Han Solo, former Prince of Corellia, stood in the elevator, watching the numbers ticking over as he rose to the 97th floor. He wished they would slow down. Not that he didn’t want to get back to the embassy – in fact it was the only place he felt safe since the whole mess had started.
No, it wasn’t the place. It was the people. Byriam and Kiewan. Waiting for him. With that hopeful expression on their faces. As though their entire universe depended on what he was going to tell them. That wouldn’t have been a bad thing if only he had some good news to give them. Instead, he was heading back with more disappointment.
As the numbers reached the 90s, Han thought back over the past few days. Although agreeing to take Byriam and Kiewan in had seemed like a good idea at the time, he had quickly started to regret it. He wasn’t some hero out of a holodrama, swooping in to save the princess. Or prince, in this case. Hell, he was a prince himself. Where was the hero to save him?
Still, somehow he had found himself cast in the role. So he spent his days trawling the lower levels of Coruscant in disguise, looking for a way off world.
A way out.
He snorted as the elevator reached his level. Slipping the key card out of the slot, he waited for the doors to open and then stepped out into the corridor. It was empty, flickering emergency lights the only illumination. He moved quickly, keeping as close as possible to the walls until he reached the door to the embassy offices. Keying in his code, he tapped his finger on his thigh as he waited for it to open. When it did, he slipped inside.
The lights were out and the blinds were closed, leaving him stuck in a strange half-light emanating from the console on Ly’s little desk. He glanced at it, imagined her sitting there, and winced.
There were no ways out.
Ever since Palpatine’s little gambit against the Alliance, Imperial Centre had been closed down. The planetary shields kept everyone in. Han had called in every favour, tracked down every dubious contact, but none of them had paid off. Most of those who had a ship couldn’t get a pass through the shields. Of those few who had a pass, fewer still were willing to take a risk on possible Alliance entanglements. And of those willing to take the risk, none of them were offering anything like the sort of prices Han could afford.
I’m never getting off this planet
, he thought. Not with them in tow, anyway.
Not for the first time, Han considered just ditching the two renegades and taking his chances alone. As he reached to the door to his office, he hesitated.
What if I just turn around and walk away? They’ll never know. In a couple of days, they’ll work it out and leave here on their own. I’m sure they’ll find someone to help them. There must be Alliance sympathisers still active on –
He broke off the line of thinking as the door whooshed open and a small, brown-haired tangle of arms and legs threw itself – or himself – at Han’s legs. He felt hands clutch at the back of his calves and looked down to see Kiewan, warm brown eyes so reminiscent of his mother’s. Han felt a shiver run down his spine.
“We were so worried,” the boy whispered.
Han forced a smile, feeling sick to the stomach at what he had been thinking of doing. He reached down and ruffled his hair.
“Nothing to be worried about.”
“How did it go?”
He looked up to see Byriam stood in the doorway, her eyes cold. She knows
, he thought. She knows exactly what you were just thinking about doing
. He assayed a cocky grin.
“I’m following up some leads.”
She shook her head. “Still nothing, then.”
“Listen, I –“
“You’re trying. I know.” She shook her head again. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired of this hiding, the constant fear.”
“We all are. But hey, it’s me. I’ll find us a way off world.”
She smiled, but he could see in her expression that she doubted very much that he could.
Disentangling himself from Kiewan, he led the boy into the office, then carefully shut the door behind them. He turned around and keyed in the security code, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t just avoiding Byriam’s eyes.
When he turned around, she had her back to him. He saw then that she was preparing some of the vegetables he had bought the day before in a casserole he kept for emergencies. Ly’ had bought it for him. He could hear her scolding tones as she told him he couldn’t live on takeaways and reheated meals all the time. He smiled, tinged with sadness.
His search for a way off world had included searching for her. He had scoured high and low in the hope of finding her, all to no avail. He had even begun to scan the hospital records and Coruscanti Security frequencies for any hint. Nothing.
Then, a few days before, he had heard about the culls.
A tiny Rodian boy had told him about them in a dive on Third Level. Han had been forced to pay him a dozen credits – more than a month’s wages for a docking rat like that – to get the info.
“They started after Wrinkly’s talk to the Senate,” the boy had whispered, his long snout twitching when he used the derogatory term about Palpatine. “Every night, squads of turtlebacks come to one of the lower levels and start rounding up people like me.” Han hadn’t needed to be a Jedi to know that he meant aliens. Non-humans being rounded up by stormtroopers. He had repressed a shudder.
“What happens to them?”
The boy had shrugged. “No one knows. They just… vanish.”
After that, he had intensified his search, trying desperately to find any sign that Ly’ was still out there. As the days had passed, though, he had started to despair. She’s gone. Taken by one of those squads.
The door signal cut through his thoughts, echoing around the office. Han’s sad smile vanished, replaced by a nervous frown. Byriam spun round, her mouth open and her eyes wide, while Kiewan ran to her, nestling up against her leg.
“What is it?”
Han shook his head, motioning for her to stay where she was. He turned and keyed in the code, trying to calm his beating heart. When the door swished open, he stepped out, turning back to lock it. He caught Byriam’s eye and smiled reassuringly. Probably nothing.
The last thing he saw before the door closed was the worried look on her face as she shook her head.
Once the door closed, he allowed the smile to fade. Who the hell could it be? He felt a sudden surge of adrenaline – could it be Ly’ana? After all this time?
He hurried over to her small desk and keyed on the holocam set up in the corridor outside. It wasn’t her. Instead, a troop of stormtroopers, led by a tall man in the dark grey uniform of the Imperial Navy, stood outside.
He bit back a curse. Hesitating, he wondered whether he could get Byriam and Kiewan out before they broke in. He took a step back towards his office when the officer looked straight into the camera.
“Prince Solo?” The man’s voice echoed through the speakers. “We know you are in there. The security grid picked up your arrival and alerted us. Please open the door.”
If they knew he was inside, they would not wait long before they pulled out their blasters. He didn’t want either Byriam or Kiewan stuck in the middle of a firefight.
Walking over to the door, he keyed in the code and allowed it to slide open, revealing the gleaming white armour of the stormtroopers and the drab uniform of the officer. Like every other imperial officer Han had seen on the planet, the man looked like Tarkin – thin, tall and cadaverous. The Tarkin look. This one, though, took it to a new level. He could have been Tarkin’s clone.
The man peered down his nose at Han, sniffing as he studied the outfit Han had begun wearing to ‘blend in’ in the lower levels – a stained greyish shirt, a similarly stained neo-leather jacket and dark blue military-style trousers with a Corellian bloodstripe. He had ordered the outfit custom made just before he left Corellia and it had come in handy during his time on Imperial Centre.
“Lieutenant. Lieutenant Kirtan Loor.”
Han forced a thin smile, trying to convey much more confidence than he felt. “Well, lieutenant
, perhaps you would like to explain to me why you are standing outside a sovereign embassy with a squad of stormtroopers at your heels.”
“Corellia is no longer a sovereign state, Prince
“So the holonews says. I’m still waiting for confirmation myself.”
“Funny, I didn’t know that you could get messages from Corellia down in the Lower Levels.”
Han tensed. They’ve been following me. They know what I’ve been doing. And if they know about that…
Loor smiled, a fair approximation of Tarkin’s own sinister smile, though not half as frightening. “That is neither here nor there, of course. I am here because we have reason to suspect that you are harbouring enemies of the state within these walls. Dangerous criminals who must be brought to trial.”
Dangerous criminals? Han would have laughed if he hadn’t been so terrified.
“I have a warrant here from Moff Tarkin requesting
that you hand them over. I have also been told to inform you that no harm shall come to you nor will any charges be brought against you, as long as you comply. Quickly.” From the tone of his voice, Loor left no doubt as to how he felt about the offer. “If you were to resist, however…” He pointedly glanced behind at the troopers, then back at Han.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Han replied, allowing a little of the fear he felt to leak into his eyes. He placed one hand on the wall beside him, as if to hold himself up. Safely out of sight, his fingers searched for the button he needed.
“Mister Solo, do not make this any more difficult than it has to be.”
I’ll make it just as difficult as I need to, slime-o. Drawing himself up, he reminded himself of every lesson his father ever taught him. This is for you, dad.
“I am still a Prince of Corellia, lieutenant,” he snapped. “And this is my terrain. So you tell Tarkin for me that if he wants something, he can activate the damned comm. unit and contact me himself.” As he pressed down on the hidden button, he stepped back from the door, and spoke the activation code for the defense systems. “Corellia 4.”
Two blast doors dropped into place in a matter of seconds, cutting off the office from the corridor. Han could picture the look on Loor’s face as three automated blasters dropped out of the ceiling above him and targeted the stormtroopers. He smiled as he heard surprised shouts through the comm. unit, followed by Loor’s voice.
“You’ve made a big mistake, Solo. A huge mistake.”
“That’s Prince Solo to you, you nerf herder,” Han muttered to himself.
He turned and ran to the office. Keying in the code again, he waited for the door to slide open then ushered Byriam and Kiewan out.
“What is happening?” Byriam asked, Kiewan’s arms wrapped around her middle.
“Trouble. It looks like the Imperials have revoked the lease on the offices.”
Instead of reacting with fear, Byriam just nodded and drew Kiewan closer. That’s my girl
, Han thought. He looked at the boy who stared back with huge wide eyes.
“Ready to go on an adventure, kid?”
Kiewan just stared.
It’ll have to do.
“Alright then. Let’s go.”
He waved both of them in front of him as the sound of blaster fire echoed through the office. Han glanced at the screen. Two of the stormtroopers were down, felled by the security blasters. They had sacrificed themselves to allow the others to take out the defences. Standing in a semi-circle, five of them kept up a steady hail of blaster bolts against the thick armoured doors, while two more crouched in front of the wall, working loose the panels to get at the wiring inside.
Go ahead fellers
, he thought. That’ll take you all day to get through.
Still, he hurried Byriam and Kiewan over to the wall beside his office. Pressing his hand against a specific section, he waited for a flare of heat to pass through his palm. Seconds later, the identification system confirmed who he was and activated the lock. The wall slid open, revealing a stairway lost in shadows.
“It goes to the roof. Go.”
As both of them vanished into the darkness, Han hesitated, taking a moment to look around. This had been his home for the past few months, or as close to a home as he had had for a long time. He remembered how he had felt when he first stepped through those doors. I’m sorry, dad
, he thought. I wanted to make you proud. Instead I’ve ruined everything
The sound of wiring shorting out caught his attention. He turned back to the holocam to see one of the stormtroopers kneeling next to an open panel on the far side of the corridor. He was rewiring the controls to the blast doors. Frack it!
Han had hoped the fake controls would fool them longer. Shaking his head, he followed Byriam and Kie up the stairs.
Both of them were waiting a few steps further up. He joined them, grabbing Kiewan’s other hand, and urged them to carry on running. They took the steps two by two, both adults almost carrying the smaller boy. The sound of their ragged, gasping breaths filled the air.
Five levels up, they reached another door. Han let go of Kiewan’s hand and pressed his palm to another plate. It slid aside, revealing a numbered pad, glowing red in the darkness.
“This leads out onto the roof, alright?” he said to Byriam. “There’s a speeder waiting in a small hangar bay off to the right. You go first, keep low, run along the wall. The moment the door opens, you run, you hear me? Keep Kiewan behind you.”
“What about you?”
He pulled the blaster from his belt. “I have a couple of surprises planned for our visitors. I’ll be right behind you.”
Byriam looked as though she was going to argue, but when Han shook his head she nodded instead.
Han keyed the code into the padd, then let his finger rest on the activation stub. He turned to look at her.
Securing her grip on Kiewan’s hand, she nodded. “Ready.”
Han pressed his thumb to the stub. The pad flashed green. With a hiss of compressed air, the door slid open.
To reveal a stormtrooper, his white armour gleaming in the sun’s dying rays. Everything seemed to slow, every action lasting a lifetime. Han’s heart skipped a beat. Byriam took in a short breath, as if to scream. A flash of light illuminated the darkened stairwell. An electric explosion tore at his ears. The smell of burnt flesh filled the air.
Han screamed, heard Kiewan cry out, and everything snapped back into real time. Without really knowing what he was doing, he aimed his own pistol and fired, taking the trooper in the shoulder as he began to turn his own rifle towards the boy. Han fired again, this time catching the trooper in the helmet. The globular eyes of his helmet flashed red and the soldier collapsed.
Byriam had stumbled back against the wall, her hands clutching at her belly. Blood had already begun to ooze out around the cauterising burns. Flecks of it were on her lips. Han dropped the pistol and moved to catch her as she crumpled to the stairs.
“No. No, don’t speak.” His eyesight was blurry and he dashed at his eyes. He looked down, pressing his palm against the wound. He felt wet blood against his flesh. “Save your strength.”
She coughed. “Kiewan. You have to… Get him out.”
“No way, no sister. Don’t you play the hero, you hear me. We’re all getting out of this.”
Her grip on his shoulder tightened. “No choice. Kiewan… all that matters.”
Han rubbed at his eyes again. “Don’t say that. You matter.”
Byriam smiled. “Must… be brave. Get… Kiewan… Safe.”
“I can’t,” Han whispered. “I can’t do this.”
“You have to. Padme… Padme wanted you to.”
Han stared at her, knowing that the look in her eyes would haunt him. As Padme’s did.
He felt her fingers brush against his arm. He looked down to find her hand wrapping around the pistol. He shook his head.
“Go,” she whispered. “I’ll hold them off.”
He didn’t move. He couldn’t. She reached up, pressing her other hand palm out against his chest and pushed. She had the strength of a wounded huber cat, but he stumbled back anyway. More out of horror at what was happening than anything else. He glanced down to find Kiewan huddled against the wall, his arms wrapped around his knees, staring at Byriam.
“Go,” she repeated. “Get him out.”
Although all he wanted was to deny her, he couldn’t. He nodded, moving like a puppet with his strings cut. Reaching down, he grabbed Kiewan, lifting the boy into his arms and pressing his face against his shoulder. The boy was so distraught that he hardly made a sound.
“It’ll be alright,” he whispered, running one hand over the boy’s hair. “It’ll be alright.”
Byriam smiled at him, a sad broken little thing. “I trust you,” she mouthed.
He didn’t wipe the tears away anymore. Never allowing his eyes to leave hers, he stepped up the last few steps and over the dead stormtrooper. Reaching down, he grabbed the blaster rifle, hefting it in his free hand. Kiewan moaned softly at the movement, but he quieted quickly.
“Don’t,” she said. “Just go.”
Hating himself, Han turned and ran.