"Hey, Luke? You doing okay?"
Luke started slightly as his sister's voice broke in on his thoughts. He was not sorry to have his contemplation interrupted. All through the treaty meeting today he'd been fighting to keep his senses closed off, so he wouldn't feel the mistrust and fear that seemed to pervade everything around him. He was uncomfortable enough already at this meeting, he didn't need everyone else's emotions adding to his depression.
The tension seemed to have eased somewhat now, as the delegates did their best to mingle and make small-talk over a selection of Chandrilan cocktails. But he still felt like he was balancing above a sarlacc pit. His imagination pictured the suspicion and recriminations that filled the room as the sarlacc's tentacles, biding their time for the right moment to leap out and drag everyone down to their doom.
Luke manufactured a smile, which he knew must look wan and unconvincing. "Yeah. I'm okay. Really." He restrained himself from asking in return if Leia was okay, since she'd probably think the question was due to her "condition", and would get pissed off about it. Leia's glass, he noticed, held fruit juice rather than wine or any of the potent Chandrilan liquors, and he thought that if he was smart, he would be following her example. The meeting wasn't going to get any easier if everyone had a hangover tomorrow.
Leia asked, "it's gone all right so far, don't you think?" There was a touch of uncertainty in her voice, as if she were trying to convince herself as well as Luke.
"Yes," he said, more firmly. This time, he did mean it. "More than all right. But, I guess I just didn't expect it to be this difficult."
"I know," agreed Leia, with a rueful little smile. "I guess we get so used to believing that we're saving the galaxy, it's hard to accept that other people might not see it like that."
Commander Arin Pellar, former commander of the Imperial station at Endor, had walked over to them while Leia was speaking, holding a tall thin glass of Chandrilan brandy. Luke noted the warmth of Leia's smile as Pellar joined them, and he felt a moment's relief that Han wasn't here. Not that he thought Han was really jealous of the ex-Imperial. But Han still grumbled a lot about how closely Leia and Pellar worked together, especially after Pellar was appointed to the Command Staff as representative of the former Imperial ground troops.
Han never grumbled about it in front of Leia, of course. If he had, she would have decked him.
Commander Pellar was saying quietly, "I wouldn't worry if I were you, Princess. These Chandrilans wouldn't know a moral issue if it bit them. All they want is to be sure that joining the Alliance won't damage their trading network."
Leia grimaced. "That's not fair, Arin. They would be taking a big risk if they joined us, it's only right that they should consider it from every angle ... "
"Not that big a risk," Pellar snorted. "Notice that they only started making overtures to the Rebellion after most of the Imperial fleet had defected."
"Hey," protested Luke, "we are enjoying their hospitality and drinking their alcohol. If we're going to bad-mouth them, we should at least wait till we get home!"
Pellar's eyebrows twitched upward. "Enjoying their hospitality?" he echoed. "Can't say I've noticed anybody enjoying themselves."
The three of them glanced around the pale, blue-grey stone room. There were a few clusters of Alliance and Chandrilan representatives that seemed to be managing more-or-less successful conversations. Lando Calrissian was holding forth to an audience of four Chandrilan delegates. The Alliance might have been more successful, Luke thought, if they'd sent Lando to this meeting by himself. He was in his best cosmopolitan businessman mode, and seemed to making great progress in convincing the Chandrilans that membership in the Alliance could be economically profitable. General Madine and Captain Needa had both gravitated to the one woman in the Chandrilan delegation, and were trying to outdo each other in charming her. Over by the drinks table, meanwhile, Generals Dodonna and Rieekan had been cornered by old Shang Kantos, the chief representative from Chandrila One, and were enduring one of his tirades. Dodonna's face bore its most patient expression, but Rieekan occasionally glanced around as if seeking escape.
The sight of Kantos sent Luke's thoughts back to his own worst moment during today's meeting. He tensed at the memory of Kantos' strident voice, demanding to know whether a restored Republic would seek to re-establish the Jedi order. As he spoke, Kantos had glared disdainfully at Luke, and his tone made the word "Jedi" sound like some disgusting term of abuse.
Mon Mothma had quickly turned the discussion to other issues. She had replied that refounding the Jedi was not one of the Alliance's priorities. And as there were only two individuals in the Alliance who practised the Jedi faith, it was not, she suggested, a threat with which Kantos need concern himself.
A threat. Surely Mon Mothma didn't see the Jedi like that, no matter what her fellow Chandrilan Kantos might think. But Luke had, in fact, never imagined that anyone might see the Jedi as a threat. He stared down into his glass, then looked up and turned abruptly toward Arin Pellar.
"Arin," said Luke, "what do you remember about the disbanding of the Jedi?"
Pellar looked thoughtful. "Not too much," he said. "I guess I was about ten when it started. I remember my father was glad about it, though. He said it was the best thing that could happen to the Republic."
"Why?" Luke breathed.
Pellar twirled his brandy glass around, not looking at Luke. "My father was in the army. There was a lot of bad feeling between the regular squadrons and the squadrons of Jedi. You know, people saying that the Jedi thought they were better than everybody else, that they got all the fame and the funding and so on, while the rest of the army just fought and died and nobody gave a shit about them. And of course, everyone was talking about corruption among the Jedi. There was a lot of bitterness about them, not just in the army, even before Palpatine started his campaign."
Luke was looking miserable. Leia touched his arm gently. She said, "I suppose it's only natural. No institution can survive for centuries without falling from some of its ideals. It doesn't mean all of them were corrupt, Luke."
Luke forced another faint smile. "No, of course it doesn't."
Pellar looked around for a way of changing the subject. "Looks like Mon Mothma could use some cheering up," he observed. "This must be hell for her. Our buddies the Chandrilans haven't exactly been making her feel at home."
Leia and Luke followed Pellar's gaze to where Mon Mothma stood by one of the arches that led out to the terrace, holding an empty glass and staring into nothing. Her green, gold-trimmed dress was far more vivid than anything she usually wore, and it brought out the auburn in her hair. But the weary expression on her face belied any festive impression her clothing might have given.
"We should go talk with her," Leia agreed.
Then, only seconds later, Leia grabbed Luke's shoulder and held him back. "Oops, hang on," she said. "No, we shouldn't."
"Hunh?" asked Luke. "Why not?"
Leia smiled smugly, and nodded toward Mon Mothma. The Head of State was no longer alone. Admiral Piett had walked over to her, carrying two drinks. Piett and Mon Mothma were now talking, standing fairly close together as Mothma deposited her empty glass on a window ledge and accepted one of the drinks.
Leia said, "I don't think they'd appreciate the interruption."
Luke looked in confusion at Leia and Pellar, both of whom were grinning as they watched the Head of State and the Admiral. Leia caught his glance. "Oh, come on, Luke. Don't tell me you haven't noticed."
"Mon Mothma and Piett." On seeing that her brother's look was still blank, Leia turned to Pellar for support. "Please say I'm not the only one who's noticed it."
"Oh no, you're not," said Pellar. "It is fairly obvious."
Luke's eyes widened as he turned back toward the two under discussion. "Really? What have I missed?"
"Nothing too scandalous, that I know of," Pellar answered. His grin broadened. "But it has been observed that for the last several days the timing of their lunch breaks has subtly altered to coincide with each other's ... and their coffee breaks ... "
Leia contributed, "and they've had a lot to discuss with each other in preparation for this meeting ... "
"And," continued Pellar, "at the risk of sounding catty, she's started paying more attention to her clothes ... "
"I will be damned," Luke said in wonder, shaking his head. "So much for the Jedi power of observation!"
Across the room, Piett was wishing he could do something to remove the sorrow from Mon Mothma's eyes. He took a sip of his drink, then said bitterly, "I shouldn't have come to this meeting. I'm liable to disrupt the whole peace process. I don't think the Chandrilans would be favourably impressed if I strangled half their delegates."
A surprised smile touched Mon Mothma's face. "Were you planning to?" she asked.
"Yes. Several times. Every time some idiot implied you weren't a proper Chandrilan because you'd had the courage to start the Rebellion."
She touched his hand. "Maybe we should go outside. If you're going to be so incendiary, we should at least make sure we're out of earshot!"
Outside, they stood by the stone railing of the terrace. Like the rest of the building, the terrace was carved of Chandrillan moonstone, the one and only export from this third moon of Chandrila Seven. The terrace gleamed softly in the light from the planet and from the second of the three moons.
Mon Mothma said, "the delegates' attitude isn't surprising, you know. A lot of Chandrilans have never forgiven what I did. The Chandrilan Union likes to play it safe, that's what's made us so successful. For an important Chandrilan politician to go over to the Rebels -- that wasn't just a threat to them, iit was humiliating."
Piett said fervently, "well, I'm glad you didn't play it safe. There might not have been a Rebellion without you. And the Rebellion's the best thing that ever happened to me." He started to blush, and took a swig from his drink. "Damn. Now I really sound stupid. But I mean it."
"Why?" Mon Mothma asked softly.
He was hideously embarrassed now, and wished he hadn't said it. But he couldn't back down. He put down his glass on the railing, and said quietly, not looking at Mon Mothma, "the Rebellion gave me a chance to do something with my life other than be afraid."
"Oh," she whispered. Hesitantly she reached out and took his hand that had been resting on the terrace railing. He looked back at her and gave her a tentative smile.
"Was it that bad?" Mothma asked him.
Piett nodded. "I used to have nightmares two or three times a week, about Vader killing me. It was all I could think about. Every day I'd wake up convinced that today I was going to die. Now ... well, he still scares me. I'd be a fool if he didn't. But it doesn't matter so much now." Piett was struggling to put his feelings into words. He looked earnestly into Mon Mothma's face. "Now Vader and I are both working for something we believe in. If he kills me, it'll be because I've failed the Rebellion. And if I fail the Rebellion, well, I'd just as soon be dead."
Mothma was looking troubled again. "Do you really think Vader believes in the Rebellion?"
"Yes," Piett said firmly. "He does. Vader's a man of his word. If nothing else, you can always count on that." He was surprised to realise that he actually believed that. He wondered, when did everything change? When did I start to respect Vader more than I fear him?
Was it six months or so ago, when Piett had finally figured out – not that I've had the courage to ask Lord Vader about it, he thought ruefully – that Darth Vader was probably the same man as Anakin Skywalker?
Or right back at the beginning of this, the day the New Alliance was founded, when Vader declared he was joining the Rebellion to build a life with his son?
Or perhaps there was no one moment when it had happened, perhaps it just grew, bit by bit, with each action that proved the Dark Lord of the Sith could also be a decent human being.
Piett suddenly noticed how intently Mon Mothma was studying him, and his gaze dropped away from hers. He saw that once again her glass was empty. "I'll get you another," he said, reaching for the glass.
She put out her hand to stop him. "No," she said, "wait."
He looked at her uncertainly. Somehow, she ended up holding both his hands. "It's so strange," she murmured, "to think that a year ago we were enemies. We might have killed each other. And now ... "
"Now?" he asked. His heart was suddenly beating very fast, and he wondered if hers was doing the same.
They were almost the same height. She raised her head the slight amount needed for their mouths to be level with each other, and leaned in toward him.
The first touching of their lips was light, barely contact at all. They both pulled back slightly after that, then, of one consent, moved toward each other again.
At some point, they stopped holding hands, and their arms were around each other's bodies instead. Piett was kissing Mon Mothma's throat, and one of her hands was clutched in his hair, when they suddenly heard a sound from the garden beyond them. They sprang apart, and Mothma's other hand hit one of the glasses they'd set down on the terrace railing, knocking it into the bushes below.
Both of them were blushing scarlet. In an attempt to change the subject, Piett frowned out into the garden. "What do you think that was?" he asked.
"A bird?" she suggested. "Some animal?"
"I didn't think they had any wildlife here."
"Maybe they imported it, along with the shrubbery."
He nodded. "Maybe." Hesitant again, he reached for her hand. "Can we ... " he began, "can we pick this up later? Where we left off? I don't think ... I don't think now's the time ..."
She smiled sadly. "Nor the place. You're right. Representatives of the Alliance have to put duty first." She squeezed his hand. "But we will definitely pick it up again."
He wondered if he was making an idiot of himself, but he didn't care. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. Then he turned abruptly and left the terrace, and her.
Mon Mothma leaned back against the railing. Her face still felt like it was on fire. She couldn't decide which emotion felt strongest in her, happiness or embarrassment or fear.
Definitely, she told herself, no more cocktails for you tonight.
She couldn't go back inside yet, not till she was sure that her colour and her breathing were back to normal. Instead she looked out into the garden. She wondered what had made that sound. Maybe it had just been the bushes rustling, only there didn't seem to be much of a breeze. She hadn't seen any animals in the garden earlier, but then, she hadn't been looking for them.
She glanced down at the glass Piett had left on the railing, and smiled.
When Darth Vader stepped out from the hangar building, it was raining.
No surprise there. It had been raining when he stepped into the building as well, approximately four hours ago. The rain had changed in that time; it was now being blown almost horizontal instead of falling vertically. The wind caught at his cloak and tried to tear it off him. Vader pulled the cloak closer around him, and started along the walkway. It was, he thought, a very good thing that the designers of his armour and life-support had ensured that the system was waterproof. He didn't much fancy the idea of short-circuiting in the rain.
He was heading for his Meditation Chamber, having spent those four hours adjusting the prototype x-wing cloaking device. He should, he knew, have gone to the caverns and continued training as usual. But he had become used to training with Luke. It would not have felt right without the boy there, to challenge him, make him work harder -- and to argue with him.
A particularly strong surge of rain battered at Vader's cloaked form, and he paused, to let the rain calm itself and to adjust his vision sensors.
If he had not stopped when he did, the blaster fire would have incinerated his chest.
Vader flung up his personal defenses. The second shot ricocheted into the night. With his adjusted night vision, Vader could see the figure to the right of the walkway. Vader's assailant was lifting his blaster to fire once more -- stupid, considering the last shot's failure. It did not take much effort for Vader's power to tear the blaster from the man's hand. The attacker turned to run, then slipped in the soupy Omean mud and fell prostrate. Using a small amount of power to hold him there -- and exerting perhaps a bit more strength than he needed to, to keep the man's face pressed into the mud -- Vader switched on his comlink and summoned a security detail.
It had been simple. As usual.
Nonetheless, if he had not stopped as the first shot was being fired, he would have died.
So much for not having an off day when he was attacked.
Vader was annoyed at himself. This was ridiculous. He would have to be more careful, if he wanted to live to see his grandchildren.
The security team arrived. Vader had waited for them on the covered walkway. The assassin wasn't going anywhere, and Vader saw no sense in getting himself muddy. While their officer questioned Vader, two of the guards waded into the mud to take charge of their prisoner, who they dragged toward the walkway and the light.
Through the coating of mud, they could see that he was a youngish-looking man, unremarkable of face, with hair that, where not mud-soaked, seemed a sort of reddish blond. His clothing, still visible through its mud outer layer, was the standard issue flightsuit worn by the Rebellion's former stormtroopers.
The security officer looked appalled that this assassin might be one of their own. Vader was less disturbed. He said to the officer, "I have not damaged him, so you may question him at your leisure. I am going to my quarters. Notify me when you have any information concerning him."
The officer nodded. "Yes, Lord Vader. Two of my men will escort you back to your quarters."
Vader thought that was unnecessary, but he did not object. He probably should start going everywhere with a bodyguard, he reflected, but he was unwilling to make such a declaration of his own incompetence. Anyhow, it would be a useless waste of men, who would almost certainly get themselves mown down without powers such as Vader's to protect them.
Vader and his escort had nearly reached the main building. Then Vader's pace faltered, and finally came to a halt. The security guards stopped uncertainly behind him. "My Lord?" one of them inquired.
Vader hardly heard him. He was staring at something between them and the building. Something which, he was quite sure, only he could see. A figure with a glow of blue light around its edges. A thin, white-bearded man, wearing beige and brown robes and a benignly sorrowful expression.
Obi Wan Kenobi.
Darth Vader thought, I'm going to be sick.
Obi Wan said nothing, just gazed at him with that odiously wise look.
Vader sighed, and said to the security guards, "return to your posts. I will follow you shortly."
"But My Lord -- our orders -- "
"I will explain to your officer. Now, leave me."
One did not disobey Darth Vader when he used that tone. With unhappy expressions, the two guards edged around him, then hurried on into the building. Both of them brushed through the glowing form of Obi Wan, without noticing.
Darth Vader eyed his former teacher with loathing. Vader vaguely remembered someone from his childhood -- possibly his mother, more likely one of his brothers -- giving the classic and useless advice that if you ignored bullies they would lose interest and go away. The few times he had tried to follow this advice, it had emphatically not worked. With regret, he decided that ignoring dead Jedi probably wouldn't make them go away either.
He said coldly to Obi Wan, "I do not care to be observed talking to myself in public. If you have anything to say to me, it can wait until I am in my Chamber."
Vader started forward, determined that he would walk through Obi Wan without flinching, even though the thought filled him with a sort of creeping horror. The glowing blue Obi Wan, however, was considerate enough to step aside, so that only one edge of Vader's cape swept through him.
As Vader strode ill-temperedly through the corridors, he resisted the urge to check whether Kenobi was following him. His imagination conjured a ludicrous picture of Obi Wan bobbing along a few metres above the floor. More likely, the old bastard would just be waiting for him inside the Meditation Chamber.
This proved to be the case. As the lights came on and Vader closed the Chamber behind him, he saw the shimmering blue form apparently leaning against one of the control panels. Obi Wan was watching him. Vader sat in his chair at the centre of the Chamber and met the Jedi's gaze.
Kenobi still had not spoken. There was a wary look in his eyes.
Vader wondered, is this going to go on all night? He demanded sharply, "well? Can I help you?"
The voice that replied was just as Vader had remembered it. Rich and mellow, with admixtures of sorrow and wisdom. Obi Wan said quietly, "I wanted to see for myself whether you had changed."
Pretentious bastard. As if Obi Wan knew enough of Darth Vader to be able to tell if he had changed or not. Vader sneered with heavy sarcasm, "of course I've changed. Hadn't you heard? I help little old ladies across crowded space stations, fund orphan asylums, and star on a breakfast holo-show with a troupe of singing Ewoks."
Vader knew it was childish of him to try so hard to annoy Obi Wan. But it was either that or start ranting at him for having so completely fucked up Vader's life.
"You still hate me," Obi Wan whispered. "I can feel your anger. Anger was always your enemy, Darth. It may yet be your undoing."
Vader was certainly angry. But at that moment, the sensation strongest in him was irritation at hearing the old man use his name. It seemed an uncalled-for familiarity.
It had been fair enough for Obi Wan Kenobi to call Anakin Skywalker by his first name. They had been friends, once. But Anakin was gone. Kenobi and Vader had never even been introduced.
Of course, Vader had killed him. But one didn't need to be on first-name terms for that.
Vader sighed. "I have heard your theories on anger before," he said. "I refuse to believe that you popped into this dimension simply to refresh my memory of them."
"No," Obi Wan agreed. "I want to learn if you understand what you are doing."
"Doing?" Vader repeated, an edge to his voice.
"To your children," elaborated Obi Wan Kenobi.
This is too much. If Kenobi had thought that Darth was angry before, he had not seen anything yet.
With immense effort, Vader somehow managed to hold his emotions in check. He said icily, "if you recall, I was not the one who kidnapped them, and hid from them their true identity. I have not lied to them. I have not tried to turn them into slavish copies of myself."
Finally, there was answering emotion on Kenobi's face. Obviously fighting back his own anger, Obi Wan insisted, "do you understand the trauma you are causing them? Do you know how lost Luke feels? Do you feel Leia's torment? Leia has lost herself. She's convinced that if she admits her connection to you, then she must be evil."
"Whose fault is that?" Vader snarled. He stood up, looming threateningly over the gleaming, blue-edged figure.
"It was not my choice to miss out on twenty-four years of their lives," Vader went on relentlessly. "They are adults, Obi Wan, though you seem unable to accept that. I will not force them to think as I do. They must find their own answers. Take care that you do not force your twisted ideas on them any longer."
"Will you be there for them," Kenobi asked, "when they need you?"
The sheer effrontery of that question for a moment stopped Vader cold. He demanded, "are you a father?"
He interpreted Obi Wan's blank look as a 'no'. Vader said, "then do not presume to instruct me on parenting."
Vader had not known that dead men could turn pale, but Obi Wan's face certainly seemed to lose all trace of colour.
"I watched Luke grow up," said Obi Wan, his voice hoarse with anger. "He is like a son to me -- "
Vader grated, "don't boast of that. You watched him grow up because you stole him from me. Hardly the action of an ethical Jedi."
Vader saw Obi Wan's mouth tighten in suppressed fury. Struggling to retain some note of calm in his voice, Obi Wan declared, "I care about Luke and Leia. Do you?"
Vader gazed at his old enemy in silence. The anger surged between the two of them, cold and bitter.
"I don't know what right you have to ask me that," Vader said. "But, yes." He threw a challenge into his voice. "I love them."
It was the first time he had said that.
Obi Wan Kenobi studied him. "Then you will have to fight for them," he said at last.
"Fight you?" Vader sneered. "Don't flatter yourself, old man."
Obi Wan shook his head. "No, not me," he said, surprising Vader. "Your old friend, the Emperor."
Vader waited for him to continue.
"He wants them," Kenobi said. "He will try to take them from you. You must face him."
And the glowing blue Jedi vanished.
The chill that shivered through Vader's being was no longer one of anger. He sank back down into his chair, then swivelled the chair to face the communications panel.
With a sickening feeling of dread, he knew that by the time he made contact with the Alliance representatives at Chandrila Seven, it would be too late.
On the bridge of the Executor, Admiral Piett was cursing himself.
There was no need for his presence on the bridge. The night shift bridge crew could carry out their duties perfectly well without their Admiral moping about like some disconsolate ghost. He remembered how it felt to have superior officers hanging around for no reason, their mere presence making one feel convinced that one was doing something -- or everything -- wrong.
But, the crew could just deal with it. The last place Piett wanted to be right now was in his quarters, alone. Anyway, he reflected gloomily, it was probably a lot less intimidating to have Admiral Piett underfoot than it was to work in the shadow of Darth Vader.
He scowled out at the stars, thinking how very typical of his life this evening was.
In its details, of course, it was anything but typical. It was not every day that a beautiful, intelligent and powerful woman flung herself at you. At least, it was certainly not every day for Grigori Piett.
And what had he done about it? The moment there was a real chance for something wonderful to happen to him, he had fled in terror.
Gods, he thought, what a loser.
Of course, he tried to remind himself, there was no harm in waiting. If anything was meant to happen between them, it would, and it would be none the worse for their taking the time to be sure about it. If, when the alcohol had left their systems, they weren't still sure that they wanted to pursue this, then going any farther tonight would have been a mistake.
That was the theory, anyway. But it didn't make him feel any better about himself.
He turned from the main viewport and started wandering slowly along the perimeter command walkway, absently acknowledging the various crewmembers who greeted him as he passed their stations. At the communications console just off the main corridor, he paused.
Right here, he thought. Right here, two years ago, Captain Grigori Piett had said "Admiral? I think we've got something, sir."
One disastrous battle and one strangled Admiral later, Admiral Piett had appeared on the galactic scene.
Sometimes, he really wished he'd kept his mouth shut. There would have been no Battle of Hoth, no strangled Admiral Ozzel, no nightmares of excruciating death.
But, for all he knew, there might also have been no Treaty of Endor. No New Alliance. And no moment on the terrace with Mon Mothma.
Piett continued his circumnavigation of the bridge. As he drew alongside the turbolift, he stopped again, with a sharp gasp of pain.
Damn, he thought. I really shouldn't have had those drinks.
He'd been feeling vaguely uncomfortable for some minutes, but now the cocktails had truly come back to haunt him. He felt like he had a stomach full of burning venom. I suppose, he told himself, I have got to see a doctor sometime. This dodgy digestion of his was getting out of hand. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to think the pain down to a manageable level. Then he kept walking, heading toward the defence station.
It was probably a good thing that he'd left the moon, after all. Feeling this shitty, he would have been of no use to anyone.
Then he forgot all about his stomach and his evening of angst. He even, for the moment, forgot about Mon Mothma.
Piett stared at the forward viewport.
With lazy, self-assured grace, like glittering phantoms, four Star Destroyers had appeared out of Hyperspace.
Piett liked Star Destroyers. He always had done. He thought they were probably the most beautiful ships in existence, and he had not quite adjusted yet to seeing them as potential enemies. So as the four Destroyers shimmered into view, one after another, his initial reaction was one of aesthetic appreciation. That, and the dreamlike sensation of having completely slipped out of reality.
The shouts of surprise from assorted crewmembers told him that it was time to wake up.
"Sound Red Alert," Piett commanded, almost glad of the Star Destroyers' arrival. At least it gave him something to do. Taking the few remaining steps that brought him to the defence station, he inquired, "shields and ion shields are up?"
He nodded, then raised his voice to address the startled-looking crewman over at the communications console. "Communications officer, send my compliments to the commander of the Mircalla. Ensure that all their shields are up as well. The same message to the moon station."
The officer probably thought that this was overkill, but he did not argue. Piett would have been the first to admit that he was paranoid about shields, and he made no apology for it. He had not forgotten the fate of Captain Merol, cashiered and sent to the spice mines for forgetting to raise the Annihilator's ion shields at Hoth. Of course, Captain Merol had been lucky that Lord Vader was busy at the time and couldn't be bothered to crush Merol's windpipe. But the spice mines were probably not much more pleasant than strangulation.
After their first appearance, the Star Destroyers had held back, keeping their distance. Now one dove to port of the Executor, a squadron of TIE fighters pouring from the ship's launching bays as it leapt to engage the Mircalla. A second Star Destroyer opened fire on the Executor. The other two moved starboard, toward the moon.
Piett's executive officer, a Rebel by the name of Captain Griffith, came hurrying out of the turbolift, looking sleepy and still trying to fasten his collar. As he reached Piett's side, he scowled in confusion at the Star Destroyers' antics.
"What the hell are they doing?" he bleated.
Piett bit back a snide comment about Griffith's sleep-befuddled appearance, and also tried to suppress his long-held opinion that the Captain was too young, too inexperienced, and was probably unfit for command. Such thoughts were pretty rich, coming from an officer who'd only been promoted because his predecessor was unlucky enough to get himself strangled.
Anyway, Griffith's question had been fair enough. One Star Destroyer wasn't likely to last long against the Executor, eight times its size and with over four times the firepower. Clearly, the Executor was not the main target.
So what was? What sane commander would send two ships to attack a shielded planetary station, while a Super Star Destroyer was breathing down their necks?
A shielded station, thought Piett.
He no longer had the slightest feeling of being in a dream. All he could think of was the importance that the people on that station had for the Rebellion -- and for him.
Piett's only reply to Captain Griffith was, "what kind of shields has the moon station got?"
The Captain blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Never mind." Piett was convinced that he knew exactly what the enemy was up to, and he wasn't going to waste time second-guessing himself. He snapped out an order to the men at the control consoles, "put us between those Star Destroyers and the moon."
"Any move they make, match it. Don't let them get a shot at the moon. If they want the station, make them come through us to get it." To those at the weapons console, he added, "return fire at will. Keep their attention on us, I don't want the moon station so much as scratched."
Captain Griffith was looking even more confused. "But, Admiral, if the station's got its shields up, surely there are better ways to -- "
Piett rounded on him. "Don't argue with me," he ordered.
Griffith blinked, looking astounded. "No, sir," he said in a stunned tone.
Piett thought that he'd been reasonably civil with the Captain. But it was probably the first time Griffith had seen the Admiral even close to losing his temper.
Well, Piett didn't have much sympathy for him. He thought, Griffith my lad, you should be counting your blessings. At least I'm not wheezing at you and reading your mind.
As he thought that, something else occurred to him.
This must be the first time in at least four years that he'd been in a combat situation without Lord Vader being present.
Certainly, it was the first of such battles in which Piett had been in command.
He was not sure whether that thought was liberating, or absolutely terrifying.
Terrifying sounded like the safer bet.
Princess Leia winced as she listened to the shouting chaos around her. She had a pounding headache, and the top-decibel arguments of her colleagues were not helping.
It had not taken long to discover that the moon base had no weapons systems whatever. Well, near enough to count as nothing. The station had shields, as a defence against any random pirate attack. But moonstone was not a valuable enough commodity to make a major raid likely. The extent of the station's weaponry ran only to hand-held blasters and a couple of battered and well-used second hand cannons.
And now that the shields were up, the occupants of the station could not even get into space to join the fight.
So they clustered in the command centre. Rebels, Chandrilans, and station personnel were jammed together, watching the progress of the battle and arguing with each other.
Shang Kantos' voice, in particular, seemed to be creating a fissure in Leia's skull. The Princess winced again as the elderly Chandrilan began yet another protest, and marvelled at the high notes he could achieve when upset.
Kantos was currently declaring that all of this was the Rebels' fault. They had brought the vengeance of the Empire down on Chandrila's head. The Chandrilan Union would be ruined, even if they were fortunate enough not to go the way of Alderaan.
To these complaints, the argumentative General Madine replied with a series of counter-accusations. The Chandrilans had set a trap for the Alliance. They had arranged the whole thing with the Empire, luring the most important Alliance representatives into Palpatine's clutches.
A smile twitched at Leia's mouth. Madine would include himself among the most important representatives of the Alliance. Her glance met that of Arin Pellar, standing nearby, who responded with a sympathetic grimace.
The argument temporarily disintegrated, with at least ten people yelling at once. The next voice to strike out over the general chaos belonged to the former Imperial Captain Needa. He was shouting at Kantos, irately stabbing one finger into the Chandrilan's rapidly purpling face.
"Even if you didn't betray us, you might just as well have," Needa raged. "What kind of location is this for a high security meeting? No weapons? One pathetic shield? You couldn't have picked a more effective death-trap if you'd planned it!"
"Your people approved the site," yelled the one female Chandrilan delegate. "You didn't have to come here!"
"No, we didn't! Your people asked for this meeting. We're doing you a favour, just setting foot in your solar system -- "
Leia groaned quietly.
Mon Mothma turned from the holo projection of the battle above them, and said in a chilling tone, "Captain, you will be silent. General Madine, you as well."
Madine paled at the rebuke. Carefully not looking at Shang Kantos, he picked his way through the crowd to join Mothma, Dodonna, Rieekan and several of the Chandrilans, who stood around the holopad. Meanwhile, Needa cast a murderous glance at the woman he'd argued with, then flung himself down into a chair near to where Leia and Pellar were standing.
Leia looked around to see where Luke had got to. She caught sight of him near the door, talking animatedly with Lando and two employees of the station -- probably the men in charge of what passed for station security. She supposed they were planning their last-ditch defence, if the station's shields were breached.
Personally, Leia didn't see that there was much to plan. If the shields were breached, the enemy Star Destroyers would fire on the station and fry them.
Firmly determined not to contemplate that possibility, she turned her attention back to the battle. Most of the projection was visible to her above the heads of the people clustered around it. They currently had the holopad tuned to pick up the fight that raged closest to them.
The projection showed a bizarre scene. The massive Executor seemed to be playing some children's game with the three comparatively minuscule Destroyers ranged against it. The Executor was clearly "it". Leia watched in amazement as the huge ship lurched about, mirroring the movements of the other players and somehow continuing to plant itself in their path.
Space battles were not Leia's expertise, but she did not think these were particularly orthodox tactics.
"They're idiots," Pellar announced matter-of-factly. "If they want to get past the Executor, they should just hyperspace out and jump back in from beyond it. Oh well," he added, "all the intelligent officers must have defected by this time."
Leia thought that Pellar's strategy sounded like a sure way to annihilate one's ship, but she wasn't going to argue it with him. Good thing Han wasn't here, or he and Arin would probably spend hours debating the possibilities of going into hyperspace that close to other objects. Instead, Leia asked Pellar, "but what's the Executor doing?"
"I don't know ... "
He thought, in frowning silence. Then, suddenly, his mouth dropped open. He gasped, "holy shit ... "
"What?" Leia demanded.
"Where's the shield monitor?" Pellar looked about him, then grabbed Leia's arm and dragged her along toward a bank of equipment. She frowned down at the screens and their displays. Looking smug and excited, Pellar was pointing at the screen which showed the deflector shield in place over the moon station, the station itself nestled near the moon's northern pole.
"I see it," Leia snapped. "The shield. So what?"
Captain Needa, out of curiosity, had followed them. "Yes," he echoed, "so what?"
"It's a Magnetic Boost shield. I should have known that's what they'd have here. They stopped being produced twenty years or so ago, but a lot of places haven't replaced them yet. This station's old enough to have one, and obviously they're too cheap to buy anything better."
"All right, so?" Needa challenged.
"So, if those Destroyers get even a couple of shots at us, we're fucked! The shield'll have been weakened by being so close to the magnetic pole. It's obvious they knew that before they attacked. Somebody's done their homework." Pellar looked disgusted at Needa's still confused expression. "Come on, didn't you take Shield Technology 101? There was a question on this in the final exam!"
Needa eyed the younger officer haughtily. "That was some time ago," he pointed out. "The details have somewhat faded."
The two ex-Imperials continued bickering at each other, but Leia tuned them out. She was still hearing Pellar's words, somebody's done their homework.
Madine's suspicions must be right, or at least, close to reality. It wasn't just chance that their presence here had been discovered. The Empire had known of their plans, enough ahead of time to spot the weakness in the shields.
Perhaps, she thought, with a horrifying thrill of suspicion, it was the Empire's idea to have the meeting here all along.
Her thoughts were broken in on by a hesitant tap at her shoulder. The hand jerked away as Leia looked up. A young station employee, her eyes wide with awe, squeaked out, "Princess Leia? A message has come through for you and a Commander Skywalker."
The girl nodded.
Leia glanced around for Luke. He was no longer at the door. She said to Pellar, "Arin, go find Luke for me, will you?" She turned back, forcing herself to smile reassuringly at the girl. "All right, where do I find this message?"
Leia followed the girl as she wove her way around the various groups of nervously chattering delegates. The major arguments seemed to have died down; now people were just talking with the brittle, unnatural intensity of barely hidden fear.
The young employee led Leia to a communications station at the far side of the central holopad. General Dodonna was there already, leaning down toward the microphone, with an earpiece attached so he could hear the transmission over the noise of the room. As Leia approached, he said something into the microphone, then straightened up and turned to Leia, with a worried, solicitous look on his face.
Dodonna detached the earpiece. "Princess Leia," he said regretfully, "you won't like this, but I think it's important you speak with him."
"The transmission is from Lord Vader."
Leia felt a moment of panic. She wanted to turn and run, but there was nowhere to run to. She'd never be able to run through this crowd, anyway. And, damn it, she was Leia Organa, senator and Princess of the Royal House of Alderaan. She had faced Darth Vader before. She could do so again.
But facing Darth Vader was one thing. It was another thing entirely when it meant she was facing her father.
She nodded in what she hoped was a business-like way, and reached out to take the earpiece from Dodonna. He gave her a comforting smile, briefly gripping her shoulder before he stepped away. Leia sighed. It would take a lot more than a smile to comfort her.
She adjusted the earpiece, and resolutely stepped into view of the screen.
Darth Vader, of course, looked the same as always. The same dark presence, the same grim, uncompromising stare from his mask. She wished that, just once, she could see his face, no matter how horrible it might be. Anything, she thought, would be better than the dark nothingness of his mask's gleaming eyes.
Something, however, was not the same as always. She almost didn't recognise his voice when he first spoke, the relief and hope in it were so alien to any words he had spoken to her before.
"Leia! You're all right? And Luke?"
She was startled, but she nodded mechanically. "Yes, we're all right. The station's under attack -- "
"So I understand. Leia, listen to me. I think you and Luke are in danger, not just from the attack. I received ... a warning, that the two of you were under threat from the Emperor. That he might try to capture you."
"A warning?" she asked suspiciously. "From whom? Do you have contacts in the Emperor's service ... ?"
Darth Vader's sigh sounded hollowly through the earpiece. There was a long pause, then he said, "no. Obi Wan Kenobi visited me tonight."
"Obi Wan Kenobi?"
"Yes. Talk to Luke about it, he'll tell you it's possible. Leia, please, this is important. Don't ignore it because you hate me. I don't know exactly what the threat is, but please, be careful. Don't go anywhere alone. Don't let your guard down, even for a moment."
She did not know what to say. It was too surreal, to be getting a message of parental concern from Darth Vader. She finally managed, "I ... yes. All right. We'll be careful."
He asked her, "where's Luke?"
"I'm not sure. He's talking with station security."
Darth Vader said, "promise me you'll pass the message on to him."
Leia shuddered. She didn't want to think about this conversation. She didn't want to hear the concern in Darth Vader's -- in her father's -- voice.
"I promise I'll tell him," she said.
Vader hesitated. She had the impression that he wanted to say more, but was fighting the words back. At last he only said, softly, "take care, Leia," and he cut the transmission.
Leia stared at the now blank screen. She felt cold and ill. Her palms, she noticed as she removed the earpiece, were sweating.
Putting the earpiece down, she turned to look around the control centre again. In the dark grey of the walls, she noticed for the first time splotches where the paint was chipped. The projection from the holopad was now showing the Mircalla, engaged in battle with an enemy Star Destroyer, TIE-fighters and x-wings swooping about and spitting flame at each other to complicate the scene. Various station employees sat at their posts, staring at the holo projection or their own readings, and trying not to look terrified. There were still the same basic clusters of wan-faced delegates, huddled together as if sheer proximity to other beings would nullify the threat above them.
But she saw no sign of Luke. Or of Pellar, who she had sent to find him.
Leia realised that she was very afraid.
She told herself that Vader had to be wrong. Maybe he had received some supernatural warning. Luke had told her about such things happening, though if she was completely truthful, she would have to admit that she'd never fully believed him. But surely the threat Vader spoke of was simply the attack on the station. Surely Luke wasn't in danger. There was no reason to be frightened because she couldn't see him ...
She had to find him.
After Vader's warning, she could not be so stupid as to go searching for Luke alone. But she dreaded trying to explain why she needed company. Excuse me, do you mind coming along while I look for my brother? See, our father the Dark Lord got a message from this guy he killed five years ago …
Her eyes sought out Lando Calrissian. There he was, by the holopad, talking with Mon Mothma, the assorted Generals, and Captain Needa. Lando was the only one here who might understand, but she couldn't interrupt them for this.
Instead, she walked toward the two men she had seen talking with Luke. Both wore blasters at their belts, which was a good incentive to choose them as escort. None of the delegates had been armed when they came to the meeting. It was standard practice, but right now she passionately wished it was not. She would feel much happier with a blaster in her hand.
The security guards were both tall men, and she felt the usual twinge of irritation at having to crane her neck to look up at them. She wondered, why couldn't her infamous father have passed on some of his genes for height? That she would have appreciated.
Leia asked the guards, "do you know where Commander Skywalker is? I saw you talking with him earlier."
"No, ma'am. He went out into the corridor, said he wanted to investigate something."
Dread started seeping through her again. "He didn't say what?"
"No. He just said that something felt wrong." The security guard gave a helpless shrug.
"I need to find him. Please accompany me, both of you. I think he may be in danger."
The guards probably both thought she was mad, but they didn't make any protest. Following a Princess around the station corridors would at least be a change from watching apoplectic delegates shouting at each other.
They headed out into the corridor. One of the guards asked, "want us to split up and look for him?"
"No," she said quickly. She knew it must sound a stupid reply, and was embarrassed at looking like a pathetic female who was too scared to walk down a corridor on her own. But, if there was danger, she was damned if she was going to walk into it alone like any nitwit. "We'd better stick together," she continued. She tried to reach out with her senses, to gain some hint of Luke's whereabouts. She couldn't always sense him, but there were times when she could.
This was apparently not one of those times. She couldn't sense any aura of danger, either, beyond her own fear. But Luke had felt that something was wrong. If he knew that, surely he would be on his guard, ready to fight off whatever might threaten him. He was a Jedi, after all. Or nearly.
But even Jedi were not infallible.
She picked a direction at random, heading back toward the room where they'd had the cocktail party earlier.
The first indication she had that this was the right direction, was the acrid smell of blaster burns and blood.
The guards had noticed it as well. All three stopped at once, the two guards drawing their blasters. There was a bend in the corridor ahead of them. The guards started forward again, much more cautiously and quietly. Leia followed.
As they rounded the corner, one of the guards gave a muffled oath.
There was no sign of any immediate threat. But that there had been a threat, was obvious. A body was sprawled across the corridor, its head haloed by a spreading pool of blood.
Leia cried out and dropped to her knees beside the body. The body had belonged to Arin Pellar.
Arin's eyes were open and empty. He had a blaster wound in his left arm, but it was clearly not that which had killed him. Lacerations and a weird, mottled bruise encircled his neck, but the fatal wound seemed to have been a blow to the back of his skull.
Tears burned at Leia's eyes. She reached out to touch his hand.
A blaze of blaster fire seared past her, from the ceiling. One of the guards screamed and plummeted to the floor.
In amazement, Leia looked up.
She could not believe what she saw. A pale, opalescent creature was hanging from the ceiling. It had a profusion of long, thick tentacles, two of which seemed to be attaching the being to the ceiling with large, darker coloured suction cups. Another tentacle was holding the blaster that had just fired. And another tentacle was wrapped around the unconscious form of Luke Skywalker.
The other guard had leaped for the shelter of the corner. He was yelling at her to get back. Leia grabbed the blaster from the hand of his dead companion, and aimed at the tentacle holding the creature's blaster.
Before she could fire, a thick black cloud spurted out from the creature's body, obscuring her view. It spread toward her. Leia coughed, and tried to get up, but found that her legs wouldn't obey her. Her whole body was swiftly going numb. The blaster dropped from her hand, and then she herself was sinking to the floor. She fell beside Arin and partially on top of him, and the last thing she noticed as consciousness left her was the warmth of his blood on her hand.
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