The Art of War - Part 3
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 3 Destiny Revealed
Three assault shuttles were descending on the doomed Star Destroyer Avenger like vultures. The huge ship hung dead in space, dark and forbidding, and more than one Rebel soldier had a bad feeling about this mission. They all knew that a Dark Lord was loose in that ship and furthermore, that Dark Lord's name was Darth Vader.
Upon landing in one of the huge hangar bays, this one empty save for an Imperial shuttle, the three teams immediately secured the area, then left in search for the enemy. Soon blaster fire rang through the dark corridors, which were eerily lit by red emergency lighting, as they were engaging the first stormtroopers.
Wrenga Jixton led his group of twenty towards the bridge. Very likely no one would be there, since it was an obvious assault target. On the other hand, it could be turned into a trap for unwisely careless attackers. The team had encountered a few pockets of stormtroopers defending the ship on their way, but had made short work of most. Some of the Imperial soldiers had run and were hiding elsewhere now, others had been too injured to run and were brought to the medical frigate of the Rebel fleet by a retrieval team.
They had reached the lower bridge now, and silently, with Jix in the lead, worked their way further, until they stood on the forward bridge, looking out the viewport at their own ships and the darkness of space beyond.
"No one is here," a Tordoshan growled, but Jix motioned her to be silent.
"Shhh," he whispered, "listen."
The others strained hard and finally they heard it too. From above them came a tiny sound, like the scraping of metal on metal. Jix aimed his two blasters at the ceiling and fired twice, loosening the plates, which promptly came crashing to the floor, followed by distant metallic laughter and the sound of boots disappearing unhurriedly in the distance.
"He's playing with us," Jix stated, and holstered one of his blasters again.
"What? You mean that was Vader?"
"Who else? Stormtroopers would as soon have opened fire. Whoever that was didn't. Let's go." Frankly, Jix was asking himself how the Dark Lord was going to pull this one off.
Han Solo and his team had regrouped on the first crew deck. After a heavy firefight with stormtroopers, the group had shrunk decisively by half.
"Team 2, where are you? Jix!" Han was whispering in his commlink. Finally he got an answer.
"Hey Solo, how are you?"
"Bad, we could use some help on crew one."
"We are on our way. Sit tight and wait for us."
"Are they coming?" one of the team members asked quietly.
"Yes," Han sighed, clearly relieved.
Then suddenly a red laser beam cut from out of the ceiling and then a huge dark clad figure, its black cloak billowing behind it like wings, dropped down amongst them.
It landed hard, cushioning the fall with its knees and came up fast, the red blade slicing through two of the Rebel soldiers. "Vader!" Han screamed and started shooting at the fast moving Dark Lord, his usually precise aim failing him again and again. Helplessly he saw his team decimated in front of his very eyes. And then it was only Vader and him.
The Dark Lord let the lightsaber blade circle elegantly and slowly advanced on Han. The Corellian brought his blaster to aim again and pushed the fire button. But the blast was carelessly batted aside with the laser sword. Vader raised one black gloved hand and curled his fingers into a fist. Instantly, Han's blaster was crushed in his hand and Solo just managed to drop it in time before any of his fingers got trapped. "Shit," he cursed and ran.
Racing down one of the strangely lit corridors he yelled into his comm-link: "Jix! Where the hell are you? My team just got vaped."
"That makes two teams," the other answered calmly.
"I tried raising anyone from Team 3 and got no answer."
"I don't know. But get in reinforcements, if you can. Jix out."
Darth Vader was striding purposefully through the now deserted corridors of the Avenger's commando deck towards the bridge, where Captain Needa would be waiting for him. Before the rebel boarding parties had even left the rebel cruiser, Vader had ordered two thirds of the troops on board the Avenger, mostly technical personnel or other non-combat staff, to leave the ship in the designated escape pods as soon as the three assault shuttles were committed to landing on the doomed ship. Since the bridge would be one of the more prominent targets, the Dark Lord had ordered the closest hangar bay to be cleared. That way, the evacuation could be well underway, if not even already finished, in the aft bays of the Star Destroyer before any of the rebel boarding teams could reach them in time. The last third of the troops would occupy the rebels long enough to guarantee the others' escape. Captain Needa had insisted on leading that operation and he was doing well so far. But now it was time to reveal the other half of this escape plan. And Needa wouldn't like that at all.
Vader had nearly reached the lower bridge, when Wrenga Jixton detached himself from where he had been lounging in the shadows. "Hey, Uncle Dee. I knew you'd come back here sooner or later," he said lightly.
"Jix. What are you doing here? And where is your team?"
"Ferreting out more of your troops."
"They won't find many."
"Yeah, we noticed the survival pods when we flew over here. No doubt they'll be picked up on Selos V."
Vader nodded his masked head slowly: "Any vital news you should tell me before I leave?"
"The Imperial agent has contacted me. She's waiting down onplanet."
"The very same."
"Listen, Jix, Palpatine knows something, and this mission was supposed to disperse his doubts in my loyalty, but all other orders stay the same, including Jade. Another thing: my children are in grave danger. There might be other Imperial agents with this fleet. So you will stay here under any circumstances and protect them both. Is that clear?"
"Do you mean you knew this was going to be a trap all along?"
"I don't know everything, Jix, but in this particular case the answer is yes." The Dark Lord hesitated and stared hard at his agent: "Jix."
"What?" the Corellian asked innocently.
"You are planning something."
Jix laughed out loud. But Vader could feel he was nervous. "Look, I'm really sorry about this, but I just know you would never agree." The Corellian moved so fast that even the Dark Lord reacted too late. Jix' knee hit him squarely in the belly and he doubled over, gasping in surprise. He tried to block the other's next blow, but Jix grabbed his wrist and shoved a blaster hard against the Dark Lord's side. "Please, don't make this any harder," he asked quietly.
"What do you mean?" Vader hissed, almost ready to kill Jix.
"I'll shoot you and take you prisoner."
"No, hear me out. I mean, what could be better? You'll be with your children and can help the rebels win."
"If you think I'll let you shoot me..."
"But it's more convincing. No one would seriously believe I managed to capture you unharmed."
"Lord Vader?" the voice suddenly cutting into their intimate discussion sounded half scandalized and half surprised.
Jix unholstered his second blaster in one fluid motion and aimed it at Captain Needa standing forlornly at the bridge entrance. But before he could shoot, Vader slapped the weapon out of his hand, the force of the blow spinning the Corellian around his own axis once before he landed hard against the opposite wall and slid to the floor in a tangled heap. In an instant the Dark Lord was by his side and grabbed his throat. He met Jix' defiant stare levelly, ignoring the blaster still aimed at him.
"Your plan, Jix, is the stupidest suggestion I heard from you so far. If you think I'll voluntarily let myself become a prisoner you are deeply mistaken. Besides, the Empire is still far from weak, and even if, and that scenario is so unlikely that its mere suggestion becomes ridiculous, if the rebels let me lead their troops, I could not change this war's outcome. They don't have the resources necessary. So you will return to your friends and do as I have ordered you before. Nothing else. Now drop that weapon before I break your neck."
Jix complied after a second or two and Vader released him, stepping back, but still kept his eyes on him. The other man stood up, straightened his clothes once, then pointed at Needa still standing where they had left him: "What about him?"
The Dark Lord turned towards his subordinate and regarded the Captain for a while: "Yes indeed. What to do about you?"
"If I may?" Needa asked with a timid smile.
"I just want to make it clear that my loyalty lies with you, my lord. If I can help in any way you just have to give the order."
"Thank you, Captain. I would have deeply regretted eliminating you. There is indeed something I would have you do."
"What is it?"
"You have assembled the troops where I asked you to?"
"Yes, Lord Vader."
"Good. You will join them now and surrender to the Rebels. All of you."
"And, Captain Needa, I am sure you will find a way to benefit our plan then."
"I see what you mean, my lord."
"Good. Then I will leave you two to your tasks. Jix, you just gave me a great idea."
"Sure, whatever you say."
Wrenga Jixton watched the Dark Lord walk away with mixed feelings. But the other man was probably right. And, knowing Palpatine, a subtle approach would gain them more in the long run. He shot a glance at Needa, who was smiling knowingly, then sighed deeply: "Well, I guess capturing the captain counts for something too."
"I am sure it does," Needa replied calmly and left. But Jix wasn't satisfied. He had been looking forward to finally testing his wits and abilities against Vader for a change, if only for practice purposes, not to harm the other.
Well, perhaps he could still surprise the Dark Lord.
He had to run to catch up with Vader and of course he didn't want to give himself away too early. Unfortunately the other had anticipated his move and was already waiting. Rounding a corner, Jix ran straight into Vader, who simply gave him a shove, letting Jix' own momentum do the work for him.
"So you want to play? Then let's play." For the second time that day Jix felt the Dark Lord's gloved fingers close around his throat, this time with more pressure behind that iron grip when he lifted him high, letting his feet dangle half a meter over the floor.
"Hey, I didn't mean it," Jix croaked hoarsely, realizing his mistake, but knew better than to try and kick against the Dark Lord's heavily armored shin.
"Why are you so boldly risking your life this way, Jix?" Vader hissed dangerously.
Wheezing labouriously Jix managed a croaked: "Call it ambition."
"I know you like to push your limits, but this is foolish."
"So you think I am not good enough to take on you?"
"Frankly, yes. You are good, very good, but you are no Jedi. And that's why you are here and take care of pushing the Rebels in the right direction, while I take care of getting Palpatine off our trail."
"Jix?" Han called suddenly, his voice worried.
Vader let Jix fall unceremoniously to the hard deck, turning towards his new adversary: "Your friend will survive," the Dark Lord answered in amusement, "whether you do is still to be seen, Solo."
With a wordless growl Han launched himself at Vader, who sidestepped and let him run past. Han's headlong plunge took him to the other Corellian's side and he helped him up.
"What are you doing? Are you suicidal or what?" Jix asked incredulous, holding his aching neck.
"No more than you are, it seems," Han shot back, "I called the cavalry and since Rogue Squadron were the fastest who could respond, they are here now. Oh, and I found the rest of your team."
"Great," Jix said and patted the other's shoulder, "but we have more pressing problems now." Pointing at the Sith standing patiently not three meters away, he moved one hand to his blaster, still eyeing the Dark Lord. What the hell was he to do now?
Fortunately the other rebels took that decision from him. They stormed into the corridor, momentarily distracting Vader, who focused his attention immediately on this new threat. Especially since Luke Skywalker was with the newcomers.
"We got him!" Han crowed suddenly, when Vader turned away, and aimed his blaster at the Dark Lord's back. But the man was no easy target and ducked out of the way, but not fast enough to evade the beam fully in these close quarters. Only Jix realized that he caught the laser bolt deliberately, since Solo had not taken care and instead of its assigned target the laser beam might have hit Luke who had been running towards the Imperial commander,.
A small hole smoking in his suit at shoulder-height, Vader lashed out with the Force and brought Han to his knees. Jix jumped over the falling Corellian just in time and took a shot at Vader himself. But Vader was faster still, knocked Jix out of the way and ran past him, vanishing around the corner. The other rebels followed him.
"Luke!" Jix called, "Come over here!"
The youth stopped his pursuit and knelt next to Han. "You all right?"
"Luke, do you have no brains at all? Standing there when they start firing like mad?"
"Leave it, Jix," Han put in, "he's getting away."
Darth Vader's long legs were carrying him quickly towards the next hangar bay, where he found a waiting shuttle. Quickly boarding and getting the systems online, he lifted the ship off the floor and headed for space.
It wasn't long until Rogue Squadron's X-wings followed. He evaded the enemy fighters' fire easily, twisting and rolling his ship with increasing pleasure. This shuttle might not be as maneuverable as a small fighter, but it was heavily armored and shielded. And there was still no pilot who could match his skills.
Now the rebel battle cruisers joined the fray, but he changed course and skimmed low underneath the command ship's belly, thus making it impossible for the capital ships to shoot at him without hitting their own. Two particular fighters stayed hot on his trail and he could identify them easily: Solo and Luke. The Dark Lord noted his son's superior flying skills with pride. He had felt the youth's desire to engage him back on the Star Destroyer, but he definitely was not going to fight him in a lightsaber duel. Luke had a lot to learn before that could happen. Vader let his ship roll once, then dived sharply and came back up behind Solo's fighter. Disabling this ship, he brought Luke to break his concentration momentarily in concern for his friend and took the chance to slip away and into hyperspace.
The conference room aboard the Liberty was pretty crowded with General Dodonna and his staff, plus Jix and the Princess assembled there, all of them staring hard at the man standing in their midst apparently completely unconcerned. "You what?" the General asked him again.
Captain Needa gave him a tiny smile: "As I said before, I want to join your cause.
"But you are an Imperial captain."
"Frankly, I don't see your problem, General. My ship is in your hands, as are my troops and I. You want information from me and I can make this whole affair much easier for all of us."
"The Imperial Navy is not what it used to be. Nor is the Empire itself, and the promises made to us were never fulfilled. Many think as I do. And, being here today, I know I can make a difference, in helping you."
Jix had to admit that Needa was a very skilled and convincing liar. In his experience most Imperial officers were. Maybe it was a job requirement. In the end, the rebel leaders agreed on taking the Captain's offer and Jix knew that this meant one step further to reaching Vader's goal.
Mara Jade was thoroughly bored. There had been a lot of activity in the past two days ever since the rebels had taken over this world. She still remembered the sight greeting her upon entering the system: The Avenger burning and the other two Star Destroyers fleeing into hyperspace. Talk on the streets had it that Lord Vader had only barely escaped the rebels, though Mara found that hard to believe. More likely it had been the other way round.
It was afternoon and like every other day since her arrival on Selos V, she spent it in 'The Rat Hole', sipping at her drink, not really tasting it.
"You look as if you could use another drink," a male voice said behind her. Mara turned around on her chair slowly, appraising the man standing in front of her. He was middle-aged, of average height, pretty muscular, and his long hair was tied back in a pony tail. His blue eyes twinkled at her and he was smiling. Mara's heart skipped a beat. Could this be him?
"And on what ship did you come in?" she asked their setup line.
"The last out of town," he replied and joined her at her table. "I'm sure you've heard the rumors," he continued, clearly referring to the Avenger's fate.
Mara nodded solemnly: "And how much of it is true?"
"Oh, probably most of it. I've already thought about how we can get you into the crew. Wanna hear it?"
Leia Organa eyed the young redhead skeptically. "You say she's one of your informants?" she asked Jix for the third time since this discussion had started.
"Yes, look, I already told you twice that we make a good team. We've worked together before."
"But why bring her in now? Everything is working perfectly."
He sighed deeply, rolling his eyes once, then began anew: "Leia, this way I can go on other missions where I am also needed. She has the same contacts I have. And Han told me he wants to go on that next mission with me and I already said yes. I mean it's dangerous and you wouldn't want him to go alone now, would you?"
"Chewie is with him," she put in, smiling slightly.
Clearing her thoughts again, she turned a stern gaze on Mara: "Very well, since you vow for her. All right." Standing up, she signaled them that this discussion was over. Jix was grinning broadly and made to leave, with the Emperor's Hand following, when Leia called after her, clearly amused: "Next time you speak to Uncle Dee, give him my regards."
"I'll do that," Jix replied and pushed Mara ahead of him.
Once the door to Leia's office had closed behind them and they were a few meters down the corridor Mara asked with a frown: "Who is this Uncle Dee?"
"No one you need to know."
She followed him silently, clearly musing about this strange uncle, but Jix had something planned for her. "Hey Solo!" he called over the heads of the rebels assembled in the ship's canteen to where Han, Luke and Chewie had occupied a table next to the viewport. "Come, let's meet my friends here," he told Mara," just act natural."
"You don't have to tell me what to do, thank you so much," she hissed sourly, but forced a smile on her lips when they joined the three others.
"Hey Jix, who's your friend?" Luke asked, eyeing the Emperor's Hand closely.
"This is Mara, an old friend. Figuratively speaking," Jix added in reference to her age.
"Take a seat," Han offered and the two slipped into the little round. "I was just saying that Vader is a hell of a pilot," Solo told them.
Jix nodded. "Yeah," he said, "maybe you'll get him next time." Jix started to say something else, but was cut short, when a small hand was placed on his shoulder. He saw Han's eyes flash jealously and knew immediately who it was. "Princess," he said, turning in his seat.
Leia smiled at him faintly: "I need to talk to you, in my office," she explained and waited for him at the table. Jix sighed and stood, unwilling to leave Mara alone with the others. But he really had no choice.
The first thing he noticed in the princess' office was the holoscreen. Leia took a seat at her desk and motioning for him to sit down in front of her. He complied and she began:
"I'll be frank with you. My memories of the happenings at Debelan have been pretty clouded so far, but gradually I remember everything." She looked at him expectantly.
"Everything?" he asked carefully. "What do you mean?"
Leaning over the desk top towards him she smiled: "I just had a little talk with Captain Needa. You see, I wanted to know more about those others who are dissatisfied with where the Empire is headed. He mentioned a few names, but one really hit me: Darth Vader. Imagine that. Vader a traitor? It got me thinking. From what Needa said during his interrogation, Vader made sure that as few of his troops as possible were killed and most of them captured. Very unlike him, it seems to me. And Han told me that he found you and Vader together. Admittedly he also said that Vader had you by the throat, but he also thought that he didn't mean to kill you, that the two of you were only bickering. Then it all fell into place. Uncle Dee, you, and Debelan. You are Vader's agent. His best, as far as I recall him saying. And he sent you here to protect me and my brother."
Sighing deeply she stood and walked towards the viewport in the small room, staring out into space: "Darth Vader is my father. I remember that now. And it isn't easy. He cared for me on Debelan, true, but nevertheless, the things he's done can never be forgiven. I hesitate to tell Luke the truth but..."
"Don't tell him just yet," Jix all but begged her.
"And why not?"
"A plan is underway, a plan to weaken the Empire. We've had a few setbacks, but give Vader time and he can still turn it around and it would be best if only the four of us knew about all this."
"You mean Needa is part of this plot?"
"Yes," Jix answered simply.
"Tell me of that plan," Leia demanded quietly and sat down again. Jix hesitated for a moment and she immediately understood that hesitation: "Under normal circumstances I would be dead now, right?"
"Well, you've uncovered my identity and all, so the answer is yes."
"But my father would kill you if anything happened to me."
"It's not only that. I like you, Leia, I truly do. You are an admirable woman, really. I would not hurt you. Never. You've shown your trust by not blowing my cover and I honor that trust."
"Thank you, Jix," she said, completely sincere and walked around the desk to take him into a warm embrace.
"Whoa!" He shouted, surprised and jumped out of his chair, clearly embarrassed.
Holding her at arm's length he fumbled for the right words to thank her for her trust, when the door chimed open to admit Han Solo. "Leia, we " he began and stopped himself short, taking in the scene before him. His face darkened abruptly and he grumbled something before leaving again in a hurry.
"Oh," Leia commented, "that didn't go well." Jix disengaged from her and put a hand on the desk, caressing its smooth surface:
"There is another thing you should know, Leia."
"What is it?"
"Whatever you do, don't trust Mara. She's the Emperor's Hand, but we had no choice if we wanted to keep our plan secret."
"The Emperor's Hand?!" Leia exclaimed, shaking her head, "And you brought her here?"
"As I said, we had no choice. Officially she's here to work with me in gathering vital information."
"Ah, so I'll be careful with what I tell her. And in case Uncle Dee calls again while you are on that mission with Han?"
"Then you talk to him."
Leia hesitated before answering: "All right, I guess."
"I'll be off then."
"Yes. Good luck. And may the Force be with you."
The princess smiled at Jix and he bowed slightly, before leaving. She was very much like her father, he found, but it would probably be very unwise to tell her that.
"Jix!" she called after him one last time.
"What is it?" he asked, half turning towards her.
"The plan. You must have forgotten about it."
"Later, all right?"
Jix went straight to Han's quarters and found Solo packing his gear together for their impending mission. "Hey, where did you leave Mara?"
"She and Luke are doing some simulation runs," Han replied, not meeting his eyes.
"Look pal, whatever you think you've seen back there," Jix began but was interrupted immediately.
"Forget about it. We have more important things to worry about, don't we? I suggest you go and get your things. We're leaving in two hours." Standing in the doorway a little longer, Jix finally turned to leave.
Looking for Mara and the kid, he found them sitting together quite comfortably in the canteen. "Mara, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Sure," she replied and stood, following him out.
"Mara, I need to leave in two hours, don't know when we'll be back. So try to not do anything stupid while I'm gone."
"No need to remind me," she retorted, folding her arms in front of her chest.
"By the way, what is that with you and Skywalker?"
"Nothing. But he's the one who destroyed the Death Star after all."
"He's a lucky kid is what he is, nothing more."
"Never," Jix grinned. Imagine, Vader his father! He could think of more pleasant things.
"Then I'll see you whenever," Mara nodded at him and left, rejoining Luke.
Chewbacca and Han were already waiting when Jix came jogging into the huge hangar bay. The Millennium Falcon looked as scruffy as ever and Jix was glad he didn't have to fly that monster. Not that he could have. Flying spacecraft was something he left to other people.
And it was the one thing that unnerved his employer most, having to arrange transports for Jix whenever he sent him on a mission.
"Glad you could make it," Han remarked sarcastically and stomped up the gangway into the ship's interior. His Wookiee copilot shrugged apologetically and followed him, while Jix only shook his head and shouldered his backpack again. When they were finally all strapped in, Han still hadn't said another word. "Next destination: Hoth system," the Corellian finally announced and started the engines.
Darth Vader's arrival on Coruscant was less spectacular than one might expect. He simply landed the shuttle on one of the high-level landing pads on the Imperial Palace, then stalked towards the two Royal guards standing at the entrance to the Palace. "Welcome back, Lord Vader," one of them said, while the other worked the door controls, allowing the Dark Lord to enter the high-ceilinged hallway. Vader entered the next turbolift and it took him two levels up to the Emperor's throne room, where he was already expected.
"Ah, Lord Vader, back from the front," Palpatine greeted him. "Your mission failed, I was told. Why?"
"A trap, master. Whoever is passing information on to the rebels also knew about this mission."
"I see. Well, we will increase our efforts in tracking down this traitor. Unfortunately you have disposed of Intelligence director Isard," the Emperor added sourly, "therefore I entrust this investigation into your able hands."
"I will not disappoint you, master."
Vader made a trip to Intelligence's headquarters, putting the clerks present on edge and rooted around in Isard's office, scanned a few reports and went home again. Two days later he repeated the procedure, and the next week it was the same. By then the clerks were so jumpy that they couldn't work normally. Which had been Vader's plan all along. While giving the impression that he was working hard on finding the information leak, he also made sure that no one else did likewise. After two weeks he was ready to present his findings to the Emperor.
The Hoth system greeted the Millennium Falcon with a meteorite shower, knocking the ship around a bit before it could land safely on the ice-planet itself.
"What a great climate!" Jix shouted over the ice-storm's howling, as they went on their first trip on the surface.
"Shut up!" Han called back, clearly annoyed.
They were searching for caves big enough to house the new Rebel Headquarters and didn't have much luck on the first day. When they were all assembled at the sabacc table aboard the Falcon that evening, Han had some additional bad news.
"Those meteorites have knocked out a few systems, it seems, including navigation."
"Which means?" Jix asked, bewildered, when Chewie started howling mournfully.
"It means that we are stuck here until we get some spare parts. I've called the fleet and Luke will get them to us."
"Oh. Good. How long will that take?"
"About five days."
"Well, by then we should have found more than enough caves."
It was the third day when Han and Jix stumbled over the entrance of one of the said caves, with Chewie staying behind on the ship keeping contact via comm-link and radar, in case anything went wrong.
"I got something!" Han shouted and motioned for Jix to join him at one of the identical looking snow rifts. The hole was pretty small and admitted only one of them at a time, but when they finally, after long claustrophobic minutes, reached the cave's interior, both congratulated each other on the find. The huge chamber carved from ice seemed to be as big as a Star Destroyer's main hangar bay.
"Incredible," Jix commented, taking off the snowglasses to get a better view.
"Yeah, it's great," Han answered, equally awed. "Mission accomplished, I say," he smiled and both men shook hands.
The cordial moment was interrupted by a low growl. Both Jix and Hun spun around immediately, blaster at hand. And found themselves facing a huge, fanged creature with glowing red eyes and completely white fur. The beast rushed at them, but they stood their ground, firing repeatedly, until the thing went down. The silence which followed was more frightening than anything else. Han was the first to notice the cracks in the ice walls left by blaster shots.
"Watch out!" Jix shouted, when a huge block of ice suddenly dropped from the high ceiling, missing them by meters, but spraying them with sharp splinters upon impact. When Jix picked himself up from the floor again, he found no trace of Solo.
"I'm here," the other replied gruffly, futilely trying to scrape the ice from the fallen-in tunnel that lead back to the surface. A bloody gash decorated his face, but he didn't seem to notice.
"You're hurt," Jix told him, quickly unpacking bandages from his backpack.
"Yeah, and we are both trapped here. Chewie!" he called into his comm-link. There was only static.
"That's not good," Jix said, bandages in hand and frowning.
"You don't say, wise guy," Han hissed at him and stomped back to the middle of the cave.
"Hey, you got a problem?" the other Corellian challenged him.
"A problem? No, not at all! I am trapped in an ice cave on an ice-planet with Mr. Perfect. That's all right," Han was clearly upset.
"If you didn't want me along you could have just told me," Jix reminded him calmly.
"Unfortunately Leia insisted."
"Oh. Look, I've been trying to tell you that back on the Liberty, but you wouldn't listen."
Han interrupted him again: "I understand very well. Leia wants you to watch out for me. As if I were a child," he added quietly, "and I imagine this is a great chance for you to show yet again that you are the perfect hero."
"Han. Look, we shouldn't be fighting now."
"Oh yeah? I think that's exactly what we should do."
"You are getting pathetic, Han." Jix was actually smiling now, but immediately regretted his mistake, when Han slugged him a good one with a growl, sending him flying to the hard ground.
Holding his aching jaw, he stared up at Solo, and his voice was dangerously low when he said: "You just made a mistake, brother."
Coming up fast he caught Han's wrists and slowly wrestled him to his knees.
"I know what your problem is, Solo. It's the princess. But I assure you that it is not as you think."
"You mean you don't love her?" Han hissed between clenched teeth, fighting Jix' iron-hard grip bravely.
"Listen, Han. She's just someone I rescued by chance, but that's no reason to fall in love, is it?" And besides, her father would kill me if I did, he added silently to himself.
"For me it was," Solo admitted finally and ceased his struggle. Jix let him go and looked down at him calmly. "If you don't love her, why did you try to impress her at every turn?"
"Hey, that's just me," Jix grinned and helped him up. "Can't help it. Now let's go and try to get out of here before we freeze to death."
It took them a few hours to clear up the tunnel and get back to the Falcon. By then night had fallen and with it the temperatures. But they made it and Chewie was already waiting with heated blankets. When he saw the two Corellians smile at each other he shook his head in exasperation. Those two really had a knack for complicating things.
Three days later the Millennium Falcon received an emergency signal.
"What is it?" Jix asked, joining Han in the cockpit.
"It's a rebel frequency. Wait. It's...it's Luke." Pulling off the headphones he frowned into the blizzard raging outside. "He's out there somewhere."
"Then we got to find him before nightfall. Come on."
They found the small freighter Luke had flown in not far away, but no trace of Skywalker. "Why did he leave the ship at all?" Han wondered aloud.
"And how the hell are we going to find him in this?" Jix added, staring grimly through his snowglasses into the storm howling around them. The thick wall of snow and ice made it impossible to see anything and by now any traces left by Luke had been covered again.
"Ben?" Luke whispered, his lips blue and freezing. He had been stupid to leave the ship, he knew, since Han and Jix would be coming for him. But he hadn't planned on going far. Then, suddenly the apparition of Ben Kenobi in the distance had drawn him away, but by now he thought he must have imagined everything.
"Ben!" he called again, the cold air cutting into his lungs savagely and making him cough.
"Luke," came the faint answer finally and in front of him the shimmering ghost of Ben Kenobi appeared. "Luke, you must go to Dagobah. Master Yoda will train you there."
"Dagobah?" Luke wheezed.
"It is vital you go there, Luke. For everyone." And then Ben was gone again.
When Jix and Han finally found him, Luke's clothes were nearly frozen and his face red and blue from the cold. Cursing, Hand carried the youngster back to the Falcon, with Jix leading the way using a very strong radar to locate the ship. When finally they had Luke wrapped tight in heated blankets and filled him up with some Corellian brandy, he started breathing normally again.
"Hey, kid," Han called softly, "how do you feel?"
Blinking his blue eyes twice, Luke tried to orientate himself first. "Dagobah," he whispered.
"No, this is Hoth, remember?" His friend explained.
"Have to go to Dagobah, find Master Yoda," the kid mumbled and fell asleep again.
Straightening up Han shrugged and went to join Chewie in the cockpit. Jix took the seat next to the sleeping young Jedi, wondering if his father had ever been as idealistic and innocent as this one. What was on Dagobah? And this Master Yoda, a Jedi Master? He should get this piece of information to Lord Vader as soon as possible. But the spare parts for the Falcon were still on Luke's ship and they would have to wait until the storm died down until they could retrieve them. Jix sighed deeply. Hopefully Vader was having more luck.
The throne room was plunged into darkness when Darth Vader entered, but he didn't need any light to sense Palpatine's presence standing at the blank holoscreen.
"Any news, Lord Vader?"
"Yes, master. I have a certain suspicion concerning this information leak."
"Ah." The Emperor made his way slowly towards the throne, seating himself. Vader had often noticed Palpatine's habit of seeking refuge in that overgrown chair when speaking to his right-hand man. Most likely it made him feel superior in some way.
"Do you know who it is?"
"As I said, it is a suspicion. To prove whether I am right or wrong, I will have to take some risk."
Leaning forward, the Emperor frowned:
"Are we talking about that special agent you have sent to infiltrate the Rebels?"
"The very same."
"What is your plan?"
"I will go on a mission only the three of us will know about. If he is the traitor the Rebels will no doubt try to capture me. If not, my suspicion was not justified."
"If you suspect him, I could order Mara Jade to eliminate that threat."
"No," Vader cut in immediately, "this agent has enjoyed my complete trust for long years now and I don't want to lose him on unjustified doubt."
"Very well, Lord Vader. If you see no other way. But take care. I would not want to lose your services now."
After the Dark Lord had left Palpatine permitted himself a smile. Finally a chance had presented itself to weaken Vader bodily and in the eyes of his troops. Regardless as to whether his agent really was the traitor, Palpatine would make sure this mission would end in disaster for Darth Vader.
You cannot control him, no matter what you do.
Turning around angrily the Emperor snorted at the figure that was barely visible in the gloom.
No? I think differently. This mission will show him that he still depends on me. He will realize that he is a fool trying to resist me.
It will not be enough. Lord Vader knows his mind and once he has made it up you will not be able to change his course.
There is a way.
But you agree that it would work?
Roj Kell seemed reluctant. In the end though he shrugged and nodded. I guess so.
Do not try to deceive me, Lord Kell. It does not work anymore.
The old man did not answer. So he really had tried to prevent him from executing that plan! The insolence! But if Roj Kell thought he could play Lord Vader against him he was badly mistaken. Steps could be taken to eliminate the Dark Lord at any time in the game. He was completely at his masters mercy, even if he did not realize it. But that was the trick: to not let your prey get an inkling of what you were truly playing at.
Standing in the shadows, waiting patiently, Roj Kell smiled at the satisfaction he could feel from Darth Sidious. As expected the Dark Side was clouding his mind, sowing chaos into that beautiful machine. But the less the Sith Master realized the better. And he certainly did not realize that the Dark Lord had just set a trap for him. The warlord was making very certain of what game his master was playing at. Should he find that Palpatine would not hesitate to sacrifice him he would not feel obliged to follow the rules any longer. And that was exactly what Roj Kell was aiming at. Vader would become totally unpredictable, and just like Darth Sidious had defeated his teacher by developing his methods further, the warlord would slip through the Emperors grasp on his own terms. What Sidious did not want to realize was the fact that Vader embodied the virtues of both a warrior and a politician. And Sidious lacked both of late.
The Sith Master was pacing the throne room restlessly, seemingly upset about something. From time to time he would throw a hard glance at the older man as if he suspected him of something. It was clear to anyone who knew about these things that the Emperor was on edge. He was desperately trying to keep control of an Empire that relied on the shield Darth Vader had erected in Palpatines name. The Dark Lord was the face of the Empire, not Sidious, who was lurking here on Coruscant, watching his little game unfold to perfection. Well, not perfection, rather the opposite. Only now did he come to see that he had been wrong to assume that spawning chaos would somehow benefit him. It could, but not if one remained unmoving at the center of the storm.
Deception is a tool that can have many uses, Roj Kell said at last. But I fear that I cannot help you in your endeavor.
And why would that be so? the Emperor snarled.
I know but the barest facts of Lord Vader and his habits. The number of times he comes to visit Korriban is insufficient to get a good read on him and besides, he knows how to shield his intentions very well. Undoubtedly something you have taught him.
So what you want is more information? And here I thought your vast knowledge would be all youd ever need.
Shrugging once, Kell turned his head toward the throne and a small smile appeared on his lips. How it must rankle that the majority of the Empires population feared the Dark Lord more than it did its ruler. No wonder Sidious wanted Vader under control and demoted, if at all possible. True, the more powerful beings of the Imperial Court knew who was holding the strings here, but they also played the game and in their black hearts they knew how to indulge Palpatine. No one dared to tread near the Dark Lord though. During the few days he had spent on Coruscant so far, Roj Kell had accompanied Sidious to a few functions, always remaining unseen, observing the proceedings of the court. He found Sidious' vanity disgusting. Such talent wasted on this meaningless little existence. What pleasures could possibly be drawn from boot-licking lackeys and sneaking councillors? And this rebellion. Was it just a pastime for Sidious? And did he realize that it would backfire on him in the end? There was only so much anyone could take, and even if the rebels were squashed the sullen obedience and quiet suffering of the people would not go unheeded for long. There would be new conflicts and in the end there would be nowhere to run or hide. Pale green eyes seeking the Sith Masters sickly yellow gaze, Roj Kell nodded slowly:
My knowledge is quite sufficient.
Back on board the Liberty, Han, Jix, Chewie and Leia were assembled in front of Luke's bed in the med section. He looked better now, not so pale, and he was smiling for the first time in days. "So Ben told you to go to Dagobah? The dead Ben Kenobi?" Han asked again.
"Yes. And I will go. There's a Jedi Master there who will train me. Isn't that great? Next time Vader and I meet I will be better prepared for a fight," he added proudly.
"Take it easy, Luke, "Jix told him, "Vader is years ahead of you." He and Leia shared a knowing look.
"I know that I have much to learn, but how are we going to win this war if we have no one who can stand up to Vader or the Emperor?" Luke asked them sullenly.
While Jix tried not to laugh, Han shook his head, smiling: "I don't know where you take that confidence from, kid."
When Jix finally made it to his quarters, still exhausted from the strenuous Hoth mission, he found Mara waiting for him. "How's it going?" he asked her wearily, dropping on his bed. She remained where she was seated in a high-backed chair and regarded him coolly. "What?" he demanded, unnerved.
"The princess doesn't trust me," she told him icily.
Jix propped himself up on his elbows, his eyebrows raised: "And that is supposed to be my fault? I thought you knew your job. Gain her trust first, then ask questions. We've got time."
"No we don't," she replied and stood abruptly.
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean is that I have just gotten the order to eliminate her."
"Aren't you going to protest or anything?"
"Why should I?"
"Because she's your primary informant here among the rebels."
"I could easily find others, Mara, but this plan is stupid."
"And why?" Clearly hurt by his remark she stood there, arms folded in front of her chest, green eyes flashing.
"Because you are so new here you would be the first suspect. And that would endanger my mission here too."
"Then you will come with me."
"If Lord Vader finds out that I quit my assignment because you were too stupid to plan ahead, both our heads will be on the line. Don't you see? Killing her now would gain us nothing."
"My orders have been clear, Wrenga Jixton. And I will follow them."
"All right, Mara. Do what you must. But I won't help you if you get caught. And if I have to, I'll kill you personally before you can blow my cover too. Understood?"
She nodded sharply, then left. What a fine mess this was! Jix sighed inwardly. He could not tell Mara to not do it or kill her, because that would only bring the Emperor on his trail. But he could warn Leia, no problem. Mara would try to kill the princess somewhere private, try to cover up the traces she left and then run. There would be questions and some of them Jix didn't want to answer. But, first things first.
He found Leia sitting at the viewport in her quarters, staring out at the stars.
"Jix," she said with a smile when he entered. But the expression on his face quickly wiped it off her lips. "What is it?"
"Mara has orders to kill you."
"You'll draw her somewhere private and I take care of her. If she gets caught, she'll blow my cover. Neither you nor I want that to happen, right?"
"Yes. Come, sit down, We'll think of something."
The ambush had been well planned, no doubt. Four fighters were blocking the way into the Sluis Van system, while three mid-sized freighters' cross-fire kept the Dark Lord's small yacht occupied. The strain on the ship already was critical and Vader fought hard to keep the whole thing from breaking apart. With clenched teeth, he concentrated on taking out the fighters, the easier target for his guns, while trying to avoid the freighters' fire at the same time. Diving suddenly, he managed to let one of the fighters smash into another of its peers. Then he turned the yacht around, taking on the freighters.
But his ship's maneuverability had decreased heavily with the number of hits it had taken so far. At one time Vader could barely avoid hitting one of the other ships himself. This was taking too long. Feinting a roll underneath one of the freighter's belly, he drew the ship through a long curve instead, heading for hyperspace. The yacht suddenly presented a much clearer target and the Dark Lord felt each additional hit into the ship hull as if it were a stab to his own chest. He sighed deeply, when the long starlines of hyperspace finally embraced his ship. That had been close.
Only seconds later real-space hit the yacht like a hammer blow. Vader was thrown hard against the seat restraint, momentarily shocked, and then fought in vain to get the ship back under control. The hyperdrive was gone and with it most of navigation.
Cursing loudly, Vader strained to get the ship on a decent course instead of a headlong plunge towards the surface of an unknown planet directly underneath. But too late. The yacht crashed through the dense rainforest with murderous speed, leaving a trail of destruction behind, and raking a deep furrow into the swampy ground.
When finally all sound had ceased, only the faint 'ping' of the ship's cooling hull was to be heard through the deadly silence. After twenty minutes or so the normal noises of the jungle returned and the day moved on as if nothing had happened at all.
Darth Vader felt numb. He had tried to cushion the fall with the Force and succeeded, else there would have been only a crater to mark his grave. But the giant trees had damaged the ship immensely. And not only the ship. One especially thick branch had crashed through the viewport and bent the control panel upwards, broken the window frame, and one unfortunate metal rod had buried itself in Vader's lungs. His legs were stuck and he could not feel them anymore. Likely they were broken and part of the artificial circuitry too. Moving his head seemed impossible and he felt blood rise from his lungs, threatening to drown him. Angry, he summoned the Force to him, but there another surprise was waiting: somebody was blocking him. He tried again, with the same result. Finally, completely exhausted, the Dark Lord simply fainted.
When he woke again, he lay in a low, moist cave, with thick roots hanging from the dark ceiling. His helmet and mask had been taken off and he could feel the cool air on his bare skin. A feeling of profound peace seemed to fill this place to bursting.
But, still weak, Vader started violently when a voice next to his head spoke suddenly: "Rest you need, Lord Vader, and heal you will."
"Master Yoda," the Dark Lord sighed and tried to turn his head to face the tiny alien. But the Master's walking stick boring gently, but firmly into the exposed skin of his neck brought him up short.
"Move you will not, for now," the Jedi's tone was that of open amusement and Vader felt anger stir in his mind again. He started saying something hurtful, when Yoda interrupted him again: "Speaking too, is not allowed. Sleep now you will."
Feeling a cold reptilian hand on his forehead, Darth Vader gritted his teeth as the Jedi Master let the Force flow through him, convincing his body that it was time to rest again. What rankled most was the ease with which Yoda pushed past Vader's own mental defenses. I swear, he began cursing inwardly, before unconsciousness claimed him again.
Leia Organa slowly walked out of the now nearly empty hangar bay, hands clasped behind her back, smiling to herself. Luke had seemed so excited about his going to Dagobah for training and she felt some pride for her bother's commitment to becoming a Jedi Knight. "I hope your path will be different from his though," her father had told her back on Debelan, referring to his own fate. She wished Luke the same. Before leaving he had told her that he wasn't sure how long he would be gone and she missed him already.
Sighing deeply, the Princess pushed the door controls, only to find them blocked. She felt the tiny hairs on her neck stand on end and slowly turned around again, scanning her surroundings anxiously.
"Looking for someone?" Mara's soft voice asked sweetly from the shadows of the single fighter occupying the hangar. Leia spun around, staring at the other woman.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded. The Emperor's Hand held her tiny blaster in one hand, aiming straight at Leia's heart. "Are you out of your mind?" The Princess took a step back and Mara followed her closely.
"No, not at all, princess. I am just following orders."
"The Emperor's, to be precise."
"What? But Jix vowed for you."
Mara shook her red hair and laughed: "You are so naive, Leia. Wrenga Jixton is Darth Vader's most trusted agent. Don't you know?"
"Oh, she does," Jix answered from where he had landed after his soundless fall from the hangar bay's observation tower.
The Emperor's Hand spun around, firing on him, but he was faster. Kicking at her mid-section he sent her flying to the floor. Leia heard the screeching sound of someone trying to work the door controls from the other side, before Jix was on her and pushed her down. Mara's next shot missed Han Solo by centimeters, as he stormed through the now badly damaged door, with Chewbacca right behind.
"Don't move!" he shouted at the woman now kneeling a few meters away on the polished metal floor and his gaze flicked over to where Jix helped Leia to her feet again. "Drop your weapon," Han ordered and Mara complied grudgingly. But Jix calmly went over, pulled her up and fished a throwing knife from her right boot.
"How did you know?" Han asked, surprised, when Mara hissed at Jix: "You'll pay for this." Chewie roared an inquiry and Solo added: "Yeah, what the hell is going on here?"
It was Leia who answered him: "Mara is an Imperial agent. She had orders to kill me."
Solo turned towards Jix, staring hard at him: "But if I remember correctly, it was this guy here who said we could trust her completely."
"I can explain this," the other man told him, as Han brought his blaster to aim on him.
"Then better do it fast."
"All right, Solo. Can you help out please?" Jix asked Chewie who immediately took hold of Mara's arms. "I had no choice, Han. If I had not allowed her to come here, my cover would have been blown."
"What cover are you talking about?"
"Look, I told you that I know a lot about the Imperial Navy, right? Now, my informant..."
"The very same. He's a Navy officer, pretty high up in the hierarchy. We devised a plan together to weaken the Empire from the inside, see?"
"You are working for Vader!" Mara shouted then, determined on ruining Jix' little story.
"And he would be pretty upset if he ever found out what I am really doing here," Jix answered calmly.
"You are Vader's agent?"
"Officially, yes. But when all this is over I'll make sure to tell him personally that I quit."
Leia was smiling now. She walked towards Han and put a hand on his arm, pushing it down gently, lowering the weapon he still held. "Jix saved my life, Han. And he is really trustworthy, believe me."
"If you say so, Leia." But it was clear that Han still wasn't convinced.
Suddenly Chewbacca roared in pain and let go of Mara, who held another knife in her hands. She went for the single fighter like a shot and climbed in. Han and Chewie ran after her but were too late. If they didn't want to be fried by her ship's exhaust ports, they had to move back.
Jix stood next to Leia, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"What is it?" she asked.
"You know," he whispered, wanting to make sure only she heard him, "this is just perfect. When she reports to Palpatine that I am the traitor, your father is free from the Emperor's doubts."
"I see. Clever, that. I just hope it works."
The landing on Dagobah wasn't pleasant, and when Luke had finally set his ship down on a mossy clearing and opened the fighter's canopy, the jungle heat hit him like a hammer. "Wow!" he remarked, and climbed out of the cockpit. Testing the ground he found that it gave way slightly, but not alarmingly so. His flightsuit immediately sucked up the air's moisture like a sponge and his hair quickly matted down with sweat. Getting his gear from the shuttle, Luke sighed and prepared his search for the Jedi Master Yoda.
Unknown to young Skywalker, the old master was watching him through the dense undergrowth, finding many similarities to the youth's father. Yoda shook his head slowly and returned to the dark cave where the Dark Lord still slept. The latter was rudely woken by the Jedi Master's walking stick poking at his neck again.
"I wish you found some other way to get my attention," he grumbled. Yoda laughed quietly.
"Feeling better are you?"
"Yes. Much better. Thank you." Vader slowly started to rise, fighting the sudden headache and sat up, looking down at the tiny Jedi Master. "You look old today," he remarked.
The other smiled slightly: "A few things there are that I could say about your appearance too, my lord."
"Point taken," the Dark Lord replied, answering his smile.
Over the past days he had healed slowly, with Yoda's help. The old Jedi Master had quit treating him like a prisoner after some heated discussions and now it was as if they had formed an unspoken truce somewhere along the way. It wasn't much, but it was something. But Vader still felt the bonds the Jedi Master had fastened on him.
"Your son, here he is," Yoda told him quietly, eyeing the other closely.
"What? Luke is here? When did he arrive?"
"Just now." Vader subsided a bit and pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"Then you are going to train him?" The Jedi Master nodded gravely. "You know, Master Yoda, I am glad you said yes. Because I would have liked to spare my son the humiliation of being rejected for training."
"Bitter you are still. But I feel the Light returning to you."
"Yes. I have felt it too."
Raising his head proudly, Yoda looked Vader straight in the eye: "A mistake I made perhaps in not letting Qui-Gon train you when he asked for it, Anakin Skywalker. But undo that mistake only you can."
It was a day later. Luke had been glad to finally find the Jedi Master after hours of running around in this swamp. Although he had been initially disappointed in the little alien's appearance, Yoda quickly made it clear that appearance could often deceive.
The two had shared a meal in the Jedi Master's tiny house and Luke had had to take good care of his head. But he had endured the cramped dinner valiantly, not wanting to put his new teacher off.
Now, with the morning rain pouring down on the young Jedi, his training had finally started in earnest. It wasn't easy for him, since Yoda required that he free his mind of all his desires. That he learn patience. Patience! He didn't have time! But nevertheless he was here to learn and he would learn fast. Setting his jaw in determination, he continued concentrating on the flow of the Force around him.
"A good student is he, willing to learn patience," Yoda smiled at the cave's other occupant whose blue eyes suddenly flashed with a distant fire.
"I just hope that he learns forgiveness too. I know that I never did, and it was my undoing in the end."
The Jedi Master nodded gravely: "Challenge you he will."
"I know. But I am ready for that."
"He is not."
"Then teach him well, Master," Darth Vader answered coldly and rose, leaving the dank cave behind and leaning his back against the rough bark of the old tree which concealed it.
He stood there silently, his eyes fastened on the stars just visible through the dense foliage and clouds. The night air brought with it the heavy scents of the swamp and of a distant campfire. Luke. He was out there, unaware of the dangers that lay ahead. When the Dark Lord slowly started walking towards where his son would be quietly meditating as he always did at this time of day, ever since he had come here, Yoda's voice stopped him. "Don't," was all the old master said. And the other complied.
Standing torn between anger, desire, love and loneliness, the first raindrops falling from the sky bringing back memories of flowing fire and anguish, Darth Vader realized that again he was standing at a crossroads. He had to decide what he really wanted for his children: merely their safety or their love.
Choose you must.
I know. But this battle will not be easy. Do you think he expects me to kill him?
A test this is not. Power to him is everything.
So it is all or nothing.
Know you do best your opponent.
He taught me how to play the game. But that means he knows the way I think.
Know your heart he does? Think not I do.
Anakin turned his head ever so slightly, a faint smile on his lips. He is not the only one there.
A week had passed and Luke decided that he could wait no longer. Just about to tell Yoda that he had to leave, the Jedi Master met him for their morning run. Sighing, Luke shouldered the backpack upon which the ancient master perched like an owl, and started to run. The exercise was designed to both sharpen his concentration and to hone his physical skills.
But Luke was thinking of something else. He stumbled more than once and Yoda chided him for his clumsiness, asking him to concentrate harder. "Turn right now," Yoda ordered suddenly and Luke was a bit surprised that they left their usual route.
The undergrowth became thicker and nasty thorns scratched at the youth. Finally pushing through a particularly dense growth of bushes, Luke stopped short. His mouth fell open as he beheld what could only be a crash site. The swamp had swallowed most of the traces on the ground, but broken trees and parts of machinery told their own tale. Forgetting everything else, Luke put a protesting Jedi Master down on the damp ground and started running towards where the ship must have finally come to rest. In awe, he circled the wreck of a small yacht which must have been a real beauty before she had met her end on this forsaken planet.
Suddenly a bald, scarred head with piercing blue eyes popped out of the smashed cockpit's interior, startling the young Jedi. "Hey, son," the apparition said loudly, "can you by any chance give me a lift?"
Then the man drew himself out of the wreck and jumped to the ground. Luke took a step back when the muscular body unfolded into its full, impressive height. Purple scars were slashed across that deadly pale face and for a moment the youth wondered whether the man had received those injuries during the crash. But no, the scars looked old and immediately Luke imagined that this was a pirate, a hero of many battles. He certainly looked like a warrior.
"Now. What about that lift?" the stranger asked again, not unkindly.
"I...I," Luke stuttered, but Master Yoda came to his rescue. The tiny alien had finally reached the two men and stared speculatively at the taller one.
"Help you he can," he said and the other nodded after the merest hesitation.
"If you can get me to Nar Shaddaa you won't regret it," the stranger told Luke and attempted a smile.
"Sure," he answered, at a loss of what else to say.
"And what is your name, son?"
The flight to Nar Shadaa was uneventful, compared to his recent voyage to Sluis Van, but Darth Vader liked it that way. He used the time to study his son more closely without revealing his own identity. And the boy wisely did not try to dig too deep into his passenger's past. He could feel Luke's excitement though, and understood it well. Here he was, on his first mission all alone, meeting a mysterious stranger and just beginning to uncover the secrets of the Force. No doubt there was a lot going on in that head of his.
"So, where do you come from?"
The boy started at the sudden sound, but turned around in his seat to smile at him shyly. Far too trusting, this child, but his naiveté was charming in its own way.
"I am from Tatooine. You've probably never heard of that planet."
"Oh, no. I've been to a lot of worlds. Seen most of them. Tatooine too."
"Yes. When I was a boy, I vowed to travel to all the stars of this galaxy."
"And you did. "
"You must have seen a lot out there."
"Mostly the interior of spaceships." And some things I don't want to remember.
"I spent most of my life on a moisture farm. So far."
"What are you doing now?"
He could see Luke hesitate, searching for a fitting answer. "I work freelance."
"A freelance Jedi Knight? Never heard of one before."
"Well, Yoda and I go a long way back."
"Then you are a Jedi too?"
"Oh. Why did you quit?"
Vader didn't answer. He was staring out into the distance, a sense of danger flaring in his mind shortly. Something had very nearly gone wrong.
"How much longer until we reach Nar Shadaa?"
Luke would have to wait.
Mara Jade stormed along the huge corridors of the Imperial Palace, her red hair flying wildly behind her. The Emperor had asked her to report immediately after landing her ship and she could not wait to tell him of her uncoverings concerning Jix.
The huge double doors swung aside and permitted her to enter. The throne room was unlit, but she could make out the Emperor's sunken form sitting on his throne. Mara stepped forward and bowed deeply.
"What news, Emperor's Hand?" he asked gravely.
"Master, I have uncovered the identity of the traitor."
"And have you killed the Princess as ordered?"
Palpatine cut her short with a wave of an aged hand. "The traitor is Wrenga Jixton, Lord Vader's agent. I know that already."
"But, how?" she sputtered in surprise.
"Lord Vader has told me the same."
"Yes," the deep resonating voice of the Dark Lord echoed throughout the chamber. Mara could see him now, the image transmitted onto the holoscreen on the wall. "I have made my own inquiries. And since you have not managed to eliminate the princess, I hope you have at least succeeded in killing the traitor."
"Don't be so harsh, Lord Vader," Palpatine chided his right-hand man playfully. "But still, the question remains," he added, turning his gaze on Mara.
She hesitated. "No, I have not succeeded," she answered meekly.
"I am displeased with you, Emperor's Hand. You will remain in your quarters until your services are needed again."
Mara bowed deeply and quickly
left the room, close to tears. She had risked so much!
And now this. To be so humiliated in front of Vader hurt.
If she ever got the chance, she would make Jix pay for
all this. That was, if Vader didn't get to him first.
"Lord Vader, you took a foolish risk. You are lucky you were not killed in the rebel attack." The Dark Lord said nothing. "But now we know that your agent is behind all this. And I must say that my doubts in your loyalty seem wholly unjustified now." Still, no answer. "I imagine you are asking yourself why I ordered Mara Jade to kill your daughter. Very simple. You were missing and I had no way of confirming whether you were dead or maybe had even defected to the Rebels."
"Then this assassination would only have served as a warning? A mere display of mastery?"
"You understand me well, my servant."
"Indeed, I do." Vader bowed sharply and straightened again: "If I may leave now, Master. I would like to prepare a small surprise for my agent..."
"Of course, go ahead."
When the Dark Lord had ended the transmission, Palpatine felt elated. The man had swallowed the fake rebel attack whole and though Palpatine hadn't succeeded in humiliating Vader further, he could be satisfied with the mission's outcome. He had planned for Vader to land his damaged ship on Sluis Van, where he would have had to admit defeat in front of his troops. Though this had not happened, the Dark Lord had been gravely injured and weakened. And furthermore, he had lost his best agent.
Darth Vader permitted himself a tiny smile. Palpatine had not even realized that he had seen through his plan all along. Hadn't he told the old man that only three people would know of his mission? The Emperor probably even now congratulated himself on his own cunning. Hah! Taking that risk had fully paid off for Vader. And faking the doctor's report would be easy. Palpatine would learn too late that he was as healed as he ever could be. The artificial limbs remained, but his lungs functioned again, allowing him to breathe without any aid. After being dropped off at Nar Shadaa, he had stolen a ship and was now on his way back to Coruscant. His feelings had been right, it would seem. Mara Jade would pay dearly for laying a hand on his daughter. Very soon. And Palpatine with her.
Stalking through the corridors Mara was fuming inside. She had done so much! And failed. Hanging her head in defeat her shoulders slumped just a little bit. This was not fair. But she would obey her master. Then a sudden movement by one of the windows caught her attention and she immediately was back to her old self again, green eyes narrowing as she came closer. A tall man was standing there, dressed in long, black robes that concealed most of his form. Draped over his back a mane of thick white hair fell down his shoulders and somehow she found that he looked like a raptor perching somewhere to look out for prey. As she drew level with him he turned his head ever so slightly and for a second Mara was captivated by the beautiful display of lights playing along Coruscants skyline. Locking her eyes on the stranger again she drew a sharp breath. Cast in shadows the mans face became a mask in the gloom and Mara involuntarily took a step back.
Who are you? He did not answer, only looked away again, his gaze drawn into the distance once more. Suddenly curious the Emperors Hand stepped up to join him. But anything unusual failed to materialize out in the busy lanes of the capital. What are you looking at?
She gave him a startled look. It was not so much the fact that anyone trying to see the Menarai Mountains at this time of day could only be foolish, but his voice had surprised her. It flowed like a soft caress down her spine, making her shiver. Drawing back in some alarm she put a hand on the handle of her blaster warily.
I have never seen you here before, Mara stated coolly, watching him more closely.
Nor will you again, I assume, he answered, raising his eyebrows knowingly. Shaking her head to get rid of the effects his startling voice had left the young woman turned away to leave. And frowned at a pair of red-robed guards standing not far away, observing them carefully. She threw a hard glance back at the man, then left for good. Strange. Very strange.
He watched her go disinterestedly. She was a pawn, nothing more. Unimportant, to say the least. Still, Roj Kell found that she was, in a way, also fascinating. For one so young she was incredibly tough, and yet, so innocent at the same time. Sidious had taught her well. Frowning slightly, the ancient Sith looked back in the direction the woman had come from. The throne room was not far away and if he was not mistaken the Emperor would just now be discussing the most recent mission with his second. Things had just become very interesting. Inclining his head suddenly he closed his eyes, picking up the more prominent feelings from the Sith Master. Yes, it was time. Turning around to nod at the guards he waited for them to join his side.
I wish to see the Emperor.
Not until he has given us that order himself, one of the men stated gravely.
Roj Kell smiled. He will see me now.
The other guard leaned toward his companion slowly and they conversed quietly over the head-comms installed into the slick helmets protecting and hiding their faces. Then the one who had spoken the first time gestured toward the corridor. He will see you now.
Of course, the ancient Sith whispered, shaking his head in mock exasperation.
When he strode into the great hall, his escort at his heels, he did not find Sidious at first glance. The man seemed to have completely merged with the over-sized chair he called his throne.
My friend! the Sith Master called gleefully, dismissing the guards with a wave of his hand. All is well.
Bowing slightly Roj Kell kept his features even. I am pleased to hear it.
Are you now? Sidious purred quietly. Not that I care. Fact is though that your presence is not required here any longer. You will return to Korriban tonight.
As you wish.
You do not regret it?
Not at all. The changes you have undertaken on Coruscant are not to my liking.
What is it you miss then?
The taste of righteousness. All I can sense is greed and resignation. Hardly inspiring.
Sidious stared at him. There was no way he could have missed the sharpness in the ancient Siths tone, or the criticism. All the inspiration I need, Lord Kell, I do have, he rasped at last. And rest assured that it will last me for a very long time to come.
Roj Kell did not answer at first. Then, very softly, he said: That I am certain of. Almost.
Cackling in wry amusement the Sith Master rose from his seat. Your defiance is quite the entertainment, my old friend. Alas, I will have to part with your charming company for the time being. Until this matter is resolved. And then I will raise a toast to your continued health, my lord.
I am so looking forward to that. But let us not talk of celebration when victory is still so far out of reach.
Not as far as you might think.
"Jix!" the comm officer called out on the Liberty's bridge.
"What!" the other shouted back.
"It's your Uncle again."
Leia nodded at Jix and he left his post by her side, only to find that she was following him to the conference room. When the door had closed behind them, he turned to face her. "Leia, I don't think..." But she just went past him and took the call herself.
"Jix, tell me again why you let Mara Jade nearly kill my daughter!" an angry voice breathed from the speaker.
"I am unhurt, thank you," Leia answered with a smile.
There was a short pause on the other end. Then: "What is the meaning of this?"
Jix pushed Leia aside and glared at her: "Nothing, she just remembered everything. So I had to tell her why I was really here and..."
"You told her what?"
"It's all right," Leia cut in, "we can work together on this."
"You are right, princess, of course."
"Please. Call me Leia. Father." That last word was no more than a whisper, but the ensuing pause was decidedly longer than the one before.
"There was the chance that you would remember, but I didn't want to erase all of your memories. I am sure there are a lot you wouldn't want to lose."
"Yes, there are those too. Thank you," she said and Jix saw sudden tears in her eyes.
"Uncle Dee, how is everything coming along?" he asked.
"All is well, Jix, don't worry. Just keep going and leave the rest to me."
"All right. What about Mara?"
"I'll take care of her. And if I hear that one of my children is threatened again, despite you being there, I swear I'll take care of you too."
"Understood," Jix answered, grinning broadly. "Good hunting. Jix out."
He saw Leia smile at him. "What?"
"Oh, nothing," she replied and turned to leave when Han came charging into the room.
"Luke is back," he announced, and the trio went to meet their friend.
Luke looked good, Leia thought. She went forward to embrace him and kissed his cheek.
"I have missed you," she said, smiling, ignoring his startled expression. "How was the training?"
"Yeah, give Vader a run for his money," Han told his friend and patted Luke's shoulder. "Come, we got some news for you."
Jix and Leia shared a knowing glance and the princess sighed: "Han, this is unnecessary."
"No, it's not. Friends should be truthful with each other," he answered, "and that includes everyone here."
"Why? What happened?" Luke asked, curious.
"You are what?"
"Vader's agent. Do I need to repeat myself again?"
Jix was highly annoyed. He didn't like it at all that Han had insisted on this little talk with the kid. But now they were here, sitting together in Luke's quarters, only the two of them. The youth pursed his lips thoughtfully. Then his head came up suddenly and for a moment his eyes became the reflections of the morning sky over an arctic sea.
"You will send him a message from me."
"Tell him that I will meet with him alone. He'll know what I mean."
Jix nodded slowly, eyes fixed on the man sitting across from him, blonde strands of hair falling down into his face, shadowing cold, piercing blue eyes.
"You know," he whispered, barely audible, "You really are your father's son."
He was halfway out the door, when Luke asked him what he had meant by that. Jix didn't answer.
It was nearly midnight on Coruscant, but a haunting vision kept Darth Vader awake. Again and again he saw himself tumble from the ledge, falling towards the hot, red, burning lava, felt it close around him, eating his flesh and melting into his bones. And the most frightening about this vision was the face of Obi-Wan, as he stood exhausted, bereft of all emotion, and watching his former student and friend die, his aged features transformed ever so slowly into the youthful face of Luke Skywalker.
The chiming of the comm unit broke into the Dark Lord's nightmarish vision.
"What is it?" he demanded harshly, and was surprised when Wrenga Jixton answered.
"I need to talk to you."