“Cakhmaim’s getting to be a pretty good shot,” Han said over the sound of the reciprocating quad laser cannon. “Remind me to up his pay—or at least promote him.”
Leia glanced at him from the copilot’s chair. “From bodyguard to
Han pictured the Noghri in formal attire, setting meals in front of
Han and Leia in the Falcon
’s forward cabin. His upper lip curled in
delight, and he laughed shortly. “Maybe we should see how he does
with the rest of these skips.”
The YT-1300 was just coming out of her long turn, with Selvaris’s
double suns off to starboard and an active volcano dominating the forward
view. Below, green-capped, sheer-sided islands reached up into
the planet’s deep blue sky, and the aquamarine sea seemed to go on
forever. Two coralskippers were still glued to the Falcon
’s tail, chopping
at it and holding position through all the insane turns and evasions,
but so far the deflector shields were holding.
His large hands gripped on the control yoke, Han glanced at the
console’s locator display, where only one bezel was pulsing.
“Where’d the other swoop go?”
“We lost it,” Leia said.
Han leaned toward the viewport to survey the undulating sea.
“How could we lose—”
“No, I mean it’s gone. One of the coralskippers took it out.”
Han’s eyes blazed. “Why, that—which one of ’em?”
Before Leia could answer, two plasma missiles streaked past the
cockpit, bright as meteors and barely missing the starboard mandible.
“Does it matter?”
Han shook his head. “Where’s the other swoop?”
Leia studied the locator display, then called up a map from the
terrain sensor, which showed everything from the mouth of the
estuary clear to the volcano. Her left forefinger tapped the screen.
“Far side of that island.”
“Any skips after it?”
A loud explosion buffeted the Falcon
“We seem to be the popular target,” Leia said. “Just the way you
Han narrowed his eyes. “You bet I do.”
Determined to lure their pair of pursuers away from the swoop, he
threw the freighter into a sudden ascent. When they had climbed
halfway to the stars, he dropped the ship into a stomach-churning
corkscrew. Pulling out sharply, he twisted the ship through a looping
rollover, emerging from the combo headed in the opposite direction,
with the two coralskippers in front of him.
He grinned at Leia. “Now who’s in charge?”
She blew out her breath. “Was there ever any doubt?”
Han focused his attention on the two enemy craft. Over the long
years, Yuuzhan Vong pilots faced with impossible odds had surrendered
some of the suicidal resolve they had displayed during the early
days of the war. Maybe word had come down from Supreme Overlord
Shimrra or someone that discretion really was the better part of valor.
Whatever the case, the pilots of the two skips Han was stalkling apparently
saw some advantage to fleeing rather than reengaging the ship
their plasma missiles had failed to bring down. But Han wasn’t content
to send them home with their tails tucked between their legs—
especially not after they had killed an unarmed swoop pilot he had
come halfway across the galaxy to rescue.
“Cakhmaim, listen up,” he said into his headset mike. “I’ll fire the
belly gun from here. We’ll put ’em in the Money Lane and be done
with them.”Money Lane
was Han’s term for the area where the quad lasers’
firing fields overlapped. In emergency situations, both cannons could
be fired from the cockpit, but the present situation didn’t call for that.
What’s more, Han wanted to give Cakhmaim the chance to hone his
firing technique. All Han and Leia had to do was help line up the
From the way the coralskippers reacted to the Falcon
turnabout, Han could almost believe that the enemy pilots had been
eavesdropping on his communication with the Noghri. The first
skip—the more battered of the pair, showing charred blotches and
deep pockmarks—poured on all speed, separating from his wingmate
at a sharp angle. Smaller and faster, and seemingly helmed by a better
pilot, the second skip shed velocity in an attempt to trick the Falcon
into coming across his vector.
That was the skip that had taken out the swoop, Han decided,
sentencing the pilot to be the first to feel the Falcon
Leia guessed as much, and immediately plotted an intercept
Exposed, the skip pilot went evasive, moving into the gunsights
and out again, but with mounting panic as the Falcon
into kill position. The dorsal laser cannon was programmed to fire
three-beam bursts that, all these years later, still had the ability to
outwit the dovin basals of the older, perhaps more dim-witted coralskippers.
While the enemy craft was quick to deploy a gravitic anomaly
that engulfed the first and second beams, the third got through,
blowing a huge chunk of yorik coral from the vessel’s fantail. Han
tweaked the yoke to place the skip in the Money Lane, and his left
hand tightened on the trigger of the belly gun’s remote firing mechanism.
Sustained bursts from the twin cannons whittled the skip to
half its size; then it blew, throwing pieces of coral wreckage in every
“That’s for the swoop pilot,” Han said soberly. He turned his
attention to the second skip, which, desperate to avoid a similar fate,
was jinking and juking all over the sky.
Zipping through the showering remains of the first kill, the Falcon
quickened up and pounced on the wildly maneuvering skip from
above. The targeting reticle went red, and a target-lock tone filled the
cockpit. Again the quad lasers rallied, catching the vessel with burst
after burst until it disappeared in a nimbus of coral dust and whitehot
Han and Leia hooted. “Nice shooting, Cakhmaim!” he said into
the headset. “Score two more for the good guys.”
Leia watched him for a moment. “Happy now?”
Instead of replying, Han pushed the yoke away from him, dropping
to within meters of the surging waves. “Where’s the
swoop?” he asked finally.
Leia was ready with the answer. “Come around sixty degrees, and
it should be right in front of us.”
Han adjusted course, and the swoop came into view, streaking
over the surface, bearing two seriously dissimilar riders. In pursuit,
and just visible beneath the surface, moved an enormous olive-drab
triangle, trailing what appeared to be a lengthy tail.
Han’s jaw dropped.
“What is that thing?” Leia said.
“Threepio, get in here!” Han yelled, without taking his eyes from
C-3PO staggered into the cockpit, clamping his hands on the
high-backed navigator’s chair to keep from being thrown off balance,
as had too often happened.
Han raised his right hand to the viewport and pointed. “What is
that?” he asked, enunciating every word.
“Oh, my,” the droid began. “I believe that what we’re looking at
is a kind of boat creature. The Yuuzhan Vong term for it is vangaak
which derives from the verb ‘to submerge.’ Although in this case the
verb has been modified to suggest—”
“Skip the language lesson and just tell me how to kill it!”
“Well, I would suggest targeting the flat dome, clearly visible on
its dorsal surface.”
“A head shot.”
“Precisely. A head shot.”
“Han,” Leia interrupted. “Four more coralskippers headed our
Han manipulated levers on the console, and the Falcon
“We gotta work fast. Threepio, tell Meewalh to activate the
manual release for the landing ramp. I’ll be there in a flash.”
Leia watched him undo the clasps of the crash webbing. “I take it
you’re not planning to land.”
He kissed her on the cheek as he stood up. “Not if I can help it.”
The swoop fought to maintain an altitude of eight meters, but
that was enough to keep it from the snapping jaws of the Yuuzhan
Vong vangaak that had almost snagged it on surfacing.
Thorsh might have opted to head inland if the Yuuzhan Vong
search parties and their snarling beasts hadn’t reached the marshy
shore. Worse, four specks in the northern sky were almost certainly
coralskippers, soaring in to reinforce the pair the YT-1300 was chasing.
Instead, the Jenet had the swoop aimed for deeper water, out
toward the volcano, where the waves mounded to a height of ten
Thorsh and his rider could feel the sting of the saline spray on
their scratched and bruised faces and hands. Behind them, the vangaak
was rapidly closing the gap, but if it had weapons other than tor-
pedo analogs it wasn’t bringing them to bear. An unsettling vociferation
from the Bith broke Thorsh’s concentration.
“The vangaak’s gone! It submerged!”
Thorsh didn’t know whether to worry or celebrate. The vangaak
put a quick end to his indecision. Breaching the surface in front of the
swoop, the dull olive triangle spiked straight up out of the waves,
venting seawater from blowholes on its dorsal side, and opening its
Thorsh demanded all he could from the swoop, climbing at
maximum boost, but there was no escaping the reach of the creature.
He heard a surprised scream, then felt his flight jacket rip away.
Lightened, the swoop ascended at greater speed, only to stall. Thorsh
threw a distraught glance over his shoulder. The Bith was pinned
between the vangaak’s teeth, mouth wide in a silent scream, black eyes
dull, Thorsh’s jacket still clutched in his dexterous hands. But there
wasn’t time for despair or anger. The repulsorlift came back to life,
and Thorsh veered away, even as he was falling.
A roar battered his eardrums, and suddenly the YT-1300 was practically
alongside him, skimming the waves not fifty meters away. The
quartet of coralskippers began firing from extreme range, their plasma
projectiles cutting scalding trails through the whitecapped crests.
The old freighter’s landing ramp was lowered from the starboard
docking arm. It was clear what the ship’s pilots had in mind. They
were expecting him to come alongside and hurl himself onto the
narrow incline. But Thorsh faltered. He knew the limitations of the
swoop, and—more important—his own. With the coralskippers approaching
and the vangaak submerged who-knew-where beneath the
waves, it was unlikely that he could even reach the freighter in time.
Additionally—and despite what were obviously military-grade de-
flector shields—the freighter was being forced to make slight vertical
and horizontal adjustments, which only decreased Thorsh’s chances of
His grimace disappeared, and in its place came a look of sharp
As sole bearer of the secret intelligence contained in the holo-
wafer, he had to give it his best try. Tightening his grip, he banked for
the sanctuary of the matte-black ship.
Crouched at the top of the extended ramp, Han peered down at
the rushing water not twenty meters below. Wind and salt spray
howled through the opening, blowing his hair every which way and
making it difficult for him to keep his eyes open.
“Captain Solo,” C-3PO said from the ring corridor. “Princess
Leia wishes you to know that the swoop is approaching. Apparently
the pilot feels confident that he can complete the transfer to Millennium
without suffering too much internal damage or . . . perishing
in the attempt.”
Han threw the droid a wide-eyed look. “Perishing?”
“Certainly the odds are against him. If he were piloting a speeder
bike, perhaps. But swoops are notorious for going out of control at
the slightest provocation!”
Han nodded grimly. A former swoop racer, he knew that C-3PO
was right. Taking in the situation now, he wondered if even he could
make the jump.
“I’m going to the bottom!” he shouted.
C-3PO canted his golden head. “Sir?”
Han made a downward motion. “The bottom of the ramp.”
“Sir, I have a bad feeling . . .”
The wind drowned out the rest of the droid’s words. Han crabbed
down to the base of the ramp, where he could hear the Falcon
turret slicing through the agitated peaks of the waves. A distinctive
throbbing sound captured his attention. The swoop was beginning to
angle for the ramp. The pilot—a Jenet, of all species—took his right
hand off the handgrips just long enough to signal Han with a wave.
Considering that even that slight movement sent the swoop into a
wobble, there was simply no way the Jenet would be able to let go
completely—especially not with the Falcon
adding to the turbulence
of the sea itself.
Han reconsidered, then swung around to C-3PO.
“Threepio, tell Leia we’re going with Plan B!”
The droid raised his hands to his head in distress. “Captain Solo,
just the sound of that makes me worry!”
Han raised his forefinger. “Just tell Leia, Threepio. She’ll
“That was precisely my reaction,” C-3PO said in an agitated
voice. “But does anyone ever listen to my concerns?”
“Don’t worry, Threepio, I’m sure Han knows what he’s doing.”
“That is hardly a comforting thought, Princess.”
Leia swung back to the console and allowed her eyes to roam over
the instruments. Plan B,
she mused. What can Han have in mind?
placed him squarely in her thoughts, then smiled in sudden revelation.Of course
. . .
Her hands slid switches while she studied the displays. Then she
sat away from the console in contemplation. Yes, she decided at last,
she supposed it could be done—though it would mean relying largely
on the attitude and braking thrusters, and hoping that they didn’t stall
She looked over her shoulder at C-3PO, who had evidently followed
her every move and manipulation.
“Tell Han I’ve got everything worked out.”
“Oh, dear,” the droid said, turning and exiting the cockpit. “Oh,
The four coralskippers were closing fast, lobbing plasma missiles
into the blustery stretch of water between the swoop and the freighter.
Thorsh dipped his head instinctively as one fireball plunged into the
waves not ten meters away. The ferocity of the impact geysered superheated
water high into the air, and sent the swoop into a sustained
The freighter held to its course regardless, its top gunner keeping
the coralskippers at bay with bursts of laserfire. A human male was
crouched at the base of the landing ramp, his left arm wrapped around
one of the telescoping hydraulic struts, and the fingers of his right
hand making a gesture that on some worlds implied craziness on the
part of its recipient. Just now, the twirling gesture meant something
else entirely—though craziness was still a large part of it.
Thorsh swallowed hard, just thinking about what the pilots were
about to attempt.
The human waved and scurried back up the ramp.
Decelerating slightly, Thorsh fell in behind the freighter, giving it
wide berth. Above the strained throbbing of the swoop’s repulsorlift,
he heard the sudden reverberation of the YT-1300’s retro- and attitude
Then, scarcely surrendering momentum, the freighter began to
rotate ninety degrees to starboard, bringing the boarding ramp almost
directly in front of the tottering swoop.
“Take the jump!” Han said, mostly to himself. “Now!”
He was back in the pilot’s chair, his hands tight on the control
yoke, while Leia feathered the thrusters, cheating the Falcon
its quarter turn. Flying sideways, Han could see the coralskippers that
had a second earlier been “behind” the ship, as well as the swoop,
which was flying just off the blunt tip of the starboard docking arm.
Hoping to minimize the chances of the pilot’s overshooting his mark
and smashing headlong into the bulkhead at the top of the ramp, Han
adjusted the Falcon
’s forward speed to match that of the swoop.
“He’s accelerating!” Leia said.
“Threepio! Meewalh!” Han yelled over his right shoulder. “Our
guest’s coming aboard!” Glancing out the right side of the viewport,
he saw the Jenet leap the swoop toward the ramp—the Falcon
narrow but open mouth.
“Now!” he told Leia.
Deftly she fed power to the attitude thrusters, allowing the ship to
complete a full clockwise rotation, even as a series of crashing sounds
were echoing their way into the cockpit from the ring corridor.
Han winced and scrunched his shoulders with each clang!
, mentally assessing the damage, but keeping his fingers crossed
that the Jenet pilot was faring better than the interior of the docking
No sooner did the ramp telltale on the console flash red—
indicating that docking arm had sealed tight—than Han yanked back
on the control yoke, and the Falcon
clawed its way into Selvaris’s open
sky, dodging volleys of molten fire from pursuing coralskippers. The
quad laser replied with packets of cohesive light, brilliant green even
against the backdrop of the heaving sea.
“Captain Solo, he’s alive!” C-3PO called with dramatic relief.
“We’re all alive!”
Exhaling slowly, Han sank back into the seat, but without lifting
his hands from the yoke. The coralskippers were already lagging behind
when the Falcon
rocketed over the summit of the volcano,
straight through dense clouds of gritty smoke, climbing rapidly on a
column of blue energy. The ship was halfway to starlight when the
shaken Jenet appeared at the cockpit hatchway, one bare arm drapped
over Meewalh’s shoulders, the other around C-3PO’s.
“You must have a hard head,” Han said.
Grinning faintly, Leia looked at her husband. “He’s not the only
Han glanced at her in false chagrin, then nodded his chin to the
female Noghri. “Take our guest to the forward cabin and provide him
with whatever he needs.”
“I’ll get the medpac,” Leia said, leaving her chair. She set her
headset on the console and looked at Han again. “Well, you did it.”“We,”
Han amended. Casually, he stretched out his arms. “You
know, you’re never too old for this sort of thing.”
“You haven’t outgrown it, that’s for sure.”
He studied her. “What, you have?”
She placed her right hand on his cheek. “You’re a danger to yourself
and everyone around you. But I do love you, Han.”
He smiled broadly as Leia hurried from the cockpit.
Copyright © 2003 by James Luceno. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.