Renewal: Chapter Eight
"It was like being dead, a corpse. A big nothing. A whole lot of wide awake nothing."
Luke Skywalker, for the first time, truly understood Hanís vivid descriptions of what it had been like being encased in carbonite.
He didnít breathe.
He wanted to breathe, but his lungs refused to respond, though strangely he wasnít conscious of suffocating. His physical self, his sense of his physical self, was gone. He didnít know if his heart was beating. He listened for it, for the reverberations deep within his eardrums. Sometimes if you lay still long enough you could hear it. He couldnít.
There was barely anything beyond the nothing, beyond this place, that was neither life nor death, neither a heaven nor hell. Only the echo of his thoughts, and it was hard to think here, hard to remember he was trapped, that he needed to escape, needed to gather his strength for a chance to break free.
Heíd tried desperately to reach for Leia, but even his sense of the Force was paralyzed. Or the Force no longer existed...
Thatís what he was doing.
He couldnít remember how heíd gotten here. He didnít know how long heíd been here for.
An eternity... a day...
The most absurd thoughts beckoned. That heíd been wrong all along. That he was in carbonite. That Vader had succeeded? That the past three years were all a dream and heíd been trapped here ever since.
No, he reassured himself. He knew Darth Vader had been Anakin Skywalker, and if he was in carbonite he wouldnít know that. Heíd lost his hand. A mind couldnít conjure up that sort of physical agony, his bodyís screaming in that instant a thousand times louder than what heíd released.
Heíd let go. Heíd been prepared to sacrifice himself. Leia had heard him.
Leia will come for you.
If this was sleep than it was a sleep unlike any heíd ever known. Heíd never slept and been vaguely aware of time passing, been able to think instead of dream, and if he were dreaming his thoughts wouldnít be coherent. He didnít think he was asleep and if he was he couldnít wake up. The inside of his mind was dark and horrible, a universe of everything and nothing, a prison, a dream, a nightmare. He didnít know.
The last face he remembered was Sarinís. The last feeling had been of his head, a vice-like pressure wrapping itself around his temples. The last sound had been a shout, or a scream.
Someone saying, you didnít listen to her.
No, he didnít.
It had been his voice.
The last of the light had flickered out, left him enveloped in darkness.
Leia struggled to find a more comfortable position on her bed in the medical wardís recovery suite, and continued staring out the window. The black glass was muted on the outside so that light inside wouldnít escape, but configured to allow natural light in.
This high on the mountain, the trees down below looked more like toys, not immense giants that tickled the underbelly of the heavy atmosphere. Like clockwork, from this side of the base she could see the X-wings taking off every hour from the main hanger, watched the deceiving lapideous exterior melt away in the blink of an eye, warm and frigid air colliding and forming a natural smokescreen from which enveloped the departing vessels. Major Risken ran a tight base, refused to let SpecForceís presence interrupt the ongoing reconnaissance of the system.
It was ironic. The X-Wings were spying on the Empire and the two guards posted outside her door were blatant reminders that SpecForce was in turn, spying on her. For her own protection, Rieekan had insisted, strictly to back up Hanís efforts. At least, thatís what she gathered from the vociferous arguments she heard outside her suite. Every time she mentioned Lukeís name Han pressed his finger to his lips and twirled his finger in all directions.
That left them little else to talk about, not that it mattered. She hadnít felt like talking for the past few days, and Han cloistered himself away in the L-shaped foyer of the suite where she couldnít see him. The days blurred together into endless hours divided by sleep and dreams.
She dreamed she stood with Sarin in his cabin. He said her aura was broken and black. He told her she was no longer a twin, and when she looked at her arm it was encased in skin-tight leather like her fatherís arm had been, and no matter how hard she tried she couldnít get if off. She woke up screaming into her pillow.
She dreamed she was in labor, that her body was gripped with contractions, only they didnít end when she awoke, continued wringing her insides until she was doubled over and gasping for breath.
They offered her muscle relaxants, pain killers, but she couldnít bring herself to take them. The cramps werenít unbearable, and it was easier to deal with physical pain than to cry and deal with the unfamiliar sense of nothingness within her. It was easier to deal with the physical pain than wonder about Luke. It was easier than wondering how many days it would be before Han disappeared from her life for good, if that was what he wanted to do. Her present had become a blank slate; thinking in terms of the past or present was too agonizing. Three kinds of grief squeezed her chest.
The medical staff had run test after test to be on the safe side. Theyíd said, the stun blast odds were split, that to be on the safe side they should double-check everything. They said they always double-checked everything. You could never be sure when it came to pregnancies.
We found abnormalities in you bloodstream. You would have lost the fetus regardless within a month. You have traces of Xebonica and Loquasin in your system.
She wasnít sure she understood much of what Tryll told her after that, save that her autoimmune system had been producing antibodies all along that were beginning to treat the fetus as though it was a foreign invader. Hyper-stimulated after years of breaking down the toxins in her system left over from the narco-interrogation sheíd been subjected to five years ago, it was incapable of telling the difference between what it was supposed to be attacking and protecting. Thus sheíd been given Trypanid and Alaswal-XT, been too out of it to do much other than sleep and wander in and out of the fresher repeatedly. She turned on the showers and curled on the floor when she needed to cry. She knew the number of floor tiles by heart.
It would have been Vader after all, again.
Luke had been terribly wrong. Han had been terribly wrong. The stun blast might be the official cause of her daughterís death, but it had only harkened the inevitable.
Her one small consolation was that the news had shifted Hanís attitude from one of razor sharp indifference to polite sympathy. He pretended. Genuine concern was apparently beyond him, as was hating her, anything that hinted at real emotion. Heíd only asked her once again if there was anyone she wanted him to contact for her. Sheíd said no.
Sighing, she drew her knees in tighter against the cramps, heard the sound of someone entering from the guest area, footsteps too heavy to be the medicís. They slid her untouched meal tray aside.
"Leia," he prodded.
It was Han. She cinched the sheet up higher and focused on an abstract point of sky off in the distance, all too conscious of his presence out of the corner of her eye.
A satchel and pair of worn combat boots were thrust at her. "Get dressed."
"Weíre going for a walk," he told her.
She laughed sardonically. "No weíre not."
"Youíre allowed to move around the base with an escort, you know."
They had repeatedly told her getting out, moving around would do her some good, but she hadnít felt like it. "I donít want to walk around with an escort," she argued. "Iíd rather stay in here."
His face blotted out the view, and the coercive glint in his eyes made her think twice about refusing. He was up to something. Maybe heíd figured out some way for them to talk, somewhere they could go even with the parade of officers. She opened the satchel and removed a brown silk wraparound blouse and dark pair of trousers, near enough to her size. "Where did you get these?"
"Halla sent them," he explained. "She stopped by to see how you were when you were asleep."
"What did you tell her?" If the suite was bugged they were listening to her conversations with the medic, though she doubted SpecForce was interested in her miscarriage. Still, she didnít want people to know.
"That youíd be fine," he sighed. "That you caught a wacky Baskarnian virus. Now get up and get dressed."
The guards outside seemed not at all phased by her emergence, following a few paces behind. It was the middle of the night on the base, and only a skeleton shift remained on duty, so few noticed the parade. After a long series of endless twists and turns, she found herself in a secondary hanger facing the Millennium Falcon, just as battered and in need of a paint job as she remembered it. Actually, it was more in need of a paint job than ever. Han liked it that way.
They marched straight to the side ramp. Evidently Han seemed to think they would allow them to waltz on board, which made him either daft or out of his mind. He punched a few access codes in a high tech alarm system sheíd never seen before, turned back to the guards. "Weíre going to get some personal belongings for the Councilor."
"Uh... sorry Sir," one of the guards said, waving the butt of his blaster. "You can retrieve anything she needs. Sheíll have to wait here, off-board."
Han rolled his eyes. "The deflector shields are up, arenít they?"
"And I canít fly through them?"
"You canít Sir."
Han rolled his eyes again. "Right. And any first year technician knows all this. So could you please explain to me what harm is there in allowing her on board with me? I think sheíd like to assemble her personal things herself."
The officer fidgeted anxiously.
"Is the hanger closed for the night?"
"Whoís gonna know? We only need ten minutes."
Looking to his companion for advice, the young man stammered, "We're under orders to stay with her."
"Look. I know you're just doing your jobs. But, say, how's this?" Han declared amiably. "You give us a few minutes, and I'll take you two on the grand tour afterwards. You've heard about my ship, haven't you?"
Appealing to their youthful awe magically did the trick. "If you make it quick, Sir, It's a deal."
"Oh, we will," Han assured him, grabbing her elbow nudging her forward. "Quicker than you can say I smell Togorian Belladonna." He reached over their heads and slammed his hand down on the ramp controls, gave himself a free ride up, leapt forward into the hatchway after her. Then he reset the locks and sealed them in. "Well Iíll be Kesseled," he murmured under his breath. "I didnít know if they were that gullible."
There was a loud bang on the hatch, a "Hey! General! I didnít say you could close this!"
She gulped back a scathing retort. If SpecForce thought theyíd come here to talk she could only imagine how many surveillance systems had been set up around his ship. They would be able to pick up even a whispered conversation. "Theyíre not gullible Han, theyíre-"
"Hold that thought! Iíll be right back." He disappeared into the back hold.
Sighing, she made her way into the galley and slipped into the neo leather lounge seat that curved around the table. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink. One of Hanís shirts was draped over the seat. Two empty bottles of expensive Corellian whiskey were tucked surreptitiously behind a full one in the counterís locked down rack. Astronavigational charts of the Sumitra Sector had been tacked to the partition beside the dining area. Han always prided himself on being able to plot his jumps ahead of his Nav-computer, had probably eaten here committing them to memory. He belonged to the old school of thought, where pilots needed to be as efficient at manual astrogation as their Nav-computer, never risk relying on modern technology in emergency. One of the overhead lights had burned out, dimming the center of the galley, leaving a striated section of shadows. Other than that the galley was just as she remembered it, save that she felt like a guest, even though the Falcon had once been her home as much as his.
For a few minutes she listened to the sound of him clanging around. Then music crackled through the intercom system so loud it hurt her ears, but just as quickly as it had started it was reduced to a barely audible level, so that she could make out the melody but not the dim familiarity of the words. She thought it was Laughter after Dark by Saahir Ruíluv.
He was smirking when he returned. "Think thatíll work? The Jammer pack is running too. Between that and the music they wonít be able to pick up anything."
"I guess youíve got us covered then," she said.
He slid into the booth on the opposite side, leaving a gulf of empty space between them. Suddenly, the go ahead to speak openly was equally oppressive and liberating. It had been safer, not being able to talk. "Look, before I ask you anything, I need to say something."
She swallowed nervously. "All right."
"Um..." His features toughened over with practiced determination. "I guess... well, I have something to say. Iím sorry for what happened. I donít know how important this was to you, I canít... even begin to imagine what it must feel like to lose a child."
"It hurts." The whisper got caught in the back of her throat, further down when she saw his Sabaac face turned on her as though she were a so-called friend he thought might double cross him, the same face that favored old acquaintances. Maybe he cared, maybe he felt like he had to say this, she couldnít tell if he meant it. There was no way to explain to him what if felt like to have a part of her die. There was no way to expect him to share it with her. Not this.
His body language stayed perfectly relaxed and unreadable. "I didnít have the right to say any of those things to you either, that day, when you got back. I chose to leave and we didnít make any promises to each other. I shouldnít have expected you to not go on with your life. You did and you didnít owe me anything."
The words sounded overly rehearsed. Groping between the lines made her clutch at the hem of her blouse beneath the table, strangling it.
We were over. Thatís that and whatever was between us is finished. Weíre not going to engage in vulgar accusations.
Thatís what he was saying. She wished she could tell him he was wrong, couldnít imagine how awful this was for him, to see her, to know this, to have come all the way here. Obviously he cared enough to race across the sector when heíd heard the shuttle went down, but she didnít doubt his loyalty to Luke was just as strong. All along sheíd feared he wouldnít forgive her, that she didnít have it in her to forgive him for leaving in the first place. Even though her brother had told her to be honest with him, it wasnít going to make a difference. "Han-"
"I know you lied to Rieekan and Leyíkel," he stated, bluntly heading off any discussion of them. "For the life of me I donít know why and I donít understand why Luke took off and why you wonít tell them where the escape pod is. If it would clear this all up why donít you?"
"No," she murmured. "I mean... there are..." She skirted a glance around the galley again. They couldnít hear her could they?
"Keep your voice down and itíll be secure."
"There are valid reasons but..." Once she told him there was no turning back. Heíd be as guilty as she was of withholding information, going against his vows to the New Republic. "Be sure you want to do this," she advised him. "If you canít commit to helping-"
"Canít commit? Why do you think I brought you here?" His lower lip turned down in a cloying curve. "This Ė isnít about us. It involves Luke too. You donít think-" He studied her face and the curve twisted maliciously. "Oh but you do. Youíre just assuming Iíll take off because of you?" Abruptly he stood, made his way over the counter. He snatched an unwashed glass from the sink, rinsed it out, unscrewed the cap from the full bottle of whiskey and filled it to the brim. "That figures."
"Nothing figures," she said. What if he started drinking and didnít stop? "Itís more complicated than you think."
"I am aware of the complications," he said harshly. "Actually...actually..." He returned to table and clinked his glass down, reached deep into his pockets and withdrew a folded piece of flimsiplast. "Why donít you have a look at this?"
"What is it?"
She had to read it three times to believe it. "Who is Harkness?"
"Youíve never heard of Dirk Harkness, Jai Raventhorn?"
"I..." The names didnít ring a clear bell, but for some reason she was certain sheíd run across them in the past. "Iím not sure. Possibly."
"Both have worked for the Alliance off and on. They did time on Zelos together. Raventhorn worked with the Infiltrators, Red Team Five? Harkness is pretty much your regular stand up mercenary type these days."
The names were familiar. She recalled a data-flash on her console, saying that Zelos had been taken by the New Republic. At the bottom of the page had been the casualty list. Intelligence had lost all but one of the Zelos team, a woman.
"This came before I arrived at Kashyyyk. I tried to contact you but youíd already left for Baskarn."
"He knows who we are."
"And so does SpecForce. At least, I think Halla Ettyk was hinting at it when I met with her last week."
It fit with their reactions during the interview. "Halla told you they were listening?"
That made her optimistic. Airen Cracken had used Halla as a pawn in the Tycho Celchu trial Ė allowing her to prosecute even thought heíd been fully aware of Celchuís innocence. Only a select few had known about it, and she herself hadnít until after the trial was concluded. Maybe Cracken was using the same ruse again, permitting SpecForce to investigate Luke as a legitimate suspect in order to divert attention from his other investigations. Maybe this time heíd let Halla in on the game and instructed her to inform Han. Either way someone had wanted Luke dead, or they had wanted to set him up and have Intelligence to go after him. There was also the slicer Luke had told her about on the Razionís Edge. She informed Han of the second possible source of the leak.
"Well I donít think he managed to keep his secret, whoever he was," Han said.
"But it could have come from Harkness too."
He shook his head. "Last I heard Harkness was doing some illicit undercover work for the New Republic Ė the sort they probably donít even let the Council on. From the gist of the message Iíd say he wanted to warn you and Luke. I know him. He wouldnít have contacted me first if he was going to them."
"And you trust him?"
"As well as I trust anybody."
How many times had she heard that and how many times had they ended dodging blaster fire? She knew better than to remind him.
"Now youíve got to tell me whatís going on."
"You have to give me your word," she breathed, as quietly as possible. "This goes no further than us."
He nodded. "And so you have it."
Almost an hour later sheíd detailed the discovery of the detonators on board, their escape to the surface, the old Imperial station theyíd found, and their subsequent journey into the forests. Hesitantly too, she described to him her nightmare, their finding Sarin and what heíd told them about the base, about the dangers there, and Lukeís adamant refusal to leave him. She finished by telling him the last thing Luke had said to her was that he couldnít believe she was doing this to him, that heíd stomped off back down the path and sheíd been on the verge of going after him when the team arrived. When she was done Han pursed his lips and gave a low whistle. It was difficult to tell what sort of impact it was having on him, and if he was shocked he masked it from her well. Either that or all these years of hanging around Luke had tempered his usual skepticism when it came to the Force, the supernatural and hokey religions. To her relief he was still nursing the same drink at the finish. "You believe me?" she asked.
"Thereís one thing that adds up," he said, idly tracing a nail over the scar on his chin. "The team I was sent down with... they said the area we were headed into was nicknamed the memory wipe zone, that everyoneís equipment failed..."
They may have reported me if they remembered meeting me.
"He gave them new memories to make up for any missing time," she added. "He would have erased any data."
He didnít look a hundred percent convinced.
"Han, Iím not making this up. You think this is what Iíd come up with for some sort of cover story?"
"If you are youíd make a fortune writing holo novels," he murmured under his breath.
"Okay." He resumed his serious stance. "Back to where we were. You donít want SpecForce to know about the station?"
"No. Han we canít. Look at this way. They suspect Luke of being involved. This place was designed to... study the Jedi, I think, study their abilities or their weaknesses. If they get their hands on it, if anyone did..."
Han cupped his hands over his face so she couldnít see his expression, swearing to himself. "Leia, you know youíre scheduled to reconvene with SpecForce as soon as youíre released, which is now going to be as soon as you walk down that ramp now that youíre on a sojourn from the medcenter. Unfortunately for you, and Luke, whatever the hell happened down there makes this whole thing look bad. Coincidence or not."
"Han, it could be catastrophic for Luke, for the future of the Jedi to come, thatís how Sarin explained it. I donít know enough to be certain, but I canít take the chance. I need to do some research, see if anything turns up. Then Iíll decide if Iíll go to Cracken..." An idea struck her. "That might work."
"What might work?"
"Iíll refuse to say anything until I speak with Cracken in person."
Han frowned. "Leia, heís at least a week away and right now heís out of contact."
"Exactly," she proclaimed. "Their hands will be tied indefinitely. Besides, as it is Iím confined to the base. They canít do much else..."
"Other than throw you in a cell here for refusing to cooperate as a material witness," he reminded her.
She tried to shrug off the bleak prospect. "In that case Iíll have to leave the research to you."
Han gulped back the last of his whiskey, let out a harsh breath and grimaced as the last of the fiery alcohol slid down his esophagus. "I donít want that to happen to you," he countered. "This isnít worth it."
"Han, you didnít see this place. If you did, you would understand. Youíre not Force-sensitive but believe me, you would be able to feel it."
The grimace was unwavering.
"I can give you the location," she whispered. "If they charge me you could go see..."
"Iíll end up leading them straight to it," he said. "What do you think they think youíre telling me right now. Theyíll think Iím headed off to the escape pod."
Stupid Leia, she thought. He was right. "Oh."
He shook his head, muttering to himself. "I must be crazy. I really must be. I thought Iíd seen and heard every sort of mumbo jumbo from Luke by now..." He kept shaking his head
It was encouraging nonetheless. "Youíre going to help me?"
He met her eyes. "If for no better reason than I canít stand the way theyíve been running the show here, yes."
"You donít have make it sound like Iím the lesser of two evils," she retorted. "I know youíre not fond of SpecForceísí totalitarian methods Ė right now Iím not either Ė but they get the job done. We would have crumbled in the past year without them."
"Omnipotence and self-righteousness are a dangerous combination. Rieekanís got both and I donít trust him."
"Youíre letting your personal feelings get in the way."
The muscle of his right cheek ticked. "Funny... he said the same thing when I told him these charges against Luke were bogus, which I seem to recall you saying as well."
"I know," she assented, freshly curious for what had passed between the two men in order for such mutual dislike to have developed. "But it wonít help to antagonize him. If we do heíll charge me out of spite." It seemed like years ago that the cancelled mission had been important to her, that sheíd rehearsed her speeches and declarations of amnesty to the political prisoners theyíd hoped to liberate Ė all in the name of the New Republic. Now the current situation rendered her incapable of participating even if it went ahead.
"Speaking of your brother..." He ran his fingers through his hair, briefly disrupting the stubborn part that formed naturally off center, before it settled back into place. "Can you feel him at all? I mean... you two can contact each other canít you? Have you been try-"
"Iíve been trying. Every day."
"How do you heís out there?"
"I just do. It feels like..." She fumbled for a way to describe it. "Like walking into a pitch black room after hearing a voice and not being able to find whoever called to you. I know heís there..."
"Sarin absolutely didnít want you to go after Luke if he turned back."
"No." She stared at his hands, on his knuckles, his fingers, longing to thrust take them into her own, solicit the smallest comfort from him. "I donít understand what was out there but I should have gone after him. I know I promised Sarin I wouldnít but I should have."
Iím not going to cry, Iím not, she promised herself. Luke had been so happy, and when he came back she was going to have to tell him...
His tone melted slightly. "Did ah... Luke know that you were pregnant?"
Her field of vision blurred. She fought the tears, blinked rapidly until her eyes dried. "I wanted to tell you first. I really... I had no idea Luke would take this mission with me, and after we crashed..." Take a deep breath Leia. "It was sort of hard to hide from him," she finished plaintively.
Han was silent for a moment, watched her try to regain her composure. "Well, you can stay here if you like tonight," he intercepted casually, standing and adding the glass to the pile in the sink. "Thatís my suggestion for the moment. That way in the morning we can do some last minute planning. Tomorrow, if youíre not arrested, weíll find you quarters and find you a console, do some research."
It was a strictly pragmatic offer, a kindness that belayed no weakness save practicality, and seeing little choice than to return to her room in the medcenter, she accepted. "Okay."
He motioned for her to follow, and though she expected him to put her in the crew quarters or Chewieís berth behind the lounge, they ended up in his own. On her way into his cabin she caught a glimpse of herself in the ornate bronze rimmed mirror just past the hatch, and stopped. She hadnít seen herself, what others saw when they looked at her since theyíd returned. There had been no mirror in the recovery ward. What she saw now shocked her. Besides being paler and thinner than she remembered, her eyes seemed unnaturally large and dark looking back at her. She couldnít help thinking that whoever this person was, it couldnít really be her. She looked pitiful.
Reflected in the mirror behind her was the cocooned bunk she had shared with Han for the past two years. She watched him clear off clothes and extra pillows. Han had always complained it wasnít meant for two people. Replacing it had been on his list of things to do, but he never got around to doing it, the same way he never replaced the tacky mirror that been Landoís.
This is so much more fun, he told her once when she finally tired of his endless complaints and asked him why he didnít go ahead. If I get a new one youíll just end up way on the other side and get used to sleeping without me plastered up against you. We donít want that to happen, do we? Sheíd thought it was sweet and romantic for him to admit he liked holding her. He so rarely let down the masculine bravado that attracted women to him like insects to the saccharine nectar of the blackfruit plant, that had attracted her, made her feel that she was in over her head, bereft of control.
She didnít want to climb into it alone, didnít want to lie down on his bed. "Is this where Iím staying?" she asked the girl in the mirror. "These are your quarters."
"The other fresherís a disaster," he explained. "Itís been Chewieís domain. I really need a good nightís sleep and if youíre going to be in and out of it..." He looked her reflection up and down knowingly. "Tryll said a few more days, right?"
"I didnít bring anything with me from the medcenter," she murmured.
Han opened his closet. "Whatever was in here when I left is still here, in the back. Any personal items you might have left in the fresher are still there too, if theyíll do?"
"Yes..." She tried to remember what sheíd left here. Clothes, toiletriesÖ Somehow sheíd imagined all her belonging swept out an airlock, floating in space. She looked down at her feet and focused on the tight weave carpet, trying to keep the woven strands from morphing into a blob of green swirls. "I havenít had a chance to thank you for coming. It means a lot to me. It will to Luke."
Han crossed to the hatchway, paused with one hand on the frame. "You would have done the same if it were me. So would he." He tapped the comm unit beside the entrance. "You just hit this if you need anything."
His emotional apathy kindled a flame of fury deep within her soul, gave her a perverse sense of conviction. "You were right," she called after him.
"You had no right to say anything you did."
He didnít turn around. All he did was say, "No, no I didnít." Then he walked away.
She washed up in the fresher and then wandered over the bunk and lay down fully clothed, not even bothering to remove her boots. She dragged the thin coverlet up to her chin. Beneath the faÁade of loner and mercenary they had turned out to be more alike than she ever would have predicted. Neither forgave or forgot easily. She might grieve her unborn daughter, her brother if it came to that, but wasnít going to give Han the satisfaction of knowing sheíd been grieving him for so long she couldnít remember what life had been like before the mourning began.
We didnít make any promises to each other. You didnít owe me anything.
You bastard, was the last thing she remembered thinking.
The shrill ringing echoing throughout the ship wasnít the only disturbance that harkened the end of the sleep cycle.
Leia stared overhead at the roof of the bunk. It could possibly be morning, afternoon, or still the middle of the night on Baskarn. There was no way to tell without sunlight, and the timed lights in the cabin hadnít switched on.
The terrifying absence, phantom-like separation was gone, throbbing anew, not with blood but with feeling, not complete, not entirely whole, but nearer to it. She cradled it, touched it, held it close until she was certain it wasnít going to go away.
The ringing didnít cease either, though it took her a moment to identify the sounds of comlinks going, followed by footsteps pounding, Hanís voice: "They did? They what? No? No? No? Are you sure? No? I will. I understand."
She scrambled from the bunk and into the hall only to collide with Han. "What?" she gasped, breathlessly. "Itís Luke, isnít it?"
Han steadied her, reached up, rubbed his bleary eyes and shook his head. "He turned himself in."
She knew it. Sheíd felt him minutes ago. "Weíll get ready to meet-"
"We canít." He stretched his arms from side to side and blocked her way. "Iím to deliver you straight to the audience chamber. In case I get lost, our pals are waiting outside the Falcon to steer us in the right direction."
"Yes, now and donít look at me like itís my fault, Iím not calling the shots. They are, remember. Iím going to wash up and change." He looked her over critically. "Did youÖ sleep in your clothes?"
"Uh..." Embarrassed, she smoothed her hands over the wrinkles and creases of the blouse. Silk didnít hold up very well after hours of tossing and turning. "How long do we have to get ready?"
A short while later sheíd showered and packed a few belongings. There hadnít been much on board after all; a few tunics, old fatigues, one or two articles of formal wear. For long flights she tended to wear the most comfortable clothing possible and that was what sheíd left lying about. She tied back her wet hair and waited for Han in the galley on tenterhooks, forced herself to swallow a few mouthfuls of dry rations, thoughts racing. Trepidation filled her body with ice and jumbled concerns.
Luke will be able to prove his innocence. Heíll find some way to convince them, and then weíll decide what to do about the Korriban Station, and then... Heíll know I lost her the minute I see him...
She tried not to think about that.
When Han reappeared heíd shaved and was wearing fresh clothes as well.
"Weíre going to be late," she advised him.
Instead of responding he pressed an old punch-dagger into her hand, then held out a Telltrig-7. "This blaster is modified," he instructed her, demonstrating as he went. "If you switch it to just past whatís normally your highest setting, itíll function as a disruptor."
She took it from his hand and switched it back to down to stun. Disruptors were notorious for reducing their targets Ė and everything within ten feet - to scattered molecular matter. "Arenít these things illegal?" It was more of a rhetorical question.
"Only," he clarified mischievously, "if you switch it over. If you donít switch it over youíre not breaking any laws."
She shook her head. "What are you even doing with one of these?"
"Havenít you ever heard of Outlaw tech? For a small fee theyíll modify anything youíve got... Aw... Come on, Iím kidding! Itís a souvenir, courtesy of the man who aimed it at me to begin with and itís the only thing I have thatís small enough for you to carry beneath your clothes."
A smile tweaked the corner of her mouth. She didnít think he was kidding but heíd had quite a few nasty weapons turned on him. "In that case you must have quite a collection," she teased.
"Sure," he mumbled. No trace of amusement surfaced. "Put those away where no one can see them."
Leia sighed. It had slipped out awkwardly; the tension between them left no room for bantering, none of the flirtatious sarcasm that had been verbal foreplay. She tucked the blaster behind her back in the waist of her fatigues and hid the punch-dagger inside her boot. There were too many armed personnel within the base for scanners to be used, and she doubted SpecForce was viewing her as a threat to security. But it wouldnít hurt for her to carry just in case.
Next he spent fifteen minutes making her memorize the access codes for the Falcon, needed to exit the ship, as well as enter. His comm beeped and interrupted them the tenth time she was reciting the codes.
"Weíre waiting in Section 12, the audience chamber."
"On our way." He straightened his collar. "Letís go."
The mood in the audience chamber was chaotic and disorganized. Major Risken was there, looking grim and haggard, shaking his head and slamming his fist against his thigh. One of his aides, a woman of thirty or so was weeping and speaking into her comlink. Leyíkel was wide-eyed and dazed, his olive skin taut as steel.
Baskarnís commander was shouting angrily. "They could have left him down there to die... you should have!"
"Do we have a casualty list?" Rieekan asked.
"Sixteen," he spat, "and most of them were my staff."
The Admiral shook his graying head, with genuine regret. "We didnít know Major. We didnít know he might do something like that."
They might have been invisible, standing at the back of the room, blocked from exiting by the menagerie of guards outside the doorway. The Admiral looked as though heíd aged twenty years since theyíd seen him last. It took Han a moment to catch on: after the medtechís death and his departure, the team total had been eighteen.
"Whatís his condition?" Leyíkel asked.
"They said heís critical but stable." Rieekan replied.
"Oh my gods," Leia whispered. "I didnít feel that Han."
He was busy picturing Raniss and Batille, the sensor analyst, the younger team members whose names he hadnít had time to learn, the kid from Kuat who knew so many filthy jokes Batille had threatened to glue his mouth shut that last night...
Risken kept shouting. "He attacked them unprovoked..."
"MajorÖ" Rieekan held up his hands. "This isnít the time or the place for theatrics or revenge. I can assure you heíll be held accountable for his actions-"
"Youíre mistaken," Leia burst out.
All eyes turned toward the back. "Your Highness?"
"My brother would never have attacked unprovoked," she insisted, marching forward to the group.
Han followed with bated breath. All he could think was that most of the men on those teams were not part of SpecForce. They wouldnít have attacked him or fired at him. Their only instructions were to bring him in unharmed.
The Major, red faced, veins throbbing in his temple, turned on her. "Your brother," hebellowed, "should have been left down there to rot."
Leia paled, gasped, took a step back. "He wouldnít have killed anyone unless he had no choice."
"Tell that to the wives and children Iím on my way to notify," Risken hissed, advancing on her. "Tell that to their families. I donít know what the hell Rieekanís men were planning but mine were there to assist in locating him, not fire on sight! They wouldnít have gone near him!"
Leia took another step back. "He wouldnít have..."
"Your Highness, he did,"Rieekan said coldly. "My men were under orders to bring him in unharmed, subdue him if necessary, but not harm him." He strode around the desk and pointed a finger at her chest. "Perhaps youíd like to be present when the first of the transports arrive with the bodies. You know what a lightsaber can do."
She shook her head. "I donít believe this. Itís not his way, not in his nature. He wouldnít have..."
Risken growled and moved forward again, arms swinging wide. Rieekan intercepted. "Major. You and your aides should get to the hanger. Iíll deal with her. General Leyíkel, please go with him."
When the trio had left Rieekan withdrew a comlink from his pocket. "Why donít you listen to this, both of you." He held the comlink close to his ear, fiddled with the controls and turned up the volume.
Han was grateful he hadnít eaten yet; tentacles of disgust climbed up his throat, then sank like stones to the pit of his stomach. There werenít many sounds that by themselves could elicit such a primal reaction, few sounds he hadnít heard in his life, in battle, in war, but he was familiar with death, with the pleas men made when it faced them. Batille was shouting over and over for command to send backup. Blaster fire thundered. He tried to block out the other sounds in the background, tried only to hear the fire, felt his heart sucked down into a vortex of spiraling anger, set his hand over his own blaster.
Rieekan switched it off. "It took him less than twenty seconds. Two men from the third team survived. The initial reports were that Skywalker surrendered to them peacefully. Apparently had a rather violent change of heart. They managed to hit him with the sleep inducers and fired at him in self-defense. Most of their fire ricocheted, was deflected back. Those who werenít hit by it... " He drew his fingers across his cheek. "I donít think I need to elaborate."
Leia looked faint. "How can you be sure? You werenít there."
There was a long pause. "I sympathize with Major Risken. Your brother is in desperate need of medical attention. The attending staff said thereís no guarantee heíll survive his injuries."
It was a feint, a bluff, cruel enough to elicit a small whimper and a quivering response. "You canít do that."
Rieekan crossed his arms, let the heavy threat hang interminably. "No, no I canít. Heíll be charged with murder and returned to Coruscant pending his trial as soon as heís able." He looked at Han shrewdly. "General Solo if sheís told you anything this would be a good time to come forward. I want the location of the escape pod."
"I donít know it," Leia replied.
Raniss had been on his team, the first team, not the third. Batille was with SpecForce but heíd been all right; Han had even warmed up to him. There had to be some mistake. Luke wouldnít have done it, would never have killed anyone in cold blood. Luke would have tried desperately to defend himself without killing them but what heíd just heard...
"General Solo?" Rieekan was waiting, eyes narrow slits.
"She didnít tell me," he said truthfully. Leia, fortuitously, had not given him the coordinates, and somehow he doubted Rieekan would believe what she had told him. He wasnít sure he believed it. He wasnít sure he believed any of this.
"I want to see my brother when heís brought in," Leia cried. "If heís injured-"
"Donít worry, Your Highness. We are not the Empire here. I have every intention of making certain he survives and stands trial. As for you..." Rieekan clasped his hands behind his back and stood at attention. "Effective immediately, weíre stripping you of your title as a Provisional Councilor for failure to cooperate as a material witness."
"Itís within my discretion to do so under New Republic statute 1-774." Rieekan clipped. "Councilor Nídan gave her evaluation of the proceedings, found your forthrightness to be lacking, and thatís being generous on her part. Coruscant has already been notified. Any immunity granted you by your position in the government is henceforth nullified. Weíre here under orders from Airen Cracken. Your oath to the New Republic includes cooperating with us, whether you want to or not. You have only yourself to blame for the consequences."
Leia went rigid, flushing with indignation. Rieekanís actions stripped her not only of her position, but of any right to insist on speaking to Cracken personally. "Spare me the didacticism. I know the New Republic charter as well as you do. Admiral you canít-"
"I have and though I could spend all morning wasting my time with you, I have more pressing concerns."
"I demand to see my brother when heís brought in."
"I canít allow that."
"Heíll be sequestered for the safety of the base, for your safety as well."
"Heís no threat to me. Heís no threat to anyone!"
"I wouldnít be so sure of that."
Leia lost her temper and lurched forward. Han caught her around the torso. It was bad enough that she might be charged with sedition. She didnít need to have assault added. "Leia calm down. This isnít going to solve anything now."
"Han they canít-"
"Right now they can. Right now..." He glanced at theAdmiral, over his shoulder at the guards. "Is she being charged with anything?"
"We donít feel confinement will convince her to talk," Rieekan admitted. "Nor do we feel sheíll be in a hurry to leave Baskarn considering her history with Skywalker. Of course, weíll provide you with larger quarters General, so you can continue your protection, and weíll make sure you have adequate assistance. Iíd hate for Admiral Madine to think weíre not respecting his orders, however much I view them as non-essential and more of a personal favor to you. Thereís absolutely no need to cloister her away on your ship. Let me make that clear. You may not be able to force your way through the containment fields, but there should be no need to divert incoming traffic for you." He flicked his hand at the guards. "Please escort these two to the quarters we have set aside for them."
"No," Leia pleaded, panic rising. "What if he dies?"
Han tightened his arms around her. "Heís not going to let him die." He wouldnít. If Rieekan was going by the book Ė and he was from outward appearances Ė he would keep Luke guarded. "Youíll update us on his status as soon as you hear?"
To his relief, he agreed.
Their new accommodations, when they reached them, were adequate enough. Two green repulsor chairs rested beside an imitation pleekwood caf table, adorned with fake vors glass vases. The repulsor chairs were joined by a matching repulsor lounge. A small kitchen was partitioned off to the side; one bedroom beside it, equipped with a tiny office area and a console unit. Across the main room was a second bedroom. Leia collapsed into the chair nearest the window. He settled into her chairís twin. "I canít believe theyíd stoop so low Han. Oooh." she groaned angrily, pounding a fist against the cushioned seat. "Iím so angry and I canít even do anything. And he didnít do it! You know he didnít do it!"
Han didnít answer. He knew what heíd heard. This hadnít been staged by SpecForce. This was not an elaborate ruse to convince her to talk. Riskenís aide had not been acting. Risken had not been acting. This was all real and surreal.
"Why arenít you saying anything? You know he didnít do it, donít you?"
"Leia... I..." He flung his hands up in the air. "I donít know what to think."
"But youíre thinking something!"
"Sure. That maybe I should go down to the hanger and see for myself."
"Go if you need to!"
"No..." He really had no desire to view the carnage; his imagination provided it, but he needed to clear his head away from her. "Nothing. I wonít."
She twisted her braid around her hand, stood up, marched behind the lounge and started pacing back and forth. "Itís a mistake. Itís my fault that this happened. If Iíd tried harder to make him come with me..."
Determined not to go through this again he snapped. Over and over for the past week when they spoke heíd had to deal with her blaming herself for everything; if only sheíd gone to the medcenter right away, if only sheíd gone after Luke in the first place. It didnít matter that he knew what Tryll had told her. It didnít matter that Luke was a grown man and would do what he wanted. "Stop acting like some kind of martyr. Youíve never controlled your brother! If he..." He had to say it. "Leia if he did this, if what theyíre saying is true-"
Was she deaf? Was she so strung out from the loss of early pregnancy that her brain refused to process what they had heard in the audience chamber? He knew what he had heard. The machinery of what ifs ground to a halt, poisoned his thoughts while he struggled with another galling and inexorable possibility. "I almost stayed with the team," he snapped. "If that shot they took at you Ė whether it was an accident or not and now weíll probably never know Ė if it hadnít have happened I would have stayed with them. I would have let you go back alone and I would have gone after him."
She licked her lips, shook her head. "Han... he wouldnít have..."
"How sure are you? Cause... Cause... Leia right now Iím counting my blessings that I didnít. Your brother is always going on about the Dark side and the Light side." He threw caution to the wind, not caring what they overheard. "Is this what Sarin was afraid of? What if whatever was out there turned him into some kind of monster?"
"Heís not a monster!"
"Heís something and itís not Luke."
"I know my brother. I want to see him Han. I need to make sure heís okay."
"Heíll have an entire unit assigned to him. You want me to lead you to him with a thermal detonator in one hand, threatening to blow us both up if they say no?"
"Well youíve pulled off crazier stunts in the past," she breathed.
"I am not that crazy and neither are you. If I were you Iíd start thinking about who heís going to come for first when he wakes up."
"He would never hurt me!"
"Leia, were you listening to that recording?"
"You donít have to shout at me!"
He buried his head in his hands. What if Luke was on his way to becoming the next Vader? Images of Vader, casually watching while they lowered him onto the scan grid over and over flooded back, caused his entire body to shudder. He looked up, saw that Leia had disappeared, though he hadnít heard her leave, hadnít heard any doors open. He stood and walked over to the lounge, peered in either bedroom, knelt on the cushions and peered over it. She crouched on the narrow floor space between the furniture and the window. "Leia?"
"I had to sit down," she whispered. "I donít feel well."
He felt bad for yelling at her, said more quietly, "Leia, I know what I heard."
"I heard it too." Liquid brown eyes met his. "But he couldnít have done it. Han... I wouldnít have made it here without him. Not through the jungles and the swamps. He did everything he could to get me here safely, took care of me when I was sick and tired all the time. He was so excited about...her..."
"Iím sure he was," he managed gruffly. It was a slap in the face. He hadnít thought about how Luke must have reacted to the news that he was going to be an uncle; Luke would have been bouncing off the walls, wouldnít have cared how it happened, would have viewed the future through the starry eyes of an opportunist, dazzled by the infinite glow of the future handed to him on a sliver platter. "But he wasnít supposed to turn back and he did. You told me that. And something must have happened to him, changed him..."
"Like what? I thought... he said... Sarin said I knew what would happen but I donít. I didnít. I thought... I thought it might kill him not... "
"Turn him into your-"
"Please donít say it." The words were a prayer not a plea. "If somethingís wrong with him I can reach him when I see him. I know I can Han. And if heís done anything at all for which heís to be blamed thereíll be a good explanation."
They couldnít keep this up, not until he calmed down. Butting heads against her unwavering faith in her brother while he pictured Raniss and Batille and everyone else made him want to keep shouting. No explanation was going to suffice or be good enough for him. Nothing justified murder. His stomach growled, with sick dread and hunger. He would worry about what Luke might do next later, hopefully come up with a plan before he returned to consciousness. "Iím going to order from the cafeteria and have them deliver it here," he told her.
"I canít eat," she sighed, shaking her head.
"Yeah well, youíre gonna," he said, getting up and striding to the localized comm system beside the door. Heíd spent so many days staring at the sterile walls of the medcenter the undersides of his eyelids were stark white and he wasnít going back. He scrolled through the base directory, hit the direct key to the cafeteria, and waited for the automated reply. "Two of whatever the special is today to Suite 6B, Level III."
"Youíre order will be there in seven minutes and thirty six seconds," the voice told him, sounding like Threepio at his most officious. By the sounds of it, he had relatives here. He rolled up his sleeve and checked his chrono. Lukeís transport would be arriving about now, but it was too early to check on his condition. She still hid on the other side of the lounge. "I mean it Leia," he called to her. "Theyíre not going to wave you in to see him if you wage a hunger strike."
"Does this mean youíre going?"
"No," he told her, though heíd thought about little else over the last week. "Iím your Chief of Security." A glorified bodyguard, your ex-lover who foolishly thought you actually needed me here. He squeezed his mind shut against visions of her naked, laying in bed with another man, squirming beneath him and moaning, making all those little sounds heíd thought no one else would ever know she made, touching her... Whatever appetite heíd had vanished.
"Because the New Republic doesnít pay for civilian security," she said. "Rieekan may have forgotten but heíll remember and try to get rid of you."
In her bed? In their bed? He squeezed harder. "Iím out of their jurisdiction. He canít go against Madineís orders. You heard him."
"But he might try. Itíll make it easy for you to go."
"Leia... none of this easy," he muttered. "Now pull yourself together and get off the floor."
She didnít budge. Her voice grew desperate. "Han?"
"I said Iím not going anywhere. Thereís not much else I can do."
"Not that... Itís just that... The New Republic isnít going to want this made public. They canít put Luke Skywalker on trial... now with how it will make the government look. Rieekan might not have his orders yet but I know what theyíre going to be."
"Theyíre not going to let him die," he assured her, even though he saw the logic in what she was saying. It would be better if he simply disappeared, if there was an accident, if restitution bought the silence of the families whoíd lost loved ones. Murky dealings and decisions like this kept the government afloat, all touted under their being in the best interest of the New Republic. She could be right. Or very wrong, he thought a moment later. "They wonít," he continued. "They know who you are now."
"Maybe," she conceded after a long silence, finally climbing to her feet. "I hope so. I really do."
"And Halla Ettyk is here," he added. Halla hugged the contours along the path of the straight and narrow sect . "She wonít buy the Ďoh, his bacta tank malfunctioned and we lost himí sort of garbage."
She rubbed her palms on her sleeves. "Donít give them any ideas."
"I donít have to. They do this for a living."
Her chin dropped to her chest, and she kept rubbing at her sleeves.
He suddenly couldnít stand watching her; her features were distorted by grief, further distorted by his own multi-layered grief. She was unfamiliar to him. Together, they were unfamiliar to him, resembled nothing he remembered. She was still Leia, lost in dark colors, a subliminal sign of her bereavement though he doubted sheíd chosen her clothes realizing it, but she wasnít his and she barely seemed to possess herself. He pretended it wasnít a question and didnít answer, wandered into the kitchen and opened the cupboards. There were stacks of monochromatic silver plates and glasses, cutlery, everything they needed. He laid out a few items on the countertop, checked the fridge, found it had been pre-stocked with beverages and fresh food. "What do you want to drink?"
Predictably came an, "I donít care."
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