"You're taking too long, guys," came Captain Needa's voice over the com speaker. "I'm getting in the mood to kill a General."
The occupants of the hangar bay cast helpless looks at each other. This had been going on for hours now, the occasional flurry of activity interspersed with long periods of nothing, and punctuated by Needa's sarcastic comments. As soon as Needa had barricaded himself in the Lambda Shuttle, Commander Ogden had re-opened the doors to the rest of the base. Everyone who'd been working in the hangar had been evacuated, and now the bay was populated by Ogden in his control booth, two security teams, and a squadron of ground troops. And a few random interested persons, which category currently included Wedge Antilles and General Calrissian. Everyone except for Ogden was in a fairly defensible position, behind a large pile of supply crates and repair equipment. The pile was low enough for them to keep an eye on the shuttle, but also high and solid enough to provide good cover – at least long enough for them to evacuate – if Needa decided to fire on them.
"He's right," Lando Calrissian sighed now. "This is getting stupid. If we could think of anything to do, we'd have done it by now."
Wedge basically agreed with him, but he said, in the probably vain hope of keeping up morale, "yeah, but he doesn't know that. For all he knows, we've delayed this long just to throw him off his guard."
Calrissian snorted. "Don't we wish."
Wedge decided against getting into a debate with Calrissian, and cast an uneasy glance over at Security Captain Faren, who was still there despite various superior officers' suggestions that he should go off-duty. Wedge didn't like the look of him right now, he looked way too much like someone who's decided that life isn't worth living. It was a look that Wedge had seen before, usually right before the person who looked like that did something suicidal. He wouldn't be at all surprised if Faren decided to charge the shuttle singlehanded, in hopes that Captain Needa would mow him down with a laser cannon. He couldn't really blame Faren for wanting to stay here, though. If it was one of Wedge's fellow pilots that Needa had killed, Wedge wouldn't want to go back to his quarters and brood about it either.
Meanwhile Captain Needa was putting in his two-credits' worth again. "You know, I'm beginning to wonder if you people want Madine back," remarked the Captain's familiar disembodied voice. "If I didn't hate him so much, I'd almost feel sorry for him."
One of the ground troops commented to no one in particular, "that guy is really starting to annoy me."
"That's his plan," grumbled General Calrissian. "Figures if he keeps this up long enough, we'll either make some stupid mistake, or get so sick of him that we let him go out of sheer self-preservation."
Wedge was manoeuvring his way around various soldiers, over to where Captain Faren leaned against a large orange packing crate, staring at nothing. When he reached the security captain's side, Wedge tentatively touched the man's shoulder and asked, "how are you doing?"
Faren looked at Wedge blankly for a moment, then something resembling a smile touched his face. "I've been better," said Faren. His gaze got distant again, and he asked, "do you know what I told her, when she asked what Captain Needa was like?" From the tortured note in his voice, Wedge had no trouble figuring out that "her" referred to Commander Narita. "I told her that he was fair," said Faren. "That he never hurt anyone who didn't deserve it."
Wedge couldn't think of one damned thing to say. The ex-Imperial's face twisted into an expression that suggested he was about to break down in sobs. "Oh, gods," Faren whispered.
"Look," Wedge said quietly, "are you sure you don't want to get out of here …?"
Faren shook his head, managing to exert some control over his expression. "I've been watching this show too long," he said. "Can't miss the final episode."
The swoosh of an opening door caused both of them to look toward the hangar's entryway. A grim-faced Mon Mothma stepped into the room, followed by General Rieekan. Wedge wondered if they were allowing too many of their big brass to be drawn to one place. At least General Dodonna wasn't here, so he'd survive if Captain Needa decided to be a true servant of the Empire and wipe out the Rebellion's leaders by exploding the hangar.
Rieekan walked over to the troops, while Mon Mothma went to join Commander Ogden in the control booth. A moment later they heard Mothma's voice over the com, "Captain Needa. Is there any way we can convince you to come out of there?"
Needa allowed a moment's pause, then said, "no, Ma'am, sorry. Can't think of anything."
"If I give you my word you won't be harmed – "
"I'd still have to stand trial, right?" Needa asked.
"Yes. You would."
"Nope, sorry. Doesn't sound like much of a deal."
A slight edge to Mon Mothma's voice was the only sign that the Captain's laid-back style was starting to get to her. "Captain, the Alliance's justice system is more forgiving than the Empire's -- "
"Yeah, so you keep reminding us. So I'd just be facing life imprisonment instead of death or the spice mines. I hope you'll forgive me when I say it's not a very attractive option."
"Captain -- "
Needa cut through whatever she'd been about to say. "Hey, Commander Ogden. What about opening the launch doors?"
"I'm sorry, Captain," said Ogden, "I don't think that would be a good idea."
"Gee, why not? You were all set to open them for Commander Antilles' little unauthorised rescue mission."
Wonderful, thought Wedge. Thanks for sharing that with everybody.
"So, I can't talk you into opening them, hunh?" When nobody answered him, Needa continued cheerfully, "well, okay. Anybody got any fun ideas for how to kill Madine? I mean, I shouldn't just blast him, that's too easy."
"Needa, don't be a fool," cut in General Rieekan. Wedge glanced over at him and saw that the General was holding a com-unit that must be linked to the Lambda shuttle. "You know if you kill him, your insurance is gone."
Needa snapped back, for once sounding close to losing his temper, "well he doesn't seem to be doing me very damn much good alive." A moment later, with his good humour apparently restored, Needa went on. "Aww, come on. Someone must have some good ideas. One hundred and one ways to kill a General. Nobody's got anything to contribute?" He gave an exaggerated sigh. "Oh, well. Guess I'll just have to use my imagination."
In the silence that followed, Captain Needa started whistling the Imperial March.
Then one of the ground troops yelped to General Rieekan, "sir! He's powering up the shuttle's blaster cannons!"
He wasn't only powering them, Wedge realised as too many people started shouting orders at once, he was swivelling them up to face the clear plastisteel ceiling.
Since Ogden wouldn't open the launch doors, Needa was just going to blast his way through.
Wedge yelled, hoping at least a few people could hear him, "everyone get to cover! Move!"
Not that there was much cover to get to. If that ceiling went, it was going to shower the whole bay with potentially lethal plastisteel slivers. A few of the troops were scattering toward the door, but most simply crouched where they were, behind the crates, trusting to fate that they wouldn't get ceiling slivers through their skulls.
Wedge heard General Rieekan yelling wildly, "my Gods, fire on his guns -- ", but by then it was too late. The shuttle's blaster cannons jerked and spat out their bolts of flame.
One round of shots from the outside wouldn't have done in that ceiling, but it wasn't so heavily reinforced on the inside. The ceiling shattered in an amazing burst of sound.
Wedge lunged for the scanty shelter of a slightly overhanging crate lid, pulling Captain Faren down with him. As he threw his arms up to protect his head and neck, he saw a jagged, triangular shard land a couple of inches from his right foot.
Wedge wondered if he'd been wounded without realising it, or if someone nearby was bleeding on him, since there seemed to be liquid dripping on him from somewhere. Then he realised. It wasn't blood. It was the famous Omean rain.
Leia stared up into Emperor Palpatine's smile.
Her mutilated wrist hurt like nothing she'd ever felt. But she could ignore that, or at least, work through it. What she couldn't ignore was Palpatine's glowing amber eyes.
Fight him! her mind screamed at her. Don't let him get to you, don't let him stop you, don't listen to him, fight! But his voice was in her mind as well, and she just crouched there as if she thought that by holding very still she could stop him from seeing her.
"A nice touch, don't you think?" Palpatine was musing, and Leia wasn't sure if he was speaking the words or just thinking them. "Cutting off the hand, I mean. A nice little experience for your whole family to share. It's a real pity you don't have any time left for family bonding."
Leia fought to focus on something else. Somewhere off to the left she could feel her father's emotions, like a warm, comforting fire. His stubborn fury seemed to beat against the fear that Palpatine was calling up in her, driving the fear back. In that instant she knew that nothing would ever make her father give up, not until he was broken into so many separate atoms. She clutched on to the familiar anger and swore that she would not give up either.
Perhaps there was some way she could help Vader. She cast out her thoughts toward him, struggling to tear down the wall that held him back from the Force.
Then the warmth of her father's presence faded, and she felt Palpatine's fingers digging into her mind.
"It really is a shame, you know, my dear," sighed the Emperor. "I was looking forward to working with you, to continuing your training. But I can't be putting down a revolt every week or two, now can I? That's no way to run an empire."
Leia spat out, "what would you know about how to run an empire?"
Palpatine ignored her. "So you see, I've come up with a plan. A very fine plan, if I do say so myself. Beautiful in its simplicity."
She felt a jolt in the Force and for a moment thought that her father was there with her, his presence as dark and huge and powerful as ever. Then that feeling was replaced by a distant whisper of frustrated rage, and she knew that he hadn't broken through. Not quite.
"The thing is," said Palpatine, "why should I put myself through this? All these sordid power struggles with you ungrateful young people, just so I can find the perfect apprentice. You, and Luke … are you really worth the pain of seeing you betray me, time after time?"
Leia hoped that he was reading her mind, and could see just exactly what she thought of his pain.
"And then I realised," the monologue went on, "that I was going about it all wrong. There's no point in trying to teach adults – I use the term loosely for the two of you. No, what I need are children. Your children, in fact."
"Brilliant plan, Palpatine," snarled Leia. "You can't have them without me."
"Oh, but I can. Of course, it will be best for them if I keep your body alive until they're born. But I've really no use for your mind."
He's just playing with you, Leia told herself. Don't be afraid of him, don't --
"Which just makes everything that much more satisfying," Palpatine murmured. "There's nothing quite so beautiful, Leia, as being there in a being's mind as, thought by thought, it's destroyed. It really is a pity you won't get to try it yourself."
Don't listen to him! Her mind screamed. Don't, don't --
"Goodbye, Leia," said Emperor Palpatine.
She was suddenly somewhere else. She blinked several times in the sunlight before she recognised her surroundings.
Wonderingly, Leia got to her feet.
She was in the Palace Gardens on Alderaan.
No, no I'm not, she thought desperately. I'm not here. It's him, he's doing this, don't believe it –
But it was so real. The familiar soft warmth of the air on her skin, the sweet, tangy scent of the flowers that she hadn't smelled since – since Alderaan was destroyed. She scuffed one of her feet and felt the moist soil give way as her foot dug into it.
She looked down at her feet, and stared.
She was wearing white boots. White, not the black that she knew she was wearing.
She had both her hands. She clutched at her right wrist and found the skin smooth, unbroken, without even a scar.
Reluctantly her gaze travelled up her body. White boots, long white dress – a dress that she'd thrown in the trash as soon as she reached her quarters in the base on Yavin IV, after the destruction of the Death Star. She reached up to her hair, and found it in the twin coiled buns that she also hadn't worn since that time, because the hairstyle reminded her of the worst day of her life.
Angrily she tore at the hairdo, yanking her hair free from its confining pins. As she shook her hair loose over her back, dragging her fingers through it and scattering hairpins into the grass, she thought, it's not real, I'm not here, I'm not. I'm not on Alderaan and it's not five years ago.
Five years ago. Her head jolted up and she stared into the sky.
It was there. The dark grey moon with the grid pattern marking its surface, that she'd seen in the sky over Alderaan in one of her own visions.
The Death Star.
Don't believe it. You're not here and neither is the Death Star.
She should ignore it. Just sit down right here, close her eyes, and think of something else. Maybe she should try to focus on her father, make another attempt to help him break through to the Force. If she just ignored Palpatine's charming little re-enactment, it would go away.
But what if it didn't?
Unreasoning terror shot through her. She wanted to run for the nearest of the Palace launch bays, grab the first available ship, and get the hell off of this planet that was about to die.
Don't be a fool. None of this is real. And even if it was that day, five years ago, she knew that she wasn't on the planet. She was up there, on the Death Star, with Grand Moff Tarkin sneering at her. After all, if she wasn't there, then Alderaan wouldn't be destroyed at all, would it? Tarkin had only destroyed the planet as a demonstration for her, to show her that she couldn't defy his authority. If she wasn't on the Death Star with him, there was no point in destroying Alderaan – was there?
And how do you know that? Maybe Tarkin would blow up the planet anyway, just for the fun of it. And maybe she was up there, and was here at the same time. If Palpatine had somehow sent her back through time, it was her self from five years later that was standing here. The newly outlawed Princess was up there on the Death Star after all, about to see everything she cared about destroyed.
Don't! It's only Palpatine, you can't listen to him, you can't let him win --
Before she realised that she had made up her mind, she was running.
Pebbles of crushed opal scattered as she raced along the jewel-gravelled walkway. Her mind kept warring with itself, insisting that none of this was real while at the same time surging with panic – and with hope. She didn't know how long she had, how long the Death Star had been in orbit before it fired. But maybe, just maybe there was time to evacuate some of the population, save some of her people before everything turned into space dust …
It's not real!
But oh, Gods, if it is …
She passed a few startled-looking people, some of whom she recognised. Several gardeners, and further along the path a young noblewoman and her beau, whose names were lost somewhere in Leia's memory. The noblewoman called out some question to her, which Leia ignored as she ran on.
Around the corner from the young couple, she fell, one knee scraping painfully into the gravel. As she scrambled to her feet again, she bit her lip at the pain. It wasn't much by itself, but it was another hint that maybe, after all, all of this was real.
Or not, she told herself angrily. Palpatine's the strongest Force user in the galaxy, if he can do this to your mind, he can damned sure make it seem real!
But she couldn't just stand here, waiting to learn if it was real or not.
The guard at the garden door stepped forward to say something, then thought better of it when he saw the look on the Princess' face. She raced past him into the familiar pale, airy corridors, and started at a breakneck pace up the stairs.
It might theoretically be faster to take the lift, but the delay that would be necessitated by getting to the nearest lift entrance was more than she could stand. So she just kept running. She clutched at her right wrist, once more trying to break through the illusion – if illusion was what it was. She tried not to feel the hand, to feel instead the aching charred stump that ought to be there.
It didn't work. If this was Palpatine's illusion, it was still very, very real.
She made it up one flight of stairs, then another, and another. Then she left the staircase, and the leather of her boot soles thudded softly against the floor of the corridor as she ran toward Bail Organa's office.
The guards outside that door also knew better than to challenge her, and didn't even try. As soon as the circular door started spiralling open, she leaped through – and found herself face to face with her father who'd been dead for five years.
Prince Bail was standing by his desk, and had been speaking urgently into the desk com-unit. When he looked up and saw Leia, he brought his hand down on the disconnect panel, staring at his daughter in confusion. "Leia! You're back? What -- ?"
She sobbed out "Daddy!", and flung herself into his arms.
Everything was as she remembered. The feel of his arms around her, the slight hint of a paunch that she and Keeiara had always teased him about, the faint citrusy smell of the Palace Laundry's detergent that she smelled on his uniform jacket. Bail Organa pressed her to him tightly, then tried again. "Leia, what in the world? How did you get here? The last we heard was the distress call from your ship -- "
Leia pulled back enough to look up into his face. "There's no time to explain. We've got to evacuate, get as many people off the planet as we can."
"That space station up there. You've seen it? It's the Death Star. Grand Moff Tarkin's on board, and Lord Vader. They're going to blow up Alderaan, as a warning to the Rebellion. I don't know how much time we've got, you've got to give the order to evacuate the planet --"
"Leia, for gods' sakes! How can you know all this?"
Open-minded man though Bail Organa was, she really didn't think he was ready for the explanation. She said hurriedly, "I was held prisoner on the station and escaped. Please, Daddy, I've seen the station plans, I know what they're capable of. That superlaser can destroy this entire planet, we've got to evacuate now -- "
The Prince frowned and shook his head. "I can't just give an order like that. It would cause planet-wide panic -- "
"You'd rather everyone died?"
Bail began in a reasonable tone that he clearly hoped would calm his daughter. "They haven't even contacted us. I know Tarkin. If he planned on destroying us he'd never miss the chance of calling up first, to gloat at me."
"What's the point of gloating at someone who's about to be dead? He can gloat all he likes after we've been pulverised!"
"Leia, you know I can't order an evacuation without some tangible proof -- "
"Fine. If you won't evacuate, then send up the fleet. Capital Ships to distract them, and a team of one-man fighters. If a fighter can get its torpedoes into one of the exhaust ports, the station can be destroyed."
Prince Bail looked shocked. "We can't just attack the Empire's newest space station! It'd be an act of war!"
It was all an illusion. It had to be.
But if it were reality, then Bail Organa would have been just as hard to convince as he was being now.
Leia screamed. "Daddy, please! We're all going to die!"
Mon Mothma gazed at the desolation, and scowled.
She'd thought that she and Commander Ogden were in the riskiest position, standing in the control booth rather than sheltering behind cargo crates like all the others. It turned out that the two of them had been the safest. The booth's windows had shielded them from the plastisteel slivers that rained down on everyone else.
She walked out onto the launching bay floor, shattered plastisteel crunching beneath her feet. Cold rain plopped dismally onto her. All around her she saw people, the ground troops and the security teams, struggling up off the floor and trying to restore some kind of order. Several were bleeding. Several more did not rise from the floor. She saw one of the ground troops, a young man who she was ashamed to realise that she did not recognise, lying motionless with a long shard of plastisteel sticking out of his neck. Another, a woman, was yelling something and trying to pull a chunk of it out of her side, while one of her comrades, kneeling beside her, hit her hands away and yelled at her not to touch it.
General Rieekan heaved himself up from behind one of the packing crates, still clutching the portable com-unit in his hand. Mothma saw him cast an aggrieved glance at the rain-filled sky and reach up to shove damp strands of hair away from his eyes. Then he spoke into the com-link, "Needa, damn it, don't try this. The squadrons and the Star Destroyers out there are alerted to the situation. They'll shoot you down before you even get out of orbit."
Needa's voice came back flatly, "so much for General Madine."
I have to do something, was the unwelcome thought in Mon Mothma's mind. I'm supposed to be in charge of this mess, I can't just stand here. What in the hell can I do?
Would it really be so terrible if they let him go? At least that way they'd be making an effort to secure Madine's safety. And the Alliance wasn't supposed to pursue vengeance, the way the Empire would. If they let Needa go free, wouldn't that be consistent with the principles of the Rebellion?
But the Alliance wasn't supposed to wantonly court defeat, either. All the worlds and all the individuals who trusted them could suffer if Needa, with the information he might possess, made it back to the Empire.
What did he know? How badly could his information hurt? If all he knew were their immediate plans of upcoming campaigns, they were safe enough. They could simply discard those plans and start anew. But if he'd been preparing for this day, and stockpiling information on their defences so he could buy his way back into Imperial favour …
It all boiled down to the question of why he had done this. Was he a genuine loyal Imperial? Or had he just seen a chance to make some money, and to strike a blow at Lord Vader?
Mon Mothma strode toward Rieekan and his com-unit. As she walked by she noticed Wedge Antilles, leaning against one of the packing crates and reaching down to help a dazed-looking Captain Faren get to his feet.
General Calrissian was limping toward Rieekan from the other side, blood soaking the bottom half of his left trouser leg. Mothma and Calrissian reached Rieekan at about the same time, and Mothma cast a questioning look at Calrissian. He smiled faintly and made an "after you" gesture.
Mothma met Rieekan's angry, frustrated gaze and held out her hand for the com. "Let me talk to him, Derrath," she said.
He handed her the link, whispering "what are you going to do?"
Instead of answering him, she said urgently, "Captain Needa, please listen to me. We don't want either of you dead. Return Madine to us safely, and we will give you safe-conduct to leave our territory. We won't pursue you."
General Rieekan hissed, "what?"
But there was no response from Needa, and Mon Mothma suddenly realised why.
She stared at the com-unit. "He's closed his link," she murmured, not quite believing it was true.
Then she heard someone's stunned voice gasp out, "oh, Firelord. Oh, my Gods."
All around her people were staring at the Lambda shuttle. She gazed at it with the rest, trying to understand what had put such horror on everyone's faces.
The pattern of lights appearing near the shuttle's rear thrusters should mean something to her. It clearly meant something to everybody else.
Then she thought, no. It can't mean that.
Lando Calrissian said what everyone was thinking. "My Gods. He's powering the hyperdrive."
General Rieekan wheeled in the direction of Commander Ogden, still in his control booth. Rieekan yelled desperately, "get his com link back open!"
"I'm trying, sir," Ogden's voice came back. "He's got it well and truly jammed!"
He can't mean to do this, Mothma's mind insisted. He wouldn't do it. Would he?
The wings were moving into their flight position, and more sets of lights appeared. The shuttle was prepping for take-off.
He's bluffing us. He has to be.
He couldn't really plan to go into Hyperspace from right here in the hangar. Mon Mothma didn't actually know of any case in which that had been done. But she was fairly certain she knew what the result would be.
If the shuttle went into hyperdrive from its present position, the resultant explosion would most likely tear a chunk out of the planet. It would certainly vaporise most – or all – of the Rebel base.
It was also almost guaranteed to destroy the shuttle and its occupants. But maybe at this point, Needa didn't care about that.
She supposed the shuttle might make it safely into Hyperspace before the cataclysm caught up with it. But she doubted that Needa would be counting on it. If he really meant to do this, then he must have decided he was dead no matter what. If he did survive, that was just an unexpected bonus.
And the majority of the New Alliance forces would be dead.
"Will that do what I think it will?" she asked of no one in particular.
"Old terrorist trick," came a ragged voice at her right. She turned and saw Security Captain Faren standing beside her. "Destroyed a couple of our ships before we started taking more precautions. They'd pose as smugglers, get arrested, and then go into Hyperspace in the Star Destroyer's hangar."
No doubt Captain Needa was familiar with that particular technique. But, damn it, could he really mean to kill so many thousands of his own men? Could he mean to kill Admiral Piett?
General Rieekan insisted, "he's got to be bluffing."
But if he wasn't?
Mothma raised the com-unit and keyed in the codes that would relay her message to all the ships outside the base. "This is Mon Mothma to all vessels. You are to allow Captain Needa's shuttle to leave this system. Repeat, the shuttle is to leave without incident. Do not fire. Do not attack and do not pursue."
Now please, please, she prayed, let Captain Needa have been monitoring that transmission.
The Lambda shuttle rose gracefully from the hangar bay floor. The hyperdrive lights still cast their cold, bright glow.
Mon Mothma glanced at the men around her: Rieekan, Calrissian, Commander Antilles, Captain Faren. Their faces all showed the same tense, waiting hopelessness.
There was nothing they could do. There wasn't even any point in ordering an evacuation. By the time they had finished giving the order, there would be no one alive to obey it.
The shuttle soared through the shattered plastisteel ceiling. And vanished.
A collective intake of breath followed.
And nothing else. No explosion. Nothing.
Distantly, Mothma heard Wedge Antilles say, "the cloaking device. He switched on the cloaking device."
Her knees nearly buckled. Only a lifetime spent in the public eye kept her on her feet.
The com-unit spluttered into life. A voice emerged, "this is Captain Ifar of the Mircalla. We had a blip on our sensors, might have been a cloaked ship. It's gone now. He's left the system."
General Rieekan sank down on a packing crate. "Fuck," he spat out. As far as Mon Mothma could remember, it was the first time she had heard him use that word. "The bastard was bluffing after all."
"Maybe not," Calrissian said ruefully. "Who knows what he'd have done if Mon Mothma hadn't sent that message." He looked down at his leg, to where a shard of plastisteel jutted from the back of his thigh, just above the knee. "Damn," he said, in a tone of surprise. "That hurts."
Captain Faren whispered, "it's over."
"Not for Madine, it isn't," snapped Rieekan.
Mon Mothma gazed up at the ruined ceiling, into the rain. She thought, I have to get to Piett. She had to tell him what had happened here before he heard too many wild stories. Not that many stories could be wilder than the truth.
And they had to see to their wounded. And get this mess repaired. And contact their allies and ask them to be on the lookout for a kidnapped Rebel general.
She spoke into the com. "We need a medical team in Hangar One. All ground construction crews, report to Hangar One at once." She turned to Commander Antilles. "Commander, we'll need to get these ships and equipment out of here while the repairs are going on. Will you take charge of that?"
"Of course, Ma'am," he said. She wasn't sure how to interpret the awkward, hesitant look on his face. Then she remembered about his aborted rescue mission.
Oh, damn. They still had to decide – again – what, if anything, they could do to rescue Lord Vader and the others.
But Captain Faren had been right.
For this moment, at least, one chapter of the story was over.
I'm going to lose her.
The thought tore at Vader, as he clenched his fists in useless fury.
He smashed one of those fists into the cold, thick nothingness around him. As before, the motion of his hand was arrested in mid-air.
One small rational portion of his mind still saw everything in the room. It saw Emperor Palpatine, standing casually a few metres away from Leia, Vader's retracted lightsaber held loosely in his right hand. Saw Leia, still crouched on the floor and clutching at her severed right wrist.
But the rest of Vader's mind saw only his daughter's terrified face. Her face, and the images it conjured up.
He saw her disbelieving eyes and parted lips as the exploding Alderaan, on the viewscreen, bathed her face in sickly yellow light. He saw the icy hatred in her eyes when he stepped into the conference room on the Rebel flagship, to propose the New Alliance. He saw her glorious smile and the love – gods, yes, love – in her eyes just moments ago, when she had come to his rescue.
I love you, Leia. I will not lose you.
She seemed to be staring at the Emperor. But somehow Vader knew that she did not see him.
What was she seeing? What horrors were appearing before her eyes?
I should know. I must know.
Guiding his way with something beyond conscious thought, he threw his mind into darkness. Darkness broken only by her face, and her huge, terror–stricken eyes.
Leia. I love you. I love you.
His mind jolted. It was as if the bonds that had held him had shrivelled into nothing. He felt like himself again, and the sudden sensation of freedom was nearly intoxicating. But he didn't have time to revel in it. He wondered if he had fully regained his link to the Force, but he couldn't stop long enough to find out.
From somewhere deep in his mind, he heard Leia's voice. And he followed.
He was standing in a sunlit room. He saw the pale gleaming stone of the walls, the cluttered desk, and the familiar, slightly overweight man in the uniform of the Royal House of Alderaan. But above all, he saw her, her hair flowing loose over her back, in that white dress she'd been wearing when he captured her flagship, five years before.
She clutched at the chest of Prince Bail Organa, and she screamed, "Daddy, please, listen to me!"
Anger surged at him as he thought, she shouldn't call him that. She should be saying that to me.
But her desperation and terror washed over him in the wake of her words. The emotions pounded through him as strongly as if they were his own. He took a step toward her. He wasn't sure, but he thought he heard himself say her name.
Bail Organa turned, and saw him. And yelled, "what are you doing in my house?"
For a moment Vader simply stared.
Leia still had her hand on the Prince's chest, but she was gazing at Darth. The sudden puzzlement he felt from her was mirrored in her eyes.
Slowly the terror in her aura started to ebb. And Vader began to wonder what the hell was going on.
No doubt this Prince Bail was an illusion, but it was still damnably odd standing face to face with him. Though, Vader told himself, if there's anyone who should be used to encounters with dead men, it's me.
He was startled to discover how clear his memories of Organa were, now that he was confronted by their visual embodiment.
He remembered the man's eternal stuffiness, that had made him seem middle-aged by the time he turned twenty. Not for nothing had Bail been a friend of Obi Wan Kenobi.
He remembered Bail's grating superiority, as if being born into royalty was his personal accomplishment.
And he remembered the prince's habit of yelling at the top of his lungs, every time he found himself in conversation with Darth Vader.
In the last couple of years of Bail's life, Vader had taken to timing him, to see how long Prince Bail could last through one of their conversations before he started shouting. On occasion Darth had sought out Bail deliberately, for the sheer entertainment value of watching him lose his regal cool.
This Bail Organa was almost certainly illusion. But he behaved like the genuine article.
"How dare you come into our home unannounced? While your friend Tarkin sits up there making threats? If you have something to say to me, Vader, you should be man enough to say it without your damned Death Star backing you up!"
Now he knew.
He had a pretty good idea that if he turned and looked out the window, he would see the first Death Star, gleaming in the sunlit sky of Alderaan.
Tarkin. The Death Star. Leia's white dress.
And Leia's world, just minutes – or seconds – away from being destroyed.
"All right, damn you, say something!" Bail shouted. "Your Master didn't send you all this way just to stand here looking sinister!"
No, he didn't. He didn't send me here. And while I stand here figuring out what to do, Leia could die.
Leia was still staring at Vader, and he could sense her emotions, as confusing a jumble as his own. He sensed fear, and despair, and hope, and he was afraid to speculate on which of her emotions might be caused by his presence here.
He tore his gaze away from Leia's, and addressed the illusion of Bail Organa. "Your Highness, we don't have time for this. I must speak with the Princess."
Bail no longer shouted, but his voice quivered with hatred. "You'll do nothing of the sort." The prince turned to his adoptive daughter, calming his face and voice with visible effort. "Leia, please leave. Whatever Lord Vader has to say can be said to me."
"No," Vader said quietly. "I'm afraid it cannot."
"Daddy, please," whispered Leia, her dark eyes fixed on Prince Bail in a way that made Vader realise she must be trying to memorise his face. "I need to speak with him."
"You don't have to do this," Bail insisted.
"Yes," she said. "I do."
She stepped away from Bail Organa, toward Vader. Together they walked a few metres more, toward the window. Leia kept her gaze averted from the window, but Vader looked, and saw the distant, dark orb of the Death Star.
He did not want to see it. It made him think too much of the thousands of men who had served on that station. The men who he had failed.
For a moment he felt the same alluring temptation that Leia must be feeling. The temptation to hope, to believe that the past could be changed. If he could get to the Death Star now, in time to stop Alderaan's destruction – then perhaps it would be easier for Leia to accept him. And perhaps the Battle of Yavin could be stopped as well. Those 1,187,000 men under his command might live to see their families again. Instead of becoming the glorious martyrs of the Empire.
Leia touched his arm. "I thought -- " she began, then she bit her lip and looked down. She whispered, "I wanted to think I could save them."
"Them" as in Alderaan, Vader had to remind himself. Not the men on the Death Star.
Her beautiful face was turned up to him again. He saw tears shimmering in her eyes. "I wanted to believe it – I wanted to so much -- "
"Leia." He was damned if he knew how to say this. But he had to say it anyway. "I can't expect you to forgive me. For Alderaan. If I could stop it from happening, now, I would. Maybe that just makes it worse. But I need you to know. I am sorry. For everything I've done to hurt you."
"You don't have to be," she murmured. "I'm just the same as you are."
He thought, I'd forgotten what it feels like. To love someone so much that it hurts. "No," he told her, "you're not. But it's sweet of you to say it."
Her gaze flickered down for another moment, then returned to rest steadily on him. "I can't save them," she said. "Can I?"
"No." He closed his hand around hers. "No more than I can save my men who died at Yavin." A faint echo of all the fury and hatred that he felt for Emperor Palpatine – for the years of disasters and insanity and the lives that should not have been lost -- whispered through his mind. He thought he felt Leia's own hatred, rising to join with his. He said, "we can still avenge them. All of them."
His heart jolted with love at her fierce little smile as she answered, "yes."
"That's enough, Vader." He heard Bail Organa's voice, and he sighed. "Leia, get away from him," the Prince persisted. "I won't let him hurt you." Vader wondered if this was Palpatine's way of getting involved, to try and trap Leia in her vision once more. Or perhaps it was just the way that Organa would act, if he were alive.
Leia squeezed Vader's hand, and turned to face her other father. "I -- " she began, then helplessly stopped.
"Leia, what is it? What's happened?"
She glanced back at Vader, with a look of apology. He touched her mind with the thought, "it's all right."
She smiled at him, then let go of his hand. And walked to Bail Organa.
Bail reached out and put his hands on her arms, clutching her as if he never had to let go. "Leia, tell me. Let me help. Please."
She lifted one hand and brushed it across his cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Vader watched, and forced himself not to be angry at this man who had died, and would never hold her again.
Then the Prince and his palace and the sunlight vanished.
Something smashed into Vader. It took him a second to realise that it was he, in fact, who had fallen to the floor. His body must have been fighting, all this time, against the power that restrained it. Now that he had broken through, his own momentum smacked him into the star marble floor of the Imperial Great Hall.
He leapt to his feet.
Leia, he saw, was on her feet as well. Luke's green lightsaber arced through the air and into the grasp of her one remaining hand.
"Well, Your Majesty?" she taunted. "Don't you have anything witty to say?"
Palpatine snarled, a sound like ice slicing through bone. His thoughts activated the lightsaber in his grasp, and he hurled the crimson blade at Leia.
Again the green blade met the red. As they touched, Vader saw his lightsaber explode. It ignited the air in front of Leia with a wall of red fire.
Vader's mechanised breathing jolted in a startled gasp.
He had never seen a lightsaber exploded by the Force. Over the years he had seen a couple of them demolished by blaster fire, and he had seen one self-destruct and kill the trainee Jedi who'd been constructing it. But this –
The red flame leapt at Leia. Tendrils of it sprang from the wall of fire, snaking around the saber in Leia's hand. Gleaming serpents of red light struck at her, twining about her arms. She swung Luke's lightsaber. Some of the red tendrils retreated into the wall, but there were still others, circling her hand.
Vader thought, I have to get to her. And as he thought it, he was there.
They stood side by side. Vader reached out and joined his grasp to Leia's, his hand closing around the lightsaber hilt below hers.
Vader did not take his gaze from the fire and the face of the Emperor beyond. But he could feel Leia's welcoming smile.
He felt her strength blending with his. Then the glowing green blade of Luke's lightsaber seemed to shudder. The light broke away from the cohesion of the blade, first in tiny slivers, then in a sheet of flame.
The lightsaber's hilt trembled in Vader's hand.
"Leia!" he shouted suddenly, "let go!"
She released the hilt at the same instant he did. The hilt exploded, vanishing in gleaming hail. And the green fire spread, clinging to the red and pressing it back.
"So," Palpatine hissed. "My servant has learned new tricks."
Vader grated mockingly, "only trying to live up to my Master."
Palpatine's voice was soft, and as bitter as acid. "You will never learn enough. My friend."
He saw Palpatine's face tighten in concentration, and saw the distant glow in his yellow eyes.
The red flames leapt again, striking through the green. Vader felt them burning him, and he felt more. He felt the control stick of his c-wing, slippery with blood, sliding loose from his hand. Felt his slowly wakening horror as he saw the top floor of a building rush up to meet him. As he realised that when he hit, his c-wing's power core was going to explode.
Beside him, he heard Leia scream, "Han! No! No!"
He felt the c-wing hit. An impossible weight smashed into him from behind, and fire closed around him. And he heard Palpatine laugh.
And Vader thought, no, my Master. Not this time.
From somewhere he heard another voice. The voice of Senator Diam Palpatine, twenty-five years ago, crying out, "dammit, Anakin, don't do this to me! Don't make me lose the best friend I've got."
And Diam's voice, again, asking, "don't you want to see them fall? Don't you want to be the one who pushed them over the edge?"
This time it's you, Diam, thought Vader. I am going to see you fall. We began this together, my friend. Now it's going to end.
Something closed around Vader's mechanical right hand. A presence touched his mind, and he realised that Leia, at his side, had taken his hand in hers.
The crimson flames still burned at his mind, as he flung all his consciousness toward the Emperor's yellow eyes.
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