cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by James S. A. Corey

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

The Star Wars Novels Timeline

Dramatis Personae

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Copyright

ALSO BY JAMES S. A. COREY

Leviathan Wakes

Caliban’s War

Abaddon’s Gate

For Scarlet

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors would like to thank Shelly and Jen, and Anne Groell for making the introduction, and all the Star Wars fans who still have their seven-year-old selves sitting in a dark theater in wonder and delight. And Danny, because he rocks.

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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Baasen Ray; smuggler (Mirialan male)

C-3PO; masculine protocol droid

Chewbacca; copilot, Millennium Falcon (Wookiee male)

Essio Galassian; astrocartographer (human male)

Han Solo; captain, Millennium Falcon (human male)

Hunter Maas; thief (human male)

Leia Organa; rebel, Alderaanian princess (human female)

Luke Skywalker; rebel pilot (human male)

R2-D2; astromech droid

Scarlet Hark; rebel spy (human female)

Sunnim; pilot (Bothan male)

Wedge Antilles; commander, Rebel Alliance (human male)

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

CHAPTER ONE

FROM THE IMPERIAL CORE to the outflung stars of the Rim, the galaxy teemed with life. Planets, moons, asteroid bases, and space stations peopled with a thousand different species, all of them busy with the great ambitions of the powerful and also with the mundane problems of getting through their days, the ambitions of the Emperor all the way down to where to eat the next meal. Or whether there would be a next meal. Each city and town and station and ship had its own histories and secrets, hopes and fears and half-articulated dreams.

But for every circle of light—every star, every planet, every beacon and outpost—there was vastly more darkness. The space between stars was and always would be unimaginably huge, and the mysteries that it hid would never be wholly discovered. One bad jump was all it took for a ship to be lost. Unless there was a way to reach out for help, to say Here I am. Come find me, an escape pod or a ship or a fleet could vanish into the places between places that even light took a lifetime to reach.

And so a rendezvous point could be the size of a solar system, and the rebel fleet could still hide there like a flake in a snowstorm. Hundreds of ships, from cobbled-together, plasma-scorched cruisers and thirdhand battleships to X- and Y-wings and everything in between. They flew through space together silently, drifting closer in or farther apart as the need arose. Repair droids crawled over the skins of the ships, welding back together the wounds of their last battles, sure in the knowledge that they were the needle in the Empire’s haystack.

Their greatest danger wasn’t the enemy, but inaction. And the ways a certain kind of man coped with it.

“I wasn’t cheating,” Han Solo said as Chewbacca bent to pass through the door in the bulkhead. “I was playing better than they were.”

The Wookiee growled.

“That’s how I was playing better. It’s not against the rules. Besides, what are they going to buy with their money out here?”

A dozen fighter pilots marching past in dirty orange-and-white uniforms saluted them. Han nodded to each one as he passed. They were an ugly bunch: middle-aged men who should have been back home on a planet somewhere spending too much time at the neighborhood bar and weedy boys still looking forward to their first wispy mustaches. Warriors for freedom, and terrible sabacc players.

Chewbacca let out a long, low groan.

“You wouldn’t,” Han said.

Chewbacca’s blue eyes met his, and the Wookiee’s silence was more eloquent than anything he might have said aloud.

“Fine,” Han retorted. “But it’s coming out of your cut. I don’t know when you went soft on me.”

“Han!”

Luke Skywalker came jogging down a side corridor, his helmet under his arm. Two droids followed him: the squat, cylindrical R2-D2 rolling along, chirping and squealing; and the tall, golden C-3PO trotting along at the back, waving gold-chrome hands as if gesticulating in response to some unheard conversation. The kid’s face was flushed and his hair was dark with sweat, but he was grinning as if he’d just won something.

“Hey,” Han said. “Just get back from maneuvers?”

“Yep. These guys are great. You should have seen the tight spin and recover they showed us. I could have stayed out there for hours, but Leia called me back in for some kind of emergency meeting.”

“Her Worshipfulness called the meeting?” Han asked as they turned down the main access corridor together. The smell of welding torches and coolant hung in the air. Everything about the Rebel Alliance smelled like a repair bay. “I thought she was off to her big conference on Kiamurr.”

“She was supposed to be. I guess she postponed leaving.”

The little R2 droid squealed, and Han turned to it. “What’s that, Artoo?”

C-3PO, catching up and giving a good impression of leaning forward to catch his breath even though he didn’t have lungs, translated: “He’s saying that she’s postponed her departure twice. It’s made a terrible shambles of the landing docks.”

“Well, that’s not good,” Han said. “Anything that keeps her from sitting around a big table deciding the future of the galaxy … I mean, that’s her favorite thing to do.”

“You know that’s not true,” Luke said, making room in the passageway for a bronze-colored droid that looked as if it had barely crawled out of the trash heap. “I don’t know why you don’t like her more.”

“I like her fine.”

“You’re always cutting her down, though. The Alliance needs good politicians and organizers.”

“You can’t have a government without a tax collector. Just because we’d both like it better if the Emperor wasn’t in charge, it doesn’t make me and her the same person.”

Luke shook his head. The sweat was starting to dry, and his hair was getting some of its sandy color back.

“I think you two are more alike than you pretend.”

Han laughed despite himself. “You’re an optimist, kid.”

When they reached the entrance to the command center, Luke sent the droids on, R2-D2 whistling and squeaking and C-3PO acting annoyed. The command center had taken a direct hit in the fighting at Yavin, and the reconstruction efforts still showed. New panels, blinding in their whiteness, covered most of one wall where the old ones had been shattered by the blast. Where the replacements ended, the old panels seemed even darker by contrast. The head-high displays marked the positions of the ships in the fleet and the fleet in the emptiness of the rendezvous point, the status of repair crews, the signals from the sensor arrays, and half a dozen other streams of information. None of the stations was staffed. The data spooled out into the air, ignored.

Leia stood at the front of the room, the bright repair work and grimy original walls seeming to come together in her. Her dress was black with embroidery of gold and bronze, her hair a soft spill gathered at the nape of her neck in a style that made her seem both more mature and more powerful than had the side buns she’d worn on the Death Star. From what Han had heard around the fleet, losing Alderaan had made her older and harder. And as much as he hated to admit it, she wore the tragedy well.

The man she was talking to—Colonel Harcen—had his back to them, but his voice carried just fine. “With respect, though, you have to see that not all allies are equal. Some of the factions that are going to be on Kiamurr, the Alliance would be better off without.”

“I understand your concerns, Colonel,” Leia said in a tone that didn’t sound particularly understanding. “I think we can agree, though, that the Alliance isn’t in a position to turn away whatever help we can get. The Battle of Yavin was a victory, but—”

Harcen raised a palm, interrupting her. He was an idiot, Han thought. “There are already some people who feel that we have become too lax in the sorts of people we’re allowing into our ranks. In order to gain respect, we must be free of undesirable elements.”

“I agree,” Han said. Colonel Harcen jumped like a poked cat. “You’ve got to keep the scum out.”

“Captain Solo,” Harcen said. “I didn’t see you there. I hope I gave no offense.”

“No. Of course not,” Han said, smiling insincerely. “I mean, you weren’t talking about me, were you?”

“Everyone is very aware of the service you’ve done for the Alliance.”

“Exactly. So there’s no reason you’d have been talking about me.”

Harcen flushed red and made a small, formal bow. “I was not talking about you, Captain Solo.”

Han sat at one of the empty stations, stretching his arms out as if he were in a cantina with a group of old friends. It might have been an illusion, but he thought he saw a flicker of a smile on Leia’s lips.

“Then there’s no offense taken,” he said.

Harcen turned to go, his shoulders back and his head held high. Chewbacca took a fraction of a second longer than strictly needed to step out of the man’s way. Luke leaned against one of the displays, his weight warping it enough to send little sprays of false color through the lines and curves.

When Harcen was gone, Leia sighed. “Thank you all for coming on short notice. I’m sorry I had to pull you off the training exercises, Luke.”

“It’s all right.”

“I was in a sabacc game,” Han said.

“I’m not sorry I pulled you out of that.”

“I was winning.”

Chewbacca chuffed and crossed his arms. Leia’s expression softened a degree. “I was supposed to leave ten standard hours ago,” she said, “and I can’t stay much longer. We’ve had some unexpected developments, and I need to get you up to speed.”

“What’s going on?” Luke asked.

“We aren’t going to be able to use the preliminary base in Targarth system,” she said. “We’ve had positive identification of Imperial probes.”

The silence only lasted a breath, but it carried a full load of disappointment.

“Not again,” Luke said.

“Again.” Leia crossed her arms. “We’re looking at alternatives, but until we get something, construction and dry-dock plans are all being put on hold.”

“Vader’s really going all-out to find you people,” Han said. “What are your backup plans?”

“We’re looking at Cerroban, Aestilan, and Hoth,” Leia told him.

“That’s the bottom of the barrel,” Han said.

For a second, he thought she was going to fight, but instead she only looked defeated. He knew as well as she did that the secret rebel base was going to be critical. Without a base, some kinds of repair, manufacturing, and training work just couldn’t be done, and the Empire knew that, too. But Cerroban was a waterless, airless lump of stone hardly better than the rendezvous point, and one that was pounded by asteroids on a regular basis. Aestilan had air and water, but rock worms had turned the planetary mantle so fragile that there were jokes about digging tunnels just by jumping up and down. And Hoth was an ice ball with an equatorial zone that only barely stayed warm enough to sustain human life, and then only when the sun was up.

Leia stepped to one of the displays, shifting the image with a flicker of her fingers. A map of the galaxy appeared, the immensity of a thousand million suns disguised by the fitting of it all onto the same screen.

“There is another possibility,” she said. “The Seymarti system is near the major space lanes. There’s some evidence that there was sentient life on it at some point, but our probes don’t show anything now. It may be the place we’re looking for.”

“That’s a terrible idea,” Han said. “You don’t want to do that.”

“Why not?” Luke asked.

“Ships get lost in Seymarti,” Han said. “A lot of ships. They make the jump to hyperspace, and they don’t come back out.”

“What happens to them?”

“No one knows. Something that close to the lanes without an Imperial garrison on it can be mighty appealing to someone who needs a convenient place to not get found, but everyone I know still steers clear of that place. Nobody goes there.”

Luke patted his helmet with one thoughtful hand. “But if nobody goes there, how can a lot of ships get lost?”

Han scowled. “I’m just saying the place has a bad reputation.”

“The science teams think there may be some kind of spatial anomaly that throws off sensor readings,” Leia said. “If that’s true, and we can find a way to navigate it ourselves, Seymarti may be our best hope for avoiding Imperial notice. As soon as Wedge Antilles is back from patrol, he’s going to put together an escort force for the survey ships.”

“I’d like to go with him,” Luke said.

“We talked about that,” Leia said. “Wedge thought it would be a good chance for you to get some practice. He’s requested you as his second in command.”

Luke’s smile was so bright, Han could have read by it. “Absolutely,” the kid said.

The communications panel beside Leia chimed. “Ma’am, we’ve kept the engines hot, but if we don’t leave soon, we’re going to have to recalibrate the jump. Do you want me to reschedule your meetings again?”

“No. I’ll be right there,” she said, and turned the connection off with an audible click.

Han leaned forward. “It’s all right, I see how I fit in here,” he said. “The weapons run from Minoth to Hendrix is off. That’s not a big deal. I’ll just bring the guns here instead. Unless you want the Falcon to go along with the kid here.”

“Actually, that’s not why I wanted to talk with you,” Leia said. “Something else happened. Two years ago, we placed an agent at the edge of Imperial space. The intelligence we’ve gotten since then has been some of the most valuable we’ve seen, but the reports stopped seven months ago. We assumed the worst. And then yesterday, we got a retrieval code. From the Saavin system. Cioran.”

“That’s not the edge of Imperial space,” Han said. “That’s the middle of it.”

Chewbacca growled and moaned.

“It’s not what I would have picked, either,” Leia said. “There was no information with it. No context, no report. We don’t know what happened between the last contact and now. We just got the signal that we should send a ship.”

“Oh,” Han said with a slowly widening grin. “No, it’s all right. I get it. I absolutely understand. You’ve got this important guy trapped in enemy territory, and you need to get him out. Only with the Empire already swarming like a hive of Bacian blood hornets, you can’t risk using anyone but the best. That about right?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way, but it’s in the neighborhood of right, yes,” Leia said. “The risks are high. I won’t order anyone to take the assignment. We can make it worth your time if you’re willing to do it.”

“You don’t have to order us, does she, Chewie? All you have to do is ask, and we’re on the job.”

Leia’s gaze softened a little. “Will you do this, then? For the Alliance?”

Han went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “Just say please and we’ll get the Millennium Falcon warmed up, skin out of here, grab your guy, and be back before you know it. Nothing to it.”

Leia’s expression went stony. “Please.”

Han scratched his eyebrow. “Can I have a little time to think about it?”

The Wookiee made a low but rising howl and lifted his arms impatiently.

“Thank you, Chewie,” Leia said. “There’s also a real possibility that the whole operation was compromised and the retrieval code is bait in a trap. When you make your approach, you’ll need to be very careful.”

“Always am,” Han said, and Luke coughed. “What?” Han demanded.

“You’re always careful?”

“I’m always careful enough.”

“Your first objective is to make the connection and complete the retrieval,” Leia said. “If you can’t do that, find out as much as you can about what happened and whether any of our people are in danger. But if you smell a trap, get out. If we’ve lost her, we’ve lost her. We don’t want to sacrifice anyone else.”

“ ‘Her’?”

Leia touched the display controls again, and the image shifted. A green security warning flooded it, and she keyed in the override. A woman’s face filled the screen. High cheekbones, dark eyes and hair, V-shaped chin, and a mouth that seemed on the verge of smiling. If Han had seen her in a city, he’d have looked twice, but not because she was suspicious. The data field beside the picture listed a life history too complex to take in at a glance. The name field read: SCARLET HARK.

“Don’t get in over your head,” Leia said.

CHAPTER TWO

THE SAAVIN SYSTEM FLOATED in the air above the display panel, tiny colored balls representing the various planets rotating around a bright orange star. A small blue world nestled in a swarm of Imperial ships and independent stations. Cioran, bureaucratic heart of the Empire. Or if not heart, kidney. Maybe small bowel. Another world, a large, bright red planet toward the edge of the system, swelled even larger when Chewbacca waved a paw at it. The Wookiee growled.

“That’s the point,” Han said. “It’s on the edge of the system, and it’s a big ball of useless gas. No one lives there. There aren’t even any gas miners. It’ll take a little longer to fly into Cioran from there, but it’s a nice quiet spot to take a look around.”

Chewie growled and crossed his arms.

“Look, this is Empire central. I don’t want to drop out of hyperspace on top of a Star Destroyer.”

Chewie turned away and began prepping the Falcon. He carried on a low rumbling conversation with himself, his back to Han.

“You’re gonna thank me when we slip into the Saavin system without anyone noticing us.”

Chewie grunted, and Han pulled the lever to shut down the hyperdrive. The streaking white of hyperspace that had filled their cockpit viewport snapped back into a steady starfield, the bloated red of Saavin’s gas giant filling half of the view.

“See, now we just—” Han started.

“Unregistered YT-thirteen-hundred, this is the Imperial Star Destroyer Ravenous, respond immediately.”

The Falcon began blaring collision alarms as two TIE fighters took flanking positions next to her. The massive dagger shape of the Star Destroyer drifted into view from her port side.

“Unregistered YT-thirteen-hundred—” Han killed the comm. Chewbacca turned to look at him, not saying anything.

“This is not my fault,” Han said, looking for an escape route and finding nothing. “What are they doing out here?”

Chewie growled and reached for the deflector controls.

“No, wait,” Han said, grabbing the Wookiee’s arm to stop him. “I can handle this.” Chewbacca barked out a laugh.

“Hello, Ravenous, this is Captain—” Han racked his brain for one of the names on the list of fake registration codes he kept. “—Boro Mandibel, of the light freighter Vortando. How can I help you today?”

He put his palm over the mic and said, “Chewie, better turn on the registration broadcast. Make sure it’s the Vortando codes.”

“Vortando,” the reply came after a few moments. “You’re broadcasting a nonstandard registration—”

“Sorry about that,” Han interrupted with a heartily false laugh. “Hired on a Wookiee mechanic, and he’s been using nonstandard parts on all the repairs.”

Chewie growled dangerously from behind him, and Han covered the mic again. “If he understands Wookiee, that little remark is going to get us in a lot of trouble.” Chewbacca rumbled a response that demonstrated a lack of remorse.

“Destination and cargo,” the Star Destroyer demanded.

“Uh, going to Cioran with Corellian brandy and Sacorrian wines. How are you guys doing today?”

There was a pause that felt as if it lasted hours. Han began plotting a course to get them out of the system as fast as possible. The two TIE fighters hung next to the Falcon like an unspoken threat.

Han turned off the mic and said, “Chewie, this isn’t working. Get ready to angle the rear deflectors and make a run for it.”

“Vortando,” the Star Destroyer said. “Proceed to Cioran on the following course. Do not deviate. We’re seeing an incoming load, and we don’t need you disrupting the landing queue.”

“Received, Ravenous. You guys have a nice day,” Han said, then laid in the course. Chewbacca bayed his disbelief.

“Yeah, I know. Star Destroyers directing traffic,” Han replied, bringing up the drive. “Welcome to the Empire.”

The Ravenous hadn’t been lying. The Falcon waited for two standard hours to get a landing assignment. To pass the time, Han checked the charge on his blaster, and Chewbacca stripped and cleaned his bowcaster. Han pulled on a long coat that covered his weapon. He knew that Cioran’s warm climate didn’t warrant a coat like that, but he figured it was better than wearing the blaster where everyone could see it.

“You know,” he said, pacing and twisting in front of his cabin’s mirror to make sure the blaster stayed hidden when he moved, “this is the heart of the Empire. I don’t know how many Wookiees with energy crossbows are going to be walking around. You might want to aim for subtle.”

Chewbacca growled, and Han put up his hands. “I’m just saying this isn’t our usual run-and-gun. We’re here to blend in. Move unnoticed.” Han turned suddenly, watching the swirl of the coat to make sure it didn’t open up too far. Chewbacca coughed out a laugh.

“Hey!” Han said, hurt in his voice. “I’ve blended! I can blend. And if I don’t—” He swatted at the coat, pushing it away and yanking out his blaster in a lightning-fast draw. “I’ll improvise.”

The docking bays on Cioran looked exactly like the docking bays on a hundred worlds Han Solo had seen during his travels, only clean. Unsettlingly clean. The same repair gantries and loading cranes. The same fuel tanks and repair droids and inspection clerks, but without the lived-in look. No fuel spills on the decking, no broken droids sparking in the corner, no grease spots on any of the inspectors’ uniforms. It felt vaguely funereal. Like a memorial to the idea of a docking bay.

A small, stout droid was waiting at the bottom of the crew ramp, ticking quietly to itself, a vaguely humanoid head on top of a square body sporting too many arms and sitting on rubber treads. When it saw Han, it perked up with a lurch.

“I am R-Four-Two-Seven,” it said in an annoying chirpy voice. “The Cioran Port Authority and the Trajenni Dock Management Collective welcome you to Cioran!”

“Thanks,” Han said, and tried to walk past it. The rubber treads whirred to life, and it darted in front of him.

“The Trajenni Dock Management Collective hopes we can be of service to you during your stay on Cioran!”

“Great,” Han said. “I don’t really need—”

“May I assist you with your bags?” R-427 continued, undeterred. “Or perhaps you would like a licensed Trajenni Dock Management Collective repair droid to look over your ship? Our refueling services are available at extremely competitive rates, and—”

Chewbacca growled and walked toward the droid. It backed up.

“We’ll let you know if we need anything,” Han said with a smile and a wave of dismissal. Chewbacca continued to advance on the droid until it finally spun around on its treads and sped toward the door.

“The Trajenni Dock Management Collective welcomes you to Cioran and hopes you enjoy your stay!” the droid shouted as it fled, its last words almost inaudible.

Chewbacca chuffed out a quiet laugh as it disappeared around a corner.

“The drop’s someplace called Staton Park,” Han said, walking to the dock’s street exit. Chewbacca followed with a low grumble. “Yeah, I don’t know why we aren’t meeting in a bar, either. There’s a way you do these things. Sometimes it seems like we’re the only professionals left.”

The exit led out to a wide pedestrian walkway with air traffic flying thick overhead. The speeders, landing ships, and personal speeder bikes moved in crisp lines that exactly matched the ground-level roadways. Imperial craft kept a watchful eye on the procession of vehicles, prominent laser cannons a visible warning against violating the traffic rules.

“It’s all very … orderly, isn’t it,” Han said, looking up with a sigh.

The Core reminded Han why he’d fled to the backwater planets on the edge of the galaxy in the first place. The massive walls of steel and glass that rose on both sides felt like a cage. He wanted to tell himself that this was what Imperial control looked like: order enforced at the end of a blaster. But any government was going to have traffic laws. Before the Emperor, the Republic had enforced its edicts at the laser-sharp edge of a Jedi’s lightsaber. It was the way the universe worked. That didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Let’s get a drink.”

Even the bars stank of Imperial order. The gleaming chrome tabletops and uncomfortable chairs didn’t allow for much lounging or relaxation. A dozen patrons sat quietly at their tables drinking heavily and unenthusiastically. A few of them stared at Chewbacca when they came in, but no one challenged them. A small knot of men and women who looked like off-duty soldiers occupied one corner, their heads hunched close together, talking in whispers.

He found a table at the corner farthest from the Imperials and put his back to the wall. Chewbacca sat next to him, staring at the tabletop and rumbling quietly to himself.

Han caught the attention of a chrome-and-gold protocol droid standing behind the bar, pointed at a bottle of Corellian brandy, held up two fingers, and pointed at his own table. A few seconds later they had their drinks and Han flipped a coin to the droid, who caught it out of the air without a word.

Chewie growled softly at the droid’s retreating back.

“I hear you, brother. Not my kind of place, either,” Han said, then took a long swallow. “Booze isn’t bad. You see anyone following us?”

Chewbacca barked and lifted his chin.

“Me neither,” Han said. “So that’s a decent start.”

He pulled the disposable datapad Leia had given him out of his pocket and laid it on the table. It connected to the local network, updating its information with the most recent publicly available data and cross-checking it with what little the Rebel Alliance knew. Maps of the city flashed by in rapid succession, laying out the route from their current location to the park. Danger spots were marked in red: known trooper posts, Imperial government buildings, cams.

“Not going to be easy,” Han said. The dead drop location was a memorial to some Imperial bigwig at the center of the park. Security droids wandered the park day and night, looking for malfeasance. Imperial troops patrolled the streets and skies, and possibly the park, as well. Observation posts dotted the city at intervals as regular as grid markers.

Chewbacca pawed at the pad, scrolling the map back and forth and grumbling.

“Wouldn’t be my first choice as a drop location, either,” Han agreed. “But maybe that’s the point. If it’s a trap, I’d put it someplace that didn’t look like one. This Scarlet Hark character is supposed to know her business, so I guess we back her plays until we learn otherwise.”

Chewbacca grunted agreeably and pushed the pad back to Han, who hit the button that melted the insides with a quiet sizzling sound and a tiny curl of smoke. He tossed it into a disposal unit in the wall.

“Well, we’re earning our pay on this one. And maybe we have to get past a couple hundred Imperial troops, dozens of cams and observation points, and not draw attention to ourselves on one of the most heavily controlled planets in the Empire, but there’s a silver lining to that.”

Chewbacca cocked his head and growled.

“Nobody who works for Jabba’s going to be here.”

CHAPTER THREE

THE STATON MEMORIAL PARK AND RECREATION AREA was twenty-five hectares of green on the roof of the massive Imperial Water Processing Authority. Half a kilometer of bureaucracy rising from the street level of Cioran, topped by a sward of hydroponic grass, trees, and fountains. A flier station perched at the building’s edge, and thin, sleek machines docked or hovered, waiting to ferry citizens of the Empire to their next hygienic, clean, constrained appointment once their recreational period was done. Han felt about as inconspicuous as a Messian flame lizard.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” the flier intoned as he stepped off it.

“No.”

“I can provide the menus of the park’s food and drink vendors, if you are in need of refreshment.”

“Thanks. No.”

“Perhaps a guide for the statuary and memorials that adorn this, the most lovely of the recreation centers of Greater Cioran?”

Chewbacca lumbered up out of the flier’s too-small seats. It was probably only Han’s imagination that the vehicle floated a little higher afterward.

“We just want to explore it all for ourselves,” Han said, trying to sound like a tourist.

“The Jaino Personal Transport Collective thanks you for your business. We hope you’ll keep us in mind for all your travel needs,” the flier said, then pulled out of the slip and joined the line of hovering machines waiting to carry people away again. Han stepped to the park’s edge and looked down. The building was like a chalk cliff, pale and huge and windowless.

“Please step back from the edge, sir,” an automated voice said. “For your safety and comfort, viewing platforms are at the northwest and southwest corners of the park.”

Han gritted his teeth at the little service droid in something like a smile. “Why, thank you,” he said. “I’ll just go take a look.”

“Please enjoy your stay at the Staton Memorial Park and Recreation Area,” the droid said, cheerfully. It waited for Han to walk away first.

Chewbacca grunted amiably, stretching his massive arms.

“Yes, getting here did go very well,” Han said.

Chewbacca growled again, craning his neck and smiling under his fur.

“Makes me nervous, too. I don’t know. Maybe we caught a break.”

The park was beautiful. Trees lifted their boughs a uniform six meters above the colonnades, and half a meter more in the open field. Grass so green it hurt to look at grew up four centimeters from the gel mats that took the place of actual dirt. All the paths formed perfect right angles, and discreet service droids lurked politely in the shadows, waiting for a bird to make a mess so that they could swoop in and clean it away. The soft cool breeze smelled of nothing.

Han had dealt with enough spies and criminals to understand that how a person worked said a lot about who they were. The profile on Scarlet Hark didn’t have much character to it. Data and history, but nothing about who she was or how she operated. That she’d chosen the park for her dead drop told Han more about the woman than an intelligence profile could. The place was everything bad about the Empire. Every single element was regulated, controlled, built to specification, and then eliminated if it didn’t meet standards. She’d picked it, he figured, because she’d fit in here among the pinch-faced Imperials in gray uniforms. He tried to imagine how it would feel, living someplace like Cioran where everything was kept exactly in place, everyone was watched and monitored, and order was enforced with a false politeness that only barely stretched enough to mask the threat of violence. He’d been in prisons he liked better.

Han felt his jaw growing tight as he and Chewbacca made a slow, careful turn around the whole place. There were maybe two dozen people in the park. Four old men sitting at dejarik tables, playing with the grim focus of sappers trying to defuse a bomb. Two younger women sitting on a bench that overlooked the vast canyons of the city, not speaking to each other. Some men playing a complex game on the turf, their expressions angry and joyless.

“Not as much security as I’d expected,” Han said, once they’d made the first full turn through the place and come back to the paved court by the flier station. “So that’s good.”

Chewbacca moaned low.

“Of course they’re all looking at you. You’re a Wookiee.”

The reply was a bellow.

“They probably haven’t. I told you Saavin’s not the kind of place that attracts a lot of Wookiees. Did you see the memorial? I think it’s that black thing in the middle there.”

Chewbacca chuffed.

“Why don’t you let me take this part? You can go stand over there and … do something distracting. Sing, maybe.”

Chewbacca looked at him silently.

“As a distraction. If they’re all looking at you, they won’t be looking at me, and it’ll be easier to get the packet. This is basic stuff, Chewie.”

The Wookiee sighed and made a show of lumbering away. Han waited a few seconds, then headed back toward the great black structure in the center of the park, pausing a few times on the way to admire perfectly unadmirable flowers and planters.

The fountain stood as high as the trees, symmetrical laminar jets of water arcing from it like rods of bent glass. In the center, the black stone statue of a human man stood heroically, his right hand over his left breast in salute. Han looked around innocently. A thick-faced man was buying a bowl of chaka noodles from a bright yellow stand. An old woman sat on a bench at the statue’s left, looking disconsolately out into nothing, a service droid hovering at her side. Han ran his fingers over the memorial plaque, pretending to care what it said. CHIEF MOY STATON OF THE IMPERIAL RESOURCES COUNCIL IMPROVED EFFICIENCY OF SUBJECT SPECIES ASSIMILATION FOURFOLD AND WON SPECIAL MENTION BY THE EMPEROR and so on and so on. Han looked over his shoulder. Chewbacca stood about twenty meters away in a stand of manicured trees. Han nodded at him. Chewbacca didn’t move. Han nodded again, the motion a little larger, and Chewbacca’s voice lifted in a melodious howl, his wide, furry arms spread like an opera singer’s.

Han leaned forward, steadying himself on the plaque, and sank his arm into the cold water. Smooth stone with gummy sealant at the joints. He shifted left and then right. His fingers touched something out of place and hard, and he dug at the place where it was adhered to the stone. It popped away with a satisfying click.

The case was brown and about the size of his palm. Han slipped it into his pocket and strolled away to a bench while Chewbacca finished his performance, then applauded politely as the Wookiee stalked over, sat beside him, and growled.

“If that’s the worst thing that happens to you on this run, we’ll have gotten away with something. Now let’s see what we’re working with.”

Chewbacca grunted and whined.

“Yes, I’m opening it here. Look, if they noticed us, they’d follow us anyway. And if they didn’t, then we might as well.”

Now that it was dry, the cover of the case had a deep, almost iridescent sheen like an insect’s shell. Han ran his thumbnail around the edge until it caught against an invisibly thin seam. He twisted once, leaning into the motion, and the cover snapped open. A tiny pad glowed a soft but forbidding red. He carefully entered the passcode, and the pad chirped happily, shifted to green, and swung open. The small compartment behind it was empty. Chewbacca groaned accusingly.

“How could it possibly be my fault,” Han said as Chewbacca plucked the case from his hand. “I wasn’t there when she put it in the drop.”

Chewbacca tapped the case against the arm of the bench hard enough to make the metal chime, then peered into the space again.

“All right,” Han said. “There’s nothing here. So this is probably a trap, and we just took the bait. When they stop us, we stick to the story. We found the thing, we don’t know what it is, and they’re welcome to have it if they want it.”

Han looked around the park, trying to seem casual. No stormtroopers were flooding into it yet. He had to fight the urge to draw his pistol and sprint for the fliers. Chewbacca moaned.

“I wouldn’t believe us, either.”

“Solo.”

The voice was unexpected, calm, and friendly. Han twisted in the bench. The Mirialan walking across the grass toward them was broad and thick. His yellow-green skin was darker now than it had been when he was younger, and he had a few more tattoos on his chin and cheeks, but not many. He walked with a rolling gait that made him seem halfway to drunk, though as far as Han knew he never drank to excess.

“Baasen Ray? What are you doing here?”

“Waiting on you, apparently,” Baasen said. “Chewbacca. Good to see you again. Been too long.”

The Wookiee groaned and bayed. Baasen’s expression went pained.

“What’d he say?”

“He said you’re looking good,” Han said. “He was just being polite, though.”

“Sorry,” Baasen said, nodding to Chewbacca. “It’s my hearing. Got a hard enough time making out all the words even in my own language. So blast it, man, but it’s been a long time. Guess you really are working for the rebels, eh?”

“What makes you say that, friend?”

Baasen rolled his eyes. “That when Hark called to get pulled, you showed up at her drop. Doesn’t take a genius to add those two sums, does it? Truth is, I was more than half expecting you. Takes a madman or an idiot, flying rebel spies out of the Core, and … well, word gets about. Who’s working for who. Like that.”

“Really? I haven’t heard much about what you’ve been up to. Last I heard, you were running the slow loop out of Hoven.”

“Hard times. Hard times. Turns out I’m getting pulled by the same strings as you. Rebel Alliance. ’S why I’m here now. Watch the drop. Make contact. All of that.”

You’re the message at the drop?”

“Well now, the woman’s not an idiot. You didn’t really expect her to leave written instructions on how to track her just lying about in public, did you?”

Chewbacca pressed the case into Baasen’s broad hand with a chuffing groan.

“Sorry, what?”

“He said that we should get out of here, and I think he’s right. You have transport?”

“Transport’s what I do best,” Baasen said. “Follow on, then.”

Baasen trundled off to the north, not looking back to see whether they were coming. The men playing their game on the green ignored them as they passed. At the building’s edge, a gray transport floater hovered over the empty air, its docking ramp clinging to the pavement of the park. The same droid that had ordered Han back from the edge, or else one just like it, was squawking at a lifting droid and being magnificently ignored. As Baasen stepped onto the ramp, the park droid shifted its outrage to him with as little effect. Han and Chewbacca stepped around it as they passed, and the lifting droid turned to follow, hauling up the ramp after them.

“I have to tell you,” Han said. “After Caarsin Station, I’m a little surprised to see you.”

“Everyone’s got history,” Baasen said amiably. “Man still has to work, whatever’s in his past, eh?”

The interior of the transport was almost reassuringly musty and cobbled together. Three men squatted in the back. Two had the look of mercenaries; the last was thinner and more nervous about the eyes. They all wore blasters openly, and while they were cleaner than the average soldier of the Rebellion, they weren’t anywhere near as crisp as the usual citizen of Cioran. Baasen knocked twice on the door to the pilot’s cabin, and the transport swept out and down. Baasen, humming to himself, flicked a switch on the wall and tapped in a code on a keypad. Han nodded to the three men. They didn’t smile. Han’s belly went a degree tighter.

“Who’re your friends?” he asked Baasen, his eyes on the men.

“Hmm? Oh. Garet and Simm there are part of my crew. Have been since forever. Japet, on the end there? He’s a new friend. Just met him recent.”

The rumble in Chewbacca’s throat was a warning, but Han didn’t need it. He dropped his hand casually toward his holster, getting close to the blaster without going for it.

“Good to meet you,” he said with a disarming smile.

“Now, none of that,” Baasen said. A blaster had appeared in his hand, and Han hadn’t even seen him draw it. “We’ll need your weapons.”

Chewbacca bared his teeth with a bloodcurdling howl, but Baasen’s aim didn’t waver so much as a millimeter.

“You know how this is going to go,” Baasen said. “Shoot it out here and now, and you take a couple down with, but you’re still a dead man. Play nice, you maybe find a way out later.”

“It happened last time,” Han said.

“And maybe that’s part of what this is about. History and all that,” Baasen said with a grin. “So best you give us your weapons now, and no one dies for a time, eh?”

Chewbacca growled, looking from Han to Baasen and back again. Han weighed the chances. Baasen would die. And at least one of the others. Maybe two.

“Do as he says, Chewie,” Han said, raising his hands.

“Good man. Live to fight another day.”

“You used to be better than this, Baasen. Working for the Empire is low even for you.”

“Oh, that’s not me. Hand you over to them, and they’ll likely shoot me for my troubles. No. I got nothing against the Rebellion. It’s just the Hutt’s money’s too good, and times are hard.”

“Says something when Jabba is more trustworthy than the Empire.”

“Does, doesn’t it?” Baasen said as the hired gun he’d called Simm took Han’s blaster.

“What happened to Hark?”

“Nothing I know of. Imagine she’ll be disappointed that her ride never showed, but word is she’s a resourceful one. She’ll land on her feet.”

Chewbacca stared at Simm and bared his teeth in a silent promise of violence. The man swallowed, but he still took Chewie’s bowcaster and bandolier. The transport hit a patch of turbulent air, the car shifting a little and the drives whining to compensate. Simm handed the weapons to Garet and pulled two pairs of cuffs out of a blue plastoid toolbox.

“What about the message at the dead drop?” Han asked as the cold, heavy restraints clicked around his wrists, cycling tighter until the pressure was just on the edge of pain.

“Put it in the recycler, didn’t I?” Baasen said. “Likely it’s halfway to being paper for some sad Imperial toilet.”

“Then there was one? She did leave a message?” Han said. “Written instructions on how to find her just out in public after all?”

“Of course she did,” Baasen said. “It was that or trust the locals. Woman’s not an idiot.”

CHAPTER FOUR

THE WAREHOUSE WAS TUCKED OFF the flight hangar. Brushed-durasteel walls and impact-resistant ceramic crates were stacked as high as the ceiling in some places, dropped down and rearranged to serve as seats and tables in others. It was cold as a refrigerator, and the air was sharp with the stink of coolant and volatiles. Han sat on the floor. The wrist cuffs glowed blue, and the magnetic fields of the clamps made his joints ache. Chewbacca squatted a couple of meters to his left, scraping idly at one of the crates and ignoring Han, Baasen, and the two thugs entirely.

“Don’t,” Garet said, holding up his palm to Baasen. “I told you this before we left. I could stay and prep the ship, or I could go to the drop. You said come to the drop, so I did. Now I’m prepping the ship. Can’t do everything at once.”

“Hurry is all,” Baasen said, brushing the back of his hand across the tattoos on his chin.

“I’ve put in for clearance to go. Sunnim’s heating up the engines. We’ll get out when we get out,” Garet said. “You can try rushing the Empire if you want. I’ll wait here.”

Baasen shot a sour glance at Garet but didn’t say more. He seemed to have a pretty small crew: the three human toughs from the back of the transport and a brown-furred Bothan pilot with a face like a sad goat—Sunnim, apparently—who’d been driving it. Han twisted the cuffs. They didn’t even flex.

Garet walked away, the wide loading dock door hissing up to let him pass. Han caught a glimpse of the hangar. An ancient Sienar NM-600 squatted on the pad, the little freighter looking like a dirt clod against the shining backdrop of the dock. The pilot was standing beside it, speaking to a gray-clad Imperial functionary. Han wondered what would happen if he shouted for help. Nothing good. The loading dock door hissed down again. The other tough, Simm, yawned.

“Hoy, Chewbacca,” Baasen said. “Leave that crate be.”

Chewbacca looked up, answering with a complex howl.

“What’d he say?” Baasen asked.

“He thanked you for your kind suggestion,” Han said, not even pretending it was the truth. If Sunnim the Bothan was halfway competent, it wouldn’t take more than an hour to get the ship ready, even if it was dead cold. And once they were on that ship and out of the dock, Han didn’t have much hope that they’d ever make it back.

So whatever he was going to do, it had to be done in the next few minutes. He looked over at Chewbacca, who was running his claws over the crate’s hinge. If the Wookiee could pull the hinge bolt, he might—might—be able to short the magnetic coils in his cuffs. It wouldn’t unlock them, but it might reduce the fields to the point that Chewbacca could bend them open by brute strength.