Read an Excerpt
The black hole cluster near Kessel reached out for the Millennium Falcon with jaws of gravity, drawing it close. Even in the mottled blur of hyperspace, Han Solo could see the huge distortion as a bruised whirlpool, trying to suck them down to infinity.
“Hey, Chewie! Don’t you think that’s too close?” He stared at the Falcon’s navicomputer, wishing they had chosen a course that would take them a safer distance from the Maw. “What do you think this is, an old smuggling mission? We got nothing to hide this time.”
Beside him, Chewbacca looked disappointed and grunted an excuse, waving his hairy paws in the stifling air of the cockpit.
“Yeah, well we’re on an official mission this time. No more skulking about. Try to act dignified, okay?”
Chewbacca groaned a skeptical reply, then turned to his navigational screens.
Han felt a pang at returning to his old haunts, reminded of when he had been just on the other side of the law, running spice, being chased by Imperial scout ships. When his life had been free and easy.
On one of those frantic missions, he and Chewbacca had practically shaved the bottom plating off the Falcon, taking a shortcut and skimming closer to the Maw cluster of black holes than had ever before been recorded. Sensible pilots avoided the area, using longer paths that kept them clear of the black holes, but the Falcon’s speed had carried them to safety on the other side, making the Kessel run in under twelve parsecs. But that “guaranteed sure thing” mission had ended in disaster anyway; Han had dumped his load of spice just before being boarded by Imperials.
This time, though, Han was returning to Kessel under different circumstances. His wife Leia had appointed him an official representative of the New Republic, an ambassador of sorts, though the title seemed somewhat honorary.
But even an honorary title had its advantages. Han and Chewbacca no longer had to dodge scout ships, or duck under planetary sensor nets, or use the secret compartments under the deck plates. Han Solo found himself in the unlikely, and uncomfortable, position of being respectable. There was no other word for it.
But Han’s new responsibilities weren’t just quaint annoyances. He was married to Leia—who could have imagined that?—and he had three children.
Han leaned back in his flight chair and locked his hands behind his head. He allowed a wistful smile to cross his face. He had visited the kids as often as he could, in their protective isolation on a secret planet, and the twins were due to come home to Coruscant in a week. Anakin, the third little baby, had filled him with wonder as he tickled the tiny ribs, watching an expression of amusement cross the infant’s face.
Han Solo, a father figure? Leia had said a long time ago that she liked “nice men”—and that was exactly what Han was turning into!
He caught Chewbacca looking at him out of the corner of his eye. Embarrassed, Han sat up straight and frowned down at the controls. “Where are we? Shouldn’t it be about time to end this jump?”
Chewie growled an affirmative, then reached out with a furry paw to grasp the hyperspace controls. The Wookiee watched the numbers tick away on his control panel; at the appropriate moment he hauled backward on the lever that dropped them back into normal space. The mottled coloring of hyperspace fanned into starlines with a roar that Han felt more than heard; then they were surrounded by the expected tapestry of stars.
Behind them the spectacle of the Maw looked like a garish finger painting as ionized gas plunged into multiple black holes. Directly in front of the Falcon, Han saw the blue-white glare of Kessel’s sun. As the ship rotated to align them with the ecliptic, Kessel itself came into view, potato-shaped and maned with the tendrils of escaping atmosphere, orbited by a large moon that had once housed a garrison of Imperial troopers.
“Right on target, Chewie,” Han said. “Now let me have the controls.”
Kessel looked like a wraith coasting along its orbit, too small to hold on to its own atmosphere. Huge generating factories constantly processed the raw rocks to release oxygen and carbon dioxide, making it possible for people to survive outside with simple breath masks instead of total environment suits. A good portion of the newly manufactured atmosphere escaped into space, wisping behind the small planet like the tail of a giant comet.
Chewbacca barked a short, nasal comment. Han nodded. “Yeah, it looks great from up here. Too bad it’s so different when you get a closer look. I never liked the place.”
Kessel was a major planet for spice production and seat of heavy smuggling activities, as well as the site for one of the toughest prisons in the galaxy. The Empire had controlled spice production except for what smugglers managed to steal from under Imperial noses. But with the fall of the Emperor, the smugglers and the prisoners in the Imperial Correction Facility took over the planet. Kessel had laid low during the depredations of Grand Admiral Thrawn and the recent resurrection of the Emperor, keeping quiet and trying hard not to be noticed, answering no one’s request for help.
A low growl rumbled in Chewie’s throat. Han sighed and shook his head, “Look, I’m not happy about going back there either, buddy. But things are different now, and we’re the best people to do it.”
With the civil war ended and the New Republic once again firmly seated on Coruscant, leaving scattered groups of Imperial warships to fight each other, it was time to reopen negotiations. Better to get them on our side than to let them sell out wherever they can, Han thought, which is what they’ll probably do anyway. As representative of the new unified smugglers, Luke’s old nemesis Mara Jade had tried to contact Kessel and been flatly rebuffed.
The Millennium Falcon approached Kessel, firing aft thrusters to help them catch up with the planet’s motion, preparing for insertion into orbit. On the helm’s scanner screens, Han checked their approach. “Vectoring in,” he said.
Chewie made a quick comment and pointed at the screens. Han looked down to see blips already in orbit around the planet, emerging from the blanketing clouds of the atmosphere. “I see ’em. Looks like about a half dozen ships. Too far away to determine the types.”
Han brushed aside Chewie’s uneasy growl. “Well, then we’ll just tell them who we are. Don’t worry. Why do you think Leia made such a fuss about getting us proper diplomatic ID signals and everything?”
He switched on the New Republic beacon that automatically pinged out their identification in Basic and several other languages. To his surprise, the orbiting ships changed their vector in unison and increased speed to intercept the Falcon.
“Hey!” Han shouted, then realized he had not switched on the audio pickup. Chewie roared. Han toggled the switch on. “This is Han Solo of the New Republic ship Millennium Falcon. We are on a diplomatic mission.” His mind raced, wondering what words a real diplomat would use. “Uh, please state your intentions.”
The two closest ships raced in, first growing into distinct points of light, then taking on shapes. “Chewie, I think you’d better get our forward deflector shields up. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
He reached for the communications switch as Chewbacca brought up the shields, but then he looked through the front viewport. The two incoming ships roared toward him at unbelievable speed, spreading out on either side. The sight of their squared-off solar panels and central pilot compartments turned Han’s blood to ice water.
“Chewie, get over here. I’m taking the laser cannon.”
Before the Wookiee could reply, Han hauled himself up the access tube into the gun well. He grabbed on to the gunner’s chair, trying to reorient himself in the new gravity field.
The TIE fighters came in for a two-pronged attack, spreading above and below the Falcon and firing their lasers. As the ship lurched from the impact, Han managed to throw himself into the gunner’s chair, grabbing for the harness buckle and strapping himself in. One of the attacking ships swooped overhead, and the Falcon’s sensor panels howled with the sound of Twin Ion Engines, from which the TIE fighter took its name. The enemy vessel fired again, but the beams streaked harmlessly through space.
“Chewie, take evasive action! Don’t just fly straight!”
The Wookiee shouted something from below, and Han yelled back. “I don’t know—you’re piloting, you figure it out!” Obviously Kessel had not rolled out the welcome mat for them. Had some vestige of the Empire taken over the planet? If so, Han needed to get that information back to Coruscant.
Other ships were approaching now, and somehow Han didn’t think they were coming to help. Up ahead, the two TIE fighters swooped up in a tight arc, executing a complete one-eighty and roaring back for a second attack on the Falcon.
But this time Han had managed to strap himself in and power up the laser batteries. On his scope the TIE fighter made a digitized target, growing larger. The enemy ship came closer and closer. Han tightened his grip around the firing levers, knowing the TIE pilot would be doing the same. He waited, feeling sweat build up on his neck. He realized he was holding his breath. One more second. One more second. The targeting cross showed dead center on the starboard wing of the fighter.
The instant Han pressed the firing button, Chewbacca threw the Falcon into an evasive roll. The laser blasts went wide, spraying toward the distant stars. The TIE fighter’s shot also missed, streaking in the opposite direction and coming perilously close to striking the second TIE fighter.