“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”
WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL
Han guided the Javian Hawk through Ord Mantell’s heavy atmosphere and toward the planet’s busy capital. Within minutes, he landed the starship on a landing platform at the Worlport Spaceport, before guiding it into a hangar already occupied by another starship. “Here we are,” he declared. “Ord Mantell.”
Both Anakin and Han left the cockpit and joined their passengers in another section of the ship. “We’re here,” Anakin announced to the two women. “I will have to report the Hawk’s arrival to the local port master. Han, Chewie and I can rendezvous with you two ladies at your hotel. Which brings me to my question – what is the name?”
Senator Dahlma stood up with her usual regal manner. “We’ll be staying at the Hotel Grand,” she announced. “And I had made reservations for us all, before leaving Maldare. Which means your room will be next to the suite that Igraine and I will occupy. As for Mr. Chewbacca,” she glanced at the Hawk’s newest crew member, “I do not know if the hotel . . .”
“They will allow him to stay,” Anakin reassured the senator. “This is Ord Mantell, Senator. Not Coruscant.”
“Well . . . I suppose the matter has been settled.” Senator Dahlma glanced pointedly at the two men and then at her luggage.
Anakin knew what she wanted – someone to carry her luggage. He directed his gaze at Han. Who sighed. “Great! I should have known I’d end up being some glorified baggage handler. Where’s a good droid when you need one? C’mon Chewie, time to carry the ladies’ luggage.”
Han and Chewbacca gathered the Maldarian women’s luggage and started down the ship’s boarding ramp. Senator Dahlma followed. Miss Colbert hesitated and turned to Anakin. “Please forgive the senator,” she said in that soft, husky voice that Anakin found appealing. “She is a decent woman and has a good heart. But she also comes from a wealthy and influential family. Sometimes, her background tends to reflect in a rather . . . well, haughty manner.”
With a smile, Anakin replied, “I understand. It hasn’t been that long since the old days of the Republic. I’ve met her kind on Coruscant, before. Good people, but . . . like you had said, a little haughty.”
“Is that where you are from?” Miss Colbert asked. “Coruscant?”
Anakin hesitated. Should he tell her the truth? He finally decided. “Actually, I’m from one of the Outer Rim territories. But I have spent some considerable time on Coruscant. Before the Empire.”
“You seem old enough to have witnessed the Clone Wars,” Miss Colbert added. “Were you a veteran?”
“More like a pilot.” The former Jedi Knight offered his arm to the senator’s aide. “May I escort you off the ship, Milady?”
Miss Colbert smiled and linked her arm with Anakin’s. “I would be honored. And you can call me Igraine.”
“I’m . . . Set.” Anakin exchanged another smile with the Maldarian woman and escorted her off the Javian Hawk.
Three hours later, Zoebeida Dahlma sat back into her chair, feeling relaxed for the first time since she learned about this conference several days ago. As she sipped her Mandalorian wine, Bail Organa continued his opening address to those attending the conference.
“. . . many of you. But we are all here for one reason – namely freedom throughout this galaxy.”
While the Alderaanian continued his speech, Zoebeida observed those who sat inside the Hotel Grand’s Jewel Conference Room. Naturally, Mon Mothma sat on one side of Organa and the former senator from Corellia, Garm Bel Iblis, sat on Bail’s other side. All three were seen as the Great Triumvirate – the founders of this new Rebel Alliance. Zoebeida felt surprised that former senators Padme Amidala and Solipo Yeb had not also participated in the alliance’s formation, considering their opposition against Palpatine during the last days of the Republic.
Speaking of Solipo Yeb, Zoebedia spotted the former Andalian senator seated at a table just left of Bail’s. Despite being a fugitive from the Empire, Solipo had managed to develop connections to several rebellious cells in the Vivenda Sector. Next to him sat Jan Dodonna, the lanky and bearded former Imperial general who had joined the Alliance after the Emperor Palpatine had ordered his assassination. Apparently, the Emperor considered the retired general from Dodonna as a danger to the Empire.
“Organization is the key,” Organa continued. “As an organized force, we can eventually bring an end to the Empire’s grip upon this galaxy. And eventually, restore the Republic.”
Applause followed. Zoebeida noticed that some of the attendees looked skeptical at Organa’s last words. Including Padme Amidala. Zoebeida had last seen the former Nabooan senator at a brief meeting with Organa and Iblis on Averam, four years ago. Like the former Corellian senator, Amidala had faked her death in order to avoid being hunted down by the Empire. Only Zoebeida could not fathom why the Empire would be interested in the former Queen of Naboo. Or why the latter would resort to such drastic steps to ensure anonymity. Perhaps she will learn the reason sometime during the conference.
Returning her attention to her Alderaanian colleague, Zoebeida realized that he seemed to be near the end of his speech. “. . . realize that by attending this conference, we have pledged our lives to returning freedom to this galaxy. I thank you.” More applause followed. When it died down, Organa added, “Please feel free to mingle. Since we plan to work together for years to come, I feel that we might as well get to know one another a lot better.”
The moment the attendees began to mingle, Zoebeida stood up and slowly made her way toward Padme Amidala’s table. By the time she reached it, she discovered that the former senator had been joined by Garm Bel Iblis and Solipo Yeb. She smiled at the other three. “How are we enjoying this evening?”
Yeb replied, “Surprisingly, quite well. I had expected to encounter a lot of squabbling.”
“Wait until tomorrow,” Garm shot back. “When we begin discussing the possibility of organization. The worms will certainly be coming out of the woodwork.”
Zoebeida shook her head in mock despair. “You’re such a cynic, Garm. You need to have more faith in your fellow sentient beings.”
Rolling his eyes in contempt, the Corellian shot back, “I have faith. I’m part of this alliance, aren’t I?”
A sigh left Zoebeida’s mouth. Sometimes, she wondered if the loss of his family at the hands of Imperial troopers had mentally affected Garm’s personality. “If you say so,” Zoebeida wearily replied.
“I can understand Garm’s position,” Solipo Yeb added. “The past ten to fourteen years have been difficult for us all. The war, the loss of the Republic, the Empire and many of us losing our homes or being forced to find new homes. You’re lucky, Zoebeida. You have not experienced any true upheavals in your life. At least, not yet.”
The Maldarian senator frowned. “What do you mean . . . not yet?”
Solipo continued, “Well, you haven’t experienced any loss, have you? Garm, Padme and I can no longer serve the Senate because we’re all fugitives. Well, I’m a fugitive. Garm and Padme are believed to be dead. And none of us can no longer reside on our homeworlds.”
Zoebeida pressed her lips together. When she had made the decision to approach Amidala’s table, she had never considered that she would end up feeling like an outsider. But Solipo’s words also gave her an opportunity to satisfy her curiosity about the former Nabooan senator. “If you do not mind my asking, Senator Amidala,” Zoebeida began, “why are you avoiding the Imperials?”
The younger woman’s eyes blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“Garm had opposed many of Palpatine’s decisions and policies for years,” Zoebeida continued. “Which finally put him in danger when Palpatine finally became Emperor. Solipo had provided sanctuary to a Jedi Knight and now, his homeworld is under direct Imperial occupation. But Naboo is not under any such danger. So, why did you fake your death in order to avoid detection by the Empire?”
The Nabooan woman stiffened slightly. Zoebeida wondered if she had gone too far. “It’s . . .” A sigh left Amidala’s mouth. “The Petition of 2000,” she finally answered. “I had helped draft the Petition of 2000, which demanded Palpatine’s resignation once the Clone Wars ended. Unlike many other senators,” Amidala shot a pointed look at Zoebeida, “I had refused to withdraw my name from the petition. In fact, I was the one who had delivered the petition to him.”
A shaft of guilt struck Zoebeida. She perfectly understood Amidala’s comment about those senators who had withdrawn their signatures from the petition. Zoebeida had been one of them. And she did it to preserve her career in the Senate. Oh well. At least she now knew the reason behind Amidala’s fugitive status. She only hoped that she would never face a similar fate.
“Well if I live and breath!” a female’s voice cut through the noise inside one of the Lady Fate Casino’s nightclubs. “Set Horus?”
With the Brin band’s music filling his ears, Anakin glanced away from the Twi’lek dancer on the stage and found himself staring into a pair of familiar green eyes. “Voranda Sen? I haven’t seen you in ages!”
The tall, red-haired woman smiled, as she settled in one of the empty chairs at Anakin’s table. “I suppose . . . if you consider two years as ages. What are you doing here on Ord Mantell?”
“Providing transportation for a client,” Anakin replied. “And you?”
Voranda shrugged. “The same.”
The two pilots had first met, while taking part of a convoy delivering equipment and supplies to a mining colony on Bespin, six years ago. From the moment they first met, Anakin found Voranda to be an attractive woman – despite her being at least over a decade older than him. But as with Vi’dal Mira, his relationship with Voranda had developed into nothing more than friendship.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Anakin continued. “Han and I had ran into Corsac Best and Lin Tsai at one of the Casino’s restaurants, earlier this evening. And now, I find you here. In fact, I’ve been seeing a good number of familiar faces at my hotel.”
Another shrug lifted Voranda’s elegant shoulders. “Well, this is a favorite spot for many smugglers and freighter pilots.”
“Yeah, but the pilots I’ve encountered usually hang out on Nar Shaada or Abregado-rae. Not Ord Mantell.” Anakin returned his gaze to the Twi’lek dancer. “Something is going on, here.”
A long pause followed. The Twi’lek dancer finally finished her routine amidst fervent applause. Then Vornada said, “She reminds you of Vi’dal, doesn’t she? She even has he same skin color. I’ve always wondered why you and she never became more than friends.”
“Because we’re not in love,” Anakin coolly replied. A waitress appeared at the table. He ordered a tall glass of Corellian ale.
Voranda shot back, “So what?” She dismissed the waitress with a wave of her hand. “We live in perilous times, Captain Horus. A person should grab a little happiness when the opportunity arises.”
“I’ll think about that.”
“On the other hand,” Voranda continued, “women like Vi’dal aren’t exactly your type. I suspect that you prefer those with a lot more class. A true lady.”
More class? Anakin automatically found himself thinking of Padme. Only briefly. What seemed the point of brooding over someone whom you could never see again? Who was gone . . . forever? A harsh laugh escaped his mouth. “Voranda, I come from a backwater planet in the Outer Rim Territories. From the lowest class in society. No . . . lady would be interested in me.”
“I don’t know about that.” Voranda’s remark drew a stare from Anakin. “I know a woman – a friend – who is here in Worlport. She strikes me as the type who might be interested in a good-looking and intelligent man like you. She’s a lady from the tips of her fingers to her toes. And privileged or not, she’s intelligent enough to probably view you as someone worthy.”
Anakin responded with a derisive snort. “Aside from your friend’s questionable taste in men, what’s the catch?”
“What’s wrong with her? Something must be, if you think she might be interested in someone like me.”
Voranda glared at Anakin. “There is nothing wrong with her! She happens to be a charming and beautiful woman. And very intelligent.” Anakin regarded his fellow pilot through narrowed eyes, until she added quietly, “She’s also a widow with two young children.”
Two young children? Anakin stared at Voranda with disbelief.
A furious Darth Rasche glared at the quivering, dark-haired Imperial agent that faced him. “Say that again?” he growled.
The Imperial agent, a pale and intense young man named Bauer Suron, inhaled deeply. Then he repeated his message to the Sith Lord. “Senator Dahlma is missing. She is no where to be found. And her aide is missing, as well.”
“I thought you had her under observation for the past several days!”
Suron hesitated. “Well . . . yes.” Rasche’s eyes narrowed and the agent grew considerably nervous. “My Lord, I did request additional agents to assist me in observing . . .”
“I am not interested in your excuses, Agent Suron!” Rasche bellowed.
A deafening silence filled the small conference room located inside Malag’s Imperial Liaison Office. Suron gulped. Loudly. “Yes, my Lord,” he murmured.
Rasche continued, “What have you learned of the senator’s activities?”
The agent replied, “As you know, Senator Dahlma never did visit her family’s estate near Dalmar, as she had intended.”
“Yes, I know,” the Sith Lord added imperiously. “She was last seen at her private home, here in Malag.”
Suron paused. “Actually, she was last seen at the Lumati Hotel, last night. Both she and her aide had checked into a suite.”
Suspicion gnawed at the back of Rasche’s mind. “Why?”
“I have no idea, my Lord,” Suron answered. “But I believe that her manservant, Chattal Rahm, might be able to shed some light.” The agent cleared his throat nervously. “Rahm had been seen by various hotel employees escorting various people to the senator’s suite. One employee described them as spacers.”
Rasche contemplated the agent’s information. Why would a prominent senator check into a hotel suite, when she had her own private home in this city? And why would she need some disreputable pilot to fly her off of Maldare? Obviously, Senator Dahlma planned to visit some place special and for a very private reason. But what?
“I want you to gather descriptions of all the pilots who were seen approaching the senator’s suite,” Rasche instructed. “And find this Chattal Rahm. You shall have the local security and a platoon of stormtroopers to assist you.”
Suron nodded with deference. “Yes, my Lord.” He started to turn away.
“And Suron,” Rasche added in a threatening voice. The agent paused. “I only tolerate failure once. Fail me again . . .” He left the threat unfinished. Judging from the fear that flared in Suron’s eyes, Rasche realized that the other man had received the message.
END OF CHAPTER SEVEN