Title: Sibling Revelry
Disclaimer Not my characters and not my universe.
Summary: After Bespin and before Endor, Darth Vader is shocked to discover that Luke and Leia are twins. He's even more shocked when Imperial Intelligence reports that Organa and Skywalker are, erm, a tad closer than previously suspected. Humor, mild AU.
The bridge of the Executor was the most exemplary achievement of efficiency to be found in the whole Empire. The Senate had been a quagmire at best, the Imperial Court was a sluggish morass, the bureaucracy was procrastination incarnated, and the planetary governors couldn't shoot a Rebel with a holocam—but the Executor was the personal territory of Darth Vader. He who did not pull his own weight could expect it to be pulled for him—out the hatch by the boot heels. Around the Sith Lord, "dead weight" was no metaphorical term.
Few things could inspire a man like the threat of expiring, should he prove himself less than wholly dedicated to the expeditious performance of his duty. Caf breaks and 'fresher runs did not exist aboard the Executor. If you wanted to live to see your next assignment, you worked attentively at your console through the last second of your shift. If you were out of work, you invented more work. And if you were a junior information systems officer who only got new updates to process once every two hours—like Ensign Kyler Mespa—you invented most of your work. After all, plugging data into the ship's information banks didn't take terribly long. Most of the time Ensign Mespa just sat at his console and read the intelligence files. At least that way, he felt that he was doing something educational, and every now and then he would discover a helpful fact about an elusive Rebel hidden someplace nobody would have thought to look, like a news article about a Corellian nightclub singing contest or something.
Today—the lunchtime scuttlebutt asserted that Vader had killed another of his agents for returning to the Executor empty-handed—Mespa found himself searching through the data banks for any and all mention of one Skywalker, Luke. He reasoned that he ought to know something about the Rebel whom his commanding officer was so obsessively hunting, even if Imperial Intelligence's dossier on Skywalker was classified. After all, it wasn't like he was hacking into the classified files in order to sell the Rebels information, was it?
He was shocked to find that Imperial Intelligence knew practically nothing about the man who'd blown up the Death Star. They didn't know his date of birth. They didn't know where he had been born. They didn't know who his parents were. They didn't know if he had any siblings or other relatives.
They did have his genetic data.
Mespa sat back in his chair. He really shouldn't. This was plainly Intel's responsibility…and it was probably illegal to copy information from the data bank for his own use…especially classified information…
But the data was right there. And just last week his cousin Vern the spice dealer had sent him that brand-new University of Coruscant biometric program, capable of analyzing a genetic sample and uncovering possible relationships with any other being in the galactic registry. He'd discovered several relatives of his own that he'd never known existed. Okay, so maybe he'd have lived a happier life not knowing about dear old Cousin-on-his-mother's-side's-great-uncle-twice-removed Bartemius Kilroy, presently serving sixteen consecutive life sentences on Naboo for murder and grand theft (plus an extra five weeks for public urination), but that wasn't the point.
Oh, what the nine hells.
Careful to pretend that he wasn't doing anything even remotely exciting, Mespa copied Skywalker's data onto his personal memory chip. When his shift ended three hours later, he hustled back to his cabin and plugged the chip into his own terminal, bringing up the program with a shifty glance to make sure nobody had somehow sneaked in behind him.
He was quite surprised when the display turned up the closest match.
Vader was standing in the Executor's observation bay, regarding the glistening specks of the Fondor Shipyards through the broad transparisteel viewports, when one of his aides approached. "Beg your pardon, my lord, but you asked to be notified immediately of any new information regarding the Rebel Skywalker?"
Vader whirled, the vista of the planet Kuat and its shipyards forgotten instantly. "You have his location?" he demanded.
"No, my lord," the aide swallowed, "but one of our information systems' Lieutenants did turn up a rather, um, momentous piece of data regarding Skywalker's family."
Vader tensed, wondering how anybody could have uncovered the truth of the relationship between the two of them, and even more pertinently, why any of his crew would dare admit to knowing something so dangerous—
"It appears he has a sibling, my lord," the aide whimpered.
The universe froze in place.
It took something that felt a great deal like eternity before Vader's brain could catch up with this information. "You have…confirmed this?"
"Yes, my lord. It—it seems the Lieutenant used a biometric program recently developed by a university. Our intelligence officers have independently confirmed the genetic match."
He had two children. Two. Not one.
"A twin," he said distantly.
The aide, oblivious as to how Vader could have known that, was suitably terrified by his superior's powers of omniscience. "Y-yes, my lord," he stammered. "F-fraternal twin."
Vader was silent a moment before asking, "Female?"
He felt strangely vindicated when his aide nodded violently. He'd been right after all when he'd told Padmé that they were having a girl.
"Do you have a name?"
"Y-yes, my lord—in fact, that's the really interesting p-part of it," the aide said. "Well—in a d-disturbing sort of way—you see, th-the thing is—"
"Spit it out while you are still capable of speech!" Vader thundered, raising his hand threateningly.
"It's Princess Leia Organa!" squeaked the aide.
The universe did not merely stop spinning this time—Vader distinctly felt it reverse direction altogether.
"Impossible," he croaked.
The aide shrugged helplessly. "Intelligence has v-verified it separately. M-medical ran its own analysis and c-came up with the same results." He held up a flimsy. Vader snatched it from him and scoured the information, as though the aide could possibly have mistaken the meaning of the giant green-highlighted message at the top that read MATCH CONFIRMED, or the smaller text just beneath that read Estimated Likelihood of Fraternal Relationship: 99.9883%, or—failing that—the holos of Luke (grainy, sand-blurred and five years outdated) and the Princess (scowling from her latest mug shot) that decorated the bottom half of the page, both enclosed in a luminescent green circle with a thick green line connecting them.
"We, ah, w-we were surprised as w-well, my lord," the aide ventured. "I mean, after that report came in c-covering Skywalker's relationships with his k-known companions…"
Vader felt his stomach—what was left of it—plunge through his bootsoles. He had instructed his agents to uncover whatever they could about his son's relationships with Solo, Organa, and the others with whom he had been frequently seen in hopes of discovering some sort of leverage, anything that might make the boy more vulnerable to his persuasions. Their recent conclusions about the intimate nature of the relationship between Luke and the Princess had just become much more…interesting.
Not to mention violently disturbing.
"I suppose you c-can't expect superior ethics in subversive vandals," the agent was babbling, "but still, I hadn't realized R-rebels would sink quite th-that low—"
He doesn't know, Vader thought, shoving the flimsy back into the agent's chest and wandering out of the solarium in a zombie-like daze. He didn't know about me—Kenobi must not have told him this, either—CURSE that decrepit old man—this is all his fault—screwing up my poor son's psyche—hiding my daughter from me—
But there was no time to waste on rage. This was an unqualified crisis. Forget the Jedi, forget the Sith, forget the whole thrice-damned war—he had to find his son and/or daughter immediately, before this situation could degenerate any further—before, Force forbid, they could marry each other or—
No! He couldn't dwell on that! Perhaps—just perhaps—they had never acted on their obvious attraction to each other—
He snorted, remembering what he'd been like as a young twenty-something. Fat chance of that, Anakin, a voice that sounded eerily like Obi-Wan Kenobi laughed in his head.
Well, maybe—yes, that was it! The agent must have been mistaken! Surely the man had misinterpreted the dynamics between Luke and the Princess—misread the subtleties of body language—
Arriving in his quarters, he retrieved the report and flicked to the section covering the Princess. There was some footage from a security camera that he hadn't examined, having been distracted by an underperforming officer—undoubtedly, knowing Luke as he did, he would understand it differently than the agent had—
The projector lit, displaying a small medical room. His son could be seen laid out on the bed, recuperating from some ordeal or other. Nearby stood Solo, the Princess, and the Wookiee.
"You didn't see us alone in the south passage," Solo was saying snidely. "She expressed her true feelings for me."
Vader clenched a triumphant fist. He'd known it all along!
"My!—why you stuck-up—half-witted—scruffy-looking—nerfherder!" the Princess exploded. Vader was amused, but not fooled for a second. After all, he had witnessed that melodramatic scene in the carbon freezing chamber on Bespin. Disgusting as the prospect of Solo laying hands on his daughter was, it was far less repulsive than—
No! He wasn't even going to contemplate it!
"Who's scruffy-looking?" Solo demanded. "I must have hit her pretty close to the mark to get her all riled up like that, huh, kid?"
For a moment, Vader thought the feisty Princess might self-destruct of ire. He consoled himself with the reassurance that even if she was somewhat attracted to the raggedy ex-smuggler, the relationship obviously had no chance of lasting.
"Well," she retorted, "I guess you don't know everything about women yet."
Whereupon, right before the horrorstruck eyes of her father, she leaned over and planted a resounding kiss on her unsuspecting brother.
Vader hastily switched off the projector.
Subtleties of body language indeed, the Obi-Wan-voice in his head snorted.
Vader made a laudable attempt to evade the obvious. Doggedly he viewed the hologram again and again, tilting the unfortunate projection on all its axes, leaving no contortions untried in his efforts to prove that he was not seeing what he thought he was. But history stubbornly refused to be altered. Ultimately, there was only one course of action he could take to rid himself of the spectacle.
After calling the cleaning droid to dispose of the sparking, mysteriously crushed remnants of a holoprojection unit (as well as several other random technological casualties that had had the misfortune of being within the blast radius of a Force-charged temper tantrum), Vader felt calm enough to consider possible courses of action. He paced circles around the outside of his hyperbaric chamber, evaluating the situation.
The problem, of course, was obvious—his son and daughter, unaware of their relationship, were on the verge of supplying him with a horde of inbred grandchildren. Such a cruel twist of fate must be prevented at any cost. All that was quite clear.
The difficulty was—how in the nine hells did he stop them?
After all, he couldn't very well pop on over to Luke's place and invite him out to caf for a nice fatherly chat on the finer points of human genetics. He had been hunting his son for months now without success, and the Princess had proven herself equally elusive since Bespin. Even if he did manage to corner a twin long enough to get in a sentence or two of conversation, precedent offered no hope that either of them would believe a word. Luke would fling himself into the most convenient bottomless chasm, while Leia would attack him with any weapon available—her bare hands, if necessary.
It's hopeless, he realized.
After a second temper tantrum, which saw the demise of most of his office console, he decided that he would simply have to be creative and take whatever opening he had. It was always possible that the agent had overestimated the degree of affection between the two; one kiss did not an incestuous marriage make. He must move gradually, non-threateningly.
Why not start with a safely distanced method, then—say, a message? Yes! A simple, harmless, but potentially effective tactic: Vader gratefully seized on it. He ordered an intelligence agent to hunt up some of their Rebel contacts and discover the best way to transmit a message to Alliance High Command, and then called up a mechanic to repair the console. After witnessing ten minutes of undiluted ineptitude, he strangled the first mechanic and summoned a second, who proved just as unsatisfactory. Disgusted, he toted both corpses out into the hallway and finished repairing it himself. Then, in preparation for composing what might be the most significant message of his life, he spent twelve hours meditating before beginning to write…
Life on Home One was weird and wild no matter where your berth on the ship might happen to be, but everyone agreed that the pilots' barracks had attained a special level of insanity. Luke Skywalker had learned to live with it, as evidenced by the fact that he was currently studying astrophysics on his bunk, serenely undisturbed by the sounds of the vicious pillow-and-sock fight taking place in the corridor just outside. Whenever a new sock came sailing through the door, he would retrieve the offending article of clothing, identify it as either Hobbie's, Wes', Wedge's, or Tycho's depending on smell, and deposit it in the appropriate pile, all without shifting his eyes from the textbook on his datapad. Whereas his squadron-mates preferred to spend their free time blowing off steam as rambunctiously as possible, Luke had spent his last three years of spare time attempting to catch up on university education or Jedi training. Consequently, he had learned to ignore even the most bizarre interruptions. Flying socks didn't come close, not after that incident with the nest of crystal snakes from Yavin 4 and a few stolen bikini thongs.
A series of shouts and profuse swearing was heard from without before Wedge ducked beneath a barrage of pillows into Luke's cabin. "Fracking idiots," he muttered, plucking a striped purple sock off one ear. "Message for you, Luke."
Luke rolled over onto one elbow and took the datapad. "This better not be about the daily reports," he announced, tossing his stylus down on the pillow and keying on the datapad.
"If it is," Wedge growled, "I'm gonna need permission to kill Janson."
"Permission denied," Luke declared, waiting for the device to power up. It was not a terribly new datapad. "I'm first in that line. You have a sock hanging off your shoulder, by the way."
Wedge scowled and craned his head around to peel the sock away. "Krething mess hall, why the nine hells they keep letting those idiots eat triple helpings of dessert beats me—hey! This is my sock!"
"I got a whole pile of yours over there."
Wedge swore a blue streak and started stuffing the cargo pockets of his jumpsuit with his pile of socks—and then, after a moment's deliberation, added the other piles as well. "Shavit if I won't teach them to raid my sock drawer again!" He balled up several extras in his hands and dashed out of the room. The yells, thunder of feet, and thuds of miscellaneous fabric projectiles retreated down the corridor as the datapad sputtered to life.
Luke typed in his current password and was answered by a message screen. Family Communication Hotline, the decorative logo said. Keeping our heroic freedom fighters connected with their loved ones.
A recorded voice chimed in. "Hello, Commander Skywalker," the voice said cheerfully. "You have received a message via the Alliance Family Communication Hotline, a service of the Alliance Intelligence Branch, designed to provide a secure channel for fugitives from the Empire to connect safely with their loved ones back home." Luke stared in bewilderment at the message screen. Of course he knew the Family Communication Hotline existed—several pilots in his squadron got messages via the hotline pretty regularly. But those were the pilots who still had family alive outside the Alliance. Which Luke Skywalker did not.
As the screen blinked forward, a horrible premonition lurched to life in his gut. But no—he laughed—of course this message couldn't be from him—
The text of the message flowed onto the screen.
How are you? I trust that you are in one piece--I mean, in good health.
You terminated our last conversation rather abruptly, which was unfortunate, because we have a great deal to discuss pertaining to your future. You have recently made a grave error in judgment, due to the fact that you were misled by my former master. Come with me, my son, and together we will heal the disastrous wounds in our family.
I look forward to your response.
Your Concerned Father
P.S. Please give Princess Leia my warmest regards.
Luke stared at the message for about three minutes, barely remembering to blink. His astrophysics textbook was completely forgotten, and he didn't even twitch as three socks collided with his head in quick succession. Getting a letter from Darth Vader via the Family Communication Hotline definitely ranked as the most bizarre thing that had ever, ever happened in the pilots' barracks. No amount of snakes and/or thongs could top this one.
He really wished he could show this to someone. Alas, that was not an option. Replying, obviously, was also not an option, no matter how much Vader couldn't wait for him to write back, which left Luke with only one choice. He read the message one more time—just to make sure that it really did say what he thought and he wasn't hallucinating from the fumes of Hobbie's socks—then deleted the message, stuffed the datapad into the trash compactor, and went back to his astrophysics homework.
A few weeks later…
For a while Luke had been half-dreading that some enterprising and extremely bored technician would discover the remnants of the trashed datapad and magic it back together and somehow recover the incriminating message from Vader, but after three incident-free weeks he was starting to feel thoroughly normal. Or at least, as normal as one could be when one was a member of Rogue Squadron.
"Message for you, sir," Hobbie announced, marching up to Luke's work station in the office of their hangar. Luke, hearing a suspicious clicking sound, swiveled his seat around to see Rogue Four balanced precariously in a pair of four-inch alligator-skin stilettos.
"Hobbie, I'm starting to think you like losing bets to Lyra Litesi," Luke said, snatching the datapad.
"Hey," Hobbie shrugged, "that's how it goes in sabacc. I mean, it's not the worst pair she's made me wear."
"Yeah," Wes Janson chimed in from his console on the opposite side of the office, "definitely better than the boots, right, sir?"
Luke spun back around to his console with a violent shudder at the brain-scarring memory of Hobbie parading around the hangar, shrink-wrapped in laced leather boot up to the hip. "Janson, can it and get me those blasted reports typed up," he ordered, electing to ignore Rogue Four, who skipped off with far more confidence than any man wearing high heels had a right to exhibit.
"I'm working on them, sir," Wes said with a wounded expression.
"Yeah," Luke muttered, keying on the datapad, "you've been working on them since last month…"
Family Communication Hotline! proclaimed the message screen.
Luke barely marshalled enough presence of mind to mute the device before the recorded voice began its spiel. Wes glanced over as his stylus smashed the button with a bit more force than was strictly necessary.
"Anything interesting?" he asked hopefully.
"No," Luke gritted out, stuffing the datapad deep into his cargo pocket. What he should have done was wipe the device's memory and shove it down the nearest trash compactor at the first opportunity…but the morbid side of him couldn't resist discovering what was in the message this time around. He waited until he'd locked himself in his cabin before playing it.
You have not yet responded to my last message. I must reiterate that this is a matter of the greatest importance for your wellbeing. Future generations of our family are at stake, young one. I cannot allow you to continue in your mistaken ways.
I suggest that we meet on Nar Shaddaa next Tuesday at three o'clock at the Angel Star Cantina. I will come alone and unarmed. If you would like to speak with me sooner, you can always drop by the nearest Imperial outpost.
P.S. I would appreciate it if you brought Princess Leia as well.
Luke, more than a bit irritated, elected to hammer the offending device to bits with the butt of his Alliance-issue blaster before dumping the pieces down the trash chute. Apparently, now that physical mutilation had proven ineffective, Vader had resorted to spamming him to the Dark Side.
On his way to the mess hall, Luke decided that he might prefer to be mutilated.
It was getting late in the ship's cycle and the mess was empty except for a few techs holding a sabacc game…and a small, scowling brunette stabbing her food with a fork. Luke grinned and toted his tray over to sit opposite her. "Bad day at the office?" he asked.
Leia looked up and mustered a small smile. "You might say that." Her gaze slipped to the datapad sitting next to her tray, and the scowl flashed back. "Some idiot thought it would be cute to send me this." She tossed the datapad to his side of the table.
He nearly dropped it as the logo Family Communication Hotline registered. "W-what?"
"Supposedly from my father," she snarled. "Read it."
I'm sure you're surprised to hear from me, since I've been absent from your life so long. In fact, it feels as though I've missed all of it. I realize that I have caused you a great deal of sorrow ever since the destruction of Alderaan, but I hope that with honest discussion you will come to know that I had your best interests at heart all along.
We have a matter of great urgency to discuss. Please meet me on Nar Shaddaa next Tuesday at three o'clock at the Angel Star Cantina.
P.S. It would be best if you brought Commander Skywalker with you, as this also concerns him.
Luke stared at the screen, then at Leia. She was still scowling. "Unbelievable, isn't it?" she hissed. "The nerve of that jerk. Shavit, when I figure out what scum-sucking son-of-a-Hutt pulled this, I'm going to rip off his—his fracking—" Her voice dissolved into incomprehensible noises of rage as she gesticulated helplessly and finally resorted to mashing a cooked carrot into goo.
A sense of vast relief washed over Luke. This must all just be a practical joke! Or maybe, more seriously, it was a bounty hunter trying to lure them out—granted, a really clumsy bounty hunter, but it wasn't inconceivable. Besides, whoever had written this to Leia clearly wasn't Darth Vader, which meant his messages must not be from the Sith Lord, either.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "I got a couple of those myself. Bunch of nonsense. Here, I'll get rid of this, and then I'll stop by Communications and tell them that if we get any more messages through the hotline, they can just erase them."
She dropped her chin in her hand with a tired smile, letting her fork droop. "Oh, Luke. What would I do without you?" She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
Nar Shaddaa, Tuesday, Three O'Clock, the Angel Star Cantina…
Vader checked his chrono furtively. Five minutes after three, and still no sign of Luke or Leia. Furtively, he leaned a little further back into the shadow of his booth, and furtively he scanned the handful of customers at the bar again to see whether any of them might be one of his wayward children in disguise. His reconnaissance was no more promising than earlier: one Jawa, one creature sporting feathers and tentacles, a pair of increasingly drunk Wookiees, and an Ithorian with fleas. He had been suspicious of the Wookiees, and had furtively scoped them out in detail, until he realized that given the respective heights of his offspring it would take both of them in the same costume to pull off such a disguise.
Furtively he checked his chrono again. Seven minutes after three. He was feeling more and more inclined to sulk—furtively, of course. It was not easy for a Sith Lord and galactic ruler of his stature to go incognito. On the other hand, he flattered himself that his disguise was rather on the brilliant side, considering the amount of distinguishing features he'd had to conceal.
Not that he was happy about being swaddled up in the guise of an obese Tusken Raider. But he didn't have a wide range of options. Besides, it was a disguise that would undoubtedly attract Luke's attention.
Ten minutes after three. Still no sign of offspring. Perhaps they thought he had meant three o'clock local time, rather than Galactic Standard time. Brightening at this thought, Vader switched his chrono to display the local time.
It was 5:12 pm.
Vader had just begun to be seriously annoyed when a shadow fell over his table. He glanced up, furtively, and saw the Toydarian bartender hovering in front of him, fists on hips and snout wrinkled beneath his plunging scowl.
"You-a gonna order something or not-a?" he demanded. "You been-a sittin' dere for an hour now-a. Da booths are only for-a paying customers."
"I am meeting someone," Vader whispered, very, very furtively. He was not at all he sure he trusted the ho-dink black market vocabulator supposed to be disguising his tell-tale respiration cycle and basso profundo, so he was trying to keep his voice down naturally as much as possible. The downside of such caution was that whispering would not intimidate a Jawa, much less a Nar Shaddaa bartender.
"I don't-a care-a," the Toydarian snapped petulantly. "Either you pay-a, or I'm-a gonna boot a-you." He hooked a thumb in the general direction of the entrance. "You're-a taking up a-space-a."
Had he had any eyebrows, Vader would have raised them pointedly at the handful of other customers spread out thinly at the bar, filling maybe a tenth of the available seats in the room—but he had no eyebrows, and even if he had it wasn't as though the Toydarian could have seen them. "You are not busy," he said instead.
This was the wrong observation to make. The Toydarian's eyebrows twisted into a knot and his snout wrinkled even more peevishly. "You pay-a, or you get out-a," he snarled.
The appropriate thing for Vader to do in this situation would be strangulation. Sadly, such an action would not only be decidedly un-furtive, it might well encourage the rest of the clientele to run for their lives. Supposing that Luke or Leia was approaching the establishment, the sight of a frantic exodus would not convince them to enter. This was an occasion for subtlety.
"I don't need to purchase anything," Vader said with a covert wave of one finger.
"Yes, you do-a," objected the Toydarian, crossing his arms.
"I do not need to purchase anything," Vader said, waving his whole hand this time.
"Yes, you do-a! What-a, you think you're some kinda Jedi a-waving your-a hand around like that?" barked the stubborn alien. He waggled his fingers through the air. "I'm a Toydarian! Mind tricks don't-a work onna me! Only money!"
Vader was dangerously tempted to pout. No strangulation, no mind tricks—what the nine hells was a good Sith supposed to do in such a situation? It was clear that there was only one way he would convince the obstinate bartender to permit him to stay—pay up. He would have refused on principle, but there were greater principles at stake here—so with a furtively resigned sigh, he fished in a pocket of his voluminous Tusken Raider robe for his…his…
…His credit chip—which was not in his pocket. He rummaged more frantically, and then tried the other pocket, and then went back to the first, but the credit chip remained stubbornly absent. Where was it? It had to be there—he distinctly remembered putting it in his right pocket before preparing to come down planetside— Stang.
The credit chip was in the right pocket, all right…of his other clothes.
Vader glanced (exceedingly furtively) up at the scowling bartender. "Ah…do you take IOUs?"
Imperial Intelligence Agent William Barrows had enjoyed a respectable career for the past twelve years. The reward for his excellent service to the Empire had been an assignment to the Executor, a prize that was (literally) to die for. Miraculously, Agent Barrows still numbered among the living. He had not stayed that way for six interminable months by never failing—on the contrary, Agent Barrows failed regularly. No, Agent Barrows had stayed alive this long by making sure he was never, ever the one who had to deliver bad news to Darth Vader.
Such as this update from one of their spies in the field.
The update didn't contain any really disastrous tidings—on another day Barrows might have been willing to take the missive to Vader himself—but given the Dark Lord's foul mood ever since the Executor's detour to Nar Shaddaa last week, the slightest negative report was almost guaranteed to incite a peremptory execution. There was only one thing a man with a healthy sense of self-preservation could do.
"Ensign Mespa! Deliver this message to Lord Vader."
The young information systems ensign who had been responsible for starting this whole mess through his inadvertent biological discovery, and who had been on temporary duty with the intelligence section ever since, gave him an imploring look, but Barrows answered with a stern glare. He could not permit himself to feel sorry for the doomed ensign; one of them had to go, and it certainly wasn't going to be the senior ranking officer. The soon-to-be-late Kyler Mespa dragged himself out of his seat and surveyed the silhouette of the temperamental Sith Lord, prowling back and forth at the opposite end of the bridge. He gulped, and inched forward a couple of steps, before realizing that his route to Vader would take him past the information systems section—where he knew for a fact there were three other ensigns he outranked. And Barrows hadn't said how he had to get the message to Vader…
I'm saved! he cheered to himself, and marched to the ensigns' workstation. "Ensign Harl!" he said crisply. "Deliver this message to Lord Vader!"
Ensign Harl yelped as the message landed in his lap. He juggled it to the man on his left as if the thing singed his fingers. "Ensign Yarra! Deliver this message to Lord Vader!"
Yarra fumbled it to Ensign Chimmel, who searched around frantically, realized that he was the most junior officer on the bridge, and bleated a pathetic whimper.
"Be quick about it!" Yarra added, hauling the luckless Chimmel out of his seat and forcing him onto the walkway. By now every officer within hearing range was watching, and Chimmel had no choice but to start the death march towards Lord Vader. Two score eyes followed his every shaking step, anticipating a spectacular demise…
The tragedy-in-progress was interrupted when a speeding mouse droid collided with Chimmel's feet. With inspirational presence of mind, the ensign recovered his balance, pinned the mouse droid beneath a boot, and wedged the datapad in a slot on its back.
"Mouse droid! Deliver this message to Lord Vader!" he squeaked, then scampered back into the info systems pit. Up on the walkway, the mouse droid emitted a terrified squeal and hared off on a frenzied tour of the bridge, colliding with one other mouse droid and several officers, attempting to convince one of them to relieve it of its onerous task. At last its primitive processor managed to hatch a devious scheme. It dashed through the hatchway into the corridors outside the bridge and laid in wait until the unsuspecting Admiral Piett reappeared from his lunch break. Then it lunged forward and bumped into his booted toes.
"Message for me?" the Admiral asked. The droid's programming did not permit it to lie—so instead of the usual short medium-pitched beep that indicated yes, the cunning little wheeled mailbox made a slightly longer and higher-pitched beep, which was actually binary code for you sucker.
Piett, as intended, did not notice the difference. The Admiral bent down and retrieved the datapad from the mouse droid, watching in consternation as the little unit streaked away down the corridor with a melismatic string of gleeful beeps. Thing must have a loose wire. The Admiral turned his attention to the memo on the datapad as he strode through the bridge hatchway.
From: Intelligence Department
To: Lord Vader
Piett immediately switched the screen off. Admirals who hoped to collect retirement paychecks did not go around reading memos intended for Dark Lords. There must have been a mistake somewhere along the processing line. As he started towards Lord Vader, Piett hoped that the message wasn't anything important, or else some junior officer was going to have hell to pay.
"Lord Vader?" he asked, praying that he didn't sound too hesitant or terrified.
The Dark Lord turned slowly. Piett gulped. Clearly his superior hadn't gotten any less peeved over the lunch break.
"A message for you, my lord," he continued, as confidently as possible. "It was mistakenly delivered to me by mouse droid."
Vader stared at him a long, hair-raising moment before deigning to take the message. Definitely peeved. Oh, yes…
Piett waited one or two heartbeats before noticing that the edges of the datapad casing were beginning to crumple in the Dark Lord's grip. Very quickly and even more inconspicuously (it was a difficult art, but Piett had mastered it), the Admiral slunk away to the opposite side of the bridge, well out of range of the explosion that was sure to occur any second. Scarcely had Piett managed to immerse himself in discussion with one of his lieutenants than the businesslike hum of the bridge was silenced by a portentous crack. All eyes involuntarily flicked over to Vader just in time to see a stream of shattered datapad components rain out of his massive gloved fist and clatter across the deck. There were a few fatal moments of silence. Vader's impervious gaze swung like Death's scythe over the assembled officers.
"Agent Barrows," he growled.
Barrows' courage failed him after three steps; with a yelp the man spun around and fled the bridge. Vader merely extended one hand. The white-faced Barrows reappeared, being dragged back down the length of the bridge by one inexplicably suspended heel. Every officer twisted back around and stared at his work console with zealous intensity. None of them knew what had been in the message, and few of them had any idea what Agent Barrows' sin had been, but all of them could predict what was going to happen next.
True to form, the Sith Lord dispatched the unsatisfactory agent in short order, and then ordered the entire intelligence section up in front of him. They all counted themselves lucky to escape with nothing worse than bone-chilling mental images of the traumatic fate they could expect if any of them again dared to communicate classified information via mouse droid. Satisfied with their collective terror, Vader dismissed the intelligence officers and stalked from the bridge to his quarters, where he could contemplate the message without inadvertently killing any undeserving personnel.
Neither of his children had ever shown up on Nar Shaddaa, and now his spies reported that Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa were refusing to accept any more messages via the Rebel channel he had discovered. And just in case that wasn't bad enough, his spies had also included a security holo of the two eating together—eating alone together—in a Rebel mess hall, and even kissing each other goodbye.
Clearly, the direct approach was not going to work. He punched a dent into the bulkhead with a durasteel fist, berating himself for not having realized this from the first. Of course neither twin would listen to him—they were, after all, on the opposite side of the war. He would just have to use more creative methods…
According to his Alliance personnel file, Fred Antilles was an average fun-loving Alderaanian who had lost his father, mother, sixteen younger siblings, fifty-five cousins, three hundred and ninety-two classmates, and pet nerf pup in the explosion of that star-crossed world, and had subsequently joined the Rebellion as an intelligence analyst. It was typical, if slightly farcical, story, much like Fred Antilles himself.
According to his Imperial personnel file, Fred Antilles was Karlino Van Hermahutt, Imperial spy extraordinaire.
Okay, so maybe he'd tacked on the "extraordinaire," but with this latest ultra-classified assignment from Lord Vader himself, Karlino fancied that he might deserve the extra honorific. It was, admittedly, a very off-beat assignment. Karlino readily acknowledged that he had no idea how convincing Leia Organa to break up with Luke Skywalker would further the cause of the Empire. But Darth Vader seemed to think it was a matter of supreme importance. Who was he to argue military strategy with the commander of the Imperial Navy?
So, in the guise of the unassuming Fred Antilles, Karlino set to scheming up ways to weasel into the confidence of the Princess and the commander. Being an intelligence analyst, his line of work didn't bring him anywhere near the starfighter hangars or Commander Skywalker. He would therefore have better luck with the Princess. But how? He'd never had anything to do with the woman personally before, and inventing reasons that wouldn't look suspicious to her wasn't going to be that easy—
"…Sorry, Jak, you'll have to wait a few minutes," an analyst on the other side of the processing room announced, "I've got to run this report up to Princess Leia—"
"Hey!" Karlino bounced up with all the gangly eagerness the Rebels had come to expect of Fred Antilles. "I'll run it up for you, don't worry about it!"
The analyst hesitated halfway to the hatch. "Um…that's okay, Fred, really—"
"No, no, I got it!" the man locally known as Fred Antilles insisted, weaving through the workstations and snatching the datapad. "Seriously! You can get back to whatever Jak needs." He waved the datapad at Jak, who pushed the fur out of his eye and clicked a claw in amusement.
The analyst dithered for a second or two, then shrugged and settled back down at his console. Karlino congratulated himself the whole way to the Alliance High Council Boardroom, then had to stand around waiting for nearly fifteen minutes before the Council members ended their daily meeting. He nodded as the enemies of the Empire filed by—Mothma, Madine, Ackbar, Dodonna, Rieekan…
He hadn't known someone that short could walk that fast. She was halfway down the corridor before he even realized she'd come out of the briefing room. She stopped and spun on her heel, all business. "Report for me? Good. Thank you."
And before he could get a word in edgewise, she was at the other end of the corridor and stepping into the turbolift.
When the next report needed to be delivered to the Princess, Karlino had an alternate plan of attack. He waited a few hours on the report until the ship's night cycle started—then he took it straight to the Princess' quarters. That way, she couldn't give him the slip. He marched up, datapad tucked deep into a very full briefcase so as to provide additional delay, and punched the chime outside her quarters. The door slid open, revealing the short brunette. She looked as brisk as ever, despite putting in an over-full workday. She also looked ticked at being disrupted during her off-hours.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Princess," he said, reciting his well-rehearsed story. "But this report only just came in for you and the senior analysts seemed to think it was something important."
"That's all right, Mr. Antilles," she said, glancing at his hand.
"Here—oh! Sorry, it's in my bag," he said, and proceeded to rummage. "Hope I didn't disturb you," he added amiably. "Long day?"
"Not so bad," she offered. "I saw a friend at dinner."
Karlino/Fred rummaged more slowly. "Not Commander Skywalker, by any chance?" he asked.
She narrowed her eyes just a smidge. "Yes, in fact."
Karlino gave his most awkward Fred grin. "Oh, I'm a big fan of Commander Skywalker," he beamed, leaning back on his heels and pausing his rummaging. "Have you two ever—"
"Ah, I see that datapad," the Princess cut him off. She reached down into the bag and pulled it out. "Thank you, Mr. Antilles."
Fierfek, Karlino thought as the door hummed shut.
"Princess! Fancy meeting you here!"
Leia looked up from her very late and lonely dinner. It was that over-eager analyst again. Fred Antilles. Leia might have told him to take a hike, but he was Alderaanian. And she was the Princess of Alderaan (or whatever was left of it), so she supposed she had to be polite at the very least.
Not that Antilles needed much in the way of encouragement. He had already plunked his tray down opposite hers. Maybe she'd advise him to beat it after all. She'd been planning on meeting Luke in a few minutes; he'd worked the late duty shift in the hangar and would just be finishing up. "Mr. Antilles," she said, with a grudging smile. "You're up rather late."
"Well, when duty calls," he grinned, shoveling in a forkful of whatever goo they'd served him. He had a very cheerful look. Leia might have liked him. But she'd been a little suspicious after the supposedly urgent report he had delivered her turned out to be a standard briefing on the culture of Mytosia, a world that had expressed vague interest in joining the Rebellion. So she had checked quietly with the senior analysts. It transpired that that Mr Antilles had been given the report to deliver to her several hours earlier.
Evidently, she had acquired an amateur stalker.
She had mentioned it to Luke earlier when they had arranged to meet at the mess hall. A wicked smirk threatened to crack her composure. On second thought, she'd better do all she could to get this guy to stick around. Luke was going to enjoy this. Crying shame Han wasn't here, too.
"I certainly admire your dedication," she said warmly. "The Rebellion could use more people like you."
Behind a mouthful of slop, Karlino indulged in a diabolical grin. Hah! If only she knew!
"Thank you very much, Your Highness," he gushed instead. She seemed to be in a talkative mood; he'd better take advantage of it. "Means a lot coming from you," he added. "You know, one Alderaanian to another."
"We Alderaanians certainly need to look out for each other," the Princess agreed. "There aren't enough of us left."
"You know, I've been thinking," Karlino added. "Now, just as one Alderaanian to another, Princess—I really don't think you and Commander Skywalker work."
The Princess blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
Warming to his subject, Karlino missed the soft tap of approaching footsteps. "You and Commander Skywalker," he repeated. "It just won't work out."
"I'm sorry," the Princess said, glancing over his shoulder with a faint grin, "but what do you mean by 'me and Commander Skywalker'?"
"Aw, Princess, you don't need to worry about keeping secrets," Karlino assured her. "The whole ship knows."
The Princess's faint grin had become a knowing smile hovering around her lips. "What does the whole ship know, Mr. Antilles?"
"Well—it's pretty obvious that you and Commander Skywalker are—"
"—Very good friends?" a voice suggested behind him.
Karlino twisted at the hip. Sure enough, Luke Skywalker was standing behind him, decked out in an orange flight suit, half-unzipped with the sleeves tied around his waist. "Um—I—"
Skywalker grinned and clapped him on a shoulder. "I really don't think you need to worry about the Princess' love life," he said, circling the table and sitting next to her. "She can take of herself." He swung an arm over the Princess' shoulders. The other dropped atop the hilt of his lightsaber.
And just in case she can't, Karlino reflected glumly, you will. Right. Got it.
"It was nice talking to you, Mr. Antilles," Leia said.
Karlino realized it was time to cut his losses and extricated himself. It had ended unfortunately, but in retrospect had been a valuable conversation. The Princess' stubbornness was to be expected. At least he'd planted the idea. Besides…he could still observe. With any luck they'd get into a spat or be annoyed by one another. He needed all the ammunition he could get.
"So that's Mr. Antilles, huh?" Luke eyed the departing analyst.
"In the flesh," Leia said, stirring her tea.
"Guess he thinks we're an us."
Leia snorted. "Guess he's not such a great analyst." She glanced up. "No offense, Luke."
"None taken," he said. "Hey, I was talking to this girl from Blue Squadron—"
He frowned, indignant. "Not like that. Anyway, she used to run a jewelry shop on Alderaan with her parents and she's been making memory rings for people."
"Yeah. She takes the spare solder from the mechanics and makes these rings and engraves them with names. And—don't get me wrong, it's nothing romantic—I just thought you might like one."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small object, which he promptly dropped on the floor. With a soft curse he dove off the bench and crawled under the table to retrieve it. Then, once he'd pulled himself up to his knees, he produced a beautiful little silvery ring. He flipped it over and pointed out the word etched inside the band—Alderaan.
"Oh, Luke, that's so sweet of you!" she breathed, wrapping him in an enthusiastic hug.
"I think you're supposed to wear it on your middle finger." He climbed back onto the bench. "Hope it fits, I had to guess at the size."
It turned out to be too large for the middle finger, so she slipped it on the next; a perfect fit. "Good guess." She stretched her hand out for examination.
He held up his left hand. "I got one myself." He tugged it off to show her the Owen and Beru Lars impressed on the underside.
Leia turned it over and admired it before sliding it back on his finger. "These are such a great idea." She beamed up at him. "Thank you, Luke."
On the opposite side of the mess hall, well out of hearing range but peering craftily through the lens of a holocam built into the tines of his fork, Karlino Van Hermahutt, alias Fred Antilles, gaped in horror.
Vader was prowling the bridge once again. The Executor was hunting down a Rebel enclave in the Bybroni system, but the Dark Lord couldn't have cared less. There had not yet been a report from the agent he had commissioned to break up his son and the Princess. He could only hope that no news was good news.
Vader glanced down. It was the officer he'd promoted to command the Intelligence Section after the demise of Agent Barrows. "Yes?" he demanded.
"A report from your agent within the Rebellion, my lord." The officer handed him a datacard in a hand that shook only slightly. Vader ordered himself to refrain from killing the fellow as long as possible. After all, most personnel in the Imperial Navy required multiple sets of underwear per day if asked to work with him.
In the not-unlikely event that the datacard contained another report of failure, Vader decided to view it in his quarters and preserve the lives of his bridge officers. There were two holo files. He ignored the one marked "Read First." That was doubtless just a protracted excuse for whatever bad news was in the second file.
The screen lit up with a recording, taken via personal holorecorder from the way the image wobbled. It was a wide shot of a mess hall. Vader watched intently as the focus zoomed in on a pair of figures sitting side by side at their own table—Luke and the Princess. They were laughing about something…quite innocently, it seemed—
Then Luke reached in his pocket, disappeared behind the table for a second—and the next thing Vader saw was his son, on his knees, offering a ring to the Princess.
Who flung her arms around him and put the ring on her ring finger.
Just before the temper tantrum started, Vader reflected on how lucky his bridge officers were that he was so considerate of their lives. Otherwise there would have been a great many vacancies on his staff.
"Hey, Fred! Message for you!"
Karlino van Hermahutt, Imperial spy extraordinaire (maybe, anyway, if he could pull this mission out of the trash compactor) leapt up from his analysis workstation with exaggerated excitement. Distributing a few gawky grins at various coworkers, he sank back down into his workstation cubicle and powered up the datapad a flunky had brought him.
Family Communication Hotline! Karlino jabbed the mute button and examined the message in text-only form.
The direness of the situation now calls for drastic action. I suggest sabotage. Failure will be met with the usual consequences.
Karlino read the message a couple of times, then wiped the datapad's memory and crammed the device surreptitiously down his workstation trash chute. Then he headed out towards the caf dispenser wearing an enormous grin which, for once, was genuine.
This was going to be fun.
Luke powered down his datapad with a huge, dramatic sigh and dropped his head into the pillow of his cot. After three hours' straight reading in order to get through a single chapter of Advanced Theory of Astronavigation, it was the easiest thing in the galaxy to ignore the raucous sounds from the corridor outside his room. He wasn't sure, but he thought Wes and Hobbie had pinned a flimsy of the Emperor's face to his cabin hatch (complete with judicious modifications in permanent marker) and were using it to play a death match of laser darts. This did not worry Luke in the slightest—quite the opposite, in fact. As long as Wes and Hobbie were busy defacing the Emperor they couldn't very well be out smearing engine lube on his cockpit chair, or something even worse.
Of course, it was still only a matter of time before—
"AAAAAAAARGH! JANSON YOU FRACKING BALL OF SITHSPIT! I'M GOING TO SPACE YOU IF IT'S THE LAST THING—EEEAAAAAAGGGGHH!!"
Yep, Luke reflected peacefully, all fun and games until Wes decides to throw something at Wedge. He hoped his XO wouldn't be relegated to the hospital wing again. That would make the third time this year.
His hatch whined open and Wedge stormed through, rubbing furiously at his backside and crushing an unlucky laser dart in one hand. Judging from the neat little scorched hole in the seat of his jumpsuit, Luke reckoned it was only a matter of minutes before one Lieutenant Janson, Wes mysteriously got reassigned to hangar cleanup duty for the next four nights.
"Someone left a message for you at the hangar, Luke," he growled, chucking a datapad towards the bunk. Luke groaned and re-buried his face in his pillow as the datapad thudded onto his back, gave an odd bounce, and landed on the floor.
"Never fear, Boss!" Wes lurched into view around the frame of entryway. "Old Wesy boy is here to answer your fan mail!"
Luke lunged out of his bunk, diving for the message, but Wes got there first and scrambled up with the datapad in hand. Wedge seized the excuse to hurl the laser dart at him, landing a wonderfully accurate strike on Wes' posterior. Luke snatched the datapad back and powered it on as, with an impressive string of curses, Wes tackled his XO to the floor. Climbing back onto his bunk so as to avoid the thrashing melee, Luke powered up the message.
It won't work. We're done. I'm moving on.
"What the sands?" Luke muttered. "Wedge, lookit this. Wedge—Janson, shut up and get off my XO!"
The combatants broke apart with many scowls on both sides. "He started it, sir," Janson complained.
"Did I or did I not order you to shut up, Janson?"
"And here I told that dork from Green Squad you were a nice CO," Wes pouted. Luke glowered. "Alright! Shutting up, sir!"
"What is it, Luke?" Wedge took the datapad and skimmed the mysterious message. "What the hells is that about?"
"Dunno. Was she working on some sort of project for us or something like that that they only tell XOs about?"
"Not that I know of. Guess you'll have to ask her."
Leia was on her way out of the daily Council meeting when the obnoxious Fred Antilles intercepted her in front of the turbolift. "Sorry, Princess, Commander Skywalker asked me to give you this when you got out of the meeting." He thrust a datapad at her.
Leia nodded crisply and sidestepped him into the turbolift, only powering up the datapad when the doors slid shut.
I thought things over and realized it's not going to work out. I'm gonna need the ring back.
"What the ninth hell is this about?" she snapped as the lift doors opened.
"Just catching the lift to the mess hall," a tech waiting on the other side stammered.
Leia managed a distracted apology and ordered the lift back up to the starfighter hangar bay, leaving the hapless tech to wait for the next car. Luke was in the office shoveling his way through stacks of flimsiwork. He looked up as she marched in. "Hey, Leia—I wanted to ask you about something—"
"Same here," she said, handing him the datapad. "What's this all about?"
Luke frowned as he read it over. "I never sent you this. Did you send me this?"
He dug a different datapad out of his pocket and slid it across the desk. Her eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. "No, I didn't. Who gave it to you?"
"Got it last night. Wedge said someone left it for me at the hangar office."
Leia snapped her fingers. "I'd bet you anything Fred Antilles is behind this."
Luke's gaze flicked to the ceiling. "Fred Antilles…that weird stalker guy from Intel Analysis, right?"
"Right. He's the one who gave me that datapad, said it was from you."
Luke straightened up and re-read the message. "Wait…do you think he thinks…"
"How much do you want to bet he hung around in the mess hall the other night and saw me give you that memory ring?"
Leia gasped; a wicked gleam of delight was already glowing in her eyes. "He did mention something about a ring in the message, didn't he?"
Wedge swung halfway through the office hatch, hinged on one arm. "What's going on?"
"The princess has a stalker who thinks she's about to get hitched to the Boss," Wes Janson supplied gleefully from behind his console on the opposite end of the office.
Luke bolted out of his chair and stabbed his stylus at his subordinate. "Janson, you breathe a syllable of this to anybody and I will personally load you into my torpedo bank and fire you into a black hole." He sank back down, then added as an afterthought, "And anybody includes Hobbie."
"Roger that, sir," Wes sighed, plunking at his keyboard. "That's really too bad you feel that way, Boss," he added a few seconds later. "Cause ol' Hobs and Tych and me could have a lot of fun messing around with this creep."
Leia turned towards Wes. "Define 'messing around,' Lieutenant Janson."
"Well, ma'am," Wes said with a crafty tilt of his eyebrows, "I was just thinking that although I guess we ought to let the security officers rake him over the coals, it might be a whole lot more fun—er, I mean, better for troop morale—if you played along with it for awhile…"
Leia crossed her arms, smirking. "I like your thinking, Lieutenant Janson." She glanced at Luke, whose uncertain expression was morphing into a diabolical grin.
"For once, Janson," he said, "so do I."
"Permission to go get the rest of the squad, sir?" Wedge pleaded, bouncing on his toes.
"Granted," Leia said before Luke could open his mouth.
Karlino was sitting by himself in the mess hall, poring over his list of ideas for sabotaging the Princess' engagement plans, when the petite brunette herself arrived on the other side of the mesh table with a dazzling smile. "Mind if you join you for a moment, Mr. Antilles?"
Karlino couldn't believe his luck. "That'd be great, Princess!"
She set her tray down and slid into the bench. "I haven't had a chance to thank you for bringing me that message from Commander Skywalker," she said.
He had to stop himself from biting his lip in anticipation. "Well, he said it was important," he replied, carefully neutral.
She beamed. "Just a little misunderstanding. We've gotten it cleared up. As a matter of fact, we're getting along better than ever and I'll be dropping by his barracks tonight. All thanks to you!"
Karlino dropped his fork clean through the mesh table. He was able to grimace to his heart's content while scrabbling around the floor for it.
"I'll see you around, Mr. Antilles," Leia told him. "Enjoy your meal."
She headed for the exit with a pronounced bounce in her step. Karlino banged his head on the table, which he immediately regretted as it knocked his cup of blue milk all over his jumpsuit.
Leia, upon finding herself with a few free hours and nothing better to do, had conscripted Wedge and Chewie to help her fix the Falcon's aft shield generator. It had taken a bit of a beating last month during a weapons run to Kreshti, and she didn't know enough to fix the damage herself. But as long as somebody with the proper mechanical savvy was around to supervise things, doing the minor wiring repairs was relaxing work.
"What kinda fracking krethhead wired this pile of slag?" Wedge roared from somewhere overhead. An indiscernible Wookiee howl echoed back at him from the maintenance station in the hold.
Leia smirked as she re-clipped the connections on the generator diagnostic panel's wiring. Well—relaxing for her anyway.
Overhead, Wedge's irate insults degenerated into unrepeatable invective. Leia smiled—it was almost like having Han back. When the swearing further degenerated into shouts and violent slamming noises, however, she decided it was time to intervene.
Up on top of the Falcon, Wedge was rubbing a somewhat singed hand and glaring laser bolts at the exposed wirework of one of the shield's projection nodes. "Giving you too much trouble?" she asked.
Wedge tried to mute his scowl as he sucked the side of his thumb. "No offense, Princess, but your boyfriend can't wire worth crap. Damn polarization is reversed on this mount, no the hells wonder the Sith-spawned piece of Hutt slime won't work!" He kicked the offensive piece of machinery in question. Then, a little shamefaced, he added, "Sorry, Princess."
She shrugged. "Trust me, I've heard worse. Of course Han says it's all Lando's fault—"
She cut off as she spotted Fred Antilles slinking into the hangar through a side entrance, attempting to head towards the Falcon without being obvious. "Check it out at your seven o'clock," she murmured.
Wedge glanced casually over his shoulder.
"There has to be something we can do with this," Leia muttered.
Wedge's response was to sweep her backward in his arms and plant a resounding kiss on her. Catcalls broke out across the hangar as others noticed the shocking spectacle, accompanied by the vociferous invective of those who'd been placing bets on the Princess and Solo (and who subsequently lost enormous amounts of money to one Miles Chebbin, a power tech trainee who had sworn for several lonesome months of mockery that he'd once seen Commander Antilles on his way out of the Princess' quarters in the middle of the night cycle).
"What the hell do you think you're doing, Antilles?" Leia hissed as Wedge let them surface for air. The entire hangar was whooping at them. Down on the deck, Fred Antilles was nowhere to be seen.
He grinned. "Grab your comlink and call Luke. We gotta make sure he's in on it."
Luke was working the late shift again. The paperwork was taking even longer tonight than usual. He had at least twelve resupply requisition forms to process, not to mention a whole backlog of after-action reports, and somebody in the brass would no doubt have his head if—
"Oh, Commander Skywalker! Didn't know you'd be here!"
A significant part of Luke's stress slid into the background, replaced by a wicked glee that Master Yoda would definitely disapprove of in a Jedi. Fred Antilles had made his appearance at last. Wedge had commed him to report on his little maneuver in the hangar, and Luke and Wes had already cooked up just the way to capitalize on it. He'd been itching for the chance to floor the analyst's jaws…
"Just pushing the flimsy, Antilles," he said. "Do you have something for us?"
Antilles fumbled with a datapad and dossier. "Well…it's for Commander Antilles, actually."
There was his opening! "Wedge won't be back tonight," Luke informed him. "He's got a date with the Princess."
Although Fred Antilles did an unexpectedly good job of controlling his expression, his presence in the Force lit up with triumph, leaving Luke suspicious. They'd all thought Antilles must want to get Leia for himself, but it looked like what he really wanted was just to separate her from Luke. Did that mean Antilles' true target was him?
Luke filed the thought away for later consideration as Fred said, "I'm sorry to hear that, sir." His voice sounded just a little too loaded with heartfelt sympathy. "Might I ask how you're holding up, Commander?"
Luke waved his hand in lordly dismissal. "Well, I don't like waiting more than the next man, but twenty-four hours isn't that much."
Antilles blinked. "Excuse me, sir—but are you saying that—"
Luke grinned broadly. "Share and share alike, Mr. Antilles! Personal freedom is what the Rebellion is all about!"
Karlino lay awake for hours that night, wondering if it was still possible to yank his butt off the hot plate at this point. If Skywalker didn't consider his fiancée's publicly cheating on him with his XO to be grounds for breaking off their secret engagement, what was left? Oh, he supposed he could try drugging one of them with an aggression-enhancer and hope they got into a very nasty and very physical fight, but given his recent luck, they'd probably kiss and make up in the ER and then get married in the recovery ward. No—what Karlino needed, what Lord Vader needed, was a super weapon, so to speak. There had to be something in these dastardly Rebels' backgrounds that he could use to the Empire's advantage.
He nodded to himself more confidently than he felt. Of course there was. There simply had to be. Nobody was perfect (except for the Emperor), so all Karlino Van Hermahutt had to do was find the weak point. Accordingly, Fred Antilles got to work at his console in Intel Analysis at an early hour and started sifting through the personnel files to uncover everything he could about Skywalker and the Princess. For hours he scoured the information systems, but met with no success. By the last hour of his shift he had despaired of finding anything that might be of use—
"Heya Fred, can you take this one for me?"
He looked up. It was Lester, the analyst who worked two consoles down from him. He wore an apologetic expression.
"Sorry to ask you, but I really need to get to a meeting in five minutes and this just came through. Just a search-and-rescue request that needs to be processed. D'you mind?"
"Sure," he said with forced cheer, taking the report. He didn't feel like filing the form, but S&R requests were always a point of interest to Imperial Intelligence, and at least this way he might have something good to put in his next report to Lord Vader. You never knew, one of these things might give a hint as to the whereabouts of a Rebel that the Empire could snatch up and pump for more classified information—
He froze. This S&R request had been filed by the Princess!
…'Request the Council's permission to continue conducting independent search-and-rescue operation for the retrieval of Han Solo'…hmm…
He scanned further down to the section marked Cost-Benefit Analysis.
…'Captain Solo has proven himself of immense value to the cause of the Rebel Alliance in the provision of essential commodities, including but not limited to ammunition runs, armament negotiations with third-party vendors'…blah, blah, blah—wait. 'In addition, I consider Captain Solo a dear personal friend to whom I am greatly indebted'?
Slowly, Karlino Van Hermahutt looked up from the flimsy. By all rights, there should have been a very large, very bright light bulb hovering over his head.
Lord Vader sat at his console, daring the chip he'd plugged into his personal computer to contain bad news yet again. Agent Van Hermahutt had sent his report several days early. That could only mean the news was significant. Whether significantly bad or significantly good remained to be seen…
He clicked the report folder open. It had only one file, a holodoc labeled Operation Proposal. If the eyeplates of his mask could have narrowed they would have been mere slits.
The projector lit up with the nervous but somewhat hopeful face of Agent Van Hermahutt. "My lord," the recording began, "after several attempts to dissuade the targets I have determined that no influence external to their relationship has a reasonable chance of success. They have…um…demonstrated a definite tendency to ignore anything that the average being would consider a 'relationship obstacle.'"
The agent blinked to himself. Vader wondered with a sinking feeling what in the Empire an amoral agent from Imperial Intelligence considered a "relationship obstacle" but his children didn't. Clearly Kenobi had skewed their sensibilities even further than previously estimated.
"I did some further research, however, and I believe that this man represents our best chance for success."
The display flicked to a holo of—Han Solo?
Agent Van Hermahutt was still prattling along, but Vader had ceased to pay attention, because he was too busy berating himself for not having hit on this most deceptively simple answer before. Of course—of course! How could he have forgotten about Solo? The selfsame Solo over whom he'd watched his daughter swoon in the freezing chamber at Cloud City? The very Solo to whom she had professed her love? It was just as well that Vader no longer had any hair, for he would have ripped it out at this point. Unbelievable. By freezing Solo in carbonite and handing him over to Fett, he had virtually driven his misguided children into each others' arms.
Well, Anakin, you always did have a knack for self-inflicted disasters, the Obi-Wan-like voice in his head snickered.
He shunted the voice aside, pacing a blue streak across his room while Van Hermahutt's voice buzzed in the background. Clearly, the best thing to do was to retrieve Solo from wherever he'd wound up and send him packing back to the Rebellion, then let things take their natural (and hopefully favorable) course.
You do realize what this means, the Obi-Wan voice said gleefully. You're going to have to liberate a known Rebel—
He gnashed his teeth and hammered a fist into the bulkhead.
—Then let him run away free as a bantha cub so he can paw his grimy hands all over your daughter! the voice added.
Fifteen minutes later, when a message arrived at the Tech Maintenance station ordering the supervisor to send somebody to Lord Vader's quarters to repair his devastated com console, no less than twenty-two enlisted technicians of His Majesty's Imperial Navy resigned on the spot.
B-0B12, popularly known in Mos Eisley and its environs as One-Eye Bob, had not lived what most would consider to be a pleasant life even by droid standards. Inasmuch as it was a dedicated nuisance, nobody felt at all sorry for One-Eye Bob, least of all Bob itself. Perhaps once upon a time, when it had been a brand new installation, it had pitied its lot in life, but a number of quirks and perversities had wormed into its programming over the decades, and these days it took a skewed satisfaction in being a rude and inconsiderate bell-droid for Jabba the Hutt's filth-infested Tatooine lair. The only other place where it could have similarly enjoyed itself would have been a juvenile detention center for delinquent boys; but as One-Eye Bob had no anatomy to its name except a large sand-crusted mechanical eyeball, it would not have lasted a day. It spent its monotonous days thinking up nasty things to say to the next wretched visitor and reflecting with perverse approval on the total inconsequence of its existence.
Bob was looking forward to this, because the visitor's fist was hammering on its hatch now, and it harbored a special hatred for people who scuffed its hatch (never mind that there hadn't been any varnish for the past two and a half decades).
Summoning all the inconsideration in its repertoire, One-Eye Bob flipped its hatch open and shot out on its extension apparatus to accost the new arrival. It was about to spit out its usual challenge in Huttese, but upon registering the visitor with its ocular sensors froze in primitive surprise.
The newcomer was unlike anything One-Eye Bob had met in its whole time living in Jabba's gate, and One-Eye Bob had seen the weirdest of the weird. Two meters tall, of humanoid persuasion but with a bizarre droidlike head, it stood out from the surrounding night chiefly because there were red lights blinking on a control panel located about two-thirds of the way up its height. The light glinted off the helmet-head, revealing an impassive black mask. In its hand was some sort of metal cylinder.
One-Eye Bob blinked.
This was why, fittingly in the opinion of most, the last thing One-Eye Bob ever saw was the grimy inside of its scallop-edged metal eyelid.
Vader kicked the sparking remnants of the droid-eyeball off to the side, lifted a gloved fist, and watched the wide ungainly portal of Jabba's palace hoist itself up. He'd had an agent put a call through to Boba Fett, who informed them that despite the harassment of a motley crew of Rebels he had managed to deliver the still-frozen Solo to Jabba's Tatooine residence two weeks ago. The Dark Lord could have sent agents to handle Solo's retrieval. But this was an occasion for speed, precision, and most of all perfection, and none of his agents were noted for those qualities in his Sithly opinion. Hence he would have to rescue the reprehensible Corellian himself.
The corridor immediately within was long, pitch black and bare. Vader brought up the night vision settings on his mask and spotted a lone Gamorrean guard snoring against one wall. It snuffled awake just long enough to draw its last conscious breath before he dispatched it and proceeded down the hall. He could hear echoes of some raucous party or other from the far end. Where the party was, there Jabba would also doubtless be.
Lando Calrissian, wrinkling his nose behind the band of his helmet, edged away from a Toydarian which was puking a whole week's worth of alcohol out on the floor and wiped his shoe off on the wall with a grimace. After word reached the Rebellion that Fett had arrived on Tatooine, Lando had gotten himself hired at Jabba's as a guard and general drudge so as to get the inside scoop. Sure enough, Han was here, hanging from the wall as a sort of morbid decoration. Had he been conscious he might have enjoyed the view. At the moment, a couple of dancing girls were thrashing around the floor in a fight to the death over some scrap of food Jabba had tossed to one of them, while the rest of the partygoers howled with mirth.
"I tell you what, Han, this is your kinda place," Lando muttered to himself. Then he scowled. Talking to a guy in hibernation. He had been here for ten days now and was already losing it. Tatooine was without question the vilest slime pit in the whole universe. Down on the floor one the dancing girls had been knocked out cold. Somebody dragged her off while the rest started a new number. Lando sighed—
What happened next was a blur but seemed to go in this order: the door at the entrance to the throne room started to open. Bib Fortuna flew towards it in a dither—Jabba had issued stern orders that there was to be no more business tonight. The next instant, bits of Bib Fortuna's lekku, followed by Bib Fortuna's detached head, came flying back. The music screeched to a halt and several of the partygoers just screeched. Jabba's bulbous eyes bulged even further out of his head.
Then Darth Vader stalked down the stairs into the middle of the throne room floor.
Lando's jaw dropped behind his helmet. A selection of dancing girls fainted on the spot. Drool hung like vines from Jabba's cavernous mouth. Even the lizard-monkey had fallen silent. There wasn't a sound except for a slow, ominous hoo-per. From the universal expressions of befuddlement, most of those present seemed to think it must be an elaborate prank, but nobody wanted to be the first to say so—just in case.
Lando, unlike most of the present company, had met Darth Vader, and he didn't think for one second that this was a prank. But it was so surreal to see the Emperor's chief enforcer materialize in this scum hole--of all places--that he remained frozen in place.
"Hutt," Vader thundered. "You will give me Solo immediately."
According to Lando's honed gambling instincts, that introduction was the final boarding call for the escape train. He crept behind the back row of shell-shocked spectators and snuck out of the throne room. If Vader wanted Solo again, there was damn all Lando Calrissian could do to stop him. Even Skywalker couldn't win a one-on-one fight with the guy, so Mrs. Calrissian's little boy was smart enough not to try it. He'd do better to slip away before disaster struck so that he could tell Luke and the Princess what had transpired. Or shortly would transpire, at any rate; Lando had a keen idea of what happened to businessmen who tried to wangle out of Vader's deals. He got away to the hangar and hared off towards Mos Eisley in one of the landspeeders.
Back in the throne room, Jabba decided it was a magnificent bluff and roared approving insults in Huttese. There was no protocol droid, as the corpulent crime lord had ordered it disintegrated two days ago in a fit of temper. But Vader understood Huttese just fine without any droids to help him along.
"Silence, Hutt," he snarled in the same language. Jabba's thunderous laugh cut off uncertainly mid-guffaw. "I do not have time to waste. Detach Solo from that wall and transfer him to me. Refusal will be unwise."
Jabba did not think much of being ordered around by an uppity Vader impersonator and said so, gesticulating with his stubby arms and spewing stringy gobs of saliva. The lizard-monkey screeched and chattered.
"Very well," said Vader, and ignited his lightsaber.
Jabba panicked and hit some sort of switch. The floor went out from beneath Vader's feet, but he had leapt off it an instant before and was soaring towards Jabba's divan. He landed (one boot crunching the lizard-monkey's skull) and swept the blade through Jabba's meter-thick neck. The massive drooling head tumbled into the pit. Something gargantuan issued an appreciative roar. With a magnanimous gesture, Vader sent the rest of the corpse in after the head. Then he hit the switch to reseal the pit and surveyed the rest of the room's quaking occupants.
"Detach Solo from the wall," he ordered again.
Several bounty hunters scrambled to obey. Solo's carbon-cased form crashed onto the floor, then floated up horizontally as the repulsors were switched back on. A dancer propelled it towards Vader. He waved a hand to direct it back up the stairs and out of the throne room.
"It would be inadvisable for any of you to attempt to follow me," he thundered, sweeping the red blade in a threatening semicircle around the room. "Those who do not wish to die will remain here for the next fifteen minutes." Then he marched up the stairs and started down the hall, pushing Solo's floating form ahead of him. With any luck, the threat should keep them all frozen in place long enough for him to reach his shuttle.
Lando Calrissian was a good twenty klicks away when a tremendous explosion and thunderclap erased the night behind him. The landspeeder careened. Spinning it in a one-eighty, he saw an enormous laser beam strobe down from the heavens for a second time and chew out a smoking crater where Jabba's palace had stood two seconds ago. Further away, the running lights and engine corona of a lambda shuttle were shrinking away upward. He gaped at the spectacle, all his half-formed worries about Sand People evaporating for the moment. Looked like Lord Vader didn't want to leave any witnesses to this little escapade. Damn good thing I left when I did.
Han Solo woke up, opened his eyes, and saw nothing. "Where the hell am I?" he croaked to no one in particular, as one panicky hand rubbed at his eyes.
"Good morning, Captain Solo," cooed an artificial voice. "I am C-4G0, your room service attendant. If I may answer your question, you are in Room 143 of the Empress Hotel, Mos Eisley, Tatooine. It is six in the morning local time. How else may I be of assistance?"
Han groped in the general direction of the voice. "Mos Eisley?" he squeaked. For a split second he was convinced that he had somehow dreamed the whole last three-and-a-half years, starting with the day he'd walked into the cantina and run into Luke and the old man. That was nonsense, of course—but how else had he gotten here? Last thing he could remember was Leia, Vader, and a big cloud of icy steam. And now here he was and he couldn't see a damn thing—
"I can't see," he informed the droid, panicking further. What had happened to Leia? Had the kid shown up? And was Lando still alive so he could kill him?
"The gentleman who arranged for your stay here informed the staff that you were suffering from hibernation sickness," Fourgee said. "Temporary loss of eyesight is a common side effect, but full recovery can be expected within two hours of resuming biological functions."
This would have relaxed Han greatly—if he were in a safer city than Mos Eisley. In this flea-infested dive, you could be robbed naked, shot, and ingested by three different beings in less than fifteen minutes, not necessarily in that order. And that was with all systems go and a blaster in hand. "How'd I get here?"
"I'm afraid I can't say, sir," the droid said. "You were dropped off at the front desk of the hotel with sufficient funds and information to provide for your comfortable stay. I believe you have a small briefcase waiting for you in the hotel safe."
Han decided to wait out the time until he got his sight back. It turned out to be less than half an hour; apparently he'd already been out of the carbonite for a couple of hours. He was still wearing the same clothes they'd frozen him in; they felt all nasty and stiff. Kreth him if Vader hadn't gone and ruined his favorite pair of trousers. Having no change of clothes, Han picked himself off the bed and made his way downstairs in search of the hotel safe and the briefcase that was supposedly waiting for him.
He was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was there in fact a hotel safe, but his briefcase had also not been stolen out of it by the manager. The manager, terrified that an employee might have tried such a stunt, looked extremely relieved to be rid of the thing. Han took it to his room to open it.
His jaw dropped. Somebody out there must be real charitable-like. Besides a brand-new standard BlasTech piece, an even hundred thousand in cold chips waited in the case, along with a terse printed note informing him that these funds were sufficient to contact and/or purchase travel back to "his friends." Han surmised that there ought to be plenty to throw a nice stiff round or five of Corellian whiskey into the bargain. Feeling mighty in need of just that, he combed out his hair as best he could and made a beeline for the same cantina where he'd met Luke. With any luck he'd run into somebody familiar. In a positive kind of way.
Generally the cantinas of Mos Eisley did not do much business at six-thirty in the morning, but today the place was packed and buzzing. Apparently something had gone down overnight. If it was big enough to get half of Mos Eisley drunk before the second sun was up, Han Solo wanted no part of it. He ducked his head a little further, wishing he had some sort of hood; Jabba's minions were no doubt crawling all over the place and the last thing he needed was to be hauled off to the Hutt. He slunk towards the back hoping to find a nice shadow—
That was when a hand grabbed his collar and dragged him into a booth. Han staggered and sat down hard, but retained the presence of mind to bring his blaster muzzle up directly in the nose of—
"Han? Is that really you?" Calrissian whisper-yelped.
Han snarled. He had no idea how Calrissian had gotten to Tatooine and he didn't much care. "I oughta pull this trigger right now, buddy."
For a man sniffing the business end of a blaster, Lando looked alarmingly ecstatic. "I don't believe it! How'd you get away from Vader?"
"Without you," Han snapped, jamming the muzzle closer to Lando's chin.
Lando finally noticed the blaster and raised his hands. "I'm sorry, Han, but really, what chance do you think I stood in a showdown between Jabba and Vader?"
Han's scowl faltered. "What? What's Jabba got to do with it?"
"You mean you don't know what happened last night?"
"I don't remember anything since you got through hole-punching my back at Cloud City, pal!"
Lando shook his head. "Alright, I'll summarize for you. You've been out of the loop for almost six months—"
"Yes! Luke showed up on Cloud City just after they froze you and I'm not sure what all happened, but the end of it was Fett got away with you and I skedaddled on the Falcon with Leia and Chewie and Luke. Since then we've been busy trying to corner Fett and get you back, but I tell you, he's a sly son of a Hutt. A couple weeks ago he finally got you to Jabba. So I got hired as a guard at Jabba's palace—"
Han barked a mocking laugh and gave a bitter lopsided smile. "Wish I'd seen that. Sounds like your kinda gig."
"You want the story, shut up," Lando growled. "Anyway I got on the inside and was waitin' for Luke and Leia to sort out the outside half of the operation, but we kinda got preempted by someone else last night."
Han blinked. "Who?" He couldn't think of anybody but Luke and Leia who'd want to risk their neck to get him out of Jabba's greasy paws. Not even if there was money in it.
"Vader," said Lando.
Han dropped the blaster at that. "What?"
"My thoughts exactly," Lando said. "I ain't got the faintest idea why but it was him all right. He just dropped right into the party and told Jabba he wanted you back." He managed a wry grin. "That was about when I decided to clear out. Damn good thing I did, cause his ship bombed the palace from orbit not ten minutes later."
"Vader strafed Jabba's palace?" Han spluttered.
Lando nodded. "Nothing left but the blast crater."
Han stared around the room gape-mouthed. No wonder the cantina was packed, if word was running around that Jabba was dead. There probably wouldn't be a single shot of whiskey left in the city by the end of the day.
"So how did you get out?" Lando asked.
He shook his head in a daze. "All I know is I woke up in the Empress Hotel with the room paid for and this little present waiting."
Lando inspected the briefcase and paled. "You're lying."
"Yeah," Han told him in tones that could have sliced the table in half, "I just won that much in sabacc in the last half hour."
"Vader," Lando breathed. "It's gotta be his money. He wanted to let you go … betcha that case he's trying to track down Luke again. He's been hounding the kid ever since Cloud City."
Han's mouth went dry. "You got a ship out of here?"
Lando nodded. "And coordinates to the Rebels' next rendezvous point."
Han couldn't believe what he was about to say. "Then we ditch this case and get the hell outta Dodge." Stubbornly he refused to spare a glance for the briefcase, because he knew that a hundred thousand in free cash has the same effect on Outer Rim spacers as small abandoned puppies and infants do on the average human female.
Lando nodded in agreement, which didn't stop him from casting a mournful gaze at the briefcase. "I've got a scanner on the ship. We can check you for tracking devices before we leave."
They stood. "Throw that over your head," Lando added, chucking his cape at Han. "Just in case."
Han caught it and leveled a finger at Calrissian. "This doesn't mean you're in the clear with me, buddy." He wrapped the cape around his head into a makeshift turban and cut off Lando's snort with a sullen glare. "And if you ever plan on being in the clear again I better not hear one word about what this looks like!"
"Not a syllable," Lando agreed with a somber expression. "Let's go."
Ten minutes later, a Rhodian teen named Davik who cleaned all the cantina tables every morning found a briefcase with a hundred thousand credits and a blaster in it. He bought a ticket to Coronet, where he eventually opened a string of restaurants specializing in Outer Rim cuisine, became a respected Corellian businessbeing, and founded three famous charitable organizations. Luckily for Lord Vader's reputation of total and unadulterated evil, the connection was never discovered.
"Leia?" Luke leaned around the half-open door of her quarters. "You here?" The lights were all out, but he could sense her somewhere nearby.
"Oh, Luke," came a distracted voice from behind the 'fresher door. "Come in, I actually wanted to talk to you…"
Luke edged over and loitered around the 'fresher hatch for a few minutes until Leia said, "I said, come in."
"Um—Leia, isn't that—"
The 'fresher hatch slid open, revealing Leia sitting on the floor in a sleepshirt and exercise pants, her hair in a single braid and datapads and chips strewn around her. She looked haggard. "I'm hiding out so I can get work done without interruptions," she explained. "Come in."
Luke found himself sitting cross-legged on top of the commode staring down at her and not thinking about what his aunt would say if she knew he was hiding out in a bathroom with a girl. Or worse, what Uncle Owen—
"I tried your office, but you weren't in this morning," he said, wretchedly attempting to keep a straight face as she looked up at him from the floor. This must rate as the second least dignified situation they'd ever been in (it would take a lot to top the trash compactor on the Death Star).
"I came down with the Dymian flu this morning," she said.
Luke groaned. "You could have mentioned that before I came in."
She reached up and patted his knee. "Don't worry, Dymian flu is cyclical, and it's not contagious. It only even makes you sick for a few hours every day. At least it hit in the morning and not the middle of the night."
"At least you can get stuff done then," Luke said cautiously.
"True," she sighed, "but it usually takes weeks to get it out of your system."
Luke made a sympathetic face. "Here's to a quick recovery. Anyway, what did you want to tell me?"
"We've gotten some interesting reports from Intel today," Leia said. "Apparently rumor has it around the Outer Rim that something has happened to Jabba."
Luke frowned. "What kind of something?"
"Several of our sources have heard that he's dead."
Luke tumbled off the commode and found himself wedged between the bowl and the shower door. He worked off his shock by clambering back up. "Dead? Have we heard anything from Lando?"
Leia shook her head. "Nothing."
Luke blew out a nervous breath. "Well, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. Could have been Lando's work, after all."
"Could have," Leia said dubiously.
Hobbie loitered in the corridor outside Princess Leia's suite with a face as long as the prow of his X-wing. The Boss had asked him to come run interference for her for a couple of hours—apparently she was kinda sick and kept getting interrupted by people, and the Boss had some meeting or other going down on the bridge so he couldn't do it himself. Not that Hobbie minded watching the Princess' very agreeable back(side), but when it meant sacrificing two whole hours that Tycho and Wes would be plotting the next counter-Fred offensive without him…
Then Fred Antilles appeared on one end of the corridor with a datapad in hand, and Hobbie rejoiced that his hours hadn't been wasted after all. "Hello, Lieutenant," Antilles said, sounding a bit hesitant. "Um—I've got this report for Princess Leia?"
Had Antilles known what manner of man was Hobbie Klivian, he would have quit the system as soon as he saw the glint appear in the pilot's eye. "Better not bother her right now," Hobbie said brightly. "She's indisposed."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Antilles simpered. "Any reason in particular?"
"All I know," Hobbie said with perfect truthfulness, "is she said she and the Boss had a personal debriefing in the 'fresher."
The barely-contained horror on Antilles' face was, to the palate of the accomplished prankster, as sweet as a large box of Nubian chocolates.
The crummy little crate Lando had taken to Tatooine took forever to touch down inside Home One. When it did, Han rocketed down the ramp and made a beeline through the ship for the hangar reserved for Rogue Squadron, and where the Falcon usually docked. Objective eyes considered the Falcon an eyesore, but at the moment Han Solo (privately) thought that even Leia would be hard-pressed to top the visual appeal of his precious ship. Not that he wasn't looking forward just as much to seeing her—and of course Chewie and Luke. After Lando's scanners had assured them that no transmitters or trackers of any kind were concealed on his person, he'd spent the whole hyper voyage fretting about what might have happened to his friends while he was out of the loop.
The Falcon, of course, numbered among Han's friends, not his possessions.
He sprinted up the last corridor and froze at the entrance of the hangar. The place was in the throes of a party, the likes of which the Rebellion traditionally reserved for occasions like the destruction of enormous Imperial space stations against overwhelming odds. Somebody had hotwired a music player to the hangar broadcast speakers, which were booming out a lively jizz-dance number. Paper streamers draped the bulkheads and the noses of the X-wings were adorned with clusters of balloons.
"What," Lando asked, coming in behind him, "did the Emperor die or something?"
Han ignored him and caught the arm of a cute little Twi'lek sashaying past in time to the music, a plastic cup of beer in either hand. "Hey, we just got here. Can you tell us what's going on?"
She nodded spastically. "Engagement party!"
Han raised his eyebrows. "For who, Mon Mothma?"
She doubled over with an exaggerated giggle. Obviously the bash had been in full swing for a while. "No no no! For the Princess and Commander Skywalker!"
Han's jaw dropped with enough force to dislocate itself. Dazed, he scanned the hangar, back and forth—and sure enough, there were his friends, sitting next to each other in a circle of Rogue pilots. Leia, gorgeous Leia who'd said she loved him, was leaning over and whispering something in Luke's ear with a broad smile.
Karlino sat by himself under the nose of the starfighter furthest away from the Princess and closest to the hangar door, attempting to drown his despair in cheap beer and wondering when he could make his escape. One did not turn down an invitation to the engagement party of a Princess, not when the Princess in question had hand-delivered it. Oh, the invitations hadn't actually said it was an engagement party, but scuttlebutt aboard Home One had attained nearly the speed of light; just about the entire dissident movement knew the real reason why the Rogues had decided out of the blue to throw a shipwide bash "with drinks on the Boss." In Karlino's case, the Princess had explained the secret reason herself, with many thanks for his part in encouraging her relationship with her fiancée.
At this point, the only way he might salvage his mission would be if Han Solo were to arrive in the hangar right this moment. Wistfully he looked up at the hangar entrance. The next instant his cup of beer spattered across the floor. There stood none other than Solo himself, flanked by a dark-skinned man he thought was named Calrissian, talking to some Rebel or other. Karlino crouched down, mopping up the amber puddle of beer, and grinned wildly—surely this would put a crimp in the happy couple's plans!
Then he looked up to see Solo polish off a beer and storm away, Calrissian trailing in his wake. Karlino's cup wafted down to the deck once more. He's quitting? Just like that? Are you fracking kidding me?
"S'my fault," Han muttered, reaching for the bottle of Corellian whiskey he'd retrieved from his secret hiding place aboard the Falcon. He liked to keep it in reserve for special occasions. It wasn't every day a smuggler fresh out of carbonite hibernation got dumped by the galaxy's most gorgeous princess. "I shouldna said I know."
Lando took the bottle from him and took a swig. "I gotta agree, that wasn't the best thing to tell a gorgeous woman who just said she loved you."
Han stared at the whiskey swirling in his shot glass, then pushed it away, deciding he was too miserable to bother with getting properly drunk.
"I still don't believe it though," Lando mumbled. "I didn't think the Princess had a thing for Skywalker. She was all about you, man."
"All about me," Han said bitterly. Well, served him right, didn't it? "I don' deserve her. Luke does."
Lando's expression informed him that the ex-head executive of Cloud City desperately wanted to deny this fact, but could not in good conscience do so.
"I disagree!" a voice said from the direction of the rec room hatch. Han and Lando glanced up in time to see a stranger in standard Rebel fatigues striding in. "Recognized you back at the hangar," explained the stranger, shaking hands with both of them. "My name's Fred Antilles. I'm a friend of the Princess and Commander Skywalker."
"I haven't seen you before," Lando said, but Fred ignored him and kept addressing Han.
"Thank the Force you've gotten back to the Fleet, Captain Solo. You're the only one who can stop the Princess from making a horrible mistake."
"Marryin' Luke isn't a horrible mistake," Han told him despondently. He held up a hand and ticked off fingers as he continued, "Shavit, the kid looks good, he's got a sweet lightsaber, he's a hotshot pilot, he washes his underwear, he can cook—"
"It's not that Commander Skywalker's a bad person," Fred stammered. "He's great, I like him. It's just he's all wrong for the Princess. I mean, these last few weeks they've been falling apart. They're not thinking straight, the Princess especially."
"Whaddaya mean?" Han snarled.
Fred raised his hands. "I just think that losing you was really hard on her. I'm worried that she's trying to fill your spot with anybody she can just so she can get over losing you."
"That doesn't sound like her," Lando spoke up, but neither Fred nor Han heard him.
"She's been involved with Luke's XO too, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of others," Fred continued.
Han lunged across the table, enraged. "Why I oughta—"
"No, no!" Fred skittered backwards as Lando hauled Han back into his seat by one arm. "It's all because she's missing you! I'm telling you, the only reason she's getting married to Skywalker is because she thinks she'll never get you back!"
"She's spent the last six months doing nothing but trying to get Han back," Lando pointed out loudly, to no avail.
"I dunno," Han muttered. "Luke's had a crush on her for ages…" Irritably he shook Lando off his arm and picked up his shot glass, staring dismally into its amber depths.
"Besides," Fred added, slamming a fist into the tabletop, "you shouldn't let them get away with it this easily! I mean, the guy says he's your friend but then turns around and steals your girl once you're off the scene? Are you gonna stand for that, Solo?"
"Yeah," Han said. He tipped back a swig of whiskey and said with more conviction, "Yeah. I'm not! Where is he? I'll teach that crop-dusting Bantha bait to steal my woman!"
"I can't believe I let Tycho talk me into this," Luke sighed, dumping another armful of abandoned plastic cups into the mobile trash droid.
"I can't believe Tycho's that devious," Leia said, tearing strands of paper streamer off the bulkheads. "I mean, telling everyone else it was a normal party, and telling Fred it was an engagement party? Genius."
"Come on, Princess," Tycho called from further down the wall, "don't you know all Imperials are devious, sneaky sons of Hutts? Even ex-Imperials?"
"Don't get too full of yourself yet, Celchu," Luke growled. "I heard at least twelve people congratulate me on my upcoming wedding."
Tycho waved an airy hand. "Never fear, Boss. We can always tell them they were mistaken."
"Right," Luke said, "because you, alone of all people in the galaxy, have figured out how to run the rumor mill backwards." He crammed the next load of cups into the trash droid and scowled at Tycho.
"Aw, just roll with the wave, Boss," Hobbie snickered from the nose of his X-wing, where he was popping the balloons one by one with a multi-tool.
"We don't have waves on Tatooine, and if you keep it up, Klivian, it'll be hangar duty for the next mo—"
Luke's voice cut off as something familiar hummed at the edge of his Force consciousness. His eyes went wide and he dropped half a dozen cups as he whirled to face the hangar entrance. "Han?" he yelped. For all he'd sensed it, he nonetheless could not believe his eyes when they informed him that the man who'd just coming dashing into the hangar was Han Solo.
This perfect disbelief that he could be seeing what he thought was no doubt the reason he stood stock still while Han barreled past the fighters and straight into him with an outraged roar.
This is not how I pictured this moment, Luke reflected as his back hammered into the icy cold deck. The next instant he was thrashing around the floor attempting to block Han's wild swings and figure out why the hells his best friend's first reaction on returning from cryostasis was to beat the living daylights out of him.
A huge pair of furry arms came to his rescue, as Chewie pried Han up off the floor and engulfed him in an ecstatic full-strength Wookiee hug. "Lemme at him, Chewie!" Han was still howling like a hydrophobic Bantha. Luke staggered to his feet, clutching his nose. Nearby, Wedge was doubled over with arms wrapped around his midriff. Leia darted up and stared incredulously between Luke, who was streaming blood, and Han, who was flailing about while Chewie woofed and rubbed his hair. "Lemme at him! Chewie! Leggoame Chewie! I'll teach 'im to—"
"Han!" Leia shouted. He stopped swinging for a second, which was just long enough for Leia to dash up and land a kiss squarely on his lips, thereby cutting off any further protests. She broke away, shaking her head at him. "You certainly have a way with people, you scoundrel."
Han stared at her dumbfounded, and feeling more ridiculous by the second.
"I missed you too, Han," Luke said thickly, holding a rag from Hobbie's repair kit to his nose.
"…so anyway, that's what Lando says happened," Han finished. They had spent the last half hour listening to the news from Tatooine in Leia's quarters. It was a tight squeeze—Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Wedge, and most of all Chewie—but they'd made it work since it was the place where they were least likely to be interrupted.
Luke looked especially flabbergasted. "You're sure it was Vader?" he demanded for what had to be the fifth time, dropping the washcloth Leia had lent him away from his nose so as to be heard clearly.
"I'm no Jedi," Lando answered, "but I'm pretty sure it was him. How many guys can there be with big black breath masks, nasty red lightsabers, and Super Star Destroyers for their weekend travel arrangements?"
Luke nodded. Even if an impersonator had managed to scrounge up a costume and red lightsaber, they certainly couldn't scrounge up the only Super Star Destroyer in the galaxy, and Lando had the sensor readings to prove that the Executor had been in the system.
"But why?" Leia burst out. "Not that I'm not delighted to have you back," she added, with an apologetic glance at Han, "but why would Vader give you to Fett and then go to the trouble of rescuing you himself, just to let you go without even a tracking device?"
"And give him a hundred grand," Lando reminded them sorrowfully.
Han shrugged. "Who knows why he does anything? I'm just glad I'm back." Silence lapsed for a few minutes, during which Leia snuggled closer against Han and kissed him on the cheek. "So," Han muttered, "I guess you're not engaged?"
Leia smacked him. "Of course not, laser brain!"
Luke laughed, then winced and pressed Leia's washcloth gingerly back to his nose. The bleeding had pretty much stopped by now. Han nonetheless shot another guilty expression his way. He had already apologized at least a dozen times, which had to be an all-time record for the sometime amoral smuggler.
"But—that gal at the party earlier said you were—"
"So of course you took her word over mine," Leia seethed.
"—and then there was that Antilles guy," Han added. "Fred Antilles."
Luke gave a loud groan and leaned forward, dabbing at his nostrils. "I'm gonna kill Wes."
"Right behind you, Boss," Wedge said. He grimaced and massaged his abdomen again. He'd caught both of Han's feet directly in the gut while attempting to intervene.
"I'm missing something," Han muttered. "This Fred guy said he was a friend of Leia's and yours, kid."
Luke made an outraged noise of indignation, which was chopped off with another wince and timid rub of his damaged nose. "Not quite," Leia said on his behalf. "But I'm only explaining if you promise to listen to the whole story without losing your temper and without killing the guy afterwards. You read me, Captain?"
Han raised an eyebrow. "That bad, huh?"
"Same as always," Luke corrected him.
"Course I'm happy to be back!" Han yelled from somewhere in the guts of the Falcon. "Why wouldn't I be?" Something metal clanged hard against something else metal.
Chewie, who was kneeling next to the crawlspace into which Han had disappeared and sifting through a box of tools, growled something sympathetic.
"Yeah, yeah, I know it ain't your fault," Han's disembodied voice groused. "Shavit, though, if Lando tried anything with my hyperdrive wiring I swear I'm gonna—"
Chewie roared irritably, then shifted to a pointedly questioning rumble. With a sigh, Han's tousled brown hair reappeared in the opening of the crawlspace. "Alright, I'll quit dodging the question. Look, I just don't know. It's weird. I mean, I've been out of it for months, and now I get back and Luke thinks he's a Jedi and he's gotten all serious, and Leia says she loves me but she's pretending to be engaged to Luke. It's just damn awkward, Chewie."
Chewie bleated and patted his head, then whuffed. Han cackled. "Yeah, it is one hell of a prank. Even if it does make things awkward as sin, it's just about worth it to watch this Antilles guy flipping out. I gotta hand it to the kid," he added, ducking back down to tinker with a power coupling, "I didn't think he had it in him to keep the charade up this long. They've been at it for what, a month Leia said?"
Chewie nodded and launched into a brief string of purrs and whines, gesticulating with one hand.
"Though, how they're gonna keep it running for much longer without actually getting married, I don't…" Han's voice trailed off as a mischievous twist crept into his smile. He popped back up. "Hold that coupling steady for me, Chewie. I got an idea."
"You want us to stage a rehearsal?" Both Luke and Leia stared at him with horrified expressions. Wedge Antilles had raised his eyebrows nearly up to the next deck of the ship. Lando rubbed his forehead. Over in the corner, Luke's Rogue pilots gaped at him in newfound adoration.
Han donned a swaggering smirk. "You gotta up the ante somehow, right? What better way than this? It's not an actual wedding."
"But—but—" Luke groaned and rubbed his head. "Han, we're just trying to mess with Antilles, not the whole fracking Rebel Fleet! Hell, what if it gets back to Imperial Intelligence?"
"So much the better!" Han grinned. "Misinformation and all that. Right, Princess?"
Leia, who was stretched out on the deck recovering from her daily onset of the Dymian flu, gave a grudging nod. Luke, who knew that the person who would be misinformed by Imperial Intelligence was his maybe-father, made a faint whimper of protest.
"We can keep it mostly private," Han argued. "We'll just let a few extra people in on the gag and invite ol' Fred along for the ride."
"A few extra people?" Leia said, her eyebrows raised at a wary angle.
"Well, you need someone to officiate, ring bearers, groomsmen, maids of honor, all that jazz."
"Fred can be one of the groomsmen," Hobbie suggested. Luke glared at him.
"Lieutenant Klivian," Wedge said severely, "the Boss gets to pick his own groomsmen." He turned to Luke. "I'm best man, right, Boss?"
"We're really not getting out of this, are we?" Luke asked Leia in despair. She shook her head, resigned. Luke blew out a huge sigh and finally leveled a determined scowl at the perpetrators of the scheme. If he had to pretend to pretend to get married, he was by the Force going to give as good as he got. "In that case, I say that Han has to be best man." Wedge snapped his fingers in disappointment and Han swept a mock bow. "Wedge, Wes, and Tycho can be the rest of the groomsmen."
"What about me, Boss?" Hobbie asked.
The malicious grin that Luke turned on Hobbie would have done the Dark Side proud. "Don't worry, Klivian. I've got just the part for you."
Darth Vader rarely had good days anymore, but he did have days of varying degrees of badness. Today had been spectacularly awful. It had started out with so much promise—they'd gotten a lucky tip as to the whereabouts of a bothersome Rebel cell in the Lykon system—but then the commando team he had dispatched to deal with the Rebels had first landed at the wrong address, then blundered the ambush, with the result that none of the Rebels were captured whereas all his commandos and a sizeable chunk of Lykon's most productive spaceport were blown to smithereens. Consequently his day had been eaten up fielding complaints from the Lykonian government, fending off the galactic media, and explaining the entire mess to the Emperor. As the corpses of several senior officers of the stormtrooper corps attested, the Dark Lord was in no mood for further inconveniences.
Unfortunately, his wayward children had never harbored much concern for his preferences. So it was of course that very afternoon when the next report from his spy in the Rebellion arrived, complete with holo of the twins' latest indiscretion.
Darth Vader was now ensconced in his quarters, eyes glued to his holoprojector with that morbid fascination most beings reserve for natural cataclysms or genocides. Flickering in blue tones before his eyes, a sordid scene was unfolding in a spacious ship cabin. At the fore stood Luke and the Princess in everyday fatigues, holding hands and facing a bulging-eyed Mon Calamarian in an Admiral's uniform who was presumably the ship's captain. Flanking Luke stood a selection of male friends and the freshly unfrozen Han Solo, beaming beatifically on the proceedings. Flanking Leia stood a selection of female friends and one male pilot, holding the bride's mock bouquet and teetering in stiletto heels. His smile looked rather forced. Down the aisle trundled a rotund little astromech droid; a pair of bright silvery rings glittered on the cushion perched on its dome. Bringing up its rear, a slender gold protocol droid scattered fake petals from the flight helmet it was using as a flower basket.
"Dearly beloved," rasped the fish-faced Admiral, "we are gathered here today…"
About eighty-five seconds after the holofile marked "Wedding Rehearsal" began to play, all the electronic equipment in Lord Vader's quarters unaccountably suffered catastrophic damage. About fifteen minutes later, a repair request arrived at the Executor's tech maintenance station. About twenty-one minutes later, a shuttle carrying all the Destroyer's remaining technicians burst out of Hangar Bay Twelve without authorization and got its engines blasted out by Ensign Pol Bhussy, operator of Laser Cannon Mount 52B. It crashed somewhere on the forest moon of Endor, which the Executor was orbiting. It is suspected that the survivors were adopted by Ewoks, which some xenobiologists suggest as an explanation for the stunning leap in Ewok technology that occurred over the next two centuries—but that would be another story.
On Alderaan—according to Leia and Tycho—rehearsals had traditionally taken place a month before the actual wedding. Half of those thirty days had now gone by, and Luke Skywalker was beginning to panic. What was he going to do when time was up? At this point he'd be happy to drop the whole stunt, but Leia seemed determined not to let Fred think he'd won. Luke had begun to worry that she would marry him, out of sheer obstinacy.
"Leia? Han?" He leaned into the hatch of the Falcon's rec room.
"Just me and Chewie," Han grunted. Only his back half was visible, the rest of him being burrowed under the bench.
"What are you doing under there?"
"Well," drawled Han's voice, "you an' Lando, like the first-rate buddies you are, didn't bother to do any maintenance on the energy conduit for the dorsal cannon mount for the last six months."
"I tried to do maintenance on it," Luke retorted. "I just couldn't find it. Can't imagine why I didn't think to look for the access panel under the game table in the rec room."
"What?" Han sounded wounded, which Luke knew to be a shameless act. "It's right by the air ducts and wiring routes to the cannon placement, it makes perfect sense!"
"Except that the whole point of an access panel is to be accessible! You have this ship's guts so screwed up, just about the only thing on the schematic that's still accurate is the engine bloc, and I'm not even sure about that."
"Just remember it's my ingenious modifications that keep saving your butt," Han told him, twisting his face around to exhibit his lopsided smirk. "Gimme the jumper bypass, will ya?"
Luke rummaged through the tool kit and found the JB just as Leia stepped in. "Hey, Leia," he said, handing the JB to Han, "I wanted to talk to you about this whole Fred Antilles thing. Specifically, how do you plan to get out of marrying me?"
He looked up and noticed belatedly her grim expression. "What is it?"
"I think the Empire just gave us an excellent excuse for postponing it indefinitely," Leia said. She handed him a datapad. "Check out what our Bothan spy network just recorded in orbit around Endor."
Luke switched the screen on. Then he dropped it. "No."
"Yes," said Leia.
Han scrabbled out from under the bench. "What is it?"
Luke handed him the datapad. Han almost dropped it too. "You're kidding me," he breathed.
"I wish I was."
Luke shuddered as he stared at the nightmarishly familiar, though only half-finished, sphere in the image, lumbering around the jewel-bright moon like an obese mosquito. "What are we doing about it?" he asked.
"Not sure yet," Leia said. "We're waiting for more reports; they should be coming soon. Right now we don't know if it's even operational yet." She stared through the image, and Luke suspected she was remembering a Death Star that had proven to be operational. She shook herself at last and said, "This is all classified, of course, but I thought you ought to know, Luke, because you could get busy soon. If you're still going to make that trip out to Master Yoda, I think you'd better go right now. I'll okay it for you as long as you promise to make it quick."
"Yeah," Luke said. "Yeah, I think I will."
If anybody had thought to look under the mattress of Fred Antilles' bunk, they would have concluded something was amiss with the intelligence analyst. It was lined with the sorts of magazines, novels, and self-help books generally reserved for very girly tween females and desperate single women in their early thirties. Dozens upon dozens of appallingly schmaltzy publications, all of them dog-eared to the most syrupy pages—some of them even underlined and notated. Anyone would have agreed that Fred Antilles had spun out of orbit of the planet Sanity. What none of them would have believed—what Karlino himself barely believed—was that it was all professional research.
He had spent his every off-duty hour since the rehearsal fiasco hunting for ways to give his reluctant couple a judicious nudge (or, if necessary, a forceful shove) in the right direction. He had tackled his stash of saccharine literature, stolen from the ship's female-only freshers, with rabid enthusiasm and compiled whole lists of romantic ideas. But he hadn't dared to hope that Fate would deal him such a golden opportunity. Just this morning he had been asked to process an emergency leave-of-absence form for Skywalker, Luke. Now that the Princess' fiancé was out of the way, he at last had a chance to act!
He skimmed through his lists to be professional, but he already had decided which plan would be the ticket. And what with all the people who'd placed bets on the Princess and Solo hooking up, he had dozens of potential accomplices to make it work.
Karlino Van Hermahutt, Imperial spy extraordinaire, you are about to ace this mission!
Han blinked when he stepped into Leia's quarters. The front sitting room had been transformed. The lights were off and somebody had scrounged up muted glowbulbs to double as candles. Leia's desk had been dragged out and set up with chairs. Han suspected that was one of Lando's capes attempting to be mistaken for a tablecloth. Abysmally romantic jizz was playing in the background. And directly in front of him, a shadowy version of Lando was supervising while Artoo finished setting the places. The astromech issued a sly beep at Han and bumped into his leg as he walked up.
"What the hell is all this?" Han demanded. "You said Leia wanted to see me!"
"She will," Lando said. "Don't you think?"
"Listen," Han snapped, "I can romance her just fine by myself, Calrissian—"
"Of course you can," Lando said. "Sit down and I'll tell you what's up." Han complied. Lando plopped down in the opposite chair. "Alright, that Fred Antilles guy must've found out Luke just left, cause he came up to my ship this afternoon and asked if I'd be interested in helping him set up a candlelight dinner for you two lovebirds."
Han blinked. "Antilles set all this up?"
"Nah, nah, I said I'd take care of everything." Lando winked. "Now, I said he should do the waiting, so he's gonna be here in just a moment to help with the rest of the food and serve the plates. Leia already knows what's up, I had Artoo slip a note into her office. Now all you have to do is act the part of jilted lover, and let's face it, you can just do that from memory, Solo."
"I oughta ram your sorry butt up the Falcon's quad cannons and shoot you back to Vader," Han said conversationally.
"Aw, come on! You get a candelight evening with the woman you love! And all you've gotta do is act a bit during dinner! I promise, we'll leave the two of you alone after dessert, you can have the whole rest of the night together."
"Fine," Han groused. "But the food better be real damn good."
"Do you imagine you'll be leaving soon, Captain Solo?" Leia asked him icily over a forkful of nerf steak.
Kreth, Han marveled, she's so good at this I almost believe it myself. "Not before dessert," he rallied with a charming smile. His part was turning out to be easy; he just had to pretend like it was Hoth all over again. Which was even easier considering Leia was going full-bore Ice Princess on him.
"I meant, will you be leaving the Rebellion soon?" Leia corrected. Her voice could have frozen helium this time. "After all," she added, turning her eyes back to her nerf steak, "you were intending to do so prior to certain unavoidable delays."
Honey, Han thought in admiration, with a tone like that, who needs a serrated steak knife?
Aloud he said, "Actually, I've changed my mind. I want to stay in the Rebellion."
"Is that so," she remarked with supreme disinterest.
"I mean it," said Han. And to his own surprise, he did. Leia must have heard that, because her eyes flashed up and the icy mask faltered for the briefest instant. She started to say something, but at that moment Fred Antilles appeared through the door to refill their wine glasses. He'd scrounged up a smart black coat and bowtie from somewhere. Han almost had to admire the dedication. As Fred vanished back into the side room, Leia whipped a pen out of her pocket and scrawled on her napkin, Y're really staying?
He grabbed pen and napkin. Yeah I am.
The Ice Princess melted away into a radiant smile. She reached out and squeezed his hand. He grinned back, forgetting that his smile got extra lopsided when he was feeling mushy.
"Well," Leia said aloud, in the same wintry voice as before, "I'm glad to hear that, Captain. The Alliance needs all the able pilots it can find." She let go of his hand and reassembled her chilly expression; an instant later Fred returned carrying salad bowls. "Have you spoken to General Madine about receiving a permanent assignment?"
"I was actually going to ask you about it," Han said, shooting for his most pathetically wistful voice. "Do you think you could spare the time to look into it yourself? I really trust your judgment."
Leia desperately fought down a smirk. He grinned without mercy behind Fred's back. This was turning out to be the best idea Lando'd ever had.
"I'm afraid I just don't have the time, Captain," she retorted. "I'm a very busy woman between the Council and my upcoming marriage." Fred Antilles gave an audible sigh as he headed back to the side room and they snickered silently at each other. Han dashed down on the napkin, Dnt think he'll give up.
Have 2 get rid o/him, Leia agreed. Reassign 2 dif. ship?
Airlock, Han wrote back. Leia stifled a laugh, then stuffed the napkin into her lap as Fred came back in, carrying a single plate of pasta with two forks. "Aldera spaghetti with five-cheese sauce for two, compliments of the chef," he announced.
"That's lovely," said Leia, "but could you kindly get us an extra plate?"
Fred's face fell and he trudged off. Leia scrawled on the napkin, Trad. lovers dish.
?? was Han's characteristic response.
You eat noodles frm ends 2gethr, she answered, regarding him with fond exasperation.
Han mouthed a silent oh.
2 bad we cnt try, Leia added with a mischievous smile.
Barely before Fred returned with the extra plate, Han managed to respond, L8r then!
"Excuse me," Leia said aloud as Fred started back out. "Could I get another napkin, please? Captain Solo seems have soiled mine."
Dagobah was not the sort of place where things happened—at any rate nothing out of the ordinary. It rained, it fogged, small creatures reproduced and were eaten by larger creatures, and all of these humdrum events rolled on one after the other with nary a murmur. Today had been precisely like the day before. The swamp monster drifted in its muddy hole. The lizards and snakes continued to exude slime. The gnats assembled in clouds and drifted apart again. Even the youngish human and the grizzled little green alien, who were the most shocking things that had happened in the planet's entire history, went about their business in harmonious observance of Dagobah's perpetual hush. The millennia-long implacability could have been mistaken for an inviolable law of nature.
Understandably, the natural life of the region was thoroughly startled when the reverential silence was shattered by a thunderous sentence, the first human shout which Dagobah had ever heard.
"She's my what?"
Thanks to the Empire and its embryonic doomsday weapon, and thanks to the fact that her nasty case of Dymian flu forced her to spend three hours of every morning hooked up to an anti-nausea IV in the medbay, Leia had spent all her free time this week in closed deliberations with the rest of the Alliance High Command, including the Council and the chief strategists. Despite having been promoted clear to General by Madine (who'd all but rubbed his hands with triumphant glee), Han didn't rate high enough on the food chain to warrant a seat in any of these ultra-classified meetings. As the Alliance in its wisdom had not yet assigned its newest General a command, he was left to speculate, tinker on the Falcon, and distract himself by tormenting Fred Antilles whenever possible.
With Luke gone to powwow with that mysterious Yoda character, he had to speculate by himself, but Chewie and Lando kept him company on the Falcon while several of the Rogue Squadron pilots joined him to conspire against Fred. Two fictitious letters for the Princess had arrived from her absent fiancé, both penned by Wedge with Luke's signature falsified by Hobbie. They had also arranged for Fred to intercept Leia's purported reply, composed by Tycho on the grounds that he was the only other Alderaanian available. Han had even invited the creep over to the Falcon and asked for his help writing Leia a love note, which had won him a regulation salute from the notoriously undisciplined Wes Janson.
That had been just this morning. Han added Fred's name to the signature line after he left and forwarded the message to Leia in the medbay; it ought to perk her up. But it left him with nothing else to do today but tune up the Falcon's aft shield projector. Han hated tuning up shield projectors. They never cooperated—
He looked up in surprise from his perch atop the Falcon's hull and saw Luke sprinting into the hangar, still wearing his orange flight suit and carrying his helmet under one arm. His sour attitude brightened. Luke had a great hand with shield projectors. "Hey, kid! Come on, I'm just about to start on this projector, I could use ya—"
"Later," Luke panted. "Where's Leia?"
Han set down his tool kit, frowning. "Just getting out of the medbay, I think. Why?"
"It's important," Luke said. Han took one look at his face and had to agree. He'd never seen Luke look so distracted. He yanked his com out of his belt and tossed it to the kid.
"See if she'll answer, I dunno—"
Luke thumbed the com on and punched in Leia's frequency, then tapped the yellow emergency button to add an urgent tag to his call. Han raised his eyebrows.
"Han?" Leia's anxious voice bubbled out of the speaker. "What is it?"
"It's Luke," Luke said. "Can you meet Han and me at the Falcon? It's important."
There was a taut pause. "Alright," Leia answered. "On my way."
Leia still looked gray when she arrived aboard the Falcon; the Dymian flu hadn't fully receded yet. Luke paced back and forth across the rec room until she got there. The poor kid looked so upset that Han didn't have the heart to do anything but suggest he zip himself out of that stifling flight suit. Leia started to give Luke a welcome-back hug, then stopped as she took in his expression. She turned around and locked the door, then sat down. Han didn't much like her expression either.
"What is it?" She sounded unusually gentle, as if she suspected Luke of being terminally ill.
Luke swallowed, paced several more steps, and finally sat down. From the look on his face you'd have thought the kid was going to his death, rather than talking to a couple of good friends. "I never told either of you what happened between me and Vader at Bespin," he rasped.
Han nodded with more understanding. Leia had given him a quick recap on Luke's tussle with Vader; it had to have been hell for the kid, seeing as the guy had murdered his dad. But what else had gone on that even Leia didn't know about?
Leia watched Luke intently, doubtless wondering the same thing. "Yes?"
"He told me something about my father," Luke said, "that I didn't know."
"And you believed that cretin?" Han couldn't stop his incredulous outburst. Leia glared at him. "Sorry."
"I asked Master Yoda about it," Luke went on, "and he told me it was true."
"What was true?" Leia was still using that sickbay-appropriate quiet voice.
Luke stared at the floor for a moment, then gave a huge sigh and whispered, "My father's not dead. He's…Vader."
Han stared. Blinked. Then attempted to clean the obvious wax buildup out of his ears, and said, "I'm sorry, did you just say Vader is your old man?"
Luke, pressing his temples wearily, managed a weak nod.
Han glanced at Leia to see if she agreed with his assessment that Luke ought to be rushed to the psych ward. The blankness in her stare had acquired an awful hint of belief.
"Well," Han said, since no one else seemed about to move on, "I didn't see that one coming."
"It gets worse," Luke muttered.
"Lemme guess," Han said, trying to inject a smidge of optimism, "the Emperor's your cousin."
Luke didn't crack a smile. At this point he was probably afraid it might be true. He picked his eyes up off the floor and set them down on Leia. "You see…I've got a twin sister."
Han raised his eyebrows, about to make a joking suggestion as to who said twin sister might be. Then he realized that Luke's eyes hadn't budged from Leia. He glanced rapidly back and forth as understanding dawned. His mouth opened automatically, but this time he could think of nothing to say.
"I know," Leia murmured. "Somehow…I've always known…"
"I'm sorry," Luke whispered into the subsequent silence.
Leia had been staring into the distance, but at that her attention snapped back. "Don't be stupid," she chided. "I get a brother out of the deal. And a fine one at that!" She leaned over and wrapped him in a tight hug for a long several minutes. Han dug his hands into his pockets and attempted not to watch.
Abruptly Leia leaned out and snapped, "And you've been keeping all that to yourself for six months?"
"Only the part about Vader," Luke mumbled, shamefaced. "I didn't know about you until a couple days ago."
Leia threw up her hands. "Why didn't you tell me? No wonder you've looked like hell ever since Bespin! Fierfek, you stubborn men sometimes…" She trailed off, kneading her eyebrow and shaking her head in despair.
"Well, Your Royalness," Han broke in, "if I ever discover I'm related to a homicidal psychopath, I'll let you know straightaway." He added a devilish smirk, hoping to alleviate the tension.
"The nine hells you will," Leia told him, and planted a lingering kiss on him. Han glanced at Luke as she drew back, but the kid looked nothing so much as relieved. Han reached over and clapped him on the back.
"Don't worry, kid," he announced. "Just cause your sadistic dad tortured us and froze me in carbonite is no reason for all of us to quit bein' friends. Right, Leia?"
"Right," she said firmly. She scowled at Luke. "And don't you ever let me hear you were worried we'd ditch you at the nearest Imperial outpost once we found out."
"Thanks," Luke whispered. Then, with bravado that was at least half false, he added, "I wasn't."
"Well," Leia sighed at length, settling down in between the two of them, "you boys do realize what this means."
"Yeah," Han moaned. "I'll have to ask Darth Vader for permission to date his daughter."
Leia smacked him on reflex. "We'll have to stop leading on Fred Antilles."
Luke nodded. "Too bad," he said, not sounding as though he thought it was anything of the sort. "The boys'll be disappointed," he added with more regret.
"Hold on," Han murmured. He leaned back for a moment, then looked up with a wicked grin. "I've got a better idea."
Dangerous thoughts had begun cropping up in Karlino Van Hermahutt's devious cranium. Luke Skywalker's weeklong absence from Home One had merely proved the truth of the ancient adage about distance making the heart grow fonder. After he'd read the latest medbay logs (in which the Princess' name had made an appearance every morning for the past three weeks), that was no surprise. Now that Skywalker had returned, Karlino could feel Lord Vader's invisible death-grip cinching slowly around his larynx. In his darkest moments, the word "defection" seemed to be circling him. Like a ravenous Nubian gooberfish.
Karlino glanced down at the ominous little note, handwritten on flimsy, which a golden protocol droid had delivered to him that morning. On the sheet a delicate hand had inscribed Mr Antilles, you are cordially invited to a small gathering of friends to celebrate the safe return of Cmdr. Skywalker, 1700 Galactic Standard Time, Quarters 1233-B. At the bottom was the Princess' signature. It was now 1655 GST, and Karlino was mechanically making his way to the Princess' quarters as if to his own hanging. Which was appropriate, really; strangulation no doubt featured prominently in his immediate future. Karlino tugged at his collar. Again.
He rapped on the Princess' hatch. It was opened by the lovely political dissident herself, beaming at him as she ushered him inside. Within had assembled all the usual associates of the bride-and-groom-to-be: Solo and Calrissian talking nonchalantly in a corner, Skywalker and the Wookiee bickering over a tray of snacks, and an assortment of Rogue pilots in the midst of a sabacc game. Tycho Celchu appeared to be winning, leaving Antilles, Janson, and Klivian to mutter darkly about the dubitable trustworthiness of Imperial defectors. All of them set up a round of greetings for him, which scraped against the distraught spy's nerves like a cheese grater on his toenails.
"Come join the game, Antilles?" suggested Antilles.
"I could stand to win another hundred or so," Celchu said.
"Actually," interjected the Princess, "now that we're all here, Luke and I have a special announcement to make. Threepio?"
The golden protocol droid reappeared, passing around little glasses, into which Skywalker began emptying a bottle of purple Kuvian champagne to many appreciative comments. Having topped off all the cups, he sidled up next to the Princess and wrapped an arm around her waist.
"As you all know," the Princess said, "Luke and I have become very, very close and will soon be joined as one." They paused to gaze adoringly into each others' eyes. Karlino was so disturbed he didn't notice the abrupt fit of coughing that afflicted several of the partygoers at once. Neither did he observe the treacherous twitch at the corner of Skywalker's mouth.
"But recently," Skywalker continued as the Princess snuggled even closer to his side, "we received some surprising news that we just confirmed with the medbay. We've always felt very connected by the fact that we were both adopted as infants."
"What we never suspected," the Princess concluded, "was that we were biological twins!"
The hope that suddenly illuminated the core of Karlino Van Hermahutt's soul was almost unbearable. Could it be? Could it be?
"Yes," said Skywalker, tucking his newfound sister against him so closely they might have been conjoined, "now we realize that our future union will be even closer than we'd ever dreamed!"
Everybody broke into applause and hoots of approval. Solo lofted his glass and called out, "Here's to a family truly reunited!"
Karlino stared at the beaming pair for one further moment. Then, no longer caring about subtlety, he snatched the champagne bottle off the table, drained it, and staggered out of the cabin.
No sooner had the door slid shut behind his back than the whole lot of them burst into riotous laughter. Leia swept a mock curtsey to the Rogues' cries of "Encore!" Luke buried his flaming face in his hands while Wes pounded him on the back.
"One in a million, Boss!" he crowed, clearly about to explode with pride for his commander's wholly uncharacteristic performance. "Right, Solo?"
Han, paralyzed with spasms of laughter over in the corner, couldn't do more than nod. Lando applauded them both with a broad grin.
"Now will you let us stop this stupid charade?" Luke groaned.
"You know, Boss, after a show like that, I think we will," Wedge said.
"Of course, we won't let you live it down," Hobbie reminded him, toasting him with what remained of his champagne. "But we do promise not to tell your daddy, how's that?"
Leia's renegade streak had taken like a magnet to Han's idea for putting a final one over on Fred Antilles, and she'd talked Luke into it by promising to transfer Antilles to another ship the next day. He suspected her of using a Jedi mind trick. In any case, he'd sat down with Lando and the Rogues to diagram his revised family tree before getting them in on the scheme. He wasn't certain Lando believed him, but the Rogues found the whole thing vastly entertaining. Far from rejecting him, they seemed to take perverse pride in the revelation that their CO was, in literal point of fact, Sithspawn. Everyone had agreed to Solo's scheme with relish, leaving Luke with no alternative but to feign incest and hope none of this ever got back to Vader.
"You tell any of this to anybody," Luke growled, "and I'll send you packing off to my daddy, Klivian."
"Look on the bright side, Boss," Tycho said. "I think ol' Fred Antilles has finally snapped!"
Lieutenant Kyler Mespa, who had just a few days ago received both a promotion and a transfer to the Imperial Intelligence Service, trembled the whole way back down the bridge catwalk and stumbled into his work station.
"Nicely done," said his right-hand neighbor, Lieutenant Tooma. "I've seen newbies faint before they ever got to him."
Mespa, freshly delivered of the afternoon Intel update for the commander of the Imperial Navy, glanced towards the far end of the bridge, where the hulking black-caped terror lurked in the flesh (so to speak). "Gods, he just reeks of scary."
"Sure thing," said Tooma. "Good news is he usually takes it out on the brass if he gets mad about something in Intel. So all you gotta do is make sure you don't get promoted."
"Too bad nobody told me that before they pinned on my hash marks," Mespa muttered. "From now on I'm keeping my nose the hell outta—"
"Ssssssh! He's coming!"
Mespa typed frantic nonsense into his console until the bootstrides faded into the distance, then blew out a drained sigh. "Sithspawn, I hope I get transferred."
Vader scanned the file the Intel lieutenant had brought him. Agent Van Hermahutt had submitted his report two weeks early.
This, he told himself dispassionately, had better be good.
In his quarters, he loaded the holofile into his new projector. It held one lonely holodoc this time, unaccompanied by the usual supporting files. He played it. Van Hermahutt appeared in miniature, looking dreadfully frazzled. "My lord, I regret to inform you that my mission has proven impossible," the agent rasped. "Organa and Skywalker are determined to remain together despite any obstacles. I'd include supporting evidence except I've only got five minutes to reach the next supply shuttle out of here."
"What?" Vader roared at the hologram. "I did not give you permission to leave your post!"
"I'm tendering my resignation effective immediately with intentions to flee to the Unknown Regions," Van Hermahutt gibbered, "but then there isn't much more to report anyway. Skywalker and Organa ought to be getting married in about a week per Alderaanian custom. Anyway even if they don't, I'm forced by other recent developments to conclude that their relationship will be permanent."
Inexplicably, Vader felt a sudden, dire foreboding.
"Since about the same time as Solo's return," the agent whimpered, "I've heard that Princess Organa has been ill. Specifically, I determined that she has been regularly ill each and every morning for the past three weeks. The reasonable explanation is, of course, pregnancy—"
Darth Vader passed out on the spot.
About a week later, on the forest moon of Endor…
The hatch of the AT-AT hissed open, and there—finally!—escorted by a bevy of guards, stood his wayward son. Vader charged forward and dismissed the escort almost before the officer had a chance to report anything or hand over Luke's lightsaber. Then he seized Luke by the arm and hauled him down the corridor of the landing platform to a slightly more private spot.
"You know," Luke said with nervous bravado, "dragging me around is not going to convince me to turn to the Dark Side—"
"Forget the Dark Side," Vader snapped. "Is your sister pregnant?"
Luke's eyes went wider than some laser cannon barrels Vader had known. "Sis—preg—wait! H-how do you know about that?"
"She is pregnant?" Vader screeched.
"No!" Luke yelped. "Not that I know of anyway! Why the nine hells would you think that?"
Vader's obsessive grip on Luke's arm relaxed a bit. "If you are certain that neither you nor that reprobate Solo has—wait!" His grip cinched on the boy's biceps again. "How long have you known she was your sister?"
"Not even a week! How long have you known?"
Vader, ignoring the question, forced himself to dial back the intensity of his grasp again and assume a more moderate tone. "In that case, perhaps your conduct with her can be excused."
"What conduct?" Luke asked nervously.
"Do not play coy with me, son," Vader snapped, pointing a finger from his free hand at the boy's nose. "I have holographic evidence that the two of you were romantically involved!"
Luke gaped at him, trying to feign innocence but looking guilty as sin. "I—I don't know what you're talking about—"
"Perhaps the kiss you shared on Hoth rings a bell? Or your one-on-one dinners together? Or your recent wedding rehearsal?" Vader's tone launched from sarcasm into ire. "Or the multiple warnings I attempted to send you? Or possibly the agent I commissioned to separate the two of you? Or—"
Luke's eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. You don't mean that creepy Fred Antilles guy?"
Vader paused mid-rant. "I believe that was his alias, yes."
Luke flung his bound hands in the air. "And here we thought he was stalking Leia. Unbelievable. And he never figured out we were playing him the whole time—I'm going to kill Wes, this is all his—wait! You did send those ridiculous hotline messages! And you broke Han out of Jabba's palace! Force, wait till Leia hears this…"
Vader stabbed his finger straight into Luke's chest. "Do you expect me to believe the two of you got engaged merely as a practical joke?"
"It wasn't an engagement!" Luke protested.
"You gave her a ring!" Vader seethed. "I witnessed it myself in holographic recording! What is that if not an engagement?"
"I gave her a memory ring!" Awkwardly Luke wriggled a silver band off one finger and held it up. "See?"
Vader inspected it. On the underside was etched Owen and Beru Lars. Feeling suddenly quite sheepish, he handed it back. Luke was muttering dire imprecations against Wes, Hobbie, Tycho, and Wedge, whoever they were. "Then…you are not romantically involved with your sister?"
There were several minutes of silence, broken chiefly by the occasional hoots and whistles of the local fauna. Somewhere nearby a pipe was dripping. In a distant vagary of post-mortem spiritual existence, Obi-Wan Kenobi and a great number of Jedi were no doubt howling with laughter. Luke rubbed his head wearily. Vader made a mental note to strangle everyone on his intelligence staff. Slowly. Then decapitate everybody in the Imperial Ministry of Intelligence. Then hunt down Karlino Van Hermahutt and mince him into confetti.
"Let me guess," Luke said, leaning against the rail and cutting his gaze to the ceiling. "The Emperor has been expecting me?"
Attempting to ignore how utterly ridiculous he now felt, Vader answered, "At least he is the only one who is expecting."
Luke snorted and rubbed his forehead with both bound hands before perking up and regarding his father with a shrewd glint in his eyes which made Vader feel decidedly at a disadvantage, despite being the one with free hands and two lightsabers and the power of darkness at his command. "So...going back to your first comment, is that forgetting the Dark Side option still on the table?"