Into the Fire

Chapter 27

He’s alive…

Brutal hands gripped Leia’s upper arms, hauling her up the flight of grated metal steps, across the catwalk that bridged a series of massive pipelines, and down the other side. She barely registering the rough treatment, occasionally stumbling because her eyes burned from carbonite fumes and unshed tears. A reactivated Threepio was babbling in the background about modern carbon-freezing technology, but she could barely hear him through the ringing in her ears, the haunting echo from when the slab of carbonite containing Han Solo was tipped over and slammed onto the deck with a mighty crash. All she felt was numb. Numb as if a part of her was flash-frozen along with Han.

As they emerged back into the antiseptic white of the outer corridor, leaving the hellish steam and vapors behind, Leia hesitated and squinted up into the sudden wash of blinding sunlight.

…and in perfect hibernation.

This was worse than any nightmare because nightmares never lasted this long. She awoke from nightmares more or less back to normal, but this unbearable day stretched on and on, and she knew nothing would ever be the same again.

He’s alive….

One of the soldiers shoved her from behind with the broadside of his blaster rifle, hard enough that she staggered and almost collided into the Imperial commander ahead of her, his dark gray uniform like a wall blocking her path. With a curt gesture, he began leading the squad of stormtroopers down the hallway.

«Touch her again and I will rip your head off,» Chewbacca snarled at the offending trooper.

At some point Chewie must have attempted to repair Threepio, but he’d only managed to reattach the head and one arm before their captors had returned to take them to the carbon-freezing chamber. The golden droid was now gathered up in a cargo net slung over the Wookiee’s strong shoulders, getting a backwards view of the events unfolding. He fretted at the threat as Chewie tested the restraints around his brawny arms, muscles bulging beneath his long hair.

The fact that Calrissian was the only person who reacted to Chewbacca’s menace made it obvious that none of them understood the Wookiee. “Tell your men to ease off,” Lando warned while giving Leia a renewed look of concern.

She wished him death.

No, not death. Worse.

“I don’t need your sympathy.” Her voice sounded flat and cold, frozen like a Hoth glacier. Lando was leading them through the city toward Vader’s shuttle, while the bounty hunter had already taken away Han’s body…

He’s alive!

…to his own ship, to be delivered up like some frozen commodity to Jabba the Hutt.

“She’s an enemy of the Empire and a terrorist,” the Imperial commander responded in a superior tone. “You’re in no position to make demands. And shut that Wookiee up before I do.”

Calrissian’s expression turned into a silent plea for all of them to stay calm. “Unless you want a berserker Wookiee on your hands, I’m warning you to control your men. I know him.”

The officer sneered at Lando. “You’re lucky Lord Vader hasn’t arrested you already for associating with these traitors. We know you’re siphoning off a percentage to sell on the Black Market to this kind of scum. The Mining Guild and their lot will not protect you.”

Lando blanched even more, but Leia had stopped caring about any of that anymore; instead, she focused on calming the whirlwind of emotions threatening to overwhelm her, knowing she needed to rein in her agony that was only serving Vader’s purposes. She recognized now that what the Sith lord had said was true; she could feel it even though she didn’t understand—didn’t want to understand—but it was there, surrounding her, vibrating through her. She could almost see it, like heat waves rippling the air on a hot summer day.

Luke was here already, in the city with them, and growing closer—she could sense that as well. Part of her rejoiced at the confirmation that he was alive, at feeling his vibrant presence once again, so familiar and comforting, but she suspected Luke felt their connection as well and she feared it was drawing him deeper into Vader’s trap.

Luke, go away! Please, leave now!

The fear of losing her best friend, along with Han, threatened to consume what little calm she had left. Why wouldn’t the men in her life listen to her? Was she doomed to lose them all to their own chivalry?

Desperation made her reach out with those same senses in an attempt to locate Han, to find reassurance in his essence as well, but there was nothing—no recognizable signature, none of the radiant aura she might have associated with him. Why could she sense Luke and yet be denied Han?

He’s alive…and in perfect hibernation.

Still battling to understand, Leia marched with the rest in tense silence as they headed toward a bank of turbo lifts. Without warning, the sharp whine of a blaster bolt echoed from the corridor behind them, and a part of their entourage of troopers reacted, dropping back to engage while the officer swung around to grab her arms before she could make a move to escape. Frantic, Leia struggled to see beyond the phalanx of remaining soldiers, knowing it was Luke at the other end, just as sure as she’d known it was Han earlier in the detention block.

“Luke! Luke, don’t—!”

The commander almost yanked her off her feet as he pulled her into the closest open lift. Despite his clear advantage in height and muscle, desperation gave Leia new strength as she let out a roar of her own. Throwing out her hands to grab the threshold of the lift doors, she pulled herself out far enough to catch a glimpse of khaki overalls and familiar blond hair through the sparks and smoke from flying laser bolts. “It’s a trap! It’s a trap!” she screamed.

Multiple hands seized her this time and she was none-too-gently heaved back inside the lift, then slammed against the wall with a jolt hard enough that she failed to stifle a cry of pain when her shoulder and head connected with the metal surface.

With a deafening roar, Chewbacca flung his arms up in an attempt to break free from the bonds around his wrists. Everyone trapped inside the confines of the lift—including Leia—cringed away in mortal fear. As the Wookiee reared back, Threepio banged against the wall with a loud clang and let out his own wail of distress, adding to the din. Leia had come to know Chewie well over the years, seeing him under pressure during countless heavy fire fights and hazardous flying conditions, but she’d never seen him like this. At this rate, he would get himself killed out of hand, all because of her, and she was certain she couldn’t bear that on top of everything else.

Clutching her bruised shoulder, head suddenly throbbing, it took all Leia’s resolve to fight back tears of hopelessness as she pleaded, “Chewie, stop! Please! Don’t do this.”

«Han expects me to—!»

“You can’t if you’re dead! Please, just stop! I’ll be okay.”

His huge frame trembled with rage as he strained against his arm cuffs, but those sky-blue eyes had found hers now and she could sense him beginning to ease away from the edge of madness. With a deliberate breath, Leia willed him to breathe along with her, and was mildly surprised when he did just that.

“Fucking Wookiees,” the officer muttered, eying them both with contempt. “They aren’t worth the trouble.”

Ignoring everything else, Leia had found a purpose and stayed locked on Chewie’s gaze like a tractor beam. “Do you remember Ord Mantell?”

Chewbacca took another deep breath, and then nodded. «I remember. I had to rescue you both.»

“That’s right. You kept a cool head and saved us just in time. Remember Thertur Major?”

His massive shoulders drooped as he began to relax. «Yes, I had to rescue you both as well, before—»

“Shut up, the both of you!”

Leia did shut up, but not without directing her most lethal gaze at the officer. She had achieved what she’d set out to do, creating an eye within the storm from which she could clear her head and calm the tempest of emotions radiating from her companion.

Although he was no longer nearby, she could also still barely sense Luke and hoped her warning had been enough to keep him from falling into Vader’s snare.

Please, not Luke, too.

The lift slowed to a stop and the doors slid open.

“Out,” the commander ordered.

As they followed him into a foyer, Leia noticed Calrissian lingering in the elevator, letting them all leave first before falling in behind. No doubt he intended to slink off and disappear before these soldiers made good on their threat to arrest him. It was likely that Lando would take the Falcon and run while he could. Maybe that had been his plan all the long. It would explain why he’d assigned his best technicians to do real repairs to the ship, all gratis. He’d already known from the beginning that a means of fast escape might be necessary, and this allowed him to reclaim the Falcon in the bargain. There it was—the con they’d all suspected he was working.

The bitter irony of the scheme made her ache all over again. What she wouldn’t give to be locked up in the Falcon’s cabin at that moment, kidnapped by a better class of scoundrel determined to steal her away to the farthest reaches of….

I love you.

I know.

The flashback caused Leia’s entire body to twitch, but the vision didn’t stop there: the last stolen moments of wordless intimacy as they’d held one another in the detention cell; Han’s desperate last kiss; his valiant attempt to be brave for them all; the instant when his expression changed from fear into resignation as he’d gazed up at her from the dropping platform, as if satisfied to know she would be the last thing he ever saw.

Feeling her body begin to tremble, Leia sucked in a harsh breath and tried to quell her nerves. The minutes were running down for her as well, draining away with each step she took; once aboard Vader’s ship, for better or worse, it would be over. But at least she had those memories of better times, however fleeting, something no one could take away from her. At least she’d known real happiness for a little while; she’d known and shared someone’s love, which was more than anything she’d come to expect in this life. That would provide the strength she needed now to prepare for what came next.

“Wait, you’re taking the long route,” Lando called out from behind them.

The commander glowered, bringing them all to a halt. “I know where the shuttle is docked, Calrissian.”

Passing the group, Lando joined him at the front of the procession. “But that’ll take us through the busiest part of the city, right when the evening traffic is picking up. There’ll be crowds and we don’t want the attention.”

“Very well. But it’d better be fast. Lord Vader is not a patient man.”

“Don’t worry. My men have cleared the hallways.”

Just as Lando had promised, the halls were vacant of curious bystanders as he led them down an adjoining passageway, and the wide intersection they approached was lined by at least a dozen of Cloud City’s guards, all standing at attention and blocking the alternate routes. Sparing no more than a cursory glance as she passed by, Leia saw there would be no opportunity of escape—every avenue was cut off.

Without warning, the guards drew their blasters and closed in from all sides in an ambush. Outnumbered and surprised, the stormtroopers surrendered without firing a shot, handing over their blaster rifles to Lando as he moved through the squad collecting weapons. Lobot, his cybernetic headpiece blinking red in the whitewashed hallway, stepped forward for further instructions as Lando passed most of the arms to men within his own guard.

“Well done,” Lando said in a tight whisper. “Hold them in the security tower—and keep it quiet! Move.”

Stunned, Leia watched as Lobot led the guards and their new prisoners away at a quick march, leaving her, Chewbacca with his chattering passenger, and Calrissian behind.

Wasting no time, Lando shoved the two remaining blaster rifles into her hands and turned to start working at undoing Chewie’s cuffs.

Leia’s head hurt terribly now, making it difficult to think; she juggled the heavy weapons and then stared at the man in bafflement. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“We’re getting out of here.”

“I knew all along!” Threepio exclaimed in unwarranted relief. “Had to be a mistake.”

Stepping around to glare at him, Leia didn’t bother hiding her distaste and skepticism. “Do you think that after what you did to Han, we’re going to trust you?”

Calrissian’s severe miscalculation regarding the measure of their gratitude was revealed a moment later when he unlocked Chewbacca’s restraints. The Wookiee let out an ear-ringing bellow before surging forward, his massive hands grabbing the man by the neck. Lando fumbled in a futile attempt to pry them away, but Chewie’s arms were sturdier than tree trunks; veins grew visible along Calrissian’s temples as his eyes bulged, while Leia looked on devoid of any sympathy.

“What are you doing? Trust him, trust him!” Threepio wailed.

“I had no choice—” Calrissian croaked out in a desperate attempt to plead his case as he fell to his knees, his face purpling.

The fact that Lando was still alive enough to struggle, that his neck wasn’t already snapped or his windpipe crushed, was evidence that Chewie was taking his time. «I’m going to enjoy this.»

Giving in to her own wrath, Leia glared at Han’s old “friend.” “Oh, we understand, don’t we, Chewie? He had no choice.”

«We always have choices, Princess,»Chewbacca replied, his cool response at odds with his actions.«I’m making one right now.»

“—just trying to help—”

“We don’t need any of your help,” Leia spat back.

Much as she wanted to let Chewbacca enjoy his revenge, they didn’t have the luxury of dragging this out much longer. Straightening up and glancing around, Leia redirected her attention and assessed their new situation. This was just the sort of opportunity they’d needed. All the guards were gone and the city was not fully occupied by Imperial forces, at least not yet; with most of the Imperial shore detail secreted away to the brig and Vader already preoccupied, they could very well pull this off. But she had no clue where they were in relation to the Falcon or any other mode of escape. What they needed was a fast way off the mining colony before the alarm went out and more troops could land.

If only she knew for sure that Luke had heeded her warning and would be okay. A desperate part of her wanted to use their mysterious link to track him down and bring him along, but she also knew Vader waited at the other end of that link as well, like a web spinner lying in wait for his prey, and to follow that thread would only land them all back within his deadly grasp.

Lando was straining for air. “H-a-a-a…H-a-a-n.”

Leia swung back, her anxious train of thought shattered. “What?”

“It sounds like ‘Han,’” Threepio supplied, his twee voice anxious.

Chewbacca’s grip must have eased off just enough to allow Lando to choke out between gasps for air. “There’s still a chance to save Han…at the East Platform….”

A chance to save Han?

While she didn’t want to trust this man any further than she could levitate him, it was that damned sixth sense of hers that suddenly chimed in once again, and a flood of hope and adrenaline surged through her. She deliberately tempered it with a bitter dose of reality; managing an escape would be challenging enough, but turning it into a rescue mission would jeopardize what little advantage they had. Looking up at Chewbacca, Leia searched his reaction, needing his input, and found the answer she was looking for—they had to try.

“Chewie,” she said. It was the simplest of orders but he understood and obeyed in an instant, releasing Calrissian. They both turned and ran down the corridor, not bothering to assist Lando as he fell forward onto his hands, panting.

Leia handed one of the blaster rifles to Chewbacca before they reached the end of the hallway and emerged from the passage to find they were standing on a curved balcony outside the building. It wrapped around the tall tower, offering a vertigo-inducing view of the city below and a stiff wind that washed over her. The sun had finally begun to set, the long planetary day ending as the reds and oranges took over in a dramatic swath of color.

Leia stopped, not knowing which way to go. “East platform?” she asked, unable to hide her desperation, knowing each delay cost precious seconds they couldn’t afford.

Chewbacca hesitated as well, glancing around. «I’m not sure. Do you think he meant this building or another?»

Lando caught up just then, still massaging his throat. “It’s this building. Come on, follow me.” He sprinted down the walkway, and having little choice, they fell in behind him.

Moments later, as they raced past another entrance, Leia heard a familiar mechanical whistle that made her skid to a halt and turn back, her heart thudding.

“Artoo! Artoo! Where have you been?” Threepio cried out in joy before Chewbacca stopped and spun around, cutting off the droid’s view.

Rolling toward them from down another abandoned corridor was the lone, squat, well-known astrotech droid.

“Luke!” she cried out, feeling a surge of optimism as she searched the corridor behind the droid, but her emotions crashed an instant later when he didn’t appear. In all the confusion and her increasing headache, the tenuous connection she’d felt with Luke had faded, the sensation of life around her dimming to little more than a dull buzz in the background, and she had no time to wonder why or try to reestablish it. Frustrated at losing that link just when she needed it most, Leia clutched at her weapon and returned to the task at hand.

There was a hard choice to be made and she had to go with the option most likely to succeed. It was clear that Luke was on a collision course with Darth Vader; the Dark Lord was on the hunt, and maybe Luke had even come to Cloud City seeking that confrontation. If she could still sense that darkness pulsing around them, even now, then surely Luke could as well. Having witnessed the ease with which Vader had dealt with Han’s lethal blaster fire, there was little assistance she could offer Luke at this point other than to pray he knew what he was doing. Han, on the other hand, was helpless and no longer of any interest or value to Vader.

He’s alive….

With a deep ache in her chest, Leia made her decision and swung away to chase after Calrissian, with Chewbacca close on her heels.

They rounded a bend on the balcony and passed under an overhanging roof that took them back inside the building. The new corridor was lined with windows, and through them she spotted a circular docking platform in the distance, similar to the one they’d landed on that morning. There was a battered and scored Firespray-31-class gunship perched on the landing strip, hunchbacked and lethal-looking, like some menacing predator waiting to pounce. Then she saw the familiar Mandalorian armor of Boba Fett walking up the entrance ramp as it began rising to seal up behind him. He was leaving.

No, no, no!

“We have to hurry!” she cried as they ran past the last windows and entered another wide foyer, only to find a massive blast door blocking her way. “Come on!” she demanded as Lando stopped to punch in a code on the door controls.

It only took a few seconds before the door began to rise, but it felt like an eternity. Not waiting until the shield door was up all the way, Leia ducked under and dashed out onto the walkway that led to Fett’s ship.

But time had run out. The engines were already flaring, sending waves of heat rolling toward her, distorting the air as the ship began to lift up and rotate above the platform. Sheer frustration made Chewbacca fire his blaster rifle at the ship, but the effort was wasted; the ship’s shields deflected the diminutive energy bolts with ease. With engines glowing hot orange, the craft turned away, threatening to incinerate them with its backwash exhaust, then with a mighty shuddering rumble, the bounty hunter’s ship blasted off into the darkening sky.

Numb hands falling to her sides, blaster forgotten, Leia stared up in mute disbelief as the ship shrank away to little more than a pinpoint of bright light, like a star in the night, before winking out as it left the atmosphere.

Just like that, he was gone. She was too late.

Han….

Bolts of blaster fire sizzled past her, but she didn’t flinch. She didn’t even register them. Irrational fear—an absurd terror that if she turned her back now, she might lose Han for good—kept Leia frozen in place. If she refused to move, she could still trace that invisible flight path and follow them somehow, could still—

“Leia!” It was Lando yelling behind her, his voice a desperate plea. Their escape was no longer a secret as a handful of stormtroopers had arrived to lay down fire.

For just the briefest of moments, despair threatened again—the sort of despair that had made her ignore the evacuation order on Hoth, when she’d believed both Han and Luke were gone forever from her life. She’d been wrong back then and Han had reappeared to save her from her own demons.

He’s alive…and he needs you now.

“Leia, come on!”

Red blasts of lethal energy ripped through the air around her.

Maybe that kernel of hope, the one planted so long ago by Han when she’d had little reason to fight on, had indeed germinated and taken hold. Refusing to be uprooted now, that hope had instead bent like a sapling with the maelstrom and snapped back just as strong.

Han was still alive, and that meant there was still hope of rescuing him somehow. This was nothing more than a setback, another challenge to overcome, and what Han needed most was for her to be strong, to charge in to the rescue like he’d done so many times, and save him from the very real demons that held him now. This was not the time to give up and fall apart.

Breathing hard, filled with a new determination, Leia swung the laser rifle up to grip it in both hands once more.

She knew what she needed to do.


The End
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