Her cell was too cold and too bright and far too sterile. But it wasn’t silent. No, there were sound-damping panels installed in all the walls and the floor, she was sure, but even they weren’t enough to drown out the constant low hum of the giant space station that enclosed her.
Leia curled her knees against her chest and shivered.
You weren’t on any mercy mission this time, Vader had said, and the message had been clear. This time, he couldn’t afford to show her mercy. This time, there could be no excuse for letting her go.
She hoped that Artoo had escaped. She had to believe he had. He was their only hope.
The door to her cell slid open with a sudden hiss, and Leia sat up sharply, her spine straightening and her eyes blazing with fire. Until they caught on the droid.
Darth Vader stood there in the doorway, a massive black shape against the stark white and chrome of her world, and beside him hovered a shape out of nightmares. It was all blinking lights and humming servos and long, sharp needles and blades, and even given everything she knew about the Empire, Leia hadn’t really believed this thing existed.
“And now, Your Highness,” Vader said, “we will discuss the location of your hidden Rebel base.”
Leia sucked in a sharp, shallow breath. She stared up at his expressionless mask, but her eyes kept flicking back to the torture droid. For the first time in a long time, she was afraid of him.
Vader stepped through the door, and it snapped closed behind him, shutting the guards outside. Leia could feel the soundproofing descend over the room like a sudden change in air pressure; it made her ears pop.
Vader gestured sharply, and the tiny red lights that indicated cameras around her cell winked out. Another slashing motion of his hand, and the droid seemed to droop, its lights dimming and its terrible arms retracting. It settled to rest just beside the door, and didn’t move again.
“Is the information secure?” Vader asked, and Leia tore her eyes away from the droid and remembered that this was Ekkreth, and that she didn’t have to fear him.
“Yes,” she said, though her voice sounded much shakier than she’d meant it to. She swallowed, her eyes darting around the room. “Won’t they notice you’ve turned off the cameras?”
“That is the standard procedure for this type of interrogation,” Vader said without inflection.
Leia shuddered. “Oh,” she said, her voice very small. She tried not to think about how he knew that, or how many other times he must have engaged in these “interrogations,” or… She tried not to think about it.
For a moment, everything was silent. And then, to her great surprise, Vader bent with a creaking of leather and a faint whirring of gears and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her. His broad shape and the cloak puddling behind him completely obscured the droid from her view.
“This is hardly an ideal circumstance,” he said, and the edge of frustration in his voice was so purely Ekkreth that Leia looked up and let her eyes meet his mask again.
She tried for a smile. It was little and broken but it was something. “No,” she said wryly. “I’d say it’s quite far from ideal.” She huffed out a laugh entirely devoid of humor. “But yes, the information is secure.”
Ekkreth tilted his head in silent question.
“I gave it to Artoo,” Leia told him. “Just like you said. And he escaped.” She didn’t want to voice her next question, but she had to know. “Unless your men recaptured him?”
“No,” said Ekkreth, sounding distinctly pleased. “They have not. And will not, I think. My troops are not known for their creativity.”
That startled a laugh out of Leia. “At least you know your people,” she snorted. “I’ve always wondered how you put up with them.”
“Their incompetence is useful to me,” Ekkreth said dryly from his place on the floor.
She wanted to ask him about that. The idea of Darth Vader plopping down to sit on the floor like a child was ludicrous. It was impossible to be afraid of him like this.
Which was of course the point. And Leia couldn’t ask about it, because that would mean acknowledging she had been afraid. That for the first time in years, she’d looked at him and seen not Ekkreth, but Vader.
So instead she swallowed thickly and pushed the question away. And asked another which was even more devastating. “What do we do now?”
Ekkreth was silent for a startlingly long time. Finally he sighed, a rush of air through the respirator, and admitted, “I am…still considering the problem. I haven’t yet found a way to secure your release.”
And you won’t be able to, Leia thought. Not this time.
You are focusing on the negative, said Ekkreth’s voice in her mind, and Leia jumped. You are also, he added dryly, entirely failing to shield your thoughts.
With a scowl Leia slammed her shields down and glared at him where he still sat on the floor, like some absurd parody of an innocent child. “That was completely unfair,” she snapped.
Ekkreth shrugged, entirely unapologetic. “You will find, Your Highness, that your enemies will rarely treat you fairly. You are unwise to lower your defenses.”
Leia was annoyed enough that she answered without thinking. “I don’t lower them around my enemies. Just you.”
The mechanized breathing of Ekkreth’s respirator seemed to stutter, and when it kicked in again it was high and sharp.
Leia’s annoyance drained away. There was something strange in his posture, something almost vulnerable to the set of his shoulders, and she realized that it was possible he genuinely hadn’t known. She’d never actually said it aloud before.
“I trust you, you know,” she told him. “You’re my teacher. And besides, we’re in this together.”
“That,” said Ekkreth darkly, “is precisely the problem. Tarkin has no intention to release you for any reason, and I’m afraid your diplomatic immunity has been…revoked. And the Senate no longer exists to protest.”
Leia sighed. “I suppose I should be angry about that,” she said. “But I’m honestly surprised he didn’t dissolve the Senate years ago. And it’s not as though we were doing anything of consequence, anyway.” She looked down, her fingers fiddling with the edge of her left sleeve, steeling her courage for what had to be said. She swallowed. “But I meant what I said, Ekkreth,” she whispered. “I don’t think it’s going to be possible this time. I’m a convicted Rebel spy, and you’re not in command here. You can’t save me this time. But I – if I have to, for the Rebellion – I’m not afraid to die.”
Ekkreth stood abruptly at that, his black cloak swirling and snapping around him, and his hand slashed the air in fury. “No,” he snarled. “That is not an option. I will slaughter everyone on this station before I allow that to happen.”
Leia gaped at him. She’d never seen him so violently enraged. It should have been terrifying, and it was, but it was also…strangely comforting. The information was secure with Artoo, and Leia knew she could trust the little droid to see it safely to Alderaan. Her part was done. She wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary any more. Certainly not worth risking his cover for. But he hadn’t even seemed to think about it.
“Well,” she said weakly. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, then.” It was wholly inadequate, but she didn’t know what else to say. So she opened her shields, just enough to let him feel her gratitude, and then she changed the subject. “Why are you taking orders from Moff Sleemo, anyway?”
She watched as some of the rage drained out of him, but not all. “It was…necessary,” he said flatly.
“I have never been closely involved in the construction of this technological terror,” Ekkreth said, his hands moving in a sweeping gesture around the tiny cell. “And my distaste is well-known to the Emperor. He never would have believed a sudden interest on my part. So I did what I had to do.”
Leia thought about that. She turned his words over in her mind and listened to all the things he hadn’t said. And when it came to her, she stared at him incredulously. “So you got yourself demoted?”
“It was necessary to gain access to the plans,” Ekkreth said again.
“Yes but,” Leia spluttered. “What could you possibly have done to anger the Emperor enough that he made you answerable to Tarkin?”
Ekkreth only looked at her, and for a moment she thought he wouldn’t answer. But at last he said, “The Emperor has recently had word of a Rebel spy who uses the handle Ekkreth. I was tasked with eliminating this operative, and my results were…less than successful. The Emperor was most displeased.”
Leia stared at him. And then she burst out laughing.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been funny. She knew, too well, what the Emperor’s displeasure meant for Ekkreth. She’d even seen the aftermath – only twice, but it wasn’t something she would ever forget. There was a part of her that always feared he’d go to one of his regular meetings with the Emperor and just never come back.
But it was funny, at least partly for that very reason. It was like a subtle revenge, one only she and Ekkreth could really appreciate, but maybe all the more satisfying for that. (Though Leia could admit that she cherished the secret hope that someday, when the Empire was crumbling around him and they’d thoroughly defeated him, she would be able to tell Palpatine, at great length, just how they’d tricked him.)
“And now you’re reporting to Tarkin,” she said when her laughter had died. Her mouth twisted in disgust. “I’m honestly not sure if that’s better or worse.”
“Tarkin is easier to lie to,” said Ekkreth. It wasn’t quite an answer. “But he is very like my Master in his overconfidence. They are both likely to overlook what seems unimportant.”
Especially unimportant people, Leia thought. Everyday citizens. Droids. And the people they thought broken. Like her, Leia supposed, because that must be what they thought Vader was doing in here.
And like Vader himself. Leia had watched him bow to the Emperor on his knees. She’d even heard him ask, more than once, “What is thy bidding, my Master?” She knew now why Vader held no official rank in the Imperial hierarchy.
And she knew that was Palpatine’s mistake. He’d broken Vader, and he thought that meant he controlled him.
Leia had never asked Ekkreth about before. But she knew enough to realize that there must have been a time when he was truly the Emperor’s servant. And she wondered sometimes what had changed. But she didn’t ask.
“What will you tell him about me?” Leia asked.
“I will tell him that your resistance to the mind probe is impressive,” Ekkreth said wryly. “You have been practicing, I hope?”
Leia checked her shields again before nodding. And only just in time, too. Almost before she was ready, she felt Ekkreth’s mind, beating against hers like a wild mountain storm against an old nerfherder’s hut. Leia ground her teeth and doubled down, imagining her mind as a solid wall of mountain rock.
After a moment that felt like years, Ekkreth withdrew. “Impressive,” he said, almost warmly.
Leia shrugged, trying and failing to look modest. “I told you I’d been practicing.”
He tilted his head in that exaggerated motion Leia had come to understand meant he was debating whether or not to teach her something new.
“What is it?” she prodded.
“Tell me,” Ekkreth said slowly, “why you chose to use that technique. You were successful in keeping me from discovering your secrets, but you were not able to keep me from seeing that you have secrets.”
“I know,” Leia said. “But you already knew that I was keeping something from you.” Her mouth twisted. “And you already know what that something is: the location of the Rebel base. So I could have tried to hide that, but I’m not as strong with that technique, and I knew I could keep you out this way.”
Ekkreth nodded. “Good,” he said. “Your reasoning is sound.” But Leia could practically hear the grin in what he said next. “In that case, I believe we should use our time in practicing your weaker technique.”
Leia groaned. She’d known he was going to say that.
It was the third thing Ekkreth had taught her: a way of shielding her mind so completely that no one would even know she was shielding. He’d never said where he had learned the technique, but Leia was nearly certain it was something he’d developed himself. She didn’t know much about the Jedi, but what little her parents had told her left her certain that this definitely wasn’t a Jedi method.
“Your emotions can serve as a shield,” Ekkreth had told her. “If you are angry, or afraid, or nervous, use that. Let yourself feel it so completely that it fills your mind.” And then he’d looked at her, so sharply that she felt the intensity of his gaze even behind the mask. “Feel it, but do not let it control you. Think of it as a sandstorm in the desert. The storm rages and billows and consumes everything, but beneath, there is bedrock.”
“But how do I keep it from consuming me?” Leia had asked.
“You must remember that you are not the storm,” Ekkreth had said. “You are not the bedrock either. You are the desert.”
And then he’d opened his own mind to her, so she could see what he meant.
It was something Leia would never forget. She thought of it, now, as the first moment she’d really understood Ekkreth. And probably the moment she’d decided she trusted him completely.
Ekkreth’s mind was a roiling, seething chaos of rage and pain and strangling despair. For a moment, she’d thought she was drowning. But she had remembered, barely, his instructions, and she’d pushed against the gasping tide and dived deeper into his mind. The storm had ripped at her, and she’d thought more than once that she would lose herself if she stayed much longer. And then abruptly the sands had shifted, and she’d felt bedrock beneath her feet. And all around her was Ekkreth, his thoughts clear and varied but all kindled with a single purpose: the destruction of his Master.
Hello, Leia, he’d said, and she’d smiled and replied, Hello, Ekkreth, it’s nice to meet you.
Now Leia looked at him and squared her shoulders. “All right,” she told him. “I’m ready.”
She focused on her feelings. She was angry – angry at Tarkin, angry at her captivity, furious with the Emperor. But more than that, she was afraid. She’d seen the readouts of the battle station before she transferred them to Artoo. It was a monstrosity, and she knew both Tarkin and the Emperor too well to think they wouldn’t use it. And Ekkreth was here, but he was only one man, and he was not in command. She didn’t think he’d be able to stop it, if – no, when – Tarkin decided to test his technological terror.
And Leia didn’t know what would happen to her, either. In spite of Ekkreth’s insistence that he would not permit her to die, she couldn’t see any way out of this for her. And she didn’t want to die.
And she’d been afraid of him, too. She didn’t like that fact, and especially didn’t like the fact that Ekkreth must know. But she couldn’t deny it. And it would do her no good to try. All emotions could be useful. He’d taught her that. It was ignoring them, or trying to deny them, that was dangerous.
So Leia took her fear and shaped it and learned it and let it consume her mind. But only on the surface. Beneath, she was calm and alert.
Even so, he almost got past her before she noticed. She’d expected something like his last attack, all bruising blunt force, and she’d forgotten that Ekkreth could be incredibly subtle, when it suited him.
He was looking for places where her emotions didn’t hold, where they were too thin or too intentional to seem natural. He’d told her once, when he’d first taught her this technique, that it worked best if she used strong emotions she was genuinely feeling.
He’d said that just after she came out of the storm of his mind. And then he’d been surprised when she’d crafted her first emotional shield out of equal parts anger and sadness.
Now her shield was mainly one of fear, but she’d used enough stubbornness and determination, and even a bit of her abiding disgust for Tarkin, to seem completely natural. She didn’t bother trying to hide her hatred for the Empire – that was well known now, not only to Ekkreth but to everyone on this station, and even if it hadn’t been, she was feeling it far too strongly to disguise it.
Leia didn’t know how long she held out. But she knew the exact moment that Ekkreth got past her emotional shield. She felt his amusement at her thoughts of Tarkin, and then his approval, and a warm rush of something almost like pride and maybe even affection.
Impressive indeed, Ekkreth said.
Leia gave him a mock scowl. Apparently not impressive enough, she thought. You got through.
True, he said. But it was quite difficult, and had I not already been familiar with this technique, I would not have thought you were hiding anything.
She couldn’t help a rush of pride at his praise, and maybe that was what made her ask, Think I’m ready to face the Emperor?
She regretted it the instant the thought crossed her mind, but she couldn’t take it back. She felt Ekkreth recoil, and a moment later he was gone from her mind entirely.
“No,” he said aloud. “That is a test we must hope you never have to face.”
But you do it all the time, she thought, a little sullenly.
She must have been projecting, because Ekkreth said, almost gently, “He doesn’t see me, Leia. He claimed me long ago and my shield holds because it shows him what he expects to see. With you, he will expect defiance. From me he expects only obedience. That makes it…easier.”
Easier, Leia thought, and was surprised to discover she was still capable of hating Palpatine even more.
She didn’t know how to answer that, and a moment later her chance passed when his comlink beeped. Ekkreth didn’t even attempt to hide his frustration.
“That would be my taskmaster,” he said with an audible sneer. “He’ll expect you to have broken by now, I suppose.”
Leia shivered. She wondered if most people would have already broken by this point. She wondered if she could have held out, if she could still, if they sent another interrogator.
Ekkreth had moved to collect the inactive droid, but he turned back to her now. “No one else will come for you,” he said. “I’ve given clear instructions that you are only to be questioned by me. And Tarkin will be reluctant to execute you without gaining any information first. We can buy some time that way.”
It wouldn’t be enough, Leia knew. But she only nodded.
Ekkreth moved to the door and activated the droid. She knew it was necessary. There would be no good explanation for it being powered down. But she still shuddered at the sight of the needles.
“Be ready,” he said. “You will not die here.”
Be ready for what? she wanted to ask, but neither of them could know that. Instead, she nodded. “I’ll be ready.”
And then she slumped back against the gleaming metal bunk of her cell, doing her best to look woozy and in pain. It must have been a decent act, because a moment later she heard the door snap open, and then the swish of Vader’s departing cloak, and then the door had closed again and she was alone.