“You may fire when ready.”
Tarkin’s voice was perfectly level, even indifferent, as he gave the order. The station’s crew responded silently and efficiently. None of them so much as looked at her.
Leia stood rooted, the thud of her pulse dragging out, her ears ringing with blood. Through the viewport, Alderaan glimmered like a blue-green gem, shining and far-off in the deep stillness of space. She couldn’t breathe. The air was on fire.
Ekkreth’s hand was still on her shoulder, heavy with the dead weight of a corpse.
“What?” Leia gasped.
Tarkin said something, some twisted and mocking thing full of laughter, but Leia barely registered it. Her eyes were fixed on that fragile gleam of blue and green and white.
Ekkreth’s hand tightened on her shoulder, his fingers digging almost painfully into her flesh. Leia hardly felt it.
“Fire,” said Tarkin.
Leia surged forward, some unthinking cry escaping her lips – and Vader’s hand caught and held her, pulled her close against his chest and out of reach of Tarkin.
She struggled desperately, shook and snarled and twisted, but Vader’s grip never wavered, and she was held fast.
Dakkalu, Leia. The words echoed distantly in her mind, so much meaningless babble, while beyond the viewport, bright energy gathered, formed a point, and rushed out into the blackness of space.
And then it was over. Everything was. In a single soundless instant. Everything Leia knew and loved, her parents, her friends, her home, her city, her people, her world. A few superheated shards of molten core danced like sparks across the void and then winked out, and only blackness remained.
Pain ripped through her. She was agony and terror and despair, her mind full of last desperate cries echoed back into emptiness. She staggered, screaming and wordless, but Ekkreth’s hand on her shoulder was like a vise. It was all that kept her standing upright.
The sound of his breathing was suddenly loud in her ears, a slow, steady push and pull of air, perfectly regulated even though she knew he was not. She could feel the turmoil in herself mirrored in him: the aftershocks of crushing pain and final terror, the rending of space itself.
The Force around them raged. Leia felt it like the first blast of a mountain thunderstorm. It would rip them apart.
Just like Alderaan.
Beyond the viewport now there was a terrible nothing. If she closed her eyes, she could still see Alderaan hanging there.
Leia didn’t close her eyes. Instead she turned them on Tarkin.
He was smirking at her, laughter in his eyes and twisting his brow. Leia burned.
She could feel him in her mind – feel his pulse and the flow of blood through his veins and air through his lungs. Feel the muscles of his throat, his larynx. She could –
Dakkalu, Leia, she heard again.
What? she thought at Ekkreth, twisting viciously once more, and once more held just as inescapably. Let me go! Let me GO! I have to – Let me –
Her thoughts broke apart, and in the ruin of her mental landscape she heard Ekkreth say, Strength now, Leia.
In that moment she nearly hated him. Let me go, she snarled. I can’t let him – he has to pay. He has to. I won’t let him –
No, said Ekkreth. His mental voice was flat and dead. No, Leia. Not now.
How dare you! You – you saw what he – you felt it too – Ekkreth why? She couldn’t order her own thoughts. They were fragmented and desperate, meaningless. She didn’t know what to do. Alderaan was – was –
Strength now. Ekkreth’s voice broke through the clamor of her mind. And soon, vengeance.
Leia’s thoughts stilled. Vengeance.
She was glad he hadn’t said justice. There could be no justice for this.
In the darkest recesses of her mind, the world shattered and blew away, so much dust drifting on interstellar winds. The screams echoed still in her ears, billions of voices crying out in sudden panic and falling into silence. The darkness ate them.
And Leia felt that same darkness gnawing at her. It was oblivion, a final end, and she knew that she could follow it, let it swallow her just as it had her world. A part of her even wanted to. But –
Vengeance. Ekkreth’s word filled her, lighting that terrible void with a blaze of sudden fire.
Ekkreth was darkness too, but darkness of another sort, not void but a surfeit of gravity, like the heart of a black hole. His presence at her back was strong and unbowed. He wouldn’t let her fall.
She wasn’t sure how he was still standing himself – she was only half-trained, and the blast of pain and destruction that still reverberated in the Force had nearly destroyed her. Ekkreth must have felt it, too.
He must have. And he must understand what Leia did now.
She imagined a fist around Tarkin’s neck. Or better, her own two hands, thumbs pressed against the hollow of his throat.
If you act now, we will both be destroyed. Ekkreth’s thoughts broke into her own mercilessly. And this station will remain. And it will be used again, if not by Tarkin then by another of Depur’s agents. We cannot allow that.
Leia felt Tarkin’s throat, closed her mental grip around it, and squeezed, just for a moment. She watched his hand reach up to tug uncomfortably at his collar. She watched his eyes begin to cloud over. She watched as his gaze moved from her to Vader.
And then she let him go.
She felt Ekkreth’s sense of relief, an emotion he must have wanted her to feel, because it nearly flooded the link between them. The Rebellion needs you, Leia, he said. His mental voice was shockingly warm. You must live. We will find a way to get you off this station, and you will analyze the plans and find a weakness, and you will destroy it, and Tarkin with it. And Alderaan will be avenged.
Leia kept her eyes trained on Tarkin, who was still looking with sharp suspicion at Vader.
It wasn’t enough. But it was all she had.
Yes, she thought. It will.
“Vader,” Tarkin snapped at last. “Escort the Princess back to her cell. We want her to be well-rested for our performance at Dantooine.”
“As you wish,” Ekkreth said, turning more sharply than was strictly acceptable and herding Leia off of the bridge almost violently.
When they were far from Tarkin and the corridors around them were mostly deserted, Ekkreth thought, Be attentive, Leia. We cannot know when the chance will come, but come it will. Of that I am certain. His masked face turned sharply, and she could feel his eyes glaring down at her. Whatever follows, you will not die here. That I promise you.
Leia suppressed a shiver. Ekkreth had told her once that he did not make promises – not unless he was absolutely certain he could keep them.
I know, she thought. Tarkin will die, and his Death Star with him. But we’re going to live. Both of us.
Ekkreth nodded his approval. But she noticed that this time he made no promise.
He brought her the rest of the way to her cell in silence and handed her over to the two guards without a word. Leia stretched out with the Force and found his presence strangely muted. He was open to her, or as open as he ever was, but he didn’t feel fully there. And he must have felt her curiosity – she wasn’t exactly being subtle – but he gave no indication that he felt her presence in his mind at all.
“No one is to enter the prisoner’s cell unless I am present,” Ekkreth snapped at the guards, who seemed to be trying to straighten their backs to an impossible degree. “Is that understood?”
“Yes, Lord Vader!” they chorused together.
Ekkreth squeezed her shoulder once, in what must have looked like a rough show of force to the guards, and shoved her into the cell. Then he turned in a swirl of black and stalked away without a backward glance.
Leia bit her lip and held her tongue and her thoughts until the door slid closed and she was once more alone in her cell.
Then the images came, and the screaming, and there was nothing at all she could do to stop them. She curled herself into a ball and let the darkness consume her.
Anakin didn’t truly allow himself to think until he reached his medical pod.
The thing was years old, probably begun at the same time as all the other residential areas on the station, and not a recent addition at all. And of course the Emperor had known he would be able to tell the difference. But he’d told Vader it was a special accommodation anyway, recently installed for his comfort, as though he should be grateful that he was offered such a luxury even after receiving a demotion.
As indignities went, it was minor. Anakin had barely been able to summon the energy to pretend at a gratitude that covered over seething resentment. That was what Master expected, and what he wanted to see. Anakin doubted he’d have been satisfied with the truth: that his apprentice had stopped caring about his accommodations years ago. All that was required was that his body function – at least until his task was done. After that, it would hardly matter.
And the medical pod was functional, if painful. Anakin had learned to live with pain. There were times he even welcomed it. Physical pain could be a helpful distraction. He could focus his mind on the pain rather than – rather than –
It wasn’t enough. He made it fully into his chambers, though not to the pod itself, before he collapsed.
The wall in his mind crumbled like so much sand, and crushing agony roared over it, drowning and rending and stabbing. The screams wouldn’t end. There were billions of voices, and he heard them all.
Anakin didn’t realize he was screaming himself until Kadee appeared, buzzing rapidly from side to side in agitation. “Anakin,” she said. “What’s happened? How are you hurt?”
He didn’t know if he answered her or not. She must have moved him, though he didn’t remember it happening. But somehow he found the pod closing around him and the mask being lifted away. His breath came in quick, gasping sobs, searing like fire. He closed his eyes and the world exploded.
He might have stayed like that for minutes or hours, but eventually, he became aware of his com beeping. Tarkin was calling him to heel.
Maybe he should have let Leia do it. Maybe they could have managed –
But no. No matter what he’d told her before, even he couldn’t fight off the entire station. He would be killed before the task was done, and she would –
No. He’d decided a long time ago that Leia would not die. He wouldn’t allow it.
With one last gasp of pure, oxygenated air, he walled the pain away once more and pressed the release that let the mask snap back into place. Depur’s lieutenant was calling, and Darth Vader always obeyed his orders.
Time passed, though Leia didn’t know how much. Enough, she supposed, that Tarkin must have discovered her lie about Dantooine. She should have felt a rush of satisfaction at the thought, but everything in her was numbed and cold.
Leia, she heard Ekkreth’s mental voice, inserting itself between her slow-whirling thoughts.
She sent him a feeling of attentiveness, though she thought she could already guess what his message would be. If Tarkin had discovered her lie, he would see no reason to keep her alive anymore. She was a liability, and what little protection her information had afforded her would no longer be enough. Ekkreth could not save her this time.
It didn’t matter. She’d been ready to die for the Rebellion, and that was before – before –
You are going to be rescued, Ekkreth said.
For a long moment Leia simply blinked. What?
A freighter from Mos Eisley has been captured, but the crew has escaped. Their ship’s log shows that they abandoned the craft after takeoff, a transparent lie. There was the very faintest hint of amusement in his voice now as he added, My troops remain impressively consistent in their incompetence. Your Rebel friends are now roaming freely aboard this station.
Leia tried for a laugh. She almost succeeded. But he had to know this couldn’t work.
You can’t, Ekkreth, she said. It would be completely unbelievable for me to be rescued by a handful of operatives and successfully smuggled off the Death Star. And we need you. You can’t blow your cover for me. You have to –
Artoo is with them, Ekkreth said, and Leia froze.
You will escape, Ekkreth told her, as if there was no doubt, as if the future was already determined. And you will take Artoo with you.
But how will you explain this to Tarkin?
She felt a momentary but almost overpowering flash of vicious pleasure. I will tell him that I am letting you go.
What? That doesn’t –
And then quite suddenly Leia understood.
You’re going to track us, she thought. You’re going to bring the Death Star right to us.
She could feel Ekkreth’s fierce approval, and she imagined that somewhere behind that obscuring death-mask, he must be smiling. She didn’t think it would be a very nice smile.
You will have less than a day to analyze the plans and prepare your assault, Ekkreth said. Will you be ready?
We’ll be ready, Leia thought without hesitation. And you’ll be off this station when we are.
That is not –
No, Leia snapped at him. This is not optional. You’ll get yourself off the station, Ekkreth, I don’t care how you have to do it. I won’t lose you too. Promise me.
She felt a brief flash of annoyance, followed by an even briefer spark of admiration, and then Ekkreth said, I will do what I must, Leia. The destruction of this station is paramount. But I can promise that I will do my utmost to survive.
It was the best she would get, Leia knew. She’d never known him to make any promise that didn’t come with a caveat, not before today.
And Leia… This time Ekkreth sounded strangely hesitant.
When you get the chance, take it, he said. And don’t look back, Leia. Don’t look back.
And then he was gone.
Leia lay back on the hard metal bench in her cell and waited. She did not have long to wait.
Only moments later, the door slid aside, and the shortest stormtrooper she’d ever seen stood there, wavering in the doorway.
Leia had never been especially good at holding back her snide tongue, and she didn’t see a reason to start now. “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” she drawled.
“Huh?” said the trooper, his voice muffled and distorted by the mask. “Oh, the helmet.” Without a second thought he removed it, and Leia’s gaze met earnest blue eyes and an expression of absolute determination.
“I’m Luke Skywalker,” he said. “I’m here to rescue you.”
He was here with General Kenobi, and that meant he was with Artoo. Leia leapt to her feet. “Let’s go,” she said, already pushing past him into the cell block.
She knew it wouldn’t be easy. Ekkreth wanted them to escape, but he wanted it to look like an escape that they might reasonably believe they’d achieved on their own. And that meant stormtroopers.
But the end couldn’t be in doubt. He must already have planted the tracking device on Luke’s ship. They would escape, and then –
And then, vengeance.
Luke came to stand beside her, his blaster held at a nervous angle that almost made her want to snatch it from his hands. He gave her a tight smile, and in spite of everything, Leia found herself smiling in turn. They set off at a near run down the cell block.
Leia never looked back.