"Is there anything else we should discuss?"
As she asked the question, Mon Mothma fervently prayed that the answer would be "no". There couldn't be anything more to discuss. Surely they'd discussed every possible topic. If the meeting went on like this, they'd be reduced to such crucial issues as whether the cleaning droids were due for a maintenance check, and what was on the menu at the canteen tonight, and whether General Rieekan's pet birdcat had hatched its kits yet.
The assorted officers and chiefs of staff assembled around the conference table glanced questioningly at each other. Mothma's heart sank. Who was she kidding? Of course someone would have something to say. It was easier to defeat the Empire than it was to get this lot to stop talking.
At least Dodonna, who managed to be the first to speak, began his answer in the negative. "It seems not," he said. "As long as negotiations with Chandrila are maintained, the situation seems under control. For the moment. And if the security investigations have turned up nothing, we're not going to change that by talking about it."
Bless you, Jan Dodonna, was Mothma's heartfelt thought. You are a jewel among men. She glanced at the General curiously, and wondered whether he'd picked up on her passionate desire to get this meeting over with. Yes, he probably had, but hopefully he hadn't figured out why she was so passionate about that. Time enough for Dodonna and Rieekan and the others to tease her and Piett about it later -- presuming there was going to be anything to tease them about. Heavenly Light, did she ever hope there would be.
"Nothing for the moment, General," added the formerly Imperial security chief Captain Faren, sounding stung at the statement that they'd turned up nothing. "We have our leads, but nothing solid at present."
General Madine, who Mothma suddenly wished was suffering the pains of eternal torment, said, "I must object again to our continuing contact with Chandrila. Until we know for sure that the treachery was not on their side, we're risking -- "
"There is always risk, General," Mothma said coldly. "If we don't continue contact, how can we hope to discover if they have betrayed us?"
Madine was about to strike back with some further objection, but General Rieekan, probably wanting to go check on the pregnant birdcat, sighed loudly and said, "we've already voted on the issue. We're all tired; we're not going to accomplish anything more tonight. Our problems will still be here tomorrow. May I move that we adjourn this meeting?"
Mon Mothma resolved to buy both Rieekan and Dodonna some very large drinks. Not tonight, however.
There were a few more grumbles of argument, but the majority voice was in favour of Rieekan's proposal. At last everyone was starting to stand up from the table, the meeting dissolving into smaller conversational clusters. Hoping that she was doing this at least somewhat subtly, Mon Mothma let her gaze wander around the room until it landed on Admiral Piett. Who, she realised with a sudden nervous jolt, was also looking at her. There was a hesitant expression on his face, and she knew that she'd better get to him quickly. He was probably wondering whether she'd changed her mind, and he might just flee the room rather than stick around to find out. Of course, maybe he had changed his mind. For a second, she wanted to flee the room. But, no, she told herself firmly. She could live with rejection. It was better than spending the rest of her life wondering about it.
She walked around the table and started toward him. She had to stop to exchange a few pleasantries with the officers who stood between them, and she noticed that he was now talking about something with his fellow ex-Imperial Captain Needa. Well, at least Piett hadn't fled yet. She smiled and managed to extract herself from an incipient conversation, and at last she succeeded in reaching Piett's side.
Captain Needa was saying, "well, the Rebellion owes you a lot of drinks for getting us out of this one. Or, they ought to buy you some drinks, but they'll probably just give you a medal."
"Good evening, Captain, Admiral," Mothma said, in what somehow managed to be a calm voice. She nodded a greeting to Needa, who bowed in reply. Mothma went on, "Admiral, could I talk with you in my office? You wanted to discuss the question of troop reassignments." Actually, they'd already discussed the question of troop reassignments about a week ago, and probably had very little new to say on the topic. But it was the first possible camouflage she had thought of.
"Of course, Ma'am," Piett said, polite as always. The hint of a smile touched his lips, and she thought she could see a new sparkle in his grey eyes. Well, she thought, maybe he's not going to run away after all.
"You'll excuse us, Angus?" the Admiral said to Captain Needa, who was suddenly grinning. Mothma wondered if she was imagining the sharp look Piett cast at Needa, that seemed to say something like 'don't make any jokes if you value your life'.
"Of course," said the Captain, his grin getting bigger. "Don't let me interfere with the affairs of state."
Piett made no comment, but the look on his face as he turned toward Mothma suggested that he'd like to punch Captain Needa in the nose.
Damnation, Mothma thought, with a last glance at Needa's suspiciously smug smile. He knows. They probably all know.
Oh well. So they know. It wouldn't do to disappoint them!
Mothma and Piett manoeuvred their way through the remaining groups of New Alliance leaders between them and the door. As they started along the hallway together, not talking nor overtly looking at each other, Mon Mothma realised that they were both walking in exactly the same pose, with their hands clasped behind their backs. She almost giggled. This was crazy. They shouldn't feel the need to be this surreptitious. She felt like a teenager, about to get her first snog in the back of a landspeeder. She wondered if Piett felt the same way.
Her office, fortunately, was not far from the conference chamber. They reached it before she succumbed to the urge to shove him against a wall and assault his virtue then and there. As the door slid shut behind them, a shuddering sigh escaped her. She was scared again. But it wasn't enough to stop her.
She gazed at him, wondering how he could possibly look so attractive, and wondering if he knew how attractive he was.
His little smile was back, and was more impish this time. "So, Ma'am," he said softly, as he slowly held out one hand to her. "Troop reassignments."
She nodded. "Troop reassignments." She reached out her own hand, and their fingers laced together. She moved closer to him. "It's a very important issue," she whispered.
"Yes," he agreed. "Very important." The last word faded out as it became lost in their kiss.
They had started out standing by her desk. It was very nice over there, she thought, but it was even nicer when Piett had reversed her fantasy from the hallway and had pushed her against the office wall. He held her arms up against the wall, his hands -- surprisingly strong hands, she realiised, which was a pleasant discovery -- restraining both of her wrists. She shivered at the combined sensations of the cold metal wall and the warmth of his hands. He sought out her mouth first, then, as he was planting little nipping kisses on her face and her earlobes and her throat, she whispered breathily, "my hero. The hero of Chandrila Seven."
He laughed then and pulled away from her a little, grinning. "I'm not a hero," he said.
She grinned back. "You are if I say you are. I'm Head of State, remember." His grasp had loosened on her wrists, and she managed to take him by surprise, pull him toward her and then switch their positions, thrusting him against the wall in his turn.
"Whatever you say, Ma'am," he promised.
Conversation lapsed, until the moment when one or both of them managed to fall back against the door control panel, and the door swooped open. Having simultaneously thrown themselves at the door closing button -- and not even bothering to check whether there were any shocked Alliance members gaping at them from the hallway -- they then had to take some time out to collapse on the floor in hysterical laughter.
"Admiral Piett," she said, her fingers tracing a path up his arm, "do you think that we should retire to some place more comfortable?"
"My name's Grigori, Ma'am," he told her, catching the hand as it reached his shoulder and then pulling it to his lips, kissing each of her fingertips in turn. "And yes," he said, when he'd reached the last finger, "I would definitely support that proposal."
"My name's Simara," she said, "not Ma'am." She leaned over him, her lips just barely brushing his. She pulled back again so that she could see his face rather than an out-of-focus blur. "So," she continued huskily, smiling in gentle mockery as she said the classic line, "your place or mine?"
He considered that, meanwhile allowing his fingers to play in a swirling pattern over her left breast, with a tantalising lightness that made her want to scream. "I guess mine's tidy enough to receive visitors. What about yours?"
"Mine too." She thought about it briefly. "Can you hear the rain from yours?"
"No," he said.
"Your place," she decided.
He nodded, then groaned. "Oh, gods," he said, in laughing despair. "That means we have to go back into the hallway. I think it'll kill me to keep my hands off you."
"Then don't," she said.
It took quite some time for them to emerge from the office. A few more kisses were necessary, of course, then they had to linger over making sure that each other's clothes looked impeccably respectable, and then they had to have a debate over whether the discipline and the morale of the New Alliance could survive the scandal of a Head of State and an Admiral walking along the corridor holding hands. They finally decided that no, their duty to the Rebellion must come first, and so they proceeded along the corridor ostentatiously not touching each other, and holding a loud conversation about the weather. Strangely enough, the weather seemed to have been unusually humorous lately, since every now and then the conversation broke down into swiftly stifled giggles.
She had, unsurprisingly, never been in Piett's quarters before. When he had switched on the light, she looked around in undisguised curiosity. It certainly was, she thought, tidy enough to receive visitors. The only things that seemed even slightly out of place were two computer disks that had been left lying on the desk. But it also looked more lived-in than she would have imagined. A profusion of tables and shelves were crammed with framed photographs and holosnaps, and with a truly astonishing assortment of potted miniature trees. They gave off a fresh, tangy fragrance. She walked over to one of them, its silver-grey trunk intricately twisted and its delicate leaves glowing a soft pink. The tree stood under a small lamp, and cast interlacing shadows on the shelf below. "What is it?" she whispered.
"Altarean maple," said Piett, following her to the tree and starting to gently stroke Mothma's back. "They only look like that in the spring, the rest of the year the leaves are red. I've got to keep the light and temperature and soil nutrients adjusted so it knows what season it is. I hope you don't mind them," he added. "I can't seem to get along without them. Comes from growing up on a forest planet, I guess."
"I don't mind them," she said, turning to him. "They're beautiful." With her hands on his chest, she cast a smiling glance at the bed. "Maybe we'd better move over there," she said, "so we don't knock over the trees."
They both knelt on the bed, and Mothma began with lingering slowness to unfasten Piett's uniform jacket. When the jacket had been thrown aside, Mothma ran her hands over the silkier material of the pale gold uniform shirt. "I've never undressed an Admiral before," she murmured.
"I've never been undressed by a Head of State."
The shirt, she found, had a large number of very small buttons, but she didn't mind the time it took to undo them. When the shirt had gone the way of the jacket, there still remained a white sleeveless undershirt. She grabbed him by the collar of this and pulled him towards her. "How many more layers have you got?" she demanded.
"Find out," he said.
As they started kissing again, she managed to liberate the undershirt from the waistband of his trousers, and snaked her hands up under it to prove that it was, indeed, the last layer. "It's fascinating," she whispered, her mouth against his ear. "I've never seen an Imperial officer's underwear."
He flung her down onto the bed, and she fell back against the pillow. He held her there, glowering down at her in mock offence. "Oh, fine," he said, "I understand. You're only interested in me for my underwear."
She laughed again, until the laughs were smothered by another kiss. He pulled back to give her a wicked smile. "I'll just have to prove there are other reasons to be interested in me."
They had so far managed to avoid the torment of dining with Emperor Palpatine. Not that the dinner the two of them had shared had been particularly cheerful.
Luke had taken a turn in the bath, and after agonising about the implications of wearing clothing provided by Palpatine, finally gave in and dressed in a plain grey tunic and matching trousers from one of the wardrobes. He'd wanted to retain his own clothes, but regretfully had to admit that they were not at their cleanest, after Datang had dragged him around the Chandrilan mining station in them. He kept his own belt and boots, which at least made him feel partially still himself. Leia, he saw when she emerged from her own room, had also come to terms with wearing Palpatine's offerings. She was dressed in a white blouse and trousers, both of some thin, satiny fabric, but she was also still wearing her tight-fitting, high collared white and gold jacket, complete with Arin Pellar's blood on the sleeve. When Luke asked if she was sure she wanted to wear that, she just said defiantly, "why not? It gives me something to remember him by."
While they were dressing, the droid had been setting the table for dinner. After asking if they required anything else, the droid departed, leaving the table laden with a vast selection of predictably expensive delicacies. The sight of these made Leia scowl and mutter about all the Imperial worlds where people were starving, and she slumped down into one of the chairs, to make a half-hearted attempt at eating a small helping of Kelesian crayfish salad. Leia's comment of course reminded Luke of his Aunt Beru's inevitable response when he didn't want to eat everything on his plate, that he should think of the Starving Mandalorians. Somehow Beru had never been impressed by Luke's suggestion that they could just send the Starving Mandalorians his unfinished fennel stew. Thinking of Beru and Owen made Luke just as depressed as Leia was, so they ate in glum silence, although Luke found that neither the Starving Mandalorians nor his murdered aunt and uncle stopped him from noticing that the ardok steak was delicious.
The droid reappeared as Luke was finishing his steak. Leia had long since given up on drawing patterns with her fork in the crayfish salad. Luke wondered if he should remind her that, with the babies to think of, she ought to be eating regularly, but he figured she was likely to kill him if he did, so he kept the thought to himself. The droid's arrival was something of a relief, as Luke had not been looking forward to an evening alone with his silent and angry sister. Of course the alternative was probably not any better, as the droid had returned to inform them that His Imperial Majesty Emperor Palpatine requested their presence.
Leia dragged her gaze away from the salad. "What do you think he'd do if we didn't go?" she asked Luke.
Luke sighed. "I don't know. Teleport us to him, maybe? Stop by here for a nightcap? Or maybe next time we did see him, he'd just spend ages talking about what naughty, ungrateful children we are."
Leia grimaced. "Then we'd better go wait on His Imperial Majesty, hadn't we?" she said bitterly. She stood up, throwing her crumpled linen napkin into the remains of her salad.
They followed the droid down the corridor once more, but this time were led to one of the doors between their quarters and the Emperor's Audience Chamber. The door opened to reveal a lounge which was furnished in much the same style as that in the rooms they'd been given, except that the drapes were again purple and the huge sofas and armchairs were a sickly sort of lavender. The room was dominated by a large entertainment centre, complete with computer console and holovision, which the sofas and chairs surrounded in a semi-circle.
The black-robed Palpatine was seated on one of the sofas, looking ridiculously small against the vast cushioned monstrosity that seemed about to swallow him. Luke suddenly thought that the sofa reminded him of a purple version of Jabba the Hutt, but in present company it didn't seem a good idea to mention that. Palpatine beamed at Luke and Leia as they stepped into the room, and Luke felt his mind reeling at the surreality of it all. He thought, does Palpatine want to spend a nice cosy evening watching holovids with us? He wondered what type of videos Palpatine might like, and then decided that that didn't bear thinking about.
"Good evening, my children," Palpatine greeted them. "I trust you are feeling refreshed?"
"Thank you," Leia said coldly. She glanced at Luke, a questioning look in her eyes. Luke knew what she was thinking. Should they follow up on his earlier suggestion, and ask Palpatine about their father? Was there any chance that he might tell them something resembling the truth?
Palpatine solved their problem for them. "So many questions," he said, smiling. "All the questions you never got to ask, and now they're about to overflow. A lifetime of questions that no one has ever answered." He stood up and stepped toward them, and it took all of Luke's self control to stop himself from backing away.
"Your aunt and uncle wouldn't tell you, Luke, because they were afraid for you. So were Bail and Keeiara Organa. Obi Wan Kenobi was the most afraid of all. Even your father is afraid to face his past. But you deserve the truth. I will give it to you."
"Aren't you afraid of it?" Leia demanded challengingly.
He gave her a strange, distant smile. "No," he said. "I have no more fear." He blinked slowly, his smile remaining fixed, then gestured toward the entertainment centre. "Everything you will need is there. I think you will want to pursue this alone. But remember, any questions you have, I will answer." He walked out of the room between the two of them, and the door whispered shut behind him.
Luke shuddered. He couldn't believe Palpatine would leave them alone. He would have thought that whatever discoveries they might make, Palpatine would want to be there to gloat over them.
Of course, he realised uncomfortably, the Emperor's physical absence didn't mean that he wasn't watching them.
Leia, meanwhile, had walked to the entertainment console at the centre of the room. She called out, "Luke, come over here. He's got the system loaded with ... with the News of the Galaxy archives."
"News of the Galaxy?" Luke asked, crossing over to her. He'd never heard of it.
"Must be the precursor to the Imperial News Service." Her voice sounded awe-struck. "I knew that Palpatine had wiped out all the news archives from before his succession. Luke, do you realise what this could mean? So much of what happened during his takeover has never been made public. If we could get this information out of here, get it distributed ... "
"He'd never have let us see it if he thought we could do that."
Leia shrugged. "He's been wrong before." She was silent a moment, then told him, "I've called up the index." She gazed at Luke, her face solemn. "Do we look up Anakin Skywalker?" she asked.
Luke swallowed nervously. "Yeah. I guess we do."
Leia typed in the name.
Both of them stared in amazement at the number of entries listed in response. There was a date beside the code for each entry, ranging from six years before Palpatine's coronation as Emperor to one year before.
Luke felt nervous dread from Leia, which was precisely the same emotion he was feeling himself. He was suddenly very afraid of what they might find.
"It'll take forever to go through all of these," Leia murmured.
"I guess Palpatine doesn't plan on us leaving any time soon." Luke was trying to sound casual, but he knew Leia must sense that he was as nervous as she was.
Leia started to reach for the keyboard, then pulled her hand back again. "Luke," she said, "have you ever seen what he looked like?"
"No. Have you?"
They stared at the News of the Galaxy index, and Luke felt a desperate urge to run away. What were they going to see? he wondered. Anakin Skywalker the hero, the man that Obi Wan Kenobi had described as a good friend? Or Anakin Skywalker the servant of the Dark Side? Or both? If they watched all the news reports chronologically, would they see the Dark Side growing in him? Could one see the Dark Side? Would it be obvious, or would they not even notice the change?
Had Anakin noticed it?
"Luke?" Leia asked. "What do you want to do?"
"I don't know."
She pursed her lips at this less than helpful response, then said, "Okay. I'll pick one at random and see what we get."
She typed in a code, then left the console and crossed over to perch on the edge of one of the enormous sofas. Luke followed her.
A bright tri-D image sprang up from the holopad. The image was motionless for the first few seconds. Luke and Leia blinked as they realised that the holo appearing in front of them had been taken in vivid sunlight. The scene seemed to be some sort of military ceremony. At least there were certainly a large number of people wearing grey uniforms, and bedecked with medals. Luke guessed these must be uniforms of the Republic, but he'd never seen any pictures of them before. That was just another of the images that Palpatine had wiped out of public memory.
The soldiers were outside a monumental pillared building of blue stone, standing on the building's terrace. Leia said, "I know that building. It's here on Coruscant. I think the President of the Republic used to live there."
The holo started up, with a portly figure in red and orange robes, its back to the holocam, walking towards a line of officers standing at attention. A voice-over began in the bright, chirpy, artificial-sounding female tones that unmistakably identified the voice as a newsreader, and Luke thought, I guess that's one thing that hasn't changed since Palpatine took over.
"Today," the voice-over reported, "nearly four months after the Battle of Doom, hero of the Republic Anakin Skywalker was decorated by President Gimila for his part in that decisive victory. Although seven other soldiers were decorated shortly after the battle, the ceremony for Commander Skywalker was delayed until he could be released from the military hospital on Alma Serena."
The holocam was zooming toward the line of officers, and Luke realised with a start that the man at the end of the line was standing with a few metres separating him from the others. He was supporting himself on crutches, but was still the tallest person there; the head of the next tallest officer only reached slightly past this man's shoulder.
The red and orange robed figure was walking toward him, and as this figure approached, the other officers saluted. The man on crutches did not, for obvious reasons; Luke had a brief ludicrous vision of the tall man trying to salute without dropping his crutches.
The voice-over burbled on cheerfully, "Commander Skywalker spent three months in hospital, recovering from massive injuries sustained when his x-wing was shot down in the final moments of the battle. He was rescued from the wreckage just minutes away from death, by his wife Vice Admiral Talassa, and her brother, Ambassador Lucas Talassa."
Luke and Leia stared at each other. Vice Admiral Talassa!
"Did you know she was an Admiral?" Luke whispered.
Leia shook her head.
The holo switched to another, closer viewpoint, from the side, as the robed figure stepped up to the man on crutches. The robed personage, now visible as a middle-aged humanoid male with several double chins, was saying something and reaching up to attach a medal to the taller man's chest. But the man in the robes might just as well not have been there, for all the attention Luke was paying to him.
Luke didn't know what he'd expected. A taller, younger version of Uncle Owen, maybe? If he were more honest about it, a taller version of himself?
All the time he'd been growing up, ever since he'd realised that Beru and Owen weren't his parents and that Tatooine was the armpit of the galaxy, he'd made up stories about his father coming back for him. The father he'd created was always tall, blond and heroic, and he had always beat up Uncle Owen before taking Luke away with him for a life of adventure among the stars.
Now Luke realised that if this man in the holo image had come back for him, he would have looked just like the father Luke had wanted. He was tall and blond, all right, and it did look like he could successfully beat up Uncle Owen, as he'd done in Luke's fantasies. At the moment, his face bore the blank, distant expression that one always assumes when standing at attention, but Luke could still tell that he was young -- shit, Luke thought, maybe about our age -- and had the sort of rough-hewn good looks that had probably assured that he was never without a date. And it looked like it would be a really, really bad idea to piss him off.
He looks, Luke thought with a weird aching wistfulness, the way I might look when I finally grow up -- except, unfortunately, that I'm grown up already.
Of course, by the time Luke was making up his fantasies on Tatooine, the only father who could have come back for him was Darth Vader.
The voice-over had been chattering about Commander Skywalker's military career, but Luke hadn't heard most of it. The scene now changed; the people still seemed to be on the blue building's terrace, but the setting was now informal, a drinks reception it looked like, with both military and civilians milling about, trying to get through the crowd to offer congratulations to Anakin Skywalker. The voice-over was informing them about Anakin's next assignment. The holocam managed to get a clear shot of Anakin talking with two other young humans, one a tall woman in the grey military uniform, and the other a short, slim man in civilian dress. The man and the woman were both dark-haired, the woman with her hair cropped short, and they looked enough alike that they must certainly be related. They seemed enthusiastic and happy, and Luke noticed with surprise that Anakin did too. He was grinning at something the short dark man had said, and then the woman looked up at Anakin with a teasing smile and reached up to smooth his disordered blond hair away from his forehead.
Luke felt Leia stiffen beside him, then Leia grabbed for the remote and froze the holo on that image. "It's her," Leia hissed. "It's our mother. And that must be her brother. Ambassador Lucas Talassa."
Luke stared at them. The laughing dark-haired young woman who must be Vice Admiral Talassa. Anakin Skywalker, wearing a long-suffering expression as his wife straightened his hair. The buoyant, youthful figure of Lucas Talassa, an uncle that Luke had never heard of.
"I can't stand it," Leia said suddenly. She got up and walked away from the holopad, her arms clutched tightly around her. She shook her head angrily. "I can't stand them looking so happy. What in the hell went wrong?"
Everything went wrong, Luke thought, still staring at the family he'd never seen.
Everything went wrong. The question was, why?
As far as Admiral Piett was concerned, life was absolutely, profoundly, unreservedly wonderful.
They'd both dozed off a few minutes ago, after a bout of what was definitely the best love-making Piett had been through since -- well, a long time ago, anyway. It must be twenty years, he supposed, since he'd experienced anything this good. Simara seemed to be still asleep, and he smiled over at her, thinking what an amazing change it was to have a beautiful woman asleep in his bed -- especially this beautiful woman. If anyone had told him a year ago that he would be sleeping with the Head of State of the Rebel Alliance, he would have thought it was a particularly tasteless joke. But oh, gods, he was glad that it wasn't.
He wondered if there was any chance that they could go away together for a few days, away from the Alliance and its multitude of traumas. Could one take a holiday from the Rebellion? Back in the Imperial Navy he'd had two weeks' leave a year when he was a Captain, and three weeks' when he was promoted to Admiral, but the Rebellion couldn't generally afford to have its officers traipsing off on skiing trips or sunbathing holidays. He realised that it would probably take a heroic effort on his part to convince Simara to leave, since she no doubt believed that the Alliance would fall apart without her. And it might well do so, too. But surely it could survive for a week or so while its Head of State went on vacation.
What sort of vacation would she like? He wondered if she was the outdoors type, and hoped that she was. He'd like to go some place with mountains to hike through, and lakes to swim in -- but definitely no rain. Still, he thought, anything she liked, he would like too. He did rather hope that she didn't prefer casino resort holidays, as he was the worst gambler in the galaxy, but what the hell, he could always just be her sidekick when she hit the gambling tables, and make sure that her glass was always full. He imagined her in a figure-hugging evening dress, and gave a happy sigh.
He felt the gentle touch of her fingers stroking his hair, and he turned his head on the pillow to meet her smiling gaze.
"Hi," she whispered.
"Hi," he whispered back.
She snuggled closer for a long, slow, lingering kiss. Then, as they were lying side by side, Piett's hand lightly stroking along the smooth curve of her hip, she asked him softly, "how long has it been for you, since the last time?"
"Why?" he asked, though he was glad to find that he hadn't immediately panicked at the question. "Was I that out of practice?"
"No, you idiot," she grinned. "It's just that you said 'it's been such a long time'."
"Oh. Did I?" He thought about that. "So I did." Now that would be embarrassing, if he allowed it to be, but really, there was absolutely no point in being embarrassed now. He thought back, and smiled ruefully. "Well, you see, that's going through the mists of time, before living memory."
"No, go on," she urged. "Tell me."
"Uh ... four years ago. And it was a disaster." He looked up at the ceiling, and began, in a quiet voice, "I was home for my father's funeral. After the ceremony I got into this vile row with my eldest sister -- I was staying at her house -- and she kicked me out. So I went to the nearest bar and got pickled. At closing time I didn't have anywhere to go, and I must have looked pathetic, because this waitress had pity on me and took me home with her." He sighed. "I know we did something, but gods know what, I only remember snatches of it. That's probably fortunate, too, it can't have been that good, considering how I'd been drinking. At least she let me stay till the next morning. That was nice of her." He glanced over at Mon Mothma. "I suppose a gentleman shouldn't ask a lady how long it's been for her?"
She chuckled. "I don't think ladies are supposed to lead rebellions," she pointed out. "Um ... three years. Oh dear. That was awful too. Well, not at the time, but it was horrible the next morning. I was at a conference with the representatives of some planetary systems that were thinking of joining us, and there was this young delegate -- very young, even worse cradle-robbing than with you. It did seem like a good idea at the time, but the rest of the conference was dreadful. We couldn't stand to look at each other in all the meetings, and every time someone spoke to me I thought they were going to accuse the Rebellion of immorality because of its Head of State's antics." She gave an exaggerated shudder.
Piett said, smiling, "I hope we'll be able to look at each other in meetings."
"All the time," she said. "I promise."
She raised herself up, with her elbow on one of the pillows and her chin resting on her hand, and looked beyond him toward the bedside table. "Who are the pictures of?" she asked.
"My family," he said. He turned over and pointed out some of them. "Those are my nieces and nephews, and that's me and my sisters. That was when Minna was still speaking to me," he added.
Mon Mothma grinned suddenly, and reached over him to pick up one of the framed holosnaps. It showed a very young but recognisable Piett, in an Academy cadet's uniform, standing with his arms crossed over his chest and looking heroic and dignified, while a slender young woman in a revealing red dress knelt on the floor beside him, embracing his leg.
He yelled, "no! Not that one!" and he launched himself at Mon Mothma, trying to grab the holo back. The ensuing struggle was very entertaining, but it ended in defeat for Piett, as Mothma managed to escape from the bed, still clutching the holo. Piett groaned and fell back, slamming the pillow down over his head.
Too late he realised that this made him a very vulnerable and inviting target. He yelped and swiftly re-emerged from under the pillow when Mothma started to tickle him. That of course led to another battle, and Piett quickly found out that she was even more ticklish than he was.
Mothma finally gasped out, "stop! Stop! I surrender. You can have it back." She picked the holo up from the other bedside table, on her side of the bed, and handed it to him, giggling as she looked at it.
Piett groaned again. "Oh, gods. If I'd known you were coming over I would have hidden it."
She wriggled up to him, planting some coaxing kisses on his face and ear, and urging, "tell me? What is it?"
Piett replaced the holo in its spot on the table, then propped up the pillow so he could sit back against it. He looked blandly down at the woman whose hand was now creeping along his thigh. "I'm surprised you have to ask. That is an official portrait of Grand Admiral Piett, Saviour of the Universe, and one of his adoring love slaves."
"Oh," said Mon Mothma, "only one of them?"
He grinned down at her. "All right. It was my first holiday back from the Academy. That's my sister Rilla. She kept saying how heroic I looked in my uniform, so we, er, decided to take that holo to prove it. Our sister Vara -- she's the youngest -- she did the camerawork. She said she'd blackmail us with it later; I guess it would have worked!"
"What's the red dress?" Mothma asked.
"Oh, that? It's an old negligee of our mother's, it was part of the dress-up box. I guess there's probably a whole new generation playing Space Princess in it these days."
He smiled distantly, then reached over for yet another picture, which he handed to Mon Mothma. "That's Rilla when she's not doing her love slave impression."
Mothma took it from him, studying the brown-haired woman in the photo. Her thin face bore a strong resemblance to Piett's, but she seemed to have all the self-confidence that he so often lacked. She was wearing a plaid shirt and denim trousers, and was grinning at the camera. She stood leaning back against the trunk of a massive tree.
"She's in the forestry service," Piett told Mon Mothma. "She's Chief Inspector in our harvesting district."
Mothma looked up at him. "You miss her a lot, don't you?"
He glanced away. "Yes. I -- I haven't been in touch with her much since the New Alliance was formed. Not with any of them. I -- I keep thinking they'll get hurt ... that Palpatine will start a purge of all traitors' families ... "
Mon Mothma put aside the photograph, and sat up so that she could turn his face back toward her. "It will be all right," she whispered, though she knew she couldn't make any such promise. "It will be all right."
Their mouths came together again, and he was just reaching for her to pull her to him when an insistent beeping sounded from the door to his quarters.
He groaned. "I don't believe this."
Mothma sighed and lay back on the bed, and the vista that this presented made him very, very reluctant to leave. "Don't go anywhere," he ordered. "I'll be right back."
In a very bad temper he stormed across the room toward the closet, in order to find his bathrobe. Sensible people, he thought, keep their robes next to their beds, so they don't have to parade naked across the bedroom under the gaze of their new lovers. He hated doing this; being naked in bed was all right, but somehow the moment he got out of bed he felt obscene and ridiculous. The doorbell sounded again, and he yelled, "all right! Damn it! Do you know what bloody time it is?"
He found the dark blue robe, tied it around him, and stomped back to the door, where he opened the intercom. "Yes?" he snapped.
A woman's voice answered uneasily, "Admiral Piett, sir, this is Security. Will you open the door, sir?"
"What's happened?" he asked.
"Please, sir, we need to see you. We have our orders. Open the door, sir, now."
We have our orders? What the hell is that supposed to mean?
"It's the middle of the night," he began. "Unless there's some emergency -- "
The woman's voice nearly cracked with stress. "Please, sir! Open the door now, or we will have to force it open."
He opened the door. And found himself faced with a nervous-looking security team, headed by a short blond woman whom he knew he should recognise -- Commander Narita, that was it. "Well?" Piett demanded, standing so that his body blocked the door.
"Sir," Narita said miserably, "we have orders to arrest you."
Piett stared at her. "What?"
"I'm sorry, sir. Please, if you'll just come with us -- "
"No, I will not! What the hell is this about?"
"Sir, don't try to resist us -- "
"I'm not trying to resist! I just want to know what's bloody going on! If you're going to arrest me, I'd like to know why!"
"Sir, we can't discuss that --"
Narita's words faded into stunned silence as someone else joined Piett in the doorway. Putting one hand on Piett's arm, Mon Mothma stood beside him, wearing only a bed sheet wrapped somewhat precariously around her.
A crimson blush flooded across Commander Narita's face, and the security team all stared in slack-jawed shock, as the Head of State of the New Alliance said coldly, "tell the Admiral why he is being arrested."
"Um ... " for an instant, Narita seemed to have forgotten. With immense effort she pulled herself together. "Ma'am, Admiral Piett is under arrest on suspicion of treason. There are indications that -- that the Admiral is involved in the security leak concerning the Chandrila Conference."
Mothma's fingers dug into Piett's arm. The Admiral stared blankly at the security officer. "You're joking," he said.
"No sir," said the unhappy Narita, "no sir, I'm afraid I'm not. Please, if you'll just come with us -- "
Piett blinked several times, then ran one hand through his hair. "All right," he said. "At least let me get some clothes on." Narita hesitated, and Piett added bitterly, "I won't try to escape."
Narita finally nodded. Piett walked back into his room. He looked around at the various portions of the uniform he had worn that day which were now scattered about the room, decided that he ought to put on a clean uniform, and then wondered if he could really be bothered. No one expected a suspected traitor to be neatly groomed.
It was only when she put her hand on his shoulder that he realised Mon Mothma had followed him. He turned to her suddenly, clutching her arm and saying with desperate urgency, "don't believe this of me. Don't believe this."
She gazed at him with troubled eyes. "I won't," she promised finally. "I won't."
But he had seen the doubt in her face. And if she doubted him, everything he cared about was gone.
The interviewer asked, "Field Marshal Skywalker, is it true that creating the New Forces was your idea?"
From the look on his holo image's face, Anakin Skywalker had not been a man who enjoyed being interviewed. He was trying his best to be polite, but there was still a tense, faintly irritated air about him which suggested that he would rather be doing almost anything else.
At the interviewer's question, Anakin's brows drew together in a very brief frown, then he managed to banish that expression and regain the bland face of a proper interviewee. He said, "no, I can't claim that. It's been a group effort from the beginning."
His voice was startling. It was the same voice as Darth Vader's. Less spectral, without the enhancement provided by Vader's breathing apparatus, but just as powerful and deep.
Luke felt a fresh surge of wonder and fear. That voice forced him to acknowledge, as nothing else had, that Anakin and Vader were truly the same man. Not two different entities whose lives had somehow overlapped, but one man.
This was the first of the news stories they'd watched in which Anakin spoke. The first few random choices they'd made after watching the award ceremony had turned out to be not really about Anakin; at most he'd been mentioned among long lists of other people. But now they'd happened upon a News of the Galaxy interview, from almost two years after Anakin had been decorated for his part in the Battle of Doom. Luke still had no idea what this Battle of Doom was; he was really going to have to watch all of these stories some time. But not now.
The interview, they'd been informed at the beginning of the story, was taking place in Anakin's flat. Not much of the flat was visible. There was just Anakin, in a simple black uniform, sitting on a modest green sofa which made an amusing contrast to the huge purple monster couches which were Palpatine's chosen decor. When the holocam zoomed out, the shot also showed a glass and metal side table, on which sat a black coffee mug. Luke wondered whether Anakin had been a coffee person or a tea person, and then was annoyed at himself for the irrelevance of the question.
He glanced up at Leia, who had crossed to stand behind the sofa, her hands clutching one of the overstuffed purple cushions.
On the holovision, the interviewer was continuing, "but you were involved in it from the planning stages?"
"Could you tell us something about the ideas behind it? What made you believe that the New Forces were necessary?"
Anakin leaned forward and said earnestly, "it's been obvious for years that the armed forces needed major re-organisation. Or, it should have been obvious. After the travesties of the Recent War, the failings of the current command structure couldn't be ignored any longer. Hopefully, the New Forces will be just the first step in a complete overhaul of the military."
"What would you say some of those failings are?" the interviewer prompted.
Anakin frowned again, and this time he didn't bother to reconstruct his polite, characterless expression. His voice was calm, but it held an unmistakable note of anger.
He said, "there's no way we can go on with two separate chains of command. The disasters during the Battle of Tavia made that clear enough. The entire armed forces need to be much better integrated. We need more co-operation between army and navy, and between any elite forces and the regular squadrons. That's why the New Forces are necessary. They are an elite squadron, but their members are drawn from the ranks of the regular forces. They may be the best pilots, but we can't have them thinking they're better people than the rest. They've got to work together with the other squadrons, and all the squadrons have got to know they can trust each other. We don't have room any more for elite troops that think they're the saviours of the galaxy, and the rest of the military is just laser-fodder."
"You're talking about the Jedi now?" the interviewer suggested.
Anakin's mouth twisted in an ironic smile. "That ought to be obvious," he said.
"It's being suggested that the New Forces were conceived as an attack on the Jedi..."
"Not an attack," Anakin said firmly. "The Jedi have every right to practice their faith. But their role in the military is a lot more worrying. The entire Republic is going to have to think very seriously about what the role of the religious orders should be. Personally, I'm not sure they belong in the armed forces. There's too much risk of conflicts of interest. As we saw at Tavia."
"But, Field Marshal Skywalker, isn't it true that you yourself are a member of the Jedi Order?"
Something dangerous sparked in Anakin's eyes. "No," he said, his voice still calm. "I studied for three years at General Kenobi's school, but I no longer have any connection with the school or the Order."
"Why is that?"
His ironic smile was back. He said, "as a soldier, I have to accept being told what to do. I don't have to accept being told what to think."
"So you believe that Jedi should not be allowed into the military at all ... ?"
Anakin shook his head. "I've got no objection to individual Jedi joining the forces. I just don't believe the Jedi squadrons are doing us any good. They may be a worse threat to the Republic than the Recent War."
"Speaking of threats to the Republic," said the interviewer, her humorous tone presenting the comment as a joke, "it's been suggested in some of the tabloids that a certain Senator has been a bit too closely involved in the creation of the New Forces. Do you have any insights on that?"
Anakin's eyebrows rose. "A certain Senator?" he inquired.
"Senator Palpatine, to be precise. It's being said in some quarters that the New Forces are Palpatine's personal army."
Anakin grinned, looking genuinely amused. "I wouldn't say that's very realistic. It takes a lot more than involvement on a few committees to make someone all-powerful. Conspiracy theories are fine for dinner party conversations, but I've never heard one I could believe in."
"So," said the interviewer, continuing the playful mood, "we can assure our viewers that the New Forces are not part of an evil master-plan?"
"Yes, I think you can safely assure them of that."
"Well, that's a relief. And now, I'm afraid we're out of time. Field Marshal Skywalker, thank you again for meeting with us ... "
The holocam angle changed, cutting for the first time from the shot of the black-uniformed Anakin on his green sofa, to one also showing the interviewer, a slender Twi'lek woman in a pale pink suit. The interviewer had apparently been sitting in a metal basket chair, but now both she and Anakin stood up to shake hands, the woman looking predictably dwarfed. The image froze as the news story came to an end.
Leia said, "Luke?"
Her brother didn't reply. She stepped around the sofa and sat down beside him, tentatively touching his shoulder. He still didn't look at her. He was leaning forward, with his face in his hands, but his eyes weren't covered. He was looking instead at the frozen picture of Anakin and the News of the Galaxy reporter. Leia felt him shudder.
She took her hand away, sighing impatiently. It didn't look like she would be getting any sensible response from him for a while. She knew she ought to be more patient; after all, she'd been regularly going into emotional melt-downs recently, so she should be understanding when he did the same. It couldn't have been easy for him to hear all that about the Jedi. She thought, with bitter ruefulness, how different this interview must have been from anything he'd been expecting. She suspected that Luke had a very romanticised impression of the Jedi Order and their fall. All high adventure, drama, good against evil. Not a matter-of-fact, un-glamorous question of politics, and certainly not a situation in which the Jedi might have been as much at fault as anyone else.
Well, it was all very important, and they would have to learn all they could about it sometime, but right now Leia couldn't have cared less. The Jedi could bloody well look after themselves, they weren't her problem. She needed to know what had happened to her father. The images from her dream, and the vision she had seen in Datang's cargo hold, were still searing in her mind. At times they seemed to fade, moving into the background, but then the pain and fear would swamp all of her thoughts again.
She had to be able to fit the images and feelings into some coherent structure. She had to know.
Leia got up from the sofa and crossed to the entertainment console. Enough of this pissing about with random news stories. There was, she thought, at least one way of ensuring that she found out something. She scrolled down to the last of the index listings, and punched in the code for the final story on Anakin Skywalker.
Leia stepped back slightly and watched as a new image sprang up from the holopad. Then she gasped in shock.
The new holo image was of a man, an unremarkable looking man in a brown suit, sitting behind a large, polished dark wood desk. There was really nothing about the image that ought to be disturbing -- except that she recognised the man. She would have liked to tell herself that she was imagining the resemblance, but any such hopes were squelched by the caption near the bottom of the holo image, which read "President Palpatine's Speech".
The story started up. President Palpatine, his hands folded together on the desk in front of him, was saying seriously, "one year ago today, the Republic lost a hero, and I lost a dear friend. Today, I hope that the entire Republic will join me in reflecting on the life of Anakin Skywalker, and in re-affirming our commitment to live up to his legacy. Now more than ever, we must continue to make his vision for the Republic a reality."
Palpatine continued, his voice firm but rich with emotion, "Anakin was a brave man. He was not afraid to speak out against the corruption he had encountered, even though he knew that speaking out could lead to his death. He was willing to tackle a mighty institution, an institution backed up by wealth, and by years of power, and by a web of bribery, intimidation and blackmail the extent of which we are only now beginning to discover.
"Anakin Skywalker -- my friend -- is dead. We owe it to him to continue his work. The day when a so-called religious order could do as they pleased, secure in the knowledge that no questions would be asked, is over.
"Nothing can bring Anakin back, but I vow to his spirit that I will not rest until all the corruptions of the Jedi Order have been exposed -- and stopped forever. The Jedi cannot be allowed to destroy another life, as they destroyed his."
That must have been the end of the speech, for the image froze again. Leia realised that she'd wrapped her arms about herself again and that her fingernails were digging into her arms, so sharply that they might be drawing blood. She forced herself to relax, but she was still staring at President Palpatine.
He looked so ordinary! She wasn't even sure how she had recognised him. The structure of his face was the same, she supposed, but everything else ... there were no deep furrows in his face, no fixed maniacal smile. His eyes, though still yellow of course, were perfectly calm. He even had most of his straight, light brown hair, although it was starting to thin a bit at the temples. Slowly, she shook her head in wonder.
She heard Luke's voice, strained and unfamiliar. "No," said Luke, "that's wrong. He's not dead."
Leia said distantly, "they must have thought he was." Feeling numb, she stepped again to the screen displaying the index.
Palpatine had said, "one year ago today". She skimmed up to the date a year before Palpatine's speech. Sure enough, there was a large number of news stories clustered around that date. She studied the entry for the first story in that group, which was also the longest. She thought, this must be it.
She keyed in the code.
The report began, focused on a carefully made-up and coiffured human newsreader, the woman's face bearing the subdued but urgent expression that usually only accompanies the most important, and serious, stories. The newsreader said, "and now, News of the Galaxy brings you a special report, the result of our investigations into the terrible accident that still threatens the life of Field Marshal Anakin Skywalker."
What? wondered Leia. So when did this damned accident happen?
But she had no more time to think about it. The newsreader was continuing, "some of the images in this report are of a disturbing nature. Parents should be aware of this and consider seriously whether to allow children to continue watching. Anyone who is easily shaken should switch off now."
Always, Leia thought snidely, the best way to get people to continue watching.
"The pictures you are about to see are from the rescue services' own security recording, released in full for the first time. As you will see, serious questions are raised about the rescue procedures, and about the causes of Field Marshal Skywalker's accident..."
The image switched to the twisted metal wreckage of a crashed ship, surrounded by the rubble of what must once have been walls and a ceiling. One remaining bit of wall, with a window still in place, stood out starkly against the general chaos. The sky beyond was dark, interspersed with the glint of city lights. The scene of the crash was illuminated by white emergency floodlighting, and by a last few smouldering glimmers of flame. Rescue workers were clambering all over the hull of the ship, and the camera zoomed in.
The newsreader, in voice-over now, went on, "It took the rescue services only a few minutes to reach the scene of destruction. The impact of the crash had destroyed the upper two storeys of an apartment building. Fortunately the flats were unoccupied at the time. The fire from the exploding engine spread rapidly throughout the building. The rescue team was able to bring the fire under control, and entered the building to find the wreckage of a city-wing."
Suddenly Leia was very sorry that she had decided to find this. I can't watch this! she thought. But she knew that she couldn't stop watching, either.
The voice-over was replaced by the sound from the original recording. Somewhere, water hissed on fire, and someone was swearing.
One wing of the ship on the side that they could see had been completely ripped off. The other was bent back far enough to touch the flank of the ship. The ship's nose was buried in a heap of rubble. The central power core had exploded on impact, and the hull over it was blown away. Large rents in the metal spread out from the centre of the explosion. One rescue worker was balancing precariously on the twisted wing, dousing the ship with some kind of foam.
Another of the rescuers was reporting to the man who seemed to be in charge, but although Leia heard the words, she no longer fully understood them. She backed away, felt for the sofa and sank down onto it. The holocam was once more zooming in on the wreckage of the cockpit, and Leia saw what was inside. Her visions of the accident rushed back to her, and she knew what it felt like to be trapped there, in a body that everyone thought was dead.
But before, she hadn't seen what it looked like. Now she saw.
She heard Luke whisper, "oh, my Gods."
The body in the cockpit was completely unrecognisable. At first, Anakin's head and face seemed to have sustained the greatest damage. The pilot's seat had protected his body from the worst of the blast, but his hair, the clothing around his neck and shoulders, even his ears, had all been burnt off. The back seats had been shoved into the front one, pushing it forward, and Anakin was trapped between his seat and the controls. As the picture zoomed in even closer, Leia saw to her horror that the soot-blackened face was also criss-crossed by a myriad of cuts, from the fragments of the cockpit's forward window that must have showered in on him. His left eye had been sliced open and was now oozing slowly down his face.
One of the rescuers made the obvious comment, "holy shit. Not even his -- or her -- mother would recognise him now."
Another said, "I wonder whether we'll find out who that was."
They kept talking, but Leia had tuned them out again. On closer inspection, his body hadn't fared any better than his face. It might have been protected from most of the explosion, but still the destruction had been massive. His right hand was missing entirely. The scorched and bloodsoaked fabric of what seemed to once have been a black shirt was perforated in several places by curved white objects that Leia at first couldn't identify -- until she realised that they must be his ribs. His left arm was obviously broken. This was made clear when one of the rescue workers picked up the bent and dangling limb and shook it gently about like the arm of a broken puppet. Through the filth of blood and soot, the white end of another bone was visible at Anakin's shoulder. It moved a little as the rescue worker swung his broken arm.
The worker commented as he stared at the blackened arm, "I hope you like your meat well done."
Another worker reached out hesitantly and touched one of the jutting bits of broken rib. His hand moved along it to Anakin's chest. Then suddenly he jerked his hand away.
"Fuck!" the man gasped. "Oh, great redeemer. Lord Almighty. Damnation."
"What?" the other worker demanded.
His companion, still swearing, took a step backward and nearly fell over.
"What, for fuck's sake?"
"Sweet Lord. Oh, shit. He is still alive. I felt him breathe."
The other man said, "I think I have to throw up."
While the worker was being sick, a third man ran up to them. "It can't be," the newcomer insisted. "That man can't be alive." He scrambled up to the cockpit, putting his hand to Anakin's throat, and still protesting, "I felt for his pulse earlier, just after we put out the fire enough to reach the ship."
Leia knew what the man would find, but she still couldn't help holding her breath as a weird silence settled over the scene. As all of them watched, bright red blood welled up around the rescue worker's soot-covered fingers.
The man breathed, "oh, my God." Then he yelled, "somebody call a medic, for fuck's sake!" Without checking to see if anyone had obeyed him, he squeezed himself into the cockpit, closer to Anakin, and put a hand over Anakin's heart. In an awestruck tone, he muttered, "man, how many ribs can you break at once?"
And, just barely audible, a voice whispered, "twenty-four."
The rescue worker screamed.
Twenty-four. Leia remembered now that in her dream, Anakin had indeed said that. She clapped a hand to her mouth. And now the camera, zoomed right in on Anakin's face, showed a small trickle of blood running out of his nose. From the frame of the cockpit, globules of fire-suppressant foam dropped onto his head and down his burned scalp. His lips opened slightly, and Leia and Luke, and the rescue workers, heard him breathe.
The holocam zoomed out again, the scene now filled with running workers. Everyone was shouting again. Leia stopped watching. She turned abruptly away from the holopad and buried her face in one of the huge purple cushions. She put her hands up to her ears, trying to block out the sound. But she could still hear everything, though she wasn't sure how much she actually heard and how much was coming back to her from her dream.
A medic had arrived. She was talking to Anakin in calming tones, though the calm voice was periodically interspersed with her yelling at the rest of the rescue team. They were trying to get Anakin out of the cockpit now; Leia felt her -- or his, she supposed -- body jolt slightly as they started to cut into the ship's hull.
"Be careful," ordered the medic. "He cannot afford any more injuries." And then she said, speaking to Anakin again, "this is going to hurt. This is going to hurt a lot." She drove into Anakin's chest with a syringe, and Leia screamed.
Suddenly the sound stopped. Leia felt hands on her shoulders, trying to pull her up from the sofa cushion, and slowly she realised that they were indeed on her shoulders, not on Anakin's. Luke was saying urgently, "Leia. Leia."
She sat up and blinked at the holovision. The images were still continuing, but silently now. Luke must have put the holopad on mute. The medic was cleaning the muck off of Anakin's face, and Leia stared blankly as she removed the mess that had been Anakin's left eye.
Luke said, "we've got to stop this." He stood up and started toward the console.
He looked back at her in surprise.
"We've got this far," Leia said. "We can't leave him now."
Luke gazed at her doubtfully, then returned to the sofa and sat beside her again. He reached out and held her hand. Leia whispered, "put the sound back on."
Luke obeyed. As the sound returned, Leia heard another bit of conversation that she remembered, this time from her vision in the cargo hold. One rescuer reporting to another that the pilot had been identified, and that he was Anakin Skywalker.
The response to that was, "holy shit."
Leia winced as the medic took an infusion bag out of the case that she had slung over her shoulder, and hooked Anakin up to it, sticking in the infusion's needle just above his collarbone. Then the medic began to work on his right arm, and the stump of his missing hand. "There's something very odd about this," she muttered. "Whatever did you do to this hand?"
A moment later the medic yelped and straightened up, banging her head against the ship. "Ah, damn!" She stared at Anakin. "Never, never do that again. It's not nice to meddle with people's heads. Anyway, I'm sorry, you don't make much sense in your condition. But, okay, now I know." She shook her head. "Jedi!"
"What did he think at her?" Luke whispered.
Leia couldn't answer. If he'd thought it in her dream, she didn't remember.
Anakin's breathing was growing louder. The medic said, "Anakin? Anakin, would you please look at me? You're hyperventilating, god knows how, but you are. If you keep on like this you're going to lose consciousness, and I don't think your body will keep working." There was a long pause, then she added quietly, "whatever your wife has done, there's nothing you can do about it now."
Someone else asked, "his wife? Admiral Talassa?"
"Yes. I don't know what happened, but something his wife has done caused this."
Leia glanced instinctively at Luke, and knew that his shocked expression must be just the same as hers.
Leia and Luke watched as the workers managed to finally manoeuvre Anakin out of his ship. An ambulance ship landed beside the wreck. Leia reflected that Anakin was definitely making the medics work for their paycheques today. Just as they got him onto a stretcher and down to the ground, his breathing stopped. Leia gave up on watching the medics' frantic attempts to start him breathing again; after all, she knew that they'd succeed. She gazed instead at the thick velvet drapes on the walls. When she looked back, they were just moving Anakin into the ambulance.
The first medic was watching this. One of the rescue workers walked up to her. He asked, "what was all that about his wife?"
The woman frowned. "I don't know. I got these pictures from him, when I asked about his hand. Not very clear of course, but somehow, an ... Obi Wan, or somesuch, cut off his hand with a lightsaber. Because of his -- that is, Anakin's -- wife."
The shock of those words slammed into Leia. She felt Luke's hand slip away from hers.
He stood up abruptly. Leia jumped up as well, but her brother was already racing for the door. She yelled after him, "Luke!"
He didn't stop. The door slid open as he approached, and he rushed out into the hallway. Without bothering to turn off the holovision, Leia ran after him.
She didn't know why she was chasing him; she certainly had no idea what she'd say if she caught up with him. "Hey, Luke, I'm sorry that the man you respect most in the universe cut off our father's hand"? No, that didn't sound very impressive. Cut off our father's hand because of our mother. Cut off our father's hand and caused his accident, she supposed; flying c-wings with one hand wasn't generally a good idea.
She saw Luke, ahead of her, stop at the door to their quarters and slam his hand against the control panel. He strode inside. By the time she too had reached the guest quarters, he had gone into the bedroom he was using, shutting the door behind him.
Leia stood in the main doorway, staring at the closed bedroom door and wondering if there was any point in trying to talk with him. She had a brief inkling of what it might have been like to grow up with her twin brother. There would probably, she thought, have been a lot of occasions marked by Luke disappearing into his bedroom to sulk. Not, of course, that it was really fair to accuse him of sulking now.
Damn it. She supposed she would have to leave him alone. She leaned against the doorframe, feeling suddenly exhausted. She hoped that bloody Palpatine wouldn't want to see them again tonight. She could really use some sleep.
As she looked up and started to step into the room, she caught a glimpse of someone in the corridor behind her.
Emperor Palpatine was standing in the distance, watching her. It was too far for her to see, but she was sure that he was smiling.
Leia met his gaze for a moment, then she stepped inside. The door shut behind her.
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