Coruscant’s underlevels seemed to suffer beneath the weight of the city above. Cracks erupted across duracrete walls, metal girders twisted out of shape, holographic signs bent until they were unrecognisable – everything pointed to structural flaws soon to drag the entire planet down into one massive sinkhole. And yet Coruscant had survived – almost unchanged – for centuries beyond count. These lower levels had survived invasion, war, economic catastrophe, the fall of a Republic and the rise of an Empire, without ever collapsing. In fact, they wore the scars of those events as badges of honour.
Han had never noticed how dingy these levels were. The few times he had delved down into the lower levels, it had been an adventure, a chance for him to spend some of his father’s money without worrying about who might be watching. Always he had had Ly’ana at his side, guiding him, helping him, protecting him.
Forcing his gait to a slow shuffle, Han rounded his shoulders and kept his eyes fixed on the ground. It seemed the safest way to avoid entanglements with the rough denizens of these lower levels. Those few who did notice them only gave them the slightest of curious glances. Otherwise, most seemed too interested in their own problems to pay attention to man or boy.
Still, Han was careful to keep Kiewan close. He had seen children, bedraggled and dirty, limping through the streets in little more than rags. Many seemed to work in the factories, their drab clothes thick with the stench of reclamation plants and grimy with ash. Others seemed to be kept for less honorable uses. Either way, Han had no intention of allowing anything to happen to the boy. He had made a promise to Byriam and a silent vow to Padme.
Glancing down at Kiewan, now, Han hoped that it wasn’t all too much for the boy. The garish signs, the grimy walls, the powerful stench of decay and excrement and effluent and spoiled produce combined in an assault on the senses. Han could not imagine Kiewan had much more experience of such places than he did, regardless of the fact that the boy was a padawan apprentice.
Still there was little he could do to shield the boy. From the seedy assortment of bars and casinos, to the cheap hotels and brothels, via the fighting pits and torture parlours, these lower levels were a harsh enough reality for anyone, Han included.
The two of them had been together ever since Byriam’s death. Han had done as she had asked, getting Kiewan to a safe place, renting a room in a hotel at ground level with most of his remaining credchips. As that small pile of creds diminished, they had gradually been forced to move further and further down.
Luckily, the lower down they went, the more chance Han believed he would have of finding someone who could get them off-world.
They made their first stop of the day at a cantina nestled between a brothel and a temple to some Outer Rim deity, where spacers came to relax while waiting for a job. Kiewan at his side, Han sidled up to the bar, forcing a smile as the burly Rodian barkeep turned to him.
“What d’you want?”
“I was wondering whether anyone had come in looking for Vykk Drago?”
Han had left a number of messages on public message boards under the alias, discreetly looking for pilots willing to get some cargo off Coruscant.
“No. You want something to drink?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. You want something to drink?”
“No, I just-“
“If you don’t want to drink, then frack off.”
Han scowled, looking down at Kiewan, who was staring around at the electic crowd of Rodians, Wookies, Sullustans, Trandoshans, Ergesh, Killik and Geonosians gathered in the cantina. “Watch your mouth, friend, there’s a kid here.”
“Do I look like I give a frack about your fracking kid, friend
? Now get lost.”
Swallowing his pride, Han grabbed Kiewan around the arm and led him back out into the street. The boy looked up at him.
“I have some other places to check and then we can get back to the hotel, okay?”
Kiewan looked back at the cantina. “More places like that?”
“That’s where we’ll find a pilot to get us off world?”
“Back to my mom and dad?”
Han swallowed hard, the sight of Padme’s sightless brown eyes flashing before his eyes. Neither he nor Byriam had had the heart to tell Kiewan what had happened to Padme. He forced a smile now, praying to all the gods that the boy’s father was still alive. If the boy was all alone…
“Yeah, kid, back to your parents.”
Their second shop took them to an information broker. This time, Han left Kiewan stood by a holoscreen showing a swoop-race on some back of beyond dustball under Imperial control while he checked whether anyone had shown any interest in his job offer. No one had.
Cutting through a mess of alleys filled with unrecycled waste, Han and Kiewan arrived at the second cantina in their hunt, a dive calling itself the Angel of Jarmo. A holosculpture twirled on its roof, two and half metres of buxom bosoms and long pale legs barely hidden beneath a diaphonous white dress. Arms raised towards the heavens, the Angel peered down at Han and Kiewan with a come-hither pout on her face. Han blushed, hurrying Kiewan into the foul-smelling interior.
Spoiled ale, gene-modified spice and boiling cooling pipes filled the air with an unbelievable stink. The far side lost in shadows, the rest of the bar held circular tables and chairs, which appeared to have been reclaimed from the wreck of some ancient Imperial cruiser. Han led Kiewan over to the bar and asked again if anyone had left a message for Vykk Drago. He was turning to leave again when the barman’s response actually registered.
“What did you say?”
“Drago, right? Some guy came in an hour ago, looking for you.”
Han fought down a sudden surge of excitement. “Is he still here?”
“Somewhere in the back.” The barman waved a hand, not really looking at Han anymore. “Ask one of the girls for Car’das’ man.”
Leading Kiewan by the hand – and trying not to hurry too much – Han headed into the depths of the interior, the smell intensifying as the lights dimmed. Catching the eye of a passing Rodian barmaid, he asked for Car’das’ man as he had been told and was directed to a booth right at the back of the cantina, where a man sat alone.
Han took in the high class clothes – white shirt laced in the front, cape thrown over the table – and the carefully groomed beard and moustache, and thought the barman must have made a mistake. He was about to turn back when the man looked up and saw them.
“Vykk Drago, I presume?”
Taken by surprise, Han could only nod.
“Please join me.” Sliding into the booth – and trying to avoid putting his hand on the various sticky stains that marred the leather – Han pulled Kiewan with him. The man smiled at the boy, though Han saw a flicker of surprise in his eyes. It was gone by the time he looked back and locked eyes with Han.
“Talon Karrde, at your service,” the man said, nodding his head. “I’m a pilot in the employ of a… businessman with certain interests here on Coruscant. I understand you are looking for someone willing to make a… cargo run.”
Han nodded. “Me and the boy. Off planet. No questions asked.”
“Ah, the inevitable difficulty. No questions asked. A queer request, especially when the cargo is only passengers.”
Gritting his teeth, Han said, “Payment won’t be an issue, I can…”
Karrde waved a hand. “No, I’m sure payment would not be an issue for the Crown Prince of Corellia. Mr. Drago.”
The stirrings of unease he had felt since sliding into the booth exploded into full blown paranoia. Gripping Kiewan’s hand, he stood. “You’ve got the wrong guy. Looks like I do too.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Mr. Drago,” Karrde said, but Han wasn’t listening. Keeping a tight hold of Kiewan’s hand, he half dragged him between the tables, ignoring the boy’s moans of pain. Only once they were out and a few blocks away from the cantina did he allow himself to relieve the pressure. Kiewan snatched his hand back, glaring up at Han as they stepped off the main street and into a small alley.
“What did you do that for?”
Fighting back the urge to snap at the boy, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, kid. I just needed you to follow me. Quickly.”
“I don’t see why. That man knew who you are. He could have helped us get to my parents.”
He knew who you are.
That was the problem. How could this Karrde possibly have figured out who he was? He had been careful. He was sure that he-
A beeping pierced the silence in the alleyway, sending Han’s pulse racing. His blaster was almost out of its holster before he realised that it was the comm unit at his belt. No one had tried to contact him since he fled the embassy. Han hadn’t even been sure it was still working. Who could it be?
Motioning for Kiewan to stay quiet, Han pulled the comm unit off his belt and raised it to his ear. Activating it, he tried a tentative, “Hello.”
“Is this Prince Solo?”
A male voice. Han tried to work out whether it could be the same as the man he had just left in the cantina, but he didn’t think so. The intonation was too sharp, the accent too Core. Imperial? Why contact him, now, though?
“Who is this?”
“I don’t have a lot of time.” Han recognised the same tension in this man’s voice as must be in his own. “My name is Lance Organa, I was a member of the Galactic Alliance negotiating team and I am currently incarcerated in an Imperial Internment Camp somewhere in the lower levels. I was given your name and your comm access code and told to contact you. We need your help, Prince Solo. You may be our only hope.”
Han’s mind whirled. Organa? Internment Camp? What the frack was going on? Of course, he remembered Organa. But he was dead, along with the rest of the Alliance representatives. Along with Padme. And her daughter.
“Prince Solo? Are you there?”
In his mind’s eye, Padme’s bore into his, trying to pass on a silent message. Help my children.
Anger flared in Han’s gut and he had to fight not to crush the comm unit against the wall. “I don’t know what kind of sick game you are playing, friend, but you’re not going to trick me. So why don’t you tell your Imperial handler that-“
“Oh by the Force!” A female voice cut him off. He heard the sounds of static over the line, like someone trying to seize the comm unit from someone else. “Prince Solo, this is Jedi Leia Skywalker. We met briefly. I trust you recognise my voice?”
It certainly sounded like her. Kiewan seemed to agree. His eyes wide, he was jumping up and down. Han quelled him with a gaze, concentrating on the comm unit. It couldn’t be. The entire holo net had been buzzing with the news that the entire Alliance contingent had been killed by order of the Emperor. If he still had some of them alive, surely he would be parading them through court, putting them on trial…
“Prince Solo, we don’t have time. We are here in this Internment Camp with your assistant. Ly’ana? She told us to contact you.”
Ly! Ly was there? In an Internment Camp? Anger flared again. “Put her on.”
“I can’t do that. Trust me, she has put a lot on the line to allow us to get through to you.”
Han didn’t like the sound of that. Before he could ask her what she meant, though, Leia pressed on.
“We are trapped down here, Prince Solo, but we may have found a way out. The problem is, once we are out, we have no way off the planet. We need your help with that.”
“My help? Listen, sister, I can’t even get myself off this rock, let alone you. I don’t have access to any kind of ship. The Empire revoked my clearances, my codes, my papers. Everything that might allow me to get off planet. I can’t even contact my father.” Not that it would do any good
, he thought. Not if what they’ve been saying about Corellia is true.
“It can’t be done.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Leia’s voice, again. “You have to find a way. We will be back in contact in two days with a time and a place. If you’re there, maybe we can all get out of here together. If you’re not… On your head be it.”
The comm unit died.
On your head be it
. Han closed his eyes, struggling against the urge to scream. He had been finding it difficult enough to handle the responsibility of getting Kiewan offworld. Now he had the lives of who knew how many Alliance sympathisers – and Ly’ana – cradled in the palms of his hands. And all he wanted was to go home.
Tiny fingers slipped into his palm. Han looked down at Kiewan.
“It’ll be alright. We can help them.”
There was so much hope and certainty in those brown eyes that Han felt his throat clench. If Kiewan could put so much faith in him – if Ly’ana could tell these people that he could do it – maybe it was about time he believed them.
Rolling his shoulders, he breathed out, trying to let all of his fears and uncertainty flow out at the same time. He was a Prince of Corellia. It was about time he started acting like one.
“Come on,” he said, squeezing Kiewan’s hand. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” the young Padawan asked him as they stepped back onto the street.
“We’re going to buy us a way off this rock.”
I just hope Karrde is still there.