"Mistress Leia, His Imperial Majesty will see you now."
"Thank you," Leia said coldly, as the droid whirred to one side to allow her to enter the room.
She had not been inside this room before. It was, she was relieved to see, not purple. The drapes on the walls were a dark blue instead, but the room, like so many others in the Palace, was dominated by tall, arched windows, which displayed the gleaming expanse of Imperial City. Outside, it looked like a beautiful day. Leia remembered that it must be spring on Coruscant now. There was a balcony outside one of the huge windows, and Leia wished that the window was open. It would be wonderful to feel the soft spring air, rather than choking on the fumes of Palpatine's favourite incense.
The Emperor was standing beside a round table carved of crystal, just large enough for two people to sit at comfortably. The chairs were crystal as well, with leaf and vine patterns carved around their legs and arms. Near the table was a black goldstone sideboard, laden with another selection of expensive foodstuffs. The sight, and the smells which managed to break through the incense, made Leia suddenly realise that she was starving. The minuscule amount she had eaten since being kidnapped had fallen victim to her most recent bout of morning sickness.
She was not, however, just going to throw herself at the food. Palpatine was going to give her some answers, first.
She walked toward him, planted herself behind the chair that was further from him, and demanded, "what have you done to Luke?"
"I'm sorry, my dear?" Palpatine asked, smiling at her.
"I know you've done something. I could feel your stench on him." Even as she said it, she knew it was a stupid comment; one didn't generally feel stenches. What the heck, though. When it was Palpatine's stench, you felt it.
Palpatine laughed indulgently. "My dear child, your family is so melodramatic."
Leia raised her eyebrows.
"I haven't done much, I assure you," said the Emperor. "Merely planted a suggestion in his mind."
"Only that the best thing he could do would be to continue watching the holos. That he must learn more about his parents. He should learn more, after all. He wants to. I just made that desire a trifle stronger. I couldn't let him get in the way, you see, while we had our little talk."
Her automatic impulse was to declare that they had nothing to talk about. But she didn't bother to say it. She knew it would not have been true.
"Won't you help yourself, my dear?" Palpatine suggested, gesturing at the sideboard. "You must be famished."
Leia gave him another hostile glare, for form's sake, then stepped over to the food. She picked up a plate, crystal with silver interlace, and loaded it with massive slices of fresh bread, a cream pear paté, and another paté which looked like Sarcaasian salmon. She filled a goblet with fruit juice, as well, then returned to the table, where Palpatine was already seated, dipping his spoon into a bowl of thin, golden soup. A tureen, presumably holding more soup, sat on the table in front of him. He didn't seem to take any interest in the rest of the food. Leia wondered if being evil had deleterious effects on one's digestion.
Spreading paté onto one of her slices of bread, Leia warily eyed the Emperor. He seemed to be enjoying his soup, and his yellow eyes were focusing on it, not on her. That was a relief. Apparently Palpatine wasn't one for smalltalk while eating. Spared from having to converse with her dear friend the Emperor, Leia ate with gusto, although her enthusiasm was dimmed by the recollection that the last time she'd tasted patés like this she had been on Alderaan.
The Emperor served himself a second bowl of soup. Leia went back to the sideboard for more bread.
Leia finished her last slice of bread, decided against a third trip to the sideboard, and sipped at her fruit juice while Palpatine's spoon sought out the final specks of soup. Glancing up from his bowl, Palpatine caught her watching him, and smiled once more. "So, my dear," he said, pushing the bowl away, "you have questions to ask me."
She still had the feeling that by talking with Palpatine she'd be setting herself up for something horrible. But then, horrible things would probably happen if she didn't talk with him, too.
"Yes," she said, setting her goblet down on the table. "You did something to my mind this morning. I want to know what."
Palpatine attempted a wide-eyed expression that on anyone else might have looked innocent. Leia's own expression was far from amused. After delaying just long enough for the silence to grow irritating, the Emperor replied, "I merely enabled you to make use of a short-cut."
Leia picked up her goblet again, took another drink and waited. Palpatine said, leaning back in his chair, "you know how your brother developed his Force abilities, do you not?"
"Yes. He's told me about it."
Palpatine shook his head, assuming a mournful look. "Such a waste of time," he said. "So typical of the Jedi. Jogging around a swamp, while a gnome squats on your shoulders spouting platitudes. Levitating rocks. Standing on your head. So very trivial. You wouldn't want to waste your time on that, would you, my dear?"
He was right, Leia wouldn't want to. She thought it would probably drive her out of her mind. But he still wasn't giving her any answers. "So?" she demanded impatiently.
"Now you don't have to," he told her. "For Force-sensitive individuals, it is simply a matter of developing the area of the brain which allows us to connect with our powers. Generally the connection is developed through practice. I have allowed you to avoid that. For you, the connection is already made."
She couldn't think of anything to say to that, so she finished her fruit juice instead. Palpatine was continuing, "of course, you still need to familiarise yourself with your abilities. Some practice will be necessary. You won't yet be able to successfully fight those more assured of their powers. And not everyone's skills develop along the same paths. But you do have power. All you have to do is use it. You are certainly at least as powerful as your dear brother."
"I've levitated some soap," Leia scoffed. "That isn't very impressive."
"Have you tried to do anything else?"
Leia didn't answer. Palpatine watched her, enjoying her animosity, then said, "I think it's time you had something more interesting to practice on."
The Emperor rose and crossed over to the com panel by the door. He spoke, too quietly for Leia to catch the words. Leia stood as well, went to refill her goblet from the amethyst jug on the sideboard, and then walked to the window, looking out at the sun-gilded city.
"We'll be having company, my dear," said Palpatine. "I think you'll be happy to see him."
Leia's gaze lit on a group of distant humanoid figures, apparently playing some ball game on one of the roofs that neighboured the palace. Probably playing bryasha, though she couldn't be sure from this distance. She tried to imagine herself out there with them. Would that possibly work? she wondered. Could she just think herself out of here? Of course, she'd probably just teleport herself into mid-air and fall to her death before she figured out how to levitate. Even if she didn't, she'd still be stuck on Coruscant. And Luke would still be watching holo-vids.
The entry-bell buzzed. Palpatine said, "ah, here he is now."
The door hummed open. There was a pause, then Leia heard the Emperor's smug tones, "my friend, so good of you to join us. Leia, my dear. You remember our friend Datang?"
Leia whirled to face them.
The tentacled mass of Datang the kidnapper crouched just inside the closed door. Datang announced, "I am here at your bidding, Your Majesty."
"We have use for you, my friend." The beaming Emperor turned toward Leia. "Leia, dear, I think you two have some unfinished business?"
Leia didn't say anything. She put her goblet down on the sideboard.
She didn't trust her voice. She didn't trust anything about herself. She felt the anger well up inside her again, so strong that she thought it was going to choke her. She closed her left hand around her right wrist, clutching at its blood-stained cuff.
Palpatine was whispering, "Arin Pellar was your friend, wasn't he? He mattered to you. He shouldn't have died. But he did."
"Shut up!" Leia yelled. "I know what I think."
Palpatine looked surprised for an instant, then he grinned. "Good," he murmured. "Good."
She bit her lip as she stared at Datang.
She didn't want to be angry. She wanted to forgive him, to say he had just been doing his job. To say that it was Palpatine's fault, not his. She wanted to act like the good, decent, humane individual that she tried to believe she was.
And she wanted Datang to die.
She thought, I'm going to have to write to Arin's family. She remembered him mentioning that his mother was still alive, and she thought he'd said that he had a younger brother somewhere. She wondered if anyone had thought to inform them yet that he was dead. What was she going to tell them? There wasn't any way she could make it sound like he'd died for some great cause, doing something he'd believed in. He'd died because he'd walked down a hallway looking for one of his friends. Because she had sent him there.
"Leia," said the Emperor, "Datang is yours. A present. I give him to you."
She saw the kidnapper shift uneasily, but make no attempt to leave.
Leia closed her eyes, picturing the last time she'd seen Arin alive. Wishing, with all her being, that she'd never sent him searching for Luke.
"Leia," Palpatine whispered. "You know what you want. Do it."
A gasp escaped her that was almost a sob. For a last instant she tried to hold her anger back. Then she hurled it at Datang.
The creature lurched upward as if lifted by enormous invisible hands. Leia flung him against the door, watched him bounce off and plummet back onto the floor, and let him flounder there for a moment. Then her mind grabbed him again and she sent him soaring to the ceiling. She held him there, pressing him against the ceiling harder, and harder, until she heard him make a keening sound that didn't quite resolve itself into words.
A cloud of thick, black vapour shot out from the cavity at the base of Datang's body. Leia remembered this from her capture. It would knock her out if she breathed it, she couldn't let it reach her. Her eyes narrowed as she concentrated harder, and then suddenly the cloud was gone, sucked back up inside Datang. Leia laughed in delighted surprise. She couldn't believe that had actually worked.
The surprise had jolted her concentration. Datang started to fall, but she caught him before he reached the floor, and hurled him to the ceiling again. She watched him squirm, his tentacles jerking desperately.
Leia thought of Arin's face. She thought of his warm blood on her hand.
She thought that she would like to see what would happen if all of Datang's bodily fluids boiled.
The kidnapper was writhing on the ceiling. Leia smiled at him.
Slowly, Datang's form started changing. The mass of his body twisted inward for a moment, then started to expand. All of his tentacles had gone rigid. The skin on them was bubbling.
Not too fast, Leia warned herself. That wouldn't be any fun.
The kidnapper's eyes were fixed on her.
Leia watched the skin shifting, bubbles appearing then disappearing, giving place to the next, larger bubbles that grew beside them. She thought she was letting him off a bit too easily, just boiling him, so she gave a mental tug on one of his tentacles and wrenched it off. Dark greyish blood gushed out to make a steaming pool on the floor, and she flung the tentacle to land on Emperor Palpatine's table.
She decided that she liked the sound of Datang's screams.
Enough was enough, though. The fucker had lived too long already. She clenched her fist, and watched as all the skin of Datang's body bulged outward. She did not flinch when he exploded.
It caused an immense mess. No remaining pieces of his body were large enough to be recognisable. There was a huge splotch of grey blood spread over the ceiling. Blood and globules of flesh were dripping down Palpatine's blue drapes, bubbling quietly on the floor, slowly trickling down the windows.
But none of it had touched her. She had enough blood on her jacket already, she didn't want any more.
She took a deep breath and, dread starting to rise in her again, looked over at Emperor Palpatine.
He, too, seemed to have been untouched by the explosion. He gazed benignly around him at the steaming filth, then he started clapping his hands.
Leia stared at him. She was suddenly trembling. If he said anything congratulatory, she didn't think she could stand it. Without thinking, she threw a wave of anger at Palpatine, but it stopped without reaching him. Of course, she realised, he would have his defences. He couldn't be pulverised like Datang the kidnapper.
Leia said in a taut voice, "I'm sorry about the mess. I'm very tired. Would you please excuse me?"
"Of course, my dear girl. Of course."
Palpatine waved his hand at the door, and it slid open.
Leia walked out, not looking back at him. Her path to the door was mostly free of bits of Datang, so she managed to make her exit without either picking her way around blood puddles, or taking the risk of slipping in them.
She didn't dare to think until she was back in her room, alone. Then she sat on the bed, against the headboard, her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them.
She hadn't been lying when she told Palpatine that she was tired. She felt drained. And she did not like herself.
What a delightful specimen of humanity you are, she told herself. Your first day using the Force, and you go from levitating soap to committing murder.
What was Luke going to say about this? Gods, what would he think of his sister now?
Of course she could try and convince herself that it was all Palpatine's doing. That somehow he had influenced her into killing.
But what would be the point? She knew it was a lie. She had wanted Datang to die.
And she didn't regret it. If she had this day to live over, she would kill Datang again.
That realisation was the worst part of everything she was feeling.
She leaned forward, resting her head on her knees. The Leia she had always thought she was would be racked with remorse right now. Torturing herself with the thought that Datang might have left behind a family as well, just as Arin had. Dwelling on imaginings of their grief, which she had caused.
Well, she could still feel sorry for them, if they existed. But not for Datang. He should have thought about his family before he accepted a job from Emperor Palpatine. Before he murdered Arin Pellar.
She was going to have to tell Luke. She couldn't try to keep this secret from him. And somehow she would have to get him away from that damned holopad.
How long was the Emperor's "suggestion" going to last? Would Luke go on watching holos forever?
Of course she could try to counter the suggestion with one of her own, but she thought that she was too new to this Force thing to risk it. With her luck, she'd probably end up accidentally wiping his mind instead.
Oh, Gods. When he knew what she had done, would he ever speak to her again?
She thought of their father, and wished that she could talk with him about this.
Never, ever, would she be able to believe again that she was a better person than Darth Vader.
As Mon Mothma stepped into the holding cell, she saw Piett reluctantly drag his gaze upward, as if she were a great deal less interesting than the area of floor he had been scowling at. He looked at her unreadably for a moment, before vouchsafing her a minimal nod and then focusing again on the floor.
Mon Mothma felt a rush of anger. Would it have killed him just to say "hello"? She had to forcibly remind herself that Piett had every right to be angry as well. Of course, he ought to understand that they couldn't have acted any differently. Their duty was to protect the Rebellion. As circumstantial as the evidence against him was, they still couldn't leave him at large until they had proof one way or the other.
But, still, it was not surprising that he felt betrayed. For the past year he had been "working his butt off" for the Rebellion, as Commander Antilles had so elegantly put it. It couldn't be pleasant to discover that the people he'd been working with didn't trust him any farther than they could throw a Star Destroyer.
She took a slow, deep breath. She hadn't come here to get into a fight with him. She said, "I want you to know that I don't believe you're guilty of this."
He looked up again, surprise breaking through his hostile expression. Mothma forced herself to meet the gaze of his solemn grey eyes. He still didn't smile at her, but that, she supposed, would have been too much to expect. At last Piett said quietly, "thank you. So we've got five people in the Admiral Piett Fan Club. Too bad the rest of the Alliance is after my blood."
Mon Mothma sighed. "Nobody's after you," she told him. "Well," she admitted, "I guess except for Madine." Even that didn't get a smile out of him. She glanced at the bunk on which he was sitting, its thin blanket the usual lurid orange of the Rebellion. "May I join you?" she asked.
"Please," he said automatically, edging closer to the head of the bed to make room for her. Mothma sat down, and suppressed another sigh. She was not going to think about the last time they'd occupied a bed together, not yet even twenty-four hours ago.
"It's not going to be left like this," she said, with a lot more assurance than she felt. "If someone else is behind this, we have to find them."
Piett leaned forward, staring at his hands. "It won't be easy," he said. "They'll be on their guard now. They'll know better than to get caught out again while their scapegoat's in jail."
"They'll make a mistake," Mon Mothma said firmly.
"They will. Are you sure there's nothing else you can think of, that would prove your alibi?"
"Oh, for gods' sakes," Piett snapped, turning to face her. "We've been through this twenty times already. I can't get my trees to testify for me, can I?"
They glared at each other, but before Mothma could say something she'd regret, there was a buzz from the cell's com panel. "Admiral," came the voice of the guard on duty, "you've got another visitor."
Piett shrugged. "Send them in."
The door opened, and Wedge Antilles stepped into the cell. At the sight of Piett and Mon Mothma together, Antilles looked like he wanted to make a hasty retreat. "I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I can come back later if -- "
"No, Commander," sighed Mon Mothma, "come on in."
Antilles obeyed, standing awkwardly by the door which had slid shut behind him. "Admiral," he began, "I just want to apologise for all that shit back there. At the hearing. It was way out of line, you shouldn't have to put up with this."
Piett managed a very faint smile, and Mothma felt a twinge of resentment that he'd forced a smile for Antilles but not for her. While she tried to crush her resentment, Piett was commenting to Commander Antilles, "I never would have believed I'd be sorry Lord Vader isn't around. At least he'd know that I'm not guilty. And he could probably find whoever is."
Commander Antilles nodded. "Look," he said, "I don't know if we can count on Security for this one. They'll do their job, but it's easier for everybody if you're the bad guy. They may not look close enough. The more people we've got looking into this, the better."
Mon Mothma was very conscious of the fact that she ought to rebuke Antilles, telling him in no uncertain terms that this was not the appropriate place for amateur detection. The only thing that stopped her was the fear that he was probably right.
Antilles went on, "you said you can account for your whereabouts at the time of the transmission, but they don't believe you?"
Mothma tensed, but the repeat of the question did not prompt another explosion by Piett. Of course, Antilles hadn't been at the first meeting this morning, so he had not heard this particular issue get beaten into the ground. Piett said wearily, "I was in my office till 1.00, then I thought I should get some sleep since we were off early to Chandrila. I went back to my room, spent some quality time with my trees, and went to bed."
Antilles frowned. He didn't ask about the trees, so presumably he either already knew of the Admiral's hobby, or he figured that it wasn't any of his business. "And there's no way to prove any of that?" he asked.
Piett shook his head.
"What about the trees?" Antilles persisted. "Did you water them or something? Maybe it's possible to tell when they were watered most recently?"
The quiet little snort from Piett might almost have been a laugh. "I doubt it, not down to the minute. And if any of those trees get hurt in this investigation, I'll murder the person responsible." A worried frown banished the last trace of humour from his face. "Damn," he realised, "they're going to need tending while I'm in here." He looked hesitantly at Mon Mothma. "I don't suppose you ... "
She put her hand on his. "I'll see to them," she told him, "of course. Just let me know what they need."
Commander Antilles said, obviously feeling like a fifth wing-foil on an x-wing, "um, I'll get out of your way. Ma'am, just one other thing -- you haven't heard anything more about Commander Skywalker and the Princess? Or Lord Vader?"
Mon Mothma hesitated. "No," she said finally. "The last contact we had was the message from Vader that reached us at Chandrila Seven. That he, Solo and Chewbacca were going to seek out Skywalker and the Princess on Coruscant." She was looking up at Antilles as she said this, and she wondered whether it was just her imagination or whether his face had in fact gone pale.
"Hell," he said. "I guess there's no way Command would approve sending out a rescue mission ... ?" From the unhappy tone of his voice, he was already well aware of the answer.
Mon Mothma said, keeping her voice as gentle as possible, "we don't even know for certain that they're there. At the moment we have no reliable sources on Coruscant. Even if we did, it would never be approved. I'm sorry, Commander. We just can't risk anyone else."
Antilles visibly pulled himself together. "Okay. They can take care of themselves. Vader won't let anything happen to them, anyway." He almost sounded like he believed that. "All the more reason for us to get things sorted out here, before they get back. Vader's not gonna want to find out we let everything fall apart while he was gone."
"Yes," Mon Mothma said quietly, and then she added, almost against her own will, "if he comes back."
"He'll come back," Admiral Piett put in, in a voice that allowed no argument. "He will come back."
That was too easy, thought Han.
But then, it had been easy getting onto Coruscant, too. Relatively easy, give or take the cardiac arrest he'd almost gotten from flying invisible through traffic. Maybe this was just the way things were when you went on rescue missions with Darth Vader. As opposed, he thought ruefully, to blundering around the Death Star in badly-fitting stormtrooper outfits with Luke Skywalker.
As they strode through the corridors of the Imperial Palace, he forced himself not to nod in acknowledgement of the salutes from the soldiers that they passed. Darth had warned them to act like they were too cool to notice anyone, except for the Moff of Coruscant and the Emperor himself. Apparently Imperial Guards weren't into socialising with other ranks. Han still had a hard time believing that they actually looked like Imperial Guards, since according to what his eyes were telling him, they still were very obviously Darth Vader, Chewbacca and Han Solo. But Darth said that was just because he was inside the illusion. To anyone outside, they would look like bona fide Red Idiots; no one would even notice that two of the supposed Imperial Guards were way beyond standard regulation height. Certainly, the other passengers on the shuttle train they had taken from Baccara Chovitza's place had seemed to believe the illusion, judging from the looks of terror that had greeted the three of them and the not-so-subtle migration of most of the passengers into the next car along. Although, Han supposed, maybe that was the same reaction the passengers would have had to the sight of Darth Vader and two notorious Enemies of the Empire.
But now here they were. No one had challenged them as they made their way to the highest level of the palace, and now they were nearing the turn-off where the next phase of their plan began. Han swallowed nervously, his right hand going instinctively for his blaster. Pretty soon he and Chewie wouldn't have Darth's illusion to cover them anymore. They'd be on their own again, just them against the Empire.
Gee, just like old times.
The three alleged Imperial Guards stopped at the corner where a second squishily-carpeted hallway branched off from the main corridor. No one seemed to be around. Darth Vader asked, "you know what to do?"
Han glanced at Chewie, then nodded. "Yeah. I think so. First door on the right."
"Yes. Give me a moment ... there. The guards are unconscious. They should remain so, long enough for you to secure them."
"Right," said Han. "Uh ... Darth?"
Vader waited for Han to go on, and Han felt immensely stupid. Then he said brusquely, "you be careful, okay? You're the only grandparent my kids are gonna have, I don't want you dying and not being there for them."
Vader said, sounding amused, "I could be there for them even if I was dead."
"Yeah, well, no offence, Darth, but I want my kids to have a live grandfather. Not one who turns up glowing blue and tells them to 'feel the Force'."
"Believe me," Vader said quietly, "I want them to have a live grandfather too. And a live father."
"Yeah. Okay. Uh, may the Force be with you."
"Not too noticeably, I trust," said Vader, "or it will wake our Emperor from his nap. Good luck. Both of you." With no further discussion, Darth Vader turned and strode away from them.
Chewbacca growled at Han impatiently.
"Yeah, Chewie. I know." The two of them started down the second corridor. Sure enough, on either side of the first door on the right, two guards -- in black uniforms and caps, not the red robes and masks of the Imperial Guard -- were standing propped against the wall, apparently fast asleep. Han eyed them warily as he stepped to the panel by the door and entered the code that Darth had made him memorise.
The door slid smoothly open. Han and Chewbacca grabbed a guard each and dragged the unconscious men into the room. After setting his guard down on the floor, Chewie crossed to the bank of controls that was their target. Han set about keeping the guards quiet. After a moment's consideration, he decided that old-fashioned methods were probably the best. He took off the guards' caps and stuffed them into their mouths, then, feeling like a character in some corny old adventure holovid, tied their hands behind their backs with the guards' belts. Darth had warned them that blaster fire would be picked up by the Palace security system, so they couldn't risk firing unless they absolutely had to.
Han located a closet and dragged the guards into it. "Sleep tight, boys." He shut the closet door, then went to join Chewie at the controls. "Have you found it?" he asked.
Chewie growled that he had. Han frowned at the readings on the screen in front of Chewbacca. "Shit," Han muttered, "this Palpatine is one majorly screwed-up guy."
Chewbacca suggested that Han should take over, as his hands were better suited to the human-designed keyboard than were the Wookiee's. Han nodded, rubbed his hands on the front of his jacket to try and get the sweat off them, and took his place at the screen.
Convinced that the first thing he did was going to set off system-wide security alarms, Han stared at the status report on the Number Five Perimeter Defence Station, the orbiting station they had passed on their way in to Coruscant. He really hadn't believed it when Darth had told him that all of the Perimeter Stations' systems could be shut off from the Imperial Palace. Gods, Palpatine was sick. He must really get his jollies out of knowing that all of his soldiers' lives were in his hands; that if he felt like it he could turn off their oxygen supply, or shut down their shields, or take their weapons off-line, and they wouldn't even know about it before it was too late. Darth had explained that this was supposed to "motivate" the men. Failure was not an option, since if they failed to operate at maximum efficiency their Emperor could abandon them to the vacuum of space, or switch off their guns in the middle of a battle. It was also a security precaution, in case any of the stations should be captured by enemy troops. It would be no problem at all to wipe out all of the enemy -- and, incidentally, the entire Imperial garrison along with them.
Han grimaced. No wonder all the Imperials with brains wanted to defect.
Still, though, in this case Palpatine's control mania was going to be damned helpful. Han would feel a lot better traipsing past the defence station if he knew its guns were off-line. Especially since, after whatever Force-filled stunts Darth might currently be up to, it might be harder for the Dark Lord to maintain the illusion of their invisibility. And since, once Leia and Luke's escape was discovered, the defence forces were sure to be alerted that an enemy ship would be trying to leave.
Han called up the readings for Station Five's weapons systems. He almost felt like he should apologise to the Station's crew for what he was about to do to them. Once Palpatine found out how the Falcon had gotten out Coruscanti space, the crew of Number Five Perimeter Defence Station were not going to be in the Emperor's good books.
Sorry, guys, Han thought. How about joining the Rebellion? He punched in the code for disarming the system, then the security confirmation code, both codes courtesy of Vader.
Well, he thought, now I guess we find out if the codes have been changed since Darth buggered off at Endor.
The screen informed him, in large, friendly letters, "system disarmed".
Then the door swooshed open.
Even as Han was turning, his hand going for his blaster, he heard the sizzle of blaster fire and heard Chewbacca howl. The Wookiee plummeted to the floor with an impact that shook the room. One corner of Han's mind registered the fact that there was no burning hole in Chewie's chest, so the blaster must have been set on stun. Han shot back at the black-uniformed soldiers in the doorway. One of them leaped aside from the blasts. Another yelled in pain. Han kept firing. One soldier lunged to the floor to avoid Han's shots, then fired upward from his prostrate position. The shot hit Han's blaster, sending it arcing away through the air and dropping it behind the control panel.
Han stared in shock. Slowly he put up his hands.
The soldier picked himself up and continued to aim his blaster at Han. Other soldiers stepped into the room, all of them keeping Han covered.
"Hi," said Han. "Um, we seem to have lost our way. Could you just tell us how to find the exit?"
Before any of the soldiers could make a scathing reply, an officer in a grey-green uniform walked into the room, and the soldiers all snapped to attention. "Good work, Captain," said the newcomer, to the man who had shot away Han's blaster. Then the officer turned to Han. He shook his head, looking weary and even regretful.
"I'm sorry," he said in a tired voice. "You must have known this was all too easy."
Han looked at the officer, whose red hair and beard were starting to go grey and whose uniform jacket looked slightly too tight, suggesting the need for either a new diet and exercise regimen, or a bigger jacket. The many coloured squares on the man's chest, Han realised, were those of a full-fledged Moff. Han supposed he and Chewie ought to feel honoured.
"You knew we were coming," Han said hoarsely.
"Of course," said the Moff, with a sigh. "His Imperial Majesty knows all."
All, Han thought. He thought of Darth, and hoped that the Dark Lord had a few more miracles in reserve. He was going to need them.
Luke stared dully at the holo image, as Senator Diam Palpatine began his oration at the funeral of Field Marshal Anakin Skywalker. Palpatine's voice was strong and clear, but every now and then it trembled. As the holocam zoomed in on him, it became obvious that there were tears coursing down his face.
And he's not even dead, Luke thought. My father's not dead, and Palpatine's got to know that, and he can still make himself look like part of his life has been wrenched away. Luke listened as Palpatine's speech continued, and he realised it wasn't surprising that Palpatine had managed to take over everything. It would have been surprising if Palpatine hadn't managed to.
He's so plausible, thought Luke. My Gods, he's almost got me crying! Most of the funeral guests seemed to be in the same state; when the holocam panned over them it revealed a multitude of tear-streaked faces, and people biting their lips to keep them from trembling.
This is sick, Luke thought. I can't keep watching this. Luke reached for the remote, but somehow the pain and sorrow in Palpatine's voice were addictive. Luke's hand hovered over the stop button, but he didn't press it.
Then something shook him. He felt a sudden jolt in his mind, the mental equivalent of something colliding with him and knocking him over.
As if a force field had been turned off, or gravity had abruptly reasserted itself, Luke's hand came down on the stop button and the holo image vanished.
Luke stood up. He felt faintly dizzy, but he ignored it. What he'd just felt, he realised, was what Obi Wan would call "a disturbance in the Force". A familiar presence had moved into the range of his senses, momentarily disrupting everything with its arrival.
Luke thought, Father!
He spun toward the door, just as door was opening. At the sight of the tall, dark figure, Luke felt an upsurge of joy and relief, which he immediately, with guilty horror, tried to suppress. Shit, he realised, I'm broadcasting my feelings like a godsdamned holo transmitter; it'll be a miracle if Palpatine doesn't pick them up. Luke hurried around the sofa to the door and Darth Vader. Vader grasped Luke's shoulder for an instant, then he said, "hurry. We have to get to your sister."
Vader must be sensing Leia's presence, for he started immediately down the hallway toward the guest quarters, without needing directions from Luke. Luke rushed after him, concentrating on keeping a damper on his emotions. He was starting to realise that he didn't understand how he had spent this past day. Why had it seemed so crucial to keep watching the holovids? Why hadn't he tried to --
Down the corridor ahead of them, the door to the guest quarters opened. Leia ran out into the hallway. To Luke's amazement, she went straight to Darth, grabbing one of his hands and clasping it in both of hers. Then she said, "let's get out of here."
As they turned and started along the hallway again, Luke also noticed in surprise that Leia was shielding her emotions, just as he and Darth were. He stared at his sister. Surely, just yesterday, she wouldn't have been able to do that. What had happened since he saw her last?
Leia and Darth were slightly ahead of Luke. Suddenly they both stopped, and Luke heard Leia gasp. A second later Luke saw what they had seen.
Standing a few metres ahead of them in the corridor, Emperor Palpatine said with his usual beaming smile, "my dear friends, you didn't think I'd let you leave so easily?" He grinned at Darth. "Lord Vader, welcome back."
The three of them stood together, Leia holding Darth's left hand, and Luke, who had stepped to his father's side, holding Darth's right. There was a ripple in the air that Luke could almost see, and he realised that Darth must be projecting his personal defences, to cover the three of them.
"Foolish, my friend," murmured Palpatine. "Very, very foolish."
Luke felt a wave of malicious hatred break against the wall of Darth's defences. Luke tried to add his own defences to the wall, to strengthen it. Another swell of hate pulsed through the air, filling Luke's mind with a sensation of dark, surging emptiness. Luke felt their defences tremble. Palpatine was chuckling.
"Protect your children or protect yourself," came the Emperor's voice. "You cannot do both. And now ... you cannot do either."
Luke felt Darth's hand tighten around his, and heard Leia cry out, "no!" Then Darth's hand let go. Vader was reaching up to his chest box, or trying to. But something was stopping his hand from reaching it. The hand, clawlike now, was frozen inches away from the chest box controls. And Darth's breathing was changing. The regular wheezing was gone. His breath was coming now in tortured gasps, with terrifyingly long spaces between them. Then there was a sound like a choking cough.
Darth fell to one knee. All shielding of emotions was past; Luke could feel the fury and hatred that Vader was casting at the Emperor. But they were not strong enough.
Leia hurled an attack at Palpatine. And the Emperor laughed. Leia's attack dissipated into the air around him, and then he turned his yellow eyes on her.
Leia screamed as she was flung against the wall. She was clutching at her stomach, and Luke reeled at the terror flooding out of her. That wasn't just Leia's terror, he realised. Luke could feel what Leia was feeling, the uncomprehending agony of her children inside her. Their comfort and protection were being ripped away from them. The knowledge came to Luke in a rush of horror that Palpatine was cutting off the oxygen coming to them from their mother, and the foetuses were suffocating.
Luke screamed, "no!"
Luke threw his own attack at Palpatine, his rage so strong that he felt like it was burning him. All the anger, all the hatred he had ever felt was concentrated into one white-hot blast.
Palpatine reached up his hand as if he was pulling the fury out of the air. And then he opened his hand toward Luke.
Luke was thrown backward, his body continuing to roll after it had hit the floor. He tried to claw his way up again, but his veins, and his brain, seemed to be bursting, every portion of his body and mind filled with rolling waves of flame. He heard his own twisting scream blend with another scream from Leia, and Darth's choking gasps. Then something seemed to explode in Luke's mind.
The helpless wail he could hear now must be coming from him, and the horror of it came from the fact that his own fear was all he could sense. The world seemed to have become two-dimensional around him; the colours no longer seemed real.
Distantly, Luke felt himself falling back again, his head sinking into the carpet. Darkness was pouring in at him, but not soon enough.
He couldn't feel anything.
Leia was gone. Darth was gone. Everything was gone.
"My Lord," Piett said shakily. And then he had to force his mouth shut on the words that were threatening to spill out, the hysterical pleas that would do no good and might only cause Lord Vader to choose an even more horrible method of killing him.
My Lord, please, oh Gods, it's not my fault, oh, no, no, please, please, spare me --
"You were warned, Admiral," Vader's cold, calm voice echoed around him.
"But, my Lord -- " and Piett realised that he diidn't even know what he had done wrong, why he was here. He had failed Vader somehow, but what --
Vader turned away from him, to talk to another officer, and Piett felt the first hint of pressure at his throat. And something in him snapped. It wasn't fair, it couldn't be happening, it couldn't! All his resolutions not to beg for his life evaporated. He threw himself to his knees, not caring how much his knees hurt when they hit the floor, and began desperately, "My Lord, for Gods' sakes, please -- just wait, give me another chance, please wait -- let me see my family again, let me say goodbye -- "
Lord Vader turned back toward him. "There's no need to say goodbye, Admiral. You can be with your family for eternity."
A gasping sob escaped the throat that was closing even tighter. "My Lord -- "
Vader's hand moved downward. The pressure on Piett's throat was gone, only to be replaced by something far worse. Piett stared in disbelief and tried to get back to his feet, but the pain was making him shake too much to stand. Agony was pouring out of his abdomen, tearing into every other part of him. A horrible vision flashed into his mind, and Piett knew that the Dark Lord was showing him what he was doing, sharing the knowledge that Piett's guts were being slowly, methodically ripped into shreds.
He couldn't even scream now. There was too much pain. In one last desperate rear guard action, his mind was trying to deny all of this, to negate everything in a final please, no ...
Piett woke up. He knew where he was immediately, in his darkened little cell, the only lights in the room glowing on the com panel. He ought to be relieved at having woken up, but there wasn't any relief. The pain was still there.
He was clutching at the bunk's pillow. He noticed that he was sweating; the pillow felt damp against his face. He struggled slowly to a sitting position, holding the pillow now in both hands as if he wanted to tear it apart.
Essentially, this wasn't anything new. He'd lost track of the number of times in the last two years that he had woken up from a nightmare to find his stomach burning with pain. But never like this. Never this bad. Nothing had ever been this bad.
The cold knowledge swept through him, completely undeniable, that something was incredibly wrong.
He managed to stand up, although his body seemed to take hours to respond to the commands of his brain. He hobbled across the cell to the com panel, the pain seeming to grow with every step, and fell heavily against it, his hand smashing against the button that opened a channel to the guard on duty.
A few agonising ages later, the guard's voice came, bored and irritated, "yes, what is it?"
Piett grated out, in a voice he didn't even recognise, "I need a doctor. Now."
That at least seemed to shake the guard out of his annoyed lethargy. "Hunh? What's the matter?"
"I don't know," Piett hissed. "My stomach. Hurry. Get a doctor. Hurry."
"Yes, sir," said the guard. "Right away."
Piett staggered back to the bed and sat down on it. He was dizzy; he wondered if he was going to become delirious on top of everything else. He put up a hand to his face, then the hand jerked away again at the shock of how cold his face felt, and how much sweat was pouring off it.
Vaguely, he thought he remembered pain just about like this. When was it ...? Oh, yes. In the combat simulation exams back at the Academy, in which pain from the wounds allegedly received was simulated to add realism to the exercise. It was always difficult to remember what pain really felt like, but this, he thought, felt just about the same as at the highest level of the exam, the one where you had to complete your mission with a mortal blaster wound in the gut. He'd done pretty well in that exam, got almost the highest possible marks, managing to complete his assigned tasks before the anguish had made him black out. He didn't think he could be so successful now. Now he wasn't even sure he could move.
What was taking them so long? Gods, where were they? They'd forgotten about him, the idiot guard hadn't called a doctor at all --
Piett fought to stand up again, to go back to the com panel and give the guard hell. Before he got more than two steps from the bed, he fell to the floor.
He was distantly aware of his legs twisting up into a foetal position, his entire body trying to cave in on itself. He felt like the middle of his body was just a burning, gaping, blood-gushing hole, like a torpedo had shot straight through him and somehow he hadn't yet died.
I'm going to die.
It wasn't a fear, or a possibility, it was an absolute certainty.
Something in him wanted to laugh.
After all this, after two years of imagining death, torturing himself with dread of Darth Vader, he was going to die and Vader wasn't even here. It wasn't the Dark Lord who was going to kill him, it was his own damned stomach.
And the pain managed to be worse than anything he had imagined.
As he lay there, he remembered that he was wearing his pyjamas. Damn, that was irritating. He wished he were in his uniform instead. But, of course it didn't really matter. So he was going to be a corpse in pyjamas. So what?
He ought to be unconscious. Why wasn't he? There was no way he should be conscious in pain like this.
He lay there on the floor, consciousness finally starting to drift away as he noticed that sweat and tears were making a puddle against his cheek.
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