The bridge of the Executor shook.
"Report," demanded Piett.
"Momentary shield breach, but the shield is up again," came the reply. "Direct hits on both of the old generators. The port generator's been destroyed, the starboard one is damaged."
"Well, good for them," murmured Piett. He could not restrain an evil grin. Keeping the no-longer-in-service generators in place, after all, had been his idea. He wished he could see the faces of the enemy when they realised that, despite their having destroyed the vulnerable shield generators, the Executor's deflector shields were functioning perfectly.
Piett commanded, "return the compliment, gentlemen. Let's see if they've had the brains to move their shield generators."
As he had ordered, the Executor's fire had been concentrated on their opponents' generators throughout the course of this battle. The shields in that portion of their ships had to be badly weakened.
He was right. In a vivid burst of yellows and reds, the starboard generator on one of their enemies' command towers exploded. Its twin followed seconds after. A cheer sounded across the bridge of the Executor. "Continue firing," said Piett.
The enemy's shield generators had clearly not been moved. Under the Executor's bombardment, the damaged ship was taking one hit after another.
There was only one route to take in such a situation, and the commander of the enemy Star Destroyer took it. The ship veered away from the Executor's fire, and jumped into Hyperspace.
This left two Star Destroyers demanding the Executor's attention. They were still trying to get past the Super Star Destroyer, to fire on the station. The Executor performed an acrobatic lunge, almost flipping over completely in order to get back into the enemy's way. Piett thanked the gods for artificial gravity. He knew from experience that it didn't pay to think too hard about the ship's orientation at times like this; that was one sure way of making oneself sick.
Suddenly, the two Star Destroyers were under fire from another direction. On the viewscreen of the Executor, the Mircalla and its escort of x-wings zoomed into view beyond the enemy.
"Admiral," called an officer at the communications console, "message for you from Captain Ifar."
Piett left the central walkway and crossed to the communications console. The orange face of the Mon Calamari captain that appeared on the monitor looked distinctly jubilant; Piett had been working with the Calamari long enough now to be able to tell that.
"Admiral," Captain Ifar of the Mircalla said cheerfully, "our opponent's jumped. We had him so scared he couldn't even stick around to pick up all of his TIE-fighters. Mind if we join in, or do you want these two for yourself?"
"No, Captain," said Piett, "be my guest."
Unfortunately for Ifar's plans of entertainment, the Star Destroyers' commanders had other ideas. In close succession, the two of them swooped away from the Rebel ships, and a moment later both made the jump to Hyperspace and vanished.
There was another cheer. Through the link to Ifar, Piett could hear the cheers of the Mircalla's bridge crew as well as of his own.
Heavenly gods, he thought. It worked. It actually worked.
"Damage report," Piett ordered, when the cheers had died down. He was trying not to look smug, though it was a major effort when he noticed the wide-eyed stare of Captain Griffith.
The damage they'd sustained had been minimal, little more beyond the annihilation of the useless former shield generators. As the report was concluding, another crewman called out, "Admiral, the moon station is lowering their shields and they're hailing us." An instant later, the same man added, "there's a ship leaving the station. A one-pilot fighter. It's not one of ours or the Chandrilans'."
Piett frowned out at the tiny ship climbing away from the moon. "Contact the station," he said. "Find out if that ship -- "
Before he could finish his sentence, the ship was gone.
"It's jumped, sir," came the dispirited and obvious report.
Piett's scowl grew darker. It could, he knew, have merely been one of the treaty delegates, panicked and decamping as soon as possible. But something felt wrong.
He had a very, very bad feeling about this.
Han Solo could not get to sleep.
He was sprawled out over the double bed. He knew that, theoretically, he ought to be sleeping just great. The whole bed to himself, room to move around, no Leia to do her usual trick of wrapping herself up in ninety-nine percent of the covers, leaving him with one square inch of sheet if he was lucky. But, such logical considerations aside, he still wasn't sleeping.
He had his face buried in Leia's pillow, but the bedclothes had been changed that morning, so there wasn't even a wisp of scent to remind him of her. That damned officious C3PO fancied himself as Leia and Han's housekeeper, and insisted on an obsessional level of cleanliness. Now, Han figured he liked clean sheets as much as the next guy; he'd slept in enough manky beds over the years to appreciate the change. But C3PO changing the sheets as a daily morning ritual, Han thought, was going a bit far. So was the twice daily -- twice, mind you -- visit from the vacuum droid, and Threepio's perpetual dusting of any flat surface. There wasn't enough dust in the universe to justify the amount of cleaning C3PO imposed on their quarters.
Unfortunately, Leia and Luke both liked the miserable prig. If it weren't for that, Han thought he would have blasted old Goldenrod years ago. He nearly had done, the day he found Threepio folding -- no, refolding -- his shirts. Han had walked in at that moment, and it had taken all of Leia's peace-making skills to stop him from incinerating their self-proclaimed housekeeper right then and there. Threepio was lucky it had just been shirts. If the droid had gotten into Han's underwear drawer, even Leia might not have been able to save him. So now C3PO was under the strictest of commands not to touch any of Han's belongings, under any circumstances. So far the restriction seemed to have been obeyed; Threepio had a pretty healthy fear of Han Solo's temper.
Han sighed. He wasn't so far gone as to wander around the room sticking his nose into Leia's perfume bottles, or to take a package of her shampoo to bed with him so he could periodically sniff it and fantasise her presence. But he still wished she were here.
He wanted to talk with her. Specifically, he wanted to talk about babies.
It was crazy how fast one's viewpoint could change. When she'd told him, three days ago, he'd been pretty thoroughly horrified. All he could think of was the bad aspects, all the drawbacks. Maybe when he was fully awake, he'd be scared to death again. But now, lulled by being only half conscious, the cuddly and cosy aspects of parenthood were uppermost in his thoughts. Only three days since he'd found out he was going to be a father, and already he was having visions of cute little knitted caps and baby shoes. Mind you, he didn't know who he thought was going to be doing the knitting. Chewbacca? Wedge Antilles? Nahh, more likely it'd be C3PO. Goldenrod was probably proficient in over six million different forms of knitting from cultures across the galaxy.
His imagination balked at the idea of matching outfits for the twins. No, he was going to put his foot down about that. He'd always thought it was hideous to make poor little brats wear identical outfits, and had wondered whether the parents of twins were all irredeemably tacky. Well, now he guessed he'd find out if tackiness went with the territory. Still, though, thinking of sickeningly cute baby clothes, an image had just sprung into his mind of two little round-faced babies dressed in miniature x-wing pilot's flightsuits. No, no, it was horrible. It was funny, though, he had to admit. It was something he'd like to see. He wondered whether Leia would go for it.
An electronic bleeping caused him to start, driving all visions of baby clothes from his mind. He groaned, blinking blearily at the communications panel next to Leia's dressing table. To his astonishment, the pristine, elegant visage of Mon Mothma appeared on the screen. The Head of State looked worried, but then, she usually did. She said, "General Solo, I must speak with you urgently. Please respond."
Confusion and fear surged up in Han in equal measures. Leia! Something had happened to her. Or to the babies. There was no other reason for Mon Mothma to call him up in the middle of the night.
He lurched out of bed, and pressed the button which would inform Mon Mothma that her message had been received and a channel would be opened momentarily. His fear had not quite made him forget that he needed to find some clothes.
Han switched on the lights. He looked around the room, but of course the enforced tidiness meant that there was no clothing lying readily to hand. He stumbled across the room to his closet, opened it up and rummaged around in the back of it for the maroon robe that he knew was lying crumpled under several pairs of boots and the clothes that had fallen off their hangers. He hated that robe. Wearing it, all he needed was a pot belly and a pipe and he would have turned into his father. But of course, he couldn't throw it away, since Leia had given it to him. He pulled the wretched thing out of the closet, sending one boot flying across the room as he did so.
Fastening the robe as securely about himself as possible, he hurried back across the room and opened the communications channel.
"General Solo! Finally," exclaimed Mon Mothma, her voice filled with annoyance.
Well, fine, he thought. If that's the way you feel about it, next time you call in the middle of the night you can have a free showing of Han Solo in the Buff. But Mon Mothma was hurrying on.
"General, I'm afraid I have bad news for you. Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker have disappeared."
He stared at her. "What?"
"The indications are that they have been kidnapped from the moon station. Commander Pellar and two of the station's security personnel have been killed. Pellar was last seen leaving the Control Centre to look for Skywalker, and Leia was observed leaving the Centre with the security guards shortly after that. We're still having the station searched, but I think it's very unlikely that we'll find them. An unknown ship left the station just after the shields were lowered, without receiving clearance. It looks like we'll have to assume Leia and Luke were aboard."
"Whoa, wait a minute," said Han. "Why were the shields up?"
Mon Mothma sighed. "The station was attacked by four Star Destroyers. The attack was fought off. Luke and Leia seem to have been captured while the battle was still going on."
Han was feeling numb. He couldn't seem to take all this in. He asked, "the ship jumped to Hyperspace?"
"Yes. We're calculating its possible destinations based on the trajectory, but ... "
Yeah. He knew. She didn't have to finish that particular sentence. That technique was just about as good as useless, even if the ship in question didn't just jump to another location, on a totally different trajectory, as soon as it was out of tracking range.
He couldn't believe this. How did things like this keep happening to the Skywalker family? How did they keep happening to him?
"I'm sorry, General," Mon Mothma said. "We're doing everything we can to find them. I'll contact you as soon as we know anything more."
"Yeah," he said dully. "I understand." He went on, with more force, "I'm coming to Chandrila Seven. I want to check it out for myself, see what I can find out. I'll be there tonight."
Mon Mothma looked like she wanted to object, but she held the words back. "All right, General," she said gently. "I'll see you in a few hours."
Han reached out and switched off the transmission.
He wasn't going to allow himself time to be scared. He pulled off the damned bathrobe and flung it in a heap on the floor, just to piss C3PO off, then stalked over to the bureau.
He was fully dressed, except for his socks and boots, when the door entry bell summoned his attention.
Gods, he was a popular guy tonight.
Boots and socks in one hand, he stormed over to the door and slammed his other hand against the intercom button. "Yeah? Who is it?" he snapped.
The reply came back, "Vader."
Han had the distinct feeling that somewhere along the line -- probably, on the day he had contracted to fly Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi to Alderaan -- he had lost control of his life. In fact, it didn't feel like his life at all anymore. It was definitely someone else, not Han Solo, who'd been dragged out of bed by the leader of the Rebel Alliance to be informed that his girlfriend had been kidnapped, and who now had the Dark Lord of the Sith hanging out on his doorstep.
Han opened the door. He walked back to the bed, sat down and started putting on his socks as Darth Vader stepped into the room.
"You've heard from Mon Mothma?" Vader asked.
"How soon can the Millennium Falcon be ready for take-off?"
"Uh, immediately, I guess. As soon as I wake up Chewie. Why, you want me to take you to Chandrila Seven?"
"No," said Vader. "To Coruscant."
Han froze in the process of tugging on one of his boots. He stared at Vader. "Coruscant!"
"Yes. I believe Luke and Leia have been taken there."
Han's eyes narrowed. "You believe. Why?"
"I was warned that the Emperor might try to take them."
"You were, hunh?" Suspicion of Vader overwhelmed all Han's other thoughts and emotions. "That's real convenient. Look, Vader," he threatened, "I better not find out you were involved in this. If you're pulling some kind of double agent stunt ... If Leia or Luke get hurt because of you, I'll kill you. You may have your godsdamned Force protecting you, but I'll find some way to kill you anyway. That's a promise."
In a cold voice, Vader said, "fortunately, General, you will have no need to put your threat into practice. We both have children who are in danger. I suggest we forgo any argument, and take action to help them."
Han's mouth dropped open. "We both -- Then you know? That Leia's -- But she only just found out!"
"As you have no doubt heard remarked before," Vader said dryly, "the Force is strong in our family. Already I can feel their power growing. I should warn you, General Solo, they will be something of a handful. Your next seventeen years or so will not be particularly restful."
"No change there," Han muttered. "It's okay," he went on bravely. "We can handle it. And Luke and Chewie have already volunteered to babysit."
"You may add me to your list of volunteers," offered the Dark Lord of the Sith. "However, at the moment our first duty is to rescue our family."
Han eyed him warily for a moment, then sighed. "Okay. How do you know they're being taken to Coruscant?"
There was a long pause, then Vader said in a gloomy tone, "Obi Wan Kenobi warned me tonight that Palpatine would strike at them."
"Obi Wan Kenobi," Han echoed flatly. "That makes me feel a lot better."
"I was not pleased to hear from him either. However, in this instance I believe we may safely assume that he is correct."
Han objected, "but, he didn't say it was Coruscant they'd be taken to ... ?" He couldn't believe he was having this conversation. He couldn't believe he was accepting the idea of warnings from men long dead. Damn it, why did he hang around with this family? The whole lot of them were out of their minds. And the more time he spent with them, the crazier he got.
Vader told him, "I will attempt to contact their minds, and see if I can receive any images of their location. In the meantime, Coruscant seems to be a reasonable assumption. I would rather seek for them there than sit here doing nothing."
"Yeah," Han agreed. He said heavily, "all right. It's better than doing nothing."
Ten minutes later Han rejoined Vader in the hangar building, accompanied by a grumpy but resigned newly-awakened Chewbacca. The Wookiee gave a perfunctory snarl of dislike as they approached Darth Vader, then he trudged up the Millennium Falcon's boarding ramp to start the pre-flight checkups.
Han lingered below, observing with interest the conversation in progress between Vader and another ex-Imperial, General Veers. Veers, at most times an aggressively self confident man, was tonight looking decidedly uncomfortable. He seemed almost ill, and Han guessed this was probably the result of his titanic efforts not to appear intimidated by Darth Vader.
Veers was reporting, "we've identified the man as Monis Rasha, from Gasharna. He's known to have worked as an arms dealer and smuggler. A few minor brushes with the law, two brief periods of imprisonment for assault, on Balas and on Carsandor. He reached the base on board the Nullifier, My Lord."
Vader repeated quietly, but in a voice that did nothing to ease Veers' distress, "on board the Nullifier?"
"Yes, My Lord," Veers replied. "He seems to have taken advantage of our troops' ground action on Phados, three days ago. It appears that during the conflict --"
The General's mouth had apparently gone dry. He swallowed, looking disconcerted at having to make such an acknowledgement of his nervousness. "Rasha ambushed one of our troopers and took his place on the transport when it returned to the Nullifier. When he was captured, Rasha was wearing the uniform of Trooper Konar Eldias."
"I see," mused Vader. "My would-be assassins are becoming more imaginative. If no more skilful. You were in command of the action on Phados, General Veers?"
"Yes, My Lord," said Veers, and Han couldn't help feeling sorry for him. Han had never liked Veers, he'd always seemed to be a hard-assed son of a bitch. But Han could empathise all too well with the growing desperation in Veers' eyes.
"Very well," said Vader. "See that inquiries are made into the fate of Trooper Eldias. Unfortunately I do not have the time to personally interview Monis Rasha." Vader turned to Han. "Are you ready to depart?" he inquired.
"Any time you are," Han answered, trying not to grin at the startled look of relief that swamped Veers' face. "Are you gonna want that -- that egg thing you live in brought on board?"
"Thank you, General Solo, the 'egg thing' will not be necessary. It would take too long to install, and we have no time to waste."
"Whatever you say," Han shrugged. Then he noticed that Vader was holding a small black carrying case in his right hand. Don't stare, Han ordered himself. He thought, Darth Vader with a briefcase? Well, why not? Maybe it's a super-portable version of whatever he's got in his egg. After all, he may be half machine, but he's gotta eat something, doesn't he?
Shoving Vader's briefcase from his mind, Han gestured grandly toward the boarding ramp. "After you, My Lord."
Inside the cockpit of the Falcon, Han settled into the pilot's seat, uneasily aware of Vader's presence behind him. The Dark Lord had taken the seat usually occupied by Leia when she was on board, and the back of Han's neck was starting to crawl at the thought that Vader's unreadable gaze would be on him this entire trip. And he'd thought that Leia's perpetual bitching was bad! Gods, what wouldn't he give to have her here with him now, instead of her beloved father.
"How're we doing, Chewie?" Han asked, praying that he didn't sound as jumpy as he felt.
Chewie gave some basically positive roars.
"Good, okay," said Han. Damn, did he ever hope the Falcon wouldn't act up on this particular voyage! He really didn't need any snide comments from Darth Vader about the quality of his ship.
Vader informed them, "I've told Flight Control that we are going to Chandrila Seven."
Chewbacca emitted a startled growl.
Han swung around to stare at their passenger. "Run that by me again?" he demanded.
"It makes sense for us to go there," Vader explained. "As you pointed out a few minutes ago, going to Coruscant does not. If we told them our true destination, we'd spend days arguing about it, and still not receive clearance. They'd think we were traitors -- that or, more likely, insane."
"Yeah, and maybe they'd be right," Han muttered. He was beginning to think this was one of the stupidest things he'd done, in a life that was filled with impressively stupid deeds. Willingly shutting himself up in an enclosed space with the Dark Lord of the Sith, and now, setting off with him for the headquarters of the Empire, without telling anyone where they were going. Just great. Han didn't think he could be any more self-destructive if he tried.
Chewbacca snarled an objection along the same lines.
Vader said, "in your place, I would not trust me either. But, General, what have you got to lose? Even if I am betraying you, you still have to find Leia. Whether you accompany me as fellow rescuer or as prisoner, you will still have a better chance to help her than by sitting here on Omean." There was a pause, then Vader added insidiously, "when Leia rescued you from Jabba the Hutt, was she deterred by the knowledge that she was walking into a trap?"
Han turned back to the forward viewscreen and scowled at it as if he expected it to provide him with an answer.
"Shit," he said emphatically.
"Once we have left the planet, we can inform Mon Mothma of our change of plans," Vader told him. When Han made no reply, the Dark Lord snapped, "I don't know what you're worried about. If I do betray you, you can just do something heroic and save the day as usual. Don't tell me you've lost your touch since the days when you had the Imperial Fleet chasing about the Galaxy after you."
With an effort, Han restrained the automatic competitive response that he knew Vader wanted him to make. He said glumly, "I'd rather not have to find out."
"You won't," said Darth Vader, in a voice of surprising sincerity. "I am not betraying you. All I want is to find my children."
Chewie gave vent to a plaintive-sounding howl.
Han flung up his hands in surrender.
"Okay, okay. What the hell. Off we go to Chandrila Fucking Seven, via Coruscant."
He forced himself not to observe out loud that he had a bad feeling about this. But he did have a bad feeling, all the same.
Leia woke up aching and cold. She tried to sit up, and found that her hands were fastened together in front of her. Awkwardly, she elbowed herself to a sitting position, blinking around at her dimly-lit surroundings.
The first thing her gaze focused on was Luke. He was apparently still unconscious, and seemed, at first glance, to be floating a foot or so above floor level. Looking closer, Leia realised that he was hooked into a suspendor unit. Her numbed limbs protesting as she did so, she inched closer to him, to see if she could release him from the suspended animation.
These plastisteel, coffin-like containers with their internal forcefields were usually operated from a control panel at one end. Leia found this unit's panel, on one side wall, just below the level of Luke's head. But to her chagrin, she saw that it provided only read-outs. She could find no way to adjust the suspendor's status. The controls must be operated by a remote, probably kept securely in the possession of their captor. With a quiet, dispirited oath, Leia leaned against the suspendor's clear surface, looking through it into her brother's face.
They were on board a ship, and in mid-flight. She could tell that from the almost unnoticeable background noises, and the subtle vibrations of the ship's engines. She wasn't sure if they were in Hyperspace or not. Han would have been able to tell in a second, she reflected unhappily. She wondered if Han knew yet what had happened to her and Luke.
What had happened to them?
Obviously someone had captured them. But why? And for whom?
At least Luke was only in a suspendor, not frozen in carbonite. So he'd be spared from hibernation sickness, that was something to be thankful for. She frowned at the train of thought that carbonite suggested to her. Vader, she remembered, had wanted Luke put in carbonite so he'd have no chance to escape while being transported to the Emperor. Leia shivered, wondering if Palpatine was behind their kidnapping. It was a reasonable assumption. Vader had, after all, just warned them to expect some attack from Palpatine. Of course, they had no shortage of enemies. It could be anyone, really -- some revengeful associate of Jabba the Hutt, an entrepreneur who simply wanted to hold them for ransom. Or -- it could be the Emperor. The fear of that possibility clutched icily at her.
She tried to fight it off, and focused instead on feeling offended that only Luke had been considered enough of a threat to warrant suspended animation. She wasn't seen as any danger to her captors, obviously. Just a harmless little girl, not like her brother the all-powerful Jedi.
Well, and whose fault is that? she asked herself angrily. She could have been training with the Force all this past year, but oh no, she didn't need any of that Jedi nonsense, did she? Or more to the point, she hadn't been willing to face it.
Knowing it was a useless gesture, but unwilling to sit there doing nothing, Leia struggled to her feet, using Luke's suspendor unit to help pull herself up. The ceiling of the room they were in came to just above her head; a taller prisoner would not have been able to stand upright. She looked around at the storage units embedded in the room's wall. Clearly, a cargo hold, though at the moment she and Luke seemed to be the only cargo. A few metres from the suspendor unit, fissures in the wall seemed to indicate the outline of a door. She limped over to it. Again there were no controls visible. Of course, why would cargo want to get out? Leia swore at the door, thinking how easily Luke or Vader would have been able to open it with their thoughts. Was there any point in trying to open it herself, or would her negative thinking just get in the way?
She closed her eyes, trying to remember the random bits of advice Luke had occasionally given her on how to tune in to the Force. You had to be calm, she knew that. Free from worldly concerns. Yeah, right, that sounded likely. No fear, no anger ... She tried to calm her thoughts, to think only of that door, only of it opening.
A surging feeling of nausea jolted her out of her brief attempt. Her eyes snapped open again, and her vision swam dizzily. She fell back against the unresponsive door, then suddenly she doubled over. Before she could even attempt to stop it, she was vomiting onto the cargo hold's floor.
Leia groaned and squeezed her eyes shut again, not moving from her huddled-over position. Her nausea seemed gone for the moment; at least it had been mercifully quick. Cautiously Leia opened her eyes and straightened up. There was another brief twinge of nausea, but nothing more. With distaste she stepped away from the small pool of vomit she'd created, thinking, wonderful. Now I'm going to have to smell that for the rest of this trip. She wondered if this was her first bout of morning sickness -- terrific timing, if it was -- or just a reaction to whatever that gas was that had knocked her out. Achingly, she sat down again, next to Luke.
She thought, if it's morning sickness, I'll probably spend the rest of the voyage puking. What a delightful concept. Actually, she almost hoped she would. It would serve their abductor right, to get vomit all over his or her damned ship. She smiled sadly, thinking that Arin Pellar would probably like that idea. It would appeal to his sense of humour.
Leia's throat tightened, this time with the pain of held-back sobs. She refused to think of Arin in the past tense. He still existed somewhere, she had to believe that. She wouldn't let herself consider that he might not. Leia had lost too many friends and loved ones. If she didn't cling to the conviction that they still existed, somehow, she wouldn't be able to stay sane.
Anyway, she had proof of life after death, didn't she? Obi Wan Kenobi had dropped by for a friendly little chat with her father. And she certainly wasn't going to believe that only Jedi could do that. After all, the Force was supposed to be in everyone. She sighed, wishing that a ghostly Arin would turn up to keep her company. He'd be glowing blue, she guessed, like Luke said Obi Wan was when the old Jedi appeared to him.
What had Obi Wan and Vader talked about, she wondered. How did one maintain a civil conversation with one's murderer? Or, for that matter, with a man that one had killed?
She raised her hands toward her face, scowling at the metal restraints that clasped them together at the wrists. Even more intolerable than the fact that her captor didn't think she was dangerous, was the knowledge that he -- or she, or it -- was probably right. It was infuriating to realise how easily her brother or father would have been able to get out of this. And here she was, just sitting like a lump, waiting for things to get worse.
There had to be something she could do. Could she get out of the restraints? She studied them, seeing that they were sealed electronically, so using one of her hairpins to pick the lock was definitely out. Maybe, just maybe she could use the Force to open the cuffs, if she could only think positively about it. But then what? Another try at opening the door? She thought, perhaps there might be something in the storage units that would help her open it, if she couldn't get the Force to work for her. Feeling slightly more hopeful now, she made her way over to the wall units. They seemed to be opened by the one square button next to each of them, not by the famous remote. Probably a bad sign, she thought gloomily. If their abductor had left the units easily openable, then almost certainly there'd be nothing in them. But she still had to check. She reached out her hands to the nearest of the opening buttons. As she pushed it, a metre-square bin slid out of the wall.
Empty. Of course. Aware that it was entirely pointless, she repeated the process for each of the wall units. With the same results.
So what did that leave? She could try the Force again, she supposed, both on her handcuffs and on the door. She didn't have much to lose. Leia sank down once more against the last of the wall units, and stared at the hand-restraints. What was she supposed to do?
She smiled without humour, remembering an annoying expression of Luke's. He was very fond of advising, "don't try, just do it or don't do it". Great. How useful.
Leia took a deep breath, struggling to exorcise the sarcastic thoughts from her mind. She reminded herself that at first, Luke hadn't believed in this either. But he'd made it work. He'd broken through his disbelief, and surely she could too.
Luke! she thought. How do I do this? Please, help me!
Think of the restraints. Empty your mind of everything else. Just feel the restraints, feel them opening.
She wasn't sure if those were her thoughts or Luke's, but it didn't matter. Leia closed her eyes, still seeing the restraints gleaming behind her eyelids. She thought only of them, imagining how it would feel when they snapped open and slipped off of her wrists ...
Some time later she realised she was starting to sweat, and she was shaking. But the restraints were still there. She cried out in anger and opened her eyes, flinging all thoughts of the Force away from her. "Don't try, just do it or don't do it"? Well, she had not done it. It had been crazy of her to imagine that she could.
It was taking all her determination to stop herself from sobbing. Oh gods, she hated being helpless. There was nothing she hated more.
But, she thought, there was one thing that had worked for her before. She thought back to Bespin, when Luke's plea for help had sounded clearly in her mind. Of course, she had only heard him then, she hadn't sent any message herself. But if she really tried -- yes, damn it, tried, never mind "do it or don't do it" -- maybe someone would hear her.
Someone? Luke wasn't in a position to rescue anyone.
Which left only their father.
How could she possibly ask Darth Vader for help?
She shuddered. She was being stupid. Vader had tried to save them from this. She tried to tell herself that it didn't matter who he was, or what he had done. He still cared about them. He would help them, if he could.
But she couldn't bear the thought of turning to him. If she did, wouldn't that make a mockery of everything she'd fought for? She thought of her other parents, dead with Alderaan, and of the Jedi, massacred in their thousands, and of all the countless victims of the Empire. How could she turn to their murderer? How could she?
Leia, you are an idiot, she thought fiercely. Stop snivelling, and try to contact your father. You'll have time enough for moral dilemmas once he's rescued you.
This time she didn't bother to try wiping the anger from her mind. She was furious -- at Vader, at herself, at Arin Pellar's murderer. She didn't care if the anger was wrong. She cried out, with all her being, Lord Vader! Help us! I need your help. I need you. Please, help me!
All her senses were open, begging for some response.
At first she couldn't tell what had changed. Then she gasped, as a wave of other emotions hit her. There was still anger, and fear. But both were sharper, charged with desperation. Despair and loss tore at her. And betrayal. She felt sick with the intensity of it. Everything she cared about had been stolen from her, by the person she loved most.
A tiny portion of her realised that these were not her own emotions. But it made no difference. The pain was as horrible as if they were hers.
The scene before her suddenly changed. She was no longer in the murky cargo hold. She was in a different ship, maybe an x-wing, and she was at the controls.
But something was very wrong.
She couldn't get the ship to obey her. The connections between her brain, and her hand on the controls, seemed fogged, by her emotions and by pain. Nothing was working. She yelled out something, she didn't know what. The ship was diving, with horrible speed, toward a rapidly approaching ground. No, not ground. A building. She knew she should do something, try to pull the ship up, but suddenly, she didn't care. A smile even touched her face. I guess that's one answer, she thought. A couple more seconds and it won't matter any more.
The ship plunged into the building like a javelin. The last thing Leia saw clearly was her hand, clutched with desperate tightness around the steering rod. Only, she thought, it didn't look like her hand. It looked like a man's hand instead, and it was covered with blood.
She thought, whose eyes am I seeing through?
Then the question, and everything else, vanished in a vast surge of heat and light and sound.
She must have lost consciousness. When it drifted back, something was wrong with her sight. Only one eye seemed to be working. With that eye, she saw a crazy vista that looked like a work of modern art. Everything was illuminated by a cold, bright light, probably from some sort of floodlight. Shattered glass, a few shards of what must have been the cockpit's forward window, hung precariously in place, framing the picture. Beyond them were mountains of rubble, out of which rose one lone wall, pathetic in its isolation. And beyond that, sky. Black sky, with stars, only slightly obscured by the lights of the city and by the nearer glows of the floodlight, and flames. She wondered how the sky could look so ordinary, when she was dying.
No, I'm not dying, she tried to tell herself. It's not me, it's someone else, some man -- But it felt so real. And she was so afraid ...
She was trapped. She could tell there was no chance of her moving. Something was pushing down on her from behind, and in front, she must be smashed against something -- probably the control panel itself. She probably couldn't have moved, even if she were not pinned into the cockpit. Pain was everywhere, but it was so all-encompassing that it seemed almost irrelevant. Much stronger than the pain was the fear.
She thought, the babies! In her terror, she lost her last grasp on the conviction that all this was happening to someone else. The babies were going to die with her, if they weren't already gone. She wondered wildly if they could be taken from her, and brought to term in an incubator. Was it too early for that to succeed? She knew, logically, that they barely even existed yet. But she still couldn't stand the thought of them dying, before they'd had any chance to live. She started crying, and she realised her face must be wounded or burned, for the salt of her tears searing across her face almost made her faint from pain.
She could hear people's voices -- shouting, swearing. They had to help her. She had to tell them about the babies. Even if they couldn't save her life, maybe the children still had a chance. She tried to yell for help, but her voice made no response. There was only a small, bubbling cough, and a hot viscous liquid trickling over her mouth.
Something landed on her face. She couldn't tell what it was, some sort of gooey substance. Some of it splashed into her one good eye, obscuring her vision completely, then with excruciating slowness it started trickling out again. More of the stuff was burning at her face, worse than the tears. She choked as it oozed into her mouth and her nose. With a shock, she realised she still had her sense of smell. A harsh, antiseptic smell that must belong to the oozing stuff overwhelmed her, then the stuff started seeping away again, and its smell was slowly joined by the odours of smoke, and burned flesh, and burned plastic and fabric, and blood.
She noticed, vaguely, that someone was talking to her. Oh, thank the gods! They knew she was still alive. They would help her, help the babies. Someone was holding her, wiping the horrible oozing stuff off her face. A woman's voice, shaking with strain, commanded her, "don't you slip away. Look at me. Don't you dare die on me now." Leia tried to obey, but the woman's face kept swimming out of focus. Leia struggled to make her mouth form words. She had to let the woman know she was pregnant. But there was still nothing. Only the horror of more blood leaking out of her mouth, and a gurgling, twisting wheeze when she tried to take a deeper breath. Leia could feel herself sinking. She wasn't going to make it, and the children weren't either. Oh, gods! And she wasn't going to see Han again, ever! The woman was speaking to her again, saying something urgently, but Leia couldn't keep her attention on it. Her focus had drifted over to another set of voices, somewhere nearby. She could hear a man's voice, saying, "we have an identification of the pilot."
Another man answered, "good, so who is it?"
The first man sounded miserable. He said, "it's hard to believe. We had it double-checked, but the ID is absolutely positive."
"Spit it out, man! Who is it?"
Without warning, Leia's voice returned. She screamed. She kept screaming until her throat was raw.
Then she realised that the rawness was the only pain she felt.
She gasped, blinking desperately in the sudden darkness. She couldn't smell the smoke or the blood. Her breaths were ragged but unimpeded. Her eyesight was coming back, and she saw, first, her hands clasped in front of her, held together by the dull coppery gleam of the handcuffs. Then, beyond, the dim cargo hold, lit only by a faint bank of lights along the tops of the walls, and in the distance, Luke, seeming to float in nothingness.
Anakin Skywalker? Oh, my gods, what did I just see?
Wave after wave of shuddering seized her. She wanted to cry, but she was too afraid. Something brushed against her mind, the faintest hint of another presence. She couldn't feel anyone else's emotions now, only the sensation that something, someone, was trying to speak to her.
She whispered, "Anakin?"
But she didn't get any answer.
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