Renewal: Chapter Two
Ivy

It felt like hours passed before Leia’s battered equilibrium informed her that they’d settled upside down. Her teeth felt as though someone had tried to knock them out, and she ran her tongue around to make sure they were still attached to her gums. Adrenaline surged with the knowledge that they were alive, but she resisted the urge to unclip herself, trying to steady her nerves first. The blood rushing to her head didn’t help. She concentrated on identifying each part of her body and making sure it moved; her fingers, toes, arms and legs all wiggled.

"We’re all right. We’re all right. We’re all right." Luke continued his breathless assurances. She must have gotten out that she was okay too, although she wasn’t conscious of saying it.

Her brother unfastened his harness and flipped his legs to the ceiling floor with ease, a steady trick of momentary levitation preventing an imminent drop on his head. Then he caught her by the waist while she undid her own harness. The return to an upright position flooded her body with new pain, but other than an impending nasty case of full body whiplash and badly bruised shoulders from the straps, nothing screamed critical. Nothing was broken. Nothing was permanently damaged. Steadying herself against the bulkhead (she was fairly certain the pod was still rolling and pitching), she tried to take a step forward and stumbled to the right, discovering motor control and balance had abandoned her. Whatever she’d last eaten on the Razion's Edge threatened to do the same.

The escape hatch was jammed beyond repair, concave metal and plastics bunched together. Luke swiftly cut around it with his lightsaber, then kicked it out. Leia managed to hang on just long enough to stagger past him and be sick. Then she stretched out on the ground, concentrating on breathing in and out as slowly as possible. The ground tipped and whirled beneath her, the rotation of the planet on its axis near earthquake proportions at first, then slower, slower ...

"Those last few rolls were real killers," Luke agreed. Then he said, "Oh, wow."

"Wow?" Begging the nausea and sense of being shell-shocked to subside, Leia forced herself to take a look at where they were. "Oh my ..."

The behemoth giants of Endor, the most majestic and aged timber, would never hold a candle to the trees here. Here they towered well over a four hundred meters, their rich mallow color resplendent in the blurry sun permeating the clouds. The source of their ‘wows’ was this particular giant’s root system. Rather than grow down into the earth, they stretched upwards, using the trees around them as leverage so that each massive root system scaled all of the trees surrounding it. The roots evolved into thick lattices, stretching from one tree to another. They were less dense the higher up the trees they went, but at ground level where they were most thickly entwined, they formed a natural fortress, a well-muscled buttress.

Her cursory review of the planet offered her the odd name of Hmumfmumf, though the description in the datafiles didn’t do them justice. "I have no idea what this is," Luke called from the other side of the capsule. "This thing ..."

Leia climbed to her feet gingerly and decided the spins were abating. Two tentacles curled around the nose of the escape pod, leaking some type of clear fluid. The paint beneath where they rested was dissolving in a multicolored swirl, dripping down the starboard side. Half of the creature’s body (what she guessed was its body) lay pinioned beneath the escape pod. The glutinous organism’s tentacles were longer than even Chewbacca from head to toe.

"Look what’s happening to the hull," he exclaimed, back stepping a safe distance and curling his nose back in disgust. "What is it?"

Leia massaged her strained neck. "I don’t know," she told him, wondering how they were going to pry it off the escape pod so that they could repair it. Their primary thruster lay several meters away in two pieces. The pungent odor or illerium vapors stung her nose, though she couldn’t see the leak. Well, it’ll be okay, she reassured herself. Luke and you will figure out how to fix ...

The absurd thought checked itself swiftly.

Escape pods were designed to land, not take off, and even then, their landings were not known for being all that smooth. Additionally, her brother had just slashed a meter long opening in the hull. Still trembling in the aftermath of the crash, Leia flipped the implications over in her mind and coughed out a choice Rogue Squadron expletive.

Luke turned full circle, gesturing to the roots, to the forests, the battered escape pod. "What do you think?"

"We’re stuck in the middle of nowhere."

"It could have been worse."

She grimaced angrily in response. "Right. Our atoms could be raining down on Baskarn with the rest of the space dust."

Luke reached over and set a hand on her shoulder. "But we’re not." He flashed a smile. "We rained down whole, after all."

"Raining, crashing ... What about the shuttle?"

He shook his head. "I don’t know. I hung on to her as long as I could and the detonators didn’t go off as long as I was guiding the shuttle. But she wasn’t on autopilot. She should have hit the tops of the forests and blown. It probably happened before we crashed and ..." He faltered.

A wave of outside distress washed over her. "And what?"

Looking vaguely uncomfortable, Luke turned to stare over his shoulder at the impenetrable wall of roots. "I just realized. I switched us over from autopilot – that’s when we heard the reset notification tones. I was under orders to leave us on the pre-automated flight plan for our descent and I didn’t, and we ... well we wouldn’t have heard the tones otherwise"

"Oh." What he was saying dawned on her more fully. "Oh, no."

Over a thousand people were stationed at the base. Many of the New Republic’s most seasoned pilots were there, preparing for the same mission. "Then we weren’t the primary target," she murmured, shivering. "The detonators were set to go off when she entered the hanger."

"They were probably looped in to the landing sequences," he added grimly. "Or had some sort of default system set up in case I switched to manual. Whoever rigged her probably didn’t think I’d switch over, or thought we wouldn’t recognize the tones."

Leia swallowed tightly. Luke didn’t, as a rule, trust any pre-set system to fly as well as he did, nor did he relish the notion of not being in control. That small act of habitual disobedience had saved their lives and potentially the lives of a thousand others. At this very second in time, had her brother obeyed, they would have been arriving at the hanger. They never would have known. "Who gave you those orders?"

"Intelligence," he said quietly.

"That doesn’t make any sense," she said, feeling numb with dread. Then again, those sort of orders weren’t completely uncommon. Many base commanders ordered all crafts to come in on pre-automated flight plans, particularly in enemy territory. It was strictly a precaution. Flight plans were constructed to avoid Imperial patrols, sensors, and the vicinity traffic. However they were usually given to novice pilots, not former Rogue Squadron Commanders.

"It’s not worth our synapses worrying about it now. We need to find out how far we are from the base. We need to figure out what we’re going to do."

There was some discussion over whether or not they should launch a distress call and wait. Unfortunately, they were in an Imperial Sector on an untamed planet. If they were lucky the Baskarn base would pick up the call first. If they weren’t none of the possibilities boded well. They Imperials would not only have two of their most wanted in custody, but they would probably be very interested in what had brought the two of them to Baskarn. Compromising the security of the base was out of the question.

The urge to start moving, to switch over to active mode, finally kicked in. Hurrying back inside the pod, Leia unlocked the storage compartments and stood back to allow the contents to spill at her feet. In one of the survival packs she found the much needed mini-console, the survey datapad.

Fortunately, like all New Republic vessels, the escape pod was equipped with the most up do date survival gear. While Luke fiddled with the console she took a quick inventory of their provisions: One Durafab tent, two sleep rolls, two medkits, a Hydro-extractor, a self-charging cookpad set, luma glowrods, space tape, a multi-tool, syntherope, two canteens, extra coveralls, their cloaks, data pads and comlinks. In the plastipac food pouch she found K-18 ration bars, carbosyrup, a bag of insta-meal, and stim tea. There was also the tarine tea and NSFS food blocks she’d swiped from the galley.

When she was done she tugged off her flight jacket, tunic, fatigues, then her bodysuit, stuffing the jacket and bodysuit back in a pack. Baskarn was hot and humid -- she was going to melt under three layers of clothes. She drew her fatigues and tunic back on and tied two steelhide belts around her waist. Then she grabbed a DL-44 blaster for each holster. The smaller holdout blaster she always carried was tucked in place under her tunic.

She reemerged and handed him one of the other belts and a blaster. There’d been little information on the planet; being prepared for all forms of lethal ecology seemed prudent. Gesturing anxiously toward the datapad, she pressed for an answer. "How bad does it look?"

"Could be worse."

"Worse than ..." she prompted. "Well?"

"Guess."

"Luke."

"Sorry, I’m just holding off on destroying that never-ending cheerful optimism of yours."

Great. I’m cheerfully optimistic. "Seriously, Luke how ..."

"I figure seven or eight days. Two-hundred and sixty-three kilometers."

Leia sighed. It was better than a thousand, but not as good as twenty.

They set about covering the pod with camouflage netting and finished packing. By the time the tasks were completed she’d done a few mental calculations and determined that seven or eight days would be at a breakneck and grueling pace. She mentally amended seven or eight to eleven or twelve or thirteen and decided self aggrandizing optimism was truly one of her brother’s faults. Cheerful was not the same thing at all.

"Just pretend we’re back on Mimban," Luke kept saying. "Or any of those other insane places we’ve been stranded on."

Quite a few came to mind. "You’re jinxing us," she accused. "Is there some galactic law I don’t know about that says we have to crash and wind up lost in the middle of nowhere every time we go anywhere together?"

He ignored the commentary and picked up one of the packs, grunting under its weight as he straightened the straps around his shoulders. "What do we know about this place anyway?"

"Not much," she admitted, straining to put on her own pack. Obviously he’d deleted every fact she’d relayed to him over dinner that night. "The planet’s only sentient beings, native ones, are a simian species called Yrashu, green and supposedly harmless. And those trees are called Hmumfmumf."

"Hmumfmumf," Luke repeated, incredulous.

"I didn’t name them. Climate listed as temperate jungle-swamp. There should be a scout station at the bottom of the mountain. Gravity’s a little lighter than normal. Now, how are we going to get through this fifty story root mat?"

Luke detached his lightsaber from his belt again. "We won’t be a big hit with the environmental groups if there’s any around."

She took a long last look at the sky overhead. "I’d say it’s the least of our worries."

* * * * *

The midday sun blazed high overhead by the time they reached another clearing. At least, it looked like it was midday. Luke had assumed it was late morning when they first entered the Hmumfmumf forest seven hours ago, which should have made it late afternoon or early evening on most worlds. Leia said she thought a day here was thirty-two hours, if she remembered correctly. There was no telling.

The survival pack was a dead weight across his shoulders, and his flight suit was soaked with sweat. He judged both himself and his sister to be in good shape, but at this rate they were going to be in the best shape of their lives by the time they reached the base. Either that or their arms would fall off. He swung the pack off and sank to his knees, then clasped his hands together behind his back, trying to will feeling back into the abused limbs, drew them back around and rubbed his elbows. Leia slumped facedown in the grass beside him.

The dense forest, compounded by their inability to move quickly was making him feel claustrophobic. Luke had spent a lot of time on some strange worlds over the past few years, but he’d never gotten used to not being able to see for miles around him, as he’d been able to on Tatooine. He always felt safer that way. On Tatooine, only the Tusken Raiders could camouflage themselves in the wide expanse of sand. You could race for hours in a T-70 and see nothing, no one, not even a womprat or a sandcrawler. He’d spent his teenage years doing just that, avoiding his uncle and his excuses. Deep space was much the same. It was just a different place to run away.

He decided to relax and dig out something to eat, think about what lay ahead, not about blatant sabotage and the question of who, about the fact that even if the New Republic launched a search for them, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. If the shuttle had exploded on impact, the concussion bomb would have blasted a crater several hundred meters wide, easily detectable by any ship flying overhead. Still, they’d be sifting through the ashes for days looking for human remains before they realized they hadn’t been on it. Chances that their pod had been detected by their sensors so far from the base were slim. Either way, a search party wouldn’t be launched any time soon. He dug out two ration bars, tossed one to his reclining sister, and grabbed a collapsipack of carbosyrup.

"I wish I knew how far the forest extends," Leia grumbled, rolling over and brushing sticky tendrils of hair out of her eyes. "If I’d known memorizing the cartography would be so helpful, I would have."

Luke agreed, chewed his ration bar and studied the glen. It was larger than where they had crashed, but he had an uncanny feeling that this wasn’t a natural break in the forest. There didn’t seem to by any plausible reason for it, and with the looming giants it was akin to looking up the sky from the bottom of a well. Large, colorful variegated butterflies flitted from side to side, but other than small insects there were no other discernible signs of life, none he could sense through the Force. Still, he felt the tingling of his curiosity, a beckoning nearby. Puzzled, for he had no idea what it was, he thought aloud, "This clearing is strange. Something feels ... wrong."

"Someone wants us and possibly the entire base dead, and according to your dead reckoning in la-la land, we’re only ten days away. Of course everything feels wrong." she joked half-heartedly, pulling the survey datapad from her pocket to verify their position. Her expression was one of dismay. "We’re supposed to be heading straight through to the far end."

"Have something to eat and drink first," he encouraged.

She took a long draught of carbosyrup and wiped her chin on her sleeve. Then she chewed anxiously on her bottom lip and she shook her head slowly, as though suddenly cognizant of something she didn’t believe. "Luke, we re-wired and safety checked every single Lambda-class shuttle. None of them were sanctioned for fleet usage until after the modifications were complete. In order for those detonators to be installed that way ..."

"This was an inside job." That had already occurred to him as well.

"It must be. But security’s so tight, the New Republic Intelligence has set up so many precautionary measures. You’d know that from your work with them. However they bypassed security ... Did you recognize the Twi’lek who ran the diagnostic scan before we left?"

"No." He hadn’t sensed any deceit from him either. "I don’t think he knew anything though. He wasn’t hiding anything from me."

"Luke," she affirmed shaking her head, "Even if we get to the base as soon as possible, whoever did this will know it didn’t work by then. We can’t even warn them."

"Whoever did this knew took great the pains to make sure we carried in the detonators on a cargo craft. Meaning they either didn’t know where the base was -- just that we were going there -- they know the base is strong enough to defend itself against any full scale attack," he reassured her.

"Or so we hope," she pointed out.

"That’s all we can do now."

She frowned over his shoulder. "They still might have tracked us."

"I know." He followed her gaze to the burrowed out coppice, frowning too at his handiwork. If anyone had come out of hyperspace behind them and seen them eject, if they’d traced the escape pod down, they were leaving a beautifully marked trail.

They were on the other side of the glen within minutes, and on the verge of imprisoning themselves in the cursed roots again when Luke’s attention was drawn to an almost unnatural occurrence at the base of one of the trees. At first he thought it was a trick of the eye, and he touched it to make sure. It was virtually indistinguishable from the forest wall -- it was obviously intended to be -- unless you were to step up close to it. It had been hand crafted, a nigh on facsimile of tree bark, but out of metal, not wood. No sensors were visible, nor was there any sign of life, but it definitely was a door. He located the entrance pad just above it and pressed, but nothing happened. "You think this is an old one of ours?"

Leia was equally dumbfounded. "If we’ve had any satellite bases here that we abandoned, I’ve never heard about them."

"I want to check it out." He jigged the pad again to no avail. Then he nudged her aside and gave the door a fierce shove. It refused to budge.

"Try pulling toward you," she told him.

Stepping back, he mentally shoved the door as hard as he could from the other side. With a loud crack it lurched against the tree. Leia produced a glowrod, and Luke lay down on the ground and hung his head over the lip, easily recognizing the old fashioned lift chute. The lift waited idly about twenty meters down below, but there were rungs cut into the side, he supposed for times like these when it wasn’t operational. It would be a simple climb down. "You don’t have to come with me. You can stay with the packs up here."

"No way. If you’re going to get yourself in trouble I’d rather know sooner than wonder up here."

He swung around and dropped his legs, scaled quickly down, then directed his light Leia’s way. When she was near enough he reached for her waist but she tightened her grip and told him she had it. Sighing, (for often these days it seemed chivalry was tantamount to insult where his sister was concerned), he turned to the room behind him.

The facility had been constructed underground, far below the towering Hmumfmumf trees. Luke took a few deep breaths to test the air and sneezed. Stale, musty, but there was enough oxygen, there were no insalubrious odors, no toxic molds. Even in the dim light he could see the thick coating of dust. There were holocharts and blasters strewn about, as well as rusted stormtrooper helmets and gear. What had once been someone’s dinner rested on a desk; beside it, a smashed console. Several shadowy walkways beckoned from each corner, beyond which were pitch black halls.

The light from his glowrod revealed Imperial insignias everywhere. Faded glyphs read Korriban.

"I should have known," Leia sighed, quickly looking around. "But there was never any reported Imperial activity on Baskarn. Not once in all the years we’ve had a base here."

That fact didn’t appear to have the desired effect of making the insignias fade away into oblivion. A chill ran down Luke’s spine. The Empire had established near a hundred clandestine operations on different worlds, even occasionally shared planets unknowingly with the Alliance. To the best of his knowledge, however, it had never been the other way around. That meant either the Alliance had neglected to do a thorough scan of Baskarn beforehand, or ... or it had been deserted years before they arrived. The latter seemed more likely, since the Empire would not have hesitated to destroy their forces. He still wasn’t picking up any signs of life. "It’s not in use."

"Abandoned?" she wondered aloud.

"Does the name Korriban mean anything to you?"

"Korriban?" Leia furrowed her brow, wracking her memory. "No. Wait. There’s a planet on the other side of the Outer Rim by the same name. It was Palpatine’s retreat. " Rubbing her hands together, she ventured. "Remember what Wedge told us about that abandoned ship in the Pakuuni System."

Luke nodded, remembering Antilles’ chilling recollection of a ship he’d once boarded in space, its pilot long dead and cargo stolen. He said he’d never believed a ship could be haunted until then. This place felt haunted. The lingering sensation of death was so strong he felt as though he were a bystander at an execution, being prevented to do anything but watch in morbid fascination.

"I don’t think they abandoned this base," she explained hesitantly, "I feel almost as if ... "

"They died here," he finished.

"Yes. That’s it."

"I was just thinking the same thing." He crept to one of the doorways, and then purposely stomped his feet. There was no need to sneak through an empty base. "I think we should stick together in here."

They were right.

They found the first body in an office down the first hall. The man lay curled in a fetal position beside his desk, a blaster burn visible in the back of his tattered uniform. He was no more than a skeleton under his clothes, the bones of his fingers still clenched around an outdated model of comlink. The scant light of the beam cast a macabre glow on the scene, and Luke couldn’t suppress the grim sense of foreboding. Something terrible had happened here.

The living areas were complete with personnel quarters and storage facilities. The personnel quarters were fit for kings, full of teal furniture and dishes made of Camarian crystal. Crates of all sizes in the storage facilities were stocked with a collection of goods and foodstuffs from around the galaxy: T’ill-t’iil and Farberrie liqueur, containers of Carababba T’bac, bolts of Koolach silk, ornamental tapestries, aurodium ingots. The majority of the food goods were long past their expiration dates, many up to twenty years. There were even a few containers of sealed R’alla water. Luke didn’t see any harm in pinching a few of those, tore the tab off one and drank greedily while he examined an ornately jeweled bottle. Dawnstar gems refracted a rainbow of colors across the walls when the glowrod’s light hit them.

Leia took a bottle into her hands and ran her fingers lightly over the exquisite detailing. "This is wine from the Hapes System." She squinted at the label. "This vintage in particular was worth over ten thousand credits when I was growing up. The value’s probably doubled by now."

"So either this place was a stronghold for smuggled goods too or the people that worked here were well rewarded." He couldn’t help adding, "Can you imagine what Han would think if he saw this?"

"For all we know this was his regular cargo," she mused gracefully. A momentary flicker of sorrow peaked and waned, almost evading his perception. "I bet there’s several hundred thousands worth of goods in here. I think it will make a great contribution to the funds for the New Republic?"

Luke nodded. "We’ll have to send a team back here when we get to the base."

The residential areas were without any more human remains; not the medcenter. Or, what Luke thought was the medcenter at first, but it was too large for such a small station. Skeletons lay dismembered in pairs and trios, moss covered bones; craniums, mandibles, ribs, shrouded with ragged cloth and so tangled only forensics could have put them back together and recreated a whole being. There were half a dozen laboratories which looked as if cyclones had ripped through them. The floors were covered with more smashed consoles, shattered view screens, biofeedback units, wires and tubes. Operating tables outfitted with restraints were upturned, life support systems were torn apart. A number of MD-4 droids, once suited for finite microsurgery, were heaps of tangled machinery and scrap metal now. Oddly, Luke noted that none of the security pads or retinal scanners appeared to have been tampered with.

"A research center," Leia said, after they’d entered the fourth such room. "Medical to an extent, but I don’t think this place was meant to help anyone. I’d expect to find at least one bacta tank in here and why just surgical droids?" She brushed debris off a machine that had escaped destruction, pointed to the logo on the side. Two rings, juxtaposed over each other with ‘G P’ in each half. "Ever seen this before?"

"I don’t think so."

"Geneering Products," she explained. "They manufactured pharmaceuticals -- truth serums and other nasty stuff -- for the Empire up until about three years before the Battle of Yavin. Then one day they up and vanished."

He kicked at an empty tray. An array of sharp scalpels was scattered across the floor next to it. "They went out of business?"

"Or they became a one client corporation. At least that’s what my father always suspected. With enough money they could have set up anywhere in the galaxy. Last I heard they were working on creating a bio-interface that would allow a computer and a sentient brain to communicate ... sort of melding the mind with technology. Unfortunately, the high processing speeds tended more often than not to drive the subject insane. Unless they used cybernetic implants to compensate it didn’t work and cybernetics isn’t exactly cost effective. That’s why Palpatine was always experimenting with primitive species, genetic manipulation. They were easier to control, not because he had a shred of civism when it came to his own species."

Thinking Leia sounded very up-do-date on the Imperial research, Luke asked, "Could what they were doing here have been related to cloning?" He didn’t think this was a cloning facility. He’d yet to see any of the cylindrical tanks he’d read about in the Alliance’s datafiles. Palpatine’s cloning facilities were legendary.

"No. They have everything they need to type bollen patterns, brain waves, so I would assume it was related to mind control." Leia’s usually warm brown eyes narrowed, and her voice dropped to a hiss. "It makes me sick. We only know about a fraction of the biowarfare laboratories ... technological research centers. I’ve never actually taken a tour of one. The only reason we ever had an inkling these places existed was because no matter how hard the Empire tried they couldn’t siphon off funds without catching the attention of the Senate. Taxpayer’s money always went missing. Millions of credits went into the creation of the Death Star -- we knew something big was underway four years before we had confirmation. Shortly before the Senate was disbanded we were preparing to request a formal inquiry and review of the Empire’s accounts. Palpatine took care of that rather expediently."

Luke reflected for a moment on the destruction of the Obsidian. The Alliance had destroyed the research platform shortly before the Battle of Endor. At the time, he had thought it would have been a wiser move to simply capture it and study the research that had been preformed there, but Leia had been dead set against it. Agents had forewarned the Alliance that all subjects had been destroyed before they arrived in the system, so it wasn’t going to be a mercy or rescue mission. She had given an impassioned speech to high command and said, point blank, that the Rebellion wouldn’t profit from medical experimentation on innocent victims, that she would resign first. No one had dared object, and two days later the platform had been vaporized. In retrospect, face to face with one of the dreaded facilities, he found himself agreeing with her.

"But things didn’t work out according to Palpatine’s plans here," he said. "It looks like whoever they kept here fought back and won ... "

"Or Palpatine sent down a squad to destroy his own facility because they knew too much."

"Or that," he replied, though he felt it wasn’t the truth.

They left the laboratories and headed back into the labyrinth of subhallways. The facility was deceptively large and tricky to maneuver through with glowrods. The docking bay held four old SoroSuub shuttles, all of which were nothing more than scorched Trimantium shells. They’d been blown up from the inside out, either on purpose, or they’d been outfitted to self-destruct when they were tampered with. The size of the docking bay told Luke they were directly beneath the clearing they’d crossed; if he were to dig away the earth from above, he knew he’d hit the roof.

On the other side of the docking bay evidence of whoever had slain the members of the base presented itself. Ten identical cells, spaced an arms width apart, were set on either side of a narrow passageway littered with the rubble of blasted Detainment droids and more skeletons. Although the floors were coated in several decades’ worth of dust, Luke could easily imagine the fresh pools of blood creeping across the halls, into the cells. He knelt beside a set of remains, galvanized by the clean cuts directly through the bone. What looked like a femur lay in four pieces, beside it, several vertebrae. Whoever had annihilated these men hadn’t just wanted to kill them and despite his distaste for the Empire, he couldn’t help but feel sickened by the cruelty indicated. At the same time, his senses were twitching, excitement catching him off guard. He told his sister; "I can only think of a few weapons which would do this to a body easily."

Leia leaned in and steadied herself on his shoulder. "You don’t think a Jedi did this? A viroblade might have too."

His hand reflexively reached for his own lightsaber, turning it round in his hand as far it could go without detaching it from his belt. "I don’t know, but ... " The area was an epicenter for the negativity he’d been sensing. "Think about it. We know this place is old ... older than us even. Maybe Palpatine kept some of them alive ... maybe ... whatever happened here ..."

A vague stirring in the Force broke him off mid-sentence, tugged at him like a psychic tractor beam. He stood and took three steps into one of the empty cells. The ceiling was low enough that he could reach it on flat feet, the measurements across the same. The claustrophobia he been experiencing in the forests was but a shadow of what he felt inside the cell.

"Can you feel that?" Leia whispered.

He experienced a flash of helplessness, outrage ... fear. Fear so paralyzing he forgot he could simply step back into the passageways. Needles of cold terror pricked his flesh.

"Can you feel that?" she whispered again, flashing her glowrod in both directions. "Luke, can we get out of here please. I don’t like this."

"In a second." He gave his body a thorough head to toe shake, felt the sensations dissipate. He’d investigated enough places on Coruscant -- most of Palpatine’s private chambers, suites, prisons, even a museum of desecrated Jedi belongings -- to know suffering lingered as vibrantly in the present as it did in the past. Hatred and sorrow scarred deeply. He exited and checked the next cell down. Its emotional vibrations were nowhere near as strong, though the same trace of misery beckoned to him, as though the cells and the stories they held were starving for audience.

Then his light caught several disabled Interrogation Droids resting in the shadows. Leia shuffled next to him and gasped. He turned the light away from it, but she grabbed his hand and redirected the beam back onto the appalling apparatus. Try as he might he could not block the distress and terror the small form next to him projected into his consciousness, but somehow he found himself staring too, trying to imagine what the various appendages and glinting tools had been intended to do. Privately, he had never been able to believe the Imperials would have used such a barbaric device on a woman, let alone a girl, and though he’d seen a few of the IT-0 models in his time, he’d never seen one like this. The bitter taste of bile was thick at the back of his throat. She wasn’t imagining, and he could feel her body shaking where his forearm touched her side.

"I want to get out of here," she whimpered. "Please, please can we go now?"

* * * * *

Leia crouched on her haunches and pressed her face into her arms. Luke was standing nearby, pretending to look elsewhere but she could feel that he was watching her. The fresh air cleansed away the moroseness which had settled underground, but it didn’t help her memories, didn’t erase the images of decades old corpses in the underground necropolis, the suffering and unimaginable horrors. The flashback to her own panic and nightmares had passed now, and though she suspected Luke thought she was crouching and remembering, it couldn’t have been further from the truth.

She was thinking about Luke’s comments to her the night he’d made her dinner.

You’ll be vulnerable to people who will want to manipulate you ... exploit you.

Like here? Like this?

Luke believed the station had held Jedi, and if it had, history tended to repeat itself didn’t it? Her mother must have feared for them before they were born. She must have feared that Vader would find them, hence they were separated and hidden. The purges were already underway when they were born, the Jedi nearly driven into extinction. Did she know she would have to give them up? If she’d known what her father would do to his daughter, to his son, would she have even wanted them to be born? Was this the sort of fate she’d feared?

Her eyes studiously skirted the area again. She half expected there to still be a lone survivor from the base waiting to ambush them, half expected an Imperial squadron to drop from above and attack them. Her nerves were frayed and her composure was shaken, and she prayed Luke would stay away a little longer. If he ambled over and smiled too kindly, the compulsion to start babbling and babbling -- tell him everything before she had a chance to talk to Han would overcome her ...

Han ...

It occurred to her he would learn about the Razion's Edge demise before long.

Luke, oblivious to her silent pleas, squatted next to her. "Hey," he said softly.

"Hey, yourself." She lifted her head, and tried to smile. "I’m having an absolutely terrible day. How about you?"

"If was going just fine until about-" He checked his chrono. "-Nine hours ago."

"Mine too. And you know what I just remembered. Han will be back this week. We’ll be miss-"

His mouth slipped readily into a sympathetic frown. "Leia, don’t do that to yourself. He’s not going to assume anything. He knows you’re with me and that I wouldn’t let anything happen to you. I’m sure of that." Then, magically understanding that her distress was multi-leveled and complicated, he stretched his arm around her shoulder, saying, "You know, I can give you all the bad clichés about lover’s quarrels or I can point out that the New Republic will hold the news back to avoid a media blitz. Maybe we’ll be at the base before he’s even contacted. It’s not worth the grief today."

Leia pushed herself up, wincing at his choice of words. The term ‘lover’s quarrel’ evoked images of lovers twined together, seeking forgiveness, saying 'I love you'. It didn’t apply to her and Han, not anymore. Two people who hadn’t been with five parsecs of each other in four months were no longer lovers. She didn’t think they would even qualify as friends.

She caught Luke watching her expectantly. Luke has a point. They might not tell him now. Enough is enough, Leia. You can wallow in self-pity or pull it together. "You’re right. So ...Where did they go? They killed everyone inside and then ... where can you go in the middle of nowhere?"

"Come see this," he instructed.

Luke led her behind station’s door, behind the trunk, to a path. Instead of being carved through the roots as their own trail had been, this one had been created by redirecting the roots as they grew, so that they naturally created a canopied archway between the trunks. The most skilled horticulturist on any planet would have been awed. They reminded her of the Mullanite Sculptures; artists spent years redirecting vine growth to from animals, objects. Here it was less creative and more of a necessity, though Luke’s arms were very impressed, or so he kept saying.

The trail was well kept, although there were no footprints apparent to tell them who took care of it or used it. In under an hour they hit a wall of sheer rock, over which the roots had ably climbed up and around. The trail split into two, running along the base. Luke swung to the right, started jogging, then he broke into a full out run. By the time she’d caught up to him he was inspecting a deep crevasse of split stone. Then he squeezed his body through the narrow entrance and disappeared into the darkness. A burst of fuzzy light bathed the entrance moments later. Leia followed.

"Someone was here," he told her. "I can feel him."

Together they surveyed the disarray under the light of scattered candles. The cave, although it appeared someone had once lived here, did not look as though it had been inhabited for years. Crates similar to those they’d found inside the old base were piled against one wall, turned into shelving units. There was an old stove, ingeniously created from scraps of metal and an old generator. Next to the stove was a low table with heavy woven mats set around it, ripped up carpeting from the base. The corners of the room were each covered with long embroidered tapestries. The occupant had obviously sought to civilize his dwelling, make it feel homey. If one ignored the sloping ceilings the illusion almost worked. A sleeping area was partitioned behind one of them, and in another corner a funnel had been driven into the cracks of the wall. A storage container was positioned beneath it, though it was dry as bone. In the middle of the table rested a lightsaber nearly identical to her brother’s.

"I was right," Luke murmured, downcast. "But he’s been dead for years."

The largest tapestry was an epic scene of rivers and mountains done in pastels over a fresco of black and grey. Thousands upon thousands of slashes had been cut in rows, top to bottom, until the artist’s image disappeared in the rips if you stood too close to it. She traced her fingers over the tears, wondering if it they represented days, weeks. If it had been decades since the station was in use, she couldn’t imagine how lonely whoever had lived here must have been.

Abruptly she marched over to the curtains and drew them back. She didn’t want to see another body or skeleton today but if she was near one she wanted to know where it was. She folded back the embroidered quilt covering the bed, brushing away dirt. Tomuon wool, she noted, a priceless piece of art handmade by the Askajian weavers. They’d had a similar one in her home when she was growing up. Long white hairs were strewn across the pillow. There was a pile of clothing: a threadbare cloak and tunic.

Maybe he had vanished, the same as Ben Kenobi. She thought sometimes she’d seen it happen, Ben’s cloak pooling to the floors, bodiless, formless. It had all happened so fast. She remembered Luke telling her though, distraught, inconsolable even, for the trip to Yavin IV. She pictured him, barely more than a gawky teenager, staring out the view port.

He didn’t fight back ... he dropped his arms ...

He saved you ... saved us, she had told him then. He did what he had to do ...

"The same thing happened when Master Yoda died."

She snapped out of her reverie. "Is it significant?"

"It means that whoever was here was very powerful ... a good Jedi. Maybe he was a master too. His presence is still strong ... " He turned on his heel and crossed his arms. "It’ll be dark soon. We could stay the night here."

A tomb, she thought. This was essentially a tomb, but it was better than the shelter or the tunnel. "Okay. But if any other skeletons turn up under all this junk I’m leaving. I’ve had all I can take for one day."

"Deal."

* * * * *

A more thorough search told them little about the Jedi who’d once lived there, other than that in his spare time he’d enjoyed whittling the Hmumfmumf roots into bowls, spoons, mugs, animals she didn’t recognize, humanoid figures, whose essences, while they must have meant something to him, weren’t captured well enough in the grooves and curves for her guess if they were male or female. The station was the source of most of his belongings, although, while he had two crates of Camarian bowls and glasses, he ate off the ones he’d made himself. He’d cut candle holders into the wall so that the room was bathed in a honey glow when they were all lit. It was almost civilized.

Luke managed to get the old stove working so that they didn’t need their cookpad, and dumped the contents of one of their NSF rations into an old pot. While their dinner simmered away he selected an untouched bottle of wine and held it up to the light, swishing the amber contents around so that the sediments scattered. Her brother rarely consumed alcohol, but the price tag she’d quoted earlier had apparently piqued his interest. His eyes twinkled boyishly, then he winked. "Ten thousand credits a bottle? Were you serious?"

"Go ahead," she encouraged mischievously. "You probably won’t get another chance in your lifetime."

He popped the seal, tipped his head back and took a generous swallow. Immediately his face flushed and he started coughing.

"It isn’t water," she laughed.

The spasmodic coughing tapered off into gulps and wheezes. "My mistake," Luke said, trying to cover his embarrassment by taking a tiny, respectable sip. His face was turning trig-berry red and his eyes ran with tears.

Leia kept laughing.

"Let’s see you try it," he scowled. "Being the cultural elitist and all ... "

"No thank you," she said smoothly. "If I’m such a cultural elitist then I’ve had it before. It’s a little ... dry for my taste."

"You’re bluffing," he accused, wiping his eyes. "The way you describe your father, I find it hard to believe he would’ve wasted money on fine alcohol."

"You’ve never heard of diplomatic gifts? Tax free gestures of good will?"

"Also known as ‘bribery.’ You’re still bluffing," he decided.

"Well maybe Lando gave me a bottle once ... "

He paused. "For free?"

"Stranger things have happened," she nodded.

"Or he still feels guilty."

She took a deep breath in and out through her nose. When it came to gifts from Lando it always came back from that. "Or that."

Luke took one more sip before resealing the bottle. "This is so strange," he murmured. "Our ship is in a million pieces somewhere and we end up finding all this. I don’t know why I bother looking. I should just wait for accidents to steer me in the right direction."

"I’d hardly call an assassination attempt an accident," she corrected. "It’s the furthest thing from it."

"Then ... we’ll call if fate."

Fate? Maybe, but she hoped not. In her experience fate rarely tended to be kind. Still, it was absurd to sit on a dirt floor and prepare to dine off the finest crystal in the galaxy. It was absurd to have crashed and discovered an Imperial research station. It was absurd that her brother had spent six months searching for Jedi or remnants of the Jedi, only to find evidence of one here on Baskarn. The chain of events rippled with an eerie consonance that she didn’t like.

Leia sat and stretched, dropping her chin to her chest, then back, side to side, leaned forward and grabbed her ankles, trying to ward off the stiffness settling in. That had been the one good thing about moving all day. Tomorrow morning she was to feel like she’d been trampled by an Imperial Walker. If she could just take a long hot bath ...

Water, she remembered. They needed water for tomorrow. She found the hydro-extractor and started it running under Luke’s critical eye. He probably could have dismantled it and reassembled it in his sleep. Thanks to his upbringing, he was something of a whiz when it came to any style of moisture vaporizer or water extractor, and the primitive SoroSuub brand contraption was about as simple as they got.

Throughout dinner they spoke meditatively of the Razion's Edge, of the near disaster. Beyond theorizing there was little they could do. Imperials, Leia insisted. Who else? Her brother wasn’t so sure, though his attention was fixated on the elusive origins of the Korriban station. He hoped fervently that more than one person had survived, that if they were heading in the right direction they might find them. There might be Jedi here on Baskarn. He told her that mortality within the Force was unclear, transient in nature, misunderstood by most, and that the death of any Jedi left its scars in the Force, created a disturbance in the natural order of light and darkness. That was why the cave bore such an extraordinary signature of wisdom and strength, of purity, of the Light side.

And if the Light side left its mark ... "What about a Jedi who’s turned to the Dark side?" she couldn’t help asking.

Luke stirred his spoon around the rim of his bowl absentmindedly. "That’s different."

"Dangerous?"

"It can be," he admitted. "Evil contaminates ... Yoda told me once that places where the Dark side was overpowering were often guarded by protectorates of the innocent, bound until death to prevent trespassing. He called them ‘Dark Force nexuses’."

"Is that what he was doing? Wherever he was?"

Luke’s eyes lit up as though a fact formerly wrinkled in his brain had been smoothed over. "I always thought he was hiding, but come to think of it, he may have been guarding one. I mean I’ve seen one, once, near where he lived. I don’t know why he would have chosen to live so near it."

"What was it like?"

"Ahh ... Seductive, sinister, yet somehow it’s not real, you’re your own worst enemy inside of one. Whatever you fear, whatever you don’t want to confront, will be what ultimately finds you."

They looked at each other for a long time before she understood. "What found you?"

For a second she didn’t think he would answer. Then he said, "That I had the potential to be like him ... It was a test. I failed."

"But you’re not like him," she replied earnestly. "You never could be."

"I inherited my strengths and my weaknesses from him. I have to be constantly aware of that, remind myself all the time how easy it would be to take the next step, why I can’t ever let that happen."

This was a side of Luke she hadn’t seen in a very long time. "You won’t," she assured him. "I have faith in you. I know you won’t."

"That’s nice to hear," he murmured unconvincingly. "I just ... All of the Jedi are gone. I have no one to help me figure out what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel ... I feel like someone dropped me in the middle of a battle never having flown before and told me take over. I don’t know what I’m doing. I still have so much to learn. Yoda always said I needed to unlearn but how do you keep unlearning and learning all at once. There’s no end to it."

She considered it, nodded. "That’s ... paradoxical, but it’s the foundation for wisdom, isn’t it? To never assume you know all there is to know, to remember you never cease learning, to be cautious. To unlearn is to ... I don’t know, not let yourself get too set in your ways ... "

Her brother looked pained, brushed back unruly locks of sandy hair and cleared his throat. "But ... I’m afraid of making a mistake, making the same sort of mistakes Ben did, my father did."

Leia thought it strange to hear her brother’s voice lacking its usual confidence, strange to consider that Luke, who came across the majority of the time as wizened and self-assured, had doubts. In her mind he was afraid of nothing -- he’d had the courage to face Vader after all. And as well as Jedi, he was a pilot. Pilots viewed fear as the first sign of burnout; it was as fatal in a battle as a malfunctioning ship. The Emperors’ fear driven campaign had rendered the many worlds under his control as helpless as infants. Fear in a Jedi, she knew, could lead to the Dark side, but overcoming fear was also considered a critical phase of their training. Fear in the mind of any individual was like a weed, growing rampant until it choked out logic and reason, led to apathy, the inability to act, to be decisive when it was necessary. When he fell to his pedagogical moods he was fond of spouting such truisms.

"I think you’re cutting yourself short," she shrugged. "Making mistakes is one of those certainties in life. You will make them. Everyone does. In order to move forward we have to try. It’s a risk we take."

"Point," he admitted, candidly. "But the consequences of my mistakes could be devastating."

"Then you will be wary, cautious." She paused, twisted the end of her braid around one finger. When had she started sounding so much like Bail? "We can’t control the future. On the Inner Council I make decisions every day that I’m not sure of ... that have as much potential for disaster as they do rewards. I have to trust that what I’m doing is right, brace myself for the likelihood it may not be at the same time."

Luke smiled, then laughed softly.

Her cheeks warmed. "I’m sorry. Is this coming out all wrong?"

"No, no. I was just thinking, Yoda found my philosophical side to be wanting on a good day. Maybe I should have listened to you a little more back then."

"Oh, don’t be silly."

"You always do the right thing though. It’s in your nature and you make it seem easy."

"I only try to follow my heart."

"Then you listen to it very well." He pushed himself up from the table. "I’m going to find facilities."

She watched him go then picked up a pipe nestled away in a cubby beside the table and sniffed it. It smelled faintly of spice ... Now there was a novel way to pass hours alone. What would her brother think of that?

You always do the right thing.

"No I don’t," she whispered to cave’s spirit, if he was indeed listening.

Ever since she could remember she’d struggled to do the right thing. When she’d run for the Senate she’d refused her father’s offer to appear publicly with her, refused to allow her position as a regent to influence voters and supporters. Taking up the Rebellion’s cause had also been, in her heart, the right decision because she believed the Emperor’s reign was corrupt, that left unchecked it would destroy the liberties most worlds had taken for granted under the Old Republic. In her years with the Alliance she had worked herself to the bone, setting aside personal relationships and frivolous fun because if it failed everyone she’d known would have died in vain. She kept her private life discreet, she didn’t act without weighing the repercussions, didn’t involve herself in the petty power struggles of the New Republic. She kept her sights sharply focused on the future.

None of that mattered now. Being spared her father's and aunts' disappointment made her feel wretched on the inside, as for the first time in five years she’d had cause to be relieved they were no longer alive.

How could you let this happen? she asked herself daily.

Members of the ruling houses of Alderaan, did not, as a rule, behave as though they were raised in the gutters of Coruscant. Politicians did not have affairs with their business associates. Council members did not jeopardize their careers. Bail Organa’s daughter certainly had had enough morals and values instilled in her since birth to know better than to fall into bed with the first man who tried to seduce her in order to pacify the gnawing ache in her chest that Han had left her with.

It seemed that the universe had been dealing to her from the bottom of the deck and now sought to further complicate it with its idea of a joke, a wild card.

"Oh look," it said to her. "Now that I’ve taken and taken from you, let me give you something in return, let me remind you how very human you are ..."

* * * * *

This time he and Ben were walking outside Yoda’s home on Dagobah, the mists breaking for them, shadowy veils drawn apart with an otherworldly hand. "Surrendering to the Force means sacrificing our will to what needs to be done. We are a vagabond order, without homes, without families, without choices -- fate and happenstance setting our direction for us. Lonely it is ... but as we are taught from the very beginning, ‘we are not to know the reason ... "

"We are only to do," Luke finished. "Master Yoda was fond of reminding me."

Ben smiled. "Like so many before me, I too, lost the ability to choose my path of servitude. For all my years I repeated those words to myself daily. When a servant of the Force dies, he has two choices; to pass on to whatever lies beyond this world, or to linger -- touch the distant part of our consciousness that hear them, offer us warnings and guidance. But ultimately he cannot refuse the call."

"You’ll be gone soon," Luke replied.

"Soon, but not yet, and you won’t be alone. You will be watched, as you always have been, always will be ... "

"Ben I have so many questions for you. I still need you ... "

If his former mentor heard his desperation he paid no heed. "Luke, as you were so often prone to doing in your youth, you are once again looking to the future and not to the here and now. Sometimes we must accept that patience, waiting, the very things we are not inclined to do well, are as much doing as action."

"Patience, waiting," Luke murmured. "It’s not so simple ... "

"But it is. You’re journey has just begun, and you have only begun to learn ... there is no rush, nor are their limits other than the ones you create for yourself."

"What do you mean?"

"You know the answer Luke ... "

"But I don’t ... "


"Ben I don’t ... "

The half-dreamed, half-whispered words awoke him, and he found himself staring at the last of the candles they’d left burning before they went to bed. Like the others, it would soon be no more than a nub of yellow wax in the dirt, pooled into the indents like fingers.

Ben ...

He felt inexplicably morose. It had been a long time since Ben had appeared to him. This had been a dream, the type he had had often, although nothing was substantial, nothing real beyond his doubts. Perhaps it was Ben, reaching out from wherever he was, or perhaps, as he feared, it was old conversations and experiences recycled by his subconscious because recently he’d been calling to him. After dinner he’d even meditated for a short time, seeking a connection to the cavern’s former occupant.

He propped himself up on his elbow and peered over the dwindling flame. His sister slept soundly, two hands folded beneath her cheek, a ball of elbows and knees poking through the sides of her sleep roll, her skin pale in contrast to the tangle of dark hair around her. His first impulse was to wake her too, but he thought better of it. Cute, he thought. Asleep, she looked angelic, younger than she was, definitely not like a woman whose aim was more often than not lethal, not like the fuming spitfire that had raced around Hoth scaring the living daylights out of pilots, crew, and command alike.

Han had told him once that he pitied the idiots who wasted their time mooning over her from afar, that he could think of no more pathetic endeavor. While most men had been interested in discovering what made her tick, the Corellian wholeheartedly dedicated himself to discovering what ticked her off. Molten rock, he had said once, would probably react to her the way it did to liquid nitrogen; one touch and ssssssss. He’d said in jest as though neither he nor Luke had been one of those idiots, which they were ... they all were really. She was a princess, she was a Rebellion hero, and she was beautiful. That she shielded herself so tenaciously made her more fascinating, and when she thanked you and meant it, smiled one of those dazzling smiles that always made his heart skip a beat, you were hopelessly lost and ready to do anything to have her smile at you like that again. Luke’s heart, out of old habit, still skipped a little sometimes but he would never have admitted that to anyone, barely admitted it to himself.

Her accusations that night on the Razion's Edge had been running through his mind in his rare moments of private introspection. The more he thought about it the guiltier he felt. Once they had been close, as close as anyone ever really got to her, and although finding out they were siblings should have strengthened their bond, they had, he conceded now, drifted apart more than he wanted to admit. Moments where he felt like he really knew her -- those instances where two people connecting affords one the brief sensation of being part of a whole -- were far and few between. She tended to forgive him anything, but beyond that she rarely confided in him about things that bothered her, rarely asked for his help unless it had political or military grounds.

He wished she would talk about home more often. She spoke of her father, of their work, but not of silly moments and memories, the sort of stories that began with, when I was little ...

The suicide statistics for off world Alderaanians were grim. Many made pilgrimages, returnings to the asteroid field that was all that remained, known as the Graveyard to spacers who passed near it. Some dispatched memory capsules with mementos and offerings to deceased loved ones; others simply veered their shuttles off course towards certain death. The Alderaanian Death Legion never ran out of applicants, willing to go to extreme measures to avenge the barbarity of their world’s destruction. The planet’s populace, once a society of pacifists had been transformed into the Alliance’s most feared terrorist unit. Among those numbers, there was not one, save his sister, who had held her breath and watched, then breathed again knowing sixty billion people never would.

Sixty billion people ... Tarkin ... his father ...

Yet she never wavered. Even when Han’s fate hung in the balance, and weeks turned into months of dead end leads, the resilience he admired was stirred with the force of a hurricane. She never would have been elected the youngest member of the Imperial Senate if she were any different. Personally, Luke still had a hard time imagining that sort of focus at such a young age; he’d been so blindly obsessed with getting off his uncle’s farm and into the Academy, not scheming to overthrow a Galactic government. Back then, his aspirations hadn’t extended much further than becoming pilot like his father.

In one afternoon that had all changed.

Reality staked its claim so harshly -- for himself and for his sister -- that he’d begun to understand why Ben lied, and that was a bitter pill to swallow. Often he wished he could crawl back in time, back to when he didn’t know so much, to when his heart didn’t feel weighted down under truths and half-truths, malicious twists of fate he’d not foreseen in his future. For Leia, discovering the truth about who she was, having to face the darkest moments of her life with that knowledge, was a version of hell he’d never fully comprehend. Luke didn’t know whether to spend his life waiting for her to heal before he tried to teach her, but he thought that teaching her, conversely, would start to help her heal.

Patience and waiting, he thought ...

...Patience and waiting ...


It was, he decided after checking his chrono, not worth trying to fall back asleep now. Carefully sliding back the coverings, he stood and stretched, then tip toed over to the low table and picked up the lightsaber again. Although it was lighter and the handle was engraved with a uniquely foreign ornamental decor, the general design was remarkably consistent with his own.

Outside, dawn approached, its watery grey light filtering through the limbs. Luke pressed the activation stud and held his breath. The blade ignited, a burst of white heat in perfect condition still. Taking a deep breath, he let the full strength of the Force invigorate him and drive the stiffness from his limbs, then started moving through the first series of defensive poses. He wondered what sort of power source the Jedi had used to create a blade that color. If and when he made one for Leia, he thought, he could try to construct it lighter too, make the handle narrower to suit her hand. Her hands were so much smaller than his ...

If and when Leia ever decided she was ready.

He switched from the defensive to offensive poses ... forward, block, parry ... The blade hummed louder and louder. From deep inside the cave he heard muffled yelp. He released the stud and hurried back in.

Leia was sitting bolt upright, very groggy and half asleep. "What was that?" she demanded. "What happened?"

"Nothing," he murmured, setting the weapon back on the table surreptitiously. Then he reached out to light the remaining candles.

She covered her eyes and groaned.

He waited until the last of her sleep induced stupor faded away before saying, "It’s ah, morning." Then he decided to try a cheerful approach, marching purposely to the mess of strewn gear. "Would you like tea?"

Most of the fingers covering her eyes dragged away. "Yes please. Um ... " She balled up a fist and pressed it hard against her leg. "Was I imagining the sound of a lightsaber outside?"

"No," he admitted. "I was just ... " He gestured to the weapon on the table, "testing it out. It still works."

"Oh."

"Tea?"

"I think that would be good," she decided.

Remembering vaguely that his sister, when roused from a deep sleep, was generally as disorientated as a Jawa tossed headfirst into an ocean, he proceeded draining the last of the R’alla water into one of their collapsible pots. Then he fired up the old stove and set about repacking his gear. Despite his amiable mood he was dreading the next week just as much as she was.

As a Jedi, one should accept what life offers you with calm.

Luke determined that he felt very calm.

A Jedi greets each day grateful and appreciative, curious, open minded, seeking a lesson to be learned.

That was notwithstanding the fact that he was going to have to cut his way through over two-hundred kilometers of dense forest.

A Jedi ...

"Blah, blah, blah," he mumbled, hoping to dam the unwelcome fountain of Yoda’s axioms inspired by his dream. There was no harm in a bit of perfectly understandable sighing at the prospect of insta-meal for breakfast. The chalky nutrient rich substance was the mainstay of most survival packs and tasted about as good as its name would lead one to believe.

Moving tenderly, Leia hobbled over with two mugs in hand. "What did you say?

"Uh ... I said hopefully we can make good time today." He stirred a hefty spoonful of the tea leaves into the pot. They had no strainer, so he steeled himself to enjoy dregs and floating leaves along with insta-meal. "Having so many hours of daylight might not be such a bad thing after all. How’d you sleep?"

"I had a very odd dream where Fey’lya was arguing that he was my next of kin and was legally entitled to my pension and bank accounts when I was declared deceased ... "

Luke struggled not to laugh and ended up snorting.

"It seemed ridiculous in my dream," she added. "I was included in the vote ... meaning I was there, and he was still arguing his case. He claimed he was my uncle ... " She lifted an arm and rolled back her sleeve, banging the mugs together noisily. "Am I covered in fur? I mean, I know many species interbreed with humans but Bothans?"

He kept chuckling, picturing the cream colored politician arguing his case, fur rippling, whiskers shaking, arms waving with documents.

"I know," she smiled. "I was so relieved when I woke up."

"I take it he’s not listed as your beneficiary anywhere?"

"Oh no," she exhaled. "Not unless he’s posing as the head of the Alderaanian relief fund."

"That’s where it goes?" he asked, thinking, in the same breath, that of course that’s who she would have left everything to.

"Yeah ... " She sighed. "Every time I delude myself into thinking I’m too young to have such a well documented will something happens. Yesterday happens ... and ... right now I feel like I was pummeled with a pair of fists while was sleeping." She added, looking at him knowingly, "I might even say I feel like I was in a shuttle crash."

"You were," Luke winked back, unable to miss the grimace that accompanied the complaint. "Is it that bad?"

"My repertoire of skills doesn’t include self-healing," she reminded him, her posture growing business like and stern. "That reminds me. You know, you have a pension and stipend too Luke. There should be something in your file other than your name, rank, and fifty pages of blanks."

The water started boiling over on the stove. He used his cuff to protect his hand and poured the tea into the mugs, then had an idea. "Nag me about it when we get back."

"I will," she assured him.

"Now back to you," he began.

"Back to what?"

Luke caught her arm as she reached for her tea. "First things first. How about taking the edge off yesterday’s beating?" Donning the most innocent expression he could muster up, he leaned forward and grasped both her hands. "Relax. It’ll help."

Flustered, Leia tensed. "How?"

"Relax." He concentrated on touching her mind without being intrusive. Just enough to foster receptiveness. This was the first time he’d ever tried anything like this. Unsure of how to direct the flow of the Force’s vibrant and pulsating energy directly towards her, he tried to envision himself as a conduit and hoped it would work. When he decided it had been long enough, he released her hands. "Better?"

She swung her arms up over her head. "That’s ... You did this today?"

"A little." He cautioned her. "Don’t get too excited. It’ll wear off. I can only suppress my physical awareness for short periods. You still have to respect pain, work with it, but not forget it’s a physiological response warning you to either stop and heal, or take it easy. These are special circumstances. We need all the help we can get today."

"Oh." Her mouth turned down at the corners, and she looked away. Rather than grateful, she appeared equally miffed and concerned, quizzical.

"Now what’s wrong," he groaned.

"Nothing’s wrong," she said quickly.

"You look annoyed."

"I’m not."

"Then what is it?"

"I appreciate it," she assured him. "I really do, but we’re eight days from the base at least and it’s going to be hard, I know that. Are you planning on doing this every time I’m sore or tired?" Awkwardly, she fumbled to explain herself. "I’m sorry. It’s just that ...well ... I don’t want to confuse good intentions with personal motives."

Luke immediately saw where this line of conversation was headed, or thought he did, realized then that he’d made a mistake. Using the Force as a panacea for his own ailments was one thing. This way would be completely unorthodox, unethical, diametrically opposed to everything he stood for unless she agreed to sit and learn how to do it on her own. His brain had subconsciously avoided the logic, avoided the notion that his motives were less than innocent. They skated on the edge, easily going either way, his offering nearly the equivalent of a free trial. So he said, smiling to cover his slight embarrassment, "It’s a gift, nothing more."

"Then thank you."

To Chapter One | To Chapter Three

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