The main base of the Rebel Alliance forces was situated on an unnamed world on the edges of explored space. It was barely habitable with a thin, unpleasant atmosphere that made the use of breathing masks necessary. The nights were bitingly cold, the days hot and windblown. The base had been established in a large mountain canyon, camouflaged both physically and technically. They would be hard to find there.
At least that was the hope. Their last base on Hoth had been located and they'd barely escaped, scattering for safety until reforming to find a new home.
The thing Leia found hardest to get used to was the silence. There were no animals on this world, only some insects, as cold and quiet as their world. It was barren and barely alive.
Rather like the fading hopes of the Alliance. Not quiet dead, just looking for a quiet place to lie down.
She stood in the shade of an outcrop, avoiding the sun, watching the dust demons out on the rocky plain. The young woman who had fought with such enthusiasm had been replaced by an older, wiser woman who saw things her younger self would have denied. They were losing, the hopes of a victory over the Emperor were gradually slipping away. That most of the people in the Empire might want him gone had not changed, but they were afraid. A new power dynamic had formed around the Emperor and it was a dark and unpredictable one.
Luke. My brother, my blood, my most dangerous foe. Her heart twinged as she recalled the terrible things he'd done. Her lovely bright farm boy was long gone into the heart of the dark side. Like his father…their father.
She could sense him still, even so far away. Leia didn't know if it was the Force that allowed her to sense him, but suspected it was as much due to their being twins. She had always felt that strange mirroring sense of life, had never understood it until the truth had been revealed. They had come from the same cell, grown together in their mother's womb, were born together before being separated. Yet never really separated. And she thought that tenuous connection would last until death.
But there wasn't much time for introspection, and less for self-pity. She turned and walked carefully back down the rise and through into the cave. It had been dug out to house the base and was about as comfortable as they could make it. She walked through the airlock and took off her mask, before heading towards her quarters. There was no one there, she knew. Han was off on a trading run to Corellia and wouldn't be back for days. She missed his energetic presence. He'd become her anchor and she loved him dearly.
Leia pulled off her dusty jacket and tossed it onto the bed. As she did a small object bounced to the side. It was a computer chip, unlabelled. It hadn't been there when she'd left. She picked it up and held it for a moment, then slipped it into the comp. A moment later the screen flickered to life displaying a face, and for a moment part of her wondered if it was coincidence or something more powerful. The voice triggered a rush of dangerous affection and something like fear.
She slammed her hand on the pause and snatched up her comm. "Command, Leia Organa here. Institute an immediate Security lockdown. We have a breach."
Her small quarters were crowded, and Leia sat on the bed, watching the men and women who commanded the rebel forces stare at the frozen image on the screen and then back to her. General Serris, the base commander, spoke first.
Leia shrugged, took a deep breath. "I came back from my walk and found the chip on my bed. It being here makes one thing very obvious."
"The Empire knows we're here." He half turned to his command crew. "Institute a security scan to find whoever left it, and begin working on the evacuation of the base, first…"
Leia held up her hand. "The obvious thing, General, is that Luke knows where we are, not necessarily that the Empire does."
The General had the hard eyes of a man who had seen too much death, and the experience to command those who dealt it. "Leia, anything your brother knows, the Emperor knows."
She stared unfocused at a point half way up his uniformed chest. "I .. don't know. I can't explain it, but I think we should watch the rest of the message before we act."
He considered her for a few moments, then nodded once. She reached over and hit the play button and the image unfroze.
He smiled briefly, seeming to look into her face. "I'm guessing the first thing you did was sound the alarm. Don't worry, I don't know exactly where your base is. I think I know what sector it's in, and that's all I could reveal. I had an agent put some of his people onto locating you and had this chip sent via that agent when you were located. The agent has done a very good job of disappearing."
He paused and she watched him, seeing the changes in his face, his body, his eyes. He was so much older now and so different. This man had killed with his own hands, taken innocent lives, tortured and maimed and killed at the whim of a monster. She should despise him, but hatred was such a damaging personal emotion that she knew she had to avoid. And a little voice whispered that he'd done her no ill despite his crimes. He'd never hunted her down, threatened her in any way. There had to be a reason for that….
"I'd better get to the purpose of this message. You will find it…difficult…to believe me." He looked down at his black gloved hands. "I have no way of proving what I am about to tell you is true. I must leave it to you and your people to assess and verify it. But it is a truth and a threat and a great danger to all of us."
The people in the room stirred and whispered, she ignored them, concentrated on his image.
"In effect, the Empire is under attack. Not from your Rebel Alliance, but from a far larger and far more dangerous enemy. News may not have reached you about this; the Emperor has maintained secrecy – to avoid panic, we are told. We've been fighting a running battle with it for some weeks now but our successes are more what we've managed to salvage, not real victories. They are not conquerors, not invaders in the true sense. They enter a system, destroy and consume every thing on the planet, and move on. They're like a plague, a virus invading the body of the galaxy. The thing is, I think we could beat them, if the full power of the Imperial forces was put again them. But it hasn't been. And it was only when I had a visit from my..our..father that I found out why…"
Vader's shuttle settled lightly onto the Imperator's ship bay. The greeting party, including Luke and Janoss, came to attention, and Luke bowed to his father as the tall figure strode down the plank. The Captain officially welcomed him aboard but Vader moved past him to stand before Luke. "Luke."
"Father. I trust your flight was uneventful."
"Yes. Admiral Thrawn?"
"He is on the bridge finalising the fleet's movements. Did you wish him to attend you?"
"Not necessary. I am here for you alone." He strode towards the exit and Luke, after dismissing the rest of the party, walked with him.
"You've come along way just to chat with me."
Vader's head swung towards him as they entered a corridor and turned to the nearby conference centre. "Chatting is hardly what I would call conveying the Emperor's orders. You have been less that successful in your recent campaign, my son. Our Master is not pleased."
"So I gathered." Luke waved a hand, opening the door and gesturing his father inside. "I'm like a child trying to hold back the tide with a bucket. It's hardly fair to slap the child because the tide overwhelms him."
"An attractive analogy, but hardly to the point." Vader sat down in the one of the chairs set around a long oval table, and Luke sat opposite him. "Your reports have been studied, along with the information and technical data provided. This alien force seems substantial."
"That's one word for it. Voracious is another. Thrawn has been studying their tactics. I'm sure that if we had a good part of the core fleet here we could stop them."
Vader reached into his belt pocket and pulled out a datachip, which he fed into the deskcomp. The desk holoprojector flickered to life, showing a rotating image of the galaxy.
"You will not be receiving any further reinforcements."
Luke sat upright, anger making him flush. "You cannot be serious!"
"Humour is not one of my verbal attributes. I am perfectly serious, and so is the Emperor." Vader leant forward, touching the holo control panels to swing the image around and enlarge it. "You will withdraw your forces along this path," he said, indicating a trajectory that cut a bright red line through one quadrant of the galaxy. "It has been estimated, based on the alien force's previous movements, that by the time they reach the end of this path, they will have gained sufficient material to fill their ships, and they will then depart. If you manouver your fleet correctly, it should be quite a simple…."
Luke slammed his fist onto the desk. "You expect me to let them, just LET THEM destroy a dozen worlds along this path and DO NOTHING!" He was on his feet then, wild with anger. "Millions of people will die!"
Vader lifted his head, the gleaming black mask turning towards Luke slowly. "Sit. Down. Control yourself."
Luke shuddered as he fought for control, as the Dark Force swirled around him like a hurricane. The desk under his fist actually shuddered and tilted off the floor. He lifted his hand slowly, unclenched his fist and swallowed the bile that had risen up his throat. "Yes. Control." He walked the length of the room and activated the viewer, which was currently showing an empty space view. The stars shone unblinking, waiting. "So I'm just to guide these things through the Empire that we are sworn to protect, and let them have their way." He turned leant back against the screen. "Why? Why are we to do this terrible thing?"
"You know better than to ask why."
"But I am anyhow. Why, father? There has to be a reason, it's not just some insane convenience."
"On the contrary, it's quite convenient. If you look at the path, you will see it intersects a number of rebellious systems. " Vader swivelled the holoimage, enlarging it further. "Planets that have harboured the Rebel Alliance, that have provided aid and assistance and personnel, will be obliterated. As you say, a convenience."
And Luke realised, then, that Vader too was angry. He hid it well, as he always had, but it was there, revealed for Luke to sense. "You don't like it either, do you?"
"Like? That is a frail and feeble term for my feelings on the issue. I deplore the waste, if nothing else. But I convey the Emperor's orders, as I always have, and I convey his expectations that those orders will be obeyed." Vader closed down the holoimage with a flicker of his power. "You will do what is appropriate."
He stood, collected the data chip and turned for the door. "Do you have any questions before I leave? Doctor Detell is well, in case you were wondering. "
"I know, but thank you. Tell her I'm looking forward to seeing her soon."
Vader nodded and turned in a swirl of dark cape and dark power, and was gone.
Luke sat alone for a long time, and considered his father's words. You will do what is appropriate. It was an odd phrase. Not, you'll do what your told or do this or else...do what's appropriate. And just what IS appropriate?
Hidden meanings, words within words. Another meaning for appropriate was correct. And the correct thing to do was possibly the most dangerous of all…..
Luke stirred in his seat, then clasped his hands together again and took a deep breath. "I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this, not sure if there is anything you can do. But if there is, if you want to try, send me a message, and perhaps we can meet somehow and work something out. I would never harm you, Leia. There aren't many people alive I can say that of, but it's true."
"It's my death if this message was brought to the Emperor. You could do that, if you wanted to. I'm hoping you won't because..". He paused and looked up to the camera, as if trying to see her. "…because strangely I don't want to die just yet. I have many things I want to do." He smiled and for a moment it was her Luke again, all young and bright. "I'm going to be a father. "
He raised his hand in a kind of salute, the image faded and the message ended in a flash of light.
Leia didn't hear what the General was saying, it was all just a background murmur. In the midst of that momentous time, when the Universe was moving into balance against a perilous destiny, all she could think of was… I'm going to be an aunt.