by Cara J. Loup
...if one of my fingers
to cut off and give you
could gain my redemption
I'd cut off my hand
...words are like poison
that bends you and blinds you
and some things you do
I just don't understand
(Lyle Lovett: Promises)
He shifted her a little closer and let his fingers drift down cascades of brown hair. Through dense foliage filtered the slanting light of a lazy afternoon sun, painting a line of dark gold across loose strands. Very gently, he traced that fragile golden thread, sliding his fingers through the rich softness. He could almost feel the light ripple on his skin.
Han inhaled deeply. "Okay," he said, "now that we finally got the time - tell me how you 'n Luke can possibly be twins. - Or," he voiced a sudden afterthought, "did you just make that up to ease my conscience, huh?"
Leia pulled away from him. "Who - me?" A spark of humor spoiled the semblance of outraged innocence. "I could never lie. Goes against my royal education, you know." "Yeah sure, Your Worship." A corner of his mouth lifted to produce the notorious, crooked grin. "You're a lamb. Now tell me."
"It's a complicated story."
Leia eased back against the smooth, reddish bark of a giant tree. "We were separated at birth," she started.
"Sounds like the beginning of a holo-novel."
"Do you want to hear or are you going to question every other word?"
He raised both hands in wordless surrender, drawing another smile from Leia. "We got separated for safety reasons," she continued. "The people who made that decision wanted Luke to be raised somewhere secure, as far from the centers of power as possible. The Jedi purge wasn't over, and they knew his talents... his potential endangered him."
"They?" Han asked when he felt quite sure Leia had finished. "Who - your parents?"
"I don't really know," she admitted, hugging her knees against her chest.
"And that's all?" Han cocked his head as another thought formed. "Does that mean you've got the same... potential? It's something genetic, is it--?" Uncomfortable with discussing what he professedly didn't believe in, Han interrupted himself.
"That's what Luke thinks. He told me I have it, too."
"Don't you know?" If there was any substance to the Force at all, Han figured it should articulate itself - somehow.
"I wasn't trained to recognize these things."
Leia's tone had changed subtly, and the note of reluctance didn't escape Han. "Okay. What else?" he asked, straightforward and matter-of-fact.
No way, his instincts said when he studied Leia's expression. Her gaze drawn inward, her features impassive: he'd seen that happen before, a sure symptom of trouble. "So how did you find out?" he tried, summoning patience. "How did Luke find out?"
Overhead, broad leaves swayed gently, but the breeze didn't touch Leia's upturned face. "I think Ben told him..."
"Meaning he knew all along? The old man died on--"
That again. Han felt another small stir of discomfort. So Luke conversed with the spirits of deceased Jedi. Claims like that had gotten people into the smothering care of mental institutions, for all Han knew. And Leia's curtness brought a tingle of suspicion. He seemed to be running into dead ends whichever approach he tried. "Is there..." he fumbled, "well - is there something else I should know about?"
When she turned her head, Leia's eyes had become remote, the mind behind the brown gaze firmly closed to him. For that particular moment, Han could easily believe she and Luke were brother and sister. Luke would get like that, too. Taciturn beyond hope, once he'd made up his mind.
Leia rested a light hand on his arm. "Yes," she said. "But there's too much I still don't understand, too much I need to think about. And it isn't for me to explain, either. I think you'd better talk to Luke."
The sense of perfection that had graced their shared silence a few minutes ago scattered abruptly. Han stiffened because he'd caught the camouflaged uneasiness in Leia's voice. "Tell me," he pressed.
Her smile was a little strained. "What do I have to do to make you accept a No for a No, huh? Talk to Luke."
"You think he's ready to enlighten me?" Han couldn't quite block the irritation from his tone.
A slight frown formed as Leia met his gaze. "Why shouldn't he be? Just go and find out."
Han muttered something inarticulate. All too clearly, he recalled very awkward moments out in a Tatooine sandstorm. When he'd blinked stinging eyes against the bright blur, fine sand settling on his skin, and in the middle of the sand-colored haze, Luke stood tensely straight and quiet, his face pale against the unfamiliar black outfit. Listening to all Han tried to express in the clumsiness of the moment, although the answers he gave seemed like excuses for things that went unsaid.
"What?" Leia prompted.
"It's not like he's been very eager to let on," Han said vaguely. "Remember when we left Tatooine? It was more like 'shut up 'n let me go about my business'."
"There wasn't much time."
He shrugged. "It's not like I don't want to talk to him... more like - I no longer know how to, know what I mean? I was out of it for a while, and he's... changed. Maybe you could ask him to--"
"No," Leia said firmly and squeezed his arm. "Okay, I'm the trained diplomat, but that doesn't mean I'm prepared to play the part in my private life."
When Han looked up genuinely perplexed, she added: "Don't you see how both of you are expecting me to be your go-between? Like the night of our celebration. You notice Luke's all by himself, but instead of talking to him you nudge me in his direction... Han, the fact that I'm his sister doesn't make Luke entirely my responsibility. And he's beginning to act like you do."
"What do you mean - responsibility?" Han asked, still chewing on the idea.
He could almost see the unrevealing composure drain away from Leia's gaze, exposing profound concern. "Doesn't he make you wonder?" She sighed and rested her chin on her knees. "Don't you wonder how long he'll last like this?"
"Luke's fine," he replied reflexively. "Look at how busy he got the very next day. He's okay."
Leia turned a look of frank exasperation on him. "You've never been a very accomplished liar, Han Solo, whatever you may think. He's not okay, and both you and I know it. He's holding himself together, that's all."
Without ever mentioning it between them, they'd both watched and waited. Waited for the brittle countenance to show the first cracks, deeply bothered when the desperate fatigue they met in Luke's eyes retreated there and found no outlet at all.
"Yeah, well - I've wondered on occasion," Han admitted.
The coppery sunlight slid across Leia's fingers as she rubbed them together. She stole a brief glance at the sky beyond the forest's canopy. "You're friends," she said resolutely. "And for all I can see, Luke doesn't have any other friend like you. Talk to him, okay?"
"Okay. I suppose there'll be a moment sometime," Han relented. "I could try, huh?"
Leia gave him a tolerant smile. Brushing tangled strands
back from her face, she rose and touched her lips to his forehead. "I've
got to be off now. Mon Mothma has asked me to see her tonight, to discuss
reforming the senate."
Days on Endor were like perennial, early fall. Lush foliage brandished a sated, deep green, but the light breeze carried an edge of coolness amidst the scents of over-ripe berries and drifting seeds. Daylight decayed early and fast with a pale, wintry gold.
Han climbed down the rope-ladder and stood on the forest floor, carpeted in fallen leaves and blobs of midnight-green moss. For some reason, it felt like the last day of a vacation never seriously begun. He turned, scanned the area while he called up the vague directions Wedge had given him.
You should be able to hear the river, once you've reached ground level.
The river? What the hell should he go there for?
A liberal shrug was extended in response. Why would anyone? A swim, I suppose.
A swim. Before Han's mind opened the indeterminate vista of arid planes glazed in shimmering heat, the sand-crusted void that was Tatooine, and he relaxed. So maybe Luke was enjoying a holiday after all, in the aftermath of unexpected, shattering victory. Maybe both he and Leia had been wrong to worry.
The unseen river made itself known with lazy sounds of water cajoling stones and overhanging branches. Navigating by the musical noise, Han found himself on the edge of a sluggish stream plunging through the forest like liquid jade. He'd struck a path skirting the water's edge and followed downstream in an aimless stride, borrowing time to fill his senses with the immensity of unspoiled peace.
Not entirely unspoiled, he amended mere minutes later, when a boulder of camouflage-painted, scorched metal blocked his path. The broken limb of an Imperial scout walker thrust into the water to rust, its battered control-head hidden in bramble thickets. Only days had passed since the shrieks and flares of battle tore through Endor's idyll, yet already the metal carcass resembled a memento deposited ages ago, to be cradled by nature's calm dominion.
Shortly after, Han found the glade at the river-bend, where the lazy rush rose in gurgling agitation. Pulsations of brazen light danced on the water and lit the spray. Han crossed the open space squinting in the spill of brightness when he caught a movement from the corner of his eye. He stopped and called: "Luke?"
Blue ferns sprawled on the edge of the glade. Luke stepped into the open, silent like a shadow, the black tunic slung over his shoulder. "Han? Were you looking for me?"
"Uh-huh." Han shrugged and held further explanations until Luke had finished buckling his belt and the pale blue eyes lifted again to meet with his. "Wedge told me you finished early today. Said you might be here."
He watched Luke surreptitiously, searching for symptoms of the tense disquiet, for the first time in days finding none.
Shimmering wetness beaded on Luke's bare chest and glittered in his hair. Every motion radiated relaxed calm as he rubbed the tunic across damp skin, drying himself. "Yeah, Rogue squad's shaping up again. Wedge feels we can afford taking a break."
"All repairs done already?"
"Whatever was left for repairs."
They shared a brief look of resignation. Han thought of the floating junkyard just outside Endor's cloudless skies, of crippled vehicles and debris twisted beyond recognition trapped in the moon's gravity well. Maybe the jungle swallowed every trace of war in a matter of days, but out in space, the carnage would remain legible for a long time, a brutal epitaph written in blasted steel.
"You've heard about the ceremony tomorrow?" Luke asked.
"Yeah." Han's reply was curt with discomfort. High Command had completed the list of losses, adding up to the staggering price they'd paid for victory. The dead would receive their due honors tomorrow, while history ploughed on with its very own, profound indifference.
"Wedge wants me to speak on behalf of the fighter squads," Luke said.
"I told him I'd think about it."
"No envy here," Han offered his sympathies. "Wedge isn't much of a talker, or he'd do it himself. He'd be embarrassed to hell and back."
"But he was with them when they died, and I wasn't," Luke said softly. He turned to the waterfront, gaze traveling with the swift stream.
"He trusts you," Han suggested. And perhaps Wedge's request reached beyond that: a gesture intended to restore a lost sense of belonging. Luke had been a member of the tribe once, a rookie pilot in the elite squad, propelled to command incredibly fast.
The moment of unprotected sentiment passed before Han could think of a single timely question to cover the uncertain terrain between them.
Drawing a deep breath of scented air, Luke stretched his arms. "I've been waking up to the smells of coolant and engine plasma every morning like it would never wash off again," he said. "But the water's wonderful. Cool and clean and soft like living silk."
"Yeah, looks kind of inviting," Han returned, absent gaze seeking the river.
"There's rapids further down though. Just around the bend." Luke slipped the tunic over his head and began closing the fasteners.
Han flicked him a sharp glance. "What, you found that out just now? Who taught you to swim anyway?"
"Nobody," Luke said lightly. A touch of amusement curved his mouth but never reached his eyes. "I taught myself."
For the blink of an eye, Han could see the farmboy before him, all blind bravado and enthusiasm and easily triggered impatience. Tousled blond hair flirting with the sun, eyes bright with the peculiar mixture of reckless spirit and insecurity. But the flash of reminiscence called forth everything that had been lost on the way from Tatooine to Endor as he studied Luke. Long intervals in space had darkened his blond hair, brusque training had defined lean muscles and self-conscious strength. Yet the easily visible difference allowed only for distorted reflections of the deeper, more disturbing changes. Explicit shadows under Luke's eyes, a permanent strain of tension in the set of his jaw offered ambiguous testimony, and sometimes there was a dark fire in his eyes, consuming something at terrible intensities.
Han couldn't just ask, and it bothered him. He preferred to believe in outright questions and according answers, but what he faced was like an obscure epigram of lost months and endless days.
"What're you looking at?" Luke asked, stretching the tone of tacit amusement. "Something wrong with me just because I went swimming all by myself?"
"You've gone other places all by yourself," Han retorted, none too subtle in his approach. "Makes me wonder."
"I can imagine."
"Well - I can't." Han heard the challenging note in his tone and wished, for the first time, Leia's diplomatic skills would rub off on him.
"I know." Luke abandoned the forced casualness with a shrug. "Everybody wonders. But some things just don't make very entertaining stories."
"I'm not here to be entertained," Han growled. "I'm here to be enlightened."
Evasive maneuvers at every other turn, flaunted in his face. "Everything," Han charged.
"Don't you think you're asking a bit too much?" Luke's voice had lowered - seriously surprised, but the look in his eyes was difficult to read.
Han swallowed a sharp rejoinder and tried a blind stab instead. "Nothing more than what you shared with Leia, for a start."
"Hasn't she told you?"
Luke's surprise was explicit this time, but the circuitous conversation stirred Han's temper. "No," he snapped. "She said she's not ready to talk and told me to ask you."
"So that's the reason you're here." The flat tone was a perfect match for Luke's expression. "Maybe I'm not ready either."
"I mean it."
No answers today. Han supposed the truth behind all those riddles had to be enormous, but Luke's flawless detachment thrust sympathy and honest concern back in his face. "Well I hope somebody's gonna be there 'n ready to listen when you finally feel like it," he fired back and clamped down on his irritation too late. His hands came up for an angry gesture. "Damn, Luke - I'm sorry."
The quiet tolerance never faltered. "It's okay. And you're right - there's that risk. I guess I'll just have to take it."
No compromising, huh? Han scratched his chin and knew he'd run out of words.
"C'mon," Luke said, nodding in the general direction of the Ewok village. "Let's make a move. There's a meeting with Mothma and Ackbar coming up that I can't miss."
They walked in silence, and when Luke turned for the path leading towards the landing space cleared from bramble thickets, Han still hadn't found the words that could right what was going wrong at a disturbing pace. He glanced up the rope ladder, appraised the distance to timber platforms hidden amidst the dancing green. "Guess I'll see you tomorrow then," he said, covering frustration in a poor imitation of casualness.
The pause made Han turn back and wrench something like an offer from his misgivings. "Luke, if there's anything you need..."
For a second, it looked as if Luke was going to answer, to request, to demand. As if it could be that easy.
"I know. And I appreciate it."
The second part of the sentence never came. The one starting with 'but--'
No thanks. No, I don't need anything. Not from you.
Han decided he could do without hearing it spoken. The fact that Luke now
counted him among the cohorts who required tactful handling and measured
distance was bad enough. Without another word, he ascended the swaying
Rows of steel caskets faced the open docking bay, metallic outlines softened by a thin white veil draped over the sepulchral array, inscribed with countless names in substitution of bodies which would never be recovered. Somebody had done a good job creating a memorial tableau, Han admitted, but he still counted down seconds and hung on to the grim silence appropriate for damage that could not be undone, however soothing the phrases it was couched in. The dull thrums of incipient headache beat distantly at the back of his skull and intensified his unrest as the ceremony crawled on.
Grave speeches alternated with respectful silence. Carefully balanced, pride and grief reflected in the arrangement of black and white among the participants. White-robed, the Alliance leaders - Leia, Mothma, Ackbar, Dodonna - stood like living icons of hope. On the impromptu mortuary's other side, the command staff had lined up in dark dress uniform, representatives of war's saturnine face. And beyond the wide open portals of the docking bay, sealed behind an invisible force field, extended deep-space black spattered with the steely whites of distant stars, pounded hard vacuum like an infinitely slow heartbeat.
Han felt Lando fidget next to him, as uncomfortable with the profoundly symbolic decorum as he was. When he spared another sidelong glance, an empty space at the end of the line had been filled with Luke's solemn presence, slender in black, eyes front and fixed on the reflections of steel biting through white cloth. Han caught Leia's gaze and read momentary concern in it. As Luke's turn to speak came, the worry was steeled back, disappeared in a very real glow of pride that acknowledged the blood-ties.
Brother and sister, Han thought, glancing from one to the other. What had seemed so unbelievable changed into blatant truth and forced him to question how he could have missed the obvious. Under the guise of physical difference ran the deeper likeness, the strictly disciplined passion, the guarded core of vulnerable beliefs and hopes. It still showed in Leia's dark eyes: the threat of despair constantly kept at bay, and the strength wrested from intimate knowledge of defeat. But nothing of it filtered through Luke's voice as he invoked the courage of fighter pilots thrust into the front line of battle, and the shadow of fear that was their bitterest enemy. Han felt his features tighten reflexively. Sure, Luke chose all the right and fitting words, only it didn't sound like he was speaking from personal experience at all, like any of this had ever touched him.
"They said their good-byes before they left," Luke finished. "They knew there'd be no time for regrets, that death would strike between one thought and the next. They also knew they'd burn like brighter suns, if only for a moment. And this is how we should remember them."
The words and the gentle tones in which they were spoken stirred emotions through the gathering, freed sadness from the constraints of remorse and anger. Through a cloud of ambiguous sentiments, Han watched as Luke stepped back, ending the flawless performance with a stiff bow of his head.
Something played on his pale face fractionally and disappeared behind level resolve. Remote like the rain-clouds hovering over Endor's green mountains, quiet like a storm far out on Corellia's oceans, Luke was heading straight for exile in the middle of friends and allies. With good enough reasons, most likely, Han forced himself to suppose. But yesterday's frustration was still too vivid, even if the sting of personal disappointment had just been taken out of it. Luke was withdrawing from everyone, not just from him, Han conceded, but still couldn't bring himself to applaud the notion.
Only minutes later, the stern formations disintegrated into small parties. A very material sense of relief vented itself in handshakes and shoulder-claps and brief conversations as everyone headed for the docking bay's doors.
Luke was swallowed up into the group wearing white. Approaching, Han heard the words of congratulation Mon Mothma found for his speech, saw Leia wrap her arm around Luke's waist in a quick hug.
"You were late," she said. "What happened?"
Luke returned her smile. And although Han couldn't catch his answer, the gentle brush-off, the carefully calculated warmth extended to defuse her attention were clear enough. Luke was already drawing away when Han made it to Leia's side.
"Man, am I glad this is over," he muttered, breathing easier as they walked the sober corridor of Admiral Ackbar's flagship.
"It was necessary," Leia pointed out, but her tone fell short of the usual calm. "We have to remember there's a price to pay for every victory."
Catching the note of sadness, Han wrapped an arm around her shoulders and motioned Leia towards a curving viewport. "Who's paying?" he asked bluntly. "You? Luke?"
She leaned into him. "Each and every one of us, of course. But... Han - sometimes I wonder if the price Luke had to pay wasn't too high."
He wanted to point out that, kept in the dark like this, he couldn't subscribe or deny. But protectiveness superceded the impulse, and he patted her back gently. "Look, he's not the kid he was, he's grown up. If Luke feels he can handle it--"
"He's very disciplined," Leia agreed half-heartedly.
Discipline, reserve, weary patience: all the qualities acquired with the new title.
Maybe a single word held the key to so many disquieting changes. Han made himself consider the option. "Could be us, y'know, seeing things," he suggested. "Because we can't accept the change. Maybe it's time we stopped making a fuss..."
Leia tilted her head for a wry grin. "You were the one constantly fussing over him, like Luke couldn't take a single step by himself."
"I did what?" Han protested, but the lighter mood didn't last long enough to disperse the worry in Leia's eyes.
"You don't really believe that, do you?" she asked in a softer voice. "What you just said..."
"I wish to hell I could." He hugged her for a moment, until closing steps caught their attention.
Lando had flung a flash-blue cape around his shoulders and looked every bit as if heading for a party. For all Han knew, his old buddy had spent the past few days reaping the profits of his brand new popularity among the female members of staff.
He grinned. "Well, Lando - what's shaking? Got another heavy date comin' up?"
"I wouldn't call it that..." Lando flicked imaginary lint off his shoulder. "Though you never know.... Our designated Chief of State might've changed her mind about the nature of our appointment in the meantime."
"Mothma? Why do I get the feeling I'm being overlooked?" Han demanded, rubbing the stiff back of his neck. "Seems like everybody gets invited for interviews with her Ladyship--"
"We're going, too," Leia interfered.
"Yeah, laserbrain." She reached up and tousled his hair affectionately. "I told you this morning."
"Must've been the sleeping half of my brain you were talking
to." Han made a face at Lando who watched the two of them with overt amusement.
"So? What're we waiting for?"
A sumptuous holo projection cast its shimmers around the conference room: seven planets courting a bright yellow sun, coasting along in shades of pearl, turquoise, and deep gold.
Han almost shook his head at the leap of pulse that jolted him. The configuration was unmistakable, and the sight brought a flashback of sentiments firmly relegated to an irretrievable past.
"Corellia," Mon Mothma said from the head of the table, "is about to shake the Imperial yoke. When they learned of our enemy's defeat, the Corellian peoples rose to reclaim their freedom."
For once, Han found Mothma's stilted speech intensely appropriate. Words that blew the lid off buried boyhood memories, surging to flood his mind with bright scents and sounds and the stifling atmosphere of Imperial occupation.
Mothma's white robe was a pale shadow at the back of the room. Her hands lifted in a measured gesture of supplication. "A courier ship arrived last night, asking for our support. High Command has considered our capacities all day."
Considered? Han wanted to sneer. Slender fingers closed around his wrist, cautioning his temper.
"Listen," Leia said below her breath.
At Mothma's signal, Admiral Ackbar took over, waving a tightbeam pointer at the rapidly changing holo. Flickering blips riddled both the planets and interplanetary space in a purple plague of Imperial outposts, garrisons, and orbital stations.
"Our enemy's presence is strong in the Corellian system," Ackbar acknowledged, "but their grip is faltering. Entire contingents were drawn off to join the Endor battle, and the remaining commanders are undecided. Substantial numbers are defecting from their ranks."
Several pulsating blips changed their color to flare a triumphant green. "Some of the garrisons have surrendered," the gravelly voice continued. "Some were taken by force. If we send in reinforcements immediately, there's a chance we can overturn the balance of power for good."
So? Han clenched his teeth in tense anticipation.
"Well - will we?" Lando asked blandly, exerting no such discipline.
Iridescent eyes swivelled and fixed him. "Yes," Ackbar replied. "We will dispatch all the backup we can spare at this point. The Corellian system is part of the galactic core where our ultimate victory will have to be won."
Adrenaline flushed Han and drove him from his seat. He rose, thumbs hooked to his belt. "I volunteer."
Puzzled silence echoed his statement. Han looked around and felt a bit of a fool, but it didn't matter much. "Whatever you're willing to throw in I'm ready to take into battle," he elaborated. "And it'd better be today than tomorrow, we ain't got no time to waste."
From the corner of his eye, he caught Leia's smile, fond and exasperated and quickly covered up in dignified composure.
"General Solo," Ackbar said sternly, "the command staff is quite aware of the situation's urgency. However, your generous offer has been anticipated--"
"Oh." Han sat again with a shrug.
The Admiral nodded, heavy lids hiding the glint of humor in his eyes. "Prepare for departure at 0900 hours tomorrow, General. Commander Talen will brief you and provide all the details you require."
"Thanks," Han muttered, privately certain there were more fitting words for the occasion.
From the seat on his left, Lando leaned closer. "Eager to be a hero all over, aren't you? Sounds like a neat challenge to me... if you don't want all the fame for yourself, that is."
Han tossed him a grateful grin. "The competition's open for everyone."
Bit by bit, the news sank in, and with the countless issues to be considered came a strange sense of finality. The brief respite was over. The war continued, like he might have expected, only he hadn't given the future much coherent thought. It was back to hopping from one critical situation to the next, albeit with distinctly improved odds to boost his confidence.
He looked at Leia, recalled the last time he'd volunteered for rough duty.
Count me in, General.
Not this time. Leia's hand moved to rest on top of his, but her smile was shaded by wistful hesitance.
Han sat through the rest of the meeting with only half his mind tuned in on Ackbar's continuing explanations. Vague visions of times to come overlapped and absorbed his thoughts into a blend of elation and apprehension. While part of himself cheered at the prospect of ongoing adventure, the voice of reason suggested otherwise. Change was too poignant all around him. Eyes drifting sideways, across the elegant folds of Leia's robe, he saw the senator-princess instead of the gunfighter and couldn't expect her to abandon chosen duty.
Romantic delusions, he scoffed at the disappointment creeping up on him. What'd you expect? The bunch of us roaming the galaxy for the next fight?
Leia wouldn't join him for the trip to Corellia.
And Luke - Luke wasn't even here. Maybe he knew already. Or maybe High Command didn't consider his involvement necessary.
When they filed from the conference room at last, he clasped Leia's hand firmly but said nothing until they'd entered the lift that transported them back to the shuttle bays.
"You're not coming, are you?"
"I can't," Leia said a little stiffly. "We need to form new alliances with the neutral systems, negotiate terms with Imperial colonies willing to surrender--"
"And there's a general shortage of trained diplomats," Han finished for her. "Sure, I understand."
"You don't sound too happy."
"Would you like it if I was? I was kinda lookin' forward to spending some time with you."
"Kinda," Leia echoed, dry humor returning to her tone. "You could have, you know."
"Could have what?"
"You could've joined me, let Lando take the fleet to Corellia."
Han stared at her, but Leia's widening grin relaxed the momentary flash of tension. "Corellia's about the only place I'd call home. In a way," he said awkwardly. "And I couldn't possibly--"
"I know. Same here."
The lift shuddered to an abrupt stop, doors swishing apart. A stab of blinding pain seared up from the persistent ache and throbbed in Han's temples for a second.
Leia's concerned tone informed him that he'd gasped. He straightened and blinked, trying to clear his blurred vision. His head still swam, but the bright agony was gone. "Got a nasty headache," he muttered. "I'm okay."
"You certainly don't look it, hero." Leia patted his arm. "Must be the one or two drinks you had with Lando, last night. Now come on. There's hundreds of Ewoks waiting to say their tactile good-byes to a recently adopted clansman."
"Don't you dare to breathe a word!" Han growled and followed
her out across the flight deck.
Against the cool angles and chrome polish of a Mon Calamari cruiser's docking bay, the Falcon looked like a desolate relic of war. Stepping back from the gangplank, Han appraised her critically. Next to the fresh carbon scorings traversing older scars, the irregular seams of cover plates welded over gashes in the battered hull still showed. Chewbacca had been busy with the most urgent repairs, but the sensor dish sheared off during a last-moment escape from the Death Star had not been replaced yet. Han made a mental note to needle Lando about it when Chewbacca's growl, uncomfortably close to his ear, startled him.
"What d'you mean - jumpy?" he snapped at the Wookiee. "I just don't like anyone sneakin' up on me, and what's wrong with you anyway?"
Chewie's surly grumbles told him nothing new.
"Look, you got over a week to get her back in shape," Han pointed out. "Now gimme a break, will ya?"
He glanced at the chrono. The countdown for departure was on and left him with barely enough time to say all the unavoidable good-byes. Mentally flipping through the list, he headed for the nearest lift. Half the command staff would want to deck him out with good wishes and advice, and then there'd be the stiff routine of facing Mothma to put up with. With an inward shrug, Han let his thoughts turn back to Leia, glad they'd found a private moment to say their good-byes in the early-morning quiet of Endor.
Birds chittered drowsily, dewy leaves gleamed through slowly evaporating mists, and warm sleep still lingered in his bones. Leia was calm - so calm Han forgot about telling her not to worry. Only when he wrapped his arms around the slim waist did he feel the subdued tension.
"Whatever it is, it's gonna be alright," he tried.
"I'd like to believe that."
But that was as far as it went, and Han already knew better than to press Leia for answers.
Stepping from the lift, he passed a row of small shuttle bays when the sound of busy bleeps broke into his thoughts. Inside the bay, a very familiar Artoo unit was running checks on the X-wing parked in the shadows. Han squinted at the flashing runlights. "Luke," he said, not a question.
"Right here." Luke ducked out from under the fighter.
"What--?" Han shook his head. "Hell, I've been lookin' for you all morning! What in blazes are you doing here?"
"What's it look like?" Luke asked back with a grin.
"It looks like you got yourself a passage," Han said slowly. "Or you're the clumsiest stowaway in history."
"Don't worry, I'm legal. Got official blessings," Luke returned, but his grin faded at the edges. "I might not come all the way, Han."
Not surprised, Han shrugged. "Tell me all about it later. Gotta kiss the brass good-bye now. And, Luke--" He turned at the doors, paused. "It's good you're here anyway, y'know," he finished awkwardly.
Surprise seemed to brighten the blue eyes fractionally.
And relief, Han thought, but then of course, he could have been mistaken.
A terse hour later, they were standing on the cruiser's spacious bridge, watching, side by side, as the cloud-swathed jade of Endor disappeared behind the curve of the larger planet.
Sanctuary Moon, Han thought. An odd, half-forgotten designation - now the name of history. His sidelong glance picked up the volatile expressions that crossed Luke's face. Grief, deliverance, unabsolved rebellion - all of this, and more, quickly passing again. And like himself, Luke seemed intent on absorbing their Endor days deep into the vaults of recollection.
Together they watched as the Mon Calamari cruisers and their retinue of frigates and corvettes ploughed towards the system's periphery with slowly building speed. Clipped announcements were exchanged among the bridge crew, and a half-dozen monitors came alive, flashing figures in preparation for the jump.
"Ready for lightspeed?" Han remembered to ask over his shoulder.
"Ready, General," the navigator supplied at once.
Another grin tugged Luke's mouth.
"What?" Han lowered his voice and returned a mock-glare.
"General..." Luke mouthed. "I'd no idea that'd sit so well on you."
"'S quite painless, so long as you spare me the flattery..." Han turned back to the viewport, a little lightheaded with the never-waning allure of infinity out there. "We've come a long way, huh? Since Mos Eisley--"
There was no reply, only a small motion from Luke that seemed to recall their earlier closeness for the transient moment. A subliminal pulse stirred the air. Han inhaled deeply as shivers hunted through the large ship, crawled on his skin with indefinite anticipation. Like so many times before, the seething currents of energy unleashed by powerful engines electrified him. The cruiser shuddered. Steady constellations of pinpoint lights and immense darkness collapsed and expanded in a surge of shadow-streaked, dazzling brightness. A split-second's suspension, dizzy in zero-G, then the ship slid into hyperspace. Han smiled to himself. He heard Luke release the breath he'd held, spellbound by incredible speed like every other pilot.
"Well, here we go then," Lando said in their backs, leaning against the commander's chair.
Han stepped away from the viewport, but hesitated to sit in the oversized chair, designed to accommodate a Mon Cal commander. "Getting bored already, pal? Go ahead, play Captain for a while."
"Got my own cruiser to command," Lando reminded him.
Han clapped his shoulder. "Well, please yourself. I got years to catch up with." He pointed in the vague direction of the library computer. "Keeping track on Corellian politics wasn't much fun, until now."
With visible reluctance, Luke left his post by the viewport, a window opening on the fluctuating splendors of hyperspace.
Watching him leave, Han settled by the library computer and began paging through the staggering wealth of data.
When the lines and letters on the monitor blurred and his mind garbled the portion that still leached through, Han took himself off to the cantina for a drink and some quiet thinking.
Head crammed with facts and a thousand new questions, he sank into the next available chair. The ship's cantina was empty, ambient lighting appropriately gentle, the synthesized ale better than he'd expected. Han stretched the kinks out of his stiff arms and shoulders. He sipped on his ale, gazed out the viewport and tried to convince himself it was real. Corellia had lived at the back of his mind during all those years so much it seemed like a private fantasy more than an actual place. Although he'd never cared to indulge private memories in all their unresolved ambiguity, Corellia had been part of himself, an ultimate destination.
But what if his boyhood world had changed beyond recognition? Han wondered. What if he had? What if, with the necessarily drastic changes at hand, Corellia became just one more place for stopovers and brief visits? Han could almost feel the chill breath of a deeper loneliness uprooting his past.
Recollections finally escaped the firm restraints and assailed the coherence of his thinking until he gave in. To remember...
...the midnight ocean and the eerie, green glow of minuscule organisms that embroidered the surf. Hypnotized and dumbstruck among the older boys, he'd thought the sea was burning, its cool, green fires eating into the coast until there'd be nothing left. But morning came, the phosphorescent garlands faded, and the beach was littered with the usual junk, with driftwood, withered jellyfish and clumps of rotting algae.
He remembered standing in a queue that reached all the way down the alley, exhaust of Imperial patrol cars sticky on his skin. Overhead, bulky troop carriers passed one after the other, trailed by slurred announcements that filtered over exterior speakers. A soft drizzle washed the dirt and dust down his face and painted chemical rainbows across the wet street.
He remembered speeder races further down the coast, beyond the vast carcass of the planetary shield generator, skimming across the spray with salty air biting into his lungs and the ghosts of liberation hard on his heels.
He remembered bonfires and parades and hushed conversations and the clattering echoes of steps marching past the house, on and on, in the middle of the night. And like every other night, he'd recited a secret plan of escape and adventure before falling asleep.
The glass was empty and his mouth was dry. Somewhere beyond the overload of memory lurked the shadow of another headache.
Unsure about the number of drinks he'd already had, Han pushed up with a mission for the dispenser when someone tapped his shoulder.
"So this is how you interpret your duties as Fleet Commander," Lando said, grinning broadly.
"Get off me," Han shot back in a mock-growl.
They programmed fresh drinks, then returned to the table.
"You don't look... too excited," Lando started. "Discovered some bad news in the databanks?"
"Nothing I hadn't expected. Economy's down in the dumps after Imperial exploitation, pollution's worse than ever, prison camps're full of rebellious minds." Han took a long sip of the pale, synthetic brandy and grimaced. "Uncounted show trials, mass arrests 'n tortures - all the things you'd expect to happen have been going on for years. Same things happened when I still lived there... on a smaller scale."
"Honest to the-Gods-you-don't-believe-in... you think we have a chance?"
Han considered for a few moments. "Yeah. We can surprise 'em. Take out a few orbital stations before they even realize - that kinda stuff. The Governor's palace - that includes military headquarters, and they're massive - that's the nasty part. We might have to blast our way through the better part of the capital to get at it, if we can't talk them into surrender."
"Sounds like the right job for a strategic genius," Lando said.
"Like who?" Reading his friend's expression, Han grinned and rubbed his stiff neck. "Oh, I get it. Well, we got enough time to cook up something, huh?" He tapped his empty glass. "How about a refill?"
Lando retrieved a modestly sized decanter from the drink dispenser this time. "None o' that sounding so bad," he started, "how come you're pullin' a face like that? You're goin' home, with a good chance of ending up everybody's hero..."
"Home?" Han echoed skeptically. "Do you know how long it's been since I last came anywhere near Corellia? I'm not even sure I'd recognize the place where my folks used to live these days."
"At least you got someplace to call home. That's something rare for the likes of us, buddy."
Surprised, Han looked up. Lando, who'd been born aboard a colonist transport that never made it to its original destination, had never before expressed a particular need for a place to belong.
"Yeah, maybe that's something," Han conceded. He thought of Leia and Alderaan, of Luke and a solitary homestead in the marches of the Jundland Wastes, reduced to smoking ruins. Neither of them had a choice to abandon or return to their childhood homes.
Lando's expression was still thoughtful when Han met his eyes again, so he said: "How about Cloud City? You seemed comfortable enough there, and I don't suppose the Imperials cared to establish a proper garrison, did they?"
"Not even nearly," Lando answered haltingly.
A lean, dark hand came up and waved the possibility aside. "Never had a taste for living backwards, gone's gone. Besides, after all the things that happened there..."
Their eyes met briefly, then both looked down at their glasses, wary of unspoken truths.
A disclaimed, unwanted memory of the carbon chamber's dusky gloom and biting vapors crept up on Han. He could almost see Lando's frozen expression and recalled thinking that Lando looked like he was to be pushed out onto the hydraulic platform himself, wild anger of a trapped animal reflecting in his eyes. They'd never mentioned the betrayal between them. Lando's actions made up for his mistake, and that was that. Han drained his glass fast.
"You know, I really felt like a Baron at the time," Lando said at last, mocking himself with the hint of a smile. "Such a beautiful, perfect place. Couldn't last, could it?"
"Nothing lasts," Han returned automatically, incipient relief forming a tight grin.
"Yeah." Lando poured new drinks for them both. "But some memories haunt you, and some don't."
Han felt himself stiffen reflexively, sure he didn't want to hear any more. From somewhere outside himself, his own voice asked: "And Cloud City haunts you?"
"You bet." Lando's chin lifted, and he met Han's eyes squarely. "All the shit that happened, the fact that I blew it all sky-high... yeah, there's that. But it's the images that keep comin' back, you know. Those perfect white towers, like nothing could ever touch them. The sun going down, setting all that afire, Leia piloting the Falcon--"
It wasn't quite what Han had expected. He rubbed his chin, puzzled by the distant look in Lando's eyes, tried to ignore the headache's stealthy return.
"And suddenly there's someone hanging from the city's underside," Lando continued. "I thought he's dead already. We can never get to him in time... With Vader obsessing about him like he did, I'd been wondering about Luke, you know."
Through the gentle haze of alcohol wrapping around his thoughts, Han tried to follow Lando's increasingly erratic explanations. "Hanging - from where?"
Lando waved a hand. "That array of weather vanes we used to monitor magnetic storms in the atmosphere, that's where. He was holding on to it one-handed, and when he dropped right through the Falcon's top hatch, he was more than half-dead. Looked like a frightened kid to me. Why would Vader go after the likes of him? He was beaten, deep in shock over his hand--"
"His hand?" Han echoed when Lando broke off. Leia had never given him the details of how they'd found Luke, and he'd never asked. He massaged his throbbing temples. "Go on."
But Lando seemed to have snapped out of reminiscence. "Nothing more to tell," he said shortly. "Luke recovered surprisingly fast, didn't he? I hadn't met him before, but then it didn't take too long till I found out he's tougher than he looks. A lot."
Han offered only a noncommittal grunt. Between the drifting fogs and the dull ache besetting his brain, he'd lost track of the question he'd wanted answered.
"Yeah, well, that's how I remember Bespin," Lando concluded with an apologetic grin. "So now you know why I'd rather start again someplace else."
Draining his glass, Han rolled the brandy on his tongue for a while. It was the end of first shift, and crew members poured into the cantina in groups, reminding him of his rank and duty.
Still early in the day, and here you are, gettin' drunk 'n sentimental all around...
He shook his head. "Willya look at us - we're beginning to act senile before our time, Lando. About time we got back into business, huh?"
"That's what we're here for, ain't it?"
Han nodded and pushed up briskly. The cantina went out of focus instantly. But it wasn't the brandy-cloud that darkened his vision and made him hold his breath for a split second of gut-twisting apprehension. Steadying himself against the table, Han passed a hand over his eyes, willed the pounding blackness away bit by bit.
"Han? Come on, old buddy, what's wrong?"
The table's outlines cleared in another second. "Just that damn headache again," Han grated, straightening out. "Comes 'n goes these days."
"You'd better get down to sickbay, let 'em check you through," Lando suggested, concern hidden under the flippant tone.
"Droids!" Han growled. "They can have my body when I'm dead."
"You're due for a medical anyway. We all are."
"Not me, pal. I'm in charge here, and they do as I say. If they don't, I'll have 'em deactivated."
Lando produced a grimace of exasperation. "I'm sure that's not in the regulations. Medical droids in particular can--"
Working up a disparaging grin, Han told him exactly what
the droids could do with regulations, privileges and medical examinations.
"I'll be in my quarters," he finished. "A short nap's all I need, then
I'll be fine."
When he woke to the darkened cabin and the unfamiliar feel of a ship much larger than the Falcon, the drinks' effects had worn off. Han turned his head to stare at the chrono, informing him he'd slept half through the ship's night already. Flopping down on the bunk fully dressed and in his boots, he'd dozed off immediately - although passed out might be the more accurate description. Annoyed at himself, Han toggled the wall com and tried to clear the lingering drowsiness from his voice before talking to the officer on duty. No unusual occurrences demanded his presence on the bridge.
"Thanks, Lieutenant," Han grumbled. He pulled his boots off, unbuckled the blaster belt and rubbed the sore spot where the holster had pressed into his thigh. General Solo - what a laugh... But as soon as he'd eased back on the bunk he fell asleep again.
And that was exactly how it felt: falling... dropping down a stifling black tunnel, propelled by the aching, leaden heaviness in every limb. And then he was sharply caught in mid-fall, hanging in helpless suspension.
Slowly, the darkness brightened until the light stung his eyes, piercing his lids with radiant, constantly moving forms and silhouettes. There were faraway voices, too, rasping across strangely sensitized nerves, and the light filled his mind bit by bit, cauterized thought and emotion, obliterated every sense of time and place. A burning white void engulfed him, washed along overfired nerves hot and cold until he thought he would scream - and right there it stopped. Frozen on the edge of agony, he felt the hungry cold invade every cell of his limp body. Acidic carbonite smoldered in his nostrils, slid down his throat and curled into his lungs.
And it went on forever.
Han shuddered awake. Echoes of a scream still rang in his ears, but he knew he hadn't made a sound. It wasn't the first night disrupted by this particular dream.
Apprehensive of the dull thrumming in his head, he sat up and peeled off the clothes plastered to his hot, sticky skin.
"Thanks, Lando," he said aloud, when he'd reached the sanctuary of the bathroom cubicle and cool water ran down his tense back. "Right what I need now. Next time you wanna dig up the bad old days, go talk to the decompression chamber."
The shower eased some of the tension from his knotted muscles but the headache remained. Checking the chrono once more, Han reluctantly decided chances were that nobody would notice if he slipped in for a quick medical, this early in the morning.
He almost backed off again when the doors to sickbay slid apart and Two-Onedee, improved medical droid on her first test run, rose to meet him. Taller than the earlier Two-Onebee model, the droid reminded Han of an oversized mantis; long jaw flapping, the thin arms she crossed before her chest ending in claw-like appendages.
"General Solo," she intoned. "What can I do for you?"
At least she was aware of his rank.
"Well, what d'you think?" he asked snappishly, even though he knew the display of temper would be completely lost on the droid. "I'm here to take my medical, of course."
The diagnostic unit she made him stand in was uncomfortably reminiscent of devices designed to serve less beneficial purposes. Delicate laser beams searched every inch of skin, bright lights pumped in rhythm with his heartbeat, and across the monitor on the periphery of Han's vision spiked the erratic lines representing his brainwave patterns.
"Relax," the droid repeated.
Yeah, yeah - easy for you to say... Han closed his eyes and told himself that the tingling sensation on his skin was a product of hyperactive imagination only.
"Well?" he asked, when Two-Onedee motioned him from the diagnoser.
"You're suffering from recurring headaches," she said neutrally.
Coulda told you that in the first place, Han sneered inwardly.
"During stressful situations, you experience spells of acute pain accompanied by dizziness, which frequently impairs your vision," Two-Onedee continued. "You're not fully functional, sir." Han swallowed another sharp reply. "So that's what it is? Stress?" he asked skeptically. "I've been through strain a helluva lot worse than this--"
Two-Onedee wagged her long head and looked down on him with colorless photo-receptors, reflecting the wintry illumination of sickbay. "No," she said. "It isn't stress. The readings indicate what can perhaps be described as protracted brain trauma."
Han felt his jaw harden, and a first wave of adrenaline was released into his blood. Carbon freeze, he thought. Seven Sith hells, that's why--
His mind went through a liberal selection of profanities, only half-listening to the medical droid's elaborations. She had the Alliance file on him, of course, and knew all about the carbon freeze.
"...can easily cure the physical aftereffects," Han heard her say. "I'd recommend mild narcotics for the next few nights, to ease your sleep."
He thought he could see an unspoken 'but' on the horizon. "What else?" he asked testily. "Are you sayin' there's more than just physical aftereffects?"
"Traumatic experiences such as the one you underwent are bound to produce complex psychosomatic symptoms in humans," Two-Onedee lectured in the gentlest tone available to her programming. "Drugs can repress the symptoms, but a full cure requires that we deal with the psychological aspects--"
Han cut her short with an impatient gesture. "Repressing the symptoms 's fine by me," he said. "The rest I can take care of." No messin' with my brains, sister...
The droid lapsed into impartial silence. Han was about to escape sickbay when a different question occurred to him. "Has... Commander Skywalker come in for the medical yet?" he asked, hesitating because he wasn't sure about Luke retaining his military rank.
"Yes," Two-Onedee answered and turned away.
"Well, did he check out?"
The droid seemed to consider for a while, then swivelled her long head around unnervingly. "I am not authorized to discuss the personal files of crew members with anyone except this vehicle's medical staff," she said in the same, expressionless tone.
"Yeah, but I'm this vehicle's captain," Han insisted. "Means I'm entitled to make sure every crew member's fit for their duty, right? Or don't you read the regulations?"
"I am aware of the regulations, sir."
Instead of answering immediately, Two-Onedee approached the computer terminal and keyed up a file. "Commander Skywalker is in perfect health," she finally announced.
Han stepped closer to glance over her shoulder. "What about - his hand?" he asked on impulse, because suddenly the strange conversation with Lando came back to him in every detail. Including the vague notion that Lando was deliberately avoiding a question.
Two-Onedee's tone became almost agitated. "The prosthesis? It is in excellent condition, sir. A masterpiece of bionic engineering, if I may say so."
A chill ran through Han, touching all of him from head to heel.
Prosthesis? Come on--
He was probably lucky the words couldn't pass the cold
lump settling in his throat. Bad joke, Han kept telling himself,
but the droid would expect him to honor the bare facts of her file, supposing
he was aware of what everyone else seemed to know. A sweep of dark anger
broke his dumbstruck inertia. "Yeah. Thanks," he managed, then stalked
past the noiselessly opening doors
before his impulse to grab and smash
something into the nearest wall could get the better of him.
Over breakfast in the cantina, Han mentally replayed the scene until the automatically raised battlements of disbelief and brusque refusal began to crumble. Blind anger poured through the breach, pressing outward in every possible direction.
Lando, Han thought. You bastard... So the kid lost a hand 'n you say you're haunted - got off easy, didn't ya? Lost some money 'n reputation for helping Vader spring his bloody trap, smart-ass, but that's as bad as it got - well, less than you deserve 'n that's for sure--
He stabbed at the cooling strip of spring-salmon on his plate, lifted the fork only to let it clatter against the durable imitation of porcelain in disgust. The dim memory of his own fist slamming into Lando's jaw in a Cloud City detention cell came up and faltered before the rush of resentment.
You certainly have a way with people, he heard Leia say. Well, she certainly had a way of forgetting unpleasant details, in favor of the greater cause. Teaming up with Lando and letting him take the Falcon to Tatooine immediately after. Very noble and generous, or maybe it was the practical side to her thinking permitting such prompt forgiveness. A hand could be replaced, thanks to bionic engineering. And obviously, Leia had never considered the fact worth mentioning.
Nor had Luke.
The picture formed before Han's inner sight, vivid and instantaneous. Luke striding across a swinging walkway on the edge of the Ewok village, eyes reflecting the scattered bonfires. His clothes were torn and scorched in places, soot stained the collar, but he radiated pure energy, and relief washed through Han's mind so vast he had to catch his breath.
He remembered the pressure of a gloved hand closing around his arm. The firelight bouncing off Luke's tousled hair, turning it a dark gold, the intensity in every gesture, every word, like he'd never been more alive, and Han had wanted to believe that, even if Luke's spirits seemed to soar just a little too high.
He'd wanted to believe that Luke had returned home, back to where he belonged.
Han picked at the food on his plate, swallowed a piece of dry toast that tasted like sandpaper, then pushed the plate across the table, almost sending it over the edge.
True, doubts and questions had started to register soon enough, quietly haunting that very night of their celebration, but ultimately, he'd fallen for appearances with the rest of the trusting dupes, mercifully left in the dark. Like a holonet hero, Luke Skywalker could emerge from the jaws of perdition without so much as a scratch.
And it was all a giant, gods-be-damned make-believe.
If Lando hadn't started to blather about it, I wouldn't know shit, Han thought, and what if I hadn't pulled rank on that brainless droid--
Though of course he might have asked Luke, up front, straight out. Maybe Luke had grown taciturn, but he'd answer a forthright question anytime.
I can still do that, Han argued against better reason, and inwardly winced at the notion. Play innocent, wait until an occasion for very casual inquiry offered itself? Luke would see clear through the hypocrisy. And Han could count on his temper to blow the pretense eventually.
Embarrassment wound into his thoughts and joined the smoldering anger. Luke should've told me, Han defended his actions against the voice reciting unpleasant names for his snooping around. He rubbed his temples, thinking, as he fished for Two-Onedee's uppers in one of his waistcoat's pockets, that he'd messed up and had better straighten the matter soon. Even though the prospect was far from appealing.
Cursing in silence, Han stared at the two, non-colored
capsules in his hand and couldn't bring himself to swallow them, despite
Two-Onedee's denial of any side-effects whatsoever. Comfortably numb just
wouldn't do: he needed his mind clear, even if that meant his thinking
would share terrain with the pounding headache for another while. Reluctantly,
he picked up the plate and fed his untouched breakfast to the recycler.
Luke had left his quarters, and being in no mood to inquire with the crew, Han took over an hour until he finally opened the door inscribed 'Research and Tactical'.
Over the central computer core floated the graceful holo of the Corellian system, backed up by a number of slightly smaller projections, each hanging over a separate console. Stepping into the room, Han could see that every star system they'd pass on the journey to Corellia was represented, a shimmering treasure of faraway suns and their satellites, radiant in the dimness that hid the sprawling chamber's walls and created an illusion of epitomized infinity.
Han wandered into the maze of silently circling planets, eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. And there was Luke, in a distant corner of the room, poring over a datascreen.
"Hi, kid," Han said, his tone a poor imitation of nonchalance.
Luke returned the greeting with minimal hesitation, while a brief slapping of keys blanked the monitor and erased whatever he'd studied. "Still researching Corellian history?" he asked, rising from his seat.
Han shook his head uncomfortably. "Was looking for you."
"You've found me."
A quick flash of apprehension seemed to reflect in Luke's gaze, but Han could not be sure. Roaming around the cruiser had given him time to consider and discard countless ways of phrasing tangled sentiments - each as hollow as the next. He nodded, mentally bracing himself, and asked: "What happened to your hand, Luke?"
The slighter man stiffened infinitesimally. "Since you're asking, you must know already," Luke returned, voice so level it bordered on toneless. Not a fraction of sentiment showed in his eyes.
"Yeah - yeah, I know." Han grimaced as embarrassment built to full momentum. "Dropped in on Two-Onedee this morning 'n asked her to look up your file for me. Lando mentioned something last night - kept nagging at the back of my mind, so I figured she'd know."
"You could've asked me."
"I know, Luke."
"I didn't, okay? 'N I'm sorry, but--" Han interrupted himself mid-sentence before he could start shouting. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
His awkward apology fell into halting silence.
Gaze sweeping around the room for distraction and finding none, Han pulled up his shoulders. "Are you gonna tell me?" he finally asked.
The blue eyes closed briefly, then Luke's chin rose. "Tell you what? What's it take to satisfy this sudden burst of interest?"
Unreasoning temper outran Han's contrition at that. "Hey, don't make it sound like it was me turning the cold shoulder on everyone!" he said irascibly.
"Are you saying that I did?"
This time, emotion simmered in Luke's voice, curbed and unreadable, but still a sign the argument was getting through to him.
"Well - yeah," Han answered bluntly. "Like... the night you left the Ewok village without a single word, remember? I know, I know, you told Leia you were leaving. And where you were going..."
Luke shook his head in fierce denial, but no words came. Checking his irritation, Han studied the hard set of the jaw, the tense lines around Luke's eyes - and again it felt as if he'd barely grazed the surface of whatever the real trouble was.
"Well, I suppose you had your reasons," he forced himself to concede. "I would've raised hell if I'd known what you were up to--"
"I didn't expect to see you again," Luke said unaccountably.
Han swept both hands through his hair, blinked his eyes against the pain throbbing right behind his forehead. "Hell, Luke..."
Only half aware of it, he'd moved closer, and when he lifted a hand Luke tensed in reaction. "Go ahead 'n ask," he said, one step backward taking him out of reach.
Han let his hand drop, upset and angry all over. "You know what I'm askin'! I was better-than-dead in blazin' carbonite at the time, remember? How would I know what happened to you? How come Leia 'n Lando had to pick you off some rotting weather vane?"
"I fought Vader, and I was beaten. He cut off my hand. I jumped into the reactor shaft and ended up sliding down one of the exhaust chutes." Blue eyes remote, tone flat, Luke might have been reciting ancient history.
"Damnit, Luke, how could you hope to survive a stunt like that?" The question was barely out when the truth hit hard, and Han bit his lip. Luke hadn't expected to live through this.
The sound of a soft, dry laugh jolted him. When Han looked up again, the pained humor was waning, and sobriety returned. "Now you know," Luke said. "I thought I could be a hero coming to your rescue. I failed, and I paid for it, because I was a clueless, narrow-minded idiot who thought he controlled the Force. It taught me a most important lesson, you know."
Their eyes met.
And that's the end of it? Han meant to ask.
The way Luke's gaze strayed past him answered the unspoken question, but Han couldn't bring himself to insist. Not now, when the answers he'd wrested from Luke already sent his thoughts spinning, to land with the bruising impact of unwanted, undeniable responsibility.
"Guess I owe you a whole lot more than I thought," Han said at last, hating the hoarse sound of his own voice. "'Cause I was moron enough to trust Lando, and... you shouldn't have come, Luke, I'm not worth half the--"
The tension in Luke's tone stopped him. Glancing downward, Han's eyes found the hand, wrapped around the seat's backrest, a perfect copy of the lost limb, and surely more robust, too; an improvement from a droid's point of view. An icy shiver touched the back of Han's neck as he remembered Two-Onedee's enthusiasm, her praise of technologies that could substitute cloned cells and inorganic, dead substance for almost anything alive, no problem, until life was just a matter of definition, and what did that feel like - to die just a little at at time--?
Breathing deeply, Han unclenched his fist and thought that if he touched the bionic hand, it would probably feel just as warm and real.
"Well, that's what happened," Luke said abruptly. "Goes to show that meaning well doesn't mean much."
"C'mon," Han objected uneasily, "it's what you were tryin' to do that matters."
"Does it?" The shadow of a smile haunted Luke's mouth. "I made my own decisions, right or wrong. So did you. You don't owe me. Let's leave it at that."
Han gave in with an angry shrug and wished he'd made himself swallow those pills. Rubbing between his eyebrows, he anchored his gaze to one of the translucent holos, but the pulsations of harsh, gaseous light at its center only brought on renewed dizziness that spread through his mind in slow waves. He squared his shoulders. "I'd better be goin', leave you to - whatever you were doing."
"Something wrong, Han?" Luke's eyes narrowed. "Why did you see Two-Onedee in the first place?"
"Everyone's scheduled for the damn medical."
"And--? Something turn up?"
Although he rather desperately wanted to, Han couldn't forward another half-truth - not after this. "Protracted brain trauma," he said shortly. "That's what she calls it. For me it's just a headache, plus I can't see straight at times. Got some pills supposed to help me over it."
"Pills," Luke echoed, then, lowering his voice, he added: "If it's the carbon freeze--"
"Yeah, what else would it be," Han snapped. "I've already heard a lecture about psychosomatic whatever 'n all that crap, so don't bother." Listening to himself, he knew he sounded like a skittish adolescent. "It's just that I don't go for pokin' around in my brains," he said defensively.
"Is that what Two-Onedee suggested?"
Inwardly, Han squirmed and wished Luke wouldn't be so damn perceptive. "Kind of. I get nightmares as a free extra, if you have to know, all the things a droid can easily sympathize with. Sure, just spill your brains, they've seen it all before 'n they cure you in next to no time."
Surprised, Han stole a glance at Luke and caught quiet understanding in his searching gaze. "You too, huh?"
"I've had my share." With an offhand gesture, Luke waved it aside. "I could help you, you know."
Han didn't like the sound of that, either. But the terminal headache was beginning to rub his nerves raw, and that prompted him to ask: "How?"
"I've been trained in healing techniques," Luke explained. "I could - ease the memory, help you forget, or live with it..."
Comprehension formed before Han could point out that Jedi techniques might not work with him. He bristled at the memory of old Kenobi's comments about influencing the weak-minded. "No thanks. There's just one person messing around in here--" he tapped the side of his head "--and that's me, myself, I."
"It wouldn't take much," Luke insisted confidently.
"Maybe it wouldn't for you, but I happen to have a thing for privacy, even if I was born with the type of pinbrain you could fix in a minute."
Meeting Han's irate glare, Luke shook his head, impervious again from one second to the next. "Have it your way," he said coolly. "I won't interfere with your private affairs."
The sarcasm found its target, and Han lowered his head
briefly, accepting the implicit reproach. "Point taken," he said. "I'll
stick to the pills, if you don't mind. And now I'd better get back to the
On his way to the bridge, Han almost ran into Lando who was heading for breakfast. Abruptly snapped from his thoughts, Han only stared at the dark-skinned ex-Baron as if sizing up a potential fraud at a sabacc game.
A blithe 'good morning' died on Lando's lips, and he cocked his head to appraise Han critically. "What's up, pal? You look like something the Wookiee dragged in, today..."
"I don't feel too good," Han growled, making himself stare past Lando.
"Might be the right time to drop by sickbay."
"I've been to sickbay."
"So? What's the word?"
"I wouldn't ask, in your place," Han said stonily.
Seriously disconcerted, Lando took a step closer, planting himself in Han's line of sight. "What'd I do?"
"I said, cut it out."
The black eyes flashed. "Sweet mother, what's eatin' ya?"
Han jabbed a finger at him. "You wanna do yourself a favor, Lando - get outa my way 'n stay there! Got me?"
"Yeah," Lando returned slowly, "I got that." A deep frown
cleaved his brow as he took himself off in the direction of the cantina.
During the next two days of the journey, Lando observed Han's peremptory warning and stayed well out of sight. Whether he'd somehow figured the ultimate reasons, or whether he'd simply decided to indulge a malingering friend's cranks seemed irrelevant to Han. The cruiser was big enough to avoid unwanted company, and he privately complimented the Mon Cal engineers on their providence.
Han spent most of his time on the bridge, and when he wasn't brooding over the library computer would watch the scintillating starfield from the captain's chair, until every explicit thought was absorbed into the whirlpool of dazzling light. The sharp anger wore off fast, but bleakness continued to hover at the back of his mind, besetting him with a totally unwarranted sense of loss. Need some time to catch up with all those changes, Han kept telling himself, that's probably all there is to it.
Immediately after their confrontation, Luke's friendly reserve had returned. They'd get together for a drink or a meal in the cantina, and with some reluctance, Han accepted that their conversations skirted all personal concerns these days. At least Luke didn't repeat his offer and asked no questions about the recurring nightmares Han had never mentioned to anyone before.
Everything conspired to appear perfectly normal, so much he could almost believe it.
Two-Onedee's prescriptions met Han's expectations and
efficiently wiped out the headache whenever it got too bad. The crisis
ahead demanded maximum readiness; frequently enough, the fortunes of war
were poised with split-second decisions, and precisely because Han planned
to live up to the moment he couldn't let himself rely on stimulants. Giving
sickbay a wide berth, he reserved Two-Onedee's pills for the occasional
emergency and made no use of the mild tranqs, because they wouldn't keep
the dreams from coming anyway.
They were four days into hyperspace when Han came awake with a start, hours before the regular morning call. Dazed, he listened into silence and took a while to identify the cause for his sudden sense of alarm. The purr of the cruiser's engines had dropped to sublight whispers. Pushing up to glance out the viewport, Han faced the soothing vista of distant stars, settled into steady configurations for the first time since they'd left Endor.
What the hell--?
There wasn't any way they could have made it to the stopover point at Cer Myndrin within so short a time.
Han punched the wall com to raise the bridge. "Where are we?" he asked without preliminary.
The communications officer took no exception to his asperity. "The Minari system, sir," he replied.
"Minari system?" Han flipped through the recently memorized data but found no match. And for all he could see, the fleet was leisurely drifting through a particularly desolate stretch of space. "I don't see anything out there," he added.
"That's because the system itself no longer exists," the bridge officer informed him. "Its sun turned nova approximately ten thousand years ago. It's only the area that retains the name."
So one minor riddle had been solved, but the major problem remained. "Then what--?" Han started, and broke off the next instant. "I'm on my way," he said, deactivating the com to reach for his clothes.
Quiet stars flung their pale, silvery light across the darkened bridge. Beyond the large viewport spread empty space, indifferent and bleak like the Gods-foresaken reaches of the Outer Rim. Han frowned at the sight. The night shift was still on duty, and he caught only the slightest indication of heightened alert among the crew. Waving a hand when Commander Niall made to vacate the captain's chair, he motioned the man to stay seated.
"What happened?" he asked, forcibly calm.
"We dropped out of hyperspace at 0-6-0-5, sir," Niall reported dutifully. "Contact has not been established yet."
"Contact? With who? And who gave the order to--"
"I did." A silhouette against the cold, star-eyed blackness of deep space, Luke stepped from the shadows by the viewport.
"Oh yeah?" Han folded his arms. Anger surged through him with hot streaks of adrenaline. When Luke approached, he read anticipation in his energetic stride. Luke's eyes shone a brighter blue, like a reflection of lost summers on Tatooine.
"Let me explain--" he started.
Without warning, Han's hand shot out and closed around his upper arm. "You bet you will," he said tightly. "But not here."
Wrenching out of the brusque grip, Luke stepped back, and his expression revealed pained confusion fractionally before discipline clamped down on it again.
"Come on!" Han snapped. The bridge crew had heard enough to question his competence, and they'd better take the dispute somewhere private, where he wouldn't be forced to counsel his temper.
"Research department," Luke told the lift computer as the doors closed on them.
"The place where true wisdom lies, is it?" Han asked. "I can hardly wait."
Openly pleased, he noted that his sarcasm had found its mark. Luke's mouth settled into a tense line, but he made no reply until they'd entered one of the narrow research booths.
"Before you begin shouting at me again--"
"Again? Wait 'till I get started!" Han cut in belligerently.
Triggered by their entry, the computer console came alive with a busy hum. Luke thumbed a key almost absently. "Alright. Will you let me explain, or d'you wanna yell your head off first?"
"You don't get it, do ya?" Han shot back, anger turning to icy disappointment in his gut.
"That you're acting like a jerk, Luke!" Han slammed his palm against the bulkhead and straightened abruptly. Making a fool of himself couldn't possibly better his mood. "Okay. Straightforward 'n simple. I'm in charge of the mission. There's such a thing as loyalty, you know."
Facing him, Luke kept his expression carefully neutral. "High Command has authorized me to act on my own judgment."
"Have they really?" Han said sardonically. "I shouldn't be surprised. No need to let me in on it, was there?"
"I wasn't even sure it would come to this." Holding Han's gaze, Luke took a step closer. "Why don't you just assume that I had a reason, and trust me?"
"Trust you?" A savage grin stretched Han's mouth. "Wanna know something? I trusted you blind, a week ago. Now, I'm not so sure."
Something flashed in Luke's eyes, and Han could tell the scathing remark had hit with implacable precision. Anger fled, but there was no way he could take the words back.
"So that's how it is..." Luke had lowered his voice, and for a brief second, Han almost expected a gesture of reconciliation, but the moment passed. "Are you ready to hear me out now?" Luke asked, switching back to a tone of cool efficiency.
"Go ahead 'n surprise me," Han snapped.
The console's monitor came alive at Luke's command and went through a long sequence of passwords Luke entered one by one. "Watch this," he said, slipping into a seat.
Blistering static erupted on the screen, and Han was about to comment impatiently when lines and colors emerged from the distorted recording.
A stranger clad in a dark green robe stared back at them as the image cleared. Against his smooth, tanned features, the pale hair and closely cropped beard stood out starkly. Han noticed a subtle slant to the bright grey eyes, and a shade of olive to the man's deep tan. Outer Rim colonies? he wondered. But there was something familiar about the stranger's expression, something Han couldn't put a name to until he started to speak.
"Greetings, whoever you are," the man said, his tone a perfect copy of Kenobi's habitual serenity, even if he was barely half the Jedi's age. "And I do hope this message reaches you, since I have only the most insufficient equipment at my disposal."
As if to prove his statement, static frazzled the edges of the recording. Han leaned closer to catch what the stranger was saying.
"No matter how great the darkness," he continued, eyes alight with conviction, "the Jedi have prevailed. Hold on to what you have learned, and don't give in to despair. In the Force, every darkness is but a passing shadow." The resonant voice lowered. "There are more of us than you may know. If you can, meet me at the coordinates attached to this message as soon as possible. I shall await your signal." The man paused. "You're not alone." An enigmatic smile formed on his mouth just before the picture disintegrated in another flare of static. After a second, the turbulent sparkles thinned and navigational data swam across the screen. Han didn't need a closer look to know they designated the lost Minari system.
"The message was intercepted the day before we left Endor," Luke explained, switching the monitor off. "It was broadcasted on one of the Old Republic's standard frequencies, heavily encrypted. Took hours to figure through the code."
Another small piece of information fell into place as Han recalled the ceremony and Luke's unexplained delay.
"Did you signal our position?" he asked.
"As soon as we'd dropped out of hyperspace. He answered within a minute."
"And if he hadn't, we'd be on our way again, right?" Han guessed. And I'd still be fast asleep, totally unaware of the entire escapade...
Half-turning, Luke answered his unspoken suspicions. "I was asked to treat the matter confidentially. But whatever you may believe, Han, I was going to tell you."
Yeah - but when? He let it pass. "So he's coming to meet you? How long 'till he gets here?" "Less than a standard hour, judging by his last coordinates."
A touch of excitement had crept into Luke's voice, reaching past Han's simmering irritation. Relenting, he flopped into the empty chair. "He's that close, huh? Did you talk to him in person?"
Luke shook his head. "His ship must be running on emergency systems. The signal was too weak to transmit audiovisual."
Over the last few minutes, Luke's strained dispassion had eased away, and despite himself, Han felt his throat tighten just a little at the look of expectation and tentative hope. "It could be a trap," he made himself suppose nonetheless.
"I know," Luke agreed. "But if it is, someone has gone through a lot of trouble to bait me. And they'd expect me to turn up alone - at least not with an entire fleet for backup."
Han let his breath escape in an angry sigh. "I don't like it," he admitted. "But I suppose it's worth a try to--"
The shriek of a ship-wide alarm cut into his grudging
concession, and Han bounced from his seat. "Damn!" he grated. "Looks like
you've landed us in trouble sooner than I thought, and no mistake. Congratulations!"
Lando was on the bridge when they returned, bleary-eyed as if he'd just been shaken out of bed. Only marginally aware of his presence, Han stared out the viewport.
The desolation of night out there cradled the colossal, slate grey shadow of an Imperial warship. Star Destroyer, Han thought automatically, then corrected himself. It had to be an older model; but although its command tower was heavier and the spearhead shape less elegant, the cruiser bristled with weapons and sensor arrays, a spacefaring fortress equipped to wipe out planetary defenses with a single salvo from its ion cannons.
Han stepped closer to the viewport to appraise all that dormant firepower.
"They just came out of hyperspace," Commander Niall informed him.
"Hail them!" Han said. "They're outnumbered. If they don't surrender quietly in the next five minutes, we're gonna open fire." But it seemed peculiar that the Imperials hadn't fired on the waiting fleet the moment hyperspace released them, and privately, Han wasn't too sure he wanted the exact odds for battle quoted to him.
Countless battle-scars registered as he studied the durasteel-plated hull. Carbon scorings darkened the dorsal ridge, and one of the battered deflector shield domes leaned towards the com tower. There were no lights on any of the lower decks either, he noted. Either they're in no good shape, or they're trying to bait us--
"No answer to our hails," the communications officer reported.
"Power up the quad guns." From the corner of his eye, Han caught a motion from Luke, a gesture of impatience that made him turn to forestall objections when the claxon wailed in renewed alarm.
A squadron of TIE fighters was darting from the cruiser's ventral launch bays and swarmed towards the fleet.
"Shields!" Han snapped, puzzled by the enemy's move. "Take evasive action."
Thrown against a heavily armored ship like the Mon Calamari cruiser, the small crafts posed no serious threat, but if they followed standard Imperial tactics, they'd locate the weak spots where deflector shields overlapped to wreak damage on the delicate sensor equipment.
"We'd better launch our own fighters," Lando said, following the same line of thought to the logical conclusion.
"I'm going." Luke was pale and tense when Han turned to face him. "I'm responsible for this."
"Don't be ridiculous," Han growled. "Take ten fighters 'n stay close to home. Whatever happens, I wanna see this fleet make Corellia without a single scratch, understood?"
"Yes, General." A tight smile tugged Luke's mouth before he hurried from the bridge.
Die-hard habits urged Han to flip on his comlink and tell Chewbacca to prepare the Falcon, but newly acquired responsibility interfered. In command of the entire fleet, he couldn't leave the cruiser's bridge during battle. Resigned, he looked up at Lando. "Wanna go out 'n play, too?"
The other man's grin was a little too enthusiastic.
"Get outa my sight, Lando," Han muttered. "And... watch his back, will ya?"
There was no need to be more specific. "Sure," Lando returned. "Count on me."
A first, ranging salvo of blaster fire spattered off the cruiser's shielding when Han dropped into the command chair. "Operations officer," he said, eyes riveted on the approaching TIEs, "I want all available information on that Imperial ship. See if you can find anything in the data banks."
Tactical displays designed for the wide-set eyes of Mon Cal operators flashed on his left. A holographic grid shivered into existence over the weapons console, bright blips marking the fighters' positions. Dividing his attention between the holo and the viewport, Han watched the TIEs' moves with growing perplexity. Random blasts lit the night and glanced off the cruiser's hull harmlessly. There was no sensible pattern that he could detect in their rampant attack.
In another instant, the group of Mon Cal fighters headed by Luke's X-wing came into view. Accelerating as soon as they were clear of the docking bays, they fanned out and swerved, bright red energy beams lashing towards the enemy crafts. A first TIE got caught in their fire, erupting into a ball of white heat and disintegrating particles.
"Are you scanning those TIEs?" Han asked the operations officer, swivelling his chair sideways.
"Yes, sir." The Mon Cal frowned at the sensor readouts. "There are no life-forms aboard the fighters."
"Yeah," Han said softly. "Just what I thought. Droids. What the hell do they think they're gonna accomplish?"
Outside, the fighters hunted Imperial TIEs that flitted here and there like moths, deprived of orientation after too close contact with an open flame. While he tried to figure through the new riddle, Han let his gaze follow the path of Luke's X-wing, dipping and rolling with smooth elegance, then arrowing out of a tight loop, canons blazing. He's still one hell of a pilot--
"Sir, the Imperial ship is powering up its main guns," the operations officer announced.
So those incompetent TIE drones were just a diversion, were they? Han pushed from his seat. "Prepare for evasive action. And open a channel to our fighters." He bent over the com console. "Luke? Lando? D'you read? Get back here at once, there's somethin' brewing."
"Copy," two voices said almost simultaneously.
Han straightened, only partially relieved. "Pass the word to the rest of the fleet, just in case," he told the Mon Cal officer. "And then let's get out of range as soon as the fighters are in."
He watched the squadron regroup and turn back, heading for the cruiser's docking bays when a first eruption of turbolaser fire streaked across empty space. Better move fast or you're gonna get fried! Han realized he'd clenched his hands into fists and relaxed forcibly when all fighters ducked out of the Imperial ship's line of fire. And then they were safe.
"Sir, I've got the data you asked for," the operations officer said.
While the Mon Cal cruiser lurched with the initiation of evasive maneuvers, Han returned to the console where holographic schematics solidified.
"That ship out there is a Star Destroyer prototype," the operations officer informed him. "It accommodates additional crew and fighter squads, but it lacks the later model's maneuverability."
Han studied the diagram as the Mon Cal listed further specifications. "To our knowledge, only half a dozen of these prototypes were ever built," he finished eventually.
In their backs, the lift doors opened with a soft whoosh, releasing Luke and Lando, both still wearing their flightsuits.
Han waved for them to join him. "And that was - when?" he asked. "Some ten, fifteen years ago?"
"Approximately." The Mon Cal keyed up another set of data. "The prototypes were first used in Palpatine's Rim World Crusade. Several planetary defenses were laid waste, and after that, the neighboring systems capitulated."
"They should be space junk by now," Lando commented disrespectfully. "Guess that means we can stop worrying."
A sidelong glance out the viewport showed Han that they'd moved into a safe distance. Strangely, the Prototype Destroyer was still firing, its erratic shots fading into empty space.
"The prototypes were never accounted for," said the Mon Cal, skimming through the rest of the file. "It is assumed they were decomissioned when the improved Star Destroyer replaced the earlier model. All we know is that Darth Vader commanded the fleet that attacked the Rim Worlds."
Han didn't need to turn to notice Luke's immediate, wordless response to that final bit of information. The mere mention of Vader's name touched him with a subliminal chill, brushing deeply buried memories. Han felt his features harden. He'd confronted death too many times to count: an undeniable factor among calculated hazards, but never quite real - except once. When something inside him answered death's call in paralyzed acceptance. And Vader had been there.
Yeah, but the bastard's gone like he deserved ten times over--
When Han looked up, Luke's expression seemed to mirror his own disquiet. His posture was rigid, but his gaze strayed towards the viewport, unsettled and restless. Han curbed an impulse to touch his shoulder and yank Luke back from whatever memories beset him.
He turned back to the console. "Scan that Prototype. If the ship's that old, their shields can't be proofed against modulated scanner beams."
"Maybe they're running on a skeleton crew," Lando suggested. "Sure doesn't look like they're very well organized."
"There's... no one."
Han almost failed to recognize the voice articulating those words just above a whisper. Startled, he shot Luke a worried glance. Eyes still riveted on the Imperial ship, Luke seemed to be worlds away.
"That would seem to be true," the operations officer confirmed hesitantly. "I'm scanning on all available frequencies. The prototype could be fitted with modified shielding the likes of which we've never encountered before, or... there is no one aboard. Scanners register no life-forms whatsoever."
"A ghost ship piloted by renegade droids..." Lando whistled soundlessly. "Now that's something to write home about."
"Yeah, you do that. Maybe they sell postcards, too," Han grumbled, mentally flipping through a number of options. It couldn't be all that difficult to outwit a droid crew. And now that they were here, why not add an Imperial cruiser to their fleet? Before he could voice the thought, Luke turned abruptly and crossed for the lift without a word. There was something very purposeful to his stride that Han didn't like at all. He pursed his lips. It would have to wait.
"How would you like to become the captain of an Imperial Star Destroyer, huh?" he asked Lando.
"You wanna hijack that thing?"
"Sure. Might come in handy. Any ideas?"
Lando's expression changed from puzzled to thoughtful. "They're droids...," he started. "They follow their programming. If we could fake a message, broadcast new orders on an Imperial frequency--"
"We'd have to move one of our ships outside their scanning range, so they can't identify the signal's origin."
"And we'd need the codes and passwords they were using at that time."
"That's right. Why don't you get right on it?" Han clapped Lando's shoulder with a crooked grin.
"And where will you be going?" Lando asked, eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"I'll get ready to inspect the booty," Han returned flippantly. And in the meantime I'll straighten out our favorite Jedi...
He was punching the lift controls before Lando could protest.
"You're in charge. Try to get it right for a change."
This time, the Research Department was an easy guess, and Han didn't have any trouble finding Luke in one of the booths, replaying the nameless Jedi's message.
Counseling his temper with patience, Han asked: "Well, what d'you think? What's the fake - the tape, or the man?"
For long seconds, Luke didn't turn, didn't answer. Refusing to wonder whether he'd heard at all, Han watched him. The slump of the slim shoulders, fingers drawing erratic patterns on the table while the other hand moved through blond strands absently, smoothing them back.
"Neither," Luke finally said, not turning.
"You've run a detector program on the tape?" Han asked, and when Luke gave a brief nod, added: "Well, if they didn't tinker with the recording, and if you feel... the man's who he says, maybe they coerced him. He could be a prisoner."
"Yes." Luke rose from his seat and deactivated the console in a single fluid motion.
"What?" Holding Luke's eyes, Han read fatigue and determination and something like the shadow of intense emotions waiting to come unleashed in them. He felt the beginnings of another headache crawl up the base of his skull and cursed silently.
"I have to go."
"Go where? Where would you start looking for the guy?"
Genuine surprise flickered in Luke's eyes. "The ship, of course."
"There's no one on the damn ship! You said so yourself, and our scanners don't pick up anything."
"Maybe I could find evidence that would lead me to him..." Luke hesitated, and his gaze unfocused. "Or maybe he's shielding himself."
Han snorted. "How? You really believe he could manipulate our scanners just like that? And if he's the friendly next-door Jedi he pretends to be, how come he's holed up on some Imperial prototype?"
"I don't know."
Acting on instinct, Han blocked the door before Luke could brush past him.
"What're you gonna do, lock me up?" Luke asked sharply.
"I might, if you carry on like that." Han crossed his arms to emphasize his resolution.
"I'm on an independent mission, and I'm not taking orders from you - or anyone, Han."
Han worked up mirthless grin. "Yeah, yeah, I've heard that before, now cut the crap. I'm not talking orders and authority here. This is something personal. You're free to go on every crazy crusade you can think of - but I wanna know what's wrong with you, Luke!"
A muscle twitched in Luke's jaw, and dark blond lashes swept down to conceal whatever would be betrayed in his eyes. "You think something's wrong with me--?"
Yeah, plenty, Han was about to say, but instead just studied the quiet man before him, thinking that for the first time since their departure he was getting through to Luke.
"Hell, look, things used to be different," he finally said, fumbling awkwardly. "And now it's like you want nothing to do with any of us anymore. Leia feels the same way, you know."
The blond head lifted abruptly. "What do you want, Han? Didn't you get everything you ever wanted, and then some? Can't you--"
"Hey, now - wait a minute," Han growled. "Are we talking about Leia here? If that's your problem, I--"
"What?" Startled, Luke shook his head. His face moved, and when he answered, Han was almost certain he heard only half of what Luke had wanted to say. "Gods, no. She's my sister."
Han glanced skyward and fought another battle for patience. "Okay. Then, what?"
"You really think this is the right time to talk about it?"
"It's never the right time with you," Han grumbled and rubbed the back of his neck.
When he met Luke's eyes again, they seemed to probe right to the bottom of his mind. "I need to go," Luke said quietly. "Now."
For a split second of acute discomfort, Han wondered if Luke was trying his influence-the-weak-minded technique on him, but he found himself still firmly in possession of his own judgment and let out the breath he'd held. "Okay," he relented. "We're trying to get those droids to lower shields. If the trick works, you get your chance."
He stepped away from the door, and Luke opened it, then turned back. "Thanks," he said over his shoulder.
Following him down the corridor, Han raised his comlink. "Lando? Any progress up there?"
There was a blur of voices talking rapidly, orchestrated by the busy bleeps of instruments, then Lando answered. "We got a code that should be working. Niall's discussing the details with Captain Ferdd - you know? Captain of the Corellian corvette. So what d'you wanna tell those droids?"
"They're to drop shields at our signal and allow a party aboard. Tell 'em we'll arrive in a shuttle type they won't recognize. A new model, whatever."
"How many on the boarding party?"
"Just two," Han said shortly. "Keep me posted."
"You're - what?" Luke turned back from his X-wing's access ladder.
"You heard me." Han crossed the docking bay in long, angry strides, to where a Mon Cal engineer was checking the shuttle's sensor array. The overbright worklight installed atop the mobile maintenance unit stung in his eyes.
Luke intercepted him in the middle of the flight deck. "You don't have any idea of what to expect on that ship!"
"So? I've got an extra-smart Jedi to keep me company 'n make up for my sapbrains."
"I didn't mean it like that," Luke said, not particularly repentant. "But we both know it could still be a trap."
"That's why I ain't sending a whole troop over to investigate. No point in jeopardizing the lot of us all at once."
"The decision's final," Han interrupted. "Like it or not, you'll have to put up with me. And we're taking that nice, comfortable shuttle over there. The sight of an X-wing could make 'em jittery, if their reconnaissance wasn't cancelled ten years ago."
He was almost surprised when Luke relented without further argument. "And you'll want to pilot the shuttle, too, huh?"
"Of course." Han cracked a small grin, part relief and part nervous anticipation.
Systems already purred on standby when Han strapped himself in and toggled the intercom. "Bridge? What's it look like?"
Listening intently, Luke settled in beside him.
"They've responded to the hail," Commander Niall answered him. "They're lowering shields."
"We're gettin' readings now," Lando joined in. "Looks like there's some twenty... twenty-five droids running the ship. No specifications. Some are on the bridge, some down in the maintenance area. You'd better be prepared for an armed reception committee."
"Let's hope they've got manners," Han said. The pre-flight cycle complete, he kicked in the shuttle's drive, and the craft lifted off the deck slowly. "Stay sharp 'n get in touch if there's anything..."
"You bet." Lando paused. "Additional data coming in... Man, that ship's a wreck! Starboard batteries must've been offline for years... fluctuations in the solar reactor... environmental systems running on emergency power..."
"Maybe we can use a few spare parts," Han muttered as he pointed the shuttle towards the slowly unsealing doors of the docking bay. "Okay, that's it. We're off."
"Good luck, you two," Lando said. "And don't get careless, buddy."
"Careless? You must be dreamin'..." The sight of velvet space opening up before him and the engines' steady hum made Han feel better almost instantly.
In a flat dive, the shuttle slid away from the Mon Calamari cruiser and picked up speed. Hands darting across the nav console, Han took her through the detour that would make it appear as if they were approaching from deep space. When he'd headed the shuttle on a straight course to the Prototype Destroyer, there was nothing left to do.
Han leaned back and absorbed the view. Among the distant stars glittered the brighter lights of condensed, gaseous spheres, fierce neutron stars pulsing with energy, and Han reflected idly that maybe they were just passing the spot where a sun had collapsed ten thousand years ago.
He sat up when the spearhead shape of the Prototype appeared dead ahead, a shadow blotting out the starlight. Han opened a channel and broadcasted the password together with a request for docking permission. There was no audio transmission, only a shorthand confirmation that flashed on the nav display. Vast like a floating city, the Imperial ship loomed over them. An instant later, Han felt the tug of a tractor beam, hauling their shuttle up and inside the Prototype's womb. He traded brief glances with Luke.
Luke gave a tense nod.
Lando had been right about the reception committee. As artificial atmosphere rushed back into the docking bay, a pair of tall droids entered from the far side. Both carried heavy, double-barrelled rifles they kept trained on the visitors.
"At ease," Han said sharply, hoping his tones matched whatever Imperial droids expected from a commanding officer.
"You are out of uniform," one of the droids snarled metallically.
"That's because we've worked undercover," Han snapped. "And the next time you open your mouth, I wanna hear the proper address."
"Yes, sir," the droid returned, his tone every bit as hostile as before.
Han supposed these models had been programmed to sound constantly angry. "We're going straight up to the bridge," he informed them. "No escort is needed. You will guard our shuttle."
"Yes, sir." Both droids shouldered their blaster rifles and stepped back.
Luke and Han crossed the bay in a brisk stride, stopping at a bank of lift cabins. Only one was still operational.
Once inside, Han relaxed. "Easy, huh?" he said. "Seems these walking junk-piles haven't got much of a mind of their own."
"Yes," Luke agreed pensively. "But doesn't that make you wonder...? How could they go through the entire maneuver if they're programmed to follow only explicit orders?"
"Maybe they weren't even expecting us," Han said uneasily. "Maybe they just went through some pre-programmed attack routine. Could be coincidence..."
Luke flashed him a skeptical glance but voiced none of his private suspicions.
The lift cabin climbed to the upper levels of the forward hull at a desperately slow pace, then released them into a long, dimly lit corridor.
"If we follow that passage straight through, we should reach the lift that'll take us all the way up to the command tower," Han said, mentally skimming through the memorized schematics of the Prototype.
Their steps created clattering echoes on the deck plates, stirring the brooding silence of months, maybe years, and Han wondered how much time had passed since the human crew abandoned ship, whatever their reasons. The recycled air was stale and dry and carried unclean smells that suggested malfunctions in the Prototype's ventilation system. Evidence of progressive decay abounded even in the unfurnished corridor. Only half the lightpanels still emitted their murky glow, and in several places, disrupted power leads were dangling. Discarded tools and debris from broken fittings littered the passage as they pressed on. And with every passing minute, the ship's silence seemed to solidify around them.
Han caught himself flicking nervous glances over his shoulder and rubbed a hand across his face. Temperatures were definitely too low for humans to be comfortable, the air too dry. He cleared his throat.
"You okay?" Luke asked.
"Sure," he muttered, reluctant to admit how the desolation of the ship was getting to him, or that another headache was brewing on the edges of his consciousness.
Unexpectedly, a darker passage intersected with the main corridor. Luke froze in mid-stride, eyes searching the gloom extending left and right.
"What is it?" Han asked.
"That way..." Luke had already started down the passage.
"Hey - where d'you think you're going?"
"The detention area," Luke said shortly, when Han caught up with him.
"There'll be time for that later," Han snapped. "We gotta check out the bridge first."
Luke's stony expression told him that reasonable arguments didn't stand a chance of being heard.
"C'mon, you don't actually believe they're holding that guy here!" Han tried nonetheless. "The whole place is deserted!"
Beyond a gaping hatch, the corridor narrowed, and heavily plated doors lined either side. By the look of the defunct locking mechanisms, Han could tell the detention cells hadn't been used in a while.
"See?" He gestured irately. "Now let's go to the bridge."
"No." When Luke turned, his gaze was vacant. "There's something..."
"Something - what? If this is another crazy hunch--" Han interrupted himself to follow Luke past the row of sealed doors, anger simmering and about to explode. "Damnit, Luke..."
The corridor ran straight up to a portal secured by a complex lock. Small indicator lights flickered when Luke palmed it. Han frowned at the sight, then shrugged. Doesn't mean anything, 'xcept that this one mechanism's still working...
All too obviously, Luke had reached a different conclusion. Eyes half-closed in concentration, he pressed several keys, tried out another sequence, but the lock did not respond to his efforts. "Han," he said tightly, "help me open that door."
Blunt refusal sat on the tip of his tongue, and Han was ready to vent his growing frustration with it when he met Luke's eyes - clouded and dark and full of shadows. Han cursed under his breath as he unholstered his blaster and adjusted the setting. He looks - totally spaced-out... what the hell's goin' on here--?
"Alright," he growled. "Stand back." A tight beam sliced through the lock and peeled off part of its face plate. Han reached for the bared wires; bright green sparks erupted, and he shielded his eyes with his free hand. The portal swung inward.
And brilliant lighting flashed up.
Blinking against the sudden brightness, Han muttered another curse and stepped into the room, fingers wrapped tightly around the blaster's hilt. As the door opened, he'd expected an interrogation chamber, equipped with mind probes and indoctrination devices, but instead found himself staring at the remains of a vast laboratory.
Dormant monitors and displays covered the walls while a cluster of variously sized tanks took up the center of the room.
"What in blazes is this--?"
Luke shook his head numbly, eyes roaming around the room.
Chemical smells drifted on the cold, stale air. The tanks were filled with a murky fluid, and at a closer look Han thought he could see the blurred forms of things swimming in them. A strange chill fled down his spine. Bracing himself, he stepped a little closer. Towards the back of the room, the gelatinous fluid had oozed through a crack in an oblong tank, dark stickiness staining the floor plates. Han glanced at the shrivelled, black things inside the depleted tank and felt his stomach lurch.
"On second thought, I don't really wanna know," he muttered, averting his eyes.
"He was here," Luke said, still frozen on the doorstep, his face blank.
"Yeah, maybe, but he's gone now," Han returned uneasily. Something glittered from the far wall of chamber. A display container, Han realized, its crystalplex surface reflecting the light. Okay, check it out, and be done with it...
And then he was gazing down at faded cloth, slashed and torn and stained with dry blood almost beyond recognition. But close to the robe's neck, a few patches of the original color remained - a rich, dark green. Next to it, a lightsaber was displayed on a steel mount. Han swallowed. So this is what happened to the guy--
Approaching steps snapped him from his thoughts, and he turned sharply. "Don't look. There's nothing you can do."
Luke paled visibly, and when Han placed a restraining hand on his shoulder shook it off, eyes riveted on the silent evidence of past atrocities.
"C'mon, kid, let's get outa here," Han said gently.
Without warning, Luke whipped up his lightsaber and spun, angry radiance flashing from his fist as the blade came down and sent crystalplex fragments spattering across the wall. Teeth clenching, Luke reached into the broken container and retrieved the nameless Jedi's lightsaber. A ragged edge cut his hand, but he didn't seem to notice the small trickle of blood.
"Let's go," Han said, his voice laced with apprehension.
"Leave me alone!" Fury flashed in Luke's eyes, and he wheeled, raising the lightsaber again as if preparing to attack the tanks.
Han caught his arm. "Hey, easy, settle down--"
"You don't understand," Luke said thickly.
Tightening his grip, Han felt the terrible tension in every muscle. "Come on now, what good would it do, huh?"
For another second, Luke seemed ready to wrench away, but then he sagged against Han. "I know..."
"Let's get outa here," Han repeated.
Luke straightened with a deep breath. "We'd better."
They didn't bother to lock the laboratory's door. Eager to put a distance between himself and that dank, frozen depot of the past, Han strode back up the dim passage, and neither of them spoke until they'd reached the main corridor again.
Holstering his blaster, Han wiped his damp hand against his pants. "Seems like--" He paused for a beat, reluctant to voice the obvious. "Seems like you received a message from a dead man."
"Vader was here," Luke said, no trace of doubt in his voice.
And how would you know--? But then, recalling the information their research of the Prototype's background had turned up, Han acknowledged the possibility and swallowed the question. "You think he installed that lab? Yeah, that'd be much like him, I suppose..."
"He tortured you on Bespin," Luke said softly, and when Han slid him a quizzical sidelong glance, he found the blue eyes searching his face.
Something in Luke's tone had changed, there was a heaviness Han felt like a distant echo inside his own mind. "There wasn't any way you could get there on time," he said reasonably, refusing to allow the memory too close, his head hurt enough already.
An impulsive objection showed in Luke's expression but found no words.
"So, what d'you think happened to the guy?" Han asked. "Got caught in the Jedi purge, did he?" Almost before he noticed, his hand slipped into a pocket, finding it empty, and he realized he'd left Two-Onedee's capsules behind in his cabin.
"Obviously." Luke's head lowered. "That message... must be something he broadcasted years ago. To get in contact with the few who were still hiding. And instead the Empire intercepted him. I never considered the time factor."
"Me neither. Pretty efficient trick, I'll give 'em that--" Han interrupted himself. "Well, whoever came up with the idea, it couldn't 've been those droids."
"No," Luke agreed. "Let's hope we can find a few clues
on the bridge."
Han's first impression of the main bridge was starry depth framed by steel. Arranged in a semi-circle, large windows opened on a wide view of space, designed to entice the conquest-bent minds of an Imperial elite, no doubt. And it seemed very much in character, Han thought, that the bridge crew had to work in a sunken pit deprived of the vision their superiors relished. Although the droids currently operating the various consoles probably didn't care for the nocturnal panorama. Han wanted to wander up to the forward viewport, but Luke waved him back with a nod at the crew pit. Only when they descended the narrow steps did the droids react to their presence.
Striking a military pose, Han clasped his hands behind his back and strode to the nav console.
"You are under orders to transfer helm controls to me," he told the squat droid bending over the navicomputer.
This time, the trick didn't work.
"No deviations from present course have been authorized by Supreme Command." The droid straightened with audibly straining servos. "Your request constitutes a violation of explicit orders. You are a traitor."
Nice, Han thought. At least we won't waste our time chit-chatting.
The cocked blaster had slipped into his fist in a split second, and he fired from the hip. A bright energy discharge hit the droid's abdominal power cells and flung the metal body against the console.
"Han!" Luke shouted from the far end of the crew pit. "Behind you--"
Han dodged the attack of another droid charging from the tracking board and took cover behind a monitor that exploded the second he ducked. A wild shot ricocheted through the pit, and sent its pounding echoes into Han's temples. Struggling against the surge of dizziness, he rose cautiously when he heard the familiar hiss of a lightsaber flaring into action.
Moving with a dancer's effortless ease, Luke swept past a pair of droids marching up to corner him and brought the radiant blade down on their dorsal sensory connectors. Disoriented, the pair walked straight into the wall.
Four Imperial droids remained, snarling resentment from their posts by the combat systems.
Han levelled his blaster at them. "Okay, guys, the show's over," he said with a crooked grin. "Line up and prepare to be deactivated."
And wouldn't it be wonderful if all querulous captives could be silenced like that, he mused as he flicked off their switches one by one.
Next to him, Luke dowsed his lightsaber, but his eyes still seemed to reflect the blade's intense glow. "What do we do now?"
"We establish a transmission channel, to hook up the ship's computer with ours," Han returned. "That way we can take them in tow."
"You know how to disengage the autopilot?" Luke asked with a skeptical glance at the nav console.
"No," Han said. "But I hope Lando's got an expert standing by for instructions."
Raising his comlink, he tried to rub the headache away with his free hand, but the vicious throbbing in his temples refused to subside. The fact that Luke was watching him attentively didn't alleviate the discomfort either.
"About time you called," Lando's voice cut through a buzz of static with bright enthusiasm before Han could say a word. "My readings show you on the bridge! Why, is that good news or is it good--"
"Alright, alright, cut the gab," Han said, amusement curving his mouth. "We got work to do."
"What happened to the renegade droids?" Lando insisted.
"We've put them to sleep for the next few lightyears. And they're not renegades either. For all I can tell, they tried their best to live up to Imperial standards."
Static sizzled from the comlink's speaker. "What's causing those distortions?" Han asked, frowning at the settings.
"It's the ship you're on that causes them, pal," Lando told him. "Interior shielding or com surveillance or whatever."
"Gives me a headache. Now, can we get on with it?"
"I'll get you Commander Niall for the details. He'll lead you through the whole procedure, okay?"
When Han looked up, Luke was bending over the monitor across from the nav console. An Imperial emblem was just dissolving on the silvery screen, to be replaced by the sleek columns of a directory. "What've you got there?" Han asked, intrigued.
"Ship's log," Luke murmured absently.
"What, no encryption, no passwords?"
Luke shook his head and tapped a few keys. "Maybe I can access the early records..."
The comlink pinged just as Han took a step closer to peer over Luke's shoulder, and for the next fifteen minutes, the tedious procedure of manipulating the navicomputer's program demanded his exclusive attention.
ACCESS DENIED, the central display read yet again, its taunting red letters pumping slowly. Han gave the obstinate computer a withering glare and punched in the next sequence of commands. In his back, the ship's log met Luke's requests with obsequious chimes. Squelching a stir of irritation, Han swiped a hand across his damp forehead and blinked his eyes. Garlands of light danced across the console, sullen announcements winked on and off across a complex array of displays like erratic thoughts haunting the navicomputer's brain. ACCESS DENIED, pouted the monitor.
"Kiss my blaster," Han grumbled. His vision was swimming.
Following Commander Niall's patiently advanced recommendations, he entered another demand. The screen faded to dumbstruck black. Before Han could select a curse fitting the occasion, a milky whiteness solidified and blithe green letters blossomed from it, arranging themselves into the clear patterns of a directory.
"I think," Han said slowly, "we've got an override."
"Confirmed," Niall answered from the other end of the line. "Ready to transmit data on your mark."
"Anytime," Han returned.
It would take a while.
As figures and schematics began to hunt across the displays, Han turned, leaned against the console, and rubbed both hands over his face. Above the crew pit, the bridge was a dome of shadows. And he thought he could sense vast desolation prowling on the edges of computer gibberish articulated in spectral lights and low, sing-song beeps. He felt drained. It was about time they returned to the Mon Calamari cruiser's bright warmth.
Han stifled a yawn and decided to check up on whatever progress Luke was making with the Protoype's log. When he looked over his shoulder, Luke studied a long page of text that proclaimed Lord Vader's conquests during the Rim World Crusade, lines in sober blue and black parading up the screen's silver surface.
"Found out something about the guy who sent that message?" Han asked.
"No... there must be a separate file..." Luke said distantly. The text ended, and he touched the Reassemble key.
Abruptly, the silvery glow scattered. Blackness wiped the monitor blank. Han was about to comment on the computers' desultory behavior when purple letters swam up from the depth of the screen and grew until they filled its expanse with their ominous presence.
WE SALUTE THE HEIR OF TIMELESS POWER, SON OF VADER, LORD OF THE SITH, the screen read.
"What the seven devils--" Han muttered and heard Luke catch his breath sharply.
The purple hail darkened and made way for a single line. WHERE DID IT BEGIN?
"Where did what begin?" Han shook his head. Didn't realize they're doing crosswords when they get bored...
Luke hadn't heard. After fractional hesitation, he typed: DAGOBAH.
The monitor winked and flaunted the next question: WHAT IS THE DESTINATION OF LIGHT?
DARKNESS, Luke wrote.
Withdrawing the answered question, the screen blanked again, brooding in blackness for seconds. Han stole a glance at Luke; tense profile, eyes bright with an odd mixture of expectancy and dread.
WHO NAMED YOU?
Luke's fingers hovered over the keys for the span of a deep, unsteady breath. Disconcerted, Han glanced up at the monitor and watched as the letters flashed one by one.
Han missed a breath and felt something ply at his mind, somewhere deep and buried, refusing to shape into coherent thought. The screen reverted to the initial salute and added: WAIT.
Luke bowed his head.
"Are you gonna tell me what this is all about?" Han said into the silence, his own voice strangely hollow in his ears.
The next instant, new data flooded the screen while at the same time, the comlink pinged urgently.
"What is it?" Han snapped.
"Buddy, you'd better hightail it out of there," Lando said from a stormcloud of static. "There's--"
"What?" Han repeated, throwing the nav console an angry glance over his shoulder. The displays were still flashing through their routine of merging data. "Everything looks fine over here. What's happening?"
The frazzle of white noise hissed away. "We took additional readings once the link-up worked," Lando explained impatiently. "Remember the fluctuations in the reactor I told you about? They're worse than we thought. Much worse."
"So? We're running on minimum energy here..." Han's gaze had drifted back to the screen Luke studied, presently exhibiting what looked like the map of a continent. Another phalanx of text began to crawl across it, and Han caught a glimpse of coordinates followed by long, military columns of figures and names.
"You know that reactor contains something like a lesser sun," Lando said sharply, "and the cooling systems are about to bow out. Once they're gone it won't just affect the hyper field generator. Every damn circuit's gonna overheat, and you know what that means."
"How about fixing the cooling systems?" Han asked, at once trying to read over Luke's shoulder and not succeeding. Between Lando's frantic explanations and the rapidly communicating screen, the headache distended, radiating bright flares through his skull.
"We haven't got the time for repairs," Lando insisted.
"Well, how long've we got?"
"I can't give you a proper estimate. The cooling systems've been unstable for a while, there's no telling just when they're gonna check out. But it won't be too long, and that's a fact."
Han paused and hauled in a deep breath. "Alright. That's it then. Move the fleet into a safe distance straight away, you can pick us up later, got me?"
"Got you," Lando answered, voice drowning in another surge of static. "But you'd better go full blast. Good luck."
Han pushed the comlink back into his belt. "Luke, you hear that?"
Luke gave a clipped nod but didn't turn from the eloquent log. A star chart had replaced the earlier map.
"C'mon, we gotta be off!" Han pressed with a parting glance at the peculiar configuration of stars glinting from the outflung arms of a deep space nebula.
There was a brief stutter in the computers' droning hum. All around the crewpit, lights dimmed and steadied again. The log monitor flickered off.
"Looks like it's starting already," Han growled. "Come on!"
Luke straightened to stare down at the blind screen, hands clenching around the edge of the console. "No," he said tightly. "I've got to get this back on line."
"You won't, once the hardware's crapped out. The power generator's caught the bug and it's gonna drain the systems one by one."
Shoulders squaring, Luke turned to face him. "I'm not leaving. Maybe I can stabilize the reactor long enough for our repair teams to work on the cooling systems."
Nonplused, Han stared at him. "You--" he blurted. "You wanna do what? The reactor can't be stabilized if the cooling's gone, that's the whole problem!"
Holding his gaze, Luke took a step closer. "I think I can do it." He didn't add 'trust me' - but Han could read it in his eyes.
"The Force will help me control all that energy."
"No way." Han folded his arms. Maybe there was something to all that talk about the Force, but this sure wasn't the time to try and change into the believer's attire. "No way you're gonna control something that explosive! Did you hear Lando? That's a minitiature sun down there, about to blow."
"It's not a question of--"
"No, Luke," he snapped. "We're leaving."
Luke's hands closed around his upper arms. "Take the shuttle and go, Han," he said quietly. "It's going to be alright."
Something too close to desperation reflected in his eyes, and it tightened Han's throat. "No," he repeated. "We're leaving together. And don't even think of using the Force on me."
Luke's hands fell away and he stepped back, blue eyes frosted. "I'm not--"
"Yes, you are," Han shot back. "I might have to conk you over the head, but I will, trust me, 'cause I ain't leaving without you." Somewhere beyond the electronic purrs of the bridge hung a great silence that seemed to crawl on his skin as he waited.
The hard gaze that had fixed him faltered, and Luke glanced to the side. "Alright," he said, his voice softening just a little. "I'm coming with you."
When they jogged down the central corridor of the forward hull, Han thought he could hear the Prototype's systems buckle and stutter frequently. And with every step, damnable agony pounded in his head, thwarting every attempt to think straight. There were numerous questions brought on by their visit to the bridge that crossed his mind erratically.
Someone had gone a long way to capture Luke's interest with a dead man's communication, and then they wouldn't show, dumping their derelict ship for a totally hopeless attack instead. It didn't make any sense.
The lift's lighting dimmed as they stepped inside, but when the cabin finally juggled to a halt the docking bay extended before them in unaffected, cool brightness, and the droids were still guarding their shuttle.
Han slowed his pace forcibly. Bolting for the shuttle was likely to cause a last-minute confrontation they couldn't afford. The bright illumination burned in his eyes.
"We've discovered a major malfunction in the cooling systems," he told the droids in crisp tones. "You'd better get someone to check on it immediately. Dismissed."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," the foremost droid spat at him.
Han cracked a mirthless grin and thumbed the controls of the shuttle's hatch when his vision blurred while the flight deck seemed to rush up at him. The open hatch was a dark blotch that enfolded him with shadows. Drawing a sharp breath, Han groped for the bulkhead and steadied himself. Lights came on with a soothing pur.
"Han?" Luke's voice said somewhere close.
"I'm okay." He opened his eyes and ignored Luke's troubled expression. The pilot's seat was only a few steps away.
"No, you're not. Let me fly us out of here," Luke said, the moment Han entered the cockpit.
He wrapped his hands around the flight chair's backrest, and the cockpit mercifully stopped swaying. "I could fly this thing blind if I had to," he said stubbornly.
"Yeah, but there's no need to prove that right now," Luke pointed out. "C'mon, Han, I won't tell anyone." He paused, and his tone had changed when he added: "I'm not gonna turn back, if that's what you're thinking."
"Kid, I'm in no shape for complicated thoughts," Han grumbled. He flopped down in the co-pilot's seat. "Okay. Get us out of here."
The vibrations of building speed tingled along his nerves. Heavy portals slid out of their path as the shuttle arrowed towards a growing patch of velvet night. Closing his eyes, Han leaned back in his seat and filled his mind with the low chant of smoothly running engines. The headache eased, but not much.
And then a hand gently touched his temple. Han gave a start at the strange sensation of coolness spreading through body and mind in a long ripple. When he looked up, Luke had already withdrawn his hand and was gazing out through the shuttle's canopy.
"Thanks," Han said awkwardly.
Infinite night had welcomed them back with the suggestive, scattered wealth of pinpoint lights shining their pure white from afar.
Luke activated the intercom and reported their present coordinates. Even at full speed it would take them a while to reach the fleet, now hovering on the edges of the lost Minari system.
Relaxing in his seat, Han began to wonder how he was going to explain the entire incident in his report to High Command. He could almost see Mothma study him with raised eyebrows before she fired a barrage of questions he wouldn't be able to answer.
"We should've checked the escape pods," he muttered.
Luke flicked him a quizzical glance.
"Just thinkin' out loud... There must've been someone behind the entire setup, y'know. Maybe they abandoned ship before she went into hyperspace." He shook his head. "But who could afford losing a ship that size? It's not as if that Prototype was beyond repairs, before--"
A disturbing notion hit hard, and Han interrupted himself mid-sentence. "Wait a second," he started, "what if they were hoping you'd be on that ship when it blows?" Maybe some particularly warped Imperial minds could be credited with plotting such an elaborate assassination, and Han supposed that the price on Luke's head must be astronomical after the Endor battle.
Luke's shoulders rose and sank with a controlled breath. "I don't think so," he said slowly. "I don't think they intended to kill me."
Silence deepened in the shuttle's cockpit. Han sat up and switched to rear scanners, focused on the Prototype Destroyer. The energy diagram showed wild fluctuations throughout the enormous hull, a whole range of pulsating colors from pale green to fierce red, spreading outward from the reactor, a hot white pulse at the center.
Where a sun had exploded thousands of years before, another was about to flare into existence for a fiery moment of destructive glory.
And then they both spoke at once.
"Han, there's something I need to--"
"What were those files in--"
Their eyes met.
"Alright," Han said. "Go ahead."
Luke turned to fix the sight beyond the viewport. "I'm his son," he said. "Vader's son."
The flat tone registered before the words did, careening straight into a wall of brusque denial. What? How? When? chased through Han's thoughts at lightspeed. And the log's purple salute flashed before his inner sight.
"That was--? Those questions - they knew--" he said incoherently and bit down a blunt 'no'.
"Yes," Luke answered the tangled query. "Someone expected me to come looking for my father's legacy."
"But... Vader was--" Words faltered before the sudden shift of reality.
"He was a man. And a Jedi. Until he... changed."
Han rubbed a hand across his chin. Staring straight ahead at the cool star patterns outside, he tried to think through the morass of sentiments, and the anger that clenched inside him like a fist.
Nobody changed like that.
He could see the beautiful city in the clouds, a drifting illusion of purity, and the shadow falling across it, falling - falling...
"He cut off your hand."
"Yes." Luke's tone was quiet and strangely breathless at the same time. "He maimed me, then told me... and he killed the Emperor, to save my life and sanity."
Outside, the fleet came into view at last. When Han sent a distracted glance across the scopes, the rear scanners showed the Prototype's systems in critical condition. Fractures had appeared in the hull, and the generator was palpitating like an unsteady heartbeat. The facts registered as part of another reality.
Han could feel the silence creep up inside him. "He - changed back? Is that what you're saying?" The reasonable part of him backed away from the absurdity while on the margins of his thinking icy bleakness coiled.
"He remembered who he'd been, and what could have been - I think," Luke said hesitantly. "There wasn't enough time... never enough time to understand..."
Han watched him, the confusion he could share, the struggle to create a new pattern that made sense from shreds of an older one. Memories came and gathered new meanings to them.
Lando, agitated and impatient. He doesn't want you. He's after someone called Skywalker.
Luke's voice saying, Vader's on that ship, I shouldn't have come.
They knew his potential endangered him, Leia tried to explain. Leia - Vader's daughter...
And like an echo trailing the engines' whispers, Han could hear deep mechanical breaths and the angry, electric crackles of an Imperial interrogation rack, streaking fire along his nerves.
He shunted it all aside and studied the quiet man next to him. "Must be kinda hard to live with," he said tentatively, the words like markers scattered across unknown terrain, inadequate.
"No. Yes." Luke gazed down at the nav controls, shadows playing across his face as they drew nearer to the Mon Calamari cruiser. "But it's part of my heritage that I must accept. I've wasted too much time denying it, and I can't - couldn't..."
Couldn't live with a lie. Refusing false securities to live on the cutting edge of truth instead. Han read as much in Luke's eyes when his head lifted, and for the first time since Endor Luke seemed to need his understanding.
"Go on," Han said, "I'm listening."
"I am who I am, Han. Who I've become, who I could be - all of it - I have to live with that."
The weight of long, tortuous months was in those words, though they were spoken with resolve, and Han could hear more that went unsaid.
Acceptance of change and its consequence, of living on the outside--
But before he could challenge that logic, the intercom's whistle disrupted the pause. "Welcome back," Commander Niall's voice said. "Proceed to docking bay 4-AA."
"Copy," Luke returned mechanically.
The cockpit darkened as they passed the wide portals. Completing the docking sequence, Luke unstrapped and pushed from his seat.
"Hey - kid..." Han caught up with him, placed a hand on his shoulder. But the convolution of thought and feeling escaped words; he drew Luke into a brief hug instead, exasperated and clumsy, because whatever had been slipping through his fingers ever since Endor wasn't going to be recaptured that easily.
"Look, it's not your fault, none of us gets to choose our parents--"
Luke pulled away, and his face lifted, calm and clear and unreadable in the dimness of the shuttle. Composed as if he still expected a blow, or some kind of judgment.
Han shook his head. "I can see why you couldn't talk about it - why Leia felt I'd better hear it from you," he said. "She always thought she knew her father..."
The hatch unsealed, and Luke stepped through briskly, as if preparing for a performance. "Yes," he agreed. Matter-of-factness exiled the ghosts of anguish and defiance. "She will take time to come to terms with this."
Han followed him out into the docking bay, listened to the rhythm of their steps on the deck plates and thought that, finally, every riddle had been solved. Only instead of the hard-earned relief, a hollow feeling beset him.
Back on the cruiser's spacious bridge, they watched the
Prototype disintegrate in the distance. After the command tower had torn
loose, eruptions of unleashed energy consumed the forward hull. It broke
apart slowly, a solitary fire in the night, a miniature sun that spent
its white brilliance and went out.
Han went where he'd always go when he needed some time alone. He sat in the Falcon's cockpit and contemplated the view outside, even if the deserted docking bay extended there, replacing the familiar vista of space. It was still early in the morning, and he could feel the drowsiness lingering in his bones, though not in his mind.
They'd blasted out of Cer Myndrin the day before, proceeding on a direct course to Corellia. Attack plans were shaping up, briefings became more frequent, and the daily schedule tightened with the imminence of battle. Han flicked on ship's diagnostics although he knew the Falcon was in perfect condition - almost too perfect to feel comfortable. They'd finally replaced the lost sensor dish, these past few days, now there was nothing left to tinker with.
Nothing left to saturate empty stretches of time.
Even during the repairs, his mind had often wandered, soaring ahead to Corellia with a strike force of memories making impatient requests. The closer they drew to his homeworld, the more detailed those recollections grew, and questions tailed each of them. Indisputably, nothing much would feel like he remembered it. Han thought he'd taught himself to accept that change was life's sole verity, but now he wondered just how sound that never fully tested conviction was. Between the changes already past and the changes yet to come lived a shadow of disquiet he couldn't deny.
Maybe that was the reason why the dreams stalked him almost every night.
Only half an hour ago, he'd bounced from his bed, enraged because it wasn't fair. Standing in the shower to wash the electric tension away, he could still hear the blur of straining hydraulics and distant voices. Chewie's howl, Boba Fett's metallic snarl, Vader's measured breathing while his own breath froze in his lungs.
Come to terms with the memory, Two-Onedee had urged when he was finally forced to follow her summons and drop by sickbay for a checkup.
It happened, and it's over, so what? Obviously, that wasn't quite enough. He wondered how Luke managed, but couldn't ask, because Luke was part of the problem.
Because Luke bowed to the change instead of fighting it.
He'd been his quiet, vigilant self again, ever since their departure from the Minari system - almost as if nothing at all had happened. But when Han thought about it, he confronted the entire range of awkward pauses, wrong words, and missed opportunities, and, strangely, it felt like he was on a shortcut to kicking their friendship to hell, just because he couldn't seem to set it right. Because he couldn't stop Luke's withdrawal. The silence... And despite all the talking they'd done, Luke's silence had become more expressive than words, as if he'd been in places where words just didn't reach. And now the time left to do something about it was limited.
Han scratched his chin and looked at the intercom for a hesitant minute before he activated it. Luke answered the call almost instantly.
"Didn't wake you, did I?" Han asked. "Listen, could you come and see me... I'm on the Falcon, down in the docking bay right now. There's something--" He paused and gave a shrug Luke couldn't see. "Guess we can talk about it when you're here."
Talk? He still didn't have a first idea what to say. He dropped down on the passenger couch in the Falcon's lounge and waited, forcibly trusting that some solution would arise on the spur of the moment.
"Come in," he called when he heard steps approaching up the lowered ramp. "We're open."
Luke hesitated in the doorway, a slender shadow, the black outfit blending with the twilight of the corridor. Han remembered watching him practice against the remote, only a few steps to the left, a sandy-haired farmboy with a lightsaber. He recalled the bonfires and the pine scents of Endor's night, and the brief moment when Luke looked up at him from Leia's embrace, something very fragile in his eyes.
"Come in," he repeated and on a deep breath added something that had never come easy. "I need your help, Luke," he said bluntly.
"My help? With what?"
Surprised at himself and trying not to show too much, Han gestured vaguely. "Remember you said you could fix my brains for me? I think I'm gonna take you up on that offer - if you haven't changed your mind."
Luke crossed the lounge to perch on the game table in front of Han. "You still get those dreams?" he asked, amazement only half-hidden in the neutral tone.
"Yeah. And I got no clue what it takes to get rid of them."
Luke studied him in silence. The blue eyes, once a reliable mirror of every thought and sentiment, were filled with shadows. "You'd let me touch your mind - now that you know who I am?"
Vader's son. Haunted, claimed, and tossed back into life that would never be the same. Abandoned to sort through the shreds of ravaged dreams and misplaced hopes.
Han met the searching gaze as steadily as he could. "I knew you before, remember?" he said. "You think it makes such a difference? All I've heard is you had a father who took a wrong turn somewhere. Not much of an excuse for what he did, but then he's gone--"
"I have his powers. His potential," Luke said with sudden intensity. "Han... tell me it makes no difference for you, and I'll believe you. But don't say it just to ease my mind."
"You're saying it's possible you could be like him, if you don't watch it--?" Han lowered his head and chewed on his lip. He had no choice but to allow the thought, to let it stir a dark tremor somewhere in the remote corners of his mind. Absurd and unfathomable the notion might be, but submerging it in silence wouldn't do.
He could feel Luke's eyes on him, and the growing tension.
"He named you," Han said slowly, recalling those riddles the Prototype's log had flashed one by one. "That last question. How did you figure that out? Could've been your mother who picked that name, or even your father - before he joined up with the Emperor."
The answer came hesitantly, as if from somewhere far away. "Luke means Light, in ancient Alderaani. But there's a another meaning to the name. Something that wouldn't appeal to a... Jedi's mind, I suppose. Wolf."
For a split second, the words strummed cold fingers over the back of his neck, and Han thought that the carbon freeze didn't quite compare to the echoes of terror he seemed to catch in Luke's voice. But there was a sense of great strength, too, of pride infused with the crucible's brighter flame.
"Means you have a choice, doesn't it?" Han said into the halting silence. "Two names--"
"Or two aspects of the same."
The sense of danger was very real, and so was the desperate solitude that surrounded Luke. "Yeah, I guess it makes a difference," Han said, answering the difficult question at last. "More chances for you to land yourself in trouble. And a fair chance for me to even it up by gettin' you out of it."
"You don't have to--"
"Yeah, but maybe I want to." He raised a hand to silence unspoken objections. "I mean it, Luke. What d'you think you're gonna do? Just stay away from everybody? Don't you know I care? When I found out about your hand--" He broke off with a cutting gesture. "What'd you think I'd do?"
"I'd no idea." Luke let out a deep breath as if he'd held it long. "Turn away, maybe."
"You're not gonna loose me that fast, brother."
"I never said I wanted to."
A true smile broke through the stormclouds in Luke's eyes, Han noted with satisfaction. "Good," he said. "Now tell me about those files in the Prototype's log."
Luke's hand moved in a gesture indicating an abundance of unexpected data. "It looks like I've inherited more than I've ever wanted to own," he said. "And a... following loyal to my father."
"What, they were expecting you to join them?"
"Seems like they hoped I'd take my father's place."
Han frowned. "What're you gonna do about it?"
"I... haven't got the time to worry about it right now." A tentative grin curved Luke's mouth when he met Han's eyes. "If you can use another pilot, that is."
Han grinned back at him. "Sure, I can use you. And you're gonna like Corellia." He reached across to touch Luke's hand and squeezed briefly, drawing a brilliant smile that mirrored his own relief. "Okay, so now we've settled that, are you gonna help me with a... particularly touchy job 'n straighten my brains out?"
"Can't withdraw the offer, can I?"
"Not if you don't wanna get relegated to the cleaning crew. Corellians aren't very forgiving, y'know."
"I'd never have guessed." Luke moved to sit beside Han on the couch. "Okay. I can tell when I'm beaten."
"Fair enough. So, what do I do?"
"Just... try to relax," Luke told him.
Hands reached for his temples, touching briefly, then moved to rest lightly on his shoulders, the gesture a request for acceptance. But with the first brush of something more immediate than thought or touch, seeking his mind, Han felt himself stiffen reflexively. He drew a sharp breath. The touch was withdrawn and returned tentatively, like a ripple of light across deep waters. Like a call to follow where words didn't reach.
And it echoed through him, reaching out--
"Relax," Luke repeated.
"Easy for you to say," Han muttered. "Y'know, I guess everybody's got their own dark secrets locked away somewhere. Maybe you'd better avoid taking a closer look when you go into my mind. You might not like what you find there."
"Hey, don't worry." A touch of wry humor crept into Luke's voice when he added: "I'll still respect you after we're through, if that's what you're worried about."
Awkward reluctance dissolved in a lopsided grin. "Don't get cocky with me," Han grumbled. He shrugged. "Well - whatever you find, don't tell anyone. Including myself."
"I can keep a secret," Luke said drily.
Han snorted. "Yeah, right - I've noticed that. Now let's get on with it."
He closed his eyes and felt the light ripple his senses,
gentle and persistent like the wind that entranced Corellia's oceans with
the midnight tide.