As Luke watched Han and Leia's children playing some form of hide and seek with an exasperated Chewbacca, he couldn't help but feel somewhat guilty.
He was doing it again.
He had promised Leia that he would come for a long over-due visit--she had had enough of his last minute cancellations and had insisted that he come for their joint birthday celebration, a tradition they had started several years ago.
And yet, here he was again, present in body, but far absent in mind. He was, in reality, light-years away--his thoughts with a former lover who, as his every instinct told him, would soon face a danger he couldn't quite pinpoint, but he was certain would strike soon.
"Uncle Luke, what are you thinking about?"
Eight-year old Jaina had slipped away from her brothers and tugged on his sleeve. He smiled at her and pulled her close to him, tapping her nose playfully.
"Nothing you need to worry about, kiddo," he said.
"I know what it is!"
"Oh really? You do, do you?"
"Sure I do," she said, her mouth forming a triumphant grin that reminded Luke of the way her father would smile after an unusually good hand of sabacc. "I'm going to be a Jedi, remember?"
Luke smiled at the little girl's self-assurance. "Well in that case," he said, "tell me what I'm thinking."
She put her index finger on her chin and pretended to concentrate for a moment--Luke had to wonder where she got this flair for drama--then gave him a precocious smile and said, "You're wondering why you haven't gotten your present yet. What good's a birthday if you don't get to open any presents?"
By now Leia and Han must have caught part of the conversation. Luke looked up at them and saw their amused grins. He leaned into his niece's ear and whispered, "The Force is strong in you, Jainy... You found me out."
He tickled her and she exploded into squeals of laughter. "I knew it!" she managed to say between fits of giggles.
Before Luke knew it, Jacen and Anakin, who no doubt must have spied their sister having fun without them, had jumped into the fray, flinging themselves onto their uncle.
"Time out, time out!" Luke said. "Uncle Luke needs to come up for air!"
The children obliged, albeit reluctantly.
"Do you want your present now?" Jaina said. She paused to swat Anakin on the arm after he tugged on her braid, but Leia's disapproving glare immediately brought a guilty smile to her face.
"I've got it in my room, Uncle Luke," Jacen told him.
Not one to be left out, Anakin added, "We all worked on it though!"
Luke tousled the seven-year old's head and gave him a smile. "That settles it then--I know I'm going to love it!"
Jaina rolled her eyes. "But you haven't even seen it yet!"
"I'm a Jedi, remember?" Luke said, winking at her.
With that, the little girl's face lit up, and she leapt out of Luke's arms. "I'm going to go get it, Jace!" she called out to her brother.
"No, I want to get it!" came the response from both Jacen and Anakin, and all three raced to Jacen's room to fetch the gift.
They reappeared moments later and handed Luke a somewhat shapeless object, wrapped in what seemed like layers and layers of wrapping paper. He brought it to his forehead and closed his eyes.
"I sense that this is a-"
He chuckled mischievously and tore open the wrapping paper.
"It's a holopad," Anakin breathlessly informed him, before he could even get a good look at it. "We put in all the holos all by ourselves--Mom and Dad didn't even have to help us at all!"
"I love it, thank you." He gathered them close and let Anakin press the on switch. A collage of different images formed: holos of him, the children, Han and Leia.
And then his heart stood still.
The holo was from six years ago--her hair was still shorn close in a blunt officer's cut, still white-blond, though smoke-brown roots were already starting to peek through; her features were still somewhere in between Cray's and the face he had remembered so vividly from his dreams. She was laughing. He had almost forgotten the sweet sound of her rare laughter, the carefree spirit that had drawn him to her.
Stars, how he missed her.
"We found that holo of Aunt Callista. Doesn't she look pretty?"
He nodded absently, transfixed by the sight of her. "Yes she does, Jainy."
He felt Leia's eyes on him, and when he looked up at her, he saw that all the color had drained from her face.
"Luke, I'm... I'm sorry," she stammered. "I didn't know that..."
"What's wrong, Mom?" Jaina said. When her mother didn't answer right away, she turned to Luke. "Did we do something bad, Uncle Luke?"
Luke kissed her on the forehead. "No, sweetheart, you didn't do anything bad."
"Are you sure?"
He smiled and nodded. "I'm sure, Jainy. It's all right, don't worry. I just need to talk to your mom and dad for a little bit, okay? I'm sure you and your brothers want to get back to playing hide and seek again. Go on..."
She didn't look too convinced--neither did Jacen or Anakin--but eventually, she agreed anyway. "Okay, Uncle Luke," she said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before running off with the boys.
He watched and waited until they had once again immersed themselves in their playing, then he turned back to Han and Leia, who had come across the room to sit down in front of him.
"You wanna tell us what this is about, Luke?" Han finally said. "What's going on?"
Luke had a feeling Leia could already sense what it was, even before he spoke. Still, she didn't say anything, waiting for him to make the first move.
"It's about Callista."
Han straightened immediately. "Callista?" he said. "Did she... Has she contacted you?"
Luke shook his head. "No, but... No."
"Luke, what is it?" Leia said. "You were thinking about her last night--I'm right about that, aren't I?"
"She's in danger... I-I don't know what form exactly this danger is in, or even when it'll happen, but I know it's soon, and I know I need to find her."
"Look, kid, I know you miss her and, and you've got every right to, but-"
"That's not what this is about, Han..." It was a knee-jerk reaction--to defend himself--though he knew his brother-in-law was not attacking him in any way. But even he could hear the desperation in his voice. He stopped on purpose and took a deep breath. "I had a dream last night. A premonition. Something was chasing her--coming after her--and it caught up to her eventually..." After a while, he said, "I have to go to her."
Save yourself, Luke...
Neither Han nor Leia said anything for a long time. Finally, Leia came over to where he sat and took his hand.
"Lando's got connections all over the galaxy..."
The simple words were enough to light a spark within him.
"We can find her, Luke," she continued, just as Luke had finished her thought in his mind. "Wherever she is." She lay a hand on his arm, giving it a gentle squeeze, and the warmth of her touch eased the frazzled thoughts that had held his mind hostage since last night. Luke wondered if she could see the horrible visions herself: the fragmented memory of a frightened Callista reaching out to him in vain.
And Luke unable to get to her in time.
Save yourself, Luke...
Her voice had been so calm, so resigned--though he knew it belied the fear inside her.
As if afraid to let go, Leia continued to hold his arm, and he felt her reach out to him in the Force with the lightest of touches--no prodding, no prying, no treading in the private areas of his thoughts. Just a promise of reassurance. He gave her hand a small squeeze in return, silently letting her know he was all right.
"If she even wants to be found."
Luke saw Leia shoot a sharp, hot glare at her husband. Han tensed visibly for a moment, clearly regretting the flippant comment. "I'm sorry, kid, I didn't mean it that way-"
"I know, Han."
"She's been gone a long time," Han said. "Look, I don't doubt that she loved you, but... she may not want to resurface after all these years. Are you ready for that possibility?"
The answer was no. But Luke didn't say it out loud.
"If it comes to that..." He was unable to finish the sentence. "I have to try."
"I just don't want to see you hurt again. You shouldn't have to... hurt like that again..."
Luke smiled. In his own way, Han had always been like an older brother watching over him, even during the times when he didn't feel like he needed one.
"I'll be all right."
In truth, Luke couldn't blame Han for how he felt. He knew how the situation must have looked to everyone. His students, his friends, his family--they had all probably wanted to say the same words to him at some point, but for some reason or another, stopped short of doing so.
The very thought of anyone passing judgment on Callista tore at him. The knowledge that Callista would be remembered for the way she left, not the way she loved him, hurt more than the emptiness she left in her wake. Perhaps to everyone else, what she did looked like a selfish act. An act of cowardice. But Luke knew the true reasons--the agonizing reasons--why she had left; why she continued to stay away.
He had been tempted over the years to explain, but never had.
What good would it do, he thought, letting a wave of regret wash over him. Making them understand won't bring her back.
His eyes rested on Leia's once again, and the subtle smile in them comforted him.
Leia had been with Callista on Nam Chorios, had seen firsthand the anguish he remembered in his lover's eyes when she bid him farewell. Leia had formed her own bond with Callista, and shared silently in Luke's grief when she left. Leia--more than anyone--understood why Luke had mourned the loss of the gentle, strong-willed beauty who had come into his life in a sudden but all-too brief whirlwind. An unforgettable force of nature.
Leia understood why he had to find her.
"Luke," she said, slipping her arm through his, "we've got the resources to do an extensive search." With her other hand, she lifted his down-turned chin to meet her eyes. I promise you we'll find her, she whispered through the Force.
The certainty in her warm cocoa eyes made Luke smile.
Thank you, he whispered back. Thank you for understanding.
Callista, I won't let you down. I promise.
The storm showed no signs of dying down. Almost impossibly, it seemed to feed off the energy in the air as water continued to spill forth from the unforgiving sky. It swirled and gushed as the winds shrieked above the frenzy of voices on the ark.
"What the hell is that?" Jeor shouted. Drops of water bounced off his body, as if repelled by the force his animated gestures. In the months that she had known the bruising, strapping water-rancher, Callista had never seen him this shaken and out of sorts. He convulsed and flailed, while behind him and beside him, the rest of the crew stood in stunned silence, their mouths agape at the mysterious object they had fished out of the sea.
No one knew what to make of this shocking discovery.
Still aching from having been thrown against the ark--her head pounding and the world spinning kaleidoscope-like around her--Callista tried nevertheless to focus on the object. Slowly, she rose and stumbled towards it.
The pale moonlight cast an eerie light over its smooth metal casing, over the harsh features of the man inside. Something about the look frozen on his face beckoned Callista, and she had to force herself to look away from him. She shut her eyes, gingerly running her hand down the edge of the block--forgetting for one blessed moment that the Force was still so far beyond her grasp. Instinct, habit, had gotten the better of her. What had once come so easily--to touch something and feel its essence come alive beneath her fingertips--was all but impossible now. Her eyes flew open upon remembering, upon feeling nothing but the cold, dead feel of metal. Can't count on that trick anymore, she reminded herself, and she felt her cheeks blush as she looked up and saw that all eyes were on her.
"Cal, what do we do?" Jeor said. The shock had worn off his voice. Callista looked up to see him staring blankly at the carbonite. He knelt down beside her to examine it, extending his hand tentatively to touch it.
Callista broght her gaze back to the man inside the block. She ran her eyes up and down his encased body, noting the veins protruding in his neck, his lips, his gritted teeth--embossed in the metal like a much-labored piece of sculpture. His eyes were closed, mouth open in mid-scream.
She could almost hear him scream.
Though she was sure it wasn't the Force that was feeding her this insight, Callista cringed inside as she suddenly saw the image of him--still alive and very much aware--being lowered into the pit, centimeter by agonizing centimeter. His animal-like wailing rang in her ears--so loud that she thought her head would burst.
No... No... Who did this to you?
Jeor's voice brought her back to the cold, wet shock of the present. She found herself panting, arms wrapped around herself in the pose of a frightened child. Her jumpsuit felt clammy against her skin--wet from the rain or her own sweat, she didn't know.
"I don't know if he's still alive," she told Jeor. She brushed aside the locks that fell in her eyes and bent down to search for the life system monitor. The lights flashed wildly at the side, catching her attention. "I think he's still in hibernation," she said, thumbing clumsily at the buttons, hoping she was reading the life signs correctly. "But I can't... feel him..."
The helplessness she felt was almost too much to bear. She should have been able to help. She could have--had she only had the Force.
But she didn't.
"If he's still alive then we have to free him," Jeor said.
But Callista didn't answer. Once again, the man's screaming ripped into her, causing her to close her eyes for a few seconds in a vain attempt to quiet it down. "He was frightened of something," she murmured.
She looked back at Jeor. "Something was scaring him," she repeated, surprising even herself. Where was this coming from?
"How do you know that?" Jeor asked. In his eyes she saw slight panic--was he worried about her too?
"I'm fine," she assured him, before he could even ask her. But the panic on his face remained.
"You got banged up pretty badly down there, Cal," he said, reaching a hand to her bruised head. Callista recoiled involuntarily as his hand brushed against the still-sore bump on her crown.
"I'm fine," she insisted through clenched teeth. After taking a deep breath, she willed the pain to fade and continued more calmly, "I don't know how I know this, Jeor, but... I... think I know what happened to him..."
After what seemed like an eternity, Jeor nodded at last. "I believe you," he said. She saw him look up to the men behind her, then return his gaze on her. "But just the same, I want to get you both in there." He held out his hand to help her up and turned nodded at the crew. "Come on, men!" he barked, and the crew rushed to the both of them. Jeor and Salmo helped a shaky Callista to her feet, while the rest of the men followed them inside, levitating the heavy block and guiding it to the lower decks of the ark.
The raging pain in her head seemed to be getting worse by the second. In the water she had been fine, and she had even managed to somehow claw her way up to the deck again--but now as the adrenaline started to recede, she felt a wave of nausea pass through her, and her vision began to blur. Jeor and Salmo gripped her arms to keep her upright, but Callista didn't know how much longer she could keep conscious.
"Thank the Force you're all ri--Callista!!"
It was Manzir's voice, filled with terror as she saw them from the end of the gangway.
"I think she's got a concussion, Mother!" she head Jeor say. "We've got to get her inside."
"No, I'll be... fine..." Callista mumbled. "I just need to sit... I need to sit."
"Don't try you being a hero again!" Manzir shot back, taking her arm from Jeor and leading her into the mess hall. Though Callista's head still ached, at least the nausea had passed, and her legs began to feel steady once again. With Manzir's help, she eased herself onto a chair.
"Jeor," she said, looking up at him, "Where is he? We have to free him... There's no telling how long he's been trapped like that..."
"You're hurt, Callista," Manzir said, wrapping her arms around her. "It's all right, we've got you..."
Callista saw several of the crew members enter the room, the block of carbonite floating effortlessly before them, and she made a gesture to get up, only to be stopped by Manzir.
"Just sit still, please..." she said, trying to hold Callista down. "Jeor, what is she talking about? What happened out there-" Manzir stopped mid-sentence as she turned and finally saw what had Callista so riveted. She turned back to look at Callista, her face etched with a mixture of fear and fascination. "What is that? Who... is that...?"
"I don't know," Callista answered. "But there's still a chance he's alive and we can't waste much more time..." She fought the urge to stumble as she got up, and made her way to the block, turning behind her to look at Jeor.
"Go ahead," he said. "Who knows what shape he'll be in..."
Callista nodded back, then pressed the button to let it drop to the ground. She knelt down and with a deep breath, turned the knobs at the side. In silence, they all stood, watching the solid block glow and slowly evaporate into nothingness.
First a quick twitch in the fingers. Then the lips quivered, the eyes blinked.
And a few moments later, came the scream.
"It's all right," Callista said, grabbing on to the man's arms as he thrashed them about. "You're safe now..."
"No!" he screamed again. "They're coming! We have to hide..."
Callista looked helplessly at Jeor, and he rushed over to help her hold him down.
"No one's coming to get you," Jeor told him. "We've freed you. You're safe with us."
The man stopped fighting. Jeor and Callista exchanged curious glances and slowly released their grip from his wrists. His eyes were wide open, looking at the empty space before him, though Callista knew that he would be blind from the hibernation sickness.
"Can you tell us who you are?" Callista whispered. "We're here to help you..."
The man trembled as
he inhaled, as if
struggling to find
his vocal chords.
With great effort,
he finally spoke.
"If they find us,"
"They will kill us..."
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