The Art of War - Part 4
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 4 Fate Calling
"I need to talk to you." These words out of Wrenga Jixton's mouth almost always meant trouble.
"Concerning my son?"
"How did you know?"
"He wants to challenge you."
"This does not come as a surprise to me, Jix."
"Then why do I tell you?"
"I really do not know."
"Because he asked me to."
"What? Can't you keep even one secret? I am displeased with your efforts, Jix, I have to tell you that."
"And what are you going to do about that challenge?"
There was a long pause, before the Dark Lord answered. "Tell him to meet me on Eol Sha in five days."
"Sure. Care to enlighten me as to what you are planning?"
"Just what I thought. Jix out."
Luke Skywalker looked up from the report on Hoth he had been reading, when the door to his quarters slid open, revealing Jix standing there with Han and Leia close behind. "Come in," the young man said and stood up from where he had been sitting on the edge of his bed. "What did he say?"
"He'll meet you on Eol Sha. And if I might add: you don't know what you are doing."
"Oh, I do all right. Jix, this is my chance to rid this galaxy of a monster, don't you see? And if I fail, I will die knowing that I have at least tried it. Unlike you."
"Kid, do you know how many Jedi Knights and Masters have fought Vader before? You won't defeat him."
"We shall see."
Jix sighed and shook his head. It was not that he feared for the kid - Vader would never harm him, he knew - it was his foolish self-confidence. A few weeks of Jedi training and Luke thought he could defeat a Dark Lord? In any case, he was in for a nasty surprise.
"Luke, I don't want you to go," Leia pleaded, but he shook his head. "Jix has tried convincing me to stay too and I'll tell you the same I did him: it is my duty to challenge Vader. It was he who killed my father."
Leia started to say something, but she saw Jix, standing behind Luke, shake his head slightly. Tears sprang to her eyes. "Luke, just be careful," she whispered and watched him go.
"Don't worry, Princess. He won't be hurt."
"I know. But he is acting very strange. He was never one for blind revenge before."
"Hey, if he wants to."
"Shut up, Han. Don't tell me you aren't worried."
"I am, Your Highnessness, and that's why I'm going after him."
"No, you won't."
"But, you just said..."
"He doesn't need any protection, Han."
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. But you are not going too. I need you here."
Eol Sha brought back bitter memories. Standing atop one of the rugged black stones dotting the harsh surface with its many geysers and volcanoes, Darth Vader let his mind wander back in time.
He stood facing Obi-Wan again, two pairs of blue eyes reflecting the glare of twin blue blades locked in deadly competition. Cuts and burns decorated both warriors, but Anakin Skywalker was losing. The reason for starting the fight was all but forgottenthis had long become a struggle for survival. Sweat poured down his face, the heat of battle and of the sulphurous gases surrounding them both. He didn't even dare to blink his eyes, as they stared at each other, waiting. Anakin's mind was racing: if he wanted to delay his defeat, he'd have to attack now, with all the strength left to him. The problem was that Obi-Wan knew that too.
A tiny voice in the back of his mind told him that he should never have challenged his former friend, that he was too proud to forgive. But it was too late to turn back now. He feinted left, then jumped over Obi-Wan's head, cutting at his back as he came back down again. The sudden searing pain across his calves told him that he had misjudged his trajectory. A fatal error. His injured legs were unable to carry his weight and his knees hit the ground hard. Anakin bit his lower lip and let himself fall further to avoid the other's next stroke. Rolled around and came back up. Obi-Wan's blue blade rushed at him out of nowhere and Anakin very nearly panicked. As he threw himself backwards the lightsaber brushed his face ever so slightly, making him scream in pain. Then, suddenly, he was airborne and the heat was rushing at him, choking him. He heard someone call his name, terrified. Then it was over. No more Anakin.
Darth Vader heaved a deep sigh. He had chosen this location because it reminded him of his failure, his ultimate fall. Smiling at the irony of his own private joke, he suddenly became aware of the rushing of wind. Turning around he saw Luke's X-wing touch down a few hundred meters away. The boy must be getting very good. He had never felt him arrive.
"Luke Skywalker," he greeted the advancing figure, quietly savoring the sound of that name.
"Lord Vader," his son answered curtly. Without any preamble the boy ignited his lightsaber. Its blue blade seemed like a bad omen to the Dark Lord.
"I didn't call you here to fight you."
"But I did," Luke answered through gritted teeth and attacked. Well, he certainly isn't wasting any time, Vader thought and side-stepped the first clumsy stroke. Now I only need to get him to listen.
An hour later Luke was exhausted from chasing the Dark Lord around the rough terrain. They were facing each other, standing ten meters or so apart. The boy had his blade lowered and was staring murder at the other man.
"This is unfair," he said finally.
"Is it?" Vader asked calmly, "Why?"
"You don't even give me a chance to defeat you in a duel."
"You wouldn't have a chance, son."
"Really? Then why don't you prove it? Come on! Your lightsaber!"
The Dark Lord looked at his red-faced offspring, taking in his appearance, the blonde hair matted down with sweat, the heaving chest and the wild blue eyes. He looks just like I must have back then, he realized and slowly put his hand to the handle of his lightsaber. Unclipping it from his belt he saw Luke straighten and tense, raising his blade. And start in shocked surprise, when the Dark Lord threw the weapon to the ground, the clattering of metal on stone the only sound between them.
After a long silence Luke asked, incredulous: "You are giving up?"
Shaking his masked head, the other started walking slowly towards him, a dark shadow come alive. The young Jedi retreated before him, not knowing how to react.
"There is something you need to know, young Skywalker. It's about forgiveness."
"The very same."
"What about it?"
"I came here in peace. Put down your weapon so we can talk in peace too."
"No. You only want to trick me!"
"Very well," the Dark Lord stopped his advance, "Tell me why you came here."
"To kill you, like you killed my father."
"Ah, just what I thought. Did you know that your father died here? On this very planet?"
"Is that why you set up our meeting here?"
"To make a point. Your father died because he had not learned forgiveness. I don't want that fate for you."
"Forgive you? Never!"
"Then I win."
When Luke's face paled at hearing these words, his father knew that he had truly learned a lot under Master Yoda's tutelage. Suddenly determination returned to his son's eyes again and he deactivated his lightsaber, throwing the handle away, to join the Dark Lord's on the ground.
"All right," he growled, "let's talk."
Behind his mask, Darth Vader smiled. I wish Obi-Wan had done the same, he thought briefly, but the sudden gushing of superhot water not two meters away from the young Jedi interrupted his good mood. Fear gripped his heart when he saw Luke turn around in surprise, stumble and slip on the suddenly wet stones, his fall taking him straight towards one of the volcano pits.
Sprinting over to his son, Vader threw himself forward, grabbing Luke's wrist just in time. But his own momentum carried him further and further, until his legs found purchase on the slippery ledge. His own terrified gaze was fixed on his son's face, the boy's eyes wide, the mouth opened to form a scream, but his throat choked by fear.
Luke was dangling over the glowing abyss, the heat nearly unbearable. The sight confronted his father with the fear and the feeling of betrayal he had experienced before plunging into the molten rock all those years ago. It paralyzed him for precious seconds. Only when he felt his body slide forward, his boots losing their hold on the ledge, did the spell break. Eyes grim and lips pressed tightly together, Darth Vader made his choice. Arching his back he threw Luke over aching shoulders, using the Force to carry his son further, into safety. The sudden movement sent the Dark Lord over the edge and on a headlong plunge into the past. He felt the lava close around him and his fall cushioned by its thick texture and laughed silently. Using the Force to shield himself on his steady descent to the pit's bottom his mind was overwhelmed with happiness. Luke was safe. That was all that counted now.
The glowing spirit of his old master was smiling. "Are you enjoying yourself?"
"You did very well with Luke. Better than I did with you back then."
"Glad you agree."
"Well, I knew you would turn back in the end."
"Did you talk to Yoda?"
"So you two had all this planned?"
"No. Actually our plan was very different. More...final."
"But I am very glad it turned out this way."
"So am I. I will see you on the other side."
The sun was shining brightly into Emperor Palpatine's private quarters. He was having a light meal and was deeply immersed in reading the most recent report from the front. The Imperial Navy was still the more superior force, but the Rebel Fleet was either getting better or extremely lucky.
Suddenly he experienced a strange feeling. Like a dark shadow filling his mind with dread. Looking up sharply he frowned and concentrated. There was something familiar about this. Like a deep bond breaking, like the death of part of his own self, like.... Like Vader dying. Palpatine felt his scalp tingle. He had had just the same feeling when his first apprentice had been killed. Just the same.
"Give me Lord Vader's head comm," he ordered the computer harshly. There was only static. Nothing. No trace of the Dark Lord in the Force. This could not be! Not Vader. Gone.
For a long moment he was paralyzed with shock, but then reason took over again. If Vader was dead the rebels would undoubtedly become more daring, He needed to increase his defenses immediately. Still, maybe it was also for the best. With Vader gone he might be able to blame the most recent failures on the Dark Lord, redeem the Empires reputation and squash the Rebellion once and for all, without having to take care not to annoy the wrong people. A smile returned to his lips. Yes, all was going well.
Leia, Han and Jix were bent over the Hoth report, making plans. The Liberty was prepared to leave her and the other ships' hiding place in deep space and they were only waiting for Luke to rejoin them.
"This cave seems big enough to serve as hangar for our fighters. And if we can build stable tunnels between these two, we get a command center and this one for communications. Yes?"
Leia looked up, when her comm chimed.
"Princess Leia, you asked to be notified, when Commander Skywalker arrived. His X-wing is just coming in."
"Thank you." Turning towards Han she smiled. "Let's go and greet him, shall we?"
They met their friend in the main hangar bay. He was just unloading Artoo from his perch when they arrived. It was Leia who was the first to spot the two lightsabers hanging at his belt.
"What happened?" she asked, her voice cold with dread. When he turned to face her she took a step back. His eyes were troubled and he looked deeply hurt.
"I...I don't understand what happened. Vader said my father died on Eol Sha and that he died because he could not forgive. He never ever ignited his own lightsaber. Just...talked. I slipped and fell. He saved my life...."
Grabbing his flightsuit Leia was shaking him roughly, hissing: "Where is he?"
"Dead. I think. He fell into the lava pit instead of me. It was..."
Jix' fist sent him flying to the polished metal floor. "You!" the Corellian shouted, red with anger.
"Oh, Luke," Leia whispered and knelt at his side.
"What's wrong?" Han asked, frowning. "Vader is dead. What more could we wish for?"
The venomous glares from both Jix and the princess shut him up. "Conference room," Leia ordered.
When Luke and Han were seated at the table and Jix was pacing the floor like a caged animal, Leia began her tale.
"On Debelan, I was badly injured when pirates attacked the Imperial troops investigating their base. Vader was with those Imperials, as you know. He healed my injuries and saved my life twice, before we were both captured by the pirates. Jix freed me, as you also know, but what you don't know, and what I myself couldn't remember until some weeks ago, Vader was with him. Jix is his agent, his best. You know that too. But this you don't: Darth Vader is really a Jedi Knight who turned to the Dark Side, a man named Anakin Skywalker."
"Skywalker?" Luke's eyes widened.
"Your father, Luke. And mine. This is the short version. Jix has come here on Vader's behalf to help us, as he himself was helping us, taking a very great risk."
"I don't believe this."
"You'd better do, Han. I do not lie."
Luke had stood up and slowly walked towards the princess: "You are my sister. Leia, I ...I don't know what to say."
"Then say nothing."
"I am sorry."
She turned her head away, tears streaming down her face: "It is not your fault, Luke, you didn't know. But I had hoped..."
She sighed and took a seat next to Han, who quietly took her in his arms. She welcomed his embrace and leaned against his shoulder, crying openly now. Luke was hugging himself, blue eyes staring into the distance, as if remembering something.
"You know," Jix said suddenly, his voice rough, "this is really bad. Where are we supposed to get the fleet information from now? I can't believe he's dead. He just can't die now. I mean, we are nearly there, I know it. But we need him. Who's supposed to get rid of Palpatine? That kid there? I don't think so."
"Jix, calm down," Han told him."We can still make this work."
"We'll find a way." Solo tightened his embrace and kissed Leia's hair.
"You aren't mad at me?" she asked suddenly, her voice muffled against his shirt.
"Why should I? I understand why you kept this secret, although it will take some time to get used to this. Your father? Wow."
"I love you, Han."
Two hours later the Skywalker twins were standing alone, facing the viewport in Leia's quarters. They were holding each other's hands, sharing their grief in silence. Leia had told her brother everything about their father she knew. About Debelan and the way he cared for her, his strange sense of humor, his determination and the way he always had seemed to be invulnerable and in control. How he always turned to look at the stars when troubled.
"I can't believe he's gone before we had a chance to get to know him," Leia said quietly.
Luke only nodded, still immersed in his memories from Eol Sha. "He called my name," he whispered. Kissing Leia's forehead he took his hands out of hers and turned to leave.
"Where are you going?"
"I want to talk to Jix about...father."
"Do that. But he's with Needa right now, telling him..."
"Then I'll wait."
"Lord Vader is dead?" Captain Needa looked devastated. "This is...unbelievable."
"We have to face it nevertheless."
"We are done for, you know? Whatever we do now, we don't know whether we disrupt the flow of his planning. We could lose a lot without the right information."
"But we can't give up."
"You are right, Jix. And I already have an idea. Tell the princess that we need to set up a meeting with the people I told her about. That way, we might be able to get part of the Navy on our side."
After some convincing, the Rebel High Command agreed on meeting with Needa's fellow officers, who were dissatisfied with the Empire's current situation. The talks took place on Dantooine, and Leia was in charge.
She was wearing the long flowing robes of an Alderaanian princess, feeling a bit out of place in the company of all these men in shiny boots and dashing uniforms. Leia smiled at them and motioned for them to take their seats. General Dodonna and Captain Needa had accompanied her on this mission and both men wore serious expressions.
"Gentlemen, let me welcome you on Dantooine. We owe this meeting to Captain Needa and I again want to thank him for his efforts in making this happen." The eerie silence following the introdutiocn was slightly unsettling, but the princess simply continued. Leia's face became grave. "There is someone else we should honor today. Someone who in his own way has done a lot to help the rebellion. As you know, Lord Vader died two weeks ago." She raised her hand to quiet the Imperial officers' astounded murmuring. "Please. Let me explain why he does deserve this praise from his enemies. He too saw that the Empire could not function this way anymore, that change is needed. He devised a multi-layered strategy to weaken the Empire, working together with an agent of his who has joined the Alliance undercover. We owe both many victories. Lord Vader's death came as a surprise to all of us. We are shocked and we grieve for him like we would a friend, although we knew him only as an enemy. But we have to move on. By coming here you have signaled your willingness to help. If you join us, you will be traitors in the eyes of your fellow officers who choose to stay behind. But you will have done the right thing, the only thing that will bring us closer to our common dream: peace and stability at last."
After she had finished there was a long silence. Apparently this news had had the impact she had hoped for. Needa had told her that every single commander who would come to attend this meeting was not only loyal to the Dark Lord, but also loyal to his ideals. The former Imperial captain had been certain that after Vader's death had been announced those officers would be more willing to betraying the Empire and he had been right. When the silence was broken first by tentative applause that then broke into a thunder of approving voices, Leia knew that the talks would be long and strenuous, but the first step had been made.
"You did very well," Jan Dodonna told her quietly and Captain Needa squeezed her arm in support, smiling, before he went to join a group of officers, friends of his, she could see.
"There is a lot to do, General."
"But I know you will manage."
After five days of talking a small part of the Imperial Navy had switched sides. Of course Leia had been aware of the fact that the officers were at the greatest risk when they proposed betrayal to their troops, since Imperial Intelligence was keeping a sharp watch on any commander, to prevent just that. Therefore it was not surprising that only fifteen Star Destroyers managed the shift from foe to ally. It was not enough, but it was a beginning. General Dodonna and Captain Needa worked together on the mission deployments and their efforts showed some successes. But many battles were lost because they had no way of foreseeing what Darth Vader had had planned. Fortunately Needa knew his superior well enough to see through the tactics quickly after the initial firefight. But sometimes that was simply not quick enough.
"If some miracle doesn't happen soon, we'll lose this war regardless," General Dodonna remarked after a particularly fruitless strategic session.
"Mara Jade," Palpatine whispered. The young agent looked somewhat relived to be finally called into the Emperor's service again.
"Master," she replied, pride shining through her voice.
"I have a task for you. You will track down Wrenga Jixton and bring him here. If you do not succeed this time I will regretfully have to end your services to the Empire. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Master. I will not disappoint you."
"I very much hope so, Mara Jade. I have lost my most valuable agent already. And while you could never replace his services, I still have faith in your abilities. Now go. And, Mara, I think it would be best if you took some reinforcements this time." The young Hand bowed deeply and left, red-cheeked and humiliated.
Vader's death had come as a surprise to everyone. And in the wake of this bad news, the defection of part of the fleet had hit the still reeling Empire like a hammer blow. Palpatine did his best to calm everyone, including himself, but if he could not show some successes soon, the people would lose their fear in the Empire's power. Where to start? This was threatening to get out of hand and he would do his best to prevent that from happening.
Mara was bent over the computer terminal in Lord Vader's private office. She felt bad about this, coming into a dead man's house and snooping around in his private files. The Emperor had given her the Dark Lord's general code and she took it, slightly surprised that her master knew it. But, well, better not to ask.
They were mostly files on battles, tactics, battle groups, particular officers and, on the other hand, loads of files on ship blueprints and records of technical experiments.
No sign of Jix. She tried another path and whistled in surprise, when the computer asked her for another password. Another password? This was it, she just knew it! But... Activating her commlink, she waited for Palpatine to answer.
"What is it?"
"The computer is asking for another password."
"Another password? Well, since we are dealing with very sensitive information here..." There was a long pause. "Try 'Padme'."
"Okay." Mara typed in the five letters and waited. "It worked," she finally announced.
"Good. This shouldn't take long." He broke the connection, leaving his agent staring hard at the screen. How did he know?
She had searched the files for about two minutes, when she stumbled over one report that mentioned Wrenga Jixton: it was about a mission to the planet Aridus. Vader had planned this to become a trap for someone called Luke Skywalker. Wait, wasn't that the rebel who had destroyed the Death Star? Apparently the trap had back-fired, leaving Vader badly injured. Jixton had rescued him and they had formed a truce. Jix would work for Vader and the Dark Lord would in turn keep the Empire away from Aridus, whose natives had offered Jix shelter and their friendship after his flight from Kessel. Good. So there was something on that planet he did treasure. An ideal bait. Downloading the file into her data pad, she shut the computer down and left to report her findings to the Emperor
"Good work, Emperor's Hand. You will take a legion with you to Aridus and I am sure the traitor will come to you. Bring him here as soon as you have captured him. And take care."
Mara nodded and left, striding along the huge corridor, thinking. So, she would lay the trap and hopefully, Jix would walk into it. This should not be too difficult. At least with a legion of storm troopers by her side she had a chance. Smiling grimly, she rounded a corner and headed for her own quarters.
"Jix!" Leia called after the fuming Corellian as he stormed off the bridge, "wait!" Sighing deeply she went after him. "Where do you think you are going?"
He turned to face her, blue eyes flashing: "Listen, princess, if the Empire thinks they can massacre the people who gave me shelter and their friendship when I really needed it..."
"Jix, this is very likely a trap."
"And you are still going?"
"I can't just stand by and let that happen. I know the fleet is committed elsewhere, so I'll do this on my own."
"At least ask Han and Chewie if they are willing to come along. I mean, how are you going to get there anyway?"
"You are right. I'll ask them. And when all this is over I swear I'll take some flying lessons. Will you be okay?"
"You know, Leia, I didn't mean to tell you this, but you are much like your father. Leadership comes natural to you. And you have a strong will and determination."
"Thank you, Jix. I feel honored."
The next morning Han and Chewie were already waiting for their passenger.
"Aridus suicide commando all on board," Han announced solemnly.
"Han, Chewie, I really appreciate your help."
"No problem, brother. By the way: Luke's coming too."
"What? Does Leia know?"
"Sure she does. Now let's get going."
The Millennium Falcon was pretty crowded with the four of them on board. Han and Chewie took their usual places, while Luke and Jix strapped into the passenger seats. The lift-off was smooth and soon the freighter was heading into space.
"So, how are these Chubbits?" Han asked, once they were in hyperspace.
"They are small reptoids,pretty stocky build. They don't have much technology. And they are really friendly."
"Sounds good. So they won't be able to help us, eh?"
"Exactly." They were silent for a while.
"Anyone want to play some holochess?" Luke asked suddenly, and Chewie agreed. The two of them vanished into the rec room, leaving the two Corellians alone.
"Jix, I hate to tell you this, but we don't stand a chance against the Imps on Aridus."
"You've never really seen me fight, Solo. Just wait and see."
"OK. From a distance, if you don't mind."
Aridus greeted them with a red and green display of laser fire from two Imperial Star Destroyers. "I think now we can be sure it is a trap," Han remarked through gritted teeth.
"Just keep flying," Jix answered.
The Falcon was weaving its way through the net of TIE fighters, with Luke and Jix manning the guns, shooting down everyone who came too close.
"Head for the mountains," Jix told Han over intercomm and the freighter swerved to the left, dipping low into the planet's atmosphere. Maneuvering through the gorges in the high mountains, the ship quickly left its pursuers behind and finally Han set the Falcon down in the shadow of a valley grove. Jix commented the whole ride by racing down the ramp and throwing himself to his knees, touching the dry grass with both hands.
"Hey, it wasn't that bad!" Han called indignantly to Luke's and Chewie's roaring laughter.
Standing up again Jix shook himself: "It was bad enough. But now we are here. Let's conceal the ship and snoop around. Maybe we can even find the Imperial camp today."
"Sure. Let's do that. Couldn't we at least wait for nightfall?"
"Whatever you say."
Mara Jade was scanning the plains with her binoculars. She could just make out the troopers deployed as sentinels. In the camp itself, the captured Chubbits were quietly jabbering at each other, clearly agitated. Did they know help was coming? Perhaps they could sense it in some way. The arrival of a freighter in the system had been reported half an hour ago. Knowing Jix, he wouldn't waste any time. They had to be prepared for tonight.
"Sergeant!" she called.
"Put your troops on red alert. I don't want to make this too easy for them."
"With all due respect, but we outnumber them at least twenty to one."
"Odds don't interest me, sergeant, only success." She was nervous and she hated herself for it. Jix was very good, she knew. He had once single-handedly taken out a whole Imperial fortress.
"You have what?"
"Well, it was the only way to capture that guy."
"But, a whole Imperial fortress..."
"Look who's talking. As I recall your father has done some similar things too."
Luke shook his head. They were all seated around the holochess table in the rec room and outside night was falling. "Will we survive this?"
"You really have an optimistic outlook on life, kid."
"No, seriously. I have never fought so many troops before." Jix watched Luke's hand wander unconsciously towards the two lightsabers at his belt. He had been training with a remote control during the whole flight and both Han and Jix agreed that he was getting really good.
"If we don't survive it doesn't matter," Jix answered finally. "Now stop worrying. We are leaving in an hour."
The four of them were marching single-file, with Jix in the lead. While the high grass concealed them well enough, Jix knew that if the Imps had heat sensors, they were already doomed. Well, it was too late to turn back now.
In the distance they could make out the camp lights and Jix motioned his little group to fan out in search of the sentinels. He himself stayed on course, straight towards the camp. It was not long until he encountered the first trooper. The man was clearly nervous. And he never saw Jix come. Straightening again from the soldier's corpse, Jix took the man's blaster rifle and slung it over his shoulder. With a cat-like grace he stalked forward, eyes and ears straining. There was no sound from either side of him, so he assumed that the others were getting along too. For a moment he saw Chewie's bulk flash in the high grass and he smiled to himself. What a ragtag company they were.
But then he noticed something else and quickly rushed to the Wookiee's side. "Watch out, there are motion detectors fifteen meters ahead," Jix hissed and went on in search of Luke and Han. After having warned them all, he and Han crawled forward, disabling the sensors one by one. That done, they continued their silent advance.
Once inside the first perimeter, the group split up. While Luke and Chewie would distract the troopers' attention, the two Corellians would go into the heart of the camp to get the Chubbits out. It was an obvious strategy, but Jix had learned from Vader that the obvious approach often wasn't expected by the enemy.
When the sound of blaster fire rang out from the opposite side of the camp, Han and Jix moved in. Both trained soldiers and, more important, schooled survivors, they were gliding forward almost noiselessly, striking down opponents or using knives, until the use of blasters had become inevitable.
Half of the camp had been cleared when they arrived in the big space where the captured Chubbits were huddled together. Jix shot the two soldiers guarding the prisoners and shouted at the Chubbits in their own language, ordering them to run for their lives. They had to only be told once. Then all hell broke lose as more and more stormtroopers joined the fray. Jix saw Luke's blue lightsaber flash wildly amidst white-uniformed soldiers, but the boy seemed to be doing all right.
Then, suddenly, Mara Jade appeared out of nowhere. Her red hair flying, she was charging at Jix, rolled under his fire and came up again, blaster aimed at someone behind Jix. Gripped by a sudden bad feeling Jix risked a look around and saw Han fall to his knees, face contorted in pain. Chewie almost immediately rushed to his fallen friend's side. No! Don't break up now, Jix thought frantically, concentrating yet again on the Emperor's Hand. But she only flashed him a toothy smile and vanished again. "Luke!" he screamed, "Get Han and Chewie out!" The boy nodded at him and swept his blade through three troopers at once. Somersaulting over the rest he held one palm out towards them and sent them flying to the ground. The Chubbits were safe and the kid would take care of the others. Now it was up to Jix to cover their escape.
He dropped the rifle and took the smaller blasters out of their holsters instead, rolling and twisting to avoid the laser beams aimed at him. Taking aim again and again he was wading through the stormtroopers, oblivious of his own danger. Darth Vader had once remarked that the word fear did not register in Jix vocabulary. And he had answered that he might as well be afraid of death.
When Mara came up at his side again he kicked her down, for one second faltering and she used that second well, her blaster stunning him instantly. When he dropped to the ground, unable to move one muscle or even close his eyes, she picked herself up again and smiled.
"We meet again, traitor." Jix thought something rude and she laughed: "Now let's get you back to Coruscant."
"Move!" Luke shouted at Chewie, who was carrying Han up the Falcon's lowered ramp. Stormtroopers hot on their trail and blaster shots raining against the hull, Luke brought the ship systems online and the shields up.
"Chewie! I need you here," he called over his shoulder to where the Wookiee was settling the wounded Corellian into a bunk. He roared something back. "No, we can't help Jix now. Don't worry, he can take care of himself."
Then finally the Falcon lifted off and made their escape into space. "Look at that, they aren't even shooting at us," Luke remarked as they passed the Star Destroyers. Chewie gestured towards the planet and growled a statement. "Yeah, you're right. They probably already got what they wanted."
The Millennium Falcon touched down on Dagobah after long hours of flight and worry. It took very careful flying to get the freighter down on the swampy ground, but Luke managed it in the end with Chewie's help. Lowering the ramp he ran out into the dank evening air and called for Master Yoda. Getting no answer, the young Jedi raced through the undergrowth, finally finding the master in his house.
"Master Yoda! Please, I need your help."
"A friend, he's been terribly wounded."
Yoda regarded his student for a long time, before answering: "Take me to your friend."
Soon Chewie and Luke were hovering in the doorway to the cabin where Yoda was standing on the bunk's edge, his hands laid on Han's hot forehead, his eyes closed. Long minutes passed before the old master took his hands away and hopped to the floor. Chewie immediately rushed to his friend's side, cooing mournfully at him. Suddenly Solo's eyelids fluttered open. His eyes still looked a bit feverish but he seemed well enough.
"Chewie," he whispered, "did we win?"
Hours later, after having told Han what had happened on Aridus and of their narrow escape, Luke joined Yoda in his house for dinner. Chewie had insisted on staying with Han and the Falcon. It was a quiet meal. Yoda didn't say much and somehow Luke thought he expected him to talk. About his father, no doubt. But Luke did not want to talk and so he left early, feeling a bit bad about not trusting the old master with his fears and hopes.
Yoda watched him go, a silent shadow in the night.
"I never believed it would end like this," Obi-Wan Kenobi said, slowly appearing next to Yoda, his robes shimmering in a blue light.
"Over this is not," the old Jedi Master told him and sought the eyes of the third to join them. "Why not talk to your son? Need you he does."
Anakin Skywalker shook his head slightly, but they could see that he wanted nothing else. "He doesn't need me now. None of them does. They will have to choose their own way. Like I chose mine."
"You chose well, Anakin," Obi-Wan told him and felt his heart ache at the sad smile his friend gave him.
"Did I really?"
"You saved your son's life."
"True. And it was worth everything I had. It wasn't much, but still..."
"You gave him your life and that was enough." Obi-Wan threw a questioning look at Master Yoda, who regarded the other two pensively. Finally though he took the cue and turned to face Anakin Skywalker fully.
Know you must what we had planned. Meant to turn your son against you we did.
Luke! Are you mad? What if he had turned to the Dark Side in the process? He was not ready for the duel and look how easily I managed to get him off-balance. If I had not The Dark Lord stopped himself. What about Palpatine? Would you have tried to turn Luke against him too? That would have meant certain death for him.
Plan I did on taking on Palpatine myself.
After all those years of hiding you would have taken up the fight again? You must have been desperate.
And we had every reason to be desperate, Obi-Wan cut in. Anakin, for a long time we had hopes that you would redeem yourself. Very high hopes. What happened to your determination?
The tall Jedi hesitated and they could see the anguish plain on his scarred face. I was devastated when I heard that Padmé was killed. No, he said, forestalling any comment, I know the truth now. I have known for a long time.
I was foolish to assume that by playing by Palpatines rules I could beat him. He is a master at the game and he made sure that all my efforts at escaping or even helping you were blunted. In the end I had no choice but to surrender.
I see. So you vented your anger on those who had seemingly abandoned you?
I was furious because I thought you had not tried hard enough to keep me from executing that foolish gamble. You knew that I could only lose. Did you not, Master Yoda?
The ancient Jedi Master did not answer at first. He was thinking back on the first time he had ever laid eyes on Anakin Skywalker, a nine-year old with a special gift in the Force. Qui-Gon Jinn had thought him the Chosen One and maybe the rogue Jedi Master had been the only one who had realized the truth about the prophecy at that time and seen the dangers and benefits as clearly as the Jedi Council. They had voted against training the boy, knowing full well that Qui-Gons intentions were honorable and yet so dangerous. The only reason why, after his masters death, Obi-Wan had been allowed to take on Anakin as his Padawan had been to honor the deceased. And, admittedly, a good portion of experience on Yodas part. He had known that prophecies could be manipulated as much as people. And better to have Anakin Skywalker under control than have him run free and not knowing what might spark from that freedom. In hindsight though he should have seen the futility of that endeavor.
Faith I had in you and your teacher. But know I did not who was our enemy.
I told you he is a master. You did not believe me. You thought I was paranoid.
Anakin, you were paranoid,Obi-Wan cut in sternly. You saw enemies everywhere.
Padmé once told me that in the game of politics it is always best to know ones own mind and goals. She was right, but that way you cannot see the enemies lurking at your back. If even she did not realize Palpatines true intentions, and not even you did, Master Yoda, who could have prevented this?
The single word hung between them for an eternity. Yoda watched the tall Jedis face turn white. When Anakin spoke again his voice was close to being chocked by silent tears: I guess I have to take the blame, no matter what. I had the best teachers, but you could not teach me enough, it would seem. He smiled tiredly and shook his head. And I overestimated myself badly.
There is nothing to prove anymore, Anakin. Having said those words the bearded Jedi Masters spirit vanished amidst the trees, leaving the Dark Lord and the old master alone.
Yoda didn't meet the other's eyes, but he clearly was thinking hard about what to say. "Think that this fate you not have deserved I do, Skywalker. Too easy on you it was in the end. But the will of the Force I do not question." Bent over his walking stick he turned around and walked back into his house, without looking back, dousing the lights. Above Dagobah the stars gleamed brilliantly and a lone Jedi stood watching them for a long time, before he too vanished into the night.
When Leia Organa finally slipped into her bedroom after an exhausting day of plotting and planning, with few successes to lighten up the long hours of hard work, she was too tired to be surprised, when she noticed a tall man standing next to her wardrobe. His body was all washed-out, like a holoimage. But the smile on his face seemed real enough.
"Father!" she sighed, dropping down on the edge of her bed, "I thought you were dead!"
"Really? I can't imagine why," he replied dryly.
Leia smiled at him: "Wishful thinking?"
Now he was really laughing and his daughter's heart leapt higher, when he did. She had missed his company, his voice and his smile. "You saved Luke's life."
"He was asking for it. Tell him to be more careful next time."
"I will. But what about you? You died for him..."
"I got my freedom back, Leia. And although Master Yoda thinks differently, I think I have deserved that much at least. But let us not talk about me. You are doing so well, daughter. I am proud of you."
"Thank you. But, perhaps you can help me..."
"You do not need my help. Not now."
"I must be going."
"No, please, don't."
"I will be back, don't worry. I love you, Leia."
"I love you too."
Leia watched his smiling image fade away, until there was only darkness. Then she finally went to bed, but lay awake for some time, wondering how everything could have been so much different.
Her comm woke her only three hours later. "What is it?" she asked muzzily.
"Leia?" Luke's voice sounded slightly worried.
"Luke! Where are you?"
"Actually I am right in front of your door."
"Is Han with you?"
"No, he's in the medical ward."
"Come in," she told him and activated the door. He rushed into her bedroom only seconds later, blushing slightly. His hair was disheveled and his eyes tired.
"It was a trap."
"But you knew that beforehand."
"I know. Han was injured and Jix covered our escape. I fear the Imps have got him now."
Leia nodded slowly. "Bad news. But we can't help him now. We have other things to worry about. And besides, I'm sure he can get himself out of this."
When Wrenga Jixton could move again, he found his wrists shackled to the metal wall of a holding cell. By the sounds of the ship he could tell that they already were in hyperspace, heading for Coruscant. He sighed. Well, Luke, Han and Chewie probably had made it and now that Mara had got what she came for, the Chubbits very likely were safe too. This wasn't too bad. He had been taken prisoner before and managed to escape. With some luck this time would not be any different.
The door slid open to reveal Mara Jade, grinning happily.
"Are you comfortable?" she asked sweetly and stepped into the cell, the door closing behind her.
"Sure. It's not what I had planned for my vacation, but it's all right."
She shook her head: "I hope you won't try to pull that clever number on the Emperor."
"Oh, no. I would never want to offend his Highness," Jix told her wryly. He saw her flinch and immediately knew what was going on. "Guess he wasn't best pleased that you beached your assignments on the first try, right? You see, someone who knew him pretty well once told me that Palpatine is like a leech: he takes everything from you and still expects you to function. And when he's done with you, you're history."
"Lord Vader said that?"
"Among other things, yes."
Mara stared hard at him and turned around, leaving without a comment. Something must be bothering her. But what? If he could find out, he might be able to exploit that weakness. But Mara didn't come back.
When they reached Coruscant, Jix was transferred to the Imperial Palace's prison complex under a tight guard. His reputation seemed to have preceded him and the layout of his cell spoke volumes. Polished metal walls eight meters high, with the entrance three meters above the floor. Jix did his best to drop elegantly into the cold room when they pushed him over the edge of the gangway reaching three meters into the open space. Straightening again he took in his bleak cell, already measuring it up for a possible escape. And found its one weakness almost immediately. Suppressing a smile he walked towards one of the walls and sat down, closing his eyes.
It wasn't long until the Emperor paid him a visit personally. For once remembering protocol, Jix stood up from where he had still been sitting and nodded at the old man.
"Your Majesty," he acknowledged him and Palpatine smiled.
"I see you are feeling right at home, Wrenga Jixton."
"It's a bit Spartan, but hey, you can't have everything."
"Indeed. Tell me of Lord Vader's death."
"Apparently he fell into a volcano pit when he fought that Skywalker kid."
"Skywalker. Do you know him well?"
"Can't say I do. You don't seem to be overly depressed at Vader's death."
"He survived something like this before."
"Really? Well, if he hasn't come knocking at your door by now I guess he really must be dead, don't you think?"
"You may be right."
"May? We are talking a pit of lava here. No one can survive that."
"Perhaps I shall see if you could."
"Is that a threat or a promise?"
"Sorry, but it doesn't work."
"What does not work?"
"Trying to intimidate me. You know Lord Vader, and I have worked for him some time."
"I see. So you think that you fear nothing and no one?"
"I think that for the load of questions you are asking you are not getting many answers."
"You are right. But that will change, believe me."
Jix just knew he had a knack for making enemies in high places, but maybe this time he had gone too far. When Palpatine had left, an amused smile on his black lips, Jix waited a bit longer, then set his escape plan in motion. There were six security cameras, one fastened to the ceiling in each corner of the room and a single one located above the entrance. That way he would have no chance of knocking them out. But that he didn't have to. Undoubtedly the cell was being monitored, which meant that any unusual activity would result in an immediate response. Jix let his eyes wander over the walls once more to make sure that he had not been mistaken about the simplicity of the room. It seemed a bit careless not to include airducts that could have been used to pump gas into the cell to knock him out, but then, there didn't seem to be a stun-field generator either. All of a sudden Jix had the nagging feeling that this cell was not what it was supposed to be. Wasn't it Vader who had been responsible for the new high-security wing of the Imperial Palace's prison section? The agent smiled. Never build a prison you couldn't get out of yourself. Yeah, that sounded about right. Now he only had to get rid of the hand-cuffs.
It was not before long that someone appeared to bring some foodstuffs and the Corellian immediately examined the drink-container. Using the water carefully he managed to short-circuit the lock of the manacles. Wincing at the low-voltage shock that hit him before he could get rid of the cuffs Jix vowed to never try this again while standing on a metal floor. Then, carefully keeping an eye on the cameras, he walked underneath the small gangway above him and waited. As expected the prison guards stormed into the cell a few moments later and Jix jumped high to get a grip on the edge of the small platform. His eyes widened when the thing sprouted sharp spikes that nearly took his right hand off. Cursing under his breath he managed to swing himself onto the gangway before the spikes extended to seal the lower half of the cell off. That had been close. Well. Jix had planned on throwing the troopers down from the gangway, but that was a moot point now. Instead he made a grab for their weaponry and got hold of a nice blaster rifle that looked just about right to him. A few moments later he was out of the door and running for all he was worth.
Mara Jade was standing in the doorway to Lord Vader's office feeling like a traitor. The last time she had been here she had planned a trap for Jix in the name of the Emperor, but tonight no one knew of her being here. She carried her data pad to the black computer and set it down next to the monitor. Activating the machine she waited and typed in the first password.
Then the second. She selected the first file and read. A frown on her face, she finished the report on Yavin 4 and continued to read the next file. And the next, and the one after that.
When day was finally dawning, Mara leaned back in her seat, exhausted. So. Lord Vader had been the traitor all along. And Palpatine had had his suspicions, she knew. Having read the Dark Lord's private files she now understood very clearly what Jix had meant aboard the Star Destroyer. She understood why Vader could do nothing but betray his master. For the same reasons she would betray him too. Quickly connecting her data pad to Vader's computer, she started downloading the secret files.
Emperor Palpatine frowned when a certain alarm rang through his quarters in the early morning hours. So, someone was downloading Vader's files. Now he only needed to trace the connection... He was a bit surprised when he realized that whoever it was was using Vader's personal computer. Calling the Royal Guard immediately, he ordered them to surround the Dark Lord's castle. But if it really was Vader himself, the guards would not be able to hold him there for long.
Are you certain you want to delete these files? the computer asked suddenly. What!? Palpatine's mouth dropped open when all those precious files were being deleted in front of his very eyes. He tried in vain to stop the inevitable, but he was too late. Someone else must have hacked into Vader's computer and deleted the secret files. But who? And, more important, from where?
Mara Jade was ready to leave when she noticed the message flashing on the screen. Are you certain you want to delete these files? She frowned. And then the computer started deleting in earnest. Mara realized instantly that someone else had been using the computer at the same time she did. This was most unwelcome. But she had no time to wonder, she had to leave really fast. This would not go unnoticed. Racing out of the office and down the deserted corridor she could hear the guards running to meet her instantly. She rounded a corner instinctively and ran straight into a wall.
Which turned out to be Wrenga Jixton.
"Jix! How..." He pressed a hand to her mouth and dragged her into one of the adjoining rooms.
"Shhh. Are you crazy?" he whispered. "But I can see that I got you thinking."
"No time, Jade. We gotta go now."
They made it to one of Coruscant's many spaceports without difficulty. "Time to say goodbye," Jix told Mara coldly and turned around, starting to walk away.
"Wait!" she called, but he had already vanished in the crowd. Mara just shrugged. Well, he was her only connection to the rebels and she was sure that they at least would welcome the information she could offer them, even if Jix did not. She was almost certain that he wouldn't want to be found right now, but that didn't matter. Right now getting away from Coruscant was top priority. Afterwards she could always track him down somehow.
Nar Shadaa was just as she remembered: dirty, dark and dangerous. Walking the vertical city in search for a decent associate, Mara had visited at least three bars so far. The number of males who had tried chatting her up! She was very annoyed. But unfortunately the smugglers' moon was the best place to find what she needed.
A garish, green sign caught her eye. Sighing, she walked up to the door and entered. The bar was a low room, dimly lit, just like every other bar in Nar Shadaa. Pushing her way towards the counter, Mara ordered a glass of water. The bartender gave her a look, but said nothing, after meeting her emerald gaze. When he turned away to prepare her drink, Mara's eyed the occupants of the bar. All species assembled here were either known for being good hunters or good liars. She smiled to herself. Prejudices!
Then one man caught her attention. He was sitting all by himself, lounging nonchalantly in his chair with his back to the wall. His face was mostly shrouded in shadows, but she could make out intense blue eyes and long scars decorating his pale cheeks. Grabbing her glass out of the bartender's hands and throwing him the credits for the drink, she went over so sit at the stranger's table. He regarded her calmly underneath half-closed eyelids and a faint smile appeared on his lips. "You out for hire?" Mara asked bluntly, finding that the best approach to talking with his kind of people. His soft laugh surprised her:
"What do you have in mind?"
Mara stared at him, not sure how to interpret his remark.
"I need to find someone."
"Ah. Who is it?"
"Really? And he is so dangerous that you cannot take on him alone?"
"Are you making fun of me?"
"Not at all. Appearances can be misleading. And I make a point of never underestimating anyone."
"Then how did you come by these scars?"
"Wisdom comes with age, young one."
"Then I guess you are old enough for me. What is your name?"
"You can call me Anakin."
"And I am Mara."
He nodded with a smile: "Tell me more about that man you are hunting."
"Look, Tendo, I need that converter now. My party is leaving in an hour and I don't want to miss the ride." The dealer growled something at him. "Tomorrow? I don't have the time. If you know another dealer who..."
Wrenga Jixton's head came around when a Chadra Fan came whistling around the corner. "An Imperial Star Destroyer? Here?" he asked and shook his head. Nar Shadaa usually was never bothered by Imperial raids. The Imps must be really getting nervous. He would have to go and warn the rebel team still on a spare parts shopping spree. "Sorry, Tendo, have to go." Jix quickened his pace once he was out of the dealer's view. Let's see. Last I heard they were on level A.
A turbolift took him down two levels and deposited him in a pretty deserted corridor. Looking around, he quickly spotted one of the team, Grun, a Gammorrean female. She was standing at a stall, seemingly deeply in conversation with the dealer. Jix walked up to her, tapping her massive shoulder. "Grun, we have to go," he told her quietly.
"Hello, Jix," the dealer said with a smile and pointed her blaster at his chest.
"Mara! What the..."
"Good idea waiting here," she addressed someone standing behind the Corellian.
"This is the best place to get spare parts," a male voice answered and Jix slowly turned around to face the newcomer.
The stranger stood head and shoulders taller than himself and Jix found his intense, knowing eyes the most intriguing feature of his face, except for the scars. Dressed in a black tunic over black pants, he stood there smiling down at the other man and Jix knew that whatever he tried, he would never make it. There was something about that man, something familiar.
"Jix," Mara got his attention again, "I only want to talk. Let's walk together. Somewhere private." She vaulted the stall's counter and holstered her blaster. Jix couldn't help noticing that her companion bore no weapon at all.
"All right," he said finally and started walking down the corridor towards the next hangar bay. Grun, who had wisely stayed out of this, followed in a short distance, with the strange man between her and the other two. Mara and Jix were walking side by side and he could see that she was nervous.
"Jix, you were right. About Palpatine, I mean. I...he gave me the codes to Vader's personal files and I did some research. Don't look at me like that! I've downloaded his files. They should help your friends win this war."
"Are you coming with us?"
"I don't know," she answered, "I have nowhere to go and Palpatine..."
"Yeah, he won't be pleased."
Suddenly Mara stopped. Then Jix heard it too. The typical sound of stormtrooper boots marching on metal.
"They are coming here," Mara whispered and turned in search for a suitable hiding place.
"Too late," Jix hissed through gritted teeth, when the first white-clad soldiers rounded the corner and came straight towards them.
And marched past the rebels without ever taking any notice of them.
When both Mara and Jix turned around in surprise, they found their view blocked by the tall man standing there with a faint smile on his lips. He motioned for them to move forward and followed. They walked in silence for a long time, until they finally reached the hangar bay, where the rest of the rebel team was already waiting. Then he turned to leave.
"Wait!" Mara called, "you are a Jedi Knight, am I right?"
He simply nodded, threw a hard glance at Jix and left for good.
"Who the hell was that?" Jix asked when they boarded the unmarked rebel freighter together.
"His name is Anakin, that's all I know," she answered.
Anakin? Jix felt his blood run cold. He knew of only one Jedi Knight named Anakin. Wow. How did he pull that one off? Wait 'til I tell Leia and the kid.
Three days later he stood at the entrance to the underground cave, hesitating. But he knew very well that the battle ahead could only be won with the help of allies. Reliable allies. Unfortunately those were in short supply and one, maybe two could be found only here. Pressing his lips together tightly he straightened his uniform and went inside. Two guards were standing at the entrance, their long, red robes and polished red helmets standing out among the gloom spectacularly. He gave them a short nod and they in turn bowed deeply. It was not him they were here to guard, he knew. Striding down the ramp leading further into the catacombs he extended his mind ever so slightly, searching. And heaved a tiny sigh. The ones he was looking for were apparently all together in one place, and with any luck no one would disturb them. But before he could turn into the side corridor that would lead him to his quarry one of the shadows moved to turn into a tall man, pale green eyes regarding him curiously. Due to his black clothing his face was the only thing Anakin could make out. Behind his protective mask he clicked his teeth in annoyance. This was exactly the one encounter he had sought to avoid. He inclined his head politely, but wanted nothing more than to excuse himself and leave as fast as possible.
Lord Vader. Why am I not surprised to see you alive? Your master was absolutely devastated by your sudden disappearance. Maybe we should ease his worries?
Raising a fist threateningly the Dark Lord took a step forward before he noticed the slight, mocking smile on Roj Kells lips. The old man threw a casual glance toward the entrance, where the guards were watching them carefully. Turning his head back to face Anakin he nodded curtly before he whirled away to walk exactly in the direction Anakin had wanted to take. Now he had no choice but to follow Kell. For some time they kept silent and the Dark Lord was staring at the others back, pondering the implications of his behavior. He was well aware of the fact that the old Sith was a prisoner here on Korriban in all but name, and he had thought long and hard on the why and how of Kells imprisonment. A few conclusions had presented themselves, but there had been no proof so far. Not that one was needed. Still, Palpatine had stressed time and again that the old man was dangerous and not to be trusted. Why he had not simply killed him was beyond the Dark Lord. He must have his uses to still be around.
I had thought that your plans might take this sort of turn, Kell said suddenly and again Anakin found the beauty of his voice astounding. When he had first met him that had been the one thing that had fascinated him most. It was some sort of inexplicable magic the old man possessed, and it took some self-control to fight its influence.
Really? And you approve of it? he asked quietly, refusing to reply to the implicated question. It had not been his intention to fake his own death, not at all, but if Kell wanted to believe that....
Approve? Now why should I not approve? You will try to confront the Emperor?
And what if I would?
From your questions I can deduce that you fear betrayal from my side. Tell me, Lord Vader, why should I protect my captor?
And why should you want to help me? Do you know that I will set you free again once this battle is over?
I know you will not, my lord. But that is quite beside the point.
Dont you think that I could have escaped over the past years? There were opportunities aplenty, but I chose not to take them. Now you must be asking yourself why I would be so stupid. I know you would have run if you could have. But there is always a right time and a right place. Only now you were given the chance to turn the tide and rest assured that I will not stand in your way.
You must think me a fool, Lord Kell, if you believe one minute that I trust you.
Fancy that. I dont trust you either. Stopping short Kell raised his head and turned around haughtily. But this distrust in another sort of understanding. We have a common goal and we can work together to reach it. I know you will need allies dearly. A time will come where others will try to take the place that is rightfully yours. You must be prepared for that and for the consequences.
Anakin smoothly kept his mental shields in check. So, Kell thought that he was opposing Palpatine to take his place as Emperor. Good, very good. Let him believe that was the truth until it was too late for him to do anything foolish. It was true, he would still need the Sith for the foreseeable future, but this also meant that he was forced to play a very difficult game with a set of allies he could not trust. The only ones he could trust were himself and a handful of agents. Jix, Leia, Obi-Wan and even Yoda, although the Jedi Master was also a bit reluctant to help. He would not agree to Anakins methods, but in the end he would see that this was the only way. Still, the Sith would follow him even without Roj Kell. But Kell would not do so without the Sith.
I would ... appreciate ... your input. But I fear that you will not be part of my plans.
The old man laughed softly. No? A pity. I am warning you, Lord Vader. You havent won yet and it is a very long road ahead of you. A very difficult one.
A threat? Lord Kell, if I kill you now
You will have given up your advantage quite foolishly, Roj Kell finished for him, a mildly disapproving tone in his calm voice. How do you think Palpatine can control me? Kill me now and he will know that you are alive. He might take very nasty steps. And I do not truly believe that you would want to endanger your children so needlessly. So, until you leave again I would like you to reconsider very carefully. Should you choose to take that risk nevertheless, I am certain that I will not be able to stand against you. But if you agree, a slow smile spread on his features and turned into something like a friendly snarl, I am inviting you to a very inspiring game for the time to come.Think about it.
Anakin bared his teeth in a humorless grin as Roj Kell swept past him to walk back the way they had come. For a long moment the Dark Lord stood there in silence, his mind tumbling with this new information. The old man had given him a glimpse at his cards and so far Kell's seemed to be the winning set. Maybe it was about time to change the odds then.
Roj Kell was smiling to himself as he made his way up to the surface. His hands crossed on his back he was thinking about the Dark Lords reaction to his proposal with some satisfaction. He knew the man well enough to predict his answer. If there was one thing he could not refuse it was a challenge like this. And that was exactly what he needed. Darth Vader was slipping toward the Light ever so slowly and if he could not be turned back to the Dark again ... Well, suffice to say that Roj Kell would regret having to kill the younger man. It was enough that Palpatine had proven to be so difficult and self-indulgent. Vader was different, very much so, and that was what made him so dangerous. But the ancient Sith had managed time after time to ensnare his prey in a game like this and make them embrace the Dark Side. There had been just one who had taken the challenge and emerged unscathed. Funny, wasnt it, that Hagen Dycos had trained the boy who would once become ancestor to one of the most enigmatic Jedi Masters this galaxy had ever seen. But Qui-Gon Jinn had not been given a chance to push his view through with the Jedi Council.
As expected, they had not wanted change and so Sidious had had a very easy time at bringing them down. To be able to read the mood of the times was one of the greatest assets one could have. And yet the prophecy of the Chosen One was hanging above Sith and Jedi like a double-edged sword that could turn both ways. It had claimed the Jedi decades ago because Sidious had thought he could turn it his way. And Roj Kell had not stopped him on purpose. The less Jedi the better. But balance had to exist and it was only a matter of time until the prophecy would be truly fulfilled. Lord Vader was heading in the right direction and even if he were killed there would be no changing fate. It was far too late for that.
Clenching his hands into tight fists, the ancient Sith forced a smile on his lips again. One last game, one last challenge. He knew very well that if not even Sidious had managed to truly control Vader, he would not succeed either. That was, not right now. But once his last student had finally met his well-deserved destiny, the balance would shift again. And no matter how much Vader tried to justify his deeds as necessary, they would still trap him in the end.
Anakin was still pondering the possibilities Kell could open up for him as he rounded a corner to finally meet who he had come for in the first place. A female voice was just saying: Sometimes he teaches me about mind tricks, but they are different from what Lord Vader showed me. Stopping in his tracks the Dark Lord stood watching the young Zabrak from the shadows. Her earnest face was turned toward a short alien, a shadow himself.
In what way are they different? the other asked at last, his gravelly voice sounding truly curious.
The difference is the same as between playing games and real combat, Anakin explained, slightly annoyed. So Kell had been practicing with his apprentice again!
Nuron really jumped at the sudden sound of the Dark Lords booming voice. Rising from her seat she almost stumbled in an effort to turn around as quickly as possible, her cinnamon skin glowing with embarrassment.
My lord, she breathed, bowing deeply.
Chiin, I have been looking for you, Anakin continued, seemingly without even taking notice of her presence. He could sense humiliation wash hotly through her body and anger rise in the back of her mind. Dangerous, but necessary for now.
How may I be of service? the short alien asked smoothly.
I need you to go on a scouting mission to the Outer Rim.
The Rim? Does it concern the opponent you have chosen for the battle to come?
The very same. Do not let yourself be seen or caught. We are only looking for information.
Of the strategical persuasion?
Is there any other worth knowing?
Quite so. I will take you with me on my ship. Anakin was already leaving when he turned back again as an afterthought and nodded at Nuron slowly. She stared at his impassive features, barely visible in this gloomy light, and held her breath. Nuron, you are coming with us. There is something I would have you do.
When the rebel freighter touched down in one of the Liberty's hangar bays, Jix went straight to the bridge, where he found Leia deep in conversation with Captain Needa.
"Jix, you're back," she said with a smile.
He had arrived back from Coruscant two weeks ago, to his friends' delight, and wasted no time. From then on he had been around constantly, trying to quicken the pace of the rebellion's progress by sheer force of will.
"Yeah, I'm back. And I brought someone with me."
"She's got some information that might be helpful. And I got some other news too."
"Good news, I hope."
"You bet it is good. Where is Luke?"
"Working on the Falcon with Han. Why?"
"It concerns the two of you."
When Luke and Leia had finally joined Jix in his quarters, he was fairly beaming at them.
"I met a Jedi Knight on Nar Shadaa," he began, hardly able to contain himself, but he wanted to make this dramatic.
Luke frowned at him: "A Jedi Knight? Who was it?"
"Well, he is pretty tall, dresses in black and he's got blue eyes. Oh yes. And a few scars."
"Purple scars? Across his cheeks?"
Leia screamed with joy, hugging her brother fiercely. "He's alive! I knew it, I just knew!" Now Luke was grinning too: "Oh man. He must have really enjoyed the ride to Nar Shadaa with me."
"Yeah, he really likes to play tricks on people," Jix explained.
"Yes," Leia agreed smiling, having realized that his ghost appearance had been nothing more than the vanishing trick he had pulled on the pirates on Debelan. "But where is he now?"
Emperor Palpatine was fuming. Not only was Vader very probably dead and part of the fleet had joined the rebels' side, but now Mara Jade and Wrenga Jixton had vanished too. People were laughing at him behind his back, he just knew. He had not planned for this to happen, not at all. And he really, really hated not being in control of events.
When the double doors to the throne room ponderously opened, he was in no good mood. "This had better be important," he hissed at the newcomer. And stared.
Darth Vader stood tall and forbidding, his armor gleaming in the dim light of the huge chamber. He walked forward with measured steps and Palpatine retreated before his silent approach towards his throne. He climbed into its secure embrace and turned to face the sinister Dark Lord again.
"Welcome back, Lord Vader," he quavered, unable to hide his fear. This was impossible! Vader didn't answer. He stopped at the foot of the stairs leading up to the throne and slowly raised his head to look at the Emperor.
"Darth Vader is no more," the apparition intoned solemnly and the illusion vanished. "Your Majesty," Anakin Skywalker added from where he stood next to the throne. His smile didn't touch his blue eyes as he gazed coldly down on the frightened monarch.
"You are dead!" Palpatine screeched, suddenly furious and raised his hands, ready to strike the Jedi Knight down where he stood with the power of the Dark Side. He should have known! He should have known that this was only a deception! But Anakin merely stepped around to directly face him. Their eyes locked and Palpatine saw his own death shining as bright as the twin suns of Tatooine from the other's gaze.
"It is time for you to finally leave," Skywalker told him and this time his smile was most sincere. The light of the Force shot forward, engulfing a howling Emperor in its heat and glare, until nothing remained of his darkness.
Light-years away the Emperors demise did not remain unnoticed. He had known that Vader would choose to betray Sidious. Very good. Finally he had broken free from his foolish master. But even though he was smiling, Roj Kell was thinking about clones. Opening his eyes slowly he looked up into the distance, searching. Sidious would not be so stupid and store his most valuable possessions anywhere this obvious. So, not Coruscant. But where? Rising from his seat, the ancient Sith shook his head slowly. With Palpatine's death the Alliance would gain some respite and could push their agenda further. Especially with the Dark Lord leading them. If they gave him a chance. The only thing he would have to determine now was his own role in this game. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
Nefta! Sa-Di! he called, his voice carrying easily through the dark corridors of the underground fortress. They made contact almost immediately. Meet me in the Council Chamber.
So, if he were Sidious, what would he do? Faced with his seconds betrayal and vanishing odds for victory, desperate measures were needed. Roj Kell strode along the hallways leisurely. He was in no hurry. A sacrifice was required to make his position clear to those who needed to know. And he knew exactly what kind of sacrifice it would be. Nefta and Sa-Di were both waiting for him already when he joined them. He gave them a cold smile that they returned weakly. Of course, the Emperors death had affected them too. That was the drawback to expanding ones mind to control such puppets. Both Sith had been with him for almost all the years he had spent imprisoned on Korriban, just as the Royal Guards. Except for being Sidious eyes and ears they were nothing and only their special status had kept them alive so far. No more. They were not fit to survive the battle ahead and besides, it would be so much more delicious to break those bonds to the Sith Master than retain them for the sake of remembrance.
It has been a long time, he whispered and raised his hands ever so slightly.
An hour later he straightened from where he had fallen to his knees in reverence to the great power that was the Force, but the taste of Sidious death still hung sweet in his mind. Looking up into the eyes of the small group that had assembled at the entrance to the Chamber, he gave them a very slow smile. Their fear was sweet to behold. Very sweet.
Lord Kell, are you all right? one of them, the Twilek girl, asked shakily.
Go, all of you.
Once they had left Roj Kell heaved a deep sigh. He could already hear the sound of boots clicking over the slick floor hurriedly. A flash of red was his sole warning, but he had been prepared. Striking at the guards he ended the attack as fast as it had begun. Then, standing over the lifeless bodies of the soldiers, he raised his eyes to the rough ceiling, looking beyond and extending his senses even further. He smiled again. It would take him some time to recover, and time was always short when playing the game. And someone would find out the hard way that it was incredibly foolish to unleash the unpredictable to control what could not be controlled.
"Jix!" The Corellian looked up to face the comm officer grinning at him from where he sat on the Liberty's bridge. "Guess who."
Jix' face lit up and he turned towards the exit only to see that Luke and Leia had already beat him there. Sighing, he followed the Skywalker twins to the conference room. When he entered, Leia was already talking into the comm:
"I'm so glad you are well."
"Never felt any better," 'Uncle Dee' answered.
"Where are you?"
"On Naboo. I'll give you the coordinates in a minute if you promise to get everyone here as fast as you can. Is Jix with you?"
"I am here."
"Good. Then I am looking forward to seeing you all again."
When the Millennium Falcon finally touched down at the edge of the Naboo swamp, Leia rewarded Han with a quick kiss for his excellent flying and bounded down the already lowered ramp to join her brother on the soft grass. With the rest of their little team gathering around, Mara included, they stood and waited. Leia was facing the gently rolling hills and knew what would be coming. They didn't have to wait long.
Backlit by the Naboo sun, Anakin Skywalker appeared like a shadow on the crest of the hill opposite the little group. His steps were measured and graceful as he came to meet them, and when he was close enough, Leia could see the smile on his scarred face. She ran towards him, throwing her arms around his waist, surprised at how hard he felt when she squeezed him affectionately, and put her left cheek on his chest. He stroked her head once, then held her at arm's length, smiling.
"Our plan has worked," he told them all quietly, pride shining through his voice, "but there is still a lot to do."