Trust Fund

By Barbara Anderson
amanor@worldnet.att.net

Art by Wanda Lybarger
ladymousew@bellsouth.net

 

see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
for applicable legal statements and disclaimers

Part 7

Home | Back to Author List | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 8 | Part 9

(Originally appear in Flip of a Coin #15, 1992)


 

Feeling emotionally numb around the edges, Han Solo made his way surreptitiously through the frigate by taking less traveled routes, keeping his head down, and slinging a borrowed jacket over one shoulder to hide his face. When all hell predictably broke loose in the corridors and security personnel appeared like grease gnats, he switched to the maintenance and engineering crawl spaces and word ducts. He had made it his business to learn the layout and construction grids on the huge starship as soon as it became obvious that the Millennium Falcon would be semi-permanently docked on board. The crawl spaces were slower, but the last thing he could afford was detection and capture.

At first, he only had the idea to get to the hangar bays, though part of him wanted desperately to find Leia. Time; he didn't have the time and forced himself to not think about her. She was strong. Luke said she was strong. But in the back of his mind, as he hugged machinery piping, wiggled past scalding vapor vents, and inched along greasy grating, was the tortured look on her face and the pleading in her voice.

After what seemed like an eternity, he finally came out of a vertical deck-to-deck stairwell into the diplomatic shuttle area. On the flight deck, the Ambassador's shuttle looked like the center of a busy hive; there were druids, maintenance crew, and way too many security people swarming all over the ship. Not a chance of getting near it unless he became invisible…or had some help.

He recognized Spacer, as usual up to her armpits in the shuttle's engines, and briefly contemplated trying to catch her attention. His position was not a good one, with only a short stack of energy cylinders to use for cover. Placing his hands flat on the deck, he flexed arm and back muscles, lifting himself out of the well in one fluid motion and…froze.

This is getting monotonous, he thought, feeling a blaster boring into the back of his neck. As Han balanced on his toes with knees bent and not daring to move, he felt a hand reaching to take the borrowed weapon from his grasp. Solo knew the best time for reaction was immediately, so immediately he grabbed the hand, pulling it forward with a hard yank, and then twisted away, expertly tossing his would-be captor ass-over-converter.

The man landed face down and Han ground a knee into his spine and kidneys while bending back the arm holding the blaster. As Han took the gun, the man turned his head and Han gasped, "Wedge!" He instantly released him. "Sith! Why didn't you say something?!"

Han popped his head up to scan the bay, fervently hoping they hadn't been seen or heard. Luckily, and he was beginning to think his luck had run out, there was enough noise in the bay that their scuffle hadn't been noticed.

He turned his attention back to the prone figure who was rolling over with a painful grunt, and went to help, offering an outstretched hand. He was totally unprepared for Wedge's continued resistance. The security officer lunged forward, tackling Han, and they rolled into a grappling, struggling embrace until Han cracked him across the jaw, then leveled the blaster at him.

Lying on his back, supported on his elbows, Wedge glared up at him. "Are you going to kill me, too?"

With unused adrenalin still racing through his body, Han was breathing fast and hard. "What are you talking about?"

"Two of my men are dead!" Wedge accused, a commander's grief evident on his face.

The dark fire in Han's eyes subsided. "I know. I couldn't stop it. I'm sorry."

"You're sorry…and Rieekan?"

Han's forehead furrowed. "What about Rieekan?"

"Rieekan!" Wedge hissed in anger and annoyance. "He was found in the stairwell next to your cell!"

Solo briefly squeezed his eyes shut, wincing inside. He had genuinely liked the general. "Dead?" he dared to ask and backed off, allowing Wedge to sit up.

"Nearly…no thanks to you."

Han was thinking, trying to reason out events. The price of his and Luke's plan was becoming too high. Han didn't know how high. With his back to the flight deck, Solo didn't see Jerash get on board the Minrados shuttle, nor did he see the druids load an 'extra' energy cylinder onto the vessel along with the other gifts and supplies for the Ambassador.

Reason was not in Han's vocabulary when Wedge's implication suddenly registered and he got mad. "You can't think I'm responsible?!" For all his acting and pretending, Han had never given the rebellion any reason to think he was capable of something like this. "I've put my ass out for a target," he stated as he stabbed his chest with an indignant digit, "and this is the thanks I get?!"

Wedge slowly got to his feet, clearly unsure and struggling with conscience, responsibilities, and personal instincts, which told him that Han couldn't have done any of the things he was being accused of and charged with doing. "I don't know," he said honestly. "What am I supposed to think? If you didn't shoot him, who did?"

An ugly shadow passed over Solo's face at first; then he grinned, but there was no humor behind it. "Jerash M'lan," he stated and as he did, a large weight lifted from his conscience. Someone else now knew and could prevent M'lan from causing any more death and misery.

But now it was Wedge's turn to look confused. "How?" He sounded desperate, as more and more of his universe was not what it seemed. Then he took a deep breath and came to a decision. "Look, I can't help unless I know what's going on."

"Fair enough." Without hesitation, Han lowered Wedge's blaster and flipped it over, holding it out grip first for the security officer to take. Wedge did, trust returning to the dark brown eyes. "I've been trying to find the security leak in the fleet and trace the communication connections. Luke and I figured if we made it look like I could be persuaded to betray the rebellion, whoever would make a move. We didn't tell anyone, not even Leia. It worked…sort of." Han scowled. "M'lan had me delivering rebellion material to his contact at the Crater's Edge, only it was a set up, more to get me out of the way when they went after Luke and the pilots." Han suddenly remembered. "Luke…"

"He's all right," Wedge nodded. "But still dirtside."

"M'lan shot the two in the cell area to get me out," Han continued, looking nervously around the bay. "But I have no idea what happened with General Rieekan. Wedge, I've got to get back to Minrados to finish this." The tight set of his mouth conveyed a grim determination and a not-so-subtle warning that he wasn't going to let anyone or anything stop him.

It only took the time between heartbeats for Wedge to decide. He holstered the blaster. "What's your plan?" He eyed Han's attire with a raised eyebrow. "Besides getting something else to wear?"

Han visibly sighed in relief with the first sincere smile on his face in days. "I don't really have one." He hooked a thumb over one shoulder, indicating the diplomatic shuttle. "Thought I might sneak on board."

"No way," Wedge immediately replied, knowingly proud of his security arrangements. Then he returned the smile. "But I've got a better idea."

 


A short while later, in the fighter bays, no one took notice of the x-wing pilot who climbed into the cockpit of one of the ships flying escort for the Minrados shuttle. It might have been thought odd that he already wore his helmet, but pilots were expected to have their eccentricities and personal pre-flight rituals. Once settled in the seat, the pilot opened the comm. System to Captain Antilles standing in the observation room, overseeing the shuttle's departure. "Red Four standing by," said Han Solo.

Wedge's filtered voice answered in Han's ears through the helmet's built-in head set. "Okay. Red Two and Three will lead out-just fall in formation behind them."

"Thank you," Han replied, meaning a lot of things.

"Good luck. And I promise I'll tell her." In the cockpit of the x-wing, in the space behind Han, was his blaster rig, returned by Wedge, and under the orange flight suit, Han was wearing his own clothes. He fired the x-wing's converters, thinking of Wedge's last words.

Han has asked him to find Leia and explain everything…and to hell with the Force! Explain, apologize, ask for understanding, and hope for forgiveness. It was a lot to ask, especially knowing Leia, and Wedge would have cheerfully rather faced six star destroyers. But Han didn't know if he would ever be able to tell her himself.

It had been easier than he expected to admit to someone else the depth of his feelings for the princess and he thought he hit it pretty well, until Wedge muttered something about the whole fleet knowing. Han was still sulking about that when the x-wing exited the bay into space.

 


On the other side of the headquarters frigate, the Millennium Falcon had settled into a holding orbit paralleling the giant Calamarian vessel. In the cockpit were three rather stunned people for Admiral Ackbar had just refused permission for the Falcon to dock and had even threatened to open fire if she attempted to do so. The freighter, it seemed, was starship-non-grata. Hearing this, Chewbacca sat in his oeversized seat, delivering a rapid fire litany of Wookiee insults mostly having to do with the personal habits of Calamarians in particular, and rebel officers in general.

From Han's seat, Lando looked at the irate first mate. "Looks like Han overdid it again."

"I don't believe this!" exclaimed Luke.

Lando now turned to look at the anxious young Jedi. "Maybe you and Han should've thought this out a bit more?"

"We did think it out!" he snapped in defense. "I think." Chewie swung his massive head around to fix exasperated blue eyes on Skywalker. "Why is everyone looking at me?! It was Han's idea! He made it sound so simple."

As one, Chewbacca and Lando turned to look at each other, both of the same thought. Lando shook his head. "You don't have to say it, Chewie. Jedis and Corellians…I don't know which is crazier." He leaned forward, activating communications. "Headquarters, Millennium Falcon requesting emergency docking. General Calrissian and Commander Skywalker on board. Repeat…this is an emergency request."

In mounting frustration and continued fear for Leia, Luke smacked the palm of his hand on an overhead panel. "What else can go wrong?!"

In answer, there was a moment of crackling static before the frigate replied, "Permission granted. Bay fourteen with shield down."

The baron groaned as he began maneuvers. "I wish you hadn't said that."

Bay fourteen, as everyone in the fleet was aware, was triple shielded, armed, and usually reserved for potentially hostile arrivals. The bay doors could only be opened or closed from outside the bay itself. Inside, the Falcon was met with a reception committee of no less than a full rebel squadron, and after looking out the cockpit window, Calrissian turned alarmed eyes on Luke. "Just what has Han been doing?!"

Luke gulped as he undid the seat restraint. "Nothing that would warrant this!" He gestured toward the troops and in doing so, spotted Ackbar and General Madine arriving in the bay. "At least nothing I know about…Chewie?" He deferred to Han's friend and confidante, who just shrugged and held out huge innocent paws. Now out of his seat, Luke headed for the hatch.

"Hey!" Lando called. "We have to wait for…"

"You wait," Luke replied over his shoulder. "I don't have the time…Leia doesn't have the time."

The moment the ramp was fully down, Luke was out of the ship and absolutely tingling with the amount of Force energy he was deliberately drawing in from all around him. It was a sure bet he was going to need it. Half a dozen soldiers quickly advanced, training blaster rifles on him. Chewbacca and Lando followed immediately and upon seeing the drawn weapons, the Wookiee roared his displeasure. That really made the troops sit up and take notice. Lando wisely kept his hands empty and away from his body, with a look of harmless innocence on his face that only Han could do better.

As Admiral Ackbar approached the freighter, Luke was not planning on an extended question and answer confrontation. "Where's Leia?" he demanded.

"Commander Skywalker, please explain this," was the admiral's comment.

"Lando," Luke gestured in a move reminiscent of Han's less understanding body language, "Explain this." Luke's attitude was one of disgust and exasperation. He strode past the pop-eyed, flabbergasted admiral, leaving the baron to fill in the blanks. Luke hadn't gotten two steps, though, before being stopped and challenged by more rebel soldiers. With a slight wave of his hand, he used the Force to move them back and cause their weapons to swing upward. Again he moved forward with the bay doors opening before him. As Luke began to walk out, leaving chaos and confusion behind him, Wedge was approaching the bay.

"Luke!" he called.

"Wedge!" breathed a relieved Luke. He gripped the Corellian's arm. "I've got to find Leia. Something's happened to her!"

"You don't know the half of it, not the least of which is I can't find her! She's not on the frigate, nor anywhere else in the fleet."

The Jedi reached out, searching for the Force aura of his sister, meeting even darker resistance than before. "What about Han?"

At first Wedge smiled, proud of his sneaky idea, but then looked stricken, thinking Han maybe should have stayed on board. "He just left in an x-wing as part of the abmassador's shuttle escort. I know about the plan. He's gone back to the Crater's Edge to meet Jerash's contact."

"Jerash?" Luke's eyes went wide.

Wedge nodded. "Mim is going to have a bantha! He's an Imperial snitch, and you know something? I can't locate him, either."

The implication was instantly obvious. "Oh, no…You don't think…"

"You want to hear me say I think it's a real possibility? I've got an awfully bad feeling about this."

"We have to find her, Wedge. I felt her…taken over by the Dark Side."

"I know. She lost her temper when Mim had Han arrested, lost control when they accused him of treason, and we nearly lost Mim."

Luke looked distraught, his eyes welling up with tears. "I should have been here—should've seen things leading up to this…"

"Perhaps," Lando offered, coming up behind Luke and laying an understanding hand on his shoulder. "You had 'things' of your own on your mind."

Along with Lando, the admiral, General Madine, and Chewbacca had joined the group. "Commander," spoke Ackbar, "General Calrissian tells me Captain Solo's actions and behaviors have all been to attract the attention of the suspected Imperial agent and discover his identity."

Reeling with guilt, despite Lando's words, Luke faced Ackbar with thinly veiled contempt. "You couldn't really believe Han would ever betray the rebellion."

It was not easy for a Calamarian to look nerfish, but Ackbar was managing to do so quite nicely. "He gave us reason enough, Commander. Part of me understands his motives and intentions while part of me can't help but be angry at his methods. It would have saved a lot of grief if he had confided in us."

Luke shook his head. "And it would have failed if he had."

"Jerash M'lan is your agent," Wedge said, "and responsible for the deaths of my men and shooting General Rieekan."

Lando and Luke did a double, double-take. "Rieekan?"

Ditto for Admiral Ackbar. "Jerash?"

"What about Jerash?" asked Mon Mothma, who had just arrived unnoticed. She still looked more green under the gills, so to speak, than Ackbar did. Everyone did a double-take, then everyone tried to answer all at once.

"Mim, I'm afraid we've mistaken…"

"You see, Han was only pretending…"

"It wasn't Han who shot…"

"Not one brain among…"

"The princess was right all along. She…"

"Jerash is what?"

"Hold it…hold it…HOLD IT!" Lando shouted, holding up his hands and succeeding in obtaining silence. "Now," he said calmly when he had the attentions of all concerned, "I suggest we continue this in a conference room."

 


A short while later, in an underground chamber beneath the surface of Minrados, Leia was slowly regaining consciousness and in her half-dream state, she was hearing voices, angry voice.

"Jerash," growled a vaguely familiar baritone, "You're a bigger fool than I thought." With those additional words, the voice became even more familiar, and for some reason she wrinkled her nose in distaste at the sound.

"What was I supposed to do? Leave her…kill her? I thought we could use her for exchange demands or something." That voice was desperate, but also disturbingly familiar. Even half-conscious, Leia knew she shouldn't be hearing the two at the same time and place. She stirred, shifting position on the narrow wall projection that had previously held papers and office equipment.

A third voice was added to the equation as QueeQuee walked over to stare down at the restless Alderaan princess. "Daughter of Vader, you say?" She looked at Jerash for a repeated confirmation and her eyes brightened with an evil light. "And already seduced by the Dark Side. Colonel," she stated, "never mind Solo. She is the real prize and you certainly don't need this sniveling toad anymore." She indicated Jerash and dismissed him at the same time.

Justifiably insulted, Jerash started forward in impulsive anger. "You can't…"

Almost too fast to follow, QueeQuee whirled, her hand and arm extended. Purple-blue lightening flashed and spat from her fingertips; it struck M'lan, lifting him into the air and throwing him against the wall with a sickening splat. He was pinned there for several seconds, writhing in the crackling energy bolts before she let his now lifeless body fall to the floor.

With a new respectful fear and worry, Royce lowered the arm he had flung across his face. His eyes flickered briefly over the haze of blue smoke that drifted around M'lan's still form. "That was irrational," he said contemptuously, but calmly.

"He was expendable. You said so yourself and I found him irritating." Her attention went back to Leia, looking at her with a strange hunger. "Solo's lady…obviously not his type. But think, Colonel-Han Solo as consort to the empress. You underestimated his ambition as well as his skills. Money is not his only motivating factor."

Hearing Han's name, Leia struggled to open her eyes and focus on her surroundings. By the Maker, she felt awful, as if she'd been shot, stuffed inside an energy cylinder, and bumped around-which she had. There was hair in her face, her head pounded, and the white gown was a collage of dirty smudges. Where was she? What happened?

Then like a circuit connecting, everything was remembered and the accompanying instinctive surge of Force energy was like a nova burst and QueeQuee gasped. "That much power…" she whispered.

 


On the headquarters frigate, Luke felt it as well. Grasping desperately at the renewed link, he tried to hold it open long enough to reach his sister, to let her know she wasn't alone; he was only partially successful. The protective wall slammed down again like the closing of a shield door, but at least he now had some idea of where she was and in what mental shape.

 


Leia sat up and immediately shrank away from the terrifying apparition that towered over her, from the sudden mental probing that felt like a thousand tiny needles, from the Dark Side now pushing from without as well as within. She winced, throwing up block after block in her mind; then, as suddenly as it started, the agony stopped. Leia couldn't even think; all she could do was breathe in short gasps and gather her strength, fully expecting another attack. But her tormentor merely smiled and stepped aside, revealing Delavan Royce.

"You!" Leia cried, lunging for him in pure rage, diplomacy the furthest thing from her mind. But QueeQuee shoved her back against the wall where Leia's shoulder impacted painfully on the hard surface.

Royce appraised her with smug amusement. "Succinct, accurate, but not up to your usual fine level of eloquence. A pleasure to see you again, Princess." He bowed formally.

Leia glared at him and rubbed the throbbing joint. "You want eloquence, you Sithing, slimy, contemptible…"

"Tsk, tsk," admonished the Imperial officer while QueeQuee laughed. "Such language for a future empress. I'm afraid your royal bearing has suffered from spending entirely too much time with galactic riff-raff like Han Solo. You should have more discerning taste."

"He's more than you'll ever be."

There was a brief but intense, angry flare of Royce's face and his answer was tight-lipped. "We'll see. Your continued support is surprising, Leia, especially after he so recently tossed you aside." At her shocked expression, the colonel was very pleased; he liked unnerving people-it gave one an advantage. "A word of advice… Never trust a Corellian. They'll always leave you for something better."

"Coming from an Imperial snark like you, that's advice I'll never take."

The comm buzzed and after acknowledging the message, Delavan looked almost sensually aroused. "You're going to get the opportunity to regret your words, Your Highness. Solo's on his way…believing the Empire wants to hire his services. Services the rebellion can no longer afford. So…" He made as if to kiss her hand, but Leia practically snarled at him and the egotistical Imperial withdrew, glaring at her with all the gentlemanly pretense gone. "I'm going to personally assure he's welcomed properly."

He left the room, leaving QueeQuee and Leia alone. The princess had seen more than her fair share of other worlds' cultures and people, but this strange being surprised and frightened her; not only in appearance or the close association with Royce, but because of the presence of the Force. It was almost a sacrilege to see a lightsaber hanging from the durosteel belt she wore. QueeQuee reeked of the Dark Side, like something foul and rotting, and to Leia the room seemed suddenly small. Small and confining, like a death shroud.

"You don't like him, do you?" QueeQuee asked but didn't wait for an answer. "To tell you the truth, neither do I. But you don't have to tolerate him." Her voice dropped to an urgent, conspiratory plea. "You don't even have to ever see him again. You have the power to destroy him just by wishing it, Princess." The alien loomed over her and Leia instinctively tried to somehow meld into the wall behind her. "I can feel it in you. You have your father's strength."

It was possibly the worst thing anyone could have said. In response, Leia shut her eyes, horrified at the possibility, then cried out as QueeQuee once more tried to control her mind. Once more Leia drove her back, but it left her slumped and exhausted.

"Don't fight me. It's power beyond a simple royal title. Power I can help you unlock and control."

"Never!"

"Wrong. Soon you will join me." The raspy voice became silky, seductive. "You've already experienced the pleasure the Dark Side can bring. That's only a small part of what's within your grasp. Imagine it a thousand fold. Why settle for just Han Solo? With the Force, you can command any man in the universe. Give in to it and with me to guide and advise you, we can rule all the systems, both Imperial and those of the Alliance."

"What makes you think they'll let you?"

"With Minrados under our control, they'll have no choice. The planet is an Imperial storehouse as well as a supply base. It is also a credit vault. Millions have been accumulated and kept here. Everything we'll need to overthrow Royce and his like is available. Stormtroopers in stasis that are mindlessly tractable, weapons…the tunnels run all over the planet."

"I'll die first!"

"You just might!" QueeQuee raged, her dark anger an almost physical slap and Leia involuntarily winced. Then the alien suddenly changed tactics. "Do you think you're going to be rescued, that Solo will find you?"

Defiantly, Leia held up her head. She did think that. She had to believe in Han and Luke…there was nothing else left. Her brother was out there; for that brief, unguarded moment she had felt him, had wanted desperately to reach back, but she couldn't risk using the Force. Though Luke had stressed time and time again to trust in her feelings and trust in the Force, how could she when both had turned on her?

"I wouldn't want to experience vacuum until he does. I've had your Han Solo," QueeQuee lied, making sure Leia understood the implication, "and he was easy to control and manipulate."

Leia almost smiled then but bit her lip instead. If there was one thing Han wasn't, it was easy to control and manipulate. It offered her a first real glimmer of hope. Maybe if she played along, faked a hurt reaction. "That can't be true!" she cried almost hysterically. "He wouldn't…"

The dark Jedi placed her hands on the wall above Leia's shoulders, casting a malevolent shadow over the distraught captive. "He did…with very little persuasion. Get angry at him, Princess. Get very angry."

The trouble was Leia was very angry, absolutely raging that this being should try and manipulate her love for Han, for the rebellion, to turn her to the Dark Side; and when QueeQuee renewed the mental attack, the alien found a receptive environment. This time the onslaught was relentless, with the deadly Jedi boring through Leia's barriers, tearing aside everything in the way. The Dark Side was waiting, wanting freedom.

QueeQuee brought her scarred face even closer, verbally coercing the conversation process. "Yes-s-s," she almost hissed. "I can feel the Dark Side within you. It lives…it's powerful. Solo betrayed you…the rebellion has abandoned you."

It felt as though her head would blow apart. Her strong, but still shaky defenses would not hold up long and Leia knew she had to try something desperate or lose the battle. Her hands went to her head as she bent over, her forehead almost to her knees, and she moaned as if in pain.

"You don't need them," urged QueeQuee. "You…ulp!!"

The princess had balled her hands together, suddenly driving them up under the alien chin. Caught off guard, QueeQuee staggered back and Leia wasted no time in bolting for the door, frantically punching the door release. The panel hissed open just as QueeQuee lunged after her, grabbing her around the waist and pulling back. Leia turned in that hideous grasp, trying to swing, slap, scratch, and generally inflict as much injury as possible, forgetting every diplomatic, regal, or feminine refinement she ever learned.

"Bitch!" spat QueeQuee and grabbed Leia's wrists and hands, lifting her off the floor where the tiny princess dangled like a puppet before seven feet of fanged fury. "Solo is as good as dead!" came the spiteful threat. "Royce is going to kill him!"

"No!!" Leia tensed her muscles, thankful now for the hours of physical training under Luke's insistence, and brought her legs up, smashing both feet into QueeQuee's stomach. The impact made the alien double over, dropping Lela. In that vulnerable position, QueeQuee was an easy target and Leia brought down a heavy desk-comm unit on the tufted head. One horn broke with a sharp snap, spurting blood, while the resulting scream was as inhuman and terrifying as one could imagine. QueeQuee crumpled to the floor, temporarily incapacitated but not unconscious, and Lela didn't dare try and take the lightsaber that was wedged between the alien and the floor. After a last gulping look, Leia ran to the door, looking both ways, and fled down the corridor.

 


It was a council meeting of seven plus two droids, with Lando, Madine, Chewbacca, Ackbar, Wedge, and Luke all looking expectantly at Mon Mothma, waiting for a reaction. Off to the side, See-Threepio and Artoo-Detoo stood obediently behind Luke.

"This is absurd," she finally commented after hearing the full story from all parties. "Jerash has been invaluable for years!"

At this point, Ackbar was the only one to realize just how badly shaken she was by the revelation that her trusted aide was an Imperial spy. Though human emotions were maddeningly difficult to interpret, years of working closely together had enabled the Admiral to understand Mothma perhaps better than anyone. "Mim," he offered gently, "its not your fault. None of us suspected him."

Crestfallen, her indignation faded away, replaced by the heavy burden of leadership. "I know, and that's what worries me. What else is going on that we don't know about? And Solo...I could just...!" She bit back the angry wish, looking ready to expel steam from both ears. "How could we let a civilian run rings around the entire fleet, creating havoc and dissension, just to further his private schemes?!"

Everyone was more than mildly shocked, to say the least, that instead of expressing regret or embarrassment over M'lan, Mon Mothma chose to attack Han's plan. Chewie was the first to vocally object and the conference room vibrated with his angry roar. He began to stand but Luke clamped a hand on his shoulder...no mean feat to make a Wookiee sit when he didn't want to.

General Madine scowled disapprovingly. "You may fault his methods, but he achieved results—something we were unable to accomplish."

"Results?!" she shot back. "At what price! Leia missing and Rieekan in a bacta tank! I'm sorry, but I can't condone his irresponsibility and lack of concern."

That did it. This time Luke started to stand but behind him Artoo suddenly began whistling excitedly. "Artoo!" scolded Threepio, rapping the domed head. "You're interrupting a very important meeting. This has nothing to do with you. Now behave yourself!" Determined and unperturbed, Artoo beeped louder and rocked from side to side for emphasis. "Oh, all right," fussed the taller droid. "But don't say I didn't warn you." With everyone looking at him, Threepio managed to look contrite. "Master Luke, sir, I'm sorry, but he's insisting. He wants to play back events that took place on the Millennium Falcon. Something about 'proof,' he says. As usual, I can't follow..."

"Of course!" Luke exclaimed after a few seconds of non sequitur confusion. He grinned at the astromech unit. "Artoo, you're a genius!"

"Well!" said an indignant Threepio.

The little droid wheeled himself to the table, then tootled in frustration upon discovering that his photoreceptor lens lay below the table's surface. He then tried standing on his tripod tiptoes and was unexpectantly airborne, letting out an electronic squeal of surprise as Chewbacca effortlessly picked him up and placed him on a vacant chair. Artoo beeped a 'thank you' before the beam of holographic light flashed, showing Han, all of about eight inches high, pacing on the table's surface, exactly as he had in the Falcon's rec area the night the plan was conceived. Han's love and concern for Leia was evident, as was his responsibility and dedication to the rebellion, and when Artoo's light winked out, there was complete silence around the table.

Then Threepio spoke. "Oh, my...Artoo, why didn't you say something?"

Luke did stand then, briefly looking down at the table, and then transferred his gaze to the triumverate leaders, particularly Mon Mothma. "Leia is missing because I made a mistake and didn't trust Han's judgment. And Rieekan...well, no one is to blame. The fact is, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"But, I wonder...," he paused, obviously composing his thoughts. "How many of you have considered Han in this?" As expected, there were blank looks at the question. "Oh, I know the impression he tries to give—skin like durosteel—and I know he wouldn't appreciate my revealing this, but do you have any idea of the emotional hell he has put himself through, not to mention personal danger? He deliberately set himself up, invited your hate and condemnation, and the shocking thing was...you were so ready to give it."

Luke continued, not giving anyone a chance to interrupt and not sugarcoating his criticism in the least. "After he'd given up his freedom, risked his life, risked his ship, proven his loyalty and commitment again and again...you were still ready to believe—no questions asked-that he was a traitor."

As Luke's stinging words faded away, not even breathing could be heard and quite a few of those present were looking everywhere but at Luke. Then it was Threepio again, apparently having lost all his etiquette and protocol programming, who wailed, "But, Master Luke, if I understand his plan correctly, we were supposed to believe he was a traitor! I'm so confused!"

That prompted an obviously sarcastic tootled retort from Artoo. "Oh, be quiet," snapped Threepio. "Who asked you anyway?!"

"He has a point, Luke," chuckled Lando as the repartee between the two droids lent some badly needed levity to the somber chastised mood in the council room. "You can't totally blame everyone. We were suckered in by the best."

Mon Mothma stood at this point. "It seems," she said in a subdued voice, "we are all guilty, in one way or another, of trusting too much and not trusting enough...myself more than any of you. I have badly misjudged the man and, apparently," her hand came up to lightly hold her throat, "driven Leia to a personal brink of madness." The Rebel leader held her head high, though. "But this is not the time for apologies or amends."

Luke nodded solemnly and had to admit that the lady had class. Hard-nosed, manipulative, and sometimes callous, but not afraid to admit when she was wrong.

Wedge leaned forward. "What we have to do is find them and wipe out the Imperials."

"I agree." said Madine.

With a loud emphatic Wookiee exclamation, Chewbacca slapped a paw down on the table top.

"Even I understood that," smiled Mon Mothma. "I take it it's unanimous that we mount an attack." There were murmurs and nods of assent. "Commander Skywalker, have you any suggestions as to how we should proceed?"

"My first instinct is to find Leia," he answered. "I think when we find her, we'll find Han, and vice-versa. The Crater's Edge seems the logical place to start."

"There was a hidden lift tube there," interrupted Wedge, remembering the bar. "If I hadn't seen Han come out, it would have been impossible to detect unless you knew what you were looking for."

"Lift tube?" asked Madine. "To where?"

Wedge shrugged. "It went down as well as up. My team didn't investigate."

"Down?" Watching Madine's face, it became obvious why he was commander in charge of ground forces; his was a brilliant, intuitive military mind at work. "A concealed door like that would explain how the stormtroopers managed to infiltrate the x-wing factory."

"What about the other raids?" questioned Lando, who was no slouch in the perceptive department. "What if the whole city is set up this way?"

Madine tapped a stylus on the table. "It follows. Minrados was damned important to the Empire. So important, they still won't let go and abandon the planet, despite our control in space. But your scale of operations is too small, Calrissian. Think Imperial."

"By the Maker." Admiral Ackbar sat back in his seat, clearly stunned by a private realization. "They've tunneled the planet."

"Exactly!" Madine laid the implement down. "We've stumbled onto an underground nest of Imperial vipers."

 

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