouds and the thin rain. But it was outdoors, and the air was fresh, a welcome change from the cramped confines of the shuttle.

The doors closed, the guards disappearing back through them. Waiting outside, Luke guessed, in case of attempted breakaways. The situation did not look good.

It worsened when a figure detached itself from the shadow of a pillar at one end of the veranda, and came towards them. Its voice was polished and courteous, the voice of an aristocrat. "Ah, your Highness. Welcome to my humble abode."

Leia whipped round. Her gaze came to rest on the approaching man, and her reply was no less mockly courteous. "Modar Fedque. And to think I had thought the galaxy had finally seen the back of you."

"Wishful thinking, I'm afraid." Fedque's tone was sharp. A moment later the hint of a sneer had crossed his face. "Ha, but I suppose Alderaan's seen the last of me. And of anyone else, for that matter. You were there, weren't you?"

Luke saw Leia blanch. Fedque had hit a very raw nerve. The princess' voice was scarcely above a whisper as she replied. "It was your planet too."

Fedque gestured behind him, to the wide grey plain. "Which is my planet, the one that cast me out or the one that took me in? Answer me that, princess."

"Your own actions forced my father to bar you from ever returning to Alderaan." Leia snapped. "You escaped, you had your life. Forbidding you to return to Alderaan was only justice." Her voice rose, her tone biting. "If the Senatorial Council had had their way, you would have been hunted down and killed. Justice? It was mercy."

"Maybe . . . Being exiled from Alderaan was the best thing that ever happened to me, princess." Fedque said reflectively. "Because if I'd come back, I would have been on it when it blew. Because of that, I'm alive and your father's dead. How's that for justice, princess?"

Leia went whiter still. Luke was unable to keep himself from speaking any longer. "Leave her alone."

Fedque looked sharply over at him, first surprised, then disdainful. "And you are?"

"Her pilot." Luke said with a hint of pride.

From off to one side, Leia added "He's of no use to you. Release him."

Fedque turned to Leia for a moment, shaking his head sorrowfully. "And have him run straight back to the Rebellion? Unlikely." He returned his attention to Luke, looking appraisingly at the young man. "In view of other matters, impossible."

"I beg your pardon?" was Leia's scathing comment.

Fedque replied without turning around. "I deal in sentients, your Highness. Surely you remember that much."

The slaver clapped his hands, and a moment later the doors creaked open, admitting a towering Zabrak clad in well-used spacer's leathers. "Yes, master?"

Fedque patted Luke's shoulder, almost paternally. Luke jerked away. "One for the holding compound, Marsha." He took a step back, then added "He's an opinionated one. Solitary, I think."

"Sir."The Zabrak slid a short-barrelled AK2 blaster from its holster at his side with practised ease, and levelled it at Luke's chest. He cast a critical eye over the young pilot, then nodded appreciatively and gestured with the gun. "Move."

Luke shut his eyes for a moment in despair, then did as he was ordered.

Modar Fedque watched the veranda doors creak shut with a satisfied smile on his face. Leia watched him, shaking with rage. Her voice came out hissed between clenched teeth. "One day, you'll pay for every life you've ruined."

"Sticks and stones, Highness." Fedque said easily. "You're in no position to threaten me. Be grateful you're not in the compound with your friend."

"I'd rather be there than here." Leia retorted. Her mind was already working furiously, trying to incorporate the latest development into her half-formed escape plans. She cursed herself for not having anticipated Fedque's reaction. I should have known, she thought bitterly to herself, Modar Fedque's like that.

The slaver raised one eyebrow. "More than a friend, is he?"

"Please." Leia said sarcastically. "He's my pilot, Carlist assigned him to this mission. I barely know him."

Leia desperately hoped she had sounded convincing enough: Luke's safety lay in the fact that a young pilot of two months' service with the Rebellion was deemed to be of little significance. If he escaped, Leia reasoned, Fedque would most likely not bother to expend time and resources catching him. Luke Skywalker, on the other hand - Red Five, the hero of Yavin - would make a valuable hostage, to be retained at all costs.

Fedque seemed not to notice anything untoward. "Carlist? Ah yes, of course. Carlist Rieekan. Still inflicting his incompetence on an innocent galaxy, is he?"

"General Rieekan is a far greater man than you'll ever be." Leia told Fedque, with conviction.

"Oh, indisputably." Fedque agreed, evenly. "You misunderstand me if you think I want greatness, princess."

"What do you want, then?" Leia demanded, then continued before he could reply. "Let me guess. Money and revenge. You're sickeningly predictable, Fedque."

Fedque leant back against a pillar, folding his arms. "And yet you still walked into my trap. For someone who professes intelligence, your Highness, you've been remarkably stupid."

Chewbacca lumbered to his feet as the squeak of hinges announced a new arrival in the holding compound. The Wookiee leant forward, pressing his face to the small wired grille that covered the only aperture in the door. The cell door opened on to a covered passageway, then onto the main courtyard of the holding compound.

The majority of the slaves lived in the semi-sheltered courtyard, with only minimal restraints. Chewbacca, on the other hand, had landed himself in a solitary cell within minutes of his arrival. It had taken half a dozen guards to get the mighty Wookiee into the cell, and four of them had ended up carrying the other two away.

There was another squeak, and the click of a closing gate. A moment later the hulking silhouette of the big Zabrak called Marsha passed in front of the tiny wired window. He was followed by one of the compound guards, prodding along a prisoner clad in the grey jumpsuit of a newly acquired slave.

The Wookiee squinted through the tiny window, twisting his head to try and get a better view. The new arrival was a human boy, not more than a cub even by their, far shorter-lived, standards. Chewbacca clenched furred fists, angered. It was one thing for the slavers to target those who could fight back, but to take one no more than a child . . . The Wookiee howled, his displeasure evident.

The boy looked up, and Chewbacca fell silent out of sheer shock. How had Modar Fedque managed to lay hands on such a one? It defied explanation.

Puzzlement gave way to anticipation as the guards dragged their charge further along the row of cells, and out of Chewie's sight. Luke Skywalker had escaped from the Death Star alive and unhurt. If Modar Fedque's slave compound could hold the boy for more than a few hours, he, Chewbacca, would be very, very surprised.

Luke collapsed as the cell door closed, aching. At least they had taken the binders off. He massaged his wrists, trying to bring some feeling back into his hands, and slowly the pain began to lessen.

His mind was awash with half-formed plans for escape. Uppermost, however, was the fact that as Marsha had dragged him through the compound, a Wookiee a couple of cells down had howled. He would have sworn on anything that the Wookiee was Chewbacca, the same one who had accompanied Han Solo, as copilot and partner in crime.

Luke got up, and cautiously put his face to the grille in the doorway. By dint of squinting as far to his left as he was able, he could see right down the row of solitary cells. By his reckoning, the one holding Chewbacca was two or three doors along . . . and from there it was only about twenty metres to the gate leading into Fedque's estate. An easy run, and short enough to cover with a sporting chance of not being fired at, or at least not being hit.

Luke withdrew from the door before one of the guards spotted him, and sat down again. He had already included the Wookiee in his escape plans. Not only had he counted Chewbacca as a friend, but the mighty nonhuman would be more than enough to demolish the compound guards in short order. Escape suddenly looked more plausible.

The first, and hardest, part, though, would be simply getting out of the cell. Luke surveyed the tiny room: it was perhaps a metre and a half square by two and a half metres high, made of hefty duracrete slabs bolted together in the corners.

The door was metal, ancient-looking but solid and close-fitting. Luke had briefly seen the locking system: a simple, old-fashioned metal bolt, set into the doorframe at eye height. The grille in the door was small, maybe a handspan square at most, covered in crisscrossed wire that was beginning to rust.

Luke tapped the door experimentally, and to his surprise caught a faint metallic buzzing. Standing up, examining the door and tapping it again, he found the source: a single loose wire at the corner of the grille, vibrating when the door was tapped. The heavy steps of a guard sounded from outside, and Luke hurriedly withdrew to a far corner.

The guard passed the cell without checking, and Luke let go a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. He cautiously returned to the door, and pulled the wire as hard as he could. It came away a little further, and the one next to it started to work loose.

Leia bit back the retort - laden with choice Alderaanian vocabulary - that had been the first thing that sprang to mind, forcing herself to maintain icy silence. Fedque was goading her, she was aware of that, trying to make her lose her temper and resort to something more physical than sarcasm. He had turned his poisonous tongue on Alderaan, her father, Luke, General Rieekan and now on her personally . . . did the man have no soul?

Fedque looked disappointed for a moment when his barbed words got no reaction, before shrugging and continuing. "You are absolutely correct, princess. Money and revenge."

Leia looked at the ground, tense with revulsion. "You make me sick."

"In which case, you need endure my presence no longer." Fedque said with mock concern, before his voice changed, becoming threatening. "There are a great deal of beings in this galaxy both wealthier and more objectionable than I am, your Highness. All of whom will pay handsomely for a woman of your standing and appearance." At Leia's sceptical look, he added "Jabba the Hutt has been known to pay seven million credits for courtesans of common birth. Imagine what he would pay me for a genuine princess."

"You do business with filth like Jabba the Hutt?" Leia drew back from Fedque in disgust. "I'm surprised even you could stoop so low."

Fedque shrugged. "His money is as good as anyone else's. What do I care about the way he treats his slaves? Once they are out of my hands, nothing. Why should I?"

"You . . ." Leia stopped, lost for words.

"In actual fact, princess, I have no intention of selling you, unless of course you force my hand." The slaver sounded almost regretful. "Your pilot will finance this little operation admirably, an unexpected bonus, and so I have no need to sell you as well as no desire. Quite frankly, I can think of more satisfying ways of exacting my revenge."

Before Leia could retort, Fedque had clapped his hands again, summoning another hulking guard from within the house, this one a Rodian. Its voice was tinny and metallic, filtered as it was through the translator unit clipped to its collar. "Yes, master?"

Fedque nodded to the princess. "Take her inside, would you?" To Leia, he said: "I have a . . . guest this evening, and I hope you will grace us with your presence. Until then, your Highness."

Leia was fuming as the Rodian led her away.

Four hours later

The skies of Raxus Prime had faded to a dull slate-blue, too dark to be called evening and not quite dark enough to be classified as night. Han was glad of the breather when he finally stepped out of the speeder: the air was uncomfortably hot and heavy with engine fumes.

The woman, who had driven, appeared unbothered by the foul air. She shut the speeder doors carefully, locked the vehicle, and spoke familiarly to the Zabrak who had been waiting to meet them. "Everything all right, Marsha?"

"Of course." rumbled the massive Zabrak. He turned, and offered one gauntleted hand to Han. "Master Fedque welcomes you."

"I thought he was busy." the woman interjected as Han was shaking the Zabrak's hand.

Marsha turned his yellow-eyed gaze onto her. "He is. But he can always make time for unexpected guests."

"True." She shrugged. The Zabrak released Han's hand. The disguised smuggler flexed it surreptitiously, impressed in spite of himself.

If his handshake is anything to go by, he'd give even Chewie a run for his money, Han thought.

The thought of Chewie jolted him back to reality, and to the reason why he was here in the first place. The briefcase full of credits was comfortingly heavy in his other hand, and Han felt cautiously optimistic about the future.

Luke wiped his hands on the sides and sleeves of his jumpsuit. Both his palms were bruised and bleeding from a dozen tiny cuts, made by sharp ends of wires. In the door, the wire grille had been pulled loose along three sides, and folded back, leaving an opening a handspan square with unpleasantly jagged edges.

Luke gritted his teeth and slid his arm through the gap.

Pain shot up his arm as he fumbled his way across the door to the crack where it met the frame, intensifying as he had to search up and down for the bolt. Finally his fingers closed on it, and - mercy of mercies - it had been well-greased. It slid free of its socket with barely a squeak.

Luke withdrew his arm, grimacing at the fresh set of scratches from wires that had worked their way through his sleeve. He was about to open the door, when a thought struck him. Carefully, he bent the grille back into position and tucked in the most obviously protruding wires. From a pace or two away, it looked fastened. Maybe it would fool the guards for a few minutes, and buy him a little time.

There was a slight creak as the door swung towards him. Luke slipped through as soon as the gap was wide enough, pulling the door to behind him and sliding the bolt back across.

Han was impressed by Modar Fedque's dwelling. The lobby of the mansion was marble-floored and boasted gleaming metal and polished wood in large quantities. Two vast mirrors on either side wall reflected one another.

"Ah." An aristocratic voice greeted him as he, the Zabrak and the young woman entered. Modar Fedque himself came striding across the entrance hall to meet them, hand outstretched. "Our mystery guest."

"It's a privilege to meet you." Han said carefully. He shook hands, then surreptitiously appraised the slaver, surprised.

The man was at least his own height, a few years older, with longish, neatly cut greying hair, and dressed in immaculate dark green. The only contrasting note was the holster he wore at his right hip, containing what Han recognized as a slender but no doubt lethal AK-9 blaster. His appearance was matched by that cut and polished accent. Alderaanian, if Han was any judge, the thought bringing back a twinge of memory. The dark-haired princess. Han banished her from his mind, reminding himself that she was most likely off in some remote corner of the galaxy, serving with the Rebellion, and he would probably never encounter her again.

Fedque gave a nod of acknowledgement. "A pleasure." He indicated the far door, and the two men set off together across the wide entrance hall. "I presume you carry identification? Purely as a matter of security, of course."

"Of course." Han agreed, and prayed that Fedque didn't do ID faking as well as deal in slaves. The forged pass would fool nearly anyone, but not an expert. He produced the slim slice of glassy stuff and handed it over.

Fedque tilted it until it caught the light, examining the holo shot and the few lines of ID information, then handed it back. "Thank you. I will of course ensure your details remain confidential, but as I said, security."

Han let go a mental sigh of relief, tucked the fake pass away, and changed the subject. "A place like this must've taken you a while to get hold of."

"My success is modest compared to some."Fedque opened the door for Han, and stood aside for him to go through. "I'm told you have money yourself."

"A legacy." Han said quickly. "I'm not a rich man."

Fedque laughed. "I understand how you feel. Nine years, then, since you ask."

Against his wishes, Han found himself warming to the man. This guy had Chewie kidnapped!, Han reminded himself, to little effect. Fedque had charisma, and plenty of it. "Self-made, huh?"

"Indeed." They emerged through a wide set of double doors onto a veranda, softly lit by braziers on stands at either side of the door. "Would you care for a drink?"

Wouldn't I, Han thought wistfully. But he couldn't afford to drink too much. "No, thanks."

"As you wish." Fedque said easily. He clapped his hands, and the veranda doors opened, revealing a sullen-looking Rodian. "Now, if you please."

The words meant nothing to Han. They evidently meant something to the Rodian, though, who left after grunting a "Yes, master."

Fedque gestured Han to a seat, then sat down himself. "So. I hear you wish to buy a Wookiee?"

"If I can." Han said, guardedly.

"May I inquire as to why?" Fedque asked.

Han shrugged, his mind racing. "Sentimentality, I guess. Knew one as a kid, got to like 'em and know the language."

It's kinda true, he thought guiltily. Then: Why the hell do I feel so guilty about lying to this guy?

"As good a reason as any." Fedque agreed. "Very well. As soon as Marsha returns, then, we shall tour the compound and see if anything strikes your fancy. "

Luke inched his way along in the narrow gap between the row of solitary cells and the perimeter wall of the compound. The wall was smooth duracrete and nearly twice his height, and after an abortive attempt to wriggle his way up it, braced between the wall and the back of his cell, he had given up trying to climb over.

He stopped when he had reached the rear of the cell which held Chewbacca, and edged into the narrow gap between it and the next cell. A cautious tap on the door brought the Wookiee to the grille. The massive nonhuman let out a soft growl of greeting, or possibly surprise. Luke couldn't tell. He whispered "Stand back from the door."

There was a growl of assent. As quietly as he could, Luke wrestled the bolt out of its socket, and caught the swinging door as it began to squeak. A moment later, he was crushed in a vigorous hug from the giant Wookiee. Luke sagged with relief. "Chewie, I knew it was you!"

Another growl, and the crushing grip was released. Luke leant against the cell wall, rubbing his side. "How did you get here?" Chewie shrugged, and the young man realized that the question had been futile. He couldn't speak Wookiee, and the big nonhuman could understand Basic but not speak it. "Is Han here?"

Chewbacca shook his head vigorously, and growled something that Luke took to mean no.

"Oh." Luke was puzzled by the smuggler's absence, not to mention worried. "Leia's somewhere here too, I don't know where, probably in the main building." He paused, and added in a fast whisper "We got separated. I need to find her."

The Wookiee nodded and looked cautiously out the door, before beckoning to Luke. The two of them slipped out of and behind the cell, Luke bolting the door again behind them.

Leia tried a cautious twirl in front of the mirror.

The dress that Fedque's housekeeper Eli had presented her with spun with her, the skirt billowing out ever so slightly, showing myriad cyan and emerald gleams as the faintly iridescent surface caught the light.

The Rodian guard, having delivered her to the plump Twi'lek woman, had disappeared. Eli had taken her in hand, cleaning her up, doing her hair, and finally producing the shimmering dress. Throughout it all she had kept up a steady stream of heavily accented chatter, and Leia had found her obvious affection for 'the master', as she called Fedque, both touching and inexplicable.

Eli herself looked like nothing so much as someone's grandmother, the homely effect jarred only by the metal tracer bracelet around her wrist. Leia had noticed that all the household staff they had passed wore the same devices.

"It's quite something." Leia commented approvingly. Fedque has excellent taste, I have to admit, she thought wryly. "Where did Modar Fedque get something like this?"

The ancient housekeeper cackled and rubbed her gnarled hands together. "He be rich, Princess, that he be. Stars, wearing that around this 'ouse, ye'll 'ave ev'ry man in the place after ye, servant an' free both. Who knows, master Fedque 'imself might take a shine to ye! Now there's a man for ye, not that 'e's what you or I'd call normal, mind. But there ye are, there's a lot we dinna know about, says I, and -"

Leia's face tightened at the mention of the handsome Alderaanian exile. The garrulous Twi'lek saw the look and shut up. Leia closed her eyes, trying to keep her temper, as the old lady opened her mouth again, this time apologising. "I forgot as the master ain't yer most fav'rite pers'n, milady. Sorry, yer 'Ighness. Got a bit carried away."

Leia turned round, and said shortly "Forget it."

She turned back to the mirror, looking at her reflection sadly. Since Han had - gone - and the Rebellion had left Yavin IV, she had lived in casual clothes or Rebel uniform. It felt strange being back in formal wear, and she remembered the dressing-up games she had played as a child. From there it was only a tiny step to thinking of Saché Organa, her adopted mother, and Bail, and from there her mind went reeling back to Modar Fedque. She felt her fists clench inside the long sleeves of the dress, and hated the slaver more than ever.

The Twi'lek fussed some more with the outer reaches of the dress, then coughed apologetically. Leia could see her in the mirror as she produced something metallic from an apron pocket. It was a tracer bracelet, of the same mould that the housekeeper wore on her wrist. "'Old yer 'and over 'ere, would ye?"

Leia didn't turn round, but silently held out her left wrist. The bracelet was cold against her skin, and she seethed inwardly as the housekeeper snapped it closed. "He's going to regret this."

"Ye'll come to like 'im in time." Eli said peaceably from behind her.

"The hell I will." Leia snapped.

"Naw, naw, those ain't words t'hear from a lady, Princess." The Twi'lek adjusted a final fold and stood back. At the same moment the door of the room opened, revealing the same Rodian guard who had escorted her earlier.

He jerked his head towards the door. "Master Fedque . . . requests your presence." The last three words were a leer, and Leia focused her attention on the floor to avoid hitting the creature.

"So where do we go from here?"

Luke's words were despairing, whispered to Chewbacca as the pair of them scanned the main exit from the compound. The gate into Fedque's estate was floodlit and guarded on both sides. In addition, there were the guards patrolling the compound courtyard. The solitary cells were overhung by the wall, and in shadow, so facilitating an unseen escape, but as soon as they left the strip of darkness they would be both in view and in range.

Chewie shrugged, growling softly. Luke wished, not for the first time, that he could speak the Wookiee language. Han Solo could, he remembered that. Well, not speak it, but understand it. He looked up at the wall, five feet above his head, then at the Wookiee. "Could you get up there?"

The big nonhuman glanced up, then nodded consideringly.

"Could you get me up there?"

Chewie nodded again, but growled and indicated the guards.

"They might not see us, if we handle it right."

He whispered his plan to the Wookiee, who growled in assent.

"My dear princess." Modar Fedque rose to greet Leia as the veranda doors closed behind her, saying to someone over his shoulder "My latest acquisition. A personal whimsy, she's not for sale."

"A princess, huh?" came the voice of Fedque's guest, out of sight behind an ornamental tree in a pot. Leia froze. She knew that voice. Where from, though? Not so long ago, and as a friend, not an enemy -

The man rose at that moment, skirting the little tree to take a closer look. Tall, expensively dressed, shaven-headed, and with an easy way of moving that made something in Leia's memory click.

Han Solo. The pilot Luke and Ben had enlisted to fly them to Alderaan, or as it turned out, the Death Star. Except he had been scruffier then, sporting typical spacer's dress and a mop of dark hair. He looked older and crueller without it.

So this is how he spends the money we gave him, was Leia's numbly bitter thought. Slaves.

Chewbacca listened to the cub's plan, and nodded in satisfaction. It was simple, but would probably work. Guards tended to be paranoid about escapes, and to come to investigate anything untoward. An enraged howl would certainly come into that category.

A cloud began to drift across Raxus Prime's single moon. Chewie cupped massive paws, and lifted powerfully as Luke stepped up. Within moments the human boy was lying atop the wall, the grey jumpsuit nearly invisible against mottled duracrete. The Wookiee retreated, until a good thirty feet separated him from his co-conspirator, and waited for the noise to die away.

One guard glanced idly about, but failed to look above his eye level.

Chewbacca saw Luke look to left and right, then nod. The Wookiee threw his head back and howled.

The guards froze momentarily, then came running. The first was fast but unsure, unable to pick out a dark target in the shadows of the narrow gap. Chewbacca growled in approval as a grey shape hurtled off the wall, knocking the hapless guard to the floor. Luke scrambled upright with the guard's blaster, and in unspoken recognition of the Wookiee's superior aim, threw it to Chewie before falling flat. Chewbacca caught it easily, and used it to devastating effect. Shots echoed around the compound, oddly muffled by the humid air.

A minute later, every guard in view was lying stunned. Chewie howled again, triumphantly, and lowered the blaster. Luke picked himself up, and looked around. "Good work, Chewie."

Chewie growled and handed the boy the blaster, before reaching for the top of the wall and hauling first himself and then Luke up. Getting down was trickier: the Wookiee recognized that the cub's skeleton was likely to be too fragile to withstand an eleven- or twelve-foot drop, and took matters in hand by lowering the boy down by the scruff of his neck. Chewie himself followed a moment later, landing easily.

Luke handed him the blaster, rubbing his neck with the back of his other hand. "You didn't have to do that."

Chewie growled his disagreement, hoping the intention would be clear even if the meaning wasn't.

Luke diplomatically took no notice, instead pointing to a building some hundred or so yards away, with lighted windows shining through the fog. "That's his house. Leia's still inside."

Han stopped dead, utterly dumbstruck.

It's her!

How in all the nine hells did she end up here? was the thought at the forefront of his mind. He was aware that he was staring, quite simply unable to believe what he was seeing. Disbelief was replaced quickly by anxiety, followed by horror. She didn't know his new identity, she only knew him as Han Solo, and knowing her, she would blow his cover within ten seconds.

On the Death Star, she had given him back retort for retort, and was never content even with having the last word. She can't shut up, Han remembered despairingly. Oh, kreth . . .

She was staring at him, her expression one of unmitigated fury. "I didn't expect to see you again."

Han made up his mind in those few seconds. Rescuing Chewie was still his priority, and so working out what the hell had happened to the princess was bumped down to second. "Do I know you, sweetheart?"

"Don't try that on me, Solo." Leia snapped. Han froze. She had used his real name, and any moment now -

"Princess." Fedque said sharply. "I dare say you have encountered a great many people you would count as enemies, of whom my guest may be one, but have the grace to remember that I am another. I suggest you keep a watch on your tongue."

"I suggest you keep a watch on your back, Fedque." Leia shot back.

"I may have to." was the dry retort. Han stiffened as the slaver turned his attention back to him. "Who are you?"

Han met Fedque's gaze, steadily and unwaveringly. "What's it to you?"

Fedque shrugged. "A great deal of money. What better incentive?"

"What the hell do you mean, incentive?" Han demanded.

"I do business with Jabba the Hutt." Fedque said quietly. "And I happen to know that he has recently been complaining, bitterly and at great length, about a particular defaulting pilot by the name of Han Solo. And when a man answering to his description appears on my doorstep with a caseful of credits, I begin to wonder. And when a lady not known for subtlety of expression calls him by the name in question, I stop wondering."

And now the kriff really has hit the fan, Han thought grimly. "Nice to know I'm so famous."

"Certainly." Fedque agreed. "Particularly when Jabba has laid a bounty of close on a hundred thousand credits on your head."

Luke shivered in the cold air as he knocked loudly on the nearest door. The first guard to poke an incautious head into the night was grabbed and concussed by Chewbacca. His companion followed more carefully a moment later, only to be shoved unceremoniously down the steps by Luke.

The giant Wookiee deposited the unconscious body he was holding in a nearby bush and relieved the man of his blaster, passing it to Luke. The young man checked it quickly, before nodding to the half-open door. "Someone will have heard that. Come on."

Chewie growled in assent and followed Luke inside. Once in, Luke paused for a moment, trying to recall the route he had been taken on from the veranda. "This way."

They had made it halfway there, by Luke's reckoning, when the rest of the household guards appeared. Chewbacca roared, and let off a volley of blaster shots.

The noise seemed to shake the whole house. Luke felt a return shot scorch past his arm, another sizzled into the ground beside Chewie's foot. The acrid taste of blaster backwash and charred stone filled the air, making both the pursuers and the pursued double over coughing.

The barrage let up for a moment, and Luke seized the opportunity to poke Chewie and run. "Move!"

The Wookiee lumbered after him as they skidded along corridors. Behind them, there were shouted orders, then sounds of pursuit. Finally a dividing door came in sight. They hurried through it, before melting the locking panel into oblivion. The cooling metal gave off a disgusting stench, and Luke wished he had a breather. At least it's better than the air outside, he thought.

Chewbacca growled, and the young man blinked, aware his mind had been elsewhere. "What?"

The Wookiee gestured around the room. It was octagonal, with a door on every side. Luke looked frantically from door to door, trying desperately to remember if he had passed through this room before. Chewbacca growled again.

"I don't know, do I?" Luke muttered defensively.

He was on the point of picking a door at random when raised voices issued from the one in the far right corner of the room. One of them was instantly familiar. Leia. "She's in there -"

A moment later, though, came another familiar voice that he had not expected. Hard, arrogant, and with a Corellian accent thick enough to float rocks. The Wookiee was already growling in surprise and relief as Luke found his voice again. "Is that . . . That's Han!"

Han's hand went to his blaster, concealed under the long draping overcoat that completed his disguise.

So did Fedque's.

The two men looked at one another over the barrels of their guns, Han grim, Fedque sardonic. The Alderaanian exile spoke without moving his blaster an inch. "It would appear we have a stalemate."

"I can wait." Han said quietly.

"Perhaps." was Fedque's equally quiet reply. "As can I. However -" - he smiled - "- why bother?"

In a movement too swift to follow, he had swung around, levelling the slim AK-9 blaster directly at Leia. He smiled at Han. "Put it down, Solo."

Han hesitated.

"I said put it down." Fedque sighted along the barrel of his gun, focusing his aim.

Han did not lower his blaster. "I know plenty like you. You won't fire. She's worth a hell of a lot too much to you."

The slaver neither changed his aim nor turned to face Han as he answered. "I warn you. This is your last chance. Put the gun down, or I swear by all the hells that I will pull this trigger."

Han looked across the expanse of the veranda. Leia was trembling. Eventually, reluctantly, he lowered his blaster. "Happy now?"

"On the floor." Fedque said, unperturbed.

Han threw his weapon to the floor. "There. Now let her go."

"You are in no position to bargain." Fedque said evenly. "And it so happens that she and I have a score to settle."

He fired. Time stood still. In that numb moment, it seemed to Han that not one, but two blaster shots rang across the veranda.

Leia reacted instinctively, throwing up her arms to shield her face and turning her head aside. She felt the blaster bolt impact with her right arm, just above the elbow, and felt herself falling. The world spun.


It was Solo's voice. A moment later he was kneeling over her, shaking her good shoulder. "Leia, look at me -"

What? Leia thought dimly. Han Solo was growing more confusing by the moment.

She accepted his support gratefully, though, and stood upright. The brief agonising burn in her arm had faded to a dull ache, but she knew from long service with the Rebellion that blaster wounds were always more serious than they felt.

As the smoke from the two shots cleared, she made out a very familiar figure standing silhouetted against the brightly lit doorway, blaster still in hand. "Luke! How did you -"

"Over the wall." Luke said, grinning. He dropped the blaster and threw his arms around her. She hugged him back, regardless of her injured arm, overwhelmingly grateful to see him alive. A moment later he stepped back, looking concernedly down at her. "How bad is it?"

Leia flexed her arm and winced. "I'll live."

"So'll he, worse luck." Han's voice sounded from behind them, and they both turned.

Modar Fedque was leaning against the veranda railings, supporting himself with obvious difficulty. His left shoulder was disfigured by an ugly charred mark, nearly the size of Leia's palm: the work of a real heavy-duty blaster, rather than the neat holes drilled by the tiny AK-9.

"It looks serious." Luke whispered to Leia. "There's a med unit over by the compound. We'll need to get him over there quickly if you want him to live."

Leia ignored him, surveying Fedque dispassionately. "You'll live to stand trial."

"So sure, Princess." Fedque's voice was softer than before, but no less sharp. "I have no desire to be subjected a second time to the pantomime you choose to call the processes of justice." He raised his left hand, throwing her a mocking salute. "Goodbye, your Highness."

His hand flashed to his mouth. A bittersweet aroma filled the air as he crumpled to the floor.

Three days later

"Modar Fedque." Carlist Rieekan drew in a long breath. He and the rest of the Rebel High Command were seated in the main control room, having just listened to the account provided jointly by Luke and Leia. "Back, after all these years. I hoped that he had died."

"He has now." Leia said shortly.

Rieekan looked up sharply. "How?"

The princess sighed, and looked away. "He took his own life."

Rieekan nodded slowly, and turned his attention to Luke. "Where are Han Solo and Chewbacca now?"

Luke had to suppress a grin. "In the main hangar, sir. That's how we got back so fast."

The General smiled. "The Millennium Falcon, of course. Do you know if they're intending to stay with us this time?"

"No, sir." Luke said neutrally. "But -"

Leia interrupted him. "Solo says he won't be going anywhere until he's got his hair back." She threw up both hands in mock despair. "Permission to leave, General."

Rieekan nodded, and Leia left. The rest of the High Command filtered after her, leaving the General alone with Luke Skywalker. The young man too had turned to go when Rieekan called him back. "A moment, Commander."

"Sir." Luke turned back to Rieekan, his expression curious.

The General's face was sombre. "One more thing. When Bail Organa and I first uncovered evidence of Fedque's operations, there were hints that he was merely a front for something else, something much bigger."

Luke waited silently for Rieekan to continue.

"It was never proved. As far as Alderaan was concerned, Fedque was working alone. It was tidier. No loose ends." He paused a moment. "It was never proved, but I believe it to be true. Did you or Leia find anything to suggest that Fedque had a backer?"

Luke shook his head. "No. Nothing, sir."

Rieekan sighed. "A pity. I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of this yet, Commander."

Aboard the Star Destroyer Executor

Darth Vader stood at the window on the bridge of the Executor, ruminating.

The wide blue curve of a planet whose name Vader had not bothered to find out swam lazily past as the Star Destroyer cruised through a wide turn. Stars twinkled beyond it, uncountable billions of them.

Footsteps came from behind him. An officer, looking nervous. "A message for you, Lord Vader."

Vader nodded his acknowledgement, and walked past the officer, through the ship to his private quarters. He knelt as the blue apparition of the Emperor, his master, crackled and hissed into being. "You summoned me, Master."

"Indeed." The voice of the Emperor's hologram was cracked and harsh. "Tell me."

"The princess escaped the trap set for her." Vader rumbled. "As did the other. Our tracking system was unable to trace them." He bowed his head, expecting the full blast of the Emperor's wrath.

Surprisingly, though, the ancient Dark Lord merely cackled. "The slaver was a useful ally. What of him?"

"Dead." Vader replied. "He revealed nothing."

"Good . . . good." The Emperor raised one hand, as if in benediction. "As long as no traces are left, the failure of this - attempt need not become a problem."

Vader said nothing.

"There will be no more laying of traps, Vader." the Emperor said peevishly. "Continue the search. The Force will deliver them all into my hands in time."