Force of Destiny - Part 2
A Question of Loyalty
Darth Vader punched in the coordinates of his first destination. So far, no-one was following him. Piett must be holding them back. Vader hoped the Admiral would not have a mutiny on his hands as a result of his actions. Dumb thing to do anyway.
There was only one way he could repay Piett for his help. He simply had to succeed. Resolutely, Vader pulled back the lever that activated the hyperdrive.
Piett nodded to himself when the small speck that was the shuttle Tydirium vanished from the viewscreen in a flash of light. There was no question in his mind as to who was piloting the shuttle; no-one had better reason to desert at this time than Lord Vader.
The admiral turned to face Captain Durreen.
"How long until we reach Coruscant?" he queried.
"Approximately four days at present speed, Admiral."
"Very well. I shall be in my quarters. You have the bridge, Captain."
Piett slowly left the Executor's bridge without looking back. Veers, who had been waiting nearby, followed him like a shadow.
"You are certain Lord Vader took the shuttle?" Veers asked his friend when they reached Piett's quarters.
The Admiral gave him an amused look.
"I know Lord Vader, Max. He would not walk right into death anymore than you or I."
Piett palmed the door to his quarters open, and both officers entered.
"So, what do you think he will be doing now?" Veers inquired as soon as the door had closed behind them.
Piett shrugged. "I believe he's going to try and join the Rebel Alliance, but I don't know how he's going to accomplish that."
"What? You don't think they would welcome him with open arms?"
He tried to picture a smiling Leia Organa greeting Lord Vader with a hug and failed miserably.
Piett did not listen; a small item sitting on his desk had caught his attention. He did not remember leaving a holocube there. Swiftly, he crossed the distance to his desk and picked up the cube.
"Maybe we'll find out soon," he muttered and activated the cube.
A small holographic image of Lord Vader appeared.
"Greetings, Admiral," the recording said. "When you play this message, I will already have left the ship." The image smiled slightly. "I believe that General Veers is also present. This message is for both of you."
Piett and Veers looked at each other.
"Gentlemen, recent events made me think about my life, and I realized that I have made grave mistakes. I hope it is not too late to remedy them," Vader continued, serious again. "For more than twenty years, I have been loyal to the Emperor. A misplaced loyalty, as it turned out. Palpatine has kept me in a state dependent on medical help for all this time, and he will certainly not allow me to live now that I am healed. My only choice now is to leave the Empire. My only place to go will be the Rebel Alliance, if they'll have me."
Vader paused again before continuing, "My only regret is that I have to leave this ship and her crew behind. Gentlemen, the Executor is the finest ship in any fleet, and if there is one thing I do not regret about my service to the Emperor, it is serving with you. I hope we shall never meet again, because if we do, it will be on different sides of the battlefield. Vader out."
The image vanished in a swirl of colors.
Veers released a breath he did not remember holding.
"He's really joining the Alliance...," he whispered.
"Did you have any doubt about it?" Piett plopped down on the sofa, took his cap off and threw it on the table. "It's not like he has much of a choice."
Veers raised his eyebrows.
"Do we?" he asked. "As you said, we know too much. His Majesty will have us executed as soon as we reach Coruscant."
Piett leaned back on the sofa.
"Who says we're going to Coruscant?" he asked lightly.
A thin smile played over Veers' features.
"Our present course might just indicate that. Unless you plan to follow in Lord Vader's footsteps and steal a shuttle."
The admiral gazed at the ceiling and folded his hands in his lap.
"Not... exactly," he ventured. "I wasn't planning on leaving my ship behind, you know."
Veers felt his jaw drop.
"You... you... what?" he sputtered. "You're crazy!"
"Not at all. Just realistic," Piett answered calmly. "Look at our choices. We can go to Coruscant and be executed. We can jump ship and probably be shot down before we reach hyperspace." He raised a hand to silence Veers' protest. "If we leave, there will be a squad of TIEs after us before we're clear of the hangar, and while we're both fair pilots, we're no match for our fighter pilots."
Veers shook his head. Tomas must have taken leave of his senses. There was no other explanation for this outrageous plan.
"And if you believe that you can persuade a quarter million men to defect, you've gone nuts, Tomas," he declared.
"Oh, but I don't, Max. I expect at least fifty thousand to stay loyal to the Emperor, and another forty thousand to pretend to because they fear for their loved ones on the Core Worlds. The rest I believe will feel as we do, once they know the whole truth"
Veers stared at him, unbelieving, "You can't be serious."
Piett just smiled. "And that coming from the man who said crew morale was low enough for fights to be breaking out any time." He ran his hands through his thinning hair. "We should make the announcement soon. The men must hear the truth and make their own decision."
"Aren't you afraid they'll shoot us?"
Piett smiled at his friend.
"Look at it this way, Max: If they do, at least it will be over quickly."
Veers snorted. "Always look at the bright side of life, huh?"
"Always, my friend," Piett nodded.
He got up and walked to his desk. Switching on the comm unit, he dialed the bridge. Captain Durreen answered the call almost immediately.
"Captain, inform all hands that there will be an announcement at 14:00 hours. Attendance is mandatory for all off-duty personnel. On-duty personnel will receive it through the ship's public address system, both audio and video."
"Yes, Admiral. Sir, we have another incoming call for Lord Vader. The man claims to be his nephew."
"Interesting. Patch him through to my quarters."
Piett waited for the connection to be established.
"Jix, is it not?" he queried.
"Who are you?" the voice on the other end of the line asked.
"This is Admiral Piett speaking."
"Let me talk to Lord Vader," the man demanded curtly.
"I'm afraid that is not possible, Sir. Lord Vader is not available at this time."
"Listen, you better get the tin can on the line, Mister..."
Piett's eyebrows shot up at Jix's descriptive insult. The man truly had some nerve. That, or a death wish.
"You do not understand, Mister Jix. Lord Vader is not on board this vessel anymore."
Stunned silence answered him. It took Jixton almost a minute to recover from this.
"Not on board?" he echoed.
"Exactly," Piett confirmed. "Lord Vader has left the ship."
"Sith...," Jix exclaimed. "What kind of kreth has he gotten himself into?"
"I am sorry, Mr. Jix, but I prefer not to answer that question over the radio."
Jix thought about that for a while. Vader must be in deep trouble. And he could not trust those fleet clowns to get him out of it again.
"Alright," he finally said. "Give me some coordinates, and I'll meet you there."
Piett exchanged a glance with Veers; the General shrugged.
"Your call," he mouthed.
Padmé Naberrie was fuming. Her small fleet of three ships should have been underway to Sullust again for a whole day; instead, they were sitting on Nar Shaddaa waiting for repairs to one of the hyperdrives being completed. It was a miracle the drive had not given out earlier. Although well maintained, the ships were old, positively ancient, and the way from Mon Calamari to Sullust was far even though they had taken the most direct route. If they had at least made it to Kothlis, or Bothawui, but no, they had to be stuck on a world ruled by Hutt crime lords. And this time, there would be no little boy risking his life in a pod race to help them.
Thinking of the sweet, funny little boy who had grown into a heroic Jedi Knight made Padmé smile sadly. Anakin... if he had only lived to know his children. If only she had not given them away to be raised by friends. But the past was the past, and she had to take care of the present, and the future.
"Yousa tinken of Annie again," a voice behind her spoke up.
"Am I that obvious, Jar Jar?" she asked lightly.
The Gungan had stayed with her through all those years, protecting his queen, as he claimed. Not that he was much of a bodyguard.
"Only to yousa friends, yousa majesty," he answered.
Padmé turned around to find him standing close behind her, smiling at her.
"Annie would be so proud of yousa," he said. "Yousa doin' da right ting."
Yes, Padmé thought. This time, we have to stop Palpatine for good. And if we can take down Vader as well, the better. That monster murdered my husband...
Darth Vader dropped out of hyperspace to plot a new course. He was certain now that he was not being followed. For the past hours, he had been zigzagging in a random pattern. Now it was time to head for his next destination.
He needed money, civilian clothes, and a few more things before he could set his plan in motion. What better place than Nar Shaddaa to get everything he required? And he had no time to waste.
Darth Vader spent the last hour in hyperspace before he reached the smuggler's moon rummaging through his meager possessions for something inconspicuous to wear. It was bad enough that he was flying a Lambda class shuttle. That particular model of Imperial ship had found its way into the private market years ago. But he certainly could not run around on a moon controlled by the Hutts wearing an Imperial uniform. That would be asking for trouble. The Hutts might not care too much about the Empire, but an obvious deserter could not hope for a warm welcome anywhere.
Unfortunately, all he had was his old spare suit and the new uniforms. Not much choice there. Maybe he should cut the sleeves off one of the jackets? But no, it would still look like an Imperial uniform with the sleeves cut off.
Frustrated, Vader dumped the contents of his bag on the main cabin's floor and looked through them again. Still nothing.
Well, the clothes situation could not be helped before he reached Nar Shaddaa. The Executor was a big ship, but she didn't exactly have any shopping malls. And the quartermasters would have been pretty surprised if he had asked for civilian clothes.
He picked up a jacket and stuffed it back into the bag with a sigh. His gaze fell on one of the sleeveless undershirts. It was lying on top of his suit. Mmhh.. this might be a possibility. Vader quickly changed into the tight black leather pants and white cotton undershirt and went to check his appearance in the fresher unit's mirror.
A wide grin appeared on his face. Perfect! He looked like a smuggler in this get-up. His scars only added to the illusion. Of course, the shirt left much of his unnaturally pale skin exposed, but that would be no problem. Many long-time spacers were pale. People would simply assume that he had not spent much time on-planet for years.
Admiral Piett checked his chronometer for the fifth time in as many minutes. 14:00 hours was drawing nearer, and with it the most important speech of his career. To say that the Admiral was nervous would be an understatement. It was more a full-blown case of stage fright. Too much depended on what he said and how he said it. His life depended on it - literally!
General Veers watched his friend with a mixture of worry and amusement.
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" he asked.
Piett smiled thinly, "You still believe I have lost my mind, Max?"
Veers was spared an answer as an aide entered the small waiting room they were in.
"Sir, the PA system has been set up, audio and visual," he announced.
Piett acknowledged him with a nod. Taking deep breaths, he tried to calm himself.
"It's time," Veers murmured.
"Are your security teams prepared?" Piett asked.
The General nodded.
"I used everybody I can trust, Tomas. I don't know if it will be enough, though."
The main mess hall was the largest single room on board the Executor, and yet it could hold only a small portion of the crew at any given time. Having only one mess hall in a ship that had an overall length of more than sixteen kilometers, and a crew of more than two hundred fifty thousand, would be a logistical impossibility. Therefore, the main mess hall was only one of several, though the largest, and like the others, doubled as a fully equipped auditorium. Now it was packed to capacity.
Admiral Piett stepped up to the podium and let his gaze sweep over the assembled crew members. His nervousness evaporated like mist under the sun.
"Gentlemen," he began, "this morning, Lord Vader left the ship."
Hidden microphones picked up and amplified Piett's voice, carrying it to every crewman and officer on board. Piett waited until the shocked murmurs had died down before continuing, "Some of you may know something of what has transpired in the last days. Some of you may have heard rumors. I have called this meeting to give you the truth."
"Several days ago, Lord Vader was injured during a test flight with one of the new TIE Avengers. His injuries were not severe, but medical examination revealed that, without his knowledge or consent, Lord Vader has been implanted with transmitters that made it impossible for him to breathe unassisted."
This time, Piett had to wait longer until the murmurs subsided.
"Dr. Hanley removed the transmitters, and Lord Vader is now as healthy as any of you or I. However..." Piett raised his voice somewhat to be heard over the renewed commotion. "However, Lord Vader has been in this condition for more than twenty years. More than half his life. And it was done to him deliberately. It was done to one of the highest ranking and most influential men in the Empire."
Piett paused again, letting his gaze sweep over the assembled men again. He was coming to the most crucial part of his speech.
"We have proof that the Emperor himself ordered the transmitters implanted."
One could have heard a needle drop in the silence that followed Piett's words. Inwardly, the Admiral heaved a sigh of relief. He got his men to listen to him; so far, no-one had started shooting at him. He hoped it would last.
"For many years, I have served the Emperor. I was a loyal officer because I believed that Emperor Palpatine's reign is just and fair. After what I have learned in the past few days, I cannot believe that anymore."
Piett slowly lifted his hands to his chest and removed the rank plaque from the front of his uniform.
"Effective immediately, I resign my commission."
With that, he broke the plaque in half and let the pieces drop to the floor.
Piett took a step back and nodded to Veers, who stepped up to take his place at the podium.
"Admiral Piett and I are more often in agreement than not. In this case, we are completely in agreement," he said, and to the astonishment of his troops, also removed his rank plaque and destroyed it.
Joining Veers at the podium, Piett spoke again, "Before he left, Lord Vader recorded a message for General Veers and myself. We both feel that you should see it."
Veers signaled a technician to play the holo cube Vader had left in Piett's quarters. Vader's image appeared on every screen on board, repeating the words Piett and Veers had already heard. When the message had ended, Piett took the stand again.
"Gentlemen, you have heard Lord Vader's message. You know his predictions have a habit of coming true. I intend to prove him wrong this time."
There was movement in the auditorium; somebody was trying to get closer to the front.
"I am taking this ship to the Rebel Alliance, and I am inviting you to join me and General Veers in this. Those of you who do not wish to come with us, for whatever reasons, will be allowed to leave in peace. You have thirty hours to decide. At 20:00 hours tomorrow evening, we will meet up with other ships of the sector fleet. All personnel who stay on board after this time will be considered traitors and criminals by the current government. I might add that I consider Lord Vader's treatment by our government criminal. Thank you, gentlemen."
With a bow, Piett stepped down again when a laser bolt whizzed past his ear.
"Traitor!" somebody yelled.
"Down!" Veers shouted, tackling Piett and pushing the Admiral out of harm's way.
Then, all hell broke lose.
"Greetings, exalted one. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight and friend of Captain Solo. I know that you are powerful, mighty Jabba, and that your anger with Solo must be equally powerful. I seek an audience with your greatness to bargain for Solo's life. With your wisdom, I'm sure that we can work out an arrangement which would be mutually beneficial and allow us to avoid any unpleasant confrontation. As a token of my goodwill, I present to you a gift. These two droids. Both are hardworking, and will serve you well."
On Luke's subtle signal, Leia turned off R2-D2's recorder.
"What if he goes with it?" she asked. Luke smiled at her.
"Trust me, Leia, he will not even consider it. Jabba will refuse any offer for Han's freedom, especially when it comes with a subtle threat. He is a gangster, not a diplomat. Freeing Han now, after he didn't pay Jabba back for several years, would be seen as a sign of weakness in Jabba's circles."
Leia nodded slowly. She still had her reservations about Luke's plan. It seemed too complicated, and parts of it required too many of them to fall into Jabba's hands before everything could come together and they could rescue Han. There was no way they could be sure that everybody would be at the right place in the right time except what Luke's growing Force powers told him. Still, it was their best chance to save Han, and that was good enough for Leia. It had to be.
R2 chattered excitedly. The little droid seemed to looking forward to his part. Luke patted his domed head affectionately.
"I know you and 3PO will be fine, R2," he said. "Now let's see if 3PO has finished reprogramming the vaporizer, and then you two can be on your way to Jabba's palace.
Nal Hutta was riding deep in the sky like a giant glittering jewel when Darth Vader landed his stolen shuttle in a docking bay on Nar Shaddaa's night side.
The Dark Lord had little trouble persuading a bored customs and immigration officer that his papers were all in order. Thank the Force for weak-minded bureaucrats!
After that, he returned to his ship to catch up on some sleep. It had been a long day for him already, and there was no point in trying to shop for everything he needed in the middle of the local night.
Yawning, Vader settled into the pilot's seat, tilted it back as far as it would go, and propped his feet up on the console. His last thought before he drifted off to sleep was that somebody should have included beds in the shuttle's design.
"The situation is under control," Captain Durreen reported over the comlink.
He had surprised Piett by being one of the first officers to sever their ties to the Empire; Piett had expected the Captain to be among those still loyal to Emperor Palpatine.
Immediately after his announcement, the Admiral had found himself being the target of several trigger-happy loyalists and was now in sickbay, nursing an ugly burn on his left arm.
"If that's what you call control, I don't want to see what you call chaos," Dr. Hanley grumbled and finished dressing Piett's wound with a bacta pack. "More than a hundred men dead, four hundred injured, and of those, about thirty aren't going to make it."
"We are at war, Doctor," Piett reminded him. "It could have been worse. I estimated a much higher number of casualties."
"You estimated?" Hanley inquired in a cold voice. "Tell me, Admiral, did you estimate that an eighteen year old boy would be killed today?" He glared at Piett. "Did you estimate how many parents would lose their sons today, because of your actions? How many children lose their fathers?"
Piett slid off the examination table and regarded the doctor calmly.
"That is part of my job, doctor," he said. "I may not like it any more than you do, but I accepted it when I became an officer."
He turned to leave.
"Then how can you sleep at night?" Hanley called after him.
"Actually, I expect to sleep well tonight. Because I know I made the right decision," Piett answered and left Hanley to deal with the aftermath.
It was a lie. He knew the faces of the people he had killed today would haunt him tonight. And he had killed them, as surely as if he had pulled the trigger himself.
Darth Vader woke up with a crick in his neck.
Note to self, he thought, you're too old to sleep in the pilot's seat. Next time, steal a ship that has proper cabins with bunks in it.
He stretched, trying to work out the kinks in his muscles, and mentally went through the list of things he needed to acquire. Cash first. Then clothes. Something to replace the brittle leather strap that held the Japor snippet. Suntan lotion. He would need the highest UV protection factor he could find. Rations, a couple canteens, a few electronic parts. The latter to modify his life support suit. He would have time to work on it during his flight to his next destination.
Humming an old tune under his breath, Vader locked the shuttle and set out for the port town to do his shopping.
Vader expertly manipulated the bank droid into giving him access to one of his accounts without the proper chip card. He did not dare withdraw a large sum all at once, so he limited the first withdrawal to two hundred credits, requesting a replacement chip card at the same time. It was issued to him immediately. After that, he used the Force to erase the droid's memory of the last half hour.
At the next bank, the Sith did not need to resort to such tactics. Using the chip card, he added another five thousand credits to the cash he was carrying, stuffing the credit chips into a small bag he had bought from part of the first withdrawal.
A third bank yielded another eight thousand.
Public transport brought him to a shopping district a few kilometers from the space port. He guessed that he would have at least two days before news of the access to his accounts reached Coruscant - more than enough time for him to buy all he needed and be a good distance from the planet.
Four and a half frustrating hours and seventeen shops later, Darth Vader's mood was not so good anymore. He had tried on what seemed like an endless selection of shirts, jackets, cloaks, and pants, and still had not found anything that fit him. Sleeves tended to end somewhere between his elbows and wrists. Shoulder seams abraded the skin between neck and shoulder. Trouser legs made him look like a refugee from a flood disaster area.
Did nobody on this Force-forsaken moon produce clothes for taller than average people? Vader asked himself as he entered the eighteenth shop. The shopkeeper, a disgustingly obese human, homed in on him immediately.
"Chowbasa, chowbasa," the man panted in Hutteese, waddling towards Vader with outstretched arms. (Welcome, welcome)
Vader answered in the same language, "Greetings to you also. I'm looking for some clothes."
"Ah, you are in the right place, my friend. Here at Fat Bino's, we cater to those individuals lucky enough not to be average. Whether you're small or tall, Fat Bino has the gear for you to wear."
Vader could not help but smile at the man's bad rhymes.
"Let me see what you've got in my size," he said.
This time, he was not disappointed. Fat Bino was true to his claims, and soon Darth Vader was the new owner of two new pairs of pants, several shirts, and a hooded cloak.
"You know any jewelers in the vicinity?" he asked when he paid for his purchases.
Bino's eyes grew wide as he saw the amount of cash Vader was carrying.
"Yes, yes," the shop keeper answered quickly. "My cousin Byron, just down the street. Tell him I sent you, and he'll make you a good deal."
"Thank you, I will." With that, Vader picked up his new clothes and left.
No sooner had the door closed behind him when Fat Bino made his way to his comm unit with a speed that belied his mass.
"Vinnie? I just had a customer here that might be of interest to you and your boys. Tall human male, has a lot of scars, and carries a lot of cash and no blaster. I sent him to Byron." He listened to the man at the other end of the line for a few moments. "Yes, I'm sure, no blaster", he repeated. "This will be as easy as taking candy from a baby. You just make sure I get my proper share, you hear me, Vinnie?"
Following Fat Bino's directions, Darth Vader quickly found Byron's, a small jeweler's shop that on the outside looked more like a pawn shop. The window displays were cluttered with all kinds of merchandise, from jewelry to communicators, from data readers to ancient leather-bound books. Vader entered and looked around. More strange, exotic, and some even downright impossible articles cluttered the little shop. The air held a musty smell that almost made him sneeze.
"Welcome, friend, welcome," a short man, the spitting image of Bino except that he was about a hundred pounds lighter, greeted him.
"You must be Byron," Vader returned the greeting with a nod. "Your cousin Bino recommended you."
"Ah, the dear Bino. Yes, yes, you must be one of his customers. I imagine it is not easy to find clothes for a person of your formidable built, is it not? I myself am lucky enough to be able to buy from the rack, but I appreciate the problem. And how may I be of service, my friend?"
"I'm looking for a necklace. Something simple, for a pendant."
Vader took the Japor snippet out and showed it to Byron.
"Ah, what a nice work. Tattooine, a Tusken design, if I'm any judge. You don't get to see Japor carvings of this quality often nowadays. And this one is old, about thirty years, if I'm not mistaken," Byron babbled on while examining the pendant.
"Thirty-three years, to be exact. I made it myself," Vader interjected quietly.
"But that leather strap is a disgrace," Byron went on as if he had not heard him. "You want something sturdier."
"I have just the thing for you. Pure, brushed titanium." Byron produced a thin chain of dull gray metal from one of the many drawers behind the counter, holding it out to Lord Vader. "Lightweight, doesn't tarnish, and strong enough to tie up a Wookie with it. Only forty five credits ninety."
It was a rip-off, but Darth Vader couldn't care less.
"I'll take it!"
Admiral Piett was on his way to the bridge, his injured arm in a sling, when he was being paged over the PA system. He quickly located a comm unit and answered the page.
"Piett here. What is it?"
"Admiral, sensors are picking up a fast courier ship. The passenger has hailed us. He insists on speaking to you."
Jix. The man had actually found a way to meet them almost half a day earlier than expected.
"Allow his ship to dock and send a security detail to escort him to my quarters."
"And Lieutenant... make it absolutely clear that he is a guest and to be treated with the utmost courtesy. Understood?"
He did not want to get on Lord Vader's bad side by slighting a man Vader himself had called his nephew.
"Good. And ask General Veers to join us in my quarters."
Piett cut the connection and hurried to return to his quarters. He was looking forward to the meeting with somewhat mixed feelings. This Jix person might be a valuable source of information, but on the other hand, Lord Vader had fired the man just before he jumped ship.
Well, the first meeting would have to be short anyway, since Piett had to perform the service for the men who had been killed during the fights on board. It was the part of his duty which he hated most; this, and writing the letters to the families.
The droid landed Jix's courier ship in the Executor's main hangar and powered down the engines. Jix had had to call in a number of favors to acquire both the courier and the droid that piloted it, especially on such short notice, but he didn't mind. What he did mind was Vader's behavior. The man was apparently out of his mind, or he was in more danger than even Jix liked to admit.
Fear was something completely alien to Wrenga Jixton, but worry was not. And Jixton was worried.
The first thing he noticed when he left the courier were the scorch marks on the hangar walls, the second, that his escort was not wearing rank plaques. There was only one possible explanation for it. Mutiny. Was that why Vader had left? Had his crew rebelled against him and forced the Dark Lord to flee? If that was the case, Jix himself was as good as dead.
But somehow, he did not believe it. Wrenga Jixton was no pilot, and he had only a vague idea of the Executor's actual size, but he knew one thing: The larger the crew of a ship, the smaller was the chance for a mutiny to succeed. Something to do with group dynamics. There had been upheavals on small ships, whole crews going over to the Rebel Alliance, but no-one had ever heard about a successful mutiny on a Star Destroyer.
The escort's leader stepped up to Jixton and saluted smartly.
"Welcome aboard, Sir. I am Lieutenant Kel. Admiral Piett is awaiting you in his quarters. Please follow us," he addressed Jixton.
Jix took his time looking around before he answered the Lieutenant, "You've seen some action around here, my friend."
"I'm sorry, Sir, but I am not at liberty to discuss this. Admiral Piett will answer all your questions."
Hmmm... typical military tactic. Don't let the lower ranks leak out information, Jix thought and gave the Lieutenant a predatory smile. The younger man paled and swallowed nervously.
"Then bring me to him," Jixton purred.
His growling stomach reminded Darth Vader that breakfast had been one measly, tasteless ration bar too many hours ago. His first impulse was to go back to the shuttle for more of the same. Idiot, he chided himself. You're on a planet, you have money, go find a restaurant!
He remembered passing several cafes and restaurants while on the hunt for clothes earlier and set out in the appropriate direction when he felt someone watching him, but dismissed the feeling. Here he was, a two meter tall man in a smuggler's getup, covered with scars, and pale as death. Of course people would be watching him, even in a bad part of Nar Shaddaa, and probably thank whatever gods they prayed to when he passed them without tearing them limb from limb.
Vader soon found a restaurant and sat down at one of the outdoor tables. The weather had turned out fine, and there was no reason why he should not enjoy the sun warming him along with his meal. A pretty Twi'lek girl took his order of nerf steak, salad, and a bottle of Correllian ale.
"Anything else, stranger?" she asked when she brought his meal, slightly brushing against him as if by accident.
Vader shook his head no. Force, is she actually flirting with me? he thought.
The surprise must have registered on his face, because the girl winked and added: "If you change your mind, I'm right over at the bar."
The waitress retreated, her lekku gently swinging in a way that would have driven a male Twi'lek mad. The rest of her anatomy was not bad to look at either, both from a Twi'lek and Human point of view.
Vader quickly clamped down on the thought. Stuff it, Skywalker, he thought. That girl could be your daughter, if she was the same species as you.
Chuckling to himself, Vader tackled his food instead.
Maximillian Veers raised his eyebrows when their guest arrived at Piett's quarters. Piett looked the man over. Tall, well muscled, long dark hair tied back in a ponytail, five day stubble on his face, Jix's appearance did not particularly impress Piett.
"Sergeant Wrenga Jixton. Now that is a surprise," Veers remarked.
Jixton gave him a wry smile. "Good to be recognized, Colonel. Or is it General now?"
"It was. I resigned my commission."
"Since you seem to know this man, Max, why don't you introduce us?" Piett interjected.
"Of course. Admiral Piett, this is Gunnery Sergeant Wrenga Jixton, former combat instructor at the Imperial Academy until he was sentenced to a life term on Kessel for murdering a superior officer."
"It was manslaughter, not murder," Jixton corrected mildly.
"So, how did you come to call Lord Vader uncle?" Piett asked.
Jixton's grin grew wider. "You could say that he sort of adopted me after I saved his neck."
"I don't recall Lord Vader ever requiring rescue on Kessel," Piett frowned.
"It wasn't on Kessel."
"You should know, Tomas, that Mr. Jixton here is also the only man ever to escape from the high security prison on Kessel," Veers explained. "He is an expert in security systems, explosives, small arms, and all forms of hand-to-hand combat."
Piett regarded the tall Correllian with new respect. The man might be scruffy looking with his long hair and unkempt appearance, but he must be capable for Max to give him such high praise. That, and he had gained Lord Vader's trust, not an easy feat to accomplish.
"So, Gentlemen," Jix said slowly, "why don't we get down to business. Let's start with you telling me what the Sith-hell is going on on this ship. And why my dear beloved uncle is missing."
"Take a seat, Mr. Jixton. This might take a while." Piett waved in the direction of the small sofa with his good arm while he took the chair. "Max, I believe we should offer our guest some brandy, if you would be so kind."
"Thank you, Admiral, but I never drink on mission," Jix declined the offer.
"Believe me, Mr. Jixton, you are going to need it."
Vader finished his steak and drank down the rest of his beer, signaling the waitress for the check. The girl immediately came over to his table.
"Anything else, stranger? Another beer, perhaps?" she asked.
Vader considered it for a moment, but shook his head. He wasn't used to it, and one bottle of the strong Correllian ale had relaxed him almost too much already; he didn't want his senses muddled by alcohol.
"No, thank you," he answered. "What do I owe you?"
The girl stated a number, and Vader paid, adding a hefty tip to the sum. The young waitress regarded him with wide eyes.
"Wow," she said. "I mean... thank you. You sure you don't want anything else?"
Vader laughed at that. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm married, with children."
He winked at her, picked up his purchases, and left. No need to tell her that his wife had been dead for more than twenty years and his son was older than her.
"A shame, you know," she called after him. "Men like you shouldn't be allowed to get married. You're too good to be wasted on just one woman!"
Vader shook his head, laughing. He had not considered himself attractive in more than twenty years, and here this slip of a girl practically called him a boy toy. Unbelievable!
Vader turned a corner, heading for the public transport terminal, when he again had the sensation of being watched. But this time, there was no one eyeing him curiously, or staring at him with badly concealed fear. Darth Vader could feel the hair on his neck stand on end. Somebody was following him, and his Force senses told him that that somebody was not friendly. Changing direction, Vader stepped into an alley, ready to drop his bags and reach for his lightsaber at the first sign of trouble.
"Hello, friend," a voice behind him said in Hutteese.
Vader turned around slowly. A scrawny young man with blue hair stood at the alley's entrance, flanked by a Devaronian and another Human, a particularly ugly one.
"Your bags look awfully heavy," the young man continued. "Especially the small one."
By the Force, are they trying to rob me? Vader thought, incredulous.
"Perhaps we should help you carry them, friend," the youngster offered with an oily smile
"Really," Vader stated. "Let me guess. You're a little short on cash, and you would expect me to pay for your help. Right?"
His words were dripping with sarcasm.
"Well, well, he's catching on fast, right, boys?"
Blue Hair looked at his companions. The two snickered and flexed their muscles. Ugly took his blaster out of its holster and casually pointed it at Vader.
"There's just one little problem, boys. I don't want your help," Vader stated.
"Pity," Blue Hair replied. "Cause, you see, that's against the rules. We get to help you, or we get to break your kneecaps. So, what's it gonna be?"
Vader looked at the three with wide eyes and slowly set his bags on the ground.
"You know, son, I don't think I like your game."
"I think I like it better when I get to break your kneecaps."
Blue Hair stared at him. The guy couldn't be serious!
"Reality check, man," he declared. "There's three of us, and you haven't even got a blaster!"
"True," Vader conceded. "However, I do not require a blaster. Much to inaccurate and clumsy."
Drawing and igniting his lightsaber in one fluid motion, Vader advanced on the trio. Ugly shot at him, and he reflected the bolt into the alley's wall, somersaulting over Blue Hair's head. The youngster was struggling to draw his own weapon when Vader landed on his feet with catlike grace and immediately kicked out at him, sending him sprawling on the ground.
The Devaronian charged Vader now, a wicked looking vibro knife in his right hand. Vader brought his lightsaber down in an arc, hacking right through the metal blade, turned to avoid the fist still holding the handle, and delivered a knee to the Devaronian's groin. The other doubled over, gasping in pain. Vader used this to punch his elbow on the Devaronians neck, and the alien went down like a ton of bricks.
That left Ugly, who had not dared shoot again for fear of hitting his comrade. But now that the Devaronian was down, he raised his blaster again and trained it on Vader.
"Hold it right there," he commanded. "That was a big mistake, man, hurting my friends. We only wanted your money. But this, man, this is personal."
Vader just grinned at him.
"I do not think you realize the situation," he purred.
"I'm realizin' I'm the one with the gun, man, so you better put that fancy lasersword down," Ugly yelled.
Vader focused his Force powers, and the blaster was ripped out of Ugly's fist, flying straight into Vader's outstretched hand.
"Now who has the gun?" he asked mockingly.
"Oh, shit," was all Ugly could mumble before Vader had crossed the distance between them and Ugly's chin connected hard with the butt of his own blaster. H
is eyes rolled back in his head, and he, too, fell to the ground, unconscious. The whole fight had taken less then a minute.
"All too easy," Vader stated, dropping the blaster on Ugly's chest.
Behind him, Blue Hair stirred with a groan. Vader turned around and picked the youngster up by his collar. The boys eyes were still blurred.
"You should pick a new game, friend," Vader told him and let him drop to the ground again.
Clipping his lightsaber back on his belt, Vader retrieved his bags and, adding insult to injury, threw the youngster a fifty credit coin.
"Buy yourselves a holo chess," he suggested.
Half an hour later found the trio in Fat Bino's shop, nursing their injuries.
"Easy as taking candy from a baby, he said," Blue Hair aka Vinnie repeated Bino's words in a scathing tone. "Doesn't carry a blaster, he said. Damn you, Bino, did you even think to check for a lightsaber?"
"Now, now, Vinnie, calm down. How was I to know that he was dangerous? He seemed harmless enough," Bino tried to soothe his crony.
"Harmless? I'll give you harmless!" Vinnie yelled. Bino flinched and held up his hands. "That was a fucking Jedi, you brainless idiot!"
"Vinnie, Vinnie, please. Everybody knows that the Jedi are extinct. They were all killed in the purges, those that survived the Clone Wars."
"He looked pretty alive to me, you moron!"
A calculating look crossed Bino's round face.
"Of course, the Empire would pay very well for information on a Jedi..." he mused.
"Oh no, you don't," Vinnie ordered.
"What? But why?" Bino asked him, honestly confused.
"Because I don't want him to come back here and play another round with us, that's why."
Vinnie crossed his arms over his chest.
... and that is why we are defecting to the Alliance, Piett concluded his tale.
Jixton had listened intently, not interrupting the Admiral once. Now he cleared his throat.
I think I'll take you up on your offer of brandy after all, he stated.
With a slightly ironic smile, Veers rose to his feet and got three shot glasses and the bottle.
You realize of course, Mr. Jixton, that we cannot allow you to leave with your new knowledge,, Piett said. At least not in the next couple of days.
Jixton gave him a wolfish grin. And how are you going to hold me here, Admiral?
He's right, Tomas, Veers interjected when Piett bristled at the insult. Don't forget he escaped from Kessel.
Besides, Jixton continued, who else but me could go after Lord Vader?
Lord Vader is well able to look after himself, Mr. Jixton, Piett told him, slightly miffed.
Is he? He'll try to join the Alliance, and they will probably shoot down his shuttle before he can dock with one of their ships. Unless he brings a gift, Jix mused.
Veers and Piett perked up.
What kind of gift? Piett queried.
Something valuable to the Rebels. Tactical data. Fleet deployments. The plans of the new Death Star.
What do you know about... Piett could not stop himself in time. The project is still top secret.
I have my sources. So, did he take anything like that with him?
Veers shook his head slightly.
Not to our knowledge. I had his computer checked, but unless he's a first rate slicer, he did not download any sensitive data at all. Not that we have the Death Star plans, mind you.
Then it must be something different. Jixton leaned back in his chair, cradling his drink. Something to do with the Skywalker kid, I would say.
What makes you think that? Piett asked.
How much did Jixton really know? Vader was obsessed with the young Rebel pilot almost to the point of insanity. Had he put Jixton on Skywalker's trail as well? It seemed logical; the agent could move in different circles than the fleet, unearth information about Luke Skywalker's whereabouts that might aide Lord Vader in finding the young man. Piett had never understood his superior's obsession, until he overheard Lord Vader vocalize when he called out to Skywalker through the Force, and call him 'son'. That had been an eye-opener for the Admiral.
He's obsessed with the boy. No idea why, but he wants him. He wants him bad enough that he placed a bounty on his head, alive only. Jixton shook his head. I know Skywalker is supposed to be Force sensitive, but there is more to it than that. Vader never said what was so special about the kid.
The boy is Lord Vader's son, Piett explained.
Sith! Jixton exclaimed. That explains a lot. Poor bastard.
The former combat instructor did not elaborate which of the two men he meant, Vader or Skywalker. Instead, he studied his glass.
Think he'll try to hook up with the kid?
I doubt it. Piett shook his head slowly. Skywalker hates Lord Vader with a passion. They dueled on Bespin and nearly killed each other.
Still, it might be our best guess. Skywalker is from Tattooine, isn't he?
So is Lord Vader, Veers said.
How do you know? Jixton did not even try to hide his surprise.
His accent when he speaks Hutteese. It's pure Tattooine.
Piett held up his hand to end the discussion.
That does not exactly help us. Skywalker could be anywhere. And you must excuse us now, Mr. Jixton. General Veers and I have a duty to perform, he said.
Of course, Admiral. Jixton did not have to ask what duty. The scorch marks on the hangar deck and corridor walls had told him enough.
Piett got up and palmed the door open; the escort was still waiting outside.
You will be escorted to guest quarters, Mr. Jixton, and we shall talk again later.
Jixton rose from his seat and nodded slightly.
And I would appreciate it if you did not interfere with my ship or my crew, Piett added.
In other words: Don't try to run, Jixton thought.
Aloud, he said, You've given me no reason to interfere, Admiral. Yet.
With that, he allowed the troopers to lead him to the Executor's guest quarters.
Laden with bags and packages, Darth Vader exited the public transport system and slowly walked toward the spaceport proper, thinking that he should have made two runs. At least he had acquired everything he needed, even the suntan lotion. He would have liked a higher UV protection factor, but Nar Shaddaa was not exactly a beach resort.
In the afternoon light, Nar Shaddaa Space Port had changed its appearance again. While it had been relatively quiet late at night when Vader landed, and moderately busy in the early morning hours, it was now buzzing with activity. Legitimate and not so legitimate businesses were conducted at this time of day, and even the first night clubs and other entertainment establishments had already opened their doors.
Vader passed a number of them when a particularly garish neon sign caught his attention. Tattoos - Piercings - Scar Removal it screamed in blinking orange and sickly green letters. For a moment the former Jedi wondered who would risk getting a Tattoo in a place that advertised in such a tacky way. They might end up with a glow-in-the-dark Jawa on their backside.
Vader shuddered slightly at the thought. But scar removal, on the other hand... Darth shifted his bags in order to free one hand, which he then ran over his face and scalp. For over twenty years he had not bothered with the thick, ropy keloids that covered his left cheek and the top and back of his head. It had not been worth the trouble. But now that he was free of the life support suit and helmet... well, he might as well check out his options. His mind made up, he entered the Tattoo parlor.
Padmé had reached a stage of frustration she had not known since the Clone Wars. Another day nearly gone, and the repair on the hyperdrive still was not finished. First it had been the spare parts, then another thing, then one of the repairmen had fallen ill... it was enough to make her want to tear her hair out and desperately wish for her husband to still be alive. Anakin probably could have fixed that hyperdrive with a hairpin and a Force meditation in five minutes flat. But Anakin was dead, and she was stuck with incompetent port authorities and even more incompetent mechanics who didn't know a Corellian freighter from an X-Wing.
Enough, she growled. I'm going to the office and see what is holding up repairs this time. Jar Jar, you stay here.
The Gungan regarded her with his soft, gentle gaze.
Yousa tinken dis wise, yousa Majesty? Goin' out with no bodyguard?
Who should recognize me, old friend?
Padmé wrapped a shawl around herself, covering her head and the lower half of her face with it, effectively obscuring her features. Even without it, who should recognize her after all these years?
Padmé Naberrie Skywalker had officially died twenty-two years ago, assassinated shortly after the murder of her husband half a galaxy away.
Darth Vader entered the tattoo parlor with somewhat mixed feelings. Here was a chance to get rid of his scars, the lasting reminders of that fateful duel with his master Obi-Wan Kenobi more than twenty years ago. All those years, he had hidden his face behind a breathmask not out of vanity, but necessity. Until his life was given back to him as a result of a dumb accident.
After the shock of seeing himself in a mirror for the first time in years had worn off, the scars had not bothered him much. His crew had seen worse, had imagined his appearance to be much worse under that dreadful helmet. But here, even in a rough place like Nar Shaddaa Space Port, people stared at him, constantly reminding him of the ghastly keloids that disfigured his once handsome face and snaked over his scalp. He did not see the mixed fear and respect in the civilians' eyes that his mask had commanded, but horror at his disfigurement, and, all too often, pity. There were but a few exceptions to that rule.
Vader imagined that look mirrored in Luke's eyes, and decided he never wanted to see it.
Although he had his doubts about a tattoo artist performing cosmetic surgery, or a cosmetic surgeon who stooped so low as to work as a tattoo artist, Darth Vader knew he had little choice. In a regular hospital, too many questions would be asked. No, it was either this, or keeping the scars.
The Sith looked around in the brightly lit, high-ceilinged room. The walls were covered with framed pictures of fresh tattoos. A sofa stood in one corner, a desk and chair faced the entrance. The whole room was exceptionally clean, as one should expect from a place like this.
The young Zabrak behind the desk looked up from his magazine and quickly schooled his face into a neutral expression. His bare arms were covered shoulder to wrist with tattoos depicting the wildlife of several planets.
"Good day and welcome," he greeted Vader. "You want to see Master Drell. Please wait here while I get him."
Vader nodded and settled on the sofa to wait while the Zabrak disappeared through a door into a back room. He was back in a few moments with a person who had to be Master Drell. Vader looked up at the being... and up... and up, for Drell was a Ho'Din and as such well over three meters tall. Even a Wookiee would have been dwarfed standing next to the giant alien. Well, that explained the high ceiling, Vader thought drily.
"Welcome," the Ho'Din said. "My apprentice here tells me you are here for cosmetic surgery."
"We have not talked, but yes, he is correct."
Vader stood, taking a closer look at Drell and noticing the small Master Healer's insignia on the Ho'Din's collar. He relaxed. The Ho'Din did not take the Master title lightly. As a non- human, Drell was probably forced into his current line of work because no hospital would hire him out of racial prejudice, not because he was not qualified. It seemed the Force had led him to the right place.
"Your apprentice is very perceptive, Master Healer."
The Ho'Din inclined his head.
"Please follow me, Master Jedi. You can leave your things here. Kharim will lock the door, so they should be safe enough."
Vader started slightly at Drell's address.
"What makes you think I'm a Jedi?" he inquired.
"I saw your weapon. Lightsabers are not very common anymore."
"Perhaps I killed a Jedi and took it from him," Vader replied.
"I don't think so."
Drell led Vader into the back room and indicated the examination table that was standing in the center of the room on a raised dais. Vader climbed on the table.
"Your scars are old, and very deep, Master Jedi," Drell said after examining the keloids on Vader's face and scalp both with a scanner and his fingers. "I will not be able to heal them completely."
Vader's face fell.
"I... understand. Thank you for your honesty, Master Healer."
It was not the Ho'Din's fault that he, Vader, had foolish dreams. He prepared to get off the table when Drell stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"That does not mean I can do nothing, Jedi. I cannot remove the scars completely, that is true, but I can remove much of the scar tissue."
"And that means?" Vader asked.
"It means they will be much better than they are now. Mind you, I cannot give you a guarantee on how much will be left, but I believe I can reduce them to a fraction of what they are now. Allow me to show you a simulation."
The Sith inclined his head, and Drell produced a data pad and programmed it with the scan results. Soon a computer generated image of Vader's face stared at the Sith staring back at it.
"This is how you look now," the Ho'Din explained unnecessarily and pressed a few buttons on the pad.
The image changed, the thick, ropy keloids disappeared, leaving only thin pinkish lines.
"This is how you would look after the swelling subsides," Drell continued and pressed more buttons.
The image changed again, the pinkish lines turned white, almost invisible, and very short, sandy hair mixed with grey covered the formerly bald head, framing a face that was once again handsome.
"And this is how you would look in a few weeks, if you decide to let your hair grow back."
Vader's swallowed. He had not known what to expect after Drell told him he was not able to heal him completely, but certainly not this. This was better than anything he could have dreamed! Almost reverently, the former Jedi touched the screen.
"Yes," he whispered. "Can you do it now?"
The Ho'Din smiled.
"Nobody comes here to schedule for a later date. Yes, I can perform surgery within the hour, if you wish it. But I must warn you that there will be some swelling at first, and you will be quite uncomfortable for a few days."
"I'm aware of that. And I want the operation."
"Good. I shall administer a local anesthetic. I don't suppose you prefer going under for this, or do you?"
"No," Vader answered. "A local anesthetic is fine with me."
Drell gestured to his apprentice, Kharim, and the young Zabrak brought a tray with sterile instruments.
"Relax," Drell told Vader. "This will not hurt a bit."
One hundred and thirty two urns were placed on an antigrav sled that hovered half a meter above the floor of the Executor's main hangar. Each and every one of them contained the ashes of one crew member killed in the fights following Admiral Piett's speech.
Now Piett had to make another speech, but he doubted that he would find the right words this time. What did you say about the men your actions had killed? What did you say to their friends, their comrades? Piett lifted his gaze from the sled and regarded the Stormtrooper squad that served as an honor guard. A camera on the far side captured the ceremony for all those who could not attend in person, as well as for the ship's log. The Admiral ran his tongue over his dry lips.
"We are gathered here to honor the memory of our fallen comrades," he began. "It does not matter on which side they fought. They were all members of this crew, and they fought and were killed for what they believed in."
"Usually, I would read the names of our fallen at this point, and give a short summary of their careers. This is not possible today. But, we shall not forget our dead."
He stepped back to a portion of the hangar wall which was covered by a large tarp.
Moving next to it, Piett continued, "Instead of a fleeting moment's mention, we will have a constant reminder of our fallen comrades' courage and determination."
The Admiral lifted his hand, and, pulling sharply on the cloth, revealed a large tablet with all one hundred and thirty two names on it, in alphabetical order. No difference was made between loyalists and defectors; only the names and ranks were listed.
"May this serve to keep the memory of our friends fresh in our minds."
Dropping the corner of the tarp, Piett saluted the tablet while a technician started the sled's engine. The antigrav sled slowly set into motion, gliding out of the hangar and into space in a graceful arc. Eventually, it would fly into a sun, or burn up in a planet's atmosphere, taking the last remains of the men who died on board the Executor with it.
Wrenga Jixton paced the confines of his cabin. He had been assigned officer's quarters, in deference to the fact that he had been Lord Vader's agent, and it amused him to no end.
But he had no time for amusement now. Even a Force-blind like himself could see that his employer was in danger. And he was stuck here on the Executor while that crazy Admiral was plotting to go over to the Alliance! Not that he had a clue as to where Vader was. The Sith Lord could be on any of several dozen planets by now.
The only thing that Jixton could be certain of was that Vader, too, was planning to join the Rebellion. He had said so himself in his recorded message to Piett. How he thought he could accomplish this, however, was a complete mystery to everybody.
Piett at least had a capital ship to offer the Rebellion, a ship that would provide enough protection until they could get the Alliance leaders to listen to them. Vader, of course, had the Force, but Jixton doubted that the Sith Lord's command of a mystical energy field would save him when the whole Rebel fleet was set to blast him out of space.
No, Vader must have a plan. He always had. But what hare-brained scheme could possibly convince the Alliance council of Vader's sincerity? It had to do something with Skywalker, of that Jixton was certain. The boy was Vader's son, and as Force-sensitive as his father. As a Jedi, Skywalker's word ought to have some weight with the Rebels.
The boy was also part of Leia Organa's inner circle, and the former Senator of Alderaan was one of the Alliance's known leaders. But what could ever sway the Princess to accept Darth Vader as their ally, after everything he put her through? After he had her lover tortured and frozen in carbonite and allowed the bounty hunter Boba Fett to take him to Jabba the Hutt? Jixton had, of course, learned all about that in preparation for one of Vader's little jobs. In a sudden flash of insight, the answer presented itself to him.
"Sithspawn!" Jixton exclaimed, and dropped on the sofa.
Vader must truly be mad if he believed he could pull that on off alone.
Master Healer Drell finished dressing Vader's cheek and scalp with bacta packs after surgically removing the old scars.
"Keep the wounds clean, and leave the bacta packs on until tomorrow," he advised his patient. "There will be some swelling and discoloration for a couple of days, and the wounds will itch when they heal. Do not scratch, or you might risk infection."
"I understand," Vader replied. His speech was somewhat slurred because half of his face was still numbed by the anesthetic. "How much do I owe you, Master Healer?"
"Kharim will discuss payment with you, Master Jedi," Drell replied.
He bowed and left Vader alone with his Zabrak apprentice.
"Please come with me to the front desk, Jedi," Kharim asked politely.
Vader slid off the table and followed him. The Zabrak presented him with a bill which Vader gladly paid. Silently, the Dark Lord vowed to make a different kind of payment to the Healer later. There were still a few connections he could use once he had joined the Alliance, and a certain clinic specialized on burn victims he had anonymously supported for a number of years now. A good cosmetic surgeon like Drell would be welcome there, no matter what his species was. He would see to that.
Picking up his various bags and packages, Vader left and, still deep in thought, ran right into a small shrouded figure around the next corner. His bags all spilled to the ground, and the diminutive woman who had not been paying any more attention than him on where she was going, also fell. She probably could not even see where she was going with that shawl wrapped around her head and face, as effectivly obscuring her features as the bandages obscured Vader's.
"Chess ko," Vader rumbled good-naturedly (Careful).
Bending down, he offered the woman his hand to help her up, but she smacked it away, got to her feet and hurried on without a word. Vader looked after her retreating form, then shrugged and gathered up his belongings. Some people are in an awful hurry, he mused and pitied anybody who got in the way of this shrew. It was strange, though.
All of a sudden, he had the nagging feeling that he had missed something vitally important.
And he could not shake it.
Padmé returned to her ship in a foul mood. Not only were the port authorities dense as dwarf star matter, some big oaf just had to run her into the ground on her way back.
Could this day turn any worse? I
n the privacy of her cabin, Padmé Naberrie Skywalker ripped the shawl from her head and let out a string of blue language that would have turned a Toydarian purple. It did not solve the problems, but it did make her feel better.
The shuttle Tydirium lifted off smoothly from Nar Shaddaa Space Port and soon broke orbit. Its pilot punched in the coordinates for his next destination. When he pulled back the levers which activated the hyperdrive, the stars elongated, streaked past, and the swirling patterns of hyperspace engulfed the small shuttle. Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, was on his way.
The twin suns rose over the Dune Sea on Tattooine, their light glinting off the polished hulls of two droids. C-3PO had been constantly complaining about their assignment, the desert, the cold night air, the danger they were in ever since he and R2-D2 had left Obi-Wan Kenobi's house to take Master Luke's message to Jabba the Hutt. R2 twittered sympathetically.
"Of course I'm worried. And you should be, too. Lando Calrissian never returned from this awful place," 3PO said as they were nearing the crimelord's desert palace.
R2 beeped a comment, causing his counterpart to continue, "Don't be so sure. If I told you half the things I have heard about this Jabba the Hutt, you'd probably short-circuit."
R2-D2, however, was not convinced. C-3PO tended to worry too much.
The pair finally reached the tall steel doors that led into the Hutt's lair.
"R2, are you sure this is the right place?" 3PO inquired.
R2 beeped an indignant answer. Of course he was sure!
The tall droid lifted his hand to knock.
"I'd better knock, I suppose," he commented, and tapped the door lightly with his fingers before turning to his companion. "There doesn't seem to be anyone there. Let's go back and tell Master Luke," he suggested, the words coming out so quickly they were nearly jumbled when a small hatch suddenly popped open and a mechanical eyestalk appeared, speaking in Huttese.
"Goodness gracious me!" 3PO cried.
The eyestalk spoke some more, and 3PO proceeded to introduce R2-D2 and himself and state their business in the same language. Laughing, the eyeball retracted. The tall protocol droid was clearly shaken.
"I don't think they're going to let us in, R2. We better go," C-3PO noted and turned to leave when the massive doors started to rise with the grinding screech of metal on poorly lubricated metal.
R2-D2 immediately rolled into the cool, dark opening, leaving C-3PO to call after him, "R2, wait! Oh, dear... R2, I really don't think we should rush into this. R2, wait for me!"
The protocol droid followed his friend as quickly as he could on the sand. If there was something that scared him more than going into Jabba's lair, it was being so close to Jabba's lair alone.
Wrenga Jixton dialed the Executor's bridge from the comm unit in his quarters. He had to talk to Admiral Piett immediately. The longer they waited, the smaller their chances were to catch up with Lord Vader before the Sith arrived at his destination and got himself killed.
What possessed Vader, anyway? Jix thought. Was he suicidal? Or just plain crazy? To say that Wrenga Jixton was annoyed with his employer would be an understatement.
Yes, Captain, what is it? Padmé Naberrie answered the summons from the bridge of her small flotilla's flagship.
Madam, the repairs are complete. We can now continue on our way.
Finally! Padmé suppressed a sigh.
Very well, Captain. Recall all personnel and lift off as soon as possible. I want to be in hyperspace within the hour. Set a direct course for Sullust, Padmé instructed.
After all, they did not want to be late for the battle.
Admiral Piett, or, more correctly, ex-Admiral Piett, moved to take Jixton's call when Stevens intercepted him.
Incoming ships, Sir, the crewman manning CommScan cried. Two Star Destroyers, bearing two-o-three by seven-four. It's the Devastator and the Avenger, Sir.
Good. Commence evacuation procedure, Piett ordered.
They are hailing us, Sir, Stevens announced.
Maintain radio silence, Piett snapped.
You want to keep them off guard? Veers, who was standing in his usual position at Piett's elbow, inquired quietly. His friend smiled.
I want to avoid having to blast them out of the system... yet, Piett whispered back.
Sir, Mister Jixton insists on speaking to you, a young lieutenant called to Piett.
Tell him I'm busy, Piett barked.
He could not use the distraction now. He had to keep his mind on the two ships out there.
I did, Sir.
Damn, Piett thought. Of all the times the agent could pick to call him... Moving swiftly to a comm unit, Piett took the call.
Whatever it is, Mr. Jixton, it has to wait, he snapped before Jixton had the chance to utter a word.
The Correllian raised his eyebrows.
Are we going into battle? he asked.
I hope not, Mr. Jixton. Stay in your quarters. I shall contact you as soon as the situation permits.
Men who had been locked in their quarters and, in some cases, in the brig, were hurried to the hangars in record time. Many of them had to be guarded, and some even cuffed and chained.
Avenger and Devastator tried in vain to contact the Executor, their calls becoming more frantic as the minutes passed. Communications passed between the two Destroyers, closely monitored by the Executor, who remained silent. Finally, both smaller ships started to move into attack position. Executor raised her shields.
From all docking bays of the mighty battle cruiser, craft were launched, carrying those crew members who did not want to join the Rebel Alliance toward the two smaller ships. Piett's estimate of the number of loyalists among his crew had been somewhat too high. Instead of ninety thousand, only a total of seventy-six thousand crewmen and officers left, a fact that made the former Admiral proud. Still, almost all troop transports and even some of the escape pods had to be employed to send these men on their way. Their communications devices had all been disabled, except for an emergency beacon. And they could not be retrieved later.
Sir, all craft have launched, Captain Durreen reported.
The whole evacuation had taken only a little more than half an hour.
Good. Helm, take us out of here. Plot a course to Sullust, best available speed.
We're taking the direct route? Veers asked.
Since we know where the Rebel fleet is, the rest of the Imperial fleet also knows it. No point in pretending we're going anywhere else.
That's the wrong system, a voice called, making both Piett and Veers jump.
Wrenga Jixton frowned when Piett cut the connection. Whatever was happening, it could not be good. Piett seemed on edge. Never a good sign when the commanding officer got jumpy.
Guess I have to go look for myself, Jix thought. If he thinks I'm going to sit in my quarters like a virgin maiden, he's got another thought coming.
Palming the door open, Jixton peered cautiously into the corridor. Only one guard was placed by his door. Either Piett trusted him, or he was a fool. Probably both.
The soldier turned to Jixton.
Please stay in you quarters, Sir, he asked politely.
Jixton smiled. And if I don't?
Then I am under orders to keep you there, Sir. I'm sorry, Sir.
I'm sorry, too, Jixton quipped, drew back his fist and delivered a right cross to the guard's chin that immediately knocked the man out cold.
He caught the soldier before he could crumple to the floor and dragged him into the cabin.
Sweet dreams, Jixton murmured before he closed the door. Now which way to the bridge?
C-3PO caught up to his companion when R2-D2 ran into one of the ever present Gamorrean guards. The pigfaced guard snarled at the small droid.
Just deliver Master Luke's message and get us out of here! 3PO cried.
Behind them, the massive steel doors clanked shut. Another guard shoved C-3PO out of the way as Bib Fortuna, Jabba's TwiLek majordomo, appeared.
Dtay tola! Dtay wonna wan ga? he demanded. The Twi'lek was already in a foul mood. What did these droids want, at such an early hour?
Oh, my. Dtay wonna wan go, 3PO answered, bowing to the majordomo.
But hoo! Fortuna called.
We bring a message to your master, Jabba the Hutt, the droid explained.
Dtay Jabba wan ga.
R2 twittered something, and Fortuna's eyes darted to the small astromech droid.
And a gift, 3PO translated his friends comment. Its meaning dawned to him a bit belatedly. A gift? What gift?
R2 beeped a short answer.
Fortuna, momentarily pacified, bowed down to R2 and stroked the small droid's dome with his long-nailed fingers, purring, Neh Jabba no badda. Iz dye yoto. Say gotto oh mooty. Me chaade soh goody. Greed gleamed in his orangeish eyes.
R2 shook in disgust. He would rather be melted down than belonging to this creature, for it was clear what Fortuna was saying, even without 3PO translating. He chirped and beeped his answer for 3PO to interpret.
He says that our instructions are to give it only to Jabba himself, C-3PO explained.
R2 twittered an affirmative, and the Gamorrean behind 3PO growled, amused that the high and mighty Bib Fortuna apparently did not always get what he wanted. Fortuna himself was looking daggers at the tall droid. How dare he!
I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid he's ever so stubborn about these things, 3PO apologized.
Noh chaa! Fortuna snarled and turned to lead the two droids to his master.
R2, I have a bad feeling about this, 3PO observed as they followed the indignant Twi'lek into Jabba's throne room.
Darth Vader put the helmet down with a satisfied grunt and stretched. He had spent the past hour on modifications to his suit and helmet so he could still use them as a flight suit. There was no doubt in his mind that he would have need of one soon.
Making his way into the cockpit, he checked the time. Still a few hours to his next destination. Enough time for a wash, a snack, and a nap, exactly in this order.
Vader stretched again and yawned. It had been a long day, and he wanted to be fresh and alert when he began the next step in his self-assigned mission.
Jabba looked up from his first waterpipe of the day when Fortuna led the two droids into his throne room. The Twi'lek climbed up to stand behind his master and whisper into his ear as the smaller of the two ran a holo message. Although as a matter of pride he never spoke Basic himself, Jabba perfectly understood what the young man said, and laughed out loud. This Jedi wannabe was in for a nasty surprise!
Fortuna obviously was of the same opinion.
Master, bargain rather than fight? he hissed into Jabba's ear. He's no Jedi.
Jabba agreed with the Twi'lek.
There will be no bargain, he rumbled in his native language. I will not give up my favorite decoration. I like Captain Solo where he is.
The Hutt pointed to the far wall where Han Solo was hanging.
R2, look! It's Captain Solo, and he's still frozen in carbonite! the taller droid cried out.
Jabba's whole court laughed cruelly at the droid's apparent distress.
Jixton! Piett exclaimed and gestured the guards who had drawn their weapons on the intruder to stay calm. You were supposed to stay in your quarters.
And miss all the fun? Nah... Jix sauntered over to the Admiral.
Veers stepped between the two men.
What do you mean by the wrong system? he addressed Jixton.
The agent regarded the spectacular view of the stars from the bridge for a few moments before answering.
I know where Vader's gone, he said.
We already know he's going to the Alliance, Jixton, Piett interjected.
But not directly. Right now, he's headed for Tattooine, Jix answered.
Veers threw Jixton a puzzled look.
His home planet? What would he want there?
Interesting, Jix thought. So Vader was from Tattooine. He stored the information away for later use and turned to the General with a broad smile.
Why, to pick up a gift for Princess Leia, of course!
Veers gaped openmouthed at Jixton.
Conference room, Piett quipped, and steered both men into the ready room adjacent to the bridge.
A gift? What gift? he demanded as soon as the door had closed behind them.
A carbonite statue of one Captain Han Solo. Jixton studied his fingernails. I believe Jabba has the original, and Princess Leia Organa is more than interested in it. Don't you agree?
Kreth! Veers plopped down into one of the chairs. He can't take Jabba on alone.
I agree. Jixton hopped onto the table, while Piett remained standing, arms crossed before his chest.
What equipment do you need, Mr. Jixton? he asked.
The agent smiled.
Only my courier ship and a pilot.
You have one.
Veers got to his feet.
Jixton's eyebrows shot up.
Are you sure, General? Things might get messy, he teased.
Veers gave him a thin-lipped smile.
I never got into the habit of staying behind when my men were fighting.
Good. Hope you did not forget how to take orders, either. Because I'll be the one giving them, General.
Let us just say I will follow your expertise as a field agent, Mr. Jixton, Veers conceded.
Are you sure about this, Max? Piett asked quietly.
I am, Veers nodded. Lord Vader needs all the help he can get when he's going up against Jabba's gang. You take the ship to Sullust, and we'll meet you there in a couple days.
We could put a team together, Piett began, but Jixton interrupted him: No. Too conspicuous. We'll never get in there with a whole army.
He's right, Tomas. A strike team would draw too much attention. Jabba has his eyes everywhere. Two men have a better chance of slipping through.
Tell you what, Admiral, Jixton said in a soothing voice. If we're not at Sullust in four days, you can send a team to pick up our bodies.
He chuckled at the Admiral's sullen expression.
Luke Skywalker was sitting crosslegged on the floor of Kenobi's house, meditating. The droids where in place, as was Lando Calrissian. Soon he would send Leia and Chewbacca into Jabba's palace for the next step of his plan. But not yet. Another player was about to enter into his game, and he had to give him some time.
Reaching out with the Force, Luke felt his father's essence coming closer, careful not to give his own presence away. There was a chance that Vader was coming for him, but Luke did not believe this. Not after the vision he had. He could clearly feel the change in Vader now. In Anakin. Ben and Yoda had been wrong. There was a way back from the Dark side.
He could almost hear Yoda's voice. Difficult to see the future is, the old Jedi master had taught him. Always in motion. But he was not trying to glimpse the future. It was the present he focussed on, and it showed him everything he needed to see.
The Tydirium dropped out of hyperspace close too Tattooine. Vader, now dressed in dark pants, a light colored shirt reminiscent of a Jedi robe, and a hooded cloak, steered the small craft into orbit and contacted Mos Eisley Space Port for a landing permit.
This is Tydirium calling Mos Eisley, he spoke into the microphone. Request landing permit.
Tydirium, this is Mos Eisley Space Port. Please state the nature of your visit.
Business, Vader replied curtly, knowing he would not be questioned further.
Thank you, Tydirium. You are clear to land in docking bay 94. Have a nice day.
Docking bay 94, acknowledged.
Vader cut the connection and shook his head. Have a nice day, indeed. Bureaucrats!
He guided the shuttle down to Mos Eisley and into his assigned docking bay. He could have landed closer to Jabba's palace, but that would only draw attention, which he did not need. Better to follow procedure, although it meant he had to buy a speeder.
A fast courier ship reached orbit around Tattooine not much later. Veers and Jixton had made good time, and they had had the advantage of being closer to Tattooine to begin with. Veers had changed into some civilian clothes he kept on board for shore leave before leaving for Tattooine.
We could still be too late, he mused, gently guiding the ship into a landing cycle. He could be dead already.
I don't think so, Jixton said. He's crazy, but he's not dumb. I think he stopped over someplace else first and prepared for this.
You didn't need much preparation.
Hey, I was borne prepared.
Veers rolled his eyes and groaned, which made Jixton chuckle.
In fact, I brought a few toys with me.
The former combat instructor squeezed his tall frame into the courier's cramped back cabin and rummaged through his bags.
Here! he called, tossing Veers a blaster.
The General caught it and looked it over.
Nice hardware, he acknowledged. Not your usual military equipment.
No. It's sighted. Got a few more goodies here.
Jixton dug out several thermal detonators and handed them to Veers who stuffed them into the pockets of his vest.
Anything else? Veers asked.
Binoculars, canteens, flash grenades, lock picker, grappling hooks. Jixton grinned. Now all we have to do is find Uncle Dee before he gets himself into trouble.
He's already in trouble.
Okay, before he gets himself into more trouble.
Veers took the ship to one of the docking bays. A deep frown crossed his features when he looked out the viewport just before setting down.
I think we just lucked out, he said. There is a Lambda class shuttle only two bays down, in No. 94.
It can't be that easy! Jixton exclaimed. He did not trust this.
With Lord Vader, you never know, Veers commented cryptically. It might be coincidence, or luck, or it might be the Force. Whatever it is, I'm not going to question it.
Vader stepped into the dealer's yard, the hood of his cloak drawn deep into his face to protect him from the hot afternoon sun. Although he had used sun tan lotion quite liberally, he knew his skin could not take much of the glare of Tattooine's twin suns yet.
Greetings, the Rodian running the shop called to him.
Hello. I'm looking for a used speeder. What do you have to offer?
Ah, we have the best nearly new speeders in town. Allow me to show you one of my top models. The dealer led Vader to a dark blue sedan. This is one of my best. Notice the condition of the paint job. The previous owner kept her in mint condition! He started the engine, and Vader immediately heard the slight whine that meant the turbine would give out soon.
No, he said. I need something sturdier.
Sturdier? Sturdier, you say? You will never find a sturdier vehicle than this, my good man!
Provided you fit it with a new engine, you mean.
Darth fixed the dealer with a glare, and the Rodian gulped.
I think I will just look around.
Uh... of course. Be my guest, the Rodian whispered.
Vader looked around, starting the engines of one or two other speeders, but was not satisfied with any of them until he moved to an older, beat-up looking ST-model in the back of the yard. It surely did not look like much. It definitely needed a new paint job, and it seemed to have been in too close contact with a Gaffi stick or two. But the engine purred like a kitten. Vader had a good feeling about this speeder. A very good feeling.
What about this one? he asked.
Oh, this one. Has been here for years. The previous owner bought it from some farm boy and was never able to sell it. I make you a good deal on it.
Three thousand. A look into Vader's face made the Rodian reconsider. Alright, two thousand five hundred, but that's cutting my own throat!
Two thousand, Vader rumbled.
Two thousand, the Sith repeated.
The Rodian sighed. Today was not his day for good deals. At least he got rid of the old speeder.
Okay, two thousand, but you have to buy the fuel.
I'll prepare the papers, and you can pick it up in half an hour.
I'll be here. Oh, and don't try to harvest any parts before then. I would not like it. Understood?
The Rodian blinked his enormous black eyes.
I wouldn't dream of it, Sir! he squeaked.
Vader smiled. Of course not.
He returned to his shuttle to pick up the things he would need in Jabba's palace when he saw two familiar faces in the crowd. Swearing under his breath, he ducked into the entrance of a building. Veers and Jixton passed, apparently arguing between themselves. He followed them until they reached a seedy cantina.
Are you looking for me, Gentlemen? he called.
Both men whirled around to face him.
Hey, Uncle Dee. What a strange coincidence, Jixton grinned.
Veers appeared much less relaxed than his companion.
My lord, he began, but Vader silenced him with a glare.
In there. Now, he growled.
The two obeyed in the blink of an eye.
Vader ushered them to table near the back of the room.
What possessed you to follow me? he demanded. I won't even ask how you found me.
Glancing around, Veers answered in a hushed whisper, Sir, it would be foolish to go up against Jabba alone.
Who says I'm going against Jabba? This is my home planet, Veers. Maybe I want to retire here. Buy a moisture farm.
In a Gammorrean's eye. Jixton was as direct as ever. You're going to the Alliance, and you're not going there empty-handed.
Really, Vader sneered. What does Jabba have that the Alliance would want?
Captain Solo, Jixton answered.
Vader slumped in his chair.
So you know. Very well. I can understand that you would not pass up an opportunity to annoy me, Jix, but what brings you here, Veers? You have a career.
I also have some honor left in me, Sir, Veers replied stiffly.
Hey, are you guys going to buy drinks, or do you plan on just taking up a table? the bartender, a greasy looking human, called to them.
Juri Juice, Jix called back. Three, and make them large ones.
Three large Juris coming up.
Vader leaned closer to Veers while Jix picked up their drinks.
Did you bring Piett as well?
Uh... not exactly, My lord...
Don't call me that, Vader hissed. If you have to use a name, call me Anakin.
He waited for Veers to continue.
What about Piett? he finally asked.
Well... he didn't want to leave the ship behind, Veers said lamely.
Good man. Vader leaned back in his chair and accepted a glass from Jixton. He's more sensible than you, Veers.
Setting down his glass without tasting it - he wouldn't put it past Jixton to spike his drink - he looked first at Jixton, then at Veers again.
Return to the fleet. I don't need you two here, he stated.
Jixton snorted. You're going to need some backup at least. How do you plan to get into Jabba's palace and safely out again? Solo will probably not be in the best of shapes.
Leave that to me.
You must have a death wish, Jix stated, glaring at Vader.
You should know, Vader retorted.
Veers looked from one to the other. These two were bickering like a married couple.
Gentlemen, can we be sensible about this? Anakin, you have a plan worked out. A plan that does not include us
Vader nodded curtly.
Well, we're not going to back down. At least allow us to be your backup.
Vader rubbed his forehead in exasperation.
Alright. I can see that I cannot get rid of the two of you. He paused, thinking. There is a farm out of Anchorhead. The owners are dead. I'll meet you there with Solo. If I'm not at the farm in two days at noon, you can try to rescue us.
Jixton wanted to mouth a protest, but Veers nodded. Two days it is.
Vader got up from the table and turned to leave when Veers called after him, Anakin? Good luck!
The former Jedi smiled.
There is no such thing as luck.
Sneaking into Jabba's palace had been laughably easy for a fully trained Jedi. What few guards were not drunk or asleep fell to a suggestion carefully placed in their minds. Still, Anakin knew he had to be careful, and he kept his hand close to his lightsaber. There were those among the guards who were of species immune to his mind control.
He went down a short flight of stairs leading into Jabba's main reception hall. The palace itself had not changed much in thirty-three years. It was a bit shabbier then it used to be, but that was about it. A wind chime jingled slightly when he brushed against it in passing; Anakin held his breath, but no-one stirred. Silently, he crept into the reception hall proper and looked around.
Bless Jabba's black heart! Solo, still encased in carbonite, was suspended on the wall like some obscene art object. For a fleeting moment Anakin wondered what Thrawn would think about such a display.
He quickly crossed the intervening space and studied the controls on the carbonite case. Solo was still alive, and still in hibernation. The case itself was as bulky as Anakin remembered it. There was no way he could get Solo out of the palace with it, not through the passages he had used to get in. He had no choice but to thaw the Correllian right here. He switched off the repulsor that kept Solo suspended, and the carbonite case hit the floor with a loud clunk.
Anakin flinched, but still there were no sounds but his own to be heard. His luck still held. He quickly worked the controls on the case and stepped back as heat emanated from it, heralding the beginning of the thawing process.
The front of the case glowed red and melted away, finally freeing Han Solo. Anakin caught him as he fell forward and gently lowered him to the floor. Solo gasped for breath and blindly reached for his rescuer.
Just relax for a moment. You're free of the carbonite and have hibernation sickness, Anakin whispered.
I can't see, Solo gasped and struggled to sit up.
Anakin helped him into a sitting position.
You're eyesight will return in time, Anakin soothed.
Where am I? Solo demanded.
Solo reached up to touch his face.
Who are you?
I'm Anakin Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you.
Force, he sounded like a dweeb!
You're who? S
olo was dumbfounded; Skywalker, that name he knew, but who in Sith-hell was Anakin?
I'm Luke's father...
Luke? Where is he?
Anakin rolled his eyes.
Come on, I've got to get you out of here.
He pulled the shivering Correllian to his feet when they both heard deep, guttural laughter behind them. Solo froze with apprehension.
I know that laugh.
Behind the two men, a heavy curtain was drawn open, revealing Jabba the Hutt and his vile court. Anakin cursed inwardly. How could he have missed this? How could he not sense so many beings nearby? The answer, of course, was simple. He had been concentrating on his hearing like a Force-blind instead of heeding the hints the Force itself was throwing at him.
With difficulty, the Jedi calmed himself. Perhaps it was better this way, he reflected. Anakin hated Jabba and all that the crimelord stood for with a passion. He had not forgotten his early years as a slave, completely at the mercy of people like Jabba. Now, there would be no creeping out of the palace like some common thief. Now he had a reason to fight and give the Hutt the painful death he deserved. Maybe not as painful as he deserved; a lightsaber was almost to good for this piece of slime.
Jabba was still laughing when Solo turned around and started pleading with him, Listen, Jabba, I was just on my way to pay you back...
Silence, Anakin growled, disgusted with the lack of backbone Solo was displaying.
What was it the Princess saw in this spineless two-bit smuggler? With a flick of his hand, Anakin drew and ignited his lightsaber.
It is your choice, Jabba. You can let us go... or you can die, he intoned.
And who are you, another Jedi? There seem to be quite a lot of them lately.
His cronies joined in the Hutt's mocking laughter.
I am Anakin Skywalker. I do not expect you to remember me, Anakin replied evenly.
Skywalker, mh? Anakin Skywalker... Jabba's enormous eyes narrowed. Not the little Human slave who won the Boonta Eve Race some thirty years ago? Humph. You were much more amusing back then. He paused before continuing: I've been killing Jedi when you were still in your diapers, little Human. You are no threat to me.
Anakin took a step forward; he itched to tell Jabba his other name, the one he had been known under for the past twenty-something years, but decided against it. It would gain him no more than a moment's satisfaction to see Jabba cower in fear, but it would seriously damage his mission. But he could taunt the gangster.
Your overconfidence will be your downfall, Jabba.
Look around you, Jedi. My men have you covered. Ah, you could kill them all with your Force tricks, and me too, but not before one of them does your precious friend Solo in.
Anakin's gaze flicked around. Jabba was right. His guards where everywhere around them, blasters trained not on him, but on Han Solo. Blind, helpless Han Solo.
With a curse, Anakin tossed his lightsaber away.
You've won this round, Jabba, he hissed between clenched teeth.
Three more small, old ships joined the Rebel fleet. That in itself was not remarkable - many vessels used in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire were years or even decades beyond their prime, although well maintained and often modified to suit the needs of warfare. What was remarkable was the woman in command of these three ships, and the welcome she received.
Word about Padmé Naberrie spread like wildfire among the crews and pilots. For those who still remembered the impossible victory the Queen Amidala had won against the Trade Federation many years ago her return from the underground movement was a certain sign that the Rebellion would finally triumph.
It is good to see you again, Padmé, Mon Mothma greeted the smaller woman with a warm embrace, which Padmé returned.
It's good to be back, Mon. Our ships were held up by repairs, and I feared we would come too late.
Mon Mothma shook her head, inviting Padmé with a gesture to follow her.
The fleet is not completely assembled yet, and we are still waiting for Commander Skywalker and Princess Leia to return from Tattooine.
Padmé frowned; she had been looking forward to finally meeting her children.
What are they doing there? she asked as soon as she and Mon Mothma had entered the relative privacy of the Alliance President's quarters.
Rescuing your son's best friend, Leia's boyfriend, if I'm not mistaken, Mon told her with a wink. Han Solo is a good man, but he got into some trouble or other with the Hutts.
Padmé smirked. If the Hutts don't like him, he must be a good man.
She settled into the soft leather couch. Soon she would see her children again - maybe she would even be able to reveal Leia's identity as her daughter. But not yet.
Tell me more about my son, Mon. How is he? What does he look like? Is he anything like his father?
Mon Mothma smiled at the barrage of questions.
Which question do you want answered first?
The Rebel fleet floated silently in orbit around Sullust. Mon Calamari Cruisers, Nebulon B Frigates and Correllian Blockade Runners were at the center of the largest armada the Alliance had ever assembled. Smaller sentry ships zipped between and around them like so many planets around their suns, scanning the space beyond the fleet, protecting the larger ships.
It was a strangely peaceful scene. To the casual observer, nothing except the types and number of the ships indicated that they were soon going to go into battle.
Until a giant mass dropped out of hyperspace close to the system.
Klaxons blared and alarm bells rang on every ship of the Rebel fleet, including the flag ship designated Home One. Admiral Ackbar, a Mon Calamari in command of the fleet, turned around to face his aide.
Status report! he shouted.
Capital ship just dropped out of hyperspace, Sir. Mass... Sir, this can't be right!
What is it, Lieutenant? Ackbar queried impatiently.
Sir, the mass of the ship exceeds that of a Star Destroyer by a factor of more than 1300!
Ackbar closed his eyes, slumping in his chair. The Empire had found them.
Your data is correct, Lieutenant. That is a Super Star Destroyer.
The Mon Calamari straightened again; he would be damned before he went down without a fight!
Shields up! All stations, prepare for battle, he ordered.
Admiral Piett took the Executor out of hyperspace as close to Sullust's gravity well as he could without running the risk of damaging the hyperdrive. The more he could surprise the Rebel fleet, the less time they had to mount an attack before he could contact their leaders.
Stand down all weapons, he ordered calmly. Hold position.
Gradually, the immense ship slowed down as her reverse thrusters fired, until the Executor came to a full stop a few thousand kilometers from the main body of the rebel fleet.
Sir, they are powering down their weapons, Ackbar's aide reported.
The Admiral swiveled his chair around. You mean powering up, don't you?
No, Admiral, Sir. The Lieutenant looked up, confusion clearly written on his face. They have deactivated all weapon's banks.
Contact our fighters. They are to create a perimeter, but not attack, Ackbar commanded.
Sir, we have positive identification of the ship. It's the Executor, CommScan reported.
The Executor... Darth Vader's ship! Ackbar could almost feel his gills dry up and shrivel at this piece of news. What deviltry was the Sith Lord up to?
Piett watched the X-Wing squadron zip and dive around his ship like so many flies. So far, they had not attacked. Piett took that as a good sign. The Rebels were reluctant to open fire first; noble, but often foolish in the sight of the odds they faced. Today, Piett was grateful for this trait.
Drop shields, he ordered.
Admiral, Executor just dropped her shields, the officer at CommScan cried out.
What was Vader up to? The Mon Calamari's mind was working frantically to come up with an answer to that question, but found none. It almost looked like Executor was going to surrender, but that was impossible, wasn't it? Not Vader's own flagship...
Maintain position, Ackbar ordered. Hold your fire.
No reaction from the Rebel fleet yet, Admiral, Captain Durreen reported. They're just sitting there, watching us.
Good. Piett nodded, satisfied. Time for the next, crucial step. Open a channel.
Admiral, they are hailing us!
Put them on screen, Ackbar replied.
Maybe he would get some answers now.
The long, narrow face and upper body of an Imperial officer filled the screen in front of him. Ackbar noticed that the man was not wearing a rank plaque on his uniform.
Admiral Ackbar, I presume? the man inquired. At Ackbars nod, he continued, I am Tomas Piett, in command of the Executor. My crew and I wish to join the Alliance.
Admiral Ackbar, former slave of Grand Moff Tarkin, strategist and veteran of many battles against the Empire, felt his jaw drop.
Anakin Skywalker and Han Solo were shoved roughly into a dark, dank cell deep in the bowels of Jabba's palace. The Correllian stumbled and would have fallen had Anakin not caught his arm and steadied the younger man.
The door clanked shut behind them with an ominous sound.
Some rescue, Solo mumbled.
Anakin frowned at him, although the Correllian could not see it.
Quiet, he murmured. We are not dead yet. And as soon as security is relaxed again, we can leave this place.
Yeah, right, Solo commented. Cause you just happen to have the key to our cozy little apartment in your pocket.
A lopsided grin appeared on Anakin's face.
I don't need a key, Solo, he explained. The Force is with me.
Solo groaned. Not another mad wizard! Kenobi had been bad enough, but this guy who claimed to be Luke's dad was even worse. Thinking of which...
Who are you, really? he demanded.
I told you. I'm Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker's father, Anakin answered.
He could hardly tell Solo he was Darth Vader, now could he?
Luke's father is dead. He died in the Clone Wars.
Now Solo was getting angry. Either this guy was delusional, or he was a liar. He didn't know which was worse.
Luke would not lie to me.
I would not think so. But he was misinformed himself, Anakin explained.
Misinformed? Solo echoed in a sarcastic voice. Misinformed? You really have a way with words, you know.
I have never been accused of being less than articulate, Anakin replied drily.
Han decided to change the subject.
Right. So we're just going to sit here until the guards fall asleep, you magick the door open, and we walk out of here?
That was the general idea, yes.
Don't tell me that was your first choice.
No. I would have vastly preferred to put an end to Jabba, but that would probably have gotten you killed. I could not allow that.
Hey, don't bother with me! I can watch out for myself, Solo sneered, turned around, and walked straight into the nearest wall. Damn, he muttered under his breath.
Anakin smirked. He found he was beginning to like this impossible pirate. Even blind and weak from his prolonged hibernation, the Correllian was fiercely independent.
Solo wrapped his arms around himself and tried to stop shivering. Darn, he was freezing. His bones felt like they were made of ice - which they probably still were. His eyes weren't worth a dead Hutt's promise. And to top it all off, he was stuck in a cell with a madman. Great. Just great.
Here, Anakin's deep voice said, and Solo felt something being wrapped around him. A heavy woolen cloak. He opened his mouth to protest, but Anakin cut him short: You won't be able to escape if you catch your death first.
Thanks, Solo mumbled, grateful for the warmth the cloak provided, but reluctant to show his gratitude to his strange would-be rescuer. So, what's in it for you? Why are you so interested in keeping me alive and well?
I have my reasons.
Which means you're not going to tell me, Solo nodded.
There was something strangely familiar about Anakin, and it was not any resemblance to Luke. In fact, the man could not be more different from the starry-eyed farm boy turned Rebel hero. Anakin exuded a calmness and self-confidence that Solo had rarely seen in any being, and his voice reminded Han of someone... someone dangerous.
We would be honored if you would join us.
Bespin. Lando's betrayal. The torture. The agony of being frozen in carbonite. And the man who ordered all this, face hidden behind an emotionless steel mask, adding a metallic timbre to his deep voice.
We've met before, haven't we? he asked. I know your voice... He let the rest of the sentence trail away.
Anakin sighed. There was no hiding his identity from this man; even blind, Solo was too perceptive.
Yes. Yes, Captain Solo, you know me.
You bastard! Solo yelled, and lunged at the taller man, fist drawn back to deliver a blow to his now unprotected face.
He was lucky; it felt like he hit the other right on the eye.
Vader stumbled back, grunting in pain and surprise. He had not expected Solo to attack him, blind as he was. The back of his head connected painfully with the wall of their cell, and he slid down to the floor, momentarily stunned by the blow.
Solo stood in the middle of the cell, breathing heavily, listening for anything that might tell him where Vader was.
Anakin climbed to his feet again.
I guess I deserved that, he commented.
Solo homed in on the voice, and charged again. But this time, Vader caught his flailing arms and pinned them to his sides.
Stop that, the Sith commanded angrily. You are not helping, Solo!
Oh, yeah? Good! Solo retorted.
He struggled against Vader's iron grip, but the other man was much stronger, almost inhumanly so.
What do you want this time, Vader? Need a torture victim to lure Luke in again?
He could feel Vader wince at his words. Good. He wanted him to hurt. He wanted Vader to hurt as badly as the Sith had hurt him.
Solo pressed on, What did you do to him? Did you freeze him too? That was your plan, wasn't it? he hissed. When Vader did not answer, he continued, I know you're a liar, Vader. You can't be Luke's father - no father would do that to his own child.
Enough! Vader barked, shoving Solo and his accusations away from him. He was trembling with rage. Do not continue, or I might forget myself," he warned.
He breathed deeply, pushing back the anger that threatened to consume him. For once, Solo remained silent, and Vader was grateful for that. Perhaps he could be made to listen.
I did not lie, Solo. Darth Vader is a Sith title. My name is Anakin Skywalker.
He took another deep, steadying breath. Solo turned his face in the direction of his voice. Although blind, he seemed to be watching him. It felt strange.
I did not even know I had a son until after Luke destroyed the Death Star, Anakin began.
It would be a long and complicated tale, but he had the better part of the night to tell it. He doubted he could make Solo believe. The Correllian had every reason to distrust him. But he needed to make Solo understand in order to rescue him. Of course, he could always knock him out and carry him, but somehow the thought did not appeal to Anakin. He'd have to tell his tale someday anyway, why not now?
The Death Star floated serenely in space, its finished half softly illuminated by the light reflected from the lush green moon of Endor. The unfinished half was jagged metal and open cavities yawning in the endless night of space.
Although unfinished, the space station was far from defenseless. An invisible deflector shield stretched from the moon it orbited, wrapping itself around the Death Star, protecting the station from anything that might attack it before it was completed.
Yet no one aboard the station felt secure today, for the Emperor himself was on his way to inspect his newest weapon.
The Emperor's personal shuttle was rapidly approaching the Death Star's main hangar bay. Petty Officers hurried to confirm the security code before deactivating the deflector shield, lest the Emperor's shuttle be caught in its web, while an honor guard of officers and troops gathered in the hangar.
Moff Jerjerrod was at the center of the honor guard, nervously awaiting his Majesty. There was no question as to why the Emperor was coming here. Completion of the Death Star had fallen behind schedule. Jerjerrod had been facing all kinds of problems during the past months. There had been delays in delivery of crucial parts, and poor quality of materials. Accidents had cost several lives and put work behind schedule even more.
And now the Emperor was coming to put them back on schedule. The Commander wondered why his Majesty undertook the task himself. There were several in his court who had the knowledge and authority. Personally, Jerjerrod would have preferred any of them over Palpatine himself, even the dreaded Lord Darth Vader.
The shuttle set down smoothly, and Jerjerrod remembered to drop down on one knee to greet his Emperor.
Preceded by his red robed guards, the shriveled form of Palpatine disembarked from the shuttle. Jerjerrod carefully kept his gaze cast downward until spoken to.
"Rise, Commander, the Emperor ordered. "We are most displeased with your apparent lack of progress.
"I beg your forgiveness, your Majesty, but I need more men, Jerjerrod's voice was coarse with fear. He cleared his throat and continued, "We are doing the best we can, but there are only so many hours in the day...
"Then I suggest you use them, Commander, The Emperor's voice lashed out like a whip. "This station must be operational as planned. Palpatine paused, for the first time looking directly at the tall, thin man in front of him. "We can soon expect an attack by the Rebel Alliance on this facility, Commander. You better have it fully operational by then.
"We shall double our efforts, he hurried to assure his Emperor.
"I hope so, Commander. For your sake.
"And you really expect me to believe this? Han Solo asked incredulously when Anakin had finished his tale. "Let me give you some advice: Don't start a career as a holo drama writer.
"Damn you, Solo! Anakin growled. "I did not make this up. He grabbed Han's hand and pressed it to his face. "Did you think I was wearing that mask for fun?
Han Solo grew quiet as the implications of what Anakin had told him sank in. Damn, he was used to hating Darth Vader. And now he was sitting in the same cell with him, and Vader Vader! had been spilling his guts for the past hours, telling him the story of his life. Not all of it, obviously, but enough to make the Correllian understand. Han tried to hold on to his hatred, but found it slowly slipping away, being replaced by... what? Pity? Anakin would not want pity. Compassion? That sounded better. Compassion was acceptable. Han found he also felt a grudging admiration for the Sith. If only half of Anakin's tale was true, the man had been through hell and back.
"Alright, let's say I believe you, he finally allowed. "What do you want with me, then? We're not exactly best buddies.
"I am responsible for your predicament, Solo.
"So what? Are you trying to make amends? Well, I'm honored to be the first on your list, but excuse me If I don't believe that's all there is to it.
"You are correct, he admitted. "I do have an ulterior motive.
"And that would be? Solo prompted when Anakin did not continue, not really expecting him to answer the question.
"I wish to join the Alliance. I was hoping that rescuing you would open a door for me.
"Oh, wonderful, Solo commented. "Now I'm a bargaining chip.
"More like a peace offering, Anakin corrected, a bit lamely.
"Yeah, Solo sighed, and changed the subject. "Think we can leave this dump now?
"No, Anakin slowly shook his head. He had a strong feeling that the time was not right yet. "They are still too alert, and your eyesight could be better. I suggest you get some rest while I meditate.
"Oh, sure, Han mumbled. "As if I could sleep with you in the same room.
"I assure you, Captain, my intentions toward you do not go beyond rescuing you from Jabba and bringing you back to your friends. He smiled evilly before dropping the other shoe. "Besides, your princess would neuter me if I tried anything funny.
It was quite satisfying to see Solo's eyes widen.
"Glad we understand each other, the Correllian croaked and settled down on the floor, as far away from the Sith as he could. There was no way he was going to be able to sleep now.
Anakin relaxed his mind and body. Although he was getting tired, he, too, was not going to sleep. He needed to meditate, to let his mind be receptive to the ebb and flow of thought around them, to tell when it was safe for them to leave. He closed his eyes, stretching out with his feelings, allowing his mind to flow through the palace. He gently touched an alien consciousness here, a dream there, until he suddenly encountered another searching mind. His eyes snapped open.
"Luke! he gasped.
Solo was on his feet the next moment.
"Luke? Where? he demanded.
Anakin shot the Correllian an irritated glance.
"Not here. I felt him through the Force, was his tight reply.
"Oh. Well, can you talk to him?
"I might be able to communicate, if you can keep your mouth shut long enough, Anakin snapped, and silently added, and if Luke will allow the contact.
"Alright, alright. Just tell him to stay the hell out of here, okay? We don't need to have to rescue the kid as well.
Anakin rolled his eyes.
"Don't you trust my son's abilities? he asked.
"Listen, your Lordship, I like Luke. I like him a lot. He's my friend. But he has this tendency to rush in head first and think about getting out of the detention area again later. Speaking of which... you're starting to remind me a lot of him.
Anakin did not answer, but reached out again, and was pleasantly surprised to find Luke's presence eagerly waiting for the contact.
A wealth of emotion passed between them. Anakin could clearly feel his son's desperate longing for a father, any father, and felt ashamed.
I should have been there for you... I'm sorry, son.
You didn't know.
He could feel Luke's calm acceptance of the past, of him, even of what he had been, and it was a like a soothing balm for his soul.
Where are you, father?
Sharing a cell with your friend Solo in Jabba's palace. We'll break out as soon as things are calm enough around here.
Anakin could sense a wave of pride coming from Luke. Pride in him.
I sensed your distress, father. I knew you would come back. How is Han?
Anakin's response was tinged with guilt. At laying his problems on Luke, and at having caused Solo's condition. At the time, Solo had just been a means to an end. Now Anakin realized his cruelty, not only to Solo himself, but to his friends as well. To Luke.
Suffering from hibernation sickness. He's temporarily blind, but he'll recover. Quite a character, your friend. He says to tell you to stay the hell out of here.
A low chuckle was Luke's answer to that. And not give Jabba the opportunity to get himself killed?
You have a plan? Anakin thought back.
Getting Solo out alive was his priority, but putting an end to that slime Jabba would be much more satisfying.
I do. Stay put, we are coming for you.
The contact ended as suddenly as it had begun, and for a moment, Anakin felt very alone. He took solace in the knowledge that it would not be for long. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, he leaned his head back against the cold stone wall.
"What did he say? Solo demanded.
"They're coming for us. We're to stay put.
Anakin tried to keep his voice steady. His son accepted him. It felt good. It felt like... like coming home! He stretched out on the floor and was sound asleep moments later.
"Wonderful, Han grumbled when he heard the first soft snores emanate from Anakin. "Not only am I stuck in Jabba's palace with Darth Vader, who turns out to be my friend's dad, who, by the way, is going to get us all killed any time now, no, to top it all off, the guy just has to snore!
Luke opened his eyes and allowed his senses to let the outside world in again, one by one. He had made progress with his meditations, but still needed to shut out distractions in order to meditate properly. Tonight, he had almost lost his concentration for the first time in months, but not because of outside distractions. He had prepared for the mind-to-mind contact with his father since he first sensed him approaching Tattooine, but what he felt from the elder Skywalker still left his mind reeling.
The barrage of emotions from his father was nearly overwhelming. A deep loneliness and fear of rejection were first, then shame at not being the kind of father Luke deserved, and, finally, unabashed joy when he sensed Luke's acceptance of him. It was too much to take in all at once, so Luke shoved the emotions to the back of his mind, intending to analyze and assimilate them all later. Right now, he needed to focus.
Untangling his limbs from the lotus position, he stood and stretched. Dawn was approaching fast. He would send Leia and Chewie in today.
Tomas Piett smoothed down the front of his uniform jacket for what seemed the hundredth time as his shuttle made its final approach to Home One. He wished Veers was here. He wished Lord Vader was here. Damn, why was he so nervous? Things looked a lot better than when he resigned his commission.
Let's be honest, he thought. When you defected.
At least the Rebel Alliance was not shooting at him. Yet. But would they believe the evidence he brought? They had every reason not to trust a former Imperial officer.
The shuttle landed with barely a jolt. Piett got up, wiped sweaty palms on his trouser legs, and gathered up his reports and holo cubes.
Several people were waiting for Piett outside the shuttle. An armed guard, naturally. A tall, stately woman with short red hair. Piett recognized her as Mon Mothma, elected leader of the Rebel Alliance. Next to her stood another familiar figure, General Crix Madine. He, too, was a former Imperial officer. Madine had defected when his assignments with Special Forces became too much even for him to stomach. At least that was what the rumors said. Standing on Mothma's other side was Admiral Ackbar. Of him, Piett knew very little, except that he had been Grand Moff Tarkin's slave before making a name for himself as one of the Alliance's best military leaders.
Piett covered the distance with quick strides, noticing Rebel pilots and technicians gather in small groups, watching him. Additional security, or lack of discipline? He could not tell. The Alliance certainly functioned differently from the Imperial military. For starters, all these men and women were volunteers. There were no conscripts in the Alliance. And while the Imperial military was made up almost exclusively of Human males, the Alliance seemed to have quite a share of females and non-Humans among their ranks. Piett briefly wondered how his crew would fit in with this motley group.
"Admiral Piett. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mon Mothma greeted him.
"The pleasure is all mine, Madam. Turning to Ackbar, he added, "I was looking forward to finally meeting you in person, Admiral. I have been studying your tactics.
Ackbar inclined his head in acknowledgement.
"I could say the same, Admiral. I believe we had the same teacher in Lord Vader.
"Yes. I recognized the maneuver you adapted in the battle of Kintan from the reports. Lord Vader used a similar tactic several years ago.
"It's as well that neither he nor you commanded the Imperial forces that day. We would have been hard pressed against anyone who could surmise what we were planning.
"Admiral, a conference room on this level has been readied. If you would follow us, we can discuss your surrender in a less public setting, Madine interjected.
"I did not come to surrender, General, Piett corrected him, "but to offer my services and those of my ship and crew.
Before Madine could answer, Mothma laid a hand on his arm.
"That is what we are going to discuss. And, of course, the current whereabouts of Lord Vader.
Luke Skywalker debated how much he should tell Chewie and Leia. Should they know they were about to join forces with their most hated enemy? Or would it be better if they knew nothing of their new ally? It was not an easy decision; both possible courses presented danger to Han's rescue, and to his father.
"Luke? We're ready!" Leia called.
The young Jedi turned around. Leia, standing just outside the doorway, was garbed in a bounty hunter's armor, helmet tucked under her arm. As bulky as the armor was, it could not hide her petite frame. It would, however, effectively hide the fact that Leia was Human and female.
Luke nodded, satisfied with what he saw.
"There is one more thing," he began, his decision made. He would simply let the Force guide him. "We have a new ally. Try not to kill him, okay?"
A frown crossed Leia's features. There it was again, that strange feeling that Luke was going to betray them.
"Who is he?" she demanded to know.
Luke slowly shook his head.
"That I cannot tell you. The Force does not show me everything."
It was not exactly a lie, not completely at least. There were still many things he could not see through the Force, and he knew that would always be so, no matter how much his powers grew. He still wanted to gag. It was the kind of half-truth that Obi-Wan had told him. The kind that almost made him kill his father. The kind that made him sick to his stomach.
"You better go now, Leia. Chewie is waiting for you."
Darth Vader woke up to the sound of somebody snoring and looked around. He was still sharing a cell in Jabba's palace with that smuggler, Solo. No sunlight filtered into the shabby underground room, but Vader's time sense told him it must be early afternoon. Solo turned over in his sleep, snoring even louder.
Figures, he thought. Not only is he a smuggler, a pirate and a rebel, no, he just has to snore! Wonder what the princess sees in him.
Vader stretched, a small smile gracing his face. Wonder what her father would think about that scoundrel, he thought. Bail Organa would certainly not have approved of Leia's choice. He could easily see in his mind's eye the sour expression on the Alderaanian's countenance.
Leia's adventurous nature and quick temper had gotten her into trouble with her more conservative and cautious father more than once. Although she did her best to please her father and be the princess and senator he expected her to be, she obviously took after her mother Saché, who had been one of Queen Amidala's handmaidens.
It had been on Sachés insistence that Leia be trained in self-defense, and the young princess quickly became as proficient as her mother. As the other handmaidens. As Amidala. The uncanny resemblance Leia had to her mother more than once unsettled Vader, especially when combined with action that Amidala might have taken. For all her handmaidens bore that resemblance to the Queen, and thus, Leia did as well.
It was like a glimpse into the past. Or into the might-have-been, for it was easy to imagine how any daughter of his and Padmé's would have been just like Leia.
He sighed, pushing away the unwelcome thoughts. He could not change past mistakes. He could only hope to make up for some of them.
He got up from his place on the floor, grumbling about the pain of cramped muscles in his back. Sleeping on a cold stone floor did that to you. Well, it could not be helped. Jabba's dungeon was no luxury hotel with all the trappings of a health resort. It was more likely to have booby traps. Room service left a lot to be desired, too. They would probably be left to rot in this cell without food or water, unless Jabba was planning one of his sick little entertainments. In this case, a guard would bring water and leftover food some time in the evening. Just enough to keep them alive and in reasonably good shape until they could die for Jabba's and his court's amusement.
Vader licked dry lips and cocked his head, stretching his senses to get a feel of the palace's inhabitants. What he encountered encouraged him. Jabba and his court were sleeping away the afternoon hours. Even the guards were dozing in the oppressive heat.
Smiling, he walked over to the cell door. The lock proved to be no challenge for his Force skills, and the single guard in the hallway was already dreaming of a place with a much cooler and moister climate.
"You realize, Admiral, that this is hard to believe," Mon Mothma said after Piett had finished his tale.
"Believe it," the Admiral answered. "It was quite a shock to learn to what extremes the Emperor would go. I don't presume to know how Lord Vader must feel about all this. But I do know that he will join you, and my men and I wish to do the same."
"Still...," Mothma began again, but Piett interrupted her: "Madam, I fully understand your reservations. I've shown you what proof I have. Now I must ask for your trust."
"You understand we will have to examine your so-called proof," Madine, who had so far been silent, interjected.
"Of course, General. I expect no less from you."
"In addition, we will send a prize crew aboard your ship, Admiral," Ackbar chimed in.
"That is also acceptable. In fact, we are a little short on personnel right now, so if it's not too much trouble, I would like to ask that you assign men who can later be fully integrated into my crew."
The request caused a scowl to appear on Madine's face.
"You seem to be quite certain that the Alliance will take your offer, Admiral."
"You would be a fool not to, General."
"Gentlemen, please! I am sure Admiral Piett understands that we have to bring his proposal before the Alliance council before a decision is made. After all, the Executor is not just any ship."
"We are in agreement, then," Piett stood up. "One last request, Gentlemen, Madam."
"We believe that Lord Vader is on Tattooine at the moment, trying to rescue Captain Solo. A team has already been dispatched to assist him. However, if they are not back within the next three days, I need to send a search and rescue team after them."
Madine nearly jumped up, but Mon Mothma's restraining hand on his forearm stopped him.
"Then let us hope that Lord Vader does not interfere with our own team. I am not certain how Commander Skywalker or Princess Leia will take his meddling in this," she said.
Piett tried not to look too worried.
Han Solo lay silently listening. There was no sound coming from his cell mate. Had Vader died in his sleep? Or had the Sith simply decided he wasn't worth rescuing after all and left without him? Cursing, the Correllian opened his eyes and looked around. His vision was still blurry, and the cell only dimly lit by what little light filtered in through the peep-hole in the door, but he was in fact alone. Vader was nowhere to be seen.
"That double-crossing, slimy sonofabitch!" Solo cursed.
He could have kicked himself for falling asleep in the first place. Leave it to Vader to pull such a dirty trick on him!
"Anybody I know?" a deep voice asked.
Solo spun around, squinting into the semi-darkness.
"Where the Sith-hell are you?" he hissed.
He got his answer when the lock on the cell door clicked open, and Vader entered with a large bundle under his arm, pulling the door shut behind him.
"Are you crazy? We could have gotten out of here!"
"I see you are feeling better," Vader observed. "How is your eyesight?"
"Forget my eyesight! How'd you... why...," Solo spluttered.
"Luke said to stay put," Vader smirked. "He didn't say we had to starve."
Solo looked at him as if he had lost his mind.
"I raided the kitchens. Want some chicken?"
Vader settled down on the floor and opened the bundle, which turned out to be a napkin filled with chicken legs, bread, assorted fruit, a large waterskin, and even a thermos that contained coffee.
"No plates, I'm afraid, and we have to share the cup. So, do you want some chicken?"
Instead of an answer, Han Solo started to thump his head against the wall.
A blaster shot rang out in Jabba's main audience hall, causing the revelers to pause. Several drew their own weapons as a small figure descended the stairs, dragging a tall Wookie behind her on a chain.
The small figure greeted Jabba in a gruff voice, using an obscure Outer Rim dialect: "I have come for the bounty on this Wookie."
"At last we have the mighty Chewbacca," Jabba answered in the same language, and called for 3PO to translate. The droid hurried to his new master's side.
"Yes, your worshipfulness?" he asked.
If Jabba even understood the jibe, he did not react to it.
Instead, he said something in Hutteese which 3PO dutifully translated: "The mighty Jabba bids you welcome, and will gladly pay you the reward of twenty-five thousand credits."
"Fifty thousand. No less," the bounty hunter answered, still in his own language.
When he heard the translation, Jabba let out a roar of rage, his arm hitting C3PO, sending the droid stumbling backwards. Flustered by this reaction, 3PO got back to his feet and approached the gangster again.
"What did I say?" he mumbled.
The Hutt did not answer, but growled a question of himself with barely restrained anger.
"The mighty Jabba asks why he must pay fifty thousand," 3PO translated.
At this, the small bounty hunter produced a silvery sphere. 3PO instantly recognized it.
"Because he is holding a thermal detonator!"
To his surprise and dismay, Jabba just laughed while everybody else was cowering, trying to find cover. Everybody but Boba Fett, who raised his own weapon.
"This bounty hunter is my kind of scum," Jabba declared, still laughing. "Fearless and inventive. Tell him thirty-five thousand, and not to push his luck."
Again, 3PO translated, and the small bounty hunter deactivated his thermal detonator in agreement and put it away. The whole court started to breathe again. The band picked up their tune again, and a howling Chewbacca was taken away by the Gamorrean guards.
The guards dragged and pushed Chewbacca down the corridor to the cells, poking him with their weapons every few seconds for good measure. It more than irritated the Wookiee. He would have loved to tear these lowlifes apart, but he had to stick with Luke's plan.
Not for the first time, he wondered who their new ally was, and hoped the plan would go off without a hitch. He had noticed that Han was not anymore where he should have been according to Lando's report. It meant another variable in the plan, and he did not like it one bit. Still, he trusted Luke. The cub would do anything for his friends, just like Chewbacca would do anything to rescue his partner.
They finally reached a cell almost at the end of the corridor, and Chewie found himself shoved into it without further ado. Cautiously, he sniffed the air. You never knew what you might find in Jabba's dungeon. It smelled like... fried chicken? He sniffed again. Definitely chicken, and coffee, and Han! Chewbacca could not hold back a howl of joy.
"Chewie? Chewie, is that you?" a voice came from the dark corners of the room.
Han's voice! Howling even louder, Chewbacca ran towards his Human friend and, throwing his arms around him, squeezed him with all his might.
"Ow! Chewie, let go, you're breaking my ribs!" Han gasped, squirming in his friends grip. Sometimes, Chewbacca simply forgot his own strength. "Good to see you too, buddy. How is everybody doing?"
The Wookiee growled and jabbered a reply.
"Yeah, I know Luke has a plan. Has everybody gone crazy, or what? The kid can't even take care of himself, let alone rescue anybody else!" Solo complained.
"I care to disagree, Captain," another voice answered.
Chewie pushed Han behind him, again sniffing. Was this their mysterious new ally? He smelled strange, and yet familiar.
"Oh, what do you know?" Han dismissed the other man's words.
"Much has happened in the meantime, Captain. Luke has learned a lot. He is not the kid you knew anymore."
He sounded almost sad, but at the same time, proud.
Chewbacca breathed in again, trying to puzzle out the different smells. Suntan lotion... that wasn't right... leather... metal... the deep voice also was familiar... Vader!
With an outraged scream, Chewbacca pounced on the Sith Lord, his hands closing around Vader's neck, lifting him off the ground. He would crush Vader's windpipe, squeeze the life out of that monster!
"Chewie, wait!" Han shouted. "He's on our side!"
Wrenga Jixton and Maximillian Veers had found the moisture farm without problems, following Vader's directions. What they found, however, had not been very encouraging. The farm had obviously been attacked and fire set to it several years ago. Two shallow graves marked the fact that there had been at least one survivor, or else a kind soul who would not leave the bodies of the owners to rot in the sun. What remained had been looted and picked over by the Sandpeople and the Jawas in the intervening years, leaving only the buildings themselves intact and a few permanent fixtures that neither tribe had any use for. Sandstorms had done the rest.
The two men had a busy first day cleaning out the rubble and the ever-present sand from the buildings. Several trips to the nearby town of Anchorhead on the second day were required to replace at least some of the most crucial equipment, including the vaporators. Jixton and Veers had found the underground water tanks empty, the vaporators that filled them gone, stolen like almost everything else that the fire had not destroyed. Jixton also had the tanks filled to a quarter of their capacity. He did not like sitting without water in the middle of a desert one bit.
Veers had protested against using their funds to buy so much water, but Jixton argued that it would look strange to the locals if they did not fill the tanks. The younger man had quickly picked up that the locals believed they had bought the Lars farm, as they called it, and would start planting crops as soon as possible. However, that took more water than the vaporators could provide until the planting season started. A quarter tank was the absolute minimum.
Veers finally had to agree; although they would not stay long, it was best to keep a low profile by simply filling the expectations of the locals. Anchorhead was a closely knit community; even for the short duration of their mission, they needed to blend in as good as possible lest they gave cause for suspicion.
Now, Jixton was sitting in the pit in front of what used to be the common room, enjoying the afternoon sun slanting over the rim and smoking a pipe. Some rest and relaxation was in order after all his hard work, thank you very much! Veers was puttering around in the kitchen, complaining about Jixton's choice in supplies.
"Did you have to go on an all-out shopping trip?" he called.
Jixton sighed. Veers was a battle commander, not a field agent, and it showed.
"I told you the folks here hoard staple foods. It would look funny to them if we didn't," he replied.
"Yes, but a three month supply of beans? And dried Dewback meat? And what is that grain you bought? Couldn't you at least get something decent?"
"That grain is called emmer, and I did get you your precious coffee as well, thank you very much," Jixton grumbled back. "Besides, we don't know how long we are going to be stuck here, and this stuff will at least keep."
"Don't tell me you're planning on an extended vacation on sunny Tattooine?"
Jixton laughed and stretched out his long legs in front of him.
"I'm not," he assured Veers. "But you never know what will happen until tomorrow."
Veers stepped out of the kitchen, curiously regarding Jix.
"Is there something you're not telling me?" he asked.
"Only that we're about to enter the sandstorm season. It might make getting back to Mos Eisley difficult."
Veers rolled his eyes. Wonderful! Sandstorms, now that was something Veers could definitely live without. Did it ever occur to Jixton to share information without being prodded? How in the seven Sith hells did Vader put up with the obnoxious Correllian?
"Put him down, Chewie!" Solo yelled, trying to get a grip on the Wookiee's massive forearm.
Chewbacca roared and shook his Human friend off, but his death grip on Vader's throat had somewhat loosened, allowing the former Dark Lord to get his hands between the Wookiee's fingers and break his grip.
Gasping for air, Vader landed on his feet and attempted a defensive position. Chewbacca's attack had rattled him worse than he cared to admit. When the Wookiee's thick fingers closed around his neck and he found himself unable to breath, the thought of using the Force had not even entered his suddenly panicked brain. Instead, he had kicked and struggled against his larger and stronger opponent, depleting his bodies oxygen reserves until dark spots danced in his vision.
The Wookiee stepped back, growling a question in Solo's direction. His fur was almost standing on end. Coughing, Vader massaged his abused neck.
"Yes, he thawed me, Chewie," Solo answered his friend. "I think he's serious about this. Give him a break, will ya?"
The Wookiee growled again, obviously upset with Solo.
"No, I don't trust Vader!" Solo protested. "I'm just willing to give the man a chance, okay?"
Chewbacca still eyed Vader with suspicion.
"I would prefer it if you called me Anakin," Vader croaked, and coughed again. "Unless you want Jabba to squeal my whereabouts to the Empire. Of course, that would bring half the Imperial Fleet down on us."
"Good point, Anakin," Solo conceded. "So you think they're already searching for you?"
Vader almost laughed.
"Of course they are. The Emperor knows, and that means Imperial Intelligence knows. And Black Sun. I bet Xizor already placed a bounty on my head."
Solo blanched. He knew the name Xizor, and he knew the Falleen's reputation. So far, he had been careful to avoid crossing him and his organization. Han Solo knew what was good for his health. Jabba was bad enough, but compared to Xizor the Hutt was small fish.
"What have you got to do with Black Sun?" he asked.
"Nothing. Xizor and I are... old acquaintances. He has been trying to get my job for a number of years."
"He's got nerve," he commented.
"Yes, and the Emperor's ear in too many matters," Anakin replied darkly.
"Figures," Solo muttered. "So, what is Luke's great plan?" he asked Chewie.
The Wookiee growled and pointedly looked at Anakin.
Han threw his hands up in despair. "Fine! If you're going to be difficult about this, we can just sit here and wait some more! At the rate we're going, we'll all be sharing this cell come morning!"
Anakin gave an amused chuckle.
"You know, Solo, I would not put it past Luke to plan exactly on that."
Anakin shrugged. "I would. It's not the worst position to start the escape from, you know."
Solo shook his head.
"Tell me, is insanity a requirement for Jedi, or do you pick it up during training?" he asked in a caustic voice, bringing a grin to Anakin's face.
"What is insanity, but a different point of view?" he asked lightly.
"Wonderful! Now he's getting all philosophical again", Solo muttered, retreating to the nearest corner where he sat down to wait.
The other two followed his example, keeping a careful distance from each other.
Leia, still in her bounty hunter's get-up, wandered around the reception hall. Several of Jabba's lackeys tried to strike up a conversation, but she made it clear that she was not interested in small talk. Instead, she tried to familiarize herself with the place without arousing suspicion.
Strangely, nobody seemed to mind, although she believed her attempts to be clumsy at best. It was only when she caught Boba Fett's appreciative nod that she understood. Any bounty hunter worth her salt would do exactly that familiarize herself with the place, look for escape routes. It was expected of her.
Fett finally turned away, chatting up one of the dancers. Leia relaxed somewhat. If even the master hunter bought her disguise, there was not much that could go wrong at this stage.
Night had fallen again, and the party at Jabba's palace wore on until well after midnight. Leia kept to the shadows, not taking part in the drinking and gambling. She would need a clear head later.
The princess had started to think that the feast would go on until morning when, finally, things started to wind down. One after the other, the revelers would go off to their individual quarters. Those too drunk for the short trip to their rooms simply went to sleep in the reception hall, or rather, they passed out. Leia waited until the last of them had either left or was snoring under a table before she silently crept into the corridor that led to the dungeons.
Once out of the hall, Leia silently and swiftly made her way toward the cells. The guard on duty had long since fallen asleep, assisted by a bottle provided by Lando. A quick examination revealed that he did not have any keys on him. So she would have to do it the hard way. Peering into the peep holes in each cell door, Leia finally reached the only cell occupied at the moment.
"Han?" she whispered, her voice distorted by the helmet. "Chewie?"
A low growl answered her, and three figures crowded against the door. A tall Human not Han pushed himself in front of the others. Studying her diminutive form, he smirked.
"Aren't you a little short for a bounty hunter?" he asked.
"Save it, Anakin," Solo piped up from behind him, trying to get in front of the taller man. "Who are you?"
Han! Finally! Taking off her helmet, Leia smiled the first true smile in months.
"Someone who loves you," she responded.
"Leia!" Solo plastered himself against the door.
"We have to get you out of here. Step back," she ordered, and leveled her blaster at the lock.
"No, wait, they'll hear," Anakin warned in a hushed whisper, but too late.
Han had hurriedly stepped back, and Leia blasted the door. The door, minus the lock and a good portion of the doorframe, swung open, and Solo was the first to jump through, gathering Leia in his arms and pressing a quick kiss on her lips.
"Come on! Let's go!" he called to the other two.
"Great. Just great. Between your shouting and her blasting everything in sight, the whole palace will know we're breaking out!" Anakin muttered.
Leia gave him a hard stare. "Did you have any better ideas for opening the door?"
"I could have picked the lock, your Highness."
"With what? A lock of Chewie's fur?" Leia shook her head. "Come on now, unless you enjoy Jabba's hospitality so much. I hear he provides entertainment for his guests. Unfortunately, you would be the entertainment."
Turning on her heel, she led the three down the corridor, up a flight of stairs and back into the main hall. There was no other way out except through the maze of kitchens and storerooms, which Leia did not dare navigate in the darkness with her limited knowledge of the place. No, the reception hall was their quickest way to freedom.
They had crossed half the expanse of the room when they heard deep, guttural laughter. Guards jumped from the shadows and surrounded them, blasters trained on the four would-be escapees.
"Is it just me, or have we gone through this before?" Solo uttered.
Anakin gave him a look that clearly said 'I told you so' and raised his hands over his head.
Two of the guards stepped forward and disarmed Leia. They were about to push the princess back to stand with the two men and the Wookiee when a barked command from Jabba stopped them.
"Bring her to me!"
To Han's dismay, Leia was dragged forward and shoved roughly against the Hutt's swollen belly. He tried to follow, to rescue his princess from the vile gangster, but two pairs of strong hands stopped him. He had to watch in impotent rage as Jabba's tongue darted out and the Hutt placed a slobbering kiss on Leia's mouth. The princess bent backwards, intent on escaping the Hutt's repulsive affections, but she, too, was held in a grip too strong to break.
"You will regret this. We have powerful friends," Leia choked out between gritted teeth.
Jabba leered at her.
"Soon you will learn to appreciate me," he promised in his native language.
"Take the men away. And dress the girl in something more appropriate," Jabba ordered, the leer evident even in his voice.
Han struggled against the hands holding him back, but to no avail. Anakin and Chewbacca were both much stronger than him.
The massive iron gates to Jabba's palace rumbled upward, revealing a black-robed figure against the light of the twin suns rising. Luke Skywalker strode purposefully into the hall. Two Gamorrean guards stepped forward to block his way. Luke gazed calmly at the advancing guards and lifted his hand, gathering the Force around him. The two guards choked, suddenly unable to breathe, and stumbled back. Releasing them from his invisible grip, Luke strode past them. The guards did not follow, thoroughly cowed by the Jedi's display of his powers.
The next obstacle in Luke's path arose in the form of Bib Fortuna, Jabba's Twi'lek majordomo.
"You may not pass," Fortuna told him in Hutteese.
"I am here to speak to Jabba," Luke answered.
"The great Jabba is asleep."
Luke held the Twi'lek's gaze with his own and once more employed the Force, this time to bend the other's will to his own.
"You will take me to Jabba now," he intoned.
Fortuna's yellowish eyes glazed over.
"I will take you to Jabba now," he parroted and turned to lead the Jedi to his master.
"You serve your master well," Luke observed with a smug grin. "You will be rewarded."
Pleased, Fortuna echoed the Jedi's words and hurried along.
On a farm not far from the palace, as planetary distances go, two men loaded weapons and equipment into a speeder.
"Hurry up, Jixton," Veers commanded. "We have quite a distance to cover to the palace. We got to be going if we want to make it till noon."
"We're not taking the main road," Jix replied, lugging another bag with thermal detonators into the speeder's back seat. "Don't want to announce that we're coming."
"Of course not. What was I thinking," Veers muttered. "It's still quite a distance if we're going through the desert. We have to go around the mountains."
"Not quite, General. There is a shortcut through the canyons. Of course, it's creeping with Sandpeople, so you want to keep your blaster ready," the ex- sergeant and mercenary grinned, hefting a blaster rifle and checking the charge on the weapon's magazine.
Veers rolled his eyes.
"Of course," he sighed.
In the main hall, the Hutt slept on a raised dais, his new slave Leia, now adorned in a dancer's costume, chained to him. She, too, was dozing, preserving her energy for the fight she knew would come later.
Luke stepped in front of the dais, waiting for Fortuna to wake the Hutt from his slumber. For a moment, his gaze rested on Leia. How thin she had become. Those past months had been hard on her. He silently reached out to her. Soon, my friend, he thought. Soon, sweet Leia.
Fortuna climbed onto the dais and whispered into Jabba's ear. The Hutt's eyes snapped open.
"Finally! Master Luke has come to rescue me!" C3PO shouted from his place at Jabba's elbow. No one listened to him.
"Master - Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight," Fortuna introduced Luke in a smooth voice.
"Fool!" Jabba roared, "I told you not to let him in!"
Luke took a step closer.
"I must be allowed to speak," he said quietly, focussing his mental powers.
"He must be allowed to speak," Fortuna repeated, still under Luke's influence.
"Fool! He's using an old Jedi mind trick!" Jabba thundered.
"You will bring my friends to me," Luke said and tried to get a grip on Jabba's mind.
Jabba sneered, "Your mental powers don't work on me, boy."
"Nevertheless, I will take Captain Solo and my friends with me. You can either profit from this, or you can die. The choice is yours. But I warn you not to underestimate my powers."
Jabba hollered with laughter; this little Jedi had guts! To bad he was going to die.
"There will be no deal, Jedi. I will enjoy watching you die!" he roared.
Luke started into action, stretching out his hand and ripping the blaster from one of the guards with the Force just as Jabba hit the switch that opened the trap door beneath the Jedi's feet. Luke tumbled down into the dungeon, along with a Gamorrean guard who immediately started to scream and scrambled for the blaster. Luke let him. He could always retrieve the weapon from him if he needed it. For now, he stepped back, freeing himself from his long robe and looked around, taking in his surroundings.
He was in a roughly hewn stone room, the floor covered with gnawed bones. The air was filled with the stench of rotting flesh. A large grate was on the far side of the room, the only access to the room except for the trap door in the ceiling. Now the grate opened, and there was movement in the darkness beyond it. Something large was coming. The Gamorrean screamed in fear, trying to scramble up the walls to escape the horror that shambled through the iron gate.
The Rancor, a reptilian monster half the size of a Bantha, clicked its long razor-sharp claws and gnashed its mouth filled with equally sharp teeth. It was a nightmare come to life. And it advanced on Luke.
The young Jedi Knight fell back, his gaze darting from one side to the other, searching for a way to escape his certain death by the creature. The Rancor, however, was not interested in Luke at all. At least, not yet. The Gamorrean's screams had wakened the creature's hunting instincts, and its hunger. With a speed that belied its bulk as well as its shambling gait, the Rancor reached the guard and grabbed him with one taloned paw, bringing him up to its giant mouth and biting the pig-like Gamorrean in half. The squeals stopped immediately.
In two giant gulps, the Gamorrean was gone, and the Rancor began to look for more food. Its gaze fell on Luke Skywalker.
Luke scrambled back, keeping as much distance as possible between himself and the creature. What he would not give to have his lightsaber now! But the weapon was safely stored inside a compartment in R2D2's head, out of reach for now. He would have to make do with what he found here. His eyes darted around, searching for the blaster the guard had dropped in his death throes. There it was... unfortunately, "there" was under the Rancor's clawed foot, and "it" was a twisted mass of metal, barely recognizable as a blaster anymore. Damn.
Luke's searching hand touched a long bone, remains of an earlier victim, and grabbed it. Holding it in front of him like a lightsaber, Luke let the Rancor advance on him. He had only one chance.
The monster grabbed Luke around the waist with one giant claw and effortlessly lifted the young Jedi up to its gaping maw. Lightning-quick, Luke rammed the thigh bone between the snapping jaws, blocking them. The Rancor screamed and dropped its recalcitrant meal, hunger forgotten for the moment. Clawing at its own mouth it attempted to get rid of the bone. Diving between the Rancor's legs, Luke managed to get behind the giant creature and threw himself into the entranceway, only to find his path to safety blocked by another gate.
With brute strength, the Rancor snapped the bone in half. Its small brain could only focus on one task at the time, and it only now remembered the meal that had temporarily escaped. Screeching in anger and frustration, it turned around, scanning the room with crazed eyes.
Luke froze as the Rancor fixed its beady eyes on him again. This time, there was no room to escape from the creature. He had to find another way.
The creature advanced with long steps, and within seconds reached the first gate just as Luke saw a possibility to kill it. Grabbing a skull from the ground, the Jedi threw the morbid projectile on a control panel, smashing it, resulting in the first gate crashing down on the Rancor's neck. The creature was killed almost instantly. Luke let out a breath he did not remember holding and slumped back against the rough wall next to the second gate. Jabba's enraged scream rang in his ears.
Hands bound behind their backs, Anakin, Han and Chewbacca were dragged unceremoniously before the Hutt were they were joined by Luke, who was equally manacled.
"Luke! How's it going?" Han cried in greeting.
"Same as always," Luke replied, smiling.
"That bad, huh?" the Correllian quipped.
Anakin smiled as well. He was finally with his son.
"Luke," he said simply, reaching out with his mind at the same time, offering a more personal greeting.
"Father," Luke acknowledged before turning to face Jabba.
"Talk droid," the gangster rumbled. 3PO answered the summons.
"I am here, your high exaltedness."
The Hutt spoke in his native language, voice shaking with anger, and the droid translated: "The great Jabba has decreed that you will all die immediately for this outrage."
"Good! I hate long waits," Anakin joked.
On Han's stare, he shrugged.
"I always had trouble showing patience, or so I'm told," he explained.
Slightly flustered by the interruption, 3PO continued: "You will be brought to the Dune sea and thrown into the Great Pit of Carcoon, the resting place of the all-powerful Sarlacc. In his belly, you will learn a new dimension of pain and suffering, as you are slowly digested over the course of a thousand years."
"On second thought, let's pass on that," Solo muttered. Chewie growled his agreement. Only Anakin seemed unperturbed.
"Aren't you afraid we'll give your pet indigestion?" he called as the guards dragged him away.
A herd of wild Banthas slowly lumbered through the desert, following a trail as old as time to their grazing grounds when the lead female suddenly lifted her massive head and sniffed the air. A low rumble emanated from the animal's chest, and the whole herd changed direction to avoid the thing that crossed their path.
A few dunes away, Jabba's sail barge drifted across that ancient path, accompanied by two smaller skiffs. On one of the skiffs, Luke and Anakin Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca stood manacled and surrounded by guards and, of course, Lando Calrissian. The second skiff held more guards, rough looking individuals of several different species. They had only two things in common: They worked for Jabba, and they were armed to the teeth.
Han shifted his weight; he was still not convinced that the kid would not get them all killed. So far, Luke's plan sounded a lot like one of Lando's hare-brained schemes. Han found himself wishing for some of Anakin's confidence in the young Jedi. Of course, he's always known that Vader wasn't firing on all thrusters. Bespin had proved that. Han nervously shifted his weight again. At least his eyes were getting better. Fat lot of good it did them in their current predicament.
"Not much to see here," he commented. "Sand, sand, and more sand."
A small smile graced Luke's lips. He understood Han's uneasiness.
"I grew up here, you know," he said.
"And now you're gonna die here. Convenient," Han sneered.
"I would not bet on that, Solo," Anakin interjected in his deep voice. "I have complete trust in my son's ability to rescue us."
Han turned around to face Anakin, seeing him for the first time in full sunlight. A tall man, muscular, with a thin scar on his otherwise handsome face and another on his scalp, bald except for the first hint of blond stubble. Pale skin rapidly turning red under the glare of Tattooine's twin suns. Strikingly blue eyes, very much like Luke's, one of which was nearly swollen shut. So he had hit him in the eye back in the cell in Jabba's palace.
"I don't see you using your Jedi powers to free us", Han spat.
Anakin smiled, "Relax, Captain. We will get out of here in one piece."
"I can hardly wait."
On the sail barge, Jabba was resting on another raised dais, twin to the one he had in his throne room, his new Human slave Leia chained to him. The party was still in full swing, his guests anticipating a true killer entertainment. 3PO busied himself translating for those who did not speak a common language, drifting from one table to the next as those he served discovered they had nothing to talk about, or better things to do with each other than talk. On one of his circuits, the tall droid literally bumped into an old friend.
"R2D2! What are you doing here?" he demanded to know.
The smaller droid twittered something.
"I can see you're serving drinks. But this place is dangerous. They are going to execute Master Luke, and if we are not careful, us too."
R2D2 beeped a short reply.
"I wish I had your confidence," 3PO muttered, watching as R2 made his way through the crowd.
Behind him, Jabba laughed and pulled Leia closer to him on her chain. Soon enough, the little Human would learn to appreciate him. For now, he was content to see her struggle futilely against him.
A small speeder raced out of the canyons and into the open desert.
Maximillian Veers was desperate to reach Jabba's palace exactly at noon. He had been itching to take action ever since this mission began. Lord Vader should never have gone alone into the gangster's stronghold.
In the copilot's seat, Wrenga Jixton calmly checked his weapon again. Unbeknownst to both men, the Pit of Carcoon was directly between them and the palace. And they were much closer to seeing Darth Vader again than they thought.
The three antigravity ships slowed down, having reached their destination. For Luke, Anakin, Han and Chewie, it was supposed to be their final destination. The skiff they were on swung in an elegant arc around and over the Great Pit of Carcoon, allowing Jabba and his guests the best possible view of the execution. Music wafted over from the sail barge, suddenly louder as the shutters on the observation deck were opened and a myriad of eyes peered out at them.
Two guards untied Luke and shoved him onto a plank protruding from the side of the skiff. Looking down, Luke could see the mouth of the Sarlacc, a pinkish, moist hole about eight feet in diameter, surrounded by tendrils waving lazily in the pre-noon heat. As he watched, the tendrils' movements seemed to gain purpose, the large beast under the sand smelling the meat above it. He stepped out on the plank.
On the sail barge, 3PO stepped up to a microphone and relayed Jabba's message to his prisoners.
"The great Jabba hopes you will die honorably," he announced. "But should any of you wish to beg for mercy, Jabba will now listen to your pleas."
"3PO, you can tell that worm-ridden piece of filth he'll get no such satisfaction from us!" Han yelled back.
If all else fails, try bravado. It can't get you in any more trouble than you're already in, and sometimes, it can get you out of trouble. At his side, Anakin smiled. It was not the smile of a happy man; it looked more like the smile of a hungry predator that, after a long time of waiting, finally has its prey exactly where it wants it to be. Backed up against a wall with no way to escape. The tall Jedi moved his wrists, testing the bonds, and concentrated. A tiny click sounded, and the bonds opened.
Luke, too, was ready.
"Jabba, this is your last chance," he shouted. "Free us or die."
Jabba roared with laughter at the little Jedi's impudence. Didn't he know when he'd lost?
"Put him in," he commanded.
Unseen, R2D2 rolled up a gangway to the upper deck to await Luke's signal.
Luke looked up at R2 and touched his forehead in salute. A hatch opened in the droid's domed head. On the skiff, the guards readied themselves to throw the Jedi into the pit, when suddenly Luke leaped up, turned in the air, and caught the end of the plank with his fingertips when he came down again just as R2D2 shot the lightsaber high into the air.
Using his momentum, Luke shot up again, dislodging one of the guards with the sudden movement. The guard screamed and plummeted down into the pit, today's first victim for the Sarlacc. Somersaulting over the other guard, Luke landed on his feet, and the lightsaber fell into his outstretched hand.
Meanwhile, Anakin grappled with a third guard, lifting the Gamorrean bodily into the air and throwing him down into the pit to follow his friend. Another hors d'oeuvre for the Sarlacc.
By now the guards on the second skiff had noticed that not everything was going according to plan. As quickly as possible, their pilot swung the craft around and toward the first skiff, while the guards started firing wildly at the other skiff.
With lightning quick reflexes, Luke ignited his lightsaber and repelled the blaster bolts coming at them.
"Get down!" he shouted. "Han, stay close to Chewie and Lando. Father, get Leia - I'll take care of the other skiff!"
Before Anakin had a chance to answer, Luke jumped onto the advancing second skiff, using the Force to enhance his strength and bridge the distance.
"You call that a plan?" Han screamed, outraged as Chewie pushed him down onto the relative safety of the deck.
Anakin laughed. He had not felt so alive in ages!
Taking on another guard, he almost threw that one overboard as well when the man yelped, "Put me down! I'm on your side!"
"Calrissian?" Anakin set the dark skinned Human down again. "My apologies, I got carried away."
"Hey, how do you know me, anyway?"
"I'll explain later. Take care of Solo and Chewbacca."
Anakin, too, jumped, landing hard on the side of the sail barge. His fingers clawed at the sheet metal, finding nuts and bolts to hang on to just as the shutters came down again, sealing off the observation deck. Using every little ledge and bolt he could find, the Jedi started to climb up to the deck.
On the upper deck of the sail barge, Boba Fett checked his weapons and rocket back pack before taking off to the prisoner skiff. Han Solo would not escape that easily. Not as long as he had any say in the matter.
Meanwhile, Luke was cutting down Jabba's minions like grass on the second skiff. The Sarlacc would be feeding well today.
Swerving around a smaller sand dune, a speeder shot towards the battle.
"There they are!" Jixton yelled. "Told ya we'd make it!"
"Only because we didn't have to go all the way to the palace," Veers muttered.
It irked him that Jixton was right again. The ex-sergeant had thought he heard a noise just over the next dune and insisted on checking it out. Veers felt they were running out of time, but Jixton had the better arguments. Namely a loaded blaster ready in hand.
Jix cocked his blaster rifle and fired wildly into the fray, one of the bolts hitting Boba Fett's rocket pack just as the bounty hunter was about to land on the prisoner skiff.
Below him on the deck, the Wookiee noticed him and growled, and he heard Solo's unmistakable voice cry, "Boba Fett? Where?"
And then the pack went off again, sending the bounty hunter careening wildly and out of control until he hit the sloping side of the pit. Down he went, immediately unconscious from the impact.
On the sail barge's observation deck, Leia had waited for the right moment before grabbing a bottle and smashing the shutter controls. In the sudden darkness, she jumped up and behind Jabba, coiling the chain around the Hutt's thick neck.
In the general confusion, nobody stopped her as she pulled the chain with all her weight, and Jabba could not call for help. The chain dug deeply into the gangster's neck, effectively blocking his windpipe. The Hutt's eyes bulged. He could not breathe anymore. Enraged, he twisted his massive body, tried to pry the chain from his neck, but his great bulk could not move fast enough. He was running out of oxygen quickly. And the girl would not let on. She used all her weight, all her strength, to pull the chain even tighter. Finally, his tail spasmed one more time, the large yellow eyes dimmed, the fat hands slid limply from the chain and fell to his sides. Jabba was dead.
Anakin fought his way into the observation deck, throwing guests and guards aside as he did so. It was more difficult than he had expected, since most of them tried to escape right down the same path he was taking, only in the opposite direction. Grabbing a blaster from one of the guards, he fired it a few times, sending the mixed Human and Alien flash flood back to the deck they had just fled in a panic. They trampled over each other in their haste to escape the Jedi.
When he reached the observation deck, Anakin stopped dead in his tracks. Bodies were strewn about, some still moving. Even more huddled in the corners. In the center of the room, Jabba's corpse lay on the dais, tongue hanging out. Leia, still chained to the gangster's carcass, tried to take a cylindrical object on a table just out of her reach. His lightsaber, on display for the Hutt's guests. Anakin stretched out his palm, and the weapon flew into his hand.
Leia looked up at him. Sweat beaded her brow and made a few wisps of hair that had escaped her braid stick to her face.
"You again. Who are you?"
"Time for that later, your Highness," Anakin responded and ignited his saber. "Let's get out of here first."
With a nod, Leia held the chain out for him to cut through. He brought the glowing blade down, freeing the princess.
"Let's go!" she commanded.
Anakin held out his hand and helped her to her feet.
On the upper deck, a remaining guard manned the main gun and fired at the prisoner skiff, rocking the craft with every hit. Calrissian fired back, but could not get a clear shot at the gunner, when another hit caused him to lose his balance. Grabbing the railing with both hands, he watched helplessly as their only blaster fell down into the pit.
By now the skiff was listing badly to one side, and he, as well as Han and Chewbacca, had to hang on for dear life just to avoid sliding down into the Sarlacc's gaping mouth like so many tasty morsels. Somehow, Han managed to crawl to the skiff's controls with Chewie's help, and start the engines with still manacled hands. With a big lurch that almost dislodged the three of them, the skiff sailed away from the pit and on, or rather above, safer ground. But the danger was not over yet.
On the second skiff, Luke had cut down nearly all of the guards when a shot from the sail barge sizzled past his ear. Dropping to his knees, he skewered the last remaining guard with his blade, and, in a fluid motion, turned to face the new danger.
Anakin dragged Leia down the corridor to the upper deck when he heard a familiar voice whine, "My eyes! Not my eyes, please!"
"C-3PO! We cannot leave him behind!" Leia shouted.
"C-3PO?" Anakin whispered.
He had noticed a tall, thin protocol droid just like the one he built as a child in Jabba's employ, and Solo had called the machine 3PO, but until now he had not made the connection. There must be thousands, even millions of similar droids around the galaxy. Could it really be? He shook himself out of his reverie.
"Of course, you are right."
They followed the droid's voice around a corner to find 3PO on his back, one of his eyes dangling out of his skull by a cable. Salacious Crumb was just picking at the other eye, laughing maniacally as he did so. Anakin raised his hand and dislodged the disgusting little creature, sending him flying into a corner.
"Oh, thank you so much, Sir. I thought that little beast would be the end of me," 3PO gushed as Anakin helped him to his feet.
"You're welcome. Tell me..." Anakin stopped himself.
There was time for that later. Right now he had to bring Leia and the droid safely out of here.
"Yes, Sir?" 3PO inquired.
Anakin shook his head slightly.
"Nothing. Follow us."
With that, he turned and led the way towards the upper deck.
On the guards' skiff, Luke was weaving a tight defense web against the blaster shots coming at him from the sail barge with his blade. However, he could do no more than defend himself. The bolts were coming to quickly, and from several locations, when the speeder came around for an attack run on the barge. Screaming at the top of his lungs, Jixton fired with two blasters, taking out three of Luke's attackers almost instantly when the main gun swung around to take shots at the new target. Veers swerved at the last possible moment, narrowly avoiding a direct hit. He just brought the speeder back on course when Anakin emerged on the deck, Leia and the droid in tow.
Both the Jedi and the princess immediately assessed the situation. Leia dove for a fallen guard, pried the blaster from his fingers and started shooting. Anakin used his lightsaber alternately to repel blaster shots from more of Jabba's friends, and to cut down the attackers when he saw Leia duck behind a crate, a determined look on her face. She looked exactly like Padmé would have. For the merest moment, the former Sith Lord froze.
As if pulled by an invisible force, Leia looked up to see one of the gangsters taking aim at her rescuer who stood gaping at her, unmoving. She brought her own blaster up and fired, the bolt hitting the gangster square in the chest. Her rescuer whirled around, the spell broken, and continued to fight.
From the second skiff, Luke watched as his father and his friend fought for their lives.
He had taken out the guards and maneuvered the skiff closer to the barge, shouting, "Leia! The main gun!"
Leia looked up, nodded once, and sprinted towards the gun, firing her blaster all the way. Her second shot hit the gunner and killed him instantly. Anakin stepped in the way behind her, protecting her back.
"Point it at the deck!" Luke yelled and ducked as new blaster bolts came flying his way. He brought the skiff around again, avoiding the shots as best he could.
Leia threw her blaster away and instead took possession of the main gun. A few well-placed shots took care of he remaining gangsters, and then she pointed the gun down.
"What now?" she muttered.
Anakin appeared at her side, grinning, and clipped his lightsaber to his belt.
"I think I know what Luke has in mind," he declared.
Twisting his head around to check for C3PO he just saw R2D2 push the wailing protocol droid overboard before rolling off the deck after him. That left only him and Leia onboard from their group. He grabbed a rope that dangled down from the mast, gathered Leia up in his free arm, gave the gun's trigger a little push with the Force, and jumped. The two of them swung to the safety of the second skiff as the gun fired into the deck behind them, starting a chain reaction that quickly engulfed the barge in smoke and flame.
Meanwhile, Han brought the severely damaged prisoner skiff down on the far side of the pit, and Lando could finally take his and Chewie's manacles off.
"Well," the Correllian sighed, "guess it did work after all."
On the second skiff, Anakin stood in front of Luke, suddenly feeling very unsure of himself.
"Luke..." he began, and a large smile spread on his son's face.
Without a further word, Luke let go off the skiff's controls and drew him into a tight hug. For a moment, Anakin stiffened before he relaxed into the embrace and placed his own arms around his son for the first time in both their lives.
"He's your father? But Luke, I thought your father was dead," Leia injected.
"So did I, Leia, for a long time," Luke smiled up at his father. "For a very long time." Reluctantly, he let go of his father.
Anakin smiled back when the speeder drew alongside the skiff.
"Mission accomplished, Uncle Dee," Jix piped up.
Anakin frowned at the Correllian.
"You are early. It is not quite noon yet," he chided.
"And you aren't where you are supposed to be," Jix bit back.
"I'm afraid he is correct, My lord," Veers intervened. "We would have reached the palace at noon. It was sheer luck we took the way through the canyons, Sir, or we would have missed you completely."
Leia looked hard at Veers; the man seemed familiar to her.
"General Maximillian Veers," she breathed.
She knew him. She knew his reputation. A brilliant officer, hard, but fair, and fanatically loyal to Vader. And he had just called Luke's father...
"Vader!" she spat. "You are Darth Vader!"
She took a step back from Anakin, disgust marring her features.
"Luke, how could you?"
All her premonitions of Luke betraying her trust now came back to her full force.
"How long, Luke? How long have you been spying for him?"