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The first to die was a midshipman named Koth Barak.
One of his fellow crewmembers on the New Republic escort cruiser Adamantine found him slumped across the table in the deck-nine break room, where he'd repaired half an hour previously for a cup of coffeine. Twenty minutes after Barak should have been back to post, Gunnery Sergeant Gallie Wover went looking for him, exasperatedly certain that he'd clicked into the infolog banks "just to see if anybody mentions the mission."
Of course, nobody was going to mention the mission. Though accompanied by the Adamantine, Chief of State Leia Organa Solo's journey to the Meridian sector was an entirely unofficial one. The Rights of Sentience Party would have argued--quite correctly--that Seti Ashgad, the man she was to meet at the rendezvous point just outside the Chorios systems, held no official position on his homeworld of Nam Chorios. To arrange an official conference would be to give tacit approval of his, and the Rationalist Party's, demands.
Which was, when it came down to it, the reason for the talks.
When she entered the deck nine break room, Sergeant Wover's first sight was of the palely flickering blue on blue of the infolog screen "Blast it, Koth, I told you..."
Then she saw the young man stretched unmoving on the far side of the screen, head on the break table, eyes shut. Even at a distance of three meters Wover didn't like the way he was breathing.
"Koth!" She rounded the table in two strides, sending the other chairs clattering into a corner. She thought his eyelids moved a little when she yelled his name. "Koth!"
Wover hit the emergency call almost without conscious decision. In the few moments before the med droids arrived she sniffed the coffeine in the gray plastene cup a few centimeters from his limp fingers. It wasn't even cold. A thin film of it adhered to the peach fuzz beginnings of what Koth optimistically referred to as his mustache. The stuff in the cup smelled okay--at least as okay as fleet coffeine ever smelled--and there was no question of alcohol or drugs. Not on a Republic escort. Not where Koth was concerned. He was a good kid.
Wover was an engine room regular who'd done fifteen years in merchant planet-hoppers rather than stay in the regular fleet after Palpatine's goons gained power: she looked after "her" midshipmen as if they were the sons she'd lost to the Rebellion. She would have known if there had been trouble with booze or spice or giggle-dust.
It was any longtime spacer's nightmare. But the "good-faith" team that had come onboard yesterday from Seti Ashgad's small vessel had passed through the medical scan; and in any ease, the planet Nam Chorios had been on the books for four centuries without any mention of an endemic planetary virus. Everyone on the Light of Reason had come straight from the planet.
Still, Wover pecked the Commander's code on the wall panel.
"Sir? Wover here. One of the midshipmen's down. The meds haven't gotten here yet but..." Behind her the break room door swooshed open. She glanced over her shoulder to see a couple of Two-Onebees enter with a table, which was already unfurling scanners and life-support lines like a monster in a bad holovid. "It looks serious. No, sir, I don't know what it is, but you might want to check with Her Excellency's flagship, and the Light, and let them know. Okay, okay," she added, turning as a Two-Onebee posted itself politely in front of her. "My heart is yours," she declared jocularly, and the droid paused for a moment, data bytes cascading with a faint clickety-click as it laboriously assembled the 85 percent probability that the remark was a jest.
"Many thanks, Sergeant Wover," it said politely, "but the organ itself will not be necessary. A function reading will suffice."
The next instant Wover turned, aghast, as the remaining Two-Onebee shifted Barak onto the table and hooked him up. Every line of the readouts plunged, and soft, tinny alarms began to sound. "Festering groats!" Wover yanked free of her examiner to stride to the boy's side. "What in the name of daylight ...?"
Barak's face had gone a waxen gray. The table was already pumping stimulants and antishock into the boy's veins, and the Two-Onebee plugged into the other side had the blank-eyed look of a droid transmitting to other stations within the ship. Wover could see the initial diagnostic lines on the screens that ringed the antigrav personnel transport unit's sides.
No virus. No bacteria. No poison.
No foreign material in Koth Barak's body at all.
The lines dipped steadily toward zero, then went flat.
"We have a complicated situation on Nam Chorios, Your Excellency." Seti Ashgad turned from the four-meter bubble of the observation viewport, to regard the woman who sat, slender and coolly watchful, in one of the lounge's gray leather chairs.
"We meaning whom, Master Ashgad?" Leia Organa Solo, Chief of State of the New Republic, had a surprising voice, deeper than one might expect. A petite, almost fragile-looking woman, her relative youth would have surprised anyone who didn't know that from the age of seventeen she'd been heavily involved in the Rebellion spearheaded by her father and the great stateswoman Mon Mothma: with her father's death, she was virtually its core. She'd commanded troops, dodged death, and fled halfway across the galaxy with a price on her head before she was twenty-three. She was thirty-one now and didn't look it, except for her eyes. "The inhabitants of Nam Chorios? Or only some of them?"
"All of them." Ashgad strode back to her, standing too close, trying to dominate her with his height and the fact that he was standing and she remained in her chair. But she looked up at him with an expression in her brown eyes that told him she knew exactly what he was doing, or trying to do, and he stepped back. "All of us," he corrected himself. "Newcomers and Therans alike."
Leia folded her hands on her knee, the wide velvet sleeves and voluminous skirt of her crimson ceremonial robe picking up the soft sheen of the hidden lamps overhead and of the distant stars hanging in darkness beyond the curved bubble of the port. Even five years ago she would have remarked tartly on the fact that he was omitting mention of the largest segment of the planet's population, those who were neither the technological post-Imperial Newcomers nor the ragged Theran cultists who haunted the cold and waterless wastes, but ordinary farmers. Now she gave him silence, waiting to see what else he would say.
"I should explain," Ashgad went on, in the rich baritone that so closely resembled the recordings she had heard of his father's, "that Nam Chorios is a barren and hostile world. Without massive technology it is literally not possible to make a living there."
"The prisoners sent to Nam Chorios by the Grissmath Dynasty seem to have managed for the past seven hundred years."
The man looked momentarily nonplussed. Then he smiled, big and wide and white. "Ah, I see Your Excellency has studied the history of the sector." He tried to sound pleased about it.
"Enough to know the background of the situation," replied Leia pleasantly. "I know that the Grissmaths shipped their political prisoners there, in the hopes that they'd starve to death, and set automated gun stations all over the planet to keep them from being rescued. I know not only that the prisoners didn't oblige them by dying but that their descendants--and the descendants of the guards--are still farming the water seams while the Grissmath homeworld of Meridias itself is just a ball of charred radioactive waste."
There was, in fact, very little else in the Registry concerning Nam Chorios. The place had been an absolute backwater for centuries. The only reason Leia had ever heard of it at all before the current crisis was that her father had once observed that the old Emperor Palpatine seemed to be using Nam Chorios for its original purpose: as a prison world. Forty years ago it had been rumored that the elder Seti Ashgad had been kidnapped and stranded on that isolated and unapproachable planet by agents of his political foe, the then-Senator Palpatine. Those rumors had remained unproven until this second Ashgad, like a blackhaired duplicate of the graying old power broker who had disappeared, had made contact with the Council in the wake of the squabbling on the planet and asked to be heard.
Though there was no reason, Leia thought, to make this man aware of how little she or anyone knew about the planet or the situation.
Do not meet with Ashgad, the message had said, that had reached her literally as she was preparing to board the shuttle to take her to her flagship. Do not trust him, or accede to any demand that he makes. Above all, do not go to the Meridian sector.
"Very good!" He passed the compliment like a kidney stone, though he managed a droll and completely automatic little chuckle as a chaser. "But the situation isn't as simple as that, of course."
From a corner of the lounge, where a dark-leaved dyanthis vine shadowed the area near the observation port, a soft voice whispered, "They never are, are they?"
"Well, I was given to understand that the only inhabitants of the planet before colonization recommenced after the fall of the Empire were descendants of the original Meridian prisoners and guards."
In the shadow of the vine, Ashgad's secretary, Dzym, smiled.