By Barbara Anderson
see You Could Use Another Good Kiss home page
(Originally appear in Flip of a Coin #15, 1992)
What followed was one of the most important military strategy meetings in the history of the rebellion. The Minrados Offensive was a planet-wide, logistical nightmare. Just organizing the transport of troops and supplies was a mind-boggling, daunting task. Adding the limited time factor made it almost an impossible task. Synchronizing the global assault had both organics and droids muttering to themselves and the most commonly heard phrase all over the fleet was, "You want it when?!"
The theorized lift tubes were the initial objectives and since the tubes operated on a negative/positive polarity principle, all troops were to be equipped with an adapted magnetic field resonator to detect the hidden tubes. The resonator was a common component in small power tools, appliances, and holo-units; every maintenance shop, engineering department, and personal living space was raided for the essential part.
All previous raid sites were targeted, with factories, food processing plants, government buildings, etc., also selected. Any place that was known to have been occupied by the Empire was suspect. Mobilization of personnel was frenetically swift; more aptly described as organized chaos. There were very few in the fleet who hadn't been involved in a hasty retreat or participated in a full-scale base evacuation at some time and most everyone knew what to do and where to go.
Communications was busy; not only relaying in-ship and ship-to-ship messages, but also sending false ship-to-surface coded bursts ordering troop recall and shuffling, which would explain the sudden increase in space traffic—all to give the wrong impression to any listening Imperial ears.
The hangar bays of every ship in the Rebel fleet exploded with a mass of activity, but none as busy as the headquarters frigate. The overhead comm system blared continuously, detailing group departures. Supply and troop transports wove in and out among the shuttle ships, delivering cargo and Rebel soldiers to their destinations. Droids scurried around in mechanical haste and flight crews scrambled to get fighter craft ready. While most of the action was expected to take place on the planet's surface, the Rebel pilots would be on stand-by for any fleeing Imperial pests.
No longer an ostracized outcast, the Millennium Falcon was once more secure in her assigned berth, her powerful engines idling impatiently, her cargo hatches wide open to receive the elite unit of troops that was to go with Luke and Chewbacca.
Outside the freighter, Lando was standing by the Falcon's left mandible, out of the way of the gases periodically venting from the lifters, and checking off the supplies as they were being loaded onto the ship. He was also worrying about Luke. The troubled Jedi was inside and the last time Lando checked on him, Luke was giving new meaning to the word 'morose' and blaming most of the present mess on himself. Talking to him hadn't helped and there wasn't time for the six or seven ebla beers Lando figured it would take to loosen Luke up. Nor was there time for a good swift kick in the kid's choobies to straighten him out.
Sighing, Lando looked up from his manifest to scan the bay, spotting Spacer trying to stem a coolant leak in one of the shuttles' engines. Though the stuff was supposed to be viscous, it was shooting up out of the coolant line like a fountain and Spacer was cursing like an asteroid hauler. Lando chuckled to himself, thinking that Luke was going to have an interesting life. He looked back down at his list, but then his head snapped up as if on a spring catch and a decidedly gleeful grin spread across the dark face. With grin still in place, he went looking for the deck crew supervisor.
Not five minutes later, the supervisor came bellowing up to the leaking shuttle. Rell Makishka was usually a reasonable boss, but like everyone else on the frigate, he was being pushed to his limit and then some. "Spacer," he ordered, "get over to the Millennium Falcon and help check out the main power relay to the quad cannon. They've got a circuit problem and I understand you worked on that system with Captain Solo."
Spacer stood there with her hand holding the new coolant valve in place. "It's going to have to wait, Mak," she answered without turning her head and held out her hand into which another tech placed a roll of silver and gray tape.
"That was not a request, Spaceskipper! I said now!"
Thoroughly annoyed and as pushed to her limit as anyone, Spacer slowly turned her head. "Now?" she asked with exaggerated sweetness.
"Now," he repeated with exaggerated sarcasm.
"Yes, sir! Now it is," and she let go of the valve, It immediately popped off, but Spacer just matter-of-factly wiped her hands down her pants and walked away, ignoring the outraged noises behind her as the resulting spray of coolant showered everyone within ten feet of the shuttle, supervisor included.
Feeling justified, she stomped towards the Falcon, muttering evil curses. Whatever had gotten into Mak, she couldn't imagine. Whatever had gotten into everybody, for that matter. The rebel leaders were asking for the impossible.
She bent under the Falcon's hull, then walked up the ramp and down the curved corridor to the rec area, expecting to find the deck grids up and one unhappy Wookiee. Instead, she found one unhappy Jedi with his head down on crossed arms on the game board. "Oh...!" she said in surprise and he immediately looked up while Spacer looked down at herself and wanted to just disappear.
She was covered with green goo, dressed in baggy tech overalls, and didn't even want to imagine what her face and hair looked like. But the expression on Luke's face seemed to say it didn't matter. He scrambled to his feet, holding out a hand, but she backed away, holding vertical palms up in a defensive gesture. "No...no, don't touch me. I'm a mess!" She sighed. "Every time you see me, I'm a mess."
Luke appraised her. "I don't know," he said gently, "you look pretty good to me."
"Right..." was her chagrined reply.
They stood there for a few silent seconds, acutely aware of each other's presence, but at a loss for something to say. Both looked about ready to shuffle their respective feet.
"Where's Chewie?" she finally asked.
Luke hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "In the cockpit, I assume. Why?"
"Well, I was sent over here because Mak was told the Falcon had a problem with the cannon relay circuitry and I assumed Chewie would be working on it."
He looked perplexed and gave the area a fast cursory glance. "There's no problem that I know about."
"Then what...? Somebody told Makishka I was needed here."
The answer hit both of them at the same time and it was almost simultaneously spoken out loud. "Lando."
"Lando..." Luke shook his head and smiled. "Remind me to have a long talk with the General when this is over."
"Will it be over?" she asked seriously. "Ever?"
They exchanged a meaningful glance conveying all the mutual uncertainties about the future and Luke found his hand going to touch his lightsaber. "I honestly don't know. I've...tried to use the Force to 'see' what's coming, but all I get are vague images. It's almost as if the future is happening too fast...if that makes any sense. Not that much does lately."
Spacer loved Luke, but she still didn't know him, didn't know things like the subtleties of his personality. But she didn't have to at this point; his worry and despair would be evident to anyone with even the smallest amount of perception. Even though she already knew the answer, Spacer asked, "Luke, why would Lando have sent me in here?"
He almost said nothing, not wanting to burden anyone else with his fears, but as he looked at her, the realization hit him that she was going to be the one person to whom he could tell everything and anything. "Lando," he emphasized the name, "thinks I need someone to talk to."
Half a dozen emotions raced across the young/old face. "Maybe...I guess. There's an awful lot at stake here, Sara. A lot of lives, maybe the future of the rebellion." He suddenly looked angry and frustrated, but most of all, desperate. His hand clenched in front of him. "I'm supposed to be a Jedi. I should've seen this! What good is the Force if I can't use it when I need it?!" He looked at the hand, realizing it was the artificial one and his rage died down with defeat creeping into his voice. "Can't even use it to save my own sister..."
That was it, she thought. Well, not all of it, but a large part. She watched as he sat down at the auxiliary control console, held his forehead and looked ready to cry. Spacer felt completely helpless at first, then she went over and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I don't know yet," she ventured, "what to say that will help, but…"
He looked up at her and, in answer, wrapped both arms around her waist and pulled her in tight, laying his cheek against her chest. It was a desperate, shuddering embrace and Spacer gently stroked his hair until she felt him relax. He pulled away, taking varying amounts of yelled coolant with him on his clothes and face. "Now I've done it," he said, a lighter tone to his voice and some of the tautness gone from his face. "I'm as much of a mess as you are."
It broke the black mood as they both laughed and Spacer was able to ask him specifics. "Do you have any idea where she is?"
He sat back with an almost analytical expression. "It's a good guess she's somewhere under Minrados City."
She took a deep breath, making a decision. "Luke, I want to help."
He flashed her a wary look. "You are helping."
"No, I want to come with you-dirtside. I happen to be damn good with a blaster."
He stood and planted his feet on the deck in front of her. "Absolutely not!"
She became hotly indignant. "Why?!"
He started to say, 'Because I told you so,' but immediately realized it would only make her angrier and rightly so. Plus he was hearing increased sounds and activity outside the ramp. Now was not the time for circumventing real feelings. His reasons had to be quickly and honestly revealed. "Sara," he swallowed hard, knowing it was going to be emotionally painful to verbalize his private horror, "when I used the Force to look into the future, I couldn't find Leia or Han!" Her mouth gaped as the implication became all too clear. "I know they're alive...right now, at this moment." The words were sharply and urgently punctuated. "But I don't know anything else! I don't know if they're going to die, I don't know if the rebellion is going to be defeated. I'm facing the possibility of losing everything that's important to me." His voice dropped to an almost begging plea. "I don't want to lose you, too. I need to know you're safe, here. That's why."
No argument was even possible and there were tears in her eyes as she acquiesced. "Just make sure you come back!"
He nodded. "I will." Hesitantly, then with increasing confidence, he bent his head to kiss her. It quickly developed into their first passionate clinch and left them both breathing hard afterwards.
Drawing back, Spacer wiped green coolant gel from his shoulder. "I swear, the next time you see me, I'm going to look like a lady with not a grease spot to be found!"
"Promise?" he teased.
"You can hold me to it."
He let her go as voices approached outside the rec area but there was a wicked, lecherous smile on his face, "I intend to hold a lot more than that."
It was somewhat confusing to feel ecstatic and worried at the same time, but that was exactly how Spacer felt as she exited the Falcon. Lando anxiously glanced at her and she gave him a high sign salute to let him know that everything was okay. Wedge merely raised an eyebrow at her passing presence, then two eyebrows at seeing Luke generously spotted with the same stuff that had been on her coveralls.
Chewbacca, meanwhile, was still in the cockpit, running an umpteenth systems check. The inactivity was driving him crazy—his inactivity. From the vantage point of the cockpit, he could see the mad scrambling on the flight deck but he was stuck here, not moving, just waiting. Waiting and worrying about Han Solo.
He flicked on another row of indicator lights and checked pressure gauges, noting how wonderful it was to actually be able to read the numbers rather than squint through a clouded, scratched gauge cover. Everything gleamed, bright and clear; the ship was running beautifully and Han wasn't there to enjoy it.
What if...? Chewbacca refused to even contemplate the possibility. Skywalker had assured him that Han was still alive, as was the princess. But Chewie couldn't help worrying. For how much longer?
He turned at the sound of approaching people, calling out a greeting and a "Hurry up," to Luke, Wedge and Lando. Following right behind was Artoo-Detoo. Chewbacca looked out the cockpit to see Threepio waving a good-bye at the bottom of the ramp and sent a mental thanks to whomever was responsible for leaving the fussy droid behind.
It hadn't taken long for Han to find transportation out of the Minrados spaceport; he merely hot-wired and 'borrowed' a convenient ground cab. His initial problem had been in getting out of the x-wing. Escort procedure dictated that the pilots wait in the fighters until the Ambassador was safely away and responsibility for his safety was transferred to a ground detail. It seemed like forever and a day before the Minradite official and his entourage finally left. By then, Han was like a corked volcano. Before the official stand-down signal had been fully transmitted, he was out of the cockpit and swinging down off the fighter's closed S-foil.
The orange flight suit was ditched in a trash container A.S.A.P.; no sense in being a bright target. With his blaster and rig back where they belonged, Han felt…not as confident as one would think. He knew he was walking into some kind of trap and as the lift tube entrance in the back of the boarded-up Crater's Edge opened, he fervently wished there was a two-hundred-year-old hairy back-up by his side. Of all his most recent not brightest ideas, this one had to be the worst.
Six levels down, Colonel Delavan Royce and half-a-dozen storm troopers waited for Han's arrival...and waited...and waited. The Colonel became visibly agitated. "He should have been here already! Are we sure he entered the lift?"
"Sensors tracked him, sir," said the filtered voice inside a white helmet.
Royce paced back and forth. "I don't like it. I don't trust him. Shut down the system!"
"Yes, sir." The storm trooper flipped open a maintenance panel, looking among the toggles, circuits and computer terminals to find the correct switch. In response, the tube's interior lights went out and the energy flow stopped.
It was a nervous Imperial officer who tugged on his tunic. "I want this whole section on alert. He's in the complex...somewhere." Royce looked over his shoulder, then backed up to the wall. "You stay here," he ordered one soldier. "The rest of you, come with me."
The minutes dragged by interminably before the figure inside the lift tube dared to breathe—as if the pain in his left shoulder would let him breathe. When the lift tube was shut down, it was Corellian luck that Han had been keeping himself stationary in the field confluence by holding onto one of the tether lock rings in the wall. There was no doubt in his mind that an unfriendly reception committee was waiting. With the tube crawl spaces as a logical alternative entrance, he had been working on a maintenance hatch. At the unexpected return of gravity and weight, his fingers had instinctively locked around the ring, but the sudden severe jerk had nearly dislocated the shoulder. Now he hung there, gritting his teeth and waiting for the blaster bolt that would end it all.
But it never came.
Han looked down, finding it difficult to accurately assess the remaining distance. There was a pool of light from the corridor that spilled into the bottom and he saw a humanoid shadow cross, cross again, and then hold right in the middle. It gave him a way to gauge perspective depth and he figured it was maybe ten feet. Jumping would be a calculated risk. Chewie would probably have called it a new and different way of committing suicide. Either way, it seemed to be the only option available. He jumped.
The blaster was in his hand when his feet hit the floor and was jammed against the storm trooper's armor before the man even registered the Corellian's presence. Han winced at the power recoil but winced even harder at the noise. In the silence and resonance of the corridor, his landing and the zing of the blaster, though muffled, sounded like a herd of banthas over corrugated transparisteel. He dragged the body in, looked it over and swore softly; no chance of fitting in that uniform. Peering out and finding a clear corridor, he left the relative safety of the darkened lift.
You have got to be missing a few vital brain cells, he thought, wondering just how many more stormtroopers were down there. He wasn't exactly planning on a fight; there were times when sneaking around had its advantages. All he wanted at this point was information that he could take back to the fleet and let them handle it from there.
Who knew how far this tunnel went under the city? Tunnels, plural, he corrected himself as he came to a corridor split-off with some sort of transport station. Directions and section maps indicated a complex of staggering size. His inner alarms kicked in as he realized this was far bigger than he ever imagined and the sooner the rebellion knew about it, the better. Starting to backtrack, he suddenly stopped, hearing voices. A shallow alcove was his only retreat and he flattened against the wall.
"Colonel Royce!" said a hyper, fast-breathing voice. "Rebel troops have broken through the entrances at the fighter plant!" As if to confirm that, a warbling siren began sounding over the comm grids. Then Han heard running footsteps as a junior officer approached and thrust a read-out into the man's trembling hands, which trembled even more as he read the message. "Also getting alerts from station six, twenty-four," he babbled, then paused, looking up with ghastly fear on his face as if seeing his own death. "Multiple intruder alarms from all global points."
Delavan glared at him with a tight-lipped, disapproving look. "You're an Imperial officer, Major. Act like one. Put a security lock on this information, level three and up only. Inform the stormtroopers to give minimal resistance and let the Rebels penetrate into the complex."
"Sir?" questioned the major.
"Have all officers above the rank of lieutenant evacuate."
The major looked absolutely ecstatic while Royce made a mental note to have him demoted and sent to Kessel for guard duty. The image wasn't funny as Royce fully expected to be sent there himself. Minrados was entrusted to him, his command and his responsibility. If the planet was lost, so was his career as the Empire might never recover. But it was his duty to make sure that the Alliance wouldn't benefit either. Even, came the grim decision, if he had to destroy everything.
From his barely-there concealment, Solo felt as though he had been thrown out an airlock. Delavan Royce. His senses reeled, but he should have known. One expects to find slimy things underground. It sounded like Royce was going to lead the rebel troops into some kind of trap. Not if Han could help it!
Stopping Royce, though, would mean announcing himself. The rebellion obviously already knew about the underground complex, so what he had discovered was old news and there was no hurry anymore. It made him grouse a bit as he had visions of laying it out under Mim's self-justified nose. Grousing aside, he made a decision quickly.
Crouching down, he snapped around the corner to fire, hitting the Major who was in front of Royce. Firing again, he attempted to nail the Colonel, but the Imperial officer's reflexes and reaction time were almost as good and as fast as Han's. He rolled, finding cover while Han swung back into the alcove.
"Give it up, Del! It's all over!" Han shouted.
Solo heard scrambling in the hallway and Royce giving several short, sharp commands. Though he couldn't make out the exact words, Han didn't have to be a cybernetic brain to deduce that Royce was calling for help and that it behooved him to get out of there to warn the Alliance troops. But as he ran pell-mell to the only exit he knew, the fact that Delavan had not answered bothered him...bothered him a lot! It was as if something else was more important.
He hugged the next corner, breathing hard as he peeked around the edge, then ducked back at the audible approach of many feet. "Oh, Sith!" was all he could say and reversed direction, to the sound of even more feet that way. When Delavan called for help, Han thought, he didn't hedge his bets. Well, they weren't going to take him easily.
It started as a stormtrooper came around the corner to his left. "There's one of them!" he called, before dropping from Han's deadly blaster fire. Two more of the white hard hats made the mistake of turning also. Han didn't wait for any more, knowing three was as lucky as he was going to get. The stormtroopers knew it as well and clattered after him.
Solo ran recklessly down the corridor, pushing off the walls for turning power, risking a look backwards and wishing he hadn't for the squad of Imperials were right on his heels, When he looked forward, there was a corridor full of soldiers in front of him. He gaped. Rebel soldiers! And one of them was over seven feet tall, covered with fur, and making a unbelievable amount of happy noise!
"Stormtroopers! Right behind me!" Han warned and ran to join their ranks. The corridor exploded with criss-crossing blaster fire, the red lines of energy zinging back and forth, dropping both Rebels and stormtroopers alike, though casualties were light for the former. And it was the stormtroopers who backed off and retreated—without that much of a fight.
"Chewie!" Han exclaimed as the Wookiee lifted him off his feet. "Good to see you, buddy!" He looked up at his partner and the height made him think of QueeQuee. He patted the large chest. "Boy, did I find a girl for you!" With a hoot of confusion, Chewbacca set him down as Wedge elbowed his way through the remaining troops. "Good to see you, too." Han firmly clasped his hand. "Your timing couldn't have been better." Han's face turned urgent and serious. "But you've got to get everyone out of here. Royce is drawing you all into some kind of trap. I heard him give orders for minimal resistance."
"Royce?!" gasped Wedge while Chewbacca gave a howl that rattled the overhead ceiling grids.
"Yeah," replied Han. "Surprise, surprise."
Wedge looked stricken. "Gods, all the lift tubes have been shut down. We had to use grappling wire."
"How many came down?"
"Thousands!" gestured the Rebel officer helplessly. "This is happening all over the planet!"
Han thought for a minute. "Okay...we can at least warn them to expect something! That'll give them an edge."
Wedge exchanged a sudden trepidating glance with Chewie, then asked, "Han, where's Leia?"
The look on Han's face was like an instant of fear frozen in time. "What do you mean, where's Leia?!" He wrapped a convulsively tight hand around Wedge's wrist. "You were supposed to find her!"
Chewbacca laid a hand across his Captain's shoulder. "It's not his fault, little one."
"Whose fault is it?!" accused Han.
Wedge knew Han was more afraid than angry. "She disappeared off the frigate," he explained, "at about the same time Jerash did. He was seen leaving on the Ambassador's shuttle and we think he smuggled her on board somehow. It's a good bet she's down here somewhere."
Han's mind went blank for a nano-second as the full implication registered. "I knew," he said to no one in particular, "I should've wasted him when I had the chance." His hand stroked over his lower face in a gesture Chewbacca recognized as one of thought and resolution. When Han Solo again looked at his companions, it was as a darker individual. Sharper, angrier...the worry not blunting the edges of his abilities, but making them more acute. Deadlier. It was there in his eyes, even his stance was more defiantly aggressive. "What about Luke or Lando?' he asked. "Where are they?"
"We split up," said Wedge. "They went in the opposite direction."
"Get them back."
In sync with his fellow Corellian's thinking, Wedge had already unclipped his comm unit. "On their way," he reported after notifying Lando and sending word to warn the other attack units.
"Royce was headed back that way." Han indicated the direction from which he had come. "That's where she's got to be. Let's go!"
Not that far away, the missing princess was panting in a doorway, her heart beating at point five past lightspeed as she listened until the multiple marching feet of a squad of stormtroopers slowly faded away. Something more urgent than her escape had happened, she hoped, not wanting to think the warning alerts and increased troop activity was all because of her. If the Imperials had other problems, she could use it to her advantage, making it easier to get away—but from where? Without a reference point of some kind, she was hopelessly lost as each turn in the corridors seemed to branch off in two or three more directions.
How she wished she were Corellian. But that thought made her frantic heart almost stop and her breath caught as she envisioned the worst. Was he still alive? She'd know if he wasn't, wouldn't she? And Luke...what of her brother? Was he looking for her? Did he know where she was? Would she ever see either of them again? Should she risk using the Force? What would she unleash upon herself?
"Maker," her hands stroked her face in a hushed, desperate and despairing plea, "help me."
Her head snapped up, her body ready to fight or run, but there was no one there. Then the glowing, shimmering figure of a man dressed in simple, rough brown robes materialized in the corridor. It wasn't Obi-Wan and, from Luke's description, it certainly wasn't the Jedi Master called Yoda. She took a step back as the only answer hit her like a ton of neutronium.
Han was leading the way through the corridors, remembering the turns without any trouble. Twice they ran into stormtroopers who were too easily routed. He felt an uncomfortable claustrophobia, knowing they were being deliberately lead deeper and deeper into the tunnels. They passed a rare open doorway, but this one had a trail of blood leading to it. Chewie suddenly sniffed and tapped Han on the shoulder. The next second, Han got a whiff...the unmistakable odor of burned flesh. He side-slipped into the room, blaster ready, but found only Jerash's blackened corpse, all but unrecognizable. "Good!" he said. "Saves me the trouble."
"The Princess was here," Chewbacca announced.
"You sure, Chewie?" The odor was overpowering and Han momentarily doubted the Wookiee's keen and discerning sense of smell.
"Not long ago," he reiterated.
Han bent to touch his fingers to the blood. "If he's hurt her...." was mostly said to himself and then something caught his eye. His hand retrieved QueeQuee's horn, the inlaid jewels gleaming still. He twirled it back and forth, while glancing around the wreckage of the room, and a sideways smile lightened his face. "Way to go, sweetheart," he murmured.
At the abrupt but not surprising sound of blaster fire, he and Chewie were out of the room in a shot. Ahead, the corridor widened into a crossroads intersection and the Rebel soldiers had encountered another squad of stormtroopers. Unlike the previous ones, these Imperials were seriously fighting, as if protecting something vital.
Like a transport station, noticed Han upon arriving and lending his blaster to the battle. An empty, waiting flux pod was hovering in the station, ready for passengers. He recalled Delavan giving orders for the Imperial officers to evacuate.
More stormtroopers came shooting down from another corridor, further separating the rebel troops and leaving Han and Chewbacca in the rear. They began running to catch up, but Han suddenly stopped, so suddenly, it was as if his boots were welded to the floor. A blaster bolt zinged in front of him, not a molecule of air away, taking out splintered, shattered chunks of wall instead of him. Han's erratic, but reliable when working, precognitive 'gift' had cone through again. He ducked back, throwing an arm across Chewie's chest, trying to push him back for safety. The Wookiee protested this protective behavior, but Chewbacca hadn't seen what Han had. Two more stormtroopers and Delavan Royce.
Though close enough to hear the blaster fire, Leia was too stunned to investigate. She stood there in the corridor, staring at the shimmering extracorporeal body of Anakin Skywalker.
"Don't be afraid," he said gently and held his hands out to his side. "I won't hurt you. I'm here to help."
She fought back the urge to scream at him and instead answered as coldly and contemptously as she could. "Haven't you done enough?! I don't want anything from you!"
The figure wavered a bit as if her response weakened him. "Leia, listen to me—I don't have long. Temptation by the Dark Side is something every Jedi has to face. That strength, that will you inherited from me, my daughter, is not to be feared. Use it," he implored, "to succeed...where I failed." He began fading. "I am not proud of that time in my other life, but I am very proud of you and your brother. Please believe that I am sorry for any pain I caused."
As he disappeared, Leia called out, "Wait!" and reached out a hand. The corridor was once again empty, but the shining, in more ways than one, image of Anakin Skywalker was forever imprinted onto her memory. However, there was little time for her to contemplate the encounter, for she heard another voice. This one distant, but oh, so familiar. She'd know it anywhere. Heedless of who or what might be ahead, she ran headlong in its direction.
"Del!" Han called. "Let's talk!" He looked at his partner to explain this uncharacteristic behavior. "We need him alive to tell us where Leia is," he whispered, "otherwise, I'd shoot him just for practice!"
Royce was panicking, but flanked by his stormtroopers, he didn't dare display it outwardly. Inwardly, he cursed the Imperial engineers who didn't design another way out from the complex's main control center. And he cursed Han Solo. If not for that damned Corellian, he would probably be an Imperial fleet admiral by now. But now, he was pinned down, unable to go back or forward. Going back would accomplish nothing; events were already set into motion that couldn't be stopped. He had to get away—and soon! "Since when," he shouted back, "did you ever talk before shooting?"
"You're finished here!" countered Han. "Whatever you're planning, it won't work. It's a no-win!"
Then both men heard the solitary running steps coming from the corridor adjacent to Delavan's. Needing to assess the situation, Han peered around the corner just in time to see Leia reach the intersection. Oh, Maker, no..., was all he could think. Then he swung into the open, regardless of making himself a clear target. "Leia!" he yelled. "No! Go back!"
But it was too late. Though she tried to stop, her momentum carried her right into Royce's tight, clutching grasp, while Chewbacca pulled Han back to safety just as a stormtrooper's blaster bolt tried to make Solo a rebellion memory.
"Han!" It was Royce and Han squeezed his eyes shut, knowing what he was about to hear. "I believe it's my game," Royce smugly shouted. "Checkmate, cadet!"
"Let her go!" Han answered, sounding more frantic than he wanted to.
Delavan had Leia's arms twisted up and back as he held her in front of him. "I'm impressed, Princess," he breathed in her ear. "Not many get away from QueeQuee. However did you manage it?"
"The same way I'm going to get away from you!" Leia viciously promised and tried to break free of his hold, but Royce yanked hard on the arm that was already bruised from QueeQuee's shove into the wall. Unable to help herself, she cried out in pain.
Chewie held Han back. "Hurt her again, Del," Han savagely threatened, "and there'll be no place in this galaxy that I won't find you!"
"Like this?" Royce maliciously taunted as he added a twist. Gritting her teeth, Leia suppressed all response except a low intense whimper. Robbed of further sadistic satisfaction, Royce became impatient. He was running out of time. "Spare me the melodrama! If you don't want me inflicting any permanent damage on Her Highness, get out of my way! I'm leaving and she's going with me!"
Han was breathing in short gasps, his blood racing with pure adrenalin, his heart pounding, every nerve and muscle on a tense, taut tripwire, his reflexes holding on a single synapse and his mind working through plan after plan and coming up zero. "Delavan," he calmly offered, "let her go. Take me instead."
"Han...no!!" screamed Leia, while Chewbacca roared in equal dislike of that idea.
"Shut up!" Royce ordered her and Han heard a slap. It took everything the Corellian had in the way of will power to bite back the words that he knew would only further antagonize the Imperial. "No deal!" came Delavan's answer. "You're of no use to me...never were! Leia, though, is the answer to many problems. Palpatine had a Sith lord. I'm going to have a princess!"
A new fear more horrible than any she had imagined flared in Leia's mind as she realized what Delavan was planning. Nothing would ever induce her to serve the Empire, not in any capacity! She had told QueeQuee she would die first and she meant it.
Instead of struggling or resisting further, Leia grew calm, forcing herself to relax. She had the means to escape Royce; she just had to find the courage. Physically, she was no threat to him, but mentally...if she used the Force, he didn't stand a chance. She could do it. QueeQuee said she had the power, but what if that power was only fueled by the Dark Side?
The possible consequences were horrific. Yet, so was the alternative. In comparison, being rechained to Jabba the Hutt would be preferable. She thought back to when Han let himself be put into carbon freeze, into what had to be a terrifying private hell. Could she do less?
If the Dark Side threatened, she vowed to fight it somehow. Anakin's words burned bright in her memory and she took strength from them, took them into her soul as she prepared to let the Force take over.
But Leia didn't know help was on the way. In the corridor, Chewie started pounding on Han's back, pointing out Luke and Lando approaching at a run, followed by a scurrying Artoo-Detoo. The Wookiee held out a hand to warn and slow them down, then placed a finger across his mouth.
"About time," Han whispered sarcastically, but reached out a hand to Lando and then clasped Luke's in a tighter-than-expected grip.
That grip spoke volumes to the Jedi. "Han?" was all he asked, knowing further words would be superfluous.
"It's Delavan Royce," Han stated. "He's got Leia and planning to take her with him. We have to..."
But Luke was only half-listening. If Leia was that close, there was a chance he might be able to get through to her. Concentrating, his mental 'touch' came up against the barrier, but found it weakened. He was at first thrilled, but then he felt the Dark Side within her, waiting to break loose. The murky evil presence of that black energy made him shudder.
It's all right, Leia. I'm here, he thought. Han's here. He pictured the barrier, laying imagined hands on it. Let me help, his thoughts wordlessly pleaded. And suddenly...it was gone! Leia was such an abrupt, blinding, almost painful flash in his mind, though, that Luke involuntarily moaned, putting a hand to his head as the rapport with his twin was re-established.
Thinking the Jedi was about to have another attack of some kind, Lando went to offer support, but Han almost brutally pushed the general back. "Let him alone, Lando," he said, realizing there were energies at work they couldn't see.
"I'm all right," Luke whispered, then took a deep reviving breath, his eyes shining in relief. "Leia's all right..." but he left the rest of the statement unspoken. All right, for the moment, was more the truth. The Dark Side was still present and a very real threat, like a star about to go nova, just waiting for the right combination of energies to set it off. It was something she and he would have to deal with...later.
Physical rescue was the first priority. He looked at Lando, Chewie and Han. "I've got an idea...see what you think."
"Solo!" Delavan yelled. "I've run out of patience! Now move out of my way or this pretty face won't be so pretty anymore!" The Colonel's voice had a hysterical shrill note to it as his hand cruelly squeezed her cheeks.
Leia twisted in his grip. "Losing it, Colonel?" she taunted. If not for the situation, she would've been ecstatic with joy. Like a tether in space, Luke had been there when she let the Force return; he was her link to safety and sanity and she had reached out to him, grasping at his presence like oxygen in space. Yet, she knew, he was only a reprieve. She had yet to face that final temptation and beat her personal dark demon…later.
First, she had to help stop Royce. More a sensation, rather than an actual projected thought in her mind, Leia 'felt' Luke about to make a move, could 'feel' him drawing the Force, In the next instant, he appeared in the center of the corridor, his hand moving to the left, then the right as the storm trooper's blaster rifles went flying out of their hands and skittered across the corridor floor.
"Fools!' screeched an enraged Royce. "Get them back!"
Taking advantage of his stunned, shocked reaction, Leia tried something so basic as to smash her heel on his toes. He predictably howled, his grip on her loosening and she tore herself out of his grasp, while Han and Lando fired, simultaneously taking out both troopers.
Seeing his protection fleeing, Royce grabbed Leia's wrist, yanking her back and proceeded to repeatedly slap her in uncontrollable fury. She couldn't manage the concentration to use the Force, having all she could do to just protect herself, and flinched when Delavan's arm was raised one more time. It was one time too many for the Imperial as a Corellian hand snapped up in a vice-like grip, tighter and stronger than a tractor beam. Delavan's eyes grew wide, while there was murderous fire in Han's.
"I warned you," Han said with deadly conviction and slugged Royce across the face. Then, to the accompaniment of a Wookiee cheer, punched him in the stomach. Delavan doubled over and Solo quickly raised his knee to impact with the Colonel's chin. But the Imperial suddenly grabbed Han's leg, pushed and sent Han sprawling to the floor.
While the two antagonists grappled, Leia leaned on the wall, her hand holding her face as the battering and residual stinging pain made her dizzy. It was with a terrified start that she felt gentle hands supporting her. She looked up to see Luke and leaned into his chest in wordless relief, He held her tightly, surrounding her with thoughts of love and safety, reinforcing the link between them and verbally assuring her over and over again that everything would be all right. There was no time for any more than that as their attention switched to the continuing fight.
With Han on the floor, Royce attempted to go for one of the stormtrooper's rifles, but Solo curled into a crouch and launched himself, grabbing at Delavan's ankle. Royce went down like gravity tripled, immediately rolled over and kicked Solo in the shoulder. Han heard and felt a crack as the clavicle broke and, for a moment, was incapacitated by the pain. Chewie yowled in concern at the injury and Lando yelled, "Han, do you want help?"
"No!' he gasped and managed to stand.
Leia held a hand up to her mouth. The physical brutality didn't faze her; she had seen much worse, but there was the fear of further injury to Han. "Luke," she urged, "stop them!"
The Jedi smiled in undisguised enjoyment. "Not a chance...Han needs this."
Delavan was scrambling to his feet and tried to run, colliding with seven feet of a very angry Wookiee. Chewie bared magnificently white teeth and roared in full sensurround in the Imperial's face, then spun him around—right into Han's fist. The Colonel staggered and Han clouted him again, wincing as the raw ends of the fractured collarbone scraped against each other.
But it was Royce who was getting the worst. The Imperial's face was a mess. ready swelling and discoloring, blood streaming freely from the corner of his mouth and nose. The once spotless and crisp uniform would never be the same. His knees were buckling and he was slowly sinking to the floor.
"Hold him for me, Chewie, will you?" Han asked. Chewbacca gladly hefted Delavan up under the arms and Han hit him again—then once more just on principle. Royce's head lolled around as if barely attached to the torso, then finally dropped forward. Chewie dropped the rest like a container of radioactive waste.
"Mother of Corell!" Han hissed, allowing himself to fully feel the pain in his shoulder and hands. Looking at his bleeding, bruised knuckles, Solo remembered there were advantages to a good blaster; but then he looked at the crumpled, all but dead body at his feet and decided it wouldn't have been anywhere near as satisfying.
He turned to go to Leia but one little droid suddenly began making a big commotion. Artoo was having a positively hysterical, electronic fit. The domed top spun in circles; he rocked on both feet, whistled, tootled, beeped, and frantically tried to tell them something.
"What with him?' Han asked. In answer, the overhead lighting strips changed color to a nice urgent orange and began to pulse. "I've got a very bad feeling about this," said Lando, as he and the others nervously looked and listened for any more ominous occurrences.
On the floor, Royce stirred and began laughing, which quickly deteriorated into a coughing, choking spasm. "One last hand, Solo," he voice croaked, "and I've won." They all stared at him. "You're too late. The whole place detonates. You're dead and the rebellion with you." Losing his temper at this piece of Imperial trash, Chewbacca hauled him half off the floor where upon Royce promptly passed out again.
"Forget it, Chewie," said Han. "He wouldn't have told us anymore anyway."
"He would have if I pulled his arms out of his sockets."
"Han," Leia grabbed his arm, "Minrados is an Imperial storehouse. We've got to try and save it!"
Solo looked at her in complete, total disbelief. "We've got our lives to try and save! I don't know how much of a safety margin he gave himself."
"This could mean an end to the war!" she urged.
"Or an end to us!!" He flung an arm out for emphasis. "I didn't go through all this to become subterranean dust!"
Her hands went out as if pleading a case in the senate. "But all the weapons, supplies, money. There's millions here!"
Chewbacca yowled, Lando raised eyebrows in interest, and Luke knew she had said the magic word. As Han's self-preservation resolve weakened under a stronger mercenary instinct, he swore he would sign up for a psyche eval—if ever he got back.
The light strips flashed to red.
"Luke," he ordered, "get her out of here. Get everyone out of here!"
"Oh, no," Leia stated. "I'm not leaving. It was my idea." She re-grasped his arm and they both knew why she really wanted to stay.
Han didn't know whether to laugh or curse, smile or throttle her. The relationship was back to normal as she glared at him and vice-versa, each a strong-willed, stubborn, and self-sacrificing individual. Lando took back his earlier thoughts on Luke and Sara. Luke was going to have a perfectly boring existence compared to these two!
"Sweetheart," Han leaned in and kissed her hard and fast, "for once, do something I tell you to without an argument." Then he really looked at her and his hand caressed her face, his thumb rubbing across a livid bruise on her cheek, the touch so gentle, it was barely there. Leia thought she'd die from the naked intense love she saw in his eyes. "I love you, I'm sorry, and I'll never let anything or anybody hurt you again," was said as seriously as he could. "Now, go! Luke...take her!" He pulled her hand off and pushed her towards her brother, while he backed away. "Chewie and I'll try to shut it down." Next to Luke Artoo whistled a clear request. "Okay, Tripod," Han agreed. "We might need you at that."
As Chewbacca, Han and Artoo went off in the direction that Royce had come from, Luke wrapped his hand around Leia's wrist and pulled in the other-but Leia dug in her heels. "I'm not taking another step until one of you tells me what's going on!"
With a well-developed sense of self-preservation of his own, Lando took her under one arm, propelling her forward. Luke caught on, doing likewise with the other, and for an instant, the princess and the floor parted company. "We'll tell you on the way, Leia," said a no-nonsense baron.
Meanwhile, having reached a security coded door, Chewie and Han could go no further. It flashed a NO ENTRY, sealed warning. Chewie flipped open the control box and computer access, grousing at his findings.
"Of course, it's shielded," snapped Han. "Artoo!"
The droid was already there, his link-up appendage rotating and searching for the right combination of signals. With a sudden crackle, a surge of visible lightning went flashing through the mechanical arm, then shot the astromech unit across the width of the corridor where he crashed against the wall. But the door went up! Artoo leaned on the paneling, his positronic brain rattling a bit before he righted himself on two feet. "Fweet?" he inquired, but Han and Chewbacca were already inside.
"I think we're in trouble," said Han.
The circular room was one continuous floor-to-ceiling electronic control center; a daunting display of surveillance screens, scanning equipment, sensor read-outs, and computer stations on dozens of control boards, consoles, panels, and terminals that beeped, clicked and hummed in automated noise. Overhead lighting was dim, lending an eerie glow from the myriad blinking lights, flashing diodes and a huge spatial holo-tank that dominated the center of the room. It's greenish glow cast hard, angled shadows on Han's face as he peered into the bowl. If the number of blips were an accurate indicator, there was a lot of aerial action in progress. The fleet was a large, closely packed cluster of light located on the night side of the planet.
Everything was absorbed in a few seconds and Han faced the imposing task of finding the destruct controls. He stood there, about to gnaw on a finger with the mind-boggling, confusing array in front of him. "Chewie, you start on this side," he pointed, then taking himself in the opposite direction, ran a practiced, knowledgeable eye across the boards, discounting those that were obviously environmental systems, surveillance, surface access control, etc. The thought occurred to him that the Empire might have easily placed a self-destruct in any one of them. Second-guessing the Empire was not a luxury he had at the moment and he told himself that the Imperial designers just weren't that devious. It was something he would have done, though.
Artoo came wheeling in, scanned the room, and went directly to the guilty control panel, having gleaned the information from the recent, near-disastrous link-up. He plugged in, while Han and Chewbacca looked at each other in mutual exasperation as if to say, 'Why didn't you think of that?' The screen above flashed half a dozen images and printed texts before a step-by-step destruct sequence appeared with a blinking countdown set in the upper right corner. On the panel was a bar indicator with the red zone slowly creeping over to cover the entire gauge.
Han stared at it...five minutes. "Chewie, we've bought it." He looked at his big furry partner and friend. "This is it. We're going to die underground like a Sithin' cave snail." He brought up a borrowed corn unit to his mouth. "Luke...Luke! Hey, kid, you read me?"