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Star Wars: Escape To The Rebellion

STAR WARS

ESCAPE TO THE REBELLION

By

Travis Barr

 

CHAPTER 1

 

I can feel the warmth already, Admiral Ozzel thought to himself as he surveyed the imperial command ship’s bridge. He had requested heat control to be increased only three minutes ago and its effects had enveloped the expansive room in record time. This is the empire, the middle-aged Ozzel marveled—superior technology.

But not only technological dominance, he realized at once—dominance in fire power, in political matters, in controlling worlds, in leadership…yes, the empire was where a staunchly ambitious, power driven man such as Ozzel felt right at home. He deserved his position. Never mind that his family was long in aristocracy and their political connections lifted him to his current rank and status. That was semantics; he belonged here at the command of this super star destroyer (and damn the whisperings of descent from other officers). And perhaps with enough successful missions under his belt, he might one day (when Governor Tarkin eventually passed) command the most feared weapon in the galaxy—the Death St—

“Admiral!”

Ozzel’s revelry broken, he turned to the lieutenant who called out his name and was fast approaching. “Yes, lieutenant?” Ozzel responded evenly.

“I’m afraid I have very serious news to report, admiral,” the young lieutenant stammered.

“Then out with it, report.” Ozzel could see genuine fear and apprehension in the “green” officer’s eyes. Did the lieutenant fail at some crucial task, something that could have serious reprec—?

“Sir, the Death Star has been destroyed,” the lieutenant finally breathed out.

Ozzel’s eyes tightened. The rest of his face followed suit. The Death Star destroyed?! That simply wasn’t possible!

“Young man…” Ozzel started with a thin and falsely smile. “…do you dare disrespect me with folly, with juvenile jokes—”

“Please, admiral,” the petrified lieutenant interrupted quickly. “What I have to tell you is the complete truth—” he handed Ozzel a pen-shaped device. “—this is proof of its destruction…”

Taking the device in hand, Ozzel’s eyes narrowed as he stared at it, then at the jittery lieutenant. Could this madness possibly be true? One thing was for certain in Ozzel’s mind: if the recording wand had some sort of salacious, derogatory message meant to supremely embarrass his authority, our tender lieutenant here was going to have a four-hour session with an interrogation droid (all safeties removed of course).

Ozzel turned and walked a few steps to the console, leaned over, and inserted the wand. Shortly after he pressed a button, a speaker grill built into the long console became active with static. This was brief, however, as a man’s voice came through: “Good god, what was that?!” and then in an instant another man’s: “Oh no, no, NO! The core is going supernova!” Even more disturbing to hear was the next voice; so calm, so official: “Stand by…Stand by…” A hideous rocking noise followed only a second later…then static returned.

Ozzel could only stand there, mentally viced. But only briefly. “How… how could this have happened? When she had just proved her might with Alderaan?” he wondered in horror (and a quickly dissolving disbelief).

The lieutenant stepped forth abruptly. “There’s more sir. This is a transmission picked up shortly after…” he adjusted the controls on the console and a rather excited, highly charged voice erupted from the speaker: “Great shot, kid! That was one in a million!” Static made its last aural bid and then silence claimed it as the lieutenant switched to “off.”

Ozzel made a few steps away from the other officers, staring off into nowhere it seemed. His face was of a little boy who had been given a supposedly complex riddle, and was about to be enraged at the ease of its answer. “A kid,” he mumbled, his back to the men. “A boy…annihilated our most advanced, most powerful creation…” He turned and faced his subordinates with eyes of white heat. “A BOY!!!”

As Ozzel barked this, the lieutenant flinched. Hard.

And for aristocratic Ozzel, it was over now. Dreaming of the ultimate post (command of the Death Star) was a waist of so much mental glory-seeking. Tarkin had retired, that was certain, but it mattered not in the least. The manner of his retirement saw to that.

And although the entire massive space of the command center was now quite comfortably warm, Ozzel felt a deep and gnawing chill.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

The boy in question, who had so recently sent ripples of shock and crushed ambitions throughout the imperial fleet, Lieutenant Commander Luke Skywalker stood respectfully over four rudimentary headstones. Luke had found them as extra slabs that would be used for barricades in heavy weather. The rebels wouldn’t need them now; evacuation was quite imminent and only travel essentials were to be brought along. But Luke had time enough to dig slats into the semi-muddy ground and fit the slabs in with adequate precision. There were no names engraved with care (or even pasted on with some fancy laminate) on the rectangular stones. Luke supposed in the end that it didn’t matter—there were four people with whom he had lost with ripping abruptness—so four stones to show his number of loss. Was it appropriate enough to honor their lives, their accomplishments to him and to others? The answer, of course, was not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. But time and resources were short and these makeshift monuments would have to do.

For now.

“Luke! Hey Luke!”

Luke knew that voice and didn’t need to turn around to identify its source. He’d heard it enough in one of the most harrowing experiences of his life—the Death Star assault. Only a week ago…

I can’t shake him!”

Hold on, Luke! I’ll be right there!”

Blast it, Biggs, where are you?!”

But Biggs couldn’t come and only Wedge Antilles was free up to save Luke’s hide from an experienced TIE fighter pilot. Wedge had come at the enemy fighter head on and blasted it into oblivion. It particlized just as he flew straight through it.

And here was Luke’s last minute savior fast approaching to stand beside him. “Hey boss, we’ve haven’t much time…” Wedge got out between labored breaths. “What is this, who’s buried here?”

Luke still hadn’t faced Wedge. This wasn’t out of disrespect for his new friend, Luke was simply caught up in the beauty of the scenery before him. And the odd enrapture of bitter remembrance. “No one, actually. They’re just for those I can’t bury—Biggs, my aunt and uncle…and Ben…”

Wedge wasn’t quite sure what to say at that point. How could he get Luke to better spirits? There had been almost nothing but electrically charged (he couldn’t think of any better way to describe them) celebrations in the last few days that this somber moment had caught him off guard. All he could think of to say was: “Luke, I never told you how sorry I was for bailing out when I did—”

“No, don’t Wedge,” Luke finally turned to eye his unnecessarily penitent friend. “Don’t do that to yourself. You and I know your ship was losing lateral control. You might have run into either Biggs or me, and the Death Star might have survived to blow up all of us. You did absolutely the right thing.”

“I know in my head you’re right…but in my gut it felt wrong…”

Luke lifted his eyebrows like a father would trying to encourage his son. “Wedge, try not to forget, you saved my life with one of the gutsiest maneuvers I’ve ever seen. That makes you a hero in my book.”

This brought a grin to Wedge’s face and a zigzag to his eyes. “That’s true. I guess you owe me one, don’t you, boss…” His grin broadened. “You know…I’ve never owned a lightsaber before—”

“Heeey!” Luke barked protectively. He knew Wedge was pulling his proverbial chain. Still.

They chuckled in unison for a moment, then returned serious gazes to the four stones. Wedge began, “You know, Biggs had just joined us not long before you did…but from what I knew of him he was a stand up guy.”

Now a grin of pride came to Luke’s face. “He was one of the best friends I ever had; always looking out for me…even at the end…”

“Look, I hate to rush you, boss—”

“I know, we have to go.”

“Sooner than we hoped. Lookouts have spotted two star destroyers in nearby sectors. We have a few hours at most.”

Luke pursed his lips. He’d hoped for more time for certain things—talking some sense into a certain smuggler, for one… “Wonderful,” he mumbled as he turned, patting a hand on Wedge’s shoulder. “Let’s get moving then, lieutenant.”

“Yes sir,” Wedge replied with pilot enthusiasm as they both sprinted back to base.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

The planet Coruscant.

The heart of the empire, from which it sprung and spread, lovingly nurtured by its power-saturated leader, Palpatine.

Running intricately towards every blur of the Coruscant horizon were thousands of massive and jutting structures that sprouted from her granite and metallic surfaces. Each rise pridefully boasted its own individualistic design befitting the beings who inhabited them. And yet, paradoxically, the architectures seemed to coalesce together like some massive family portrait—varied yet related.

And like levitating decorations for these designs, a flying ballet of fuel-propulsioned iron insects swarmed the smog-laddened sky as far as the eye would allow. The aerial bugs appeared to be in psychic connectivity with each other, uniting their coasting formations in straight lines and curves, ascents and descents.

Of course, these mechanized flyers were far from true insects considering their organic hosts possessed vastly superior brain power than your average tiny, feeler-featured life form.

Yet even with their heightened intellects, their abilities to achieve beyond what a mere bug would instinctually wish to accomplish, their capacities to create art, music, and commerce, their abilities to strive and to love, they were still considered pathetic and lowly insects by their leader.

Insects. Pawns. Tools. Devices to be operated with one grand purpose in mind—to fill the well of power that Emperor Palpatine would so generously drink from every day of his already much-prolonged life.

The emperor’s genius was in making the insects believe that what they were doing on a minute, hourly, daily basis was for themselves and their cherished ones. And not for the greater lecherous gain of their “glorious ruler.” Subterfuge and distraction, plans within plans were his long mastered strategies, which had elevated him to his current status as absolute controller of a wide-reaching, galactic empire.

Naturally, difficulties were always abound when governing such an enormous and diverse net of systems, with all their unique demands and cultural stipulations. But Palpatine had been preparing himself for the rigors of singular rule since he was a promising young delegate from Naboo (and simultaneously a sith apprentice stealing tutelage from the wizened Darth Plageus). Palpatine was well versed in political wrangling and knew the proper course of action to any galactic conflict or disagreement. Typically, it could be handled with a good number of Star Destroyers swinging their proverbial military hammer at an errant system or two. But if more delicate factors were involved, then Palpatine utilized his masterful skills of psychological and emotional manipulation. On occasion, he even resorted to out and out bribery, money being the slickest grease.

Despite these tribulations of emperor-hood, however, Palpatine was predominantly a contented wretch of a man. Pale, deformed, and pocked to be sure, but satisfied that his ominous and prestigious throne had been his to sit upon for the past thirty-odd years (twenty as the self-appointed emperor). His very own. Unchallenged even with the threat of this so-called rebel alliance buzzing around his periphery, like some unnerving airborne insect.

Meddlesome and mindless bugs, Palpatine mused with a fair measure of superiority and its resulting air of detachment. Bugs, miniscule and insignificant—the rebellion and his followers. Yet ironically, some of them were necessary to his precious empire. And some of them he had to work quite closely with…in the very office he now stood—his personal office at the top floor of the central government building. As he stood, he gazed out at the dizzying stretch of cityscapes mired by the opposing flows of air traffic. And thought to himself, today I sense that my contentedness will be dampened considerably. Or at the very least, greatly challenged. By what I will soon discover as one of my personal aides ascends the elevator lift to this very level. One more minute and the necessary bug will enter the office and, with a nerve-wrecking stammer, offer forth the immensely troubling revelation.

 

The minute had passed and the aide stood twitching-faced before his ruler and breathed, “It is c-confirmed, the Death Star has been destroyed, b-blown apart by the rebel forces.”

Eyes darting around with restrained manic frenzy, the emperor, after a brief instant, turned away from the sickened aide and back to the crowded view of the city. But he noticed none of what he glared at, his poisoned mind still absorbing the disturbing news, the alarming turn of fortune.

“You’re absolutely certain?” the emperor croaked.

“Yes. Once the core of the station became unstable, the emergency protocols launched its flight recorder, which then transmitted its final reports to the nearest fleet patrol.” Before he went on, he attempted a bracing gulp—which did not go so well. He felt as if his throat had bulged shut. “My apologies, my lord. I know that you had high hopes for the station. And that it was to usher in a new level of order and regulation throughout the galaxy.”

“Not your doing,” the emperor said flatly. “There is only one I hold accountable for this obvious debacle. Vader.”

The aide blinked slowly as his chest heaved out a cleansing, relieving breath. Though he was careful not to make a sound.

The emperor continued to stare dumbly out the window as he elaborated, “My rash apprentice was charged with the safety and performance of the Death Star…and it appears he has failed me yet again.”

The aide blinked once more (but quicker) as his brow drew in. “Again, sir?”

“Yes. He allowed the specs for the station to get out in the open.”

Eyes lifting leftward, the aide nodded once. “Ah.”

“And now it seems one failure has led to another. Has he attempted contact with the fleet?”

“No, my lord. No word on whether he even escaped alive. But…I gather you would be able to sense one way or the other.”

The emperor let his top lids float down to meet his lowers as he drifted into a minor, searching trance…and then his eyes snapped open once more. “Yes…he did survive the blast…though he is reticent to contact me or anyone else in the fleet…”

“…Well…it may be possible that he is gathering himself, determining how to salvage the situation…how best to serve you, my lord.”

“Let us hope, for his sake, that your assessment is correct.” Then the emperor turned from the window to face the aide again. “In any event, we now have a situation on our hands which could prove volatile in a matter of days or even hours.”

The aide’s eyes shot away in contemplation. “Yes, the senate dissolution.”

“Precisely. Once they discover that the Death Star has been obliterated, the various senators of the systems will be angling and plotting their bids to wheedle back into my good graces, calling for reinstatement.”

“And, unfortunately, they would have good ammunition for the cause, what with these greedy, inept regional governors taking the reigns.”

The emperor spit a breath. “Those fools…none of them could find a resourceful plan of action if it were gift wrapped and shoved under their nose.”

“Yet you know you cannot backpedal now, sir. The political ramifications would be—”

“Disastrous, I know…” The emperor turned away once more, slowly and carefully trotting a few steps over towards the other end of his office. “Leave me. I must meditate on this further.”

The aide, with equal grace, bowed and made for the doors as he complied with, “As you wish, my lord.”

And the emperor was left alone to do what he so often did best…

…plans within plans…

CHAPTER 4

 

“The cursed thing is gone!” Senator of Marshol Minor and acting leader of the alliance, Mon Mothma cried as she entered the conference room of the rebel cruiser. The jubilance in her eyes was unmistakable to everyone whose presence had been requested.

“The Death Star, you mean?” a rebel captain asked with rising hope.

“Yes! Blown to a billion particles, nothing left of it! Thanks to Leia and the pilots of the main base!”

Deep and powerful cheers rocked the spacious room.

“Then she succeeded, escaped and succeeded,” a towering figure breathed with showering relief.

“Well now, did you really have any doubts?” Mothma playfully threw the figure’s way.

The figure, the olive-skinned man smiled quiveringly and replied, “No…I suppose I didn’t…” and his smile broadened, euphoria rolling out of his facial expressions. Soon, however, the senatorial animal in him took over. “But now we must consider the opportunity we now have to act.”

“Quite right,” Mothma agreed as she glanced about the room, her comrades spread around it. “With the station’s destruction and the end of the senate, the emperor will be put in a very precarious position.”

“Not to mention the eventual fall out from—” The figure visually tightened, blinking twice in rapid succession. “—the destruction of my home planet.”

Mothma paused before adding, “Yes…when all systems and their representatives learn of what the empire…did to Alderaan, it is likely Palpatine will have a revolt on his hands. Of what scale I can only guess at this point.”

The rebel captain entered in with, “Whatever its size, it will be sure to complicate his already strained standing with the populace.” He faced the figure and said, “I agree with you, the time to strike is now, when he is most vulnerable.”

“He has been vulnerable before. Do not underestimate him because he looks old, feeble, and diseased,” Mothma warned. “The man is cunning and more powerful than most see. If we are to strike then it must be with a plan that is airtight and nothing left to chance.”

“Mothma,” the figure began, “As far as we know, you are still in good standing with Palpatine…if you can arrange a meeting with him, get him to confide in you and convince him that you are sympathetic to his plight…then maybe we will be able to draw him out.”

“I’ve been thinking of that very thing—we know he is under pressure now not only from the majority of foolish and greedy regional governors, but the restless senators who will be crying give us the floor once more. My plan is to get him to temporarily reform the senate structure to address the present concerns. Since the senate room has been torn down, I will suggest that we meet in the famed Judaris gathering grounds—an open-aired arena as we all know, and seated next to one of the largest statues of the emperor.”

“That’s good,” the captain said. “It will appeal to his vanity-engorged ego.”

“Most likely, but I think his greatest motivation will be avoiding revolution. If and when he makes an appearance at the grounds, we will have snipers positioned in various camouflaged spots in the outer perimeter of the area. We will give him time to settle in, make him feel as if there is nothing out of the ordinary…and then all will fire at once hitting every vital organ. Leave nothing to chance.”

“But you’re forgetting something,” the captain said. “You’re a senator, part of the group that is putting pressure on him. It’s possible you might not even get in to see him.”

“He’ll see me. I’m the only senator who’s ever made him remotely laugh.”

“Mothma…” the figure said, “I think it’s time that you contacted Leia, and informed her of all our plans—both yours and mine…”

“You’re quite right, Bail…it is time that she knew a great many things.”

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

Okar Minor, from orbit, gave one the reckless impression that the planet was serene, peaceful, inviting. From the stratosphere, the surface presented a balance of tanned land masses and opal bodies of water. Cloud coverage was minimal and allowed anyone approaching an accurate assessment of the wide-reaching topography.

In Darth Vader’s present condition of flying a damaged TIE fighter, he had to consider Okar his best option for an emergency landing. He scanned for life signs and found several populated areas, some heavily. His course of descent now zeroed in on a sparse organism cluster—attention of many eyes to his compromised condition was not what he desired. He had pondered contacting the imperial fleet before landing, but he decided to get his bearings first and assess what awaited him (if visitors came at all). Ever since he was denied victory over the x-wing pilot who destroyed the Death Star (with one shot no less!), Vader had fumed with rage and personal humiliation. Anger could be an ally when channeled properly, but it could also derail your effective judgment if allowed to saturate your every thought. Best to let his anger quell before talking to any officers—lest it get back to the emperor that Vader was now a loose cannon. One thing, however, was clear in Vader’s mind even now: he was going to find this pilot, this one who feels the Force.

And he was going to make him pay.

 

Blue sparks fountained from the metal carcass of Vader’s TIE fighter fin. The damage had been altering his trajectory for the past four days and was destined to cause a collision should asteroids appear.

But now that he had landed (thanks to his superior skills as a pilot and a buffering from the Force), Vader’s nerves had eased. The hard part was over and he could now steal a few moments to meditate, formulate a plan for the future with a sound mind. There were predators about, that was for certain. Vader knew it at once without even checking his sensors. The closest cluster was fully sentient and walked on two feet. He could feel their fear but also their pushing animal rage—the warrior’s rage—that overrode their flight instinct.

Vader would meditate nonetheless. For his ally was the Dark Side of the Force, and it afforded him the free-flowing ability to crush the windpipes of every single threat waiting to spring from the brush.

 

Their eyes were red ice that nature intended inferior prey to see and feel no hope of escape. To reinforce this point, the Okarian tribesmen’s muscular masses swelled under almost every inch of their reptilian skin. And then there were their spears. Short, ebony-boned, and sharp enough to guarantee an exit wound.

The leader, the tallest of them, stood out in front in a shoulder-hunched attack stance. His followers mirrored his taught body position and all of them were ready to throw their spears should it come to it.

“Mosa mappa?” a follower asked with frayed nerves.

“Osa met!” the leader snapped and that brought all their eyes to rock focus. Not a second later, their spears cocked back further as the metallic bird twenty feet in front of them began movement.

The birds head split apart on its most northern hemisphere. Once the smooth, soulless opening ceased, a black armored, caped entity arose from the bird’s head like a malformed, tumorous brain. It stared down its supposed attackers with faceless indifference, then it outstretched a malignant arm and flicked spidery fingers sideways. In unison, every single spear was yanked from the so-called steely grips of the Okarians and flung far from the clearing.

Shock and uncertainty had claimed their psyches as the tribesmen—even their stony leader—abruptly searched each other’s eyes for basic reason. But there was none. Logic couldn’t touch what they had just experienced. There was, in their limited, conditioned minds, only one answer. Okah. Their deity come to life to meet its willing servants.

The leader and the followers needed no further displays of magic or superiority. Slowly, methodically, every one of them (the leader may as well be a follower now) turned once again to face their dark god. And bow down to kneelings; their rhythmic, repeated chant was the revered name O-kah, O-kah, O-kah…

 

Simple fools, thought Vader but he wasn’t laughing with condescension inside. For certain they were powerful physical warriors, and their present bows and kneels proved that he was (form some long told prophesy or other) their unequivocal god. They would follow any command even sacrifice their lives to appease him.

Gladly.

Without a moment’s hesitation.

Excellent.

Vader would use them.

And he had a vague feeling he would be using them soon.

 

CHAPTER 6

 

The Massassi temples (exclusive only to this lush jungle of Yavin Four) once housed a different breed of religious devouts. The Massassi beings were not warriors or predators by any means but stoic monks which towered on an average height of nine to ten feet. Their god was the great gaseous ball of Yavin which could be seen day or night engulfing the skyscape. The massive stone pyramids were built brick by brick in honor of the red giant and housed the monks themselves. Their main purpose as structures were for worship, meditation, and societal planning. Always were the living arrangements kept simple and natural in décor.

But this was centuries ago and the temples now kept wholly different purposes. The rebels surely would have offended the monks with the sheer complexity of manufactured masses which now inhabited one temple. Temple? It was now a hangar with fuel tanks, weaponry…warships. But the desperate men and women (what few females there were among the group) of the rebellion had neither the time nor the spare focus to consider any blasphemy to their crimson landlord. Their cover was blown on this world, and the empire would be knocking on their door quite soon.

 

Luke knew time was short and as the new leader (“boss”) of red group, he should be the first in the cockpit of his x-wing fighter, ready to meet the enemy in orbit. But Luke decided instead to have a second go at trying to appeal to Han to join the rebels permanently. Although his pirate/smuggler friend had remained with them after the glorious demise of the Death Star (and had joined in heavily with the numerous celebrations), Luke never heard Han say I’m staying, I believe in your fight, you are my people now.

As Luke trotted toward the Millennium Falcon, he hoped against hoped that those would be the words from his friend’s mouth.

“Han!”

“Hey kid,” Han replied, looking briefly at Luke then back to the crate he carried and handed off to Chewbacca. As Chewie took the crate and disappeared up the landing ramp, Luke halted a bit breathless in front of Han. The pirate wasn’t attempting to be rude as he picked up another crate to hand off again; merely aware of the tight schedule.

“You’re-you’re coming with us, right?” Luke breathed. “All the way to Ord Mantell…”

“Looks like I don’t have a choice. I just found out over the pirate channels that my ship has been marked. I’d never make it back to Tatooine without being spotted by the imperials.

Luke’s voice rose with his hopes, “Well, then that means you’re with us from now on—”

“’Fraid not, kid. All it means is that now I have to charter a flight out of Mantell. And hope to hell it doesn’t get raided by pirates.” Han was still handing off to Chewie. If Luke was offended by this he didn’t show it.

“Well,” Luke began with optimistic eyes. “It still means I have time to try and ware you down.”

Han chuckled as he picked up another crate. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you, kid.”

Luke looked past Han to Chewie who had just taken the crate. “Chewie, you’ll back me up on this, won’t you?”

Chewie bellowed in what seemed to be a reply of enthusiasm.

“Wonderful,” Han deadpanned. “Get the princess in on this and what chance have I got?”

Luke became serious. “Come on, is the life you had even—I mean you came back for us when we needed—”

Only as a favor to Chewie. And to avoid his whining for two days straight,” Han broke in as he continued lifting and passing.

“Han,” Luke pressed on. “You can’t deny how good it felt to blow that monster to smithereens and come back to all the praise and—and the medal—”

“Look, Luke,” Han said as he finally stopped with the crates and faced his young friend. “Yeah, okay, it was a thrill to do what we did…but now that you and the rest of them have stepped up the game, they’re going to come after you in forces you haven’t dreamed of. There’s dark days ahead for this alliance of yours—”

“Which is why we need you so badly. You’re one of the best fighters we have! You’re part of something here, don’t you know that? Don’t you feel the slightest bit for these people? For me, for Leia? Don’t you feel that maybe this is home now?”

Han raised his eyebrows communicating half sorrow, half harsh reality. His arms spread out to his sides as he replied, “The Falcon is my home, kid…sorry.” An instant later, he casually dropped his arms, but the eyes hadn’t changed. The rogue felt he had nothing left to say (nothing that would soften the blow at any rate), so he turned and walked up the landing ramp of the Falcon.

Luke’s eyes dropped but stared at nothing on the floor. The hope that once flared in his face a moment ago had been promptly snuffed out. For now at least. There was nothing more he could do for this situation. The priority now was to be a leader to the pilots who would be looking to him for strategy and morale.

Get to it, Luke!—his mind drilled itself. Get to your x-wing, your sorrows can wait, dammit!

But as he turned to race to his ship, his face still weighted itself with heavy disappointment.

 

Here we go again, Leia thought as she walked speedily toward the command center. Imperials bearing down on us, making life real interesting. We should have left sooner, she chided herself. But the celebrations of the last four days had been intoxicating, even to Leia (“Little Miss Pragmatic” her childhood instructors used to call her). But now Princess and Senator Leia Organa was sober and deadly focused as she entered the frenzied scene of the command center. “General, ETA on the two star destroyers.”

“Forty-two minutes, your highness,” General Jan Dodonna replied as he turned away from the massive circular tactical display unit (planted in the floor) to lock eyes with Leia.

“That’s too close,” Leia worried as she approached the elderly, white-bearded Dodonna to stand by him. Their attention sank back to the tactical display as she continued, “Only two but there’s the distinct possibility of one or more of our ships being immobilized.”

“Which we cannot afford,” Dodonna finished.

“Agreed.” Leia pursed her lips and shook her head once. “If we just had an ion cannon, none of this would a problem.”

“Next base of operations.”

“Get as many fighter escorts as you can to cover the transports,” Leia ordered flatly.

“Yes, your highness,” the general responded at once, but then turned to face Leia with lifted eyes. “And may I strongly suggest that you board your ship as soon as possible. The royal line of the Organas must be preserved.”

Leia’s brow knitted slightly in frustration. “With all due respect, General, damn my title.”

“Then for my sake, your highness. You’ve been through enough…”

Leia almost wanted to smirk with sympathy for Dodonna’s show of fatherly concern. The general knew, of course that Leia was tough and resourceful…but he also knew very well that she had been tortured by the empire. By Vader.

“Very well. I’ll try to hurry.”

“Thank you, your highness.”

 

The Millennium Falcon whined and hummed to life as her engines ran through their start-up procedures. Within her spider-web framed cockpit, Han and Chewie sat flipping switches and adjusting controls.

“How did it go with the lateral stabilizers?” Han inquired as he surveyed the panel readouts. “Are they back to normal?”

Chewie grunted an affirmative.

“Good. Let’s see if this baby’s got her juice back. Here we go.”

Han worked the control panel in the right manner and the Falcon lifted from the hangar (temple) floor to ascend with steady grace. It floated and moved in concerted union with the x-wings and y-wings now positioning for hangar departure.

One x-wing in particular among this group seemed to have a noise malfunction. Either that or a highly rambunctious, verbally enthusiastic astromech droid inserted into the ship’s top hull structure. Its pilot, Luke Skywalker, knew the later, of course, to be true as he acknowledge the coordinated squeals and beeps.

“Good to be flying with you again as well, Artoo. All your circuits back to normal?”

R2-D2 had been in an awful, blackened state the last time he had shared the flying duties with Luke. A well-placed TIE fighter blast had seen to that.

But now Artoo’s domed head was a polished blue and silver work of engineering art. He therefore beeped in the affirmative.

“Great. And don’t worry,” Luke said with a comforting tone. “We’ll meet up with Threepio before you know it.”

Artoo whistled a warbling whine, swiveling his head slightly from side to side.

“He’ll be fine, he’ll be fine,” Luke reassured his little mechanical friend. “He’s doing his job and now we have to do ours, okay?”

Artoo tried a beep of confidence.

“Good. S-foils in attack position on my mark…”

 

Like sharp spears great and small catapulted from the opulent sphere, the rebel ships shot forth from the Yavin Four atmosphere and met the infinite. As if to half hazardly prevent their departure from the temple heresies, the swirling red giant Yavin loomed north of their position. Perhaps proving its power of vengeance, two vicious and soulless-white arrowheads snapped out of hyperspace and halted to posit in front of the crimson mass. Their spacing against the red face made them appear as white-hot demon eyes. Eyes that would shoot uniformed fire at their harried prey.

“Star destroyers—!” was the first and last report of an x-wing pilot who was slammed into oblivion by an obese laser bolt. The two destroyers were wasting no time.

“Evasive!” Luke barked within the cockpit of his own x. the other fighters heeded, bobbing and weaving as they sped toward the enemy.

“What’s our plan, Luke?” Wedge asked with a fair measure of urgency.

“Attack pattern delta, Red Two, head on surgical strike. Form up but not too tight.”

“We’re with you, boss.”

As instructed and in almost perfect unison, the x-wing class fighter ships formed a loose net as they raced toward the star destroyers. The y-wings did not follow. Their pilots knew it was their duty to protect the cruisers against the TIE fighters that would surely come. But they wouldn’t merely sit there waiting—they opened fire with proton torpedoes at the distant destroyers.

The destroyers, of course, were not content to simply fire on their opponents. Not when they had within their bellies a hundred angry TIE fighters ready and willing to inflict harm. An order was given, and TIE’s dropped from the underside main hangar, instantly roaring forth in tight squadron formation.

Now it was going to get messy.

Aboard her royal cruiser, Leia witnessed the new enemy activity in the form of tactical blips on the video monitor before her. Quickly, she jammed the transmit button for the comm. “Red group and all cruisers, be advised, enemy fighters have launched!” she warned with authority.

“Copy, command,” Luke responded coolly. “Heads up boys, they’ll be coming around!”

From the slightly diagonal horizon of the industrialized destroyer’s hull, swarming TIE fighter short-rangers shot up and swung around to begin their laser assaults.

The x-wings broke formation and zigzagged their trajectories to make for hard targets. Firing from both ends became fierce. Both sides took damages and losses. To the TIE’s it mattered to a far lesser degree, simply for their sheer superiority of numbers.

However, that was about to turn slightly as—boom! boom! boom!—three TIE’s became ash thanks to the guns of the Falcon. Chewie bobbed and weaved the aged yet powerful freighter to go on the offensive. Within the topside gun blister, Han was seated at the gravity-free swivel chair. His tactical screen was hardwired to the chair itself and followed along with wherever Han pushed or pulled. Currently, it showed two enemy blips of immediate interest.

“Bank left, Chewie!” Han bellowed over the headset.

Sharply, expertly, Chewie curved the Falcon around which allowed Han the perfect position to fire on the two fighters. Both imperial ships met a fiery, violent end.

But the number of TIE’s left to inflict mortal damage to the rebel fighters was, of course, still too great.

And Leia, from her observance of the tactical readouts, knew this to be undeniable. “General,” she tensely spoke to Dodonna over the comm. “we can’t keep this up. We’re losing too many fighters and we have to leave before their main fleet arrives. What’s our best exit?”

Through the speaker, the general’s calm but commanding voice crackled, “Our best chance is to first concentrate all firing on one destroyer. We’ll use a rotating cruiser cover as we assault. With your permission, your highness.”

“Proceed. And fast.”

Dodonna’s commands was heard and understood throughout the rebel cruisers. The rotation maneuver had been Dodonna’s own design and was seldom duplicated for it demanded precision timing lest one ship collide with another. Dodonna kept an open channel with the ships and guided them mathematically through the process. Boostering towards the nearest star destroyer, the cruisers formed up in convoy-style line. The first would open fire with all it had, allowing itself to be bombarded with return volleys—but only for a minute as the second cruiser would come around the first to become the front runner (firing at its enemy the instant it had a clear line of sight). Not a minute later, the third cruiser would come about (passing the initial first cruiser and the former second) to take up the assault duties. With Dodonna’s tactical aid, the procedure was repeated again and again and again, inflicting massive damage on the overmatched destroyer.

Its imperial captain was rapidly becoming worried.

“Veers!” the captain pleaded into the comm. “Get them off of us! They’re concentrating too much fire power on us, General!”

“As I would if I were them,” General Veers replied with almost—no not almost—complete calmed detachment. “I’ll do what I can to immobilize one or two of them but…I’m afraid they have you, captain.”

Enragement stuttered the captain’s face. “Curse you, Veers! Curse you!”

The captain stared with manic eyes as he witnessed the continued assault of his beloved destroyer. Surely there must be something he could do—

“Sir!” an equally shaken officer turned and exclaimed to the captain. “We’ve lost our bridge shields! Our generators our defenseless!”

The captain snapped his sight from the coming horrors sealing their fate to the frantic officer. “Don’t look at me, damn it! Keep firing!” In his mentally constricted state, this was the only strategic course of action he could muster—even though an inner voice told him the course was pointless.

Another electrified officer cried out to confirm that voice. “Generator’s been hit—!”

And then the expansive room filled with fiery light.

From the spacious command center of general Veers’ star destroyer, Veers, himself, studiously observed the sizeable explosions of the other destroyer’s diamond-shaped bridge section. There was no regret, only strategy… “Lieutenant, direct all fire power on the royal cruiser there. Do not concern yourself with any others.”

“Yes sir,” the officious lieutenant complied, relaying the command to all fire battery controllers throughout the ship.

 

Leia felt her heart and everything around it knock thunderously and without end (at least perception had played it that way in her conscious thoughts). Wonder if the engines have been hit, Leia pondered throughout the blast rockings. Will I go out like a light being turned off or will I suffer long and torturously as the air is sucked—

But then the havoc ceased altogether leaving Leia at once relieved yet cautious. She needed to know exactly why her ship and all the lives in it had been given a generous reprieve. She ran quick to hover over the tactical display and its numerous representative blips…

Dodonna’s cruiser was now her shield!

 

“General!”

Dodonna whirled to face the officer who called desperately for his attention. Before this officer could continue, another volley of laser blasts thundered and convulsed the entire command room. As it subsided, the officer belted, “We’ve taken a hit to the hyperdrive motivator!”

Characteristically calm, Dodonna muttered to himself, “…Lightspeed is out…” But calm did not mean slow to react as he quickly ordered, “Continue to cover the princess!” he made his way to the comm unit and pressed a button that would allow PA access to every alliance vessel. “All ships, this is Dodonna. Form a jump line in front of the royal cruiser. Our hyperdrive is out. Jump as soon as your coordinates are made; I will continue to cover all ships as best I can. Proceed now.”

From the panel’s gridded speaker, Leia’s frantic, flustered voice barked, “No, general! We’ll destroy that—!”

“There isn’t time,” Dodonna warned, again calm but firm. “We cannot afford the fleet’s arrival…do not worry, princess, they won’t get any information from us…” A father’s tone of sobering common sense entered his voice. “…You know this must happen.”

Leia’s became official, hardened, hiding the shock and pain underneath. “…Always with honor, general…”

“Goodbye, your highness. May the Force be with you and the alliance.”

Dodonna shifted his position to focus on the tactical screen. He could differentiate between which ships represented rebel ships and which were imperials. It was clear that his orders were being followed. Of course they could have disobeyed; Leia could counter his instructions and order the ships to disable the remaining destroyer. They could attempt to eliminate every single TIE fighter now trying to make escape more difficult. Evacuation of Dodonna’s cruiser would be vastly time consuming—and perhaps it could be achieved just before the arrival of the main imperial fleet.

And then perhaps not.

And if the fleet arrived, there would be enough tractor beams on hand to make escape completely impossible.

And every rebel knew it.

“Luke,” the general began…

Within the rocking cockpit of his x-wing, Luke heard his name and concentrated gravely on the voice that spoke it.

“I hereby promote you to commander,” Dodonna continued through the comm. “Lead the fighters like I know you can…and Luke, bring back the days of the jedi. You are our best hope, son.”

“I will, sir,” Luke said with conviction. “I swear it.”

“Commence jump.”

The digital markers that represented the rebel ships disappeared one after another. The last one left (aside from Dodonna’s own cruiser), the royal cruiser remained—to the skipping beat of the general’s aged heart—but then it too blinked out, confirming its jump into the cascading tunnel of hyperspace. It was only now that Dodonna could tear his visual focus away from the tactical screen and scan the room about him. Every man and woman stood at their station an honorable and willing pawn played by the alliance to overthrow the empire. Each willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause should it be the last resort. But that did not stop any of them from feeling the gripping instinct for survival. Dodonna could not mistake it in their strained faces, could not deny it within himself despite his overwhelming passion to serve and protect the alliance and its remarkable souls.

The auto destruct button built into the console lay beneath a safety latch. Dodonna’s sweat-glistened hand reached out and lifted up the latch exposing the crimson button to the free possibility of being pushed.

As brave as Dodonna had been in his long and violent military career, as brave as the sacrifice he was making now, he did not have the simple courage to face his fellow officers and crew in the last seconds. Instead he stared at the top panel as he uttered evenly, “Long live the alliance.”

And pushed the button.

 

Veers had to admire the captain of the ship that had just self-destructed. Not for the foolishness (at least he had always considered it such) of the captain’s sacrifice of martyrdom, but for the strategic tactics that he obviously orchestrated. Veers knew that, were he in that captain’s situation, he would have ordered similar action to be taken. The rotation tactic was something he hadn’t seen before but it mattered not—Veers had other assault tactics that would have proven just as effective. And he would have protected his weaker spots more judiciously in the process. Still, the admiration was there and he could not help but mutter to himself, “Well done, whoever you were.”

But the time for personal reflection was over and official military action was at hand. “Lieutenant, attempt to track their coordinates and contact the fleet. Apprise them of our current status.”

“Yes, General.”

 

CHAPTER 7

 

Someone once said that if there is a bright center to the universe, then Tatooine is the planet that it’s farthest from. But for a lascivious, gigantic slug like Jabba the Hutt, Tatooine was the brightest sun—even brighter than the two suns it revolved around. And anyone who knew Jabba, or knew of him, understood exactly why. The quivering blob of a hutt thrived here in many ways: in business, in pleasure, and in an illustrious reputation. And what was that reputation exactly? Well, shrewdness, ruthlessness, and an unabiding desire for power and more of it. Not to mention being notorious for obtaining whatever his shriveled heart desired. And it typically all happened right there in his lush, adobe palace centered in a waterless canyon. On the desert planet of Tatooine—the brightest center of the universe…if your name was Jabba Rindu.

The great hutt was glad to finally be returning home. He had spent two weeks on Dantooine securing contacts with the crime family there, and was now descending towards the washed out orange of Tatooine’s surface. His personal freighter was currently braving the planet’s atmosphere and the pressing heat could be felt even in the central leisure section of the ship. The freighter was equipped with top of the line shielding for such an event, but nothing made today could keep out the heat entirely. No matter, Jabba was used to it by now and the pressure would soon pass.

Jabba reflected on the details of the Dantooine deals when his personal aid, Bib Fortuna, glided forth to stand before him. Bib had worked for the hutt for the last thirty-two years having been sold from his home planet of Twi’Lek. The long, thick, terminating tentacles that sprouted from his skull had not even fully grown when Jabba first set him to task. Bib had seen much and expected…well, just about anything.

“News, my master,” Bib began.

“What do you have for me?” Jabba inquired with minor interest.

“I have a status report concerning Mr. Solo.”

“Tell me the good boy has come to his senses,” Jabba said between puffs of his pipe.

Bib turned his nose up a bit as he readied a response. The alien tended to look down on certain types and aimless ones like Solo were included in that disdain. “Quite the contrary, my master, it appears his ship has been marked by the empire as a vessel involved with alliance conspiracies.”

Jabba’s eyes unfocused as he turned his attention from his sycophantic servant to stare at nothing. It seemed as if the humungous alien had turned to stone, an inanimate thing…but then his form convulsed as he boomed the entire room with his deep laughter.

“Han Solo…” he managed between fits of laughing. “…crack pirate and all-around devil-may-care womanizer…has joined the rebels…” And the laughter continued.

Bib waited patiently, as he always did, for his master to calm to reasonable levels of attention, then continued his report. “It would seem so, my master. In any case, it is obvious he has no intentions of paying on time and may be using the might of the alliance to hide out.”

Still stricken with tiny spasms of laughter, Jabba slowly shook his head. “Foolish boy. He should know me better than that by now.”

“That was my thinking as well, my master.”

Always trying to curry favor, aren’t you, Fortuna. Well I suppose you can’t help it, can you, you inferior sod. “Put out an open contract on our little idealist. We’ll see which bounty hunter can sniff him out first—but, I want Solo brought back alive and in good health.”

“Of course, my master.”

Jabba jerked a stubby finger at Bib and emphasized, “Make it a point to remind them—Solo brought back dead means no payment! The wookie…” Before he finished, he put away his pointed finger and sat back to continue. “…optional.”

Bowing, Bib replied soothingly, “Of course, my master.”

The chuckling bouts returned to Jabba as he noted to himself, “…There must have been a woman involved…” Then the spats of baritone laughing rose once again.

 

CHAPTER 8

 

As it happened, Judaris was already getting some fair use as a gathering spot for the various representatives of the imperial systems. The senators were not seated in the theatre of the round chairs that encompassed the stage. They were all standing on the stage itself, shouting out and talking over one another. Benefits (or detriments, rather) of an unstructured, unsanctioned meeting.

A senator belted, “I know there are a lot of raw emotions from most of you here! Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here! But we have to be rational and controlled!”

Another roared, “Do you think the emperor was being rational and controlled when he disbanded us, essentially rendering us useless?!”

And another chimed in with, “We have been regulating the galaxy since farrr before the empire was formed! And now he thinks he can do without our services?! With or without a blasted space station?!”

And then several senators voiced their views as follows:

“Well now, let’s talk about this station! Now that it’s destroyed, do we, in the name of diplomacy, accept it as due compensation for the loss of Alderaan—!”

“Are you mad?!”

“Millions for the loss of billions?! Let’s be realistic, it could never compensate for what our leader has done!”

“Hold it, wait a minute, we don’t know that Palpatine ordered the destruction of Alderaan. It could have been Tarkin and Vader’s decision alone!”

“If that’s so, then he is still responsible for assigning unstable leadership to such a volatile and unholy weapon!”

“And does that now add to the already reckless decision to cast us out and give the controls over to governors who haven’t the tenacity or experience to run the show?! What does that say about his ability to effectively rule?!”

“I agree! Should he be our ruler after these blatant debacles show he has clearly lost his grip?!”

“Take care, all of you! What you are suggesting, what you are foolishly hinting at is insurrection, a revolt! What are we, the new rebel alliance?! Never forget that Palpatine, no matter how unstable he may be, is still the singular commander of the galactic military! Each and every clone or drone or whatever trooper is a slave to the emperor’s every whim! Now, unless all of you have your own private legions of soldiers ready to combat, then I suggest we keep this a leveled discussion. And not a prelude to yet another impetuous rebel band trying to upset the established order.”

“Well then, what are we to do, simply slink away and wither to nothing in a remote corner somewhere?!”

“Yes, while Palpatine runs the galaxy right into oblivion?!”

“We need do nothing—if others have their say about it.”

“Who are these others you refer to?!”

“Why, the remaining Alderaanians, for one, who already live here on Coruscant. If I were them, I would already be gathering as we are to discuss how to act.”

“Be serious, they’re such a peaceful lot!”

“How peaceful would you be if every living friend and family member from your home planet had been viciously and torturously murdered? Wiped out without a moment’s hesitation? How rational would you be? We whisper echoes of revolt, all us fat and aged politicrats…but I can almost guarantee that they will not only be talking, but planning…”

 

And planning they certainly were. Every citizen that originated from the late planet, Alderaan (who now resided on Coruscant) had united in a holed up and darkened location to, indeed, plot their next moves.

The talk from many of these stricken yet electrified souls all funneled into one unmistakable strategy: overthrow the monster, the wretch, the one who used to deal in the shadows like some elusive phantom. Emperor Palpatine.

Some argued that their clever demon of a totalitarian leader would anticipate this course of action. The man may have the most shriveled and diseased of souls, but he was no fool.

But others revealed that they had their proverbial ace in the hole—they knew many more, many, many more who were supremely saddened by Alderaan’s demise. And were fed up to the core of their hearts and minds with Palpatine’s extreme ruthlessness.

Some brought to bare the sheer number of troops that could amass against them should a coup be attempted.

And others rationed that what good are the troops if they haven’t the proper artillery and weaponry to ward off a crowd of thousands!

Hit the armories, yes, blow them sky high!

Sobering voices countered that many troops will already have weapons regardless of the armory demolishings.

Yes, but they can’t take us all, not if we suddenly charge at once, rush the central building floor by floor, story by story—all the way to the top. To the emperor’s private office.

To kill him with whatever means they could.

 

CHAPTER 9

 

“I’ll expect your arrival in eight hours,” Vader said to no one, it appeared, as he sat in his fighter’s cockpit. But then General Veers’ transmission distorted voice spoke back through the comm speaker, “Yes, my lord. A transport will be sent to your location at that time.”

“Were there any survivors of the assault you made near Yavin?” Meaning, was there any rebel soldier left alive who could be interrogated to discover the one who destroyed the Death Star.

“No, my lord. They self destructed before we could board.”

“Have you tracked their destination?”

“Nearly. Our computers will have their coordinates within the hour. The fleet will be apprised.”

“Very good. Your transport must be cleared of any unnecessary equipment and personnel. I’m bringing men with me.”

There was silence for a brief instant over the comm line. But then Veers spoke up, official as ever. “Yes, my lord. It will be done.”

“Vader out.”

The transmission ended with a two-tone beep and Vader was left to his thoughts. The Okarian sun was easing its way into the far-reaching horizon, turning the sky into a perfect melding of colored hues. The dark blues and purpled reds were gently nudging down the oranges and yellows that blended to encompass the sun. These refractments touched the land with its opulent brush, silhouetted the Okarian tribesmen (who sat not fifty feet from the fighter, no doubt waiting for further direction), and brilliantly glinted off of Vader’s armor. Were he the jedi he was meant to be and once hoped for, he would have breathed in this natural sweetness and felt renewed. But the poison of the Dark Side and the cancerous need for ultimate power were his soul’s tenants now—the essentials, of course, for any sith. Thus, the rejuvenating scenery was lost on him; only the obsessive tunnel vision existed of finding that pilot whose fortune shouldn’t have been.

 

CHAPTER 10

 

Luke drifted into what he would later come to recognize as one of the most horrid r.e.m. hallucinations he could never fully recollect. There was blackness that proved to have no boundaries, and perhaps he could have floated in any direction for the numbness of countless years and never reached an end. But Luke seemed to intuit that, within this light-absent void, something would occur to resonate a life-altering significance.

That it would formulate from this bleak nothingness, however, did not instill Luke with confidence of a positive effect.

A whip of smoke—was it smoke? Mist? A formless apparition? Too far to distinguish—appeared from his peripheral and he made an effort to see it head on. As he did, the smoke/mist/apparition grew, not outward in all directions, but upwards and downwards. And rapidly. Soon, he could not see the ends of the expanded S/M/A and was loathe to try. It exists, he thought, and at least it’s something, something out of all this damn huge nothing. As he completed this thought, another S/M/A puffed into existence—again in his peripheral. And again, he needed to bring it to the center of his vision. Number two expanded vertically as did the first until its length seemed infinite. Now they were two coagulating, spiraling, grey stripes challenging the meaningless opaque. Two became three, then four, five, six, then soon there were too many to easily count. Stripes of living grey now surrounded him and he began to feel as if he had traded purposeless freedom for a ghostly cage.

What now, his mind asked. If I try to pass between, will they expand horizontally as well and block my way? If I go up or down, will they curve around to join in the center—like some ethereal bird cage?

What now?

Hey Wormie.

Was that a real voice? Or was it his imagination, his sanity taking a turn for the worse?

No, I’m real, Wormie.

The voice was a female’s. And it sounded remotely familiar—though he should have been able to place it right off. He had heard it not two weeks ago.

You saw nothing, you know. The battle wasn’t real and you’re delusional and oh so annoying…

That was Camie’s voice, he recognized it fully now. Fixer’s girl from the hangouts at Anchorhead. Back on Tatooine. Camie always thought Luke to be a hopeless dreamer; a frantic, jittery hanger-on (particularly to Fixer and Biggs). To her, he was like a baster worm that flicks and jerks around in circles, desperately trying to get somewhere in the sand. But ultimately going nowhere. Hence her nickname for him—Wormie.

What do you want from me, Camie? And how in the blazes of the great suns can you be here?!

Oh, I’m not, Wormie. But I am real. And I can sooo hurt you if I want. You saw nothing that day looking up into the sky with your ancient, second-hand binoculars with the sun tricking your vision and making you see tiny explosions and firing between two ships that were ultimately just refueling like Biggs said and you’re a fool if you think you’re anywhere but back in your hard bed in your uncle’s moister farm which will never pay off and you’re going to be no one!

Shut up! I never liked you, Camie! And I can’t see what a great guy like Fixer ever saw in you! Go away!

Wormie Wormie round in circles…

SHUT UP!

no one no one round and round…

Camie’s voice taunted Luke for a few squirming moments more, chanting repeated drudgeries to try and dampen his spirits. Finally, however, it faded as if someone was turning down the volume of a listening device.

And Luke was left with the cage again. What next, he thought with no amount of enthusiasm.

He did not have to wait long to find out.

Your next question, boy, is how did you get here.

It was, in point of fact. And Luke did know precisely, immediately who was speaking to him this time.

Uncle Owen.

Well, the answer is simple. You didn’t get here, Luke my boy, you’ve always been here. And you will always be here working this flat broke farm trying to eke out precious water drops from ancient, second-hand vaporators.

Now the grey bars of the cage reshaped themselves to connect with each other and form accurately a deathly recreation of Owen’s moisture farm.

Here is home, boy, now and forever.

But I escaped, uncle. You must know that. I left with Ben after I saw that you were…that after you were—

Dead? Hollowed out grotesquely by a small inferno along with my beloved? Never happened. And deep down, you must know that. Far, far down where the truth has been hidden under a rock, you know that you did not leave home for adventures that you, a farm boy, could never have lived through even one chance in a million. If you’ve got one shred of courage, one tear of sanity left, you’ll lift that rock and see that you’re fast asleep on your hard bed—on our farm on scorching, one sun too many, boring, mundane Tatooine. Home now and forever.

Uncle, I love you but go away.

Go away?! I’ve taken you in, taken care of you, given you a life to live and you tell me to go away? I’ve tolerated some disrespect from you before, boy, but this is the limit. How’d you like me to sell your T-16 and now there’s no more racing and womprat target practice? I’ve got the say-so in your life, boy, like it or not.

Please go away.

Never! Round and round like a vaporator fan. I’ve heard what your friends call you Wormie Wormie round and round home forever and ever.

STOP IT! YOU CAN’T BE MY UNCLE, HE’S DEAD NOW! GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE!

round and round round and round round and round round and round…

For minutes on end, Luke’s mind suffered through Owen’s “round and round” chant until the boy eventually screamed profusely. Finally, mercifully, his uncle’s voice receded just as the recreation of the farm reformed itself to the cage once more. Silence returned.

But before Luke could think for what might happen next, another familiar voice rapped his attention.

Give it up, kid, this religious mumbo jumbo the old fossil’s got you hooked on is just fodder for fools.

Han.

My friend, no, not you.

Are we friends? Have we even really met?

Of course we have. I just talked to you six hours ago. You agreed to come with us and share our struggle—

The only struggle I see is what’s going on inside you, Wormie.

Please don’t call me that.

Come on, kid, think hard about what you think has happened. You and I made a daring rescue and escape from the halls of some gigantic space station, only to be lucky enough to destroy said station just a few hours later?

It happened. You were there. It couldn’t have happen without you!

Now does that sound like me to do something so selfless? Seems to me like you’ve invented a man who is too much of a contradiction to be real. Have a little guts, kid. Lift that rock. You’d be better off and life wouldn’t be so complic—

You…to…obah.

Ben! Ben’s voice!

Ben? Luke’s mind asked and he swung his vision all around to try and pinpoint where his mentor’s voice came from. As if this might allow the voice to be received better, like tuning a radio.

Ben?…Ben?…BEN!

But Ben would not speak again with better reception, would not speak again at all.

Instead the bars reformulated once more to create an extensively intricate outline. Some became trees, others vines that hung from those trees. More became murky skies north of Luke’s vision, and more became an even murkier water bed at his eye level. Luke had never actually seen a swamp before but he knew what they looked like from stories Aunt Beru had read to him when he was child. This was a swamp sculpted from…from where? His mind was unhinging and he felt he might as well be fathoms down in a bog like the one before him.

Ben?…Without you…I can’t…

Only one bar remained an endless, rigid line among the ghostly swamp creation. Luke couldn’t help but center his focus on this bar. Why would it remain in its original form, Luke wondered with ever growing curiosity. Why not join the others in recreation? Why? What was so special about this one?

As if to answer his question, the bar grew to become a massive, almost rock-like structure resembling a hill or a cave. The structure began to pulse as if to constitute a malformed heart.

What’s in there?”

Only what to take with you.”

Wait…wait. The first voice was mine. But who was the second voice from? It sounded like if frogs could talk.

Luke thought back to Ben’s half heard words.

You…to…obah.”

Obah? What in the blazes of the great suns is Obah? Is Obah this place? Or the name of the one with the froggish voice?…….WHAT IS ALL OF THIS?! LET ME LEAVE! LET ME GET BACK TO MY FRIENDS, THEY NEED ME—!

Calm yourself, my young one, and forget those other voices…

A new voice; this one was deep, powerful, commanding. Slowed, intensified breathing accompanied the voice. Luke had not heard this voice before either.

Enter the cave, young one, and I’ll show you what truly lies beneath the rock.

But who are you? What’s wrong with your breathing?

Old wounds, boy. As for who I am…well…I am the beginning and the end of you. I am your true destiny, that which you cannot deny or avoid.

But this is too great for me to bare, can’t I just l—

There is no escape. You will face who you are. You will enter the cave. There is no choice, boy….

Will…will I need my saber?

Yes.

Luke drifted closer to the cave. Something wanted him in there, and if he was being honest with himself, he really wanted to go. Okay, he thought, I’ll lift the rock. Perhaps it’ll be the way out of here. Perhaps it’ll be as simple as that. Closer and closer he came to the cave, which now formed an opening sizeable enough for him to enter. The cave pulsed harder as Luke closed the gap. And with each rhythmic beat, pinkish light flashed within.

This fascinated Luke to the point where he wished to touch the surface (surface?) of this now frantic, slamming heart of a cave. As he reached his hand to feel, he saw that his appendage too was a smoky apparition, a ghostly symbol of an arm. I am part of this, he thought with dawning clarity, all of this is me. The hand stretched further to want to touch the caveheart. And the cave protruded and extended its own deathly (yet still pulsing) arm to want to grasp with his.

Only inches now…

Meet who you are…

…three inches, and the cave’s arm beat furious, not with pink, but a full crimson red…

An inch and—

Viciously, instantly, the cave arm engulfed Luke’s hand, the mouth/arm flashing white hot to almost drown out the red.

Luke yanked back his arm in shock and alarm and found that his ghostly arm now had a stump where the hand was not a second before.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

 

CHAPTER 11

 

Aboard the royal cruiser, Luke slept in quarters assigned to him after docking his x-wing. He slumbered on a basic, single-sized bed with a thin, tight-knit blanket over him.

He tossed and turned with restlessness as if trying to escape a suffocating nightmare. As he squirmed, he mumbled intermittently, “…Ben?…without you…I can’t…too great…will I need…”

And then Luke shot awake, sitting up violently while shouting with force, “NOOO, MY HAAAAAND!!!” Instinctively, instantly, he clasped his right arm wrist. Now fully conscious and with a moist brow, Luke jerked his head left and right, wanting conclusive evidence that he was in fact in this room, aboard a star cruiser, in the here and now.

He stared at his right hand and willed its fingers to move around, confirming their existence. His eyebrows cinched as his eyes narrowed. Why am I holding my wrist, he wondered with growing, foggy confusion; why am I checking to see if my fingers still work? As the seconds ticked by, he moved farther and farther away from why he was doing these things. He knew he had a nightmare, that was without question. No one knocks themselves awake like he just did for having a pleasant, soothing dream. But had he said some—no screamed something at the top of his lungs? And if so, what was it?

He tried to recollect anything that might shed some significance to the horrible dream. But hard as he thought, the only things that came to him were…circles in the sand, birdcage, fossils…and frog’s voice.

There has to be more, he asked his mind to which it replied, no, this is all I’m allowed.

Circles in the sand. Birdcage. Fossils. Frog’s voice.

Frog’s voice? Do frogs talk? On any world?

Enough of this, his mind disciplined him, get dressed and see if you can be of some use somewhere.

Following his own orders, he shook off a bit of sleepiness and rose to stand. He started off to get his shirt on the dresser across the way, then halted. His eyes darted around as a notion struck him. Time to try something he had been considering since Ben had given his last little bit of training instruction. Granted, the teaching was merely a voice inside Luke’s head. But it helped him nonetheless.

Luke…let go…Luke, trust me.

Let go. Trust in the flow of things.

Luke reached out his arm to level it with the shirt’s position resting on the metallic dresser. It was only ten feet from him. He closed his eyes and tried to tune his mind to the energy of the Force (that, according to Ben, surrounded everything that existed).

Concentrate—yet let go. Find the balance between the two. Luke had done it before and it saved every life that would have been atomized by the Death Star’s focus ray.

But now finding that crucial equilibrium of control and compliance proved an almost insurmountable chore.

The shirt would not move.

Keep trying, his mind drilled. Keeping reaching for the center. Will and be willed…

Nothing.

Seconds passed and the tiniest tremor afflicted his outstretched hand. Why was it so difficult now, a peripheral voice complained within him.

…But wait a minute, hold everything!—another side voice chimed in.

The grey, crumpled, button-up, long-sleeved shirt stirred with the slightest movement upwards. It appeared to be as if invisible fingers were laboriously attempting to pick up the shirt.

Luke’s eyelids wrinkled, his lips pursed, his concentration intensifying. The shirt, slowly but surely, lifted higher and higher until finally—thank the great suns, both voices shouted from the mental sidelines—levitated into mid air.

The tremor turned to a constant jerking as the shirt began a miniscule movement towards Luke…another two to three inches of distance closed…

…and now his whole arm shook and bucked with obvious over-exertion and ill-advised fatigue. His breathing started toward a labored, strained path, his teeth gritted, and his eyebrows drew in to meet with his cinched lids. This is not encouraging, both side voices said as one.

…The shirt fell to crumple once more on the floor.

Luke’s ache-stricken arm went slack with the full force of gravity (artificial though it was on this ship) and his face eased. Luke had not run a single step, but his panting would have caused one to think otherwise. He opened his eyes and stared at the shirt with disappointment and confusion. Perhaps it’s too big to start out with, his mind rationalized. Maybe I need to start out with something a great deal smaller—a pebble or a marble or a pen. Don’t give up yet.

He walked over, bent down, picked up his shirt, and began to put it on. As he sleeved the second arm, the communications ping sounded.

“Luke?” Leia’s voice inquired through the speaker in the wall.

“I’m here, Leia.”

“We’ve dropped out of hyperspace. Can you meet me in the conference sector?”

Luke’s eyes cinched once more. “Dropped out? So soon?” They weren’t due to enter normal space for another three hours.

“I’ll explain when you get here. Han and Chewie will be joining us, meet us there as soon as you can.”

Buttoning up his shirt and heading for the door, Luke said, “I’m on my way.”

 

“Okay, your highness, you got us out into normal space where we could sitting nerfs,” Han recapped with folded arms and sarcastic eyes. “Now what’s so damned important?”

Chewie grunted in agreement of Han’s annoyance as they both sat facing away from the conference room table. Their focus was opposite to Leia and Luke who both stood near the conference room wall.

“Respectful as ever,” Leia noted with a fair measure of her own sarcasm. “A ship has rendezvoused with us carrying a very important passenger. She should be here any minute.”

Chewie growled with questioning, frustration.

“Yeah,” Han mirrored. “Who?

“Her name,” Leia replied with a hint of beaming pride, “is Mon Mothma, and she is the leader for the head council of the alliance.”

Luke turned to face Leia, confusion rising the pitch in his voice. “She leads the rebellion? But I thought you—”

Leia faced Luke. “The alliance is greater than empire knows. With the senate now disbanded, Mothma has now taken more direct action to stopping the emperor. We are only but one grouping of the rebellion’s whole, Luke.”

“Now,” Han broke in. “why am I not jumping out of my seat at the mention of this Mothma lady?”

“Han,” Luke chided.

“You should,” Leia mother-henned. “She has done more for the alliance than you could possibly know. And if you’re with us now, you should start to respect—”

“I’m not staying, princess,” Han announced. “Once I’ve got a flight out of Mantell, then I’m heading back to pay off Jabba, who’s probably priced my head by now.”

Chewie grunted something to Han.

“More than one bounty hunter, you think?” Han asked and then looked to the floor and grinned. “Wouldn’t that be flattering…”

Leia’s eyes simmered with restrained rage and disgust. Her teeth gritted while her lips thinned. “Then whyyy did you even come with us after Yavin?”

“His ship’s been marked by the imperials, it looks like,” Luke tried to explain—hopefully to diffuse what was turning into a volatile situation.

“Yeah,” Han added with a measure of defensiveness. “And I’m not about to have her impounded again. So like I said, Chewie and I will—”

“Find another way back, I heard,” Leia cut him off with no attempt at tactfulness. “Tell me, pirate, what is it with you and that ship? Was there some sort of secret ceremony for you and that flying death trap?”

Alarm hit Luke’s eyes. “Leia, don’t—”

“Yeah, Leia…” Han warned as he unfolded his arms and sat straighter; his eyes darkened as he finished, “…don’t.

But Leia, being Leia, simply wasn’t going to stop. “You know, I really feel that it is possibly the most repulsive-looking ship I’VE EVER SEEN!”

Han rose and drew in a breath, clearly about to say something that might turn things into a shouting match—or worse—when—

Whoosh.

The doors split apart to reveal Mon Mothma in the flesh. A somewhat beautiful woman, she was, but with aged eyes that had seen too much of political oppression. And the loss of many things she held dear.

Mothma glided forth in her flowing, long, white gown. Everyone focused on her as she smoothly approached. Her presence broke the mounting tension, clearly.

“Senator Mothma,” Leia said with a genuine smile, despite her rage for Han.

“Senator Organa,” Mothma replied with her own warm smile as she grasped Leia by her upper arms. Leia returned the gesture.

“Thank you for joining us, we are honored by your presence,” Leia said and meant it.

“As I am honored by yours…” Mothma’s eyes turned sorrowful. “…Oh Leia, please accept my deepest sorrows for the loss of your home world.”

Leia’s own eyes darted down, then up again to stare at Mothma with respectful conviction. “Yes, thank you…perhaps now the rest of the galaxy will realize just what the empire is and rally to our cause.”

Mothma’s expression beamed with admiration for Leia’s selfless words. “…Strength and spirit, you are, Leia…”

Han turned to stare at Chewie, rolling his eyes in sarcasm, exasperation.

“…And I’ve come with news that will resolve your strength further…” Mothma continued, now raising her hands to rest on Leia’s shoulders. She moved in a bit more as she announced, “Leia, your father was not on Alderaan when it was destroyed…”

Leia’s eyes widened, her face seemed to come to life. “Bail is alive?! Where is he?! Have you spoken with him?!”

“I have spoken with him and he is anxious to meet with you as soon as he can.”

Impatiently, Leia asked, “When?”

“In twelve hours time, Leia, he will meet you in this sector. He has a great request of you and your men.”

“Of course, anything. What’s involved?”

Mothma drew in a breath and let it out, her tone of voice turned official—and grave. “Dodonna’s death is a terrible setback to our tactical strength. Bail proposes that to regain that strength, we aid in the defection of Cartis Rieekan.”

“He wishes to defect?” Leia asked, hopeful. Mothma nodded.

“Cartis Rieekan?” Luke inquired with curiosity.

Leia faced Luke. “He’s a general in the imperial fleet and one of their chief tacticians. He’s brilliant in his strategies, we would be lucky to get him.” And then she turned to Mothma again, enthusiasm beaming her face, “What’s our plan of extraction?”

“I’m afraid that’s for you father to explain. I must move on soon…” Mothma revealed, but then turned to face Luke, Han, and Chewie. “…But I did wish to meet the ones responsible for saving so many…”

Leia turned to face them as well, extending an arm and hand. “Senator Mothma, may I present to you Commander Luke Skywalker, the wookie Chewbacca…” Leia’s expression became grim, strained. “…Han Solo.”

Mothma came forth to view Luke, Han, and Chewie with exuberant, curious eyes. “Commander.”

Luke bowed his head briefly as he said, “Senator.”

“I greatly commend you for your brave efforts concerning the alliance. We are in your debt.”

A bit of rosy color tinted Luke’s cheeks as a sheepish grin formed his mouth. “Thank you, senator. Glad I could help, that’s all.”

“Still, medals are nice though, aren’t they?”

Luke laughed a bit in good spirits. “They are, I have to admit.”

Mothma smiled, good-spirited as well. Then eased over to stand before Han and Chewie. The smile remained, but her eyes dissected. “And you two. Medals…and a sizeable payment. Which begs the question: is your allegiance to us permanent orrr…something else?”

Han leaned back against the conference table, folding his arms once more. Coolly, he responded, “Well senator, you know how it is…life gets in the way.”

The smile remained yet, but Mothma’s eyes not only studied, they pierced. “Yes indeed, it does intrude whenever it can…in any case, our sincerest thanks for all that you have done…but perhaps not so greatly in debt…”

With icy defiance in his eyes, Han gave Mothma a half smile.

Still with the smile, Mothma smoothly turned to approach Leia once more. “Senator, I’m afraid I must now leave you. Your continued dedication to the alliance is my greatest wish.”

“And mine,” Leia said, nodding slowly.

Mothma moved in close to Leia and placed a hand softly to her cheek. She looked at Leia with genuine affection as she said, “…Your father can’t wait…” and with that, Mothma glided past Leia and exited through the whooshing doors.

After they fully closed, Chewie warbled a comment to Han.

Snorting smugly, Han replied, “I was thinking the same thing—a politician through and through.” If there was one thing the Han detested more than droids, it was elected officials.

Luke rolled his eyes and pursed his lips—great suns, Han, Chewie, do you really have to be that glib all the time?!

Leia’s eyes turned to rage again…rage and a hint of deep hurt, longing as she marched directly, curtly out of the room. Han observed the look on her face and his became analytical…a small grin formed in the corners of his mouth. He picked up on the signs of actual, genuine hurt—not just pompous (in his opinion anyway) frustration at not being able to control anything and everyone, not just disdain for a pirate’s carefree persona…but real pain…could it be—

“Have a safe trip,” Luke uttered with a coldness that Han had not heard from the young one before. The boy said this as he, too, stormed by to exit.

“Heeeey kid,” Han tried. “KidLuke…”

But Luke had gone, the doors shut behind him.

Chewie moaned.

“What are you moaning for?…I know what I’m doing.”

 

CHAPTER 12

 

Luke stormed into his room and halted right in the center of it. His breathing was strained and quick, his teeth were gritted, his eyes intense. He closed his eyes and attempted a deep, frustration-cleansing breath. When it was let out, however, it stuttered from remaining anger. He opened his eyes and immediately began searching for something in the room that could more effectively quell his compacted rage. Instead, poisons of the past wormed their way up through his thoughts.

The last time he felt this way, he was able to take it out on a few choice storm trooper targets with his blaster. That black armored and caped nightmare had just cut down his beloved mentor; and had he a clear shot at the sword-wielding scum, he would have taken it. But the soulless ivory-armored lackeys standing in front of the dark wretch would certainly do for adequate retribution. For the time being.

Another incident of diseased, festering frustration also flashed through his mind. The time, one year ago, when Biggs (along with their friend, Tank) announced to Luke that he was accepted to the imperial academy. And they would be leaving in the morning.

It was the very first time that Luke had experienced any true sense of loss in his life. And the first time Biggs and Luke had ever got into a serious argument. The flustered farm boy did his best to try and convince his best friend that he should stay another year. At that point, Luke would be eligible to apply to the academy and they could join together. And finally see the galaxy like they always talked about. The Tatooine Terrors, The Toshi ‘Trollers, The T-16 Rats. Luke and Biggs. It was always them together, in solidarity, taking on whatever came their way.

But no more.

Biggs was determined to leave even though he knew it would break Luke’s heart. He felt his call of duty simply could not be ignored or delayed any longer. But that held little weight in grounding his younger friend’s soul-crushing disappointment.

Biggs could’ve waited a year, yet something told him, it simply wouldn’t be just one more year for Luke. His uncle on the moisture farm would definitely see to that. Owen would rope the boy into one “legitimate” excuse or another to keep his charge around for as long as possible. Maybe even for the rest of Luke’s natural born life. The galaxy is perilous and cruel, both boys had heard the time and desert-worn man say on more than one occasion. They both had a sense that the moisture-pedaling business would be the only thing that Owen could ever conceive of doing. And in Luke he had built-in assistance in keeping the venture afloat (if only and forever just barely).

So Biggs, as much as it pained him to abandon the best friend he ever had, left the next morning on a transport to the capitol system. Even though Luke had begged and pleaded Biggs to wait that one tiny, insignificant year for him.

And soon after, the youthful Skywalker fell in to a blue malaise, going about his duties without much enthusiasm. As the year rolled on, he recovered with the aid of a few time-honored hobbies: searching for repair equipment and tools, sparring verbally with Camie and Fixer about this or that, and racing here and there.

But it was never the same without his true friend, Biggs Darklighter, at his side.

And now Biggs was dead. And now Ben was dead. And now Han was leaving. True, Leia was staying put and always would. But a busier person than Leia Organa, Luke could not imagine. She was, of course, running a war against a monumental enemy.

And Luke truly felt that he was on his way to square one again. Becoming for all intents and purposes that solitary boy lamenting better times.

Enough!—his mind barked. Do something useful! You have a few hours before Ord Mantell; grab your saber, let loose a few practice remotes, and work on honing your sword skills!

Luke did as his mind ordered; he walked over to the metallic chest resting on the floor in the corner. Opening it, he reached in and took out what Obi-Wan had reported was Luke’s father’s very own lightsaber. He ignited it and a bluish-white beam no longer than three feet shot forth from the end of the lensed hilt. As it opened up, it gave off a deep, buzzing hum of a sound. Seeing that it worked, he closed the beam down. Then he reached into the chest again to activate two remote spheres (similar in design and size to the one he first worked with on the Falcon—back when Ben first tutored him). They ascended approximately six feet in the air than hovered and waited for Luke to reignite his sword. He walked back to the center of the room after grabbing one more item from the chest. A blindfold.

Luke tied the blindfold around his head, covering his eyes completely. He lit up his saber once more and it queued the remotes to go on the offensive. They split up as they sped towards the blind swordsman, the two positioning themselves on either side of him. As this happened, Luke snapped to his attack stance, his light-trailing saber angling in preparedness.

And the practice began. Judging from his current performance, it was obvious that Luke had been practicing several times since the initial Falcon session. His speed and agility (his grace) had improved by leaps and bounds.

Not that he wasn’t still hit with painful and annoying practice blasts at certain points. Yet he wasn’t fazed by them as much anymore. And soon, fewer and fewer blasts were penetrating his blurred saber defenses. He was sensing the remotes’ movements (seeing them in a manner of speaking) through the mystical field Ben called the Force. In that right, Luke was coming along swimmingly.

The other ways of using the Force, however…

But this is good, a peripheral voice commented in a soothing manner as he practiced.

The exercise brought him a focus, a control.

A calm.

 

Infuriating, infuriating! Leia’s mind hollered as she stormed Joltingly through the cruiser’s corridors. That damned pirate and his lust for money…I must have been a right idiot, a blaring fool, to think that he had somehow changed into an honorable white knight! Why did he even come back to help us?! Was it vanity, come in at the last minute to take a good portion of the glory and feed his enormous ego?! That must have been it, that wouldn’t surprise me in the lea—

Leia rounded a corner and thrusted forth to run almost right into Mothma. The princess halted and rebounded, visibly stricken, as if she had just run smack into a wall.

“Leia, are you all right?” Mothma asked with equal measure of alarm and concern.

Leia quickly composed herself, easing her frenzied, ferocious eyes. “Yes, fine, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to charge into you like that, please forgive me—”

“It’s fine, Leia. What has you so riled—no, wait, let me guess. It has something to do with that braggart in there.”

And Leia’s eyes darted all around, her throat swallowed. She attempted her best coherency with, “It’s…just that…Luke sees him as such a friend…and now he and his wookie partner are leaving to go back to their pirating…not to mention that most of the men look up to Han as a hero and an inspiration—”

“Oh, he’s inspiring, all right. In fact, his cavalier dedication to the cause—or the certain lack of it, rather—is why I waited to speak to you in private…away from his presence. Of Luke, I have no doubts that he is one of us. But the pirate—his loyalty I’m afraid I must call into question.”

Leia looked uneasily downward. “I’d like to say that he could be trusted after what he has done for us, but…I can’t be certain…” Then she lifted her gaze to connect with Mothma’s. “What is it you need to tell me?”

Mothma’s face materialized an intensity. “Leia, there is another mission. On the capitol planet…I need two sharp shooters: Wedge Antilles and Tyree Camaris—”

“Wedge, I can get you…but Tyree…we lost him in the Death Star raid.”

Mothma flickered some sadness in her expression, but then she recovered. She sighed, and said, “All right…I…will simply have to pull someone from Bail’s team—”

“What’s the mission? What’s going on?”

“…We’re going after Palpatine, Leia.”

“What? How?”

“There is a window of opportunity. If he agrees to meet with the senators at Judaris, then during the meeting…we’re going to attempt a full sweep assassination.”

Leia looked away again, absorbing the new and electrifying information. “…I see…I’ll alert Antilles to report to your shuttle immediately.”

“Tell Luke if you must, but inform him that he must keep it between you two.”

Leia’s brow furled. “But wait, if we’re not to tell Han of this plan, why did we reveal details of the other mission to him?”

“Well, we don’t want to fully distrust him either. It took great courage for him to aid us in our time of dire need; to come back when he was free and clear, money in hand. Call it…instinct, a judgment call…and a test on all our parts.”

Leia turned her eyes back to Mothma again and nodded, blinking twice. “I understand…good luck, then.”

Mothma’s face lightened a bit. And with a cryptic expression that intonated a clear understanding of Leia’s true feelings for the braggart, the wild card, the pirate, she ended the covert meet with, “You too.”

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

If you were the jet set or the social and economic elite of the galaxy, you would know by heart the most advantageous planets to visit and burn through obscene amounts of money. Coruscant moguls and elected officials would typically agree that Malastair and Ansion featured intoxicating night life delights—not to mention scenic treasures to dizzy the senses.

To those socialites who were claimed by the exhilarating whiles of Lady Luck, Remedean Minor and Major boasted the undisputed capitols to satisfy a gambler’s lust.

And for those who wished to dive deep into the corrupted rivers of the skin trade, Belderaan (Alderaan’s sister planet sharing the same orbit) was the unquestionable pleasure center of the galaxy.

For those who enjoy the fortunes and privileges of power and millions (or billions) throughout the central systems, however, there was one planet with which they all agree was well worth overlooking: Ord Mantell.

Although Mantell was not a galactic cesspool by any means, it was also not a satellite for supreme decadence. To be sure, there were trade thoroughfares that populated many of the continents of this twenty million year old rock. Merchants hoping to turn a fast dollar or traders wishing to cut the quickest deal would do their business in places such as Dorn City or Brinn Village, then leave for orbit (and the comfort of hyperspace). Ord Mantell was a business planet and (the occasional civil war or guerrilla incursion not withstanding) not much else. If you were looking to transact with very little official attention from any official wherever, then this was certainly the planet for you.

And before his untimely death, Dodonna had to agree with Leia (and commend her personally) in choosing Ord Mantell as the optimal rest stop and refueling center for the rebels. The other group leaders concurred that the princess’ decision would serve the needs of the rebellion with maximum efficiency…if the protocol droid sent ahead could secure their cover and reserve (for the right amount of money) enough lots for refueling, lodging, and supply gathering.

Leia had placed a great deal of faith in C-3PO’s capabilities to…well, come through in a serious pinch. And true to his programming and reputation, Threepio finessed the officials with a deal that would allow the alliance the necessary breathing room. Provided their cover as traders could be maintained throughout the visit, they would be able to fill their ships with fuel, supplies, and new equipment. From there they could journey to wherever might be considered the best choice for establishing a new base of operations.

There were rumors and wagers among the ranks of the rebels as to what location might be selected. Most agreed that it would a place that the imperials would likely overlook. But a few skeptics challenged that no stone, as it were, would be unturned to find them.

Not after their inconceivable act of ultimate treason—destroying the Death Star.

Leia decided to allow the speculation to continue, even though secretly she knew exactly where they would be setting up camp after Mantell. In her initial communiqué with Mothma, the elder senator revealed (through a coded exchange of words with the princess) the precise planet for entrenchment. The others would be told when she felt it was absolutely necessary to know. Giving them such sensitive information before they concluded their crucial business on Ord Mantell was agreed by all interim officials (Leia included) to be highly ill-advised. Especially if their cover was blown.

But the secret location of the new rebel base was not at the forefront of Leia’s thoughts. Only one thing dominated her mental energies as the cruisers descended toward the Ord Mantell surface—her father. When she would see him, what she would say, how much relief it would be to hold him again. And ease some of the crushing agony of watching her beloved Alderaan become cosmic ash.

Leia could recall the days when she and her father actually came to odds with each other. Bail was strangely overly protective and vehemently objective of his daughter following his political footsteps. She thought, before revealing her intentions to become a junior senator, that her father would show streaming pride and officially (as well as personally) sponsor her senatorial bid. Instead he had shocked her with a thunderous insistence that she remain on Alderaan—at least until things had drastically changed with the galactic government. “That could be never,” Leia balked with fury, “especially if I’m forced to stay here and affect no sway of public opinion on the capitol planet!”

For months it seemed he would not budge in his irrational (from Leia’s viewpoint) decision to hide her from the real world. Finally it came down to Leia threatening to stow aboard a vessel and, somehow, someway, find passage to Coruscant to make whatever difference she could. Repeatedly, she hit her father with the cold fact that he was hurting the alliance’s chances at success by keeping her socked away. “If only you knew just how wrong you are,” Bail muttered one day, to which Leia suspiciously (and quite angrily) asked, “What exactly do you mean by that?”

But Bail never answered her that day, nor any other afterward. He did, however, relent to submitting her application to the galactic senatorial committee and, with only eight months into her junior status, was initiated to full senatorial ranks (thanks to Mon Mothma’s tutelage and support).

Though their relationship had never been able to heal entirely (simply because Leia could never fully comprehend her father’s motives for reticence), a fostering respect had developed between father and daughter. He had expressed more than once an overwhelming sense of pride regarding her tireless efforts to move the senate toward change. By the time Leia had turned eighteen, both her and Bail’s schedules had scarcely allowed them coordinated moments for visiting each, let alone any other family members or friends. When they were able to find time to meet, Bail would always have some trinket or other to give to Leia. None of them were expensive and that’s exactly why she loved them—the thought was more important than the price.

Now, with the cruisers making their landing and the doors of the hull soon to open, Leia made it her mission—her number one priority to visit a trade bizarre on Dorn city to purchase a quaint, discounted item—something that she knew Bail would find amusing yet endearing.

It was this important mission—and Luke standing next to her as they awaited the pressurized airlock doors to equalize and open—that crowded her mind and edged out any tension-inducing factors that could spoil her newfound euphoria.

The doors slid aside and revealed the natural glow of the day. Leia welcomed it—and the sight of something that stood at the foot of the landing ramp—a humanly yet gold-glinting figure that awaited her and Luke with electric-bright eyes.

C-3PO.

 

As Leia and Luke descended the ramp, their favorite (though, at times, trying) protocol droid became animate as he greeted them with: “Esteemed friends, welcome to the Ord Mantell and Dorn City. Master Luke, it’s very good to see you, sir.”

“Hey Threepio, good to see you,” Luke replied warmly.

“And your royal highness,” Threepio bowed towards Leia’s direction, then up-righted again.

“Hello, Threepio. Well done on your work here. The city officials seem quite happy with our arrangement.”

“Why, protocol is my primary function, your highness. It is therefore a pleasure to utilize my circuits in such a fashion as to—”

Luke gently placed a hand on Threepio’s shoulder as he added, “She meant thanks, Threepio,” with a grin. Leia mirrored his good-spirited smile.

“Oh. Well. You’re welcome,” Threepio said with a tone of embarrassing realization. “Er, pardon me, sir, but, where is Artoo?”

Turning back to look behind him, Luke replied, “He should be along any second now…”

Artoo’s beeping and warbling whistles could be heard an instant before he emerged from behind the cruiser’s hull. He rolled cautiously down the ramp, continuing his musical speech.

Luke turned back again and patted Threepio twice on the shoulder, another jovial smile formed his mouth as he said, “We’ll leave you two to catch up.” Then he and Leia walked past Threepio, who now focused solely on his three-legged counterpart. Artoo halted just short of running into his longtime (and long-suffering) partner.

“Well Artoo, so help me, I have to say I actually missed your company.”

Artoo beeped and whistled with a fair measure of playful indignance.

“Well there’s no need to get technical, I know it’s only been four days. But the droids here in the city are simply a bore. And the people too, if I may be so bold. But now you’re here and I can suffer in the way that I am accustomed. Come,” Threepio entreated his small companion as he turned to walk towards the city entrance, “Let us take a tour.”

Artoo whistled a whining response, yet followed after.

“Oh, don’t be a baby. There’s actually some wonderful scenery about.” Threepio turned into an awkward sidestepping as he eyed Artoo. “Come along now…”

 

Dorn city’s main thoroughfare laid just beyond the passage ways of the docking ports. Leia and Luke were fast reaching the wide opening that would allow them access to the crowded, voices-merging streets. Before passing through, they halted to face each other.

“So,” Luke started with a deep breath let out, “we’re here for another fourteen hours, right?”

“Right,” Leia confirmed. “Long enough to fuel up, gather supplies, and avoid being seen for who we really are. Hopefully.”

“But the imperials will track us, won’t they?”

“At this point they already have, but I’m guessing that they’ll wait for the rest of the fleet to arrive. And by that time—”

“We’ll be long gone…”

And then they finished the thought in perfect unison, “Hopefully.” In sync, again, they grinned at each other. Leia drew in close while placing a hand on Luke’s shoulder, then dabbed a gentle kiss to his cheek. With that, she moved on and entered the opposing streams of the thoroughfare crowd.

Luke could only stand there, pleasantly stunned, his eyebrows locked in a raised position. The empire with its soulless and ruthless weapons of wholesale destruction may be bearing down on all of them…but whenever Leia graced Luke with her soft lips, he was transported to a place in his mind that could only be described as the warmth of home. That warmth traveled to his lips shaping a dreamy smile. Wonderful, his thoughts swam in willingly (and possibly beyond his control from a place deeper within). The “warmth of home” phenomena continued to inebriate his senses as he, too, lost himself in the Dorn city crowds.

 

Only minutes before, Han watched Luke and Leia greet that insipid protocol droid, exchange a few pleasantries, then pass by the mechanical nuisance and disappear into the port corridors.

And he did this with dark and conflicted eyes.

But why, he asked himself. Why are you so concerned with what they do now? You’re leaving, getting back to the way things were before all of this pointless civil war business that will come to nothing in the end. So we blew up a massive planet killer with mind-bending luck. Was the Death Star the full might of the empire and its power-bloated leader? No, Han knew better and the reality—stone hard reality—of the imperial army’s true might: star destroyer after star destroyer after star destroyer and so on and so on, until you couldn’t count them anymore.

These fools. If they had any sense they would leave this part of the universe and eke out a new life in more hospitable environments.

Han had the foresight, the maturity, the experience of living through a Corellian uprising (that proved too bloody and far too insane to ever truly succeed) to realize that these guerrillas, these rebels had and will bite off more than they could ever chew. True, Han admired them for their tenacity and courage in combat—even their child-like idealism for a better galactic community. But where did courage end and crippling stupidity begin?

Han believed he was unquestionably right—knew without any lingering doubts…

…So why in the face of all reason and sobering pragmatism, did he…

Chewie whined morosely behind Han, interrupting his mental tug-of-war. Han whipped around to eye his towering companion with intense reproach. “Enough of it. We’re leaving and that’s it.”

Chewie argued with a rattle and a moan.

Han shot a pointed finger at Chewie as he barked, “Look, my furry friend, I’ll level with you. I turned around the first time because I knew that the kid would get in over his head, and I was right. And because if it weren’t for the empire, we wouldn’t be in this mess with Jabba. But we’ve done our bit for these people and now it’s time to get back to our lives!” Han did a diagonal swipe with his hand as he ordered, “So not another word on it!” He stormed past Chewie and up the landing ramp of the Falcon. Chewie waited until Han was clearly out of earshot, then grunted “hymphs” in anger and frustration. He continued this as he loaded the last crate of money (money, this damn money was the problem) onto the floating cargo loader.

 

CHAPTER 14

 

The spiking, slicing migraine inside Palpatine’s head was killing him. Whyyy did Vader fail him (and twice, mind you) when before now the dark apprentice had successfully fulfilled each mission for the past twenty years of his master’s rule?

Disputes that could have led to monumental wars—Vader was there to settle the matter, with either his political prowess or his ultra-clever use of military might.

Palpatine knew quite well what his charge was capable of behind the pilot’s seat of a fighter. Once, Vader had single-handedly taken out eighty-five enemy sub-nosers at the bloody battle of Tanaab.

Resource planets refusing to cooperate with supply and demand? Vader was there to supremely confiscate whatever precious commodity was needed.

Time after time. Year after year. Success, victory, sith perfection—despite the fact Vader was only half organic matter.

So why now the failures? And at a time when the emperor was attempting to simplify things by washing away the miring muck of the senate. And all its pathetic, argumentative, pseudo-intellectual delegates. All its insignificant insects.

The regional governors—more insects—were drowning his office in distress calls of various natures. More food, more fuel, more ships to protect their systems from raiders, pirates. More, more, more.

And Palpatine’s answer would have been, solve your own planetary problems, and if you continue to pester me, then I shall send the Death Star to your neck of the galaxy and lay waist to certain segments of your planets. Or maybe blow an entire one up if you made yourself too much of an audible nuisance.

But now the massive orb of metallic hopes and dreams was no more than a trillion scraps travelling off in every direction of space.

True, another station resembling the first was currently under construction—but only a small portion of the new weapon had been completed. And it was likely another year before it would become operational enough to do any major damage to an errant system.

And true, he could still send a destroyer or two to make sectors behave. But the main purpose of the military fleet was to form a loose patrol perimeter around the core systems—protect the capitol planet, protect the emperor and his rule. If Palpatine sent destroyers to every system that cried fowl, the capitol would be too vulnerable to attack.

But his aide was wholly correct in his assessment, they could not bring the senate back now. It would show that the emperor was in error in dissolving them in the first place. The emperor could never be wrong, the weakness of second guessing was simply unacceptable.

And then there was Alderaan to deal with. A good portion of that doomed planet’s natives were here on Coruscant. And were likely plotting his demise in some grisly form or another. Or at the very least dethrone him—but most likely kill. The insects were quite predictable. They were coming for him, the Alderaanians and their sympathizers, whatever number that might be. Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Palpatine was, of course, aware of the dissatisfied masses that lived right in his proverbial back yard.

Whatever the number, he would have to be ready for them with a sizeable force. And to have the bunker prepared for his arrival—

Ping!

“Sir,” came the aide’s voice over the office intercom, “I loathe to interrupt, but senator Mon Mothma is here and requests to see you now.”

The emperor cocked a hairless eyebrow. So, the senators have sent their most charismatic and reasonable voice to come and politic me, he mused. This should be interesting—or at the very least titillating…

“Send her in,” the emperor said flatly but with a hint of anticipatory tone.

“Yes sir,” the aide said and the ping sounded him off.

The emperor turned toward the door as it split apart smoothly to reveal Mothma, draped in a pitch black gown that flowed to the floor. The length hid her graceful, slippered feet as they glided forth to approach the pale grotesquery of Palpatine. His eyes were a hellish yellow that always appeared to burn straight into a person’s soul. Revealing their fears, agonies, guilts, deceits, and hidden truths. Two fiery buttons that required not even the Force to spear one’s heart and have burst with secrets.

But Mothma was no reed easily bent or broken by the hands of the twisted and possessed. For thirty-two years, she had dealt with every kind of political catastrophe and snafu imaginable…and all with a face, a mask that spoke all is good, all is serene, all is centered.

And that face now moved forth and eased to a stop with the rest of her being to greet the emperor. “Emperor Palpatine, how gracious of you to meet with me today…particularly under such trying times.”

“I assume you’ve heard, then?” the emperor said.

“Yes, the Death Star. More lost lives after Alderaan. So much death. And the effects ripple outward, as I’m sure you are feeling.”

“Is that why you are wearing black, as opposed to your usual white?”

“Yes, a public display of mourning, grieving.”

“As you may or may not have heard, I did not sanction the order to annihilate an entire world—particularly one that held no military significance of any kind. It was a peaceful, empire-supportive world that deserved none of what occurred…” Palpatine turned to walk to the side in contemplation. “…It seems…that Tarkin became too enamored of the power he wielded with such a prodigious weapon…”

“Forgive me, but I feel I must ask…why was it given the ability to do such a dreadful thing in the first place?”

He faced her once more, eyes penitent. “It was never intended to obliterate a populated planet. As you and I both know, planets can often shift their orbits, threatening life sustaining ones. It was only meant to destroy planets that were a danger to others.”

“And Vader? Did he fall in line with Tarkin’s bid for ultimate glory?”

“I cannot say. He is most likely dead with the others. His motives I’ll never know.”

“He was a friend of yours. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you…” He began pacing, avoiding her gazing on him. “…I suppose the delegates have burdened you with some kind of message to send along to me.”

“I haven’t met with the others actually. I wanted to come speak with you first…” She released a smile and averted her eyes briefly. “Truth be told, I’d rather be in the presence of a genuine adult than the company of a bunch of squealing two-years-olds.”

Palpatine cracked a smile and eyed her once more, his pacing ceased. “They are a vocal lot, are they not?”

“Oh, indeed…” her smile lessened to a hint of joviality as she put forth, “I know that you cannot reinstate us. To do so would be political suicide…but it doesn’t take a man of your stature to realize that without their mediations, it puts you in a rather…delicate position.”

“Yes…and in turn, it doesn’t take a women of your stature—” and he smiled once more, his most diplomatic grin, “—to grasp that you are here in my presence today because you have a clever solution to my dilemma.”

The jovialness increased in her expression once again. “One distinct possibility comes to mind. And please, only take it as a friendly suggestion.”

“Of course.”

“There could be a temporary reformation of the senate members to address the present difficulties…” she brought her fingers to her lips in a visual gesture of contemplation; her eyes narrowed slightly. “…Since the old senate room has been demolished, perhaps another gathering area would suffice—Judaris being my first suggestion since it is the closest amphitheatre. And it does offer a pleasant shade under your statue, if met at a certain time of day, of course.”

“Judaris, you say…” and again, the emperor looked off, absorbing her offer.

“Or whatever locale you feel is appropriate, of course. We would meet—the senators, their security details, and you and your protection. Once we’re all gathered and settled in, we can work hard at dismantling our difficulties. The number one challenge being how to prevent the Alderaanians here from spurring on a city-wide revolt.

“And once we’re done…well, if I may be so bold as to suggest that you decree the senators…forego their titles to assume the positions of the regional governors.”

The emperor’s cragged brows rose. “A reduction in power for that myriad of politicrats? And here you were suggesting that I prevent a revolt.”

“They will cry, sure…but it’s better than having them snivel about no power at all, wouldn’t you agree? And it would officially provide you with the out you need in not reinstating the senate.”

“That it would…very well. Judaris then, three hours from now. Tell them I will be there in person, ready to negotiate in earnest.”

Mothma nodded with a pleasant smile, betraying none of her euphoric anxiousness. “I will do that. Thank you again for meeting with me.”

“Stimulating as always, senator.”

 

Minutes later, Mothma had left and Palpatine had ordered his aide to join him in the office. They stood close together, almost as if others were present in the room and the two wanted secrecy.

“Did you hear all of it?” the emperor inquired of his aide.

“Every word, my lord,” the aide answered.

“Your impressions.”

“Well…if you’ll forgive me, my lord, I have always been able to read the stress patterns and intonations of every senator’s words. Determining whether they are duplicitous or not…except her.”

“Then what would you surmise from the plan itself?”

“Sound on the surface, but if I may suggest, lord, that is why it must be rejected outright. It solves certain problems but does not place you in the position of ultimate benefit.”

“And the sith always seek ultimate beneficial outcomes for themselves.”

“Precisely, my lord.”

“Good. You understand then. I will not negotiate with these pathetic leeches, these so-called representatives of the galaxy…when they gather under my statue at Judaris and gaze upon the symbol of my greatness, it will be the last thing they ever see.”

And with that statement, Palpatine realized two things: one, his headache had evaporated; and two, a lascivious smile had flooded his lips.

 

“He has agreed!” Mothma announced the moment she rejoined her comrades in a Coruscant alleyway.

“When?” Wedge asked at once.

“Two and an half hours from now at Judaris. Now listen, as per the normal security procedures, they will have a quarter mile radius surveiled to protect the emperor from any assassination attempts—”

“How do you know it’s a quarter mile?” a rebel asked.

“I just know. Trust me, it’s accurate. So it means we have to widen the net for our positions. Wedge, do you think you and your team can make your target at a half-mile distance?”

Wedge answered, “It’s pushing things to the limits of what we can do, but if the winds aren’t too strong…it is possible. Not recommended but possible.”

“Do your best. And also remember to keep an eye out for the security details both at the site and at the quarter. Because they will be looking for threats like you with their long range scopes.”

“Got it.”

Another rebel inquired, “If we succeed here, do you still feels it’s necessary for Bail’s team to carry out their mission?”

“It is essential that they still succeed,” Mothma stressed, “The emperor is the head of the empire’s body, to be certain. But, like a baster worm, if you cut off the head and destroy it, the empire will simply grow a new one. The body must be ashes as well if we are ever to see the republic grow again.”

Wedge spurred, “We’d best leave now to scope out our positions if we are to be on time. With your permission, president.”

“Proceed,” Mothma said with a measure of haste.

And then quickly they dispersed from the dank, lonely alley.

 

CHAPTER 15

 

Pohl was his name and his primary profession as a means of survival on Ord Mantell was pick-pocketing. He had the rare distinction of never being caught for his crimes—for the mere fact that he employed rotating partners who were masters of creating distraction. And his movements were so light, so finessed that no mark ever felt that their possessions were lifted. It also didn’t hurt that he was not easily identifiable. His public wardrobe consisted solely of nondescript tunics under a grey, hooded cloak. Pohl did not socialize—he only communicated with his “business” partners and only when it was deemed wholly necessary to plan and conduct their surreptitious activities.

Lifting paid well…but informing paid even better, and Pohl couldn’t resist the opportunity to “drop the dime” whenever it fell his way. Two hours earlier, he had received a communiqué from a bounty hunter named Brand Morser. It told of the coming arrival of a ship housing two persons of great interest. There were also transmitted hologram loops detailing the make of the freighter as well as its two pilots.

Presently, and from a distance, Pohl was eyeing the flesh and blood versions of these flyboys from the shadowy corner of a port corridor. The two seemed to be having a heated discussion which, of course, mattered nothing to Pohl—only that they were the ones he needed to find and tail. He reached into the oversized pocket of his cloak and brought up to his chin-level a flat, circular device. He tapped the bottom of it and the top, gridded side spat a holographic visage of the two marks. Pohl stared at them for an instant, then up at their real-life counterparts.

He tapped the bottom again, the holograms scrambled to nothing; he replaced the device to his pocket and brought up another device—a communicator—to his mouth. Pressing the call button, he hissed, “They’re here.”

 

 

Seated in the chair of his aged yet technologically efficient cockpit of his aged yet technologically efficient ship, the Grey Vulture, the bounty hunter, Brand Morser, darted his eyes toward the comm’s grilled speaker. The console’s comm signal had just pinged, and Brand jabbed a finger to hit the transmit button. “Go,” he spoke to the comm.

Pohl’s transmission-filtered voice came bursting through the speaker, “They’re here.”

“Understood,” Brand acknowledged with an even tone betraying none of his anxiousness. “A bonus payment for finding them quickly is yours.”

“Many thanks.”

The comm went static, then off. With quick, smooth dexterity, he worked the multi-lighted controls in front of him. The Vulture responded faithfully by rocketing forth towards the brown and blue ball of Ord Mantell.

 

“Welcome to Spaceways, Mr. Deacon,” a ticket droid cheerfully announced to Han as he distributed a ticket to him.

“Thaank you,” Han said, feigning appreciation as he accepted the ticket and passed by.

“Welcome aboard, Mr. Garfell,” the ticket droid said with equal enthusiasm as he passed a ticket Chewie’s way. He took the thin, plastic oval and his fur nearly concealed it in his grasp. He lumbered forth without acknowledging the sugary-voiced droid.

Further down, larger, sturdier droids were loading luggage onto a floating conveyer belt. Behind them, Pohl stood, and although he was cloaked and hooded, his frantic-laden eyes were still visible. Quickly, he brought his communicator to his mouth and croaked, “You’ll have to hurry! They’re boarding a flight as we speak! Transport 461138!”

The comm gave Brand’s filtered voice, “Understood. Your account has been credited.” And then the device “shrrted” to over and out.

Pohl shoved the comm into his vest and his eyes had eased at the word “credited” being said. He couldn’t help but smile.

 

Han shoved a carryon bag into a cubby built into the wall of their fairly cramped cabin. Through the walls, a muffled whine combined with a deep hum could be heard. The transport was powering up.

Han looked around to assess their quarters, which would be their living space for the next three days. With a sobering breath, he commented, “Well…this isn’t the open-space freedom of the Falcon…but I think we’ll live.”

Chewie, who had been stowing his carry-ons into empty cubbies, made no attempt to respond nor did he even look Han’s way to acknowledge his partner’s opinions.

Han noticed this, of course, and turned to eye Chewie with a strained face. He stared for a second before adding, “Okay. The silent treatment. I may just enjoy this trip after all.”

Transport 461138, its engines primed and willing to perform, began its initial lift off. The repulsor rings lining the underbelly of the ship allowed it to evenly levitate fifty feet from the platform surface. It hung there, as was its normal procedure, for a moment as the pilots made their necessary adjustments to their panels. The go was given for further ascent…

Joltingly, shrilling laser blasts, two of them, shot past the transport’s top section! An instant later, another ship—a dirtier yet more dynamically designed one—roared smoothly over the transport preventing it from further rising.

Through the booming, overlapping echo of a PA built into the grimy hull of this ship, The Grey Vulture, Brand Morser’s voice calmly ordered, “Transport, do not attempt flight. Land now and power down your engines. Han Solo and the wookie Chewbacca, once the ship has landed and the engines cut, you will exit the transport with your hands above your head, weapons thrown away.”

An instant later, like soulless hornets from their heartless nest, attack droids emerged from opened hatches of the Vulture’s hull. They floated and swooped to equidistant positions surrounding the transport. The droids were black ovals protruding several laser turrets from their beetle-like surfaces. Each droid featured a glowing, demonic-red eye—windows deep into the heart of hell.

Brand’s doubled, blaring voice spoke again, “I have released attack droids all around the shuttle. Comply with my demands and do not attempt any tricks.”

The Vulture’s guns screamed two more blasts—the last warning shots.

Land.

With no options left, the transport descended and touched down. Within it came ripples of shock, fear, and anxiety felt by the myriad of life forms who had hoped to make an incident-free journey to the outer rim. Most had hoped that this “Han Solo and the wookie Chewbacca” folk would go quietly.

Because if they didn’t…

 

Well, Han thought and should have realized earlier, Jabba did say I wouldn’t be able to go near a civilized system without being found. This damn rebel business has distracted me far too much and now I’m paying the price.

No, not only you, but the only friend you probably have left at this point. The big wall of long fur next to you is paying the price for your negligence as well.

Shut up! Chewie’s a big boy and can take it, Han told his father’s voice within his mind. As Han mentally argued, both he and Chewie had reached the emergency escape hatch which featured explosive bolts.

Only moments earlier they had jimmied their way into the luggage section and extracted their weapons, which both currently held taughtly in their hands—Han his longtime-owned pistol and Chewie his trademark behemoth of a crossbow.

Chewie released his left hand from the crossbow barrel and placed it firmly on the explosive bolts release panel.

Chewie and Han stared at each other with unblinking, tensely-charged eyes. Han nodded his head upwards once as if to say listen to me, old friend, maybe for the last time.

“Chewie,” Han began in a thick tone, “If this it…” and his eyebrows dipped a brief instant, “…Then it’s been a pleasure flying with you.”

Chewie let out a deep, rattling roar, and Han’s lips curled on one end.

“Blow it!” Han barked as he gripped his weapon with both hands, readying it and his entire being for the inevitable.

Chewie released the lever and the bolts burst.

 

The demon eyes surrounded by the beetle-skinned horrors tracked the escape hatch as it blew outward and landed feet away. The equidistant positions that the droids took up were abandoned and they drew in together in a hovered grouping near the hatch. The turrets of every attack droid ramped up to a high-powered whine. At the first sign of their targets they would slam them with precision hellfire.

In mirrored action, Han and Chewie whipped into view from behind the hatch, both managing a shot off at the droids before disappearing. One of their blasts hit an oval menace dead in the eye. It spurted sparks and noxious smoke before falling to the ground in a clanking crash.

Yet as this happened, its tumorous brothers opened up with maddening volleys of thick, blinding laser bolts. The hull surrounding the hatch was malignantly blackened and cratered instantly. A brownish fog rose from the multitude of metallic wounds.

Again, the pirates—certainly no longer incognito—swiped into view to demonstrate the measure of their marksmanship.

Another droid’s eye became a violent spread of glass shards and spitting sparks. A trail of bulbous smoke elongated from the burnt socket as the multi-gunned beetle fell to its smashing end.

Once more, its brethren speared the hatch area with multiple bolts of uniformed havoc. Their programming allowed them tactical intricacy and therefore afforded them the ability to bob and weave (even while firing). Spreading out and jerking this way and that, they now attempt to make for harder targets while angling to give their prey less hiding space. They fired again and again, biting jagged and twisted chunks out of the hatch’s frame.

Han and Chewie fired when they could, missing their targets or only grazing them superficially.

Both partners and companions (in debted to each other for more than they would ever care to admit) knew for certain an end was near. But they would go out as the career pirates they were: guns blazing and shooting to the last breath…

The droids halted their firing altogether.

“What the…?” Han asked, confusion fogging his mind—but an instant later his instincts shocked him into full realization. His eyes bulged as he whipped around; Chewie a split second later, followed suit—

But it was too late—their weapons were smashed out of their grasp by two laser blast shots!

Brand had found them.

“Tut, tut, tut…” Brand taunted as he shook his head slowly, “…This was predictable, Solo.” He kept his rifle trained on the pirates, who now had little choice but to raise their hands.

Han’s lips pursed and his eyes darkened. “Brand. I must be getting soft in my years. I should have been able to smell your reek at least twenty feet away.”

“Well,” Brand began with mocking eyes and curled lips, “The wookie should have been able to at least. It seems that both of you have lost your edge.”

Han angled his head slightly as he offered, “Don’t suppose it would change your mind to know that we were on our way back to Tatooine to straighten things out.”

“Aaaaaah, not in the slightest, no.”

“We could make ‘em open up the cargo section; the money’s all there, every penny—”

Solo, Solo…” Brand shook his head again, “…This is truly getting sad. We’ve just established that I’m not a fool…and besides, good intentions are worthless at this point. You simply didn’t pay on time. Now,” Brand jabbed his rifle forth briefly. “Out of the hatch, both of you.”

 

“That was quite a skirmish, Artoo,” Threepio remarked with perverse fascination. He and Artoo had been touring the city for the last twenty minutes (much to Artoo’s annoyance and boredom) and had heard the blasts and explosions blocks away. Taking Threepio’s rented speeder, they had floated speedily to the spaceport to witness the final shots inflicted on transport 461138. “I must say—oh wait, people are exiting the ship…my word, is that Master Solo and the wookie?”

Artoo whistled long and curt. They witnessed a third man emerging from the transport’s scarred hatch—one who had a rifle trained on Han and Chewie. The attack droids swarmed to close in, poising their turrets on the captured pirates.

Threepio’s head jerked back as he exclaimed, “Oh no! They’ve been captured! This can’t be good. Quickly, Artoo, we must inform Master Luke!”

Artoo opened up a compartment on his torso and jutted from it a mechanical pincer arm, a communicator was caught in its grasp. Threepio grabbed it and brought it to his rectangular mouthpiece. “Master Luke!” Threepio pleaded into the device. “Master Luke, do you copy, sir?!”

Artoo beeped and whistled worriedly—Han and Chewie were being led into the Grey Vulture. An armed port authority very foolishly approached the scene to question what was happening.

An attack droid spun about and—CRACK!—laser blasted the guard’s gun out of his hand. He winced furiously and gripped his blackened wrist as he fled the scene.

Threepio brought the communicator closer to his mouth as he begged, “Master, you must respond, please!”

“What is it, Threepio?” Luke’s concerned voice came through the comm speaker.

“Sir, thank heavens! I have dreadful news…”

 

Trinkets, trinkets, trinkets and which fairly inexpensive one to chose. Leia had been browsing for more than thirty minutes and nothing of the countless street displays seemed to carry the…well damn it, the perfect memento that would simultaneously send her father into a fit of laughter while warming his soul.

But Leia would not be deterred—she still had several hours to look. And the right trinket had to be here somewhere—

“Leia!”

Luke’s shout came echoing out of the thoroughfare’s already noise-polluted jam. Leia twisted her head to see Luke bobbing and weaving through the human and alien traffic. His rushing movements were harried, desperate. He reached her and barely caught his breath as he got out, “We’ve got big trouble!”

Leia looked left, then right, then moved in close to Luke’s face as she curtly whispered, “Imperials?”

“No, a bounty hunter has Han and Chewie!” Luke announced between labored breaths.

Those damned fools, Leia thought at once. If they’d stayed with us, we could have protected them! Serves that arrogant and delusional criminal right…yet he saved you and so many…you owe him—

“Leia!” Luke pleaded.

Pursing her lips, she breathed a breath of supreme annoyance then said, “All right, let’s see if we can get them out of this mess.”

Pulling Leia’s arm and turning he said, “This way, let’s go!”

 

The makeshift prison hold of the Grey Vulture appeared old and grimy yet sturdy, and if someone were to pound on the walls, there would be no chance of an echo. If you were in here, you were in here to stay.

The doors to the hold slid open and Han and Chewie, arms raised and hands locked behind their heads, moodily entered to stand in the center area of the room. They turned to face Brand who stood in the doorway, his rifle still poised on their midsections.

“Now,” Brand began evenly, betraying a hint of joviality. “In here you will stay like good little dogs…which, in your case, Chewie, can’t be far off.”

Chewie roared with ferocity.

Brand shook his head halfway, tutting once, “Naah, it’s all bark today, my furry has-been. You’re biting days are over. Now both of you just sit tight ‘til we reach Tatooine. And remember, I can hear and see everything that goes on here. So escape is not really an option—”

“You’ll sleep eventually,” Han challenged.

“And-my-droid, BD-1, will-relieve-me-on-watch. Do I really have to keep hitting it home that this isn’t kid’s hour, Solo? Anyway, I’d recommend that both of you use the time to rest as much as possible…” He paused to grin knowingly, mocking in his eyes, “…Something tells me you’re going to need all your strength…” Brand’s smile became wider, more taunting as he backed out the doorway allowing it to slide close. Within the wall near the door frame, a muffled locking mechanism latched into place—KERCHAUK!

Han had an idea that if you were in here, you may be in here to stay.

 

Luke had mad-dashed, running as fast as his leg strength would allow him. Leia did her best to at least keep him in her sights as she followed after in her own speed limit.

I’ve got to make it, this can’t happen, screamed Luke’s thoughts. Not after all we’ve been through and come out the other side! Please Ben, help me, don’t let this happen, not to my friend!

Luke and Leia could now make out Threepio and Artoo, not just as tiny, indistinct, glinting blurs, but as their forms truly were.

They could also witness the attack droids reinserting themselves into the hull of a scarred ship. That’s the one!—Luke thought as he continued the sprint—and it’s still on the ground! Please, please, please let us get to it before it lifts! There’s still a chance, there’s still time! BEN, HELP ME!

The repulsor-lifts, heard even from Luke and Leia’s position, hummed maddeningly to life and signaled that ascent was seconds away.

NO! THERE’S STILL TIME!—Luke fought against rationale in that dreamer’s mind of his. I ONLY NEED SECONDS!

Yet Luke had not even reached the droids’ location before the Vulture’s repulsors performed their sole task—creating enough anti-gravity discharge to lift a ship in the air before the engine boosters took over and shot the thing far into the sky.

Oh, Master Luke…” Threepio started as he turned to witness Luke and Leia approach; both humans near hyperventilation. Threepio finished with a lamentful tone, “…We are too late…”

Luke and Leia, gulping for air to try and equalize, craned their necks back to gaze at the Vulture as it became smaller and smaller with increasing rapidity. It became a miniscule dot before the sky consumed the speeding vessel, soon to be a traveler of the cold vacuum.

“That’s it, I’m getting my x-wing!” Luke announced as his body launched into a turn to run.

“You can’t!” Leia balked as she grabbed his arm to stop his run before it even started. “An x-wing will bring too much attention to who we are. They must remain hidden aboard the cruisers!”

Manic, Luke pressed, “But we have to go after him! One of the cruisers—!”

“They’re being refueled and we haven’t time to have one interrupted—”

“Then damn it, Leia, we hire a ship!!!”

Leia’s eyes darted sideways, downward, then back to stare at Luke. She expelled a quick breath of anguish then said, “Fine, let’s go…”

They turned to run back the way they came. Threepio and Artoo stared after them. The nervous protocol droid called to Luke, “Ah sir, you don’t mind if we wait for your return, do you?!” Luke did not reply, too focused on his goal of rescue to even register the question. Threepio turned to look down at Artoo. “I believe I heard a yes.” Artoo beeped reproachfully at his partner’s delusional words. “Well then check your auditory sensors, you stupid short circuit! Because I heard a yes!”

 

CHAPTER 16

 

“Bee Dee, have you keyed in the coordinates yet for jump?” Brand inquired of his C-3PO-like protocol droid (only this one was painted greenish-brown). BD-1 was sitting in the copilot’s chair surveying the tactical screen featured in the control panels in front of him. Brand had just entered the cockpit and fully expected his diligent mechanical counterpart to answer an affirmative to his question.

He was thus caught by surprise and alarm when Bee Dee responded with: “No sir. I have, however, observed another ship approaching in a vector to intercept us.”

Brand sprung to his own pilot’s chair to sit as he inquired in a clipped tone, “What’s her make?”

Bee Dee observed a signature code that had been linked to the tactical tracking of the attacking vessel. He knew the code well. Unfortunately, he turned to face Brand and offered, “I’m sorry, sir, it appears that it is the Trans Panther.”

Dengar,” Brand spit out with disdain. “That head-wrapped freak. Curse Jabba and his open contracts! Key the coord—”

“Too late, sir—”

The Vulture’s cockpit lurched with a heart-skipping jolt.

“Blast!” Brand cursed. “Tractor beam!”

The viewport in front of Brand and Bee Dee was still nothing but a bland starfield. It gave one the impression that somehow escape was still an option, that the way was free and clear, proceed to forward, jump now into the swirling haven of hyperspace. But then the Trans Panther, most certainly a real mass of bounty hunter holy terror, glided its hulking hull into clear view, killing any half- hazard delusions of freedom.

The comm console squawked to life with Dengar’s hoarse, rattling voice, “Grey Vulture, you are in my tractor beam. You know what would happen to your ship if you tried to escape. I am bringing you aboard. You’re cooperation is—”

Brand bumped a button in disgust, and the transmission was cut. He faced BD-1 with urgent purpose. “Release four disruptors then get us a good distance away as quick as you can!”

While Bee Dee obeyed his master by working the necessary buttons on the console, Brand shot a glance over to the prison hold surveillance monitor. On it, Han and Chewie could be seen sitting on a bench, sulking. Within the hull of the ship, four muffled “poofif” sounds were heard. Brand looked up and out the viewport to see the results of the sounds as four cylindrical tech devices shot into view one by one. From Brand’s point of view it was difficult to discern whether the projectiles had floated to positions of equidistance between the two ships. Yet he knew they had, and he knew what was next. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! The devices, the “disruptors” exploded.

The cockpit shook violently and the two pilots needed to brace the consoles before them. Bee Dee eyed the tactical screen, then announced, “We are free from the beam!”

“Punch it!” Brand screamed.

Muffled but powerful, the engines’ boosters could be heard and felt right as Bee Dee engaged them. Old and battered didn’t necessarily mean ineffective! The droid navigated away from the Panther and thrusted forth past the behemoth. Immediately, however, Dengar set his ship to repeated volleys of hostile laser fire on the Vulture’s aft. The blasts knocked and rattled the hull.

Brand stole a glance at the prison hold monitor—Han and Chewie still sat, but now they were looking all about with worried eyes. The assaults on the ship’s rear section continued, amping up Brand’s nerves.

“Bee Dee, get those coordinates for jump in!” He barked.

“Working now, Sir!”

Brand jammed a finger to the comm button again and warned, “Dengar, you destroy this ship, you destroy your bounty!”

Dengar’s voice croaked through the comm, “I’ve shot before, Brand. I know how to destroy…and how to wound.” One more volley of fire bit viciously into the metallic skin of the Vulture’s aft section and an instant later, an alarm blared the cockpit.

“Hyperdrive motivator is damaged!” Bee Dee reported with distress.

“You should’ve keyed faster!” Brand shouted at Bee Dee with no small measure of reprimand.

“A thousand apologies, sir!”

“Never mind! Release another disruptor!”

A port on the Vulture’s hull spat another disruptor. It spun, bobbed, and weaved as it evaded enemy fire, while speedily making its way toward the Panther. It succeeded in nearing the underbelly of its target then promptly burst wildly with fiery expanse and searching, stabbing electrical charges. The Panther was pushed upward as crooked electrical arms flashed and gripped the ship. The bright, plasmic glow of the Panther’s boosters suddenly died out. A sputter of sparks erupted from the circular exhausts and then all was silent from the engines.

The Vulture rocketed safely away to become a tiny dot lost in the field of stars.

Within the Vulture’s cockpit, Brand expelled a long breath of relief. What a nuisance that had been, Brand thought underlying his notions of superiority. Did that cloth-bandaged, deformed freak actually think he was going to take a bounty away from Brand Morser? If it’s one thing that Brand despised with impunity, it was the delusional.

“Just one thing,” Dengar’s voiced emitted from the comm. “From one hunter to the other—where did you get those things?”

Brand had to smile, his ego wouldn’t allow him otherwise. “I made them. You can’t get them anywhere.”

He bumped the comm button thus ending the chat. He checked the surveillance monitor yet again—Han and Chewie paced in different directions looking more and more anxious. Brand’s mouth twitched a half smile. He rose and spun to make his way to the main hold and as he did, he commanded, “Bee Dee, I’m going to start repairs on the hyperdrive. Keep ‘er in the right direction, will ya?”

“Will do, sir,” Bee Dee responded with newfound enthusiasm. Apparently, all was right with the world.

Brand halted briefly, allowing the connector door to slide aside—then halted again, with eyelids that rapidly became full circles of viced panic, crushing shock.

Han and Chewie stood on the other side of the doorway.

Han had a gun poised on Brand.

Brand instinctively reached for his sidearm pistol yet froze as Han pointed his gun with more directness, intensity.

Ah, ah, ah,” Han warned Brand. “By the barrel of the blaster, raise it up very slowly…” The stricken, speechless bounty hunter did as he was told. “…And toss it aside…” It was done. “…Good. Chewie.”

Chewie moved past Han and Brand to stand next to the seated Bee Dee One. The droid stared up at the towering wookie. “Oh dear…” Bee Dee said in a haze of fear.

With what looked like a wookie’s version of a sinister smile, Chewie reached down to grab Bee Dee’s head and rip it clean from its socket. Sparks flew and a puff of smoke rose from the mechanical stump. As the powerful creature beheaded the helpless machine, Brand winced and jerked as if he had been shocked with an electrical prod. Soon after, he closed his eyes and pursed his lips—a trusty companion of his was now so much metal, gears, and wires.

When Brand opened his eyes again he glanced one last time at the surveillance monitor. From its account, Han and Chewie were rushing the closed door of the prison hold and attempting to jury-rig the locking panel. Brand faced the real Han and managed, “You…you delayed the feed…curse you to ends of Correlia, you found a way to delay it.”

Han sneered as he answered, “From pretty much the moment you left us. Chewie here is particularly nimble with that sort of thing.”

“Very quiet too, I imagine—”

Very, very quiet, yeah…”

As Brand slowly placed his hands behind his head, he realized and said, “Your boots…I should’ve checked your boots for little tinkering tools—”

That would’ve saved you, yeah…Chewie, escort our friend here to the prison hold.”

Chewie tossed aside the lifeless head of Bee Dee One and moved in to grab Brand’s arms and violently yank them back in a pretzel formation. At the same time, Chewie bent Brand’s torso and head forward.

Brand screamed.

“You broke them!” Brand bellowed in wincing anguish. “Aaaaaaaaahh!”

Han’s eyes went deadly cold as he said, “You’re lucky he didn’t rip them out the sockets. Now get going.

Chewie pushed Brand forth with harsh jerking while Han stepped aside to let them pass. Then he followed after as they made their way across the main hold to the prison section.

“…Ah! Ah! Easy! Easy!” Brand pleaded to Chewie with agony fueling urgency to his voice. Chewie, unrelenting, kept Brand’s arms in the painfully pretzelled position as he shoved his captive onward.

Han couldn’t help but casually comment, “Yeah, you know, if we were has-beens, old-timers, we probably would go easy…” Then Han cracked a jovial smile as he concluded, “But I’m feeling pretty limber, how ‘bout you, Chewie?”

Chewie tightened the arm pretzel to white hot, bone and joint compacting levels of misery. Brand howled then gritted his teeth, attempting as he had never done before in his life to come to grips with the pain. They had reached the connector doorway to the prison hold and Chewie halted them just short of entering. He released Brand then spun him around to face himself and Han. The armed pirate jabbed the gun in the air as if to convey, here’s a point I’d like to make; then spoke his point. “Oh and another mistake you made was to leave us conscious. Now I could just stun you with this gun here…” A rattling, guttural sound rose in Chewie’s throat. Han continued, “…But that would deprive ol’ Chewie here of his chance to, ah…bite.”

With that said, Chewie powerfully backhanded Brand, who, as an immediate result, flew in and across the prison hold to crash into the opposite wall. Brand crumpled to the floor, unconscious before he even hit.

“Pleasant dreams now,” Han offered as he pressed the button to whoosh the door shut. He pressed another next to it and the familiar, stifled “kerchauk!” sounded. “And to think,” he added to Chewie with a soothing smile. “I used to hate that sound.”

 

The connector door to the Vulture’s cockpit whooshed aside and Han, followed by Chewie, entered to survey the scene. “Well,” Han began with a breath let out. “We can’t go back in this thing. By now, there’s too much heat in that sector—”

An alarm sounded from the control panel accompanied by a repeating red flash. The blaring noise jarred the pirates into immediate lunges into the pilot chairs.

“Chewie, find fire control!” Han commanded as he frantically scanned the console—a bit of disorienting variation from the Falcon’s operative controls but possibly recognizable enough to—

“Bounty hunter,” started a woman’s voice through the comm speaker. “We have a proposition for you. Will you listen to what we have to say?”

Leia’s voice.

Han faced Chewie, surprise in his eyes, a smile forming on his lips. “…Leia…” Han uttered in recognition, then turned his attention to the panel once more. He hit what he hoped was the two-way communications button next to the speaker. “…I’m open to negotiation,” Han responded in a lowered tone of voice (that he hoped would mask his identity).

Leia’s breath of frustration could be heard before she proposed, “Whatever the bounty price you have been offered for Solo and his wookiee, we’ll double it. All you have to do is say that you couldn’t find them.”

Han’s devilish smile widened as he countered, “How ‘bout tripling?”

Nothing from the comm. It remained silent for a few seconds before Leia’s hesitant voice offered up, “All-all right. That may be possible.”

Han switched to his normal tone of voice as he boasted with swagger, “Because you know, I really do think I’m worth triple.”

“…Han?

 

CHAPTER 17

 

Leia and Luke had rented a sizeable freighter for its main hold was reasonably expansive. Furniture, tables, and repair equipment were comfortably spaced throughout the room. On one of the tables, Han sat halfway and eyed Luke and Leia with an arrogant calm. Chewie stood beside him.

“So level with me,” Han kept on with a cocky grin. “Would you really have gone triple?”

Ignoring the question, Leia asked one of her own. “What happened?

Luke chimed in, “Yeah, what’d you do to escape?”

Han’s eyes wondered nonchalantly as he answered, “Oh, what Chewie and I always do—turn the tables on the overly confident.”

“Where is the bounty hunter?” Leia asked.

“Probably in a coma thanks to Chewie. He’s in his own prison hold. Arms broke. Ego shattered,” Han concluded with another self-grandeured smirk.

Leia’s eyes turned accusatory as she pressed, “Exactly what are you planning on doing with him—?”

Don’t worry, princess,” Han said with a small roll of the eyes. “I’m not in the killing mood. I’m going to disable his ship so it’s dead in space. If he’s lucky, he can find someone to pick him up. Eventually.

“Well, at any rate, you’re with us now, it seems. You’ll have to accompany us to see my father.”

“Looks that way. I certainly can’t go back in the Vulture…” Jokingly, Han posed to Leia, “Are you sure you didn’t hire the bounty hunter?”

Sarcasm entered Leia’s tone as she responded, “Yes, Han. It really was all part of my elaborate plan to keep a man around who makes me want to claw his eyes out.”

Luke’s face became taught as he fought a mounting surge of frustration…

Lifting his eyebrows, Han retorted, “Well…the heart wants what it wants.”

Leia made a few predatorial steps toward Han. Her eyes were intense, her breath strained. “Now you listen to me good because I know you have a problem with that—my heart will always belong to the ideals of the alliance…not to some lowlife pirate—”

Stepping forth himself, Han jabbed a thumb at himself as he vehemently countered, “Hey, this lowlife pirate saved your hides!

Luke’s top eyelids dropped to close as he tried, “Will you two please stop this—”

But Leia hadn’t even heard Luke as rage clouded her mind. She stabbed Han with, “Oh, I’m just so eternally grateful for all your valiant efforts, particularly since you never requested monetary compensation—!”

“Which reminds me!” Han cut through. “My money is now certainly unreachable! Do you have a plan for getting it back or replacing it?!”

A higher level of rage hit Leia’s eyes and tone as she shot back, “We already spent a sizeable sum for this ship to come get you!”

Han once again shoved a thumb his way as he barked, “Which wasn’t necessary! I can take care of mys—!”

“STOP THIS!” Luke raged. “Both of you!”

The room went silent except for the restrained hum of the engines. Luke now had the shocked attention of everyone in the room.

Luke thundered on, “You two are driving me insane! I thought we were friends! I thought we were—!” Halting himself, his lips thinned over gritted teeth. As he charged toward the door, not looking back, he finally managed, “I thought we were family now…” and left the room, letting the door shut behind him.

Adding more shock and surprise to the situation, Chewie bellowed a frustrated rattle as he, too, headed for the door. Han’s eyes narrowed as he called after Chewie, “Hey, where are you going?” But his towering companion left without acknowledging the question. Han faced Leia again and sternly attacked with, “Now see what you’ve done.”

Leia’s face seemed ready to burst with fury and violence. Somehow, however, she kept it caged as she joined the others in storming out.

Alone now in the spacious main hold, Han hissed a frustrated breath. His last word on the subject weighed itself heavily with sarcasm. “…nice…” He folded his arms and stared off with trouble-ladened eyes.

 

CHAPTER 18

 

Almost home, Jabba thought to himself as he half-sat, half-laid on his cushioned, custom-made couch. He took a leisurely puff of his wire pipe, then glanced out of the wide rectangular gaps of his sail barge. Through them he could see the beige, smooth, wind-carved sand dunes cruising by with casual speed. No hurry, Jabba reminded himself—time enough to enjoy the ride. And home—his castle, his kingdom, the place where his depraved yet loyal subjects and minions worshipped him—was only ten miles out. And besides, some of those devout wretches were already about him, enjoying themselves with conversation, drinks, and the occasional slap on the shoulder. Sure, they were involved in their own affairs at the moment, but if so desired, Jabba could make any request of any of them. And they would drop their own dealings and jump up for the chance to please their master, their king, their mighty ruler. Power. Unlimited. For this hutt there could be no other life.

And for those who opposed him, challenged him, threatened him…well, there was a twenty foot, leathery skinned, razor clawed answer for that. Jabba mentally smiled at the thought of his prized behemoth of a pet, when Bib glided forth to stand before him.

“Master.”

“What is it, Bib?” Jabba inquired, still admiring the passing dunes.

“An update has come in concerning the Solo contract. The two bounty hunters that were closest to Solo’s location were Brand and Dengar.”

“Brand won, I’m assuming.”

“It would seem that was to be the case, master. Brand had eluded Dengar and immobilized him while escaping with Solo. But it appears that another unidentified ship intercepted Brand, whom we’ve not been able to contact. Dengar himself confirms that another ship came into the sector.”

“Hm. Help from the rebels. They’re becoming meddlesome these days.”

“There is a bit of good news, my master…”

“Oh?”

“It appears that Mr. Fett is now available and is fairly close to that sector.”

This finally tore Jabba’s eyes away from the moving scenery to focus on his main servant. With a hint of genuine admiration in his tone, Jabba added, “Boba…well Bib, my boy, now things truly will get interesting…”

 

CHAPTER 19

 

A hundred thousand strong. And roughly only twenty-three hundred of this number were Alderaanian-born revolutionaries who were ready to act. The rest were family members, friends (who for all intents and purposes were family), and associates of the twenty-three. Those who felt as deeply as the endangered number that the time was now to kill the original cancer cell that spread the disease known as the empire.

In an old munitions hangar, the hundred thousand met, chose captains, and began to organize.

The captains discussed a realistic approach to storming the central building tower—where the emperor’s personal office was located…twelve stories up. The captains agreed that each level would be entrenched with storm troopers and personal guards willing to kill any and all hostile forces.

How many would take out the armories and with what? It was finally agreed that sabotaging the fuel-bloated artillery vehicles would be the most efficient way to blow the places skyward. Three of the hundred thousand actually worked at the armories and would supply the necessary access.

The captains knew they now had a superiority over the numbers of security forces protecting the emperor. At present, only forty thousand troopers were stationed in the capitol sector, and only eight hundred in the target building itself. Once the armories were history, the imperials would have no way of rearming themselves.

But all had to soberly agree that these factors in no way guaranteed success. As some had brought up before, one which was now a captain, the weapons that the troopers already possessed may be enough to stop a force even as great as a hundred thousand. Weapons among the amassed group numbered only in the low hundreds, and most of those thanks to blaster collectors. The rest were instructed to find whatever objects that might constitute as an effective weapon—pipes, tools, etc.

Reinforcements could (and would) be called in to aid the imperial troops. But the captains were counting on that call being made only after it was determined that the capitol troopers couldn’t hold the enemy back. And by then, it would hopefully be too late to stop the hoards from reaching the top. And accomplishing their ultimate goal.

The captains—and all others present, for that matter—realized that, even if they somehow managed to achieve their end with full success and satisfaction, none of them would make it out of the structure alive. Reinforcements would come and gun them all down—young and old alike.

But every single soul of the hundred thousand accepted this fate without hesitation, without fear. At least they knew it was going to come in the hopes of eliminating one of the greatest vessels for evil that the galaxy had ever known. At least they could see it coming.

The billions who had lived on Alderaan and had called it home never had that chance.

 

The emperor knew that the armories would be a target, and accordingly increased security at the two large installations. But that was the problem altogether—the hugeness of the buildings, with all their different sectioned off departments. All it would take was a blaring, loud, and convenient distractions to send security flying to one spot while the other was left to sabotage. Or there could be two distractions, or three, or four…

No, the emperor agreed to himself, the armories were most likely a lost cause for now. He would have to rely on the forces on duty that already carried or drove laser weaponry. And the bunker if it came to it.

 

CHAPTER 20

 

Leia’s heart was leaping. Behind the controls of her rented freighter, she could see out the viewport a familiar vessel drop out of hyperspace and serenely approach. She knew full well that her father owned two ships of the same make and model. One had been disabled and confiscated (along with Leia herself) by the empire. The other was this one—the one coming nearer with soothing grace…the one with her father aboard. Soon it would split apart its underbelly hangar doors and accept her ship. They would equalize with their air and slide aside oppressive doors and Leia would rush into her father’s arms. Bail was her adopted parent to be sure, Leia had always known that. But it mattered nothing to either of them for they were all the father and daughter that either had ever known. They were blood, if not in biology then in the core of their souls.

Yes, the doors would open, they would embrace, laugh, maybe even cry, but one thing would be missing…and Leia had a certain infuriating pirate to thank for that. She had resolved to find an item, a memento hopefully, that would do the trick when she presented it to Bail. But Han’s “crisis” had cut short her almost exhaustive search for the desired piece.

Yet Leia could not let that unnerving business derail her from allowing her heart its euphoric haze once Bail’s arms went around her, and her’s around him. It would be wonderful, and it would be soon.

 

The rented freighter, large as it was, fit comfortably into the docking bay hangar of Bail’s ship. The airs had coalesced through complex devices and the doors had finally opened. Bail, however, was not there to meet Leia and the rest; instead, an intermediary officer had greeted them politely and apologized for their host’s absence. Bail would be with them shortly and if they would just follow him to the conference room, that would be where the meeting would take place.

Okay, Leia thought, quelling her disappointment as her senatorial training had taught her to do. The conference room, all right, let’s get up there as soon as we can. Perhaps my father must deal with last minute planning concerning the mission. That must be it, just keep calm and don’t yell at this lackey officer your following corridor after corridor.

Leia’s heart jumped up to knock her throat again and again.

 

The conference room was a white, polished structure with the necessary communications and door panels (painted black and glowing with red). A conference table with chairs surrounding it was planted in the center section of the floor. Only Han decided to make use of one of the chairs; the others, Luke, Leia, and Chewie (the intermediary officer had already left) chose to stand.

Leia shot a glance (and a cold one at that) at Han and evenly said, “No one said you had to come.”

“Yeah?” Han countered, pointing a thumb at Chewie. “Tell that to this one.” The proud-of-himself wookie growled for his little triumph. “Hey, I’m here. Don’t push it,” Han warned. Chewie grunted, averting his eyes.

The doors whooshed open revealing an olive-skinned man with peppered and receding hair. Although he was a man in his elderly years, this did not in any way detract from his powerful presence, his centered and charismatic demeanor. To Luke, Han, and Chewie, this towering, tight-robed figure may have been a higher ranking lackey offering them all to be patient for just a little while longer.

Leia, of course, knew different.

“Father!”

“Leia…”

With matching smiles of deep satisfaction, Bail and Leia ran to each other (Leia covering most of the distance) and firmly embraced. Locked in one another’s arms, Bail soothingly uttered, “My daughter…my brave girl…” They pulled apart somewhat and exchanged beaming stares. Bail continued, “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you alive and safe.”

“I could say the exact same for you!” Leia blurted. “I thought for certain that you had been on Alderaan when it had blown!”

Hurriedly, Bail replied, “I had received urgent word that the senate had been eliminated. And the regional governors would take our place. Could you imagine those greedy bureaucrats running things? I had to rush to Coruscant and plead with the emperor to reconsider.”

“Did you make it?’

Bail shook his head. “On the way, we had received word that your ship had been captured and that everyone aboard had been killed. I did not want to believe it, I had hopes that you had somehow escaped and with the plans in your possession.”

“I didn’t. I was taken to the Death Star—”

“I know. General Rieekan was aboard the destroyer that attacked. It killed him knowing that it was your ship they were after. And it killed me knowing that I was now considered an enemy of the empire and couldn’t come rescue you—”

Leia drew in closer as she soothed, “You did the right thing by finding Mothma and hiding with the alliance.”

Bail’s eyes turned penitent. “Then you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive. We all sacrifice for our beliefs in something better than this…this tyranny—”

“But fortunately,” Bail said with a smile of relief. “There were those in a position to help you.”

Leia smiled too but with a touch of awkwardness, too many conflicting thoughts and emotions… “Yes…”

“May I now meet them?”

“Of course.” She turned to face the others while stepping aside so her father had a clear view of them. “This is Luke Skywalker, leader of—”

Skywalker?” Bail said with widened eyes and a tone betraying a bit of haunting fear. Quickly, however, he concealed his shock and attempted to appear nonchalant, composed. No one must know the truth, he warned himself—the results would be disastrous. Beyond disaster—the end of all their hopes—

“Father? What is it?” Leia asked with concerned eyes.

Pasting a diplomatic smile on his face, Bail covered with, “Oh, nothing…I’ve heard that name before. But it has been a very long time.”

Luke offered, “Perhaps you knew my father. From what I heard, he was a well-known pilot.”

Bail’s smile broadened (perhaps with a bit of genuine relief) and his head bobbed forth slightly as he responded, “That must have been it.”

Leia continued with the introductions. “And this is the wookie Chewbacca…Han Solo…”

“Luke, Chewbacca, and Han, my deepest gratitude for aiding us in our cause…and saving my daughter.”

The three addressees nodded, Luke with a hardy grin.

Bail inhaled a deep breath, then let it out. His expression became serious, officious as he said, “I’m afraid I must now ask for you help again.”

With a tone of skepticism, Han spoke up, “Yeah, about that. I’m just curious how you plan to pull this off—defection of a high ranking imperial right in the midst of the entire fleet.”

“With that, may I now have my associates come in to join us…” Bail turned to walk to the doors triggering them to open. They revealed several men standing patiently outside in the corridor.

“Gentlemen,” Bail entreated. “Please join us if you will.”

 

CHAPTER 21

 

The emperor had reached out from the noxiously membranous, cavernous tunnels of the Dark Side to attempt communication with his troubled apprentice. Yet something was denying, blocking the communal connection. Strange. And disturbing.

But connection is focus, Palpatine reminded himself. So what was Vader focusing on, obsessing over, drawn to so completely that everything else was being blotted out?

Whatever it was, it was interfering with the emperor’s plans to effectively control his student. The infuriating apprentice was about to add another failure to his recent list. If Vader were here on Coruscant, he could do much to lead the troops. The armories would have most likely been protected (or at least one of them could be saved) with Vader’s presence and ultra-keen intuition.

Palpatine ceremoniously gave up attempting to reach Vader through the Force and contacted the imperial fleet.

 

The imperial shuttle fell towards the Okarian surface clearing with what seemed like a suicidal speed. But as it reached a distance of roughly hundred feet from the ground, its repulsors cut in and eased the rate of descent. Twenty feet from the even clearing and the ship reduced itself to a snails pace; the landing gear lowered to further cushion the impact. The shuttle touched down and, immediately after, its expansive side door slid aside. Once it fully opened, imperial soldiers and one officer—General Veers—stepped out and came forth.

The dawning sun of Okar distortedly reflected itself on the ebony helmet of Vader as he stood and flanked himself with tribesmen. The imperial soldiers held back a few feet while Veers continued to approach and stand before the dark lord. Veers bowed slightly then reported, “My lord, the transport has been prepped as you requested.”

“Good,” Vader said. “As I told you, these men will be coming with me.”

“Very good, my lord…but if I may, there has been a communication from Coruscant—the emperor wishes you to return immediately. The transport must see you off to the capitol planet straight away.”

Only the briefest of pauses did Vader allow himself before he replied, “Understood. Get these men aboard. We are rendezvousing with the fleet.” He then promptly marched toward the shuttle, his cape catching a wind and sailing behind.

With confusion in his eyes, Veers turned to call after Vader, “But my lord—”

Still briskly walking forward, the sith threatened, “Do as you are ordered, general.”

“Y-yes my lord.”

 

CHAPTER 22

 

The men (who had been asked to wait five minutes before approaching the door outside the conference room, then wait until Bail opened it) were now all gathered in the conference room. Leia, Luke, Chewie, and Han were among them and everyone had trained their attention to Bail, who stood facing them.

“My friends,” Bail opened. “The death of General Dodonna was tragic in many ways. The one I’m forced to mention now was his tactical genius—a great benefit to our cause. But there is another sympathetic to our fight who shares this gift—General Cartis Rieekan of the imperial forces. My plan for extracting him will extremely dangerous. But I believe this is an opportunity we cannot avoid.”

Skeptical as always, Han asked, “What is this plan of yours, senator?” If this plan was as insane, if not more, than the one to take out the Death Star, then Han wasn’t going to shrug it off as he had done before. He was going to pick it apart with every question he could think of. These people needed a wake up call.

Bail laid out, “Because of my daughter’s well known association with the alliance, I am considered to be apart of that association. Now if I were to attempt to convince the empire that this is not the case, a show of good faith could possibly persuade them. If I show up at the fleet with rebel prisoners in my custody and ready to hand over, then that may be enough to prove my allegiance. This is where most of you come in. You will act as my prisoners—caught in an ambush. Once I’ve given you over, I will charm the fleet commander. Rieekan will then come to our location and hopefully persuade the commander to depart. We will then free all of you and make our way to the ship—and hopefully a quick jump to hyperspace.”

“Sounds like a neat plan,” Han said, thinking here comes my volley of dissections. See what you think of these… “But what happens when they discover that that officers and prisoners aren’t where they’re supposed to be? They’ll tractor beam you the moment you’re outside the destroyer—if you even make it that far.”

“Quite right, Mr. Solo. That is why Rieekan has been secretly sabotaging the tractor beams of every ship in the fleet.”

“And nobody’s going to detect that?”

“He has been quite clever in his tinkering. The units work, but they’re only capable of a certain mass attraction and a certain distance. It would take days for them to discover it.”

“I see. And there’s no chance that you’re wrong about this general, that he might be leading you into a trap?”

“A valid question on your part. However, I know this man. And in light of certain recent events, I guarantee you this man wants to defect.”

“Well senator,” Han mocked, “It looks like you’ve got it all figured out.”

With his best diplomatic smile, Bail soldiered on. “I detect your note of irony, and believe me, I share your point of view. There are a number of things that could go wrong with this mission. But as I said, I believe this defection must happen if the alliance is to achieve its goals.” Bail raised his eyebrows. “And that is why I must now ask you for your help. The more men we have, the better chance for success.”

Han recognized the pleading in Bail’s tone. The senator was clearly more even-headed than his rash and impulsive daughter and the pirate admired the calm way he handled verbal taunts. Han almost considered participating in the outlandish plan out of that respect. Almost. “Well thanks for the offer, senator, but I’ve got to get back to my ship and hopefully my money.” Chewie chimed in with a worried warble. Han replied intensely, “Well, we’ll have to get it back from the authorities somehow. You know we need it.”

Bail shifted his gaze to his daughter and saw such tightness in her expression, particularly her eyes…aaaah, Bail thought. Now the reason for the pause in introducing Solo became abundantly clear.

It would have been obvious for her to have fallen for a fellow senator or a prince from Alderaan (or even that sloth den of a sister planet Belderaan). But Bail knew that Leia was a real person with complexities and blaring contradictions. And a young heart that may not always know what was best for it.

So be it, Bail thought, she loves this devil-may-care rogue and that’s that.

“Back on Ord Mantell, your payday is a big question mark,” Bail recounted to Han as he slowly walked a few steps toward him. Yet if you were to help us now, a new payday is for certain.”

Oh?” Han inquired with raised eyebrows.

“I will arrange to pay whatever you have lost plus a bonus of ten percent.” Now Bail raised his brows.

Luke, who had been standing next to Han, now leaned in closer to his friend as he challenged, “What do you say, Han? One more time into the belly of the beast?”

Han’s eyes shifted as he now had to seriously consider Bail’s proposal…an extra ten percent…so I can pay off Jabba and eat for a while. If I go along with this fool’s errand that’s every bit as half hazard as the other two I somehow managed to survive. “…Hmm…as long as there’s no garbage pit this time…” Han rolled his eyes and expelled a breath in annoyance yet resignation. “…Sure, why the hell not.” He fast pointed a finger at Chewie. “But you are going back to Ord Mantell and getting the Falcon to meet me back here. We’ll take our chances from there.”

Reluctantly, Chewie nodded and grunted.

Evenly, betraying no emotion, Leia reminded Han, “But your ship is tagged by the imperials. You’ll be captured.”

“They’ll have to capture me first. I’m not leaving her again.”

Leia stared off for a second or two then faced Han again. “Then I’ll go with Chewie to help—maybe smooth things over with the authorities and get the money back as well.”

Both Han and Luke looked quite surprised. Never did either of them see this coming…

“Double pay,” Han began with a much lighter demeanor. “Why your highness, I’m not sure what to say…”

Leia turned to face her father, then back to Han. “Well that’s what friends do for each other…” She eyed Luke with a hint of a smile. Luke smiled back. Leia finished, “…and family as well.” She walked past Han and headed for the doors.

Once she had left, Han looked at Luke whose smile wouldn’t stop. Struck comically by the kid’s glee, Han snorted slightly and allowed himself a half smile. But this was short-lived as he noticed that Chewie was dissecting his behavior with lifted eyes. Han’s own eyes tightened while his brows drew in. with an almost successful attempt at genuine anger, Han barked to Chewie, “What are you staring at, fuzzhead? Don’t just stand there, go with her and prep the ship.”

Chewie rose and grunted with enthusiasm and satisfaction as he, too, left.

Still trying to make the anger believable, Han said to the room, “Well then, let’s get this going already.”

“Quite right,” Bail added. “Time is a factor here for the fleet is almost on us. Gentlemen, for appearance sake, I must now place all of you in the prison hold.”

“Great,” Han said, his eyes odd with sarcasm. “Another prison hold.”

Luke couldn’t help but laugh good-naturedly at his friend.

 

They’re staring at me, Luke thought as the “prisoners” walked the ivory corridors of Bail’s ship. They’re staring and some of them are even mumbling to each other: “It’s him, the one who—” “You mean it’s them. They both did it…” And meanwhile, this whole elevated status thing of infamy was strangely making Luke squirm. But he was going to have to try and put it aside and concentrate on the coming mission. Because if he made one mistake, they could all—

“Excuse me, sir,” a rebel said to Luke as he moved to walk closer to the “Yavin legends.” “Is it true that you single-handedly destroyed the Death Star?”

Luke shot a brief glance at Han before addressing the young inquisitor. “Ah well, I did have some help from some friends—”

“But you are the one who took the shot, right?”

“Aah, yes, that is true—”

The rebel threw out his hand in front of Luke to be shook. “Out-standing, sir.” Luke clasped his hand and obliged a hardy shake. “I’m Dak, sir. Dak Auser, a great pleasure to meet you.”

Luke ended the handshake and said, “Nice to meet you, Dak.”

“I’m a gunner, sir, and I just wanted you to know that if you’re ever in need of one, well…it would be an honor to fly with you, sir.”

“On one condition.”

Enthusiasm amped up Dak’s voice as he said, “Name it, sir, name it.”

“That you only call me by my name from now on.”

“Yes sir, Luke, sir.”

Dak faced forward again, seemingly satisfied with the universe and that all was right with it. Luke eyed Han again, who was slowly shaking his head while a smile that clearly said, these gung-ho, green, and silly fools, was frozen on his face. Luke looked ahead and had to mirror that smile, sharing his friend’s cynicism to a point. It’s true, Han, I’m idealistic, I’m young, I’m dedicated to the cause. But you’re right, this one’s over the top.

Still, Luke decide on the spot, if it came to a battle with a two-manned ship to be used, he would ask Dak to fly with him.

Perhaps he was allowing his newfound notoriety to affect his judgment after all.

 

CHAPTER 23

 

Recently, there had been a man named Bastian Nokes whose gambling exploits on both Remedian Minor and Major had reached the heights of interplanetary notoriety. Nokes was flamboyant, boisterous, and forever charming the night life sects of these casino capitols. Nokes possessed streaks that would garner him winnings in the millions—to the dazzle and marvel of countless onlookers…and to the consternation and suspicion of casino owners. Try as these businessmen would on repeated occasions, they could never once catch Nokes in the act of cheating; all indications pointed to the fact that he simply wasn’t scamming the system—that he was merely on another smooth winning streak.

Yet the arrogant gambler and socialite was plagued by two poisonous downfalls. One was his inability to “watch” his money, to manage it resourcefully as oppose to his regular routine of throwing it around. At “drinks for everyone!” At whatever silky female form (or two) that came in his path. At weekends in the most posh of getaways.

Millions spent in days.

The second poison was his annoying and frustrating dips in-between the stellar streaks. To worsen matters, Nokes would never quit, indebting himself to anyone and everyone, even the “house” until eventually he was thrown out into the street or bloodied.

Yet a week or two later, Nokes would return with some sizeable loan or another and hit his stride again. All debts would be paid and the celebrating (and squandering) would continue for days on end.

More recently, however, Nokes’ dips had become valleys and his mountain highs nowhere to be found. It did not take long before the “friends” dried up and the threats from various sources began to flood his every waking moment (as well as his perspired dreams).

He knew that a fresh start in another system would be his only chance to begin again. Stow aboard a ship going to the outer rim or the Rishi Maze, make it to Kessel, maybe even get an honest job if that’s what it came to.

Just get away from this system and for good!

It took only a day of realizing Nokes’ absence before a certain count took matters into his own hands and hired a bounty hunter to track down the lascivious cad. Forty million was owed to this particular man of royalty and there was simply no possible way Nokes would be allowed to skip planet without paying up. If the count couldn’t get the money from the pathetic playboy, he was going to have his personal guards beat the gambler until he could no longer walk. And then throw him in the count’s personal dungeon.

But first he would have to find the arrogant fool. And to do that he decided upon employing whom he had heard was reportedly the bounty hunter of bounty hunters.

Boba Fett.

Luckily for the count, Fett was available and the hunter’s price for tracking reasonable (considering the count’s vast wealth), and thus a contract was drawn up and signed.

Unfortunately, by the time Fett’s signature had inked the necessary papers, Nokes already had a four-day head start and reportedly left no trace to his whereabouts. Fett had been in the hunting business for the better part of fifteen years and had seen many scenarios play out. True, he had never failed on a contract and the marks were always brought in as per the specific instructions of the contract. And he knew that some marks merely dropped into his lap, his sights, as a course of dumb luck (or the ineptitude of his prey).

Others, however, were crafty, resourceful, and tested Fett’s every intellectual prowess. These were the contracts that took weeks and additional funds (always at the contractor’s expense) to track down and bring in.

Noke’s may be a loud and lucky leach, but winning streaks meant a good measure of skill and cunning. Fett anticipated…well, nothing for certain in terms of how difficult and time consuming it would be to isolate this mark. But he would be found no matter how long it took. Fett prided himself on dogged determination and in studying and anticipating his prey’s every move.

Nokes was pinned down two weeks later and brought before the count hogtied and gagged—as per the instructions given to Fett in the contract. And Fett was known for always honoring the signed agreement.

Do you know what they’ll do to me if you bring me back in?! Do you have any clue, Nokes had badgered Fett as the former playboy was secured aboard the cargo hold of Slave One (Fett’s personal ship). Evenly, Fett responded, once you are handed over, you no longer exist for me. But speaking on a personal note, if you like, I simply don’t care what they do to you. However, I will say this for you—it took me the last two weeks of exhaustive wheedling and lead follow-ups to finally track your sorry hide down. So I suppose I have to admire you for that.

That was the last thing Fett said on the subject before sealing the hold shut and walking up to the cockpit—where Nokes’ pathetic, desperate pleas were too muffled to hear. Three days later, the mark was handed over and Fett was congratulated with the proper amount designated in the contract. It afforded him some rest time and the purchase of new parts for Slave One (that were much needed and overdue). Not long after, Fett was in need again.

The Solo contract. One true professional bringing down another. An open contract, but Fett had dealt with that sort of thing before. And the optimal tactic for that was to lead all the others into false trails. But it was possible that that strategy was not a concern, for Fett was the only hunter in the sector of interest.

As the Slave One fought through the sheening inferno of Ord Mantell’s upper atmosphere, Fett considered how the hunt might go. Solo was a pirate and a smuggler and, at one point, deeply admired among the social circles inhabiting Jabba’s palace. What was Solo getting at by aligning himself with freedom fighters? True, he owed a lot of money to Jabba and, to another type of man, it might make sense to find protection with foolish (and easily duped) revolutionaries. But for Solo…it simply didn’t make sense; the pirate had always been the roguish, individualistic kind bent on soaring the stars on his own accord. And he had always paid his debts on time.

Could it have been a woman? That didn’t seem likely either—Solo had always treated his female conquests with a certain necessary aloofness—charming at first but cold when it came time to move on. Yet it only takes that one special woman to make a man forget what he has been living for and trade it for the rush of love. Fett didn’t think it was probable with Solo…but not entirely impossible either. But did it even matter? Well yes, unfortunately, it did. If it was a woman, she could be in love with Solo as well and make tracking that much more problematic. And this woman would have powerful friends. Even if Fett captured Solo and made his way back to The Outer Rim, those friends might intercept in a vain attempt to rescue the pirate. If it came to that, Fett would self destruct before ever giving up Solo. He had never lost a mark while he was alive, and he intended to keep it that way.

His “father” wouldn’t have accepted anything less.

Slave one had landed in a port on Dorn City—the very same one Fett had heard that the Millennium Falcon landed to. If there was some sort of trace of where Solo and his wookie partner had moved on to, it would undoubtedly have to start here. Fett walked the corridors of the port in hopes of finding an information kiosk. As he did, a few passersby eyed him, but Fett was used to that by now. He knew it was one of two things: one, his helmet (which covered his entire head) was a distinctive design and signaled primal fears of the once ruthless Mandalorian brigades (of which the helmet was modeled), and two, they knew that only one man had the gall to take that armor and make it his own mark of terror.

A kiosk lay up ahead past an opening to another port. Fett quickened his pace careful to avoid oncoming or slower persons. Soon, the light of the open-aired port washed over the hurried hunter; he briefly glanced its way then back towards the kiosk only feet in front of him—

Fett halted and curtly turned his head, then entire body to face the port.

The Millennium Falcon lay just seventy feet beyond, resting comfortably and inert and casting shadows on the port grounds.

Sometimes, Fett thought with some measure of irony, it’s all just dumb luck. Sometimes, it simply falls in your lap.

 

CHAPTER 24

 

The Alderaanians held back, hiding themselves in stores, cafes, diners, etc. They knew that their identities would be categorized and made known to droids assisting the troopers. The Alderaanian sympathizers were closer to the central building, walking about and appearing to site-see. Their true purpose was to get a feel for the security measures outside and inside the entrance of the place.

And, of course, to be the first wave of the assault.

 

CHAPTER 25

 

The underbelly of Bail’s ship opened up again and Leia’s freighter (with both Leia and Chewie aboard) lowered until it was reasonably clear and free to navigate. Only a second later, the smaller ship fast catapulted itself into hyperspace. And only another second later, the entire imperial fleet with the command ship in front slammed out of hyperspace to stare down Bail’s dwarfed vessel.

Admiral Ozzel had just entered the command center bridge to stand by the comm officer seated at a console. “Who are they?” Ozzel inquired of the officer.

“Sir, the ship is registered to a senator. Bail Organa.”

Ozzel’s eyes tensed, his eyebrows drew in. “Organa … his daughter is the traitor Leia Organa…hail them.”

The comm officer worked the necessary controls. “Patched through, sir.”

“Alderaanian vessel, this is Admiral Ozzel of the imperial forces. Do you have Bail Organa or Leia Organa aboard you ship? Respond immediately.”

Bail’s smooth, calm voice came through the comm. “Admiral Ozzel, we are honored by your presence. Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Senator Bail Organa, formerly of the imperial senate. If it pleases you, admiral, I would wish to come aboard and speak to you in person.”

Ozzel’s eyebrows lifted high. “Oh believe me, senator, that will happen soon enough. Is your daughter with you now?”

“I wish it were so but I’m afraid not, admiral. In fact, I have been attempting to locate her and bring her to justice for her traitorous activities against the empire.”

Ozzel mentally froze for a moment. Truthfully, he hadn’t ever expected the senator to say anything against his daughter…this was peculiar… “Am I to understand that you do not hold with your daughter’s beliefs?”

“Quite correct, admiral. In fact I may have recently dealt the rebellion a decisive blow. I have in my custody several known conspirators—fifteen to be exact—caught in an ambush by my security.”

Ozzel’s eyebrows ascended once more. “Do you now?”

“Yes admiral. I know they know the whereabouts of my daughter but I haven’t the proper facilities to interrogate them. But I have a feeling you might…”

Ozzel’s mind raced with possibilities and pitfalls. What if it was true and Ozzel could be instrumental in bringing about the beginning of the end of this pestilent rebellion. What if it was a trick and the senator was telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. There could be hidden explosives or even a deadly contagion on board the good politician’s vessel. Retribution, no matter how small, for the demise of Alderaan…

Ozzel had to make a decision quick on which course of action to take. Surely his men would begin to stare if he remained hesitant and frozen like a statue. He decided to risk it. If another Death Star was ever constructed and he was one of the favored sons for ending the alliance…

“Senator, you may dock with us. A security detail will meet yours in the docking bay. There we will make the prisoner transfer…and you and I will talk further.”

“Understood, admiral. Making our way now.”

The transmission ceased and Ozzel bent over to rest a hand on the comm officer’s chair. He drew in close to his subordinate, facing him. “Lieutenant, scan their ship for anything suspicious—unusual weapons, noxious chemicals, and the like, and keep me informed.”

“Yes admiral.”

 

The expansive structure of the super star destroyer’s main hangar bay was populated by various docked ships—transports, TIE fighters…and a certain multiboostered freighter that had just landed on the cold, metallic floor. Bail’s ship. Clearly, it was the largest vessel housed in the bay and it barely cleared the dimensions of the room.

Ozzel had received word in the elevator that Bail’s ship was free of any suspicious weapons, be they chemical, explosive, or otherwise. And true to the senator’s word, exactly fifteen infra-red detected bodies were clustered in a detention section of the ship. All seemed to be as was described to the admiral.

Yet something gnawed at Ozzel’s sense of order. Because the ship checked out did not necessarily mean that Bail himself cleared all suspicion. Ozzel may not have been a tactical giant for the military, but he knew that certain strategic maneuvers were necessary when dealing with a delicate situation as this. A full security compliment like the one flanking him now was strategy number one. Out of his peripherals, Ozzel could detect a new tenseness in his security detail as the foreign vessel’s hatch opened and a ramp extended out from the bottom frame of the opening. As soon as the ramp met the industrial grey floor, men in uniforms descended it.

The one in the prim and proper robes must be the senator, Ozzel wagered to himself. More men exited the ship and walked the ramp to the floor. Some carried weapons and had them trained on others in “code-locked” wrist binders. Again, the number was correct—fifteen men wore them.

The captors and the prisoners approached Ozzel and his compliment of protectors (who had mini-pistols up their sleeves just hiding above the cuff—ready at the first sign of false moves) then slowed to halt respectfully. Except for Bail who took a further step to address Ozzel. “Admiral, a pleasure to meet you in person.”

“Likewise, I’m sure, senator. Your prisoners, I presume.”

“They are now your prisoners, admiral. May they serve our need in ending this pointless lunacy.”

“One can only hope.” Ozzel turned to eye one of his men. “Lieutenant, take these men to the cell blocks.”

The Lieutenant motioned a few of his subordinate officers to follow him in moving towards the shackled men. Bail’s security, once they felt it was safe, raised their weapons, nodded to the imperial officers, and returned toward Bail’s ship.

Ozzel faced Bail once more with neutral eyes. “Senator, if you like, your detail may join us in conference.”

“Unnecessary, admiral. I feel I am among friends here.”

“Very well. I’m afraid a small compliment will be joining us if it’s…not too disconcerting, senator.” It had better not be, Ozzel remarked in his mind.

“Not at all,” Bail said at once with a disarming, diplomatic smile. “I understand that protocol must be followed.”

“Excellent. Well, if you will…” Ozzel extended a hand and swung his torso slowly in a “this way” gesture.

Ozzel, his security detail, and Bail left the docking bay. Walking, Bail made an unnoticed glance toward the backs of the “prisoners” (who really were now actual prisoners) being herded away in the opposite direction down the corridor. So far so good, Bail thought as he surreptitiously attempted to keep his nerves and his breathing in normal parameters. My daughter’s love and another dear to her are being carted away to face whatever treatment—treatment? Let’s face it, it was going to be torture until they talked—the imperials would be prepping for them. That worried Bail much more than his own safety by far.

Ozzel made a query to the effect of have you ever been aboard a command ship before, senator, and Bail almost missed the meat of the question with his worrying. Fortunately, for Bail and his concerns, he made a satisfactory response and continued the necessary banter as they walked corridor after corridor.

While they made their way to the desired conference room, Leia and Chewie had already landed back on Ord Mantell and Dorn’s docking ports. Ozzel and Bail were only moments away from their destination as Leia told Chewie to go ahead and prep the Falcon and she’d be along after she collected the droids and talked to the local officials. If she couldn’t get the money back, perhaps she could recoup some of the rental fee for returning the ship early. Chewie extended a furry hand to gently shake her shoulder while growling concern. Leia told him not to worry, she should be fine but to keep an open channel and she would alert him if there were any problems. The giant grunted affirmatively and nodded. She shook her head with kind eyes and a warm smile and remarked, you big walking carpet. To which the walking carpet laughed and allowed her to scratch him lightly on his chest. She turned and left, the long-furred and briefly contented creature stared after her for a moment. Then he turned and headed for the Falcon.

And at the same time Bail and Ozzel walked and talked, and Leia and Chewie talked and reassured, Vader stood behind the pilots of an imperial transport as they drove the ship through the twirling kaleidoscope of hyperspace. Vader had entered only seconds before and inquired to Veers who stood beside him, how long to the fleet. Veers immediately replied, forty-two minutes, my lord. Vader ordered them to prepare for evasive when they arrived…something was wrong on the command ship, he sensed it. Yes my lord, Veers dutifully answered.

And as Veers said this to Vader and Chewie walked up the ramp of the Falcon, Bail and Ozzel (with his detail still in tow) entered the conference room to dispense with small talk and begin the conversation both had truly been waiting for.

“Well first, senator,” Ozzel began evenly. “I would like to extend my thanks for bringing those men to justice. It could indeed bring a decisive blow to the rebellion’s strength.”

Bail nodded. “Absolutely, admiral. And believe me, thanks is hardly necessary. We all do what we can in the service of an institution that, let’s face it, has kept catastrophes like the Clone Wars from happening for the past twenty years.”

“Indeed…” Ozzel’s eyes were mixing concern with skepticism. “…But has that service come at a price too great to bare…” Now his brows rose. “…in light of recent events…”

Bail’s face became taught and he turned away from everyone in the room to walk a few steps. Ozzel flicked his stare to his officers—be ready. For anything. Their return stares signaled that they were fully prepared to end the senator in an instant.

Bail turned casually back to face Ozzel. It appeared that the senator had composed himself. “You refer to Alderaan…admiral, I wish you to hear me now and make my meaning clear…there is only one person I blame for the death of my home world—my friends, family, and countless supporters of the emperor…and that person is my adopted daughter.”

Ozzel’s brows rose again. “It was our men who gave the order, senator—”

Only because my daughter forced their hand. Only she is responsible. Were it not for her fanatical beliefs, billions of lives would have been spared. And how many more millions were lost when the great station was obliterated? I weep for all and curse only one. She must be found. And if those traitors can tell us where she is, then hopefully more tragedies can be avoided. And that is what I believe, my good admiral.”

Ozzel studied Bail’s eyes intensely. Any minute trace of insincerity that might involuntarily betray the senator’s words of allegiance and the admiral could snap his fingers. The security officers would, of course, do the rest…

But Ozzel could detect nothing—a stray blink or a shift of the eyes—that would reveal Bail to be a traitor.

And he did just hand over fifteen rebel conspirators.

Ozzel eased his eyes. “Well. Then for the satisfaction of your heavy heart and your service to Palpatine, we must find your daughter and her misguided followers at any cost.”

Still so believable, Bail added, “I agree.”

The doors slid apart to reveal General Cartis Rieekan who promptly entered. He carried his middle aged form well and walked with disciplined erection. Though his posture was all military business, his eyes oddly disarmed those he addressed.

The security detail stood at attention and briskly saluted the general as he approached. “As you were, gentlemen.” They lowered their saluting arms and separated their legs in an “at ease” stance.

Ozzel offered, “General. Something to report?”

With a thin-lipped smile, Rieekan replied, “Hardly, admiral. Actually, I had heard that the senator was aboard and wanted to welcome him.” Rieekan faced Bail. “Senator Organa, a great pleasure to see you again.”

“And you, of course, General Rieekan,” Bail responded with a pleasant smile.

Once again, Ozzel’s brow lifted. “You two know each other.”

Bail elaborated, “Yes, at a senate conference two years ago. The general here regaled me with tales of strategic mastery on his men’s part.”

Rieekan included, “And the senator here versed me on the clever intricacies of senate hearings. A fascinating event.”

Bail chuckled briefly. “Oh now, I’m sure you must be exaggerating, General.”

A smile betrayed the general a touch. “Well perhaps…there was a bit of exaggeration.”

The three dignitaries laughed briefly lightening the scene. And the security detail, though, of course, not allowed to smile, eased their gun arms and allowed their eyes less tension. The senator knew the general, and that carried a great deal of weight—now there was full trust involved.

Rieekan turned back to Ozzel. “Admiral, I hope I’ve not come at an inopportune moment…”

“Not at all,” Ozzel reassured with jovial calm. “Actually, our discussion had just reached its conclusion.”

“Well, then if you permit me, admiral, I think it would be appropriate to give the senator a tour of our facilities.”

“As you are off duty, I don’t see a problem.” Ozzel faced Bail and gave a customary nod. “Senator, the ship is yours.”

Bail returned the nod. “Most kind, admiral. I’m sure the tour will be quite impressive.”

“Perfect. Then my men and I will take our leave of you. I’m sure the interrogation proceedings will take place shortly and if you like, I can update you on the results.”

“Please do.”

“Gentlemen,” Ozzel entreated his detail and they followed him out of the room. When the doors shut fully, Rieekan and Bail’s stance turned jerkingly rigid and desperate.

Curtly serious, Bail began, “You heard what he said. We haven’t much time.”

In the same clipped tone, Rieekan asked, “Is your daughter safe?”

“Yes, thank goodness. Which way to the cell blocks?”

“This way…”

They shot out the room.

 

CHAPTER 26

 

Wedge Antilles had, only moments before, shot a grappling hook to the top railing of a building—one half a mile away from the Judaris theatre. Clutching the grappling gun firmly with both hands, he had flicked the retract switch on the device. The length of the rope which extended from the guns muzzle all the way to the building’s roof had begun to shorten. The thin yet sturdy twine had rolled itself back into the bulky rifle-like tool, carrying Wedge safely and quickly up to the structure’s top-side surface. Heaving himself over the edge and rolling over to safely plant himself on the roof, he had sprung to a stand and trotted to the opposite end to the high rise. As he reached halfway to the other end, he began to crouch lower and lower and lower, as low as he could and still keep a steady and hastened pace. By the time he had neared the edge again, he was lying flat on his belly but still moving forth (using both arms and legs to achieve forward momentum).

Now he was in position, still lying flat, his chin parallel with the edge of the building. His sniper rifle was unslung from his shoulder and now taughtly gripped by both hands (one with a finger in the trigger). The weapon’s scope lens was poised generously close to Wedge’s right eye; his left was squinted shut.

Through the scope, he could clearly make out the whole of Judaris—the spacious and slightly plunging amphitheatre that flattened to its circular descent into a disc of marbled stage. At this scope’s rate of zoom there was too much of a generalized shot-range focus. When the emperor made his eventual appearance on the stage, Wedge would, of course, have to adjust the range to bring the hooded wretch into larger targeting frame. Fortunately, the weapon was capable of such a zoom adjustment.

Don’t forget to check for security plants! Wedge reminded himself, and he shifted his scope sights to other buildings located at the quarter mile distancing from Judaris…nothing…nothing… nothing again…

…Could they see him? Did they see him?

 

CHAPTER 27

 

“I’ve just received word that the interrogation droids are on their way,” announced one cell block officer to the other. “We’ll take two men out at a time…let the others watch.”

Luke stood beside Han and the other rebel soldiers in the cell (which had no door for the opening, only a force-field to prevent escape) and they clearly heard what was just said. It occurred to Luke now that it was quite possible a few men would be tortured and drugged for information before being rescued. If rescue was to come at all. And Luke or Han might be the first two to be selected. He glanced at his pirate friend and at the rest of the men grouped around him and saw in their faces that similar thoughts ran through their minds.

“Ah,” the cell block officer who had spoken before began. “Here they are now…”

The exit doors had slid apart to reveal two beetle-skinned, ebony globes, which Leia, if she were here, would be able to clearly identify as imperial interrogation droids. She, of course, had been tortured by one for three hours straight.

But even without Leia’s extensive knowledge of the devices, Luke and the others had no illusions to their purpose.

“Lieutenant,” the talkative officer said. “Bring two—”

The doors opened once more and Rieekan with Bail in tow entered, their faces neutral.

“General,” the chatty officer said at once as he and the Lieutenant stomped to rigid attention. Bail whipped around Rieekan to clear two flash rings from his pistol (taken from an armory along the way). They zipped to splash their two targets—the cell block officers—and wash their forms briefly in bluish glow. The two lackeys fell in lagged, writhing motion and clunked to the floor.

Rieekan stepped forth to stand over the unconscious officers with disgust in his eyes. “At ease.”

Bail rushed past Rieekan to reach the proper wall panel that would lower the force-field. An interrogation droid moved to intercept, but as it did, Rieekan produced a small remote mechanism. He pressed a button with haste and the droid halted to remain stationed in mid-air.

Bail worked the panel and the force-shield scrambled to particles, then nothing. He addressed the captives with a harried voice, “Come on, quickly! We’ll get you into uniforms along the way!”

Luke and the others filed briskly out of the cell and followed Bail and Rieekan out of the block. Luke knew that they were far from free, yet it was a considerable relief to be out of that cell. And now it was just a quick jaunt to the supply room where everyone (with the exception of Bail and Rieekan) was vigorously switching out their clothes for imperial uniforms. With a small note of irony, Luke realized that he unconsciously chose a commander’s uniform. Funny how rank had a way of ingraining itself in one’s identity. Han had chosen a white, grand admiral’s uniform. Figures, Luke thought.

Five minutes and they were back in the corridors walking with a measure of haste, yet nowhere near a run. The last thing they needed was to incur a firefight from jumpy troopers.

Now they were entering a sector where the corridors were greatly populated with imperial officers, troopers in white, and various droids. Luke noted with cautious relief that, so far, their rouge was working, for everyone appeared to be going about their business.

He looked down as he walked and saw a “mouse” droid squeaking merrily and rolling past. Luke almost twitched a smile recalling the last time he encountered these mini-droids; how Chewie decided to have some fun and scare one with a barking growl. The thing had scooted and raced back the way it came, squealing all the way.

Don’t smile, Luke disciplined his mind. You’re in serious trouble here. You smile and everyone here is comprom—

“Heyyy, wait-a-minute…” an officer (who had just passed them) said with a tone of delayed realization. He had halted behind the group.

He was staring directly at Han. “You’re no imper—”

Han shot him dead.

“Fast! Now!” Bail hollered, and the “imperials” bolted across the corridor, gunning down every trooper and officer in their path or behind them. This continued corridor after corridor.

Somewhere along the way, there was a break in the carnage and havoc, where no one had business or passed by. Bail took this opportunity to clarify a certain matter that was gnawing at his frantic mind. He faced Han as he ran. “How in blazes did he recognize you?!”

Keeping pace with Bail and the others, Han answered with a slight tone of embarrassment. “Well senator, I am a pirate who’s been under the thumb of these people before.”

“Wonderful! Too bad we didn’t have time to suit you in trooper’s armor!”

That was the end of their discussion as the corridor became busy again, and the “shoot and run” killings echoed the halls once more.

 

CHAPTER 28

 

Palpatine was right about the armories. The rebels (the unofficial ones—but rebels nonetheless, for they all fought for the same cause) who worked at the weapons facilities—one at one location and, of course, two at the other—had checked in and made their ways through the buildings. The two at the east armory were naturally quicker at setting up the distractions. But the one at the west armory still had enough time to provide the necessary diversions for the security details.

Once the mechanized or computerized rouges were set in motion, the three rebels sabotaged weapons reactors initiating a chain reaction that annihilated both facilities.

Few survived and escaped the burnt wreckage: three maintenance workers and four troopers hobbled or crawled out of the rubble and blackish clouds.

All three rebels had passed on, making their sacrifice complete.

 

The armory explosions were heard from the streets just outside the central building. Not a deep, thundering boom to shiver the grounds and deny pedestrians the balancing of solid footing. But thudding pops were felt nonetheless. The most important aspect of the blasts was the fact that, heart-fluttering or not, they were heard. Heard by all the rebels in the vicinity.

This was the signal.

All at once, the first wave struck firing weapons at the security force. The imperials volleyed back with heavy laser assaults, downing a hundred dissidents in seconds. But seconds were all the guards were allowed before they were either killed, overrun, or overpowered (with weapons yanked from their grasps for the rampage to come) by thousands of rebels. The entrance was immediately sealed but it meant nothing to the determined souls. With enough shots to the locking mechanism, it became useless. And with enough strong backs to pry the doors open, it was only a mater of minutes before the righteous horde flooded into the first floor to meet the entrenched imperials. And their horizontal rain of deadly fire.

 

Mothma was right—the mammoth statue of Palpatine at Judaris provided a substantial spread of soothing shade from the blinding Coruscant sun. Mothma, who had arrived early to give her shooters the proper visual that she was present, scanned the famed and cherished amphitheatre for her own feel of the layout. Indeed, if all the senators avoided the outer rims of the seating arrangement, then the shade would blanket them all. This was important for the stability and flow of the meeting—all must feel as if they are comfortable and amicably open to serious negotiations. At least until Mothma’s men were ready to act. After that she would play the devastated and frantic protector of everyone around her. That is, of course, until her security detail ripped her away from the scene. Naturally, she would fight them to stay as long as she could. Everything must look convincing. This must work, she battered her mind with. Because if it didn’t, they would never get a chance at this again.

Mothma could see the first of the senators arriving in their plush speeders. Their entourages exited first to scan the perimeter.

“They’re coming. All acknowledge,” Mothma mumbled to, it seemed, no one at all. But then within her flesh-colored earpiece, male voices came through one after the other: “Ash one confirm,” “Ash two confirm,” and on up to…

 

“Ash six confirm,” Wedge spoke, still in is flattened position on the roof of a building half a mile away from Judaris. His rifle still in his grasp and pointed at the far away theatre. His eye still poised on the target scope of the weapon. Through it he could see Mothma as well as the senators arriving.

“Have you sighted the quarter mile sentries?” Mothma asked through Wedge’s own earpiece.

“Negative,” came Ashes One through Five.

“Negative,” Wedge reported, but once he did, he decided to make one more sweep with his scope-trained eye—just to be sure. The scan completed, he decided to pan back over to his original focus frame of Judaris; nothing out of the ordinary was spotted—no sentry yet again.

As he made the slow swipe, however, a reflective glimmer, tiny and brief, flashed his eye. Instinctively, he yanked the scope back to look on the area of the now extinct twinkle.

For a split second the spot of light flared once more. It was located on a balcony of a building…at the quarter mile distance…

Could have been anything, Wedge reminded himself. A brandy glass, someone’s focals…

…or the tip of a weapon…

Wedge decided to try something, a flushing technique. Who knows, it may just work, he rationalized as he reached rather slowly for an object on his belt—the grappler gun. He flicked the release switch that would detach the rope from the spear-hook jutting from the muzzle. Now if he shot, the spear-hook would be the only thing that would launch forth.

Gingerly placing his scope rifle aside on the ledge, he gave both hands to the grappler gun and aimed it, not at the intermittent flash, but at another rooftop forty feet away. He fired then quickly threw the gun aside and grabbed his rifle to briskly re-aim it and align his right eye back to the scope. Through it, he had the flare site again.

The spear-hook cut through the air and met its target in a matter of seconds. It clanged into the edge of a rooftop then violently spiraled a rebound to fall to the street below. The shock and sound of the hit sent a flock of purple and black birds screaming into the air. To continue a maddening and noisy protest to the city.

The flush worked—through the scope, Wedge witnessed the snap-emergence of a figure—black clad and gripping his own sniper rifle—from the darkened balcony. The rifle glinted from the Coruscant sun still making its appearance in the evening sky. That must have been the flash, Wedge reasoned…but…it shouldn’t have reflected so brightly—imperial sniper rifles were painted coal black and not prone to bouncing light.

As the figure swung back into shadows of the balcony once more, Wedge caught a brief but convincing glance at the make of the rifle—half black, half metallic in visual design…an Alderaanian rifle…

Why would an imperial sentry ever be issued an Alderaanian…

Face taught, eyes wide, Wedge sprung to his feet and exploded into a run.

He had twelve stories to descend.

 

They had twelve more stories to ascend. And hundreds of armed imperial troopers and personal guards to smash through in order to reach the emperor. The rebels had lost more than eight hundred souls on the first three floors alone. But this slowed none of the set and determined men and women from charging on, shooting down or overtaking troopers (thus gaining their weapons to increase arsenal strength).

The chargers knew three things that emboldened them in their siege. One, they had visual evidence that Palpatine was in the building, in his personal office on the top floor. Two, that he wouldn’t be escaping by air transport. The surrounding buildings were staked out with rebels ready to shoot down anything that attempted an air lift. And three, the team left at the first floor had dismantled the elevators.

No, the rebels had the emperor trapped, locked in, a waiting mark…if the electrified and hollering mass could get to him.

 

Wedge hit the first floor from the elevators and shot for the exit. People who had business in the lobby yanked their heads to track him, wide and confused eyes they all had. The doors couldn’t slide open fast enough for Wedge and he stood there for an instant, bobbing in anticipation. When he was clear, he launched into a maddening run once more; his planned distance a quarter mile.

 

The first of the imperial guards hit the Judaris stage signaling that it would not be long before the emperor would be arriving.

Mothma glanced about the amphitheatre and saw that virtually all of the senators representing the core systems had shown. Most were seated now, their security entourages allocating their positions to ensure safety of their employers. Seated herself in between two senators, Mothma engaged them in conversation. “A pleasant evening for what will be hopefully a pleasant negotiations.” She said to Morga Mal, the senator of Remedean Minor. The wiry man replied with, “Hopefully, we will see the return of the senate as a governing body. I think that will be pleasant enough for me.”

The female senator on the other end of Mothma countered with, “I don’t see how that’s going to happen. To have to admit that he made a serious error in letting us go would be too damaging to his greatness’ ego. And it would invite coup attempts left and right.”

“Idra,” Morga identified the woman senator by name, “don’t you think that’s moot at this point? In fact, I’ve heard reports that a citywide revolt is already happening as we speak. Those two faint booms we heard were supposedly apart of it.”

Feigning calm, Mothma said, “I thought that was merely city demolition men at work.”

“Not by my detail’s reports.”

“Well then, all the more reason for Palpatine to talk directly with us to discuss what to do about this volatile matter.”

“Well, I hope he arrives soon,” Idra commented as she adjusted her draping gown to close around her torso. “If the sun goes down completely, it’s going to get quite chilly.”

Morga did a surreptitious roll of the eyes.

 

Wedge tore through the first floor of the building housing the balcony sniper. He couldn’t use the grappler gun anymore to attempt a surreptitious access, so he would simply have to use either the elevator or the stairs. He hoped the elevator was functioning, because he wasn’t sure he could climb all the levels to reach the sniper. But now that he thought about it, he was going to have to. Too many people may be getting on and off the elevator. And the sniper may control the lift thus locking Wedge down if things looked too suspicious. After all, Wedge’s face was known to these types.

No, the stairs. Twenty flights up…

 

CHAPTER 29

 

Chewie flipped a switch on one of the ceiling consoles of the Falcon’s cockpit. The ship was already humming and whining as if it were begging for flight. Its co-pilot decided to run through a full diagnostic of the ship-wide systems before take off. He knew this would be a perfect opportunity for a technical check up as Leia would undoubtedly be an hour at least.

Leia.

How Chewie wished Han would show a little mercy her way. How he wished a lot of things from his trusted partner and life-bonded friend. Han was capable of generosity for certain, but he was also known (and widely) for being predominantly self serving, aloof, and downright bullheaded.

But then Chewie knew that he himself was guilty of the same sort of less-than-admirable qualities and couldn’t quite bring himself to condemn Han.

An hour. Maybe more. Time enough to reflect on another blinding reason why he needed to avoid vilifying his friend. The main reason actually.

Twenty years ago, Chewie was a slave, torn from his family and his clan on Kashyyyk, the wookie homeworld. It was a considerably brutal battle and a shocking betrayal by the clone soldiers they had fought alongside for so long. The betrayal was made worse by the fact the wookies were winning the war against the battle droids. Victory was in sight and there was hope that The Republic, as it stood, would continue to flourish.

But then the clones, without warning, turned on their wookie and jedi compatriots and wreaked more havoc than the droids ever did. The wookie clans, if they weren’t captured and enslaved to penal colonies, had no alternative but to leave Kashyyyk and spread out across the galaxy. And then most were simply killed for causing too much trouble to their clone captors.

Chewie had spent eight months working the tibanna coal mines when new requisites arrived fresh from a snare of Correlian freedom fighters. Correlia had had its own bitter and blood-soaked incursion with clone warriors, whose brutality had reached new heights. Apparently, the clones had received word that a right hand man of the supreme chancellor’s was adding the slaughter of children to the war parameters. Therefore, the clones, slaves as they were to their superiors’ whims, began to target the youth of Correlia. Anyone underage who caused a disturbance or aided rebels would be executed. Those who surrendered without a fight would suffer the same slavish fate as the wookies on Kashyyyk.

Fourteen-year-old Han Solo wanted desperately to put up a fight. Clone troopers had a group of guerrillas surrounded and trapped inside their makeshift H.Q. The young Solo along with his father, Zahn, were among the seiged grouped crouching behind counters and chairs. Han gazed surreally at the eyes of those around him and saw their realization of the end. But he also witnessed a heartened determination and felt kindred with them. Gimme the straight fight, he told his father with his own eyes. And with his voice, Zahn warned his only son to stay put—don’t you dare go out there.

The clones stormed the H.Q. barricade and broke through. Explosives were set and ignited to shove the remaining blockade to the room (which used to be a vintage diner) inward and split it into cindered scraps. A woman was blinded by a flame-soaked shrapnel. One man was knocked unconscious by another smoke-trailing projectile. The clones waited for the thick, swirling, noxious haze to rise and clear visibility. Then they opened fire, advancing as they shot.

The last of the resistance, through with hiding, sprung from their counters, tables, and chairs and made it a proper battle. Zahn, however, remained out of sight as he stared down his boy and screamed, on your mother’s soul, swear to me you will not shoot! Han cursed his father but swore nonetheless. They had lost Besda two years earlier to Cyphus Fever and the boy knew his father couldn’t stand to know Han would perish as well.

“Remember us, Boy!” was the last thing Zahn shouted to his son before he leapt out and gunned down as many troopers as he could. The exact count was three of them before the father was thrashed with return fire in the chest and gut. Han witnessed his father slam backward into view again and thought to himself oddly, I should scream or cry or something for that heap five feet in front of me used to be my father. But Han could do none of those things because a numb paralysis had viced his entire being. Yet he knew his lids worked because he felt them tighten and pull back on his eyes.

A clone trooper snapped into view to block a clear image of his father. It swung a rifle instantly to aim at Han’s forehead.

Han did not put up a fight. He honored his father’s request and surrendered to the troopers who had all but reduced the place to rubble.

Three days later, Han was transferred to the Shoflar Mas tibanna coal mines for conscription and digging detail.

It was there that Han worked sixteen to eighteen hour days digging in almost pitch blackness alongside soot-caked wookie slaves. The guards were brutal and never tolerated a slowing in productivity. Yet after hour fourteen or fifteen, Han could barely lift his arms or see straight. He would lag out of pure exhaustion and beatings from the guards would follow.

Chewie had witnessed this happen all too often. And one day his anger couldn’t be contained.

A guard had whipped out a baton and hit Han in the small on his back, telling him to “work!” Han had buckled to the grating, too exhausted to whale a scream. He could only slam his teeth together and bury his eyes beneath crinkled lids.

The guard was going for the small again when Chewie leapt from his crouched corner and seized the unsuspecting punisher. The wookie had been exhausted himself. But even a drained Kashyyykan was still a highly volatile animal.

The baton was forced out of the guard’s hand but before Chewie could do anything more, other guards in the perimeter shocked the beast to his knees with electro-chargers. Chewie howled as they continued to electrify him until he was on the ground bucking and jerking.

The wookie was brought to medical then shortly after released to work again. With reduced rations.

Chewie was indeed one of the strongest wookies of his clan. But with the enormous charges to his system and the subsequent malnourishment days, weeks after, Chewie began to fall ill.

This Han could stand no more and made the decision to begin sharing his already sparse rations with the ailing giant. At first, Chewie refused, but hunger in its horrid extreme overrode his pride.

Han didn’t know if the wookie could fully understand basic-speak, but he told the animal that if it was possible he was going to find a way out of this hellhole, and he was taking Chewie with him. Chewie understood every word but didn’t necessarily believe any of what the pale boy was saying.

With Han’s continued assistance, Chewie recovered well enough to survive and receive full rations again. But the days as they rolled into weeks, months, and almost to a year, the two reliant friends realized that not much more could be stood of this blackened purgatory.

The day came when Han saw their opportunity to escape. A fire erupted in a sector near to Han and Chewie’s work station. In the melee, as the guards rushed the hot spot to quell the spreading fire, only one guard was left to watch the sector. Han and Chewie surprised the distracted soul and grabbed the electro-charger from his belt. Chewie held the guard at bay while Han jabbed the screaming man profusely with sparking, blinding electrical charges. Thirty seconds of it, and the vibrating guard became rigid with shock and body-wide paralysis.

Slack jawed and drooling, the guard was propped up carefully with the three foot long electro-charger and the cave support beam. With this delicate balance achieved, Han and Chewie left the caves, jury-rigged access doors, and stowed aboard a supply ship that, fortunately for the two, was leaving before body count was to take place. True, the ship typically did a scan of its hull before take-off, but Chewie made the wise decision to hide them near the engine systems, where body heat would be lost in the already generous warmth of the sector.

Mid-flight to Coruscant, Han and Chewie snuck out and killed the pilots. Jettisoning the bodies, they overlooked the cockpit controls and learned quickly which did what.

A new course was set to anywhere but the capitol planet and they raided the galley. The two ate like kings. Ravenous kings. Never had either been so happy in their lives up to that point.

The two survived over the years taking whatever jobs they could find and picking up any skills that would give them an edge. Eventually, Han discovered that smuggling and hitting resource-bloated systems turned a sizeable profit. Though Chewie never pictured himself leading this kind of life, he had to agree that the money kept them well above starving (which both swore to each other would never, never happen to them again).

And no one was going to own their destinies. They were free agents beholden to nobody but each other.

None of those other wookies bothered to help either of us, Han pointed out. No human either. It’s you and me, partners to the end, and that’s how I see it.

And Chewie saw it that way too, owing his allegiance to no other throughout the years, even the alliance that had been rumored to cause such annoyance to the great, all-encompassing empire.

That was until two weeks ago when a certain bright-eyed farm boy and a prissy princess entered their lives and reawakened Chewie’s feelings of the old patriotism.

Chewie could see how much they now desperately needed something more than the smuggler’s life. Fourteen years of it with no real home (except the small confines of the Falcon) began to wear on the great beast’s soul.

But Chewie always knew that Han was the deepest priority. Where Han wanted to go, Chewie had to follow. Had to. A life debt is a life debt, no matter how strained.

Chewie could get no reading from the coolant diagnostic display. He would have to go back to the engines and manually check. He rose and walked out of the cockpit, through the circular connecting pathway.

Then halted in his tracks, his whole body inanimate as if frozen.

The floor panel concealing the hidden compartments below had slid aside—sssssssd—

—and Boba Fett propped his head and torso out of the gap in the floor and aimed a mini-rifle directly at Chewie’s head.

 

CHAPTER 30

 

The last storm trooper was shot down in the corridor connecting to the main hangar bay. Bail, Rieekan, Luke, Han, and the others sped up the pace now that the hall was clear and turned to enter the great expanse of the docking bay—

—and halted, their bodies became inanimate as if frozen.

Except for their eyes, which went wide.

Flanked by imperial troopers and Okarian tribesmen, Darth Vader stood fifty feet away, his hands resting on his belt. All of them were staring directly at the traitorous senator and his followers.

Vader, more specifically, was staring right at Luke; Luke the same at Vader.

With eyes of compressed rage.

“Nooo…” Rieekan breathed out with some effort, deep fear constricting his lungs and thought.

Youuu!” Luke roared at Vader, his face vibrating with mounting anger and hatred.

An instant later, the two groups fired heavily on each other, the opposing streams of laser fire creating a brilliant strip of racing lights. Both sides took hits and losses (one for the rebels) before it was quickly decided that cover positions would aid their fight. Bail’s group took half its compliment and rushed to flank the other edge of the opening, continuing the deluge of firing on their opponents.

The troopers hid behind crates and heavy equipment, ducking and firing while choosing their targets.

Vader never moved, his hands still rested on his belt. Nor did his devout followers, the muscular reptiles—even though one had been dropped from enemy fire.

Of course they wouldn’t. Vader controlled their every move now.

“Osa maketta!” Vader ordered, which must have been the Okarian attack command, for the tribesmen charged full on towards the rebels. Their footsteps made a deep, pounding sound and could be felt by everyone within the battle zone.

The rebels concentrated most of their firing on the powerful lizards trampling towards them. Yet even as they were hit once, twice, three times, the Okarians kept storming forth. A few of them finally stumbled and faltered to the steeled floor, stabbed and darkened too many times by burning rays.

But most of them broke through, rolling out into the corridor to make hard targets before they vaulted themselves in attack stances.

The rebels redirected most of their fire again into the corridor’s opposing wall where the vicious reptiles now had their short spears tensed to throw. One or two never got the chance to sling their tribal weapons as the heavy firing took them down.

But the rest threw with maddening force and ruthless precision.

Yet Luke, thirsty with his own bloodlust, yanked out a hand in front of himself, growling gutturally. Through a new surge of strangely euphoric power, Luke deflected the majority of the spears even before they reached the group.

Two spears, however, met their targets unwavered, unaffected. A rebel was pierced deep in his abdomen and he buckled over, pain-faced to the floor. The other spear buried itself into Dak’s chest just below the collar bone and near his shoulder. He cried out, dropped his pistol, and clutched the spear just above the wound entry. Another rebel named Hobbie grabbed Dak to keep him steady and on his feet.

The tribesmen charged again, this time with unsheathed and curved-blade knives held out for stabbing.

Yet none of them were able to break through this time. With a guilty river of power flowing through Luke’s open-palmed hand, the lizards were reduced to running almost in place; like a monstrous wind was impeding their advance. The rest of the rebels never ceased their firing and within seconds the blasts finally succeeded in dropping the last of the tribesmen.

Han untensed the aim of his pistol and stared at Luke with unbelieving eyes. Luke, however, kept his attention locked on the Okarian corpses splayed before him.

With possessed, maddened eyes.

The two of them had only seconds to stay in their individual mindsets before a rebel was blasted fatally from behind. A squadron of troopers came running up from the far end of the corridor and stopped to fire from forty feet away. Another rebel was gunned down as he was turning to aim.

But no more were harmed as Luke shoved his open-palmed hand the troopers’ way, screaming, “Noooo!”

In what appeared to be for no good reason at all, the troopers began re-aiming their rifles toward each other. Fighting the movements, as the white-armored men clearly were, proved useless. They also had no control over their trigger fingers as they squeezed and, as a result, shot one another in the gut. There was an odd man out, so that one (with a “Wait! Wait!”) repositioned his rifle to his own helmet.

Luke’s eyes widened a touch in wondered fear as the rifle shot went off. But this was brief for the euphoric rush of his generously flowing new powers owned his face’s expression. He turned quickly to eye Han, who stood in awe of Luke’s miraculous abilities. They smiled at each other in disbelief, relief, and triumph all rolled in one.

But again, there was only a second at most to share this experience before another mystical magic trick was performed.

Hobbie was being lifted up and over the rest of the rebels and pulled toward the hangar bay. By, it seemed, no one at all. His fellow fighters grabbed him to keep him from clearing and being sucked through the opening. It was by no means easy.

Vader!—Luke’s mind screamed. It must be him doing this! Well, we’ll see about that!

Luke, yet again, flung an arm out and spread his fingers, as if he were reaching to physically clutch Hobbie. Though he was too far away to actually do this, it mattered not—his stream of power did not fail him. With Luke’s assistance it was becoming easier to bring Hobbie back down and out of harm’s way. But then a new wave of invisible yanking challenged their efforts.

Now more rebel soldiers were leaving the ground, either as a result of holding on to Hobbie or Vader’s widening of the pulling field.

Luke now shot his left arm out to mirror his right—an effort to increase the torrent of directed Force. This held the rebels stationary and just barely away from the hangar bay’s opening—where any one of them would be gunned down instantly.

Even with Luke’s red-raging surge of power, it was becoming increasingly more difficult to hold the men in the tug-of-war stalemate. Han, who had been desperately trying to keep anyone he could grasp from being pulled out, stole a glance at the boy and snapped his eyes to worry. “Luke?!”

With a tightened face and through grinding teeth, Luke croaked, “…Getting…harder…to hold them…”

That’s when a cylindrical grenade flew through the opening of the bay and out into the corridor floor. It clanked, bounced, rolled, then came to rest on the metallic floor where it waited (in what was likely no more than two seconds left) to explode.

“Shove ‘em, Luke!!!” Han screamed.

Luke got it instantly and pantomimed pushing with tremendous force. It worked—the entire group of rebels was knocked out of the opposing field of powerful energies and thrown past the opening to land on the hard flooring. Second one! Yet as Luke performed this feat, Han simultaneously leapt for the grenade and flung it back through the opening. Second two was not even fully reached when the grenade burst violently with great expanse; the flames and smoke consumed the purified air.

The mid-air nova distracted the imperials for a brief instant before they aimed for Han. But he was already scrambling to his feet and firing away. The return fire was fierce and unrelenting and Han barely made it out of the imperials’ line of sight. He dashed to hit the wall, his gun pointing up and his eyes blinking in mental chaos. The others were quickly getting to their feet and violently flanking the wall just as Han did. Rieekan and Bail came up behind Han quickly and briefly praised him for lightening thinking. But before they could extend their thanks to Luke as well, five more grenades shot through the bay opening!

They didn’t even have a chance to hit the floor as Luke Force-caught them in mid-flight. With a quick swipe of his arms, the grenades soared back through the opening.

And landed loudly next to a bloated fuel tank.

A second and a half later, and although imperial soldiers had violently tried to get the grenades away from the tank, a whole section of the hangar bay instantly and savagely boomed with ultra-ravenous fire.

The massive, blossoming ball of blinding hell created a shockwave that blasted the imperials, Vader included, clear off their feet. They flew into the air, bodies flailing, and landed in heaps on the other end of the bay.

Most of the imperial soldiers perished from the shock of the maddening impact of the bay walls or flooring. Vader, however, was only shudderingly disoriented after he landed. Within his soot-filmed, black helmet, blood poured from his mouth for he had inadvertently bit his tongue. His mind swirled and for a split second he forgot where he was. His vision exploded with spots. Yet he knew through the thick, oilish currents of his vast power he would stay conscious. He would get on his feet soon to stagger forth and crush the throats of every rebel trying to escape.

And Luke, who had just deemed it safe to peer out from behind the opening, felt that same blackened current, knew Vader would spring into murderous action soon. He faced Han furiously and yelled, “Over there! Take him down! Hurry!!!”

Han tracked Vader’s lumbering yet rising form and aimed for another fuel-rich structure looming just behind the dark lord.

A TIE fighter.

With precision aim, Han shot for the fuel cells of the fighter. The blast punctured the hull, igniting the tibannic gas inside. The result was another shockwave-inducing inferno shoving white-hot madness in all directions. Vader was slammed into the sucking air once more.

But this time, Vader tuned himself fully to the cancerous ooze of the Dark Side power. And eased himself to a soft landing fifty feet away.

“Go! Go!” Bail yelled with hurried abruptness at the others. They obeyed at once, spilling out into the hangar bay and speeding towards Bail’s ship. Hobbie supported Dak, briskly aiding him along the way.

A rebel was shot in the back.

More troopers arrived from the corridor and opened fire, forcing the rebels to twist around and return blasts. The troopers took cover behind the opening, choosing judicious times to shoot.

It now became a strategy of cover and retreat at alternating intervals for the rebels, finding whatever burned piece of heavy equipment or unit to temporarily duck behind.

Vader was coming toward them, slightly dazed but keeping his balance well enough. He could have run to cover the eighty foot distance to Bail’s ship. But then he would risk stumbling to a fall.

Continuing the cover and retreat tactic, the rebels advanced closer to their ship. Another rebel perished in the fight.

Rieekan and Bail made it first to the landing ramp and took semi-cover behind the ramp supports. They provided the main cover fire now as the others retreated nearer. It was Luke and Han who made it next to the ramp to reinforce the cover shots.

Hobbie was coming up with Dak, and another rebel flanked the wounded soldier on his other side to speed the run. The remaining rebel soldiers maintained the cover/retreat, their distance to Bail’s ship almost closed.

Vader halted and threw out a clawed hand.

Rieekan felt his throat tighten and his breath end. He buckled forth ceasing his firing and clutched his neck. His mouth formed a vertical oval as he tried to suck in breath. None came and his eyes bulged from their lids.

Still, he re-aimed and resumed firing, though with not much precision.

Luke shot a glance at Rieekan and saw what was happening. And knew who was doing it. He suddenly swung his gun aim Vader’s way and shot profusely with a gleam in his eyes, shouting, “You murderrrrrr!!!”

Vader did not duck, or leap out of the way, or even flinch. He merely held out his hands at chest level.

And deflected every single shot that screamed toward him with only his black-gloved hands.

Luke saw this and it gave him a split second pause of firing, his eyes showing both unbelievability and frustration combined. Though he instantly knew it was futile, he shot over and over again, hoping against hope that one blast would get through.

Vader blocked them all with dizzying ability and finessing ease.

And Rieekan continued to choke, his consciousness slipping in and out, purple spots plaguing his vision. But through them he could see the last of the rebel soldiers passing him on their way up the ramp and into the temporary safety of his ship. He could also still feel (although that was numbingly leaving him) for he felt Bail’s arm (the one that wasn’t firing away) snake around him to keep him level.

Then the air rushed back into Rieekan’s lungs and he gasped with wheezing force. The dancing spots in his vision lessened.

But that was when the first sharpened shrapnel/projectile soared his way from the scattered ground.

While continuing to knock away Luke’s blast with only one hand now, Vader was directing bent, charred, and jagged pieces of metal with the other arm. He swiped and swiped, always ending with straight pointings toward Rieekan’s location. The twisted and smoking scraps obeyed (even from distances away) and rocketed towards the distracted general. Bail caught sight of the racing projectiles and where they were heading. And before the first one could stab Rieekan, Bail joltingly yelled, “NO!” and moved in front of the general—into the path of the flying, razored pieces. He felt searing pain rapidly reach into the center of his being time and again. His mouth flew open as a wheezing breath was vehemently attempted. His eyes bulged.

Even with Rieekan’s aid, Bail, after the fifth stabbing of shrapnel, began to falter to the floor, shock miring his mental grip. Rieekan screamed to Han and Luke to help get Bail aboard. Han, shooting as much as he could at the imperials, rushed to Rieekan and lugged Bail awkwardly up the ramp. As this happened, a few of the other unwounded rebels reemerged to provide the necessary cover fire.

Vader proceeded forth again, expertly deflecting the multi-shrilled array of brightly crimsoned blasts. All with nothing more than his opened palmed hands that were protected only with slightly singed ebony gloves.

As he slowly walked toward Luke, Vader reached out to him with his mind, with their mutual link of the spiderous, venomous Force.

Keep shooting, boy. And I’ll keep coming closer. Closer to finding out exactly who you are. The power is intoxicating, isn’t it? It flows so naturally. And it only gets better and bet—

But Vader couldn’t finish and Luke, who had heard Vader in his mind loud and clear, never had a chance to respond.

For a racing laser blast flashed the boy’s face.

 

CHAPTER 31

 

A pipe struck a storm trooper in the head, braining him into unconsciousness. A woman viciously extracted his rifle from him and immediately opened fire on other troopers.

Seven men were struck down by imperial blaster fire; each man suffering a fatal burn mark to the chest before faltering into the great unknown.

A trooper threw a grenade at the shouting, roaring onslaught of rebel hordes. It went off and eight people became projectiles as a result of the unholy blast. (reverse)

An expert knife thrower from the “Old Coruscant Circus Show” pierced three troopers—each thrown blade brilliantly dug itself into the separation segments of their white armor. The three clumped to the floor.

One charging man wore a breast plate of thick “Arbadium” metal around him. Quite heavy to wear unless you are of the bodybuilding sort. Which the man was. As he rushed forth, the troopers fired repeatedly at his chest, regardless of the fact that the blasts kept deflecting. Imperial clones and drones were never considered to be genius caliber. The man rammed them off their feet and out of the waking world.

And the imperial protectors fell back, continuing their gutting and thinning of the thousands flooding forth. And the rebels remained maddeningly unfazed by the countering efforts of the faceless troopers, the organic robots of the empire.

Where fire power scales used to be tipped in the imperials favor on the first few levels of the structure, now the odds were even in arsenal strength.

Opposing fire was deafening, crisscrossed, netting into a brilliant and sickening battle of wills.

Anarchistic and deathly fun on the ninth floor of the central building…

 

CHAPTER 32

 

General Veers stood impatiently in one of the elevators that traveled thrustingly (yet smoothly) toward the bridge of his destroyer. Come on, come on, his mind screamed irrationally at the fast-moving compartment (though apparently not fast enough).

Upon dropping Vader and his “men” off into the docking bay of the super star destroyer, both Vader and Veers observed the foreign vessel docked there. And both knew immediately that the command ship had been infiltrated and that they would soon encounter the invading force. It needed not to be said but Vader ordered it anyway—return to your ship, general, my men and I will handle this. But be prepared in case more hostile forces arrive.

And Veers had a sneaking, gnawing suspicion that something more would happen. Why had that ship been allowed to dock? Perhaps it had been captured, but that didn’t hold with Vader’s intuition that something disturbing was occurring on that command ship. And it didn’t hold with Veer’s instincts either.

Open already, he thought to the elevator door with mounting anxiousness and anxiety.

The whirring sound of the elevator died down and the doors finally did open. Veers vaulted forth onto the command center and briskly approached the second in command, Captain Piett. Piett was a tall, slightly gaunt officer with eyes that seem to personify indifference, even when he was alert. Piett stood at attention as Veers faced him. “Captain,” Veers began tensely. “I need a check of all systems!”

“Yes sir,” Piett responded quickly.

“And put us on pre-emptive alert. If my suspicion is correct, our ships may have been tampered with.”

“Yes sir.” Piett turned to stare at a subordinate (a corporal) and curtly relayed the commands to him. After, he faced Veers once more. “General, what has happened?”

“Obviously, you observed the ship that went aboard the command destroyer.”

“Yes sir. We also monitored the communications between the two ships. Ozzel had allowed the ship to land after learning that rebel prisoners caught by a former imperial senator were aboard.”

With thickening tension in his tone, Veers asked, “And Ozzel just took the senator at his word?”

“Apparently so, sir, although a full scan of the freighter was issued by the command ship and came up with nothing out of the ordinary. And the senator was suggesting that these rebels knew the whereabouts of Leia Organa.”

Veers shook his head with haste. “That was bait—bait to sweeten the deal. Surely you must have suspected that.”

“Thought had occurred to me, sir. Why present them to us and not the emperor himself on the capitol planet. But…” Piett’s eyes flickered, batted twice with discomfort, slight embarrassment.

But…” Veers almost barked.

“…I loathe to reveal this to you, sir, but I fear I must now do so—Ozzel detests me, sir, I sense that he feels I am trying to overshadow him, to take his position of command.”

Nodding, Veers completed the captain’s thought. “And thus would never listen to your suggestions.”

“I’m afraid so, sir. My apologies for this embarr—”

“Not to worry, captain,” Veers said as his eyes stared off in disgust. “You can’t be blamed for the glaring fact that Ozzel is an arrogant fool.”

“Captain,” the corporal entreated to Piett who whirled to face him. “A full systems diagnostic has been completed. All systems are normal, sir.”

Piett turned back to eye Veers, who still looked unsatisfied. “What are you thinking, general?”

“I’m thinking that whatever’s going on over there…has been in the planning for a long time…”

“But how does that affect our ship, sir? You appear dissat—”

“I am. Corporal, release a practice drone. Let it get a certain distance, then destroy it.”

The corporal worked the necessary panels and an oval-shaped drone was released. It could be seen shooting away from the top section of the ship’s hull. It got a certain distance before the corporal hit a button and a sizeable laser bolt smashed the drone to bits.

Piett commented to Veers, “If not weapons tampering, then…tractor beam, sir!”

Veers nodded. “Test it.”

Piett ordered, “Corporal, release another drone. Let it get a hundred kilometers…then tractor beam it.”

The corporal did as he was instructed, and another drone traveled out from the industrialized surface of the ship. It became smaller as it made the flight away from the great spearhead shape of the destroyer’s front.

A hundred kilometers distance was gapped between the drone and its point of origin. The corporal raised a lever activating the tractor beam. All three officers’ gazes were upon the distant dot of the drone…

…Which did not become snared by the beam, but simply journeyed on to become indistinguishable with the deluge of stars.

The corporal’s eyebrows drew in. “That shouldn’t have happened—the beam is working properly…”

“Check the beams parameter settings,” Piett quickly ordered.

The corporal worked his console and his monitor switched from diagnostic results to tractor beam settings.

They read to the officers as measuring far below normal parameters.

Piett spat, “Recalibrate to normal levels! Alert the other ships to do the same! And hurry, before that ship gets a chance to lift off!”

“Yes sir,” the corporal speedily replied, adjusting the controls in front of him.

Veers inquired of Piett, “Who last ordered fleet-wide diagnostics for the beams?”

“I believe it was General Rieekan. He sent droids to the ships to save on man power.”

“Droids that can be easily reprogrammed to sabotage…”

“…But this whole thing isn’t about sabotage…this is about defection…” Piett’s face tightened. “…Rieekan is going to defect!”

Veers nodded, and with dawning realization hitting his eyes, he offered, “And I know why…”

 

CHAPTER 33

 

Chewie roared viciously in anger and feelings of violation.

“Save it,” Boba snapped. He fast rose himself out of the hidden compartment; the mini-rifle never left its aim on Chewie’s forehead. “Now…” The hunter stood upright. “…get back in there and power down the ship. Hands locked behind your head.”

Chewie did what he was told and Boba cautiously followed after, ready to shoot the wookie down if he made one wrong step. They entered the cockpit—or more precisely, Chewie entered and the hunter stood in the doorway. The trapped beast flipped switches, hit levers and buttons, and the hum of the engines began to die down.

“Good,” Boba said. “Now—”

But the clever wookie nicked a certain switch and—fshhhhhhhhhh!—from behind the main hold, the deafening sound of harsh steam venting blasted throughout the Falcon’s interior. Reflexively, the hunter yanked his head around for a split second.

But this was all the time the powerful wookie needed.

The towering animal, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed, rushed the hunter to shove him backwards. A wild shot went off and smashed the curved connector’s top section. The hunter was pressed back awkwardly yet rapidly to the nearest walling of the main hold. The impact knocked the wind out of the helmeted figure but he kept his wits.

And his rifle.

Though Chewie had both of Boba’s wrists clamped with his powerful hands, this did not prevent Boba from trying to re-aim his weapon. Chewie roared a deep, thunderous sound meant to distract and intimidate. The hunter ground out a long, strained growl as he struggled with all of his might to bring the rifle’s muzzle closer and closer to Chewie’s face.

As the rifle neared the kill zone of the wookie’s head, Boba fired off blasts to try some intimidation (and some painful deafening hopefully) of his own.

Realizing that his opponent might actually get proper aim, Chewie released his grip on the one hand and brought his furry fist across to slam the rifle out of Boba’s grasp. It flew feet away and clanged repeatedly to the floor.

Boba immediately reacted, shoving his free hand into Chewie’s elbow and fast bringing up his legs to a position where his boot souls pressed hard against the wookie’s abdomen. With another teeth-clamped growl, and an all-stops-out exertion of physical strength, Boba pushed his legs into Chewie’s torso. For a second, the giant held fast resisting the force put against him, but then it became too great in an instant, off-guard manner and was thrown back and off balance.

And Boba was back on his feet so quickly it further stumped Chewie’s mental flow. He had instinctively expected the hunter to land on his rear giving Chewie an opportunity to take the upper hand again.

But no, the hunter stood and swiped his hand to his wrist weapon encasing his lower arm. He fast pressed a button on the armor and flames sprayed generously from the wrist-end nozzle. They laterally showered forth at Chewie, who had regained all of his mental sharpness and side-leapt out of the burn zone.

Boba mirrored Chewie’s action, letting up on the button and ending the spray. Chewie’s leap was merely a means of escaping indescribable agony.

Boba’s was to reacquire his rifle.

Chewie hit the flooring and tumbled awkwardly to crouch and face the hunter once more. Boba landed and did the same—with his rifle once again in his hands and trained on Chewie.

“Discussion time is over,” Boba announced through bated breaths. He took one hand off of his rifle and reached into a utility pocket to pull out a pair of iron-wrought handcuffs. “With your hands behind you, lock these cuffs into place.” He threw the cuffs at Chewie and they bounced off his furry chest to clank to the floor. Boba expected the wookie to protest, but the animal picked up the cuffs and did as instructed. Boba heard the necessary clicks but wasn’t taking any chances. “Now show ‘em to me.” The compliant beast towered to his feet once more and turned around to show that indeed the cuffs were securely locked around the hairy wrists. Another turn was made and they faced each other once more. Boba rose holstering his semi-rifle. “Good. Now…where is Solo and when are you meeting him?”

Chewie roared a deep, rattling protest in defiance.

Boba hit his arm panel again and it sprayed another torrent of fire at Chewie—though not far enough to make actual contact and burn. The hunter let this continue for an interminable few seconds (where the beast howled throughout) and then fully retracted the fire stream. “This button here that I’m pressing hasn’t been pressed in all the way. If I do, the stream is lengthened considerably…” He pressed it again, a bit harder, and the torrent did, in fact, extend further, the flames wanting to ensnare and consume. But the hunter leashed the hungry flames just short of biting the wookie. The terrified animal raged guttural yells again and again.

Boba lifted his finger off the button and the hellish shower ceased. “Now, care to revise your answer? And think carefully, do you really think Solo would protect you if the situation were switched?”

Chewie rattled a response.

“Doesn’t matter, huh?” Boba shook his head as he continued. “You wookies and your life debt loyalties…well, I hope it brings you some small comfort as you suffer beyond your wildest imagining.” He moved slowly in angling so that he faced the pinned wookie head on. He let his index finger rest on the fire button again. Chewie couldn’t stop himself from moaning fearfully in maddening, nerve-charged anticipation. The hunter pointed the wrist nozzle directly at Chewie’s face. “One last opportunity here, Chewbacca…” Silence from the giant except his hard breaths, his eyes defiant yet wide in cancerous fear… “Give him up…”

In a flash of neuronal imagery, Chewie recalled a dying, hair-matted wretch being fed a thick, almost tasteless, soupy substance by a chalky-skinned gaunt of a boy…

And with every particle of courage and heart-pumping might, Chewie’s heavy, labored breaths ramped up into a monstrous, thunderous roar.

Again, the calm yet slightly befuddled bounty hunter slowly, serenely shook his head.

And pressed the proper button in as far as it could go—the ravenous fire flooded forth at full stream.

CHAPTER 34

 

When Luke was thirteen years old, he borrowed his uncle’s XP-12 landspeeder (without said uncle’s permission) and raced away for the dunes. Beyond the dunes were the deep canyons of the Jundland Wastes, the spiraling ridges of Beggar’s Canyon, and the jagged juttings of Spearhead Ravine.

Chief spots for reckless and arrogant racers looking to prove their superiority.

Luke’s fifteen-year-old friend Biggs and sixteen-year-old acquaintances Fixer and Tank met Luke just short of Beggar’s and asked the fair-haired, blue and wide-eyed boy if he was sure he wanted to race. Because the pathways were winding and knived with sharp outcroppings, and if you crashed here you might not walk away.

But Luke, with more adrenaline juice than good sense running through his brain, asked his own question: what are we waiting for?!

Biggs told the junior racer he would look out for him and tell him when to slow, but the boy, who was still twelve not two months before, balked and challenged, just try and keep up!

For two-thirds of the snaking and zipping speeder race, Luke had impressed his older and more experienced driving mates with near perfect maneuvers.

And Biggs felt that possibly this kid was gifted with some kind of incredible foresight that would see him through the entire run without a single scratch.

He was wrong.

The resulting crash inflicted upon the more-than-lucky-to-be-alive Luke two cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder.

And the bone-crushing wrath of his Uncle Owen: You’re grounded for six months! No friends, no speeder, and you’re to come home straight after school! No Toshi Station, Anchorhead, none of it!

Luke accepted his punishment and tempered it with the generous nursing his Aunt Beru gave his wounds whenever needed.

The ribs were painful and it made every breath a monumental chore.

But the shoulder was the worst. The young Skywalker thought he would die with the needle-digging agony the shoulder afforded him. He truly felt that there could be no greater torment. Owen’s punishments a cakewalk compared to the torture of the damaged shoulder’s tendons trying to mend. Not a more intense experience could he conceive of.

After just being grazed by a white hot, scarlet, uniformed blast, however, nineteen-year-old Luke Skywalker now found himself instantly reevaluating his definition of ultimate misery.

A split-second after Luke was flash-burned, he howled loud enough to be heard over the high-pitch shrills of the myriad blasts trying to find targets. The maddening injury tore the boy’s weapon away from the constant and pointless firing upon the approaching sith lord.

Yet with the ultimate, searing pain charging Luke’s deepest connection to the soul-leeching powers, it became instinctual that his new aims would meet their targets without fail or hesitation. Three stormtroopers were immediately punctured fatally by Luke’s stray blasts.

More were thrown backwards, their rifles swinging up flailingly as they flew. But this was not Luke’s doing.

This was Vader.

No longer did he want the boy dead. Possibly, he never did. Strange…

The rebel named Hobbie fisted a handful of Luke’s uniform and violently yanked him into the ship. An instant later, the ramp curved upward to seal and lock.

Vader halted and turned to gaze at the hull of Bail’s cruiser. I should think not, boy, Vader mused to himself. That ship is not leaving this hangar with you on it. Not with any of you for that matter.

The ship lifted off, its repulsors working properly, the engines wined and thundered to life. The generous amount of thrust boosters complimenting the aft of the ship lighted up with ignited fissures, enough to push the ship forward.

It remained stationary, the spirit-searing power coursing through Vader’s outreaching arms proving to be a greater force than the ship’s engines.

What is your name, boy? Give me that and I may decide to let you go. What does it really matter to me anyway? The alliance hasn’t long. Just give me your name…

But the only response Vader received from the psychic-spiritual link with the boy was constant crashing waves of screaming misery. Vader knew it well for he once experienced a heightened and encompassing form of it almost twenty years ago.

For months after Vader’s injuries, the burns suffocated his sanity with needling enclosement. And in that time, the sith learned to rearrange his neurons and nerves patterns to cool the millions of profusely pricking sensations. He now sent that retraining method into Luke’s mind and within seconds the abject mental screaming subsided.

That’s it, calmness and the soothing relief to return reason to your mindscape. It can continue if you just tell me your name. Again, you may go free if you do…

My name?! My Name?!!! My name is Death to you, you filthy murderrrr!

Vader ended the mind link and instead reached out to every other body inside the viced ship. And constricted their windpipes.

 

Craving air desperately, Rieekan staggered over to a tactical monitor. He hated to leave Bail lying on the floor of the main hold, stabbed and suffocating. The other rebels couldn’t catch air either, he noticed out of his graying peripherals. And the tactical screen was blurring before him, challenging his ability to distinguish body-representational blips.

But he still knew which one was Vader’s. And the wretched soul happened to be in the right position too. If he could just stay conscious long enough to put his plan into action…

With the last of his slipping strength, he rested his fingers over a release lever and pressed it. A series of strange hieroglyphs appeared on the screen, which in basic-speak would have read:

All escape pods to eject.

 

Vader stood with his arms still spread out, holding the massive cruiser before him in place thanks to his near mastery of the Dark Side of the Force. And he also still had enough focus left to maintain a strangling on every rebel’s throat within the ship.

But Vader, as powerful as he was, was not the master, as he had boasted to the perished Obi-Wan; he was still the apprentice. And his vastness of abilities had not yet reached that of his true master, the emperor. Currently, the learner had brought to bare the full extent of his power.

Therefore, when the escape pods shot downward diagonally from the caged ship, and one rocketed down just in front of Vader, he was caught completely off guard. The pod smashed hard to the floor just feet in front of him and rebounded back into the air with enormous force. He was caught in the path of its second flight and it crashed him backward and off his feet. Upon impact with the pod, his consciousness met total black and he did not even feel the second impact of landing on his back to the harsh bay flooring.

Vader’s hold on the ship vanquished, it boosted forth and soared away from the confines of the super star destroyer’s hangar bay.

 

CHAPTER 35

 

This was the door to the room, Wedge pinpointed visually and after mentally retracing his rooftop surmise of the proper position. He stood outside the closed door, panting and forcefully attempting to swallow. The twenty-flights journey had knocked a severe wind out of him. But he knew he had to regain a certain level of respiratory composure before he attempted a forced entry (provided the door was locked—and he had every right to think it would be; the sentry would not want stray interruptions!)

Perhaps it would have been better to risk the elevators, Wedge realized to himself as he futilely tried to equalize his breathing. Twenty damned flights!

He allowed himself another minute to acclimate his lungs, but no more. He had to get into that room and take down that sentry; if his suspicions were correct, it had to be done.

His breathing and heartbeat still heightened, Wedge aimed his pistol at the door’s control panel…when a thought sidetracked him…what if it is open? It shouldn’t be, but what if it is?…

He raised up his gun’s aim and placed a finger to the panel’s main button, pushed it in.

The door opened—swissssssshhhh…

 

CRASH! A statue outside the emperor’s personal office had fallen to the floor to crack into odd shapes, jagged and awkward. The result of a personal guard being thrown into it by the frenzied rebel army. Many of them were screeching out loud the words of their final intent, “Death to the tyrant, Palpatine!!!” Now there were only twenty imperial protectors between the emperor and the vicious mob. These twenty, however, had not been retreating, falling back floor by floor until they had receded into their present positions. Instead, they had been waiting all this time where they stood. All twenty threw aside their ceremonial staffs and reached into their red, draping capes to produce sleek, cylindrical weapons of a much more compact nature.

The threatening sea of rebels suddenly halted as they took full realization of the guards’ new tools of death and misery.

Lightsabers.

The twenty ignited their swords in unison, all blades illuminated a demon-red that complimented the full crimson regalia of these specially trained protectors. Every guards domed helmet visor reflected the swords, simulating a red framed white—like and unholy eye.

“Fire! Keep firing! Take them down!” yelled a rebel in the forefront of the paralyzed crowd.

And the rebels howled forth once more—both with their voices and their weapons.

But the guards effortlessly blocked all the blasts coming their way. The laser lances exploded back to hit the ceiling, walls, floor, and the rushing rebels. Some poor souls had expired before they even knew what happened.

Nevertheless, the rebels kept on, charging—though slower now—and firing, hoping for a weak spot in the guards’ defenses. Knowing that they had come far too far to simply give up and give in now.

 

The doors had swiped slowly open to reveal the heart-skipping, seizing reality of a shadow-clogged room.

This doesn’t feel right, Wedge sickeningly warned his mind. I must have gave myself away when I came rushing down the street to make it here. Of course I did…but what choice did I have?

Just enter, damn it!—his mind barked. Get it over with! And if he gets the drop on you, then you deserve it for abandoning your post and running down the street like a fool. Besides, he can’t fire on you anyway—it will alert everyone at Judaris and spoil what I’m sure this wretch and his friends have in mind.

Enter.

So he did, his pistol holstered. He could no more fire on his opponent than they on him. That would also ruin the alliance’s plan to put Palpatine in ultimate harm’s way.

But this sentry knows the lay of this room infinitely better than I do, Wedge chilled himself with. All I know is the floor under my feet right here and now.

The door slid shut.

And darkness, complete and unforgiving, owned the room.

 

More guns—pistols and assault rifles were passed forth in the angry, writhing river of rebel stormers. Passed on up to the front ranks to increase the sideways hailstorm of laser fire on the saber guards.

Thus far, the faceless imperials had held their ground with marked efficiency and graceful calm. Not one laser blast or thrown object had penetrated their sword defenses.

But now the firing frequency was going to increase roughly three-fold. Even if it meant that the tail-end strength of the rebel numbers would weaken (for imperial reinforcements would undoubtedly be coming up to meet that side), it would be worth it to have the greater blaster deluge on this end. If it meant finally breaking through this last line of protection for the emperor.

A shot zipped through a guard’s saber swipe. A fatal shot.

So it was possible to tear down these unholy red-draped devils. The knowledge of this bolstered the resolve of the forward-obsessed crowd.

More guns were ordered forth.

 

The sentry was going to strike at any instant, Wedge judged upon hearing the door shut behind him and blackness blindfolded him. So his jerking instinct, which he followed without hesitation, was to alert the others—Ashes One through Five and Mothma—what he had discovered. Quickly, he blurted, “Mothma, the senators are in—!”

And then pounding, furious footfalls shot forth towards Wedge’s location in the dark.

The specially trained rebel immediately snapped into a defending stance, giving into the deep focus of feeling changes in the air. The wind of it signaled a powerful arm swing aimed at Wedge’s head. He blocked it with his own arm, then let the second wisp of wind signal a second swing targeting his gut. He fast denied that with his other arm, then felt the air spiral. His assailant was doing a body spin to bring a head kick to bare. Wedge raised up both arms, hands in fists, and protected his face from the booted blow. The sentry somersaulted back and regained his footing on the floor. Nightvision, Wedge managed to surmise. He must have nightvision goggles. All I can do is defend, not so much on attack. But my friend here has it all. This was instantly proven as the sentry launched into another precision assault. Another kick meant for Wedge’s stomach, but the lithe rebel clamped the booted foot in time to stop a crippling contact. He had meant to twist the foot and break it, but never got the opportunity; the other foot swiped around and—too late to avoid—crashed hard into the side of Wedge’s head. A shrilling ring sounded in his ear and a disorienting pain bounced around his skull. In the pitch dark he witnessed the explosions of white excite his vision.

And the sentry recovered once again to deliver another kick to Wedge—this one in the chest, most likely to discourage any speech whatsoever. Ironically, it did produce an immediate vocal sound of “umph!” from the ailing rebel. But no more, as the blow did its job well—Wedge was loathe to try any words.

To attempt to seal the deal, the sentry shoved a fist lightening quick at Wedge’s throat. It hit, belching a vomit of air out of his forced open mouth. He faltered forth and pounded to his knees, clutching his wounded neck.

Indeed, the sentry did have nightvision for he could see clearly that his opponent was wide-eyed and gagging for precious breath. He stood above his prey, wondering, waiting. Would the misguided rebel moron still try to speak, to warn the others of his pathetic kind…?

Wedge coughed, wheezed, scraped in and out (but just barely) much needed regulations of air. His head wasn’t right, losing consciousness, not just white now but red, blue, and purple eruptions in his eyes…

…and yet he croaked a truncated completion of his warning to Mothma, “…in danger—”

The sentry kicked him yet again in the head—face contact this time—and delivered the young rebel into an abyssal absence of knowing.

 

Mothma felt as if she had been struck in the head. Upon hearing the initial stunted report from Wedge through her earpiece, her face tightened reflexively, her eyes zigzagged. Idra noticed none of mothma’s restrained panic; she kept checking the position of the sun in the sky. But Morga caught the change in Mothma’s calm; he leaned in to ask with concerned eyes, “Are you feeling all right, senator?”

Snapping her face back to jovial bliss, she blurted, “Oh yes, fine. I just remembered that I need to sign some important papers right after this meeting concludes. Rather time sensitive materials actually.”

As she spoke her convincing lie to Morga, she could hear through the piece a struggle ensuing—Wedge in trouble, but why?! And what did the harried warning mean—“Mothma! The senators are in—!” In…? In what? Danger? How much danger?

“Ah,” Morga replied, sitting up straight again. “Always an endless pile of beuracratic paperwork to sign, yes indeed.” He stared at her with a cordial smile befitting the politicratic animal he was.

She played her own smile to oblige and set the fellow senator at ease. Control yourself, for the love of all good in the Force! she barked at her own mind. But now she could hear Wedge choking, gasping for pockets of air. Was he being strangled?!

Then she heard a rasping, scraping voice say, “in danger” and then a thudding sound.

She couldn’t stop her eyes from blinking.

Not, of course, until a floating, oval-orbish droid soared into view to make its way over the seated senators and on to the centered stage. It ceased its directional path and hovered a three-foot length in front of the inanimate imperial guards.

Mothma, like essentially every other senator present at the theatre, brought her eyes into a knitting confusion—and a hint of alarm. Mumblings reverberated throughout the circle of people. Security details placed their fingers to their earpieces and spoke indeterminate words.

On the floating droid, a projection lens flashed to life.

 

Three swordsman left. A monstrous spray of blaster fire met the remaining protectors’ blurred and supremely desperate saber swings. It was a foregone conclusion now that the loyal guards of the empire, of the emperor, would have precious few seconds to live. But none of the three would even entertain the slightest thought of throwing off their lit sabers and yielding a merciful surrender. They were the converted through and through, sworn to lay down their lives for the glory of the emperor’s grand rule. Power mongers must have their slaves, and the slaves must serve, loyally and completely.

One more cut down. Another an instant later. The last chose to go out lunging forth, attempting to cut the head off a rebel with his light-arcing sword. But the guard never got close enough to complete the act; a hundred illuminated blaster lances slammed him backward and into the closed doors behind. The saber closed down and clanked to the floor beside its crumple and expired owner.

“Get that door open!!!” screamed the rebel who would have lost his head, had his friends not interceded.

A few shots blew the door control panel, and a great pouring forth of strong-backed men and women went about trying to pry the doors open with their tools and bare hands.

 

Control yourself! Control yourself!

But Mothma simply couldn’t contain the ticking, tensing, spasming muscles in her face. The whole thing was blowing up, something was left to chance, and the plan to eradicate a wretched and puritanical force was shattering into a million jittering pieces.

The hologram that spat forth from the hovering droid’s projector eye was the vile man himself. Palpatine, the scarred, deformed, and hooded emperor of the oppressed masses. The ultimate vessel of the Dark Side of the Force.

His bluish, almost translucent visage spoke: “Greetings, representatives of the various systems of the empire. I regret that I cannot join you in person for this historic meeting which will undoubtedly decide many things.

“It seems that there is a terrible threat occurring as we speak. A threat that has formed to undermine the crucial stability of our galactic society. A siege is now storming the central building and has even ascended all the way to my personal office.”

Mothma looked horrified, almost on the verge of hysteria.

The hologram spoke on. “For obvious reasons—the safety of myself and everyone now present—it has become necessary for me to use this transmission to communicate—and hopefully negotiate successfully—with all of you here. But, of course, if the majority of you feel that this is not an acceptable means of conducting our meeting, then I am open to a rescheduling of this event…” and the hologram glanced all about, searching out any possible protesting. The clearly flustered senators startling said nothing. Clearly, they were still absorbing the new situation—and what it might mean for their systems, their precious sectors. “No?” the emperor offered tentatively. “Then, I believe we should call this meeting to order.”

The droid belted, “The meeting is now in session!”

And the emperor’s ghostly-blue head turned to Mothma to stare directly into her frightened, shattered eyes. And said, “Now…where shall we begin?”

That’s when a circular rain of angry laser fire funneled inward to stab and blacken the backs of several senators. As if the place became a sad inversion of a theatre play, the guards on stage watched and observed as the audience members performed a chaotic choreography of jolting, shaking, covering, running (mostly into each other), and dying. The security details attempted to protect and remove their employers from the scene with rapid haste. But they, too, were targeted and brought mortally to the ground.

Mothma, now on her feet but crouched down, yanked her head all around to witness the encompassing horror of dignitaries—men and women alike—come to abrupt and vicious ends. An odd and sickening thought pushed its way into the forefront of her consciousness. Ragdolls. They’re like ragdolls being kicked around for the baser amusement of a grossly spoiled child.

But wasn’t that essentially what was really happening here? Certainly by now, most of the various senators from various incredible worlds were now as dead as simple ragdolls. Yet Mothma, though her detail of three men and two women met similar fates, was left alive and completely unscathed. Left untouched and conscious to continue watching more of the senators futilely attempt escape, only to be thrashed through by multiple blasts. A few even tried to shield themselves shamelessly by hiding under limp corpses, their former comrades in the political game of government. But for every angle they had shielded, a spearing laser bolt would hit them from an exposed one.

There was no escape, no hope for survival, no negotiation for a peaceful compromise, no under the table attempt at bribery in exchange for mercy. Nothing left to chance.

And through it all, the guards on stage remained motionless, calm, as if they fully expected that all of this would transpire. Like scientists watching insects follow an instinctual pattern of activity.

The last of the senators fell lamely to the isle walkway of the seating. His eyes became blank with death.

Mothma’s continued to be wide with shock and revulsion. And a questioning paralysis—why?! Why this?! Why?! DAMN IT, WHY!!!

And then her eyes shot back to the holographic phantom of the emperor. And she found that he was staring unblinkingly, blazingly back at her. It was then she had a seizing suspicion that all throughout this treacherous and pointless slaughter, he had never taken his possessed eyes off of her. His lips pursed in a smug, toying manner. All there was for her was to meet his needling gaze and think, he knows. He knows and perhaps he always did, and I’ve been the stupidest, most deluded fool to ever go up against him. But how much does he know? Grip yourself, woman, you’ve given away much for certain. Don’t continue your idiocy, steel yourself now and divulge nothing more!

“Seize her. And bring her to me,” the emperor ordered. And his guards sprung to animate life and descended upon Mothma, the sole surviving, shivering senator of the old republic.

The doors were reinforced in hydraulic power control, making forced entry much more problematic than the first floor entrance. But the shear number of bodies applying both pushing and pulling action on the split-style doors proved a greater force. A total of twenty-eight minutes had passed when the rebels had first set to prying open the doors. But now they had enough of the separation to fit a sizeable person through. One by one, the numbers of men and women sped into the room frantically seeking out their diseased and corrupt target.

But the spacious personal office of the emperor was empty. No Palpatine. No target. Nothing to kill by any means possible.

“Where is he?!” a woman screamed with mounting panic and frustration.

“It can’t be! The lookouts confirmed he was in here! He had no where to go!” hollered another devastated, rage-infested soul.

They searched everywhere, every inch of the room. Nothing. No hiding space to turn up a frightened yet defiant tyrant for the crowd to tear apart.

The whole siege. For nothing. Hundreds, thousands of lives sacrificed. For an empty room.

With a noiseless timer expiring in one second.

 

The rebel lookouts were flustered beyond repair. Earlier in the evening, their positions in the adjacent buildings of the central tower building allowed them visual proof that Palpatine was unequivocally in his office at the top floor.

But only minutes ago, the emperor had stepped into a section of the office that could not be seen by the outside. And had since not reemerged from that section.

Then, only a minute ago, they witnessed the flood of rebels pour into the office to search in vain for their mark. But why couldn’t they find him?! Was there a clever hiding spot in the blocked section?

But now the lookouts’ tension-filled guessing became considerably moot as the central building exploded in three sections—top level, mid-sector, and bottom level.

Effectively killing every rebel, Alderaanian or otherwise, inside the now blasted and gutted rise.

CHAPTER 36

 

Veers, Piett, and the corporal all stared intensely, unblinkingly at the command ship’s docking bay entrance. It could be seen quite clearly and fairly up close through the bridge’s viewport—now that they had moved their destroyer closer in…

…And what they were anxiously looking for finally came into view—Bail’s ship as it was boosting forth from the obstructing docking bay.

“Now, corporal!” Piett said with force as he swung to face the seated subordinate officer.

The corporal jerked the beam lever and the monitor before him heiroglyphed:

 

Beam activated—target enveloped

 

The fleeing freighter halted, whiplashed once before it was held in place. The multi-boostered ship increased the glow of its fiery aft fissures, but it did no good to free them of their invisible net. The destroyer’s beam was far too strong.

“Beam is locked, Sir,” the corporal announced to his superiors. “Shall I bring them in, captain?”

“Yes, proceed,” Piett responded as he eyed the stationary freighter with lustful, ambitious aspirations charging his mind. Perhaps Ozzel is right to be weary and disdainful of me, Piett realized to himself. Perhaps his position will be mine by the day’s end.

Or it could be Veers’, he sobered his rising hopes for imperial notoriety. As the enemy ship drew closer and closer to their destroyer, Piett still allowed himself some euphoria of aspiration: if Veers does assume Ozzel’s command, then, if all was played right, I would at least take over this destroyer—full command at last…

CRACK!—a rebel cruiser dropped out of the impossible velocity of hyperspace and loomed north of Veers’ destroyer. The bulk of the cruiser could be seen from the triangular viewports of the destroyer’s bridge. The cruiser almost immediately shot forth two proton torpedoes from its burn-blackened weapon silos.

And then the cruiser snapped loudly back into lightspeed.

The torpedoes, two energy-bright cones of destruction, met their destined target—the tractor beam emitter of the destroyer’s tech-crusted hull. The resulting explosion disabled the beam entirely, allowing Bail’s ship to navigate freely. Yet, just as it moved forth, another invisible net ensnared the hapless freighter—this time from the super star destroyer.

But again, an alliance cruiser appeared rapidly and, a split second later, volleyed two torpedoes at the command ship. Then disappeared.

Several destroyers, the command included, lanced multiple rounds of thick laser fire at the torpedoes in an attempt to ignite them before they could reach their destination.

The torpedoes were too fast and the detonations incinerated the beam emitter. Again, Bail’s ship was free.

For a millisecond.

Another destroyer journeyed its beam to engulf the freighter.

And smash!—another rebel ship took out the beam, vanished. A few destroyers attempted to blast the interfering cruiser; one shot superficially connected and that was all.

This shoot and run scenario happened again and again, prompting Piett to strongly suggest to Veers, “If this is going to keep happening, sir, shouldn’t we just destroy that ship—?

“We cannot,” Veers cut him off with eyes of controlled anxiety. “There is possibly a certain person on board that ship that Vader wants alive. Why, he did not say.”

“That person may already be dead—”

“Can we afford to take that chance? With Vader’s wrath as a possible consequence? You’ve seen the things he can do to a man.”

“But if it’s Vader’s wishes, then we have to alert the others not to fire. They may come to the same conclusion I did.”

“Do it.”

Piett faced the corporal once more and ordered curtly, “Alert all commands not to fire on that ship for any reason!”

“Yes sir,” the corporal responded with haste and relayed the command to the fleet.

Piett swung back to Veers. “Sir, can’t we just fire to disarm the ship?”

“No. even crippling the ship may kill that very person of interest.”

“But we can’t simply let that ship go!” Piett uttered in desperation, his hopes and dreams of full-fledged command fading from his sights.

“We may have to in order to abide Vader’s commands.”

Piett switched his gaze from Veers to the enemy vessel. He took a slight step forward betraying his eagerness to want to somehow, someway keep the traitors from escaping. A small, highly irrational side of his mind wanted to simply reach out and grab the ship and draw it close, like a selfish child would a toy.

There were twenty-four destroyers in this particular fleet convoy (including the command ship). Twenty-four tractor beam emitters became damaged within minutes.

Bail’s ship slammed into hyperspace.

Veers thought to himself, whoever put this plan into action with its resulting back-up tactics—well done.

He had a sneaking yet strong suspicion that it was Rieekan, himself, who orchestrated the whole event, the genius that he was.

He was not wrong.

 

The ivory-armored troopers gathered around the unconscious sith lord and kneeled down to check his chest panel—was it damaged, were the levers in proper balance for his current state. One trooper felt the chest just off to the side of the thick panel and just under the breast armor. Still breathing.

“Lord Vader…my lord…”

Vader rose from the darkness of unknowing and cleared the foggish haze of his concussion. Reason and sensation flooded back to his mind and body (or what was left of his physical form). Though his brain rolled with crippling pain when he moved, he ventured lifting his torso to an upright position. He called upon the unending, oil-thickened ocean of the Dark Side to quell his head injury so that he could judge his surroundings effectively.

“My lord,” a trooper began his dutiful inquiry. “Are you all right, sir?”

“The enemy ship?” Vader countered with his own question.

“Jumped, sir.”

“Track its course.”

“Yes sir. There is something else, sir. Something you’ll want to see as soon as possible, sir.”

Vader turned his head to face the trooper with centered focus. “Where?”

 

His head wound suppressed sufficiently, Vader managed to accompany his men across the expanse of the hangar bay and through the opening to the connecting corridor. The first thing he noticed was the good number of variously splayed corpses primarily consisting of Okarians. They served their purpose and that’s the furthest Vader went in bothering his mind with the ill-fated reptiles.

What caught his most rapt attention was the speared corpse near the wall. Two troopers were standing over the gut-punctured mass and they turned their heads to view Vader as he approached. They respectfully separated while backing away to allow the curious sith full exposure of the downed rebel.

The wounded wreck’s eyes were open.

And now that his eyes rolled to focus on Vader, they went quite wide.

The towering, caped sith lord stood over the once-considered corpse and thought such fortune couldn’t possibly be his. “Your men left you to die, my unfortunate one.”

Speaking was clearly excruciating for the deeply stabbed rebel, but he offered his grunted voice in defiance. “I gladly…sacrifice myself…to get Rieekan…to the alliance…”

“One thing you will reveal, then I promise to end you quickly, painlessly…the name of the one who used the Force…”

“Nev—” The rebel winced. “Never…”

“Corporal.”

A trooper stepped forth to stand behind Vader. “Yes sir.”

“Bring me an interrogation droid,” Vader ordered.

“Yes sir.” The trooper ran off.

The pained and perspiring rebel swallowed, then winced again for the gulp was agonizing.

Vader dipped his helmeted head slightly forth and offered, “Not to worry, my young one. I will do everything in my power to keep you alive for quite some time…”

The rebel closed his eyes in oppressive defeat.

 

CHAPTER 37

 

Chewie jammed his eyes shut and thought in a split second, yes; Han would withstand the same for his savior and longtime friend. As self-centered as Han was to most, he was in the truest sense not that way to Chewie.

The beast, whose heart was about to erupt with crippling fear and terror, knew that Boba Fett, the most ruthless and calculating of all the bounty hunters in the known galaxy, was through with threats. Action was now going to be taken and the button was going to be pressed in as far as possible. He heard the sound of the wanting flames (in what always sounded to him like a static transmission turned way up full). He heard himself scream in utter revolt and defiance, his most deep and soul-emanating (for he knew it would be his last) roaring. The heat fast intensified in front of him and he instantly surmised that this is nothing compared to what I’ll endure in the next one/one thousandth of a second from now.

For Han! For the last twenty years! For honor! And my soul—!

But the white-hot eating of his fur and flesh did not come.

Even the initial heat wave vanished.

Death? So soon? From overload and shock? It doesn’t work that way, not that I’ve ever encountered…

The nerve-shattered wookie opened his eyes to witness nothing short of a personal miracle.

Fett was sprawled on the floor, apparently unconscious.

Chewie’s eyes narrowed at the sight of the catatonic hunter, but then they swept over to the gap in the ship leading down to the outside docking bay.

Leia was there, standing in attack stance and still more or less pointing her pistol at the unmoving form on the floor. She was panting heavily and had to swallow to keep her equilibrium in play. She tore her once locked gazed away from Fett’s heap of a body and stared at Chewie with widened eyes yet brows of relief. “You kept the channel open,” she managed through marathon breaths of much needed air.

Chewie roared once more, but this time it was a deep holler of joyous release.

The princess rose fully from her crouched position, jogged over to the grateful “walking carpet,” and moved to his backside. From there she released him of his cuffs. She threw the iron shackles to the floor then moved back around to face the tower of fur.

Chewie bent down and hugged her trying not to exert too much arm strength lest he crush her. Leia survived the embrace with a heartened smile forming her lips. “You all right?”

Chewie grunted a short rattle of affirmative—but then noticed something alarming and deeply disturbing.

The wookie had glanced over Leia’s shoulder and noticed that there was no burn-blackened entry wound into Boba’s back.

Which meant that the filthy bastard of a bounty hunter had been stunned not blasted.

Chewie vaulted past Leia and descended upon the rag doll of Fett’s catatonic form and clamped his fur-flailing arms around the hunter’s neck.

“No, Chewie! Wait!”

Now Chewie’s roar turned venomous again, questioning to the princess, why in the blazes not!!!

“He’s out! He’s not a threat anymore!”

This obviously didn’t hold sway with the vengeful, rage-infected beast as he proceeded to clamp harder on the hunter’s neck, another guttural roar rattling from his fanged mouth.

No, Chewie, no! We’re not cold-blooded murderers, Chewie! We’re not them! We’re better than the empire and these scum…”

Chewie still held firm a hold on the limp Boba’s neck. The animal’s eyes were intense, a deep and vibrating conflict raging within them…they zigged and zigged…could full control and reason be reached at this point? Chewie didn’t know if it was possible, there was such an overwhelming desire to break Boba’s neck it pulled and pushed at his every impulse.

It must be done! It must be done it must be done it must be done it must be done it must be done do it now twist his fragile little neck now now now NOW!!!…

The great animal released his arms from around the sagging, listless bounty hunter. But then with an inhuman eruption of vicious growling, the wookie clenched Boba by the shirt with both hands and yanked the man up. The hunter’s head lolled forth as far as his helmet would allow. Chewie blazed a monstrous stare at the Mandalorian-style face plate, then gritted another and long, alien growl.

And threw the flailing bounty hunter clear across the main hold to crash against the walling. Fett played the marionette and crumpled saggingly to the floor, as if someone had cut his strings.

Leia moved closer to stand next to Chewie, she shared the giant’s gaze at the downed hunter across the way. “Okay. He had that coming.”

Then she turned to stare up at Chewie, new concern plaguing her eyes. “But Chewie…you have to promise me you won’t tell Han about any of this.”

Chewie warbled questioningly, confusion in his tone.

“Because…” She shifted her eyes downward and then her head followed. “…I don’t want to give him any more excuses to leave…” Her eyes shifted side to side, clearly uncomfortable with this tremendously personal admission.

The wookie brought up a fur-ladened hand to gently lift Leia’s head up by her chin, so that their eyes met again. And nodded, grunting his agreeance. Her eyes still nervously zigging, she uttered, “Thanks.”

She pulled away casually, her expression switching to a more official calm. “Come on. Let’s get this filth handed over to the authorities and take off. If all went well, then our fleet is in orbit by now. And hopefully my father’s ship will rendezvous with us and the rest at the new meeting point.

Chewie followed her over to assist in escorting said filth off the Falcon. And as he did, a calm rested over his mind, the monumental rage no longer an issue. And the soothing state came flowing easily because he realized that he now had two saviors that he was bound to and should forever honor.

He would follow her wishes to keep the incident a secret—from all others if necessary. And he would do more than that.

Wherever they ended up next, for however long they stayed, Chewie would see to it that both Han and Leia remained in his life for as long as he had it.

If he had to sabotage the Falcon with elaborate damage not easily spotted, so be it. As long as it kept the three together.

He would wait until they reached their next base and secretly wreck the ship in various places that would guarantee long and arduous repairs. He would also feign ignorance or botch the restorations.

It would anger Han, he knew (and likely himself as well for blasphemously tinkering in a malicious nature to their beloved freighter). But better to have Han stewing than to have them go back to the old life.

And away from Leia.

 

CHAPTER 38

 

Wedge rose up sluggishly from the dense bog of unconsciousness to reformulate who he was, what had happened to him—and where he was.

The “where” appeared to be a cell, a holding cell to be more precise, containing only Wedge, a metal slab for a bed, and essentially nothing else.

Correction, there was one other presence in the compact room with the young rebel—his pulsing migraine which seemed to grow sequentially with his progressive return to full awareness. He clutched his temples while wrinkling his eyes shut. What made the experience worse was the fore-knowledge that at some point (probably sooner than later) he would be tortured immensely to extract what he knew of the rebellion. His precious alliance.

The door to the cell slid and slammed open revealing imperial troopers. They motioned for Wedge to exit. He drew in a bracing, deep breath, then let it blow out of him, fear tightening his eyes. He managed to stand and walk towards the armored men, then accompany them down corridors. Down doom’s spirit-crushing trail.

 

The last corridor before their destination was reached, and the door to the desired room was visible ahead on their right—then ten steps and they had it. The guards escorted Wedge on either end of him training their rifles at his heart level should he try the slightest wrong move. Step ten was completed and they entered a wide-reaching, tech-glorious command center.

Console displays decked the walls underscoring the brilliant tactical screens above them. The low-lit room featured, in the center section of the flooring, a massive main tactical ring that showered up holographic images of imperial fleet movements and positions.

To the side of that, the emperor stood buried as always in his shadowing blue hood and cloak. His face, however, showed through the dark draping—his corpse-like, emaciated visage paradoxically made vibrant by the yellow-furied eyes. Eyes that now flicked over to lock on Wedge as he entered. Eyes that burned the wounded rebel’s already fragile psyche.

The wretched ruler was not alone. Mothma was there, only feet away from her greatest enemy. She turned as Wedge caught full sight of her and said to him with blank eyes, “Hello, Wedge.”

 

“Ah!” the emperor wheezed with mock enthusiasm. “Wedge Antilles, my former personal guard. How have things seen you in the year since your departure from my stead?”

Despite Wedge’s crippling waves of fear encouraging the pain in his head (not to mention the seizing of his lungs and heart), he offered up a calm, “Swimmingly.”

“Well good,” the emperor said, continuing his false front of pleasantries. “You know, coincidentally enough, I quite recently lost a good number of my special guard in a terrible accident.”

“Did you.”

“Yes, an explosion—a very dreadful one at that—at the central building, only hours ago. I suspect faulty wiring but who knows with these sorts of things.”

“Maybe faulty minds.”

“Perhaps. In any case, if I were to accept you back into my circle as a trusted protector of the empire, we would, of course, have to come to terms with certain difficulties.”

“Being?”

“Well for one, you would have to once again hone your combat skills considerably; clearly, there has been a slip in you abilities, my dear boy…and secondly…” and the emperor moved closer to Mothma to stand only two feet from her. If this greatly disturbed her, she showed none of it. The hooded demon continued, “you would have to control your fear and bury it deep down. Another slip on your part, Antilles. For I sense graaand fear in you…yet this one…” he motioned a slight sideways nod towards Mothma, “…I needn’t have attempted to sense anything in her. I only needed to see her face at Judaris…and witness fear, panic, and the realization of an end to her faulty plan to reestablish the old republic.”

“You were right,” Mothma said flatly to Wedge. “The senators were in danger…he had them all assassinated.” She turned to face the flaring eyes of Palpatine and calmly asked, “Why?”

But it was Wedge who answered. “So that he could frame the Alderaanians. And rally the galaxy back into his favor. No more protests. No more growth of the rebellion.”

“How so?”

“They were killed using Alderaanian rifles. With blasts that use a particular laser composition signature…”

Blinking once slowly, Mothma nodded understanding. “…Which will be discovered by every imperial system when their dead senators are brought back for autopsy examination.”

“Precisely,” the emperor interjected with a twinkle to his fiery-bright eyes. “Of course, they may try to…argue that the alderaanian stragglers were not in their right minds when they killed the galaxy’s representatives—”

“But ego will win over,” Mothma added, eyes neutral.

Yes…yes and the resentments will grow in the various systems. And they will see that I was willing to foster a dialogue with the senators at Judaris. That I was on their side, and that my life was threatened along with theirs. Incidentally, I have to admit, that was quite an impressive siege on the central building. The numbers were more than I had anticipated, and they broke through all the way to my personal office at the top…fortunately, I had a secret lift installed which descended me down to where we are now—my emergency war room. Three stories below the ground level and essentially blast impregnable. I prefer to call it the bunker.”

Changing the subject slightly, Mothma said, “You lied to me, Palpatine. Didn’t you?”

“Regarding?”

“Alderaan’s destruction. You approved it.”

“I ordered it, my dear.”

“But whyyy?” Wedge strained with anger and shock. “Why kill billions just to force out the location of a few hundred?”

The emperor smiled in amusement. A small cackle creaked from his throat. “It had very little to do with finding your precious little hidden base, and everything to do with where we are today. I knew that a tragedy such as the obliteration of a peaceful world would force the face of people like you out in the open…where I could set in motion the next part of my plan.”

Wedge spat, “At least you’ll never be able to destroy another planet again. We blew your Death Star to damned dust!”

“And another one is being built as we speak. In fact, part of my grand scheme for the empire—for my empire—is to one day have a Death Star patrolling every system of our known space. It is only a matter of time before it becomes a galactic reality…Now, back to the immediate business…I have a particular offer for you, Wedge, my young one. Right now you’re supremely fearful that I’m going to send you and your co-hart here to be tortured without mercy for vital information on the alliance…” And the emperor ghostly moved forth to more closely address the youthful rebel. “…But none of that need happen. In fact, you may still have a very rich and fruitful life returning to imperial service as a protective guard.”

“Oh, you’d offer that, would you?” Wedge mocked. “And how’s that supposed to work? If you don’t mind me inquiring.”

“You’ll have to be conditioned, of course. Undergo a procedure that would eliminate any need in you to question my authority. But the rest of your faculties you’ll be allowed to keep—in fact, you’ll be afforded the ability to hone and increase your skills. Become one of the ultimate elite, not only in piloting, but in physical combat and weaponry skills. You already know that my personal guards receive special privileges. Now you will have more than you ever could have dreamed…” Then the emperor’s blazing eyes dipped in a gesture of malaise, forgetting themselves and their piercing nature. “…And all that need be done is reveal to me the true rank status of dear Mothma here within the alliance. And, of course, all that you may know on their planetary positions and military strength.”

“Hm…that’s all there is to it, then?” Wedge asked, attempting to make his earnest tone convincing.

But the emperor saw through it and barked, “What is your answer, boy?!”

“Can I, you know, have a few…weeks to think it ov—” Abruptly, Wedge began to choke, the sounds from his throat grated and rasped. His chest began to repetitively heave trying some pathetic version of respiration. He fell to his knees and wrapped his palms around his throat—looking as though he, himself, was the one doing the strangling.

But Mothma knew it was Palpatine. Knew that he was a sith lord, and that most in the galaxy didn’t want to accept that this was their true leader. A monster, a devil, an abomination of the Force’s power in the universe. A bankrupt soul who would kill countless beings to achieve his ends.

Who would easily use his slithery, diseased energies of the Dark Side to choke a man who stood in the way of his plans.

As she stood impotently by and watched Wedge wretchingly starve for air, the emperor deeply croaked, “Of course, you may have a few weeks to mull it over. In fact, I guarantee you will have that long and more to suffer greatly until you crack and tell me everything. Guards, take them away; transfer them to the interrogation center near Judaris. I want them as close to their failure as possible.”

The psychic vice on Wedge’s windpipe was mercifully released as the guards reached down to grip him by the arms. They pulled him up and forcibly turned him around to escort him out. Wedge’s mouth exploded with coughs while intermittently attempting to suck in stale (yet no less sweet) pockets of oxygen. He remained hunched forth as they goaded him on with pokes of their rifles.

As another guard ushered Mothma out, the emperor tempted her with, “A similar offer of misery avoidance is open to you as well, my dear.”

“I don’t negotiate with insects,” she dryly rebutted and left out into the corridor, the guard following close behind.

Just then, a seething aura saturated the emperor’s face and a roaring explosion of a thought filled his mind: if you are actually the leader, the most important voice in this blasted rebel alliance…then I promise you I will have you ripped apart limb by limb! And your damned head planted firmly on a spike to be paraded around Coruscant!!!

He allowed his thoughts to be overtaken by this intoxicating threat for a few minutes longer…but then he centered his wills, bringing calm back to his mind and focus.

Then he turned to the tactical screens and set about his labyrinthine plans once more.

 

CHAPTER 39

 

If you check your surveillance monitors, commissioner, you’ll notice that the bounty hunter entered our ship without permission, Leia had laid it on for the port authorities. We’d like you to charge and detain him for trespassing, if it pleases you kind gentlemen.

It did please the commissioner and his lackeys for a generous fee was donated to the men by the grateful “traders,” and Fett was thrown in the port lock-up for ten days.

The droids were collected (Artoo was eternally grateful to be leaving) and the four lifted off in the Falcon to make orbit. Once achieved, the freighter moved to align itself with the massive convoy of rebel cruisers.

At the controls of the Falcon, Leia and Chewie listened to a coded-channeled transmission from a rebel officer. “Your highness, we’ve received word. The mission was a success and Rieekan is aboard your father’s ship. They will be at the rendezvous point shortly after we arrive.”

Elation glittered the princess’ eyes and she thin-lipped her smile to hold back a flood of euphoric jubilation and relief. “Understood. Thank you…commence jump.”

Through the viewport before her, she could see that various rebel ships were shooting to Lightspeed with insane rapidity. She glanced at Chewie as he worked the cockpit controls with comfortable ease. The stars around them morphed from brilliant, glowing dots to racing white lines zipping past them. An instant later, the hurried lines morphed again to a full encompassing, opal-colored kaleidoscope. The psychedelic tunnel journeyed them with a false sense of lazily coasting through a different reality.

Subconsciously, it gave Leia a mirage of comfort and peace.

 

CHAPTER 40

 

Aboard the super star destroyer, Vader walked a corridor that would eventually lead to his meditation chamber. Normally it would be the one location in the ship that he could visit to clear his mind and allow wisdom to douse his troubles.

But this time was going to be something quite different. Instead of easing his mind and body, he would be increasing the tensions ten-fold once he walked into the expansive chamber.

This time he was going to answer to the emperor. And he knew he had defied his master’s explicit commands.

If Vader was lucky, he may survive the experience with only a severed hand (done by his own saber if ordered). If he was not lucky…

…well, Vader didn’t even want to explore those possibilities.

The door to the room drew closer and Vader could see it off to his right. His booted feet kept him moving toward it and within seconds he stood in front of the closed, wide entrance. The barriers split apart to allow him in.

Yet he remained standing just outside the room, drawing in a deep breath, holding it a second, then letting it out. His frayed nerves caused the exhalation to stutter a bit. Then he crossed the threshold to the chamber, walked past his sealed meditation pod, and halted to kneel on a circular pedestal. A ring within the pedestal lighted up while an alien warble of a noise sounded. Vader bowed his head low as an enormous, transmission-blue hologram formulated a few feet in front of him. The hologram crafted a dark-hooded, mutated, zombie-like face with demon-yellow, burning eyes.

Palpatine.

The emperor.

The master.

“What is thy bid—” Vader began dutifully yet couldn’t complete for all strength had somehow been ripped from his being. He crumpled forth slipping off the tiny pedestal and plopped to the cold metal floor. Breathing, which had always been somewhat of an asthmatic chore for Vader, now became near impossible. He laid there gasping in a fetal position, his cape draped over his body.

Evenly, almost matter-of-factly in tone, the emperor remarked in a croaking voice, “It seems our mutual link to the Dark Side knows no bounds. Though to be fair, if you were receiving the full brunt of what I’m sending you, you’d be dead by now.”

Vader’s long-winded breaths became broad wheezes.

The emperor nonchalantly inquired, “Having trouble with your suit? Well perhaps we can work on that…”

Bodily energy flooded back into Vader’s system and he drew in a gorging breath of air. He rose from the floor, lumbered to the pedestal, then kneeled once more. His head bowed low. “What…what is thy bidding, my master?”

The emperor angrily barked, “My bidding is for you to follow my commands without hesitation or delay. You were ordered to return to me on Coruscant. Explain yourself.”

Vader lifted his head (as far as his curved helmet edging would allow) to face his master. “The one who destroyed the Death Star feels the Force. I deemed it a crucial priority to discover his whereabouts and his identity.”

“And yet in the process, you defied me. Your presence was required here to aid in quelling sector uprisings. Your brash actions with destroying Alderaan have caused countless public disturbances and now an outcry for alliance support. You know that I am too busy to deal with these threats!”

“My apologies, my master. I only wish to lessen our losses.”

“And will you reduce our loss of General Rieekan with the potentially incompetent?”

“Ozzel will be punished for his carelessness and made known that if he fails again, there will be no third disgrace.”

“See that there isn’t. Now…this boy that has caused so much grief…did you catch him or at least learn his identity?”

“He eluded us my master…but I have learned his name…”

“Continue…”

“Skywalker…Luke Skywalker, my master.”

This gave the emperor pause and his hairless brows lifted. His possessed eyes darted as he contemplated the news. “…Curious…from a relative you knew not of, perhaps…”

“It is possible, my master…but something is odd about his presence…I cannot make sense of it as of yet…”

The emperor’s eyes rested calmly on his impetuous learner once more. “Meditation and patience, my apprentice. You will find clarity in eventuality.”

“Yes, my master.”

“Return at once. And when you are finished here, you may rejoin the fleet in your search for thisss Skywalker.”

Vader bowed his head back down. “It will be done, my master.”

 

CHAPTER 41

 

Luke slept on a semi-inclined bed bolted to the floor of the medical bay in Bail’s cruiser. Were he awake, he would be able to see that the room was white colored (no surprise since most of the ship shared this same sanitary look) and featured vital signs monitors built into the walls. Medical equipment and droids (some active, some sitting dormant) populated the room along with two rows of beds. Next to the one Luke slumbered, Dak lay staring up at the lighted ceiling and wondering just how long he would be out of action. He was bandaged and gauzed across his shoulder and chest while Luke was the same over his burned face. Dak was given a “Stimulos” sedation briefly knocking him out at the time they removed the spear. After he regained consciousness, he felt no pain—the Stimulos proved a sustaining nerve dampener.

Luke, however, needed a stronger dose for the pain he experienced was quite intense. The dosage served to keep him under even after three hours.

Fifteen minutes ago, the cruisers out of Ord Mantell along with the Falcon had arrived to the rendezvous point (where Bail’s ship was now).

Two minutes ago, Leia was informed that her father was seriously injured in the extraction. She was now madly sprinting the corridors leading to the medical bay. In thirty seconds she would come bursting into the room.

Dak turned his head from the vibrant ceiling to stare at Luke whose eyelids were beginning to flutter.

“Luke,” Dak tried. “Hey Luke…” Luke squinted tightly then attempted better acuity of his surroundings, blinking repeatedly in the process. He finally found Dak. “…How are you feeling, Luke?”

His voice a bit grated and thick, Luke responded, “That Stimulos is strong stuff…the pain is not so bad now…how ‘bout you?”

“I feel good enough. I could do some damage if I had to.”

Luke managed a small grin. There’s that ultra-bravado again, Han ol’ buddy. But weren’t we the same running through the halls of the Death Star, failure not an option?

Dak turned away from Luke to stare gravely at another occupied bed across the way, one where the recipient was hooked to life support units and a fogged breathing mask strapped to his face.

The unconscious Bail Organa.

“…Doesn’t look so good for the senator though…” Dak said with monotone sadness.

Luke shifted his still-focusing eyes to where Bail lay looking as though he had become symbiotic with technology through mutual tubing. No sooner had Luke’s expression dropped in despair when the bay door split apart and a frantic, wild-eyed Leia exploded forth into the room. Luke tracked her as she raced to her father’s bedside and bent over close to his mask-pressed face.

“Father…” Leia’s eyes briskly searched for any signs of consciousness. “…Father…”

There was nothing for a few seconds but then Bail’s eyebrows raised in an attempt to aid the lids in separating. An instant later they did and Bail rolled his eyes to adjust to sight. After a few blinks he found Leia.

Whose eyes began to stream with fast tears.

“Leia…my beautiful…my brave…”

Fighting back pressing sobs, Leia told her father, “…They say…they say that you have been injured too greatly…” Her eyelids jammed together in several wrinkles as she lowered her head to brace herself. “…that you haven’t much longer…”

“It’s all right…because my last moments are with you…and soon, I will be with my beloved Malia…”

Her head still low, constant shimmering drops fell from her paled cheeks. Leia countered, “But what’ll I do now?”

Bail ventured a movement of his left arm and brought up his hand to raise her head by her chin. They now faced each other once more. “What you did…when you thought I was gone before…continue to stay strong…and focus on saving the alliance…”

“…But I don’t know if I can do it ag—”

“You will…you have friends…family…bonds that cannot be broken…and always…my love…” And he would say no more, his lids met after opening for their final time. His head fell to one side as his life left him. In the next instant, beeping sounds combined with a staccatoed alarm sound blared from the life support units next to Bail’s bed. Leia, no longer able to contain the flood of crying, lowered her head to rest on Bail’s unbreathing chest. Medical droids quickly approached them, crowding Leia. “Your highness, you must move if we are to attempt resuscitation!”

Leia staggered away from her father’s bedside while the droids descended to begin their process. Her eyes cinched again as grief overtook her.

Luke rushed from his bed and met her with quickly embracing arms, lest she falter and faint. She hugged him tightly burying her head in his chest, tears seeping into his robe. “Oh Luke…”

“…Leia…”

Dak, who had been riveted by the tragic scene, now felt that, out of respect for his superiors, he should turn away and avert his gaze to something else. He couldn’t avoid, however, hearing Leia’s uncontrollable sobs and the servomotors of the droids as they futilely attempted to shock and resuscitate the lifeless form of Bail Organa.

Suddenly, Dak didn’t feel so juiced and raring to go, to take the fight to the enemy with both guns blazing. Suddenly, the real cost of the war began to hit home.

 

CHAPTER 42

 

Exactly two blocks away from the dying wreckage of the empire’s central building, an alleyway suddenly had a rectangular portion of its concrete ground ascend. Hydraulic whirs accompanied the rising slab and it was supported by metallic beams at each corner point. The beams extended greatly in length as the thin block lifted higher. In the center section of the four supports, five beings rose with them until, under their feet, another rectangular slab aligned itself with the surrounding ground.

The five persons consisted of three troopers, all armed with blaster rifles, and two captured (and nearly spirit-broken) rebel sympathizers: Mon Mothma and Wedge Antilles. The troopers motioned the two forward and they all trotted the length of the alley to the end of it. To the opening that led them to the exposure of a thousand lights bedecking the structures of the city. Night had come to Coruscant and, had the day been tragedy-free and not dominated by a viperous sith, the two freedom fighters might have enjoyed the sights.

But none of that crossed their minds as they walked in time with their captors, awaiting some transport or another to bring them closer to the first of many torture sessions.

They did not have to wait long as an air transport speeder swooped in to land directly in front of them.

Before Mothma and Wedge allowed themselves to be loaded onto the transport (its doors already opening), they turned their gazes to the central building’s rotting, smoking metal carcass. And both thought in unison—so many lost…so many…for nothing?

But neither had the energy or desire to venture a conclusive answer to that question.

And so they boarded, troopers following them in. quickly, the doors squeezed shut.

 

Mothma sat across from Wedge as he, himself, sat in a stupor. Neither said a word to anyone. Between them, the troopers stood, rifles gripped by both hands, prepared for any foolish moves from their captives. The transport coasted along providing a soothing engine hum buffeted by the thickened hull. The vehicle was fairly new and wouldn’t be prone to exposure of errant strong winds—the repulsors would keep the craft quite steady.

That meant that there was no chance of unexpected bucking or tipping. Nothing to provide a sufficient opportunity for mutinous actions by the rebel prisoners.

Wedge was clearly despairing as evidenced by his severely sunken expression. Yet Mothma was experiencing none of the same mental squalor. She had purged her mind of all emotion, all thoughts of impending misery or the loss of thousands. She simply existed, a being who sat in inanimate silence.

The door to the transport’s cockpit opened and a trooper stepped through to stand and address the three armed men. They turned and faced him as he announced, “Corporals, the emperor has sent us additional orders. Once we have delivered these two to interrogation, we’re to join a garrison for a sweep of the city. Apparently, there is evidence that a few of the rebels may have survived the incursion.”

The three corporals nodded and said in almost perfect unison, “Understood.”

The relaying trooper continued with, “Oh, and one other thing.”

Then he whipped to aim his blaster and snap-fired three successive lances of reddish light into the chests of the corporals, effectively bashing them backward and off their feet. They landed crashingly to the hold’s floor, clanking and clacking. Afterwards, no more movement came from any of the downed wrecks; smoke trailed upward from their charred chest wounds.

The shots fired and the expiration of the corporals took less than half a second.

The shooter tore off his white trooper helmet to reveal his middle-aged face, styled with parted, short red hair and complimentary colored beard and mustache. Ironically, his eyes held sternness even as he wore a deep smile. He said to the seated and shocked two, “Anyone up for the light storms of Sullust? Or do we still want to go to interrogation?”

“General Madine!” Mothma exploded from her grinning mouth as she sprung to her feet and rushed to hold her old friend. As he dropped his blaster to his side, it easily allowed her to hit him with a satisfying hug. He returned it and eyed Wedge.

“You all right there, Red 2?” Madine asked the trembling Antilles.

“Are you real, sir?” Wedge managed.

“Of course I am real. I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?”

“Yes sir, you are.”

“And the offer still stands, son. Sullust or the cursed globe droids. What’s your choice?”

“Light storms,” Wedge began as he finally dared widen his mouth for a smile, “sound quite fine to me.”

“Sullust, it is, then.” Then he turned back to Mothma’s beaming face, the stark contrast to her physical and mental inactiveness only seconds before, and asked, “How about you, Madame President?”

Still holding him and allowing him to hold her, she told him, “Thank you, general. Thank you for coming for us.”

“Oh, don’t thank me yet. We’ve still yet to ditch this thing, then meet our people for the unregistered supply ship. And then clear customs and make our jump. But on the whole, I would say we have it snapped up tight.”

“Ironclad? Nothing left to chance?”

He smiled with a twinge of uneasiness. “Something like that.”

Then her smile disappeared as she dipped her head, saying, “Oh Madine, thousands…”

“I know,” he said as he lowered his eyes. “And our bothan brothers have discovered another alarming event—a new Death Star has been approved for construction.”

She upturned her gaze to meet his again and blurted, “We know. In fact, it’s already underway. Have they found its location?”

“They say it’s in transit, so we’ll have to wait. Something about finding a suitable system to shield it from attack. When we get back, we’ll know more.”

“That monster won’t stop. No matter how old or how frail he becomes, he’ll never stop. He wants those dreadful stations for every system in the galaxy!”

“He won’t get that far,” Wedge said with complete conviction, casting away any of his earlier traumas of the soul. He stood and added, “We’ll tell the systems what he has planned.”

“That may be difficult after what has happened,” Madine countered.

“Nevertheless, sir.”

After a second of serious reflective thought, Madine nodded as he stated, “I agree, we must try.”

“And we still have Luke, sir.”

“Yes, our new hope for effectively combating the sith. If he’s up to the task.”

“He will be, sir. I have faith in him.”

Another nod from Madine, his eyes spoke honor and encouragement. “Good…well, I suggest you two follow me up to the cockpit. I doubt you’d want to spend the rest of the journey sitting next to this mess.”

“Not my first choice, no,” Mothma commented as she eased from Madine’s grasp and motioned to Wedge, “Come on, lieutenant. Better sights forward.”

“Yes ma’am,” Wedge replied, following the general and their president pro tem out of the hold. The door slid shut behind.

 

CHAPTER 43

 

Mothma’s shuttle had finally arrived at Sullust to rejoin a sizeable portion of the rebel fleet. Many more ships were scheduled to rendezvous here when their individual missions had come to completion. For some, that would mean weeks or months—or possibly even a year away.

When the shuttle docked in the hangar bay of a cruiser and Mothma, along with Madine and Wedge, reached the command center, they were briefed on the success of Rieekan’s extraction. They were also informed of Bail’s passing and the wounding of Luke. Mothma had closed her eyes for a moment, privately mourning the loss of a great and true friend. Leia and I are the last, she perversely realized. The last of the senators now.

So much death that should not have been, she morbidly reflected.

And it’s far from over.

A moment of grieving she allowed herself, then she pulled her mental armor on and turned to the maudlin-faced Wedge. “Lieutenant, I want you to report back to Leia’s convoy. I sense that you’re needed there. And I have a feeling you want to get back to Luke and your fellow pilots anyway.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Wedge said with a somber tone. “…I’m sorry to hear about Senator Organa. I know he was a good friend of yours.”

“Thank you, Wedge…but his death won’t be in vain. We have Rieekan now, and he is going to honor us by helping to turn the tide in this war.”

Wedge nodded in understanding. The time for soul healing and deep grieving would have to wait. Duty to the alliance missions had to take precedence. “I’ll leave straight away, madam president.” And he turned to go.

“Very good, lieutenant.” And she turned to confer with Madine.

 

An hour later, when her debriefing of the failed coup was completed, Mothma accompanied Madine to a sizeable room of the cruiser that served as a sectional garden. Featured in the peet-packed portions of the sectionals were exotic plantings: flowers that moved in a coagulating manner, trees that actually breathed, and all of them with colors that spoke only of rejuvenation.

Rebel officials populated the room as well, every stoic soul acknowledging the new arrivals. Mothma and Madine returned greeting gestures and positioned themselves among the circular formation the group had taken. A wide gap was left in the middle of the room.

An official with large sideburns said, “Rieekan, we are all here now. You may transmit.”

And then the center of the room brightened with bluish, ghosting images; holograms of Leia, Rieekan, and other rebel dignitaries.

And a great, marbled bed that rested a man who looked serenely asleep, long departed from the mortal world—Bail Meesadine Organa.

He was dressed in full senatorial uniform uniquely representing the Alderaanian cultural traditions.

Mothma began, “My friends…” then breathed in, out, “This war we have dedicated ourselves to fighting has sacrificed too many lives to even count. Odd, since we, as freedom loving and honorable souls wish only to preserve life and all the promise it has to offer in betterment.

“Alderaan was destroyed. By a monster who sees only his lustful greed for power. He cared not for the horrid grief he inflicted on the ones who cherished and loved those who lived on that beautiful world. He took not one consideration for a young woman who had to stand helpless and watch her home become a fire and dust.

“Not a second thought for the girl we all see now, Leia Organa, as she stands before her father, Bail Organa—yet another Alderaanian casualty of the emperor’s cruelty.

“Oh Leia, please accept my deepest sorrows once more. You know that Bail was a dear friend and a trusted ally. If you have any words to say on his behalf, I believe now we would like to hear them.”

Leia’s nearly translucent image stepped forward toward her father’s restful, lying form and stopped just before him. She heaved in a breath, let it out. “Thank you for your kind words, President Mothma…thank you all for attending and honoring my father’s passing.

“There is very little I can say about my father that you don’t already know. You knew him as a man of ideas, of compassion, of reason…of dedication.

“There were times when he and I didn’t see eye to eye. But I always respected his wisdom…” Leia tensed her facial muscles before going on, bracing herself for what she would say next. “…and I loved him…as if her were my true father…” She reached into her white gown and brought out a small object—a store bought trinket resembling two bulbous, metallic hearts. They overlapped slightly joining them together. “This is the first thing my father gave me after I had just become a full fledged senator. Many more followed as time went on…but this is the one I would like to leave with his body as it is buried. I think he was proudest of me at that moment he gave it to me.”

She placed it gingerly on his still chest.

And said no more during the ceremony.

 

CHAPTER 44

 

“Gentlemen,” Rieekan started with arms folded as he faced several rebel soldiers, pilots, and officers in the tactical center of the royal cruiser. Luke, Han, and Chewie were among the group who kept a rapt attention on the newly appointed alliance general. “First, let me say what an honor it is to be standing in front of you. When I served the empire, there were things that increasingly began to bother my conscious…but none so greatly…as the destruction of my home planet of Alderaan. I knew I had to leave. And I knew I had to find you great souls…and help you crush this ‘empire’ that has oppressed so many for so long.”

Among the group was Wedge and he came forth to raise a fist as he belted, “We’re with you, sir!”

The group of men cheered and applauded.

As it died down, Rieekan responded with a heartened grin. “Thank you, son. What’s your name?”

“Wedge, sir.”

“You must be a pilot, son.”

“I am, sir. An x-wing pilot…is it that obvious?”

The group laughed and Rieekan joined in. This is good, the general noted to himself. This kind of good-natured banter would never have been tolerated in an imperial setting. He hated to bring the mood back to an official atmosphere, but an important, crucial announcement needed to be made.

Rieekan discipline his jovial expression and addressed the group again. “Listen up men…we couldn’t give you the location of our next base because only one person knew of it before now. That person was picked by Mon Mothma personally to keep it a secret. But now we are at a point where it is crucial to know…Princess Leia has revealed that the ice planet of Hoth will be our next base of operations.”

“An ice planet…” Han commented with a tone of thick sarcasm. “…wonderful…”

Luke, who still had gauze taped to half of his face (chin to forehead including his nose), managed a tiny grin as he faced Han. “Come on, Han. I’ve never seen real snow before. Should be a great experience.”

Han slowly shook his head while giving his young friend a sardonic smile. “You say that now, kid…”

Luke chuckled as much as he was allowed without triggering pain in his face.

“Solo!”

Han turned to focus on Rieekan who had just called him. “Yes, general.”

“I’ve heard you intend to leave us for the outer rim. Is this so?”

“…Ah…that was the plan. But things…” Han looked at Luke once more and cocked an eyebrow. “…may have changed.”

Luke stared back at Han and nodded slowly with a grin, comradery etched in his eyes.

Chewie warbled and rattled something with enthusiasm.

“I wonder if you would translate, Captain Solo,” Rieekan said. “I’m afraid I’m not up on my wookie as of late.”

Han’s eyes showed a small measure of embarrassment, yet he smiled as he replied, “Chewie is challenging anyone here to stand outside in the cold the longest.”

The men chuckled.

Rieekan said with his own grin, “Well that’s easy for him to say, he’s covered in fur!”

The room erupted in booming laughter from everyone. Chewie threw out his chest and roared in pride. Han put a hand to his longtime companion’s shoulder. “Okay, okay…” The laughter died down, but as it did, Han’s eyes narrowed. He turned from the crowd to Rieekan again. “Wait-a-minute here, hold on…” His face scowled as he asked, “…Did you say Captain Solo?”

 

CHAPTER 45

 

Keep to business and keep busy, Leia drilled her mind and her body alike. Keep moving through these halls and get to the place you know you need to be. The command center of your royal cruiser. People are awaiting your commands, the official go-ahead for landing on their new base.

Their new base. Hoth. A god-forsaken ice planet.

She understood the reason behind the choice of bases and, of course, would never openly criticize any of the head council’s strategic decisions.

But what good will hiding out from the imperials on this soul-chilling rock be if they all die of severe frostbite? They had better had been sent top of the line heating generators or she may just change her mind about formal complaints!

That’s it, concern yourself with other problems, she drilled once more. Any other possible difficulties they should have with Hoth rather than deal with the two that were crushing the core of her being—

NO! Don’t even acknowledge them, not now, just get to the command cent—

But unfortunately for Leia as she curtly rounded a corner, one of those difficulties was standing not twenty feet away. It was standing and leaning its shoulder against the wall, arms and legs crossed and just turning to stare at her.

Han. Unavoidable now.

She had to approach closer to him, this was the only path to where she needed to go.

Fine, just go talk to him briefly and be done with it, then move on.

She proceeded forth again and as she got closer to Han, he unfolded his arms and stood straighter.

Clearly he was uncomfortable… “Princess…you know, I’m, ah, sorry to hear about your father.”

Expressionless, Leia offered, “Thank you, Captain.”

“Aaahh,” He winced. “This whole thing with a rank…not really comfortab—”

“Fine then. Han.”

“Much better.” He twitched a half smile, his best attempt at diplomacy. “Well listen, I was thinking things over and…if there’s one thing that I enjoy more than breaking a speed record in the Falcon, it’s angering Jabba. So I figured maybe I’ll stick around awhile and see just how steamed I can get him.”

Leia coldly nodded. “Good, then. The general will need resourceful men like you. Excuse me.”

Leia walked on toward her destination; Han stared after her with eyes of mounting intensity, his brows drew in. with equal chill in his tone he called after her, “So I guess we’ll get the money arrange at a later date then, your highness.”

Just as she turned for another corner to disappear from sight, he heard her stony reply. “Of course.”

And then she was gone, and Han could do nothing more for the moment but stare at that corner with the same angered look.

But now, a hint of true pain melded itself into his heated expression.

 

CHAPTER 46

 

“Princess, we’ve dropped out of lightspeed,” Rieekan announced to Leia as she entered the command center and approached him.

“Good,” she responded evenly. “What’s our status with Hoth?”

“I have Major Derlin on the comm right now. Major?”

Derlin’s voice filtered through the comm speaker, “The base is almost ready. An ion cannon has been placed as per the princess’ instructions. Heat generators are at full capacity. Bad news is that the cold is wreaking havoc on the capabilities of the energy shield. We’re working on it, sir.”

“Thank you, major. Rieekan out.” He pressed the comm switch ending the transmission. “Meteorite-heavy sector.”

“Making our sensors almost useless,” Leia commented with a slight frown.

“Right, but it makes it difficult for the imperials as well.”

“True.”

And now came the question which demanded Leia be here in the first place. “Well your highness, shall we?”

Sure, Leia said in her mind with no amount of real enthusiasm. Let’s freeze our hides off for however long we have to. And I can just imagine how awful it will have to be for the men who have to go out on sentry patrols…

She breathed in a deep breath through her nose, let it out the same way. Then she said, “Begin preparations for landing. Let’s go home, general.”

“Very good, your highness.”

 

CHAPTER 47

 

Luke sat on a bed that was attached to the walling of the medical bay—one of several bays featured inside the medical frigate. Before him, a physician droid (that reminded Luke of a skeleton skull with a breathing mask snaking down from its mouth) applied therapeutic spray to his face.

His now reconstructed face.

Placing the spray aside, the droid announced to Luke, “There, sir, we are finished.”

Luke felt his face, searching all about the once burned areas with his palm and fingers. His eyes zigzagged, considering with surreal marvel of the false skin texture—it felt no different than the rest of his face. “Let me see.”

The droid picked up a mirror from the table of tools and handed it to Luke. He took it and held the mirror-side up to his face…

…and knitted his eyebrows in confusion and disorientation. “My nose is different.”

“Yes sir. A small amount of your original was not savable or reconstructable.”

Luke’s narrowed eyes and v-shaped brows eased into a lowered look of disappointed acceptance. “…All right then.”

“Please let me know if any problems occur, sir.”

“I will,” Luke said lowering the mirror to his lap.

“Take care, sir.”

“Thanks.”

The droid left the room and Luke was alone. He held the mirror to his face again, turning his head side to side while training his eyes on his reflection.

Okay. It’s going to be an adjustment, he rationalized to his more immature, emotional psyche. And it’s not so bad anyway, I am far from a candidate for the Mos Espa sideshow revue.

And besides—look at the enormous and astounding array of power I’ve gained in such a short time! And I believe I’ve figured out how to channel my power. All I have to do is concentrate and center my anxieties, my frustrations, my feelings of injustice—of being wronged—and explode them through my hands.

It seemed so obvious to him after a time, like a missing piece of a puzzle turned the right way and inserted to a big portion of the puzzle. One more completion of the bigger picture of things.

He placed the mirror back on the table full of various medical instruments, then rose to walk closer to the viewport some distance away. He turned and tracked the mirror with his eyes.

He outstretched his right hand and directed it to the mirror’s location. He balled up all his volatile energies within his heart and mind and attempted to erupt them through his hand. Within almost no time at all the mirror should be in that very hand…

Nothing.

Not a tremor, not a bucking.

Nothing. It would not move.

He placed more mental compression on his darker, frenzied thoughts, his face straining, his lips pursing; he jerked his hand out further. The muscles in his hand and arm went taught and ache-inducing…

And nothing. Not a millimeter.

He lowered and eased the tension in his arm. The malignant thoughts in his mind scattered and he took a deep, depressive breath, let it out.

He looked up this way and that as if he were following a fly with his eyes. “Ben?… Were you helping me before?…If so…then I don’t think I can do this without you…Ben?…Ben?…Ben!…”

His eyes zigged the metallic ceiling for a few seconds more. Then lowered his head to normal eyeline. But his eyes still darted around searching for answers that apparently wouldn’t come. Soon, however, his eyes came to rest at a slightly lowered fix ahead. Though in reality he was focused on nothing he stared at. “…I can’t do this alone…”

The doors separated to reveal Threepio and Artoo. Luke broke his mental malaise and turned to look at his mechanical friends as they drew nearer. Artoo beeped and chirped with whimsical enthusiasm.

“Master Luke, sir!” Threepio beamed. “I’m glad to see that you’ve recovered.”

Luke managed a smile as he said, “Thanks, Threepio. I bet you’re ready to get off these ships.”

“Most assuredly, sir. Although I’m not looking forward to the cold. My joints aren’t going to like it.”

Jerking a small hissing laugh, Luke placed a hand on Threepio’s golden shoulder. “Well Threepio, my old friend, we’ll all make do somehow.”

“True enough, I suppose. I just hope that they’ve installed enough oil baths to suit my needs. I don’t like to share with other droids.”

Grinning, Luke led his favorite droids back toward the doors. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“And I hope there aren’t any life forms there that are big and scary.”

“We’ll find out soon enough. Come on now.”

“Yes sir.”

They had reached the door to leave, Luke and Threepio had, yet Artoo remained halfway to train his lensed, robotic eye on the stale whiteness of Hoth. Part of the curvature of the planet was visible beyond the huge, trapezoidal viewport.

Artoo moaned as if he had foreknowledge of some terrible event yet to occur. Threepio, apparently, was not the only one to be hesitant of the coming cold.

“Come along, Artoo…” Threepio said with a measure of impatience and slight annoyance.

Artoo stared for moment longer then wheeled around to follow Luke and Threepio out of the room.

 

CHAPTER 48

 

“All right, Chew, detach,” Han said to the comm. Chewie was in the aft of the Falcon’s main hold standing by the manual release for the landing claw. Han sat in his pilot’s chair staring at the readouts of the control panel’s monitors. The claw had to be released by hand instead of merely flipping a panel switch. The circuitry had been damaged for months and Han swore he would finally get to repairing it when they landed. He hoped that it would be the extent of the jobs to be done…because truthfully he wasn’t quite sure how long he was planning on staying with these rebels.

He heard the familiar, muffled “kerbaw” sound which signaled that the Falcon had separated from the royal cruiser. It was free to navigate wherever Han chose it to go.

He could simply rip the engines at full thrust, swing around sharply, and punch in a lightspeed pattern for the outer rim. He certainly felt like doing so after his last conversation with Leia. But there were a few problems with that right off the start.

For one, he needed to finesse these people to make them honor Bail’s agreement with him. Which seemed a quite delicate task considering the good senator’s violent and tragic end. Han needed to wait and possibly not even involve the princess at all in the matter.

The second reason to stay disturbed Han’s emotional calm the most of all. And it centered mainly within the final words Bail and Han exchanged with one another. Over and over, no matter how much he tried to focus on any other thing, Han kept reliving the event.

Bail’s cruiser had lost itself deep in hyperspace after narrowly escaping the imperial fleet (and Vader’s crushing might). Everyone had been gasping and sucking in precious pockets of air after almost being fully asphyxiated. Some coughed and kneeled, bent over trying to equalize their bodily systems again. Even so, most of them felt as if they were the luckiest sods ever to exist.

Except for Bail who had been sprawled out on the floor of the main hold, convulsing sickening explosions of air from his mouth. And each violent constriction brought a horrid wincing to Bail’s eyes; the various and jaggedly sharp pieces of shrapnel still jutted from his torso. Every whoop brought on maddening stabs.

Han, Rieekan, and many of the other soldiers gathered to Bail and kneeled down to keep the wounded man stable. Han had a hand to the back of Bail’s head to keep it bent up slightly. Even though the invisible stranglehold was gone, the olive-skinned senator still found it hard to conjure each breath. Han took a quick look at the shrapnel, then up at Rieekan who seemed to mirror his thoughts by sharing the same nervous eyes. Han flicked his tension-filled stare to Bail who gazed back. “Senator…we can’t take these out—”

“Then don’t try,” Bail got out hurriedly. Speaking for him was clearly difficult. And painful. “Just…keep me…going…until we…see my…daughter.”

Rieekan barked, “Someone get some Stimulos injectors, quick!” and a rebel ran off into another room. “Senator…Bail…what you’ve done for me…how can I ever—”

“By using…your gifts…for these…people…”

“I will. I swear I will.”

With some effort, Bail refocused his eyes on Han. “Solo…I’ve seen it…in my daughter’s…eyes…she is…in love…with you…”

Han smiled in embarrassment, but then a hint of condescension entered his voice. “Listen, senator—”

Noyou listen…you won’t find…anyone else…like her—”

“That’s for sure,” Han remarked as he cocked an eyebrow.

“Love her…if you can…get past…yourself…and your…troubles…” And then the senator began to grunt and wheeze in abject agony. The soldier returned in time to administer a Stimulos injection to Bail. The dosage was strong and within seconds, Bail Organa was catatonic, his face easing considerably.

Han rested Bail’s sweat-soaked head back down to the floor. The pirate and “rebel for hire” rose to find Luke. He stood before the boy whose face had been flash-marred. The rebel named Hobbie had laid Luke down on a couch and was applying a jelly-like substance to the burns. Luke, like the senator, was now unconscious from heavy Stimulos.

Han somewhat envied his condition. Not the burns, of course, but the induced state of catatonia. Of not having to consider anything or anyone.

Love her. If you can get past yourself.

Now through the dirtied-white, webbish viewport of the Falcon’s cockpit, Hoth loomed and Han wondered if, indeed, it really was possible to “get past” himself to love anyone. Especially someone as difficult and insulting as Leia was capable of being. “Secret ceremony”…I could say the same for you and this delusional “alliance” of yours, sweetheart.

Yet she was also capable of more generosity than Han had ever seen in any woman, even his own mother.

And he knew that she loved him.

Run now, Han ol’ buddy! Take my old ship and fly her away from this giant, frigid rock, the voice of a dark-skinned swindler chimed through Han’s mind. Women weaken the knees, old friend.

True enough, Han admitted to himself as he adjusted the controls before him to descend towards the planet. Chewie entered and seated himself in the empty co-pilot’s chair. Han glanced at the wookie who had been mostly silent since they had reunited following the mission. Something was brooding with his partner but for the moment Han really didn’t have the energy to get into it with him.

He clearly had his own issues to deal with.

The muddled whiteness of Hoth filled up the viewport of the Falcon and Han thought with jarring, despairing forebodance—I can feel the cold already.

 

The Droids’ Brief Adventure

 

Artoo had shrilled a reprimand towards Threepio for his obvious cowardice in staying behind. He had planned to make his taller companion suffer every ounce of guilt with a long, whistling tirade.

But this was cut short as the runt of a droid noticed something rather peculiar. Peculiar—and downright unsettling.

A hooded man was staring at the rapidly departing figures of Luke and Leia.

Staring with possessed, greedy eyes.

The man smiled a lascivious grin. Artoo whistled low and uneasily. Apparently, his whine was louder than intended for the man shifted his attention from the sprinting duo to Artoo himself. The hooded wretch dropped his smile and needled the squat robot with narrowed, slitted eyes. The piercing glare lasted for only a second before the half-shrouded thief (and occassional informant) whipped around to hastily depart.

“Well you can bark at me all you like,” Threepio feebly attempted to defend his position, “But I don’t feel I have to—”

Artoo spun his dome to face Threepio, chirping and whaling with great tension and abruptness.

“What man?” Threepio asked with confusion. “What are you talking ab—”

Artoo beeped in a clipped, harried tone.

“The hooded man,” Threepio said as he scanned jerkingly to locate the cloaked figure. He spotted him jumping into a speeder to start it up. “So he was standing there. So wh—”

Wareeeeeeeeeeer, Artoo squealed in utter frustration.

Threepio’s head bucked back slightly. “Wait a minute. You’re saying that he was close enough to hear what was said between the princess and Master Luke—”

Artoo’s whistles rose high in pitch.

“Why he could possibly blow our cover—and ruin all the hard work I’ve done here! Quickly, Artoo! We have to stop him somehow! Come with me, hurry!” Threepio moved as briskly as his servomotors would allow to his own speeder. As Artoo wheeled close behind the frantic protocol droid, he warbled a suspicious inquiry. “This is different! There’s no space travel involved!” Threepio defended as he sidled his way into the driver’s seat. Artoo rolled up a ramp featured on the speeder and positioned himself into an aft section of the open-aired vehicle. Threepio operated the controls and the speeder’s engines hissed and shrilled to life. Just before the gold droid worked the accelerator, he said almost more to himself than Artoo, “Besides, no one tarnishes my work!”

And they were gone.

 

Pohl knew that those two droids were following him. The smaller one had caught him leering at the alliance stooges as they rushed to try and save another alliance stooge. They were going to try and stop Brand form fulfilling his bounty collection. And if that happened, perhaps Brand might not want to place his faith in Pohl again. “You should have warned me about the mark’s associates! I should have been fully briefed ahead of time!” and things of that nature might fly out of the hunter’s mouth.

But that was only one reason to inform the city officials of the true identities of the mark’s friends. There was another more enticing incentive for “dropping the dime” on the rebel fools.

A monumental amount of money in exchange for the information.

And Pohl knew the right official who would pay that amount: Ambassador Windell Arbellis, a highly ambitious politician who dreamt of soaring through the ranks of the imperial hierarchy. If he was made aware that certain recent arrivals posing as traders were actually alliance conspirators, he would, without hesitation, take immediate action to detain the “traders” until imperial forces arrived.

And he would reward the one who passed along such “career-making” information.

It was mentioned, of course, that Pohl never fraternized with anyone other than his business partners. And this was true—he knew better than to have his face known to casual acquaintances…as Pohl.

But as one of his alternate identities, Jehan Moss, he was the life of many dignitary parties and gatherings. And Arbellis always found Moss to be stimulating and humorous company at otherwise boring formal functions. It would be under the Moss guise that Pohl would locate Arbellis and judiciously reveal the crucial information, and become far richer than he currently was.

But first he would have to lose these meddlesome and brazen alliance droids. Pohl knew the city quite well and was fairly confident he could trick the droids into a misdirected path. And he also had his partners who would be on hand at different spots of the thoroughfares. If alerted, they would provide distractions, obstacles, even full-blown roadblocks if necessary, to derail the droids’ pursuit.

Pohl did not worry. He had the generous advantage.

 

“We’re gaining, Artoo,” Threepio stated with restrained enthusiasm. “Though to be fair, I’m not entirely sure how we’ll detain him once we catch him.”

They were gaining ground on Pohl’s speeder with their own. Pohl recognized this and increased his speed. Now they were both paralleling their rates of travel. Pohl yanked a hard right and banked down a narrower connector street. The droids followed after which is what Pohl anticipated (and wanted). He veered his speeder towards one of the street vendor displays with the intention of side-swiping its contents—bulbous jars of floury powder. The hit was made and the jars flew breaking apart or losing their lids. The proprietor of the display cursed and hollered in rage.

As Pohl sped away steering back on a straighter course, the powder had spread to create a thick, foggish expanse. The droids zoomed through the floating, milky cloud and collected powdery soot on their speeder and themselves. The grainy film obstructed both droids’ visibility and Threepio had to slow the speeder to avoid hitting something or someone at high speed. The protocol droid reached blindly into a compartment to eventually clutch a folded cloth. He brought it to his powder-caked, dimly lit eyes and wiped across.

His photoreceptors now clear and shining bright, Threepio released the cloth form his grasp and punched the accelerators. Pohl was still in his sights but now the hooded fiend was quite far up ahead, a dot almost. “Hold on to your primary circuits, Artoo, because here we go!” and the humanly droid pushed the limits of the speeder’s acceleration. As he did this, Artoo opened up a compartment and extended a jointed metal protrusion of a nozzle. From the opening a jet of steam shot forth. He directed it towards his domed eye and the spray cleaned off the powder—Artoo had his vision again.

Threepio could see Pohl much closer after a minute of pushing the rented vehicle to its full speed capacity. And Pohl could see as well that the stubborn, arrogant droids were once again closing the gap.

Time to include his associates in the current difficulties. Pohl hit the comm button and said, “Circulators, time to circulate. Code seven.” Code seven meant distract and detain pursuers. It was rarely needed or done, but all of Pohl’s people knew precisely what to do.

Pohl sharply rounded a corner, shot forth a few yards, then curved another corner. Then he straightened out to rocket down the new path of street. As he whipped by one of his associates (whom Pohl did not bother to look at), the bald-headed, rotund business partner ceased his casual browsing and curtly spun about to walk out in the middle of the street. He flung his arms out in a “stop, I’m flagging you down!” gesture, hands spread, palms out.

Threepio had not enough room to swerve around the bulky human obstacle. He had no choice but to halt the speeder in enough time to avoid demolishing the rounded nuisance. “Sir, please—!”

The man bent forth, slapped his hands on the hood of the droids’ speeder and cried, “Please, please help me! My wife, she’s hurt and I need a transport!”

Threepio said, “My photoreceptors actually work, you know. I clearly saw you perusing the stands before you rushed out to block our way!” The man guiltily smiled, his eyes darkened. Threepio warned, “Now step aside, sir, or I’ll be forced to nudge you out of the way!”

The man with the smooth, shining head moved aside but very slowly, mocking the droids’ haste.

Finally the way was clear again and Threepio accelerated at top speed down the street. He could see far up ahead that Pohl was turning a corner. And the gold droid had a sinking feeling that before they could round that corner, their prey would make another turn. And another and another. Until there was no hope of finding their quarry.

But Threepio chose to take the turn regardless. Perhaps they would get lucky and still keep the pursued in their sights…

Yes! He was still there. It was a long strip of road with no turns for a number of yards. But Pohl still held a sizeable lead. Threepio gunned it again hoping there were no more planned distractions on this strip of road.

Pohl made a turn. Threepio made the same. The hooded thief yanked his head around to see that he was followed still. He brought his comm back up and said, “Spot two.” This meant the next associate should be prepared to provide a serious road difficulty to the pursuers. On the next turn…

…And Pohl banked a speeder-shuddering left down a connecting street, then howled the engines forth. Threepio almost missed the turn and had to angle the craft in a slanted rotating maneuver to right them on the new road. They shot forth and readied themselves for what might be next.

Pohl passed his other thievery partner (one of seven) and, again, took no notice of the person. A woman this time. And she was in a speeder of her own, parked near a diner. Its engine was running and she spun it about to make it look as if she planned to enter the flow of traffic. The planned strategy worked in, once again, slowing the droids to a halt—her speeder blocked theirs.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” the woman exclaimed with almost convincing abashedness.

“Somehow I doubt that’s true!” Threepio barked, growing more frustrated and further away from keeping his work from being destroyed.

“Honestly, I—”

“Please move now!”

Pohl, far up ahead, disappeared around yet another corner.

“Listen, goldenrod, it was an honest mistake,” the woman tried. “There’s no need to get fouled, you know.”

“There’s nothing honest about you or your associates! Now move or I’m afraid I will have to ram you!”

The woman lifted her eyebrows. “Oh, and do we really want that kind of extra attention brought to your situation, my good droid?”

Oh, but do you?” Threepio countered. “I do believe I have the Dorn City authorities on speedcomm in this vehicle. Perhaps this warrants their attention…”

A flicker of panic crossed the woman’s eyes, but then her “concerned and responsible citizen” routine surfaced again. “Well of course there’s no need for that. This is just a simple misunderstanding, goldenrod. If you’ll just allow me to straighten myself out, then we’ll both be on our way.”

With a tone of thick sarcasm, Threepio responded, “If you would be so kind.”

Threepio reversed the speeder a few feet which allowed the woman to turn hers. From there it was simple for her to merge into the traffic coasting or zooming in the opposite direction. As she passed the droids, both of them noticed a sly grin form on her lips. And then she was gone.

And so was Pohl.

Threepio eyed Artoo and said, “Well, so much for heading him off. There’s no telling where he is now…”

Artoo rattled off a series of tonal beeps in a questioning rise.

Threepio’s head snapped forward. “Goodness. You’re quite right. We don’t have to find him; we already know where he’s going. We just have to make sure we get there first!” he faced Artoo once more. “But how do we do that if he likely has a head start on us—assuming he’s going there straight away. Which I’m afraid we must.”

Artoo whistled and warbled, tentative enthusiasm inspiring his tones.

“Where can you get these parts to make us go faster—? NO! Wait a minute! We don’t need to go faster; we just need to be able to fly higher than the buildings! We would have a much straighter path from there! Artoo, do you think you can do it?”

Artoo let off a long, energetic whistle, then beeped five different tones.

“A secondary power unit will do the trick? Wonderful! Where do we get it from?”

Artoo beeped.

“From me?! I don’t think so.”

Artoo squealed curtly.

“I know we’re running out of time—oh all right. But you better make it fast! And you better not damage anything important in me or I’ll see you compacted into a very tight cube!”

Artoo sputtered an indignant wail.

“I’ve told you before to mind your language!”

 

Pohl did not worry. He had the glaring advantage.

That was not entirely true. He did have a fair measure of concern as he now arrived at his home (which doubled, fronted as a storage facility) and was fast applying make-up prosthetics to his face (though not too fast—he had to make it convincing enough a visage to fool the ambassador). Concern because he had a strong notion that the bothersome droids would figure out where he was heading next. They had to know. And since they had played themselves off as traders or dealers or whatever, it stands to reason that they know key officials at the city’s civic buildings. It was conceivable that they may make it to their offices before Pohl (as Jehan) could.

Pohl typically was not the type to leave anything to chance. Any doubt in a bid for acquisition and an order for abort was always given. Why risk your neck for what possibly amounted to twenty credits or even less.

But this bid was for huge money, in the tens of thousands if he played his cards right with the ambassador. And Pohl’s primary motivator in life was monetary wealth. Not charity, not family, not friends.

Money.

Alone.

He would risk uncertainties this time. Besides, he knew that the droids would have to suffer the winding and traffic-laden streets to get to the central civic centers. An hour at least.

Pohl would be done with his identity change in ten minute’s time, then he would take his speeder and enter the abandoned subway tunnels (which just happen to provide a direct line to the civic buildings). That would take only twenty minutes at most.

A half hour lead time.

Time enough to locate Arbellis and tell him all he needed to know—in the right manner, of course. The thief wanted to get top monetary credit for this one.

Pohl did not worry. He wouldn’t allow himself to.

 

It was a delicate process, but Artoo had successfully removed Threepio’s secondary power unit (his primary one would keep him active) and installed it into the repulsor lifts’ central line.

Artoo was one of the best astromech droids ever built and had come through on repairs more times than Threepio could remember. In truth, he was not too concerned with Artoo’s abilities to perform—he knew he wouldn’t damage anything.

Threepio just didn’t like anything being removed from his innards. It tended to set him on edge. Yet he knew it was absolutely necessary. “Artoo, how much more time?”

Artoo beeped. He was done with the transplant and was closing up the compartment.

“Good. Get in, and you remember the plan word for word, yes?”

As Artoo rolled up the ramp to position himself in the back of the speeder again, he whistled and boobeeped.

“Good. Now, let’s see if a little of me goes a long way—up, that is.”

He worked the controls in front of him and the speeder lifted from the ground a foot’s length—the initial repulsors taking effect (as they normally did in start-up procedure). Threepio worked the panel again—the moment of truth—and the speeder rose rather abruptly and rather high. “Whoooooaa…” Threepio emitted as they ascended to finally clear the tops of the street buildings. “…This is why I detest flying—I simply cannot stand heights.”

And they sped away over the rooftops…

 

2

The main entrances to the dilapidated subways had been barricaded for quite some time. But Pohl (now in full Jehan regalia) knew of a service entrance/exit that allowed him free access to the surface. He emerged and made his way toward the civic center building which housed the ambassador’s office.

After parking, clearing security, and taking a lift to Arbellis’ suite, the assistant to the ambassador alerted her employer.

Arbellis cheerfully welcomed Jehan into his office and offered him a drink.

“Thank you, no,” Jehan politely said. “I would, however, like to offer you something. Something that you have been dreaming of for as long as you can remember…”

Oh?” Arbellis, the lankish, goteed ambassador inquired with piquing interest.

“But before I reveal anything further, I’m afraid I need certain assurances of possibly more than adequate reciprocation where you and I are concerned.”

Arbellis’ eyebrows rose. “Well now, this is becoming enticingly intriguing, Jehan, my good man…well let’s see, the level of compensation I gather you’re describing…” He smiled diplomatically. “…would have to, of course, depend of the crucialness of the…gift you are offering forth.”

Jehan offered a knowing smile of his own and stepped forward to stand closer to Arbellis. “My good friend, how would you like to become an important voice in the empire’s grand chorus?”

The ambassador’s eyes danced with anticipation.

 

Governor Crollier stood by the window of his vast and poshly decorated office. His hands clasped each other behind his back as he gazed with concerned eyes to the city he oversaw. He had many troubles heaped upon him in his current political seat, yet one weighed on his mind vehemently pushing down the others until they seemed trivial. The next minutes to come would prove to be either most beneficial or quite damaging…

“Governor.”

Crollier turned his elderly form and faced the one who called on him—Arbellis. “Ah, ambassador. Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon, governor. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“Not at all, please come in.” Arbellis approached as Crollier continued, “And what can I do for you today?”

Arbellis frowned quite convincingly. “I wish it were lighter news, my friend, however, I’m afraid that a grave situation has come to my attention. I hope that you will realize and accept that I wish to offer my full participation and commitment in bringing this matter to a proper resolution.”

Crollier emulated, quite convincingly himself, a heartened, honor-driven expression. “Well, of course, I appreciate your dedication and enthusiasm in serving the city, whatever the difficulty may be. Please continue.”

“Thank you, governor. Recently, a group of traders entered our—”

“Ah, Threepio,” Crollier said looking over Arbellis’ shoulder. “You’ve returned with your astromech droid. Perfect.” Arbellis turned to witness Threepio and Artoo approaching him and Crollier.

“Thank you for allowing me to collect him,” Threepio said Crollier. “As I had said, he contains evidence which will be most enlightening and effective in reducing the crime of your city.”

A flicker of disease passed Arbellis’ eyes before he fast composed himself. Quickly, he initiated, “YES, crime is occasionally a serious problem in our city; as you well know, governor. But I believe treason may be a more seri—”

“My deepest apologies, esteemed colleagues,” Threepio entered in. “But my small friend here is extremely anxious to show you what he has recorded. With your permission, governor.”

“By all means,” Crollier said.

“Artoo…”

The domed droid’s projector module flashed to life and shot out a bluish holographic moving image. It was of the bald, portly man who initially blocked the droids’ way. In the hologram, he was lying about his wife being injured. Obviously, Artoo had seen that the fiend was falsely from the beginning as well.

Then the hologram scrambled to reform a different visage—that of the woman. She was acting out her ploy of apologetic embarrassment for delaying the droids’ progress. It scrambled again and revealed a hooded man in a speeder. He was twisting his head to look back with ferreted eyes. His face was clearly identifiable.

And Arbellis now noticed a slight resemblance to this cloaked figure…and Jehan. The ambassador’s eyes tightened.

Crollier asked, “Threepio, just who are these individuals?”

“Members of possibly a small or wide-reaching crime network, governor. Artoo and I caught them in the act and they did their best to try and stop us from alerting you.”

Arbellis tried, “Why didn’t you just alert the local authorities? Why bother the governor with this matter?”

Threepio countered, “We felt it best to bring this to someone with whom I already know and trust. Which is, of course, you, governor. But while we’re on the subject of appropriateness, ambassador, I believe you might want to view this next holoclip…”

Artoo projected an image of the outside steps of the main civic building—the very one they were in right now. It showed Arbellis conversing with then shaking the hand of a man. They departed from each other—Arbellis entering the building, the unknown man walking to a speeder. He opened the vehicle’s door, then the image froze.

“You’ll notice, good gentlemen, that the man is getting into the same speeder as the hooded man we witnessed earlier.” Artoo zoomed the image allowing a much closer look at the man’s face. “And although there is a change of appearance…” Artoo created a split-screen of the hooded man’s face side by side with the other (Jehan). “We believe that these men are one and the same. Notice, the eyes of each share many similar traits.”

“These are quite wild and unsubstantiated accusations, my good droid—Threepio, was it? You offer up a great deal…but offer nothing of concrete facts. The man I spoke to is Jehan Moss, a trusted and legitimate member of Dorn Cit—”

The doors opened, and two security agents entered escorting Jehan/Pohl, himself, by the arms. He was cuffed in front of his torso. The three approached, then stood a few feet away facing Crollier. “The man you requested, sir,” said one of the agents to the governor.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Crollier replied then turned to Threepio. “And thank you for providing enough visual evidence to begin a serious investigation.”

Arbellis’ face reeked of panic.

To one of the agents, Crollier ordered, “See if this man here is wearing any false facial features.”

“Governor,” Arbellis shrieked. “These droids are working for alliance consp—!”

“That’ll be enough out of you!” Crollier barked at Arbellis. “I believe we have enough to begin a serious investigation on you as well!”

It pained Pohl quite bothersomely for his eyes wrinkled shut, but the agents were successful in removing his apoxied facial applications. More were needed to be removed, but then the governor held up a hand. “Thank you, gentlemen. I believe that’s enough for now.”

More agents entered the room and walked over to Arbellis to arrest. One of the agents said, “Ambassador, will you please place your hands out?” Arbellis did so, his eyes odd with shock and despair. The agents placed him in cuffs. “Come with us, sir.” And they led him away. As they did, Pohl was escorted towards the door as well. While being herded out, the one-time professional thief and informant stared with seething anger at the droids.

Arbellis was almost ejected from the room when he bellowed, “Governor! Listen! There are rebels here! I can prove it! Check their cruisers for ships only they would use—!”

And then the doors closed; both Arbellis and Pohl were gone.

“Goodness. That was quite a scene,” Threepio said to the governor.

“Indeed. Our city has had problems with crime and pick-pocketing for years. It’s possible you’ve hit on a major ring. I must congratulate you on your exhaustive efforts. Above and beyond the call for a protocol droid and his trusty a-mech.”

Smoothly, Threepio added, “As traders, we vehemently believe in fair reciprocation. Stealing is our greatest enemy.”

“And honesty your greatest ally, yes?”

“Of course.”

“Funny, that counter-accusation the ambassador made towards you and your fellow traders.”

“Quite peculiar, yes.”

“Something to the effect of examining your cruisers for ships exclusively used by outlaw alliance types…”

Something to that effect.”

The governor’s eyes shifted downward, to the side as he slowly walked toward the window overlooking the city. He gazed out once more and commented, “Threepio, my good droid, crime is merely one of the many problems my administration must deal with on a daily basis. Too many unfortunately…”

Threepio glanced at Artoo, who rotated his dome to stare back. Then they returned their stares to the back of Crollier.

“…One more snafu is not what I desire at this point and time…I would much rather focus on the existing difficulties of this city…money is always the problem…”

Not missing a beat, Threepio offered, “Governor, for your great generosity in allowing us to conduct our business and the chance to enact our fervent beliefs in your illustrious city, I would like to put forth a donation in the sum of two hundred thousand to your national treasury. If it pleases you, governor…”

Crollier turned casually from the window to look upon Threepio with appreciative eyes. A smile of deep satisfaction formed his lips as he said, “Many thanks.”

122


Star Wars: Escape To The Rebellion

The Rebel Alliance has destroyed the Death Star and won a major victory for those oppressed by the evil empire! But now the emperor has been made aware and has hatched a plot to weed out the dissenters in his very own political playground of Coruscant. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker is still trying to convince his new friend, Han Solo, to join the rebel's cause permanently. A feat not easily accomplished when they know full well that underworld crimelord, Jabba The Hutt, is gunning for the space pirate! But when experienced bounty hunters track down Han and his faithful wookiee, Chewbacca, Han must join with Luke and Princess Leia for another daring mission. The rescue of a new and important ally, General Rieekan!

  • ISBN: 9781370951307
  • Author: Travis Barr
  • Published: 2017-09-06 12:45:55
  • Words: 62581
Star Wars: Escape To The Rebellion Star Wars: Escape To The Rebellion