With lowlifes of every species from three-eyed Gran to four-armed Hekto standing belly-to-bar, the Red Ronto reminded Han Solo of that cantina back on Mos Eisley—the one where he had first met Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi all those years ago. Smoke hung in the air so thick and green he could taste it, and the bartender was pulling drinks from a tangle of pipes and spigots more complicated than a hyperdrive unit. There was even an all-Bith band onstage—though instead of upbeat jatz, they were blasting the room with outdated smazzo.
Usually, the driving bass and stabbing wailhorn made Han think of banging coolant lines. But today he was feeling it, and why not? This trip promised to be more getaway than mission, and he was looking forward to seeing his old friend Lando Calrissian again.
“I don’t like it, Han,” Leia said, raising her voice over the music. “It’s not like Lando to be so late.”
Han turned to look across the table, where Leia sat with a half-empty drink in front of her. Wearing a gray gunner’s jacket over a white flight suit, she was—as always—the classiest female in the joint . . . and, despite a few laugh lines, still the most beautiful. He thumbed a control pad on the edge of the table, and the faint yellow radiance of a tranquillity screen rose around their booth. The screen was a rare touch of quality for a place like the Red Ronto, but one Han appreciated as the raucous music faded to a muffled booming.
“Relax,” he said. “When has Lando ever missed a rendezvous?”
“My point exactly. Maybe that pirate problem is more dangerous than he thought.” Leia nodded toward the entrance. “And take a look at that miner over there. His Force aura is filled with anxiety.”
Han followed her gaze toward a young olive-skinned human dressed in the dust-caked safety boots and molytex jumpsuit of an asteroid miner. With a nose just crooked enough to be rakish and a T-6 blaster pistol hanging from his side, the kid was clearly no stranger to a fight. But he was not exactly streetwise, either. He was just standing there in the doorway, squinting into dark corners while he remained silhouetted against the light behind him.
“He doesn’t look like much of a threat,” Han said. Still, he dropped a hand to his thigh holster and undid the retention strap. As a Jedi Knight, Leia felt things through the Force that Han could not sense at all, and he had long ago learned to trust her instincts. “Probably just some crew chief looking for new hires.”
The miner’s gaze stopped at the Solos’ booth. He flashed a brash smile, then said something to the bartender and raised three fingers.
“He’s looking for us, Han,” Leia said. “This must have something to do with Lando.”
“Could be,” Han allowed, but he hoped Leia was wrong. Missed rendezvous and strange messengers were never a good sign.
Any lingering doubt about the miner’s intentions vanished when the bartender handed him a bottle of Corellian Reserve with three glasses and he started in their direction. There was something in his bold stride and cocky grin that set Han on edge.
“Whoever he is, I don’t like him,” Han said. “He’s way too sure of himself.”
Leia smiled. “He reminds me of you at that age,” she said. “I like him already.”
Han shot her a scowl meant to suggest she needed an eye exam, and then the newcomer was at their table, stepping through the tranquillity screen. He placed the glasses on the table and opened the bottle.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, pouring. “But they keep a case of Reserve on hand for Lando, and I thought you might prefer it to the usual swill around here.”
“You were right,” Leia said, visibly relaxing at the mention of Lando’s name. “Whom shall I thank?”
The miner placed a hand on his chest. “Omad Kaeg, at your service,” he said, bowing. “Captain Omad Kaeg, owner and operator of the Joyous Roamer, one of the oldest and most profitable asteroid tugs in the Rift.”
Han rolled his eyes at the overblown introduction, but Leia smiled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain Kaeg.” She motioned at the table. “Won’t you join us?”
Kaeg flashed his brash smile again. “It would be an honor.”
Instead of taking a seat where Leia had indicated, Kaeg leaned across the table to set his glass in the shadows on the far side of the booth—an obvious attempt to position himself where he could watch the door. Han quickly rose and allowed Kaeg into the back of the booth. If a stranger wanted to place himself in a crossfire zone between two Solos, Han wasn’t going to argue.
“So, how do you know Lando?” Han asked, resuming his seat. “And where is he?”
“I know Lando from the miners’ cooperative—and, of course, I supply his asteroid refinery on Sarnus.” Kaeg’s gray eyes slid toward the still-empty entrance, then back again. “I think he’s at the refinery now. At least, that’s where he wants you to meet him.”
Han scowled. “On Sarnus?” The planet lay hidden deep in the Chiloon Rift—one of the densest, most difficult-to-navigate nebulae in the galaxy—and its actual coordinates were a matter of debate. “How the blazes does he expect us to find it?”
“That’s why Lando sent me,” Kaeg said. “To help.”
Kaeg’s hand dropped toward his thigh pocket, causing Han to draw his blaster and aim it at the kid’s belly under the table. He wasn’t taking any chances.
But Kaeg was only reaching for a portable holopad projector, which he placed on the table. “Let me show you what you’ll be facing.”
“Why not?” Han waved at the holopad with his free hand.
Kaeg tapped a command into the controls, and a two-meter band of braided shadow appeared above the pad. Shaped like a narrow wedge, the braid appeared to be coming undone in places, with wild blue wisps dangling down toward the corrosion-pitted tabletop and even into Han’s drink.
“This, of course, is a chart of the Chiloon Rift,” Kaeg said.
He tapped another command, and a red dash appeared in the holomap, marking the cantina’s location on Brink Station just outside the Rift. The dash quickly stretched into a line and began to coil through the tangled wisps of hot plasma that gave the Chiloon Rift its distinctive array of blue hues. Before long, it had twisted itself into a confusing snarl that ran vaguely toward the center of the nebula.
“And this is the best route to Lando’s refinery on Sarnus,” Kaeg said. “I’ve been doing my best to keep the charts accurate, but I’m afraid the last update was two standard days ago.”
“Two days?” Han asked. With three kinds of hot plasma rolling around at near light speed, hyperspace lanes inside the Rift tended to open and close quickly—sometimes in hours. “That’s the best you can do?”
“I’m sorry, but, yes,” Kaeg said. “It’s important to take it slow and careful in there. If you were to leave a hyperspace lane and punch through a plasma cloud, you would fry every circuit on your ship—including your navigation sensors.”
“You don’t say,” Han said. Hitting a plasma pocket was one of the most basic dangers of nebula running, so it seemed to him that Kaeg was working way too hard to make sure he knew how dangerous it was to travel the Rift. “Thanks for the warning.”
“No problem.” Kaeg grinned, then let his gaze drift back toward the cantina door. “Any friend of Lando Calrissian’s is a friend of mine.”
Instead of answering, Han caught Leia’s eye, then tipped his head ever so slightly toward their tablemate. She nodded and turned toward Kaeg. After forty years together, he knew she would understand what he was thinking—that something felt wrong with Kaeg’s story.
“We appreciate your concern, Captain Kaeg.” Leia’s tone was warm but commanding, a sure sign that she was using the Force to encourage Kaeg to answer honestly. “But I still don’t understand why Lando isn’t here himself. When he asked us to look into the pirate problem in the Rift, he was quite insistent that he would meet us here at the Red Ronto personally.”
Kaeg shrugged. “I’m sorry, but he didn’t explain the change of plans. His message only said to meet you here and make sure you reached Sarnus.” Continuing to watch the door with one eye, he paused, then spoke in a confidential tone. “But I don’t blame you for hesitating. This trip could be very risky, especially for someone your age.”
“Our age?” Han bristled. “You think we’re old or something?”
Kaeg finally looked away from the door. “Uh . . . no?” he replied. “It’s just that, uh—well, you do need pretty quick reflexes in the Chiloon Rift.”
“It’s called experience, kid,” Han said. “Someday, you might have some yourself . . . if you live that long.”
“No offense,” Kaeg said, raising his hands. “I’m just worried about you heading in there alone.”
“Don’t let a few wrinkles fool you, Captain Kaeg,” Leia said. “We can take care of ourselves.”
Kaeg shook his head almost desperately. “You wouldn’t say that if you had ever been inside the Rift,” he said. “It isn’t the kind of place you should go without a guide on your first visit. The plasma in there kills S-thread transmissions, so HoloNet transceivers are worthless—and even emergency transmitters aren’t much good.”
“What about the RiftMesh?” Han asked. “All that communications hardware, and you’re telling me it doesn’t work?”
“The ’Mesh works, but it’s slow. It can take an hour for a beacon to relay a signal.” Kaeg tapped the holopad controls again, and a multitude of tiny white points appeared in the holochart. “And it’s not unusual for a message to pass through a thousand beacons before being picked up. Trust me, there’s no lonelier place in the galaxy to be stranded.”
“It’s a wonder any rock grabbers go in there at all,” Han replied. “I can’t imagine a worse place to be dragging around half a billion tons of ore.”
“It’s worth it.” Ignoring Han’s sarcasm—or possibly missing it altogether—Kaeg flashed a square-toothed grin. “The tumblers in the Rift are fantastic, my friend. There are more than anyone can count, and most are heavy and pretty.”
By tumblers, Kaeg meant asteroids, Han knew. Heavy and pretty was slang for a high content of precious metals. According to Lando, the Chiloon Rift contained the largest and most bountiful asteroid field anywhere, with more capture-worthy tumblers than any other place in the galaxy. Unfortunately, its roiling clouds of plasma and a sudden infestation of pirates meant it was probably also the most dangerous.
“Which is why the pirates are hitting asteroid tugs instead of ingot convoys,” Leia surmised. “The convoys have combat escorts, but the tugs are hauling all that valuable ore around alone, with no one to call for help.”
Kaeg nodded eagerly. “It’s terribly dangerous. You can send a message and go gray waiting for an answer.” He winced almost immediately, then said, “No offense, of course.”
“None taken,” Leia said, a bit stiffly. “But with all of those asteroid tugs running around, I can’t imagine the pirates coming after a small vessel like the Falcon.”
Not seeming to notice how he was being tested, Kaeg shrugged and leaned forward. “Who knows?” he asked. “Even if the pirates aren’t interested in the Falcon, there are many other dangers.”
“And let me guess,” Han said. “You’re willing to make sure we have a safe trip—for the right price?”
“I could be persuaded to serve as your guide, yes,” Kaeg said. “As I said, any friend of Lando Calrissian’s is a friend of mine.”
“How very kind of you.” Leia flashed a tight smile, and again Han knew what she was thinking. No trick was too low for a pirate gang, and one of their favorites was to slip a saboteur aboard the target vessel. “But you still haven’t explained why Lando didn’t meet us here himself.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Kaeg said. “As I mentioned, he didn’t give a reason.”
Han leaned toward Kaeg and pointed a finger at him. “You see, now, that’s where your story falls apart. Lando isn’t the kind of guy who fails to show with no explanation. He would’ve said why he couldn’t make it.”
Kaeg showed his palms in mock surrender. “Look, I’ve told you all I know.” He focused his attention on Leia. “Lando kept the message short. I’m assuming that’s because he didn’t want everyone in the Rift to know his business.”
“And why would that happen?” Leia asked. “Do you have a habit of breaking confidences?”
Kaeg scowled and shook his head. “Of course not,” he said. “But I told you—Lando sent that message over the RiftMesh.”
“And?” Han asked.
Kaeg sighed in exasperation. “You really don’t understand how things work here,” he said. “The RiftMesh is an open network—open, as in one single channel. Everybody listens, with nothing encrypted. If a message is encrypted, the beacons won’t even relay it. That makes it tough to keep a secret, but it also makes life hard on the pirates. They can’t coordinate a swarm attack if everybody is listening to their chatter over the RiftMesh.”
“And that works?” Han asked.
Kaeg waggled a hand. “It’s not perfect. The pirates find other ways to coordinate,” he said. “But the ’Mesh is better than nothing. And it helps the rest of us track one another, so our tugs don’t pile up when a good hyperspace lane opens.”
Han turned to Leia. “That actually makes sense.”
“As far as it goes.” Leia did not take her eyes off Kaeg. “But he’s been working pretty hard to get us to take him on, and that just doesn’t make sense.”
“Yeah, I know.” Han glanced back at their confused-looking table companion. “Since when do tug captains have time to take on extra work as tour guides?”
The confusion vanished from Kaeg’s face. “Is that all that’s troubling you?” he asked. “My tug has been in for repairs for a month. That’s how Lando knew I would be here to give you his message. And, quite honestly, I could use something to do.”
Han considered this, then nodded and holstered his blaster. “Maybe we’re being too hard on the kid,” he said. “After all, he did know about Lando’s stock of Corellian Reserve.”
Leia continued to study Kaeg for a moment, no doubt scrutinizing him through the Force, then said, “Fair enough. But he’s worried about something.”
“Yes,” Kaeg said. “I’m worried that you aren’t going to let me guide you to Sarnus.” He glanced toward the door again. “But if you don’t want my help, you know how to use a holochart.”