Luke leaned against the window, his forehead pressed against the cold plastisteel surface. Outside, the lights of Imperial City sparkled like the jewels to which Coruscant was so often compared.
He felt sick. It was odd that he hadn't felt sick before, when they were watching the report of the accident. Anakin's injuries were certainly appalling, but he supposed he had been almost prepared for that. Certainly he'd known they must have been pretty horrible. What Leia had said on awaking from her dream had been indication enough, and anyhow, people didn't go around with the sort of life-support equipment that Darth had to wear just for the hell of it. But this -- gods. No, he hadn't been prepared for anything like this.
An Obi Wan or somesuch cut off his hand with a lightsaber. Because of Anakin's wife.
He tried to tell himself that it wasn't possible, it had to be a mistake. Maybe the medic had heard Anakin's thoughts wrong. Maybe --
No, it wasn't any good. Why try to deny this? All of the other awful things he'd found out about his family had turned out to be true. Why should this be any different?
He turned away from the window and walked dispiritedly back to the bed. He slumped down, sitting there for a moment, then he lay back, staring at the ceiling.
He heard Darth's voice in his mind, saying "Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father."
No, he sure as hell didn't.
Luke was suddenly furious at himself. Why had he never talked with Darth about this? Why did he have to be such a damned coward, that he couldn't even talk with his father?
He wished glumly that when Darth had said that to him, he'd behaved like a mature human being. Instead of shouting "no" and flinging himself into a bottomless -- well, almost bottomless -- pit, why couldn't he have stuck around and had a sensible chat? Okay, so it was pretty hard to imagine the two of them sitting around on the Cloud City maintenance deck while Darth related the story of his life, but you never know. Stranger things had happened.
Luke held up his own artificial hand, staring at it as he moved the fingers one by one. He remembered the rush of white-hot pain when Darth's lightsaber had cut off his original hand. He closed his eyes, imagining that same pain attacking Darth -- no, Anakin, this time.
Obi Wan cut off his hand with a lightsaber, because of Anakin's wife.
What about Anakin's wife? Luke wondered desperately. He thought of the cheerful young woman he had seen in the holo of the award ceremony. The obvious suspicion crept into his mind, and he tried to push it away. No, he wasn't even going to begin to think about that.
Obi Wan Kenobi and Admiral Talassa -- Luke realised with shame that he still didn't even know his mother's first name.
He sat up again, tensing with anger. He thought of the last time he had spoken with Obi Wan, and heard himself demanding, "Ben, why didn't you tell me?"
Yeah. Why didn't you tell me. Why didn't you tell me you cut off my father's hand. Why didn't you tell me that -- oh, gods, that something was going on between you and my mother.
For a moment he had a sick, horrible fear that Darth, or Anakin, wasn't his father at all.
Oh, no. No, no, no, absolutely not. No way. No, damn it, he'd had too many godsdamned traumas about who his father was already. He was just starting to come to terms with Darth, he was not going to find out now that he had a different father to worry about. Once upon a time he might have been glad for Obi Wan to be his father, but not now.
He wished viciously that the old man wasn't dead. He wanted to find out what had happened with Obi Wan and Admiral Talassa -- and when he had found out, he wanted to hurt Obi Wan. A lot.
You bastard, he thought. I trusted you. And what did you do? Ever since I met you, you lied to me.
Luke's heart jolted. He whirled around to face the source of the voice, over by the window.
Obi Wan Kenobi stood there, his form outlined by the usual faint blue glow. Luke wondered if he was imagining it, or whether the Jedi's facial expression was a bit less placid than usual.
Luke stood up. He realised that he was trembling slightly. He wasn't sure what his emotions were. The automatic happiness that he would usually feel at seeing his old friend was fighting against his suspicion and anger. Suspicion and anger were winning.
"Luke," Obi Wan said quietly. "You want to talk with me?"
No, thought Luke, I want to smash your damned face in. He struggled to calm himself. He said, his voice sounding harsher than he'd expected, "I need to know what happened."
"We've talked about it before." Did he sound as patient as always, or was there an edge to his voice that hadn't always been there? "Your father had turned to the Dark Side. I had to confront him. There wasn't any choice."
Luke demanded, "did you have to sleep with my mother?"
Obi Wan Kenobi stared at him, looking shocked. "What?" The dead Jedi swiftly collected himself. He said urgently, "no, you're wrong. It wasn't like that."
"What was it like?" Luke's anger was making him reckless. At the moment he didn't care about anything else, just about finding out the truth.
"He'd become a dangerous man. Violent. Your mother wasn't safe with him. No one was safe. She had to leave. It was the only way, to protect her and to protect you."
"What did he do that was so dangerous?"
Painful memories darkened Obi Wan's face. "He killed one of the students in my school. And he had killed others. He and Palpatine were already planning the destruction of the Jedi--"
Obi Wan blinked at the question. "Yes, of course -- "
Luke rushed on, "maybe they weren't planning that. Maybe he meant what he said. Maybe he really believed the Jedi were wrong. Maybe they were wrong. Maybe the galaxy didn't need them."
"Luke, millions of innocent people were killed. That was the Dark Side, working through your father."
Luke snapped, "fuck the Dark Side. And the Light Side. I don't believe in them."
For a moment, Obi Wan didn't have an answer. Then he said gently, "that's your father talking, Luke. Not you."
"No," said Luke, "it's me." He felt a wave of despair. His anger was seeping away, and he desperately wanted it back. He also wanted to crawl into bed, hide his head under the pillow and never emerge into the real world again. He wanted to trust Obi Wan, and he wanted to trust his father, and he also wanted both of them just to leave him the hell alone. He said wearily, "Obi Wan, I have to know. Just once, you have to tell me the truth."
"I haven't lied to you, Luke. Ever."
Luke quoted sneeringly, "everything you said was true from a certain point of view."
Obi Wan looked surprised, and Luke took a step toward the glowing blue form. "All right," Luke went on in a threatening tone, though what was the point of threatening a dead man, he really didn't know. "So tell me. From your certain point of view, what happened the night my father lost his hand?"
Hastily, in a voice that was teetering on the edge of panic, Obi Wan said, "you're angry. I understand that. You're not thinking calmly. When you're calm, we'll talk about this -- "
"No!" Luke shouted. "We'll talk about it now!"
He took another step toward Obi Wan, and suddenly Luke realised that he was using the Force in a way he had never used it before. Somehow, he had reached into Obi Wan's mind. He felt the old man's amazement and disbelief, that were rapidly growing into fear. He felt Obi Wan try to pull away from him, and Luke took firmer hold, with a sensation as if his fingers were digging like claws into Obi Wan's thoughts.
"Luke," he heard Obi Wan whisper, "don't do this. Please."
Luke said, "I have to know."
The Jedi tried to twist away, and Luke flung himself deeper into Obi Wan's mind. Some distant portion of Luke's own mind was surprised that Obi Wan hadn't managed to break free from him. But, after all, he reminded himself mockingly, the Force is strong in my family. He realised, with vicious elation, that Obi Wan was not going to be able to get away.
He wasn't sure what he was doing. He just felt that he was diving down into Obi Wan's memories, and swimming deeper and deeper into them.
He had lost his sense of sight, he could no longer see Obi Wan's shocked and frightened face. Then, abruptly, his sight was back. But he was not looking at Obi Wan, or the bedroom in Palpatine's guest chambers.
He seemed to be standing in a much darker room, lit by one floor lamp and the street-lighting from outside the large window. A living room, it looked like. Instead of Obi Wan, he was staring at Anakin Skywalker, who was sitting on a couch in front of him and glaring at him like some predatory animal.
Luke heard a voice asking, "what do you want?" He thought at first that it was his own voice, but no, he realised, it was Obi Wan's.
Anakin answered in a quietly dangerous tone, "an explanation."
"About what?" asked Obi Wan.
Anakin leapt up and was suddenly right in front of Luke -- or in front of Obi Wan, Luke supposed. Luke had the sensation of being grabbed by the clothing at his chest and shoved back against the wall. He heard a sudden humming sound, and realised that Obi Wan must have ignited his lightsaber.
Anakin grated, "I want to know whether you have an explanation for why you told my wife to leave me."
It was like watching another News of the Galaxy interview, Luke thought -- and then again, it wasn't at all. In the News of the Galaxy, he hadn't been able to smell the alcohol on Anakin's breath.
"Tell me, Obi Wan Kenobi," Anakin went on, "is there a reason why you ruined my life? Or did you do it just to spite me?"
There was a sudden twinge of surprise and anger on Anakin's face, and Luke realised that Obi Wan must be using the Force to try and make him let go. Anakin's eyes narrowed. Luke wasn't sure how he knew, but he could tell that Anakin was fighting back -- using the Force himself, to make Obi Wan drop his lightsaber.
"Stop that!" Obi Wan gasped.
Anakin grinned. "Make me."
Obi Wan's power flung Anakin backward. Anakin fell over a chair, knocking it over and sprawling onto the floor. He started to laugh.
"Beware the Dark Side of the Force," he mocked, sitting up. "Anger, aggression, the Dark Side are they."
The humming of Obi Wan's lightsaber stopped. Obi Wan walked to a low table at the centre of the room and sat down on it. There was a broken mug on the tabletop, and Obi Wan picked up a piece of it and started turning it around in his hands. He said heavily, "do you still need an explanation after that little demonstration of yours?"
Anakin struggled back up to his feet, staggering a little as he did so, then stared at Obi Wan. "What do you mean? You told my wife to leave me because I was going to attack you in the future? Did you have a vision with this in it and decide to make it come true?"
Obi Wan looked up at him. "Do you really think that?"
"Why can't you give a clear answer?" Anakin exploded. "Damn it! You act like you're a fucking oracle! I think I can get your drift, but it doesn't give you the right to mess up my marriage!"
"You are a dangerous man," Obi Wan insisted. "Anger and hate are the path -- "
"My marriage is still none of your business."
"Shura came to me and asked me, that makes it my business."
The pain that washed over Anakin’s face took Luke by surprise. Anakin demanded, almost in a scream,“why did she come to you and not to me?”
The perspective of Luke's vision changed, and he realised that Obi Wan had stood up. He was still dwarfed by Anakin Skywalker.
Obi Wan hesitated. Then he said quietly, “Anakin, she’s afraid of you.”
“How could she not be? She sees you using the Force to hurt people. To kill. How long will it be before you use the Force against her?”
Obi Wan’s words seemed to jolt Anakin, almost as if he’d received a physical wound. He stared at the Jedi, as though he couldn’t believe that he’d heard what Obi Wan had said. Nearly in a whisper, Anakin protested, “I wouldn’t hurt her. Ever. She knows that.”
Obi Wan prodded, “does she? How? Do you know it? Without any question?”
“Yes,” said Anakin. “I know.” He still looked shaken for a moment, then an unpleasant smile twisted Anakin’s mouth. “You’re lying,” he said. “This isn’t about me, is it? It’s you. You still can’t forgive me for walking out on your precious school.”
“That’s not it.”
“Do you know it isn’t?” Anakin challenged, throwing back Obi Wan’s words. “Without any question?” Anakin grinned. “I spoiled your dream, didn’t I. You can’t be the great Jedi teacher as long as I’m around to remind people that sometimes your pupils leave. If I’m doing well, it proves you can be wrong. You don’t have all the answers.”
“I never said --”
Anakin didn’t let him finish. "But if my life gets ruined,” he continued, “you can say it’s all because of the Dark Side, and everybody’ll think you’re perfect again.”
“Anakin, please, you’ve had too much to drink. Just go home.”
“Did I prove that you can't teach? Is this your revenge?"
"No!” Obi Wan insisted. “Not revenge. I just thought it would be safer if Shura left. Safer for both of you."
Anakin’s voice had suddenly turned very cold. "It's not safer for you."
The blade of Anakin's lightsaber hummed into life. It was blue, and Luke realised with a shock that it must be the first lightsaber Luke himself had used. The one that Obi Wan had told him his father wanted him to have.
"Anakin," Obi Wan was saying. "You don't want to do this. You're drunk."
"Yeah. So what."
"Anakin, there's still time. If you attack me now, your fate will be on the Dark Side forever. This is your last chance to return."
Anakin said in a strange, flat voice, "now you tell me. Now, when it's too late. My Master, you have failed."
He raised his lightsaber and struck at Obi Wan. Obi Wan's own lightsaber was suddenly in his hand again, and the glowing blades hit each other, blue against blue.
"You cannot defeat me," Obi Wan said, a note of pride in his voice.
Anakin answered, "we'll see."
As they fought, Luke was starting to feel dizzy. It was bizarre, being dragged along like this seemingly in Obi Wan's body, but unable to direct any of the moves that Obi Wan made. He watched the lightsabers strike against each other again and again. Anakin was still enraged, that much was obvious. He was also obviously drunk, and Luke was terrified for him. Surely there was no way that a drunk and angry man could stand a chance against a Jedi Master who was sober? Luke wanted to scream at Anakin to run away, to leave now while he still could. But of course there was nothing he could say that Anakin would hear.
Anakin's lightsaber barely missed Obi Wan's shoulder, and sliced instead through the top of a chest of drawers. Obi Wan gave an incoherent yell, and his next strike passed barely an eighth of an inch above Anakin's head.
Anakin laughed again. "Are you going to kill me?" he asked.
Obi Wan struck at him, and managed to cut the table in half.
A pair of chairs were decapitated by Anakin as he struck at Obi Wan's legs. Anakin stumbled a bit regaining his balance, standing now beside the wicker screen that divided the kitchen from the living room. Anakin taunted, "I think, My Master, you're only afraid that people might learn you're human after all."
Obi Wan's lightsaber severed the base of the floor lamp, sending it crashing to the floor. In the suddenly darkened room, Anakin's thoughts caught at the shards of the glass lampshade, and flung them into the air at Obi Wan's face. As Obi Wan jumped away, Anakin pressed on, "maybe you just insist being a Jedi is the greatest thing in history because you haven't found anywhere else you belong. You need to feel superior to the rest of the galaxy because you don't have any kind of life!"
With the Force, Obi Wan seized at a large ornamental plate and hurled it at Anakin. Anakin cut it in half.
"Perhaps," sneered Anakin, "you're just jealous. Because I've found a woman who can bear to live with me, and you haven't."
There was a weird wrenching sound from the kitchen behind Anakin. Luke saw Anakin glance back, then dive at the kitchen floor. Some dark shape was flying at him, and Luke realised that Obi Wan had torn loose the refrigerator. The rectangular bulk swooped at Anakin, who was now scrambling away over the debris of the floor lamp. Then Anakin's own Force managed to catch the refrigerator. He sent it upward again, sailing toward Obi Wan. Obi Wan twisted out of the way, and the refrigerator's momentum carried it onward, sending it crashing through the window and plummeting out of sight.
Panting with exertion, but still laughing, Anakin gasped out, "I'm right, aren't I? There is a human being under your sanctity. A human being who's occasionally ruled by hormones."
Luke heard a snarl from Obi Wan, and the Jedi Master struck at Anakin, still on the floor. Anakin's blade caught the blow, but there was pain on Anakin's face. Anakin somehow managed to regain his feet, but Luke suddenly realised that he was about to lose. Obi Wan's anger had been loosed, and Anakin was not strong enough to stop it.
Luke caught a glimpse of Anakin's shocked, disbelieving face, then he heard Obi Wan scream in rage. Obi Wan's lightsaber made a gleaming arc through the air, cutting through Anakin's wrist and deep into the floor.
Luke heard Anakin's scream blend with Obi Wan's. The younger man fell to his knees, clutching at his wrist which was pulsing out blood. Then Anakin looked up, and there was new terror on his face. Luke realised to his horror that Obi Wan wasn't stopping. He was about to strike at Anakin again.
Anakin jumped up. He threw himself against Obi Wan, dove under the descending lightsaber and hurled Obi Wan backward. Obi Wan toppled over one of the upturned chairs.
When he struggled up again, Anakin was gone. Obi Wan ran into the entrance hallway, to be met by a shattered front door. Anakin must have used the Force to smash straight through it. The hall lights of the apartment building were on, and through Obi Wan’s eyes Luke saw splotches of blood on the hall carpet. Obi Wan started to run again, following the trail of blood.
Before long the blood stopped appearing, but Obi Wan seemed to know where he was going now. He lunged up a staircase, taking the steps two or three at a time. At the top of the stairs, Obi Wan flung himself through a door that had opened in front of him, and suddenly he and Luke were outside, on the roof. The wind was howling, tearing at them. At the other side of the roof, Luke could see the hunched-over form of Anakin, running for a c-wing which was parked on the landing platform. The door of the c-wing flew open, and Anakin lurched into the cockpit, nearly falling over. Obi Wan started running across the roof toward him. Luke wanted to scream a warning, then the c-wing jolted upward and started an erratic course above the rooftops.
Obi Wan's pace slowed, then finally stopped. He lowered his lightsaber. And watched, as the little c-wing soared vertically into the air. Its pilot was trying to drag it into a steadier course, but overcompensated. The c-wing now dived toward the city once more.
Obi Wan whispered, "oh, no. No, please!"
There was no doubt of it now, Anakin's c-wing was heading straight for one of the neighbouring buildings. Luke heard Obi Wan's anguished tone again, as he yelled out at no one, "no! Don't let it happen!"
The c-wing plunged into the building. A huge fireball sprang up, and Obi Wan squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again, he was staring at a building from which the top two storeys had been sheared as if with a gigantic knife. Flames were leaping into the air.
Obi Wan stood frozen for another moment, then he turned away and ran.
The next thing Luke saw was the blue-outlined Obi Wan Kenobi, crouching huddled against the window of Palpatine's guest room. Luke himself, he realised, had fallen to his knees, against one wall.
He saw that there were tears on Obi Wan's face.
Slowly, feeling that he must be a few million years old, Luke clambered to his feet. Obi Wan was still crouched there, staring up at him.
Luke choked out painfully, "I think you ought to leave."
Even after everything he'd seen, he still winced at the disbelief and hurt on the old man's face. "Luke," Obi Wan began, "please -- " The dead Jedi also struggled to a standing position. "Please, Luke, you've got to understand. I never wanted it to happen -- "
Luke said flatly, "I don't care what you wanted. I care what you did."
"You saw everything. You've got to know, I wasn't in the wrong -- "
Luke shook his head and turned away. Oh, gods, he felt so desperately tired. Any second now he was going to burst into sobs. He said, "go away. Please. Don't come back. I don't want to see you."
The worst of it was, that he knew in a sense Obi Wan was telling the truth. He'd been angry, yes, but he hadn't wanted what happened ... But, damn it, who cared? He'd still done it anyway.
"Luke, I understand your feelings. But you've got to understand -- "
Luke turned back toward him. The pain he saw in Obi Wan made him want to take everything back, say that everything was fine again. But it wasn't. Luke said, "you've hurt my family. You've hurt us too much. I won't let you hurt us again."
Obi Wan's glowing form seemed to shudder. For another moment he held Luke's gaze. Then he slowly faded out of sight.
Luke gasped, and sank down onto the bed once more. He wasn't crying, though he didn't know why. Surely, if he stuck to his usual behaviour patterns, he ought to be sobbing and screaming "no!"
He leaned forward and rested his head on his hands instead. He felt horribly cold.
He and Leia had to get out of here. They had to go home.
Admiral Grigori Piett struggled to maintain a neutral expression on his face. This was more than most of the other people seated around the conference table had managed to accomplish.
At least he had a new and improved selection of hostile faces to contemplate. After nearly three hours of tense and, as far as he was concerned, fairly pointless conference with the highest ranking Alliance leaders, it was something of a relief to see that the current hearing was being attended by a larger group of stressed-out command staff.
The others from the previous, middle-of-the-night meeting were still there: Captain Faren and Commander Narita, leaders of the joint Security forces, and Generals Dodonna, Rieekan, Madine, Calrissian and Veers. And of course Mon Mothma, but Piett was doing his best not to look at her. Now they were joined by the commanding officers of all the ships that were in port, and of the squadrons assigned to them.
Piett glanced around, noting the large number of officers who looked swiftly away rather than meet his gaze.
Only a tiny minority dared to lock eyes with the accused traitor. General Calrissian was one; he cast Piett an apologetic attempt at a smile, then scowled around at the rest of the room.
Captain Angus Needa, Piett’s old friend from the Academy and their days serving on the Annihilator, was another. Needa looked in a terrible temper, and Piett hoped that he’d keep his mouth shut. All they needed now was for Needa to go on one of his tirades and start denouncing the Rebellion or something.
Veers, another fellow ex-Imperial, met Piett’s glance steadily. The speculative, measuring gaze he was turning on Piett was not particularly comforting, but then Piett had never really felt comfortable around Veers at the best of times. The General's efficiency was of the type that got on Piett's nerves, as it always seemed to imply that everyone else was so much less efficient than Veers.
A fourth officer who didn't look away was Wedge Antilles, commander of the x-wing squadron stationed on the Executor. Antilles was looking frankly miserable; his expression had been getting increasingly unhappy as the hearing progressed. In front of him on the conference table was an electronic notepad on which he had either been taking notes or doodling. Piett rather hoped that the contents of Antilles' notepad might be unflattering cartoons of the rest of the officers.
Particularly, he thought, of General Madine. Madine, who was in the seat to Piett's left, would make a good subject for a cartoon just at the moment, with the outraged look on his face and his increasingly reddening complexion as he fulminated about something -- Piett suddenly realised that he'd stopped paying attention to what everyone was saying, and he forced himself to listen again. Somewhere in the midst of this idiocy, there might be something he ought to be responding to.
Madine was urging that Piett's case should be brought to trial, and that if convicted, he should be subject to the full wrath of the law. What law, Piett wondered. Some might say your whole bloody Rebellion is illegal, so you know, I'm not very impressed ... he was somewhat startled to notice how quickly he'd gone back to thinking of it as "their" Rebellion, and not his. He was glad that, on reflection, he had decided to put on a clean uniform. It was, however, probably a good thing that he had not worn his "silly little hat", as Rilla always insisted on calling it. The hat was one item of Imperial uniform that he had stopped wearing almost as soon as he realised that the New Alliance did not have a strict dress code. He had considered wearing it today, but was glad that he had not. Going out of his way to look like an Imperial officer was not a stunningly good idea.
As Madine worked up to a new peroration, Commander Antilles slammed his notepad down on the table, causing the officers around him to jump, and managing to throw Madine off his stride long enough for Antilles to interject. "General, you've made your point," said the x-wing commander. "I'm still not convinced the evidence we've got is more than circumstantial..."
Madine glanced for support at Security Captain Faren, who recapped the evidence. "The message was sent from the terminal in Admiral Piett's office, using the Admiral's own access code. Piett admits that he was in the office half an hour before the message was sent, and he cannot account for his whereabouts at the time of the message -- "
Piett snapped, giving up for the moment on his attempt to remain calm, "I can account for them, you just don't believe me!"
General Calrissian pointed out, before anyone could jump on Piett for his outburst, "it isn't usually considered a crime not to have proof of where you were at 1.30 in the morning."
"Anyway," added Captain Needa, "we still can't prove Admiral Piett sent the message. No offense to Security, but it wouldn't be that tough for any of us to find out someone else's access code, or get into their office. With the kind of facility this is, and the amount of people we've got running around here all the time, there's no way of making sure everyone's where they're supposed to be." Needa shut up at that point rather than talking a blue streak, to Piett’s grateful surprise. He would have expected Angus to keep talking till he got them all into even deeper shit.
Their fellow ex-Imperial Veers took up the argument. "That's correct," Veers agreed. "If the message was sent from one of the Star Destroyers then we'd know who sent it, the security cameras would have picked it up. If someone's trying to frame Piett, they must have known that, and decided to send it from the Base instead."
"That same reasoning would work if Piett had sent the message himself," observed General Dodonna, sounding weary and sorrowful.
Veers' mention of the security cameras had made another thought occur to Piett. He threw himself back into the fray, saying, "look, speaking of the security cameras, I use the same code when I'm in my office on the Executor. The cameras there could be adjusted to focus on my computer, so theoretically, anyone who can get access to the security recordings could know my code. Or any other officer's.”
Various officers eyed each other warily or shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Captain Bailey of the Shador asked, "why are the security cameras still operating at all? They may be standard procedure in the Empire, but not in the Alliance. We believe in the right to privacy..."
General Veers' voice sliced coldly across Bailey's declaration. "At no point during the Endor negotiations were we told to disable our security systems. Is there anything else you'd like us to change? Shall we dismantle the Star Destroyers' gymnasiums because they're not standard features of Mon Calamari cruisers?"
"Gentlemen," interrupted Mon Mothma, "this is not the issue."
General Dodonna sighed, "I agree we don't have proof of Admiral Piett's guilt, but we certainly have justification for detaining him while the investigation continues. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the still the best. We may have a different traitor who is also stealing access codes, or Admiral Piett may have sent the message himself."
Piett tried to say something, but gave up as everyone else was talking at once. The one who succeeded in being loudest was the Calamari Captain Ifar, who opined, "surely if the Admiral intended treachery, he wouldn't be stupid enough to use his own computer and access code!"
Commander Narita of Security was frowning and shaking her head. She replied, "the message was sent the night before the Chandrila meeting. Whoever sent it may have thought their first priority was speed, so it could reach the Imperials in time for them to plan their attack. In that situation, he might not have taken the time to camouflage his message."
"Look," objected Commander Antilles, "I think we're forgetting something pretty crucial. Admiral Piett's the main reason the attack on the Chandrilan station failed. If he sent the stupid message, why would he work his butt off to stop the Imps from getting to the station?"
"We can't know that," General Madine said primly. "That may have been the plan arranged between them. A feigned attack by Imperial ships to provide distraction while Commander Skywalker and Princess Leia were kidnapped, with Piett fighting off the attack as insurance against his treason being suspected. He did realise very swiftly the nature of the Imperials' tactics ... "
Commander Antilles muttered, "oh, for fuck's sake ... "
Captain Needa observed, "any officer who remembered his Shield Technology could have realised that just as swiftly. In fact, General," he went on, with a not-very-pleasant smile at Madine, "you were at the Academy, weren't you? Did you take Shield Technology before you defected? Come to think of it, you could be the traitor too."
Madine opened his mouth to respond, but Mon Mothma cut him off. "Please!" she said sharply. "We're not here to trade wild accusations."
"Really?" murmured General Calrissian. "I've heard nothing but wild accusations all morning."
Some of the other officers cast disapproving looks at Calrissian. Before the debate could pick up again, Piett asked with asperity, "should I just go back to my cell? You obviously don't need me to contribute to this discussion."
Mon Mothma turned on him a glance that might have held some attempt at apology, but Piett did not acknowledge the look. General Dodonna asked, "is there something you want to say, Admiral?"
"Yes. It'd save a lot of time and argument if you just put me through the lie detectors."
"You mean a mind probe?" Mon Mothma asked quietly, a note of horror in her voice.
"That, or use a truth serum, or both."
Piett's suggestion was clearly not going over well with most of the long-time Rebels. Mon Mothma said tensely, "Admiral, you may not be aware that Imperial mind probe techniques are among the abuses named in the Articles of Rebellion. For us to use such technology now would be an ultimate hypocrisy -- "
"I am aware of it, Ma'am," Piett snapped back. "Surely it's only an abuse when used on an unwilling subject. I am not only willing, I demand the right to prove my innocence."
Dodonna said tiredly, "we can't allow this, Admiral. The Alliance banned the use of mind probes and truth drugs because of the health risks involved. There's too much risk of brain damage to make the procedure acceptable -- "
Piett exclaimed, "I'll risk the brain damage, if it'll make all of you stop looking at me like I'm a damned child molester!"
General Madine observed to no one in particular, "only an Imperial would advocate the use of such immoral technology ... "
Mon Mothma turned a furious glare on Madine. She yelled at him, "shut up!"
Commander Antilles' voice broke out over the general upsurge of shouting. "This is crazy! We're not thinking! Why would Admiral Piett betray the Rebellion now? There've got to be a lot more important secrets he could have sent to Palpatine before now. Why this?"
"We don't know that he hasn't," said Captain Faren. "This could simply be the first time that he's gotten caught."
You little shit, Piett thought. I'll bet you're really getting off on insulting an Admiral like this. But meanwhile, Madine was speaking again.
"The simplest explanation," he began, with a nod at Dodonna to acknowledge the borrowing of Dodonna's phrase, "is that Piett is acting on the orders of Darth Vader."
Needa groaned. "Oh, now we really don't have any evidence -- "
Madine smiled. "It all holds together, though, doesn't it. Attack, kidnapping, the disappearance of Vader and Solo. If Vader orchestrated the attack and the capture, what makes more sense than that he would rely on the assistance of his usual lackey?"
Piett jumped to his feet. Before he could manage to speak, General Rieekan objected, "General Madine, there's no need to be insulting ... "
Madine ignored him. "You'd do anything Vader told you to, wouldn't you?" he asked, standing up and speaking directly to Piett. "You're too afraid of him to do anything else."
Piett felt the blood rushing to his face. "Of course I'm afraid of him!" he yelled. "If you weren't such an idiot, you would be too!"
The sight of Madine's smirking visage was more than he could stand. Instead he looked around in appeal at the assembled officers. "Madine's wrong about Vader," he said urgently. "He wouldn't betray you."
"Then where is he now?" Madine prodded. "Why isn't he here?"
"You bloody moron, he's looking for his son! Surely some of you humane Rebels can understand that!"
The meeting was dissolving again. Without paying attention to whether anyone else was listening to him, Madine continued to Piett, "you're a good servant, aren't you, Admiral? Vader couldn't ask for better. Did he tell you to keep ingratiating yourself with the higher echelons while he's away? You've made a fine start, I'm sure Vader would be proud of you."
"I beg your pardon?" Piett asked, thinking, I'm going to kill him.
"Well, I mean, sleeping with the Head of State. Can't get much more ingratiating than that."
Almost before he himself realised what he was doing, Piett's right fist connected with Madine's jaw. Amid the yells of everyone – including a shout of “yes!” that Piett recognised as the voice of Angus Needa -- Madine stumbled backward and tripped over his chair. The chair skidded away and bounced off the wall, while Madine landed on his buttocks with a pronounced thud.
Piett grated, standing over him, "if you must have such unworthy thoughts, at least have the decency to keep them to yourself."
General Dodonna was bellowing, "quiet! Be quiet, now!"
As something like order was regained, and a bland faced General Veers helped Madine back into his retrieved chair, Dodonna said coldly, "thank you. I think this meeting has accomplished everything it can. The investigation will continue. But first we must put to a vote whether there is enough evidence for us to continue detaining Admiral Piett."
No one looked very happy at the prospect -- except Madine, who was clutching his jaw. Once again, Piett seemed suddenly to have become invisible, for all the eye-contact he was afforded.
Of the assembled officers, three voted for Piett to be released. General Calrissian, Commander Antilles, and Captain Needa.
General Veers abstained, as did Mon Mothma.
Piett looked at her questioningly as she stated her abstention, but her glance shied away from his.
He sighed. It wasn't fair of him to be angry at her for not voting to release him. Abstention was as far as she could go, he knew that. Anyway, what right did he have to expect anything from her? So she'd slept with him once. That didn't mean she could know that he wasn't a fiendish traitor.
A fiendish traitor who'd used her to further his plans, just as Madine had said.
What a fool he'd been to think that things could be different for him. To think his life would change if he joined the Rebellion. To think maybe he could make a difference.
Terrorised Imperial officer or would-be Rebel, he was just as irrelevant.
His gaze passed over Mon Mothma again, who this time seemed to be pleading with him to meet her eyes.
Piett looked away.
She'd been feeling pretty foul since the moment she woke up, but the smell of coffee brewing as the droid prepared their breakfast was the final straw. She staggered out of bed, looked around blearily for her robe, then realised that she wasn't going to have time to search for it. She'd be lucky if she even made it to the toilet. Her bedroom door slid open in front of her and Leia dashed across the living room, nearly colliding with the droid as it bustled around the table. She made an abrupt detour to avoid the droid, skidded into the bathroom almost slipping on the tiles, and somehow managed to fling herself down over the toilet just before it was too late.
She'd certainly thrown up the few bits of salad she'd eaten last night, and there couldn't be anything left in there, but for some reason her stomach thought it ought to continue heaving. She kept retching in agony, the harsh taste of stomach acids burning at her mouth. Just when she thought it might be over, her guts once again tried to turn themselves inside out.
"Fuck," moaned Leia. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Maybe her stomach was finally calming down. She gasped weakly, put her elbows up on the toilet rim and propped her forehead on her hands. Her hair was clinging sweatily to her face, and she tried to shove it away.
She thought, when I see Han again I'm going to kill him for this. Leia wondered if things had settled enough inside for her to risk leaving the toilet. If she didn't clean herself up, and get this taste out of her mouth, there was no way she'd be able to go on living. She glanced toward the bath, and then shrieked.
Crouched with the toilet between her and the bath, with one hand clapped to her mouth and her heart thudding like it was going into hyperdrive, Leia stared at the black-robed figure that was sitting on the marble steps leading down into the tub. Then she screamed at him in fury, "don't do that!"
Emperor Palpatine looked infernally chipper for this time of the morning. He beamed at her placidly and said, "good morning, my dear."
"It's not," Leia muttered sullenly. "It's a terrible morning. Get out of here." There was a sinister twisting in her stomach, and she had a very bad feeling that the puking was going to start up again. Palpatine continued to smile at her, and she glanced down to make sure that the nightgown she was wearing was covering all essential areas. Gods, she must look hideous. The only slight hint of comfort was that Palpatine almost certainly looked worse than she did, but then, he always did.
"I'm sorry you're unwell, Leia," Palpatine said conversationally, sounding almost like a human being. "You don't have to go through this, you know. I can help you."
"You're an expert on pregnancy?" Leia grated.
"No," the Emperor admitted. "I am, however, expert in the use of the Force."
He gave his weird frog-like grin. "I assure you," he remarked, "it can be very useful."
"I'm sure," she said warily, standing up and edging one cautious step closer to the door. She wondered whether there was any chance that Palpatine would let her get out of the bathroom. Though where one could hide from mind-reading emperors who could teleport, she didn't have any idea.
Her stomach was still twisting. Her glance flicked over to the toilet for one longing moment, then she looked back at Emperor Palpatine. Maybe being pathetic would work better on him than being hostile. Certainly her hostility seemed to be bouncing right off him, leaving him as insanely cheerful as ever. Leia said softly, allowing a forlorn little quiver to enter her voice, "I don't think I can take this right now. Could you go away? Please?" She hated saying "please" to the bastard, but if it allowed her to do her puking in peace, it was worth it.
Palpatine chuckled and stood up from his perch on the bathtub steps. He moved a few paces closer to Leia, and involuntarily she backed away, finding herself plastered up against the towel rack. She glanced around wildly and saw absolutely no possible weapons of defense, not unless she managed to wrench the towel rack out of the wall. She didn't reckon that the towels themselves would be very useful at keeping Palpatine away.
When he smiled at her, closer now, she could see his crooked and blackened teeth. She winced, wondering which was worse to be a prisoner of, Palpatine or Jabba the Hutt.
"Leia my dear," Palpatine purred, "you mustn't be afraid of me. I am your friend. I can help you. I can teach you the things you've always wanted to know."
"Like what?" she asked tensely, her fingers closing around the towel rack.
He reached out his right hand toward her and made a tiny gesture with it, a barely visible flick of his fingers.
Leia gasped. The writhing misery in her stomach was gone.
Palpatine's face was wreathed in his best avuncular smirk.
"Did you do that?" Leia hissed.
He nodded slowly. "You can learn it yourself. Let me show you." His eyes narrowed for an instant, and suddenly her nausea was back.
"What did you do?"
"Leia, my child, you know what it is that you want. You must merely learn to put your desires into practice."
She glanced with increasing desperation at the toilet. "Oh, is that all?"
Palpatine took another step forward. Leia's entire body tensed, then she felt a sensation as if cold fingers were stroking across her mind. She drew in her breath and clutched the towel rack tighter.
She whispered, "what -- "
All of her senses jolted, and seemed for an instant to have been switched off. Then they were back. Her head jerked and collided jarringly with the cold tiles of the wall. Through the dull ache at the back of her head, she felt something else. She couldn't quite grasp what it was. Nothing seemed different -- vision, hearing, touch, smell, all seemed to be the same. But she still felt that something had changed. As if another light had been turned on, making her realise for the first time how dim the room had been before.
"Try it, Leia," urged Palpatine. "Try."
"Try what?" she snapped.
"Think your nausea away. Put it aside. Don't try to stop it, just move it to the background. You know it's there, but you don't need to feel it. Move it away."
Oh, sure. As simple as that, hunh? Why didn't I think of that before?
He purred coaxingly, "try."
Humour the bastard, she thought. She tried to do as he'd said, focusing all her attention on her complaining stomach. The nausea soared up, for a moment almost taking her over. She imagined herself taking hold of the sensations, folding them up and shoving them away to some distant region of her mind where they couldn't cause any trouble.
Her eyes widened. She stared at the smiling Palpatine. "I don't believe it," she murmured.
"But you did it, my child. Whether you believe it or not."
Leia shook her head stubbornly. "No. It was you again -- " The wonder of her perfectly calm stomach seemed like the most amazing of miracles. She thought, it had to be Palpatine. There's no way I did that --
"See for yourself, Leia," said Palpatine. "Experiment. Learn. You will understand." The focus of his eyes moved off of her momentarily, then out of nowhere some white garment appeared in his hand. Leia realised it was the robe she had commandeered after her bath yesterday. She reached for it gingerly as Palpatine handed the robe to her, trying not to cringe at the thought that the Emperor -- and worse, the Emperor's mind -- had touched it.
Palpatine said, "I know you'll want some time alone. I hope we can continue our discussion later? Perhaps over lunch?"
She eyed him with dislike, then nodded. "All right," she said. "We'll talk. Later."
He was beaming happily again. "That's all I ask." Like a holo-image switching off, the Emperor abruptly disappeared.
Leia stared at the space he had occupied. She muttered, "shit."
She looked down at the robe in her hands. Then she turned her feelings inward again. All right, she would experiment. She sought out the nausea in its distant mental box and imagined that it was breaking free, oozing back into her again.
She clutched her hands, and the robe, to her stomach. This couldn't be real! She had to be imagining it. But it certainly felt real. Taking a deep breath, she thought her nausea back into its box, and shut the lid.
"Damn," she whispered. "I don't believe it."
Well, the nausea might be gone, but she was still soaking with sweat and had a mouth that tasted like she'd been taking a swim in the Death Star's garbage compactor. She threw the white bathrobe onto the floor and walked over to the sink to brush her teeth. That accomplished, she contemplated having a bath, but the memory of Palpatine sitting on the bathtub steps was too unappealing. Besides, the tub seemed too exposed, even with the bathroom door closed and locked. Of course, the Emperor could no doubt teleport into the shower cubicle too if he wanted to -- gods, no, don't think about that. If she went on having thoughts like this she'd be too paranoid to ever take her clothes off again.
She strode to the shower, picking up towel, soap and shampoo on the way, and trying to convince herself that she wasn't afraid. The fear wasn't letting itself be moved aside as easily as the nausea had done. Reluctantly she took off her nightgown, forcing herself not to look around and check that she wasn't being watched.
As she shut the cubicle door behind her and started the shower, an idea occurred to her. She eyed the pink orb of soap, on the shelf where she had placed it. She concentrated on the soap, imagining it floating upward and into her hand.
At first nothing happened. Then the soap gave a little jump, rising to hover half an inch above the shelf before settling down again. She tried to think at it harder, and the soap rose again, first vertically, then changing its path to float in a leisurely manner toward her.
Leia yelped and jumped away from the soap, which plummeted to the shower floor.
Palpatine could have arranged this little demonstration, she supposed. He could have tuned in on her thoughts and made the soap fly, so she thought that she had done it. But if he had, he was even more of a sad bastard than she thought he was. She swallowed nervously, then knelt down to pick up the soap, determinedly not thinking at it this time.
Leia did not linger in the shower. She tried to keep her nakedness to as brief a duration as possible. She left the robe on the bathroom floor and hurried across their suite wrapped in a towel instead. In her room she dressed swiftly in black trousers and a dark brown blouse, then hesitated over whether to put her own jacket on again. She was being stupid, she thought, to cling to this bloodstained piece of cloth as if somehow it could help her.
But, damn it. So she was being stupid. Who cared? She shrugged the jacket on. Maybe it would be some sort of talisman for her. She needed all the help she could get.
She wondered how Luke was this morning. She was, in fact, surprised that she hadn't seen any sign of him yet. He was usually an early riser. Maybe he'd had trouble getting to sleep last night. She certainly had. Leia delved into the well-stocked wardrobe and found a pair of tall black boots made from some kind of soft leather. She put them on, gave her hair a brief brushing, then left her bedroom to check on Luke.
As she pressed the entry bell beside Luke's door, she heard the droid whirring up behind her. She turned to face the droid as it announced in its metallic tones, "Mistress Leia, Master Luke is not in his room."
"He's not? Where is he?"
"In His Majesty Emperor Palpatine's Entertainment Centre. I escorted him there. His Majesty Emperor Palpatine has left orders that you are to be granted access to the Entertainment Centre at any time. No other areas are open to you except at His Majesty's command."
Leia felt a twinge of anger. Oh, fine! She was having mind-wrenching encounters with Emperor Palpatine in the bathroom, and her brother was watching holo-vids. She said to the droid, "I would like to visit the Entertainment Centre as well."
"Of course, Mistress Leia."
The droid led Leia to the room where they had watched News of the Galaxy the night before. As she stepped inside, Leia realised that the room had no windows. In the absence of any daylight, the purple furnishings of the room took on a claustrophobic intensity. Leia walked toward Luke, who was sitting on the sofa and didn't seem to have heard her come in.
He glanced briefly toward her, nodded distractedly and then turned his gaze back to the holovision. Leia looked at the image, and saw what seemed to be a press conference, with an array of grey uniformed officers. One was Anakin Skywalker, and another, standing beside him, was Admiral Talassa. Leia forced herself to look away, and turned to Luke again.
"Luke, can we talk? It's important."
For a moment she thought he hadn't heard her. Slowly he reached for the remote and froze the holo-image. He looked silently up at Leia. She sat down beside him.
"Luke -- how are you this morning? Are you --"
"I'm all right." His voice was flat.
She wanted to tell him about Palpatine's visit -- and the floating soap -- but somehow the words weren't coming out. She bit her lip as she studied his face, seeing the exhaustion that was written on it.
"Luke," she said urgently, "we can't stay here. How are we going to get out of here?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. That's what I'm trying to figure out."
"By watching holo-vids?" she asked, not quite able to keep the irritation out of her voice.
He gave another slow shake of his head. "No. But until we do figure out something, we might as well learn everything we can. About our parents. We may not get another chance."
Leia thought that she would willingly give up the chance, if it meant getting away from her "friend" the Emperor. She was about to tell Luke that, then she frowned and looked at him more closely.
She thought, something ... something feels wrong about him.
Wrong how, she didn't know. But it was as if --
She drew her feelings back from him and shifted further away on the sofa. It was as if it wasn't just him sitting there. She thought she could feel another presence besides his. And at the touch of that presence her mind saw an image of Emperor Palpatine.
Leia shivered. "All right, Luke," she said, forcing herself to reach out and squeeze his hand. "We'll keep working on it. I'll talk with you later."
She stood up, and Luke didn't bother to reply before he started the holovision up again.
Leia watched him. She didn't look again at Anakin and Admiral Talassa.
She wondered whether His Imperial Majesty Emperor Palpatine would mind taking an early lunch.
Han Solo said, "this isn't gonna work."
Darth Vader answered in an exasperated tone, "your doubt is distracting me, son-in-law. Please shut up."
Han sighed and subsided for a moment into his pilot's seat, then he objected again, "look, Darth, I know you're great with this Force shit, but come on, we're too far away! How do you know it'll work from this distance?"
"It won't work at all with you oozing disbelief. Can't you just think optimistic thoughts?"
"Yeah, right," Han muttered. He slouched down once more, trying to stop himself from thinking predictions of doom and gloom. Chewie roared at him that they were about to come out of Hyperspace, so he'd better think something jolly.
Han grimaced. He'd bet that Chewie was really enjoying this.
They had set their exit from Hyperspace for just outside Coruscant's orbiting perimeter defenses. If Darth's memories of the defense system were right -- and they had sure as hell better be -- they should emerge right in front of one of the manned stations. Han still wasn't sure that he got what Darth was planning, but the basic idea was simple enough. Simple and crazy. Oh, sure, Darth Vader thinking "we're not here" was going to make an entire ship invisible. Apparently it would only work on living observers; if they approached within the range of the automated defense units their presence would be picked up and they'd be fired on automatically. Living beings should be easier to fool. Theoretically.
Han bit back a groan as he watched the Hyperspace star trails that would disappear any second. Think optimistic thoughts, he told himself. How? How was he supposed to be optimistic, when the people he cared about most had been captured by some idiot Emperor -- probably, if they were even really here -- and he barely had a mynock's chance in sunlight of rescuing them? And when he was flying straight into a hostile defence system without taking any evasive action, because his loony almost-father-in-law believed he could make them invisible?
I can't believe I'm doing this.
Chewie barked that they were emerging from Hyperspace now.
Think something jolly. In desperation he turned his thoughts back to the subject of babies. Thinking about his unborn kids was not really a good idea, as it made him imagine the dangers that they and their mother might be facing. He tried, instead, to imagine some point in the future, when they were born and alive and safe. The entire Rebellion would go mushy over his kids, talking baby-talk at them and vying for the honour of babysitting. Han grinned as he pictured Lando changing diapers. And C3P0 knitting. And Generals Madine and Veers, each with a baby throwing up over their uniforms. Yeah, he could really get into this fatherhood thing.
The Hyperspace trails were gone. Han caught his breath as the defence station appeared, seemingly right on top of them. He braced himself for the inevitable demand to identify themselves, and then the equally inevitable attack.
Oh, shit! Gotta think optimistic thoughts! As he continued to manoeuvre them along their slow, cautious course that would take the Falcon below the station, Han conjured up a vivid image of his toddlers getting into Threepio's hypothetical knitting basket. Yeah, and wrapping the droid up head to foot in the yarn, while he was switched off replenishing his energy. Way to go, kids, he thought, as he imagined Threepio waking up and struggling to escape the cocoon of multi-coloured yarn.
The defence station filled their entire screen. Han could even see figures moving beyond the station's viewports, they were close enough for him to pick out that the people beyond those windows were wearing Imperial uniforms. Most of the station's inhabitants seemed to be bustling about in a purposeful manner, but a few of them were looking out of the windows. Nobody, however, seemed to be staring at the notorious enemy vessel which was flying straight at them.
Han was humming nervously to himself as the Falcon dipped beneath the station. Ahead of them on the viewscreen lay nothing but Coruscant. And a few million other enemies. Think about something else ... Leia. He was going to have to buy her a present. Or get her to leave the base with him for an evening so he could take her out for a really nice dinner. It was their anniversary in a couple of weeks. Almost two years, now. Of course he'd spent a good part of that first year frozen in carbonite, but they still dated their relationship from the first time they'd gotten together, at Cloud City. No way would he ever forget the date, not any more. He had forgotten, last year -- or rather, he hadn't even thought about it -- and he'd had to work overtime at being a devoted boyfriend to get Leia to stop looking at him like he was Public Enemy Number One. The date of their anniversary was now at the top of his "things never to forget on pain of death" list in the Leia Handling file he kept on his computer back home. He wondered what Leia would do if she ever found that file. Would she kill him, or would she think it was sweet? It was hard to tell, with Leia. Hence the file, with its additional lists of "things she likes" and "things never to do/say if you want to keep your private parts intact". He reckoned he'd never get Leia completely figured out; when their fiftieth anniversary came along he'd probably still be making additions to the file. At least their relationship wasn't likely to get boring.
Han eyed the rapidly approaching planet, wondering if Leia and Luke were even down there at all.
He heard Darth Vader's voice, sounding distant and strained, "take us in to the city centre. I'll keep the illusion going till we're out of Imperial Spaceport's airspace."
"Yes, sir," said Han, shaking his head in wonder. Good gods, could this really, actually, be working? There was still no hail from the Imperials, and still no laser canons opening fire on them.
As Coruscant grew to take over the screen, Han scowled, wondering why he disliked this place so much -- apart from the obvious fact of it being Palpatine's stomping ground. Han wouldn't have thought he'd mind the planet being one big urban sprawl; he had never been a passionate admirer of Nature. Metal and concrete and plasisteel were fine by him. But there was something weird about Coruscant, all the same. Maybe it was the tiny pockets of original planet surface still remaining, pathetic bits of scrubland surrounded by massive layers of city. It made him feel claustrophobic to think of them. He could imagine himself standing in one of those scraps of wasteland, watching helplessly as the Imperial City's skyscrapers tumbled down on top of him.
Oh yeah, very cheerful. He'd better get off this train of thought before he blasted Darth's concentration to hell. They were into the atmosphere now and almost to the City surface; another thousand miles or so and they'd be into traffic. They cruised past Imperial Spaceport, Han having to alter course a couple of times to avoid other incoming ships. Still no one seemed to have noticed them. Han grinned suddenly. This sure beat the hell out of bopping around in stolen Imperial shuttles. He wondered whether Darth had ever considered a career in smuggling. With his personal built-in cloaking device, he'd be a natural for it.
They slipped into the upper layers of traffic flow, and Chewbacca gave a tense growl. "Yeah," agreed Han, swearing internally as he speeded up to avoid being rammed by the ship behind them. A moment later he swerved, this time swearing aloud, to avoid an oncoming city wing which had moved into his apparently empty space in overtaking the ship ahead of it. "Uh, Darth," Han began, "any chance you can make us visible again?"
"Drop us into the slow lane," Vader ordered. "At those traffic lights."
"Right." Han obeyed, cautiously lowering the Falcon through four layers of traffic. He thought, this is gonna give me a heart attack. Twice they nearly collided with other vessels. Beside him, Chewie was quietly whimpering.
The slow lane was all but empty. Han eased them up to the traffic lights, currently on "hold", wondering how many of his fellow pilots would notice the battered Corellian freighter appearing out of thin air.
There was a gasping sound from Vader, more desperate than the Dark Lord's usual wheezing. Han risked a glance back and saw Darth leaning forward in his seat, his gloved hands held out in front of him. The hands were shaking.
Han asked, "are you okay?"
Vader closed his hands into fists and sat up straighter. "Yes. The light's changed. Go."
The Falcon continued on its way. "Everyone can see us now?" Han asked, though the answer was made obvious by the sudden lack of ships trying to run into them.
"Yes. You've got the address of our destination."
Han nodded, checking again the address co-ordinates that Darth had programmed in before they left Hyperspace. They didn't have far to go. They were at the right level already, the slow lane being the lowest level at which flying was possible. The address was in one of the poshest areas of the city, only ten blocks away from the Imperial Palace. They'd be hiding the Falcon right under the Emperor's nose. Han wondered who Darth's acquaintance who owed him some favours might be, but he doubted that asking would get him anywhere.
"There," said Vader. "To the right."
They left the lane and turned toward a large, flat rooftop, which Han saw was one big docking door. The Falcon hovered over the closed door. "What now?"
Vader reached forward to the com panel and punched in a nine digit code. The door slid open beneath them.
"We'll be descending through five layers," Vader informed them, as Han slowly manoeuvred the Falcon downward. Sure enough, by the time the ship was settling onto the docking bay floor, five doors had spiralled shut above them.
"Okay," said Han, "so we're here." He suspiciously eyed the scene that was visible through their viewscreen. It seemed like basically like any hangar, except for the absence of technicians. Usually there'd be ground crew running around everywhere. Han couldn't see anyone, not even any droids. "Where's the welcoming committee?"
Darth Vader ignored his question. The Dark Lord stood up, then paused for a moment, leaning with one hand closed around the top of the passenger seat. Then he strode out of the cockpit. Han and Chewbacca looked at each other, then Han shrugged and followed, with Chewie just behind him.
As they followed Vader down the boarding ramp, a door swooshed open in the wall ahead of them, revealing a brightly lit corridor that glowed in contrast to the dingy hangar bay lights. Outlined darkly against the corridor was the figure of what seemed to be a tall humanoid male, but Han couldn't see any further details.
The figure gave a happy-sounding yell and hurried toward them, holding his arms out to the Dark Lord of the Sith. As Han reached the bottom of the ramp, he watched in astonishment while the man clasped Vader's upper arms in an almost-hug, and Vader reached out and did the same to him. Han supposed that they couldn't really hug, or something awful might happen to Darth's chest box.
"Lord Vader!" the man exclaimed, sounding gleeful. "Firelord, it's good to see you!"
"And you," Vader agreed. The Dark Lord disengaged himself from the man's grasp and turned to glance at the cautiously approaching Han and Chewie. "Colm," said Vader, "I'd like you to meet Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca -- "
The introduction was interrupted by Han's involuntary cry of, "I don't believe it!"
Vader's friend, now fully visible, cast a wry grin at Darth. "I guess we can dispense with the pseudonym," he said. "It looks like Mr. Solo's recognised me."
Han was staring helplessly at him. He knew he was being an idiot, but his brain just didn't want to shift back into gear. Not when he was standing face to face with one of the most famous -- and theoretically, one of the most dead -- crimelords in recent galactic history.
"Baccara Chovitza," the man introduced himself, shaking hands with the still-staring Han. "Nice to meet you. I've heard of you two, you've got quite a reputation. Good to see you've had the brains to join up with Lord Vader."
"Yeah," Han managed. "Nice to meet you too."
Chovitza had been dead -- or not, Han reminded himself -- since long before Han had got into the smuggling scene, but he still enjoyed near legendary status. Jabba the Hutt was a shoplifter compared to him. And just as famous was Chovitza's supposed appalling death. The destruction of Chovitza's territory at the hands of the Empire was the sort of story that mama criminals told their junior criminals so they'd go to bed without whining. Shut up and go to bed or you'll die like Chovitza.
The master criminal's formerly golden hair and beard had gone grey, the hair being chopped off at ear level instead of reaching to his waist as it did in his famous images, and the beard trimmed short instead of being chest-length and braided. But it was still the same guy.
Baccara Chovitza grinned at Han. "You just stick with Lord Vader," he advised, "it's a good career move. He can even bring you back from the dead."
The door to the corridor opened again, and a slender woman hurried out to join them. Han was so flummoxed already that the new apparition did no more than slightly jolt him. Sure, if Chovitza was alive, then why not his equally dead mistress? Han couldn't remember her name, but he knew there'd been a roaring trade in pin-ups of her, in -- or out -- of her dancing girl costume. She still looked good, her purple skin barely wrinkled and her hair the same deep blue as in the pictures, though Han wasn't going to speculate on how much hair dye might have been enlisted to accomplish that. The silvery dress she was wearing was a lot more modest than her outfits in the pin-ups.
"Lord Vader," she said, "I'm so glad you're alive."
It was the sort of meeting, Han thought, in which one usually plants a chaste kiss on the cheek of one's friend's wife, but as that was not possible for Vader, the Dark Lord simply clasped her hands instead.
"Melna," Vader acknowledged her warmly, "how are you? And the children?"
Melna the former pin-up gave a rueful little grimace. "They're not children any more, as they keep reminding us. Bryam's married now, his wife's expecting their second son. Vinda's expecting too. A girl this time, so Colm will finally have a grand-daughter to fuss over. And Camar's just starting at the University of Coruscant. She's coming home for the weekend tomorrow night, will you still be here? I know she'd love to see you." Han listened to the domestic details in silence, marvelling at the concept of Darth Vader the Old Family Friend.
"I don't think so," Vader said quietly. "I'll be sorry to miss her. We won't impose on you long. We'd like to keep the Falcon here, possibly overnight. We should be off-planet tomorrow. If not -- " he shrugged.
Baccara Chovitza frowned. "Is there anything else we can do? You know I don't have much of an organisation anymore, but if we can help -- "
"No. Thank you. I'd like to rest before we set out; an hour of meditation should be sufficient. Perhaps General Solo and Chewbacca are hungry. After that, we'll be out of your way. The less you know of our intentions, the better."
"We still owe you, My Lord," Chovitza persisted, sounding unhappy. "If there's anything --"
Vader said dryly, "if we don't get out of this, you can attend our executions. It will be nice to see some friendly faces."
Osheen Nevoy, Moff of Coruscant, wet his lips, swallowed convulsively, and straightened his uniform jacket for the third time in the past minute. He still had about twenty seconds, he reckoned, before the Emperor grew impatient of waiting for his arrival. He used that time to think a very swift prayer, bid a mental goodbye to his daughters, and reassure himself that yes, the most recent update of his will was perfectly fine and there wasn't any way he should have improved it.
He was going to make himself ill, he knew, if he kept carrying on like this every time Palpatine summoned him, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. Not after he'd seen what had happened to his predecessor.
Deciding that his twenty seconds must be up, he turned the corner and strode the few steps down the corridor to the door of Palpatine's audience chamber. The red-masked Imperial Guards admitted him in silence.
Palpatine, he saw with a shock, was not waiting at his desk on the upper level. He was standing at the base of the stairs, only a few feet away from Nevoy. The Emperor looked immensely pleased with himself, and was rubbing his hands together.
Nevoy knelt. "You sent for me, Your Majesty."
"Yes, my friend," said Palpatine, and Nevoy wished that the Emperor wouldn't call him that. He seemed to remember that those were the last words Palpatine had spoken to the late Grand Moff Ormrod.
"I want you to arrange a little reception ceremony," the Emperor continued. "We will be having visitors."
"An attempt will be made to take two of my guests from me. I want our visitors admitted to the Palace without difficulty. Let them reach my apartments. They are, however, not to leave. I will discuss the details with the Captain of the Guard. Meanwhile, I want you to speak with Dr. Hayashida. He is to supervise the installation of a life support unit in the Great Hall, that will double as a display case. He will know the design I mean."
I'm glad he will, thought Nevoy, because I don't have the first clue what you're talking about.
Emperor Palpatine chuckled, "oh yes, my friend, we are going to enjoy ourselves. An old acquaintance is coming to visit."
"Yes, Your Majesty?"
"Oh yes. My friend, we will soon be graced by a visit from Lord Vader."
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