By the time they'd reached Danuta and gained a geostationary orbit over the Imperial garrison in the planet's capital, Trid, the assault was over and its offensive forces gone. It had been brief and bloody, with massive damage done, and yet the duty officer at the garrison was claiming that there was presently no reason to assume that an incursion into the high-security sections of the base had taken place, maintaining that most of the damage was done by a series of low strafing runs on the base's air corps, and an explosive device to its perimeter, which saw a second wave of attacks designed to destroy the base's AT-ST. The attack on the TIEs had cost ships, but the attack on the base had cost lives, almost thirty soldiers lost when they went to investigate the perimeter bomb, including the base's commander.
For Captain Roth, the base officer's word was sufficient, but Luke had made the journey down to Trid garrison by shuttle, cursing all the way that their target was already gone and the signal no longer transmitting. More interesting-sufficient to take he, and therefore Han, down to the Trid facility-was the base officer's admission that the attack had apparently been by a civilian craft…though the fact that their Rebel X-wing had been transmitting from Danuta's low orbit meant that there were clearly Rebel craft in position at the time.
They stopped first at the spaceport, where a single craft-a CEC Hawk-290-had made several strafing runs, damaging and downing all TIEs on the ground.
The next obvious stop had been the garrison itself, which had suffered a bomb on the North Perimeter. By now, Luke-going down in his Ubiqtorate uniform-had gained access to the base's incoming data, still collating on the datapad he'd been provided. It hadn't taken long to tie down the bomb and the resultant attack on base personnel who had investigated, to the same Hawk-290.
"Gets around," Han observed dryly.
Commander Byrne, the duty officer who'd made the report to the Immortal, turned to glare. "Sufficiently to kill our Officer of the Day, Major Horst, yes."
"And then it landed on the roof?" Luke asked, glancing to the main facility. Roils of dark, acrid-smelling smoke still curled from a few of the buildings, though the fires were already doused.
"Yes, Sir." Byrne's aversion of Han wasn't exclusive, it seemed; he'd also taken a dislike to the Ubiqtorate officer who'd shown up just minutes after the raid, but still made the time to come down to his base and waste time asking questions.
"To pick up…?"
"The strafing runs were clearly a diversion, and if you had bombs and wanted to damage an Imperial base, you'd place them in the base and not at the perimeter fence. I'm assuming the Hawk didn't just then land on an Imperial garrison's roof for the hell of it. It was picking an incursion team up."
"It now…" Byrne hesitated, glancing away, "it now appears as if the base itself was infiltrated. We're still taking debriefs, to put the facts together. We think the Hawk took its people out."
"So we can assume their mission was a success?"
"Sir?" Byrne asked, through a clamped jaw.
Luke shrugged, holding the datapad up to shade his eyes as he stared at the roof where the Hawk had landed. "A success-otherwise they wouldn't have been retrieving their people."
"We've no reason to assume that," Byrne said, affronted. "There's every chance that they abandoned their mission under pressure."
Luke looked at the man, then back to the continually updating datapad he'd been provided with. "Considering that you don't have a single incoming report to date listing even loosely how many men were in the infiltration unit-meaning that you hadn't properly engaged it-I find it hard to believe that you had them on the run."
The officer jerked straight. "I resent the insinuation that…"
"No insinuation implied, Commander," Luke said boredly, "just an observation. Shall we go inside?"
By the time they got to Main Ops, the picture was starting to come together. There had, it seemed, been just one intruder, who had pretty much waltzed past the South Perimeter gate, managing to stay below the radar until he'd showed up several levels down, where the base's internal security had finally gotten a useable image of him, presently being run through all databases.
"Why isn't there a report from the south perimeter guard station yet?" Luke asked, eyes on the datapad.
"The officer in charge was another of those injured during the attack," Byrne provided. "He's presently in the medicenter."
"I want to speak to him." Luke glanced down as the memopad pipped quietly. "Well, well, well-we have an ID on your intruder: an ex-Imperial trooper named Kyle Katarn. Decorated officer, went AWOL not long ago. Has a warrant out for his arrest on charges of desertion, treason, and murder."
"Rebel?" Han asked.
"Known associate is Jan Ors, who's a confirmed Rebel Intel agent, so based on that and our signal in orbit, I'm guessing it's a safe bet."
The officer was conscious but still recovering when they arrived, having taken a glancing shot which had put him out cold and in the medicenter. He straightened slightly as Luke and Han entered, followed by Byrne.
"This is Lieutenant Commander Odom. He was in charge of the south perimeter when the attack took place. Odom, we're just following up on the raid, trying to work out what happened."
The man nodded, turning to Han, who coughed and glanced down to the kid in front of him. Odom frowned for a second, then seemed to realize what Han was trying to tell him, and looked at Luke, making a woozy effort to hide his confusion. For a few seconds more he seemed uncertain, then he finally took in the Ubiqtorate uniform and his eyes widened a little.
"Uh…yes, Sir." The man glanced down, blinking himself awake.
"Nothing serious," Luke smiled. "I was just hitching a lift onboard the Immortal when she answered your distress call, so I thought I should earn my keep. You were the officer on duty at the south perimeter, right? Did you see anything?"
"No, I didn't even know until the perimeter had been breached and the alarm sounded, Sir."
"You have no idea how?"
"But the perimeter breach sounded?"
"No, Sir, it was the general alarm."
"We're still trying to ascertain how they got into the base," Byrne added. "We came under attack from several fronts."
"But with minimal infiltration, which seems odd."
"Odd?" Byrne asked.
Luke turned to the commander. "It wasn't an attack on the base, otherwise the Rebels could have done a lot more damage. But they left it intact. Presumably because they wanted something specific."
"Maybe they wanted Major Horst," Byrne said curtly.
"Then why not debug as soon as he was killed? Why enter the base at all? They wanted something in the base, and chances are that since they debugged by choice, they have it. So what did you have in your vaults, Commander?"
Byrne straightened. "I'm not at liberty to tell you that, Sir."
"No? Well since you seem reluctant to admit it despite the number of prompts I've given you, let me tell you that I already know you have an Imperial Security Bureau research and storage facility here." Luke didn't even slow as the man's eyes widened. "Has it been breached?"
To his credit, Byrne's face hardened. "I'm not at liberty to tell you that either, Sir."
"No? Then let me tell you; it was, and the memory matrix there was compromised. You've kept that off the reports coming into the datapad you gave me, but from the way you've been quietly panicking, I assume it's been coming in on yours. I won't bother asking you what they were storing here, because you don't know…but I do. And let me tell you, Commander, you have no idea how much trouble you're about to be in. So I hope that the ISB officer you contacted, who persuaded you to falsify information being reported to my datapad, has friends in high places or this could get very sticky. And believe me, that ISB officer, whoever he is, will be intending to come out spotless…which leaves just you. Good luck with that."
Luke turned back to wink at the injured man, who had sat upright in his bed, deeply uncomfortable at seeing his commanding officer dressed down. "See? That wasn't too painful, was it?"
"Uh…no, Sir." He glanced from the kid to Han and back again, obviously at a loss as to what to say as Luke turned for the door. "I uh…I hope you catch him."
"We intend to," Luke nodded…then paused.
Han stumbled to a stop behind him as the kid turned back, head tilted…looking for all the worlds like a predator catching the scent-
"What did you say your name was?"
"Odom, Sir. Meck Odom."
"Odom…" Luke had turned fully now…and he was smiling. Kid never smiled; it made Han sweat when he smiled. "You seem…nervous, Odom?"
"My base was just successfully attacked, I was shot, and now the Ubiqtorate are here, asking me questions…yes, sir, I'm nervous."
Luke nodded as he took a step closer. "Well, your part's over now, you should rest… You took a shot in the raid, right?"
"Yes, sir. Just a glancing blow. I was lucky."
"Very lucky. Left you out cold until now?"
"Right…but you didn't see who took the shot?"
"No, sir, didn't even see it coming."
"Not even a glance?"
The silence stretched too long as the kid stared at Odom, who recoiled slowly, deeply unsettled. Finally Luke straightened, new strength in his voice, his brief play of genial interest completely gone. "Stand up."
Odom looked to his base commander, then back to Luke, clearly uncertain.
"Stand up," Luke repeated. "Get out of the bed."
Byrne stepped in for his officer as Odom climbed shakily from the bed, still pale. "Sir, I remind you that this is an injured crew member who was shot and knocked unconscious during the raid less than an hour ago. I have to ask what the hell…"
Luke didn't even take his eyes off Odom. "Lieutenant Commander Meck Odom, you stand accused of conspiring to aid enemies of the State. Do you understand the charge brought against you?"
Even Han blinked, shocked at the speed at which events had turned. Odom glanced again to his senior officer, aghast, and Byrne stepped in, practically shouting.
"What? This is a time-served officer whom I know personally! You can't just come in here and…"
The kid didn't acknowledge him, instead continuing with the official arraign, simply raising his voice to be heard over Byrne's objections. "You will be taken immediately into detention until such a time as that charge is answered to the satisfaction of the State. Conspiracy is a class one charge and entitles you to no defense or council. Do you understand the charge?"
Odom looked to his senior. "Sir?"
Byrne was quick to answer, eyes still on Luke. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"You want to know how your Rebel got in? Let me tell you." Luke indicated Odom with a jerk of his head. "He shut down the perimeter defenses and opened the South gate."
"What!" Byrne glanced to Odom, who was wide-eyed. "I've known this man for years-he has an exemplary record!"
"He also let a Rebel into your facility. Knowingly." Luke turned on Odom. "Did you provide him with information on where to go? A floor plan?"
The man stared, still shocked to silence, hand rising to the medical gown about his neck as if it were tightening every moment.
Luke looked to Han. "Go and get some binders, we're taking him with us."
Byrne stepped closer. "You can't just take one of my officers!"
Han lifted his hands. "Maybe we should all just calm down and…"
"Go and get some binders!"
The kid was getting that manic look in his eye as his tone hardened, so Han backed out of the room, eager to get the damn binders and get back, 'cos Force knew what Luke'd do if Byrne started trying to throw his weight around when Han wasn't there.
By the time he got back the argument had moved out into the corridor, with Luke hold of one of the bewildered officer Odom's arms as Byrne held the other, holding Odom back against Luke's onward pull as Byrne continued his harangue.
"You have no right to come in here and…"
Luke turned, free hand raised to point threateningly. "Back off, soldier; last warning."
"Who the hell do you think you a-"
Luke's hand opened wide as he thrust it forward, and without contact Byrne was propelled back across the corridor to hit the far wall with a heavy thud, staggering to remain upright. Han stepped quickly in, hands out before him as he looked to the kid.
"Woah, woah! Let's all calm down here-it's just a misunderstanding…"
Byrne pushed off from the wall and Han twisted round to stop him as Luke pushed Odom on, still hold of his arm. Han grappled to hold Byrne back, aware that if the kid let loose then Byrne wouldn't see another day.
"Do you want to go down for aiding and abetting?" Luke yelled. "This man is a traitor. You want to know who was responsible for the deaths you're so outraged at? You're trying to protect him right now!"
"You have no right to…"
"I have jurisdiction everywhere!"
"This is a Security Bureau site-Ubiqtorate don't…"
"We have equal authority to the ISB, you know that."
"That doesn't give you the right to ride rough-shod over this base. We have protocols-you can't just take a man with no evidence!"
A few other officers were beginning to join the stormtroopers who had appeared at the end of the corridor, drawn by the raised voices, and Han was becoming painfully aware that they were on their own here. He'd pulled out his comlink already, but was forced to keep breaking off from trying to summon their shuttle to land on the flat ground outside the medicenter, in order to try to keep Byrne and the kid from each other's throats.
"Evidence?" Luke yelled. "How did he know, Byrne? Your reliable officer was shot and didn't see who did it-didn't see anything, he claimed. He'd been out cold throughout the raid, and been alone in the medicenter ever since, yet he knew that it was one man who'd infiltrated the base. How did he know that?"
"That's not enough to arrest him!"
"It's enough to make me look closely, and I'm telling you he did it. That's enough!"
The group had moved down the corridor, Byrne not backing off as Luke dragged the ever more nervous Odom with him. He'd taken the binders off Han and paused to fasten them round Odom's wrists, though the man struggled to pull his second hand free.
"Give me your hand," Luke yelled into his face. "Give me your damn hand, or I'll break both your wrists, knock you out and drag you to the transport!"
The other base officers were starting to murmur, and the group seemed larger now as they stared and straightened and braced to form a subconscious block to the end of the corridor that Han knew they needed to pass through, to get out of the external doors just beyond. Having summoned the shuttle, he was now on the line to the Immortal, trying hard to make this an unarguable situation for Byrne and his men, 'cos he knew damn well that the kid wouldn't back down.
"You have no jurisdiction on an ISB base," Byrne yelled again.
"Unless you have a higher-ranked ISB officer here, I do. Do you have an ISB officer on the base?" Luke challenged. "Because I'd very much like to meet him, to ask him what the hell he's been doing the last few hours, and why he was falsifying information coming in to my datapad."
They'd reached the gang of officers and troopers at the end of the corridor now and Han turned first, to a sea of stony faces which stopped him cold. The group had grown to maybe twenty-five, officers and troopers both, standing four or five deep. He was acutely aware that neither himself nor the kid wore sidearms.
Backing into Han, Luke turned from Byrne to the group, one hand still holding the now bound Odom by a handful of the medical gown at the small of his back.
"Stand down." Sixteen years old and head and shoulders shorter than anyone else there, he still had a tone of absolute command in his voice, lips pulled back in a near-growl as he rumbled the command a second time. "Stand down. Back off."
He shouldered past Han and started forward, shoving Odom before him…and the soldiers fell back just slightly, thrown by the fact that Odom was pushed into them. Han followed Luke through the barely shoulder-width gap that opened, stares of undisguised hostility from armed and agitated soldiers burning into him as they jostled his shoulders in silence. Narrowed eyes glared as they whispered, arms crossed, fists clenched, and Han silently prayed every step of the way, muscles wired ready to fight, just waiting for the spark that'd ignite this into violence.
From the corner of his vision over the crowd, he saw clouds of dust kick up as their shuttle dropped smoothly into the parade square outside, the pilot probably wondering why the hell Han had told him to land there rather than at the nearby pad.
Then they were in the corridor beyond, its doors opening smoothly onto the dusty square…and all the time the crowd stayed with them, keeping pace just a step behind Han as he backed towards the shuttle.
As the ramp dropped Luke took the time to turn about to the crowd, who'd slowed a few paces back. Han stepped onto the ramp, taking Odom's arm, but the kid kept hold, looking through the tense mob until his eyes rested on Commander Byrne. Smiling, he brought his hand to his forehead to flick a mocking salute. "Been a pleasure, Commander," he said simply-then turned, and pushed Odom up the ramp and into the shuttle.
Byrne shouted something in reply, but it was drowned out by the flare of the shuttle's engines as the ramp closed, and the gathered soldiers were forced to step back from its dust-laden backwash.
Han collapsed back into his seat in silence as the shuttle accelerated skywards, watching Odom stagger slightly as the floor angled beneath their feet. Luke pushed Odom forwards into one of the chairs on the opposite side of the shuttle without a word, then wandered over to sit opposite Han.
"Well, you sure know how to crash a party," Han managed at last as his pounding heart rate slowed.
"Because I'm the one at fault here."
"You know, there is such a thing as tact. They'd just had their base shot from under them-they're gonna be a little jumpy."
"I'm a soldier, not a diplomat."
"Copishit. I've seen you tiptoe through way less volatile situations than that, with all that 'young and innocent' stuff."
"It wasn't necessary this time."
"I beg to differ!" Han exclaimed, pointing planetwards, feeling that events were on his side on this one. "Do you actually like causing a situation!"
"Please, that wasn't a situation. It was barely a spat." The kid stood to pat his jacket down, and Han knew exactly what he was looking for.
"I don't believe you, I really don't."
Luke stared, mildly belligerent. "You want me to calm down or not?"
Han glared, furious…and the kid started to laugh, any anger instantly gone as he dropped back onto his seat. "I don't have any anyway. You're bright red, you know that?"
"That's 'cos my heart's three beats short of a coronary," Han grumbled as he settled back, glancing once to the wide-eyed Odom. "He'd better be worth it."
The kid walked from the cell without looking back, and Han stood, feeling his chest tighten. He hadn't gone in this time; couldn't, not again. "Well?"
"He didn't deny anything," Luke said quietly. "He knew Katarn from their academy days, said he trusted him. Trusted his judgment. He provided everything Katarn asked for: layouts, codes…even took down perimeter security so Katarn could get in."
"Does he know what Katarn wanted?"
"I do. There was a partial set of plans relating to the Death Star stored in the ISB vaults in Trid Garrison. Odom doesn't know how the Rebels knew."
"Does he know where they were taking them?"
"No. He doesn't know anything because he had no greater involvement. He made a mistake, an error of judgment. Simple as that."
"What'll happen to him?"
The kid glanced away. "He admitted to treason."
Which held a statutory sentence, Han knew: death. "C'mon, it wasn't treason, it was an error of judgment-you said it yourself."
"I also said he admitted to treason. My hands are tied."
"By Palpatine-by the law! You break the law, you get punished, everyone knows that."
"Punished, not executed!"
"I have standing orders."
"C'mon, you know-you know it's too much!"
"He's not here," Han said. "He's not here and you are, and I know you can make that kind of judgment-you want to. The guy made a bad decision…a really bad decision," Han added, at the look on Luke's face. "But he knows it. He's co-operated. He's not a radical or a revolutionary-you can see that. He just made a bad call."
The kid glanced down, a trace of uncertainty in his voice. "I should do it…"
Han too lowered his voice, coaxing rather than forcing. "But you won't…because you know it's not right."
Luke stared, uncertainty setting fine lines in his youthful face. He brought his hands up to swipe at his eyes, more out of frustration than tiredness, though Han knew he must be feeling it by now. He held his breath, willing the kid to comprehend, to understand what he was doing in someone else's name…
Luke looked to the side, then back to the cell door. Tense moments ticked by as he stared, torn…
Just once more he looked at Han, expression somewhere between annoyance and accusation-then he turned and walked from the detention center without looking back.
Letting out a low sigh, Han took a few seconds to glance to the sealed cell door, knowing that the man within would never realize just how close he'd come…then set off after the kid.
He reached him about the same time as Indo did, on his way down from the bridge. With Luke's turbolift already gone from the detention center's hub by the time Han arrived, he had no idea where the kid had gone, and had to resort to the ship's internal security system to track him down.
Which was why he reached stellar cartography just in time to have Indo, who'd come from the other direction sporting his signature withering glare, enter and close the door in his face. Figured.
Keying the release, Han walked into a glowing hologram of this part of the Outer Rim, planets of the three systems spinward from Danuta spread out across the big chamber as Luke moved through it, the display tracing in bright images over his face and clothes.
"Toprawa," Luke said without turning.
Han glanced up into the holo. "Huh?"
"That's where they'll go next-Toprawa."
"The Kalmith sector's too far out of their way," Indo said, squinting at the holo. "You said yourself they'll look for the Maw Installation-that means they'll stay in the Halla Sector."
"They have no leads on the location of the Maw Installation-but some of the information they just picked up from Danuta would have come from Toprawa, probably via the Cron Drift satellite they sliced into, which means they have the same Imperial base named from two different sources, in connection with the Death Star. The logical thing for them to do is try to backtrack from there…which would take them to Toprawa Garrison."
"You assume they can decode the information," Indo said.
"Location base codes passing through an Imperial Garrison wouldn't be subject to the same level of ciphers as the messages themselves," Luke said, eyes still on the holo. "They'd be a standard code glyph. If they can't break those, then we really don't need to worry about them-ever. And chances are they've got at least a partial decode."
"You're making assumptions again."
"No, I'm playing percentages."
Indo raised an eyebrow. "That's the same thing. Insufficient investigative study or…"
Luke turned. "The Cron Drift was clearly part of a pre-meditated, ongoing plan which started with the strike to gain an Imperial communications satellite. For that plan to succeed, they also needed an informer to smuggle the codes out from Sinto Barracks, and recruited Lieutenant Derrig. Given the time scale determined by the theft of the satellite, it would be wildly optimistic to assume that Derrig hadn't smuggled at the very least one set of codes out before we caught him, and that the Rebels haven't now gotten a good few code-breakers committed to extrapolating the rest." Luke paused, tipping his head. "Given those facts, it's reasonable to assume that they've decoded a percentage of the information they hold. Toprawa Garrison was named on the files sent through Sinto Barracks at the time that Derrig was active, and would have been named on the files they've just gained from Danuta. Even assuming that they haven't accessed any of the Danuta information yet, Toprawa's name would still have gone through the Cron Drift satellite and through Sinto in the time-scale we're working with. If we assume that they've decoded any two of those information sources, then Toprawa becomes the next most probable target. Logical enough?"
Indo remained silent for long seconds; not out of pique, but clearly running the explanation through his head, looking for flaws. He broke off as his comlink sounded, and as he turned away to answer it, Han took his opportunity, stepping closer to the kid.
"Listen, you…you did the right thing-in the detention center."
Luke glanced quickly to Indo, whose attention remained on the incoming comm, then turned back to study the holographic map. "No, you did…I would have killed him."
Which should have worried Han more, save for one thing; despite all that cool logic that Indo had drummed into him to the point that the kid could now throw it out on demand, and for all his willingness to cite orders…the kid had still known what was right and what was wrong.
Indo closed his comlink as he turned back, visibly nervous. "The Emperor commands an update."
They were back in the Comm One to the side of the bridge, the bright glow of the transmission platform indicating that a comm was waiting. Indo stepped up to the console to enter the cipher as Luke walked forward. He hesitated just a second, gathering his thoughts, then he stepped onto the platform and dropped to one knee as the image coalesced.
That same image, filling the massive three-story chamber to loom over all present, every fold of wasted, waxen skin accentuated, lines of disapproval long-since etched through inclination and habit about reproving eyes, rendered on a massive scale which made the viewer flinch before a word was spoken.
"Report." The impatient command echoed around the dark chamber, and the kid stood immediately, tension edging his voice.
"We arrived in the Halla sector seven hours ago, Master, based on information collated from the Rebel listening post in the Cron Drift. We received a signal from the homing beacon almost immediately, and triangulated its position as orbiting Danuta. We also received an all-systems alert from the Imperial garrison there, which was under attack. By…by the time we reached Danuta the Rebels were gone, so…"
That massive visage crawled as thin lips split into a snarl. "The Rebels attacked the Danuta garrison?"
"Did they know of the Security Bureau's vault?"
"Yes, Master. The aerial attack was to cover an incursion. The man who infiltrated the base was ex-Imperial military. Security images ID'd him as a mid-grade officer named Katarn, who went AWOL a few months ago. He didn't appear to have pre-existing knowledge of the layout of Trid garrison, but he knew one of the officers who worked there, and the man agreed to help him."
Lips drew back from darkly pitted teeth. "My military? Those who gave an oath of allegiance to their Emperor! First the Sinto spy, then the pilot, and now here-they have less loyalty than rats. I'm plagued by treachery and sedition! Petty little miscreants who scutter about serving their own narrow logic, vermin who scurry to their own extermination with no idea of their insignificance."
Han stepped back before the diatribe, hissed with such venom that a fine accretion of spittle had whitened the corner of those bloodless lips. The kid, wisely, remained silent, head down, until the Emperor's anger had abated and those ochre eyes had lowered again.
"Were they successful?"
"The vault is under the jurisdiction of the ISB, so I'll need clearance to download specific system logs and access their mainframe, but…but the Rebels left of their own volition before our arrival, so I would assume they had all that they came for…" Again the kid paused, knowing he was delivering bad news. "Which would mean that they now have a partial copy of the Death Star's blueprints."
The silence, in many ways, was more sinister than any outburst. Even at this distance it burned in Han's chest, making him stare at the floor, apprehension eating inwards. Even the kid, who had grown up with the formidable old man, eventually felt the need to fill the silence.
"They were already gone when we arrived… We thou-"
"And you didn't think to follow them?" That harsh voice reverberated about the empty chamber, clipped with contained fury.
"There was nothing to follow, Master. They entered hyperspace before w-"
"You followed them successfully from the Cron Drift to Danuta."
"We made a jump to the Halla system based on available data, and received an alert from Danuta when we arrived. The Rebels…"
"You had a homing beacon on the Rebel ship."
"The beacon only works in an airless atmosphere, when the fighter carrying it is in deep space. Any transmitter that was active whilst in their capital ship's hangar would have been detected by them almost immediately and…"
"Excuses…endless excuses. It's the one thing at which you excel."
Han stared, offended on the kid's behalf. All the things he'd achieved; placing the tracker without suspicion, ensuring that it would remain undetected for as long as possible…the leaps of logic that had gotten them from the Sinto garrison to the Cron Drift and then to Danuta. The Rebel sympathizers uncovered, the codes maintained intact, the doctored satellite discovered, the chain of infiltration broken…all that was dismissed because the kid had failed to stop the theft of one document that had taken place on the other side of a system that they wouldn't have been near in the first place, without the kid's involvement!
Luke glanced momentarily to the side, where Indo skulked against the wall. The Viscount nodded just slightly, and Luke lifted his head. "We…I have reason to think their next target will be Toprawa, in the Calamith sector."
The Emperor paused, judgment written in the lines of his face. "You come to this conclusion, how?"
"It's the next outpost that stores and forwards information regarding the Death Star. The Rebels have partial plans, but they need more. What they have confirms its existence, but gives them little of tactical value. With all other lines of information now closed down, if they were desperate enough to attack Danuta they may well turn on a larger base like Toprawa to further their knowledge. We're preparing to make the jump now."
Yellow eyes narrowed in thought beneath that deeply scowling brow as Palpatine considered, bringing his gaze back to the kid who stood straight-backed before him, clearly prepared to wait as long as was necessary. "Did he give you any information, this Danuta traitor?"
"Odom? No, Master. He knew little, other than that he was helping a friend."
"To enter my base! To steal my secrets!"
It was a brief outburst, mollified by the kid, so that the Emperor calmed quickly, lips pursing to a thin line before they pulled back into that familiar curling snarl. "Worthless creatures, every one. May their hides rot…they're dead, of course."
It was part statement, part question…and standing behind the kid, Han watched his hands at the small of his back squeeze tighter. "…Two are dead, Master-the Rebels from the listening post. They had nothing more of value to-"
"The…the officer from Trid garrison is still in custody. I've…"
"You said he knew nothing." Palpatine voice had cooled by degrees, dropping to an icy threat.
"…No, Master, but-"
"But? But? Are my orders to you unclear? Twice in two weeks you have seen fit to ignore them! Or perhaps you feel you know better than I?"
The kid lifted his head. "No, Master!"
"Then what am I to think? You are either stupid or disloyal-which is it? I'm surrounded by incompetence! You-you of all people, know this: my will is law, my command is absolute. You do not interpret it, you obey it. Unconditionally."
"You're useless, useless to me! Every time I give you some modicum of responsibility, of autonomy, you throw it in my face like an insult! You claim obedience and commitment, then you do this!"
The kid held silent beneath the tirade as the Emperor ranted, threats and accusations rained down on him unchallenged. He simply remained still, head tipped, hands clasped tightly behind his back…as Han began to realize just what he'd asked of the kid. And having asked him, he wouldn't leave him to face this alone.
He pushed off from the wall, intending to walk forward to the transmission platform and say that it was him who'd questioned the sentence…and a weight pressed instantly against his chest, pushing him smoothly but forcibly back against the wall and pinning him there. The kid risked a glance to the side, his eyes widened in warning, before he turned quickly back, hiding his head-turn by lifting it.
"It was just one man," he murmured quietly-and Palpatine exploded.
"My will is law… My will is law, do you understand! Answer!"
That massive visage rocked with breathlessness at shouting. Snarling lips settled to a curling sneer as the Emperor quietened, so that his next words were a low, grating growl. "We will speak further, on your return." There was no attempt to hide the open threat, and the kid's head dropped low, voice penitent.
"In the meantime, Lord Vader is less than half a day's travel from Toprawa. He will assume command of this fiasco, since you are clearly incapable. You're to hand any and all information over to him and comply fully with his commands, do I make myself clear?"
That brought Luke's head up, making him drop the pressure which had pinned Han loosely to the wall. "Vader! I can-"
"Silence!" Palpatine's image pressed closer, filling the space completely and looming over the kid, who dropped his head quickly at the booming command which rattled Han's ribcage. "I have no confidence in you, boy!" The words were bellowed out with absolute knowledge of their power. "If you cannot follow the simplest of ongoing commands without constant supervision, then I will certainly provide it. You will do as you are told, do you understand?"
"Yes, Master, I understand."
The Emperor quietened to a brittle calm, yellow eyes narrowed, though they lost not an ounce of their seething threat. "And we will speak further on your return."
The towering hologram dissipated, leaving the room to a brittle silence. Luke remained still for long seconds more, staring at the floor before him…then he turned about and walked quickly from the room, eyes dead ahead.
"Luke-Luke, wait…" Han set forward, but Indo's iron grip took his arm.
"I think you've done enough damage for one day, Lieutenant. It was you who persuaded Luke not to carry out the sentence on the prisoner, wasn't it? He wouldn't have done that alone."
Han snatched his arm free. "He shouldn't be expected to do it-any of it! He's a kid, he's just a kid!"
"No, Lieutenant Solo, nor has he been for a long time. Ask him, and he'll be the first to tell you that."
"Because you all keep on sayin' that to him! You keep on dangling it before him that if he grows up then all this'll stop! But you know as well as I do that that's just not gonna happen. Palpatine's not gonna let up-ever!"
"All the more reason to help Luke comply…or is that insufficiently obvious?"
"You want to know what's sufficiently obvious? It makes no difference what the kid does-it never will!"
Three paces beyond the door of the comm room, Luke pressed to the wall, listening to the raised voices within, charged with emotion. He closed his eyes, sensing the turmoil that bubbled beneath the surface of Solo's anger, deflected with barely a scratch by the familiar cool of Indo's stony presence, always a calm oasis. There had been many times when Luke had clung to Indo for that very reason, through years of chaotic confusion. And Indo was right, this was his life. It had always been this way.
But now Solo was stepping in and saying that it was wrong somehow…putting questions and doubts into Luke's mind which would only bring down his Master's wrath, and he knew it. Why risk that-why endure it all over again, on the word of a stranger?
He slid slowly down the wall to sit on the polished floor as the argument continued in turns of heated outbursts and frosty replies. He shouldn't listen. Not because it was wrong, but because if Palpatine found out that he had-that he'd wanted to-then he'd remove Solo; take him to pieces. And yet he still didn't move. Couldn't walk away, fascinated in part that someone here had the gall to actually think they could stand up and ask the questions that had long since been beaten out of himself, and in part that…that he did so out of concern. For Luke.
In his own way-in a safe and reassuringly distant way-Indo had been the nearest that Luke had ever come to this strange, unsettling thing. But it had been always reserved and restrained, tempered by the Viscount's private ambition and the loyalties necessary to feed that, nothing promised or expected on either side.
This… Luke stared at his distorted, darkened reflection in the polished floor, as the argument raged. Should he feel something, right now? He'd lived his life in this maelstrom, with never a hand lifted in aid. And because of it, he owed nothing to anyone, save his Master, to whom he owed absolute allegiance. He knew that. It couldn't be any other way-it couldn't. He'd learned that long ago; had stood and fallen alone. Alone…
Solo couldn't change anything-not really. Only someone with a close connection to the Force could challenge Palpatine. Luke wasn't about to, and Vader never had. He thought briefly of his father, Kenobi, and the woman, Leia Skywalker. But since they hadn't done so already, he had to assume that they too stood in his Master's shadow, albeit from a safer distance.
In fact, why was Solo here at all? Because Luke had brought him, yes, but…nothing happened here without his Master's express sanction: nothing. Luke scowled, thinking on that; Solo was argumentative, disrespectful, and wilfully headstrong-that was what so fascinated Luke about him. He dared to speak out even inside the walls of the Imperial palace itself…yet he was still here. Indo's cool reply to another yelled assertion tilted Luke's head slightly-surely Indo himself would have spoken to the Emperor more than once by now…yet Han was still here.
Luke brought his hand up, chewing compulsively at his thumbnail, a heavy weight settling in his stomach. The fact was that if Solo was here, then it was by his Master's consent…and why would that be? Why allow a wayward influence inside… He straightened, breath leaving him; wayward influence… Was that what this was? A test of Luke's resolve, of his ability to maintain self-discipline-one which he was failing, dismally.
He leaned back to bang his own head against the wall behind him, chiding himself for not seeing it sooner, knowing more than ever that he shouldn't sit here and listen. Not because it was wrong, but because Palpatine would know damn well that he had-would want him to. Want to see if Luke was fool enough to listen to Solo…and would knock him mercilessly back down if he suspected that he had. Even Solo had no comeback to that, save to rail against Indo, when the shouting was done.
So nothing changed; not really. He rose and walked down the corridor alone, leaving the argument behind. After ten steps he threw back his head and let out a laugh, forced and empty, fired only by his own amusement that he'd thought, for even a moment, that it could.
Leia Skywalker sat cross-legged in the center of the Rebel corvette's exercise bay, eyes closed in concentration. Before her, clearly delineated in the coruscating lines of power which moved within the Force, she could see the six large packing boxes she had lifted, as well as the ever-complaining Artoo. And walking towards them, his quiet amusement radiating outwards in mellifluous waves, was Obi-Wan. His presence shone within the Force, incredibly powerful yet infinitely gentle, so familiar that she couldn't imagine what her life would have been without him. He'd given her everything, though he'd never claim such a thing.
He'd also, after much thought, told her the truth about her heritage when she'd begun her training, aged fourteen-though Leia suspected that Mon Mothma had had more than a passing influence on the decision.
She remembered it being a terrible, tearing blow despite softly spoken words, its impact magnified by the knowledge that everyone around her was fighting to stop this man and everything he stood for. She remembered the guilt, the fear, the confusion and denials, the endless questions which Obi-Wan had answered hesitantly, reluctantly sometimes. She knew even then, as she knew now, that not all had been told. But Obi-Wan and Mon had taken care to underline that Leia herself had done nothing wrong, ever, and that it was the choices she made, every day, which meant that all she had in common with her father was a name, and that unknown to almost everybody save herself-as it must remain. Taken great care that Leia didn't allow her knowledge that she was Darth Vader's only child to isolate her, or disconnect her from those around herself.
She'd come herself to a realization of the necessity to stop both Vader and his Emperor. A brief flirtation with meeting the father she'd never known had been quietly tolerated by Obi-Wan, but in the end, seeing for too many years the dire consequence of Darth Vader's actions, Leia had slowly separated herself from her heritage, in her own mind.
All she had kept was the name that Vader himself had forsaken; the name which linked her only with a Jedi known before the purges-and that only to the very, very few. Obi-Wan had been reluctant, but again the tempered views of Mon Mothma had come to her aid; they could and would keep Leia's existence concealed as long as possible-her very survival depended on it-but the name she'd been born with was part of her identity, and to take it from her was to disparage her faith in herself. If she did one day face her father, it should be with her own name held high, not whispered as an embarrassment. She knew who she was; she had nothing to prove, and Vader, said Mon, had no hold on her. Would he make the connection when he heard it, long-believing that his daughter was dead? Possibly; probably. But the advantage would be hers, not his; she knew who she was-her past could never be used against her, least of all by her father; Mon had said this so often, and so often, as Leia had grown, she'd wondered at the hesitation in Mon's voice as she spoke.
And so she'd stepped free of her inhibitions at a past not of her making, and been stronger, for knowing. For acknowledging. And having stepped free, she'd looked even more strongly to surround herself with a family of her own making, comprising of those she respected and cared for, those whose beliefs and tenets she shared. And foremost among those were Mon Mothma and, of course, Obi-Wan; her Master, her mentor and her friend.
Together they had gifted her the confidence always, to look within and trust herself. To look out into the greater galaxy and see the truth…and to be unafraid to fight for all that she believed in. Faith that she wouldn't falter or lose her convictions; that all that was wrong could be changed, and it was her responsibility to try to change it-hers and those around her. Gifted her, always, with the innate knowledge that she could.
She hadn't had a normal childhood since she'd come here, aged eleven, she knew that. Towed from one tramp freighter or corvette to another, always half a step ahead of the Empire, sometimes fighting, sometimes running…yet she'd always felt safe, somehow. Always been aware of the unspoken indulgence and protection of the fighters and the techs and the pilots who'd sat with her and showed her how to field-strip a Blas Tech E-11 or a DT-57, or how to hotwire practically any SoroSuub fighter on the market inside of two minutes.
She'd run down battered corridors with hand-fashioned toys, and played on the landing strips of crowded fighter bays. She'd learned that a lag-pursuit with an angle-off at high velocity was absolutely the best way fro any pilot to get in behind an enemy craft without sacrificing all-important speed, and if you got caught yourself, you fell back on a spiral dive and prayed you had the inside turn. She'd been out on quieter missions with Obi-Wan since she had begun her Jedi training at fourteen-been given brief spells in command of tramp freighters carrying illegal munitions, at fifteen. Flown fighters in combat without blinking an eye.
She didn't know much about the latest boy-band or what color she should be painting her toenails this year, but because of Obi-Wan and Mon, and countless other friends, close and here, and long gone and sorely missed, she could shoot practically any gun, cross practically any border, hardwire practically any security lock, fly practically any fighter going… And she believed, absolutely, that it was possible to change anything.
Obi-Wan smiled as Leia gently lowered the objects she'd chosen at random in the cluttered bay, glancing once to Artoo as he continued his long and typically forthright scolding. He waited patiently as Artoo finished his extended harangue then wheeled about on the spot to scoot back to what he felt to be a safer distance before finishing with a brief, rasping flourish. Turning back, Obi-Wan raised greying eyebrows at Leia, the dry, perpetual bemusement that was so much a part of him audible in his voice. "I would think he'd be used to it by now."
Artoo had been around as long as Leia could remember, and she'd pretty much taken over his ownership when she'd started training as a pilot, occasionally lending him to Biggs Darklighter in the last few months when the Tatoonian pilot, about her own age, had joined up because…well, he was from Tatooine, and that damn near made him family. She could get a newer droid, she supposed, but Artoo was family, too.
And to Leia, aware on some level that, despite everyone around her she would always be alone…family was everything.
She stood, dusting off the pants and crossover tunic she wore, a shorter, more serviceable version of Obi-Wan's Jedi robes. "I couldn't sleep," she explained wryly, knowing that he'd understand. "How're we doing?"
"We've managed a partial decipher of the information from Danuta. The Liberty will continue working on it when we transfer the information."
Leia glanced down, frustrated. The decrypt codes that they should have gained from Sinto Barracks on Coruscant would have been invaluable in decoding the Death Star files, but despite her having gone there herself to try to re-establish contact with their agent, they'd been unsuccessful. Perhaps if she'd had longer… But she'd been pulled away as operation Skyhook had gained ever more momentum, and they'd been forced to push on without it.
She would have felt a whole lot better too, if they'd managed to transfer the information they'd gained from Danuta straight from the Tantive where she and Obi-Wan were presently assigned, to the Liberty, whilst they were still over Danuta. But the unexpected appearance of the Star Destroyer Immortal at the edge of the system had stopped the transfer, as both Rebel ships had jumped to avoid being spotted. So now, with a deadline ticking down and no way to contact the Liberty whilst both it and the Tantive were in hyperspace, they would be forced to make the transfer during the coming battle.
"How's Biggs doing?" Last she'd heard, he'd been stuck right in the middle of the whole Cron Drift fiasco.
"They pulled him out…only just, it seems," Obi-Wan assured. "He's onboard the Liberty, along with the information from the listening post." He tipped his head in tolerant disapproval of the pilot's enthusiasm, linking his hands behind his back beneath the long, roughspun cloak he'd always worn. "He says he'll see you spaceside."
"Will he be there?"
"And Klivian…and Wedge. Red, Blue and Gold Groups are launching from the Liberty to attack the convoy whilst our ground troops meet up with the localAlliancemilitia cell to concentrate on the base. Though I understand that Biggs and Wedge have been assigned to make sure that the shuttle transporting the data makes it safely over to the Liberty."
Leia nodded. They'd fought long and hard to pry information about the Death Star from Imperial sources over the last few months, and every step of the way the stakes seemed to rise. "Will we stay aboard the Tantive?"
Obi-Wan shrugged, unflustered by the fluidity of the situation-but then it was always this way, Leia knew, when facing a larger enemy. "We'll go where we're needed, which may be here or with the fighter squadrons. The orbital battle will have the worse odds, and we need to be sure that all the information's delivered safely to the Liberty-both from the Tantive and from our ground attack on the Imperial base."
Leia nodded. "Do we have an ETA?"
"Five hours," Obi-Wan said gravely. "We reach Toprawa in five hours."
Vader stood on the darkened bridge of the Devastator, hands behind his back as he watched the battle unfold before him, feeling the familiar twist of satisfaction at the pit of his stomach which had never quite left in moments such as this, with the realization that all that happened was at his command.
It also gave him a private satisfaction that the Devastator had arrived at Toprawa before the Immortal, even knowing that this had put his own Destroyer in the front line of the battle. He knew how much Luke Antilles would have resented handing information and control of this mission over to Vader in the first place, at the Emperor's command-and therefore how much he would have pushed the Immortal to try to get here before Vader.
Why exactly that would have been important, the boy had…omitted to mention. But being given what details he had, Vader had immediately done a little investigation of his own…and so he knew that a convoy gathering all the separate elements of the Death Star plans was due to stop in orbit around Toprawa to collect the schematics of the superlaser's control systems from the Imperial Research Station on the planet's surface. A perfect opportunity for subversives like the Rebels to gain twice the intel for a single strike.
And therefore the perfect bait to draw them out of hiding…if Vader could get there in time. Until his new flagship was completed, he remained aboard theDevastatorwhich, as a Class-I Star Destroyer, had slower lightspeed capabilities than the newer Immortal, but the Devastator had been closer, so it had been a difficult race to call-but an important one, in terms of command. It would have been…galling to have arrived in the middle of a pitch battle and been forced to ask the Immortal for an update and then, worse, probably have to appear to follow a course of action that the boy had already set in place, because whatever else he was, Kenobi's bastard son had a head for tactics and would read the situation quickly. Chances were that the boy's assessment and reactions would be very similar to Vader's own-they had been in the past. And having judged the situation and ensured that the necessary counterattack was underway, he knew exactly what the boy would be thinking to do next; he would seek to put his own Destroyer in the thick of the action, in a tactic that would relegate the Devastator-and so Vader-as far from it as possible. He knew that, because he had every intention of doing the same with the boy.
At the point that the Devastator had arrived, the Imperial convoy had been in tatters, its remaining ships spread over a wide area in mid to low orbits, with many already destroyed or forced down to the surface causing collateral damage, despite Toprawa firing its ground-based emplacements in support. But then, they'd had nothing to counter the firepower of the lead Rebel ship…because it was the Liberty-the flagship of the Rebel fleet.
And having finally come face to face with it, Vader wasn't about to let it leave.
The Vendetta-the only other Star Destroyer within striking distance-had arrived within minutes of the Devastator, and Vader had wasted no time in concentrating the majority of the two capital ships' firepower on the Mon Cal vessel, ordering both ships to scissor closely before the massive flagship in order to prevent it from accelerating to escape velocity. Now it was struggling to back off, turning on its own axis in an attempt to stop the two Star Destroyers from concentrating their fire too heavily on any one spot. The massive Mon Cal cruisers were impressive behemoths, and this one's military readiness had clearly been fortified with an impressive arsenal and upgraded shields, but they were ponderously slow at sublight speeds, not designed for outright battle, and the Liberty was taking a beating…
It had changed so quickly, to Leia-but then battles did. Everything about the operation had gone perfectly in the early stages. They'd arrived at Toprawa exactly on schedule to catch the Imperial convoy, coming out of hyperspace almost on top of them and enabling the Liberty to launch its fighter wings before the Imperials had even begun to react, Red Hand's ground troop transports breaking the atmosphere unchallenged on their mission to hit the barracks on Toprawa itself.
The Imperial convoy had nothing to counter the scale and firepower of the Liberty and had crumbled and scattered, relying on less accurate planetary surface guns from Toprawa for its defense as Rebel fighters systematically mopped up any and all resistance. Meanwhile the TantiveIV, under Raymus Antilles' seasoned captainship, had nestled alongside its target in the pandemonium and launched shock-troops under cover of a four scoutship element headed up by the Wookiee, Chewbacca, to penetrate the Imperial carrier and gain its intended information with ease, evacing its team onto the shuttle Maria.
With the arrival of Biggs and Wedge to escort the shuttle Maria-carrying the new information gained from the Imperial ship it had just left, as well as everything delivered to the Tantive from the Danuta raid-over to the Liberty, Leia and Obi-Wan had returned to the Tantive's bridge to check on the battle taking place at the Imperial barracks on Toprawa itself. The final packet of information regarding the Death Star's superlaser was held in the Toprawa barracks; gaining it would give the Alliance a complete set of Death Star schematics, and so the hope of countering the new super-weapon. Everything had run like clockwork, and despite Obi-Wan's reminder that no battle plan ever survived first contact, Leia remembered distinctly thinking that they almost couldn't fail-not now.
Then the Star Destroyers had arrived. The Devastator first, joined almost immediately by the Vendetta…
And all hells had broken loose.
The Liberty had come under almost instant attack from both the Devastator and the Vendetta, who had moved to flanking positions, their tails sufficiently inward to hinder the Liberty's forward escape. Forced to try backing on maneuvering thrusters only as she rolled, her hull shields were beginning to glow beneath the sustained barrage. The flagship of the Rebel fleet-with Mon herself onboard.
The Tantive was moving to their aid, of course, but it was a tricked up blockade runner, not a front-line fighter. As the two Destroyers had begun to spew fighter squadrons from their bays even that had become harder, the space between the Tantive and the Liberty ablaze with dogfights…
Then the Immortal,which had dogged Operation Skyhook almost from its inception, came out of hyperspace in high orbit behind the Liberty, and Leia could only watch from the Tantive's bridge, feeling her senses pull tighter in reaction to the new threat.
Onboard the bridge of the Immortal,Luke stood close to the main viewports, his eyes locked on the massive Mon Cal cruiser Liberty as Captain Roth made comm contact.
"Devastator, this is Captain Roth onboard the SD Immortal, requesting orders."
"Immortal, this is the Devastator. Stand by on comm code three-three-nine."
They held for long seconds in which the Immortal slowed, leaving Luke to straighten and cross his arms in frustration. They didn't need to wait-the Liberty was right there! He glanced once to Solo, whose eyes remained on the fight. The Corellian's frustration at being a fighter pilot stuck on a capital ship's bridge in the middle of an all-out dogfight was palpable, igniting Luke's own adrenaline as he glanced back out to the battle. To his left Indo stood calmly, little of his disposition escaping out into the Force, as ever. Between them, Luke felt like he was standing in the open, with one side of his body up against the heat of a fire, whilst the other side froze in cool night air.
The comm crackled to life, then gave a momentary hitch as its systems decoded the encrypted frequency. The bass timber of the voice was enough to let Luke know that Vader had already taken command. "Immortal, you are instructed to launch all fighters, then take up a flanking position for a starboard sweep of the battle perimeter. Any and all Rebel vessels attempting to leave the fray are to be destroyed."
Always ready to follow orders, Roth was quick to reply. "Confirmed, Devastator. Fighters are launching, and the Immortal will begin a slow pass to the outer edge of the arena."
"What!" Luke hadn't meant it to come out that loud, but this was ridiculous. "You want us to pick off stragglers and runners?"
His words had, apparently, been loud enough for the pick-ups to transmit, and Vader was quick to reply-and dismiss. "The Liberty is not the only ship in this battle, Lieutenant Commander Antilles."
"Luke." Standing beside him, Indo tilted his head in quiet warning without looking, but Luke knew exactly what Vader was doing.
"He's putting us out of the fight!"
"Your opinion is not invited, Lieutenant Commander Antilles," Vader growled. "Particularly since it appears to have done little to aid this campaign so far."
"Little to…Igotyou here! I got you a chance at the Liberty."
"And now you are wasting valuable time and airspace when I should be dealing with her. If you are unable to restrain yourself, then I shall order you removed from the Immortal's bridge. Captain Roth?" Vader barked. "You have your orders."
Luke turned about to stare at Solo, who lifted his eyebrows in an unmistakable, 'Shut the hell up' expression. Clamping his jaw, Luke took two steps backwards, boiling. He was saved from making another outburst by an incoming message.
"Sir," The Ops officer looked in Luke's direction, still unsure what exactly was going on here, but not wanting to be caught out either way. "I have an incoming signal-your homing beacon's transmitting to port."
Luke paced quickly to the tech station at the side of the command walkway. "Put it on screen."
And there it was, less than three hundred clicks from their present position. Luke glanced out across the bridge's viewports into the thick of the action as the Immortal began to slide forwards, moving level with and then past the Liberty's struggle. Grinding his jaw, he looked out into the larger battle, watching the exhaust flares of TIE wings as they launched from the Immortal in finger-four formations. He could probably make the tagged X-wing out from here...they'd be passing it about now. Solo stepped in beside him, squinting at the tech screen which mapped its location. "That our X-wing?"
"Yep," Luke said, resigned.
"We could go out and take a pot-shot at him, I suppose-we're not about to do anything else, apparently."
"We should go out there and protect him," Luke murmured dryly. "He's my lead back to the Liberty if this goes wrong."
Solo's voice dropped. "You think it'll go bad?"
"We can only hope."
Letting out a laugh beneath his breath, Solo squinted at the board and keyed for a closer image. "Is he with a shuttle?"
Luke glanced to the image. "Not our problem, evidently-and I wouldn't want to waste valuable time and airspace checking it out."
"Seriously? You're gonna let Vader get away with that?"
Luke stared for long seconds, weighing up the odds in getting involved in a fight in which, if it went well Vader would take the credit for, and if it went badly and Luke had been even slightly involved, Vader would certainly be looking to lay blame…
On the Tantive's bridge, Leia stood tensely before the comm console, watching a holo of Mon Mothma as it fritzed with interference. "… taking substantial damage, and we've lost contact with the shuttle Maria. We're transmitting her last co-ordinates, but we fear she was forced down to the surface when the Immortal launched its fighter squadrons."
Obi-Wan stepped forward, a pillar of calm in the chaos of pitch battle. "Chief Mothma, we're on our way. We can be there in…"
"No, Master Kenobi, hold the Tantive back. We're unable to complete our mission in receiving the plans from the Toprawa barracks. You're hereby ordered to make that your priority. The frequency is 1215 on Reshi, your contact is Vermillion, and your codeword is Skyhook."
Leia leaned forward, unable to keep the worry from her voice. "But the Liberty…"
"Do your duty, Leia," Mon said, the barest of smiles touching her worried features. "Get the plans."
Leia nodded, finding her own strength in the tacit faith of Mon's voice. "Yes, Ma'am. We won't fail you."
Raymus was already turning. "Helm, take us towards the planet. Set a course below the battle to bring us in to a low orbit over the Research Center, ready to receive transmissions. Comms, get me someone on the surface."
"That's Red Hand Squadron, Sir."
"Get me a line to them-and start scanning on 1215 Reshi-find Vermillion."
Obi-Wan was staring out into the battle, watching it unfold with seasoned eyes. "We can free up at least three Wings to go to the Liberty's aid. Y-wings and the Wookiee heavy scoutships can make attack runs to the Vendetta's port side, where they'll be protected from the Devastator. If they can do enough damage, they may force the Vendetta to break off."
"Tactical, do it," Raymus said without hesitation. "And get me the damn Red Hand Squadron!"
On the bridge of the Immortal,Luke stood at the tech station, its screens tuned to reflect the Immortal's aft view, where he watched the distant barrage as the Liberty fought for her life. The Rebels had risked pulling multiple fighter wings from the central skirmish to concentrate their fire on the Vendetta, who was beginning to list, opening up a narrow corridor for the Liberty to aim for. Tilting his head, Luke felt the barest smile tug at the corners of his lips; she might just make it.
Beside him, Solo too was caught between dismay and guilty pleasure as he watched the battle for the Liberty falter. "They're gonna lose her."
The Immortal had just completed its first slow sweep of the battle and was bringing her bulk about on a tight axis, making the scene before her seem to roll as she angled her tail for the tightest turn. Luke stepped forward to the main viewports, finally able to see the Liberty again as the battle came slowly into view.
Still rolling defensively on her own axis as she accelerated, the Liberty was disgorging plumes of explosive fire and venting gas and debris where her shields had failed entirely and she was taking direct hits to her port side from the Devastator. But she was a Mon Cal capital ship and she could take a pounding, still accelerating into open space…then with a flash of displacement, she was gone. Standing alone at the front of the bridge, Luke's hidden smile turned into a wide grin…then he became aware of Indo to his right. He glanced over and into a stern cautionary glare, and looked down, chagrined… but he couldn't help but feel a buzz that Vader hadn't caught her. She was his ship. No matter who his Master gave the mission to, it was Luke who'd started the chase; his strategy that had gotten them even this close. The Liberty was his hunt now, and he'd bring her down himself, in his own good time.
The silent half-smile that he was trying to hide from Indo melted as another thought occurred, and Luke set quickly across the walkways to Solo, who had remained at the tech station. "The X-wing signal, is it still transmitting?"
"….No, we lost it."
"Well, at least something's gone right."
"Wait, it's back."
"Yeah, we have a strong signal, just coming up to starboard. It must've been in Toprawa's atmosphere. Problem?"
"Yes, it's still out there," Luke said of the X-wing. "That means it didn't leave with the Liberty. If it gets shot up in the battle, that's my lead to her gone."
This was turning out to be a great day.
About him the view from the bridge swung about as the Immortal straightened early from its tight roll, and Luke turned from the tech station as Roth handed out orders, chiding himself for not paying attention. "Captain?"
"Toprawa's surfaceResearchCenteris reporting incursions. We've been authorized by Lord Vader to provide support."
"The research center! They're trying to get the information from the research center-they're still going through with the raid."
To his credit, Roth acted instantly. "Contact the station's Duty Officer-tell him we're on our way and ask him if their vaults have been compromised."
All officers on the Immortal's walkway had now turned to the crew pits, where everyone had stopped, leaning back from their consoles to stare, eyes on the Comm Chief as he relayed messages. "Sir, I have confirmation from the station's Duty Officer-the vaults are intact."
Everyone relaxed just slightly-except Luke. His day just wasn't going well enough for that. "Ask him where the Code nine-three-nine research plans are stored…are they kept in the vault?"
"Sir, the plans were stored in a high-security node in the habitation unit, on the Research Commander's order… They've lost contact with that section."
Beside Luke, Solo rolled his head. "They've got 'em."
"Well, they're not taking them anywhere." Luke looked to Roth. "Are we low enough for an aerial bombardment?" Roth remained still, but Luke straightened. "If you knock out their transport they can't get off the surface."
"We don't have that kind of accuracy," Roth said. "Not at this range."
"I'm not asking you to do a surgical strike, I'm asking you to disable any visible starships within a mile or so of the barracks-the airfields there for a start." From the corner of his eye, Luke saw Solo react-and knew why. He straightened, pointing back to the orbital battle. "I realize there'll be collateral damage but despite Vader's focus, the point of this mission was not to bring the Liberty down-it was to stop that information falling into Rebel hands. And we're about to fail."
Roth pursed his lips for a moment, then looked to the comm officer. "Contact Lord Vader-explain, and ask permission to target any viable landing strips."
"Contact the Duty Officer at Toprawa and ask him to do the same," Luke said, eyes on the comm officer. "And to disable any useable craft on any part of the base, including speeders."
On the bridge of the Tantive, Leia and Raymus Antilles stood close to the comm station as the Tantive changed course, turning away from the Immortal, who was slowing at the far edge of the battle to take up aerial bombardment of the planet below, her first ranging shots clearly aimed around the Research Center and the ground battle on Toprawa. Leia's brief pleasure at the Liberty'sescape had been tempered by the knowledge that now, the Tantive was the next logical Imperial target…and until they had that information, they were going to have to tough this out. She watched the dizzying complexities of multiple dogfights, torn between the pull to be out there among the pilots to aid the Tantive's push through the scrimmage, and the need to see their greater mission through as those about her on the bridge fought to make sense of the jammed and fragmented communications from the surface.
"Comms," Raymus said tightly, "any luck with our surface troops?"
"Negative, Sir," the Bimm comms officer said, shaking his head. "We're just not close enough to cut through the interference."
Raymus sighed, eyeing the massive bulk of the Devastator which, with the loss of its primary target the Liberty, had turned to cut a swathe through the thick of the battle. "Helm, take us down to low orbit-get us within range of transmissions."
"Sir, on the Devastator's new heading, that'll put us under her guns."
Raymus pursed his lips as he looked at Obi-Wan, who nodded just slightly. The captain straightened. "Well then, we'll brazen it out. We're picking up that damn transmission."
Aware that every moment they remained now put them a second closer to the Devastator's superior firepower, Leia struggled to make anything of the garbled interference from the ground assault as the local Alliance militia moved to join up with Red Hand Squadron, the Rebel task force sent down to clear their way and secure their backs whilst they broke into the base.
"Red Hand, this is the orbital task force, come in please… I repeat, Red Hand, this is the orbital task force, come in?"
Broken static hissed as Leia watched the Devastator close…
"Red Hand, this is the orbital-"
"Liberty, this is Red Hand, we copy. Are you receiving, come in?"
Leia straightened, feeling a burst of relief; would they make it-would they actually make it?
"Red Hand, this is the Tantive," Raymus said quickly. "The Liberty is no longer able to receive the data; we've been sent in her place. Report?"
"We're coming under heavy bombardment here-they've already hit our drop-ships and they're now taking out the surrounding airfields. We have…" There was a long break of static, in which Leia held her breath, before the woman's voice continued, her attention clearly divided.
"…blocking our retreat completely. We also have…wait…we're getting comms from Vermillion's group now-they're in the barracks. Are you getting this?"
"Negative, Red Hand. You're the only channel getting through. What's happening?"
"Hold on, incoming comm… Tantive, Lieutenant Paol tells me you've lost a shuttle?"
Leia leaned in, hope firing through her. "You have contact?"
"Confirmed, Tantive. Paol has the shuttle Maria'screw about a half-mile from my position. Their information is intact but the shuttle's damaged. We're meeting up and we'll combine their information into a single packet with the information from the research station to get it back up to you. We ha…g…be…."
"Red Hand, come in? Do you have the information from the research station… Red Hand, come in?" Raymus straightened, frustration clipping his voice as he turned to the comm officer. "Get her back!"
A veteran of fifteen years with a lifetime's experience as a soldier and bombproof in combat, Leia had never heard him raise his voice before.
As the Immortal rumbled underfoot from her continued barrage of Toprawa's surface, Luke let his gaze wander across the thinning dogfights, eyes caught occasionally by the pinpoint flares as ships and lives were lost in brief, inconsequential flickers. Arms crossed, he watched the Devastator tilt as, its target gone, it turned to join the main battle. "Oh, welcome to the actual fight," he muttered acerbically.
Along the Devastator's flightpath and in low orbit over Toprawa, a CR90 corvette took his attention and he frowned, uncertain whether it was part of the firefight or not. Civilian shipping was always ordered down and tended to get out of the area as fast as possible, but the corvette, hunkering down without firing on anyone and trying not to be noticed, could be a civilian craft unlucky enough to be caught in the center of a full-on firefight and now not knowing which way to turn. Surely a Rebel craft wouldn't be suicidal enough to actually put itself in front of the Devastator's main guns by choice… He glanced behind him, looking for Roth. "Is that a Rebel ship?"
Roth followed Luke's eyes, then looked to the crew pit. "Identify it."
"Unknown ship, this is the ISD Immortal," the crew officer said, already leaning into his pick-up as he switched from coded to an open channel. "You're ordered to heave-to and transmit ID."
Luke waited with everyone else, idly watching as the ship skimmed down into a lower orbit. Had they been closer and had he been in command, he would have ordered it shot down by now; practice for the gunners. But he wasn't…and with the loss of the Liberty and the surface plans unsecured, he was reluctant to get caught up in the battle now.
The comm crackled to life on the main speakers. "Immortal, this is Captain Raymus Antilles of the civilian freighter TantiveIV, requesting clear passage."
Luke frowned, butAntilleswas a common surname. Still…he turned to the crew pit. "Where's the Tantive registered?"
The crewman tapped in the trace as Indo stepped forward, his sense instantly watchful. "Luke?"
"Sir, the TantiveIV is registered to a shipping firm on Kattada. Previously the Star of Alderaan, a consular ship. It has no outstanding warrants."
Alderaan… Luke turned pensive eyes to Indo, but it was nothing-nothing he could put his finger on. So why did it bother him? He turned back to the pit. "Pull the ID on…" Luke halted as a flash-image hit like a broadside-the memory of a toy zero-g fighter, being run along the white walls of a consular ship long ago, as his mother smiled indulgently-
"What do you have there…and who gave you that?"
"Raymus…Raymus Antilles!" Luke hissed.
Before him, Indo backed up a step at Luke's sudden intensity.
Raymus Antilles was… Luke spun about to Roth-and stopped dead.
He stared at Roth, then back to the crew pit, where several of the officers had begun to raise their heads. It was a conscious effort for Luke to find his voice again as if nothing had happened. "The…the ID on Captain Antilles-last ten years."
Everyone looked away, continuing with their duties as Luke stared without seeing, realization of the name a blow to the gut. He glanced back to the Tantive, knowing he should tell Roth it was a Rebel ship, but unable to betray Raymus Antilles, a man he barely remembered from a past he'd long ago learned to suppress. He remembered exactly that small toy given to him byAntilleson his seventh birthday, during that fateful journey to Coruscant… Raymus Antilles, his mother's cousin and Captain in the Alderaanian Royal Guard. Raymus Antilles, who Luke knew with a sudden certainty had been at the Imperial palace on that grim day, though he also knew for a fact thatAntilleswasn't listed among those who had attended the trip to Coruscant. Had he tried to help them, Luke wondered; tried and failed to help Bail and Breha Organa escape, but somehow, managed to do so himself? What would a soldier do, when he'd witnessed his cousin's death and narrowly escaped his own? Vaguely, he became aware that someone was talking to him, and turned to see Indo leaning close, face pinched, his words only gradually coming clear.
"Luke…Luke, is there a connection?"
"Is there a connection?"
Luke frowned, heart pounding, torn by memories he'd all but forgotten. Why was he protecting the man? He glanced back to Solo, who was watching him closely from across the bridge, knowing what the Corellian would say right now; what he'd tell Luke to do…and to Indo, the one constant who had been with him for so long when those like Raymus were gone, knowing what Indo would want…what Palpatine would expect.
He shook his head, pulling himself together, forcing himself back to the moment… "Raymus Antilles was a member of the Alderaanian Royal Guard-he was there on Coruscant, when the assassination took place! The attendance documents from Alderaan must have been falsified, to hide his involvement. If that's Raymus Antilles, that's a Rebel ship."
Captain Roth turned about. "Tantive, you're ordered to heave-to and drop your shields."
The ship didn't slow, still powering to a low orbit.
Roth turned to Tactical. "Is she in range?"
"She's closer to the Devastator," Luke said, eyeing the distances. "Why is she staying in its field of fire when…"
"Sir, we've received a distress call-it's coming from the communications center."
Luke turned. "On Toprawa?"
"The comms center," Luke said quickly. "How far is it from the research station?"
"How far-on foot?"
"Uh…" The man looked back down to his console, pulling up GPS images. "Not far…reachable, sir."
Luke turned to Roth. "The Rebels are trying to take the comms station to transmit the information out."
"Sir," The comm officer stood to catch the captain's eye. "We have a second comm from the communications center-its perimeter walls have been breached."
Luke turned, realization tightening his chest. "Devastator, this is the Immortal. You have a CR90 corvette dropping to a low geostationary orbit over Toprawa on a bearing of one-three-one by nine-nine-six by five-zero-one. We believe the ship's attempting communications with the Rebels on Toprawa-it's trying to pick up the data."
"Acknowledged, Immortal, we are on an intercept course. You're ordered to cease aerial support of Toprawa garrison and pull back to an intercept course."
It wasn't Vader-which meant they hadn't told him yet, Luke knew. By the time they relayed the message, it would be too late. He glanced to crew pit. "Hold our position. Tactical, get a bearing on the communications center. Target to allow for atmospheric distortion."
Roth turned about. "There are no viable targets about the comms center."
"There's the comm center itself."
"You're suggesting firing on our own installation?" The captain straightened. "You want me to contact Lord Vader and actually ask him for permission to fire on an Imperial structure? It's against every single code in…"
"Stop quoting rules!" Luke was yelling now, still unsettled by Raymus Antilles' unexpected appearance, and driven to distraction by Roth's constant by-the-book conduct. "You're about to lose any control of this situation! You've already lost the initiative, don't lose the target."
"I will not fire on an Imperial installation."
"It's overrun by Rebels! Any Imperials in there are already dead. You're wasting time!"
"I will not fire on an Imperial installation," Roth repeated doggedly, turning away. "Tactical, cease orbital bombardment. Helm, bring us about to intercept the Rebel ship, fastest course."
Luke turned to Indo-and hesitated. "Secondary bridge," he murmured quietly, tensing at the mention of it. He had codes to a Command Protocol given to him by the Emperor himself, that would seal and lock out the main bridge, transferring all control to the secondary bridge at the base of the command tower. He could use them to take over the Immortal now-stop the comm station on Toprawa being useable.
Even the stalwart Indo blanched slightly at this, though it didn't show on his face. "Be sure."
Luke hesitated…and the decision was made for him.
"Sir." It was the comms officer, his voice quiet. "We're detecting transmissions from the surface comms station."
Luke turned quickly. "Tactical, can you take the antenna dish down and leave the emplacement intact-can you make that shot?"
The man pursed his lips and looked to the Immortal's Captain, then, "Yes, Sir, I think I can."
Luke turned to Roth, who glared…but made the call. "Take the shot."
They needed only a minute, Leia knew…
They'd reached low orbit as the Destroyer Immortal had taken out the last of the surface airfields, though it was too far out to be of immediate threat to the Tantive-until it began to take notice.
"Unknown ship, this is the ISD Immortal. You're ordered to heave-to and transmit ID."
Raymus glanced to Obi-Wan, and tried the only thing he had left: "Immortal, this is Captain Raymus Antilles of the civilian freighter TantiveIV, requesting clear passage."
Leia stared, amazed at his nerve, as the comms fell to silence. Probably wondering just what the hell was going on and trying to check out the Tantive's credentials, the Immortal held fire. The Tantive wasn't a known Rebel vessel, instead registered to a sham haulage company close to Raymus' home planet of Alderaan, and although Raymus had joined theAlliancelong before Leia had arrived, his name had remained always below the official radar…
Raymus leaned on the edge of the comm console, eyes on the closing Star Destroyer as he flicked channels, knowing he'd bought them only seconds. "Toprawa base, come in?" Static, as those about the bridge stared in anxious silence. "Red Hand, come in? Vermillion, come in? I repeat, Vermillion, come in? Toprawa base, come in?"
The hiss rose and fell in tone, then crackled and whined as everyone waited…then a voice came over the comm system…not the one they'd hoped.
"Tantive, this is the ISD Immortal. You're ordered to heave-to and drop your shields."
Raymus glanced briefly to Obi-Wan, who made the slightest shake of his head, though it wasn't needed; Leia knew Raymus would have no intention of complying. No one spoke, and the Tantive powered forwards.
Leia turned to Gumbrak, the Mon Cal at helm. "How long until the Immortal's in range?"
He rolled glassy eyes, his raspy voice indicating a rough guess. "Thirty seconds…"
The comm crackled again, and this time the voice which spoke out seemed to Leia far too young to be speaking as it did, from what must have been the bridge of an Imperial Star Destroyer. "Tantive, this is Luke Antilles. We know you're a Rebel vessel. Heave-to, or the Devastator will fire for effect. Last warning."
Leia turned, shocked; Palpatine had sent a Sith to stop them. TheAllianceknew almost nothing of Luke Antilles other than his status as a Sith, though even that was only assumed. Found by Palpatine in childhood, the most recent image they had of him was in profile and over a year old, shaky and slightly out of focus. A man of her own age, slight and slim, his build belied the danger that Intel believed he would one day represent to theAlliance. Was that day today? Had the Emperor's new Sith come of age?
Raymus turned decisively. "Tune them out, scan the lower frequencies-no more transmissions from Destroyers, they're blocking any weaker signals."
Seconds stretched as Leia stared through the viewport at the hulking bulk of the Immortal…
A young man's voice broke through the static, tense and fraught. "Come in, Skyhook? Come in, Skyhook!"
Raymus leaned instantly forward. "Skyhook here."
"We have only moments! Prepare to copy!"
The high tones of a burst-transmission filled the bridge as Leia looked to Obi-Wan, who stared out of the viewport as the Tantive turned to face the still-closing bulk of the Devastator.
Raymus glanced across the bridge. "Tactical, put out a message to bring all fighters back onboard, now. Anyone not in the hangars gets left behind."
Leia glanced quickly back, but he was right, of course; too much depended on this. The ululating timbre of the burst-transmission ceased…
"The Immortal's firing!"
The comm loosed a final shriek-then fell silent entirely.
"They fired on the station-they fired on Toprawa comm station, Sir. They took out the transmitter dish!"
Raymus spun back to Ops. "Do we have the transmission?"
"Sir, the Devastator's almost in range."
"Sir." It was Ops, looking briefly up, her wide, angular ears lifting in excitement. "We have the complete transmission; it's verified."
Raymus turned about as Leia let out a breath. "Tactical, shields up. Helm, get us out of here-start accelerating for lightspeed velocity."
"I don't have a course, Sir."
With the Immortal behind and Devastator before them, and the damaged Vendetta coming in to port to force them into Toprawa's atmosphere, Raymus named the only planet that Leia could think of along the narrow strip of open space still left to them.
"Telos-get us out to Telos."
"Sir." It was Ops again. "We have Imperial codes tacked onto the transmission; I can decode their comms."
With the channels open again as Imperial ship-to-ship codes were sliced, the first words they heard were from that same youthful voice, fired by undisguised frustration. "Devastator, this is the Immortal. The CR90 corvette received a transmission. It has the plans onboard-I repeat, it has the plans onboard."
Raymus looked briefly to Obi-Wan, whose silence-and the confidence that such inferred-gave an ongoing strength of conviction to the Captain's commands.
"Will we make it?" Leia asked, eyes on the Devastator, still tilting on its axis towards them.
Immediately the open comm spoke. "Rebel vessel, this is the ISD Devastator. You are carrying unauthorized material. Heave-to now or we will open fire."
"Keep going," Raymus said mechanically.
There were no warning shots; the first volley hit them midship, fritzing consoles as the shields glowed.
"Tactical?" Raymus asked.
"Glancing volley, Sir-range-finder. Shields at eighty-six percent."
Even as he said it the second volley came in, a wider spray of far more lasers, knocking the Tantive to the side and rattling her passengers, making them stagger as the lights dimmed momentarily.
"Shields down to seventy-one percent."
"How long 'till we can hit lightspeed?"
"Fourteen seconds, Sir."
A third volley hit, shaking them sufficiently that Leia had to grab for the console to the front of the bridge to remain upright. The lights stayed down for long seconds this time, and somewhere a console sounded a warning tone.
"Shields at fifty percent, Sir. The Vendetta is firing ranging shots to our starboard side."
"Make calculations to tile shields between fore and starboard-and hold course for that jump!"
Leia felt a tingling rush of power beside her as Obi-Wan brought his senses to bear, awareness pushed out into the Force. She watched him as he frowned, closing his eyes…was he trying to reach the Imperial ship? He'd never hold contact at this distance. She stepped closer and added her own focus to his without hesitation; sensed that arrow of power and perception reach out across the void to other minds, skipping from consciousness to consciousness, searching to share their knowledge; whether they were confident of success, doubtful, uncertain…
Then a very different contact; an acuity of vast range, a black hole fired by fury and rage that threatened to drag her down and engulf her…a bolt of recognition energized the unknown connection, a shock that jolted physically through her-
Obi-Wan pulled back, taking her with him and leaving her gasping. She turned, wide-eyed, left breathless and wordless by the unexpected flare of a Sith's scorching presence.
"It's Vader," Obi-Wan said, staring into the void. "Vader's on the Devastator."
Leia stared, shocked speechless, chest rising and falling quickly. She'd carried the burden of knowledge as to who her father was for years now-what he was-and had come herself to the realization of the necessity to stop Vader and Palpatine. But this was the closest she'd ever come to actual contact with Vader...and it was terrifying, the black storm of hostility harrowing in its focused resolve. She'd fought her adversaries in the faceless form of the Empire many times; she knew enmity and hatred, but this was…this was her…
"Leia…" Obi-Wan's hand rested lightly on her arm, the calm reassurance that flowed through him a balm which brought her back to the moment. The ship shook beneath her feet, lurching unsteadily as the rain of laser fire slowed, its power aimed to the rear of the Tantive-to its engines.
"Tantive, this is the ISD Devastator. Heave-to or be destroyed. You will not be warned again."
"He's trying to cut us off," Obi-Wan observed calmly as he turned to Leia, his next words for her alone. "He wants us alive, to take back to his Emperor."
Seeing what was happening, Raymus turned about to the consoles behind him. "Helm, make a course correction; take us well-wide of the Devastator's course."
"Sir, it'll add seconds…"
"Getting caught in a tractor beam will add more," Raymus said tightly. "Wide course."
"Ten seconds to lightspeed."
"Don't wait to be told-go on ready-light."
The young man's voice from the Immortal came again, near-frantic this time. "Devastator, this is the Immortal-what the hell are you doing? Fire all batteries! That corvette has the plans onboard-I repeat, the corvette under your guns has the plans onboard."
Raymus was leaning forward over the Helm console, every mind on the bridge around Leia willing it to reach escape velocity… She stared at the narrow corridor of open space before them as it lit with tracer fire from the closing Vendetta. The Devastator loosed another volley and the Tantive shook pitifully, multiple warnings sounding across the bridge consoles.
"It's through the shields! We have damage to port side levels three through nine, power lines severed and atmospheric breach in the main hangar..."
"Tile remaining shields to the breach!"
Another volley lanced out towards them. The blur of light made Leia stagger back, and for a moment she thought that the Devastator had made a direct hit…but the stars streaked into spirals, and she knew they'd hit lightspeed. They were away!
Onboard the Immortal, Luke watched in outraged silence as the Rebel corvette slid into lightspeed between the two Star Destroyers. Why had Vader held back? What possible reason could he have had!
He turned quickly about, all lesser enmities lost beneath the knowledge that they'd lost their quarry.
"Comms, is the X-wing still transmitting-quickly!"
Luke glanced back out into the remnants of the battle as the remaining Rebel fighters turned tail and powered for clear courses to lightspeed. "Is the damn X-wing still transmitting?"
"When did it stop-before or after the TantiveIV went to lightspeed?"
"Uh…" The man scanned his boards. "Before, Sir. Just before."
"Open a line to the Devastator." Luke glanced triumphantly to Solo, who stared…then straightened, grinning in understanding as Luke raised his voice to be heard on the general comm pickup. "Devastator-Vader, I have a transmitter onboard the Tantive! We can pick it up when it drops out of lightspeed. It had a narrow breakout corridor and had taken damage, it can't go far before reverting to realspace."
"You have a transmitter onboard the Tantive?" Vader's rumbled reply held an edge of interest.
"I placed one onboard an X-wing. We lost the signal moments before the Tantive went to lightspeed-that means it's onboard. We lost the signal because it docked in the Tantive's hangar."
"The signal frequency?" Vader prompted.
"Transmitting now," Luke said, nodding to Comms. "We can make concentric jumps along the Tantive's last trajectory and be waiting-one of us will be close enough to its exit point. It won't make more than ten lightyears with the damage it's sustained."
There was a long silence, in which Luke frowned slightly, looking towards Indo as he turned. Everyone waited tensely before Vader's unmistakable voice came back on the open channel, curt and hasty.
"Vendetta, we are transmitting lightspeed co-ordinates and distance. Launch nine scoutships along the prescribed co-ordinates with staggered exit points, then set the final exit point as your destination. All ships are ordered to scan the supplied frequency as soon as they exit lightspeed. If you find the Rebel ship, engage it without delay. Immortal…"
Luke straightened, fully expecting to receive the same order.
"You are ordered to remain behind to deal with the situation at Toprawa. Lieutenant Commander Antilles, you will take charge of containing and curtailing all surface insurrection."
"You heard my order. Confirm."
Luke actually took a step back, so incensed was he. "Confirm? No, I won't confirm it! That's my transmitter code-that's my X-wing!"
"And this is my mission. You will do as ordered, or you will stand down from duty."
"You've sidelined me twice in this operation, and twice I've pulled your fat from the fire! Now you're tying me to Toprawa while you chase down a lead I created."
"You will confirm the order, or you will stand down. This dissent will already be entered in the ship's log; that you wasted valuable time at a critical phase of the operation. Confirm the order, or I will relieve you of duty."
Luke stepped back again, this time in defeat, his head lowering. He couldn't face Palpatine with those charges levelled at him, and Vader knew it. Looking up, he ground out, "Confirmed, Devastator."
"When you have finished your duties here, you may rejoin the battle group," Vader said, mollified. "Until then, you will remain at Toprawa and deal with the insurgents. They are outnumbered and outgunned, it should take you no more than two days. If the battle group is still active, then-and only then-you may rejoin it. The Emperor tells me often that you are to be entrusted with contained tasks as part of your ongoing training. This should be something even you can handle."
Luke remained still as the Devastator angled its massive hull out towards open space and flickered into lightspeed. Stared, jaw ground tight, as localized distortions shuddered and collapsed at the point where it had been just moments before, well aware of the wary silence about him.
Finally he turned and stalked slowly down the center aisle above the crew pits, eyes dead ahead as nervous faces looked quickly away, minds busying themselves with any task. Without once slowing, he exited the bridge and turned into the secondary comms chamber, closing the door behind him.
From the side walkway, Han watched the kid walk past, face like thunder, barely hanging on to his composure. Like everyone else, he remained still and silent as Luke passed, knowing that the slightest thing could snap that fragile restraint. When the door closed on the comms chamber, Han watched, waiting. A second later, the screeching rend of stressed metal was drowned out by the heavy whump of something big landing with enough power to shake the blast-rated door on its runners. Even Indo didn't go this time.
Long minutes passed in which nobody moved, save for Captain Roth ordering the Immortal to maintain geostationary orbit. It occurred to Han only now that, even if it was to sideline the kid, Vader had put Luke in charge of the rest of this operation, which effectively meant that no one could move without him.
He glanced again to Indo, who merely held Han's eye expectantly… Cursing under his breath, Han set forward for the closed door. He'd just reached it when it slid open, giving him a brief, half-lit glimpse of twisted metal and ruined consoles, torn from their bolted mounts and crushed awkwardly against the wall to the far side of the devastated room…and the kid walked out, still fuming. He glanced once to Han but walked past without slowing, all business.
"Captain Roth, recall all fighters by sequence for refuelling, and have them set formations for inter-atmospheric combat. Priority goes to bombers and escorts, who need to load munitions for a close-surface barrage of military-grade buildings. Have Tactical load dropships with sixteen HAVr-nines, AT-ST support and ground troops, in preparation for a surface assault. And bring the Immortal into geostationary orbit over the Comm station; prepare for an aerial bombardment."
The bridge was an instant flurry of action as seasoned officers moved to get their orders underway. Han walked slowly forward, wary somehow of the kid who stood with such brittle composure at the front of the bridge, eyes on the curve of Toprawa's atmosphere.
Luke turned, voice tight. "Vader said we rejoin the Devastator'sbattle group when we've dealt with Toprawa-well then, I'll be done by dawn."
"They're pretty dug in to a shielded military bunker by now," Han murmured quietly, trying to keep the doubt from his voice. This wasn't his forté, but Vader's estimate of two days to root them out sounded more realistic. "Surface fighting's always slower."
"Only if you want survivors," the kid said evenly, then turned away. "Comms, get me the ground-based duty officer, and start a separate channel for updates, five-minute intervals, whether they're requested or not. Have all existing ground troops pull back. Tactical, make calculations to start levelling the land around the Comm station-if they run, I want our troops to see them. And Ops…" he paused just slightly, "have a repair team report to comms chamber two; it's sustained damage."
It took nine hours. Nine hours, in which the kid didn't once leave the bridge.
He turned on Toprawa with a vengeance, fuming that Vader had left him behind and looking to bring the ground battle to a conclusive end. He even went so far as to send local law enforcement into the surrounding civilian districts to ensure that they were clean of insurgents, bringing in anyone with an existing record for interrogation, with an order to send any who didn't pass muster up to the Immortal. Considering that they were leaving orbit in hours, none of them would be returning to Toprawa, Han knew. You could say it was decisive, he supposed. You could say it was ruthless. It was certainly effective.
Standing back and watching, listening to the comms as images came up from the surface, Han had never realized before how clean a battle was when you were a pilot, removed from the gritty realities of the minute-by-minute struggle played out on the bridge.
When you were a pilot, you got in your TIE, you flew, you did your work, you left. The battlefield cleaned itself, returning to a still silence that hadn't changed for millennia. You were no more than a blip, a momentary aberration, a flash of blood and metal and enemies and allies. It was brief and intense and chaotic and surreal, but it came and went within an hour. Even if it didn't, you couldn't keep a TIE out for much more than that without refuelling, so battles for a pilot were short and clean somehow. You didn't hear your enemies. You didn't see the carnage transmitted in gory detail as it gouged the planet like a scar. In a dogfight, people died or they jumped from the battle. You didn't see this; the final mop-up of failing defenses.
They broke the Rebel's comm codes early; about two hours in. The ability to transmit extra-planetary was hastily restored with a temporary field unit, so that all Rebel communications could be intercepted and transmitted up to the Immortal. They didn't jam them, just listened as crackling, static-riddled orders were passed in ever more grim and desperate voices. Pre-empted each move before it was even made. That was worse, somehow; to hear them struggle hour on hour, to hear them tire, to hear them falter.
He'd never known how dire it became; how dirty and punishing, blow on blow. How pitiless you had to be, to be able to keep up that unyielding pressure. How hard it became to listen to that hissing, broken transmission, the voice of the woman leading them barely audible over the temporary comm as she tried to hold them together whilst superior numbers and weaponry came to bear, continually falling back, their transports destroyed, knowing they had no way out. That they wouldn't be leaving Toprawa alive. They didn't even know if their attempt to send the plans had succeeded; the barrage from the Immortal had taken out the base's original long-range transmitters before they'd had confirmation either way, so all they knew when day bled to night and they saw a still sky above, was that the space battle was over. All they knew was that their last order had been to hold their present position as long as possible.
Turned out that was just after midnight. The last day they ever saw was less than an hour long…it had probably been the longest hour of their lives.
They got the comm soon after; the Tantive had been taken with all hands by the Devastator itself, close to Telos. The mission was over. The battle group was disassembled and its Destroyers ordered to return to normal duty; the Immortal would remain at Toprawa to maintain order without Luke's presence. The ISD Formidable would pass by in three hours to transport them back to Coruscant.
Luke had retreated to the executive office to the rear of the bridge and sat, fingers interlaced, hands clenched before his mouth, staring in silence at the empty desk. Standing beside a quietly pleased Indo, Han had no idea whether the kid was shaking his head in guilt, regret, frustration…
But the worst blow was held for last-wasn't it always?
The final report of the surface battle came in as the Formidable maneuvered alongside in preparation to take them onboard. The kid had waited to watch Commander Litt make his report, finally standing inside the barricaded vaults where the Rebels had made their last stand. They were identified from their unit insignia as Red Hand Squadron, a self-contained Rebel unit apparently known mostly for their work against the illegal slave trade. Not knowing whether their mission to get the plans out had succeeded or not, but knowing absolutely that they had to protect what they knew, they'd taken suicide pills.
The grim facts were relayed via the holo transmitter set into the surface of the desk in the executive office, as Commander Litt took the opportunity to voice his congratulations to the man in charge for a job well done; a complete Rebel unit eliminated. A few images were sent up as he spoke, and Han looked away. Why did you know, even on a small holo-how could you look at a corpse, and know that it wasn't someone sleeping?
Even Luke seemed ill at ease. "I was doing my duty, Commander. Do you have confirmation that this was the entire unit?"
"Yes, sir. The numbers are right, and we have all their ringleaders: Hyx, Corporal Burrid, Lieutenant Paol, and the unit Commander, Bria Tharen."
It was a blow to Han's guts as he turned, horrified. Luke lunged out to slap his hand over the image transmitter in the desk, blocking the holo as it tracked slowly over the dead, his eyes going instantly to Han. "Tharen?"
Commander Litt continued, unaware. "Corellian woman, quite a good family. Good upbringing, good education…got caught up with the t'landa Til and the glitterstim trade, then fell below the radar…can't fall much lower than the Rebellion. One less to worry about."
"Yes," Luke murmured. "Thank you, Commander. Immortal out."
Han stared as the light from the hologram Luke was covering dissipated, feeling sick. Physically sick.
"It was Bria, wasn't it?" He didn't need to ask, not really.
The kid stared at him for a long, stretched moment, but managed only a broken whisper. "I'm sorry, Han-I'm so sorry…"
He stared at the kid's hand, still splayed over the holo transmitter though the image was gone, and remembered again Bria's hands; delicate little hands, cut to ribbons by handling glitterstim. Remembered those big, serious eyes. It had been her all this time, handing out orders, holding it together. Her, growing ever more desperate. Her, knowing she'd never survive this…
And he'd been right here, watching the kid take her unit apart, listening to them struggle. Watching the kid and thinking how self-controlled, how detached you had to be, to be able to keep up that pressure, directed mercilessly and without hesitation against a failing enemy. Against…
Luke straightened slightly, voice tentative, almost childlike. "…Han?"
Beside Han, Indo turned, realizing that something was happening. "What's this about?"
The kid didn't answer and Han sure as hell couldn't. All he knew was that he couldn't be there. He turned and walked quickly out of the office and off the bridge without once looking back.
A light knock on the door to his room onboard the Formidable brought Han's head up. He'd transferred over from the Immortal on one of the cargo shuttles, not yet able to look the kid in the eye after Bria's death. The night shift that had seen the battle end, had turned to the day shift as they'd transferred over to the Formidable, and he was now two hours late for duty, yet he couldn't bring himself to stand up and start moving, and do all those normal things like shave and get his jacket on and get out there. Couldn't bring himself to look the kid in the eye.
So he was still sitting, staring at the glowing holos of Red Hand Squadron that he'd pulled from the military mainframe, when the knock to his door came. It slid open without invitation, so Han didn't need to turn to know it was the kid. As ever when he knew he'd done wrong, though, Luke didn't enter. Just hovered at the doorway.
Han pursed his lips, staring at the holo images as they scrolled through. Two of the men they'd clearly had no images of, so they'd used those taken at Toprawa, the dead men's eyes half-open, jaws slack. He'd watched the images scroll for almost an hour, taking in the faces of those who'd been with her at the end. Jace Paol, Daino Hix, Sk'kot Burrid, Larens, Mecht, Renna…all marked deceased, already. The Empire was nothing if not efficient. Then Bria's name came around again, with a blank screen.
He heard movement as Luke stepped tentatively forward. "They didn't have an image of her."
"Really?" Han said levelly. "Because it says here it was removed by Ubiqtorate command."
Silence hung as the kid moved uneasily. "I only vetoed the…the Toprawa image."
Han nodded without speaking, and the kid came up beside his chair and crouched down to rock on his heels, arms still wrapped about himself as he watched the images change. Han scrolled to 'image only,' to see their faces clearer.
Beside him, Luke spoke quietly. "Burrid…Daino….Hix…Larens…"
Han half-turned as Luke recited the names from memory as each image came up. Watched the kid as he stared at them, his drawn face lit by the holo's shuttered glow. He didn't look like he'd had much sleep either. "You learned their names…why?"
Kid looked down. "I don't know."
"…What was the name of the Sinto spy?"
"Kern Derrig…first lieutenant."
Han frowned. "The Rebel from the listening post?"
"You remember them all?"
Luke turned, finally looking Han in the eye. "I didn't know she was there. I wouldn't have…" He looked away, head dropping, arms tightening about himself as he stared at the floor. Twice he tried to start speaking, and twice he broke off without a word. When he finally did, there was something near desperation in his voice. "You should just punch me."
"Hit me. Seriously, it's okay. You'll feel a lot better…and so will I."
Han recoiled, realizing the kid was serious. "I'm not gonna hit you."
"I won't stop you, I know I messed up." He shrugged, resigned. "I generally do."
Comprehension left Han cold; that the kid had come in here so that Han could explode at him, because that was what people did with him when they were angry. That was what Palpatine did.
"I'm not angry at you, I'm just…" It wasn't even true-or hadn't been, when the kid had come in. Now, listening to him reel off the names, listening to him seriously offering to let Han turn on him, willing to take the blame for something that no kid should have been told to do in the first place… "Sometimes stuff isn't clean-cut. Sometimes it's messy and offensive and…I don't know, just hard to take."
Luke looked down again, rocking slightly on his heels. "Palpatine would…would say that this is an opportunity."
"To do what?"
Luke glanced away, the uncertainty in his hesitant words telling. "I took away the one thing you care about. He'd…he'd tell you it makes you stronger, to do that."
"What do you think?"
The kid rocked on his heels again. "I don't know. I think it makes you wary of ever taking that chance again-being hurt like that again…so I guess you learn. Learn not to let anybody in. Learn not to care."
"How's that working out?"
The kid looked down without speaking-but then he'd already answered. He'd answered when he'd known the names of everyone in Red Hand Squadron.
Leia sat in the pilot's seat of the Wookiee heavy scoutship that she, Chewie and Obi-Wan had taken in the rush to get the Death Star plans safely away from the Tantive over Telos, staring out at her worst nightmare.
They'd paired off with Biggs Darklighter, the plans safely loaded onto Leia's astromech unit before he'd been loaded into Biggs' X-wing in preparation to make a break from the Tantive as the Devastator pulled it in. Two elements, each of a scoutship and an X-wing, had set off on different courses to confuse any later readings as to who exactly carried the plans and which way they'd gone.
But somehow, when they'd come out of hyperspace at a scheduled stop halfway to Yavin, the Empire had caught up with them. Whether it had been by coincidence or design, they had no way of knowing.
All they could do was try to piece the facts together. Biggs, in a lighter, faster craft, had probably come out of lightspeed perhaps half an hour before them, and had waited in a little-used and barely mapped pocket of space for their arrival, to synchronize before they made the last leg of their journey. The Imperial frigate couldn't have arrived more than minutes before the heavily armored Wookiee scoutship which carried Leia, Obi-Wan and Chewie-but it must have come out almost on top of Biggs' X-wing with guns blazing, because Leia knew damn well that Biggs was a first-class pilot, and for them to have taken him, they must have been ready.
They'd picked up the heavy frigate that had caught Biggs on long-range scans, and tailed from a safe distance, worrying every moment that the frigate would simply go to lightspeed and be untraceable. Wondering why it hadn't…
Thenithad arrived, the ripple of its emergence into realspace causing a flux that had rocked the frigate unsteadily in its wake and impacted on their scoutship sufficiently to dim its shields, even this far back.
And with a horrible, sickening recognition, Leia knew that she was staring at the reason for Operation Skyhook's inception. The very thing they'd fought so hard to uncover, in hopes of destroying it before it became a reality, was hulking, massive and foreboding, in space before them.
They'd known, of course, that it was near completion-but not complete and operative, as it so clearly was. Beside Leia, Chewbacca had howled a long refrain, part anger, part anguish. It had been his people who had given their freedom and their lives to build this monument to Palpatine's egotistical power. He'd been one of the lucky ones-he'd escaped…with unexpected help. And he'd dedicated his life to bringing down the Empire that had decimated and enslaved his people. Staring at the behemoth before her, sensing the taint of death already about it, it was Leia who first thought to wonder whether it had been the firing of this monstrosity which had caused the sickening, twisted wave of raw anguish that had ripped out into the Force just weeks ago.
They'd watched in morbid fascination for long minutes, each lost in their own thoughts and fears and broken hopes before, on some unspoken cue, they'd stirred and pulled themselves back to the moment-and what they could do to change it.
"I say we go in," Leia said firmly, watching the massive frigate dock, dwarfed by the immense scale of the Death Star.
Beside her, Chewie didn't even hesitate before keening his approval.
"Indeed?" Obi-Wan's voice was that familiar mix of pacific patience, mild incredulity and private amusement.
"Yes!" Leia said, glancing to Chewie for support. "They have Biggs, and they have the plans we need-more so than ever, now."
"You believe that this is a fight we can win?" Obi-Wan asked, always pushing her to make her decisions wisely.
"I'm not going to leave Biggs-or the plans."
Beside her, Chewbacca turned half-round to bark his approval.
Obi-Wan studied them both for long seconds…then acquiesced with a tilt of his head. "Very well. But there are alternatives to fighting…"
Han walked briskly from the staff room in the palace, heading for the library where the kid was in lessons, reflecting how familiar this had all become in just six months. Not simply the palace in its significance and its dour, drab, intimidating scale, but the daily intricacies of life here, even at this level. The games that were played.
It had taken him awhile, for instance, to figure out just what exactly Therne Gorn's place was here. He had to admit that he'd initially wondered just what exactly Gorn did, that Indo had been so willing to extend his commission for yet another year. Not that he didn't like the guy; he had a kind of upbeat, flippant optimism that only youth could muster, and seemed to breeze through his working day with little or no interest in the concept of work, per se. In fact, Han had to question whether the admittedly affable and undeniably sociable young man did anything at all, because to the untrained observer, it seemed pretty much like he either lounged around in the staff office and commed people a lot, or disappeared for hours with a datapad and some vague excuse under his arm, servicing the huge network of acquaintances he seemed to have built up, rather than actually working-or even interacting with the kid that much.
It had been a good while before Han had put together Gorn's apparently endless fascination with the minutiae of everyone's business inside the palace, no matter how insignificant, with his extended commission. Because the fact was, Gorn was the guy who put all the gossip together and knew something on everyone. Gorn, Han had slowly realized, was the palace mole.
If there was information to be had, Gorn would dig it up. He was their eyes and ears on the ground; grassroots knowledge gained from countless other aides and assistants, who often knew more about their seniors' private dealings than any complex automated observation system could hope to gather in this hotbed of high-end surveillance and counter-surveillance.
And while it was mostly the kind of stuff that made their daily life just a little easier, occasionally, just occasionally, he came up trumps.
Han walked into the library with only a brief token knock, not pausing despite the fact that a lesson was in progress.
"You're gonna love this," he said with relish.
The tutor stuttered to a halt as Luke looked up through the desktop holo he'd been studying, where a series of tactical pointers were arranged around two planets within some system, with a time stamp ticking in the corner.
To the rear of the room, Indo stood, voice raised. "Lieutenant Solo! If you have something you need to bring to my attention then you will wait until..."
"Yours? No," Han said simply, continuing forward.
He and Indo had hardly seen eye to eye over the last few days. They hadn't even gotten back to Coruscant before Indo had pulled Han to one side and basically ordered him to stop making the kid dwell on Toprawa. Han had no idea if Luke had told Indo the truth about Bria Tharen, but either way, Indo knew something was going on and he didn't like it. Didn't like that Luke was, for probably the first time, actually seeing the repercussions of his actions at the Emperor's command. Han had to wonder how carefully both Palpatine and, at his directive, Indo, had insulated the kid from such effects, so that he'd do exactly as he was told without question.
He wasn't particularly interested in buying into that game, and had told the viscount so in no uncertain terms.
It didn't exactly go down well. Han was very much aware that though they tried to hold it together in front of the kid, he and the viscount were pretty much at loggerheads. And it didn't help that Luke was beginning to seek out Han's opinion occasionally these days, firstly 'cos Indo was used to ruling the roost, and secondly because it seemed like whatever the subject, Han's opinion on it was almost always the polar opposite of Indo's. But this one surely had to get everyone on the same side.
"Go on?" Luke stared expectantly, his small frame swamped by the huge proportions of the cluttered library desk.
Indo stepped immediately forward. "This will wait until your lessons are over and…"
"No." The kid didn't turn, his voice quiet. "I want to hear it."
Han flashed a brief, self-righteous grin at Indo before turning back to the kid, who had nodded at his tutor. The man left in tactful silence, and he'd barely closed the door before Han spoke.
"Apparently there was a transmission that went through Intel between the Devastator and the 501st, and Gorn has a friend of a friend who works in comms-surprise, surprise. Seems like after an extensive search, a certain set of plans weren't onboard the Tantive."
"How were the plans not onboard?"
"Well, apparently they had been there," Han explained, repeating what Gorn had just told him, and Han had traded a four-hour shift to be the one to pass it on to the kid. "But when the Devastator locked tractor beams onto the Tantive, two X-wings and two heavy scoutships launched from its lower dock, using the Tantive's bulk to protect them from the tractor beams. One of them had the plans onboard."
"They didn't catch them?"
"They didn't know. All four took a straight course, using the Tantive as a sensor shadow. The moment they were clear of the tractor beam's range, they paired off into two elements of a scout and an X-wing, and jumped in opposite directions."
Luke frowned. "But the task force has been disassembled-that means its mission was considered complete."
"This is the great bit: Gorn doesn't think Vader's told the Emperor yet. The message to the 501st included the transmission frequency of our tagged X-wing. Their priority right now is to track it down, because it's the best lead they have to the others. That message went directly from theDevastatorto the 501st…there wasn't any addendum or copy to the palace."
Luke glanced to Indo, who stood in silence to the side of the drab room, taking the facts in.
"So one of the ships that made a break for it was our tagged X-wing," he reasoned. "You're sure Vader doesn't have the plans? He could simply be trying to track the X-wing back to the Liberty."
"He could," Han allowed. "But since his message to the palace confirmed the capture of the Tantive IV,and he then disassembled the task force, I'd say he's trying to put out the message that the plans are secure."
"And the Emperor doesn't know this yet?"
"Gorn's had a casual chat with his contact in the Emperor's Cabinet. They didn't receive a message from Vader in the last ten hours…the message to the 501st went out seven hours ago. Sounds to me like someone's jumped the gun in dismantling the task force, and is now trying to get it all back under control before he has to come clean to the old m-" Han cut himself off, remembering that Indo was there. "To the Emperor."
Luke set his head to one side, voice laced with laconic malice. "Well then, I feel it's my loyal duty to keep my Master informed."
Kid had been hurt as much as Han had by all that had happened, in his own way. Except that Han wasn't looking for someone to blame…and Luke was not only looking, he already had a target in mind, in the form of the man who'd ordered him to stay at Toprawa: Vader.
Indo moved slightly. "I'd advise caution."
Luke turned. "Because?"
"Think carefully; doing this now places you in direct contention with Lord Vader. The Emperor won't protect the source of this information."
The kid straightened in his chair. "I'm not afraid of Vader."
"You've done this once before-taken information about Lord Vader's dealings to the Emperor-and Vader came after you with a vengeance. You were younger then. You're not a child anymore, Luke, you're already a threat to Vader. You do this, and you make yourself a target."
Kid glanced away. "I'm already a target, don't you always say that?"
"This is an openly hostile move. You're not ready yet."
"The opportunity is now."
"And the fact is that if the message travelled between two ships of the fleet, then the Emperor probably knows."
"Which doesn't invalidate my bringing it to him publicly, so he can act on it."
"You don't need to redress your actions with the prisoner Odom." Indo glanced briefly to Han, who lifted his chin as the Viscount continued. "A lot has happened since then, and despite what others may tell you, you conducted yourself well at Toprawa. You're presently in a position of strength."
"I'm returning from what turns out to be a failed mission."
"Which you weren't aware of, having been left to deal with Toprawa. Vader was in charge of retrieving the plans."
"All the more reason to clarify what's happened and give the Emperor justification to act against him. I'm not going to be put in that situation again-when I'm answering to Vader in a campaign that should have been mine. And I'm sure as hell not holding back information about Vader's mistakes."
Palpatine settled into his chair as the towering double-doors to the Cabinet were opened and the boy,Antilles, walked through, his sense a bright flare of anticipation. Behind him, Viscount Indo and the Corellian stepped quietly into the otherwise empty room, all those who would generally be in attendance dismissed. The boy never sought him out unless he had something of relevance to say, Palpatine knew, and it was seldom the kind of discussion to be shared openly.
He considered that fact, as the boy walked forward…boy; he was almost a man now. Still slim and slight, which could easily have been the end result of Palpatine's decision to repeatedly deprive him of the essentials of life in those early years. But the child had needed to be taught somehow, and basic lessons required basic methods.
Antillesslowed just slightly, perhaps sensing the play of his Master's thoughts, but he didn't break stride, walking forward alone with just the barest edge of unease-which was a good thing. Every moment of their interaction was an object lesson for the boy and he knew it; one should never let one's guard down in the presence of a Sith Master.
He'd never intended to teach the boy this much; had originally thought to train him as a Hand and use him as he had others. But they had formed a certain bond in those early years, himself and the child, and perhaps that too had been of Palpatine's doing; his amusement at Vader's expense, his appreciation of his own private ploy. But the recreation had become a reformation of sorts, as he'd taken ever more interest in a child so clearly capable of so much. And children, they were so very unburdened by the detritus of customary moral codes-or at least, such things were fresh, and therefore easy to dismantle. Given the right circumstances, they learned with impressive speed-and the boy showed his knowledge now, stopping exactly three steps from his Master and stepping down without hesitation onto one knee, head bowed.
"And what do you have to say, child, that you come to me with such anticipation?"
The boy stood but kept his head down though his sense, if not his tone, was wily. "I came for clarification, Master."
"The ongoing mission, following Toprawa."
He had done well at Toprawa; Palpatine had listened with interest to the standard recordings taken on the bridge of any Destroyer in a battle situation, and had been pleased with the boy's decisive actions when he had been given the task of suppressing the incursion there-sufficiently so that his chastisement for earlier mistakes had been, if not overlooked, then at least mitigated. Palpatine knew, of course, of the disruption that had followed. Viscount Indo had provided his usual succinct report in which, without ever being so impolitic as to mention it outright, he had nonetheless implicated the Corellian's undesirable influence. As astute as he was, the Viscount rather failed to see the point, Palpatine suspected.
"Toprawa is a closed mission, child."
The boy straightened. "Then Lord Vader continues to look for the plans alone?"
"The plans have been…" Palpatine paused, knowing as he spoke thatAntilleshad more. "Go on?"
"The Devastator and the 501st are still trying to track down the Death Star plans, lost during their mishandled capture of the Tantive. The only lead they have is the code to a transmitter which I placed on a Rebel X-wing, intending to follow it back to its home base. I provided Lord Vader with the transmitter code over Toprawa, but he refused me permission to pursue it."
Palpatine leaned slowly back with sufficient force that the heavy chair creaked beneath him. "Yet Vader dismantled the task force."
"Hence my confusion, Master."
He should have realized, of course, Palpatine reflected. The boy should have been the key to unlocking the truth without his having needed to come here with facts, for the simple reason that Lord Vader had not yet returned to the palace. He had, theoretically, completed a successful task-one that had been removed from the boy's control and handed very specifically over to him. For Vader not to return immediately and use that fact to usurp the boy further should have been reason in itself for Palpatine to wonder.
"I will speak with Lord Vader," he stated portentously at last. The boy radiated a buzz of silent pleasure at having scored a strike against his longstanding opponent, bringing Palpatine's attention to him. "You did well to bring this to me."
"I did my duty, Master."
"Really? Or did you take the opportunity to discredit Lord Vader."
"You know I'd do either without hesitation, Master." The boy's pale eyes were fired by sparking malice. "In this instance, can I not do both?"
Palpatine grinned as he settled back; when the mood was on him, the boy could be both amusing and useful. "We will speak again shortly."
Recognizing his dismissal,Antillesbowed again and backstepped before turning to leave. Palpatine waited until they were at the door before saying casually, "Viscount Indo."
Indo held back as the doors closed, then turned and walked forward to bow low, deferential as ever. It was a trait that had made him of great value over the years, so Palpatine didn't resent the occasional reassurance-as long as the man remained of value.
"You are…worried about Lieutenant Solo's influence on the boy," he intoned solemnly.
Some sense of protection smoldered in the man, though it could easily be of his investment, rather than the boy himself. Past experience had proven that Indo was more than willing to cede to the Emperor's will in all things-which was why he remained here, and he knew it-so it was his hard-won rapport with his charge that Indo generally sought to preserve, rather than some perceived closeness to the boy himself. There had always been a danger that Indo would, in time, come to replace his lost son with the boy he had been charged to rear-to a certain extent, it was inevitable, as it should have been. But Palpatine had chosen with care, and Indo, hardly close to his own son despite his ambitions for the boy, had maintained a discrete distance between himself and his new charge. Still, to have that rapport-and so his status-threatened by an outsider would be intolerable for the viscount.
It would have been interesting to play the two against each other for a while, the viscount and the Corellian, particularly as Solo came to understand the viscount's methods. Indo was of the kind who categorized his view of the galaxy into neat and tidy boxes based on strong and deeply-seated views with no allowances made, ever. He cared fastidiously for the boy and yet, as he had with his own son, Indo had made an art out of dismissing or wilfully ignoring anything as awkward or inconvenient as to hamper or compromise those neatly organized goals and ambitions on another's behalf.
The spice, or the boy's constant illicit excursions from the palace, were perfect examples. According to Palpatine's sources Indo had at first ignored, then banned, and eventually, weighing his personal distaste against their apparently stabilizing effects, had sought to manage such things rather than have to deal with the upheaval and discord which would accompany their removal. They were inconvenient truths, but their removal may derail the boy's ongoing progress and stability, and so they were integrated and tolerated, albeit behind closed doors. Such facts were never mentioned in the viscount's general reports, of course, but would be disclosed in the most coded of terms upon a direct query from the Emperor himself.
The viscount would, simply put, do all that was necessary to fulfil his ambitions without compunction…but with a good deal of discretion and diplomacy. He would be, in equal parts, loyal to, ambitious for, and coolly ruthless with the boy…the perfect tutor for any child.
But a growing child needed to be exposed to new influences, and so came the stout and stalwart Lieutenant Solo. So Palpatine smiled into the viscount's unease at the arrival of someone who could not be fitted into one of his neat compartments; that was, after all, Solo's value.
"You have no reason to worry, Viscount. Rest assured that Lieutenant Solo's views and actions have already singled him out in my attention, and he is well on his way to becoming another object lesson for my young advocate on the inadvisability of forming attachments."
The viscount's unspoken relief streamed silently out into the Force as Palpatine continued.
"We have created a glorious hothouse flower, my friend. It's time to harden it for its life beyond these walls. We cannot be there every second of every day to monitor every miscreant and malcontent that the boy comes into contact with, and I need to know that I can trust my new Hand to hold faith in such circumstances. Better that he be open to such a test now, and learn the inadvisability of listening while he is here in a controlled environment, where any misstep on his part can be corrected, than to risk his coming into close contact with such undesirable elements and concepts for the first time in a situation beyond my immediate control. So you see, even Lieutenant Solo has his uses…however brief. Let the boy become attached, let him listen. Let him be taken in by claims of amity and loose promises of friendship-Solo is nothing if not charismatic. I'm aware of his influence in recent matters, but the boy needs to learn to dismiss such things, and not stumble in his duty or resolve. I could not-will not-tolerate such a thing. You may rest easy, my friend." Palpatine proffered another empty smile. "This is simply one more lesson. It will be over soon enough."
The viscount calmed, though Palpatine told him no more-nor would he wish to know it. He was well aware that he returned to a charge who read minds as others read the screen of a datapad, and genuinely worked hard to remain always trustworthy in the boy's eyes. He'd learned long ago that the less he knew, the less he could be perceived of as being involved in, by the boy.
And for himself, the Emperor had long since realized that to give the boy one very carefully chosen ally was a useful thing indeed. Indo was the constant who had invested the time and methods necessary to make the child of use after Palpatine had ensured his loyalty, and he'd done so without ever overstepping his mark. Though even such props as this had to be removed eventually…
Palpatine broadened his smile, and put such thoughts away for later consideration. "In the meantime, the boy's education continues apace. Tell me more of Toprawa."
The summons to return to the Emperor's presence came as dusk was slowly settling, lighting the evening with hazy bands of red and amber which painted the Capital's buildings in warm hues.
In the soaring splendour of the somber palace, things weren't moving to that same stately pace. With Indo still nowhere to be seen, Han had set out alone with the kid to reach the massive outer hall of the Cabinet, now devoid of people. Those who actually implemented the day-to-day governing of the vast Empire were already gone, while those who came simply to curry and barter power in the cut-throat arena of Court were not yet admitted. But the immense, dark chamber that had once seemed so daunting to Han was now little more than a passing impression of echoing footsteps and deep shadows; simply a space to cross on their journey to a far less abstract menace.
Saté Pestage, the ever-present keeper of the gate, was the only presence here, and he nodded in a half-bow, eyes briefly on the kid-Han had always been below his notice-as the great double-doors slid smoothly back.
Han was three steps into the Audience Chamber before he noticed Indo standing to one side of the vast hall, almost level with the dais. Uncertain whether he'd been here for the entire afternoon, Han walked to join him, noting that the usual glare of open aversion he received from the viscount was replaced today by a brief self-satisfied stare. Instead, Indo kept his attention on the kid, nodding approvingly as Luke glanced over without slowing, continuing to hold a center line in the dim hall as he walked to the cowled figure who sat on the raised dais to the far side of the vast chamber. That darkening sky bled a shuttered amber glow across the polished floor, uncut by artificial light.
"What's goin' on?" Han murmured to Indo, only to be shushed to instant silence.
Luke reached Palpatine and dropped to one knee, something that always unsettled Han; Courtiers bowed and military men snapped a smart salute, but only the kid seemed to be expected to kneel.
The Emperor's grating voice was without discernible intent, either good or bad. "I have listened to the recordings from the Immortal's bridge during the skirmish at Toprawa, and read the logs of those present. Do you believe your actions were fitting to the situation?"
Han saw the kid's shoulders square slightly, though he remained on one knee. "I believe we didn't need to lose the plans."
"And what would you have done?"
"I would have destroyed them, rather than lose them."
"And my military complex with them?"
"Tell me Lord Vader's error?"
"The task force's directive was to secure the Death Star plans-that was their priority. I understand that the Liberty is an ongoing target, but two Destroyers wouldn't have reliably brought her down, whereas they would have had a guaranteed effect on the battle to protect the plans."
"I understand that you considered using the Command Protocol?"
Han frowned, glancing briefly to Indo, not knowing what it was or remembering its mention. It occurred to him as he looked to the viscount, who stared resolutely ahead, that if he hadn't heard its mention, then the kid must have spoken privately to Indo about it…and that Indo had clearly informed the Emperor. He looked back as the kid answered, his tone gaining a wary edge.
"You chose not to."
"Because events overtook you?"
"No, Master. I believe I could have engaged the protocol in good time, but I had insufficient reliable personnel to control a Star Destroyer in a combat situation, and if I was unable to achieve that goal, then to reveal the existence of the code seemed…inappropriate."
"The boy learns!" Palpatine said-as near to praise as Han had ever heard from the old man. "Stand, child." The Emperor made a loose gesture with one pale hand. "You would have disobeyed Lord Vader's command?"
"I didn't believe Lord Vader's directive was in your interest, Master-and yours is the only command that's incontestable."
Han stared, not knowing if Luke was saying what he knew the old man wanted to hear, or what he believed-because he heard not a shadow of doubt in the kid's steadfast voice. What had it been at Toprawa then, when the kid had hunched beside him and recited the names of those he'd killed on the old man's command? Because they couldn't both be real. Or was that what this was all about-was that why the kid was so messed up? Was he torn between ingrained loyalty, and a conscience that fired in brief broken sparks, before it was beaten down beneath an absolute iron will which demanded no less than total, unconditional obedience.
If it was true, then the old man seemed supremely confident that he could maintain his hold. He leaned back, the shadow he cast stretching out across the room as he paused in consideration. Finally he seemed to come to some decision, which changed his voice to a more businesslike tone.
"The Devastator is en-route to the Death Star. Grand Moff Tarkin informs me that a frigate in service with the 501st arrived there today with a single prisoner, and a Rebel X-wing in tow."
The kid's voice sharpened. "They've caught Darklighter?"
"The Rebel pilot. He was present at the Cron Drift skirmish, which was where I attached the tracker to his X-wing. He was identified there by voice wave, because he's an ex-Imperial pilot, Master. He trained at aSectorNavalAcademy"
"You're well informed with the facts of this matter."
"It was my mission-and on track, before Lord Vader lost the plans…and ruined any chance at tracing the Liberty."
The old man leaned back, amused. "Indeed…then perhaps you should retake command, child. I return your assignment to you…along with a further directive. You will travel to the Death Star in my name, holding a personal mandate from myself which will put you above all others. I want the stolen plans in my hands, I want the Rebel pilot dead, I want any fallout dealt with, and I want this matter put to rest. I hereby grant you any and all authority necessary to achieve that."
Luke's voice faltered. "Me?"
"You have brought this information to me…and as you continually assert, you're not a child anymore. I'm most pleased with your efforts, now and at Toprawa, so I will award you this opportunity. Or would you prefer to remain here, whilst I send someone more…experienced?"
The kid paused, and if the Emperor couldn't detect the wariness in his voice, Han sure as hell could. "No, Master."
"Very well then," Palpatine said expectantly.
Luke clicked his heels in a military salute as he bowed from the neck, then turned to leave. To the side of the hall Han straightened, eager to do the same-
"Wait." The Emperor's sharp command stopped both Han and Luke dead.
Han watched the kid's shoulders brace as he turned about, though this time the Emperor tipped his head in a condescending smile. "There will be a new commission waiting for you before you leave. I can hardly send a lieutenant commander to do the Emperor's bidding, can I?"
"Thank you, Master." The kid's voice was perfectly level, no hint of pleasure expressed.
"Remember when you step onboard the Death Star that you do so with my mandate, and comport yourself accordingly. In the future, an extended period of command there may be an advantageous experience. You may view it as a future goal as your rank increases, should you continue to please."
Luke glanced down in silence, and the Emperor's tone changed, all indulgence instantly gone. "You don't wish such an accolade?"
The kid hesitated, searching for his words. "I think the Death Star would be better suited to another, Master."
"And why would that be?"
"I'll do as you command, of course."
The Emperor's eyes narrowed. "It's a little late to offer platitudes, child."
"It's not what I trained for, which-"
"Your future will take the pathIdictate. You will serve in whichever way I see fit." The Emperor's voice was cooling by degrees as his hands tightened like claws on the heavily-carved chair arms.
Palpatine remained silent for long seconds, still leaning forward as he had done to deliver his last words…then slowly he straightened and settled, one curved fingernail tapping on the chair arm. "You cannot take one single commendation without turning it into a dispute, ungrateful creature that you are. If I assign you to the Death Star, you will remain there and fulfil your duties until you are released from them."
"If I order you to remain here by my side until the end of your days, you will do so without opposition, do you understand?"
The kid's shoulders tensed involuntarily, but he kept his eyes down and his voice quiet. "Yes, Master."
"…Or would you perhaps prefer to serve as Lord Vader's aide?"
His head rose at that. "No, Master."
"I have given you a task under my direct mandate, which puts you above even him, and I have done this for no other reason than your accomplishments at Toprawa. Do you now refuse it, because the Death Star offends your sensibilities?"
"No, Master, I only m-"
"You had best grow used to the influence that the Death Star's implementation has on the Force, child. It is not the only such project, you know that. Nor will I hesitate to use it in consideration of your susceptibility-or do you expect me to do just that?"
Palpatine settled back, mollified, and the kid remained still beneath his study for an uncomfortably long time, the only remaining sound that of the Emperor's long fingernail tapping against the chair arm…
"Come here," he said at last, voice calm as he pointed to the dais at his feet.
Luke stepped instantly forward and came to rest with one knee on the edge of the dais where the Emperor had indicated, the other still on the ground, as if ready to flee a any time. Palpatine leaned forward to take the boy's chin in his hand, eye to eye now. "You are young, child. You are raw and untested and know so little." He paused, the barest allowance softening his gravelly tones, his voice barely audible to Han, still standing to the side of the hall. "There is reason in everything I do, remember that. Time spent onboard should be viewed as an opportunity to learn to shield yourself against its effects…there is no better way to learn to swim than in deep water. I will not have you hold a weakness, and I will not have you nurse petty reluctances like an infant-or do you think that Lord Vader would ever flinch from his duty, wherever I send him."
"That's of no value if he fails in it, Master, as he did with the Tantive."
The Emperor smiled, voice dropping lower at the heat of the accusation. "Do you want his head?"
Han saw the kid's back straighten as he lifted his chin, and Palpatine's smile broadened to show stained and wasted teeth as he moved his hand to cup the boy's cheek, voice dripping indulgent affection. "Then do as I tell you, and grow powerful. And remember always that your first and only loyalty is to me. There is no other-ever…say it."
The kid didn't even pause. "There's no other, Master. My loyalty will always be here."
The Emperor smiled munificently, pale hand still pressed to the kid's cheek. "What would you do at my command?"
"All that you ask."
Palpatine leaned forward. "If I asked you to sacrifice…would you?"
Luke moved uneasily. "Master?"
The old man leaned back, speaking a summons without looking from the kid. "Viscount Indo?"
Han watched as the Viscount set silently forward, bowing before he stepped up to the dais, and handed something to the Emperor. Han squinted from his place at the wall, trying to see what it was as Indo returned to stand beside him without meeting his eye.
The old man held out his hand, voice terse, giving nothing. "Take the blade."
Only now did Han recognize the kid's lightsaber hilt. Luke glanced down to take it, and the gaunt hand that had rested against his cheek slid subtly behind his neck. Palpatine didn't loose his hold on the hilt either, so that the kid's hand enclosed the hilt just below his…and Han felt his own unease begin to rise in the tightening of his chest.
The old man's words were a half-heard whisper as he glanced to the carved arm of his grand chair. "Put your other hand there."
Already half-knelt on the dais, Luke tensed just slightly-but brought his left hand up to rest it flat on the carved chair arm, fingers outstretched. Immediately, Palpatine pulled the hilt they both held across, to press its blade cowl against the back of the kid's hand, and Han felt his throat constrict as the old man leaned forward again, voice husky as he repeated, "If I asked you to sacrifice…would you?"
The kid tensed as the air left him. It was long seconds before he spoke, his words almost lost within a shallow breath. "…..Yes, Master."
A smile creased the lines of Palpatine's face as he leaned closer. "Do it…because I ask it."
Held by the hand which had threaded through the hair at the back of his head, Luke stared for long seconds at the unlit hilt pressed to the back of his hand… Then he braced, thumb sliding to rest against the activation toggle…
-and pursing his lips as he flinched, he pressed it.
The rasping thrum that Han anticipated didn't come. The blade didn't burst into being and pierce the kid's hand, though clearly he'd expected it to. He stared in dazed bewilderment, letting out a short gasp at the reprieve, chest rising and falling visibly in short, broken breaths.
And Palpatine smiled-smiled into the boy's breathless confusion as he pulled Luke's tensed head forward to place a brief kiss on his temple. "You are a good child," he murmured, as Luke stared without seeing, still coming back from the edge. "Take the saber."
The Emperor straightened to settle back onto his chair as Luke dropped back to rest on his heel, unable in that moment to do more. Slowly he pulled back the hand that the hilt had pressed against, flexing it as if to reassure himself that it was still intact.
Han too took the first breath in what seemed like an age, only now becoming aware that he was two steps from the wall with Indo's hand about his arm, holding him tight. When he'd made to move he didn't know.
The Emperor continued as if nothing had happened. "It is yours now, always. Stand up."
Still reeling, the kid pushed himself up and straightened, and Palpatine nodded, his tone approving. "I give you the right to carry this blade at all times, in my presence and beyond. Whenever you wield it, know that you do so at my command and to my advantage. Nothing else is justifiable."
Indo straightened proudly beside him as Han yanked his arm free, reminded once again of the limits of thecarethat Indo afforded the kid. Had he known-had he known what the Emperor was going to do? Han didn't know which was worse-that Indo had known and said nothing, or that he'd been unaware, and would have let the kid light the blade.
Palpatine's eyes remained on Luke, tone taking on its familiar critical edge. "Know, however, that you remain less than I wish you to be. I have trained a Sith; a blue-eyed boy is of no use to me. You must move beyond the limits you so clearly hold. If you do not, then remember that I am more than willing to do the deed for you."
The kid's head tilted slightly as he almost glanced to Han, but he stopped himself and looked down, disquieted. He mumbled an uneasy acknowledgment, hand tightening about the hilt as the Emperor continued.
"Hold to these tenets, and all that I have taught you…and one day, when I think you are ready, I will give you the opportunity to face your rival. Now go." Palpatine leaned back, flicking a hand dismissively. "Go and do as I command, and take pleasure in knowing that the authority you carry with you into your next meeting with Vader could be yours permanently…at my mandate. I have given you a great honor, child…try to live up to it."
Han turned to walk level with the kid as they left, passing through a hall now heaving with dignitaries and lackeys, their eyes turning to take in those who had favor enough to deserve a private audience with the Emperor himself. Luke, Han noticed, had dropped his arm to his side, holding his saber hilt upright and sliding it within his sleeve so that it was barely visible. Indo, he'd also noticed, had remained behind.
"You okay?" Han murmured.
"I'm fine." Luke answered without turning, tone perfectly level.
Having learned to be cautious, Han let them get a good thirty paces from the crowded outer hall before he spoke again. "He sure as hell wanted to make sure he had his claws in you before he handed over that lightsaber."
"He had every right to."
Luke glanced once to the hilt in his hand, but said nothing. Seeing that he wasn't gonna get anywhere with that one, Han was left to grope for a safer subject. "Did he just promote you?"
Even if he wasn't about to denigrate Palpatine, then the kid was still willing to tell it like it was, voice dryly disparaging. "Please. He gave something with one hand which he just can't wait to take back with the other if I don't do this right. If I get it wrong he'll turn on me like a krayt dragon…and if I get it right, Vader will-and Tarkin."
"I told you, Tarkin destroyed Despayre without consulting the Emperor."
Han blinked; that had been weeks ago. Seemed the old man liked to wait for his moment to pass out the knuckle raps. "You think he would have forbidden it?"
"No, not at all. But he didn't like not knowing what was going on. He sensed that moment just like I did, but he didn't have an explanation for it, and he doesn't like that. He doesn't like being in the dark about anything. This is just a timely reminder to Tarkin of that fact. Vader aside, I'm holding the Emperor's mandate and walking into a project that Tarkin's spent years developing for his own advancement. Palpatine's giving me sufficient authority that when I arrive it'll be, to all intents and purposes, to take it over-visibly-if only for a short time. Otherwise he wouldn't have granted the mandate. Whether I go in there quietly or not, it's still at the Emperor's behest, and the comm that's being sent to Tarkin right now will make that very clear, I promise you. How do you think Tarkin's going to take to that?" Luke half-turned as they walked down the long run of lofty corridors, footsteps echoing off hard granite floors. " 'Cos I'm guessing, not well."
"So he's putting you up against Tarkin?" Han said. "Why?"
"I just told you why. This is a public upbraiding for the Emperor's new Grand Moff. A clarification that his remit doesn't extend quite as far as making unilateral decisions to destroy planets without his Emperor's approval."
Which made sense, Han reflected. What better way to hack off a Grand Moff, than to send a kid to take over his position, if only for a few days. "It's gonna put a bit of a bone of contention between you and Tarkin."
"Immaterial," Luke said, lifting the saber that Palpatine had given him to stare at it, now that they'd left the crowds behind. "I do as I'm ordered, and as I've told you before, I'm not looking to make friends. And I'd've thought by now you'd know that Palpatine doesn't like his senior staff fraternizing-it makes for all kinds of unknown pacts."
"So he keeps playin' them against each other?" Han asked. The kid knew Palpatine too well. He nodded briefly to the hilt in Luke's hand. "What about that?"
"The lightsaber? This is for Vader."
" 'Cos Vader hacked him off in not retrieving the Death Star plans, and then not admitting to the fact," Han reasoned. "And because he wants to keep that contention going between Vader and you, right? Reward you when he punishes Vader, and he puts fuel on that fire."
"Welcome to the palace."
"You could just not wear it," Han said.
"I won't…visibly. No Hands wear them visibly. But I'll carry it, and Vader will know that. He'll know within the hour anyway, I'm sure."
Han straightened. "Ashtor."
"Ashtor," the kid acknowledged. "If he hasn't worked it out already, he will within minutes of our getting back."
Luke grinned, moving the unactivated saber hilt in a complex swing of twists and turns which looped it once around his body, swapping hands at the small of his back to bring it to a ready-position center front, horizontal and level with his shoulders, one hand about the hilt, the other used to stop it dead before it hit his body. "Because I'll tell him."
They walked on a way in silence, before Han turned again. "What was that stuff about…blue-eyed…" Han hesitated, not wanting to say 'boy,' knowing it had been levelled as barely more than an insult-that Palpatine had said it before, on the same terms.
The kid shrugged, studying the scratched and pitted lightsaber again. "A Sith's eyes change color…mine never have."
"Yellow, red. Amber, sometimes."
Han thought of the Emperor's pale ochre eyes, narrowed in malice. He couldn't imagine that of the kid-not even in his worst moments. "Always?"
"And if they don't?"
The kid fell to pensive silence, and Han remembered again the endless, obsessive drawings scrawled and scratched across the walls of his room. "What about if you don't want them to?" Luke glanced up quizzically, and Han shook his head, slowing to a halt. "You're not like him," he said, very sure.
"No?" Luke asked at last, face impassive.
The kid reached out, using the saber hilt to tap against Han's chest, touching exactly the spot where, in his inside pocket, Han still kept the sketch of Bria Tharen. "Tell her that."
It was late by the time Indo returned to Luke's apartments with the promised commission to the rank of Commander. He'd expected to find Luke already gone-which he would normally have been annoyed at, but the day had gone too well to mar it now-and with Gorn and Solo's duty shifts long finished, only Ashtor on duty at this time of night.
Instead, as he walked through the darkened enfilade towards the Red Room, intending to leave the commission there, he noticed Luke sitting in one of the huge, little-used chairs, feet stretched out on a low polished pewter table before him, head back, eyes closed.
"Keep walking," Luke said without opening his eyes, but Indo had already slowed to a stop.
"Congratulations, Commander," he said, holding out the commission documents.
Luke opened one eye momentarily. "Thanks, just what I've always wanted…or is it just what you've always wanted?"
It was only now, as Indo's eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, that he noticed the burned out stump of a spice stick in Luke's loose hand. He stepped forward and placed the commission on the low table at the boy's feet, before taking the spent stub from his hand. "I've asked you not to smoke these here."
"Where do you want me to smoke them?"
Indo straightened, letting the comment pass, noting too, the half-empty glass of water on the edge of the table as he sat, meaning that Ashtor had already brought Luke his nightly tablets, which explained his drowsiness now, if he'd taken them and then been smoking spice.
"When did you know?" Luke asked without opening his eyes.
"You already had my lightsaber when I came back into the Emperor's presence-you knew what he was going to do."
There was neither accusation nor betrayal in the flat statement, quietly spoken. But then one of the Emperor's earliest lessons to the boy had been that no one could be depended on to protect or shield him, and Indo saw no reason to soften an important truth with hollow pretense. Still, he had no desire to seem as if he'd withheld the facts, either. "I didn't know what the Emperor was going to do. I was simply commanded to bring your lightsaber."
"But you knew he'd taken the power cell out."
Indo paused fractionally. "No."
The boy glanced to him just for a second, then looked away without comment.
"Instead of sitting in the dark and stewing on the negative, you should look at all that you've gained today," Indo said briskly.
"A commission that'll put me in control of an installation that I don't even what to be onboard?"
It had been somewhat reassuring that the Corellian's advice to take the facts about Vader to the Emperor had at least partly failed; Indo knew of Luke's private dislike of the Death Star, even before its effect in the Force had quite literally knocked him from his feet, so to have the outcome of Solo's advice be that Luke was sent there had been an unexpected boon.
"You were granted the trust to administer the Emperor's will at the very highest level," Indo corrected. "An opportunity to prove yourself."
"I'll never prove myself with him. All I'll ever do is fail."
"That's not true. You should consider yourself fortunate that the Emperor considered your actions at Toprawa sufficient to offset the earlier incident with the insurrectionist."
Indo shook his head. "I still have no idea what you were thinking…but then it wasn't you, was it?"
Luke glanced away. "He was just trying to help."
"Help you do what, Luke? Defy Palpatine? You could have faced serious repercussions, and you know it. If that's all Solo canhelpyou with, then you'd do well to back away. If the Emperor finds out about the Rebel woman…"
Luke's head lifted, the threat in his voice undisguised. "He won't."
Indo sighed, looking down. He'd never be so foolish as to risk a rift between himself and the boy by directly revealing such a thing to the Emperor, but he also didn't want to see Luke lose favor by becoming entangled in Solo's misdemeanours, either. Not when he was finally gaining status. "Luke, you can't protect Solo forever-nor should you need to. He's becoming a danger to have close, and you'll pay the penalty as much as him, because the Emperor will know that you knew his past. He's already watching Solo."
Luke straightened in the chair. "Did you tell him? You told him about the Command Protocol…did you tell him about Solo and Tharen?"
"No, I didn't tell him. I told him about the Command Protocol because you made the right decision under pressure and you're entitled to have that acknowledged. Do you seriously think the Emperor would have tolerated Solo's presence here for one more minute if I'd told him about Tharen? His situation is precarious enough."
Luke lifted his chin, words laced with fire and determination. "I won't have my whole life controlled by Palpatine."
Indo stared, stunned at the words. Because as much as Luke had rebelled and defied and plain disobeyed over the years, it had always been against the rules-the abstract-never Palpatine himself. This was the first time ever that the boy had spoken out against him.
"Luke," he said gently, "you're talking about the Emperor-the Emperor himself. What you're saying places you in direct contention with him-is that really what you want?"
"No, but…" Luke trailed off, and Indo silently cursed Solo for making his role here even a fraction harder than it needed to be.
"Well then, what are you saying?"
"I don't know…nothing." He slumped back into the chair, uncertainty audible in his voice. "What if I'm not meant for this? Toprawa was…"
"It will get easier, Luke. I promise you that."
The boy looked down, a pensive frown darkening youthful features. "What if I don't want it to?"
Indo sighed, wondering whether the faces of Tharen and her comrades had already been added to the scratched and scribbled sketches on the walls of the boy's room. "Luke, this is a momentary thing…let it fade. Tomorrow…"
"Tomorrow we set off for the Death Star," Luke said tiredly.
"And in a week's time you'll be back, and you'll still have the commission of Commander, and you'll still be one of the dozen or so men entitled to carry a weapon in the presence of the Emperor himself." As he spoke, Indo reached out to take the lightsaber from where it rested on the table and hold it out…
Luke stared without taking it. "Why does he have to make everything so hard?"
"Because that's how we learn."
"No, that's how I learn, with him. That's how I've always learned with him."
"You're tired." Indo placed the saber down, and as he brought his hand back he almost-almost-patted the boy's leg in reassurance...then caught himself and instead tapped the table, straightening briskly. "Go to bed and rest."
"I'm sleeping here tonight."
Indo hesitated, about to argue the point, but after four years incarcerated in the vast empty Throne Room on Palpatine's command, the boy could sleep almost anywhere. And Indo knew that at times, among the faces he constantly drew and re-drew in the room where he slept, there were those same few who held far too much accusation in the dark of the night.
So he nodded, taking a few minutes to go to the bedroom and bring a blanket back to Luke, whose head had lolled to the side, eyes closed.
Indo straightened for a few moments to watch him, reflecting on the day. Even now it was easy, as it always was, to convince himself that everything was essentially fine, and this would pass.
Yes, he reflected, as he turned and left the rooms in silence, allowing his own reassurance to wash over the boy's words tonight; this was just a momentary aberration. A brief flare of doubt fed by tiredness and the guilt that Solo had somehow managed to instill-probably because the boy was susceptible to such anyway; the walls of the room he was so reluctant to retire to were proof of that.
It had always been a weakness which the Emperor had fed in some ways and sought to obliterate in others. Certainly any sense of guilt at executing an order from the Emperor-any order, no matter what it was-had been always dissuaded or dismissed. Guilt implied wrongdoing, and wrongdoing implied that a command given by the Emperor could be inappropriate or flawed, and as with everything else concerning the boy, Palpatine had always taken great care that his own commands and requirements stood above all else, including the boy's own sensibilities.
Did Luke resent it? Perhaps sometimes, just slightly, as any young man of his age would. But it was individual commands rather than their source; his loyalty to the Emperor was never in doubt. Palpatine had invested hugely in that whilst the boy was still young, and now, as he grew, it was so ingrained as to be absolute.
Certainly the Emperor had been jealously possessive in those early years, allowing no one else near the child. Any attempt to talk to or in any way acknowledge the boy had been ruthlessly dealt with, both the perpetrator and the boy himself being punished, the former often by expulsion from Court, the latter by far more direct means.
Within a year, it had become one of the basic rules which were quoted to any newcomer: Never be late. Never question or contradict. Never make any contact with the child who will be near the Emperor.
They were the most basic conventions of the Emperor's inner sanctum of Court, which all obeyed.
And it became easier not to see the child anyway. He expected no one to do so, and one could always assure one's self that it was in the boy's interest-he was only punished if one tried to help him.
So he had spiralled quietly down into his own bleak torment, becoming ever less responsive, ever more battered and gaunt, fed only occasionally, at the Emperor's whim.
Even Indo had ceased to see the bruises or to register when the boy disappeared for several days, knowing that he would be in the medi-center again; that he had somehow managed to incur Palpatine's fury one more time, and had paid the price. And anyway, Indo had his own concerns. His son had continued to excel, gaining a place at the prestigious J. Aubrey Academy, though Indo was sure that he could pull better yet from Dubrail, and continued to concentrate all of his attention and effort into ensuring that he did well, his future more secure than ever.
And the days had turned into months and the months had turned into years.
And slowly, very slowly, something in the child had changed. Now, any attention from strangers was rebuffed, everybody ignored but Palpatine. The boy remained close on his heel without a word from the Emperor, always listening for any order, alert for failure at every moment, knowing that still he would fail, but taking any punishment doled out without even a flinch any more.
And yet occasionally, for some inexplicable reason, the boy would still try to run. He was always locked into the Throne Room every night, whispered rumors among the guards attesting to the fact that he could be heard pacing just inside the locked doors like a caged animal, often for hours, so that occasionally when the silence was too great, they would open the tall double doors to find him gone, with no explanation as to how he had escaped.
Sometimes he would get quite a distance into the palace, sometimes not very far at all.
Always the outcome was the same. Retribution was swift and harsh and merciless. Such events incurred the most severe punishment of all, taking weeks, even months to recover from, in which time the boy remained weak and listless, though he never once sought anyone's help, and none was ever offered.
But no matter how harsh the punishment, sooner or later he would always try again. It was his only remaining defiance, and though he struggled violently when caught by guards, the moment he was in Palpatine's presence he would acquiesce, accepting whatever wildly vitriolic punishment Palpatine chose to deal out without ever pleading for or expecting any leniency.
And whatever Palpatine did, he eventually tried again.
Time passed...and under Palpatine's intense attention, the boy was carefully reshaped in mind and soul, though nobody realized at first. By now, Palpatine's control of the boy was total. Wildly unpredictable with anybody else, he was instantly obedient in the Emperor's presence, the subtlest gesture controlling him, the slightest whisper or look summoning him instantly across the crowded Throne Room.
And like everyone else, Indo had convinced himself that the boy was best left well alone. He had his own goals and objectives in Court, and his son, his brilliant son, shone brighter every day, his future ensured as long as Indo remained silent and continued to hover at the edge of the Emperor's retinue.
He remembered the day, the moment, in perfect clarity, when he realized what Palpatine had created.
It was a month before Luke's eleventh birthday, though Indo didn't know that at the time, of course. By that point, he doubted very much that the boy remembered either. A minor dignitary had been summoned to Palpatine's inner Court, always a bad sign, and this was no different. The man was a spy, passing information on to the Hutts, and had been caught.
There was no trial here anymore, no judge or jury. The Emperor was all these things, passing out sentences on the spot, the punishment always draconian.
The terrified man, whom Indo barely knew, had been dragged before the Emperor in binders to plea his case.
"Please, Majesty…I was only to…"
"How long?" Palpatine had ground out, voice low and accusing, as the Courtiers fell back in anticipation.
The man hadn't even hesitated. "Three times, Excellency, just…."
"You had the gall to remain in my palace, passing information to others on three separate occasions?" As he spoke the Emperor had slowly risen, stepping froward on the dais toward the petrified man, hands gradually rising.
Palpatine had paused as a thought occurred, his face transforming from focused rage to something far colder and calmer. Amused, almost; pleased.
The child had been there in an instant, limping quickly to his Master's side, his left arm held tight to his body.
Twelve days ago he had made yet another escape attempt, though these days he never seemed to go far, always being caught within the hour, often very close to the Throne Room as if, having escaped the vast, dour chamber which had become his whole life, he had no idea of what to do next.
This time Palpatine had lashed out with absolute frustrated fury. In every other way the silent boy was totally compliant, yet he still inexplicably did this, even knowing the consequences. Even now the boy was still almost unable to walk, his bruised face betraying the pain which no limp could ease.
He'd halted expectantly at the exact point which the Emperor had indicated, swaying slightly as he stood side on to the Emperor, eyes to the ground.
"Kill him," Palpatine had said simply, eyes never moving from the spy.
Without hesitation the boy made to move forward, but Palpatine had reached a grasping hand tight around the back of his neck, nails digging into flesh to hold him back. "Not like that. With the Force."
It had brought the boy's head around in momentary confusion, though he didn't speak.
Closer than most, standing almost side-on to the dais in the shadows of the vast room, Indo had heard the words which the Emperor made no move to hide, his voice casually dismissive.
"Crush his windpipe, break his neck, open the arteries in his brain. I don't care how-just kill him."
The boy had turned empty, emotionless eyes back to the bound man.
"Majesty, please…mercy?" he'd implored, backing up.
Palpatine only loosed a predatory smile as he rested pale hands on the boy's shoulders. "I'm afraid such a thing is no longer mine to grant."
The spy had realized immediately, turning his own attention to the child, bound hands held before him, palms out. "Please…have m-!"
His words were cut off as his head had jolted back. The sharp crack, muffled by tissue and skin, was still loud as a blaster shot in the expectant hush. The man had fallen to the ground instantly, deadweight, his final breath rattling from his lungs at the impact, shocked eyes wide and still.
It had happened so quickly that it took the fascinated crowd a moment to realize what had just taken place-and how.
A shared, shocked intake of breath went through the gathering as they'd hurriedly backed up further, all eyes on the corpse as the room fell into absolute, stunned silence.
The boy's hand remained outstretched, fingers splayed, as he stared at the corpse with empty eyes, no trace of remorse shadowing his battered face, no hint of compassion in those old eyes. But then why should there be, Indo had realized? In the Emperor's carefully controlled environment, the boy had been granted none by anyone in so very long that it was no longer a part of his vocabulary.
The child's bruised face had tensed into a momentary frown, but already the Emperor's hand on his shoulder was already guiding him away, to walk slowly to the back of the dais as guards rushed to remove the body, all eyes in the room finally turning to the child in stunned, silent realization as he was walked from view.
"Good, good," Palpatine had awarded, laughter in his quiet voice as he'd guided the limping child behind the throne with one gaunt hand to his shoulder, pushing him to the rear of the dais' gilded screens, and so beyond view of most of the room. From his vantage point at the very front and side of the huge Throne Room though, Indo could coincidentally see and hear the words quietly but harshly hissed once the boy was gone from general view. "But you were too slow. Far too slow."
Without warning Palpatine's hand had snapped from the boy's shoulder to the front of his neck, closing in a vicelike grip. The child's hand had moved instantly to rest over Palpatine's, though he'd made no effort to struggle or free himself, his pale, grazed hand tiny by comparison. He'd simply stared in silence as his Master leaned close.
"When I give you an order, you act without hesitation, do you understand?" The Emperor's voice was hard now, his eyes locked onto the child's.
Unable to draw in enough breath to speak the boy had nodded, mouth open as he struggled for air, though he kept his gaze on Palpatine.
The Emperor had continued to grip tightly against the boy's windpipe until his chest began to heave and his hand fell away, head rolling. Only then did he finally release him by pushing him into the wall, forcing the boy to catch his weight on his injured leg as he'd crumpled to the ground. An inarticulate sound had escaped him, half gasp, half moan, though he hadn't cried out, having learned long ago that the only result of such a weakness was to bring down further chastisement.
The Emperor had already turned and was walking away. As he'd reached the far side of the gilded screen in readiness to step out again, he'd paused, head turning just slightly as he pointed to his side.
It had taken the child several gasping breaths to gather himself together sufficiently to push up from the floor, but when he'd done so he set immediately toward his Master, back hunched against the pain, limp pronounced.
Palpatine had wheeled about, malevolent yellow eyes locking onto the child to freeze him where he stood.
"Stand straight!" he'd hissed. "You are Sith. Sith do not feel pain-they do not show weakness."
Without hesitation the boy had straightened, though the movement was jerky and obviously agonizing. He took four long, even steps to his Master, arms by his side, face pinched tight against the pain of doing so, his chest still heaving. But any trace of the limp had been removed by power of will alone.
Palpatine had turned without comment to walk back into view and settle into his throne, and slowly, Indo had become aware of the susurration of whispers which still travelled around the Emperor's inner circle with good reason. Like everyone else, he hadn't known that the boy was even Force-sensitive, let alone that Palpatine had been training him. Now, with hindsight, he realized what the Emperor had intended from that very first meeting. His endless harrying, his need to control the boy so completely which, like everyone else, Indo had assumed was more a private amusement than a premeditated path.
By now, Palpatine had long since let his own abilities be known. It wasn't common knowledge, of course, but here, in the halls of power, the term was whispered with nervous disquiet: Sith.
Indo was old enough to remember the ways of the Jedi, and everyone said that the Sith held to similar, if darker, traditions. And this Sith had wanted a new apprentice, it seemed. One who would be so completely conditioned to his Master's word being law that he would obey always, absolutely, and without question.
Aged only ten, the boy had walked to stand to the side of his Master's throne where Palpatine had indicated, his eyes low, his body motionless, waiting for the next command as the Emperor had turned to Pestage, clearly pleased with the way events had unfolded, not yet finished manipulating them for today. "Send the body back to the Hutts with my compliments. Do not tell them directly, but make sure they find out how this was done-and by whom. They will sell such information to those who have an interest, I have no doubt." He'd leaned back, tone expansive. "We should announce such an auspicious event as the accession of a new Sith…at least to those who need to see. The next move is theirs. "
The boy hadn't reacted at all to his Master placing him in the firing line when the vengeful Hutts found out the truth-or to the vaguer insinuation of greater, unknown threats. Didn't react to anything, his scarred face lowered, eyes fixed on the floor at the center of the room.
Following his gaze, Indo had noticed that it was fixed on a single spot of blood, all that was left of the act, glossy black in the low light of the Throne Room.
His intentions clearly fulfilled beyond even his expectations, the Emperor had departed, Court retiring. As ever, the boy had walked obediently behind him only to be told at the threshold to remain. His small body had slumped as the Emperor had disappeared from view, the weight lifted from his injured leg, his arm clutched awkwardly to himself again.
And as ever, the Courtiers had filed out around him as he'd stood motionless at the portal, gazing blankly at the tantalizing freedom just beyond.
But for the first time, nobody had jostled him; nobody had crowded or brushed him. For the first time he was given a respectful distance by the assembled Courtiers who filed warily around this unexpected new thing in their midst, a child with the power to kill by thought alone.
Indo had been one of the last to leave; why exactly he didn't know. But it had meant that as he slipped silently past the boy, they were momentarily alone.
The word was whispered so quietly that Indo had been two paces past the boy before the shock of realization broke his stride. He'd turned just slightly back, not wishing to incriminate the boy with too obvious a reaction.
Luke had remained still, staring at the floor beyond the Throne Room, so that for a second Indo had wondered whether it had been his imagination… Then just for an instant, he'd lifted his battered face up to Indo, eyes bewildered and desperate…
The moment was broken as a guard passed between them, and the boy had turned slowly away to limp back towards the dais, disappearing into the shadows as the lights were dimmed and the huge, heavy doors locked down for the night.
Indo had remained still for several seconds, shaken by the intensity of it.
He'd remembered-the boy had remembered who Indo was.
Palpatine hadn't taken his past from him completely, no matter how the boy reacted when his Master was in the room. Somehow, he had kept some part of himself, some spark of self-identity, some memory of individuality. How, against the manipulative abilities of the Emperor, Indo couldn't imagine.
And he had done this alone.
A child, abandoned and isolated, trapped in the most hostile environment imaginable with no hope of reprieve or escape, and not even the strength yet to defend himself. But the slight, malnourished, mistreated boywassurviving, and doing so by strength of will alone.
Until today, Indo had realized…when all previous rules and boundaries had been irrevocably changed.
Young as he was, the boy was hardly naïve. He knew that this was now the end game, his last chance to retain some part of himself protected from the reality of his life slipping away.
Indo had turned mechanically, and walked without seeing down the long, austere halls, the immense slabs of stark stone which lined the dim, cavernous spaces closing in about him. Eventually he had slowed to a halt, the weight of regret settling heavy in his stomach.
It was, he knew, quite impossible to help the child.
He had been too long in the Emperor's hands. No matter how reluctantly, he had clearly learned his lessons well. They had been beaten into him with calculating, devastating effect.
Not realizing the relevance of his own actions, today the boy had done as he had been so casually instructed by his Master, something he had seen-perhaps sensed-his Master do without compassion or remorse many times. One more order in a life where defiance or even questions were severely punished, and refusal was simply not an option. Following what he had perceived in his damaged state to be just one more command, hardly different from any other, the boy had unwittingly sealed his own fate. Today, though still a child, he had proved himself capable not only of calling the Force to him, which Palpatine had clearly been teaching him for some time, but powerful and attuned enough to focus it on a single, deadly act, already capable of the fine precision necessary to kill cleanly.
And just as importantly, willing to do this on command, all conscience or ethics carefully stripped away in this ruthlessly controlled environment.
Slowly Indo had begun to walk again, the guilt easing a little as he had followed his thoughts to their logical conclusion. The boy was so damaged that he probably wasn't even truly aware that he had done anything wrong. He was Sith, raised by his own kind. He could have no other future. Better he accept his fate and bow to the Emperor's will, as everyone did here. In fact, for Indo to offer any hope of reprieve would be grossly unfair-a cruelty in itself.
He'd heard the rationalization and hated himself for it, but what could he do? What could anybody do, now that the boy had proved himself of such value? By killing on command, he had locked himself into his fate and bound himself irrevocably to the Emperor…and in doing so, placed himself beyond anyone's help.
Vader walked from the detention cell into the bright corridor beyond, forced to stoop low to step beneath the opening door. Behind him, the Rebel pilot Darklighter was dragged without resisting between two stormtroopers, his gait staggered and weak, his trepidation blasting out through the Force, a shrill, chaotic whirlwind that jumped from fear to fear as he futilely tried to brace himself for the unknown. Vader ignored it, thoughts on his own frustrations.
The pilot knew nothing. He had no location, no knowledge of where he had been heading. Jump co-ordinates had been stored only in his old astromech unit's memory, but the droid had purged the details as soon as the X-wing had been caught in a tractor beam, the techs had reported. They were trying to reassemble the fragments, of course, but the droid had full minutes to destroy and eradicate the details beyond retrieval.
What they had found intact, had been the stolen plans to the Death Star. And since they already knew from the impounded Tantive's data banks that it held only one copy of the plans, then at least this part of the mission had been secured. Vader finally had the plans that he had all but assured the Emperor that he'd already retrieved almost a week prior.
Ignoring the nervous guards who snapped to smart attention at the exit from the detention level, he entered the turbolift with his charge, heading for the main command levels of the Death Star and stewing the whole distance that it had been information given to him by Kenobi's son which had saved his neck in gaining the location of the X-wing, as soon as it had emerged from hyperspace. At least the boy would never know.
Travelling onboard the Devastator to the Death Star, Vader had ordered the unit which had retrieved the Rebel X-wing to rendezvous with the Death Star as soon as he'd had word that the 501st had tracked down one of the small ships that had managed to escape the Tantive. He'd sent small units along every possible trajectory for their last known routes, and it had been pure fluke that the ship that Kenobi's son had planted with a homing beacon, had been the one carrying the plans.
It was there, however, that their luck had run out. Now, after his third interrogation session, the Rebel pilot had been stripped of what little he knew and Vader had no further interest in him. Tarkin had already voiced an opinion that he could perhaps pull more from the Rebel, and Vader had agreed to let him try out of dry disinterest and the desire to see Tarkin fail. He hadn't bothered asking how, because he didn't care; he already knew that Darklighter knew nothing of value.
So after a day's travel Vader had brought the prisoner back up to the command level on Tarkin's request while they were still in hyperspace, the twisting swirls of sluggish light throwing an actinic glare across the spartan room as he thrust Darklighter out of the turbolift. The Rebel staggered a few steps then caught himself, straightening as Grand Moff Tarkin turned, his gaunt face framing small, shadowed eyes that looked altogether too fervent.
The Rebel shrugged his shoulders to pull his battered orange flight suit straight where it had been wrenched awry by the troopers who now positioned themselves to either side of the turbolift door. After having been reduced to desperate, drained silence in Vader's presence, the young man seemed to find his voice again at the sight of the Emperor's favored campaigner.
"Well, well, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin…I bet you don't remember me."
Tarkin tilted his head to glance up as Vader drew close behind the pilot, intimidating with his presence, then turned those ice-cool eyes back on the Rebel. "Should I?"
"No," Darklighter laughed lightly, no more than a broken breath. "Not at all, I'm just small fry. But I remember you… You were doing a tour of the Sector Naval Academies-gracing those of us in the Outer Territories with your presence-and you delivered a speech at Prefsbelt Fleet Camp, while I was there. I remember it exactly, 'cos I thought you were the coldest son of a nek I'd ever seen, even then, espousing the importance of power and military might. In fact I think you were one of my inspirations…to join theAlliance."
"Indeed?" Tarkin looked the battered man up and down. "And what a triumph that has been."
"As a matter of fact it has-this last mission notwithstanding."
Tarkin leaned forward, his impeccable uniform barely creasing. "Ah but you see, we are all of us judged only on our latest deed."
"Really?" The Rebel straightened, his back pressing against Vader's crossed arms, so close was Vader stood. "Well then you're about to be judged a colossal disappointment."
"I think not. This station will become the ultimate power, the perfect display of the Empire's supremacy and resolve. No one will dare oppose the Emperor now."
As Tarkin spoke, Vader felt the momentary shudder and lurch as the Death Star exited hyperspace and the light visible through the viewport shrank and condensed to pinpricks of distant stars…and two very close ones, their combined flare lighting the command center and sending a skittering trail of unease up Vader's spine. He stared as the rotation of the Death Star slowly brought a planet into view, its sandy surface seared gold and red by the power of binary suns.
Voices continued, but they were distant and indistinct, all of Vader's attention taken by that dusty planet. A thousand memories scorched him: of dry, open plains; of a woman whose hands were rough from work…of Sandmen in tattered rags. Of burning fury and desperate loss…of a grave with a simple marker. He blinked, jerking his head away and back to the moment. His heart pounded though, chest constricting, thoughts in turmoil. Tarkin's voice, incisive as ever, filtered through Vader's foreboding.
"In a way, you have determined the choice of planet that will be destroyed on our inaugural flight. Since you're reluctant to provide us with the location of your Rebel base, I have chosen to test the destructive power of this station on your home planet of Tatooine."
Only now did Vader register the recognition in the Rebel's own mind. Only now did he remember the man's past, as he sensed the flurry of desperate fears that burst out of him.
"Wait, Tatooine's just…it's a farming planet-we have no weapons, no affiliations, it's nothing!"
"Except to you," Tarkin said shrewdly, a self-congratulatory smile touching his lips for just a second before his face hardened again. "You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system."
Vader's eyes were pulled again to the dusty planet, baked beneath twin suns. For an instant a woman's rough working hands, tanned by years beneath binary suns, cupped his face in a memory so intense as to leave him breathless, reeling at the power of it…
Tarkin's voice sliced through, sharp and callous. "This will be the only time that I will ask…where is the Rebel base?"
From the comm set into the nearby console, an anonymous voice cut in. "Calculations are complete. All systems are charged to capacity."
Darklighter's head turned back to the viewscreen as it overlayed with computations and diagrids, all centering on the distant orb of Tatooine…and he let out a gasp, desperate and frantic and panic-stricken.
Tarkin turned away, taking a breath-
"Syvris," the Rebel blurted, bound hands rising. When Tarkin turned, he lowered his head, voice a broken gasp. "They're on Syvris."
Tarkin straightened, pleased. "There. You see, Lord Vader, he can be reasonable." He turned to nod to Admiral Motti, who stood attentively nearby. "Continue with the operation. You may fire when ready."
Darklighter glanced up, his alarm merging with Vader's own. "What!"
"You're far too trusting," Tarkin said smoothly. "But don't worry-we'll deal with your Rebel friends soon enough."
A rush of officious chatter sounded over the comm, calm and neutral, no hint of the nature of their task.
"Target acquired… Input sequence accepted."
"Model conforms to parameters…mass and volume factored in."
"We have confirmation. All systems go."
"Commence primary firing sequence. Countdown from ten…"
Vader's eyes snapped to the dry, dusty planet which hung in the endless void, small and vulnerable from this distance. Stared at a past he'd spent decades trying to purge…and so why did he feel like his chest was constricting and exploding in the same instant? His breath stilled, emotions whipping at him which could have been his own or could have been loosed by the fraught prisoner before him, at least allowed to register the magnitude of what was happening.
He was going to do it-Tarkin was going to destroy Tatooine…and Vader was going to let him.
"No, Sith no, please," the man groaned, "please-"
Moments, memories...they rose about Vader like sand in a whipwind. He remembered the desert grit in his mouth as he'd buried her; remembered cursing in the heat of the suns when the sides of the grave had collapsed as he'd tried to dig. Remembered Owen Lars coming out without speaking to pour precious water into the sand, to shore it and hold it firm. Remembered the marker with her name on it-the last time he'd ever written or spoken it.
Remembered that gentle, lilting voice, soft and warm and utterly benevolent. "What does your heart tell you?"
"Stop!" Had that been him? Vader's voice came from somewhere deep within, spoken with no memory of forming it.
Tarkin turned, surprised, then immediately glanced to Motti, nodding sharply. Motti reached out to engage the failsafe from his console, slapping the switch to abort the sequence. The thrum of the power regulators ceased and the bone-deep knowledge of their purpose, which had ground up Vader's spine like the clawing hand of death itself, dispersed into the ether, leaving him cold and clammy, aware of too many eyes on him.
Darklighter babbled baffled, broken thanks as he breathed again, shoulders falling lax, and Vader stared at him, sickened by the man's weakness, appalled at his own. At his inability to change it, even now.
He turned to Tarkin, finding his voice again. "This planet is of…strategic relevance. The man knows nothing."
"Set your course as you see fit." Vader wanted to be gone. To be away from this whole repellent incident and never have to think on it again.
He took the unresisting Rebel by the shoulder and wheeled him about, pushing him forward. The turbolift doors opened and Vader stepped quickly inside, not turning as the two troopers entered to take the prisoner's arms as he almost collapsed into them, hyperventilating, still struggling to regain control.
"Take him back to his cell," Vader growled, setting the turbolift to open at the next available level, desperate to be away from this man whose feelings mirrored and magnified his own.
He stepped blindly from the turbolift when it opened to a deserted corridor, feeling the desperate tangled mass of fear and relief which the prisoner embodied fade as the turbolift moved away…and then he was alone, and the silence was a balm. He breathed deep, closing his eyes and seeing her face again, memories still sharp of his younger self, churning with guilt as he'd held her rag-wrapped body, voice broken by helpless fury: "I couldn't save her!"
When she'd needed him, he couldn't save his own mother. All his power had counted for nothing, just as it had with Padmé. That was the truth; he'd failed, and all he'd loved had died, without hope. If he could have that chance again, just once…
But the fates had taken everything and there was no possibility of reprieve. He was alone, with memories and regrets which shredded his soul and left him forever raw and aggrieved; wounds that could not heal.
About him, the Death Star shuddered as it accelerated beyond the speed of light, and in an instant the ghost of Tatooine was gone from his awareness. But there remained a void within, where all that it meant resided, and that could not be outrun. It could not be filled or sated…but it could be ignored, he knew, from long experience.
He straightened, pushing the day's events down within as he pursed scarred lips; it could be ignored. He'd done so for two decades. It never became easier, but it became a familiar ache, and he nursed it like a child.
He paused for just a second at that last thought, memories twisting with familiar censure to Padmé, flowers in her hair, hands resting over the swell of her stomach, her eyes closed as if in sleep…only not. Grief and guilt ripped through him with the power, even now, to take his breath away. A hollow at the very pit of his soul that he'd filled for years with self-condemnation, with loathing, with revulsion, with bitter regret-and the more he'd poured in, the deeper it became. He'd become a master of this, if nothing else.…
Bracing himself, he straightened his massive frame and stalked down the empty corridor, alone.
There was something going on here, Han suspected, as he stood in his cabin onboard the ISD Vendetta; something new. They were less than an hour onboard the Destroyer, and Han hadn't missed the fact that Indo wasn't on his back nearly as much. He'd even given Han some shifts on his own with the kid in the upcoming travel rota, rather than trying hard to ensure he was only ever in the background. Just offered them off his own back, without any prompting. It wasn't like they'd become bosom buddies or anything, but the Viscount had definitely given him a bit more space-in fact, he seemed to have made his peace with Han's presence, making no new moves to undermine him or edge him out. Weird. Very weird.
Han dropped his bag in his assigned quarters, placed Dewlanna's holo on the shelf, and made his way to the kid's rooms almost immediately, to find Luke already taking the first ten pages from the regulation-supply sheaf of flimsiplast and placing them out of sight in the spotless, impersonal room, prior to Indo's inevitable arrival.
Han glanced round, figuring the kid would have already completed one other task before Indo arrived. "So where do you keep your stash hidden here?"
Luke smiled as he returned to the big standard military-issue holdall laid open on his bed. "Tell you what, if you can find it, you can take it off me."
Han glanced around. Cupboards were obviously out. And drawers. He looked briefly to the bed. "Do I get a clue?"
"You only get one-you want it now?"
The kid reached into the bag that was still on his bed to pull out a small silver box, then turned to slap it down on the customary metal-topped table. "I haven't hidden it yet."
Han straightened. "That's not a clue."
"I asked you twice if you were sure."
Han rested a finger on the box as the kid turned back to his unpacking. "I got a good one for you…why don't you go without on this trip?"
Han shrugged. "Prove you can."
Luke glanced back. "Because?"
"C'mon, you don't need this stuff."
"That's right, because this is a completely stress-free journey. Maybe Tarkin will welcome me with open arms. Maybe he'll muss my hair and say, 'Sonny, I've been trying to offload this project for twelve years. Take the driving seat, with pleasure. In fact, here, take the jacket off my back. You deserve it.' And I hear Vader's quite the nurturing type when you get underneath his obsessive need to intimidate people and kill things."
Han sat on the chair. "So what is it with you and Vader?"
"Aside from his glaringly obvious need to intimidate people and kill things?"
"They seem to reach new heights around you."
The kid shrugged without looking. "I probably don't exactly go out of my way to smooth things over."
"No kidding, that's so unlike you," Han deadpanned. "What was Indo talking about, when he said you and Vader had a run-in last year?"
"It was actually the year before," Luke said. "I know, because it was when I got my own apartment-that was what I got it for."
"I'd been sent off to do some Special Forces bootcamp, and when I came back Vader was in the palace. I was pretty clean from having been away, 'cos you don't get a minute to yourself in those places, and…well, trying to pick things from Vader's head without him knowing is kinda a hobby of mine, so-"
"Really? I can't imagine why the guy dislikes you," Han interjected.
"So," Luke repeated, "Vader was probably going crazy about something…wait, no, it was a lightsaber training session and I'd done something he hadn't expected-something he can't do because he's just too bulky-and he paused; he actually paused to stare, and I knew it was because he wanted to remember it…but it couldn't be for himself, so he was thinking about someone else-someone else he wanted to teach that move to." Luke turned, abandoning his unpacking to continue. "It was just…it was an itch in the back of my head every time I looked at him after that, you know? Something was going on. I pulled every unscheduled trip the Devastator had made in the last four years, looked at every unaccompanied journey he'd made…nothing. Pulled his comm entries…such as they are. Nothing. Couldn't figure it out. It was driving me insane. So I made a point of unpicking Vader's head over the next four or five days. I became his shadow; everywhere he went in the palace, I was there, just quietly waiting for those fractional slips, adding them all up, looking for something-anything." Luke tilted his head. "Turned out Vader was secretly training an apprentice, named Marek. He was about my own age, the son of a Jedi… I found out what I could and took it to the Emperor-against Indo's advice."
Han straightened in the chair, amazed at the kid's guts for implicating Vader, and Luke shrugged, voice dryly sardonic but completely unrepentant.
"That was a bit of a low point in our relationship, I have to admit. It was about two weeks after it had all come out, which was our next lightsaber training session, that we put each other in the medicenter. That was when Palpatine stopped us training altogether. So really, it was an all-round win for me."
"What happened to the other kid?"
"Marek-Galen Marek." Luke paused a fraction of a second, then seemed to catch himself and shrugged, a study of casual indifference. "I killed him."
"…You killed him?"
"On Palpatine's order. He had Vader bring Marek to Coruscant, saying he'd test him," the kid said offhandedly, "which I guess he did."
"Why did you kill him?"
"Because Palpatine told me to."
Kid said it as if that were reason enough-but then he'd been told his whole life that it was, Han knew. He wanted to ask about Bria Tharen, about the Red Hand Squadron whose names Luke had learned…about the way he'd paused and made himself remember the other kid's name just now. Instead he glanced down awkwardly. "What happened?"
"We duelled," Luke said flatly. When Han remained silent, he finally gave up a little more. "He was actually pretty good-in fact he was very good; as good as me, probably." He shrugged, carefully nonchalant. "I was just better on the day. It came down to more of a Force duel in the end though, which was a bad move on his part. Don't get me wrong, he was still very good-I'm surprised the Emperor didn't want to train him as a Hand. But then maybe not-Palpatine had a point to make with Vader, and anyway, Marek would always have had split loyalties and Palpatine wouldn't tolerate that. He wanted him gone."
"But he wanted you to do it?"
"I'd brought the problem to him," Luke said simply. "It was my job to clean it up. I told you, Hands follow a job through to the finish."
"How did you…"
"Kill him? He made a mistake before I did-it was that simple. He backstepped in anticipation of a high blow that I turned mid-swing into a side blow, so his block was out by a half-second, which gave me that fraction of deviation I needed to slice through the emitter of his lightsaber hilt. Without a weapon, for some reason he thought it would be a good move to try to throw me around using the Force."
Again Luke shrugged. "I crushed his skull. Instantly. Throwing people around is for when you're annoyed; this was a middle of a duel, and the point of a duel is to kill your opponent as quickly as possible, before they kill you."
"He was unarmed."
"He was still trying to kill me."
"Maybe he was defending himself."
"It was a duel between Sith. We defend ourselves by killing our opponent."
"You weren't Sith, you were…" Han broke off, but Luke raised his eyebrows knowingly.
"Kids? We were neither of us that. Believe me, he intended to kill me as much as I intended to remove him, and a Sith without a lightsaber isn't exactly helpless."
"So you killed him, on command…with the Force?" Han broke off as a thought occurred. "You hadn't been smoking spice, then."
"I can generally pretty much clean spice out of my system in a few minutes, if I have to. I'd have to have taken a lot to not be able to do that. And like I said, I was only days back from the boot camp, and hadn't started in on the spice that much, so I was pretty clean…which was just as well."
"If you hadn't been…would Palpatine have protected you?" Surely the kid had considered this.
Luke glanced away. "I doubt it." He looked back and grinned, refusing to be made to think about it. "You'd probably have been speaking to Galen Marek right now, instead of me…think how much easier your life would have been!"
"So am I. In fact, you would have been out of the military entirely by now."
"With no prospects, no references and a dishonourable discharge. Yeah, I would've been hauling garbage scows in the Outer Rim."
"No, not you." The kid grinned, returning to his unpacking. "But you would have been flying-you'd have found a way."
Biggs was laid on his back, head swimming, wondering how a kid from Tatooine had ended up so far from home in so many ways. Home…his heart skipped a beat in empathy with memories too fresh to dismiss; that Tarkin would have done it. Would have destroyed an entire planet, just to get under Biggs' skin. To force him to start giving answers that they knew damn well he didn't have. Vader had made sure of that. Something within him twitched at the memory of those interrogations-of another consciousness inside his thoughts ripping them open and…he sat up suddenly, blinking it away, shaking his head, for all the good it would…
The door to his cell slid open and Biggs braced, wondering what they had in store for him this time. A single stormtrooper walked in and stopped, breathing heavily…
And despite everything, Biggs couldn't help but look the guy up and down and say it: "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"
The trooper stood silent for a long moment, in which Biggs silently cursed his own big mouth… Then the man reached up and pulled his helmet off-
and a spill of shoulder-length mahogany hair fell about Leia's face as she tilted her head and grinned. "Leia Skywalker to the rescue…again."
"Leia!" Biggs straightened, wincing at the shock of complaint his bruised and beaten body made.
"What the hell is it with you, Biggs Darklighter, that I seem to be making something of a profession of hauling your sorry ass out of trouble?"
He stared, still reeling, trying to pull the surreal scene into some kind of sense-and just one thing kept swimming to the fore: "You got through the Death Star dressed like that?"
"Chewie's with me. He kinda helps throw the whole scale thing out-everyone looks small next to a Wookiee. Plus if there's a stormtrooper and a Wookiee walking down a corridor, which one are you gonna be looking at?"
Chewie chose that moment to duck under the door, a stolen stormtrooper's blaster rifle over his shoulder and another in his meaty hands as he let out a protracted howl. Biggs didn't need to understand a whole lot of Shyriiwook to know a 'Let's get out of here' when he heard one.
Chewie threw the blaster to Biggs, who caught it awkwardly, still struggling at the turn of events. Leia was already backing from the cell door. "C'mon, we need to get moving. Obi-Wan's with me."
"Obi-Wan-where is he?"
"He's deactivating the tractor beams so we can get out of here cleanly."
Biggs was at the door when he stopped. "Wait! We need to make a stop-off first."
"You're kidding me-this'd better be good, Darklighter."
"I think I know where Artoo is."
"Artoo…" Leia squared her jaw, and slight as she was, Biggs couldn't think of a damn thing in the whole galaxy that would stop her. "Where?"
Vader stood in the command conference chamber to the rear of the sprawling main bridge onboard the Death Star, a wide sweep of starry space visible through the angled viewscreens to one side of the darkened hall. Somewhere out there, the Rebel Alliance huddled in hiding, and all of this might and machinery was nothing, without a target. Tarkin was posturing and seething, his frustration rolling out of him in dense waves, but without that one location, twelve long years of work to build this behemoth meant nothing, and he was as toothless as a pittin. Vader had long since stopped listening, staring instead out into the still darkness, aware of the silent susurration within the Force which had sounded for hours now.
He glanced again to Tarkin, tempted to tell the man to be quiet, or to simply walk from the room to have some peace. Despite their continued cooperation Vader felt neither like nor loathing for the man. Their paths had crossed many times in the Clone Wars and the early years of the fledgling Empire, but it was an alliance of convenience, nothing more, and with Tarkin's increasing confidence at the completion of his much-vaunted Death Star, Vader's tolerance of the man was thinning-as, he suspected, was the Grand Moff's patience with him.
The comm set into the dark-polished table sounded a polite chime, and Tarkin answered only to have the speaker ask for Vader. He walked quickly forward, sensing that tiny fractious tingle gain momentum. "Yes?"
"Sir, this is Sergeant Flint from the 501st." The trooper paused, as if uncertain how to continue. "We're…we've just had a sighting flagged, which matches the description of one of the scoutships seen leaving the Tantive."
"Good work, Sergeant, where is it?"
"It's…sir, it's in the secondary tech bay onboard the Death Star. It's listed by the docking officer as having full credentials, but if it has, they've not been logged into the system."
Vader let a slow smile pull at old scars as the distant cord that thrummed within his awareness came clear at last. "Well done, Sergeant. Put a guard in the hangar, but don't force entry."
Flicking the comm closed, Vader straightened, absolutely sure. "He is here."
Tarkin frowned. "He?"
The name alone was enough to gain the Grand Moff's total attention as his narrow features hardened. "What makes you think so?"
"A tremor in the Force. The last time I felt it was on Coruscant, when Kenobi tried to take back his son." He'd been so close, then-so close to Kenobi in the running firefight, without ever getting close enough to draw his blade.
The comlink on Tarkin's desk buzzed again for attention, and he broke off to answer it, voice clipped with annoyance. "Yes?"
"Sir, we have an emergency alert in detention block AA-twenty-three."
"The pilot? Put all sections on alert."
Vader breathed deep, feeling the tremor of anticipation whisper through him; this time, there would be no escape for the old man. This time, they finished it.
Tarkin closed the comm, his hooded eyes lifting to Vader. "If you're right, he must not be allowed to escape."
"Escape may not be his plan," Vader said grimly. "I must face him-alone."
Obi-Wan moved quickly and quietly down the deserted corridor, heading for the cargo bay that they'd put the shuttle down in, frustrated that he couldn't risk reaching out to Leia to make sure that her own mission had gone off with equal success. Somehow he doubted it; the general awareness of those nearby seemed to have raised a notch or two, and…
He slowed, his hand going automatically to his saber hilt.
So close…He could see the bay, could see the shuttle, closed up and dark…but it may as well have been on another planet.
Knowing that Obi-Wan had detected him, Vader stepped from the side corridor with a heavy hiss of automated breathing. He took his time to walk forward, slowing to position himself in the center of the corridor, an immovable force between Obi-Wan and the docking bay.
"I've been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last-the circle is now complete."
Oh, but he was so different. So dark. A twisted knot of simmering fury, flint-hard and seething, raging in a storm of his own making. Obi-Wan felt a surge of pity for the man he'd known so well-and not at all, it seemed, from all that had since happened.
There was the curl of a snarl in Vader's words, hurled with cold surety. "When I left you I was but the learner; now I am the master.
"Only a master of evil, Darth."
Vader straightened, and the thick, quilted hide he wore creaked as it moved. He'd always been tall, clearly destined to be a big man, but Palpatine had reshaped his monster into a towering creature, at once menacingly macabre and pitiably broken.
His bass voice reverberated in Obi-Wan's chest as he spoke, a guttural growl of menace. "Were you intending to slink away, as you did at the palace on Coruscant?"
Obi-Wan felt an instant churn of guilt at his failure nine years ago, but held his center. "You should have let me take him."
"And why would I give to you what you took from me?"
The anger, the outrage in Vader's voice was shocking-but then Obi-Wan had indeed taken the boy, after Padmé's death. "I only wanted to give him a chance-give him a choice. Would you deny Luke that?"
"I'd deny him life itself if I could."
Obi-Wan stared, appalled that Vader would speak of his own son this way. If Vader realized, it only pushed him on.
"Palpatine won't protect him forever, and the day the boy stands alone is the day that I will take him to pieces, as you did me, Obi-Wan, and leave him to a slow, agonizing death."
"I don't believe even you could do that."
"You took everything from me," Vader rasped. "I deserve retribution!"
"And how is it that? You think Padmé would…"
"Don't speak her name!" Vader yelled. "You killed her, with your lies!"
Obi-Wan only shook his head slowly. "No, you killed her, Vader. You drove her away. She and the child you-"
Vader launched forward with a howl of inarticulate outrage, lighting his saber as he came, forcing Obi-Wan to do the same.
The first blow landed like fury incarnate, sending a shock up Obi-Wan's arms as he parried. The second drove him back further, its power incredible. But power wasn't everything; on the third blow Obi-Wan caught the scarlet blade, whipping his own about it to gain the upper hand and force Vader to disengage.
"You killed them both," Vader growled in a low hiss, the accusation raw and fiery. "You took everything from me."
"I…" Obi-Wan hesitated, struggling to understand, his concentration split between an ever-more inattentive defence and escalating confusion. "Vader, your son…" He broke off, realization lighting within him; he didn't know! Vader didn't know that Luke was his son! Was the boy oblivious too? The ultimate hold that Obi-Wan had always assumed that Vader and therefore Palpatine had on Luke was…what? Nothing. Not a fraction of what he'd feared.
His mind raced to piece the remaining fragments of the puzzle together; how could Vader not know? He knew the boy was Force-sensitive, did he think him some random… Palpatine! Palpatine had found the boy, not Vader! Vader had been systems away in the Mid-Rim when the murder of Bail and Breha Organa had happened. Palpatine had never told him; never admitted the truth!
In a flush of hope Obi-Wan felt his own soul lighten, a burden lifted; they didn't know, and if the boy didn't know… But it had surely been too long, the boy couldn't be saved-could he?
He glanced to the entrance of the bay, fired with a new need; if he could somehow speak to Luke, there may be a chance, a slim chance…
Then he sensed Leia's presence as she closed, a flare of bright light in this soulless place, and he wrapped the Force about it to dim it from Vader's awareness. But the momentary hope that had kindled and flared died with the realization that in moments, she'd be here…and he couldn't take the risk. Couldn't have Vader find her.
He'd never have that chance, to try at least to save the boy. To perhaps one day tell Leia of the brother she didn't know existed. Because his loyalty-his protection-had to remain with her; with the woman he'd watched grow from childhood. If only he could have told her. Now, he felt he was watching her one chance at reconciliation with her brother slip away, because he saw only one course left to him if he were to protect Leia today-to buy her the chance to escape.
He had to force Leia's hand. If she saw Obi-Wan here, trapped, she'd come after him. She'd never leave him, he knew-not if he was alive.
Seeing his eyes flick away, Vader moved a step to more fully block his way, the tip of his saber never dropping. "Your powers are weak, old man. You should not have come."
In the bay, the troopers about the scoutship had noticed the flash of lightsabers and were now moving forward as a group to block Obi-Wan's escape further…and in doing so, leaving the path to the scoutship undefended for Leia.
Obi-Wan smiled beneficently at his old padawan. "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
Leia pulled to a halt at the final turn before the hangar, sensing too many minds within. Turning to flag Biggs and Chewie behind her to a silent stop, she was almost pushed forward anyway by Artoo, who rolled full-tilt into her from behind. Nudging him back and hushing his complaints with her hand, she leaned around the corner.
Milling about the hangar were maybe a dozen stormtroopers, their minds wary as they stared at the shuttle. She swung back, silently cursing the fact that she'd abandoned her troopers' uniform, which might at least have bought her a second's more anonymity to get close to them without suspicion.
Biggs skittered to a halt, trying hard to silence his labored breath, one hand holding his blaster, the other wrapped about his ribs. "What?"
"Stormtroopers-twelve or so."
Biggs leaned forward a fraction to peer around the corner. "Damnit, don't these guys have something useful to do?"
"We could backtrack," Leia whispered. "Though they've probably almost got that blast door open by now."
They'd managed to cut off their burgeoning pursuers when Chewie had had the good sense to stop and hammer the close panel on one of the heavy blast doors in the corridor leading to the hangar, barking at Artoo, who had spun about and scooted back to extend a linkage arm and lock the panel out of the system, fritzing its controls with a brief flash of sparks. But it hadn't bought them more than a few minutes, and they knew it.
Leia handed her blaster to Biggs and took her lightsaber from her belt. "We're going to have to go for it. Stay behind me, I can deflect their shots. You get to the ship, get the engines online, and…"
She hesitated, aware that something had infused the troopers' minds with a flare of surprise.
In the bay one of the stormtroopers shouted, and the whole group headed off at a slow run towards the inner side of the bay, disappearing from sight.
Biggs leaned forward, seeing them leave. "Now's our chance, go!"
They set out into the hangar bay, trying to be fast and quiet at the same time as they crossed the open space to the scoutship. Halfway there, Leia sensed a familiar presence and turned...
To the far side of the bay, trapped in the entry corridor with the looming bulk of Darth Vader between him and safety, Obi-Wan dueled for his life.
She stopped dead, all else falling away. "Obi-Wan? Obi-Wan!"
As one, the troopers turned and opened fire. The first few shots went wide, and Leia barely flinched, her eyes remaining on the distant duel. As the third bolt zipped dangerously close her wits came back and she brought her saber up, activating it in time to intersect the next blast, which would have taken her arm from her shoulder.
More bolts came in, faster and thicker, and she cut loose from the moment to immerse herself into the Force, letting it guide her reflexes with familiar ease to deflect the incoming shots back to their source. Not a curl of fear touched her under fire, her only emotion frustration that there were too many troops-this was taking too long.
But she kept moving forward in increments, refusing to be halted, desperate to get to Obi-Wan.
Then the last trooper was down, his own blaster shot reflected back towards him in a perfectly-aimed ricochet which spanged brightly off the corner of his helmet and threw him back. Sideways on to her now, Obi-Wan turned just slightly, and for a brief moment he held her eye…
Leia felt a shudder of portent tingle through her, stealing her breath, so that the shout of his name which hung on her lips became a breathless whisper.
She wouldn't leave him; she wouldn't leave him here, no matter what. Even if she had to face Vader himself, even if she fought only to avenge his death and not save her mentor, she wouldn't leave…
Obi-Wan's saber, which had been lifting to a vertical salute before his face, wavered. In that moment Vader brought his own saber around in a wide sweep at head-height-
Leia's anguished yell of, "No!" rang out…and at the last possible second, Obi-Wan's vulnerable salute turned into a clumsy defence as he blocked the blow, driven back two stumbling steps by its power.
Leia found her feet again and set forward at a flat run. Desperate to distract the Sith, she brought one hand up and channelled the Force into a body-blow.
It hit Vader side-on and sent him reeling back several steps, struggling to retain his balance as he let out a grunt of shock.
"Obi-Wan, run!" Leia was almost on them as Vader straightened with a howl of fury.
The counter-blow that hit Leia in the next second sent her tumbling backwards, lifted completely from the floor and hurled across the hangar to impact brutally against the stacked barrels to one side of the hangar. Reality blurred into a shuttered stagger, dragging her awareness thinner as she struggled to stay conscious, only the sharp slice of biting pain keeping her so. She was vaguely aware of Obi-Wan calling out her name; of trying to stand but inexplicably failing as her leg gave way beneath her in a stab of agony. Of pressing her hand to her head and feeling something wet and warm against her skin.
Then Obi-Wan was there, taking her weight as she tried again to stand, her dazed mind not aware yet as to why her body wouldn't obey. He took her arm over his shoulder and lifted her to standing as Leia glanced back to the mouth of the corridor where he and Vader had been duelling just moments before. The blast door was closed, its controls showing a wide, sooty smudge of black where they'd been shorted out….and in the middle of the reinforced doors, moving slowly and inexorably down through super-heated metal which was dropping in bright, molten slag to the floor, a scarlet lightsaber blade was cutting the lock free.
"Quickly," Obi-Wan said, though his voice was calm and even.
He turned them about and Leia staggered on her one good leg, to see Chewie still shouldering his bowcaster-had he shot the door controls? She took a few short, painful steps before Chewie had reached them. He lifted her as if she were a child, howling to Obi-Wan as he turned about and ran for the scoutship.
In the cockpit, Biggs gunned the engines while the hatch was still cycling closed, prompted by a string of barking grunts from Chewie, who shouted to be heard over Artoo's high-pitched whistle. Glancing forward, Leia had a brief glimpse of the bay's exit receding through the cockpit window, combined with the disorienting drag of artificial gravity engaging, before the darkness finally crowded in and took her.
Vader strode into the darkened control room, frustration at having yet again lost Kenobi gnawing at him, his temper only sated by the awareness of knowledge gained; Kenobi had found another Force-sensitive and had been teaching her. He had a padawan-a well-trained one at that.
"Are they away?" Tarkin's stick-thin form didn't turn, his eyes remaining on the wide viewscreen as Vader approached.
"They have just made the jump into hyperspace."
"You're sure the homing beacon is secure onboard their ship? I'm taking an awful risk, Vader. This had better work."
"It was a homing beacon which gained us Darklighter in the first place. If the Rebels were unable to detect that particular type and frequency before then they will not detect it now."
Motti walked forward as Vader spoke, disgust and fear oozing from every pore as he neared-but he'd learned some respect too, after Vader had turned on him just days ago in the conference room. His hand went briefly to his neck as he glanced to Vader, sure to keep Tarkin between them as he leaned discretely forward.
"Governor, we have a communiqué from Coruscant requiring co-ordinates for a rendezvous. Commander Antilles is to come aboard."
"Commander Antilles?" Tarkin said sharply, eyes shifting from Motti to Vader.
Vader said nothing, though he hadn't failed to registerAntilles' promotion. The last Vader had heard, the boy had returned to Coruscant with a mixed bag of failures and successes. He ground his jaw, aware now that he shouldn't have givenAntillescontrol of the subjugation of Toprawa. But he'd known that to simply order the boy to remain onboard the Immortal would have been insufficient. With nothing holding him there,Antilleswould have undoubtedly taken a scoutship and followed the search force looking for the Tantive, and Vader had wanted to ensure that Kenobi's son had nothing to do with the final retrieval of the Death Star's plans for so many reasons. Aside from keeping Antilles well away from the anticipated victory, Vader had known moments before the Tantive had fled that Kenobi himself was onboard, and though he knew the boy had no loyalty to or interest in Kenobi, Vader had no intention of being the one to reunite them, and every intention of being the one who struck the double blow of finally dealing with Kenobi and being able to tell his son such.
On reading the decisive stand he'd taken at Toprawa, Vader had quickly regretted his choice of responsibility with which to tieAntillesdown. He should have known; the boy had his father's head for strategy combined with his Master's scant conscience. What should have taken the average officer days had, with applied zeal and few ethics, been the kind of swift and decisive victory that the Emperor took great delight in.
That Palpatine had considered it sufficient reason to promote the boy seemed…excessive, however. Vader logged such thoughts for later consideration as he listened absently to the clipped annoyance in Tarkin's reply.
"What exactly does he want, coming here?"
"Sir, the communiqué has a mandate attached from the Emperor's Cabinet."
Tarkin frowned as he took the proffered datapad, his hooded eyes narrowing as he pressed his thumb to the biometric plate to decode the communiqué. The flash of outrage that emanated from him within seconds of reading it demanded Vader's complete attention, as the Grand Moff's thin lips curled vehemently.
"The scheming, devious little runt."
"What?" Vader demanded.
Tarkin lifted his head, fury blazing from him. "Palpatine's given him command."
Han leaned over the small sink in his quarters onboard the Vendetta to sluice some water on his face, trying to wake up. His eyes rolled skyward as he remembered Indo's casual division of shifts for the three-day journey.
"I will attend morning and afternoon shifts, so that I can be sure Luke is present for lessons arranged by HoloNet. You will take the evening shifts."
It had sounded pretty good at first mention-if you skipped over Indo's apparent belief that Han was somehow incapable or just plain unwilling to make the kid sit down through lessons-as if not only was Indo finally giving Han some genuine function here, but Han was also only expected to do half the amount; easing him in, maybe. He'd been so impressed that he'd even offered to do a few afternoons as well. It wasn't until a typically efficient roster had paged up on the comm system in his quarters that Han had realized that 'evening' apparently meant from eight at night until eight the following morning.
Of course the kid was asleep for half of that, but if he was gonna do anything contrary, you could generally guarantee that it'd be somewhere in those remaining hours.
He rolled his eyes…and they held at their highest point as he stared at the reflection of his fresher ceiling: a tile to one side of the light fitting wasn't quite in line with the others, the slightest of shadows marking where it had been popped out. Surely they weren't putting surveillance equipment in his quarters now-though actually, he wouldn't put it past Indo. Grumbling an oath, Han balanced unsteadily on the pan seat to lean forward and push gingerly at the tile. It clicked neatly loose, and Han stood on tip-toe to see inside the small, dark space which housed the ridiculous amount of ducting that always seemed necessary to keep quarters liveable on any starship.
It wasn't surveillance. There, nestled against the reams of pipes, was something else entirely…
The kid was slouched at the desk in his quarters, his head resting in his hand and a holoreader lit before him, though his attention was on the piece of flimsiplast he was sketching on. He looked up without lifting his head as Han entered with a grin.
"Here ya go-thought you might want to keep the box at least."
He held it out as Luke stared, completely unfazed. Still triumphant, Han slapped the silver box he'd found down onto the table. "Oh, I wouldn't bother opening it though; I flushed the contents. You said if I found your spice I could do whatever I wanted with it."
The kid only tilted his head to go back to his drawing. "Well done, smartass. You know that water goes back into recyc, don't you? We're gonna have a very mellow crew this trip."
Han hesitated for a second, then shook his head. "Filters'll get it out."
"Not all of it. I may have had to do a few impromptu bowl flushes myself. It's surprising how much stays in the recyc'd water."
Luke shrugged without looking up. "No big deal. Like I said, I've done it before. People just sorta…trip up steps more, or stare at the lights on their comm board without blinking. Probably Captain Roth will let a few more people off with whatever the hell half-baked charges he was gonna throw at them. Think of it as spreading the love."
"Great. Here am I on military parole, and I just drugged a Star Destroyer's crew."
"I think it's just the officers actually; we have a different recyc."
"Spectacular," Han deadpanned. "Why'd you hide it in my quarters anyway? That's…" He paused, suddenly curious. "Have you done it before?"
"As someone who is, I remind you, on military parole, many thanks. You have a whole ship-why my quarters?"
Luke finally put down the stylus-Han's old stylus, he'd noticed-and picked up the box, opening it to check anyway. "Amused me, I guess."
"You have a warped sense of humor."
"I have a warped sense of everything," the kid said, simple awareness in the dry rejoinder.
Han pulled up the only other chair in the kid's quarters to sit opposite him, lifting his feet up to rest his ankles on the edge of the desk, still pleased with himself. "So I guess one way or another, this is now a spice-free trip, huh?"
"What was the other way?"
"You said you wouldn't tote this trip,"
"No, you said why don't I go without. I just changed the subject."
Han scowled. "Well now you're gonna anyway…that is all the spice you've got, isn't it?"
Luke picked up the stylus again, attention going back to the flimsiplast. "Sure, whatever."
"Really? I'm serious now."
The kid lifted teasing eyes from his drawing. "Oh you're serious? Well that makes all the difference."
Han stared for a few seconds more… "You've got more spice, haven't you?"
Luke didn't answer, but that half-smile remained on his face, and Han shook his head. "C'mon, this is cheating."
"Why is it cheating? You found the spice, you flushed it…you drugged the command crew, incidentally…end of game."
"Yeah but you acted like it was all you had."
"No, you assumed it was all I had."
Han dropped his feet and straightened, his voice labored with strained patience. "Okay, do you have any more?"
"What fascinates me is how you just naturally presume I'll tell the truth. It's not like there hasn't been a precedent set."
"You're killing me, you know that?"
The amusement was instantly gone from the kid's face. "Don't say that."
"You're killing me? Why?"
"Just don't." Luke tensed, visibly withdrawing into himself. "I don't like it. It's uncalled-for, and it's cruel."
The kid looked quickly down-because they both knew what he'd let slip. Han took a breath to speak, but Luke beat him to it, moving the subject quickly on. "So…have you ever met the Emperor's favorite Moff?"
Han stared a few seconds, wondering whether to push it, but the kid kept his head down, scowling as he drew with quick, heavy strokes, strong enough to buckle the flimsiplast slightly as he scribbled. Watching, Han saw a quick sketch of Tarkin's face appear, deep-set eyes and chiselled features heavily shaded.
"Actually I have," he conceded, letting the moment go. "He gave the speech the year I graduated from Carida. Shook my hand and congratulated me on being valedictorian-he won't remember that though. Had the kind of loose, limp handshake you instantly distrust."
The kid paused momentarily to look up. "Seriously?"
"Yeah, I actually met him-what are the odds?"
"No, I mean, you were valedictorian?"
"It was a points-average rather than a popularity contest."
There was something about the way the kid said it that made Han straightened in realization, remembering that very first night in the cell of the Stormtroopers' Sector-House.
"You went to Carida-that's how you knew the gold and blue unit patch on my flight jacket."
"I would have known it anyway, but yeah, Carida."
Han grinned slyly. "So what, you weren't valedictorian? I'm shocked-and a little disappointed."
Kid only shrugged. "I didn't stick around that long-I aced the course in eight months and left."
"Eight months?" Han moved in his chair. "Show off."
"You're telling me you couldn't have done that course in eight months, if they'd let you?"
"Course I could."
"Still…" Han glanced down to pick at an imaginary something on the table, "show off."
Luke grinned without looking up. "I'm surprised you shook his hand."
"Who, Tarkin's? Why?"
The kid shrugged. "The Wookiee in the holo…the one you always take everywhere with you."
Han hadn't thought the kid had even noticed. It wasn't like he made a big thing of it or anything, but out of habit from taking it anywhere he was stationed, he generally carried the small holo-projector with him onto any ship he travelled in, so that Dewlanna had smiled down at him from the shelves of an assortment of ships of the line, as Han's erratic career had careened between major and minor catastrophies. He'd always kinda figured she'd've been proud to know that Han had made it into the Imperial Navy…of late, he wasn't so sure.
"I'm guessing she left an impression," Luke said tentatively without looking up. His hand had moved across the flimsiplast now as he started a quick sketch of Dewlanna, and Han wondered if it was from memory, or if Luke was picking it out of his head. Kid always got the eyes right; she always seemed to be laughing.
"The slave-the one you got court-martialled for-it was a Wookiee, too." Luke paused, his stylus stilling. "You do know about the Wookiee slaves?"
Han braced slightly, remembering the big, broad Wookiee, shackled and beaten, but not broken. "What about them?"
Luke studied him for a second as he seemed to consider, then glanced away, resuming his sketch. "Nothing. Doesn't matter."
"Luke! You can't start something like that, then change your mind."
The kid stared with exaggerated interest at his work, and Han fought to pull his mood onto a more even keel because he knew Luke would pick up on it. "C'mon, spill."
Luke shrugged without looking up. "Tarkin was the one who suggested using Wookiee slaves to the Emperor, because they're strong but technically minded. He wanted them for the Death Star's construction, because it fell behind with other…other enforced labor."
Han stared, remembering the slave ship that his commanding officer, Nyklas, had ordered him to board when TIEs had finally brought its scuppering by the big Wookiee to an end. Remembering his refusal of Nyklas' order to shoot and skin the injured Wookiee who had gotten the slaves out. It was because of that same Wookiee that Han had eventually faced charges of gross insubordination. It was because of Dewlanna, in the first place, that he'd known that he had to face off against Nyklas in the Wookiee's defence. Because of Dewlanna that he was here now, too, talking to a kid whose childhood had been as broken and miserable as his own.
And just like the cogs of some vast machine, huge tracts of his life fell into place with such perfect precision that he had to wonder at his own blithe dismissal of fate.
"Why didn't you want to tell me?" he asked at last.
Luke's sketching came to a slow stop. He tapped the surface of the flimsy a few times with the stylus without lifting his head. "I didn't want you to think I had anything to do with it, and I…I didn't want you to leave."
Still that same fear that gnawed at the kid, despite everything. But then it was hardly surprising; Palpatine had made sure the kid struggled through a shifting, unanchored life in which he was the only constant. Everything else was transient and undependable. But not any more.
"I'm not going anywhere, I've told you that. You want me to leave, you're gonna have to force me out the door, because that's the only way you'll get rid of me, understand?" Han reached out and held his open hand before the kid, knowing that Luke didn't like to be touched but deciding, on the spur of the moment, that he'd had enough of that and it was time to start makin' some changes of his own around here. "Put it there." He waited, hand held expectantly out…
For long moments the kid simply stared, lips pursed slightly. When his hand moved, it was actually a reflexive backward pull towards his own body for a moment…then he placed the stylus carefully down and reached hesitantly forward to take Han's hand.
Han grinned, pressing just slightly as he shook the kid's hand. "We're in this for the long haul. Me and you, pal-till the end."
Luke slipped free and crossed his arms about his body, hands hidden uneasily beneath them. Deeply uncomfortable, he looked wryly up at Han. "I need a smoke."
The kid leaned back, closing his eyes. "This could be a long, long haul."
"For you and me both, pal," Han said. "You and me both."
It wasfour a.m.when the comm in Han's quarters sounded. He tried hard to ignore it, but it didn't stop. Cursing at the fact that they chose to embed the shipwide comm into workdesks on Destroyers, and then screw the workdesks to the floor in the main room, Han eventually rose and padded across the cold floor. "Solo."
"Sir, it's Lieutenant Rendrake here. I have a comm from Lieutenant Commander Klaff in stellar cartography."
Han hesitated, still blinking sleep away. "Wh…now?"
"Yes, Sir. I think they're having a…there may be a little confusion down there."
"Yeah? Tell 'em welcome to the club," Han griped. When the line remained silent, he sighed. "Put him through."
It was another ten minutes of general cursing before Han had swallowed his pride and his ire sufficiently to comm Indo, mollifying himself with the knowledge that the Viscount too was now awake at four a.m.
"Hey," Han said, taking a kind of quiet pride in the fact that even after several months, he was still unsure how exactly you were meant to address a viscount. "I just got a comm from stellar cartography…"
"Yes, they've commed me already." The man sounded offensively crisp and awake, even at this hour. "I referred them to you."
"Luke's in there-he's been in there since beforemidnight."
"I'm aware of that."
Unseen, Han grimaced; the man was gonna make him go the whole nine yards.
"So, uh…any idea why?"
The line remained silent for long seconds, and just like the comm officer who had reported the fact to Han, it was now Han's turn to hold quiet and hope to hell that the person on the other end would break first.
It took Indo about twice as long to crack. "Has he taken his tablets?"
"Yeah, I reminded him hours ago," Han said, of the nightly tablets that the kid always took. He'd never asked what they were for-it seemed intrusive, and he'd known damn well that whether he'd asked Indo or the kid, he'd still get shot down.
"You reminded him," Indo repeated dryly. "And you've never thought to wonder why myself or a member of staff assiduously stands with him every night whilst he does so."
"…What are they?"
Indo ignored the question entirely. "There are small test kits in the medi-center-ask a medic for box nine…don't tell him what it's for or why you need it, just take it to your quarters. The kit has a swab test that's pre-soaked. Luke knows the routine; he puts the swab strip in his mouth for ten seconds. If it goes black or gray, he's taken his tablets. If it remains white, you need to be a little less…gullible in future."
Han was standing in cartography twenty minutes later, test kit in hand, staring up at a hyped and defensive Luke Antilles, who was standing on one of the higher walkways of the massive chamber, the holographic maps of several sectors projected about him, their light casting pale blue hues about the dimmed room.
"I can't believe you're gonna test me!"
"Hey, I just got dragged out of bed atfour a.m.!"
Luke pursed his lips, unrepentant. "Well let me save you a kit; I didn't take them."
"I can't believe you didn't take the damn tablets!"
"Please, have you met me? Of course I didn't take the damn tablets."
"Why didn't you take 'em?"
"Because they're not for anything-all they do is make me sleep!"
"Damn straight they do," Han said. "It'sfour a.m.!"
Luke glanced to the chrono unperturbed, voice instantly switching from hotly annoyed to calmly conversational. "Actually, it's four-thirty now."
"Where're the tablets?"
"Seriously, you think I kept them?"
"Fine. I have some more in my quarters."
"No, you don't. You think you do," Luke added over Han's half-formed reply, "but you don't."
"You're kidding me."
"What d'you think I was actually doing in there when I decided to put my spice box in your fresher?"
"I think you were hiding the damn spice box!"
"Actually that's true. But then the tablets were right there on your table…"
"You're impossible, you know that?"
"They're just sleeping tablets, that's all they are."
"How d'you know?" Han challenged, at the end of his tether and sure the tablets must be more than that, considering the importance that Indo clearly placed on them. "Did you actually ask?"
"Ask?" Luke laughed derisively. "Oh absolutely, that's right-youa sk people in the Imperial palace and of course, you get the truth. No, I didn't ask. I took 'em to a guy I know who does a little chemical processing for recreational use, and he did a breakdown on them for me. They're just sleeping tablets, soporifics. They're just more drugs, Han, that's all they are. What makes you think those are so right and the spice I take so wrong? They both do the same thing, they dull your edge."
Han frowned. "So why take the spice at all?"
Luke's lips pursed into a thin line, instantly on the defensive as he swung down under the walkway's handrail to land close to Han. "It's none of your business what I do or why. You want me to take the damn drugs like everyone else does, just so you can have an easy life? Fine, I'll take them."
"Hey, what the hell? Calm down."
"Just give me the stupid tablets." His voice was weary now, dismissive, as if he wanted Han gone.
"Seriously, is that all they are?"
"I just told you. Indo keeps a supply in the medicenter-go and get them."
"No, to hell with them, if that's all they're for." Han hesitated…but couldn't help but ask. "That is all they're for, right?"
The kid quietened slightly at Han's refusal to get more tablets. "The only reason I get force-fed them is because Palpatine always liked to know where I was at any given hour, and it was easier for him-and Indo-to give a young kid tablets to make him sleep rather than have to deal with watching him all day and all night. I'm not a kid any more."
"Have you ever not taken them?" Han asked, drawn in.
"More times than anybody knows," Luke said with a sly grin.
Luke shrugged, as if it were obvious. "I go out, around Coruscant."
"See? That's why they want you to take 'em! Cos when you don't, you just take off and go smokin' your way round every dive on Coruscant."
"Hey, I sit in stuffy, airless rooms day in day out, listening to old men pay empty lipservice to an Emperor who'd kill any one of them as soon as look at them, myself included. Yes, I get out!"
"Why don't you try-just try-not doing the disappearing act for a while? Why don't you actually act responsibly and stay where you're meant to be, and maybe, if Palpatine sees he can trust you, maybe he actually will."
"What makes you think you know Palpatine better than I do? Because let me tell you, I've known him most of my life, and he's never once acknowledged a single thing I've done. He's never once given me a break."
Han didn't shirk from the kid's stare. "Just 'cos he's wrong, that doesn't make what you're doing right."
"Please," Luke dismissed dryly.
"Hey, I'm just trying to figure a way out of this mess. I don't want to have to go through this every night for the next ten years, and I don't particularly think you do either."
"Right, 'cos you'll be here in ten years' time."
"I've already told you I will be."
Luke looked down, slightly mollified, and Han wondered if he'd actually gotten through to the kid…and in that moment it was so obvious why. So obvious why Indo had his own charmed immunity from Luke's temper: because he'd stayed. Because he was the single, lasting constant in Luke's life, beside Palpatine.
Suddenly hopeful, Han tried again. "Listen, forget the tablets, but just…maybe play the game, huh?"
"That's rich, coming from you."
"C'mon, just give it a go. One month-don't slope off in the middle of the night for one month."
The kid hesitated, then nodded just slightly, seeming earnest and contrite. "Okay, I'll try."
Han too quietened, taken by the kid's sincerity. "Well good."
They looked at each other for long seconds, before eventually Han sighed, tilting his head to indicate the door behind him. "Go on then-get to bed."
Kid was at the door before Han looked up again. "Luke?"
The kid turned, his open, honest face a picture of youthful innocence in that moment-and Han's eyes narrowed knowingly. "You're not gonna stay in, are you?"
The ghost of a hurt expression formed briefly on the kid's guiltless face, before it melted into a wicked grin. "No, not a chance. Sorry."
Han nodded just once. "Thought so. Spice thing?"
Luke paused, lips pursed in thought. "I'll see how it goes."
"Good enough," Han nodded. "Then I'll be here."
The kid raised his chin. "Just so you know-I'm not stopping spice just so you'll stay."
"I'm not staying just 'cos you're stopping the spice," Han replied.
"For tonight." Han held his ground as the kid hesitated for a second longer then left. Stared at the closed door in silence for long seconds, before he finally spoke out into the empty room. "Did I just win an argument with Luke Antilles?" He straightened, fingers knitting behind his head. "Damn, I'm good!"
From the other side of the closed door, he heard the kid's muffled voice. "No, you did not win! At best, you compromised."
Grinning at the fact that the kid had clearly stood on his side of that door wondering what the hell had just happened, exactly as Han had, he shouted to the still-closed door. "Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and call that a win."
"Now who's delusional?"
"Hey, only one of us is hanging around a closed door."
"And only one of us was talking to an empty room."
"Go to bed!"
Luke sat to the far side of the circular, black mirror-polished table in the darkened conference room onboard the Death Star, well aware of the fact that he was seated in Moff Tarkin's chair and wondering if the man in question, standing six paces away to the far side of the table and close to an already agitated Vader, had enough nerve and so little sense that he'd try to do something about it.
To the center of the table a holo-projector was showing security footage of a woman, the Rebel pilot Darklighter and a Wookiee running down corridors at speed. On audio, the combined inter-troop chatter was playing out just exactly what was being done minute by minute to stop them—which was clearly not enough, as they'd flown the same heavy scoutship that they'd arrived in out of the Death Star less than ten minutes later.
The image cut to another angle as the group moved beneath another security lens, and Luke looked at the woman's face without comment. He knew it was Leia Skywalker, of course—had recognized her almost instantly—but since it was Vader's and not his operation that had gone so wrong, he had no intention of sharing that fact. They already knew that Kenobi had been with the small group who had broken the Rebel pilot out of his cell and, just to add insult to injury, reclaimed the droid carrying the plans, then escaped Vader's grip yet again. Add a second, unknown Jedi to the mix, who had also managed to get away, and a major gaffe became a crucial one, following right on the heels of the mistake that had put Luke here on the Death Star in the first place. So all things considered, if Luke was going to tell anyone just how spectacularly Vader had tripped up this time, it would be Palpatine...and it would be with care.
He flicked the image to still, then leaned back just slightly, aware of how much his presence—and more importantly his status—here was galling the two men standing to the far side of the table. "So, and correct me if I have this wrong, because frankly I'm amazed…you actually caught the Rebel pilot, had him in detention, and the full set of Death Star plans under your control again, and you still couldn't keep hold of them."
"The plans have been utilized to draw the Rebels out—force them to reveal their main base," Vader rumbled from beside Tarkin, the threat evident in his voice.
"I see," Luke nodded slowly, unfazed. "Draw them out…"
Giving the opening salvos ofAntilles' offensive a wide berth, Wilhuff Tarkin instead took the time to study his new adjutant, Lieutenant Solo, who stood to loose attention a few paces behindAntilles, himself remaining silent. It seemed to Tarkin that both of them were smart enough to know that this was an ongoing round in the private grudge-match between two Sith, and both were far too smart to ever intervene.
Solo glanced just once at Tarkin, to measure and dismiss him in the time it took to look away again, his inference clear. The misapprehension among the lower ranks that Moffs were old and soft was well known to Tarkin, and he took great pleasure in disproving it at every opportunity. Solo, of course, was underAntilles' protection though, which bought him a certain immunity. Sith were a handful at the best of times, even as young asAntilles, who let out his next words in a dry sigh.
"And it didn't occur to you to…'draw them out' with an incomplete copy?"
"You think they are such amateurs that they wouldn't check the underlying code for gaps or flaws?"
"Well then how about a copy with a self-destruct. A distance destruct. Limited number of accesses. A time key." The young man's voice dripped sarcasm, hands steepled before him, elbows resting on the polished table. "Or, I don't know….why not just give them incorrect plans?"
"We have reason to believe that they had already accessed parts of the original plans whilst they held them onboard the Tantive."
"And when your…"Antillespaused to glance needlessly down at the datapad on the desk before him, "Rebel farmer was waltzing through the Death Star with the plans…did you believe he'd take the time to check them then, too? Because I doubt the average dirt-farmer is that cool-headed—or that competent."
"Moisture farmer," Vader ground out.
"He was a moisture farmer. His home planet of Tatooine is a desert-planet—moisture must be extracted by mechanical means…farmed. And he was already a Rebel pilot—a hardened soldier."
"An eighteen-year-old hardened soldier?"
"And how old are you?" Vader parried, as unwilling as ever to let any challenge pass from the wayward youth, no matter how small, Tarkin knew. And he had a point;Antilles' dismissive tone was hardly fair comment considering that he himself was just sixteen and long since battle-seasoned, in so many ways. And as for Kenobi, who had led the incursion, the boy chose very specifically not to mention him…though Tarkin was one of the Emperor's trusted few who knew that despite his name,Antilleswas in fact Kenobi's illegitimate son. Which in itself raised another question, only just occurring: because if Tarkin was in control of the Death Star when it destroyed whichever base Kenobi was heading towards, then he would, effectively, become the man who had killed the boy's father. Or was that one of the reasons why the Emperor had sent the boy here with that executive mandate—to have him do the deed himself. A true test of loyalty for a youth on the very brink of taking up his position amongst the most exceptional and loyal of Palpatine's vassals. Yes…that would seem appropriate for the man for whom every move had many motives.
And it may account for the boy's temperament when he'd arrived here today…or that could have simply been Vader, who had always gleaned great satisfaction in taking the youth down at every opportunity. Tarkin had expectedAntillesto come in here all bluster and arrogance, handing out orders from the moment his boot touched the Death Star's deck plates. But as yet the young man had kept a surprisingly low profile, moving straight to a private meeting rather than heading for the bridge, which he now had the authority to command.
That youthful face hardened for a fraction of a second at Vader's latest derision, but it was nothing in the greater scheme of their ongoing feud, and the boy continued unfazed.
"Old enough to know that a…hardened soldier and a Jedi Master would know better than to stop mid-escape to run a few checks on the data they were stealing. First you get out alive—then you see what you got out with."
"The plans they retrieved whilst here were stored in the memory of the pilot's astromech droid, which was in the process of being returned to Coruscant intact, to find out just exactly what the Rebels knew. There was neither the time nor the opportunity to replace or alter them when Kenobi initiated the rescue, and it would have logged if its own memory banks had been tampered with."
Luke nodded coolly. "I see. So, cutting through the details, it seems to me that what you're saying is that you actually voluntarily handed a complete set of plans which the Emperor considered of sufficient importance to commit a military taskforce to regaining, back to the Rebellion."
"The scoutship they escaped in is being tracked now," Vader stated flatly. "When the co-ordinates finalize, it will be at the main Rebel base, and the Death Star will move to destroy it and the plans immediately."
"You presumably have some credible reason to believe they'll go to anything other than a satellite base—protect their main forces and transmit the plans from there?"
"We've already proven the Death Star is operational and that we are prepared to use it on any and all enemies of the State. Their hand will be forced, for fear of another reprisal. They know that wherever they stop, they will leave a trail of retribution and destruction behind them that their virtuous image can ill afford. They will go to their main base."
The boy was clearly about to scorn Lord Vader's certainty…then paused, staring at him intently. "You used the Force—on the pilot, when he was in the detention center. You planted an impulse to return to his main base."
In the grating timbre of Lord Vader's voice, Tarkin heard his annoyance at having their strategy called before he could reveal it himself. "He was the obvious choice, and the plan remains valid despite Kenobi's involvement. Darklighter holds military rank in the Rebellion whereas the Jedi have remained always eager to defend their precious autonomy, lending their abilities but remaining separate. Darklighter will hold to his decision to return to his main base, and where he goes, Kenobi will have no option but to follow…which places the core of the Rebellion within striking distance."
Tarkin didn't miss the reaction from the young man, subtle as it was. The fact that it had silenced him was a surprise in itself. Tarkin risked a momentary glance to the hulking shadow beside him, wondering if Lord Vader had let his peer go through all of his tirade simply for the pleasure of this moment in revealing a greater plan. Certainly his voice, as he continued, was triumphant—near gloating, despite knowing the youth's relationship to the Jedi Kenobi.
"Obi-Wan may have been adept enough to hide from the Empire's fleet for two decades, but hiding from the Death Star will prove a futile endeavour. The Jedi will be dead, the plans destroyed and the Rebellion broken—and the Empire's interests served."
"The Emperor's interests," the younger man corrected sharply, finding his voice again. It was well known that the boy's loyalty to Palpatine was near-zealous, though few knew that he was in the final stages of his training to become an Emperor's Hand—a unique one at that, so the Emperor claimed. For that reason, and that reason alone, Tarkin had always taken care not to cross the boy.
"Of course," Vader said beside him, coolly unrepentant.
The young man at the far side of the table dropped his head slightly, eyes half-closed as if in consideration, as the moment stretched. In the brittle stillness, Tarkin felt as if he were standing at the edge of a storm, the hairs on the back of his neck standing unaccountably on end…
Finally those clear blue eyes opened slowly, and the slightest of icy smiles touched the corners of the boy's lips, unsettling on one so young. "Well then, I see no reason to take responsibility for the proceedings from you. I look forward to observing your…victory."
Vader moved a fraction beside Tarkin. "If there is something you have seen, then—"
"Now what could I possibly see that you could not, Lord Vader?" The youth leaned back, his tone near to a taunt.
Again they remained still, locked in some private battle, no words spoken. Finally Vader wheeled about and strode from the room, leavingAntillesto stare for long moments at the now-closed door before he eventually looked to Tarkin. "Continue on your present course and inform me when you've reached your destination—I'll be in my quarters."
Tarkin frowned just slightly, still privately fuming at having had his authority here usurped. A clear, if indirect, indication that the Emperor was more than willing to rescind power and favor on a whim, and an unwelcome reminder of what their failure here would bring down on both himself and Lord Vader, should they disappoint. Now,Antillestoo was inescapably involved, it seemed—and of all those here, he knew best just what Palpatine's fury could be.
Still, it was hardly the first time that the youth had been placed in such a position of risk to further his training, and when he was, he had a reputation for acting without hesitation, with the confidence that only youth could muster... Yet now, worryingly, he seemed disinclined to take the authority granted him.
"You don't wish to go to the bridge?" Tarkin asked.
"No,"Antillessaid, very sure. "If you're both so confident of your plan, then carry it to its conclusion."
Tarkin nodded once before walking calmly from the room, privately wondering if he was being given enough rope to hang himself. If so, he would prove the little upstart wrong, Sith or no. It wasn't enough that the Emperor had forced one Sith on him for the Death Star's inaugural actions; now he had two—and he was very much aware that he was caught in the middle of their own private power-struggles.
Ah, but such power, he reflected as he walked; what he wouldn't give to stand at that level… In fact there was only one price that he wasn't prepared to pay, and that was to place himself in the line of fire between these two warriors, because he was hardly the only one to believe that in the end, despite the Emperor's orders to the contrary, there could only be one possible outcome.
The trick then, was to place himself above them—a difficult thing to do, given their position. Still, Tarkin had always enjoyed the Emperor's confidence, and the removal of the Rebellion's main base may well enable him to cement that patronage in a way that would make him untouchable even to Palpatine's Sith. When this action was successful, he would make sure it was he and not Vader who took the credit. And if it did fail…well then he would put equal effort into making sure that Lord Vader took every bit of the blame.
Luke relaxed slightly as Tarkin left, well aware of the old Moff's astute sense of political survival. "Well, I'm sure Tarkin will dedicate the next few hours to looking for a hundred and one ways to deflect culpability."
"For the plans?" Solo asked.
"For this whole fiasco," Luke replied thoughtfully. "It's not over yet."
"You think it's not gonna work?"
Luke half-closed his eyes. "I don't know. I see…complications—especially when Jedi are involved. This could easily get out of hand, and like Tarkin, I don't want to be the one in charge if it does."
Having now experienced firsthand what the repercussions were to a Force-sensitive when the Death Star turned its destructive power on a planet, Luke couldn't care less if it were to fail in its first major battle; he'd never trusted it throughout its manufacture, and with only one deployment, he'd already come to loath it intensely. But if his Master wanted it then the choice was his, and Luke would do as he was commanded and ensure its safety.
Still, for himself, he wanted as little to do with it as possible—in fact he'd put a great deal of time and effort into just that during the last few years—and now, thanks to Vader and Tarkin's ineptitude, he'd somehow ended up in command of it. But he hadn't survived nine years beneath Palpatine's constant attention without developing a shrewd survival instinct of his own, and nothing concentrated that sense like the knowledge that he was responsible for this monstrosity, to his Master's usual high expectations. If Tarkin failed in delivering the outcome the Emperor expected, he would doubtless receive a demotion to Moff and a year's cold shoulder. If Luke were to fail…
Even Tarkin believed Luke was untouchable, he could sense that distinctly within the man's resentment of him. He thought Luke to be the Emperor's blue-eyed boy, his rising star. He never once considered the price for such favor. When Luke had needed help, no one had been there…so why should he care now about anyone else? You were alone in the galaxy. You could count on no one to help you—ever. He'd learned that the hard way; had the lesson underlined again and again by his Master, with his own unique twist. Luke's mind went, as it always did in such moments, to his mother. In a searing flash he saw her as he always saw her now, shouting out, eyes wide in desperate fear…
He jolted straight, blinking the vision away…but the guilt remained, gnawing within him. His Master had promised that it would cease—that if he always did as commanded, then the scar would fade without a trace…but it never had. He'd done everything asked of him, always…yet that moment remained, a wound within his memories which never healed.
To Han's count, this was the fifth night without any sleeping tablets, and though they'd left the Vendetta and so no one here commed him with carefully-worded queries as to whether Commander Antilles should be up at four a.m., the kid was still racking up an impressive hours record without the nightly tablets. Tonight it was the comms room, and it was midnight, so Han was making one last check in before he went to bed, figuring—hoping—that maybe if everyone stopped harassing the kid about what he could and couldn't do, he'd eventually realize a few things—like the fact that he needed sleep—for himself.
When he entered the comms room, the three non-coms on duty there all gave him hopeful, long-suffering looks. It didn't take Han long to realize why; in the amount of time it took him to walk across the cabin and stand behind the kid where he stood at a console, Luke had played the same short message four times.
"Listen to this." Luke didn't turn as Han came to a stop, simply keying the console to play again.
It was short, just two brief sentences of garbled patois in a man's voice. "Where's it from…the Rebels?"
"It's the message that the shuttle with Darklighter onboard sent off, just before they jumped to hyperspace." The kid frowned, playing it again. "It's not in the linguistics base, but it's definitely spoken as a language, rather than a code or random words. The translator can identify Corellian and Basic words, but they make no sense, and there's not enough to start deciphering it."
He played it again, and Han watched as one of the non-coms stood and left the room with a pained expression, before he turned back to Luke. "How many times have you played this?"
"Listen—it's one short sentence, then a repetition in the middle of the second sentence…hear it? He says 'we have' twice in Basic, in the second sentence, then 'we're' soon afterwards."
Han dropped his voice. "It says, 'Pilot Two to…something Base. We have the plans—repeat, we have the plans and…something…we're on our way'. At least, that's what it's supposed to say. The guy's obviously not Corellian, it sounds like someone's taught him it practically by rote—he gets a few words in the wrong order."
Luke turned, eyes widening, then immediately looked to the two remaining non-coms. "You're dismissed."
They couldn't get out of the room fast enough.
"How do you know it?" Luke asked.
"It's Kodig Cant, a kind of patois spoken by Corellian smugglers."
"How would you know what Corellian smugglers speak?" The kid worked it out even as he asked the question. "Shrike—because of Shrike."
"Your pilot there must know there's someone at the other end who could understand it—probably the Corellian who taught it to him."
"Why isn't it on the linguistics base?"
Han shrugged. "It's a smugglers' language—they don't exactly bandy it about. They sure as hell don't put it in linguistics libraries. Plus it changes constantly, it's supposed to be erratic and random."
It was the most animated Han had seen the kid in a while. Indo may have poured information into him, but the kid had a drive to learn too, that much was clear.
"Teach you Kodig?"
"C'mon, I'm good at languages."
"It's not really a language, more…just an assortment of slang and colloquialisms, words and phrases that mean other things entirely. You kinda learn it on the job. And when the hell would you use it, anyway?"
"I would have used it now, for one."
"It's not written down anywhere."
"Well then tell it to me! C'mon, I taught you how to avoid having your thoughts read."
Han sighed. "It changes all the time…what I know won't be current any more."
"You knew that," Luke argued, nodding toward the comm console. "C'mon, it'll be something to do when I should be smoking spice."
"Shouldbesmoking?" Han asked dryly. "And what is this, blackmail?"
The kid grinned. "You make it sound so cheap."
"I'll think about it," Han evaded.
"While you're thinking about it, why don't you get out an audio loop and dictate the words."
"There're about five hundred words!"
"Well that sounds perfect." Kid grinned, tilting his head. "Speed your brain works, by the time you've thought about it, you'll've got through just about that many."
The briefing broke up by mutual consent, none of its members actually wanting to be there in the first place, a fact that had made it one of the briefest military meetings Han had ever attended. And probably one of the most antagonistic; sitting against the wall at the kid's back with Indo, Han had watched from a ringside seat as Luke again sat in what was clearly the station commander's chair at the big, circular conference table, with Tarkin sitting directly opposite and Vader to one side of him, elbows on the table, hands clasped with fingers intertwined, the hide of his black gloves creaking occasionally as his grip tightened.
The signal they'd been waiting for from the hidden tracker had begun transmitting, and the Death Star was already at lightspeed, on course to the Yavin system in the Outer Rim, with the SD Vendetta travelling in sync. With nothing bigger than a standard frigate near to the signal's location in the Yavin system, and the Death Star only a day's travel away, the decision was made to hold off any local response. Tarkin in particular seemed eager that the Death Star be the first and only military means in the system when they reached the base, claiming that it was fitting that on its inaugural flight, the Death Star would effectively remove the core of all organized Rebellion. He'd even tried—and been vetoed by Luke—to redirect the Vendetta from the upcoming action.
Generally though, rather than impose his view backed up by the Emperor's mandate, the kid had remained silent, allowing Grand Moff Tarkin to continue to dictate events. In fact throughout most of Tarkin's posturing, Luke had kept his head down, presumably staring at the polished table before him, whose black surface mirrored the low ambient lighting which picked out the angular details to the walls of the circular room. Vader's only contribution had been to turn several times to stare stonily at Luke, though the kid never once looked to him, head remaining down.
The sticking point had come towards the end of the meeting.
"The Frigate Pavlic has long-range scouts in less than a day's range," Luke had observed, eyes on the datapad he'd brought in with him. "We could revert briefly from lightspeed to organize a recon, so we have intel when we arrive at Yavin."
"We don't need scoutship aid," Tarkin dismissed brusquely. "The information is irrelevant."
Luke lifted his head and even Vader turned slightly, though he didn't allow a rift to be seen in the united front he and Tarkin maintained before the kid. Han had to wonder what he felt behind closed doors, 'cos Vader didn't come over as the tolerant type. Still, his silence now meant that it was left to Luke to state what seemed glaringly obvious to Han.
"Advance information is never irrelevant."
"The Death Star makes such trivia unimportant," Tarkin held. "This will not be an interdiction and aerial bombardment. Such tactics are now obsolete. We will arrive in the system and we will destroy Yavin Four. Completely."
Sitting behind the kid, Han saw him straighten in a brief moment of visible discomfort. Tarkin's eyes dropped to even deeper shadows as he frowned. "You surely don't disagree? You don't think that this situation—this opportunity—deserves anything less than the ultimate response?"
"Of course it deserves a response equal to its threat. They deserve total eradication." Luke put down the stylus Han hadn't even known he'd been holding, then straightened the datapad before him, playing for time for a few moments before he looked up. "However, I need to consult with the Emperor before I can sanction that decision."
Beside Han, Indo let out a quiet huff as he moved slightly, a huge reaction from the normally inscrutable Viscount.
Tarkin's jaw set beneath hollowed cheeks as he stared at Luke, voice strained. "You hold the Emperor's mandate."
The kid held that flinty glare without flinching. "I hold it, I don't abuse it."
"It's hardly a difficult decision."
Only now did Han begin to think on Luke's reluctance to take command here, when he'd done so without a second's hesitation onboard the Immortal. His mind went back to the very first time he and Luke had really spoken, in the library at the palace, when the kid had first mentioned the battle station they were now onboard and Han had asked him the question that nobody else seemed willing to: "What if your finger's on that button?"
"If so, you can be confident you'll get the answer you clearly want." Luke stood briskly, looking to bring the meeting to an end. "If there's nothing else at this time?"
Tarkin too rose, his frustration obvious. "We have less than three hours to reversion—do you intend to consult the Emperor on every aspect of our operation whilst you're here?"
"This battle station acts in the Emperor's name and to his advantage, Grand Moff Tarkin. Perhaps if you remembered that more often, I wouldn't have to be here at all. I will consult with him, and give you your permissions in due time."
Tarkin stared across the large table, but having the Emperor's will invoked was a hard thing to counter, and the kid kept his nerve, looking down at his datapad as if it held his attention completely. With a twitch of a sneer and a narrowing of his gray eyes, the Grand Moff let the moment slide, and exited in silence. Vader too stood, and his angled mask tilted from the kid up to Indo.
"I heard mention recently of an incident at a reception in the Imperial palace," he ground in bass tones, "when a youth was heard to warn another that little fish should not try to swim with sharks." That massive form held silent for a heartbeat, the irregular angles of his mask reflecting harsh slices of light in the unrelentingly stark room. "Perhaps he should listen to his own advice."
He turned, wide cloak flaring as he left without looking back.
Several times during the meeting Han had seen Indo, sitting beside him, shake his head infinitesimally, his frustration that Luke consistently refused to take charge obvious. Had Vader and Tarkin not been in the room, Han knew damn well that the Viscount would have been one pace behind the kid throughout, egging him on to take the initiative, pushing him to make that assessment and take control. So Han was expecting some kind of reaction when the meeting broke up; he wasn't disappointed. The door had barely closed before Indo set forward.
"Don't—do not contact the Emperor on this."
Luke turned. "I can't—" he stopped himself, changing his choice of words. "It's not my decision to make."
"It's precisely that. You carry the Emperor's mandate—his confidence. Your word is his. He expects you to make this decision." Indo paused, his demeanor that of someone searching to rein in his frustration while stating the glaringly obvious. " Luke, you cannot allow personal aversion to a mission to interfere with the execution of your duty. You have been sent here to take command."
"No, I was sent here to finish my mission regarding the stolen plans, deal with any fallout and put the matter to rest. Which is a little difficult now that Vader and Tarkin have handed the plans over to the Rebellion."
"You're avoiding the issue."
"And you're extending the mandate. I wasn't sent here to take control."
Indo stepped closer, tilting his head to look at the kid when he wouldn't meet Indo's eyes. "The mandate came from the Emperor himself. Your taking complete control here was implicit. There's…" Indo paused, standing level with the table where the kid's hand still rested on his datapad. "What's that?"
It was only when Han followed Indo's gaze that he noticed the edge of a sheet of flimsiplast under Luke's datapad. The kid didn't look down—but he kept his hand resting on the pad that covered it. "Nothing."
"Luke—" Indo's voice hardened.
"You brought it into a meeting, here?"
Luke finally looked to Indo, expression stony. "Stop. Just stop, now."
"You cannot divide your attention in the middle of…"
"I said stop."
Indo tried to take the piece of flimsy, but the kid's hand remained pressed on the datapad, holding it firm beneath. "If you want to actually help, then go down to the fighter bays and ensure they've got two free cradles which can service Interceptors, and be ready to go over to the Vendetta immediately when we revert to realspace, to make sure that my Interceptor is transferred to the Death Star."
"Interceptor?" Indo stared, the flimsiplast forgotten. "When we revert from lightspeed, your place will be on the bridge of the Death Star."
"I am not commander of this battle station.” Luke squared his jaw, though his eyes remained on the datapad before him. “I'm not going to be forced into a position where I take an unfamiliar and untried piece of hardware that I have little faith in, into battle. It's not worth the risk."
"The risk is already present, at your own making. If you don't take control, you're relying on another's decisions when your abilities give you an edge that they simply do not have. You're also risking the Emperor's disapproval when he finds out that you sought to avoid the very situation that he sent you here to gain experience in." Again, Indo softened. "Luke, this is nothing you haven't done before, only the scale has changed."
The kid was silent for a long time, eyes down as his tense face flicked with half-hidden emotions. He didn't want to do this, Han could see that. Didn't want to be involved. And Han couldn't blame him; putting down an insurgent attack on a single military base was one thing...this was entirely different.
Even Indo knew it—if for entirely different reasons. "This is your opportunity to step ahead. Palpatine said that your present authority could become permanent if you proved yourself worthy in this mission." The Viscount straightened, his tone solemn, tinged with reproach. "You know what he expects you to do…will you disappoint again?"
Luke pursed his lips and glanced aside, torn. His eyes almost came to Han, but he stopped, raising his chin. His voice, when he quietly spoke, was as much regret as it was resolve. "No. No, I won't."
Indo let his own head drop slightly in relief. "Then you'll authorize the action?"
Still the Viscount didn't let up. Maybe he knew the kid too well. "Now?"
Luke straightened at that. "I'll authorize it when my Interceptor is in the bay, here."
"Your place is on the Bridge. It's not in a fighter, and it's not drawing doodles in a conference room whilst allowing some Grand Moff to dictate to you, when you should already be on that bridge, having taken command."
Again Indo tried to pull at the sheet of flimsy, and again the kid pressed his fingers against the datapad that was over it, stopping him from pulling it free.
"And your place is to do as you're instructed," he bit out. "I asked you to ensure that my Interceptor is transferred to the Death Star, and facilities are available. Please do so...or would you prefer me to make it an order?"
Indo took a step back, face hardening as his eyes narrowed, his voice coolly offended. "Very well, Commander. I trust that whilst I am executing my duty, you shall do yours."
He held the kid's eyes for a second longer, then turned about and strode from the room.
For long seconds Han stared in silence at the closed door, aware that the kid was doing the same. When he eventually turned to Luke, the kid rolled his head as he let out a breath. "Well that's gonna come back and bite me."
Han stared…but he just couldn't not ask. "Are you gonna give the order?"
Luke looked down, frowning, then slid his datapad back from the piece of flimsiplast, unbidden. Han glanced at the fine-lined sketch, quickly drawn, surprised that the kid would give up without hesitation what he'd so determinedly kept from Indo. "What's that?"
The kid sat back down, tilting his head as if studying it for the first time. "I don't know; a canyon…somewhere. Geology look at all familiar?"
Han stared; it was a landscape, which he'd never seen the kid draw ever before, of open plains edged by high canyon walls and sheer cliff faces. In the center of the image, the erosion had created two towering columns surmounted by a natural stone bridge, and underneath it a series of podracers were maneuvering through the limited space of the rock formation—at speed, judging by their angled engines. Luke picked up the stylus again and trailed it over the surface.
"This is sandstone, all of it, with striations in the stone. Looks like erosion, presumably by sand, since this is all desert." As he spoke he drew deeper lines into the strong shadows. "Bright light—very bright."
"You don't know what you drew?" Han asked, askance.
"I didn't draw it," the kid said thoughtfully. "I picked it out of Vader's head."
"Y…you took that out of Vader's head…in the meeting? Does he know?"
Luke turned to fix Han with a dry stare, before looking back to the sketch. "This is something familiar, something he knew. It's not just something he's seen, the memory was too sharp, too intense. He knew this moment."
"You're actually trying to get us killed, aren't you? Why don't you just pop the guy in the nose and have done with it."
"Because I can't see his nose…and this way's more fun."
"You're a weird kid, you know that? Why can't you…" Han paused as a stray thought clicked. "Moisture farmers."
"Moisture farmers, remember? Vader said it about the Rebel pilot. Something about moisture farmers and desert planets."
"Desert planets—Darklighter! Where was he from?"
Luke pulled his datapad back, but paused before activating it. "I can't use this—I have to get the information quietly and the pad'll connect to the Death Star's main hub."
"Why is it important?" Han asked.
Luke chewed his nail as he considered, ignoring the question entirely. "I don't know the system or security set-up they have here, so it would take time to get round it. I could use Hand codes to bypass it, but they register on Coruscant." He straightened. "The Vendetta! She'll be alongside in a few hours!"
"Seriously, why do you want to know?"
This time the kid looked down, uncomfortable for a moment. "Know your enemies," he said at last.
Except Vader shouldn't be one, of course, Han knew. Which left the burning question—why? Why was he?
Han glanced to the half-healed scar over the kid's eye, suture lines still visible. Its smooth, dark crescent described exactly the cowl of Vader's saber hilt, from when he'd caught the kid a heavy blow barely an inch above his eye. You had to wonder what would make someone willing to do that to a kid… It occurred to him only now that Luke, growing up with that constant, undisguised and unrepentant threat, sure as hell had to be looking for some kind of explanation.
Han sat, and slid the flimsiplast over to study it again, more carefully this time.
"Well, these are podracers," he said at last. "They only race 'em in a few places, and this looks like a race. I guess we could start there."
Han was with Luke in Ops 3 when the Death Star came out of hyperspace with a jolt, the Yavin System's many planets spattering into view about the gas giant itself. The kid glanced up only once then turned away, continuing his scan of the log reports from the various officers and non-coms who had been on duty and caught up in the escape of Kenobi and the Rebels; the second night running now. He hadn't said anything to anyone, even Han, but it was obvious that he was fascinated with Kenobi's appearance here. Couldn't blame him, Han supposed. In sixteen years, this was the closest the kid had come to his own father…aside from the time Kenobi had tried to kill him.
It was just a few hours to midnight, Coruscant time—which the Imperial fleet ran to wherever it was—and Indo had left word that he was to be contacted when the Death Star came out of hyperspace. Han was in no hurry, so instead walked forward to the wide viewscreen, more for something to do than anything else.
After a few minutes the kid looked up again, staring at Yavin. "Why aren't we under power?"
The usual barely discernable rumble of any ship under power was undetectable on the Death Star by dint of its sheer mass, Han supposed. So instead, he turned his attention to the massive gas giant, which appeared to be coming no closer. "I dunno. Which moon were we headed for?"
"Well unless we're actually parked on top of it, we're not gettin' any nearer."
Luke abandoned his reading to flick on the comm, keying for the bridge. "This is Commander Antilles. Locate Grand Moff Tarkin for me."
"He's on the Bridge, sir."
There was a long pause, before the kid glanced up to roll his eyes at Han, exasperated. "Well then bring him to the comm."
To Han, Tarkin's voice was the same mix of barely controlled antagonism and forced indulgence that Luke's face was.
"We seem to be stationary, Moff Tarkin."
Han didn't miss the kid's omission of Tarkin's full title.
"We've stopped clear of the gas giant's influence. Yavin Four's orbit will bring it into range within fifteen…"
"… Yes." The voice dripped dry patience.
"Forgive me if I'm mistaken, but I was under the impression that this station had its own sublight maneuvering thrust system. Perhaps it's offline?"
Tarkin ignored the snide snipe. "The Rebel moon's planetary orbit will place it in range shortly."
"Do we need to conserve power? I understand you were having numerous…teething problems with the superlaser's avid power consumption."
Han glanced down; he had to hand it to the kid, he sure knew how to throw a sideways slur to get someone's ire up.
Tarkin's voice was starting to tighten. "The superlaser is already at full power."
"Then there's presumably some other reason why the Rebel moon is still in existence?"
"Calculations are underway to assess the mass of the moon's core in order to attain optimum firing position and focus the beam. I see no reason for us to reach the moon before we're able to fire on it."
"No reason to ensure that any capital ships in orbit don't begin evacuating now, since you've very considerately given them advance notice that we're in the system?" Luke asked dryly. "Or that they don't muster up an attack force, since they know we're coming…albeit very slowly."
"Nothing they have down there—or anywhere else, for that matter—has the slightest ability to inflict any lasting damage on a structure of this size."
"I'm sure that's what the captain of the Intrepid said a few weeks ago…just before it had the distinction of becoming the first ever Star Destroyer to be obliterated in a frontal assault by Rebel snub-nose fighters."
"I was under the impression that you had abstained from exercising your option to direct this mission, Commander Antilles."
"I didn't abstain from pointing out the glaringly obvious, Moff Tarkin," Luke parried. He glanced briefly up to Han to raise his eyebrows in amusement, having gone past actually needing to clarify anything, and typically just pushing for the hell of it now. "Like for instance, why you're waiting to take readings on the Rebel moon, when you could just as easily take a reading on the gas giant right in front of you and remove it instead."
"It seems that you're not up to date with the station's technical spec, Commander. If you were, you'd know that the superlaser is of sufficient power that it can be fired once in any twenty-four hour cycle."
"I did read that…in fact, I read it twice, because I couldn't quite believe it. Glaring flaws aside, the knock-on effects of destroying the gas giant would also effectively raze any orbiting bodies…including the fourth moon. Save all this waiting around," Luke added sardonically.
The line fell silent for long seconds.
"Cold feet all of a sudden?" The kid pushed. "That's not like you, Tarkin."
"In point of fact there are three habitable moons in the Yavin System, and the Rebel base inhabits only one. Destroying the gas giant and thus all of its twenty-six moons seems…excessive."
"I thought excessive was what the Death Star did."
"You confuse excessive with effective."
Luke smiled thinly. "No, I really don't—and it leaves me feeling somewhat in the minority here."
Tarkin didn't rise to the bait. "You seem to have gained your nerve somewhat since our last meeting. Am I to assume you have spoken with the Emperor?"
"No…" The kid glanced down, his composure cracking just slightly. "No, I'll make the decision unilaterally."
"And your decision is to fire on the gas giant?"
"No, I'm simply clarifying the ramifications of our actions. I wonder whether your astrophysicists will be including in their calculations a breakdown of the knock-on effects of simply removing one moon from a system as congested as Yavin? Because the laws of physics dictate that removing one moon will juggle the inter-reliant orbits of any close planets around sufficiently that they're either going to develop instabilities or have any atmosphere they hold ripped away…that is, if they're not dragged out of their existing orbits altogether. If I authorize the destruction of Yavin Four, you're effectively asking me to authorize the destruction of most of the moons orbiting Yavin anyway." Luke gave another dry smile, too worldly to his young face. "But then I guess we're right back at the excessive versus effective argument."
"First you suggest destroying the gas giant, and now you're worried about collateral damage," Tarkin said coolly.
"Perhaps I simply like to make an informed decision," Luke countered.
"Ah, then you will eventually make one? I ask because the Death Star will be in firing range of Yavin Four within minutes."
"I'll come down to the bridge."
"There's really no need," Tarkin ground out.
In the background, an unknown officer spoke out. "Sir, preliminary scans detect multiple power surges; the Rebels are launching ships from the surface of Yavin Four."
Before Han, the kid's expression hardened. "I think there is," he said simply, and cut the comm.
Luke sat for a moment, staring at the deactivated comlink…and Han had to ask, because the fact was, he truly didn't know; "You wouldn't…" he hesitated, "You wouldn't actually do that—destroy the gas giant—would you?
Luke's eyes remained on the comlink for a moment as if Han hadn't spoken… Then suddenly, as if remembering his presence, the kid glanced up, grinning. "Seriously, you think I'd destroy an entire system to get to one bunch of miscreants who, at the rate we're going, will probably have left by the time we reach their base anyway?"
"What about the other stuff you said—the moons being knocked from their orbits if you destroy just one—is that true?"
The smile dropped slowly from the kid's face, and finally he looked away, studying the datapad before him.
"It would depend how close their orbits are," the kid said quietly at last. "Orbiting bodies act under individually dictated gravitational influence imposed by the largest mass, which would be Yavin itself. But the combined effect of other orbiting bodies is always significant in a system of close orbital paths, particularly those with atmospheric stability. Debris alone in a system this congested would be a major problem."
It was neutrally spoken, like dictating from a text. Han stared… "Are you gonna give the order?"
Luke slouched forward in his chair to drop his head forwards and drag his fingers through unruly hair until they clasped at the nape of his neck. "It makes no difference who gives the order. One way or another it'll be given, and Yavin Four destroyed. We're on an irreversible course, now. We're committed." He shook his head as he looked up to Han, as if to rally his own thoughts. "And we should be—they're the enemy. We should be prepared to use any means necessary to stop them."
"Yes, like this!" The kid rose quickly, turning about to half-throw his chair back to the desk. "Why are you asking me? You think I have any say at all on what goes on here? You think I can stop it?" His voice was rising, his frustration obvious. "I'm nobody, you understand? I have no say, I have no power; this—all this supposed status that means so much to Indo—it's nothing. It's not real. If I say no, you know what happens? Tarkin contacts the Emperor, gets permission and fires his damn planet-killer anyway, Indo goes crazy and lectures me for a week straight, and eventually…eventually, I have to go back to face Palpatine, and explain my actions." The kid calmed, his voice quieting as his flare of temper drained to resignation. "And nothing will have changed—nothing. Yavin Four will still be gone, Keno…" Luke stopped, correcting himself. "The Rebels will still be dead, I'll still have been here to…to sense that. Nothing will have changed…except that I'll be going back to face Palpatine, in the wrong, yet again."
Han stared at the brief slip, as realization of the kid's reluctance blared so clearly that he wanted to slap his own forehead. Kenobi. The kid's own father would be on Yavin when they fired this planet-killer. He dropped his head, shaking it slowly at this huge, hells-bound mess.
"It shouldn't matter," Luke said quietly at last without looking. "It's immaterial."
For once, Han didn't chide the kid for reading his thoughts. Because in one word, he'd let slip his reluctance in all of this: shouldn't—it shouldn't matter. Not didn't; shouldn't.
Which meant that it did.
Luke straightened, squaring his jaw as he set off out of the room without looking to Han. "Let's get this over with."
The command bridge was darkened and at battle-ready status when they arrived, the gaunt, hatchet-faced Tarkin already standing in the center of the big room, hands behind his back, eyes on the main, lozenge-shaped screen, which had calculations displayed in wire-frame over an external view of the Yavin system. Beside him, turning slowly about, the hulking form of Darth Vader emanated menace simply by being there.
It was the first time that either Han or the kid had entered the bridge, but Luke strode to the center of the room with a confidence that Han knew damn well he didn't feel. Aware of the curious glances of the multiple officers who manned consoles about te periphery of the wide space, Han slowed to a stop well back from the main floor, glancing about the room. Twice the size of a Star Destroyer's bridge, dark plates of plasteel were angled in towards roof level, occasionally set with floor to ceiling banks of elongated oval lights which shone their semi-shuttered glow into the gloom of the room.
The standard five consoles were arrayed on raised platforms about the room, their sectioned arrays facing inwards to the center of the room, set with multiple controls that Han didn't even recognize. The officers who stood at their consoles held hooded eyes on the kid, leaving Han to wonder what scuttlebutt had already made the rounds in the officers' mess about the appearance of a Ubiqtorate officer onboard. Luke stopped to the far side of Tarkin but even so, his slight frame was dwarfed by Vader's bulk—though as ever, he wasn't letting it faze him. Instead he turned to tactical, all business.
"What are they sending up?"
The officer glanced briefly to Tarkin, who nodded; Tarkin definitely manned his new command with officers he knew he could trust, then.
"They're sending snub-nose fighters, sir."
Luke stared for a second. When the man said nothing more, Luke prompted, "What else do they have in-system?"
"We've detected three small frigates and a number of smaller freight transports in-system, but none have come out to engage us."
Again the man had glanced to Tarkin, his reluctance obvious—in fact Han was surprised the kid let it pass. Instead, Luke turned back to the viewscreen, looking to Yavin.
"How many snubs?"
"Six squadrons, sir; seventy-two X-wings, plus two squadrons of Y-wings."
"It's hardly surprising," Tarkin dismissed. "Intelligence informs us that the Rebels are low on snub-nose fighters."
Luke turned. "Because?"
"I thought you would have read the briefings," Tarkin dug discretely. "They're logged on the station's main information hub. A large percentage of the Rebellion's snub-nose fighters were destroyed when the Rebel Destroyer Fortressa attacked the Death Star. It was the station's first true battle, and a resounding victory. The Fortressa was destroyed by a single blast of the superlaser at just four percent power, and most of the small fighters picked off in combat."
"So you're telling me that your own defensive force allowed a hostile capital ship to get within two thousand clicks of the Death Star, and were subsequently so slow to respond that the Rebel ship had enough time to launch multiple fighter wings?" Luke parried smoothly.
Tarkin loosed a death's head smile. "As ever, you miss the point. I'm telling you that our first engagement was also our first victory."
"In a battle that shouldn't have taken place. Your first engagement was due to the failure of existing forces under your command, to defend a key asset."
"It was also proof that we don't need any protection. This battle station makes all existing models of warfare obsolete."
"You're posturing, Tarkin, and you have no audience here. Careful your ego doesn't make statements your technology can't deliver.
Vader turned to regard the kid, the tilt in that angled helmet betraying…interest, Han supposed; it was difficult to tell. But the kid's words had caught his attention, that much was obvious.
Tarkin straightened, eyes narrowing. "Is that what you say to the Emperor about me?"
"I don't say anything to the Emperor about you…or this. He forms his own opinions." Luke paused strategically. "But if it was even half as high as your own, I wouldn't be here."
From the engineering console a helmeted officer spoke up, his comment obviously aimed at Tarkin. "Sir, final calculations are complete; we're approximately nine minutes from optimum firing position."
"Pass the co-ordinates to helm, and bring us into position." Tarkin looked expectantly to Luke, and Han knew what he was waiting for.
"We will be ready to fire on the Rebel base in minutes. I believe that we are required to come to a mutual decision to fire the primary weapon. Lord Vader and I are in agreement. Your decision is now necessary."
Han narrowed his eyes, aware that Tarkin was using some pretty fancy words to dance around the fact that in effect, he had to ask the kid's permission to fire. His inclusion of Vader's consent also left Han wondering if Tarkin was doing exactly as the kid had said he would, and working hard to make sure that if anything went wrong, it wasn't his head on the block. Han moved, uneasy; was the politically savvy Moff equally willing to use Luke?
The kid stared at the blue-green orb of Yavin Four as the silence stretched. When he finally spoke, it wasn't what Han—or anyone else, he suspected—had expected to hear.
"Why snub-noses? They have Frigates in orbit—why not use them?"
Tarkin turned a fraction, his exasperation obvious in his dismissal of the incoming fighters. "Perhaps they use snubs to cover their backs and buy them time whilst they load the transports ships for escape—for all the good it will do them.
Luke half-turned to the tactical console. "Take the primary weapon computations off the main screen and pull up external data displays." He took a step forward to stare intently at the main screen as the readouts changed, a wireframe of the Death Star and the incoming snub-nose fighters replacing the calculations to destroy the Rebel moon. "They wouldn't do it if they thought it was pointless—they know they're not about to slow us down and they need the manpower at their base if they're trying to withdraw. This is an organized attack to a pre-arranged plan—they have something."
Vader too, had taken a step closer to study the placement of the incoming fighters. Tarkin was less interested. "This is immaterial. The fighters have no consequence on the upcoming action."
"If the Death Star is so very invincible, then waiting for one more minute before firing will make no difference to the battle's outcome." Luke turned briefly to the tactical officer. "Analyze the incoming ships' courses, look for a projected target or strategy."
The officer again glanced to Tarkin for permission, and this time Luke rounded on him, incensed. "Don't look at him! When I give you an order you obey it!"
The man staggered as if half-pushed, half-dragged violently forward by some invisible force, thrown against his console with sufficient strength that he was forced to catch himself with the flat of his hands against it, gasping for breath—and Han knew what the kid had done.
"Do you understand?" Luke yelled the words to everybody there as he turned about, any trace of the reserved youth who had walked so quietly onto the bridge a few moments ago, gone. The officer who glared with open fury at them now was absolutely in control, his presence filling the vast room, no less than total obedience acceptable. "This is a military vessel and has a chain of command! If I give an order you obey it immediately, do I make myself clear? Answer!"
A few of the officers looked to Tarkin, but when he didn't dispute the Ubiqtorate officer's demand, they acquiesced, and a murmur of uneasy confirmation travelled around the bridge as Luke’s eyes skipped from face to face, clearly looking for any trace of dissent. Everyone glanced down and remained silent before this unexpected explosion, only Vader still staring at the kid. Luke's eyes came briefly to Han's, and for a second he held his gaze…the turned back to the still-gasping officer at tactics.
When he spoke, the kid's voice was absolutely calm again, no trace of his previous outburst audible. "Analyze the data. Give me the result as soon as you have it."
Heads lifted all around him as he turned back to the wide viewport, everyone momentarily lost before this mercurial change, unsure what to do. It was Tarkin himself who rallied his officers, a mix of his position and his nerve probably making him feel less threatened than others present.
"Helm, continue to firing position. Ops, I want the status updates on the main cannon in conjunction with that. Tactical, analyze the data and charge all guns for the relevant hemisphere—and get an arrival time for the incoming snubs."
The officers rushed to comply with the flurry of orders, normality restoring itself with the quiet fulfilling of orders issued. It was brittle though, as everyone glanced repeatedly to the slight young man who stood alone before the viewscreen, head to one side as if in consideration, mild and reserved as he had been just minutes before, as if nothing at all had happened. He had, Han supposed, instantly and efficiently dispelled the assumption of everyone there that he was just some naive kid who could be overridden, undermined, or just plain ignored. Everywhere he went the kid had to do it to some degree, Han knew. The same fight for recognition and respect. Interestingly, Han was beginning to realize that the kid’s method was unique in every case, usually equal to the gravity of the situation. This one had been incendiary.
The uncomfortable silence remained for long minutes in which even Han was aware of getting a few wary glances, as if those about him suspected that if they stared too long at the man in the black Ubiqtorate uniform, their actions would be noted and duly reported.
The narrow-faced Tarkin still stood a few steps behind Luke, staring at his back with sufficient heat that the kid had to have known, Sith or not. Still, the shrewd Moff had been smart enough not to let himself get involved in that brief but explosive show of authority that Luke had doled out.
Uneasy, Han twitched his lips as he glanced about, aware that the kid's brittleness was based on his desire not to have been mixed up in any of this in the first place. Was it because of Kenobi's unanticipated presence, or was it simply that he didn't want to become the fall-guy here? Or was it a genuine moral dilemma? Because a few minutes ago, in private, the kid had been all but desperate to shuck this responsibility.
Han straightened; was that what this was all about? Was that the real reason why Palpatine had put the kid in this impossible position? Because as much as Luke did as commanded, he was still privately squeamish about killing—even Han could see that. Had the conniving old man effectively placed him in a position where he'd become a mass-murderer overnight? Han stared, ill at ease; sufficiently so that it brought Luke's gaze about—just as an officer walked forward to murmur something in Tarkin's ear.
Luke turned on the man without hesitation. "Don't whisper to him! If you have something to say, say it aloud."
The man turned, alarmed. "We…we've analyzed their attack, sir, and it seems to be centered around a trench on the equatorial axis. The only item of interest there would be a thermal exhaust port for the main reactor, but the area is shielded."
As Luke stepped in Vader also turned, so that both of them said the same thing in the same moment.
The officer glanced to Vader, but aimed his reply to Luke.
"Standard heavy-laser and ion-fire dissipation, sir, with ray-shielding against small laser fire."
"They're patently not trying to use heavy capital-ship fire," Luke said. "If they're using snubs, it's for a reason…why?"
The man looked at a loss, and Luke walked briskly back to step onto the raised tactical console platform as the nervous officer there backed up rapidly to allow Luke to study the screens.
Han moved closer round the edge of the darkened room, remembering the kid's claim of long ago that the Death Star had shields tiling ninety-seven percent of its surface, which meant it'd stop any big ship in its tracks. But as a snub-nose pilot himself, he saw the galaxy from a particular point of view… "Snubs could maneuver in under the station's shields if they could account for shear."
"But what do they have the firepower to do once they're here?" Luke asked. "Standard snub fire would cause minimal surface damage—at the angle they’d be forced to fly to remain under the shields it wouldn't penetrate more than a level or two. Anything dropped above the projectile shields would be atomized on contact… The only ordnance snubs can carry which would cause any kind of damage if they managed to get under the shields would be guided missiles… Missiles!" He glanced to Han.
"Torpedoes," Han realized. "They're carrying torpedoes!"
Luke glanced to the Ops Officer. "What's the shielding on that exhaust port?
The man frowned. "Sir?"
"The reactor exhaust port—could its shields repel a torpedo?"
The man stepped forward to key in his display. "Sir, shielding is wave-scatter and magnetic pulse, but…it's insufficiently shielded for self-powered proton torpedoes. But they'd have to make a direct hit from a narrow angle—even a partial degree either side would impact close to the surface as the torpedo's drive system tried to correct."
Luke jumped down from the tactical console and started towards Ops. "How deep does the shaft go without deviation—if they got a torpedo down there, how far would it penetrate?"
The man was already skimming through plans as Luke stepped onto the platform. "Sir, it goes directly into the main reactor."
Luke looked to Han. "So the reactor's vulnerable…"
"…to torpedoes launched by snub-nose fighters, flying underneath the projectile shields!" Han finished. "Could they even make that hit?"
Luke glanced back, pointing at the tactical officer. "What snubs are they flying?...Quickly!"
"Sir, I have ID's on multiple types…"
"Near the exhaust port trench."
"X- and Y-wings, sir."
"X's are at three clicks on their top speed," Han supplied. "Y's are slower—maybe two-point five."
Luke's eyes remained on tactical. "What's the refresh on the auto-targeting system of X- and Y-wings—if the snubs were forced to fly fast enough to outrun our trench guns, would their targeting system still be able to make the shot into the exhaust port?"
"Running sims now, sir."
"Don't bother—that's what they're trying for."
Vader stepped forward. "Ops, double theTIEunits launched—inform them what they're dealing with. And have the flight bay ready my fighter."
Tarkin too turned, speaking quickly. "Have every third clutch of guns along the trench manned by hand; they're less predictable than the auto-fire systems." Still, when he looked to Luke, Tarkin's voice had lost none of its supreme confidence. "A precaution; they won't achieve their objective, the strategy is patently unviable. This station is invulnerable."
Whether Vader agreed or not, he'd already turned to stride from the room. Setting off from its far side, Luke was barely a step behind him. Han crossed the deck at a flat run.
"Commander Antilles!" As they passed the center of the room Tarkin reached out, and Han knew the Grand Moff was intending to take hold of the kid's arm—and he knew damn well what would happen if he did.
He lurched hastily forward, hand out to shove Tarkin's outstretched arm away, aware that he looked like some kind of over-zealous minder not allowing anyone near a kid who had so clearly illustrated to everyone present what he was capable of just minutes earlier. Tarkin's eyes came instantly to him, outraged, and what was going through the Grand Moff's mind he could only guess, but what was he supposed to say?
It was Luke who broke the moment, his words bringing Tarkin's fuming eyes from Han. "What—quickly?"
"You have yet to give your decision on the discharge of the primary weapon."
The kid stared for long seconds, the tension visible in his face… "Fire the weapon. You have authorization to destroy Yavin Four."
Han looked quickly to Luke, but he was already moving off. Glancing just once back to Tarkin, whose stare held the kind of open animosity that promised Han his actions weren't about to be forgotten and that repercussions were on the way, Han turned about and followed him.
In the turbolift, Luke took his comlink out to key a frequency. Han recognized the voice instantly as Indo replied, still cool from his spat with the kid.
"Indo, where are you? Tell me my two Interceptors are in aTIEbay, here?"
"I have already voiced my opinion on this. If you want to ruin your own—"
"They've found a vulnerability in the Death Star—a critical one, that can be triggered by snub-nose fighters. We have to go out and destroy them ship to ship."
"Then let others do that. Your place…"
"My place is to stop that happening. Tarkin's experience is on the bridge of the station he knows inside out—to disrupt that now is counterproductive and you know it. Let him do what he does best, and let me do the same. Indo…" Luke fell to exasperated silence.
The line was quiet for long moments, then, "Your two Interceptors are onboard the Death Star, in TIE bay nine. I came across to the Vendetta an hour ago to arrange the transfer."
Han was already keying the turbolift with its new destination.
Vader was well clear of docking bay four when his scopes picked up the TIE Interceptor batting out of bay nine ahead of him. Knowing that Kenobi's son flew an Interceptor he reached out with the Force to establish that fact, but as ever, the youth kept his presence tightly concealed; the Interceptor may as well have been flown by a drone. But then that in itself was information enough for Vader to open a private channel and bark a brief command.
There was a brief click as the boy joined the private channel to reply. "Stop using comms for irrelevant chatter."
Vader seethed, a snarl audible in his voice. "Go back! Your position here is as operations chief—you should not have left the Death Star bridge. Your duty—scissor!"
Antilles' craft was already moving in the moment that Vader snapped the last, so that even to his veteran eye, his AdvancedTIEand the youth's Interceptor scissored in faultless unison, like a single thought divided.
As a perfect mirror-image both TIEs corkscrewed about the incoming Rebel X-wings' flight paths, decelerating forward motion without sacrificing speed so that the four X-Wings shot past as Vader briefly able to see Antilles through the faceted viewscreen set into the top of his cockpit canopy. As their quarry overshot, both TIEs opened fire, their corkscrew tightening again to lock all four snubs in an ever-reducing helix of overlapping laser fire.
Only the first X-Wing had the time to react and wrenched violently up and away, but in the same second both TIEs pulled out of their helix, the boy'sTIEraking the X-wing in a tight line of fire which brought down its shields, so that Vader finished the job with a single shot and the snub fighter exploded in a bright cloud of superheated gas.
The two TIEs pulled away in perfect unison, Vader taking the arc slightly wider to drop a ship's length behind the boy. Scowling, he opened the comm again. "Go back to the Death Star."
Vader's eyes narrowed at the childish provocation as he glared at the Interceptor in front of him…then his chin came up a fraction as the thought occurred: he could take the shot—right now. The rest of the battle, a miasma of small fighters careening at breakneck speeds over the surface of the Death Star, melted away to an insignificant backdrop as Vader dropped tighter behind theTIEInterceptor.
He could take the shot and be done. It was a dogfight; they were chaotic and frenzied and messy, and any pilot was always at risk from friendly fire…
The boy must have realized that Vader had dropped from a wing to a kill position behind him, because his fighter turned into a loosely evasive downward spiral…and Vader followed, his finger resting lightly on the fire button.
"You're kidding me!" The boy's words came over Vader's comm as half-disbelief, half-dismissal as Vader vectored his fighter's thrust to match the inward curve, looking for that momentary lock.
Genuinely evasive now, the Interceptor ahead of him gave up a little speed to find its tightest angle, leaving Vader to curse inwardly as his heftier Advanced reached its turn tolerance, unable to follow.
"What's wrong," the voice dug, "too much brawn and not enough refinement?"
The boy didn't say it; didn't accuse Vader's whole life of being that…but Vader heard it in the tone of his voice. Yanking at his stick he pulled out of the spiral and into a vertical climb, turning an inverted loop above the Interceptor which gave him the added distance to match its tight turn without leaving the arena…and watched to judge his moment. With pinpoint precision, he brought hisTIE's nose down to drop towards the Interceptor, having matched its tight angle of turn within his high arc to put it in his sights once again.
The boy's voice came back over the comm, though this time despite the goading tone it had a tense edge to it. "You're actually serious, aren't you?"
Vader remained grimly silent, seconds from firing range as he dropped down from his high angle. With no other recourse, the boy should have surrendered more speed to drop into another spiral, the course of which Vader was already anticipating…
Instead he vectored his engines to drag his Interceptor into a wildly skewing half-roll which brought his nose upwards towards his aggressor in a near ninety-degree course change, then rolled from near-stall into a scissor-helix, climbing vertically towards Vader. It was impressive flying, tight and aggressive, and unexpected enough that Vader was forced to yank his own fighter into a tight spiral to avoid becoming the target in this sudden game of dare.
For a split-second each craft had the other almost in their sights head-on as they corkscrewed forwards, each pushing for that target-lock without themselves being targeted…then they shot past in a blur, neither having fired. Vader let out a grunt of frustration and yanked hisTIE's yoke about as the boy's voice came over the comm.
"Oh, so close!"
He had no idea ifAntilleswas talking of his own near-lock or admitting Vader's, but there was something else there too—he heard it quite distinctly…and in hearing it in the boy's voice, he recognized the same in himself. It was enjoyment. Not in anticipation of a kill, but at the simpler satisfaction of finding a worthy opponent who could match him move for move, reaction times honed beyond the physical. As both craft vectored thrust to pull rolling half-loops which would bring them back into range of the other it became, for just a moment, a dare, a challenge, a game of high stakes which left Vader wondering at what point the growl on his lips had become a grin.
As he accelerated, rolling to bring his canopy upright after the half-loop, a secondTIEInterceptor skimmed in at full thrust, passing through the closing gap to catch Vader's eye, knowledge of its pilot bringing the…what? game? opportunity? Whatever it was, Solo's appearance brought the moment to an end.Antillesknew it too, continuing his loop through three hundred degrees to turn his fighter towards the ongoing battle, the comm channel they had shared cutting abruptly to static as the boy probably answered Solo's anxious hail. Vader slowed his ownTIEto watch them accelerate towards the all but forgotten battle as he stared, eyes narrowed in consideration, uncertain how to classify the brief minute or so, the nearest to a commonality that he and Kenobi's son had ever come…
Then he shook his head, flicking his comm channel to hail his own wingmen, already in the fray. Altering his course and ordering them to follow, Vader laid in a new trajectory, heading towards the equatorial trench.
Dropping in behind Luke's already accelerating Interceptor, Han cursed again at the kid's willingness to simply bat out of the hangar and into the fight without waiting for his wingman. If he'd've been in any standardTIEflight, he would have gotten a serious dressing down for it. Here, today…well even Han wouldn't have predicted that one.
He flicked on a comm channel. "Did I just see what I think I saw?"
"No," Luke said flatly.
"Really?" Han asked dubiously. "Cos it sure as hell looked like…"
"Nothing," the kid said quickly. "It was nothing. Do you have the equatorial trench on your nav-screen?"
Han glanced at the ongoing skirmishes, still in full throw about him. "What about the dogfights?"
"Leave the regulars to deal with them. Our fight's at the trench."
They were at full throttle now, the irregular surface of the Death Star a mottled grey blur beneath them. Within seconds, the tiny dots buzzing like angry flies in the distance resolved into enemy snub-nose fighters—perhaps a few dozen, with near free reign over this section. Only a few TIEs were in pursuit, though the Death Star's heavy turbo-lasers, bristling to either side of the equatorial trench, were firing from the surface. Most of the fighters were in two-ship elements, making long strafing runs across the surface in an effort to take out the ground emplacements.
They were in the fight within seconds, just as an X-wing screamed overhead with aTIEclose on its tail. Han watched as theTIEdropped to a perfect kill position and took the X-wing out with two precise shots, then himself exploded into a fiery ball as another X-wing slid in behind him in the pandemonium and took him out with all four laser cannon flaring.
Cursing, Han snapped hisTIEover in a quick reversal to follow the X-wing, lining up for a shot. It juked and twisted, trying a barrel role that would have caused a normalTIEto overshoot, but Han's Interceptor was up to the task and he sat grimly on the pilot's tail, waiting for the shot. Again the snub fighter went evasive, trying a vertical split-S which dropped both fighters dangerously close to the Death Star's unforgiving surface before they climbed at near-stall in a tight spiral.
"Local ace, huh?" Han murmured quietly, noting the wing ID; it had a red marking with five dashes, which surprised him; he'd've thought it would have been the Group Leader.
On the climb-out he vectored his thrust and angled shields to wring that extra degree of turn and managed to clip Five's upper port wing, getting the satisfaction of seeing a flare light within its port engine as the ship lunged briefly but regained stable flight and tried another one-eighty roll and turn to shake him loose.
At the same time, Flight Command's voice cut across all channels. "TIEwings, this is Flight. We've broken the Rebel code and are transmitting on frequency nine-nine-six."
Han immediately flicked his own comlink to play it as a backtrack behind activeTIEchannels, and heard the voices of the snub pilots cut in.
"…watch your back, fighter above you coming in."
"I'm hit but not bad. Artoo, see what you can do. Hang on back there."
Han pursed his lips; that was his mark—the X-wing he'd just clipped! A woman's voice, tight and tense.
Another voice, rushed and anxious: "Red Six, do you see Red Five?"
"Yeah," Han growled to himself. "She's about three seconds from my crosshairs." Juking his stick, he fired, but the shots went low by a few degrees as the X-wing shimmied.
"There's a heavy fire zone this side."
"Red Five, where are you?"
"I can't shake him!"
"Damn straight," Han murmured, eyes fixed on his target as they weaved.
"I'm on him. Hold on."
"Blast it, Biggs, where are you?"
Han glanced around, realizing that he was about to be in someone else's sights, eyes on the heads-up display in his helmet visor for the position of his attacker…
He came from exactly the last place Han would have looked. The X-wing streaking away from him dipped abruptly as another fighter came intowardsHan on exactly the same course. Han slewed wildly, throwing the Interceptor into an inverted looping reversal as the X-wing closed, guns blazing—
A spang of green shots from one side lanced across Han's vision as Luke'sTIEcame in from a high angle, firing all six guns in brief succession and causing the X-wing to give up on his certain kill and roll away into a wide split-S as his shields flared.
Breathing again, Han keyed his comm. "Thanks—great timing."
"Much like your friend in the X-wing," the kid's voice came back.
"Yeah, that guy's mine." Han glanced about, fully intended to follow through on that threat first chance he got, despite the amusement in Luke's reply.
"I think that's what he was saying about you a moment ago."
"It's not who says it first that counts, kid. It's who says it last."
"Red Leader, this is Gold Leader. We're starting our attack run."
Han glanced about, trying to pin down the speaker as he and the kid dropped automatically to the surface, aileron-turning as he went. "There—the Y-wings!"
Both TIEs pulled out of their dive and levelled in tight formation, though the kid didn't drop into the trench. "Wait, stay high."
They held position above and behind the three Y-wings who'd dropped down into the trench. A stray shot from an X-wing caused the kid to juke briefly, but he didn't change course. On Han's scopes, three friendlies dropped with military precision on the X-wing responsible, and its signal flashed out of existence under intense fire, the flare of its demise already behind Han. To the edge of his vision he saw theTIEwho had taken out the Rebel snub as it snap-rolled towards another target, two wingmen in tow: Vader.
Han could have sworn that when he'd exited the hangar, Vader and the kid were actually in a head-on helix roll…and the only reason you ended up like that was as a last-ditch attempt to take out an attacker.
So why exactly had Vader just shot a bogey off the kid's back?
Probably not a good time to start quizzing him about that. Luke was still maintaining his line above the trench that the three Y-wings were hurtling down to line up for a bombing run, despite every gun in the trench loosing a hail of defensive fire.
"Drop down and take the shot," Han shouted, aware that they were starting to attract the attention of other Rebel snubs, and Vader and his wingmen were elsewhere.
"Wait," the kid said again.
The first ranging shot from one of the distant Y-wings zipped past Han'sTIE, close enough to spang against his shields. "Take the damn shot!"
"Wait! They'll have to slow to get a target lock," the kid said. "Stay in their blind spot and wait."
Another shot came closer as Han juked in avoidance. "Well then get in the damn trench. We're target practice up here."
"We're sitting slugs in that trench—there's no room to maneuver. They'll find that out themselves, soon enough." As he finished the last, Han heard the comm pip as the kid changed channels. "Flight, this is I-One. Shut down the guns south of five-twenty, we're going into the trench."
The Rebel pilot's voice was loud in Han's ear as theTIEchannels momentarily fell silent.
"Computer's locked, getting a signal… The guns, they've stopped."
"Stabilize your rear deflectors," a seasoned voice advised. "Watch for enemy fighters."
The kid shucked speed and dropped into the trench so suddenly that Han nearly overshot before realizing why; travelling at full throttle to avoid the trench guns, the Y-wings had now been forced to slow so that they could change that exhaust shaft's location lock into an actual target lock for the torpedoes.
It was only now, as their two TIEs dropped neatly into the trench behind the Y-wings, that Han realized just how little maneuvering room there really was down here. One second's lapse at this speed and even without enemy fire, you were a dark smudge on the trench wall.
"They're coming in. Two marks at two-ten!"
Ahead of Han the kid loosed off just two shots…and the ship of the pilot who'd just barked the warning dissipated in an explosive blaze. Both TIEs made loose rolling weaves to avoid the debris before dropping instantly onto the Rebel snubs' tails again, their voices over the broken comm charged with panic.
"It's no good, I can't maneuver!"
"Stay on target." That older voice again.
"We're too close!"
"Stay on target."
Ahead of him, the kid did exactly as Han would have done in the limited space: he sat on the second Y-wing's tail and waited—because the end of the trench was in sight, and if the lead Y-wing wanted to try for that shot, he'd have to fly straight for long enough that his fighter's missile targeting system could latch…
Han was starting to think that maybe the kid had left it too late to take out the wingman and get to the lead Y-wing, when the kid fired two shots. He was already pulling out of the trench by the time that Han realized that he'd been ignoring the wingman altogether, instead directly targeting around him for the lead bomber, whose fighter had just bloomed into a fiery ball.
The lone wingman pulled out just ahead of them, rolling in a vertical split-S to try to buy time, though with two TIEs on his tail, he must have known that he was only delaying the inevitable.
"Gold Five to Red Leader." It was the seasoned pilot who'd first warned to watch for enemy fighters. "Lost Tyree, lost Hutch..."
Ahead of Han, Luke'sTIEmade a corkscrew reversal to drop speed as his voice came over the comm. "You should probably shut him up."
Han didn't need telling twice. He took the lead and rolled to bring the Y-wing into his scopes as the kid dropped in neatly at his wing…
"They came in from behind…"
Three shots zeroed the targeting in, and the Y-wing flared as it came apart, its massive engines still firing as they powered down to impact on the Death Star's surface.
With the kid content to sit as wingman for a moment, Han took a second to orient himself as they took a wide arc back into the action. Rebel craft were thinning under the combined pressure of Vader and the surface guns, and the remaining X-wings had split into two groups, the first of which was already dropping down to line up on the trench for their own bombing run.
Han glanced about, looking for Vader, but it was only when he highlighted friendlies on his helmet display that he detected theTIEAdvanced and his two wingmen, travelling so close to the surface that they flicked in and out of interference, their dull grey finish rendering them near-invisible to the naked eye.
"This is it!"The lead X-wing dropped into the trench, and Han knew from their angle that Vader was intending to skim the top of the trench a good distance back as Luke had done.
Another worried voice came over the Rebels' frequency.
"We should be able to see it by now."
"Keep your eyes open for those fighters."
"There's too much interference. Red Five, can you see them where you are?"
The foremost of the three higher X-wings tipped itself almost sideways to improve its pilot's view. "No sign of any…wait; coming in at point three-five!"
"That's her," Han yelled. "That's Red Five, who almost got me killed!"
"I'm in range," the lead trench pilot said distractedly. "Just hold them off for a few seconds."
"Vader's voice, bass and grim, cut over the Rebel's frequency as he dropped into the trench. "Close up formation."
"Red Leader, this is Red Five." The woman's voice again, crisply professional. "You have spooks on your tail, three marks at your two-ten. We're making a run—hold on."
The three high X-wings rolled into aileron turns, then Five dropped height rapidly from a high loop, vectoring the thrust of her X-wing's engines to tighten the loop and control its descent with split-second accuracy. It was the kind of maneuver that required pinpoint precision, but if they got it right—and it was clear that the lead X-wing, that damn Red Five, was the one making the calls on timing—it would bring them down straight over Vader'sTIEwith nowhere for him to hide and no effective cut-out.
And it was gonna be that accurate. Han could see it, as Red Five started her descent.
He feathered his ownTIEdown in a slewing scissor, holding back in judgement…
"Go—go!" Luke'sTIEwas beside him as the kid shouted out, accelerating at breakneck speed to line up on the dropping X-wings as they made their strafing run on Vader's fighter. Han too had kicked his Interceptor into high thrust, and the two came in with guns blazing, on a perfect line for the X-wings. Luke pulled a fraction of a degree starboard to rake a line of fire that spanged across the shields of the two wingmen as Han put everything into closing his gap with the lead X-wing, knowing he was a split-second too late.
It was enough though; he got three solid hits on Five's shields, and she turned away in a fast snap-reversal and pulled almost vertically up, her four shots which would have impacted on Vader'sTIEwith sufficient proximity to bring him down instead lighting his shields in a bright glow as Vader veered wildly in an avoidance that would have been too late.
Han overshot into clear space with the kid a fraction of a second behind him, both already looking to the sky around themselves as they pulled a tight split-S to bring them back into the battle. This time it was Han who took the wider line, letting the kid take the lead.
"I figure you should lead a while," Han said uneasily. "I wasn't entirely sure who I should have been shooting at back there, anyway."
"Yeah, congratulations on that," the kid deadpanned without animosity. "You just saved Vader's hide."
Far below the bright flare of the rear X-wing in the trench, still under Vader's guns, brought Han's gaze back down. "Doesn't seem to have put his aim off any."
A second later there was the larger flare of a double-explosion partly hidden by the trench, and for a fraught second Han thought the Rebels had actually made the strike…but he still had their cracked comms playing out beneath the Imp channels, and so heard the broken disappointment in Red Leader's voice at shouts of hope from his own pilots.
"Negative—negative, it just impacted on the surface."
"Red Leader, we're right above you." Red Five again, already bringing her group—now the last three Rebel fighters—back into the fray. "Turn to point oh-five, we'll cover for you."
Vader was already out of the trench, homing in on the lone X-wing with deadly intent—and its pilot knew it.
"Stay there, I just lost my starboard engine. Get set up for your attack run."
By the time Han and Luke had pulled a wide arc to bring them back around to the trench, the final three X-wings had already descended.
"Biggs, Wedge, let's close it up." It was Red Five, her voice terse with determination. "We're going in and we're going in full throttle. That ought to keep those fighters off our back."
"Right with you, boss."
Turning in a half-loop to drop altitude in a power-dive just behind the kid, Han figured they'd slide into position behind them when, highlighted by the actinic flash of the trench guns, Vader and his two wingmen shot by beneath, muscling in to take the run he and the kid had been lining up for.
"Son of a nerf!" Cursing, Han wrenched hisTIEa little higher at the near-collision.
The kid sat right where he was, the lower edge of his wing dangerously close to the twoTIEwingmen who followed Vader. "Let him take it. She almost took him out of the fight a minute ago."
The Rebel pilots chatted on, unaware of the altercation that was happening a few clicks off their tail. "My scopes show the tower but I can't see the exhaust port. Are you sure the computer can hit it?"
"Watch yourself!" the woman warned. "Increase speed; full throttle."
"What about that tower?"
"You just worry about those fighters, I'll worry about the tower. Artoo, that…that stabilizer's broken loose again, see if you can lock it down."
"Fighters coming in at point three!"
With the trench guns silenced, one of the Rebels had finally spotted the pack of five TIEs now on their tails, Vader and his wingmen a good few clicks ahead of Han and Luke, as the kid had pulled back slightly. Vader's guns flared briefly and the rear wingman—the one who'd just spoken—let out a gasp, his voice tightening.
"I'm hit! I can't stay with you."
"Get clear, Wedge," the woman allowed. "You can't do any more good back there."
The unsteady X-wing made a rough exit from the trench, and Luke'sTIEpulled smoothly up to drop in behind it, already targeting the faltering X-wing…
Vader's voice came grimly over the comm, a command to his own wingmen. "Let him go. Stay on the leader."
As Han pulled out of the trench to follow Luke, the second wingman could be heard below.
"Hurry, Leia, they're coming in much faster this time. I can't hold them."
Ahead of Han, Luke'sTIEmade a brief swerve, then corrected itself. Uncertain, Han clicked back to their private channel. "Luke, you okay?" No reply came, and Han scowled, aware that kid'sTIEhad slowed just slightly. "Luke, have you got a malfunction?"
"Hurry up, Leia," the Rebel wingman warned. "Quick!"
The brief flare which marked the wingman's demise seconds later lit the edge of Han's vision, though his attention was on Luke's Interceptor just ahead. Vader's ruthless confidence was audible on the open channel as he zeroed in on the final X-wing below. "I'm on the leader."
Luke'sTIEhad slowed further, his pursuit of the damaged wingman seemingly forgotten as he tilted his Interceptor to get a better view of the chase below, where the last X-wing was jinxing from side to side in the limited space, probably aware that her fate was already sealed…
A new voice cut in over the Rebel comm, old and somber, and full of quiet authority.
"Leia, turn off your targeting computer."
"What?" Red Five's voice, not surprisingly confused.
"Turn off your targeting computer—take the shot yourself. Trust me."
There was barely a second's pause before Red Five's reply. "Acknowledged."
In front of Han, Luke's Interceptor reeled off in a vectored dive which dropped him to the surface in seconds. At the same time his comm tacked into the private channel as the kid spoke so fast Han could barely tell what he was saying.
"It's Leia—it's Leia in the X-wing!"
"The Jedi—the woman from the cantina on Coruscant!"
"She's Red Five?" Han asked, remembering the petite brunette. They were still behind and slightly above the dogfight—if you could even call it that. With no room to maneuver or evade, it was more akin to a straight shoot-em-up; whoever was at the back won.
Unaware of the ship-to-ship comm, Vader spoke out again, his self-assurance blunted just slightly. "The Force is strong in this one."
"I should have known!" Luke said wildly. "I should have known they'd do this. Only a Jedi could take that shot."
Han saw Vader'sTIEopen fire, and the bright blaze of a glancing hit flared briefly in the trench as the woman—Leia—spoke out. "I've lost Artoo!"
"I have you now," Vader uttered with grim satisfaction.
And all hells broke loose.
In front of Han the kid dropped his angle just slightly…and fired on the rearTIEbehind Vader, snicking its wing and sending it careening out of control!
The other wingman let out a brief, "Watch out!" as his opposite number's craft went into a spin. Panicking, he came a fraction too close to Vader's wing in the constricted space, catching against it and sending Vader'sTIEspinning from the trench a second before the explosion engulfed both wingmen.
"Sith!" Han cursed as he yanked his yolk up, forcing his Interceptor into a steep bank in a vain effort to avoid the flying debris which impacted against his shields and set warning blares off in his helmet. Ahead of him Luke'sTIE, closer to the explosion, jerked and juddered, pulling a few wild twists before he seemed to wrestle it under control.
"Luke, you okay?"
"Where is she?" Luke was yelling, hisTIEalready turning back for the trench. "Did she…"
Leia's voice rang out loudly over the Rebel comm, a strident tone of victory giving it volume. "All Rebel craft, pull back—I repeat, all remaining Rebel craft, pull away! We got a hit! Shields to full rear!"
Han leaned over, but there was nothing visibly different in the trench. Already the few remaining Rebel craft in their vicinity were pushing for open space though; Red Five, the wingman who'd taken a hit, and a stray Y-wing who must have survived. Cursing, he wrenched hisTIEabout, not knowing whether he believed her or not…
Behind him, the first explosion went off beneath the Death Star's surface with an almighty flare, lighting a run of surface explosions which traced across the equator's surface as fast as the eye could follow. Han was already powering for distance when the second subsurface detonation fired with enough power to send a shockwave of fine debris out… In the next second it went nova, lighting the sky in a blazing flash which erupted in ten different directions at once, then culminated in a final surge of white energy which overtook hisTIEin an instant, hurling massive brute force against its shields with the power of a head-on collision…
He came round floating an inch or two clear of his acceleration chair as his restraint harness took the strain, with something wet against his face. Stupidly, he lifted his hand to wipe it away, and hit his knuckles against his visor. In his ear, someone was shouting.
"Han! Han, do you read me? Come in? Han, come in?"
He coughed, and tasted blood in his mouth. Blinking rapidly, he got himself together enough to rasp, "Yeah, I'm here. I read you."
"Do you need assistance?"
"You're kidding, right?"
The kid'sTIEwas floating outside of his own cockpit. For some reason it seemed upside down, which was a weird assumption to make in deep space. It was a few seconds before Han's befuddled brain realized that it was the massive bulk of the Star Destroyer Vendetta which was throwing him off. With his own artificial gravity gone and the Destroyer visible in the near distance, his mind was using it to judge up and down. He dragged his thoughts into some semblance of awareness as he glanced about the darkened cockpit. Nothing was lit save emergency umbilicals; at least his suit was working, then.
His neck loosed a shock of pain as he reached out to restart the fire-up sequence. Amazingly, his console went to standby and began startup.
"You gotta love those shields," Han muttered, glancing again out to the kid'sTIE. "You okay?"
"The Death Star's gone. It was destroyed."
Han took a heartbeat as that sank in. Then another, as the memory of those last few seconds did the same. Before him, the kid'sTIEwas turning slowly in a broken judder. As his own fighter came back online, so did long-distance comms.
"…toTIEOne and Two. Repeat, this is the Vendetta toTIEOne and Two. We have a lock, and will tractor you into forward bays. Deactivate all propulsion and give us helm."
"Don't say a thing," Han warned, knowing the open channel would be being monitored now that he was back online. "We'll talk in the hangar, okay…okay?"
Silence…and Han didn't know if that was better or worse.
They couldn't get his damagedTIEcoupled to its landing strut fast enough, for Han. The moment he could clamber clear he did so, throwing off his helmet and wiping his bloody nose as he ran along the gantry to Luke's scorched and damagedTIE. When he got there, the umbilicals had been connected and the hatch opened, but the kid hadn't moved yet, remaining in his seat as he stared forward.
"Luke?" Han leaned closer when the kid didn't stir. "Luke, you okay? C'mon, we gotta talk. Luke—Luke get out."
The kid climbed out as if he was in a dream, not even reacting when Han took the arm of his flight suit to guide him to the nearest pilot's tack room. Knowing that Indo would likely be here any minute, Han pushed the kid inside the empty locker room and out of sight.
Pressing the light panel, he turned to the kid. "What the hell did you just do?"
Luke didn't look for several seconds, taking off his helmet to simply stare at it, blinking slowly.
"Luke!" Han near-yelled his name, and the kid finally turned. "What were you thinking out there?"
"I wasn't, okay? I wasn't! All I knew was that I couldn't let Vader shoot her down!"
"So you took a potshot at his wingman?"
"I only clipped him—they were supposed to think they were under enemy fire and pull out of the trench to go evasive. That's all! I wasn't trying to… I wasn't…" The kid dropped his helmet and staggered back two paces until he hit the locker door behind him hard. His legs gave, and he slid down to sit on the floor, knees bent, his elbows resting on them as he dropped his head forward into his hands. "Sith, what have I done!"
Han stared, watching the kid blink as he shook his head slowly, obviously in shock, his mouth open in horror.
"Okay…okay," Han said at last, groping to pull his own thoughts together. "It's not as bad as it seems."
"Not as bad as it seems? The Death Star is gone—it's gone! How am I going to tell Palpatine?"
Han jerked straight. "You're not seriously even considering…you are, aren't you? You're actually thinking about it! What are you gonna tell Palpatine? I'll tell you what you're gonna tell him: nothing."
Luke stared as if Han had just told him that Wookiees had wings.
"I have to tell Palpatine."
Han couldn't believe they were wasting time arguing about this, when someone would be here any minute. "Are you insane? He'll kill you, you realize that? The man will actually kill you!"
The kid pursed his lips, scowling as he glared down. "I have to tell him."
"Tell him what? That something you did in the heat of battle may or may not have had a fraction of a second's bearing on whether an enemy fighter that was already lined up for a shot, took it? Luke, that shot was happening anyway."
"Vader could have taken her out."
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do. That's why I…did what I did."
"No, you don't. Let's keep a little perspective here."
"Perspective? I killed them all." The kid's voice was broken by disbelief and dismay. "I'm responsible for the Death Star's destruction."
Han crouched down before him, putting as much assurance into his voice as he could. "Okay, stop. Right now."
"I should have let Vader fire on her. Should have let her take her chance, like everyone else." Luke glanced up to Han, eyes wide. "But I didn't, and because of that, the Death Star was destroyed. I knew—Iknewwhen I was in that trench that only she could have succeeded…yet not only did I not try to stop her myself, I actually kept her alive—enabled her to make the shot. So yes, Iamresponsible. Palpatine sent me out here intending for me to be in command of the Death Star when it destroyed a planet. He wanted me to be in command…but I tried to avoid it. Stupidly, I tried to avoid my Master's will, tried to…" he paused, unable to even say it, a weak half-laugh taking him at the irony of it, "to do the right thing. Tried to stop Leia Skywalker being killed. And look what it got me; I'm responsible for far more deaths with the destruction of the Death Star than I ever would have been if I'd let the destruction of Yavin go ahead."
The kid dropped his head into his hands again, shaking it slowly. "Palpatine was right; he was right when he said that death follows me. That's what I am, he said—that's what he made me and that's all I'll ever be: death and destruction."
Han sat on the bench in front of the kid, who still sat on the floor, legs hunched up and arms about them, rocking slightly forward and backward on the spot. Han made his own voice soften. "Why—why'd'you do it?"
Luke's head dropped to rest on his knees, bewildered and beaten. "I don't know! I was thinking…maybe I was thinking she was my only link to Kenobi and…and…I justknewit was wrong. It wasn't a choice, it wasn't a conscious decision, it was way past all that."
Han brought his hand up to rub his forehead, looking for a way out of this. "Okay, well… Well, myTIE's not in any state to have individual shots that I took still logged, and yours looks worse than mine. Were your systems running after the...after the Death Star went up?"
"No." The word was muffled as Luke spoke it into his knees without lifting his head.
"Okay, so that means they have no record of who took that shot. Did Vader make it?"
Han stiffened…then relaxed a little. "But he was two ships in front of you, and it wasn't his fighter that was hit. Both wingmen took a dive, so…"
Luke looked up. "Stop—just stop. I'm telling Palpatine. That's it."
"Listen to me! The X-wing that Vader clipped and let out of the trench on the last run—it could easily have gotten its damage under control and turned about, then come in above us to take that shot at Vader's wingman! It's basic piloting, one-oh-one; you always ride a kill 'till it blows, 'cos just because he's smoking and struggling, that doesn't mean he can't get it under control and become a threat again. You always check the kill. Vader made a mistake—use it!"
"He damn well would against you, and you know it."
They sat in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. When the kid spoke again, he was quiet and composed and deadly serious. "You should leave."
Han straightened. "What?"
"You should leave. Now. I'll clear a long-range scoutship from the forward bay, and you should take it and go."
"I'm not goin' anywhere."
"So am I."
The kid rose to brush imaginary dust off his flightsuit without looking at Han, his voice steady but distant. "No, we're done. This…game, this charade, this…whatever you want to call it—friendship, knowing you—it's done, now. I'm through."
"Yeah, nice try."
Luke straightened, eyes and voice hardening. "Leave! What is it about that word that you never understand? Go… Get out!"
"I'm not leaving," Han countered simply. "What is it about those words that you can't understand? I'mnot going."
"If you stay, Palpatine will kill you. It won't matter that it was me who did it. Once he knows what happened, he'll kill you just because you were there."
He'd known that much already, Han reflected—then paused. Because that was what thisleavestuff was about; it was about Luke protecting Han, not himself…and with knowledge of that, Han saw a way through. "Damn straight he'll kill me. So I hope you'll think very carefully before you tell him. Because whatever you say, we face the consequences together. You want to tell Palpatine your version of what happened, then I'll be standing a step behind you, and we both face the music, together… Or you could tell him mine, and we both walk away. Your choice. Whichever you say, I'll back you up. But whichever you say, I'm not leaving."
Luke hung his head, desperate. "You have to go…I can't lie to him."
"What about the spice?"
"The spice is nothing, not compared to this!" Luke looked up, eyes wild. "Han, I've never lied to him about something like this in my life—ever. He'll find out—he always does."
"How? If you keep quiet, I sure as hell aren't gonna tell him."
"You don't need to tell him, you know that!"
"Hey, I got that thing you taught me, I can hide stuff."
"No, you can disguise if someone's not specifically looking, you can confuse motives. This is totally different."
"How? This is like saying, Well, I can walk, so I can probably do a backwards double somersault! If Palpatine found out, he'd take you apart."
"As opposed to your version of events, where he'll definitely take us both apart."
"Unless you leave."
"No, I'm not going. That's not an option here."
"He won't kill me."
"Now who's bad at disguising the truth?"
"He won't. He'll…"
"He'll break every bone in your damn body."
Luke glanced down. "Just…please go."
"No, we do this together. We—"
The next moment Indo burst into the room, a flurry of noise and nerves as he glanced about wide-eyed. "Luke! Are you alright? What happened?"
Han straightened. "We're fine."
Indo didn't even acknowledge him, looking the kid up and down as he walked forward, as if to check that Luke was indeed in one piece. "Practically nothing survived. We have only nine TIEs from the Death Star, and six of those were from the main battle, not the trench."
So Vader had survived, Han reflected. Despite Luke's words, he'd been hoping otherwise; would've made things a lot simpler.
Indo continued, still looking the kid up and down. "TheVendetta has massive damage to its port side, and her sublight engines are damaged. They're putting priority to navigational shield repairs, so we can jump clear of the Rebel base. Do you know what happened? You said that the Rebels had a viable attack plan?"
"They'd found an insufficiently shielded exhaust port that gave them direct access to the main reactor, if they could make the shot. That's what they were trying…" The kid stumbled over the last word, as if still unable quite to assimilate the truth. "What they did."
"That was at the trench, where yourself and Vader were?"
Luke looked down, his voice quiet. "They'd had two failed runs. I'd taken out the attackers in the first run, and Vader had in the second. He was in a position to take the shot at the X-wing that was making the third torpedo run," Luke paused, eyes flicking briefly back to Han, visibly torn. "He…his wingman came under fire from a Rebel X-wing. The wingman lost control, and there was a collision. No one else was close enough to take the shot at the Rebel."
Indo glanced once to Han, who was getting good enough round here by now that he didn't let an inkling of his relief show on his own face as the Viscount looked back to the kid. "How close were you?"
"Not close enough. Vader had two wingmen behind him and he'd already cut me up to get into the lead so he could take the shot. I'd…" Again Luke glanced to Han. "We'd pulled back to give him enough room."
Indo's eyes narrowed. "Lord Vader missed the shot?"
"He never had the chance to take it. He was knocked clear of the trench in a collision, by his own wingman."
The Viscount sighed, his relief obvious. "Lord Vader'sTIEwas damaged, but not as badly as your Interceptors. HisTIE's flight recorder is intact and undamaged. It will…" he looked searchingly at Luke, his words holding the ring of a question, "it will corroborate all of this?"
Han stepped quickly in, aware that he'd forced Luke's hand and looking to deflect Indo's attention when the kid was so visibly uncomfortable. "There's nothing for Vader's flight recorder to corroborate, it wasn't Vader who was shot. His flight recorder will register the collision as his own wingman hit him, but that's it. They'd need to get the wingman's flight recorder to check the frequency of the laser that hit it, and since the wingman's gone, so is that information."
"I see," Indo said slowly. "So there is, in fact, no way to verify what happened."
"Other than what we just told you, no. Vader wouldn't have seen it because it all took place behind him, while he was lining up for the shot."
Indo's cold gray eyes studied Han as he held his sabacc face, not letting his nerves show…because the fact was that even though the Viscount had been with the kid for years, Han had no idea what Indo would do if he knew the truth. No idea if he'd stand by Luke and try to ease the outcome, as Han had done…or dutifully report all to the Emperor, then simply stand in willing acquiescence, as he had when he'd brought Palpatine the kid's lightsaber.
He just didn't know…but the kid probably did—and he stayed silent.
By the time Leia had nursed her battered and struggling X-wing in to a rough landing in the main hangar ofMassassiTemple, crowds were already beginning to gather, shouting and whooping in jubilation. Grinning, she popped the canopy to a cacophony of noise as everyone cheered, shouting their delight. Across the hangar, Wedge Antilles brought his own damaged X-wing to a rocky landing and stood as he lifted the canopy, stepping out onto the nose to wave his arms.
By the time Leia was down the ladder, reeling from the back-patting and congratulations, Wedge had made it through the crowd and shouted her name. She flung herself at him and he lifted her up to spin her around as she laughed, dizzy and thrilled, high on the moment.
She turned, still grinning, to look through the crowd for Biggs…and the price of their victory hit like a body blow. The knowledge of so many lost bled her smile away, the pitiful number of fighters in the hangar and the silent faces at the edge of the crowd making its euphoria seem suddenly unfitting.
The techs chose that moment to lower Artoo, scorched and silent, from her fighter. Artoo, who'd always looked after her from the very first time she'd flown solo. Who'd always been there, even if it was only to take her down with a timely rebuke…silent now.
Leia pulled free of Wedge to rest her hand on his blackened dome as she looked to the tech. "You can fix him, right?"
"We'll do what we can."
"I know, I know," the tech said, nodding. "Don't wipe his memory. Do I ever?"
Leia smiled and, feeling the tug of Wedge's hand about her wrist, let herself be pulled back to the moment.
The debrief was hard to listen to, as the voices of those now gone lived again in echoes of their struggle, played out in the recording of their ship-to-ship comms. Their bravery, their commitment, their fear, their determination. Moment to moment, she relived it with them.
It was Wedge who mercifully broke the spell, when he stood up from the corner of the desk that he was leaning on to say, "That's him! That's the Interceptor pilot who saved your life!"
"What?" It was their first run-through of the minutes of the battle, so Wedge's claim, completely out of the blue, took Leia by surprise.
General Dodonna, to the opposite wall of his small office, straightened as he looked to Obi-Wan, though he was old and seasoned enough that nothing particularly surprised him. "Care to elucidate on that, Lieutenant Antilles?"
He paused the inter-ship comms at the point that Leia was ending her trench-run. It had been a surprise to her that she'd been given the run at all, based on the fact that both Biggs and Wedge were more experienced combat pilots, Biggs with full Imperial fighter-pilot training, and Wedge having flown pretty much as soon as he could sit upright in a pilot's seat. Although she'd flown fighters in combat for almost a year, and been flying for far longer than that, Leia was still just sixteen and this had been her first taste of real, autonomous responsibility in a dogfight. It had been terrifying.
In the compressed adrenalin-rush of the moment she hadn't even thought about it—hadn't had the attention to spare—but in retrospect, she was beginning to wonder if Obi-Wan had given her the trench run only after the automated targeting systems had failed twice in succession, specifically because he knew she could bring the Force to bear.
Wedge continued, animated and earnest. "I swear, I saw it with my own eyes, Sir. The Interceptor shot at one of his own TIEs. It wasn't a miss-shoot because he lined up for it, and there were no other Rebel fighters anywhere near."
Farlander, the only other surviving fighter pilot, moved uneasily at that, but held his silence.
"I actually saw him take the shot," Wedge continued, lifting his arms to indicate fighter positions and angles, as pilots tended to do. "I had a perfect view, nothing else in my line of vision. The Interceptor had come out of the trench to follow me. I'd lost all my micro-control servos when I took a shot, so I thought I was finished when he lined up behind me…then he just tipped his wing and dropped back down into the trench so hard even his own wingman was left standing…" Wedge paused to look somberly at Leia. "That AdvancedTIEwas right on you, Leia. I mean, he was a second from his shot when the Interceptor dropped back into the trench and fired on Vader's wingman."
Obi-Wan moved uneasily, stroking his beard, as he tended to do when deep in thought. "So it was one of Vader's own men who stopped him?"
Wedge nodded, eyes still on Leia. "Vader was right on your tail—he had the shot."
Leia frowned, suppressing the urge to shiver at the prickle that crept up her spine. She'd known, of course, that her father was out there from the moment she'd seen theTIEAdvanced. There was only one stretch-winged Advanced flying in the Imperial fleet, and everyone knew exactly who flew it, even if they didn't know his relationship to Leia.
Dodonna shook his head as he studied the datapad he held. "We have no known agents in the fighter flights assigned to the Death Star. If we had, we'd've been utilizing them already."
"Sympathizer?" Wes hazarded.
"If he was, he picked a hell of a time to make the decision to do something about it," Farlander said. "And why not come back here, afterwards? Why risk returning to the only remaining Imperial vessel?"
"Maybe he didn't have a choice," Wedge reasoned. "Interceptors have shielding, but they're not X-wings. He may not have been able to fly anywhere after that thing blew."
Leia stood, realization hitting her. "Wait—so all Imperial fighters returned to the Vendetta?"
"We have confirmation, yes," Dodonna said—then straightened, in realization of what she was saying.
He moved quickly forward to corral the two other pilots out of his office. "Thank you, gentlemen, please wait for us outside…and of course, all the details we've related in here are strictly confidential."
Wedge leaned around the General to look at Leia. "Wait a minute, do you know who he is? You've got something, haven't you?"
Leia glanced down, suppressing a smile at her friend's far from correct behavior, as he and Farlander were guided through the door and out into the empty waiting room beyond.
"C'mon, Leia? Aahhh…"
The last she saw of him was his frustrated disappointment as the first in what was probably a long string of Corellian curses came to his lips, just as the door slid shut.
Dodonna walked back to his desk, all business again. "Now's a sensitive time to contact him."
"We'll need to take care," Obi-Wan agreed. "Keep the talk and our request to an absolute minimum. He may yet be on duty."
It took long minutes to establish the link, and a nervous wait of a few moments as the link chimed. Just when they were about to cut the comm, Lieutenant Ander Rendrake, the comms officer and sole Rebel agent onboard the Vendetta, finally answered.
"Six three nine seven…confim?"
It was the first half of a code, the second half provided by theAlliance, to confirm that everyone was who they claimed to be.
"Five five one nine," Dodonna said, confident to speak such codes in front of theAlliance's two Jedi.
There was a moment as Rendrake checked his codes…then, "Well, you guys have caused havoc up here. That was…that was one hell of a show."
"We need some information," Obi-Wan said, leaning forward towards the comlink set into Dodonna's desk.
"We're not in great shape. We took a lot of damage to our port side as the Death Star blew. Our lightspeed engines and navigational shields were knocked out of calibration. We've already been recalled directly to Coruscant on the Emperor's command, so they're intending to go to lightspeed the moment they've recalibrated. Another hour or so at the most…"
"No, we need information about the pilots you took onboard after the battle. Specifically, the Interceptor pilots. We need ID's and backgrounds. Do you know them?"
"Interceptors? We don't have a compliment of…wait, yes, there were two brought onboard for this mission. They came back after the battle—both of them. But they were in a bad state."
Obi-Wan glanced to Leia as he spoke into the comlink. "Do you know the pilots? Are they regular crew there?"
"No, definitely not—and they're not pilots. Not regular pilots, anyway. We've done the occasional job ferrying them around, but they're Intel—pretty highly placed, I think. I'm pretty sure that one of them is Ubiqtorate."
"Ubiqtorate?" Leia frowned: Ubiqtorate didn't generally go around having crises of loyalty which made them shoot down their own TIEs. You didn't make it into the Ubiqtorate with anything short of unswerving devotion to the Empire.
"What else can you tell us?" Obi-Wan asked, hurrying the conversation along.
"Wait, I might…hold on. I have the codes to patch into the standard feeds in the hangars. I'm scrolling through the last hour now."
The line fell silent as Rendrake concentrated, then his voice came on, distracted as he split his attention. "I can tell you we generally pick them up in or close to the Core Systems, an older man in ambassadorial robes, a pretty young kid—he's the one who wears the uniform, from what I've heard, but not all the time—and usually another military officer. I've never seen them myself, and I can tell you for a fact that their ID's aren't on the system, because I've mentioned them in other dispatches for that very reason. They never stay more than a few…here, I have the images. These are from a security lens in hangar six, so the quality isn't great. This is them when they were leaving the hangar. I'm transmitting a still now. Obviously, the two pilots are the ones in black. The older man is the ambassador, I think. You might have more luck trying to trace the older man's image than the kid's if he's Ubiqtorate—you know how they are."
The comm on Dodonna's desk registered a message received, and he keyed the image to project. Compressed for transmission, it was a single freeze-frame from security footage, blurred from its extreme zoom, and taken from a high angle. Three men were walking along one of the higher gantries, two of them still in pilot's flightsuits…
Leia leaned in. "Wait, I…I know them. That's…" She reached out to point at the younger man, struggling to place his face. Not like this; he hadn't been dressed like this… "He's…"
Realization of where she'd seen him pulled Leia upright. She spoke his name at the exact same time that Obi-Wan did—only it wasn't the same name. When Leia straightened, she said, "Deak Autrey!"
In the same moment, Obi-Wan said, "Luke Antilles."
Obi-Wan sat at the table onboard the Mon Cal cruiser Liberty, the flagship of theAlliance, which had returned to Yavin IV to take onboard personnel and essential technology, and to leave more fighters to help defend Yavin base until it could be fully evacuated. Anxious to speak with Mon Mothma, he had taken Leia and what information they had, and travelled up to theAllianceflagship.
Now, with theLibertyunderway, they were already in Chief Mothma's offices, sitting about the flickering, poor quality holo, projected as large as it could be without breaking up. Intel onboard the Liberty had cleaned it up a little and spent the last hour tying what information Rendrake had sent from the Vendetta before it had launched into lightspeed for Coruscant, into their own scant knowledge of the boy's movements in the last year. He kept an impressively low profile, difficult to follow because he had no set military position and several aliases, the list being added to with alarming regularity. Certainly Deak Autrey was new.
Previous to this, the most recent confirmed image Intel had held of Luke was almost nine months out of date, in which the boy sported a close military crop, his hair still fair. But a year for a boy his age was everything, and Obi-Wan now found himself looking at the image of a young man, still slight and slim, but with his shoulders broadening and his features maturing, the hair that had been fair in his youth now darkening, left uncut for long enough that it sat on his collar in unruly waves. And his eyes…in the new image, as in the old, his eyes were cool and distanced, some capacity beyond wayward mischief or boisterous youth in their sharpness—something that resided at the very core of him…
Why had he saved Leia? Did he know the truth, Obi-Wan wondered? Surely not; if Vader wasn't even aware of the true identity of his son, then there was no way that anyone could make the far more tenuous links that would tie Leia and Luke, and therefore Vader, together. So why would Luke intercede, especially when he had? Was it premeditated? Of his own volition? Obi-Wan rubbed at the scrub of beard under his chin; had the Force perhaps guided his hand? An interesting consideration, given the boy's background…
Mon Mothma was visible through the holo as she stepped round from her desk and walked smoothly forward to join them at the conference table, coolly collected as ever, despite probably a few thousand comms being fielded in her outer office right now.
Her thoughts completely in the moment, she sat, smiling warmly at Leia. "Tell me everything."
"It's nothing you don't know," Leia said. "You know that I was passing through the Core systems weeks ago when theAlliancelost contact with our spy from Sinto Military Garrison, so I made the detour to try to ascertain why. I said in my debrief that I'd spoken with a young local in a cantina, and he'd told me that the garrison was locked down, but that he might be able to put me in contact with someone who knew more about the situation. He suggested we…we meet again. When we did, he…oh—" Leia paused, and Obi-Wan sensed her silent self-reproach as she looked to him. "I told him my name."
Obi-Wan straightened, but didn't speak. This had been exactly what he'd always feared, when Leia had been so adamant that she keep her own family name. He tightened his jaw against saying it, knowing that both she and Mon Mothma would be aware of the gravity of the slip. He'd long argued against Leia keeping or using her family name, but Mon had taken Leia's corner, as she often seemed to do, and…and there was no point in counting mistakes now, save in finding ways to deal with them. Leia still stared at him, guilt swamping her, and Obi-Wan swallowed his frustrations and ordered himself to move forward.
"Leia, there's no way you could have been aware. Sith can hide themselves in plain sight, you know that. Palpatine walked freely in the Senate and dealt daily with the Jedi when they were at the height of their power—even Master Yoda didn't recognize the truth."
Leia glanced to the old Intel image, of the fair haired youth. "But I've seen that holo so many times."
Mon shook her head. "Our image was almost a year out of date, he's changed a good deal since then. He was also out of his environment and actively intending to mislead whoever he met, on Coruscant." She glanced to Obi-Wan. "At least we now know why our contact there failed."
Obi-Wan nodded. "And why we were dogged by ongoing failures in Operation Skyhook, if a Sith was moving against us."
Leia shook her head. "I didn't give him anything he could use, I'm sure of it." She dropped her head into her hands on the table in dismay, still so young.
Perhaps he shouldn't have sanctioned her going on a solo mission, Obi-Wan mused. Certainly if he had been there, he wouldn't have allowed the detour to Coruscant, of all places. But he had faith in her abilities and as Mon had argued, one learned by trial and error. Yes, she was all but the last Jedi, but she had to be allowed to reach her full potential…and for that, she had to learn by her own mistakes. "This is a good lesson, Leia," he said aloud. "You need to be mindful of such things at all times. The Force seems to naturally pull our kind together."
Had it done the same with Leia and Luke? And if it had, did Obi-Wan have any right to interfere?
"But there was nothing, Master," Leia insisted. "Nothing at all. Vader, I can sense in an instant."
"Vader doesn't conceal his abilities."
Mon looked again to the holo of Luke Antilles, her calm voice giving nothing of the momentary hope that Obi-Wan sensed light within her. "Perhaps he hasn't been trained."
Obi-Wan's feelings flared in empathy—but he clamped down on them. He'd made so many mistakes in trusting the boy's father, seen so many moments towards the end that he'd wilfully ignored. He wouldn't make the same mistakes with his son. "Mon, we have an image of him far younger than this, already wearing a lightsaber."
"One image, Master Kenobi."
But then they had only six images altogether, of the boy who lived beneath the Sith Emperor's roof. Seven now, with this new addition, uncovered almost by accident, as most of the others had been. Obi-Wan wondered if Mon saw all that he did in the boy's shadowed face. Wondered if she recognized within her own innate compassion, her desperate need to hope otherwise. Certainly she knew his true heritage, and though Mon was disciplined enough to be able to withhold such information from Leia, Obi-Wan knew that Leia would sense that something was amiss here. Fortunately, she'd likely attribute Mon's unease to the situation.
"And you sensed nothing?" Obi-Wan pushed, looking to Leia.
"No, nothing…but there was a moment…an instant." Leia straightened slightly, touching her own hand to her sleeve in repetition of a vivid memory. "The first time we met—the very first time—he reached out to take my arm to stop me leaving and…I think perhaps…I don't know, I think I sensed something. Just a split second."
"Can you attribute it to the Force? To anything else you've ever sensed before? Leia, this is important."
"I don't…it wasn't even a second, it was just…"
Obi-Wan straightened, pointing out the relevant fact. "Just that he wanted to stop you leaving."
"Leia…" Mon asked, urgency masked by her ever-calm voice. "Do you think he knew what you were?"
"I don't know. I was cloaking my presence, because I was close to theImperialPalace. If he did, he made no move against me. And today…" She hesitated, her eyes fixed on the holo. "Let me contact him again. If I go to Coruscant, I can make—"
"Leia, he's already purposely deceived you," Obi-Wan reasoned. "His motives are not known, and he won't reveal them easily."
"He could have tried to stop me that first time, and he didn't. I met him again a few nights later, so if he'd wanted to lay an ambush, he'd had time to organize it…but he didn't."
"He cannot be trusted."
"Even now? Vader could have killed me—would have, Wedge said."
"She has a point, Master Kenobi," Mon offered. "If there's a chance—even a chance to save him…"
"We're risking too much. Remember who he is."
Leia frowned. "Why wouldn't you take that chance?"
It was such a simple question, asked with no aside, and yet the answer sprawled over decades, a broken tale of betrayals and massacres which had seen a Republic fall and the Jedi eradicated. Though in truth the boy had no part in it; he had been just another innocent victim of his father's deeds… Obi-Wan looked again to the holo, wondering if he was judging too harshly; if he was visiting the failures of the father onto the son.
"Let me contact him," Leia said, unaware of the weight on Obi-Wan's shoulders. "He gave me a way to contact him, a private comm channel. He's spoken to me before, he trusts me."
"And do you trust him?"
"Leia, I would like to believe that he will help us, I truly would, for so many reasons. But—"
"He helped me!"
"You assume it was for your benefit, not his."
"Yes—I assume…because I don't know! Master, let me go, let me ask him face to face. I know what he is now, he won't trick me again." She leaned forward, resting her hand on his arm. "Master, I should do this—I know I should."
He stared into her eyes, empathically aware of the need that drove her, but still reticent, uncertain what to do. It seemed that neither the boy nor Vader knew the truth of their relationship…but surely if Luke had passed on Leia's name to either Vader or Palpatine, some reaction would have been noted by Rebel intel by now. Even if Luke had identified her and passed on her name during the dogfights over the Death Star—and what possible reason would he have had not to—then Vader should have reacted then...or had he; had his reaction been to try to kill her? And if so, why had Luke stopped him?
Too many unanswered questions…and it seemed more imperative than ever that they find out the facts—though allowing Leia to go to Coruscant seemed foolhardy. She watched him closely, wanting this opportunity to redress her previous failures in trustingAntilles…trusting him. Did some connection exist, that no one else could hope to make? Was this indeed the work of the Force? Something tingled at the back of Obi-Wan's awareness, prospect and portent, both.
And still Leia stared at him, wildly hopeful, wanting answers as much as anyone else here, he knew, though for far less complicated reasons…
"Very well. But be mindful of all I've told you, Leia. You know Luke Antilles' history." Obi-Wan held Leia's eyes, though his next words were aimed as much at Mon as at Leia…and maybe, if he were to admit it, a little at himself, too. "He's grown up under the tutelage of Sith. It would be folly on all our parts to think that he is anything other than the same."
Obi-Wan waited in silence until Leia left and the door slid silently closed, feeling the surety he'd projected for Leia's sake leech from him. Ever tactful, Mon remained silent, waiting.
"What are we doing, Mon?" Obi-Wan asked at last. "Is it so different from what Palpatine does, in withholding the truth from Anakin and Luke?"
"Our motives most surely are."
"Are they?" It had seemed so clear when Master Yoda had been alive, his own certitude galvanizing Obi-Wan's.
"She could never face him, Master Kenobi—not if she knew he was her brother. And if he's Sith, as you say, he'd seek only to use it against her."
Obi-Wan had always known on some level that the fight with Anakin—with Vader—was his alone; that one day, the duel they had begun on Mustafar would come to a decisive end. But Luke...he was the next generation. He was young and strong, tempered in the flames of a Sith's training, and with his father's blood unhindered in his veins…it was not Obi-Wan's fight. He knew that, just as Master Yoda had.
How, then, could they send Leia into that battle, with such a terrible awareness of the truth? How could they ask her to shoulder that burden? She carried enough with the knowledge of her father's identity. Mon was right; he couldn't ask Leia to face Luke, knowing the truth. If someone had to carry the guilt of that knowledge with them, Obi-Wan would rather it was he than Leia. He became aware of Mon's steady gaze on him.
"You're sure, Master Kenobi, that the boy is Sith?"
Obi-Wan shook his head slowly. "He can't be anything more. He's been Palpatine's padawan since the age of seven, and he now serves his Master in the Ubiqtorate."
"Yet he saved Leia's life today."
"Perhaps he didn't know it was her."
"Which makes it all the more remarkable, don't you think? Forgive me, Master Kenobi—I know you think me hopelessly sentimental." She smiled warmly as he looked to her. "But is the boy any less deserving of this chance simply because it is…inconvenient?"
Obi-Wan looked down, feeling old doubts gnaw at him, knowledge of his misjudgments with Anakin never fading. "The last time we tried to help him we lost Master Yoda. Would you risk losing Leia now, too?"
"Master Yoda's death was none of the boy's doing—and it seems he's helped Leia more than once."
"But it was the actions of the Sith who has taught Luke for the last nine years that lost us Master Yoda…do you still want to trust him?"
"Yes, I do…and I think you do, too."
Obi-Wan glanced down, frowning…because it was true. Every single piece of evidence had pointed toward the boy's culpability…prior to this. But now—now that tiny ember of hope sparked once more within Obi-Wan—that he could save the boy, that he could redress his own failures with Anakin.
But he was terrified that his need to reverse past mistakes was blinding him to present dangers…dangers to Leia more than himself.
"I should go. I should be the one to speak to the boy."
"Have faith in your padawan, Master Kenobi," Mon said with a faint smile. "She's not a child any more. She clearly has a rapport with him."
"And if he is Sith?"
Mon raised her head, her steely commitment shining. "Then we proceed as we had always intended, and remove all of the Sith who hold this dictatorship in power. But we will do so with a clear conscience—for ourselves and for Leia."
Intensely inhabited, a dense mass of life which never slept, never rested in its endless quest to remain forever the center of the galaxy, Coruscant glowed with its own importance. Across its night side lights twinkled in warm hues, regular patterns suggesting subtle curves in strings of pinpoint brightness as delicate as gossamer, to mark its massive cities. Wide arcs of elegant tracery converged into bursts of concentrated luminosity, building up the glowing mass of the Capital Planet, a spectacle to shame the brightest nebula, from the planet where night never truly fell. It was spectacular and it was entrancing and it was unequalled—and it left Luke cold, as it always had. An emptiness echoed by the dense darkness which hulked in silence just beyond each gathering of lustrous light and life.
He waited as they made orbit, arms wrapped about himself in the solitary stillness of his impersonal quarters. He wondered briefly if Vader too was waiting, somewhere. Though they'd travelled onboard the same Destroyer back to Coruscant, neither had once made comment, nor sought each other out. Perhaps Vader felt the same swell of unspoken empathy that Luke did in this rare moment, each aware that they both returned to face Palpatine's wrath.
The door slid aside and Indo's hushed footfalls announced his presence, though Luke had sensed his tense unease long before. But his voice was calm and even, as he spoke the words Luke had known would come. "The Emperor commands you to an audience."