Categories > Movies > Star Wars > Star Wars: The Rebirth of the New Jedi Order: Love Ignites the Galaxy, Star by Star0 Reviews
The future is never a fixed thing. Though certain actions taken at particular possible points of divergence can, seemingly, preclude the possibility of specific future pathways ever coming into exi...
Chapter Three: Fragments Shored
Rating: Uhm, probably a borderline R (?), for the overall work, though I suppose that's debatable . . . PG-13ish, maybe, for this part (?)
Disclaimer: I do not own any of the lovely characters from the Star Wars ’verse, more’s the pity! What I do have is an extremely contrary muse that refuses to shut up and leave me alone . . .
Summary: The future is never a fixed thing. Though certain actions taken at particular possible points of divergence can, seemingly, preclude the possibility of specific future pathways ever coming into existence, other unexpected choices can have extremely powerful repercussions with far-reaching effects upon the possible probable pathways that the future might yet take . . . and sometimes the spreading ripples of those effects can be so powerful that even the present and a part of the past can be altered, if enough raw energy is poured into the process of causing those effects. For Tahiri Veila, the possibility of swaying the current balance of power in the galaxy from darkness and despair back to light and hope seems worth any sacrifice necessary . . . even if she will have to give up her own life and the life of her unborn son to accomplish this. Will her sacrifice be enough to change the shape of the future, though, or will evil yet find a way to triumph, in this the worst and most wide-spread of all galactic wars?
Story/Author's Notes: For general notes on this story and proposed series, please see the entry on this NaNo project, at http://polgarawolf. livejournal.com/140023.html
Specific Chapter/Part-Related Notes: N/A.
Specific Chapter/Part-Related Warnings: N/A.
The Rebirth of the New Jedi Order
Love Ignites the Galaxy, Star by Star
Chapter Three: Fragments Shored
27:05:29-27:05:34 After the Battle of Yavin (~1,028 After Ruusan Reformations or ~25,029 After Republic’s Founding)
Gar taldin ni jaonyc; gar sa buir, ori’wadaasla.
Nobody cares who your father was, only the father you’ll be.
– Mandalorian saying
The smell is more sweet than rank, at least to Tsavong Lah, and his is the only opinion that he believes matters, given that he is the one whose limb is rotting. The radank leg that the Shapers used to replace his arm has been overbonding to his elbow, the aggressive linking cells attacking and killing his own tissue well above the amputation point. Scales and spines are already emerging as high up as his swollen biceps, and above that his arm swarms with the diptera maggots seeded by the Shapers to eat away his dying flesh.
If the alteration stops at his shoulder, then he will be accorded the respect of one who has sacrificed much and risked more in his devotion to the gods. If it continues on to his torso proper or he loses the arm itself, then he will be excused from his duties and shunned by his caste as a Shamed One, accounted one disfigured by the gods as a sign of their displeasure. Tsavong Lah rather suspects that where the alteration stops will depend on how long he allows the loss of his Reecee fleet to delay the capture of Coruscant – and that this, in turn, depends on how long it ends up requiring Nom Anor and Vergere to capture the Solo twins. With half of his assault force gone now and the distinct possibility – no, the outright likelihood – that the accursed Jeedai have captured a live yammosk, he does not dare to attack the New Republic’s capital world until he has definitively secured the blessing of the gods.
His mind made up, the warmaster grasps a villip resting beside him and begins to tickle it awake. Though he is sitting naked in the purifying steams of his private cleansing cell, Tsavong Lah does not bother to cover himself. The villip in his servant’s possession will, after all, show only a head.
After an irritating wait of nearly a minute, the villip everts into the likeness of a huffing Nom Anor. Giving the Executor no opportunity to apologize for making him wait, Tsavong Lah scowls, snapping, “I trust you are chasing the /Jeedai/, Nom Anor, and not fleeing them.”
“Never,” the Executor quickly assures him. “Even as we speak, I am leading the /Ksstarr/’s Two Scourge in pursuit.”
“Will you catch them?”
“Yes,” Nom Anor promises. “We are taking casualties, but Three Scourge is waiting in ambush at the end of this transit. There is no escape for them this time.”
The casualties do not interest Tsavong Lah. He has already heard about how many vessels the Jeedai have destroyed above Myrkr and how they have slain the Ksstarr/’s first company – One Scourge – to a warrior, and he would have considered twice the losses insignificant, for such a potential prize. “You /will not harm the twin Solos.” It has to be the fourth or fifth time Tsavong Lah has given the order; yet, now more than ever, he wants to be absolutely certain that Nom Anor understands the true significance of this command. “Your warriors understand the fate awaiting the one who kills either of them?”
“As do I, Warmaster,” Nom Anor promptly replies. “The twins are forbidden targets. I have also commanded Yal Phaath to have his own troops stand off – though he bristles at my authority. It would be wise of you to underscore the order.”
“As you suggest,” Tsavong Lah agrees, ignoring for the moment his servant’s audacity in telling him what to do. “I need those sacrifices, Nom Anor. Our situation is deteriorating while I wait for you.”
“You will not need to wait much longer, Warmaster,” Nom Anor promptly vows. “My plan is an excellent one.”
“That would be healthy for you,” Tsavong Lah replies, his words half a threat and half a warning. “I expect to hear from you soon.” He presses his thumb into the villip’s cheek, causing it to break contact and invert. The Warmaster then sets that one aside and picks up Viqi Shesh’s, considering whether the time has come to expend this particular asset. Since her removal from the New Republic’s military oversight committee, she has been working doubly hard to prove her usefulness to the Yuuzhan Vong – less out of greed or power lust, Tsavong Lah believes, than a simple thirst for vengeance. Such weapons tend to be very explosive – which could be good or bad, depending on when and where they end up detonating.
The steam-cell door spirals open behind him, admitting a cool draft that wafts pleasantly across his naked back. Without turning around, he snarls, “Did I not say I was cleansing? How dare you disturb me!”
“My life in payment, Warmaster.” The voice belongs to Seef, his female communications assistant. “But the choice was not mine. Lord Shimrra’s villip has everted.”
Not bothering to cover himself, Tsavong Lah instantly stands and turns, already reaching for the coufee Seef holds ready for him. Except for in circumstances involving breeding, it is forbidden for a subordinate to look upon his naked body and live; yet, when he sees her eyes flickering away from the suppurating flesh above his graft, he leaves the weapon in her hand. If he were to kill her now, the gods might well believe that he is simply trying to keep the condition of his arm a secret.
Tsavong Lah studies the communications officer a moment before reaching to push the coufee away, narrowing his eyes in a way that leaves no doubt about his intentions. “You will prepare yourself.”
“Yes, Warmaster.” Her face betraying no hint of whether she considers this a better fate than death, Seef returns the coufee to its sheath and inclines her head deeply, properly submissive. “I will await you in your chamber.”
After she has stepped aside, Tsavong Lah leaves his steam cell and drapes a cloak over his shoulder hooks, taking care to keep the sleeve well above his elbow so that the condition of his graft will be visible to all. He finds Lord Shimrra’s villip set out on the table, its features cloaked in obscurity beneath the cowl-like protrusion of an epidermal mane. The Warmaster touches his breast in salute and places his palm and new talon on the table in front of the villip, then presses his forehead to the back of his hands.
“Supreme One,” he acknowledges. “Forgive the delay. I was cleansing.”
“The gods value the pure.” Shimrra’s voice is a wispy rumble. “But also the triumphant. What of this fleet you lost?”
“The gods have reason to be displeased. The loss was total – six clusters.”
“An expensive feint, my servant.”
Tsavong’s throat instantly goes dry. “Supreme One, it was no – ”
“I am sure your plan warrants the sacrifice,” Shimrra flatly declares, cutting him off. “That is not why we are speaking.”
“Indeed?” Tsavong does not try to correct Shimrra; if the Supreme Overlord declares the fleet’s loss a feint, then it is so. Instead, the Warmaster’s mind immediately leaps to the problem of shattering Coruscant’s formidable defenses with only a single-pronged attack – perhaps a variation of the mine-sweeping moon he has been intending to use at Borleias, or something involving refugee ships. Refugee ships would be good – the furor over the hostages at Talfaglio has proven how vulnerable the New Republic truly is to such techniques. As the rough outline of an idea begins to take shape in the Warmaster’s mind, he carefully says, “I assure you my plan is an excellent one, Supreme One, but I am honored to speak with you regarding any matter.”
Before replying, Shimrra hesitates just long enough to express his displeasure without speaking it, then demands, “The success of your new grafting is in doubt?”
“It is so,” Tsavong Lah promptly agrees. He does not dare to ask, even of himself, how Lord Shimrra knows of his troubles with the radank leg (which is, most assuredly, not visible through the villip, which currently should be able to show nothing more than his carefully bowed head). “I fear that my arm may have offended the gods.”
“It is not your arm, my servant. I saw nothing of that.”
Tsavong Lah remains quiet, desperately trying to work out in his own mind whether Shimrra’s vision is the reason they are speaking or merely an excuse for the Supreme Overlord to pass on his displeasure over the destruction of the Reecee fleet and the delay in the capture of these Jeedai twins.
“It is the twins, my servant,” Shimrra eventually declares, enlightening him. “The gods will give us Coruscant, and you will give them these twins.”
“It will be so, Supreme One,” Tsavong Lah promises. “Even now, my servants are running them to ground.”
“You are certain?” Shimrra demands. “The gods will /not be disappointed again.”/
“My servants assure me their plan is an excellent one.” It does not escape Tsavong Lah’s notice that Nom Anor’s words to him had been much the same as his own to Lord Shimrra now are. “There is no escape.”
“Let it be so.” Shimrra is silent for a moment, then says, “See and be seen, my servant.”
Tsavong raises his head, but he says nothing. He has been invited to look, not speak.
“Know this, Tsavong Lah,” Shimrra declares. “In allowing your villip tender to live, you have kept for yourself one who should belong to the gods.”
Tsavong Lah instantly goes cold inside, his breath catching in his lungs like a solid block of ice. “Supreme One, this is so, but it was not my intention – ”
“It pleases the gods to let you keep her. Do not insult them by explaining what they know.” Shimrra’s villip begins to invert. Dismissively, he adds, “Use her well, my servant. All things are forgiven in victory.”
Shaken, Tsavong Lah murmurs, “As you say, Supreme Overlord,” though the villip has already broken contact and finished inverting.
It is a forty-second turbolift drop to the Solos’ floor in their Eastport residential tower, and forty seconds have never seemed to take quite so much time to pass. Leia pulls her lightsaber from the thigh pocket of her grease-stained flight suit while Han fidgets, anxiously checking and rechecking the power level of his BlasTech DL-44. Given the tower’s unobtrusive but watchful security department, Leia feels certain that there will be a pair of guard droids and a sentient supervisor waiting with a retina scanner when they step out of the lift. As long as Han doesn’t start a firefight, that will probably even be a good thing. It’s always smart to have a little support in situations like these.
“Can’t this thing drop any faster?” Han grumbles, twitching like a nervous feline.
“They don’t put acceleration compensators in turbolifts,” Leia quietly reminds him, forcing herself to take deep, even breaths so she can push away the fear and anxiety trying to claw their way into the forefront of her mind. “Be patient, Han. We’ll be more useful without our knees in our chests.”
Han is silent for a whole moment before asking, “Did Adarakh say they were on the way, or already in the building?”
“On our floor,” Leia replies. “He said they were already on our floor.”
With its rare red Alderaanian ladalums and milky larmalstone floor, the Solo atrium appears as deserted and placid as the first time Viqi Shesh visited it. Instead of ambling casually by as she had before, though, she walks straight toward the cul-de-sac, the looming figures of an entire Yuuzhan Vong infiltration cell following close on her heels.
Dressed in the blue jumpsuits of the Municipal Health Bureau and wearing noticeably similar ooglith masquers, Viqi’s companions quite frankly look more like a squad of sextuplet assassins than a vermin control team; their conspicuousness hardly matters, though, at this point. None of the droids they might come into contact with should be capable of making the leap of thought necessary to interpret the odd similarity as a threat in time to do anything about it, and there should be no sentients awake inside to notice. Ten minutes ago, she walked past and innocuously blew an ultrasonic whistle, causing her sensislug surveillance bug to self-destruct and release an invisible cloud of sleep-inducing spores. By now, everyone in the Solo apartment, including Ben Skywalker, ought to be slumbering peacefully.
Viqi has almost entered the atrium when a rustle of noise abruptly breaks out behind her, and she turns to find the infiltrators already opening their collars to reach for the gnulliths concealed beneath their jumpsuits.
“Not yet, gentlemen.” In an attempt to keep the security system from identifying the stress pattern in her voice, Viqi speaks in a bare whisper. “We don’t want to alarm anyone.”
“But the spores – ”
“Grow ineffective after five minutes, or so I was given to believe.” Viqi is not at all happy about having her judgment questioned by a male inferior. “It has been ten minutes.”
“They settle to the ground after five minutes,” the leader corrects. His name is Inko or Eagko or something similarly odd. “ If they are stirred into the air again – ”
“We’ll mask when we are inside, Inkle.” Viqi impatiently pushes the leader’s hand back beneath his jumpsuit before tipping her chin towards the Serv-O-Droid GL-7 standing patiently outside the crystasteel door. “If the greeter droid sees a vermin control team approaching in gnulliths, he’ll have tower security down here before we cross the atrium. We must disable him before revealing ourselves.”
The leader considers this for several moments before finally nodding to his warriors and removing his hand without the gnullith in it. “Ingo Dar,” he declares. “I am called Ingo Dar.”
“Of course you are.” Viqi rolls her eyes and turns back to the atrium. “Follow me, Ingo – and do /only /what I command.”
Even though Viqi is about to expose herself as one of the most notorious traitors in the short history of the New Republic, she has not bothered to mask either her appearance or her voice. A thorough analysis of the security data will only penetrate any such a disguise she might attempt, and she knows from her spy in the security department that any attempt to avoid all the tower’s hidden holocams and microphones will be hopeless. Besides, there is a part of her – a big part of her – that wants Luke Skywalker to know who has taken his son. No one – /no one/, not even the Master of the Jedi – can cross Viqi Shesh and hope to escape the consequences.
There will also be consequences for Viqi, of course. She will instantly become both a hunted woman and a reviled traitor, and her whole planet will likely be stigmatized and shunned because of her betrayal; she is, however, quite certain that this situation will not last for long. Since losing her seat on NRMOC, she has actually expanded her value to the Warmaster, recruiting a network of spies who believe she’s merely working to regain her lost prestige. She has provided him not only with the secret of the Jedi shadow bombs, but also the disposition of the New Republic hyperspace mines now being laid between Borleias and Coruscant and the technical readouts of the gravity projectors aboard the Mon Mothma and the /Elegos A’Kla/. Tsavong Lah knows that, in commanding her to distract the Jedi in this manner, he is forfeiting his most valuable intelligence asset . . . and Viqi can think of only one reason for him to do that.
Tsavong Lah is coming to Coruscant, and soon.
As Viqi approaches the door, the GL-7 swivels its smiling face in her direction and makes a show of scanning her features, though she is perfectly aware of the fact that it has already done that from twenty meters away, when she first stepped onto the hidden pressure pad at the entrance to the atrium. She smiles warmly and slips a hand into her stylish hip pouch, reaching for the powerful two-shot hold-out blaster she has hidden inside a scan-proof cosmetics case.
“Senator Shesh, how kind of you to call!” The GL-7 radiates electronic enthusiasm. “See-Threepio informs me that the household is napping at the moment, but he expects them to awaken shortly. If you and your friends care to wait, he is prepared to offer refreshments.”
“Refreshments?” It is hardly the type of greeting Viqi has been expecting, but perhaps the droid’s programming has not been updated since her “retirement” as the chair of SELCORE. Certainly, Leia Solo would have once been eager to offer a warm reception to the Senator in control of the refugee effort’s purse strings. Leaving the hold-out blaster in her hip pouch, Viqi tells the droid, “Yes, refreshments would be nice.”
“See-Threepio is waiting for you inside.” The crystasteel door smoothly slides open. “Please enjoy your visit.”
Only her experience as a politician keeps Viqi’s jaw from dropping in shock. “Thank you. I am sure we will.”
Desperately hoping that the infiltrators behind her are not doing something foolish like reaching under their jumpsuits for the amphistaffs twined around their waists, Viqi crosses the threshold and steps into the foyer – a domed atrium similar to the one from which they have just come, though much smaller and even less grandiose. To the left, a large double door opens onto the apartment’s skyway balcony, where, two meters below, a hoversled from a popular airbed vendor is waiting to provide them with a fast escape.
The Solos’ golden protocol droid appears promptly from deeper inside the apartment, announcing, in that oddly fussy voice of his, “I am See-Threepio, human-cyborg relations.”
“The whole galaxy knows who you are, See-Threepio,” Viqi dryly remarks, only through a pure act of will restraining herself from rolling her eyes at the officious droid.
“How kind of you to say so, Senator Shesh.” C-3PO gestures towards a set of pouf couches arrayed around a potted ladalum, then says, “We have been expecting you. Please be seated, and I will take drink orders for your and your friends shortly.”
The droid’s tone is so pleasantly matter-of-fact that the significance of what he has said does not strike Viqi until after he’s turned away and vanished around the corner. The infiltrators instantly begin to rustle beneath their jumpsuits for their gnulliths while Viqi, her stomach plummeting with a sudden sense of overwhelming /wrongness/, pulls her hold-out blaster from its hiding place and starts after the droid.
“See-Threepio! You were /expecting /us?”
“Why, yes, Senator Shesh.” The droid reappears instantly, his articulate metallic hands grasping a delicate, Vors-glass orb spattered on the inside with some sort of organic material. “I was given to understand that this belongs to you.”
Still struggling to make sense of the situation, Viqi levels her hold-out blaster threateningly at the droid’s head. “Stay there.”
C-3PO immediately stops moving. “Oh, my!” The glass sphere slips from between his hands. “Is that really necessary?”
Viqi has time enough to draw one fairly deep breath before the orb shatters on the tile floor, and then a small gray-skinned alien is slipping past the droid with a T-21 repeating blaster in his hands. The alien, she instantly notes, is wearing a breath mask.
Viqi fires once in his direction even as she hears the first infiltrator thump to the floor. The alien doesn’t even flinch, instead merely firing past her twice, and two more warriors crash down. When a fourth has fallen, Viqi realizes that the situation is hopeless and turns to flee. Even if any of the Yuuzhan Vong remain conscious long enough to don their gnulliths, she knows they will never be able to fight their way past the Noghri.
As she approaches the skyway balcony, the double doors slide open automatically, and a second Noghri drops onto the floor. Viqi takes two more steps and looses the hold-out blaster’s last bolt. The shot misses, of course, but it does force the alien to waste an instant pivoting away.
That instant is all Viqi needs. She races across the balcony and hurdles the safety rail blind.
With any luck at all, the hoversled will still be there, waiting, only two meters down.
The crook of Luke’s arm feels strangely empty without Ben there to keep it occupied. At the oddest of times, he finds himself holding his hand in front of his belly and his elbow slightly out from his body, rocking from one foot to another and humming softly to himself. Sometimes, such as now, it even seems to him that his ribs are warm where his son would be pressed against him, or that the air is sweet with the smell of the milk on Ben’s breath.
Sensing a sudden silence in the air, Luke looks up to find the three women in the room – Mara, Danni Quee, and Cilghal – studying him with knowing smirks. He feels heat creeping up the back of his neck and blooming in his cheeks and knows without a doubt that there’s no use denying his thoughts have been elsewhere.
“Well, nothing else seems to work.” He shrugs and smiles sheepishly, then looks through the transparisteel viewport at the writhing mass of tentacles in the nutrient tank. “I thought we might as well try music.”
“Sure you did, Luke,” Mara snickers. “I’m sure that every yammosk war coordinator will be mesmerized by ‘Dance, Dance, Little Ewok.’”
“Why not?” Cilghal, though, only asks with a shrug. “It works as well as anything else we have tried. We know they communicate through gravitic modulation, but there must be something in the wave pattern we are missing. Whatever we try, it fails to answer.”
“Fails, or refuses?” Luke asks, studying the creature more closely. “We keep talking about yammosks like they’re animals, but I’m not sure. What if it doesn’t/ want/ to answer? If they’re smart enough to run a battle – ”
“ – then they’re smart enough to avoid helping us,” Danni sighs wearily. She shakes her head, the bones in her neck protesting the sudden movement by crackling loudly. “For every step forward . . . ”
Luke’s comlink buzzes, then Mara’s.
Mara gets to hers first. “Mara here.”
“Everything’s fine, but Leia thinks you should know we just had a little excitement here.” Han’s voice is tinny and scratchy, a result of the relay from Eclipse’s comm center being split between two comlinks. Luke turns his off, and the voice instantly sounds more like Han. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Luke and Mara simply look at each other for a few tense moments, and then Mara demands, “What do you mean there’s nothing to worry about? If there was nothing to worry about, would you be comming us to say there was nothing to worry about?”
“Viqi Shesh paid us a visit,” Leia quickly cuts in to explain, her voice pitched to sound soothing. “She had a squad of infiltrators with her.”
“They were after Ben?” Luke asks, startled.
“That’s how it looks,” Han acknowledges. “Adarakh and Meewalh took them in the foyer. The Yuuzhan Vong are either dead or on their way to an NRI interrogation facility.”
“And Viqi?” Mara asks, frowning.
“She jumped off the balcony,” Leia replies.
“She didn’t fall far, though,” /Han quickly adds. /“She had a delivery sled one floor below. NRI is tracing it now.”
“But it won’t take long to find her,” Leia hastens to add. “Within the hour, every voice scanner on Coruscant will be trying to match her print.”
Luke and Mara/ look/ at each other again, a whole conversation passing between them without either one having to say a single word, and then Mara shrugs.
“So who said I was worried?” Mara asks. “If anyone in the galaxy knows how to deal with kidnappers, it has to be Han and Leia Solo.”
This draws a laugh from both Han and Leia, who have almost lost count of the number of times their children have either been abducted or the objects of an attempted kidnaping.
“But you two stay put,” Mara orders. “No more sneaking off on secret reconnaissance missions when you’re supposed to be watching my son.”
“’Firm that,” Han easily agrees. “I could use some time on the couch.”
After they’ve clicked off, Luke can still sense a lingering uneasiness in Mara, and the heaviness in the pit of his stomach is such that he frankly can’t blame her for her discontent, though he knows that it’s nothing more than his nerves. (If Ben were truly in danger, the Force would be screaming warnings at him. Luke knows that. It doesn’t stop him from wanting to be there, on Coruscant, with Ben, where he can hold him in his arms and see for himself that his son is alright, though.) He waits until they’ve stepped into the frigid corridor – Eclipse’s heating system once again performing below specifications – before spinning Mara around and zipping her thermasuit up to her throat, needing /something /to do with his hands that will keep them from clenching helplessly into fists of frustration.
Mara, surprisingly, lets him fuss over her without either teasing him about worrying too much or bristling about how she’s perfectly fine and can take care of herself like a big girl. If anything, her uncharacteristic docility only makes him itch to be doing something even more. Instead, he forces himself to take a deep breath, mentally reciting the Jedi Code to himself to give him something to focus on, to help him calm down. “It isn’t easy being here,” he quietly notes after a few moments of silence. “Not with the Yuuzhan Vong after Ben on Coruscant.”
Mara manages a small smile, though her lips tremble slightly as they curve upwards. “And with everything so quiet right now . . . ”
“You could probably take a few days,” he offers, not entirely sure if he wants her to accept and go (and leave him here by himself) or not. “Ben might like to see his mother, too.”
“And his mother would like to see him,” Mara fervently adds. She falls silent then, considering, before finally, regretfully, shaking her head. “But she also wants to protect him, and the only way to do that is to keep the Yuuzhan Vong away from Coruscant. With all those refugee convoys disappearing from Ralltiir and Rhinnal, this is more than just quiet.”
Luke nods, sighing a little with mingled worry and relief and just plain tiredness. “I feel it, too.” He takes her hand, squeezing it comfortingly, and starts heading towards the hangar caves, where he knows Corran Horn is waiting to show him a supplemental targeting system that’s being installed on the XJ3s. “I fear this may be the dark before the nova.”
“Then we’ll just have to do what we can to make sure everyone gets to safety,” Mara grimly replies, her fingers tightening almost painfully around his.
Silently, Luke nods, desperately hoping that their efforts will prove to be enough.
With deep circles under his eyes almost as dark as his glassy black Sullustan pupils themselves, General Yeel’s vidimage somehow suggests that of a chubby-cheeked Yuuzhan Vong child – a thoroughly spoiled chubby-cheeked Yuuzhan Vong child. Han bangs the heel of his palm violently against the comm desk – carefully out of vidcam pickup – and pastes a forbearing smile on his face.
“I’m not saying that installation security is lax, General Yeel,” Han insists. He’s with Lando in the study of his Eastport apartment, trying to do the New Republic a favor and finding it impossible, as usual, to get the blasted ingrates to even listen to him. “But Viqi Shesh was on NRMOC. She could have slipped an infiltrator onto a shielding crew anytime in the last two years. Why take a chance?”
“Do you have evidence of that, Solo?” Not General Solo, or Retired General, or even Han, but just Solo/. The tone of the voice itself is such that even the most patient and restrained person in the galaxy might take offense. Han has to grit his teeth so hard his jaw aches to keep himself from launching into a tirade. /“If you have evidence, I will institute a review at once.”
“I don’t have any evidence. That’s the /point/.” Han runs a hand over his brow to keep himself from making a rude gesture, absently massaging at the ache from the building pressure behind his temples. “Look, what could it hurt to assign a couple of YVHs to every generator station? This is a great deal.”
“Yes, /free is a great deal,”/ Yeel replies with a distrusting scowl, clearly unimpressed. “What’s wrong with them?”
Lando slips into the vidcam’s view, flashing the Sullustan one of his smarmiest, most cheerful simles. “Nothing is wrong with them, General, I assure you. I’m a loyal citizen of the New Republic doing everything he can to help.”
Yeel still looks doubtful. “Wasn’t it a YVH droid that failed to protect Chief of State Fey’lya when infiltrators attacked /him/?”
“That was a glitch in the demonstration program,” Lando patiently explains. “The droids I’m donating to the New Republic will be combat ready – fully combat ready.”
“That is what frightens me, Calrissian.” /Yeel blinks twice, then places his arms on his table and leans towards his vidcam. /“Chief of State Fey’lya asked me to take your call, and I have. But I am /not going to put new technology into my generating stations without a full compatibility evaluation – and Planetary Shielding will not be conducting any evaluations until we know where the fleet at Borleias has gone. I’m sorry, Calrissian – ”/
An anguished wail echoes down the corridor, so shrill and frenzied that Han doesn’t even recognize the voice as human, at first – much less Leia’s – until he’s already out of his chair and snatching his blaster holster off the table.
If anything, the wailing grows louder and less human. His stomach rapidly plummeting somewhat in the vicinity of his feet, Han tears frantically down the corridor to Leia’s private study, where he finds Adarakh and Meewalh flanking the desk and looking uncharacteristically confused and helpless. The furred image of the Bothan general of the Orbital Defense Command is staring out of the vidscreen, looking confused and inanely (if with genuine concern) repeating, “Princess Leia? Princess Leia?” Leia herself is lying on the floor, curled into a fetal ball and screaming something incomprehensible.
When Han sees no obvious threat in the room, he throws himself down at Leia’s side and grabs her arm. “Leia?” he plaintively repeats, confused.
She doesn’t seem to realize he’s even there. Her eyes are rimmed in shockingly bright red and her tears are pooling on the floor, and the only thing Han can get out of her was a long, unintelligible, “ – aaaaaaa – ”
The Bothan general continues to repeat, /“Princess Leia? Princess Leia?” /his droning voice gradually growing both louder and more and more worried.
Lando comes running into the room and, ignoring the comm unit, rushes over to put a hand on Han’s shoulder. “What is it?”
Han shakes his head helplessly and looks to the Noghri.
“Lady Vader was speaking with General Ba’tra,” Meewalh explains, her hands clenched together so tightly that Han actually wonders, for a few moments, if she might be doing that to keep from wringing them together anxiously. “She was explaining how Lady Risant Calrissian is already on her way with a thousand Hunter Ones, then she suddenly stopped speaking – ”
Leia abruptly grasps Han’s arm in a grip like iron and begins to sputter, “Aa . . . aaa . . . ”
And Han /knows/, just like that. Anakin is in trouble again – seriously bad, painful trouble.
And Leia has felt every single bit of whatever it is that he’s been going through.
“Princess Leia?” Ba’tra repetitively continues to ask. “Princess, are you – ”
Finding the DL-44 still in his hand, Han uses it to blast the comm unit silent. It feels so good that he turns the weapon on the holopad and blasts that, too – and then the security system vid bank and anything else that’ll crackle and make sparks when a supercharged particle beam burns a hole through it.
“/Han/!” Lando cries out, sounding shocked and maybe even a little frightened. “Han? What are you /doing/?”
“He’s is trouble.” Han shoots a datapad off Leia’s desk, then sends Lando diving by swinging the blaster around to target a holographic wall panel. “They could be killing our boy right now and there’s /nothing I can do about it/,” he snarls furiously, feeling as though, if he doesn’t keep shooting, keep making this explode into sparks, the galaxy will somehow take that as a sign that he’s giving up, and take Anakin away forever.
Han pulls the trigger and watches the pinnacles of Terrarium City erupt into a spark storm, and then Adarakh is on him, trapping his blaster arm in a control lock and wrenching the weapon away. Han collapses to his haunches and begins to sob, too drained and wrung out to even be angry anymore, too certain of the look in Leia’s eyes to be able to doubt the truth.
Leia doesn’t seem to notice any of this. Still wailing in anguish, she gathers herself up and runs from the room. Han watches her go, realizing somewhere in the back of his mind that Ben is crying somewhere, too. A bit gingerly, Lando squats down at his side. Blaster arm still locked in Adarakh’s grasp, Han looks over at his old friend.
“Anakin. Someone has Anakin. It’s /bad/. It’s bad enough that Leia can’t take it.”
“Han, I’m /sorry/,” Lando starts to offer. “The twins – ”
He shakes his head, cutting Lando off, mechanically explaining, “Something happened, earlier, when we were in the Bantha. Leia felt Anakin – felt something happen, something that frightened him, that scared him, so much that he started to reach out to her, through the Force – and then the connection was cut off. When she tried to reach out to him, she couldn’t get to him, and when she tried to reach out to the twins, it was the same with them. She could tell that they were still there, but nothing else. She couldn’t/ reach/ them. If it’s anything like before, they’re probably in the same position. Hell, whoever has Anakin may even have them, too. And if it’s bad enough that Leia can’t even talk – ”
“Han. Don’t. You don’t even know for sure the Yuuzhan Vong /have /Anakin – ”
In the back of the apartment, Ben is crying more ferociously than ever, and Leia’s sobbing even more loudly, so violently that it sounds like the sobs are ripping their way up out of her. “Those terrible things I said to him, after Chewie . . . ” Han shakes his head, shivers. “This is my fault. I drove him to it. He had to prove – ”
“No.” Lando leans sideways to catch Adarakh’s eye and nod towards the door, and then leans in close and locks gazes with Han. “Listen to me, old buddy. If Anakin’s in trouble, then it’s because he’s a Jedi Knight doing what Jedi Knights do – not because of what happened to Chewbacca, not because he was trying to prove anything to you.”
“How would you know?” Han snarls furiously. He’s lashing out not because Lando has said anything wrong, but because exhaustion is receding enough for feeling to start to return and he needs to be angry with someone. “He isn’t your son.”
“No, he isn’t.” A pained – perhaps even guilty – look comes into Lando’s eyes. “But I was the one who initially turned him and the others over to the Yuuzhan Vong, for this insane scheme of theirs. He didn’t blame himself for what happened to Chewbacca . . . and he knew how much you loved him. Everyone could see that. So whatever it is that’s happened – and Han, until we know more about whatever’s happened, there’s no point in assuming the worst, like this – you’ve got to know that it’s not your fault.” The gentleness in Lando’s voice robs Han of his anger, and substitutes despair instead. He knows that his friend is only trying to comfort him, to keep him from falling apart like he had after Chewbacca’s death, but the words ring hollow in his ears. Han knows how he behaved after Chewie died, how he took out his anger on Anakin and let the rest of his family drift apart while he wallowed in his grief. He nearly lost them, then, and now it’s happening again . . . only, this time, Leia’s not going to be there to pull them all together again. This time, Leia is the one who’s going to need somebody else to be strong.
C-3PO clunks into the room, waving his arms in agitated little half circles around his head, his electronic voice shrill with alarm. “Someone, please help! Mistress Leia has switched Nana off, and now she’s going to crush him!”
Keeping one hand on Han’s shoulder, Lando pushes himself to his feet. “Crush who, See-Threepio?”
C-3PO throws his golden arms up high into the air. “Ben! She won’t let him go.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Lando pushes C-3PO in Han’s direction and heads for the door. “Watch him.”
“No, Lando – I’ll go.” Han grabs C-3PO’s arm and pulls himself laboriously to his feet. “It’ll need to be me.”
Lando lifts his brow. “Are you up to this?”
Han nods, though his shoulders are slumping. “I’ll have to be.”
He leads the way to the nursery in the back of the apartment. Leia is standing in front of a transparisteel viewing pane, clutching Ben to her shoulder and staring out at the passing hover traffic, patting him on the back and swaying gently from foot to foot. If she realizes that the baby is crying at all, she does not seem to recognize that it’s because of her own keening or tight grip.
Han strides over to her side and shoos the Noghri away, then slips a hand carefully in between Leia and the baby.
“Let go, Leia.” He gently begins to pry Ben free. “You need to let me take him.”
Her gaze drifts towards his face, but her eyes seem to look through him without actually seeing anything. “Han?”
“That’s right.” Han catches Lando’s eye and passes him Ben, then wraps Leia in his arms and hold hers – just holds her. “I’m here, Princess,” he fervently promises. “I’ll always be here.”
“There’s no way they’re coming for Eclipse, not with the armada that left Borleias,” Kenth Hamner quietly insists, his voice firm and steady despite he’s obviously running on the ragged edge of exhaustion. Currently acting as the official liaison between the Jedi and the New Republic, the Jedi Master arrived on Eclipse only an hour previously to report some alarming Yuuzhan Vong fleet movements. “Even if they could bring that many ships in here, it would take a standard year to stage through the hyperspace gauntlet.”
The Jedi’s best tacticians are all gathered in the Eclipse war room, studying the three displays Luke has put up. One hologram shows the array of hyperspace routes spraying outward from the planet Borleias. Another shows the tortuous route into Eclipse, along with the planet itself hidden behind its screen of asteroid belts and gas giant neighbors. The third hologram shows the entire Coruscant system, and it is to this map that everyone’s gaze keeps drifting – specifically, to an obscure cluster of comets on the capital planet’s side of the system.
Mara points into the swirling mass of comet tails. “And there are uncharted asteroids orbiting with the OboRins?”
“We’re keeping an eye on them,” Kenth assures her. “We can take them out anytime.”
No one suggests that the asteroids might be anything but reconnaissance vessels. After all, Corran Horn, who is one of the many Jedi studying the display, confirmed not long before that space rock is a favorite camouflage for Yuuzhan Vong scout ships.
“This is it, then,” Luke declares, his soft voice ringing in the silence.
He adjusts the holoprojector, annulling the displays of the Borleias hyperspace routes and the Eclipse system . . . but then fails to enlarge the Coruscant map, as his connection to Anakin Solo suddenly and quite unexpectedly begins strengthen. He flashes on an image of an expanse of chalk dunes, of a small woman in a dark jumpsuit silhouetted against the green-tinged light from the rising disk of Myrkr, of a blazing light burning like a beacon in a dark place. Luke can feel that his youngest nephew is alert and determinedly focused, in harmony with the Force and with himself, but in horrible, mind-numbing, soul-crushing pain and growing more and more anguished by the moment, that terrifying, awesome sense of perfect balance and awareness wavering like the flame of a candle might gutter in a gusting wind.
“Master Skywalker?” Corran asks, his voice sharp with concern. “What is it?”
Luke turns away and does not answer. He knows that Leia felt . . . something happen with the Myrkr strike team, earlier, something that startled Anakin badly enough that he automatically reached out to Leia – as though to warn his mother of some awful approaching danger – and that, afterwards, it was as if someone threw a muffled blanket across the whole team. As much as anyone tried, though – even Saba Sebatyne, with far more training in the Force than Leia and children of her own on the mission – no one could do more than to sense the continued presence of the team members in the Force. Even Luke has been trying (off and on for almost a week, now) to reach out to someone on the mission – if not Anakin then Jaina or Jacen or even Tahiri or Tenel Ka – with no success. To suddenly be bombarded like this with /Anakin/, with such a sense of awful suffering and terrible balance . . .
Luke cannot think, beyond the fact that he sent Anakin – sent all of those young Jedi – off to that terrible place, knowing how desperately dangerous this mission would be.
“Luke?” Mara startles him by suddenly being behind him, reaching out to take his hand.
Luke lets her, but he reaches out through the Force for Jacen and Jaina . . . and finds them filled with sorrow and horror, terror and rage and a crushing sense of shame, but alive, at least, and strong, their minds touching and cradled by their companions in a web of grievous pain.
Then Anakin is abruptly gone . . . and, like a guttering light, the wind of his passing takes with him the sense that Luke has gained of the twins.
Luke staggers blindly, feeling as though the Yuuzhan Vong (for who else could have ever done this, could have made the Solo children all feel such suffering and then seemingly just snuff them out of existence?) have reached inside and torn those children out of his own body. There is a black void in his heart, a tempest so fierce and cold that he begins to shake uncontrollably.
“/Luke!/ Luke, /stop/!” Mara’s fingers dig painfully into his arm and jerk him around to face her. “You’ve got to shut it down. Ben will feel you. Think of what this will do to him!”
“Ben . . . ”
Luke covered Mara’s hand with his and drew in on himself, dampening his presence in the Force – and losing his connection to the rest of the young Jedi in the web of that battle meld. Unable to contain the anger rising up inside him but unwilling to inflict it on his son, he turns and brings his hand down violently on the holoprojector.
“Master Skywalker!” Kenth gasps, flinching away.
“It’s the Solo children,” Mara explains, her voice shaking with fear and grief.
“The Solos? Oh . . . ” The room breaks into groans and startled outcries, and, above the ruckus, Corran manages to ask, “Master Skywalker . . . what can we do?”
What, indeed? Luke wonders. He looks to Mara, struggling to regain his composure and focus his thoughts. The question, though, is not what they can do, but what they/ have/ to do.
“Anakin . . . ” Luke chokes on the words he’s trying to get out and has to stop for a few moments, taking in another, shaky breath, before he can try again. “If those children have died, then it was for a reason.”
Corran and the others waits in silence, looking to him expectantly.
“What we need to do is prep our battle wings,” Mara abruptly declares, taking charge. She whirls towards Kenth, her face set in hard lines of furious determination. “And get in touch with Admiral Sovv. We’re going to need a place to berth when we get to Coruscant.”