"Your guest has arrived, sir."
"Thank you," Xandu Zuhel replied. "Please send him in." The Falleen was sitting in his favorite booth at The Rim, a posh restaurant near the Imperial Palace on Coruscant. Everything, from the dim lighting to the plush and private booths to the inconspicuously armed and well-dressed bodyguards hovering at the door, boasted the subtle but unmistakable power that characterized the rich and powerful of the galaxy’s capital. Xandu happened to be a personal friend of the owner, so he frequented The Rim. Because he had the booth's privacy field on, the maitre'd had spoken through the small speaker set in the control panel on the wall behind him.
Xandu stirred his drink as he waited, reflecting on the events that had led him there. A check of his messages that morning had revealed one message with an unknown origin. For normal people that may not be unusual, but every message he received was backtracked to its original source by his filters. In his line of work it was not only prudent, it was a necessity, and although he wasn’t a professional slicer, there still weren't many people who could elude his backtracking algorithms. The request was simple on the surface - the sender just wanted to join him for dinner at his table at The Rim. Underneath, however, it was much more troubling. Not only was the sender someone who could elude his filters, it was also someone who knew he already had dinner reservations at The Rim that night. There were even fewer people who could gather that knowledge about him, and that probably meant trouble. He was always ready for trouble, but it didn't pay to walk into it blindly. But, he was between jobs, and meeting the unknown sender here in his preferred surroundings helped to decrease his disadvantage into something he could live with. Besides, he was intrigued – one did not become a successful hunt saboteur without having a slight itch for danger and mystery.
The small indicator light on the control panel next to the speaker came on, requesting entrance into the booth. Xandu dropped one hand under the table as he triggered the privacy field’s deactivation switch with the other. He was greeted with a bow by the maitre'd, who quickly straightened and stepped back to allow a human female access to the booth. As she sat down across from Xandu, the maitre’d departed without a word. There were many reasons The Rim had its high reputation, and the best service in the galaxy was one of them. The Falleen reactivated the privacy field and examined the woman. Being a Falleen, he naturally preferred Falleen women, though he had had relations with other species from time to time. Most "proper" Falleen would consider such actions as repugnant, but Xandu was not most Falleen, and enjoyed the occasional exotic relationship. He’d never found human females to be particularly good for anything but the occasional fling, but they were acceptable for that, especially if they were as attractive as this one. Besides, there were not many Falleen women traveling about the galaxy, so he often had to settle for less than his preference.
This woman was perhaps 30 standard years old, less than half his age, even though he was not at all old for a Falleen. Long dark hair cascaded over her shoulders, framing a pale but attractive face. Though she was dressed in a drab and heavy cloak, Xandu could see that her figure was appropriately curved and well apportioned. Green eyes steadily evaluated him, aware of her infringement but confident in her own purpose. Even more alluring than her physical characteristics, however, she had an air of quiet confidence about her.
Right between those eyes, and visible only to him, was a small blue dot.
The hand he held below the table grasped his blaster with practiced ease, pointing up through the bottom of the table. Mounted just below the end of his blaster's barrel was a custom-designed sight that projected a beam visible only to the custom-built visual filters resting on his irises in the form of contact lenses. The sight also allowed the filters to calculate approximately where the barrel was pointing, giving Xandu the ability to target his blaster through solid objects if the need arose.
It was one of many custom-designed tools he'd come to rely on in his business dealings. Xandu considered himself to be a good fighter, a good shooter, and a good pilot. The one thing in which he was exceptional was engineering, and that's where he distanced himself from the competition and secured his living. Design was his passion, and he had never met a problem he couldn't solve. He knew a couple of assassins that would pay top dollar for this particular creation if he ever decided to retire from this business and become an inventor.
Sensing no immediate danger from the human woman, he discreetly eased his blaster back into the holster on his hip.
He decided to see how easily she could be rattled.
"I didn't expect a woman."
Her face betrayed no reaction. "Your mistake."
Apparently not that easily, he thought. "Would you care to order a drink?"
"Thank you. I'll have what you're having," she replied smoothly.
Xandu relayed the order using the control panel's speaker, then turned back to the woman.
"By intruding on me like this, I assume you have some very important business to conduct with me,” he stated. “Why do you think you need a hunt saboteur?"
Instead of answering, she pulled out a datapad and began reading information from its screen. "Xandu Zuhel, age 68, born on Falleen to parents Xand and Maziel Zuhel. Educated in Advanced Theoretical Engineering at Fal City University, graduated with top honors. Began a career at Lakeside Electronics, was promoted after just six months, then..." she trailed off and her eyes met his stare, which he had allowed to become increasingly colder during her recitation.
"I disappeared," he finished for her. "If you have a point, I'd suggest you make it quickly. I'm not one to be trifled with."
"I know," she said as she put the datapad away. "I'm not either. I just wanted to be sure you knew that." The Falleen nodded once, grudgingly. "I need immediate transport from here to a destination I will supply you once we get out of the Coruscant system."
The control panel light came on again, and the waiter delivered the woman's drink. After the privacy field was reactivated, Xandu asked, "Any cargo or personnel?"
Interesting, thought Xandu. He hadn't heard of any bounties being posted on anyone remotely resembling her description. The fact that this woman was only transporting herself meant she either had something on her person, or knew some very valuable information. The fact that she was able to track him down and knew as much as she did about him meant she also had connections. Connections usually meant trouble, which meant his prices went up. He considered for a moment. "No. I need to know the destination before we leave."
She had apparently expected this since she slid a datacard across the table. "Very well. I need to get to this location, unharmed, and fast. No questions asked."
Xandu plugged the card into his own datapad, looked briefly at the coordinates, then pocketed the device. He swirled the dark liquid in his glass as he did some quick mental calculations. It irritated him that she still had the upper hand. He knew only what she wanted him to know, and he hated it when that happened. It was unbecoming of a Falleen to be at a disadvantage to a lesser race. "Who will be looking for you?"
"I thought I said no questions."
"No questions about why you're running. Who you're running from is critical for me to know how to protect you. And how much to charge."
She thought for a moment. "The Empire might be interested in getting their hands on me, among others."
"Will they attempt to capture you, or just kill you outright?"
"I would assume they'd like me alive, but I don't harbor any illusions about the value they place on my life," she replied, still calm.
Excellent, Xandu thought. She may have connections, but she's inexperienced - although it might help to have some idea who would be looking for her, it isn’t that critical. He was primarily just fishing for information, and the woman gave it up easily. The fact that she was arranging transport away from Imperial Center on such short notice meant that she had likely done something very illegal. He took a sip of his drink and took his time before answering, just to make her squirm.
"My services do not come cheap, especially on such short notice, but if you were able to track me down I expect you know that already. One million; half up front, half upon delivery."
Finally, her facade cracked ever so slightly. Her face paled just noticeably, and she swallowed hard.
"That's a lot of money for a glorified courier service."
The Falleen didn't find that comment amusing. "Don't play games, little girl," he said coldly. "If you truly thought you'd be safe with a courier, you wouldn't have gone to the considerable trouble and danger of contacting me." He let a frown harden his face to match his veiled threat and leaned forward over the table. "The question you need to ask yourself is this: how important is your life? Are you worth one million?"
Her eyes dropped to study her drink. Xandu stared hard at her, gratified to see her composure fading. He didn't appreciate someone intruding on his time and then insulting him by calling him a glorified courier. If she wanted to take her chances with someone else, fine. If she wanted the best, she had to pay for it.
Finally, she looked up. "Two-fifty up front, another full million on arrival."
Hmm, she didn't like being referred to as a package for delivery, Xandu thought. Something to remember.
"Done." He picked up his drink and held it out. Looking somewhat relieved, the woman clinked her glass against his and they both drank. "One hour from now, meet me out front. Have the down payment on an unmarked credit chip. I'll take care of the rest.”
The woman accepted his dismissal with a nod and stood to leave as Xandu deactivated the privacy field.
“Your standard contract covers all expenses, right?” she asked. At his nod, she stepped away from the booth and said, “Thanks for the drink.”
“I’m not on contract until I’ve received a down payment,” Xandu countered, calmly swirling the liquid in his glass. She turned back, her annoyed stare evident.
With a snort of disgust, the woman dug a credit chip out of her pocket and threw it on the table. “One hour. Don’t be late.”
“I’m never late,” Xandu shot back as he keyed the privacy field back on, ending the conversation.
The Falleen hunt saboteur leaned back in his seat, irritated that he’d let himself be baited into such an exchange by this human female. It was below his station, and below his species. He vowed never to let it happen again – he was Falleen, which meant cold and controlled.
A waiter surreptitiously delivered Xandu’s food. Even before the waiter left, the hunt saboteur's mind was assimilating the details of this new job. It seemed clear the woman was a criminal about to be discovered, but what little he knew of her was too sparse to indicate any accurate conclusions about her, her means, or her motivation. It was time to change that. He’d agreed not to ask questions of her, but that didn’t mean he would remain willfully ignorant. Xandu reached across the table to scrape the claw of his middle finger down the side of the woman’s glass. The enhanced sensor embedded in the underside of the claw blinked once, signaling that it had enough genetic material to recognize a match when linked with a database. He scanned the surface of the glass with the optical input of the sensor, recording the faint fingerprints, and received another blink. This would be a big indicator in whether his new client was an Alliance spy or some sort of business defector. A professional spy would go to great measures to either hide her identifying marks or doctor the records those marks led to, whereas a business defector wouldn't likely have the first clue how to do either. He plugged his claw into a special uplink port on the wrist comm on his left arm, then opened a channel to his ship's computer.
"What's this, Captain?” came a playful alto voice. “Been mixing business with pleasure?”
Rolling his eyes, he replied, "Calm down, See-nine, it’s purely business. She’s a new client."
"You know, some people think business is overrated," C9 burbled cheerfully. “You could take some time off you know, enjoy the sights, meet some people, have a good time. Wouldn’t hurt you at all.”
He sighed. Why do I put up with this? It wouldn't seriously dent his petty cash to purchase a new computer brain for his ship. True, the Seinar Systems A42-C9 was the top of the line in droid intelligence when it came to navigational skills and automated gunnery, but it had an irritating tendency to exhibit excessive personality. If I were any less Falleen and let my emotions control me, I probably would have replaced it by now. Ah, well, time for modifications later; now it was time for business. "I need you to run an ID check on these fingerprints, then cross-check it with the genetic sampling to make sure they match. Subject is a human female, our new client. She's been very mysterious so far, and I need to know more about her."
"Okay, but I still think you should take some time off. You work too hard."
Instead of bothering to reply, he cut off the channel. C9 could be a bit effusive and overprotective sometimes, but she was like his other half when it came to flying the ship. I suppose it's worth putting up with some personality foibles to get that kind of partnership where it really counts. Besides, he'd recently updated her code to include a slicing subroutine, and was curious to find out how good it was. This client provided the perfect opportunity to find out. He ordered dessert and settled in to await C9’s analysis. The desserts at The Rim were so good they were worth killing a few people for. He would have refused to leave with his client until he had had time to finish dessert. A million credits? Two million? Forget it, he was finishing dessert first.
When Xandu found out more about this woman, he would also know more about what he'd be facing in trying to protect her. Although he'd called himself a "hunt saboteur," and although that's what the job title was typically called, he was far from typical. Most hunt saboteurs relied on big guns, explosions, and chaos to create confusion, but he considered their methods crude and uncivilized. Xandu much preferred a calculated and logical plan to deliver his merchandise from origin to destination as efficiently as possible. He used his intelligence more than weapons to shield his merchandise from harm. This particular client had given him less warning than he preferred, but sometimes one had to deal with less than ideal circumstances. Besides, he'd evaded the Imperial Fleet numerous times before, and their tactics never changed, so he wasn't worried about them. No, it was the bounty hunters that caused the biggest problems.
In his experience, there were two kinds of bounty hunters. The first kind was given to wanton violence, and went for shock value whenever possible, thinking success was found in big explosions and all-out carnage. They were dangerous and tended to be the more well-known and visible bounty hunters, but they were easy enough to predict and counter. Most of them didn't even acknowledge the existence of hunt saboteurs, and certainly didn't consider them worthy opponents. The other kind of bounty hunter, most notable among them Boba Fett, were thinkers. They strategized and planned for the counters to their strategies, and even for the counters to their counters. They were ruthless in their use of force, but they only used as much force as necessary, and they were not likely to draw undue attention to themselves. This second kind of bounty hunter was far more dangerous, and likely to cause hunt saboteurs like Xandu trouble. He'd found the best way to neutralize the threat from the thinker bounty hunters was to avoid them entirely. When that wasn't possible, it became more of a dejarik match than a battle, and the winner was the one who planned farthest ahead. That's what happened with the only merchandise he'd ever lost - he was out-planned by Boba Fett. It was a painful but valuable lesson, in more ways than one.
Xandu's thoughts were interrupting by a quiet beep from his wrist-comm. He opened the channel. "Yes?"
"Hey there, Cap," C9 purred. "I found your new girl, and it looks like she's been bad."
"Send me the summary file," he said, ignoring her implication.
"Thank you. Start pre-flight checks and get ready for take-off. I'm meeting her soon, and we'll leave immediately when we get back to the ship."
"Anything you say, Cap."
Xandu stifled another sigh as he closed the channel, then opened the file on his comm's miniature screen. Very interesting. It looks like the money I paid for the slicer program was well spent. He read the text of C9’s summary:
Name: Chessa Partak
Birth world: Coruscant
Eye color: unknown
Hair color: unknown
Notes: the only daughter of Marko Partak (engineer) and Viva Partak (restaurant owner) /
obtained acting degree at Coruscant Liberal Arts Academy / played lead role in
“To Rebel or Not to Rebel”, prompting official scrutiny and a storm of publicity / died with parents in speeder accident two years ago / some claimed the Empire was responsible because of her political stance, but no proof ever surfaced
The file photo attached to the summary closely matched the woman who had sat across from him. For someone to assume the identity of a dead Rebel sympathizer in the heart of the Empire was suicidal, so he logically deduced that this was, in fact, Chessa Partak. She had apparently faked her own death and defected to the Rebellion with her parents.
Xandu mulled over the scenario. Although the ever-growing Alliance rarely paid premium prices for anything, they certainly had the resources to purchase his services if it was important enough to them. The Empire would want to capture any possible spy, especially one operating so close to the Imperial Palace; doubly so if she truly held information that was worth paying over a million credits to secret off the planet, so her story fit with this new information. He also knew from previous experience that Rebel agents typically bristled at any denigration of life, and his referral to her as a “package” certainly bothered her. Ms. Partak’s sympathies didn't really matter to him one way or another, though. Like most operators in his line of business, Xandu was not hung up on principles or ideals. A client was a client, and neither their background nor their intentions mattered. All that mattered was their money. He never got emotionally involved with his merchandise, for any reason. Business was business.
At the bottom line of his business was money. He wasn't nearly as rich as most of the Falleen nobility, and certainly not the galaxy’s most famous Fallen, the late Price Xizor, but he didn't lack for anything he wanted. He frequented places like The Rim, and his equipment was second to none, much of it custom built.
Xandu deactivated the privacy field of his booth and slid off the bench. He tossed a high-denomination credit chip on the table next to Ms. Partak’s, enough to cover his meal and a very generous tip, then headed toward the exit. It was time to do some business.
Stepping through the door being held open for him by a Rim bellhop, Xandu luxuriated in the warm humid air of the Coruscant evening. As he looked around for his merchandise, he shrugged off his black leather jacket, letting his bare arms soak in the moisture. Xandu’s jet-black topknot gently brushed an otherwise bare skull on the way down to the small of his back. He was often mistaken by non-Falleen for Prince Xizor, and although he usually accepted the benefits of such mistakes, he was very careful never to encourage the deception. Impersonating one of the most powerful and violent beings in the galaxy was not a good idea, even though he was now dead - Xizor had left a large organization behind, and Xandu suspected they were quite angry about the death of their leader. As good a hunt saboteur as he was, even he couldn't evade a determined and sustained effort by Black Sun to bring him in or kill him; he certainly couldn't do business during such an effort. The slight breeze warmly caressed his face, flicking his topknot back and forth across his broad shoulders.
Xandu was a few minutes early, but Chessa Partak immediately emerged out of the shadows across the street and hurried toward him wearing the same dark cloak, this time with the hood pulled tight about her face. She held out a credit chip. Wordlessly, the Falleen took it and slid it through the slot on his wrist-comm unit, verifying the amount on it. Pocketing the chip, he nodded.
"Now we have a contract,” he said, motioning for the bellhop, a young human male, to bring a speeder around.
"You know, if you're looking to keep a low profile, wearing that heavy cloak in this weather isn't helping," Xandu observed casually. Chessa tossed her hood back and glared at him. He only shrugged and looked away, unconcerned. A few seconds later a stretch speeder rounded the corner and pulled to a smooth stop in front of them. The Rim was close enough to the Senate district that air traffic was restricted, so the only way to or from The Rim was by walking or by restaurant-provided speeders. The bellhop opened the door for them, and they climbed into the rear seat. It was, of course, a luxury speeder with wide, soft seats and a transparent privacy divider between the passenger cabin and the driver's cockpit. As the speeder pulled away from The Rim, Xandu gave the driver the location of his ship, noticing with some surprise that he appeared to be quite young.
The hunt saboteur was curious about a few details - was Ms. Partak really with the Alliance? If so, why did she have to resort to using him as her getaway vehicle? What was she carrying that was so valuable to her? She'd specified no questions, but she was also inexperienced, so he thought he'd try to rattle her into giving something away. He'd start with shattering her illusion of anonymity.
"So, Chessa Partak, what happened to the rest of your Alliance cell?"
Chessa stiffened and stared at him as if he'd just spewed blaster bolts out of his nose. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out, and her whitened knuckles clutched the door of the speeder.
"Relax, I'm not going to turn you in," he assured her. "We have a business arrangement, and I always honor business arrangements." Xandu looked out his window, watching the darkening Coruscant night flow past. He needed to show her that he could not be fooled, but also that he could be trusted. It was a difficult balance to achieve, but he'd been playing this game a long time. "I'm merely curious."
Finally, she found her voice. "The Empire killed them all." She looked down at her lap. "I'm the last."
Xandu nodded. Time to play another hunch. "Because of the information you're carrying?"
Her eyes were again riveted on him, even though he continued looking out the window. He wondered idly if she would try to open the door of the speeder and leap out, even though they were moving quite fast and several meters above the street. That was fine with him - it would be the easiest quarter million credits he'd ever made. "How did you know?" she asked instead.
Xandu finally looked at her, smiling sympathetically. "You're new to the spy game, aren't you?"
"I’m a slicer," she admitted. "I've never done front line work before."
"In that case, you've done quite well. Don't feel bad," he tried to assure her. "I've been doing this longer than you’ve been alive, and it's my job to pick up little details and accurately decipher their meaning. Just relax - if anyone can get you out of here, it's me. You know I'm as good as it gets, or you wouldn't have come to me."
She seemed to relax a little bit.
Xandu looked out the window on the other side of the speeder, then out the rear window, taking in the flow of traffic around them. "Are you hot?"
"Look, if the cloak is bothering you that much, I'll just take it off!" she began peeling off her cloak.
"That's not what I meant. Could the Empire know about you already?"
She froze, her face suddenly pale. "Yes." She swallowed hard. "Why?"
"Because we're being followed," he replied calmly. He glanced up at the small nameplate next to the driver as he triggered the intercom button. "Tepper? Kick the throttle up - I believe our trip is about to get a little rough." The Rim had, aside from its outstanding menu, other reasons for being a favorite restaurant of the rich and powerful of Coruscant. Since the restaurant's speeders were the only available transportation to and from the restaurant, their drivers were trained in high-speed maneuvers in the event that an assassin tried to take out a politician or powerful businessman en route. The Rim's reputation and service included keeping you safe while transporting you to and from their premises. Xandu fervently hoped Tepper would live up to that reputation.
"Yes, sir," came the brief but professional reply.
The speeder leaped forward and began to weave over, under, and around other vehicles in a mad dance of speed. Xandu was mildly impressed - not bad for a human. Now he could concentrate on their pursuit.
"Buckle in and stay low," he told Chessa, and she complied wordlessly. Good - maybe she wasn't as inexperienced as he thought. Their chances of survival increased dramatically if she did exactly what he told her without questions or hesitation. Scanning the traffic out the rear and side windows, he'd seen at least two suspicious hovercars staying consistently within eyesight, both with windows tinted dark enough to be opaque. As Tepper accelerated, the hovercars abandoned all pretense of subtlety and came roaring after them, rapidly approaching blaster range. Xandu opened a comm channel to his ship.
"See-nine! Warm up the ship, we're inbound and very hot!"
"Ready and waiting, Cap’!" came the response.
"Tepper? You wouldn't have any weapons on this crate, would you?"
"Nothing we can use in this traffic, sir," Tepper said tersely. “The speeder’s armored, though, and I can give you this.” He flipped a switch and small access panels opened below the center of each window all the way around the speeder. A roar filled the cabin as air whipped through openings perfectly sized for a blaster muzzle. Xandu grinned a predatory grin. "That will be more than sufficient, thank you."
Xandu whipped his blaster from its holster and snugged the muzzle into the access panel under the rear window. The one drawback to this arrangement was that the passengers of this stretch speeder couldn't directly line up their sights on the target. Fortunately, he didn't need to. A small blue dot – visible only to him – danced across the surface of the nearest hovercar as both vehicles wove through traffic.
The hovercar opened fire first, spitting red blaster shots all around them. Xandu's sight finally painted a steady shot on the front viewport of the pursuit vehicle, and he triggered a quick double burst. The hovercar’s viewport was angled enough that if the driver had tipped the vehicle back, the bolts probably would have ricocheted off it. Fortunately for Xandu, the driver tried to duck underneath the bolts, allowing them to strike with maximized force at a perpendicular angle. The first shot slammed into the window, shattering it and sending shards of transparisteel inward in a blinding hail of mini-daggers. The second shot punched through to slam into the driver's right shoulder. It blew his arm off, the impact twisting the driver halfway around. His other hand was still on the pilot's yoke when he twisted, jerking the hovercar suddenly to the side. It spun out of control and smashed into the side of a nearby building.
The second hovercar had been lingering high and off to one side, but it now swooped down past the rear of the stretch speeder, spraying blaster bolts across the sleek vehicle. Some missed, but most connected. The armored panels of the stretch speeder repelled the blaster bolts, sending them careening crazily away without doing any serious damage. Xandu triggered a few return shots through the access panel, but none connected - the second hovercar was much more careful to maintain evasive maneuvers. Without warning or discernible reason, it pulled up and dropped back. Xandu's eyes narrowed involuntarily as he tried to decipher what their unexpected move meant. He had no doubt that they weren't giving up yet. Abruptly, the hovercar shot forward, speeding straight toward them.
"Tepper! We're about to have trouble!" he called to the driver.
"What kind of trouble, sir?"
"I don't know, but I'd suggest you speed up!"
"Yes, sir." Tepper stopped weaving through traffic and straightened out, allowing the large stretch speeder to accelerate its considerable bulk in a single vector. Still, the hovercar gained. Xandu sent a flurry of bolts toward it but only one connected, taking off a small chunk of the front bumper. His shots kept the hovercar’s occupants from getting off more than a few token return shots, though, which bought them time and distance.
"We're almost to your ship, sir!" Tepper's voice sounded from the speaker.
"Excellent. Forgive me for not tipping you immediately, but rest assured you will be well compensated once I get away from here!"
"I understand, sir."
Again Xandu was a bit surprised to find such professional behavior in a human, especially one so young. The stretch speeder abruptly decelerated and dropped, throwing Chessa hard against her seat restraints and pitching Xandu forward to slam onto the thickly carpeted floor. The pursuit hovercar took advantage of the momentary lull in Xandu's return fire to swoop up alongside them. Xandu scrambled to find the nearest access panel on that side of the speeder, but he saw the muzzle of a large-bore weapon thrust out the window of the hovercar and knew he was too late. "Down!" he yelled, and dropped below the window. Chessa slouched in her seat, getting as low as possible. A fraction of a second later, they heard a heavy ripping sound and felt the thunder of physical impacts slamming into the armored side of the speeder - their attackers must have realized their blasters were ineffective, so they were using slug-throwers instead. Almost simultaneously, the transparisteel windows on both sides of the speeder burst; the windows directly above Xandu showered the compartment with jagged-edged rain, and the windows on the other side of the speeder burst out away from the speeder. Xandu reached up and thrust his blaster through the open window frame, firing blindly as fast as he could, hoping his hand wouldn’t be blown off by a stray slug. He heard two shots miss, then a string of hits. An explosion rocked the stretch speeder, and a heat wave rolled across them through the open windows as shrapnel clanked off the side. The floor of the speeder suddenly dropped out from under him, but he was almost immediately jarred by an enormous impact that brought the floor back up rather quickly and painfully. A sudden silence descended, broken only by the rapidly descending hum of the stretch speeder's dying repulsorlift engines.
"Sir? Are you all right?" came Tepper's strained voice.
Quickly, Xandu assessed himself. He had some bruises and cuts, but nothing serious. He looked at Chessa, who unbuckled herself and gingerly touched her lower back. She grimaced, but nodded to his unspoken question.
"We're fine, Tepper. What's our status?"
"You blasted the engine compartment of the hovercar and it exploded. We caught some shrapnel which killed our repulsorlifts, but we were only a few meters off the landing pad, so we made it okay. Sir."
Xandu pushed himself off the floor and looked out the window to see his shiny silver ship, the Brilliance, just a few meters away, the boarding ramp extended invitingly. The door of the speeder had been jammed shut by the slugs' impacts, so he slid out through the open window frame. Turning, he helped Chessa out while keeping an eye on the sky for other potential attackers. Fortunately, he didn't see anything suspicious. Tepper had managed to extract himself from the driver's cockpit, and together they surveyed the damaged speeder. It was truly a mess, and would never fly again, but Xandu saw that the young human was doing his best to hide a wide smile.
"Tepper? Are you all right?"
"Yes, sir! That was the most fun I've ever had!” Looking slightly ashamed, he added, “Sir."
Xandu nodded once. "As I said before, we have to be going now, but I'll be sure you're well compensated for a job well done." Even though Tepper was human, he had proved himself, and Xandu was one who always paid well for services rendered.
"Thank you, sir!"
Xandu turned to Chessa and extended a hand toward his ship. "Let's be going, yes?"
"Yes, let's," she replied.
The boarding ramp of the Brilliance angled up into the rear of the ship, opening into a circular passageway that wrapped around toward the front of the ship in either direction. The outer side of the corridor was lined with passenger quarters, storage rooms, and maintenance accesses. As Chessa followed Xandu forward, she admired the ship. "Very nice! Custom build?"
"Manufactured by Kuat Drive Yards, but the Brilliance’s design is my own," Xandu answered, more than a hint of pride coloring his words. "Once we get off-planet, I'll show you to your quarters. For now, come with me." He normally didn't let his clients ride in the cockpit with him in a hot zone, but he knew that bored slicers tended to ply their trade on the nearest computer they could find. Given how Chessa had bypassed his message filters, he needed some time to ensure she couldn't get to anything she shouldn't see, which meant keeping an eye on her. The cockpit hatch slid open silently, and they walked up the ramp into the cockpit bubble. Xandu pointed to a plush chair set to one side. "Have a seat, and buckle in."
Chessa complied, looking around her with wide eyes. The cockpit was located on the top and front of the ship, so it provided a partial but still impressive view. Resting on a quartet of retractable pads, the Brilliance was very sleek. It was roughly ovoid, with two forward-reaching arms sweeping down on either side of the cockpit bubble. A pair of rotating weapons emplacements rested just below the cockpit and filled the space between the forward arms. Short, stubby wings bristling with over-and-under pod-mounted pairs of laser cannon sprouted on either side of the rounded fuselage. The cross-section of the ship was the largest part, and the rounded fuselage tapered toward the back into a quartet of engines that were small but undoubtedly powerful. Chessa could see in every direction except directly behind, where the cockpit merged into the body of the ship; otherwise, the body of the ship sloped down and away from the cockpit, so there was even a decent angle of the ground. She could see Tepper on the landing platform, still speaking into his comm.
Xandu buckled himself into the pilot's chair and glanced over the monitors. "See-nine - status?"
"All systems green, Captain. We have clearance for take-off."
Xandu raised an eyebrow. C9 wasn't usually that formal - was she jealous? Shaking his head, he focused on the task at hand. He sent power to the repulsorlifts and the ship soared away from the landing platform, climbing through the Coruscant night.
"See-nine, scan all official channels for chatter that might relate to us."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Xandu busied himself with a quick check on all ship's systems as the Brilliance ascended quickly through the various levels of traffic. In a few minutes, they would be out of Coruscant's atmosphere and free to go to hyperspace. He slid the datacard Chessa had given him containing their destination coordinates into a slot. “See-nine, plot us a course to these coordinates. Give us two stops in highly populated systems.”
“Aye, aye,” C9 replied.
“Why two stops?” Chessa demanded. “I need to get there as soon as possible.”
"We’re hiding in plain sight," Xandu explained. "By splitting our trip into three different legs, all on major hyperspace lanes, and with crossover points in busy systems, we’re hiding in plain sight. Even if we are spotted, we ought to be able to lose any pursuit in the heavy traffic.” The console beeped, and he glanced at it. “The first stop is Corellia, then Yag'Duhl, then it's a straight shot to your rendezvous point off Malastare."
“Won’t it take a lot longer to do it like that?”
“A few hours, perhaps,” Xandu conceded. “If you don’t mind broadcasting your rendezvous point to the entire Coruscant system, we can certainly make it in a single jump.”
Chessa chewed her lip for a moment. “No, the rendezvous point must be kept secret,” she reluctantly decided.
Xandu opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by C9. "Just picked up a detain order for us on the naval band, Captain. Someone must have eyeballed us as we left."
Xandu thought for a moment. Even for the Empire, that was extremely fast response time to connect him with his client. It was more likely that they were simply querying all ships attempting to leave the planet. Either way, it meant he had to get past them without letting them board. He glanced across his scopes, and saw two Victory-class Star Destroyers closing in from opposite directions.
Xandu looked at the scopes again, mentally calculating. "Yes. Standby foil system," Xandu said.
"Foils primed and ready," C9 reported.
"Good," Xandu nodded to himself and sat back in his seat, more relaxed. "Fire up the nav computer," he ordered. "Get ready for the first leg of our trip."
"Ready," came the reply a moment later.
“That was fast,” Chessa commented, impressed.
Things were humming along smoothly and the Star Destroyers were still a couple minutes out of range, so Xandu half turned from the controls to answer. "Nothing but the best on my ship," he said. “I also have a fully functional backup nav computer that can assist with the primary’s calculations.”
“Handy,” Chessa nodded. “Complex, but handy.”
"You'll find that very little about this ship is simple," Xandu said. He turned back to the controls as one of his scopes beeped. "Stay quiet, we're about to have company. See-nine, standby all weapons and get ready to bluff."
"Ready and waiting," came the cheerful reply.
They flew for a moment in terse silence, then a voice crackled over the comm. "Star yacht Brilliance, this is the Star Destroyer Hammer. You are ordered to power down all systems and prepare for boarding."
C9's smooth alto voice patched into the external comm. "Star Destroyer Hammer, this is shipboard intelligence Seinar Systems A42-C9. I request you withdraw your boarding order as my only occupants are newlyweds and are currently indisposed." Chessa's cheeks reddened and she looked down, but Xandu pretended not to notice. Although it was as good a bluff as any, he was sure C9 had used the provocative scenario intentionally. He vowed to have a strong talk with her as soon as time permitted. It was one thing to hassle him, but quite another to embarrass clients.
"Negative, Brilliance, your request is denied,” came the curt response. “Get your pilot on the comm, droid.” The Imperial made it sound like a curse.
“I have strict orders to allow no disturbances to my pilot and his bride,” C9 protested. “I am unable to violate those orders, so please allow us passage.”
“Power down all systems and prepare to be boarded," growled the Imperial. “Tell your pilot his honeymoon is over.” The comm clicked, signaling an end to the conversation.
"Sorry, captain. They didn't buy it," C9 said on the internal channel.
"They usually don't," Xandu leaned over the controls again and began making course adjustments. "Nice try, anyway. Let's see how bored they are." He deactivated the repulsorlifts and the Brilliance slowed. "Maybe one of them will lose interest and go away. It would help our odds a bit." They could see the two Star Destroyers out the viewport now, two huge triangles dully reflecting the light of the planet below them. Neither changed course.
"They must be very bored," Chessa commented dryly.
"Yes, they must," Xandu agreed. "But, again, it was worth a try. Brace yourself, now comes the exciting part." He increased power to the quad drives, and the Brilliance leaped forward, making for the midpoint between the Star Destroyers' paths. The comm crackled again.
"Starship Brilliance, under the authority of the Imperial Navy, you are hereby placed under detention order for failure to comply with our boarding order. Stand down, or we will force you to do so."
Xandu chuckled and hit the comm. "Star Destroyer Hammer, I believe you misunderstood my computer when she told you that I did not wish to be disturbed. I will be leaving the system, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. I'll understand if you feel the need to call off your capture attempt now so as not to waste your time."
The only answer was an acceleration of both Star Destroyers toward the interception point. It was clear they would easily close the gap before the Brilliance could make it through.
"What are you doing?" Chessa demanded. "Are you crazy? Angering the Empire isn't usually the best policy for survival!"
"On the contrary," Xandu corrected. "it is. Species who allow themselves to be controlled by their emotions have a tendency to stop thinking when they get angry. It's much easier to defeat someone who is angry than someone who is calm. Besides, it really doesn't matter - we're as good as gone now. Watch."
The two massive ships had now drawn in front of them, one above and one below, with only a slight gap in between. Xandu directed the Brilliance straight toward that gap. Suddenly, the ship shuddered around them and the engines began to protest the sudden deceleration being forced on them by a tractor beam.
"Activate foils," Xandu ordered calmly. Chessa heard what sounded like a thousand simultaneous clicks all around her, and looked out through the cockpit bubble to see cracks materialize across the entire hull. The cracks widened and split as the hull segmented into all different widths and heights, each segment pinwheeling at a different rate in a dizzying kaleidoscope of motion.
Xandu threw full power to the engines, and the ship lurched forward again, suddenly free of the tractor beam. The Brilliance neatly bisected the gap between the Star Destroyers and shot into open space. Out of the corner of his eye, Xandu watched confusion play across Chessa's face as the distance between them and the Imperial ships rapidly increased. Green turbolaser blasts began lancing out at them.
“Five more seconds, Cap,” the computer’s smooth voice replied. A slight pause, then, “Out of tractor beam range.”
Xandu slapped a cutoff switch, and the dizzying hull segments rapidly slowed, then locked back into place, leaving the gleaming silver hull as smooth as transparisteel.
"And now we leave,” Xandu announced. Reaching out across the controls, he threw the hyperdrive levers. Stars stretched into lines, then elongated blurs before the space outside the cockpit exploded into the swirling maelstrom of hyperspace. Another switch turned the cockpit bubble opaque, a silver color to match the rest of the exterior, abruptly cutting off the light from outside. He leaned back in the pilot's chair. “There, we’re safe now.”
Chessa exhaled. With an effort, she released her grip on the arms of her chair. “That was a pretty nice trick with the tractor beam. I’ve heard of reflective alloys that help fool tractor beam locking sensors, but I’ve never seen anything like that before. Another design of yours?”
"Yes, and one that took quite a while to work out," Xandu replied. "And, unless they had their high-res visual sensors trained on us, which is not standard procedure in these circumstances, they have no idea why their tractor lock failed. They'll probably assume it was operator error."
"Very handy," Chessa commented. "I'm guessing that when it's not fooling tractor beams it also provides an extra layer of armor in the event of your shields going out, right?" She shook her head in appreciation. "One elegant solution for two major problems."
Xandu smiled. "You're beginning to understand me now. I may be a hunt saboteur by profession, but I'm an engineer at heart. But getting past the Imperials was the easy part. Once the bounty on you gets out, things will get much more interesting."
"How long do you think that will take?"
"Not long," Xandu admitted. “But don’t worry, if we can get through our coordinate change points before word of your bounty and my company spreads too far, we shouldn't have any problems at all."
"What if we don't make it fast enough?"
Xandu stated simply, "That's what you're paying me for."
Chessa had sobered at the mention of a bounty being placed on her. "How does a bounty get posted and spread?"
"The Empire will put a call in to the Bounty Hunter's Guild, which will broadcast your description and bounty amount to all its members. Occasionally they will contact specific bounty hunters if they believe the target is capable of fending off most capture attempts, or if the target is extremely important." He glanced sidelong at her. "Depending on what information you're carrying, they may have done that. Or, if they suspect you're with me, they may contact the top echelon of bounty hunters directly to look for me."
"You rate that high in their book?"
"I guess you were a good choice, then."
"I'm worth what you pay me," he stated. It was, after all, all about the money. Xandu unbuckled himself and stood. "You're probably exhausted. This leg of our journey will take several hours, so you can get freshened up and get some sleep. I'll show you to your quarters."
Chessa suddenly realized how fatigued she was, and she involuntarily touched some of the small nicks across her skin from the speeder's windows. Unbuckling, she followed Xandu out of the cockpit. As they walked down the left side of the ship, Xandu briefly pointed out some of the Brilliance’s systems. It was even more impressive in its capabilities than in its appearance. Every system was fully redundant and cross-wired, and only actual physical damage could permanently cripple the ship - almost everything could be re-routed through multiple conduits to regain functionality. A complete set of backup power generators and shields accompanied the top of the line sensor- and power-stealthing equipment. Xandu explained that he'd custom-designed and programmed his own sensor systems to be far more precise and far-reaching than almost anything up to that of a battle station or Super-class Star Destroyer. Storerooms contained a spare parts locker, a weapons locker, and a small medical bay, complete with a miniature bacta tank. Every surface of the ship was immaculate and well kept, and nothing was out of place. Chessa could plainly see that this ship was the Falleen's life's work, and that he cared for it as he would a lover. Maybe better.
They arrived at her doorway, and Xandu keyed the open sequence. It slid open as silently as the cockpit door, and the lights came on automatically. Chessa stepped in and looked around at a small receiving area containing a table, two plush chairs, and an entertainment center on one wall. Just beyond was another door that she assumed led to the bedroom and refresher. Classic artwork decorated the walls, and the apartment, though small, was comprised of the finest luxury items she'd ever seen. She turned back to Xandu, a questioning look on her face.
"As I said, nothing on this ship is simple," Xandu answered her unspoken query. "I should have added second rate. I prefer to treat my clients as honored guests, and honored guests deserve to travel in comfort. Everything is bolted down to prevent shifting during flight, of course, but you should be quite comfortable. Feel free to look in the closet for some fresh clothing. I'm afraid the wardrobe isn't as luxurious as the quarters, but there should be something clean in your size."
"Thank you," Chessa replied gratefully.
"Of course. You may join me at your convenience." Xandu stepped back and triggered the door closed, then turned and headed back to the cockpit. Once seated, he made some adjustments on the controls.
"Are you going to watch our guest freshen up?" C9 prodded. "I can tell you're attracted to her."
"Don't be rude, See-nine," Xandu scolded. "And if you ever embarrass another client of mine with a stunt like your newlywed bit, I'll rip your processors out by hand!"
After a moment of silence, C9 replied. "Understood. I apologize."
"That's better. Now, down to business." Xandu's hands danced across the controls. "I'm canceling all outbound computer access from Ms. Partak's quarters. She's a slicer, and I don't want her getting anywhere near my files. I want you to see if you can find any holes through my blocks. If you can, patch them and notify me."
"Aye, aye, Cap." C9's voice was still subdued, but a little of her characteristic playfulness had returned.
"I'm going to get cleaned up myself. While I'm gone, run low-level and physical checks on all systems. I don't expect we would have company at the first course change point, but I don't want any surprises."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
Xandu left the cockpit and headed toward his suite on the opposite side of the ship from Chessa's. C9's suggestion was certainly a tempting one. After all, Chessa Partak was an attractive woman, and the thought had certainly crossed his mind. But, if he were to seduce her, he would do it the old-fashioned way – watching her on a security monitor was simply too shallow for him to truly enjoy. Being the cold-blooded Falleen that he was, he did not easily succumb to temptations such as the heat of lust as the more mammalian races tended to do. A seduction might indeed occur, but it would be in his own time, in his own way. He wouldn't even use the potent pheromones which all Falleen were capable of generating - Xandu hesitated to use them that way, at least the first time with any given woman, seeing each conquest as a test of his natural allure rather than a purely chemical reaction. Falleen were patient, and this conquest would be just another example of his careful designs.
Xandu reached his suite and keyed the door open, locking it once he was inside. He shook his head at the reflection in the mirror - his dark green scaly skin was pocked with small cuts from the transparisteel window debris of the speeder, many trailing small rivulets of dried blood. He applied local bacta patches to the worst ones, then stepped into the refresher to get cleaned up.
A few minutes later and feeling much better, Xandu stepped out of the refresher and put on a fresh change of clothes. When he was working, he always wore the same outfit - dark gray sleeveless shirt, black leather jacket, black trousers tucked into black boots. Some might find that kind of repetition boring, but consistency in his attire and equipment had save his life more than once. Besides, he had normal clothes for when he was taking time off. He left his suite and headed back to the cockpit.
"Status?" he asked C9 as he lowered himself into the pilot's seat.
"Low-level scans completed and verified, Cap," came the response. "All systems running within set parameters. Physical scans are almost complete, and as of yet there are no anomalies to report."
"Good," he nodded. "While that's finishing, send a message to the owner of The Rim to convey my thanks to the driver named Tepper, and attach a five thousand credit tip."
"Right away, Cap’."
Xandu looked over the scopes. They still had a few hours before they dropped out of hyperspace to change course. "How is our guest?"
A pause while C9 patched into the security monitoring system. "Looks like she’s sleeping," C9 replied.
Xandu nodded. "Did she make any attempts at the computer?"
"Good. Were you able to bypass the access blocks I set on her quarters?"
"Yes, but it was only because of a new long-number theory I was trying out. I doubt any human could remember an encryption key with eight thousand digits. I patched it anyway."
"Good," Xandu said again. He looked over his screens and, seeing nothing out of place, leaned back and laced his fingers together behind his head. "Now, we have some research to do. Find everything you can about our destination. Let's see if we can determine what, or who, we can expect to meet there."
Xandu dropped the Brilliance out of hyperspace at Corellia, changed course headings for Yag'Duhl, and jumped again without any problems. Before the jump out, he scanned comm traffic for news of the new bounty, but didn't find any. It was a very brief scan, though, and far from comprehensive - he didn't want to loiter too long. After making the jump, he checked his messages, killed some time following a few leads on potential new clients, and made a few inquiries to some contacts around the Sullust system. He then retired to the galley to fix a light meal. Shortly after the aroma began wafting through the ship, Chessa wandered in.
"Wow, the hunt saboteur is not only an engineer, but also a chef!" She must have made use of the first aid kit in her quarters since her face was free of blemishes. Her dark hair flowed loosely down around her shoulders, and Xandu could faintly smell the soap she'd used in the refresher. She flashed him a bright smile, and couldn't deny she looked stunning despite the plain dark green jumpsuit she had donned. It was not a perfect fit, but it worked well enough - Xandu certainly didn't mind the slight tightness in certain areas of her jumpsuit. "Does your business often include cooking like this?"
"One has to live somehow," Xandu replied with a smile of his own. Let the seduction begin...
"Smells good,” she said. “What is it?"
"Terratta," Xandu informed her. "But with a much more exotic seasoning than usual. Would you like a drink?" He handed a plate of the steaming meat dish to her as she nodded.
"Captain, I'll perform a test on all our weapons and navigational systems, if you don't mind," C9 put in.
"Thank you, See-nine." If C9 was jealous, at least she still had the sense to go away when it was appropriate.
Xandu expertly fixed two tumblers full of a mostly clear liquid touched with a hint of gold color and handed one to Chessa. They sat at the small table and began eating, Chessa digging in hungrily.
"I apologize for See-nine's behavior earlier. She can get a bit possessive at times."
Chessa blushed. Xandu was fairly certain she was attracted to him, at least physically. "I think it's endearing," Chessa finally said around a mouthful of terratta. "Besides, I would think that even a hunt saboteur like you would appreciate someone watching out for them every now and then."
"I suppose so," Xandu admitted, watching the woman shovel food into her mouth. "When did you last eat?"
"I can't even remember," Chessa replied between mouthfuls. "This is delicious!"
"It felt like we jumped again. Are we headed to Yag'Duhl now?"
Xandu nodded. "What happened to your cell?" he asked conversationally. He knew he'd agreed to no questions, but his guest seemed very anxious to arrive at her destination, and he wanted to know why.
She glanced at him, then shrugged. "I suppose it can't hurt to tell you now. The Alliance was given a tip several months ago that plans for a ‘decisive and final action’ against the Alliance were being housed in a secret database on Coruscant. Obviously, we needed to know what those plans were. I was part of a deep cover team put in place to discover exactly what the ‘action’ was. As time went on, our mission became more critical, especially recently, given the timing..." her voice caught momentarily and she blushed again, she opened her mouth to speak further, then abruptly scooped up another mouthful of terratta.
"Of the current Alliance action near Sullust," Xandu supplied the end of her statement.
Chessa slowly put down her fork, regarding the Falleen cautiously. "What do you know about that?"
Xandu shrugged casually. "Don't forget, my life frequently depends upon finding little bits of data and putting together a sensible big picture from that data." He waved off her concern. "I actually know very little, but it was an educated guess that made sense, and my contact network has been telling me there was a lot of suspicious activity near Sullust. So," he continued, "what did you do on Coruscant?"
Chessa's eyes narrowed, and she thought for a moment. Just because this hunt saboteur knew the Alliance had a major action planned didn't necessarily mean he knew about its intended target, the Emperor on the new Death Star. He had so far acted as expected, caring only about getting his money rather than taking sides in the Galactic Civil War, so even if he did know, it apparently didn't matter to him. It was likely he was just being conversational. Besides, her mission was now over, and she’d been burning to talk about it.
"The tip only included the location of the database where the plans were stored - in a supposedly abandoned workshop. Since I'd lived most of my life on Coruscant and knew my way around, I was assigned to the team. We knew that the workshop would have the highest security the Empire could provide, so our team was made up mostly of slicers. Our team leader was the only experienced undercover agent, and he helped smuggle us on-planet. We set up shop in an abandoned office building not far from the workshop and began to work. We sliced through their external security systems in only a couple of weeks. We downloaded the plans first, then started probing their system to crack their encryption codes so we could read the data we had downloaded. We were stuck there for months - the Empire's encryption routines are entirely different from ours. We finally developed a pattern of encryption keys by monitoring low-level comm transmissions, so we were able to extrapolate other keys, and we finally began making progress again. A few days ago, we received a priority signal saying we were on a tight deadline, so our team worked around the clock in groups to finish cracking the code so we could read the data in that database." She paused, shaking her head slowly. "The first sign of trouble came when our team leader went out for one of his regular reconnaissance tours of the near vicinity of the office building and never came back. We had to assume he’d been captured and that it would only be a matter of time until they either cracked him or searched out our location. So, the entire team worked non-stop from that point on, and we finally cracked the codes."
Xandu got up and refilled their drinks as she continued, tears welling up in her eyes.
"I wasn't there when it happened - I hadn't slept in three days and I needed to clear my head, so I had gone for a walk. I was several blocks away when I got a comm from my team – the encryption code was broken! Our original assignment was to each take a copy of the data and the encryption codes we’d discovered and get off-planet individually, heading to different rendezvous points. So, the data was uploaded to my datapad and I was supposed to head out right then, but as I closed the channel, I heard explosions and blaster shots in the background. I hurried back to the building and snuck close enough to see those filthy Imperials dragging bodies out into the street. My whole team was dead."
Chessa lapsed into silence, her eyes closed, as she relived the memories that still tore at her mind. Xandu said nothing, respecting her silence. He’d been jaded by being around death all the time, but she was clearly not acclimated to it. After a moment, Chessa opened her eyes and used the back of her hand to wipe away the tears, and the pain on her face disappeared with them, replaced by icy resolve. "I was the only one left with the information that my team had given their lives for, so I knew I had to get off-planet and back to the Alliance. If not for the Alliance, I at least had to do it for them. And, it turned out that it was time critical information, so I had to move fast."
"So why me?"
"Before each assignment, I make a list of possible escape routes and contacts that might come in handy." She laughed, but it was bittersweet. "It started out as something to test my slicing ability, then it just became a habit. I never thought it would save my life."
Xandu nodded. "Life can be strange that way - just when you think everything is going along smoothly, something comes up that throws everything you knew out the airlock."
"That’s for sure,” Chessa agreed. “Anyway, I picked you because you seemed to have some Rebel sympathies."
"Business is business, Ms. Partak," Xandu cautioned her. "I take jobs for many kinds of people with many viewpoints on your Rebellion.”
“But you’ve carried Alliance agents before,” Chessa persisted.
"I’ve also carried Imperial agents, as well as those who don’t care at all about the war,”
Xandu corrected flatly. “I’m doing my job, and my job requires clients. Clients pay me for my services, not for my loyalties. Just because I hate the Empire doesn't mean I'm on your side in this war."
Chessa's eyes narrowed. "Something happened to you, too, didn't it? Is that why you suddenly disappeared from a promising career?"
Xandu nodded again. He didn't know why he felt compelled to share with this woman, but he had the urge to do so. Maybe because she had the same strong presence that most Falleen women possessed. Maybe because he was attracted to her and knew that mutual vulnerability was a strong intoxicant that could work in his favor. Or maybe it was because he hadn't had a truly meaningful conversation with anyone other than C9 for...well, he couldn't even remember how long it had been. And he wasn't sure that a computer brain, however advanced, even counted for that sort of thing anyway.
"Years ago, the Empire set up a biological research and development facility on Falleen. At first, it was very well received. After all, it provided a lot of jobs and a boost to the local economy. But, the Empire, as they so often do, only told us half of the truth. The facility was actually used for the development of chemical weapons and biological agents. One of them was somehow released outside the facility and spread quickly through the surrounding population. It was a nasty bacterium that ate the victim's skeletal system from the inside out. Apparently, you were slowly paralyzed and felt yourself falling apart, but you couldn’t do anything about it. Something like that had no business ever being created, and certainly not in the middle of a widely populated and sophisticated world." His eyes glittered with long-suppressed fury, a rare moment for the cold and typically unemotional Falleen. "Instead of quarantining the area and developing a vaccine, or even attempting to limit the spread, the Empire resorted to their usual tactics - an orbital bombardment that incinerated the bacterium along with several hundred thousand Falleen. Not all were infected, but that didn't matter to the Empire. I was away at my new job, but my entire family was killed."
Chessa said nothing, but she reached out and put her hand on top of Xandu's. Tears welled up in her eyes again, but this time they were tears of sympathy.
"I know I was not alone in my experience, but instead of withdrawing even further into Falleen society to heal, as most of us did, I left it entirely. My family had been in the lower class, and lower classes are not treated well. For example, the penalty for a lowborn lying to a noble is forced exile or death. I was the first in my family to gain a higher education, and even though I had to lie to get in, it was worth the risk. I took my knowledge and my family's meager savings and left Falleen to seek my fortune among the stars. I've never been back since."
"Why didn't you join the Alliance?"
"I didn't know about it at the time. Besides, I'm only one being. There's only so much one being can do, however talented he may be."
"Why not join now? We could use someone with your expertise, and the more 'one beings' we get, the more likely we are to have a major impact."
Xandu’s gaze hardened as he looked directly into her eyes. “The Alliance is a movement based entirely upon emotion and passion. These are not the Falleen way. No, let me finish,” he cut off Chessa’s protest. “Don’t think for a moment that Falleen can’t adapt to unfamiliar methods under necessary circumstances. We are a logical people, and will do what we must to succeed at the task before us.” He paused, searching for a way to make her understand his perspective.
Falleen inherently possessed a cold, precise logic through which they viewed everything around them. That was the reason they were highly intelligent and culturally advanced, the reason Falleen knew themselves to be superior to other races. That same logic gave him understanding into the fundamental core of the Alliance’s struggle, and the knowledge that they simply could not succeed. The forces arrayed against them were too great, too vast, and too powerful. Xandu had no doubt that the Emperor would gladly kill every last being in the galaxy to wipe out the Alliance, and the rebels didn’t have a counter to that kind of sheer malevolent obsession. He’d heard rumors that there was someone new to the Rebellion who could supposedly take on the Emperor, but Xandu didn’t give any credence to those rumors. Only a Jedi could go nose to nose with the Emperor or his pet Vader, and there hadn’t been a true Jedi in the galaxy for at least a quarter century. Without the ability to defeat the driving force of the Empire, logic dictated that the Rebellion was doomed to failure, and there was no logical reason for him to get involved in it.
Chessa Partak wouldn’t understand that analysis, however. She was human, and thoroughly indoctrinated into the Rebellion, and as such was governed by her emotions. Instead of trying to explain, he shook his head and chuckled, forcing the pain and anger of his memories away. "But look around you - I couldn't handle the pay cut."
If Chessa sensed something more beneath the surface of his words, she gave no indication. She laughed quietly and almost reluctantly removed her hand from his. Neither said anything for a moment, but Xandu could tell the woman had something else on her mind. Finally, she spoke.
"Have you ever lost a client to the Empire?"
"No," Xandu replied. "They're fairly easy to predict and escape."
"Only once," Xandu replied. "To Boba Fett."
"I should have guessed," Chessa said dryly. "What happened?"
"I was hired to transport an exiled planetary governor away from his extremely unhappy constituency. I'd easily escaped the best his planet's military had to offer when I was attacked by one or two minor bounty hunters. To lose them, I flew through a nearby asteroid field and started blasting rocks as I passed them, laying rock shrapnel down on my back trail. I left the asteroid field and thought I was free and clear when Boba Fett attacked me. It was quite a spectacular battle, and I managed to disable his ship, or so I thought, so I limped away from the battle zone to assess my own damages. Suddenly, I was blindsided by a massive impact - I never even saw it coming. In his initial attack, Boba Fett had somehow disabled my collision alarm, and then used his tractor beam to send a large asteroid through my hull, almost severing the bridge from the rest of the ship – my previous ship, not this one. I don't know if he’d planned it or if it was a lucky coincidence, but the asteroid lodged inside the hull, blocking off my access to the rest of the ship, so I could only watch helplessly on monitor screens as he boarded my ship and walked my merchandise into Slave I. It was brilliantly done, preventing me from doing anything to stop him while still allowing me to watch helplessly what he was doing. While he was stealing my client, I did notice that his ship had taken some severe damage, but not enough to keep him from nursing it into hyperspace to go get his bounty. It was a painful lesson, but one that I learned much from, and I swore he would never take a client of mine like that again."
"I'd think you have a fair amount of hatred for Boba Fett, but you speak of him as if you almost admire him."
"I do," Xandu nodded. "You see, Ms. Partak, although Fett and myself are almost always on opposite sides in this game, we both play by the same rules, and we play our very best at all times. There are no personal feelings involved, only personal interests. When those interests conflict, one of us must win and the other must lose. Fett is singularly good at what he does, and commands my respect. In turn, I like to think that I'm at the top of his list of competent hunt saboteurs. People like us live by very different rules than most others."
"Business is business," Chessa said distastefully.
"Exactly." He suspected that although she comprehended his words, she would never truly understand them.
She was silent for a moment before asking, "Have you run into him again since then?"
"Once," Xandu allowed himself a small smile. "When he was stealing my client the first time, I took advantage of the opportunity to study the famed Slave I up close, and made some modifications to my own ship because of it. Those modifications paid off in round two, and hopefully will again."
"What do you mean?"
"Unlike most bounty hunters, Boba Fett is a thinker. He plans ahead, and uses strategies within strategies. To beat Boba Fett is to outthink him or out-plan him, not out-gun him. I used my engineering expertise to give me an advantage in the planning department."
"How could you possibly do that?"
Before Xandu could reply, the Brilliance abruptly heaved, throwing both occupants out of their seats and rolling across the galley floor in a jumble of shattered glasses and dinner dishes. Alarms erupted, and a flashing light strobed in the passageway outside the galley. Xandu leaped to his feet and bolted for the cockpit, Chessa right behind him.
"What is it?" she cried.
"We've been yanked out of hyperspace too early!" Xandu called back. He dropped into the pilot's chair and slapped the cutoffs for the alarm systems. The noise and flashing lights died abruptly, but the control board was still decorated with red lights.
"Hyperdrive system shut down, running diagnostic scans now," C9 reported.
"Good," Xandu said. "Give me eyes, See-nine."
The opaque cockpit bubble suddenly became transparent again. He took in the tactical situation with a glance across the controls. "Interdictor cruiser."
"I thought you said the Empire was easy to predict," Chessa said pointedly as she buckled into her seat.
"We're here by accident," Xandu shot back, pointing to the screens.
Off to their left and slightly above them hung the triangular shaped Interdictor, its four bulbous gravity well generators resting in front of and just below the low command tower. Fortunately, it was one of the oldest models still in use, notoriously under-gunned and likely crewed by Star Destroyer or dreadnaught washouts. It was a ship designed to loiter on the periphery of a combat zone, not to engage in a direct confrontation. A patchwork of mismatched durasteel panels covered a large portion of the lower surface, indicating shoddy or hasty repairs after its last action. The cruiser’s prow pointed across their trajectory to their right, where a Star Destroyer was locked in combat with a much smaller corvette. The corvette was spinning along its axis, but otherwise unmoving as the larger ship pounded its shields relentlessly in a very one-sided battle.
"What’s happening?" Chessa asked quietly.
"Looks like the Empire caught itself a pirate," Xandu hazarded a guess. "See-nine? Tractor beam?"
Xandu nodded once, then turned back to the controls and began re-routing damaged systems. "It happens all the time. An Interdictor pulls a pirate ship out of a suspicious vector and traps it while the Star Destroyer pounds it into scrap. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." He threw a triumphant look at Chessa. "They got lucky, and most likely don't even know who we are. But there's no sense hanging around to let them find out." He threw power to the drives and rolled the Brilliance so they were pointing directly at the Interdictor, which immediately rolled and accelerated slowly away from them.
"What are you doing?" Chessa asked, horrified.
"Getting out of the influence of those gravity well generators," Xandu replied, pointing to the console’s scopes where a ghostly outline of a cone surrounded the dot representing the Brilliance. "They’ve projected the gravity well forward so its widest point is right where the Star Destroyer is sitting. The closest exit point is straight past the Interdictor itself. See-nine, stand by to paint the shields."
"Aye, aye, Cap."
"So we’re heading straight at it?" Chessa pressed.
"Better the Interdictor than the Star Destroyer - it's got far less offensive firepower," Xandu pointed out. "Relax, Ms. Partak, this is the best way to escape. Besides, we might still be able to persuade them to just let us go…" he swallowed the rest of his sentence as the cruiser opened fire with its forward turbolaser batteries. Xandu threw the ship into an erratic dance of evasive maneuvers.
"Don't you have some custom-designed engineering gizmo that beats a gravitic generator?" she asked, only half serious.
Xandu didn't laugh. "The laws of physics don't allow such a thing. Don't worry; we'll be away in minutes. See-nine, are we in range?"
"Yessir, we are."
"Paint the shields."
The pod-mounted laser cannons on either side of the cockpit erupted, laying down a blanket of laser fire that caused the shields protecting the Interdictor’s bridge to glimmer with a faint golden glow. They weren't powerful enough to pierce the much larger cruiser's shields or cause any damage, but that was not the intent. Xandu's eyes narrowed as he punched up the display for the forward rotating weapons pods. He quickly selected concussion missiles, and Chessa watched as the twin pods mounted below the cockpit and between the forward arms of the ship rotated to lock the concussion missile tubes into place. A crosshair lit up on the curved bubble of the cockpit, and Xandu expertly centered it on the line between two of the cruiser’s intersecting shield segments. He hit the trigger three times, and three pairs of concussion missiles streaked out of their tubes in quick succession, converging on the line of overlap. As soon as they were away, Xandu switched over to proton torpedoes, which spun into position in less than a second. He quickly fired three more times. The explosion of the concussion missiles was still roiling against the Interdictor's shields when the proton torpedoes struck home, but not even Xandu could have anticipated the effect of his attack on the battered old ship.
Combined with the continuous assault of the laser cannons and the pounding impacts of the concussion missiles, the blast from the first pair of torpedoes momentarily collapsed the weakening shields. The other torpedoes slipped through the opening, two of them smashing into the naked hull of the ship just under the bridge where the main computer core was located, the other two piercing the viewports of the bridge itself. The front of the comm tower blossomed in a fiery cloud of debris, sending a shudder through the entire ship. Secondary explosions ripped through the remainder of the command tower, and long streaks of jagged white artificial lightning rippled over the top surface of the ship.
“Wow,” breathed Chessa.
“That thing must have been in pretty bad shape,” commented C9.
“And they must have known it,” Xandu agreed. “They began retreating as soon as we turned toward them.” He shook his head. “We may have beheaded the monster, but the gravitic generators are still functioning.”
He threw full power to the engines and bumped their line of flight up to pass over the damaged comm tower. With the ship’s main computer core – and thus the main targeting system – destroyed, the turbolaser fire from the Interdictor was sporadic at best, and the Brilliance raced toward the ship with minimal evasive maneuvers. C9 continued to lay down cover fire from the pod cannons to cover them, but it looked likely that the older ship wasn't going to be able to prevent them from getting away. Xandu prepared another salvo of concussion missiles just to make sure.
Suddenly, the space in front of the Brilliance shimmered with pseudo-motion, and gray hull metal filled the entire view from the cockpit. Proximity alarms screeched as Xandu cursed and threw the ship into a roll, desperately trying to avoid a high-speed collision with the new arrival, especially a collision on the cockpit bubble. Chessa screamed. As the stars spun around them, a massive impact somewhere on the bottom rear of the ship threw them violently against their seat restraints and sent the ship tumbling wildly.
"See-nine, damage report!" Xandu barked.
"Partial damage to the rear engine bank, running at 40% efficiency. Primary power generator failed, we're now running on auxiliary power."
"What happened?" cried Chessa.
Xandu furiously worked the controls and the ship gradually straightened out. His hands danced over the controls to silence damage alarms and bring systems back online, re-routing as necessary. As he worked, he explained, "Another ship must have been following our hyperspace vector. The Interdictor yanked it out of hyperspace right on top of us..." He cursed again, this time with more feeling.
"It's Slave I. See-nine, I need that power generator back online, now!" he snapped. "Run quick checks on all weapons and defense systems; I don't want any surprises!" Xandu threw a glance at Chessa. "Your bounty must have been a good one."
Chessa's face went white as the idea sank in that Boba Fett was hunting her. Her mouth moved, but no words came out.
"All weapons systems green, primary shields are down to 70%," C9 announced.
"That’s not good," Xandu muttered. The collision had sent the Brilliance angling away from the Interdictor, but it was still well within the gravity cone projected by the Imperial ship’s generators. He was running out of options.
Abruptly, he came to a decision, and rolled the Brilliance around to an intersection course with Slave I, which had likewise righted itself and was heading straight for them. Beyond Boba Fett, the Star Destroyer was charging toward them at full sublight speed, temporarily leaving the inert husk of the corvette to smolder in space.
“What are you doing?” shrieked Chessa.
"Divert all the power we've got to shields and weapons, See-nine,” Xandu ordered, frowning in annoyance at Chessa’s outburst. “Seal the bridge and divert life-support from the rest of the ship if you have to." Xandu knew he wasn't as accomplished a pilot as Boba Fett, but he'd bet any amount of money on his ship against Fett's on any day...if it was at full strength. Surviving a direct confrontation with the galaxy's best bounty hunter on auxiliary power wasn't exactly an intelligent thing to attempt, so he had to buy some time.
"If we try to outrun him, he'll take us apart piece by piece from behind, and we can't slug it out with him on the backup power generator. This is our best chance." I'd better not mention what comes next if we get past Boba Fett, he thought. The comm crackled to life.
"You have something of mine, Zuhel," Boba Fett's expressionless voice stated. "Hand her over and I'll let you live."
"I'm touched by your concern for my life, Fett," Xandu replied amiably. His fingers moved swiftly over the weapons controls, and the targeting crosshair appeared on the cockpit bubble again, bracketing the rapidly growing form of Slave I. He was careful not to allow a lock... yet. "But I don't have any idea what you're talking about. All I know is that you seem to have caused damage to my ship. So, if you'd like to transmit a few thousand credits over to my account, I'll forgive the mistake."
"Um, Xandu? Is it wise to anger him?" Chessa whispered, clearly terrified.
"I sincerely hope he gets angry, but I doubt my words will have that effect on him. It's simply a delaying tactic."
"What...?" Chessa's confusion was evident on her pale face.
"Don't waste my time, Falleen,” Fett retorted. “I have an important appointment on Tatooine, and I'm already late."
"Well, don't let me keep you, Fett. Just don't forget to send those credits."
"Primary power generator online, Cap!" C9's voice broke in triumphantly. "Full power to shields and weapons systems. We're green and ready to go!"
"Excellent, See-nine," Xandu glanced at Chessa and said, “Superior engineering makes all the difference.”
"No more warnings, Zuhel,” Fett’s harsh voice cut through the comm. “Drop your shields and power down, or die."
Xandu consulted the scopes to verify the location of the Star Destroyer - almost directly behind Slave I, and still making all possible speed toward them. Perfect. "Remember, Ms. Partak? To beat Boba Fett is to out-think him."
"You were buying time."
"Yes, and so was he - his ship was probably damaged as badly as we were in the collision.” Xandu had won the race for full power, but being only one step ahead of Boba Fett was usually still being a step behind. Intending to use his slight advantage while it lasted, the Falleen didn't bother to respond to the bounty hunter's final warning. Instead, he gave the engines a sudden burst of power, sending them speeding directly toward the other ship. "See-nine, paint him!" he ordered.
The pod-mounted laser cannons erupted again, but this time they were going up against a comparably sized ship, and they had an effect. They filled the space around Slave I, connecting as often as they missed, and shields glimmered brightly under the constant barrage of energy. Xandu obtained a concussion missile lock and triggered a quick pair, then switched over to proton torpedoes, locked, and fired again. Boba Fett threw his ship into an erratic pattern of evasion, and both concussion missiles streaked harmlessly past. As he weaved through space, he also somehow managed to target one of Xandu's torpedoes with his lasers. That was flying! thought Xandu in admiration. This was a truly remarkable human.
Just before the moment of impact of the final torpedo, Fett juked to the side again, and the torpedo sailed past. It would arc around to come back for another attempt at its target from behind, but it was, for the next few seconds, out of the battle. Fett, meanwhile, had sent his own lethal barrage of concussion missiles toward the Brilliance, and Xandu was working through his own series of evasive maneuvers. He managed to avoid any collisions, but in a much less impressive fashion. The two ships were almost on top of each other, and both banked away to avoid a head-on collision.
Just before they passed, Xandu saw on his scopes a ghost image of something ejecting from Slave I, like a puff of smoke or an eruption of shrapnel. Knowing he hadn't scored any direct hits on Slave I to cause such damage, he instantly went into a diving barrel roll, but was too late. A hail of small metal balls pelted the Brilliance en masse, physically battering its shields. Many of the balls were shunted aside, but there were simply too many, and they impacted with the force of both ships' full velocity. The shields overloaded in a burnout flash. The backup shields that ran off of the auxiliary generator snapped on automatically, but the metal balls were already inside the shield radius. They ripped into the hull of the Brilliance, creating dozens of openings ranging from a simple hole to long, tearing gashes. Xandu winced at the shriek of metal on metal; a light rattling sound indicated penetration through the outer hull of tractor beam foils and contact with the inner hull underneath. He glanced at the hull integrity scanner and saw only one panel yellow, so there was no significant damage to the interior hull.
Traditionally, when two ships survived a head-to-head pass, both turned around and made a second. If one was obviously outclassed or damaged, it might continue running into free space to attempt an escape, but turning tail on a superior vessel was usually an invitation to disaster. Boba Fett wheeled his ship around to pursue the Brilliance, almost casually targeting the remaining incoming proton torpedo and blowing it into oblivion, but Xandu threw all remaining power to the engines and continued straight toward the Star Destroyer.
"See-nine, run a status check on the foil system. We may need it. And plot us a jump to the outer edge of the system."
"Aye, aye, Cap. Do you think the foils will work with the damage?"
"We'll see," Xandu shrugged grimly. "Hopefully we won't need to find out."
Slave I followed in their wake, but the Brilliance was fast enough to maintain its lead. C9 kept up enough return fire to discourage Fett from drawing any closer, even though their rear shields were taking a pounding from Slave I’s laser cannons. Xandu piloted the Brilliance straight toward the Star Destroyer, which was now beginning to add its own turbolaser fire to the space around them. Xandu corkscrewed, dipped, and juked his way through the storm of deadly light, letting C9 take care of return fire. As he drew even with the mammoth Imperial ship, he suddenly dived down to skim just a few meters above its surface, effectively removing the possibility of being picked off by the Star Destroyer. He'd expected Boba Fett to pause at least momentarily to request permission before firing directly at the Star Destroyer, but Fett never ceased firing. Although he didn't get quite as low as Xandu, he followed the same basic path, and numerous shots flashed past the Brilliance to slam into the Destroyer’s shields. Xandu supposed Fett had either predicted what he was going to do and had already made arrangements, or didn't care. Xandu suspected the latter. Still, the Brilliance didn't give up any speed to Slave I, so although the shots that did connect rocked the sleek silver ship, none penetrated the shields.
Xandu directed his ship smoothly along the gradual incline of gray Star Destroyer hull metal rushing past underneath them. They reached the pinnacle of the triangular ship and flashed through the gap between the bulk of the ship and the bottom of the command tower to soar out into open space behind the huge Imperial ship. Immediately, Xandu dipped down and leveled out right in the center of the thruster wash of the giant ship. Once there, the Star Destroyer couldn't level a tractor beam, nor effectively target them. The Brilliance was buffeted about like a child’s toy, but its systems integrity held as they raced away from the Star Destroyer.
Slave I arced over the command tower of the Star Destroyer, eventually dropping onto the same vector, but his higher pass over the Imperial ship had caused him to drop back even further. He kept up a steady stream of laser fire, but Xandu could taste his escape now. He hadn't guessed about Fett's surprise with the metal balls, but the extra layer of shielding had protected him. Now it was his turn for a surprise.
"See-nine, do you have jump coordinates?”
“Aye, aye, Cap.”
“Good. Activate decoy system."
Xandu triggered his specially designed flare system that launched a spread of ten flares from the stern of the Brilliance. Immediately after they left their launch tubes, the flares erupted into intense spheres of sensor-scrambling energy. The launch pattern alternated positively- and negatively-charged spheres, so a network of star-bright lightning arced between them, creating a web of sensor-impenetrable energy that masked their escape vector. As the coup de grace, Xandu rolled the Brilliance once, and during that roll a pair of sensor buoys that duplicated the ship's sensor signature were launched in two different directions. Both buoys jumped into hyperspace in wildly different directions as Xandu threw the hyperspace levers. Starlines stretched into the maelstrom of hyperspace.
After a few short seconds, the Brilliance lurched slightly, then reverted back into real space. Xandu quickly scanned his long-range sensors, then leaned back in the pilot's chair, letting out a breath he didn't realize he was holding.
“They’re not tracking us,” he announced. “Neither Slave I nor the Star Destroyer are heading toward us.”
Chessa heaved a sigh of relief. “That was some escape trick,” she said appreciatively. She was really beginning to understand why Xandu charged such exorbitant fees.
"Impressive, wasn't it?" the Falleen said, his voice uncharacteristically proud. "I worked for a long time on that escape, and I've never been tracked after using it."
"I can't believe you actually got away from them."
Xandu cocked an eyebrow, somewhat surprised and a little miffed. "For someone who's paying well over a million credits for my services, you don't seem to have much confidence in my abilities."
Chessa flushed and shook her head. "That's not it at all! It just doesn't seem real that I'm actually being hunted by Boba Fett. It's like I'm in some kind of holovid story or something."
"Well, you'd better pull yourself back into reality, Ms. Partak," Xandu cautioned as he punched up a map of the sector. "Once Boba Fett begins a hunt, he doesn't like to have it end in someone else's favor. Just because we got away once doesn't mean he's finished with us. Now, let's see where we are." He pointed to the screen. "The Interdictor's ambush point was just coreward of Bestine, about two-thirds of the way from Corellia to Yag'Duhl. We could continue on our previous course plan, but it's obvious that word of your bounty has gotten out. I think our best bet at this point is to jump directly to your rendezvous point. We'll come pretty close to Vendaxa in transit, but we should be able to make it around the system without having to stop again."
"Won't a direct route make us easier to track?"
"Yes, but your secrecy is clearly blown, and unless you plan to go hopping around the galaxy until the excitement dies down, we don't have many other options.”
Chessa sighed. "We have to make it to the rendezvous point as soon as possible. Take the direct jump."
Xandu nodded once. Setting the coordinates, he pulled the hyperdrive levers, and they were away. After opaquing the cockpit bubble again, Xandu set to work with C9 repairing or re-routing the remaining damaged systems.
A small voice behind him said, "It's a trap, you know."
Xandu turned to look back at her, noticing for the first time how frail and tired she looked. Maybe their brush with Boba Fett had taken more out of her than he’d initially thought. "What's a trap?" he asked carefully.
"The action at Sullust," she said, looking out the cockpit, her eyes not focusing on anything in particular. “The Empire is making another Death Star, and the Emperor will be there. He's using himself as bait, knowing the Alliance will attack. When we do, they'll destroy us."
“That was what your team decrypted?” he asked quietly.
She nodded, still staring past him.
Xandu sat unmoving for a moment, unsure of what to say. The destruction of the first Death Star was, in his opinion, one of the best days the galaxy had ever seen. Anything that caused the Empire pain was good in his book, and the more pain the better, so the Death Star's destruction had been very, very good. The gall of the Emperor to make another of those monstrosities was unbelievable, and the thought of having a planet-sized globe of destruction policing the galaxy to enforce the whims of its psychotic master threatened to make him physically ill. However, he did not subscribe to the theory that the enemy of his enemy was his friend - he was not about to join the crusade that the Alliance had embarked upon. He wasn't in this for the Rebellion; he was in it for the money. He would make his delivery, take his fee, and continue on with his life. Xandu Zuhel hated the Empire with a cold fury that only a Falleen could muster, but he would not trade in his freedom and hard-earned wealth for a delusion of righteous grandeur and a paltry salary working in poor conditions with the full might of Imperial law bearing down on him. And, the reasons for his steadfast neutrality still applied – the Alliance could not win this war from the bottom up.
His stance put him at odds with his client's dedication to the Alliance, and they both knew it. He suspected Chessa was trying one last time to persuade him to join the Alliance, but he would not give in simply to make her happy. Business was business, and he would not compromise his principles for the sake of emotion. Still, news of a second Death Star was stunning, and not something he could ignore.
"And this rendezvous point is the staging area for the attack on the Death Star?" he asked slowly.
"No," Chessa shook her head. "It's one of several pre-staging areas. Individual battle groups of the Alliance fleet are meeting at assigned pre-staging areas to run simulations and training missions, and will then jump to the actual staging area near Sullust to form up and regroup shortly before the actual attack. If we don't meet with the ships at the rendezvous point before they leave for the full staging area, the fleet will never know they're walking into a trap."
"Can't we just go to the full staging area to warn the full fleet?"
"I don't know the exact coordinates," Chessa admitted ruefully. "It's top-secret information, and I don't have clearance that high. I know they’re near the Sullust system, but I have no idea where.”
“Without at least relatively detailed coordinates, there’s no way we’ll find them,” Xandu pointed out.
Chessa sighed. “I know. That’s why we have to get the message to this battle group before they jump, or the Alliance will never know about the trap. We’ll be lost."
"We'll get there as fast as we can," Xandu said simply. “How long do we have?”
“I don’t know that, either,” Chessa confessed, her eyes welling up with tears. The events of the past few minutes were finally catching up to her, and she was buckling under the pressure of knowing her mission might fail, causing the deaths of thousands of Alliance personnel, and possibly the Alliance altogether.
“Why don’t you go back to your quarters and try to rest?” Xandu prodded gently.
He turned back to the controls and resumed system repairs with C9 as Chessa rose and left the cockpit silently.
Some time later, Xandu and C9 had determined they'd done as much as they could do without a few spare parts. The ship was operating at 93% efficiency, so things could have been much worse, especially considering they’d tangled with both the Empire and Boba Fett. Xandu punched up the video feed for the camera in Chessa's quarters and leaned back in his seat. She sat cross-legged in one of the plush chairs hugging a pillow to her chest. The large vid-screen of the entertainment center cast a bluish light across the otherwise darkened room, but it was obvious she wasn't paying attention to it.
"How is it possible for some people to be so intelligent, and yet live and die for a vague and intangible notion?" he asked. He hadn't meant to speak out loud, but C9 answered him.
"If I knew the answer to that, Cap, I'd be so rich you'd be serving me."
Xandu rolled his eyes. "That was a rhetorical question, See-nine."
"Seriously, though, Captain, I've spent some down time studying sentient beings' behavior, and that seems to be both the greatest weakness and the greatest strength of sentient creatures."
"Well, it seems that most sentients are able to draw strength and inspiration from vague and intangible notions such as justice or religion in order to accomplish otherwise insurmountable tasks. At the same time, how many unjust and irreligious acts have been committed in the name of justice and religion? Most wars throughout history have had at least some religious significance, and many crimes are committed in the name of justice. It doesn't make sense to me, but I am programmed for logic, so it probably never will. Nevertheless, it is an observable fact of sentient behavior."
Xandu scratched his jaw, thinking over the words of the computer brain. Amazingly, she seemed to have identified the heart of his question, perhaps better than he ever could have done himself. Maybe having a deep conversation with her wasn’t that bad after all. Regardless, their destination was coming up, and there was plenty of time for philosophy later. He’d think more about it after this business was finished.
Xandu spoke into the internal comm. "Ms. Partak, we will be arriving at your rendezvous point momentarily. Would you care to join me?"
On the monitor screen, he could see her snap out of her daze, rise, and leave her quarters. He turned off the screen before she stepped into the cockpit a few seconds later to take her seat. He could read the mixed hope and fear on her face. They had no idea when the battle group was supposed to jump for the staging area, and he had no idea what he would do with her if they’d already left the system. He briefly entertained the idea of trying to scout around for the Alliance fleet, but he dismissed the thought as an act of ridiculous and desperate emotion.
The navi-computer beeped and he threw the hyperspace levers. The Brilliance reverted to real space with a barely noticeable lurch, and Xandu triggered the cockpit bubble transparent again. There was nothing within eyesight, but a number of ships of various sizes appeared on the long-range scanners. They were flying in formation out of the system, and looked likely to enter hyperspace at any moment.
"There they are!" Chessa pointed. "Quick, open a comm channel on all frequencies!"
Xandu complied and waved toward the receiver, inviting her to speak. "Alliance battle group Epsilon, this is the space yacht Brilliance,” Chessa cried. “I am in possession of mission-critical information that you must receive before leaving for the rendezvous point. Please acknowledge."
There was no response. Finally, almost grudgingly, one of the cruisers at the rear of the formation arced around and headed directly toward them. The comm crackled with an openly hostile voice. "Star yacht Brilliance, identify yourself. Transmit your code clearance immediately." Given the illegal nature of the Rebellion's activities, Xandu wasn't surprised that they didn't give their vessel's name, nor that they got right to the point.
"Chessa Partak, Coruscant deep cover team Gamma, code clearance alpha delta delta beta seven four four two eight beta." Another moment of silence. Despite knowing she could not see them, Chessa looked out through the cockpit bubble, scanning the blackness hopefully.
"They're leaving," Xandu pointed out quietly as he watched the scopes. One by one, the battle group's ships entered hyperspace and disappeared from the long range scanners until the incoming cruiser was the only other ship left in the system.
"Code clearance acknowledged, Agent Partak," the comm officer was decidedly friendlier now. "This is Major Arin. You just barely caught us. As you can see, we're on something of a tight deadline. Can you transmit your information...?" he asked hesitantly.
"Negative, Major, it's too risky for unsecured space."
"Very well, Agent Partak, we're dispatching a hyperdrive-equipped shuttle to retrieve you. They'll catch up to the rest of the fleet once you're aboard. We'll see you soon."
"Acknowledged. Thank you." Chessa sat back in her chair and let out a sigh of relief.
A shuttle dropped out of the cruiser as it turned away from them again and followed the rest of the battle group's vector into hyperspace. Xandu flew a direct course toward the shuttle.
"Xandu, you have not only saved my life, but you have saved the lives of thousands of Alliance personnel," Chessa smiled brilliantly at him as her eyes glistened with grateful tears. "I can't thank you enough."
"Actually, you can," Xandu corrected. "As soon as you're aboard that shuttle, you can transfer my remaining million credits into my account. Here's the number." He held out a datacard.
Chessa's grateful smile died instantly. "I see," she said. Her voice quivered, but he couldn't tell if it was from sadness, rage, or surprise. "This is all just business for you, isn't it?"
"Exactly," Xandu confirmed emotionlessly. "We'll be docking with the shuttle soon. You may want to gather your things and head back to the exit hatch." Wordlessly, she took the proffered datacard and left the cockpit.
"That was pretty cold, Cap," C9 observed.
"Falleen are cold creatures, See-nine," Xandu responded flatly. "Begin docking maneuvers with the shuttle."
The two ships linked, and Chessa transferred from the Brilliance to the Alliance shuttle. Once she was aboard, the shuttle banked and sped toward the battle group's hyperspace vector.
"Incoming comm, Captain," C9 reported.
"Your account has been paid in full," Chessa's voice announced over the comm.
Xandu checked the balance on his receiving account before replying. "It has been a pleasure to serve you, Ms. Partak. I hope you'll let me know if I can ever be of service in the future."
“Thank you,” she replied. “Regardless of what you think, Xandu Zuhel, your actions have saved many lives today. For that I will always be grateful." She hesitated briefly before continuing. “If you ever feel the need to raise the stakes in your personal battle with the Empire, you will always be welcome in the Alliance.”
“I sincerely doubt that will ever happen, but thank you for the offer,” Xandu said quietly. The transmission ended.
As he watched the shuttle speed away, Xandu leaned back in his chair, a frown tugging down the corners of his mouth. He knew he’d done the right thing – business was business, and Chessa Partak was just another client. But for the first time, he felt a twinge of something not quite right. Was is regret? Guilt? What? Emotion?
Before he could get a firm grasp on his thoughts, alarms blared in the cockpit of the Brilliance as a flicker of pseudo-motion off to his right brought a new ship into the system. Xandu’s comm crackled. "This is your last warning, Zuhel," the cold voice of Boba Fett demanded. "Hand her over."
"She is no longer in my possession, Fett," Xandu replied automatically. Once the fund transfer had been verified, his business arrangement with the Rebel slicer was over. "She's all yours."
Slave I hung motionless in space for a moment, as if Fett was considering whether or not to believe him, then it curved around and shot past the Brilliance in pursuit of the Alliance shuttle, which was now straining its engines to escape. Xandu could see they had no chance, and he wondered briefly if Chessa's capture bounty had been modified to a kill bounty. His suspicions were confirmed moments later when the Alliance shuttle had been reduced to scrap metal and floating bits of space debris by Slave I’s formidable weaponry. Xandu puzzled out how the bounty hunter had been able to follow him as Fett patrolled his ship around the kill zone once, probably to record it on video, proof of his success that would earn him yet another bounty. As Slave I turned and headed for its own hyperspace vector, Fett's voice crackled over the comm again.
"You almost had me this time, Zuhel. I'm impressed."
It was high praise, considering the source. "Thank you, Fett," Xandu replied. "You dropped a tracking device in with the metal balls, didn't you?"
"Correct. Your escape trick was nevertheless quite impressive. If it weren’t for the tracker, you’d have gotten away cleanly."
"Ah, so close," Xandu replied. "It's not often that both of us get paid for the same bounty, is it?"
"Quite rare, indeed."
"Until next time, Fett."
The bounty hunter responded only by entering hyperspace.
“Not much of a conversationalist, is he?” C9 ventured.
“No, he isn’t,” Xandu replied thoughtfully. He stared at the expanding cloud of debris that had been the Alliance shuttle, thoughts swirling around his mind. He would have liked to see Chessa accomplish her mission, and he certainly would like to see the new Death Star destroyed, but he didn't really believe the Alliance could do it. Though their differences were insurmountable, he had liked Chessa - she'd had a good heart, and was just trying to do what she thought was best, however deluded she might be. It seemed she had finally begun to understand him at the end, too, because she hadn't even attempted to signal him for help in escaping Boba Fett, knowing that their business arrangement was at an end. It didn’t seem fair that she had to die this way, but the galaxy was not a fair place. His own life was proof enough of that.
Xandu was overcome by a sudden urge to deliver Chessa Partak’s message to the Alliance fleet, and if the Alliance fleet had still been in-system, he just might have done it. But, they were already gone and there was no way to communicate with them. Besides, he was not being paid to deliver the message, so he would not deliver it. The Alliance would have to take its chances; if the Empire was meant to fall as a result of this attack, it would fall with or without this small piece of information, and there was nothing more he could do about it.
There was no point in sitting around thinking about such things any longer. There was plenty more life to live, and plenty more merchandise to deliver. Shaking his head to clear it and vowing to himself never to be caught up by the emotions of his clients again, Xandu rolled the Brilliance away from the floating wreckage of the shuttle. "See-nine, pull up our list of potential clients. See where the next priority is waiting and find the nearest repair facility on the way. "
"Aye, aye, Cap," came the faithful reply.
It was time to move on. Business was, as always, business. And there was plenty more business to do.
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