The forbidding clang of the shield doors echoed across the silent hangar bay and harmonized with the fearsome, throaty growl of pain issuing from the grieving Chewbacca.
Leia swallowed hard, trying to ignore the shiver that ran down her back at the Wookie's howl and the way her heart seemed to churn to a stop every time she allowed her thoughts to stray to the dangers surrounding Luke and Han. Caught in the grip of the worst storm the Rebels had encountered on Hoth, the two men were virtually defenseless against the raging weather; Luke was lost, perhaps hurt or dying, and Han's only mode of transportation was a tauntaun that might fare no better than the humans in such strong winds and snow. For all she knew, they might be dead already, just two more lifeless chunks of ice on the evil frozen plains of Hoth. Luke...and Han, dead. Gone.
Leaving her alone.
Leia's head snapped up; she would not think that way. They were alive, they had to be. Han would find Luke, and together they would put up the shelter that was specifically designed to protect the Rebels from the planet's killing winds. There they would hole up for the night and wait for a rescue. It was up to her to make sure they didn't have to wait any longer than was absolutely necessary.
The princess abruptly turned her attention to Major Derlin. ``You said the speeders should be ready by morning. Can they be adapted any sooner?''
Regretfully the major shook his head. ``I'm afraid not, Your Highness. I've got every man assigned to my team pulling double shifts already. With General Willis' override orders that came in tonight, I'm shorthanded again--there's nothing more I can do.'' He bowed his head. ``I'm sorry.''
Leia breathed a sigh of worry and frustration. Then she paused, her forehead knitting into a puzzled frown. ``Wait. General Willis' orders? What are you talking about?''
Derlin glanced back once at his aid, Lieutenant Slaavish, and frowned as well. ``Didn't you know?'' Then he understood. ``That's right, you weren't at that unscheduled meeting at 1600.''
Leia shook her head. ``No, I was still working on calibrating those sensor markers that Han placed this afternoon.''
``Of course. At the meeting, General Willis decided that the bigger transport ships and the snub fighters demanded the crews' attentions over the speeders. More than half of my original crew was transferred to that assignment.''
She stared at him, her face an expression of dumbstruck horror. ``You didn't say anything to dissuade him?'' she asked incredulously.
Major Derlin quirked an eyebrow at her, an action few members of the Alliance would dare to do. The princess was something of a legend in the Hoth base, and thus had the aura of distance most royal heroes suffered. ``Princess, may I remind you that I'm merely a major, and it takes more rank than I've got to argue orders with General Willis. He's not Rieekan, after all.''
Leia leaned back on her heels and crossed her arms, deep in thought. As Derlin suggested, General Willis was an imperious, conceited man who had joined the Rebellion soon after the Republic Senate was dissolved by Emperor Palpatine, just prior to the destruction of Alderaan. The Rebel Alliance had welcomed his expertise, since the general was particularly talented at seeing to the maintenance of the groups' larger vessels, and he knew every inch of each large troop transport in intimate detail. Her father and Willis had been fairly good friends while they served on the Senate, though Bail Organa had often wondered at Willis' stringent reluctance to compromise his position once his decisions were made concerning military matters. Leia knew that it wouldn't be easy convincing him to lend his technicians to Derlin's snowspeeder team.
Suddenly Princess Leia was afraid. Han and Luke might die, she thought in horror. If she didn't take action now, she might never see Luke's endearing smile again, or hear Han call her `Your Worshipfullness' in that scathing, cynical tone of voice he consistently used when they were together in public. Right then she would do just about anything to hear his insults, if she only knew he was safe.
But they were just two men, she argued with herself. It would take at least three crews of ten men each to repair the speeders by morning. Was she right in wanting to exhaust those men just in the hope of saving someone who might be dead by the time they were found? The Empire, she knew, would not bother over only two men, especially not a smuggler....
Of course, her father had always said, the importance of individuals was what the Rebellion was all about: to give every human and alien in the galaxy a chance to live in peace and happiness. Every creature was equally significant.
Her own eyebrow lifted, though in rising anger, unlike Derlin's. Her lips tightened to a thin line of determination. ``Major, please inform the general that I wish to see him in the command center. Immediately.''
``Yes, Princess.'' He watched as she nodded, then turned away to soothe the giant Wookie copilot of Captain Solo's. Derlin allowed himself the luxury of a small grin to replace his frown. A showdown between the overbearing general and the stubborn princess promised to be a meeting well worth attending. Perhaps the general would finally get a taste of his own medicine for a change. The grin grew. ``Lieutenant Slaavish, find General Willis,'' he ordered, the glimmer of anticipation moving to shine in his eyes.
Slaavish nodded enthusiastically. ``Yes sir!'' he barked and hurried away in search of the general.
Leia, General Rieekan, and Chewbacca were bent studiously over the night's duty roster in the command center when the furious Willis made his entrance into the crowded room, an entrance made even more remarkable by the bellow of pure rage that he sent right in Leia's direction.
``What's the meaning of this, Princess? You'd better have one mighty damn good reason for hauling me out of bed in the middle of the night, that's all I can say!'' The man's shoulder length, snowy white hair shook with his words as he wound and pushed his way through the center's milling personnel.
From the corners of her eyes, Leia watched the command crew shrink from his path and scurry out of his way, and for a moment she was reminded how stormtroopers had fallen over themselves to stay away from Lord Vader during her stay on the Death Star. The analogy was not a pleasant one to consider. ``General Willis,'' she began in her most diplomatic voice. ``I thank you for coming to this meeting on such short notice.''
``Short notice!'' Willis roared. ``This imbecile lieutenant-aid of Major Derlin's here practically yanked the covers from my very body!''
``I rang the door chime twice,'' Slaavish said under his breath, and Derlin glared him to silence. Now was not the time for explanations.
Rieekan interrupted. ``General Willis, we're glad you could make it. We have something of an emergency on our hands, and we need your help.''
Some of Willis' anger cooled at this news. ``What's happened?''
``We've lost two men tonight, General. Captain Solo and Commander Skywalker.''
``I don't know anything about this, Rieekan. You know personnel is not my jurisdiction. What the devil does this have to do with me?''
Rieekan calmly explained the situation of Luke's failure to return to base and Solo's subsequent disappearance in searching for the young Rebel commander. ``And as you know, we've had some problems adapting the speeders to the climate.''
Willis agreed with that much at least. ``This place is a damn icebox,'' he commented. ``I was against relocating here in the first place, if you care to remember.''
Rieekan smiled patiently. ``Yes, I recall. But to return to our problem... General, if those men are to have a fighting chance, we need to get our speeders functioning and on search duty by morning at the very latest. In order to do that, we'll need every tech crew we have, including the crews you reassigned to the transport ships....''
That was as far as Rieekan got. ``What?'' Willis exploded, his face instantly contorting in apoplectic rage. ``That's ridiculous! Giving speeders priority over transports and fighters-- Why, those blasted toys you have won't even make the Imperials blink if they come calling in attack formation! I reassigned those men so they could get some rest instead of working double shifts in this freezer. Hell, it would take every tech man and droid we have working all night to even get those speeders in the air, let along flying through these winds.''
Leia spoke up, unable to keep silent any longer. ``All we require is a squad of speeders to begin the search to narrow the vectors down to a few manageable zones. That would take only a fraction of your crews.''
Willis shook his head belligerently. ``No. You don't need speeders for this snowy hell; you've got tauntauns to cover the plains. And as I already said, the projected adaption length is unrealistic.''
Leia's jaw clenched. ``General Willis, we can't just....''
General Willis stepped forward, his own chin squared stubbornly. ``Don't be naive, Princess Leia!'' he scoffed in disdain, his glance including Rieekan and Derlin as well. ``It's impossible. We can't risk every technical team we have over just two missing men. And that's if they survive the night, which is doubtful in such a blizzard. We have to remain rested and vigilant in readiness for any possible Imperial attack. I won't waste my teams chasing after one lowly commander and an unenlisted space pirate.'' Willis' authoritative eyes turned to glare specifically at Leia. ``The answer is no.'' He gave one last sneer and turned to leave.
Chewbacca's howling, hulking form stopped the general in mid-step. The enraged Wookie snarled, showing teeth and fangs alike, and Willis took an involuntary step back. Right into Leia's grasp.
She hesitated. Had she heard correctly? Did General Willis not even care what happened to Han and Luke? She cared, certainly; to both of them she owed her life, and to Han...to Han she owed many things.
She grabbed Willis' coat and unceremoniously spun him around. ``Two men?'' she exclaimed. ``Two men? Let me tell you something, General Willis. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are not just two men caught in a storm. They've risked their lives every day placing sensors on this `icebox' just to save pompous, overbearing dignitaries like yourself from imaginary Imperial attacks. How dare you risk their lives on an attack that may never transpire! You wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Han and Luke; they were the two who saved us from becoming another Imperial statistic on Yavin three years ago. General, those men are the Rebellion, and you will do everything in your power to see to their safe return!'' She stopped to catch her breath, her hands trembling in fury. Suddenly she was aware of the stares of all the personnel in the command center as every pair of eyes riveted to her face in surprise at her public outburst. She didn't care; all that mattered was the rescue and safe return of her friends.
General Rieekan glanced from the princess to Willis and back again. Then he came to his own decision. ``Major Derlin, let's get those teams to the hangar bay. I want those speeders operational by 0600, and we've got our work cut out for us.''
Derlin grinned like a wolf about to bring down a particularly delectable meal. ``Absolutely, sir!''
Willis growled. ``You're a bigger fool than I thought, Leia Organa. What would your father say to the way you waste precious energy and man power for your own personal pursuits? I'll tell you what he'd say--he'd be ashamed of you! A military effort doesn't make allowances for any single individuals, not even for the friends of its `leaders,' especially not for unenlisted personnel such as that uneducated, pilfering smuggler who--''
Leia stopped him before his tirade progressed any further. ``Clearly you didn't know my father well at all. Chewie, show our friendly general to his quarters. I'll meet you at the hangar when you get back.'' Then, with an air of disdain that would have made her father proud, she turned her back on the fuming Willis and began rerouting droid assignments to help the tech crews with the long night ahead of them.
Willis considered expostulating over Leia's deplorable manners right there in front of half the command staff and Rebel officers, but the Wookie stopped him. It would be foolish to engage an angry Wookie, and as it was obvious that the princess was under the sole protection of that smuggler Solo's friend, he chose to hold his tongue. Yet he promised himself to have a serious talk with the younger Organa in the future. The very near future. With a snarl to rival Chewbacca's, he whirled and stomped out of the center, shoving anybody aside who didn't get out of his way fast enough.
Leia took a moment to regret the situation that General Willis had caused, but she also knew it couldn't be helped. She realized she might have more trouble with the general in the future, but she had other problems to concentrate on now. Han and Luke would be returned to the base by 0900 the next morning or she would die trying to get them back.
The night, as it turned out, was much longer than she had anticipated. This certain brand of speeders that the Alliance had acquired on the side from Ord Mantell proved to be particularly obstinate about Hoth's frigid temperatures. CK99s, with their improved long range scanners, high speed engines, and excellent hovering capabilities, would have been more desirable, but the Rebellion was in a position where they could not afford to be choosy. This older Incom model was sufficient as long as they could get them started and keep them in the air. But the coolant systems appeared to compensate too much, and the engines began overheating after only a few minutes of running time. The tech chiefs conferred with Major Derlin, then brainstormed, ready to try anything that might solve the problem. Chewbacca teamed up with R2-D2 and set to work on one specific speeder, doggedly analyzing every component and reaction the engine gave to the tests he and the little droid designed. A stiff breeze that permeated the shield doors ruffled the Wookie's dark fur, but he ignored it as well as the chill in the air. The cold only made him more resolute to solving the problem that had puzzled the technical crews since moving the Rebel base to Hoth.
For her part, Leia did her best to stay out of the way. Leadership and diplomacy were her areas of expertise, not speeder maintenance, so she remained on the fringes of the hangar bay and watched and waited. Later she came to understand that she had chosen one of the hardest roles for herself, that of the detached yet highly involved worrier.
Occasionally she headed for the command center to run double and triple and even more superfluous checks on the newly placed sensor markers, but even in the command center she was expendable as the sensors tested 100% efficient each time. In the darkest hours of the night, while on a quest to find something useful to do, she suddenly found herself pacing the deserted, snow-white corridors of the secret base, her gloved hands clenching and unclenching at her sides as her thoughts rotated chaotically between the lost heroes, Luke and Han.
Luke Luke Luke Luke.... Sometimes Luke appeared as such a young boy, she reflected, hardly old enough to be a commander in the Rebellion's military. Yet he was an excellent pilot and seemed to be an accomplished leader as well if she judged by the affection and respect his crew of pilots honored him with. She knew that, despite his rather boyish demeanor, Luke was capable of planning battle strategies and leading Rogue group into any campaign against the Empire with a high chance of bringing them all back home again, minus the Imperials. He had demonstrated his abilities several times, at Omicron IV with Han and again in a heated Imperial skirmish with Rogue group and Red group over the mining planet of Palmyra. Luke Skywalker was a seasoned pilot and a hero to the Rebel Alliance.
And to Leia.... Leia paused in her aimless pacing and smiled at the inanimate walls surrounding her. Luke showed the obvious signs of an unsuitable young man hopelessly infatuated with a member of upper society. He would do anything for her, go anywhere for her, accomplish any task that she required, no matter how demeaning it was to him. He idolized her, the Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, senator. And she had to admit that such worshiping wasn't so bad.
Then she grimaced. From hard-won experience, she also knew it wasn't real. That kind of adoration never lasted. Usually, once the individual actually took the time to talk to her rather than to her image, the golden glow of affection rarely survived the transfer to the true Leia. Under the royal surface, Leia wasn't so different from everybody else. Luke's case was a little different, of course; they'd known each other for three years and though they had had numerous conversations and worked closely together on many projects, the idolatry was still there. Puppy love, she thought fondly, employing a phrase she'd overheard Han use while talking to Wedge Antilles about Luke's evident enthusiasm for any project that she was in charge of, most recently the sensor placements. But even Leia had to admit that she'd never seen a case of infatuation last as long as Luke's. Perhaps there was more to it after all....
The princess shook her head and continued her pacing along the base's maze of corridors. Her thoughts had involuntarily moved back to the highly dangerous situation Luke was now in, and worry replaced any enjoyment she got from pondering her relationship with him. He simply had to be alive! After all they'd been through together, it couldn't be like this, all three of them facing the end alone on the bitter glacial wastes of Hoth.
The three of them. Leia, Luke, and Han.
Princess Leia briskly turned a corner, changing direction back towards the hangar bay almost as if she could change the course of her thoughts in the same manner. She was to experience no such luck as her mind peevishly remained stuck on Han now that the smuggler had invaded her meditations.
A frown creased her face, and the sudden suffusion of heat that accompanied the drift of her thoughts caused her body temperature to rise several degrees. Damn him! she thought, fighting to regain control of a flurry of erratic emotions. Why was it that when she thought about Luke, she was in perfect control, but the minute she considered Han Solo, her entire world tilted out of order like one of his cocky, lopsided grins and she felt like everyone was staring at her. But even as she condemned him to the junk pile of her mind, a betraying wisp of curiosity squeaked through the cracks and she found herself wondering what it might be like to kiss him goodbye, as he'd implied that afternoon.
It was ridiculous for her to even think about that, she scolded herself. He was infuriating, that's all there was to it. All he had to do was look at her and her temper exploded. She felt sure Han had only been baiting her, trying to rouse her anger one last time before leaving the Rebel Alliance behind. Yet, in an odd way she was pleased with the images his suggestion conjured in her mind. Perhaps she even wanted to kiss him--perhaps she had wanted to for a long time. Then she was horrified at herself. What was she thinking?
She had little experience with men, she knew... Leia corrected herself; to be honest, she had no experience with men, especially not men like Han Solo. The men she'd previously known were refined, had excellent manners, and understood the fine points of Imperial diplomacy. Han on the other hand....
The thought He's leaving, erupted suddenly in her mind, and her face fell in bizarre and overwhelming disappointment. A chill that had nothing to do with Hoth's subzero temperatures coursed through her blood as her brisk pace faltered to a stop in the dimly lit iceway. She'd always known in the back of her mind that someday Solo would climb aboard his freighter and take off, never to be seen again, but now that he'd actually stated the fact of his departure, it seemed so much more real. The unexpected flash she had of a future without Han felt grim to her lonely heart.
Of course, all they did was argue, fight, and insult each other, yet Leia thought she'd miss even that. She'd never admitted it before, but she had grown to care about Captain Solo over the past few years, and now the knowledge came as a bitter revelation. He might be dead already, frozen in the storm with Luke.
And that afternoon in the South Passage, he'd brought things into the open, or as much into the open as she would allow. Han had tried to get her to admit that she needed him, and she had claimed ignorance to such an outrageous suggestion. It was only now, when she was alone and leaning helplessly against the tunnel wall, that she fully comprehended.
He was as fiercely independent as she was, so independent, in fact, that like her, he was afraid to let anybody become too close to him lest he lose that prized freedom. However, in some strange, unfathomable way, they had both managed to find the chinks in the other's armor, infiltrate, and take hold. It was funny, really, she thought. They had each convinced themselves that they needed no one while they were caring for each other all along.
Leia smiled grimly into the emptiness of the corridor. If Han knew she was thinking this way, he'd probably laugh hysterically at her before admitting the truth. She couldn't bear it if he laughed at her. So she pushed herself away from the wall, squared her shoulders, and made a vow not to breath a word of her recent insights to anyone. Ever. Stoically she continued back to the hangar bay where she hoped a miracle had taken place in her absence.
At 0430, Leia stood beside an exhausted Major Derlin in the icy cold hangar bay. His face was drawn and tight, but he smiled at her approach.
``Princess, I was just about to call you,'' he said.
``I've been trying to stay out of everybody's way, Major Derlin. Have you had any luck?''
He nodded. ``Yes, we found the problem. A simple matter of recalibrating the coolant computer to make it think the temperature on Hoth isn't as cold as it actually is. That snub speeder Chewbacca was working on has been in the air and floating there for the last half hour.''
Leia suppressed the shout of joy that bubbled up from her throat and instead asked, ``Then what's taking so long to repair the rest of the squad?''
Derlin actually managed a chuckle. ``Nobody except Captain Solo can understand the Wookie language. We've got your protocol droid interpreting, but the going is slow, and Chewbacca is in quite a rush. Still, I believe I can promise that the speeders will be operational and on search detail by first light, in approximately an hour.''
Leia tempered her reaction yet again, keeping the second happy shout squashed inside, but her face lifted and she almost smiled. ``That's excellent news, Major! The best I've heard in days!'' She glanced at the row of snowspeeders lined up in the hangar like baby ducks being led to a pond by their mother. Chewie stood next to one speeder, gesturing hurriedly at a confused technician and pointing his hairy paw at the speeder's delicate instruments while Threepio did his best to keep up with the Wookie's grunts and growls.
Derlin nodded tiredly. ``Don't worry, Your Highness, we'll find them.''
Half an hour before dawn, the raging storm slacked off, the winds died down, and the clouds slowly began to drift apart. By the time the last coolant system computer had been reconfigured, the wan sunlight was burning through the thin layer of clouds left by the storm. Streaks of shadows reached across the hangar bay when the shield doors finally opened, and the heating system punched in to combat the cold air that washed through the opening.
Leia gripped her arms tightly against her chest, trying to ward off the chill that even her quilted combat suit couldn't quite deflect. This was definitely the lowest the temperatures had reached on Hoth since the Rebels established their secret base. Loose snow scuttled across the threshold, shifting to lay in small piles against the landing claws of the grounded @word(X-wings) and the Millennium Falcon. Rogue group arrived, suited up in warm flight suits and attentively received Rieekan's brisk instructions like they were accustomed to being put on search duty at six o'clock in the morning. The princess watched as Wedge, Zev, Dak, and the others jumped into the waiting snowspeeders and began the preflight patterning sequences. One by one, the speeders were cleared and shot out of the hangar into the blinding morning sun. Leia squinted her eyes until the ships were lost from view in the fluffy clouds and blowing snow of Hoth.
General Rieekan materialized next to Leia. ``Why don't you get some sleep, Princess. It could be quite some time before any reports start coming in.''
But Leia stubbornly shook her head. ``No, I prefer to stay awake, General, to be here when Han and Luke are brought back.''
Rieekan gave her a sharp, almost fatherly look of stern disapproval, then only said, ``As you wish. Shall we adjourn to the command center where we can monitor Rogue groups' communications?''
Leia nodded, ``Of course,'' and stifled a yawn that threatened to erupt before she could follow the general into the darker corridors leading to the command center.
Leia noticed the tense atmosphere immediately as she moved quickly between monitors and large grid screens to a sensor station. It seemed that everybody was anxious about the safe return of Han and Luke. ``Are the sensors still functioning properly, Lieutenant?'' she asked, leaning over the tall, red-haired woman seated at the console.
Lieutenant Jan Peters turned to peer into the princess' face. ``They're fine. Working like they've just come off the assembly line.''
``Have they spotted anything like--''
Jan smoothly interrupted. ``I haven't seen a blip, Leia, nothing that could even be imagined into looking like a Star Destroyer.'' Leia opened her mouth, but Jan predicted the next question as well. ``And no, the ground scanners haven't picked up Captain Solo or the commander, either, so don't even ask.''
Princess Leia straightened up and raised one eyebrow. ``You are entirely too cheeky to be working with the sensors, Jan.''
The redhead smiled. ``It's what waiting and worrying does to me, makes me cheeky. My family didn't like my cheek, either, so I had to join up with this lot.'' Leia managed something resembling a grin, or at least a lifting of the corners of her mouth. ``Did you get any sleep last night?''
Leia eyed the suddenly concerned lieutenant. ``Don't bother with a quick lecture. Rieekan's already given me one of his looks. I promise to take plenty of rest leave when I know what happened to Han and Luke.''
Jan warned, ``That could be hours yet.''
``I don't care how long it takes, so don't say....''
The crackling sound of static coming from a comm station several feet away heralded the first message from Rogue group. Leia leapt quickly to the console and flipped the intercom switch for the message to be broadcast throughout the command center.
``Echo Base,'' came a shout when the static cleared. ``This is Rogue Two.''
Zev, Jan mouthed to the princess, and Leia nodded wordlessly. There was more of the message coming in, and she didn't want to miss anything.
The crackling continued. ``I've got something. It's not much, but it could be a life form.''
The transmission ceased for several agonizing moments. Rieekan solemnly followed Rogue Two's flight path, noting, ``He's in zone eight, sector four, and closing in.'' Everybody in the center seemed to be holding their breath.
Leia's eyes were closed, evidence to how hard she was trying to keep her feelings of hope in check. It's too soon, she told herself, too soon for any news to come in yet.
Then the static cleared. ``Echo Base, this is Rogue Two. I found them! Repeat, I found them!''
A shout rose up in the command center, reverberating crazily off the smooth ice walls and equipment cluttering the room. Jan Peters whooped a yell and jumped up to congratulate anybody she could reach.
And relief flooded through the princess as she stood motionless among the mayhem, ignored by the other officers, her eyes still shut tight. But slowly the worry and exhaustion etched in her features began to thaw, replaced by elation and triumph, and suddenly she smiled.
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