Wedge Antilles picked unenthusiastically at the cheese and vegetable pastry which was sprawled over his plate like the remains of a long-dead Ankari flatworm. He might, he supposed, have more interest in the pastry, if he wasn't so completely exhausted. He thought, I must be getting old. He shouldn't be feeling this shitty just on the basis of one interrupted night's sleep and his drinking session with Mon Mothma, plus a day of poring over the base's energy expenditure records. Still, though, Pilot Syok Komi, sitting across the table from him and staring blankly at her plate of salad, looked about as exhausted as he felt, and she was a bright young thing of what, twenty-two or something. If she was feeling rough after their day of trudging through the records, maybe he should admit that staring at computers all day was bloody hard work, and not blame his advanced age of thirty-one years.
They'd wanted to get as much done today as possible, because tomorrow Wedge's squadron, of which Komi was a member, was scheduled for manoeuvres. They'd have to keep their minds on the combat sims, rather than on trying to prove that Admiral Piett wasn't a traitor. At least Mittri and Nat, the other two detectives, would be able to continue the search tomorrow. Wedge resignedly forced himself to actually swallow a bite of the cheese pastry, rather than just pushing it around his plate. Need all your strength, he told himself, if you're going to go back to the damned computer after dinner. They would put in a couple more hours tonight, but then he was going to have to pull rank and order everybody to get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow's combat sims wouldn't do him or Komi much good if they were both asleep at the controls.
Down the table from them, Wedge heard a man's voice declare, "he's probably dead by now." The comment was made in the tone of one who gets a major kick out of being the prophet of doom.
"He's not dead." That was spoken by someone whose voice Wedge recognised: Pilot Hookainen, who until the Treaty of Endor had been a TIE-interceptor pilot, and who now flew an x-wing in Mittri's Green Squadron. Wedge glanced along the table, and saw Hookainen aggressively clutching a fork which it looked like he might just use to stab the man across from him, a smirking guy in the standard flightsuit of the former stormtroopers.
"How do you know?" queried the smirking ex-stormtrooper. "You psychic?"
Hookainen shook his head. He said stubbornly, "if Vader were dead, we'd know."
"Yeah," put in another ex-stormtrooper, sitting next to Hookainen. "There'd be -- I don't know. Planet quakes. Tongues of flame in the sky. Graves opening up and spewing forth demons. Stuff like that."
The smirker turned a disgusted look on the latest speaker. "This is Vader we're talking about, not the Firelord."
"Yeah, well, it'd take an act of the Gods to do in Vader. He's not gonna let just anybody bump him off."
"Yeah, well," the echo came mockingly, "Palpatine isn't just anybody."
"Poetic justice, I say," another voice commented, joining the conversation. This new voice belonged to Ressen, one of the pilots in Blue Squadron, who was sitting at the next table over. Ressen went on, "this'll teach the Dark Lord you can't help a tyrant take over the galaxy and get away with it. Just too bad there isn't some way for Vader and Palpatine to kill each other."
Wedge heard Komi murmur, "oh, shit."
That was exactly what Wedge was thinking. He watched with a sinking sensation while the former Imperial soldiers, as one man, turned to stare at Pilot Ressen.
The ex-stormtrooper who'd mentioned the tongues of flame and the graves spewing forth demons demanded, "how precisely do you think the Rebellion's survived to be here today? If Vader hadn't joined up and saved your sorry asses, you'd all be in the garbage chute of history."
Ressen shot back, "if Vader hadn't gone crawling to the Rebellion for forgiveness, you'd all be space dust over Endor."
Whoa, shit, this was way out of hand. Wedge stood and walked quickly to where Ressen sat, wishing that he could loom over the pilot as intimidatingly as Vader would. "Pilot," said Wedge, "you're out of line. I wouldn't blame these men if they put you in the medical wing for that remark. We all owe a lot to Vader and you'd better not forget it." Of course, one couldn't have officers playing favourites, so Wedge had to turn to the scowling ex-Imperials and add, "and you men, cool down. I know you're worried about Vader. We all are. It won't help him if we start fighting each other."
Pilot Hookainen asked, looking challengingly up at Wedge, "is Command worried enough to do something about it? I say it's about time we stopped pissing about on manoeuvres, and launched our attack on Coruscant."
That, in fact, was basically what Wedge thought too, but this wasn't exactly the forum in which he should say it. While he tried to think of something diplomatic to say instead, another participant entered the conversation. Captain Needa, commander of the Avenger, had walked over from an adjoining table. He said, arms crossed over his chest as he looked coldly at Hookainen, "your loyalty does you credit, Pilot. If not your intelligence. It won't do Vader any good if we all get ourselves massacred."
Hookainen looked somewhat daunted, but he held his ground. "No sir. With respect, sir, we wouldn't have to get massacred."
Needa's eyebrows quirked upward. "Oh? You have a cunning plan, do you, Pilot?"
Wedge suppressed a groan. He didn't know Captain Needa particularly well, but from what he'd seen of the Captain, he was a man who just didn't know when to shut up. Wedge began, "look, this isn't the time to be discussing this -- "
"Why not?" Needa asked. "Everyone gets to have their say in the Rebellion, don't they? Maybe the pilot has some insight we should present to Command. Go on, Pilot. You have permission to speak."
The formality of Needa's last statement made Hookainen remember that he was talking to officers, and he jumped to his feet. He said, "sir, it just seems to me that we have sufficient ships and manpower to make an attack worthwhile. And enough of us have been posted on Coruscant's Defence Stations that we should be able to figure out how to get past them. Besides, there's a good chance that a lot of the men there would join us. They've got to be feeling as pissed off with the situation as we are. Sir."
Needa eyed the pilot sarcastically. "That's brilliant. Storm in with guns blazing and give Palpatine's goons time to slaughter Vader before we get there. Fabulous."
The ex-stormtrooper who'd started this conversation said, getting to his feet, "I don't see you coming up with any better ideas, Captain."
"He wouldn't, would he?" put in the second trooper, the graves and demons one. He also stood, and glared at Needa. "You're just as happy to see Vader gone, aren't you, sir? Never mind that most of us would be dead without him."
Pilot Hookainen muttered nervously, "Karnak, chill out."
Needa's eyes narrowed, and he said, "my feelings are not the issue. And you're on thin ice, trooper."
The ex-stormtrooper, whose name was apparently Karnak, said, "we're all on thin ice, aren't we? All ex-Imperials, anyway. You can see what's happening, can't you? They've got our ships and our technology, and now they want to get rid of us. First Admiral Piett, now Lord Vader. It's very convenient that Vader got captured just now. Maybe the Empire had a little help catching him. Like, an anonymous tip from Vader's Rebel allies that he was going to be there."
Needa snapped, "Palpatine doesn't need anonymous tips. He probably sensed Vader from a couple star systems away."
Wedge tried again. "Captain," he said, "we're not getting anywhere with this -- "
But the argument had suddenly changed focus once more. Pilot Ressen was back in action, having stood up from his table and barged up to Trooper Karnak. quot;So what are you saying?" Ressen demanded. "You saying we betrayed Commander Skywalker and Princess Leia, too, just to get rid of Vader? Firelord! You people are so used to being led by homicidal maniacs, you don't know what honesty and decency are any more."
That was when everything exploded. Trooper Karnak launched himself at Ressen, grabbing him by the throat and propelling him backward onto the next table. Holding Ressen down on the table, his head in some unfortunate person's plate, the trooper grated, "how honest and decent is it if you leave Lord Vader to die?"
Captain Needa stepped in at this point, grabbing Karnak and pulling him off of the spluttering Pilot Ressen. And then Trooper Karnak hauled off and punched Captain Needa in the nose. Before Wedge could even bring himself to believe that he had just seen that, the even more unbelievable happened, and the normally urbane Captain Needa kneed Trooper Karnak in the groin.
"Shit!" someone yelled, and then for a moment there was limited chaos: the other ex-stormtrooper trying to leap at Captain Needa, Pilot Hookainen trying to hold him back, Pilot Ressen struggling out of the plate he'd landed in and starting to kick the already suffering Trooper Karnak. Wedge grabbed Needa, who looked like he'd be only too happy to make an example of anyone who got in his way. Several others, including Komi, flung themselves at Ressen and dragged him away from the hapless Karnak, who by now was on his hands and knees on the floor.
Just in time to stop hostilities from escalating, the voice of Mon Mothma sounded over the com system, "all Command staff, please proceed to the main conference chamber immediately." She repeated the message, and gradually most of the combatants stopped struggling, although they were still watching each other warily. Hookainen and the other trooper helped Karnak back to the bench he'd been sitting on before, where he huddled groaning and giving vent to some very colourful curses. Ressen was herded away to another table, and someone handed him a napkin, with which the red-faced and now rather sheepish-looking pilot started trying to remove somebody's dinner from his hair.
Wedge cautiously let go of Captain Needa. Despite Wedge's fears, Needa made no move to kill anyone. The Captain, a trickle of blood oozing from his nose, managed a rueful smile. "I love the Rebellion," he said to Wedge. "Such discipline. The men have such respect for their officers." He put a hand to his nose, and then stared at the blood on his hand when he brought it down again."Ow," he said. "I love appearing at command meetings with a bloody nose, too."
"You've probably got time to get cleaned up," Wedge told him. "These meetings always take a while to get started."
"Yeah," Needa nodded. "All right. I'll see you there." He started off in the direction of the nearest loos.
Wedge turned to Komi, who was standing next to him. He muttered, "how the Hell did this happen?"
Komi shook her head. "I'll guess I'll go return to the quest," she said. "I've lost my appetite."
"Yeah." Wedge sighed. He and Mittri certainly weren't going to get any more detective work in tonight, not with this meeting to attend. No doubt it would go on forever. He said, "you and Nat stick with it for a few more hours, see if you can dig up anything. But don't stay up too late now, Pilot, that's an order."
Komi grinned. "Yes, sir," she said. "We'll be good."
"I'm sure you will." He smiled at her, thinking that staring at energy usage records suddenly sounded a lot more appealing now that he had a meeting to go to, and he started making his way through the crowded mess hall. Being a well brought up young man, he picked up his tray with its truly pathetic looking remains of cheese pastry, and took them to the disposal area so the droids wouldn't have to do it. Then he headed into the corridor, towards the lift.
Damnation. Palpatine would be laughing his ass off, if he could have seen this little demonstration of the Alliance's ability to work together.
If they were going to do anything to help Lord Vader, they'd better do it soon, or they would all just murder each other.
Princess Leia stared at the door through which Emperor Palpatine would walk at any moment.
Well, assuming he used the door, instead of materialising somewhere in the guest chamber again, to keep her on her toes. Leia clutched the arms of the overstuffed chair she was sitting in, irritated by the realisation that she was trembling. She had an almost unbearable urge to start pacing around the room, but she was damned if she'd allow herself to be that obviously agitated when Palpatine appeared. Of course, the bastard would know what kind of a state she was in anyway. But at least she could look calm, if nothing else.
She'd considered changing her clothes, as another statement, going back to the clothes she'd been wearing when she and Luke were kidnapped. They had been laundered now, with the exception of her blood-stained jacket, which she had forbidden the droid to touch. But this situation was beyond such petty attempts to assert her independence. Palpatine had the upper hand, and he would continue to do so, whether she was wearing clothes he had provided for her, or not. She fingered the necklace at her throat, fighting the urge to rip it off and send the jewels scattering about the floor. Instead she just clutched at the pearls, until her fingers hurt.
At the edges of her mind, she could feel fear from Luke. She had sent him back to his room a few minutes ago, after a lengthy session of apologising to him and trying to calm him down. Moff Nevoy, who had been a lot more understanding than she would have expected, had sent the droid to fetch Luke a selection of comic books, and Leia had last seen her brother sprawled out on his bed, apparently engrossed in the adventures of Tris Griffin, Star Pilot. But Luke still knew that something was wrong, and he was scared. How could he not be, she thought grimly, after the way she had screamed at him?
Now Nevoy had left, Luke was reading his comic books, and she had sent for Emperor Palpatine.
As she had half expected, he did not use the door. Instead he materialised right in front of her, smiling his odious smile, and she was surprised that she had not jumped out of her skin when he appeared. "Yes, my dear?" he asked. "Can I do something for you?"
She stood up. She said, "you can spare my father's life, for a start."
"Ah," he said, "oh dear. I'm afraid that just won't be possible."
"It must be."
"Leia, my sweet, you must understand. What can I do? If I set him free, he'll never let us have a moment's peace; every other day he'll be trying to rescue you. And would you really want him to rot in a dungeon for the rest of his life? Or to be ... damaged, like your little brother? Really, it's much more merciful to kill him."
Despair washed through her. There had to be something she could do, or say, but if there was, she couldn't see it. How could she bargain for her father's life, when she had nothing to offer? She asked bitterly, "do you honestly think I'll serve you, be your young apprentice, if you kill him?"
"But my dear girl, you'll have to. You have the rest of your family to think of. There, there, don't take it so badly. You know I'll always provide for you. Think of the beauty of it, the symmetry. You'll lose one father, to gain another."
I already have, she thought. Only I haven't really gained Vader. Not yet. Damn it, you monster, I can't let you take him! You took Bail Organa from me, you can't take Darth Vader, too.
Palpatine must have heard her thoughts, for he purred, "oh, but I can, my dear. I can do anything. This is my galaxy."
"Please! Damn you. Where's the fun in killing him? If you kill him, you won't be able to hurt him any more."
"Oh, there will always be people to hurt."
That was too much. Logically she knew that she wasn't strong enough to fight Palpatine, but nothing was going to stop her from trying. She focused this time, instead of just hurling power at him. She delved into her anger, and channelled it toward Palpatine, envisioning it as a fire that would burn off his skin, eat his brain, devour his veins from within.
Palpatine just smiled. "Very good, Leia. You're gaining more control. You're making very good progress."
She gasped, and her head jerked backward as Palpatine's counter-attack hit her. The horror of it froze her. Of course she knew it was illusion, but that didn't help.
Palpatine was filling her mind with images of Alderaan. She saw the planet explode in front of her, as she had seen it from the bridge of the Death Star. She saw her own face, shocked and disbelieving, and the smug little smile of Grand Moff Tarkin. Alderaan exploded again, and then she saw her father, Bail Organa, in his office at the Alderaani Palace. He was trying to contact the Death Star, but they were not responding to his hails. He turned, looking tense and impatient, to one of his aides, demanding a report -- and the image disappeared in a burst of flame.
"Leia," whispered the Emperor, "why do you want to save Darth Vader? Did he save Alderaan? He could have. He could have saved Bail Organa. Your family. Your friends. He could have saved them all. He did nothing. You owe him nothing, Leia. He deserves only death, for all the pain he's caused you."
Leia hissed, "no."
The planet exploded again, and she felt the heat of it, like a burning desert wind.
Then she heard a tremulous little voice, from somewhere, saying, "stop it! Leave her alone!"
She whispered, "oh, Luke, no."
Somehow she managed to turn around, dragging her vision away from Alderaan and into the room she was standing in. Luke was standing by the door to his bedroom, and he yelled now, "you're hurting her! Stop it!"
"Hello, Luke," said Palpatine.
"Stop it! You're mean and nasty and I hate you!"
And Luke ran at the Emperor. He shoved Palpatine in the chest, pushing him backwards, and then Luke was all flailing fists and feet, kicking the Emperor's shins and pummelling the Imperial torso with his fists. As a fighting style, it was not overly effective, but Palpatine looked stunned.
Leia tried to reach for Luke and pull him back. She was too late. A burst of power from the Emperor lifted Luke into the air, then sent him hurtling backward to smash into the wall.
Luke lay crumpled on the floor, not moving. Leia ran to him. She was terrified that a collision like that would have broken his neck. But as she knelt by him, she heard Luke moan. He flattened his hands against the floor, trying to get enough leverage to push himself up.
"No, Luke, no," she said urgently, "don't try to move."
Luke sat up anyway. He didn't seem to notice her, but looked up at Palpatine, glowering at the Emperor through the fringe of his hair and the blood that was trickling down his forehead.
"Damn you," Luke whispered. "You bastard. You sick, fucking bastard. Why do you do it? Why?"
That wasn't her six-year-old brother talking. Leia's eyes widened as she looked from Luke to the Emperor.
Palpatine chuckled. "There, my dear," he said. "You've got your brother back again. Now don't ever say that I don't give you anything."
Leia began, "Luke ... ?"
"What is it?" Luke insisted, in a low, hate-filled voice. "Do you feel like you don't exist unless you're hurting people? What is it with you? What?"
Emperor Palpatine said, "don't let me interrupt this little family reunion," and he vanished.
Leia stared at the empty space where he had stood, then at Luke. Then she hugged her brother to her. "Oh, Luke," she breathed. "Oh, Luke!"
"Don't," he said, pulling away from her. She watched him in dread, wondering if this whole process was going to begin again. But Luke didn't seem to be panicking, and he didn't tell her that she wasn't there. He merely averted his eyes from her, and started to struggle to his feet, saying, "please, Leia, just don't touch me."
She reached out cautiously to help him if he started to fall, but he did not. "Are you all right?" she asked him.
"Do you know what happened to you?"
Luke nodded again, still not looking at her. There was an expression of hatred on his face, and she had an uncomfortable feeling that the hatred was aimed at himself. Luke said, in an unnaturally still, emotionless voice, "I've lost the Force."
"What?" she whispered.
He looked at her now, and she caught her breath at the pain in his eyes. He said quietly, "I ought to be able to feel you. You ought to be ... " he gestured toward his head " ... here. You ought to be with me. Our father should too. And ... everything. I ought to be able to feel it." He shook his head. "I can't, Leia, it's gone."
"But," she began, "it might come back -- it could just be temporary -- "
Luke said, "I don't think so."
She took a step toward him, without thinking, and he winced. "Please don't," he hissed. "It's ... too weird. Not being able to feel you. Like you're not here at all. Please, I can't handle it. Not yet."
Leia nodded and stepped away from him again. She asked him, "Luke, what can I do?"
For a long time he didn't answer. He finally asked, "where's our father? Is he ... alive?"
"Yes," she said, hearing her voice start to tremble. "But -- Palpatine's scheduled his execution. For next week."
Luke closed his eyes. She watched blood ooze down his cheek, like a tear.
"You've got to save him, Leia," Luke said, not yet opening his eyes.
"How?" she begged him, knowing there wasn't any answer. "How?"
One day down, six to go.
As he had suspected would happen, at the end of the day the main sensation he was experiencing was boredom.
There had been a few highlights to break the monotony. In the afternoon, general public were admitted for the first time, and one or two members of the public had briefly made themselves the centre of attention. There had been the raddled looking old man with the several days' worth of grey stubble, who had suddenly produced from his coat pocket a retracted -- and, Vader suspected, probably inoperable -- lightsaber, swung it around over his head, and then started to beat the display case with it, while screaming. Vader didn't recognise the old codger, but since presumably he had not always looked so disreputable, he could have been just about anyone. The guards had quickly, and none too gently, taken charge of him and herded him away. Then, an hour or so later, there had been the woman who flung herself at the display case, sobbing, flattening her hands and face against the partition and apparently trying to kiss Vader's feet. He didn't remember ever having encountered her, either, a fact he was rather glad of. He had almost been thankful for the display case that stood between them.
Another visitor had been memorable to him for less extroverted reasons. Near the end of the afternoon, shortly before the exhibition was closed for the day, he had seen a young woman with bluish-black hair and skin which might have been very tanned, or might, alternatively, have been the result of having one parent whose skin was purple. She was wearing figure-hugging trousers and a baggy sweatshirt with "University of Coruscant" blazoned on it. As she walked past the case she cast Vader a sexy little smile, and if he'd had any doubts before, that convinced him that she was indeed Camar, the youngest child of ex-crimelord Baccara Chovitza.
Now, though, there was no chance of any interesting visitors until tomorrow. The Great Hall was empty again; even the guards had apparently left, although he presumed there were still some posted outside the doors to the Hall. The lights were out, and his surroundings were fading out of sight around him as the twilight darkened into night.
Palpatine had stopped by for his evening gloat, and might, Vader supposed, come by again later, if the Emperor was having trouble sleeping. But Vader hardly classed him as an interesting visitor. The Emperor had blithered about the first day's visitor turnout and had jovially imparted further details of the arrangements for Vader's execution, then, finally turning his monologue to a topic that Vader cared about, had started discussing Leia. He told Vader what a bright pupil she was, such a fast learner, with such a fine instinctive grasp of her own potential. Luke, he did not mention. Vader wondered what had happened. What had caused Palpatine to turn his focus from Luke to Leia -- apart from the fact that Leia was a pretty young woman and Luke wasn't? Vader certainly hoped that was not the main motivation for the Emperor's interest. He supposed that Leia perhaps provided more of an entertaining challenge. She would never be as easily led as Luke tended to be. Even if she were to give herself completely to the Dark Side, she would never fully accept Palpatine as her Master.
The first confirmation Vader got that Luke was even still alive came when Palpatine said, "oh, you haven't heard yet, have you? I'm going to adopt your children. I mean, I thought it was only fair. I can't kill their father without giving them another one, can I? And the grand-children will need someone to guide them as well, to show them the ways of the Force." The Emperor gave one of his characteristically weird chuckles. "I'm afraid Leia wasn't very happy when she found out you have to die. Poor sweet thing, I suppose losing two fathers is a little much, but don't worry, I'll make it up to her. At least Luke will only have lost a father and an uncle."
And an aunt, you bastard, thought Vader, irritated that poor Beru hadn't even managed to make her way into Palpatine's ramblings. Damn, he'd always meant to talk with Luke about Tatooine, and what happened to Beru and Owen, but somehow he'd never succeeded in forcing himself to bring up the topic. It wouldn't have been the easiest of conversations. Oh, Luke, by the way, I'm sorry about your aunt and uncle. Well, okay, I'm not sorry about your uncle, he was a self-absorbed, priggish, closed-minded son-of-a-bitch, but Beru was a sweet lady and she didn't deserve to get fried to a crisp. And by the way, it wasn't my fault. I didn't have any idea those bloody droids would end up at Beru and Owen's farm, and anyhow, the stormtroopers were out of line, incinerating the couple like that. For Gods' sakes, what kind of threat were two middle-aged moisture farmers? He hardly imagined that Owen would have tried to take on the Empire to protect some second-hand droids. Vader had, in fact, strangled the sergeant who'd commanded the team that had killed Beru and Owen, but of course that hadn't done anything to bring them back.
Blast it, if he couldn't find a way out of this, and he did end up dying next week, he hated to think of what it might do to Luke and Leia. Admittedly, the three of them hadn't had the smoothest of relationships, but still, seeing one's father be put to death couldn't be good for one. Especially since Luke and Leia had such a history of losing parental figures. Gods, how many did that make now? Their mother -- well, he didn't know whether they remembered her or not, but still, not having her there for them must have had an impact -- and Bail and Keeiara Organa, and Beru and Owen. Oh, and bloody Obi Wan Kenobi, for that matter. And that old busybody Yoda. And now Vader. Bloody, bloody hell.
"Anakin," came Palpatine's voice, "are you listening to me?"
No, I'm not. Bugger off.
Damn it! Luke, Leia, I'm sorry if I get killed. I want to be there for you. I would have been there for you, if I'd known!
Oh, Lord on a Landspeeder. What if Palpatine's little joke from last night turned out to be true, and Vader had to spend eternity with Obi Wan? Hell, anything but that. Although it would be nice to have a chance to really tell the miserable old shit what he thought of him.
Thank you, you bastard, for stealing my wife. And for destroying any chance I had for a decent relationship with my children. Oh, and you know what, Mr. Oh-So-Moral-And-Perfect Jedi? The entire bloody Empire, and twenty-plus years of war, is your fault. Because Darth Vader would never have existed if you hadn't cut off my hand, and without Darth Vader, Palpatine's rule wouldn't have taken the form it did, and the Jedi might not have been wiped out, and the Rebellion might never have existed, and hey presto, Obi Wan Kenobi, billions of deaths lie directly at your door. Now say something poncy and moralistic about that, I dare you.
Vader smiled bitterly. Never mind cutting off Kenobi's hands; Vader preferred the idea of just beating the crap out of him. He hadn't had a fistfight for a damn long time, these days they tended to be beneath his dignity. But for Obi Wan Kenobi, he was willing to make an exception.
Something smashed into his consciousness, and he realised that Palpatine must be trying to get his attention. In a typically subtle way, of course. Pain flooded him, searing at every nerve, and a smell that should not be there told him what had happened. Burned hair, melted plastic, exposed entrails, blood. Palpatine had reached into his mind and dredged up his memories of the accident. Vader sighed shudderingly, trying to ignore the sensation of liquid bubbling in his lungs, and the image of someone reaching out to stroke his bizarre, exposed broken ribs.
Kiss my ass, Palpatine. Why don't you just run along and go pull the legs off bugs?
He didn't know how long it was before the pain receded. He was in his display case, with no smell of burned hair and death. He waited for Palpatine's next annoying observation, but none came. Silence settled over him, and remained. Apparently, His Imperial Majesty had become bored and left.
Vader was bored too, but he couldn't go anywhere. He didn't even have the energy at this moment to be truly angry; his latest trip down memory lane had just about wiped him out. At least he didn't imagine he'd have any trouble sleeping tonight. A few minutes of excruciating pain certainly beat counting banthas as a cure for insomnia.
He was drifting into sleep, when the voice made him jump.
His wrists jerked painfully against the restraints that held them. The voice said quietly, "Lord Vader?"
It was a man's voice, with a faint Caminitan accent, and it sounded familiar. Vader's first thought, that the voice was coming from inside his head, was wrong. He realised, when it spoke again, that it came from behind him, probably just to the right of his head.
"Lord Vader, can you hear me?"
Back there, though he'd not been able to see much detail, must be the infusion devices that were feeding him and maintaining the Force-suppressant drug in his system. Twice now, first thing this morning and again when the exhibition closed, he'd noticed technicians tinkering about with the mechanism, presumably renewing its supplies. Had one of them smuggled in a comlink? Or had the link been there from the beginning?
"Yes," he replied. Presumably whoever he was talking to had ensured that the link wouldn't be monitored or traced, but if they hadn't, there wasn't anything he could do about it. And it didn't seem like he had anything to lose.
"My Lord, do you know that you're to be executed? In six days' time?"
Vader said dryly, "I've heard it mentioned, yes." He had a pretty good idea who he was talking to now. That was almost certainly the voice of Osheen Nevoy. Not that Vader was going to compromise him by mentioning his name; if the link did get monitored, Nevoy definitely didn't need to have his identity broadcasted to Imperial Intelligence.
"You have friends who are interested in helping you. If you escape, can you guarantee them amnesty in the Rebellion?"
Well, that's a stupid question, isn't it? Vader thought. Do you really think I'd say no, even if that was the answer? "Yes," he said again, which, as it happened, was the truth. Or he presumed it was, anyway. The Rebels weren't likely to turn down any volunteers. "There are conditions," he added. "Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo and Chewbacca the Wookiee. They must be returned to the Rebellion as well, alive and in good health. Or there is no deal."
"Very well. They will be. We'll be in touch again."
"One more thing," said Vader. "Contact Imperial City 2010-7131. They should be able to help you. They are particularly good at providing distractions." And even if the link was being monitored, Vader had faith in Baccara Chovitza's security systems. It would be a very warm day on Hoth before Imperial Intelligence managed to trace that number to Chovitza.
The link was terminated, with no closing pleasantries. Oh well, he hadn't really expected that Nevoy would want to chat.
Come to that, he hadn't expected any of this.
Well, well, well, he thought. So I've got friends. That's always nice to know.
Maybe, just maybe, he would get out of this after all.
If he did, he was really going to have to talk with Luke about Beru and Owen. Oh, Hell, and with Leia about Alderaan.
Gods. Maybe dying wasn't such a bad idea.
"I think," said General Dodonna, "we must also consider the option of leaving him to his fate. Members of the Rebellion have placed themselves in danger before while on personal missions, and we have never committed Alliance troops to rescuing them. Are we justified in making an exception of Vader?"
Mon Mothma felt a twinge of dread, and resisted the urge to start chewing her fingernails. Please, Jan, she thought, don't say that. Of course she knew that, in theory, Dodonna was perfectly right. The Alliance couldn't afford to nursemaid its people, running around after them whenever they landed themselves in some disaster while pursuing their own affairs. It would have been unfortunate -- very unfortunate -- if the Princess and Solo and the others hadn't returned from their visit to Jabba the Hutt, for instance, but if they hadn't, the Alliance still wouldn't have sent out the fleet to reduce Jabba's palace to rubble.
Still, though, was this really a comparable situation? All right, so Vader had been captured while on personal business, rather than on a mission for the Rebellion. But if it was indeed Palpatine who had kidnapped Skywalker and the Princess, then surely that had been an attack on the Rebellion, not just a personal matter. And Vader was a prisoner now because he was a leader of the Rebellion, not simply because he and Palpatine had had a falling-out.
And there was another factor. Gods, she didn't even like to admit that this was a consideration with her. But, if they didn't make an attempt to rescue Vader, she had no idea how she was going to explain it to Piett.
She'd gone to visit him, very briefly, just before the meeting started. Dr. Tomczyk had called to inform her that Piett was awake. Only barely awake; he'd managed to smile faintly at her and squeeze her hand, and when she asked how he was feeling, he'd said "sleepy", and proved it by immediately falling asleep again. As far as she knew, he didn't know yet about Vader's capture. But, damn it, if the Alliance sat by and did nothing, she had the feeling that Piett would not take it very well. Vader was important to him, she knew that, no matter how much shit the Dark Lord had put him through. She remembered the certainty and faith in Piett's voice when he told her and Antilles that Lord Vader would come back. And when he'd told her, at Chandrila Seven, that Vader believed in the Rebellion.
If he found out that the Alliance had left Vader to captivity and probably death, would Piett even speak to her again?
Wedge Antilles, meanwhile, was saying, "I'm sorry, General, I'm not sure we do have the option of leaving him. Not unless we want to lose about half our people. Vader was the one who brought them into the Alliance, they may feel that without him they've got no reason to stay. Especially if it looks like we've betrayed him." He looked around at the others. "Some of you must have more insight on this than me. You officers who came to the Alliance with Vader, what do you think? What kind of reaction will we get if we don't go after him?"
He was met by various frowns and uncomfortable looks. Then Captain McLaughlin, the former Imperial in command of the Accuser, said, "I think you're probably right. Some of the troops will stay -- because they've come to believe in the Rebellion's cause, or because they've got nowhere else to go. But a lot of them will just leave. They'll think that without Vader, the Rebellion doesn't have a chance."
There was an irritated snort from General Madine. "They probably thought the Rebellion didn't have a chance at Yavin."
Before the assorted antagonistic glares could lead into full-scale conflict, Mon Mothma interposed, "Yavin notwithstanding, it's true that most of the advances we've made in the past year wouldn't have been possible without the participation of Lord Vader and the former Imperials. It's not just important what our own troops think of our chances; we have to think about our public relations, too. This past year, the galaxy as a whole has started to believe that we have a chance to win. That in itself brings us more successes. Thuria would never have asked to join us, nor Battacharya, nor the Abhirama Consortium, if it weren't for vast leaps forward we've made with the help of our formerly Imperial allies." She sighed, and continued, "and I'm afraid the reverse may also be true. Losing Vader may do us more harm than any number of lost battles. Our credibility may be shattered, it could take us years to regain the ground we'd lose."
Madine demanded, "so now public relations is more important than doing what's right? That never used to be what the Rebellion was about."
Mon Mothma stared at him, taken by surprise by the jolt of anger she felt. She said icily, "we're all under stress, General, so I will assume that you did not mean to say that."
Captain Ifar of the Mircalla said in a soft voice, "if it's doing what's right that we're worried about, surely we don't have any excuse to abandon Vader. After all he's done for the Rebellion, deserting him would be unforgivable."
There were murmurs of agreement, and General Madine subsided, scowling. Captain Needa, who'd been leaning back in his chair, now sat forward abruptly and said, "this is very touching, but what exactly are we planning to do? It's all very well saying we've got to rescue him, but he's on the most tightly-defended planet in the galaxy. We can't just waltz in and say 'hi, we'd like our Dark Lord back'."
Mon Mothma asked, "do we have sufficient forces to take on Coruscant's defences?"
A long pause followed. Finally General Veers answered her, "if we devoted all our resources to the attack, yes. All the ships we have here, and those in the Baxtri sector, and those on Calamari and Sullust and the other member planets. But it's hard to see what we'd gain by it. During the battle the Emperor would have time to escape, and Lord Vader would almost certainly be killed. And even if we got through the perimeter stations and the defence fleet, we'd still have the Imperial Guards and the Palace Guards to deal with, not to mention the ground troops. It sounds very much like suicide."
General Calrissian pointed out, "most of our attacks sound like suicide. And most of them seem to work."
Captain Needa spoke up again, his voice starting to rise a little with stress, "yes, but you've got to understand, we've got other things to think about here. Corsucant is a civilian target. It's not like going against a Death Star. Even fighting the perimeter defences would cause chaos on the surface. There'd be bound to be some wreckage falling to the surface, and there'd certainly be widespread panic, probably a lot of people would try to leave the planet. We'd probably have them flying right into the battle. And what if we reached the Imperial Palace? There's civilians there, too, thousands of them. The Rebellion's public relations really won't be so hot if our attack ends up slaughtering babies and the janitorial staff. And the official representatives from several hundred planets. We'd never hear the end of it."
"The question we have to answer," General Veers put in calmly, "is what our priorities are in this. Are we attempting to take Coruscant -- which does seem somewhat unrealistic -- or are we attempting to rescue Vader? If the latter, then our main attack should be a diversion from the activities of a smaller rescue team."
General Rieekan asked the obvious question, "and how does the rescue team get there?"
There was a laugh from Captain Lotremer, of the Ruthless, and the rest of the command staff turned in surprise to look at him. Lotremer said, "one thing's for sure, we are not just swanning in with our ex-Imperial shuttles, pretending we belong there. I think they'll be watching for that one. 'Shuttle Tydirium' is probably a swear word in the Imperial Forces these days."
The different backgrounds of the conference chamber's occupants were shown clearly in their reactions to Lotremer's comment. Most of the former Imperials chuckled or smiled wryly, while the majority of the long-term Rebels looked embarrassed, as if they'd inadvertently said something to insult their colleagues. Mon Mothma thought, again, how truly bizarre all this was. A year ago, when they'd planned their attack on Endor and Princess Leia and her team had set out in the stolen Imperial shuttle, who could possibly have believed that the enemies they fought then would become their allies?
General Calrissian was frowning thoughtfully, and said, "well, it did work before. Isn't there any way we can modify the idea to make it work again?"
"Sure it worked before," Lotremer said pityingly, "that's why we can't do it again."
"I'm not talking about just going in with an out-of-date clearance code," argued Calrissian. "If there was just some way we could -- "
"Cloak the ships," interrupted Wedge Antilles.
This time it was Wedge's turn to be stared at. He went on, eagerly, "Lord Vader and I were working on modifying a cloaking device for the x-wings. I think we've pretty much got the bugs out of it now, though we haven't been able to work out a way to keep the cloak up at the same time as the shields."
"So, what?" asked Captain Needa, looking at Antilles blankly. "We're just going to send in x-wings? That's a nifty idea. What are you going to do with Vader, strap him on top with the astromech droid?"
Mittri Cawelti, sitting next to Wedge, interjected, "no, but if we could get the cloak to work for a ship with more crew capacity -- "
"Like the famous shuttles," finished Commander Angelotti, the ex-Imperial who led the TIE-fighter squadron stationed on the cruiser Liberation. Angelotti, his dark face alight with excitement, continued, "we worked on the idea before, back in the Empire, but we had to give it up because of the expense. But if we took a look at what you've got for the x-wing, I'll bet we could adapt it to work for a Lambda shuttle -- "
"Yeah, great," said Captain Needa, "how long is this going to take? Are we still going to be fiddling about with cloaking devices while Lord Vader gets killed?"
"Give us a day," said Wedge. "I think we can do it."
Mon Mothma looked around the conference chamber. She asked, "does anyone have any better ideas?"
"Komi, wake up!"
Pilot Syok Komi said "umph", and burrowed her face deeper into her pillow. The portion of her mind which was still awake thought how very typical this was; she'd just been getting to sleep, and now Nat had to come gallumphing in and she'd have to start all over again. He'd better not be expecting her to be a passionate bed-companion tonight. He'd have more luck getting passion out of a wet sock.
"Come on, Komi, wake up, I've found something."
She grunted and sat up, Nat lurching backward on the bed in case, in her sleep-fuddled state, she should try to punch him. But she just sat there and blinked at him. She couldn't quite see his expression, his face and form were indistinct in the dim light from the panel over the sink. Finally she dragged her hands over her face and groaned, "do you know what time I have to be up tomorrow?"
"I know, I know, I'm sorry, sweetie, but I really think you ought to see this. Please?"
"Okay, okay, okay. I'm getting up. Turn on the lights, will you?"
Komi took stock of her current appearance, in a very brief pair of shorts and a none-too-recently-purchased sleeveless shirt. She wasn't quite indecent, she supposed, but she'd rather not go running around the station corridors in this outfit, given the choice. Yawning a bit more loudly than she needed to, in the hopes that Nat would feel guilty for waking her up, she sought out trousers and her boots. "Where are we going?" she asked. "Back to the office?"
"So what's this big 'something', or are you going to leave me in suspense?"
Nat suddenly looked nervous. "Uh, well, I don't know, wait till you see it. I guess I could be imagining it."
She waved one of her boots at him threateningly. "You'd better not be, buddy, not if you woke me up for it." She pulled on the boot. "Okay, let's go. Have you told Wedge or Mittri? Or Mon Mothma?"
"No," he said, as they started out into the hallway, "I figured they'd all still be at the Command Meeting."
They didn't speak as they made their way from the crew quarters level to the office level, two stories above. Komi was still feeling only slightly more than half conscious. When they reached the office that Wedge and Mittri shared as the commanders of Red Squadron and Green Squadron respectively, Komi cast a sarcastic glance around at the food wrappers scattered about the room, which she was she sure had multiplied since she left an hour before. Good old Nat. Twenty-six years old in a couple of months, and he still ate like the proverbial teenage boy, devouring any junk that came his way and remaining as thin as a Winchid. She lived for the day when his metabolism would change and he'd finally have to start worrying about his weight, like any normal person.
Nat weaved his way through the larger than usual number of chairs distributed throughout the office, to the extra computer terminal which they'd moved in that morning and installed on Mittri's desk. He switched the computer on and quickly delved back into the energy expenditure records. Komi, standing behind Nat, glowered at the columns of numbers, which by now she'd started viewing as her enemies
"Okay," she said, "so show me this great discovery."
"I am, I am," said Nat. He called up the records for a particular day, about five months before. At first everything looked boring and ordinary. Then Komi noticed a certain column, and she whistled in astonishment.
"Wow," she said. "Oh, God. You're right. You did find something."
He grinned. "That's not all, either." He called up another day, two months before the first.
Again. Both days showed the same energy usage record as the message which had led to Piett's arrest.
Komi stared at the screen, half expecting the numbers to disappear. "Damn," she whispered. "So our traitor's probably struck three times at least. I wonder ... what was going on at those dates? Can we figure out what the messages might have been about?" She launched herself into the chair in front of one of the three other terminals in the office, and called up the brief summary version of the station's log. A moment later she said, "hey, lover, take a look at this. That first date, five months ago. That's just two days before the battle of Artan."
Nat said, "but we won that one."
"Yeah, but we nearly didn't."
"What about the other?"
"Nearly got it .... oh."
"Yeah, oh," said Komi. "That one's three days before the campaign in the Vercari sector started."
Nat said again, "oh."
The campaign in the Vercari sector had been one of their few substantial losses in the year of the New Alliance's existence. They had managed to get away without heavy casualties, but still, it had been a painful defeat. And, Komi thought now, it had rather seemed like the Imperials knew they were coming ... She thought of Dracam and Uesugi, whose x-wings had been shot down at Vercari Six. If their traitor did have anything to do with Vercari, he or she was going to have a lot to answer for. Komi sighed, the rush of adrenaline suddenly deserting her. She swung her chair around to face Nat.
"Great," she said, "so now we've got something and we can't find out whose accounts the messages were sent on." Neither she nor Nat had clearance to get into the personal communication files. It was dodgy enough for them to be ploughing through the energy records. "What do you think Mon Mothma will want to do with this, just turn it over to security?"
Nat shrugged. "I guess. She can't let this get too underhanded, or there'll be a major stink when people find out about it."
"Yeah. Did you get through all the records?"
"Heck, no. There's still plenty more for tomorrow -- "
He was interrupted by the bleep of an incoming communication from the terminal Komi was sitting at, on Wedge's desk. Both of them jumped, then tried to school their faces into expressions of innocence. "Oh, no, sir," said Nat, "we weren't doing anything underhanded, we were just ..."
"Having a midnight snack," finished Komi, tossing a nutri-bar wrapper at Nat. She swivelled the chair around again and instructed the computer to display the link.
Wedge Antilles appeared on the screen. From the scene visible behind him, and the background noise, he was in one of the hangar bays.
"Hi, Commander," Komi said cheerily, glad that at least there was someone she and Nat could reveal their discoveries to. "How was the meeting?"
"Oh, a laugh a minute," said Wedge. "As always. Pilot, what are you doing up? I thought I told you to get some sleep."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir, but, Nat's just found something."
Wedge's eyebrows rose. "Right. I'll be right there." Before closing the link, he added, "oh, and Komi, you really should try to catch some sleep, you have to get up sooner than you thought you did. You're Red Leader in the manoeuvres tomorrow. I'm going to be stuck installing cloaking devices all day."
"Yes, sir!" said Komi, vaguely aware of the startled grin swamping her face. She shut the link, and swung back once more toward Nat. "Oh," she murmured, "oh, holy shit."
Once more Leia Organa awaited the arrival of Emperor Palpatine.
She tried to breathe slowly and calmly, and made a conscious effort to stand like her father.
Of course she knew it was probably pointless. Darth Vader, after all, was this huge, overwhelming presence, while she was pathetically small and -- so she had decided after she made the mistake of studying herself in the mirror this morning -- looked like she had a permanent hangover. She had actually been rather shocked by how bad she looked. If her face got any more drawn, it was just going to be a skull. You weren't supposed to lose weight when you were pregnant, were you? Then again, she supposed you weren't supposed to get kidnapped and face mortal threats to your family, either.
Nonetheless, stupid though it probably was, trying to evoke Vader in her stance did give her a slight psychological boost, as if she could gain some of his strength by looking like him. She had dressed all in black; black tunic, trousers and boots from her Palpatine-supplied wardrobe. She stood now with her legs apart, and her hands planted firmly on her hips, and waited.
She had decided. No more crying. No more emotional fits. She would simply do what she could, and she would learn how to do more. If she managed to save her father, good. If not, then she would keep learning, until she was strong enough to avenge him.
She supposed Luke would tell her that revenge was part of the Dark Side. She wasn't going to let that worry her. If this Dark Side that Luke went on about existed, then she was almost certainly on it already. Fair enough. If Palpatine took Vader from her, then she was going to make him suffer. She didn't care how long it took; someday she was going to take everything he cared about from him.
She had already succeeded in accomplishing something with the Force this morning which she hadn't managed before. She had sent a message to Palpatine, and he had heard her. She had concentrated on him, and informed him, in her best imperious manner, that she wished to see him as soon as possible, and wanted to meet with him somewhere other than the guest quarters. Seconds later, she had felt his presence in her mind, amused and, she thought, slightly impressed as well as he acknowledged her request. Three minutes after that, two Imperial Guards had arrived to escort her to Palpatine's personal chambers.
The room she was standing in now was a surprise, considering what she'd seen of Palpatine's taste in interior decoration. There were no purple drapes in the room, and no over-stuffed furniture -- indeed, there was no furniture at all. The carpet was as thick and squishy as the others at this level of the palace, but it was a deep black. The walls and ceiling were of polished black goldstone, and the specks of gold glimmered out of them like a starfield. There were no windows. The effect was as near as one could get to standing in space.
An inner door slid open in one of the gleaming black walls, revealing another room, apparently black as well, beyond. A half-visible figure as his black robes blended into the scene around him, Palpatine stepped through the door toward her.
Leia felt a tremor of fascinated distaste. The hood of Palpatine's robe was pushed back, and for the first time she saw his face and head without the hood to lend him its air of mystery. He looked smaller than he usually did, but no less unnerving. The absence of the hood did not make him look any more human. He looked, if anything, even more unpleasant than usual, with the deep fissures in his face and the dark puffy flesh under his eyes revealed in all their details. She had always been vaguely curious to know whether he was completely bald, and now she knew that he was not. But she rather wished he were. The sparse fluff of grey hair at the back of his head gave a bizarre effect, reminding her of a baby aashki bird she'd seen once that had fallen out of its nest. She'd felt sorry for the bird, and cried when her father -- Bail Organa -- told her that she couldn't take it home, because it would die without its parents to look after it. She'd gone back to the garden the next day and found the bird dead, and half-eaten by one of the palace tarrcats. She thought that she would like to see Palpatine with his body ripped open and his guts strewn over the ground, like the baby bird's.
The Emperor walked toward her and smiled. "Ah," he said in an amused tone, "so it's young Miss Vader."
She was not going to let anything he said annoy her today. She raised her head proudly and said, "I want you to teach me about the Force. You want me to be your apprentice, very well. I want to learn."
"And," he suggested, "you hope you can learn enough to rescue your father?"
"You're not worried about that, are you, My Master?" she asked him. "Surely you're strong enough to stop me, no matter what I learn."
"Yes, my dear," he said, "I am. Whether you believe that now or not."
"Oh," she said, "I believe it."
"Well," said Palpatine, "I believe I can spare a few minutes from my busy schedule. Shall we begin?" He gestured to the floor. "Take a seat."
She obeyed, sitting down on the lush black carpet. She sat cross-legged, as she had often seen Luke do when he was meditating. Palpatine knelt, facing her, his hands resting on his knees, and she felt a moment's surprise that his knee joints were still good enough to allow him to kneel.
Palpatine said, "you have experienced visions before, have you not, my dear?"
"Yes," she said. "I think so. Once, when I was trying to contact Vader, and again, in a dream. And the time that Luke contacted me, but that was very faint."
"But you haven't had much control over them, is that right?"
"That's right. The only time I initiated it was the time I tried to contact Vader, and then I wasn't trying to have a vision." She tried not to think about how strange it felt to be matter-of-factly discussing this with Palpatine.
"Well," said the Emperor, "there are substances you can use which will help you control it. But for now, let us see what you can do without them." He paused, closing his eyes for a few seconds. "Tell me, Leia," he said, opening his eyes again, "what did you do when you thought away your morning sickness? How did you envision your actions?"
She said slowly, "it was as if I could see ... pathways in my mind. I followed one of them, that went deep inside. And ... then I saw a box at the end of it, and I put all the pain into that, and shut the lid."
"All right, then," Palpatine said. "See the pathways again. Follow them. Deep inside. As deep as you can go."
Leia closed her eyes. It was weird, she thought, though kind of a relief, not to hear from him any of the stuff that Luke always said, the usual injunctions about leaving behind all one's worldly concerns. Not that she could ever imagine Palpatine leaving his worldly concerns behind.
"Follow them, Leia," came Palpatine's gentle, persuasive voice, "follow them."
Without quite knowing how she did it, she turned her feelings inward, and followed.
She had the impression that she was walking through a tunnel, though somehow she couldn't tell whether the tunnel was in light or darkness. Ahead of her she couldn't see anything, she could only see the walls of the tunnel when they were right next to her. She did not look behind her. She walked, and then the floor was no longer there ahead, and without thinking she dove into the empty space before her, as if into a swimming pool. Then she was moving downward, half swimming and half flying. She thought there was light around her now, a sort of pearly grey, but she wasn't sure. Suddenly her flight turned upward again, and she burst through something that felt almost like the surface of a pool, but not quite, and then with an abruptness that jolted her she could see everything around her, but she could feel nothing.
She was surrounded by sand. She was on her hands and knees on the slope of a sand dune, and trying to make her way up it, but it kept slipping away beneath her and sending her further down the slope. She could see the sand beneath her, but she could not feel it. Above, the sky was a piercing clear blue. She knew there must be a wind, because her hair was blowing into her face, but she couldn't feel that, either.
She wondered why it was so important that she get up the slope. She turned her head to look behind her, and saw.
It wasn't just her attempts to climb that were shifting the sand downward. Behind her there was a hollow in the sand, and the sand from the dune was being drawn into it. She watched the sand slowly spiralling into the hollow, as if in a whirlpool. She watched as more and more of the sand disappeared.
Then she herself was drifting downward. She still couldn't feel it, although she knew that she should be able to as she tried to grab handholds in the sand. She wasn't afraid, though she was a bit nonplussed, while she watched herself slide closer to the place where the sand disappeared, to notice that she wasn't wearing her black clothes anymore, but the white dress and boots she had been wearing when she first met Luke, Han and Chewbacca.
Her feet started to vanish into the whirlpool of sand, and all at once she thought that this wasn't a good idea any more. She tried again to grab hold of something. Something arrested her fall, and she turned to see that she had caught onto a human hand which was reaching out of the sand. The hand was twisted and claw-like, and she felt certain that the owner of the hand was dead. It was important that she see who the hand belonged to, she thought, so she started trying to dig the sand away from it. But all the sand she moved away kept sliding back in around it, and then the hand itself was subsiding, sinking away and out of sight. She didn't know whether she should let go of the hand, or hold on and follow it. She held on, and as she sank into the sand she could suddenly feel it, seeping into her boots, scratching against her tights, slipping into her sleeves. Her hair itched horribly with it, it was tickling her nose and her throat, Gods, some of it had even seeped into her collar to crawl down between her breasts. She wondered why she wasn't choking from breathing the sand, but she was not. She could feel the corpse's hand now; it had closed its fingers around hers.
For a moment all she could see was the pale gold glow of the sand. Then the sand was gone, and the dead hand let go. She was standing -- somewhere.
Somewhere man-made, that much was obvious. She was leaning forward against a metal railing. Beside her there was a small yellowish light on top of the railing, winking repetitively off and on again. There was wind again, and this time she could feel it, rushing coolly against her face. She liked the feeling of it as it raked through her hair and drove away all memories of the sand.
But something was wrong. She knew that. She realised now that she was reaching out over the railing, and that beyond the railing was an elongated, fragile-looking control pylon, connected by one thin gantry to the walkway on which she stood. All around the pylon was a vast emptiness. She looked down to see that a pit, its distant walls constructed of metal and lit by cold, blinking lights, descended below the pylon for as far as her eyes could reach. She looked up again at the pylon and was hit by a frightening surge of despair.
Sitting with his back against the pylon, his legs swinging casually over the frail railing that encircled the pylon at the level of the connecting gantry, was Luke. He did not seem to notice, or care, that the slightest shifting of his balance could send him plunging into an abyss. Luke was wearing the black outfit he'd been in when they were kidnapped by Datang, and he was silently crying.
"Luke," Leia breathed.
This was wrong, he shouldn't be here. He should be safe in the guest quarters. When she'd left, he'd been in his room, sitting on the floor by the window and watching as morning lit the Imperial City. He'd seemed all right last night, and this morning -- very withdrawn, but he'd been dealing with it. Or she'd thought he was.
He wasn't looking at her. He was holding his lightsaber, and he kept pressing the button that retracted the blade, then pressing it again to bring the green shaft glowing back into life. Her breath caught in her throat as she realised that every time he sent the blade out again, he brought his left hand closer to it. Sometimes the blade caught his hand, sometimes it didn't. The skin of his hand was starting to disappear amid rivulets of blood.
Leia yelled, "Luke, stop! Stop!"
He ignored her, and, tears still streaking his face, calmly brought his hand down on the point of the lightsaber. The green column passed straight though. He pulled his hand away again and held it up, looking solemnly at the perfect hole through the centre of it. He didn't seem to be in any pain, but a fiery anguish shot through Leia's left hand instead. For a moment she thought she would fall.
She clutched the railing tighter. The wind battered at her, and she almost lost her footing. She called out, trying to make her voice heard over the wind, "Luke, please! Come back with me!"
This time he looked at her, but there was no emotion on his face. He extended the lightsaber one last time, then he dropped it into the pit, the gleaming green blade swiftly vanishing. Luke stood up, holding on to the pylon with his right hand, and for a moment he balanced himself on the rail.
Slowly he let go of the pylon, and for another instant he stood balanced, as if gravity had no meaning to him. Then he let himself fall into the pit.
Leia screamed, "Luke!" Then suddenly she must have turned into Luke; at least she could feel herself falling, and see the distant walls of the pit swirling crazily around her. Suddenly the walls grew closer, she was in some kind of metal tube like a playground slide, only longer, and she kept hurting herself as she smashed against the walls. Although she made no noise she felt the tears leaking out of her eyes.
Abruptly the tube levelled out, and her fall stopped. She lay there, gasping for breath. The tube was well-lit, and suddenly she whispered, "oh, no, no, no."
In the pale, cold lighting she could see that the tube in front of her was being steadily eaten away. The metal was disappearing, as if being swallowed up by acid. Beyond the dying metal was utter blackness, more complete than any she had ever seen.
She watched as, inch by inch, the tube was devoured. Then she started to scream, and could not stop.
The blackness had almost reached her. In seconds it would touch her, and there would be nothing between her and the dark.
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