Lasercannon blasts thundered overhead, rocking the Capitol building and showering pieces of ceiling down into Zev Kiran's hair and eyes. In the distance, he could hear shouts in Basic. That might mean the cannon fire came from New Republic forces instead of the mercenary troops of the Hutt Syndicate, but he couldn't be sure. He wasn't sure of anything anymore.
Gone was the kriff-you sense of power that had filled him as he had unceremoniously dismissed the demands of the Hutts, cutting off their holo transmission mid-sentence for emphasis. Gone was the delirious optimism he and all the other citizens of Druckenwell had shared in the abilities of the New Republic to transform the old Empire. Growing in its place was the dawning realization that he would not be the President who liberated Druckenwell, but rather the one who caused it to at long last fall completely under the control of the Hutts.
His mind focused on the voices behind him, he stumbled over a chunk of shattered wall, and fell hard against the marble floor. He lay there for a moment, listening to the whine of blaster bolts draw closer. Such an ignominious end to an illustrious career. A junior executive at twenty five, a senior partner at thirty, President at forty-two. Nevermind that Druckenwell was not so much an independent world as a giant mining corporation, he was still the President.
He pushed himself to his knees. Yes, he was still the President. If Druckenwell was too far from Coruscant to be worthy of the Republic's attention, then he would face the Hutts' wrath alone. After all, they spoke the common language of credits; there must be some deal he could strike with them.
Brushing the dust from his trousers, he rose from the floor and continued down the corridor to his office. He paused at the engraved wall plate adjacent to the door, running his fingers over his name before activating the door. Once inside, he straightened his clothes and fingercombed his hair. Appearances were everything in the art of the deal. Cool, confident, self-assured, that was the image he needed to project when the Hutt forces found him, not a disheveled man terrified for his life.
When they arrived at his office, he would act as if everything were completely normal. Gentlemen, he would say, how can I help you? Insurrection? Why of course not. There must have been a glitch, some sort of miscommunication. Druckenwell has always cooperated with the Hutts, and always will. Let's send a holo right now and clear up this mess. The sooner we're settled here, the sooner we're back to business. And that is the point, now isn't it?
He smiled to himself. Everything was going to be all right. Just like the time he had averted a strike of the ore transport operators, or the time he had convinced the entire Excavators' Union to take a pay cut so that Druckenwell could underbid Exarga, he was the master of the last-minute save. Now that he thought about it, it might not be possible for him to lose.
Outside his office the slap of boots resonated in the corridor, the sound drawing closer with precise regularity. He seated himself at his desk, pulling a piece of flimsi from the middle drawer. Though the flimsi was completely blank, he studied it intently as he waited for the owner of the boots to enter his office. Appearances, it was all about appearances.
He didn't even look up when the door slid open, though his brow wrinkled at the sounds that replaced the footsteps : an ominous thrum accented by a repeating whoosh of air. He leaned back in his chair, and raised his head in his most nonchalant manner. Despite his best intentions, a gasp escaped him. Though he had expected he would be facing armor, he had thought it would be the Mandalorian type, not this. And the blade of blue plasma that seemed to spring directly from the figure's hand, it pulsed like a living thing, poised to cut him down.
The figure came forward, the blue blade growling with every movement of its hand. "Let's go. The ship is waiting."
He swallowed hard. The Hutts must be angrier than he had thought. "This has all been a misunderstanding. Perhaps we could resolve this ourselves. For the right sum, of course."
The black mask was unreadable. "You are wasting time. Get up!"
Perspiration began to run down his sides. He had the very bad feeling that his plan was not going to work. Of all the mercenaries who could have been sent after him, how could it have ended up being the one person with whom it was impossible to negotiate? And just when did the Hutts hire Darth Vader, anyways?
"Have you no sense?" Vader roared. "If you wish to save yourself, come with me now!"
Pain. Torture. Death. How was he ever going to get himself out of this? A cold sweat swept over him as he imagined the punishment Vader would inflict, punishment that would make his bones crack and his flesh weep. In front of him, Vader was gesturing emphatically, as if he was still speaking, but he couldn't hear any of Vader's words, only his own pulse pounding in his ears. He cringed as a black gloved hand grabbed his arm and then, mercifully, all went dark.
Luke rubbed his hand over his face. He shouldn't be doing this. As the commander of his unit, he ought to be with his troops, leading them against the mercenary forces who had descended on Druckenwell. But his own commander, who also happened to be his father, hadn't exactly followed military protocol either, and had vanished into the interior of the Capitol building. And so he found himself ignoring both protocol and common sense as he hurried down the corridors of a building being torn apart by cannon fire.
He leapt over piles of rubble and dodged collapsing walls to follow the invisible trail the Force set before him. Following the trail required no conscious thought, so familiar was his father's Force signature. In fact, the whole scenario was familiar : him chasing after his father who had purposefully put himself in the path of great danger. Not that he didn't appreciate a good thrill himself, but what his father did sometimes bordered on the suicidal. Luke now understood why his father had been called The Hero With No Fear, and he felt an urgent need to catch up to him before there was a miscalculation.
He recognized that his impulse to go after his father was not entirely objective. Just one of the reasons why it was policy in the New Republic Forces that family members never serve together. In the beginning they had made an exception because he was the only officer who would serve under the former Darth Vader, but over the last two years it had become quite clear that he was the only second-in-command his father would permit. The Emperor had been quite truthful about being the only person who could contain Vader, and in that matter the Senate and the Combined Forces had proven to be pale substitutes for Palpatine.
As for himself, he had given up any hope of restraining his father, and had settled for merely being able to influence him. That, and watching out for him, which led right back to the position he found himself in now. Though he had never jeopardized the safety of his men, or the success of a mission, he still sometimes felt like he was being pulled in two. He put his hand to the comlink on his belt, reassuring himself that it hadn't fallen off during his manueverings. Everything must be proceeding as planned, or the troops would have commed him already.
He paused at the junction of an intersecting corridor to reassess his direction. This wing of the building had been hit hard and he found it surprising that anyone would have stayed here, but the trail led unmistakably to the left. He pushed off into a jog, advancing a few hundred meters before a voice sounded in his head.
/Luke, come help me./
His eyes swung towards the source, and he caught sight of a door recessed in an alcove. As he slowed to a walk , he picked up the sound of the ventilator dead ahead. President Zev Kiran, announced a wall plate outside the door. As usual, his father's instincts were right on target.
He punched the door control, and grimaced when the office interior was revealed. Not only had his father accurately located the President, it had apparently been just in the nick of time. Zev Kiran lay sprawled across the office floor, his face a match to the alabaster tile. Immediately Luke went to the President's side, opposite his father. He glanced up and down the still figure, his brow furrowing at the lack of blood, or even bruises.
"Where is he hurt?" he said, helping his father to sit the man up.
"He is not injured."
He frowned."Then he's drugged?"
"No. Merely unconscious," his father said. "He fainted as I was talking to him."
Luke suppressed a chuckle. "Well, have you tried waking him up? It's going to be a lot easier getting him out of here if we don't have to carry him all the way."
"You can try," his father said. "He does not respond well to me."
"Were you using your nice voice?" he said, as he tapped his fingers against the President's face.
The President grunted a few times at the affront, and then his eyes blinked open. Abruptly, he appeared to realize where he was. Or rather who he was with. A look of panic filled Kiran's features and he struggled to free himself of the hands that held him on either side.
"Easy there, Mr. President," Luke said. "You're among friends. But we should get going."
Kiran's look of panic faded to apprehension. "You're here to help me?"
"You requested the assistance of the Republic," his father said, "and here we are."
Apprehension turned to confusion as the President looked into the mask. "You're with the Republic?"
The pitch of his father's voice lowered a notch. "Do you not read the Holonet?"
Luke rolled his eyes." We can discuss politics later. Let's get out of here before the building falls down."
Leia didn't need the Force to tell her they were discussing something they didn't want her to hear. Her politician's instincts told her plenty. The hasty breaking of eye contact, the subtle tightning of their circle as she approached, their discomfort with her was as plain as day. This might be the New Republic, but the game of politics was the same as always. Maintaining her most pleasant, if practiced, smile, she glided by the trio of senators, giving the senior senator from Cerea a gracious nod.
He returned her gesture, but there was a tension around his mouth that belied his smile."Good morning, Senator Organa."
"It is a beautiful morning, Senator Rion-Sei," she said. In the Force, a current of fear wafted from him and she worked to maintain her even expression. Now that she was more attuned to the Force, she found the hard part not to be sensing the feelings of others, but rather not reacting to them.
Moving deeper into the foyer of the Senate Hall, she threaded her way through the sea of beings until she was sure the Cereans had lost sight of her. Flowing with the crowd, she slowed her naturally fast pace, not even avoiding the shoulders and elbows that brushed her. She looped back towards the trio, allowing her small stature to work for her by hiding behind her taller colleagues. When she caught a glimpse of the silken magenta robe of Senator Rion-Sei, she carefully positioned herself where she could overhear the Cereans' conversation.
Through the din of surrounding voices she was able to pick up only snippets of the discussion. A disgrace...his time is over...do they think we have forgotten? They were careful not to specify just whom exactly they were talking about, but if they were worried about her hearing them, there weren't many choices. Han had been on exceptionally good behavior lately, and no one in the Republic would ever call Luke a disgrace, so that left only one possibility : her father. But expressing dislike of the former Darth Vader was so common it hardly called for secrecy. Hells, half the time she wasn't sure what she felt about him, either. No, if those senators were afraid, there must be more to their words than mere opinion.
Around her the crowd was starting to disperse, threatening to reveal her to the Cereans. She turned and picked her way through the crowd to the open plaza outside the Senate Hall. Blinking in the bright Coruscant sun, she glanced at her chrono. Just enough time to get a cup of caf before the session started.
She headed over to a kiosk emblazoned The Galaxy's Finest Caf , and joined the line. A few places in front of her she could see a head of red hair that could only belong to Mon Mothma.
She leaned forward. "Senator Mothma."
Mothma's slender form turned around. "Senator Organa. Good to see you."
"Do you have a moment?" she said. "There's something I'd like to talk to you about."
The Chandrilian senator nodded." Sure. Here, let me get your drink. You want the usual?"
"Yeah.Triple caf. Corellian style," Leia said. She stepped out of line and waited at the edge of the broad duracrete walkway.
"So what's on your mind?" Mon said, handing her a cup that felt hot despite its protective sleeve.
"I guess I'm looking for your opinion," Leia said. "I just had a really odd experience."
"Here, at the Senate?" Mon said, as they headed back towards the Hall.
She nodded. "With the Cerean delegation. I think they were talking about Anakin, but they were afraid for me to hear them."
A flicker of something ran across Mon's face, but then it smoothed to her usual look of serenity. "That doesn't sound so strange. I'm sure they were just trying to be considerate of your feelings."
"No, that's not it," she said. "Nobody else hides their opinion of Anakin Skywalker from me. These senators were genuinely afraid. I could feel it."
"Leia, you're taking this too personally," Mon said, and then she glanced from side to side. "You know how these senators from the small systems are. They think all the big name senators are out to get them. If Rion-Sei is afraid of you, it's probably only because he thinks you're going to shoot down some pet bill of his."
"Exactly," Leia said. "He wasn't just talking about how he felt. It was more like he had an agenda."
"Whatever it is, it's not worth worrying about, " Mon said.
Leia started to reply when through the Force she felt a tingle of shame from the woman who had always been her mentor. One day she was going to learn to talk and use the Force at the same time, but for now she had to focus on one or the other, so she walked silently at Mon's side trying to pick up every scrap of emotion she could. Yes, there was shame, and worry, and even a flare of anger. A conflict for sure, in someone who always seemed unflappable.
They were almost to the foyer. Leia paused before the door, putting a hand on Mon's forearm to stop her. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
Mon pulled her arm away. "About what?"
"The Cereans," she said. "This conversation is making you uncomfortable. You know what they're up to, don't you?"
"Leia, you've inherited some valuable traits from your father," Mon said, "but the one thing you don't need is his paranoia. Just forget about the Cereans and let's go inside."