The Father - Part 6
It was a very long way from the room where Leia had been staying to the hangar bay. This ship must be monstrous even for a Star Destroyer. They didn't run into so much as a mouse droid the whole way, which sent shivery chills into Leia's bones. Her fears were confirmed when the great hangar bay proved to be abandoned except for the shuttle on which she would be leaving. Clearly Vader didn't want anyone knowing where she had gone. Whatever his reasons for that, she didn't like them.
As they approached the lowered base of the ramp, a lift on the other side of the hangar arrived and Dr. Siler scampered out, clutching his fluttering cap to his head with one hand and juggling several bags in the other. Distraught though she was, Leia had to laugh. He grinned back at her and not for the first time she wondered how such a pleasant person could have wound up as the personal physician of a man in strong contention for the title of Galaxy's Most Evil Despot.
"Rather short notice," he grumbled at Miyr.
"It usually is," she said calmly.
"Which doesn't make it any less of a nuisance," the doctor retorted. "Not to mention nonsensical. Sending you back to Vjun I understand, but I'm his attending physician for the Emperor's sake."
"I'm not going," Miyr said just as an officer and a pair of stormtroopers came out of the shuttle and ended any conversations. Siler's tight, downturned mouth relaxed at the corners as he made a slow, sympathetic nod.
"Madam Administrator," said the officer. "You will not be accompanying us?"
"No, Captain Landre," she said, turning crisply to him. "Dr. Siler and this young lady are your passengers. Doctor, she's in your charge now."
"I'm sure we'll get along famously," Siler said. The stormtroopers circled around and escorted them doubletime up the ramp. Leia turned back at the top and saw Miyr lean up close to the Captain, whispering something in his ear. He straightened abruptly and stiffly, glancing at Leia.
"And I do mean any measures, Captain," Miyr murmured as she leaned back, just loud enough for Leia's strained ears to catch. "Her secrecy and safety are paramount."
"I understand, Administrator," he said.
After the events of the last year and especially the last week, Landre had assumed he'd fathomed the uttermost depths of stress and wild anxiety. He hadn't known the half of it. As if having his head on the line for Lord Vader's three missing children was not enough to drive anyone to distraction, the Dark Lord had now upped the ante by handing yet a fourth child into his care.
Trouble was, Landre was fairly certain he wasn't supposed to be privy to that information. Something in the administrator's manner when she whispered the news in his ear warned him that she'd just disregarded an injunction from their yet-enraged master. This, just days after she'd brazenly broken Imperial law and – even worse – crossed the line of Vader's personal authority to summon his squadron to Coruscant in the first place!
It was no damned wonder Vader wasn't sending the administrator back to Vjun. She'd be lucky if she ever got off the Executor alive.
The sole thing Landre could do for the administrator now was to get this third daughter of Vader's back to Vjun as fast as he could without setting so much as a toenail out of line. That way he could at least minimize the amount of anger that Miyr would have to face when the Dark Lord finally took her to task.
It would also be his one hope of redeeming himself from that same wrath.
Swallowing hard, he forced his thoughts away from that subject. The more terrified he was the more compromised his judgment would be, and therefore the poorer his chances of success. Besides, he reminded himself, he had had no real difficulty entering the Imperial system. No doubt Grand Admiral Grant would be thrilled to boot his squadron back into hyperspace. In fact he'd probably clear a least-time route out of the planet's gravity well specifically for their use. Once in hyperspace they'd be home free. Nothing to worry about.
The captain blew out a measured breath and studied the girl seated opposite him in the shuttle. How could someone so small be such a heavy burden on his mind? For that matter, how could the towering Lord Vader have fathered a girl of her diminutive stature? She didn't resemble her siblings either – dark brown hair, wide dark eyes. Perhaps she was only a half-sister? He automatically warned himself away from such dangerous conjectures; the girl curled her feet up and twisted round to look out the cabin viewport. The Executor's prow was still in view, but steadily vanishing as the shuttle pressed on to the squadron's position further out from the planet. Next to her Dr. Siler kept up a stream of mutters as he rummaged through one of his bags, apparently trying to organize a hasty packing job.
A doctor and a girl. Landre flexed his fingers on his knees and made himself crack a small smile. All he had to do was take a doctor and a girl on a ride for a few lightyears. If chauffeurs could do it, so could he –
His train of thought derailed because a gigantic invisible hand had lifted him out of his seat and hammered him into the starboard bulkhead, which had somehow become the floor. Forgot the crash webbing again, didn't you, you idiot, his Academy safety instructor's voice seemed to echo from afar. The girl shrieked in alarm; Siler's bag soared away from him, striking Landre's shoulder and spewing its contents, as the doctor yelled something that would certainly have been inappropriate for a child's ears had it been translated into Basic. Finally the shuttle's artificial gravity generator caught up with the spiraling, accelerating dive its pilot had unaccountably performed; Landre tumbled forward and found himself sprawled across the deck.
He scrambled to his feet, grabbing the backrest of a chair and kicking Siler's bag away from his path as the shuttle lurched again. "You two!" he yelled at the stormtroopers in the next row. "Check the passengers! Double check for any loose articles!" Staggering from seat to seat, he forged his way to the cockpit, swearing under his breath and vowing to emasculate whatever sorry piece of Hutt slime had taken it into his thick skull to –
"What the hells is that?"
The entire cockpit viewport had been swallowed up by a gigantic mass of gray durasteel, like a city had sprung out of nowhere in the middle of space. The navigational officer caught him by the arm, then Landre was thrown over him as the shuttle wrenched aside again, its pilot desperately trying to avoid colliding with – with whatever that was –
"We don't know, sir," the nav officer gasped, "the damn thing just appeared out of fricking nowhere right the hell in front of us – "
"I'm getting readings on it now," the com officer added, hanging onto his armrest for dear life as the grav generator struggled to equalize the tremendous g-forces the pilot's maneuvers were producing. Considering they were at the edges of Imperial Center's gravity well by now, he must be redlining the engines on a near-180 course reversal to be overtaxing the generator like that. And still the edge of that blasted enormous thing did not appear –
"Sir," the com officer got out, "this can't be right – the sensors are saying this thing's the size of a class-four moon! Estimating a diameter of 160 klicks…" His voice trailed off as he mumbled, "But it transitioned out of hyperspace…had to…how…"
The grav generator finally drew even with their accel and Landre was able to pry himself off the nav officer and stagger towards the pilot. The gargantuan curve of the object's horizon appeared on the edge of the viewport.
"We'll clear them now, sir," the pilot said tightly. The copilot, a recent Academy graduate without the sangfroid of experience to sustain him, heaved a shaky sigh and wiped his hair back.
"Good work, Lieutenant," Landre told him, and patted the copilot's shoulder. He glanced over his shoulder at the com officer. "Contact the Warlord and get a status report. Perhaps their sensors have a more complete picture."
The com officer shook himself and reached for the transmitter. "Imperial Star Destroyer Warlord, this is Imperial Shuttle Nexus. Captain Landre requests an immediate status report. Once again, Warlord – "
The com crackled. "Imperial Shuttle Nexus," said someone who was certainly not the Warlord's chief com officer, "this is ComScan Delta of Imperial DS-1 Orbital Battle Station. Transmit your identification code immediately."
The com officer went pale and stabbed in the code, having to stop and correct himself once or twice in his haste. "What the hell's an Imperial DS-whatever?" demanded the copilot.
"Holy fracking shavit," the pilot muttered. "That thing's a battle station?"
"Silence in the cabin," Landre ordered reflexively.
"Imperial Shuttle Nexus, your identity is confirmed," the com officer from the battle station told them. "You are ordered to adjust frequency to 3357A-12. Fall in with your unit and comply with all subsequent directives."
"Affirmative, Imperial Com – Imperial DS-station – "
"Imperial DS-1 Orbital Battle Station," snapped the voice. "Abbreviated reference code is Death Star. Death Star over and out."
"Get me the Warlord, Lieutenant, now," Landre barked.
He had no chance before the com crackled again. "Imperial Shuttle Nexus, this is Admiral Conan Motti," an imperious male voice barked. "Put Captain Landre on the com immediately."
They must have intercepted the transmission to the Warlord. Landre kicked the com officer out of his seat. "Admiral Motti, Captain Landre speaking."
"Captain, your identification code indicates that you are assigned to Battle Squadron 559, stationed in the Vjun system."
"That's correct, Admiral. We're on our way to rendezvous with our squadron, located at approximately 12-3-3 to your position."
"Under what orders have you deployed to Imperial Center?" snapped Motti.
"We received a special directive from Lord Vader, sir," Landre said carefully. "I can order the Warlord to send you the transmission record."
"What were your orders from Lord Vader?" demanded the other, ignoring his offer.
Landre drew a deep breath – he must fly with care here. Between this freak battle station and Lord Vader's wrath he had precious little space left to maneuver. "Specialized medical personnel transfer," he replied. It wasn't that big a stretch, and specialized medics from major capital ships often had to have emergency transfers if their unique skills were required elsewhere. No need to mention the girl.
There was a moment of silence before Motti answered. "Very well, Captain. Proceed to your squadron."
Landre breathed, "Thank you, sir – "
"As soon as you reboard you will notify the Death Star and fall into support formation with the rest of Capital Fleet," Motti continued.
Landre wiped a sudden sheen of cold sweat off his forehead. Thank the fates the transmission was voice-only. "Admiral Motti, my orders from Lord Vader explicitly state that we are to hyper out of system without delay."
"Those orders have been overridden," snapped the admiral.
"Admiral," Landre retorted, "with all due respect, you are not authorized to override direct orders from the commander of the Imperial Navy."
"Perhaps not," Motti told him sourly, "but the Emperor is."
"Sir?" whispered the pilot. Landre waved him on towards the Warlord.
"Admiral, without contravening written or direct verbal orders I am not authorized to deviate from Lord Vader's stated directives," he insisted as the shuttle shot around the horizon of the station and accelerated towards their squadron.
Yet another great jolt arrested their forward momentum. The com officer hit the deck as Landre seized the armrest of his seat. "Tractor beam, sir!" the pilot snapped in angry indignation, giving the controls one last wrench out of frustration.
"Admiral Motti, you are interfering with my orders!" Landre raged helplessly and desperately. "My squadron stands ordered to depart system immediately – "
There was a click, cutting him off – had that damned admiral just hung up on him? – and then the com officer was back on line. "Imperial Shuttle Nexus, you will maintain com silence until you have touched down. Prepare for boarding and inspection. Death Star out."
The vista of space – Imperial Center sparkling like the queen of crown jewels it was, the velvet backdrop of vacuum flaked with crystal stars, the precise tri-dimensional ballet being enacted by the repositioning Capital Fleet, and beneath it all the grand game of politics, treachery and counter-treachery – oh, it was a splendid moment, and Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin had the best seat in the house. Perhaps the bridge of the Executor could have afforded a more sweeping view, as aesthetic considerations had not been a priority of the Death Star's designers, but the Executor was not sitting on the most formidable weapon the galaxy had ever known. Grand Moff Tarkin was – just a few hundred meters below his boots, in fact, where the northern arc of the emitter dish drew its ominous curve across the station's surface. His toes tingled with the latent energy pulsing in the mighty station's innards, his thoughts with the awareness that he could in the course of a few hours vaporize all signs of life in the entire system. The Emperor himself stood at Tarkin's mercy…
…presuming, of course, he was willing to kill the planet's one trillion permanent inhabitants to get to the man. The actual death toll would probably be three times that due to the hundreds of billions of transients and illegals on the planet's surface at any given time.
Tarkin smiled thinly to himself. No, alas; the destruction of Coruscant was unthinkable. It would constitute political suicide. While a powerful deterrent if properly exercised, one Death Star was not sufficient to keep the galaxy in line by itself. The structures of traditional authority could be pared back somewhat, but remained a necessary evil. And without the forceful personal authority of the Emperor, the decade-old Empire would probably splinter in short order.
Which meant allegiance to the man was still in the best interests of one Governor Tarkin. To work, then.
Admiral Motti was in the command conference room when he arrived, just finishing a holo-conversation with some aide. "Grand Moff," he said without preamble, "I've verified the military forces in system. Capital Fleet is all accounted for and assuming supportive formation."
"And the Executor?" Tarkin asked, flipping through the brief report Motti handed him.
"Holding station outside planetary orbit as ordered," Motti assured him. "Captain Piett did not object. No word from Lord Vader as yet."
Tarkin nodded. Not surprising, considering it was the middle of the night in Imperial City and no one wanted to be first to disturb the Sith's slumber. "So no anomalies."
"There's one, sir. A small squadron of Victory-class destroyers was positioned near our entry point. According to the Fleet database they're assigned to the Vjun system. They can't have arrived long ago if our orders from Imperial Center didn't record their presence in the system."
"Vjun? Then they're Vader's," murmured Tarkin. "What are they doing here?"
"They claim it's a medical personnel transfer from the Executor," Motti said.
"Perhaps, sir, but that doesn't explain why one of their destroyers opened fire on us as we entered the system."
Tarkin raised an eyebrow at that information, but brushed it aside. "A reflexive response to an unidentified potential threat. I trust they ceased fire."
"Almost immediately," Motti admitted. "But the squadron commander is refusing to maneuver his squadron into support formation and insists on following Lord Vader's orders to hyper immediately out of system. And our trackers identified a smaller ship accelerating away from the squadron towards the planet. He could be attempting to send some sort of covert message to Vader."
Tarkin considered for a brief moment. "Perhaps I should speak with this commander."
"I can arrange that," Motti said, glancing at the screen of his com. "His shuttle has just been tractored aboard."
Tarkin bestowed a disappointing frown as they headed together for the turbolift. "A little courtesy, Admiral," he said. "The commander is, after all, a fellow Navy officer."
"He's Vader's man," Motti snarled in response. "What else do we need to know?"
Tarkin had to concede the point.
"What's going on?" the girl demanded when Landre reappeared in the passenger cabin. She had gotten out of her crash webbing and was impatiently enduring a quick examination from Siler. The sudden ferocity in her brown eyes did away with Landre's doubts that she could really be Vader's daughter. He'd recognize that temper anywhere.
"We're being stopped for boarding and examination," he said. "Dr. Siler, we've told them our business in system is to transfer you. Tell me you can think of a good reason we're doing that."
Siler's bushy eyebrows folded over his urchin-like grin. "Think of a reason? I've already got one."
"Good," said Landre. "She's your patient, understood?"
Siler nodded. The girl crossed her arms with a scowl.
"Who is them?" she spat. "And what makes you think I'm going to put on any kind of act for you and Vader?"
That was when Landre realized the situation was far more complicated than even Miyr had told him. The girl was Vader's daughter, but apparently hated him, or possibly seemed not even to know –
Siler emerged from his bag with a hypodermic needle and planted it deep in the girl's neck before she or Landre could object. A short gasp later she collapsed unconscious into the seat. At a wave from the doctor one of the stormtroopers retrieved the hoverstretcher from the onboard med kit. The girl was hoisted onto it. While the shuttle thudded down on a hangar deck Siler rapidly attached diagnostic readouts and monitors and tucked his oblivious patient under a blanket. "I think she'll cooperate now," he said to Landre with a wry grin.
The ramp lowered. Landre tugged nervously at his cap. "I hope so."
They started out of the shuttle and were met by a stormtrooper squad in full armor, blasters at the ready though not actually trained on him. Landre heard Siler start railing at the squad commander about delays and the serious condition of his patient and Lord Vader's displeasure if he lost her. Across the bay two officers stood waiting, and as he approached he discerned the unwelcome bar insignias of an admiral and a grand moff.
"Grand Moff, Admiral." He dug down deep, beating back anxiety and scraping up as much indignation as he had. "When word of this reaches Lord Vader – "
"Lord Vader is not my concern," the Grand Moff said smugly. "I am Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of this battle station, and my orders come from the Emperor personally. You had best cease playing with fire, Captain…?"
"Landre," supplied the other, who must be Admiral Motti.
"Your squadron seems to be in a tremendous hurry, Captain Landre," Tarkin continued with lethal courtesy. "An explanation would be in order."
At that Siler spoke up from his position bent over the stretcher and the unconscious girl. "I'm Lord Vader's personal physician," he barked, "and there is an urgent case in Vjun requiring my particular skills. Not to mention the one I'm currently trying not to lose, no thanks to all of you" – his fearsome glare would have set Vader on edge – "so unless you want to make the explanations to him yourself I hope to hell you plan on letting us out of here ASAP."
"And what patient," Tarkin replied, "is at Vjun requiring which of yourskills?"
"A Jedi prisoner," Siler retorted. "And if you can find another physician trained to treat metaphysical injuries I'll give him my job."
"Metaphysical injuries?" murmured Motti, looking much less sure of himself.
"I did a practicum with the Jedi Order's healers before the Empire," Siler snapped, turning back to his supposedly critical patient. "If you want to explain to Lord Vader why a prisoner with critical information about the location of other Jedi fugitives died while you detained the only doctor left in the galaxy who could treat him, be my guest. At the very least get me to a real medbay with this one."
Tarkin's expression had gotten cold – plainly things weren't going his way – and Landre began to be hopeful. Siler's story was credible enough that he almost felt convinced of it.
"And what about that prisoner?" the grand moff demanded, switching his gaze to the stretcher. "Another Jedi?"
"Damned if I know," Siler retorted. "I don't ask questions when Vader tells me to treat somebody. It's bad for life expectancy."
Motti shifted and tried to murmur something to Tarkin, but the grand moff's eagle gaze was still on the girl with eerie fixation. Sharply he stepped over and turned her face up. Then he jerked upright with a cold smile.
"How very interesting," he purred. "Come take a look, Admiral. Do you recognize this girl?"
Motti scowled. "Of course not, why would – "
"This," Tarkin continued with terrifying cheer, "is Princess Leia Organa."
"She certainly isn't!" Landre snapped, belatedly realizing that he didn't in fact know what the girl's name was. But she was Vader's daughter, that he did know, and how could she have two fathers at once?
"Don't lie to me, Captain," Tarkin murmured. "I have met the Princess myself previously." An ugly shadow flitted over his expression.
"Bail Organa's daughter?" Motti spat. "What's she doing here?"
"I can't say for certain," Tarkin said. He prowled back to Landre. "What I do know," he told the captain, "is that just days ago the Emperor informed me Lord Vader was under suspicion of treason. And as you surely know, Admiral, Imperial Intelligence has long suspected Bail Organa of complicity in the rebel movements. I can only conclude that Lord Vader has chosen to collaborate with Organa." The eerie light in his eyes intensified as he stepped back from Landre. "A collaboration in which this man is knowingly complicit."
"No," Landre rasped, reeling from the sudden twist. "That's not – "
"Relay my orders to Captain Terang to eradicate the squadron," Tarkin said to the stormtrooper commander. "No doubt they are attempting to summon forces to Lord Vader's aid. Your men will escort the doctor and his charming young patient to the detention block. And as for you, Captain – "
Landre had been trying to brainstorm a convincing denial – anything to get the girl out of this hellhole, out of the system – but a muzzle snapped up, aligned with his eyes, and an agonizing blaze of red and heat wiped thought away forever.
By the time a bank of enormous turbolasers opened catastrophic fire on the four Destroyers of Battle Squadron 559, the small ship which had split off at breakneck speed had vanished into the melee of panicking orbital traffic and could not be pinpointed for destruction by the station's gunners. To at least one of the passengers, this was precious little consolation.
"Artoo, we're doomed! Oh, please, let's get out of here!"
Connected to the computer nearest the pilot's seat in the Millennium Falcon's cockpit, Artoo-Detoo swiveled his dome and emitted a condescending twitter.
"Oh, that's perfectly fine for you to say! This was your idea in the first place! I told you to stay out of the castle's central computer, but you wouldn't listen –
Artoo spat a long string of whistles and beeps.
"Yes, I realize we wouldn't have known about the Princess' capture if you hadn't broken into Lord Vader's private communication files," Threepio conceded angrily. "But you're not supposed to search his files! They're classified! And besides, we belong to Lord Vader and Master Luke! The Princess isn't our concern!"
The astromech responded with a violent eruption of squeals.
"What do you mean, Bail Organa sent us to watch out for Master Luke? Now you're just having delusions, you ridiculous scrap heap!"
Artoo's answer sounded eerily like a human snort.
"Besides, how can you be sure the Princess was aboard the Executor in the first place? This theory of yours that Captain Landre was coming to get her is all conjecture, you know."
Artoo swung the ship around a pair of Rendili cargo freighters, chortling the while.
"Well, yes, I know you intercepted the call from Lord Vader while we were in Borleias, but he didn't specifically mention the Princess – "
A reel of chirps and beeps cut him off.
"Alright, and you intercepted the conversation between the shuttle and that horrible station, but he still didn't – what do you mean, you ran a bioscan on the shuttle? How did you do that?"
Artoo accompanied his response with a swivel of his dome that was decidedly smug.
"The Falcon has a smuggler's sensor suite?" Threepio sounded rather faint. "However did Master Solo get one of those?"
An indifferent bleep, then a prolonged chain of twittering.
"And you know a small human female was on board?" Threepio straightened in the copilot's seat, only partially convinced. After all, at such a distance…
Artoo spun his dome and screeched indignation as the Falcon swooped across the path of several cargo modules tractored to a freighter.
"Well, of course it couldn't have been anyone else!" Threepio retorted. "Oh, do watch out Artoo!" The freighter had shot over the hull of a panicky passenger liner with just meters to spare. "But even so we can't do anything about it! She'll be on that horrible space station now! We can't fight legions of stormtroopers on our own!"
As the Falcon settled in deep amongst the crowd of frightened orbital traffic, slowing into the flow, Artoo heaved a depressed beep of agreement.
Going up the turbolift shaft Mara had shown him was tricky business. Through the lower levels Luke was able to use the grappling attachment freely to tow himself up several levels at a time, but as he got higher the turbolift cars began whooshing by and he had to be extremely careful that he didn't swing on his line and get mashed by one of them. Finally there were so many he just stowed the blaster and climbed on his own power. It was a long, long way. He had to stop for rests with increasing frequency, leaning against the ladder.
It gave him time to wonder about Mara. He'd suspected from the second he saw her that she was a Jedi apprentice on the lam, what with the lightsaber. After she levitated the plug of duracrete she'd cut through the bottom of the turbolift shaft, Luke was sure of it. He was going to have to tell Yoda; hopefully they could find her once they got out with Han and then –
Then what? Back to his father? Off with Yoda to become a really strong Jedi so he could really help his father? What about Sara and Sandra? Baranne had been on the right track, but it was a long way to the industrial district and he might not find them without Luke's help. What should he do? And what about Mara? His father hated Jedi; he wouldn't be happy to see her. She at least would have to go with Yoda, because they couldn't possibly leave her on Coruscant. Who knew what terrible things the Emperor might do if he ever got hold of her?
Who knew what terrible things the Emperor was doing to Han?
Luke shut his eyes tight and wiped grime out of his face with one hand, trying not to think too much about that. He was on his way, and he'd get there when he got there. Since he didn't know how to reach his father's castle, and since it was just too far to go on his bruised bare feet, he'd have to try and find someplace to hide in Imperial Palace until his father put in an appearance. It was where the Emperor lived, and his father's job was working for the Emperor, so he had to come here eventually. Probably there'd be places in the secret passages Mara had mentioned. Luke drew a deep breath and started up the ladder again, hugging himself against it as another car hurtled past.
It seemed to take hours and he hurt all over, but finally he reached the special secret exit Mara had told him about. It was a dangerous jump across the shaft from the ladder. Mara must have done it with the Force, which was taking a tremendous risk; Luke decided to use the grappling line instead. But the line didn't retract as fast as he needed and his body slammed hard into the shaft just below the lip of the entrance. He yelped as it kept retracting, scraping his knuckles bloody against the rough wall, but he didn't dare slow it down. And a good thing, too; he would have been smeared to goo by the car that shot past an instant after he clambered over the ledge.
Luke gasped for steadying air and sucked his bleeding knuckles. Then he detached the end of the grappling line and started down the secret passage, stumbling and tired and increasingly hungry. Why hadn't he thought to pack up some snacks? Staggering, he found a turbolift and took it because riding up meant he would get to rest. He didn't know where he was going, other than up. Up was where important people lived on Coruscant, so up was where his father would be. Other than that he followed the gentle promptings of the Force without question as they led him an odd criss-cross of detours.
He hadn't expected there to be so many secret passages in the Emperor's palace. Although right now they were mostly empty and the Force warned him in time to hide from anyone else who came along, his senses told him that just in the past day hundreds of people had come along them. Their auras left a sort of mist in the air; at times Luke even thought he picked out an echo of Master Yoda, but felt so weary he couldn't be sure. He finally checked his chrono. Was it really three am? No wonder he was so tired. And no wonder there was no one else around –
Still busy staring at his chrono, Luke walked straight into the wall at the end of the passage. Whimpering and rubbing his nose, he tried turning left, then right, only to meet with more wall. He switched on the sighting beam of his blaster and looked back the way he'd come; just a brief hall leading straight from a little secret turbolift.
Well, not even the Emperor would have built a secret turbolift just for the fun of it, so there must be a way out. Luke pressed around the wall and finally his fingers landed on a keypad. Looked like he needed some passcode to get through. Had he been less bleary from exertion and lack of sleep and food, he'd probably have stood baffled for ages, afraid that trying a wrong code would set off an alarm. Instead his hand typed in a series of numbers in passive response to a prompting from the Force. Without fuss a narrow panel of the wall shot up and let him into the room beyond.
Luke turned around in stupefaction. It was a really big room. Possibly the biggest room he'd ever seen. The domed ceiling must be hundreds of feet above him, though maybe if the lighting hadn't been dimmed for the night it wouldn't have seemed so far away. In the center of the ceiling was a grand skylight, through which the flashing lights of the nighttime traffic beamed down and painted a great throne-like chair in eerie reds and greens and blues.
Luke's gaze traveled down with the lights and wandered around the room. He was on some sort of balcony level. A broad stairway led up to it from the level below – a vast expanse of luminous green marble which stretched away to a ponderous pair of engraved double doors. Above them, embossed on the great wall and shining with scarlet enamel and gilding, was an enormous Imperial seal. Reflexively Luke tightened his shielding as much as he could, so that no one could even tell he existed in the Force, and looked back at the huge black chair. Now he saw that behind it the wall was hung with tapestries and drapes from floor to ceiling, the foremost hanging being a gigantic Imperial flag.
This had to be the throne room.
Not a good place to hide. Luke stumbled around, with every intention of going back to the secret passage and finding someplace else to hide. Except there wasn't an entrance anymore. His panel had dropped back into its place while he stared around and he couldn't for the life of him find any outline of it. Wildly he searched the wall for a keypad. There wasn't one – just blank paneled wall. Back and forth along the wall he ran, weariness now absent, but the Force held its silence.
No way out.
Luke wiped a shaky hand over his forehead. That wasn't quite true, he reminded himself. There was at least one other way out, straight through those double doors. Maybe at this time of the night no one would be around. It took a surprising amount of courage to venture down the huge staircase and across the great exposed floor. He only got halfway across, though, before his senses warned him there were two men outside. They must be guards. He dashed under cover of the stairs, shivering, in case one of them decided to check inside.
Wait – there was another door over there, smaller, deftly camouflaged in the paneling and hidden beneath the shadow of the dais so as not to attract attention. It couldn't be an entrance to a secret passage, though; if he could notice there was a door, real spies sure could. But there was something cold about it that made Luke decide he was better off staying away. Besides, it would be guarded too –
Then the coldness stiffened, sharpened, and a gasp jerked Luke's spine. It was somebody, coming closer! Coming here –
Luke had dashed halfway back up the stairs before he realized where he was going. His only thought had been to get as far away from the door as possible, away from that awful blackness prodding his sense of danger. But if anything he'd be even more exposed up here – too late to go back down, though –
Then Luke spotted the huge, heavy drapes decorating the wall behind the throne. He ran the rest of the way up, sprinted around the throne, and dove behind a huge red swath of thick fabric in the extreme corner, where it pooled on the floor and would hide even his feet. Stupid, stupid, did he actually think he would get away with something as obvious as hiding behind a curtain?
But there simply was nowhere else to hide up here. And with any luck whoever was coming wouldn't have any reason to think someone was there. Luke sat down and packed himself into the corner, hugging his knees and forcing his breathing to stay quiet and scrunching his shields tighter than he ever had. It was more than his exhausted brain could manage by itself; he was borrowing on adrenaline, and it was going to hurt later, but if he didn't make himself invisible there might not be a later. His father wouldn't be able to sense him, not if he was standing right outside the drape. Even Obi-Wan wouldn't have noticed him probably.
He just hoped the Emperor wouldn't either.
The architects who had designed the crowning spire of Imperial Palace had had a great many grandiose ideas about where in the upper throne room the Emperor's personal entrance ought to be placed. None of them had agreed with any of their colleagues' proposals. All of them had been thunderstruck when the Emperor categorically declared that the entrance would be on the lower left-hand side of the room, in the shadow of the dais. Imperial Center had rung from ground to skyhook with their indignant protests at the idea of the ruler of the galaxy having to sneak in a side door and climb whole flights of stairs to his own throne as if he were another supplicant himself.
As he proceeded up those stairs now, the Emperor permitted himself a rare cackle. Pompously staged clichés were all well and good for the public audience chamber, where he arrived at his throne by means of a glide ramp, descending from what appeared to be the ceiling in a halo of light. But here in his personal sanctum he emerged from the shadows and mounted to the seat of ultimate power under his own strength, assisted by no one. Every entry into this private throne room was a ritual reenactment of his great triumph and an assertion of total dominance. By far the more satisfactory arrangement, whatever the opinions of his architects.
Settling himself in the throne, he took a moment to survey the dimmed expanse of the chamber and wondered whether its austere perfection would survive the next few hours. Like a great many other things it would depend upon Vader.
Once brought face to face with the fate that awaited a rebel, Captain Piett's none too solid devotion to Vader had dissolved in halting confessions. As suspected, the man was complicit with Thrawn – not to mention several thousand other senior Navy officers whose names were already in the hands of his investigators. Them he would deal with later. Whatever might and cunning Thrawn would bring when he arrived in system no longer concerned Palpatine; Tarkin and the Death Star, having reached Imperial Center not five minutes ago, would pulverize him and his brilliance into meteor dust. No – the deadliest concern was Vader.
An ugly, silent snarl twisted the Emperor's features. Vader's offense was not the deadly deception which he had been employing for perhaps years now against his master. In fact, Palpatine could even admit a sort of perverse pride in the man on that point; deception was the hallmark of a true Sith, and a betrayal of the master merely the logical culmination of the apprentice's training. No – what was unforgivable was the motivation.
The first allegiance which the erstwhile Jedi had sworn to him, allegiance that had taken him more than a decade to win, had been hijacked in an instant by a mere child. All Luke Skywalker had had to do to claim Darth Vader's loyalty was exist. And why? Purely because the brat was the son of Padmé Amidala. The very leverage he had applied to force Anakin into his grip had now wrested him back out. It was beyond galling. It was intolerable.
It would end tonight.
He depressed the com key on his armrest to speak to his aide. "Summon Lord Vader and young Skywalker to my audience chamber immediately."
Just days away now. Each minute that Lord Vader was forced to pretend the galaxy as everyone knew it was not about to undergo a rending convulsion, potentially akin to the devastation surrounding the Empire's birth, seemed to drag on for a year. So how, how could he be so frantic about having no time? It was the waiting, the thrice-bedamned waiting – waiting for Baranne to make a report on his search through the underbelly of Coruscant, waiting for his searchers to find his children, waiting for Thrawn and his perverse alliance to attack, waiting the eternal hours that stood between him and the planned assault against his treacherous master.
Fear cornered him, crouching on every side amidst the foliage of the garden as he passed. He was not ready to take on Palpatine. Ferus Olin was a shaky ally at best. And if he should fail – what of his children? The best he could hope for them if they landed in the Emperor's clutches was this same trap he was about to risk everything to escape. At worst…
A surge of frustration exploded out of him and several priceless dnabi vines blasted away from their host trees. His chief gardener would have a stroke when he discovered the damage in the morning. Vader felt little sympathy for him. The botanical garden at the top of his castle had only been included in the first place because his architect insisted that gigantic personal starscrapers without lush gardens were not taken seriously on Coruscant. The sole use Vader himself had ever had for it was storming around it in the middle of nights like this one and venting his wrath.
No doubt that was why the aide on night duty was shaking in his boots when he appeared around the bend.
"A summons from the Emperor, my lord," he squeaked before Vader could do anything lethal to him.
Vader froze, forgetting any murderous intentions he might have had a moment ago. "At this time of night?" he murmured.
"Yes, my lord – both you and Skywalker, immediately."
"Inform the Emperor that we will arrive within the hour," Vader ordered, already rushing towards the exit. Given the time, an hour's delay was plausible enough; for all Palpatine knew he was in his hyperbaric chamber and unable to depart before re-encasing himself in his armor. That would have made it impossible for him to be at Imperial Palace in less than half an hour, and the sheer inconvenience of it justified him in being extra slow out of plain annoyance.
Of course, taking an hour to arrive when the command had been immediately guaranteed him the Emperor's displeasure. But if the Emperor was summoning him and the boy impersonating his son at such an ungodly hour, Vader had already incited that displeasure. Seriously.
Palpatine had found out something of their plans, he reflected as he punched a number feverishly into his comlink. There could be no other explanation for this, not if Palpatine was demanding the presence of the boy. But he might not know everything. Thrawn might not arrive for days yet, but Vader could not wait for him. This was now the best chance he would get.
"Lieutenant Marsk," the voice of Ferus Olin said over his comlink's speaker. After reporting that he had discovered a suitable alternative entrance into the private throne room, the Jedi had dropped in among his personal aides to lurk until the proper time.
"I am still waiting for your report, Lieutenant," Vader growled at him. "If I do not receive it within one hour there will be dire consequences."
A fraught silence stretched for a heartbeat on the other end as Olin recognized the covert order to position himself for action. "I can have it to you in forty-five minutes, my lord," he answered.
"Do so." Vader ended the call as he barged through the entrance of his quarters, making a beeline for the room where he had stashed Solo. The boy was sprawled over the cot with arms draping on the floor. He seized a shoulder and gave it a far harder shake than necessary. "Up, Solo!"
"Gah—wha—gerroff me!" Solo lurched up, taking a half-conscious swing at him. Vader spotted a water glass on the floor nearby and upended it over the Corellian's head.
"What the hells was that for?" the now-fully-awake ingrate spluttered at him.
"Dry off and get dressed," he barked. "We have been summoned by the Emperor."
Solo stared at him insensibly for almost a minute before looking at his wrist chrono. "It's frigging three am," he moaned. "Doesn't the walking corpse need his beauty sleep?"
Vader seized him by the back of the neck and hurled him to his feet. "I have no patience for your stupidity now," he snarled, his grip tightening hard enough to snap a smaller neck. "You will shut your mouth and you will do as I say."
Solo paled and nodded, hands raised, the rest of him deathly still until Vader released him. "I'm going, I'm going, okay?"
Vader didn't bother with an answer; Solo's entire existence was peripheral in comparison to the unknown suddenly facing him. He must move, must move now, or risk losing his best opportunity to catch Palpatine unawares. But what game was the cunning old master playing?
That he was playing a game was self-evident. An urgent summons in the middle of the night cycle, no reason given? If he had only summoned Vader, it could easily have been some sort of crisis; but by demanding the boy's presence as well the Emperor had as good as made a verbal declaration that his apprentice was under suspicion. Never before in Vader's experience had Palpatine been known to fire warning shots, yet that was what he'd just done. Perhaps it was only a test to see how Vader would respond to such an implicit accusation. Or perhaps he knew that Vader would seize the opening for an attack and had laid a trap…perhaps, perhaps…
He growled at himself, hauling his mind away from such questions. They would only send him spiraling into confusion when clarity of mind was critical. As long as he was delaying to give his Jedi accomplice Olin time to reach his position, he had better check to see whether Landre had retrieved Leia and Siler from the Executor. He stepped into his private com suite and keyed the codes for the Warlord.
The call dropped.
Vader tried it twice more in rising horror, but the signal refused to reach the Warlord. There were only two reasons for that: either the ship was in hyperspace, or it no longer existed. According to his chrono and calculations the squadron could be back in hyperspace already, but there had been no notification from Landre as he'd requested –
The projector chimed; incoming call from the Executor. Miyr – whiter than flimsiplast.
"My lord, I don't know if anyone has been able to reach you yet," she got out with some difficulty, "but I've been watching the sensor screens in your office and the Princess did not reach the Warlord."
His stomach plunged and his rage soared. "What?" The word cracked like the fingertip of a whip out of his mouth.
"That's the good part," Miyr said grimly, "because the Warlord was just vaporized, as were the other ships of Captain Landre's squadron."
"Where is she?"
"His shuttle was intercepted before he got to the squadron," said Miyr, "by that."
The display shifted to a shot of his sensor screen, featuring a holographic display of the system. Most of the ships of the Capital Fleet were little specks; the splinter that was the Executor he glimpsed for half a second before all his attention was riveted on a huge moon-sized orb approaching from the outer system.
"It's some sort of Imperial battle station," Miyr's voice continued. "It dropped out of hyperspace about ten minutes ago. Do you recognize it?"
"I recognize it," Vader rasped. "Remain at your station. I will deal with this."
So this was Palpatine's wild card.
The turbolaser, as per the last classified report, was not yet operational. But that report was a few weeks old. It was possible that the project directors could have rushed production and attained some measure of partial operating capacity. To what extent? Even without the superlaser the station still packed enough energy mounts and fighter squadrons to stop Thrawn's forces in their tracks. And Leia aboard that station…if Tarkin or Palpatine suspected whose daughter she really was…
He forced the thought from his mind. There was nothing better he could do for Leia now but what he was already planning to do. Only by decapitating the dragon could he hope to stop it from breathing fire.
Ferus Olin took off at a flat-out sprint for the secret turbolift that marked the start of his journey. There was no time for looking casual. He had mere minutes to make a long trip on foot, and somehow he had to fit in enough time to fetch Master Yoda. At his incautious pace he ran into three power techs on his route through the energy core walkways, all of whom he was forced to club into unconsciousness. No doubt when they woke up they'd have plenty of questions why a uniformed Navy lieutenant with an administration badge had been streaking through the restricted-access energy sector.
But by the time that happened, the game would be up. With his lightsaber stashed in a blaster holster, odds were none of them had recognized the weapon, and even if they had he very much doubted one of these power techs was going to recover, put two and two together, and get that information up to the Emperor before Ferus himself was standing in front of said galactic despot brandishing said lightsaber.
He checked his wrist device. He was in the Palace, and not far from that maintenance closet where Master Yoda had concealed himself in the pipeline. Once the two of them had gotten into the secret passages he'd ditch the jacket and holster; improve freedom of movement. After that they could probably cover the distance to their impromptu throne room entrance in about fifteen minutes. Ferus groaned as he noted the time.
They'd have to be faster than that.
I have a bad feeling about this.
He burst through the hatch of the maintenance closet on a direct vector for the pipeline – a vector which took him through what he thought was a cloud of blue mist. Halfway into it he staggered aside as a shockwave of eerie electric sensations bombarded his mind. He spun around, backed away, and found himself facing not a blue mist but the serene, ghostly shade of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
In the first instant, old childhood memories shot to life – Master Kenobi, the good friend of Master Siri. Master Kenobi, teacher of his rival Anakin Skywalker, supervising another barely-civilized training duel. Master Kenobi, the great warrior of the Republic –
In the second instant, his hopes soared – with Master Kenobi at their side, the Emperor didn't stand a chance, he might as well drop dead now –
In the third instant, he realized he'd just run right through Master Kenobi as if he were nothing but a memory.
"Hello, young Ferus," Obi-Wan said.
"What are you?" Ferus whispered. "What – what happened to you?"
"The same thing that happens to all living beings in time," Kenobi answered.
"You mean you're dead."
"No death is there, young Olin," Yoda chided, emerging from the pipline. "Only the Force."
"Have you come to help us?" Ferus breathed.
Obi-Wan's easy smile faded. "Not the help you desire, I'm afraid. If you go to face Vader and the Emperor, you must do it alone. I cannot interfere."
"Master – please! There must be something that – "
"The Force will be with you, Ferus Olin," Obi-Wan told him, tucking his hands into his ethereal robe. "And we with it."
The words resounded through the cramped closet as though through space and the Force reverberated and hummed. Though he couldn't see any difference, Ferus sensed the room fill with its currents and glow – and friends long lost seemed to call to him from it. Master Siri? he whispered. A faint warmth and a rush of cheerful encouragement brushed at his back; he didn't dare glance back, desperate to make the touch across eternity last.
It faded. He opened his eyes. He and Yoda stood alone in a pitiful closet again.
"I'm ready now, Master," he said.
"Then quickly we must go!" the old master told him, bustling towards the hatch.
After threatening Han with his life if he wasn't dressed to impress within two minutes, the Dark Lord of the Sulk proceeded to waste about the next half an hour stalking back and forth across the front room, fingering his lightsaber obsessively and verging on explosion whenever Han twitched in his seat. Right about the time he had begun to hope they'd never actually leave, Vader jerked him up with the Force and hurtled out the door, dragging him the whole way to the hangar where the shuttle scooped them up and screamed away before the Sith had shoved him into a bucket seat. His one attempt to ask a question had ended in near strangulation.
Call him paranoid, but he had decided that Something Was Up.
Possibly the jig, if the Emperor was involved in it. Terrifying as that prospect was, it turned out that the spectacle of a nervous Darth Vader was what really had Han quivering in his brand-new socks. Having lived in his palace for a while Han could testify that the old zombie freaked him out – but if he also freaked Vader out, then they were in a pit of poodoo the likes of which Han Solo had previously not imagined. Up till now the foe of his worst nightmares had been Vader. The revelation that someone existed who could give his nightmares nightmares was one he could have lived without.
Especially now, because unless Han was very much mistaken those preposterously huge doors guarded by a full phalanx of the red-robed Imperial Guard were the only thing standing between him and that someone. Thank Luke's Force they were shut. Now if only they'd stay that way forever –
"Open the door," Vader snarled at the bodyguard who appeared to be in charge.
"State your identity and business with the Emperor," the bodyguard returned, planting his Force pike a little more obstinately on the floor.
Han could have told him this was not the time for getting in Vader's way, except for the fact that Vader had promised to ignite a lightsaber blade through his mouth if he opened it. So instead he just watched as the Force pike rocketed off the floor, twisted, and cracked across the bodyguard's skull so hard the helmet split down the side. The man crumpled aside, perhaps not dead but definitely brain-damaged.
"Open. The. Door." Vader loomed over the second-in-command, ignoring the two dozen Force pikes now leveled at him. That they were also leveled at Han he either didn't notice or more likely didn't care.
At this point Han thought the head goon would sooner skewer them than let them see His Senility, but pointing this out to Vader could be just as lethal.
Before anything catastrophic could happen, the guard suddenly touched a hand to the side of his helmet as though listening to an ear bug. Then he waved his men down and touched the door control. Though the masks hid any expression, they nonetheless looked very peeved about the new orders, and the idea of staying out here with them gave Han enough motivation to tail Vader into the lion's den instead.
Like he'd thought, they were back in the throne room; there was that side door he'd come in through last time. Han flinched as the ponderous main doors labored shut once more, leaving him with nowhere to go but forward, then up the stairs, and finally onto his knees next to Vader. The Emperor regarded them from the throne. Silence stretched as if on a torture rack.
Han risked a quick glance up. He didn't look like someone who'd just found out his right-hand henchman and a teenage Corellian nobody had been playing him for a fool.
"Ah, my friends," he said.
Didn't sound like it either.
"Your promptitude at such an inconvenient hour is appreciated," the Emperor continued, now sounding dangerously dry. Han shifted on his kneecaps and glanced sideways at Vader. They could have gotten here at least half an hour faster, and why they hadn't he couldn't begin to guess.
Vader made no excuses; his temper, which had been hanging by one loose hinge moments before, had now iced over. Han would have been happier if the man had been blazing mad still. This tight-leashed inexpression was not like Vader at all. He didn't know what it meant, but he doubted it was good.
Palpatine kept them on the floor for a minute longer before gesturing them back onto their feet and standing himself. "I am afraid this situation could not wait until morning," he continued amiably, meandering toward a projection unit set tucked away in one corner of the dais. "We have much to celebrate, and I thought it only fitting that both of you be my guests for this auspicious event."
Vader stooped to asking the obvious question. "What event is this, Master?"
"The completion," Palpatine said through a nexu's grin, "of one of our most seminal projects." He switched the projection on.
Han's eyes bulged as he recognized a tri-dimensional sensor display, presenting in miniature the entire Coruscant system. The planet, and lots of little specks for the ships – and then there was that thing.
He might not have a navigator's certificate, but Han Solo knew damned well that Coruscant did not have a class-IV moon just beyond its gravity well. Or at least it hadn't.
"Forgive me, my friend," Palpatine continued, addressing Vader with the air of a mischievous older sibling playing a prank, "but I could not resist the opportunity to surprise you. Our magnificent Death Star."
"What's a Death Star?" Han bleated, forgetting in his shock that Vader's orders about imagining his mouth as a black hole still stood.
"A battle station, my young friend," the Emperor told him benignly. "A sublime weapon which will solidify the power of the Empire for generations to come. You see, this station houses a superlaser with unparalleled capabilities. It can even destroy entire planets."
"That's impossible," Han breathed.
"I assure you it is not," the Emperor smirked. "Perhaps a demonstration would convince you?"
Beside him, Vader jerked, and Han felt his gut plunge as the Emperor pressed the button of a long-range com set into the projector control unit. "Fire at will, Commander."
Surreal was the only word anymore. Piett stared dumbly out into space from the Executor's bridge. Just a week ago, he had been a perfectly normal captain in the Imperial Navy. He had been reminding himself of that for hours now, but had yet to convince himself it had ever been true. And then in the course of just this week he'd joined a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor, been caught, been interrogated, made a wholesale confession, and then quick as you please here he was back aboard the Executor just as if he were a perfectly normal officer once again. According to the immemorial tradition of most sentient species throughout the galaxy, the invariable consequence of treason was drastic (most often fatal) punishment. But the Emperor had praised the conspirator and dispatched him back to his post unharmed, merely ordering him to refrain from speaking with Lord Vader.
After all of that, the arrival of the Death Star failed to seem bizarre. Piett was almost grateful to see the monstrous thing; he could not comprehend how he would have managed to live normally once again. Now, at least for the time being, he wouldn't have to –
admit his rampant cowardice
– reflect on his recent trauma.
"Status report," he demanded of ComScan.
"All squadrons of Capital Fleet are maintaining supporting formation for the Death Star as ordered, sir," the commander of the section reported. Somebody snorted at that, and Piett agreed. Supporting formation, his afterburners; the Death Star could probably mow straight over Imperial Center itself, not to mention all of Capital Fleet. "There's still a few units in the outer system that haven't arrived in position yet but they're on their way."
"What about the orbital traffic?"
"Seems to be settling down, sir." Whichever pompous windbag was in command of that oversized billard ball had ordered the Executor to station itself just beyond the orbital traffic and police the terrified chaos. As the orders had been appended by the Emperor's signature, Piett thought it best not to ask questions. They'd obediently shot a couple of panicking cargo freighters out of commission by now; the rest of the lemmings had taken the hint.
However, not asking questions wasn't the same as not snooping. "And the com chatter?" he asked.
The commander shifted and scratched his ear; he'd been none too happy about being ordered to trace all outgoing transmissions from the battle station. "Other than the broadcast channel there hasn't been anything since it blasted away that squadron, sir."
To Piett's left hissed a sharp sigh. He glanced involuntarily at the slight brunette woman standing beside him, arms folded over her chest and lips flat. Apparently, she was the administrator of Lord Vader's holdings on Vjun. What she was doing here Piett had no idea, but considering she'd flashed a blue-level security clearance at him he hadn't dared stop her from coming onto the bridge. She'd been hovering near ComScan, listening to replays of the transmission bursts between the Death Star and the shuttle it had detained about forty-five minutes ago.
"What are they playing at?" she murmured.
Piett was still debating whether the question had been rhetorical or not when the ComScan commander lurched forward, pressing his earpiece against his head. "Wait – I'm picking up something else, sir – seems like a tight encrypted beam, endpoint somewhere planetside – "
"Endpoint is Imperial Palace, sir," one of the analysis lieutenants clarified, clattering at his console. "And that's definitely a Blue encryption – "
"All power to forward shields!" someone screamed from Defense Control's operations pit.
Piett spun to demand an explanation, but his attention got mired on the way by the spectacle through the side viewport.
A series of scalding green lasers burst out from the rim of the Death Star's ominous crater, converging at the center into a single beam of death that lanced out over space right towards them.
He should have known better than to think the Emperor would allow him to live. But at least he'd never have to live with himself. He turned just ahead of the oncoming destruction and saw Vader's administrator, white, collected, her hand clenched on the top of the ComScan commander's chair and her eyes shut. They opened wide to meet his for an instant - brown like home and full of sorrow that was about to belong to someone else.
That was Piett's last sight before the Executor and everyone aboard vaporized into stardust.
For one unspeakable moment, Vader was convinced that the Emperor had ordered the Death Star to fire on Coruscant, regardless of the fact that trillions of beings and more incomprehensibly Palpatine himself were at that same moment inhabiting it.
Then the great display magnified inward until the Executor came into sharp view – for a second.
The next second a great cloud of particle debris had taken its place. Nearby, Han Solo made a faint noise of incredulity as he circled around towards the other side to get a better view of the disaster.
Up until an hour ago, Vader thought numbly, my daughter was on that ship. If Miyr had not commed him to tell him Leia was aboard the Death Star – if Miyr had not called Landre in the first place –
Miyr, he realized, had been aboard the Star Destroyer.
"As you can see, my friend, this battle station is fully armed and operational." There was no veneer of camaraderie in the Emperor's voice now, only naked malice. "You are surprised, no doubt. I took the liberty of ordering Governor Tarkin to conceal the true pace of the project's completion. One never knows where treachery will spring up."
Vader looked up from the display at that.
"And you know, Lord Vader, that the dissuasion of treachery is precisely the intended purpose of this Death Star." The Emperor's ugly grin leered at him through the bluish haze of the projection. "Don't you?"
Even if he'd been innocent of the accusation, denial would have been pointless. Vader recognized a point of no return when he saw it. "If I have learned treachery," he snarled in retort, "the credit must go to the one who taught me. Consider this my final trial, master."
Quickly and covertly he reached out with the Force towards Olin. Five mental taps and a sense of great rush answered him. The Jedi was moving fast but would need another five minutes. Somehow he had to buy Olin that time. A little verbal sparring might do it –
"What?" Solo yelped from the sidelines. "What the hell is going on?" He backed away from both Sith, in the direction of the throne.
Palpatine's scowl grew darker and his leer more spiteful. "Once again you fancy yourself powerful enough to challenge your betters," he spat. "It seems I gave you too much credit when I presumed that Obi-Wan Kenobi had managed to teach you that lesson. Fortunately for you, I am still willing to see that you learn it."
The Dark Side flashed like a striking adder – but not at him. At Solo. The boy was ripped off his feet and thrown before Palpatine, forced onto his knees. From nowhere the Sith master produced his lightsaber and pressed the arc emitter into the side of Solo's head.
"Consider the mercy I show in comparison to that misguided fool who mangled you on Mustafar," the Emperor continued in derision. "The choice I offer is simple and the consequences readily apparent. I give you leave to pursue your inadvisable course. Take your weapon. Strike me down and assume my place."
He pressed the top of the saber harder into Solo's scalp. The boy broke into a shaking sweat. "I also give you leave to save the last relic of your precious wife. Which will it be, Jedi? Your ambition or your son?"
All of Vader's trepidation vanished in a blaze of triumph. So this was the Emperor's hidden ace! He thought by means of the helpless son to vanquish the defiant apprentice who otherwise might defeat him. And it would have worked – but unbeknownst to Palpatine, a simple mistake had replaced his would-be ace with a worthless scrap of paper.
Darth Vader could have kissed Boba Fett.
He was free to attack, to astound the Emperor with his contemptuous dismissal of the counterfeit child, to finish his master once and for all. This unhoped-for opportunity would not wait for Olin. The faster he moved the better. But one thing delayed him for a fatal instant.
That one thing was the pale-faced but resolute silence of Han Solo, who even when it was about to cost him his life refused to jeopardize Luke's safety by revealing the truth. Like a statue of slightly green marble he waited at the end of the lightsaber, watching Vader, plainly resigned to the fact that the Sith Lord was about to sacrifice his life and count it the best bargain he'd ever made.
This was loyalty.
Admitting a flash of regret, Vader nonetheless tensed his muscles for sudden motion –
Gigantic velvet drapes, though excellent for concealing teenage snoops from galactic despots, also became awfully stifling if you spent an hour wrapped in them. Luke could only sit there and remind himself that he'd once been used to severe heat, because moving was out of the question as long as Emperor Palpatine insisted on lounging in his throne room in the middle of the night. What he could possibly be doing that couldn't wait till morning? Luke's tired brain insisted on pondering that question, as well as the question of whether, should he dare peek out from his hiding spot, he would see the Emperor in his pajamas.
He pressed himself against the comparatively cool wall, telling himself that if everything worked out he'd never know the answer to either question and that the Emperor had to leave sometime soon. Even Sith Masters had to sleep, right? Oh, Force, sleep…
He snapped his eyes wide open. Luke, you idiot, you can't sleep! Did you forget who's coming? Luke had ducked under cover not ten seconds before the side door below had opened and a single set of footsteps began proceeding in his direction. For a quarter of an hour the Emperor had simply sat in his throne, but then he'd said something over a com which had fired the Force with destiny and anticipation and nearly made Luke lose control of his shields.
"Summon Lord Vader and young Skywalker to my audience chamber immediately."
So not just his father, but Han were going to be here soon. To think Luke had had to come all the way to the Emperor's throne room to find Han! It felt like decades since the night on Vjun. If only he could find some way to let his father and Han know that he was here…but the Emperor…
The minutes stretched long and silent, well past immediately and on into rather late. Even with nothing but a drape standing between him and death, Luke could barely keep himself from dozing off in the relentless silence and heat. He hadn't slept in at least twenty-four hours, and the Emperor wasn't even doing anything but just sitting there for – he glanced at his chrono – a whole hour…of sleep…sounded so good…
A great mechanical groan echoed through the chamber and Luke twitched, coming back to his senses. The doors? The second groaning sound came and faded out slowly – and then, growing louder and closer, footsteps masked by the familiar rhythm of his father's respirator.
They were here! Weariness fled him as he listened to the Emperor welcome them. Just as quickly, his elation fled too. Palpatine sounded…well, much too pleasant, and Luke got the nasty feeling that underneath that friendliness lurked something worse than he could imagine. And what was this "auspicious event" he was talking about?
What does auspicious even mean?
Apparently it meant "the evilest thing anybody in the galaxy has ever thought of," because he told Han it was a battle station called a Death Star that could blow up entire planets and beat the mess out of the Rebels (if not quite in those exact words).
Then he said, "Fire at will."
Luke would have run out from behind the drape, but simply couldn't believe that the Emperor had a weapon that could blow up all of Coruscant. A moment later, a shock wave of death roared through the Force and almost made him sick. Even if the Emperor's battle station couldn't blow up Coruscant, it sure could blow up a lot of people at once. Luke had sensed death before – with trillions of beings in the galaxy, he couldn't very well avoid it – but never so much of it at once.
Through the nausea, he grimly hung onto his shields, and eventually became sensible to the fact that the Emperor was speaking again. He didn't sound friendly anymore – he sounded exactly like a man who'd just ordered an enormous massacre. And he was accusing Luke's father of being a traitor – and now his father was answering, oh, Force, he was really really angry –
With incredible speed, Luke felt the darkest currents of the Force whip under the Emperor's command. There was a yell from Han. Unable to bear his inability to see what was going on for another second, Luke slithered to the edge of the drape and peered around.
A great projection unit was displaying a sector of Coruscant space where a great cloud of glittering particle debris floated – in the far corner lurked an enormous orb that had to be that Death Star thing. On the far side of the projector stood his father, his lightsaber hilt gripped at the ready in his hand. Closest to Luke, on the near side of the projector with his back turned, stooped the wizened, robed figure of the Emperor. In front of him, on his knees, was Han. His fingers were shaking; Luke could just see them in the dim blue glow of the projection display, the brightest light source that had been turned on yet.
And that was a lightsaber hilt up against Han's head.
Luke tuned in again to the last part of the Emperor's speech. "…your precious wife. Which will it be, Jedi? Your ambition or your son?"
Luke sucked in his breath, eyes darting to his father. Total stillness, the air choked with portent –
Then his father's lightsaber hand started to come up.
Luke probably sensed the intent more than saw it, but it made no difference – he knew that his father wasn't going to try to save Han.
All thought of self-preservation fled Luke's mind as he exploded from his hiding spot. His father froze in place as the Emperor's head whipped around in astonishment. Luke flung his hands out as his shields hurtled down, shoving Han out of the Emperor's reach and ripping the lightsaber out of the withered old hand. It soared into his grip and he sprinted out in front of Han, holding it at the ready.
Han, sprawled on the floor, gaped at him. So did the Emperor. Probably so was his father, except the mask was getting in the way.
If I get out of this alive, I'm going to be in so much trouble.
Several times over the past hour Vader had pondered the possible outcomes of tonight's clash. In none of those permutations had he predicted that someone would literally burst out of the wallwork and nick the lightsaber right out of Palpatine's hand.
Certainly not his son.
But there, in his customary defiance of all logical expectation, stood Luke. Other than sporting an astonishing amount of dirt and no shoes, he looked none the worse for having run amok throughout the galaxy.
Had he not been so dumbfounded himself, Vader might have been proud of the boy for being the first person in living memory to completely, utterly, and unquestionably gobsmack the Emperor.
How had that child gotten here?
That was Palpatine's first question, even before he began to wonder who the slightly-built, incredibly filthy, and oddly barefoot intruder could be. Somehow the boy must have found the concealed entrance he had constructed for the use of his agents – but in that case he had been here for the past hour and a quarter, avoiding the notice of a Sith Master the entire time!
It was obvious how the boy had done that, for the Force was now ablaze with his bright young aura, and it was screaming one word directly in the Emperor's ears.
The similarity between this boy and his apprentice was so blatant even a Force-deaf rock could have sensed it. But then – that boy, whom Fett had brought him –
– was not Luke Skywalker.
He had been played for a fool: first by Fett, then by that idiotic teenaged brat from the Dark Side knew where, and finally by Vader.
How the real Luke Skywalker had wound up here despite Vader's determination to keep him away, the Emperor neither knew nor cared. All that mattered was his sudden, overpowering, insatiable rage at his apprentice –
– and the fact that the person Vader most treasured was within striking distance.
The precocious young Luke Skywalker – and how galling that that dolt sprawled behind him, the subject of so much wheedling contemplation, had the whole time been just what he appeared! – sensed the danger an instant before it struck and the red lightsaber blade sprang out. But the child had never dreamed of such an attack as the Emperor planned. The first salvo of unadulterated electric energy smashed the weapon from the shocked young hand; the second tore through his small frame.
Nothing could have been more satisfying than Vader's agonized roar.
"Ten minutes to real-space reversion, Admiral," the Chimaera's chief navigation officer called out.
Torrin nodded without budging his hard stare from the mastermind of this lunatic's quest. "Do you think the Rebels will hold up their end of the bargain, sir?"
Thrawn, lounging in the command chair and tapping a long forefinger against his chin, smiled. "I know so, Admiral Torrin."
"How can you trust them?" Torrin snapped in a whisper. "They're criminals and guerrillas!"
"They are also highly dedicated and have a habit of doing things wholesale," Thrawn answered him. "More importantly, I have Bail Organa's word."
Torrin snorted. "His word."
"Yes," Thrawn answered composedly. "Senator Organa is noted for keeping it, you see. And I have other reasons to trust that he has great motivation for cooperating with us."
"Now, now, Admiral," Thrawn chided, "the senator's business is his own. We have greater concerns at the moment."
"We certainly do," Torrin muttered. The idea of trying to coordinate a cross-galactic assault on the capital system with two mismatched forces that up until a week ago had been fighting each other tooth and nail would have sent any strategist but Thrawn to the insane asylum, laughing maniacally. Even the Rebel commanders, who swore by radical battle plans, hadn't been happy with this one. The number of things that could go wrong with timing alone had given Torrin nightmares from the first hour he' d reviewed the battle brief.
Thrawn shook his head. "Coordination doesn't concern me, Admiral. Our opponent does."
Torrin threw a sharp glance at Thrawn. "Don't tell me you're getting cold feet now." He'd been in on Thrawn's scheme for the better part of a year now, and a long year it had been keeping his poker face around Vader. If all that came to nothing because Thrawn had lost his nerve…
"Not in the slightest. I am merely aware that an adversary as canny and suspicious as the Emperor has inevitably considered the possibility of a military uprising." Thrawn smiled once more. "I suspect, however, he has not anticipated either the extent or the timing of the precise surprise he is about to get in – "
"Five," cut in the chief nav officer, gripping the helm controls and sweating violently at the feat he was about to attempt. "Four…three…two…one…"
The twisting light tunnel of hyperspace split, straightened, thinned, and resolved into stars. Coruscant's glittering orb erupted out of the void amidst them. As planned, the Chimaera was followed within the next second by all of Fifth Fleet. A flimsy fraction of a degree to their left appeared Sixth Fleet. The forces from Tenth Fleet emerged on the right not an instant later – and hot on their afterburners came Seventh –
"I read a squadron of Mon Cal starcruisers at oh-point-one degrees vertical, dead-on to bow!" the ComScan officer who'd been assigned to look for the Rebel forces sang out.
"Engage reverse thrusters!" roared the chief nav officer. Torrin clutched his armrests. He had tried to brace himself, really he had, but the display was far more appalling in reality than in his nightmares. Bad enough having four major Imperial fleets arriving simultaneously out of hyperspace so tightly – but then to bring another unfamiliar fleet out of hyperspace right above and screaming down into their panicky formation –
But that was exactly the hellish stunt Thrawn had concocted, and now it was too late for second thoughts because fifty Mon Cal starcruisers and twenty-two Corellian corvettes were blasting ninety degrees down into the Star Destroyers, which themselves were still straining to decelerate – and dear Force, they'd brought their X-wing squadrons separately –
In what forever remained the most astonishing feat of pre-planned navigation Torrin witnessed, the Rebel forces split apart like a shrapnel explosion, arcing, rolling, swinging, dropping, decelerating, each ship on its own expertly designed course. They plunged into the Imperial formation with almost nonchalant grace, veering through and around the larger Destroyers. Not five seconds later the Mon Cal cruisers had aligned in a precise screen at the forward edge of the Imperial formation, while the corvettes dropped clean through the main body on a diagonal descent, reforming as a separate task force. The clouds of Rebel starfighters, unperturbed by the flailing of the capital ships, surged to the front as the TIE squadrons deployed behind them. Six seconds after the Chimaera had arrived in system, the whole chaotic mess had resolved into an orderly attack formation on a unified course towards the planet.
At the seven second mark, everybody noticed that a moon-sized orb was standing in the way. And they were about to run into it.
"Evasive action!" Thrawn snapped over the general broadcast channel. The swifter Rebel ships splintered chaotically once again, veering in wild ninety-degree turns in every direction in the effort to avoid collision with either the orb or each other – the Victory-class Destroyers followed suit, as the more ponderous Imperial-class frigates decelerated frantically to give themselves more time to adjust course. All thought of proper battle formation vanished.
They were lucky; even the point-position Star Destroyer Dauntless maneuvered clear, though probably with no more than a quarter of a klick to spare. Trouble was, no one had time to reflect on this fantastic good luck, because the moment they had split away from the gigantic orb they found themselves staring into the maw of the entire Capital Fleet, which had assembled in something horribly like a Corggin Pincer offensive screen.
Torrin spun to glare at Thrawn as the Chimaera dove sideways. "Exactly which part of our attack did you say the Emperor wasn't going to anticipate, sir?"
Tarkin drew his hands behind his back. The thinnest of smiles cracked his mouth. "Excellent," he said aloud. A nondescript answer crackled over the com from Superlaser Operational Command, and silence resumed on the overbridge as everyone contemplated the billowing cloud of space dust which had moments ago been the second most imposing starcraft in the Imperial Navy. What inhibitions the rest of his command staff and crew might have had about firing on a fellow Navy ship had been put to rest by a general announcement that the Executor had been complicit with Darth Vader in plotting to strafe all of Imperial City from orbit and kill not just the Emperor but most of the Senate and all of the chief military officers.
Tarkin himself quite doubted that the Executor had intended to do any such thing, but not that Vader was plotting treason. It was, after all, what Tarkin would do in Vader's shoes. Not that it made any difference whatever to the Grand Moff – treason interested him only in its implications for existing power structures. A treasonous underling was a rotten apple to be culled from the barrel. A treasonous superior was an opportunity for self-advancement, in the noble cause of which Tarkin would happily have vaporized a whole fleet of Executors and their mostly innocent crews. Innocence and guilt, besides being tedious to determine, had an annoying tendency to inhibit the advantages power could otherwise employ in its favor.
Speaking of advantages…
Tarkin took a seat in his command chair and punched a call through to Detention Block AA-23. "I presume you have secured the prisoners, Commander Dedalis?"
"Affirmative, sir," the supervising officer answered. "That doctor's still raising hell about his patient though." He sounded nervous, with good reason – not having heard anything about the present state of ill-favor in which the Emperor held Lord Vader, he could only presume the most dire consequences for withholding treatment from a prisoner whom the commander of the Imperial Navy wanted alive.
"Have the detention block medic check her," Tarkin ordered.
"I already did that, sir," the officer said ruefully. "The doctor kicked him out of the cell before he could finish. He's refusing to let anyone else touch her."
Next to Tarkin's chair, surveying readouts from the superlaser, Motti snorted. "Organa's brat? Let her rot. If she is dying, it's no more than that scum deserves…"
"Come, now, Motti," Tarkin responded, "that is hardly the proper manner in which to treat a guest of a renowned royal house. Besides, what use will she be if she's dead?"
Motti huffed and turned back to his readouts.
"Transfer the Princess and Doctor Siler to the detention medical wing and provide whatever the patient's doctor requests for her treatment," Tarkin decided. If Siler was pulling their collective leg, he could determine that at a later time and inflict appropriate retribution. Right now there were more pressing concerns, like quelling the explosive panic that had roared over the civilian traffic at the sight of the Executor's destruction –
"Mass reversions from hyperspace in Sector Twelve off the Corellian Trade Route!" someone cried. "Evasive action!" Tarkin stood quickly and walked over to the display, which made his eyes widen with surprise. For all the Emperor's insistence, he'd not expected such a force to come against Imperial Center. There were over a hundred capital ships out there!
"Holy Sith," Motti breathed, surveying the converging groups, "that's four different departure points they've come from!"
"Make that five," the ComScan officer groaned as another cluster of sparks appeared on the scope.
For a moment, Tarkin thought the enemy might have rendered the Death Star superfluous by its own crazy ambition – it was clear that they had hoped to achieve instant battle formation with precise coordination, but the sight of one massive fleet dropping out of hyperspace right on top of another that had just done the same was enough to make even him wince. It was, according to the Emperor, exactly the sort of impossible stunt Thrawn liked to pull, but the Chiss had overstepped himself –
Motti exhaled sharply as he regarded the scope, which now displayed a mathematically arranged triple-cone attack formation. "Damn."
Tarkin mentally applauded his adversary. "An achievement," he said aloud. "But genius won't save you now, Admiral Thrawn." The oncoming force, no longer consumed with the nerve-wracking task of combining its disparate components without fatalities, had seen the great battle station sitting where they'd expected empty space. The forward screen splashed apart in all directions like water against a boulder, it looked like they'd avoid a collision –
"Concentrate fire on that point Star Destroyer!" the Targeting commander roared.
"We're still bringing up the firing systems, sir!" somebody shouted back in horror.
Motti and Tarkin scrambled for handholds – the Destroyer's belly loomed in the overbridge viewport as she swung wildly upward, trying to veer clear of the obstacle. Her nose writhed away, her stern swinging and her engines raging –
"She's clear," gasped ComScan.
Tarkin stood back up, somewhat shaken. To think that all of this planning and dedication had nearly been wiped out by a freak hyperspace reversion accident! While he doubted that even a kamikaze attack from a Super-class Destroyer could seriously damage the battle station itself, that Imperial-class could handily have wiped out the overbridge and chain of command. Perhaps even damaged the superlaser emitting dish.
He locked away his alarm. The momentary danger had passed, and Thrawn didn't know how close he'd inadvertently come to putting the Death Star out of commission. He would be far too busy trying to recover from his own unpleasant surprise, and though like Tarkin he'd avoided the imminent threat, his command remained in peril of its life.
Tarkin watched the attackers' frenzied effort to recover for another moment before returning to his command chair. "Communications, send out a general query. I wish to speak with Admiral Thrawn."
Somehow the Rebels managed to get the first call through. It was one of the generals – Rieekan. Despite being a criminal and anarchist something about his stern face got Torrin's spine to stiffen a bit. "Thrawn, Coruscant doesn't have a moon," he barked without preamble. "Care to enlighten us as to what that is?"
"A space station, clearly, General," Thrawn told him, and his voice remained as calm as ever. "I presume it's heavily armed."
"You certainly should," Rieekan snapped, "because I don't know about you but we can't find the Executor on our scopes."
They've had time to look for the Executor? mouthed Torrin from the side. Thrawn leveled his eerie red glare at the closest ComScan officer, who checked his readout and turned with a pale shake of his head.
"Just taking a wild stab at the numbers," Rieekan growled, "but between the battle station being here and the Executor being gone, our firepower advantage seems to be on vacation."
Thrawn, to Torrin's amazement, returned Rieekan's scowl with a feral grin. "Then it's fortunate we've brought along the experts in fighting against the odds. Direct your squadrons to fall back and resume formation," Thrawn ordered. "Let's not surrender prematurely."
Rieekan actually cracked a grin as Thrawn toggled on the command channel. "All units, reconverge and resume original formation on a double-loop course, outward bound. Hold your fire – I repeat, hold your fire."
Acknowledgments began to trickle in. Torrin found he could breathe again as the formation reappeared, centering on the Chimaera's unperturbed figure-eight path. The starfighters swarmed loosely through their midst as the TIEs resumed deploying. Torrin allowed himself a tight smile as a few of the ships from Capital Fleet shifted from their assigned places, drifting back by turns as the attack force swung past them. Clearly, Grand Admiral Grant and his cronies realized that if that space station hadn't been there to back them up, they would have been both outnumbered and outclassed by the daredevils who'd just crashed their party. The inhuman calm of the enemy seemed to have intimidated them anyway.
"Sir," the Communications lieutenant said, "a transmission from the space station commander."
"Put it on the bridge projector," Thrawn ordered, "and on the general broadcast." Every head turned to watch.
Bail Organa's fingers turned white at the tips as he clutched the armrest of his seat on the bridge of Home One. The Executor was gone – by now the scanners had picked up a great ugly cloud of debris where it was supposed to have been stationed – and a corner of his mind had already gone mad with the fear that Leia had still been aboard when the catastrophe occurred. Nearby stood Rieekan and Mon Mothma, who'd insisted on risking her life in the same crazy battle they were asking their followers to wage, and they looked similarly disturbed by the turn of events.
He doubted they were quite as disturbed as he was, because of the three of them only he had met the man who turned out to be in command of this Death Star.
"Admiral Thrawn," cooed Grand Moff Tarkin's holographic form. The conversation between the two commanders was being broadcast to the entire fleet from the Chimaera, and Bail suspected from the Death Star as well. "The Emperor has been expecting you."
"Evidently so," Thrawn responded from his side of the split projector. "Disappointing that we were unable to surprise him properly."
"Rest assured that you have at least surprised me." Tarkin's eyebrow stood curiously higher. "I confess, I didn't expect that even a halfbreed such as yourself would stoop to collaborating with Rebels. Mon Calamari starcruisers and Corellian corvettes, an impressive number of them I'm told." He steepled his hands beneath his Spartan chin and smiled a horrible smile. "I'm sure it must have been a great feat of diplomacy."
Thrawn responded with a decorous nod.
"I would very much hate," Tarkin continued, "to see all that hard effort wasted on dead men, a sentiment with which the Emperor agrees. Therefore, I am willing to offer you one opportunity to surrender peaceably before turning the full capabilities of my Death Star against your little…alliance. It is possible that His Majesty may be gracious should you do so."
It sounded like a nearly extinct possibility the way Tarkin said it.
"A generous offer," Thrawn murmured. "Very generous indeed, Governor. In light of the situation I may be inclined to accept."
Rieekan's forehead furrowed in angry wrinkles while Bail nearly cut off the circulation to his fingertips.
"Perhaps," Thrawn continued, "your extraordinary magnanimity might extend itself enough to permit me five minutes to speak with my unit commanders before providing a definite answer?"
Tarkin's bloodless, bony visage nodded with a sardonic quirk of the mouth. The feed went dead for a few seconds. Then it came back on, displaying split images of Thrawn and all the other unit commanders. Rieekan stepped into the transmission field, glancing at the miniature images of Dodonna and Crix Madine as he did. Dodonna and the Mon Ramonda were stationed in the right-hand attack cone near the Chimaera; Madine was in command of the corvette detachment.
"General Madine," Thrawn said immediately, "you are ordered to break off from the main force in two minutes and deploy the groundside team. Then pursue your original objective independently."
A sharp intake of breath raced around the holographic circle.
"We've come this far together, gentlemen," Thrawn told them with a knife-edged grin. "This is our opportunity and history will not wait for our greater convenience. On my mark, course adjustment 32-4-34."
"Admiral," snapped Madine, "that'll take you directly – "
" – into point blank range against Capital Fleet?" Thrawn finished. "I think you'll find we stand far better odds against fellow Star Destroyers than against that Death Star. Once we're in amongst them Tarkin won't be able to fire the superlaser without risk of striking friendly ships and we'll have a numerical advantage of almost two to one over Capital Fleet."
"Might just take a chunk of it with us," Dodonna mused, plainly relishing the prospect. The Imperial commanders, who had never fought a battle where the odds were less than three to one in their favor, swallowed rather hard at this sentiment, but attempted to muster some of the death-disdaining swagger the Rebels had put on prominent display.
"Remember, gentlemen," Thrawn said sharply, "the foremost objective has not changed. The Emperor is the prime target, and our groundside teams still stand an excellent chance of success. Stand by for my mark."
There is not much space in this vessel, muttered the warrior hunched next to him.
Chewbacca lifted his lip in an amused woof. I doubt the Empire had Wookiees in mind when they built it.
I doubt the Empire has Wookiees in mind now, someone rumbled from the far side of the muggy cabin, and despite the tension and cramped quarters barks of laughter burst out.
The Imperial Special Forces shuttle which Thrawn had loaned to General Madine's task force gave a sharp lurch and everyone's muscles tensed as fur stood up on the backs of their necks. We're away from the corvette, Chewie's neighbor muttered. We must hope the enemy does not notice our descent.
The shuttle is equipped with a cloaking device, Chewie reminded him. And our human allies shall perform a diversion by attacking the orbital checkpoints. Our pilot will not have difficulty reaching the enemy's great treehouse.
That will be easiest part, a tawny-furred warrior across from him commented. The true trial of arms awaits us only when we have reached the great oppressor of our people.
A trial for which we are well prepared, Chewie retorted. We shall either carry our allies to triumph in our victory or acquit ourselves honorably in death.
A chorus of approving roars echoed almost painfully in the cabin.
Just remember, clan-brothers, Chewie added, hoisting his bowcaster and patting its trigger mechanism, I'd prefer the former.
Progress had been miserably slow. The undercity constituted a whole separate planet from the brilliance and pomp of the elite upper levels which Baranne usually inhabited. On several occasions his squad had had to open fire to drive away shadowy packs of voracious scavengers. It gave whole new meaning to the term "urban jungle." The search for his elusive quarry had led Baranne deeper into the sublevels than he'd ever dared venture before. Finding physical indications of their passage wasn't easy in the pitch blackness of a crumbling warren that, if legend was to be trusted, hadn't seen sunlight for the last ninety-five millennia.
So far they'd managed to trace what seemed to be a detectable trail starting from that lower-level gate to Imperial Palace and continuing down past the tenth level of the adjacent structure. The signs of a vicious firefight gave Baranne pause for awhile as he pondered who'd come out on top, but he'd located some tracks that led him further down until he and his escort squad found themselves facing an ancient conveyor belt – broad, dilapidated, about fifteen feet high, still rattling at a vigorous pace down a great industrial corridor that appeared to go on forever in either direction. No sign of their quarry.
Baranne had vented his frustration by kicking the scaffolding until he noticed a beat-up tool rack that had unaccountably wound up leaning against the east-bound conveyor frame. Almost as if it were a ladder and not –
He paused and stared. Then he stabbed a finger at the squad commander.
"Call the supply station. I want a dozen speeder bikes down here on the double!"
While the squad commander made the arrangements Baranne dug out an old-fashioned flimsy map of the planet and compared it with his present position and the heading of the belt. As he'd thought – this was an antique cargo conveyor, once used to transport goods into Galactic City from the Works. There were criminal hotspots in that quarter – as there were in most of the planet – but also broad stretches of abandoned infrastructure where dwelt nothing but mutant rats. Planetary surveillance didn't pay extensive attention to most of the district, reckoning that even hardened criminals couldn't wreak much havoc in an industrial graveyard; a street-savvy character like Calrissian probably knew that.
"Tell the team topside to dispatch a few probe ships over this district," he told the squad commander as the speeder bikes arrived. "Have them scan for any personal-size hyper-capable spacecraft within sector 12-42-18." That was the box of cityscape adjacent to their conveyor belt. It was a long shot – Calrissian might not be there at all, and even if he was he still might not have a spacecraft available, as it was already established that the Lady Luck hadn't budged from its landing pad in North Aldray District. But it couldn't hurt to try.
"We'll follow this belt on bike and try to narrow the search parameters," Baranne continued, swinging onto his bike's saddle and experimenting with the brakes. Finding the forward floodlights, he switched them on, sending a comforting blaze of white light down the corridor ahead of him. "Take it at a nice easy pace, boys – we don't want to miss something."
Lando never could say afterwards what prompted him to wake up in the middle of the night. It could have been lingering maladjustment to the local night cycle, it could have been the persistent ache in his leg, it could have been another nightmare in which he had to explain to Vader why Luke and his kid sisters had been devoured by a garbage slug in the pits of the planet. Whatever had done the trick, he was luckier than a Jawa in a junkyard that he decided he might as well get up and see if there anything in the way of hot chocolate available in the galley.
As he climbed out of his bunk, he felt under his pillow and blew a huge sigh of relief to feel Luke's boots and the hilt of his lightsaber still tucked safely away. This feeling of relief lasted as long as it took him to check the bottom bunk for the toddlers (still dead to the world) and flick his gaze up to the top bunk to check for Luke.
There was no Luke present.
Lando pulled himself up on the frame in disbelief, then hobbled out of the cabin hissing the kid's name. Without his shoes and lightsword thing he couldn't have gone far, he consoled himself. Probably the galley, but maybe the cockpit…he limped as quick as he could down all the corridors (there weren't many on a shuttle this small) and inspected all the cabins and compartments.
There was no Luke aboard.
And his blaster wasn't in the arms locker anymore.
Lando swore unrepeatably and grabbed one of the emergency holdout pistols also stashed in the locker. The thing was crap but at least it could fire a stun blast, and if Luke was still within range that was exactly what Lando planned on doing to him. He unsealed the ramp and staggered down into the blackened expanse of the hangar. At its gaping entrance the faint sparkle of atmospheric traffic glinted, the only working illumination in the whole bay. Shadows spilled out everywhere, offering dozens of teen-sized hiding places. Lando swore again and started off in the direction they'd arrived at the shuttle from earlier. Halfway across the bay, it dawned on him that if the kid was already gone, then one of Vader's children was in mortal danger – but if Lando went after him, he'd leave the other two kids in mortal danger.
He very much doubted their daddy would have a lot of sympathy for his predicament.
Lando burst into his most vociferous string of invective yet. It got cut off mid-expletive as an engine whine sang out from the direction of the hangar entrance and he had to drop like a rock behind an abandoned cargo crate. Fingers shivering, he leaned out ever-so-slightly to do a little reconnaissance.
A phalanx of speeder bikes poured in through the bay entrance, drawing themselves up in a semicircle centered on the base of the still-extended shuttle ramp. Lando sucked in his lip with a faint hiss – stormtroopers! And one eerily familiar guy in civilian duds. Wasn't that the agent from the Strip shootout, who'd been after the kids? The same guy who'd grilled him for information at the cantina?
Gears whirred in Lando's brain. At the time he'd been sure the guy was after Luke because the kid was half a Jedi and the Empire wanted everyone like him dead. But what if he was really Vader's agent? Suppose he already knew whose kids they were?
And even if he didn't, did it matter? Anytime the Empire's agents tracked down somebody Force-sensitive, they got sent to Vader, right? And he'd know whose cute little girls they were.
A monumental sigh of relief flooded out of Lando as the agent pulled his weapon and started edging up the ramp, flanked by all the troopers. Most likely Luke had somehow gotten back to Vader and that was how they'd found the ship; Lando doubted they could have been tracked here otherwise, what with that ridiculous chase through the undercity. The agent would get those girls where they had to go, and as far as Lando was concerned he could make all the explanations to Daddy Dearest too.
It was finally, blessedly time for Lando Calrissian to skedaddle.
He shifted in the shadow of the crate and licked his lip. Specifically, Lando Calrissian needed to skedaddle out of this landing bay and back to the Lady Luck's berth in the North Aldray District, and thence out of system, all without being caught by nosy Imperial agents who probably had him marked for a cold-blooded kidnapper with nerves of durasteel and the morals of a Hutt.
There were several ways he could accomplish this. No doubt the most sensible and cautious option would have been to slink back down through the building and work his way through the undercity back towards his ship. Lando Calrissian was normally a great advocate of sense and caution. But human minds work in strange ways at three in the morning, which Lando later decided was the only plausible explanation for the series of events that took up the next several hours.
Well, that, and he'd be damned if he was going to ride a conveyor belt back to Imperial City when there were a dozen perfectly comfortable speeder bikes sitting right in front of him.
"Clear!" snapped the point trooper. He flicked the muzzle of his blaster towards the left-hand corridor across the main passenger cabin of the lambda shuttle. Four troopers split off to check the cockpit and cannon consoles while the rest of them followed Baranne towards the cabins, storage, and galley positioned to stern. Baranne shifted his grip calmly and checked to be sure the settings were still locked to stun mode.
It had been tedious going but they'd finally spotted signs of their quarry a while after crossing into the Works. Not much – just some dust disturbances around one of the access platforms next to the whistling conveyor belt, and fairly fresh blood traces on the grating where someone had scraped a knee while jumping off the belt. The overhead patrol probes, concentrating their scans on the nearby buildings, had reported a lambda shuttle nestled into a landing bay in one of the defunct factories.
It did not take a man of Baranne's intellect long to note the curious coincidence that young Luke Skywalker and the Jedi attacker had escaped the melee on Corellia aboard a lambda shuttle. His excitement blazed at the possibility that he might recover all of his targets at once.
The troopers split into pairs and sprinted silently, each pair taking up position on opposite sides of the hatches of the four bunkrooms. Baranne stood back and signaled the first two pairs, who activated them and whipped through to cover the interiors. In a few moments they returned, shaking their heads silently as they reformed in support position. The next two hatches flashed open and the troopers darted inside –
"Clear!" called one of them, and at the same time from the other side came a very young, very distressed wail. Baranne shoved past the troopers and into the bunkroom. One stormtrooper had his blaster trained on the tiny blonde twins from Corellia, who had awoken at the noise and were sobbing in the corner of their bunk. His partner had begun searching the cabin.
Baranne heaved a great sigh of satisfaction. Well, that was part of his job done, then. He leaned back out to speak with the squad commander. "Finish checking the rest of the ship and then search the bay," he ordered. "If you find anyone, detain them for investigation."
"Yes, sir," he barked briskly. Baranne ducked back into the cabin and waved down the trooper standing guard on the twins. He knelt in front of them for a closer look. Definitely the same girls. Vader's daughters. Odd. They didn't look especially fearsome at the moment. Must take after the mother.
Baranne derailed that train of thought before he could start himself wondering about who their mother could be. Curiosity was a valuable trait in an investigative agent, but not if turned against the employer of that agent. Accordingly he didn't ask their names.
"Who's dat?" one of them sniffed.
"Dunno," whimpered the other.
"Want Dadda!" wailed the first.
"We'll get you to your Daddy very soon," Baranne took the risk of telling them.
The frightened crying halted at this declaration. "Dadda?" the first twin sniffled, smearing tears and snot across her face with her tiny fist.
"That's right," he agreed. "I'm Agent Baranne."
"Ban?" the second one tried. "Where Luke, Ban?"
Baranne felt a jolt of electricity in his toes and fingertips. "Was Luke here with you two?"
"Sir!" One of the stormtroopers tapped him on the shoulder. "Take a look at these, sir."
Baranne glanced over shoulder. The trooper was holding a pair of child-sized boots and a silvery cylinder. He reached back for the latter and inspected it. He couldn't be sure, not being an expert on lightsabers, but this might be the same one he'd seen Luke carrying both on Corellia and, earlier, the freighter. It was certainly either Luke's or the Jedi attacker's, and as those boots looked like they'd fit a teenage boy…
"He went a' bed wis us," the second one answered him. "He made Kwishy think quiet so we didn't hafta stay awake."
"Kwishy," Baranne muttered, ignoring the rest of her incomprehensible remark. "Do you mean Lando Calrissian?"
She nodded vigorously and huddled further back in the corner, holding on to her sister tightly and regarding him with a sleepy scowl. "Kwishy!"
"Where Kwishy?" whispered the first twin plaintively.
"I don't know," Baranne told her, getting to his feet the better to think. So – both Luke and Calrissian had been here recently. If they'd left the girls asleep here, they couldn't have gone far –
"Agent Baranne!" The squad commander had lurched around the entrance of the bunkroom. "Sir, one of our speeder bikes is missing!"
Correction, Baranne told himself angrily. They couldn't have gone far without stealing their transportation. "Did you see the thief, Lieutenant?" he demanded.
"No, sir, the bike was gone when we stepped out to check the bay."
Baranne squeezed his eyebrows, long and hard, so as not to swear in front of impressionable little children whose father would not be even remotely amused if the agent were to broaden their vocabulary in that direction. "Alright," he made himself say. "Contact the probe operation team and have them readjust their search parameters. Whoever it was they can't have gotten more than a couple minutes' head start, so let's see if we can't spot them on the scopes."
The squad commander hefted his blaster in an affirmative manner and trotted off to relay the orders. Baranne turned to the closest trooper. "You and your partner, get these two outside and load up on the speeder bikes. I want them back at Lord Vader's castle in a secure facility under 24-7 watch half an hour ago. If they get so much as a hangnail between here and there, you'll be the ones explaining it to Lord Vader, clear?"
"As transparisteel, sir." They each plucked a frightened girl from the bunk and left carrying their blasters with their free hands. Baranne cast a final glance around the cabin before letting fly a resentful kick into the frame of the bunk.
Once, he growled to himself as he followed the troopers, just once can't that boy make my job a bit easier?
Lando made sure to stay low as he blasted across the cityscape towards North Aldray; he'd ducked pretty deep down in order to avoid some aerial probes lurking near the factory and he was worried there might be more of them about. Maybe he should have opted for a longer and less predictable route, like swinging wide clear around the Temple district before coming back towards his destination. But at this point speed might be more important than style; the less time the Empire had to get his mugshot on the wanted charts the better his odds of getting out of system. To his surprise the Lady Luck was just where he'd left her. Drat – he'd left his rental key back at the shuttle. Lando fumbled for the trigger of his bike's nose cannon and blasted apart the generator of the security shield around the ship.
Alarms erupted, the security guards shouted, and the shift manager came sprinting from the office of the landing field, waving his arms and spewing threats to call the local patrol squad until Lando stunned him. Shooting bursts of stun fire with one hand and frantically entering his access code with the other, he somehow held off the security guards long enough to get aboard. Retracting the ramp he fled to the cockpit to power up and saw a stormtrooper platoon arriving from the north entrance of the field. Frig it anyway – the Empire'd already been keeping its bead on this place!
But they didn't seem to have really anticipated that he'd put in an appearance; their response time was too slow. The engines roared to life and he kicked it straight into launch without waiting for the repulsors. No doubt he'd just done thousands of credits of damage to the platform, scorching it with direct sublight engine exhaust. Practically broke his heart and all, but he could write a check later.
Expecting to encounter a squad of prowling TIE fighters any instant, Lando aimed the ship's afterburners at the ground and its prow at the stars, streaking through the atmospheric traffic with no regard for preplanned aerial routes.
Nobody objected. Not until he'd sequestered himself safely in the mill of Coruscant's orbital traffic and gotten over the first exhilarating wave of triumph did Lando begin to think that somewhat odd. Then, when his flight path was cut off by a series of careening cargo freighters and he had to cut sideways into a chaotic swarm of yachts, he noticed that the mayhem that always characterized the orbital traffic lanes over the planet had degenerated into a stampeding panic. It was only after he took a gander at his long-range scopes that he realized why.
Coruscant, in the mere days since his arrival, had acquired a moon with a gigantic laser. Just beyond the monstrous object raged a battle of a scale that hadn't been seen since the Clone Wars – dozens, no hundreds of Star Destroyers, shooting at each other, while the moon-laser-thing picked off capital ships that had strayed near the edge of the melee. And closer to the planet he saw the reason no one had challenged his unauthorized escape from the surface – a detachment of light Corellian corvettes had tied up the entire orbital patrol force in a speedy game of cat-and-mouse around the entry checkpoints, though who was chasing who seemed to change every few seconds.
Lando sat stunned, hands going slack on the controls. No wonder no one had stopped him from leaving – he was witnessing the implosion of the Empire. Who gave a wet nerf about a paltry kidnapper when the fate of the galaxy was at stake? He spent several seconds trying to comprehend the fact that all the trauma he'd just experienced was of no consequence at all compared to what had been going on overhead.
The next second Lando realized that a fleeing freighter had cut loose the cargo pods it had had in tow, that these pods were spinning out of control right in front of him, and that he would not be able to maneuver away from them before they turned him into vapor –
Laser fire streaked out from his rear upper left, blasting away the lethal obstacles for him. The sudden show of force was too much for the captain of the freighter, who lost his nerve and sent his ship careening into a bank of sensor satellites. Lando on the other hand sucked in his breath at the near miss and lunged for his com, hoping to thank his rescuer. The ship that had saved him swept up across his viewport – a sinfully battered YT-1300, modified to carry illegal quad cannons on its dorsal and ventral surfaces. Its crew had obviously realized that the Imperial authorities would be no more interested in smugglers right now than they were in kidnappers.
His com screeched like a malfunctioning sound system as the connection came through to the YT-1300. Lando winced until his ears redefined the din as a stream of loudly whistled binary code.
"…do be quiet, Artoo, I can't hear!" wailed a prissy voice with mechanical undertones. The whistling ended with an insolent chirp. "Hello? Are you alright, unknown starcraft?"
"Yeah, yeah," Lando gasped. "Listen, thanks for saving my neck back there, Mr…?"
"It was our pleasure, sir," the droid – it had to be a droid – answered. "My name is See-Threepio."
"Threepio?" That was probably a protocol droid designation. "Can I talk to your master for a moment, Threepio?"
"I'm afraid not," the droid answered, now sounding wholly frantic. "You see, my counterpart Artoo-Detoo and I are currently piloting the Millennium Falcon on our own – "
Violent screeches from the other droid drowned out Threepio as Lando lurched up in excitement and took another look at the ship. Dash it to the ninth hell, that was Solo's freighter! What was it doing here? And why were droids flying it?
" – no I will not be silent, Artoo! I'm only being civil! And it's not as though we'll have better chances of rescuing the Princess from the Death Star if we don't tell any humans that we need help!"
Artoo's retort was anything but impressed.
"Well of course I'm not suggesting that – "
"Threepio," Lando cut in, "do you and Artoo know Han Solo and Luke?"
"Why – why yes!" Lando had never heard something mechanical sound so astonished. "Master Luke is our rightful owner!"
Artoo, judging from the cascade of irate squawks, took issue with this statement. "Of course I think rescuing Princess Leia is important!" Threepio nipped back at him. "I was merely pointing out that we belong to Master Luke now, not the Organas!"
"What's this about a princess?" Lando asked, rubbing his head and trying to recollect why her name sounded significant.
Artoo set off in a long chorus of squeals. "Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan. Artoo says that she's a friend of Master Luke's who is being held prisoner aboard the Death Star," Threepio translated. He sounded much calmer now that he'd gotten in his element. "No one but us seems to know she's there – what's that, Artoo? Oh, yes, the picture."
Lando's projector lit up with an image of a brunette girl whom he recognized immediately as Luke's spunky girlfriend from Corellia. Great – first Vader's kids, now a princess from one of the galaxy's most important systems. Somebody, somewhere, must have misfiled his resumé under Underpaid Au Pairs for the Filthy Rich, and Lando Calrissian was going to find that being, and that being was going to dearly regret the day when –
"Artoo wishes to ask," Threepio continued with tremulous reluctance, "whether you would be willing to assist us in rescuing Princess Leia from the space station?"
"That space station right over there?" Lando squeaked. He spared a glance for the gigantic orb Artoo had called the Death Star. As he watched it spat a gargantuan beam of green laser and a whole Imperial Star Destroyer evaporated like water in a reactor chamber. "Like the nine hells!"
Threepio could not sigh with relief, but plainly would have if only he could have borrowed a pair of lungs from someone. "There, Artoo, you see, it's out of our – "
Laser fire hammered into the Luck's hull, batting Lando around in his seat. With a yell he wrenched the controls – that insane astromech piloting the Falcon had just fired on him! Even as he tried to figure out why, the YT-1300 snapped across to his side and sprayed him with another salvo; Lando veered up, to the left –
"Artoo! Artoo! Stop this madness at once! This is a friend of Master Luke – what do you think you're doing – "
"What the ninth hell do you think you're doing?" Lando shouted over Threepio's hysterics, plunging the Luck away from the Falcon's crazed pursuit. "You're gonna bring the Navy down on us – "
The Luck rocked nastily and Lando's dark complexion turned a sickly shade of ash as he spotted the source. That last blast hadn't come from the Falcon, but from a huge bone-white Star Destroyer that insane astromech was driving him towards. Despite being swarmed by wrangling starfighters it had noticed the little skirmish just breaking clear of the orbital traffic. "Stop it, you idiot droid!" Lando roared at the astromech.
Artoo did not even think about stopping it. Using the freighter's own armaments and the bombardment of the irritated Destroyer it forced the unarmed Luck into the only lane clear of fire – bursting up and out on a direct trajectory for the Death Star. Lando's protests degenerated into virtuosic oaths that would have scalded the ears off a smuggler, drowning out Threepio's wails and reprimands. What made it even more galling was that he couldn't fly away from a dratted little droid – if he'd realized what the astromech was up to when it started firing, he might have had a chance to evade and take his own route, but now that the astromech had gotten him into the thick of the battle it could herd him wherever it wanted by blocking other flight paths with its own fire – what with the vicious crossfire of starfighters and Destroyers there weren't many options for a ship that was supposed to be a pleasure yacht for Force's sake –
The com system had been blaring a siren and red warning light at him for minutes – probably somebody in uniform trying to figure out what these civilian maniacs were up to – but Lando had no time to answer. So it came as a total surprise when his ship froze up in a tractor beam.
"Now you've gone and done it," Threepio's voice pronounced as Lando slumped silently in his seat, having exhausted his reserves of expletives. "We're doomed."
Artoo's smug retort made Lando vow to rip out its wicked little processors with his bare hands.
Deck Officer Pash Kelmer had become fully accustomed to lounging much and working little over the past months – not a wonder, taking into account that Docking Bay 33978-B, where he and one other officer served as supervisors, was one more redundant guest shuttle landing platform aboard an enormous battle station that had been a complete secret up until a few hours ago. The six-month-old log had exactly three arrivals on record, of which Kelmer had witnessed only one – five months ago, when his co-supervisor arrived a couple days behind him. It had therefore become the practice of the Deck Officer to spend his shift hours in the supervision station listening to galactic holoradio.
Today was different. Today the whole docking bay crew had packed into the station, and rather than Galaxy's Top Hundred Countdown Humanoid Edition they were listening to the Fleet-wide broadcast channel while watching the bit of battle they could see from their limited local sensors. A great groan went up from everyone as a cloud of skirmishing TIE fighters and a Star Destroyer, which had been their chief entertainment for the last several minutes, veered out of their sensor field and vanished. That left just the distant dogfight between the rogue corvettes and the orbital patrol force within their field of vision – all the best action was out of sight on the station's opposite hemisphere.
"What the hell's that?" someone demanded, pointing at a couple of erratic blips swerving closer to the Death Star.
"Damned if I know." Deck Officer Kelmer sounded thrilled by the possibility of a bit of the battle drawing closer to them. "Viker, keep an eye on it."
A sullen sensor tech detached himself from the spectators around the sensor readout and thudded down at his work station, donning his headset and scowling at his screen. Back on the sensor display, several spectacular explosions drew everyone's attention back to the corvettes. One of the attacking ships was splintering to pieces, taking a pair of patrol blastboats with it.
"They've got to be Rebels," the bay's com ensign said, pointing to the elastic corvette formation. "Too much coordination to be anything else."
"They detached from an Imperial Destroyer fleet," Kelmer snapped. "How the hell could they be Rebels?"
"Technically," the other Deck Officer said, "that Destroyer fleet is a bunch of rebels too, if you haven't noticed that they're firing on us – "
This touched off a storm of argument, which persisted loudly until the sensor tech yelled above them all, "Deck Officer Kelmer! Those ships are going to breach our patrol zone!"
That put paid to the debate as everyone converged on the tech's readout to see. The two insane blips were dancing just kilometers outside Docking Bay 33978-B's patrol zone. "They're civilian transponder codes, sir," the tech added, "not Navy. If they cross over without providing clearance code authorization – "
"Hail them?" Kelmer's order was more like a question, but the com ensign dashed to his station anyway and scanned for their frequency codes.
"Unknown civilian spacecraft, this is Imperial Orbital Battle Station DS-1," he barked. "You are nearing a restricted space zone without authorization. Transmit your authorization codes immediately."
After a few minutes the ensign scowled. "No answer, sir." He switched his mic back on. "Unknown civilian spacecraft, you are advised to respond immediately. Be aware that if you do not respond you will be detained for investigation."
By way of answer, both the blips burst across the patrol zone boundary.
"Stop them, Ensign!" Kelmer demanded.
"They're firing on each other, sir," Sensor Tech Viker added, no longer looking sullen about having to work.
"Unknown civilian spacecraft, this is your last warning! Respond immediately or you will be forcibly detained for investigation!"
The blips only spiraled closer to the station. Kelmer looked alarmed about it, but nonetheless pleased to see some of the action himself. "Barcola, tractor them in," he announced importantly. "And alert the squad!" Tractor Tech Barcola, having already gotten to his station in hopes of getting to do something, had them snared in the tractor beams not two seconds later. The com ensign pressed the key to summon the trooper regiment stationed down the corridor from their bay.
"Let's check it out, boys," Kelmer said, patting his blaster in its holster.
Tycho Celchu barely held in a shout as a huge red laser beam from a Star Destroyer's turret scorched through space ahead of his starfighter. With an almighty wrench of his controls he rocketed up and shot over the beam of death, blessing Raith Sienar for the marvelous mobility he'd seen fit to bestow on TIE-Advanced starfighters. Behind him, the gen-issue TIE that had been hot on his tail never had time to bemoan his inferior agility before erupting in a fireball upon contact with the capital laser beam. But then, Celchu never had time to gloat, because he was already throwing his ship into a desperate barrel-spin dive so as not to meet the same fate at the hands of the next starfighter–
"I've got him, Black Four," his com crackled. The TIE on his tail spun out in a whirl of sparks as the only other TIE-Ad in this demented brawl swung down and resumed position on Tycho's right-hand side
"Thanks, sir," Tycho croaked.
"Save it for the reception, Celchu," Soontir Fel ordered grimly. An oncoming wing of enemy TIEs sent them splitting in opposite loops.
Enemy TIEs. A sick swoop went through Tycho's stomach as his cannon fire caught up with another of them and it splintered into fiery fragments. Half an hour ago he'd been a proud pilot in the Navy's most reputable flight squadron, a stalwart defender of a glorious Empire who happened to be engaged with the rest of his wing in policing the frantic space traffic around Coruscant. Now he was fighting for his life against men he'd have called his comrades, around the great hull of the Imperial battle station that had blown the Executor and her whole crew into meteor dust.
Of the Star Destroyer's entire personnel complement of almost 300,000, the twelve dispatched pilots of Black Squadron had been the sole survivors. Then Capital Fleet's TIEs deployed after them.
Black Squadron was good. But not even Lord Vader himself could have done much against odds of more than fifty to one. Within fifteen minutes it had been down to just Colonel Fel and Tycho, who still had no idea how he'd managed to survive longer than all his more experienced squadmates. In five more minutes he'd have been space vapor right alongside them, but he and the Colonel had been saved by the arrival of the opposing fleet of Destroyers. The enemy TIEs fell back into standby formation near their mother ships as Tycho and Fel fled into the midst of the new arrivals, broadcasting distress signals to anyone who'd listen.
So – that was how Tycho Celchu had gone from Imperial enforcer to Rebel conspirator in half an hour. He couldn't even entirely regret it, because any Empire that test-fired its doomsday weapons on its own military was an Empire in which Tycho Celchu wanted no part.
He sure as hell could partly regret it, though – he told himself this as he threaded his way through the oncoming assailants and ducked under yet another shot from one of the Capital Fleet destroyers – because although all these new allies might have done a fair bit to even his odds, he and the Colonel were still a lone pair without a real squad to back them up. Just to make it worse, the enemy knew that their TIE-Ads had to have escaped from the Executor because that was where the first (and so far, only) batch of prototype models had been sent for action testing.
"I feel like a Wookiee at a Jawa convention, sir," he muttered over his com.
"Com silence, Celchu!" the Colonel snapped back at him. Tycho gritted his teeth and told himself to worry about staying alive, and not about the fact that the Colonel only snapped when he couldn't spare the attention to banter –
Then two more squads of TIEs appeared on his scopes – out of the Death Star, damn that evil beach ball anyway – and swarmed straight for them. Tycho knew at that moment that it was as good as over, because the sort-of allied TIE squadron they were sort of flying with was already falling apart at the seams, and they weren't going to risk their weakening formation to come to the aid of two unknown pilots the enemy really, really wanted to blow up.
"Thanks for everything, sir," he said aloud over the com, ignoring the Colonel's immediate reprimand, and he gripped his controls, resolved to give even worse than he got so his girlfriend on Alderaan could be proud of him –
The first fangs of oncoming death erupted in explosions and the startled oncoming squads split around the two TIE-Ads.
"You boys look like you could use some help," a cheerful voice commented over their channel. "Switch to our squad frequency if you can keep up with us."
Tycho Celchu stared in disbelief as a group of Rebel X-wings shrieked down from the upper right of his field of vision, blasting the afterburners off the astonished Death Star fighters. Hastily he switched to the channel shared by the X-wing squadron.
"We certainly can," the Colonel was responding with remarkable equilibrium. Tycho was still trying to comprehend the fact that yesterday he'd have already been trying to kill the Rebel saving his life today. "Colonel Soontir Fel and Lieutenant Tycho Celchu, Black Squadron."
"You didn't say Black Squadron?" another Rebel demanded, plainly more impressed by this fact than by the two TIEs trying to stick to his tail and mostly failing. "As in the Executor and the 501st?"
"Yes, that Black Squadron," the Colonel barked, narrowly avoiding a TIE that had tried to escape through their formation and gotten its stabilizers shot off for its trouble. "Or what's left of it."
"We're Red Squadron," said the first Rebel. "Commander Garven Dreis, Red Leader. We're short two, hop on in. Red Two, add them to your wing. I'll switch over to Wing Two."
"Lieutenant Wedge Antilles," Red Two answered, waggling an S-foil at them as they swung wide through a clear stretch of space and began maneuvering into the new formation. "Tuck yourself in next door, Celchu."
"Lieutenant Hobbie Klivian," the guy who must be Red Three added, loping into place between Celchu and the Colonel. "Must be getting kinda lonely there, Red Two, with all of us ex-Imps riding herd on you."
"Can it, Derek," Antilles ordered.
"Listen, Wedgie," Klivian seethed, "the last time someone called me that name, I hijacked a Star Destroyer and blew up the Imperial security detachment for a whole system." Tycho suspected it was an exaggeration, but not a very big one.
"So take it out on 'em again," Antilles suggested, spurring their wing headlong towards the nearest group of enemy TIEs.
"Just not on me," Tycho added before he remembered these guys had only started being on his side a minute ago.
Appreciative laughter burst out from several Rebels over the com, shunting aside his reluctance for the moment. "Deal," said Klivian.
"Com silence, boys," Commander Dreis barked. "Let's go mop those eyeballs off the Devastator."
The docking bay into which Lando staggered was swarming with a whole platoon of stormtroopers. He wearily put his hands up as they frisked him, then let himself be dragged past the Falcon's battered hull towards the officers. The commander was already scowling at Threepio and Artoo, who set up a shrill screech upon spotting Lando.
"Care to explain what you thought you were doing flying into restricted space despite repeat warnings?" the commander spat, fingering his blaster. He looked fairly ticked at having been distracted from the ongoing battle by a couple droids and an idiot who didn't know a mortal threat when it shouted in his ears. Lando had zero sympathy for his troubles.
"I didn't hear the warnings," Lando retorted, "because that fracking droid was shooting at me!"
Artoo Detoo screeched fit to raise the dead.
"Funny story," barked the officer, glancing at the translation readout they'd connected to the astromech, "because this fracking droid here is saying that you were shooting at him."
"What?" Lando roared, now devoting all his attention strictly to Artoo. "You actually told him that, you - "
"He also says," the officer growled, clenching and unclenching his free fist in a fit of irritation, "that you were attempting to use the distraction of the situation out there to steal his master's ship as well as the two of them."
"I'm going to dismantle you for scrap, you ridiculous lying pile of slag!" Lando would have launched himself at the tweetling astromech if not for the stormtroopers latched onto his elbows. "Threepio!" he raged. "You tell him what really happened!"
"Oh dear," Threepio said faintly. "The man's gone mad!"
The deck officer, regarding them all with evident disgust, shoved his cap more firmly on his head. "I don't have time to listen to this racket right now," he growled. "Captain, detain the man at detention block AA-23 for the time being. We'll keep the droids at the command station until we've got the time to question them."
"I'm going to kill you, you fracking – Threepio, if you don't – "
"Shut up," snapped the closest stormtrooper, whacking Lando over the back of the head.
Tarkin's mood had soured through. This conflict was not going at all as predicted. With less than five minutes' contemplation – in fact with only a few seconds, as the regrouped enemy fleet must have used most of those five minutes to coordinate its new battle plan – that insolently precocious Chiss admiral had hit upon the one battle strategy that could negate the overwhelming firepower advantage of the Death Star. The enemy had plunged straight into the midst of Capital Fleet, getting the two sides so entangled that it was difficult for the superlaser firing crew to even keep track of who they ought to target, let alone get a clean shot. Matters were made worse by the fact that some Destroyers had switched sides in the course of the bloody battle. Just to cap it off, a group of Rebel corvettes had broken clear of the main engagement to attack the orbital checkpoint stations. The civilian traffic, already unnerved, had proceeded to lose its collective mind, forcing Tarkin to dispatch a few Destroyers to prevent a stampede.
At this rate, he'd be useless; the Death Star could only sit back and watch while Thrawn and Grant's respective fleets beat each other into pulp. The Emperor would be none too pleased with Tarkin for allowing more than half the Imperial Fleet to be destroyed. Such a reduction in mobile Imperial might could end his reign just as decisively as a coup.
"I think," Tarkin mused aloud, "that we shall have to accept the potential collateral damage."
"The potential collateral damage of what?" Motti barked.
"Of firing on the Chimaera."
Motti took one glance at the screen and blanched. The Chimaera, which they'd determined was serving as the communications platform for the whole attacking fleet, was at the very middle of the melee, separated from the Death Star not only by its supporting ships and dozens of starfighters but by at least four Destroyers from Capital Fleet. Including Admiral Grant's command ship.
"Tarkin, we don't even know that Thrawn is aboard that ship! You'll risk alienating our own forces from us!"
"Fear will keep the Capital Fleet in line," Tarkin replied, "fear that the same fate could befall them. Unless we decapitate the dissident forces we'll win a merely Pyrrhic victory. Without Thrawn most of those Star Destroyers will break off their attack and surrender."
"The Rebels won't," Motti objected.
Tarkin waved a hand. "We can deal with the Rebels." If Bail Organa was anywhere nearby, they might be able to halt the Rebel attack with just one blaster shot – or more accurately, with just one threatened blaster shot, through the attractive but conniving head of a certain brunette princess. "This is our best option."
Motti stared, and finally managed a weak nod of consent. Not that Tarkin needed it.
"I don't believe this is working," Torrin breathed. "How on earth could you think of this in just seconds?"
"On the contrary, Admiral," Thrawn rejoined. "How could I take one look at that Death Star and not at once comprehend that the last thing its architects would expect from an outnumbered enemy is a courageous point-blank attack?"
Torrin blinked. "You looked at the engineering?"
"I looked at the art, Admiral, as should you." Thrawn resumed his contemplation of the battle display screen. "Besides, it's just a stop-gap measure. It won't buy us a victory. We've already lost over three hundred starfighters and a score of capital ships."
"Capital Fleet's losses are higher," Torrin pointed out. "Much higher."
"Capital Fleet isn't the chief threat," Thrawn shot back. "The Death Star is. We're going to take it out."
Torrin's jaw dropped as the battle raged around them; the shouts of the embroiled bridge failed to reach him. "You can't be serious. There's no way we can even put a dent in that thing short of a mass kamikaze attack!"
"There's a way," Thrawn said flatly. "Observe – a perfect sphere, isn't it? Clearly much more interior space than the superlaser could possibly require, but the physical form of the weapon was important enough to its designers to be worth a great deal of additional expense in order to achieve it. It reflects a fixation on perfection of specific ideals even at cost of other, more practical considerations. Rest assured that such a fixation has left at least one major weakness for us to exploit."
"But what?" Torrin retorted furiously. "We haven't even got technical readouts to search, and we wouldn't have time – "
"I'd only need to look at the reactor core and its related systems," Thrawn said. "If we could get those readouts we'd be much better off, but without them our only alternative is to get closer to the station and take the fire onslaught in order to scan for anything we can find."
"Closer?" Torrin bellowed, but Thrawn was already on the general broadcast. The remaining fleet commanders' holo images appeared; all of them looked harried. "Fifth Fleet, resume independent formation and move in on the Death Star for reconnaissance," he ordered. "There is a weakness in the design of that battle station and I want your ComScan sections to find it. Focus on the energy systems and extrapolate everything you can. Everyone else, draw up in standard horizontal assault line centered on the Chimaera. We'll pin the rest of Capital Fleet closer to the Death Star to provide additional physical screening between Fifth Fleet and its fire. General Madine, any word from the groundside team?"
"No contact yet."
"Excellent," Thrawn said. "A strong indication they're still in pursuit of their objective and have not been halted yet."
The commanders looked a little more optimistic at this encouragement, but not much, seeing as their admiral was about to send them straight into the teeth of the –
"Evasive action!" the navigation officer screamed behind them, at the same time as the projected image of the Avenger's Captain Needa shouted a terrified and unintelligible order to someone out of the pickup field. The next instant the image dissolved in static and the Avenger vanished from the scopes, along with one of Capital Fleet's Destroyers. A second javelin of lethal green death screamed through the brand-new gap close enough to the Chimaera to blister its hull paint.
"That blast came from the Death Star!" the Rebel Dodonna barked.
"Dear goddess," another Imperial commander moaned, "they shot through their own ship…"
"New strategic orders," Thrawn said, shifting course without pause. "All units converge on the Death Star. Fifth Fleet ComScan, I want a least-time estimate of that superlaser's probable point-blank range of fire. Maintain minimum altitude and evade the superlaser's main line of fire. That will allow us the opportunity to find that weakness. Execute!"
Deck Officer Kelmer didn't like being interrupted from the war by pointless civilian squabbles that wandered into his realm of influence, so he made a point of forgetting about the prisoners straightaway when he got back to the station. The corvettes were now tussling with a few Star Destroyers that had split away from Capital Fleet. The com officer was holding forth about the superior maneuverability of corvettes as opposed to the heavier firepower of a Destroyer. Between that and subsequent tangential arguments Kelmer had quite wiped the droids from his memory by the time the protocol unit inched up to him.
"Excuse me, sir, but all this excitement has overwhelmed my counterpart's circuits," he apologized. "I wonder if you might let me take him to Maintenance?"
Kelmer waved him off, also forgetting that letting strange droids wander around Imperial space stations was not, according to security protocol, a wise idea.
Lando spent the first few minutes of his jail sentence kicking the hatch and calling down curses on Artoo-Detoo's conniving dome. Finally he gave up and looked around his cell. Not even a fresher in here; it was just a temporary holding cubicle inside the detention block. He dropped down on the bench, prepared to indulge in a good long fit of self-pity. He only got in a solid fifteen minutes before the hatch whistled open.
Nobody came in. Warily Lando waited a few seconds, then ventured over and peered out.
The platoon station was deserted. Over the blare of an evacuation alarm a calm female voice said, "Warning: energy leak. Please proceed to the nearest exit. Warning…"
Lando was about to make a beeline for the exit and see if he couldn't find his way back to his ship when the alarms shut off and a new voice came over the com speakers. "Hello? Hello? Artoo, are you sure you've got this thing working properly?"
"Threepio?" Lando bellowed at the air.
"Yes, Master Calrissian," Threepio's magnified voice answered. "Artoo has hacked into the computer system and diverted the detention block staff. He says that if you proceed to the end of the cell block corridor you'll find a medical wing on the right. Princess Leia is being held there. After that Artoo will give you both directions back to the docking bay."
"You tell Artoo," Lando screeched, "that when I get there I'm going to carve him into mynock sushi!"
An unimpressed whistle cut over Threepio's voice. Growling with outrage, and feeling painfully naked without any kind of weapon, Lando sprinted back down the corridor and hammered the button on the hatch at the end.
Inside a bushy-eyebrowed doctor was hovering over a brunette girl. His gaze jerked up in bewilderment at Lando's appearance. "Don't you think that shirt's a little casual for the Navy?"
"Leia? Sit up, quickly now."
Moaning and groggy, Leia batted at the hands pulling her upright. "What – what happened?" she got out.
"I'll explain later," said the voice she at last recognized as Dr. Siler's. She blinked her eyes and he swam into view alongside a dark-skinned man she thought she recognized from somewhere…
"This is Lando Calrissian," Dr. Siler said. "He's breaking us out."
"No," spat Lando Calrissian, "that insufferable little trash can…" He trailed off as Siler raised an eyebrow. "Never mind. Let's just get out while we can, right?"
"Wait," Leia snapped as her wits came rushing back at last. "I met you on Corellia!"
"Yeah, you did," Lando said. "Small galaxy. Can we save the fond memories for later? We really gotta get out of here."
Siler nodded, tossing a hypodermic needle out of his hand onto the floor. Leia noticed a pinprick of blood on her arm before Lando grabbed her hand and sprinted out. They'd been in a medbay, but outside was a long dark corridor that looked like a jail of some kind.
"Where are we?" she wheezed as they piled into the only turbolift out.
"The Death Star," said Lando.
"The large battle station we saw on the shuttle," Dr. Siler added. "It tractored us aboard."
"Where's Captain Landre?" Leia panted, but then a voice came over the speakers in the lift.
"Artoo says that at the bottom of the lift, you should take a left and proceed fifty meters," a prissy voice told them. "There will be a hatch on your right leading to a platoon station. Artoo says you can pick up spare blasters and comlinks there. Our frequency will be 22004."
"Who was that?" Leia asked.
Lando's answer was a shocking amount of swearing, interspersed with deadly threats.
"A couple of droids who have hacked into the computers to let us out," Siler translated.
"Didn't they let out Captain Landre?" Leia demanded.
"He's dead, Leia."
Her mouth fell open in horror that people had died in the time she'd been unconscious, but right about then the turbolift arrived and they raced down the hall outside. Overhead the alarms were screaming and a voice was saying something about an energy leak. Lando ducked inside the patrol station when they got there and came back with two comlinks and three blasters. Siler scowled when he handed one to Leia, but she refused to let go of it. "I know how to shoot!" she snapped, hefting it with both hands.
"If she gets hurt," the doctor barked at Lando, "you'll answer to Lord Vader for it."
"What about if I get hurt?" Lando demanded. "I've already been roped into more than I bargained for!" He switched on the comlink and connected to the right frequency. "Now what, Threepio?"
The droids gave them directions through a roundabout series of corridors and turbolifts, all of them screaming with energy leak alarms. The Imperials had evacuated – but Leia figured it couldn't be that long before somebody got suspicious about there being so many energy leaks all at once and took a careful look at the security cam feeds. The same thought seemed to have occurred to Lando.
"Threepio!" he snarled into the comlink as they dashed around a corner. "The scenic route is all well and good but I've got places to be. You tell that scheming outsized multitool pal of yours to dig us up a shortcut or I'm gonna – "
"Duck!" Siler bellowed. A squad of troopers had appeared down the new corridor, sprinting towards them, blasters roaring in sequence. Lando dove behind a doorjamb and sent off a volley of cover fire while Siler and Leia sprinted through. They took a sharp left at the first chance –
Straight onto a narrow bridge over an unexpected chasm. From above rained blaster fire from a second group of troopers leaning over a higher bridge aperture – they ran for dear life and got across, sealing the door and blasting the control panel behind them – sprinting towards the turbolift at the end of the corridor as Threepio railed at Artoo over the com speaker –
And yet a third squad emerged from the turbolift. Siler seized Leia and ducked behind a corner while Lando opened fire. It fell silent. The doctor clapped a hand over Leia's eyes and half-carried her for several meters until they got to the turbolift. Its hatch shut out the grisly scene.
"What was that?" Lando scowled at Siler as he checked the charge on his blaster's gas pack and rubbed a bandage wrapped around one of his legs. "What do you think I gave you the blaster for?"
"What do you think I got a medical degree for?" Siler retorted. "So I could go around creating extra patients?"
"You're gonna be a patient if you don't start firing that thing – "
The turbolift whooshed back open in the middle of Lando's retort and brought them face to face with three armed stormtroopers, who hesitated for a moment in sheer surprise. The next moment they were all hit by the same stun blast and fell in a jumble of white armor over the threshold.
Lando and Siler stared in silent amazement at Leia, whose blaster muzzle was still smoking slightly. She glared up at them. "Well, somebody had to save our skins!"
"Artoo, someone's going to notice you!" Threepio wailed in whispery tones. "You've downloaded their route here, there's nothing more you have to do! We've just got to guide them here over the comlink! Why don't we find a nice quiet corner where we won't be seen and wait for them there?"
Artoo fired back an insolent retort and continued into a reckless-sounding speech.
"What do you mean, you're downloading the technical readouts to the battle station?" Threepio demanded in a hiss. "What in the Empire could we possibly need those for?"
A rapid series of twitters accompanied the busy swiveling of Artoo's dome.
"You're going to transmit them to the Rebel flagship?" Threepio stepped back, regarding Artoo curiously. "You don't really think they'll find a weakness, do you?"
Artoo chirped the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
"I suppose you're right, it can't hurt to try." Then Threepio glanced around. "What am I saying? Of course it can hurt! The longer you stay around this computer terminal the more likely it is someone will notice us! We'll be sent to Kessel for scrap metal, smashed into who knows what!"
Artoo flashed a red light and blatted a snide comeback.
"I am being quiet, you overgrown trash compactor!"
What had possessed him? What had possessed him?
This was the question which burst through Bail Organa's brain every time another explosion illuminated space near Home One. He was a politician by trade, not a warrior, and this battle was a doozy even by Rieekan's seasoned standards, so what the hells was he doing in the middle of it?
The original plan, he reminded himself fondly, had been to sit back and observe on the front lines, thereby demonstrating his solidarity with the rest of the Alliance in its ultimate challenge while keeping one eye on Thrawn and the other out for Leia. Half an hour of space combat to the death had shot the original plan out the airlock. Bail Organa, once upon a time as pacifist an Alderaanian as they came, had now been pressed into duty manning the bridge cannon turret because the usual operator had had to go replace a dead gunner at one of the critical weapon mounts in the forward part of the cruiser.
He was an atrocious shot, which was irrelevant – what with all the traffic out there, even he couldn't help hitting something. The starfighters could get away from him, and he might even find it hard to land a laser on the enemy Destroyers, but all else failing there was the Death Star. Hard to miss a target that occupied fully a quarter of his firing range. At least he could say he'd put a few pockmarks in its shiny new surface; not that it would be any consolation to Breha when he turned up dead.
It certainly looked like he was headed that way, along with everyone else. Once the Death Star began firing into the melee Thrawn had ordered them into a point-blank engagement with it as well. Though skirmishing so close to the station brought everyone within range of its thousands of cannon placements, it also made it harder for the superlaser to hit any of them. The semi-spherical wall of Capital Fleet still stood between them and the far hemisphere of the Death Star. Rieekan had already commed Thrawn with the idea of forming a single spearhead phalanx and making a concerted charge to circle to the opposite side from the emitter dish, but the suggestion had been rejected. Apparently Thrawn felt the station's weaknesses were most likely to be located in the vicinity of the superlaser. Bail couldn't disagree with him that they'd have no hope of victory without finishing off that mechanical monstrosity.
Which was why Bail felt there was no hope of victory whatsoever.
He swung his seat around, ordering such defeatist thoughts into retreat, and tried to lead his line of fire on a string of TIEs. Thrawn had achieved the impossible just by keeping their offense alive through this much of the battle; perhaps he could whip that miracle out of his sleeve too.
Bail glanced at his readout and found the Chimaera after a brief search – flitting around in the middle of the mayhem, flirting with the superlaser's lethal beams in its daring search for a potential weakness to exploit. Nearby the other group of Rebel cruisers, led by the Mon Ramonda under Dodonna's command, dodged and darted around the encroaching enemy Destroyers, attempting to keep them off the Chimaera, free her sensors for reconnaissance –
As he watched a new Destroyer broke away from a tangle with two Victory-class ships and charged the Chimaera head on – her navigation officer whipped her nose up, powering the Destroyer out of the collision path –
Directly into the superlaser's line of fire!
"No!" Rieekan shouted – Bail heard a strangled gasp from Mon –
A great ball of fire blossomed outward, obscuring their sensors, and faded back away…
There was the Chimaera, still cruising on her course and just clearing the firing zone, singed but otherwise unscathed.
But the Mon Ramonda, which had dashed into the breach an instant before, no longer existed.
"Holy frigging shavit," Wedge's voice gasped over Tycho's com. Tycho didn't answer; he was still gaping at the intrepid billow of fading fire which had been the second Rebel command cruiser.
"Well fought," the Colonel said, and the still-operating part of Tycho's mind agreed. Well fought was the highest compliment the Colonel ever gave anyone, and after that heroic sacrifice it didn't occur to Tycho to be surprised that he would bestow it on Rebel dissidents.
"Save it," Red Leader ordered them over the com. "Keep up your visual scanning, boys, we've still got – "
A stray shot from a Destroyer sprinted at them out of nowhere and eradicated Commander Dreis between one word and the next. "Red Leader!' one of the Rebel pilots shouted an instant too late.
"Close it up, close it up!" the Colonel snapped, forgetting he wasn't in command of the squadron.
"Confirm that!" Wedge Antilles barked. "Reform and adjust to sixty-five by twelve, Fresian Dive!"
"Red Two, you've assumed command?" the Colonel demanded as he and Tycho tried to follow suit without the benefit of knowing what, exactly, a Fresian Dive maneuver was. It turned out to be a sort of arc-dive-spiral combination.
"Affirmative, Black One," Antilles answered.
"Red Two, course sixty-five by twelve appears to point right at that big nasty enemy Destroyer up ahead," Klivian observed. "Aren't we supposed to be engaging enemy starfighters?"
"We will engage the enemy starfighters, Red Four," Antilles returned patiently. "But hey, if we happen to torpedo that bad boy's shield generator and bridge while we're in the neighborhood, so much the better, right?"
Colonel Fel shouted an appreciative laugh. Tycho shook his head with a shaky grin, adjusting the seal of his helmet. These Rebels were going to get them all killed if it was the last thing they did – so why was he almost enjoying the ride?
Vader should have attacked the instant Luke appeared, while the Emperor was still flabbergasted. But Vader was too startled himself to seize the fleeting opportunity and by the time it might have occurred to him, his son – Padmé's son – was shrieking and writhing under the same onslaught of vicious lightning that had sent Jedi Masters to their deaths, and the Force was white-hot with Luke's pain and his rage and the Emperor's savage delight. He didn't see a small teenage boy or a practiced old killer or even a Corellian street rat diving behind the projector for cover – his mind projected Padmé into place, surrounded by the hell of Mustafar, and the screams and pain were hers all over, and he couldn't let it happen again.
If Vader had been brilliant, he would have attacked seconds ago. If he'd been logical, he would have waited another few seconds for Ferus Olin to reach him, for the twin advantages of superior numbers and fresh surprise. But Vader at the moment was nothing but enraged.
In the back of his mind, Ferus Olin tried to get his attention – the Jedi could sense the plan falling to pieces – wait, we've got to take him together –
NO, NOW! his fury demanded.
His fury was far louder.
With an enraged bellow, Vader launched himself at the Emperor, forgetting in his wrath everything he knew about the effects of power surges on electronic equipment.
With an animal snarl, the lightning turned on him.
He caught the first few surges on the blade before a tendril grounded on his left hand. A brutal tsunami of raw energy instantly ravaged his life support systems and hurled him to the floor in a flood of agony, gasping weakly for breath.
"Oh shavit!" Ferus snarled as he and Master Yoda sprinted out of the secret turbolift, writhing through the pipes towards their planned entry point. Echoes of a nasty fight now reached them through the wall; between that and the thrashing currents of pain ripping through the Force, it was obvious that Vader had abandoned the plan and tried to take on the Emperor alone.
It was just as obvious that it wasn't going well.
"Quick," Yoda said. His downturned ears were the only other indication of frustration. Ferus drew a deep breath, ignited his lightsaber, and swung into the wall. A final eruption of energy outside masked the clamor of the collapsing permacrete and marble panels, buying them one precious instant more. In a single smooth bound both Jedi leapt out into the throne and up, straight up in a Force-powered spring towards the underside of the dais platform – Yoda thrust out a triclawed paw and the floor rent asunder to admit them.
"You pitiful Jedi fool," the Emperor was snarling. The shrieking metal behind him cut off his diatribe and set him spinning to face this new enemy. Ferus thought he'd never see an uglier expression on a human face. Then Palpatine recognized Yoda and produced one even worse.
"It seems my Palace had become a veritable rat's nest for Jedi vermin tonight," he hissed, summoning his lightsaber into his hand. Ferus glanced behind him and swallowed a fresh curse – Vader was down, stirring but feebly, and not far beyond on the Emperor's other side young Luke Skywalker had crawled up as far as his hands and knees. His eyes widened as he saw Ferus and Yoda. Even further back, Han Solo's face emerged from behind a projector mount.
Yoda spotted Luke, and his ears ticked a notch lower.
"Attacked an innocent child you have," he said severely. "A better definition of vermin, that is. Permit this I will not." He flicked an ear at Luke, who scooted backwards behind the projector, tugged by Han as his eyes clung to Vader.
"I am a Master of the Dark Side and the ruler of this galaxy," the Emperor spat. "I have no need of your permission, Master Jedi."
"At an end, your rule is," Yoda returned, taking his lightsaber in hand.
The Emperor cackled. "Do you imagine you stand better odds than last time with that weakling Padawan to back you up?" He gestured dismissively at Ferus. "The Force is with me, not him. I have such powers as he could not begin to imagine, let alone possess!"
"Understand nothing of the true nature of the Force, you do," Yoda retorted. "Defeated you will be this night."
Palpatine sneered and activated his red blade with a broad brandish. "You are welcome to try, Jedi."
Ferus found his voice as he slid into support position next to Master Yoda. "There is no try," he said simply, and swept his igniting blade down to stop the first slash short.
"Oh shavit," Han swore as the sparks started – literally – to fly. "Are you okay?" he hissed, turning away from the terrifying battle back to Luke.
Luke nodded – his breath was catching too hard in his chest for him to answer aloud, which meant he probably wasn't okay exactly, but what could Han do about it? "You?" he got out.
"Yeah," Han panted. "Okay, all systems go. Let's get the hell out of here." He seized Luke's arm and started dragging him in a sort of crouching run towards the stairs. At this Luke suddenly found some reserves of energy.
"No!" he cried, lunging forward. "Father!"
"Come on, kid!" Han yelped, struggling to make headway towards the stairs, but Luke wrenched free, then sprinted towards his father, lying crumpled on the floor and all because of him –
A scorching line of condensed scarlet energy split the air not four centimeters from Luke's ear – the Emperor had leapt backward and just missed Luke on his backswing. He halfway twisted with a snarl as he whipped his sword arm backwards and up, obviously planning to correct the mistake, but a green cannonball torpedoed into the gap and intercepted the blow with his own saber. Luke tripped over Han in his haste to backpedal –
Then the Emperor performed a sort of flying vault – Han couldn't believe this demonic acrobat was the same cane-tapping old geezer of just minutes before – and landed on Yoda's other side and made a beeline for Luke.
Han snatched Luke's hand, hauled him backwards, hefted him under one arm, and vaulted over the rail of the dais for dear life. Behind him in his peripheral vision he saw the other Jedi bounce over top of the Emperor and block in midair the lunge that otherwise would have deprived one Han Solo of his head. What was this, the galaxy's most lethal game of leapfrog or –
The floor, several meters below, arrived with astounding force. Off-balanced by Luke's weight on one side, he landed far too hard on his right foot and gave a howl as it snapped out from beneath him. He heard Luke's breathless grunt as his back hammered into the marble, but couldn't see for the daze of painful stars swimming across his eyes. His ankle burned. He tried to get up, only to stumble to his hands and knee with a yelp. Luke was still on his back, rolling sideways in the quest to get air back into his lungs. Han twisted his head to look back above; the garden troll Jedi was hopping back and forth on the railing like an Ostian jumping bean in a frying pan, batting at the Emperor as if he was playing a death match of Mynock Whacker II.
As long as it was keeping that ancient homicidal maniac's attention away from them, Han really didn't care. "Luke, you okay?"
Luke was up on one elbow now, coughing and nodding as he fought to push himself back to his feet.
"Good." Han forced himself up, seized Luke's upper arm, and took off at the fastest pace his brand-new limp would permit for the gigantic double doors.
They'd gotten halfway across the space between the stairs and the doors when a siren shrieked somewhere outside. An instant later the doors burst apart. Han froze in his tracks as more than a dozen red-robed, Force-pike-wielding, enormously ticked Imperial goons poured through.
"Kid, we're fracked," he said, and then berated himself for wasting his last breath on something so predictable.
Still no telling who had the upper hand – the fight was too fast, and too early; none of them had yet taken the measure of their opponent. All Ferus could say for sure was that he, personally, was way out of his league – or would be if not for Master Yoda. Wouldn't be so bad if he didn't have to worry about not just the actual swordplay but also about keeping the action away from those boys –
The Emperor found himself suddenly in range of Luke Skywalker, who had tried to make a dash towards Vader's inert form – Yoda sprang in to block, Palpatine bewitched his evasion into a fresh attack, and Ferus found himself making a modestly impressive second block from behind while still airborne. He landed on both feet and dropped and rolled, not stopping to reflect on his momentary success. Behind him the older boy snatched up the younger and made a harebrained escape over the railing. The Force flared an instant later with pain, but what did it matter, so long as they were alive and out of Palpatine's immediate reach?
Free to focus on the fight, Ferus planted a hand on the deck and powered up, batting aside a strike from the Emperor as he rose back into guard position. Yoda distracted him with a slash towards the eyes; it spun up off of Palpatine's effortless counter. Unperturbed, the last Jedi Master spun on one foot, following the momentum of his blade and redirecting it into a lethal side swing – no, a feint, he'd shunted back to the side and flicked the tip towards the Emperor's chin – Palpatine dodged it even as he whirled his own blade up from the left to preempt Ferus' overhead chop –
And at the same time, his other hand thrust out, pointing vindictively at the armrest of the throne. A red light blazed - a siren shrieked. Ferus' gaze flicked sideways just in time to see the Imperial Guard pour through the main entrance. The red-robed enemy fanned out, several of them chasing down the boys - pikes raised.
He tried to break away – Yoda would just have to handle the Sith Master on his own for a few minutes – but with a gleeful leer and a flurry of aggressive stabs the vile old man drove him backwards, cackling. Han and Luke vanished behind the temporary shelter of the staircase, the guards in hot pursuit –
Blaster fire shrieked and bestial roars erupted, echoing through the cavernous room. At that unexpected addition to the cacophony everyone stopped in their tracks and searched for the source. It didn't take any of them more than a nanosecond to spot it.
There is nothing very subtle about a charging, howling, bowcaster-wielding horde of bloodthirsty Wookiee warriors.
"Are those Wookiees?" Han hissed at Luke. He was scowling in furious incredulity as they pressed themselves under the staircase, hoping that in the pitchy shadows they might not be noticed the very same second the guards came in after them.
Luke shrugged as best he could while lying on his side and twisting his head to try and peer up between the marble slats. "Yeah," he muttered. "Lots of them."
Han arched his neck to get a glimpse and whistled. "Damn." The guards who'd been pursuing them had turned back, drawn into a melee with the Wookiees which started out as a relatively civilized exchange of fire but soon became a barbaric brawl. Several bolts screamed their way, blasting great gaps in the stairs; Han dropped and threw his arms over his head.
The barrage of energy at first kept the teens flat on their stomachs for cover, but soon enough both sides gave up firing their weapons in favor of using them to physically beat the enemy. Metallic smashes resounded everywhere, punctuated by squeals of energy and the smack of furry fists on plasteel armor. Han risked surfacing for another look. No way they'd get to that main entrance now. "Alright," he shouted over the din, "on my mark, kid, we're gonna make a dash for that side door! Go!"
They sprang to their feet and sprinted from behind the stairs according to plan.
Not according to plan, Luke then turned on a decicred and took off up the stairs. Han skidded to a halt and managed to snag his hand. "Stang it, Luke! You can't help your father if you go get yourself killed – "
Luke screamed, "Duck!"
Han glanced up and saw a Force pike soaring at their heads. He let go of Luke – they threw themselves down – away from each other –
With an almighty bellow of energy the pike speared through the durasteel stair. Han tore his eyes away and saw the guard who'd thrown it at them heading their way. If those things could tear apart durasteel, his pitiful torso didn't stand a snowflake's chance in the Dune Sea –
A spray of laser fire perforated the marble between them; Han flung himself further back as Luke scrambled up the staircase, hunkering low by the edge – a Wookiee slammed into the guard, swinging a bowcaster at his head as the guard tore his pike out of the BAM
Flash of black. Explosion of glittering specks in his vision. Cold floor against his left cheek. Heavy, musty fur against his right.
Han rolled out from beneath a heavy weight, blinking and quivering and trying to see what had hit him. It turned out to be a Wookiee who'd taken a full-strength stab from a Force pike and gone hurtling right into Han's side. The Wookiee whined its death moan. Han paused for a second and then wrested the bowcaster out of its hands. He pushed himself up, wincing as pain pounded through his ankle and head, and started back towards the stairs – Luke had gotten clear past the midway landing already – but the raging battle veered in his direction, proceeded by a barrage of laser fire from the remaining Wookiees, and he had to swing himself under the stairs again instead.
Luke had to duck stray shots every few seconds as he inched up the stairs, but was so intent on getting to his father and helping him somehow that neither the brawl below nor the vicious duel above mattered. He couldn't leave his father like this! Desperately Luke nudged at him in the Force – but his father's aura, usually so cold and powerful and big, did nothing but flicker in response to his frantic prodding.
There, the top stair – he flattened himself against the steps and lifted his chin to survey. The human Jedi bounded over the throne, launched a series of furious swipes, got the momentum for a few seconds. But the Emperor parried them all and found an opening for his own stab, which the Jedi deflected just short of his ribcage –
He threw himself down as a sheet of violent blue lightning exploded from the Sith Master's fingers. Master Yoda appeared from the far side and with his bare paw deflected most of the blast back at the Emperor – the red blade jerked up and the energy rebounded again –
Luke lunged to the side as some of it struck into the staircase, writhing across the railing. He avoided the lightning, but not the Emperor's notice.
Ahead of both Jedi he charged. Luke thought for a hellish moment he was back at Bast Castle being pursued by deranged dueling droids. Following an instinct which told him it was the last move Palpatine would expect, he dove forward beneath the descending blade and swung his legs out of the way by a hair, then grabbed the Emperor's flying cloak to haul himself up. Thrown off balance, Palpatine stumbled, giving Luke just enough time to stand.
Scarce had he got to his feet before a wave from Yoda sent him flying away behind the throne for cover. He tumbled to the floor and looked back around to see both Jedi converge again on the Emperor – Yoda was dashed away by an invisible battering ram – the human Jedi had to backpedal down the stairs to avoid another powerful shock, and his foot shot off the edge of a step and he reached up to catch the rail and stop a terrible fall –
The Emperor's red blade swiped down and a terrible scream knifed the air. Luke flinched at the awful sight of the scorched stump where the Jedi's hand had been a moment ago.
The Emperor howled with glee – lunged towards the kill –
But the Jedi hadn't lost his lightsaber hand. With an awesome effort of will he surged to his feet and blocked the powerful downward blow, one straining arm against two and the weight of gravity.
The Emperor snarled. He leaned down with all his power, wringing every ounce of advantage out of his superior position. Somehow his opponent held out for one second, two, three, four – then Yoda had come to the rescue, hurtling bodily into Palpatine with an eerie battle cry just as the wounded Jedi's strength gave out. The red lightsaber scraped down and flew free of the block, plowing an ugly furrow from the Jedi's hip down past his knee. With another gasp of agony he collapsed on the stairs. He was out of the fight, but not dead at least. Yoda and the Emperor careened down the staircase, a whipping frenzy of crashing, snarling light.
Luke scrambled to his feet and dashed the remaining distance to his father's side.
Han decided to make another try for the staircase once the fight seemed to be shifting far enough from him. He got up the first few stairs just in time to see Luke evade the evil old zombie's murderous laser sword by millimeters.
"Luke!" he yelled, and grabbing his bowcaster started a mad dash upward, pain bursting through his injured ankle at every step – but another round of stray laser fire from the Wookiees and the guards sent him sprawling flat on the stairs, covering his head as chips of marble flew and nicked his cheeks and hands. He brushed the debris off and pushed himself up on his hands and tripped over the very next stair when an awful scream resounded from above.
He couldn't see who'd yelled, but he did see the other human Jedi take a brutal slash down his whole side right as the crazy little green gnome rammed into the Emperor. The two remaining combatants started tussling down the stairs…towards Han.
He spun around and tore back down the stairs with an arm over his head to shield his eyes from blaster shrapnel. Problem was, he also shielded them from the fact that he was about to run straight into the backside of an Imperial guard.
The guard whirled reflexively, his Force pike already heading for Han's gut oh fracking shavit he was dead –
The guard staggered forward like a sledgehammer had caught him in the back. His head lolled loosely sideways, as if clinging to his shoulders by will and a couple strips of space tape. The pike dropped out of his hand; he tumbled forward into a limp pile of red cloth and charred armor. Han looked down at the scorched laser wound right at the join between his helmet and back plate. Then he looked up, across the room, into the eyes of a Wookiee for the briefest of moments.
The next moment the Wookiee was also a lump on the ground, except instead of a blaster bolt to the neck he'd taken a pike through his chest. Han dropped to the floor, flattening himself beside the dead guard so as not to be noticed by whoever was still left. Not many now – the guards and the Wookiees had just about finished each other off. Two of each remained, locked in one-on-one combat that involved mostly wrestling and bashing each others' heads. Stray bolts shot off in all directions as weapons were banged around. A few of them, Han thought irritably, might even have been fired on purpose.
He risked a glance back up the stairs. Luke was nowhere to be seen, but the green troll had driven the Emperor back up the stairs and off to the right. Han reckoned Luke must be on the left side, where Vader had fallen, near the projector. This was his chance. Gripping the bowcaster for dear life, wishing he could yell, Han got to his feet and hobbled up at his best speed.
The world came and went in flickers, blinking in and out through the badly damaged vision screen of his mask. His respirator, possibly the most heavily ruggedized piece of electronic machinery in the known galaxy, was still stubbornly limping along, just functional enough to prevent him from suffocating outright, but it was steadily failing and probably wouldn't last more than another hour. The compensators and power cells in his prosthetics were shot – he could move them only under his own strength, which after that barrage of lightning was practically nonexistent. Perhaps with the aid of the Force –
He'd do what? He was a wrecked hulk, incapable of protecting himself or anyone else.
Luke, his drifting thoughts murmured. Where is Luke?
The Force would not come to him, he was too weak, too tormented – all he could hear were the screams and squeals and sizzling of the duel raging nearby. Ferus Olin had arrived and decided to take the Emperor without him; he'd brought another Jedi along for the ride. By a steady process of deduction that would have been far faster if he'd been less catastrophically injured, Vader concluded that Jedi could only be Yoda.
He should have been outraged at Olin for his doublecrossing, and at Yoda simply for being Yoda. But they were the only reason he and Luke weren't already dead.
Defended by the very Jedi he'd betrayed. The humiliation was complete and soundly deserved. To this pass ambition and obsession had taken him, and Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn't here to bear the blame this time. He alone had failed to protect Luke and the twins, and then when he'd discovered Leia he'd used her to further his ambition and take his revenge without regard for her distress. Just as he had failed to protect her mother…
I never told her, he realized with another sick wrench of his gut. His lungs fought with extra vigor for one more useless breath. Organa would never lay the burden of such knowledge on his daughter, not after the way she had been misused. She'll never know…Leia…
And Sara and Sandra – if Baranne couldn't find them –
Somebody small and determined seized his shoulder and rolled him off his side by dint of raw willpower. Through the blitzing viewscreen he recognized Luke. His son's eyes were wide with terrible emotion. Was he shaking, or was that just the screen malfunctioning? Vader forced his right arm high enough to run a grateful finger down the boy's cheek. Still alive! All the wealth and power of all the empires that had ever existed paled in comparison to this one precious face.
"I'm sorry," Luke moaned over and over again, "I'm sorry…"
The clash of the lightsabers drew nearer, putting his moment of sentiment to flight. He must defend her son. Whatever injuries he'd sustained were irrelevant. "Down," he croaked. "Get down…"
Luke characteristically shot to his feet instead, trying to help him as he reached inside for a final reserve of strength and levered himself up on one impossibly heavy elbow. Why waste his scant strength on a pointless reprimand? Just behind the boy Vader spotted his lightsaber lying abandoned on the floor.
"Lightsaber," he managed, gesturing in its direction. Luke seized it and ducked down under his arm, exerting every one of his few kilograms. With both their efforts, Vader made it as far as his knees, where he found he utterly lacked the energy to get any further. Nonetheless he took the hilt out of Luke's hand into his own, locking the prosthetic fingers clumsily and indelicately around the grip, and hoped it would serve him well one last time.
"Get down…" he rasped again. "Go…"
"But I've got to save you!" Luke, still trying doggedly to push him further up, paused to fix his frantic expression on his father.
"I am not worth saving," Vader coughed back. Indeed he wasn't, fool as he had been. He had had every opportunity to whisk Luke away for good, flee with the boy and his sisters into safety beyond the Emperor's reach – and what had kept him dancing on that dangerous wire between his children and his master? Not Bail Organa, not Obi-Wan, but the driving greed for power which had festered so deep he hadn't even realized it for what it was. Leia, whom he'd used as a bargaining chip rather than sending straight to safety. Luke and the twins, whom he'd left at Vjun while he pursued his own ambitions elsewhere. And precious, precious Padmé, who'd begged him to just come away with her, the very thing he'd longed to do so many times during the wars…
No, he had been a worthless fool for decades now. His present physical wreckage served as proof. There was only one fit use remaining for the broken hulk housing his spirit, and that was to plant it between the murderous Emperor and her son – the one truly good thing remaining to him now. Let Palpatine do anything he pleased to this worthless body if it would protect Luke – let the fire of Mustafar swallow him whole –
"Of course you are!" Luke sobbed, smearing tears away. "You're my father!" Abandoning his vain effort, he turned and flung his arms around Vader's neck, ignoring the cold, slightly charred armor, nearly knocking Vader down onto the floor once more.
The respirator missed two breaths, and not because of electrical damage.
Han, watching the duel as he hobbled cautiously up the stairs, decided that really Jedi and Sith were about equally crazy. The main difference seemed to be that the latter were homicidal, whereas the former were only suicidal. The Emperor pulled no punches in his attempt to finish off the little green demon – bits and pieces of the throne room went flying at the Jedi every few seconds, not to mention blasts of lightning. The Jedi, for his part, considered no maneuver too risky. He buzzed like a nasty green mosquito around the Emperor's ears, pouncing from every possible surface as if gravity and the other laws of physics just didn't apply to him.
Who was going to win it, Han didn't have a clue, except he was pretty sure it wasn't going to be Vader or that keeled-over Jedi at the top of the stairs or one of the Wookiee attackers either –
A hideous bellow made him spin around and look back down the stairs. The last Wookiee standing had just torn a pike out of his own shoulder and driven its butt end through the eyeplates of his goon opponent and out the back of his head by sheer force. With an injured whine he went down on his knees.
But what Han saw and the Wookiee didn't was that there was still one guard left, pushing up from under the corpse of his last opponent with a fallen bowcaster in hand, and he was aiming it dead-on for the Wookiee's head. He was probably exhausted and dizzy from the Wook falling on him.
So Han beat him on the draw.
With a terrific recoil that knocked him off his feet into the stair rail, the bowcaster spat a beam of energy directly into the brains of the last guard, just as the unarmed Wookiee noticed his would-be killer. The guard tumbled down for good, his helmet blasted almost completely away on the right side. The astonished Wookiee stared first at the dead guard and then followed the line of fire to Han.
Han tossed off an awkward salute and did a one-eighty. He'd get to Luke if it killed him! If that possessed green fireball could hold the Emperor off just long enough for them to get away, the front door was home-free now –
About ten stairs from the top of the dais, Old Wrinklecheeks finally managed to get an upper hand. The Jedi, battering him with onslaughts one second, just wasn't there the next. In his peripheral vision Han spotted it smashing into the far right wall, pursued by a punishing blast of lightning it was too stunned to block. The Emperor lifted a fateful clawed hand and swept a finger down – one of the great velvet drapes tore loose of its suspension and flowed down like a waterfall of blood, crashing in a heavy pile over the downed Jedi. Palpatine regarded his handiwork for a heartbeat before turning slowly around towards the other end of the dais – where Vader was visible once more, leaning on the projector hub now in the midst of a raging little holographic battle that must be taking place over the planet. He had his lightsaber, which was encouraging, but couldn't get off his knees or even lift his head, which was not. Beside him stood Luke.
"Now," the Emperor snarled, "you will finish paying for your treachery, my apprentice."
Vader answered, or perhaps spoke to himself, in the weakest voice Han had ever heard from him. "There is…no…death…"
"Fitting that you now revert to your Jedi lies," Palpatine sneered. "They will not save you, any more than they did your allies." He gestured with the tip of his lightsaber towards the crumpled, unconscious form of the Jedi on the stairs. "But before I finish what Kenobi started, I think it only appropriate that you receive the promised recompense for your choice." His lightsaber came up, and Han realized that he was going to kill – not Vader, but Luke.
Vader made a sudden, feeble effort to get to his feet, simultaneously trying to press Luke back, but Luke's foot slipped on the cape's fabric and he got pinned in place as Vader lost his balance and swayed against the projector –
What the hell? Han asked himself. Then, howling like a madman to drum up good luck, he snapped the bowcaster up and fired for all he was worth, eyes shut tight against what he'd see if he missed. The recoil hurled him down, slamming his side into the steps as the bowcaster swung wide over his head.
A thin shriek attacked his ears. Han opened his eyelids a crack and craned his head around.
The Emperor's ugly yellow gaze was fixed on him in astonishment. His spine bent nearly double, he clutched at a smoking wound located a good bit further south than his head.
Holy frigging Sithspit, Han thought in awe, unable to break away from the basilisk stare. Right in the withered old gonads!
His elation evaporated the next second. With a superhuman snarl, the indefatigable old corpse staggered around, lifted his lightsaber high, and swung it like an executioner's axe down towards Luke.
"No!" Han screamed. The pain in his ankle ceased to even exist as he tried frantically to scramble to his feet, lever the huge leaden bowcaster back into position, take another shot –
"You will not touch him!"
How he found the strength neither Han nor Luke nor any number of medical professionals was ever able to say, but Darth Vader lurched to his feet and snapped a mighty arm up to block the path of the descending blade. Luke screamed over the shear of metal and an explosion of sparks – the murderous saber sliced through Vader's arm and plunged past durasteel armor into his ribcage. Undeterred, the dark lord's remaining hand snapped up and seized the Emperor's wrist, knocking the blade from his hand. Han heard the brittle old bone snap an instant before a shaft of scarlet fury burst out of Vader's fist and whipped clean through the ancient, vile-hearted torso.
His infuriated, pained cry cut off into a thick gurgle. The Emperor teetered for an eternal instant. He fell in two gruesome pieces to the floor. Vader swayed over his fallen enemy for another second or two, his inscrutable black gaze finding Han for one of them.
Then he collapsed beside his slain master with thudding finality.
"There!" Lando shouted, skidding to a halt as they were passing a long viewport. "That's our ride out!" He pointed down at the most dilapidated and least spaceworthy crate that either Dr. Siler or Leia had ever seen.
"You came in that thing?" Leia demanded in disgust. "You're braver than I thought."
"No," Lando snapped, "I came in that one." He flicked his thumb at the much sleeker yacht perched some meters to the Falcon's right.
"So why can't we take that one instead?" Dr. Siler asked as they picked up speed again towards the turbolift banks at the end of the corridor. Blaster fire peppered the door of the lift as it slid shut. That last squad of troopers wasn't as far behind them as he'd hoped.
"Because it doesn't have quad cannon turrets and the other one does," Lando snarled, lip twisting bitterly. Having to leave the Luck behind stung like a Meldorian tigerbee, no matter how logical a choice it was, and all this being shot at in the middle of his night cycle was making him cranky. "There's a nasty fight going on outside this station and we won't stand a chance of getting away without those turrets."
Dr Siler scowled as he checked the firing mechanism of his blaster. "Define nasty fight."
"You wouldn't believe me," Lando said. The door opened again. "But no problem, you're gonna see it for yourself in a couple minutes."
Miraculously, the docking bay was empty except for a pair of mismatched droids trundling away from the computer terminal. "Oh, thank the Maker!" wailed the tall gold one. The shorter blue-pointed astromech beside it wiggled its front wheel sideways in imitation of a cocky salute.
Lando's lip wrenched into an even uglier snarl. "If I didn't need you to man one of the guns I'd blow you to scrap right now," he hissed at the astromech. "Where's all the goons?"
"In the control station watching the sensors, I believe," Threepio said. "Artoo sealed the blast doors on them."
In fact, a glance around the hangar revealed that Artoo had sealed all the blast doors.
"Wait!" Dr. Siler shouted as Lando started to storm aboard their beat-up old escape ship. "What about the tractor beam?"
His answer was a violent explosion of fire from the direction of the turbolift. The squad of troopers chasing them had gotten it to work despite Artoo's mischief with the computers. "Too late!" Lando yelled. Dr. Siler seized Leia's hand and dragged her up the ramp under Lando's covering fire; she twisted around and fired a few shots of her own on the way. Artoo conjured a billowing cloud of steam from one or another of his innumerable gadgets to retard the troopers' accuracy. Threepio was the last aboard, ducking as much as he could and bemoaning his lot the whole way. Lando led the way to the cockpit; behind them the racket of blaster fire was shut out as the ramp sealed them in.
The engines roared to life with unexpected power. Dr. Siler, still trying to cinch Leia's crash webbing, was bowled off his feet and through the cockpit hatch as Lando kicked the sublight drive straight into gear without waiting for the repulsors to get them started. Leia's crash webbing had not been sealed, but the acceleration pressed her so hard into her seat it wasn't needed anyway.
"That's twice I've had to do that today," Lando ranted. "Twice!"
Dr. Siler, staggering back into the cockpit with blood streaming from a cut in his forehead, didn't look very sympathetic. Behind him rolled Artoo, who tossed off an insolent beep in response to the dirty look Lando shot over his shoulder.
"Well, that's twice I've been thrown around a ship in one day," Dr. Siler snapped, settling in the enormous copilot's chair, "so I suggest you quit keeping score and find something else to worry about – "
"Like that?" Leia cut in.
The freighter had rocketed in a sharp turn under Lando's fuming guidance and they were now staring at a space battle more catastrophic than the most extravagant holovid director could have imagined. Before their eyes an entire Star Destroyer was fragmenting into a miniature sun – slow and dramatic, the explosions splintered through its proud hull, spreading from the bridge to the engine bloc –
In a blinding burst of light, the whole ship and its crew vanished. It took a few seconds before Leia's eyes readjusted enough to see the lancing beams of green and red death criss-crossing space, weaving a lethal veil over the Death Star's terrible face. The destructive spectacle defied Leia to comprehend the number of people that must be dying before her eyes. As she watched a monstrous rod of jade laser spurted out of the station, its origin hidden behind the west horizon – it struck a smaller, bulbous cruiser and wiped it out in the blink of an eye. Whole flights of starfighters screamed in clouds around the capital ships, glittering with dozens of explosions.
"Force help us," Dr. Siler breathed.
"Let's get the hell out of here," Lando said grimly.
Artoo shrilled and forced his way up between the front seats, plugging himself in to the control console.
"What now?" Lando bellowed, throwing the freighter into a sharp dive to steer them clear of a cluster of skirmishing starfighters.
"Artoo says that the Rebel Alliance High Command is here," Threepio wailed from the cockpit hatch, finally catching up to everyone else. "He says he's got vital intelligence to transmit to them immediately!"
"The Rebels?" Dr. Siler snapped with automatic derision, and Lando added, "I'll show him vital intelligence – "
"Look out!" Leia screamed. Lando spotted the TIE spiraling out of control into their flight path and wrenched the controls, sending them into a sickening dive straight into the firing zone of the nearest Star Destroyer, and everyone forgot about Artoo entirely for the next few minutes.
"General Rieekan, we're being hailed by an unknown civilian freighter!" the Home One's com officer cried in astonishment. "Recognition code Bravo-Zulu-Niner-Five!"
"An armed friendly?" Rieekan was sufficiently amazed by this news to be distracted from his coordination of a joint pincer assault on an ailing enemy Destroyer. "Hailing us with our recognition code?"
"In the middle of half the Imperial Fleet, yes, sir." The com officer quirked a wry grin, admiring the Bravo-Zulu's flair. "It's in binary code."
"Patch them to my console," Rieekan demanded. He put a hand to his earpiece to close out the racket of the bridge and brought up the viewscreen. "Bravo-Zulu-Niner-Five, this is Mama Wookiee."
Text shot over the screen. He read for just a few seconds before his eyes bulged wide. One hand wrapped around his receiver, he shouted, "Lieutenant, get me a secure line to Admiral Thrawn! Bail! You'll want to see this!"
"You have what?" Admiral Torrin lurched out of his command console towards the projection that had just announced the most impossible news in the galaxy.
"The technical readouts of the Death Star," General Rieekan repeated.
Torrin, jaw still hanging, turned to see what Thrawn made of this unbelievable report. A maniacal light glowed in the master strategist's red eyes. "General, I'd very much appreciate it if you'd isolate the station's power specifications and transmit them to us."
"Already on its way," Rieekan grinned. Sure enough, the computer display of Thrawn's command chair was streaming the incoming data and layering it into the tri-dimensional orb that represented the Death Star.
"But how?" Torrin whispered.
"Bail Organa's astromech droid infiltrated the station and hacked the data out of their computer banks," Rieekan said smugly.
"And got away with it," Torrin murmured, shaking his head at the thought of all this might mean.
"It's aboard a civilian freighter," Rieekan continued, now with gravity. "Call sign Millennium Falcon. We've learned they're carrying medical personnel and a minor. We're trying to cover its exit route from the battle as much as possible."
"I'll forward the word to the fleet," Thrawn assured him. "Stand by until we've had a chance to analyze the data and find our opening."
Rieekan's response was a savage grin.
"Watch your tail, Black Four!" Klivian sang over the com. Tycho twisted his mouth into what he thought was a grin, though an objective observer would probably have called it a ravenous snarl.
"I see him, Red Four!" He completed his answer by somersaulting his fighter sideways and dipping into a tight loop that brought him back around to the enemy's tail, leading with a spray of fire from his laser cannons. The hapless TIE burst into a fireblossom. Someone whistled his appreciation.
"Not half bad, Black Four," Klivian allowed. His nimble X-wing rocketed past, drawing off the forward fire of the Destroyer they'd been harassing. Down through the brief gap in the defenses shot Red Five, Wes Janson, with Red Six (Jek Porkins) and Red Nine (Zev Senesca) hot behind him. The three fanned out, blazing so low to the Destroyer's hull they could have scraped off paint, and then splintered after their respective targets – Janson and Senesca bored in on the bridge shield generator from converging angles and blew it apart, opening the way for Porkins to swat the bridge out of existence with a proton torpedo. The decapitated Destroyer started a long tumble out of formation, which ended a few minutes later as the great ship slammed into the Death Star's southern hemisphere. The fusion reactor in her engines exploded, turning the Destroyer into a gigantic thermal detonator that painted a great scorched swath over the battle station's surface.
"That got him!" Red Five crowed.
"Nice shot, Six," Colonel Fel's voice crackled. The squadron sped back from its scattered positions and reformed into a tight attack group.
"Way to nail her, boys," Wedge Antilles said. "Hang tight and switch to command channel – the brass have a memo coming."
"It better be about my raise," Senesca said. "Cause I am way overdue – "
"You wouldn't know a paycheck if it shot off your stabilizers, Nine, and if you don't switch the channel now you're gonna be paying me."
"Roger that, boss." The com chatter went silent an instant before Admiral Thrawn's crisp accent echoed out into Tycho's fighter.
"Attention all ships. We have analyzed an exploitable weakness in the Death Star's defenses. At Sector N-12-12 is located an energy exhaust port two meters in diameter which affords a direct route to the station's reactor core. This port can be reached by an access trench large enough to admit a snub fighter. The port is ray-shielded, preventing any laser bombardment, but a proton torpedo if fired accurately should be able to enter the port and deliver its payload to the reactor core, initiating a catastrophic destabilization that will destroy the station."
A horrible groan twisted Tycho's stomach. No Imperial TIE fighter, not even his own Advanced model, carried proton torpedoes – energy armaments were more effective and didn't eat up as much space. The lambda shuttles did, but would not fit into the access trench.
The Rebel X-wings and Y-wings, however, did carry proton torpedo banks.
It was up to the Rebels now.
"Maneuverability in this trench is estimated at less than two percent," Thrawn continued, at which news Tycho's stomach did another flip of horror. "It is defended by turbolaser tower mounts. You are recommended to attack in groups of three, allowing the lead fighter to focus on the target while the rear pair engage the towers. TIE squadrons of Sixth Fleet, you are ordered to engage as many enemy fighters as possible to give our attack squadrons clean runs. On my mark, all capital ships will reform into a conical phalanx and proceed under my command towards the outer system with the intent of drawing the man body of the enemy after us."
The transmission ended. The squad channel flicked back on.
"Well," Klivian sighed, "this is gonna bite like a krakana."
"They're running!" Admiral Motti hissed, slapping a triumphant hand on his console. Tarkin scowled at the display. Thrawn, apparently having had his fill of suicidal point-blank tactics, had indeed reformed his surviving forces into an attack cone. The insurgents were blasting a persistent path through the fence formation of Capital Fleet, heading away from the Death Star's lethal emitter dish towards deep space.
"Not all of them," he said after a moment's cold observation. "Those corvettes are still behind us."
Motti snorted. "They're nothing but tin cans."
"Curiously determined tin cans," Tarkin retorted. "I'm sure they're as well aware of their relative weakness as we are, yet they remain behind while the main force flees. That indicates priorities other than escape."
"Self-sacrificing anarchist Rebel scum," Motti spat. "What more explanation do you need?"
"The corvettes concern me," Tarkin said, "less than the starfighters."
While the majority of the enemy starfighters had sped away with their mother ships, about a hundred TIEs lingered in furious combat around the Death Star, as well as a startling number of Rebel starfighters, which kept forming in stubborn triad patterns and making suicidal dashes into an access trench in the northern hemisphere of the station.
"Whatever they're up to," Motti growled, "it's failing. Between the tower cannon placements and our pursuit squads, the only thing they're doing is getting themselves killed faster."
"Something they would not be doing without good reason," Tarkin said sharply. "Check with the analysts. I want to know what they're so determined to hit."
When this day was over – if he survived it – Soontir Fel knew he would have nightmares about its carnage for years. The gruesome, extravagant destruction of Destroyer after Destroyer full of Imperial naval personnel had been hideous enough. It was not nearly as awful as the unabashed butchery raging around him now. The erstwhile commander of Black Squadron had earnestly hated the Rebels a day ago; after less than an hour fighting alongside them his brain retched at the spectacle of pilot after courageous pilot throwing himself headlong into the death trap of the access trench, seeking to make the shot that would end the battle with the worst massacre yet. The better-armored Y-wing squadrons had made the first several attempts. Out of the forty-eight that had started the attack, his scopes now registered one.
Red Squadron had split apart by now, freestyling in its separate wings and doing its dead level best to harry the enemy TIEs away from the desperados braving the trench. The other X-wings had been with them, but were thinning out as they too threw their heads one by one under the axe.
"This is it, boys!" Zev Senesca called over the channel. Twenty years from now Soontir Fel would still wake up in a cold sweat at the memory of Red Five, Six, and Nine beginning the death plunge with ferocious whoops, but the trained combat pilot part of his brain forced the horror out of thought for now.
"Red Squadron drop down and cover them!" Wedge Antilles knew perfectly well he couldn't make much of a difference by hazing the Imperial starfighters who were going to drop down on his pilots' tails to pick them off like nerf pups in a pen, which wasn't about to stop him or the rest of his squad from trying anyway.
The warrior in Soontir Fel had begun to think quite highly of Wedge Antilles.
"Affirmative, Red Leader," he said, following the others down. "You heard him, Black Four – "
"Not necessary, Black One," Antilles snapped. "TIE squadron orders are to remain above and divert the enemy starfighters."
"Understood, Red Leader," Soontir answered, "but today I'm flying with Red Squadron."
"Second that, Black One," Tycho piped up.
The waste to which it was being put had made them all extravagant spenders of courage, as if the vanity of the effort spurred them to dare everything and win tragic glory to compensate for their defeat. Janson, Porkins, and Senesca tore down the trench at full throttle, something none of the others had dared yet in such close quarters, while the rest of Red Squadron brought the battle within inches of the station's croppings and conning towers and turrets. It was like dancing in fire, it would last forever – Zev Senesca passed into the annals of legend as his fighter erupted around him, struck from behind by the pursuing TIEs – Wes Janson spiraled out of control away from the station, struck in his aft stabilizer by a shot from a tower, he was out of the fight – but Porkins –
"Torpedoes away!" Porkins shouted. "Take that, you motherless gob of slime!"
"Did it go in?" somebody demanded as his fighter peeled away from the station.
There was a pregnant pause. "Negative," Porkins announced heavily. "Impacted on the surface – shavit!"
A turbolaser had found the elusive Red Six at last.
"Pull up, Jek!" Klivian shouted.
"I can hold it!" Porkins yelled back.
He couldn't. The compensator, badly damaged, failed him. Spouting flame his fighter hurtled into the station's surface, erasing him.
Wedge Antilles inhaled deep. "Black One, Black Four, are you still with us?"
Their number was up.
"Affirmative," Celchu said, and Soontir echoed him.
"We're going in," Antilles ordered. "Full throttle, it's our only chance of getting past those towers and keeping the fighters off our backs. Red Four, Black Four, fall in behind me; I'll take point. Black One, hang tight above. When you spot those enemy fighters I want you to come in behind them and give them a bit of their own medicine."
"With pleasure, Red Leader," Fel snarled.
This was it.
I'm sorry, Nyiestra, Tycho thought, rubbing a regretful finger on the side of the holo of his girlfriend he'd stuck to his cockpit viewport. She'd never know what had happened to him, most likely. He wished that somehow someone would tell her that he'd died well, spitting in the face of evil.
"Go big or go home, boys," Antilles shouted as they plunged towards the trench.
Its gray sides flashed up around them, and in just a moment the turbolaser shots poured towards them. "Switch all power to forward deflectors!" Klivian called.
Tycho's gloved hand slid for a moment on the control but he got the deflection forces leveled in time to shunt aside an incoming shot. The fire decreased in volume as they shot past towers – then it vanished.
"All power to rear deflectors!" Antilles ordered. "Keep an eye out for those fighters! Switching to targeting computer now!"
"I see them!" Klivian snapped. "Coming in at 2-10!"
Tycho closed his eyes for a brief moment. Been nice knowing you, boys.
"Governor?" Tarkin turned to Motti, who was standing next to the chief analyst.
"Governor," said the analyst, "we've examined the starfighter attack pattern – "
"And there's a danger they could destabilize the reactor core," Motti cut in, furious with fear.
"Shall we prepare for evacuation?" the analyst added, sneaking a daring glare at Motti.
"Evacuate?" Tarkin laughed. "In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances…"
"Would you prefer to underestimate their chances?" Motti growled.
Tarkin spared him a cold glare. "Cowardice doesn't suit you, Motti. Neither does it suit the Empire, which will have need of strong men after this day."
Motti snapped his jaw shut and spun back to his console. "Pick off the rest of those fighters," he snarled at the targeting section. "I'm sick of looking at them."
Wedge Antilles couldn't believe the stupidity of what he was doing. Hurtling so fast down a trench so narrow that a single shiver of his control stick could kill him, with TIE fighters spewing destruction at his defenseless tail, while he did nothing but stare at a targeting display and trust the fate of the galaxy to a damned computer –
Klivian's right S-foil blew away under fire from the TIEs behind them.
"Wedge, I'm hit!"
"Pull out, Hobs, you're no more good back there!" Hobbie's limping fighter rocketed upward, leaving just Celchu weaving behind in an effort to confuse the enemy targeting systems. He bought a few more seconds and a lot more meters toward the port before the lasers speared his fighter at last. A terrific explosion burst out behind, taking out one of the oncoming TIEs as well – blast it anyway, where was Fel? The crosshairs of the targeting computer were still so far apart! He wasn't going to make it! And if by some freak chance he did, he'd have to put all his trust and faith in totally impartial targeting computer that couldn't care less if planets got destroyed because its calculations had been off by the tiniest margin -
In that moment, Wedge Antilles realized he couldn't do it.
Not that way.
Part of his brain watched in amazement as another part ordered his arm to reach out and pressed his finger down on the controls. The targeting computer retracted. It was him, the port, the torpedo, and plain old-fashioned instinct – if he could only make it there. Lasers streaked on all sides of his canopy – just a little farther – his astromech droid caught a blast and flared into smoke and sparks with a death screech – almost there… A terrible buzz raced up his spine and he knew he was moments away from blowing apart –
A crazy devil with the voice of a man plummeted sideways into the trench, unleashing volleys of lasers on the TIEs, pulling up a hair shy of the far wall. Startled, the pursuing TIEs swerved, clipped each other, and crashed into the trench. The consequent fireballs punctuated the bombardment that would surely have found Wedge in another second.
"You're clear, Red Leader!" Fel shouted. "Blow this Sithspawn!"
The port, ahead of him, there! Like it was the most natural thing in the world, Wedge paused for the tiniest instant longer and his thumbs slid down firmly on the firing keys.
Two shimmering torpedoes outstripped his ship, racing towards the dead end of the trench, and scented the beckoning heat of the reactor core at just the right moment. Changing course they shot through the port, nothing but air.
"They're in!" Wedge roared into the general broadcast channel. "Go go go!"
"They're in!" an unknown pilot whooped over the bridge com of the Chimaera. "Go go go!"
"All ships, move away from the Death Star on least-time course, maximum acceleration!" Thrawn snapped into the fleet com. "Estimate thirty seconds to reactor failure!"
"Did he just say they've hit it?" Bail demanded, coming half out of his seat as Rieekan urged his ships to sprint clear of the behemoth.
"Not now, Senator!"
Bail gaped – down to fifteen seconds – he stole a rapid glance at his scanner and found the Millennium Falcon, which had fled the battle at his urging deep below the orbital traffic – thank the Force Leia was out of the way, she was off that thing – five seconds - he snapped his gaze back up to the rear viewport –
Space went supernova, brighter white than heaven and deadlier than the tenth hell.
Grand Admiral Grant sat stunned and half-blind in his command chair. One minute victory's sweet savor as the triumphing Capital Fleet drove the invaders away from Imperial Center into deep space. The next – an incomprehensible catastrophe.
The Death Star was gone. And the enemy had reversed course, charging back upon the now-brutally outnumbered scraps of his command, finished with its sham retreat and hungering to mop up the fight. Shouts of panic and demoralization poured in from every channel as Capital Fleet begged him for orders. "Contact the Emperor!" Grant shouted at his com officer. "And get me status reports on the Fleet!"
The holographic images of his surviving commanders sprang up, all of them stammering tidings of devastation – the Death's Head had lost her main deflectors – the Indomitable's port broadside had been totaled by the electromagnetic blast, she was surrendering to her opponent – the TIE fighters were deserting to the enemy in droves – "Contact the Emperor!" Grant howled once more –
The stubborn Imperium, still transmitting her third refusal to surrender, broke into flames as her defectors failed and the enemy flagship raked lasers down her starboard from bow to stern. A pair of Rebel cruisers shot over her veering hulk on an oblique curve towards Grant's flagship, laying a sequenced assault on the engine bloc before Targeting could reprioritize its fire. The Chimaera glided closer, obscenely lazy amidst the expanding hell around them. Grant stared, imagining himself gazing right into Thrawn's eerie red eyes. He deactivated his personal com unit even as the priority signal started to flicker.
Refusing to hear the enemy's demand for surrender would only buy him a minute at most. "I want a personal line to the Emperor now!" he bellowed at the com pit.
"I can't, sir!" the com officer wailed. "Imperial Palace isn't responding!"
"Sir," another com officer spoke up weakly, "Admiral Thrawn is demanding an immediate unconditional surrender."
Grant ran a shaking hand over his hair and put his cap back in place, drawing a deep breath. "There's no answer from Imperial Palace?"
"None, sir," the chief com officer whispered. Beyond the bridge viewport, the Retribution's main beam shattered in a deluge of laser fire, at the apex of a speedy evasive arc – unable to bear the stresses the whole ship split in two. Her attackers had already moved on to hammer her sister ship Inquisitor, lamed and bleeding out her will to fight.
He couldn't throw away the lives that still remained under him on a hopeless battle.
Grant drew a deep breath. "In the absence of guidance from the Emperor, inform Admiral Thrawn that Capital Fleet agrees to the surrender. Transmit a general order to strike all drives."
"Kid!" Han dropped his bowcaster and skidded around the vile remains of the Emperor, dropping to his knees and heaving Vader's inert hulk sideways. Luke, who had inadvisably tried to break his father's fall, wriggled out from beneath the heavy weight, gasping. Han rolled him onto his back and waved a shaking hand in front of his eyes.
"Are you alright? How many fingers?"
Luke batted his hand away. Han grinned. Kid was going to be fine.
"Father," he coughed, turning his head toward Vader.
Han's grin wilted. Maybe he wouldn't be quite so fine after all.
"Father!" Luke was on his hands and knees now, shaking Vader's shoulder. The lights of his chest panel flickered like dying glowflies. The hiss of the respirator had slowed to a funereal pace. Would it even stop if the man was dead? Han had no idea. It wasn't like Vader had a pulse they could feel – both his hands were prosthetic, that doctor told them so back at Bast Castle.
Luke spun to Han, tears carving through the grime and sweat on his face. Luke hardly ever cried if he thought Han could see him. "We gotta help him, Han, he's dying!"
Even if he was a pretty fair hand with mechanical repairs, Han doubted he had a shot at fixing Vader's life support system. He doubted anyone had a shot. "Look, kid…"
Han racked his brains as he rubbed Luke's shoulder, hoping to at least be there if he couldn't do anything else. This felt like their escape from Corellia all over again, when Kenobi'd stayed behind and gotten killed, except even worse because they were watching it happen. "Maybe…maybe you could try to call a medic?" In reality the medics were unlikely to come tearing into the throne room just because a random teenage kid who shouldn't be there had asked real nice, but a light dawned over Luke's despair.
"Dr. Siler!" Luke plunged his hands into the compartments of Vader's belt. "Help me find his comlink!"
Not even Lando – not even Threepio – could muster an exclamation at the tremendous explosion that illuminated the whole system like a second sun. The blinding brilliance faded into flame and became a cloud of disturbingly beautiful glitter. A moon-sized space station, which simply had to be the biggest object ever constructed by sentient beings, had just gone poof, like a ripe dandelion in a tornado.
Leia had to fight the urge to cackle madly at the simile. It wasn't funny. It wasn't anything like funny. Much later Leia learned that just over a million men had been on the Death Star when it exploded, but she didn't need an exact figure to appreciate the enormity of the death toll she'd just witnessed. An inexplicable oppressive terror whelmed her over; she hugged her knees up and dropped her head onto them, wishing everything that had happened would go away and she'd wake up at home on Alderaan. Silence reigned supreme in the cockpit.
Dr. Siler's personal com spat out a jarring chime. All three of them jumped. The doctor clipped it off his belt with surgeon-steady fingers. "Siler."
The voice that Leia knew belonged to Luke Skywalker spilled out of the speaker. "Dr. Siler, you've got to come to Imperial Palace! It's Father, he needs you!"
Siler bolted straight up, his bushy eyebrows bristling. "It'll take me about fifteen minutes to get there," he said.
"Hurry!" Luke cried. "Please, he's dying!" A faint sob echoed.
Siler spun to Lando and mouthed Get going!
With a muttered oath, Lando gunned the ship back towards Coruscant on a heading for Imperial City. "Where in the building are you?" Siler asked.
"The throne room, at the very top I think," Luke gasped. "You've got to hurry – "
"I'll be there as soon as I can," Siler promised. "Hang on, alright, son?"
"Alright," Luke moaned. Siler cut the call and started punching numbers.
"What the hell?" Lando shouted. "What's going on?"
"A patient needs me back at Imperial Palace."
"You don't need to know!"
"I sure as hell do, if you want me taking Bail Organa's daughter back into the Emperor's rat nest when he told us to stay up here!"
Siler, entering the last digits of the contact code the Rebels had transmitted to them, ignored him. So did Leia. Unlike Lando, she'd already realized who they were racing to save.
Vader? Dying? It seemed completely impossible. But so had the notion of an exploding space station just a moment ago, and so had the thought of the Imperial Navy fighting itself.
Her father – her real father, Leia corrected venomously – answered a moment later. "Yes?"
"Senator Organa, this is Doctor Siler aboard the Millennium Falcon. I have urgent business at Imperial Palace."
"Then stop and bring Leia here," Bail snapped. "I don't want her taken to the surface, it's too dangerous – "
"She needs to come with me," Siler interposed. "She's an immediate family member of a patient in critical condition."
Leia held her breath, waiting, hoping to hear her father dismiss this assertion and shake away the awful weight of what Vader and Miyr had said.
"Alright," Bail Organa said. "I'll meet you down there."
"Bring a medical team while you're at it," Siler snapped. He cut the call and glared at Lando, who was simmering with resentment over the controls. "Is that really the fastest you can fly, Calrissian?"
As the minutes passed, Luke kept trying to rouse Vader. Han began to be convinced the man was dead, but then a faint moan echoed out of the vocabulator and one great arm shifted a smidgen.
"Father!" The aching hope that filled Luke's voice sounded as though he knew the end was coming no matter what he did, but wouldn't give up a wild desire to fight it away. Han decided to leave them to talk alone while Vader was still conscious; it might not last long.
Slipping backwards, he wandered over to the human Jedi collapsed on the stairs, who'd also begun to stir. Han clumsily patted his cheeks to help revive him, then hoisted him up and leaned him against a post of the railing. The Jedi stared at the ceiling, breathing in shallow gasps. Gently Han drew his arm away from the gruesome wound that reached from his left hip all the way past his knee.
"That's gotta hurt," he said, before noticing the Jedi was also missing his left hand and wincing in extra sympathy.
The Jedi licked his split lower lip and rasped, "Yes."
"I'm Han Solo," Han said, hoping a little conversation might distract him from all the pain until the medic got here.
"Ferus Olin," groaned the other. "Your reputation precedes you."
"It tends to do that," Han said. "Usually gets me shot at."
"I noticed," Olin grunted.
Vader felt he was drifting amidst thin, airy clouds. The world seemed much brighter and dizzier; all he could make out above him was Luke's face, even more frightened than before. Dreamily he forced a hand to pick itself up a bit and stroke Luke's lower arm. He couldn't speak anymore; the respirator wasn't producing enough oxygen for that. Don't be afraid for me, he thought at the boy. He'd done what he had to, the last thing he could; a peaceful death in his son's presence was more than he could rightfully have expected.
"Father," Luke sniffed. "I'm sorry I left Bast Castle."
Oh, my son, it doesn't matter. You're alive…
"I tried to keep them from taking Sara and Sandra," Luke kept going, oblivious to the faint flicker of thought, "but I couldn't so I chased after them – but then we got separated on Corellia – "
He started to cry in earnest as Vader kept caressing his arm, feeling a distant pang of guilt through the haze. Sara and Sandra. He had not found them. He would have to trust the search entirely to Baranne now. If only he could have known where they were, what had happened to them…at least he knew that Leia was aboard the Death Star. Though the thought of his daughter in Tarkin's cruel clutches sickened him, she would be safe from the raging space battle.
Mercifully, Darth Vader had been unconscious when the Death Star's holographic image exploded on the far side of the projection.
"But Master Yoda and I found them again," Luke said, rubbing back his tears. "They're safe now, Father – they're here on Coruscant, on our ship in the industrial district, Lando Calrissian is watching them. He's my friend of mine, I promise he won't let them get hurt."
Vader's grip tightened as much as it could on Luke's arm. "Safe," he croaked.
Luke nodded. "And Agent Baranne was heading that way, I saw him when I was sneaking back into the palace, so maybe he's even found them all now."
With a deep, fulfilled sigh, Vader's hand sank back down, his head lolling aside. Safe. Safe…
The world was dissolving at the edges. The borders of his mind were fragmenting, bleeding out his thoughts which mingled into the thickening flow. At the same time the power that had always dwelt at his heart became brighter at the bright places, darker at the dark places, sharpening … he let himself slip deeper in, mesmerized by the blazing realness and tangibility of it … he wanted nothing but to merge with it, submit to it, become it … except for that awful black, it sucked at him - like crude oil, searing cold … but he could stay away from that, surely …
A name? Whose name? Whose voice calling it?
NOT YET, ANAKIN.
The voice was strong, coherent, full of individuality. Halfway enmeshed in the current, he hesitated and found it possible to resist the dissolution.
THEY NEED YOU, ANAKIN.
A face burst out of the current, pulling tendrils to itself until a man's form appeared – solemn, garbed in a plain brown robe.
He thought the name without meaning to and instantly felt himself torn back out of the flowing Force. It hurt. He tried to push the memories back in, and let himself slip away –
I'm Anakin, he realized. Or – I was.
YOU WILL BE, Obi-Wan responded. STAY AWAKE.
But he was tired … so tired. He'd done what he had to. There was nothing left for him in life but humiliation. It would be better this way … it would be better for his children this way…the black sucked him down and in and apart, ravenous, cold, void like vacuum ... but maybe it wasn't so bad once you got used to it...and the bright parts burned anyway...
STAY AWAKE, ANAKIN.
Can't…The bright wouldn't let go of him, wouldn't stop enveloping him, it was hot, hot like Mustafar and he hated it and he wanted it...but too hot, too hard...can't...
AWAKE. STAY AWAKE. STAY AW –
" – ake, Father, please, Dr. Siler is here!"
Dizzily Vader summoned his final teaspoons of strength and forced his eyes open once more, trying to make sense of the spasmodic flashes of the mask's viewscreen. A medical capsule had arrived on the edge of his vision. Luke's terrified expression dove out of his field of vision and Dr. Siler's worried scowl descended from above as a team of medics hoisted his broken body into the capsule.
"Stay awake a moment longer, my lord," his voice said from far, far away. "Someone needs to talk to you."
A pale young face framed with brunette braids emerged hesitantly from the side, eyes wide and liquid staring at his mask.
He spent his second-to-last bit of energy to brush her hand and saved the last bit to whisper, "Sorry…love you."
Then black welled over him and he knew no more.
The Emperor's throne room was a leftover war zone.
Leia'd known something must be wrong when the Falcon touched down on the Emperor's private landing pad without anyone so much as commenting, but she hadn't thought it would be this wrong. You only had to look at this room to know the Emperor was dead. So were quite a lot of Imperial bodyguards and Wookiees. Siler shouted at one of the medics to stop and see to the only Wookiee who was still alive, huddled on the floor and whining with pain. He himself led the rest of the Chimaera's emergency medical detachment up the battle-bruised stairs to the dais. Thrawn and the Rebels had both sent medical crews after the Falcon, but the Rebels were still a few minutes behind them.
At the top hunkered two humans. Leia blinked hard – Han Solo! And next to him, looking even worse than when she'd last seen him on the Executor, leaned Master Olin, too injured to recognize her.
"Princess?" Solo said quizzically. "Dr. Siler! They're up there on the left, you better hurry."
Siler darted up, towing Leia behind him; another medic split away to see to Ferus.
"And there's another Jedi over there," Han's voice continued behind her, "I think he's pretty beat up too…"
Then she stopped hearing him at all. In front of her, sprawled limp on the floor beside the contorted corpse of Emperor Palpatine, lay the invincible Darth Vader. Luke Skywalker was leaning over him, shaking his shoulder, crying to him that help had come. The medics dashed past her, and Leia stood rooted to the spot while they loaded Vader into the special capsule that had been sent from the Chimaera. Luke hovered around the edges of the bustle, angrily drying his face with his filthy sleeve. Emerging from the knot of activity, Dr. Siler seized Leia by the hand again.
"He is your father," he announced in low tones, "and he is dying. This may be your only chance to talk to him."
Leia followed him over to the capsule and peered over its edge. Vader lay like a broken action figure inside, covered in scorch marks. The powerful hiss of his respirator had sunk to a fading gasp. He turned his masked head and stared at her. She froze as his hand trembled high enough to brush hers.
"Sorry," he whispered. "Love you."
Leia's throat had gotten too tight for words to get out. His hand slid back down. She backed away as the medics rushed the capsule down the stairs. Dr Siler was on the com again, talking to the director of a surgical reconstruction center. Leia's eyes followed his sprinting figure down the stairs, towards the side door –
Her gaze whipped around to face the main entrance, and then went blurry as she saw Bail Organa racing towards her, bounding over the corpses of guards and Wookiees. Half-blind with surging tears she sped down the stairs and leapt off the last two into his waiting arms. The blaster in his hand clattered onto the marble floor as he crushed her against his chest.
"Daddy," she sobbed, "oh, Daddy…"
"I'm here now, Princess," he whispered in her ear, running a fierce hand into her hair. "It's over."
Gradually the noise around them made Leia look up over her father's shoulder. The Rebel medical team had arrived and started sifting through the piled bodies of the guards and Wookiees, checking for any signs of life. Bail firmly turned around, blocking her view.
"You don't need to see any more of that, Princess." He set her down, tucked her under his arm and started towards the side door through which Dr. Siler had brought her earlier. Before he could open it again, someone on the other side did – a tall, blue-skinned, red-eyed admiral flanked by several other officers and a squad of crack stormtroopers.
"Senator Organa," he said with a trim nod. "I see that you've been reunited with your daughter. Are you well, Princess?"
Leia stared at him. Courtesy was the last thing on her mind and she didn't understand how anybody else could still be worried about it after everything that had happened tonight.
"Leia, this is Admiral Thrawn," her father said. "He coordinated our attack on the Death Star."
"Among other things," the admiral agreed. "What is the situation here, Senator?" He scanned the devastated throne room, his eyes flicking up to the dais where not much beyond bustling medics could be seen.
"I don't know, exactly," her father answered. "Vader is alive. I haven't heard about the Emperor."
"I saw him up there," Leia cut in, staring at the floor. "He's dead."
Thrawn and her father both drew deep, sharp sighs. "What other survivors?" Thrawn persisted, putting his blaster back in its holster.
Bail frowned up at the dais. The medics were still fussing in several different areas. "I don't know. No one should have been here beyond Vader and the Wookiee strike team. I know one of the latter is still alive – "
"Luke is here," Leia told them. "And Han Solo and Master Olin."
Bail jerked, looking first at her and then back up the stairs.
"Who are they?" one of the other Imperial officers demanded.
"Two boys and a Jedi," Thrawn told him.
"What the stars is a Jedi doing here?" the officer snapped. Bail found himself wondering the same thing.
"Jedi Olin was recently taken prisoner and agreed to assist Lord Vader's effort to eliminate the Emperor," Thrawn said, leading the way up the stairs with an expression of the utmost interest.
"In exchange for his own life, I suppose?" Bail barked angrily as he and Leia followed behind.
"In exchange for hers, Senator," Ferus Olin rasped down to them, nodding at Leia. The medics had put his maimed arm in a bandage capsule and dosed him with a strong cocktail of painkiller and stim; he was sitting up while they performed a scan to check for internal injuries. Bail wanted to rub his eyes – a wounded Jedi being fussed over by Imperial naval medics. Astounding. "I'm sorry. I didn't protect her as I should have."
"She's safe, that's all that matters," Bail told him. "Will you be alright, Jedi Olin?"
He blinked rapidly and winced. "Eventually, I'm sure." He looked over his shoulder. "I don't know whether Master Yoda…"
"Yoda?" Leia was worried for a moment her father might topple over backward and down the stairs. "Do you mean to say he's here as well?"
"Yeah," Han Solo said, limping up with his arm over the shoulders of a shaken and silent Luke. He pointed at a knot of medics on the far side of the dais, scurrying in a gigantic pile of fabric. "He's over there. He got hit pretty hard. I dunno if – "
He caught himself and didn't finish the sentence. Instead he glanced at Luke and patted his shoulder clumsily. "I mean, I'm sure he's gonna be alright and everything…"
"What are you boys doing here?" Bail demanded. "You could have been killed! And how did you even wind up on Coruscant?"
"Long story," Han said with a small crooked grin. "What are you all doing here?"
Bail shook his head. "Longer story."
Han finally noticed Thrawn, who'd been listening to the conversation with great interest. "Um…hey. Han Solo." He stuck his free hand out after a moment's hesitation; Thrawn shook it with the same gravity as if it had belonged to a dignitary.
"Admiral Thrawn, pleased to make your acquaintance. And this" – he focused his gaze on Luke – "must be Luke Skywalker. Fascinating."
Luke nodded wearily. "Do you know where they took my father?" he asked.
"I'm told that Lord Vader is being rushed to the Emperor Palpatine Surgical Reconstruction Center," Thrawn answered. A chorus of incredulous squeaks erupted from the assemblage of Imperial officers; even the stormtroopers started as they put the two statements together and made the calculations. Word of the Emperor's press conference revelation clearly had not spread far beyond Coruscant yet. Ferus Olin twisted around to face them, clutching his wounded arm like it was his anchor to reality.
"Yoda told me you were the son of Anakin Skywalker," he murmured at Luke.
"Well, yeah," Luke said, a note of bewilderment making its way through the exhaustion and dread. "They're the same person, you know."
"No," Ferus said tightly. "I didn't."
Luke stared at him for another moment before dismissing the comment as something he couldn't spare energy on. "Where's the center?" he asked Thrawn. "Please, I've got to go there!"
"EmpPalSuRecon is located within Lord Vader's castle," one of the medics examining Olin said. "Just above the private levels."
Bail beckoned to Luke. "Boys, why don't we all go over to the castle and wait in the private levels? We'll be nearby and the surgeons and Dr. Siler can contact us immediately with any updates. You'll be able to rest."
"We should go tell Lando," Leia said, pointing at the side door. "He's still waiting on the Falcon out that way."
"Lando?" Luke asked, and Han cried, "The Falcon?"
"I suggest we all go back to the Falcon and take it to Lord Vader's castle," Bail proposed quickly.
"Deal," said Han.
"Excuse me, Senator, Admiral, but we're removing the remains now."
Everybody split apart, clearing the route to the stairs. Thrawn solemnly removed his cap as a hoverstretcher passed. There was no sheet to cover the corpse of the first and last Galactic Emperor; the medics had drawn the hood down over his face and done their best to arrange his robes in such a way as to conceal the fact that the body had been cut completely in two.
They hadn't entirely succeeded. Bail yanked Leia's face against his chest, watching in disapproval as Luke's eyes followed the makeshift bier unimpeded. A dead sort of relief was his only expression. The boy had grown up too fast.
Han, having been living there for the past couple days, knew the passcodes to let them into Vader's quarters. The silence and cool imperturbability of the room felt almost itchy after all the excitement.
"Nice place," Lando Calrissian muttered, nudging his boot toe over the marble inlay. Luke sank onto the couch and curled against the armrest, staring into the distance. Artoo scooted up next to him, humming affectionately as Luke ran a tired hand over his dome. Not knowing what else to do, the rest of them pulled up seats on the remaining chairs and the floor. Han dropped onto the floor as near Luke as he could get with Artoo in the way and kept shooting anxious glances up at him.
The subsequent silence shattered as a buzz sang out. Luke jerked upright and whipped out the comlink he'd taken from Vader. "Yes?"
Dr. Siler had called the comlink about ten minutes ago to tell them that Vader was still stable and entering emergency surgery that might last for hours. If it was him again, the news couldn't be good.
"Uh, hi, who's this?"
"Agent Baranne," said a displeased voice on the other end. "To whom am I speaking?"
"This is Luke," Luke said, impressed enough by the awkwardness to fidget and start picking at the sofa fabric. "Luke Skywalker."
Dead silence stretched on the other end for a great many seconds.
"Figures," Agent Baranne growled at length. "Can I please speak with Lord Vader?" The sarcasm of his inflection was less subtle than it could have been.
"No," Luke croaked. "He's…he's not here."
"Where is he?"
"What do you need?"
"I need to deliver something to his quarters and update him on an investigation," Baranne revealed after a grudging pause. "But if – "
"Just as second," Luke said. "I'll let you inside."
The com clicked dead. Silence had never sounded so irritated.
"I got it." Han trotted over to the door, keyed it open –
"Das Luke, das Luke!"
Two short streaks burst in around Han's legs, nearly knocking him over in their desperation to get to Luke, who mustered a sort-of smile as he got off the sofa and scooped them up. "Hi, Sara, hi Sandra."
"Das Kwishy!" one of them squealed, pointing at Lando. "Is you better now?"
Lando, his leg slumbering in a cocktail of painkillers and bacta wrap, grunted something and cast a foul glare in Artoo's direction.
"An' das Han," scowled the other girl. "He still thinks too loud."
A medium-sized, gray-eyed, rather spent-looking man stalked in behind them, eyebrows knit in a scowl. "How did you get in here?" he demanded. "And what are you doing with Lord Vader's com?"
He cast a glance around, raising an eyebrow as he passed over Leia and Lando and stopping entirely on Bail. "Senator Organa," he said. "Most unexpected. Maybe you can tell me what the hell is going on. For example, why I can't raise the Executor? Or Imperial Palace? Or contact Lord Vader at all? Or, in fact, even raise the damn planetary information network?"
"The Executor was destroyed with all hands on board," Bail answered. "Imperial Palace is under occupation. Lord Vader is in critical condition and undergoing surgery as we speak. And taking a wild stab at it, I'd imagine at least a third of the satellite web has been blasted away. Now perhaps you can tell me who those girls are."
"My little sisters," Luke said.
The room went dead silent. Agent Baranne's eyebrows ticked a fraction upward. The Senator, much more astonished, stared first at Luke, then at the girls, and finally at the blasé expressions being sported by Lando, Han, and even Leia. Artoo twittered in bemusement.
"I think," Bail said, "it's time for explanations."
It took a couple of hours to hear everyone's side of the story. Han and Luke listened wide-eyed to the description of the terrific space battle. Sara and Sandra kept asking for their Daddy and for Miyr; Leia wilted with fresh misery, realizing that Miyr had to have been aboard the Executor when it blew. She kept the knowledge to herself; there'd be time to break it to Luke later, when they knew whether Vader would make it or not. Quietly she listened as the adults distracted the toddlers from the subject of their guardians and Han and Luke told their side of the story. Han even wrung out a couple of laughs with his (most likely exaggerated) description of his tenure playing the part of Vader's son. Leia forced herself to join in, but didn't think it was funny.
Han had only been pretending. She, on the other hand, really was his daughter. Maybe. How she wanted to be alone with her father and ask him…
Luke gave his side of it swiftly and sadly, telling them how Master Yoda and he had arrived back on Coruscant. When he got to the part about the battle in the throne room he choked up and Han had to take it over as best he could.
Agent Baranne, having pumped present company for all the information they were ready to give him, left to do further investigating, not without announcing that he'd be assigning every stormtrooper left in the castle to make sure Luke and the twins stayed put. Sara and Sandra, having mostly accepted the explanation that their daddy was sick and had to stay with the doctors for awhile, fell asleep – Sandra between Luke and Leia, Sara on Bail's lap. Lando wandered away to a back room to get some shuteye himself; they had forgotten, but it was almost seven in the morning now and no one had gotten any sleep. Han dropped off in spite of himself right there on the floor, snoring faintly. Leia blinked under Bail's arm.
Luke kept staring and checking his chrono every few minutes.
"You need to sleep, Luke," Bail said. "Go ahead. I'll wake you up if they call again."
"I can't," Luke said dully. He looked terrible.
"Alright." Bail shifted a little so as to better face the boy. "Do you want to talk about anything?"
"No," Luke mumbled.
"Yes," Leia said bitterly.
"What is it, Princess?"
She stared at her fingers, feeling sick. "Vader and Dr. Siler said something," she heard herself say. "They said…they said my real father is…Vader."
Luke was shaken out of his personal misery in a heartbeat. Leia glanced sideways and met his sudden sharp gaze for a moment before resuming contemplation of her knuckles. "That isn't true, is it?" she asked.
Her father sighed. "Yes. It is, Leia."
"It is?" Luke asked shakily. "But – but how do you know?"
Bail smiled sadly at him over Leia's head. "I was there when you two were born," he said. "Your mother was a colleague of mine in the Senate, and a good friend. She died just minutes after you were both born. She was heartbroken over what had happened to your father – and to the galaxy. Master Yoda and Master Kenobi thought that it would be best to hide both of you in separate places so as to keep the Emperor from realizing that Vader's children had survived. My wife and I" – he squeezed Leia's shoulders – "had always longed to have a little girl. We offered to adopt Leia. Master Kenobi took you, Luke, to your uncle and aunt on Tatooine. I suppose you both know what happened after that."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Leia wanted desperately to be angry. To her chagrin she found herself bursting into tears instead, burying her face in her father's shirt. Or could she even call him that name anymore?
"Your mother and I didn't think that was knowledge that you should have to bear so young," Bail murmured, rubbing her hair.
"He locked me up," Leia sobbed. "And he used me – to make you and Master Olin do what he wanted – he said he'd hurt me if – if – "
"He wouldn't have hurt you," Luke mumbled.
Leia wrested out from under Bail's arm. "What do you know? He's killed children! Don't you know that? He's killed babies! He deserves to die – "
"Leia," Bail said sharply. She fell silent, aching with barely-contained anger. Luke's expression had twisted with even worse misery than before. A niggle of guilt sprang to life in her stomach.
"You've got another father," he said finally, turning back to stare at the comlink. "I don't."
Leia ducked back under Bail's arm, hating Vader even more now that she felt guilty for yelling at Luke when he was so upset.
"He loves us, you know," Luke said. "He plays with Sara and Sandra and tells them stories. He lets me help him fix things. He even got Han and me simulators back at Bast Castle. So we could learn how to fly."
"How can he be both those things?" Leia's anger had gone, leaving her feeling bleak and bewildered. "How can he be so good sometimes and so bad the rest of the time?"
"He can't," Bail said. "Not for very long. He has a choice to make."
"If he gets a chance," Luke mumbled.
The minutes wore silently on. Leia drifted away into troubled dreams. Finally Luke's exhaustion became too much for him and he followed her into a deep slumber.
"Damn," Wedge Antilles said fervently.
The surviving Rogues had returned after a fair amount of confusion and celebration to Home One. Klivian got there last; and to everyone's astonishment he had been towing a passenger. Tycho Celchu had managed to eject at the last moment. Klivian, who'd pulled out earlier, had spotted him and gone in to attempt a retrieval, knowing that Imperial TIE pilot flight suits could be magnetically locked to ship hulls in an emergency. So Tycho was alive, although the shrieking speed of their race away from the Death Star had sent him to the medbay for the next couple of days. The rest of them were in the mess hunkered around the holovid and watching the galaxy evolve.
"What's on now?" The stern-faced Soontir Fel came up behind the knot of riveted pilots. He'd ducked out awhile ago to check on Celchu's progress.
"There's supposed to be an address to the Senate in a few minutes," Wedge Antilles said. Between his fingers he absently rubbed the rim of the medal General Rieekan had awarded him in a ship-wide ceremony a couple hours ago. Exact copies hung on brown shimmersilk ribbon from Fel and Klivian's necks, and by now a fourth one would have made its way to Tycho's bedside. "Thrawn and Mothma, I think."
"I'd have thought Bail Organa would be a more logical choice to speak to the Senate," Fel said mildly, sipping a mug of caf as he leaned against Janson's seat.
"He seems to be out of the loop right now," Klivian shrugged. "I heard he's planetside though. Something to do with the Emperor, you think?"
Rumors were flying like blasterfire across the Holonet about the fate of the Emperor. Some of them claimed he was dead; others asserted that Thrawn had arrested him and Vader. All anyone seemed to know for sure was that an epic battle had gone down at Imperial Palace. It was now twenty hours after Admiral Grant's surrender and solid facts about recent events were just starting to appear. The Executor had been destroyed with all hands aboard; the Imperial Admiralty's first act after surrendering to the ground forces had been to release its personnel roster to the news media. What with the millions more who'd been killed in the following engagement, there was no hope of sending proper notifications to every family faster than the information could leak to the Holonet. The regional governors and sector admirals located close to the Core had begun demanding to know who was in charge; one or two had already announced their official backing of Thrawn and his coup. Holos from across Coruscant showed spontaneous revolts. A statue of the Emperor had been torn down in the North Aldray district, though no one was brave enough yet to attack the one on the external grounds of Imperial Palace. The containment gates of the Southern Underground had been breached from within…
The breathless news correspondent fell silent and so did the pilots as the image transitioned to a view of the Senate. A broad pan of the chamber demonstrated that the news galleries were packed. Most of the delegates were present, except for those who'd been out of system and those who'd fled when the fighting erupted. Quickly the camera panned in to the vacant Alderaanian box; the news anchors had been especially inquisitive about Bail Organa's whereabouts.
The view nipped back out as Admiral Thrawn appeared on the central podium. But he was standing to the side while a willowy redheaded woman in flowing white claimed the chief position. A great rumble roared around the chamber as the erstwhile Senator for Chandrila and exiled leader of the Rebel Alliance bowed her head briefly before beginning.
"Senators," she said. "Great deeds have been achieved today. My ally, Admiral Mitth'raw'nuruodo, will speak to you on that subject. First let us pause in silent recognition of the millions of beings who have lost their lives today."
The chamber lapsed into reluctant silence for a minute or two, less out of respect for the dead than in anticipation of what the returned outlaw would say next.
Mon Mothma lifted her head, surveyed the chamber one more time, drawing a great bracing breath. "Of particular significance," she said, her forehead drawn smooth in bland amazement at her own words, "is the death of Emperor Palpatine, which occurred this morning at – "
The exact time and place of the Emperor's death were never heard, drowned in the roar that flooded the chamber. Soontir Fel blew out a hiss through his teeth. Klivian pumped a fist. Wedge leaned forward, hands steepled over his mouth. No one was really surprised by this news, but hearing the thing said so plainly…
When the frenzied shouts became too much, Mothma retrieved the ceremonial gavel that Palpatine had never used from its slot inside the podium and pounded it for silence. A full minute later, when relative calm had obtained, she said, "Admiral Thrawn will provide you with further details."
The victorious admiral wasted no words on introductions. "When a government and its ruler cease to represent the desires or respect the rights of its citizens, it is the duty of those citizens to remove them from power. This action has been taken not by myself, but by millions of Imperial citizens representing many perspectives. Let this be noted as the day on which those differences were set aside in the pursuit of a higher aim. Great sacrifices were made – by Imperial officers who risked charges of treason and by members of the Rebel Alliance who put by their hostilities and took upon themselves the greatest dangers."
His penetrating red gaze circled the chamber, seeming to meet the eyes of every delegate and every viewer across the galaxy. "In honor of these actions, I exhort you to join with us in the formation of a government acceptable to us all. It will no longer be the Galactic Empire we knew. Neither will it be a regression to the corruption and bloated ineptitude of the old Republic. Instead my allies and I seek to form a galactic alliance combining the most worthy elements of each. The hour is ripe for innovation."
He paused. "The Rebel Alliance and its members have already demonstrated their commitment to this goal by coming alongside their former enemies in battle. As spokesman for the Imperial Armed Forces, I wish to proffer a commensurate token of good faith in return. As of this moment, full amnesty is granted to all members of the Rebel Alliance and to all surviving members of the Jedi Order."
Pandemonium erupted across the known galaxy. Hoots and shouts broke in a tidal wave across the mess of Home One. Wedge Antilles crossed his arms behind his head and twisted sideways to grin at the rest of them. "This is starting to get good, boys."
"Interesting, at least," said Fel.
"I've got fifty credits," Janson cut in, "that say the Emperor's statue at the Palace will last one hour."
"You're on, Janson!"
"…Luke? Wake up, Luke. Dr. Siler is here."
Rudely shaken out of the utmost depths of his REM cycle, Luke picked his head up off the arm of the sofa and found he hadn't budged in his sleep. He was still hunched sideways over the sofa arm with his legs tucked in tight. A nasty ache permeated his body, probably from sleeping funny. Next to him Leia – his sister, he reminded himself – was sitting up, and Han had perched on the armrest next to his head in case moral support was needed. Senator Organa was standing over him, handing him a glass of water. And right in front of him, Dr. Siler had pulled up a chair and was leaning over his knees. He looked exhausted. Luke checked his chrono; nearly midnight. He'd been asleep for almost eighteen hours. He thought he could probably do with eighteen more.
"Is my father alright?" he croaked.
"Your father is a very resilient human being," Siler said through a drained, thin smile. "He's alive and he's stable."
A terrible burden lifted free of Luke's chest, letting tears leak out the corners of his eyes. "So he's going to be okay?" It seemed too much to hope.
"He's going to live," Siler said. "But you have to realize that after the amount of damage your father has sustained, there's only so much that the best healers can do. I'm still confirming it, but I don't think he'll ever recover to the point of being able to sustain extensive prosthetic and life support equipment."
"What does that mean?" Luke asked shakily. "You mean the armor and all won't work anymore? But why?"
"Your father suffered severe damage at the connection points of the old life support apparatuses and prosthetics," Siler said. "Now it won't be too hard to replace his limbs; we'll have to amputate a little further to create clean connection points but it's manageable. The problem is his breathing system. I suppose the simplest way to say it is that thanks to the new burn damage from the electrocution, your father doesn't have enough of his own respiratory organs remaining to connect them to artificial systems as I did before. My only alternative is to replace those systems entirely."
Luke felt sort of sick. Han put a friendly hand on his shoulder, which made him feel a bit better. "But you can do that, right?" Han asked for him.
"As a matter of fact," Siler said, "as long as a complete replacement is necessary, I can transplant an entire organic respiratory system."
"You mean he won't need the armor or a suit or any of that at all?" Something like excitement had crept into Luke's voice. "Why couldn't you do that before?"
"I could have done it before," Siler said heavily. "The catch is that it's an extremely delicate solution. The operation itself will take a great toll on him. It'll also permanently reduce his aerobic function."
"What will that look like?" Bail Organa asked from the side.
"His physical strength will be greatly decreased," Siler said. "Even if the transplants are successful, they will never be able to function at the same capacity. The artificial respiratory system enabled your father to retain an active lifestyle, which was why he and the Emperor chose that route when the original damage was sustained. If I give him a fully organic system, he'll be able to live normally again, but he'll lose the ability to be very active. No running. No starfighter piloting. And for Force's sake no lightsaber dueling."
"What if…what if he didn't want that?" Luke whispered. He couldn't imagine what his father would do if he couldn't fly.
"I already discussed the options with him," Siler said quietly. "That is what he wants. He told me that he wants to see his children with his own eyes."
Leia shifted on the sofa; Bail sat down beside her, patting her back. Luke stared at the blurring carpet. "Can I go see him?" he mumbled.
Dr. Siler hesitated. Then he sighed. "I suppose you can, for a little while."
"And Sara and Sandra? Can they come?"
"No. They'd only be frightened. We've spent the last seventeen hours removing the damaged prosthetic equipment and hooking him up to extraneous life support. It doesn't look very pretty right now. It won't for awhile. I'm not sure your father would even want you to see him at the moment."
"I've got to," Luke said fiercely. He disentangled his legs and tried to get up from the sofa, but the dull ache in his body abruptly became stabbing pain. He gasped in surprise and fell back, shaking all over.
Han lurched. "Luke! What's wrong?"
Siler got up and leaned over him, pressing a hand to his forehead. "Feverish," he snarled.
"Guess it hurt worse than I thought," Luke mumbled.
"What did?" Bail demanded.
"He got electrocuted by the Emperor," Han spoke up sheepishly.
"Electrocuted?" Siler was apoplectic. "You're just mentioning that little fact to a medic now?"
"I kinda forgot about it," Luke mumbled.
"I have a Jedi Master in my medbay undergoing treatment for severe electrocution and you just forgot about it?" Siler raved. "Oh, you're your father's son alright, stang it anyway. Solo, make yourself useful and call the medstation. I'm going to need morphine and a hoverstretcher."
"I can walk there," Luke insisted. "I've got to see my father – "
"You can see your father after you've had twelve hours of calcium replenishment treatments and another twelve of bacta immersion," Siler retorted. "He won't thank me for letting you make hospital visits when you should be a patient."
"That reminds me," Han said, sticking out his foot. "I think I hurt my ankle when we jumped off the balcony." He pulled up his trouser. Siler heaved an irate sigh at the swollen, reddish ankle that came to light.
"Sit down," Bail groaned. "I'll go get the stretchers and follow you to the medbay. Leia, will you be alright waiting here? Lando Calrissian will be around if you need something."
"I'll be okay."
"Speaking of Lando," Han added, "he's got a blaster shot in his leg you might want to look at…"
Siler massaged his temples. "I'm going to need another bottle of stim pills," he muttered.
Luke, after a series of weakening protests, had acquiesced to the inevitable and was now squirreled away in one of Siler's special treatment rooms undergoing the same repair regimen that Master Yoda had just finished. The wee Jedi Master greeted Organa for a few moments in his recovery room. He'd begun to sound chipper again. Bail glanced in on Olin and found the Jedi asleep. Elsewhere in the wing Han had been given a heavy sleep aid and put to bed with his head in a neural regenerator to repair a concussion that Siler had discovered while mending the hairline fracture in his ankle.
So there were no excuses for Bail to put off this visit any longer.
He drew a deep breath, checked the seals of the borrowed hermetic suit, and went through the cycled entrance to the sterile surgical recovery room.
The broken, entubed hulk before his eyes couldn't have looked less terrifying or more horrifying. Only one prosthetic hand remained attached; his legs and left arm had been removed to allow for amputations, refitting, and eventual replacement. The mask and armor had gone, leaving pasty skin and terrible scars bare under the dimmed light. Tubes penetrated a great many places, particularly in his disfigured chest, where almost a dozen of them passed through concealing bandaging and connected to an external respirator. Bail circled slowly around the side of the bed, and studied the monitors for a moment before looking down.
The keen blue eyes that had belonged to Anakin Skywalker years ago stared up at him out of a ravaged face that hadn't.
"Organa," he whispered. It was his own voice; the vocabulator of the mask and its impressive bass were gone. "What are you doing here?"
Bail clasped his hands behind his back. "I thought you should know that your children are safe. Leia and your younger daughters are here in the castle, up in your quarters. Agent Baranne brought Sara and Sandra back early this morning. Luke's here in the medbay. He'll be alright – he needed some treatments for the electrocution he sustained, but there's no lasting harm done."
"Good," the man breathed, blinking up at the ceiling.
"I also thought you should know what happened to Padmé."
The monitor diagnostics skyrocketed dangerously. "I didn't kill her," he rasped after a long silence. "I couldn't have…Luke…"
"You didn't," Bail replied. "I'd taken Master Yoda away from Coruscant and planned to rendezvous with Master Kenobi at a small outpost on Polis Massa. When he brought Padmé…she wasn't doing well."
The memory of her, broken-spirited and fading and in pain, made his throat go thick. He clenched his hands more tightly. His voice mustn't waver. This was important.
"The damage to her larynx shouldn't have been fatal, but the medical techs told us they were losing her quickly," Bail continued quietly. "I think going into premature labor was simply one shock too many. Obi-Wan stayed beside her for the delivery. Luke was born first, then Leia. She died about ten minutes after Leia was born."
He stopped to clear his throat. The story was almost over and then he could leave. "I didn't hear them myself, but Obi-Wan told me that her last words were of you."
The diagnostic readout gave a sharp spasm. "What of me?" he whispered.
He met the agonized blue eyes, knowing that the chief pain they felt wasn't physical. "That she knew there was still good in you."
He closed his eyes. "Then I betrayed her again," he wheezed. "There is none."
"After what Luke has told me," Bail said, "I beg to differ." He stood silently for a few more minutes before deciding to add, "Breha and I have tried to raise Leia as best we knew. What I have done is in memory to my friend and your wife. That's all I have to say."
He turned quick and singleminded towards the door.
"Take care of her," Vader whispered.
He stopped, looked back.
"Of all of them," Vader labored on. "I cannot."
It wasn't an order, but a plea. Bail didn't hesitate to nod. "Of course I will."
"Sara…Sandra…they're hers too," he added.
Bail actually cracked a grin. "Yes. I noticed. They look like Leia's clones, you see."
The extreme corners of Vader's mouth tilted upward for a brief moment.
"I didn't believe it was possible," Mothma admitted as they watched the cityscape blaze with sunset. The balcony of Bail's Coruscant apartment afforded an excellent view. "To think it's only been five days!"
"Rather long days," Thrawn commented, leaning back in his chair and sipping at a glass of water. The eccentric admiral, when offered an Alderaanian vintage by Bail, had avowed straight water to be the finest spirit in the galaxy. Bail suspected the Chiss merely wanted to keep his wits about him, not that he didn't have wits to spare.
It had been five and a half days since the cataclysm that had crumbled the Empire and was still rocking the galaxy. The Senate had dissolved in face of the upheavals that had now spread beyond Coruscant and into the major systems. A provisional committee, consisting of a diverse selection of leaders – Imperial and Rebel, military and political – had formed to oversee immediate needs and was sending out requests to all sectors to provide suitable delegates for a constitutional convention while also attempting to reign in the Imperial holdouts with a minimum of chaos. Even such a genius as Admiral Thrawn needed all the help he could get.
Mothma, it had been agreed, was too polarizing a figure to be of much practical use except as a representative for the Rebellion. Thrawn, having orchestrated the coup that saw millions die, wasn't in much better a position. Hence it was Bail who'd taken the lead in organizing things, backed up by his more astute allies. It was not the result he'd expected or particularly wanted. But if he didn't step into the breach there was no end of less scrupulous candidates who'd be happy to fill it. So now he was chairing the provisional committee and wielding his own personal influence to win as much cooperation from the systems as possible, while Mon preached reconciliation and Thrawn cleaned house.
It went without saying that Thrawn had made the most progress. The Admiralty was already toeing the line religiously. Imperial Fleet operations had come almost to a standstill galaxy-wide and the Chiss admiral had organized at least two operations against a couple of stubborn sector admirals who weren't convinced of the intentions of the new management. In his spare seconds he'd set about some spring cleaning in Galactic City.
"You mentioned that you and General Madine had started disassembling some classified facilities within the Palace?" Bail asked.
Thrawn nodded, his usual indifference somehow looking much colder. "A training facility for the Emperor's personal agents," he said, "and his private detention center."
Mothma paled. Rumors had been whispered for years of a hellish dungeon in the bowels of Imperial Palace, reserved for those who'd incurred Palpatine's special wrath.
"As bad as it's been suggested?" she asked.
"Worse," said Thrawn. "I had to inspect it personally before I could credit the reports. We retrieved one prisoner alive. He won't remain that way for long." He held his glass up to the light and gave it swirl, watching the crystal flickers with lethal intensity. "He'd been an informant of mine," he murmured in a tone that would have set all of Palpatine's interrogators on a least-time course for the Unknown Regions had they heard it.
"What of the agents?" Bail asked.
"We detained perhaps a third of them. Most were off-planet at the time. We've retrieved the mission assignments from the top-tier files and I've already alerted the appropriate outposts. There's just one child trainee we can't account for."
Bail's brow furrowed in wrath. "He was corrupting children?"
"Several. This particular one was listed under the program encoded 'Emperor's Hand.' Judging from the training facility I'd say she was due to specialize in assassination and espionage."
"Sickening," Mon murmured.
"Speaking of the Emperor's Hand," Bail spoke into the consequent silence, "I think it's time we discussed what we plan to do about his right one."
"Vader," Mon muttered. Thrawn took a particularly long swallow of water as she sat down across from the two of them, crossing her arms as if bracing for a Kaminoan thunderstorm.
"The public demand for information is growing louder," Bail persisted. "We can't afford to leave the question of his whereabouts unanswered."
"It's been working this long," Mothma sighed bitterly.
"Declaring Vader's fate as unknown was never intended to be more than a stop-gap measure," Thrawn reminded her. "Pushed to the maximum it buys us another three weeks."
"Pushed to the maximum it becomes a dangerous fault point," Bail retorted. While Thrawn might be a military genius, Bail was the one who'd been trained for politics. "As long as the general public believes that Vader could be at large you haven't shut the door on the Empire. He becomes a constant bogeyman at best – a rallying point for diehard Imperial sympathizers at worst."
"I agree," Mon sighed. "It's just such a damned hard decision. If once it gets out that he's an invalid, ninety-five percent of the galaxy will be howling for his head on a gold platter."
"Perhaps it should be given to them," Thrawn said. "Didn't you tell me, Senator, that our deal had to include getting rid of the Sith?"
"It has since occurred to me," Bail returned, "that there may be ways of destroying a Sith without killing him."
"That strikes me as remarkably wistful thinking," Mothma shot back. "Bail, you know how he became what he is – you're the one who told me." By now, Thrawn too had heard the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker in its full ugly detail. "Justice demands that he face the consequences of his actions."
"Mercy demands that four innocent children not be deprived of their father," Bail answered. "Honor demands that we recognize the contribution he made to our success. Had he not slain the Emperor, we could have blasted all of Capital Fleet to hell and not achieved anything. It's because of him and because of Masters Yoda and Olin that we're sitting here right now rather than engaging in a shootout over Coruscant."
"Can all of that atone for the number of lives he's taken?" Mothma retorted. "He's murdered infants, Bail. You know how many children were inside the Jedi Temple the night he led the assault! He has killed thousands of Jedi with his own hands and Force knows how many others. And after all of that you expect us to let him live out his days in peace surrounded by his own children? That's not justice."
"He's not that man anymore." Bail threw back a helpless swallow of wine, welcoming its dry burn. "I don't know how to describe it. It's…it's like a process of redemption. I want to know how it will end, where it will end. And for Force's sake, think of those little girls! He's the only parent they have. Put up a single holoclip of them crying for him and you'll have half the galaxy clamoring for a pardon."
Mothma began hotly, "I hope you're not suggesting we make this choice based on sheer sentiment – "
"If I may make a suggestion," Thrawn intervened, swirling his glass again in one hand, "perhaps the fitting course is to surrender him to the judgment of those who were first his victims and whose authority he betrayed. I propose that we hand the matter over to Master Yoda and Jedi Olin."
Mothma started to object, then stopped in real consideration. "I suppose no one could argue with that," she conceded. "If anyone has the right to condemn him – "
"Or spare him," Bail interjected stubbornly, though he dreaded that Yoda was unlikely to do any such thing.
" – it's the Jedi."
"Improved, your meditation has not."
Ferus heaved a sigh and opened his eyes, abandoning his most recent attempt at that Jedi discipline. In the doorway of his recovery room Master Yoda leaned over his stick.
"Not lately, Master," he agreed, grimacing as he stretched his healing leg. Not being able to seat himself properly cross-legged for the exercise didn't help; he'd discovered it threw off his composure. And then there was the constant distraction of a prosthetic hand so new it hadn't fully synchronized with his neural impulses yet. Damned thing was prone to jump and jerk around all over the place without his prior consent. The medics claimed the computing processor would finish calibrating within a few weeks.
"At least I'm improving," he continued as Yoda hobbled up beside the bed Dr. Siler had forbidden Ferus to leave on pain of death. "The leg will take several months but the hand will be good as new soon enough. I seem to be healing more quickly than I expected."
"Healing your body is," Yoda agreed. He fixed a piercing gaze more closely on Ferus. "But the more grievous injuries, not in your body are they."
Ferus looked away and after a moment gave a silent nod of assent.
"Hate Vader, you do."
"Should I not?" The quietness of his voice startled him, for his whole spirit burned – whether it was with hate, he wasn't sure, but whatever the ugly emotions were, they were probably at least as taboo. "Master, he killed us – all of us – the children! He betrayed us – and I will be damned if I can begin to understand why. I admit I never liked him much when we were Padawans, and I know he never cared for me, but to think he could be capable of – of turning his back on the Order in such a way…" He trailed off, at a loss to comprehend the depth of the betrayal. Why?
"Pain you feel," Yoda spoke again. "Fresh for you it is. Known this of Anakin, Obi-Wan and I have since it took place. Forgive, you must – or a foothold for the Dark Side you will create."
"I don't want to discuss it," Ferus told him brusquely, closing his eyes and slouching back on his pillows. "It's too recent."
"Discuss young Anakin we must." Ferus opened his eyes again, feeling petulant at the wizened old master's stern tone. "Spoken this morning with Bail Organa I have. Decided they have that we must determine Vader's fate."
Ferus blinked as he said, very calmly, "What?"
"The judgment of the fate of Darth Vader," Yoda repeated, "to the Jedi has been given. A grave responsibility is this. Set aside your hatred you must. Of wisdom we shall have need. By our decision, Organa and his allies have agreed to abide. Life and death we have power to dispense."
Ferus drew a shaky hand over his forehead. "I withdraw," he choked. "I can't be an impartial judge."
"Withdraw you may not," Yoda said severely. "No less impartial than any Jedi are you. All voices which can speak, we must hear."
"We?" Ferus's laugh sounded bony and bleak. "What we is there?"
"Me, for example," said the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi a moment before his ghostly form appeared on the other side of the bed. Ferus snapped his mouth shut – how could he have forgotten?
"And also me," a different voice chimed in. A second spirit assumed shape beside Obi-Wan – a tall man, with long hair pulled half back, wearing a mischievous smile. Ferus was sure he'd seen that man before – but not in a very long time. Not since he was a child – a mere youngling, not yet a Padawan even…
"Qui-Gon Jinn," the ghost supplied helpfully.
"But you've been dead for – " Ferus stopped himself short before either spirit could throw the Code at him. Jinn's eye twinkled at him; death clearly had not stripped the Jedi Master of his maverick flair.
"Because as we all know," Obi-Wan returned, crossing his arms serenely, "you have a sterling record of impartiality when it comes to Anakin." Yoda's ears twitched treacherously.
"I ask only for an opportunity to speak on his behalf, and then Obi-Wan and I shall leave the decision to you," Jinn said. "It is not only his past deeds but his present deeds which must be taken into account."
"True, this is," Yoda nodded. A little of Ferus' anger melted back as he flashed back to the throne room – Vader, horribly injured, flinging himself in the path of the Emperor's descending blade to save his son's life. Such self-sacrifice was not the action of a Sith…in fact, of all the actions taken in that battle by all participants, it was the deed most becoming a Jedi. The idea of Vader exhibiting that flash of blinding light revolted Ferus more than any of his crimes could. What right did a treacherous, power-starved Sith Lord have to be good? How was the thing even possible?
At that moment Ferus began to understand what Yoda had told him before. More complex is the situation than you know. Vader is no mere enemy.
"How long do we have to decide?" he asked.
"Two days, the provisional council has granted us."
"Then I suppose we'd better start," Ferus said grimly. "But don't expect to change my mind, any of you."
Vader thought once again about asking for the time. But that would only be begging for Siler's professional wrath. Of the opinion that information about time would merely serve to increase his patient's tension, Siler had been refusing this request with growing irritation. The meeting that was about to take place was a mighty concession from the doctor, such as only the direct order of the provisional council could have wrung from him. If Vader tried Siler's patience a millimeter further, the doctor would probably find that he had somehow overlooked a great many uncomfortable tests and examinations.
His personal physician was now seated at a workstation in the corner of the room, scowling at all the guests doing their utmost to disturb his patient. Luke perched on the side of his bed; Siler had let him visit for the first time two days ago. Bail Organa was sharing a portable bench with Leia, who didn't want to look at him but couldn't wholly repress a morbid fascination in his current gruesome appearance. She was seeing it for the first time; she had not expressed any inclination to visit him earlier, which was a cold relief of sorts. The mere sight of her threatened to deluge him with despairing shame. Han Solo, fidgeting at the seal of his hermetic suit, seemed at a loss without any pockets to stuff his hands in. Luke had dragged him in yesterday so Vader could make a suitable apology and express gratitude for Solo's devotion. It would have been an unbearable ordeal if Solo had smirked even once, but he hadn't, so it had only been painfully humiliating.
The cycled hatch opened for the last time to admit the final two attendees – Yoda and Ferus Olin, sporting a new prosthetic hand but still confined to a hoverchair as the damage to his leg would take months to heal. Vader felt an unreasoning childish dread at the sight of them. Olin knew now. It was obvious from his impassive expression. What wasn't obvious was what the two Jedi had decided.
When Bail Organa arrived yesterday morning to inform him that his fate was to be determined by the two Jedi, he'd felt little but resignation. He expected no mercy from them. He wanted none, wanted simply to pay the price and have done with this impossible mortal course – except for that stubborn streak of cowardice willing to accept any humiliation if only he could remain with his children.
He would not regret death – only leaving them alone. There had been so little time. A scared flash burst out from Luke's mind to his and Vader gave him a reassuring squeeze with his one remaining hand.
You will be well, my son, he sent to the boy as Master Yoda came to a halt in front of them, leaning solemnly on his walking stick. The Organas will care for you.
It's you I'm worried about, the anxious response came.
I should not have agreed to let him come, Vader scolded himself. What could it profit the child to hear the sentence pronounced? But he could not resist the fleeting opportunity to have his son nearby while he still could.
"Anakin Skywalker," Master Yoda began. "Stand accused of many crimes, you do. Betrayed your friends, comrades, and teachers you have. Younglings you have murdered and kidnapped. Fellow Jedi you have slandered, trapped, manipulated, and slain. Risked the safety of others for your own ambitions, you have. Broken your oaths to the Jedi Order, you have. To these accusations, what is your response?"
"I am guilty of these and more," he whispered. Such hard words to say – and such a weight they lifted from him. The confession seemed to drive the darkness away from his core, howling in outrage. It was…elating, almost, however painful. Luke sniffled and pressed closer against him, watching Yoda's every twitch.
"Deserving of death, these crimes are." Yoda's words fell like strokes from the butt of a blaster.
"I know it." A convulsive shock of fear reverberated from Luke. Vader closed his eyes so as not to see the pain on his son's face.
"Condemn you to death," Yoda said after a weighty pause, "we do not."
Han's breath whooshed out of his lungs. Luke's fingers jerked in his. Vader's eyes flashed open.
"Repented of your deeds, you have," Yoda said. "The choice of a true Sith, repentance is not. Mercy we have decided to show."
"Master," he whispered. The tide of relief shamed him. He bent his pride under it. If he had been willing to accept death from their hands, he ought to be no less prepared to accept life.
Odd that the latter stung this much.
"Submit yourself to our teaching once again, you will," Yoda continued severely. "Correction you will accept as your body heals. Renounce warfare, aggression, and the pursuit of power you will. Defend you before the galaxy, we will, if you do these things and continue in them for the years to come. By this decision the provisional council agrees to abide."
He glanced sideways. "Dr. Siler tells me that remain on Coruscant you must, until your operations are complete. However, a stable and safe home for your children we must provide."
"I have agreed to take them to Alderaan with me, Master," Bail Organa spoke up. He cracked a grin at Leia. "I'm sure your mother won't mind that much."
"To Alderaan I will go as well," Yoda said more gently, "that safeguarded your children may be against any who would wish to harm them."
"Train Luke," Vader got out. "Master, he wants to learn."
"I want you to teach me," Luke spoke up.
"A student your father must now be," Yoda said firmly. His expression softened. "And a patient as well. Perhaps in the future, if satisfactory is his progress, assist in your training he can."
"If he is to remain on Coruscant," Bail remarked, "and you are to go to Alderaan, how is this re-education process meant to proceed?"
"Accepted that responsibility, Ferus Olin has," Yoda said.
Olin had yet to look up from the floor. A shadowy frown passed over his face at Yoda's announcement, as though he couldn't quite believe the decision he'd made. Abruptly he straightened and risked a glance at his aforetime teenage rival. After a moment's stillness his mouth quirked with sudden mischievous humor, a smirk that made Vader suspect he was soon to start receiving his comeuppance for all the times he'd put down the erstwhile model Padawan. Not to mention his most recent manipulations.
"After all," Yoda elaborated, "heal he must as well. Much there is for you to discuss with each other..."
This, Vader thought wearily, is going to be interesting.
A grimy little shadow was making a tedious ascent up a lonely turbolift shaft of Imperial Palace, hand over hand up the access ladder. It was very slow and energy-consuming going – in fact it had taken the poor thing hours to reach her planned re-entry point, more than a hundred levels from where she'd started. A filthier, more exhausted object could not be conceived.
Mara Jade had never been happier.
One whole week! She'd done it! After encountering Luke she'd struck out almost exactly opposite to her first direction and had plunged further into the sublevels surrounding Lord Vader's castle – so close to Imperial Palace, but worlds away. Deep in the urban canyons, where sunlight had suffocated, she'd camped out in nooks and crannies, surviving on ration packs and trapping pseudo rats to round them out. She'd discovered that lightsabers worked well as toasting skewers, and also singed the fur off like nobody's business. She had used a jury-rigged purifier to extract water from the sewer sludge and boiled it in an ancient duraplast lube can to eliminate any remaining contaminants. Lightsabers proved excellent for that as well. Not a single stormtrooper had come anywhere near her.
All in all, Mara Jade had had the time of her life. She was almost sad her week of adventurous independence was over, but on the other hand, she had the praise of her trainers to anticipate when she got back to the training facility.
At level 104, she cut a makeshift door into the side of the shaft and crawled out into the corridor – an underused admin sector where she happened to know there was access to a secret turbolift that ought to zip her right up to the training facility. Blissfully pleased with herself, Mara checked the corridor for any sign of life and, finding none, boarded the turbolift.
She sensed danger on the way up and whipped out her lightsaber. The doors opened to reveal six stormtroopers with their blaster muzzles trained on her.
"Drop your weapon," one of them ordered. He didn't sound like he was in the mood to joke. Mara strained her peripheral vision to check the timer on her chrono. It had been rather more than the prescribed 168 hours since she'd gotten the message. Peering between them she saw that the training center was swarming with people – many of them stormtroopers, many of them in various other haphazard uniforms. None of them were the people who ought to be here.
What the hells was going on?
Deciding it was better to hold back and assess the situation before she did something inappropriate, Mara switched off the lightsaber and set it down.
"Step out of the lift! Now!"
She edged out and got her hands cuffed for her trouble. They marched her away from the lift and over to a grim blond-haired man with a no-nonsense beard and moustache, wearing a uniform of blue and tan. Mara's eyes narrowed. She'd memorized the wanted lists and that face hadn't been far from the top.
"Crix Madine!" she snapped.
The defector from the Imperial Army handed his datapad to a subordinate and turned his attention to her. "This is the one that was missing, then."
Madine leaned aside over a work console and brought up a holofile. "Let's see. I believe your name is Mara Jade. You were training as a special agent, code name the Emperor's Hand."
"I am training as a special agent," she corrected him fiercely.
"No," he said. "You were." He held up the file. "Even if this center was still in operation, we've learned that you fled Imperial Palace one week ago after coming under suspicion of treason to the Emperor."
"I don't listen to Rebel lies," Mara spat, relying on her innate contrariness to buttress herself against the terrible confusion. What was Crix Madine, a condemned Rebel traitor, doing in this top-secret Imperial facility? Ordering around stormtroopers, no less? Maybe he'd been a spy this whole time. He had been in Special Operations…
"I was on a practical learning assignment," she said, deciding to play it a little safer in case this speculation was close to the mark. "My stealth trainer tasked me to evade capture for a full standard week, one hundred and sixty-eight hours."
"Your stealth trainer?" Madine laid the file back down on the console. "Not named Ars Evactan, by chance?"
"Yes," she said. "And I have to report to him. Now." A long pause stretched between them, both of them glaring stubbornly and refusing to break eye contact.
"All right," Madine said. "Follow me."
Mara blinked as a trooper let her out of the binders. Just like that?
Madine and a trooper escort took her straight to the training center's docking bay, where they boarded a standard Palace aircar. Mara's nerves started to tingle as the aircar headed off on a direct ascending vector for Lord Vader's castle.
Something was extremely wrong.
Disembarking at a docking bay not far from the pinnacle of the structure, they arrived at a high-speed med center. Mara's trepidation surged, but sick curiosity kept her following Madine all the way through the doors of the intensive care wing. He stepped aside and gestured her in through the entrance of a private recovery room.
On the bed inside, surrounded by a forest of life support equipment, lay the mutilated body of her stealth trainer. His ears were both missing, along with a chunk of his nose. Bacta bandages laced with morphine had been laid inside deep gouges all over his bared upper body. She could tell from the folds of the blanket that his left foot was missing. Cruelly, he was alert.
"We found him in a private detention facility where the Emperor sent prisoners who had personally offended him," Madine told her, walking her up right next to the bed. "He told us that he sent information to Admiral Thrawn which enabled him and the Rebel Alliance to conduct a successful coup about a week ago. This is what the Emperor ordered done to him." He stepped back.
"This," her trainer rasped, "is what…he'd have done…to you."
"What do you mean?" Mara whispered. "Perhaps you betrayed him, but I didn't!"
"Didn't matter…to him," he forced out. "Tainted by…association."
"I didn't betray him," Mara breathed, her eyes pricking. "I didn't…"
A racking cough shuddered through him and he arched in pain. "Left you…the assignment…to get you…away. Pretty girl…shouldn't die…"
An awful rattle started in his throat and the monitors started wailing. Madine rushed her out into the hall as medics hurried into the room. They stood outside and listened to the bustle and tight voices for a few minutes.
It went quiet very soon. Through the open door Mara saw the attending physician bow his head.
"A coup?" she asked in a dead voice. "Is the Emperor...dead?"
"Yes," said Madine. He found a pair of chairs and sat her down to relate the whole complex story, listening in gruff understanding to her outbursts of fury and grief. "I loved the Emperor once myself," he said towards the end. "And just like you I found out the hard way that he wasn't what he seemed."
Mara couldn't summon much gratitude for such cold comfort. Drained, she sat in silence, feeling very dirty and very alone. Where would she go now? What would happen to her? How could the universe even still be going without the Emperor in it?
"Mara!" somebody shouted.
She and Madine looked up. Her jaw plummeted.
It was Luke – the boy she'd met in the sublevels that first day and showed into the Palace. He'd been standing at the far end of the corridor, talking to a taller dark-haired boy and a gigantic chestnut Wookiee in a hoverchair. He was presently sprinting in her direction.
On his belt swung a lightsaber.
"You're alright!" he cried. "I tried to tell Master Yoda I had to go look for you, but he wouldn't let me. Can you believe it?"
"Reckless you are!" the taller boy at the end of the corridor yelled at them in a bizarre froglike accent, sticking his thumbs out of his fists and planting them against the sides of his head in imitation of a pair of wide triangular ears. "A brain is your thick skull there is not! Kill yourself you will! Just like your father you are!"
"Hear you, these old ears do," commented a small greenish-gray alien which had arrived behind him, sending the teenager into the air with a startled yelp. The Wookiee barked with laughter.
Luke turned back to Mara with a sheepish grin. "Master Yoda! This is Mara, the Jedi Padawan I was telling you about!"
"The Jedi what?" Mara snapped. "I'm training to be a special agent of the Emperor, just like you!" She crossed her arms angrily, then added low and sad the next moment, "I was, anyway."
"Special agent of the Emperor?" Luke stammered. "No, I'm going to be a Jedi someday. I thought you must be too – I mean, you've got a lightsaber and you said you were hiding from the Empire…"
"Well, you said you had friends inside the Palace!" Mara retorted, springing forward with fists bunched. "Since when do Jedi chum it up with Imperials?"
Behind him, the teenage boy and the Wookiee burst out laughing. Mara eyed Madine's blaster and wondered how funny they'd think it was if she put a couple bolts through their feet.
"A lesson to you on the dangers of assumption, let this be," lectured the green troll alien, hobbling up to them.
"Yes, Master Yoda," Luke said glumly.
"Perhaps introduce yourselves properly, you should," Yoda suggested after a moment of awkward silence.
"Uh, okay. Hi. I'm Luke Skywalker and I'm learning how to be a Jedi. And this is Jedi Master Yoda."
"I know who he is," Mara bit out. "I'm Mara Jade, and I was supposed to be the Emperor's special agent when I finished my training." She flung all the bitterness she could into her voice and threw it straight at Yoda.
"A father to you he was," Yoda said gently. "Understand your sorrow, I do. Great loyalty you possess, Mara Jade. Devote it to a more worthy cause, I hope you will."
"I don't have a cause," Mara lashed out. "In fact, thanks to you, I don't have anything."
"You've got me," Luke insisted. "I promised to help, didn't I?"
By stang, he had. Mara had practically forgotten.
"We're going to Alderaan soon," Luke said. "With the Organas. Can't she come too, Master Yoda?"
Yoda inclined his head. "Teaching one student I am. A burden one more will not be. Continue to hone your skills, you should. Teach you the ways of the Force I can, Mara Jade, if willing to learn you are."
Something ferocious flared in Mara. Learn about the Force? The Emperor hadn't taught her very much, saying she wasn't capable of more than tricks, but she'd loved those scant lessons more than anything. "I'm not good," she said mechanically. "I can't learn much."
"A lie of the Emperor, this is," Yoda said, thumping his stick with something verging on anger. "Strong the Force is with you, sense it I can. Learn, you hunger to learn. Achieve much you can. Desire this, do you?"
She nodded painfully, unable to repress the fierce hope but still certain she'd never amount to much of a Jedi. "Could…could I think about it for a bit?"
"Leave at seventeen hundred hours we will from Docking Bay 94," Yoda told her. "A place for you we will reserve, if choose to come you do."
Luke followed him away with a last encouraging glance over his shoulder.
"Well, kid," Han said, "you ready to ditch this joint?"
"I guess," Luke answered softly.
They were standing on the platform, carrying their packs and waiting outside the shuttle while Yoda gave Ferus final instructions and Bail Organa stood locked in discussion with the redhaired Rebel leader – Mothma, Luke thought her name was. Senator Organa was going to drop them off on Alderaan himself. Leia, Sara, and Sandra were all making the trip on the consular ship, Tantive IV; because the little girls still got upset if someone let Luke out of their sight, he'd have to go on the Tantive too. He'd much rather have been on the Falcon with Han.
But Han would have a copilot, anyway – one who would even fit in that ridiculously huge chair in the cockpit. The Wookiee whose life he'd saved in the throne room insisted on coming along with them. Once Siler would let him get up, Han had gone to visit the alien warrior in the medbay, bringing Threepio along to translate. Chewbacca – that was his name, but everyone had taken to calling him just Chewie – had still been bedridden at the time, but had been extremely animated about the fact that, according to Wookiee culture, he now owed Han a life debt. Apparently this meant that he was obliged to dog Han's every step from now until one of them died.
Han claimed he was still trying to talk him out of it. But since learning that Chewie was a fantastic copilot, a first-rate mechanic, and played a wicked hand of sabacc, he hadn't been trying quite as hard.
"Han Solo and Luke Skywalker," someone said. They looked up at once. It was Admiral Thrawn.
"Unfortunate that I've had such little opportunity to make the acquaintance of two such remarkable young men," Thrawn said. "I anticipate great things from both of you in years to come. Until that time, may the Force be with you and may Alderaan treat you well."
"Thanks," said Luke.
"Ah," said Han. "It has before." He winked slyly at the Princess, who was sitting on the tarmac playing an impromptu clapping game with the twerplings. Despite her exhaustive reservations about discovering Vader as her father, she'd obviously taken to her little sisters without hesitation. She was also obviously regaining her usual equilibrium with rapid speed; she bestowed an icy glare on him before turning back to the girls.
"By the way, Solo," Thrawn added, clasping his hands behind his back, "I'm told you displayed remarkable courage in the course of recent events. I've checked those reports and must concur."
"Thanks," Han said, too astounded by the praise to make one of his usual smart-aleck retorts. He was far more accustomed to defamation than compliments.
"Young men of your caliber will be needed more than ever in the future," said Thrawn, much as if he was discussing the weather. "When the naval academy at Carida re-opens its doors – I aim for that to happen in no more than two years – a place in its first piloting class will be reserved for you at my behest." He cracked a slight grin. "You won't even have to apply."
Han's jaw dropped for a good minute of flabbergasted silence. "Thanks, sir," he managed at last. "That – that means a whole lot. I'd love to come. It's just – I mean, I kinda got Chewie around now…"
"Make that two places," said Thrawn. He nodded to them both and walked around the girls towards Bail and Mothma.
Han spun to Luke. "Did you hear that?"
"Yep," Luke said with a grin.
"You think he really means it?"
"Astral," Han breathed in daydreamy delight. Chewie woofed his approval behind them and ruffled Han's hair. "Aw, knock it off, you big furry oaf…"
Luke, the Force whispered.
Luke shut his eyes tight and stretched back towards the soft, still-weak voice. Father?
Watch out for your sisters for me, his father responded from his room in the surgical center. Especially your twin. She is too much like me for my peace of mind.
About that, Luke shot back. Didn't you tell me I didn't have any other sisters to find out about?
My apologies. You will learn to like them.
More like avoid them, Luke retorted. I mean, she's already promising to do their hair the whole way to Alderaan and make me help!
Remind me to tell you about your mother's hairdos sometime, his father said wryly. Luke sighed.
That won't be until you can come to Alderaan. Dr. Siler said it might be more than a year. That's forever.
His father brushed his mind gently. It is not forever. The time passes sooner than you think. You will be busy with Master Yoda and you will have Alderaan to explore –
"So I guess this is the ship out of here?" a girl growled nearby. Luke snapped his eyes open and jumped to find himself staring right into Mara Jade's green glare, currently set to kill on contact. She'd gotten more or less cleaned up and had a little bag on one shoulder.
"Yeah, yeah it is," he stammered.
"Hop on, Red," Han said brightly.
Mara's eyes narrowed in disdain. "Call me that again and I'll show you how to string somebody from a gantry using your bare hands and their intestines," she snapped, and marched away up the shuttle ramp.
"I'm – I'm glad you're coming!" Luke called helplessly after her.
Who are you talking to? his father demanded.
Um, Luke thought. Just some girl…
Those emotions you are broadcasting beg to differ, his father said. I will say this once – women are a dangerous proposition, son. I got married and brought down two galactic governments as a result.
It's not like I like her or something! Luke wailed at him.
Of course you don't, his father snorted. Yet.
No, seriously –
"Luke, come on! We've got to get moving!" Bail and Yoda had broken away and were hustling Leia and the little girls up the ramp. Luke waved a quick good-bye at Ferus (he'd finally managed to apologize for knocking him out and getting him captured back at Bast Castle), shuffled out a manly sort of well-later-then with Han, and let Chewie ruffle his hair before dashing towards the ramp. "See you in Aldera, kid," Han called behind him. "And try not to forget how to fix an alluvial dampener between here and there, Lando busted mine."
'So make Lando fix it," Luke threw over his shoulder.
"Ah," Han shrugged, heading away and smirking over one shoulder. "He's staying here. Said something about a new regime creatin' new business opportunities..."
"Tell him I said bye," Luke called through the shrinking gap. The ramp sealed up into the shuttle, cutting off Han's salute and Chewie's howl.
Goodbye, young one. Be safe.
Luke strapped himself into the seat next to Mara and across from Leia, and blew out a deep breath. Okay, I will. Get well soon.
I will try, his father sent back heavily. Luke knew he had more than physical problems on his mind.
Master Yoda says there is no try, he sent back cheekily. Better get that one down quick.
Thank you, Obi-Wan.
A new, echoing voice entered the fray in passing as the engines roared and propelled them away from Coruscant, out toward the stars. My pleasure, Anakin.
"Till We Meet"
Alderaan, one year later…
No. Not the dream again. Not this again.
Mustafar sprang up before his mind's eye, bathed in the hellish glow and spit of its lava banks. Into focus leapt the silvery ship, perched on the pad like a trembling songbird in a cage patrolled by a nexu. And soon, any moment now – no, love, no, for Force's sake stay away –
She didn't hear him, couldn't, she was only memory – but as she ran down the ramp towards him, she seemed so much more. There was no way not to run to her.
"I saw your ship," he heard himself call to her.
No! You selfish fool! Leave, leave her while you can –
"Anakin!" she cried, throwing her arms around him. "I've been so worried about you!"
She leaned back, and he knew what he would see next – her terror, her confusion, her heartache, her lovely mouth open in a constant gasp of anguish, her eyebrows wrenched in the effort to comprehend him –
She leaned back, and she was smiling, playful and sweet, a light sparkle starring her eyes. "Obi-Wan has been telling me terrible things," she said, wrapping her arms around his waist and leaning her chin on his chest to look up at him. "Apparently you've been having nightmares about me again."
What? That line wasn't in the script anywhere. He should know, he'd performed it scene by scene a thousand times in his nightmares.
"Padmé?" he asked quizzically. "What – but this is only a dream…"
"Is it?" she asked him.
He stared at her. She stared back, smiling wide and mysterious.
He planted a famished kiss on her and wrapped her against his chest. "Padmé…"
"I missed you too, Ani." It seemed whole generations could have flown down countless millennia while they stood in silence. She leaned back again and suddenly it had only been a second. "You look much better."
He glanced at himself, then at his reflection in the silvery hull of the ship. The ravaging of Mustafar lingered in his face. A skeletal fuzz of hair covered his scalp, the best Siler had been able to do for his cosmetic situation. The surgery scars around his throat and chest hadn't faded; they might never. He flexed his new prosthetic fist, covered with latest-generation synthflesh that responded much like his own skin. His atrophied natural bicep complained as usual.
It was his own appearance.
He felt ashamed of standing in front of her like this. Once he'd been strong, and even striking too. Those days were gone. He couldn't even finish one series of lightsaber warmups without collapsing and requiring emergency oxygen -
"You do know I didn't marry you for your massive muscles or your stunning hair, don't you?" Padmé said wryly from below.
"I had hoped, at least," he muttered.
"I like the hair, actually. You look all grown-up." She ran her hand over the fuzz. "Like you've got four children or something."
There was something else to be ashamed of. When he'd decided to have Sara and Sandra artificially conceived using his dead wife's genetic material, he'd never imagined having to give their mother the news that she'd become a parent for the second time post-mortem.
"They're ours," she said. "They're beautiful. I've been watching, this whole time. Did you think I hadn't?"
"Then you know about the portrait in the new Conclave Hall of the Galactic Parliament," he commented, trying for a lighter subject.
Padmé groaned, rubbing the side of her head. "I'm going to have serious, serious words with Bail someday. I don't care if he is the chancellor – "
"Galactic President, actually," he corrected.
"Whatever he is, it doesn't give him the right to hang a monstrous portrait of me in the fracking legislative assembly!"
He laughed for the first time in a decade and a half. She never resorted to that kind of language – only when furious or furiously embarrassed. "He said something about using you as a symbol of unity. Founder of the Alliance, wife of Lord Vader. I said he could."
"You said – " She cut herself off with a noise of frustration.
"This way I can look at you during every assembly," he added. "Organa was astonished to find me so knowledgeable concerning the Parliament Continual Broadcast Channel."
"Little does he know," she grinned.
"In fact he does know. I suspect the entire galaxy knows. Apparently the Emperor's press conference with Solo inspired a great deal of media curiosity." He quirked a smile. "So much for keeping it a secret."
"All things hidden shall be brought into light," she said quietly. Her hand cupped his battered cheek. "Especially you, Anakin Skywalker."
He grimaced, looking away from her bright eyes. "I am nowhere near the light."
"You're just feeling morose. It's a long way to Alderaan from Coruscant, especially for a beat-up old man like you." She flicked his chest teasingly. "But you'll settle down here soon enough. Weren't the children happy to see you?"
"Once they realized who I was," he muttered. "And except for Leia. I doubt she will ever be happy to see me."
"Give her time. She's already taken so well to Luke and the little girls. She'll heal."
He stared down at the platform, still swirling with bleak, confused mists from the ship's landing gears. "I do not believe that I will."
"No? You've come a long way from this angle."
"Not the body," he said dismissively. "You know what things I have done. And now what am I? Just…another old man. A failed Sith that Yoda insists on trying to turn back into a Jedi. It is not possible. There's too much blood… Padmé, what I would not give just to come to you!"
She took his big hands in her tiny ones and looked up sternly at him. "You listen to me, Anakin Skywalker. You have screwed up. So have we all. Don't screw up again by quitting now. You have four children to raise on your own, which is more than enough to keep you busy for the next couple of decades. And after that you'll have boyfriends and girlfriends to worry about, and before you know it grandchildren. You have good years ahead."
"It will be too hard – "
She pressed a finger to his lips. "It will be an adventure."
He worked up a faint smile. "A Jedi craves not adventure. Ferus Olin, lecture number 233."
"You just got through telling me you're not a proper Jedi."
"My doctor says excitement is bad for my respiratory system."
"And you've listened to doctors since when?"
She squeezed his hands and smiled. "It's a promise then." With a last kiss, she let go and started back towards her ship, bathed like a phoenix in the ethereal red glow of the world. A blaze of despair tore through him but he couldn't run after her. The vision was dissipating. She was going - what angel could remain in purgatory? - and though he might have crawled from hell, how could such as he dare hope to join her in heaven? No, love, stay with me, stay -
"This was only a dream!" he cried aloud.
She turned over her shoulder. "It's not only nightmares that come true, Anakin."
"Then I'll see you again!"
"When it's time… be strong, love..."
But he was wek, too weak - no better than a cripple - how could he ever be strong for her again -
Be strong of heart, my love - be strong of heart - be strong - be strong - be strong - be strong -
He woke, drenched in sweat, heart pounding as if he'd sprinted a mile. Through the window glowed the stars and the jagged silhouette of the mountains surrounding Aldera. He looked across the room to the cot against the wall. Luke and the twins had insisted on sleeping in his room tonight, not wanting to leave him alone for a minute. A smile ghosted over his face. Gingerly he pulled himself out of the bed and crossed over to them, running his hand over each small forehead in turn and thinking of Leia - sound asleep elsewhere, but nearby. He took a deep breath, reveling in the sensation of oxygen rushing through natural lungs, taking in the feel of young skin under his fingertips and a cool night breeze against his scarred cheek. The deep uncertain agony of his soul, still writhing in its prolonged crucible, stilled in a powerful throb of something too strong to tolerate any other emotion.
However much he scoffed at the thought that someone so guilty could even be human, let alone a Jedi – however much the galaxy scoffed at it – the dream was proof that Anakin Skywalker had a heart.