In the Hands of the Empire

by Linda Bindner

Captured - by the Empire. Somewhere, somehow, everything had gone terribly wrong.

Vader stood in sinister silence at the other end of the sumptuous table, his harsh breathing rasping around the pristine dining room. Boba Fett posed smugly beside him, his hands resting lightly on his deadly laser rifle.

Still clasping tightly to Leia's hand, Han took a jaunty step forward, his chin raised in defiance. ``Still hanging out for the highest bidder, eh, Fett?'' He allowed himself one of his familiar cocky grins as he took a second step.

The armor-clad bounty hunter raised his laser rifle just a trifle in response. ``Don't bother, Solo,'' he warned in a voice oddly soft for a hired hit man. ``This is simply business.''

But Han would not be captured so easily, so neatly. His features twisted into a glare of pure abhorrence. He spat, ``Your choice of a business partner is as slimy as you are.''

The rifle raised to Boba Fett's shoulder with a well-practiced jerk, and the man sent a glare clear through his pitted helmet in Han's direction.

``Enough,'' Vader rumbled. He strode out from behind the table, pushing his black cape aside with a smooth flick of his gloved hand. He was beside the captives in three great strides. ``Save your insults, Captain. They will not help you now.''

The threat to Han was enough to make Princess Leia forget her own fears and interject her small form protectively between the Dark Lord and Han Solo. ``What do you want with us, Vader? We have no plans, no knowledge that you can use. The Rebellion....''

The menacing metal breath screen turned toward her. ``The Rebellion is no longer your concern, Princess.''

She tightened her jaw until her mouth was a thin line of controlled venom. ``Then why don't you just kill us now and get it over with!'' she hissed.

``Death is not my intention,'' he stated simply and whirled away.

At his words, the blood drained quickly from Princess Leia's face. Death at the hands of the Empire was something she expected and was prepared for. Her life was worth little even as a leader of the Alliance. There were many others to take her place. But Vader's desire to keep them alive meant only one other possibility: torture. She looked at Han, her breath ragged in her throat, and his grip around her fingers tightened even more.

``Don't worry, Leia,'' he whispered with brash insistence. ``We're not beaten yet.''

But the princess knew Vader far better than Han Solo did. And she knew exactly what was in store for them all.

Fortunately Darth Vader was too busy issuing orders to overhear Han's resistant remark. ``General Mort!''

A thin, whiplike man with dark hair and a permanent sneer of arrogance vaulted forward and snapped, ``Yes, my Lord?''

``See to the prisoners. I want them properly disposed of.'' He sent a meaningful glance at each prisoner in turn, spending a second longer looking at Leia's ashen face to emphasize his demands. ``And remember, General,'' he added ominously, ``the outcome of this mission depends on you.''

The man's eyebrows jerked upwards. With relish he said, ``You can count on me, Lord Vader.''

``I hope so, General,'' was the sinister reply. Darth Vader motioned for Boba Fett and a helpless Lando Calrissian to follow him and together they swept from the dining room.

His sneer growing, Mort snapped his fingers and troopers immediately came forward to part the three prisoners. Chewbacca made a move to resist and instantly ten guards tightly ringed him in, their rifles parting his furry pelt. Huge binders soon clasped the Wookie's hairy wrists behind his back, effectively immobilizing him from any further resistance to his capture.

Han's hand was forcefully pulled from Leia's by Mort himself, the curl of his lips showing white teeth now as his expression lifted to a grimacing smile of anticipation. ``Make sure this one's cuffs are especially tight,'' he commanded.

Han struggled uselessly as more stormtroopers jerked his arms behind him and bound his wrists with metal bands similar to Chewie's. As if I'll rip them all apart with my bare hands, Han complained to himself, eyeing the thirty or so troopers who had appeared out of the walls to guard the three defenseless Rebels. Angry and quickly becoming a little frightened, Han turned back to the general. ``What, no dinner?'' he retorted with a sneer of his own.

General Mort answered with a contemptuous laugh. ``We'll soon take the fight out of you, Rebel scum.''

``You just try it, pal!'' Solo dared with the last bit of bravado he could muster while being pinned between six stormtroopers.

Mort laughed again. ``We plan to.'' He turned his back on Han. ``Lieutenant, take Captain Solo to the holding area.''

A faceless trooper barked, ``Yes, sir!''

Han glared daggers at Mort, then sent a look to Chewie and Leia. ``Don't worry, Princess. We'll get out of this yet.''

Mort pleasantly continued to smile. ``I doubt that,'' he said, and the lieutenant pointed at a squad of his subordinates.

White gloved hands roughly gripped Han's arms and pushed him out the door where more Imperial soldiers waited to escort the prisoners to their destinations. Chewbacca was forced to follow his partner from the room, then led off in a different direction. His mournful howls echoed down the stark passages long after he disappeared from sight.

General Mort turned a malignant eye on Leia. ``Princess Leia, the master traitor herself. A pleasure to meet you.''

Leia clenched her teeth in frustration at her helplessness. Refusing to cower before the gleeful Imperial, she gestured in the direction Han had gone. ``What are you going to do to Captain Solo?'' she demanded.

Mort raised an eyebrow. ``It's not up to me to decide, is it, Princess?'' He laughed knowingly.

Not even the stubborn princess could keep the fear from showing in her wide brown eyes.

Leia stopped pacing the narrow confines of her cell long enough to listen closely. The sound of footsteps came nearer and nearer down the dark, echoing corridor and paused just on the other side of the cell's thick metal door. She jerked around to face the door, expecting it to slide aside and reveal the hideous black form that had haunted her worst nightmares for years. But a moment later more steps moved on down the hallway and she relaxed.

Changing of the guard, she thought. A wave of relief washed over her, replaced by a groan of frustration. Why didn't they come for her? What was the point of keeping her waiting like this? And what was happening to Han and Chewie? She glared in powerless rage at the walls of her cell, feeling more helpless than she ever had before. The implacable metal shone blackly back at her, absorbing the dim lighting to make the tiny room dark and dreary.

The princess sighed in despair. She wished she was in this predicament alone, without the company of her friends. Then the only person she would need to worry about was herself. She had been foolish to think that she could ever afford to have friends, to let herself care for others on a personal level. It only put those closest to her in danger. The horror of losing an entire planet of loved people should have taught her well enough, but she was forced to admit that it hadn't. Now Han Solo was suffering for her lack of emotional control.

If only he hadn't taken her from the command center like he did! Then she might have been captured when the Imperials breached Hoth's defenses and Han would have broken free with Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon when he'd had the chance. Seeing to her safety was certainly not his responsibility, and he'd had clearance to leave any time he wanted. If only he'd taken that opportunity! If only he had gone to pay his debts long ago!

If only they hadn't fallen in love.

But now things were very different and she was not in control of anything anymore. Before, she had been concerned only for the Rebellion and its continued existence: plans for the Death Star, the move to Echo Base, the survival of the members of the Alliance. Then came Han and suddenly she found herself swept away and out of control. Nobody had bothered to warn her that it would be like this, that it could be so painful. Now she felt afraid for them all.

Clutching her arms around her like a shield, Leia resumed her endless pacing. Six steps down, turn, six steps back to the door, turn and repeat the process. Down, back, down, back again. She hugged her arms around her body and shivered against the cool air of the cell, trying to keep warm in her endless restlessness, but she snorted an ironic laugh instead. Keep the cells cold and the prisoner uses precious reserves to stay warm, and then there's that much less energy left for resistance. Clever. But in her case, they needn't have bothered. She completely understood how formidable her captors were, and knew there was no point in resisting. Somehow she didn't think that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo would burst in to rescue her this time. The Empire would get what they wanted in the end.

The shiver persisted and she clenched her arm muscles tighter. Stripped of the finery Lando Calrissian had offered after the Falcon's arrival, she was once again clad in her simple, quilted combat suit, minus the vest bearing her Alliance insignia. She believed the suit had granted more warmth in Hoth's bitter storms than here, where the chill was as much internal as natural.

More footsteps sounded in the corridor, and this time the princess hurried to the door to meet them. But once again they passed on by, moving farther down the blackly lit corridors of the Cloud City detention center. She strained her ears and distinguished some muffled talking and what sounded like a short struggle. Chewbacca, possibly, she surmised. Only a creature that large could make enough noise to penetrate the thick door. Leia felt deep regret as she imagined her hairy friend's probable fate. The Empire was not secretive about their prejudice of alien life forms, and Wookies were considered particular prizes because of their great strength and supposed stupidity. They made perfect slave technicians and miners for Imperial lords who grew rich and fat off their prisoners' suffering.

Yet what was the point of torturing Chewbacca? Imperials couldn't even understand the Wookie language, so they would gain nothing from him. Puzzled, Leia pressed her ear closer to the door and listened intently.

A scream suddenly rolled down the corridor. It started short, like a gasp, then began to grow louder and longer until it crescendoed in a howl of pure agony.

Leia's mind reeled from that horrible sound and she fell back, as if the door had singed her ears. She lost her balance and stumbled over the metal shelf that served as the cell's only chair, then sank to the seat and pressed her back hard against the cold wall.

The scream was Han. She knew it instinctively the minute she heard that dreadful sound. Her skin tingled all over and she was panting, trying to catch her breath. She pressed her body harder and harder against the wall at her back, as if she could push the sound away by brute force. The cold seeped slowly into her shaking palms, but she failed to notice the chilling effect. Instead she wrapped her fingers tightly around the smooth edge of her seat and tried to control a rising, hysterical panic.

She had discovered this role as helpless prisoner was far worse than being the subject of torture herself. What were they doing to him? Why? Why didn't they choose her for their sick torture experiments? She had been specially trained to resist this type of Imperial bombardment, could hold out much better than Han. And more than any training, she didn't want him hurt. But he was hurt, and she knew it and could do nothing to help him.

Then, with a sudden flash of insight, the princess realized it was no mistake that she could hear Han Solo's cries of anguish. Her cell must be only a few doors down the corridor from the torture room for her to hear it all so well. Vader was no fool. The dark Lord knew of her training and considerable ability to withstand severe amounts of pain. But now he also knew something of the understanding between herself and Captain Solo. After all, they had been holding hands while confronting him in the dining hall, and like all good servants of the Empire, Darth Vader missed nothing. He had put his new information to good use. To be forced to sit within hearing distance of Han's brutal punishment but remain powerless to help was the torture he had personally devised for his well-trained enemy.

Princess Leia bitterly admitted to herself that Vader's tactics worked extremely well. Feeling more defeated than she ever had before, she shrank into a small ball on the cold metal slab and hugged her knees to her chest. She let her head fall to rest on her knee and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. But nothing could block out the wrenching screams, and her heart twisted to a hard lump inside her chest. Han! she silently cried to the cell's bleak emptiness.

Then without warning, the door to her cell whooshed open, and the light from the corridor flared through the opening, startling her. Leia lifted her head, fully expecting to face the Dark Lord of the Sith, yet no longer able to dredge up even an ounce of defiant energy. There was no point in pretending any longer; she was beaten and he would know it.

But it wasn't the Sith Lord who stood uncomfortably in the doorway, partially blocking the unexpected brilliance from the corridor. Lando Calrissian, Administrator of Cloud City, blinked in the dim light of the prison and pulled his baronial robes closer to his lean body, as if he loathed to touch the walls of his own detention center.

Leia found her voice. ``What do you want?'' she asked in acrid tones.

``Uh....'' he began, but another scream carried to their ears, and he flinched.

Now that she had found her voice, Leia also discovered a raging anger to accompany it. ``That's Han, isn't it?'' she asked, and when he didn't answer, she jerked off her seat and yelled, ``Isn't it!''

Lando clenched his teeth and nodded. ``Look, I had no idea....''

The princess shook her head. ``Don't tell me that! Whatever happened in the past, Han is your friend! How can you just stand aside and let them do this to him?''

Lando lurched forward a step and the door swooshed closed, muffling the screams still echoing the narrow hall. ``I didn't know it would be Han!''

``What?'' Her voice was scathing and Calrissian flinched again.

``Vader ordered me to turn over the passengers and crew of the next ship landing in my jurisdiction. I had no idea it was the Falcon until it was too late to ignore you. I did everything I could to chase you away, but I guess Han didn't pick up on my aggressive landing policies fast enough.''

Leia's lips tightened. ``We needed repairs too badly to go anywhere else.''

Lando was able to agree with that. ``So my technicians have discovered. What happened to you out there? They found laser burns and carbon scoring all across the hull. Even I know it's not like Han to put his ship in for such rough treatment.''

If he thinks I'm going to tell him the entire history of the Alliance, he has another thing coming! Leia remained locked in stony silence.

Lando continued in confusion. ``What's going on here? Lord Vader called you a princess, but I don't get it. If you're hooked up with Han, that's ridiculous. He'd never fall in with someone with a title; he always hated authority. And why the hell would the Empire be after Han? Not for just a simple bounty....''

His voice trailed away as he focused his gaze steadily on Leia, taking in her small form and fiery dignity. His mouth fell open in surprise. ``It's not Han. They're after you!'' His eyes narrowed and half baffled, half disgusted, he asked, ``Who are you?''

Princess Leia remained still, showing only disdain.

Understanding slowly kindled in Lando's face. ``The Rebellion! You belong to the.... Princess Leia! Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan!'' Lando nervously ran a hand over his dark hair. He turned towards the wall, then turned back to face her, his mouth round in shock. ``I'm in deep trouble.''

``Vader is after us all,'' she insisted. ``You're just a stepping stone in his bid for total power. If you think he'll leave you or your little mining colony alone after this, you're deluded. He'll crush you along with the rest of us like so much space garbage.''

But Calrissian wasn't listening. ``The Rebellion!'' he groaned. ``I planned to keep the Empire out of here by inviting in the Rebel Alliance?'' He covered his face with his hands and ground his teeth. ``This is just perfect!''

Princess Leia scowled angrily at him. ``Your friend is being tortured and all you care about is your worthless business? You truly are despicable, Lando.''

``I never meant for this to happen!'' he protested, wrenching his hands from his face. ``I had no choice.'' Her only response was to raise one eyebrow unsympathetically. Desperate to clear himself, Lando went on, ``At least they can't torture Han indefinitely: Vader will have to stop sometime.''

The princess' face darkened as old memories surfaced. A muscle in her cheek twitched once. In a shaky voice she said, ``Then the real interrogation will begin, and he won't survive.'' She spoke with the unemotional finality of experience. ``Han will be dead long before the Imperials learn what they want to know.''

Abruptly, as if on cue, the screams came to a sudden stop. The cell grew eerily quiet in the aftermath of so much pain.

Uneasy, Lando shuffled his polished boots against the floor. ``You don't know that for sure. Maybe....''

``I know,'' Princess Leia interrupted in the same flat, emotionless tone she'd used announcing Solo's eventual death.

Calrissian's dark eyes pierced the distance separating them. Fully comprehending the meaning behind her words, he slowly said, ``I bet you do.''

Leia turned her back on the administrator, wishing he would go away. Long dead memories and their accompanying emotions roiled past her typically firm grip and were threatening to overflow. She didn't particularly want him to witness the downfall of the hardened princess from Alderaan, and she fought to regain some command of her inner chaos.

But Lando quietly inquired, ``Do you love Han?''

Stunned to hear her own turmoil so easily put into words, Princess Leia slowly turned to face him again. ``What difference does it make?''

Lando met her cold gaze and cautiously advised, ``It could make a lot of difference, to Han.''

They stared at each other in the poorly illuminated cell. The silence stole around them like an evil cloak, bringing with it a fear of the unforeseeable horrors the future might hold. Leia almost preferred the sound of Han's agonized screams. Then at least she knew what was happening and that he was still alive. Now she knew nothing.

They were still standing, staring at each other when the door unexpectedly whooshed open, revealing the glare of the hallway lights and two fully armed stormtroopers. Brusquely they entered the cell and placed their gloved hands on Leia's unprotected arms.

One trooper turned a helmeted head towards Calrissian. ``Lord Vader wishes to see you in the observation deck,'' he informed in a toneless, dull voice.

With one last glance at Leia, Lando sighed and at last said, ``I'll be right there.''

For a moment he thought he saw naked fear in Leia's eyes, but her royal mask quickly veiled any stray emotions, and she held her head high as the soldiers pushed her to the door. Lando preceded the princess and her flanking escort out of the cell, and without a look back, headed in the direction of the nearest elevator. This mess he'd gotten himself involved in was getting more out of control all the time. He wanted to get away from the detention level and its prisoners as fast as his booted feet could carry him.

Princess Leia was led in the opposite direction, and within a matter of seconds, the hallway was deserted as the sound of footsteps slowly died away into the distance.

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