Authors: Troy Denning
THE NEW JEDI ORDER
Introduction to the
Excerpt from Title
: New Jedi Order: Edge of Victory I: Conquest
Outside the medcenter viewport, a ragged crescent of white twinkles known as the Drall's Hat drooped across the violet sky, its lower tip slashing through the Ronto to touch a red star named the Eye of the Pirate. The constellations above Corellia had not changed since Han Solo was a child, when he had spent his nights contemplating the galactic depths and dreaming of life as a starship captain. He had believed then that stars never changed, that they always kept the same company and migrated each year across the same slice of sky. Now he knew better. Like everything in the galaxy, stars were born, grew old, and died. They swelled into red giants or withered into white dwarfs, exploded into novas and supernovas, vanished into black holes.
All too often, they changed hands.
It had been nearly three weeks since the fall of the Duro system, and Han still found it hard to believe that the Yuuzhan Vong had a stronghold in the Core. From there, the invaders could strike at Commenor, Balmorra, Kuat, andâfirst in lineâCorellia. Even Coruscant was no longer safe, lying as it did at the opposite end of the Corellian Trade Spine.
Harder to accept than Duro's lossâthough easier to believeâwas the enthusiasm with which the cowards of the galaxy had embraced the enemy's offer of peace in exchange for Jedi. Already a lynch mob on Ando had killed Dorsk 82, and on Cujicor the Peace Brigade had captured Swilja Fenn. Han's own son Jacen was the most hunted Jedi in the galaxy, and his wife and other children, Anakin and Jaina, were sought almost as eagerly. If it were up to him, the Jedi would leave the collaborators to their fate and go find a safe refuge somewhere in the Unknown Regions. But the decision was not his, and Luke Skywalker was not listening.
A raspy murmur sounded from the lift station, shattering the electronic silence of the monitoring post outside Leia's door. Han opaqued the transparisteel viewport, then stepped around the bed where his wife lay in a therapeutic coma, her eyelids rimmed by purple circles and her flesh as pallid as wampa fur. Though he had been assured Leia would survive, his heart still ached whenever he looked at her. He had almost lost her during the fall of Duro, and a stubborn series of necrotic infections continued to threaten her mangled legs. Even more in doubt was their future together. She had greeted him warmly enough after they found each other again, but Chewbacca's death had changed too much for their marriage to continue as before. Han felt brittle now, older and less sure of his place in the galaxy. And in the few hours she had been coherent enough to talk, Leia had seemed hesitant, more tentative and reluctant to speak her mind around him.
At the door, Han peered out of the darkened room to find four human orderlies outside flanking the MD droid at the monitoring post. Though they had a covered repulsor gurney and fresh white scrubs, they were not wearing the masks and sterile gloves standard for visitors to the isolation ward.
“. . . don't look like orderlies to me,” the MD droid was saying. “Your fingernails are absolute bacterial beds.”
“We've been cleaning disposal chutes,” said the group's leader, a slash-eyed woman with black hair and the jagged snarl of a hungry rancor. “But don't worry, we came through decon.”
As she spoke, one of the men with her was sliding across the counter behind the droid. Han drew back into the room and retrieved his blaster from a satchel beneath Leia's bed. Though he had been dreading this moment for three weeks, now that it had come, he felt almost relieved. The enemy had not arrived when he was sleeping or out of the room, and there were only four.
Han returned to the door to find the MD droid standing with darkened photoreceptors, his vocabulator slumped against his chest. The orderly behind the counter was scowling down at the data display.
“Don't see her on the register, Roxi,” he said to the woman.
“Of course not,” Roxi growled. “Slug, do you think a Jedi would use her own name? Look for a human female with amphistaff wounds.”
Slug, a moonfaced man with a bald head and a week's worth of stubble on his face, scrolled down the screen and began to read symptoms off the display. “Parietal swelling . . . thoracic lacerations . . . double severed sartorius . . .” He stopped and looked up. “You understand this stuff?”
Roxi glared at the man as though the question were a challenge, then asked, “What was that second one?”
Slug glanced back at the display. “Thoracic lacerations?”
be it.” Roxi glanced at her other companions and, seeing that they had no better idea what
meant than she did, continued, “Well, lacerations sounds right. What room?”
Slug gave her the number, and the four impostors started down the opposite corridor. Han allowed them a few moments to clear the area, then slipped into the monitoring post and used the controls to seal his wife's room with a quarantine code. The thought of leaving her alone made his stomach queasy, but he had to handle this problem quietly and by himself. Though a Jedi-friendly doctor had admitted Leia under a false name and Han had sent the famous Solo children home with Luke and Mara, the alias would not withstand a CorSec incident investigation. And with a new Yuuzhan Vong base rising at the edge of the sector, no one associated with the Jedi would dare trust Corellia's always erratic government for protection. Had Leia's condition not forced them to divert soon after escaping Duro, this was the last place Han would have stopped.
He peered around the corner of the monitoring post and, in the night-shift twilight, saw the impostors disappearing into a bacta tank parlor about halfway down the corridor. Taking a datapad from the recharger on the counter and a breath mask, hygienic cap, gloves, and lab coat from the supply locker, he did his best to disguise himself as someone official and followed.
The intruders were gathered around tank number three in the parlor's far corner, studying a slender human with a trio of freshly stitched lacerations angling down across her chest. Like Leia's wounds, the cuts were atypically inflamed and almost black at the edges, a sign that some toxin was proving a challenge for the bacta. The only other occupied tank contained a Selonian female whose severed tail stump was covered by a graft of unfurred hide.
“The contract said she'd shaved her head,” Roxi complained, staring at the long hair of the patient in tank three. “Even in bacta, I don't think it would grow back this fast.”
“Maybe not, but they
amphistaff cuts,” Slug said. He was standing next to a deactivated attendant droid, reading from a data display. “And no one's saying how she got them.”
Roxi lifted her brow and thought for a moment, then said, “We'd better bring her along. Start the tank draining. We'll pick her up after we've checked the other rooms.”
Han drew back and tucked the blaster under his lab coat, then made sure his breath mask was secure and waited. When he heard the impostors coming, he turned the corner with the datapad before him. He ran headlong into the burliest of the impostors and was nearly knocked off his feet.
“Uh, sorry,” Han said, looking up. “Entirely my . . .” He let the sentence dangle off, then gasped, “You're not wearing a breather!”
The burly impostor frowned. “What breather?”
“Your safety mask.” Han tapped the breath mask on his face, then looked from one impostor to the other. “None of you are. Didn't you check the hazard indicator?”
“Hazard indicator?” Roxi asked, pushing her way to the front. “I didn't see any indicator.”
“In the decontamination lock,” Han said. “Red means no entry. Orange means full biosuit. Yellow means breath masks and gloves. The light was yellow. We've had a leuma outbreak.”
“Leuma?” Slug asked.
“You'll be all right,” Han said, striking just the right note of insincere reassurance. He waved Roxi toward the monitoring post. “But we've got to get you some breath masks. Then you'll need inoculationsâ”
Roxi made no move to leave the bacta parlor. “I've never heard of any disease called leuma.”
“Airborne virus,” Han said. “A new oneâor maybe it's a spore. We really don't know yet, but there's talk of it being a Yuuzhan Vong weapon.”
That was enough to bring Slug and the burly impostor out into the corridor.
“Hold up, you two!” Roxi snapped.
The pair stopped, then Slug frowned and said, “But we need those breath masks.”
“And soon,” Han pressed, turning his attention to Slug. “You can still be saved, but the chances are going down with every breath you take.”
Three of the impostorsâthe three menâclamped their mouths shut. Roxi only glared at Han.
“You know this
?” She stepped into the door and stood nose-to-chin with him. “Because you're a doctor?”
Han's stomach sank. “That's right.” He had to resist an urge to check his appearance. “Senior xenoepidemiologist, to be exact.” He pretended to scrutinize her white scrubs. “And you are?”
“Wondering why the senior xenoepidemiologist would make his rounds in patient slippers.” Roxi glanced at his feet. “Without socks.”
She flexed her fingers, and a hold-out blaster dropped out of a sleeve holster. Han cursed and brought the datapad down on her wrist. Her weapon clattered to the floor, and he kicked it away, then retreated, fumbling for his own blaster. Roxi withdrew into the parlor, shrieking orders and pushing her companions at the door. Only Slug went. He ignored Han and ran up the corridor.
“Slug!” Roxi screamed.
“M-masks!” Slug called. “Gotta getâ”
Han found his blaster and planted a stun bolt between Slug's shoulder blades. The impostor thumped to the floor.
Weapon flashes sprayed from the bacta parlor. Han dived behind a low half wall in the small waiting area opposite. His attackers continued to fire, and the thin plasteel started to smoke and disintegrate. He thumbed his own power to high, then stuck the blaster through a melt hole and returned fire.
The bolt storm quieted. Han dropped to his belly and peered around the corner. The impostors were nowhere to be seen, but their repulsor gurney remained at the back of the parlor. The woman in tank three had opened her eyes and was looking around. Considering that she was caught in the middle of a firefight, her expression seemed surprisingly calm. Maybe she was too sedated to comprehend what was happening. Han hoped so. If she didn't use the microphone in her breathing mask to call for help, there was still a chanceâa slim chanceâthat he could take care of this without CorSec connecting the incident to Leia's room.
The woman's gaze shifted, then Roxi's voice cried, “Go!”
The male impostors leaped into view and began to lay suppression fire. Han burned a hole through one man's chest. Roxi pulled something long from beneath the gurney sheet, and when Han switched targets, she took cover behind tank three. He stopped firing. The woman in the bacta seemed to smile her thanks.
“On two, Dex,” Roxi called. “Oneâ”
Roxi stepped into view, and “two” was lost to the shrieking cacophony of the repeating blaster in her hands. Han concentrated fire on her. A faint hiss sounded somewhere deep in the parlor, and Dex's blaster fell quiet.
Roxi's bolts stitched their way across the floor toward Han's head. He drew back and popped up in the corner, blaster trained on the parlor entrance. She poured fire into the corridor, but stayed out of sight until she appeared at the door and began to chew through his flimsy cover.
Han fired back, but to little effect. There was no sign of Dex, and that worried him, too. Seeing that his angle was hopeless, he stopped firing and looked to the back of the parlor.
“Now!” he yelled.
Nothing happened, except that Roxi glanced away long enough for Han to hurl himself across the waiting room. She adjusted her aim and began to burn more holes through the half wall. Han returned fire. Now that his angle was better, at least he was making her cringe.
Then the repulsor gurney glided into view, moving sideways, no one pushing. Han's jaw must have dropped. Roxi sneered, shook her head, and, not one to be fooled twice, nearly burned his head off.
The gurney caught her in the hip. Her weapon stitched craters across the ceiling, and she stumbled into the doorway. Han blasted her chest and shoulder, spinning her around so that she fell over the gurney. The repeating blaster clattered to the floor inside the bacta parlor, where Dex could get at it. Cursing his luck, Han poured fire through the door and charged.
Dex lay dead between tanks one and two, the last wisps of smoke rising from a round hole in his chest. It was too small and perfect to be a blaster wound, at least an ordinary one. Han glanced around the room, searching for the source of his mysterious help.
The woman in tank three was watching him.
“You?” he asked.
The gurney moved againâit might have been settling on its repulsor, but Han didn't think so.
Out by the monitoring station, the decontamination lock hissed open, and the sound of booted feet began to rumble down the corridor. Han ignored the clamor and gestured at the impostor on the floor.
The woman's eyes fluttered closed, opened again, then fell shut and remained that way.
“Okayâmust have been a ricochet.” Han was not sure he believed that, but it was what he intended to tell the CorSec investigators. “I owe youâwhoever you are.”
Then the security squad was rushing down the corridor, yelling at Han to drop his weapon and hit the floor. He placed his blaster on the gurney and turned to find a pair of ruddy-cheeked boys poking Imperial-era blaster rifles in his face.
“Hey, take it easy.” Han reluctantly raised his hands. “I can explain.”