THE DARKENING SKY STRETCHED OUT forever and ever around Cloud City. Cumulus kingdoms rose and fell in the purple-blue haze below, parting now and then to reveal the twinkling lights of Ugnorgrad.
Protocol droid DRX-7 chortled to himself. It had been a good day. Impresario Calrissian had entertained an entire diplomatic brigade of young Twi’leks, and the little fellows had been enthusiastic and eager to learn—full of questions, in fact. And of course the new head of Calrissian Enterprises, with his trademark charm, had been happy to comply. This meant that plenty of translating had been needed, and with more than four million languages at his disposal, DRX considered translation his favorite part of being a protocol droid.
Why is Cloud City in the clouds? asked one tiny girl with long eyelashes and her two lekku wrapped into a dazzling swirl above her head.
This most basic of questions would normally have elicited an eye roll or sarcastic reply from the impresario. He would deliver it with a winning smile, and the shine of those perfect teeth would somehow counteract whatever slight could’ve been perceived. In fact, DRX had wondered if that would happen, and if the girl would somehow take offense. Then he’d have to go into diplomatic overdrive to make sure she felt better, and DRX considered that his least favorite part of being a protocol droid.
“Beena,” one of the Twi’lek guardians had said, with a touch of menace in her voice, “we covered Cloud City history in class on the flight here; I’m sure Mr. Calrissian has more important matters to attend to.”
“Not at all,” Calrissian had interrupted with a lively chuckle before DRX could finish translating. “I’m not even the baron administrator anymore, technically. I still get to live in the fancy house, though.” With that, his grin had widened amiably. “But anyway, what could be more important than imparting knowledge to the future generations of our friends the Twi’leks?”
And then the guardian, Kaasha Bateen was her name, had shot the impresario a look that DRX was pretty sure indicated extreme skepticism with a hint of possible attraction. But Calrissian hadn’t seemed to notice, instead launching into a lengthy and impressively detailed rendering of the travails and adventures of the diminutive Ugnaughts, Cloud City’s original architects, and their partnership with Corellian space explorer Ecclessis Figg.
The little Twi’lek eyes had lit up as Calrissian went on to detail his own escapades. Even Kaasha Bateen, who had been standing with her arms crossed over her chest, mouth twisted to one side of her face, seemed to lose herself in the story, and even corrected DRX on a translation matter. (It had been one open to interpretation, like most translation issues, and DRX had opted to concede the point rather than launch into a lengthy discussion of its nuances. Anyway, he loved a good challenge.)
And now the little ones had all been tucked into their sleeping quarters and the Bespin night was sweeping slowly across the sky. DRX was alone, accompanied only by the gentle hum of Cloud City and occasional blips and whirs from the nearby gas mining rigs. At any moment, the Bespin Wing Guard would be zipping past in their bright-orange twin-pod cloud cars, making sure the city was safe and sound.
In fact, now that DRX thought about it, they should’ve already zipped past. He’d been standing at the rail of his favorite platform for exactly fourteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds. It was nine thirteen.
He gazed out into the gathering night; nothing stirred, no lights blinked.
Perhaps, DRX thought, Master Calrissian knows what’s going on. He raised him on the comm and received a curt and immediate response from Lobot, the city’s computer liaison officer: Calrissian is busy. Relay message through me, Dee-Arrex.
How rude, DRX thought. Status check on Bespin Wing Guard, he messaged back.
And then: nothing. Minute after minute passed with no reply.
He turned back to the night sky, the clouds, the faraway stars, and then took a step backward, arms raised. A tall figure in a dark-green hooded cloak stood at the edge of the platform.
“Greetings,” DRX said. “I am protocol droid Dee-Arrex Seven, at your service.” He didn’t really feel like putting himself at the service of this stranger, who had, after all, appeared without so much as a noise of warning and seemed to care not a whit for the basic mores of decent interaction. But rules were rules.
“Is there anything I can do for you this evening?” DRX asked, when a few moments had gone by without a reply to his initial salutation.
“Oh yes indeed,” a gravelly voice said.
The stranger did something with his hands, and DRX felt all his gears, wiring, and synapses tighten at the same time. A hazy shade of red covered the world. And then everything was very simple: He had to kill.
The vast night sky, the teeming galaxy beyond, the billion blips and clacks of Cloud City: All spiraled together and resolved into a single, pulsing need. Somewhere in that complex, Impresario Calrissian dwelled. Probably asleep in his chambers. Perfect, DRX thought. A tiny voice cried out from the depths of his programming, a notion, a desperate wail, the single word: No. But it was too distant and tiny to bother with, and DRX had a singular mission: Kill.
He pushed forward, barely aware of the dark figure slinking along just behind him. He entered the bright hallways of the central throughway, swerved into a side corridor reserved for staff and administrators, and then bustled along past servers, soldiers, and casino droids until he reached the shadowy side entrance to the baron administrator’s palace.
“Protocol droid Dee-Arrex Seven for the impresario,” DRX said to the two guards. “With one guest.”
They saluted and stepped to the side and the wide door slid open. DRX whirred in and navigated quickly through the narrow back hallways, past the kitchen, and up into an elaborate front room where Calrissian received guests.
A simple, shrill mandate that pulsed unceasingly through him.
And he would, he would. But first he had to get to Calrissian, and that was about to become difficult: Lobot stepped out from a curtain, face creased beneath his bald head, the red light of his cyborg tech headgear blinking in the shadows.
Lobot’s expression indicated disappointment and ire, DRX knew, and a memory surfaced from somewhere deep inside: how crushed DRX would’ve been to see that face directed at him any other time. The memory was followed by that same distant, urgent cry: No! But it was still too tiny to bother with, especially when things were heating up and the resolution to this urge, the only way to feed this hunger, was so close.
Then Lobot caught sight of whoever it was that had been trailing DRX like a shadow, and his expression went from exasperated to shocked, then hardened quickly to enraged. Lobot advanced and DRX swung an arm forward, clobbering the liaison officer across the face, dropping him.
But not this one, this was not DRX’s target. He surged forward toward the door, toward Calrissian, toward the answer to the thundering demand within him for blood. And then stopped. Lobot had him by the ankle. He wasn’t letting go. Pesky cyborg.
DRX was about to clobber him again (No! the tiny voice within screamed, no!) when a blast sounded and the room lit up as Lobot slumped forward, unconscious. The figure seemed enwrapped in some kind of blur, as if the atmosphere clouded around his dark robes. He lowered an old Imperial blaster and then handed it to DRX.
The blaster was set to stun, but that would do. That would be a start. And then the door flew open and the impresario himself came barreling out, wearing only a towel but with a blaster in each hand. DRX didn’t wait, firing once, hitting Calrissian in the shoulder, and again, the second shot blasting him backward against the wall. And then the whole world crackled to life as a red shard of light sizzled past, then another.
The Twi’lek: Kaasha Bateen. Also garbed in a towel, also armed, and in fact blasting away, teeth clenched, jaw set. The third shot flung toward DRX and found its mark, and the room spun as he tumbled backward and landed in a heap.
Kill, the voice raged, but it was a little quieter now, and the other voice, the deeper one, had grown, strengthened: No!
DRX looked up just in time to see the Twi’lek woman thrown back by a shot from the shadowy stranger, who then strode forward to the two crumpled bodies and let out a raspy, chilling cackle.
The kill voice was just a whisper now, and everything else in DRX screamed No! as another blaster shot echoed into the night.
“…FOR PRINCESS LEIA ORGANA. Urgent message. Urgent message for Princess Leia Organa. Please respond. Urgent—”
“Hngh…” Han Solo woke with a tiny foot in his face and an irritating droid voice in his ear. “What?” The tiny foot was attached to the tiny body of Ben Solo, mercifully sleeping for what seemed like the first time in days. Han’s eyes went wide. Would the boy wake?
“I will transfer the holo from Chancellor Mon Mothma immediately,” Leia’s protocol droid T-2LC droned.
“What? No!” Han sat up, still trying not to move Ben too much. He was shirtless, and his hair was almost certainly pointing in eight different directions. He probably had crust on his face. He didn’t much want to talk to Mon Mothma under regular circumstances, let alone half naked and bedheaded.
“You replied, What, Master Solo,” T-2LC replied. He was standing way too close. Droids had no sense of boundaries, especially protocol droids. “Therefore I—”
“Leia?” a voice said as the room lit up with the ghostly blue holoprojection.
Ben stirred, kicked Han once in the face.
“Oh,” Mon Mothma said, squinting at the projection that was being transmitted to wherever she was. “Excuse me, General Solo.”
“I’m not a general anymore,” Han growled, still trying to keep his voice down.
Mon Mothma nodded. “I am aware.” She already struck Han as a sort of spectral presence, all those flowy robes and that faraway look of hers. Being a see-through blue holoform only enhanced that. “It is my habit to refer to our veterans by their rank regardless of their status.”
“Is Leia around?”
“I could retrieve her for you,” T-2LC suggested, turning just enough so the bright hologram Mon Mothma landed on Ben’s sleeping face.
“Elsie!” Han snapped.
Ben’s eyes sprang open to a shining blue form dancing around him. He burst into tears. Han shook his head; couldn’t blame the kid, really—Han probably would’ve done the same thing if he’d suddenly woken to find himself enveloped in a Mon Mothma glow cloud. Which in a way he almost had, now that he thought about it. “Shh, come here, big guy.” He reached his hands under his son’s little arms and pulled him up so Ben was sobbing into Han’s chest. Han felt that tiny heartbeat pitter-pattering away as Ben snorfled and sniffed.
“I am sorry, sir. My programming indicates that when an urgent message is received I am to immediately alert the nearest member of the household, which in this case—”
“All right, can it, Elsie. Go find Leia.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“Just a moment, Elsie,” Mon Mothma said. Han raised an eyebrow at the sternness in her voice. “General Solo, may I offer the admittedly unsolicited advice that you not be so brusque with your droids? They are, after all, committed to the service of all of our safety and comfo—”
“No,” Han said.
“You asked if you could offer unsolicited advice and I answered your question.”
“You’re not going to come over to my house and tell me how to trea—”
“You know what I mean,” Han snarled. Ben, whose sobs had begun simmering to a quiet moan, started bawling all over again. “Great! Thanks, Your Mothfulness. You’ve been a great help this morning.”
Mon Mothma narrowed her eyes, exhaled sharply, and then motioned to T-2LC. “I bid you good day,” she said, shaking her head as the droid wandered off, splattering the ghostly blue lights across the walls as she went.
“The nerve,” Han grumbled, holding the still-crying Ben against his chest as he hoisted himself off the couch. “Ooh.” A flash of pain simmered along his lower back. Old battle wounds. Or just oldness. Or both. Fantastic. The holoscreen across the room said it was 0430. He had a pile of boring meetings today, kicking off a week of planning and preparing for the inaugural meeting of the New Republic Pilots Commission, which Han had grudgingly accepted the leadership of—a mistake he was still trying to figure out how he’d been suckered into. Han hated planning. He also hated preparing. But what he really hated above everything else, besides maybe the Empire itself, was meetings. And now the Empire had been gone for more than two years, the remnants of their fleet blasted out of the sky over Jakku just as Ben was being born, in fact, and that cleared the way for meetings to take the number one slot on the Things Han Hates list.
And if there was one thing this fledgling republic loved, it was meetings.
Ben’s sobbing had once again settled to a whimper and now became snores. Han laid him ever so gently on the couch and made his way toward the counter at the far end of the room. “Kriff,” he whispered as the sharp edges of one of his son’s cyrilform cambiblocks, and then another, dug into his socked foot. “Kriff kriff!” He glanced back at the couch, but Ben slept on.
“Caf,” Han muttered to BX the kitchen droid, whose photoreceptors lit up in response. Mon Mothma’s know-it-all voice rang through his mind: They are, after all, committed to our safety and comfort. “Please,” he added grudgingly.
“Right away, Master Solo! It is my absolute pleasure to be of service.”
BX-778, a brand-new class 3 culinary septoid droid, was supposedly an expert gourmet chef in more than fifteen thousand different styles of cuisine (although that remained to be seen). He was also way too enthusiastic about his job. Unlike the old WED septoid repair droids the Imperials used on their battlements, BX-778 had a rounded head planted among his seven arms. And since he was a household unit, Lando’s creepy geniuses at Calrissian Enterprises, or perhaps Lando himself, had imbued BX-778 with a personality. Of sorts.
“Coagulating the finest Endorian caf beans,” he chirped jauntily as one of his appendages swung open a floor hatch and another plunged into the crawl space below, appearing moments later with a scoop of the dark-brown beans. “Ah! Picked from the cliffs of the Campalan mountain range on the southeastern peninsula of the forest moon by well-compensated, humanely treated Ewok caf farmers!”
“Okay, okay, keep it down, scrap heap,” Han said. “We’re trying to keep this kid asleep for a minute.”
“Ah!” BX-778 exclaimed.
Han rubbed his eyes and groaned.
“Apologies, Master Solo. Now lowering volume by twelve percent.”
BX-778 poured the beans into a cylinder at the end of a third appendage. “Caf beans roasted at the gourmet artisanal factories of Hosnian Prime by the finest culinary master droids in the galaxy.” He paused, directing those wide, yellow-lit eyes at Han.
“Except you, Beex,” the droid said, shaking his head. “You’re supposed to say, The finest culinary master droids except you, Beex.”
“Is there a mute button on you?” Han asked, but his voice was drowned out by the whir of the caf grinder. “Keep it down, I said!”
“In order to make caf, caf beans must be ground.” Han was pretty sure he detected a sour note in the droid’s voice. He opted to ignore it. “Put another way,” the droid continued, “a culinary droid must grind the beans to make the caf, Master Solo.”
The first hint of morning crept along the dark-purple sky over the towering spires and domes of Hanna City. From the bedroom, he heard the faint, urgent mutterings of Leia and Mon Mothma as they debated whatever new crisis had rocked the Senate. Han sighed. The endless series of meetings and paperwork of the day ahead jabbered through his mind like an angry ghost. How did Leia do it? His wife seemed to have been born for the tedium and drear of politics. Sure, she griped to Han late into the night about intricate Senate intrigues and intergalactic wrangling, but even when she was frustrated, the thrill of it seemed to somehow light her up—a world she understood completely and was intimately a part of.
Han, on the other hand, could barely make it through a whole paragraph of that mindless bureaucratic jargon. He tried to keep the thread, especially when it was Leia talking, but his mind inevitably spun toward thoughts of open space, the escalating tremble of a ship about to enter hyperspace, the thrill of flitting carefree from moon to moon. Everything had seemed so simple during those heady, breathless years of rebellion. It wasn’t, of course—torture and death awaited any wrong move, and life in the grip of a seemingly unending war had ground them all down over time. But there was a mandate, a clear enemy to evade and destroy, a sense of mission, and with it all the reckless freedom of life in the underground.
Now…Han glanced at the small sleeping form of his son on the couch. The boy had seemed to light up the whole world when he’d first arrived: this simple, impossible sliver of hope amid so much death and destruction. But after all those years of war, Han was still braced for battle, and a new, fragile life meant a whole new sense of vulnerability. Leia had proven again and again she could fend for herself, even saving Han’s life more than a couple of times, and Han had finally managed to stop worrying so much about her all the time. Now there was a small, squirmy extension of himself out in the world and he honestly had no idea what to do about it.
A burst of steam erupted from the other side of the counter. “One piping-hot and delicious mug of Endorian-harvested, Hosnian-roasted, and Chandrilan-brewed caf, Master Solo,” BX-778 announced, now back to normal volume. “Get it? Because I brewed it here!” The droid placed the ceramic cup on the counter and threw all seven of his arms up, releasing a raucous peal of laughter. “On Chandrila!”
Across the room, Ben erupted into tears once again.
“Beex!” Han hollered. “I told you…” He sighed, rubbing his face, and headed back to the couch. What was the point? “I’m gonna bring you in for a personality makeover and a memory wipe.”
“Oh dear,” BX-778 warbled. “You seem testy, Master Solo.”
“Han,” Leia said, bursting into the room with her hands tangled in her long brown hair.
“I need the room, love. Gotta use the holomaps, and the bedroom projector isn’t big enough.”
Leia shot him a look, the one that canceled out whatever he was about to say without a word, and Han held up both hands. “Say no more, Princess.”
“Han,” Leia warned.
The room glowed with blue light again. “If we triangulate the coordinates, we should be able to…oh!” Mon Mothma’s flickering image entered a few seconds before T-2LC rolled through the door. “Excuse me once again, General Solo.”
“Han,” Leia said. “Put a shirt on, would you?”
“Caf for Senator Organa?” BX-778 chimed.
“Sure,” Leia said, and then she slipped into a gentle coo, opening her arms to the still-crying toddler on the couch. “And what’s wrong with my baby boy, hm?” She swept him up into her arms, groaning a little as she lifted him. “Ooh, he’s getting heavy so fast. Come here, little man, hush.” She rocked him back and forth, her braids dangling around him like a canopy, then shot a sharp glare at Han. “Did you feed him?”
Han raised his eyebrows. “Feed him? I…we were sleeping peacefully until the honorable chancellor here decided to—”
“Coagulating the finest Endoran caf beans,” BX-778 announced.
“Oh, here we go,” Han groaned.
Leia passed Ben to him as a map of the galaxy spun wild shadows and lights across the walls. “Take him in the bedroom, please? We’ll talk about this later. There’s something going on that Mon and I have to attend to.”
Red and yellow lights flashed urgently at various points on the holomap, and Han recognized the converging blips of the New Republic fleet. “Are you mobilizing?”
“Han,” Leia said. “Go.”
“And put a shirt on please!” Leia called over BX’s babble about Ewok caf farmers.
Han took a deep breath. After all that fuss, he’d gone and left his caf in the front room. He sat on the bed, adjusting Ben in his arms. No way was he going back out there. Not even for caf. And anyway, the bed was so comfortable. Leia had been up late the night before going over some boring statistical analysis of crop production on Yavin 4 and Han had volunteered to keep Ben out of her hair, partially just to preempt any kind of, Force forbid, conversation about agriculture. He’d flipped on a holoshow, some cartoon they had now called Moray and Faz, and the next thing he knew it was half past four and the flickering chancellor was monmothmaing all over his living room.
He could probably catch a tiny snooze before he had to get ready, he thought, lying back. Little Ben looked up groggily, those dark eyes settling on Han, studying him. Han had no idea how a two-year-old could have such ancient eyes. It was as if Ben had been waiting around for a millennium to show up at just this moment in history.
Slowly, Ben Solo’s eyes drifted closed as his chin settled on Han’s shoulder.
Han shook his head, smiling. Here he was thinking about fates and destinies. He was starting to sound like Luke.
The thought simultaneously made him smile and unsettled him, and it was that muddle of feelings that drifted along with him as sleep crept up without warning once again, and dissolved the bedroom, the fussing on the other side of the wall, the chirps of morning birds outside, the half light of a new day, all into a pleasant haze…
…Right up until a frantic knocking shoved Han rudely back into the world of awake.
“What?” He slid Ben carefully off him and stood, heart pounding.
Bang bang bang!
The balcony. It was coming from the door to the balcony. Keeping out of sight of the tall windows, Han picked up Ben and laid him ever so gently on the carpeted floor, on the far side of the room from the knocking. Then he crept to the bedside table, slid open the drawer, and retrieved his blaster. Disengaged the safety. Made his way to the door.
Bang bang bang!
In the corner now, one hand on the doorknob, the other on the trigger, he glanced at Ben. Still asleep. Everything in Han wanted to just kick through the nearest window and let loose a barrage of blasterfire. But that wasn’t the way, and if this was any threat at all, such recklessness would probably get himself and Ben killed.
Slowly, smoothly, he craned his neck to look at the small datascreen showing the balcony security feed.
All the tightened muscles in his body eased at the same time as he threw open the door, a huge smile breaking out across his face. There, in the purple haze of morning, stood Lando Calrissian, decked out as always in an impeccable dress shirt, half cape, shined boots, and a perfectly trimmed goatee.
“If it isn’t…” Han started, but he let his voice trail off.
One thing that was different about Lando: that wide scoundrel grin was not stretching across his face. In fact, he looked downright pissed.
“What’sa matter, old buddy? And why are you—?”
Han didn’t finish because now Lando was reaching back, winding up, fist tight, and then swinging forward with what looked like all his strength. And then, sure enough, fist met face and Han flew backward with a shocked grunt, thinking, as the world flushed to darkness: I should’ve probably seen that coming.
“NEXT THING I KNOW,” LANDO said, reaching for the bottle, “I’m laid out, by my own protocol droid no less.” He poured himself another three fingers of Corellian whiskey and shook his head.
“Wait,” Leia said, taking the bottle off the table and stashing it in a cabinet. “Why were you in a towel?”
Han looked up from the other end of the room where he’d been sulking and applying a glass of ice to his cheek. “Yeah, why were you in a towel?”
Lando stood. “You don’t get to ask questions yet, Han. I’m coming to your part in a minute.” He turned to Leia, flashed that smile. “Your Highness…”
Leia shook her head. “Sit down, Lando.”
He did, shrugging. “Anyway, Kaasha got off a few shots on the droid, and—”
“Kaasha?” Han cut in.
“Kaasha?” Leia asked.
“Kaasha Bateen. An old friend of mine from the Pasa Novo campaign. She’s good with a blaster.”
“Mm, bet she is,” Han muttered.
She was actually, Lando thought. It had been one of his last thoughts as the whole world fizzled into a gaping void: She can shoot, too? He shouldn’t have been surprised, really, but the last time he’d seen Kaasha she’d been running tactical attack models in the war room on Baltro and he’d never seen her fight. They’d had a good time together, but Kaasha had always made it abundantly clear she saw right through Lando’s smooth talking and all the broken promises of his wily grin. He’d liked that about her. Liked it more than he was ready to admit. But then the battle had ended and the survivors had trudged off to their respective planets, and that had been that. Or it should’ve been anyway, but the truth was, a tiny, smirking hologram of Kaasha seemed to have stayed with Lando somehow, like she’d sneaked an implant of some kind into his brain that last time they’d held each other.
He’d never reached out because that’s not how it works. That’s against the code. The promise of an obviously broken promise is that it stays broken, no matter what. Otherwise, what was the point?
Leia got up and retrieved the whiskey, poured a glass. “Was she in a towel, too?”
Lando grinned, both hands raised like he was being held up. “It’s not like that.”
“I’m sure it’s not,” Leia said. Han reached for her whiskey, and she moved the glass out of his grasp. “You have a pilots union session today.”
“And you’re about to meet with the security council.”
She rolled her eyes and clinked glasses with Lando. “All the more reason for a quick little nip.”
“Anyway,” Lando said, “when I come around, I’m staring up at this hooded droid. Not the protocol one—it’s the thing that was standing behind Dee-Arrex. Some kind of crookbacked class four from the look of it, but I’ve never seen a face quite like that one. Had glowing red eyes and a nasty mesh of rusted cables snaking around its head. Couldn’t see much else under that hood.” He shuddered. The fact was, it had been terrifying, coming back around to find that deranged droid monster glaring at him with those red eyes. Lando had actually gasped before he’d caught himself and forced on a more stubborn, cocky demeanor. “The Phylanx, the droid says.”
Han cocked an eyebrow. “Huh?”
“That’s exactly what I said,” Lando said. “Phywho now? And the droid says: The Phylanx Redux Transmitter. And when I say that’s not much help he claps me across the face and puts the blaster between my eyes.
“Are you or are you not the registered owner of a Corellian light freighter called the Millennium Falcon? the droid says.”
“Yeah, you’re damn right uh-oh. I said I’m not now but I was once, and I still don’t know about no damn Phylanx Transmitter. At this point, I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to have to blast my way out of this, but the droid’s collected all our weaponry. I’m guessing if I stall long enough, eventually Lobot will show up with the Bespin Wing Guard, but who knows how long that’ll take and anyway, this droid doesn’t seem like the type you can get one over on.
“The Phylanx Redux Transmitter was illegally obtained by the owner of the Millennium Falcon ten years ago, the droid says, and I would swear it sounded like it was really, really pissed about it. For a droid, anyway. My master would like it back.”
“Master?” Leia said.
Leia shook her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Han?”
Han was fiddling with the strap on his boot, a glass of ice still pressed against his face. “Hm?” he muttered without looking up. “Haven’t heard of him.”
“That’s fascinating,” Lando said, waving one finger like he was coming to the crux of a withering prosecution, “because I said the same exact thing! Why would I know about a Phylanx Whoozimawhatsit and a random gangster from a decade ago? Except then I realized something equally fascinating.” He looked at Leia.
Han was humming a little tune, still fussing with his boot.
“You didn’t have the Falcon ten years ago,” Leia said. She shot an eyebrow up. “Han did.”
Lando and Leia both turned to Han. He looked up. “Hm? Oh! Oh that Fyzen Gor? The Pau’an gangster who used to run with the Wandering Star?” A wide smile broke out across his face.
“Why I oughta—” Lando scooched his chair back with a screech and lunged halfway across the table.
“Easy.” Leia stood and threw an arm in Lando’s way as Han hopped up, palms out.
“Hey, hey, hey! It’s not…it’s just…”
“Yeah, you can’t even get that lie out of your lying mouth,” Lando growled. “This guy Fyzen is prepared to unleash a massacre on Cloud City if I don’t get him his little toy back, and whoever he is, he clearly has the means to do that. His droid got past my security, dropped two Wing Guard units single-handedly, and somehow turned my own protocol droid against me. Droids are my business now. It’s what I do. So if some creep can out-droid a droid impresario, well…that’s not a good look, okay? Everything can come crashing down. And you are the last person who seems to have seen this Phylanx thing, Haan, so start”—Lando leaned all the way across the table—“talking.”
For a few moments, they just stared at each other.
“Some fine Endoran caf to cool the nerves?” BX-778 suggested, whirring to life and sending all seven arms into action.
“Not now!” Han and Leia both snarled at the same time.
“It was just a suggestion,” BX mumbled, powering back down. “No need to get prickly.”
“I did a run,” Han said quietly. He sat, looking up at Lando, who still stood with his arms crossed over his chest. Leia sat very slowly.
Lando stared down Han for a good couple of seconds then took his seat. “Go on.”
“Ten years ago. With Sana Starros.”
“Ah, your other wife,” Leia said.
Han sighed. “Are we gonna do this now?”
“I must say,” Lando mused, “of all the women in the galaxy to get fake married to for a pile of land, you certainly picked a beautiful one.”
“Lando!” Han snapped. “Not helping.”
Leia shook her head with a tired grin and stood. “No, Han, we’re not doing this now, but I am going to let you boys figure this out yourselves. I do have an emergency security council session to get ready for, much as I’d like to stay and enjoy the fireworks.”
“Anything important?” Lando asked.
Leia shrugged. “Could be yes, could be no. You can never tell with these brand-new bureaucrats.”
“They’re mobilizing the fleet,” Han said.
“And you’re not even supposed to know that,” Leia snapped, “let alone say it out loud to someone not on the security council.”
“Hey.” Lando tipped his head. “I’m a war hero, remember?”
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean you have clearance. And we’re not at war anymore. And anyway, our fleet isn’t even a fully military one, remember? We’ve technically disarmed. Everyone’s still just scrambling to make sense of what this new democracy’s going to look like, so it’s like being a teenager: Every new crisis feels like the first one.”
“Good times,” Lando snorted.
“Heh.” She threw back her whiskey and kissed Han on the cheek. Han flinched and she swatted him. “Oh, come on, he didn’t hit you that hard.”
She nodded at Lando. “It’s good to see you, Lando. I’m sure my husband will do what’s right, both for you and for his family.”
Lando reached for her hand and kissed it. “And may I say, Your Highness, that—”
“You may not,” Leia said with a smile. “But I know you’ll try anyway.”
“You look absolutely—” The bedroom door whirring closed cut him off.
“You never change.” Han rubbed a hand through his hair and pulled up closer to the table. “You really don’t.”
Lando barked a laugh. “The Jawa calls the Ewok short! And anyway, I’ve changed quite a bit, thank you very much.” He poured Han some whiskey, slid it across the table: a peace offering.
Han raised an eyebrow. “Easy to be generous with someone else’s whiskey.”
Lando scoffed. “Don’t get cute, flyboy. You’re still in the dog house, you know.”
“Fair enough.” Han took the drink, clinked it with Lando’s. “Sana and I made a run on Fyzen back in the day, yeah, and there was a device of some kind involved, but I swear I don’t remember what it was exactly. And the whole thing went to hell. We didn’t even get paid! Not really, anyway.”
“Well, we’ve got some backtracking to do,” Lando said. “First of all, we need to find out where this Fyzen is now and where his device got to, and—”
“Han.” Lando felt the blood rushing back to his face, his fists, but it wasn’t anger at his old friend this time, it was something much worse. That…thing, had gotten the drop on him, caught him completely off guard. Lando was the most protected citizen of Cloud City, and he’d had a lifetime of experience getting himself out of trouble to know how not to get got. But somehow that red-eyed droid had gotten itself all the way to the inner sanctums of his home. “Seventy-two hours,” it had croaked. Up close, the droid reeked of some heady chemical antiseptic with hints of a slowly rotting carcass, like someone was trying to hide a body inside it. Lando had no doubt that whatever attack was set to be launched in three days would be devastating and merciless.
He shuddered, forced the calm façade back over himself. “Han, I know we’re here joking around, and I don’t totally know what this is all about yet, but the truth is, I need your help. It’s not just that you owe me because it’s probably all your fault in the first place—”
“Let me finish—outside of that, Han, if this creep Gor has a way to turn droids against us, imagine what that could mean for Cloud City—for the galaxy. If I don’t track down this Phylanx thing in three days for the guy, he’s coming for me, Han, and he’ll probably wipe out a good chunk of my city, too. Now the way I see it, we get this device and then we use it to lure Gor in and wipe him out. But I can’t do it without you, Han.”
“Lando, I…” He shook his head, gestured vaguely around the room: Ben’s toys scattered across the floor; some mindless holo of happy little monkey-lizards singing in trees playing on repeat forever on the deck; BX-778 preparing caf again even though no one had asked him to.
Lando wrapped his fingers behind his head and leaned back. “I don’t even have to pull the this-is-all-your-fault card, do I? You can’t wait to get out of here.”
Han frowned. “I just…”
The door flew open and Ben Solo, buck naked, hurtled in with a scream. “Unca Wanwo!”
“There’s my little buddy!” Lando said, scooping the boy up in his arms and turning him upside down to giggles and shrieks.
“Oh dear,” LC muttered, whirring along in Ben’s wake. “Terribly sorry, sirs, I was giving him a bath and he could barely contain himself when he heard that General Calrissian was here.” The droid reached out and plucked Ben out of Lando’s arms.
“That’s all right,” Lando said with a chuckle. “Always happy to see the young Mr. Ben.”
Han watched as his son squirmed in the droid’s metallic arms, reaching out for Lando and bursting into tears as LC whisked him out of the room.
“WHAT’S HER NAME?”
Han Solo squinted up from the swirl of dust he’d been staring at for…how long now? Who knew? He was tired, annoyed. Possibly drunk; he couldn’t even tell anymore. But if fed up was a state of being, he’d entered it at least a week ago and pretty soon was gonna have to start paying rent. He probably looked the part, too: His hair was certainly disheveled, and not in the cute, carefree way—just a damn mess. His white shirt was stained with…was that Ithorian blood? Probably. He’d washed it since that run-in with the Torrian security guards on Hosnian Prime, but that purplish stain wasn’t going anywhere.
The woman standing before him, on the other hand, was an absolute portrait of well put together. It wasn’t that she was wearing anything fancy, but her leather jacket was crisp and her pilot pants were creased and smooth; even the blasters hanging on each hip seemed to match her whole color scheme. Her braids were tied back in a ponytail that wrapped over one of her shoulders and her arms were crossed over her chest, a look of slight disapproval mixed with amusement on her dark-brown face. Behind her, a mottled array of starships, trawlers, and freighters stood at wait in the Takodanan dust field that had become the unofficial docking bay for Maz’s castle.
“Sana Starros,” Han said.
Sana rolled her eyes. “No, that’s my name. What’s her name?”
“Oh, the Millennium Falcon.” He nodded at the cockpit jutting out above his head. “And she’s not for sale.”
“Not the ship, you mynock.”
“Oh! Chewbacca. And she’s a he.” The Wookiee was passed out on a cot by the Falcon’s gangplank, snoring recklessly.
Sana sighed and took a seat on the little bit of bench next to Han, who stubbornly did not scootch over to make room for her. “I can’t tell if you’re actually this dense or you’re just really determined not to talk about what’s bothering you.”
Han allowed a smile and rubbed his face. Sana was right on all counts. He was wrecked in ways he didn’t even know how to describe, his insides had never felt so shattered, and he definitely didn’t want to talk about it. He slid over to give her more room on the bench, and she handed him a small pouch. “What’s this?”
“Hemchar root. One of Maz’s hangover cures. Just pour it down your gullet, you’ll be all right.” She pulled out another and tore it open. “C’mon, we’ll do it together.”
He stared at her. “You’re hung over? You look…”
“Beautiful? Why, thank you!”
“Just shut up and take the hemchar, Han.”
She emptied her own packet into her mouth as he watched, and then he tore his open and did the same. And then the whole ship hangar around him turned a very bright shade of purple. “Um…”
“Do they include…whoa!” It wasn’t just that everything was purple, it was that even brighter-colored splotches kept bursting out of nowhere.
“Technochrome hallucinations,” Sana admitted. “And sometimes olfactory ones, too, just FYI.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Han said, closing his eyes. “Was there a reason you came to find me here or was it just to make my life even weirder?”
“You looked like you could use a pick-me-up,” Sana said. “Ooh, turquoise!”
“And I have a job.”
Han shrugged, eyes still closed. “And?”
“A paying job.”
Sana made a low growling sound. “A job that I could use your help on…and a fast ship.”
“What’s the job?”
“Just gotta get this little thingymadoo and bring it from one place to another for someone is all.”
Sana looked offended. “So crass.”
“It’ll cost you.”
“Eeyn choo pitakra,” a screechy voice rasped. Both Han and Sana looked up. Five pinched, snarling faces glared back at them. The creatures formed a semicircle in the dusty open area. Crusty bald patches speckled their mangy black fur. One was missing an eye, another an arm. All carried stun clubs, their business ends charged and sparkling.
“Do the hallucinations include giant feral rats?” Han asked.
Sana glowered. “Sadly, these are quite real. And they’re probably mad about that landspeeder of theirs I borrowed.”
“Hassk bacha kree!”
The Hassks growled and closed in a few steps, twitching and seething as they raised their fizzling stun clubs.
Han looked up, above the grimacing Hassks, above the freighters and transports parked around them, to the sky, the glorious, shimmering sky. It went on forever; each trembling speckle of starshine contained whole universes, a million billion worlds, all glowing bright orange…
“Han?” Sana said under her breath. “You with me?”
“What is this stuff?”
“Maz might’ve said to only take a teaspoonful for hangovers,” Sana admitted. “Maybe not the whole packet.”
“Speena foolok m’shar!” the lead Hassk demanded.
“I’m sure Sana here will give you back your landspeeder if you ask nicely,” Han said. “No need to get personal.”
Sana frowned. “About that…”
The Hassks all yelled as one: “Frazkrit!”
“I kinda wrecked it.”
“Oh boy,” Han said.
“Yeah, long story. Anyway, we might need to make some moves…”
A high-pitched whine sounded: one of the stun clubs supercharging. Han felt like he was moving in slow motion as he stood and stepped out of the way of the sparkling blast. The Hassks chuckled, and more supercharges rang out.
“Chewie!” Han yelled.
Behind him, he heard the Wookiee stir and grumble something profane.
“I know you’re sleeping. But we could use a hand here…”
Another growled curse. The Hassks stopped chuckling.
“And weren’t you just talking the other day about how you wanted to wreck some Hassk ass?”
With a grunt and a clatter of metal—apparently, he’d been sleeping next to a toolbox, now spilled across the floor—Chewbacca rose to his full fur-covered height. He blinked in the harsh lights of the landing bay.
“Frazkrit,” one of the Hassks whispered.
“Parandoo mrakpan,” another suggested. “Shreevat.”
Sana shook her head. “Oh, now you wanna negotiate? You can negotiate with my Wookiee.”
Sana shrugged. “It’s an expression.”
“No, it’s no—” Han started, but then the Hassks charged, their stun clubs whining and crackling. Han spun out of the way, still in slow motion somehow, and clocked the nearest one across its gnarled face. His hand came back sticky, he didn’t want to imagine from what, but the Hassk stumbled away a few steps, stun club clattering to the ground. Two more came in swinging and then were swept clean out of the way as Chewie roared into the melee.
“Thanks,” Han said. “But bright green is a terrible color for you. Next time you want to dye your fur, let me know and we’ll find a better match.”
Chewie squinted a concerned look down at him.
A Hassk screeched behind them and flew backward.
“You’re welcome,” Sana said, blowing away the plume of smoke from her blaster. Howling and hissing, the Hassk raiders scattered into the shadows. “How’s it going, Chewie?”
Chewie moaned and shook his head.
“No!” Han growled. “You don’t.”
“So touchy. I was gonna measure it out properly this time.”
Chewie swatted the air at both of them like they were figments of some bad dream and went back to the bench he’d been sleeping on.
For a few seconds, Han and Sana took in the sudden silence and fading rainbow splashes around them. Han felt a strange kind of peace settle in.
“Nice shooting,” he said.
Sana smiled. “It was a good thing you ducked. My aim may be slightly compromised right now.”
A cleaning droid moped past, ancient gears whining in protest with each clomp.
Not far away, the sound of music and laughter rose from Maz Kanata’s castle as another night of debauchery and shenanigans got under way.
“It doesn’t matter,” Han said.
Sana nodded, didn’t press him any further.
Inside Han, some tiny part of himself let go, some knot he’d been tying over and over again just seemed to dissolve, and all it took was that tiny admission to just let it go.
He cocked an eyebrow at her. It was time to get back in the saddle. “You said you had some smuggling to do?”