Renewal: Chapter Nine
True to his word, Admiral Rieekan forbade Leia from going with a hundred meters of where they were holding her brother.
In an effort to distract herself she focused on her research. The console in her bedroom was linked to the base’s mainframe system, enabling her to use the DataSearch service, sift through thousands and thousands of DSU’s of data in the time it took to prepare a cup of stimcaf. Today, she’d run several dozen searches and drank so much stimcaf she could no longer tell if her jitters were chemically induced or the usual blanket wrapped tension that left her back in knots and head pounding. Either way, the words on the screen were beginning to blur together.
The name Korriban had turned up only scarce entries on the planet itself. That she had expected but she’d felt compelled to try on the off chance a search would have yielded any information. Naturally if the Emperor had been here, had christened a station with the same name it was not going to be in any public records.
There was nothing on Baskarn she hadn’t read on the Razion’s Edge before they arrived.
The planet Yashuvhu was another story. Yashuvhu was an isolated world, with a population near one million, listed as human. Records of the planet’s discovery by the Pathfinder III eighty years ago described a society steeped in tradition and culture who openly embraced offworlders. Since then, anthropologists, linguists and exobiologists had actively studied the planet; there were thousands of journals published. There were semi historic accounts of a team of Jedi crashing on the planet during the Expansion periods, per her brother’s claim, but the tales were so woven with fictional details, so overly romanticized, that they could hardly be relied upon. Two days of wading through articles on everything from native crops to insects, syntax to religious practices, had turned up nothing relevant.
There were a few noteworthy facts that piqued her interest. After being discovered by the Pathfinder III, Yashuvhu had not entered the Galactic Trade Federation, preferring to remain self-sufficient and rely on its own resources. One could interpret their decision any number of ways. Either they were either isolationists, and wary of the Empire, or they had been forewarned that they had a long way to go before they met the statutory 0.01 percent off the Federation’s market. They would have been exempt from the heavy taxes Palpatine regime imposed collectively, but not paying taxes would have also precluded them from official representation in the Galactic Senate. Economically they would have suffered in the interim.
They had sent an honorary Ambassador to Coruscant, but he’d been there as part of a cultural exchange and no more than a token representative.
The name ‘Sarin’ cross referenced with ‘Yashuvhu’ yielded nothing. Either all records of his existence had been erased, he’d simply been too inconsequential a figure on Yashuvhu to garner mention. That was if he’d even given them his real name.
Leia did have some luck. Cross referencing Jedi with Yashuvhu had turned up three articles on the disproportionate number of Force sensitive individuals in relation to its population. The old Jedi Council had detailed statistics claiming that a sentient being had a one in one hundred thousand chance of being born with sensitivity. It was a fact she vaguely remembered hearing when she was growing up. Yashuvhu produced one per ten thousand. There were no records telling her how many natives had gone to Coruscant to study formally with the Council. Palpatine had been thorough in destroying the council’s archives during the purges.
This afternoon, on a whim, she tapped into the Imperial Newsgrid archive and cross referenced Palpatine with Yashuvhu. The results were surprising. Palpatine, while still a Senator from Naboo, had visited Yashuvhu twice. After being elected Emperor, he has visited again. There were even holo images: Emperor Palpatine surrounded by his aides, Palpatine descending the ramp of his flagship and being warmly welcomed by droves of admiring natives, Palpatine, shaking hands with the reigning ‘Tas’ (which she guessed was the Yashuvhi equivalent of leader or king), Palpatine receiving Yashuvhu’s elite in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance that would have befit his visit. Children wearing white lined the procession way, holding flowers and fruit.
She rubbed her neck and sighed. Of course they’d welcomed him with open arms, even Alderaan had initially. The Old Republic had grown stagnant, been in desperate need of new and effective leadership, needed to be cleansed of the lumbering bureaucratic administration. Bringing exigent attention to Sector crises, attacks from neighboring worlds, pirates disrupting the flow of trade, famines, civil wars that sought impartial intervention, took months if not years. When her father had first been Senator, one poor representative had gone to Coruscant to petition for medical aide from the Republic, spent thirteen months lobbying for support and a chance to speak. It had been too late when they approved his request. Two thirds of his world’s population had succumbed to an outbreak that could have easily been treated by antibiotics mass produced on Merissee Prime Pharmaceuticals.
Palpatine had promised to change all that, promised that the new Empire would not be a multi-tiered system where wealth equaled voice, where humans and aliens would share equal status, where even the tiniest populace would have fair representation.
It had all been a lie.
Too depressed to plough through the information on screen, she tabbed the console to print them off. There was one other item she’d wanted to check, though she wasn’t sure if Baskarn’s media catalogues had been updated recently. "Okay Luke," she murmured to herself. "Let’s see if Rieekan’s smear campaign has made it back to the core."
"The latest newgrids from the Core won’t arrive for a few days," Han’s voice replied. "If Luke’s made the headlines we won’t know yet."
She jumped, turning partway in her chair. "Do you mind?"
"Sorry. I thought you were talking to me?"
"I wasn’t." Han was leaning back against the doorframe with the habitual expression of boredom he’d been wearing of late. There’d been nothing for him to do for the past few days but repeatedly pester Rieekan for an update on Luke’s condition and watch endless holovids on the main room’s entertainment unit. He was literally beginning to climb the walls.
"Any word?" she asked, though she knew he would say no. No comlinks had gone off.
Her brother had been in and out of the bacta tank for the last four days recovering from injuries to his left side and leg from blaster fire. He’d also sustained a severe concussion. Per their official updates, he had not awoken between sessions in the tank, though the medics had assured them there was no neural damage. It was very likely they’d been keeping him sedated. Despite her best efforts she’d been unable to crack the medcenter's encryption codes to verify his status. "They’re still planning on shipping him back to Coruscant as soon as they can?"
"Last I heard."
And me with him, she thought. So much for her mission, so much for everything she had come to Baskarn hoping to accomplish. Once back at Home Fleet, she hoped Mon Mothma would summarily dismiss all claims that she was not cooperating, as would Cracken and Madine. Trouble was, she needed to be there in person; left to SpecForce’s accounts of her behavior, they had little choice but allow Rieekan’s decision to stand temporarily. She was stuck following SpecForce’s orders and Han was stuck guarding her. As for the charges against Luke ...
She’d been telling herself over and over that there had to be some reason, that he didn’t do it, not the way they said.
Han kept leaning against the doorframe as though he was waiting for her to say more. If they were in the same room together she felt like she had to say something, and they wound up having the same conversations over and over for the sake of speaking out loud. His physical presence dominated their shared space. So much so, in fact, that she had always known if he was in a room before she entered or if he entered after her without turning around to make certain. It had always been that way, back in the early days even, that tingling sense of his proximity to her. Back then she’d assumed it was yet one more way he unconsciously managed to irritate her. Now it was suffocating. She didn’t think she could stand it much longer and fumbled for anything to say. "Have you asked if they would let either of us see him again?"
"Hmmm ... " Han pretended to think it over. "Four days ago they said no way. Three days ago they said no way. Two day ago they said no way ... "
"Point made," she cut in. "Um ... Did you find any good holodramas?"
"I don’t need to watch the holovids if I want drama," Han grumbled. "I just turn the blasted thing off and reminisce about my week."
"Besides, you’d think they’d have a few action holos around in a place like this."
She squelched her smile. "You don’t need drama but you need action?"
"Or a comedy," he added. "A comedy would be all right." He shrugged and wandered over to the bed, perched on the edge. "Anything but Varn, World of Water."
"Varn, World of Water?"
A scintilla of hope began shining in the rough. Maybe Han was wearying of their ongoing game too, or merely tired of his own company. She tried again. "You haven’t told me how it went in the Sumitra Sector?"
"What’s to tell about transporting goods from here to there; another flight, another delivery, another bunch of pilots harassing me into playing Horansi."
Nothing, she thought miserably.
Han unexpectedly grinned to himself and kept going. "We got a crack in the titanium-chromium shell of my hyperdrive and were grounded in some space port that made Mos Eisley look like a vacation resort. Not too long though. I got a good deal on a replacement. And Chewie’s son, Lumpawarrump, is now big enough and strong enough to pick me up, which is apparently the family in-joke now and had the rest of the furry monsters in hysterics."
This time she didn’t hold back her smile, felt her unused cheek muscles respond, heard herself laugh for the first time in weeks.
"Yeah," he murmured. "Something told me you’d find that amusing. At least you don’t growl too."
"Chewie’s on Kashyyyk then?"
"I took off in a hurry, didn’t want to ruin his vacation by dragging him here with me."
"I guess not."
He smoothed his hand over the comforter, followed the floral pattern with one finger. "And yourself?"
"Business as usual at the Fleet, this mess notwithstanding?"
"It’s been hectic, probably worse than you remember it." She watched his finger gliding back and forth across the center of the bed. "I’ve managed to keep my head above water though. Winter’s been a great help."
"It can’t be worse than I remember it," he guffawed lightly. "That’s impossible. What about your project?"
"The search for a home for the Alderaanian refugees? I thought you were going to present the subsidiary request to the New Republic for funds once you’d found enough investors to toss their credits in ... "
"We had to shelve the project," she admitted.
"Not enough backers?"
"No, we found enough backers."
"Really?" His finger stopped tracing. "The Taskeens, Tyr and his brother?" He glanced at her inquisitively. "What was his name?"
Her mouth suddenly felt as though a wad of cotton had been stuffed inside. "Yail."
"Yail agreed to put in fifty million if the New Republic would match it," she said quickly, struggling to stay composed. "But with all the losses our fleet has taken its low on their list of priorities. We’ll have to review the finances at the start of next year."
"That’s an awful lot of money," Han thought enviously aloud. "I’m surprised he was willing to put up that much. Then again a guy like Taskeen could buy anything ... "
"Developing a planet is expensive," she reminded him. "And none of the ones we’ve looked at are exactly stocked of raw materials. They’ll have to build everything from scratch, import basic necessities. He can afford it."
"Well," he said, for once without sounding as though he had to make an effort to sound sincere, "I’m sorry it didn’t go through. I know how important it was to you."
She nodded, swallowing her heart and her pride. One of you has to do this first. "Han?"
"I missed you when you left."
He looked over at her, eyes darkening with familiar accusations and anger. "I’m sure you did."
"I mean it."
One eyebrow rose and mocked her. "That’s such a laugh sweetheart. We all know how long it took you to get over it, don’t we? I can count back-"
The blood drained from her face. Count back from when? The day I ...
"Leia." Her name sounded like an apology. "I don’t want to do this. Let’s not start this."
The printer beeped and spewed out her datasheets. She leaned over and gathered them together in a neat pile, set them in her lap, wondering why she even bothered to try.
Han didn’t get up and storm off, but he was shaking his head. "I can’t do this. I don’t know what you expect me to say back?"
"Say back to what?"
"That you missed me. What good does it do Leia? Or are you trying to make me feel guilty."
"Cause it’s not going to work."
"I said I wasn’t."
"It sure sounds like you are and-"
Mercifully, finally, the comlink stuffed in his pocket started ringing. "Solo here." He listened for a moment to whoever spoke on the other end, covered the mouthpiece. "Can you give me a minute."
She raised her chin regally and cast him a look of disdain. "You’re in my room. You get out!"
And what did you expect was going to come from that little burst of honesty, she asked herself after he had left.
Punching her pillows didn’t help, nor did throwing them at the walls. She wished he would scream and yell at her if that was what he felt like doing. There would be a reaction she could handle but this ... this was hopeless.
Instructing herself to get a grip, she picked up her cold mug of stimcaf, and began leafing through the datasheets.
Something on Yashuvhu had caught Palpatine’s interest. There was simply no reason, no honest reason, that the Emperor would have visited a world that barely deserved his acknowledgement, that hadn’t even joined the Empire. She checked the dates of his visit, compared them to Sarin’s estimation of how long he’d been on Baskarn. One or two years later? Had his visit merely been a formality, a step in his plan to extinguish the Jedi and devise a galaxy which would be unable to challenge him? No, she decided; it had to be something very specific.
... Never believing for a moment that I, a Jedi who had had no formal training beyond that of a healer, would catch the interest of the Empire.
What was it that would have made Sarin special to him?
A Yashuvhu Jedi’s ability to heal? Leia wondered. According to her brother, Palpatine’s use of Dark magic had aged him rapidly, left his skin gaunt and lined, his eyes sunken and hollow. His appearance terrified most, had terrified and disgusted her the one occasion they’d met in person. That was back when she’d been elected Senator, nine years ago. Her father had brought her to Imperial City for her swearing in. Her mind’s eye could paint the day as vividly as Winter remembered everything she’d ever seen or heard, walking toward him, praying that she wouldn’t stumble or stutter when she made her introductions.
What if, she wondered, Palpatine had been able to see her aura as she strode down the aisle toward him?
She sincerely doubted she would not have lived long enough to find her way out of his throne room. How would they have explained that to her father?
Young women disappear on Coruscant all the time, she imagined them saying. We saw her leave and where she went after that ...
There’d been no escort with her that day, she remembered that. Imperial City with its numerous black guards had felt safe enough for her to go alone. She would never even have known why she died.
Her mind started racing. Before she was born, Palpatine’s scientists had created Force detectors, crude and imprecise machinery that betrayed the bluish aura surrounding Force sensitive individuals. It hadn’t seemed strange when Sarin described it – she’d heard it before. The Empire had supposedly installed them at custom checkpoints, in the government offices of Coruscant, universities, anywhere large crowds gathered ... gambling facilities, where so many lucky individuals won repeatedly, automatically bringing death sentences to all those identified. That last tactic had been a calculated act of sheer genius, as thousands of unknowing Force sensitives had been picked up, vanished amidst rumors that the casinos were cleansing themselves of scam artists, much to their protests they were not involved.
The idea had to have originated somewhere. The scientists would have needed a prototype, right? An organic, living, breathing prototype? She thought of Alderaan, felt the heartsick moment of suspended disbelief spread through her. She had watched and known then that her very life, her very existence, paradoxically sentenced her to unjust culpability for the murder of millions. The shudders of horror turned to spasms of white hot rage. The mug she was holding crumbled and spilled stimcaf all over the floor.
She dropped to her knees and starting collecting the shards and throwing them into the garbage bin at the foot of the desk.
"Hey ... uh, Leia. Have an accident?"
Not trusting herself to look up, she fiercely began wiping at the carpet. What else was there? What else had he done here? How could he? "My mug broke."
"Huh." His voice sounded strange. "I’ve got to head out for a while. Rieekan wants to see me."
"What is it?"
"He didn’t say. Just that it was urgent."
"You know the rules?"
"Don’t let anyone in."
"Where is it?"
She began drying her hands on her pants. "In the nightstand."
"Get it. Keep it with you. And don’t ... "
"I won’t let anyone in. I’m not an idiot."
When the doors closed she grabbed a towel from the fresher and spread over the carpet.
There is no passion, Luke had told her, but there was love. There was blood. All the things a Jedi strove to suppress, to surrender to the Force still prevailed, still made them vulnerable. Luke’s desire to protect her had brought him to the precipice of Light and Darkness once before and could again.
Maybe that’s what Sarin had meant when he said she knew what would happen?
Ramblings about the transient properties of the soul and the physical self flitted back to her. It was mind-boggling and beyond her comprehension.
Enough for now, she ordered herself, listening to double check that she was alone. She started a new query for Ruuria. He was probably still there.
Coruscant: Three months earlier.
"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" he had asked.
That’s how it had begun.
A tycoon and a legend in the world of starship outfitters by the time he was twenty-five, Yail Taskeen was an icon in the capitalist realm. Tall, dirty blonde, not what one might deem handsome in the traditional sense, his charisma made up for any visible shortcomings. He might well have evolved to fit the stereotype of the well-to-do playboy, save for the fact that his shuttle had left Alderaan only an hour before Tarkin had given the order to fire. The near escape from death and the deaths of nearly everyone he knew had had a profound impact on him, changed him from a social climber to a very reclusive figure who immersed himself in his work, and rarely frequented the Core.
Ten million credits was the conditional offer he made to the Alderaanian Refugee’s Fund. Shrewd and calculating, he knew that a donation so extraordinary entitled him to a few favors from the New Republic, the occasional blind eye turned towards those of his investments that were on planets still under Imperial control. Leia was more than aware that Yail’s generosity, in the long term, would be more profitable for him than the refugees, that these so called favors he wanted would double his fortune within years. For two weeks they met daily to barter over the finite details, negotiated for solutions that both he and the New Republic would find acceptable. She pushed for twenty-five, pointing out he could easily afford it. Yail offered twenty if she would have dinner have with him alone. She told him she wasn’t for sale.
He offered twenty if she would agree to have dinner with him when their business was concluded and no question of impropriety remained. She knew his type, knew that he could probably snap his fingers and summon any number of women to his bed. It was rumored he kept mistresses on a dozen worlds. Why a man with that much wealth and power was interested in her was baffling, but his attention was flattering, the way he looked at her reminiscent of the way Han used to look at her. They had the same color eyes. She’d been caught off guard one afternoon, said yes.
It’s only a dinner, she had reminded herself before she left. The first dress she’d chosen was dark and severe, conservative, long sleeved and high necked. She reassured herself she wasn’t actually going to do anything, that it merely was nice to be complimented and allow a man to make her feel attractive. For one evening she would go out and forget. Then she’d checked her messages, played head games. If Han had messaged she would cancel. He hadn’t. If Luke had messaged she would cancel. He hadn’t either. She had changed into a clinging red silk, sleeveless and backless, worn her hair down.
It had been a mistake.
Dinner was Alderaanian haute cuisine as it had been in it’s heyday, traditional l’lahsh and flatbread, taproots and a salad of assorted greens, all prepared by a chef who had once served another of the royal families. They stuck to small talk, the market value of Ilinium at first, his upcoming projects, his disdain for the smugglers whose pirateering constantly created fluxes and shifts in the global economy. His eyes had been all over her throughout the meal – she could feel them – though she never caught him staring at her directly.
"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" he asked again.
"Of course not," she intoned quietly.
"You seem very sad."
It wasn’t a question so much as an observation. It made her feel vulnerable. I am, she wanted to say. I am, I am, I am, but she found herself unable to speak. She stared at his glass of Alderaan Ruge, noticed her own was empty, wished she’d shown a little more restraint.
Then he laughed. Either he was trying to break the tension or he hadn’t noticed, but it broke the spell.
He leaned over and refilled her glass. "You act like no one’s ever asked you? As though is seems strange to think someone would wonder?"
"Isn’t it," she murmured. Dozens of aides and colleagues nodded their heads at her each day, administrative droids: Your Highness, Councilor. Luke was on Folor. Winter was on assignment. Han had not contacted her and she was giving up all hope that would. No one called her Leia. No one asked her how she was.
"You still haven’t answered my question."
"Is it really a question?"
"No," he said.
Her feelings evolved from a sense of vulnerability to a curious relief that someone had noticed. She picked up her glass, rose from her seat and wandered across his dining room to the crystalplex case. It was banked on either side by Mardre columns, opaline stone that needed no engraving save its original casting to emphasize its richness, its transparency. Arranged at the base of the columns were potted ladalum and baby Oro trees, coated with multi-colored lichens that resembled swirling rainbows. Both species had been native to their homeworld.
Yail’s brother Tyr had been also an entrepreneur of sorts, but he’d lost his fortunes when the Empire had appropriated his operations, having not wisely banked his fortunes in the Corporate Sector out of Palpatine’s reach. Tyr had quietly traded in his finery for Generalship, and throughout the war he’d specialized in running the Alliances safe houses, safe worlds, in the Outer Rim. Both men however, maintained numerous properties off world, owned lavish apartments decorated with the finest Alderaan had to offer. Here, it was as though she’d been magically transported back in time. The table they ate at and their chairs were made of red stained hydenock wood. The nerf wool tapestries on his walls were handmade -- a series arranged to give a panoramic view of the Castle Lands. His crystalplex showcase was filled with objects that were once commonplace, items she’d seen grown up with; ornate chronos, goblets, picture frames, ornamental trinkets, miniatures of thrantas made of Falasian Liquid Crystal -- if they were handled the wings and tails stirred to life, liquid and solid all at once. All of the chronos had been set to the minute of Alderaan’s destruction in the capital Aldera, in accordance with the dark tradition initiated by its survivors. The contents of his apartment would have fetched a small fortune.
"I hate to think of them as antiques," he said quietly, peering over her shoulder into his display case. "But it seems a shame to use them if they can never be replaced, and then it seems a greater waste to put them away where I can’t see them."
She turned her attention to the painting on his wall, of Lir Lake and signed by Furva Keill. Furva Keill had been a master artist on Alderaan. He’d died along with everyone else, as had the bulk of his life’s work. Her father had taken her to Belleau-a-Lir, the island city that was home to Alderaan’s diverse artistic community when she was a girl and she told him.
"And I bet now you’re thinking the artist’s rendition does it more justice than when you actually saw it for yourself."
"No," she laughed. "But it’s an accurate criticism." The forests around Lir Lake had succumbed decades ago to a fungus that had killed most of the trees. In the painting, the forest was lush and healthy, the artist’s vision of how they would have appeared a century ago in the summertime.
And Yail said, almost under his breath, "I wake up in the mornings and I have to remember it’s all gone. I never remember straight away ... but I remember eventually."
"I know," she replied, because she did, because she woke up the same way. One of his hands brushed her shoulder, rested there. The setting, expensive liqueur, softly lit halolamps, the feel of his apartment suddenly felt less threatening, less a study in the art of upper class seduction. They were both from Alderaan. They’d both lost everything. They were sharing nothing more than a solitary moment of solemn reflection. She thrust aside her misgivings about accepting the offer in the first place and didn’t tell him to take his hand off of her. They stood in front of Furva Keill’s painting while she tried to remember exactly what side of the lake she’d been to. Were she to climb inside the painting, where would her image be painted?
Next she felt his hand slip down the back of her dress, to the small of her back. The action was more intimate, vaguely sexual. The small of her back wasn’t her breasts or the inside of her thigh, but it wasn’t a part of her body anyone other than Han ever touched, bare hand against bare skin. She sipped her ruge nervously, wondering if the warmth that spread through her body was a reaction to him or merely the alcohol.
And what is Han doing right now, this very second, that tiny voice inside her asked. He had left after all, not her. She was a grown woman, free to be with whomever she wanted, she was attracted to Yail and ...
Han may very well be doing the same thing ...
The thought filled her with a strange sense of justification. There was no reason to be sleeping alone, waiting for him. Yail slid his fingers up to her neck, over her shoulder again, fingered the strap to her dress.
She had second thoughts. Feeling foolish and pitifully naïve, she reached up and caught her strap before her dress went with it. The server droids were gone, she hadn’t heard the sounds of anyone moving about in the kitchen. Down at the entrance to his suites, his driver and private repulsor sled would be waiting to bring her home, but he wouldn’t hear her.
"Nothing has to happen if you don’t want it to," he whispered against the back of her neck.
No, she wasn’t a schoolgirl, an innocent virgin who had no idea what he was after. They were both adults and she was more than capable of fending off his advances. She would tell him she needed to go, thank him for dinner and leave and ...
But already her fogged mind was spinning wild assurances, telling her there was nothing so wrong with this. She took another sip of her ruge and let her silence answer for her.
It was easier than she expected to kiss him back when he kissed her. Different than Han, but she’d kissed enough men to know it would be.
It was easy to allow him to lead her to his bedroom, to let him undress her, let him push her back on the bed while he moved over her, slid inside her. For all his size and strength he was surprisingly tender and considerate, however she was too shy to ask for what she needed, to tell him how she needed to be touched and where. Her body arbitrarily responded to his with passion and confusion, second thoughts. He was unfamiliar to her, foreign. In the throes of his own passion he hardly noticed her own fading, that she grew passive and did little more than pretend.
Afterwards, when Yail drew his blankets around them, curled his frame around hers, she started to panic. His touch was no longer welcome. And sleep was somehow too personal. Yail might see, might not understand. It had been her nightmare after all, that night, that had awoken both of them and led to Han’s leaving in the first place. Or it hadn’t led to his leaving, but it had been the last straw on a long list of many things.
Han had been standing next to their bed, right before he left. I do love you, he had told her.
She struggled out of his arms and reached for her clothes, feeling sick to her stomach. "I need to go."
"Early day tomorrow?"
"Yes," she lied.
He rolled onto his back, watching her dress while she wished he’d look elsewhere. "Ah, but it’s Solo, isn’t it?"
She averted her eyes and refused to answer. No one, not even Luke, knew why Han had left, that it had not been for a mission but because he wanted to. Yail must have checked up on her and put two and two together. That shouldn’t have surprised her. Naturally he would have checked up on her.
"I can be very discreet," he added. "It’s all right."
The absurd assurance made her laugh. Maybe Yail didn’t know after all. She sat on the bed with her back to him while she slipped on her shoes. "What’s all right?"
"I’m heading back to the Corporate Sector tomorrow to head up a mining venture on Ruuria, off the vector prime pathway." He reached out his hand and set it on her hip, stroked the unbound hair. "But I’d very much like to see you when I return."
His message was clear. "We’ll see," she murmured ambiguously, because she couldn’t imagine saying no at that very moment.
Luke watched the lips of the men issuing instructions to Han outside his room through the carbon glass. You have five minutes. No weapons allowed General. No physical contact. We’re monitoring this so if there’s any problems we’ll send guards in directly. SpecForce has been with him all morning and so far he hasn’t attempted anything.
There was a click as the locks released.
Not ... you look strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark. "Han," he returned. He didn’t know what to say next. Not, how are you, or how’s it going or have you enjoyed your stay on Baskarn?
"You asked to see me?"
"I did." He tightened his robe and turned around awkwardly. His body was still suffering the aftereffects of four days of inactivity, stiff and uncooperative. He felt clumsy and half awake. In contrast, Han looked obscenely self composed, though he could feel his anxiousness simmering, anger on the verge of boiling over ... and also ... "You don’t have to be afraid of me," he said.
"Who says I am?"
"Well you’re ... you’re ... " He didn’t know what to say. He was busy noticing the Corellian’s fingers curled around an imaginary blaster, grazing the Bloodstripes running down the outside of his thigh. "I don’t know."
Han grimaced and shook his head angrily. "I haven’t wanted to believe it. If I didn’t hear it for myself ... " He shook his head harder. "How could you do it? I heard you ... laughing. And they’re all dead ... Even if one of them ... even if ... You didn’t have to kill them all."
"I don’t know," he said softly. Because he didn’t ... because he’d heard the recording too, read the reports the two survivors had given.
The weaponless fingers curled into a fist and arched with lethal precision.
Though he had time to react, to duck, to block it, he did none of those. Instead he waited for the shattering implosion of bone against bone, rattling his teeth and snapping his skull against the wall.
Han’s voice was ragged. His arm fell slack against his side. "You don’t know?"
The wall against his back prevented him from collapsing. Luke struggled to see past the blazing agony that had become the right side of his face, tested his jaw to make sure it wasn’t broken, tasted blood, metallic and salty. His eyes watered. Being struck in the face was such a primal assault, outrage tingled with the intoxication of what he could do, what he was near doing. "I wouldn’t do that again."
"That’s right, Luke. Go ahead and try me. Show your true colors."
Out of the corner of his eye, through the window, Luke saw the guards appraising the situation. Whatever their definition of ‘no physical contact’ was, Han hadn’t crossed the line yet. They weren’t about to intervene. He flexed his hand, itching to strike back ... "I won’t," he said.
"Tell me you wouldn’t have if I’d been down there."
Again, he had no response.
"I’ll take that for a yes," Han growled, slouching his shoulders ever so slightly. "It’s nice to know you’ve got a grip on yourself now."
Luke understood. A test. This had all been a little test and he had passed. It was unexpected, coming from Han. "Feel better?"
"Wish I could say I did," he replied flippantly. "All it does is tell me your sister was right about one thing."
"Which is what?" SpecForce had already told him they were holding Leia as a hostile witness, that she was facing charges when they returned to Coruscant, that she’d been suspended from her position pending the outcome of the investigation.
Didn’t he want to make this easier for her? Didn’t he want to confess and exonerate her from any involvement?
They had no intention of charging her with anything – Admiral Rieekan’s thoughts had revealed the threats were no more than pressure tactics, bluffs, though they were intent on forcing her to return with him
"Luke, why did you do it? I know you didn’t try and destroy the base, or I thought I did, but you still ... "
Face afire, he managed to keep talking. "I can’t remember. I can’t remember much of anything before waking up here but for leaving Leia. Nothing that I understand or that I can explain." They’d told him it had been ten days. "As for trying to destroy the base ... " He laughed bitterly, a crazy person. When Rieekan had started hounding him, saying they knew about the shuttle, his plan, he’d almost asked what sort of spice he’d been smoking. A further search of his thoughts revealed he knew about Anakin Skywalker and Leia. He had clammed up and demanded to see Han. "It’s ridiculous. Leia knows it."
Han responded slowly. "They’re not taking her word for it. I’m sorry but if that’s the best defense you can come up with you deserve whatever they have in store for you when they deliver you to Coruscant. I can’t help you and neither can Leia."
"I really can’t remember anything," he answered. Maybe he and Han had never had heart to hearts, but they were friends. He’d thought they were friends. Now the older man was facing him as though all loyalties between them had been lost. "Believe me I’ve tried and I can’t. I would tell you."
"Maybe you just don’t want to."
"I can’t!" He closed his eyes and searched desperately, but it was always the same: Leia, begging him not to go, not to turn back ... and Sarin. He didn’t know if the Yashuvhi healer was alive or dead, if he was somehow responsible for this, if it there was some other reason his mind and memory were betraying him. He felt violated, a virtual stranger in his body, enemy scrawled all over the murderous gazes of those who looked upon him. "I know who I am," Luke murmured, barely moving his mouth. "I know who I am and that I wouldn’t have done it."
Solo took a deep breath and glared at him in confusion. "I didn’t know who you were was in question. How ... I never thought you had it in you to do something like this. No matter whose son you were, or what sort of powers you had, I trusted you."
Luke grazed his fingers across his swelling cheek, then dropped them to his ribcage, thick with bandages beneath his robe. Peace over anger. Honor over hate. Strength over fear. To defeat an enemy, you do not have to kill. "Am I really that powerful," he wondered. Because if I am why couldn’t I prevent this? Why happened to me??
"If that’s a rhetorical questions it’s pretty goddamned sick."
Startled, for he hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud, he shook his head. "Han I don’t know what happened down there."
"Look. What did you ask to see me for?"
Honestly, he hadn’t asked to see him to beg his forgiveness or try and convince him this was all a nightmare. General Han Solo’s demeanor at the memorial services he’d attended had been described as grim. This was personal. Striding to the corner sink, he spat out a mouthful of saliva and blood. Then he rinsed out his mouth twice, saying, "I need a favor."
"Right. I’d say the statute of limitations on anything I ever owed you has run drier than the dustball you call home. You’re in no position to ask."
The Jedi nodded and dried his face. "No, I’m not, but I’m going to. It’s not for me."
"Who’s it for?"
"She’s ... " Han’s mood changed abruptly, sympathetic, weary. "She’s holding up under the circumstances."
The first thing he’d done upon awakening was reach for her. Her daughter was now no more than a dream or a wish that would never be realized and he was very much to blame. The sense of his sister’s loss was a hundred times more painful than the blow to his cheek. "I made her a promise that ... under the circumstances I can’t keep." He gestured to the clear window and guards. "Not while I’m in custody."
Han followed his gaze, his ire retracting. "Did they tell you she was hit with a stun blast when the team found her?"
"I know. I already know."
"You do?" Han ran his hands over his face. "They really should have let her see you. She should be the one telling you all this."
"I don’t want to see her," he lied.
"Well she wants to see you. She’s worried sick about you."
He waved his hand, sent ripples of static outward to crunch the sound waves, a Force devised privacy field. "It’s not up to her." His voice disintegrated, carried an echo to Han, who looked puzzled and said, "What? What?" "They can’t hear us," he explained. "Did she tell you what we found?"
"Yeah ... " Solo cocked his head, eyed the guards again. "And she wasn’t making it up?"
"No." Good then. Leia would know what needed to be done.
"She thinks ... she thinks something must have happened to you down there, that you weren’t supposed to turn back. For whatever moronic reason, you did and now you’re about the most dangerous person the New Republic has ever had in custody."
"Maybe ... " Maybe he was. Maybe he’d black out again and awaken to discover he’d slain the entire base. If that was the case than what he was going to ask was all the more important. There was a rap on the window. It hadn’t been five minutes yet, had it?
"They’re not partial to having their audio tampered with," Han informed him. "What’s this favor you want?"
"I need you to look after Leia for a while."
"What do you think I’ve been doing?"
"I know. But I need you to do more. Stay with her while I try and sort this out."
"While you try and sort this out," Han repeated incredulously. "That’ll be pretty tough to accomplish in prison ... Oh ... " Slapping the side of his head and sucking in a long breath, he continued. "Silly me, how long do they think they can hold a Jedi? What was I thinking?"
"I give you my word no one will be harmed."
"This time, you mean?"
He winced. There was no point in arguing. Even if he’d expected Han to have more faith in him he didn’t have time to try and convince him. "Don’t let her return to Coruscant either. It’s too dangerous. I want you to find somewhere secure to hole up for a while. I’ll contact you, I promise."
"Do you have any idea what you’re asking me to do? She’s under some sort of pseudo house arrest, in case they didn’t tell you."
"Get-her-out," he hissed under his breath. "You can figure out a way, Han. I know you can." He fought the urge to mentally nudge him to agree. The pilot was too strong minded. It would wear off, long before the time came for them to leave. Solo had to decide on his own and stick to it. "You know if they believe I sabotaged the shuttle they’re not looking for whoever did? They may still be with the fleet. They’ll go after her."
"Even if I get past SpecForce ... " Han began. "Oh, no, she’s definitely not going to agree to this."
"Convince her. Lie to her. I don’t care what you have to do."
"Where are you going?"
Dagobah ... anywhere I can find answers. I have to remember what happened to me. "I don’t know yet."
Han swallowed. "Pick a place without many people."
"You’ll do it?"
"I’m thinking about it."
He waited until his hand was on the door. "You have two hours."
Leia was curled on the lounge with her pile of datasheets spread over the coffee table. Both knees were drawn in to her chin, and the soles of her feet were hanging over the cushion. The imitation vors-glass vases had been moved to the matching chairs; their blown wings were outstretched, reclining on the armrests like headless angels.
"That’s it," he repeated. "He’s ... he’s physically fine, or he looked fine to me, up and about." He refrained from saying, mentally your brother is a wreck. It had been no Jedi in the medcenter; just a broken man whose eyes bespoke some horror that he refused to speak about or couldn’t remember. Amnesia, Han thought. He kills sixteen people and he has amnesia.
She breathed a humongous sigh relief. "Then he’ll be okay. I knew he would be okay."
"You did hear the part about his not being able to remember anything, didn’t you?"
"How could I not?" she mumbled. "That’s what you keep saying over and over."
Well then, she was apparently finding Luke’s amnesia easier to digest than he was, or her composure was merely a smokescreen for what lay beneath. The evidence against her twin was so overwhelming even he was admitting he had done it. He eyed the bizarre setting again. A tea party? "I give up. What’s with the new décor? Afraid you’d break them too?"
She shot him a hostile glance. "I needed the table space."
He moved to the lounge and eyed the piles of scattered papers. "Any luck?"
There was a faint inclination of her chin, though she didn’t say ‘yes’ and she made a subtle hand gesture that indicated she couldn’t risk it being overheard. A vague look of intense concentration descended.
If only he’d swiped one of those thingies ... what were they called ... disruption bubble generators from Bakura, or if only Luke would stick around long enough to teach her a few of his tricks. The copies were of Palpatine, in all his regal splendor, glaring back at him on his visit to Yashuvhu. The formal tour of the galaxy, he thought wryly. He’d been a boy when Palpatine had visited Corellia, though the Sector had remained out of the Empire’s reach, remembered the throngs of protesters who’d marched in the streets, well wishers who’d marched to support him. It had been a golden opportunity for seamy scams and picking pockets; he’d made a seven year olds equivalent of a small fortune. "Okay, I don’t get it," he told her.
There was no response.
Utter blankness followed.
"Leia?" He waved his hand in front of her eyes. "You in there?"
She leaned forward and scooped up the pile of papers and heaved them as hard as she could into the center of the room.
They snowed to the floor in a lateral fashion, drifting back and forth. Han failed to see what possible connection there could be between Palpatine visiting Yashuvhu decades ago and her meeting a marooned Jedi from the same place here on Baskarn.
"Why won’t he answer me?" she cried out, wrenching her gaze away from the mess. "I can feel him. I know he can feel me calling him."
So that’s what she’d been doing, however this mystical link between them worked. The sudden splotches of red around her nose and eyes, as though she were crying without tears or trying not to cry softened him. He reached over and patted her knee. "Leia I think he needs a little time to himself."
She rubbed her arms forlornly, looked at the lingering touch on her knee. "What happened to your hand?"
Mental images of Luke’s face, the livid bruise and swelling appeared. Guiltily he jerked his reddened knuckles away, shoved his hand inside his jacket pocket. He’d had no idea when Rieekan called him he was going to see Luke and there’d been no grace period to prepare himself. "I slammed a door on it."
"Huh. You’d think he’d at least answer me if they’re not going to let me see him."
"I know," he assented. "Look ... just, give him a little while. They’ll let you see him on Coruscant."
Except Luke has no intention of going there ... .
He had debated warning SpecForce on the way back, wondered how dumb the kid was to tell him his plans and expect him to go along with it. But the truth was Luke’s behavior had rippled the uncertainties, fierce loyalties, hopes even, that had intermittently plagued him, alarmed him enough to keep his mouth shut temporarily. It wasn’t as if he had pleaded for understanding, for compassion, none of the routes he would have expected him to go. He simply looked as though he was unable to care, too drained to care.
Luke had grown up before his eyes, never shedding his farm boy naiveté, even while he’d matured into an overly philosophical Jedi. They might not always agree, but they’d been friends for too long for him to pass him off as a fallen Jedi, dark Jedi, whatever it was that he brooded over, feared becoming ... whatever it was that had driven Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader. For Leia’s sake he found himself wanting to believe her.
"You don’t understand," she was muttering angrily. "You can’t."
"That you two have some sort of miraculous way to communicate that defies science as I know it? Cause I know that part."
"Not that," she replied.
She squared her hand over her heart. "He needs me. I can feel it even though he doesn’t want me to. I don’t understand ... " The cracks in her voice splintered. "He knows, doesn’t he? Did you tell him?"
"No," he said softly. "I didn’t have to."
"He feels responsible. He feels guilty."
The hope repeated itself. If Luke was truly guilty why was his conscience tormenting him? Suppose he actually didn’t remember? That led to a more frightening possibility. What if he had some sort of relapse?
I’m really going to do this, he thought, half surprised, half relieved to have the burden of indecision lifted. Luke was right, though not solely for the reasons he’d given. He didn’t dare risk allowing her to be returned to Coruscant now.
"You know, maybe he’s not ready to face you yet Leia," he suggested.
"Did he tell you that?"
"Not in so many words, but yeah." He started thinking. If they were going to do this it had to be soon. They couldn’t very well invite the guards on duty outside the door in for refreshments and lock them in the fresher, although if they could make it closer to the hanger ... Inspiration struck. The medcenter had one main entrance and two back entrances. One of the passageways headed directly around to the main foyer, the second – the second was the one the medical staff frequented. It was a shortcut to the personnel wing and the storage facilities. And the storage facilities were adjacent to the hanger the Falcon was in; it made it easier to unload medical supplies. Did he remember the layout, whether it was left or right? He strained to recall the tiny map on the door by Leia’s recovery room. You are here ... the tiny arrow had said, and if they had been here then ... "Ahhh, didn’t Tryll say you should get checked out again before we leave?"
"No one’s told us when we’re leaving."
"Yeah, but Luke’s near fit for traveling."
"I’ve really had it with people poking and prodding at me."
"It’ll take five minutes. A quick scan." He added emphatically, "It’ll make me feel better. You look a little peaked."
"You feel better," she sniffed with a heavy degree of acrimony, flicking her hair over her shoulders. Irritation with him distracted her from her brother. "That’s so funny I should be rolling on the floor laughing. I didn’t think you cared."
"I do too," he insisted, trying to look offended. For the life of him he didn’t know what she had expected him to say earlier. She may have missed him, but he knew her, knew she wouldn’t have tumbled into bed with just anyone, not without caring about them too. It had sounded like the beginning of one of those pathetic clichés people gave to one another afterwards, to make it easier, make themselves feel better when they confronted with someone else’s pain, with the lessening of their own affection toward them. It was all a very familiar song and dance, one he’d dished out more than once, one he’d received a few times too many. He’d let them take her to Coruscant before he’d endure it from her, but knowing they needed to get going, he said, "Five years isn’t exactly nothing Leia. I do too care about you."
"Having the New Republic pay certainly doesn’t hurt," she said icily, shrugging and shaking her head. "I’ve always been amazed at how much your sense of charity grows when credits are involved. It’s quite remarkable."
Struggling to control his temper, he ground out, in his most even-toned voice, "Fine. You don’t want to go, that’s okay. But you do look under the weather and your brother made me promise him I’d make sure you were okay."
It was the mention of her brother that did the trick. "If it’s that important to you I’ll go and get it over with."
"Grab your jacket. I’ll clean this up," he offered, standing quickly and sweeping the datasheets together. He double folded them and shoved the wad deep in his pocket, thinking hard ...
The guards will follow as far as medcenter door – they won’t come in. It’ll take a few minutes to round up Tryll and in the meantime we can be in the hanger before anyone knows we’re gone.
Except things, he realized once they were there, weren’t going to go quite so smoothly.
Innocent people, in his experience, had a terrible habit of getting in the way when all you needed was for them to vanish for five minutes. Four minutes would have been good, even three.
Tryll was already in the examining room, having been called for another patient, and in the process of cleaning up and organizing her notes. More frustrating, Leia ordered him out. He refused to leave, pointed out a bioscan didn’t require her to undress. Tryll compromised by drawing the privacy curtains around the table and dragging the equipment behind it with them.
He loitered on the other side of the curtains thinking furiously. A stun blast would draw the attention of the guards. Tryll was stocky and well-muscled enough for him to guess she’d be a tough fighter, and, like so many Alliance medics, she’d served in active combat and was as well trained as the best of the ground forces. Not to mention that women were particularly nasty when it came to hand-to-hand combat. They didn’t waste any time gunning for the fastest way to incapacitate a male opponent. In the meantime he’d be unable to bring himself to hit her full strength, and even if he did subdue her, the guards would hear the scuffle.
They had less than a half a standard hour left.
"I can make a copy of your files here for you to give to your physician," Tryll was saying.
"Okay," Leia said.
Feeling at his wits end, Han perused the vast array of medical equipment available to him. The assorted steristeel instruments on her medical cart could be classified as weapons, but he didn’t want to hurt her. The vials and medjectors, on the other hand, gave him a brainstorm. In the Academy he’d had a semester of mandatory first-aid. Some of the names were familiar. There was Conergin, a strong anesthetic. Too risky, he decided. He had no idea how much to administer based on anyone’s body weight, knew many individuals were highly allergic to it. Beside it were several medjectors full of Nyex, Clondex and Gylocal. Nyex was a potent sedative, and better yet, he’d never heard of anyone overdosing on it. He picked up a medjector and hid it in his hand.
"And I don’t know if there’s anything you can do to downgrade the amount of stress you’re under, but I would try."
"That’s sort of difficult here."
He crept around the curtain and flicked the tiny release button, reminding himself to jab her in the neck if he wanted the sedative pumped through her bloodstream in seconds. Seizing her from behind, he clamped a hand over her mouth and jammed the device in just below her ear. She thrashed wildly like panicked prey caught in the grip of its attacker, drove her heels back into his shins twice, wedged her elbow into his ribcage. Stifling a groan, he held on for dear life, felt her go slack by the time he counted to four.
Leia’s jaw dropped.
Luke," he hissed.
She stared in shock at the medic. "But you ... "
Gently he eased Tryll’s limp body onto the floor. "Time to go sweetheart," he whispered. "She’ll be fine, she’s just taking a nap."
"You ... you ... "
"And we don’t have much time."
Leia took one last look at Tryll and obeyed.
The back passageways were empty. They started running, slowed their steps when they entered the hanger, and Han decided his luck might not be bad after all. There were only a few technicians and droids milling about in the blasted out enclaves, loading antigrav lifters and motor-sleds with garbage to be transported off world. They darted between the sleek Starlight and Interceptor-class freighters, scurried to the uneven stone wall and headed toward the Falcon without catching their attention. Han eyed the Falcon’s hull in the distance and prayed to childhood deities whose names he’d long forgotten that his luck would hold up. It did. There was no sign of SpecForce’s agents, no restraints anchoring her to the deck as he’d feared they would be.
"Where’s Luke?" Leia started.
He tightened his grip on her hand and dragged her on board, releasing it only when he’d sealed them in. "His Y-Wing’s in the main hanger." Although how Luke was going to accomplish that feat would be one for the record books.
"But isn’t he coming with us?"
There wasn’t time to answer. In the cockpit he started the engines and buckled himself into his chair. The pre-flight check had been done the other night after Leia had gone to bed, as well as a few other minor adjustments. Force-sensitive he wasn’t, and he hadn’t been planning on escaping from the base, however his gut instinct had badgered him to prepare just in case. The officers outside that night had been gullible.
"We have thirty seconds."
"To blast the generator that powers the containment field."
"What about Luke>?"
"We go first. He goes later!"Twenty two seconds ... "You know where to go? I can’t man the lower quad turret and fly at the same time. Your shot’s already lined up for you. Just pull the trigger!"
"Me! Han ... "
"Leia now! Use the lasers."
"This was your brother’s idea! Now go!" Fifteen seconds ... He heard the far away sound of alarms blaring through the bay’s intercom before he saw SpecForce’s agents rushing into the hanger like a swarm of tiny black ants. She saw them too, opened her mouth, snapped it shut, and ran for the turret. He picked up his headset, watched security advance toward his ship.
"One hit?" Her voice crackled from the speaker.
"Use your judgment! Whatever it takes."
Six seconds, five seconds, four seconds, three seconds ...
The monster sized generator exploded, showering the bay with a storm of sparks and metal. Technicians and droids scampered in all directions. Winds started blowing fragments every which way. They were a sure sign that the containment field was down. Maximizing his shields first to deflect any friendly fire, he maneuvered them through the bay slowly, swearing at the dozen or so blasts he heard reverberating off the hull.
Five agents raced ahead of the ship, waving their arms and blasters.
"Get out of the way! Get out of the way!" he shouted, despite the fact that they couldn’t hear him and he couldn’t hear them. They were obviously shouting at him to stop, jumping up and down in front of his ship. Han closed his eyes and kept going, steeling himself for a big first with the Falcon.
One of them didn’t move fast enough.
There was a soft thump, and the rest of men must have scattered because no other thumps followed. Han opened his eyes just as Leia charged into the cockpit and threw herself into Chewie’s chair. For a millisecond he was relieved she hadn’t seen that. "Strap in," he ordered sharply. "We’re jumping as soon as we clear Baskarn’s gravitational pull."
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