"I can't believe I said yes to this."
Han Solo was sprawled like an overgrown space slug in the captain's chair of the Millennium Falcon. Ahead of him loomed an ocean-mottled abomination of a planet. Or not a planet. A waterworld.
"If I'd had any idea how ugly it was," he muttered, "I would've raised my fee."
Chewbacca growled in agreement. Twice.
A grim sensation, not unlike disgust and pity melded together, arched up and down Leia's spinal column vertebrae by vertebrae. It was certainly the last place she expected to find an old friend of Bail Organa's. Centuries ago, Lunera had been the technological epicentre of the Luna System. Now it was a planet in ruins, land gone, glaciers melted, oceans spread across and over the cancerous remnants of great cities. She didn't immediately argue, although after a second's consideration, she did ask, "Since when did being ugly have anything to do with it?"
"Ugly? Sister, if you haven't noticed, this ship is made of metal and plating. She doesn't get along with sodium-rich water, sea mynocks and slimy things that eat trimantium hulls and fluidics cables for breakfast. And that's all on a good day," he added pointedly.
"Keep a record of any repairs."
"I will." Han scratched his head. "What's our contact's name again?"
"Did I mention he sounds like a boring old geezer with long flowing white hair…"
"I'll believe it when I meet him."
"He's not that old." Leia raised her voice. "In fact, he's not that much older than you."
"Huh." His expression was such that she might have just informed him that the mighty Tatooinian dewbacks were herbivores. "Let me guess. He's royalty and you two were formerly engaged."
"Nothing of the sort."
"But you were involved."
She had difficulty answering him. Finally she said, "Almost."
"Almost?" Han twisted his torso in a long exaggerated stretch. "Let's see… He made a pass at you and was banished from the Organa estate forever-after with his testicles barely attached."
A small smile tugged at the corner of Leia's mouth, but she promptly caught her lip between her teeth as though sharing the intimate tidbit of her previous life had been a profound lapse in judgment. Displaying an exaggerated air of nonchalance, she leaned over his shoulder to check their current status. "It was years ago. Besides, after I was elected to the Senate, he was dispatched from Alderaan to head up the national corporation on Excarga."
"And now?" Han prompted. The Empire had nearly obliterated Excarga's ore-processing mines eight standard months ago.
"Until recently he's been instrumental in organizing supply runs from Excarga to the underground. Now…he's… um… the regional organizer for an unofficial Special Forces division."
"On this dump?" Han tossed Chewie his pilot's headset. "Let me know when traffic control picks up our signal." He leaned further back in his chair and regarded the Falcon's only female passenger with renewed interest. "Don't take this the wrong way but I was under the impression that they usually sent real Intelligence people on these romps?"
Leia's face was suddenly remarkable, if only for its lack of expression. "We've carried information for Intelligence before."
Han clarified; "Never had anything to do with Special Forces."
"In that case rest assured that I am a real person."
The Wookiee began twirling the audio equipment with the tip of a massive leathery index finger and listening intently to Leia.
"I didn't mean 'real' in that sense." Han wiggled his fingers through mid-air. "I already ruled out hidden holoprojectors. And Princess, you're almost as bad as Gruesome over here with the amount of hair you leave everywhere."
"Oh, aren't you clever." Leia was duly unimpressed. "As a matter of fact you just might pass the Alliance Special Intelligence Exam on your second try."
"Or third." She stooped slightly and narrowed her eyes. "Ultimately you'd fail the 'commitment' part of the questionnaire."
Chewbacca began hooting and waving the headset at both of them and the timing couldn't have been better.
It wasn't a good time to argue. Lately, she didn't know if she was interminably angry with Han for not caring enough about the Alliance to stay, or with herself for the underlying meaning of such private frustrations, the source of which she was loath to analyze. Luke Skywalker had said recently, in the midst of a long conversation inspired by a divisive comment she couldn't recall, that she was the type of woman who needed proof of emotion to be demonstrated with devotion to her cause. She hadn't figured out what he meant by that yet.
Han shrugged indifferently in a way that infuriated her and picked up the headset. "Everyone strap in tight. It's time to see what this baby looks like up close."
Moments later, after dealing with Lunera's traffic control, Chewbacca hooted a question.
"You'd have to ask her that."
"Ask me what?"Leia asked.
"You don't want to know."
"You might find it offensive."
"He can't possibly offend me."The edge to her voice betrayed her annoyance.
"Fine. He's just curious about the age of consent on Alderaan. He thinks he heard it was twelve or something like that."
Leia pressed her lips together in a flat, thin line, unimpressed. "Seventeen."
"Well then. I can't wait to meet him." Han feigned a light snore. "This mission should be absolutely scintillating."
Just as Han had expected, the outpost was a portrait of decrepitude. Shaped like a spoked wheel, it was run-down and badly in need of repairs, sporting out-of-date services for both respectable and errant craft. Grease and corrosive fluids were eating away at the fomex concourse and rust gave everything else a reddish tinge. The few streets carved out within the center hub guarded nothing more than what promised to be disappointing restaurants, hotels and supply stores constructed of the same dingy metal paneling. It was the middle of the afternoon and a vaporous grey rain drifted aimlessly between the buildings.
When they reached the edge of the ship-docks, Leia stopped dead in her tracks. "We need to talk," she said.
Han braced himself for the inevitable. He'd known something like this was coming. For the duration of the flight, the princess had been about as communicative as an Ah'ik'ran priestess after taking her vow of silence. Not only had she been uncharacteristically quiet, but she hadn't once attempted to lecture him on how to behave when they met their contact. If she knew he was leaving, obviously Luke had gotten tongue-tied again and blabbed away with the verbal filters off. "Talk."
"I need you to let me do this alone."
Han shook his head. That wasn't what he had expected.
"There's little Imperial activity here," Leia pointed out. "The only likely danger is falling over a railing. I know him. He was a close friend of my fathers."
At that Han snorted. In the time he'd know her, Leia Organa let slip personal details of her life on Alderaan about as often as she missed Imperial stormtroopers at point-blank range. The way she'd spoke back on the Falcon, Han thought she sounded slightly wistful about the man, which was another first. If heated blood flowed through her veins he had yet to see it affect her demeanour or judgment. He really didn't want to see it up close.
"Is this a mission or some kind of reunion?"
Leia refused to be insulted. "What I meant was the matters we have to discuss are classified."
"I missed that during the briefing."
"I'm briefing you now. You may accompany me in person and spend the afternoon waiting in the rain outside our rendezvous point or spend the afternoon at the starport where you'll be much more comfortable. It's your choice."
It wasn't much of a choice. As much as he hated to admit she was right, there wasn't likely to be much trouble here. This particular outpost was an interchange point. It was less than two kilometres across at its widest point and truthfully, she couldn't go more than fifteen minutes in any one direction without literally falling off of it. Han swung his head and spotted a respectable looking restaurant beside the ship-dock entrance that actually advertised its specials in the windows. "Two timeparts and we meet right there," he said.
In the throes of a foul mood, Han began making his way back toward his ship, which, courtesy of the heavy rains and wind, was probably being pounded with salt water and corrosive rain. Smuggling, as a full-time occupation, had been kinder to his ship than running as a pilot for the Rebellion. Han wasn't officially part of the Alliance, but he ate in her mess halls, weighed in at her meetings, and lay around with her techs and astromech droids in the main hangars repairing his ship. And inevitably, just when the Falcon's status was upgraded from critical to stable, someone asked him to make a run, check out a distress call, escort a princess from one side of the galaxy to the other. Time and time again the Falcon limped back to the Fleet and the vicious cycle repeated itself. This two-day jaunt in particular would cost him dearly in mechanical upkeep and he wasn't inclined to run errands for the Alliance out of the goodness of his heart much longer.
"Han Solo! Han Solo! Is that you?"
Han had his blaster half-drawn before he even turned around.
The approaching human was out of breath and overjoyed. "I thought it was you. I wouldn't miss that dashing profile anywhere." He eyed Han's right hand and grinned. "Still drawing off the cuff, eh? Put 'er away. You'll draw attention to us."
Gravity dragged the heavy weapon back into his holster. Blix Leel was scrawny and his tan spacer's clothes were threadbare but his face still maintained its contagious cheer. Unfortunately, spice-addiction and spice-running as a hobby and an occupation conflicted more often than not. In the brief time Han had known him, Blix had never been able to get it together long enough to make it in the smuggling business, but he always cleaned up long enough to give it a serious go. "Attention from whom?" he asked warily.
"Well… you aren't still running for that Hutt are you? I heard-"
"No." Han cut him off abruptly. Maybe Blix had been keeping tabs on him through the grapevine. Han wondered if he knew about the death-mark on his head and scanned the vicinity. The native-born Sacorrian was about the last person he'd expect to try and rope in a bounty for Jabba the Hutt, but a lifetime of harsh experiences had taught him not to rule anyone out. After a quick scan, Han ascertained that the only souls loitering about were a pair of Tynnans primarily occupied with escaping the weather. Tynnans were seal-like humanoids with thick pelts and well-muscled tails. A water-born species, they'd been steadily invading Lunera's floating cities for decades, setting up trading posts and making themselves right at home. Most other species avoided it like a plague.
Blix peered hopefully in the direction of the concourse where a cargo-lifter's mechanical claw was busily unloading a container ship. "You're here with the Falcon?"
"Yeah." Han folded his arms across his chest. Habitual paranoia set in tenfold. "I'm doing some private work. What do you want?"
"I know it's been a long time Han, but I need your help."
"The sector customs agents picked my ship for a random search a few weeks back. I was…uh… carrying prohibited material. My ship was impounded and I can't afford the charges. It's on lease and I haven't been able to contact the owners yet."
Blix named an exorbitant figure.
"If I even had that much…" Han tightened his jaw for the sake of politeness. I wouldn't give it to him. If he had that much he'd be well on his way to paying off Jabba and wouldn't be standing on a cesspool of a planet calculating the odds that an old acquaintance was preparing to sell him out.
"There's not much of organized government left here, in case you haven't noticed by the looks of things. The current fares to the nearest spaceport start at two-thousand and I'm down to my last fifty credits."
Han didn't say anything.
"Remember that time I pulled for you on Typha Dor?"
"Uh huh," Han said, although he was busy thinking, Leia won't like this and do you actually care?
"I had your best interests at heart the entire time."
"You made money off of me."
"The bet was in your favour."
Han sighed. No, Blix hadn't done any worse than he might have done under the same circumstances. Although his personal habits were nothing to write home about, he was harmless. A few weeks on Lunera were punishment enough for any old wrongs. He said, "Look. I can give you a lift to any coreward spaceport you want. That's it. But no spice, Blix. If Chewie so much as picks up a whiff of spice you can sit here and rot until the spaceport sinks."
"I swear Han, I'm clean."
"Yeah, you'd better be." Han pointed toward his ship. "This way."
Roan a'Penaru's local assistant, a reddish-furred Tynnan, led Leia away from the outpost center along a series of winding palisades and steel quays. The fringes of the outpost were dotted with residential housing units, austere spheres that floated in the brackish waters like the swollen wombs of massive arachnids. Connected to each sphere, and connecting each sphere to another, were viaducts and mortared steel braces. The resulting effect was that the units looked like silvery spiders perched on the water's surface. The architecture vaguely reminded Leia of the Alderaanian Oversea City. In the shallower sections of the Green Sea, cities had been built on stilts with great care, so that their impact on the surrounding aquatic life was minimal.
They stopped outside one such a dwelling.
The Tynnan rapped on the door and Leia found herself a little nervous as it opened.
Roan a'Penaru was still strikingly handsome, almost beautiful even. His eyebrows were still dark and wiry, arched thickly across his brow like a Corellian hawk. His cheekbones and jaw were finely chiselled, his posture still held an aristocratic air. But his once vibrant face was gaunt and shadowed; the thick raven hair that had captivated her in her youth was gone, shaved so clumsily to the quick so that his scalp bore small red nicks. In the few steps it took for him to cross the grated quay, he exuded a restless, almost manic energy that she usually associated with seriously disturbed individuals, violent criminals and people trying to throw off the effects of a stun blast.
In matters of decorum, however, he hadn't changed at all.
Bail Organa's long-time friend, her first mentor, embraced her tightly, kissing both her cheeks and her forehead. "Leia, Leia" he exhaled, shaking his head as though he didn't believe what he saw. "It's so wonderful to see you."
"It's good to see you too."
"Why, look at you."
Self-consciously, her smile thinning, Leia flipped the edges of her sorrel-coloured poncho over her shoulders and stiffened her spine. The grey military uniform was old and faded. The sole of one boot was peeling back beneath the toe and her efforts to handy-seal it in previous days had been in vain. "I don't have many occasions to dress up these days." Roan was staring at her handily modified blaster. Close to her bare skin in two other places, she carried other more lethal means of self-defence. "Nor can I afford to take chances." She took a deep breath and said, somewhat tentatively, "You shaved your head?"
"It's tradition, isn't it?" The man touched a spindly finger to an uneven patch of fuzzy silver, tracing it as though suddenly self-conscious.
"Was it?" Leia didn't remember it being a tradition at all. True, the ancient grassland natives had shaved their heads and cut their hair as a sign of mourning, but they'd been driven off the plains and assimilated into the cities centuries ago. That had been long before the days of Alderaan Ascendancy Contention, when it seemed that the Republic had existed since the dawn of time and would persevere until the end of eternity.
"How was your flight?"
"Glad to hear it." He turned and gestured to the waters less than a meter below. Water sloshed freely up and onto the quays. The sonic motivators in this section of the station didn't function well. "So what do you think of her?"
A tourism ad at the spaceport had said that the outpost's support columns only extended a hundred meters or so below the surface and that they connected with the ruins of the drowned cities. With an abiding fascination she stared down, wondering if it was wishful seeing, or if the wedge of yellowish water beckoning to her was a vision of near death, or old death, a tunnel leading to a dead civilization, and… could she see the ancient cities if she strained her eyes? "Are we-?"
"No. No. This outpost was built atop a mountain range, unclimbed by any mortal."
"Did most inhabitants flee in time?"
"Oh yes. They had a century's warning. The exodus began almost thirty years before the seas began rising." Roan ran a deeply calloused hand across his forehead. "Of course, not all of them left. If you hang out at the right places you can listen to the old-timers who remember what it used to be. The locals have simply taken to calling her the Afterword."
Leia clenched the railings tightly. The fine spray and dampness permeated her light clothing easily. A damp breeze licked at her cheeks.
Roan chattered with his assistant quickly in an unfamiliar language, apparently sending him off, and then pointed in the direction of the insectoid dwelling. "Shall we?"
Together, they climbed down into the low-ceilinged apartment, which swayed gently with her every step. Leia strained to keep her expression impassive while taking in the sparse furnishings and general lack of lived-in-ness. The unit held a small eating booth, a condenser unit for cooking and food storage, one black metallic chair and a fold-out bed. There were no other furnishings. There wasn't even a wool blanket or sheet tucked up into the bed.
"It's clean," Roan explained. "I only use it for meetings. This section of the city runs relatively un-policed and unnoticed."
"Oh. I see," she said, although truthfully the reassurance left Leia feeling more unsettled. It was only logical that Roan choose to meet with her where he customarily did business, but she'd anticipated a few moments to relax and catch up with him, for them to be their old selves without any pressures. In fact, she'd counted on it.
He strolled over to the sink, collected a pair of misted blue glasses from the plasboard cupboard above it, and then opened his refrigeration unit. It was empty save for a pitcher and an ornately engraved bottle that contained a clear liquid that she doubted was water. "Are you thirsty?" he asked. "Would you care for the effluvious shill they pass off as purified water or like something stronger?"
"I'm afraid to ask what that means, Leia, although I'll wager a guess." Roan reached for the pitcher. The twitchy, spasmodic energy was returning with a vengeance. He had awkwardly precise way of moving, as though he were closer to one hundred than fifty standard years. He filled only one glass halfway, set it down on the counter, then picked up the other and held it crooked in his right hand, seemingly uncertain as to what purpose the object held. "I'm going to give you a bit of unsolicited advice before we begin," he announced. "Don't let your sympathy and feelings for me disarrange your judgment."
"How can I avoid it?" Leia blurted out. "You were a dear, dear friend to my father-"
"No. We disagreed on many things, among them your being involved with the Resistance-"
"I was an elected representative representing my constituents."
"Elected to the Imperial Senate. I voted for you and I don't recall the Rebel Alliance being on the ballot."
"And what would you have had me do?"
He jerked his head back and forth with his face averted. "Forgive me for sounding harsh, but I've cursed your father for his lack of foresight, for his naïve belief that the Emperor would allow Alderaan's support for the Alliance to go unpunished. Allowing your flagship to be the bearer of information so precious that the Empire's wrath would suffer Alderaan to be wiped from the face of the galaxy. I can only ask myself, what was he thinking?"
"Stop it. I won't allow you to speak ill of my father for that which was out of his control." With deft fingers Leia unclasped the fastenings of her poncho and carefully draped it over the back of the solitary chair. Bitterness born of too many sleepless nights wondering 'what if' sharpened her tone. "We had no choice. Had we not acted then Alderaan might very well be one of many, not merely one."
"Then let me make this clear to you as you were probably too young to remember. In the end there was little love lost between myself and your father. After you won the election, I accepted the position on Excarga because I wouldn't support his fantastical ideas. Having you trained in combat and weapons, signing that damned treaty."
"How can you say that?" Leia's face twisted into an expression of defiant indignation. The Corellian Treaty had heralded the birth of the Alliance. Her father and the Alliance's current leader, Mon Mothma, had been two of the original signatories.
"I knew it was the beginning of the end of Alderaan." He paused to breathe before throwing the punch. "You should have known too."
Leia hadhandled similar accusations from other Alderaanians over the past twenty months, although never so directly. They were usually more discreet, speaking in whispers when she passed by them in the halls or allowing themselves to be quoted off-the-record in the Alderaan Expatriate Network's monthly journal. The newsfeeds never actually named her as the cause of her homeworld's destruction but they did say things like, "an anonymous source close to the deceased Viceroy states that he routinely disregarded and dismissed warnings that Imperial Intelligence sources were growing suspicious of the activity of certain members of the Royal Family."
It hurt so much more, coming from someone she knew.
Raw emotions threatening to spill over, Leia set the secured satchel on the dining table. Roan was still standing in front of his refrigeration unit, buzzing in his stark white tunic and robes like a restless spirit ensconced in the flesh, amongst the living against his will. With an easy insight borne of the immeasurable grief they both shared, she understood that it was the past twenty odd months that had aged him so terribly, not years. But now, she didn't know what motivated Roan, other than grief. Other Alderaanians who'd been offworld when the Death Star destroyed it joined the Alliance. Very few took these types of missions; she'd always thought that Roan was more solid than that. And the old Roan never would have questioned her father's judgment, never would have questioned her own, and never would have come within a hair's breadth of accusing her of...
Get a grip Organa.
"I knew what I was doing."
Roan shrugged carelessly, so much like a certain dark-haired Corellian whenever he was being deliberately dismissive or avoiding a confrontation that it was unnerving. He set the empty glass down, picked up the half-full one and said, "In the end, we become part of everything we hate, essentially. Your father hated me when I left for Excarga. If you hate me now it will make your assignment here much easier to bear."
"I don't hate you."
"My wife and son died on Alderaan."
"You don't have to do this."
"My son was nearly two. She was pregnant with him when I last saw you."
Leia's mind went blank. She'd been a girl then and over the past two years such trivial events had ceased to matter to her. Still, the words hit their mark and stung, as they were intended to do. She was used to dealing with scum and shady characters that appeared semi-trustable only in the darker corners of spaceport cantinas, people who danced on the precipice between sanity and insanity. She was used to being on her guard for the sake of her life, not having her emotions accosted by someone she'd once called a friend.
She said, "I'm not going to hate you. There's no need."
"Yes there is."
"For you to be what? A mercenary and martyr with a background in trades and finance?"
"What of yourself? The daughter of a viceroy and the youngest senator ever elected from Alderaan. Raised to be a politician from the time you were knee-high."He gestured to the slender weapon nestled at her hip with eyes that were still remarkably grey and clear. "Look at you now. You're an Alliance leader with a fire in your belly. We are what we are, what we've become out of necessity. You and I both know that I am no different than the droves that fill your ranks. Treat me as you would any other fighter on the verge of bringing the Alliance a great victory."
Leia folded her arms and reclined back against the tabletop's edge. "Roan, listen to me. The truth is that you're more effective and useful to us as the de facto leader of the Legion in this Sector. If anything goes wrong you have no evasive flying experience, no combat experience. There are hundreds of other ways in which you can support the war effort that won't entail-"
"Does the Alliance Command share your assessment of my capabilities?"
"I'm here as a representative of Command."
"Do they share your assessment?"
She struggled for neutral wording. Command might share her generalized assessment, but Leia had to concede that the mission was elementary. Even someone who'd never flown more than a ground hovercraft would be able to perform satisfactorily.
When she didn't answer, he said; "I don't think you've adequately considered the ramifications of what you're saying. For instance, who do you propose shall take my place?"
"Another will come forward." They had to. Roan was waiting with the proffered glass. She accepted it finally and bowed her head slightly. "They always do."
"I'm the one who sends them. Quite frankly, I'm tired of sending them. I hate it. I hate it and I'm tired of sending them when all I want is to take their place. This time…" He smoothed both palms over his heart. "This time I get my wish."
Leia shook her head, wanting to take him by the shoulders and shake a shred of sense into him.
"I should tell you… I know how it happened," he said distractedly, bringing both glasses to the table. "I know that you were there and that they asked-"
Every fibre of the young woman's poised body tensed. "Don't." She leaned away from him as though he'd moved to strike her, surprised by the animosity in her voice. Even in her debriefing, in the days after the Battle of Yavin, they had never asked directly. At least, she couldn't recall their asking. Those days were like muddied waters in her mind; the more she attempted to remember the cloudier they became, the more difficult it was to see. In retrospect, Leia was certain that she must have told them herself, for nothing that had transpired on the Death Star was a secret. "I saw Roan. I was there. And I can't relive it. Not for anyone."
Roan's expression twisted. "With all that you suffered, you must have dreamed of striking back against the Empire over the last two years."
"Then you must understand. We all die."
Dying made perfect sense to everyone when it came to universal theories on the eventual breakdown of cell structure and the casualties of war. Not in the midst of life. At least not to her.
"No, not like this," she replied, for the sake of provoking intimate conversation and the hope that such conversation might lead to reason. Roan had always been skilled at making their exchanges feel natural, be they regarding political matters or universal dilemmas. He'd been that way even when her age was tender enough that the slightest encouragement, the slightest hint that they were equal confidantes left her feeling exhilarated. Now they were both adults. "You requested that I come here. You must have known that I would plead with you to reconsider. I assumed that's why you asked for me."
"You assumed incorrectly." Roan rubbed his cheek against the pale cloth of his shoulder. "I must be the one to do this."
The water tasted as though it had been filtered in a sewer tank and did nothing to soothe the lumps in her throat. "No," she began to say. "No you do-"
There was a loud clattering noise. Leia whipped her blaster free of her holster in less than half a breath. In the same instant, Roan withdrew a sleek palmgun from his boot. Two figures made their way through the vestibule. One was Roan's representative, the sleek-furred Tynnan. He had his rifle squarely between the shoulder blades of a very familiar man. "I found him outside eavesdropping."
"I wasn't eavesdropping," Solo protested. "I was trying not to fall over the railing."
"That's Captain Solo, my associate." Leia glared icily and lowered her blaster with some difficulty. What had it been? All of half thirty minutes since he'd promised her he wouldn't go anywhere. "I thought we were to meet at the restaurant."
"Their salads were wilted and the hubber-steaks looked overdone."
"Is there an emergency? You could have used your comlink."
"No emergency." Han shrugged indolently. "But my orders were to keep an eye on you at all times."
"You must be the back-up?" Roan prompted.
She cleared her throat. "Captain Solo-"
"Back-up. Pilot. Glorified chauffeur." Han offered up a wry smile. "When we're aloneshe has a few other pet names that no princess I've ever known-"
"Oh Han, shut up!" Leia ground the heel of her palm viciously into the crease of her temple. Leave it to Han Solo to embarrass her in an appallingly unprofessional manner just because he felt snubbed. Well, she would deal with him later. Fortunately, the lights were too dim for Roan to notice the colour in her cheeks. "Where's Chewbacca?"
"Something non-human, tall, slinky and furry asked him for a stroll on the promenade. Since the last thing I need is a philandering Wookiee with a life-debt I thought I would avoid chaperoning."
In her current state of wanting to strangle him, Leia couldn't tell if he was kidding or not. She had been a politician for far too long to lose her cool, but she knew her frustration had settled plainly across her features. "Please accept my apology. We appear to have had a… misunderstanding when planning the rendezvous. It's up to you. Whatever makes you most comfortable. We can continue this alone if you prefer. I'm quite certain that Captain Solo will understand."
Roan was busy looking Han over curiously. "That won't be necessary. Let me go find my assistant and give you two a moment."
Irate, Leia waited until he vanished through the doorway before muttering, "You don't need to be here for this. I thought I made that abundantly clear."
"You did." Han picked up her limp poncho, settled his lean frame into the black metallic chair and draped the garment across his lap. "But I'd hate to knowingly violate an official order. Just pretend I'm invisible. I won't say a word."
"This is unacceptable!" Leia hissed.
"You know what I think is unacceptable Your Highness? How about the next time we're officiating for the Alderaanian Death Legion you do me the honour of letting me know. For that matter, when a directive coming straight from Rieekan's mouth says I'm your back-up-"
"How did you…" With a sigh of defeat, Leia eased into the booth, settled her head into her hands and suppressed a scream. It really didn't matter how he'd found out. Rieekan had probably sent off a follow-up log or a tactical advisory and Han had probably just returned to the Falcon and happened to read it. Unfortunately, his sudden appearance ruined her plans. She bit her lip and looked up. Han's jaw was still taut. He was genuinely angry, perhaps rightfully so, although she hated to admit it. "Fine. I should have told you. Please accept my apology."
At her immediate display of contriteness, Han looked about to fall off the slim metal chair. "Then why the fuck didn't you?"
"It didn't concern you." Roan isn't going to change his mind so… "And it doesn't matter now."
"Uh huh." Han's expression morphed from direly annoyed to annoyingly knowing. "I see."
"I interrupted something."
"Yes you did."
"Oh!"Of all the… The vestibule door was opening. Leia managed to get the last word, childishly and quickly, before Roan ducked inside. "You're delusional and you have the personality of a Gamorrean." They stared at each other viciously while a slightly winded Roan resumed his seat at the table. Fortunately for her, Han wasn't in the mood to continue the round of insults in front of a third party.
"Everything okay in here?"
"We're fantastic," Han answered before she had a chance to say anything. "How are you?"
Leia consoled herself with the thought that one day soon she might accidentally turn her blaster on him, strike a leg or an arm or that planet-sized ego of his and send him to the med-bay. But of course, she found herself fantasizing, you'd have to make sure you were set were for only low-fire. Just high enough to cause him a great deal of pain without any permanent damage. "Um," she began. "So where were we?"
Roan retrieved a portable console unit from beneath his side of the booth and began setting it up, flipping switches and positioning the holographic viewer. "We were about to review the datafile."
"Right." Leia licked the center of her upper lip, uncrossed her legs beneath the table and tried to shake off her revulsion at what she was supposed to do next. People took their own lives into their hands all the time; it was far rarer that they actively participated in ending them. The trick, she'd supposed beforehand, was not to show what she was feeling or not to feel at all. At present, the trick was also to avoid dwelling on what Roan was thinking after Solo's comments. And avoid dwelling on the fact that the source of such appalling irritation was sitting just a meter or so behind her. She slipped the datachip into the appropriate console slot, lifted her thumb to the keypad and let it hover. "Before we begin I have to ask you-"
"Am I fully cognizant of what I am about to do? Am I aware that once underway there will be no turning back?"
Leia gave it one last shot. "Are you?"
"Let me see the file." Roan reached over and pressed her thumb down. It sank obediently to the keypad as though boneless.
'Password' the screen demanded.
"Ten thousand summers in the Castle Lands," Leia said.
A small holo-field materialized above the table with the graph of a small star system. Leia zoomed in on a nondescript land-covered planet, and then zoomed further in on the sizeable Star Destroyer located just beyond the planet's gravitational pull. "The shuttle's point of origin is Duros. It's registered with CorDuro Shipping. The exchange will take place at the Durosian Primary Skyhook. The pilot is expecting you. He has a spare uniform, spare ground credentials and any cosmetic basics you might need." Leia gathered the code-key into her hand and handed it over, fighting the urge to glance over her shoulder and see if Han was paying attention. "The central lockers on the ground hub, Section C, Box 46A9 – that's where the supplies will be. There are private freshers there. Rent one and change. Then proceed directly to the Primary Skyhook. The explosive will already be on-board. You'll follow the local traffic out, clear the markers and make the jump to hyper. "
Roan stroked a patch of fuzzy growth along the back of his scalp.
"Our sources tell us the Furor is scheduled to be behind Lijuter's second moon, docked with the orbital research station there. You're supposed to be carrying precious cargo, so you'll be diverted from the central hanger to a more private one, which is located beside the solar ionization reactor. We've been able to project that the force of the 3HX3 mine will start a chain reaction, starting with the Furor's reactor. The damage to the research station should be severe, if not devastating. The Furor itself will be incinerated."
The sound of Han's chair occasionally grating against the floors told her that he was paying attention after all. And she knew what he probably was thinking…
Why kind of idiot would fly a supply shuttle directly into a Star Destroyer?
"When you exit hyper you'll only need to wait for the Furor's hail. According to the regular pilot, they're maniacal about controlling any craft entering their hangers. You won't need to do a thing. Simply permit their system to fly you into the bay."
"How long once she docks before-"
"Approximately three minutes."
"Three minutes," Roan repeated.
The chair moved again. Leia waited but no one spoke. Roan's gaze had swung to the holograph chart. Behind her, Han was keeping his mouth shut. From what she knew of Corellians, this type of mission was contrary to their collective nature. She'd only accepted Command's suggestion that the Millennium Falcon escort her because she felt manipulating Han into ignoring her on Lunera would be easy. It wasn't proving to be so at all and if he was staring daggers of disapproval at the back of her head, she was inclined to admit that she could practically feel them. The notion that he would forever afterward think less of her after this afternoon filled her with a very unanticipated and sharp pang of regret.
Well, she told herself, he's leaving and it doesn't matter.
The silence grew unbearable. It was like willing herself to hold her breath until she grew faint and her vision blurred over. She picked the misted glass up from the table, forgetting that the water had tasted foul earlier, brought the rim to her lip and drank. The ordinary motions of swallowing calmed her and she set the glass back on the smeared ring of condensation. Roan was right. Well-bred women of Alderaan's Royal family didn't study hand-to-hand combat, master small artillery fire, didn't sent people they knew on suicide missions.
For the thousandth time in the past year, she wondered how she'd gotten here and dug around in her belt pocket for a tiny clear vial. Two white tablets rattled inside. "If something goes wrong, they'll know the minute you disembark that you're not their regular pilot. You only need one and you'll have about thirty seconds of consciousness before it takes effect. It dissolves almost instantly and the effects are painless."
"What about the vial itself?"
Both of them turned sharply toward the Han.
"He speaks," Leia muttered under breath.
"If you're captured, don't wait," he explained casually. "It would turn up in a body scan and believe me, you don't want them flushing it out of your system the old-fashioned way."
Suppressing a shiver of disgust, Leia set the vial in the center of the table and again reached for her water glass, but just before her fingers encircled it, in a moment of supreme awkwardness, Roan's thumb hooked her glass. The contents splashed backwards and pooled across the table, soaking the ivory white folds of his loose-fitting tunic; droplets also splattered slightly outward and peppered her sleeves.
"I'm sorry," the older Alderaanian said. He'd already snatched the vial with his other hand. "That was my fault."
Just then, the buzz of a comlink interrupted them. Han said, "What?" and the sound of a braying Wookiee promptly filled the cabin. The pair broke off into a conversation that consisted entirely of scratchy growling and Han saying "uh huh," over and over. Then Han said, "Where'd he go?"
Leia hunched her shoulders inward. "Where'd who go?"
Han scratched the bridge of his nose and listened to Chewbacca's reply. Then he translated. "An interested party wearing white was snooping around my ship. He's left for the time being – probably to poke around the portmaster's office and pry information from the registry. Chewie figures he'll be back."
Of course, Chewbacca had been guarding the Falcon, probably from a discreet distance all this time. She sighed inwardly. If the Falcon had attracted unwelcome attention they had to act now and decisively. "Imperial?"
"Who else would it be?" Han retorted.
"Damn it."Leia fidgeted and glanced around the apartment anxiously. Without meaning to, she caught herself looking to Han for his opinion and prepared to follow his lead. "What do you think?"
"How's he getting to Duros for the exchange?"
"A passenger freighter."
"Huh." Han shifted one shoulder. "Well, do you think that's a good idea?"
Frustrated, Leia exhaled noisily. His posturing and expression suggested plainly that he didn't, but he wouldn't just come out and say it unless she asked him directly. She said curtly, "I don'tknow.That's why I just asked you what you think."
"Fine." Han bared his teeth unhappily, as though unconvinced of something. "I don't think it's a good idea." He looked sharply toward Roan, who was twitching toward the doorway. "It looks like you'll have to come with us."
Chewie began a fresh bout of howling.
"We have a squad of stormtroopers in the landing bay," Han translated. "A'Penaru, what's the reaction time for an illegal departure on this dump?"
"Quarter a timepart on a good day."
"Chewie, fly northwest and keep looking for a tall subspace receiver. Lower the landing hatch. We're gonna have to be real quick."
The first twinges of panic began to settle in. The console, the files, all the clearance codes and data-disks were sitting naked on the apartment's table. If Imperials discovered any of it… I need something heavy, she thought, peering about the small apartment desperately. Well, the console itself was portable and probably heavy enough. Taking care to close all active programs and set them to self-destruct, she crammed the equipment inside the satchel.
Leia flung herself against the gantry railing and dropped the satchel. At first, the satchel bobbed at the surface, resisting the pull of gravity, and then it lurched beneath the waves until only a corner jutted above the surface like a leathery fin. Then nothing. What was done was done and her hopes for talking Roan out of the mission sank too. The wind whipped the shortest tendrils free from her braids so that they tangled in her eyelashes and did nothing to dispel the heavy feel of failure that left her insides feeling like stone.