The Art of War - Part 2
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
Chapter 2 Playing Games
"So you've been to Kessel?" Han Solo eyed the man sitting across from him at one of the ship canteen's tables suspiciously. Leia had just arrived in company of this seedy looking guy two hours ago and was now caught up in reporting to the Alliance leaders all of her findings on Debelan. "What for?"
Sitting next to Han, Luke Skywalker smiled an apologetic smile at Wrenga Jixton, who didn't seem to notice Han's hostility at all.
"Ah," Han remarked.
"Yeah, killed a superior."
"Oh," that from Luke's direction. "So what did you do in the army?"
"Combat instructor on Carida, before that idiot got on my nerves."
Han started saying something but was interrupted by Chewbacca's arrival. The Wookiee slapped a hairy paw on Jix' back and growled something at him.
"What does he want?" The man asked in Han's direction.
"Apparently the big wigs want to see you."
"All right." Pushing back his chair and standing, Jix flipped the three of them a jaunty salute and strode off.
"Don't kill any of them, d'you hear?!" Han shouted after the retreating figure and was rewarded by the startled looks from rebels seated at the adjoining tables. "I don't like that guy," Han murmured.
"Yes, we all know that now," Luke countered. "And why?"
"Isn't it obvious? He's arrogant, cocky, talks a lot about himself and how great he is..."
Chewie's laughter interrupted him and the Wookiee added a poignant remark.
"He's not like me! Not at all!" Han shouted defensively.
"He's Corellian," Luke pointed out, grinning broadly at his friend.
"Shut up, kid."
Wrenga Jixton felt pretty confident. He would not even have to lie to the rebel leaders. Not much, at least. Once they heard his story they would gladly welcome him in their midst and perhaps even come to him to get information about the Imperial Navy. And that's where he would excel. With some help, of course, from Lord Vader.
The ride from Debelan to the rebel fleet hiding in deep space had been uneventful, but the company in turn was extraordinary. Jix readily admitted to himself that he liked the princess. In his line of work he did meet women, but mostly he had no chance to get to know them better. Either they tried to kill him or he had orders to assassinate them. Perhaps on some occasions there had been those he did rescue from some danger, but they just thanked him and were off. The princess was different. Jix even liked her brother, a nice kid, very unlike his father. But that Solo. Throw two Corellians together in one place and you have an evening's worth of entertainment.
Shaking his head slightly, Jix entered the debriefing room, ready to spread his tale.
It was night-time on Coruscant, but this city-planet never slept. It was the Imperial Center, after all, and political schemes and the plotting of treason could not be delayed forever.
Darth Vader was up late. Lounging in a chair and looking out at the blinking, colorful lights filling the night sky, he mused about the conversation with Palpatine not four hours ago.
"You sent your troops away without any reason," the Emperor had asked coldly. "Why?"
Vader had had a long time to prepare for that question and had decided to keep it simple. "I had no need of them and thought them best used elsewhere."
"Captain Needa told me that the ground troops with you were wiped out. Are you telling me that you took on a whole gang of pirates just for fun?"
"We have to find the small pleasures in life, don't we?" the Dark Lord had replied philosophically.
The Emperor had grunted a comment, then dismissed his right-hand man with a wave of his gnarled fingers: "I would rather have you put more effort in bringing down this petty rebellion than let you indulge in such highly unnecessary pleasures."
"I obey, Master," the other man had told the ruler solemnly and left.
Since the overall strategy was clear - weaken the Empire and strengthen the rebels without raising suspicion - Vader only had to operationalize his tactics. For the Navy he already had a plan. With the information Jix would provide, he could set up the battle groups in different ways. First: pit a superior Imperial force against a rebel fleet defending a minor strategic target to gain an easy victory. Second: pit a superior Imperial force against a rebel fleet defending a major strategic target, but make sure the inevitably included Interdictor cruiser was disabled. Everyone would talk about sabotage then, but he had a solution to that too. Third: send an inferior Imperial force against a superior rebel armada. He would take the blame for their failure if necessary, but he could always take it out on the Navy strategists.
And to confuse everyone a bit he would plant the rumor that there was a leak in Intelligence. Those idiots would be completely immersed in finding that hole, he would make sure of that.
The only problem here was Intelligence director Ysanne Isard herself. The woman was cunning and eventually she might even find out that there truly was a leak, only coming from one of Vader's own agents. That wouldn't look good. Well, perhaps Isard would meet with a deadly accident somewhere along the way.
In addition, he would weave an intricate web of orders, order-recalls and troop deployments that would cloud the overall strategy and the tactics as well. Fortunately, with the Force as his ally, he would be able to foresee some happenings and react accordingly. Palpatine might sense something and here time was against Vader. What he needed was a little luck paired with a flexible mind and patience. Although the patience-thing might be a bit hard on him. But the outcome would be well worth the effort.
"Report," Emperor Palpatine told the small figure standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to his throne.
"The agent left Coruscant before the Star Destroyers were recalled as per Lord Vader's orders. Obviously, he called in reinforcements that weren't so obvious."
"And do you know why Lord Vader did so?"
Mara Jade shook her head, but answered nevertheless: "I cannot know for sure, master. But the Dark Lord is a proud man. Perhaps he did not want his troops to see him weakened. And I think he trusts his agent more."
The Emperor leaned back in his throne: "I had not even considered this, Mara Jade, but now I can see that I should have. I have examined the doctor's report on Lord Vader's health after he had returned to his quarters. The injuries were grave indeed. But not life-threatening. So your theory might have merit."
She could see that her master was deep in thought and remained perfectly still were she was.
This particular agent did intrigue her. Mara had never seen him, nor had anyone in Intelligence, as far as she knew, or any of the Emperor's other agents. He was known though, and efforts had been made time and again to uncover his identity. All without success.
"Mara Jade," Palpatine interrupted her little reverie, "you will do your best to track this agent down."
"Yes, Master," she answered and left, feeling elated. This was the ultimate test. Ever since having heard about Vader's best agent, she had felt that as the Emperor's hand there should be none better than her. And she would find him, that she knew.
After the young Hand had left, Emperor Palpatine called up the doctor's report again. Vader had clearly regained his strength on his trip back to Coruscant. And all readings seemed to be normal. All, that was, except one. And this one was bothering the emperorimmensely. When Anakin Skywalker had suffered the near-fatal injuries at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the doctors fighting to save his life had been forced to replace much of his limbs and organs with artificial machinery and had to stock up his blood with blood conserves. A fact that had been much to his master's liking. With that much foreign blood cursing through his veins, the young Sith's Force potential became much weaker. And the Emperor had made sure that blood had to be replaced from time to time to keep it low.
But now, looking at those readouts, Palpatine found the count of midichlorians in Lord Vader's blood to be alarmingly high. Somehow the Dark Lord had found a way around Palpatine's cheating methods. Obviously, Vader was planning something. Sending out Mara to find his most trusted agent was one step to uncover the other's plan. But that alone would not do. No, not at all. The Emperor shut off the holoimages of the report and rose from his throne. Walking slowly around to the giant observation window, his eyes quickly found the forbidding structure that was Vader's home on Coruscant amidst the glowing lights and a slow sly smile spread on his blackened lips.
So, the game was on at last, but he was not unprepared. He had known that something like this might happen. And even though he had tried hard to gain complete control over his powerful servant, apparently he had not entirely succeeded. He remembered the young Jedi Knight very well, years back, before his turning, so full of righteousness and the knowledge that he knew what was best for everyone. Palpatine had allowed him to find out a few things, and pride had made young Skywalker take up the fight alone. Additionally the Sith Master had made sure that none of his friends would be there to help the young man. No one. Of course he had not killed all of them. After all, some might still be of use to him. In fact, he suspected that very soon now he would need to ensure some help concerning the Dark Lord. Yes, very soon now.
When the first reports of battles lost reached the Imperial Navy's High Command, the various Admirals and Generals started bickering amongst each other, trying to blame anyone else but themselves. After that came a period where they all tried to work together, to find out why their troops had failed against the ragtag rebel armada despite their superior tactics and technology. And then they panicked. The reason for that last reaction was the impending visit of Darth Vader, who also demanded an explanation.
It was an early Coruscant morning. The small assembly was nervous, but each single member tried not to show that too openly to the others. Despite all efforts though, all eyes were fixed on the heavy double doors marking the room's entrance. And they all jumped when they opened abruptly, to admit the Dark Lord's armored form, striding into the room in his usual energetic pace, to take his seat at the far end of the table.
"You all know what I want to hear," he began without hesitation, turning his masked gaze at each one of them.
Finally, one of the senior tacticians rose, harrumphing once, then gathered himself together and began:
"It seems, my lord, that unfortunate deployments caused most of the defeats."
"And who issues the order for ship and troop deployments?"
The poor man blushed and sweat started pouring down his forehead. He laughed a nervous little laugh: "A-ha. You do, my lord."
"Are you suggesting that this disaster is my mistake?" Vader hissed dangerously, leaning towards the flustered speaker, who took a step back.
"My lord! No! I merely answered your question!"
There were a few compassionate glances from his peers, though not so obvious as to make it seem as if they were taking his side. "Then how could this happen?"
"M-Maybe they had information about our fleet deployments?"
"What?" The Dark Lord roared, making the assembly flinch as one man. "First you make it more than clear that this Council is ill-suited for its tasks and has to rely on me for everything, and now you suggest that there's a leak somewhere along the chain of command?" Calming himself visibly, Vader started stalking around the table, hands folded on his back, the only sound in the room his mechanical breathing. He stopped at the entrance, turned to face them again and nodded thoughtfully: "Perhaps I should have the lot of you executed."
The frightened speaker, now close to a heart attack, raised one hand timidly.
"What?" the Sith lord barked sharply.
"If I may, my lord, we will work on new deployment orders, send them to you to examine and to change, if necessary..."
"If?" Vader mumbled, clearly audible. "And I will talk to Intelligence director Isard personally to make sure she investigates a possible leak." Since the speaker had decided to play this to the end, he now had to bear the Dark Lord's full attention, as he strode over to loom directly in front of the man, making him cringe slightly. "You are fully responsible for all this, and will report to me directly, if anything else goes wrong." With these words, he turned on his heels and left the room, leaving its occupants smelling strongly of sweat.
That had gone even better than expected. Everything was in place now. But he would have to move his pawns very carefully, since loosing just one of them too early could be fatal.
Luke Skywalker felt the adrenaline surge slowly die down, as he climbed out of his X-wing, now safely tethered in the Liberty's vast hangar bay. That last battle had been a bit on the rough side, but if he had heard right, their losses had been low. And the Imps had been forced to run in the end. He grinned broadly at the memory of the two corvettes and one Star Destroyer turning tail and vanishing into hyperspace.
Moving down a corridor in the ship's command center, with R2 by his side, the young Jedi was looking for someone special. Or two someone's in this case. Leia Organa and Wrenga Jixton were bent over a computer console together, staring hard at a readout. "How did we do?" Luke asked cheerfully.
Leia turned and smiled at him, her chocolate eyes tired: "You did great, Luke. Rogue Squadron was perfect. And you didn't lose one single pilot." He was ginning again proudly.
"Where is Han?" The princess asked finally and Luke noticed Jix' sidelong glance. He and Han had been vying for Leia's attention for some time now. And she seemed to enjoy it. Actually she had confided in Luke that she found it flattering to have those two Corellians fall over themselves to impress her, since she didn't have the time for a real romance.
Luke liked Jix a lot. And the man was an expert when it came to hacking into Imperial computer systems.
"What have you two planned for our next mission?"
Turning an earnest glance on the younger man, Wrenga replied: "This is not going to be easy. The defense group has an Interdictor with them, meaning we will be trapped if anything goes wrong."
"So what do we do?"
"Disable the Interdictor."
"Wow!" Luke exclaimed. "And who are the poor guys to do that?"
"Me, Han and Jix," Leia answered calmly.
"You? But, but..." her young friend sputtered.
"Hey," she said, "what could possibly happen to me with those two around?"
Stalking along the crates in the shipping hangar, the trio was working its way towards the shuttle designated for the Interdictor Cruiser in orbit around the planet. Jix was in the lead. A fact that did not appeal to Han Solo at all. But, bringing up the rear, he had to admit grudgingly that the man was good. Really good. Suddenly Jix moved his hand and started to run soundlessly on padded soles, with Leia and Han following after only a heartbeat's hesitation.
Coming to a halt in the shuttle's shadow they waited again. When the time was right they boarded the ship and sought shelter in the freight compartment, trying not to breathe. It would be another hour before the shuttle's designated lift-off. Time enough for every team member to deal with his or her own fears.
If this goes wrong we could lose half of our ships, Leia mused.
I just hope my information is still up to date, Wrenga Jixton thought grimly.
And Han Solo sighed inwardly. I have a bad feeling about this.
Chilling three hours passed until the shuttle landed in the Cruiser's hangar bay. And another more before Jix deemed it safe to leave the ship. Han and Leia felt sore from the cramped ride, but Jix didn't seem to notice. He quickly found them coveralls from the technical personnel and led them down the maze of corridors.
Just upon reaching the ship's forward sections, alarm sirens started wailing throughout the huge ship. "Here they come," Han whispered.
Rogue Squadron would make the first run, then the medium-sized ships would follow. But until then the trio should already have disabled the huge devices that created the artificial gravitational well.
"Let's go," Jix said and turned around the next corner, making short work of two technicians. While Han and Leia finished the others, Jix had found the right command center. When the others joined him, he had already set to work on the controls.
"Do you know how to use those?"
"Princess, I don't want to use them, I want to break them!"
"I know, I just thought..."
Blaster fire interrupted her and all three took cover wherever they could find it. "We don't have time!" Jix shouted above the din and stood up, returning the enemy fire.
Quickly all sound ceased and he knelt on the floor and opened his backpack Han joined him.
"What's that?" Han asked, staring at the blinking metal device in Jix hands.
"Time for desperate measures," the other man answered. "Where's Leia?"
"Blast! While Han was searching the room, Jix fastened the bomb to the primary controls and programmed it.
"What is it, Solo?" he replied, still intent on his task.
"She's injured bad, Jix."
"What?" Turning around he saw Leia's broken, bleeding body held tight in Han's arms. She definitely looked more dead than alive.
"Let's get out of here," Jix told the other grimly.
"Sorry I can't help but someone has to carry her."
"Don't worry about that." Grinning wolfishly, Jix unpacked his two blasters and checked the door. "I hope you can run fast, Solo, 'cause this section blows in four minutes."
Luke saw the fire blossom in the lower forward decks of the Interdictor Cruiser and feared the worst. "Leia!" he called, unable to contain his worries. And managed to veer out of a TIE's blaster's barely in time. "Leia," he whispered again, feeling on some half-conscious level that she was badly injured.
They all were reunited in the Liberty's sickbay, assembled in front of the intensive ward.
"The doctors say she's in a coma," a tired Han told Luke, when he finally made it there. "Guess there's no chance to see her now?"
"Not yet, they tell us," Jix answered, clearly agitated.
"I just hope she will pull through this all right," Luke told them both, echoing their hopes.
Leia Organa dreamed. She was standing at the edge of a swamp, facing towards rolling green hills. In the distance, she could just make out a glittering city and hear the roar of a waterfall.
"Leia!" someone called to her left. She turned her head to see who it was. A woman came to her, smiling.
"Leia, child, I have missed you so much."
"Mother?" Leia was astounded. She looks so much like me! The woman who was her mother nodded. "Am I dead?" The other shook her head.
"No, Leia, you are just dreaming."
"But will I die?" Suddenly her mother's face turned grim as she looked beyond her daughter's shoulder.
"Only your father knows the answer to that question," she told Leia and faded away.
The princess turned around and froze. Up on the next hill a man stood, dressed in flowing black robes. His bald head was gleaming in the sunlight, the white skin contrasting with the color of his clothes. She ran towards him. "Father!" she called loudly, joyfully even.
His voice stopped her cold. "I really don't know what it is you are seeing here," he said.
Vader! It is Vader! A tiny voice inside Leia's head screamed at her. And then she woke up, totally confused.
One of the nurses bent over her, smiling. "How are you feeling, Princess?" she asked.
"I am not sure," Leia answered, "a bit dizzy perhaps."
"That'll be the sedative. Your injuries are bad, but nothing that won't heal with time and rest. Do you think you are strong enough to calm your friends? They are waiting outside."
Leia smiled weakly and nodded her acquiescence. Only two minutes later Luke, Han, Chewie and Jix were assembled around her bed, grinning madly at her, unsure of what to say.
"So," Han began, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking her left hand, "how is our brave princess?" Leia didn't answer at first. She had expected Jix to take his place at the other side of the bed, but the Corellian was leaving the field to his rival, standing apparently deep in thought a little apart from the group. What was wrong with him? dream flashed before her inner eye again and she vowed to herself to get him alone later and ask him some questions about what had really happened on Debelan.
Mara Jade was making inquiries. It was not easy for a young woman like herself to gain the kind of information she wanted, since her prospective informants rarely took her seriously. At least until she could convince them otherwise. This one was relatively tame now that she had knocked him to the floor with a perfectly placed blow to his nose. Kneeling before her, the man tried to staunch the bleeding, and growled something unintelligible.
"What did you say?" Mara asked dangerously, smiling down at him.
"Nothing," he mumbled and started to rise, but she put down a hand on his neck, shaking her head slowly. He subsided and waited for her to repeat her request.
"Let me ask you again. A ship left Nar Shadaa a week ago, with two men on board when there should have been only one, right?"
"Right," he answered hoarsely.
"Do you know the stranger who rode with the transport?"
"Never seen him before."
"A pity. Then I'll have to kill you," she told him coolly.
"No! Wait!" he pleaded.
"Is there anything else you can tell me about him?"
"I've seen him only two days ago on D'shir."
"Where the rebel raid took place?"
"Yes, only hours before that attack."
"Thank you for your help," Mara smiled, "If I need any more information I'll contact you again."
Stalking back to her ship, she thought about what to do now. Contact the Emperor? That was the obvious choice, but she didn't know what Vader's agent might be doing with the rebels. Perhaps blowing his cover now would ruin a valuable mission. On the other hand, she had heard of the supposed information leak and the Dark Lord's most trusted agent had to know a lot about the Empire. Perhaps he was the traitor. In that case catching him would increase her status immensely. Had Vader considered the possibility that the leak might be in his own information network? As proud as he was probably not. Or could it be that it was the Sith lord himself who was the traitor here? Mara's eyes widened unconsciously. That would be something! Well, she had wanted a challenge and now she got it.
"Mara Jade, you wished to talk with me," Darth Vader said calmly, when he entered the oppressive chamber that passed as his debriefing room. Mara elegantly rose from her chair and bowed her head slightly.
"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Lord Vader," she answered politely and smiled at him.
"What do you want to know?" he asked and remained standing. She followed his lead and tried to hold herself straighter before replying:
"The agent who picked you up on Debelan, he has been seen with rebels. Do you know why?" He didn't even hesitate: "Of course I know why, Mara Jade. And I can see why you are so concerned. But let me assure you that he is on a mission vital for the Empire."
She imagined a smile behind that black mask and felt a little bit better. At least he hadn't taken any offence at her directness. Perhaps she would survive this little talk after all. "What mission is that?"
Now he barked a short laugh and shook his head: "There's a leak somewhere, remember?"
"No but, Emperor's Hand. I have much important things to do and so do you, no doubt. You know the way out, I am sure," he added and left again.
So much for politeness, Mara sighed inwardly and decided to return to her own quarters. No need to bother the Emperor at this late hour. She would tell him tomorrow.
"Jix!" the comm officer called down the Liberty's bridge.
Turning towards him, the other frowned, looking surprised. "What is it?"
"Call for you. It's your Uncle Dee."
"I'll take it in the conference room," Jix replied calmly and left, ignoring the thoughtful gazes of the rebel officers. Upon arriving in the designated room, he saw the comm panel blink already. "Jix," he said, accepting the encoded call.
"A guest will be with you shortly," a deep, resonating voice replied."
"Yes. A dear guest to be treated accordingly."
"All right. By the way, have I told you lately that you are mad?"
There was a chuckle on the other side, then: "If you had, I wouldn't be talking with you now."
"I know. Thanks, Uncle Dee. Bye."
Of all the crazy stunts! Vader really must be out of his mind! Calling him at the worst moment possible! There would be questions all right! But Jix was not unprepared. So, an Imperial agent would join him shortly. And if he made too much trouble, Jix was to kill him. No problem.
It was Leia, who took him aside as he reentered the bridge. "Jix," she said, smiling sweetly, but he could see the steel hidden underneath the brown velvet of her eyes,"who is that Uncle Dee who knows where you are?"
"My informant. You didn't think I have some mental abilities that allow me to foresee everything the Imperial Navy does, did you?"
Letting go of his arm, she pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I've heard that name before," she mused aloud.
"Could be I mentioned him on Debelan," Jix answered lightly. "He set me up with that pirate gang, you know?"
"An Imperial informant?"
"He's got a lot of connections."
"Very useful, I could imagine."
"So," Leia began anew, "what did he want?"
Now Jix needed to improvise. "There's a small fleet deployed for Selos V, he says. Should be easy prey for us."
"How easy?" The princess was all business again. Apparently, she had swallowed his story whole. Mentally crossing his fingers, Jix hoped that everything stayed that easy.
Darth Vader strode down the great hall leading to the Emperor's throne room, feeling confident. He had warned Jix a few hours after Mara Jade had left his fortress, to forestall any suspicion that he was panicking somehow, in case the call had been noted somewhere. Not decoded, though. This line had been absolutely secure.
The giant double doors swung ponderously aside to allow him to enter the chamber. As suspected, Mara Jade was already waiting at her master's side.
"Lord Vader!" The Emperor called cheerfully. "Mara just told me of your agent's mission. Since it's so important, I wish her to join him. What was that mission again?"
Eyeing Mara closely, Vader replied in measured tones: "He is gathering information and passes it directly on to me."
"The victories at Kashyyk and Tatooine are due to him."
"And the defeats?"
"I am afraid that as one person he can only be with one rebel battle group. And he might raise suspicion if he inquired about the other groups' targets."
Palpatine leaned back in his chair: "Of course. I understand that you wouldn't want to lose your most valuable pawn. I also understand that this particular agent's identity has been kept a close secret between the two of you. As you no doubt are aware of, Intelligence has made efforts to change that. Usually I would respect your agent's skills in hiding his identity, but this situation requires that our two best work together. I do hope you agree, Lord Vader."
Playing his role, the Dark Lord hesitated for a moment, then inclined his head:
"I agree. With the setbacks we have experienced in the past weeks, this mission is vital. Although Mara Jade might be more useful in tracking down the leak in Intelligence."
"No need to worry about that," the Emperor cut in sharply, "Intelligence director Ysanne Isard is looking into that personally."
"I am sure Director Isard enjoys your complete trust," the other replied ironically, turning his remark into an obvious question.
"Ah," Palpatine smiled, "of course. I see what you mean. Rest assured that Director Isard's actions will be examined as closely as those of everyone else."
"I understand, Master."
"Good. I don't want to keep you, Mara. You will want to prepare for your mission."
"Yes, Master." Bowing deeply, the young woman left.
Vader stood his ground bravely. He had not expected this. And he sensed that whatever was coming now wasn't good.
Palpatine rose slowly from the throne and walked over to a holoscreen set into the chamber wall. "Come, Lord Vader. There is something I need to show you." Feeling a bit uneasy, the Dark Lord joined the Emperor in front of the screen. Two images appeared there now, side by side. The images of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa. Vader didn't move one single muscle.
"Lord Vader, do you know these two rebels?" Palpatine was eyeing him closely, knowingly.
"The woman is Princess Leia of Alderaan. I can't say I have seen the boy before."
"But you must admit that he bears a striking resemblance to someone you do know, my lord. Anakin Skywalker is who I am talking about."
The other's head snapped around: "What are you saying?"
Laughing silently and clapping his aged hands slowly, Palpatine gurgled: "Oh, a flawless performance, just perfect." Suddenly his face darkened: "You are planning something stupid, my lord. And I would rather have you forget about it straight away. Now, tell me again, do you know these two?"
Gritting his teeth Vader answered: "They are my children." Palpatine knew, he knew!
The Emperor relaxed a bit: "Now you see, Lord Vader, I am neither stupid nor ignorant. I will take your word for it that your agent's mission truly does benefit the Empire. If not, Mara Jade will kill him. Need I tell you that I have my own agents among the rebels?"
Crossing his hands behind his back, the Emperor slowly returned to his throne and sat down. Then he turned a thoughtful gaze on his right-hand man and continued: "I have studied the troop deployments and tactical layouts of the most recent battles with the rebels. They were flawless. So you can see, I am not sure what it is you are planning, but I know you do have a plan. For your children's sake, my lord, try to behave in the future. You are dismissed. For now."
"Yes, Master," Vader replied and bowed deeply, then stalked out of the chamber, fuming. This was most unwelcome. But he could and would work around this. Jix could watch out for himself, and his children could too. The race was on and there was only one small obstacle left.
Watching the Dark Lord leave, the Emperor was deeply immersed in his own thoughts. The threat had worked, he had felt it, but he did not put it past the man to work around it somehow. In that case disciplinary action was required. Very severe action. He could not let the man get out of hand now, not yet. Maybe at one point it would become necessary to replace him, but he still had hopes for a renewal of the bonds that had chained the Dark Lord to the throne so far. Speaking of ...
His eyes narrowing suddenly he felt icy claws engulf his heart. But everything was well that should be well, and there were no signs of hostility or resentment where they should not be. Good. But it always took two players for a game, and sometimes the one you could see was not the one playing against you. This was a matter that needed resolving fast.
He recalled his meeting with his Sith Lords from a few months back and both Lord Vader and Lord Kell had seemed reasonably calm. Thinking back on it he realized that he should have seen that anomaly straight away. Lord Vader was seldom that calm, he was more like a wound-up spring ready to give, his never-lessening energy a pent-up storm in the back of his mind. And Lord Kell, well, he had seemed strangely quiet too. No sarcastic comments, no mind-games. He never did that whenever Lord Vader was present. Maybe he should talk to the Head of the Council once more. Something was going on, and Palpatine did no like it one bit.
"Sir?" Vader's aide approached him timidly as he strode into the fortress's main hall.
"What is it?" the Dark Lord barked at him.
"Sir, Intelligence director Isard wishes to see you."
"Very well, send her in."
So, Isard was here. Palpatine probably hadn't told her about Mara Jade's mission yet, if he ever would.
"Lord Vader," she welcomed him, as he entered the briefing room.
"Please come to the point and make it brief," he countered, not in the mood for pleasantries at all.
She didn't seem the slightest flustered and continued right on: "Lord Vader, concerning that leak in Intelligence."
"We have made progress."
"Have you now."
He took a seat, but didn't move to offer her a chair. She only smiled at him. "It seems there's only one agent active at the moment who could possibly know what he needs to know."
"And who is it?"
Her mouth tightened ever so slightly and he could feel her tense. One of your agents, apparently.
"What?" Vader roared and jumped up, his chair crashing to the floor behind him.
Flinging her against the wall with a gesture of his black-gloved hand, he moved over and grabbed her throat in his left hand. Her eyes widened with fear and she started choking, but Vader didn't really want to contain his anger. He didn't even hear her windpipe crack. Letting her lifeless body fall, he stormed out of the room, not stopping until he stood on he top balcony of his fortress. She had been very wrong to assume that the Emperors protection could have saved her. If she was not able to play the game her fate was sealed. That was the only rule they followed. The one and only.
Staring at the Imperial Palace towering in the distance, he managed to calm himself slowly. So. No doubt Isard's death would cause a lot of unpleasantness. He didn't care. He had known from the beginning that his plan could turn out like that and now he had to bear the brunt of its backlash. Still, this was no reason to despair. Jix was still out there and the mission and troop deployments were continuing to secretly play into the rebels' hand. There was the chance that he would not be around to see the Empire fall, yes. It would be a pity, but not the end of the world.
Mara Jade's contacts confirmed the mission setup. She would meet with Vader's agent on Selos V, at a place called "The Rat Hole", in the worst district of Selos' only port city. Now, leaving Coruscant behind, she felt strangely elated. She was even looking forward to working together with Vader's agent. The Emperor had made it clear though, that she was to keep an eye on him. And eliminate him if necessary. Making the final check-up before plunging her ship into hyperspace, she risked a glance over at the three Star Destroyers prepared to leave for Selos V under Lord Vader's command. His exact mission there had been left unclear by her master and she knew better than to enquire too closely. Whatever it was, it wouldn't be bad to have some backup if she needed it.
On the bridge of the Star Destroyer Avenger, Darth Vader was brooding. The ship's captain, Lorth Needa, silently stood at attention at the Dark Lord's side.
"We are ready to go, my lord," he explained quietly.
"Good. Let's make this trip short."
Back in his meditation chamber aboard the Avenger, Vader thought back on his recent conversation with Palpatine. The Emperor had not been pleased with Isard's death. "I don't know what has gotten into you, Vader, but I strongly advise you to get yourself under control. And soon. I am giving you command of a small fleet leaving for Selos V tomorrow. Since you have written the orders, you know your mission. I just hope getting away from Coruscant for a while will let you cool off. And, Vader. Remember the price for failure."
Selos V was eligible for number three of his tactical measures: inferior Imperial fleet against superior rebel fleet. With any luck the Rebels would be waiting for them there already. Sighing deeply, Darth Vader opened himself to the Force, let it flow through his very being. Of late, namely since the destruction of the Death Star, he had noticed a change in the response of the Force to his calling. It seemed to become easier, more like it had been before his fatal duel with Obi-Wan all those years ago. Strange as it was, he had other worries than to explore that secret.
"Here they come," Leia breathed, staring out the bridge's forward viewport, as the three Star Destroyers entered the Selos system.
"Hit them hard!" General Dodonna called behind her. They could not waste any time. Just out of hyperspace, the ships would take a few seconds to get up their shields again.
"Good work, Jix," she told the man standing to her left.
"Yeah, hooray for Uncle Dee," Han, to her right, said sourly. Obviously it bothered him that Jix' highly successful mission deployments gained so much attention from Leia.
The princess herself had come to take it for granted that Jix' work was excellent. Other things had bothered her of late. That strange dream, for example. The feeling that this Uncle Dee was someone she should know. And the way she felt about Luke. He seemed more than a friend to her now, although she could not see any changes in the way they treated each other. She only cared more deeply for him, like she would for a brother perhaps. But for the moment she put all those thoughts aside and concentrated on the battle ahead. The three Star Destroyers, caught by surprise, were regrouping now.
"Lord Vader, they have an interdiction field up."
"A trap, no doubt. And we have walked right into it," Darth Vader replied calmly, turning towards Needa. "The other two ships are to move to the following coordinates. Quickly. And keep the Avenger on course."
"Yes, my lord," Needa answered, setting to work.
Slowly, the huge ships formed a triangle, thereby guarding each other's flanks and their exhaust ports aimed at the triangle's middle made a sneak attack from behind impossible. Still, they could not escape and the rebel fleet was slowly, but inevitably wearing them down.
The Dark Lord studied the battle layout for about twenty minutes, before calling Needa to his side: "The Interdictor cruiser is right in front of us. From the comm traffic we've been able to pick up we can safely deduce that it is also the command ship." Needa simply nodded. Then the Sith continued: "When I give you the order, have the other two ships head for the following coordinates."
He gave Needa the necessary data, and the man's face turned white: "But, my lord!"
"Don't argue with me, Needa. And when you're done, open a channel to that Interdictor. We need to get their attention first."
"Yes, Lord Vader."
"General! Incoming call."
"Who?" Dodonna asked simply.
"It's from that lead Star Destroyer."
"What are you waiting for? Put it through!" The general took a step back when Darth Vader's masked face suddenly filled the comm screen. "Greetings," the Dark Lord growled, "a piece of advice, rebels. Yield now or be destroyed." With that, the connection broke and the screen filled with static.
"The arrogance of the man!" Dodonna shook his head. "Come on, guys. Concentrate fire on the lead Star Destroyer."
"Wait", Leia interrupted him," they are moving."
"Keep the ship on course and concentrate fire on the Interdictor. If we can knock out the field, the other ships are free to go. Until then they can guard our back."
Captain Needa kept silent. This plan was madness, but the Dark Lord was right. That way they would lose only one ship. Hopefully.
The Avenger picked up speed and left the triangle formation. As expected, the rebel ships now concentrated their fire on the advancing Star Destroyer. "Thanks to Lord Vader's little display," Needa thought, quietly admiring the other man's cunning and courage. Other commanders would not remain on a doomed ship to let their subordinates get away.
They were closing on the Interdictor fast, but the enemy fire also took its toll. "Shields down to ten percent," an officer sang out.
All eyes turned towards the towering figure standing calmly at the bridge's viewport. "Keep going," Vader ordered quietly.
"Five percent," the bridge personnel was informed ten minutes later. Some of the officers started shifting in their seats nervously.
"Zero," the officer monitoring the shield sighed.
"They will hold out a little longer," the Dark Lord reassured them. "How about the Interdictor?"
"We should be able to crack the field in about ten minutes," Needa replied after a quick glance at the scanners.
"That's how long the shields will hold then," his commander told them and returned to gazing out the viewport.
Aboard the Liberty, Wrenga Jixton joined the boarding parties in one of the hangar bays, hefted his two blasters, and nodded at Han Solo, who would command one of the parties. Jix had another one. As soon as the Star Destroyers shields were down, they would get in there and take control over the ship. General Dodonna had made it clear that he preferred to capture Vader alive if possible, and Jix had made that his sole goal in this mission.
"Interdiction field down!" a metallic voice announced over the hangar bay's loudspeakers.
"Great, now the other two can run," Han grumbled.
"Hey, but we get the big catch," Jix replied cheerfully.
"Shield down!" the metallic voice told them.
"Let's go!" Han shouted and ran to join his troops aboard their assigned assault shuttle.
"Yeah," Jix whispered, "Let's play."