Read Star by Star Online

Authors: Troy Denning

Star by Star (5 page)

The fact of the matter was that C-3PO, still hiding aboard the
Falcon
, could help with most of the copilot’s chores, but Han seemed to realize Leia was trying to tell him something else. He turned to the Arcona and studied him from top to bottom, contemplating his ashen complexion, threadbare clothes, and listing features.

“Well, you look like a pilot,” Han said. “What’s the sequence for an emergency ion drive engagement?”

“Warm circuits, actuate, power up,” the Arcona answered.

Han raised his brow. “Emergency shutdown?”

“Power down,
then
disengage.”

“And where’s the vortex stabilizer found?”

The Arcona’s flat head folded slightly inward at the center, then he raised his three-fingered hand and said, “You already know where the vortex stabilizer—”

Han slapped the hand down. “Don’t try that stuff with me. Who do you think you’re dealing with?”

The Arcona shrugged, then complained, “How should I know
where the vortex stabilizer is? That’s not a crew-serviceable part.”

Han actually smiled, then slapped the Arcona on the shoulder. “You’ll do.”

“Thanks, Captain.” The Arcona did not seem all that relieved. He pushed between the CorSec agents toward the portable bacta tank. “I’ll take it from here, fellas.”

The officer stepped aside, but the subordinate stood fast. “Our orders are to load the patient ourselves.”

“That was before we had help,” Leia said. “And your orders were to see us off. No one said anything about snooping around on the
Falcon
.”

She cast a pointed glare at the pocket containing her datapad. The subordinate’s face turned bright red, and he stepped aside so quickly he nearly fell.

“Hmmm.” The Arcona smiled and, out of the corner of his tilted mouth, whispered, “Interesting technique.”

He retrieved the repulsor gurney, then the agents returned Han’s blaster, and the group boarded together. C-3PO was waiting for them atop the ramp.

“Oh, thank the maker you’re back!” he said, arms pumping madly. “I can’t tell you how many times I was forced to lower the retractable blaster—”

“Not now, Threepio,” Han said, brushing past and starting for the cockpit. “Secure yourself for launch.”

“But Captain Solo, you and Princess Leia have been all over the newsvids. They’re saying you killed three people, and quite a few of the commentators seem to think there should be some sort of legal inquiry—”

“See-Threepio, we know,” Leia said, guiding her chair into the access ring. “This is …”

She turned to the Arcona.

“A friend of your doctor’s.” He plucked an eavesdropping device off the portable bacta tank and crushed it under his boot, then added, “There are more.”

Leia nodded and turned back to C-3PO. “Help our guest secure the gurney for launch.”

Seeing that her chair would prevent the bulky bacta tank from
entering the access ring, Leia moved ahead. She was feeling terribly tired and weak, and her first instinct was to turn toward the main deck and stay out of the way. But she had been alone too much over the last year, and the thought of sitting by herself while Han and his new copilot solved their problems was more than she could bear. She needed to be with her husband—even if she was no longer quite sure he wanted her.

The repulsor chair was fairly compact, and once she had lowered the telescoping pole on which the IV bags hung, there was no trouble guiding it up the outrigger corridor. But the cockpit itself already had four seats, so she had to settle for magno-clamping her chair in place just outside the door. To his credit, Han did not ask what she was doing there. He was so busy toggling switches and checking dials that Leia was not even sure he knew.

The Arcona squeezed past and, taking the copilot’s seat, slipped into the start-up routine so smoothly that it was obvious he had been telling the truth about flying his own YT-1300. There were a few glitches as he encountered some of the
Falcon
’s modifications, but Leia could tell by Han’s patience how impressed he was. She tried not to be jealous.

They were within thirty seconds of launch when the inevitable glitch finally came.

“The ramp light’s still on.” Han pointed at a panel on the Arcona’s side of the cockpit. “That should have been checked off a minute ago.”

“I thought I had.”

The Arcona hit the reset. The light blinked off, then instantly relit.

Han cursed, then activated the intercom. “Threepio, I think the ramp’s stuck again. Give it a check.”

No acknowledgment came.

“Threepio?”

Han cursed. Leia began to unclamp her chair.

“No, I’ll go.” The Arcona unbuckled his harness and rose. “You shouldn’t be back there alone. This could be trouble.”

“Thanks.” Han unbuckled his crash webbing and loosened his blaster, then turned to Leia and said, “I’m glad you’re up here.”

Leia smiled. “Me, too.”

They waited in silence for nearly a minute before the ramp light finally went out and the Arcona returned.

“It was just stuck,” he said. “I banged the control panel, and it came up the rest of the way.”

“Always works for me,” Han said, starting the repulsor drives.

“What about Threepio?” Leia asked. She had an uneasy feeling—not danger sense, but of something that was not quite right. “Why didn’t he answer?”

“I think he crossed some feeds connecting the bacta tank to the medical bank.” The Arcona slipped smoothly back into his seat. “His circuit breaker was tripped. I reset it.”

“That’s a new one.” Han shook his head, then opened a channel to the spaceport traffic center. “Control, this is
Shadow Bird
requesting launch clearance.”

Shadow Bird
was the name under which they had berthed the
Falcon
.

“Negative,
Shadow Bird,
” came the reply. “Stand by.”

Han closed the channel. “What now?”

He activated the external security monitors, and they all waited in tense silence, expecting to see a CorSec boarding party or a mob of bounty hunters come rushing out of the access locks.

A few moments later, Control’s voice crackled over the speaker. “Corellian Security informs us there is no such vessel as
Shadow Bird.
” The message came over an open channel. “However, the
Millennium Falcon
is cleared for immediate departure.”

“Acknowledged.” Han wasted no time engaging the repulsor drives and leaving the docking bay; someone had just made certain that every ship within a hundred thousand kilometers would know which vessel they were. “And check that CorSec agent’s pockets. I saw him stealing a datapad.
Falcon
out.”

FOUR

The park-checkered city of Coronet had barely receded beneath the
Falcon
’s tail when Han swung south over the sea and slammed the ion throttles full forward, beginning a long arcing climb that would carry them over the pole to the opposite side of the planet. The comm speaker quickly erupted into vitriolic curses as Corellian Control protested both the unlawful trajectory and the over-city shock wave, but Han ignored the impoundment threats and disengaged the nacelle melt-safeties. After the send-off CorSec had given them, flying a standard launch pattern would be about as safe as jumping into a Sarlacc’s pit.

The Arcona’s golden eyes remained fixed on the temperature readouts. “I thought you had experience at this sort of thing.” Because of the difficulty his compound eyes had making out distinct shapes, he was wearing a small optical scanner that read the display data and fed it into an earpiece in auditory form. “Every rookie smuggler in the galaxy knows you can’t outrun a ship in orbit. They’ll cut you off every time.”

“You don’t say?” Han tried to look surprised. “Because of the gravity drag?”

“And air friction and accumulated velocity and things like that.” The Arcona glanced over his shoulder at Leia. “This is Han Solo, isn’t it?
The
Han Solo?”

Han glanced over his shoulder and saw Leia shrug.

“You know, I’ve been wondering myself.” Her eyes drooped and Han thought she might be falling asleep, then she added, “But when I checked, that’s what his identichip read.”

“One of them, anyway,” Han said, glad to hear an echo—no matter how faint—of Leia’s sharp wit.

They reached the other side of the planet. Han pulled back on
the yoke, nosing the
Falcon
straight up. The nacelle temperatures shot off the gauges as the ion drives struggled to maintain velocity, and the Arcona’s slanted mouth fell open.

“Y-you’re at a hundred and t-t-twenty percent spec,” he stammered.

“You don’t say,” Han replied. “Bring up the tactical display and let’s see how things look.”

The Arcona kept his scanner fixed on the temperature gauges. “One twenty-seven.”

“Military alloys,” Leia explained. “We can go to one forty, or so Han tells me.”

“Maybe more, if I wanted to push,” Han bragged.

“Don’t,” the Arcona said. “I’m impressed enough.”

The Arcona brought up the tactical display, revealing a drop-shaped swarm of blips streaming around the planet in pursuit. He plotted intercept vectors. A web of flashing lines appeared on-screen, all intersecting well behind the dotted outline showing the
Falcon
’s projected position.

“I guess rookie smugglers don’t know everything,” Han said with a smirk. “Plot a course for Commenor.”

He waited a few seconds to be certain none of the
Falcon
’s pursuers had any tricks up its own drive nacelles, then diverted power for the rear shields and kept an eye out for surprises. Though he had plenty of questions for his new copilot, he stayed quiet and watched him work. Han had certainly seen more gifted navigators, but the Arcona’s approach was sound, and he used redundant routines to avoid mistakes.

After a few moments, he transferred the coordinates to Han’s display. “Want to double-check?”

“No need,” Han said. “I trust you.”

“Yeah?” The high corner of the Arcona’s mouth rose a little more. “Same here.”

The Arcona validated the coordinates, and Han initiated the hyperdrive. There was the usual inexplicable hesitation—Han had been trying for the last year to run down the cause—and his alarmed copilot looked over. Han raised a finger to signal patience, then the stars stretched into lines.

They spent a few moments checking systems before settling in for the ride to Commenor, then Han had time to consider his
temporary copilot. He had not missed the lightsaber hanging inside the Arcona’s ragged flight tabard, nor the significance of the mind game he had played on CorSec agents. Still, while there were now enough Jedi in the galaxy that Han no longer knew them all by name, he would have heard about an Arcona Jedi—especially a salt-addicted Arcona.

“So,” Han asked. “Who are you?”

“Izal Waz.” The Arcona turned and, smiling crookedly, extended his three-fingered hand. “Thanks for taking me aboard.”

“Waz? Izal Waz?” Han shook the hand. “Your name sounds familiar.”

Izal’s gaze flickered downward, and he released Han’s hand. “Anything’s possible, but we haven’t met.”

“But I
do
know the name,” Han said. “What about you, Leia?”

He turned to look and found her chin slumped against her chest. Though her eyes were closed, her brow was creased and her hands were twitching, and it made Han’s heart ache to see her suffer so even in her sleep.

“Looks like I better put our patient to bed.” Han unbuckled his crash webbing. “We’ll talk more in a few minutes.”

“Good,” Izal Waz said. “I’ve always been curious about your years in the Corporate Sector.”

That was hardly the discussion Han had in mind, but he left the pilot’s chair and took Leia back to the first-aid bay. She did not stir, even when he lifted her into the bunk and connected her to the medical data banks. He knew she needed her rest, but he wished she would open her eyes just for a minute and give him a smile, some indication that she would recover—that
they
would. He had needed to mourn Chewbacca’s death, he knew that, and maybe he had even needed to crisscross the galaxy helping Droma search for his clan. But only now was Han beginning to see how he had surrendered to his grief, or to understand that there had been a cost.

“Get well, Princess.” He kissed Leia on the brow. “Don’t give up on me yet.”

The monitors showed no indication that she heard.

Han buckled the last safety strap across her chest and magnoclamped the repulsor chair to the deck beside her bunk, then went aft to check on the other patient aboard the
Falcon
. Her
gurney was clamped to the floor of the crew quarters, a pair of data umbilicals connecting the portable bacta tank to an auxiliary medical socket. C-3PO stood in a corner, his photoreceptors darkened and his metallic head canted slightly forward in his shutdown posture. The covers on the three bunks were rumpled.

Han did a quick check to make certain the bacta tank was still functioning, then reached behind C-3PO’s head and reset his primary circuit breaker.

The droid’s head rose. “… can’t leave her in the middle of …” The sentence trailed off as his photoreceptors blinked to life. “Captain Solo! What happened?”

“Good question.” Han glanced around. “I thought Izal turned you back on.”

“If you are referring to that salt-happy Arcona whom Mistress Leia asked you to bring aboard, absolutely not!” He gestured at the portable bacta tank. “I was instructing him where to secure the gurney when … well, someone must have tripped my breaker.”

“You didn’t cross the medical bank data feeds?”

“Captain Solo, you know I don’t relish memory wipes,” C-3PO said. “And I assure you, I know the proper way to access a data feed. I wasn’t even near it.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.”

Han stepped over to a bunk and found what looked like a large black toenail on the covers. There were similar flakes on the other bunks, and, on the third, a pair of disassembled transmitters—the really small kind, such as a CorSec agent might hide on a portable bacta tank. Han placed his hand in the center of the rumpled covers. The bed was still warm.

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