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Ascension of the Queen - Part 3
by ami-padme and FernWithy

Leia let her feet carry her across the sand. She didn't think about them much. That was one thing that both Father and Yoda had been pleased with in training her - she had always trusted her own surefootedness, and didn't waste their time tripping over debris in the Palace or rocks here in the desert. She rarely missed a step.

Except for the big one at Naboo.

Sending Luke's old squadron against Luke and Father had been -

A sharp tap on her shoulder broke her train of thought. "Feel it, I can, when lose concentration you do," Yoda said. "The past, you cannot change. Going to battle, your men knew they were. And broke orders meant for their safety, they did. Forward, you must bring your mind. Dwell on the past, you cannot."

"The past is only a few hours ago, Master. It's barely the past."

"To the past, one hour is one thousand years. No changes can you bring. Only learn from it, you can."

"What if I didn't learn in time? I have half a dozen other projects going on that are about as dangerous as this was supposed to be."

"Soldiers, are your men," Yoda said. His voice was quiet and sounded sandy. "Know there is danger when agree to fight, they do."

"But -"

"No but." He gave a shaky sigh. "To Obi-Wan's home, we should go. Weary, I am."

Leia frowned, and picked up her speed. She knew in some part of her mind that she was running considerably beyond any previous capacity she'd had for speed, but she wasn't tired. She felt no strain in her limbs or her lungs.

She slowed when she saw Kenobi's hut, and was walking by the time they reached the door. Yoda was breathing heavily in his pack, as though he had been the one running. She moved him carefully and helped him out. "Master?"

He looked up at her weakly. "Inside, we must go. Good for me, this sun is not."

Leia agreed. She opened the door and all but carried him inside. The medical droid was in the corner. She started for it.

"Leave it," Yoda said.

She froze. "Master, you need to be rehydrated. And medication... "

"Already beyond my time am I." He rested himself on a low bench against Obi-Wan's wall and smiled. "Ah. Here, Luke sat once. Feel traces of him, I do. Touch the Force, all things do... shape it and give it texture. All things... all times. Everything we do... remembered in the Force it is. Remembered for good, remembered for evil. Leia... "

Leia realized that she was frightened only when she tried to move and found that her legs were trembling. She held out a hand experimentally and saw that it was trembling. "Master... "

"To me, you must come," Yoda whispered.

She forced her legs forward and knelt beside the small bench. "Master, you were getting stronger. If you'd let the droid -"

Yoda laughed briefly. "Stronger than the Force is your droid, Leia?"

"It's not about the Force. It's... "

"Died long ago, I would have, without the Force. Old, I am, Leia. Old and weak. Nothing can your droid do."

"But I've learned so little."

"Little had you to learn when you came to me." He closed his eyes. "Practice, you need. But a good teacher was your father, in many matters. Benefited you, a master would have, but the skills, you have. And learned, you did in the desert, to see what is beyond what you see with your eyes."

"I don't understand. I saw them as they were. If the past is the past... "

"And learn from it, you can. Know, you do, who they are, who you are. Know, you do, who you can become if careful you are not."

"I haven't had enough practice. Master, please... "

"The Force will be with you. Let it guide you, should you need to fight."

Leia looked away from his wasted body. Questions boiled inside her, sent steam through her blood. But like steam, they would not take solid shape. Images flooded her mind - Mother, as a young woman, hiding her in a trunk. Mother leaning over her sickbed on Naboo. Father teaching Luke. Luke lying injured on Hoth, his face covered by a bacta mask. Father standing outside the circle of the family, looking in from behind his impenetrable mask, his sense of exclusion palpable even to Leia. The faraway look in Mother's eyes, when the madness fell away for its ever briefer interludes. Luke, kissing her cheek gently just before she'd helped Han escape. The images blurred into one another in a rising bubble, a question so huge that there was no way to ask it.

She opened her mouth. A single, unintelligible sound came from her throat, and she bit her lip in frustration.

A warm - hot - hand fell on her wrist. "Love them, you do," Yoda said gently.

Leia shook her head, then nodded, then shook her head again. "I... Mother and Luke, maybe, once, before... "

"Love them, you do," Yoda repeated.

"What do I do with that, Master Yoda?"

"Know, I do not. But breaks the shadows for you, it does." One finger tapped the protruding bone on her wrist in a gesture of comfort. "Defeat them, you must. On this, all depends."

"I know that."

"But no victory will there be if swallowed by the darkness are you. Much anger you have. Hatred."

"I thought we'd decided that I loved them."

"Like your father... love, hate, anger, desire... all in one place they are for you, entangled. Separate them, you must."

"I can't."

"Then all is lost." He sighed, and his body shuddered. His eyes closed.

Leia pulled a blanket over him reflexively. Her hands weren't merely trembling now, but full-out shaking, the nerves jumping. "I'll try, Yoda. Master. But I need your help."

"Help you with this battle, I cannot. Understand it, I do not." He opened his eyes again. "Knew this about your brother I did not when he left me on Dagobah. A mistake, it was. A grave loss to the Force was his desertion."

"I know... "

"The Force... " He struggled for another breath. Leia rubbed his chest to help loosen it. He nodded gratefully. "Know, you do, the truth in your heart, Leia Skywalker."

"Organa," Leia said automatically.

"Past is the time for veils and deceptions. A good man was Bail Organa, and a great kindness he did. For this, you must honor him. But a Skywalker you are, Leia. Seek not comfort behind the veil of your past, or suffer your mother's fate you will. Seek not comfort behind the mask of a future that will not be, or suffer your father's fate you will. Seek not to salve your own wound before the galaxy's... "

"Or suffer my brother's fate I will?" Leia asked, horrified to hear a trace of sarcasm in her voice, now of all times.

But Yoda didn't seem offended. His lips twisted upward in a mild smile. "You are yourself," he whispered. "Your own fate, you will choose. Leia... " His voice trailed away.

"Yoda? Master... " She leaned forward.

The hand on her wrist tapped once, twice. "Leia... Do not let... the Order... disappear. Do not... be the last... "

Something seemed to move through the hut like a warm breeze. Leia felt it tug at the strands of hair that had strayed from her bun. Yoda pulled in a breath, let it out, and did not breathe again.

"Yoda? Oh, come on, not now... " Leia reached to pull the blanket down again, to try and get his heart and lungs going again, but as she did so, her fingers slipped through nothing. Yoda was still there, but she could see through him to the wall of Obi-Wan's house.

And then he was gone.

She was alone.

And she had no idea how to do what she needed to do.

Vader's strides across the length of Amidala's quarters were uneven and rapid, as he paced back and forth, over and over, while the transport finished the last leg of its journey to Tatooine. He was trying to work off his agitation and restlessness and had been for some time now. Nothing seemed to be working.

He was grateful for this time alone. Amidala had matters to attend to before they arrived, and she was currently on the bridge. She didn't need to see him this way, especially after the battle near the Ciru Expanse. She had been afraid for him, and for Luke, and it would do her no good to see him shaken, even though the Rebels were not the cause.

Luke had decided to stay out with the security forces that were protecting the transport. There were only four of the original six Imperial fighters out there with him, but Vader wasn't concerned. It would be up to Luke to take on any other threats, and Vader could be out to help him almost instantly.

So he was here, by himself, trying in vain to sort through his jumbled thoughts.

The simple proximity to Tatooine hung darkly over all his other confusion. He had not returned to the planet after...after his mother...and hadn't allowed himself many thoughts of it after that occurrence. The thought of being back there again was unsettling, no matter how much time had passed, and he was having difficulty unraveling his anxieties.

Still, he had started preparing himself for this as soon as Amidala had first began discussing and planning the idea of the Guard movement. Even in its infant stages, the movement was clearly designed with his old homeworld in mind. The boy he had once been had become a Jedi so many years ago in part because he wanted the power to fix Tatooine for himself, his Mother, for nearly everyone there. Now that he had the power, he knew that no memories or ghosts were going to keep him from being there to wield it, and finally see the changes happen.

Tatooine's past was not the problem. Not the entire problem, at least.

The Force felt splintered around him, pulling him off in many different directions, none of which he fully comprehended. He thought briefly about meditating, but didn't think he'd be able to be still for long enough to make a worthwhile attempt. He continued his pacing, and tried to throw his mind down one of the paths, and wrestle with it until something came to him clearly.

All that came to him eventually was a vague sense of Luke, but he decided to follow it along. He was seeing him out in front of the ship, in his fighter, exuding a bit more confidence and calm than he had been lately. Vader knew that letting their arguments rest since leaving Naboo had contributed to Luke's settled feeling, and if Vader hadn't felt so otherwise agitated, he would have shared that relief. Vader had little desire to restart their disagreements, and knew it would only be a distraction once they arrived.

Vader frowned, his steps slowing slightly. He hoped his apprehension wasn't a sign that something more was going to happen. Luke had been upset with his father, but Vader truly did not believe the boy would do something to further upset things between them.

Maybe something already had happened.

That thought seemed to be the trigger to his being pulled sharply in another direction, as he tried to hold onto the fractious Force around him. He began to feel a strong sense of loss - not a personal one, so much as a loss to the Force itself. It was not a sensation he was unfamiliar with...during the Wars when so many Jedi had died, he had felt this way often, no matter what side he happened to be fighting on at the time. The loss of any powerful Force-user was a blow felt by them all.

A confused fear ran through him as he made certain that he wasn't sensing anything centered around Leia. He just needed to be sure...but it was a foolish concern. Leia's death would have affected him much, much more powerfully.

Who else...?

Someone familiar. He could not make out a face, or a voice, but there was a mixture of strength and power and criticism and reproach that he had immediately and always associated with only one Jedi.


Yoda had died. Just now, it seemed. Vader had assumed that he had died decades ago, but now -

He stopped short. Luke, apparently, had lied again, at least through his silence this time, if nothing else. Perhaps that was what Vader had sensed around his son that was so perplexing. Perhaps. Luke's lies had a way of twisting the Force link between them, and that was likely the answer to his part of the puzzle.

Vader decided he would deal with that later. For now, he allowed himself to drift back toward Yoda, and to the place in the Force that was wounded with his passing. There were many other things there, things tied up with Yoda and his death. Vader's pacing finally came to a stop, and he stood unmoving in the middle of the room.

Tatooine came back to him, but it wasn't thoughts of his mother. Not clearly anyway. Yoda was still at the forefront.

Yoda had been on Tatooine?

Even before the question truly formed, Vader knew the answer. Of course, he had been on Tatooine.

Leia was there.

A familiar burn sparked in him, one that lit every time he thought of the Jedi meddling in his family's affairs...like they had when he had wanted to save his mother...or, like now, with Leia, as they attempted to turn his family against itself for their own gains. And of all Jedi to be with Leia - Yoda?

Vader's concerns over whatever it was that Leia had planned next only intensified as he considered her taking the Jedi Master's counsel. He was unable to guess what advice she might receive or whether or not she would listen. He did know that he didn't want her under Yoda's influence.

He was suddenly pulled in yet another direction, as the thought occurred to him that Yoda was not his biggest problem at this point.

He didn't want Leia on Tatooine. At all.

It was a visceral reaction, one that had little to do with the trouble she was no doubt plotting for her family upon their arrival. He could almost see her there now, wincing against the glare of the suns and shielding herself against the sand and wind.

She appeared to him clearly for a moment, and it almost looked to him like she belonged there, simply from her dress and hair...

My place is here, my future is here...

No good had ever come to his family on Tatooine, and he could sense nothing good for them there now.

He didn't wish to dwell on the past - on his enslavement, on his mother, on Owen or Beru - especially since this was supposed to be the start of a new time on the planet. And he knew that Amidala was determined to go ahead with her plans in defiance of Leia, and that the sentiment behind that was probably the correct one.

But the sense of dread was there. Too painful to consider and too familiar to ignore.

Vader violently shook his head then, and tried to pull himself out of the throws of the Force. This was all still too puzzling to sort through. For now, he had to focus on the mission.

Almost on cue, his communicator came to life.

"My Lord, we have entered Tatooine's orbit. Her Majesty requests that you join her on the bridge as we approach the main headquarters."

"I will be there shortly," Vader replied. He gave his head a final shake, and then left to join his wife.

Luke had felt a profound sense of peace when he'd come out of hyperspace over the Tatooine system, a sense of anticipation, of impending completion. He had time to think, So this is what it means to come home, then suddenly, the feeling collapsed. He felt as though he'd been rising with the water in a pool, only to have the drain thrust open, sending him swirling down into the blackness.

Out of the shadows, a voice came. Found someone you have I would say, mmm? ... No. Stay and help you I will! ...Yoda. It is Yoda you seek, mmm?

His hand jerked on the controls of the fighter, sending him in an unexpected direction. He swerved to avoid his wingman, drawing in a shaky breath and trying to pull away from the feelings that were coming at him through the Force.


Yoda was here.

Or rather, Yoda had been here.

He had passed into the Force.

And there was no chance at all that Father hadn't felt it.

Luke waited for the blast of anger to come at him. That it did not do so immediately was hardly cause for relief - experience with Father had taught him that anger could easily erupt belatedly, over a seemingly unrelated incident. But no matter what ground he chose to fight the battle on, it would be about this, the last lie.

Why had he perpetuated it? He owed Yoda no allegiance.

It didn't matter. Whatever storm was coming would come. Luke did not believe that Father would destroy him - it would be self-defeating - but life could become very uncomfortable very quickly. He could feel Father's disturbed and distracted presence on the cruiser... it would have to boil into something.

He gritted his teeth and resigned himself to the inevitable fight that would come on the surface, then began the landing sequence.

The sun glare blinded him for a moment when he entered the atmosphere, then the familiar expanse of the Dune Sea swam up before him. There was a group of mesas at the center of the Sea, equidistant from Tatooine's three major spaceports, and it was here that Mother's Guard project had built its headquarters. The sight lines to the cities were clear, and the internal communications system that Mother would ceremonially start up tomorrow would give instant access to the full Guard, to any individual member of the Guard, or to any group of the commanders' choosing, at any time. Receivers and transmitters had been implanted in the men themselves, giving them nearly the power of communication that Luke and Father shared. They could be awakened or recalled from any point to any point, with no time wasted. The central headquarters would be able to keep an eye on cities, settlements, and Tusken camps equally, and its security equipment - also set to trigger the comm system - would alert them to all questionable movements.

The system had proved its effectiveness elsewhere, and Luke thought that it - combined with unbending Imperial law - might well be what could finally tame Tatooine.

He guided the fighter into the hangar, which had been built directly into a mesa, using the natural rock as a cooling mechanism. A regiment of the guard was waiting there, forming up to greet him. Undoubtedly, other regiments were creating a larger honor guard for Mother's arrival.

He popped the hatch and climbed down, giving the captain of the guard a nod. "Her Majesty's ship should be only minutes behind me," he said.

The captain bowed. "Yes, Lord Skywalker. We received word to prepare for her at the North Hangar."

"Thank you. I will join them."

"I... " The captain swallowed hard. "Lord Skywalker... your... ?"

Luke closed his eyes. "My father?" he prompted. It was worse than he thought. Father had neither tried to communicate through the Force nor contacted him directly.

"Er, yes. His Lordship -"

"Suggests I not attend?"

"Yes, sir. He asks you to meet him on the training deck."

"Training deck?"

"We've converted the top of the mesa into a training area for operations carried out in desert extremes. Access is through the turbolift in the rear wall."

"Very well, Captain. You may attend Her Majesty's landing."

The guard turned smartly and marched in unison toward another hangar. Luke divested himself of his flight suit, put his lightsaber on his belt, and headed for the turbolift. It rose quickly, and opened out onto the sun-scorched rock.

Welcome home.

He concentrated on his body, trying to help it adjust more quickly to the environment. It was a trick he'd needed to teach himself, though Father had told him about it - Father's suit took care of such regulatory matters. In this case, it didn't take much. Adjusting his body to Tatooine was rather like turning a computer back to its default settings.

By the time he had finished, he could hear the applause as Mother's ship touched down on the other side of the camp. Father's presence still felt distracted, though Luke caught the idea that he was meant to begin training alone; Father would join him.

He looked around the mesa and found several loose rocks, which would serve for the exercise Father generally insisted on at the Palace. He was far more focused on levitation and non-conventional combat tactics than Yoda had been.

Luke gathered the Force to him, and sent the rocks up into the air, creating patterns of motion in the space over his head. Once they were all going and he had detached himself enough to treat their flight as nearly random, he drew his lightsaber, and began calling them to himself. As each flew at him, he sliced it easily and let it clatter to the ground.

It was pointless as an exercise - no matter how much he tried to fool himself, he knew he was controlling the rocks and he knew which one he was going to call from which angle - but it was physically satisfying in some way, and he kept it going until he felt Father's presence surge as the turbolift doors opened and let him onto the deck.

Four rocks came at him simultaneously. He swung cleanly and got three in one swipe. The fourth, he hit with an upstroke... just as a fifth hit him between his shoulder blades, hard enough to send a sharp tingling along the nerves that spread out from there.

"You are distracted," Father said simply.

"I missed one, Father."

"One is all that is needed in combat, as I have told you repeatedly when you have failed this exercise." Father's voice was electronically modulated, and showed very little variation in tone, but to Luke, it sounded tight and on the verge of breaking control. He let himself dip into Father's feelings, and pulled away quickly - there was something disturbing him deeply.

Yoda. It's Yoda. You've lied, and he knows it.

"You must never have an unguarded side," Father went on. "Be aware of all your surroundings. Be aware -"

"I lied."

Father stopped, cocked his head to one side. "I am well aware of that, my son, and we will discuss it in depth at a later date. There are more pressing concerns than your errors at the moment."

"Yoda trained me. On Dagobah, after Ben... Obi-Wan... died. Obi-Wan also -"

The rock came from his left, and he never sensed its motion before it slammed into his shoulder.

"Father, please, I am trying to tell you -"

Another rock struck him, this one just above his right knee.


"You are distracted," Father said again.

"I'm sorry. I'm trying to tell you that I'm sorry."

He felt a slight disturbance in the air behind him, and spun to send a rock crashing to the ground. Just as quickly, he spun back to face Father -

Only to find Father's ignited lightsaber only inches from his face, too close to have formed a defense if Father's aim had been an actual attack.

For a long time, Luke stared across the laser at him, trying to read his face through the mask, trying to make sense of the strong but nameless feeling that was coming from him.

Father stepped back and sheathed the lightsaber, hooking it onto his belt. "We are not subtle to one another, Luke. You should not have missed that."

"I'm trying to apologize."

"I care for neither your apology nor your regret. Your sister is undoubtedly planning some sort of attack. You cannot afford the weakness of distraction."

"I understand, Father."

"Be alert, Luke, to all things on this world."

"Yes, Father."

"You must not allow yourself to lose track of your surroundings."

"Yes, Father."

"This world is full of hidden dangers."

"I know." Luke waited for the rocks to begin flying again, but they didn't. "Father?"

He turned away. "I was aware that you must have had further training after Obi-Wan's demise. And I was aware that your mother had been concealing some long ago contact with another Jedi master. It was simply the identity of that master which had eluded me. That identity is no longer relevant."

Luke frowned. Father did not seem to be lying. His emotion level was high and his anger was real, but it seemed to genuinely be directed at Luke's failure in the exercise.

Father looked back at him. "When the attack begins, as it undoubtedly will, I want you to remain at your mother's side here at headquarters, whatever else is going on. I want her constantly under your protection."

"Yes, Father. Although I might be able to protect her better from the lines."

"You will remain at headquarters." He squared his shoulders, almost a challenge to argument. "I have lost one of my children to the Rebellion," he added simply, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I will not lose the other, nor will I lose my wife."

Luke nodded dubiously. He was accustomed to Father's possessiveness about the family, but this went far beyond what he had experienced so far. It was more frightening than his rages.

The turbolift doors opened again. "Meditate," Father instructed as he stepped inside. "Learn to sense everything moving near you. Master this lesson, Luke. Today." The doors closed.

Luke stared after him until he could no longer hear the motion of the lift.

With Yoda gone Leia found herself feeling completely untethered, without a sense of direction or a point of reference to center her. She wanted, more than anything, to have him back.

She wanted to ask one more question. She needed to clarify one last confusion. She needed...she wanted...

She had no idea what exactly she would have asked, even if she had somehow been given the chance. It was all just too much.

But then, any question that came to mind would have to be helpful. She was certain she needed every bit of help she could possibly get.

She was annoyed at herself for becoming so attached to someone whom she knew wouldn't be with her long. It was the first thing she had told herself upon seeing Yoda - small, sick, old, Yoda - but in the end it hadn't stopped her from becoming comfortable in his presence, and even glad to have him around. Most times. And now?

Now she was even more acutely aware of the burden that rested on her, and she hadn't thought that possible after leaving Naboo.

Leia pulled her head up out of her hands, and looked at the spot where Yoda had rested one last time. He still wasn't there.

She had been sitting in Kenobi's home for far too long. There was precious little time left before the Rebels' attack and she wasn't doing a thing to help.

Yoda's place had never been in the planning and the fighting anyway. This was something she could still do on her own.

Yoda's last words were ringing in her head, but she also felt that there were things that were simply...bigger than her personal issues with her family.

She snorted to herself. Was anything bigger than her issues with her family?

Well, some things were certainly simpler to deal with. With that, she pulled herself up and moved slowly out of the hovel. She was back in the desert, but she barely registered the heat as she trudged back to where the Rebel's makeshift base had been set up. It was a long and lonely walk.

The first person she was able to make out upon her return was Han. He was surrounded by several officers, explaining things and giving out orders, but was obviously waiting near the edge of the base for her to return.

As soon as he noticed her, he dismissed everyone around and began jogging toward her. His hands went to his shoulders when he reached her, and he almost instinctively looked behind her and to either side of her, a puzzled look on his face. The question he had almost didn't need asking.

"He's gone, Han," she whispered.


"He died shortly after I took him back to the house."

"The med droid couldn't help him?"

Leia glanced up at him, and found him much more surprised than she had anticipated. "No...it was too late. It's probably been too late for a while now. He was sick, and old. It was a matter of time, really."

Han shrugged. "I know. But I guess I don't understand how this Jedi thing works. I guess I thought he'd just be able to hang around as long as he needed to."

Leia bristled as the isolated feeling came back at her and made her feel cold in the desert sun. She looked away from him and tried to regain her composure.

"Are you all right, Leia? Did your...training go well?"

"I think we're going to have to wait and see on that count. Too early to tell," she replied. "He seemed to think that he had done enough, but...we'll see."

Han's face contorted into a look that plainly said that he didn't know how to reassure her or help her. Leia didn't answer, because she didn't know either.

He finally settled for a long, solid hug, and Leia thought that might do for the time being.

The sound of a speeder roared up loudly behind them and Leia pulled away from Han as Lando came up right next to them and jumped out of the driver's seat.

She was feeling pleased that Lando didn't look any worse for wear, but that initial evaluation didn't hold up for very long. His eyes met theirs dismally, and his whole countenance was grim. She checked him over again, and could find no real sign of injury.

"You all right?" Han asked, also looking his friend over. "What happened out there? What'd they do?"

He looked back and forth between the two them, and then shook his head several times as though he were having a silent conversation with himself. He didn't answer Han's questions.

Leia glanced at Han, then ventured, "Lando...?"

"They decided to help us."

He tone was bitter, which only confused Leia more. "That's a positive thing, isn't it? Lando, you're back sooner than we anticipated, you seem to be safe and sound and the Tuskens have signed on to joined us. That's more than I was counting on and the most that anyone could have done." She tried to give him a smile. "I knew we had sent the right man to do the job." His only response was a withering look. "What? What is it? Are you all right? Please, Lando, you need to tell us what happened."

"Your Highness, I did exactly as you asked, but..."

"But what?" Han prodded.

"Leia, how much do know about these Tuskens? Honestly?"

"I know pretty much what I told you before you left." She knitted her eyebrows and stared at him, trying to decipher what he was getting at. "I don't send my people into missions blind when I can help it. You know what I know."

"Please, remind me."

"They are people my father...'dealt with'...in his own unique way the last time he was on this planet. It was years ago - decades ago, before Luke and I were born, but I doubt it was something any of them would have forgotten. Can you imagine a primitive race having to face Darth Vader? I thought that -"

"Why did he do it?"


"Leia, I know your father doesn't always need a real provocation to do what he does. But the Tuskens strike me as a people who would happily provide a very good reason."

"Lando -"

"Do you know the circumstances?"

"Lando!" she finally snapped, her voice rising with her frustration. "Get to the point."

"These people aren't innocents, Your Highness, not at all, not in any meaningful way that I could see. If the basis for you aligning with them is that you see them as victims of Vader...well, you had better be sure. What did they do? What was the story you heard?"

For the first time, Leia faltered. She searched her memory for any stray piece of information she might have missed, but came up with nothing. "The story came to me in bits in pieces. Neither he nor mother liked to discuss it in any great detail. He was shamed about it, Lando. Can you even imagine what he must have done? To still feel shamed into near silence about it after all this time?"

He looked as if he were about to continue to argue the point, but Leia cut him off. "Enough. What did they say when you went to them? What happened?"

"They said they'll help. But they don't plan on officially joining us, and don't seem to have any intention of following anyone's orders."

Han's reaction came immediately. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"They weren't terribly interested in giving me explanations." Lando's eyes rested on Leia, and he waited for her response.

"They're nomads, Lando, and they're somewhat primitive. I'm sure they don't often join organized military resistance of any type. The fact that they've expressed a willingness to help-"

"Don't they often raid the settlements and farms and cities around here? And they're planning to be there under no one's supervision in the middle of a battle?"

"You made the offer. They accepted. What do you want me to do? We've played our hand to them already, and we can't exactly take back the knowledge they've been given. They're aware of the attack." Leia pulled herself up tall to give Lando a conversation-ending stare. "You forget that they have as much to lose - more! - than almost anyone else on this planet. What's done is done."

Lando was now looking to Han for help, but Leia ignored that and walked away, telling them she had an attack to finish planning. She tried, again, to ignore the wish that Yoda would come again so she could talk to him. She had decisions to make, and she had to make them on her own.

Piett had been somewhat nervous when Lord Vader had decided to meet with Commander Dihave.

It wasn't Dihave's skill as an engineer - Piett had met him during a brief stint he'd done as a professor at the Academy, where he had been a brilliant student... brilliant enough that Piett had covered for him when he was caught tinkering with the check-in droids to make it look like he wasn't coming in four hours past curfew. They had something of an understanding after that; Dihave had steeled himself to put on the right face to finish up his education, and Piett helped smooth over the feathers he ruffled trying to get things done.

Lord Vader would certainly have noticed the ruffled feathers lying around. Piett - whose way Vader had eased more than once - was worried that he would lose the Dark Lord's trust. It could be deadly, but Piett's concern was more personal. He did not wish to lose Vader's good opinion, or that of the Empress.

But Vader had not been angry with him. When they had met shortly after Vader's conversation with Dihave, the Dark Lord had simply complimented Piett on assembling a talented engineering team, and asked him to review Imperial capabilities with Dihave before settling on a strategy. Piett already held Vader in high esteem; this unexpected response raised it considerably.

Even more surprising than Lord Vader's attitude had been Dihave's response to it. Piett had visited the workshop four times in as many days, and Dihave had been in uniform every time. It was even possible that the uniforms were being properly laundered between wearings. Dihave hadn't quite been able to cut his hair, but it had been neatly combed and slicked down.

Of course, he still forgot to stand and salute when Piett came in, choosing instead to look over his shoulder and flash a greeting smile. "Admiral," he said. "I was just wondering if you'd be coming again today."

"I will be here every day, Commander."

"Good. We cleaned up around here, just for you."

Piett glanced around the workshop. There were some streaks on the floor that looked like they may have been made by a janidroid, and several items which had been strewn carelessly on the long tables appeared to have been thrown carelessly into long storage bins. For Dihave, this was a sincere effort. "I applaud the intention," Piett said, trying not to sound too dry.

Dihave nodded proudly. "Yes, well. We were here all night. Not cleaning up, obviously, but getting a few more prototypes built. There should be a few things that Princess Leia is totally unaware of ready to go if she starts anything."

Piett sighed, wishing that there had been a way to avoid telling the engineers what the parameters of their research needed to be. But when he'd given them the time constraints and location constraints, they would have needed to be a good deal more foolish than they were to not deduce who the security threat actually was. Leia had been a bit brusque with the Imperial military while she'd been at the Palace, not actually rude, but edging up to it. The men had often taken notice of it, and she had not been well-liked among them.

Except by Piett. He'd grown to appreciate her sharp tongue and sharper insights, and to look forward to seeing her in the Command Center every day. Once she had grown accustomed to any given officer, the brusqueness faded, and she had been able to work well with many of the people around her. Like her father in the Old Empire, she seemed to detest the overall structure, but to respect various individuals within it. Piett had been honored to be one of those individuals, and he was sorry that it was all going to disappear in the storm of conflict she was determined to trigger.

"Do you have a reliable prototype of the contained destruction missile?"

"We've built two of them."


"Why are you asking that? I never built an unreliable gadget."

"Because if this is your first mistake, it will be a costly one."

Dihave bit his lip, then swung his chair around brought up a diagram on his computer. "We've run several simulations, and so far there has been no error in the navigational systems. Once the missile is launched, it is able to follow its path. Glancing blows from space dust or asteroids shouldn't interfere. It will circumvent ships in its path, but immediately return to its prior heading. Its locator is top notch. We're very much aware of Her Majesty's concern for innocents caught in the violence. And if it seems to be failing, we will still have the communications system to control it manually from here." He let Piett scan the programming codes, which did indeed seem flawless, then cleared his throat and turned his chair around again. "Admiral... we heard rumors that the Empress' entourage was attacked this morning as they left. Is it true?"

"Yes. A small squadron of X-Wings made an attempt on Her Majesty."

Dihave clenched his teeth, and Piett suspected that he was trying to avoid swearing in front of a superior officer. For all his surface rebelliousness, Dihave adored his Empress as much as anyone else in the Empire. "Her own mother," he muttered, then blinked. "Did they learn anything that might impact what we're doing here? Get any strategic insights?"

At least twice a day, Piett was reminded of how grateful he was to be in the New Empire instead of the Old. Under Palpatine, Dihave's question would undoubtedly have been ignored. Under Empress Amidala, Piett had the freedom to address it, and to let Dihave make necessary adjustments. "Lord Vader and Lord Skywalker made rather easy work of the squadron. They dampened all communications fields and relied only on... on the way they are able to communicate with one another."

"A good plan." Dihave looked back at his diagram. "I'll see if there's anything I can do about communications blocks. If the Rebels hadn't thought about them before, they will now."

"Very good."

"Are you going to need these missiles soon?"

"The timetable is not set, but I would request that you move any modifications to the top of your priorities."

"Yes, sir."

"And with that, I will wish you good day." Piett didn't bother waiting for Dihave to remember that he was supposed to stand and salute. He just left the workshop and headed back to Theed. It seemed somehow empty without the Empress, even though most of the usual staff was still present. The heart was out of the city. Piett's father had been among those campaigning to change Naboo's constitution to allow Amidala to remain queen indefinitely, back before the Empire, and Piett could recall no time at which Her Majesty had not been known in his household by her royal title. Her successor had always been a pale imitation, trusted only insofar as she had allowed Amidala to advise and guide her. When Amidala had disappeared, Theed had died. Now, she had returned, and brought life and hope back with her. While she was absent, the activity continued, but Piett could feel her absence acutely.

He pulled into the command center and made his way to his office. Yesterday, he had reassigned several intelligence agents to the exclusive task of locating the Rebel base. The agents within the Rebellion were unreliable on many levels, and, by sheer bad luck, had all been at the periphery, and had not yet been brought back to the Rebel base.

The reports that had been sent to him had little of value, even according to the agents who sent them. One from Anoat reporting seeing a small squad of X-Wings, another near the moon of Endor thought he had traced a cruiser. A young woman who pretended to be a down-on-her-luck singer in the various Outer Rim spaceport lounges reported on what she politely called "casual conversation" that a Rebel officer she'd "spoken with" kept a nine-pointed leaf in his belt pouch, which she judged to be a recent acquisition. It came from a tree that was native to Tandocum, but had been spread to many other planets. The last report came from an agent posing as a journalist doing reports on various out-of-the-way systems. She sent holofootage from Osedi, Meraca, Ledaga, and Aggin, none with commentary on why she'd sent it. Piett had told her not to bother - he could usually tell why something was suspicious. His instincts about such things were generally good, as Lord Vader had noted at Hoth when he'd disagreed with Ozzel.

He settled in to analyze the footage.

Han cut a winding path through the various officers who seemed to be running all over the place to make their last-minute checks, and headed for the large hastily erected tent that was serving as the central meeting place for the senior members of the Rebellion. He was grateful for a chance to escape the glare of the suns - he almost didn't care that it wouldn't be any cooler in the tent's shade. He had gotten as used to the heat as he thought he possibly could (if you didn't adjust to the heat on Tatooine quickly, you'd pay for it dearly) but his eyes were burning and watery, and needed a respite. He'd be glad to focus on a holoprojector for awhile. And on Leia.

He found a couple of the squadron leaders milling outside the tent, discussing their preparations and questions before they went in for the final official briefing. He acknowledged each of them briefly before pulling back the tent's flap and ducking inside.

Blinking, he allowed his eyes a moment to adjust to the darker setting. He saw several of the other leaders walking around and talking, looking both anxious and excited. Most were gesturing toward the holos at the front, which were displaying detailed maps of the Rebels' plans.

He finally settled on Leia, who was standing at the front, alone.

He watched her for several moments, trying to get a solid read on her - trying to figure out where her mind was. Part of him insisted that that wasn't too hard of a task. This was Leia, after all, and her mind would be on the impending attack. Running through all the possible scenarios. Tweaking the plans. Getting her people prepared. Simple.

But even if he thought he could guess where her thoughts were, he couldn't help wondering exactly what she was thinking.

Her response to Lando's report from the Tuskens had surprised him. Somewhat. On a practical level, she was, of course, right - he certainly couldn't think of a viable way to dis-invite the Tuskens now that they knew about the Rebels' plans. And if they were willing to help, they could make a real difference in some of their efforts. While he trusted Lando's unease about what the Tuskens might do, he understood Leia's position that there was little to be done about it at this point.

But there were non-practical points to consider. Whatever news Lando had brought back, Han knew that Leia saw the Tuskens as victims of Vader. To her, that automatically meant that on some level they were on the same side. Or, at least, the Tuskens were on the side that Leia wanted to see herself on.

That didn't mean she was wrong, he reminded himself. Han was pretty damn sure that being against Vader usually was the right side to be on. And Leia had always known her own mind; she could handle this. Maybe she and Yoda had figured something out before he died.

For now, he just needed to support her.

Leia's holoprojector came to life beside her, and Han realized that the rest of the squadron leaders were in the tent and settling down for the meeting. He moved to the front to stand beside her, taking her hand and gave it a quick squeeze before she started talking.

"All right everyone," she said, taking a deep breath. "This is it. Let's review your assignments."

The room fell into complete silence, and she began gesturing to the holos. "The attacks will begin simultaneously during the Empress' speech - all squadron leaders will have communicators set to a frequency where they will receive Han's mark to commence." A list of information streamed beside her. "Mother's... Mother's speech will precede several key developments for the Guard's installation. The new communication system will start up shortly after her speech is finished. Also, battalions of soldiers who haven't yet been deployed will head out from the main headquarters to their barracks in the settlements. Patrols, which have already been positioned in the towns, will begin their first sweeps.

"All of our efforts will be focused on stopping the Empire from establishing a hold here - we're going to destroy their communications capabilities, break up the patrols, and stop the set-up at the barracks, while taking out as much of their housing, equipment, and weaponry as we can."

She gestured to three people to her left. "Red, Blue and Gold Squads will be positioned along the routes leading from the main Imperial HQ to the barracks near and inside the settlements." The routes flashed in each squadron's colors on the holo map, and scattered dots indicated the best hiding places for the squads to lie in wait. "They will intercept and engage as many of the ships as they can."

She paused briefly and glanced at Han before going on. "Lando will lead Gamma Squadron into Mos Eisley, where the soldiers' barracks have been built in the center of town, and where patrols have already started canvassing some of the streets." Han noted the impassive look on Lando's face...but knew right away that he was still unhappy and uneasy about the situation and how it had been dealt with. "The Empire's forces are rather heavily entrenched here, and there's a large civilian population to deal with. We expect help from several indigenous groups who should provide insights on the city itself and assist us in directing the civilians away from the fighting." Lando shook his head slightly, but didn't protest out loud. When Leia's eyes fell on him, he simply gave her a curt nod.

"Han will take Beta Squadron into Mos Espa, where the main ceremony will take place, in the old podracing arena. The Empress will be removed from the area immediately with the start of any trouble, and security will be so focused on protecting her, that I believe it'll gain the squad some time in engaging the soldiers and moving out to the barracks.

"Finally, I'll lead Alpha Squadron to the Imperial headquarters for an assault on the main transmitter of the communications array. If we can take it out, the Imperials on the planet won't be able to communicate with one another, and won't be able to contact any ships in orbit, or stations on other planets."

The holoprojector shut itself down with a dull hum. "That's essentially it. When the time comes, head for the rendezvous point - we'll regroup on the far side of the planet before we disembark completely."

"And that's where we'll celebrate our victory," Han interjected.

"Of course," she replied, with a rare smile. "We're ready for this," she said simply. "We're ready to show the Empire exactly what they're up against."


Winama sits at her loom, and Amidala watches as she always watched. The threads are rich and beautiful, but as soon as they are woven into the warp, the cloth disappears into the crimson shadows. Amidala cannot see the shape of the pattern at all. The relentless noise of the loom sounds more like metal against metal than wood against wood - Amidala is sure she knows that cacophony from somewhere - but it seems not to matter.

"The thread is running short," Winama says, and her voice is strange, hoarse. She passes a pair of vibroshears over her shoulder without looking. "Go, granddaughter, and fetch me a new length."

The air seems thick as Amidala turns toward the corner where the spinning wheel should be. She knows she will not see the familiar, old-fashioned tool at all, and she is right.

In the corner are two figures, standing behind a blood-red screen. Their faces are lost in the shadows, but Amidala knows them. Closest to her, playing out a length of new thread onto an oblong spool, is a woman in a flowing gown. The gown in life was yellow, but now, like all other things, it has taken on the ever-present red hue of her life. Her long ringlets catch the light, as they drape over the distended belly of a pregnancy which will never come to fruition. To her left, spinning the thread with a drop spindle, is a young girl with a crown of braids, her blue peasant costume now in shades of red. The spindle drops, rises, feeds from a cloudy substance behind the screen.

Amidala goes forward with her vibroshears held out in front of her. She approaches the screen and looks down, and barely stifles a scream.

Ani, beautiful Ani with his fine bones and deep eyes, with his golden hair and smooth skin, is laid at the feet of the two women. He has been cut open, and the cloudy substance rises out of him. Each time the spindle drops, a look of agony crosses his face. Neither woman notices.

"Cut it, girl!" Winama calls in her strange, harsh voice, and Amidala dutifully raises the vibroshears toward the spool.

Ani looks up and pleads with her, and she understands that if she does this, it will destroy him.

She looks over her shoulder at Winama, who is now standing beside the loom, her gown a deep hooded black robe, her white hands outstretched. "Do it now!"

The hood falls away, and it is not the face of Winama. It is the face that has been the core of her nightmares for twenty-five years, the face of the man who had once been trusted, once seemed kind and compassionate, but turned out to be a monster. The face is age-riddled and grotesque, with crooked teeth and misshapen eyes. "Listen to me girl! Do it -"

Amidala yanked herself up from the dream, her lips forming the word, "Now" in the darkness of her bedchamber at the Imperial headquarters. The room did not have the reassuring lines of light that she would see on Naboo, the edging lights that marked the contours of Ani's chamber. They had agreed it would be a waste of resources to install a hyperbaric chamber here; he had returned to the royal cruiser for the night. The thought of awakening without him nearby had not occurred to Amidala when that agreement had been struck.

She pushed her covers back and got out of bed, calling for the lights to come on full and drive away all the shadows in the corners. They hurt her eyes, but she didn't care. She considered changing before she went to the hangar, but decided it would take too long. Instead, she simply grabbed the silk robe from her travel wardrobe and slipped it on over her nightdress before going out the door. The hall was dim, but she thought if she hurried, she could abide the shadows. The need to see Ani was too overwhelming to bother with such things.


Amidala stopped abruptly, realizing that she'd nearly been running down the corridor. Luke was coming toward her with a concerned look on his face. She found a smile for him, though her feet and legs were tingling with the desire to keep moving, to get to the hangar, and her eyes were aching for the sight of Ani's face. This was not Luke's concern. "Yes?"

"Mother... " His gaze tipped down, then he turned away, as though it had hurt his eyes. "Mother, you shouldn't run around... like that. I've got security all around here. I need to know if you're going to leave your room."

"I'm sorry, Luke." She put a hand on his strong arm. He was a good boy, a good son. "I wasn't thinking about that. I just was going to see your father."

The bright blush on Luke's cheek was apparent even in the dimness of the hallway. "Yes. Of course. I'll... I'll escort you there."

"It's all right, Luke. You just keep people out of headquarters who don't belong here. I trust the people who do belong here."

"Are you sure you don't want something heavier? The hangar will be cold at night."

"Your father will have the cruiser's heat up. You know that."

He gave another half-glance at her, then nodded. "All right, Mother."

Amidala rose to her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "I love you, Luke. You know that, don't you? My good boy."

"I love you, too, Mother." He kissed her forehead. "I'd better get back to patrolling."

Amidala watched him until he rounded a corner, then continued on to the hangar.

Cool light spilled from the hatch; Ani genuinely slept on only rare occasions, and almost never when she wasn't with him. His nights were taken up by quiet meditation that simulated controlled dreaming. In some ways, Amidala envied him.

Ani had built an intermediate room outside the hyperbaric chamber on board the cruiser much like the one in the Palace, so that she could come and go as she pleased. It took a little preparation, but nowhere near as much as it had when they had been trying to survive in Palpatine's Empire, thank the Maker. She sealed herself inside the small room, put on the Gungan face shield that would protect her from the heavily oxygenated atmosphere, then turned the dials to change the air around her. By the time she had finished, Ani had sensed her presence, and the jaws of his chamber opened.

She ran to him.

His mask and helmet were off, being cleansed by the mechanical arms that were attached to the ceiling. Amidala sought his eyes, found them, held them with her own. The scars didn't matter, the horrible jutting shelf of the vocoder didn't matter, nothing mattered except those eyes, and the hands that wrapped around hers tightly. The rest was ephemeral, a thin veil projected over the man she knew he was, the man she had seen lying in pain in her dream.

"I'm not going to hurt you," she said.

His eyes narrowed in vague puzzlement. "The thought had not occurred to me, my love."

"I just... " She wanted to explain, to try to convey the terror of the nightmare, and the worse terror of waking up alone, but here with him, she could no longer feel fear. She was safe, and her panic seemed silly and insubstantial. "Oh, never mind," she said. "I don't sleep alone well. I wanted to be here. I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"You never disturb me." He led her to the small gilt bench he'd made for her, and she sat down on it. His hand smoothed her hair over her ear and came to rest gently on her cheek, the face shield creating a rather pleasant electricity against her skin. "What is troubling you?"

"Nothing, as long as I'm here. May I have a kiss?"

He smiled. She knew it caused him discomfort. "As you wish, my lady." He leaned forward, dipping his head slightly to keep the vocoder plate from catching on the bottom of her face mask, then pressed his lips against the flexible shielding. The glimmer of it distorted, then Amidala felt his mouth touch hers. She reached into the kiss, locking her hands behind his neck, careful even now to avoid touching his fragile skin with her nails.

He stood away from her after a few moments, then sat down beside her on the bench, holding her hand gently. She leaned against his shoulder. "I was frightened earlier," she said. "When we left Naboo, and the Rebels attacked."

"You were not in danger, Amidala. Neither Luke nor I would have allowed them to harm you."

"I wasn't afraid for myself, Ani. You were the one they were all firing at. I saw that on the viewscreen." She squeezed his gloved hand, brought it to her mouth, kissed it through the shield. "What would I do if I lost you? I couldn't keep going."

"Of course you could."

"I don't think so. I'm afraid when you're not with me. I feel lost. Unprotected."

"Amidala... "

"Promise you won't leave me, Ani."

"Amidala, I -"

"Promise." Amidala shifted on the bench, rose a bit, and tried to kiss him. The edge of her mask hit the vocoder plate and sent a spark of static electricity scurrying over her shield. It had happened before, and she had laughed about it once, but this time it just seemed unfair, a cheat, the apotheosis of all the kisses that had been taken from her, never to be returned. The chamber blurred, and she felt tears of impotent rage spill out of her eyes. "I hate it, Ani! I hate that mask! I hate everything about it!"

"Amidala... "

"If you can't promise me that you'll try to stay safe, will you at least promise me that after all this is over, you'll go to Dr. Kei and see if she can help you find... some other way? Any other way?" She reached under her mask carefully, taking shallow breaths while it was open, and wiped the tears savagely away then raised her wet fingertips to his exposed face. He closed his eyes, seeming to meditate on the feel of it. "Promise me."

His lips captured one of her fingers and kissed gently. "I promise. I will speak to Dr. Kei."

Amidala nodded. Ani crooked his arm, and she slid back into it, as she had so often in the past. It was a comfortable place to be. The nightmare was nothing, just shifting mists in her mind. Her heartbeat slowed and she took deeper breaths.

Sleep was at the edges of her consciousness again when Ani spoke, and it seemed to come from a great distance: "Are you well, my love?"

Amidala snuggled deeper into his embrace. "I am safe," she whispered. "As long as I'm with you." Sleep made a sudden and unexpected advance, and she yawned. "My Jedi protector," she teased.

Her eyes were closed before she finished speaking, and she did not see the pain that crossed his scarred face at the memory, or the tenderness that followed it as he gently stood and moved her into a more comfortable position to sleep. She didn't see those things, but she felt them as she drifted, and she felt his hand on the curve of her hip, a warm, solid presence that was still there when consciousness slipped away.

She was safe. And as she slid into her dreamworld and heard the strangely metallic workings of a loom, she knew that she did not need to open that door. Whatever was behind it, Ani would protect her from it.

Vader knelt beside the bench where Amidala was curled up, her hair cascading to the floor in dark ringlets. A few strands of white had threaded their way in over the years, but they were striking and attractive. Her presence in the Force was still jumpy, but it was calming as she drifted into deeper sleep. He watched over her as O... as he had once been watched over as he went into deep meditation, to meet the monsters that had often waited for him there.

When she had first returned to him, he had tried frequently to read her, to catch the flavor of her thoughts, even to hear them directly. There had been some successes, although she was difficult to read... but he had drawn back as he grew to trust her again, given her the privacy of her mind. At some point, he had realized that he had no more right to be in her mind without her consent than he had to be... well, to touch her body without consent.

But now, he wondered. What was she dreaming? What strange turns had her mind taken to bring her here tonight? Something was hunting her from inside her soul, and if he was going to protect her from it, he needed to know what it was. Tentatively, he reached out to her, touched, drew back.

"It's not an intrusion if you mean to protect her."

Vader froze, his senses filling suddenly with a third presence. "You are unwelcome here, Obi-Wan," he said.

"Yes, well, if you'd like to banish me, Padawan, I ask only that you do it now and save both of us time."

"It is not a skill I had thought to acquire." Vader turned and rose to his feet. A meter behind him, in front of his meditation chair, was the image of Obi-Wan Kenobi, edged in a slight blue glow that was almost lost in the bright white light of the chamber. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties. Vader could see the opposite wall through him. He realized dimly that he was not entirely surprised by the visit. "So I will merely remind you that you are unwelcome."

"You should speak with Luke. It appears that he's been acquiring some skills without your guidance." Obi-Wan glanced casually around the hyperbaric chamber. "As a fellow master, I must encourage you to find out where he's learning these things. Not knowing may prove hazardous to you."

Vader ignored Obi-Wan's attempt at dark humor. Only one thing he had said mattered. "So. You're still trying to interfere with my son."

"No. You've broken Luke beyond my ability to repair."

Vader might have lost his temper then - he had not destroyed Luke, he had been more patient with Luke than any Jedi Master had ever been with him - but his eyes fell on Amidala, sleeping peacefully, unmindful of what was going on nearby. He didn't want to wake her. So he kept his voice low. "And my daughter? Are you responsible for this affront from her as well? Did you perhaps suggest that she order a strike at her mother?"

Obi-Wan finished his cursory exploration of the room and looked back at Vader. "I feel your anger at me, Anakin. Yet I also feel your restraint."

"That name is not mine."

"I have no interest in helping you continue this deception, Padawan."

"How dare you speak to me of deceptions?"

Obi-Wan did not answer. He crossed his arms and looked at Amidala instead. "I'm approaching this matter poorly," he said thoughtfully.

Vader said nothing.

"She is ill, you know," Obi-Wan said. "I know you've considered the possibility, Anakin."

"She is not ill. She is... "

"Ill. And you know why."

Vader turned away from both Obi-Wan and Amidala. "She has been through a great deal. She's tired. She works too hard."

"Anakin, when you chose this life, you knew what you were choosing. I will be generous and assume you saw yourself serving a greater good. But you knew that the things you chose to do were not, shall we say, manifestations of your best self."

Vader tried to work up a rage. Obi-Wan was intruding in his space, speaking of things he knew nothing about, and chastising him as though he were still a padawan fresh from Mos Espa. In the end, all he could find was a resigned familiarity. This disturbed him, but he was not in the habit of falsifying his emotions, so he did not try to project anger. He simply turned back to Obi-Wan and sighed (here in the chamber, it was possible to at least simulate that). "Is there some point to this, old man?"

Obi-Wan smiled. "I've missed you, Anakin."

Vader waited; he knew well that Obi-Wan would go on. Obi-Wan never left a lesson unfinished, and it was becoming increasingly clear that he meant to teach a lesson of some sort.

Obi-Wan looked again at Amidala. "Padmé never chose this life. She has allowed it to seduce her, but she can't reconcile herself to it. Look at her and listen to her, Padawan. Listen to yourself, wanting to protect her from any knowledge of your actions. And even so, you can't pretend that she hasn't gained that knowledge. She has simply built walls in her mind to keep herself from understanding, and the walls are shaping who she is now. She can no longer see even her own actions for what they are." He looked over his shoulder. "And that brings me to the oddest thing of all, Anakin: you have very little to hide from her now. She is hiding far more from herself than you are hiding from her. Do you have an explanation?"

"There is less need for such behavior in the New Empire."


Obi-Wan clearly had an alternative theory, but Vader was not interested in hearing it. "Do you mean to offer a cure for her alleged illness, or merely to comment on it?"

"She needs to face the truth about what she's doing here, Anakin. You need to stop protecting her from it... you need to protect her from her own delusions instead."

"She is bringing order to a broken world," Vader said. "I know that matters little to you, but it matters to her, and to me."

"All these years, Anakin, and you still see only the surface." Obi-Wan shook his head. "You will need to see beyond the surface, and soon, if you are going to save your family."

"What do you care about my family?"

"I care."

"Because they are powerful."

"Because you love them. Understanding that is a lesson I believe I have finally learned." With that, he faded, then disappeared.

Vader stared at the spot where he had been for a long time, then knelt beside the bench and took Amidala's dangling hand in his own.

This was why she had entered politics.

This was what made all the meetings, all the stress, all the frustrations worth it. It even covered some of the personal pain she had endured because of her various positions in various governments. Not all of it - Leia wasn't here, and nothing could quite take care of that - but she couldn't help but revel in a moment like this one, where everything finally came together.

She had felt it when she had first woken up early that morning. She had enjoyed a long, heavy, dreamless sleep after joining Ani in his chambers, and had risen feeling calm and refreshed. She had opened her eyes to find him watching her quietly, and lightly holding her hand. He was concerned - she wished she hadn't worried him the night before, and decided that she would plan out their living arrangements in advance of these trips from now on - but he soon saw that she was fine, and ready for the day's event. The two of them had breakfast with Luke, and she had chatted happily with them about the Guard's installation, about making last-minute changes to her speech, about returning to the pod arena. She told Luke an animated version of Anakin's triumph at the race, and both of them enjoyed the hearing the story again, and looked pleased to see her happy.

They had left for the arena shortly after their meal, and had stayed in the staging area in the back with her guards and handlers while the crowds gathered and final preparations were made.

She could hear the people out there. She felt as though she could touch every one of them - as though she could touch every person on Tatooine, and effect some change that would better their lives.

When she was younger, and more na?ve, she had thought that most of her work in politics would be like this. She was disabused of that notion with an almost cruel swiftness, of course. But that didn't make it any less rewarding to think of those people filling the stadium, to think of those people throughout the Outer Rim that she was helping.

And to think of those closest to her...of Ani and Luke. After everything that had happened to them here, they were now experiencing the triumph of returning to fix their broken home. She thought it was a great gift, for her to be able to give that to them.

She looked in the mirror and smiled at herself. If she could fix Tatooine, there wouldn't be a place in the galaxy that she couldn't handle. And that knowledge would give people hope.

What more could she ask for than that?

The buzz in the arena was increasing, and the crowd - which seemed like the full population of Mos Espa - knew she would be out there soon. There was also a charge that came from the arena itself. The entire place had received an upgrade, and the improvements could be seen all over the stadium. The crumbling and damaged walls and stands had been rebuilt or shellacked over. The remnants of the racing days - pods, spare pots, pit droids, had been cleared out completely (she suspected that Ani might be hiding an interest in where it all went). Flowers were placed throughout the stadium, and scarlet decorations adorned the stage and the stands. It was a fairly remarkable transformation from the place she visited all those years ago.

Her attendants began fussing at her again, straightening her dress and touching up her hair. For a second, Amidala felt a pang tug at her heart.

She should be here.

Why couldn't Leia be here, helping her? Sitting with her before the speech?

Tatooine wasn't as important to Leia as it was to the rest of the family, but she could have shared this with them. And after this, Amidala did plan to do something equally as significant for the Alderaanian refugees. Would she be forced to do that without her daughter there?

Why couldn't Leia see that they were on the same side, fighting for the same things? Did it matter if their methods were different? Just because Leia wouldn't necessarily choose to set up a Guard, or give them the power to do what was needed to restore order...

Amidala shook herself from that thought. They wanted the same things. They were family. No other...disagreements mattered in the face of that.

And none of it mattered now. "It'll be fine," she whispered to herself. She waved off her attendants, and they left her alone.

Ani saw this and made his way over to her. She gave him a radiant smile.

"Are you ready, My Lady?" he asked. "It's nearly time."

"Absolutely," she replied.

He signaled to Luke, who was standing several yards away, speaking quietly with her personal guard contingent. He left them to join his parents, and Amidala rose from her chair. "If you're ready, Mother, we will escort you out to the stage." She nodded, and Luke turned to lead the way. Her husband stayed closed behind her. The guards flanked her, moving ahead and behind her, and along both her sides.

Eventually, they came out into the suns and into the clamor of the crowd, which increased greatly once they noticed her standing just off the stage. It was a bright, clear day out, and Amidala squinted against the sunlight as she looked to the sea of people in the stands.

Her guards walked past her, spreading out into their positions behind her podium. Anakin and Luke waited beside her.

She took a deep breath, and pulled herself up into her most regal posture, and then moved toward the podium. Her son and husband followed, and stood beside one another, a few feet directly behind her.

The crowd's cheering hadn't let up. Amidala wondered briefly if the sound system would even let her be heard above it.

"Thank you," she finally called out. Her voiced echoed through the arena, and seemed to carry out into the desert. "Thank you."

The crowd slowly began to quiet, and she waited for the volume to go down enough for her to start her formal speech.

"Citizens of Tatooine, your day has finally come."

Another cheer went up, and she happily waited it out.

"Never again will you be ignored. Never again will you be denied your rightful place in galactic affairs." A constant undercurrent of applause was accompanying her words now. "From this point forward, Tatooine will receive the full protections and rights that any planet should expect as a member of the Empire.

"The criminals and slavers and raiders who have terrorized you will now pay the price for their lawlessness, and will no longer be allowed to lord over you with impunity. The Guard being established here is the largest one I've ever created, and has every means at my disposal to serve each city, each settlement, and each farm on this planet. They will be both visible and vigilant, working each and every day on my behalf to give your lives the order you have longed for and that each of you deserve."

She let the echo of her voice play out, and gave a couple of seconds for the applause to slow. It became as quiet as it probably could in the stadium. Then she continued. "As you all know, my family has a long history with this world. We have not forgotten it. And we have not forgotten you. We will never forget. We join you in rescuing this world.

"Right now, troops all over the planet are receiving my deployment orders. They will begin their patrols as soon as I -"

She cut herself off abruptly as she felt Ani's hand, heavy on her shoulder. She barely had an instant to turn around to look at him before his hand tightened painfully on her and she was yanked back from the podium and nearly thrown to the ground.

She could see the shot, a flash streaking well over her head and sailing behind her. Then came the explosion.

It was loud and bright and close...even with Ani crouched over, protecting her, she could still feel the flames and smell the smoke coming from the back of the stage. She could see security people running into the stands, trying to settle the crowd and go after the shooter. Blaster shots rang out.

Amidala had a sudden desire to break free of her husband and retake the podium, and tell everyone to stay calm and remain where they were. No assassin, no Rebel would disrupt this event. Not like this.

But Anakin was already barking out orders to protect her and control the crowd, and was pulling her quickly off the stage. She scrambled to keep up with him and stay on her feet. She could see people in the crowd firing blasters, but they were no longer aimed at her or the stage. A firefight with the guards was on now. Some in the crowd were trying to help the guards and were fighting the troublemakers. The rest of the people were fleeing the arena.

"Luke!" she cried out. He was already following them out.

Anakin headed through the preparation area and out of the stadium toward her small, private ship. She tried to get a last look in at the growing chaos behind her, but her husband impatiently nudged her inside the vehicle. He and Luke joined her inside, and Anakin immediately sped them away, back toward the headquarters.

"Anakin -"

"We must protect you, my love," he said abruptly. "We will deal with this problem once your safety is assured."

She decided not to waste her time arguing. Instead, she turned around in her seat, and watched the arena shrink behind her as she was hurried away.

"Keep away from the stands!" Han yelled into his communicator as the motley collection of armed speeders, swoops, and speederbikes swarmed into the arena, providing cover for the foot soldiers who had first broken the line. All of them were wearing patched together uniforms, with Beta Squadron's symbol drawn clumsily on handmade armbands. Leia insisted on uniforms for anyone who was going to be fighting in civilian areas, to make sure the Empire didn't start shooting randomly. Han didn't know how much good the precaution was going to do today - who knew how the Empire was going to respond to anything these days? - but he reinforced it anyway. "They're civilians up there, no matter whose side they're on."

"Gotcha, General," someone responded, almost cheerfully. They were all cheerful. The atmosphere at the makeshift base this morning had been nervous but upbeat, as though they were athletes preparing for a major competition.

Han didn't like it. He didn't want them losing their morale, but he didn't like this at all. "Don't shoot anyone who hasn't started fighting," he said.

"We got it!"

The Empress' guard was pouring into the arena now, firing indiscriminately at the Rebels. To Han's dismay, members of the crowd were joining in - on the Imperial side. As he watched, a civilian grabbed a blaster from the hand of a fallen soldier, and blasted a speederbike out of the sky. It was too far away to see who was on it. Whoever it was jumped, but the fall was from nearly five meters up. He lay on the ground, dazed, and the civilian shooter lowered the blaster and shot him at point blank range.

A speeder - it was one of the modified snowspeeders rescued from Hoth, so it had to be one the Rogues who hadn't accompanied Wedge's doomed mission - swooped down and fired. The shooter fell.

It was time to join the party.

Han revved the swoop he'd bought in Mos Espa, and flew down into the arena, shooting at the small fleet of Imperial guard vehicles that had been brought in, mainly for show. Two of them exploded beneath him - and then seemed to explode further in laser blasts coming from within the debris cloud.

Han dodged them and dove again. Four figures, all wearing the thigh-length red tunics of Amidala's high guard, had been hiding among the vehicles, and had used their destruction as cover for a fierce counterattack. Han had dodged the bolts, and simply assumed they were meant for him, but apparently the attack hadn't been quite so focused. Three Rebel speederbikes had fallen from the sky.


Han's head snapped around. Beside him in the air, a young Mon Cal recruit was gesturing in a panicked way toward the staging area.

"What is it?" Han asked.

"Mobilizing," the Mon Cal got out between sharp breaths. "They're coming in."

As he said it, the entrance to what had once been the garage exploded with TIE speeders and stormtroopers, all firing into the mass of Rebels.

Han did the math. They weren't going to hold the arena, and that had never been the object. They were supposed to cause enough confusion to give the other squads time for their assaults.

How long, Leia?

He didn't know if they'd been fighting long enough. Time was funny in a battle - every second seemed longer than it was, but there was never enough time to get things done.

He flipped his communicator to long range, and hoped that the other attacks were far enough underway that he wasn't giving anything away.

"Yeah, we're underway all right," Lando muttered into his communicator. "If you decide to dump the arena, bring anyone you can get here. I need you."

"No can do, Lando. We have to hold Mos Espa."

Lando fought an urge to curse. "You do that. Calrissian out." He snapped off his comlink, madder than he had a right to be at Han. Han had his own nexu to declaw. But no way was Gamma Squadron going to be able to do this alone.

Oh, sure... the Guard facilities themselves had gone down already. More than half of their staff hadn't arrived yet. Lando had ordered Gamma Squadron to attack when Leia's order had gone out - at the beginning of the Empress' speech, he guessed - and the Mos Eisley Guardpost had fallen within a few minutes.

The problem was everything else in Mos Eisley.

The Tuskens hadn't appeared at the camp at the appointed time. Lando felt relieved about it at first - he really hoped they would opt out of the invitation on their own - but the more he thought about it, the less relieved he felt. They were a wild card. They knew what was happening. And he had a feeling that if they did show up, it wasn't going to be easy giving them orders.

Chewie, good as his word, had gathered up the smugglers and pirates gotten them to put down the few other Imperial holds that had managed to take root.

But Mos Eisley wasn't just spicers and spacers, gamblers and rogues. Mos Eisley was also slaves and farmers left homeless by raids, living destitute in the city's slums. Mos Eisley was war orphans and war widows who could no longer afford to go elsewhere. Among these, the only ones who did not love the Vaders were those who had been loyal to Palpatine, and they would rather spit on a dying Rebel than help him. The rest had joined the battle, and they weren't on Lando's side. Amidala had already provided them with some relief, and promised them more. And the damning thing was, she meant it. As long as they worshipped her, they'd never have to starve another day.

Is that such a bad deal, really?

Lando shut the voice out of his mind. He couldn't listen to it anymore. Dictatorship was never a good thing. No matter what it accomplished, no matter that it did it more efficiently than -

Stop it. Don't do this to yourself in the middle of a battle.

There was an almighty roar to Lando's left, and the wall of a building blew outward in a rain of yellow stone and yellow dust. The small group of Rebel soldiers who had been guarding the intersection disappeared under the rubble. Six teenage boys scrabbled to the top of it and started throwing chunks of rocks at Lando.

"We don't want you here, Rebel! You and your scum are done in Mos Eisley! It's ours now!"

Lando backed into an alley and dashed onto another street. He wasn't going to start shooting at kids with rocks, but he wasn't going stay there until they killed him, either. "Chewie!" he called into his comlink. No answer. That's right. He'd turned it off. He flipped it back on. "Chewie, we lost the safe area. Get your part of the squad out onto the road. Meet the Guard before it gets into town!"

Chewie barked something. Lando only caught the gist of it, but his impression was that Chewie's group was involved in a skirmish.

Please, let it be with some big, tough farmers, Lando prayed vaguely. And let them be armed farmers, he amended. With blasters.

"Get out of here, Rebel!"

Lando looked back at the alley mouth as a rock blasted into the wall beside him. The boys had made their way down and were chasing him.

I am not drawing my blaster.

Another rock came hurling at him. This one grazed his shoulder. A sharp edge drew blood. He turned to try and find cover.

The wind suddenly picked up.

Something clattered behind him. A rock. Dropped onto the street.

One of the boys cursed softly in Huttese.

Lando looked up.

From here, he could see the forbidding rise of rock that overlooked the valley where Mos Eisley had been built. A sandstorm seemed to be coming down from it, unforgiving, implacable.

As it drew closer, Lando could see the figures inside of it, like demons made of the sand itself.

The boys ran.

Somewhere in the city, an alarm began to sound.

Red Squad was stationed alongside the road to Mos Eisley, but no one really noticed the passing sandstorm half a klick to the east. Fighting was fierce and bloody, and the Imperials were a better match than they'd been anticipating. Some of them were Rebel trained.

Senber Tof and three of his squadmates had taken cover behind a boulder, and were exchanging blasts with a group of the Guard who had disappeared behind a standing rock formation on the other side of the road. The rest of the battle raged - it looked almost hand-to-hand from here - about fifty meters back on the road.

"I like space battles better," Isa Verhi grumbled, rolling back after taking a shot. Her short blond hair was matted with sand. "Cleaner."

"No joke, little girl," Senber said. "I got sand in places I'm never going to get it out of."

She laughed, but they both knew it wasn't the sand, and it wasn't the heat. It was the bodies. In space, you didn't have to worry about the bodies. They blew apart from decompression, usually, if they weren't incinerated in their ships. There was nothing left that you could recognize when you saw it lying there. Nothing that you could wonder about... was it part of a guy who used to sit in the mess hall with you? Or maybe a girl you'd stolen a kiss from at one unsanctioned party or another?

Then a blast shivered the rock, sending pebbles tumbling down. The firefight started again, and there was no time to think about it.

Gold Squad had executed a perfect ambush, and the fighting was over in less than an hour. About half the Imperial Guard was dead, and the other half was in custody.

Kinlo Tems was suspicious of the easy victory, but there didn't seem to be any subterfuge in the prisoners. Red and Blue squads were reporting full engagement - Red actually seemed to be having trouble. Blue Squad, on the way to Mos Espa, had lost communications while he was speaking to them. He hoped the rest of their battle was going better.

But here, in the open desert, he had only forty Imperial soldiers, immaculately dressed for the ceremonial parade, sitting slumped in the sand with binders on their wrists.

He had no idea what he was supposed to do with them, and neither did any of his squadmates.

"Hey," a Guard leader called. "You, Rebel!"

Kinlo turned, trying to assume the air of a winning commander. "What?"

"I'm local," the Imperial said. "There are caves. If you're holding my people, maybe we'd all be a lot more comfortable in there. There's water in them."

"And maybe you have a back-up arsenal?"

"In caves where the Tuskens can pick it up? Not likely."

"I don't know... "

"Look, if you're going to kill us, do it with blasters. But leaving us tied up out here is a lousy thing to do. And if you're planning on staying, you might have a long wait right here with us. I can tell by looking at you that you're not ready for desert camping."

Kinlo was suspicious, but couldn't think of any other reason not to get out of the suns. Gold Squad outnumbered the prisoners significantly, if they tried anything. "All right," he said. "People! We're moving into the shade."

A muted cheer went up, and the assorted troops moved away from the road.

Blue Squad had chosen a spot just beyond sight of Imperial headquarters, as far from Mos Espa as they could get, to avoid drawing attention before the strike on the arena. Princess Leia and Alpha Squadron were camped out with them, but hadn't taken part in the ambush. They were needed for another battle.

This was easily the biggest operation that Ordo Ryn had participated in, and it was exhilarating in some sick way.

A lot of the Mos Espa Guard had gone in early, to help the city guards with the Empress' security. But those who were left for the ceremonial entrance were fighting well. Whatever else had happened since the Empire had changed its face, it seemed that military training had gotten a very quick overhaul.

All the deserters, Ordo thought, remembering empty stations, belongings left on chairs or in ships, as the Rebellion had slowly bled to death before Palpatine fell. Now we know where they are. Must've decided that joining up with Lady Vader wasn't really treason, not like joining up with Palpatine was.

Traitors. Filthy traitors.

It didn't matter. Ordo and Blue Squad weren't there to take revenge. They were there to disrupt this Guard unit, and if they could finish this battle early, maybe they could go in and help General Solo hold Mos Espa.

"Commander!" A young lieutenant scrambled over to Ordo, looking winded. She saluted. "Alpha Squadron has launched. They're on their way to headquarters."

"Great. Put a local dampening field out. I don't want any of our Imperial friends putting word out on them."

There was a flash of something, brighter than the suns, then someone yelled, "Watch out!"

A towering rock formation shivered, then, with a terrible grinding sound, began to crumble in a dusty landslide.

There was no time to watch out. Ordo jumped as far as he could, but the falling rock was too fast to outrun and too large to escape.

The last word to cross his mind before the sky went dark and solid was, Traitors.

The alarm signal sent from one the Guard's captains had gone off less than ten minutes ago. The communications had started breaking up nearly five minutes ago. In Piett's mind, those minutes had stretched out into a taut tension. It filled the Command Center, and he knew that everyone there felt it.

He, along with nearly all the Command Staff, had gathered in Imperial Headquarters just off the Palace to watch the Empress give her speech. On their largest projector, they saw the Tatooine crowds and the Empress' procession as she arrived at the arena. As they waited for her speech, other officers kept regular contact with the Tatooine headquarters, and received updates from the commanders of the Guard units. Lord Vader had sent a brief message that morning, confirming that everything was going according to expectations. They were only awaiting the new communications system, which would go online within seconds of Her Majesty announcing it in her speech. The Command Center was ready for the enormous amount of information they would receive at that point. Piett was looking forward to seeing the system work for himself. It was quite an achievement, to have even individual soldiers linked up to the Imperial network.

The Empress had come out to the adoring crowd and begun her speech. Everyone was watching her now. Piett thought she was doing wonderfully.

He almost didn't believe it when he saw the explosion flare up behind her. He even had asked a nearby lieutenant whether she had seen the same thing. The picture became fuzzy and pixilated shortly after that. The sound was intermittent.

From all over the Command Center came sounds of battle, reports of down comlinks, shouted orders, and general confusion and fighting from nearly every location of consequence on Tatooine.

Piett ordered someone to focus exclusively on trying to raise the royal family or a member of the Empress' personal guard. She was his first concern, and the last pictures on the planet had not made her personal situation clear.

"Sir, our communications with the planet are sporadic. Her Majesty's channel is operating and open, but there's no response. I have been unable to raise her guards."

Piett nodded. He would assume that meant that they were too occupied to respond. He hoped they had moved her to a safe position.

"Admiral," the captain continued, "there's been no clear indication of what's happened on the planet."

"Continue to speak to anyone you can raise. Find out what's going on."

"Yes, sir."

"Raise the Imperial ships and bases closest to Tatooine. Make sure they are aware of the situation and are monitoring it. Tell them to be prepared, and await orders from the Empress on the planet."

"I will contact as many ships as I can, sir."

Piett frowned, worried. The new communications system had not gone online yet, and it seemed the Rebels were already making headway in disrupting their normal communications. He needed to speak with the Empress.

He relieved an ensign at the nearest station, and began trying her personal frequency himself. He was still met by an open, but silent, link. He kept trying.

As he waited for a response, Piett found himself hoping - against both his good and his common sense - that this problem wasn't the result of Leia doing something terrible. That it was something, anything else...perhaps one of the many problems on Tatooine that had necessitated the establishment of the Guard in the first place.

Piett wished, yet again, that he had been better able to make Leia understand, make her feel as though she did fit in here. It might not have been his place to do so, but he felt responsible for what he assumed must be happening on the planet now.

A crackle snapped from the terminal. It could have simply been more of the static he had been getting anyway, but Piett jumped on it, convincing himself it sounded different. He began adjusting his frequencies, chasing it. "Ensign, boost the signal on this console immediately. Raise it to the full limit."

"Yes, sir!"

Suddenly, the signal from Tatooine came in fully, and the comm screeched from the overcompensation of his adjustments and the signal boost. Piett scrambled to fix the problem, and soon the noise was replace with the Empress's voice.

Piett was utterly grateful to hear her speak.

"High Admiral Piett, please respond."

"Your Majesty, it is a joy to hear your voice. Our communication with Tatooine has been intermittent at best since you were attacked during your speech. May I inquire as to your status, Empress?"

"I've been returned to the Main Headquarters. I'm fine," she said tersely. Piett could hear orders being given in the background, including several being called out by Lord Vader. "The Rebels have been attempting to put out a dampening field, but we've been working around it." Piett's heart sank with the confirmation of what had happened, and who was behind it, but he chastised himself for the reaction. He had known it was Leia all along. "It appears as though all of our interests are under attack. We are trying to ascertain the size of the Rebel forces, and organize a counter-attack as quickly as possible."

"Your Majesty, I have reason to believe that nearly the full Rebel force is on Tatooine."


Piett sighed and reluctantly launched into what he had found. "In the past few days, I have been reading reports from our scouts on the possible locations of the Rebel base. None of the information is definitive, or wholly reliable, but I think I've found the most likely location of their base."

"Yes, Admiral?"

"Ledaga," he said. "A planet in the Outer Rim."

"I'm not fully familiar with that world, Piett."

"It does not fall within the Empire," he explained, "and the native population is small, and not technologically advanced. The information I received points to members of that population taking over a nearly abandoned military base."

"Then why do you believe the Rebels are still using it as their active base of operations?"

"It's the largest base that's been reported on, and an underpopulated, far-off world would be an attractive spot for the Rebels. Their low numbers on the planet are simply an indication of the attack they were planning against you, Your Majesty."

She didn't answer right away, and Piett could almost see the expression on her face. Thoughtful. And worried. Perhaps a bit sad. "She wouldn't hide behind civilians, High Admiral. My daughter would not do that." Her voice didn't leave room for discussion of the subject. Piett agreed with her on the point anyway.

Still... "Your Majesty, the fact remains that this is the best lead we have on the Rebels. If we were to act now, we could cripple their ability to wreak this kind havoc against you in the future." He waited for her response. Then, he cautiously added, "Also, Your Highness, it seems certain that Princess Leia is on Tatooine. Attacking now would allow us to avoid...certain dangers that would otherwise be inherent in any assault on the Rebels."

He hoped he had been tactful enough to get his point across with upsetting her or angering her. She responded guardedly. "Admiral, I have gone great lengths to avoid the unnecessary deaths of civilians. This would nullify everything I've had our military work toward since I came into power. And while I do trust your analysis, the information isn't certain."

"With all due respect, Your Majesty, we may not be able to get certain information before the Rebels switch camps again. It is unlikely they will stay in the same place after committing an assault of this size. I share your concerns, Your Majesty. But I believe this may be our best chance."

The silence was longer this time. Much longer. He could sense that she was close to giving him the order he needed, the one that could truly, finally, end this war - and would do it without costing her the daughter she loved so dearly. He was being honest about worrying for the civilians - he had no desire to kill any innocents, and was feeling repulsed by the circumstances the Empress found herself in. But his job was to give the best tactical analysis he had, even when that left few options, and no good ones.

"I will wait to see the outcome of the situation here, first, Admiral."

"Your Majesty?"

"Wait for my orders before taking any action." A pause. "If, for some reason, the situation here becomes so...catastrophic...that you feel action is warranted, I'll trust your judgment, Admiral Piett. But I have no real desire to see things happen this way."

"I understand, Empress."

Something that sounded like an explosion cut off whatever she was going to say next. A general proximity alarm added to the noise.

"I must go, Admiral."

"Understood. Be safe, Your Majesty. Piett out."

They know.

Leia guided her speederbike behind a tall rock formation, her breathing quick and shallow. Almost fifty meters below, as small as insects, her family ducked into the shadows of the Imperial headquarters. Mother and Father were easily identifiable, Force or no Force, from any distance. And Luke... Oh, Leia knew his presence. He might dress like a member of the high guard, but she could feel him, like an echo in her nerves. And did he glance up? Did he sense something?

No. He just continued walking.

To her surprise, she was overcome by neither anger nor hate, but by a deep sadness that seemed to resonate in the marrow of her bones, making her limbs heavy and her head throb. And, though it shamed her to admit it even privately, it stirred a sense of longing in her. She didn't want to join the Empire, not even in her most secret mind... but she longed to see Mother's face, or feel Luke's hand on her arm, or hear Father's carefully modulated voice. Just for a moment. Just to remember who she was.

But I am not that person. I am not a daughter of that family, to be petted and prodded as they wish, and trained to attack over the causes they fight for.


But still.

Mother's face. Luke's touch. Father's voice.

I am a part of them. I wonder if they think of me and miss "Leia's tongue."

"Princess Leia?"

Leia pulled herself out of her thoughts as her family disappeared into the vast Imperial base so far below. A high altitude landspeeder hovered beside her speederbike, piloted by an adolescent Dug named Revanik. He wore the makeshift uniform of Alpha squadron, which was no more than standard Tatooine gear with a handmade armband. She hoped that would be enough - the Rebellion had very little financial support, and there was certainly not enough discretionary income to support such niceties as uniforms... but Leia would not allow the Rebellion to go to war in the guise of civilians. Ever. She needed neither Obi-Wan nor Yoda to tell her that such a thing was cowardly and unfit for a sentient being, let alone one with Jedi training.

She hadn't even needed Father to tell her that, though he had repeated it often enough during their training sessions (he had, in fact, been almost obsessive about the subject, for reasons he had never clarified and she had never inquired about). And Leia had decided long ago that she would rather sleep on a bed of spikes over a pit of flesheaters than fight dirtier than Vader.

For her own part, she had kept the wrap-around top of her desert wear and wound her hair into a common fashion, but she had done so out of practicality - both fashions made sense in the environment. She had exchanged the drab skirt for drab leggings tucked carefully into her boots, but to her own mind, she still looked too much like a civilian for comfort. Her armband seemed insanely small. But at least she could count on being recognized. No one would mistake her.

She manufactured a greeting smile. "Yes, Ensign?"

Revanik circled her playfully. "We're all in place, Your Highness. Waiting for your orders to take out the comm system. And anything else we can."

Leia's jaw tightened. "Your orders are to take out the comm system. We're not assassins."

To Revanik's credit, he looked genuinely shamed. "Yes, Your Highness. I'm sorry." One long toe circled aimlessly in what appeared to be a nervous way. "Your Highness?"

"What is it, Revanik?"

"You were meeting with Ryn when the battle started in the arena... "


"Well, we were tracking and... "

Leia tried to control her frustration, using a calming technique that Yoda had taught her. "What do you need to tell me, Ensign?"

He closed his eyes. "Someone took a shot at the Empress herself."

Leia managed to control the swing of her temper enough that she didn't explode, didn't scream, didn't hit anyone or anything (which was a good thing, given that she was so far up on a lightweight machine). But she couldn't control her face, and she felt her eyes pull open to their widest point, and her lips draw back into what felt like a snarl. "They had explicit orders not to-"

"I know, Your Highness. But a shot at the Empress herself... If we could... "

"We aren't assassins," Leia said again, keeping her voice cool. She could hardly get control of frayed Rebel tempers if she couldn't keep control of her own. She would not use her temper as Father did, as a cudgel to keep her subordinates in line. "All right, Ensign. What's done is done. Let's go."

Revanik sighed with relief, and looped his speeder around toward the ground. Leia followed him.

Alpha Squadron was gathered at the base of a mesa, waiting quietly in the shadows. Leia glided the speederbike down to them and took up a position near the center in front of them. "Our main objective is the communications system," she said, though they didn't need to be reminded. "We've been sending out low-level dampening fields, and it is my hope that they've assumed we're mimicking their tactics from Naboo."

Steely silence from the troops. The Naboo attack was fresh in their minds. They didn't seem to blame Leia for it - yet - but they wanted to avenge the fallen Rogues. Shouldn't have brought that up.

It was too late to take it back, so she just went on. "So far, it seems to be the way it's interpreted. I've been watching the base for an hour, and no one has stepped up security on the main comm station. I want to keep it that way. I'm going to go in and do it myself. The rest of you - I want you to make it look like our main objective is their mobility. Take out all the vehicles you can, and if that's drawn enough guards away from the arsenal, hit that. Don't take unnecessary casualties. That's an order. Don't inflict unnecessary casualties. That is also an order. You're a diversion."

Commander Athuli, a scarred veteran with only thin remains of blonde hair on his sunburned head, cleared his throat. "Your Highness, perhaps someone else would be more expendable... "

Leia frowned at him. "Commander, no one is expendable. I am going to the comm system because I worked with it. I know it well. When I destroy the mainframe, that will disrupt Imperial communications throughout the Tatooine system. But before I do that, I'm going to send out a small disruptive program. There's a back door that it will work through, and I know about it - but I don't think they know I do. The disruptive program will work its way through the Imperial network and cut off all communications that piggyback off of it."

"That sounds like Imperial technology," Athuli said. "Centralized to death."

She started to say, Luke's been meaning to get to that, but hasn't had a chance with all his public appearances, but decided that it would be better not to mention Luke at all.

"All right then," she said. "Commence attack."

She watched the Squadron lift off on their various vehicles, then zip out of sight around the mesa. A moment later, the shooting began.

She waited only long enough to be certain that the Empire was engaged, then flew low and fast around the other side of the mesa. She stowed the speederbike in a crevice at the bottom of the mesa, several stories beneath a small arched window.

Was someone in that room? Waiting? Did she have the element of surprise, or would Father see this coming?

Use the Force.

She frowned at nothing, knowing perfectly well that either Kenobi or Yoda was somewhere nearby. Using the Force was well and good in theory, but risked drawing attention to her actions as surely as would announcing herself at the front door.

Then again, leaping headlong into a room that might well be full of soldiers was a pretty bad idea, too.

Yoda had taught her several blocking techniques, and she reached for the ones she had learned best. He'd told her that she had a natural ability for it... she could even hide from him. So maybe...

But Father. Father would know she was here.

You hid from Vader for the first twenty years of your life. He is not a demigod. He is just a man, just part of a man at that. Part of a man named Anakin Skywalker who is no more omniscient than you are.

It had to be done.

Leia reached into the Force for strength, then quickly used the blocking technique, hoping against hope that it would hide her. Then she felt her way up through the rock, toward the window. There were few soldiers on this side. She had not been spotted. Luke and Father were elsewhere in the base, with Mother. There were two... three? ... soldiers on duty at the comm station. Nothing she couldn't handle.

Opening her eyes and coming back to herself, she drew the blaster she had found on Naboo, aimed it at a ledge two meters above the window, and fired the tow cable.

The harsh side of the mesa flew by her, then the momentary flash of the window. Then she was stopped, a few inches beneath the overhanging shelf of rock where her cable was secured. She let herself sway in the wind for a moment, getting her bearings, then swung to an even smaller ledge off to one side. She dislodged the tow cable and put the blaster back on her belt.

For a moment, she felt like laughing. All that worry about using the Force to check for guards, and she'd never thought about the fact that her plan was flatly impossible without the assistance of the Force at all. She was going to have to risk it. She'd planned this little raid with the assumptions of a Jedi rather than the assumptions of a field commander. She couldn't back off from those assumptions now.

It was time.

Using only the Force to navigate, she made her way down the nearly sheer rockface of the mesa. The window had been overhung with a flat plate of duracrete to keep the suns off the delicate equipment. Her feet found it, and she crouched there, taking one last moment to breathe cleanly. Then she drew her lightsaber with her natural hand, gripped the edge of the duracrete with the mechanical one, and flipped backward into space.

At the arc of her turn, she changed the tension in her arm to shoot herself through the window. She ignited her lightsaber as she drop-rolled into the room.

The first guard to stand never had a chance - the lightsaber cut through his midsection in a sickeningly easy way. Leia had never used this sort of weapon in combat before, and there was something about the closeness of it that just... how was this more civilized?

The second guard came at her, blaster drawn, and she sliced the weapon from his hand. While he was still surprised, she raised her empty hand and pushed him with the Force, hard. He was thrown across the room, where he crashed into the wall near the ceiling, then fell to the floor, stunned.

The third was reaching for his comlink. Leia called it to her with the Force, and sliced it into two small pieces in the air.

Five seconds had passed since she'd come through the window.

Blaster fire came at her furiously as she advanced toward him. She missed one block and a burn etched itself along her upper arm, but that didn't matter now.

The guard didn't back down and he didn't try to run. He kept coming.

Her only option was to strike.

She did.

He fell.

She was alone with the stunned guard now, listening to his shallow breathing as it counterpointed the hum of the communications equipment.

In the Force, she could feel that there was a dim awareness of her presence now. She'd used too much power to keep her shields up. She needed to work quickly.

The mainframe was, as she'd known it would be, the same make as the model she'd used in Theed, on her endless and ridiculous quests to find Mother's old propaganda. She hadn't been perfectly honest with Athuli - she didn't just know about the back door. She'd put it in herself, tired of going through the labyrinthine security systems every morning just to hear Mother's speech before Chancellor Valorum, or Mother's second coronation address on Naboo, or Mother's installation as Senator. It wouldn't have been removed because she had neglected to tell anyone that she was using it.

She entered the code quickly, and the system opened up to her. A quick command was all it would take. It would take maybe twelve hours, but the entire communications structure within the New Empire would go down, and it would take at least a week to fix it.

She gave the command.

As soon as it was accepted and forwarded through the system, she drew her lightsaber, raised it high, then brought it down across the front of the mainframe. Circuits fried, flames erupted, acrid smoke blew through the room. A second thrust melted wires in the heart of the machine, and a third, sustained one sent molten metal streaming down the side.

She stepped back. Even Father wouldn't be able to fix that one, at least not right away.

The bodies of the two guards she'd killed were becoming lost in the smoke, and the breathing of the third was getting harsher.

Leia looked around the small room, surprised and a little ill at how much damaged she'd done this quickly by herself.

It needed to be done.

The Empire couldn't get a foothold in the Rim. It had too many footholds already.

Her heart heavy, she went back to the window, lowered herself with the tow cable, and picked her way back to her speeder bike.

She'd done her part as a Jedi.

Now, she had a battle to command as a soldier, and if Revanik was telling truth, it was already starting to get out of hand.

Redenou was beaming as she handed out rations to Rebels and Ledagans alike as they converged on the camp's mess hall. They took their food with a nod and a thank you (thank you - at least she had finally learned two words in their language, finally), and moved to the next table, where a cheerful Ledagan woman was handing out some orange, leafy vegetable that grew in their burrows underground. Redenou had tried them, and thought they were all right, but knew that anything was better than another ration pack. The Rebels took the leaves gratefully before trying to work their way to an unoccupied table or chair - that was no easy task now. And Redenou thought she might be the only Rebel on the base that was honestly glad of that fact. The rest had understood that the Ledagans had needed a place to go, and that Han had left instructions to help them, but Redenou wasn't bothered or put out by the arrival of their guests, and couldn't pretend to be. In the last two days, she had found herself in the center of activities on the base, and was now living in a place filled to capacity with people, aliens, creatures, and who-knew-what-else. How could she complain? Instead, she gave out more rations and continued to beam, meeting every quizzical glance from a stressed Rebel with a smile.

She was glad that there were no - well, almost no - adults or officers left hanging around to supervise her, and try to "protect" her. She loved the Rebels and the Rebellion, but since Han left, she had gotten her first taste of true involvement and of true freedom. She had been careful to put it to good use, sticking herself into situations where she knew she could really be of help to everyone. Like now, when even the standard dinner hour had become an adventure.

The Ledagans had been in the camp for barely two days. They had quickly insisted on adapting to the Rebel's schedules and habits as a sign of respect and gratitude. It was a gesture that Redenou could appreciate, but one that had caused unexpected issues to pop-up throughout the base. The Rebels had expected their guests to essentially keep to themselves in the barracks they had been assigned. But now, they had a planet's population trying to get into the mess hall. The Ledagan leaders had been showing up at the command rooms, offering their help, limited as it might be. Some of the children had gotten wind of the fact that the Rebels were in need of clothing and uniforms, and had immediately pulled out their supplies and fashioned crude versions of the garments they had seen worn on the base, taking very seriously any suggestion or correction made, and leaving the clothing in the bunkers with the rest of the clothes and supplies.

Kind gestures, all of them, but they had still caught the command staff here - such as it was - unprepared. Redenou had appointed herself an unofficial liaison between the Rebels and the Ledagans...she had taken one of the few translator droids around and kept it by her side at all times, and had run back and forth between the leaders in each groups, explaining (and occasionally...suggesting) what each side needed or wanted done, trying to help things run smoothly. The Ledagans had liked her right away, and the officers had even started taking her seriously, figuring that she was the path of least resistance when it came to keeping things running smoothly, so they could focus on whatever was happening on Tatooine.

So here she was, in the mess hall, staring at the Ledagan men, women, and children, wondering at the small pets they seemed to bring with them everywhere (they were clearly domesticated, but were small, and fanged, and vicious-looking, and they made her nervous, despite their gentle demeanor), and speaking with other young and low-ranking Rebels. She was already formulating a plan on taking inventory of any food or supplies the Ledagans had brought with them from their underground lairs. They were obviously willing and eager to share what they had, and the Rebels would be smart to be thinking of ways to combine it with their own supplies, and find ways to organize and maximize everything.

She couldn't wait for General Solo to return, and to see how much she had done, how big a help she had been. Maybe even the Princess would be impressed.

Two Ledagan children trilled at her as they took her food, and they handed her a not entirely bad shirt. They were beginning to get human measurements right - they had had an easier time with other alien species - and Redenou tried to mimic the thank you she had heard dozens of times from people in the line. They twitched their whiskers at her, and approximated a smile through their fur.

Redenou thought about ordering one of her friends to take the shirt to the rest of the new clothes and begin the inventory, but changed her mind. She might have the ideas, but she hadn't exactly earned the authority to order anyone to do anything. She had tried it once, sort of, as a way of trying to get information on what was happening on Tatooine. She'd been summarily dismissed. She had the feeling things had gotten started, and were going well though. She hoped she was right. Redenou decided to start the inventory herself, later.

She gave a friendly smile to the Ledagan woman next to her. She gave a wave or salute back, but stopped abruptly. She looked at the ground. Redenou saw the other Ledagans nearby do the same.

Her heart sank. As the native population, the Ledagans were much more in tune with what was happening, and had sensed the first big earthquake and all the aftershocks just before the Rebels' seismic sensors were able to pick up on the signs that they were coming.

She didn't waste time, and didn't worry about orders she wasn't supposed to be giving. She jumped up on her table and yelled, "Get into position! I think another one's coming guys!"

The Rebels quickly moved away from the windows, and several of them went back to the command rooms to protect the equipment and the comm. The Ledagans were already scurrying underneath the tables, bringing nearby Rebels with them. Redenou turned on her translator droid, who had wandered off a short distance from her as she'd handed out the food. He answered before she could say anything.

"She says that the gods beneath are again coming forth, and that their cries will shake the land."

Almost on cue, a low rumble began under her feet, and she took cover under her table and the shaking began. Utensils clinked and clanged as they banged against each other and fell to the ground. Ration boxes rained down noisily. As had happened with the first real earthquake two days ago, consoles shorted out and sparked up, and the comm system screeched and cackled over the mess hall's speakers.

Redenou covered her head and waited for it to stop, hoping that nothing would be damaged so badly that she wouldn't be able to get a sneak report on the Tatooine fighting whenever they got an update from everyone out there. Redenou was looking forward to the base celebration whenever they got word that the raid was successful. She had a feeling the Ledagans would make good party companions, even if they didn't full understand what they were celebrating. The kids would have a good time, definitely

The shaking let up a little, and the aftershock continued at a more manageable rate. Ledagans were already starting to poke their heads out from under the tables, and cleaning up the mess. There might be too many of them at the camp, but Redenou knew they were good people to have around. She pulled herself up and began to help, smiling again at her Ledagan friend at the next table.

She couldn't wait for that celebration.

After the chaos in the arena, Han had expected Mos Espa to be a rough battle, maybe even a losing one, but it seemed that, once the novelty of being in a war had worn off (and novelties wore off quickly in Mos Espa) most of the people had opted not to fight. The Imperial Guard was largely engaged in the fighting outside of town - out where Leia is, Han couldn't help thinking miserably - so the Rebels had been able to sweep into town and establish control within two hours of leaving the arena.

Of course, "control" was about the best it could be called.

Han Solo - smuggler, rogue, outlaw, and general anti-authoritarian - found himself administering martial law.

And no matter how he worked it around in his mind, he couldn't think of what else he could possibly be doing.

He'd split Beta Squadron into six teams. Four of them were doing security patrols. Once everyone got inside, their main job had been catching frantic people running out of their houses to find loved ones, sending them back inside, then finding the loved ones and escorting them back to the one who'd been worried. There were still a few energetic teenagers fighting the good fight for Her Ladyship with rocks and kitchen knives, but the security squads were able to capture them uninjured for the most part, and separating them from their little gangs did wonders for their attitudes.

Han wondered, in a not-quite-disinterested way, if he would have been one of them, if this thing had happened ten years ago. He could see himself through their eyes easy enough - blustering around and giving orders to people he'd never seen before. Would he have really ended up under Amidala's spell, if he hadn't met Leia first?

He wanted to say no, but if all he'd seen was today...

He wasn't sure. He really wasn't. The Empire wasn't exactly distinguishing itself, running out to defend HQ while the bad guys were left to sack the cities, of course, which Han suspected was part of the easy capitulation. The Empire, if nothing else, promised protection to Loyalists, and it wasn't coming through.

The problem was, they still saw the Rebels as someone they needed to be protected from. That was why the security teams were under strict orders to keep the fighting clean and help civilians whenever they could. That, and the fact that it was the right thing to do.

One of the remaining squads was on repair detail. Only one building - an open-air restaurant - had been demolished entirely. Others had sustained various degrees of damage, most easily fixed. Across the dusty street from the demolished restaurant, four members of the repair team were taking orders from the oldest Toydarian Han had ever seen. One of the soldiers looked over at Han with a Get-me-outta-here-please expression that might have been comical under other circumstances as he re-mortared the bricks in the walls of the old junk shop.

Han shrugged at him. Given the general condition of the wall, the damage most likely pre-dated the battle, but it was a chance for the Rebellion to be seen doing something constructive, and they might as well do it.

The last and most important team was overseeing the temporary hospital that had been set up in a wide square in the middle of the business district. Small tents made of poles and blankets held two or three patients each, and everyone in Beta Squadron with any medical experience was rushing around with bacta and bandages, tending everyone who had been hurt in the battle, whether they were on the Rebel side, on the Imperial side, or just bystanders.

His inspection circuit of the city mostly finished, Han headed over there.

He could hear a good deal of moaning and yelling before he actually saw the hospital, most of it too robust to be coming from people who were seriously injured, which was a relief. Monsha Rooklin, his head medic, had told him that most of the injuries were superficial, but it was good to know she was right.

Beta Squadron's medical team was still hurried and harried, running from tent to tent when he got there. Monsha looked up sharply from her patient - a more serious injury than most; this was a woman who seemed to have several shattered bones from a fall - and blew a stray hair off her forehead. "This is hardly a sanitary environment," she quipped.

Han shook his head. "You're not going to get much better at the base. If you were, I'd tell you to take them back there."

"I know. I'm just grousing."

"I know. I'm just telling you not to. This is the best we can do."

Something clattered on the stone across the square, and Monsha grimaced. "I've about had it with them."

Before Han could ask what she meant, he found out for himself. A bleary yell rose over the general din: "Get your filthy Rebel hands off me! I don't need your help!"

Han looked at Monsha. "It's been like that for awhile?"

"Almost long enough that I'm tempted to respect their wishes." Her patient groaned, and she made a liar of herself by immediately bending over and trying to ease the position of the broken bone she was working on. There was no chance of Monsha Rooklin walking away from her patients.

Han went toward the tent that housed the complaining patient. A young human with a tight jaw was picking up instruments and bandages from the ground. "These are going to have to be sterilized," he said. "That's going to take time."

"I know." Han glanced around. "You guys could use some help. I'll see who I can dig up."

"They won't take it."

"I'll find someone without filthy Rebel hands."

"Great." The boy went back to picking up the instruments, cursing under his breath as he did it.

Han shook his head. This was beyond ridiculous.

He picked his way back to the wrecked junk shop, figuring that its owner was probably old enough to know who did what in this asylum of a town. The work team was just finishing up with the re-mortaring.

"Aagh," the Toydarian said, "kids today don't do nothing right." He shook his head mournfully at the wall. "Everything's wrecked."

Han cleared his throat. "It's less wrecked than it was when we came."

"Bah. You people break things like they grow back on their own."

"That's why we're trying to fix things up, make it better." The Toydarian didn't turn around. Han grabbed his shoulder and turned him. "Look, we got your wall fixed, and it's staying fixed. I need your help. Who do you know who knows anything about healing? And isn't a Rebel?"

The ancient wrinkled face twisted. Resentment? Or was he just thinking? Finally, he gave an approximation of a sigh. "Oh, all right. Look for Amee and Seek. They've been watching out for the slaves since they were freed. For free, if you can believe it." He shook his head, as though he'd never heard of anything so crazy. "They're still staying in the slave quarters. They actually bought one of the places from me. I had no use for it," he finished quickly, as if Han were about to accuse him of sentimentality.

"And they're not Rebels?"

"Rebels? Nah. They're not Rebels. They were with Vader before the Empress came back." His grin widened, and it wasn't entirely unfriendly. "The Queen's been in my shop," he said. "Stood right where you're standing now, too."

Han took an involuntary step back, cursing himself for superstition even as he acted on it. This was Vader's home. He was bound to run into someone who knew them. He had no interest in following up on Leia's family history. She was obsessed enough with it for both of them. He turned back to the subject at hand. "Where are their quarters?"

"They might not like helping you."

"They're not helping me. They're helping the same people they've been helping."

"All right." The Toydarian waved vaguely down the street. "Take the first left. Their building's third on the right. They're on the second floor. Only door without a Master's key slot. They had that taken right off, you better believe."

Han thanked him and headed off in the direction he'd indicated. The apartment wasn't hard to find. The door was open. There was a crowd already there, mixed humans and aliens, speaking softly. Han caught a few words about fighting and making stands. Great. But they seemed to be in the talking stage, not the fighting stage.

A skinny middle-aged man with thick red hair was sitting on a high stool, a blaster over his knees. He raised it as soon as he saw Han, and the conversation died immediately. "What do you want, Rebel?"

Han raised his hands in a gesture of good faith, hoping that if shooting started, their reflexes were considerably slower than his own. "You've got injured people in the town square," he said. "If you're Seek, an old Toydarian told me you knew about healing."

The man's eyes narrowed. "I'm Seek," he said. "How many did you shoot?"

"No one who wasn't shooting at us. Look, they don't want help from Rebels, but they need help. We've got supplies and equipment. We just need extra hands. Preferably ones they won't refuse."

There was silence.

A woman worked her way through the crowd. Her hair was prematurely white, and rolled in thin braids at her temples, and a thick braid at the base of her neck. "I'm Amee," she said. "You realize that we're not Rebels?"

"That's most of the point, ma'am. I don't care if you're Palpatine Imperials or Hutt loyalists. There are people who need help."

She laughed softly. "We're not Hutt loyalists," she said. "You can be assured of that." She turned to Seek. "I'm going," she told him. "Whatever the politics are, I have sworn to look after the people of Mos Espa. We can argue later about whose fault it was."

Seek grunted. "That's not an argument, Amee. That's just a fact." He stood up, blaster still in his hands, but not pointed at Han anymore. "You're right. We'll all go."

"Thank you," Han said as he passed.

"Don't you ever thank me, Rebel. I'm not doing it for you, and if the shooting starts again, the last thing you're going to see is the muzzle of this blaster pointed right at your eye. Got it?"

Han nodded. He led the group back to the tents and got them started on it. It was tense, but it was workable.

Mos Espa was under control. It was time to check up on the rest of the battle.

Leia's comlink was still on silent - he guessed she was somewhere she didn't want to be called. Chewie only growled a harried acknowledgment that he was still alive. Han could hear a vicious battle in the background. He switched over to Lando's frequency.

The battle was louder. "Calrissian here!"

The abrupt shout took Han by surprise. He'd heard the battle, but he really absorbed it now. Things sounded out of control. "Lando? What's going on here?"

"All hell's broken loose," Lando said. "The Tuskens dropped by for the party."

"What's happening?"

"They're raiding the shops and the houses. They're killing people. We're fighting against them, but somehow it's gotten out that we called them. You have to get Leia. Tell her what's happening. We need to know what she wants us to do. This isn't what she had in mind!"

"I can't reach her on the comlink. It's on silent."

"Override it. She needs to know about this, Han. And if you can't override it, go get her!"

Something near Lando's comlink exploded, causing a whistle of static. "I have to go," he said. "Get Leia. Calrissian out."

The comlink fell silent.

Han stared at it for what seemed like a long time.

Lando shut off his comlink and looked around, almost in a panic, for a place that would give him some cover. Of course, the alleyway he was eyeing had just exploded, and there didn't seem to be a corner that wasn't being shot at, so...

His blaster was firing, almost automatically, at any Tusken or Imperial he could make out in the melee happening just ahead of him in what passed for Mos Eisley's town center. He wasn't having much effect - the entire squadron wasn't having much effect. Lando felt that everybody with a weapon was attacking the Rebels, but in all honesty, everyone just seemed to be attacking one another at this point, going after the person next to him if they weren't immediately recognizable.

Lando suddenly spied a junkshop that seemed to be both abandoned and ignored, and he dove for it, rolling behind several old speeders and pieces of transports. The fight wasn't far enough away for Lando's tastes - he thought he could have boarded a ship right now for the other side of the galaxy and it wouldn't have been far enough - but he wasn't in immediate danger, and that gave him a few minutes to think, and to observe the battle.

One of his captains saw him, and ran to join him. Three others followed, and they crouched from their hiding places, shooting into the crowd when they thought they could provide cover to the Rebels and the civilians.

Lando cursed under his breath with every shot. What the hell was he supposed to do?

"Sir!" said a young man next to him. Lando thought his name was Kimani. "There are civilians attacking us out there. They don't want our help. There's no way we're going to take or hold Mos Eisley... Sir, you need to order a retreat!"

Lando wasn't quite listening. He was watching the fighting.

There were a large number of Tuskens in the square. They had dismounted their banthas near the edge of the settlement, and had all but thrown themselves into the thick of the battle. The Imperials, who had their hands full with the Rebels anyway, had panicked. So had the settlers, who were having a hard time amongst themselves deciding who it was they hated most - the Imperials (though a large number were Vader sympathizers), the Rebels, or the Tuskens. Pure, utter chaos.

"We can't just leave!" yelled a woman whom Lando only knew slightly. He couldn't think of her name. "We did this, we have to help!"

"Do you know how long they've been fighting the Tuskens?"

"Do you know that we asked the Tuskens to come?" That was Captain Micha.

Lando frowned suddenly, knitting his brow, still only giving half an ear to the discussion.

Yes, the Tuskens were here, and yes they were fighting fiercely. But that was wrong on its face somehow. The Tuskens wouldn't care about mixing it up with the settlers, or the Rebels, or Lady Vader's forces. That wasn't what they were here for, and the battle in the square couldn't be anything more than a distraction to them.

The settlement was near anarchy. Their opportunity to raid and...and whatever else...was better than it had ever been. So why bother with a pitched battle out in the center of town?

Lando tried to give a quick count of how many Tuskens he could see. There were a lot of them, almost enough to account for the size of the camp he had visited. Almost.

It wouldn't take many Tuskens to make a few runs through the rest of the settlement. Especially if the majority of the armed settlers were occupied here.

"Dammit!" He whipped his head around to the officers behind him. "We're not retreating, it's not even an option, and we don't have time to argue about it." Only Kimani looked annoyed. The other three wore expressions on their faces that wavered between relief and determination. They understood, and they knew that they had to help.

"When we get back out there, I want you each to round up as many Rebels as you can. Leave the square and head for the other parts of town. The homes, the slave quarters, the shops and businesses. We need to get out there."

"Sir," the woman said, "you want us to just leave the battle? The Imperials aren't going to just let us take off."

"And the civilians don't seem to like us much either," said Colin, one of the youngest officers that had been allowed to come to Tatooine. "Shouldn't we stay here and try to fight the Tuskens anyway?"

"I'm telling you, there are more problems with Tuskens in other places," Lando said tersely. "Now go!"

The four officers took off immediately, and began calling out to their fellow comrades as they ran firing into the fray. Lando pulled out his comlink, and opened it to Gamma Squadron. "This is Lando - everyone who can break away, get a group and move into the other sections of Mos Eisley. Protect the citizens and civilians first. Whether they want it or not. That's our priority."

Kimani, for his part, had gotten a few people together and was focusing on attacking Imperial troops who were about to join the fighting. Colin was giving orders left and right - Lando had to admit, he was impressed with the kid - and was fighting his way through in the direction of the shops. The woman was headed for the slave quarters with a fairly large group. Micha was still trying to hold things together in the square.

Lando moved quickly around the edges of the battle, ducking and shooting the whole way. He barked, "You're with me!" to five men with armbands as he went by, and didn't even bother to look back to see who they were or even if they had followed him as ordered. He wanted to get to the nearest living quarters - a small, tightly packed neighborhood where the houses were nearly on top of one another up and down a slew of long, narrow streets.

He rounded a corner, and came to the first of the streets. He could already see some houses burning - all the houses would be on fire soon - and there were already bodies in the street. Ransacked homes pointed the way ahead of him. Windows broken and doors swinging off their hinges, clothes and furniture and other property trailing out.

The Tuskens were ahead of him, nearly at the opposite end of the street, about ready to move up the next street of homes. Their banthas trailed behind them, and several of them were already overloaded with the loot that had been stolen. It was a small group, as Lando had suspected, but they would be a handful for six men to stop.

Lando raised his blaster and shot straight down the street. He hit the ground just behind one of the banthas. It barely budged - the beasts were used to Tusken raids, and it took a lot to rile them - but the blast was enough to get the attention of several of the raiders, who turned sharply and gave that awful shriek.

But they didn't try to attack or make any aggressive moves up the street. They stayed focused on their looting, passing along bags and slinging them upon the banthas. They were finishing up the last houses.


The scream was so loud and close that it literally hurt Lando's ears. He barely had time to register it and turn around before a pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders so tightly that he stopped running dead in his tracks. Then he was being shaken.

"Please...please...my daughter, my daughter is hurt, you have to help...she's dying, help her, please!"

She was an older woman, and was hurt badly herself. A cut somewhere on her head was bleeding down over her face and into her eyes. There were bruises on her face and arms...almost anywhere that Lando could see. She was hysterical and shaking. Lando didn't want to think about the kind of shape her daughter must be in.

"Ma'am," he began, trying to gently pull her hands off his arms, "ma'am please -"

"Help her! Please!"

Lando came close to ordering one of his men to go with her, but his eyes were still on the Tuskens. He couldn't take them on with less people, he probably didn't have enough as it was. And they needed to keep moving, to hurry before the Tuskens got to the next homes.

"Ma'am, I'll radio for someone to come help you. I have to try to protect -"

"No! No!"

"I -"

Before he could finish, the woman suddenly swayed, and jerked, and then collapsed.

She was still alive, and Lando could see her still mouthing the word "help" to herself.


Lando forced himself to look away from her. "Radio for help. Tell any medics we've got to get down here." His voice sounded strange in his ears, but he tried to ignore it. He motioned to the rest of the men and resumed his pursuit. They fired constantly, eventually hitting a bantha and causing it to buck up wildly. The Tuskens cut around a bend, onto the neighboring street.

Over one of the men's radio, Lando could hear the sounds of other battles happening in the city. The Rebels had gotten some help from the shop owners, the slaves had mostly joined up with the Imperials, which at least meant they had some protection from the Tuskens. The rest of the reports were harried and erratic, and Lando couldn't guess how things were going.

He wasn't sure what to tell people about what was happening on his end. He was trying not to know, not to look. Lando was beginning to feel detached. He had heard many horror stories since joining the Rebellion - those were the most common reason people signed up, and were willing to risk their lives in the hope of bringing down an Empire. Some of those stories, he couldn't even really picture, and others had stayed with him permanently. But he knew that his own life hadn't been terribly hard, especially for someone who found himself on the wrong side of the law so often. Smuggling and other crimes had provided him with a life that suited his personality and taste. Once its appeal had faded, he had wound up living a fairly respectable life on Bespin. He was always surrounded by the finer things, and he always enjoyed them, no matter what kind of life he was leading.

Still, he had never really thought of himself as having led a privileged life, even after hearing those stories from the other Rebels. But now that he was seeing one of those stories himself? Living one? He had lived a privileged life, he knew that now. He had never been in a situation like this before.

It was only one street. But the burning buildings - the burning people - the destruction and death, the injuries and the pain...he couldn't even look in the direction of anything that resembled a child and he saw women in far worse shape than the first one who grabbed him...and men with their blasters still in their hands...

Why couldn't they have just stolen what they wanted and then left?

Lando forced himself back to reality, and decided he couldn't fight in a cloud of anger and revulsion. And he had decided that one street would be the end of it. The Tuskens would get any further, no matter what he had to do to stop them.

He led his men into a sharp turn and through a small sliver of space between two houses. The came out in front of the Tusken group, cutting them off.

Lando looked at his men, and nodded.

They charged.

Leia's here.

Luke felt the muscles in his back stiffen as he blocked a laser blast from the Rebel troops fighting in the motor pool.

Leia's here, but she's not with them.

The harsh sound of energy deflected exploded right behind him, and he whipped his head around to find Father, his lightsaber still raised from the block. The mask, of course, made his expression unreadable, and his presence in the Force was too dominated by combat to give a good indication, but Luke could guess what he was feeling well enough - the same irritation he'd felt earlier. Another missed observation. There would be another lesson. A painful one, no doubt. But he had blocked the shot. Luke nodded an acknowledgement. "Thank you," he said.

"Be aware of your surroundings," Father said, then whirled to face an oncoming Rebel on a speederbike. The bike veered off, steering column smoking, and crashed into the solid wall. He stopped. "Your sister is here."

"That's what I felt."

Father nodded, and gestured to Colonel Ellsov, who ran over, firing his blaster into the mass of Rebels as he ran. "Yes, m'lord?"

"You are in command, Colonel. Lord Skywalker and I must return to the command center."

"Yes, m'lord."

Father waved at the small access door behind them in an impatient way, and they ran back inside as soon as it opened. Luke waved it shut behind them.

When they had gone out to join the battle, Mother's command center had been on high alert, but relatively stable. It had seemed the safest place for her. Now officers were running from console to console, shouting across the room to one another, looking panicked. Mother herself was on her feet, pounding desperately at a holotransmitter. She looked up when they came in. "Communications are down," she said. "There's no dampening field. They're just gone. We're cut off."

"Everything planetside?" Luke asked, going to her side. The control panel on the transmitter showed red lights across the board.

"Everything everywhere," she said. She took a series of deep, sharp breaths. "We've lost our entire array."

An ensign ran into the control center, bent double, breathing hard. He pulled himself to a stop and bowed to Mother. "Your... Majesty..."

"Get your breath," Mother said kindly.

He nodded. "Yes... " He bent at the waist, put his hands on his knees and took several deep breaths, then straightened. "Your Majesty, I went to the communications control room as you ordered. Two technicians are dead. The third is badly injured. The central communications console has been completely destroyed."

"Is there no backup?"

"No, your Majesty. The backup equipment was scheduled to arrive later this week. It was deemed sufficient to have the primary console in operation." He looked down at his shiny boots. "Your Majesty, one of the dead guards... They appear to have been... cut." He glanced nervously at Luke and pointed at the lightsaber still in his hand. "With one of those."

Luke felt Mother's tension rise, and felt Father's anger well up. For himself, he felt only a dull sense of resignation. Leia. Of course. She had used the other battle as a diversion. Her strategy was to cripple the Guard on Tatooine. Better to abandon the planet to anarchy than let the Empire get a stronghold.

No one in the family spoke. Mother dismissed the ensign with a wave of her hand. As soon as he was gone, she turned on her heel and stalked out of the room, her veils flying behind her in a scarlet slipstream. Luke and Father followed her.

She didn't head for the communications room, as Luke had half-expected - of course not; Leia was long gone from there - but instead punched a sequence of buttons on the turbolift. The doors opened. All three of them went inside, still not speaking. It began to rise.

"Leia," Mother whispered.

"Yes," Father said. "I believe so."

The turbolift reached its destination, and released them onto the observation tower, an open-air rise that gave a wide view around headquarters. From here, Luke could see not only the battle raging in the motor pool, but the battle on the road to Mos Espa, and another, much further away, sending up a cloud of sand on the road to Mos Eisley. A plume of dust marked the passage of a vehicle coming toward headquarters, but Luke paid no attention to it. It wasn't Leia. The cities were also fighting.

How much of the Rebellion had she brought here?

Somewhere, in that chaos, Leia was hiding behind her shields. Was she with the troops at the motor pool? Had she headed back to the cities? Where was Han?

Mother was standing at the edge of the lookout, her hand shading her eyes, squinting down at the battles as though she could will Leia into visibility. "Where is she?"

Father put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her away from her vulnerable position. "She is undoubtedly nearby."

"How could she do this to me? And to the whole planet? She knows better. She is my daughter. And she was raised by Bail Organa, for the Maker's sake. Where would she learn such carelessness?"

Father did not tense, as he usually did when Luke's guardians or Leia's were mentioned. In fact, he didn't seem to hear her. His edgy presence was deepened in a way Luke had come to identify with his use of the Force. He was looking for her. Relentlessly.

Luke himself couldn't sense her anywhere anymore. The chaotic feelings from the battles kept a cloud in the air as surely as the loose sand did. He just let his eyes roam over the desert, hoping to see a flicker of movement that he would recognize clearly as Leia. His gaze fell back on the road to Mos Eisley.

The plume of dust from the single vehicle was much closer, and Luke realized that it was a speeder, traveling at dangerous, breakneck speeds. As he watched, it thundered into camp. The driver was slumped over the steering column, not seeming to pay any attention to the battle he was headed for.

He was unconscious.

And the speeder was headed straight for a concentration of soldiers.

Luke didn't hesitate. He ran to the edge of the lookout and leapt into nothingness. He heard Mother yell after him. There wasn't time to explain it to her.

He used the Force to control his fall as much as he could, but gravity gave him speed as he flew downward. It was going to be a hard landing any way he looked at it.

Then the speeder was below him, and he tucked himself into a midair roll to change direction just slightly. With a bone-jarring crash, he landed in the cargo box at the back of the vehicle. He wasted no time there.

The driver's body was heavy and entangled with the controls, so Luke just pushed him away from the steering column without ceremony and took the handles himself, standing and bending over the seat.

The driver groaned. He was alive.

Luke pulled back on the column, bringing the speeder into a steep climb. It wasn't particularly safe to operate the machines up high, but he'd done so many times in the past. The rocks provided good surfaces for repulsors, as long as you were going fast enough. He guided the speeder up the observation tower using the Force to slow it when he reached the top, and bringing it to a stop in front of his parents.

Mother ran over. "Luke, you frightened me!" She looked down and noticed the driver for the first time. He was covered with blood from a large cut at his hairline. "Who is this?"

"I don't know," Luke said. "The speeder-" He got out, and Father helped him pull the man from the driver's seat. "It was going to crash. I had to do something about it."

"You did well," Father said calmly, not looking at him. "Exceptionally well."

They put the man down gently, laying him carefully on the warm rock of the lookout. Mother knelt beside him and touched his face.

The eyes, surrounded by streaks of blood, fluttered open. At first he looked confused, then he caught sight of Mother. He grabbed her wrist. "Your Majesty," he gasped.

Father was starting to reach for the man's hand, to remove it, but Mother shook her head minutely. "What is it?" she asked. "You've made it to me. What has troubled you?"

"Majesty... Mos Eisley... Rebels."

"We are aware of the situation," Father told him. "We are -"

The man was shaking his head, and a gout of blood seemed to erupt from his nose. It soaked into Mother's dress, where it simply looked like a deep shadow. "Rebels... allied with... " A cough. "Tusken Raiders. Everywhere. Stealing. Looting." Those wide eyes squeezed shut. "Killing and... and worse... my daughter... "

Luke's mind reeled. The Tuskens? Why would Leia ally with them? What did she even know about them? He hadn't ever found a reason to discuss them with her, and Father had told them nothing. He would not speak of Tatooine, even now that they stood here together. Mother had told them only that they feared Father, that he had dealt with them severely for their crimes in the past...

And Leia sees them as his victims only.

"Help us... " the stranger gasped. "Majesty... We need you... help... us... " He drew in a rattling breath and let it out. The next breath never came.

Luke looked up from the man's face. His parents were staring at one another over the body.

"Ani?" Mother said. To Luke's surprise, her voice didn't sound panicked or urgent. She sounded frightened, but it was a different kind of fear than he would expect - it was a deep, ancient fear, tinged with regret and grief. "Ani, are you... ?"

Father stood. "We have no army to send to them," he said.

"Ani... Leia doesn't know."

Father said nothing.

Luke reached forward and closed the stranger's eyes. "I don't think she intended this, Father. She doesn't know anything about the Tuskens."

Father still said nothing. He headed for the turbolift.

"Where are you going?" Mother called after him.

"To meditate," he said. "To go deeply enough into the Force that I can get past Leia's barriers. She has gone too far, Amidala. I'm going to find her."

"Ani... "

"I'm going to find her and bring her back."

The doors of the lift opened, and he disappeared into it. The sound of its passage was grating. Luke and Mother stood up and moved closer to one another instinctively.

Mother looked at Luke, her fear settling deeply into her face. That disturbing, distant look was back on her face, the deep unhappiness that Luke wanted to see banished forever. "Why is this happening?" she whispered. "Why did we ever come back to this awful place? It tears him apart."

Luke put his arms around her and held her. "We came to fix it, Mother. And we will."

"I know... " Her arms wrapped around his waist, and he felt her shoulders hitch once in a quiet sob. "Oh, Luke. What a mess this all is. I want it to be yesterday. Or last week. Or twenty-five years ago. I don't want this. I never wanted this."

"I know that, Mother. You want to do something good. The Rebellion is trying to stop you. I don't know why. But they're not going to do it. We'll stop them."

She nodded and stood back, the light struggling to come back to her features as she spoke. "Yes. We will. We will stop them, and we will establish control of this hellish world once and for all. I will turn Tatooine into a garden and those monsters... " She shuddered. "We'll succeed, Luke. But I want it to be yesterday again. I want none of this to have happened."

"I know, Mother. I know."

Mother crossed her arms over her chest and looked out across the desert again. "She really doesn't know what she's done, does she?"

"No. She knows Father thinks of them as enemies. And she thinks that means they'll be friends of the Rebellion. At least that's as close as I can guess."

"It's probably true." She sighed deeply, and spoke to the sands. "They were his first true hate, just as I was his first love. Oh, Leia... what have you done? What have you let loose?"


She looked over her shoulder. "He won't hurt her, will he? Not even over this?"

It took a moment for Luke to understand what she was asking of him, then he nodded. He reached into the Force to find Father's presence, to look into it as he lowered himself into meditation. It wasn't always safe, but this time Father seemed to be paying no attention to the intrusion.

There was anger at Leia of course, and anger at the Tuskens. There was a deep wellspring of frustration. But the hate of which Mother spoke was very deeply buried, barely registering under the larger feeling that emanated from it and enveloped everything within itself. And it was the last feeling Luke had ever expected to pick up from his father.

"He's terrified," he said, not able to stop the wonder in his voice. "He's not going to hurt her. He's scared for her."

But Mother didn't even seem surprised. She just nodded, as if nothing could have been more predictable. "I am too," she said.

Leia reached her speederbike, and immediately mounted it and took off. She stayed close to the mesa, hugging it around the bend, and hoping she blended in enough to make her hard to spot. She wondered how long it would take Imperial security - or just an officer that happened to walk by - to see what she had done to that room.

An image of its destruction sprung up in her mind, and Leia quashed it. She needed to focus on Alpha Squadron's battle now.

She brought her speeder up high again - nearly as high as it had been when she was scouting the headquarters - and flew around the base, heading for the side where the Rebels were engaging the Imperial troops. She would need to see if the fight should be continued. She hoped to get there and find that they had already gone through the vehicles and transports and had taken out the weapons caches, and they could simply leave.

Nothing like wishful thinking, Leia supposed. But even if everything had gone well, she still worried that things might become...needlessly complicated when she tried to get her squadron to withdraw. There was always the confusion of battle, which made giving and following orders difficult...

But that wouldn't be the problem, and she knew it.

Alpha Squadron was so close to the Empress they could taste it, they could reach out and grab it. Grab what they thought would be the ultimate victory for the Rebellion. And they were eager - too eager - to give it a try.

Leia shivered against a tendril of fear that snaked its way around her heart. She would just have to trust her people.

Or, she'd have to get back to the battle a little faster.

She was almost there now, and from her vantage point, could see now see the fighting and make out some members of Alpha Squadron. She could clearly see the troops and guards that were defending the headquarters. And they -

"Leia? Leia, this is Han, come in!"

His voice took her completely by surprise, and her speeder wobbled momentarily. She pulled out her comlink and stared at the little red light shining back at her. She had silenced it - she couldn't imagine that she would have been foolish enough to try and infiltrate the base without doing so - but Han had used his codes to override that command. She quickly undid the silencer and answered the hail.

"Han! What are you doing? If you had been yelling into my comm like this a minute ago, every guard in the base would have known I was there. I put it to silent -"

"I'm sorry, Leia, I know it was a risk. Are you safe? Where are you? Did you get the array?"

Leia eased her bike to a stop, hovering above and just behind the fighting below. She could see the smoke of destroyed Imperial vehicles...the battle seemed to be going well, even though they hadn't been able to move on to the arsenal yet. "Yes, all their communications are down, and they won't be getting them back any time soon. I just left the array. Alpha Squadron looks like they're doing all right and I was about to -"

"Look, sweetheart, I'm sorry, but we've got some major problems happening. That's why I overrode your silent command."

"What?" she asked sharply. "Han, what is it? Are you all right? What's happening in Mos Espa?"

"It's not me. We're fine, and we've pretty much got the city under control right now. It's Lando. I checked in with him a minute ago. Leia, things are bad in Mos Eisley. Real bad, and I think they're only going to get worse. The Tuskens showed up, and they are out of control. Lando didn't know what to do - he told me to get you and get your orders. I haven't heard from him since."

The fear that snaked through Leia suddenly grew into a fist and grabbed her heart fiercely. "What...what are they doing? What's happened?"

"He didn't have much time to explain..."

"What did he say? What did you hear?"

She listened to Han sigh. "He said all hell had broken loose after the Tuskens arrived. That they were raiding shops, and killing people...he told me to get you right away. Then he had to go." He stopped, but Leia could tell he wasn't finished. She waited. "I could hear the fighting and everything else going on in the background. It sounded ugly, Leia. And..."

"And what?"

"I don't think I've heard Lando sound like that before. I don't think I can describe it to you. You didn't hear him."

Leia swallowed hard. "I can hear it in your voice now, Han," she said quietly. "Was there...was there anything else? Have you heard anything more?"

"Not much," Han said flatly. "The settlers aren't making things any easier for them, and they still have the Imperials to deal with. I've got people trying to stay in contact with Gamma Squadron, but they're too busy fighting to keep us up to speed."

A pause. "We heard the stories, Leia. We can guess what those Raiders are doing to the settlement."

But Leia didn't need to guess. She was suddenly pulled out of her conversation with Han and into the mists and currents of what was happening in Mos Eisley, and visions came to her forcefully.

The sand was everywhere. Kicked up, blasted up, whipping all around in a storm that threatened to blind her. Yet, Leia could feel what she couldn't make out clearly.

Terror, violence, and death.

She knew there were people in the settlement who were ready to fight and were capable of holding their own against anyone. And they were doing so. It wasn't their fear that Leia was suffering through.

The fear was from the slaves, many of whom had lived their entire lives with no means of self-defense, so they wouldn't be able to challenge their owners. It was from the poor city dwellers, who had only ever known their slums, too busy trying to eke out an existence to have ever spared time worrying about preparing for some outside attack. It was from the shopkeepers, who were trying their best, and who had learned to protect their wares from thieves and smugglers, but were caught unprepared for the viciousness of Raiders who normally didn't venture in far enough to bother the businesses in town.

The fathers and husbands. The women and children.

The destruction.

Leia hoped desperately that not all of these images had occurred - that she still had a chance to stop some of it from happening.

"Leia! Are you there!"

She pulled out of her vision completely - it had only take a couple of seconds - and answered him.

"I'm here. Try to get back through to Lando. I'm sure he's doing what he can to protect the civilians. Tell him to keep doing that until I get there."

"Until you get there?"


"Leia, Alpha Squadron needs you at Headquarters. You can't just leave them in the middle of a battle."

"They're doing fine here, Han -"

"They need your direction. What are they supposed to do if they realize they've been left with no one to command them -"

"They have their orders," she said. "And besides, they're attacking a fully armed and protected military base in open battle. There's no comparison. No matter what happens here, the real trouble is in Mos Eisley. I have to fix this, Han."

"Look, I'm sending people out to help Lando now." Han's voice was sharp. "Mos Espa's under control, we can spare the people. Stay where you are."

"Send your people, I'll need the help. Why are you so against me going?"

"Because you can't fix this on your own, and don't tell me that's not what you're thinking you're going to do. You're out of your mind to even consider it."

"I created this problem on my own," she replied, "and everything we've done on Tatooine is in jeopardy because of it. Besides, having a Jedi there has got to make a difference."

"Leia -"

"Get Lando and tell him I'm coming, Han. Leia out." She switched him off, took a deep breath, and then switched over to Alpha Squadron's channel. Commander Athuli answered.

"Your Highness?"

"Commander, a situation has arisen and I'm needed elsewhere. What is the situation down there?"

"We've hit most of the ships and transports they had stationed here. We're moving on to their ammunitions. We're gaining the upper hand."

"Good. Hit their weapons, and then get out of there as ordered. Check in with Han once you do that."

"But we could -"

"Commander, those are your orders. I trust you as my officer to follow them. Once you've destroyed your intended targets, gather your people and leave. Is that understood?"

"...Yes Ma'am. Athuli out."

With that, Leia immediately pushed her bike to its top speed - pushed it beyond the top speed. She blazed a path directly toward Mos Eisley.

The communications array was not merely disabled; it was utterly destroyed. Its circuits were melted and its console fused. Vader surveyed it by long habit for usable parts. He found none. Leia had aimed the destruction at him personally - it was deliberately damaged in a manner that no amount of mechanical tinkering would repair.

Leia, what have you done?

Thoughts of the past tried to flood his mind. Images. Sounds. Smells.

I will come back and free you, Mom, I promise.

(Don't look back. )

Dreams pass in time.

(Don't look back. )

You had another nightmare last night.

(Don't look back. )

It was just before dawn...

Mom. Her voice, as clear as it had been so long ago: Don't look back.

A woman bound to crossed wooden stakes, blood from some unseen wound making her face a death mask. The pressure of more blood seeping under her flesh, making her feel almost rigid. The smell of the tent. The warm touch of her hand on his face.

And then the fire in his mind, and the screams. The screams never completely left him. Even when his victims were silent - as they usually were now, trying to die with dignity - he heard the echoes of those ancient screams, felt the horrible energy come into him, the desire to punish, to destroy, to hurt. That shame would come later was something he had come to accept as a fact of his life, the natural consequence of exacting... justice? Vengeance? Was there a difference, really?

(Don't look back. )

But he needed to look back. He needed to look back because Leia had brought the nightmare forward, and he had to find her. This time, he would find her before she was tied to the crossed wood rack and beaten until her own blood turned against her. She would answer for this outrage - it was far beyond what he was willing to indulge - but he would find her first, and they would have a long conversation, about a great many things.

The sound of metal crushing metal brought him out of his angry reverie, and he realized that he'd crumpled a small component of the communications array in the palm of his right hand. Obi-Wan would undoubtedly tell him that he was allowing his anger to cloud his judgment, and that clouding his judgment would only impede his progress...

It would be true, Anakin...

Vader looked up sharply, but the voice was just a memory, like the others. Obi-Wan might come to lecture him about Amidala's political affiliations, but he would surely not trouble himself over the minor matter of Leia's safety, certainly not with the sure knowledge that his new pet Jedi would be immediately returned to the Empire and her training with her father.

Still, the memory was right. Anger at Leia and ancient screams would not help meditation, would not help him find her.

He let the smoke from the destruction swirl around him, closing off the vision through the eyeguards in his mask. Behind the eyeguards, he closed his natural eyes as well, though their input in this state was negligible. It took effort to get past the anger and past... past that which lay beyond the anger... but he forced his mind to cool, and finally, beaten into submission, his instinct bowed to his conscious will.

Vader reached for the Force, took hold of it, let it take hold of him.

At first, all he could feel was the pain of the battle at the motor pool - men and women dying as laser burns cut through their hearts, seared their lungs, filled their bodies with fire. There was anger, rage at their loss, at the Empire, at Amidala herself, though their reasons were no more than nebulous clouds of ideology. And terror as they looked up into the alien sky, understanding that this was for real...

He pulled himself away from the energy of the fighting, letting its pain pass through him. He had been in battles, many battles - if you couldn't shut out the pain and terror, you couldn't function. And if you couldn't function, the battle would go on forever.

He went deeper. Leia flickered at the edge of his consciousness, in motion, trying to hide.

Sands shifting, blowing, stinging his face/her face. The suns are too hot. The city is too far.

She became aware of him, and he was pushed back into himself with the strength of a desert whirlwind.

The communications room came back into view for a short moment, then Vader pushed himself back down to a meditative state. She was traveling, rushing to one of the cities. Was it to Mos Eisley itself, into the arms of the Tuskens? Or was it to Mos Espa or Bestine? He couldn't waste time choosing the wrong route.

Sand, again.

Swirling in clouds that reached to the sky, hiding and revealing like a veil blown in the wind.

A figure on a road, her arms wrapped around her waist, watching as he walks away.

No, as he comes to her. He is coming home.

Then she turns away and disappears behind the sand.

Vader follows her.

Shifting sand, shadows. Leia - or is it Mom? - appears in a canyon, on a hilltop, going down into--

"No," Vader whispered, unaware that he was speaking aloud.

The sands part, and the small village of tents comes into view. Vader

(I am Anakin, I am a person and my name is Anakin)

goes down after her, unable to stop his motion. He comes close to her.

She turns.

It is Leia, but it is also Shmi Skywalker. He can tell the difference, but the woman before him is both mother and daughter. Her face changes depending on the angle of the sun.

And she is bleeding. A red mask of blood covers her, and her wrists are raw from binding that has not occurred yet.

"This is my fault," she says as Leia. "And I must go and try to repair the damage. I'll go to them. Surely they will see reason."

Vader tries to speak, but finds himself silenced.

"The people in Mos Eisley," the Woman says as Mom, in her soft, lilting accent. "Ani, no one is helping them. She has to go. You know she won't forsake them."


Vader opened his eyes. The smoke had cleared and his eyeguard vision enhancers were unimpaired. Luke was standing beside him, Amidala at his shoulder.

"She is alone," he said. "Alone and planning to speak to the Tusken chief. I believe they are camped on the rise over Mos Eisley. If I leave immediately, I can arrive before she does. She is on a speederbike."

"I'm going with you," Luke said. "I'll get two of our speeders ready, the modified ones and -"


"Father, I'm capable of fighting Tuskens. I grew up on a farm on the edge of the Wastes. I -"

"I said no, Luke. I say it as your father, as your Master, and as your superior officer. You will stay here and guard your mother."

"Father -"

"Please, Luke," Amidala said, her hand grasping frantically at the boy's shoulder. "Please do as your father asks. Please. I trust you to allow nothing to happen to me, and I... Oh, Luke, I can't stand the thought of all of you being away from me again. Don't leave me alone."

Luke's jaw tightened. Amidala knew him well, and had chosen the argument he never countered. But he was taking their position as an insult, a lack of faith.

Vader stood. "I trust you, my son," he said. "Do not assume otherwise. But your mother requires protection here. I must retrieve your sister, and... " He stopped, unsure how he'd planned to end the sentence. "You will remain at headquarters," he said. "Do not argue with me."

He suddenly felt Luke's mind on his own, tasting his emotional state, seeing what his motives were. It was a discomforting sensation and Vader usually discouraged it as strongly as he could, but whatever Luke had sensed there - and Vader was never quite sure what Luke believed he was sensing - made him take a step back and bow graciously.

Luke nodded, a puzzled but almost warm look in his eyes. "As you wish, Father."

"My good son," Amidala said, and squeezed his hand.

Vader looked at them together, at their fine-featured faces and broad mouths. They were lovely.

It was not a time to share that sentiment. Instead, he nodded briefly to Luke, ran a finger down Amidala's cheek (she caught it on her lips to press a kiss against it), and ran for the motor pool.

The battle was beginning to wind down, but it was hard to determine who had won at this point. Many vehicles lay in ruins, but the main entrances hadn't been breached. Somehow, a modified speeder had remained, improbably sitting in the midst of a scrap pile that had once been six others. Vader jumped into it, hit the acceleration keys, and steered off toward Mos Eisley.

Part 4

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