by MJ Mink
Vader must have had a tracing device planted on the Millennium Falcon. That was the only explanation for the appearance of the Executor and a small Empire force. There was no other way the Fleet could have been discovered in such a short time; the Falcon had been back from Bespin for a scant week.
Luke stared at the ladder that leaned against his X-wing fighter. Many were the times that he had fairly leapt up those rungs, eager to engage in battle. Now they looked nearly insurmountable. He closed his eyes for a moment, gathering strength both mental and physical. There was no time for somber reflection. The Star Destroyer was launching TIE fighters even as he stood here. Wearily he climbed the ladder and slid down into his seat. Pulled the helmet over his head, the protective glove over his new prosth hand. Protective...the hand was virtually indestructible. But it was too smooth, too perfect. Anyone looking at it would know it was artificial. It made no sense to feel shame, yet he did. He didn't want pity or curiosity; he didn't have time to come up with any half-truths to explain the circumstances of its loss.
A lightsaber duel with Vader which he'd lost--that was enough explanation for Leia and for the Alliance. Only General Rieekan tried to push beyond that, nonplused when Luke had evaded elaboration. Not for the first time, he wondered about Rieekan's hostility toward him--thickly-veiled it might be, but occasionally it peered out from the everyday manner of an impartial commanding officer.
He refocused his concentration as the snub fighters began to depart the carrier bay. There was no time for this foolish daydreaming--if only his mind would listen to him! No time to think about Rieekan, about his hand, about his father.
Vader was on that Star Destroyer. The Executor, his personal flagship. Vader had come for him. Vader didn't give a damn about the Rebel Alliance or all the personnel who would be killed by his attack. Vader wanted his son. Vader--
--no time for these futile worries!
Wedge had commanded Rogue Squadron during his absence and recuperation; today, Luke had insisted that Wedge continue. He was curiously reluctant to resume command--or maybe it wasn't so curious, if he looked at it coldly. Yet if they knew, no one would expect him to lead a group of fighters against his own father.
Great hero of the Clone Wars. Father, what happened to you?
"Tighten up formation, Rogue Two. Are you all right?"
Luke lifted his head, blinked away his blurring vision. "I'm fine, Rogue Leader." He concentrated fiercely, chastising himself for letting his attention lapse. He wasn't a real soldier, wasn't good enough because there hadn't been time to train properly, wasn't as good as a--
navigator on a spice freighter or a--
fighter pilot in the Clone Wars.
A dozen TIE fighters swarmed around them. Thankfully, Luke let their appearance distract his thoughts. He focused on them, on their laser fire, on his own. Felt a surge of satisfaction as his shots turned one vessel into a fireball that immediately disintegrated and disappeared.
Its pilot had screamed "Azlia!" at the moment of his death, his thoughts an agonized mixture of fear/pain/anger/sorrow.
Azlia? Mate? Sweetheart?
Luke shuddered. No time for this, no time for reflection, no time to wonder about a distraught woman who would receive the news, whose world would be destroyed because forever lost to her was her precious--no time for grief, no time for regrets.
Another TIE flirted with his lasers. Luke cast aside his inhibitions and probed the pilot's thoughts--got to get him got to before he gets me--GOT HIM!--oh hell mom what am i doing here i want to go home to smell the rich hungry scent of your carodombread that warms the kitchen and--sweet sith he's going to kill me there's no time to escape no time to get him he's going to--MOTHER!--NOOOOOO!
The TIE vanished. Along with it vanished the pilot's anguished deathscream. Luke stared at his thumb--he hadn't pushed the red button.
"Luke, what's wrong?" Wedge Antilles, voice on an adrenalin high. "Why didn't you fire? He got Rogue Ten--why the hell didn't you fire? You got problems with your lasers?"
Wedge killed the Empire boy. And felt nothing--blessed be him who felt nothing. Now a mother would never see her son again. What would she do when she got the news? Would she cry, would she scream the way her son had at his death--though she'd never know the sound he'd made or that his last thoughts had been of her. And what of his father, did he have a father who waited for him, who had molded him in his image, who would die a little himself when his boy didn't come home? Not even a bodybag, not even a memorial--nothing but time dissolving in a momentary shower of sparks that briefly lit blank, empty, cold, endless space.
And Rogue Ten, the new boy, young Tasio, barely seventeen. His thoughts had shrieked through Luke's head, too. And they were not of the war, not of the enemy--no, they were of home, family, regrets, so few memories and such a short life--not fair i'm too young--
"Sorry--just a small problem. Okay now. Thanks." Not okay, never okay again, but there was no time--isn't that what Leia said--no time for our sorrows, commander. No time left anywhere for anyone--why didn't the rest of them see it? Why didn't they see what they were doing?
Why should the simple discovery that my father is alive have this kind of affect on me? Why do I feel so much this time, is it Yoda's training, why do I--SHUT UP!
He swung his fighter into a defensive position, dropping to the rear of the squad. If he couldn't kill them, at least he could prevent the TIE's from dropping any more surprises, from killing, from dying. And if they chose to destroy him...then that must be his destiny. His own death no longer held any fear for him, not since he had faced and accepted it in Cloud City.
Would he hear his own death-thoughts? Or wouldn't there be--
He fired defensively, damaging two TIE's and sending them fleeing back to the Executor. Used laser fire to deflect the intentions of a TIE interceptor. Let Rogue Squadron handle the actual demolition of the rest; he could do nothing to prevent it. But nothing stopped the deathcries of the young pilots. All so young, babies who would never have babies, children, boys his age and younger than himself, barely out of the Academy, young ones who--
Luke's hands froze over his controls. He knew immediately the call had come from the TIE interceptor to his right, the one he'd just fired on. His shot had crippled the vessel, it wasn't functioning correctly, he could see that much even without using his Force powers. He swung his fighter closer. Father?
Son. Good shot. One of my ion engines is damaged. I can repair it, but....
Through his father's vision, he saw the problem, the severed connection glowing through the smoking wreckage. Understood what his father wanted. Protection. Protection from the snub fighters until he could re-solder the wiring.
Traitor. The word echoed in his mind. Thus he would be labeled when he returned to the fleet. By Rieekan. By his own Rogue Squad. By Leia. By the galaxy. But there was no time to think of an acceptable alternative. Either he protected his father or he did not. And if he chose not to protect him--
Then he would be the sad one, the only one to hear the death-litany of regrets, the only one to shed tears over the passing of his lost father. Or was there a mate or lover somewhere, a beloved someone else who would mourn? Or--was it possible that his mother still lived? Without further consideration, he moved his X-wing as close to the interceptor as possible and slowly guided it on a route away from the center of the battle.
"Rogue Two, Rogue Two, do you need help?"
"Negative, Rogue Leader. This one is mine." Let them make of it what they would. Wedge might be in command today, but Rogue Squadron knew they belonged to him until he released them; they would obey. He allowed his thoughts to filter through the Force and touch his father's mind. Waited and watched while the repairs were quickly and precisely made. Courted disaster by delaying, unable to tear himself away from his father's thoughts, the intensity of his concentration, the Darkness, the all-consuming Darkness, and...something more, something that feared to be named, something that dared acknowledgment.
Come with me, my son. Join me. Share my command.
He didn't bother to reply to the offer. The faintest hint of anger edged into his mind, and he allowed it. Then he couldn't not answer. That's not what I want! You understand nothing--nothing of what I need!
The reply seemed to bob slowly through the Force like a cork afloat in sweet wine. Perhaps not. It has, after all, been a very long time since I have had any emotional commitments with which to contend.
Dazed, Luke opened his eyes; he hadn't realized they were so close. Only the Force--or his father--could have kept their two fighters from colliding. Vader did understand--and that made everything worse. Now he could no longer hold onto the illusion that Vader wanted him only as a fallen Jedi, a convert to the Dark Side, and that there was nothing else, nothing more, nothing that would break his heart.
My work is completed.
He nodded an acknowledgment at the only thanks he would receive, not caring that his father couldn't see him. Suddenly alert to their danger, he scanned the immediate area. Most of the other TIE's were gone, destroyed or fled; only two lingered, hoping to protect their lord. Stand-off. They lingered around him, he lingered too close to his father for them to hit him. Rogue Squadron lingered around them all, unable to shoot at his father or the other TIE's without hitting Commander Skywalker.
How do we get out of this one? Black, despairing humor swept through him.
I'll call off mine if you call off yours. Answering laughter came from the Dark Lord, full of a warmth that threatened to render him defenseless.
Luke strengthened the barriers around his heart. Only if you promise to leave--I'll not go with you.
Very well. You have my word, youngster.
A reluctant smile tugged at his mouth. "Back off, Rogue Squadron. Now."
The com was silent but he could read their thoughts--read all the thoughts, Alliance and Empire. TIE pilots never considered disobeying Lord Vader; X-wing pilots felt the same about Commander Skywalker. The battle fizzled, all fighters slinking away toward their respective destroyers. The two central fighters remained in place until they were alone in the midst of a battlefield swept clean. A battlefield that bore no reminders of the destruction and deaths that had just occurred.
I will leave you for now, my child. But it matters not that you refuse to come with me. It is our destiny to meet again.
I know. Knew and hated his destiny--but hated only part of it. Hated Ben and Yoda for forcing this on him, for teaching him too much and not enough. If only there had been more time--for them to teach him, for him to know his Jedi fa-- Father?
Yes, my son?
How do you shut them out? Desperate, he risked sharing his feelings, the terrible grief, the pain of the dying, the agonies of the maimed in body and spirit. What's the secret?
There is no secret. In time, you will learn not to care. Farewell, Luke. Keep safe.
He watched until the interceptor was away, then returned to the formation and followed Rogue Squadron home.
...learn not to care.
Too much and not enough.
Of time, and everything else.
No one confronted him as he climbed out of the X-wing. No one rushed to assist and congratulate this time. The big deck was crowded with incoming fighters, crew members and maintenance staff swarming around the ships, preparing them for the next battle. They thought they had no time; they didn't yet know that the Empire fleet was readying for departure. They didn't know that Vader would keep his word to his son. He saw Wedge Antilles look his way, then glance down, turning to the other pilots who huddled around him. Wedge would be a good squadron leader. Better than Skywalker could ever be again.
Luke pulled himself straighter. Might as well get it over with. A droid was approaching; he fended off its pronouncement with an upraised hand. "Let me guess. General Rieekan wants to see me?"
"Immediately, Commander Skywalker. The General is in the Control Room."
One of the last times he'd be addressed as Commander. The possibility of resigning his commission had been preying on his mind since returning from Bespin. The training with Yoda and then the confrontation with his father--both events had served to stress to him that his life would be that of a Jedi. Not a soldier, not a farmer, maybe not even a husband or father. He accepted with pride and regret his destiny as the last Jedi. It was his chosen path to be a good one, to be the best, to strive for perfection. If he lived through each meeting with his father.
Rieekan wasn't alone in the Control Room. Among the banks of monitors sat a few operators, and standing with Rieekan waited Leia and Mon Mothma. He met Leia's eyes. She was grave, not understanding but hungering to. Grief for Han still colored her thoughts. Luke respected her privacy and lowered his own eyes. His actions had brought her more sadness, and for that reason alone he regretted this inevitable decision.
"Commander Skywalker," Mon Mothma began, her preternaturally gentle voice sending shivers through him as it always did, "perhaps you were not physically ready to undertake a battle. Are you feeling unwell?"
"I am not fully recovered, ma'am, but I am functional." He bowed slightly, acknowledging her regard even though it was more diplomacy than actual concern for his health.
"Luke, what we monitored-- What happened out there?" Leia's anxiety touched him.
"We destroyed several TIE's and lost one fighter." This was more difficult than he'd anticipated. There seemed to be no easy way to make his announcement. It was a relief when General Rieekan turned to him. Rieekan had no need for diplomacy.
"What we heard and monitored, Skywalker, was you falling out of formation, you running a defensive ploy instead of attacking--"
"I destroyed one TIE," he said mildly, though why he defended himself was inexplicable.
Rieekan acknowledged it with a curt nod. "Then why did you not destroy the others? The interceptor, in particular. You protected it while the pilot repaired the damage from your laser fire. You allowed it to return unharmed to the Star Destroyer. You allowed all the remaining TIE's their freedom by standing in the way of their destruction."
"More importantly," Mon Mothma continued softly, "an intercepted communique hinted that Darth Vader was piloting that interceptor."
"Luke!" Leia's distress sent small reverberations through the Force. "He nearly killed you in Cloud City--he took your hand! How could you help him?"
She couldn't accept the only answer he could give her, and it was not yet time to share his special truth. He held it tightly, protectively, in his heart like the dangerous treasure it was. Keep safe. Luke bowed his head for a long moment. When he raised it, he addressed Rieekan alone.
"Sir, I can no longer continue as an officer with the Alliance. I am resigning my commission effective immediately. I would like permission to be affiliated with the Alliance on an informal basis while I continue my Jedi training."
"Your resignation is accepted gladly." Rieekan's voice held anger. "I have some reservations, however, about this 'Jedi' business. The Jedi were nothing but trouble for years--I cannot accept that you wish to continue this pagan tradition. I hope that as you mature, you will put aside these childish dreams of otherworldly powers and glory."
This was not idle prejudice. Some experience in Rieekan's life had made him despise and fear the Jedi. Luke wondered what it was. He was tempted to delve into the man's thoughts--but that was a temptation he would always have to control; it was an act that came too easily to him. The General's fury irked him, too--why should ordinary men be allowed anger while it was forbidden to Jedi? How did the rage of ordinary humans fit into the Force? So many questions and no one to answer them.
"I feel we should accept Jedi Skywalker's offer to continue as a pilot with us," Mon Mothma said thoughtfully.
"Why? We can't get an answer out of him regarding today's shabby performance," Rieekan answered sharply, "and if I don't get a satisfactory answer, I will not allow him to remain with the Alliance fleet. His actions today were traitorous."
Luke flinched. It had taken long enough for the word to arise, but there it was. He heard Leia sigh; for once, she wasn't leaping to his defense. Though what defense could she possibly use? He stared Rieekan in the eyes. "You think little of Jedi, so perhaps this answer will not be 'satisfactory' to you. It is, however, the only one I have to share. I can sense them." His voice trembled. No time to feel regret, only to voice it. He drew a deep breath to steady his words. "I...can sense their thoughts. The pilots. What they're thinking as they die. They call for the ones they love. They cry for their mothers. They wish they were at home, on their farms, in their cities, instead of in battle. I cannot continue to take their lives, not when I can hear them dying." Their deaths in the stars...the Death Star. The lives, the thousands of lives he'd taken, the thousands of deaths he hadn't been able to sense.
In time you will learn not to care.
"Jedi sorcery!" Rieekan turned impatiently and slammed his fist on the table. Beyond him, a com operator jumped and readjusted her headset. "What about Vader? Why didn't you destroy him when you had the chance? Did you and he plot something when he let you escape in Cloud City?"
"General Rieekan, you go too far!" Leia confronted the tall man, glaring at him with her battle-fierce brown eyes. "Commander Skywalker is a Jedi! How else could he have escaped Vader?--he wasn't allowed to escape! You saw the condition he was in afterwards."
"I still want to know about Vader--about what happened today."
Luke hesitated. He wasn't about to reveal his parentage. That knowledge belonged to him. "He was...his craft was disabled. It would have been murder, not a fair battle, sir."
"His lasers weren't disabled."
"Well, he didn't use them, did he?" Leia snapped. "Evidently it was a mutual respect between warriors that caused the standoff. Luke's answers satisfy me."
"Yes." Mon Mothma glided to stand before him. "Your resignation is accepted with regret, but we respect your reasons. We would welcome your assistance at any time and in whatever form you choose to offer it."
"Thank you, ma'am, Princess." His awkward bow included them both. It didn't surprise him when Rieekan's acknowledgment was different.
He remained very straight as the rank insignia was ripped off his flightsuit with such force that the cloth was torn. "Resignation accepted, Skywalker." Rieekan had controlled the anger in his voice, but could do nothing about his eyes and shaking hands.
Humiliation brushed him. He had a fleeting, precognitive glimpse of the embarrassment of walking back to his quarters stripped of his rank, being humbled in front of his pilots. But, he told himself, these things were transitory. Fleeting moments in time. All that truly mattered was the Force and becoming a Jedi like--and unlike--his father.
Yet, in another way, all that mattered was solving the mystery of his father. Until he solved it, he would always have doubts, would always be haunted by the possibility that whatever had happened to his father would, in time, happen to him. If Jedi Skywalker the Elder could fall to the Dark, what would prevent the same fate from befalling Jedi Skywalker the Younger?
And if he discovered the reason for the fall, there was the real possibility that it could be reversed. He would have his father back, the galaxy would have two Jedi, father and son--not to rule the galaxy as Lord Vader wished, but to cherish and protect it.
He smiled at the vision. "Thank you," he said happily, much to General Rieekan's surprise. Impulsively, he turned and hugged Leia before leaving the Control Room with lighter steps than he had walked in a week.
He'd taken his first bold, cautious leap into the future, toward saving his father and himself. There were so many preparations to make. First there was Rogue Squadron and the explanation he owed them, then Han to be saved, then he would go to Yoda to finish his training. So much to do.
He had no time to waste.