He was helpless.
Nothing. There was nothing. Nothing but the loathsome machines, humming and whirring and clicking. Keeping him alive, when all he wanted was to escape.
He knew there was something left of him. When he concentrated, sending his consciousness out of what remained of his body, he could see that there was indeed a basically human form on the bed. It was barely visible amid all the wires, monitors, and random bits of machinery which he did not recognise, but only knew that he hated.
He could turn his head an inch to the left and an inch to the right. That was all the movement he was capable of. They told him he wasn't paralysed. It was the treatment that necessitated keeping him immobile, while massive repairs went on at their pathetic, crawling pace. They told him a lot of things. They told him he would be fine. They told him he was lucky. They also told him, of course, that he'd never be able to breathe again without the help of a damned, bloody, fucking iron lung, that he might not be able to walk again, that even his heartbeat would have to be constantly monitored for the rest of his life. Oh, yes, he thought, very lucky. He was starting to panic again. He could feel the familiar claustrophobic terror welling up inside him, making him want to scream or to cry or to kill someone.
They kept the room too hot. It was closing in on him in its thick cloying warmth. It was going to crush him. He was going to be smashed under his own life-support devices. He managed a weak, choking sound that had been originally intended as a laugh. He felt dizzy from terror, but he knew that wasn't because he was hyperventilating. He couldn't hyperventilate any more. Couldn't even change the rate of his own breathing. He might be going mad with fear, but his breathing would still come in that hateful automated wheeze that he was so sick of listening to. If only it would change! Just a little faster, or a little slower. Anything, to stop him from going insane.
He fought to think of something else. If he focused hard enough, surely he could feel some hint that his body was still there. Was that pain that he felt? He hoped it was, but he couldn't be sure. He could no longer tell what was actual pain, what was the drugs and the life-support, and what was just the hideous oblivion of feeling nothing.
I've got to get out!
He was furious now, and the fury was holding back the terror. The fury was something he knew he could use. Slowly he managed to calm himself, but he did not let his anger go. All his thoughts were converging on the anger, honing it into something pure, concentrated and beautifully powerful.
If they thought they could force him to live, they were wrong.
This time, he would get away.
His senses homed in on the tubes and wires that connected him to his bulky, hated breathing apparatus. With vindictive pleasure, he began to sever them, one by one. Only a slight effort, and the wires sizzled and melted writhingly away. The sounds were changing now. The machine itself sounded tortured, and he was glad. He wanted it to suffer. And then he couldn't hear the horrible wheezing any more. Good. He wondered if he could feel something different, if there was a greater tightness in his chest, but he wasn't sure. He thought he would explode the bloody machine, too, for good measure. It would only take a little extra concentration. Then they really, really would not bring him back.
Somewhere, far in the distance, there seemed to be an alarm squawking. And maybe, people shouting. It was almost impossible to keep his attention on them. He was starting to drift. He probably wouldn't manage to explode the thing after all. Didn't matter. It felt so good not to care any more.
Then, suddenly, he was fighting again. Something was trying to grab hold of him, pulling him back. He screamed at it in rage, or thought he did. His rage, undirected, blasted out, and something did explode. He heard the sound of it, and people's shouts, and the crackle of flames.
But he could hear them. Damn it, he could hear. He was back. And the flames were being extinguished, and people were speaking urgently, and surrounding him, and no. No, no, no, they were going to start him breathing again.
Let me go!
He woke with a choking gasp. He felt the usual surge of relief on discovering that he was sitting up, not flat in a hospital bed, and breathing through his own breathing mask, not through banks of equipment that filled most of the room. His heartbeat and breathing both were faster than normal, and he smiled at the realisation. He could hyperventilate now, if he wanted to. What a luxury.
He hadn't had one of these dreams in months, but he supposed he should have expected it. The dreams always tended to come back when he was particularly under stress. He should have known, tonight, when he'd been unable to free himself from the events of the day enough to successfully meditate, that a dream was on its way.
Vader reached up in the darkness, rubbing a hand over his exposed eyes. I shouldn't let it get to me, he thought.
It wasn't political or military matters that were bothering him. They were going fine, or as fine as could be expected. On the whole, the past year could be counted as a success story. The New Alliance had won several significant victories and had almost doubled their manpower through continuing Imperial defections.
No, damn it, the problem was his children.
This waiting game he played with Leia was starting to wear on him. He'd promised himself that he wouldn't push her. He would not try forcing her to accept him. As long as it took her, that was how long he was willing to wait.
But he'd never been good at waiting. The icy politeness of all their official encounters, and her complete refusal to interact with him in any social context whatever, was shredding his patience. He knew, with depressing certainty, that she would have been happier if he'd died. Maybe then she could have accepted him. If he'd managed some sort of martyr's death, bringing down the Empire and sacrificing himself to accomplish it, perhaps then she would someday have come to terms with being Darth Vader's daughter. Alive, he brought her only anger, embarrassment and fear.
And Luke. Poor Luke, he was just as bad. Completely different, of course. He wanted so desperately to win Darth's approval. They were getting closer. There were times when Darth thought he and his son might be close to understanding each other. But still something kept getting in the way. And Vader knew exactly what that something was.
Obi Wan Kenobi.
The very thought of that name sent a cold rush of fury through him. Vader rested his forehead on his hands. Damn the stupid old bastard. At times the anger made Darth feel almost physically sick, at the thought of Obi Wan getting his claws into Luke's mind. As if it weren't enough to steal Darth's children from him. The senile fool had to go and ooze his poison into Luke, twisting the boy with all that pathetic, delusional Light Side lunacy. Trying to cut Luke off from at least half of his powers, and dooming him to soul-destroying guilt whenever he did anything that was not pure and Good from every possible angle.
He could understand how it had happened, of course. Luke, with everything he had known taken away from him, would have been a perfect victim for Obi Wan's platitudes. He must have eagerly lapped up the old man's righteous, plausible-sounding lies.
There was a time when Vader too had believed everything Obi Wan said. Until he'd discovered just how much of the Jedi's vaunted Light Side was merely a screen, with which he tried to hide from himself the darker possibilities inside him.
Just because you cannot accept yourself, Obi Wan, must you doom your pupils to the same curse?
Like a chill breeze, awareness of something beside his own anger brushed against Vader's mind. Vader sat upright again, turning all his attention outward. Perhaps it had not been simply the dream that had awakened him.
Yes. There was something out there. It was not a mental presence that he sensed. Try as he might, he could not detect any being's thoughts. But something outside his Meditation Chamber was a threat, and it was focused on him.
It was also getting nearer.
Without switching on any lights in the Chamber, he replaced the upper portions of his mask, and pressed the button which caused his helmet to descend from the Chamber's ceiling and settle onto his head. His lightsaber -- a new one, constructed over the past year to replace the one which had vanished into the Death Star's power core -- leapt gracefully from the panel where it had rested, into his outstretched hand.
As he fastened the lightsaber to his belt, Vader decided to try teleporting. Of course he was going to look phenomenally stupid if he teleported himself into a wall, or straight onto the assassin or whatever was out there, but the risk of that seemed less than if he opened the Meditation Chamber and presented himself as a target. He had been practising teleportation recently, determined that if Emperor Palpatine could master it, he would as well. He was reasonably sure that he had enough control of it now. In any event, he would soon find out.
Vader flicked on the night vision enhancers in his mask. He switched on the silencer in his respiratory system as well. His breathing was not so efficient with the silencer on, and he could not maintain it for long, but it should be sufficient for his present purposes.
Clearing his mind of all other thoughts, he focused first on the threat that he sensed. It seemed to be only a metre and a half or so away from the Meditation Chamber. No time to think about this; if he was going to do anything, it would have to be now. Without allowing himself any second thoughts, he flung his consciousness into the room beyond.
He found himself standing next to the door. Good. Vader studied the scene that greeted him.
He had not been imagining things. Hovering outside the Meditation Chamber, about half a metre from the floor, was the long, lanky form of a Y342 assassin droid. It was not an up-to-date model, and from the scars and dents on the metal body, this particular droid had seen some fairly rough service. Whoever was after Vader didn't think he was worth risking state-of-the-art equipment on. He supposed that he ought to feel insulted.
The droid must have been monitoring his life signs. As the life signs in the Chamber winked out, the assassin bobbed in apparent confusion, the faint humming it emitted growing slightly louder. Then its readings picked up Vader's presence beside the door. The blaster-arms of this model could fire in any direction, without the droid needing to turn. Both arms flashed upward, toward Vader.
Vader hurled a wave of power at the droid before it could fire. The humming rose into a squeal. A web of sparks almost obliterated the droid's head. Its retractable legs plummeting downward, the droid landed on the floor with a heavy thud. The squeal cut off abruptly.
Vader switched his breathing back into audible mode.
Neat little trick, that, he thought, eyeing the motionless droid. I ought to try it on Luke and Leia's Protocol Droid the next time it gets too full of itself. Except that they would probably pout.
Of course, the assassin droid could be shamming. Some of them were programmed with enough self-awareness and initiative for them to play dead. He doubted it, in this case, but he didn't want to get himself blasted by underestimating an out-of-date heap of scrap metal. Focusing most of his power on his personal defences, Vader took a few steps toward the still faintly smoking droid.
At that moment, the door to the room whooshed open, letting in a rush of light.
A security team raced into the room, blasters drawn. They skidded to a halt at the sight of the calm, very much alive Vader, and the forlorn short-circuited droid. The short, blond woman at the head of the team cast a wary look at the Dark Lord and his would-be assassin.
"Lord Vader," she said. "Are you all right, sir?"
"Quite all right, Commander Narita. As you see, I had a visitor." Out of courtesy for his guests, Vader used a slight nudge of power to turn up the light levels in the room.
Commander Narita stepped cautiously toward the droid. "How the fuck did this get here?" she muttered.
Vader, the Commander and her team stared down at the assassin in silence. "I suppose," Narita mused, "it could have been smuggled in on one of the cargo ships, and only activated once it was inside the base."
Vader nodded thoughtfully. "Possible," he agreed. "What brought you here? Did you receive an intruder alert?"
"No, sir. We picked up a transmission, not on any of our usual channels. It started in the corridor and moved into your quarters."
Two of Narita's team were kneeling beside the droid, taking readings. "Sir," one of the guards reported, "this is the source of the transmission, all right. It was sending a visual record of everything it encountered."
Narita asked in a weary voice, "I don't suppose we know where it was sending the record?"
The man shook his head. "Off-planet," he said. "We'll try and trace it," but his voice did not hold out much hope.
Narita scowled at the droid in distaste. "And find out whether it was activated by remote," she ordered. She turned to Vader. "I'm sorry about this, sir," she said. "We'll step up security, of course. If you like, we can post some guards outside your quarters -- "
"No need, thank you, Commander. If our friend here had encountered any guards, they would almost certainly be dead."
The Commander frowned at the implied slight to her guards, but she did not debate that conclusion.
The door swept open again, and another figure appeared, also armed with a blaster. For the first time since this incident began, Vader felt an actual jolt of surprise.
Leia stood in the doorway.
She was looking more dishevelled than he had ever seen her. Her long hair had once been held back in a braid, but most of it had now escaped. She was wearing trousers, but no shoes, and the loose and unevenly buttoned shirt she had on almost certainly belonged to Han Solo.
Vader thought she looked wonderful, but he definitely wasn't going to tell her so.
Leia swiftly took in the scene before her, then she lowered her blaster and stepped into the room. "Are you all right?" she asked Vader, in as matter-of-fact a voice as she could manage under the circumstances.
"Yes," he said, too surprised to come up with anything more.
Leia turned to Narita. "What happened?" she demanded briskly.
She was going to ignore him again, but he didn't care. He was too busy replaying in his mind the look on her face when she'd first appeared in the doorway. The wide dark eyes and the slightly parted lips, and the traces of fear that had whispered through her aura until she had seen him. Until, he assured himself. Definitely until. This time, it wasn't him she'd been afraid of.
Probably, he admitted, he was reading too much into this. It was just a bit too sad for him to treasure to his heart the thought that she might actually have been concerned about him.
But, he was going to treasure that thought, wasn't he? Yes. Damn it. After waiting a year for any morsel of acceptance, obviously he would leap at the slightest hint. Bloody hell, he thought. What a ludicrously dysfunctional family.
More running steps were pounding down the corridor. Han Solo piled into the room, followed a few seconds later by Luke. Han was missing his shirt, which seemed to support the hypothesis that it was currently on Leia.
"Are you okay?" Han demanded of Leia, grabbing her shoulders and interrupting the report that Narita was giving. "What the hell did you run out like that for?"
Leia pursed her lips in annoyance, but only jerked her head toward the assassin droid on the floor. Han looked over at it, then whistled softly. "Holy shit," he murmured. "I haven't seen one of these things in years." He walked over to the droid. "Somebody rob a museum, or what?"
"Sir," one of the guards called to Narita. "This droid's undergone a lot of modifications recently. This model isn't supposed to have as sophisticated a recording system as this one's got. And it's had long-range remote activation installed. It could've been started up by someone in the next Star System."
"Great," Narita muttered. "Well, Lord Vader," she said, "I guess someone really wanted to watch you die."
The eyes of both of his children turned toward him, then Leia immediately looked away again and busied herself in consultation with Narita. Luke looked from Darth to Leia, then back again. "Are you all right?" Luke asked Darth, predictably.
Vader nodded absently. He was feeling ridiculously smug.
Leia had sensed his danger.
She still hated him, of course. But it was a start.
He wondered how long it would take his sophisticated, business-like daughter to notice that she'd mis-buttoned her shirt.
Simara Mothma, Head of State of the New Alliance, Honorary Mon of the Calamari People, last Senior Senator of the Old Republic, was in danger of falling asleep at her desk.
Mon Mothma knew she should go to bed. It was pointless to go on like this, pretending to continue working while her attention wandered and her eyelids drooped, her head going through the time-honoured routine of nodding steadily lower, then jerking upward, waking her up for a few guilty minutes of work before it all started again.
She knew this was pointless, but she still had so much to do! If she could only stay awake for perhaps an hour longer.
She glared at the stacks of printouts and document disks looming before her. She also, she admitted to herself, did not want to go back to her quarters. This also was completely illogical. If she could sleep at her desk, why not in her own bed? But there was just something about her dark, silent quarters that depressed her, especially on nights like this. It was raining again, of course. It always rained on Omean, or at least it seemed to. You couldn't hear it in her office, which was in a lower level of the caverns that they'd used as a basis for their rapidly constructed headquarters buildings. But her room was in an upper level, with a window that opened onto the surface of Omean. It was meant to be a luxury, an acknowledgement of her status. All it meant in practice was that she lay awake at night listening to the lonely splattering sound of the rain against the window. In particularly melancholy moments, her imagination leapt to the obvious comparison of the unending rain with the desolate tears of some vast being -- perhaps the tears of the planet, or even of the galaxy itself.
Mon Mothma bit her lip in irritation. Surely tonight she was exhausted enough to sleep even if the galaxy was crying on her window. She eyed the nearest stack of paper. Then again, an hour more of work would make a real difference, if only she could really work, instead of just pretending to.
Right. The conclusion was obvious. Time for some coffee.
She decided against summoning a droid to bring her the coffee. The walk to the canteen might help wake her up, and besides, it would probably be the most exercise she'd had all day. Mon Mothma stood up from her desk, half convinced that she could hear every bone in her body creak as she did so. Really, she thought exasperatedly as she headed out the door, I ought to know better than this. She dreaded to think what Dodonna or Rieekan, the only two of her co-workers who'd been with the Rebellion long enough to see Mon Mothma as a friend rather than a respected superior, would say if they caught her overworking like this. But, to hell with it. She had five more reports to read before tomorrow, and it was raining, and she did not want to go back to her quarters and listen to it.
The canteen was in the next level below her office. When she was halfway down the ramp, she saw through the plastisteel partition separating the canteen from the corridor that some other late night workaholic had the same idea as she did. A brown-haired man in the green uniform that marked him as one of their former Imperials was seated at a table by one of the dark metal walls, slightly hunched over a selection of documents which were spread out over the table. In his left hand he held a mug. He sipped from it distractedly, never taking his attention away from the papers before him.
For a moment Mon Mothma hesitated, then she continued down the ramp, silently cursing at herself. It was not going to be the end of her career for some colleague to see her on a coffee-run at two thirty in the morning. And so what if she did probably look like she'd been savaged by banthas, most members of the Alliance had probably seen her look worse. Life and death struggles for the future of the galaxy did not leave much time for daily beauty regimens.
As Mon Mothma stepped into the canteen, the man at the table started and looked up from his papers. Mothma recognised, with some surprise, Lord Vader's second-in-command Admiral Piett. She also recognised the instinctive look of fear that appeared on his face.
She had noticed it before. Almost invariably, whenever anyone equal or superior to him in rank seemed to notice Piett, the Admiral's immediate reaction would be a brief instant of apparent terror. It never lasted, and it never seemed to get in the way of his being an efficient officer. But it always made its appearance: the almost imperceptible jump, the tiny intake of breath, the jolt of fear widening his eyes.
He made her think of a domestic animal which had been habitually beaten by its master, and which now expected the same treatment from everyone.
"Admiral," Mon Mothma greeted him.
His look of terror dissipated. "Ma'am," he said politely, standing up from his paper-strewn table and bowing slightly.
A service droid had been ambling about polishing tables, but as Mothma walked into the canteen it had bustled up to her. "A cup of coffee, please," she told it. "Black, with one sugar."
The droid beeped obediently and scuttled away to fulfil her request. Mothma looked back toward Piett, trying to think of some small talk that wouldn't sound too lame. She realised that although she'd spent a year encountering Piett in meetings nearly every day, she knew him hardly at all. Not that she was particularly close with any of her colleagues. But she suddenly wondered, with a twinge of guilt, if she should have tried harder to get to know their formerly Imperial allies. She wondered if the green uniform, even without the Imperial insignia which had long since been removed from it, had been preventing her from seeing Piett and the others as human beings.
Or maybe she just saw them as human beings against whom she'd been at war for twenty years.
Small talk, quick, before the silence got too awkward. Mothma smiled self-deprecatingly, running a hand through her short, auburn hair. "They definitely don't pay us enough," she said. "I don't think Heads of State and Admirals are supposed to have seventeen-hour work days."
Piett shrugged and managed a faint answering smile. "We could always form a trade union," he said.
Mon Mothma wondered if that was the first time she had seen the Admiral smile.
Piett was hurriedly sweeping up documents from his table, tidying them into a neat stack at one corner. "Will you join me?" he asked.
For a moment Mothma stared in surprise. Then she thought, why not? She had just been thinking she should try harder to get to know their Imperials. The five reports would keep till tomorrow. "I don't want to interrupt your work ... " she began.
He grimaced. "I haven't been working for the past hour. Just staring. I think my brain's put up a forcefield, even coffee isn't getting through it."
That sounds familiar, she thought. "I hate to sound mothering," she said tentatively, "but you could go to bed."
Another grimace, a more wry one this time. "With respect, Ma'am, so could you."
She sighed. "So I could."
The droid arrived with her coffee, in one of the orange plastic mugs generally used by the Rebellion. Piett presented his own mug to the droid, politely asking for a refill, and Mothma noticed that it was one of the black ceramic mugs with the Imperial insignia blazoned in blue upon them. They were standard issue on the Star Destroyers, and had not been replaced. There was no reason why they should be, she reminded herself; it would be asking too much of their allies to completely restock almost thirty Star Destroyers worth of crockery in an attempt to excise the Imperial motif from memory. She noticed that Piett's coffee mug was chipped at the rim, an appropriate enough metaphor for the Empire.
Mon Mothma took a seat, and Piett sat down opposite her. She sipped cautiously at her coffee, glancing over the orange mug at Piett's stack of documents. "What have you been working on?" she asked as she set down the mug. The top document seemed to be an immensely complicated blueprint.
"Shield generators," he answered. "You know we've been working on installing new shields in the Star Destroyers. We've got two new ones installed so far, but I think we should still be able to improve them further. Mind you," he added ruefully, "anything would be an improvement on the current model. I don't know why we bothered installing shields in the first place, if we were just going to stick the generators on the top of the ships with a sign saying 'shoot me'."
Mothma found herself laughing with surprise. "I must admit," she told him, "Imperial shield generators have long been a standard joke in the Rebellion."
The service droid presented Piett with his replenished coffee. Piett managed another slight smile, which looked like an expression his facial muscles were not used to. "I'm not surprised," he said. "The only thing more pitiful than the shields is the Stormtroopers' shooting ability." Immediately he looked embarrassed at having said so much. "Sorry," he said quickly. "This time of night, I'll grumble about anything."
She nodded, taking another sip of her coffee. "I know the feeling."
"So what were you working on?" Piett asked.
"Reports on the planets in the Chandrilan Union."
"For the treaty meeting?"
Piett frowned slightly, as if trying to remember something. "You're from Chandrila, aren't you?"
"Yes." She drank from her coffee again, looking away from him. "I haven't been back in almost twenty years." Mon Mothma shook her head suddenly. She was not going to get melancholy about home with Piett across the table from her. "Where are you from?" she asked him.
His mouth twisted slightly in a grimace of dislike. "Pokrovsk," he said. "In the Sarskoi system. You won't have heard of it."
Now it was her turn to frown. "I think I have ... no. Sorry. All that comes to mind is wood. I think my mother had a bookcase that she said was Pokrovsk cedar?"
Piett nodded. "Right. The timber industry's basically all Pokrovsk's got. That and rain." He cast a glance up at the ceiling, as if he could see through all the levels of the building into the rain-sodden sky above. "We get rain about 80 percent of the year on my part of the planet. It's one of the reasons I left."
"Ah." She smiled sympathetically at him. "So Omean must be a nightmare come true for you."
He shrugged and tried to manage another smile, but this time it didn't quite work. He took a swig of his coffee instead. Then he winced, and a look of unmistakable pain crossed his face. Piett bit his lip and glanced quickly away, seeming to stare with great attention at the plastisteel partition.
"Are you all right?" Mon Mothma asked in unfeigned concern.
He nodded, turning back to her. "Fine," he said dismissively. "I probably ate something I shouldn't have. I've got terrible digestion."
She accepted that, saw that her coffee was nearly gone and considered whether to go back to her office, and decided against it. "Tell me about the new shield designs," she requested.
Piett complied, launching into an explanation with obvious enthusiasm.
She was listening to him, really. But if she was honest with herself, she would have to admit that she was giving more attention to studying his face.
It was a pleasant enough face, she thought, when he wasn't looking like a scared swamp mouse. Not wildly handsome perhaps, but definitely intriguing, with his sharp chin and his prominent cheekbones and the deep hollows under his eyes. Mothma wondered how long it had been since he had been used to smiling.
Meanwhile, he was telling her more about shield generators than she had ever wanted to know.
Well, she had asked. She said, when he paused with a questioning look to make sure that she hadn't fallen asleep while he enthused at her, "you know a lot about this. Probably more than most of our engineers."
He looked embarrassed. "Not really. I took a class on shield technology at the Academy. When we started planning the new shields, I just dug out my old lecture notes."
That comment jolted her. She realised, with a sensation that might even have been envy, how different his life must have been from hers. A man who's had an orderly enough life for him to still have his Academy lecture notes. Who hasn't spent twenty years on the run from the Empire. Who hasn't regularly lost everything he possessed.
Oh, no. Now she was starting to be self-pitying, even without the sound of the rain to set her off. Determined not to focus on herself, she asked him the first question that sprang to mind, "what years were you at the Academy?"
"I graduated Third Year of Palpatine."
She shouldn't have asked. Third Year of Palpatine. Piett had probably been taking his final exams when she had first fled from Coruscant with a price on her head. A swift calculation told her that Piett, if he'd attended the Academy at around the usual age, must be at least ten years her junior. She felt immeasurably old.
Of course, it was nearly three in the morning.
Her face must have been revealing more than she thought. Piett was looking at her hesitantly. "You were outlawed that year, weren't you?" he asked quietly. "I remember, it was all we could talk about. It got to be sort of a status symbol to say you were a Mothma supporter -- the way to prove one could thumb one's nose at authority. One guy even had a pin-up of you in his locker." Piett blushed suddenly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned that."
She stared at him in amazement. Then, to both her own surprise and his, she burst into peals of laughter. "Sorry," she gasped, trying to still the laughs. "Oh, sweet heavenly Light. Sorry. I just don't feel like much of a pin-up."
The service droid had trundled over to make sure that her laughs didn't indicate distress. "Sorry," she said once again. She glanced over at the droid, then back at Piett. "Do you want another coffee?" Mothma asked the Admiral.
He looked even more surprised, then he smiled at her. And the smile didn't even seem to be an effort for him this time. "Why not?" he said.
And suddenly it didn't feel like three in the morning any more. And she didn't feel old.
"There. Try it now."
Commander Wedge Antilles obeyed, flipping a series of switches on the x-wing's control panel. He looked out through the side window of the cockpit at Lord Darth Vader, who had scrambled from under the x-wing and who now stood back, hands planted on his hips, watching critically.
"Any luck?" Wedge inquired.
Vader shook his head. "No," he said, his voice coming through on the x-wing's comlink. "An improvement, but you can still see the ship. It's slightly more transparent." Vader sighed. "All right. Switch it off and let's try again."
"Right," Wedge sighed back. Off went the switches again, then he extricated himself from the cockpit and clambered down to stand beside Vader, joining him in glaring at the x-wing.
"What do you think we're doing wrong?" asked Wedge.
"We won't know that till we've done it right." Vader stood in musing contemplation. "There's just too much power drain," he said finally. "We've either got to up the central power, or power down some non-essential systems when the cloak is in use."
"Yeah," said Wedge. "Damn. I hoped we wouldn't have to do that."
"Well, Commander, we don't have to yet."
Their pondering was interrupted by a voice from across the hangar bay. "Lord Vader?"
They turned toward the voice. Lubin, one of the pilots in Wedge's squadron, was hurrying toward Vader, Wedge and the x-wing. "Lord Vader, a transmission came through for you at the command centre," he reported, when he reached them. "They've passed it on to us."
Vader nodded acknowledgement. He turned to Wedge. "See what you can accomplish here."
Vader strode away. Wedge was about to climb back into the cockpit, to check whether the cloaking device would have enough power if he switched off the deflector shields. He paused when he happened to glance at Lubin.
The pilot, watching Vader's departure, spat into his right hand, then made three circles in the spittle with his left thumb. Wedge had no difficulty in recognising the Correllian sign for protection against evil.
"What the hell was that for?" demanded Wedge.
Lubin turned to face his commander, looking defensive. "It's -- " he began.
"I know what it is," Wedge snapped. "Are you in the habit of invoking the deities against your commanding officers?"
"No," Lubin said truculently. "Only against him."
Oh, hell. Wedge raised his eyebrows. "You got a problem?"
Lubin hesitated, then said, "yeah. I don't think he should be here."
Wedge resisted the temptation to remind him that "here", specifically, was the Super Star Destroyer Executor, which had helped turn the tide of a good many battles in their favour recently, and which would not be on their side at all if Vader were not as well. But, of course, he knew what Lubin meant. Wedge eyed Lubin sardonically, leaning back against the side of the x-wing. He said, "you're missing something here, Lubin. I guess you spent the last year stuck in Hyperspace? You missed VaderÕs little diversion manoeuvre at Loma, hunh? You were taking a nap when the Executor popped up behind the enemy at Minnac Three? NobodyÕs mentioned to you how many times Lord VaderÕs saved our ass?"
The pilot shrugged and looked sullen. Wedge had a strong urge to rearrange Lubin's face. But, Wedge regretfully reminded himself, he was Lubin's commander, and it was his job to see to the welfare of the men and the efficiency of the squadron. If there was a problem, it was his job to sort it out. He sighed, and tried to make his voice sound calm and reasonable.
"Look, Lubin, if you've got a problem with Vader, you're going to have to get over it. We don't have time to be fighting our own people. If this is some kind of bigoted hang-up ... Hell. If you can work with Sallustans, Calamari and Wookiees, you can definitely work with a guy who wears a mask and wheezes a lot."
Lubin sneered, and Wedge really wanted to punch him. "It's not the wheezing that bothers me, Commander." Was that just Wedge's imagination, or had Lubin put sarcastic emphasis on "commander"? Lubin went on, "it's the strangling."
So much for sounding calm and reasonable.
Wedge demanded, "have you ever seen him strangle anybody?"
Lubin avoided meeting Wedge's eyes, but said nothing.
"Have you ever heard of him strangling anybody since he joined us?"
"Well then, shut the fuck up. Don't talk about things you don't know shit about."
Lubin shuffled his feet a little, but still looked rebellious.
"You got anything to say?" Wedge asked harshly.
Lubin snapped to attention, finally. "No, sir."
"Fine. You're dismissed."
Wedge turned back to the x-wing, fuming. And you, Wedge, he thought, sound like a first-rate asshole.
More disturbingly, he had very nearly ended up quoting his grandmother. "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Great. He'd always hated it when she said that, too. Well, fuck it. He was getting sick of this shit. How many more heroic deeds did Vader have to pull off before people accepted that he wasn't going to sell them out to the highest bidder?
Then he noticed that Lubin was still there. He turned back to the pilot, with what he hoped was a withering look. "I said, you're dismissed," he said icily.
Lubin shrugged. "You wouldn't think he's such a hero if you saw who he's talking to," he smirked. He started to stroll irritatingly across the hangar bay.
Shit. Maybe there was something to be said for the Empire's way of doing things. A little more discipline around here might not be such a bad thing.
Wedge had never felt comfortable behaving like an officer, figuring he'd get as good or better performances out of the squadron if he treated them like friends. But hell, some people weren't friends. Maybe a good kick up the backside was what they needed, to remind them what was expected of them.
Having decided that no one was watching him, Wedge rested his forehead for a few seconds against the cool metal of the x-wing's hull. He thought, it really is good that I don't have one speck of Force power. If I did, there'd be a lot of strangled Alliance members around. Maybe a few with imploded skulls, for good measure.
Taking a deep breath, Wedge climbed back into the cockpit. Sure, okay, he knew where Lubin was coming from. It wasn't easy for a lot of people, to turn around and work with someone they'd always fought against. But couldn't they try seeing Lord Vader himself, instead of just seeing the enemy?
Wedge sighed. Maybe I am too trusting, he thought. But Vader's a godsdamned fine engineer, and he's the best pilot I've ever known. I like him. If that's stupid of me, then it's too damn bad.
He shook his head. What was that idiot Lubin on about, anyway? Who was supposed to be so terrible that Vader'd be incriminated just by talking to them? He really didn't think the Emperor had called up for a chat.
Hunh. Maybe it was the late lamented Grand Moff Tarkin, with a glowing blue light around him. It sounded like the sort of thing that would happen to Luke's father. It sure was a pity Lord Vader didn't seem to eat, or not in public anyway. Wedge would love to have heard the dinner-table conversation in that family.
Lord Vader, meanwhile, had learned who was sending him the message. It was a surprise, but not an unpleasant one.
"Boba Fett," he greeted the man who appeared on the screen.
The bounty hunter seemed unchanged, despite the lurid stories of his gruesome death. Just possibly, there was a slight bit more paint missing from his famous grey-green helmet, but Fett's armour was so celebratedly battered, it was hard to tell.
Boba Fett was calling him from transit. Vader did not immediately recognise the starscape that was visible behind Fett through the viewing port of his ship, but it could easily be identified, if necessary.
That showed one thing straight off. Fett was indicating that he was willing to trust Vader with his location, so Vader should be prepared to give equal trust to him. Not that there was much chance of anyone actually capturing Fett, should they for some insane reason wish to do so. He wasn't likely to stick around in front of that same starscape waiting for them to come get him.
But it was the symbolism that counted.
The message showed something else. Fett must have been waiting for some time, while the transmission was routed from the base to the Executor, and Vader was summoned. The bounty hunter could easily have sent a recorded message instead. That he hadn't, showed he had a particular reason to speak to Vader in person.
Fett had been puttering with the array of tracking instruments at his console, and only slowly took his attention from them to face Vader. Another very typical bit of Boba Fett body language. This might be the Dark Lord of the Sith, but Fett was not going to be hurried.
"I'm pleased to see you alive," Vader commented. He was, too. Fett was the artist of the bounty hunting profession; it would be a pity for his skill to be removed from the galaxy.
Fett gave a curt nod. "I'm sending some information," he said. "If you don't have it already, it might be useful."
Vader inclined his head slightly in return. "Is there a price for this information?" he inquired.
"No. A friendly gesture."
There were those who would say that Boba Fett was incapable of making a friendly gesture. There were also those who would say that Darth Vader was incapable of joining the Rebel Alliance.
A slight tinge of humour entered Fett's harsh voice as he continued, "should the Rebellion require a bounty hunter, I hope you will consider me."
The console before Vader indicated the arrival of another transmission from the same source, a recorded message this time. Boba Fett reached out to end his transmission, then added, just before his image winked out, "give my regards to General Solo."
When the bounty hunter had vanished, Vader called up the second message onto the screen.
He sat staring at it for some minutes.
It was a general contract, offering a substantial reward for the death or capture of Darth Vader. The contract specified that capture was preferable, but that the full sum would be paid for verifiable visual proof of Vader's death.
The date of the contract was five standard days ago. The unknown owner of the assassin droid from two nights ago had not wasted much time.
Vader skimmed to the bottom of the contract, checking the sender's identification code and contact information.
It was an Imperial code, not surprisingly. But it was a very specific code. One that, so far as he knew, was used only by the Emperor himself.
Wonderful. Palpatine had put out a contract on him. Which meant that every bounty hunter and assassin with more guts than sense was going to be after him.
It would almost have been funny, except for the thought that had just occurred to him: how the hell was he going to get any work done?
Mon Mothma asked, "why has he waited this long?"
"I have wondered that," Vader agreed. "You can be certain it's part of some plan. Palpatine is not the man to forget betrayal, or to wait this long to strike unless he had some purpose in it. This contract is part of a larger attack on us."
Mon Mothma nodded, frowning. "What about this man Boba Fett? Is he part of the Emperor's plan?"
Vader considered that, leaning back slightly in his chair by Mon Mothma's desk. "You think Palpatine might want us to know of the contract? It's possible. Convoluted schemes are a speciality of his. But, I don't think Fett would be involved in it. He has too much sense. No, I believe the bounty hunter's warning is genuine."
"But what does he think he'll gain by it?"
"Protection, if the Rebellion triumphs. I think we may take Boba Fett's warning as a compliment. Fett believes we are likely to win, so he is arranging insurance against certain Alliance members who might bear a grudge against him."
Mon Mothma didn't look happy about that, but she did not pursue it further. "I want you to know, Lord Vader," she said, "that the Alliance will give you whatever support you require. You are one of ours, and we cannot allow you to be threatened. If you wish to request additional security precautions ... "
Lord Vader shook his head. "It should not be necessary. I have every confidence in our security personnel. No stronghold is impregnable, no matter how sophisticated the precautions. If my would-be assassins are determined enough, they will gain access to the base. I should be able to defend myself adequately; we must simply hope that I'm not having an off day when I am attacked."
Mothma's frown darkened. "I'm glad to see you're taking this calmly, Lord Vader," she said with asperity. "Nonetheless, I will meet with the security officers to discuss how we can tighten our defences."
"Thank you," acknowledged Vader. He went on, "this has, at least, answered one other question. I think it's now clear that I will not be accompanying you to the Chandrila treaty meeting. Since my presence is liable to be a magnet for attacks, it would be irresponsible of me to put the meeting in danger. Not to mention the number of Chandrilan delegates who might object to my involvement."
Mon Mothma sighed quietly. "I think you're right. Though there would be equal numbers of Chandrilans who would find your presence a comfort. You are the most striking symbol we have that the Rebellion is capable of victory."
He said, sounding amused, "the Executor should be nearly as striking. Admiral Piett will be able to represent our former Imperial forces, without recalling so many unpleasant associations with persecution and mass murder."
The Rebel Head of State looked as though she wished he had not recalled those associations to her, either. But as she had said, he was one of theirs, persecution and murder or no. She was about to say something else, when the buzzing of the door's entry bell interrupted her. Mothma reached for the control panel on her desk, pressed the appropriate button, and the door slid open.
Princess Leia stepped into the office. The Princess was looking flustered. She began, "Mon Mothma, I'm sorry to disturb you -- "
The realisation of Vader's presence stunned her into silence.
Vader stood up. The sudden force of his action knocked the chair backward, and it would have tipped over if Mon Mothma had not caught it. "Don't worry, Leia, come in," Mothma said. "Lord Vader and I have nearly finished our discussion."
The look Leia cast at Darth Vader was one of near panic. "No, no, that's all right," she said hastily. "It's not important. I'll come back later." She turned and literally fled from the room.
Leia hurried down the corridor, barely paying attention to where she was going. She managed to make it back to her own office. The door swooshed shut behind her, and she locked it, then she stood there for a moment, leaning against the wall. The shudders that had been threatening to overwhelm her took over. Leia gave a trembling gasp. She put one hand to her forehead and then dragged her fingers through her hair.
Of all people who could have been in Mon Mothma's office, it just had to be Vader.
She wondered if he knew. She had a horrible suspicion that the moment she'd entered the room, it had been clear to him. She didn't know if he could read her mind, but Luke could sometimes. If Luke was able to, why not Vader? Slowly she managed to still the shudders. What did you think, Leia, she asked herself bitterly, that you would be able to hide it from him? It's going to be pretty obvious. She sighed, crossed over to her desk and sat down.
This is not happening. That was the trite and useless thought that kept coming back to her, and she wished she could believe it. But of course it was happening. She stared blankly up at the ceiling. She had to talk to someone. She'd already tried to tell Han once, but had lost her nerve at the last moment, and had fled the hangar where he and Chewie were working on the Falcon, before Han could notice she was there. Right now, though, she felt so desperate to talk about it, she probably would have told anyone. Except, of course, Vader.
Leia spent the next hour attempting to work. She did, in fact, succeed in getting some paperwork out of the way, and focusing on the work almost managed to calm the panic in her mind. Maybe if she had enough reports to read and sign, she could ignore this for the next eight months.
She ran out of reports. She was feeling somewhat more rational; at least she could probably leave her office without bursting into tears on the shoulder of the first person who glanced at her. Leia stood up.
Luke. She would talk to Luke.
It was mid-day. At this hour, Luke always spent some time in the caverns outside the base, meditating and practising his Force abilities. She'd never really got into this meditation thing, though Luke was perpetually trying to get her to join him in his training. Maybe this time she'd take him up on it. She needed all the calming influences she could get.
Leia left her office again, and followed the ramps and corridors down to the lowest level. This area was primarily used for storage, as were some of the caverns themselves. She walked to the door that marked the border between the headquarters building and its surrounding caves. The door was ten metres wide and twenty high. Leia entered her security clearance, and the massive door slid quietly open.
The caves were damp and slightly cool, but not unpleasant. The only sound she heard besides her own footsteps was the soft but insistent dripping of water, from the dark recesses that her sight could not penetrate. The lighting that the Alliance had installed cast a dim blue glow from the cave's ceiling.
Leia paused for a moment and just breathed in the quiet and peace of her surroundings. She knew why Luke liked it here. It seemed so distant from the sterile, metallic environment of the Alliance headquarters. Rebellions and empires seemed to dwindle into non-existence.
She'd been nervous of the caves when Luke first brought her to them, convinced that they would be home to mynoks or something equally repellent. But all the denizens of the caverns seemed timid and harmless; pale little hairless squirrel-things with enormous eyes, that had learned to trust Luke and would sometimes emerge from their burrows to watch him at his training. Once when Leia had been there with him, she'd seen twenty or so of the little creatures, sitting in a semi-circle around the dimly lit edges of the cave and watching Luke with the appearance of solemn interest. The thought still made Leia want to laugh. It was horrible of her to laugh at her brother, but the serious intensity of the cave squirrels' gaze had seemed to have much in common with certain facial expressions of Luke's.
When she stepped into the large, open space of the cavern Luke usually trained in, there were no squirrels to skitter away at her approach. She stopped at the cave entrance, thinking that she didn't blame the cave squirrels for keeping a low profile this time.
Was she under a curse today? Would she spend the entire day with Darth Vader popping up around every corner?
This time she didn't panic. It helped that neither Vader nor Luke had yet seemed to notice her presence. She cursed silently. Typical. She knew that Vader and Luke invariably spent two hours training here each evening, usually from 2000 to 2200. What had caused her father and brother to vary their routine today? She shivered slightly, wondering again how much Vader had picked up from her mind. Who knew what the Force might have told him? Maybe it had shown him that she would come here to find Luke, and Vader had gone to the caverns to wait for her.
And maybe, Leia Organa, you're being a completely paranoid moron.
She knew she should just turn around and leave immediately, but there was a certain fascination in the scene before her. Luke and Vader were duelling. Her heart seemed to contract with a feeling of fascinated dread, as she remembered that at least twice they had duelled in earnest. She watched the glowing pattern of crimson lightsaber against green, and imagined that she could see them fighting each other on Bespin Cloud City, or on the second Death Star. The patterns that the lightsabers made in the cavern's darkness were painfully beautiful. She suddenly felt very alone, and wished, for one treacherous instant, that she could be there with them.
She turned and left as quietly as she could, hurrying back through the caves she had just traversed. Luke would have been happy for her to join them, she knew. He was always urging her to do so, telling her she had as much Jedi potential as he had, or more. Probably, Vader would have welcomed her too. That was all she needed. Her sweet, well-meaning brother and the Dark Lord of the Sith, both trying to recreate her in their own images.
Anyway, she had been stupid to come here. She was calm enough to realise that now. She should never have even considered telling Luke before Han. It would have hurt Han if he found out she'd done that, and rightly so.
There was no getting away from it. She had to tell him.
Leia let herself back into the building, and made her way up to ground level. When she reached the exterior door, she scowled through its transparent aluminium surface at the predictably sullen weather outside. Raindrops plopped with monotonous regularity into a puddle just outside the door. The covered walkway that connected the main building with the hangars and the re-fit centre would keep away most of the rain, but she knew from experience that the air would be raw and unpleasantly chill. Sighing, she fastened up the grey jacket she was wearing, glanced down at her boots and hoped they were still reasonably waterproof, and then resignedly stepped out into the weather.
Leia thought, some day, we will choose a nice planet for our base. Something that isn't just rain, or snow, or jungles. Something temperate and sunny with lots of warm, soft beaches. Only then, of course, we wouldn't have time to fight any more, because we'd all be too busy sun-bathing.
The walk to the hangar building was mercifully short. As she reached the door, Leia felt dread creep back into her, but she was determined. This time she wouldn't run away. She walked inside, undoing her jacket again as she passed the dozen or so ships between the entrance and the Millennium Falcon. Her hands were shaking a little, she noticed, so she stuck them into her jacket pockets and wondered whether she could possibly look casual.
Chewbacca was perched on top of the Falcon's left forward mandible, in the process of some no doubt arcane tinkering that involved the shield projector. Leia had long since given up keeping track of the Falcon's repairs, improvements and conversions, and trying to stay up-to-date with the endless progression of bits that broke, rusted, fell off, disintegrated, short-circuited, or just got temperamental. She knew that she ought to make more of an effort. Not only did Han love the impossible old rust bucket, but someday Leia's life could very well depend on her knowing what might be wrong with the Falcon on that particular day. But, hell. Han's eyes usually glazed over when Leia talked politics, so if he could be clueless about that, she could be clueless about the Falcon.
"Hi, Chewie," Leia called up to the Wookiee. "Is Han around?" What do you know, she actually sounded calm.
Chewbacca gave an enthusiastic roar of greeting, and gestured toward the back of the ship. Leia said, "thanks," smiling at Chewbacca and wondering what he would say when he heard her news. Probably, he'd be delighted. At least that meant that someone would be. She swallowed nervously and started to circle the ship.
She hadn't gone far before Han appeared from around the curve of the hull. He looked attractively dishevelled, was slightly sweaty and had somehow managed to get a dark greasy smudge all across one side of his face. Which of course he hadn't noticed, she was sure. Well, she wouldn't tell him about it. She liked it. She liked the guileless happiness of his smile when he saw her, too. She had a moment of temptation to put off her news a bit longer, lure Han into the Falcon and seduce him in the cargo hold. Not that she reckoned he would require much luring.
She sighed. The cargo hold would have to wait. She wondered how long it would be, after she'd told him, before she saw that smile again.
Han said cheerfully, "hey, Princess." He tipped her chin up slightly and bent down to kiss her. Leia snaked her arms around his neck, returning the kiss with probably a lot more force than he'd expected. Then she held him close, with her head on his chest, feeling the thudding of his heart against her ear.
Damn, the cargo hold sounded like a good idea right now.
Instead, she reluctantly stepped back, looked up into his face and said, "Han, we've got to talk."
A cloud of worry darkened Han's expression. Leia didn't blame him; when the poor man heard those words from her it generally meant he was going to get some kind of lecture. She could see him trying to figure out what he might have done wrong. But he just said, "okay, sure. You want to go inside?"
She nodded, and they started toward the boarding ramp, arms about each other's waists. They didn't talk again until they reached the main lounge of the ship. Leia sat down on one of the curved couches. She had to smile at the awkward, hesitant look on Han's face, as he held back, unsure whether he should join her. "Hey, come on, get over here," Leia said softly. "I'm not on the warpath about anything."
He said, grinning sheepishly, "okay, I'll lower my deflector shields." Han sat down next to her, and Leia snuggled up closer to him. She hoped he would still be sitting there when he found out. Well, she'd know soon enough.
Leia took Han's hands in hers. She began, not really believing she'd finally made it to this moment, "Han, I found out something today that -- that's pretty important. For both of us. I guess you'd better brace yourself."
Understandably, Han looked worried, but nonetheless he gazed at her resolutely. "All right," he said, "I'm braced."
Leia said, "we're pregnant."
It was a long time before Han said anything. When he did speak, all he could manage was a very quiet, "oh." He swallowed, and said "oh," again. There was a look of wonder and fear in his eyes which seemed very familiar, because it was what she herself had been feeling all day. "Oh, my gods," he murmured. Then suddenly he seemed to come back to himself. "Leia. I'm sorry it's -- it's taking me so long ... I ... I mean, are you okay with this?"
She thought about that. "I think so. It's horrible timing. But -- well, it's happened, now."
He said hesitantly, "then you -- then you do want to go through with it."
She exclaimed, a little shocked, "of course!"
There was a smile of relief on Han's face. "Good," he said. "Everything's okay, then."
No, everything isn't okay, Leia thought. But she loved him for saying it.
Han was now looking stunned again. "Gods," he whispered. "I mean -- I thought we were being careful --"
She gave the obvious answer, "not careful enough."
"Yeah. When did you -- find out?"
"I went to the medical centre this morning. But I guess I've suspected for a week or so."
He looked hurt. "You should have told me!"
She shrugged. "It could have been nothing." She looked down, tracing the bones in his hand with one of her fingers. "Han," she said, very quietly, "it's twins."
Han's eyes widened. "Oh," he said again, "my gods."
She tried to smile. "Apparently it runs in the family."
"Yeah, I guess it does. Oh, yikes. Err -- when's it supposed to be?"
"Apparently I've been pregnant almost a month."
He was staring with fixed intensity at her belly, and she had to laugh. "No, Papa, you can't see them yet," she teased.
Han looked back into her face, with his lopsided grin. "Sorry," he said. He drifted off into thought again. "Are you still going to the Chandrila meeting?"
"Of course I am. We've got another eight months. I don't have to go off the active service list yet!"
"No, no, of course not," he said hurriedly. "I think I should come with you, though."
She smiled. Men. "No way," she told him firmly. "We can't have all our generals traipsing off to a meeting. Someone has to be around in case Palpatine tries to blow Omean out of the sky."
Han looked unhappy. "Hey," she urged him gently, "it'll be okay." It was pretty funny, she thought, that she was the one saying that, considering the state she'd been in all morning. She leaned her head against him again, and felt herself relax a little as his arms tightened around her.
"Leia?" Han asked.
"Are you scared?"
She whispered, "I'm terrified."
Han whispered back, "so am I."
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