“Cakhmaim’s getting to be a pretty good shot,” Han said over the sound of the reciprocating quad laser cannon. “Remind me to up his pay—or at least promote him.”
Leia glanced at him from the copilot’s chair. “From bodyguard to
Han pictured the Noghri in formal attire, setting meals in front of
Han and Leia in the Falcon
’s forward cabin. His upper lip curled in
delight, and he laughed shortly. “Maybe we should see how he does
with the rest of these skips.”
The YT-1300 was just coming out of her long turn, with Selvaris’s
double suns off to starboard and an active volcano dominating the forward
view. Below, green-capped, sheer-sided islands reached up into
the planet’s deep blue sky, and the aquamarine sea seemed to go on
forever. Two coralskippers were still glued to the Falcon
’s tail, chopping
at it and holding position through all the insane turns and evasions,
but so far the deflector shields were holding.
His large hands gripped on the control yoke, Han glanced at the
console’s locator display, where only one bezel was pulsing.
“Where’d the other swoop go?”
“We lost it,” Leia said.
Han leaned toward the viewport to survey the undulating sea.
“How could we lose—”
“No, I mean it’s gone. One of the coralskippers took it out.”
Han’s eyes blazed. “Why, that—which one of ’em?”
Before Leia could answer, two plasma missiles streaked past the
cockpit, bright as meteors and barely missing the starboard mandible.
“Does it matter?”
Han shook his head. “Where’s the other swoop?”
Leia studied the locator display, then called up a map from the
terrain sensor, which showed everything from the mouth of the
estuary clear to the volcano. Her left forefinger tapped the screen.
“Far side of that island.”
“Any skips after it?”
A loud explosion buffeted the Falcon
“We seem to be the popular target,” Leia said. “Just the way you
Han narrowed his eyes. “You bet I do.”
Determined to lure their pair of pursuers away from the swoop, he
threw the freighter into a sudden ascent. When they had climbed
halfway to the stars, he dropped the ship into a stomach-churning
corkscrew. Pulling out sharply, he twisted the ship through a looping
rollover, emerging from the combo headed in the opposite direction,
with the two coralskippers in front of him.
He grinned at Leia. “Now who’s in charge?”
She blew out her breath. “Was there ever any doubt?”
Han focused his attention on the two enemy craft. Over the long
years, Yuuzhan Vong pilots faced with impossible odds had surrendered
some of the suicidal resolve they had displayed during the early
days of the war. Maybe word had come down from Supreme Overlord
Shimrra or someone that discretion really was the better part of valor.
Whatever the case, the pilots of the two skips Han was stalkling apparently
saw some advantage to fleeing rather than reengaging the ship
their plasma missiles had failed to bring down. But Han wasn’t content
to send them home with their tails tucked between their legs—
especially not after they had killed an unarmed swoop pilot he had
come halfway across the galaxy to rescue.
“Cakhmaim, listen up,” he said into his headset mike. “I’ll fire the
belly gun from here. We’ll put ’em in the Money Lane and be done
with them.”Money Lane
was Han’s term for the area where the quad lasers’
firing fields overlapped. In emergency situations, both cannons could
be fired from the cockpit, but the present situation didn’t call for that.
What’s more, Han wanted to give Cakhmaim the chance to hone his
firing technique. All Han and Leia had to do was help line up the
From the way the coralskippers reacted to the Falcon
turnabout, Han could almost believe that the enemy pilots had been
eavesdropping on his communication with the Noghri. The first
skip—the more battered of the pair, showing charred blotches and
deep pockmarks—poured on all speed, separating from his wingmate
at a sharp angle. Smaller and faster, and seemingly helmed by a better
pilot, the second skip shed velocity in an attempt to trick the Falcon
into coming across his vector.
That was the skip that had taken out the swoop, Han decided,
sentencing the pilot to be the first to feel the Falcon
Leia guessed as much, and immediately plotted an intercept
Exposed, the skip pilot went evasive, moving into the gunsights
and out again, but with mounting panic as the Falcon
into kill position. The dorsal laser cannon was programmed to fire
three-beam bursts that, all these years later, still had the ability to
outwit the dovin basals of the older, perhaps more dim-witted coralskippers.
While the enemy craft was quick to deploy a gravitic anomaly
that engulfed the first and second beams, the third got through,
blowing a huge chunk of yorik coral from the vessel’s fantail. Han
tweaked the yoke to place the skip in the Money Lane, and his left
hand tightened on the trigger of the belly gun’s remote firing mechanism.
Sustained bursts from the twin cannons whittled the skip to
half its size; then it blew, throwing pieces of coral wreckage in every
“That’s for the swoop pilot,” Han said soberly. He turned his
attention to the second skip, which, desperate to avoid a similar fate,
was jinking and juking all over the sky.
Zipping through the showering remains of the first kill, the Falcon
quickened up and pounced on the wildly maneuvering skip from
above. The targeting reticle went red, and a target-lock tone filled the
cockpit. Again the quad lasers rallied, catching the vessel with burst
after burst until it disappeared in a nimbus of coral dust and whitehot
Han and Leia hooted. “Nice shooting, Cakhmaim!” he said into
the headset. “Score two more for the good guys.”
Leia watched him for a moment. “Happy now?”
Instead of replying, Han pushed the yoke away from him, dropping
to within meters of the surging waves. “Where’s the
swoop?” he asked finally.
Leia was ready with the answer. “Come around sixty degrees, and
it should be right in front of us.”
Han adjusted course, and the swoop came into view, streaking
over the surface, bearing two seriously dissimilar riders. In pursuit,
and just visible beneath the surface, moved an enormous olive-drab
triangle, trailing what appeared to be a lengthy tail.
Han’s jaw dropped.
“What is that thing?” Leia said.
“Threepio, get in here!” Han yelled, without taking his eyes from
C-3PO staggered into the cockpit, clamping his hands on the
high-backed navigator’s chair to keep from being thrown off balance,
as had too often happened.
Han raised his right hand to the viewport and pointed. “What is
that?” he asked, enunciating every word.
“Oh, my,” the droid began. “I believe that what we’re looking at
is a kind of boat creature. The Yuuzhan Vong term for it is vangaak
which derives from the verb ‘to submerge.’ Although in this case the
verb has been modified to suggest—”
“Skip the language lesson and just tell me how to kill it!”
“Well, I would suggest targeting the flat dome, clearly visible on
its dorsal surface.”
“A head shot.”
“Precisely. A head shot.”
“Han,” Leia interrupted. “Four more coralskippers headed our
Han manipulated levers on the console, and the Falcon
“We gotta work fast. Threepio, tell Meewalh to activate the
manual release for the landing ramp. I’ll be there in a flash.”
Leia watched him undo the clasps of the crash webbing. “I take it
you’re not planning to land.”
He kissed her on the cheek as he stood up. “Not if I can help it.”
The swoop fought to maintain an altitude of eight meters, but
that was enough to keep it from the snapping jaws of the Yuuzhan
Vong vangaak that had almost snagged it on surfacing.
Thorsh might have opted to head inland if the Yuuzhan Vong
search parties and their snarling beasts hadn’t reached the marshy
shore. Worse, four specks in the northern sky were almost certainly
coralskippers, soaring in to reinforce the pair the YT-1300 was chasing.
Instead, the Jenet had the swoop aimed for deeper water, out
toward the volcano, where the waves mounded to a height of ten
Thorsh and his rider could feel the sting of the saline spray on
their scratched and bruised faces and hands. Behind them, the vangaak
was rapidly closing the gap, but if it had weapons other than tor-
pedo analogs it wasn’t bringing them to bear. An unsettling vociferation
from the Bith broke Thorsh’s concentration.
“The vangaak’s gone! It submerged!”
Thorsh didn’t know whether to worry or celebrate. The vangaak
put a quick end to his indecision. Breaching the surface in front of the
swoop, the dull olive triangle spiked straight up out of the waves,
venting seawater from blowholes on...