Force of Destiny - Part 3
The accusation hung between the Princess and the young Jedi, and for a moment, Luke's calm mask slipped, betraying his own feelings of fear and pain. Fear that he might loose his friends when they learned who his father really was. The remembered pain he himself had suffered at Vader's hands, and the pain he felt for his friends. For Leia.
Anakin felt all this with his son, and he wished, not for the first time, that he could undo the past, that he could somehow turn back time. But that was even beyond his power. For the first time, Anakin realized that Luke might pay a high prize for his presence.
No, he vowed silently, I will not allow him to lose his friends because of me. But then he realized it might already be too late for that; the damage was done. All he could do now was try and diffuse the situation, and explain himself to the Princess later. Anakin had known from the beginning that gaining the Rebels' trust would be difficult, if not impossible.
"No, Leia, you got it all wrong," Luke entreated, but Anakin held up a hand to silence him.
"I suggest you take care of the controls, Luke, before we ram the other skiff. There will be time to discuss this in committee later."
Luke whirled around. Anakin was correct; while they had been talking, the skiff had continued on its course away from the burning wreckage of Jabba's barge and was now coming dangerously close to the other skiff. Han, Chewie, and Lando were already scrambling down the far side of the stranded vehicle's hull to escape the impact that was only seconds away. Cursing in a very unJedilike fashion, Luke worked the controls to bring the skiff to a stop. The skiff glided to a halt mere centimeters from its sister ship, and Luke allowed himself to relax slightly.
"You okay?" he called down to Han and the others.
"Yeah, yeah," Solo shouted back, jogging around the skiff. "Next time, keep a safe distance, kid!"
He stepped up to the skiff, hands on his hips. "Are you guys going to take us on board, or are you planning on a picnic in the desert?"
Chuckling, his problems momentarily forgotten, Anakin lowered the gangway and helped first Solo, then Calrissian and the Wookiee board.
He then turned to face Leia, who was glaring at him, apparently wishing she still had a blaster in her hand.
"Luke is not the traitor here, your Highness," he began' "I am."
"Oh, really?" The sarcasm was evident in Leia's voice. "The Emperor's lapdog suddenly turns to bite his master? Somehow I find this hard to believe, Lord Vader."
Anakin winced at her harsh words, and Han stepped between them, placing his arms around the princess in a loose embrace.
"Give him a chance, sweetheart. He's really trying, ya know," he said, catching her gaze with his own.
"You too, Han?" Leia brought her hands up, breaking the embrace, and took a step back, placing as much distance between the two men and herself as was possible. "Are you mad? Have you forgotten who he is? What he's done?"
"Not likely, your worshipfulness." Han gave her one of his lopsided grins. "I just happen to believe in second chances."
He threw a meaningful glance at Lando, who stood leaning at the railing, arms crossed in front of his chest. He, too, was looking daggers at Anakin, who in turn tried to appear calm and unperturbed. Which was not easy considering the fact that now, of all times, the unprotected skin of his scalp and face started to itch and burn under Tattooine's relentless suns. The tall Jedi cleared his throat.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to get out of the sun before I start blistering," he said.
"Yeah, my eyes could use a break from this, too."
"How are your eyes, Solo?" Anakin inquired.
"Almost as good as new," Han answered, turning to look at Anakin when his gaze fell upon the horizon. He squinted. "Except... the horizon looks a bit fuzzy," he finished lamely.
Both Anakin and Luke turned.
"Sith," Luke exclaimed, immediately giving his father an apologetic look.
"My feelings exactly, son," Anakin replied in a dry voice. "Looks like a big one."
Look shook his head.
"Too early in the season for the really big ones," he said.
"Except in sun spot years,", Anakin corrected. "Luke, how was the weather eight years ago?"
Luke made a quick calculation in his head and suddenly grew pale under his tan.
"Uh-oh," he whispered.
Anakin nodded, his mouth set in a grim line, and moved over to the controls. "Let's get out of here and under cover."
"What? What are you talking about?" Leia demanded, exasperated.
"Sandstorm, your Highness. Extremely dangerous. If we're not under shelter before it hits us..." Anakin let the rest of the sentence trail away.
"It can't be that bad, can it?" Leia asked. "I mean, it's just wind blowing sand and dust up in the air."
Anakin gave a short, humorless bark of laughter.
"Wind at several hundred kilometers per hour, your Highness. Powerful enough to move sand and grit with a speed sufficient to grind flesh off the bones." He gave her a lopsided grin. "I used to live here as a child, you know. Even behind city walls, you would not stay outside during a sandstorm."
"I've heard stories about travelers who got caught out in a sandstorm," Han piped in. "Never believed them, though."
"Believe them," Anakin nodded.
"What stories?" Leia asked.
"Well... only their bones were found afterwards, polished clean by the sand," Han told her. "Of course, I've never seen it myself. It's just a story the locals tell."
"Not just a story, Solo," Anakin said. "I have seen those bones." He looked into the distance. "I was just a boy. The search party took me along because of my ability to find things." He took a deep breath. "It took us two days to find the remains. At first, no one believed me when I said that those bones and scraps of cloth were what was left of the missing travelers. They thought I was making it up, to get home again. The remains did look like they had been in the desert for years." He paused for a moment. "Until my companions took a closer look, and identified one of the skeletons by an amulet the being used to wear. Only then did they believe me."
"Oh," Leia uttered. "Well, then, what are we waiting for? Shouldn't we take shelter?"
"We'll never make it to the nearest city. Where are you staying?" Anakin asked.
"Ben's house," Luke offered, but shook his head in the next moment. "But we'll be hard pressed to reach it before the storm reaches us. The farm would be closer, but I don't know in what condition it is. I haven't been there since I came back."
"The Lars' farm?" Veers asked from his position in the speeder, which was still hovering alongside the skiff. "We're staying there. And Jix here made certain we have enough food and water for the lot of us."
"Good thinking, Jixton. The farm it is, then."
He started up the skiff's engines.
"We should take the canyon road. It's shorter, and the canyon will provide some shelter if we don't make it in time," Jix suggested, but Luke shook his head.
"No," he said. "The skiff is too large to maneuver the canyons. We would be trapped there. The open desert is our only chance."
"If you can find your way there, Commander," Veers pointed out. "I'm told one easily gets lost in the open desert."
Anakin laughed at that. "He's a Jedi, General. Of course he will find the way."
Veers still did not look convinced.
"I grew up on this farm, General," Luke added. "It was my home for eighteen years." He took the controls again from his father. "Just follow me."
"Let's not forget the droids," Anakin reminded him.
"Never." Luke smiled up at his father.
They picked up R2D2 and C3PO, who were upside-down next to the burning wreck of the barge, and were on their way, trying to outrun the sandstorm that loomed at the horizon.
They reached the farm just as the first fringes of the storm reached them, blowing up sand and dust around them, making it impossible to see more than a foot in front of them. Luke brought the skiff down and anchored it in the sand.
"Let's get inside, quick," he yelled over the howling of the wind.
Veers landed the speeder lee-side of the skiff, where it would be protected from the worst of the storm by the larger vehicle's bulk. The whole group hurried to get into the protection of the underground farm buildings. C-3PO had trouble keeping up; for the whole of the flight, the tall droid had been uttering complaints and voicing his fears to everybody who would listen, and each and every one of his comments brought a fond smile to Anakin's lips.
Once Luke shut the door behind them, the noise died down to a bearable level.
"Okay, Anakin, spill," Han demanded, leaning against the wall. "What is it with you and Goldenrod here?"
Anakin smiled again.
"His designation is C-3PO, isn't it?"
"Yes, Sir," 3PO piped in.
"And you were built here on Tattooine?" Anakin asked.
"Oh, yes, Sir," the droid answered. "My first master built me, Sir. His name was Anakin Skywalker. He left before he could complete me, though. I have always wondered if he was related in some way to Master Luke, Sir."
"I am indeed, 3PO," Anakin whispered. "Luke is my son."
"Sir?" 3PO queried. "You are Master Anakin, Sir?"
Anakin nodded, slowly.
"You've always been a great pal, 3PO," he stated in a voice so soft that only Han and 3PO heard him.
"Great pal? This golden menace to sanity?" Han guffawed. "Now I know you're completely out of your mind, your lordship!"
Waiting out the Storm
Anakin laughed at Solo's sour face, the first, full-hearted laughter any of the others ever heard from him.
"I have it on good authority that he is perfect," he said after he caught his breath again.
"Yes, perfect for driving me insane," Solo muttered.
"You built C-3PO?" Leia interjected, incredulous.
"I did. He was a gift for my mother. Of course, I was only nine years old," Anakin replied, again with that far-away look in his eyes.
Leia studied the former Dark Lord; she had never before thought of Darth Vader having a mother, or having been a child at some time. It was hard to imagine that the man-machine she had grown to hate had once been a little boy, had once been an innocent kid playing games in the back alleys of a small town on Tattooine.
It was Jixton who interrupted the moment by throwing a small jar at Vader, who caught it effortlessly.
"Here. Thought you might need this, Uncle Dee," the scruffy- looking Correllian announced.
Vader looked at the jar. It contained a sunburn ointment. Indeed just the thing he needed now. He opened it and smeared a liberal amount on his face and scalp, sighing with relief as the itching and burning stopped almost immediately.
"Thank you, Jixton."
"Nice shiner, by the way," Jix commented, pointing at the Jedi's black eye.
On his expectant gaze, Anakin shrugged and said, "Captain Solo and I have been discussing my former political affiliation."
This gave Jixton pause; he regarded Solo with new respect.
"Sir, allow me to shake your hand," he finally addressed Han. "I've been trying to sneak up on him for months. He's simply too good for me."
Han tried valiantly to keep a straight face.
"Forget the sneaking up part," he advised. "Full frontal attack when he doesn't expect it, that's the trick."
Jixton nodded sagely.
"Ah, yes," he replied. "That's the difficulty - he always expects an attack."
Anakin looked from one Correllian to the other, and threw his arms up in mock disgust.
"Are you two through comparing notes?" he huffed. "I don't know why I put up with this..."
"Perhaps because we put up with you?" Han asked, grinning a lopsided grin.
The sandstorm continued throughout the afternoon, even growing stronger as the hours passed, and the group shared a quiet meal in the safety of the Lars' farm, Anakin commenting on Veers' unexpected domestic qualities, much to the General's embarrassment. Otherwise the conversation was sparse during mealtime. Except Jixton and Piett, none of them had had a full night's sleep lately, and they were starting to feel it.
Stifling a yawn, Anakin rose from his seat. He had not fully adapted to local time yet, and the few hours of rest snatched between plotting courses and waiting for the right time to move during the past days had barely been enough.
"I think I'll call it a day," he announced. "Where can I bunk down?"
"You can have my old room, father," Luke replied, giving Veers and Jixton a questioning glance, "provided it's not taken yet?"
"The one across the master bedroom? No, but it's empty," Jixton shrugged. "I'm afraid the Sandpeople and the Jawas didn't leave much of the furniture behind when they looted the place."
"That's alright. I've grown accustomed to sleeping on the floor lately."
"I'll show you where it is..." Jixton jumped to his feet, but Anakin held up his hand.
"I know the place, Jix, thank you," he smiled. "It used to belong to my stepfather, after all."
He turned and, yawning, made his way to the room he had once shared with his stepbrother Owen on his infrequent visits to his home planet, after becoming a Jedi Padawan. The room was indeed empty, and yet, it still seemed so much smaller than it used to, even without Owen taking up most of the space.
Anakin never knew what Owen hated more about him, the fact that he came to visit, or the fact that he would always leave again while he, Owen, was stuck on this Force-forsaken dustball to follow in his father's footsteps and become a moisture farmer. Anakin had had many arguments about it with Owen, but only one with the elder Lars.
`You are not my father´ he had shouted at the man when Lars had once to often ordered him around and treated him like one of the helpers on the farm. He had not been welcome anymore after that outburst.
Settling down on the floor, Anakin tried not to recall his mother's face when Lars told him to leave with his "wizard friends". It was the last time he had seen her alive.
That night, the nightmares returned.
Leia Organa could not sleep. That in itself was nothing new for her. Ever since Han had been frozen in carbonite, sleep had become a rare commodity for the Alderaanian princess.
But now Han was back at her side. Literally - the smuggler was stretched out on his stomach, one arm thrown across her body, dead to the world. And still, Leia could not sleep. It wasn't Han's snoring. That had stopped when he turned over to snuggle more comfortably against her. It wasn't the hard floor, either. During her years in the Rebel Alliance, Leia had become accustomed to the strangest sleeping accommodations imaginable. A floor was comfortable by comparison.
No, it was the presence of Darth Vader right next door that kept her from getting any rest. Not that Vader seemed to be faring much better; Leia could hear him toss and turn, and sometimes mumble something in his slumber. She sighed, and again closed her eyes to try and get some rest. Vader would certainly not try anything tonight.
"I do not trust this Admiral Piett," Padmé repeated. Sitting rigidly upright in her chair, the former Queen of Naboo regarded the gathered Rebel leaders. Her posture did nothing to hide her indignation "He is one of Vader's own."
"True, Padmé," Mon Mothma granted. "And, according to him, that is exactly why he is here."
"You believe this ploy?"
Mon shook her head.
"I do not know what to believe. Admiral Piett has provided proof that Lord Vader has been... mistreated by the Empire, to put it mildly. Our experts found no trace of forgery. The data seems to be genuine." She allowed herself a smile before continuing in her soft voice, "I, too, find it hard to believe that Lord Vader would join us. Yet, we cannot turn Admiral Piett down. He did not come alone. He brought the most powerful ship the Empire has, and that ship alone could reduce a third of our fleet to space debris before we could destroy it. So, our choices are rather limited. General Madine?"
"We sent a prize crew aboard Executor. So far, the officers and crew have co-operated fully with our people. Reports indicate that Executor is short on staff, a fact that Admiral Piett did relay to us, but otherwise fully battle worthy."
"Your recommendation, General?"
"Accept their offer, but keep the ship on the edge of the fleet. Do not divulge any sensitive information to them. Brief the prize crew accordingly."
"A wise course, General," Mothma nodded.
"Security also suggests to plant explosive devices on board Executor, as a safeguard only, to disable her drive and weapons' systems should the need arise," Madine continued.
"I must protest," Ackbar cut in. "While the other measures make sense, such an open display of mistrust would only serve to alienate Executor's crew."
"Admiral Ackbar is correct. We cannot afford to antagonize our new allies. The potential danger involved is simply to great." Mon Mothma looked around the assembled Rebel leaders. "Are we in agreement, then?"
"Except for one point, Madame President. I insist on a liaison officer of my own choosing."
The use of her formal title from Padmé did not bode well in Mon's opinion. It made her words an official request, if not an order.
"Name him, please." There was a chance that Padmé's choice was sensible, even given her open hatred of the Empire and especially Darth Vader.
"General Jar Jar Binks."
Mon Mothma's jaw almost dropped. The tall, lanky Gungan stepped forward from his customary place behind and slightly to the side of the former queen.
"Meesa, yousa Majesty?"
"In more than thirty years, you have served me well. Now you will be my eyes and ears aboard the Executor."
Madine cleared his throat.
"Do you think that is wise?" he asked with a sidelong glance at the alien; Binks was a lot of things, but certainly no spy.
Mon Mothma hushed Madine with a small gesture.
"What General Madine is saying is that you will be without a bodyguard if you send General Binks on this mission."
"General Binks is a hero of the Trade Federation war. He has my complete trust," Padmé declared.
The Gungan beamed at his queen.
"Meesa not be disappointin' yousa majesty," he answered, eyestalks waving.
Mon Mothma stood and addressed the assembly, "Then this meeting is closed."
Once in the relative privacy of her office, Mothma turned to Madine.
"What do we know about General Binks?" she asked. "Aside from the fact that Padmé trusts him."
The former Imperial shook his head. "It would have been kinder to go with Security's suggestion and plant explosives."
Mothma's expression turned grave. "That bad? He does not look like it at all."
"He's not. Not in the usual sense, at least."
Mothma sank into the chair behind her desk. "Kindly explain this to me, General. What is this Binks? A trained assassin? A special forces operative?"
Madine ran a hand over his face; he felt suddenly tired. "No, madam. He is none of these things. He is merely... clumsy."
"Clumsy?" Mothma echoed.
"I'm afraid this is too mild a word, madam. How can I explain so you understand... this Gungan once nearly blew up a whole city simply by tripping over his own feet. That kind of clumsy."
"O dear... I have a bad feeling about this."
Anakin sat bolt upright, gasping for breath. A nightmare. It had only been another nightmare. The Jedi threw back the tangled, clammy blankets and, with a shaking hand, wiped the cold sweat from his brow. Damn his subconscious mind for bringing up his most horrifying memories in the dead of night. Cocking his head to one side, he listened to the sounds of the other temporary inhabitants of the farm, realizing after a few seconds that he did not hear the wind howl around the buildings anymore. The sandstorm had let up during the night.
Sighing deeply, he ran his hand over his face and then checked his chronometer. Only an hour left until sunrise. He could as well get up now.
Shaking the blankets off, Anakin stood and put his boots on. He had not bothered to undress completely, knowing that the nights on Tattooine were as cold as the days were hot.
What now? He knew he would be unable to get any more rest, but he did not wish to wake the others just yet. Maybe he should simply sneak into the kitchen and make some tea. It might even help his nerves, he thought wryly.
Leia decided she had had enough of lying awake when she heard Vader stir in the adjacent room. For a moment, she debated whether or not she should wake Han. He certainly needed his rest. On the other hand, if Vader was up to something - and that was certainly not a big "if" in Leia's opinion - not waking Han might result in all of them taking a very long rest very soon.
"Han?" she whispered. "Han?" The Correllian stirred in his sleep, hugging her closer to himself.
"Han, wake up!" Leia hissed.
"Vader is up."
Han rolled over on his back without even opening his eyes.
"So what?" he asked in a drowsy murmur. "He's prob'ly taking a trip to the bathroom."
Leia gaped at him. It took her several moments before she recovered her wits.
"Oh, you... go back to sleep, you half-witted Nerf herder! I will take care of it myself!"
Kicking back the covers, the former princess of Alderaan got to her feet and grabbed the blaster she had placed on the floor next to the blankets. Vader would not get away with whatever it was he was planning if she had anything to say about it!
Still half asleep, Han did not question her, but allowed his mind to drift back into the realm of dreams.
Leia crept down the short corridor, blaster at the ready, following the Dark Lord. She half expected Vader to turn around and draw his lightsaber at any moment. However, this did not happen. Instead, Vader shuffled into the kitchen and started looking through the cupboards, yawning and mumbling something under his breath. The princess watched as he took out a mug and a box containing teabags and put the kettle on. Still he seemed unaware of her presence. It was almost surreal to watch Darth Vader perform such everyday tasks.
Suddenly, her prey tensed. He had sensed her. She could see it in his stance, in the set of his broad shoulders. In one moment, he went from being a tired, up-too-early regular man to the deadly fighter who was always completely in control. And then, that moment was gone, too, and he relaxed again. Slowly. Consciously. Taking a second mug, he turned around to face her. He looked tired, and a little sheepish.
"At least I'm not the only one who cannot sleep," he said softly. "I hope I did not wake you, your Highness."
Leia let the hand holding the blaster drop to her side.
"You didn't," she replied. "What are you doing up at this hour?"
He shrugged, giving her a half-smile.
"Nightmares. Occupational hazard, I guess."
She nodded. She had had more than her fare share of those as well.
"Would you like some tea?" he asked, holding the mug out to her.
"I..." Leia shook her head.
She had not expected this. Come to think of it, what had she expected? A squad of stormtroopers charging into the farm, killing them all in their sleep? They would have had difficulty getting here during the sandstorm.
"Yes, I would like a cup of tea very much, thank you."
A few minutes later, they were sitting at the kitchen table, steaming mugs in front of them, and a cookie jar placed strategically between them.
Vader simply watched her, silently sipping his tea, while Leia nibbled on one of the cookies. The silence stretched between them until Leia could take it no longer.
"What was that about, on the sail barge?" she asked.
Vader blinked, suddenly shaken out of his reverie by her question.
"On Jabba's barge, during the fight. You froze."
"Oh, that. I..."
How to tell her? How to tell Leia Organa that she looked and acted like the wife of Darth Vader? He couldn't. She would probably scratch his eyes out. So he settled for a half truth.
"For a moment there, you reminded me of your mother," he began. "I knew Saché before you were born, before she even married Bail Organa. She was quite a fighter in her youth."
Leia shook her head, silently laughing to herself.
On Vader's puzzled frown, she replied, "It's strange, you know. A lot of people have remarked on that, but..."
She bit her lip, dropping her gaze to the table. Leia's adopted parents had always insisted that she never speak about her adoption. Never. But they were dead now, just like her real parents. Had been since Alderaan had exploded under the first Death Star's volleys.
"I apologize, your Highness. I did not mean to stir up bad memories."
Surprised, Leia lifted her eyes to Vader again. He meant what he said. He seemed to genuinely regret the pain he had caused her. She could see it in his face.
"It's not that," she said.
Why keep the secret any longer? Her adopted parents were dead, as was her home planet. She was a fugitive. Who could she hurt with the truth?
"Saché Organa wasn't my mother. I was adopted." Leia looked down again, turning her half-empty mug between her hands. "My real mother's name was Padmé," she continued. "Mother - Saché, I mean - once told me she had been handmaiden to Queen Amidala of the Naboo."
The clatter of Vader's mug hitting the floor made her look up in alarm; the Dark Lord had jumped up from his seat, gaping at her in utter shock. He was white as a sheet.
Force of Destiny
After Leia got up grumbling about Darth Vader, Han found himself unable to go back to sleep, as much as he tried. Not that he was concerned that Leia might do something to Anakin. Heck, if anybody could defend himself, it was that half-crazed ex-Dark Lord! Or that Anakin might intentionally hurt Leia. It was strange, but the more time he spent with the man, the more Solo found himself trusting Anakin.
Turning over, Han Solo closed his eyes in another attempt to continue his interrupted slumber when a loud crash from the kitchen brought him to his feet in an instant.
He was in the kitchen, blaster drawn and ready, before his brain had a chance to catch up with him. The sight that greeted him, however, was as non-threatening as it could be. Anakin was down on his knees, picking up what looked like porcelain shards? Han blinked and forced his body to relax. So somebody had dropped a cup. Big deal.
Anakin climbed to his feet, a little self-deprecatory smile on his lips as he addressed Han and Leia, "Sorry about that. I guess my nerves are pretty shot."
He deposited the shards in the trash, and, turning to Leia, sketched a bow.
"Excuse me, your Highness. I believe a walk will do me good." That said, he turned and pushed his way past Han.
"So, what was that about?" Han drawled as soon as Vader was out of sight.
His right hand, still holding the blaster, was dangling loosely at his side.
"I'm not sure."
Leia's gaze was fixed on the door through which the former Sith Lord had just made his exit. Her eyes were narrowed. Something was definitely not right here. In all the years of their acquaintance, first in the senate, later as enemies on different sides of a civil war, Leia had never known Vader to be so jumpy. He had reacted to the news of Padmé being her mother so suddenly, so violently, as if... but no, that was ridiculous.
Leia pushed the half-formed suspicion to the back of her mind. It was impossible. Preposterous, even. Not her mother and... she could not even bring herself to think both their names in the same context. Besides, the man she knew as Darth Vader appeared to be in his early forties if she was any judge. Much too young to have been... involved... with Padmé. Oh, he had known her, that much he had said. But probably from a distance. Amidala had been elected Queen of Naboo more than thirty years ago, when Vader was still a boy. He probably was assigned to some mission or other as a Padawan when he met Padmé. He must have admired the beautiful handmaiden like many others did, perhaps even feeling more than a Jedi was supposed to.
A small grin tugged at Leia's lips as she imagined a teenaged Darth Vader mooning over a woman years older than him. It caused Han to look at her with curiosity.
"Are you going to tell me what your grinning about, sweetheart?" he asked.
"Oh, it's nothing, Han," Leia told him lightly. "I just found out Lord Vader used to have a crush on my mother."
Han tried valiantly to keep a straight face at that new wrinkle, but failed. Not Vader and the wife of Senator Bail Organa! If Leia was anything like her mother... the mental image of a starstruck Darth Vader following a political power in the shape and form of a petite woman with an impossibly big hairdo around like a puppy was simply too strange for the Correllian. He blinked a few times, snickered, snorted, and finally howled with laughter.
Anakin wandered around the edge of the farm proper with no particular destination in mind; he simply wanted to clear his head and calm his frantic thoughts.
Leia - his daughter!
It was unbelievable. It had been a shock for him to find out he had a son, but a daughter as well? And how, how could he have missed it? He had never questioned Leia's parentage. How could he have been so blind?
He had been so wrapped up in Palpatine's machinations, the idea that Leia could be anything else but the daughter of Bail and Saché Organa never even crossed his mind. Looking back now, there had been plenty of cues. Leia's rebellious streak. The way she put her people before herself. Certain mannerisms she shared with her mother.
Force, how could he be so blind? How could he ever have done what he did to her on that first Death Star? His wanderings finally led him to a small group of older, weather-worn grave markers not far from where the first vaporators used to be. There where four now when at the time of his last visit there had been only three. Anakin dropped to his knees in front of one of them. The inscription was still readable. Cliegg Lars had done a thorough job when he carved his beloved wife's gravestone.
"Hi, mom," Anakin whispered, drawing the fingers of his right hand through the sand. "Guess you're not proud of me now, are you? I really messed things up." He sat there for a while, thinking. "Maybe I should have never left Tattooine in the first place. Maybe I shouldn't have gone with Master Qui-Gon to become a Jedi. Things might be very different now."
"Or maybe not," a voice behind him said.
Anakin turned to look over his shoulder.
"Luke," he greeted his son. "Are we ready to leave?"
"Soon," Luke responded. Nodding towards the grave marker, the young Jedi continued: "I used to visit Grandmother's grave sometimes. I always thought that Grandfather Lars must have loved her very much."
Anakin nodded. "In his own way, he did. I wasn't here too often... but Owen told me he wasn't the same afterwards. Harsher, less forgiving." He paused. "Cliegg did not survive Mom for long. I don't think it was because of the injuries he sustained when the Tuskens took her. Not the physical injuries, at least."
He got up and brushed the sand from his trousers. "He was a good man. Even if we didn't get along to well after mom's death." He turned to look at Luke. "Do we have time to pick up my shuttle in Mos Eisley? She could be useful to the Rebellion."
The younger Jedi smiled.
"The Tydirium. Veers told me about her, and I have a feeling she'll play an important part yet. Of course we won't leave her behind. Do you want to pilot her back to the fleet?"
The two men, father and son, started the short trek back to the farm buildings.
"I shall have to, although I would rather spend the time with you and your friends."
"Not necessarily. Lando could take the shuttle back, or General Veers. However, I'm not coming with you."
Anakin shot Luke a look. What was going on here?
"I promised Master Yoda to return and complete my training."
"Yoda! He is still alive?" Anakin was surprised, to say the least.
Yoda being alive explained a lot. So it was the old master who had continued Lukes training. And the boy had certainly profited from the ancient Jedi Master's experience.
"Yes, he is still alive. He was... disappointed when I left," Luke answered. "He feared I would... never mind."
Luke stopped himself from mentioning exactly what Yoda's fear was, realizing that it might hurt Anakin to be reminded of his own failure. Anakin, however, needed no reminder.
"He feared you would fall like I did," he stated in a flat voice.
Luke's gaze held a wealth of compassion. "I'm sorry, Father."
Anakin shook his head.
"There is no need, Luke. It is not you who is responsible for my faults." His lips quirked up in a small smile. "I would wager that Master Yoda told you you were to old to begin the training. Am I right?"
His son laughed. "How did you know?"
"He said the same about me, and I was only nine."
Luke laughed at that.
"How young is young enough?" he asked.
"You mean you don't know?"
How much knowledge had already been lost?
"The candidates came to the temple right from the cradle. For many centuries, no one was accepted who had been weaned from their mother's breast for more than a year."
By now, the two Jedi had reached the farm buildings; Han Solo caught the tail end of the conversation as he was packing some gear into the speeder.
"But you were older, weren't you?" he interjected.
"Indeed I was," Anakin replied. "The council rejected me when I first came to Coruscant with Master Qui-Gon. The Masters told me I was to old to begin the training. Qui-Gon insisted. I remember that Yoda was adamant about his decision."
"But you were trained in the end. What happened?"
"They changed their minds after I blew up the Trade Federation's droid control ship in the battle of Naboo." A look of sadness crossed his face. "Master Qui-Gon died in that battle."
"Now wait just a minute... you faught in a battle at age nine?"
"I wasn't exactly supposed to... Qui-Gon told me to hide, and the safest place I could find was the cockpit of that fighter. But the blasted thing was on autopilot, and I found myself in the middle of a space battle before you could say podrace."
Solo shook his head.
"You must have had more luck than planet full of pro gamblers, man."
"Not necessarily, Solo," Anakin grinned. "Don't forget I used to race pods from age six. I had ample experience as a pilot already, and once I figured out the controls of the fighter... well, the rest was child's play."
Luke and Solo both groaned.
"I bet you have been waiting all your life to deliver that line, huh?" the Correllian inquired. "Anyway, I'd like to meet that Master Yoda of yours. What say we all go? Lando could take the shuttle back, and we can slave Luke's X-Wing to the Falcon."
"But you are needed with the fleet," Luke protested.
"It's not like I'm a regular member of the Rebellion. They did well enough without me. And I'm not planning to stay with your Jedi friend, Luke. Just meet him."
"Then it's settled. Well, get going, we haven't got all day."
Contrary to Solo's opinion, it still took the better part of the day until the group had picked up the Tydirium and Jix's courier ship in Mos Eisley and said their goodbyes. At the last moment, Jixton decided to join the group on board the Falcon, leaving only Lando and Veers to pilot the other two ships to the Rebel fleet.
The flight to Dagobah was uneventful. After entering hyperspace, everybody assembled in the Falcon's main cabin. Han passed the time catching up with Chewie and Leia, the latter keeping an eye on Anakin who, in turn, spent time getting to know his son better.
Both Luke and Anakin were a bit apprehensive of what Yoda would have to say, but avoided the subject of the old Jedi Master during the trip. To his own surprise, Anakin found that he missed both C-3PO and R2-D2. The droids had been sent ahead with Lando on the Tydirium since Luke insisted that Dagobah was no place for a droid. R2-D2 reluctantly agreed with his young Master.
Although the little astrodroid was loathe to leave his companions without his protection, he seemed rather glad that he did not have to go to this place again. This, and Luke's comment of course, served to pique everybody's curiosity about the Jedi Master's world. Luke, however, refused to answer any questions.
"You'll see," he commented. "Anyway, Dagobah will not be what you'll expect. Or Yoda." The young Jedi smiled.
"You certainly had expectations when you first went there, didn't you?" Anakin asked.
"Yes, and I was thoroughly disabused of them." Luke's gaze took on an unfocused quality as he remembered. "Ben told me Yoda was a great warrior."
Now it was Anakin's turn to smile.
"Wars not make one great," he quoted and shook his head. "That's Yoda for you."
"A pacifist, hmm?" Han threw in.
"Certainly. But..." Anakin raised a finger in warning. "Don't let him fool you. He's a pacifist, but also a master tactician. In battle, he has no scruples whatsoever. He may not look it, but he could beat me in a lightsaber duel any day. Blindfolded and with one arm tied behind his back."
"That's high praise. But are you sure he's still that good? Even Jedi get older, or so I've been told."
"True," Anakin smiled. "Yoda was already old when I was a child. But I have no doubt he is still as vital as he was back then."
"So he's from a long lived species. Anything else you two want to surprise us poor Force blind with?"
"You'll see," was Luke's cryptic remark that ended the discussion for the time being.
At that moment, the alarm sounded, signaling the Falcon's approach on the Dagobah system.
"Well," Han said, standing up, "you won't keep us in the dark much longer. Can hardly wait to meet your friend."
"I should come with you," Luke announced, getting up from his seat.
What? Don't you trust me to land this bucket anymore, kid?"
Luke grinned at his Correllian friend.
"Remind me to tell you about my first landing here some time."
Han looked doubtful, but lead the way into the cockpit.
No sooner where both men seated when the ship dropped out of hyperspace.
"Starting landing cycle," Han announced, throwing the appropriate switches.
"Forget the automatic cycle," Luke told him. "You'll have to set her down manually."
Muttering something under his breath that sounded like, "Now he tells me," Solo took command of the controls again, steering the Falcon through the upper layers of Dagobah's atmosphere. "Just tell me where to put her down alright."
The young Jedi gave him the coordinates, and Solo checked his readings and shook his head.
"Kid, there's nothing there but mud and dirt. You want me to land in a swamp?"
"Just try and find a dry spot. I'd hate to have to haul the Falcon out of a bog."
"Right," Han looked straight at Luke. "So your Jedi Master lives in a mudhole."
A small smile played on Luke's lips. "Don't let him hear you say that. He's rather proud of his home."
Solo shrugged, "To each his own, I guess."
Together they landed the Millenium Falcon on a comparatively dry clearing not far from the bog where Luke had crash-landed his X-Wing on his first visit to the planet.
Warm, humid air carrying earthy smells wafted into the ship when Han lowered the ramp. Small animals could be heard scurrying in the undergrowth. A bird flew up from a nearby tree, screeching its protest against the intrusion.
The Corellian carefully stepped down onto the soft, springy ground. Luke was close behind him.
"Are you going to stand there all day, Solo?" Anakin called from the top of the ramp.
The Jedi seemed eager to see the old master again. Or perhaps he just wanted to get it over with, much like a dreaded exam. Han made way for Luke and the others. Luke immediately took the lead, showing the way to the ancient Jedi Master's hut. The rest of the group trooped along after him, with Han and Jix bringing up the rear.
They did not have to go far; Yoda was already waiting for them. The small Jedi leaned on his gimer stick, a stern look on his wrinkled green face.
"Friends you have brought, more than expected."
He looked up at Chewbacca. The tall Wookiee towered over everybody else.
"Eat outside, we must. Not fit into my home, some of them will," Yoda nodded sagely.
"Master Yoda, I...," Luke began, but the Jedi Master cut him short:
"Add more water and roots to the soup, I must, or hungry you will stay."
That said, Yoda turned and entered the hut, leaving a slightly flustered Luke and his bemused family and friends.
"Hmmm. So that's Yoda," Han offered. "He likes to keep you off balance, doesn't he?"
Luke grinned, feeling more than a little sheepish, "He's a great teacher, though."
"That he is, and a powerful Jedi," Anakin chimed in.
"What are we going to do now?" Leia asked.
Anakin pulled up the hood of his cloak, crossed his arms in front of his chest, and settled into a comfortable stance. "We wait. Yoda will be back when he is ready to meet us."
"You've known him for a while, yes?" Jix asked the former Sith Lord.
"Yoda was on the Jedi council when I first came to Coruscant. He used to teach the younger initiates. Many Masters sought his opinion, and his voice carried a lot of weight in the council." He looked directly at Luke, then at Han. "Yoda can see farther through the Force than anyone I have ever met, perhaps with the exception of Palpatine. Certainly farther than Obi-Wan could, or I.."
He fell silent, contemplating once again the grievous mistake he had made in following the Emperor. How short-sighted had he been!
The others also settled down one by one to wait for Yoda's return, and with his thoughts returning to his past, Anakin missed the thoughtful look that crossed Han Solo's face.
Tomas Piett could not sit still anymore. Five days had passed since Veers and Jixton had left for Tattooine, already a day more than they had allowed for the search for Darth Vader. Still there was no communication whatsoever from the two men. While intellectually Piett knew that this was not necessarily a bad sign - any number of things could be the cause of this mission taking longer than expected - he could not help to grow more worried by the hour.
Having a constantly chattering Gungan for a liaison officer with the Rebel High Command did not help things either. Frankly, Jar Jar Binks was getting on the Admiral's nerves. Already he had had to rescue the alien from his own clumsiness a number of times, and he had the sneaking suspicion that Binks' job was to drive him into a nervous breakdown. There was no way imaginable that an individual as inept as Binks appeared to be could rise to the rank of General in any army! No, Piett was convinced that there was more to Jar Jar Binks than met the eye.
Right now, the Gungan was at his elbow again, happily chattering away as usual. Piett had learned to tune Binks out during the past few days. Fortunately, Binks didn't seem to mind. Neither did he ever seem insulted when he was interrupted, which was fast becoming a rather common occurrence.
Piett abruptly stopped his pacing, causing the tall Gungan to bump into him, and turned to face Captain Durreen.
"Ready my shuttle, Captain, and advise Rebel High Command that I request a conference at their earliest convenience," he ordered.
"Yes, Admiral. About time, too, if I may say so," Durreen replied and signaled a petty officer to carry out Piett's order.
Before Piett could take Durreen to task for his cheek it seemed that some of the Rebels' insubordinate behavior was rubbing off on the regular crew Binks spoke up.
"Yousa goin' over to Home One, Admiral?"
"I am indeed, General," Piett answered tersely.
"Meesa understand," Binks shook his head so vigorously that his long, floppy ears were flying. "Yousa bein' worried for days. But dis not wise, Admiral, not wise, no."
Piett turned around stiffly and looked up into the alien's benign face.
"General Binks," he hissed with barely contained anger, "my CO, his nephew, and my closest friend are missing. I hardly expect you to understand that. In fact, I do not believe you capable of understanding how I feel. But I refuse to sit on my hands and do nothing when I have the means to mount a rescue team."
"Dis still not wise, Admiral. Many still not trustin' you. High command will never ever let you send out men for a search. General Madine be tinkin' dis a trick, and Milady will, too." Binks nodded to emphasize his point. "Yousa good man, Admiral, but they don't know yousa. Not really, no."
Again, Binks seemed not to have noticed the insult, or it didn't bother him at all. Piett was growing ever more irritated with the Gungan. He pulled himself together, determined not to show anymore of his anger in front of the crew than he already had.
"Be that as it may, General, but I'm still going. You will excuse me."
With a curt nod towards the Gungan, Admiral Piett turned on his heel and stalked off the bridge.
A pot with strange smelling stew and a stack of plates and spoons levitated out of the small hut, followed by the small, wrinkled form of Yoda.
"Eat we will now. Good food. Come, come."
Yoda gestured towards a fallen tree that could serve as a table. The eating utensils gracefully lowered themselves onto the log.
Chewie sniffed the air and growled something.
Taking his cue from the Wookiee, Solo nodded and said:"Listen, we really don't want to impose on you."
The stew smelled strange indeed, even more so than some of the things Lando used to cook. Han Solo knew better than to distrust his partner's judgement in all things culinary.
"Impose, you do not. Guests I rarely have," the Jedi Master cackled. Passing Anakin, who had not moved from his spot, he struck his gimer stick against the ex-Siths knee. "You, help with the plates you can," he instructed, somewhat gruffly.
"Yes, Master Yoda."
At least Yoda seemed willing to accept him, too, at his table. Maybe they could even talk.
"That is absolutely out of the question."
Mon Mothma held up her hand to silence Crix Madine. The General was outraged at Piet'ts announcement to send out a search and rescue team. Mothma shared his sentiment, but wished to phrase it somewhat more diplomatically.
"I am sorry, Admiral," she began. "While I sympathise with your situation, I must stress that we are at a critical point in our preparations and cannot allow anyone to leave the fleet right now. We, too, have cause to worry about friends still missing from our force, but any search must wait until after the attack."
Piett shook his head.
"I understand your situation, Madam. Believe me, I fully understand. But my decision stands. There are... other factors I need to take into consideration."
He did not need to tell Mon Mothma that the loyalty and morale of his crew, as well as his own, where among those factors. Executor had defected because Lord Vader had. And now Vader had not yet joined the Alliance. While Piett did not believe that his men would mutiny, he was concerned about their performance in the upcoming battle - their first against their former comrades. Tomas Piett was not in the habit of second-guessing himself, but he was starting to doubt his course of action.
An aide entered the conference room and urgently whispered something into Mon Mothma's ear. The elected president of the Alliance smiled.
"It seems that the question has become academic, Admiral. I was just notified that two ships have entered our sector. One has identified itself as the shuttle Tydirium, with Baron Lando Calrissian piloting. The other is a fast courier, and the pilot is General Veers. They will join us shortly to give a report."
Piett visibly relaxed at this news.
Jixton pushed his plate away and took out a thin cigar. The stew had turned out not to be as bad as it smelled, once you got used not to look at what you ate. Lighting the cigar, Jixton glanced around the assembled beings, assessing their emotional state. Vader was tense, but tried to appear relaxed. His son mirrored him. Both kept their attention on the small, green Jedi Master.
This Yoda apparently was someone of great importance to both of them. Even Vader behaved like he needed Yoda's approval. Solo, on the other hand, was watching Vader and Luke. The Correllian had eaten very little, and mostly did the same thing Jixton was doing, people watching, only less subtle.
Princess Organa had slipped into the role of diplomat once more, although she knew little of the relationships between the three key persons at this strange dinner. Only Chewbacca and Yoda seemed to truly enjoy the meal. Either the Wookiee was a much better actor than Jixton gave him credit for, or Yoda's cooking had turned out to be better than Chewie expected.
Yoda... Yoda was an enigma. With all his experience, Jixton could not make out what made the Jedi tick. He was calm and serene one moment, mercurial the next.
"Jixton, do you mind?"
Vader's voice cut into the agent's thoughts. The former Sith Lord was staring at Jixton's cigar, disapproval written over his features.
Jixton grinned. He refused to let Vader's irritation bother him.
"Relax, Uncle Dee. We're outside, we just had an excellent meal, so quit harassing me about my smoking, will you?"
Vader frowned. But before he could say anything, Yoda cut in.
"Your uncle is he?"
"Adopted uncle," Jixton replied. "I adopted him when he gave me a job. I always liked to work in a family business."
Luke hid his grin behind his hand. He had grown to enjoy the bantering between Jixton and his father.
"Hmmmph," Yoda made. "A better choice you could have made. This one, much anger is in him."
"Master Yoda...," Anakin began, shaking his head. "I know I have made terrible mistakes. I wish to join the Alliance, Master, and help defeat Palpatine."
"Followed the dark path, you have, for a long time. No way back, there is. Forever the Dark Side will dominate you."
"I'm not so sure about that," Han injected.
Leia regarded him with wide eyes. The smuggler seemed to have developed quite the protective streak towards Vader. Now he was even defending the Sith!
"Know so much about the Force, you do? Jedi Master you are, eh?" Yoda questioned. "For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. This one, not be trained he should have."
Han shook his head.
"I may be no Jedi, but I do know that people change. And let me tell you something: I think you're a stuck up little guy who's still not over the fact that the council overruled him. Wise Jedi, eh? Let me tell you something about wise. You rejected Anakin because he was scared. Kids get scared when they leave home for the first time."
"That is why young the initiates must be. Too old Anakin was. Formed his mind already was, open for fear. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, and hatred leads to suffering. The path to the Dark Side it is."
"And that was reason enough for you to reject him. Fine. You tell a nine year old kid who has left his home planet on promises to get a decent home and a future with the people he admires that he's not good enough for your elitist little band. You would have turned him out on the street. Well, Yoda, if fear is the path to the Dark Side, then you did great job of paving the way for Anakin."
Having said his piece, Han settled back and watched the old Jedi's reaction. To his surprise, it was not Yoda who protested, but Anakin.
"But I was accepted, Solo. My turn to the Dark Side is not Master Yoda's fault."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot. They put you with a completely inexperienced teacher, after you won a war for them. And then they burdened you with all this Chosen One nonsense you told me about. The truly ideal start for a Jedi apprentice."
Han's voice was dripping with sarcasm.
"It was still my own choice, Solo. Not Yoda's, or Obi-Wan's," Anakin replied quietly. "I chose to follow Palpatine. I blame no one but myself for that."
Yoda regarded both men with narrowed eyes.
"Jedi your friend is not, but wisdom he possesses. Mistakes we made, too. Expect too much, we did. Listen, we did not. Help when you needed it, we did not."
Anakin cast his eyes down.
"It's not like I asked for help. Not in the right place, anyway. I felt like Obi-Wan was holding me back, when all he wanted was for me to develop the control I needed to keep my powers in check. So I turned to Palpatine. I felt he understood me better. He praised my potential, when Obi-Wan criticized me. He gave me what I craved, and I walked willingly into his trap."
The Lady Ex
Lando Calrissian and General Veers stepped into the small conference room, accompanied by a Rebel guard. The Droids waited outside.
"Max!" Piett exclaimed.
His friend smiled.
"They're all fine," he announced.
"Baron Calrissian, your report, please?" Mon Mothma requested coolly.
"Yes, Madam. The plan went off without a hitch. We learned that Lord Vader had started his own rescue attempt, but he joined us and was integrated into the team almost without difficulty."
Lando thought it prudent not to mention Vader's other name yet, or his relation to Luke.
"Almost?" Madine injected.
"Yes. There was a certain amount of distrust on our side at first. However, Lord Vader proved himself to be helpful. Jabba the Hutt is dead, his criminal organization mostly destroyed, Captain Solo is free, and all without casualties on our side. General Veers here and a Sergeant Jixton joined us during the final stage of the mission. They had been Lord Vader's backup."
"Then where is everybody now? Why have they not returned to the fleet?"
"Commander Skywalker said he had to go to a place called Dagobah, to finish his Jedi training. Apparently a Jedi Master named Yoda lives there. Captain Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Lord Vader and Sergeant Jixton accompanied him on the Falcon."
"Master Yoda is still alive?" Mon Mothma was astonished. "That is good news indeed!"
"Yes, well, they are going to drop Luke off on Dagobah and then join the fleet. They shouldn't take too long."
Mon Mothma rose from her seat.
"Thank you, Baron Calrissian. I'm sure Admiral Piett wishes to relay the news to his crew immediately."
Piett also rose, and nodded.
"I shall take a shuttle back to Executor. General Veers will accompany me, unless you have further questions for him?"
Mothma shook her head before Madine could demand to talk with Veers.
"That will not be necessary."
Piett bowed to the Alliances president.
"Thank you for your time, Madam."
"Quite an impressive ship you have there," Lando said.
The Admiral allowed himself a rare smile.
"I am rather proud of her and her crew. Madam President, Gentlemen."
He nodded to each in turn and left, motioning for Veers to follow him.
After the two Imperials had left, Mon Mothma indicated to Calrissian to take a seat.
"And now, Baron, what is your impression of Lord Vader?"
"Hard to say, Madam. He truly seems to be trying." Lando thought about his reply for a moment. "I don't know everything that's been going on, but Han trusts him. Luke does, too, despite everything that Vader has done to them in the past."
The fact that Calrissian did not mention his own feelings about the matter did not escape Mon Mothma.
"I see. And you personal opinion?"
"I'd keep an eye on him, Madam. Han's usually a good judge of character, but Vader's a sneaky son-of-a-gun. I've had dealings with Lord Vader before, and he changed the rules on me quicker than you could say sabbacc."
Mothma smiled. "Thank you for your openness, Baron Calrissian. We shall keep your advice in mind."
Anakin wandered around the swamp a little distance from Yoda's hut. The others had turned in early, but once again Anakin found himself unable to go to sleep. He was deep in thought when he heard a voice he had not dreamed he would ever hear again.
"I did not dare hope that you would ever return, my Padawan."
Anakin spun around to see the glowing form of his mentor materialize.
"Obi-Wan? How is that possible? I killed you!"
"There are still things about the Force you have not learned, my friend," the apparition replied with a warm smile. "And I did tell you you'd be the death of me one day, did I not?"
Anakin flinched. Indeed Obi-Wan had told him so many times, usually after one of his more reckless maneuvers.
"Master, I...," he began, but Obi-Wan cut him off.
"Never mind, Anakin. I chose to let you strike me down." He sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree. "Come, sit with me. There are things we should have talked about many years ago. Many years ago."
Curious, Anakin took a seat beside his friend's glowing form. Obi-Wan regarded him silently for a long moment before beginning, "I'm sorry I failed you, old friend. If only I had been as good a teacher as I thought I was."
The old man shook his head.
Anakin looked up sharply. Obi-Wan blamed himself for his fall?
"Master, I've said it before: The fault is none but my own," he protested. "It was my choice, my mistake alone, to follow Palpatine."
"Still, Anakin, your friend Solo was quite right. You did not have the best start with your training. And I, I should have listened to you. I should have explained more and criticized less. You had such high potential, I often forgot how young and inexperienced you still were."
"You still managed to remind me of the fact often enough, Master. Especially whenever I disagreed with you." He quickly became serious again. There was one thing that vexed him, one thing he could not forgive his old master that easily. At least, not without a good explanation. "Why did you tell Luke I was dead?"
The specter held out his hands, palms up. He looked old. Old, and guilty.
"As I said, Anakin, I thought you lost to the Dark Side forever. To me, Darth Vader was not you. He was a completely different person, not the boy I had raised from childhood and trained in the ways of the Jedi."
Anakin nodded slowly. What Obi-Wan said made sense, in a twisted sort of way. He had not thought of himself as Anakin Skywalker in a very long time. It was a name that belonged to a different life, a much different person. But he wanted to - needed to - reclaim that life, become that person again, albeit and older and more experienced, and hopefully wiser, version.
He also realized that although, or perhaps because, he blamed himself, Obi-Wan had not dared to face the reality, the harsh truth, of failure. By separating Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader in his mind, he had created a false image of the former. Instead of a human being, with all the faults and weaknesses that encompassed, the old Jedi had created a larger-than-life figure, an icon and a martyr. How could he ever hope to live up to the image Luke must have of his father? But no, Luke already knew both sides of him. Whatever dreams and images of his father Luke had in the past, he had put them behind him.
"I understand, Master. And I... I am sorry I failed you."
Obi-Wan started to speak, but Anakin held up his hand to silence him.
"For once, listen to me. You said we needed to speak."
Obi- Wan nodded, "Go on, then."
Anakin looked into the distance, gathering his thoughts.
"I often felt like you did not take me seriously. I felt like you were holding me back. I know now that you wanted me to develop control, and patience, but back then I was... angry. I thought you jealous of my power. Don't get me wrong, Obi-Wan. I loved you. To me, you were the father I never had. Still, I resented you putting me down every time I dared to disagree with you or the council."
Obi-Wan leaned back a little, stroking his beard and smiling as Anakin continued.
"You said you criticized too much and explained too little, But I'm not sure if I was ready to listen. Not to you, anyway. I... I wanted to hear praise. I wanted to hear that the war and bloodshed would end. I wanted someone to promise me that everything would be alright. I turned to the wrong person for that."
Obi-Wan chuckled slightly. "Who would have thought that one day you would be so reflective, hmm? My dear Padawan, what you just described was a typical teenager acting. It was I who should have seen your problems, being supposedly the adult. And yet, I did not. I expected you to feel and act like a grown man, a Jedi, when you were scarcely more than a boy. A boy who had just lost his only family, no less. I sensed the hurt and confusion in you, but I failed to support you when you needed me. Naturally, you turned to someone who pretended to understand you.
"Now who is being reflective, hmm?" The tall Jedi shook his head. "It took far too much for me to realize the truth. But what's done is done, Master. I wish I could turn back time, undo what I have done..."
"Impossible that is, even for you," Yoda's voice sounded from the path. The small Jedi hobbled closer. "Take back wrong choices, you cannot. Choose again, you can." He regarded Anakin with a long, thoughtful look. "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Taught this, I have, to many a youngling in the Temple. Taught it, I was, when myself a youngling I was, many centuries ago." Yoda nodded and continued, "Tainted we become by our wrong choices, but sometimes, stronger we grow by them, too. Face the consequences, you must, and fight against the Darkness inside you. But beware it...", he lightly struck his stick against Anakin's shin for emphasis, "there is still much anger in you."
"I will, Master Yoda," Anakin promised. "I am not afraid."
"So certain of this, you are? Hmphhh.. many fears there are within you. Do not let them use you, or fall again, you will."
Anakin regarded the old Master with calm sincerity.
"I promise you, Master, I shall not fall again. I have learned my lesson."
He stood and slowly started his way back to the campsite. Although he had much food for thought now, there was still a chance he might get a few hours of sleep tonight.
It was Jixton who shook Anakin awake the next morning.
"Come on, Uncle Dee, unless you want to stay here on Dagobah for a refresher course."
Anakin groaned and sat up groggily.
"What time is it?" he asked, taking the cup of coffee Jixton held out to him.
"Late. Solo's prepping the Falcon for take-off. You better hurry up if you want to say goodbye to your kid."
"Thank you, Jixton." Anakin sipped the coffee; it didn't taste half bad, and it certainly woke him up a good deal further.
"Where is Luke?" he finally asked.
"Already off with Master Yoda. Said he would be back to see you off, though."
Anakin nodded and got up.
"I shall go look for them, then."
But he did not have to go far as Luke was just coming back to the camp. The older Jedi raised his eyebrows. Luke was carrying his bag. Was his son going to leave the rest of his apprenticeship? Anakin frowned.
"Luke, what is going on?" he asked. "You're not coming with us, are you?"
"I am, Father," Luke smiled. "Yoda said I require no more training." The young man shrugged. "Frankly, I think I still have a lot to learn, but try arguing with Master Yoda..."
"I wouldn't," was Anakin's dry reply.
Then he broke into a wide grin. His son - a Jedi! He grasped both his son's shoulders.
"Luke, I'm so proud of you!"
"I'm not a Jedi yet, Father. First I have to face the Trials, whatever that is. Only then I'll be a full Jedi Knight."
"Hey, are you two going to stand there and chat all day?" Han Solo called from beyond the small clearing. "Guess you're coming back with us, huh, kid?"
"Come with you, I shall, too," Yoda spoke up.
The Jedi Master had silently slipped onto the clearing and now stood at the base of the Falcon's ramp, gazing solemnly up at Han Solo. What few belongings he meant to bring floated in mid-air behind him.
"Time for me it is to return, I sense."
"Well then... welcome aboard. Just put your stuff in one of the storage rooms, and we're good to go."
Admiral Piett stood in Lord Vader's customary place on Executor's bridge again, gazing out of the enormous transparisteel window. The rebel fleet was nearly assembled. The attack plan was being hammered out in the Rebel High Command. Not that Piett was invited to those discussions. Executor was still being kept on the edge of the fleet, and no sensitive information was divulged to her crew and officers. He had expected this, and was content with the situation. Executor's size alone secured her a critical part in the operation, and that was what counted in the end.
An aide hurried up to Piett.
"Admiral, a ship just dropped out of hyperspace. Correllian freighter, type YT 1300. The markings match those of the Millenium Falcon."
A grin spread over Piett's usually solemn features.
"Finally." He turned to Captain Durreen, feeling slightly giddy. "Captain, I want running lights. The full greeting sequence. Let's welcome Lord Vader home in style."
Durreen's grin mirrored his own as the Captain saluted and turned to carry out the order.
"And Captain?" Piett called after him. "Roll her!"
"Sir, yes Sir!" Durreen saluted again, and the bridge erupted into a flurry of activity.
The Millenium Falcon dropped out of hyperspace on the edge of the Sullust system, a safe distance from the fleet.
"Stars," Solo muttered as he checked the readings. His Wookiee copilot growled a question at him.
"No, they're not shooting at anyone," Han replied and switched on the ship's intercom. "Anakin, you better come up here. There is something you should see."
In the Falcon's common room, Anakin exchanged a puzzled look with Luke. His son only shrugged.
"On my way," Anakin replied.
Stepping out of the room, he missed Jixton grinning and whispering something in Luke's ear. The young Jedi also grinned and got up to follow his father.
"Wouldn't want to miss it," he commented.
In the Falcon's cockpit, Leia Organa leaned over Solo's shoulder. "What is it, Han?"
Solo pointed out of the window, where an enormous triangular shape just came into view.
"I bet my boots he's gonna be as surprised as we are."
A sharp intake of breath told him that "he" had just arrived in the cockpit. At the same moment, red an blue lights came on on Executor's massive hull, blinking on and off in an intricate pattern.
"That... that's my ship!" Anakin croaked.
He stared out the window, transfixed by the sight of his flagship, gripping the backrest of Leia's seat hard enough to turn his knuckles white, when Executor started to move. The great ship slowly and majestically rolled on her long axis, like a giant sea creature. Anakin still gazed at her, speechless. His ship! He could hardly believe his eyes.
Anakin knew better than most that no Star Destroyer had ever defected - until now! His heart swelled with pride for his crew. Handpicked from a hundred worlds, they were the best the Imperial Navy had to offer. And they were loyal to him! Anakin silently swore that he would do whatever it took to end this war and bring his men home safely.
He could barely sense Luke and Jix enter behind him, crowding the small cockpit even more, when Jixton spoke up: "Didn't know you could do that with a ship of that size."
Obviously, the Correllian was referring to the rolling maneuver.
Solo threw a look over his shoulder.
"You can't," he quipped.
Anakin made an effort to get his feelings under control. Still, his voice sounded somewhat rough when he added, "Unless you have the best damned crew in the Galaxy."
A blinking light on the control panel interrupted the moment.
"Captain, we're being hailed," Leia announced, pointing at it. "You better answer that."
"Yeah, I guess so."
Tearing his eyes from the Super Star Destroyer gracefully executing an impossible maneuver, Solo switched on the Falcon's subspace radio.
"Millenium Falcon, this is Home One, do you copy?" a somewhat tinny voice came over the speaker.
"Millenium Falcon here. Go ahead, Home One, we read you loud and clear."
"Welcome back, Falcon. You have permission to dock with Home One. High Command is awaiting your report."
Solo glanced around his companions. Chewie growled and shook his massive, furry head. Anakin still gazed at Executor, a longing look in his eyes. Luke smiled knowingly and Jixton just grinned and winked. Even Leia shook her head slightly. Solo made his decision.
"Negative, Home One. We're expected somewhere else first."
A small scraping sound was heard over the speaker, and the tinny voice was replaced by Admiral Ackbar's much deeper organ.
"High Command wishes to debrief you immediately, Captain. They also want to talk to Lord Vader a.s.a.p."
"Copy that, Admiral. But they can't talk to Vader right now."
"Why is that so, Captain Solo?"
Han chuckled. "Cause you could knock him over with a feather, that's why."
Ackbar's answer sounded halfway between amused and exasperated.
"Then we shall see you as soon as those clowns on the Executor are finished showing off. And, Captain..." he added, "welcome back."
"Thanks, Admiral. Millenium Falcon, over and out."
Solo broke the connection and swung the Falcon around in a wide arc to meet Darth Vader's flagship.
"Allowing Vader on board the Executor was most unwise, Admiral", General Madine said.
Ackbar swiveled his command chair around to face the General.
"Do you think they are being coerced?" he asked.
Madine stiffly inclined his head.
"There is that possibility," he conceded.
"I do not believe so, General." Ackbar slowly shook his head. "Captain Solo would have found a way to inform us of any foul play. He is rather resourceful. And may I remind you, General, that we have a prize crew on board the Executor, which includes Rogue squadron? Captain Antilles reports to me on a regular basis." He paused before continuing. "I understand that a certain amount of paranoia is a requirement in your line of duty, General, but in this instance, I believe it is misplaced."
"I see, Admiral. Nevertheless. I shall continue to monitor the situation."
Looking quite ungainly with Luke's X-Wing still strapped to her hull, the Millenium Falcon touched down feather-light in the Executor's main landing bay. An honor guard of crew and stormtroopers had been assembled to greet the returning Master of the ship. Here and there, Rebel uniforms could be spotted among the gray, black and olive Imperial ones.
Admiral Piett and General Veers stood at the head of the assembled troops. Behind them and a step to the left, Jar Jar Binks waited. Piett tugged on the hem of his jacket for the fifth time.
"Relax," Veers hissed from the corner of his mouth. "You're making everybody nervous."
The admiral only stopped his fidgeting when the freighter's ramp lowered with a hiss of overheated hydraulics and a hooded figure stepped through the rising steam.
The man walked down the ramp slowly and pulled back the hood that obscured his features, and Admiral Piett found himself staring into the blue eyes of Darth Vader. Or rather, into one blue eye; the other was only beginning to open again after close contact with Han Solo's fist a few days ago. Piett would have had a hard time recognizing Vader. The former Sith Lord looked much healthier than the last time Piett had seen him. Gone were the thick scars and deadly pallor. The bruise on his temple had faded to a yellow-greenish color. A slight sunburn had just begun to turn into a healthy tan, and Vader's nose was peeling.
Vader stopped two steps away from Admiral Piett, when suddenly Jar Jar Binks squeaked, "Ani? Meesa not believin' dis! Meesa tinkin' yousa dead!"
The Gungan rushed past Piett and enveloped a dumbstruck Darth Vader in a bone-crushing hug.
Padmé Part one
"Ani?" an incredulous Admiral Piett mouthed before recovering with an effort.
A number of stormtroopers brought their weapons up in a reflex, but did not dare shoot for fear to hit Lord Vader. The next moment, General Veers gestured to them to hold their fire. The white armored men lowered their blasters again, equal parts embarrassed about overreacting and ill at ease with an alien manhandling the Dark Lord.
Several crewmen had difficulty keeping a straight face, and somewhere in the ranks, Sergeant Torb Garin snickered.
Vader himself didn't fare much better, if for different reasons.
"Jar Jar?" he managed after several choked attempts. "Let me go, you're breaking my ribs!"
The Gungan did as he asked, after a final squeeze that left Anakin completely out of breath. He blinked at his Jedi friend.
"Ani, where is Lord Vader? Everyone here bein' so expectin' him."
"Jar Jar," Anakin answered, slowly and carefully. "He's me. I am Darth Vader."
The Gungan let him go as if he had burned his hands. His eyestalks were extended so much they looked like they were going to break off.
"No! Ani! Yousa makin' fun of old Jar Jar, right?"
"No, Jar Jar, I'm afraid I'm not. It's a long story. I'll tell you everything later."
The thoroughly shocked Alliance representative could only nod.
Piett stepped forward and cleared his throat. The strict Imperial military protocol had been shot to hell by the Gungan's emotional display, and the Admiral felt a little like someone had pulled the floor out from under his feet.
"Sir, I take it you know our liaison officer, General Binks?"
It took nearly all of Vader's self control not to burst out laughing. Piett's feelings regarding the Gungan where written all over the Admiral's features for anyone who could read him as well as Vader could.
"You could say that, Piett. Jar Jar Binks is an old friend... a very old friend." He lifted a finger in warning and raised his voice just enough for the crewmen to hear his next words. "Do not let his relaxed demeanor fool you. The Gungans are fierce warriors, if need be. And General Binks greatly distinguished himself in the Trade Federation war."
Piett wisely decided to change the subject: "Milord, on behalf of the crew, welcome back."
Vader was visibly moved.
"Piett." The former Sith shook his head. "You have done the impossible, Admiral."
Solemnly, he saluted Admiral Piett while Solo, Luke, and their friends gathered behind him. It took Piett a moment to return the salute; he would never have expected Vader to honor him like this. Truth be told, he would not have known what to expect.
Vader held the salute until Piett returned it. He could sense pride rising in the men standing at attention. He turned slowly to face the honor guard and let his gaze sweep over them.
"Gentlemen, I am truly overwhelmed. When I left this ship, I never expected you to follow me. I am proud of you."
Vader inclined his head.
"Crew dismissed," Piett commanded. The honor guard executed an about-turn and filed out. "Captain Antilles, please stay."
Wedge Antilles, commanding officer of the infamous Rogue Squadron, nodded and stood next to Piett.
"Admiral," he acknowledged.
Piett turned to Anakin.
"Not all the crew have chosen to defect with us, Milord."
"I was about to ask you how you did it, Piett. I have never even heard of a capital ship going over to the Alliance."
Piett cleared his throat; this was the part he felt uncomfortable with.
"Milord, I relayed the message you left for us to the crew and gave my intention to defect, with the ship. General Veers stood with me. We allowed everybody the choice between staying on board, or leaving ship. I am happy to say that the majority chose to stay on board Executor. Still, we were somewhat shorthanded. The Alliance provided us with a prize crew I hope to integrate. Captain Antilles here commands Rogue squadron and represents the fighter pilots stationed with us."
Vader inclined his head in greeting. Antilles did the same, winking at Luke who stood behind and slightly to the right of Vader. As small as the gesture was, Vader still caught it and threw a questioning glance at Luke. His son grinned back.
"Let us dispense with the formalities," Luke stepped forward. "I'm Luke Skywalker, Admiral, and these are my friends: Master Yoda, Princess Leia Organa, Captain Han Solo and his first mate Chewbacca, and I believe you have met Wrenga Jixton."
Luke indicated everybody in turn.
"What my son is trying to tell me in a not so subtle way is that we are expected on the Alliance's flag ship."
"There is that," Luke nodded. "I believe High Command is has become rather impatient by now."
Padmé Naberrie Skywalker paced the length of the conference room, turned with her formal robes swishing about her, and stood, a frown marring her face.
"You should have never allowed Darth Vader to return to his ship, Admiral," the diminutive former senator spoke with a voice like frozen steel.
"It was vital for the morale of Executor's crew, madam. We have no wish to turn our new allies into enemies again."
"Ackbar is right, Padmé. Let it rest."
Padmé glared at the speaker. Mon Mothma appeared as calm and unperturbable as ever. A far cry from the emotional storm Padmé had to weather. Soon, she would be in the presence of her husband's murderer.
After more than twenty years, she would finally see the monster who had slaughtered Anakin. And there was nothing she could do to avenge her husband, when nothing she wanted more was to see Vader suffer for what he had done. Damn the war. Damn the politics that made her allies with Palpatine's lapdog. Padmé wanted to scream. Instead, she took a few long, calming breaths.
"You are right, of course. We do what we have to do." Her voice sounded bitter even to her own ears, but who could blame her for that?
"Ships approaching from the Executor, one Corellian freighter, one Lambda class shuttle, and two TIE's.
Mon Mothma approached the comm unit that had so suddenly sprung to life.
"Thank you. Extend our greetings to Lord Vader's shuttle and their escort, and give them landing permit for the main docking bay. We shall be there momentarily.
The Lambda class shuttle glided into the main docking bay, followed by the Falcon and one of the TIE's. The other fighter turned around and headed back to the Executor. All three ships set down lightly just as Mon Mothma and her entourage, consisting of Admiral Ackbar, General Madine, and Padmé Naberrie, entered the bay.
Both the shuttle and the Falcon lowered their ramps, and Mothma, followed closely by her group, strode towards the former Imperial ship when the TIE's top hatch popped open and out climbed a familiar tall figure clad all in black. The welcome committee stopped short; at least Padmé was seething at Vader's use of the same ruse she had employed many years ago. Luckily, the Dark Lord had not noticed her yet, her slight form being blocked from his view by the taller President of the Rebel Alliance.
"Forgive the dramatics, Madam President, Lord Vader rumbled from his perch atop the TIE.
Reaching down into the cockpit, he slipped something over his helmeted head and threw his trademark black cloak around his shoulders.
Meanwhile, Admiral Piett walked down the shuttle's ramp and, bowing to the Alliance officials, explained, "I advised Lord Vader not to use the shuttle, Madam.
A small smile tugged at Mothma's lips.
"A wise decision, Admiral, though I believe that particular tactic has been used before.
She threw a glance at Padmé. The former Queen of Naboo and Member of the Senate stood stiffly, pale features carefully schooled into a neutral expression. Still Mothma could sense her hatred and contempt for Vader roll of her in waves. With her past history, Mon Mothma would have preferred not to have the other woman around just yet, but there was no shutting out Padmé from the proceedings.
Vader nimbly climbed down the fighter's wing and walked over while the Falcon's crew and passengers also joined the group. He didn't even have time to bow to Mon Mothma before he spotted the smaller woman standing behind her and slightly to the left and Padmé, in turn, spotted the necklace he wore. It was not much of an adornment, really. Just a small carved Japor snippet. Vader froze. Padmé, however, advanced on him like a gundark on wounded prey. Gone was the false calm, replaced in a moment by a fury so hot it could have melted steel.
"How dare you? she hissed. "How dare you mock my husband by wearing that?
The Dark Lord of the Sith suddenly seemed to sway on his feet; Mon Mothma could have sworn, if he had not been wearing a helmet, the expression on his face would have been one of helpless and utter surprise.
"Padmé? Vader finally croaked, his breathing becoming more labored and irregular by the second.
Now here was a ridiculous thought the dreaded Lord of the Sith looking like he was going to faint any second now, and that state was brought on by the wrath of a slip of a woman who barely came up to his chest plate.
Padmé reached up to Vader's chest, and for a moment there it looked like she was about to slap him, but instead, she tore the necklace from him, turned, and fled.
Behind her, Leia Organa muttered, "Padmé? Mother? Oh, by the Force... with her hand covering her mouth and eyes big as saucers, while Darth Vader's legs buckled under him.
The man was positively hyperventilating by now, and Han Solo caught his arm just in time to help him sit on the deck instead of crashing to the floor unceremoniously. With numb fingers, Vader fumbled to remove his helmet.
Luke pushed his way to the front.
"Are you alright, father?" he asked, concern coloring the young Jedi's voice.
A sharp intake of breath then came from Mon Mothma as she stared at the pale, sweat-covered face of the former Sith.
"Skywalker? Anakin Skywalker? she managed to say. "But that is impossible... you were reported dead years ago. Dead by the hands of Darth Vader.
"Not impossible at all, Madam, Luke answered for him. "Please meet my father, Anakin Skywalker, better known as Darth Vader.
Anakin looked up at his son, although his eyes refused to fully focus.
"Luke, that was Padmé, he managed in a not to steady voice after a few attempts. "Your mother.
Now it was Luke's turn to be speechless, and Han Solo, still crouched at Vader's side, blinked, adding two and two and indeed getting the correct result of four. A rather silly grin spread over the smuggler's face.
"I have a bad feeling about this..., he murmured.
Padmé - Part 2
"Padmé? Mother? Oh, by the Force!"
Leia Organa covered her mouth with her hand. Her mother alive? Could it be possible?
She watched as the other woman turned and fled, not hearing, not registering anything that was said in the hangar after Padmé had torn the necklace from Vader's chest. She couldn't. There was a ringing in her ears that drowned out all other sound.
And then she took off after Padmé, her mother, unnoticed by almost everyone else who were either trying to steady the Dark Lord or were to shell-shocked to do anything.
Padmé fled towards her cabin, not heeding the looks and calls she received from the crewmen she pushed out of her way.
Damn him! Damn Vader for his cruel games. Damn herself for losing control like that, playing into his hands.
A small part of Padmé knew she would have to apologize to Mon Mothma later, but right now, she needed distance. In all her years as a diplomat, she had never broken down in public like this, not even when news of her husband's death reached her.
But seeing Vader with the pendant that Anakin once fashioned for her... flaunting his victory over her Anakin even now, throwing it right into her face! She had to flee, or else she would have killed the bastard on the spot. Clawed his black armor right off him, and his black heart out of his chest with her bare hands.
For the first time, Padmé truly understood how Anakin felt when he found his mother dying in the Tusken village. For the first time, she understood the blinding rage that had gripped her beloved then.
She reached her cabin, leaning her head against the bulkhead to catch her breath before opening the door, when she heard a hesitant female voice, "Padmé? Mother?"
Leia ran through the ship's corridors after the retreating form of her mother, catching a glimpse of formal robe here, pushing past an already reeling, swearing crewmember there.
It seemed to her that Padmé wanted to run forever, not stopping before she had escaped the memory of whatever had set her off, until finally she found the other woman leaning against a bulkhead, thoroughly out of breath. Leia skidded to a halt a few steps behind her. She, too, was breathing hard, although she was not fettered by long skirts and stiff brocade. Swallowing hard, she tried to slow her breathing.
"Padmé? Mother?" she asked, hesitantly, afraid the other woman would run again if she spoke too loud.
For a moment, there was no reaction, none at all, but then the woman whom Vader had called Padmé slowly straightened and turned around, a look of mingled shock and wonder on her face.
"Leia? Child?" Padmé could hardly believe the evidence of her own senses.
But there she stood, her daughter whom she had given up for adoption those many years ago in order to keep her safe. Pushing herself away from the bulkhead, she took an unsteady step towards the girl - no, woman, for Leia was hardly a child anymore.
"Leia, I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry..."
And then they were in each others arms, for the first time in many years.
It seemed an eternity before Padmé disentangled herself from her daughter's arms.
"Let us go into my cabin," she suggested with a crooked smile. "I've made enough of a spectacle of myself for one day."
Darth Vader settled into a chair in the conference room. He still looked pale and was feeling rather shaky.
"Forgive me, Madam President," he breathed. "I was led to believe that Padmé was murdered. I never thought..."
"Unfortunate this is," Yoda cut in.
There was a momentary silence as nobody knew what to make of this comment. The silence was broken again by Anakin.
"Unfortunate?" The former Sith's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Unfortunate that my wife is alive?"
"Unfortunate that you had to learn like this, unprepared as you were," the diminutive Jedi Master clarified.
"Please, gentlebeings. As unexpected as all of this is, there is no need for... unpleasantness."
"Of course, Madam. Again, my apologies."
Anakin brought his emotions under control with an effort, bowing slightly to Mon Mothma. Although there was nothing he would have rather done now than follow Padmé, see her, talk to her again, find out what in the name of the Force had really happened... certain things had to be done first. He wasn't a Jedi for nothing.
Mothma smiled slightly. She could tell Vader - or Anakin - was chafing, but the man seemed determined to follow procedure and prove his sincerity. She took a seat opposite Vader.
"Down to business, then. You must be anxious to talk to your wife, and the sooner we are finished here..."
She spread her hands.
"Thank you, Madam."
Anakin gratefully returned the President's smile.
"Now, Lord Vader - or do you prefer Master Skywalker?" Mothma looked at the Jedi questioningly.
"Whatever you wish to call me, Madam. Although, if you do call me Master Skywalker, there is the possibility of a mix-up with my son."
"True enough. Lord Vader it is, then. Admiral Piett already showed us the message you left for him, but I need to hear it from your own lips. What is your purpose here?"
"I want to join the Alliance, Madam, if you'll have me," Anakin answered solemnly. "I realize you have little reason to trust me, and I can only assure you of my sincerity... and ask that you grant me a chance to prove myself."
It was then that General Madine cut in, "The situation has certainly changed, now that we are aware of your identity, Lord Vader. How can we trust a man who already switched sides once?"
"That will be enough, General," Mothma interrupted him. "The council will not go back on their decision. And the way I see it, Lord Vader has not changed his allegiance before. Please remember that the Emperor once was the duly elected President of the Republic. It is us who have started a rebellion. Lord Vader is merely a little late in joining us."
She rose and offered the Sith-turned-Jedi her hand.
"You shall have your chance. The council has already discussed your case, and although the vote was not unanimous, the majority of our representatives advocates your admission. Welcome to the Alliance, Lord Vader."
Anakin shook the proffered hand, inordinately relieved.
"Now, I believe you have a family matter to attend to. We can talk about the particulars of your station with the Alliance when you had a chance to talk to Padmé."
"Where's Leia?" Han Solo asked, only now noticing the princess' absence.
"Gone after her mother, she has," Yoda mumbled without stopping to chew on his gimer stick.
The group had waited in the hangar while Vader had accompanied Mothma, Madine and Ackbar to the conference room.
"Uh-oh," was Han's comment. "She's going to be pissed."
"What's that, Han?" Luke asked.
"Kid, don't you get it? Leia is Padmé's daughter. Vader is your dad, Anakin Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker is also Padmé's husband. You and Leia are the same age, right?" Jixton threw in.
"Yeah, right... wait a moment..." Comprehension dawned on Luke's face. "Leia is my twin sister!"
"And she's also Darth Vader's daughter. Like I said, she'll be pissed."
Han had the grace to not look smug... not too smug, at least.
"Uh-oh," Luke echoed. "Think we should help him?"
Han cocked his head at Luke.
"Would you risk it?"
"A Jedi should choose his fights wisely."
"Exactly my thought."
In her cabin, Padmé Naberrie Skywalker looked her daughter up and down.
"Leia, I cannot tell you how..." she began, but Leia interrupted her.
"Hush, Mother, there is no need for you to apologize. I understand. You wanted to keep me safe."
"I did. Still... I wanted to be there for you, to see you grow up."
The two women fell silent for a while.
"There is one thing, Mother," Leia began, a bit hesitant.
"Yes?" Padmé was almost too eager.
"My adopted parents... I believed you were dead. I grew up feeling they were closer to me then you." She let out a short laugh. "Does that make any sense?"
Padmé had to blink away tears. "It makes perfect sense, dear. It's the price I pay for giving you away."
"We seem to have a lot in common," she continued. "You went into politics, like me."
"Yes. And here I was thinking I was following in my father's footsteps."
"Oh no, no." Melancholy welled up inside Padmé. "Your father, Leia, had very little patience for politics. He was a Jedi."
Now that was news to Leia. Her father, her biological father, had been a Jedi?
Padmé strode over to a small table where a holocube sat. She picked up the cube and handed it to her daughter. The picture showed herself and a tall, handsome young man with sandy hair cut short except for a peculiar braid peeking out from behind his ear. Both were smiling.
Leia stared at the pair in the holo. Her mother she easily recognized; the face was the same she saw in the mirror each morning. But the man... although Leia was certain she never met her father, this man looked strangely familiar. She had the eery feeling that she should recognize him, yet she could not.
"You see, ours was a forbidden love," Padmé said. "As Jedi, he was not supposed to have a relationship, let alone marry and have children. But Anakin..."
"Anakin?" Leia looked up sharply.
Her father could not possibly have he same name as Darth Vader, could he?
"Yes, that was his name. Anakin Skywalker. I first met him on Tattooine when he was still a little boy. Years later, we met again, and I fell in love. I wish you could have met him. He was the sweetest, most caring person. Funny, too."
Padmé smiled sadly. So many years had passed since then, but she could still feel Anakin's sweet, passionate embrace when she closed her eyes.
Leia stared openmouthed at her mother. Anakin Skywalker? Darth Vader?
"That bastard!" she exploded.
"What?" Padmé frowned. "Who are you talking about?"
"Vader!" Leia spat out the name as if it were a curse.
"Yes." The familiar sadness settled on Padmé's mind. "He betrayed and murdered your father."
Leia did not want to believe it. But there could not be two Anakin Skywalkers, could there? Vader must have assumed Anakin's identity to draw Luke in. But... she looked down at the holocube again. No, there was no denying it. That was why the man in the picture looked so familiar - she had seen his face before, older, more scarred. The man in the picture was Darth Vader, albeit a younger, happier version. Leia let out a breath of air she did not remember holding when the doorbell chimed.
Anakin nodded his thanks to the crewmember who had shown him to Padmé`s quarters. Black helmet tucked under one arm, he placed his other hand on the doorchime panel to announce his presence. The door opened after a few seconds filled with nervous anticipation.
"What do..." Padmé broke off as soon as he saw his face. "Anakin?"
"Padmé... I... can I come in?"
Anakin gestured towards the cabin. Numbly, the former Queen of Naboo nodded.
Anakin stepped into the room - his wife's quarters were generous, although nothing like his on the Executor.
"You!" Leia shouted. "You have some nerve, Lord Vader!"
In two swift strides, Leia Organa was standing in front of the dreaded former Dark Lord of the Sith and slapped him across the face. Hard. Stunned, Anakin raised his hand to feel his cheek.
"I guess I deserved that."
"You knew! You knew and did not care to tell me!" Leia's voice rose steadily in volume.
"Leia, wait, I didn't..."
"I don't want to hear it."
Leia was angrier than she remembered ever being in her life.
"Leia, please... I do want to hear." Padmé's voice was quiet. She looked up at Anakin. "I'm waiting, Anakin."
"He told me you were murdered," Anakin's answer was so quiet Padmé had trouble understanding him. "He gave me your necklace as proof. Hinted it was Obi-Wan who killed you. I should have known better, but I... I was angry. I believed him."
No one had to ask who "he" was.
"Sabé. She took the necklace on her last mission, without my knowledge."
Anakin placed a comforting hand on his wife's shoulder, but she shook it off.
"I was still recovering from injuries I sustained in a fight with Obi-Wan. The medics told me I would never be able to live a normal life again." He swallowed. "With you dead, when Palpatine offered me the apprenticeship, I had nowhere else to go anymore. I became Darth Vader."
"Palpatine manipulated us all. Even Obi-Wan played into his hands." Padmé shook her head. "It was he who told me that Darth Vader murdered my husband."
Anakin felt the familiar anger rise within him.
"Obi-Wan", he hissed between clenched teeth. "You'll have a lot to answer to."
"He is dead, in case you've forgotten. You killed him on the first Death Star," Leia threw in.
Anakin gave out a short, humorless laugh.
"Not as dead as he'll wish he was when I'm through with him."
"There is just one thing I want to know, Lord Vader. When did you intend to share your little tidbit of information with me?"
Anakin ducked his head.
"Not before you stopped hating me, Leia," he said quietly. "I only realized it on Tattooine, that morning when we talked. I always assumed that you were Bail's daughter. Please, Leia, forgive me - I never intended to hurt you."
"It is a little late for that, don't you think?" Leia was still angry with him, and rightfully so. "You tortured me. You stood by and did nothing when Tarkin gave the order to destroy Alderaan."
"Please, Leia, leave us alone for a moment," Padmé asked.
Her daughter threw her a look that clearly said she did not think that wise, but did as she was asked.
As soon as the door had closed behind the princess, Anakin stepped closer to Padmé.
"I missed you so much," he whispered.
"I'm sorry, Anakin."
She put her hand on her husband's forearm. Anakin looked up, hope in his blue eyes.
"You better leave now."
The hope died as quickly as it was born.
"Go, Anakin. For too long, I thought my husband was dead. And now I learn the man I hated for murdering him is, in fact, him. Do you unterstand? I need time. There is too much standing between us for now."
Padmé turned away from him.
"I see. I'm sorry, Padmé. Perhaps... after a while..."
Anakin turned and made to leave his wife's quarters.
He paused in the doorway.
"I love you."
The large, many-tiered war room of the Home One was starting to fill with rebel crew and officers for the final briefing. Chatter in every language known in the Alliance filled the room as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker took their places. Leia joined them, her face still wearing an expression that warned everyone who knew the slight woman better not to cross her right now.
"So he told you?" Han asked.
He better hadn't.
"Tell me, did everyone but me know?" she hissed.
"Easy, your Highnessness! I only just figured it out, alright? It's not like Anakin knew himself, or didn't you guess that?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Your little chat over tea is what I'm talking about, oh mighty Princess and Senator." Han shrugged and nonchalantly leaned back in his seat. "I wondered since when Vader had become so clumsy a to break cups, but that explains it, don't you think, sweetheart?"
Somewhat mollified, Leia smiled tightly.
"Yes, that would explain a lot. Still, he has it coming..."
"Never doubted that." Han grinned, satisfied with himself and the world.
It was a very quiet Anakin that finally joined them. The general buzz of conversation in the room stopped for a moment when he entered, only to resume at a higher volume.
"Looks like it didn't go too bad," Han muttered towards him.
"What are you on about, Solo?"
"Well, knowing Leia, her mother must be quite a handful. And you're still alive, your Lordship."
"Well, if you view it like that, yes, it could have gone worse."
A hush fell over the war room as Mon Mothma stepped up to the map table and holo emitter at the center; here was a person with a presence so commanding she did not need to ask for attention.
"The Emperor has made a critical mistake, and the time for our attack has come," she said.
Moff Jerjerrod straightened his uniform jacket before he exited the lift. The makeshift throne room was dimly lit; most of the illumination came from the soft glow of the Sanctuary moon, its half sphere being visible through the viewport.
The Emperor gazed out that same viewport, his back turned on the elevator, but there was no doubt in Jerjerrod's mind that he was fully aware not only of his presence, but of his every movement. The officer dropped to one knee at the base of the stairs and bowed his neck, awaiting his rulers convenience. The Emperor allowed him to wait. Patience was a virtue much underestimated in the Imperial ranks, and so Palpatine liked to teach its merits when the opportunity arose.
"What have you to report?" he finally asked.
He did not allow Jerjerrod to rise from his position; the Moff took the hint and remained kneeling.
"My liege, all weapons systems and the maneuvering thrusters report fully functional. This space station is now able to defend itself."
He hoped it would be enough; there was no way his men could have completed all systems, especially the drive. Crucial hyperdrive parts still had to be delivered to the building site.
Palpatine cackled and turned his high-backed chair around to face the commander of his latest weapon.
"Very good," he crooned. "Soon we shall crush the Rebellion once and for all."
Jerjerrod dared to lift his head and look directly at the galactic ruler.
"Your Highness, what about the reports of the Executor defecting to the Alliance?"
Palpatine scoffed at that.
"It is of no consequence. This battle station is now the ultimate weapon in the Galaxy. Dismissed."
Jerjerrod knew better than to press his point. But he would not make the mistake of underestimating Darth Vader and his flagship.
"Jixton, I have a job for you.
The Correllian stopped on his way to the shuttle and slowly turned around, a saucy smile playing on his lips.
"Didn't you fire me, Uncle Dee?
"I don't know what you're talking about, was the flat reply.
"Yeah, damn static on the radio, can't make out what you're saying half the time. The smile grew into a grin. "Gonna cost you extra anyway, Uncle.
Anakin rolled his eyes. He did not particularly enjoy Wrenga Jixton's warped sense of humor. Especially when the ex-Sergeant made him eat his own words.
"So, what's the job?
"I want you to volunteer for the Endor mission.
"Whoa, boss, hold your Banthas. There was never anything about suicide in my job description.
Jixton held up both hands. Anakin glowered at him.
"There will be if you do not volunteer. Is that understood? he growled.
Jix pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Alright, no need to go all Vader on me. What exactly is it you want me to do?
"Keep an eye on my children. Make sure they get back in one piece.
"Or else I don't need to come back at all, is that what you're saying? Jixton cocked his head at the other man. "Look, in case you didn't notice, your kids are all grown up. They don't need a nanny. Not that I'm looking the part, mind you.
"I care neither about your looks, nor your opinion on the matter, Jixton. You have experience in the kind of territory the strike team will encounter on Endor. You are an expert in explosives. You can think on your feet. With you, the mission stands a much higher chance of success, and survival for the team members.
Jixton adjusted his ponytail.
"Oh, well, if you put it that way... 5,000 okay with you, Uncle?
"You can collect your fee after your return from Endor. And, Jixton?
"Double if my children come back alive and well.
"You have such a nice way of convincing a man of what's best for him, Uncle.
"Mother," Luke said simply.
The one word carried a wealth of emotion. The diminutive woman looked up at him; there was no denying her close relation to Leia. Luke's twin sister was a younger version of the woman now standing in front of him, just like he looked like a younger and shorter version of Anakin, their father.
"Luke. I've heard so much about you already. I cannot tell you how proud I am of you, of both my children."
Padmé opened her arms and, for the first time, embraced her grown son.
"I'm so sorry I had to give you up," she whispered into his chest.
"I understand, Mother. There was nothing you could have done. And Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru really weren't that bad, you know," he finished with a slight smile.
There was a bit of an awkward pause as neither knew what to say to the other. Both had a million questions, but somehow they did not seem important anymore.
"You've become quite a Jedi, I hear," Padmé finally said.
"Yes. I always wanted to follow in Father's footsteps..." He realized what he had said only after the words had left his mouth. "Well, not like that, I mean..."
Padmé laughed. "I know what you mean. And you do have a way with words, just like your father."
Luke grinned, slightly embarrassed. "He loves you very much."
"I know. And I suppose I still love Anakin, but... Darth Vader will need some getting used to. Obi-Wan told me he betrayed and murdered Anakin, and to find out they are one and the same... that threw me a bit off."
"Ben has something to answer for",,he replied grimly. "He at least deserves a good talking to for his version of the truth."
"Are you telling me Obi-Wan is alive as well?"
"Not really." Luke shook his head. "But he's not as dead as he'll wish he were when I'm through talking with him. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out without his machinations. No doubt he meant well, but he sometimes has this high-handed, I-know-better-than-you-because-I-am-a-Jedi manner..."
"Vader... Anakin said something similar. I won't pretend to understand about this thing about Jedi and the Force, but I know exactly what you mean. Obi-Wan can be quite aloof at times, and I suppose it's gotten worse over the years."
"But let's not talk about Ben, Mother. I know so little about you, and I have so much I want to ask you."
The tall Jedi was talking with Jixton in Home One's main hangar when he heard Solo call. He turned around and approached the Correllian.
"I noticed you didn't volunteer for the Endor mission. Luke's gonna be disappointed, you know."
Anakin smiled thinly.
"That cannot be helped. My place is with my ship, and my squad."
Han cocked his head.
"And away from Leia, huh? Don't think I didn't see you flinch every time she looked daggers at you."
"There is that. The way things are between us at the moment, I feel my presence would distract her from the mission." He paused for a moment. "To tell the truth, Han, there is yet another reason why I should be staying away from Endor as long as possible."
"Palpatine. He would certainly sense my presence through the Force; I have never been able to block him." Anakin ran a hand over the stubble on his skull. "I would give us away by just being there."
A thoughtful look crossed Han's face.
"What about Luke then? He's a Jedi, too."
Anakin shook his head.
"Luke should be alright. He hasn't been Palpatine's apprentice for a good twenty standard years. But tell him to keep his mental shields up, just in case. Where is Luke, by the way?"
"With his mother. They have a lot of catching up to do."
A pained look crossed Anakin's features.
"Hey, look...", Han began, but the former Sith interrupted him.
"It's alright, Han. I'll just have to live with the consequences of my actions. I only wish my decisions had not forced Padmé to give up our children to be raised elsewhere. I cost Luke and Leia both their parents, Han."
There was nothing Han could reply to that.
Anakin decided to change the subject, "So, you're going to take the Tydirium? he asked.
"Yeah. Wanted to ask you... anything special I should know about her?
A thin smile appeared on Anakin's face.
"No, I haven't had the time for any modifications. But what about the Falcon?
Han shook his head.
"Too recognizable. We're supposed to sneak in. Can't do that in a ship that's at the top of the most wanted list.
"Yes, I believe that would be quite difficult. So the Falcon is not going to participate in the battle?
"What? You asking for my ship? Forget it, man, you already have the Executor, and she's a mighty fine lady. No, I gave the Falcon to Lando. He's gonna lead the attack on the Death Star, and he's gonna need all the help he can get.
"And he is going to receive it. I do not intend to hold my ship, or my squads, back.
Han frowned a bit at Anakin's words.
"What about loyalties? Your men just joined the Rebellion, and you're asking them already to fight their former comrades.
"They knew it would eventually come to that when they defected. I shall not imply a lack of trust in my men by keeping them out of the fight.
The answer was delivered with a haughty air.
"Alright, alright, Han conceded. "I guess you know your crew better than I do.
"'Course I do, Han. Now, I better get back to my ship. Piett and I need to familiarize ourselves with the battle plan, and inform the officers and crew. And I believe I heard a rumour about our new TIE's.
"We have a new model, the Avenger. You actually have to thank the imbeciles at the shipyard for our presence here had they done their job right, I would not have had an accident on the first test flight, and we would not have found out about just how Palpatine made sure I stayed in his service. Well, anyway, Piett tells me that our mechanics have been working around the clock to bring these beauties up to speed. He grinned evilly. "Should be a nasty surprise for the Imperial Fleet to meet them in battle.
"I guess so... well, it's time I gathered my team, too. Take care, Anakin. And may the Force be with your.
The two men shook hands.
"Good luck, Solo.
Solo gave him a half-smile and replied, quoting what another Jedi had told him what felt like a lifetime ago, "In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.
Only a short while later, two shuttles floated out of Home One's main hangar. One banked off towards the looming triangular shape of the Super Star Destroyer, while the other set course for a target much farther away. In the crowded cockpit of that shuttle, a deep growl could be heard.
"No, I don't think they had Wookiies in mind when they designed her, Chewie.
Leia walked in and strapped into the seat behind Han's while Chewbacca threw a set of switches.
"We're all set, Captain.
Solo threw a look back at the docking bay, where his battered old freighter still sat. To give her up even to a close friend like Lando... it didn't feel right. It felt like he was unfaithful to her. It felt like he wasn't going to see her again.
"Hey, you awake? Leia nudged his shoulder.
Han shook himself to clear his head of the morbid thoughts.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Let's hit it.
He touched the controls, and the stars turned to streaks, which turned to the amorphous not-quite-shapes of hyperspace.
Endor! - Part 1
Tydirium had successfully made the jump to hyperspace when a somewhat scruffy-looking Corellian poked his head into the cockpit. Jixton thought he would enjoy a bit of the forward view instead of staying in the crowded passenger cabin. Not that the cockpit was any less crowded, but he felt he should get a little closer to the princess and her Jedi brother now so it would look less suspicious than doing it once they reached Endor.
Uncle Dee had made it quite clear that he wanted his kids back safe and sound. Jixton figured it would make the task much easier if he was able to stay close to Vaders offspring without them getting jumpy or Force forbid! realizing their daddy had arranged for a bodyguard. Leia in particular was a feisty one, and he did not want to get on her bad side.
"Are we there yet?" he quipped.
Leia shot him an exasperated look.
"I hardly thought you would risk joining us, Mr. Jixton," she said in a flat tone.
"What? The cockpit such a dangerous place?" Jix joked, deliberately misunderstanding her.
"Dont play dumb with me!" Leia snapped.
"Alright, alright. Uncle Dee volunteered me. Seemed to think the mission would stand a greater chance of success with my expertise. There, satisfied now, your Highness?"
Jixtons scowl matched Leias, only his was pure mockery.
"If Lord Vader thinks we need a babysitter..." Leia started.
She was very nearly hissing with annoyance. By the Force, what was Vader thinking? She had done fine without an overbearing, tin-plated ex-Sith playing on being daddy so far, thank you very much!
"Would you settle for a bodyguard, then?" Jixs eyes twinkled in amusement. Before Leia could respond, however, he continued, "Listen, Im not going to cramp your style, no matter what Vader wants. Ive got a fair idea about how competent you are. If you werent, you wouldnt be here now. Just cut your old man a bit of slack, alright? Hes new to this whole parenting thing, and hes bound to make mistakes." The Corellians eyes grew a bit softer. "Trust me on this: Vaders not half as tough as hed like everyone to believe. He just found you, and hes scared spitless of losing you again."
"Still...," Leia began, but Luke interrupted her.
"Quit bickering already, you two. Were stuck with Jix, were going to have to make the best of it."
"Luke, if you think..."
"Leia, Jixton already said he trusts your competence." Luke kept his voice calm. "Its not his fault father made him join us."
Leia huffed and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"He could have declined."
"Oh, come on," Han chimed in. "Your dad can be very persuasive, you know."
Leia shot him a glance that clearly said 'you, too?,' but kept her tongue.
"Anyway, well be reaching Endor soon, and I dont want any differences in the group. Leia, just try to forget Jixs secondary mission, alright? And Jix, I expect you to treat Luke and Leia the same as anybody else. Dont hover, because thats my job. Got that?"
Tomas Piett sat stiffly in his seat aboard the shuttle. One might think he was standing at attention, only sitting down. Opposite him, Darth Vader leaned back in a slightly more relaxed manner, studying what little information Rebel High Command had deemed necessary to relay to the Rebellions newest members. Anakin understood they were on a need-to-know basis. Still, his idea of what he and his officers needed to know and Madines seemed to differ greatly. The former Imperials distrust could not be helped at the moment. At least he was in no position to exclude the Executor and her crew completely from the proceedings.
Anakin handed the datapad over to Piett.
Have that uploaded to our main computer and inform the officers, Admiral.
Something on your mind, Piett?
Piett shook his head. Not really, my Lord.
Anakin raised one eyebrow. It was very unlike Piett to hedge. Whatever it was that disturbed the other man, it was either of a private nature, or he did not know how to phrase it yet.
Out with it, man, Anakin grumbled.
The Admiral pinched the bridge of his nose.
Im worried about the upcoming battle, my Lord.
Do you think our men will regret their decision?
Piett nodded, then shook his head no.
That too, Sir, but it is not really the cause of my concern. No, it is our new crew members.
The Rebel prize crew? Anakin clarified.
Yes, Sir. The time has been barely adequate to integrate them into our crew. Im worried about their apparent lack of discipline.
"Ah," Anakin leaned back in his chair. I do not think you need to concern yourself with that, Admiral. The Rebels may appear to be rather lenient in that department, but their performance in battle has never been compromised by that. He cocked his head and smiled. Otherwise, this war would have been over years ago.
Piett shook his head slightly.
I dont mean to be negative, Sir, but their performance within the Rebel military is no indication of how well they integrate into our crew.
Hmmm. So you think therell be friction? Anakin nodded slowly. You are right, of course. Merging crews is always difficult. But there is nothing we can do about that. He massaged his neck and suppressed a yawn. Its been a long couple days, Piett. I should get in some quality rest time before the battle. Unless there is anything that needs my attention now?
He looked questioningly at the Admiral. Piett shook his head.
Everything is as ready as it can be, under the circumstances, my Lord.
Good. In this case, Im going to get some much needed beauty sleep as soon as weve landed.
The Tydirium dropped out of hyperspace not too close to the green moon of Endor, and the steel moon orbiting it with its own ring of Destroyers and lesser ships on guard.
Chewbacca growled and shook his massive, furry head.
Yeah, I dont like it either. Thats a lot of ships here, Han growled back.
Think they are waiting for us? Jixton asked.
I sure hope not.
Now well find out if the code was worth the price we paid for it, Leia muttered.
The massive triangular shape of a Star Destroyer slowly pushed itself into the Tydiriums trajectory. A tinny voice came over the radio, demanding their designation and the code. Han complied, glad that his hands were not shaking, although his throat was drier than the Tattooine desert. Damn, he was an experienced smuggler. He had fooled the Imperial fleet more often than he cared to count. Why was he showing nerves now?
Because it was never the whole damn fleet, a tiny voice in the back of his mind answered his unspoken question. And it used to be only Chewie and you, no one elses lives depended on you before. Now, you have Leia to think about and the Rebel Fleet.
Han resolutely stamped down on his doubts. He would come through, for Leia, for Luke, and for the Rebellion, but most important, for himself. His luck would not run out, simply because it would be the single most rotten time for it to do so. The Corellian smuggler smiled grimly to himself as Tydirium drifted ever closer to the Star Destroyer. What took the Imperials so long?
Shuttle Tydirium, what is your cargo and destination?
Han licked dry lips before he answered, Parts and technical personnel for the sanctuary moon.
Tydirium, you are clear to proceed. Prepare to receive guidance signal; do not deviate from the guided course.
Copy that. Tydirium out.
Han cut the transmission and leaned back in his seat.
See, I told you, no sweat!
The Tydirium swung around and followed the guidance signal through the narrow corridor cut into the Death Stars defence shield for her. Han waited until they had well cleared the shield and were already in the moons upper atmosphere before he took the controls again.
This was the most critical part; getting down on Endor without arousing suspicion and getting shot down. Landing in the designated area was, of course, out of the question. The whole strike team would be arrested as soon as an Imperial set eyes on them.
There was no other way but to fake a crash close enough to the shield generator to reach it within a days march through the woods. And that was where Hans talents as a smuggler were needed. He had to take the shuttle into a barely controlled spin down into the denser layers of the atmosphere, making her look as if she were breaking apart, and still land her safely and on the spot. Not something just any pilot could accomplish.
Strap in, everybody. This is it, he announced and cut the engines; Tydirium, not built for unpowered flight in the upper atmosphere, bucked under him, stalled, and tumbled over her left wing.
Tydirium, you are off course. Correct your altitude, an as yet unhurried voice came over the radio.
Chewbacca hit the button that activated the emergency beacon.
Repeat, Tydirium, you are losing altitude fast. Restart your engines! The calls were rapidly becoming frantic.
Chewbacca released the dummy a clever contraption that would explode seconds after release, giving ground control the impression that the shuttle itself had exploded, and deactivated the beacon. To any observer it appeared as if the shuttle had exploded, and a large chunk was hurtling down towards the moons surface. That large chunk was, of course, Tydirium herself, descending in a truly suicidal manoeuvre.
At the very last moment, Han Solo restarted the shuttles engines and turned the almost-fall into a gentle curve below the Imperial sensor range. The smuggler thanked whatever Force or deity was responsible that the Imperials did not use a sensor array for the lower atmospheric strata. Their sensors were state-of-the-art equipment, designed to find anything that came in from space, but the sensor network started about five klicks from the surface, or so the Bothan spies had assured them. Had the Empire still used old-fashioned radar, the Rebels would have had no chance to pull this mission of.
Flying lower, Han looked for a place to land far enough from the shield generators and the Imperial garrison to hide the shuttle, and still close enough to reach their goal within the given timeframe. Skimming over the tree tops, he finally found a clearing less than fifteen klicks from the garrison. He set the shuttle down as close to the trees as he could get; the woods would provide additional cover in case somebody else flew over the clearing.
Alright, lets get this show on the road. Captain, I want this shuttle invisible from the air in 15 minutes. Everybody, get your gear, well move out in 20, he ordered.
Anakin palmed open the door to his quarters and stopped short.
Doctor Hanley. he greeted the obnoxious CMO in a flat voice. What do you want?
Chapter 33: Endor!
Apparently, Hanley had been waiting for him. Anakin did not dwell on the thought that he could be grateful that the man had not accosted him in the hangar, or demanded his presence in sickbay over the intercom. Hanley seemed to have a talent for getting on his nerves, and he simply did not have the patience to deal with the doctor know.
The subject of his musings crossed his arms in front of his chest in a defensive posture.
Since you, my Lord, do not deem it necessary to follow my instructions, let alone report to sickbay, I came here to do my job.
Anakin stepped closer until he was towering over Hanley.
Doctor, I do not like that tone of voice, he growled.
Get used to it, then, Hanley snapped. You wont be hearing any other tone from me until you grow up and act responsibly.
The ex-Sith felt his anger rise. How dare he?
Doctor Hanley, I do not have the patience to deal with you now. In case you did not notice, this ship is going into battle in a few hours, and I would rather do the responsible thing and rest before than. Get out! he spat.
After Ive had a good look at you. And about that going into battle I thought we agreed that you take it easy for at least a week.
You agreed. I did nothing of the kind.
You need to work on your attitude, Milord. I am not going to let you fly a ship in your condition.
Anakin was doing his best to reign in his anger, but he felt himself slipping.
I suggest you get yourself out of my quarters before I lose my patience completely, Doctor.
Hanley stood his ground.
No chance. I am still the highest medical authority on board, and until you can convince me otherwise, I am declaring you unfit for duty.
That did it. Anakin grabbed Hanley by the front of his uniform, lifted him off his feet, and threw him right across the room. The physician slammed hard into the wall and crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
Anakin, Obi-Wans disembodied voice sounded in his head. You need to work on your control, my boy. Do not let your anger rule you.
Master, you have no idea. Anakin prodded Hanleys prone body with his booted foot. The fool actually got off lightly. Had I not taken action now, he would have hauled me to sickbay and kept me there until the war was over or I died of boredom whatever came first.
Anakin glanced at the ceiling, half expecting Obi-Wan to appear there.
Hes not a bad physician, but he needs his attitude adjusted.
Stepping over Hanley, he moved to the desk and dialled the bridge. Pietts narrow face appeared on the screen almost immediately.
Admiral Piett, Dr. Hanley had an unfortunate accident in my quarters. He needs medical attention.
Seeing the expression on the Admirals face, the former Sith could easily guess his thoughts even without the help of the Force. He sighed.
No, Piett, he did not develop a sudden inability to breathe. Just have someone pick him up. Vader out.
On Endor, the strike team carefully made their way through the woods. So far, they had encountered no Imperial troops.
Solo was almost disappointed. With all the supposed security on this moon, getting in had been too easy. But he could not allow himself or his team to be lulled into a false sense of security. The closer they came to the site of the shield generator, the tighter a network of patrols they had to expect. Not to mention the rescue teams that were bound to be on the lookout for the supposedly crashed shuttle
Han nearly missed the white flash among the trees; ducking behind a tree himself, he signalled the team to go down. The Correllian peered around the thick trunk. He had not been mistaken. Two Imperial scouts with hover bikes, apparently on their break, blocked their way. He gestured behind him for the team to take cover. Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and Jixton silently crept up to his position while the strike team crouched low.
Alright, kids, do we take them out, or do we go around? Han asked no one in particular.
Taking them out may be dangerous. If they call the base
Leia interrupted her brother, Going around will take too long. Were on a schedule here, remember?
Yeah, and we dont know how many more there are, Han ran a hand over his face and came to a decision. Stay here. Chewie, you come with me.
The Wookiee replied with a low growl and crept silently after his Correllian friend.
Using every bit of cover available, Han Solo silently made his way around the two Imperials and approached them from the other side. Chewie hung back, providing backup should his human friend need it.
Over at the tree Jixton felt the little hairs on his neck stand up. Something was not right here; scouts never came in pairs, not without a backup team. He scanned the area until he saw the tip of another hover bike protruding from the greenery. The Corellian elbowed Luke to get the Jedis attention.
Theres the second team, he breathed, pointing to a 10 oclock position.
Luke took less than a second to make a decision.
We need to take those out too. Leia, stay here and signal Han. Jixton, come with me.
Luke, wait! Leia whispered urgently. Youre not going without me.
But Luke was already crawling on hands and knees towards the two Imperials, with Jixton close on his heels. Leia swallowed a frustrated sigh and readied her blaster.
The alarms insistent beeping cut into Anakins slumber. The former Sith Lord groaned and rolled over on his stomach. It felt like he had closed his eyes for only a minute, when in reality, nearly ten hours had passed. He knew he needed to get up now and prepare for the upcoming battle. The fleet was scheduled to follow the Tydirium to the Endor system sixteen hours after the shuttles departure. However, the knowledge alone did not help him act accordingly, and so he pulled the pillow over his head, trying to shut out the noise.
The alarm clock continued to beep despite Anakins best efforts to ignore it.
Anakin, Obi-Wans disembodied voice sounded overly loud in Anakins ears.
Anakin, wake up!
M wake, came the mumbled reply.
I rather doubt that, my Padawan.
Alright, alright, dont get pushy, old man.
Rolling back over on his back, Anakin threw the covers off and got up. Still grumbling about annoying dead Jedi under his breath, he padded on bare feet into the bathroom.
The second scout team was quickly and quietly taken care off. General Han Solo signalled his strike team, and they set off again towards their destination, the shield generator. Not one of them, not even Wrenga Jixton with all of his experience, noticed the two pairs of eyes that followed the rebels, or heard the whispered conversation between the two Ewok warriors.
Wicket and Paploo crept through the underbrush without so much as moving a fern to alert their prey to their presence, all the while keeping a prudent distance. Although young, the two were fully qualified hunters and warriors of their tribe. The Ewoks had no love for humans since the tall folk had come to their home world and erected their strange structures, not caring about the trees they cut down or the birds and wild game that fled before their machines. One Ewok tribe had tried to resist the humans, and many had been killed without mercy. The few survivors spread the tale among the other tribes, and for the first time in their history, the Ewoks faced a common enemy.
These new humans seemed enemies of their enemies, Wicket suggested towards Paploo using the hunters sign language so they would not be heard.
Perhaps they should approach them and form an alliance. Paploo, though, shook his head.
You are too trusting and naïve, he gestured back. Because they fight against the other tall folk does not mean they will not turn on us. He thought for a moment. We shall continue to follow and watch them. We must learn of their plans before we take action.
Then we should alert the tribe, Wicket replied. Continue to follow them, while I circle back to our village.'
To be continued...