She was dying right in front of him. And there wasn't one damned thing he could do.
Faren wanted desperately to send for the medics, but how could he do that? What kind of security chief would he be if he introduced more potential victims into a scenario that had already gone so far out of control?
He cast another panicked glance down at her, and wished he hadn't. It had been a lucky shot for Captain Needa. Most of it had incinerated her left shoulder, which was just a blackened mess. But the edge of the blast had caught her in the throat. The flesh there had been flayed open. He could see bits of burned matter amidst the blood – way too much blood – that was pouring out.
She wasn't going to make it, but he had to try. He called out, "Captain, please! Let me take Narita to the medics."
Needa, still crouched and awkwardly restraining Madine, gave a minimal shake of his head. "I don't need you bringing any more security goons for me to play with. Anyway, I'm sorry, Faren. I don't think she's going to make it."
Needa did sound sorry about it, too. Which only made things worse.
Faren looked down again, and saw her blue eyes fixed on him. He wasn't sure she could actually see him, but just in case, he'd better act as if she did. He managed a faint smile, and reached out and took her hand. He didn't know if she could feel that, but he hoped she could.
Hoped she felt him holding her hand, instead of the gushing ruin in her throat.
Distantly he heard Captain Needa calling to the commander of the hangar bay, "hey, Commander Ogden. How about locking the hangar bay doors for me?"
Ogden's voice responded, over the loudspeaker from the hangar's command centre, "I don't think I should do that, Captain."
"Well, cool," said Needa. "Gives me an excuse to kill Madine. Or, you wanna do it yourself? Go get a blaster, I'll let you pull the trigger if you want."
The sigh from Ogden carried across the loudspeaker. "I've locked the doors," he said. "They won't hold long, if anyone outside really wants to get in."
Faren hadn't taken his gaze from Narita. She suddenly clutched his hand. Could have been just a reflex action, of course. There was a coughing, gurgling sound from her and her legs kicked a little, then she was very still.
Faren squeezed his eyes shut. Gods damn it, he thought. Gods damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.
When he opened his eyes and looked toward Needa again, the Captain was carefully getting to his feet and pulling Madine up with him. He had to alter his grip on the hostage, moving the blaster up to Madine's temple and holding Madine in front of him as a shield, with one arm tightly around the general's neck. But at no instant did he remove the blaster from its contact with Madine's skin.
Madine looked more furious than frightened. He suddenly yelled, "don't let him stop you, damn it! Shoot the bastard!"
"Ooh, General," cooed Needa in a mocking falsetto, "you're so brave." He returned to his own voice as he sneered viciously, "the Empire would have been honoured to have you in its forces. That is, if you hadn't been a stinking, weasely, whining little traitor who didn't have the balls to rise through the ranks on your own merit like the rest of us. Did the Rebels make you a general on the day you joined them, or did they check to be sure the codes you brought were genuine, first?"
He's talking too much, thought Faren. If he keeps on like this, maybe it'll give time for reinforcements to break in … although, he realised, that would almost certainly get General Madine killed. Well, though, he thought, not much of a loss, that. In fact it would be so small of a loss, why didn't he just take Madine out himself and save Needa the trouble? The bastard got Narita killed. She'd still be alive if he'd let us handle this in our own way, instead of him seizing the opportunity for heroic posing.
Needa had ceased his Madine-baiting. He raised his voice and ordered, "drop your blasters, everybody. You're making me nervous."
Faren heard himself yelling back, "you picked a bad hostage, Captain. We'd all be just as happy to kill him ourselves!"
"So do it," suggested Captain Needa. "It'd be worth seeing."
Gods, he would love to blast Madine and call Needa's bluff. Only Narita wouldn't approve.
"I said, drop the weapons," Needa commanded. "That means you, too, Commander Antilles."
Dull clatterings sounded around the room as the hangar's occupants reluctantly obeyed.
"Faren," called Needa, "drop the damn blaster."
Faren gazed longingly at General Madine and pictured a nice clean blaster hole right through his forehead. Finally he opened his hand and let the blaster fall.
"Commander Angelotti," Needa was continuing in a casual tone, "would you come over here and close these access ports? Carefully, of course. Please don't try anything funny."
Faren's hands were clenching and unclenching uselessly. Captain, he thought, why the Hell did you do this? Maybe we all wanted to, sometimes, but why did you?
He glanced down at Narita's still form. And why do I care about her so much? he asked himself. I barely even know her.
Barely, except for sharing an office with her for a year. And getting drunk with her. And spending countless hours bitching with her about how every other branch of the service conspired to fuck things up for security officers.
I know her, all right.
"Thanks," Needa said to Angelotti, who had warily crossed the hanger bay and closed the various open ports and panels on the Lambda shuttle. "Now, how about opening the boarding ramp? I've got my hands full here."
Angelotti looked around helplessly as if hoping that someone would have a way to save the day, but nobody seemed to have come up with anything. Cautiously he skirted around Needa and his glaring hostage, and keyed in the manual opening code in the panel by the shuttle's entrance.
A realisation hit Faren's brain. Firelord, he thought, why didn't anyone think of it? It wasn't as if their damn blasters had only one setting. If someone could get off a shot without Needa seeing, the blaster could just as easily be set on stun as on kill. That way, he could aim at Needa, but even if he hit Madine too, the worst that would happen was that the General would be knocked out. Assuming, of course, the shot's good enough to knock out Needa, instead of just pissing him off.
The trouble was, he had dropped his own blaster too far away from his hand, and in plain sight of Captain Needa.
His eyes flickered down to Akemi Narita's body. Her blaster was lying next to her hand. And Faren's legs should – he hoped – be blocking it from Needa's sight.
He reached down slowly as if to clutch her hand again. Then he moved his hand back to touch the blaster. With his thumb he nudged its setting over to stun.
The shuttle's boarding ramp had gracefully lowered into its open position. Captain Needa took a few steps onto it, still dragging Madine along with him. Suddenly the General, with more courage than brains, started to struggle.
Faren saw Needa close his arm tighter around Madine's windpipe, and press the blaster harder against his skull. "General," Needa hissed, "do you have any idea how much I'd enjoy killing you?"
They moved another few paces up the boarding ramp. Needa started to turn away slightly as he urged Madine into the entry port. Right, thought Faren. Now or never.
He brought up Narita's blaster and fired.
He'd been quick, he knew he had. But Needa had still seen something. He jerked to the side, pulling Madine into the centre of Faren's aim.
The General collapsed, sagging heavily against Needa's grasp. In another instant Needa had hauled him through the shuttle's entry port and disappeared inside. The boarding ramp lifted, and shut tight.
Commander Angelotti reached toward the shuttle. His hand stopped in mid-air. "He's raised the shuttle's shields," Angelotti reported to the assembly at large.
That was when Captain Faren started to sob.
Leia was seated cross-legged on the guest quarters' carpet. A little space away from her, Luke sat in the same pose. They looked like mirrors of each other, both dressed in similar black outfits of tunics, trousers and boots.
Too bad, Luke thought, that our powers don't mirror each other, too.
Leia had declined the Emperor's offer of dinner tonight when Luke said that he wanted to work with her on her Force practice. He would actually have much rather spent the evening giving himself a blaster wound and twisting a knife around in it. But this was something he ought to do – had to do. He couldn't keep hoping that by ignoring his loss, he could make it go away. And if it kept Leia here at 2130, it was worth it.
Leia had her eyes closed. "What do you feel, Leia?" Luke prompted, surprising himself with how calm and gentle his voice sounded.
Leia tilted her head a little to one side, not opening her eyes. "Everything," she said quietly. "You. I can feel that you're here. The guards, out in the hallway. I can feel their presence, who they are, but I'm not really picking up any thoughts …"
"You can't usually do that," Luke agreed. "Not unless you're really trying, or they are. If someone's really broadcasting to you, or you're specifically trying to catch their thoughts." Of course, he thought, how the hell can I be sure that I know what I'm talking about? That's only what it was like for me. Although this particular subject was one he had spoken about with Darth, and what he'd just told Leia was pretty much what Darth had said as well.
"All right," he continued. "Now ignite the lightsaber."
She picked up the saber's hilt from where it had been lying on the carpet in front of her. She paused a moment, then the green blade sprang into life. Luke had been watching carefully, and saw that she hadn't used the switch on the hilt to light the saber manually. She had ignited it with her thoughts.
"Now what do you feel?" he asked.
Leia frowned a little, and her voice took on a note of wonder. "It's still you," she whispered. "The lightsaber. It's got your presence in it. Different, too, but – it's you."
Well, that's nice, Luke thought bitterly. Even if I never get the Force back, at least you can say that part of me will be going into battle at Leia's side. Which made him wonder, again, how much of their father's presence had been left in the first lightsaber that Luke had used. Had Darth sensed himself in that sword when they duelled on Cloud City? Had it felt like he was duelling himself?
Luke glanced at the chronometer on the marble desktop, beside the computer. It read 2120.
He wanted to try something. Well, wanted wasn't exactly the right word. He was going to try something, anyway. "Leia," he said, "could I have the saber for a minute?"
She opened her eyes. "Sure." She retracted the blade and handed the hilt to him.
He took the hilt in his hand. It rankled to have to use the switch to ignite the weapon, but he did it. As the glowing blade appeared again, he stared as if seeing it for the first time. He was trying to think back to the actual first time he had seen a lightsaber. Obi Wan's house on Tatooine. He could remember taking the sword, flipping the switch, staring in awe at the blue column of light. What he couldn't remember was whether he had felt anything. Had there been any stirring of the Force? Any hint of amazing power leashed by the weapon in his hand? Or had he just felt like he did now?
There didn't really seem to be any difference, now, between holding the lightsaber and holding a blaster. Both could kill, but he no longer had the feeling that the saber was almost speaking to him. Or that it was part of him. He could feel the hilt vibrating slightly from the energy of the blade, but he imagined that anyone holding an ignited lightsaber would feel that. Even Han had probably felt that, when he used Luke's lightsaber to slice open that damn tauntaun carcass on Hoth.
Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster in your hand, hunh? Boy, will Han ever be surprised when I tell him that I think he's right!
Of course, he didn't think Han was right at all. But whether he liked it or not, the hokey religion and the ancient weapon seemed to have dumped him. He thought that he'd better start working on his blaster technique.
He stood up and made a few experimental swings, lunges and parries with the sword. Nothing. The balance seemed off, too. He hadn't really thought about it before, but it had always seemed like the blade of a lightsaber had some weight, to balance the hilt. Now he couldn't feel that weight anymore. It felt weird, as if the hilt were the only part of the weapon that was actually there.
Luke scowled, retracted the blade again, and handed it back to Leia, who stood up to take the sword from him. "Thanks," Luke said. Six more minutes till 2130. And till whatever was supposed to happen at 2130. He asked Leia, "you want to try that exercise Obi Wan had me do? Or is it too hokey?"
She smiled at him. "Sure, I'll try it. All practice is good practice, right?" Her smile turned a little sickly as she said that, and a jolt of worried protectiveness shot through Luke. He wondered, what the hell kind of practice has Palpatine been making her do? Gods damn it, if he's hurt her – well, okay, Luke, what if? What are you going to do to protect her from the most powerful man in the galaxy? March up to him again and tell him he smells funny?
He went on, "we don't have anything like that visor I used on the Falcon, so do you want a blindfold, or just want to close your eyes?"
She opted for the latter, and while she stood there with eyes shut, he crossed to the computer desk and retrieved the three remotes that he'd had the newly-repaired droid deliver earlier that evening. He'd suggested to Leia, when they were discussing this practice session, that it might be useful for her to try using the lightsaber against objects that weren't under her control. She'd been manipulating the cushion that she'd sliced in half this morning, so perhaps she'd made it come to the lightsaber, rather than going after the cushion herself. For now, she should try just controlling the lightsaber, and see how she did against the remotes then.
"Ready?" asked Luke.
"Whenever you are."
"Okay, go for it. Don't worry, I'll just watch. I won't spout any Yoda-isms."
One by one, Luke activated the remotes and let them go.
As the remotes, tentatively at first, bobbed toward Leia, Luke couldn't help contrasting her relaxed poise with how he must have looked when he first tried this exercise. All too easily, he could picture himself hopping around like a rabid sand flea as the mini laser bolts bit at his skin. And he'd been only facing one remote, instead of three.
When the first remote fired, Leia just leaped out of the way of the blast. When the second attack came, though, and then two and three at once, the lightsaber's blade was always there to deflect them. Luke watched, more and more amazed, as his sister, with eyes still closed, fought her way toward a perfect score. And with apparently no effort. It was like watching Darth fight.
She sliced one of the remotes in half, and knocked the other to the floor, where it deactivated and rolled under the sofa.
Then suddenly Leia froze.
The last remaining remote spat out a bolt that went undeflected. It caught Leia in the wrist. Her eyes snapped open, and as she glared at the remote, the hapless little machine exploded.
The lights in the room flickered, went out for a split second, and then returned again, apparently undamaged.
"Uh – Leia? Did you do that? With the lights?"
She deactivated the lightsaber and shook her head, running a hand through her hair. "No. Luke, did you feel – I'm sorry. But, you really didn't feel anything?"
"No," he said flatly.
"There was something." She managed a very wan smile, but her eyes still looked like storm clouds. "You'd probably call it 'a disturbance in the Force'."
Luke snapped back, "I'd call it a disturbance in the lighting system." It struck him that that sounded like something Han would say. Great, so I'm channelling Han now. Well, there were worse fates than channelling Han. To be honest, he'd rather channel Han Solo than be himself.
Leia didn't seem to like the comment any better coming from him than she would have liked it from Han. She turned the same sharp glare on him and chided, "Luke!" Then she bit her lip and shook her head again. "I think a lot of people just died."
Luke glanced at the chronometer. 2130.
Leia's eyes widened. "I've got to get to our father."
"Wait, Leia -- "
She ignored him, of course. Still clutching the retracted lightsaber, she wheeled and started for the door. Before she could get close enough for the door to acknowledge her presence, it opened in front of her.
Outside in the corridor was an elderly gentleman with a huge white moustache and a matching set of remarkable bushy eyebrows. The black uniform he wore was festooned with medals all across his chest, and as Luke stepped closer he saw that the uniform bore a General's insignia. Behind the elderly General stood around twenty ten black-uniformed palace guards.
"Your Highness," the General greeted her, "it's good to see you again."
"General Mulcahy," Leia acknowledged brusquely, with no sign of surprise. "I'm sorry, I don't have time to talk. Excuse me."
She brushed past the men and started down the hallway. One of the guards grabbed her arm, beginning, "Your Highness, wait -- ", but she merely used the Force to knock him over and continued along the corridor, breaking into a dead run.
While another of the guards helped his shaken comrade to his feet, Mulcahy stared after Leia, shaking his head. "Used to have better manners when she was in the Senate," he remarked. He turned to the flabbergasted Luke, took a step into the room and thrust out his gnarled right hand for Luke to shake. "Xavier Mulcahy," he said.
"Luke Skywalker," Luke said blankly, shaking the man's hand.
"Charmed. Would you happen to know where Princess Leia's going?"
"She said something about having to get to our – to Darth Vader."
"Ah. And does she know how to get to him?"
"Yes. I think she does."
"Well. We've already got a team heading to his position, but since my task was to deliver both of you to your escape vessel, I suppose we'd better follow her." He glanced toward his men, jabbing a thumb in Luke's direction. "Somebody give this boy a blaster."
One of the guards tossed a blaster to Luke, who caught it, still not quite convinced that any of this was happening.
There was a sudden, distant rumble, and ever so slightly the building seemed to shake.
The smile that General Mulcahy turned on Luke seemed one of genuine enjoyment. He said, "I imagine that means we should hurry up."
Han Solo was bored.
Bored didn't actually cover it. He felt like he was in some sort of altered state. Not quite comatose, since he felt fully awake. But – insulated, somehow, as if he'd ended up back in carbon freeze, but without blacking out. As if nothing in the universe, past, present or future, mattered any more.
It was a damned good thing that he'd had plenty of experience with spending long stretches of time in close quarters with a Wookiee. Over the years he'd gotten used to Chewbacca's smell, like mustiness blended with over-ripe cheese. Chewbacca had on many occasions described what Han's own odour smelled like to him, and yep, if they could still be friends smelling the way they did to each other, they could get through anything.
Anything, give or take eternity in Palpatine's dungeon.
His wrist chronometer told him they'd only been here a few days, but it was starting to feel like months. He scratched at the stubble on his chin and decided that no, it must be just days, since he didn't have a beard down to his chest yet.
There weren't any bugs in Palpatine's dungeons, apparently, at least not in this level. In most ways that would be thought of as a good thing, but at least if there'd been bugs he and Chewie might have been able to hold races between them, like they'd done in that jail back on Benga Nine. This was just a fairly innocuous holding cell, actually, not really worthy of the name of dungeon. But Han kept thinking of it as a dungeon, just because Palpatine seemed like the sort of guy who ought to have dungeons. He probably did, complete with oozing walls and ravenous myna-rats and skeletons in chains. Han and Chewie just hadn't pissed him off enough to end up in any of them yet.
But, no bug races. And Chewbacca hated "twenty questions". And there wasn't any point in playing "I spy", since there was barely anything in the cell for them to spy. T for toilet, W for Wookiee, C for Corellian, v for vest … no, that would lose its appeal very fast. So, they were left with nothing but story-telling.
That was fine, because story-telling was an important part of Wookiee culture, and Chewbacca knew enough stories to keep telling them until Han's beard was down to his toes. Mind you, Han didn't always find them fantastically thrilling. He figured that when you'd heard about one culture hero discovering fire or some such thing, inventing vast improvements in the art of hunting, and winning the beautiful Wookiee maiden, you'd pretty much heard about them all. But Han would have been happy to keep hearing about every hero in the Wookiee pantheon, if only it meant he didn't have to tell any stories himself.
The trouble was, Wookiee story-telling ethics specified that the same teller could never relate two stories in a row. For every story Chewbacca told, Han had to tell one too. And it had to be at least five minutes long, or it didn't count. And it couldn't be about himself.
He'd pretty much drained the dregs of every fairy tale he'd heard when he was a kid. The adventure holonovels he used to read had lasted him for a few story-telling rounds, but he hadn't read any of those in ages – he'd stopped reading them when his own life started getting more hair-raising than the novels. So now he had fallen back on his mother's holosoap.
Of course as a macho young Corellian, he shouldn't have been watching a soap, but he had an excuse. He'd been sick one year with the hidarian fever, which had kept him out of school for nearly seven months. Every kid's dream, except that he really had been almost too weak to get out of bed. So, he and his mom had watched many, many episodes of Beyond the Stars. He remembered the plotlines pretty well, though sometimes he had to make up bits here and there. That was okay by Wookiee ethics, though. As long as you acted as if you were making stuff up because your version was better, not because you'd forgotten.
"So," said Han, "Del Marock comes back to the home he abandoned twenty years ago, when he couldn't bear to be surrounded by the memories of his father's tyranny. But now, after his experiences in the Revolts on Wobprenia Prime, he figures he's his own man and he can reclaim his birthright. But what he didn't reckon on, was that somebody else had the same idea. Eriok Grim, dashing young reporter twice decorated with the Senate's Medal for Valour, turns up on the planet just a couple months after Del does. Now Eriok, see, is the son of Del's father's old housekeeper. The two boys used to play together and were great friends until suddenly when they were fifteen or so, Eriok started acting like he hated Del and Del never figured out why. So now there's a lot of tension between Del and Eriok, which isn't helped by the fact that they both have the hots for the same gal, this ex-dancer named Careen who's just taken over Calpurn Gamala's crime empire. Of course there's tension between Careen and Eriok too, because she thinks he's just pursuing her so he can write an exposé about her business practices. And meanwhile, see, there's this other mysterious woman on the scene, who Del rescued out of an abandoned well on his property. Now what Del doesn't know is that she's really Senator Etran, who was dumped in the well by her evil twin sister who's got designs on Etran's husband Gillock …"
The lights went out.
There weren't any light switches in the cell; Han had checked this place out thoroughly on the first day they were dumped in here. So it couldn't just be that Chewbacca had stretched and accidentally hit the switch with his back. Nothing simple like that. Maybe Palpatine had decided it was time to start playing games with his captives, and see how long they could stand being cooped up in the dark.
"Chewie," Han whispered, "I haven't just gone blind, have I?"
Chewie's very quiet growl told him no. And added that he should shut up.
Gradually Han's eyes picked up on what the Wookiee's stronger night vision must have told him already, that it wasn't totally dark. There was a vague greyish area, still dark but not as impenetrably black as everything else, in about the same space where – where the door was.
Excitement coursed through Han, awakening senses that had lain numb through the endless adventures of Wookiee culture heroes and the cast of Beyond the Stars. He thought, what if it isn't just the lights that are out? What if it's a general power outage? What if the power that's gone doesn't just control the lights, it controls the doors?
It was just possible that the door had opened when the power went out. In which case that greyish bit would be from the emergency lighting in the corridor – and they had just been handed a chance to escape.
Either that or it's some sick little game of Palpatine's. But, they'd never find out if they didn't try, right?
Chewie gave a barely audible version of his "come on" growl. So stealthily that Han almost couldn't hear him, the Wookiee was standing up. Han got carefully to his feet as well, wishing that he'd spent these last few days running in place or doing push-ups, or anything, instead of mainly just sitting there.
Chewbacca was edging his way toward the right side of the door. Han mimicked him, heading to the left.
Just as they reached it, a stormtrooper appeared in the doorway, his helmet and armour illuminated in a spectral yellow glow from the emergency light on his blaster rifle.
Before Han could even move, Chewbacca's huge hairy hands closed around the stormtrooper's neck, and finished him off with one twist.
Chewie tossed the late stormtrooper to the back of the cell, suggesting that Han should pick up the blaster rifle.
"Yeah I know, pal, I know," muttered Han. Shit. If only all escapes could be this efficient. Well, this one wasn't over yet. If he knew him and Chewie, they'd end up in several shoot-outs and a few side trips through garbage chutes before the end of this little party.
Chewbacca stepped into the hallway, followed closely by Han Solo with the blaster rifle, on which he'd switched off the emergency light. Near the ceiling, at five metre intervals, little spherical lights glowed palely as far as they could see, in either direction.
"Which way do we go?" whispered Han. "Got any ideas?"
Chewie's response was decidedly negative.
The sound of what seemed to be an explosion rumbled at them in the distance. Han wasn't sure, but he thought it sounded like it came from the right.
Which posed another set of questions. Should they go toward the explosion, where at least something might be happening that they could turn to their advantage? Or should they stay well the hell away from it?
Well, Han Solo had never been one to stay out of trouble. "Whaddaya say, pal?" He asked Chewie. "Wanna go see what that was?"
Chewbacca growled a quiet, but emphatic, yes.
They started along the dim, ghostly corridor, to the right.
"Where is he? My Gods, where is he?"
"Stay calm," ordered Moff Nevoy, although one could argue that it was a ludicrous order, under the circumstances. Oh, yes, right. Stay calm, when our bloody beloved Emperor is still alive, somehow, and no one knows where?
The wild-eyed young Lieutenant LaSalle nodded and gulped several times in succession, fighting himself to some sort of control. "He was here, sir," the Lieutenant insisted, though in a steadier voice. "Just the second before the blast was detonated, he was here, I swear it."
"I know," Nevoy said tiredly. "He must have sensed the threat, and teleported out." They had tried, gods knew they had tried, to time the explosions in the Emperor's quarters and the Imperial Guard headquarters for the same exact moment, but if the attack on the Guards' HQ had been even a fraction of a second before that on the Emperor, perhaps he had sensed their deaths and made himself scarce.
Nevoy eyed the mess of rubble that had formerly been Emperor Palpatine's quarters. This part of the plan had worked nicely, with the rather large exception of Palpatine not being there when the place exploded. The bombs outside the building, around the walls and the huge airy windows – the former huge airy windows – had been installed by technician droids, so that there would not be any living being involved for Palpatine to pick up on their thoughts. They'd also sent a virus to the Emperor's communications console, rigging the console itself to explode when it received a certain additional message. There hadn't been much danger that Palpatine would pick up on that, since he wasn't much of a computer person and would be unlikely to pay the computer that much attention. At the instant the console exploded, the same message had detonated the bombs outside. For good measure, they'd managed to rig explosives into the door of Palpatine's quarters, that work also being done by the commonly ignored maintenance droids. When the two Imperial Guards in the corridor had heard the first explosions and attempted to go to their master's rescue, all they'd succeeded in doing was getting themselves shredded into several thousand pieces.
Unfortunately, theirs were the only organic remains in the former Imperial chambers. The most minute scans had revealed nothing that could be interpreted as any remnant of Emperor Palpatine. Of course, if one wanted to be optimistic one could assume that the Emperor had just totally vaporised on death – Nevoy had heard rumours that old Force users did that, sometimes. But Palpatine wasn't all that old. Only, what, in his late sixties? Nevoy doubted that was old enough to do the vaporising trick. No, he was still around. Somewhere.
"My Gods," the young lieutenant whispered again, echoing Nevoy's thoughts, "he could be anywhere."
"Yes, he could," Nevoy said harshly. "And we're not going to help ourselves in the slightest if we panic."
If nothing else, they'd certainly succeeded in delivering a nice painful blow to the Emperor's pride. His personal quarters were toast, and the destruction of the Imperial Guard headquarters had theoretically taken out a good three-quarters of his private army, all of the Red Idiots who hadn't been on guard duty at the time. Of course, nothing was ever quite that simple. The destruction of Imperial Guard HQ hadn't been total. Nevoy knew from one of the hurried communications he'd exchanged since this started that the main body of Captain Sandar's palace guards were engaged in a pitched battle with the surviving Red Idiots, at the former main entrance to their headquarters. As for the Imperial Guards who'd been on their duty shifts, they were of course still a threat. But they were usually only posted in twos, and all the men in the palace uprising had orders to shoot them down on sight.
Colonel Wellaine had called from the Palace's communications centre, and was able to report that he and his team had successfully disabled all outgoing communications. Messages could still reach the palace, but none could go out. Naturally they couldn't disable every Imperial loyalist's personal com-link, but at least no official request for assistance could be sent with the Palace's com signature. Anyone commanding potential reinforcements would be delayed by having to check the message's authenticity. Or so Nevoy hoped. Wellaine was now on his way to the main troop transport launching bay, which had already been seized by the team under the command of Major Bretney, Wellaine's brother-in-law and best friend from their Academy days. Together Wellaine and Bretney would supervise the evacuation of Sandar's palace guards – presuming enough of them survived the fight at Imperial Guard headquarters.
Nevoy had already played his own very satisfying part in the mayhem. When Lieutenant LaSalle's panicked message summoned him here, he'd been in the control centre for Coruscant's perimeter defence stations. Like that unfortunate damn Han Solo and his friend the Wookiee, part of their escape plan involved disabling the perimeter stations' weapons. Only Nevoy and his team had disabled all of the stations, not just one of them. For good measure, they had then blasted the control console into a melted, sizzling heap. The weapons could be got back on line from the stations themselves, but it would take a lot of crawling around in access tubes and some creative work involving screwdrivers. And one of the charming aspects of Palpatine's control mania was that the stations would have no warning that their weapons were off line. Hopefully, they wouldn't figure that out until they tried to fire them.
The evening breeze ruffled Nevoy's hair, then danced on across the devoured stretch of building, now laid open to the soft spring air. This was really not the best place to be standing if some loyalist air troops launched a counter assault. Anyway, there were a lot more useful things they could be doing than just standing here. Nevoy raised his wrist com and keyed in the code for General Mulcahy's link.
"Osheen!" came Mulcahy's voice, sounding cheerful if somewhat out of breath. "We got a little problem here. Our mad Princess went running off to find Lord Vader. Skywalker and the rest of us are after her. And I just got word there's a force of Red Idiots and stormtroopers headed our way."
Shit, shit. He could order Mulcahy to withdraw to their escape vessel, but it wouldn't do any good. Anyway, even if Mulcahy did retreat, there was no guarantee that his team wouldn't still run smack into the enemy.
"We'll rendezvous with you. Take of yourself, you old bastard." Nevoy closed the link and announced to the still shocked looking Lieutenant LaSalle and his assembled troops, "we're heading for the Great Hall."
Luke was running so hard that his breath caught and burned in his chest. Gods damn it, he wondered, have I really let myself get this out of shape? He hadn't realised how much he must have been relying on the Force to maintain his stamina. He was going to hurt like Hell tomorrow – if he was still alive tomorrow – but for now he ignored his stinging lungs and the leg muscles that really didn't want to be doing this, and kept running.
Leia, of course, was far ahead. Little things like fatigue were not going to bother her. Luke and the rest of the party could still see her most of the time, when she wasn't around a corner from them. The rest of them were spread out along the hallway, with Luke somewhere near the middle of the group. Bringing up the rear was the old General, jogging doggedly along and still looking way too damn chirpy. Luke had noticed that two of the palace guards were regulating their pace so as to never be too far away from the General. Once Luke had doubled back to jog at the old man's side, and tried to suggest that he probably shouldn't be running and maybe he should let the rest of them take care of this. General Mulcahy's only response was "put a cork in it, sonny". Luke had caught a resigned smile and a little shake of the head from one of the two guards, and decided that if they hadn't had any luck with their ancient General, then Luke sure wasn't going to get anywhere with this argument.
Luke heard shouting beyond the next corner. Shouting and blaster fire. He managed to seize another burst of speed from somewhere, and tore around the corner.
He might not have the Force any more, but he must still have decent reflexes. Almost before his senses told him people were firing on him, Luke was firing back. A side corridor ahead of them had spewed forth an apparent horde of stormtroopers and the Emperor's personal guard. The mixture of red uniforms and white made them look almost festive, like decorations for some Firelord Day celebration.
One of the guards beside Luke screamed and fell. Luke caught the stench of burned cloth and flesh. Distractedly Luke thought that these stormtroopers were better shots than the ones he'd faced before. Maybe only super stormtroopers got posted to the Imperial Palace.
Still firing, Luke risked a glance to the corridor beyond, where he thought he'd caught a glimpse of Leia. Sure enough, there she was. She and three stormtroopers and two of the Imperial Guards.
Luke ducked behind his comrades of the palace guard, so he wouldn't have them firing at him too, and ran toward his sister. As he ran, he fired, and took out one of the stormtroopers trying to surround Leia.
A blaster bolt from behind sizzled just over Luke's head. Still running, he turned and shot back at the red masked and robed Imperial Guard who had fired at him. Luke's shot must have missed too, but then a handful of the black-uniformed soldiers were shooting at the one in red, and Luke was suddenly low on his list of priorities.
Leia didn't actually look like she needed Luke's help. She kicked one of the Imperial guards and sent him smashing into the wall behind him. Almost before her foot was back on the floor, she pivoted with an arcing blow of the lightsaber that literally cut the other Imperial Guard in half. Luke fought not to be sick as he stared for an instant at the bisected corpse sliced just above the waist. The guard that Leia had kicked was now firing at her, but the blaster bolt just seemed to stop about a metre away from her. As the flame of the guard's shot dissipated and vanished, Luke fired at him. The Imperial Guard slammed into the wall again, then slid down to the floor.
In two more swings of the lightsaber, Leia sliced off the arm of one stormtrooper and opened the throat of the other. After one glance at Luke as if to assure herself that he was still alive, Leia turned and ran on.
Luke's first instinct was to run after her. But, she really didn't need him, did she? And the ancient General and his Palace Guards just might.
As it turned out, they weren't doing too badly either. It was really a mopping-up operation that Luke joined them for, mowing down their last few opponents. Four of the stormtroopers had flung down their blasters and stuck their hands about as far above their heads as they could reach. The General grinned as he herded the four of them, plus their now one-armed fellow trooper, into the nearest room. It was filled with comfortable-looking sofas and chairs, and seemed to be some kind of reception room. "How 'bout you sit this one out, boys," suggested General Mulcahy. "Looks like the bar's open; have a few on the house." As the door slid shut and one of the Palace Guards keyed in the locking sequence, Mulcahy looked more seriously around the dregs of the fight. "We lost four?" he asked, eyes narrowing as he counted corpses.
"Maybe five, sir," said one of the Guards, staggering a little as he tried to support a pallid, dark-haired comrade who was clutching at a wound in his gut. "Trelawsky's taken a pretty bad one."
Mulcahy nodded. "Stay with him. Try to get him to the Conquest. If you can reach the ship's sickbay in time, maybe there's a chance." He looked around at the others. "All right, gentlemen, let's see if we can catch up with that Princess."
As they jogged on again, General Mulcahy inquired of Luke, "how are you doing, young man?"
"Fine, sir," grated Luke, forcing himself not to pant as he said it. "You?"
"Peachy," said the General with another grin. "My doctor kept telling me I should get some exercise."
The corridors had been getting wider. Now the corridor that they'd been running through came to a sudden end, intersecting with a vast open space. Several AT-ATs could have walked through it abreast, and without having to stoop. The pale blue star marble of the floor and the walls was broken only by a huge metal door at least thirty metres tall, across the open space from Luke and the others. On the door was blazoned the Imperial insignia.
Before the door, dwarfed by its massive height, stood Leia. She cast a glance around the deserted open space and back to Luke and the Guards. Then the door slid silently open, and Leia stepped through.
Luke was running toward the door as it shut behind her. A few paces from the door, something made him stop. He thought he could feel some kind of energy, almost see it, shimmering in the air just in front of him. Cautiously Luke reached out his hand, and was stopped as if by a solid wall. He stepped back a little and threw his blaster, as hard as he could, into the space ahead of him. The blaster stopped in mid-air, bounced back and clattered onto the floor by his feet.
Then Luke heard a shout from one of the Guards, "we've got company!"
Luke threw himself to the floor, lunging for his blaster, as the first blaster bolt seared past, an inch away from his throat.
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