Leia clung to Darth Vader's hand as if it were her only link to reality.
She could feel tears coursing down her face. She felt flame sting at her, swirling around her body like a burning desert wind filled with sand. And she felt Palpatine's fingers, stroking across her mind.
As she clutched Vader's hand, she fought with herself to stay focused on Palpatine's eyes.
She knew, if she lost that focus, she would fall into the precipice he was tearing open in her soul.
His yellow eyes held the light of the exploding Alderaan. She saw herself, frail and tiny and useless, her gaze riveted in horror on the rubble hurtling through space. The sparks and gleaming dust that were all that was left of her father. Her mother. Everyone.
And she saw the dark shape of Darth Vader. Watching as her life was stolen from her. And doing nothing.
The yellow of Palpatine's eyes was the murky glow of the carbon-freeze chamber on Cloud City. Through the sallow haze she saw Han's face, for one last time. As he vanished she saw his look of shock and pain.
I can't, she thought.
I can't keep losing everyone.
I can't keep living and watching everyone die.
She wanted to squeeze her eyes shut and see nothing else, ever again.
But he was there, and she saw him. Vader. Stealing Han from her not even because of anything she or Han had done, but as one more link in the chain that would bind Luke Skywalker. Vader, stealing, one by one, every person she cared about. And never caring about her.
The edge of the carbon chamber was right at her feet. It would take no effort at all just to throw herself in.
If she froze in there, with Han, would she leave her pain behind?
Vader's fingers tightened around her hand.
Through the pain, she felt a tremor of hate.
She gasped. Physical pain smashed in at her, jolting her into the present. The searing throb of her severed wrist. Periodic bursts of crawling heat that wrapped around her every nerve, in the moments when the Emperor's attacks broke through the green wall of Leia and Vader's defences.
She held fast to her father's hand, and stared at Palpatine's yellow eyes. Slowly, she began to see other faces.
Arin Pellar, trapped forever in her memory in the pool of his blood.
Moff Nevoy, and the emptiness that screamed from within him whenever he thought of his son.
The pilots who flew against the first Death Star, brash and hopeful and stupidly young, listening to the briefing just moments before they climbed into their x-wings to die.
Images flashed through her mind of men who she did not recognise. Until she noticed the Imperial uniforms they wore, and she knew. Knew that they were images from her father's mind. She was seeing the faces of hundreds of men who had fought for the Empire, and died.
He has to die.
She did not know if that was her thought or Vader's. But it made no difference.
Palpatine has to die.
She heard voices in her mind. Her own, and Vader's. And countless more. Bail Organa's. Keeiara's. Friends' voices that she had not heard since the beginning of the attack on Hoth. Voices from farther back still, that she'd barely even remembered that she knew. Fellow Senators from Alderaan. The nobles' and politicians' children that she'd grown up with. The Chief Librarian of Prince Bail's palace library.
Her mother, Admiral Talassa, in that brief snatch of memory, the only relic of her that Leia had.
Something hit her, with the searing heat of Palpatine's wall of flame. She stumbled back, only Darth Vader's grip on her hand keeping her from falling.
Palpatine's yellow eyes seemed to grow, until she thought they would swallow her.
Then she saw something else.
Another room appeared before her. Dark metal walls gleamed as if they'd just been polished, and a large arched window showed a starscape beyond. She could hear the muted rumblings of a starship.
A thin, grey-haired man with a crewcut and a trim beard was standing by the window, dressed in a long beige-coloured robe. He had a lightsaber fastened to his belt. And he was furious. She could feel him closing off his anger, trying to shut it away behind mental blast-doors.
Two other men stood in the room. One of them, brown-haired with a similar beard and robe, she recognised as Obi Wan Kenobi. He looked embarrassed and worried.
The third man stood a head taller than the other two. He wore a grey military uniform, and both his posture and his aura radiated angry resentment. Leia saw Anakin Skywalker clasp his hands together behind his back, and she knew that at this moment he longed to be using those hands to choke someone.
"You do understand what you've done, Commander?" the grey-haired man inquired.
"I understand it, General," Anakin replied. "I fail to see that it causes any difficulty."
"You fail -- " After a moment's pause the older man gained control of himself and turned to the now furiously blushing Obi Wan. "Colonel Kenobi," he said, "your protégé is in need of ethics training."
"Yes, Master," said Kenobi, keeping his voice calm. "He knows that. We've talked about it, and talked about this. He knows that what he did was wrong -- "
"I'm sorry," Anakin cut in sharply, "I don't know that. With respect, General, we're at war; we need every pilot we have. That enemy pilot had Halleck in his sights. I saw a chance to save him. I do not see that the Republic would be better off if I'd left Lieutenant Halleck to die." At the other two men's outraged expressions, he added, "if I had shot that man down, no one would be concerned. And the result would be precisely the same."
"The result is not the same," whispered the grey-haired general. "Not for you, nor for us."
Leia looked into Anakin's blue eyes. And she saw, and felt, what he had done.
She saw him in a one-man fighter, catching a glimpse of another fighter with a third ship on its tail. She saw flame spit from the pursuing ship's guns, and felt the knowledge hit Anakin that he was in no position to take a shot at that third ship. By the time he got into position, his comrade's fighter would have been blown out of the sky.
In an instant she felt Anakin calm his thoughts, and fling them into the enemy ship. Into the ship and into the body of its pilot. She felt him reach into the man's chest, tentatively at first as he searched for some vital organ. She felt it as he found the pilot's heart, and mentally closed his hand around it. And squeezed.
The voice of the Jedi General broke in. "You do not understand. The Force is not to be misused in this manner. It will only twist the user, and weaken all of us. Such unfair techniques are -- "
Anakin interrupted, "we use the Force when we fight with lightsabers. Is that any more fair?"
We don't have time for this, Leia thought. She whispered, "Anakin."
The vision of Anakin Skywalker seemed to look at her. Kenobi and the other Jedi vanished in the background.
"Can we kill Palpatine that way?" Leia asked. "How? He's got defences against us. That pilot didn't."
"His mind has defences," said Anakin, or Vader. "Strike at his body, he won't be expecting that. If we finish his body, his mind won't be able to fight back."
She smiled at him, and Anakin smiled back at her. "Let's split up," Anakin suggested. "Which do you want, his brain or his heart?"
Leia whispered, "his brain."
"You're weakening, my friends," came Palpatine's voice. "Your hatred will not be enough to save you. Your strength cannot endure against mine."
Just let him keep thinking that, thought Leia. She projected feelings of surprise and growing fear, hoping that the emotions would keep Palpatine distracted until it was too late.
The Emperor's attack felt like blaster bolts searing through her, through every part of her body at once. But she still felt Darth Vader's hand around hers. It gave her a sensation of strength and security that she had not felt since Alderaan was destroyed.
Focusing as much conscious thought as she could on her feelings of fear and pain, she let one small portion of her mind reach into Palpatine's skull.
She felt her fingers digging through dry, parchment-like skin, into bone. Bone that crumbled and powdered in her grip. Partway through, she seemed to meet greater resistance, a layer of bone that held up against her clawing hand. But she dug harder. With a weird, popping sensation she felt the bone give way, and her fingers pressed into warm, wet tissue like a slimy sponge.
Visions, painfully real, flashed into her mind. Events that she knew had not happened -- but that might happen. Or might be happening now. Han and Chewbacca, in a courtyard filled with rubble, uselessly firing their blasters at a vessel that swooped at them out of the evening sky. A spurt of flame from the ship tore into Chewie, mowing him down. She didn't hear anything, but she saw Han yell, as he threw himself to his knees. He was shaking the motionless Chewbacca, still yelling something, when the ship lunged down for another pass. And fired.
Her mind shuddered from the vision of Han slumping down on his friend's body, a smouldering hole in his chest. But the visions were not over. The lavender evening light vanished into the brightness of a palace corridor, and the light shone mercilessly on a pale, unmoving face. The face of her brother, lying on the floor and staring up into nothing. She saw two men kneeling beside him, and recognised General Mulcahy and Moff Nevoy. Nevoy grabbed at Luke's collar and shook him, desperate denial in the Moff's eyes. He swallowed and looked over at Mulcahy, who shook his head.
Her fingers were sinking into soft matter, clawing through warm mush. She almost laughed from the pleasure of digging through that flesh, feeling it tear apart in her hand, knowing that this time, this time he would not win.
Around her, the palace seemed to shake. She felt the floor tremble beneath her, and the walls buckled and nearly fell. She heard a distant rumbling, breaking through the horrible silence of her visions.
She felt a hand driving into her gut, closing around the tiny beings of her children inside her.
Leia screamed in fury. In her mind, she slashed her hand through the flesh it was buried in, shredding it with her nails. She felt liquid spurt out. Slime squirted between her fingers and she clawed through it, again, and again.
She heard her scream joined by her father's wordless yell of rage. And another sound, a hideous shriek that seemed it would never end.
An attack stronger than any before smashed at her, throwing her to the floor. Her focus remained, as she dragged her hand through the pulpy flesh, then closed around it and squeezed.
She felt the room around her jolt again. Then suddenly there was silence.
"Leia." The voice seemed impossibly distant, but it swam closer as she felt a hand clutching her shoulder. "Leia, please."
She blinked, and found herself staring into the dark mask of her father.
Leia reached out her hand to him, accepting Vader's help as she staggered to her feet. "Is it -- " gasped Leia, "is he -- "
"Yes," came Darth Vader's strong, dark voice. "It's over."
She clutched at his arm. Weariness and pain crashed into her, but she did not care.
She stared at the shape on the floor.
His hood had fallen back, and his face looked pathetically withered. The yellow eyes had lost all of their light. His mouth gaped open, and as she looked, she saw a trickle of blood seep out of one ear.
Above his heart, the dark fabric of his robe was mangled. Gaping rents were torn in it as though by the claws of some gigantic beast. The cloth was too dark for her to see the colour, but she saw liquid oozing into the robe, spreading as the fabric it touched could absorb no more.
She threw herself at Vader's chest, sobbing as she felt the cold solidity of his armour pressed against her face. With her one hand she hugged him to her, as she gasped out, "Father, oh thank gods – thank gods -- "
"Oh gods, Leia, your hand," he murmured. "I'm so sorry."
"It doesn't matter." She gave a brief laugh that sounded, to her ears, only slightly hysterical. "I can always get another."
"It's my fault," he said, his voice taking on a vicious edge. "He would never have thought of it if it weren't for my fucking bad luck hand."
She pulled away slightly and looked up at him. A smile trembled at her mouth. "How many times have you lost your hand?" she asked.
He paused, and when he spoke again there was an answering smile in his voice. "Only three. Once to Luke, once to Obi Wan, and once in a crash."
"Three," she echoed. "Well, there you go. I've still got lots of catching up to do."
She heard and felt a vibrating hum from the doors of the Great Hall, the unmistakable sound of blasters cutting through metal. "We've got company coming," she told her father.
He nodded, his head angled as though he were listening. "I do not believe they are enemies," he said. "Hopefully they will have extra blasters, since we seem to have destroyed both our lightsabers."
There was a loud cracking sound and a shower of sparks, and the huge doors slid open.
A confused jumble of men burst into the Great Hall, blasters at the ready. Leia saw a mixture of green and black uniforms, and several faces that she recognised. Moff Nevoy. General Mulcahy.
Leia yelled his name and ran to him. While she was hugging her startled brother, a corner of her mind picked up on the gasps, oaths and exclamations that sounded around them.
"My Gods. Oh, my Gods …"
"The Emperor …?"
"Is that really him?"
"Well thank the Firelord, it's about Godsdamned time …"
"Luke," Leia whispered, still holding him close. "I'm so glad – "
She felt his answering emotions. Relief at seeing her and Vader alive, mixed with a terrible, jarring emptiness. He wanted to hold onto her, and at the same time he didn't want her to touch him.
Luke stepped back, and caught sight of her mangled wrist. He burst out, "my gods, Leia, what happened?"
She managed a smile, though it felt a little shaky. "Just keeping up family tradition."
Then Darth Vader was beside them. He enveloped his son in a hug that nearly lifted the younger man off the floor. Just as swiftly the embrace was broken, but Vader still kept a grip on Luke's shoulder. He said, "Luke, we've destroyed your lightsaber. Mine as well. I'm sorry, it was not our intention -- "
Something that wasn't quite a smile touched Luke's face, and his gaze shied away from his family. "That's all right," he said. "I've got no use for it anyway."
Leia felt Vader's puzzled – and slightly annoyed – concern. Any question he might have asked was forestalled by a blond-haired Imperial with a medipack slung over his shoulder, who stepped up to the three of them and asked, "My Lord, do you require any assistance?"
"No," said Vader, "but I'd be obliged if you would tend to the princess." As Leia reluctantly held out her stump of a wrist for the blond man's inspection, Vader continued, "Luke, Leia, I'd like you to meet Dr. Hayashida, my personal physician."
Hayashida nodded distractedly to them, his attention focused on Leia's wrist. While he reached into his pack and then sprayed a cooling sealant gel onto the wound, Leia fought against her impulse to ask him to check on her babies. Presumably he had at least basic obstetric monitors in that pack, he might be able to tell her if her children had survived the godsawful disturbances in the Force that they'd just been subjected to. But, she told herself, she had more immediate concerns to deal with. Such as making sure that her father, her brother and their supporters got out of this Palace alive.
Dr. Hayashida was saying, "the seal should last until you get a replacement installed. We can take care of that in the Conquest's medbay." He smiled suddenly. "Not to imply anything. I'm sure the Rebellion's medics can handle it if you'd rather wait."
"The Conquest will be fine." If we ever get to the Conquest, she added silently. Can we please do something, and stop talking?
Something was happening, anyway. At the edge of her vision she saw the men around the Emperor's corpse, standing or kneeling awkwardly with various expressions of loathing, amazement and distaste. She saw General Mulcahy, crouched beside the Emperor and glancing up at Nevoy, who stood nearby. Nevoy spoke into his wrist com-link, said something to Mulcahy and the others around them, then walked hurriedly toward Vader and his companions. As he approached, Leia could feel his tension and frustrated anger. She had the sensation that he was wishing the whole planet would just blow up, so he'd be spared from having to deal with all of this.
"My Lord," Nevoy said, "we've got a situation. There's major structural damage around Landing Bay Four. I don't think it was caused by weapons fire, apparently the building seemed to fall apart on its own. Sounds like it was those tremors we felt, the same time as that forcefield on the door here started weakening."
"Palpatine," Vader said grimly. "He knew he was dying and wanted to cause as much destruction as possible."
Nevoy nodded. "He must have seen where our escape vessels were concentrated. Most of the ships aren't badly damaged, but we've got at least forty men trapped in the building. Captain Raby reports he's afraid to use the Conquest's guns to get them out, the rubble's too unstable. They're trying to dig through from both sides. And we've got reports that there may be enemy troops headed for our men's position in the building."
Leia sensed another "and" at the end of Nevoy's statement. Vader must have sensed it too, for he asked, "and our other troops?"
"The main body of the Palace Guards were in combat at Imperial Guard headquarters. They're trying to withdraw to Troop Transport Bay One, but a force of Imperial Guards and stormtroopers is blocking their retreat. Our men in the Transport Bay don't have the numbers to assist them."
Vader gave a brief nod. "Divide our forces. I'll lead half to relieve the Palace Guards, you and General Mulcahy take the others to Landing Bay Four. Have you the co-ordinates of the Guards' location É?"
Vader and Nevoy started toward the group around the Emperor. Leia tuned out the rest of their conference, and the loudly stated orders that followed. More fighting was coming, and she saw again in her mind the image that Palpatine had given her, of Luke lying dead while Nevoy and Mulcahy knelt beside him. She turned to her brother, gazing at his familiar, resentment-filled face. "Luke," she said softly. "How are you doing?"
He frowned. "I'm fine. I'm not the one who just had my hand cut off."
"Come with Vader and me. We could use your help -- "
Luke shook his head. "I'll go with Nevoy and the General."
His statement sent dread racing through her, though she tried to tell herself that the vision Palpatine had sent didn't have to be true. Indeed, it was far more likely to be false. And what was it that Luke had told her in the old days, that the future was always in motion, that visions didn't always mean what they seemed É
Nevoy, Mulcahy and Vader walked over to them again. Leia thought how incongruous it looked to see Vader with a blaster in his hand. He had another fastened to his belt.
With a smile, a bow and a flourish, General Mulcahy presented two blasters to Leia. He held the second of them while she checked their power cells of the first and attached it to her belt. As she accepted the second blaster, she was still trying to think of something to say that would convince Luke.
Then a question from Vader drove every thought from her mind.
"Any news of General Solo and the Wookiee?"
Nevoy nodded, oblivious to Leia's startled gasp. "Lieutenant Iddims reported that they're with his party, with the group attempting to reach the troop transports -- "
Leia interrupted with the cry, "Han? He's here?"
In the midst of her shock, she felt Vader's surprise at the question. "Yes. We came here together. He and Chewbacca must have been captured at the same time I was. I'd assumed you knew."
Her gaze fixed on Palpatine's corpse as she whispered fiercely, "he didn't tell me." Gods, she wished that she could kill him again. But she shouldn't have had to wait till someone told her. She felt a stab of guilt. Had she been so damned busy, playing mind games with Palpatine and learning to murder with the Force, she hadn't even sensed that Han was in the same building?
"I didn't sense him," she murmured. "I should have -- "
Vader shook his head. "It doesn't always work like that."
Luke added from her other side "it's probably a good sign that you haven't. At least it means he hasn't called for help."
She thought, but it doesn't have to mean that. It could mean that he called and I just didn't hear him.
"Luke's right," said Vader. "And it wouldn't be in Palpatine's interest to hurt them. He'd want them kept safe in case he needed to use them against you later. He wouldn't damage his bargaining chips."
Leia's mind shook from the bombardment of too many images at once. The vision of Luke's pallid, lifeless face kept superimposing with Han and Chewbacca being mown down by laser fire. And in the midst of it all Luke and Vader were watching her, giving off identical auras of worried protectiveness.
All right, damn it, she thought furiously, you're not helping anyone by standing here. Time to do something. "Right," she said, trying to sound purposeful, "let's go find them. Coming, Luke?"
He shook his head again. "I'll go see if I can be any use at the landing bay." Something of her terrible fear for him must have been visible in her face, for he relented a little, reaching out to touch her arm. "I'll be fine," he said softly, "I promise. I'll see you back at the base."
She nodded, fighting down the certainty that she would never see him again. "Right." She didn't think she could look at her brother any more. If she did, she thought she wouldn't have the strength to let him go. She turned away from him abruptly and saw Moff Nevoy eyeing Vader with a curious expression, as if he was overwhelmed with questions that he knew he wouldn't have the chance to ask.
"We'll be heading out, then, My Lord," Nevoy said. "Good luck."
"And to you." Vader held out his hand, and after a startled moment, Nevoy shook hands with him. "Thank you," said Vader. "Both of you."
"Any time, My Lord," said General Mulcahy, shaking hands with the Dark Lord in turn. "See you at the Rebellion."
I am getting so sick of this shit.
Han Solo ducked as a bolt of blaster fire nearly singed off his hair.
Just once, he thought, I'd like to get out of a place without having to shoot our way through the entire armed forces.
At least this time they had some advantage of numbers on their side. There were about two hundred of them, he reckoned, instead of the usual quartet of princess, farmboy and two smugglers. But as he ought to know, numbers didn't always make for success. He didn't know how many they were up against, since the enemy were entrenched behind a half opened diamond-spiralling door, and he never saw all of them at once. But he figured there couldn't be much more than thirty of them, at the most. It didn't matter, though. Thirty men behind a nice blast-shielded door, with a tripod-mounted laser cannon that they'd scrounged from somewhere into the bargain, were more than a match for two hundred guys in a hallway, with not much to hide behind except the bodies of their fallen comrades.
The one reasonable option was to concentrate their fire on the cannon's shield. If they took that out, they could blow up the cannon, and hopefully annihilate a good number of the enemy along with it. So that was what they were trying to do. But it wasn't any fun at all, because all around him men were screaming and falling and stinking of burned flesh and body fluids with appalling regularity.
There wasn't even a corner they could shelter themselves behind, except for one that was too far to the rear for them to be able to keep firing on the bad guys. Anyway, there were more of the Imperial Guards and their stormtrooper buddies behind them somewhere, so things weren't likely to get any better if they retreated.
Han, Chewie and Lieutenant Iddims were among the longest-surviving members of the front line. They and the others around them had been constructing a barricade of piled bodies, that they hunkered behind as they fired. Laser and blaster fire searing into their wall added to the growing stench. The bodies were stacked highest in front of Chewbacca's position, since he needed the largest shelter.
Han fired, gritting his teeth as his blaster bolt joined the others converging on the cannon's shield. He thought he could see a shimmering from the shield, but it still held.
Chewie was roaring something at him. Han slid further down behind the pile, trying not to feel sick as he found himself sitting on some poor bastard's hand. "What, Chewie?" Han yelled.
From his awkward, crouched position the Wookiee yanked at another burned, blood-soaked body. Only he wasn't heaving the dead soldier onto the barricade. He was trying to shove him along the floor, away from the front rank. Han saw one of the man's arms flap feebly, and at the same time he understood Chewie's roar that said "this one's not dead".
Shit and shit and shit, thought Han. I hope when I get fried, they check that I'm dead before adding me to the wall. He set down his blaster rifle on someone's half-incinerated chest and slithered along the floor toward Chewie's wounded guy. With a quick, grateful growl Chewie handed the man over to him and once more took up his position among the corpses, raising his rifle and taking careful aim.
Han wasn't at all convinced that this guy was going to make it, but they owed him the chance to try. Trying to stay low himself, Han dragged the black-uniformed man along for a few metres, then passed him on to another crouching soldier. "This one's wounded," Han grated. "Pass him to the rear."
The other man nodded, but Han was already worming his way back toward the front.
Then he heard someone say, "oh, fuck, no."
Before he had time to wonder what the hell was the matter now, something exploded.
The sound came from above them. It was followed by a shower of plastisteel slivers raining down on their heads.
Han flung up one arm to protect his neck, at the same time ignominiously burrowing to find shelter under some poor dead guy. As the rain of sharp stuff out of the sky seemed to diminish, he risked a glance upward.
There'd been a skylight above them, but there wasn't one now. Instead there was a Lambda shuttle, the lights from the corridor below illumining it against the dark sky. Han heard himself yelling something as the shuttle fired.
Call me a pessimist, he thought, but I really don't think we're gonna get out of this oneÉ
The air around him seemed to be burning. Fire from the cannon sailed over the wall of bodies, slicing into several men who'd jumped up to run. The shuttle's blasts lanced down at them, charring the piles of corpses and the living men sheltered among them.
Most of those who hadn't been hit yet were running or crawling to the edge of the corridor, where the shuttle's pilot would have difficulty adjusting his guns to reach them. That wouldn't stop the cannon, but it still seemed like the most likely bet.
Han looked around wildly for Chewie. The Wookiee was still crouched among the corpses. He was clearly alive and unwounded – somehow – but he made no effort to escape. Instead he was facing the enemy and firing at their cannon.
Han yelled his name, but there was too much damned noise. "Stupid furry sonofabitch," Han muttered. Like some Cigelsani sand crab he started scrambling on all fours toward his friend, between the spitting bursts of flame.
Somehow he reached the barrier without dying, flopping onto the warm, gooey mass. Some of it wasn't just warm, it was smouldering, and he yelled as his right shoulder made contact with a section where the fabric and skin still burned. Chewie glanced over at him, and Han shouted at the top of his lungs, "Chewbacca, gods damn it, get out of here now!"
Chewie roared back at him something along the lines of "you get out", then a wave of heat attacked Han's right side. He cringed away from it in a desperate jolt of terror and pain. In the momentary darkness he heard roaring howls from Chewbacca, and someone else – probably Lieutenant Iddims – shouting "let's get him out of here! Come on! Come on!"
Han blinked and tried to focus his eyes. As his vision swam into focus he saw fresh smoke and embers in the pile of bodies beside him. On his right leg, most of the fabric of his trouser leg had burned or melted away. His leg seemed to have sprouted red, oozing welts, and in places it looked like the cloth was melted into his skin.
Two sets of hands were yanking on him, and he tried to protest that he could still move on his own, thank you very much. He tried to crawl off the bodies, but he couldn't tell if his right leg was moving or not. He heard a panicked note to Chewbacca's howls. Han could see Iddims now, covered with soot and blood. The Imperial yelled, "General Solo, if I don't get you out of here alive it's my ass!"
Really, thought Han, I thought it was my ass that just about got melted. But Iddims seemed like a nice enough guy and Han didn't want to ruin his rescue mission if he could help it. He stopped struggling as Chewie and the Lieutenant took hold of his arms and started to drag him along. He tried to get his legs under him so he could crawl instead of just being dragged, but he wasn't sure how much he actually contributed to the effort as the three of them struggled their way over floor and corpses, striking for the relative safety of the hallway's edge.
He only knew they had made it when he bumped into something hard and he felt the smooth stone of the wall against his face. Of course now they still had to somehow get down that hallway without being burned to a crisp.
Something changed. Damned if he could figure out what it was, but –
The shuttle's fire was still blazing out of the sky. But the cannon had stopped.
He wasn't sure if, over the sound of the shuttle's attack, he could hear other blasters, and shouting. He did hear Lieutenant Iddims gasp, or maybe yell, "Firelord's Grave, will you look at that."
Leaning against the corridor's wall and trying not to put any weight on his burned side, Han struggled to see beyond the mound of bodies, to the doorway that sheltered their opponents.
Then he decided he was definitely out of his mind.
The men visible in the doorway were turning to face something behind them. As they turned, crimson blaster bolts mowed them down.
Striding toward the fallen men and the now deserted laser cannon was a huge dark form that could be no one in the universe but Darth Vader.
Han thought, I'm hurt worse than I thought. I'm dying and hallucinating. As if it weren't enough for him to be imagining the presence of his almost-father-in-law. He saw a small, slender figure walking beside Vader, and he couldn't get out of his mind the conviction that the figure was Leia.
Han slumped against the wall and gazed up, trying to force his thoughts past the pain in his side and the whirling confusion of his brain.
It didn't help. His hallucinations had followed his gaze, up into the sky.
That's it, he thought. Now I know I'm dead.
Swooping into view beyond the shattered remains of the skylight, forward guns spitting fire as it dove toward the enemy shuttle, was the Millennium Falcon.
Half of one stair crumbled under Luke's foot.
He sprang to the next step, and called a warning back to the Palace Guardsmen behind him. The various Guards seemed to avoid the disintegrating step, at least Luke didn't hear any shouts or curses. He kept running, sticking to the side of the staircase that thus far wasn't falling apart.
They had reached the Emperor's wing of the Palace. They had almost made it to the level that housed Landing Bay Four, but the lifts in this region of the Palace all seemed to have stopped. And this particular stairwell, at least, wasn't doing much better. All throughout this wing, bits and pieces of the structure seemed on the verge of collapse. It was as if Palpatine, in his death throes, had torn away at the building's supports from the inside. Most of the damage wasn't immediately apparent, but the frame of the Palace must be steadily giving way. As the skeleton slipped and subsided, the floors and the walls and the ceilings would fall along with it.
As if it knew he was coming, a mini-landslide began in the three stairs just above Luke. The left side of the three steps shuddered and broke, sending stone rubble sliding rumbling toward him. He lunged farther to the right side of the staircase. One chunk of rock caught him in the shin, and he fought back the immediate tears of pain that stung his eyes. No bones broken, anyway, he thought, as he grabbed the exposed metal backbone of one of the stairs for support, then launched himself upward and kept on running.
It almost seemed that this damage hadn't only been caused in Palpatine's last moments of life. Luke could very easily imagine that Palpatine was still causing it. He wondered if it was possible for the Emperor's spirit to be doing this. He wouldn't think so; Ben and Yoda hadn't seemed able to manipulate objects in the physical realm after they were dead. Luke bitterly added the thought, they were just able to manipulate me. But then, neither Yoda nor Ben had used the Force to become ruler of the Galaxy. Maybe it wouldn't be surprising if Palpatine's spirit could do things that theirs couldn't.
He wondered if this wing of the Palace was the only portion affected. Gods, he hoped it was. He hoped this wasn't happening around Leia and Darth and Han and Chewie.
Luke reached the top of the stairwell. By a miracle the corridor ahead of him seemed solid and untouched by the spreading collapse – for now. Luke started jogging down the corridor to reach the men ahead of him, forcing himself not to limp from his throbbing left shin.
The worst of it, he thought, was that without the Force, something could happen to his family or his friends and he wouldn't even know.
Or maybe that was a blessing. Maybe it was better not to know. He hadn't done them very damned much good when he had been able to sense their danger.
He thought, I shouldn't have let them go.
That thought had been haunting him ever since they parted in the Great Hall, whenever he had time to be haunted rather than just worrying about the Palace collapsing around him.
I should have gone with them. Leia asked me to. They're my family. I ought to be with them.
But it had hurt so much, seeing them together. As if they'd always been that way, united in ambitions and love. The two of them together, without him. It hurt that he hadn't been there for them in their fight with the Emperor, but it hurt more to know that even if he had been there, he couldn't have done anything to help.
Damn it, Luke! he thought viciously. Can't you ever think of anything besides how much you hurt? You'd be as much use to them now as those soldiers who went with them. Damnation, you can still fire a blaster, can't you?
The men ahead had halted just before the next bend in the corridor. As Luke drew nearer, he knew why.
Beyond that corner was the sound of blaster fire, and an occasional cry.
One of their men, a soldier in the green Imperial uniform, flattened himself against the wall and inched out past the corner, just enough to see beyond. Others began checking their blasters' power cells, holstering weapons that were nearly depleted and taking out fresh ones. Luke inspected his blaster with the others, but it was in pretty good shape. He'd started on a new one when they left the Great Hall, and there hadn't been much cause for firing it yet. They'd only run into one gang of stormtroopers between the Great Hall and here.
He glanced at the men around him. He saw the grimly determined look on Moff Nevoy's face, and General Mulcahy's cocky grin.
Luke felt another whisper of fury at himself, for not having gone with Leia and Darth. But he fought it back. He told himself, it isn't wrong for me to be here. Nevoy and the General need people who can fire blasters, too. And at least they wouldn't expect him to have the Force, and wouldn't look down on him because he didn't.
Hell. They were the sort of people he should try to model himself on, not a bunch of damned Jedi. They were men who saw what they needed to do and did it, without relying on the Force to see them through. If he let it, maybe some of their competence and courage would rub off on him.
Just now, he didn't have time to think about it.
The man leaning up against the corner glanced back and nodded to the others.
The first wave of them, with the sentry in the lead, leapt forward.
Yells and more blaster fire. As the first assault spread out to fill the corridor, Luke and the others around him raced to join them.
Then he was shouting and firing with the rest.
They'd ambushed a party of Red Idiots and stormtroopers. It seemed they'd successfully taken the enemy by surprise, for when Luke joined the battle he saw several of them still turning to face their attackers.
In the first few seconds the men on each side of Luke were hit. Luke kept firing.
At the edge of his vision Luke could see more blaster bolts striking at the enemy. Without losing his focus he couldn't tell where they were coming from, just some dark shape in the direction that the Imperial Guards and stormtroopers had been facing.
It was strange, but even the fight didn't stop him from thinking. Firing as fast as he could, at any red or white figure that moved, there were still other images racing through his mind. He was thinking about the first time he'd ever been in this kind of firefight. The first time he'd fired a blaster to kill.
Running through the Death Star with Leia and Han and Chewie, still wearing that stupid oversized stormtrooper armour. Firing and running and firing again, hardly believing it when some of the men he fired at actually fell down. And all the while with one pointless thought running through his head, over and over. I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you. Wishing he'd thought of something more intelligent to say to her. Hoping he wouldn't get killed here, because if he did, that stupid sentence would be just about all she'd remember him for. I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you.
Gods. He wished he were back there right now. Back when he'd believed he knew what he would do with the rest of his life. When he really thought he could become a heroic Jedi knight and – just maybe – marry Princess Leia, and live happily ever after.
He thought he felt the floor shift and roar beneath him, as if the Palace were a sleeping rancor that was just starting to wake up.
Oh, gods! Let Leia and Darth be all right!
That was when he realised there was no one left to shoot.
Six of their own men were hit. Four were totally motionless. One was writhing while a comrade pressed a wadded up uniform jacket into a hole in his chest. Another was getting to his feet while the man who was tying some fabric around the wound in his arm snarled at him to hold still.
Movement in the distance drew Luke's eyes beyond their fallen, and the piles of red and white armoured dead.
His first thought was, well, that's weird.
He had another momentary sensation of his memories taking him somewhere else. Not the Death Star, this time, but Tatooine. What he saw at the end of the hallway looked for an instant like one of the rock outcroppings in the Jundland Wastes. The figures of people cautiously emerging from behind scattered boulders might be Jawas, or if he wanted to be pessimistic about it, Sand People.
They weren't either, of course. The mountain of rock wasn't one of the cliffs in the Tatooine desert, it was the remains of a former doorway, where most of the ceiling and part of the walls had collapsed. The people, he saw when he really looked, were more men in black or green uniforms, who'd been sheltering behind the chunks of ceiling and firing on the Red Idiots and stormtroopers.
"Thanks," one man called down. "Who's down there?"
"Nevoy," the Moff called back.
"Sir," the first man now said enthusiastically, with a salute. "Thanks for coming."
Nevoy went to investigate the caved-in corridor, after detailing ten men to keep watch on the open corridor behind them. Luke was among them.
He wondered if he was imagining the fact that the walls were swaying. It would certainly be possible to imagine it. They were swathed in Palpatine's damned purple drapes, which fluttered from a breeze creeping in through some shattered wall. One of the drapes, ahead and to the right, had fallen along with a section of wall, the rich dark fabric powdered with rock dust and jumbled up with huge chunks of stone. The armoured corpses of their late opponents were sprawled over piles of stone rubble, and behind the pillars of what had been a ceremonial gateway, crossing the corridor in six pillared arches. Four and a half of them remained, the half of one arch sticking out into nothing like a broken rib that had torn through skin.
Luke and his companions took up position on the far side of the arched barrier, nearer to the mountain of fallen stone. For a while Luke stared at the hallway in the direction they'd come from. The two wounded men had been removed from the field of battle. The man with the wounded arm was standing with the others near the heap of stone at the end of the hallway, determinedly acting as if nothing was wrong with him. The one who'd been hit in the chest was now lying near Luke's post, making horrible little moans while one of his comrades tried to get the wound to seal with a spray from an emergency medipack.
Trying not to stare at the probably dying man, Luke forced himself to study the damaged hallway instead. Between the cave-in and their position at the arches were multiple heaps of rubble, scattered along the corridor. Their origin was hard to identify until one looked up and saw that they'd been portions of the ceiling. Through the gaping holes above appeared weird dizzying vistas that had to be the walls and ceilings of the next floor up.
Luke turned back to stare into the hallway where they'd fought. Still nothing moving out there, except the lazy flutter of the purple drapes. Without him intending it, Luke's gaze met that of the black-uniformed soldier standing beside him. The Guardsman, perhaps a couple years older than Luke, had a look of patient boredom on his face. When he met Luke's eyes he reached into his jacket's inside pocket and pulled out a package of chewing gum. "Want some?" he asked.
"No thanks," Luke said.
The Palace Guard shrugged, removed a stick of gum and began chewing. He was about to put the empty wrapper back in his pocket, then a thought occurred to him and he flicked the wadded-up bit of foil onto the floor instead. He grinned at Luke as he did so, and for a startled instant Luke found himself grinning back.
At the end of the corridor, Luke could hear Moff Nevoy in consultation with several other soldiers. He couldn't pick out the words, but curiosity prompted him to turn and see if he could figure out what they were saying.
He didn't have long to wonder. Turning to face the soldiers in the hall -- the larger group nearer to him as well as the sentry party -- Nevoy raised his voice and demanded, "anyone have grappling hooks and cables?"
A pause, then one green-uniformed officer said, "we do, Sir. The six of us." He nodded to indicate a cluster of other men around him.
"Good. See if you can find out which of those holes'll give us the safest access to the next floor."
Now Luke kept alternating his gaze between the corridor he was supposed to be guarding, and the investigations of the six soldiers. After a hurried discussion the six split up and each walked to different holes in the ceiling. Luke watched as the grappling cables shot upward and the soldiers tugged on them. Several of the hooks fell down again immediately, in a shower of rock chunks that somehow avoided squashing any of the six soldiers. At first Luke couldn't tell what the men whose hooks hadn't fallen were doing now. Then he realised that the hooks must be fitted with cameras that sent readings back to the hand-held monitors the soldiers had unclipped from their belts.
Nice. Must be bigshot commando stuff. Certainly none of the captured Imperial armaments Luke had seen over the years had included such high-tech grappling equipment, and if the ex-Imps in the Alliance had it, they'd been keeping it under wraps.
As he watched a soldier start to scramble up one of the cables, with apparent ease, another wave of resentment washed over Luke. He couldn't help contrasting the conflicts in which he'd been one of the leaders – firing the shot that killed the Death Star, figuring out how smash the AT-ATs – with now, when some Imperial shimmied up a hotshit commando cable while Luke stood in the hall and kept watch.
Kept watch very badly, he reminded himself. He turned and stared out into the hallway paved with corpses.
"Great," muttered the Palace Guard with the chewing gum. "I hate climbing."
Luke cast him what was meant to be a sympathetic grimace, and looked quickly back to the hallway. He really hoped this guy did not want to get a conversation going.
Gods damn you, Luke, stop it, his mind snarled. You had your chance. Now just step aside with whatever grace you can scrape together and let someone else have a turn.
No one can be a hero forever.
Luke heard Moff Nevoy's voice closer to his position, and glanced back. The Moff stood beneath one of the gaping holes, which now had three cables fastened to its mouth. He was saying something into his wrist com, then he closed the link and looked around at the assembled troops.
In the commanding tone born of years of practice, Nevoy announced, "we're heading up. Captain Raby's sending two transports to meet us on the next level, where the explosion opened up the building. Once you reach the hallway, head for the Emperor's apartments." He demanded of the leader of the six commandos, "you know where you're going?"
"Right. We don't have any reports of enemy on the floor above, but keep your eyes open. That's all."
Men started scaling the cables in a more or less orderly fashion. The commandos led the way, while the others fastened their various weapons onto themselves, then formed into scattered lines by each of the three cables.
The Guard standing next to Luke grumbled, "oh, crap."
It could be worse, Luke told himself. At least I'm not afraid of climbing.
Under the direction of two of the commandos, who'd remained below, they were limiting it to three men on each cable at a time. As the man at the top scrambled over the edge of the hole and disappeared, the next man on the floor jumped for the cable and started his own upward trip. After a few moments of watching this, Luke found a more comfortable position leaning up against the pillar and turned his gaze to the empty corridor again. He'd noticed in passing that the Palace Guardsman with the climbing phobia was looking decidedly green.
"All right, lads, head for the cables." The voice came from General Mulcahy, who had crossed to their sentry post. Luke was not urprised, when he turned, to see the General looking as fresh and cheerful as ever.
The others, some after exchanging a few friendly comments with Mulcahy, obeyed. Even the unfortunate Guard next to Luke trooped off with the rest, though he spat out his chewing gum before departing.
Luke and Mulcahy were left.
"You too, kid," the General said amiably.
"Someone still needs to keep watch until the others are up. Sir."
General Mulcahy gave Luke a long, measuring look that made him want to disappear. Then Mulcahy smiled, nodded once and took up a position at the next arch down from Luke's.
This time, Luke thought, nothing is going to distract me from keeping watch on this godsdamned hallway.
Behind him he heard the voices of Moff Nevoy and two or three other men, but he didn't turn around. They were discussing the best way to move the man with the wounded chest.
"What's his name?" Luke heard Nevoy ask.
"All right. Destrehan, you hear me? I know this is going to hurt, and you may die in the middle of it. That's okay if you have to, but I'd rather you didn't. We're working to get you through this. We'll get you to a med bay if you'll just stick with us."
From the bits of conversation and the noises of effort that followed, the wounded Destrehan was being lifted up and strapped to another soldier who would carry him up the cable. True to his resolution Luke did not look around, but he sure hoped they'd picked the biggest and strongest guy they had for this job.
The voices moved farther away again.
Once more Luke thought he felt the floor shudder beneath him. He exchanged a glance with General Mulcahy, who bit his lip and nodded.
Moff Nevoy shouted across the hallway, "Xavier! Commander Skywalker! We're the last, let's go!"
Luke's gaze darted back to the cables. Near the top of one was the alien-looking form that must be one of the soldiers with Destrehan strapped to his back. Another man was climbing beneath them. The only other figure still in sight was Nevoy, standing at the bottom of the cable.
"Right, young man," said Mulcahy. "Time to take our leave."
They started toward Nevoy.
Another, louder rumbling shook the floor. Palpatine's curtains billowed like huge purple ghosts.
Luke heard a yell. He looked up and saw another chunk of ceiling break loose from the hole that the soldiers were climbing toward. The man carrying Destrehan lost his grip on the mouth of the hole and slid down the cable a few metres, clutching desperately with one hand.
After an awful moment he regained his grip and started climbing again. But Luke saw something else.
The arches he and Mulcahy had sheltered behind were wobbling, like a structure of some child's building blocks that the kid had decided to knock down.
The huge stone blocks wobbled for another second, then, with a roaring groan, they started to fall toward Mulcahy and Luke.
Luke yelled, "General! Above you! Look out!"
He lunged at the General to pull him away. Then everything disappeared in a wave of stone and dust.
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