The Empire regrets that it was forced to take extreme action against the rebellious world of Alderaan.
The words, broken and static-filled, came across the holonet in Governor Tarkin's clipped, arrogant voice.
He'd been dead for three years now - only a matter of days after making that announcement - but Ivva Japui still heard those words, playing in the back of her mind in a constant feedback loop.
The Empire regrets...
She'd been on Chandrila at the time, at boarding school, celebrating a successful mathematics exam.
And then, the news, the holos, her whole family at home.
There was no question of anyone being "all right." They'd all been working extra hours to put her through school, and no one had the time or money to travel off-world.
...forced to take extreme action...
She'd returned to her dormitory, curled into a ball at the corner of her bed, and stayed there for five days and six nights. The counselors had eventually talked her out of the room, gotten her eating again, and, finally, put her back into classes. Friends had unobtrusively begun inviting her home with them on holidays. She did not feel that her life had been miraculously restored to her, or that she'd "adjusted," as the counselors put it, but she had achieved some new kind of normalcy. She toyed with the idea of joining the Rebellion, but they didn't exactly have recruiting booths at the career fairs, and the strained shape of her life made her too tired to track them down.
Later. She would find them later.
The Empire regrets...
"Hey! You're zoning out again, Iv."
A hand waved in front of her face, and her friend Faidrah Kei dropped neatly and casually into the chair across from her, long black curls fanning out luxuriously across the upholstery. She had re-done her make-up for the third time that afternoon and some kind of glittery paint now decorated her eyes like a mask, curling up around the left side to disappear into her hair. Fai could do things like that. Ivva knew that she herself would just look and feel ridiculous. Lank-haired, translucent-skinned Alderaanian blondes were just never meant for the kinds of looks the holoproj programs wanted humans to have.
Ivva was on holiday, a guest at Fai's house in Cloud City on Bespin this time. Fai's parents owned an interest in a gas mine ("Just, for heaven's sake, don't mention the Mining Guild," Fai had warned her, with an exaggerated roll of her eyes), and they lived very comfortably in the upper echelons of the outpost. Ivva felt positively spoiled here.
Ivva reached into the top level of comfortable lies - Faidrah wasn't a close friend, so she didn't get the truly convoluted stories - and said, "Just worrying about my paper for Mid-Rim Lit."
"I had that last year. Just talk about an identity crisis and the deep symbolism of the river. There's always a river. You'll ace it easy. Now, you're on holiday. And we're going out for rishasa."
"It's a specialty here. Rice from Chandrila - "
"We just left Chandrila!"
" - stewed in Corellian tiri-spice, samli milk, and - this is the best part - Anoat jevrish leaves."
"In other words, the galaxy in a bowl."
Faidrah smiled pleasantly. "Welcome to Cloud City, where everything shows up eventually."
Ivva allowed herself to be led out of the house, into the sumptuous corridors of the city. Beyond the transparisteel windows, she could see the sunlight playing gracefully over the clouds, in shades of pink and gold. It was as alien a sight as she could imagine and she knew that it was objectively beautiful, but when she thought of beauty, all she could see was the outline of the hills behind her parents' house, reflecting pure and clean in the waters of Lake Melara.
forced to take extreme action...
Fai stopped suddenly at the mouth of a corridor, and looked over her shoulder with a grin. She waggled her eyebrows. "Baron Calrissian is out there," she said, pretending to fan herself with her hand. "Mmm... Prettiest sight in this outpost, if I do say so myself."
As she had said so herself, many times, Ivva was a bit curious. She leaned to one side, and looked around her friend.
The Baron was walking in the midst of a group, at the far end of the corridor, coming from the landing docks. Ivva had to admit, he cut a fine figure in his extravagantly made cloaks and shimmering shirt. His face was aristocratic, but a bit mischievous.
Calrissian was walking beside another man - Ivva supposed he was handsome, too, if one had a fancy for the type - talking about supply problems and administrative issues. Behind them was something that was either a man or a robot. Then...
Her heart stopped.
Surely, she was wrong.
Except she wasn't.
Princess Leia Organa herself. Ivva's smile felt wide enough to crack her face in half. She'd known Princess Leia had survived - rumors did make their way around - but sightings were rare. She realized it made no sense, but in her heart, as long as Princess Leia was alive and free, so was Alderaan, somewhere. A boy at school had once begun to say, "Well, you wouldn't be in this trouble if she hadn't turned traitor - " but Ivva hadn't let him finish the thought. She'd lit into him hard enough to get suspended for three days.
The Princess was swept around a corner and out of sight, but Ivva played the scene in her mind over again. A white jacket and pants, her hair up in a crown of braids, a Wookiee behind her, and a clattering droid. Sweeping through the clouds, free and beautiful as the depths of Melara.
"Cute, isn't he?" Faidrah said, turning away. Ivva had forgotten she was there, and it took her a moment to remember that Faidrah had only meant to look at the Baron. Fai sighed dramatically. "I guess that's all there is to see." She tugged on Ivva's sleeve. "Come on. The restaurant's this way."
Ivva went to the restaurant and enjoyed the rishasa (it was, in point of fact, delicious). They talked about how good-looking the Baron was, and speculated on who the strangers might be. Ivva did not share her guess about the Princess, but made up a wild story about the rough man and the Wookiee, involving Outer Rim slave trade and a legendary bandit who supposedly gave his findings to homeless children he found wandering the stars. She didn't even consider mentioning Princess Leia or the Rebellion. She didn't think Faidrah was any friend of the Empire, but doubted that she had a particular desire to harbor its enemies, either.
After the restaurant, Faidrah insisted on a trip to the zoological gardens. Her mother was a major patron, and had stocked it with many animals from the Keis' home world of Cerete. The animals of the galaxy were Faidrah's special interest, and she shared it generously. Ivva's heart was light enough for once to really engage herself with learning something.
They went back to Faidrah's home in time for the servants to bring out the evening meal. Her parents were already at the table, speaking quietly.
"... I still say something's wrong," Tinera Kei was saying when they came in. "I'm telling you, the curator is cracking down on any loose talk. And he won't tell me why, which makes me suspicious."
Her husband - a burly man with a red beard, whose name was either Karim or Corlis - just grunted. "You oughtta watch what you say anyway. You never know who's listening."
They noticed Ivva and Faidrah. "Come in girls," Tinera said, arranging her face to look as though she hadn't been talking about anything important. "You're late."
Ivva wanted to know about whatever the curator had said, but it wasn't her place, and Faidrah drew the conversation to matters of school and science. Her father was more than happy to oblige, and Tinera didn't press whatever issue had been of interest to her earlier. By the time the meal was over, Ivva had forgotten that anything was wrong. Her mind had wandered during the conversation, toning out Faidrah's chatter. She wondered if she would see the Princess again, or if the Princess would be interested in meeting other survivors. Ivva knew of five from various schools on Chandrila. She thought maybe she could start putting together a list...
Oh, someone had probably already done that, and just forgotten to check on the people young enough to be under the sightlines. There was old Garlien, of course, who was paying her tuition, but he might have gone unnoticed, too. He certainly had never mentioned anything to her. They were all hill people, and the city people had sometimes forgotten them when they were all living on Alderaan together.
She wandered through the evening with the Keis, not really paying attention to them, daydreaming about going to see the princess, and making a list of those she was already calling the Forgotten Ones. It was common knowledge that the Princess was in the Rebellion. Maybe she would even tell Ivva how to join it...
She didn't really mark the division between daydreams and night dreams, and when Fai awakened her an hour before dawn, she was surprised to discover that she'd slept at all.
"Come on. Sunrise is the absolute top here," Fai whispered.
Ivva followed her out of the apartment, around a long, winding staircase, and into an atrium. She was following without paying much attention, just envying the way Fai's hair bounced in its lively way as she walked, and almost walked into Faidrah at the foot of another staircase.
"Fai, what - " She looked up and over Fai's shoulders.
Faidrah was standing stock still, but Ivva barely noticed her. Standing at the foot of the stairs was an Imperial stormtrooper, blaster at the ready.
"This area is restricted," he said.
"Since when?" Faidrah blurted out.
Ivva pulled on her friend's sleeve. A cold hand was wrapped around her heart, but somehow, it made her calm. "Let's go, Fai. You heard the man. It's restricted."
"But - "
She led the way out, surprised that she remembered the way, and circled back under the atrium two levels down. Faidrah was still looking over her shoulder. "That was a - "
"I know who it was. We have to get to the Princess. Please. You must know some other way in there."
Ivva swallowed hard. "I saw her, Fai. Princess Leia. From Alderaan. She was in the hall yesterday. She's a Rebel. They'll catch her.
Ivva didn't know what to expect - she didn't know Faidrah all that well - but she had no choice. She'd have to count on what she did know-Faidrah Kei was known in school as a bit of a prankster and was always the one in class who made faces at the teacher behind her datapad. She didn't like authority particularly well. And she had invited an Alderaanian girl to stay.
It wasn't much to go on, but getting her help was the only way Ivva could think of to try and get to the Princess. By the time she found her own way around this maze, the Empire might already-
She didn't allow herself to consider the possibilities of what the Empire might do.
Fai raised a sculpted eyebrow, then grinned broadly. "Well why didn't you say so in the first place? She's probably up in the guest quarters. I know a way I bet they didn't think to block off. I sneak around here all the time on holiday. Mom wouldn't approve of half the places I go."
Together, they took a turbolift down three levels, and Faidrah led them to a miners' tavern. It was closed this early in the morning, though a few of last night's patrons were still sprawled in the corridor. "Come on," she said, pointing out a half-sized door beside the garbage collection bin. She punched a code into the keypad and grinned as the door opened to reveal the inner service corridors of the city. "No one thinks about this one. And I figured the code out ages ago. I don't know who they think they're trying to keep out."
For what seemed like hours (but was probably only minutes; Ivva lost all sense of real time), they crawled across catwalks that spanned the operations center, and finally came up near the restaurant where they'd eaten yesterday.
It was deadly silent, empty... then, the unmistakable clatter of plastic on metal. A group of stormtroopers, pushing something ahead of them. Then...
Ivva bit her lip, trying not to gasp.
The princess was in the grip of an Imperial guard. She looked tired and hurt and-
Blasters fired abruptly, and the Princess suddenly broke away and screamed, "Luke, don't! It's a trap!"
The guard dragged her away, still yelling.
Ivva was three steps into the corridor before Fai caught her, clamping her hand over a mouth that might have cost her life. "Shut up and come back," Faidrah said, pulling her back into a hiding place. From the corner of her eye, Ivva saw a young man slip down the corridor after the Princess. Perhaps he could save her.
Ivva looked down, ashamed. She should have been able to fight for the last symbol of her home, yet she'd stood, and done nothing but survive, just like the first time. She had never done anything about Alderaan.
She broke away from Faidrah, and dove into a darkened corridor that looked like it ran parallel to the absurdly long route they'd taken along the catwalks, thinking that it would bring her back to someplace she knew.
We should have gone through that guard, we would have gotten here sooner...
For a few minutes, she heard Fai following her, but she refused to turn, and after awhile, she became lost in the twists and turns. Faidrah had been left behind many corridors ago.
A crackle of static broke the air, and Ivva's innards twisted. She expected to hear Tarkin's voice-
The Empire regrets...
Instead, it was another voice, the voice she'd heard only at a distance. Baron Calrissian. "The Empire has taken control of the city... I advise all citizens - "
Ivva stopped running, and leaned against the wall. Somehow, she'd kept her bearing, and found herself near the circumference of the level. Nearby, a door to a landing platform opened, and people started to crowd out onto it. She followed them. She thought of the Keis, thought she should go back and find them, so they would know she was safe and not waste their time searching for her, but the crowd swept her into the transport and the door was sealed. She was on her own.
The Empire has taken control...
The world was being stolen right out from under her. Again! How many times would it take? How many nightmares? How much blood spilled? How many lives destroyed?
The Empire regrets that it was forced to take extreme action...
Ivva Japui thought that perhaps it was time to take some extreme action of her own.
As it turned out, the Rebellion wasn't that hard to find.
Original cover by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.