"What exactly are we looking for?"
"Treachery, of course," answered Trooper Tash Karnak, not taking his eyes from the numbers scrolling up the screen in front of him. "You'll know it when you see it. It'll be the message printed in red, saying 'top secret personal information for Emperor Palpatine'."
"Ha ha," muttered Gima Tol. He scowled at his own screen, wondering whether Karnak was perpetually sarcastic with everyone, or whether it had something to do with Tol being a Twi'lek. As a former stormtrooper, Karnak was probably unused to interacting with non-humans in any way other than kicking them. Or worse. Then again, thought Tol, I'm probably being too sensitive. Karnak's probably just pissed off about having to take a pre-dawn trawl through two months' worth of communications records.
"'Cause if it isn't," Karnak continued, "I'd sure like to know how they expect us to find it. I mean if I was going to be a traitor, I'd make damn sure I didn't leave any trace. What, do they think our traitor wants Lord Vader to strangle him?"
"I heard Vader'd left the base," Tol ventured, trying to make conversation.
"Unh-hunh. I heard that too."
"Hey," Tol said, so struck by an idea he'd just had that he forgot to worry about whether Karnak despised him, "maybe it's Vader."
"Maybe what's Vader?"
Trooper Karnak jumped noticeably and jammed one hand down on his terminal's freeze button. "Holy Saint Mynar!" he exclaimed, turning to stare at Tol where he sat at the next terminal. "Are you crazy?" Karnak hissed. "You watch what the fuck you're saying!"
"What?" Tol protested, thoroughly confused.
"Mynar's balls," the former stormtrooper muttered, in a tone of disgust. "You people are so stupid it's a wonder the Rebellion survived. Don't talk about Vader like that," he went on, more urgently. "Not when I'm next to you, anyway. I don't want to get caught in the conflagration when you spontaneously combust."
"Does he do that to people?" Tol asked in amazement.
"I don't know, and I don't want to know. I just know some things aren't smart to talk about." Karnak turned back to his screen and started the information scrolling upward again. A moment later Tol did the same.
"Sorry," Tol said awkwardly. "But ... " the idea was still burning in him, and he really wanted to talk about it. Though if he tried that line of conversation with Karnak again, he was probably as stupid as the ex-stormtrooper said he was.
The silence got heavy. Finally Karnak sighed. "Okay," he said, still staring at his screen. "What?"
"Well, I just thought, Vader leaving the base, right when people are saying a traitor told the Empire where the meeting was going to be ... and right after Commander Skywalker and the Princess get kidnapped ... "
"So what? You think he's behind it all?" Karnak looked around nervously, as if expecting an avenging Darth Vader to leap in through the ceiling. "No way. Look, genius, Skywalker is Vader's kid. Okay? So he's gone looking for him. So he's a good father. So shut up."
Right, thought Tol. I'll shut up. He rubbed his eyes and wondered, if there was some glaring evidence of illicit activities on the screen in front of him, whether he'd even notice it. This was not the best time of the day for him. Of course, he reminded himself, there were a lot of worse things he could be doing right now. He'd heard they even had people going through the garbage, searching for anything incriminating. Like what, he had no idea. Karnak was right, this whole thing was stupid. Did the officers expect their traitor would've written a rough draft of his treacherous message and then tossed it in the trash?
Then Tol felt his whole body going cold. Both of his tentacles involuntarily twitched. "Hey," he said, in a very small voice.
"What?" snapped the exasperated Karnak.
"Hey," Tol said again. "Um. Take a look at this."
Karnak got up and crossed to stand beside Tol's chair. He frowned at the screen. "Hunh," he said a moment later. "That's weird."
"You see it, don't you? Compared to the other output readings?"
"Yeah," Karnak whispered. "Yeah. Oh, Mynar. When's that output from?" he asked, propelling himself back into his chair.
Tol read out the date code to Karnak. It had been two standard days ago. "First watch," he added.
"Well, surprise," Karnak told him. "No official base communications on that watch, to anywhere that would've used that much power. We'll have to check all the personal accounts." He sat back, then turned to stare at Tol. "Mynar," he breathed again. "Guess we'd better report. You want to do the honours? You found it."
"Uh, right," agreed Tol. He suddenly felt like an idiot. There was probably some perfectly innocent explanation for the power drain. Maybe there was even a mistake in the readings.
But, they had been told to look for anything unusual.
He had another idea. He swiftly typed in some calculations. Then he stared at the answer he got. His left tentacle jumped. "Oh, shit," he said.
"Yeah," Tol said numbly, "we'd better report." He looked at Karnak, wide-eyed stare meeting wide-eyed stare. "I just checked. That's the same power output it'd take to -- to send a message to Coruscant."
Darth Vader woke to the smell of his burned hair, his roasted flesh, his blood, and over everything the medicinal stink of fire-suppressant foam. He snarled, trying to banish the stench back to his memories where it belonged.
For a few seconds he wasn't sure where he was. Then he remembered. He switched on the lights with a thought, then stood up, irritated and surprised at how much his muscles ached. Especially those at the back of his neck. Getting too old for this kind of thing, he thought. He scowled at the pitiful attempt at sleeping arrangements he had constructed out of the berth's one chair and a pillow from the bunk, both of which he'd propped against the wall. Most of the pillow had slipped down behind the chair, providing not even the most mediocre substitute for the retractable head-rest with which the seat in his Meditation Chamber was equipped. It didn't help, of course, that he'd gone to sleep still wearing his helmet. Pathetic, really, to put more value on his stupid pride than on a decent night's sleep. But he hadn't been able to conquer the irrational fear that Han Solo would come barging in here and be treated to a view of Darth Vader's face. Ha, not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. Then maybe his face would give someone else nightmares for a change.
He reached up to his chest box and made a slight adjustment on his suit's temperature controls. Great, and on top of everything else I'm getting more sensitive to cold. I'll be developing rheumatism, next. That is, assuming I've got enough of my own joints and muscles left to get rheumatism.
His sour self-pity was disrupted by a whispering sensation somewhere in his mind, the sense of someone else's presence. He homed in on it.
He had tried to contact both Leia and Luke earlier, before he slept, but had had no success. Now, he realised, Leia was trying to contact him. He focused on her, concentrating on sending reassurance and encouragement. He could tell that she was afraid, but she didn't seem to be injured, nor in as much turmoil as she would have been if something had happened to Luke. That was a relief, at least. He tried to let her know that he and Han were on their way, but he couldn't be sure that his thoughts were getting through to her. For an instant he thought he caught a glimpse of her surroundings, some dim, low room, and felt the hum of a ship's engines, their resonance different from that on the Falcon. Then the vision, and the sense of her presence, was gone.
Vader took the pillow from behind the chair and flung it back on the bed, on top of the case that held his portable infusion units. He should have known that trying to sleep would be a fruitless quest. Logically, he had told himself that there was no point in going into a probable combat situation without adequate rest. But hell, if rest had been his priority, he should have allowed Solo to move his "egg thing" on board. He'd been asleep for less than an hour, and already he'd succeeded in giving himself a nightmare and a painful cramp in the neck. Not to mention almost missing Leia's attempt to contact him. No, he could definitely do without sleep.
He left the tiny cabin that Solo had grandiloquently termed the "guest quarters", and started along the corridor toward the forward cargo hold that doubled as ship's lounge. It was strange, he thought, to be a passenger on this ship rather than chasing it around the galaxy. At least he knew the Falcon was fast. He also knew it had a tendency to break down every hour or so, but he would just have to hope that Solo had his repair kit handy and was not too out of practice.
As he stepped into the lounge, he saw that Han Solo had got there before him. Han was sitting slumped at the holographic games board, staring dully at a selection of small holograph alien warriors that flickered on the board, patiently waiting for him to start the game. It didn't look like Han had any intention of starting.
"General Solo," said Vader. "Leia is all right. At least for the moment. I've just been in contact with her."
"You have!" exclaimed Solo, looking up with startled hope in his face.
"I'm sorry, there was nothing specific. I can't even tell if she knew she had reached me. But she is unhurt, and I believe Luke is as well. They seem to be still on shipboard. That's all I could sense; the contact was brief."
Han nodded, then stared down at the game board again. Vader glanced at the semi-circular bench which surrounded the board. "May I join you?" he asked.
Han looked up once more, tension and weariness showing clearly in his face. He nodded again. Vader sat down across the board from Han. The two men watched the bored-looking holographic aliens.
"We're probably looking at another six hours now," Han said finally. "Any idea what we do when we get there?"
"We should be able to ascertain easily enough if Leia and Luke are there. If their kidnapper headed straight for Coruscant from Chandrila Seven, they should be approximately four hours ahead of us, depending of course on their speed. We should begin monitoring Coruscant's flight control channels, to see if any ship matching the description we were given arrives there. Of course, if they're going straight to Palpatine, all communications will be on a secured channel. But I doubt that they've bothered to change all the access codes since I left. If they have, I should still have sufficient ... friends at the palace. We will be able to get the information we need."
Han nodded. "And then?"
"I know of a private landing pad whose owner owes me some favours. We can leave the Falcon there. As for getting into the palace, if that's where they are -- well, I should be able to maintain an illusion that we are people who belong there. Would you care to join the Emperor's Personal Guard?"
Han managed a grudging smile. "Just as long as we're not two stormtroopers with a captured Wookiee. Chewie says he'll kill me if we ever try that disguise again."
Vader went on, "I won't be able to keep up the illusion once we've started fighting, so we'll just have to hope that --"
His words broke off as the Falcon gave a wild lurch. Vader had to grab the edge of the game board to keep himself from tumbling onto the floor. Han did not do so well, and landed with a jarring thump on the metal deck. The holographic aliens winked out of sight.
"What the hell," Han yelled, scrambling to his feet. "We've been pulled out of Hyperspace."
Han ran for the corridor, without checking to see whether Darth Vader was following him. As Han neared the Falcon's cockpit, there was another jolt, and sparks burst from a collection of wires running along the corridor's ceiling. "Shit," murmured Han, almost under his breath. He raced through the cockpit door and threw himself into the pilot's seat. Chewie, already at the co-pilot position, greeted him with a series of infuriated roars.
"Shit!" Han said again, this time in a yell. It looked bad. As Chewie was informing him, the moment they'd appeared in Realspace their opponent had opened fire on them. Their shields were down and, Chewie now yelped in rage, both the turret guns were off-line.
As if that weren't enough, the shots had been immediately followed by a tractor beam, which now had them securely caught. The Falcon's engine's made an unhappy whine as they struggled to counter the beam, and Han felt sick at the sound of them.
It shouldn't have been this easy. It was as if their enemy had known precisely how to strike at them with maximum effect.
He had, Han realised. Because their enemy knew their ship and knew them.
Han stared at the forward viewscreen. He snarled, "Duduk."
The ship that held them in its tractor beam was a much-modified skipray blastboat, which, Han well knew, had not been acquired from its Imperial former owners by any legal method. Han tried to remember what Duduk had re-named the ship. Something pretentious, he was sure. And Duduk had certainly been adding to the ship's capabilities since the last time Han had run into him. Skiprays weren't supposed to have tractor beams. And they definitely shouldn't be able to pull ships out of Hyperspace. "I don't believe it," Han protested. "He's got himself a gravity well!"
Business must have been good, all right. Only Imperial Interdictor Cruisers had gravity wells. To install one in his ship Duduk had to have had a hell of a lot of money and a hell of a lot of friends in the right places.
"I take it you know this individual?" Darth Vader's voice sounded from behind Han.
"Duduk AlManara," Han grated. "Used to be co-pilot for Lando Calrissian. Long time ago." Han opened a channel and hailed the skipray, though his choice of greetings was not the most diplomatic. "Duduk, you bastard. What the fuck are you doing?"
A smug-sounding voice said cheerfully over the com channel, "Solo, old pal, how's it hanging?"
Han grimaced. "Be hanging a lot better if I wasn't stuck in a tractor beam."
"Just my little joke, pal. Just my way of saying 'howdy'."
"Howdy," snapped Han. "Can we go now?"
The voice sounded insincerely regretful. "Sorry, Han. No can do. See, I'm gonna have to ask you to hand over your passenger."
Instinctively, Han glanced back at Vader, who was standing beside the passenger seat looking imperturbable as usual. "What passenger?" Han asked.
"Come on, Han, you know you're the galaxy's worst liar. I am referring to that notorious intergalactic criminal, Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith. Now I'd hate to have to blow that sweet ship of yours out of space, so why don't you just be a good little humanoid and hand him over."
"Darth Vader?" Han repeated, trying to sound incredulous. "You think I'd let Darth Vader onto my ship?"
"Cut the crap, Han," sighed Duduk, suddenly giving up on his tone of cheerful bumptiousness. "I know he's on board and I'm going to take him. You can either play nice or you can get hurt."
Han abruptly closed the communications channel. "Chewie," he said, "get up to the turrets and see if you can get the guns back on line. Looks like we'll have to blast our way out of this. I'll keep him talking till you get the guns working."
Chewie gave a growl of agreement and started out of the cockpit. As the Wookiee left, Vader said to Han, "I'll attempt to switch off the tractor beam. Be ready to make the jump, if I manage it."
Han swung around to give him a quizzical look. Just like travelling with Ben Kenobi, he thought. Except that old coot had to turn tractor beams off by hand. "You're just gonna switch it off by thinking at it?" Han asked dubiously.
Han shrugged. "Whatever works ... " He opened the com channel again. "Duduk, buddy, sorry to keep you waiting. Let's just go over this again. You're saying you think Darth Vader's on my ship ... "
"Han, I don't want to kill you. I really don't. But he's the one worth the credits. I'm afraid you're expendable. And Chewbacca. And the Falcon."
"How many credits?" Han asked, in a tone of sudden interest.
"One hundred thousand, pal. You know, I might even let you have a cut -- a small cut -- if you turn him over."
"Well you know, bud," Han continued stalling, "I might just want that one hundred thousand for myself."
"You know, I'd almost believe you," said Duduk, sounding amused, "if there was the slightest little chance of you handing him over to Palpatine and leaving Coruscant alive. You ain't exactly on Palpatine's good list. Tell you what. I'll make the delivery, and you can have ... five percent."
"Final offer, pal. Take it or leave it."
Come on, Chewie, Han thought. Get those guns working! He wondered how Vader was doing with his thinking at the tractor beam. He cast a glance at the Dark Lord, but of course the man's stance and his mask were revealing nothing. Or almost nothing. Both of his fists were clenched, which Han supposed might mean he was concentrating. Experimentally, Han made a cautious attempt at pulling the Falcon out of the beam. No surprise, the beam still held. But ... was it weaker? There'd been a tentative jolt from the Falcon, like they'd almost managed to break free. Surely the beam had been stronger when he'd first reached the cockpit. Hunh. Maybe Vader's thinking was doing something after all. Han started keying in a new hyperspace destination.
"Oh now look, Duduk," he continued, trying another tack. "Maybe you oughtta take a reality check, hunh? I mean, Vader's not some load of cargo I can just hand over. The guy's a fucking Jedi Master. He's not gonna just let you take him. He'd eat you for breakfast!"
Duduk laughed. "Don't you worry about that, Han. Got it all under control. He's gonna be Palpatine's breakfast."
The hum of the Falcon's engines was changing. They sounded more healthy again. The tractor beam was definitely weakening. Han wondered whether Duduk would notice it.
"Hey, buddy," Han pleaded, "have a heart, will you?" In fact, he remembered, Duduk had three hearts, but it was the thought that counted. "Give me a break. I can't turn him over -- he's my father-in-law! If I let Palpatine get him, my wife'll kill me!" Well, okay, Han thought, so he's not officially my father-in-law, but it sounds a lot better than "the father of my girlfriend".
This argument hadn't worked any better than the others. "So I'm doing you a favour," Duduk said. "I thought most humanoids wanted to get rid of their in-laws." All the joking left Duduk's voice. "Look, Han, I'm gonna give you thirty seconds to make up your mind. You can hand him over peaceably, or I can blast the Falcon. Ol' Palp won't pay as much for Darth Vader in pieces, but it'll still give me enough to retire on."
Chewie! Where the hell are those guns!
Then a massive shudder went through the Falcon.
My gods, Han thought, he's actually done it. The tractor beam is off!
Han reached for the lever to send them back into Hyperspace.
Duduk's skipray opened fire.
The Falcon reeled under the impact. Han heard an anguished howl over the ship's intercom, and realised to his horror that Chewie only made that sound when he was in pain. That's it, Duduk, he thought. You are one dead sonofabitch --
He pulled the Hyperspace lever, but nothing happened. Oh, no. Not again. Must've been damaged by those last shots --
Then Han stared at the viewscreen. Suddenly he no longer understood what the fuck was going on.
Duduk's ship was disintegrating. But Han knew that the Falcon hadn't fired one shot.
Apparently, that didn't make any difference. The skipray was unmistakeably caving in on itself.
For a second longer Han gaped at it, then he realised what was about to happen. With a desperate yell, he pulled the Falcon away.
The moment he had done so, the skipray's power core was breached by the ship's own collapsing wreckage.
The skipray exploded.
Han squeezed his eyes shut against the searing light on the screen.
When the light had faded, and there was nothing to be seen except scraps of metal, Han switched the Falcon onto autopilot. He stood up unsteadily, and when he turned away from the viewscreen he discovered that Darth Vader was no longer in the cockpit. The disappearance caused him a momentary shiver of superstitious fear. Then he squelched that emotion and ran from the cockpit, toward the gun turrets.
At the foot of the ladder, Han saw Vader again. He was reaching up to help the shaky-looking but definitely alive Chewbacca, who was climbing down. As the Wookiee reached the bottom of the ladder and turned around, Han saw blood matting the fur on one side of his friend's face.
"Chewie -- " Han began.
Chewbacca roared that he was all right, and to prove it, reached out and enveloped Han in one of his best bone-crushing hugs.
"Okay, pal, okay," Han protested. When the Wookiee released him, Han looked at his companions and realised that the two of them were almost the same height. Gods, did Han ever feel short. "What happened?" he asked.
Chewie gloomily informed Han that one of Duduk's last shots had hit the turret he'd been working in. The gun, he thought, was out of commission for good. They'd have to replace it. Chewie asked, was Duduk dead?
"Yeah," said Han. "He's dead. But I'd sure like to know how."
Darth Vader said calmly, "I apologise, General, if you wanted our opponent left alive. He could have survived if he hadn't fired on us. When he did -- I lost control."
Han swallowed. "Lost control how?"
"I was angry," Vader admitted. "I was already focused on the inner workings of his ship, it was fairly simple to activate the gravity well and turn its power onto the skipray itself. It would have been more difficult on an Interdictor, but he'd neglected most of the safety precautions in installing it. I'm sorry if you wanted him to live."
"No," Han said, trying to sound casual. "No, that's okay. He always was an annoying son of a bitch." But Han couldn't help envisioning the effects on Duduk's body of that massive increase in shipboard gravity. He felt vaguely ill.
He was angry! Han thought. Oh, gods, am I glad this guy is on my side!
Han took a deep breath. "He hit the hyperdrive generator," Han reported glumly. "It's gonna take a couple hours to repair. At least."
Darth Vader sighed quietly. "Why am I not surprised?"
Leia only realised that she had fallen asleep when the ceasing of the ship's engines jarred her awake. In the abrupt silence she struggled to her feet, her heartbeat suddenly racing and her stomach cramping with fear.
She was determined to look calm. She'd done this before, after all; captive princess was a role at which she had a lot of practice. She told herself, as long as they don't dress me up in a metal bikini, I'll be fine.
No matter how calm she might look, though, the tension was immense. Soon, she should find out where they were. And who had captured them. Her stomach twisted, and she prayed that she wasn't going to be sick again. That really wasn't the impression she wanted to give.
The door to the cargo hold slid open. Leia blinked in the sudden increase of light. Most of that light was blocked out again an instant later when the bulky figure of their kidnapper appeared in the doorway.
She'd only got the briefest impression of their captor earlier. Now she watched its approach in fascinated dislike, wondering what race it belonged to and what planet it came from. She didn't think she'd ever seen one of these beings before. It was, as it had been when she was captured, brandishing a blaster pistol which was wrapped in one of its six tentacles. Two of the tentacles, which she now noticed were thicker than the others, served as legs. They were currently bent near the middle so the being could shuffle along on them, giving the impression that it was walking on its knees. Near the top of the rounded central body were what appeared to be two small, dark eyes, but Leia saw no other hint of a face.
The being's path took it right though the small puddle of vomit, but it didn't seem to notice. Leia grimaced, reminding herself that there was no reason why other species should have the same sense of what was disgusting.
As Leia watched her captor moving closer, she was startled by the strength of the hatred that pulsed through her. For a moment her view of the being was obscured by a vivid image of Arin Pellar's dead face, and the pool of blood that had surrounded it.
She thought if there was any way that she could hurt this creature, she would do it.
The being shuffled to one side of the hold, moving aside to allow room for the figures that followed it. Leia saw, with a rapidly sinking heart, that they were two soldiers in the uniform of the Imperial army. Between them floated a repulsorlift sled. Cursing as they tried to manoeuvre the repulsorlift in the confined space, the soldiers moved it toward Luke's suspendor unit.
Leia's anger surged at the sight of Luke being treated like an item of cargo. She demanded, her voice slightly hoarse from disuse, "aren't you going to release him?"
For the first time Leia heard a voice emanating from their captor, seeming to emerge from the base of its body. The voice was sibilant and strongly accented, but the Basic it spoke was easily understandable. It said, "that is for his Master."
Leia wanted to snap that Luke didn't have a master, but she forced the words back. She had a very bad feeling that she knew exactly who this "master" was.
With increasingly bitter oaths, the two soldiers managed to raise Luke's suspendor unit onto the repulsorlift. They glanced questioningly at the kidnapper, who gestured at the door with one of its free tentacles. The soldiers guided the repulsorlift and its burden out of the cargo hold. When they were out of sight, the kidnapper moved its blaster toward Leia and then toward the door, and commanded, "out."
Her hands still fastened in front of her, Leia walked across the hold, haughtily not glancing at her abductor as she passed it.
As she stepped through the door, she found herself in a corridor space which opened immediately onto an exterior loading hatch. She was hit by fresh air and sunlight. The two soldiers and the unconscious Luke on his repulsorlift were nearing the bottom of the ramp that led out of the hatch. Leia glanced back at her captor, close behind her, who said "out", again. She shrugged, and started down the ramp.
All of her worst fears were confirmed. She recognised this exterior landing bay -- not that she had been at this specific landing bay before, but the architecture surrounding it was unmistakable. The roseate sky, tinting the building's spires to a warm pinkish glow, was supposed to be attractive, but at the moment she loathed it. She loathed the clean, balmy air, as well, thinking of how different the air was in the lower levels of this city. Imperial City, Coruscant, the "jewel of the core worlds". It wasn't a jewel, she thought bitterly, it was a necklace carved out of sentient beings' bones.
Judging by the architecture, and the quality of the air, they must be very high up in the Imperial palace. There were no other skyscrapers visible besides the palace's own crystalline towers; Palpatine had made sure that no building in Imperial City could match his palace's majestic height. Leia had seldom been this high in the palace before. Only when she'd been officially received by Palpatine on her induction into the Senate, and on the two interminable occasions when she'd attended the Emperor's annual Senatorial banquet. She thought, that was one good thing at least about the Senate being disbanded. No one would ever have to go through that particular horror again.
Leia followed the soldiers and the repulsorlift across the open bay toward an arched doorway elaborately carved in Kashandian acanthus patterns. She was glad to find that at least she was able to walk steadily; despite all her dread her legs were not giving up on her. The small procession, with the tentacled kidnapper bringing up the rear, passed under the archway and into the tall, tapestry-draped corridors of the palace. The air inside was heavy with incense. Leia remembered now that Palpatine loved incense, which was the main reason why she had always hated it. She had also forgotten, in the years since she had been here, the soft thickness of the carpet with which the corridors were lined. It squished buoyantly underfoot, giving the impression that one was walking on live marsh fungus.
The corridors were quiet, but not unpeopled. Every now and then their party passed a droid trundling about its business, or a self-effacing, black robed Imperial servant. Neither of these groups paid them any noticeable attention, but the same, unfortunately, could not be said of the occasional Imperial noble -- "advisors", they were called, though Leia doubted that Palpatine was in the habit of taking advice from anyone -- that they encountered. Leia even recognised a few of these, and passionately wished that she didn't. Their reactions varied, from open surprise to pursed-lipped disapproval to disdainful triumph. Leia determinedly ignored them, all the while wishing that she could take their stupid rubbish bin-like hats and shove them up their noble bums. It didn't help her self-confidence to realise how pathetically scruffy she must look. She had at least managed to avoid getting vomit on herself, but Arin's blood was all over one sleeve of her jacket, soaked deeply into the gold braid at the cuff. Her long skirt was irretrievably wrinkled, and anyway, white was not the best colour to wear when one was getting kidnapped. She thought sourly that she just ought to stop wearing white; she knew perfectly well how filthy white clothes could get when one was gallivanting around the galaxy in them. She didn't know what state the braided hairdo she had constructed before the long-ago cocktail party might be in. Luckily it was not one of her more elaborate creations, so there was a chance that it might still look halfway respectable.
They were nearing a tall, black marble door, at which the corridor abruptly stopped. Leia recognised the door to Palpatine's private office and audience chamber. At either side of the door stood a red-robed Imperial Guard.
The foremost of the two soldiers saluted and spoke in a quiet voice to the guards. Without answering, the guard at the left of the door turned to the wall control panel which was almost hidden by the edge of a gleaming, iridescent tapestry. He keyed in a number sequence, and the door slid silently open.
"Enter," came a dry, rasping voice from inside the room. Leia immediately recognised the voice, and immediately remembered how much she hated it.
The two guards marched in, with the repulsorlift between them. Leia, for a moment unable to control her instinctive horror, hesitated, until she felt her kidnapper's blaster pistol jab into the small of her back. Her mouth tightened and she raised her head defiantly. She stepped into the room.
Palpatine liked the sensation of being above everyone. The audience chamber was dual-levelled. The lower level on which the door opened led to a broad, black goldstone staircase, at the top of which sat Palpatine's desk and chair, with a vast arched window behind them. Outside the window soared the palace's rosy towers. The room itself was a rich, deep purple, the walls being drenched in hangings of thick purple velvet.
The guards stood at either side of the repulsorlift and bowed. Leia stood next to them, but made no such gesture. At her other side, the kidnapper lowered itself onto the floor, with the blaster set down in front of it, all of its tentacles curled up underneath its body. Leia had an insane urge to leap for the blaster. Instead she just looked up at the seemingly distant figure perched behind the big desk, watching them out of its beady yellow eyes.
Nausea washed through her again, but she didn't think it was morning sickness this time. Again she had the sensation of having been through this all before, but it was worse, oh Gods so much worse than any previous time she'd been captured. What she wouldn't give to see Grand Moff Tarkin before her now, or Darth Vader. Vader! Gods, how she wanted to see him! She thought wildly that she would forgive him everything, everything. All the murders, the torturing, the persecutions, if only he were here now instead of the withered, smirking relic of humanity at the desk above them. She wondered how anyone could ever have trusted Palpatine, how he could ever have inspired any emotion save revulsion.
Palpatine said, "remove Commander Skywalker from the repulsorlift, and leave us."
The guards bowed again, lower this time, and carefully lifted Luke's suspendor unit, using none of the swearwords they'd employed in the cargo hold. With exquisite caution they lowered the suspendor to the carpeted floor. They made a third bow, then they and the floating repulsorlift departed.
Palpatine stood and moved out slowly from behind his desk. He was wearing a black robe as usual, and his face was half-shadowed by its hood. His pale claw hands were clasped in front of him.
He smiled broadly at the respectfully huddled figure of the kidnapper.
"Rise, Datang my friend," Palpatine purred. "You have done well. The payment has been credited to your account."
The kidnapper -- Datang, Leia supposed -- levered itself upward on its two most central tentacles, picking up the blaster with a third. Datang hissed, "thank you, your Imperial Majesty."
"Leave us now, my friend," Palpatine went on, with an airy flutter of his hand. "But remain in the palace. I may have further need of you."
Datang lowered itself halfway to the floor, then backed out of the room. The door shut behind it.
Leia was alone with her unconscious brother and with Emperor Palpatine.
The Emperor beamed patronisingly at her, as if she were a child that had just distinguished itself in some school competition. "Leia, my dear," he said, acknowledging her for the first time. "How beautiful you look."
Oh gods, she thought, I really am going to be sick all over this bastard.
Palpatine started down the staircase, his smile growing wider. "Your anger is beautiful," he went on. "I like the freshness of it. Its vigour. It is very powerful, my dear. I wonder if you realise how powerful you could be."
Since the only response that sprang to her mind consisted of obscenities, Leia said nothing.
"My sweet child," Palpatine murmured. He was now standing on the lower level. He said, his voice taking on a sorrowful tone, "your father's betrayal wounded me deeply. More than you can dream. But all is not lost, since his children have come to me to take his place."
That almost goaded Leia into an angry response. But she knew that anything she might say would be useless.
Palpatine was beaming at her again, with an avuncular smirk that made her flesh crawl. "Your future is with me, Leia. Your destiny is at my side."
Leia still stared at him in stony silence. He reached out a withered hand and for one horrifying instant she thought he was going to touch her, but all that happened was that the restraints opened and fell away from her wrists. She gasped at the sudden, painful return of sensation, and for the first time words were torn from her. "Let Luke go," she demanded.
Somehow the Emperor's smile broadened even further. She shivered at the gaze from his glowing eyes. "You think that together the two of you can fight me," he breathed. "You cannot, my dear. But I will enjoy watching you try."
He made another tiny gesture, this time toward the suspendor unit. The lights on the control panel changed colour, and then the lid of the unit slid open. Slowly, as the force field decreased in intensity, Luke was lowered to the suspendor's floor. Leia hesitated an instant, then rushed to the unit, kneeling beside it.
Luke made a vague, sleepy murmur, and turned his head. One of his hands moved. Although her own hands were burning from their slowly returning circulation, Leia reached in to the unit and clasped her brother's hand. "Luke," she whispered.
His eyes fluttered open. For a moment they seemed distant and lost. Then suddenly they widened, as consciousness and memory both came back to him. He sat up abruptly, and his hand tightened around Leia's as he fought against dizziness. Leia reached out with her other hand to grab his shoulder and support him. They stared at each other, but there were no words that could be said. Leia realised that Luke could feel the Emperor's presence, and that although he had never been here before, he knew exactly where they were.
Unsteadily, he got to his feet, Leia helping him. He managed to step out over the edge of the suspendor unit without stumbling, but when he was standing beside her Leia felt him sway slightly, and was afraid that he would fall. They clutched at each other's hands, as if somehow that would keep them safe. And they faced the Emperor.
"Welcome back, my young apprentice," said Palpatine. "I have missed you."
To Leia's complete astonishment, Luke made the sort of response that she had been wanting to make since this encounter started. "Fuck you, Palpatine," he grated. "We're getting out of here."
Palpatine laughed. "What do you think you can accomplish, my young friend? Didn't our last meeting teach you the truth about your helplessness?"
"We can fight you," Luke said stubbornly. He drew his lightsaber, and its blade hummed into life.
"No," Palpatine told him in a chilling whisper, "you cannot. You will not try. I have your sister, my little Jedi. And I have her children. And all of their lives are in my hands."
As he spoke, Palpatine turned the glow of his yellow eyes back on to Leia.
She gasped, then the gasp turned into a short, choked-off scream. She fell to her knees, clutching at her belly. There was a searing pain in her abdomen, but worse, she could hear her children. She could hear them in her mind and feel their presence, but that presence was being ripped away from her. Their voices were twisting with anguish and terror.
"No," she gasped out, "no, please." She screamed. "Luke! Please!"
Luke retracted his lightsaber, then he threw himself down beside Leia, hugging her to him. He yelled at Palpatine, "stop it! Stop it!"
As suddenly as it had hit her, the pain was gone. And the screams ceased, but she could still hear their echoes in her mind.
She stared up at Palpatine. "Are they all right?" she demanded.
The Emperor smiled at her again. "Of course, my dear. I would not wish to hurt your children. And my future servants. I will not hurt them. Unless I have to."
The hatred she felt for him was stronger, she thought, than anything she had ever felt in her life.
Palpatine was continuing smoothly, "you're tired after your long journey. You will be shown to your quarters. After you have rested and dined, I will see you again."
The purple velvet drapes on one wall parted to reveal an opening door, and a droid whirred in to the Audience Chamber. "I will guide you to your rooms," the metallic voice announced.
This time it was Luke who helped the still trembling Leia to her feet. He paused for a last impotent glower at the Emperor, then with his arm still around Leia's shoulders, he started walking with her toward the waiting droid. "Follow me, please," the droid said politely, and it led them out of the room.
They did not speak as they followed the droid along another corridor, the walls lined with the same purple drapery as in the Emperor's office. After they had passed four doors on each side, the droid stopped at one door on their left and keyed in a code on the pad beside the doorframe. The droid stood aside. "Welcome to the guest quarters. I hope everything is to your satisfaction. If you require anything I can be summoned from the panel inside the door."
Leia looked at Luke, who was eyeing her worriedly as if he feared she would break. Personally, she was not at all convinced that she would not. She said shakily, "if we run, he'll know. Won't he. And he'll find us."
Pain crossed Luke's face. "Yes," he admitted.
She nodded, and stepped into the guest quarters. Luke followed her. The door slid closed behind them.
They were in a luxuriantly appointed lounge, with, thank the gods, red wall hangings instead of that damnable purple. One wall was entirely window, with the turrets of the palace and, far in the distance, of the rest of Imperial City, spread out in an entrancing vista beyond it. The lounge held a wide selection of chairs and sofas, a table of dark, intricately carved wood, and even what appeared to be a liquor cabinet in one corner. To the left were two doors, which Leia guessed led to bedchambers, and on the right an open door through which she caught sight of an apparently vast, opalescent marble bathroom. There seemed to be a sunken bath at the centre of the room, from which steam was rising lazily.
It looked wonderful, but right now Leia couldn't bear the thought of anything wonderful. She sat down on the nearest of the sofas and buried her face in her hands.
Hesitantly, Luke sat down beside her. "What happened?" he asked softly.
She looked up at him, tears streaking her face. "Arin's dead," she told him, her voice raw and painful. "It's my fault. I sent him to look for you. That creature -- with the tentacles -- Datang, that's its name -- Datang killed him."
"Oh, gods," Luke whispered. "How? Did it ... did it shoot him?"
She smiled bitterly. "Oh, yes," she said, "it shot him. It must have half-strangled him, too, there were bruises and cuts all around his neck. And then it must have thrown him against a wall. The back of his skull was smashed."
Luke's face twisted with sorrow. He looked down at his hands. "It's my fault," he whispered. "Not yours."
She stood up suddenly, with a smile that she knew must look absolutely terrifying. "It's Datang's fault," she said. "And Datang's going to die. I'll kill Datang. No matter what."
"Leia!" Luke exclaimed, shocked. He stood up as well. "Leia, please. Don't give in to hate. Hatred will make you like the Emperor. He'll win."
"I don't care. Datang is going to die." She meant it, too. She thought, that is it. I won't take any more of this. I won't let the people I care about be hurt any longer.
For a moment she just glared, as if all her enemies could hear her challenge. Then her gaze shied away from the hurt in LukeÕs. "I'm going to take a bath," she declared wearily. "If Palpatine wants to see us before I get out, tell him to go fuck himself." She strode away toward the open bathroom door.
Luke was left, and he thought that he felt more alone than he ever had before.
Darth Vader was stretched out on his side, as lying on his front would have run the risk of accidentally switching off some crucial system on his chest-box controls. He was reaching up with a laser screwdriver into the dim, wire-filled mess behind one of the access panels, wondering how this damned ship had lasted this long without killing everyone aboard it.
Vader had been assigned this particular task after he'd told Solo that his vision could be enhanced to the point where he wouldn't need a torch to assist him. When Solo had been sprawled down here, the Correllian had kept dropping either torch or screwdriver or both, and hitting his head when he brought it back up too far after scrabbling around to retrieve them.
Vader didn't mind the work. He had often made his own adjustments and improvements on the fighters and shuttles at his disposal, and always enjoyed it. He admired what Solo had accomplished with this ship -- or he would admire it, if only Solo were a bit more organised about it. When the Falcon did eventually get annihilated, it wouldn't be due to enemy fire but to Solo connecting the wrong wires, or dropping a screwdriver where it didn't belong.
Vader was attempting to re-connect the deflector shields. A few metres away, Solo had another access panel open and was coaxing the temperamental hyperdrive generator back into working order. They'd been here for two and a half hours now -- Chewbacca was back at the task of reviving the turret guns -- and in that time, scarcely one word had been spoken.
Darth Vader was himself a master of unnerving silences, but this particular silence was starting to annoy him. He already felt somewhat ridiculous at having apologised to Solo for the death of this Duduk character. Apologising was not something Vader had done very frequently over the past couple of decades. But it had seemed to be the wisest course. He already had enough problems with Leia, without her boyfriend nursing new grudges against him.
Vader wondered whether he ought to bring up the subject again, but when he cast out his senses to feel Solo's emotions he didn't pick up any major guilt or confusion over Duduk's loss. Good. Vader had not particularly relished the idea of counselling him about it. He didn't want to ask "do you want to talk about it?", and he certainly wasn't going to make some kind of poncy speech interpreting Han's feelings for him. He had always hated the practice of re-interpreting people's feelings in Jedi-speak. People had a right to their own emotions, without the Jedi telling them what those emotions were.
But having ruled out that topic of discussion, he could think of precisely nothing to talk about.
Talking about the Falcon was not an intelligent notion, since he was likely to slip up and say something snide, and send Solo into a melt-down of outraged protectiveness. So what did that leave? Besides his ship, what was Solo interested in?
Hell, for that matter, what was Vader interested in?
It was obviously no good talking about the Force; that would go straight over Solo's head. Vader didn't know if Solo was a follower of any sports, and it wouldn't have helped if he did know, since Vader's familiarity with contemporary sports coverage was about as extensive as Solo's knowledge of the Force. Vader could not possibly have cared less than he did about the fortunes of the Corellian bryasha team or Coruscant's hyperpolo league. He did not keep up with any of the popular holo-dramas, had no idea who might be the leading musicians of the moment, and wouldn't have recognised any of today's holo film stars even if they were dying in agony in front of him.
This was ludicrous. He must once have known how to maintain conversations! So what in the hell had he talked about?
The weather? he thought wryly. That'd make an interesting conversation, since we've both been living on Omean.
He'd talked about politics, he supposed. The war. The perniciousness of the Jedi. On certain (usually drunken) occasions, the mysterious nature of women.
At least that last choice was one probable common ground, but it would also probably cause more trouble than it was worth. Leia was about the only interest that the two of them shared, but Vader could hardly launch into any fatherly reminiscences, since the majority of his contact with her had consisted of pursuit and torture. She hadn't even impinged on his consciousness until she became a suspected enemy of the Empire. When she gave her first speech in the Senate, he hadn't even been on Coruscant, he'd been suppressing the revolt in the Catalath sector. He only knew this because he had looked it up, on the Executor's recent history database, a couple of months ago. He wanted to convince himself that he had noticed her, that he'd felt some connection, but no, the first memory he had of her was when her records had appeared in the file of suspected traitors.
He did remember what he'd thought then. He'd looked at her picture, thought how bloody young Senators were these days and that embryos were going to be running for Senate next, and moved on to the next possible traitor.
It was infuriating. He didn't even have any pictures of Leia or Luke as children. He could have got some easily enough in her case at least, from the files on Prince Bail Organa. But thus far he had resisted the urge. It was just too damned bloody sentimental, and too humiliating.
All right. It was either talk about the Millennium Falcon, or talk about nothing. He would just have to make an extra effort to restrain any snide comments. He said, picking at random one of Solo's many adjustments to the Falcon, "I noticed the modifications on the gravity-flux compensator. Is the design yours? I wouldn't have thought it would work in a ship of this size."
He felt surprise from Solo, and a hint of gratified pride. "Yeah, it's mostly my design, mine and Chewie's. We had some help from this guy who used to hold the Kessel Run record. He'd done a lot of modifications to improve his Run, he was the one who came up with the idea about the compensator. The ships he was working with were a lot smaller, though."
Vader said, putting aside the screwdriver and reaching for the small laser beam wire clippers, "it must require constant maintenance to stop it from going off-line?"
"It does," Solo replied. "It and every other system on the ship." Solo was warming to his topic. "That's what a lot of people don't understand. They think the Falcon's just a hunk of junk. They don't realise she's got the systems of eight different ships inside her. It's no wonder she gets touchy sometimes; those systems were never meant to go together. It's not her fault."
Vader ventured, knowing that this suggestion might cause Solo to explode, but thinking that he ought to say it anyway, "have you kept a record of all the modifications? I know you don't want anyone else to work on your ship. But if you were willing to allow it, and all the adjustments were noted down, it'd be possible to keep up a regular maintenance schedule on the Falcon, that didn't put all the burden on you and Chewbacca. We might be able to forestall most of the break-downs before they happen." Oops, he'd ended up mentioning the Falcon's problems after all. So much for his good intentions.
"Yeah," Han said brusquely. "Maybe."
At least the Corellian did not seem especially angry. Rather, Vader could sense Han's surprised, if grudging, pleasure, that someone was actually taking an interest in his ship.
This feeling gradually transformed into hesitation, and then into a jolt of reckless decision.
"Vader," Solo began, "you mind if I ask you a question? Something I've been wondering, for a while."
What the hell? Well, only one way to find out. "Ask," Vader told him.
"What really made you join the Rebellion? Was it just because of Luke and Leia, like you said?"
"Primarily," Vader answered. Then he added, out of a trouble-making urge to see how Solo would react to this next statement, "and I was probably suffering from a mid-life crisis."
Solo's reaction was most gratifying. He yelped out an incredulous "what?", and from the dull thud that followed the word, he had once again bumped his head against something.
Vader continued, "it's the right timing for one, after all. I'm fifty-two this year."
Solo still couldn't seem to get his brain around this concept. "A mid-life crisis?"
"Yes. You know, you find yourself in a dead-end job ... personal life going nowhere..." Suddenly, Vader had no more wish to continue this game. However much he might try to present it to himself as a joke, what he was saying to Solo was basically the truth. Vader sighed and focused on a small nest of still-tangled wires.
They both fell silent. Then Solo asked, his voice so quiet that Vader could barely hear it, "Vader? What happened with you and your family? How come you didn't know about Leia and Luke?"
Well, it was his own fault. He was the one who had brought up the subject of his personal life, or lack of one. He'd left himself open to just this sort of question, and he couldn't blame Solo for accepting the invitation.
Vader began, somewhat surprised to find that his voice was steady and he could make himself say the words, "my wife left me when she learned she was pregnant."
At least, he supposed that she had known about it when she left him. From the timing, that seemed the most logical conclusion. Damn. He did not want to think about this again. He said with finality, "she never told me about them."
"Oh," Solo said uncomfortably. "I'm sorry." Vader could feel the younger man's embarrassment at discussing such a personal subject, but he could also feel a sort of empathic horror from Solo. The Corellian was imagining what it would feel like to have something like that happen to him.
Solo tried to ask, "this was when you were still -- uh, before you -- er, I mean -- " the words trailed out in a surge of embarrassed confusion.
"Before I turned into a mechanised man of mystery?" Vader asked dryly. "Yes. It was."
"I wasn't going to put it like that," Solo protested. Then he rushed on recklessly, before his natural suspicion of emotions -- and of Darth Vader -- could hold himm back. "Look, Vader, I want you to know -- I do love Leia. I'm going to do everything I can to make her happy. And keep her safe. I don't want you to think I would ever hurt her -- "
The poor bastard, Vader thought, in sudden amusement. He's probably been sweating over this ever since Leia's long-lost father popped out of the woodwork. He's been expecting that I'll demand to know his intentions. Or, more likely, just strangle him.
"General Solo," Vader told him, "believe me. If I had any objection to your relationship with my daughter, you would know of it."
"Uh -- right." Mentally blushing, though Vader could not see whether his face was following suit, Han turned all his attention to the Hyperspace generator. Or at least, he tried to. A moment later, however, he said, somewhat awkwardly, "and look, you can stop calling me General. I can't stand it when people call me that. Makes me feel like I oughtta have a paunch and big sideburns and a monocle."
Vader thought how very far this conversation had gone from anything he'd expected. "Han, then," he said. "All right?"
"Yeah, fine." Then Han's usual sense of humour kicked in again, and he added, "Darth. Or would you rather I called you 'dad'?"
Darth Vader sighed. Well, you asked for this, he told himself. You're the one who decided you wanted a family again.
"No," he said wearily, "'Darth' will do fine."
Luke was watching Leia sleep.
She'd emerged from her bath a few minutes ago, wearing a soft white robe which she must have found in the bathroom. There was plenty of clothing provided for them in the bedchambers as well. Luke had discovered this while his sister was bathing. He didn't imagine that Palpatine had picked out the clothes himself, or had been keeping tabs on Luke and Leia's tastes in fashion, but the presence of the clothing did show that they had been expected and prepared for. The realisation made Luke nervous, as he wondered how long Palpatine had been planning for their arrival.
He'd mentioned the clothes to Leia when she got out of the bath, but she had just ill-temperedly enquired whether there were any metal brassieres for her, and then curled up on top of one of the beds and almost immediately fell asleep. Luke was sitting on one corner of the bed -- the bed was larger than Luke's entire quarters back on Omean -- and watching her.
He didn't understand what was happening to her. Of course she felt bad about Arin's death; so did he. And of course it wasn't any fun to be kidnapped by the mad monarch of the galaxy. They were going to have to get out of here, somehow, though at the moment he didn't have any ideas as to how. And, he supposed, she had her babies to worry about now, not just herself. That couldn't be helping matters.
But still, he was so used to Leia being the calm one, the one who could keep the rest of them on track. Throughout all the shit they'd been through, she'd seemed to stay strong, pure in her beliefs, assured of herself and who she was. When Luke got lost in identity crises, or Han went through one of his bouts of desperate self-centredness, or the Rebellion itself seemed set to degenerate into chaos, it was always Leia, he thought, who pulled them out of it.
But now -- well, she was still strong, all right. But this anger in her was new to him. It was as if she intended to take a stand this time no matter who she had to hurt by doing so. That frightened him. There was a hardness in her that he didn't recognise. Or rather, he thought he did recognise it, but not as part of the Leia he knew. It reminded him of their father.
He wished he could guide her somehow. He ought to be able to. If Ben or Yoda were here, they would be able to. But he wasn't Ben or Yoda. He knew he should be able to help her, but he didn't know how. It seemed like all he could do was recycle his teachers' pithy sayings, but somehow they never sounded so pithy coming from him. And then of course, there was Vader, who was always willing to express an opinion on any questions Luke had, but who didn't seem to be in the business of dispensing spiritual words of wisdom. Good thing, too, Luke thought ruefully. If he had Ben and Yoda's philosophies and Vader's mixed up in his head, his brain would probably suffer a matter/anti-matter explosion.
Suddenly Luke felt an upsurge of fear and pain. It wasn't his own. Instinctively he reached toward Leia, and as he did so she screamed and sat bolt upright. She was clutching the pillow with one hand and staring at him wildly. "Leia," Luke said desperately. "Leia, it's me."
For another moment she didn't seem to understand him. Then, surprising him, she flung herself into his arms, shuddering against him. He felt her still-damp hair against his face and neck, and smelled the hint of some floral scent. Her fingers dug into his shoulders. He caught himself wishing, for one instant, that she wasn't his sister, but he sternly pushed that thought aside.
"Luke," she sobbed out. "He crashed. I saw it. He -- everything was burning -- Oh, Luke, he was so afraid -- everything hurt -- so much --"
She pulled away from Luke, but still clutched at his shoulders. There was a weird urgency in her face, as if she was desperate to make him understand. "Luke, he broke all of his ribs. Every one of them. And -- and his arms, and -- and his face was burned, and -- oh Luke, they thought he was dead. They were laughing at him. They were saying -- saying things -- "
"Who, Leia?" Luke asked, as her words ran down. "What have you seen? Is something going to happen to Han?"
She looked at him as if he was out of his mind. "No," she said. "Our father."
He stared at her in amazement. She let go of his shoulders and moved away, sitting huddled on one edge of the bed. He moved closer to her, putting an arm about her. He half expected her to push him away, but she did not. After a few moments she looked up at him.
"Luke," she said earnestly, "do you know what happened to him? How did he become Darth Vader?"
This was the first time she had brought up the subject of Vader in conversation with Luke. She'd listened to him talk about their father, but never before had she been willing to discuss Vader herself.
Luke shook his head. "I've never asked him," he said. "I -- guess I didn't know how to. And Obi Wan never really told me. He just said Anakin had been seduced by the Dark Side. I guess I'd kind of assumed they fought about that, and that maybe he was injured --"
"No," she said, without any doubt in her voice. "He crashed. He was flying an x-wing, or something like it. I saw it, Luke. I felt it." Leia's hand, startlingly cold, closed around Luke's. "Luke, I have to find out what happened to him. I think we both have to."
Slowly, Luke nodded. A chilling thought occurred to him. He tried to ignore it, but he couldn't. "Well," he said, "there's one way we could try to find out. But -- we can't know what would happen if we did. It could make everything worse."
"What?" she asked him.
He said, "we could ask Emperor Palpatine."
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