Leia leaned back into the cushioned chair and closed her eyes. A tall, middle-aged man of dignified visage lightly touched her shoulder. She opened her eyes but no greeting smile played across her face.
"Are you feeling well, Princess?" It was a formal phrase, evoking a momentary, murmuring homesickness.
She straightened and gave him an alert look. "Yes, Lepnatos, I am. We just came out of hyperspace, didn't we?"
He smiled, his face cracking into well-remembered laugh lines. "Your instincts serve you well, Princess." he replied, using her old title. She did not correct him. He was an old friend, one of the few remaining from her childhood. All Alderaanians used her former title. It set them apart from everyone else.
She glanced around. "Is everyone ready?"
He nodded. "Are you sure you want to go through with this, Princess? There is time, still, to return to Coruscant. You could send someone else."
Her expression became tight. "You remember the conditions, Lepnatos. Otdjel specified that their representatives would only negotiate with someone of senatorial rank or higher." She smiled here, catching the older man's slight disapproval. "Everyone else we could think of would have killed them on sight. I would have sent Luke....." her voice almost choked here but she switched the subject, a cat pawing gracefully along the edge of a steep roof. "Even Knezar agreed..... after a time."
"And a great deal of argument," Lepnatos put in with a familiarity born of long friendship and shared sorrow.
"The Major means well, Lepnatos," she reminded.
He nodded. "I know, Princess."
She gave the cabin a swift glance, her eyes all business. "You'd better get everyone strapped in. I have a feeling we'll be docking soon." Not taking her own advice, however, she rose to make her way to the cockpit.
Twin suns pulled curtains of dangerous light and radiation over the spacedock, blinding the pilot, who gave the front viewport an irritated glance and continued to do a readout on blind docking procedures. The suns shimmered, too close for comfort. A sigh escaped her and the pilot gave the small figure in the back of the cockpit a warning look.
"Listen sister, this isn't gonna be pretty," she said, gathering up the small girl with her hard-edged voice. "Maybe you should go sit in the back."
T'anonma held the older woman's gaze. "Have you ever been here before?"
A frown fell over the pilot's face as she swiveled the new-style chair, searching for the correct readout. "Diplomatic ship Alderaan, do you copy?" This was the comm.
"Copy, Mos Eisley," the pilot replied immediately. "We're flying blind up here."
"Understand, Alderaan. We'll guide you in."
The pilot hit another bank of switches and a console retreated into readiness, the engines now off line. "Much obliged, Mos Eisley. Can't see a thing."
"Five seconds to tractor beam," the controller's voice said. The pilot sat back in her seat, her alert gaze watching the consoles, looking for trouble. A relaxed sigh escaped at the tractor beam took hold without incident, pulling the ship gracefully, like some sort of metallic feather, into a small orbital docking path.
The pilot turned to T'anonma. "No, I've never been here before. Have you?"
T'anonma gave the other a smile. "I've only read about this place. Is it as dangerous as the holos make out?"
The pilot grinned. "Probably. Although it's a lot more built up than it used to be."
Leia stepped into the cockpit, hearing the comm. "Trouble?" she asked, a light in her eye.
The pilot schooled her face. "Only with docking, Your Excellency. The suns are too bright...."
Leia gave the hazy, orange ball of dust below a meaningful glance. "That was never a problem before.... "
"If you'll pardon me, Your Excellency, that was before there were so many visitors. If you'll notice, even the spacedock is new."
Leia lifted her eyes and gazed in wonder at the durasteel marvel now below the ship. It drifted, a floating nest in the arms of the twin suns, as the tractor beam guided them into a secure place amongst gleaming, space-going ships. Leia even noted a freight yard full of transport ships of every age and description. She sighed.
Where had all the time gone? Where was that isolated, backwater of a planet of a lifetime ago? She gave the pilot a glance. "I haven't been back since Han was....." A short pause stifled her as she frowned. "I'm sorry," she continued, briskly. "I guess I have a history here. These changes have taken me by surprise."
The pilot smiled. "You're not the only one. The spacedock was only completed six standard months ago. According to scuttlebutt, none of you would recognize the place."
Leia smiled in reminiscence, seeing things she hadn't thought of in years. "Maybe that's all for the better," she said. "Anyway, I must be preparing to disembark. Has the consulate contacted you yet?"
The pilot shook her head. "I'm sure they will as soon as the docking procedure is completed. They're very cautious."
'Especially now,' Leia thought as she turned back toward the common area and her seat. Her bags were already packed.
Marron Barron, newly elected Mayor of Mos Eisley, glanced nervously at the empty transport area and gave his chrono a hard look. "Well, where is she?"
An assistant stepped forward. "Actually, the Chief of State is not due in for another six minutes, sir."
An irritated expression crossed Barron's face. "I know that. But her ship's already docked...." He sighed and gave his assistant a knowing glance. "Is everything ready?"
The assistant shrugged. "As ready as it's ever going to be. We've put up pickets for the protesters. The City Council is furious."
Barron made a face. "Just make sure they don't make trouble. Have the Imperials arrived yet?"
This produced a fearful look at the ceiling. "Yesterday. NRI decided it would be better if they arrived first. I've already got them settled in."
Barron's eyes flicked around the room as he absorbed the information. "This is never going to work, you know," he said quickly.
The assistant merely smiled. It was going to be tough, hosting two such implacable adversaries, especially on such a memory-laden place as Tatooine. No one on there had ever forgotten that the revered Jedi Master of the New Republic had once been an obscure resident. He was their pride and joy, although things weren't exactly going well for Luke Skywalker these days. Still, there was great sympathy for him and his more distant sister. Besides, since the demise of the war, the tourist trade had been excellent. And the local Commerce Committee wanted it kept that way. Barron shifted nervously from one foot to another.
A small light flashed in the impossible sky as the transport began final approach. "Vector 271, right on time," the assistant muttered.
"Ksing, stop playing pilot," Barron said as the ship pulled over the port and began its landing sequence.
Ksing, unintimitated by his superior, merely shrugged. "Too many years with the Rebellion," he began.
"Don't start!" Barron hissed, sensing another improbable war story.
The transport alighted lightly, a delightful bird of a lady never acknowledging Tatooine's gritty gravitational field. It was a brand new model, only lately arrived from the Dalinga system, where a remarkable renaissance in space transport was underway. Barron schooled his face and smiled, having already memorized just how long the hatch opening sequences were.
Sure enough, he had it right down to the nano-second. The hatch locks sprang open. Chief of State Leia Organa Solo stepped confidently from the ship and onto legendary Tatooine. She flashed a smile at the Mayor who was not prepared to be flustered.
"Uh.... Your Excellency," he managed with only a small stammer, taking in the small, almost unprepossessing woman who walked down the ramp with assurance. "On behalf of the citizens of Mos Eisley, it is an honor to welcome you to Tatooine."
Leia resisted a brush with laughter and merely smiled diplomatically. "Thank you, Mayor Barron. Congratulations on winning the elections."
Barron find himself smiling down at her, thoroughly charmed. "Thank you, Your High.... Excellency."
If she noticed his slip she made no sign. He gave Ksing, who was standing at his elbow, a sharp look. Ksing smiled unhelpfully. Barron turned back to his guest. "This way, Your Excellency," he said, gesturing toward a door.
They stepped through, onto a wide street lined with the frosty, new buildings of a commercial, real estate boom. Tatooine's suns, as primitive and unforgiving as ever, beat upon their unprotected heads, mocking in a moment this feeble attempt to civilize a wild desert. Cordoned off to one side was crowd of seemingly respectable natives, clad in the bright colors of a festival. A gaggle of young people and children held gingerly to a rare and hideously expensive variety of local hothouse flowers. It was obvious she was supposed to move off in this direction. There was a low, greeting murmur.
But, there was also a more raucous noise, like the light squabbling of seagulls over a garbage can on a hot and dirty beach. The wheedling arose, angled up through the dusty, arid afternoon and sank again, banked. It was not the sound in the first place but, rather, its sudden quiet that attracted Leia's attention. She gazed over to find a crowd of filthy natives, unusually unanimous in disapproval. They even carried signs written in crude basic. She squinted into the sunlight.
"What's this all about, Mayor?" she asked, her interest engaged.
"Disaffection among the locals, as usual," Barron began easily, his voice justifying and defensive.
She gave him a swift, calculating look. "How so?"
He sighed. He had heard about Organa Solo but had never before really believed just how perceptive she could be. One look into those dark eyes, however, dissuaded him from disbelief. "They feel they're being discriminated against," he said after a mouth-working moment of silence.
She gave him an approving look. "Well, at least you told me the truth, Mayor. Maybe you could let me have a look at their grievances. Perhaps a more objective outlook can provoke a breakthrough."
Barron smiled grimly and retreated before an ever present feeling that he was but an impostor. "Actually, your assistance would be appreciated, Your Excellency."
She merely nodded, signaled her entourage and together they moved lightly through the parting, curious and noisy crowd and into the brand new city hall for lunch and a ceremonial welcome.
Leia's stomach ached a little. The time between lunch and now had not subdued whatever that spicy, mystery meat had been. She decided in a fit of resignation that it was not really meant for royalty and diplomatic receptions.
As it turned out, Barron had been only too willing to give the New Republic's Chief of State a complete rundown of Tatooine's problems. The disaffected native problem, as she had suspected, topped the list. As it turned out, many resented the heavy building that was taking place all over the planet.
Biggs Darklighter's family was at the heart of it, the name carrying almost as much cachet as that of Skywalker. Biggs had been awarded the coveted and rarely bestowed Hero of the Rebellion medal after the long-ago battle over the first Death Star. The fact that the award had been posthumous no longer made any difference. And, once the grieving family had recovered from the death of their son, they found they had gold in their pockets.
The Darklighter Foundation was busy building a resort about 100 kilometers south and east of Mos Eisley. A place for relaxation and rehabilitation, it also included a hospital dedicated to the Veterans of the Rebellion Against the Empire (VRAE), a canny, combination public relations ploy/goodwill gesture. Some of the profits generated by the resort were to be used for the hospital's upkeep. It was a state of the art facility. The only problem had been that of enticing veterans to come to Tatooine in the first place.
Other natives, however, were not so concerned about the hospital so much as with a second Darklighter project currently under construction just a little distance away from the reputedly haunted ruins of the Lars moisture farm. After all, the VRAE Hospital was in Tusken Raider territory. Darklighter Ltd. had evidently made a secret agreement with the tribes who then surprised everyone by removing themselves with heretofore unsuspected aclarity.
No, the problem was with the planned Jedi Skywalker Amusement Park. It was here that old landmarks were to be rebuilt in closely controlled conditions, along with hired hands to play various parts. A widely attended audition had been held for several young Luke Skywalkers along with General Kenobis, youngish Han Solos and even versions of the Princess herself. Even that, however, did not stir much controversy. After all, it meant plenty of good- paying jobs for local teens with a yen for the dramatic. Not to mention all the other potential new-hires, from cleaning crews all the way to assistants and techs to operate and repair the machines that brought the special effects to life.
It was the portrayal of the rest of Tatooine that got under everyone's robes. For Darklighter, after a highly publicized and rather acrimonious meeting, had decreed natives off limits, even for the purpose of portraying themselves. Darklighter maintained that their organization, as a gesture of goodwill, had given several jawas, down and out humans and even a relatively domesticated Tusken Raider or two, a chance at these potentially lucrative positions. True to form, these bad apples had only ended up perpetrating such offenses as pilfering precious machinery and cable, engaging in hard bargaining with officials posing as tourists, and finally, engaging in an intimidating game dedicated to the "finding" and "claiming" of unattended articles. The Darklighter Foundation, upon the advice of a very sharp legal department, immediately saw a public relations problem. The Tatooine Native Consortium saw simple discrimination.
This explanation had continued throughout most of lunch. Leia, now standing blissfully alone in her quiet rooms, bowed her head in weariness and closed her eyes. After all, the aforementioned didn't even count the various utility problems and setbacks that Mos Eisley had uncovered in its building boom. And now it was rumored that the Tusken Raiders were dissatisfied with their new digs and wanted back into the hospital area. It went on and on and Leia was only too glad to retreat into her assigned quarters.
She knew they were all waiting outside her door, all bundled into a small conference room, only too willing to toil the day away with long discussions regarding the definition of this sentence and that phrase. Willing to prove themselves diplomats over and over, both the familiar Alderaanians and the invited natives of Tatooine, all awaited her with rising impatience. Barron himself was there, his appetite for meetings and crossed words scarcely abated by skimming table talk over lunch. The Alderaanians would prove rather distant and haughty while the natives of Tatooine would sit a little too far forward in a slightly vulgar and pushy fashion, seeing this small space of time as a career making moment. All they had to do was call themselves to the Chief of State's attention, hopefully in some positive and enlightening way and the rest of their life was cake. She dreaded the entire spectacle.
Threepio's voice wafted through the door, shrill and almost worried. She wondered how a mechanical could seem so worried but then, that seemed to be one of Threepio's great gifts. She dipped her head, ran her hand along her slightly frizzed hair and stepped toward the door. Duty called.
A couple of hours later, duty was only partially satisfied. The scenario she had seen dozens of times before had come true before her unsurprised eyes. But for now it was over. She grimaced and moved toward one of the large windows. She was ensconced in a spanking new hotel, one of several high rise monstrosities along rebuilt Central Avenue. The room set her high up over the desert and below spread a gigantic, real life map of the new Mos Eisley, though at the moment it was mostly a crater of construction. On the outskirts of town, though, she could just make out the familiar rounded construction of old Tatooine and her heart felt surprisingly glad for it. She turned, sensing T'anonma a moment before the page entered.
"I'm stepping out for a while, Your Excellency," T'anonma said with her usual sunny assurance. "I was wondering if you'd care to join me."
Leia cocked her head in surprise. "Where're you headed?"
T'anonma smiled. "It'll be daylight for a couple of hours yet. We've ordered up a speeder, maybe take in a few sights."
"Does Barron know about this?"
"Not unless you want him to."
Leia moved away from the window, decision made. "Let me change clothes," she said. "I'll be ready in a few minutes."
Ten minutes later Leia, T'anonma along with Ksing, who was playing pilot, were heading away from the gleaming center of Mos Eisley into the familiar crooked, overhung streets and the beginnings of the wasteland that was still the majority of Tatooine. A high bluff encompassing a panoramic view was the first convenient place to stop.
Ksing gave T'anonma a significant glance but let his eyes move swiftly past Leia. "I don't dare go out any further. It's still dangerous out here at night." He gave his chrono a glance. Leia noticed that it was of a model currently in fashion among young people on Coruscant. She smiled wryly but felt suddenly old.
"I agree," she put in quickly, realizing she may have stepped on a few toes. Still, the desert called. A wild, lonely voice evoked, more strongly than she expected, her perilous past. She stepped out of the speeder. "Thanks for bringing us out this far, Ksing," she continued, seeking to reassure the young people that she was not as obtuse as they imagined. "Let me stay here a while and then you can take me back to my quarters."
A delighted smile crossed Ksing's sunburned face. T'anonma merely nodded and once again Leia found herself admiring the self-possession of the young page. Steadily, her boots crunching over sand, she wandered to the edge of the small rise. A pitted plain greeted her gaze, kilometer upon kilometer of unexplored wilderness flattened out to the horizon and then vanished under pitiless suns, the line of sky obscured from land by flashing, metallic brightness. Even at the end of the day, just before sunset, it was breathtaking. Although, it occurred to her that breathtaking is usually a word only tourists use.
She stood, shadow lengthening behind her, on the only place her brother had ever really called home and gazed up at an awakening starfield just as he had throughout his childhood. She turned westward into the suns which now intermingled themselves in tired confusion as they fell into dangerous night. Somewhere, in a ruin of ashes and desert scavengers it was all still there, the Lars farm picked over and abandoned, avoided as a haunted place, Kenobi's hut, now vanished into an ancient wilderness, Jabba's palace, crumbling stone by stone into the tracklessness all around.
She was surrounded by the immensity of it, by the grandeur that was Luke's early life as warm wind whistled by, pulling at her loosed hair. Her mind saw the canyons and gullies, the washes, the treacherous paths and hideouts of a willful, headstrong child. She saw the gentleness that was his upbringing, despite restless, encroaching harshness. She saw how Obi-wan had kept an eye on the reckless soul, knowing it for the changeling it was.
She knew her brother had been protected all those years, despite and because of Owen, despite the normal dangers and pitfalls of childhood, despite Tatooine itself. Despite, even, Vader and the Emperor.
But Obi-wan was now but a vanished spirit, a Jedi gone willingly into the unexplored reaches of the afterlife. Her mind wandered like the approaching night breeze and she found herself thinking of all that had passed since the beginning. She saw Han's face, frantic and cynical on the first Death Star. And then later, frozen and dead in the shadows of a crumbling palace.
The past spread across her vision in the sort of clean outlines only reserved for children's stories. She saw Bail Organa, his cohorts within the Senate, her relatives and various members of her far flung family. She had often wondered what they would all think of Han. She grinned as a shooting star sprang quicksilver and bright over the darkening sky.
Through memory, a draft surrounded her along with Luke's voice rising and falling through the endless night. She could hear the very words he used as he described how, just before he acquired Artoo, he had watched a flowering of shooting stars rise up over a pink horizon on hot Tatooine. They had shivered together in grateful memory then, the bone deep cold of Hoth a constant companion. She bowed her head, thinking. He had seen Vader's ship shoot the Tantive to a crippled halt. It was as if, in the midst of his responsibilities, his passions, his restlessness, he had caught an accidental flash of laser light through sunset and knew, indirectly, that childhood was over.
A footstep crunched over the sand and a brisk breeze came up, pulling her hair away from her hand. She turned. "Your Excellency." T'anonma's youthful face was soft and rounded within growing shadow. The girl gestured with a small hand at the gloaming. "It's time to go."
Night settled over the desert, a quick, black cloak over the sky. Its velvet folds were blacker than night in cold starlight, graceful but ominous, obliterating the sand and the crawling creatures underneath. They sky was painted over with the faint richness of the galaxy, accessible only through hyperspace. A calling creature yelped through blind, pitch darkness, snuffling and pawing in a fit of survival.
Quiet and still, a hunted animal, she listened to its approach. She could feel its black yearnings as it followed brutal instinct, moving in cautious circles. A cold-edged satellite rose, casting shadowless light over tumbled rocks and scrub. The breeze came up, whistling through the canyons and washes, deserted and stark in high relief. A skeletal hand reached through the light.
Bony fingers pushed through tattered, disintegrating leather, clicking and clattering within groping darkness. The shadows moved, disorienting and quick as the fleshless hand hung over the dead asteroidscape. The breeze stilled, the yelping predator choked silent, its call broken and jagged mid-howl among the rocks. Still, the bones moved, a stalking death, unforgiving, relentless, shadowing everything in their path. She saw the chalky shadows disappear And then oppressive night smothered her, helpless and unmoving. But instead of moldy cloth and the stink of decay, she found herself prisoner within an airless coffin of cold durasteel and prickling, spider-like technology.
A buried moment spasmed quick, but strangely eternal, as she made one last, supreme effort to take a breath, to call out. The cloak moved and through a ragged edge, soft with dusty age, she was able to just make out a high, rock ridge above her, poised like ancient teeth under uncaring stars. A moment of pure fright seized her and with a cry she sat straight up in bed.
Half awake, in panic, she jumped onto the floor, almost falling as her sweat-soaked bedclothes fell away. Her knees almost gave way, but at the last second she found the will to make them straight and only stumbled slightly as she stepped through the dim room, toward the window. She recoiled from the starlight as her mind painted a fleshless hand in the sky, but no, there were only ordinary stars along with some sort of colorful, blinking sign across the construction pitted street. Holding perfectly still, in the moment of true awakening, she could only gaze at it.
The street was deserted, except for a guard or two here and there, wandering in strict patterns through the yet to be built environs of New Mos Eisley. Watching, knowing that their graceful, precise movement was disguised, artful carelessness, she felt reassured.
A movement at the door caused her to look back. "Your Excellency, are you alright?" T'anonma was there, along with Threepio.
"We heard you cry out," Threepio added, pulling his head to one side in a robotic version of puzzlement. "We thought, perhaps, we should investigate." Several curious sleepy faces flashed gazes behind him, eyes wide but still glazed with the deep sleep of youth.
Leia suddenly felt a little sheepish. She attempted a laugh but her voice choked. She smiled instead and let a practiced warmth steal into her voice. "I'm fine, Threepio, T'anonma. Just a bad dream, that's all. I'll just wash my face and go back to bed."
T'anonma's dark eyes radiated concern. "Are you thirsty? Perhaps you'd like something warm to drink."
Leia closed her eyes, the suggestion catching her unawares. "Yes, thank you, T'anonma. That would be wonderful."
And so it was about fifteen minutes later, face washed and clean sleeping garment retrieved from her small bag, she was sitting in front of the starfield framed by the bland, hotel room window, a cup of something warm and soothing in her hand. Threepio had, again, powered down for the evening and T'anonma had yawned her way back to bed. Leia grinned. Perhaps the girl was force-sensitive. Maybe she should be at the Academy, rather than serving in the Senate. The smile faded.
She had had this dream before, long before any of this ever happened, long before the New Republic existed. These dreams of haunting death began shortly after her release from Vader and his torture chambers. She had dreams of saving Alderaan, of course, but these were much easier to identify and over the years she had learned to deal with them. This nightmare, though, had vanished right after the battle of Endor. Its sudden reappearance was deeply troubling.
She shivered and glanced around for a wrap. The nearest thing was a soft white blanket held in the quietness of a night shrouded corner. Rising, moving carefully so as not to disturb her keepers listening watchfully outside her door, she moved to retrieve it. The silken blanket shimmered, a ghostly gash against shadowed night. She pulled it around her shoulders. Quietly, with great deliberation, she sat down again facing the eternal, unchanging starfield.
She gazed at the stars, her soul held within crippling darkness and haunting memory. Of all the New Republic's highly placed representatives, she reflected that she was probably the one with the largest axe to grind when it came to dealing with the Empire and its minions. Sitting in the dark, her hands curled around the hotel-issue cup, she realized in one falling thought, that coming here, herself, had been a mistake.
But she had come too far to turn back now. Momentarily, she thought of Lepnatos' advice. Momentarily, her only desire was to take it and return to Coruscant. For even as she sat, shrouded in her pure white blanket, a damning stain moved across her soul, the stain of heartbreak and old wounds that refused to heal. She could feel the old sickness within her, the black obliteration where dreams had been.
He had done to this to her, his own daughter, his child, the flesh and blood product of a long-ago passion. He had given her these irreversible wounds. He had planted terrible recurring visions in her head, some of which Luke had managed to eradicate as his power had grown over the years. But some of these shameful visions were so disturbing, so bone chilling that she could not admit them even to Luke and, there were times, especially under pressure, when she found herself alone with them.
Hard but comforting experience had taught her that the best thing to do was to sit and wait it out. That the nightmares and afterfeelings of tingling stain would fade as the hours of the night became inevitable, welcoming daylight.
This was how the suns found her as they rose to pour hot, honeyed light through the uncurtained window. She was curled, finally asleep under the silken wrap, cup cold on the floor, a child protected and held against all harm within the arms of the uncomfortable chair.
The Imperial Delegation was sequestered in the same hotel as the Chief of State, which had been cleared for the occasion. The owner hadn't been to happy but Mayor Barron had promised to make it up to him. Denizens of the galactic press occupied a good portion of the first two floors of rooms, their communications equipment taking more space than themselves. Blockades and checkpoints appeared 50 meters away from the building in both directions along Central Avenue, sending mid-town Mos Eisley into gridlock. Vociferous complaints in several languages fell on deaf ears. The stage was set.
Leia could see the beginnings of another in a series of interminable, heated arguments on the street below. She turned away from the window, nodding to T'anonma and Threepio. The inevitable entourage, as if held behind an invisible rope, waited, smoothing its clothes, running its fingers nervously through its collective hair, shifting its collective weight. Her chrono showed the right time.
They followed her out of the suite. At the last moment she wondered if it would not be better for them to remain by themselves, within their quarters, during the actual negotiations. Otdjel had been adamant that only she and, perhaps, one other sentient being be allowed to meet with its representatives. Assuming, of course, that there was more than one representative.
Minutes later she appeared in the proper corridor, almost alone, subdued but exhuding power. The entourage had been deposited an appropriate waiting room. Her hair was neatly braided in the style of vanished Alderaan and her upbringing as royalty swept all away from her path as she moved She halted at the designated conference room even as the guard recognized her and opened the large door.
The room was an oblong shape, its centerpiece a spacious, sandstone table of the very same sort as her own desk on Coruscant. Her gaze moved past it, past jawa and Tusken artifacts hanging artistic if unlikely on the adobe white walls, past the ubiquitous control and communications board, to the front of the room. There, already seated with expressions that meant business, were two people, a man and a woman. The man was older, with gray hair and a stately visage. His bearing and demeanor bespoke years and high rank in the old Imperial military.
The woman was dark, rather severe, her hair braided too tightly. She wore a military jumpsuit of some sort, plain but clean. Neither wore any insignia or badge. She held a data pad.
Leia nodded and smiled. Threepio and T'anonma followed, both intimidated into silence. If the holos were accurate, each knew exactly who Otdjel had sent as representatives.
"Admiral Pallaeon," Leia said, her voice taking on its habitual formal tone. "I don't believe we've ever met. I am Leia Organa Solo."
Pallaeon's face was schooled. "I am honored to meet you, Princess," he replied, nodding to her in a formal but forbidding way. "May I present my assistant, Jelila Daala?"
Leia gasped, unprepared for how the name sounded within the placating room. "I remember....." she began before she actually remembered and stopped herself. "Honored to meet you, Admiral Daala," she finished haughty, a credit to her upbringing. Daala merely nodded and did not bother to correct the former princess. To cover a certain disconcerting, stammering feeling, Leia introduced T'anonma and Threepio to bored, flickering stares.
Leia drew breath and willed peace. A feeling of serenity settled quickly over her soul as she gathered herself in readiness for the upcoming fight. Pallaeon's eyes flickered.
"Are you feeling well, Princess?" he asked, as if this were an everyday question.
She kept irony at bay and held a straight face. "Certainly, Admiral," she replied using his formal title. "But there is not need to call me princess. I am Chief of State now."
He nodded and she was a little surprised when he backed down. "Certainly, Your Excellency. Old habits are hard to break," he finished, smiling.
Momentarily she wondered how such a dignified, civilized man could have done so much harm to her and her own. She pulled away from the uncomfortable thought and took a seat. Threepio stepped away, retreating into robotic stillness. T'anonma sat as well, unobtrusive but observant.
Leia let her gaze fall over the two in front of her. "I trust you have been treated well here?" she asked, hoping to disarm them a little.
Pallaeon spoke. "We've received fair treatment, Your Excellency," he replied, frosty and proper. "We expected no less." Pallaeon turned to Daala. "Jelila?" he asked, a cue.
The woman did not reply, merely handed him the data pad. He set it carefully on the table. "Regarding the negotiations," he began without undue ceremony, "I've been authorized by Otdjel to discuss not only trade issues but also to initiate discussions regarding adjunct membership within the Senate."
Leia did not let her mouth drop open although she did turn her head a little too quickly. She switched her position in the chair. "I'm not sure I understand you, Admiral," she said with a voice willed to complete serenity.
He gave her a piercing look and she began to understand why he had lasted so long, both in the Imperial Navy and outside it. "Otdjel has decided," he began, taking a breath, "to seek membership within the New Republic." His eyes took on a steely glint and his voice was toneless, as if he were reading from an ancient, historical epic. "Most of our leaders are dead. We have no economy to speak of. The Emperor's cloning facilities have been destroyed. Our populations have made it known that they desire something better."
Leia merely looked at him for a moment, absorbing the gray face, the lines etched by authority and cautious plotting. "Are you saying that the last remnants of the Empire wish to join us?"
He seemed to swallow hard but his face never changed. "Yes," he replied suddenly simple and straightforward.
She stood. "If you'll pardon me, Admiral, I must inquire as to why. This change of heart is most unexpected."
He gave Daala an oblique glance but his expression was carved stone. "Our people need stability, Your Excellency. Despite our best efforts," he said, surprising her with a casual confession, "they have access to information from the New Republic. They see the growing prosperity of systems which have become members, their growing vitality. There is a strong desire to stop the conflict."
Leia sat down again and her face was flushed. "I can't believe you said that, Admiral," she said, her voice as toneless as his. "You have the ner..... courage to apply for membership along with many of the very people you enslaved only a decade ago? This leaves us with many major problems."
"Such as?" he asked, as if he really did not know.
Her face changed, her eyes reached for him, lancing into his. A small spasm of anger flew through the room. "Such as, what to do about war criminals -- primarily the creators of the two Death Stars, not to mention the guiding members of the Maw Installation and the designers of the Sun Crusher." Her voice became low and positively gaunt. "And, you realize that we will expect a drawdown of all military installations, particularly those along our borders." She took a breath, as if the words were brand new and she had never spoken them before. "We'll need an accurate audit of all armaments and their placement, not to mention negotiations regarding their destruction." She gave him a calculating a look, as if she were willing him to resist. "Is this really what Otdjel really wants?"
"Are you refusing to negotiate with us?"
A full five seconds of silence overtook the room. Her eyes played over the two implacable enemies sitting so still before her, one an aging, elegant man, dangerous as a poisonous spider. The other a snake, dark and treacherous, lying in wait. She lifted her head. The feeling of being wrong, of making a mistake pounded within her. Her cheeks flushed.
"Certainly not, Admiral. You mistake me. I merely want to know how we're going to resolve certain issues between us."
"Such as?" he repeated, his question leading but his manner perfectly innocent, an old man unjustly accused.
Agitated, Leia stood again and walked around the chair, her hands suddenly trembling. A black roaring filled her hearing so that he own voice sounded faint and distant. The words were swift. "You are asking a great deal from us, Admiral," she said her voice now blunt and low. "Without so much as a petition of forgiveness you want membership..... just like that." She lifted her chin. "Otdjel has never made any indication that it would be willing to bring known war criminals to justice. You have never apologized for, nor even acknowledged," her voice angled through the room, echoing off the adobe walls, pushing at the immobile art, "the death of entire worlds, of Honoghr, of Alder...." Her voice broke and quieted into an agonized whisper as she uttered the name of her beloved home planet. It fell away, a fading memory within the muted acoustics of the elegant room.
A moment of unabashed silence ensued as the two Imperials only gazed at her. "Are you sure you're feeling well, Princess?" Pallaeon slipped back into the old usage, perhaps on purpose. But his voice was so smooth and subtle it was hard to fault him.
She turned back to them, visibly agitated. "I'm feeling fine, Admiral," she snapped. The Imperials drew back, chagrined. Leia's face contorted as she fought unsuccessfully for control. Her voice ricocheted around the room, deadly blaster fire in close quarters. "It must be answered for, all the crimes, all the deaths, all the needless pain." She gave Pallaeon a mental shove which he felt physically, in his chair, meters away from her. "You plotted and built two Death Stars, you attempted to kidnap me and my children, you attempted to kill my husband. You masterminded the creation of thousands of clones using outlawed technology." A pause sounded and an abyss opened up in the blink of an eye at her feet.
"And you ......." she sent Daala a hard glance, almost pushing the unprepared woman back into the wall, "you tried to kill my brother and destroy the Academy. You almost killed his....."
Despite being cornered Daala smiled, a warrior's hopeless expression. "I thought I had, Your Excellency," she interrupted, a hissing silence in the middle of a horrible tirade. "The Jedi woman should have died long ago....."
The fact that Leia was of exactly the same opinion made no difference. Instantly Daala's voice stopped, so suddenly that Pallaeon glanced involuntarily at his cohort. He saw only a gap-mouthed expression reminiscent of an ancient, savage method of execution known as hanging. A fleeting instant gave him an old memory, of the Lord Vader standing in murderous silence to the half-heard throes of death. "Your Excellency," he began, seeking to break the spell. "This is pointless. We are speaking now of the beginnings of negotiations, of suing for peace....."
"You both deserve to die, Pallaeon," Leia replied, her words inevitable and cold, slashing through his reasonable objections. "We should have killed you long ago." And, as she spoke these words it seemed to him that all light retreated to the width and depth of a vanishing pinhole. A slight gasping sound issued form the woman next to him and he felt his throat muscles constrict in sudden, black discomfort. A deathlike silence filled the room.
Something within Leia rose up, something long denied, deprivation howled in her ears. A wind seemed to rise and her dress, now strangely shadowed, billowed back behind her. The haunting voices of Alderaan, ghost- like over vast distance and the timelessness of death, rose up as one within her, feeding her passion.
Leia willed the movement gone and her composure disappeared with it. Despite years of Jedi training and indoctrination her sense seemed to careen, tilting and uncontrollable. She opened her eyes to see Pallaeon sitting, pale, a limp trembling hand on his collar. Daala, on the other hand, glared daggers at her, hatred a shining armor over plain features. Pallaeon, with an old soldier's control, moved weakly to gather the data pad from the table.
Daala, watching his hand move and taking courage from that simple, ordinary gesture, put a hand back to her braids and smiled, an evil, knowing smile. Leia, watching them as if through someone else's eyes saw, all in one horrible, revealing moment how they had killed or maimed millions. How they had been partially responsible for the war that should have died at Endor. She thought of the savage repressions at Honoghr, on Kashyyyk, on Myrkr and even Wayland. And now the woman had the nerve to smile.
Leia gazed into the smug face and saw, all in one swooping vision, that there had never been any intention of abiding by any treaty. The cold voice of the Force told her they where stalling, buying time, diverting attention. But from what?
The black rage rose, the skeletal fingers clicked and jangled. She knew all she had to do was think the thought, all she had to do was picture them dead in her mind and two of the most formidable enemies of her family and her government would finally be destroyed. A whispering, seductive voice chanted in the back of her mind, insisting that there would never be another, better chance to eliminate two of the most dangerous people in the galaxy.
Her old fighting spirit welled up. Her hands clenched and reached, searching for a weapon. She called her lightsaber and it appeared within her grip, placed there by a dark, invisible power. She activated it. Pallaeon and Daala stopped mid-motion as the shimmering blade flooded their vision. An avenging angel, Leia seemed to grow, enshrouding the entire room in vengeful darkness.
Pallaeon, startled out of motionlessness, half rose, a questioning look on his face. Daala gave the energy blade a panicked glance and made a small movement as if to dive under the protective, sandstone table.
Leia strode forward, the blade were leading her. A chorus of voices sounded faintly above her blocked hearing, pleading words drowned within blood oceans of hatred. She willed them away. She knew what she had to do. For the sake of government, for the sake of her family, for Luke......
"Your Excellency?! Your Excellency........ Leia!" An insistent voice faded through her consciousness, refusing her blockade. The stale air and the smell of blood retreated. Leia glanced around, pulling back from battle stance. Daala was motionless, mesmerized by the blade, but Pallaeon swallowed and gazed in the direction of the voice.
Leia found T'anonma standing directly at her right arm. Quietly, with an assurance that bodes no questions and gives no time for thought, she laid a small hand on Leia's forearm. Leia glanced down at it while the moment resolved itself. A pallid light shone through her mind, hesitant sunlight after thick, gray clouds. The saber hissed and was silent. The room sat silent with chagrin, fear and flashing hatred. Leia's eyes were masked.
"I must apologize," she began even as the blackness began again to course through her heart. She turned away from the couple in front of her, still somehow a frightening combination of regality and malice. "I believe we've all made a mistake here." She hesitated and turned away from them, her voice suddenly muffled. "I realize now I should have sent someone else, as should have," she glanced over at her audience, "Otdjel. These negotiations must begin again, but we should not be direct participants." She lifted her head, decision made. "We are at an impasse. My government will contact Otdjel."
For an eternal moment, Pallaeon looked as if he were going to object. Then he stood and retrieved the data pad. An oblique smile graced his dignified face. "Perhaps, you are correct, Your Excellency. Otdjel will await your communication." His composure, the composure of the truly consciousless, had now returned. He signaled in a deft but brutal way to Daala who stumbled as she found her feet. Nodding to Leia with an almost sarcastic, disrespectful cast, he left the room pulling Daala out behind him.
An errant member of the press had taken an unseen position outside the prematurely opened door. As soon as Pallaeon appeared the man relinquished all attempts at secrecy, immediately trailing the Imperials around a corner, cam waving, questions spewing. A major breach in security occurred as other reporters appeared, their noise and haste spoiling elegant surroundings with the flotsam of real life.
Ksing bestirred himself from his watchful post and moved to intercept, resigned and dutiful. This did not appear to be going well at all.
Twenty four standard hours later, Leia commandeered the speeder herself. Over stringent objections from Threepio, Ksing and T'anonma, she made her way out into the streets, into a crowd of irritated traffic, onto the poverty stricken back streets, and, finally, out into the desert. A squad of security people followed at a discreet distance, disturbed but resigned. Leia Organa Solo had given a direct order. And, in her present black mood, no one dared disobey.
A pitiful beggar on the outskirts of Mos Eisley pointed a gnarled finger when she asked directions, too worn by sun and exhaustion to question why a well-to-do woman with a fidgety entourage would wish to visit such a deserted and ghost-ridden place. The beggar only shook her rag covered head, flashed a contemptuous look and returned to the serious business of survival. She'd seen a lot of them come and go. She figured she'd outlast this one, too.
Leia made only a few wrong turnings in the trackless wilderness which rose before her fragile craft like an encircling predator. It was as if Mos Eisley's grand buildings did not exist and the narrow, flying dreams of its politicians were nothing but settling dust and debris after an eternity of existence. Now, there was only what there had always been and she flew over it, not so secure in her small vessel.
Making a sudden turn, she slipped through the outpost of Anchorhead, barely able to make out the sand beaten sign. She grinned. A few curious faces glanced at her as she slowed through the narrow streets. The entourage followed at a fair distance, unwilling to risk another tongue lashing. Gazing around she found a likely candidate and idled the speeder. The young man moved with confidence, dressed in desert whites, macrobinocs slung carelessly around his neck. He smiled at her, a flash of bright teeth.
"You lost, ma'am?" he inquired, polite but rough around the edges A quick look took in another brand new speeder, gleaming and crowded, several meters behind her.
"I don't think so," she replied, suddenly feeling shy. "I'm looking for the old Lars place."
He gave her sentence serious, perturbed thought and then spoke. "It's been deserted for years, ma'am. Master Skywalker hasn't visited in, I'd say, about three years, maybe even five. It's hard to remember."
"I didn't say I wanted to see Master Skywalker. I said I wanted to see the Lars place."
"It's nothing but sand, ma'am," came the implacable reply.
"I don't care," she rejoined, with even greater implacability.
He shrugged. "Just don't say I didn't warn you." He turned and pointed into the westward sun. "About two kilometers that way. You can't miss it....." He stopped, grinning. "Sorry, I guess you can. There is a marker. Somebody got real annoyed and put up a few signs a while back. Too many tourists these days."
She grinned. "Are they ever disappointed?"
"All the time, ma'am," he replied with a straight face.
"Okay, well.... uh, thanks," she said, gunning the engine.
"No problem," he replied, giving her a flash of teeth again. "By the way, if you want to visit the hermit's place, you'll need a guide. I'd be happy to take you out there."
She shook her head. "No, that won't be necessary," she replied. "You've been more than enough help."
"Anytime, ma'am." The speeder, held in a tight, delusionary cocoon of modernity, moved away. Followed by its gleaming, nervous shadow, it nosed carefully out into the street. He watched it go, motionless and unintimidated by the foibles of offworlders.
Sure enough, the place was just where he said it was. The identifying sign looked relatively new, but it was beat up all the same. She grinned at it, thinking how strange that she had come here on her own. Then the expression faded. What was she trying to find?
The speeder glided to a stop and she switched it off, the engine fading instantly into perfect silence. She signaled her shadow to say put outside of hearing distance. Another grin noted a cloudlike disturbance falling over handsome faces. She ignored it.
She gazed around. There was nothing but flat plain, a featureless, moonrock landscape. If there had been no warmth or air, she would have guessed she was on an isolated asteroid somewhere. As it was....
She took another look, her gaze traveling in a careful circle. Nothing. Only a nondescript spot where someone had placed grave markers that had since disintegrated. Their chintzy replacements were flimsy, metallic things now lying on the sand. A shallow indentation in the ground showed where the Lars family compound had been, although the stone and adobe had vanished long ago. A savage call made her swing her head nervously to check the speeder. But all was still. Even the breeze had died.
Her boots crunched as she strode in circles. What was she looking for? All that met her eyes was featureless landscape, a windswept place of haunted, childhood dreams that had, against all probabilities, come true She came to stand over what she surmised had been the entrance to the house. A jagged edge ragged its way through the grit and scrub, a white reminder of the rounded building it had belonged to, a lifetime ago. She squinted.
She lifted her eyes and suddenly wished Luke there, to tell her what had been here and over there, pointing out mundane things from the backwaters of memory. To gesture in the general direction of Beggar's Canyon, to grin and tell her how he used to take the back way to Anchorhead via a treacherous and forbidden shortcut. A sudden reflection made her realize that she had never really visited his home before. She gazed around but she was without guidance, for there was nothing for her imagination to hold onto now, only bare desert floor, deserted and dangerous. She simply stood, not knowing what to do, how to feel. Finally in a fit of confusion, she closed her eyes.
A long time passed. After a while she thought she could hear voices, the palest of voices, stilled, hanging and temperate in the untoward wilderness. There were words there, amongst the stillness, but they were lost in the breeze. She opened her eyes to find that all had changed.
Instead of a drifting plain, she was standing at the entrance of a white compound, rounded and low to the ground. An old fashioned defensive fence surrounded it, reminding her sharply of childhood. But there was no time to think about this because she could just see, in the distance, a man in the prime of life walking swiftly up from the white horizon, a bundle in his arms.
She squinted, giving the bundle a hard look. It didn't look inanimate so much as .... yes she could hear the sound of a baby crying. He continued to approach, never acknowledging her presence, giving the bundle in his arms an affectionate look now and again. He arrived at the door, but before he could ring the entry bell, the door was open and a young man with hard, judgmental features stood there, a bleak illustration of one who held no joy whatsoever in his soul. He stood as if had waited in long expectation for the other.
The man with the bundle said nothing, only stepped over the threshold. But when Leia moved to follow a hard voice shoved her away, physical and violent. She sprawled in surprise across the sand, scraping her arm with the still detachment of dreams, feeling nothing. She pulled herself to her feet brushing at her gritty clothes.
"What must I do to enter?" she asked the keeper of the place.
"It is not for you, " the voice answered. "You have many things yet to do before you enter this place."
A feeling swept her, one of desire and pure, sweet happiness flooded her heart. The back of her neck prickled and her hair seemed to stand on end. She pushed a nervous hand along it, surprised that it was flat against her head.
"What must I do?" she repeated, as if she knew what the voice was talking about.
"Make peace," the voice said, fading into the breeze. And as the words faded she opened her eyes and saw the desert intact all around, the grave markers clear within her light of sight, pulling her gaze straight up into the sky. She sat up in the place where she had fallen, afraid but exhilarated.
Racing heartbeat seized her as she saw only wilderness from a vulnerable sitting position. Another savage call echoed down the plain and a mottling of whispy clouds cluttered the horizon. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her security detail clamoring away from the floating speeder, panicked, reaching for concealed weapons. It was then that she realized that she had collapsed on top of the graves, and was sitting alongside the vanished remains of Beru and Owen Lars. The grave markers were as they had been before; fallen, half buried in sand.
She stood, signaled an all clear and dusted herself off. So Obi-wan, that wizard, had come all the way back from the afterlife to give her the news. This was her purpose, her mission now. All the other was behind her, all the hurt, the pain, the anger, the wars, the conspiracies. Nothing else mattered. And he had brought Luke with him, pristine, a child. Almost as if the baby were a sacrifice. A shiver ran through her. Is that what the vision meant? That Luke would have to be sacrificed to make peace?
Sometimes, she reflected as she waved off the anxious escort for the second time, hindsight could be very uncomfortable. She had the benefit, the luxury even, of hindsight now. Hindsight and faith. And that same faith guided her still.
Now her and her brother's places were reversed. Luke had stood here, on this very spot while she was fleeing Imperial power, a twig just beyond the reach of a mighty ocean wave. He had come to her and Han's rescue on Bespin. He and interrupted his training, thrown away precious time so that he could effect Han's and her rescue on from Jabba's Palace. His very knighthood was imperiled, for time spent so carelessly, even for the sake of loyalty, would never be reclaimed.
Master Yoda's life ended soon thereafter and so had her brother's instruction. He had defeated the Emperor and turned Vader on nothing more than a prayer, a great intuitive knowledge of the Force and, perhaps, love. It was all he had ever had. With it he had saved the Rebellion. Now it was time for the remnants of the Rebellion to save him.
No, Obi-wan did not sacrifice her brother in those dark days that had come before and she could not believe he would do so now. He had not made so arduous a journey merely to tell her Luke was going to die. No, her heart, the heart of a champion, holding to hope and optimism even in times of overwhelming darkness, told her in its unerring fashion that her brother was going to live. But now he was helpless, now he was the fragile twig tossed on the froth of the soul destroying wave. It was up to her, and others, to give him aid.
And in helping him, together, they would guide the galaxy into a new day.
Stars, tangled and webbed, ran across the reachless sky like a knotted necklaces in a pirate's hidden treasurebox. The light, so dusty and faint from the Rim, was now cold and brilliant. Luke hit a bank of switches and watched as the navicomp took over. A sequence indicated when Jade's Fire would jump out of hyperspace. According to the computer, he had time yet. Tired, he rubbed a hand across his stubbled face and wondered if he should clean up.
He had begun to rise from his seat when an impenetrable curtain fell over his consciousness as neatly as sunset becomes night in the desert. His head dropped to one side, limp, his hands fell away from the console and his breathing slackened. In a flickering moment he was in a deep trance.
The ancient starlight, imbedded within time and distance, merely beheld the fragile craft, lost within the reaches of the Core of the galaxy, traveling with the spirit-like certainty. No one watching would have guessed it was but a ghost ship, the hand of its desperate pilot lashed to the wheel. Luke's consciousness made one last, useless effort and then fell away, darkness inundating his mind under waves of ominous water.
He found himself walking through flickering dreams, through the everlasting night that is space travel, through the graveyards of his deserted past. For a moment he was in a void, only voices surrounding him in the vacuum of time. He caught flashes of color and light here and there but he could identify none of it. It was as if he were eavesdropping on the dreams of another.
He turned to see Owen, in the middle of a familiar tongue lashing as a lost day lingered on Tatooine. A quick affection filled his now grownup heart as the man's not so old face paused and grinned. A quick image of Ben filled his vision, momentarily moving through a shaft of sunlight. The hermit seemed to be traveling, perhaps he was holding something. The light filtered, sharp within his robes, setting off each dusty fold into a statue-like preciseness. Then the two men retreated and he saw only familiar desert. After a time he found he was standing in the kitchen, watching Beru cook, the shadows long and low and, then, he was outside again. Biggs was there, laughing at some old joke, his speeder washing through the sand.
The visions vanished and he turned to found only the searing heat of flames and noxious gasses, his hands burned by his repeated attempts to enter a ruined compound. A hot wind came off the fire, mirroring burning grief and jagged anger. He stumbled away, and the void returned.
Han's face appeared, shouting down an antiseptic corridor, blaster in hand. The smuggler's face turned away and then back again, as if urging him on. He made a move to follow but instantly the colors, shot through with sound, faded.
Darkness appeared again as a small sound came to his ears, a file rasping against well-used wood. He turned to see Leia, an angel in a formal, white gown, standing still and defiant, her child's face turned toward a horrible vision in black. The rasping sound became clearer and he realized he was hearing the respirator pushing the oxygen through his father's damaged lungs. A masked face turned toward him, seemed, for an awful moment, to see him but then fell away.
Luke moved to shout, to call the monster away from his sister but they were swallowed up by the restless curtain of someone else's dreams. His mechanical hand reached but he clutched only at the void. The invisible path beckoned.
A forest, green and gloomy rose up through the night. A screaming cry arched over his head and lashing pain fell along his shoulders. A woman, standing nearby, caught a ferocious animal with a perfectly aimed blaster. His grateful words were cut off sharply by her exasperated malevolence as the scene faded.
A smoky, odiferous corridor greeted his gaze, the low light on top of a staff casting an eerie glow into great corner shadows. There was the evil hissing of damaged electronics all around. Threepio's golden skin glinted above him and he knew he was prone, on a damaged repulsor unit. He moved to rise, and Threepio looked back, lit eyes weird in encroaching darkness.
And then a clipped voice, its essence held in the dark atmosphere, was everywhere, laughing at some joke, murmuring caught words into his consciousness, moving a small current of air past his injured face. A light floating joy reigned within his scarred heart.
Daylight again. A jungle twisting and turning in the mists of dancing rainbows and sunlight greeted his frantic eyes. He turned to watch the westward sky, away from insistent dawn, up to where she was, where she had to be. The temple flowed out from under him, melting into a living canopy of creatures that fed the Force with their vitality and strength. But the sky turned pale and blue, a sun rose hot and unbearable and he knew she was gone. He dropped to his knees but the jungle faded and instead he was faced with the void, all alone.
He continued to walk, his footsteps soundless, unheard in the world of vision and dreams. He caught a glimpse of Leia again, talking to her children, kissing Han, her serious face shadowed in the cold light of some meeting room. In a quick movement, he saw Mara Jade stand and move across a room, hands flashing, eyes downward.
But no, Mara's face was hurt and angry. Large trees waving in an inviting breeze that shadowed the hand moving to slap him across the face. He flinched but did not feel it. She retreated into a silent gloom. The pain of her leaving drove a knife into his being, as if part of him were cut away. But, no, there was still a chance. There she was again, under the cold, work lights of an immaculate hangar.
He stopped, the jumbled visions suddenly causing pain. Why was there pain? What was he trying to find? He opened his mouth to speak, to shout, to yell. He reached out a hand as Mara's figure began to waver. A panicked feeling seized him and helpless he ran toward it. His voice unheard, he found he couldn't breathe. His heart began to pound as the nearer he got, the more she retreated. Her features blurred to indistinguishable.
Finally, in a killing moment, she turned away and disappeared into molten darkness. It swallowed her whole and he, in sudden despair stumbled, falling into a limitless abyss. He opened his mouth one last time, with one last breath he shouted but no words were there, no sound disturbed the perfect, muffled silence of the void.
He awoke to a stranger's deathbed voice, harsh and whispered. "Mara ...... don't leave.... no.... Mara!" His hands reached reflexively for the console as he jerked into consciousness, pulled there by sharp light and unbearable awareness. A cramped feeling made him stand, momentarily panicked. He held motionless. Before him, all had changed.
Instead of the wrinkles of hyperspace, he was staring at a spacedock, gray and drifting. He jerked as he felt a tractor beam take hold. A quick glance told him the ship's engines were off line and the computer pinged as the beam strengthened, a warning. His knees sank from beneath him and he sat, hands now useless on the console. But, unless he wanted to leave violently, he knew there was no turning back now.
He leaned back into the chair letting the Force flow through him. It flooded his being, dark and obsessive, the stars an offense to it as it engulfed his heart. And within, as if from a short distance there was a voice. It was a soft voice, low and clipped, the distinctive accent of Chad knifing through his mind. It called to consciousness an abiding, nursed love, his true love, the being who held his heart. He smiled and the words smiled back approvingly.
The ship swung around, gently arcing through a small, docking trajectory. The sky tilted and winked and then the ship slipped through the magnetic lock which sprang to life behind it, a cage door slamming shut. He felt the ship stop, hover and finally fall gently to the deck, a flawless procedure. He stood, his eyes open, breath restless and shaky. Pressing a hand to his saber, he headed back to the hatch.
The hatched hissed open of its own accord, although he was not sure if it was himself or someone else that had prompted its action. He paced down it, his steps measured as if each step was a point in a journey, an important place to be remembered and noted. The light within the hangar was dim and metallic, the insides of a sleeping monster. He stopped as he saw that the deck was deserted and a memory arose before him, light and voices from someone else's life.
Long ago it had been thus. She had stood, filthy as he was now, lightsaber at her side, an emptied, foreign hangar looming all around. Her flight suit was stained and her face scarred. He pulled a nervous hand along several days growth of beard and wondered what he looked like. But she had not been alone.
He gazed around, still lightheaded from the trance. He was alone.
He took a step forward, a half step into the dim future, into fate. The hatchway on the ship startled him by retreating of itself. Jade's Fire then settled as if it were a bird gathering itself into feathered sleep. He glanced back at it, nervous, and then ahead again, as a soft sound floated toward him.
It was a faint bell, a warning. He stopped. But his head lifted and his eyes were now bright and glinting with anticipation and, perhaps, desire. A door opened.
A woman stepped away from the enclosed space. Her tall, lanky figure was highlighted in mottled light and shadow as she walked calmly toward him, assured and confident. Her feet played noiselessly across the floor, wrapped in plain, soft boots. Her hands were calm at her sides and her hair was dark and plaited. But it was her eyes he saw first.
Even in the dimness he could see their gray smokiness, the smokiness of the ghost ship now vanished. It was a mysterious color, changing with the light, with the sky, with the sea. It was these eyes that had laughed with him over Beggar's Canyon, had invited him to look upon infinite seas and not be afraid. They had lit through his tortured consciousness, a pure glint in the corrupted darkness. They held wisdom, compassion, intelligence, and after a time, love.
And it was the love he saw now. Her forward motion halted. A light seemed to emanate from her, a wafting, wavering luminosity. He resisted an urge to reach out to her. Instead, he waited.
She gave him an appraising look and approached, her footsteps now audible in the softening atmosphere. Her topaz lightsaber activated up through his blue eyes, a promise. Instantly his green one answered and an echoing, shimmering noise flew through the artificial atmosphere, to be absorbed by the transparent, magnetic shield. She shifted her weight, pushing it into his blade. He pushed back, his heart pounding.
She frowned as he began to push her blade to the side, his greater strength giving him an edge. For an instant she allowed it but then shifted her weight slightly back, knocking his stance askew. Feeling the change, she lowered her blade, scoring the deck, and then circled it back up over her head so that it fell upon Luke's from above. His hands shook as he gripped the handle of the green saber. Energy, topaz and green, flew and hissed through the air between them.
He shifted and leaned back into it again and she gave way. He circled his blade and pushed forward, stepping in a following stride. She blocked him. A clash sounded as the blades met again, loud in within the retreating silence. The stars, tangled and clustered, looked on in perfect indifference.
A sudden vision came into his mind, his hands awash in her hair, her face turned toward him, the eyes smiling and bright, the mouth...... A whisper roared through his ears, a small underbreeze heard over a hurricane. He looked her directly in the eye, his attention distracted and her block became a shove. The green lightsaber clattered away, suddenly silent along the impeccable floor. He retreated a step.
"Callista!" he whispered, his own voice strange to his ears, echoing against the walls, a very human sound.
She aimed the tip of her blade at his chest. "I am no longer Callista," she said, her voice strangely even. A shadow touched her face, throwing the bridge of her nose and her beautiful lips into high relief. Her eyes were fired, distant campfire on a foggy night.
"But.... you are she. I know you. You've only forgotten...." he stammered, a rush of old feeling following the familiar words.
"I have not forgotten anything, Luke," she said, pulling the blade back and deactivating it. The elegant handle flashed through his peripheral vision and retreated into a fold of her clothing.
"Then you know you are Callista," he said, retreating into her shadow. A moment of bright control and his lightsaber flew, faster than sight, into his hand .
Her face was shimmered within the green light as he activated the blade, a challenge, and held it straight up between them. Through it her features momentarily looked like an old-fashioned likeness held within a decorative holovid.
She resisted him, her sense high and quick. "Callista is gone," she said, smiling, her perfect teeth flashing. "I am Khaali."
His eyes became bright, the color of seawater under penetrating, morning sunshine. "I've come here to save you. I love you, Callie." he said softly, a lover's voice, the blade still between them. It was dangerous, an elegant, knifed decision turning in the dimming shadows.
Her reckless laughter was an assault upon the implacable, durasteel walls. "Save me?" she said, pausing for breath. "You came because I called, Luke. I think I'm saving you."
He lowered the blade, feeling something unexpected. "Callie, you've got to come back with me. You've got to get help. Cilghal can ......."
She stepped forward, suddenly dangerous. "I told you, Luke, that's not my name."
He swallowed, suddenly uncertain. His beloved stood before him, Cray Mingla's face animated like a returned spirit, her hair now luxurious and dark, the thicknesses plaited into a quick braid, her eyes the same as those of the spirit on the ship. But something had changed, something harsh and evil had entered her soul. Instantly, an aching need to know filling his heart, he invaded her mind.
He was amazed when the resulting blow sent him sprawling onto the floor. She laughed again, the sound mocking this time. "You think I'm still that complaining girl of two years ago, don't you Luke?" She turned away from him, from his sudden awkwardness as he gazed up at her. Her swift movement was feral as she stalked back to him. "You think I am that weak woman, a woman with no soul. Look at me, Luke!"
Roughly she took him by the hand, pulled him up toward her. Her grip was surprisingly powerful. Immediately his pulse raced and pounded, making him feel lightheaded again, the touch of her hand narcotic. His head swam.
"I'm whole again, complete." She smiled at him, melting his heart. "You are the one who is not complete....."
Luke steadied himself, calling on the Force to clear his head. He swallowed, suddenly realizing what had been happening to him for months now. All the secret desire, all the haunted memories, all the visions that had followed his sleep as a jungle predator follows an ailing ruminant, these were all connected to her. Tionne had been but a catalyst -- Callista had turned his desire for the administrator, his dark yearnings gnawing through clawed night, into an obsession. Callie had given it all to him, had played upon his weakness, had promised, in a darkhearted, macabre and wholly compelling way, a cure for his lifetime of loneliness.
He glanced around, tempted in a flicker of a moment, to bring his lightsaber to bear. The green light of it called to him and he longed to see her face lit by its spectral light, to see her translucent, gray eyes washed out one last time by its cleansing stroke. She was evil, powerful.
She pulled her hand away from his grip and stood before him, a grown woman addressing a naive boy. "There's no difference between the darkside and the light, Luke. It's all the same. Didn't Yoda tell you?"
"Don't say that Callie! You've been blinded by evil," he insisted, the casual blasphemy knocking him off balance. His heart hardened as he fought to keep himself from activating his blade. "I can help you. I can bring you back where you belong!"
"I'm not blind at all, Luke!" she replied, her voice snapping. "For the first time in my life I can see clearly. And I have the power to prove it."
She approached him, putting a hand to his face. She pulled it toward her and, with a ferocity he had never known, kissed him full on the mouth, her lips molding and rounding to his, one hand clutching and unclutching over his arm. Thinking only of pushing his desire back into passionlessness he found himself instead pressing his lips to hers. And where he thought he had handed for his blade he realized that his hands were around her neck, his rough thumbs pressing against her swan's throat, the tips of his fingers brushing up under hair.
Instantly, as she felt his fingers tighten possessively around her neck, she stepped away, a serene smile mysteriously replacing the animal desire of only moments ago. He fell forward as if still expecting her to be there, catching himself in a stumbled step. She gave him a look of mingled contempt, pity and desire. "You can't live without me, Luke," she whispered, baiting him as the bell sounded again.
They both turned, he guilty and shamefaced, she overwhelmingly triumphant. A squad of guards moved out, pacing in business-like fashion. She waited, as was her due. When they halted she signaled to the leader, gesturing carelessly at Luke.
"Put him in detention," she said, with a voice cold and murderous.
Her masked voice breaking his heart, he bowed his head. His lightsaber flew into her hands and she grinned. Wanting only to catch her eye again he made no resistance as he was lead away.