The Art of War - Part 5
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 5 - Preparations
"By deep knowledge of
principle, one can change disturbance into order, change
danger into safety,
From The Book of Balance and Harmony
He sat there brooding quietly, his eyes fixed on the holo displayed in front of him. All the stars of this galaxy. All his. Rising abruptly, he held his head high, his thoughts far away, pondering the past events critically. A lot had happened that he had not foreseen, adding an unpleasant taste of surprise to his overall scheme. An unwelcome emotion. A stray glance showed him his reflection looking straight back at him from the polished surface of the huge transmission screen. He smiled faintly. Good, good. Everything is well. Almost everything.
Stepping closer toward the holo display he reached out slowly, his hand curling into a fist that threatened to crush that forsaken planet once and for all. Korriban. The world of the dead. And yet one of the ghosts of the past was still haunting it, was still lurking in its shadowy valleys and caves. Defy me, would you? He remembered the old man's face, his cold smile as he had told him that he was not the master of his own mind. That had been a long time ago. And a lot of things had been said back then. You talk too much, my lord. He could almost hear the mocking tone in that enchanting voice. But this game had only just begun. Very soon now Roj Kell would have proof for his student's mastery. No matter where he ran, no matter where he tried to hide, Darth Sidious vowed to himself that he would personally rip the man's heart out, if he had one left at all. Soon. Very soon.
"So what do we do now?" Leia asked with a smile, one arm draped around Han's waist. They were sitting comfortably on the couch in the Falcon's rec area and for once even Solo enjoyed the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of what had turned into a family reunion.
Opposite from the couple Luke Skywalker sat next to his father, beaming happily at everyone, and once in a while Anakin would give him an amused look and a proud smile.
But Leia's question refocused her father's attention on the problems at hand. "Well," he mused, "Actually we shouldn't be here at all."
"Then why are we?"
"I wanted to see you all again in private, but I realize now, that this move might have cost us precious time. Maybe I should have stayed on Coruscant."
"And taken over?"
"That would hardly be possible. Darth Vader is dead, remember?"
"Thank the Force."
"Too early for that. But that still leaves us with a problem. Our fleet cannot match the Empire's firepower. Or rather, not yet."
"Then the plan will continue?"
"Definitely. I do not think that anyone would have the nerves now to change my orders. There will be a lot of confusion throughout the ranks, since they've lost both the supreme military commander and the supreme ruler in short order. Which gives us an advantage."
"Then we have to continue pushing the offensive. Right now Needa and Dodonna are taking care of that."
"Good. Very good. I gather you want to take me back to your rebel friends?"
"Not if you have something else in mind."
"For now, no."
"Okay then. Han, when can we get off this planet?"
"As soon as Jix and Mara are back."
"Oh. Right. I forgot."
Mara Jade bit her lower lip in furious concentration when she hit the ground, cushioning her fall with her knees and keeping her balance with arms out-stretched. She eyed the man standing opposite on the soft grass of the Naboo plains closely, looking for any signs of another attack. He was fast, she had to admit. But in her current position she was free to move in any direction and any move he made could be countered with ease.
"Let's leave it for now," he said suddenly, unexpectedly, and turned his head away to look into the direction of their ship. Mara rose slowly and moved over to his side.
"Are we leaving?"
"Seems so," the man replied shortly and started walking towards the Falcon.
The ship was pretty crowded by the time everyone was finally on board. Han and Chewie had taken their accustomed places, with Luke and Leia sitting in the passenger seats behind them. The take-off was, as always, flawless, and having left Naboo's atmosphere behind, the freighter hurtled into hyperspace on its way to the rebel headquarters.
Back in the rec area, Mara Jade was smiling weakly at the Dark Lord. "So, what is your plan?"
He eyed her curiously: "I was under the impression that, after having read my private files, you would be informed better than that."
She blushed slightly, then turned to glare at Jix, who was grinning silently. But when she faced the tall man sitting opposite her again, Mara's face was calm and earnest:
"But you do not sincerely believe that this plan will continue to work now, do you?"
"Of course not. But we can make as much use of it as possible, until circumstances change."
"And when they change?"
"Then it will be time for another plan," he answered, smiling faintly.
Captain Piett stood at the viewport of the Relentless, staring moodily at the panorama laid out before him. When Darth Vader had selected him personally to command his new flagship, he had been the happiest man in the galaxy, but since then the construction of the very first Super-class Star Destroyer had been delayed time and again. And now he was stuck here, officially to oversee the project. True, the ship was nearly finished, and it was a real beauty, stretching majestically over the viewport's frame, but the news of the Dark Lord's death had dampened Piett's good mood considerably. Who would take over now?
"Sir!" his aide called out.
"Yes. What is it?"
"A message for you. It's from High Command."
Frowning slightly, the captain went over to the comm station and waited for the officer in charge to take a few steps back before decoding the message. He stared at the screen. A summons. "Fancy that," he whispered aloud.
"Sir, is it good news?"
"We shall see. For now, take this ship to Coruscant."
Admiral Ozzel was not a happy man. Sitting at the rounded conference table he eyed his fellow officers coolly, but at the same time tried his best to ignore the small datacard lying innocently on the table top in front of him. Only a copy, but its contents... Still, everyone of High Command was staring at him, waiting.
"Is it genuine?" he asked finally. The security encrypt chief nodded vigorously. The man was standing next to the holoproj and in his hand he held the original datacard, taken from Darth Vader's fortress retreat on Vjun by means unknown. Not that Ozzel cared about the how. He only needed to know if it was reliable material.
"When was the file created?"
"About three months ago."
"And Lord Vader died, what, three weeks ago?"
"Yes, that sounds about right."
"So you think he really did write this file?"
"No one else knew the proper passwords and codes."
"Except for security?"
"And except for whoever deleted all of his files here on Coruscant."
Ozzel's gaze hesitantly wandered towards the datacard in front of him and he continued to stare at it for some time. If the contents were true, and from what he could gather security absolutely deemed them to be so, then the rebels were not only lucky. They had an ally. One whom even the Dark Lord himself feared. His eyes sought that fatal paragraph yet again, where it still flickered on the screen: *An ally potentially more dangerous than any military weapon we can bring to bear on the rebels. With his mind to guide them, they might succeed.*
Ozzel hadn't liked the sound of that at all. If the rebels really had found a master strategist with more skill than their previous commanders and with a quarter of the Imperial Fleet backing up their ranks, then they had become more of a threat than Coruscant had ever believed possible.
"Ozzel," Admiral Griff put in at last, "one thing is clear, I think. Whoever this ally is, he is obviously toying with us."
"Yes. Unfortunately I also have the impression that we have no way of countering his attacks. Whatever else Vader had planned, he obviously had not planned on dying. And since, due to his orders, all of our troops are stuck on assignments, calling them back and relocating them would leave us vulnerable at least for some time. Especially with part of our fleet gone."
"Then what do we do?"
"That is a rather tricky question."
"But you have an idea?"
"I think we all have the same idea, don't you, Griff?"
All around the table he saw uncomfortable gazes, knowing looks and pained grimaces.
There was just one solution to this dilemma. They had a new strategist? Fine. Maybe it was time to show the rebels that the Empire did not need to rely on superweapons or sorcery.
Maybe it was time to bring in an ally of their own.
Roaming the all too quiet chambers of his secret hideaway Darth Sidious was feeling on edge. For now he did not want his minions to find out that he was not dead, as anyone might think. Oh no. He had found a way to survive, a very efficient way. Cloning. But that was a secret he would seek to keep. There were other problems than that though. He had checked up on Lord Vader's files and found something very interesting. Obviously Fleet High Command had already gotten their hands on that particular piece of information too. But why that ruse? Was there really someone that dangerous out there? He snorted contemptuously. No, it was a trick. Had to be. But what had been the point? Lord Vader, even if he had included his own death in his calculations, would hardly have been so foolish as to let his allies face an invincible foe. And that he had done. Definitely. So, what if something else was behind this? What if the Dark Lord had secretly been plotting with Roj Kell? Sidious' face turned into a snarl that distorted his handsome features into a wild grimace. Vader was no fool. And any fool could tell what the ancient Sith was.
It was a puzzle that intrigued him immensely. Of course, there was still another possibility. What if Vader had planned on dying? Or at least on faking his death? Now that would have been a masterpiece, one that was truly worthy of a master of the game. It would not only have meant to put any suspicions to rest, but would also have allowed him to prepare his defenses against a known enemy. Clever. But impossible. Vader was gone. He was dead. There was no doubt about it. That left one last variant. Someone must have planted that information in the files without the Dark Lord's knowledge. Or maybe even after his death. Data could be altered, after all. But who? They did not have much time with Roj Kell stalking around out there somewhere. But patience was the virtue of the warrior, wasn't it? So he would be patient and wait.
The Millennium Falcon dropped out of hyperspace into the coldness of real space. Ahead, the white planet of Hoth shone like a huge star in the light of its only sun. "What a pretty place for headquarters," Mara remarked sourly and saw Jix, Solo and Skywalker share an embarrassed smile.
"You wouldn't believe how exciting a night on Hoth can be," Jixton replied finally and smiled at her.
Chewbacca huffed a small laugh. All five of them turned around when they heard someone enter the cockpit in a hurry.
"This is it?" Anakin Skywalker seemed surprised. "An ice planet? Charming." But his cool blue eyes had already left the white ball and were closely examining the two fleets assembled in a steady orbit around the planet. On one side were roughly twenty mixed sized ships, on the other fifty Star Destroyers and a few corvettes.
Anakin's eyes narrowed and he left the cockpit abruptly. Only a few minutes later they could hear him arguing with Leia. Unfortunately they were too far away, to allow for eavesdropping. Mara pursed her lips thoughtfully and turned around again to look at the two separated fleets. Of course. That was it. No need to listen in on that discussion uninvited. She could well imagine what the Princess and the Dark Lord were talking about.
"Back into your seats. We will land in a few minutes," Solo announced suddenly and sent everyone back to their places. When Jix and Mara joined the Dark Lord in the rec couch, he was seemingly deep in thought and didn't even look at them. The two agents shared a glance, then remained quiet. Suddenly though Anakin's head came up and he looked at them sternly:
"I want to make it clear that I expect absolute loyalty and obedience of you two. You will do whatever I say without questioning. You will not reveal your orders to anyone. You will keep your eyes and ears open. Clear?"
"Clear," Jix countered calmly," But if I may..."
"You may not, Jix. I have been lenient with your independent actions so far, but not anymore. There are Imperial spies within the rebel structure and they need not know more than we want them to. Once my identity is revealed you will become a target."
"Ah, so you want me to behave only in public?" Jix was grinning again.
" No. At any time."
"This is unfair. My assignments always are successful. I need to be flexible. And I can protect myself."
"You will be on your own, Jix. But I want you to keep some things I tell you in mind."
"All right, I guess. Not that I have a choice."
"But I have a choice," Mara put in suddenly, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"A choice?" the Dark Lord smiled at her without mirth. "You chose to betray the Emperor. Had you not done that, I would have killed you personally. And if you do not follow my orders now, you may still die by my hand."
"It is always good to know where one stands," she murmured sullenly, but did not quite meet his eyes.
"If that is settled then, I believe we have reached our final destination."
Mara watched him rise gracefully and walk over to the corridor leading up to the cockpit.
With his back still turned to Mara and Jix, he remained standing in the doorway for a moment, hesitating. Then she saw it and her eyes went wide. For a single heartbeat the Dark Lord was standing on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, and Mara just knew that there was someone else with him, just out of sight. And she couldn't shed the feeling that Vader was standing guard against something.
He must have heard her gasp, for the vision suddenly vanished and he turned back to look at her, questioningly. Mara tried her best to conceal her confusion behind a cool mask, but she could see in his eyes that he knew she had seen it too. Without a word, he turned sharply and went for the cockpit.
"What was that about?" Jix asked softly, for once making an effort at being tactful.
"Nothing," she answered, her voice hoarse. That vision was disturbing her more than it should. But she did not know why. Maybe she could find out more, in time.
The Millennium Falcon had settled into one of the makeshift hangar bays of the Hoth headquarters. And despite the icy temperatures outside, even in these caves, there was a lot of activity going on. "Looks like someone's one the move," Han Solo remarked sarcastically as he stepped down the lowered ramp into a chaotic assembly of droids, containers, pilots, technicians and other staff. Indeed, the rebellion had just moved into this newly established base. And Leia sincerely hoped that this time they could stay longer than on Yavin. She squeezed Han's right arm and smiled up at him.
"It's not so bad. At least no one will come looking for us here."
"And if they come, they will have a surprise waiting."
"I don't think that the Empire has given up just yet."
"Neither do I, Han, but we do have a plan and the advantage for now. If we move quickly our next main base could very well be Coruscant."
A snort from behind turned her head around and she frowned at Jix, who simply brushed past her, not saying anything, just smiling broadly. "What is it with him?" the Princess wondered aloud.
"Bruised ego," Mara replied as she too passed the couple and followed the agent into the hangar.
"Are you two going to stand there forever?" Luke asked breezily and bounded down the ramp. "Artoo!" he cried out loud at the sight of his astromech. The little droid warbled a happy inquiry and the young Jedi bent down to the droid, examining its surface closely.
Han and Leia shared a smile. "Looks like we are really home," he said finally and laid an arm around her shoulders gently. "Let's go." But Leia held him back, her eyes lingering on the still open hatch.
"What is he waiting for?" Solo mumbled quietly, but shut up when the Dark Lord appeared out of the shadows and took a look around. He blinked once or twice against the glare of the artificial lights reflected on the white walls, then nodded at his daughter. "I am ready," he said and strode past them, joining Jix and Mara on the icy floor.
The deck officer welcomed the Princess and her companions happily, but his eyes lingered with open curiosity on the tall stranger dressed all in black, who stood a bit apart, examining the hangar with keen eyes.
"Is there just one of these?" Anakin asked suddenly and turned cool blue eyes on the startled officer.
"No sir, there are two more, West and South."
"I see. Thank you. Is there anyone waiting for us?"
"Yes, of course," the man replied, flustered and took the lead.
Walking in the back of the group, the Dark Lord continued his study of the base's layout. It was efficient, at least the parts he could see so far, but there were a few flaws in the design, or better, in the raw material. Heavy laser weapons could melt through the walls easily. And then the base might well fall in on itself like a sand cave, trapping ships, troops and equipment effectively. He did not like Hoth, he decided immediately. But if anything went as planned he would spend most of his time on a Star Destroyer anyway. If. He shook his head slowly. There was no if. There was just the plan, the eventualities and the possibilities. You had to make the most of everything.
And then they were there.
The base's command center was nearly as chaotic as the hangar, but not as loud. One wall was reserved entirely for communications, another for sensors and weapons controls, and one for strategy. It was there that the High Command was waiting for them.
General Dodonna was immersed deeply in a conversation with Mon Mothma, while Needa had a quiet talk with General Rieekan. He was the first to spot the newcomers and Leia found herself smiling at his earnest face almost immediately. But his eyes were fixed solely on the man walking at her left. Stealing a glance sideways, she could see the corners of her father's mouth twitch in an almost smile. "If I may," she whispered softly and twisted out from under Han's arm to join the other group.
"Leia, you are back," Mon Mothma welcomed her warmly, but she too was staring at Anakin's scarred face. She nodded at the small assembly, then gestured towards another door. "Maybe we should speak a bit more privately," she suggested with a smile, then led the way.
Leia gave her father a warning frown. This was going to be the hardest part now. Of course High Command had been duly informed of Lord Vader's part in the recent events, but they also thought that he was dead. Leia had talked with him about how to proceed, or rather, had tried to, since he had only told her to just go ahead. Jix had even proposed to introduce him simply as 'Uncle Dee', but both Leia and Anakin had refused. They had to be honest. At least regarding High Command. Although 'honest' from a certain point of view.
Once everyone was present and seated in the cold conference room, Leia took it upon herself to introduce the single stranger in the group. He had placed himself strategically at the far end of the table, close to the exit, with Luke and Needa flanking him.
"Dear friends, " the Princess began and smiled, feeling a bit foolish, "I can see that you are all curious just who we have brought back from our latest mission." Jix was grinning now and Mara's lips twitched quietly. They were enjoying this, definitely. "This man is the mind behind our strategic master plan and he has come here to join us in a final effort towards peace."
Mon Mothma's jaw dropped just the tiniest bit. She turned to stare at Anakin, then back at Leia. Rieekan, sitting next to Luke, eyed the Dark Lord speculatively. But it was General Dodonna who spoke first: "You are saying that he is Darth Vader?"
"The very same." Having all eyes on him did not seem to faze the Dark Lord at all. "Is that a problem?" he asked, smiling coolly.
"I-I... No," Mon Mothma offered finally and took a deep breath, the shock still visible in her on her face. Leia could understand her very well. "You are alive."
"Obviously," he answered, continuing to simply stare at her. "It was a necessary deception. Still is, for that matter. Therefore I have to ask you to keep quiet about my true identity. For now. Maybe we could move on to more important issues now?" He arched one eyebrow questioningly at Leia, who nodded.
But before she could speak, Dodonna raised his voice again: "How are we going to introduce you to our troops then?"
Anakin gave Jix a slow smile. Then he turned to face the general directly: "I had not expected having to be introduced to them at all since it would be more adequate for me to remain in the background, as I did before. You and Captain Needa should continue leading the troops. I will simply advise you on the tactics. If you agree?" It was not really a question, and they all knew that. So Dodonna simply nodded and shared a glance with Needa, who was smiling openly.
"And what more important issues do we have to discuss?" Mon Mothma asked finally, bringing their attention back to matters at hand.
"The troop deployment. I have noted with some concern that you are keeping the former Imperial troops and your troops apart. They are a unity now and should be treated as such."
"What do you propose?"
"Mix the troops and crews. Let them get to know each other. This way you will avoid internal fighting."
"That is a very good idea, Lord Vader. We will-"
"Keep the fleets separate."
"To what purpose?"
"There are Imperial spies hidden within your troops. We have to find them."
"I propose an investigation. Princess Leia would be best suited for that task."
"If you think so."
"Excuse me," General Rieekan interrupted the two speakers politely, yet firmly. Both Mon Mothma and the Dark Lord turned to look at him with interest.
"What is it, General?" the tall Rebel leader asked quietly, but to Leia it was obvious that she already anticipated Rieekan's answer.
"If I may, Mon Mothma, I am a bit concerned by the way Lord Vader is taking over."
"In which way?"
"I am not sure I can explain..."
"I can. You do not trust me. But obviously you have trusted my judgement so far concerning strategy. Is that not so?"
"Y- es. True. But I still think that we should be allowed to have some input in matters too, you know?"
"I am not giving orders. I am merely suggesting a possible course of action."
Half of the statement was swallowed by the sound of Jix' sudden roaring laughter. And he was quickly joined by giggles both from Mara and Leia. The rest was just grinning. Except, that was, for the Dark Lord himself, but Leia could see his mouth twitch ominously.
"I think we all know what you mean," Mon Mothma managed finally.
"That is a relief."
"We will consider your suggestions, Lord Vader. General Rieekan, would you be so good as to issue the new deployments for our troops? I am trusting your judgement on the right ones."
"Of course." Realizing that he had just been dismissed, the general left with a final glance at Vader.
"General Dodonna, I want you and Captain Needa to prepare a report on the most recent battles. Now, please."
When these two had also gone, Mon Mothma's expression turned serious again. She was giving the remaining team each a hard look, then motioned for Leia to take a seat. Rising elegantly, she herself took the place of the speaker and again took a deep breath.
"I have sent the generals away for several reasons. The first is that they really do not trust you, as I am sure you know. And Captain Needa need not hear what I want to tell you. Lord Vader, I am aware of your achievements on behalf of the people. But I want to make it clear, that these actions will not save you from the law. They will be interpreted in your favor, of course, but still, proper proceedings have to be observed."
"You are using very fancy words to describe a trial, Mon Mothma. I too, am aware of my actions, more so than you, I think," here he gave her a tiny smile, "But what are you getting at?"
"Will you agree to facing judgement?"
"To what purpose? I cannot make undone what has happened. You know that."
"Still, justice demands that you be punished for your crimes."
"Revenge is not the same as justice. And that is what it would become in the end."
"I am a bit disappointed by that answer, Lord Vader. So far I had been under the impression that you are a man of honor."
"Let me ask you a question in return: Will you be judged for the deaths of millions killed on the Death Star?"
"That is hardly comparable. The destruction of the Death Star saved millions, if not billions of lives."
"I understand. In a war you need to reward the weak and punish the strong, so all the world may see that justice will be served regardless to one's status. Regardless to one's crimes even. It is politics, nothing more. And a policy I myself have found useful so far."
"You are a wise man, Lord Vader. But this does not answer my question."
"I am afraid not. Will you stand trial or not?"
"We shall see."
"Very well. Apparently this is all the answer I will get. Another point I wanted discussed: you said that we should mix the troops. Does the same apply to our agents?"
"No," the Dark Lord answered, staring at Jix and Mara pensively, "I have other plans for these two."
Leia Organa had listened intently to the conversation between the former Imperial commander and the rebel leader and only now did she realize how tense she had become. Han squeezed her arm gently and gave her a smile. She returned it weakly, but this was too serious. Of course she understood Mon Mothma's point, but her father had stated the simple truth: there was no justice, only politics. And he was a pragmatic. He did not see any reason to ponder this question now that the war was still going on. To him, there were far more important questions to be answered.
Studying his profile, his cheeks marred by long purple scars, Leia found his posture resembling that of a predator ready to pounce. Something was bothering him. And she needed to know what.
"What plans?" she found herself asking suddenly and flinched when he turned impossibly cold eyes on her. And though his gaze softened again immediately Leia still got suspicious.
"They are my agents, Princess, please do not interfere," he replied, not unkindly.
"But we have to coordinate our efforts, don't we?"
"Indeed. But their efforts will take on an entirely different level than the fleet's."
"If there aren't any more questions?"
"No." Not for now, but we will talk later, she thought and saw that he got the message when he smiled abruptly.
Mon Mothma though had noticed his reaction. Few things escaped her attention. She gave Leia a hard look, then nodded: "In that case we will adjourn this meeting. Princess, if you would be so good and stay for a while longer?"
Having no choice, Leia remained behind, watching her friends and family walk out the door.
The rebel leader took a chair next to her and closed her eyes. "Who would ever have thought..." she sighed.
"But he does his best," Leia put in gently.
"To do what? I fear that he is only playing with us. And I will not tolerate that," Mon Mothma added coolly. "Tell him that."
Han Solo examined his new quarters critically. Not that there was much to see.
"I am sure Master Solo, that you will soon find it very comfortable," Threepio said in his prissy voice, adding to Han's miserable mood.
"Really," he grunted and walked over to the bed. He was really, really tired.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Yes. Go away," Han murmured, settling onto the soft mattress.
"As you wish, Master Solo. Oh!" Already half-asleep, Han was startled into wakefulness by the droid's tiny scream and went for his blaster immediately.
"You!" he exclaimed, truly surprised, "I had expected someone else."
"My daughter, no doubt," Anakin Skywalker replied drily and swept into the room, brushing past Threepio and nearly pushing him off his feet.
"How rude!" the droid snapped irritably, earning himself the Dark Lord's undivided attention.
Shying away from the scrutinizing gaze, Threepio turned to Han for help: "Can I leave now?"
"What? Sure. What are you waiting for?" Throwing a last glance at the stranger, Threepio bustled out of the room.
"What can I do for you, your lordship?" Han had sat up again and blinked his eyes tiredly.
"I won't be bothering you for long, Captain Solo." Dragging out a chair Skywalker took a seat elegantly and stared hard at the pirate for some time. The Corellian did his best to hide his nervousness, but he kept asking himself what it was the Dark Lord wanted. "I need your help."
That was a surprise: "My help? You sure? Not Jix'?" When the other smiled coldly he suddenly wished that he had kept his big mouth shut.
"Interesting, this rivalry between the two of you. But distracting. I have another task for Jixton and you could be of use elsewhere."
"What do you want me to do?"
Luke had been waiting for his sister leaning against the cold wall opposite from the meeting room. When she finally left he rushed to her side immediately, grinning broadly. "We need to talk," he whispered and she simply nodded. They made their way into the Northern passage quietly and only when they had reached the Princess' quarters did she relax a bit.
"So, what do you think?"
"Think of what?" she asked wearily.
"That he is acting so nervous."
"I have noticed it too. Something is wrong. The Empire, do you think?"
"I am not sure. Maybe he'll tell us."
"And maybe not." They smiled at each other.
"Do you think we will win?"
"I thought we already had won, but he is acting as if the worst has just begun."
"You are right. I wonder what it is."
Captain Piett had found a place in the back of the crowd, where he could watch everyone without being noticed. Although he was pretty sure that nothing could escape those glowing red eyes. It had been a grand reception for the Grand Admiral here on Coruscant. And a surprise for many politicians. Though Thrawn had made it clear that he was not seeking political fame, his arrival still meant that the military rule would continue for a while longer.
The alien Grand Admiral had been exiled to the Unknown Regions some years ago, something Piett never understood. There were very few commanders with Thrawn's strategic skills. In fact, he was the only one. And with him to lead the remaining Imperial troops they would surely win in the end. But, Piett asked himself quietly, to accomplish what? Stabilize the current order? Probably. He shook his head slightly. The Emperor's New Order had caused this war, proving that it was not what Palpatine had promised when he ascended the throne. There was no justice, no order.
Looking up he met the Grand Admiral's glowing stare. "Sir?"
"I would speak with you. Now."
He was not afraid, when he followed Thrawn, Ozzel and Griff into one of the smaller meeting rooms adjoining the reception hall. But when the Grand Admiral waved the other two away, the Captain could not hide his surprise. What did Thrawn want?
Settling into one of the chairs the blue-skinned alien regarded him for a while in silence.
All the time Piett stood to attention, quietly trying to assess what he had done wrong.
"At ease, Captain," Thrawn said suddenly, his voice low and curiously soft. "I have a few questions I would like you to answer truthfully." Piett simply nodded.
"Very good. The first, Captain, is one concerning trust. You were known in the fleet as Lord Vader's protégé and he only recently gave you command of his latest pet project, the construction of a Super-class Star Destroyer. Unfortunately Lord Vader is dead. But I value his choice of commanders greatly. However, I do not want any bad feelings between the two of us. After all, our goal is the same. Or isn't it?"
"I am not sure."
"Sir, may I ask what you want to accomplish with the fleet?"
"You are concerned about the Empire's future. You are discontent with the state it is in. Is that so?"
"Thank you for your honesty, Captain. But I must tell you that politics are best left to the politicians."
"I am sure you do. You are dismissed for now, but I expect you aboard the Relentless at 700 tomorrow."
"You will be commanding my flagship."
"An honor, sir. And if I may add: welcome back."
Coming out of the meeting room he was walking as if in a trance. And here he had thought that Thrawn might reject any of Vader's previous commanders. A mistake. Only belatedly did the truth hit him. Thrawn wanted to have him under his control, nothing more, wanted to make sure that Piett remained loyal to the Empire. Of course. In a way he truly did feel honored by that, since the Grand Admiral's move showed his respect for Piett's accomplishments. Else he would not have given him this post. Else he would be dead now.
Again he asked himself why he had not taken the rebels' offer. That would have meant a clean break with a system he did not believe in anymore. Needa and the others had decided to rather betray their comrades than keep on fighting for the wrong side. But he had found that he could not do that. His loyalties were not as much to the Empire as to the Dark Lord of the Sith who had kept the military in line despite the constant jealous bickering between the Admirals and Generals.
In a way Vader had made it all work somehow. And now he was gone. As the Dark Lord's protégé he felt that it was his responsibility now to keep the Empire on the right course. If they would give him a chance. If they would keep him alive. He knew very well that his promotion to commander of Thrawn's flagship put him in a precarious position. There was no way he could move in any direction without the Grand Admiral's consent. And on the other hand he would have to keep a wary eye on any attempt to relieve him of his command permanently.
Throughout his career Piett had always been favored due to his skills and excellent performance. But over the years this became more of a curse than a blessing. Right now he even found that he had caught himself in a tangled web of loyalties, ambition and the simple need for survival. Thrawn had offered him a way out by making it clear that as a soldier he was not required to think beyond the concerns of the Navy.
Unfortunately Piett could not help feeling responsible for the Empire and its people. Something he had inherited from Vader, no doubt. He smiled to himself briefly. Very well. For now he knew what he wanted. But that might change in the future. And his mentor had always told him that one had to be prepared for anything.
Once Piett had left, the alien Grand Admiral rose and walked over to look out of the viewport. His glowing red eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Coruscant. It had been years since had last been on the capital world and his having been called back here now came at a most unfortunate time. Since his arrival he had already studied the latest reports and it was obvious that in the past months the rebels' efforts had not only increased, but also become very successful. And such a feat was almost unbelievable after they had received a stunning blow at Yavin, depriving them of a headquarters. Of course, the motivation of having destroyed the dreaded Death Star could be a factor to explain this phenomenon, but Thrawn was wondering if there might not be more behind this onslaught. The rebels had been smart enough to talk part of the Imperial Navy into joining and he knew who was responsible for the defection. Lorth Needa.
Which was why he had now secured the loyalty of Tomas Piett. If the Dark Lord's major players were that well respected, he would do good in keeping them close. Of course, Needa had already chosen his side in this conflict, seemingly abandoning his master on Selos V. The man was a pragmatic, very much like Darth Vader, whose death had left the entire Navy in shock. Well, almost. Thrawn was certain that a few elements in High Command were overjoyed at the Sith Lord's demise. Walking over to the comm board the Grand Admiral called up a certain file he had been presented immediately upon his landing on the planet. He studied it again and again, trying to get behind the words and understand what they truly meant. But there seemed to be no other meaning than what had been written. Unfortunate, that. But what information he had was quite sufficient. And in hindsight everything became so obvious.
It was clear to him from the Dark Lord's last actions and the Emperor's return commands that they had very subtly been playing against each other. The price that had been set was one Vader could not have ignored, and yet he had continued the gamble despite his master's threats. Which could only mean that he had had the rebels' support at least to a certain extent. Through Needa and someone else. But his plan must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Although Thrawn thought it impossible the Dark Lord had let himself be surprised and he had paid for that sloppiness with his life. But the storm he had created was not ready to die yet. To counter it, quite a few measures would be needed. Looking up from the screen, the Grand Admiral's eyes focused into the distance pensively. A daring plan ... but not enough. What was more though, was the Emperor's sudden disappearance. There were rumors of his death, others said he was hiding. He smiled. But what was the truth at first glance? Nothing but a mystery to be explored.
Han Solo was checking the Millennium Falcon's outer hull for the third time when he heard someone approach. Turning around he gave the Princess his best lop-sided grin. It didn't work.
"So you are leaving?" Leia glared at the Corellian smuggler with cold eyes.
"I told you that there is still this thing with Jabba."
"Really. You told me an hour ago. I wonder why you did at all?"
"Listen, this is really urgent. And Chewie will be with me, so don't worry."
"I won't, but what about Jix?"
"What about him?"
"Nothing. When will you be back?"
"I don't know. Are you trying to make me jealous or what?"
"It worked. I can see that. But actually I am just worried."
"You needn't be."
"You already said that."
"And you don't believe it? Hey, it's me."
"If it were anybody else I wouldn't be so afraid. It's just that..."
Finally she smiled at him and threw her arms around his shoulders, hugging him tightly.
"So. What does he want you to do?" she asked, her voice muffled by his thick jacket. But he heard her well enough.
"I don't know what you mean," Han replied, startled.
"No? A pity. I will find out eventually, you know."
"Good luck, then, Princess. I gotta go."
"I love you."
"I love you too."
"Good. And keep that in mind, wherever you go."
"You are unbelievable."
She waved, grinning, then took a few steps back, bumping straight into Mara.
"He wants you," the red-haired agent snapped and turned on her heels, leaving Leia to follow in a hurry.
"What is it?" she asked Mara, wondering what had set off the other woman's temper.
"I don't care. He's just giving orders and expects anyone to follow them. Your brother already got into an argument with him about that." Leia froze and Mara smiled at her broadly: "Don't worry, I'll keep that secret. In here."
When the two women entered the freezing chamber, Luke stood next to the door, pouting. His father ignored him completely and was immersed in a conversation with Jix. Between them a holomap of the galaxy glowed in everchanging colors as the Dark Lord worked the controls quickly, commenting on the images in a low voice.
"Ah, there you are. Tell your brother to stop sulking. He is not a child anymore," he asked suddenly without looking up.
The Princess frowned at Jix' grinning face, then turned towards Luke: "What is it?"
"He's sending me back to Dagobah. For training."
"I want to help here."
"But you could help us more as a fully trained Jedi."
He gave her a dirty look: "Why is everyone taking his side? I just thought that training can wait until this is over."
"It cannot wait," Anakin Skywalker put in gently, "and you will leave."
"Luke, I need you on Dagobah. Nowhere else."
"Is that part of the plan?"
His father was smiling. "Too early for that. Just trust me."
"Do I have a choice?"
"No. And if I may add, Master Yoda will be glad to have you back." Luke mumbled something. "And I heard that too." The youth blushed, then left the room, embarrassed.
Leia did not pretend to understand what had just happened between father and son, but she had noticed something else. Stepping quietly to Jix' side she eyed her father closely. No nervousness at all. He was completely at ease. Apparently the agent had come to the same conclusion she had, for Jix leaned forward cautiously, trying to get the Dark Lord's attention:
"Don't you think that continuing the game with the rebels could put them off?"
"Only if they find out why we are playing at all."
"Why are we again?"
Leia sighed deeply. She hated this secrecy, but knew that he would not tell her anything if he didn't deem it absolutely necessary. So she tried a frontal assault.
"If it weren't for Mara, we would already be dead."
His blue eyes regarded her coolly, but she could see the curiosity hiding behind those icy mirrors.
"Jade? What do you mean?"
"Well, if you had really died on Eol Sha no one would have known what to do, how to continue the plan."
Her father did not even blink: "The plan would have continued on its own."
"That is not true. You had not planned that incident with Luke, right? If it had gone wrong... And then you deleted the files. If Mara had not copied them before-"
"Who deleted what files?"
"You did. Your files. Mara was there, you know?"
He looked at her calmly. "Oh, yes, Those files. Of course. I get your point."
"Good. Where did you send Han?"
"He will get me something we need for the fleet."
"Just a nice little toy. Nothing special."
"I see. So, what is the rest of us going to do?"
"I believe that you have an investigation going on?"
"All right." Leia shook her head in exasperation.
She threw a glance at Mara, who for once was smiling. The former Emperor's Hand did have a hard time gaining the Dark Lord's trust, she knew. But Mara was all right. And in the end she would be as much part of the team as anyone else.
Anakin Skywalker watched his daughter leave with mixed feelings. On one hand he knew that keeping some things secret from her was necessary, but then again, he hated having to withhold his trust in her this way. Logically her knowing less minimized the dangers to her and to any of his agents. But she was more than that. She was his daughter. He had been able to send Luke away, out of the danger zone for now. Leia though he needed, needed her strength and resolve. Take her spotting the incident with the files that had been deleted. He did not even know himself who had done that, athough he had his suspicions. Her investigation was as important to the plan as Solo's mission. And he sincerely hoped that both of them would succeed. Now he only had to get Jix and Mara on their mission.
He eyed the Emperor's Hand for a while until she looked away. Stalking across the room he came to stand before her, cupping her chin in his right hand, forcing her to meet his gaze. Her green eyes held his steady and then he smiled, nodded and released her again. She stumbled back, startled, then frowned. Obviously she had no clue what he was getting at. Good.
Turning away from Mara, the Dark Lord walked back towards the holomap and pushed the controls again. "Coruscant." He waited for the two agents to join his side, then continued: "You two will go there at once. Jix," he held out a datacard, "this is your assignment. Have a ship prepared for you and read it on board. Let none else see it."
"Sure." Jix' leaving left Mara more nervous than ever before. She did not like being alone with the Dark Lord. Right now she tried to conceal her simmering fear, but failed miserably.
"Mara Jade. Your assignment can only be done after Jix has completed his mission. You have the master codes, I take it?"
She nodded: "Of course."
"Good. Once Jix rejoins you, you will find a computer terminal and delete the mainframe."
"All of it."
"But-what about hospitals, sewage, heating and all that stuff?"
"Blame it on the Empire. Besides, hospitals do have emergency generators."
"You are kidding."
"Not at all. Another thing."
"Do not fail me. And come back safely."
He would not pretend that he liked Mara Jade much. And Jix would still pay for letting him down concerning the Emperor's Hand. He had ordered the agent to kill her and he had failed to do so. Admittedly he'd had his reasons. But in acting this independently Jixton had risked the whole plan. And this was something no one could afford. Not now. Not at any time.
Finding himself alone again, Anakin settled down on one of the chairs, stretched his legs out before him and leaned back tiredly.
"Obi-Wan," he whispered, "I need to talk to you."
"I am here," the other's disembodied voice answered almost immediately and the Dark Lord's head came up slowly to turn towards his friend. Obi-Wan's glowing spirit was smiling sadly. Anakin sighed.
"So you are. Did Master Yoda send you?"
"Then tell me: what does he know that I don't? If he knows where she is-"
"She is gone."
"And you promised me to keep an eye on her, to never leave her unprotected. Yet you chose to stay with Luke on Tatooine. What happened?"
"We had a fight. And I could hardly force her to stay, could I? You know her. Of course I did monitor her further. And then you killed me."
"An unnecessary reminder, Obi-Wan. I had my reasons for that."
"Revenge, no doubt."
Anakin gave him a pained look.
"She will believe me dead too now. And if I cannot find her soon-"
"We will find her. But other things are of greater importance now."
"I know. Luke is on his way already. We will be prepared. Don't you worry."
"With you in command? Never."
"You know, I wish I could be doing something else."
"Anakin, there will be time for that eventually."
"But maybe then it will be too late."
The Millennium Falcon had touched down on Nar Shadaa unmolested. The docking bay had been as dirty as everything else on the planet, and, stepping out into the dank air, Han had felt strangely elated. He felt at home here, surely more so than on Hoth. Behind him, Chewbacca had growled an inquiry. "No, I don't know if we'll find someone here. We'll just try. Who knows? Maybe we'll be lucky on the first try."
Three days had passed since he had uttered this optimistic statement. Three days of boredom and frustration. Then, though, and very abruptly, things became interesting.
The two of them were sitting in a bar, glowering at the other patrons, but saw no one they had hoped to find. Chewbacca huffed a sigh.
"I know exactly what you mean," his friend growled, then froze. "Don't turn around, pal. There are some stormtroopers at the door." Trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, the Wookiee and the smuggler pretended very hard not be wanted rebels at all. It didn't work.
"Over there!" One of the troopers shouted and pointed in their direction. Immediately Han caught the edge of the table, checked if Chewie was ready and heaved the furniture towards the troopers. Or tried to, since it was actually screwed into the floor. With a curse the Corellian vanished behind the other patrons, Chewie not far behind. The troopers opened fire and all hell broke loose.
They made it out of the door in a hurry and dashed for the nearest corner. Suddenly Han found himself airborne, as Chewbacca picked him up and climbed up a ladder into an old, seemingly deserted storage building.
"What a cozy hiding place," Han commented drily and shook Wookie hair off his shirt.
"Yes, isn't it?" Both Han and Chewie turned around slowly upon hearing that slightly amused, yet cool voice of a stranger. He was a tall, skinny man and, more important, he was in the company of at least ten other beings of various species and sexes. Han grimaced.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked, "and why do I have the feeling that I don't really want to know?"
The stranger laughed quietly: "You are a man of few words, Han Solo, but they always are right on target."
The Corellian pirate smiled, a bit unsure: "Yeah. Right. And who are you?"
"I am Talon Karrde," the man replied, and waved at his gang. Three men came forward, raising their weapons.
"Hey, hey, wait a minute!" Han protested, and Chewie roared a challenge.
"Please, Solo, you misunderstand."
"Well. Maybe not entirely so. I am sure you are aware of a bounty on your head?"
Han froze. "Over your dead body."
Talon Karrde laughed softly: "You mean: Over my dead body, I believe."
"Not at all. I came here to find you."
"I will tell you, but only you. And if I might add: if anything happens to me or my partner you will pay for it."
Karrde frowned deeply.
"All right. I will listen. But not here."
Inwardly Han heaved a great sigh of relief. That had been very close to a violent outbreak. And he knew someone who would not have been pleased if Han had had to injure or even kill Karrde.
But that crisis had passed and with a last cautious glance back he followed Karrde and his partner out of the building.
None of them noticed the pair of yellow cat's eyes lingering on the group. And when all of them had finally vanished, a dark figure dropped off the roof beams and landed on the floor with hardly a sound. Moving like a shadow it took up the chase.
"Now, tell me again why I should not deliver you to the Hutt."
Leaning back in his seat, a quite comfortable chair, admittedly, Han smiled smugly:
"We have information on a little toy of yours."
"We?" Karrde leaned forward, frowning at the Corellian suspiciously: "The rebels?" He smiled coldly. "Are you sure? I was under the impression that their information did not extend much further than their own troops."
"Then you haven't been looking closely."
"Indeed. It would seem so."
"But you've heard of the Emperor's demise."
"Of course. And good riddance to him and that creature Vader."
Han was grinning now. "Yeah. Right. Just assume that there is more to the Rebellion than meets the eye. Much more. And assume that it is now as good a time as any to take a side. The right one, preferably. I offer a deal: you get me what I want and I will give you what you desire most."
"And what would that be?"
"I will get Jabba out of your way."
"Will you now. How?"
"I am afraid that I need a guarantee from you first."
"You haven't even asked what I want from you."
"Then tell me." And so Han did.
Karrde's eyes went wide: "You want what?"
Grand Admiral Thrawn was looking at his holo display closely. "Captain Piett," he whispered.
"Would you care to read this message please?"
Piett leaned forward, face impassive: "It is an entry to Lord Vader's journal," he stated.
"Exactly. Read what it says."
Piett did as ordered. When he straightened up at last he could not hide his surprise: "A threat? What did he mean?"
"That is an interesting question, Captain, isn't it? And one that demands an immediate answer. If you know anything about it, this would be a good time to tell me."
"I am sorry, but I am not aware of a threat like this."
"Well, it sounds like - a Jedi. A powerful Jedi."
"Exactly what I thought. A Jedi Master, no doubt."
"But supposedly the Jedi are all dead."
"Supposedly. Yes. But my information differs. Let me enlighten you, Captain. You have heard of a rebel named Luke Skywalker?"
"Good. Have you furthermore heard of a Jedi Knight named Anakin Skywalker?"
"I have heard his name, yes. He was a hero of the Clone Wars, as I recall. Are they related?"
"He was Luke Skywalker's father."
"His father. Then maybe Lord Vader was referring to him?"
"Not very likely. Actually you have been working under his direct command for nearly ten years now."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"What I mean is that Anakin Skywalker is the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader-or rather, was."
"You have heard me correctly."
"I am not sure I understand. Then he meant his son when speaking of this threat?"
"Possibly. I have studied the latest battles with the rebels, most of them were lost by the Navy, by the way. And I have found the strategies reminiscent of those Lord Vader used."
"But he is dead."
"I am not implying in any way that he is leading the rebels, Captain. If he were alive I would not be where I am now. Still, I am curious. Is it his son? Or is it Captain Lorth Needa? After all he and other officers of ours chose to join the rebels. And Needa too had a close relationship to the Dark Lord. Is that not so?"
"True. After I was assigned to the Executor, Lord Vader chose Needa as my substitute on his then flagship, the Avenger."
"A ship that was lost to the rebels. And additionally, someone deleted Vader's personal files, no doubt not without copying them first. Whoever it may be, Piett, I have a feeling that this will become highly interesting."
Mara Jade walked the streets of Coruscant with mixed feelings. At her side Wrenga Jixton was smiling. He had told her that he was glad to be back in action again. And she had answered that she'd rather not be here. People knew her. Not many and none of them knew her true identity, but still it was dangerous for her to be here. Something he was well aware of. And he seemed to enjoy it.
"Stop grinning," she hissed at him through clenched teeth.
"I am just glad to be back in the big city," he answered, "nothing like Debelan or Hoth. This is life, you know? Can't you feel it?" She looked up, studying the faces of passers-by, taking in the emotions she could pick up easily.
"Yes, I can feel it," she whispered.
"Don't you start too now," Jix groaned.
"What do you mean?"
"With this Jedi business."
"Not this loud. Are you mad?"
"Not at all."
"Right, I forgot. Mr. Perfect never is afraid. Mr. Perfect just enjoys whatever is coming his way."
Jix eyed her closely. "Maybe not everything."
Mara stared back, got it: "Don't you dare."
He grinned, then grabbed her arm: "This way, red-head."
It was a seedy old bar, one like many on lots of planets, a place where people could keep a low profile, or else get some short but fatal attention if they made a mistake. Jix never made mistakes. At least in his opinion. What the Dark Lord thought on that matter he would rather not know. Vader had ignored him in the past days, more than Jix cared for. He was used to being the focus of attention, and especially concerning the Sith. That was, after all the only possibility for him to prove himself.
He savored that brief moment before Vader would grudgingly admit that he had done something well. That sweet moment between doom and glory. And he was well aware of the fact that there was no one better than himself. Not even Solo, and the man truly was good. But the Jedi were another matter entirely. Luke might be green, but he was learning fast. And Vader himself, well, he was out of bounds anyway.
But now something had changed in his life. And that change was she. Mara. He liked her. And she was more than a partner to him, more than a rival. It was actually a frightening prospect to befriend someone again. And he did not have many friends. Not at all.
Sitting down at one of the corner tables he let his gaze wander over the crowd. No one he recognized. Good.
"Mara, I want you to stay here. See the comm unit over there? You can access the mainframe from there, no problem. And no one will bother you."
"When will you be back?"
"Don't wait for me. As soon as you accomplish your mission you are out of here. I'll find you again, don't worry. After all, you're my ticket off this planet."
"I need a time frame at least."
"You sure you can make it?"
"Good. Do your job and I'll do mine."
Flipping her an ironic salute Jix stood and stalked across the floor towards the exit. Before he left though he turned back again to watch her. Watch her watch other people closely. She would be all right. That he was sure of. Almost.
"Issue these orders."
"Whatever our opponent has planned with Vader's files, this will surely force him to move in a more favorable way. Favorable to us, that is."
"Very good," leaning back in his command chair, Grand Admiral Thrawn steepled his fingers elegantly in front of his glowing red eyes, "Dismissed, Captain."
This invisible opponent eluded him as of yet, but he would find him out in the end. Vader was dead, that he was sure of. If he weren't the Emperor would have said so. Most probably. And indeed, it could be Needa imitating the Dark Lord's favorite strategies with the rebel fleet. Or else, Vader's son. But Luke Skywalker could hardly have grown into a Jedi Knight over the course of a few months, let alone a Master. Whoever it was, he would surely not let them win. A small part of the Imperial fleet had deserted the Empire and joined the rebels, true, but that would change soon. The rebels still needed allies, and furthermore, he was sure that the Rebel High Command did not trust the former Imperial troops without a doubt. The same went for the rebel troops themselves. Distrust, that was one key to defeat, but not everything. His first priority right now though was to stop the rebels' advance as soon as possible and to turn the tables on them. Quickly.
Falling deeper into a meditative trance Roj Kell ignored Chi'in's intense gaze. The Noghri had returned just a few days ago and Nuron with him. The ancient Sith had only wondered briefly why the Dark Lord would be so foolish as to send them back here again. Either he wanted to make Kell believe that he trusted him to a certain extent, or else he had made Korriban their base of operations. Probably it was both. Chi'in and Nuron had spent most of their time in service here on Korriban. The planet was home for them, and where better to send them to recover from their mission? He smiled at that. Lord Vader sometimes had great insight into people, even though he had managed to put Nuron off with his behavior. If that was part of his plan he had not thought far enough. But that was a mistake Roj Kell for one would not point out to him. By now the major players would have taken up their position. Good. He heaved a low sigh and let his mind drop further.
"Lord Kell?" the Noghri warrior asked suddenly.
"What!" Snapping out of the trance Roj Kell fixed him in a searing glance.
"With permission, you have not answered my question yet."
"Lord Vader's question, I believe." Rising from his seat on the floor Kell shook his head slightly. "He already is playing on every level. The only thing I can tell him is to mind his allies."
Chi'in smiled faintly. "Why his allies?"
"From what you have uncovered on your mission I can only say that he has a very good chance at acquiring an ally there. If he plays this well that ally will be the key to victory. If not ..." Roj Kell shrugged. "All I can offer is what I see."
"But you see more than most."
"Not at that distance."
He watched a pensive frown form on the warrior's forehead. Chi'in was much more than he seemed at first glance and what was more, he was observant. Which was, perhaps, another reason for his being here. Running a hand through his long hair absent-mindedly Roj Kell's gaze fell on the armor covering his forearms. Blood-red. He smiled at the memory of killing his guards and guardians and in remembrance of the expression on the Noghri's face when he had become aware of what had been going on while he had been away. Undoubtedly his disvcovery had found its way to Lord Vader already. The armor was a sign, a mark for independence and more. To Vader it meant that Roj Kell was sincere, or as sincere as he could ever be, in his promise to not stand in his way. And he would keep that promise for now. To the rest of the board it meant something else. It was a challenge that the color fitted just perfectly. Nodding to himself, the ancient Sith let his gaze focus inward. Let the others waste their time with games and battles. He would be patient once more. And he would win in the end.
Leia Organa was tailor-seated on the warm floor of her father's cabin aboard the ex-Imperial cruiser Dominator, waiting for him. He had chosen to live aboard a starship rather than endure the coldness of Hoth and she smiled at the thought of him admitting defeat to anything, let alone the climate. She sighed. Han on a mysterious mission. Jix and Mara likewise. And Luke on Dagobah. She was, she found, all alone with her father. Again. And she liked that. It made her feel special somehow. The way he treated her like an equal, not like a child, the way he did with Luke. Sometimes she thought that he saw much of his wife in her. Maybe too much. He had told her a bit of her mother, Padmé. His one true love. What had happened to her in the end? He would not say. Not yet, he would tell her, you are not ready for that. And so she waited. The way she did now.
Anakin Skywalker was pacing the floor impatiently, ignoring the concerned looks of both Needa and Mon Mothma. Time was running short. He would have to take some risks after all.
"So, we need allies," he hissed, "allies. You know this will be dangerous, don't you?"
"Of course. We are aware of that danger," the rebel leader conceded, shooting a glance at the thoughtful Captain.
"Good. Good. We will find allies. Needa. You are the best man for the job. Although I do not like letting you go, I will nevertheless. You will recruit the governors friendly to our cause. The worlds teetering between rebellion and obedience. I cannot give you much protection, I fear. But do not worry. You will be protected." Turning around sharply he smiled a cold smile and took Needa's head in his hands gently. "Look at me," he whispered," and relax."
It took only a moment to imprint Needa's thought pattern in his own memory. This way he could always find him, wherever he was. And not only that. "You will leave for Chandrila immediately. Our sources report that Governor Tieman is friendly to the Rebellion. Apparently he is even secretly supporting our cells there. I know the man. He is trustworthy. But do not stay there longer than absolutely necessary."
"Well, Good luck then. You will leave within the hour. A ship is waiting for you. And be careful."
"That I will, my lord."
Straightening again, he let Needa rise from his seat and leave. But he remained standing a while longer, his gaze still lingering on the door even after the Captain had vanished through it. If Jix and Mara succeeded on their mission, and he was sure they would, Needa would need all the luck in the world to stay alive. Setting his jaw grimly, Anakin turned towards Mon Mothma again: "If you will excuse me?"
She simply nodded, but he could see the suspicion in her eyes. She was not stupid, not at all. And sooner or later she would start asking questions. Well, until then he had some time left to prepare his answers. Leaving the room he went to find Leia.
Looking up she smiled at him, but he did not return that smile. He did look worried. "What is it?"
"Nothing." He walked over to the viewport and stared out into the dark, velvety fabric of space, at the stars strewn over the black night like tiny diamonds sparkling in a distant light. She remembered that look all too well. Something was troubling him.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"I said it is nothing, so the answer is no," he answered sharply without looking at her. Leia waited for an apology in vain. That was another thing about being treated as his equal. He was equally cruel and kind, concerned and uncaring. She had chosen to join him in his fight, had accepted his goals. And now he only required her to function. Leia would not have it.
"I have been waiting for you for half an hour now, and you come back here, clearly worried, and won't share those worries with me. Fine. But don't expect me to listen when you need it."
He turned around then, eyes wide open, astounded. It lasted only for a moment before his face hardened, became closed and distant. It was enough to make her feel guilty though.
"I am sorry," she told him finally and rose, "I should be going."
"No," his sharp tone made her stop in her tracks after just a few steps, "You will stay. Sit down."
Leia settled back onto the floor and her eyes followed her father's movements as he glided across the room towards her, more predatory than ever. His cold blue eyes bored into her head and she tried her best to fend him off. He frowned at her, the cupped her chin in his right hand, looking at his daughter closely. Finally he took a seat opposite from her and closed his eyes.
"Lesson number one, Leia: knowing without seeing is to know everything. Knowledge is the key to wisdom. And we will start that journey to wisdom here. With getting to know ourselves."
Mara Jade had been waiting for an hour now. It was time to move. Rising slowly she walked over to the public comm unit and seated herself nonchalantly. This should not take long. Actually it would take exactly one hour. Smiling, she began typing in the codes.
"What is the cause for this alarm?"
Captain Piett, already bent over the display, answered the Grand Admiral's question smoothly: "High level access code. One that only a very few agents possess. One of them is Wrenga Jixton, Vader's agent, who played an instrumental part in the recent events, including the Emperor's death."
"Vader's agent. Any others?"
"None that I am aware of."
"Very good, Captain. Can the access source be traced?"
"Yes, but it will take a few minutes."
"We will wait then. But no one will leave the planet."
She was nearly finished when the stormtroopers came crashing into the bar and started shooting everyone and everything. Ducking behind the comm unit Mara cursed loudly. He had promised her two hours! Two hours! She unholstered her blaster, held it tightly, and concentrated. Focus! One deep breath and she rolled out of her cover taking aim. And again. And again.
Wrenga Jixton closed the file and snatched the datacard out of the docking slot. Looking back at the screen he frowned. Part one of his mission had been accomplished. Now for number two. This file was well hidden in the geographical section of the public information net. An entry on the planet Naboo. He smiled when the computer finally asked for the password. "`Padmé´", he whispered quietly and laughed. Such a pretty name for such a devious virus. "Come on, sunshine, time to wake up and do some real damage."
Mara was desperate. A fire had broken out in the bar and still the troopers were covering the floor with laser bolts. The comm unit had long been destroyed, to her great dismay, but that was not the worst of her problems. The worst was that all escape routes were blocked and her blaster was running low on power. She had no spare power cell left. But she knew that she would not die here. She would survive. Somehow.
Racing his stolen speeder bike towards the burning building that had previously housed his favourite bar on the planet, Wrenga Jixton cursed with all his heart. If he came too late - but no, he never came too late. Just then the house exploded.
Mara's breathing stopped when that giant ball of fire roared overhead, its heat nearly unbearable. Choking, she forced herself to inhale again, but started coughing immediately on black smoke. She could not move. Something was broken. She was bleeding too.
"Mara!" someone was screaming her name, "Mara!"
Then he was there, gathering her into his arms gently, lifting her up. "Let's get you out of here," he told her, trying to reassure himself more than her, she thought.
"Jix," she croaked.
"Don't talk, Mara."
"I know, Mara. Don't worry. All will be well."
Holding her, Jix tried to think. It wasn't easy. His thoughts wanted to flee in all directions at once. They didn't want to bend around the fact that Vader had knowingly risked Mara's life. What for? He was not sure. But he thought that it might have to do with the fact that Thrawn was back.
Their ship was hidden not far away, in the former industrial district of the planet. There were many such districts, full of abandoned factories and full of the poor, the scum and the waste of the city.
Jix was carrying Mara through the still wet streets, treading carefully to not slip and fall with his precious burden. People didn't look at them when they passed. A sight like this was not uncommon down here and no one cared. No one offered to help. Not that he would have expected it. Jix would rather shoot anyone offering assistance, knowing that only a fraud would try that, or worse, an Imperial agent. So, blue eyes scanning the crowd suspiciously, he walked on, holding Mara tighter. It took him some time, some backtracking and some mean stares before they had finally made it.
Mara's ship was a plain affair, nothing flashy. And sitting in the darkness of an empty warehouse it did look like an elderly, but reliable watchdog. Jix punched in the codes with his right hand, balancing Mara's weight carefully. With a last look behind he walked into the ship and closed the entry hatch.
When Mara woke it was to the horrible sound of someone trying to start the engines without opening the exhaust ports first. "Jix!" she screamed hoarsely and tried to rise. A wave of dizziness swept her off her feet again and her head spun like mad. But then, to her relief, the screeching roar ceased and she could hear his boots pound over the deck towards her cabin. Seemingly out of breath and face flushed red, he leaned in the door way, panting:
"You are awake. Good."
Mara gave him a look: "Help me up."
She smiled at him sweetly. "Jix, no way I am letting you fly us out of here. You'll only get us killed."
"We don't have a choice, Mara. You are too injured."
"You will help me to the cockpit. Now."
Jix' eyes betrayed the worry he felt. He was genuinely concerned. She wondered why. "But I'll do the flying."
When she was strapped into the co-pilot's seat Mara thought briefly that this might not have been such a good idea. She felt awful.
"You all right?" Jix asked gently.
"I am trying to," she replied gruffly and refocused her eyes on the displays. But they swam out of focus again and again. "Right," she began and coughed loudly, "Let's do this."
The ship shuddered on its landing struts, then the engines came to life again. Another minute passed before it started hovering two meters over the floor. And then it rose gently up, crashed against the low roof of the building. Just then the huge door slid open quietly and the ship moved forward, its upper hull screeching furiously over the metal ceiling. In the last possible moment it dipped down a few centimeters and cleared the open door with barely a scratch. Inside the cockpit Mara heaved a great sigh of relief. Now they only had to get past the sentinel ships.
"Right! Damn you, Jix, I said right, not ram that taxi!" He did not look at her. Forehead furrowed in deep concentration, jaw muscles clenched tightly, he swerved the ship left, avoiding the debris flying like shrapnel through the air when the other ship crashed into a wall and exploded in a spectacular ball of fire. Mara threatened to blacken out again. But she had to hold on, she simply had to. "Just up now," she whispered hoarsely, exhausted. "Don't mind the traffic. They'll have to watch out for themselves. Just keep the shields stable."
When finally the ship broke the atmosphere she tensed visibly, watching in dismay the three Star Destroyers closing in on them. "Keep an eye on these over there," she told Jix.
To her horror he smiled: "Hey, I've got an idea." And then he turned the ship's nose straight towards the lead Destroyer. Mara closed her eyes.
Jix' fingers grabbed the joystick hard and then he pushed it forward, increasing the ship's speed simultaneously. Diving underneath the Destroyer's belly he imitated one of Vader's trick. The goal of this exercise was to prevent the other capital ships from firing, while getting a clear run for a jump point. There was only one drawback to this whole thing: Vader was an excellent pilot. And for Jix this was the first time ever.
"Watch out!" Mara screeched and instinctively ducked her head when they nearly bumped into the Destroyer's belly. Jix though had no time to soothe her. And besides, he was nervous enough. Veering left, then right again, the tiny craft shook under the onslaught of the warship's belly guns.
"Their exhaust!" Mara hissed just seconds before they left the shadow of the Star Destroyer. Her comment nearly came to late since they suddenly found themselves upside down as the backwash of the giant ship's engine exhausts hit them with full force. Spinning out of control, Jix had a hard time getting them back on course. But when he finally had managed Mara reached out, face grim, and pulled the hyperdrive lever back.
"Once we are back to Hoth you'll be lucky to get out of the flight simulator for just one hour," she threatened coldly, "and I'll be overseeing your progress personally." And then the stars turned into long lines against the dark night of space and they were out.
Grand Admiral Thrawn watched the recording showing the tiny craft running the length of the Star Destroyer with interest.
"A neat trick," he remarked finally, leaning back again. Captain Piett stopped the recording and stood by silently, waiting for Thrawn to continue. "One agent hacks into the mainframe and starts deleting it. How much was lost? Maybe half? At the same time another agent accesses the mainframe and inserts a virus into the system, destroying it completely. No attack as of yet. Not one enemy ship in the vicinity. What is he waiting for? Our opponent has a devious mind, Captain. Very devious. Making him predictable. He will be waiting for us at Obroa-Skai, expecting us to try and regain our lost files there. But we will not strike where he expects it. Prepare my flagship and then take us to Chandrila."