The Art of War - Part 7
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 7 - Deception and Truth
Mara Jade had a hard time waking up and when she finally did, she wished she hadn't. It was incredibly hot and warm raindrops were splashing from the black sky down on her forehead, the sweet, lukewarm water running into her eyes and into her mouth freely. No. This was not real. It was nothing but a dream. A nightmare. Looking around wildly, she finally spotted the tall figure standing on the ledge. Mara stared at him for a while, then walked forward to stand at his side.
Anakin Skywalker turned his head slowly to face her, a grim smile on his dried-out lips, his scarred face deadly pale. She followed his gaze down, and screamed, when she saw the blood on her hands. Wiping at her eyes and mouth in disgust, trying to get rid of the sickly sweet liquid, Mara shook her head furiously. "What is this?" she screamed at him. But he did not answer. Again he smiled at her, but this time his blue eyes turned into a sea of red. Turning away he jumped off the ledge. She stood, shocked. And then the vision faded away.
"Jade," the cool voice soothed away her burning fear and she opened her eyes slowly to meet his calm gaze. She did not reply, but she knew that the question was plain on her mind. He leaned towards her, steepling his fingers in front of his face as he looked down at her.
"Why me?" she managed finally. Vader smiled.
"Because you are the best for this job," he whispered. Very suddenly the vision flashed in her mind. Blood on her hands. His blood, she knew.
"I am not sure I can do it," Mara answered, feeling as if the floor gave way underneath her.
"You will make it, Jade." Standing slowly he nodded at her once and for a second a cruel smile flashed across his face. Then he was gone.
Mara shivered in the dark and closed her eyes tightly. He was manipulating her just like everyone else and she hated the ease with which he did it. She did not like him much. His unpredictability, his arrogance, all that was putting her on edge. Dealing with Palpatine had been much easier. Of course, he had kept secrets from her too, had expected her total obedience, but he had cared for her in his own way and Mara found that his approval had been most important to her then, nothing more. And she had believed in his Empire. Until she realized that its ideals were as false as Palpatine's caring.
But Vader. Vader did not care about anyone, except maybe for his children. The man had no ideals, he just loved to play games. Mara had never been one for games. And she could not understand why Jix liked him that much. True, he was admirable in his very own way. But it was not her way.
Whatever he wanted her to do, she decided there and then that she would not return from that mission.
Anakin strode into the meeting room quietly, his senses focused on the fifteen captains of the former Imperial Star Destroyers. Giving them a sharp nod he gestured for them to take their seats.
"Gentlemen," he began, "What I am asking of you today will not be easy for you to understand. Some of you may even resent my orders. But they are necessary. Very much so."
Anakin paused and smiled at his captains reassuringly:
"Your ships have all been equipped with a special device, which will broadcast a false code, identifying you as loyal Imperial ships. You will split up into five groups of three and strike simultaneously at the targets I have selected for you. They all are worlds on the brink of rebellion."
He waited for the sudden buzzing of their voices to subside. Anakin could feel the outrage and confusion in their thoughts and he understood those feelings well. Attacking civilian targets was something any decent Imperial and Rebel commander simply could not sanction, at least inwardly. But these attacks, undoubtedly expected of the Navy due to his own methods as Imperial commander, would demote the Empire immensely and put Thrawn under pressure. So much pressure that the Grand Admiral would gladly take the one way out he would offer him in time. But Thrawn was no fool, on the contrary. And if Anakin could not push his plan through fast enough everything would fall apart.
Even now time was getting short, since the Grand Admiral was slowly but inevitably catching up on him, despite the months Anakin was ahead in planning. "Gentlemen," interrupting the angry discussion he rose from his seat, his height itself intimidating, but nothing compared to the deadpan expression on his face: "Your orders are clear. And I expect you all to succeed."
When Anakin left again he shook his head slightly. They were afraid of him and Gerran was right. Rumor had it that he was a redeemed Sith, one of Palpatine's Dark Jedi. A nice tale, really, not far from the truth too. Except for the one fact that a nameless Sith Lord could walk these ships and this base unmolested, whereas Darth Vader would already be dead. Mon Mothma had made it clear right from the beginning that his immunity could not last forever. She wanted people to learn the truth, and all of it, the good and the bad. It was a very generous offer and he was grateful for it. Others might not even have bothered listening to him, let alone let him lead their troops. And all this made it so much harder for him to continue his plan.
Deep down inside he knew that he should follow the ways of the Jedi again, instead of using Sith methods, and he truly longed for that clean, clear path, free of these lies and half-truths. But Master Yoda had seen the necessity of carrying this deception further and Obi-Wan had also agreed. That was why Luke had returned to Dagobah. To take his father's place as guardian, as defender, while he himself moved through allies and enemies alike, sowing confusion and walking a very thin line between Light and Dark.
It was dangerous, and he was well aware of the fact that the Rebel Alliance would not hesitate to sacrifice him, if need be. Anakin had accepted that risk willingly because he wanted to make at least some of his mistakes undone, as far as that was possible. Healing. They all needed that. Even if it meant his death in the end.
Leia stormed into her father's quarters finding them empty. She closed her eyes gently, getting a feel for the place. He had not been here in a while. Very well. Just as she turned around to leave again her eyes caught something lying on his desk. Hesitating at first Leia found that her curiosity finally won over and took the holoimage carefully. It showed the picture of a woman, pale face smiling gently, dark hair framing her face and falling in soft waves down over her shoulders. Her petite frame was covered by a dark red uniform, making her look fierce despite her small height. Leia smiled. She looks like me, she thought, a bit at least.
"I see that you found it." Leia did not need to turn around to know who it was. She smiled ruefully at the picture and put it back at its place.
"Why did you hide that from me?"
"I did not hide it. You never asked to see her."
"But you could have shown me nevertheless, you know?"
Leia hesitated: "Father, would you tell me now, how..."
"How what?" he snapped and Leia winced at his harsh tone. Her mother was not something he liked to talk about, that much she had gathered so far. This time though she was prepared to fight. She walked over to where he stood at the viewport, his accustomed place whenever they were not training and she was with him. Usually she would take a seat in one of the comfortable chairs and they would talk. And usually she did not mind him not looking at her when they did. But this was too important to her.
To her horror he was crying when she finally reached his side at the window. Silent tears were streaming down his cheeks, while his face betrayed no emotion at all. Despite that Leia could sense the grief, his very private pain. She felt her heart go out to him and wrapped her arms around his waist, squeezing him gently. "You don't have to talk about it," she whispered soothingly, and saw him blink his eyes once. He did not reply, but his left hand reached out to lie on her shoulders lightly.
Leia closed her eyes, losing herself in the warmth of the love she felt envelop them both. Her mind became calmer, until nothing remained but the feeling of happiness she knew he had missed dearly for a long time. Finally he took her face in his hands and bent down to kiss the crown of her head. "Thank you," he said, his voice choked with tears and emotion. When he gently brushed his fingertips over her cheekbone with a sad smile and turned away abruptly to vanish into the bedroom she knew that this discussion was over. But one day, she swore, one day she would learn the truth from him.
Eyeing Master Yoda calmly, Luke Skywalker sat opposite from the tiny alien in the Jedi's small hut. There was a feeling in the air, one of portent and full of tension. And although Luke could taste it on his mind as if it were a tangible thing, he did not let himself be carried away in its swirling, warm embrace. He felt that this was not necessary. After all, as long as he had not determined the source of this feeling he could hardly act upon it.
Finally Yoda broke the silence: "Much learned you have, young Skywalker. Progressed well in understanding the Force. Soon now your trials will begin, but first a test you will have to pass."
A test? Luke suppressed a frown. Why should there be a test before he took the trials? If Master Yoda did not think him ready, which the prospect of a test implied, why had the old Jedi agreed to letting Luke face the trials at all?
"Doubt you have, do you?" Yoda asked, a tiny smile on his lips.
"Yes, master. Are we running out of time?"
The alien's moss-green eyes flickered in surprise: "Indeed much you have learned. But more I cannot reveal until the test you have passed."
Luke nodded solemnly: "Then let me begin."
The tree was old and full of darkness. It intrigued the young Jedi immediately and Master Yoda seemed to be pleased with his student's reaction. "Your fear you have mastered. Impatient you are no longer. Ready you are. Now face your destiny." Luke let the alien's words sink into his mind, memorizing them instantly. My destiny. He swallowed once, then set his shoulders and walked forward.
He found the gaping hole that marked the entrance to what seemed to be a cave instantly. Without hesitating he slipped down the slope, burying his hands in the dark, moist earth for support. His senses alert, Luke was mapping out the cave as he crept along the low walls deeper into the darkness. Darkness. Of course. This was a test to see if he was prone to falling to the Dark Side. Luke smiled broadly. Well, he knew his place. There was no darkness in his heart, that he was sure of.
"Do not let yourself become distracted."
The young Jedi nearly jumped at the sudden sound of his father's voice. Anakin Skywalker stood shrouded in shadows for a moment, before he came forward to meet his son.
"What do you mean?"
"Concentrate on the matter at hand. Only when you know your goal can you plan ahead."
"Then what is my goal?"
"Your destiny is not mine, Luke. You will have to see for yourself."
When the cave suddenly disappeared, the young man unconsciously took a step back and stared. It was hot here, and nothing stirred under the pitch-black sky. Raindrops fell lazily and burst on the rough cliffs they both stood upon. Anakin Skywalker turned away from his son and started walking towards the edge. Luke followed closely and reached out to catch his father's shoulder, holding him back. Standing side by side they looked down into the valley. There, in the distance, Luke could just make out the figure of a woman. She wore a blood-red dress and her dark hair fell in gentle waves over her shoulders. And although he could not make out her features he was almost certain that he should know her.
Frowning, Luke turned towards his father: "Who is she?" he asked quietly, but Anakin did not answer. Blue eyes intent on the valley bottom he smiled and took a step forward. Luke screamed when his father vanished over the ledge, out of sight. But he hesitated before following. And indeed, the Dark Lord appeared unharmed at the edge of the valley and started walking towards the woman. But every step he took sent her farther away. Deeply troubled Luke blinked his eyes and found himself back in the dark cave. Leaving unhurriedly he walked towards Master Yoda, who sat quietly upon a fallen tree, regarding his student calmly.
"I have to find her," Luke told him softly.
"Where do I begin?"
Captain Needa sat in the pilot's chair of his nondescript ship. Working the controls he regarded the sensor read-outs closely.
"The Relentless is definitely gone. We better make our move now."
The small woman lounging next to him didn't look up. "And you are sure that we will be able to get back to your friends?"
"I am sure."
"It is just that I have a hard time trusting you."
"Because I was an Imperial Captain?"
"That is all right. You are only being cautious. I can understand that."
"Tell me, Captain, how did you end up with the Alliance?"
Needa concentrated on the lift-off and waited until the ship was headed straight for their jump-point before answering:
"That is a rather complicated story."
"Do you want to tell me?"
"Only if you tell me why you are looking for the Alliance."
"Touché," she replied, smiling. "Where are we going anyway?"
"Pakrat Minor. Mostly agriculture. They are pretty upset because they are only allowed to produce for the Navy, while others make the dealings with the big food corporations."
"Money? They are willing to leave the Empire for money?"
"No. But I find it sad to hear that people have to be bought before they decide to fight for the right side."
"Not everyone is bought."
"I thought you didn't want to talk about how you came to join the Alliance?"
Needa looked at her smiling face. Thought back on his last meeting with Lord Vader. Maybe if she would trust him more easily if he told her at least part of the story.
"Very well. But then it is your turn." Padmé simply nodded.
"The Imperial Navy has become increasingly corrupt, uncaring and selfish."
"Only the Navy?" Padmé interrupted him, smiling.
Needa's eyes narrowed slightly before he answered coolly:
"I have been a soldier for nearly all of my life. I only know the Navy. But you are right, of course, that does not only apply to the military."
He took a deep breath and continued more pleasantly:
"Anyway. Now imagine one man at the top of the pack, who is nothing like that. He may be cold and cruel at times, but you have the feeling that the needs of the people are foremost on his mind. When you admire that man deeply for his military skills and insight into the affairs of the people and he decides to abandon a system you yourself do not believe in anymore, you cannot but follow. Am I right?"
Padmé did not answer at first. He watched her closely and it was hard not to miss the sadness and pain in her eyes.
"He sounds like someone I once knew," she said finally.
"Where?" Needa began, but she interrupted him immediately.
"He is dead now. And it doesn't matter anymore."
"I am sorry to hear that."
"You needn't be, Captain. He has not deserved your caring, nor mine for that matter."
"You are lucky that this is part of why I need to find the Alliance," she told him flippantly.
"Oh. Good. What was his name?"
The sudden alarm screeching through the cockpit startled both of them.
"What is it?" Padmé demanded, frowning. Checking the sensors and the distance to their jump-point, Needa's mouth turned into a grim line.
"Five ships have just jumped into the system."
"But that is just great. We have to hail them immediately."
Needa hesitated. Those were a lot of cruisers to attack this temporarily under-defended planet. But the garrison would send up their ships and fighters soon and he did not want to get caught in that battle. Additionally those five ships told him something else.
"We are leaving."
"But" the queen protested.
"The Relentless will be back and we cannot know if she's got reinforcements with her. Best not to take any chances. We will join the Alliance soon enough."
Pulling back the hyperdrive lever he tried to ignore her furious stare. But he did not know what Vader had planned. His own mission had been clear. And now the order of getting out of Chandrila as soon as possible made sense too. He shook his head slightly. Anakin? Maybe Pakrat Minor would have to wait. He had to get Padmé into safety first.
Wrenga Jixton was leaning against the cold wall, his arms crossed in front of his chest, and grinned openly at the small man sitting in front of Vader's desk. Gerran threw him an irritated glance and straightened his glasses yet again. Unfortunately that gesture got him the Dark Lord's attention. He looked up from his screen and frowned at the aide deeply.
"Stop doing that," he snarled and straightened to glare at Jix. The agent stared back, surprised.
"Are you talking to me?" he exclaimed, aghast.
"Who else? Gerran is nervous enough without you staring at him. And stop pouting."
Vader leaned back in his chair, remaining silent for a while.
"Jix. You come into my office, don't say a word and expect me to know why you are here. What do you want?"
Jix' smile froze. Pushing himself off the wall he threw a hard glance at Gerran.
"I wanted to see Mara and was denied access to the medical ward. Why? Don't you trust me anymore?"
"I trust you, Jix, but not her."
"What do you mean?"
"She was the Emperor's Hand."
"And that's it?"
"That is quite enough, don't you think?"
"No, I damn well don't think so! She got us the files"
"And how do you know that it was not her who deleted them?"
"You tell me! After all you are the one who knows everything here!"
"No! You listen to me first!"
Jix hadn't even seen Vader move, but it was hard to ignore the Dark Lord standing right in front of him and much too close for comfort. Two pairs of blue eyes locked in a contest of wills. But Jix knew that he had already lost.
"Wrenga Jixton, you will trust my judgement," Vader whispered.
"I'll trust your judgement," the agent mumbled.
"You will return to your quarters now."
"I'll go back to my quarters, right?"
Jix blinked his eyes once, took a look around and left the room, ignoring its remaining occupants completely.
Anakin Skywalker returned to his seat and sat down, smiling coldly at the twitching aide sitting opposite from him. Gerran swallowed hard before he asked, his voice hoarse:
"Whatwhat did you do to him?"
"A simple trick. But it requires a lot of concentration."
"Did youtake over his mind?"
"Something like that."
Jay Gerran gazed at him in awe, mouth agape.
"That isamazing!" he stuttered, shaking his head.
Anakin merely smiled at him. No doubt this little display would gain the aide an open ear with his superior. Who would be very pleased. Guaranteed.
There was no way anything could disturb this perfect evening, Leia thought. Cuddled against Han's chest she was dozing quietly, feeling nothing but happiness. He had his arms wrapped around her, holding her gently and Leia could feel his warm breath caressing her cheeks. She sighed, pleased.
"I have to tell you something."
"No, you don't," she replied, slightly annoyed. Had the man no sense at all? They had so little time together anyway. Why was he so eager to spoil it now?
"It is important."
"Everything is more important than me, it would seem," Leia bit out viciously.
"Unfair," Han replied and stroked her head slowly: "And your father said that you would understand."
"He said that? Really?" Looking up into his eyes Leia raised her eyebrows slowly.
"And what is it?"
"He wants me to get Karrde to support us."
"In what way?"
"Covert operations. Your father wants unmarked ships, but with a certain history."
"Dunno. The 'why' is his job, not mine."
Dislodging herself from his embrace Leia stood up and straightened her dress. Han threw her a frown:
"What is it now?"
She turned towards him, crossing her arms in front of her chest:
"The 'why' is my job too. And I intend to tell him that."
"Yes. Now. Or do you object?"
"Me? No! Not at all. Go ahead."
"Thank you," Leia said with an all too sweet smile and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. It felt so good to see the disappointment in his eyes. Let that be a lesson to you, she thought in satisfaction.
Turning back again she regarded that embodiment of hurt pride sitting on the couch in open amusement.
"Jix left today on a mission to Tatooine."
"Is that all you are going to say on that matter?"
"What else is there to say? It just means that I am going to be alone again. Not that I mind," Leia snarled and tried to slam the door shut. Which didn't want to do her the favor and closed noiselessly.
Storming down the hallway the Princess was fuming inside. No one bothered to tell her anything! But that would change. And even if it was the last thing she did.
Tailor-seated on the cool floor of his cabin, Anakin Skywalker had his eyes closed. There was so much to think of, to take into account. So many possibilities. Again he walked along the plotlines he had drawn up for his major players. Examined each possible outcome and its respective consequences. Timing was crucial and although he knew that in theory he had time in abundance, there were a few factors to keep in mind: people were weary of the war and his resources were limited. Too limited to continue this conflict much longer.
Thrawn had nearly caught up with him and it was only a matter of a few weeks or even just days until he would learn the truth. And gain the advantage. In fact he would be surprised if the Grand Admiral had not already begun to take the necessary steps to defeating his opponent.
He did not need to open his eyes to know who it was. But out of courtesy he did look up to glance at the shimmering ghost of Obi-Wan:
"What is it?"
"You must be careful."
"In what way?"
"Luke is leaving Dagobah."
"Already?" Truly surprised, Anakin rose and shook his head slightly: "That is too soon. I do not need his interference."
"He will not interfere."
"Are you so sure of that? He has a knack for being at the right place in the wrong moment."
"But that is what being a Jedi Knight is about, is it not?"
Anakin laughed: "You are right. But this operation does not require the mind of a Jedi."
"That is one thing, Anakin, that you should keep in mind: you are no longer Darth Vader. Your duties are to the Light. To the people and to your family."
"Too many obligations, Obi-Wan," Anakin sighed.
"Have been your downfall before. Take care."
Just then the door slid open and the Jedi Master' ghost vanished as if he had never been there at all. Looking at his daughter Anakin smiled. But Leia did not care to return that smile. Crossing her arms in front of her chest she regarded him coolly. After she had stared at him like that for a while he shrugged and motioned for her to take a seat.
"I give up. What is bothering you?"
"The fact that you do not tell me anything."
"About Han's mission. And for that matter, about Jix' too."
"So your pretty Corellian talked to you about that?"
"Yes," she answered, blushing.
"What did he tell you?"
"That he is to get us some ships from Karrde, and that Jix is on some mission to Tatooine."
"And what do you make of it?"
"You have not considered the implications?"
"Well, I thought that you might just tell me."
"I won't. So, tell me, what is on Tatooine that could benefit us or the Empire?"
Leia pursed her lips thoughtfully and remained quiet for some time. All the while Anakin smiled at her encouragingly. Finally she seemed to have come to a conclusion.
"Well, the only thing that relates to Karrde is Jabba. Han told me that he promised Karrde to get the Hutt out of his way. Now, you sent Jix there to take care of that, right?"
"Let's see. Ships with a past, that means you want the Empire to know that you are dealing with the fringe. But Jabba's death would also serve as a warning," Leia continued and suddenly her eyes widened, "A warning which would only be effective if it were Imperial storm troopers blasting Jabba's fortress. Denying Thrawn any possibility of establishing his own deals with pirate groups." She clapped her hands in delight: "Oh, that is just wonderful!"
"And you are getting very good, Leia. Now you only need to apply your knowledge. I have a test for you. But later."
"What kind of test?"
He shook his head, smiling: "If you cannot find that out on your own, you will simply have to wait."
When she smiled back at him he felt his breath catch in his throat. Too much of Leia reminded him of his greatest failure: Padmé. His daughter's lessons were a punishment of sorts and at the same time an attempt at reliving what had gone before. For if he ever got the chance to meet his love again, he would be better prepared. He would not fail her again. But he had to find her first.
The five warships assembled in a defensive line like overeager watchdogs had not moved on the Relentless yet and the Grand Admiral had ordered absolute communication silence. Piett stood quietly to attention, studying Thrawn's profile with interest. The glowing red eyes were fixed on something beyond vision and the Captain would give much to learn just what the Admiral was thinking. When the comm fastened at his collar beeped discreetly, Piett nearly jumped, then answered the call in hushed tones:
"What is it?"
"Sir, our reinforcements have just arrived."
"Good, thank you." Turning back towards Thrawn Piett found the alien already on his way to the comm station. "Sir, the Storm Falcon and the Death's Head have arrived."
"Yes, Captain, I heard that. The Chimaera's status?"
"Still under repairs."
"What about the special team?"
"On board the Death's Head."
"Good. What is he trying to accomplish here?"
"I have no idea."
"Very well. We will attack. Let's see for how long they think they can stand against us."
Suddenly an alarm sounded throughout the room and Piett's eyes whipped towards the radar.
A tiny blip had appeared on the screen and was rapidly closing in on the planet.
"A fighter-sized ship. Rebels?"
Thrawn nodded: "Probably. The type?
"An X-wing, I believe."
"Begin the attack. And do not let that ship leave the planet again. It seems we might have a Jedi down there. Tell our ground forces that they are to keep an eye out for the rebel Luke Skywalker."
Turning away from the screen Grand Admiral Thrawn closed his eyes briefly. So, they had caught the Rebels in the act, just as he had anticipated. They would defeat the rebel cruisers easily, and no doubt there already were some rebel teams onplanet to stir up the population. But the rebellion would end quickly, at least on this world. Skywalker's presence did not change anything. If it was him. But who else would enter a hostile system on his own? Undoubtedly to support the rebel ships. His capture would bring the Admiral closer to his opponent's identity. If he truly was the young Jedi, they could rid the Rebellion of their military leader in one stroke. And if not... Well, there were a lot of possibilities to bring out the truth.
Luke was torn between duties. As his X-wing passed the opposing ships, he had to remind himself that he was a Jedi now, and that he had to accomplish his mission before joining the fight alongside his comrades. If he could at all.
The Chandrilan space-ports were crowded with people scrambling to get away from the seemingly doomed planet and so Luke landed his fighter a bit outside the capital. It was quite a long walk back and he had decided to leave Artoo with the ship. The little astromech had protested loudly at first, but in the end he had had no choice but to stay behind.
The streets were crowded with people and Luke was secretly wondering how he was supposed to find anyone in this. On impulse he turned a few corners, until he stood in a relatively empty street behind the major plaza. His eyes fixed on a squat man closing his shop in a hurry. When the stranger turned around, wiping strands of white hair from his forehead, he stared at Luke, his face betraying shocked surprise. But after a moment's hesitation the man shook his head in relief and packed up his gear. Luke approached him cautiously. "Greetings," he began pleasantly and the stranger smiled faintly.
"Do I know you?"
"Not yet, I believe. I am looking for someone and I think you could help me."
"Who would that be?"
"A woman. Small, slender, dark hair, pale skin." The man's eyes flickered and Luke knew that he had hit right on target.
"Who are you?" Luke hesitated. But the man's reaction had already betrayed him. He could not know Luke Skywalker, but there was someone else he may recognize in the young Jedi's features.
"I am Luke Skywalker. My father was Anakin Skywalker. You know him, don't you?"
The stranger swallowed hard.
"I must admit that at first glance I thought you were him, yes. But you lookdifferent." Holding out a hand he smiled broadly at the young man. "I am Kit, a friend of the family. Now tell me why you are looking for your mother."
Taking the offered hand gingerly Luke had a hard time hiding his surprise. He had suspected the truth, yes, but to hear it outright from this stranger in the middle of a street was not how he had wished to learn it.
"That is a long story," he answered finally and let Kit lead him away.
Wrapping the dark brown scarf closer around his head, Jix cursed the desert heat with all his heart. He and the rest of his team had found shelter in a small hotel not far from the Mos Eisley spaceport. But the cramped quarters were slowly getting on their nerves. And we've only been here for a day, Jix mused silently. The travel cases they had carried up here stood in their corner, a sullen lot. And their contents... Jix grinned. Storm trooper armor, of all things. He had never thought he would ever wear that again. But then, he had never been an eager trooper and had enjoyed the relative independence he had had later as a combat trainer at the Imperial Academy.
But so far the service to the Dark Lord had proven the most enjoyable of his employments. Mara might resent Vader's methods and secrecy, but Jix found the surprises refreshing and above all challenging. The Dark Lord knew very well how to keep his agents happy. Well, at least he kept Jix happy. Mara had met with him prior to his leaving and he had been shocked at how weak she still was then. She had told him very openly that she would rather leave the rebels and make her own way than stay at Vader's side any longer.
From a certain point of view she was right to claim that the Dark Lord treated her as if she were a nothing. But he treated everyone the same. Not everyone, no, but most people. Jix could not fathom what Vader had planned for Mara, but he would not simply let her go. And he must know that she thought about leaving. Well, he would have enough time to ponder this question later, but for now he had a mission to accomplish.
Han Solo smiled at the pirate chief sitting opposite him. But Karrde was not in the mood for pleasantries. And the presence of three grim-faced associates in the room spoke volumes. Chewie eyed the threesome fiercely, but so far his intimidating stare had not shown the desired effect. Han sighed:
"Look, Karrde, it is not my fault that you were attacked."
"Maybe not yours, but I have the impression that your employer does not want to leave any traces behind."
"No. Of course not."
"And besides, my employer did not send anyone after you."
"You just practically admitted that it was him, Solo!"
"I was just pointing out that no one in our business wants to leave any pointers behind, right?"
"But who else could be behind this?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, it was a Jedi or something like that. And I do not need any of those rooting around in my brain. Tell your employer that he can go looking for another supplier. I for one will be careful not to make any more deals with you."
"What about Jabba?"
"I delivered, didn't I?"
"Then we are even, Solo."
"He won't be pleased."
"Not my problem."
"But it might become yours."
"Come on, Solo, you tried that intimidation line before."
"And it didn't work, I know. Then how about I arrange a meeting between the two of you. Maybe he can convince you."
"I don't have the time for that."
"At least let me call him."
Karrde eyed him suspiciously and Han tried his best smile. He needed to get this particular piece of information back to Vader as soon as possible. This incident had ruined the whole deal. But there was still a chance. When news about the Imperial raid on Jabba's fortress reached Karrde's ear, he would be more prone to joining the Alliance's efforts. If he didn't decide to back out of the conflict completely.
Suddenly Han stiffened. Leia had told him about her father's ominous agent, about how she was wondering why he had never introduced her to the rest of the team. This whole affair practically reeked of Vader's scheming. You never saw the attack coming. And Vader knew his agents well. Time to play my cards, Han decided finally and sighed, praying that he had read them correctly.
"Come on, it is just a call."
"I suspect your people already know where we are, so it doesn't make any difference. Very well, get him on the line."
Anakin Skywalker sat at his desk, viewing the latest status reports from the fleet. The fifteen Star Destroyers had reached their respective targets, were ready for action, and the Chandrila operation was moving into the hot phase. He would not interfere with the battle there for now, but it had to seem as if they wanted to prevent Thrawn from gaining access to the planet under any circumstances. His comm beeped and he frowned at the displayed code. What did Solo want now?
"What is it?" he grated into the speaker, hearing from the background noises immediately that Solo wasn't alone.
"Karrde wants to speak to you."
"What about?" So, the pirate chief had recovered from the recent attack and undoubtedly needed some reassurance. Anakin smiled when Han passed on the commlink.
"This is Karrde."
"Is it? Well, to make this brief, I fear that we cannot supply you with what you need."
"Ah, how unfortunate. Why not?"
"I do not appreciate having your associates on my doorstep and destroying my property."
"What associates would that be?"
"I was attacked not a week ago and my files were destroyed."
"I am sorry to hear that, but what has that got to do with me?"
"Well, I just thought it highly convenient for you that I could not remember anything for days. And I do believe that you would not want the Empire to know about that little toy I gave you."
"They will find out soon enough, namely when we start our operations, so why should I even care?"
"Timing. In your business, as in mine, timing is crucial."
"That it is. Again, I am sorry to hear about your accident. What are you going to do?"
"This war is over for us. Do not expect us to help again."
Anakin bit his lower lip in amusement, but when he spoke again his voice was full of regret:
"They will find you, Karrde. You cannot escape."
"What? Who will find us?"
"Did you really think the Imperial Navy is all we have to deal with?"
"What do you mean?"
"There are much more sinister forces at work here than you can imagine." He could practically see the doubt and hesitation on Karrde's face. "Actually I would appreciate it if you could get me Solo back on the line."
"He is to leave immediately. They have found you before and will draw their conclusions. No need to make it too easy for them."
"Who are you talking about!?" Karrde nearly screamed.
"You heard me. Now get me Solo."
"Wait, wait. You are telling me that the Sith are dabbling in this too?"
"How do you know that? And you yourself believe that you can protect your troops?"
"A simple matter of staying ahead of the game."
"Is it? Not against the Sith. But I know of a place that is as safe as it can get."
"You are a fool if you believe that, Karrde. I know that place. It offers no protection at all."
"What makes you so sure about that?"
"Because, my friend, I too was once a Sith."
Anakin heard Karrde take a deep, deep breath. Then the connection broke.
Han was a bit concerned when Karrde shut down his comm and turned to face him. The pirate chief wore a cold mask to hide his shock. And shocked he was, that could be easily deduced from his reactions. The Sith. No wonder Vader was so nervous.
"What safe haven is that?" Han asked finally.
"A planet called Myrk."
"The Force doesn't exist there."
"But it doesn't work for the Sith?"
"Apparently not. Why didn't you tell me who your employer is?"
"You never asked."
"The cruisers are regrouping," Captain Piett announced solemnly. Thrawn didn't react at first.
"Any news on Skywalker?"
"Very well, then we will use a bit more force. Get Tieman up here."
"Yes, sir. Wait. They are retreating."
"Already?" Looking up at the display Thrawn frowned. And indeed, the five rebel cruisers were slowly moving towards the night side of the planet. The Admiral's mouth tightened: "Are they recalling their troops?"
"Send the Storm Falcon and the Death's Head on their trail. They are to intercept them. If they encounter Skywalker the special team is to move in. And now we shall see if the people of Chandrila really want to fight."
Mon Mothma stormed into the Dominator's debriefing room, clearly upset. Anakin did not even look up. "Come in or stay out, but close that door," he told her coolly.
Hesitating she turned around, realizing that she was standing in the doorway and that the bridge crew was staring at her in bewilderment. Finally the rebel leader stepped into the room, walking closer to the tall warlord, who was bent over what seemed to be a map of sorts. The door slid close behind her.
"Tell me it isn't true," she demanded.
"What do you mean?"
"Are we attacking civilian targets?"
"As far as I am concerned the Imperial Navy is attacking those planets."
"Lord Vader, don't try to dismiss this. The fact remains that those Imperial ships are ours."
"The targets were cleared by Page and his teams beforehand. No civilians remain where our troops strike."
"I cannot allow this. It is too dangerous. And immoral."
Anakin Skywalker turned to face her, a mocking smile on his lips:
"Mon Mothma, if you think that the Alliance can fight its battles and still keep the moral high ground you are mistaken. In a war people die. Innocent people. Soldiers. Whoever gets in the way of the opposing parties."
"But we can cut our losses."
"Our losses, yes. But we can only try to keep the civilian casualties low by defeating the Empire as quickly as possible. People are weary of this war, I know that. And it is a factor in out favor. The government will call Thrawn back when news about these assaults gets out, and we will make sure it does. Once the public realizes what is supposedly happening, Thrawn will be under so much pressure that he will move more cautiously."
"But then defeating him will become much harder."
"No. On the contrary. He will want revenge, since we have demoted him in the eyes of the others. I will give him the opportunity for vengeance and while he is occupied you can strike in earnest."
She gave him a suspicious glance: "Why do I have the feeling that there is more to that plan than it seems? You are a devious man, Lord Vader."
"I am a strategist, nothing more. And I would appreciate it greatly if you stopped trying to interfere with my planning."
"I will do my best," she replied, but her lips twitched with annoyance.
"Good. Then maybe you could leave me to work?"
She stared at him coldly and Anakin was sure that, given the opportunity, she would kill him personally. Mon Mothma was an idealist and a politician. An unfortunate combination for wartimes. As compelling a personality she was, she would never make a good tactician.
"Lord Vader, I expect another report from you this evening."
"Of course. Was there anything else?"
Mon Mothma turned on her heels and left again, leaving a thoughtful Dark Lord behind. The cruisers were withdrawing from Chandrila and soon now Thrawn would get some bad news. He would have to leave the planet. Jix and his team should be finished by now and would return in a few days. A few days, if Needa stuck to his route. They would not be granted more time, he knew. And once the Grand Admiral had made his move, it would be time for the plan's last phase.
Suddenly his comm chimed. Staring at the code in surprise Anakin almost forgot to answer it. When he did his face was a stony mask, but his voice revealed his barely controlled fury.
"You better have a good excuse for blundering the way you did," he hissed viciously and there was a slight pause at the other end.
"There is no excuse. I failed," a female voice answered chagrined. He took an angry breath.
"Your honesty is laudable. What about that task I gave you?" Another pause. This did not bode well at all.
"The ship was not there."
"The ship was not at the drive yards."
This time it was his turn to forgo an immediate answer.
"You are lucky you did not contact me any other way," he whispered. "Where are you now?"
"Where you sent me."
"Stay there. We will speak once I return. At length."
Breaking the connection, Anakin fought the terrible urge to smash something here and now. Or someone, for that matter. So, she had not found the Executor. Thrawn must have anticipated that move and only the stars knew what he was planning to do with the Super-class Star Destroyer. The Empire could not muster nearly enough troops to man the ship without putting skeleton crews on some of the existing warships. And the Grand Admiral would hardly take that risk. He knew too much already. This only meant that the rebel fleet was safe from an over-powering attack for now. But for how long he could not tell. No. They had to take possession of that ship. First to find it though. Once Jix returned from Tatooine he could take on that job. And once they had the location, retrieving the Executor would pose no problem at all. Until then Anakin could find something to occupy the Grand Admiral. Something pleasant, for a change.
"Jade." Mara closed her eyes for a second. She had felt him approach even before he had slipped unheard into her room. Now she straightened from her bed on which she had spread the clothes she thought to take with her on the next mission. Facing him, she tried to look as cool as he did all the time. He smiled at her.
"Will you tell me now where you are sending me?"
"Yes. You will join Grand Admiral Thrawn."
"You will provide me with information."
"But But Thrawn won't swallow this."
"You were tracking Jix on Coruscant and tried to prevent him from destroying the entire mainframe by deleting the most important files. He escaped and you were injured. Who knows? Maybe Thrawn will even apologize to you."
"I'll pass on that. And when he asks where I have been so far?"
"You were recovering. It is that simple."
Mara grimaced. Why fight it? This was not so bad after all. If she survived she was away from Vader and.... Her thoughts trailed into nothingness. She would have to betray her friends. Thrawn would want proof of her loyalty.
"Do not worry. He will not harm you if you know how to play your cards. And I know that you have the skills."
"No, he will probably dance with joy at having me back," she remarked sarcastically. He smiled at her.
"I would. But that is not the issue here. You will hand this datapack over to him. It contains some useful information."
"I" Mara began weakly, astonished at his praise. "Thank you. I will not disappoint you."
"I know you won't, Mara Jade. May the Force be with you."
Before he left she simply had to ask: "What kind of information?"
"Something he will need soon."
"Because I think that it might be useful for him."
"That I doubt. But in time maybe you will."
Grand Admiral Thrawn eyed the former governor coldly. And Captain Piett watched Tieman stand very straight, facing death proudly. His eyes flickered towards the planet once or twice, where more and more ships left the system in a hurry.
"Governor," Thrawn said softly, a tiny smile on his lips, "I am sure you know why you have been brought here."
"Yes. I daresay that I have a pretty good idea of what will happen."
"Indeed you do. Then why don't we get this over with?"
Just then the comm at the Grand Admiral's chair chimed discreetly.
"What is it?"
"It is a message from Coruscant."
"I will take it in my office," the Grand Admiral answered, a slight frown on his face, and left the room. It was a few minutes before he returned, and immediately Piett knew that it was bad news.
"Sir?" he inquired quietly.
"Head this ship towards Coruscant. We are leaving. But before we do we have some unfinished business to take care of."
Luke drew Kit after him, trying to evade the desperate crowd as the two of them made their way towards the Alliance shuttle which was just preparing for take-off in the middle of the plaza.
"Wait!" Luke shouted over the din and waved frantically. Increasing his speed he dashed forward and grabbed the sleeve of one of the rebel operatives.
"You have to take at least some of these people!" he hissed in low tones.
"Who the Luke!" The man's eyes widened, but he caught himself immediately. "Look, we cannot afford the delay. Our cruisers are taking an awful pounding and our orders were specific. We have to draw out."
Luke gave him a cold look: "Where is your commander?"
"That's me, pal," another man answered and stepped out of the ship, taking in the Jedi's slight form suspiciously. Turning towards the newcomer Skywalker arched his eyebrows in contempt.
"The Imperials will return. And they will seek revenge. Do you really want to have a massacre on your cap?"
"Look here, we simply cannot..."
"I am not asking to take them all. Just a few."
Seeing that this argument would delay them more than taking some refugees on board, the commander subsided at last: "Your responsibility, Skywalker."
"Always," Luke answered with a smile.
When at last they were ready to take off, he shuddered with the thought of all these people left behind. The Empire would make them pay dearly. But once Leia heard about this she would send a rescue team in time. He would send the message when got back to the cruisers. Even if it came too late to save Tieman. For the last time the young Jedi glanced at the severed head stuck on a pole outside the governor's palace. An almost peaceful expression had been frozen on the late governor's face, but Luke did not know if that serene smile was one of encouragement or an omen for disaster. Well. He would find out soon enough.
"Hey!" he called towards the cockpit, "we need to pick up my X-wing!"
Tatooine was as hot as she remembered, but Padmé was determined not to let the memories get to her. Following Needa through the dusty streets of Mos Eisley, she nevertheless found herself remembering. But it had been so long ago...
"He's an old friend," the Captain was just saying and gently led her into a shadowy lane.
"Trustworthy?" she asked tiredly.
"If not, we can deal with him," he answered with a smile. Nodding grimly, Padmé let a hand slip to the blaster concealed underneath the long red shawl she wore against the sand. She had got very good at handling weapons over the years.
"We are here."
It was one of those nondescript clay buildings, rounded domes really, and she remembered standing in one of those for many times. Her eyes misted over.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," she whispered and wiped the tears from her face, "let's go in." Ignoring Needa's worried glance she went through the open doorway. Dim light greeted her and at once she felt on edge because there was no way she could see anything in this gloom before her eyes had accustomed to it.
"Careful," Needa warned and slipped past her, holding a blaster in his hand. Frowning slightly he took a look around the room.
"Anyone here?" he asked finally and Padmé tensed slowly, ready to bolt at any moment. This did not feel right at all.
"Didn't you say that he was a friend?" she hissed, but the Captain shushed her with a wave of his hand, stalking noiselessly towards a thick curtain.
"Why don't you wait outside?" he asked lightly and she got his drift immediately.
Grabbing her own weapon she ran for the door. The sun blinded her temporarily, but there was no mistaking the white storm trooper armor gleaming in the in the garish light. Cursing in a very unqueenly manner, Padmé got a few shots off and dashed for a far corner. "After her!" someone screamed and then the chase was on in earnest.
Theoretically Captain Needa knew very well that there was no point in resisting, but he could not risk any of the information he had to fall into enemy hands. Fortunately he was a better shot than the troopers. They had sought shelter for now, but would attack soon enough. Examining the walls critically Needa pointed his weapon and cut a hole into the small building.
Before charging through he silently prayed that there were no more surprises waiting for him out there. Except for a barrage of laser fire. Cursing he sprinted for the next street and ran on, without looking back. The shouts and angry screams following him reminded the Captain that Padmé was missing. He had to find her.
Padmé took a deep breath and crouched lower into her hiding place. She had shed the red shawl and now wore only her battle uniform. Tieman must have talked. And Needa had been betrayed too. What was going wrong here? If there was a traitor with the Alliance she should under no circumstances go there. But her children... The queen sighed deeply and stood. Well. First she had to get away from this planet. Decisions could be made afterwards.
"Don't move," a metallic voice barked at her. How could she have been so careless?
Turning around slowly she faced the two troopers grimly. Her eyes flickered for a second, before she drew herself up haughtily. "You are making a mistake," she told the two sternly.
One of them actually sniggered at her: "Really. Call in some reinforcements." He did not get any further before a shot out from Needa's blaster cut him down. The other trooper dropped to the ground only seconds later and then the Captain slipped down from the roof he had been hiding on and joined Padmé's side.
"Let's go," he said and smiled at her.
"There they are!"
Grimacing slightly, Needa grabbed Padmé's arm and then the two of them were on the run again.
Much later, with the twin suns already setting, she was leaning against him for support as she tried to catch her breath. "Do you think that we can make it?" the queen coughed, cursing the dust and sand.
He looked at her, his gray eyes dark. "No, we cannot." Staring at his earnest face she kept silent for awhile.
"Then what do we do? Surrender?"
Needa shook his head: "I have a plan."
Gaining access to the control tower of Mos Eisley spaceport had been easy, if only because the drab complex of clay buildings hardly deserved its name. Needa walked down the brightly lit hallway unconcernedly, although he knew that observation cameras must already have caught his image and given alarm. Well, he was in no hurry. Stepping smartly into the control room he shot everyone except for the commander, at whom he only shot a very brittle smile.
"I think you can help me."
"What do you want?"
"Close down the docking bays and the port. Every one except for number 67."
"Your friend will never make it."
"Really? We shall see."
Pressing the muzzle of his blaster to the man's neck Needa stood waiting behind the chair and regarded the sudden activity outside calmly. Storm troopers were assembling in front of the building, exchanging orders and questions in loud tones. The Captain smiled.
Padmé stood atop the sand dunes outside the city, exhausted after a long walk in darkness. Turning a face streaked with tears of hot anger back towards the city, she watched the tiny ship lift off, a small comet against the black background of the Tatooine night. Watched it rise further and further. Heard the whine of fighter engines. Needa had assured her that the ship was quite capable of performing a few convincing maneuvers even flying on remote. And it was spectacular. Weaving its way towards open space the tiny craft spun unconcernedly through the laser volleys, taking hit after hit, but still fighting for height. When it finally exploded in a glorious fire, Padmé could not stop herself from shivering. If she had really been on board...
Sighing, she wrapped herself into the dusty blanket the Captain had found for her and made her way deeper into the cliffs, towards Beggar's Canyon. And remembered how he had gently led her towards his secret retreat, a tiny cave that had turned out not to be so small after all. Padmé had been awed by the maze the wind had molded into the soft stone over the millennia. "It is so beautiful, " she had told him in hushed tones and he had just smiled at her and said: "Well, so are you."
Anakin. How hard she had tried to forget him. But when Needa had asked if she knew a hiding place she had remembered this cave instantly. And wondered how he had known that she had been on this planet before.
"Very simple, Your Majesty. Because I know your husband and he is still alive."
Oh yes, he was a clever one, was Captain Needa. Growling in disgust Padmé stumbled into the cave and found herself a small depression out of the wind. She wrapped herself in the blanket and put the two devices she had held in her hands all the time onto a flat stone in front of her. The remote was useless now. Reaching forward she smashed it. And the commlink... technically it was her key to safety. She could simply call the Alliance, demand to speak to Leia or Luke, or even to... No, not him.
Alive, was he? To scare her like that! No, what was she thinking! He had betrayed her, he was a monster. She could not love him anymore. Not with all the hate and anger that stood between them. Closing her eyes Padmé tried to calm herself. It was not easy, but at the very last she found her way back to the comforting darkness. No unwelcome thought was disturbing her there, just the anger making her emotional shields stronger. I cannot afford any weakness, she told herself. And he is my only one. Smiling a bit she finally fell asleep.
"They are lifting the blockade!" Turning towards the skinny Rodian who had just sounded the good news, Wrenga Jixton wore an open grin on his face.
"About time. Any reason why?"
The alien hesitated before answering: "Just rumors."
Jix gave him an encouraging nod: "What rumors?"
Again a slight pause: "Nothing good, if it's true: the Imps have captured someone it seems, a traitor."
Rising very suddenly the Corellian's expression made it very clear that one more hesitation would surely end his patience: "Spit it out, will ya! Who was supposedly captured!"
The Rodian cowered back: "Needa. They say it's Captain Needa."
The silence filling the cramped room was very heavy indeed and Wrenga Jixton was not the only one wearing a concerned look on his face. As one the team turned their eyes towards the Corellian.
"Captured. Here," he mused aloud. Briefly an image of the former Imperial's clear gray eyes and cool smile flashed across his inner vision. Did Vader know about it? Had he even planned it perhaps?
"Where is he now?"
The Rodian shrugged:
"Since they are lifting the blockade my best guess is that they have already taken him aboard one of the Star Destroyers."
Jix' ears perked up: "When did they arrive?"
Again a shrug: "Maybe two hours ago."
Nodding, the Corellian turned to face his team: "Let's pack it up and get out of here. We cannot help him now and we have to get this back to High Command."
They nodded glumly and went to prepare everything for their departure. Still puzzled a bit about this bad news, Jix left their quarters and started walking leisurely towards the spaceport. It was true. Where just this morning stormtroopers had patrolled the streets in groups of five and more, there was not one in sight now. No doubt they had withdrawn. Curious, that. But for now his only concern was to get his team and himself back to Hoth. Before anything else happened.
Padmé woke to the sound of quiet footsteps. Raising her head muzzily, she could just make out a dark figure standing in the entrance to the small part of the cave she had sought shelter in.
"Captain?" she asked, slightly alarmed. But that was impossible, wasn't it? Needa was either dead or a prisoner. For his sake she hoped the latter. For her own the first. He knew far too much about a great many things.
The figure advanced on her with a cat-like grace and Padmé stood up quickly, fumbling for her blaster. Pushing back the hood of her long black cloak the stranger regarded the queen calmly, her cinnamon skin contrasting sharply with the bright sandstone. Her yellow predatory eyes were burning like the twin suns of Tatooine and sparked a primal fear in Padmé's mind. But the queen rallied magnificently.
"Who are you?" Padmé demanded, aiming her weapon at the other woman. Something screamed at her that she should know who this stranger was, that she had met her kind before.
Those yellow eyes were watching her with polite interest, but the woman's full lips twitched in open amusement at the queen's defiance. Taking another step the stranger reached out a hand and suddenly Padmé lost her grip on the blaster as it flew in a graceful arc straight into the other's hand.
"You are not safe here any longer," the stranger told Padmé calmly and the queen instantly understood the hidden threat in this statement.
"So it would seem," she answered regally and simultaneously the two women's eyes sought the inactivate commlink lying innocently on the ground between them. Realization dawned.
"You were tracking Captain Needa, am I right?"
"True. But I fear that I have just lost him."
They stood for a while in silence. And Padmé took the time to study the black-clad stranger in detail. She was taller than the average human female and since the black cloak covered most of her, Padmé concentrated on the exquisitely molded face. It matched the eyes perfectly, looking like a beautiful predator, with high cheekbones, a straight, long nose and a narrow chin. The upper lip of her mouth was tattooed black, and black shadowed her eyes, emphasizing the yellow, red-rimmed irises even more.
Those eyes. Padmé remembered them now. She had met one of her kind before, on Naboo what seemed like a lifetime ago. And the fact that this woman had mastered the Force had only strengthened her suspicion: she was a Sith.
Almost immediately another image came to her mind: a tall, black-armored warrior, his face hidden forever behind a mask stylizing a skull. Padmé shook her head slightly to shed the memory and became aware of the other woman standing right in front of her.
"We have to leave," the stranger told her, not unkindly.
"Where are we going?"
"You will see."
Concentrating deeply Luke Skywalker ignored the sounds of enemy missiles impacting on the cruiser's hull and instead tried to keep his balance on the shaking deck.
"They must have followed us," Kit whispered at his side. The young Jedi did not answer, but instead reached out to hook his arms underneath the older man's armpits, hoisting him up. Kit groaned with pain and immediately Luke sent soothing tendrils into his mind. The attack had started just an hour ago and Kit had been injured in an ondeck explosion that had ripped one of the gun emplacements apart and sent metal splinters flying everywhere.
Now it was only a matter of time until the ship got boarded and Luke was just waiting for that moment. The forward decks had been hit the worst and fires had broken out, making it impossible to reach the hangars there. No chance to get to his X-wing. But he could not let Artoo fall into enemy hands either. Dragging his moaning burden further down the corridor Luke let his mind search the ship for any unusual activities. There they were: three assault shuttles. And he needed to reach one of them.
As if sensing his younger companion's anxiety Kit laid a hand on Luke's forearm: "Luke, you have to get away."
The other's blue eyes hit him with a searing fire: "I will not leave you here."
Kit winced, then sighed painfully: "As headstrong as your father. And your mother, for that matter," he mumbled defiantly. Luke smiled ruefully down at him. Then he looked around, frowning, and heaved Kit's limp body towards a small alcove. Laying him down gently he reached for his commlink.
"Have to tell Artoo to get the X-wing outta here," he explained and almost immediately began talking to the little astromech. Kit listened to the droid's fervent protests and smiled weakly. Suddenly though the pain became too intense.
Gasping, he flailed a hand towards Luke, choking. The fear in the other's blue eyes told him all he needed to know. "Go!" Kit whimpered, trying to wipe the blood from his mouth. Luke fell to his knees at his side, laying a hand on his forehead. "You cannot heal me, boy. Get off this ship. Now." Luke stared at him. Finally he hung his head and sighed.
"I am so sorry..."
"Don't be. There is nothing you could have done. But I am grateful that you tried," he added, remembering the boy's hands gliding over his wounds in an effort to heal him. But, like his father, he was no healer.
Luke was unsure of what to do at first. But he knew very well that Kit would never make it. On the other hand he was loath to leave a friend behind. Leave anyone behind. In the end though he had to accept the truth. There truly was nothing he could do.
"Luke..." Kit whispered almost too low to be heard even by keen Jedi senses.
Bending over the other's face Luke steeled himself inwardly.
"Luke... remember what you are here for. You mother..."
Kit's voice broke and Luke felt his body slacken. Taking a deep breath he closed the other's eyes and rose. Kit had been right. He had to find his mother. But first he had to get away.
Walking down the corridor towards the aft hangar bays, Luke had to fight his way through the Alliance troops and refugees retreating before the Imperial boarding parties. One hand clamped around the handle of his lightsaber, he did not rely so much on his eyes than on the Force to track his enemies.
A group of ten troopers was just within reach and Luke crouched into a deserted cabin, waiting for his chance. When two soldiers came bursting through the door he sent them flying back into the corridor to crash into their comrades. Charging at them, his blue blade shimmering in anticipation, Luke swung the lightsaber wide on the first run. After he had determined that there were no other enemies close enough to surprise him, he turned back to the task at hand. The remaining troopers had no time to regroup and the few tentative shots aimed at the Jedi missed their fast-moving target by inches.
Straightening again Luke moved on, evading the Imperials where he could. Defense, he had been taught, was as instrumental to victory as moving formlessly, unseen. But still, defense also meant protecting his comrades. Concentrating again he could pick up the presence of quite a lot of troopers in the hangar bay just up front. He made his decision quickly and slipped towards the entrance. After a hard look at the control pad he punched in the proper code and closed the heavy blast doors. Bringing his lightsabre to bear, he speared through the lock mechanism, shutting it down completely and trapping the troopers inside.
He moved on to the next bay where he could feel hardly anyone. And if he was lucky there were some ships just waiting for him. As expected the hangar was empty except for one shuttle, perching invitingly upon the polished deck. Luke took a careful step forward and paused. The deep hum of his lightsabre sounded awfully loud in the silence filling the great bay. And there was a feeling of... He couldn't quite pinpoint it, but it was something between uneasiness and dizziness.
When a blaster bolt came screaming out of the shuttle's shadow it took him completely by surprise.
"Skywalker!" someone screamed and Luke jumped back, confused. The sound of heavy boots hitting the deck behind him made him turn around. Three men were facing the young Jedi grimly and each had a blaster rifle aimed at his chest. Luke frowned. He couldn't feel them at all. But he could not afford wasting any time. Moving forward he nearly stumbled over his own legs. A wave of dizziness hit him with brute force and the last thing he saw was the blue light of a stun-bolt arching towards him.
Captain Piett was not an easily frightened man, although he would never call himself brave either. Common sense and experience had taught him that caution mixed with a knack for making the right decisions at the right moment were the key to survival. At least in the Imperial Navy. And elsewhere too, he was certain of that. But now, standing just a few paces behind Grand Admiral Thrawn in the gloomy chamber that had once been Emperor Palpatine's throne room, he could not deny the fear lurking in the back of his mind.
Three men were facing them, pale faces cold and eyes unblinking. Their purple robes caught the sparse light, swallowing it whole, it seemed. Piett pulled himself together and waited patiently for the things to come.
"Of late we have experienced some doubts in the decision the Navy High Command made in calling you back from the Unknown Regions."
The Grand Admiral did neither move nor rise to the challenge. When one of the three leaned forward to get a closer look at the alien's face, Piett unconsciously took a step back.
"Your troops not only raided the Hutt's palace on Tatooine, but they also attacked civilian targets without the slightest provocation. And that unfortunate affair with Chandrila... Grand Admiral, would you care to justify your actions please?"
"The truth, your Excellency, is known to both of us. The rebels have taken possession of an ID scrambler and have made good use of the deserted Imperial troops and ships. And Chandrila was a necessary operation."
"The truth, Thrawn, is of no consequence. The fact is that the public thinks that these crimes were indeed committed by the Imperial Navy. Which was undoubtedly the Rebel leader's goal all along."
"Yes, I agree."
"Do you now," the first speaker commented with a cold smile on his face. "Have you made any progress in discovering the identity of their new strategist at least?"
"Not yet. But I do have some information. Apparently he truly is a Force-user."
The threesome took a collective breath.
"He is a Sith," Thrawn concluded.
Finally the lead speaker found his voice again: "And you have taken steps to defeating that... Sith?"
Piett could almost see the smile on the Grand Admiral's face when he answered:
"Indeed I have. With any luck we will be able to capture the traitor Lorth Needa on Pakrat Minor in a few days. Who will provide us with additional information."
"Ah, then it would seem that we are a step ahead of you."
This time the Grand Admiral hesitated for the merest fraction of a second: "In what way?
"News has reached us just before you arrived. Alas, there was no time to inform you beforehand."
"What news, Your Excellency?"
"Lorth Needa has been captured on Tatooine only five hours ago."
"Tatooine," Thrawn repeated in low tones. "How fortunate. And interesting."
"Yes, isn't it? You have one more chance to prove to us that the decision to make you our fleet commander was justified."
Bowing sharply, the Grand Admiral made his leave, striding past Piett who followed immediately. In silence the two of them made their way back to the shuttle which would take them back to the Relentless. But once in the Star Destroyer's debriefing room, the alien's red eyes were flashing with anger.
Captain Piett watched him pace the room's expanse in long strides, arms crossed behind his back. He knew better than to interrupt the Grand Admiral when he was in one of those moods. Patiently standing to attention he let his thoughts drift on their own. So, Lorth had been captured. But Thrawn had expected him to show up on Pakrat Minor, where the Chimaera already lay in waiting to intercept his ship and take him and his companion on board. None of the three councilors had mentioned the woman, but that did not mean anything. Thrawn's low voice broke into his thoughts coldly:
"He went out of his way to reach Tatooine, Captain."
"And the woman was not with him when he was captured."
"I beg your pardon, but"
"If she were, we would have been duly informed. You see, this woman is not unknown."
"Well, she is a queen, after all."
"Was, Captain, but that is not the point. The point is, that she was Anakin Skywalker's wife."
"Why did she resurface now, after Lord Vader's death?"
"Perhaps she is looking for her children."
"Indeed. And maybe it is something else entirely. Do we have a strike team in the vicinity of that planet?"
"Good. Send them on their way immediately. See to it that they are provided with a good description of that woman. And they are to take her alive."
"Another thing: find out where Needa is being taken."
A discreet beeping caught Captain Piett's attention.
"Incoming message from the Storm Falcon, sir," the comm officer on duty informed him.
"Let's hear it."
"Sir, apparently the Storm Falcon and the Death's Head have engaged the enemy and our troops have boarded one of the cruisers."
"The Chandrilan ships?"
"Yes, sir. Resistance is breaking rapidly."
"Very good. Keep me posted on the events there."
"Sir! Another message coming through: The special team has captured the rebel Luke Skywalker."
Turning back towards Thrawn, Piett saw a tiny smile play across the Grand Admiral' s lips:
"The tide is turning, Captain."