Night isn't quiet. Below the languid gaze of the indigo sky, the whispers of evening creatures mingle with the murmuring breeze slipping through the trees keeping watch along the narrow streets of the comfortable suburban enclave. A rising gust of wind reaches through a half-open window into the bungalow rooted to its ancient spot at the top of a dead end street.
Nalieza is awake. In these shadow hours between sunset and sunrise, she hears the quiet sounds now, those small auditory details that form the backdrop to her workaday existence. And she notices the more obvious noises, too. Like the one that's been irritating her for the past forty-five minutes.
She rolls over and slides off the bed to her feet. It's well past time to shut out the unsubtle drone of a chat show hostess coming from the house next door. The retired Lit professor always keeps the volume up to maximum on his holoviewer, so everyone nearby is forced to endure the old man's awful choice of programming. Poorly scripted dialogue and synthesized strings from the romance dramas during the day, and pointless banter and a cheap horn section from the talk shows after midnight. They were all from another life, tokens of the lack of substance that made her run back into normalcy. Of course it was annoying. Especially the singsong intonations of the "Stars Revealed!" hostess. Most everyone in the galaxy enjoys the vibrating tones of Melo Canteuse. But to her, the alien glamour queen's voice is crackling ice in a plastene cup. Cheap, and artificial.
But the bother is silenced when Nalieza closes the window. With a sliding thud, one lingering reminder of her previous life disappears.
Out in the hall, her father walks along the hardwood floor, calling up the ghosts built into the boards. A house of two hundred years has its own unique methods of communication. Creaks, squeaks, bangs, and rumbles are all the ways of letting those contained within know this is a haven. Like when the heater shudders on rainy days. That is the little abode's reassurance of warmth within its walls even when the air might be chilled outside. Nothing can invade their peace for very long. Not even the disruption of fifty midterm reports. At least her father was finally done perusing all those differing interpretations of the Battle of Remis, judging by "Thank the Creatrix!" coming from his office ten minutes ago. Now he was on his way downstairs to the kitchen, probably for a cup of tea, or possibly something more bracing.
Jul. 26th, 2013
Night isn't quiet. Below the languid gaze of the indigo sky, the whispers of evening creatures mingle with the murmuring breeze slipping through the trees keeping watch along the narrow streets of the comfortable suburban enclave. A rising gust of wind reaches through a half-open window into the bungalow rooted to its ancient spot at the top of a dead end street.
Dream World: Cloud City
She saw a chamber...and there was a woman, dressed in white, with grief and pain cast upon her face. And the man...his wrists were bound with manacles. He was standing on some kind of platform...staring across at the small figure of the woman.
Damned stormtroopers ripped me away before I could tell her... All of this time, I wanted to say the words..."I love you"... She said it!..."I know"...that's all I could tell her?...I wanted to say more!
But there was no time to say anything else...
Now the man was descending into some kind of pit...there was a loud sound...and then...the heavy cold...pouring down and down without end...
Why can't I push it away!
He was taken into total darkness…and then came awareness…
Can't breathe...Why!...Wait…I’m trapped...in the carbonite… I can feel it! How do I stop this? What do I… hide from it…run away…find a deeper place...it’ll be safe there…I won't have to know that I’m in here…hurry, go into the dark…
He slipped away into oblivion.
Real World: Aeithera
She was falling...out of the sky, out of another plane... there was the sudden sensation of landing back in her body…then dim blue light and blackness. And the sound of her rapid breathing.
Nalieza closed her eyes, and opened them again. The same combination of blue light from her wall lamp and darkness from outside confirmed that she was in her bed, and it was the middle of the night.
So it was only a nightmare.
Then how come her heart was beating so fast? Could a phantasm from the abyssal mind strike so much fear into her?
She doubted that was possible.
She needed to collect her thoughts, and try to gain some perspective on what had just happened. Maybe drinking something and spending time sitting on the porch would clear her head so she could get back to sleep.
She got out of bed and shuffled through the living room into the kitchen.
With an open palm, Nalieza lightly pressed the illumination panel on the wall. The overhead light came on. Then she started towards the cupboard...
...the pain, sudden and sharp, ran through her chest. As if someone had ripped out her heart.
It had not been a dream. Or even a nightmare. It was...real.
What had happened to this man? He seemed to know about being frozen in carbonite...wait...What? No. That couldn’t be true. That was too…horrifying. No, no, absolutely not. It didn’t happen.
But what if…he had been…in carbonite? If that were true, then was he even alive?
And who was he?
None of it made any sense.
It wasn't until near the end of breakfast that Nalieza finally called up enough courage to tell her friends about the dream.
The same sequence of images had continued showing up while she was asleep for the past eight days. When she had awoken that morning with the feeling of being trapped in cold metal yet again, Nalieza decided to forgo breakfast at home, and headed out for the Laseto Boarding Establishment. Two of her friends rented rooms there. Her third friend would definitely be there, as it wasn't a long walk from the boarding house from his small apartment several blocks away.
With the other student boarders gone for the day, it was safe enough to talk about without having to worry about who might hear the discussion.
"What did you say happened to this man again?" Josym asked. He took the last graincake from the serving platter and put it on his plate.
Nalieza drank some of the kahve in her cup, even though it had turned cold some time ago. "It was...he...he was put in carbonite."
Meaithe leaned her elbows on the table while finishing a piece of toasted ishfa. "That can't be right. No one would still be using that as a means of torture anymore." She hesitated. "Unless they were truly barbaric."
"I saw stormtroopers there. We all know who they work for."
Josym sighed. "Yeah. And they have founders' rights on performing random acts of sadism."
"But it's more than just that I saw him being put into carbonite. I actually felt what it's like to be frozen. He was aware of the whole thing...and if what I saw is really true, he could feel everything."
"Feel what exactly?" Civriel gently stirred a spoon in the cha mug that sat in front of him.
"That he was trapped in it. That he wanted to breathe, and he couldn't. Being frozen, he could feel how painful it was. And it does hurt, terribly. And he could feel himself trapped in that stuff. And he can't move or do anything else but think. Yet...he can still feel everything. That's got to be the worst part for him...feeling helpless..."
The conversation came to a standstill at that point, until Arah, the owner and namesake of the boarding establishment, entered the dining room carrying a serving tray with a fresh pot of kahve and five pottery cups on it. "Perhaps the man was trying to reach out with his mind," she commented, setting the tray on the table. Then she began removing the empty breakfast dishes and taking them over to the sideboard.
"Or the pain was so intense that his conscious and unconscious split in two," Meaithe said.
"What do you mean?" Nalieza asked.
"The pain and shock of being frozen caused his mind to temporarily lose its balance between conscious and unconscious. And the unconscious part was what you came into contact with."
"But why did I have to feel it? I don't even know who he is."
Civriel leaned across the table and picked up the kahve pot from the tray. "Could all of this be some manifestation of the Force?"
Meaithe shrugged. "There's so much that isn't known about how the Force works. Every record of it seems to have been destroyed or appropriated by the Emperor. It's even difficult to find material on other mystic traditions if they resembled the Jedi in any way."
"Do you remember anything else?" Arah picked up the serving platter with one hand while using the other to grab the last empty mug off the table.
"Well, there were stormtroopers. And there was the woman that he thought of..."
"Wait, you're saying that you could read what he was thinking?" Josym asked.
"More than that. I think our minds actually merged. He was trying to keep his head together, because he didn't want Leia to get hurt..."
Arah almost dropped the serving platter on the floor. She quickly recovered her composure, then asked, "Leia? Are you sure that was the name he was thinking of?"
"Very sure." Nalieza paused. She tapped her finger on the table. "The name sounds familiar, but I couldn't place it. I still can't."
"That name certainly is familiar if you ever lived for more than a day on Alderaan," Arah said.
"Wait, that couldn't be her." She looked up at the others. "Or could it be? And if that woman was the princess, then I must have connected minds with one of the guys she brought into the Rebellion."
"But which one?" Civriel asked.
Arah smoothed the back of her morning dress before sitting down in the empty chair next to Nalieza. "In the refugee community, we have spent so much time talking about them. It's really like a child's sleeping tale. The princess, the knight, and the pirate. She's been so close to both of them. But we've noticed over the last year..."
"Come on, enlighten us. It might help," Josym said.
"It's not usual in the child's tale for the princess and the pirate to fancy each other. She always marries the knight at the end of the story. But in this tale, her suitor is not the knight. It's the pirate."
She was standing in a forest. Guenfers and iilis towered all around, their leaves glowing with the deep red and gold of woods in late autumn. A varakai called sweetly as it flew overhead in the bright afternoon sky. From somewhere nearby, there was the sound of flowing water.
This was a peaceful setting. But not one that was familiar. It was not a dreamscape of her creation. It meant something to him.
She felt a calling. There was something pulling her towards the water-sound.
She took one step, then another, and walked down a long path that was surrounded by an ascending canopy of leaves. They twisted and intertwined together, forming a dome against the sky. Brief glimpses of sunlight came through the leaves, and shone her way.
The path stopped at a river.
She stood at the edge. What next?
The calling came again. She stood up, and walked through the water across to the other side. There was another path to follow...long, and curving upwards around a bend.
It ended at a clearing surrounded by a towering grey stone wall that encircled the space.
A man was in the middle of the wall. His face was contorted into an expression of desperate pain, and his hands thrust upwards from the stone as if he were an animal trying to claw out of a trap.
It was Solo.
Nalieza felt cold. The sensation wasn't coming from outside, but rather from within herself.
She drew out a long breath, then approached the figure in the wall.
Seeing the pain in his face up close was an intense reminder of feeling frozen in the dream. But now wasn't the time to focus on that horrible memory. There was something of urgent importance that needed to be done.
She reached out a hand and traced her fingers across one of the outstretched stone hands. Cold and still. Not a surprise...what was she hoping to find?
Life. Any kind of proof that within this entombed body there might be some measure of a living presence.
A thought floated across her mind...yes, why not try it?
She reached out her hand again, but this time she pressed her fingers against his right wrist.
Something subtle throbbed within the stone. It could barely be felt. Yet it was still there, flowing and persistent. A pulse.
The forest around her dissolved into itself, the stone wall and the clearing seemed to fold inward and disappear. And she was folded right into them. Slowly, at first, then with a quickness that was puzzling. Yet, not frightening.
As the scenery around her dissipated, Nalieza saw a rising black curtain take its place. And even as it was forming, it was also melting into another background; a completely different setting from the forest. As it gradually took shape, she began to recognize this new set of surroundings.
It was the carbon freezing chamber.
She lowered her hand, and began to walk about.
The chamber was dimly lit in midnight blue and smoky orange. Underneath her feet was a circular metallic floor, upon which her shoes lightly tapped as she moved about. Drifting tendrils of steam floated in the chamber, as if a freezing had recently occurred.
A freezing...oh, no...
Something made her look up to the ceiling. There was a large claw suspended above the platform. A claw that would be used to remove a frozen item out of the pit.
The pit. She had to find the pit. But why?
"Who's there?" A man's voice.
Nalieza stopped. That was him.
She made a quick study of the room. He sounded very close by, but there was no one that she could see standing within the vicinity.
"Who's there?" Solo asked again.
She felt nervous. How much more insane could this situation become? How could she find the disembodied voice and its owner?
Wait...that sudden feeling of needing to find the pit...could he be in there?
"Where are you?" she called out.
"Down here. In this hole."
Hole? So it was the pit.
"Keep talking so I can find you." She started walking again, looking down at the floor as she moved.
"It's the big hole in the middle of the floor. Can't miss it."
When she raised her head, the wide circular hole right in the center was plain to see.
No turning back...she took one step, then another, and a few more until she was at the hole. She kneeled by the edge, and peered down into the pit.
There he was, standing there, staring up at her, looking confused.
Nalieza bit her lip. Okay, what to do now? Right, say something. "Why are you just standing down there?"
"Hell if I know. I guess the carbon freezing didn't work." Then he took a quick glimpse around the walls of the freezing pit. "But what am I still doing in here? Vader would've dragged me out by now if the process hadn't finished."
She sat back on her heels. This was becoming even more difficult. If there was a way to stop it all now by waking up, then let it happen. For his sake, and hers. Because he would realize that this setting was simply an invention of his mind. And he would once again have to face the reality of being trapped in an icy prison. What would knowing that do to him?
Fortunately, there was another more pressing matter to consider before revealing anything. "Shouldn't you get out of the hole?"
"Does it look like I can do that?"
"Well, I could try to help."
Nalieza glanced around the immediate area for something that could help in getting him out. But there was nothing to be found. Except for her.
"Let me try to boost you out."
"You can't do that."
She held out her hand. "Don't assume."
He was still clearly doubtful of this idea, but she could also tell he was going to follow along with her plan.
He reached up and took her hand. She began pulling backwards, falling seated onto the floor.
At first, no amount of tugging could bring him to the surface. So she concentrated, then gave one mighty pull...
...and he flew out of the pit in a rapid ascent. She fell on her back from the effort, while he wound up landing next to her on his side.
They spent a few moments staring at each other.
"Thanks," he finally said.
"My pleasure," she responded.
He pushed himself up off the floor with his right arm. "Well, I'm out of there now. What happens next?"
She rolled over onto her stomach. "I suppose introductions might be the next logical step."
"Fine. You go first."
"Okay. You're Han Solo. I'm Nalieza Fejier." She reached out a hand. "Pleased to meet you."
He hesitated, then sat up and shook her hand. "I guess my reputation precedes me."
"Of course. You're one of those nasty Rebels. We get exposed to your pics every so often on the justice shows."
"Are you a loyal citizen that's going to arrest me?"
"Why should I?"
"Because I'm a nasty Rebel?"
She smiled. "Actually, I'd call you a nasty inspiration to rebellious people."
Nalieza saw the confusion on his face at this statement. But he decided not to address it. "So you aren't here to haul me away. What are you doing here?"
She realized that the truth could not be avoided much longer. "It's not a matter so much of what I'm doing here. It's really more about why you happen to be here."
"Why I'm here? Because I was frozen so I could get dropped off at Jabba the Hutt's place." He stood up. "Doesn't look like it worked, though."
She swallowed hard. "Actually, it did work." She waved her hand around to indicate the dream version of the carbon freezing chamber. "Nothing in here is real."
"What are you talking about? This is real," and stomped his boot on the floor as if to prove it.
"It's not, it's a dream. You didn't..." her throat felt tight. She did not know how to phrase any of this... "This place...this freezing chamber...it isn't the real one. It's a reconstruction. Your mind's playing it back. It's just a memory. That's all."
He did not believe her. She could feel it just as plainly as his expression showed it.
"I'm not lying."
"No, you're just making stuff up."
"Think for a minute. How could you have survived it?"
"It didn't work. Doesn't really matter how I got out."
"You don't remember any of it? Being frozen, seeing her standing there...?"
He refused to let the truth enter into his thoughts. When he turned around and started walking away, she was not surprised.
She followed after him, not saying a word.
As they walked, she started to notice that the scenery was changing again. Flickering, dissolving, melting away. The carbon freezing chamber was fading into nothingness, reverting back to the forest.
"Stop!" she called out to him.
He kept on walking.
"Solo, stop walking for one damned minute! Look around! Watch what's happening!" She ran ahead and caught up with him. Grabbing his arm, she said, "Everything's changing."
He did not look at the surroundings. Instead, he gave her a fierce stare. "I don't know what you're doing, but I want you to stop it."
"I'm not the one in control here. You are." She noticed they were standing in the clearing. "I found you here." That didn't sound quite right. "Actually, it was a representation of some kind." She stepped away from him, and began to walk about in the circle. "There was a stone wall here. And you were trapped in it."
"What's that supposed to mean? I was trapped in a wall, and you got me out?"
"It's symbolic. That's what dreams do; turn things from real life into different kinds of objects."
"Fine. So what's the meaning of me being trapped in a stone wall?"
His expression slowly changed. Disbelief gave way to understanding.
Nalieza had another feeling come to her, like the one that had pulled her along to this clearing.
"Follow me," she told him, moving away from the clearing and heading down the pathway.
She walked quickly, focused on reaching her destination, even while another part of her mind wondered what exactly she was doing. And she did not stop once to see if he was indeed coming up behind her.
But when she stopped at the river and turned around, she knew that he would be there.
"Try to go across," she said, pointing to the other side.
He could have protested, or called her crazy. Or done anything else but what he did. Which was to go to the edge of the river and try to cross it.
He moved forward, gradually, until he reached a large, flat rock that stood out from the flowing water. It was the last place to stand in the middle of the river before reaching the stretch of land that stood before him. After some hesitation, he stepped down off the rock, stretched forward, then tried to plant his foot upon the other shore. But his foot did not make landfall. Instead, something invisible and solid pushed him backwards onto the shore.
He could not go across.
Solo looked up at Nalieza in shock.
"Now do you believe me?" She frowned. "You're trapped here."
"Where is here, exactly?"
That was a good question. She couldn't tell precisely where here was. "I don't know. Somewhere between life and death." No, that didn't sound right. Although it was partially true, but... "Or maybe you can say that you're trapped in the land of the unconscious." She pointed across the river. "That's the side of the conscious world. I can come in, and I can go out."
"But I can't." He stood up and approached the river's edge slowly. He reached out a hand. "It feels like some kind of wall."
A barrier that neither one of them could see, preventing him from returning to a state of mind where he would be aware of his imprisonment.
"It's there to protect you," she told him, moving over to stand beside him.
"How can it do that and keep me stuck in this place?"
She couldn't possibly try to explain the logic behind this situation. But she had no explanation for why she was the one that was being put into this experience, and what should be done next.
"I'm sorry. I have nothing to tell you that can help."
"So what happens to me now?"
Nalieza stared across to the opposite shore. "I think waiting's the only option you've got available at the present time."
He pressed both of his palms against the invisible wall. Then he curled his right hand into a fist, and punched the empty air in front of them. His knuckles bounced off the surface of the unseen obstruction, causing his arm to fly back.
He stared at the blank space before him, then cast his eyes downward to his hand. There was no damage.
"No choice, huh?" he asked in a low and somber tone.
She sighed. If there could be a better answer to give..."None at all."
Nalieza tapped her thumb on the datapad viewscreen. She had spent the better part of an hour trying to get through the prologue of Tinkin's Progress. But so far, she was only up to screen five.
She pressed the forward button on her datapad. "Is it still gloomy out there?" she asked Josym, who was sitting by the window.
He turned around and gave a look out the window. "Same as before. Too much water for one day."
"That's what winter is like around here. A lot of rain comes down, and makes everything dreary."
Josym shrugged. "You might have a point. And it could be worse, right? It could be snowing."
"Now you could say that's too much water."
"Either way, I still can't trust a planet with this much precipitation falling out of the sky."
"Is the weather any worse than having to read this stuff?"
"You have a point there," Josym responded, getting up from the windowseat to join her on the couch.
Nalieza moved over to the right. "You can't get through this stuff, either?"
Josym leaned back and rested his elbow on the armrest. "Who could? It's boring enough to cure insomnia."
"It certainly didn't help my case of it last night."
He stared at her. "Wait, when did we suddenly switch to that topic?"
She held his gaze for a second, and then decided to study the carpeting. Something better to do than give Josym any hint that something was bothering her. "Well, you mentioned it first."
"You've been having those dreams again," he said.
She shrugged, and kept staring at the floor. There was a worn spot in the carpet that drew her attention. Maybe the circle of gradually fading blue patchcloth could absorb anything and swallow it completely, like a black hole. If she concentrated hard enough, it could swallow all of her thoughts and take away any memory of last night's dream...
"When did they start up this time?"
"They haven't started again."
"Stop being evasive. Tell me."
She sighed. "This one was different."
"Different in what way?"
Nalieza hard. "I talked to him last night," she said softly. "It's..." she rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, "...well, I don't know what to call it. But the dream happened. That's the only part I'm sure of."
"You spoke to him."
"Exchanged words. The both of you."
Nalieza felt as if she were being regarded as only slightly less insane than a street prophet. "You don't believe me. Great." She tossed the datapad onto the floor with a frustrated flip of her hand. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
"Telling the truth."
"Are you sure?"
"Sure that I talked to him? Of course."
"But that can't be possible."
"Again, sorry. But that was my dream last night." She tucked her knees up to her chest and stared at him.
"It just sounds bizarre, that's all." He leaned forward and put his hand over top of hers. "Look, I'm not trying to doubt you. You aren't lying."
"Okay, maybe I'm crazy."
"I wouldn't call it crazy. More like gifted." He picked up the datapad from the floor and placed it on the arm of the couch next to him. "Okay, tell me everything. How did the dream start? What did you guys talk about?"
"It started in a forest. I found him trapped in a stone wall. I think the place might mean something to him. I never got the chance to ask him about that. The scene shifted, and when everything stopped moving, there I was in the carbon freezing chamber." She dug her fingernails into her leg before continuing. "He was standing in the pit. Looking up at me. Confused."
"How did he get in there?"
"I don't know. He doesn't know either. That was just where I found him." She sighed. "I'm talking to a dead guy. Why is this happening to me?"
"Why you've had these dreams, the Maker or the Creatrix or even the Force only knows. But if they're going to keep happening, which seems likely, then you have to try and understand them."
She raised her head to look up at him. "Are you suggesting that I might be doing aident duty?"
"Maybe this is your tshaud," he replied.
Nalieza shook her head. "Not possible. Not at all."
"Okay, so I don't know much about the dream culture where you're from. But based on what you told me, that's how it starts."
"Yeah, you wind up in somebody's dream. Then they come to you, say that you showed up in one of their dreams, and that's when you know you've been called to become an aident."
Josym nodded. "That fits some of what's been going on, doesn't it?"
"It's not close enough. For one thing, he's not a relative or friend. No aident was ever known to get a tshaud in the dream of a stranger." She stopped pacing the floor.
He stood up. "Maybe it's the Force's way of telling you something about the rest of your life."
He smiled quickly. "I don't know. That maybe you're meant to become a Jedi."
Her eyes narrowed. "That's not funny."
"Who said I was joking?"
"Then why don't you say it again, but this time with a straight face?"
"Perhaps because it makes sense." Now he wasn't smiling.
"Sorry, you're wrong."
He shrugged. "Only the future will tell."
"Tell me about yourself," Nalieza said.
Solo picked up a stone and tossed it into the river. "I generally don't talk about myself."
"Am I allowed to ask why?" She sat down on a nearby medium sized boulder.
"It's simple. Talk too much about anything, especially yourself, and there's no mystery. Everybody knows all about you, and they can use it to their advantage." He threw the stone high into the air. It landed on the other bank, the side representing the entrance and exit to the conscious world.
"Damn, I can't walk over there, but I can throw a rock on that side. Doesn't make any sense," he said in a low voice.
She leaned back, and gave the sky above them an inspection. Grey, overcast, dreary. An obvious sign of Solo's underlying feeling about the situation. Dramatically appropriate. "Can I at least ask about your philosophy on life?"
He had another stone in his hand, and bounced it in his palm. "Well, philosophy bores the hell out of me. But just to keep the conversation going, I'll tell you. It's a game of chance."
"How did you come to that conclusion?"
He dropped the stone and spread his hands out in front of him. "Think of a sabacc table. The cards are spread out in front of you, and the little trick to remember in this game is the random factor." He paused. "Wait, how much do you know about sabacc?"
"Only that it's a card game. And that some people goof around and use the cards for fortune telling."
"I forgot all about that." Then he returned to his original topic. "Okay, the cards change face values at random. That's the beauty of the game. When you're playing, a hand gets dealt, and each card changes its value. Like, if the hand you have at the moment has cards like the Idiot and the Four of Coins in it, the the dealer passes out some more cards, and then a randomizer in the table shift the values of all the cards everyone has."
"What's the purpose of that, exactly?"
"To keep things interesting."
"It sounds chaotic."
"Well, if you like boring, then it's not the game for you."
"So, that's why life is like sabacc. Because of randomness."
Nalieza stood up and walked over to the river's edge. "Does your theory account for concepts like death?"
"None that I can recall."
"So, it's not a convenient way to explain everything in life."
"It works for the most part."
"But that can't help you with death."
"I've done pretty well so far not giving much thought to that particular matter."
This conversation was quickly approaching a point of no return. Time to shift focus so she could keep the flow of words going. If she was meant to help him, then she needed to know as much about him as possible.
"Is Solo really your last name?"
"Why shouldn't it be?"
"I don't know. 'Solo' sounds like an alias. Or something you decided to use because it might be good for business."
"Tell me about your name first." He grinned.
"Why should I do that?"
She sighed. Of course he was going to make this difficult. But she had to play along, so she might as well go ahead and indulge his question. "The first one comes from my mother's side. And the last one is fairly common on Ultraia. Where I was born, by the way." She bent down to pick up a stone with jagged edges. "My father and I moved to Aeithera when I was two. He got a job teaching at one of the universities there."
"Didn't your mother go with you and him?"
Nalieza swallowed hard. "She was dead by then."
Her answer silenced him for a moment. When he replied, it was with one word, spoken in a low and solemn tone. "Sorry."
She tossed the stone over her left shoulder without looking backwards. "It was the Will of the Creatrix, I guess. No one could help it." Then she wiped some nonexistent dirt from her palm. "Enough about me. Tell me something about where you come from."
He began to pace along the shoreline. "Corellia ."
"What about your parents?"
He turned to look at her with a hardened expression. "There's nothing to say about them."
Nalieza was taken aback. Yet she also realized it was far too early in their acquaintance for him to reveal anything truly personal about his past. Which meant that it definitely would be pointless to bring up the matter of his relationship with the princess. But all in good time...well, not necessarily a time that was good, but still those things might be revealed eventually.
She watched him for a few minutes. He moved from the far side of the riverbank, and stopped to stare across the river. Then, he would come back slowly to the other side, and stop to stand completely still.
Finally, she asked him a question. "You don't believe in life after death?"
"No, to be honest."
She took a glimpse of their surroundings. "Well, tell me what you would call this."
"You call this death?"
"I don't exactly call it living. Sitting around in the woods you used to go to as a kid, and talking to some stranger who appears out of nowhere. Isn't that just a little odd to you?"
He shrugged. "It's a dream. So you told me, anyway. Things always get strange in those." He stood up and walked over to the edge of the river. "Besides, dead people can't dream."
"How do you know they can't?"
"How do you know they can?"
If he was dead, then why in the Force was she given the task of dealing with his soul? Dreams of the living were her territory, not visions from the dead. "Look, you can't say for sure. If you aren't alive, then you have to go over to the Netherworld."
He cast his gaze to the wet ground beneath his boots. "It doesn't exist."
"Yes it does."
"Have you ever been there?"
Nalieza stared down at her hands. "I think so. Maybe."
"Yeah, sure. Just like Luke really talks to Kenobi." Solo shook his head. "You kids and your Force."
"Who said I use Force? I never said that."
"You sound just like Luke."
She paused, gave the matter some thought. "So maybe I might have a little bit of Force sensitivity." She turned around to stare at him. "But that doesn't mean I'm anything like your friend."
"All Jedi aren't alike?"
"I can't compare whatever little drop of sensitivity I have to what he has. Or do you think there's one huge club for all the freaky Force people?"
"What, you mean to tell me there isn't a secret Jedi society?"
She smirked. "Now, if I told you that, you'd get a late night visit from the Hooded Nerfs. Do you really want to see them showing up on your doorstep?"
"Nerfs wearing hoods...I gotta look out for that when I wake up," he replied, turning back to look across the river once more.
There was another lengthy silence between them. Nalieza took the opportunity to come up with a rough strategy for how to approach this entire situation. She really couldn't form a specific plan. Basically, it was going to be a case of "making it up as you go along," which was her father's preferred approach to dealing with difficult situations. Not one that she agreed with...but since she was dealing with a man who had become notorious for handling everything thrown at him by doing the first thing that came to his mind, and somehow always managed to survive, then she decided that going with the flow of the moment was the only way that events were going to unfold.
As if he was able to read her mind for one brief moment, Solo came over and stood by the boulder she was seated upon. "If I'm stuck like this until somebody comes and gets me out, then what am I supposed to do?"
"I can't say for sure. But I'm thinking that since I've been tossed into the middle of this with you, then I'm going to be a dream guide. Where I'm from, it's called an aident."
She smiled. "You can say that I'm sort of a tribal dream counselor. My mother was one, and so was most of her family. It's been a tradition on Ultraia for longer than anyone can remember."
"Okay, so you're going to be running around in my head, looking for some dark secrets from my childhood." He shook his head. "I'm not too crazy about the idea of letting someone do that. Too personal."
"No, I only have access to what you let me see. Which right now are your memories. You're the one in control here. I'm just an interpreter. What I do is try and help you figure out why you did certain things at certain times. But you still have the final say in what shows up."
"You're still not selling me on it." Then he shrugged. "But I guess it's better than sitting around here all the time."
"So you'll go along with me on this? You promise not to back out?"
He smirked, and gave her a mock military salute. "You have the word of a Corellian on that."
She leaned back a little and gave him a suspicious look. "Can that be trusted?"
He held his arms out wide. "Hey, we're always trustworthy. At least, when we're sober."
Nalieza and Meaithe were sitting on a permacrete bench outside the Municipal Library. They were waiting for Josym and Civriel to come from their risnet practice so the group could go inside and have a study session.
Meaithe took a long drag from the cret in her right hand and blew a trail of smoke up into the air. "As I said, katabasis."
"Okay, however it's pronounced. But it's a journey to the underworld, basically."
"In many ways, yes. You have to cross a body of water in order to travel through his unconscious. It's a journey you make at night, which is the traditional time for making any trip to the underworld. Plus, he is in a state that is something like death."
"So, that's it? Katabasis is just running around in the afterlife?"
"Hardly. If that's all it was about, then there's no reason to have some form of a katabasis story in almost every culture in the galaxy."
"What else is katabasis about?"
"Ultimately, it's about one thing. Something more important than life, death, or the journey in between." After sending one last puff of smoke into the air, Meaithe tapped the cretbutt into the bench, and then threw it in the waste bin next to her. "Transformation. That is more important than life or death, and certainly matters far more than the little sojourn in between the beginning and the end."
"What do you mean?"
"Transformation is the one truth that stands above all other factors in the evolution of a conscious being. Knowing oneself, that's half the purpose of being a conscious soul. The other half is using that knowledge to make yourself someone better."
"You aren't trying to say that what Han's going through is something that he needs in order to become a better person? Because if you're trying to say that..." Nalieza shook her head.
"You aren't getting my point. A path is discovered and traveled when the person finds the gate and opens it. Of their own will. That doesn't mean he had to go through any of this. He opened the gate to his path long before he was frozen."
"He didn't mean for that to happen," Nalieza said in a small voice.
"Of course not. We never have complete control over their lives. Other things have influence."
"Is that why you're suddenly filling my head with this stuff?"
"Well, you need to know as much as possible. You're doing what I've done with the souls of dead beings for most of my life. On a different level, but it's still guidework."
Nalieza was about to respond, but the sound of a clearing throat followed by a light "Ahem" interrupted that intention.
The two young women looked up and saw Josym standing there, with Civriel just off to the right. Both had the similar look of a recent and hurried cleanup, followed by a quick jumble of an outfit change.
"It must be an interesting discussion. Considering the two of us could hear you halfway down the steps," Josym said. There was one empty space by Nalieza, so he sat down next to her. Civriel took the other place by Meaithe.
"What's going on this time?" Josym asked.
"I'm being preached to," Nalieza said.
"I'm just trying to tell you what needs to be known."
"I don't think metaphysical mechanics are going to help him very much."
"Neither is refusing to accept the role that's been presented to you. He has no one else in this world who can cross the borders between both worlds and keep him going. You have no idea how unusual it is for him to have this chance. Beings in coma states never get the opportunity to experience a life review."
"But he's in suspended animation, not a coma," Josym said.
"The specifics don't really matter. Both situations involve brain states of lowered activity. Coma patients never get a chance to deeply examine their lives until the time of reckoning." Meaithe took a gold and red foil packet out of her satchel. She flipped one side up, then pulled out another cret from the shallow pouch. "As for those in carbonite, very few ever survived the freezing process. Even less were sane enough to withstand the onslaught of memories they were forced to experience in that state."
Nalieza frowned. "So basically you're trying to say that he's...lucky?"
Meaithe shrugged. "That's not how I would put it. But he is the only being ever put in carbonite to not only retain his sanity, but full awareness as well." She took an igniter from her satchel, then touched it briefly to the end of the unlit cret. There was a small puff of smoke, then an orange-gold glow. "You could say that the Force was sending you to him in the time of his greatest need. Because odd as it may sound, this is his opportunity to finally figure out what's most important to him. If he doesn't get his priorities straight now..." a quick drag from the cret, then a deep breath out... "well, there won't be another chance like this until after he dies."
Civriel moved over to sit on the right side of Meaithe, having to duck down to avoid another quick stream of smoke coming from her. "I suppose you were talking to your guide again, and that's how you got the information," he said.
She nodded. "Of course."
Nalieza rolled her eyes. "Usually, I do believe that you can see dead people and talk to them. But maybe you might be wrong this time."
"I assure that what has been said by me today is true. All of it."
Josym placed his bag on the ground, then stepped over it and took the last empty place on the bench by Nalieza. "Did your guide happen to inform you why she's the one who has to do this? I would've thought that Skywalker would be the obvious choice."
"I don't know the exact reason. But if you remember some of the rumors popping up around campus, then that might answer your question."
Nalieza bowed her head. Those rumors...the first one had started buzzing about two weeks ago. Like most rumors, it was vague, and didn't sound plausible. Something about Skywalker facing off against the so-called Darth Vader. A figure of legend who, like Han, many had claimed to see, and a few had even sworn to have encountered. But nothing of any substance could ever be known for certain about them. It was only little things that anyone could say for sure. And in the case of Vader, no one she had talked to could even say they knew one true thing about him.
But the first rumor was rapidly followed by a second one. Then the others flew around like mishi bats. On a university planet where there was an active underground student resistance movement, any kind of rumor about the most prominent members of the Rebellion was bound to spread fast.
What all of the rumors had amounted to was some kind of confrontation between the mysterious Dark Lord and the young Jedi. He had gone to the planet of Bespin to rescue Han and the princess...but instead found himself in a situation that almost destroyed him. But he had gotten away somehow...the last rumor had him being picked up by the Millennium Falcon off a weather vane.
She honestly didn't believe any of those stories. The only thing she knew to be real at that moment was the predicament Han was caught up in. Even though it was still hard to believe...but she was accepting its truth. And she also accepted her place in it now. Not only because the dreams weren't likely to end anytime soon, but also because she actually liked him. The notorious smuggler and space pirate was really a decent guy at heart.
She sighed. And I'm calling him by his first name, too. That definitely means something.
"Okay," she said, turning towards Meaithe. "Did your guide say anything else that might help me do this?
Meaithe placed the remainder of the second cret on the ground, and crushed it with her foot. "Loads more. Let me back up and start at the beginning..."
Nalieza and Han stood in a darkened chamber, surrounded by ten crystal spheres sitting on blue marble pedestals. Each sphere was small, transparent, and empty.
"Can you get the lights on here?" he asked.
She waved her hand, and the chamber was illuminated by a softly diffused golden and rose tinted glow.
"Would you mind telling me what this place is supposed to be?"
She stepped over to one of the pedestals and lightly touched a sphere. It was cold and smooth. "You're in what I call the viewing room. But it's usually known in dream culture as the Room of the Spheres. It's the starting point for any dream journey."
"So that explains all the crystal balls. I was hoping you weren't going to start trying to tell my fortune." He pointed at the sphere she stood by. "What's that supposed to be used for?"
"These are where you see things from your life. Memories, other dreams you've had, people and places you've encountered." She patted the top of the sphere. "You pick one of these and then you're taken to whatever moment that sphere happens to contain."
Han rubbed the back of his neck. "Let me get this straight. If I see that time when I was ten and went sliding down the street on a piece of hull plating after the ice storm, I could actually use one of these things to go there?"
Han didn't look convinced, and it certainly seemed that the concept was not fully dawning on him yet. Which was understandable. But he kept his questions and doubts to himself. And for Nalieza, that was an odd relief. She had heard of other aidents who had to spend time explaining the whole process to the ones they were supposed to be helping. That could be quite distracting, not to mention time consuming. Thank the Creatrix she was helping a Corellian, especially one who liked to deal with matters in a straightforward fashion.
"Shall we get this started?"
Han nodded. "Sounds good. What comes next?"
"You have to touch a sphere first. That's how it gets activated."
"Is there any particular one I have to start with?"
"This one's as good as the other nine."
He rubbed his hands together, and stepped forward. He paused for a few seconds, staring at the blank orb before him. Then he reached out his right hand and touched it.
The lifeless sphere began to glow from within. There was a brief flash of white light, followed by a series of moving images that appeared in the center.
Both Nalieza and Han bent down to see what was contained within the images. The scenes were distorted by the roundness of the object holding them, which meant she couldn't say for sure what was unfolding before her eyes. But she could just barely make out a desert setting. There were some beings walking about, wearing various colored cloaks and other types of clothing. A small building stood behind them.
"Weird," Han said.
Nalieza nodded. "It's like watching a holo, isn't it?" She tilted her head. "You know, I never could imagine one of my old holovid episodes fitting into that little space."
Han looked over at her with some surprise. "What's that mean?"
She shrugged. "Nothing much, really. I was an actress once." Then she grinned. "I have to make this process fair by volunteering some more information about myself once in awhile. So you don't have to feel like you're the only one who's life is being exposed."
"That's real generous of you." Then his gaze returned to the changing scenery in the sphere. "Okay, Miss Aident Actress, tell me what to do now."
She stood up. "We have to go wherever that place is."
He squinted. "I really can't tell where the hell that is." Then something caught his attention. "Wait...there's...Docking Bay 94?" Another moment of him looking at the compressed images in the sphere. "That's it all right. There's my ship!" He looked incredibly happy.
Nalieza bent down again. "Where is it?"
"Mos Eisley. Tatooine. Where I met the old man and Luke."
The desert world...which pretty much everyone had heard of by now, given the legendary status it held in the story of the Rebellion's greatest heroes. The place where everything began. The first scene of the third act of Han's life.
"Are you ready to pop over there?" she asked.
"How's that work?"
"Simple. I just bring down the house lights." Nalieza snapped her fingers, and everything went dark.
Dream World: Mos Eisley
She snapped her fingers again, and there was light once more.
They were standing outside a building, low-slung, made of sand and duracrete. Han stood to her left, and the both of them were near an entryway with a small flight of steps leading down to an orange metal door. Walking around them were beings of various designs and strangeness.
Or rather, they were the remembered shades of those who had been in the real location on that day. Nalieza had to remind herself of that fact. But even though they had been standing here for only a minute or so, the environment felt real. As if it wasn't the past, but the present.
"Yep, this is the cantina," Han said, crossing his arms.
"Definitely not the first place you'd think of where destiny might show up and knock you over the head," she commented.
He stared ahead. "Yeah. But it's important. This is where one part of my life ended. But I didn't know it then."
That statement was a bit of a surprise. A sudden revelation, small, yet for him to say even that much was interesting. Maybe this dream journey might go easier than she had anticipated, if he was already acknowledging a certain truth.
"What part of your life ended?"
"The part where I was just a smuggler. When I agreed to take Luke and Kenobi to Alderaan, everything changed." Then he took in a breath, and let it out. "Shall we continue?"
So much for revelation. This was his journey, and it was going to progress at his pace. After all, a man who had spent most of his life keeping up a set of mental defenses against the universe wasn't going to let them down all at once.
And there would be plenty of time for a long reverie about all this later. Like in the middle of her Composition Techniques class.
"Sure. We probably have to go into the cantina now. It's the spot where you met them and got the deal together to take them to Alderaan. So you have to start at the beginning if you're going to move forward."
Han nodded. "Makes sense, I guess." He looked around. "You know, it was a big risk hooking up with the Rebels. A stupid one, too, or so I thought. Especially considering I was supposed to give Jabba his money for that damned shipment I had to dump. That's why I took up the old man's offer in the first place. He wasn't offering enough money to pay off the debt, but I could have given Jabba a nice down payment."
"But you never got the chance to deliver the money."
"No. I had a couple of chances. But I didn't want to."
He shrugged. "Didn't feel like it. There were more important things to do than give money to a slug."
This guy...always full of surprises.
She sighed, then looked back towards the building. Over at the far left side, three Jawas were slumped against the wall, as if propping it up with their backs.
"Well, time to be a grownup, and head on in there." Han started towards the entrance. She followed him.
As they stepped down into the entryway, Nalieza noticed the body of another Jawa lying in front of them, stretched halfway over three of the stairs.
"Hey, I didn't think I'd actually remember that one," Han said. "He was a regular. Always stumbled in, got sacked out on nitrous zero, then he'd wobble back out and wind up asleep on the steps." He stepped over the prone figure. "Now that we've had that little diversion, time to go in. Are you ready?"
"Lead the way."
The orange door opened. From inside came the sounds of a band, and the chatter of various alien and human tongues.
For Nalieza, it was a bit of a shock. She was used to the more relaxed atmosphere of the cafes and restaurants on Aeithera. The wildest place she ever went to was Zazi's over on the Ilo. And there could be some crazy nights at that place...but here..it wasn't crazy so much in terms of atmosphere. But the jumbled diversity of sounds was surprising. And when they stepped into the cantina, and her eyes adjusted from the brightness of outside to the sudden dimness of the interior, the equally mixed sights were astounding.
But she didn't have time to give much thought to her surroundings. Han kept moving forward. He was obviously intent on getting this part of the journey done. Good enough.
As they progressed through the crowd, she noticed how easy it was...no need to push anyone or anything out of the way. It was like some...force?...cleared a path for them. But they were in a dream. Anything was possible.
It didn't take long to reach the back of the cantina. There was a small booth in front of them Sitting in the booth...another little shock.
Even Han was struck by what he saw. He didn't say anything right away, but she saw out of the corner of her eye that he was shaking...just a little.
The person sitting in the booth was...Han. But a younger version. He was leaning back against a long bench seat, with one arm stretched across the top of it, with his other arm lying on the table in front of him, fingers wrapped around a large mug of...something.
"I wasn't drinking too much that day, believe it or not." His voice was low, and with a slight tremor. But he was trying to take control of the situation. "A good pilot never gets so drunk that he can't function in the cockpit. Not if he's serious about flying."
She nodded. The younger Han's attire caught her attention. Specifically, the white shirt. Halfway open down the front...what possessed him to actually dress like that?
"I'd been here a couple of days. Waiting around, seeing if I could pick up a cargo." Han paused, and looked over at her.
Nalieza ducked her head. "Sorry. I was just..."
Fortunately, another diversion came along, making sure she didn't have to finish her statement.
The towering figure of a Wookiee walked in front of them, and sat across from the younger Han on two small chairs.
Chewbacca. Who else could it be? The only Wookiee in the universe who could possibly put up with a Corellian without being tempted to rip his arms out of his sockets at least once.
She noticed that Han's posture shifted. His initial tension was replaced by a more relaxed stance. "Wow, it's great to see him again." When Nalieza turned her head, she saw an expression of momentary joy on his face. Friendship meant a lot to him...so much for the reputation he had of being a loner. Yet another twist in the psyche of this supposedly simple smuggler.
"Hey, you still with me?"
She smiled. "Yeah. I was just thinking...you're an amazing piece of work."
He was taken aback by the statement, but only for a second. "Thanks for noticing."
"No problem." She nodded her head in the direction of the booth. "We might as well get this over with. No matter how weird it's going to be. When do Skywalker and Kenobi show up?"
Han looked over at the booth. "Damn. We came in too soon."
"What do you mean?"
"I was sitting there for two hours before they arrived."
Nalieza thought for a moment. "I can fast forward to that point. Like you would through the bad parts of a holo."
"Not at all. This is a lucid dreaming experience. Since you're the one at the helm, so to speak, you can take this memory in whatever direction you want." She extended her hand. "I'll do it for now. Just to make things easier."
She twirled her wrist once, then twice.
The scene before them moved quickly. In fast forward, Han in his younger phase stood up, sped away from the table, while the Wookiee stretched, yawned, and took drinks from a large white tumbler. Then Han returned, carrying a small silver cup. He placed it on the table, then disappeared again.
It was a funny sight, she had to admit.
And then, two new people entered the booth. An older man dressed in white and tan robes, accompanied by a younger man wearing a white tunic and pants the color of the Tatooine sand.
Kenobi and Skywalker. Time to revert to normal speed.
She lowered her hand. The scene slowed back to a regular movement.
Han's twin self moved in slowly from the left, came around the table past the long bench, and placed himself casually on a small chair similar to the ones Chewbacca was seated upon. "Han Solo. I'm captain of the Millenium Falcon."
She waved her hand, and paused the moment.
"What an introduction," she said, looking at the Han sitting next ot her.
"I've never been big on formalities. A simple intro, then you get right down to business."
"Always a man of business, aren't you?"
"That's what makes me such a smart guy." He stepped forward, and slid into the now empty bench seat. "Care to join me?"
"Sure." Nalieza went over and sat next to him. Then she noticed that everyone else around the table were still in pause mode. She supposed it was time to get them moving again.
"Ready to proceed?" she asked.
"That's why we're here."
She rolled her eyes, then waved her hand. The pause mode was broken.
"Chewie here tells me you're looking for passage to the Alderaan system."
"Yes, indeed. If it's a fast ship," replied Kenobi.
"Fast ship? You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon?"
Nalieza suppressed a laugh. It would be just like him to get offended at the possibility that not everyone in the galaxy might have heard of his beloved freighter.
Kenobi wasn't flustered by Han's reaction. "Should I have?"
The younger Solo took offense to this statement. "It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs."
No reaction came from either Kenobi or Skywalker. But from Nalieza...she couldn't contain her laughter this time. She quickly waved her hand, and paused the scene again. Then she let it out.
"Hey, I was telling the truth!"
She looked at him. He looked a little irritated at her reaction.
"I'm sorry. But that sounded like you were trying to pull a fast one on him. Trying to fool a Jedi, especially one from the old days." She shook her head, then laughed some more.
"You don't think I pulled it off." Now he appeared hurt. "Thanks a lot." Han sat back against the bench in frustration.
Nalieza was taken aback. But his next reaction surprised her.
He turned his head, staring off into one of the darkened corners of the cantina. "Okay, maybe I was stretching the truth a little," he said quietly.
Now she was shocked.
"I mean, I did the Run. Not exactly at twelve parsecs...but fast enough." He looked at her with a steady gaze. "I do hold the record, though. That part's the truth. You can look it up if you want."
She hesitated. Now on this part, he was definitely not making anything up. But to ask him why he had felt the need to lie in the first place...well, that could wait for another time.
Nalieza reached out and patted his arm. "Shall we continue?"
She waved her hand, and the scene resumed.
"I've outrun Imperial starships. Not the local bulk cruisers, mind ya, I'm talking about the big Corellian ships now."
The two men across the table still look unimpressed.
"She's fast enough for you, old man. What's the cargo?"
"Only passengers. Myself, the boy, two droids..." the elder Jedi leaned in to add "... and no questions asked."
The younger Han was amused by this statement. "What is it, some kind of local trouble?"
"Let's just say we'd like to avid any Imperial entanglements."
Han of the earlier days leaned back. "Well, that's the real trick, isn't it? Then it's gonna cost you something extra."
"Oh, you cheap mercenary," Nalieza commented.
"Ten thousand, all in advance," the younger Han said.
"Okay, not so cheap, then," Nalieza added.
"Ten thousand?" Skywalker exclaimed. "We could almost buy our own ship for that!"
She smiled. He certainly had a right to find the demand of an outrageous sum of money to be ridiculous. Yet, he didn't know about the predicament Han was in with Jabba. And that was the strangeness of the situation. The motivations for doing certain things could seem so wrong...but how could anyone judge if they only made an assumption based off the surface impression?
Nonetheless, it was still a cute reaction coming from the younger man. It hinted at a certain strength, and suggested there was much more to him than many might guess. Another reinforcement of the lesson about not making assumptions based upon the appearance of things.
Then Skywalker said, "You bet I could. I'm not such a bad pilot myself..." which made her giggle like a girl in the middle grades.
This caught Han's attention. "What's so funny?"
Nalieza blushed, and raised her hand to pause the scene again. "Nothing."
He looked doubtful. Not to mention amused at her sudden discomfort. "It's definitely something. Maybe you could drop me a hint."
She smacked his shoulder lightly. "This is supposed to be your dream experience. My personal thoughts shouldn't come up here."
"You like him, don't you?"
She shifted in her seat. "Back to work, Solo." Then she waved her hand to resume the scene.
"We can pay you two thousand now, plus fifteen when we reach Alderaan," Kenobi said.
"Seventeen, huh?" replied the younger Solo.
"Wow, you can add. Aren't you brilliant?"
Han jabbed her with his elbow. "Hey, don't criticize my magnificence."
"Okay, you guys got yourselves a ship. We'll leave as soon as you're ready. Docking Bay 94."
"94," Kenobi acknowledged.
"That's all I need to see," the Han sitting next to her said.
Nalieza paused the scene once more. "But more comes after this, right?"
"Sure. But it only involves stormtroopers, some poor excuse for a bounty hunter named Greedo...and one hell of an escape. Best one I ever did up to that point."
"Well, could I possibly see this great escape?"
Han shrugged. "Maybe some other time. There's nothing I need to learn from that part." He stretched. "Time to get outta here."
She realized that there was no point in trying to convince him to stay a little bit longer. This was his memory, after all, and when he wanted to leave, that was his decision. Her curiosity could be satisfied some other time.
She slid out of the booth, and he followed.
"Back to where we started," she told him. With a snap of her fingers, things went dark. Another snap, and the lights came back on.
Once more, they were standing in the Room of the Spheres.
She sighed. "Well, that was kind of enlightening."
He walked over to one of the other pedestals. "I'm a gradual kind of guy. The longer you stick around, the more you learn."
"Maybe I could learn something else right now. Perhaps?"
"What do you wanna know?" he asked from the far side of the room.
"Tell me what in the blazes possessed you to go around wearing your shirt open like some kind of street hustler."
They were standing on a balcony overlooking a metropolis flowing with an overabundant stream of glowing neon and vehicle lights. It was night on this planet, in its remembered form from his life.
"When were you here?" Nalieza asked Han.
Han leaned against the black durite railing, turned away from the scenery below and behind him. "I don't know..." He leaned his head back and stared up at the night sky, filled with the dancing lights of many stars. "Okay, wait, it wasn't that long ago. A couple of months before Ord Mantell. Me and Leia went there. We had to pick up some...contraband."
The Princess...she wondered when he was going to get around to mentioning her during one of their dream encounters. It had been a few weeks since the Mos Eisley dream, and things had been progressing at a steady pace. But until now, Han had never brought up the woman she had first seen in the vision of the freezing chamber. Which wasn't surprising. The most important person to him would be the one he kept tucked away deep inside of his mind, only to be revealed when and if he ever felt ready enough. And even then, it would only be a little bit at a time.
This was probably going to be the only mention of her for the moment. Frustrating, but necessary...and understandable. If she ever found herself in love with someone, she definitely wouldn't talk about that person to every half-known stranger who might cross her path. Those kinds of feelings were meant to be revealed only between the couple and possibly some of a person's closest friends. Not paraded around for every Kom, Bick, and Uarry.
"Who decided to have you guys pick up something from the holofilm crap capital of the galaxy?"
"Just some guy I knew from my smuggling years. He likes Lacace for some reason."
Nalieza was really curious about what happened there in the real version of the planet. But if she asked about one part, then she would want to know about the rest, and Han would definitely stop talking about it. And then, this entire dream experience would come to a halt. That couldn't happen. So she had to remind herself again about the matter of restraint.
She stepped onto the balustrade, and leaned over the railing. There was a lot of ground traffic below them; the moving entities of beings and vehicles. "Did you ever get approached by an agent?"
"No. But I did have a couple of holodocos made about me. Guess I'm a cinema star now."
"It might qualify you for some prime seating on the front porch of the Old Actors' Home."
He stepped away from the railing and sat down on a wattan chair. "The more I see of my life, the more it's starting to look like a holomovie."
"You've led an interesting life so far."
He rubbed the scar on his chin with the tip of his index finger. "I guess so. That would explain why some fly-by-parsec producer made three phony documentaries about me."
"There was a fake autobiography too. Most of us at my university have read it."
"Don't tell me you actually looked at that piece of garbage."
"Really, it wasn't any worse than the stuff I did on Lives of the Heart."
"That bad, huh?"
Nalieza cringed. "It's a holovision romdram. You can't expect to have quality writing on one of those. Not to mention having my first kiss with a boy seen by billions sitting around in their living rooms..." She jumped up and sat on top of the railing. "No more about me. Back to you."
"If you insist."
"Oh, I do." She swayed her left foot back and forth. "Whoever wrote that autobiography called you a pirate. A lot of other people have said the same thing. Were you really a pirate?"
Han watched the flow of air traffic going by. "No. A smuggler isn't a pirate, and a pirate sure as hell ain't no smuggler."
"What's the difference?"
An irritated look crossed his face. "Pirates take everything they can get. And they don't do anything useful. They're just parasites. Smugglers at least provide some kind of service."
"For a large fee, of course," she said.
"Yeah, that's how you make money. But most of that money goes right into the ship you're using to haul cargo. There might be some pocket creds left over for a little bender in the port bar. And maybe even a visit to one of the local ladies practicing the galaxy's oldest profession. But unless you're doing legal shipping, there's rarely enough money left after covering the necessities."
"Why did you stay in the profession if you weren't getting any money out of it?"
Han glared at her. "There was no place else for me to go."
"You weren't trapped. Nobody held a blaster to your head and made you go into the business."
"There's nothing out in the galaxy for a guy who got booted out of the Imperial forces. None of the legitimate businesses will hire you if your record ain't perfect."
She turned her head and focused on the moving lights of the city below them. So it was true. One of the most common rumors about him was that he had saved his Wookiee partner-in-crime from slavery. There were many different versions of the story, and no one could ever prove it actually happened. But almost everyone she knew would claim their uncle or cousin or mother's brother or sister or aunt witnessed the event. To have it confirmed brought a larger reality to the tale. For doing what was right, Han lost everything. All of the hard work, the fight to get into the Academy when he had no connections, the endless hours of flight practice...it was for nothing in the end.
"I don't regret doing it," he said.
"You shouldn't," she murmured. Then she said in a normal tone, "I wasn't trying to condemn your past. It's just..." she tried to think of the proper word..."well, what happened to you wasn't fair."
"The universe has never been fair, kid. The ones living in it make things even more unbalanced. All the dishonest bastards get all the rewards."
She tapped her foot against the railing. "I guess that's probably true. But not always."
"I'd say it is."
"Do you really still believe that?"
"I never saw a reason not to."
"What about everything since you met...? Look, you obviously aren't the same guy I saw in the cantina. Circumstances change things. So do events. I would think hooking up with the Rebels and seeing what they've done might have altered your viewpoint."
Han sat forward in the chair. "Yeah, I have changed since I started helping out the Rebellion. But some of my opinions stayed the same. That's generally how I like it to be."
"So the potential for a better kind of life doesn't strike you as rewarding?"
"Unless it actually happens, then I can't assume there'll be a happy ending for me."
"Nobody gets a happy ending in real life. But you can always have a chance for a good ending."
"Look, I'll be ready for anything good to happen when I know for sure that it will happen."
"You aren't going to get a datatext guarantee from the universe. All you can do is have some faith."
"Have faith? Not likely. It never works."
"When is the last time you actually had even a shred of it? Would you even know what it felt like?" She jumped down from the railing. "Do yourself a favor. Become the person you want to be, and get the life you want."
He turned his head and stared out at the horizon. "I can't do anything when I'm stuck in here," he said in a low voice.
"Actually, these dreams are supposed to be helping you along in making yourself into the person you need to become. And you won't be in carbonite forever. What happens when you get out?"
"What happens if I don't?"
"Not likely." She crossed her arms. "See, I think the reason why you never have faith in anything is because there's never been a purpose to your life."
"Hey! I had a real good reason for keeping my head from getting blown off."
"I wasn't ready to die yet."
"Basic survival. Doesn't that kind of get empty after awhile?"
"No. I happen to like living."
He was trying to be obtuse. A standard defense mechanism in his approach to something which challenged him directly on the personal level. It was some improvement over how he might have responded to this probing before. Most likely, he would have thrown up his hands and walked away. Or else the exchange would have ended with some cutting remark.
But he wasn't doing that now. He had evolved past those sorts of immature responses.
"Okay, so you liked life enough to stick around. Is there any reason you felt it necessary to keep on living? Like for a cause...?" She was going to tempt fate and possibly risk a negative reaction from him by saying the next part...but she had a point to prove. "Or did you stay around because of some people? One person in particular."
That caught him a little off guard. Good. She had struck the nerve necessary to motivate him.
"What you need to do is tear up the old script you've been reading from, and write yourself a new one." Nalieza began to slowly pace. "See, you've been this guy who's been trying to find some kind of meaning to his life. And you've always wanted something more. Something bigger than anything you've ever experienced. But you never knew how to get it, considering the kind of existence you already had. So you gave up."
He sat back in the chair, not saying a word.
"You have to make sure you're ready for another life. Let go of the old ways of thinking and behaving." She stopped walking back and forth. "If your life is a holofilm, then it's time to think about a sequel. Because the first two installments were filmed and put on the shelf. Now you have a chance to come up with a new plot."
Han paused, then grinned. "Can I still be the leading man in this production?"
"Hey, it can't be called The Han Solo Story if it didn't have you in the starring role."
"Should we also get you director and producer credits as well?"
"Of course. I'm the guy in charge of this whole drama. I'll even try tackling the writing part. Can't have somebody else writing my dialogue. And ain't nobody but me writing those love scenes!"
"Hey, I'm not saying that I've turned sentimental. But I am trying to tell you that the future can be weird."
They were on the Falcon, sitting at the holochess table. A game session sat in pause mode. The assorted mixture of alien creatures wavered and flickered as Nalieza ran her hand through them.
Han was sitting across from her, leaning back against the bulkhead with his legs stretched out in the seat.
She poked her thumb into the top of a jhroi serpent's head. "Just because it happened to you.well, I've never been a big believer in love."
"You think that I did at your age? I didn't see any reason to. Not until recently, anyway."
"You were never in love before you met her?"
"I'm not saying that exactly. It was never like this." He shrugged. "Hard to explain."
"Ah, you really aren't a big cynic after all."
"Who said I was ever cynical?"
"You've given that impression on several occasions so far."
He grinned. "I don't call it cynicism. I call it `dealing with reality in a practical way'."
"Well, it's nice that you're such a jaded pragmatist."
Han got up and went over to the tech station, where he set about the task of looking for something.
"When did you know?" she asked.
He continued to rummage through the storage lockers. "When did I know what, exactly?"
"When did you know that you were in love?"
Han paused, then resumed his search. "I thought I hid the damned thing in one of these lockers. When we went to Ord Mantell, that's when I bought it," he said quickly.
Nalieza was taken aback by this sudden shift. "Did I say something wrong?"
He did not respond. Instead, he spent the next several minutes looking for the elusive whatever-seemed-so-important, while Nalieza distressed more of the holochess creatures by poking them and watching their images shimmer and fade out.
Finally, something was said by Han. "There it is." He leaned down and took something out of a lower storage locker.
She pressed the central button on the chess console to shut down the game. Then she got up, and moved slowly towards him. Leaning a little to the right, she tried to see what he held in his hand.
The top of a smoky green bottle peeked out of a small black cloth bag.
"Let me guess, something alcoholic," she said.
He looked at her. "Yeah, but it's not your standard rotgut." He pulled the bottle out of the bag, and held it up to the light. "This is some top shelf stuff here. Corellian brandy, from around the end of the Clone Wars. Classic vintage."
"Are you going to drink that all by yourself?"
"Not all at once." He walked over to a compartment on the far side of the room and pulled out a small brown travel case.
Nalieza shrugged. "Okay, have fun."
She turned and started heading for some other place when he called out, "Do you drink?"
She paused by the circular entrance. "I've been known to swallow some Aqua Priestess in emergencies."
"You shouldn't drink that dregsweat. Not even in emergencies."
"University students usually can't afford the good stuff." She leaned against the wall. "Once, we came up with a slogan for it. `Drink Aqua Priestess, Get Aqua Wasted'".
Han laughed. "Best description I've ever heard for the experience." He placed the travel case down next to the bottle of brandy. "I can offer you something far better. If you want to have some, that is."
"I'd like to. But how would it be possible for me to drink some here and know what it tastes like?"
"You might have to tap into my brain waves."
"On second thought, I'll pass. The idea of doing that is.bizarre. Let's just say you'll owe me a real glass of brandy someday in the waking world."
"Fine. Just more for me." Han opened the case, and pulled out one square glass. After setting the container down on the console, he opened up the bottle, and poured some of the brandy into it.
Nalieza hesitated for a moment, then walked over to join him at the tech station.
"I'm sorry about earlier," she said.
"Ah, don't worry about it. I shouldn't have been lecturing you." He picked up the glass and took a quick swallow. "Just how I remember it," he said.
"Is that good?"
"The best kind of good you can get legally," he replied, going for a long sip the second time.
Another long sip followed by a quick swallow, and then he spoke again. "Okay, since you wanted to know about how I knew, you have to consider what I was like before I met Leia. All my life, I never cared about that love stuff. Didn't believe in it. I just went with a woman when it was necessary. Otherwise, I stayed away from `em, because if I got too close.well, something too big might happen."
"What would be so wrong with letting someone get close enough to you? In the `big' way, I mean."
Han glanced at her sideways. "I could ask you the same question."
"My opinion on the matter has nothing to do with yours."
He gave a short laugh. "I disagree. Totally. If you're trying to get me to open up, then you better do the same. Remember, it's all about balance."
Solo certainly had a way of making a situation change radically within a brief span of time. To question her about...well, he did have a point. Why was she afraid? Could they both have the same fear in common?
Only one way to find out. "I don't know. The fear has always been there. As long as I can remember, anyway. Maybe it started when my mother died. Or it probably came up gradually over the years. Watching my father stay away from relationships and focusing on his career instead.because he was afraid to get close to another woman. He couldn't do that, not when he might always wonder if the woman he might fall in love with would die too early. Just like his wife."
He finished the remainder of his drink, then grabbed the bottle and poured another small amount of the brandy into his empty glass. "You're afraid of the other person leaving. That's the biggest problem."
"Is it the same for you?"
He stared at the half-full glass in front of him for a second. "I'm never afraid, kid. Just unsure."
"Uncertainty could be considered the same as fear, though."
He gave her a half smirk. "Not really. There's nothing like fear. Fear comes jumping out of dark alleys and shadowy corners. It has real sharp teeth, too."
She was sitting on a sand dune, looking out onto the wide expanse of a gold-white desert. Was this a regular dream? Yes, it certainly felt like a standard dream setting. And yet...this place had the underlying feeling of a real setting as well. There was that solidity and sense of three dimensions which always vibrates in the unseen currents of the waking world.
For all of that awareness, it still gave Nalieza no immediate indication of what planet this desert belonged to. Yet she knew that the vista looked familiar. Somehow, she should have no trouble navigating her way across the dunes.
She looked up at the sky. Twin suns, white and glowing harsh over the landscape. Blinding if she were really on this world. But in a dream, the suns were merely bright. And here she was, sitting atop a sand dune as if it were one of the most natural things to do in the universe.
That was the nature of dreams, though. Everything strange could be normal.
A flutter in her stomach...and then a sudden stray thought caused her to realize it was time to get off the dune, and head towards...where? In this world, there was no need for knowledge of a precise location. All she had to do was think, and her inner mind would take her right to the place.
And then, she noticed that the setting around her was shifting. There was a rippling movement in the air, and soon, she was no longer sitting on the sand dune. She was now standing in front of a low and small building made of hardened sand. A simple and humble structure.
What drew her to this building?...The only way to find out was to go inside.
She walked into the doorway, with the light automatically shifting from very bright to rather muted. The only sound to be heard was the distant humming of an unseen cooling unit. A flight of steps was in front of her, so she walked down them into a wide room. The room was sparsely furnished with only a small table flanked by two chairs in one corner, and a trunk situated against a wall near the stairway. The trunk was plain and appeared to be made from cesim wood.
Oddly enough, she could see through the wood and into the trunk. The contents were minimal, including some metal odds and ends, which probably belonged to a starship once upon a time. There was a large square of navy fabric folded into fours, and in the center was a truly rare sight. A book, bound in shimmering dark brown shannt hide filled with many pages held together. Such an unusual sight, as the galaxy had abandoned physical texts several millennia ago. So this book, even though wrapped in such a humble piece of cloth, must truly be important.
A radiant energy came from the book; an eminence that flowed and shifted outward. It was definitely Light Energy. So much of the Force focused into one object that it could be felt so strongly.
She wanted to peek inside and see what was written on those slightly yellowed pages, but suddenly did not feel worthy. There wasn't enough Light in her to even dare contemplate something like this. That honor should more properly fall to an actual Jedi, one who could fully understand the knowledge enough to properly use it. Someone like...
He walked into the room. Clad in black, like some advanced initiate into a mystery religion. Which was not too far from the truth.
So, this was Skywalker. And she was here to...do what? Watch him in the middle of a hut? Ridiculous. There had to be another reason.
He was standing at a worktable, holding a small and perfectly round green crystal up to the light.
Nalieza stared at what he was holding. It shown softly, with a light that came from its center as he turned it slowly around.
She had come upon him in a most sacred act. The construction of a lightsaber. The first of many tests for a Jedi Knight. And she was now being given an opportunity to glimpse, however briefly and in a rather odd fashion, the process of creation.
This realization made her nervous. Having Force sensitivity did not mean that it was right or proper to witness this important act. Only a Jedi should have such a vision, not someone who occasionally used her only ability in some vague way that never really did much good to anyone. "I don't belong here," she said out loud.
Skywalker spun around, looking in her direction.
He couldn't have heard her speak. But why had he turned so suddenly after her declaration? Was it possible...through the Force...that he did hear what she said?
She panicked, and thought of the dunes...then felt herself retreating out of the house as if being pulled into a vacuum. There was a brief glimpse of the desert landscape...the feeling of falling from some high place...a descent that seemed endless...
Real World: Aeithera
...and then she crashed back into her body.
It took some minutes for her mind to adjust from what had just taken place. When her perception had cleared, she sat up and noticed that she was out in the living room. Had she been asleep? No. She had been sitting on the divan, running through the channels, trying to find something mildly entertaining. The remote was sitting in her lap
She had a waking dream...one that takes place when a person is not surrounded by the deep waters of true sleep. She had stepped outside of herself, and travelled on some unknown road to the desert planet. The real place, in its actual physical location. But what had drawn her there? Was there a reason she was able to see Skywalker engaged in the act of constructing a...lightsaber? Perhaps it was some small nudge from the Creatrix, telling her something that was important...to her life.
Only the future will tell.
Nalieza groaned. She remembered Josym's comment about the possibility of her becoming a Jedi...that couldn't be the reason. Not at all. Definitely not...maybe not ...or...
"Cut it out!" She said this out loud, for the universe, the Creatrix, and the Force to hear.
"Do you know what 'Gahido' is?"
They were sitting in a crowded spaceport café. The sound of ships landing and departing could be heard just outside the building. There was the buzzing of indistinct conversations in the background.
Han had a beer mug sitting in front of him on the table. In front of her sat a small black bottle topped with a gold cap.
"No, I've never heard of it. Is that some kind of Corellian thing?" Nalieza asked.
"Yeah, it's one of those weird things from the Ancient Days. Something my grandmother believed in."
"But you never did."
Han took the mug and drank from it. "No. Religion's never been one of my strong points."
'That's not surprising." She picked up the bottle and began twisting the cap.
"No, you don't open it that way," he said.
"How do you open it, then?"
"Let me see it for a minute."
She put it down, and he reached out and picked it up. Then something struck him, and he looked at it for a few seconds. Like he recognized it from somewhere.
"Have you seen that bottle before?"
"Something like it." He turned his head and noticed the curtain of D'ian orchid vine hanging by the side of the table. "Actually, this whole place looks familiar."
The sound of booming engines came from outside, interrupting both their thoughts.
Han blinked, and then said, "Bonadan?"
She looked at him. "What are you talking about?"
"This place," he tapped his finger on the table. "I was here, on Bonadan. Back in my smuggling days."
"Isn't that the Corporate Sector?" She reached out and twirled one of the vines around her right index finger.
"It should be, unless they moved the planet into The Sword's Edge."
"Are Bonadan and Gahido the same place? Because we were starting to get into that topic before the bottle distracted the conversation."
"Yeah, that's right. Sorry about that." He leaned back. "Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking. Because that's all I can do since I'm stuck. And I started thinking about what my grandmother used to tell me about her religion. One of those things was about what happens after you die. There's a place for the good people, a place for the bad people. And then, there's a place for the ones who weren't one or the other."
"You're talking about limbo."
"That's what Gahido is in the Ancient Days. Actually, it's also got a lot of purgatory thrown in to make things interesting."
"So you think being in carbonite is your form of being in a combined limbo and purgatory experience?"
"What else can I call it? There's no other way to look at it."
Nalieza shifted in her seat. "I guess so...but that would mean you're dead. And you are obviously aren't."
"Are you sure? How do you know this isn't some kind of purgatory for me, and that I'm being tested before I can go on to some better place?"
"Because you've been alive this long. I doubt you've died since we've started having these encounters."
"That doesn't prove anything. Maybe I died during one of those times when you're awake. I might be imagining all of this. You know that stuff we talked about before? About the dead dreaming?" He stared off to the side, looking blankly through the vine curtain. "I'm starting to believe you were right."
"Han, you are not dead. Stop thinking that way."
"How do you know? Maybe I'm just sitting around in a nowhere waiting for somebody to decide where I wind up for eternity." He slammed the mug down, then put his hand to his forehead.
Nalieza wanted to say something. Anything that would convince him. But she had to admit that he might be correct. She had no way to prove that he was still alive on some level.
"I don't know what's real anymore," he said in a low voice.
She reached across and put her hand lightly on his wrist. "Nothing's real when you're dreaming. That's why it takes place inside your mind." Then she a little. "But even when it isn't completely real, it's still a good thing. Because you know when you're dreaming that you still have life."
"You still think that I'm not dead. Why?"
She gave him a steady look. "Because I can feel it."
"Did you just graduate from Jedi University?"
"It's not a mind trick, if that's what you mean. I don't do any of those. Except for one...being able to go walking around in dreamscapes. Of living people. Notice what I said there. Living." She pointed at him. "Right now, that would be you."
He was silent for a few moments. Then he said, "This would be a stupid place for purgatory. A spaceport caf. A Corporate Sector caf, no less."
Nalieza laughed. "Oh, absolutely. What a terrible way to spend your afterlife." She looked down at the table and noticed the still unopened bottle. "With bottles that you don't know how to open. What a miserable way to nonexist."
"I do know how to open it." He put his thumb on top of the gold cap.
"Aren't you going to pick up the bottle first?"
"No, because this is what happens when you open it." He pressed down on the cap. It popped off, and a large chorus line of letters and figures suddenly appeared on the black surface of the bottle. They danced around the bottle in gaudy colors, bright and overly showy. There was a smaller grouping of symbols down at the bottom, flashing and making their own rotation in a similar but less obnoxious fashion than their larger counterparts.
One minute passed before the tacky light show ended.
"See what I mean? Would you want to hold that in your hand?"
She picked up the bottle. "Now, since it's not doing...whatever it was just doing."
"Believe it or not, that's advertising. Corporate Sector style."
"Advertising? What, exactly?"
"It's Bonadan wine. That stuff running across the bottle talks about what it tastes like, how sanitary the conditions were when it was bottled. Pointless trivia like that."
She shook her head. "You visited some weird places, Solo."
Dream World: Xandat
The air wherever here happened to be in this current dream was cold. That was what Nalieza noticed first.
She took in the surroundings. They were standing on top of the Falcon. A sun was slowly rising. Or so it appeared. When she looked closer, she saw that it actually sat paused, as if waiting for a call from some deity to ascend higher into the sky.
Han was staring out into the distance. "This is Xandat," he said, pointing across the horizon. "I wound up there by accident not too long before I met Luke and the old man in Mos Eisley. Got jumped by a cruiser out on patrol. That was when I had to dump the spice, and that was after they decided to pop the hyperdrive. It took three days to get everything working again."
"That hyperdrive. It's always been a heartbreak for you."
"Hey, nothing on this girl's ever been a problem." He looked down at the hull. "Okay, maybe one or two times she gave me some headaches..."
"A ship that has nervous breakdowns, who would have thought it possible?" she teased.
Han did not find the comment so amusing. He swung around and gave her a hard glare. "Look, if I hadn't been shot at by every damned fool who thinks he's some hotshot, none of those things ever would have happened."
He turned and took a few steps across the hull towards the access ladder. She thought he might climb down it and leave her up here alone. Instead, he put his hands on his hips and stared at the sky. The sun had not moved one inch. The clouds stretched out in thin wisps. And it was still cold. Same as before, and probably still the same a few minutes from now.
"This...all of this...it's getting..." he waved a hand around, indicating both the immediate surroundings, and the more vague air of the unconscious world he was trapped in. "It's like being an exile. I got kicked out of life because I did something stupid."
Nalieza turned away for a moment to look at the sky behind them. Dark blue; the sign of a foreboding and eternal night. She looked back over her shoulder and noted the sun still hung on the horizon. A visual commentary on his present circumstances. Suspended animation was the never-ending night, while his release from this state lay far away in the future, at some point she couldn't see, and he didn't seem to be able to envision anymore. That was the dawn light which could not go past the horizon.
"I'm not getting out of here, am I? I'm stuck like this forever, coming up in my head with every place I ever spent five minutes in. Seeing the past. No future. Not even any kind of present for that matter."
"Why do you think that?" She approached him slowly. Even in the shadowy light, she could see the expression on his face. Frustration, and some fear.
"I think it because nothing's changing. How long have I been frozen? How long have these dreams been going on? Because there's no sense of time here."
Nalieza felt sick. Telling him how long he had been in carbonite was something she had hoped would never come up. "Why?" she asked. She had to bite her lip to hold back tears before she could finish. "Why do you need to know how long this has been going on?"
"Wouldn't you want to?"
"Not really. I guess," she replied softly.
"Sorry, but I do. I have to know how long I've been out of it."
"But why? You already know time's passed, and that's bad enough. What good can it be to you to find out how much specific time has gone by?"
"Because..." he hesitated. "Because I feel lost. And maybe I want to know there's still a world somewhere that's normal. Where there's day and night, and one follows the other like it always has since the galaxy got created." He looked over his shoulder at her. "It's funny, but I've always been one of those people who liked to live in the moment." He turned his head back around and peered down into the darkness. "Since I've been here, all I can do is live in every moment I've ever experienced. And you know what? It's not so great."
"I understand that, Han. Really. But I still cannot imagine what you could gain by knowing."
"Why don't you want to tell me?"
A tear ran down her cheek. She wiped it away, then said, "There's no point in adding to your suffering."
"But I'm asking you to tell me. If it winds up driving me crazy, that's my fault. Right?"
She brushed away some more tears, but did not speak.
"Has it been days? Weeks?"
"Then what? Are you saying it's been a year already?"
"Not even close."
If she could avoid telling him the actual amount of time...but no, that wasn't possible now. Once the box of torment was open, none of the fleeing demons and terrors could be grabbed and shoved back inside. And the box could never be closed again.
He asked the final and obvious question. "How many months?"
She trembled, digging her fingernails into her palm. Then she said softly, "Three months. That's how long you've been in carbonite."
He said nothing. All he did was cross his arms over his chest and stare down at the ground. She noticed that he was shaking, as if the cold in the air had created a chill inside of him.
"Look, they're coming for you. It's just going to take some more time."
"How much longer?"
"It's a matter of when. Try to hold on to that."
"It's interesting how you can know all of this for sure."
"Why would they abandon you? They're your friends!"
He didn't answer her for a moment. But when he did, what came out surprised her.
"You know this is all my damned fault. If I hadn't trusted Lando...I failed there," he said.
How long had he been feeling guilty about what took place in Cloud City? And why did he feel responsible? "How could you have failed? By not being able to escape? Who could get out of something like that?"
"But I've been in tight situations before. I got out of a Corporate Sector prison once, and I busted out of the Death Star. How come I couldn't get us away from there?"
"You were up against impossible odds."
"I don't need to be reminded of odds."
She tried to examine the ground underneath the Falcon. Nothing was visible below them. Then she looked up to see the darkness that had been behind them in the sky descending and then coming over the dry brown hills to hover just above the surface and surround the freighter. It was appropriate, somehow, in an ominous fashion.
"Do me a favor," he said.
"The next time I ask you how long I've been in here...don't tell me."
Their last night of freedom...tomorrow would begin yet another semester, with more required classes and overpriced lunches from the cafeteria to endure. A brutal slap of reality.
But for tonight, there was nothing to do but sit on the front porch of Nalieza's house and drink metsima. Nothing to worry about...just moments to be enjoyed.
At least, that was the intention. But Nalieza couldn't let it go. Trying to escape the dreams was impossible. She was trapped within another person's tragedy now, and she didn't know what a normal life was supposed to be like anymore. It had been an uneasy balance these last few months, trying to live within her reality by day, then descending into sleep at night, and entering a peculiar kind of reality that wasn't completely real. She had managed to hold both states together in some kind of odd balance. At least, she had convinced herself that was true. But now...nothing was certain anymore.
"Zhir was offered up as a sacrifice by the village. He was bound up in a paeta, then tossed out from the cliffs at Monjoi into the sea.."
Civriel stood at the bottom of the steps holding a small tumbler of metsima in one hand, while using the other to demonstrate the imaginary sight of a bound and helpless victim descending from a cliff into the sea. They were halfway into the first of two bottles of wine he had brought back from home during the semester break. And the spirits of the spirit were slowly releasing things usually held in check by normal standards of behavior. Civriel's usual state of quiet was rapidly dissolving, to be replaced by a more animated state, as shown by his current foray into telling the story of Zhir, one of the ancient myths from his homeworld. Even Meaithe was letting down some of her guard, at least a little. She was smiling, and hadn't reached for a cret in over ninety minutes. Josym's nature was simply heightened, since he was normally kinetic. As for herself...the walls were coming down, stone by stone. Which was not needed to happen right now.
"...he was trapped in a bag with his hands tied. Drifting along on the surface of the ocean for what seemed like an eternity."
Nalieza swirled the full glass in her hand, staring into the ultramarine colored liquid as if trying to divine some great secret of the universe. To be cast alone out in the middle of an open and dark sea...well, that seems familiar.
"The bundle was caught up in a tempest, which made it sink to the bottom. By some divine act, it burst open, and tossed Zhir out. He struggled about until he managed to release himself from the bonds. Then he wandered through the deep, trying to find a way out of his predicament..."
Swallowed by the abyss...but in Han's case, he did not descend completely into the blackness. To do so would have overtaken his awareness completely, which would have been small blessing. Because he had recently begun to have some frightening moments...instead of the never-ending flow of memories, which were terrible but at least provided some respite from the knowledge of being carbon frozen. But now, he had random moments of clarity, pure and terrifying...the feeling of being trapped in carbonite...not being able to move...smothered by a wall of ice...pushing him down, taking away his breath. All was cold and dark...what had originally caused his mind to retreat was now resurfacing. He never told her these feelings were coming over him. Just like that night when the dreams began...she could feel everything he felt.
"A wombfish swallowed him whole. When Zhir awoke and found himself inside the thing's stomach, he was more astounded to find he was still alive than the fact he happened to be inside a sea creature." Civriel paused to finish the rest of his metsima. Then he bowed as if at the end of a performance in front of an audience.
Josym and Meaithe burst into a round of applause. They were sitting on the porch, placed casually upon the settee. From her vantage point at the opposite end of the porch, seated in the overstuffed mita chair, Nalieza watched the scene. Present, yet not present.
"You know, I'd find it amazing to still be alive after I got swallowed by a fish," Josym said.
"Perhaps. But it is still rather odd to think 'I'm alive' instead of 'Now, how did I wind up here?'" Civriel replied.
Josym and Meaithe both laughed at this comment. But Nalieza could not react to it. There was simply no capacity for mirth or enjoyment within her at the moment.
"Nali, hey, are you here with us?" Meaithe called out.
She looked up. Not an easy question to answer under the circumstances...best thing to do was try and put on a brave and convincing face. In other words, lie. "Sure I'm here. Just let my mind wander there for a minute." She took a large swallow of metsima. "This is pretty good, Civ. Your father must have had some luck with the growing season this year."
Civriel glanced at the other two. "Yes, the weather was more fair than usual. That encourages the metsimes to interact better with the soil."
Nalieza stared at her friends. Even if they didn't possess one drop of Force sensitivity, they could tell she was trying to hide something. She was a good actress in front of holocameras, but terrible when it came to hiding her feelings from others in real life.
"It's the dreams again," Josym stated, putting his empty glass down on the table next to the settee.
She said nothing. Keep it to yourself, girl.
"Do I have to come over there and drag it out of you?" Josym asked.
"You wouldn't dare," Nalieza responded. Yet she knew that was exactly what he would do.
And so he did. With a few quick steps, he came across the porch and sat on the left arm of the chair. "You haven't said anything about them for ages," he said, lightly touching her arm.
Nalieza moved away, just a little. She didn't want anyone's concern or pity right then.
"They still must be going on. You would have told us about them ending. Right?"
Just give him whatever he wants to hear. Then block up the rest. "Yes, they're still going on. But there's nothing to tell. I meet him in the dream world, in whatever setting his memory called up. We talk about stuff that happened to him. Eventually, I get the feeling it's time to wake up. And then every morning...I wake up." She balanced the empty glass in her lap, letting it tilt slightly along the edge of her right thigh. Like a tower slowly falling to the ground...and if she let the glass fall, it would shatter. Just like her sense of reality...just like Han's sense of hope.
Josym shook his head. "Sorry, none of us finds that convincing."
And they weren't. She could feel it plainly. It was usually pointless to lie to someone with Force sensitivity, especially if you happened to be one too. Even if they could not detect the true nature of what she was trying to suppress, they could certainly tell she was trying to cover up something. The peculiar quirks of metsima added to this element. Alcohol could make everything become revealed.
"Fine, if you really feel it's necessary to know about the dreams, then I'll tell you. For the past month, they've been getting worse. And honestly, this is all starting to drive me crazy." She placed her empty glass on the porch, then stood up and moved over to the porch railing. "It's ridiculous. I get a chance at going out in the world and having what passes for a normal life. I can come and go pretty much when and where I want. But he can't. It's not fair."
"How can you feel guilty for being alive? You can't help that he was carbon frozen, and it's not like you could have stopped it even if you were there when it was happening," Josym said, standing up and moving to stand next to her.
Nalieza looked up into the sky. It was black, with only the faintest hint of stars, and no moon. The absence of light to guide one's way through a dark night's journey. Something bad was coming on this path they were traveling.
"You've been doing the best you can under the circumstances. And you've handled this better than any of us probably could have," Meaithe said.
"Oh sure. I've been doing so great. I could have used some kind of handbook going into this, so I could know how to handle all of this better."
"Maybe we could try to help you," Civriel said.
She gave a short laugh, tinged with the flavor of tired bitterness. "How can anybody help now? I'm certainly not the one to do it. I can't even tell what in the hells reality is supposed to be." Nalieza turned her back from the railing to face them, even though she kept her eyes focused on her feet. "The dreams started out feeling real. I certainly don't know how or why I'd be making up. Let alone from where I might be drawing the places and situations from." She took in a deep breath, and then paused. Should she really tell them everything? Was it necessary to bring up the personal dream she had? The one where she wandered through a labyrinth of blinding white walls until she wound up in an empty morgue. All in the room was still and silent, cold and sterile. She tried to run from the room, but the door slammed shut, causing all of the slabs to burst forth from the walls. Each clear rectangle was empty, and lit up from within by twin golden stars. Blinking and pulsing, then finally fading away to nothingness, leaving the lucetene slabs transparent and devoid of illumination.
That dream had brought her quickly into an awakened state in the predawn hour. She hadn't worked up the nerve to attempt sleeping since that morning.
There was no point in bringing that dream up. It might help to dig some meaning out of the dream's ashes...no. Enough of that nonsense. Trying to find a meaning in every damned image that came up was impossible. The out of body experience held no significance. There was no meaning. No order...just random chaos.
Nalieza gazed up once more into the night sky. The stars still glittered, as if sending out messages to unknown and known worlds. So the stars talk. Are we supposed to listen? What could they possibly be saying that might make some difference now? All of the truths she had tried to comfort herself and Han with throughout this ordeal no longer mattered. In the end, only two truths ultimately existed: the overwhelming power of death, and its capacity to alter everything it encompassed. Everyone and everything was ultimately swallowed into the abyss, casting them into permanent darkness. Just like Zhir in the myth that Civriel had been telling them...
"Civ," she called out. "Did Zhir ever find his way out of the wombfish's belly?"
There were several seconds of tense silence, and then he answered her question. "Yes. Eventually. But first, he had to undergo another trial of will, one that required much physical and mental effort on his part."
Nalieza smiled. "Would you finish the rest of the story tonight?" Maybe some distraction is what I need right now. And just possibly, I might get at least one clue on if I should give up, or keep going.
Running through a maze...she could not find him. He had to be somewhere...but he was slipping away...if she didn't catch up, he would disappear completely.
Wait...Han wasn't gone...he was in the center of the maze. She could hear him...
"Leia? Where are you?"
Why was he calling for her? Had she somehow entered into this region of the dreamworld? But where was this place?
Nalieza pulled herself out, leaving her dream body below to get a wider view of the surroundings.
It was a garden. Large, circular, with many trees sitting at the edges. Flowers glittered and floated aloft, intertwining with gracevines to form a canopy over the area. At the north and south ends of the garden stood the gleaming white statues of the Two Sisters, Hope and Compassion. In the sky, she could see night and day blending together; morning and evening meeting in one place.
This place felt familiar...she thought back...reached deep into her memories...yes, she was here once...this was a meeting place...a garden between the worlds of life and death. Beings could come here and let each other know they still cared...still remembered...still loved.
Nalieza dropped back into her body. She started to run again...then stopped. No, this wasn't necessary. She closed her eyes, and reached out her hand. To move through this maze, one could simply think...her body dissolved, and ascended...floated like smoke...and moved towards him.
Han was running towards the left side...then he turned abruptly and moved over to the other side. Nalieza descended behind him, and grabbed his wrist. "Stop," she said in a low voice.
He stared right past her. "Where is she?"
"What are you talking about? Did you actually see her?"
"I did." He hesitated. "Or I thought I did."
"If you did, then we can find her."
"I don't know...she was there one minute...she had her back to me...I tried to touch her." Han reached out his hand into the empty air. "But she faded away. Like a ghost."
"Come on, maybe we can find her again."
He did not move. "I thought she was here...But she isn't." He looked at her this time. "Is she?"
"Maybe she was here." She took his hand. "This place is where a dreaming spirit comes to seek their departed loved ones." "It might be possible for someone to pass through here when they aren't totally connected to life."
A shape flittered by them and flew up above their heads. A small golden circle...a perfect light...to guide them?
"You're lost..." the circle transformed into a star "...and she's lost. The both of you have been trying to find each other."
The star took off like an arrow, headed towards the horizon, over to a dark plain in the far off distance.
"We're going to leave now," she told him. "Hold on."
She closed her eyes, and felt the fading away begin...Head out towards the plain...Follow the star.
She stopped fading.
"What the..." her eyes opened, and they were still standing in the garden.
"She's not here." Han pulled away with a sudden jerk and ran back into the maze.
"Stop! She's over..."Nalieza dissolved and moved over the area.
He was running...moving farther away...
"Come back," she whispered.
He stopped. "There's no point. It's over." His voice echoed, even though his interior tone was quiet.
She descended to the ground, right in front of him. "Don't say that." She reached out towards his hand, but he pulled back.
"I've had enough of this," he said, turning away from her.
"If you keep running, I'll keep finding you, Solo."
"Why? There's no point anymore. It's over."
She moved towards him again. He stepped away, backwards, into the shadows that began to emerge from behind him on the path.
"I can't keep believing."
"Han, don't give up." Nalieza took a step forward.
"Do you know what it's like?" His voice was quiet. "Waiting for somebody to come and get me out of here. Seeing my life, over and over...everything..." his words became a whisper. "Being trapped. Not able to do anything...time passing...and I'm not going anywhere..." The shadows gathered around him, flowing down over his shoulders, and drifted down over his face.
"I'm not giving up on you!" she yelled, reaching out to pull him from the encroaching shadows.
She fell forward, her hand grasping empty air...the garden dissipated...the ground beneath her gave way...and she was pulled backwards.
"No, no!" Her cry echoed like a mocking demon as she fell back into the physical world.
The words stayed in her mind long after she was forced awake.
Nalieza walked through a long and empty corridor, surrounded by white walls on both sides. All she had seen in this damned city were walls. Some of them were plain; others had intricate designs carved onto their surfaces. There were no windows to be found on any of the walls.
And she had definitely seen far too much white. The color of innocence, purity...and the color of hope. But also the color of mourning in some cultures...now, she could add another association. White was also the color of insanity. She'd seen far too much of it in the last few...hours? It wasn't hard to imagine being driven over the horizon of reason into the depths of a never-ending abyss of unreason and chaos after being surrounded by the blinding monotone of this empty shade.
Getting swallowed...that seems to be a recurring theme lately.
This city was a strange place. Beautiful, but it felt oddly poisonous. A pretty trap, like a jewel box with a serpent hidden inside the velvet lining. And it was a labyrinth, and she could wander around for ages upon ages, with no end in sight. The corridors were so similar that it wouldn't be hard to get lost in here.
Not in this lifetime, girl. Keep going, and you'll probably find him at the center. The heart of a labyrinth is where all things that must be confronted lives, right?
Suddenly, a window appeared on the left wall just ahead of her. It was large and round, with a clear view of the scenery outside. Sitting in the east were two pale green slivers of moons. Trapped behind those moons was a sun, red and pink...the tint of a rose intertwined with the shading of blood. Two lifeless bodies holding a life-giving entity as a prisoner, keeping it frozen in space and time. Another sun standing still...a different setting, yet with the same meaning. Life suspended in the flow of time...literally trapped in ice.
Along with the sun and moons, there were clouds everywhere. So many...
A city in the clouds. Bespin...Cloud City. So this was where Han had sought refuge...but instead had been condemned.
He was shutting himself away. Here, in this simulacrum of the place where everything had fallen apart.
She stopped walking. None of this made sense...and yet, it was sadly logical for Han to lock himself away in a remembered version of this forsaken idyll turned nightmare. To condemn himself was the final step in the complete descent into despair begun a few weeks before. Waiting, knowing how long he had been frozen, and then not finding Leia in the garden...even the strongest person would collapse and break apart under such things.
Nalieza began walking again, but still had no idea where or which way to go. More minutes passed, and she kept walking through blank-walled corridors.
"Damn, somebody give me a sign here," she muttered, staring down at the floor for a moment, just to pull her attention away from the maddening walls.
In front of her were two paths diverging at a crossroads. The delicate process of making the right choice was suddenly important. Going one way would lead her to the center of this maze, and hopefully to where Han was. But going the other way would lead to...where? Maybe through more endless corridors, or perhaps out of this city, into some new and foreign space where she might be forced to wander until she faded away from existence.
Nalieza looked down the long hall on the right. Far away down the length of the corridor, and just around a corner, she could see a shimmering rose-and-gold light. She turned to look down the similar looking hall on her left. There too was a light coming down the hall, but this one was murky grey. More like a patch of fog than the soft light coming from the right side corridor.
"Which way am I supposed to go?" she called out to any deity or unseen helper that might be paying attention.
The response she was given was a brief flash of a vision...like the quick light from a holoimager...a room filled with chairs gathered around a long table...sitting at the head of the table...there he was, hunched over, with his elbows on the table...his face was hidden from her view, as it rested in his hands.
Han was completely adrift on the dark-night sea of his own despair. Things had happened in Cloud City too fast for him to change the course of events.
She had seen what took place that day in one of the earlier dreams...when the doors opened, Han saw a demon at the far end of the table. And entering from stage right came the bounty hunter, in the role of the demon's henchman. The blaster came out of the holster with the lightening flash reflexes honed over years of gunfights...but the demon at the other end of the table was faster than any normal man could ever hope to win against in such a battle.
Han couldn't save them...he couldn't save her. What he had sworn to do...that had been his ultimate motivation. Even if it meant that to keep her safe, he would need to leave the Rebellion behind. Having the curse of a bounty hanging over his head meant staying near Leia could bring her far too close to danger. She already faced enough danger leading an underground revolution against the Empire...to bring her more of it would only be foolish. He couldn't do that to her. So out of necessity, Han had to break his promise about staying with the Rebels, and leave.
But that never happened...
She concentrated, seeking out his presence in the Force so she could find him. After a moment, she felt that he was nearby. Very close, in fact.
With a quick nod, she headed down the right side corridor.
For a few moments, the only things she saw were two white walls surrounding her, exactly like all of the other ones she had passed by. But soon, she could feel an overwhelming sense of sadness coming from somewhere close to her left side. It radiated outward like a cold draft seeping through a crack in an attic ceiling.
She turned around. There were two doors towering over her head.
She looked around to locate a control panel that would let her into the room behind the doors. But there was none. Which did not make any sense, as there would obviously be some way of entry in the real life counterpart. Not easily being able to access the room could only be coming from Han's mind.
She leaned her forehead against the doors. What could she do now? All she could think of doing at the moment was to bang on the doors with her right hand curled up into a fist.
"Leave me alone." His voice was muffled, but his tone was clear enough.
She stopped pounding on the barriers in front of her. "Han, please don't do this."
There was no response. She knocked some more. Still, there was no reaction from him.
Nalieza slid down to the floor, and drew her knees up to her chest.
This was the lowest moment for both of them. He had lost hope, and even she now felt that nothing was possible anymore.
Maybe Han had the right idea. Would it really be so terrible to give up? Letting yourself detach and drift away was far better than feeling the anguish of another person. No, no. Try to hold on a little bit longer. Find something to keep him going. Don't let this blasted white city nightmare become his tomb.
Nalieza put her head down on her knees. Calling up something miraculous out of nowhere, stuck in the middle of this? How was that supposed to happen?
"If I'm supposed to be helping him through this mess, then I need some ammunition here," she whispered. "You can't expect an aident out on their first dream journey to do all of the work alone, especially in circumstances like these." She looked up at the ceiling. "Help me."
An image began to form in her mind...a pavilion, with its gentle filigree metalwork glittering softly under a golden full moon. A small group of people stood outside on the top level, with a gorgeous view of the river providing the backdrop to the scene. In the group, there was a woman standing on the right, wearing a white dress that glowed softly under the light of a nearby park light. Standing on the left was a man, wearing black and white, and looking uniquely elegant. An officiator was in front of them, holding a scroll and reading aloud from it. Just behind the couple was another man, younger than the groom, wearing dark blue and black...and next to him was a Wookiee, towering above the four humans. And in the far left corner, a small blue and silver astromech silently recorded the proceedings...a wedding ceremony...Yes, yes, it appeared to be...but who was getting married?
A small streak of light briefly illuminated the scene. She saw just enough to notice the faces of the participants.
That couldn't be possible...surely this was some weird vision induced by too much stress. Or some grand wish on her part...but if it was either of those, why did it feel right? So...real?
She opened her eyes. Had she just seen the future?
Her head buzzed. And the draining effect from feeling too much of one person's emotions plus her own was still present in her body. But there was something to motivate her, a strong sense that rose up past the remains of the sadness.
She jumped up from the floor and was about to knock on the doors again. Until she noticed a small but significant detail...on each door was a stylized geometric design that resembled a benu. The benu was a mythical bird that had once been held sacred as a sign of resurrection. Nalieza didn't know if these designs were actually on the doors in Cloud City, or if it was something being used symbolically in this dreamscape. Either way, it meant something important.
She started beating on the doors with her hands. "Han! Han, please open up! I have something to tell you!"
There was no answer.
If asking nicely wouldn't work, then the only way to get him listen was to make him angry. Not the most logical thing to do under normal circumstances...but a desperate measure was required for a desperate moment. Logic could take a flying leap out an airlock for all she cared at this point.
She took a breath, and yelled, "Okay, you stubborn fool. You can stay in yourself until you die! Even if they come and thaw out your sorry carcass, you'll still be locked up in here! And do you know why? Because you gave up!"
She looked at the ceiling, closed her eyes, and then said more quietly, "You'll lose her. All you'll ever have are thoughts, not the reality. So go ahead, leave her alone." Then she said in a whisper, "And you'll be alone."
There was nothing to do but wait for his reaction.
It took less than a minute for the doors to fly open. Han stood between them, looking angry, yet trying to keep it contained. "Watch your mouth," he said in a low tone.
She did not respond, or make any movement. It was better to let him say whatever he wanted at this point.
"Don't come here preaching to me about my life. I never asked you to start showing up. I definitely never said you had to keep coming back. You should have let me stay blacked out. It was better then."
Nalieza kept her steady facade. "I know."
"Oh yeah? How do you know? You have no idea what it was like."
"I do know what it was like."
"Only second hand. That's not the same as actually going through it."
"It is different, yes. But I still felt the pain, and everything else."
"No, you don't know it at all. You don't know what it was like, having to feel it coming down." He turned around and walked over to the window. "You didn't feel it. It was like..." he rested a hand on the wall, and she felt his tension; trying to recount the memory was almost as bad as having to remember it. "It was like drowning," he said quietly. "Or what I've heard it feels like. Because it's never happened to me, so I don't know what it's really like. But having that stuff coming down..." His hand clenched into a fist. "No wonder my mind took a hike when it started happening."
This wasn't the best time to disagree with him, to press her point about what it felt like to go through this experience right along with him. But all of these months, she had to keep so much held in, pushed aside and locked away while trying to help him sort through the memories so he could take something useful from this pointless consciousness he had been cursed with from the beginning. He had been making progress...but now, he was giving up. Giving into the sadness...it was going to destroy him. And it might destroy her, too. That was hard to believe at first, to think what happened to someone who still was a semi-stranger could effect her so much she might have some kind of emotional breakdown if they suffered a collapse. But there it was, though, and that could not be denied.
She had to save him, if only in part to save some of herself.
"When this all started, yes, I was just an outsider looking in. I never asked to be pulled into this, Han. I didn't ask to see your memories or feel what it's like to be frozen." Nalieza crossed her arms. "But it happened. And neither one of us can change that now." She pressed her lips together, trying to hold her resolve. "It would make things a lot easier for both of us if I just gave up and walked away right now. If I do that though...you lose everything that you want."
"Everything I want is already gone. There's nothing out there for me anymore. What's the point in waking up?"
"Stop it! Haven't you ever noticed the effect you have on people? Every person you ever come in contact with, you make an impression on them." She had to swallow, to keep her voice steady. "But if some of those people let you into their hearts...well, you certainly can do something to them."
Han wasn't about to give up. "That doesn't mean anything."
Nalieza sighed. "Quit it." She walked past him into the dining room. "I'm not leaving until you come out of here."
"You're gonna be waiting a long time," he responded.
She fell down into one of the chairs that were placed around the table. "Fine. I'm not doing anything particularly important in the real world. That leaves plenty of time for irritating you."
He stalked over to the left side of the chair and leaned down close to her face. "You won't do it."
She did not flinch or draw back from him, but simply stared at him. And did not say a word.
"No, you're just bluffing, like a bad sabacc player. I can tell."
"Do you want to test that assumption? I'm willing if you are."
Han pulled back. "What's your problem?" He pointed to the open doors. "Go on, get out. This isn't where you're supposed to be."
"Neither are you." There, nothing left now but a stalemate.
An awkward silence fell between them. Nalieza kept her eyes downcast, gathering up her mental strength, just in case he might decide to continue being stubborn. Although it seemed likely now that the worst part was over, because she could feel the instinct to fight leaving him slowly.
After awhile, he finally spoke. "You wanted to tell me something. What is it?" Much of the tension in him was gone, replaced by a weary feeling that she also felt.
"I saw something. Maybe this won't happen...I wonder if what I saw is even part of the future. But I still think telling you might help."
"What did you see?"
"I saw your wedding."
Han looked startled. "My...who was the bride?"
"Leia, obviously. Who else would it be?"
"I..." he looked at the walls, at the ceiling, then back at her. "Well, I'd want it to be her, definitely. No one else could...I mean, I never thought of marriage to any woman before, but if I did, then I...Do you think she would even have me?" He shrugged, slightly embarrassed. "You never know when some prince from a faraway system shows up with a lot of money and fancy ships. That's the kind of guy who usually winds up marrying a princess."
"Not every princess. Only the stupid ones go for those flashy types. I don't think your princess is like that at all. She seems to value substance over style. Or in your case, both substance and style."
He rubbed the back of his neck. "If I ever asked her, would she accept? Or would she start laughing at me?"
"Don't be ridiculous. She would definitely say yes if you proposed."
"Yeah, yeah, you're right. I mean, she'd be crazy not to. I'm a catch for any woman. Especially a princess."
"Of course you are." Nalieza reached out and patted his arm. "You'll have what you want. Don't think for one more minute that it won't happen. Okay?"
Han nodded. "Yeah, I'll try to keep that in mind."
"Don't try. Do. Or don't. But I'd really like it if you did." She noticed something outside the window at the far end of the room. ""Hey, look at that."
"Turn around." She pointed in the direction of the window. "The sun's finally out."
And there it was, bright, clear, and golden. Sitting high over the clouds, tinting them with soft tints of red and pink.
"Well, it's not in the right setting, but it finally got over the horizon."
"Which means what precisely?"
"It means things are finally moving forward. I think it's almost time for you to get out of here."
Two suns...one coming over the horizon, followed closely by its twin. It was dawn on Tatooine.
Once again, Nalieza stood near the house she had seen during her first visit here. The reason why she had that out-of-body experience then never showed itself. But now, there was an important task to accomplish. A message needed to be delivered.
She approached the entrance with caution. This duty had to be performed in the appropriate fashion. Which meant not drawing attention to herself until the right moment. And even then, she had to remain invisible. That was part of a set of protocols set in place for aidents that had existed for millennia. The aident had to remain detached yet also stay connected while assisting in a dream journey. Remaining in such a state was a difficult balance to maintain. But delivering a message to someone in the dream world was important. Since she was doing this while the recipients were awake, then it was absolutely essential to do this right.
She reached the doorway, and then entered the house. She hovered at the top of the steps, and gazed down into the large room. Skywalker was in the center, kneeling down in front of a small blue astromech. Standing in the back of the room, leaning against the worktable, was the same dark-haired woman she had first seen in that long-ago carbon chamber dream. The princess from Alderaan who had taken Han's heart and soul and transformed it into something different and better.
"Now that Lando has gotten in there and sent the signal, the rest of our plan can come together," said the young Jedi.
"After all of this time, can we be sure anything's going to work?"
"We've come this far. So giving up hope now..." Skywalker closed an access panel on the front of the droid. "That isn't a choice I'll give into. And neither should you."
"I know. It's not what I want to do either. But trying to have faith that it will be over with soon...it's getting harder to do." She rubbed her eyes. "I try to tell myself that it's only a little bit longer. Just a few more days, and then it will all be over. He'll be out of the carbonite, and he won't have to suffer anymore."
Skywalker patted the top of the little droid's dome, and stood up. "It will happen, Leia. We just have to be patient. Rushing into the palace won't help Han or us very much."
"Still, I have a hard time getting past the frustration," the princess replied. She walked over to a long bench set into the wall close to the steps. "Now that Lando's gotten into there, what comes next?"
"I'm going to record a message, and Artoo's going to the palace with Threepio to deliver it."
Nalieza floated down to the bottom of the stairs, and took a seat on the last step. Delivering messages...sounds like a running theme.
"That sounds rather simple," said the princess, scooting over so Skywalker could join her on the bench.
"I wish it were simple. But it's not. After the droids get in there, one of us will have to find a way into the palace to rescue Han."
"That's my responsibility," the princess replied.
"The question is how to do it, though."
"In disguise, I suppose. Perhaps at night."
"A disguise? What am I supposed to be, a dancing girl?"
Skywalker shrugged. "I'm not saying that. Although Han might appreciate the gesture..."
For a moment, Nalieza thought the princess might try to throw something at him, based on the shocked look that came across her face. Instead, something unexpected happened. She laughed. A short chuckle, followed by a smile and a small shake of her head. "It's fortunate that was a joke. Otherwise there would be major repercussions for that statement."
Skywalker looked to the ceiling with a dramatic sigh. "Oh, thank the Maker." Then he grinned.
From her vantage point over by the steps, Nalieza watched this easy rapport between the two young Rebel warriors. It was an interesting experience to see individuals about whom so many legends and rumors had sprung up since the destruction of the Death Star, acting normal. Ordinary individuals in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. Even someone who had been slightly famous (like herself) could find the lives of other well-known people intriguing.
"I had that dream again last night."
Nalieza leaned forward. The princess had been dreaming, too? Dreams...another running thread through this journey.
"I was in that garden again. It was dark, just like always. And Han was there." She leaned her head back against the wall. "Or at least I thought he was there. Just like the other times I've been there. I can see him, but I can never reach him." The princess closed her eyes. "It sounds ridiculous, but it felt real."
So Han had seen her in the garden between the two worlds.
"Maybe it was real. A sign that he's still alive."
And that was why Nalieza was here. And now was the best time to deliver her message to them.
But how am I supposed to do it?
She focused on the floor, staring at the small grains of sand strewn across it. Could she kick up a small whirlwind to get their attention?
What a stupid idea.
Was it possible to find an object and throw it across the room? That might work, if she was able to touch anything with this spirit body.
She kicked at the sand with her etheric foot. While the aident traditions had detailed accounts of message visitations, not one of them ever went into detail about the mechanics of presenting the message. At least the process itself was shown in some detail, enough to provide a model on how to deliver the message. Basically, the aident was supposed to come in, establish contact, say whatever needed to be said, and then leave. No imprint of the aident was to be left behind in the mind of the recipient, or in their physical location.
But throughout these accounts, the matter of remaining detached was always emphasized. The aident was simply a vessel, carrying the important matter of the message.
She might have to go up against tradition, and change the rule to better fit the situation. Making contact with them was going to require a huge mental effort, and the energy for this would have to come from a collected center of her will. It looks like I'll have to put myself into this after all. Sorry, tradition, but sometimes you aren't any help.
The sound of the princess' voice pulled Nalieza out of her reverie. A question about...a lightsaber?
"Yes, just a few days ago before you arrived." Nalieza looked down at his waist and saw the object that was attached through a loop to the Jedi's belt. A distinctive silver shape...the saber she had witnessed him constructing many weeks earlier. Now completed...it looked ordinary. But she knew that it was far from that.
"Now you can understand why I needed to come here."
She could certainly understand the reason. Part of any spiritual journey required a period of baptism by solitude. It almost seemed like a requirement.
"I can't say that I completely understand what compelled you to come here by yourself. But the Jedi ways aren't familiar to me." The princess shrugged. "You'll have to forgive me for being a common mortal."
Skywalker smiled. This simple gesture caught Nalieza off guard. A smile...so simple, yet it had such a captivating grace about it...
What? Where did that come from? Stop getting distracted, girl! You're on duty!
"Leia, I don't think you qualify as an ordinary being," he said. "An ordinary woman never could have resisted Han for so many years."
The princess laughed. "Oh, you think so?" Then she sighed and nodded. "But you're right. It's definitely not something I imagined ever could have happened."
He opened the trunk. "Call it one of those things that happens to a person every so often when they least expect it."
"Something you can't plan for, but when it happens...it's astounding."
"Love is strange that way." Skywalker peered into the trunk and moved some things around. "I guess. I can't claim to understand how it feels. I'm not familiar with how love works, and I probably never will."
"Luke, how can you say that for sure? You've said more than once in the past few months that no one can see the future. If the future is indeed always in motion, then how can you say what's likely for you?"
"I can't. Yet I know there are things I have to give up in order to be a Jedi."
The princess shook her head. "You sound so much like me when I was younger. I spent too many years dedicated to the Rebellion, and I never thought of much else. I definitely never let myself have some kind of a real life." She stood up and walked over to the single window facing out onto the desert. "It's so strange to think it wasn't so long ago I didn't know what other options I could have." She turned her head and looked at Skywalker with a steady gaze. "Don't let yourself get so caught up in duty that you push life away."
Nalieza stifled a gasp. For her to come out and make this declaration to another person, even if it was Skywalker...it could only mean one thing. Wow. She loves him. Han needs to know this.
As for the meaning of her last statement...it felt like something unseen had brought these people together. With so many differences scattered amongst the trio, there were some essential similarities. The most obvious was bravery...but the trait not so easy to spot, which they shared, was fear. In particular, it seemed that Han and his beloved's shared fear of love had rubbed off on Skywalker. Or perhaps the twisted road his own journey had dragged him along molded him into the kind of person who would stay away from personal attachments. Maybe it was a Jedi rule he had discovered...if that's true, it sounds like a stupid rule. Why should any Jedi not get involved with someone if they want to? Closing yourself off even if it's not your choice...isn't that wrong? Denying a chance at love if it shows up?
Hey, look who's talking about shutting out love! Take that logic and apply it to yourself, kidlet!
There was a lesson here for more than one person. And once again, she was being told something that didn't make sense. It was more than likely a lesson to be kept in her memory, and the meaning would come to her later in life.
Good enough. For now, I've got something to start...and finish. It's time to say what needs to be said.
Nalieza decided to aim her message at Skywalker. Since he was Force sensitive, it would make her task much easier communicating with someone who could speak through a mind link.
She stood up and moved over to the right edge of the trunk. Then she closed her eyes, folded her hands over her stomach, and cleared her mind. This was her first time at a conscious telepathic communication, so a great deal of concentration was necessary.
Moments passed...then she sent out a thought into the currents of the Force. One word, very simple, but good enough to establish contact.
Skywalker stopped looking in the trunk. His head turned sharply to look up in her direction.
Holy Creatrix, those eyes are amazing.
Nalieza bit her lip. She hoped he didn't hear that.
If he had, his reaction did not show it. The only response she received was a question. Who are you?
Good, he was getting right to business.
I'm here to tell you that Han is all right. He's still alive.
Skywalker looked suspicious. How do you know that?
You'll have to trust me on this. It would take too long to explain, and I'm running low on time. And she was...already, the feeling of her spirit body being pulled back towards her physical self began. Her focus started to fade...and then her invisibility dropped. For just a second, she was visible to any eyes that could see a transparent living ghost. She looked down at her hands, and saw the sandy floor clearly through them.
Skywalker could definitely see her, considering how startled he looked.
Time to make the dramatic exit. She turned away quickly, and floated towards the door.
Wait. His unspoken statement made her stop midway on the steps.
Tell me who you are. And how you know about Han.
Nalieza looked at him. He had jumped up from the floor, and was standing up. Behind him, the princess was looking over his shoulder. "What is it, Luke?"
"There's someone here..." He pointed in Nalieza's direction. She was still visible to him.
"I don't see anyone."
"Leia, there's a person standing over there. She just told me Han is still alive."
Nalieza wondered if she could throw one hard mental push out enough to let the princess see her. It might exhaust her for a few hours when she dropped back into her body, but it was worth the effort if it meant that both of them got the message. She concentrated, and waited for a few seconds until her etheric body began to feel more substantial. It was obvious her effort worked, though, judging by the shocked look on the princess' face.
The pull back to her physical self was now growing stronger. She looked at Skywalker and the princess once more, and said through the mind link to him, I have to leave now. She waved and gave them a little smile. Then she turned her eyes forward, and headed out the door.
"...and over there is Brinke Chimuth'sKahveon, the best place to get breakfast in Krisoti." Nalieza pointed across the street to a darkened shop with small café tables set out on the sidewalk. "A half-liter of Jimica Green Mountain kahve and six reignets for four credits. The cheapest breakfast in the city...especially if you happen to be a student."
This time, they were breaking the usual routine of walking around in a reconstructed memory from Han's past. When she had met up with him earlier on the Falcon, he brought up the idea of doing something different. He wanted to see one of her memories. Certainly an unexpected request, but it didn't take long to think of a place to show him. She suggested showing him around the capital, especially at night, which was her favorite time to haunt the city streets with her friends. He took well to the idea, so it was off into her mind for a change.
"But you aren't going to see outrageous acts of random drunken stupidity. We're all pretty boring kids," she had told him just before they arrived.
"Too bad. I should teach you all how to fly a speeder bike upside down with your eyes closed after six shots of Srigillian firewater."
"Are you serious?"
"Ask me some other time about my younger days," he replied with a grin.
After this, there was nothing else to do but enter the remembered version of the city.
They had been wandering along the center of Avenue Salamicia for a while, surrounded by the general buzzing atmosphere of the downtown area on a typical evening. Beings walked around, chattering in many languages, calling out to each other from the windows of the various student boarding establishments. Some would stop in the middle of the sidewalks to figure out where to go next. Or they might stop to argue, or simply to talk. Speeder traffic crowded the streets, sometimes making it difficult to cross at certain intersections. The kahveons, chashops, restaurants and clubs were crowded as usual. "Lively," Han commented, looking around.
Nalieza tucked her hands into her pockets. "Yeah, this is pretty typical. During the semesters, anyway. It's less chaotic when break times roll around. But it gets boring after awhile. Just running around from one bar to another, or hitting some of the clubs. And the music scene's not so interesting right now."
"So what do you guys do then?"
"That's where the Ilo comes in." She pointed towards the horizon, where a small scattering of lights stood out against the darkened sky. "The Cita dav Ilo is our answer to an island paradise. At least when we can't get up into the mountains." She stopped walking. "I can show you around there if you'd like"
Han regarded her with some suspicion. "You've got something in mind."
"Well, yeah, I was thinking of showing you something."
As he asked the question, the street scene began to shift and fade, the bright colors of the downtown night slowly bleeding away to reveal another kind of backdrop. It was turning into a park. It seemed to be small, being surrounded by shadows and deep evening. Yet it felt open. This might have been due to the presence of floating guide lights, crafted in an antique style from black metal and gold embroidered avate, casting small golden pools of light.
"I guess you remember the vision I had about your wedding."
Han smirked. "Why, no, I don't know what in the hell you're talking about."
She laughed. "Of course you don't. Not at all." Then she waved her hand around. "Believe it or not, I'm about to show you where you're going to get married."
"It sounds weird, doesn't it? It didn't hit me until I was out last night in the park. There's this one part on the Ilo called the Pavilion Islet, because it has two pavilions set up there which get used for ceremonial occasions and for big events like weddings. We were out there last night after dinner and sat in the smaller one called the Tiara Pavilion. And the moon was out..." and as if on cue, the moon appeared in the sky, round and silver, casting a brighter glow across the landscape. "Just like that, in fact. The light was coming down in a certain way, which hit one of the columns... and it struck me. This is the place where your wedding is going to happen."
And the backdrop changed once again...from the dimly lit park setting to a small island overlooking a lake.
Nalieza looked over her shoulder. "Wow. I wish getting to there was so easy in the real world." Then she pointed at two pavilions that sat in the center of the island. "The large one on the left is the Crown Pavilion. And the smaller one off to the right is where your great event will happen."
"So I'm supposed to get married here. In this pavilion."
"Apparently so. Remember it for future reference." She nodded her head in the direction of the Tiara Pavilion. "Care to get a closer look?"
"Hey, I might as well get an idea what it looks like. So I'm prepared for when I actually get to see it in person." Han headed towards the structure, followed by Nalieza.
Once inside, they stood for a long time, gazing out over the lake. Under the brilliant light of the moon, the surface of the lake shimmered. There was a soft breeze coming off the water, slightly chilly, with the hint of autumn behind it.
"So what do you think? Is this a good enough place for the wedding to happen?"
Han looked around the pavilion, then leaned on the railing and looked out over the lake. "Yeah, it's nice. I can't imagine why I'd wind up here out of all the places in the galaxy, but it looks good."
Nalieza nodded. "It is weird if you think too hard about the matter. But this is the place I saw in the vision. I'm certain."
"Don't worry. I believe you." He walked over and leaned on the railing. "You know, I might even see you get married here one day."
"You forget I'm not the marrying kind."
"Neither am I usually." He looked around the pavilion. "But this is where I'm supposed to get married. At least according to what you saw." Han rapped his knuckles on the railing in front of them. "Things change, right. Which's what I realize now. And you either have to go with the changes, or lose."
"Sorry, I don't see it happening. Just call me a member of the Young Cynics' Society." She leaned against one of the columns holding up the roof. "Actually, I think my whole group might be members. At least when it comes to love." She shrugged. "I guess the Force draws together the oddlings into their own appropriate little groups."
"What's your excuse?"
"I don't have an excuse."
"At nineteen, you have nothing but an excuse. I should know. I was about your age when I realized love didn't exist." He looked down at the ground and kicked the bottom railing with his boot. "Which's what I wanted to believe at the time."
"Well then, what caused the feeling?"
Nalieza was somewhat taken aback by this declaration. "What about it? Who died?"
He stared out over the water. "Somebody important." Then he looked at her. "Same with you?"
"I'm not really cynical about it. I think if presents itself to a person, they should definitely go after it. I just feel love won't ever happen to me. Or if it does show up, I won't have it for very long." She watched the silver sparkles of the moon's reflected light dance in the ripples of the dark lake water. "Like my father...he only had eight years with my mother before she died. He's stayed away from relationships ever since. There were a couple of women he went out with when I was a kid, once or twice. Nothing serious happened, though. He's never let himself get near love like that, because he still loves my mother too much." Nalieza shrugged. "The day he gets involved in another serious relationship will probably be when I actually fall in love with someone."
"Do yourself a favor, kid. Let it happen if it shows up. Don't spend years fighting the good stuff when it's supposed to happen."
This was a sudden declaration from Han. Said in a quiet voice, with a firm conviction borne of years running from those elements that would make his life better. When the opportunities to change his life arose, fear drove him to push against those forces rather than let them in. By doing so, he lost time which could have been better spent welcoming those good things into his life.
"I've got a wager for you," Han pointed up into the sky. "Out there in the real world, somebody will come along one day and change your life the same way Leia changed mine. I'm willing to put twenty credits down it will happen."
"And how do you plan on following through with this bet?"
"Simple. When I come to Aeithera for my wedding, I'll contact you to see if you've gotten with someone yet." A thought came to him, as she felt a sudden ripple of mirth emanate from his mind. "Or maybe I might introduce you to that person. In fact, there is one particular guy I happen to know...nice kid...knows how to blow up metal moons and thinks he's a Jedi."
"Why did I just happen to know who you were going to bring up?"
"Because you're both a couple of Force sensitives. One of the reasons I think you two might be interesting together."
"No thanks. It's nothing personal...I mean, your friend seemed very nice for the minute or so I was able to communicate with him. But I don't think he would be interested in my type. And I would be terrible for him anyway." Nalieza stood up. "Now I didn't come here to discuss my lack of love. Since I've shown you the place where you will be getting married, it's time now to accomplish another task that needs to be done." She stepped out of the pavilion, then turned and looked back at him. ""Follow me." Then she headed towards the lake.
She could feel his confusion from the sudden switch of topic, but also knew that by now he trusted her enough to go along with her occasional whims that never made any particular sense at first. So he followed her without much hesitation.
Nalieza stopped at the shore. Han came up beside her.
She smiled. "In the aident culture, there's a small ceremonial gesture done to mark the end of a dream journey. A paper boat is made, set down in the nearest body of water, and then set on fire. After the fire burns out, the ashes are blown away, signifying the death of the old life, and the birth of the new one."
"But my journey's not over yet."
"You've come to the end of your personal journey. The things you needed to learn are done. You know that you aren't alone in the universe anymore, and that there are people who care about you. Knowing that makes you another person. And you're well on the way to becoming the guy you were always supposed to be. And now, on to the last order of business."
From the empty spot in the center of her palm, a paper sailing vessel appeared. Small, perfectly formed, and made from shimmering copper colored paper. Tiny masts with thin white gauze sails sprung up from the paper.
"There we go," Nalieza said, holding the boat out in Han's direction. He took it from her hand gently between his fingers. Copper paper and silver celestial light blended into one delicate form as he turned the boat about.
He put the boat back in her hand. "Now it gets set on fire, right?"
"First it gets floated on the lake. Then it gets set on fire." She knelt down and placed the boat in the water. "Ready to say goodbye to the old life?"
Han sat down on the ground beside her. "I've been ready for years. I just didn't realize it."
"Well, that's good. Because when this boat is burned, then you can never be a scoundrel again."
"I like being a scoundrel. Can I at least make a compromise and turn into a respectable scoundrel?"
Nalieza laughed. "Sure. The galaxy could always use a respectable scoundrel. Maybe you could become a leader of some army with that reputation."
He looked alarmed. "Does that mean I have to wear a uniform?"
"Absolutely not. You get to keep all of your old clothes."
"Good." He pointed at the boat. "Who gets to set the fire?"
"I called up the boat. You can make it burn."
Han leaned over. "Where do I get the flame from?"
"Just think about it. Literally. Remember, since this is the dream world, you can do that. Even have a flame come out of your finger if you really wanted to."
"That'd be a neat trick," Han replied. "But I'll stick to calling it up out of my head." He stared at the tiny vessel sitting still on the surface of the lake.
From the top of the center mast, a small flame appeared. It spread down the mast, then spread outwards to the rest of the craft.
The boat finally burnt away, leaving only a pile of dark ashes tinged with tiny flecks of shining copper paper remaining on the surface of the lake.
Han reached out and scooped up the ashes. "Now what?"
"Blow them out across the water," Nalieza instructed.
With a nod, Han blew the ashes outward. They scattered, and the copper flecks rose up towards the moon, where they briefly danced in its silvery light. Then the paper remnants disappeared into the night sky.
Down below, Han and Nalieza watched this ascent. No words were exchanged...but none were needed.
Once again, they were sitting by the river.
Han was poised on top of a large boulder. "You know, when I get out of here, I'm going to approach the guys in charge and tell them I'm signing on for good."
Nalieza shook her head and laughed. "It's not a surprise."
He leaned back on his elbows and set his focus upon the long line of trees on the opposite shore. "It's definitely a different way for me to think. Weird, you know? My life's gone from one
direction," he extended his arm and used one finger to point to the left, "to another one that's put me into this whole other world. Crazy stuff." He laughed. "Who could have imagined it?"
"It's great, actually. You deserve it, rogue boy."
"Hey, I've lost the rogue part."
She frowned. "That's right, I keep forgetting. You're the respectable scoundrel now. That means you have to be boring."
He looked shocked. "Absolutely not. I don't have the genetic material to become boring."
"But this does mean you have to become a responsible citizen. That means doing two things: paying taxes, and having lots of kids."
He made a face. "I think the kids thing should be left up to other people. Like you, for example."
"Hey, little Jedi people have to come from somewhere." He grinned, and sat up. "As for taxes, a truly respectable Corellian never pays them."
They were quiet for a long time after this exchange. Unlike the previous times they had been in this setting, it appeared to be a typical spring day. The air was warm, the sky a brilliant blue, the trees were full with ripened leaves of bright green.
The other times they had been here, it had been autumn. She hadn't known the significance of why it was always autumn in those first encounters, until she finally discovered that it had been the fall season when he'd left home to attend the Imperial Academy. It was during the last days of the waning season when he returned to Corellia one year later to make the final arrangements after his grandmother had died.
After her funeral, he had walked out of the house where he'd grown up...and kept going, down a long dusty road that led out of town. It was on this long walk when he decided to lock his heart away, never again to let anyone in. He would not let anyone get too close from that point forward, because they would betray him. They would leave. Just like his parents when they flew off soon after his birth. Just like his grandmother did when he was twenty, when she passed away.
Obviously, he had never told her any of this. A few of his memories slipped past the barriers he always had up and entered into her dreams within the last week. Han would never entirely reveal the most personal details about his life to anyone...except for the princess from now on. But it did finally answer the question one unanswered question from their discussion at the Tiara Pavilion. He had said the death of someone important caused him to push away any possibility of love from his life. Now, it all made sense. The one person who had been there for him...had left him alone. And never revealed that she would be going away. So he decided it was better to simply choose to be alone.
But it was a quirk of the universe that took what he had decided was best for him, and tossed it aside in favor of something better. Just like when he decided to enter the Academy and become an Imperial officer. That had been his plan for the rest of his life. But someone or something else had different plans for him. First, he was put in the path of a Wookiee who had desperately needed his help. And there were other tests that came along the way, which he failed, yet also passed to some degree. Eventually, the first half of a two-part final exam was placed before him. With a series of multiple-choice questions, and no grading on a curve. He had passed that first section with flying colors. The second part came with this carbonite experience. An essay section this time, with only one question for him to answer: What is most important to you?
Once again, he had the right answers. So he passed the exam.
"Hey, kid," Han called. "Are you all right?"
Nalieza blinked her eyes quickly. "Oh, yeah. Sorry. I was just noticing that things seem a little different around here."
He gave a cursory inspection of their surroundings. "Yeah, the weather's nice for a change. "
She bit at a fingernail and started thinking. Sure, it was great. But what did it mean? Well, it was a spring day...and spring was the season of rebirth...Wait a minute...
"Han, is this what spring is like where you're from?"
He stood up casually from the boulder and stretched. "Sort of. Not usually this warm." He took a quick peek at the sky. "The sky's not quite so blue." He stared at the trees again. "Actually, it looks like the kind of day my grandmother used to say only came around once every hundred years."
"Another belief from the Ancient Days?"
"Yeah. She called it a 'mirari'. It was supposed to be the day when all the gods and goddesses came out of the hills to hold a party in the woods. There'd be some sort of ceremony at the end, and that would renew all the life on the planet for another hundred years."
Nalieza closed her eyes. Rebirth, renewal. Part of the life cycle for plants, but not usually for animals. And yet, there were occasions for such a thing...the literal reincarnation after death into another physical being...and then, there was the possibility of a figurative rebirth. One that was spiritual. Old and dying parts of the soul were cast away, buried in some proper fashion along the road, leaving the new soul to move forward on the rest of its journey through the living years.
She opened her eyes. Han's time of renewal was starting.
"Follow me," she instructed, jumping off the rock.
"What's going on?" Han joined her at the side of the river.
She hesitantly reached out to touch the invisible barrier that had physically separated Han from the conscious world all of these months. The wall was thick and solid. It could not be penetrated, except by small objects like pebbles. Even when she passed through it, there was a fair amount of pushing that had to take place before she could fully enter into this realm.
Nalieza expected the wall to be present, same as always. But her fingers came into contact with...nothing. Empty air, that was all.
Han reached out both of his hands into the space before him. "The barrier's gone."
"Do you realize what this means?"
His face showed skepticism, but his eyes displayed a different emotion. That same spark of hope she had seen back in the Cloud City dining room. "Is it possible?"
She lightly touched his arm. "Try to walk across."
He nodded. Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the opposite shore, he let out a breath, then stepped to the edge of the river. His right foot moved forward, and landed on the first of the large flat rocks that formed a walkway connecting the two sides. Then he brought his left foot forward, and stood on the rock. It took him several moments to pluck up enough nerve to step onto the next rock. This point had been the farthest he had been allowed to come before encountering the wall.
When he finally stepped forward, nothing stopped him.
He stood on the rock, not moving. Until he let out a whoop of joy, and started laughing.
He wasn't trapped anymore.
Han turned around and looked at Nalieza with the biggest smile that she would probably ever see coming from any person in the universe.
Han jumped forward to the next rock with the enthusiasm of a little boy. Then he ran over the remaining flat stones, until he reached the other shore. The shore of consciousness.
Nalieza followed close behind, skipping across the rock path, and joined him on the opposite side.
There was a moment of silence between them, as they simply stared at each other in utter amazement.
Han broke the silence by asking, "Now, how do I get out of here?"
She grinned. "Let me lead the way."
They walked up the winding path, through the dome of trees, and finally came out into the clearing. But Nalieza quickly noticed that this was not the same clearing she had used to enter this world so many times. What lay before them now were two paths, one stretching to the left, the other heading in a gradual curve off to the right.
"What is this? This wasn't here before."
"It just popped up?" Han pointed at the paths.
"Definitely. There's usually only been one way in and out of here."
"Can you tell which way is the exit now?"
"Nothing's giving me any hints."
As if in response to their mutual confusion, an object suddenly fell out of the sky, and landed at their feet.
Han knelt down on the ground. "Could this help?" He picked up a small, circular gold stone.
She took the stone from him. On the side facing upwards, there was carved, "To forget?" She turned it over, and on the other side was inscribed, "To remember?"
"What does that mean?" Han asked.
"I don't know." She handed him the stone. "But I think those might be choices."
Han turned the stone over in his hands. "What kind of choices are those? 'To remember' and 'To forget'." He tossed the stone high into the air, and it landed at his feet. He kneeled down to see which side was facing upwards. "Huh, look at that." He pointed down to the ground. "The remember side. What are the odds of that happening?"
She kneeled down and traced the facing side with her index finger. "Memories...that's what got you through all of this."
"They almost drove me crazy," he retorted, picking the stone up again. "Wanna see me try for two in a row?"
"Sure, go for it."
Han tossed the stone up again...it went into the sky, then fell exactly as before. The side with "to remember?" facing up.
"Wow..." Nalieza was stunned.
"Yeah. Weird." Han rubbed his chin. "That question, strange isn't it? 'To remember?' What kind of question is that?"
"It has to be a message of some kind. To you, definitely."
"Possibly both of us," he added. "You think it can help me figure out which path to take?"
Nalieza stood up and looked at the forking paths. She gave the matter some thought, and an idea came to her. "Try the one on the right," she suggested.
"How do you know that's the one to get me out of here?"
"Call it intuition. A little whisper from the Force." She smiled. "Now, you might just have to trust that archaic concept. Or just call it gambler's luck, if that makes you feel better."
He gave her a sardonic grin, then turned towards the path on the right side. "Here goes everything," he said, then tossed the stone in the direction of the path. It sailed upward, in a graceful arc, and disappeared.
A wooden door appeared. He had made the right choice.
Han turned to Nalieza with the biggest smile she had ever seen on his face. "I did it."
She nodded. "And so it ends. Back to the living world and whatever awaits you in it." She leaned forward and whispered, "I'm certain of it, just in case you wanted to ask."
He pointed at the door. "I'm supposed to go through there...and what happens after I leave here?"
"I don't know. Like I told you ages ago, you were a unique case. But I know on a certain level that you will wake up somewhere and you will be alive."
"I have to believe in what I can't see. That's what you're saying."
"Everything revolves around believing in something. Even if it's just one thing at a time." She smiled. "Drop me a commline or two when you get married."
They looked at each other for a few seconds. Too many words could be said, if either of them were inclined to be eloquent. But when Nalieza broke the silence, the only thing she could find the courage to say was, "Now get out of your head and back into your body."
"Hey, I can't leave without saying goodbye."
"That's not necessary. Go home while the door's there."
Han glanced at the door. "It'll still be there for another minute or two. I don't wanna rush out of here without saying thank you first."
"Well, okay, you're welcome."
"I don't mean like that." He stared at her. "Look, I'm not good with this kind of stuff...I'm not one of those guys who can just come out and say what I feel...but you know that by now...But I'm glad you were with me during this...I wasn't doing well by myself...but you already know that too."
Nalieza stepped forward. "I'm aware of it all." Then she hugged him.
She could tell he was startled. To be honest, she was surprised that instinct had come to her, as she generally wasn't a demonstrative sort either. But it was only for a second or two...then he hugged her back. This gesture brought up the tears she had been fighting back. There's no need to cry, silly.
When they separated, Han was smiling. "I'll catch up to you in the real world one of these days. So look up every so often, and you'll see the Falcon coming in for a landing when you least expect it."
She laughed. "Sure. I'll keep a check on the sky. And maybe swing by the spaceport once a week just in case you got a major case of insomnia and decided to drop by."
"Or it might be on the news," he added.
She nodded. "Of course, that's a possibility." Then followed another few seconds of silence, broken when Nalieza laughed again and said, "Go on, Respectable Scoundrel. You've got a life waiting for you on the other side of that door."
"Right." He reached out and shook her hand. "Actually, goodbye really isn't in my vocabulary. So I'll see you later."
She bit her lip, trying once more to keep from crying. "Definitely. Take care of yourself."
"You too." She felt he wanted to say something more...but he also knew there was nothing else to say for now. So he turned and walked up the path. When he got to the door, he stopped long enough to look back at her. She smiled, then waved. He returned both gestures, then opened the door, and stepped through it...
A brief trip between the worlds
He was falling...out of the sky...out of another plane...then came a sudden and hard landing...
There was breathing...some movement...a mind slowly rising back from the abyss...a sharp rush of cold...blackness...
Then, falling forward...finally stopped by a floor.
He was back in the living world.
Real World: Aeithera
Nalieza woke up. Just like on the night when it all began. There was the same mixing of blue light from the lamp placed high on the wall opposite her bed and the darkness coming from outside. Her breathing was a bit unsteady, as it usually was when she landed back in her physical body.
Yet something was very different. A major aspect that just happened to be significant.
Han was no longer in carbonite...no longer locked away from the real world...from his life. Truly alive, in mind, spirit, and body.
He was free.
"Now the journey's over," she murmured.