Renewal: Chapter Four
The Hmumfmumf forest ended on the fifth day.
Not gradually, as Luke might have expected. It was rather sudden, as the nature of Baskarn’s ecosystem made for a brusque shift in their surroundings. One moment the Hmumfmumf roots were surrounding them, the next they were clinging to new species, foreign plants, most of which were dead and dying. The periphery was set and mutating. It appeared the dense root systems choked out any competition ruthlessly; making them the most immense weed he’d ever seen. Someday they might overtake all of the planet. Perhaps they’d been slowly doing so for a thousand years. Either it was a flaw in the natural order of life here or an example of the worst of offworld life invading an environment.
Luke studiously began committing the new ecology to memory. As anyone might have expected, he was not one to disregard the aesthetic beauty of greener worlds, the simple pleasures of observation.
Baskarn, he came to the conclusion, was without equals when it came to odd varieties of trees. There were those which resembled the deciduous and majestic Massassi giants ubiquitous to Yavin IV, allowing small glimpses of the sky to peek through their canopies. Others possessed manes, heavy golden strands, like hair, cloaking them and weeping from the highest branches down to the ground. Those diaphanous walls refracted light in such a way that being inside made him momentarily feel as though he had entered a natural shrine or temple, a place to meditate. One could almost get lost by sweeping the strands away and stepping inside. He recalled that on Endor there’d been thickets of trees called Arbo Mazes so compacted that any creature which wandered beneath the ground sweeping limbs was mourned. Nothing ever made its way out. The forests on Baskarn begged no less caution from its guests.
Types of climbing ferns, shrubs, and mosses also appeared. They discovered the hard way several times what plants were threatening or resulted in unpleasant encounters, what would soak them with molasses thick sap or sticky pollen. The jagged-edged vines leisurely winding around their way around the tree trunks were as sharp as any blade. Luke had recognized the native version of touch-knots, which secreted burning toxins, as they’d been rampant on Yavin IV, but he’d never seen creeping nettles until he walked through them, and no amount of his own powers stopped his legs from tingling and burning for hours. Nor did he know the carnivorous plants would be as excited about snapping their mouths shut on his hand, as they would the butt of his lightsaber, or an insect, or the flap of his jacket. Picking their sharp thorns from his palms repeatedly made him feel like he should march forward with his hands up, as his attempts to seek them out before stepping proved useless. They camouflaged themselves in the harmless flora, patiently waiting without being particular about their victims.
Birds nesting high above them chattered or sang incessantly, the air hummed with the maddening sound of insects -- the only recognizable ones the brightly colored butterflies -- and the insufferable itch mites and nafens that apparently lived on every planet, who were happy to find something to bite. Luke increased his frequent Force explorations for predators, knowing the food chain was sure to have a few that would see them as a meal. He’d already detected a number of hot spots, for lack of a better word, larger creatures maneuvering through the jungles with what felt like the assistance of the Force. That surprised him; all evidence, his senses, indicated they were primitive species, so he didn’t understand how they used it, but the Force on Baskarn was very strong.
The entire jungle was patient. They were, it seemed, most of the time, the only two beings in a hurry.
Except for this very second. They’d finally struck gold, though the commodity they sought was much more common. Water. Enough water to bathe in and wash their clothes. From head to toe both were layered in a thick grease of sweat and grime. The prospect of spending another night cooped up in the tent with his flight suit and person was not a welcome one.
"I’ll make you a deal," Leia was imploring.
Luke glanced at the beckoning spring, at her dirt smeared face, and back at the spring. "What kind of deal?"
"I’ll let you go first if we can call it a day." He meant to pretend to consider the request, but he didn’t get the chance. Abruptly she dropped her pack and scowled. "Why am I making a deal with you? You can keep going if you want but I’m not going anywhere."
He chuckled. These days Leia didn’t need a valid reason to become irritated or grumpy. The imminent prospect of any disagreement set her off on a one-sided rant and if he kept his mouth shut she would play him with such dedicated accuracy it was unnerving. But he considered it a good sign; she was relaxing around him, letting her usually tight guarded moods show. Either that or she really couldn’t help it, which he understood was part of it too. "I’m in, I’m in. I wouldn’t dream of keeping going."
They set about clearing the area adjacent to the spring, using his lightsaber and their feet to cut, then kick the plant life away. Not necessarily Eco-sensitive, but he didn’t want to accidentally sit in the nettles or touch-knots when it grew dark, nor have the bottom of their shelter shredded by the vines. Once a half-decent campsite was hand-made, he set about cutting surrounding branches. Camping in the midst of a gargantuan fire hazard had forced them to subsist on ration bars and insta-meal alone, without even risking their cookpad. The idea of a hot meal and a campfire was immensely appealing.
The water was cold enough to make him feel as though he’d been punched in the gut at first, but after a few minutes he grew used to it, floating and listening to the odd cacophony of creatures nearby while he watched Leia fuss over the cookpad and campfire. Every so often he reached out again, feeling the rapid cadence of her child’s heart as it contracted and expanded inside her, content in the dreamless sleep of the unborn.
Luke was happy.
For years he’d imagined nieces and nephews, children, the future. Another Skywalker. Maybe it was selfish; the desire came as much from a sense of being miniscule, orphaned in such an enormous galaxy, he longed for an affirmation of their life, a sense that it would keep going and carry the legacy of future Jedi long after he had passed. He tended no to think of his own, as of yet un-envisioned offspring as such; he’d decided long ago that his goals left little room for normal yearnings and relationships. Thus, it was always in terms of Leia’s children that he framed his daydreams.
He’d heard that the Jedi Council had been adamant that force sensitive children needed to be raised in an environment specially attuned to their needs. According to old pro-Imperial holovids, the Jedi had wanted to control all aspects of a child’s development, saw the natural bond between parent and child as an obstacle to their training. The holovids depicted stories of screaming children being seized from their parents in the dark of the night.
Luke had never really believed any of those stories were true, though he guessed the Old Council had sought to control many aspects of a Jedi’s life. Perhaps it was no accident that the code said first, there is no emotion, there is only peace, and then expounded upon it by adding, there is no passion, there is serenity. While one might interpret emotion broadly, the meaning of passion was specific. Chastity may have been integral to the order, and not just so that the Jedi remained focused. Power was as seductive an aphrodisiac as the pheromones of a Falleen.
He’d faced the side effects of possessing power firsthand more times than he could count, habitually extricated himself from brazen flirtations. Most began with some lithe beauty sidling up to him ... Can you really do all those things they say? That opening in particular was like having a bucket of ice water thrown on him. They all purred out the same sultry, saccharine awe. It had not been much different when he was younger, before he’d become a Jedi. In his first two years with the Alliance he had learned the hard way that women were more enthralled by his status as a hero or Rogue Squadron Commander, than they were with who he was.
Power was fickle that way, double edged.
It was also possible that the Jedi Council feared the possibility that the offspring of the Jedi might fall into Palpatine’s hands, even before the purges had begun. He could only begin to fathom the peril wrought by such diabolical machinations.
Dangerous indeed, he considered, time and time again. No one can bring forth a child with such a capacity for greatness or destruction without accepting the consequences and risks.
The Jedi had known that, known what needed to be done. He didn’t, though he had seven months to figure it out. His worries did not diminish his wonder toward the growing life-force, so brilliant with his twin’s familiar essence.
To Luke’s relief this early stage of pregnancy was holding her stubborn tendency to push herself beyond her limits in check. From all outward appearances nurturing, sheltering new life -- a bundle of cells smaller than the tip of his pinkie finger -- was very hard work. Recently Leia had been falling asleep the moment after they ate in the evenings, sleeping like the dead for the entire sixteen hour night and rarely awakening on her own. If they breaked for more than ten minutes she dropped off wherever she happened to slump over.
They needed to stop often. The frequent bouts of nausea appeared to have no beginning and no end. She claimed the jungle’s odor (described in her words as a cross between rankweed, bantha fodder and rotting vegetation, which smelled perfectly woodsy and pleasant to him) made it worse. Luke had had no idea early pregnancy could be so trying, or physically debilitating, and was trying very hard to be sympathetic, although conversely, he’d been informed asking how she felt fifty times in a row bordered on harassment.
Asking repeatedly about the father also fell under her definition of harassment. She was not forthcoming with any details. No, it wasn’t anyone he knew or had ever met, nor was it that she didn’t trust him to stay quiet. It was simply that if this was going to remain a secret it was better that it end with her. Secrets ceased to be secrets when other people knew them, and sooner or later, she insisted, Luke’s curiosity would compel him to seek her father out.
"Don’t you think," she had admonished, "that an ordinary citizen might find it odd to have Luke Skywalker approach him and start up a casual conversation."
"He’ll never know who I am," Luke had argued, unknowingly shoving his own foot in his mouth.
"Now see there! Whether or not he recognizes you is beside the point -- you’ve just admitted you’d do it. I know you will."
Every discussion ended with her saying, "It’s complicated," which was also her way of saying, "drop it."
So here they were, on the cusp of announcing their own paternity to the galaxy, with a new mystery to replace the old, only it was hers alone and not his to share with her. The birth of a new Skywalker would bring more than the obvious changes to both their lives. He understood what she’d meant on the flight out here when she said this wasn’t a good time, though he had faith in her ability to recognize how crucial it was that she give due consideration to his request. She’d promised she’d think about it. They had a lot to decide.
He pondered all of this until his skin erupted into goose bumps, hastily rinsed his clothes and dressed in a pair of spare coveralls. Then he urged Leia off to the spring. By the time she returned clad in her neocel bodysuit, wet clothes in arm, dinner was ready and she looked happier and more refreshed than he’d seen her in days.
The aroma of hot food made his stomach grumble appreciatively, and the blazing fire warmed his chilled skin in seconds. This trip was a cross between the most hellish Galactic survival school, and vacations he’d seen advertised on holo-boards, selling a rustic experience for several thousand credits. The golden sheets surrounding them glinted exquisitely in the firelight. There was nothing, he decided, like going without the simplest of necessities to make them a luxurious indulgence.
Leia rambled on about staff shortages across the fire while they ate. "It’s so frustrating Luke. I suppose half the Alliance hoped the end of the war would mean a chance to pick up our lives. The only thing becoming more abundantly clear to me every day is that the war isn’t over, maybe one major battle but not the war. It’s like… well you can’t declare a win mid game in smashball just because you’re up a hundred on the other team; you have to go back out on the court and see it through. And we’re only up maybe… five."
Half-listening, he reached out with his senses, curling and uncurling them through the Force in much the same way he would his fingers. The night hinted at benevolence, nocturnal creatures roamed in the vicinity but didn’t venture near. "Interesting way to put it," he noted, trying to catch up on her last few sentences. "I didn’t know you followed smashball."
Making a face in response, she explained, "Sheer osmosis."
Luke knew very well who the smashball fan was. The mere mention of his name wrought an undercurrent of negative emotions: sorrow, anger, regret, a strong sense of… abandonment. It troubled him. His empathy ran too deeply in accord with Leia’s feelings for him not to feel angry with Han, yet he didn’t know what he had done, or why he assumed his friend had done anything. He had no idea what she was going to tell him.
An unseen creature screeched somewhere in the distance, and she started, then huddled closer to the fire and kept talking. "I don’t know why I worry about it. Everything’s going to change soon anyway, and it won’t be my concern."
"What do you mean it won’t be your concern?"
"I’m going to resign as Alderaan’s representative to the New Republic."
For the second time that week his sister delivered news that rendered him temporarily speechless. "What are you talking about?"
"I’m resigning next month."
"But if you give up your senatorial position you’ll lose your position on the Inner Council."
She feigned preoccupation with her damp hair and adeptly began guiding the tresses into a braid. "Yes, I will."
"Then why would you do that?"
"If I don’t do it they’ll end up asking me to."
"Because you’re pregnant?"
Luke shook his head. He might be surprised that his sister was suddenly expecting on her own but not based on any social concerns. It was just that Leia was generally so proper and organized; to picture her off in the future with her children was to picture her life plan in the works. She planned everything and what she could control she did. As for Alderaan, he knew it had been extremely progressive. A single mother, an unsanctioned birth in the civilized realms of the galaxy wasn’t atypical. The majority of humanoid cultures accepted it to varying degrees, many embraced such children, used terms like charmed ones and gifts from the gods. There were even a few species where paternity was regarded as inconsequential, where the idea of knowing the name of the life-giver was deemed blasphemy. (Unless you born of the Issori. They called such offspring the vrecje, strangers, and they buried them alive.) He discarded the errant and morbid basis for comparison. "No they wouldn’t."
She rolled her eyes, swinging her head round to exaggerate the gesture. "Think about it Luke. I’m the last living descendant of House Organa. Don’t forget I grew up under public scrutiny. The Alderaanian Free Press examines my every move under a microscope. There are several surviving elders serving on the Refugee Council, and this ..." Her hand patted her stomach. "This is far beyond their scope of impropriety. I’ll be accused of disgracing the Royal house, my father’s legacy, the Organa name. Even if I go away, take a leave of absence when I can no longer hide my pregnancy there’s no way I’ll be able to come back with an infant, unmarried ..."
"That’s absolutely archaic. Even if they called for a no-confidence vote you could fight it and I know you would win."
"Sure," she sighed. "With the way things stand today, maybe. But I’ll stand a fat chance while they’re reeling from the news of who my biological father was."
He bit his tongue. "It might not come to that."
She tied off the end of her braid and slumped back on her elbows. "You can make those files your friend Quigg decrypted disappear? Make him take a vow of silence? Conveniently forget?"
The point was vital. He said nothing.
"I didn’t think so," she sighed. Then, she said as though she were reading text off a datapad, "Sex between those not married is immoral."
Luke tapped his index finger against his chin, unsure if she was being sarcastic or trying to be perversely funny. Certainly, she didn’t subscribe to such preachy traditions, unless he had grossly misinterpreted her relationship with Han. Either that or Solo had a bizarre habit of getting to her quarters very early in the morning without shaving, dressing, or trying to calm down his bed head. "You’re saying this because ... " He left the sentence hanging.
"A lot of culture’s hold that view." Her fingers tore at the ragged threads of her sleeve, tugging until one snapped off. She dropped it on the coals, watched it curl and sizzle. "Do you know who had the gall to say that to me?"
"Not a clue."
"Boba Fett." She hissed the name across the fire, her eyes fearsomely black and vicious. "If the most criminal and feared bounty hunter in the galaxy would say that to me, what do think the surviving elders will say? Alderaan might have been fairly liberated, but not that liberated. I’ll take a leave of absence in a few months while I decide what to do. Winter will be able to serve in my stead until then."
"Hold on," he said, flipping his hand out. "Back up here." The same Boba Fett who had run them on a wild goose chase with Han? The same Fett he’d last seen dragged into the Sarlacc’s stomach? "Was this when you were posing as Boussh?"
"Sort of how?"
"Didn’t Lando tell you? He told Han and ... "
"Tell me what?"
Her face, though flushed from the heat of the campfire, was almost crimson. "That I got stuck sleeping in his chambers listening to him extol the sins of the spice trade and the Alliance."
"Discussing sex and morality?"
The bitterness in her voice rose several degrees. "Jabba had me hand delivered to his chambers to ... to ... avail myself of my services ... but he didn’t. He said that’s why he wasn’t going to touch me. That it was immoral."
Luke’s skin crawled. Enduring Jabba’s slobbering and the degradation of being chained to his dais was one thing but Lando has assured, sworn to him she wasn’t harmed, and if he’d lied ...
"He didn’t want me," she hastily added. "I don’t think he cared about women or ... he lived by his own pompous and demented moral code. Oh! And do you know what else he said? He had the gall to tell me my side shouldn’t have started the war ... That Alderaan had made its choice and suffered the consequences, that the Empire was justified in taking action against it. I hope ... I hope it really does take a thousand years for the Sarlaac to digest him and ... Luke I was fine," she stressed emphatically. "And we’re getting off topic. My point was that they’re not going to accept this."
By they, she meant the Council again.
He picked up a stick and poked the dwindling coals. Sparks drifted like fireflies over their head, and the flames licked hungrily at the fresh pieces of wood he guided their way until the rising heat forced him to squirm backwards. He never should have allowed her to go to Jabba’s alone, just as he somehow should have suspected she was up to something when she sent him off to Tatooine to wait for news after the bounty hunters trapped him on Bothwai. She’d wound up Xizor’s prisoner on Coruscant and Xizor’s interest in her had not been platonic. He remembered Dash and his endless ogling. Then Jabba. Small wonder Han forbade her from going anywhere he deemed remotely suspect without himself or Chewie as escort.
"For goodness sake, cut it out Luke," she sighed.
"Cut what out?"
Leia lifted her chin and raised a cynical eyebrow. "That ... you take too many risks look that heralds the beginning of one of your overprotective streaks. I can’t stand them."
He stretched out, touched the fragile flutter of life within her and forced a grin to ease his tension. "Tough. I’m not allowed now that you’re carrying my niece? Too bad. You’ll have to get used to it."
She smiled back brightly and craned her head, peering into the canopy. "I might make an exception to the rule if you promise not to get carried away and start acting like a Wookiee with a life debt."
"I’ll try and hold back," Luke promised, following her gaze, eyeing the two sparks that were visible in the blanketing darkness. The largest was Baskarn’s sister planet, Takornan, the other a moon.
"I used to drive my father crazy asking how big the universe was," she murmured, absentmindedly, as though she weren’t really talking to him any longer. "What happens when you reached the end? How long does it take to go from one side to the other? He always had a calculated and mathematical response about the number of unexplored solar systems, quantum physics, spatial anomalies, you name it. It took a long time for me to figure out even he couldn’t define it, compartmentalize it into something known. It’s just too much unknown."
"That’s what I like about it."
"He would have made a wonderful grandfather," she added. "I don’t think he would have been disappointed in me. Not too terribly." Her eyes shined a little too brightly across the fire, and he was conscious of a slow crescendo of grief, sharp as a knife, yawning between them like an abyss. Luke felt hesitant to venture near to it; he was trying to decide what to say when she stood and gathered up her bedroll. "I’ve been afraid to ask but what’s your best estimation on the number of days we have left?"
"Six or seven days?"
"You said that the first day," she groaned.
"Maybe my expectations were a bit high," he conceded. "I wasn’t counting on being stuck in a sprawling root system or having to do your share of the work."
"Gee, thanks. If you wanted to rub it in ... "
"No," he assured her. "I don’t mind. I just want you ... two to get there safely." Everything else, the mission, the attempt on their lives and possibly the base, had become secondary concerns. "Really," he stressed. "That’s all that matters."
"I know. Thank you. Good night Luke."
When she was gone he stared into the overhead canopy, the two stars blinking overhead, thinking about grandfathers again. He wondered what kind of grandfather Anakin Skywalker would have made if he’d never been Darth Vader. The familiar taste of rage grew thick on his tongue. Concentrating hard, and drawing the halcyon energies of the Force inside, he directed his anger outward, away, into the darkness above. It took the numbness with it, leaving him depressed and mournful instead. Then he kicked enough loose soil over the fire to extinguish it. The coals beneath would die out shortly on their own.
* * * * *
Leia was too worked up to fall asleep right away, rearranging the cloak that served as her pillow a dozen times. Despite her initial reluctance to sacrifice her position to avoid a scandal, she was starting to resign herself to the idea. Time away, time to herself, time to do all of the things Han had so long been urging her to do; heal, reflect, grieve. The cost of her freedom would be steep, but her absence would not be definite. There would still be a place for her in the New Republic; she was sure Mon Mothma would create one for her, even if her diminished status precluded her from serving in the top tiers of the government.
She’d given Luke half the truth. Bail would have been elated and disappointed in her, though he would have buried his misgivings. Beneath the stern face of the man who was Alderaan’s viceroy, had been a tender, caring side that few apart from his family ever saw. Maybe her child wouldn’t inherit his temperament, but she could certainly teach her.
The image of the kind man who’d appeared to her in her quarters on Bakura broke unbidden and unwelcome into her thoughts.
Monster, she reminded herself.
"I took the speeder out the next morning and saw him. He’s just a melted pile of machinery and wires."
Han had told her so many times she’d lost count. Sometimes he would say it, drag it in out of the blue, and time after time she would stare back at him, and think, where did he come up with that? But he kept saying it, and she refused to say, stop, I believe you, because she wasn’t sure that she did. Anakin had still found her, hadn’t he?
Unknowingly fathering her gave him no right to beg forgiveness. It gave him no right to ask anything of her, ever. She hated him, and it was easier to let her hatred for him absorb her, to hope that if she hated him enough she would never cower at the mention of his name again. Miraculously evading his clutches while he lived several times, in death he’d had a more profound affect on her than anyone could have anticipated.
Han knew it, or she thought he did.
You swear he was dead ...
She rolled over and slipped her hands between her knees. As much as she hated to admit it, Han was the only person who seemed to know the right thing to do or say, even though most of the time it involved nothing more than holding her until she fell asleep. What she would have given to feel his arms around her now. She rubbed her stomach, for the first time wishing that it was swollen and outstretched, that her child kicked and moved inside her until it drove her nuts they way it would eventually, that she was enough of a contortionist to kiss her own stomach, as absurd as that seemed. In response the warm spot inside her grew vibrantly intense, and she drew her knees up to her chest protectively around it. Her daughter’s psychic touch was a miracle to her, a beacon of hope and everything good when she was lonely and depressed. These moments alone were sacred. She had not told Luke she could feel her so intensely. If she did Luke would no doubt obsess over the likelihood that her connection to her daughter was heightening her force sensitivity and view her as an experiment. It was too private, too personal.
I love you, she thought. I'll make sure everything's okay for you. I promise you’ll never see the inside of anything like the place we found, that you’ll have a chance to be happy ...
And the thought she dreaded most returned to her again. This will be Vader’s grandchild too. You can’t deny that no matter how much you want to, even though you want to more than anything.
Luke hadn’t started in on her yet, but he would. His internal struggle was as palpable as the breeze that turned the leaves over before it rained, and he would shower her with valid concerns, appeal to her sense of responsibility. It seemed as though every time she found peace with one facet of her life, something lurked waiting to destroy it.
This pregnancy, however serendipitous she’d begun to believe it, wasn’t immune or separate from issues that troubled her; instead it magnified them tenfold. It had altered her self-perception, the knowing of herself. By birthright she was a daughter, princess, sister. By choice she was Senator, Councilor, a lover. According to the Empire she was a fugitive, a rebel, defined by credits. Her bounty until the Battle of Hoth had been 150,000 credits, dead or alive. Later Vader had increased it to 400,000, alive. She shuddered to imagine the price he would have paid for her offspring, what the remains of the Empire would pay ...
Mother would be followed by Jedi. Over the past two years she’d seen herself far off in the future, a Jedi whose ambitions were guided solely by attempts to placate her brother, remain an integral part of his life. Despite the many times she’d fallen asleep at night praying she’d wake up bereft of her Force sensitivity, it was always there, tangible enough for her limited abilities to feel. Now she needed it. It was no longer a question of loyalty to her brother, but to her children. She didn’t come first anymore, nor did anything else that was important to her whether she had control over her life or not.
She pictured Han holding an infant, cooing at it, nestling it in the crook of his elbow and fought back tears.
Submitting to distant, comforting, reverie, she lay on her side and imagined he was there; one knee crooked behind her own, his other leg pushed over hers, weighing her down, his chest on her bare back, the coarse hairs of his arm drawn tightly against her chest, his body heat warming her, his hands roaming until she half woke, drowsy with arousal. By the time she drifted off, she was sure she could really feel him, that her visualization would guard her dreams.
* * * * *
"Please excuse me, Sir ... "
"Oh Sir, I apologize ... "
Han hurried through the halls dodging droids guiding repulsor sleds loaded with everything from cleaning supplies to laundry to food stuffs.
Advanced Base Baskarn had been built into a series of naturally occurring caverns within one of the planet’s less impressive mountains over a decade ago. That had been back in the days when rumors of a Rebellion forming were only whispers in the back alleys of the spaceports and cantinas, when grumbling about the Empire in public brought harsh lessons to its citizens, taught them that free speech no longer existed. Caverns which opened out above the valley were sealed from the inclement weather by heavy carbon glass or synthplas, allowing clear visibility from within, yet coated with a porous type of di-crome which partially camouflaged their existence by making them appear as shadowy cracks and crags. Equally well camouflaged atmosphere containment fields protected the hangers. To an unknowing observer, scout, or even a probe droid, the mountain appeared no different than it had before their arrival; from the inside, the view was spectacular.
The interior caverns were connected by kilometers of flexi-corridors, which maintained living conditions and kept oxygen from escaping at the higher altitude. Unfortunately, the narrow flexi-corridors had never been designed to hold two lanes of traffic, though the droids were apparently willing to concede that all bumps, shoves or ‘get out of my way’ were their fault. Han was trying to be more polite to the non-automaton sorts who passed him but he’d gotten several dirty looks.
The base was one of a handful deep in Imperial territory that had escaped detection, and so secluded the majority of Rebellion recruits posted there had been assigned indefinitely to deter the likelihood of its location being leaked by revolving door service men. Hence, Han felt like a complete stranger wandering through the halls, unable to put names to the faces, unfamiliar with the lingo, unrecognized as the General Solo who’d led the strike team on Endor, as the former Corellian smuggler linked to Leia Organa.
In a way it made things easier on him. Most of the base’s staff knew he was a General from Home Fleet who’d come to the base to assist in the search. Beyond that, they didn’t know he was searching for his lover and one of his closest friends. The last thing he wanted was the pity of complete strangers.
Mon Mothma had contacted the base’s Commander in Chief, Major Risken, as promised, and made sure his clearance entitled him to a full update upon arrival. Like all men who were used to being in control, the Major had been visibly irritated at having an outsider step in and reluctant to share privileged information. Han had practically had to bribe the Com-Scan’s archivist to see the logs of the doomed flight for himself.
It was like watching the climax in a holofilm you’d seen more times than you could count, thinking in that pivotal moment, this time it might be different, this time the hero will make it, or he won’t get away. He’d replayed it over and over again. The Razion’s Edge zoomed larger and larger at such high speeds it might have plowed directly through the mountain.
Eleven warnings had been broadcast over fifty-one seconds. We will fire if you do not alter your current course and slow down ...
A solitary ion cannon blast had partially disabled the shuttle, but at that point it had been too late and they’d fired three laser blasts. The shuttle had exploded like a sun going nova. Han knew, from years of battle experience, that even a proton torpedo wouldn’t have caused that much damage, even before viewing footage of the crash site.
The poor, wet behind the ears monitor on duty had been temporarily suspended by Major Risken for not following emergency procedures and firing sooner. The monitor had known who was supposed to be on board, even though the scanning system indicated no life signs were present. The shock waves from the crash had resulted in the partial collapse of an entire wing on the South side of the base. There’d been no casualties and only two injuries listed as critical.
At the base of the mountain a square kilometer had been leveled, decimated, and turned into a virtual wasteland of rubble and ash. Droids that specialized in chemical and biological analysis had been crawling over it since the fires had been extinguished. So far they’d identified Baradium and Yterrbium, some other chemical he couldn’t remember that destabilized atoms. All were known components of explosives, of thermal detonators. Add to those every type of metal or matter used for Lambda-class shuttles, and fifty types of organic residue that were defined as plant and animal. What they hadn’t found – and Han was paralyzed with bated breath whenever they gave their reports – what they hadn’t found was a trace of genetic material that was human.
Sweetheart if you’re dead ...
Sorrow and regret were two emotions he’d had more experience with in his checkered past than he cared to dwell on. They were a pair, always together, the latter unleashed by the former like an incurable disease. Take anything you’d said or done, any tough decision you’d made, any caustic remark you’d let slip out in the heat of the moment and whoosh ... You’d gladly yank your teeth if it meant you could go back. If I had to do it all again would I? Would I have said that? Wished that? The questions trickled through the cracks, eating away at him.
A past he despised clawed at him mercilessly. Honey, did you think of me ...
He remembered that day, remembered wondering, but couldn’t remember the feeling, the lump in his throat and the weight of the galaxy crashing down on his head when Boba Fett told him. It might have happened that way. It was more like a childhood memory all, anesthetized by the years, fuzzy around the edges. He wasn’t sure why he kept thinking about it, save that reliving it a thousand times was going to be easier than finding out Leia was dead.
Han shook his head bitterly and avoided eye contact as he squeezed past a man in greasy technician’s coveralls. Besides, he assured himself, as of today it had been officially ascertained that neither Leia nor Luke had been on the Razion’s Edge when it crashed. They must have discovered there was a problem and made it off well before they fell within sensor range. Trouble was there was a chance the escape pod had been launched closer to Takornan, in which case the magnitude of the search was beyond the isolated base’s resources. The base did have one of the Empire’s coveted Hyperspace Orbiting Scanners circling the planet, which monitored incoming and outgoing hyperspace shadows, electron disruptions, the kind of stuff no mortal and most computer systems couldn’t decipher. The HOS’s, to the best of Han’s knowledge, boasted a 78% success rate, so he was expecting something soon, but Risken had yet to release the data.
That had been puzzling him. It made no sense to carry out a search and rescue operation and hold back information.
To further add to the complicated scenario, all of the reasons that Baskarn had made a perfect location for a base made it equally imperfect for any sort of search and rescue. The myriad of lifeforms on the planet’s surface made their reconnaissance of the vicinity hopeless, particularly since the biological readouts of the Yrashu were nearly identical to a human’s. To top it off, Baskarn’s unique arboreal ecology barred scouts and ground craft from entering vast areas of forest. Succinctly put, if the two were indeed on Baskarn, short of miracle, they would have to make their way to the base on their own.
That didn’t mean Han was willing to wait and rest on laurels. For the past few days he’d taken the Falcon out and carefully navigated beneath the clouds and just above the treetops, searching and praying he’d spot their escape pod. Every evening he attended the latest briefings. Today he’d found nothing yet again, and as he entered the airy central rotunda and made his way across to the command chamber he prayed there was good news.
The air was buzzing with excitement. As soon as he crossed the threshold he felt it, even before he noticed the two black uniforms off to the side of the forward podium. Their dress bore the distinctive red emblems of SpecForce security’s Intelligence unit. One he recognized on sight, but not by name, an oversized, balding man in his mid fifties who spent most of his time on desk duty. The other looked like Lando bereft of his sense of humor, mustache and fine frippery. They were both just in from Coruscant, no doubt, and Han hoped their arrival meant they had news of whoever was responsible for rigging the shuttle. Casually disregarding the scanty selection of collapsible chairs, he lingered at the back of the chamber with a few equally fidgety officers and crew.
"Humans," the nearest officer, a blue skinned Duro hissed in his native tongue. "Where does it say having a nose is required for promotions?"
Han glanced at the two slits in the otherwise flat center of the Duro’s face. Their superiority complex extended to most species. Prejudices ran rampant in the new government, and even Han had to concede that other than Admiral Ackbar he couldn’t name more than two or three other non-humans in command. It wasn’t a policy he supported personally, but he had no say when it came to appointments. Still, feeling sympathetic, Han quipped in lightly accented Durosian, "It’s not the noses they require per say, it’s more the brown nosing."
The Duro chuckled to himself and straightened. "You must be General Solo?"
I am always at a disadvantage no matter what side I’m on, Han thought, mildly surprised to find his old sense of humor actually intact and recognizable to others. "And you are?"
Major Risken rapped his knuckles on the ledge of the fore podium and cleared his throat loudly, waiting for the general din and hubbub of the two dozen men and women present to subside.
"My fellow servicemen," Risken began. "I’m sure you’ve all noticed the presence of SpecForce’s finest with us this evening, and if you haven’t yet made their acquaintance I’d like to introduce Admiral Rieekan and General Ley’kel."
Both men stepped forward to assume control of the chamber.
"The Admiral is branch head of internal security back with the fleet," Raniss told him, switching to Basic.
Han fought the urge to grimace. If SpecForce had been doing their job back with the fleet, how had one of their shuttles been turned into a ticking time bomb? Nitpicking over their training manual? A swift appraisal of Rieekan revealed little more. There was question of relation between him and the legendary Carlist Rieekan, but Han dismissed it. This Rieekan’s fair hair and light eyes bespoke a different background, and the surname was obscenely common on many core worlds. Additionally, Han instinctively didn’t like him in a sort of knee jerk reflex fashion though he was hard pressed to remember why.
SpecForce’s head of internal security stepped forward. "A major breach in the New Republic’s security, these recent events, caution us that even during the lull of the battle, we cannot be caught unawares. We’ve suffered grievous losses against Ysanne Isard over the past two years, and are facing undetermined dangers in the near future. We have recently lost the foothold we had in the Ottega Sector, the Quelii, Ithorian and Dathomir Systems. Destabilization continues despite our best efforts to assert ourselves as the New Republic, as a legitimate government. We are combating the Empire every day, and though many of our battles are fought around discussion tables and in conference rooms we are still at war. Let there be no mistake. Let us not forget."
"Here, here," a few voices cried out.
He then paused so long Han wondered whether he was hoping his preamble would ferment with age. Men of his stature always seemed to think long pauses hearkened their own wisdom. It merely made Han want to kick him and tell him to get on with it.
"The impact of this incident is far reaching. We’ve had to abandon a mission which has been a year in the making and cost us several of our best operatives from our Infiltrators unit. This is a drastic loss for the New Republic. As well, for six days we’ve feared that we may have lost two of the New Republic’s most influential leaders. I am happy to report that data from the crash site has failed to offer a trace of either. General Skywalker and Councilor Organa did not perish on board either due to sabotage or as a result of the crash." There were many sighs of relief. "Of this we are certain for several reasons."
Ley’kel stepped to the side and activated a projector. A three dimensional hologram of the Razion’s Edge’s technical readout from Coruscant appeared.
"The Hyperspace Orbiting Scanner’s logs show that the escape pod was in fact deployed approximately two kilometers shy of Baskarn’s atmosphere. They were near enough to Baskarn for it’s gravitational pull to drag them down. Therefore Takornan can be ruled out as our alternative rescue site. However, several distressing facts have come to our attention, both from Home Fleet, supported by the Scanner’s finding."
Rieekan pointed to a series of flashing reds beckoning from the hologram. "What is so distressing is that the shuttle continued along its preset flight path, with the detonators on board after the escape pod was deployed. Diagnostic checks of the shuttle by the base technicians reveal no gross irregularities, save one." He pointed to the red blipping spec on the starboard side of the shuttle. "It failed to rouse suspicion, despite the fact that it’s not normally installed on our Lambda-class vehicles. What you’re seeing here is a remote system, connected to autopilot."
In order for an escape pod to be released a ship’s system had to be on manual. Computers didn’t flee doomed crafts; they weren’t mortal, they had nothing to escape. Han knew it, as did everyone present. Secondly, remotes needed to be within sensor range of the craft they were connected to, so he expected the Admiral to tell them the HOS had picked up another craft dropping out of hyperspace behind them.
"Unfortunately, the Scanner detected no sign of another craft dropping out of hyperspace behind the Razion’s Edge."
Han was puzzled. Then where ...
"The only place the remote could have been located was in the escape pod and that means only one thing. This act bespeaks treason of the most ominous sort, the sort we fear, guard against, and must be prepared for; from within our own ranks. At this point we’re not ruling out any of our maintenance workers, deck hands, and officers who had access to the shuttle’s hanger. My men at Home Fleet are conducting interviews as we speak." The Admiral lowered his voice. "Our goal here is the recovery of General Skywalker and Councilor Organa and their escape pod so that it can be examined. It is with a heavy heart that I am forced to inform you of this, but I must. Extreme caution is to be exercised until any participation on their part has been ruled out. Bear in mind that Luke Skywalker is known to possess talents and capabilities which have made him a formidable adversary against many of our greatest enemies."
The hushed whispers that followed nearly drowned out Han’s gasp of disbelief. "You’re suggesting Luke Skywalker had something to do with this?"
"General Solo," Rieekan replied smoothly. "If you have something to add protocol dictates you wait until the end of the briefing."
"This is ridiculous," Han countered, damning the Admiral’s protocol. "This was an inside job, I’ll agree with you there but if you think Luke was involved you’re wasting your time. You’re wasting everyone’s time."
"Information has surfaced which indicates Skywalker’s involvement."
"Don’t hold back. I’d like to hear it. I’m sure we’d all like to hear it."
"It’s strictly need to know. General Solo, we’re well aware of your relationship with both Skywalker and the Councilor. If your allegiance to them supercedes your allegiance to the New Republic now is the time for you to step back and not interfere. We’ve already established that you’ve been out of contact with both of them for quite some time, otherwise we’d be interviewing you as we speak."
Great, just great, Han thought, suddenly remembering where he’d seen him before, wondering how the hell the guy had been promoted so high up in five years. Not only was the pompous nutcase accusing Luke and Leia, he was insinuating that his credibility had already been called into question. He glared around. The entire chamber was staring at him. "What about Councilor Organa?" he asked harshly, trying to ignore the curious faces. "Are you adding traitor to her dossier as well?"
"At present we prefer to believe she was a mere victim of circumstance, not actively involved. As I said earlier, our efforts at the fleet are ongoing as we speak ... "
"How generous of you," he sneered contemptuously. "In the meantime the real culprits are probably laughing their tails off." He flitted his fingers through the air, over his head. "All the way to the Unknown Regions, which is where they’ll probably be when you figure you who they are."
Han forced himself to take a deep breath and count to ten. Arguing with a superior officer in front of an entire room full of servicemen wasn’t going to score him any points for the future. Then again, playing at fake neutrality for the sake of protocol wasn’t his style either. Luke would be sticking up for him, without question or hesitation. "With all due respect Admiral," he said coldly, "You were a pilot at Yavin weren’t you? You lost your entire squadron, were the sole survivor."
"I’m a decorated member of the New Republic, General, if that’s what you’re asking."
"Your shuttle malfunctioned didn’t it? You were back in the main hanger in five that day? Because let me refresh your memory. You’d be a pile of dust in an asteroid field today if it wasn’t for Skywalker. Maybe your allegiances need a little reviewing?"
Rieekan flushed scarlet, veins on either side of his temple bulging. "If you’re looking for an escort back to the fleet to face insubordination charges I don’t have a problem with signing the order."
But Han was already heading for the door, biting his tongue. Don’t say it, don’t say it. It couldn’t be helped. Over his shoulder at the top of his lungs, he hollered, "That would probably take about as much guts as it did to bash out your own targeting system and blame it on a flying rock."
He kept walking and listened for the sound of footsteps hurrying to arrest him, but none followed. "This is a god damned circus," he told himself. "If I had a druggat for every mophead ... " He didn’t slow until he reached his cabin, punched the security code and sealed the door behind him. If a team of armed guards wasn’t waiting to meet him first thing in the morning and the Falcon wasn’t impounded, he'd be counting himself a lucky man.
Leia was not going to be impressed when they finally found her. This wasn’t how she would handle things. It would help, she had advised him more than once, if you thought about what you were going to say before you said it. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that, but this was ludicrous. There was no way Luke had anything to do with this, no matter what information they’d gotten their hands on. Besides, he’d heard the rumors on Yavin IV about the washed up pilot who’d claimed something had hit his Y-Wing, that he’d slammed his helmet forward against his targeting system. They’d never found a scratch on his hull.
"Sweetheart, you can yell at me all you want as long as you’re okay," he told the empty room. Being laid into by a living, breathing woman was preferable to thinking her remains were distributed amidst the rubble, or Luke’s, or that she lay stranded and injured in the jungles below.
Han sighed mournfully and made his way across the room to the large carbon glass window. It offered a full view of the cirrus clouds, the setting sun cast a pinkish bruise behind the curls and wisps. She was out there somewhere ...
"Han, don’t you dare!" She was seated waist deep in mineral water, legs drawn up tightly, arms held close, a tell tale flush still visible across her cheeks, neck, the front of her chest. Carosi IV, famous for its hot springs and resorts, was a rare vacation. For three days they’d played like lovesick teenagers, exploring the crystalline caves and seeking out the most secluded areas.
He had one of those touristy gifts, a holo-taker aimed her way and was pretending to click it over and over. "I’ll never let anyone else see these," he promised. "Come on ... just move your arms an inch ... "
"No ... No ..."
In the ensuing scuffle she got her hands on the offensive item and threatened to drop in the water.
"I’ll do it," she threatened. "Unless ... unless you tell me you love me more than your ship."
"I love you more than YOUR ship," he teased.
"Oh ... Oh ..." She dangled it just above the surface. "Witty but it’s not what I meant."
"Did I mention that thing’s waterproof."
"In that case ... " she paused, planning her next mode of attack, then raised the holo-taker. "Would you please stand up?"
"Go right ahead," he replied, watching her, half in, half out of the water, soaking wet and stark naked, preparing to capture his uncensored image for prosperity. "Did I tell you how beautiful you look today?"
"I think I can see evidence of that even from over here," she laughed.
"Maybe you should come close."
"Closer? I’m not sure that’s a good idea."
"You won’t regret it."
"That’s what you always say." She lifted the streaming veil of hair behind her head and stretched invitingly with all the confidence of a woman who knew exactly the sort of effect that would have any hot blooded man, especially him. This was a new side to Leia, having recently discovered that her sexuality was a form of power, and she loved to test it out.
It was working. His legs felt like quivering stumps of protoplasm. "Come on," he beckoned.
To his surprise she obeyed, splashing over and hanging her arms around his neck so that he could hoist her up. "Did I tell you I love you today Han?"
Han wandered into the small kitchen for a glass of water. He couldn’t afford to do this, especially not now. Wherever they were, Luke and Leia had no idea what would be awaiting them, and that meant he’d better work on finding out what information Rieekan had gotten his hands on. If Harkness knew they were siblings than he could logically assume there was a source, but there was no way of knowing how far the trail extended or if Harkness’ message to him was related to whatever Rieekan was alluding to. The timing of these events was certainly interesting.
After a few long swallows he chucked the empty glass into the sink and headed for the door. What he needed was the nearest comm unit on the floor, preferably before Rieekan had finished his briefing and drawn up his report. There were a few aces up his sleeve, a few favors it was time to call in. Madine owed him for his last stint and if anyone could make a subordination charge vanish he could. Not to mention, he thought wickedly, it would be very satisfying indeed to see Rieekan’s expression when he discovered he’d gone over his head.
Even Luke had said he couldn’t find a scratch, hadn’t he?
* * * * *
She crouched low in her hiding place, wondering what happened to the light. A muted buzzing sound crept its way into her consciousness.
There was a man’s voice nearby. " ... something stronger. The skirtopanol and other narcos haven’t affected her as hoped."
Heavy breathing betrayed the presence of another, their entire existence, as though no one else had a right to intrude upon the space they claimed. She hugged her arms tighter about herself in anticipation, wishing she could will herself invisible, will herself to be so small they wouldn’t know she was there any more.
The deep voice with the labored and mechanical breathing spoke next. "I advised you that it wouldn’t Senator. This is a waste of our time."
"Yes, My Lord."
My Lord. My Lord. Over and over. She shifted her cheek and opened her eyes. Her face had been pressed into the flesh of her inner arm. It wasn’t really dark -- rather the lights above her were blinding, and she couldn’t see much beyond the black robes in front of her. They were very, very close, closer than she wanted them to be. Panic choked her so that she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t listen to what they were saying. The buzzing closed in on her.
"Your Highness. This can end if you want it to. All you have to is ... "
A voice that no longer resembled her own answered. It was too raw, too scratched thin. "I don’t know anything ... " Her feet were burning, her back, her hands ... She wanted to scream but something was wrong with her throat.
"You do," said the figure in black kneeling next to her. "Your father has already told us ... "
She looked into its face, if you could call it that. How could you look into eyes that weren’t eyes, a face that wasn’t a face, and a soul which didn’t exist? The space behind him was unguarded, open, beckoning with a promise of escape. She crawled forward on her hands and knees, used the wall to pull herself up and peered down in into the bottomless depths of the service shaft, let the whoosh of rising air kiss her face. On this meter wide catwalk her brother had once thrown his cable so that they could cross, only he wasn’t here and he wasn’t coming for her this time.
She flung herself over the edge into the void, surrendered without wondering where or why, just praying wherever she landed it would be soft enough to break the tumble without destroying her.
Leaves and brush scratched at her face. Then she was prone, stretched out on soft ground. It didn’t occur to her to marvel at the fact that the wind wasn’t even knocked out of her chest, or that gravity had not propelled her with such force that she was instantly crushed.
I’m dreaming, she thought desperately, with the habit of one who dreamed and knew when she had to awaken, knew how to awaken herself. Leia, wake up. Wake up.
She tried to lift her head, move her limbs. They wouldn’t or couldn’t obey her. But she was certain that she was awake, that she was on the verge of consciousness, however her body was paralyzed, refusing to accompany her mind.
Someone was there. She could smell him; she could even hear him breathing, felt him touch her side ...
"Tol’hi’denata," he whispered softly. "Tol’hi’denata krd’ss essa al’ryn ryallenush. Chal’hah krd’ss essa al’ryn ryallenush ... " The gravely voice turned harsh with hatred. "Tol’hi’denata krd’ss essa al’ryn ryallenush. Chal’hah krd’ss essa al’ryn ryallenush ... "
Her throat constricted, closing in on itself so that she couldn’t breathe, though she couldn’t feel the weight of a hand around it.
Leia wake up, wake up. She strained with every bit of strength in her body to break free against the tourniquet asphyxiating her but nothing moved; her body was disconnected from her brain. Lightheadedness kicked in. It hit her like a shot of obliviane, seeping through her weighted and unresponsive frame. She wondered how long it took to die this way?
Leia wake up. Wake up. It became a repetitive scream inside her head. WAKE UP! WAKE UP!
It happened with a burst of oxygen inflating her lungs. Finally her body and mind rejoined. She twisted herself upright, drawing one hand over her heart and willing it to stop beating as though it was an animal trapped inside her chest. You’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe ...
Feeling for the blankets, she was shocked to discover debris, twigs and leaves beneath her. In desperation, she crawled on her hands and knees. Sooner or later she’d hit her bed, sooner or later she’d find the glowrod, find the blankets. Sooner or later she’d bump into Luke’s form. Long gossamer strands brushed her cheek, and she froze, the grip of panic resonating from her nightmare rapidly transforming into full-blown horror.
This wasn’t the shelter ...
Her feet and back still felt like they were on fire ...
Someone had been speaking to her ...
She couldn’t see anything ...
"Luke," she whispered. She couldn’t even hear the hiss of air leaving her lips. For the first time in her life, she understood what people meant when they described darkness as suffocating, heavy, so thick you couldn’t breathe, felt as though you were drowning wrapped in layer upon layer of blackness. Save a violent pounding that seemed to originate from deep inside of her chest, there weren’t even any sounds.
Trembling all over, she climbed to her feet and tried moving forward with her arms out. The curtains draped themselves over her, letting her pass into another open chamber, then another, then another, until she hit the gnarled bark of a trunk. She had no idea what direction she was headed. Knowing she might be able to sense Luke’s location through the Force, she took a deep breath and tried to calm down. The Force was there, it had to be there, but she couldn’t find it.
You have to get to Luke. You were dreaming, just dreaming.
"Luke," she called again. Why can’t I hear myself? Please, please, please ... The pricks of thorns and the burning on the soles of her bare feet was excruciating. She slid down along the rough wood and grabbed her toes but that only spread the sticky oozing fire onto her hands. She rubbed them on her thighs and felt instant heat through the thin material of her bodysuit. Then she realized what it was and stopped.
"Tol’hi’denata krd’ss essa al’ryn ryallenush. Chal’hah krd’ss essa al’ryn ryallenush ... "
She covered her ears with her forearms and screamed. Someone’s hand caught her elbow and she snapped her fist upwards and slammed them hard across the jaw, felt her knuckles catch their teeth.
"Ow! Leia it’s me! Calm down! It’s me!"
"I can’t see you," she choked out. "There’s someone here ... "
"Why didn’t you answer me? I’ve been shouting and shouting at you!"
"The touch-knots ... "
He scooped her up as though she were bantamweight. "Hold on."
She’d been absurdly close to the campsite -- within a few strides she saw the orangey glow of the half dead coals. Luke hopped directly into the shallowest section of the spring and dropped her. Without hesitation she sank beneath the surface and began scrubbing her hands with the sand, washing her face, sputtering and coughing between dunks. Sitting up, she maneuvered herself out to where it was chin deep and stripped the bodysuit off, biting her tongue when she dragged it over her feet. She let her feet float outstretched, afraid to touch them or look at them. The tiniest self-created currents, subsurface streams caressing them, caused her to hiss.
Luke got out and tossed an armload of branches on the dying coals. Next he went over to the tent and leaned inside, collecting a few items. Finally, he returned to the bank and dropped them before stepping back into the shallowest section. It was only then that Leia noticed he was not wearing his boots either.
"Oh, I’m so sorry. Your feet-"
"It’s my fault. I walked right past my boots on the way out there. Less than two minutes before it does more than sting." He leaned over to rinse his mouth out. "But that’s a nasty swing you have."
"I’m really sorry."
"Why did you do that?"
"Luke someone was out there with me. There’s someone out there."
He turned part way into the firelight, held his hands out by his sides deep in concentration, and then let out a long slow breath. "I’m not sensing anything. I only sensed you out there before and ... I heard you screaming. You almost scared me death." He waded nearer and touched her shoulder. "Seriously, are you all right?"
"I know someone was there," she insisted. "He’s there. Try again."
"Leia, there’s nothing there."
"Try harder. Maybe he ran away. Maybe he's out of range."
"He didn't run. He wasn't there."
But she’d turned her head so that only one ear heard him. The other listened to the sound of her watery movements beneath the surface. His face was a mix of shadows and angles illuminated by the fire behind him, making it difficult to see his expression or know what he was thinking. She was confused. What’s happening to me? What just happened?
"What were you doing out there?"
"I must have been sleepwalking," she admitted miserably. "I must have sleepwalking but when I woke up I was lost. I couldn’t move and someone was talking to me ... I wasn’t imagining things."
"Uh ... well ... " He straightened and pointed to the bundle on the bank. "First things first. Right now I’m worried about your feet more than anything else. I brought your cloak and the medkit if you want me to have a look."
"All right." Then she waited. Luke was apparently waiting for her to get out, while she waited for him to turn around so that she could get out. Finally she pointedly lifted her arm above the surface and flung her wet garment onto the bank.
"Oh," he murmured, turning around. "I didn’t notice you took that off."
She crawled to the bank and used the buoyancy of the water and her upper body strength to heave up. Then she flipped into a sitting position so she could leave her feet dangling in the water and grabbed her cloak.
Luke hopped up beside her and switched on the glowrod, cupped his hand beneath her right heel and lifted her foot out of the water. "Ouch," he groaned sympathetically, locking his gaze with hers. "Um ... Leia, I think it’s better if you don’t look."
A fiery, hot poker feeling tore through her entire leg, as though he’d taken a knife and dug it into her foot. The pain radiated up her calves, over her knees, to her hips. She looked. Tattered skin dangled from the sole and arch, and watery blood streamed over his wrist, red lace slithering down his arm. Luke’s elongated shadow on the surface swirled and drifted in an eerie dance, a dizzying spiral of movement, growing dimmer and she was so hot ...
Someone was shaking her shoulder. She recoiled from the light, trying to remember where she was, why she was soaking wet and lying half naked outside.
Luke was speaking gently. "Princess, no fainting allowed. Take a deep breath."
I didn’t, she thought -- maybe tried to say, but the back of her head was on solid ground and she didn’t remember lying down. Feet? The pain had subsided to dull throbs below her ankles. "Are you done?" Her voice sounded nasally and far away.
"No. It’s only been twenty seconds. Come on." Luke eased an arm beneath her back and helped her up. "Is it better? Can you to wiggle your toes for me?"
She wiggled them obediently. "You’re doing that?"
He gave his evaluation. "Second degree burns. It’s more the cuts and splinters that worry me. You ground the toxins in pretty deep, but if you can move them that’s a good sign. There’s no nerve damage." He looked up. "Are you going to faint again?"
She took another deep breath before reaching to pull the oxygen mask away, shaking her head, and folding her arm across her stomach. "Luke is-"
"She’s fine. I checked. She’s absolutely fine."
Luke began the arduous task of cleaning the splinters and thorns from her feet before applying bacta gel while she tried to keep her whimpering to a minimum. He mercifully sprayed her second foot with an anesthetic before he even started. Her thoughts slowed to a decipherable speed. What kind of accident-prone person wandered off in the middle of the night, lay down in poisonous plants, and woke up hallucinating? Who imagined themselves held down by unseen forces, heard voices when they thought they were awake? What had she been doing out there? "Luke?"
He tore off another strip of bandage with his teeth and said, "Uh huh?"
"Whatever you must think, I don’t sleepwalk. I mean ... I’ve never done anything like this."
"There’s a first for everything," he told her, slumping back onto heels to review his bandaging. "Nope, this isn’t going to work."
She paused. How could I hear words in a language I don’t speak? She sometimes dreamed in the Alderaani dialect they’d spoken in her father’s home -- though not often enough to remember the last time. Han had told her once that even though he spoke a handful of languages fluently, understood more, even Chewie spoke Basic in his dreams, though he was never sure where his voice came from. "Tol’hi’denata," she murmured, trying to reproduce the inflection accurately. "What does that mean?"
He canted his head sideways. "Yashuvhi."
"Yashuvhi? It’s a word?"
"Not a word. That’s what language it is. Tol’hi’denata is sort of a nickname for a child. I think with the finer nuances of Yashuvhi description it means a blank slate, something innocent waiting to be formed. Where ... why do you ask?"
"That’s what he called me."
"Whoever was there when I woke up. I couldn’t ... " She closed her eyes and tried to remember the rest. "Ryanush ... Rayallish ... Ryallenish ... "
"That’s it. Ryallenush," she announced. "You know what that means too?"
"Mother," he said.
"You speak Yashuvhi?"
"Enough to get by in the marketplace," he said. "Quite a few migrated to Anchorhead and the vicinity about twenty years before my Uncle. I worked post harvest season on one of their farms."
"Well I’ve never heard it before today. I don’t know what any of it means."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I’m sure. And I didn't imagine what happened out there. Someone was out there."
"Huh." He opened and closed his mouth three times and said finally, "This is really weird. You’re positive you’ve never been anywhere you might have picked up Yashuvhi?"
"Yes." She hugged her arms around herself for warmth. "I couldn’t breathe. He was talking to me and he was choking me."
* * * * *
"The way they said Vader killed people. Like that. The way a Jedi could."
Those were her words.
Luke was frantically trying to remember everything he knew about the Yashuvhi while he retraced Leia’s steps. It was believed that their planet had been colonized by humans a few thousand years before the Expansion period began, although the original settlers were ultimately marooned and left to fend for themselves. Galactic historians theorized that they were criminals and their extended families, banished from their own homeworld, although by the time they were rediscovered the language was unknown by the linguistic experts of the galaxy. In any case, the best way to start a fight with any Yashuvhi was to insult his heritage.
There were other legends, he recalled, about an old Jedi Knight and his crew crashing on Yashuvhu during the Expansion periods. Unfortunately the natives had forgotten the skills needed for space travel, to even build a spacecraft, and instead evolved into a rich agricultural society with their own laws and version of history. Abandoned without the means to repair their craft or send a distress signal, the Jedi and his crew had been embraced by the locals. He’d listened intently to the legends when he was a boy, fascinated by anything that had to with Jedi Knights, and reasoned that the legend had to have been based on real events. For when the Old Republic explorers had located the planet shortly before the Clone Wars, the number of Force Sensitive individuals had been astronomically high.
He didn’t know if the Empire had made it that far during the purges, but the Yashuvhi had settled on Tatooine in droves during the Clone Wars, and others may have ventured closer to the Core.
Only a handful of outsiders had been hired to work with them, and his Uncle had more or less gotten him the job, saying if a boy had too much free time it led to trouble. As if, Luke thought wryly, he’d ever had any free time, but it had been his own money to spend as he wanted. Other than obtaining a rudimentary knowledge of the language, and how to regulate the humidifiers in their greenhouses, he hadn’t learned much about them. They were deemed eccentric, schooled their children separately, and were known to be devoutly religious. Their prolific holidays were noteworthy because even the merchants would not sell their goods in the marketplace of Anchorhead on a holy day.
Cannibalism, his friend Fixer had told him once, making scary faces and arranging his lips so that his eye teeth showed even with his mouth shut. They sacrifice their own and eat them bit by bit and don’t even kill them right away. Stories like that had given him nightmares, although Fixer had a tendency to embellish and make up things. None of the Yashuvhi he’d ever met looked like they did those things, and they’d certainly been cordial enough, if not rather aloof.
But that morning, he found himself thinking of Fixer and his tales. They start with an arm and then take a leg ...
Why two words that were so obviously personal?
Sweeping aside the natural curtains and stepping forward, Luke thought that yes, chances a Yashuvhi Jedi had been held at the Korriban station were good. Thirty meters, while awake was a minute distance, but to have traveled that far asleep? It wasn’t unheard of for people who did sleepwalk to venture from home, climb out of bed and head straight through their front door, but to the best of his knowledge those were extreme cases. What if you were on a ship? What if you opened an airlock thinking it was a door?
He stepped into another natural alcove and studied the partial footprints in the squashed touch-knots, grateful his feet were protected this time. Why didn’t the discomfort of burning feet wake her? Pain was a sure jerk back to reality, to wakefulness. How could you not feel that?
If he hadn’t fallen asleep by the fire he might have caught her. Instead he’d awoken to the sound of her screams echoing from every direction, her contagious panic hampering his ability to sense her, and then when he’d found her ... The inside of his lower lip was swollen from her punch, his tongue gritty as though he’d sipped scalding tea, or licked the venom from his lip after she struck him.
He continued tracing her path, the centrifugal source of her panic and terror eluding him initially, but he circled around until he discovered a depression in the soil that looked as though someone had lain there. Rich soil had been upturned, flecks of minerals native to Baskarn sparkled in the light filtering through like tiny gems. Smashed touch-knots were there too, surrounded by pools of innocuous looking jelly. He crouched and smoothed his hand across the uncontaminated soil, noting that the area disturbed was at least twice the size of her body. Maybe she’d thrashed around in her sleep. Stretching out with his senses, he attempted to pick up any trace; any evidence indicating something had been there with her. There was nothing.
She might have sensed something he didn’t. It wasn’t impossible.
Then why was he having such a hard time believing it?
More disturbing, he had been here, and he had somehow failed to protect her, though he didn’t understand from what.
He stopped to rest his forehead against a trunk. It didn’t matter what he sensed or didn’t sense. The Force was not infallible. It was subject to interpretation. His gut instinct was to believe her, believe that the danger had not been imagined, had been as real to her as he was. His logical mind poked holes in the though. Maybe her inability to hear, the sensation that she was choking, maybe they all had been symptoms of hysteria. That sort of stuff happened, it simply didn’t make any sense for it to happen to his sister. Leia never got hysterical, not even when she had every right to be. She tended to withdraw, summon her strength so that she could fight.
There wasn’t even the perceptible teetering of light and darkness, an imbalance in the Force. Even supposing a Jedi had fled into these jungles, there was no trace of him. He should have detected him by now. Why would he want to hurt her, them?
Stroking the new and scratchy stubble on his chin, Luke returned to where Leia had first awoken, carefully avoiding the touch-knots, and sank to his knees.
* * * * *
By early afternoon the jungle’s humidity was exacerbated by the swarming insects, only more attracted to the sweat dripping down her face and neck. Leia was sure after biting her they excitedly retreated to their nests to tell all the other bloodsucking sithspawn she was on the planet, despite Luke’s reassurances that they found him just as sweet. Genetically, she knew it was probably true, but they didn’t seem to annoy him quite as much, and that was exasperating. She squirmed and tried in vain to get comfortable again, ignore the maddening hum, leaned forward and peeled her shirt off her back where it was sticking to the mass of blisters and inflamed skin.
Every time she tried to sleep she wound up having wheeling half lucid dreams that her feet were on fire. Soon it will start to wear off, she promised herself. If you can bear it a little while longer it will get better.
Clad now in her fatigues and tunic, her injured feet were propped up on one of the packs while she reclined against the other. Though the wounds on her hands were superficial, and her back still needed to be looked after, Luke had told her that her feet were in desperate need of a bacta tank. Were they at the base she would have been remanded to a repulsor chair while they were immersed. Unfortunately they didn’t have a portable tank, so using a little creativity, he’d poured most of the rejuvenatory gel into two empty plastine food pouches and tied them around her ankles. This way her feet would be perpetually bathed in it. For a full day, he’d told her, and then they would see. She’d tried to argue, but it was pointless. If an infection set in she couldn’t take any of the antibiotics in the medkit because they didn’t know if they were safe for her under the circumstances.
Luke had resumed scouting the area for any trace of what had attacked her, though she wasn’t sure whether he had gone searching again more to humor her or because he believed her. Before he left he’d asked her if she needed help with anything, anything being a vague offer that had galvanized her into attempting to squeeze one foot into her boot as soon as he was gone. Big mistake. Fortunately, she’d discovered nothing was impossible on her hands and knees, though it proved to be incredibly awkward.
To distract herself she’d itemized and dissected every item of gear. Leia had no idea how Sabaac decks fell under items necessary for survival, but they had two, stamped with the gold and black SoroSuub logo. Being bored to death, was plausibly, a condition of crashing SoroSuub took very seriously, but she couldn’t come up with any one-man card games. Instead she’d started categorizing the local ecology on a datapad. Her first and sole entry had been, ‘do not step on the touch-knots barefoot.’ Then she’d made a terrible mistake and giving in to the urge to wiggle her toes again, and wound up clenching the Conergin and Nyex, praying just holding the painkillers would magically dull the throbbing.
"Look on the bright side," Luke had told her before he left. "You’ve been whining and complaining that you wanted a break from the footslogging." She didn’t think she’d been whining and complaining that much, but being temporarily crippled was not what she’d had in mind.
She sighed and tightened Luke’s cloak around her shoulders to deter the bugs, bringing the cowl to her face and breathing deeply. After all this time the green and woodsy smells of Endor still clung to it like glue, somehow woven permanently into the fibers which kept it together. Despite all that had happened there, Endor was a source of good memories for her, a nostalgic period of victory and new life, hope. Today she wasn’t above clutching threadbare cloth for its comfort value.
Her face was firmly buried in it when she heard a crackling in the brush. Grunts and garbled growls followed.
Clutching her holdout blaster more tightly beneath her leg, she looked up in time to see two creatures make their way across their campsite. Both were nearly two meters tall, covered in sleek green hair, their faces black and hairless, but definitely not humanoid, made their way through the brush. They were wearing shawls of woven grass and holding ornately carved staffs. She stared, too terrified to move, too terrified to stay still, but possessed of enough wariness to guess for the time being, not making any sudden movements was a better idea.
It took a moment for her pain-fogged brain to identify them as the Yrashu.
The smaller one picked up her brother’s sleep roll and pressed it to its face. The other picked up his blaster and pointed directly at its chest, trying to pry the weapon apart. Leia prayed it didn’t discharge. It sniffed it, held it out to its companion, who sniffed it too, growled, and set it gently on the ground.
She breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe they knew what it was. She knew full well what the Empire was capable of doing to species they deemed below them, what they called the Abo. Hundreds of worlds had fallen to their twisted concept of Imperialism, and they sometimes massacred the original inhabitants, or devised cruel schemes to make them wholly dependent on them. More and more detailed reports had been thrown across her desk over the past few months, most coming from worlds that had been freed from the Empires’ clutches. Some petitioned for membership in the New Republic, others begged them to never return to their star systems. The Yrashu, semi-sentient creatures, certainly weren’t able to set forth petitions, but they had had enough of their own experiences with humans to consider them friend or foe, and if their strength was anywhere near that of a Wookiee’s, she didn’t stand a chance. Praying it was the former; she pressed her back harder against the wall and tried to appear harmless, smile even, without baring her teeth in case that would indicate aggression.
The smaller of the two, female she observed, came over to her and continued sniffing the air, then gathered her hair in its hands and sniffed that too.
Tremors ran up and down her spine, but the Yrashu simply clucked to itself and began touching her face with its massive hands. It was able enough to snap her neck, but surprisingly gentle. It began cooing. Leia could feel its reassurance, though she wasn't sure how. I mean you no harm, it seemed to be telling her. It lifted one of her hands sniffed that as well, and then sniffed her neck. She tucked the holdout blaster she’d been clutching against her side beneath her legs.
"Hello," she said, for lack of a better word to introduce herself.
The creature jumped at the sound of her voice, then calmed itself and kept clucking. It picked up a half eaten ration bar and sniffed that too, then shoved the entire thing in its mouth, wrapping and all. It immediately spit it out and grunted, then reached into a fibrous pouch around its waist and withdrew several purplish leaves, apparently trying to get rid of the taste.
"I don’t care for them either," Leia murmured, trying to keep her voice steady, keeping one eye on the male, who was now dismantling the cookpad. A rush of apprehension flooded her mind, worry, an, are you okay?
The pair dropped what they were doing and held their heads back to smell the air. If their olfactory senses were as highly specialized as Chewie’s, they must know who was out there. The hair along their spine rose warily.
"I’m fine," she said, increasing the pitch of her voice in gradual increments to make sure he heard her. "I just have two friends visiting me who are very interested in what we have and know you’re out there."
Her brother entered slowly. "Hello there," he said softly, making eye contact with her and nodding.
She nodded back. "Yrashu, friendly, so far."
The male growled quietly.
"We mean you no harm," Luke said, holding out his empty hand.
Both creatures ventured closer to him and began repeated the ritualistic smelling. Luke stoically forced himself to submit. If he needed to defend himself she knew he wouldn’t hesitate, though he would avoid it if possible. The female licked his hand. "You said they were herbivores," he whispered.
"That’s what the log said."
"Uh huh," he replied, looking for all the world as though he believed the logs to be inaccurate. "Cause they have really big teeth."
Abruptly, his hand was dropped and with a grunt and a sideways hand gesture, the female slipped past him, followed by the male. Both crouched down to drink from the spring. Then they vanished, blending into the phosphorescent foliage, green on gold, gold on green.
They both breathed a sigh of relief. "Well what do you know," Luke mused.
Leia craned her neck and peered in the direction they had disappeared. "I think they recognized our species. At least, I think they recognized the blaster. I wonder if they’ll come back."
"To try and smell us to death and satisfy their curiosity," he chuckled.
They both stared into the bushes and waited. Then Luke sat next to her and shook his head regretfully. "I can’t find anything. Not even a trace of anything other than you."
She pursed her lips and blew out a long breath. "Now what?"
"I can go look again," Luke offered.
"It won’t do any good," she countered, though she was thinking more she’d feel safer if he stayed. Especially considering they had no idea what other sorts of visitors might come waltzing through their camp.
"No ... " He caught her chin and turned her head toward him. "Leia, I believe you."
"You have no cause to."
"Call it a hunch then. Let’s go through what you remember again from the beginning. The last thing you remember before you fell asleep and then ... "
She sighed. "I was ... wondering if Han had heard about the crash yet I think? But that was hours and hours before."
"You don’t remember actually walking out there? Nothing of it?"
"I was having a nightmare right before I woke up. That’s all I can recall."
She pressed her blistered palms over her face. "Who do you think?"
"Oh ... him," he murmured.
Him, she mentally repeated, with the same heavy accent Luke had bestowed. Him, him, him. She tore a hunk of grass from beside her knee and threw it ineffectually against the calm air. The grasses split apart and drifted back to the ground.
Then he said, "I still have those too you know."
She supposed Luke said it to make her feel better but it didn’t help, and instead she felt irrationally angry. She gave up throwing grass and concentrated on ripping every shred of green within reach and piling the tiny strands into crisscrossing castles that would collapse with the first breeze that reached them.
"Leia, nightmares can be very real."
"Are you suggesting I can’t tell when I’m awake or not? Because I assure you I can."
"No," he said slowly, imitating her destructive streak, uprooting the grass on the other side of him and adding it to her pile. "But do you have them a lot?"
Defensiveness and rage simmered in her chest. Of course she had them a lot. She expected to have them for the rest of her life. She’d watched sixty million people get blown away, been made to think she’d failed them, that she was responsible for their deaths. How could he grasp what it was like to spend years going through the names of everyone she’d ever known and wondering where they’d been, if they’d even known what was about to happen? How could he grasp how horrible is was to see someone you loved look at you, preparing to die, incapable of telling you they loved you back because if they said it, it would have made it all real? Vader had tried to destroy him, he’d hurt her, tortured her. They never even discussed it.
An emotional chill blasted her, and the stricken look on his face snapped her to her senses. Taking her anger out on Luke would solve nothing, and she had no idea why she wanted to, so she simply said, "Yes." He had been so kind to her lately too, bending over backwards to be considerate. "I don’t want to talk about this," she decided. "I can’t. My feet hurt and I can’t think straight. All I know is there was someone out there. That’s all I can tell you."
"Okay," he sighed. "Then back to where we were. I do believe you. What you heard out there, that can’t be coincidental, but I can’t explain anything. I wish I could." The Sabaac cards flitted into the air and shuffled themselves. "Huh ... I didn’t know if I could do that or not," Luke said with genuine surprise. "Want to play?"
Why not, she thought. What else is there to do all day other than obsess over this? "Can you look at my back first? It’s sticking to everything."
Luke made a face. "Sticking to everything?"
"I should’ve let you look at it before you left."
He grabbed the medkit while she lifted the shirt over her head and covered her chest. Then she drew her hair over her shoulder.
Luke started dabbing bacta over her blisters. "You’re very lucky."
"An unlucky person might have sat in those things."
"Oh sure, that makes me feel better. Don’t worry," she snorted. "I definitely would not be asking for your help."
He leaned over and dug through the medkit for a large enough piece of gauze to protect her skin from rubbing against her shirt. Carefully taping the edges, he made her lift her arm and rotate her shoulder to make sure the gauze was firmly in place. "All set. Now ... " He sat down and edged himself backward so that they were face to face again and started dealing.
She picked up her cards, holding them against her palm. Then she said quietly, "Luke, I’m scared."
"But I’m awful," he chuckled. "Lando says even with my Force skills I’m the worst Sabaac player he’s ever met."
"That’s not what I meant."
He arrowed his forehead. "I know."
"I feel like something bad is going to happen but you don’t know what, where, when."
"Try not to. Really, Leia," he stressed. "I’m here. In a few days we’ll be at the base -- a day or two more if we wait on your feet. This’ll all seem like a bad dream."
It already seems like it’s all a bad dream. It was a bad dream.
She picked up her hand and burst out laughing. Her brother had miraculously dealt her the Idiot’s Array. "You did this on purpose?"
He brother did not look nearly as impressed with his hand. "What did I do? What did I do?"
She would have bet the bank if she had credits. "What are we playing for?"
He perused their meager belongings. "How about ration bars."
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