Then Comes the Night
by Kathryn Olsen
He had burned for vengeance since the moment he was hit in the Death Star trench.
He had tasted victory too many times that day to recognize the possibility of defeat. Darth Vader, the Sith Lord, had been stripped of all weakness, of the faint emotions and useless platitudes that had killed those he had once had capacity to love.
Anakin Skywalker had been the greatest Jedi, but Vader was infinitely more powerful. Anakin Skywalker could mourn, could be frustrated by the restrictions and chastised for his rebellion, but he could not act for himself. In his power, he was weakest.
Until he discovered the demons in the darkness. Until he became one of them.
He could be consumed, empowered, driven by the things that those weak Jedi feared. Those fears were what killed everyone of them.
But the greatest weakness he had ever known entered his life on the way to Yavin IV.
Heads had rolled for the escape of Leia Organa, in more literal than figurative ways. When those primarily responsible had been summarily disposed of, he and Tarkin had deigned to review the transmissions from the cell block's cameras.
It was a case of ridiculous hindsight and it provided them with nothing to condemn more men for the stupidity that could cost them the victory.
They learned nothing except the name of a young man who had managed the haphazardly successful rescue.
Both names were familiar, but entirely strange.
"Have you thought of names?"
Padmé sighed, hand resting lightly on her still-flat stomach. "Every minute since the doctor gave me the test results," she admitted. "But it's hard to know. I can't know what will be the name my heart carries for my son until I carry him in my arms."
They both knew their hearts had long been occupied by the child-shaped void. Every month, they waited to be parents; every month, they accepted defeat and tried, if possible, harder.
Until two months ago, when the sickness came and what they thought was a upset stomach turned out to be the fulfilment of their dreams.
"I've been thinking of the name Luke," Anakin said quietly, his voice the same as when he was hanging on to the present moment by a shred of tenuous contact.
She used to be driven nuts by such vague presence, but then realized it was how he sounded when he was dreaming of them.
"Child of light," she murmured, leaning further into his embrace so his hand rested against her belly. "Given the light he's already bringing us, I think that would be the perfect name."
Skywalker, the name that meant nothing and everything in his prison, and Luke, the name that should have belonged to that first child they lost.
Instead, he is named for a lie. My son is a child of the darkness in which he was created.
Or perhaps not.
The child's father served the light to his own convenience, but then the power of the light became a lie that had destroyed them all.
It was in the ruin of that lie that strength was born and it was in that new-found strength that he had left his Padmé for the last time.
Perhaps, she had named him in some vain belief that the light still existed in Anakin.
She should have known better that Anakin was dead and there was no light left in what remained of his memory.
Then why was he so overwhelmed?
Because he is yours and he is you.
The moment he had been tractored in, after two weeks in a subspace healing trance, he had headed for his new quarters and began memorizing.
He did not memorize the information, though he could still remember it.
Name: Luke Skywalker
The data had scrolled on for page after page, detailing standardized testing, his application to the Academy, medical information.
But that was not what he memorized. He catalogued that in passing on the way to his face.
It was strange to recognize himself in one so young, to see the same chin, the piercing eyes and unruly hair, but the greatest shock was in finding Padmé in him.
It was less noticeable, mostly evident in the nose. He suspected that, if the gods were kind, Luke Skywalker would be a lot like his mother with the providential good looks of his father.
But such speculation was now forbidden.
Palpatine had eagerly turned it from parental concern into what he thought should be vengeful pursuit.
Perhaps it would result to be a mix of both.
They were too busy, too underfunded, or too uninventive to make a serious assault and, based on their data, the first and third options were no longer viable. The Rebels had little resources to work with, but they did a remarkably annoying job of using the Empire's resources to enact betrayal.
The last week, however, things had changed. Intelligence had come in on a business deal for the acquisition of weapons, destined to arrive at the rendezvous in the Derra system.
Luke had been out of the action due to injuries, so when the entire convoy and the six X-wings had been destroyed by the newly formed Executor task force, it was decidedly the greatest triumph the Empire had seen since Yavin.
Unfortunately, that did nothing to please the Emperor, since the people responsible for the Battle of Yavin were still alive, but it was a step towards requiring more desperate measures of the Rebellion.
Leia Organa, for all her high-minded ideals, was obviously coming to the end of her rope. The entire bargain that led to Derra IV was something decidedly out of character for her.
Further desperation would keep her exactly in the position to destroy herself and the futile rebellion she led.
And when she was that weak, there would be nothing between him and the last of the Skywalkers.
At night, he sent his droids away, insisted on a few hours of privacy. The constant caring and nagging that was necessitated by his condition was something only describable by the word insufferable, so he retreated to the meditation pod, the one place where he could retreat into himself.
Unfortunately, then came the night. Then came the nightmarish visions of things long-gone and things which were to come to pass. Mostly, he would call them hauntings and one face remained with him always.
For twenty years, he was grateful for her vigilance as his guardian angel, but the night over Yavin was the first time he understood the meaning of betrayal.
My angel has fallen, he sent to her, even if she could not hear him. My angel protected me as I protected her, but you have betrayed us.
You betrayed me many times, for the will of the Force, for the selfishness of my Master, but this hurts much more deeply.
It is not me you betrayed this time, but Luke, our Child of Light. You betrayed his trust by making him live a lie. You stole his life before it really began.
But you stole much more from me. You stole his first word, his first steps, the midnight feedings and silly anniversaries. You stole his first kiss and his graduation. You stole my life from me when you gave him life and would not let me share it.
It is well that someone took your life after he was born because I would have demanded your life in return for this insult.
But instead, I will not make the same mistake. I will find him, I will let him follow in his father's footsteps.
And then, he will be unstoppable.
The message arrived well past ship's midnight and was concise, but more for the sake of self-preservation than a sense of brevity.
There was no explaining failure to a Dark Lord of the Sith.
Trap at Ord Mantell failed. We took heavy casualties, but the Princess is as good as dead. We are taking measures to track them. We will send word within a day.
The trap had been a simple one, but one that had required substantial resources. The bounty hunter, a fool of a woman named Nila Ku, had gladly taken the job on the condition that she be provided with Imperial backing.
"They've eluded capture for three years, Lord Vader. It will make it more simple for your forces to cooperatively blunder in on our negotiations."
He should have known never to trust a merchant. She was no hunter, merely a treacherous tradesman looking to profit herself and benefit her relationship of mutual disgust with the Empire.
The plan had been simple. Solo had arranged the meeting and she would insist on meeting in public, then lead them to a more private setting where eavesdroppers would be less likely. After an innocent amount of time, the Imperial force on Ord Mantell would make a standard raid on a suspected smuggling operation and they would be his.
Unfortunately, that seemed to have hit a snag.
The Princess is as good as dead.
It was an unexpected complication, but something that he inexplicably could not put from his mind. It did not bother him so much as stir something in his mind.
There had been many willing spies in the Rebellion, others who had simply defected to preserve what sanity they had left. As a result, the Empire had a very good idea of the kind of leaders they were facing.
Their reports, their analyses, were carefully reviewed and catalogued and there was little that Vader did not know about Leia Organa that three weeks on the Death Star and many times on Alderaan had not revealed.
But her relations with a certain Skywalker were something altogether different.
"She keeps herself distant. We all figured it had something to do with Alderaan, with losing everything and everyone she had, but it's mostly that she can't afford to let feelings in the way of the war. The only exception seems to be Lieutenant Commander Skywalker. She is as ready to die for him as he is for her and she has come close several times."
"Skywalker has the respect of all, the friendship of many, but no one can mistake his feelings for Her Highness. It's not love, not even infatuation. It's almost a symbiotic relationship--whatever pain she feels, he feels it as well. It's gotten him nearly killed several times, but it hasn't stopped him yet."
Danger would not stop him, as long as he could save Leia Organa.
It reminded him too much of Padmé. Reminded him with an inexplicable sting that there was something more of Anakin in the last Skywalker than an uncanny resemblance.
But these simple testimonies to the nobility (or sheer foolishness) of his own son sparked something more than pride.
A cunning plan.
It would be so much more simple to have him come to his father than to chase him down.
If they could find their haven, the place they'd undoubtedly stopped on the way from Ord Mantell...
If she's as good as dead, he'll spend a few days in hiding to make sure she recovers.
It was common for him to experience excitement, but there was a certain thrill in his carefully regulated nervous system as he began his search and his carefully beating heart threatened to thump its way free of his chest.
There was a way for his boy to make his way home.
"Unless she's made of something other than the average human, she's going to need immediate treatment. She was shot several times, incurred several fractures, but mid-battle, she fell. If my guess is right and her spine is breakable, she will be unable to run for her life for a very long time.
"I'd guess they're going somewhere in the Outer Rim. They don't want to attract any Imperial entanglements..."
No, it was not practical. Her injuries were in need of immediate attention, but they were also in need of specialized attention.
"She will be unable to run for her life..."
There were several systems in the regions immediately surrounding Ord Mantell, but few had the kind of equipment or personnel to treat a spinal injury.
And each choice meant that the Empire had long since been betrayed.
Finally, he found one that screamed at his mind just by its existence.
It was a world principally used for mining and commercial activities, but the Empire had funded it, brought it out of obscurity. They had flourished by providing the ores necessary to build the dread Imperial Starfleet.
And in return, the Empire had given them many compensations, but most important were the medical facilities for the miners. The doctors stationed there were trained to deal with everything from respiratory distress to ore poisoning. Many miners had been severely injured in the course of their work, so an additional unit for nervous damage and rehabilitation had been established.
It was the perfect place to take someone like Organa.
The Executor was diverted to Is'htaria within the hour.
It was not often that he attempted to reach his son. Vader kept his shields very firmly in place, but there was always the danger of Luke sensing and reaching back.
There was the danger of letting him in, letting him see past the mask to something he could not afford to be.
But as of yet, his senses confirmed that, while Luke was strong, he was very much untrained. He never responded to the contacts and his sense remained open. Perhaps he was unaware of anyone even touching the one part of his mind that he could keep closed.
And he was very good at broadcasting.
He reached out carefully, mind skimming across his son's senses like a finger tracing a line of water on a damp viewport. There was no response, so he started delving a little deeper, honing in on a center of strong emotions that were fairly blasting outward. Worry, anger, compassion...
A strange combination, not altogether pleasing. The anger would serve him well, as it had his father, but the compassion would be his undoing if he were to live in the strength of darkness.
Attachment is forbidden, possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi's life. So, you could say, we are encouraged to love.
It was a lesson he had learned himself from Obi-Wan, but the consequences were never apparent until a night under the moons of Tatooine when he'd let his mother die. The Force had betrayed his trust and from that time forward, he had not let such petty things stand in his way.
At the center of the focus was worry, with the psychic subheadings of shame and something he recognized as 'survivor's guilt.' He brushed against this last sense...
Luke was running head-long into the adjacent bay, lightsaber clutched desperately in an amateur grip. There was no focus of his energies, no planning his defense, only the determination and desperation to save his friends.
He was met by a sea of white, the quickly-diminishing horde of stormtroopers that had "happened in" on their meeting. He parried as many bolts as he could, moving quickly and disarming or beheading as many as came in his path.
Han he could sense, moving quickly among the shadows in a low crouch towards the center of the fight--Ku and the Princess struggling against a broken railing on the mezzanine level.
Luke stopped, lightsaber held high, then prepared to Force-boost his leap to the next level. But before he could act, there was another shot from one of the troopers. Leia stiffened, then sagged forward against Ku. Disgusted, the other pushed her away just as Han lunged forward, tackling Ku to the ground.
And leaving Leia to the forces of gravity.
A hoarse yell echoed as Luke rushed forward, but he was too slow and she crashed, unhindered, into a stack of crates.
And then, an explosion. He threw himself forward, covering her as the ceiling began to drop debris. The troopers scattered, seeking out the new threat, and they were left alone.
Lifting his head, he saw Han, bloodied and out of breath, standing with blaster in hand. He was glaring daggers at the departing soldiers.
"Where's the hunter?" Luke demanded.
He let out a strangled growl, holstering his blaster with a violent shove. "The Sithspawn knocked me down, then managed to make a run for it when the explosion happened."
Luke straightened, wincing as ignored injuries flared up again. "If there's an attack this close, we'll have to get moving quickly."
Han laughed shortly. "Who do you think planted the charge?" he countered. "While you two were keeping this party going, I took a short trip with a timed detonator to the next bay over.
"But you're right," he conceded, heading for the ladder. "We have to move now. We still have to steal a ship, because the Veren will be under close surveillance."
"I'm not sure I can do that."
Finally remember Leia, he turned his attention back to her. Her face was ashen, beaded with sweat from both exertion and the effort to stay conscious.
"Don't worry," he said, trying to convince himself, "we'll do all the dirty work."
She managed a small smile. "That'll be a first."
A beep caused him to look up. Han was scowling at the medreader, eyes moving over the text.
"I'm going to live, aren't I?" she joked weakly.
"Of course," he snapped, "but you need medical help that your Alliance can't possibly provide."
Her eyes drifted shut as another wave of pain hit her and she curled inward, breathing hard. Luke slid an arm under her shoulders, cradling her against his chest and trying to ignore the sickening flow of blood.
"Yeah," she murmured as the attack eased, "I figured that."
In the next moment, she had lost her grip on consciousness.
"So," Luke said, voice steadier than he felt, "where do we go from here?"
"I've got an idea."
He withdrew, the destination confirmed and the situation a lot more clear.
When we reach Is'htaria, they'll be vulnerable. If they are fools, they will attempt to run away and hide where they can wait for the threat to pass, but they can't afford to do that. Not without their precocious princess convalescing.
It was very likely that there would be nothing to stop them this time.
This was the fourth time he'd heard the list and he was growing impatient. It was the same information of well-covered tracks, of no signs of Rebel presence, much less the fugitives.
But data could not refute what the Force was indicating.
They were on the planet, not near, but definitely a presence. The weakness of his locating skills was maddening, but nevertheless, he dispatched troops to six locations on impressions from the Force.
And each foolishly reported back the same results. No sign.
No one dared to suggest he had been mistaken, but the adherence to duty was waning. It would have been useless to repeat the searches because they would be done with less-than-attentive soldiers, simply carrying out routine duty.
With that attitude, they'd miss a rancor in a china shop.
So, finally, he meditated and after thirteen hours, the coordinates came of a small village in the mountains where the medical facilities were provided for the more prosperous mines.
It was time to smoke the traitors out, so to speak.
For the most part, he preferred to participate in any mission he ordered. It was not so much the feeling of involving himself in the war, in taking a personal interest in the success of the Empire's military campaigns. Palpatine had even forbidden it to a point before he privately defied him and missions began having higher success rates.
But that was not the point.
The point was that, though he was Vader, there was still a bit of him that remembered being Anakin Skywalker. Once upon a lifetime, he'd had the same youthful exuberance and defiant determination that allowed his men to succeed. Worst of all, a part of him still possessed those traits and they drove him to the line of battle every chance he had.
But this particular mission was one he could not endure.
Palpatine had sent him once to Sunar, an Outer Rim world with similar Rebel sympathies. They'd quelled one rebellion by introducing a clever plague into the water system. Those who were loyal to the Empire or were willing to turn themselves in were treated, but the other survivors had fled to the mountains. Some of them had been sick, in the end stages of the disease. They barely made it to the mountain before they became another casualty. Others were spared the plague. Some fools even brought their children. Thirty-seven men, sixteen women, fourteen children, two infants, and even a pregnant woman. The youngest had been six months old and the oldest would have celebrated her ninety-third birthday the following week.
The statistics would have stopped anyone else, but he was in the early days of being Vader and knew no restraint or logic, no reason to evade this fate.
So they all became faceless corpses that night, so it did not matter.
But to Vader, it had mattered for one reason. He had no sympathy for the screams, the begging for mercy that punctuated the roar of the flames. He had ignored that the stormtroopers, on their own initiative, had shot anyone attempting to escape. Such details were beneath his notice.
But what he felt through the Force was unbearable.
It reminded him too acutely of the day he was burned alive. He had been unable to stay on his feet, had managed to return to his quarters before collapsing completely, grateful that the muting button on his helmet could block out his anguished howls.
They were fortunate--they were dead in a matter of minutes. Anakin had died long before Eol Sha claimed his body, but Vader still remembered the long weeks of recovery, what it felt like to have nothing but pain left in his world.
After that single mission, he had refused to participate in such endeavors personally.
It was a Lieutenant of unknown name, barely out of the Academy and plainly terrified for his life.
Something had clearly gone wrong.
"What news from the advance unit?"
The Lieutenant shifted uncomfortably. "There was a shuttle stolen," he began tentatively. "Three life forms aboard, all human. It blasted out of here about five minutes before the troops could arrive. We suspect that our quarry was aboard that ship."
Vader's fists clenched visibly and the officer's throat tightened, as though expecting the gesture to be intended for him.
He had nothing to do with the mission, but he still feared.
It was only appropriate that he learn the price of excellence that way.
"The village has been searched? The medical facilities and mines..."
"All searched," he said quickly. "General Pizr reports that it's possible they could have fled into the surrounding woodlands and requests further orders."
That was that. Only a superior pilot could have evaded the Executor and only Han Solo would have been flying shuttle.
Which meant they had failed him again.
How long will this go on?
"Send a message to Lieutenant Commander Mahrgur," he ordered. "General Pizr is to see to it that all inhabitants are to be gathered in the grand convocation hall of the medical center. He will keep watch himself, along with those under his command.
"When the rest of the men have retreated to a suitable distance, destroy that hall. They are of no use to us now."
It was uncommon for him to contact his Master, even more so for his Master to make contact with him. As the dictator of a massive Empire, one could hardly expect Palpatine to make personal visits.
But his Master was growing impatient.
The call came at ship's midnight. He was prepared, having sensed the increase in anger and anticipating some kind of retaliation.
He did not dare raise his head to look at his Master, more out of deference than fear. He feared few people, but the wrath of Palpatine was something unequaled by any. But he knew that there was little to fear for this failure.
It would not happen again if he wanted to live.
"You have failed yet again," he sighed, his tone that of a patient parental figure chastising his child for a repeated offense. "For three years, I have bided my time, left this task to you. And yet, three years have passed and you still have failed to produce results."
"We have found the Rebel bases," he protested.
"But you have failed to corner them. Your men are too foolhardy or too obvious. I do not wish to think that there is someone more capable..."
"Master," Vader interrupted, anger beginning to surface.
He stopped short, unsure of why he had foolishly interrupted his Master. It was something that evoked punishment, begged for more pain than he was willing to accept.
But there was no one more capable, no way to replace him. Palpatine knew that as well as he, but the point was well-taken.
"What is thy bidding?"
"Probe droids," Palpatine said simply. "We cannot waste our resources to chase wild neks halfway across the galaxy, so you will wait until the answers come to you. You will kill those who come into your path, but you will not seek them out any longer."
This was a worse punishment than he could have imagined--the sheer inertia and ineffectiveness that had betrayed many others of the Starfleet was now being imposed on him for his devotion to the work.
"Yes, my Master."
Vader would have done the same sort of thing if the shock hadn't been too great. What he sensed in the Death Star trench had not prepared him in the slightest for that.
Once the mess was cleared away, the mandate had been issued.
"Young Skywalker will die for this," Palpatine had hissed. "And you will accomplish it or you will join him and that traitorous wife of yours in death."
It was the first time he'd heard Padmé mentioned in his Master's presence, more of a curse than an appellation.
His anger at the defeat at Yavin quickly dissolved into something like a festering wound, but he found himself inexplicably hoping for all their sakes that he would fail.
Twenty years of forced existence, of subservient pain, and he could die for preserving the son he never knew they had.
It was far too appealing, but he knew that his death would not stop what the Sith had in mind.
And it was then, in the recesses of the night, that an alternative plan came into his mind.
He could join his son in life, but not as Palpatine intended it.
Join me and together we will rule the Galaxy as father and son.
Palpatine knew nothing of this, only saw his obsession with Skywalker as appropriate vengeance and what was needed to destroy the Rebellion.
He would not know until too late that a different kind of rebellion was to win this war.
The probe droids went out within the hour, three hundred in the first launch. The destinations were uncharted, the mission only limited to data-gathering rather than hunting. The droids, though armed for offense, were not to make contact at any cost.
Two hundred and ninety-five were scattered throughout the Outer Rim territories and programmed to avoid such places as had been eliminated by previous use, overpopulation, or simply hostile climates. The remaining five were under different orders, seeking out data without restriction. The first group had been under the Emperor's orders and, while it held with logical parameters, there was a nagging doubt in Vader's mind.
They are not stupid--they would not have survived this far if they were--but they are running out of options. They could turn to a base where they could stay a matter of weeks or months before we tracked them down by process of elimination.
Or they could go somewhere where not even the Empire would dare tread, somewhere that required insanity or a death wish.
With that in mind, he launched the remaining five.
The data coming back was inconclusive at best. Seventeen of the probe droids never made contact with their host ship, lost somewhere between systems. Twelve found smuggler outposts and had a chance to broadcast a few shots of freighters and contraband before broadcasting the business end of a blaster. Two hundred fifty-six were still at work on sparsely populated or remote worlds where the settlements were few and far between.
The remaining five were the only ones he expected results from.
The sheer lethargy of the mission was maddening. It was a matter of patience, assets tracking, and data analysis that was more suited to the bureaucratic nonsense on Imperial Center than the premier ship of the Imperial Starfleet.
He spent little time on the bridge, refusing to acknowledge the imposed inertia of the Imperial Master.
But this morning, something had drawn him from his meditation pod to the command of the Executor.
It was inexplicable--the day was proceeding with routine reports, communications from other ships of the Fleet who had made contact with Rebel ships. The most excitement seemed to be the repair of a deflection tower.
Until ship's midday.
He stood at the viewport as he had for the last four hours, hardly breathing, not moving at all. Deprived of the ability to chase his son down, he continued to stretch out his senses towards him.
It was common to catch impressions, pieces of memory, even the occasional dream, but recently, the images were more jumbled, the contacts more tenuous.
He finally latched on to recent memory. Given that he had brushed upon the memory of returning conscious in a medcenter, there was no explanation for what else it could be.
He awoke to a cold more penetrating than anything that he had ever experienced before and a light-headed, overwhelming pain that he could not control. This was understandable, since he was hanging from his trapped ankles in the middle of an ice cave.
Frustrated by his own weakness, he strained upward, grasping at his feet. His gloves slid over the ice, finding no purchase, no means of escape.
He could see nothing but a hazy white, but there was most likely nothing to see. Most likely, he was suffering from snow-blindness as it was, so his incapacitation was of no consequences.
Except there was the matter of the thing that had attacked him.
He could hear it snuffling pleasantly over the crunch of bones that doubtless was the remains of his tauntaun.
Good. Enjoy your meal. By the time you get around to the second course, I'll be long gone.
It was easier said than done. He couldn't exactly melt the ice at his feet just by thinking about it and hacking off his feet at the ankles would do him no good in the escape.
But just by thinking about it...
In returning to his inverted position, his eye had caught something steely gray lodged in the snow.
He swung towards it, hand stretching, grasping at thin air, only inches away from his intended target. He retreated, sucking in air so cold that it seared his lungs, then tried again.
Then, an instinct, a half-memory of a voice over the Death Star.
"Use the Force, Luke."
His eyes drifted closed in concentration, hands clenching as he forced himself into a state of peace, of focus. It was a more difficult task than he had expected, especially with the unnerving amount of noise coming from the advance of that ice creature.
Finally, his hands unclenched and he stretched out his hand and his senses.
And in a moment, thought became a reality as his saber flew into his hand, igniting in one movement and slashing at his bound feet in the next. It was a miracle that he didn't become a double amputee, but the ice melted against the shaft and he tumbled free just as the ice creature attacked.
It passed in a blur, but in the next moment, the arm lay severed a few feet away and he turned, fleeing up the passageway without looking to see if he'd done any real damage.
Once more into the night.
Vader sighed, vocoder not bothering to translate that. It was the sigh of a parent admiring a child's simple handiwork.
The Force is strong with this one.
And from the pit, he discerned voices.
Captain Piett, calling the attention of Admiral Ozzel.
"I think we've got something, sir," he was saying. "The report is only a fragment from a probe droid in the Hoth system, but it's the best lead we've had."
That caught his attention more than any of the fruitless reports that had come in throughout the day.
The Hoth system was beyond civilization, not to be bothered by smugglers or Imperials or traders because of one determining thing.
The hostile climate.
One of the five remaining probe droids.
He whirled on his heel, striding towards the hub of conversation as Admiral Ozzel impatiently diffused such an absurd idea.
"We have thousands of probe droids searching the galaxy," he gritted. "I want proof, not leads!"
But Piett, good officer that he was, if not mildly insubordinate, was not to be dissuaded. "The visuals indicate life readings," he protested.
It was fortunate that Vader was arriving because Ozzel's patience was wearing very thin very rapidly. "It could mean anything. If we followed every lead..."
Piett finally voiced what had brought the Dark Lord stalking abroad. "But, sir, the Hoth system is supposed to be devoid of human
"You found something?"
Ozzel was about to deny it, but Piett jumped in impetuously. "Yes, my lord."
The reading was fuzzy, rather a crude transmission given the distance, but it was unmistakable.
A set of X-917 shield generators in the middle of that Force-forsaken wasteland.
Five weeks before, the Rebellion had negotiated a bargain with smugglers who were supplying armaments and materiel. They had invested a considerable percentage of their undoubtedly limited funds to keep themselves in the war.
Unfortunately for them, the Empire had been apprised of the shipment and at a remote world called Derra IV, a convoy of thirty-six ships and four X-wings had been destroyed in a matter of minutes.
Spies had reported that Princess Leia had been able to negotiate another deal a mere two weeks later with an Alderaani dealer. They had been able to secure such things as an ion cannon, closed speeders...
And X-917 shield generators.
Not only that, but his Force senses were screaming at him for the first time since the reports from probe droids had begun coming in.
There was no mistaking what that meant.
"That's it," he rumbled. "The Rebels are there."
Ozzel had had enough of Piett, but he was utterly confounded by the fact that the Emperor's personal envoy was taking the same foolish path. "My lord," he chided, "there are so many uncharted settlements. It could be smugglers, it could be..."
"That is the system," he interrupted. "And I'm sure Skywalker is with them. Set
He did not miss the utter disgust that Ozzel radiated, the exchanged looks of reprimand or frustration between him and the officers.
He would have to dispose of the fool before that fool destroyed their plans.
The hunt for the Alliance had become very personal.
They knew that all orders going to ground troops, all mission parameters, focused on key members of the Alliance leadership.
But more puzzling was the obsession with Skywalker. They understood why he wanted vengeance, why he could not be satisfied with paltry victories over fragmentary fleets.
They could not, however, understand why he wanted Skywalker taken alive.
Since Vader had resolved to accomplish this, people had died for many reasons. Most of them involved war, but an increasing number was that of the men who had directly failed to capture Skywalker.
Is'htaria was only the latest and it would not be the last. He could not allow failure and he could not control his temper when such imprudent madness took place under his command.
At the very least, it accomplished one thing that became very useful to him--it put the fear of the Sith in the hearts of his men and they dared not slack their zeal.
If they ever wanted to see their homes again, they would see to that first.
Every day passed with a degree of fear, a degree of relief, and a degree of suspicion. They could not tell if they would live to midday, if they would have a chance to explain, if they would be killed for no apparent reason.
They would understand the reason if they knew one simple bloodline, but that was something he could not explain.
Not even to himself.
"The parameters are simple, but the execution will be something of a challenge."
He paused, eyes moving over the sabacc faces of his top commanders, those who would ensure the success of this mission or die trying.
And if the recent pattern continued to be necessary, that was meant literally.
They were appropriately attentive, appropriately somber, remembering all-too-well the consequences of failure. Four of them were recent additions to the command force, having been promoted suddenly to fill a vacancy. Some had been promoted while their predecessor was still dying. It was an effective, if not slightly sinister method of enforcing lessons.
The only thing he could count on was that they would not forget themselves in the heat of battle because they could not forget the faces of his victims.
"There are shield generators protecting the base, but the elimination of those will be a simple matter of penetrating their defenses. We cannot be sure exactly what those defenses are--our source has been silenced--but we can expect a full-scale ground assault on the level of Is'htaria."
There was a nervous shifting from some, a relieved grunt from others. It would be something like a siege, barricading the Rebels in until they managed to destroy their resistance.
It was the sort of thing the Imperial Armed Forces did best.
"Nevertheless, we have a few stipulations," he continued. "It is essential that this not develop into a simple massacre. We need the information that these people retain. None of the pilots or the members of the command center are to be harmed."
He could see Ozzel and Veers exchange a knowing look, knew they would think of Skywalker and Organa. It was more than a data-gathering, it was the chance to settle a vendetta once and for all. And they all hoped that the deaths would stop there.
"Do what damage you require to invade," Vader directed, "but we cannot afford to let them escape us, either by ship or by death.
"General Veers will be leading the primary assault, since this will be a ground invasion. We will need a legion of troopers, spread out in as many assault vehicles as you deem necessary."
"Yes, my lord," he said flatly. "The remainder of you will know what to do. Refer all questions to Admiral Ozzel. We will trust him to catch the Rebels by surprise."
"Yes, my lord," came the drone. "They won't escape us again."
This will be a day long remembered, he thought. If these six men do not fail us, it will see the end of the rebellion and I will have my son before the sun sets.
It was a mistake from the moment they left hyperspace--he could feel it without having to scan a single readout.
The readouts would tell him that they'd come out of the system practically on top of the sixth planet, that there was an energy field protecting the planet and that there were life readings on the planet's surface. They would note massive energy readings suggesting armaments and the kind of energy put out by maintenance hangars and space craft being prepared for takeoff.
But he didn't need to see those readouts. He knew from the moment he honed in on his son's sense that they knew they were coming.
They will be in space before we have time to land our troops.
And once again, they evade us.
A wave of cold fury crested just as the door to the meditation chamber hissed open.
One of the unfortunate officers had been elected to break the news of imminent defeat to the Lord High Executioner.
He forced his anger down, could not think, could not command with such an overwhelming force. The Dark Side was fueled by his anger, but he had to have his limits to win this war.
To his surprise, it was Veers who came to him. A younger officer, more exacting and fastidious than some of his unfortunate superiors. He had advanced quickly, reaching the rank of General before his classmates had earned their Commander's badge, but it was not because he was ambitious or ruthless.
He simply used his dedication to fuel his success.
Perhaps it was because, unlike many of Vader's commanding officers, he had a family who would survive him. Vader had seen them once, when he had consulted Veers in his office and the only decoration was a year-old holo. A flaxen-haired beauty with an easy smile and liquid brown eyes who was at least five years his junior. And two small children--one about six years old and the other a babe in arms.
Veers did not let them interfere, but he certainly let them be a part of his motivation. And that was part of what made him a more effective officer.
He was not fighting for justice so much as their safety.
"What is it, General?"
Veers stiffened, chin forced into a parallel position to the floor, eyes trying not to look at his eyeshields. "My lord," he said, voice strained, "the fleet has moved out of light-speed. Com-Scan has
The anger returned, but not directed at Veers, but the General could not know that. He only would mark the growing malice in the room, the hatred that even the Force-blind could perceive.
A rush of images and thoughts rushed through the Force, broadcast involuntarily by a man afraid to die. His wife on a midnight walk, at their wedding, holding their oldest daughter at birth...
I'm sorry, Ari. I promised I'd come back to you. I can't promise you'll even know why I died. Please, don't let our little ones know why...
He slammed up his shields, both sickened and annoyed by the sentimentality and the strange pity he felt.
"The Rebels are alerted to our presence," he growled. "Admiral Ozzel came out of light-speed too close to the system."
Finally, the panic eased. Vader was not after his head, yet he had to see to it that things were explained.
Ever the dutiful officer.
"He felt surprise was wiser..." he stammered.
"He is as clumsy as he is stupid," he scoffed.
Unlike Veers. Veers would be the only one capable of holding off the Rebel evacuation. If they could land before the first transport ever cleared the shield...
Luke would not be on the first transport out. If he were, indeed, his father's son, he would be holding the base until the end, seeing to it that the others made it safely out.
And, given past reports, he was very much Anakin's son.
There was still a chance for victory if it were left in the right hands.
"General, prepare your troops for a surface attack."
Veers expelled a shaky breath, relieved. "Yes, my lord."
Left in the right hands.
It was time to narrow the field of candidates.
His hand slapped at a button on his console, activating the viewscreen at his back. Captain Piett touched the Admiral's shoulder, notifying him of the transmission and the Admiral turned sharply, snapping to nervous attention.
"Lord Vader," he greeted casually, "the fleet has moved out of light-speed, and we're
Whatever they were preparing to do was cut off abruptly as he choked out a groan through his constricted throat. Vader's hand was clenched, fingers mere inches apart from each other, all energy focused on the man's windpipe. They were trembling with the exertion of a slow death.
He could have ranted, could have made sure the entire fleet heard his anger, but instead he made one simple statement.
"You have failed me for the last time, Admiral."
The other officers were starting to stare, moving away, but Piett was still watching Vader, awaiting orders.
Good. Someone who can keep their head as well as their job.
He moved forward, practically blocking the rapidly suffocating Admiral.
"Yes, my lord."
"Make ready to land out troops beyond the energy shield and deploy the fleet so that nothing gets off that system. You are in
That was made evident as Ozzel collapsed, throat crushed. The error had been corrected, the mistake prevented by the death of those who were too incompetent to correct it themselves.
There would be no one to stop them this time.
He was rather fond of what the Emperor once referred to as his 'massacre meditation.' It wasn't that he needed to meditate during the massacres that he would carry out or glutted himself on the pain of others.
Certainly, he recognized the need for pain, knew how much power it gave the person inflicting the agony as well as the strength that could be gleaned by the victim in the aftermath. There was no pain without purpose.
But on the other hand, perhaps as a remnant of that Jedi instinct he had so carefully cultivated and then frantically abandoned, he entered each battle with his senses attuned to those he was fighting.
Partially, he did this to know their minds, their intents, but mostly it was to gauge the situation. Not to kill everyone in his path, but to know when to stop.
Senseless massacres served no one, not even a Dark Lord of the Sith. If he knew the point of victory or defeat, if he could know when they needed not push any further, the casualty rate would be lower.
When they defeated these rebels and reclaimed the Imperial strength, it would not do to have their new 'allies' paralyzed with fear. He needed only to push them to the brink, rather than shoving them violently over.
Palpatine had mocked him often for this instinct. He called it foolish, sentimental, unbefitting a Sith Lord. He alleged that leaving an enemy at your back ensured that they'd have a clearer field of fire each time. He reminded him of just a few such instances--the viceroy that should have been killed at Naboo, but instead was left to attempt a second fiasco ten years later. Count Dooku, who cost him far more than an arm and a bit of pride before Anakin had managed to kill him. Mace Windu, who had led the Jedi resistance in destroying most of their specialized operatives so that Vader himself had to deal with the elimination of the Jedi.
Most of all, he brought to mind a certain enemy left at his back during the Purges that had lured him to Eol Sha.
This had fueled his anger, but had done nothing to change either his habits or his attitude. This 'massacre meditation' was a Jedi weakness and need to preserve life, but the fact was that the defections had dropped and the officers, while fearing, still served at peak efficiency in any part of the Fleet where Vader operated in this manner.
Or possibly, it was because they simply realized that the only thing standing between them and the decking was one mistake and an invisible hand.
He'd been tracking his son's presence carefully, gauging his status and noting with a certain pleasure that he was still on the planet.
He is indeed his father's son.
He was nearly to the surface, however, when the presence blanked out.
Luke was not dead--he would have felt that already--but Vader could not lock on to his presence.
Perhaps he was clear of the battle. It had happened once before when his thoughts had calmed, when his resolve replaced the frantic survival instinct that came with the heat of conflict.
"Coming in on the Rebel base," the pilot said flatly. "Where do you wish to land?"
As if on cue, a pair of X-wings shot past, emerging from a hangar on the east side to accompany a larger cruiser.
The pilot glanced at him, needing no further suggestion, and brought them in for the landing.
He turned as he left the shuttle, observing with cold fury the smoking wreckage left on both sides, the pointless resistance the Rebels had attempted. Even now, one speeder was out of control, spinning in a deceptively graceful arc until it struck the cockpit of the last walker.
Perhaps that had been his son.
But no. There was a flaring of the Force, indistinct, the same level of emotion that he could associate with his son because it was so much a part of himself.
He was heading for the auxiliary hangar.
Wordlessly, his hand came up in a beckoning gesture and he stalked forward, careful to keep his gait measured, his senses focused on that outpouring of Force energy.
They had little time to waste, but all would be lost if they executed a clumsy siege.
"Go on before," he ordered the captain. "Create a perimeter around the Millenium Falcon so nothing enters or leaves the premises. We cannot allow them to escape us."
They arrived at the hangar to find it filled to the brim with abandoned ships, equipment, whatever could not be simply shoved into whatever cargo hold was available.
The Rebels were escaping, but it was not an easy task and it would make them more susceptible to failure the next time.
Or perhaps it was more of a barricade.
His mind registered the shots, but there were more of the light cannon being used, rather than the e-webs the troopers would have used.
His men were failing.
This fact was made all the more apparent as above the obstruction of vision, the Falcon kicked its engines into gear and blasted through the defenses to clear skies.
There was something very comforting about the Executor.
It was a strange observation, but one that he had come to realize only recently. Many times, he had been sent on fruitless missions, had failed to carry out the Emperor's orders, had needed to commit senseless murders that curiously sickened him. It had been over twenty years since he last recalled heeding his conscience, but since the discovery of his son, he could not escape its influence. It galled him, tortured his thoughts, and left him with little to take pride in.
So, he would return to the Executor and find that things were still under his absolute control. It was the only solace he could find in the midst of this war.
So, in the aftermath of Hoth, he retreated to his place aboard his ship and began setting things in order once more. It was short work, since the officers responsible for the failure were already killed in the line of duty and the others were not sufficiently culpable to merit making an example of them.
Besides, they had captured two of the fleeing Rebel pilots. There were answers to be found and a son to track down.
"We marked three squadrons assigned to the base," Lieutenant Jiarsin reported as he struggled to keep pace with his Lord. "From the markings and logs, it would seem they were the Rogues, the Yellow Aces, and the Black Deaths. Our guests were flying with two of the squadrons, one from Rogue and one from Black Death. The Black Death is in surgery..."
"You may dispense with the full report," Vader said curtly, eyes glancing over the datapad he'd been provided. "One pilot shall be sufficient for our needs at this time."
"My Lord," Piett panted, joining them from the side corridor, "the Millenium Falcon is still evading us, but it has not been able to make the jump to lightspeed. It is heading for the asteroid..."
"Launch fighters," he said curtly. "Ensure that they are disabled before entering the field."
"Yes, my Lord," he grunted before turning away to issue orders over the commlink.
A thrill of euphoria surged through his veins at the deference of such stalwart, self-preserving officers. Yes, all was under his control for the moment, but the euphoria quickly disappeared behind the fear that they would have to pursue the Falcon into the asteroid field and no amount of the Force could preserve the ship that carried his son. He was on the road home, but there were further dangers on the trail.
"The condition of the Yellow Ace pilot?" he queried.
"Tenuous," Jiarsin admitted. "She..."
He nodded, indicating an unnoticed paragraph. "From the sound of the accent she used when she tongue-lashed us, she's a Raltiirian. Approximately twenty-four years of age, crash-landed with non-life-threatening injuries in hangar Z91."
Perfect. Someone with external evidences of spirit can be the easiest to break.
Princess Leia Organa being the exception, of course.
"Has she been treated?"
Jiarsin flashed a brief smile. "Not yet. We thought it best if you questioned her before she made herself comfortable."
I will not, cannot question her.
It was not so much a fear as a matter of principle. After the madness of the Death Star, he had resorted to personal interrogation as a last resort. He would stand by to maintain order if necessary, but he would not be the one to carry it out in the first stages.
Fool. One princess defies you and you think that any further brutalities are beyond your capacity?
Palpatine's mocking had stung the first time, but he'd grown to not care any more. There were better things to do than wait for a mind to break. He had a Fleet to command and Rebels to capture.
Especially now, when Luke was finally within reach.
"It is not my place to interrogate her just yet," he corrected in a low rumble. "Send one of your men in. We still have a war to win."
By chance, the newest development in the chase came when he was not paying attention to his Fleet, only duty. The present duty was an odious one, a meaningless, humiliating task that he would have done away with had the medics not insisted that any hiatus could cause his slow and painful death.
As a child, he'd learned to be judicious with his cleaning habits, only using enough water to scrub away the soap hastily applied in the hours before Watto demanded their presence. The life of a slave, especially a junkyard one, was not one of luxury or formalities. He had never realized it until he arrived at the Temple, with its pristine surroundings and immaculately groomed Jedi.
One of the things he had missed most was the aroma of Mos Espa and the slave quarters. He had awoken several times a night for the first few weeks, sucking in air that would not satisfy him for one simple reason. He could not find his mother's unique, comforting scent in the sterility of the apartment.
A few of the other children had mocked him the first day, when he arrived at classes in his usual state of cleanliness and the 'stink' sent them into fits of laughter. He had endured the mockery silently until returning home to a concerned Obi-Wan. He'd dutifully luxuriated in a lengthy shower from that day forward, and had even grown to enjoy them, dawdling as long as time and propriety would allow beneath the steaming water.
When his skin had been burned away, when the lava seared away his ability to take care of himself, the medics had solemnly informed him that he would require additional assistance. So, once a day, the prostheses would be disengaged, the armor lifted away, and he would be left, the useless husk that remained, to the mercies of machinery.
At first, droids performed the functions, but he'd done away with such necessities, fitting his meditation pod with the requisite appliances to accomplish the task of rendering him clean.
Fortunately, Piett arrived in the end stages, when he was once more able to move on his own. The respirator had just retracted, leaving him wheezing until the mask was fitted, when the Admiral arrived.
The blast of fear pleased him, reminded him that among this helplessness, he was still in command of the feelings of his men and therefore could win the war in any manner that he pleased. He had killed men for things as insignificant as coming out of hyperspace too close to a system. There was no telling if he would stop there, if lesser offenses would become death sentences.
Following the fear was horror, undoubtedly inspired by the glimpse of roping scars and mangled flesh that the mask concealed. But Piett was astute. He quickly quashed the feelings, returning to his sense of duty without a second thought.
I knew I left you alive for a reason.
Turning, he drew himself up. "Yes, Admiral?"
Piett straightened almost imperceptibly, eyes lowering to the floor for a moment before daring to face the eyeshields once more. "Our ships have sighted the Millennium Falcon, lord," he reported. "But...it has entered an asteroid field and we cannot risk..."
A flash of annoyance, another willingness to fail. It was this same cowardice that had set them on this wild nek chase in the first place, had allowed the Rebels to flee unencumbered. Many people would die for this sort of madness and only some of them would be at his hand.
If he could simply get that ship, only one person needed to die beyond that and that man called himself Emperor.
"Asteroids," Vader growled, "do not concern me, Admiral. I want that ship and not excuses."
Excuses were what left Ozzel in the morgue. Piett understood that clearly enough, would do his duty and push beyond that to strategy that would bring them success once more.
In the early days, his thoughts would be consumed with the hope of finding Padmé, of being hers once more. He would think of possible hiding places, convince himself that she could not be dead, only seeking refuge from the Rebellion. Even when the report from Alderaan of her demise had come, when her personal effects had been wordlessly delivered to the home they'd shared when Imperial Center went by the more auspicious name of Coruscant, he had denied it, harbored some delusion of surreality.
It was much like now. His days were spent in the hunt for the son of Skywalker, but his nights were filled with the plans for when they found him. He dreamed of a decisive battle that would leave Palpatine dead and his son at his father's dark side, willing to do anything and go anywhere for his father.
He dreamed of their first meeting mostly, of looking into his son's eyes and seeing himself there, testing his mettle and finding if he had his father's heart and his mother's strength.
Other dreams troubled him more. His mind formed, too often, images of Luke rejecting everything he had to offer, of Luke dying rather than becoming him. He feared the possibility of his men killing his son before he even met him.
Failure was not an option, death not a luxury they could afford.
But there were other ways of persuading, other options should he prove reluctant to acknowledge what part of his father lay within him. If, as the reports claimed, Luke's strongest bond was to a young Princess of Alderaan, she was certainly a commodity. With the suffering of his damsel-in-distress, Luke could be persuaded to anything his father required.
Or so his hope remained.
The Princess, however, would be a difficult situation, should the need to exploit her arise. True, it was her situation that had brought two humans and a Wookiee to her rescue on the Death Star, but the following three years had changed them all.
Curiously enough, his darkest dreams involved her. He rarely acted against her, but could still hear her screams or pleas, could see her diminutive form crumpled in a pool of her own blood against the wall of a Death Star cell. He could still feel the knotted muscles beneath his fingers as he held her back over Alderaan, but the thing that struck him the most were the eyes.
Perhaps it was the coloring, the shape, or simply the grim defiance that was always there, but everything about those eyes were Padmé to his subconscious. It was as much a certainty as looking at the eyes of his son and seeing the Skywalker obstinacy there. She would still stand firm, would be able to endure far more than reason allowed and perhaps that would be his greatest tool.
He would have to trust that Luke would surrender to fate before they found out just how far he could go before destroying the High Princess of Alderaan.
Most likely, they wanted a few hours of time to fix any mistakes they might make before the Dark Lord realized it.
But instead, he remained alert, carefully coordinating the movements of the ships in his own task force, as well as the other commands now under his jurisdiction. The danger was not past--he could still feel the vibration of the hull as asteroids got through the shields--but as long as that ship was still docked somewhere in the asteroid field rather than tucked into one the Executor's docking bays, he would not relent.
The commanders of his newly expanded fleet reported regularly, though three of the images had already been rudely disrupted by the destruction of the vessel sending the transmission. As the latest report came in from Captain Needa of the Avenger, yet another faded from existence, but he was too preoccupied to notice or care.
"...And that, Lord Vader, was the last time they appeared in any of our scopes," Needa patiently explained for the third time. "Considering the amount of damage we've sustained, they must have been destroyed."
To his credit, he still maintained the pursuit, was the Star Destroyer closest to capturing the freighter. He may be a doubtful servant, but he was a diligent one, nonetheless.
And that diligence, if not compromised, would be rewarded. For the moment, all he could promise was that Needa would not find his throat in Vader's grip.
"No, Captain," he corrected with a feigned measure of equal patience, "they're alive. I want every ship available to
There was no arguing as they all knew, so they one by one faded from view and Piett finally advanced to report. But there was something changed about him. He still had the fear in his sense, but it was redirected, something far more potent than anything Vader could inspire. The man, so exacting in his composure, posture, and appearance, was palpably trembling, face drained of color above his crisp uniform collar.
That could only mean directives from Center.
"Lord Vader," he said breathlessly.
"Yes, Admiral, what is it?"
Then, the expected words: "The Emperor commands you make contact with him."
His helmet dipped slightly in acknowledgment, gratitude for attention to duty. "Move the ship out of the asteroid field so that we can send a clear transmission."
By the time he had reached the transmission chamber, the ship was free of the asteroid field and he had quieted his senses sufficiently that there remained no thoughts of Skywalker, only his duty to his Master.
He mounted the steps to the transmission pad, instinctively dropping to one knee out of fearful deference rather than habit. He dared not raise his eyes to meet the gaze of his master, knew that there would be no point. The Emperor needed no visual contact to know how to deal with him, did not even require this display of subservience, but Lord Vader knew better than to keep his Master out of his mind or at his level.
The transmitter flickered to life, immediately bringing a light to the room so piercing that he was once more grateful for the shields over his eyes. The Emperor appeared in all his grandiose grandeur, towering over him in image and power as he meant to remind his servant.
He dipped his head slightly in an abbreviated bow, then spoke instinctively. "What is thy bidding, my master?"
There was barely a heartbeat's pause, a careful screening of his sense that he could not miss even if he were Force-blind. "There is a great disturbance in the Force," the Emperor observed drolly.
For a moment, the man who feared no mortal enemy or any technological terror, was struck with a fear that his Master had sensed his intentions, his murderous thoughts. His throat even felt as though it were constricting, but he forced that feeling back and replied simply, truthfully.
"I have felt it."
He had felt it too many times since Yavin, knew the disturbance that his son's power sent roiling through the energy that all life created.
"We have a new enemy -- Luke Skywalker."
New? The boy destroyed your 'ultimate weapon' three years ago and has led most of the major snubfighter assaults since. This is hardly a new threat.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of the fact that the child continued to elude them.
Or it was the matter that they had both sensed his increasing power, his instinctive talent taking a more organized form. He was turning from a Force-sensitive to a Jedi, without even having a mentor.
Perhaps Anakin Skywalker was not the one the Force had chosen.
But he said none of this, only dutifully repeated, "Yes, my master."
"He could destroy us."
He will destroy you. I don't intend to be one of his targets. Besides...
"He's just a boy," he sneered. "Obi-Wan can no longer help him."
But it was not a matter of age or resources, the threat was not an issue of how many observation hours he had clocked in or how many katas he happened to know.
And you were less of a man when you turned.
"The Force is strong with him," Palpatine voiced his thoughts. "The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi."
Not the son of Vader. Whatever traits Anakin had passed on to his son, they must not be brought against the Sith. They could not be strengthened in the absence of the weakness that Anakin had been prey to.
But though the son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi, that had no bearing on alternatives.
"If he could be turned," he murmured, "he would become a powerful ally."
Quite possibly, it was the first time in almost three years that he had actually pleased his Master. "Yes," Palpatine mused. "Yes. He would be a great asset."
That was a bit of an understatement to the boy's floundering father.
"Can it be done?"
It was not a matter of 'can' as much as the desire that he wasn't sure he still had. He had the drive to be with his son, but the circumstances were still unknown variables.
But one thing was inevitable, impossible to contradict.
"He will join us or die, my master."
The plan was in place, the objectives clear, and the obstacles theoretically few, but the quest to capture Skywalker was degenerating rapidly. Strafing runs of the asteroid field had been unproductive at best, disastrous to be honest, with a full half-squadron of fighters and two of his capitol ships being eliminated by simple organic matter. Scans had been done by the best pilots they had available, the latest in weaponry had been employed, but they had been simply unable to scare the Millenium Falcon out of hiding.
The anger was subsiding, the frustration with his men more prevalent, but he found himself unable to unleash his hatred against them. More and more, the weakness of failure was eating away at him.
No longer was it a matter of who was at fault, for there was nothing any of them could do. There were the futile daily exercises, the timid proposals from senior and junior officers alike, and the weary daily reports lacking success or enthusiasm. They were hunting a prey that might not even still be there, but they were too terrified for their lives to give up the chase.
Including Lord Vader himself.
"He will join us or die, my Master."
He will die? More likely, he will outlive you if he chooses a less cooperative path than service to the Empire.
When Vader had returned from a battle at Yavin, with the Death Star obliterated and the rumors of rebellion now a very real threat, he had lost much more than his remaining hand. He had lost the Emperor's confidence and the surety of his survival. In the terrorizing moments that followed his entry to the throne room, he once more tasted death.
Once, on Eol Sha, he had fallen beneath a blow and everything he was had been burned away, leaving a shattered husk of a man. When he'd awoken, he had begged for release, yearned for death, and found nothing remained but the never-ending pain. It was something he could not escape and could not cure.
When the Death Star was destroyed, Palpatine had unleashed every power available to the Dark Side's servants. By the time he finished, the lightning subsiding from his fingertips and the invisible hand releasing his apprentice's throat, Vader had been only too willing to do whatever his Master deemed necessary. He had yearned once more for death, hoped desperately that this failure would earn him the release that he had been denied twenty years before. But the Emperor was not as forgiving as his apprentice. Instead of killing him, he set him on the trail of the last Skywalker and his floundering Rebel Alliance.
It was a fruitless and thankless job, with the desperation growing each passing day as the routine never changed, only the scenery.
And so, with Skywalker at their fingertips but impossibly out of reach, it came to something akin to madness.
The Empire was very clear on its views of bounty hunters. Palpatine had used them, as had his former apprentices, but the Anakin within the onyx mask remembered too well Jango Fett and his kind. He had refused to associate with such ruffians and cutthroats and Palpatine had never questioned it.
But desperate measures included even this measure.
The call went out within the hour of the decision and within two days, they had assembled, a motley crew of the worst kind. Droids, non-human monsters, and the spawn of Fett himself. It had taken them two years to end the Clone Wars and now Vader was turning to a clone to restore what he could of a life he should have enjoyed.
Admiral Piett was the least pleased of all of them, perhaps simply loathing these things which lived between the borders of enemies and traitors or, perhaps, remembering the bounty hunter who had disposed of his family too many years ago, while he was still a fresh-faced Imperial Academy cadet.
Either way, the master of this ship was not treading easily this day on his own bridge. His first observation and complaint to his men made that evident enough, even for those who could not read his Force sense.
"Bounty hunters. We don't need that scum."
The young controller next to him swept his gaze across the line of hunters, but landed on the Dark Lord. It was obvious that whether or not they were needed, they were going to be a part of this mission. It did not matter what the personal prejudices of the crew were. Things had come to this instead.
"Yes, sir," he said dutifully instead.
"Those Rebels won't escape us," Piett insisted, more to assure himself than to explain his opinion.
Stalking abroad among the rabble of the universe, Lord Vader barely heard the second controller's report of the Avenger renewing its pursuit. It was, most likely, an unnecessary report, another failure in the making, so instead, he proceeded with the briefing.
"There will be a substantial reward for the one who finds the Millennium Falcon. You are free to use any methods necessary, but I want them alive."
He stopped before Fett, remembering too well the cold murderous intent that he had been born to, the ruthless habits he had learned from his father and had perfected through experience. But there were too many rumors to trust his methods. He was not one to take prisoners or even leave survivors, no matter what the instructions.
One finger jabbed in his direction, almost like a parent scolding an obstinate child. "No disintegrations."
Or you'll be the next casualty.
The tone was flat, emotionless. It was just another job, another kill on the register. "As you wish."
But any further exchange was interrupted by a very excited Piett. The report was not unexpected, but the attitude towards it was something that had not been experienced in weeks.
Something had changed.
"Lord Vader!" he said breathlessly. "My lord, we have them."
He doubted that, knew too well that the Falcon could be within their grasp, but that it was another of the recurring targets. They had kept the ship within their sights many times before, but it had always eluded them.
They will be ours this time, even if I have to take their engines out manually after smuggling myself aboard.
Nevertheless, he followed Piett to see what could be done to maximize their chances.
"I will take full responsibility and apologize to Lord Vader."
Needa had not even needed to complete the first sentence beginning with 'The ship has once more..." The impotent frustration of the past days roiled forth into his fingertips, the energy balling his fist.
It wasn't until Needa collapsed that he made the connection between his balling fist and his mounting anger. His fist unclenched convulsively just as the eyes rolled back into his head and another officer joined the ranks of the dead.
"Apology accepted," he said quietly, "Captain Needa."
He turned away quickly, not out of shame, but out of impatient necessity as those still faithful and productive approached.
"Lord Vader," Piett greeted smoothly, eyes flicking to the corpse being dragged from the bridge, then focusing on the matter at hand once more, "our ships have completed their scan of the area and
But something told him that lightspeed had not been an option for them. There was the possibility that they were still within firing range, but he could not pinpoint where. The most likely scenario was that which Piett reported.
He dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment, a sign of thanks to his faithful admiral. "Alert all commands," he instructed. "Calculate every possible destination along their last know trajectory."
The younger man blinked, but nodded dutifully. "Yes, my lord. We'll find them."
He had little doubt of that--Piett would not stand back and let failure garnish his activities--but the admonition was always the same.
"Don't fail me again, Admiral."
"It is always an honor to receive the Emperor's emissaries."
It was a lie, of course. It had been near to impossible to locate records on this outpost and when they'd been brought up, it was with a mixture of disgust and respect that Vader came to know of the operations here on Bespin. They were respectable, handling much of the trade in Tibanna gas, working amiably with the merchandise distributors, comporting themselves beneath a democratic and fully-functioning system. There was the matter of the beneath-the-table smuggling, the questionable loyalties of some of their distributors, but the one thing that disturbed him most was not among these things.
It was the slavery that was quietly overlooked by the Baron-Administrator.
Still, like the bounty hunter that had led them here, one had to occasionally put aside differences to accomplish the task at hand. Calrissian would simply fare worse than most negotiators should the plans go awry. If he put one toe out of place, showed the slightest hint of insubordination, he would find himself without a windpipe and without a city.
Hopefully, it would not come to that before the Millenium Falcon arrived.
"You may dispense with the pleasantries, Baron-Administrator," Vader said grimly. "I am neither here for your merchandise nor your head."
He could tell that Calrissian believed that allegation as much as Vader believed his opening statement, but the man was a good actor at the very least. He simply offered a grim smile.
"Well," he said in a strained puff of air, "if the stories I have heard of you are true, then I'm sure we can make an arrangement that will be mutually beneficial."
Leaning across the desk, he placed a datacard before the man. "You may be assured that I am a man of my word and I trust that, for the right price..."
"I am no longer a mercenary, Lord Vader. I simply wish to serve."
Another lie, less believable. This man was too eager to please for his own good, but at the very least, that might ensure full cooperation.
"The Empire is pleased to hear that," he said flatly. "You will find this much less unpleasant than it might have been."
The man actually relaxed palpably, hand raising to tug slightly at his collar. "What can Bespin do for you, my Lord?"
"There is a ship on its way here," he continued. "For security reasons, I cannot give you the name, but it is harboring dangerous criminals. We do not intend to start a war here, simply to capture the criminals. You will allow them to dock, extend the customary courtesies for visiting traders, and bring them to the pre-arranged place. The Empire will take care of business from there."
He could see the suspicion in the man's eyes, the familiar fear that it was rarely as simple as the best-laid plans of womprats and men seemed. He knew that allowing a trap to be set would possibly catch him in the same trap, but he had to risk it if the price was right.
"And in return..."
"The Empire will overlook your outpost, your operations, and especially the sixty-three trade codes you have violated."
He found himself almost hoping the man would make a mistake to find an excuse to bring this operation down.
"A fair deal," Calrissian said smoothly. "Where do we start?"
I chased this ship over half the galaxy, consorted with a Fett, and he's not here.
Death will be too merciful for whoever caused this...
No, it was no man's fault but his own. He had sensed something onboard the Falcon, a shadow of what he thought was familiar, and had chased a blind hope across the galaxy. Whatever consequences there were to be had from this, they were his own.
"Calrissian," he murmured into the commlink. "They are not to be captured yet. See that they are not harmed and settled in quarters. We will consult on their treatment once that is accomplished."
It was an abrupt about-face in their plans, but not one that he could not handle. He knew nearly as much about the two humans as he did about the son of Skywalker and he only knew that because they were the two beings most intimately associated with his son.
They would yet be of some use to him, perhaps.
The Princess was, most likely, his most valuable asset. Not only would Luke come charging across half the galaxy to save her--and he would have to trust that instinct--but Captain Solo was more likely to break if she were threatened. Whatever threat was necessary, it would take little effort to set another trap.
It only required a matter of time and the proper bait.
The Empire's agents had been in place since days before the Executor even arrived, so quietly moving in a phalanx of stormtroopers the night before their arrival had been a small matter. Now, with the crew settled in their quarters, enjoying Calrissian's hospitality and anxiously hoping for the speedy completion of repairs, a much more simple plan was put into place.
There was no better way to negotiate than to enjoy a meal. The circumstances would simply change drastically before dessert was served.
The lunch prepared was inconsequential. Most likely, they would not stay long enough to finish the first course. They were all fighters, too stubborn for their own good and would have to be subdued. Fortunately, he'd had the foresight to dispense with such formalities until the situation was more secure.
So, he simply sat and waited.
Finally, the muffled voices stopped at the door as he heard Calrissian remark, "I've just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever."
The moment the door opened, he was out of his seat, hand extending to deflect the hasty shots squeezed off by Solo before he summoned the blaster to his hand and slapped it casually onto the tabletop.
"We would be honored," he said mildly, "if you would join us."
The object of the we pronoun was explained in the next moment as Fett made his appearance, followed by the conveniently stationed stormtroopers. Solo was visibly shaking, the Princess barely visible as he had pulled her behind him to block her from the line of fire, but whether the trembling was from fear or fury, it mattered not. There was no escaping this time.
Forgetting for a moment the Dark Lord waiting patiently for their entrance, Solo turned the hatred of a thousand betrayals on his supposed friend.
"I had no choice," Calrissian said flatly. "They arrived right before you did. I'm sorry."
No choice? You've delivered us to our deaths and you say that you had no choice? Alderaan died for no choices like yours.
The thought came clearly broadcast from the Princess, a surprising clarity of telepathy. Perhaps there was a reason that he'd sensed the Force upon the ship. She had little power herself, but her receptivity to Force-users was considerable. It certainly explained why Luke had such strong ties to her.
The look did not soften, but he could see Solo's shoulders slump slightly and his hand lowered to his empty holster as though probing a wound.
"I'm sorry, too."
The stormtroopers were pressing in, so they conveniently decided that now would be the best time to surrender and moved into the chamber, allowing the door to close behind them.
Neither spoke until they reached the table and even then, the sharp-tongued, quick-witted Princess remained silent.
"All right, make this quick," Solo snarled. "I hate long waits and I don't expect to be gloated over."
He couldn't help smirking at the flippancy that masked his sheer terror, but sensed something far more interesting about the fear itself. It was not for himself, but the Princess.
How long did it take her to capture your heart? What would you do to see that she is not hurt?
"I have no intention of making this quick," Vader rumbled. "Your Rebellion has evaded us long enough and there are certain things that must be accomplished before you can achieve death."
"You will wish for death in your screams a thousand times before you achieve death."
Princess Leia could not repress the shudder at the memory of his assurances on the Death Star, but she still did not speak.
"You may as well kill us now," Solo retorted. "You cannot get us to betray our friends or carry out your orders, so there is nothing for us to do but waste Imperial resources."
He could have risen to the challenge, but his eyes were still on the Princess. She stood perfectly still, shoulders pressed back, chin level to the ground, and eyes watching him like a hawkbat.
And he finally understood why.
On the Death Star, she had screamed herself hoarse, had cursed him so many times that he still was endeavoring to understand the meaning of some of her insults, and had even pleaded for mercy at an observation gallery over Alderaan. She had wasted her cries and her tears against a merciless tormentor.
Now, she had no words for him, no curse vile enough to speak, and would not waste anything. She was determined, not defeated.
She reminded him too much of a certain royalty he had loved too few heartbeats ago.
"Take them away," he said dismissively.
The stormtroopers went for Leia first, seizing her by the shoulders, but she shook them off so adamantly that three blows to the skull were required to subdue her.
Solo reacted predictably, tactfully jumping the nearest stormtrooper and dropping two before a third beat him into submission.
For the Wookiee, they simply used a stun setting.
This was becoming less difficult than he had expected.
Things were, finally, going according to plan.
Vader had known for months that the only way to bring a young Jedi to the rescue of a Princess was to make her a damsel-in-distress. With the right amount of anguish and pain, he could dispense with the need to hunt Skywalker and simply lure Luke into a neat trap.
But the trick was accomplishing this without doing permanent damage to the bait. So, instead, he played on the observation of protectiveness that had been evident between the High Princess of Alderaan and the lowest form of scum in that dining room. The greatest pain, as Vader well knew by now, was not that of personal injury, but survivor's guilt.
So, he left the Princess in an observation gallery, overlooking the medical bay that they had converted into the Bespin garrison's first interrogation room.
The moment they'd started with the scan grid, he'd felt her awaken, felt the spike of pain as she realized where the screams were coming from. As the anguish began to build, he left the room, intent on taking advantage of this unique situation. He held her sanity in his hands for only a short time and it was not wise to lose the opportunity.
But he found a decidedly disgruntled welcoming party outside the room. Fett, fussing over his damaged loot, Calrissian, fussing over his damaged conscience. He pushed past them both with an air of impatience, harboring no intent to explain himself or be diplomatic.
"You may take Captain Solo to Jabba the Hutt after I have Skywalker."
He sensed impatience from the bounty hunter, an understandable emotion, but Calrissian went from guilty to panicked. He had bargained to deliver a cargo, but had never anticipated this. "After I have Skywalker" informed him of two things: the torture of his friend would not stop until that end was achieved and the Empire would not be leaving for a long time.
As if to prove the point, a fresh round of howls punctuated the conversation and Fett glanced back before falling into step with his employer.
"He is no good to me dead," he growled.
Nor to me.
"He will not be permanently damaged," he assured smoothly.
It was true. There was no point in killing the fool, no matter what he and his walking carpet had accomplished over Yavin.
He turned impatiently to face the ever-nervous Baron-Administrator. His conditions and protestations were growing cankerous in Vader's mind, gnawing away at whatever vestige of diplomatic patience he had learned from his wife.
"What about Leia and the Wookiee?"
Finally, familiar territory, something he could control. "They must never again leave this city."
"That was never a condition of our agreement," Calrissian snarled, "nor was giving Han to this bounty hunter."
Obviously, this was too much for the younger man, because no one in their right man would dare to speak like this to the Dark Lord. Vader was willing to concede a measure of justified anger, but there was only so far that a subordinate could go and he had to be stopped before he reached that point.
I must have order here, not open rebellion. It will not do to meet my son in an uprising.
"Perhaps," he hissed, "you feel you are being treated unfairly?"
The dark hues of the man's skin lightened considerably. "No," he practically whispered.
And in that moment, order was restored.
"Good," he said dismissively. "It would be unfortunate if I had to leave a garrison here."
He didn't doubt that she had earned them--he had told his men to use any non-fatal means to restrain her should she become belligerent--but the Anakin Skywalker part of him grew sick at the sight of her battered form crumpled on the floor. She coughed and crimson splattered against the decking, but she still managed to push to her knees, arm cradled against her bruised abdomen. One trooper's boot connected solidly with the injured area and she let out an anguished cry, but did not crumple.
She was much like another Senator he had loved once, too much.
"Enough," he breathed.
The arm that was bracing against the cold deck was trembling violently and her arm pressed firmly against her abdomen as she struggled for each shuddering breath, but when her eyes raised to meet his, there was no weakness, only the fire of hatred that he recognized from another observation gallery over Alderaan.
"What will it take?"
He did not respond, not for lack of words, but not needing to explain this to her. There was nothing she could offer to make this stop beyond the anguish that she was broadcasting so clearly. There was no information, no compromise, no solution.
He regarded her silently, watching her swollen jaw clench as she pounded the deck furiously with one fist.
"Sith take you," she snarled. "What more do you want?"
I want nothing but my son. I will leave you to your own devices once that is accomplished.
Seeing no response, no reaction, she grew even more angry. "I cheated your death sentence three years ago and I have cheated you of victory every time you've come for us," she said, voice dangerously low. "You have your chance for vengeance now. Take it on me, kill me if you must, do whatever you will, but leave the others out of this."
That is not an option.
Abruptly, the last strangled scream dissolved into silence and her hysterical frustration turned into wracking sobs.
If he has died for this, the tormentors will soon join him in the afterlife.
But his commlink beeped instead and without waiting for an answer, the captain reported. "The prisoner has lost consciousness, my lord. Shall we..."
He turned away from the woman who was surrendering everything from her life to her dignity for the sake of the prisoner. "See that he is treated, then taken to the same cell as the Wookiee."
He could have been mistaken, but he almost swore that he heard a hoarse "thank you" from behind him. She was a fool to thank him, a fool to think that things would not become worse because of this. It was not a victory for them, only a sign that more extreme measures would be needed in the future.
There would be nothing to stop him this time.
Solo was reunited with his Wookiee and the protocol droid that was being pieced back together for lack of anything better to do within six hours of beginning the interrogation.
Leia joined them soon afterwards, still weakened by her encounter with the stormtroopers. The medic on call had treated her well, administering the proper amounts of bacta to her lacerated tongue and bleeding shoulder, bone-knitting the broken jaw and bringing down the swelling, and giving her enough painkillers to remain on her feet. She was able to speak clearly and move with only a hint of the pain that her injuries should have incurred.
She will not suffer any permanent damage.
And yet, she was worse for the wear, clutching at the wall for support as she was roughly shoved into the cell. But, as expected, she promptly ignored her own needs and crossed to the smuggler's side, sinking to her knees as one small hand caressed his brow. It reminded him painfully of the flight from Geonosis, another woman desperately seeking to comfort, even if she had no idea how.
Why does everything that slip of a girl do remind me of her?
"Why are they doing this?" she murmured.
The smuggler's breathing was ragged, hitching with pain, but his mind was unaltered, still radiating his customary weary disgust.
"They never even asked me any questions."
It was a stark contrast to anything he'd tried on the Death Star, keeping silent, letting the greater torture be that of impotent rage. But then, the High Princess of Alderaan had been a lot more sedate three years ago, when the only pain she had to worry about was her own and her resistance was more sure.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Calrissian with the intent to explain himself.
"Get out, Lando."
Whatever fear had been manifest in the corridor outside the interrogation room, it was compounded and vented in anger.
"Shut up and listen," he sneered. "Now, Vader has agreed to turn Leia and Chewie over to me."
"Over to you?"
From the tone of Solo's voice, he'd have preferred that they be left in the middle of a supernova.
Calrissian nodded violently, drawing himself up to full height. "They'll have to stay here, but at least they'll be safe."
"What about Han?"
The shoulders dropped in defeat. "Vader's giving him to the bounty hunter."
Something far more potent than the pain he'd incurred in forcing her to be in that observation gallery flashed outward like a seismic charge from the Princess. She had then at least harbored the hope of him getting out of this alive.
Now, she was beginning to realize that survival was not going to be an option for any of them.
"Vader wants us all dead."
"He doesn't want you at all," Calrissian burst out with the same panic that had set in at the words "after I have Skywalker. "He's after someone called Skywalker."
If possible, the pain grew even more. The greatest technological advancements in the Empire and a simple conversation with an old 'friend' was accomplishing far more.
It was very much like the Death Star and it was all because of one person.
Neither Vader nor Anakin had any intention of killing the boy, nor forcing his hand, but he was not a fool. He recognized that, no matter what blood tie they had, the prejudice of enemies stood between them. If Luke were anything like his father, he would not come quietly.
And so, there was an alternate means required.
It was Fett that commented that Solo had to be left to heal before making the journey, that he wasn't simply some cargo to be carbon-frozen and shipped to the distributor.
Carbon-freezing had been the focus of his thoughts ever since. He'd seen it used dozens of times in the Empire's production facilities, but never on a human. But it was an option.
Bespin, however, was no Coruscant.
"This facility is...crude," he said politely, "but it be adequate to freeze Skywalker for his journey to the Emperor."
A Lieutenant was approaching, something like relief pouring off of him. "Ship approaching, X-wing class."
No more men would die today. Skywalker was coming of his own free will and that was almost a guarantee of capture.
"Good," he said curtly. "Monitor Skywalker and allow him to land."
Would there be no end to the objections?
He turned to find Calrissian staring at the pit where the freezing took place with something like numb horror and near-defeat.
"We only use this chamber for carbon-freezing," he insisted. "You put him in there, it might kill him."
With a facility this primitive, it was a very real threat, but he had already thought of that.
"I do not want the Emperor's prize damaged," he said quietly. "We will test it first."
I'd prefer to test it on you, just to carbon-freeze your mouth shut.
"On Captain Solo."
It was something beyond aggravating and torturously familiar. Vader had brought the prisoners here for the brief operation, a simple execution of a well-conceived plan, but they wanted to turn it into a melodramatic production. He wasn't even sure why the Princess had been allowed to accompany them, much less the Wookiee. The Wookiee, he reasoned, was too dangerous to be left alone, but for the Princess, he had no explanation.
Perhaps a part of him simply desired for her to finally break at his hands. It was the same reason Vader had personally handled the last assault on Theed, even though his newly-created darkness was still unstable. He had an unhealthy, unreasonable desire to see strength disappear, to have his own form of vengeance.
It was a long-standing, irrational need that stemmed from the fact that Leia Organa had escaped him too many times, had cost him too much, and above all, had never yielded to him. His duty to the Emperor and his zeal for the cause he served certainly demanded her defeat, but moreover, it was a matter of pride.
You can stop this now, the rational minority in him reasoned. Luke will be here at any moment and needs no further lure. You can leave her be just this once.
The syncopated clang of boots on metal alerted him to the advent of the prisoners, complete with a half-constructed droid prattling away senselessly from the Wookiee's back. Solo walked warily, hanging back from the man who had offered them hospitality with a bloodprice. Leia was unbound, walking with determination that her sense did not reflect.
She knew this place, evidently, and it was unclear as to what she feared most--her own imprisonment or the possible death of the man she felt bound to.
Curse you for being a woman you never knew.
"What's going on, buddy?" came the quiet inquiry, enhanced by the chamber's acoustics.
Calrissian had not faced his 'friends' since the night before in the cell, had not dared to meet their eyes or endure the truth they spat at them.
Lord Vader's set a trap for them.
And we're the bait!
Yes, well, he's on his way.
Now, Calrissian still did not turn to face them, only addressed himself casually to the smuggler.
"You're being put into carbon freeze."
His tone strained to appear blase, nonchalant, stating a simple, inevitable fact, but instead, he sounded like a man straining to speak around his own sword.
A hiss of sound at his right ear. "What if he doesn't survive?" Fett demanded, always the businessman. "He's worth a lot to me."
Not half as much as the next victim is worth to me.
But the Dark Lord's eyes were not on Fett, but the Princess, still silent, regarding the smuggler with something like grim defeat. They had both cheated death, she more times than she could count on both their hands, but death was catching up in their moments of weakness.
And she knew that she was most likely going to be next.
Vader raised an impatient hand, waved the question away. "The Empire will compensate you if he dies," he said smoothly. "Put him in."
It was hard to tell the exact sequence of events. Between the Wookiee attack, the sudden firing of blasters, the shouted protests by the man who should have been only too thrilled to have the entire Imperial presence go out in a blaze of misplaced glory, order fled. It instead found its home in the one person Vader had been watching since her arrival on Bespin.
Or, rather, long before a corridor on the Tantive IV.
She still did not speak, was completely aware of the pandemonium that surrounded her, but her target was in her sights. Her eyes remained locked on Vader as they had twice on the Death Star. When he had torn her mind apart, done his best to do the same to her body, and then found himself stopped by the simple resolve found in a traitor's eyes. And on the way back from the destruction of Alderaan, when they'd spent five silent minutes in a repulsorlift.
And now, she was giving him the same flat glare that meant too much and had too great an influence on his mental well-being for his own good.
It was the only accurate translation to say, Sith take you. It will always take more than this.
Finally, her gaze moved, not faltered, and she crossed to the Wookiee, turning an unreadable plea on him as the smuggler tried to calm him.
"The Princess," he said hoarsely. "You have to take care of her."
It was an extraordinary thing to ask of a Wookiee, especially one under Life Debt, but the meaning was all-too-clear. One branch of the family--Solo--was passing on the protection he would no longer need after death to those who would need something far more potent than fisticuffs in the days ahead.
It was a tribute to the Princess that the Wookiee agreed at all.
Recognizing their time was growing short, the humans chose to end their time forever with an unrestrained public display of affection.
"Don't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid to die..."
"What are you talking about?"
"I love you."
"I thought we had decided not to fall in love."
Undoubtedly, the development of this love had been as unexpected and perfect as theirs had been. Threatened with too many memories of a man he had exterminated in the lava pit of Eol Sha, he gestured the troopers violently forward. They hastened forward, too intimidated to argue, and pulled Solo away.
He found himself turning away on pretense of preparing the unit, but unable to explain why he was doing this or why he was so disturbed by it, only that it had to be done.
"I love you!"
Solo did not hesitate, did not ask for any further explanation or promise, only offered a half-smile. "I know," he said truthfully.
In moments, it was over, with the carbonite precisely poured and molded, the controls affixed, and the slab removed from the pit. But he was still watching the Princess, monitoring those accursedly familiar eyes.
He had only seen her at this level distress once before, when a deceptive Grand Moff convinced her that betraying the Alliance would save the Alliance.
He had never broken her, but this was the closest to that particular victory that he had ever accomplished.
All that remained was to know...
"Well, Calrissian," he rumbled. "Did he live?"
Calrissian's face was a mixture of disgust, despair, and weary defeat. "Yes," he sighed, "he's alive, and in perfect hibernation."
It would work on Luke. There was nothing except Luke himself to stop him now.
"He's all yours, bounty hunter," Vader said smugly. "Reset the chamber for..."
His order was cut off as one of the younger Lieutenants approached. "Skywalker has just landed."
Had he looked up, he would have seen Leia drawing closer to the breaking point, but for the moment, the anticipatory thrill was too much.
"Good. See to it that he finds his way here. Calrissian..."
The Baron-Administrator had foolishly been endeavoring to comfort Leia, so the voice of the Dark Lord was almost a welcome distraction.
"Take the princess and the Wookiee to my ship."
It was too much for them all. What had been quiet annoyance now blazed into full-blown anger. Foolish, but as long as he was contained by fear, there was no real danger.
"You said they would be kept here," he snarled, "under my supervision."
"I am altering the deal," he countered.
A hand raised, clenching the fingers slightly so that a fleeting, suffocating pressure registered in Calrissian's mind. A warning shot.
"Pray I don't alter it any further."
The customary 'massacre meditation' had turned instead into something of a nervous anticipation. It was not fear, only an uncertainty. It was something very similar to the feelings of a young man standing on a lakefront terrace, waiting for his angel bride to arrive.
It was the fear of losing something that was still not rightfully his.
Rightfully yours? He was rightfully yours the day you created him.
But you forfeited that right with the blood of an innocent woman. The day Padmé died by your hand and your hatred, you lost the right to call yourself his father.
An image came to mind of the reflection he saw in the mirror, the scarred, sagging head bowed in shame, but this time it was over the deathly still form of a fallen angel. His hands had cradled her lolling head, ignoring the spread of her life's blood as he prepared the bier, but his hands had, in that way, been stained by something far more lasting than blood.
He had been stained with her and her memory ever since.
But today, Force-willing, that would change. The boy had much of Padmé's heart and he would be her in many ways as he joined his father. He would learn the strength that the Jedi denied and that his heritage apportioned to him.
And perhaps the nightmares would stop.
A Jedi doesn't have nightmares.
I heard you.
He could sense him more acutely than even the circumstances of their close range had permitted over the Death Star. Their hearts were beating a frantic tattoo in harmony with each other, but Luke feared what he might find in the shadows, while Vader was those shadows. The boy feared many things, including his own weakness and his inexperience in the ways of the Force.
"Your patience has finally paid off."
"More your guidance than my patience."
"You don't need guidance. In time, you will learn to trust your feelings."
He had learned well, learned to trust them so much that no instruction was accepted and he acted only on his anger, frustration and hatred. He was the master of his own soul only after he had come to realize the truth of Palpatine's words.
In tune with the Force, he could sense everything from his son's awareness of the surroundings to the turmoil caused by a simple, brief encounter.
"Luke, don't! It's a trap! IT'S A TRAP!"
But the turmoil wasn't in reaction to her words. It was in the fact that he knew too well that if he did not willingly walk into this trap, she could be hurt further. It was the single most powerful bargaining chip Vader had and he had played it well.
His son was coming home.
There was a hiss of hydraulics as the platform of the service antechamber was activated and his breath caught momentarily. The chamber was reset, the settings already arranged, the victim nearly in place. Should the boy attack, Vader was trained expertly in defense methods, would be able to disarm him without disemboweling him. He knew the standard defense and offense maneuvers, would not need anything more complicated against an untutored rebel.
Or so it should be. With a son, it's not a fixed outcome. Especially not with a Skywalker.
Things were proceeding, once more, exactly according to plan.
But he was not prepared for that first moment, when the trim figure appeared, moving hesitantly through the light mists. As he approached, Vader's hand moved slightly, triggering the machinery that would prepare the freezing chamber for standby.
His son did not notice. He only was aware of an enemy, the man who had used the pain of his beloved Princess to draw him here.
Vader saw only himself.
I am Vader as he should have been, was the shout of his very presence.
But something was lacking. The power, the determination was there, but there was the absence of the strength that only the servants of the Dark Side fully understood.
"The Force is with you, young Skywalker," he said, voice almost too soft for him to hear over his pounding heart, "but you are not a Jedi yet."
Too eager to prove the Dark Lord wrong, the boy foolishly activated his saber, immediately lunging forward to attempt a strike, before he was prepared. Vader almost lazily batted it aside with his now-ignited lightsaber, but Luke struck again, with more ferocity.
Perhaps there was some hope for him yet.
He was surprised by the accuracy of the boy's movements, the skill that was evident despite the unrefined "hack-and-back" defense maneuver that he seemed to be using as his only tactic. It reminded him a lot of the raw talents he had himself possessed.
Yes, there was much hope for the boy's future if he chose to join his father.
"You have learned much, young one," he admitted out loud, breaking the clash of blade against blade.
The boy flashed the first smile his father had seen in his life. With his hair plastered to his forehead and his limbs shaking from a combination of being physically and emotionally outmatched, he certainly didn't seem as though he had learned much, but without the rigors of traditional Jedi training, the fact that he had survived the first attack was a great testimony to his skill.
"You'll find I'm full of surprises."
In the moment of distraction, he struck hard from his left shoulder, then twisted his wrists, coming around to knock the blade from the other side. The saber went flying and Vader advanced. Too taken aback to be aware of his precarious position, Luke went tumbling down the stairs. Not to be denied his quarry, irrationally still thinking of the boy as prey, he leapt from the top stair, landing where the boy had lain just moments before. He had rolled into a crouch, red-rimmed eyes focused on the mask.
"Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker," he stated calmly. "Obi-Wan knew this to be
That is why the fool hid you from me. He could not admit, in his ceaseless pride, that all roads had to lead to the strength that I found.
And Luke was still denying it. "No," he whispered.
He backed away, suddenly dropping out of sight into the carbon-freeze pit that he had neglected to sense behind him.
Vader flicked a hand casually, activating the chamber and turning away. It was not a matter of shame, of being unable to face what he was doing, only a matter of practical necessity to move on to the next step of the Skywalker legacy.
"All too easy," he murmured. "Perhaps you are not as strong as the Emperor
But in the next moment, there was a blur of movement and he turned to find his son had all-too-easily leapt from the pit, clutching hoses that should have been used to ensnare him.
He had to admire the boy's tenacity, even if it was beginning to become slightly irksome. "Impressive...most impressive."
Luke released the hose, landing lightly as his hand reached out to summon his saber. Vader would have stopped him, had the boy not aimed the hose into his mask, clogging the respirator for a frantic moment.
And the game was afoot once more. "Obi-Wan has taught you well. You have controlled your fear...now release your anger."
It was a simple matter, since the boy was relying on his righteous sense of anger to strengthen him already, but the simple words seemed to sow the seeds of terror in his heart once more at the thought of becoming his own enemy.
It was going to be a hard-earned victory, if victory came at all.
Luke was retreating once more, not even bothering to attack, only to ensure his survival long enough to regain his senses. Finally, he seemed to have regained his confidence, since his blows started coming with greater speed, forcing the Dark Lord of the Sith back and leaving him room to press his advantage. But it was not out of anger or a need for vengeance, simply the need to end this quickly.
He had fought a losing battle from the beginning, but it was becoming more apparent.
"Only your hatred can destroy me," he reminded the boy.
//An image, a memory of a specter from the past, rose in the link. Vader approaching and Luke taking an undefended swing at his nightmare's head. The helmet came free, rolling to a rest at the boy's feet. Vader found himself transfixed by the sight, then drew back from the consciousness as the mask blew apart, revealing his son's own face.//
He already knows he is yours, the Force whispered. He knows a measure of his potential for darkness. Teach a greater measure than that.
Instead, Skywalker somersaulted over him and in the next moment, was attacking once more. For once, Vader was unprepared, retreating too easily before haphazard offenses. The next blow sent him over the edge to land hard on his back in the darkened areas below the carbon-freezing platform.
If the wind had not been knocked out of him, he would have held his breath for the next few moments. Luke was unable to see him, so he was perfectly free to make his escape or to continue the duel.
A sense of pronounced victory began to emerge as the prey decided to act the predator for once.
Vader pushed to his feet, moving into the recesses of the corridor of the chamber that lay beyond, where visual cues would be worth nothing to the boy and he would have to rely on whatever rudimentary Force tricks Obi-Wan had taught him.
As he suspected, Luke did not sense him, was too preoccupied with his own danger to sense the knife in the darkness. Still, this would not end with an ambush, so Vader instead moved in on him the moment he had turned to face the corridor.
The boy's jaw clenched and he moved forward, ready for whatever defense was needed next.
But, instead, Vader chose to follow Darth Tyranus' lead and use something more blatant than force-tricks and lightsaber drills to attack. Machinery, pipes, whatever was available, came detached and went flying towards his son. The first pieces were deflected with a frantic swiftness, but the third came too closely behind the first two and he was knocked forward. The fourth piece smashed the window instead.
Luke went flying and there was a moment of fear at what his fate might be, but he should have remembered that he was dealing with a Skywalker, his own blood, and his own strength. So, instead, Luke would face him again, once he hauled himself out of the depths.
Finally, he had the boy on his back with the tip of a blood-red lightsaber at his throat. Luke pressed himself backwards as though he could sink straight through the durasteel, but there was no escaping the predator or the truth.
"You are beaten," Vader said triumphantly, holding his arm steady within reach of his son's jugular vein. "It is useless to resist. Don't let yourself be
I have no desire to kill you, but if you choose to defy me, you cannot live. I will make it merciful, where the Emperor would let you die over a period of perhaps years.
As he has with me.
The answering maneuver was to roll to the side, then lunge upwards so that Luke's saber gouged across the top of Vader's shoulder. He allowed a strangled cry, but did not falter.
Skywalker would be his, no matter how much blood the boy spilled in the process.
There was nowhere to go, even Luke realized that, but the boy was too tired to mount a sufficient offensive to change the surroundings. Instead, he backed himself into a corner, at the end of a gantry. The targets were limited here, the space for fighting cramped, so Vader took a swing that cropped an instrument tower. The proximity of that blow forced Luke to lose his balance. One hand released the saber to steady himself as Vader struck hard at the blade. Luke's wrist bent slightly under the force of the blow and the next unconscious blow struck lower.
There was an unrestrained scream as the hand and the saber went flying and Vader froze, eyes widening behind the eyeplates. He had been prepared to do anything to trap his son, to bring him home, but he had not expected this.
In that moment of indecision, Luke pulled himself over the edge onto more precarious footing. At last, he was clutching to his last redoubt, the extreme end of the gantry.
He wasn't sure if the accusation was against him, the boy, or the both of him, but there was only one thing evident: he had to move quickly.
"There is no escape," he insisted. "Don't make me destroy you."
Luke clutched only harder at the gantry as though he could be killed with words from that distance. Vader was losing patience with the entire mess and the boy himself. This madness had to stop here.
So, as Palpatine had done so many times in his formative years, he turned to honest flattery. "You do not yet
He knew, that if Luke's frustration was any indication, the offer was tempting. Even more evident was the source of that frustration.
If only I'd stayed to finish my training.
There were certain things that every frustrated insurgent could not refuse. "Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength,
Luke's eyes squeezed closed, but there was no yielding. At the very least, there was the strength of will that his mother had always possessed.
"I'll never join you!" he declared with an almost genuine confidence, or what passed for it when you were wounded and on the verge of a freefall you hadn't planned on.
Anger was building once more in Vader, familiar territory. "If you only knew the power of the dark side," he growled.
It is what is my life, my prison, my liberation, my strength and weakness.
But you cannot understand many things.
It was time for him to understand one thing that would change everything.
"Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."
The anger that father and son shared was finally back in his son's sense, overshadowing the pain and fear. "He told me enough," Luke snarled. "He told me you killed him."
It was fortunate that Obi-Wan was dead or Vader would have had to kill him for that lie, that monumental betrayal.
I thought the first murder Luke knew at my hand was Obi-Wan's. The fact that he thought his father was my victim before that is unconscionable.
"No," he said simply instead. "I am your father."
For the first time since Luke's hand had become a separate entity, eyes met. There was a horrified shock, a denial, a desperate need to extinguish the burning of a perceived lie.
But it was no lie.
"That's not true," he croaked. "That's impossible!"
He knew then he had the boy caught. "Search your feelings," he ordered. "You know it to be true."
Indeed, the truth lay under a thin layer of 'certain points of view.' Luke knew this too well, which explained his anguished, screamed denial.
The anguish was inexplicably mirrored in his own heart. He had searched for three years, done everything within his power to reunite the family that had never been. Men had died, he had lost much to bring this to pass and all there was left in the wake of the truth was the intense desire to believe it was a lie.
Even if he persuaded his son to join him, the likelihood of him accepting his heritage was something close to non-existent.
It was the first time he had spoken that name, the first time he had dared to give shape to the strong name that had filled his dreams long before Luke was even conceived. It was the name that they had chosen had the child they had lost been a son.
"You can destroy the Emperor," he reasoned, voice surprisingly steadied by the mere mention of the boy's name. "He has foreseen this. It is
At the mention of their respective titles, instead, Luke's eyes solemnly considered the long drop to release.
Is that all you can think of your father's offer?
"Come with me," he pleaded. "It's the only way."
His saber went back to his belt, no longer needed and instead, he held out the hand of aid. "Come with me," he repeated quietly.
In the next moment, Luke released the gantry and fell silently, taking a father's broken heart of darkness with him.
There was still a chance to save his son.
It was an irrational hope, an unnatural chance that this might work, but Jedi were experts at the irrational and unnatural things.
And despite what Palpatine and his slaves would like to think, Luke had proved that he had followed in his father's footsteps.
I am a Jedi, like my father before me.
He was untrained, his talents painfully rudimentary for his age, but for a young man who had spent twenty years of his life denied his powers, he was immensely talented. With the right training, he would...
But what is the right training? a voice within him sneered. Given the same choice, do you really wish your fate on him?
Then, why did you lure him here? To see if he would make the same choice? In the hopes that he would bring you back? In the hope that you were wrong? What did you expect to accomplish?
The city was in chaos, an uprising he had not bothered to sense in the tumult of feelings and challenges. Even as he emerged, his stormtroopers had broken rank long enough to dispatch with a small group of those who chose to fight back.
Fools. We have no intention of killing you if you do not defy us.
Luke should have known that.
"Alert the Executor," he ordered flatly, keeping all the frustration that had overwhelmed him just moments before out of his voice. "We will be returning immediately."
There was a palpable relief behind the unasked questions. They wanted to know why they would be returning without the prisoner, but they didn't dare broach the subject. If they were fortunate, he would not respond. If they were even more fortunate, they would quickly join the ranks of the questioning fools who died in their inactivity, by the hand of Luke Skywalker's memory.
He did not remember returning to the shuttle or the brief journey to return to the Executor. His mind was searching for a link, for anything to assure him that he would not find a corpse when he returned for his son.
He only sensed a heart-pounding, breath-taking desperation, a certainty that if they did not move quickly, there would not be a son to return to.
There were so many ships, civilian and home defense alike, that it was impossible to ascertain which one would be carrying the treacherous Calrissian and Solo's friends. Even if they stopped every one for an inspection, half of them would be let past just from lack of numbers.
Unless, of course, Princess Leia Organa stayed true to form. She was not one to leave friends behind, including the 'fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.'
No, they would be escaping, if their lives allowed it, in Solo's ship.
The comm officer turned in his seat, face drawn. "Yes, my lord?"
"What is the status of the Millenium Falcon?"
There was a quiet interchange, then the lieutenant confirmed that it had left the docking platform, but the first tangible sending from his son confirmed what the report determined.
He had pleaded for help just moments before, reaching out to the place in the universe that they both knew as Ben Kenobi. But remembering too well that all allies had abandoned him, he reached out to the person who would never abandon him.
Leia, hear me.
And then, impossibly, she was reaching back to him.
Perhaps she is not as blind to the powers of the Force as we always assumed.
"The Millenium Falcon has come about and is returning to the city," the lieutenant reported, voice tinged with shock.
Not to the city, to wherever the boy is.
"Send a flight of TIE fighters," Vader instructed, "to disable only. If they destroy the ship, they know the consequences."
A look passed between the command crew, a visible shudder, but they did their duty. Months of that threat eliminated any indecision or fearful neglect.
Pain had tempered them well, as it had for him. As it would for his son someday.
"We will continue to the Executor," he continued. "We must be prepared should they succeed in their foolhardy rescue mission."
"They'll be in range of our tractor beam in moments, lord."
He nodded curtly, but did not turn to acknowledge the man, was still trying to reestablish the link with Luke. "Did your men deactivate the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon?"
"Yes, my lord."
Soon, all this subterfuge would be anything but necessary.
"Good. Prepare the boarding party and set for your weapons for stun."
This time, he was taking no chances.
But he chanced another contact.
He could sense the boy's astonishment, the first conscious acknowledgement of who or what had been offering him comfort.
"You were expecting, perhaps, an angel of mercy?"
The first time his son had acknowledged that awful and awesome truth.
Son, he acknowledged. He finally broached the subject once more, a tentative attempt at reconciliation now that they were once more on 'speaking' terms. Come with me.
There was something like a telepathic shuddering sob, a heart breaking for the second time that day.
Ben, why didn't you tell me?
Why didn't you tell the boy? Were you afraid he'd want the truth?
He sucked in a shuddering breath, then told his son another half-truth.
It is your destiny.
Destiny was a painfully inaccurate term, an allegation that he loathed with every fiber of his being, but surely the Force would want father and son to be united, even in death.
And then, things became too busy for them to make any further contact.
By the time he broke the contact, the only thing left of the attempt to capture the Falcon was the flicker of light as its hyperdrive engaged.
All motion on the bridge seemed to stop and, indeed, he could sense all focus on him. Fear was pouring off of his men, fear and helpless disgust with themselves.
Let me die soon.
If I don't see my wife again, tell her I loved her, that it wasn't my fault.
Kiss Eli for me. He'll be a good man, not like his father.
It's just as well that I left no one to mourn me.
I'm sorry, Liara, I tried. But there is no escaping the grace of Lord Vader. To serve him is to die for him or to die by his hand.
He had thrived on pain, on fear and aggression, for so long that the intense emptiness that these last feelings left in his heart caught him completely unawares. For the first time in too long, he remembered all-too-well what it had felt like to be Anakin Skywalker.
"Anakin, there was a child."
"What do you mean, there WAS a child?"
"The pilot in question has never been mentioned before in the Rebellion's rosters. He is a recent acquisition from Tatooine, one Luke Skywalker."
I'm sorry, Padmé. I couldn't keep him--I didn't know how. I doubt if I'll ever find him again. I hope I will return to you before he does.
I hope you're still waiting for me, if the Force is merciful enough to let a fallen man be raised to see his angel.
He was too tired, too defeated, to feel angry. There was a heart-breaking frustration, but none of the murderous intent that too often had taken control of every fiber of his being.
The Empire had achieved its revenge. The Empire had struck back, but in exchange for a brief victory, he had lost much more.
The only thing that remained was to determine how both their paths would end.
And a strange, dangerous part of him hoped that his son would be the stronger party.