Luke groaned slightly, shifting his hand to his stomach. It felt like there was a black hole down there, eating him up from the inside.
"He's coming around!"
Luke winced at the shout, and opening his eyes to seek the source.
It was one of the masked men who had attacked him in the games room.
"Watch him - we'll need him soon."
The reply came from his guard's comlink. Luke shuffled up onto his elbows, and looked around. They were in a comfortable office, and he was lying on a couch. His guard was sitting a few meters away, with his blaster resting on the desk.
Luke became nervous at the sight of it. That blaster could only mean one thing - he was being held hostage. His father hadn't exactly covered this situation during his social lessons. What was he supposed to do?
"Who are you?" Luke asked, deciding some answers couldn't hurt. "What do you want with me? And where's Lilly and the other royals?"
His guard didn't reply.
"My father is going to go crazy when he finds out about this," Luke said.
"That's what we're counting on."
"He doesn't negotiate," Luke said. "Under any circumstances. Believe me, I've tried."
"You think he'd rather see you dead?"
Luke flinched, seeing the guard's point. He shuffled down to the far end of the couch, putting as much distance between the guard's blaster and himself as possible. They won't kill me, Luke reassured himself. They need me alive to get whatever it is they want.
Somehow, his reasoning wasn't making him feel any better, though.
A loud bang, followed by shaking, caused he and the guard to jump in fright. It sounded like they were under fire. The guard turned to look out the viewport, and Luke saw his chance. He bolted for the door.
Luke slammed his fist down on the door release, praying desperately that it would be unlocked.
Surprisingly, it was. Luke turned sideways to slip through the door gap as it opened. He only traveled a meter past the doorframe before he barreled into the chest of someone standing on the other side. Strong arms gripped him, preventing any further escape, and the click of a blaster being loaded sounded behind him.
Luke looked up into his new captor's face, only to see another black visor, with his own distorted reflection looking back at him.
The gaze was held for a few seconds, before he was pushed back into the office. His captor followed him.
"Put the blaster down - he's just a kid," he said, walking past the guard, and seating himself behind the desk. His authoritative tone made Luke think he must be the leader.
Luke glanced back at the door, but there was the sound of a reinforced lock.
"What was that noise?" the guard asked, lowering his blaster. He didn't put it down, though. His stance made Luke suspect he didn't share the other's opinion that he was 'just' a kid.
"Just more warning shots from the Imperials. They agreed to cease fire to give us the opportunity to communicate our demands. Vader himself is contacting us, so keep his kid quiet."
The guard reached out to grip his arm, but Luke shook him off, angrily. The guard made another attempt, and after a brief scuffle, Luke found himself with the guard's hand across his mouth, and one arm twisted behind his back.
The leader looked on. "Behave yourself, and I'll let you talk to your father," he said to Luke. "You can tell him you're frightened, and you want this to be over."
Luke made an angry noise, indicating he wouldn't do anything of the kind.
The leader watched him until the holocom projector hummed, and lit up with a blue image of his father.
"Greetings, Lord Vader," the leader said, immediately swiveling his chair to speak to him. "Thank you for taking the time to hear us out."
"Where is my son?" his father demanded.
Luke made as much noise as the hand across his mouth allowed, but he doubted his father would be able to hear it.
"He's right here," the leader said. "You can see him if you like." He indicated to the guard to release Luke, which he did with a rough push towards the holocom field.
The leader shifted over to make room for him, and Luke stepped into his father's field of view.
"Luke ... are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine. They knocked me out with some kind of gas, but it's worn off now. I woke up and -"
The leader gave Luke a push towards the guard, cutting off the conversation.
"All right, you've seen him. He's fine, just frightened."
"I am not!" Luke yelled, before the guard covered his mouth again. He was fairly certain his father would have heard that, though.
"I'll make this brief," the leader continued. "Over the past three months, members of groups and organizations opposed to this Imperial invasion of Abyssia have disappeared. We want them back - all of them. I've prepared a list of the people concerned for your convenience."
"It will take some time to determine the whereabouts and arrange transport for the people you refer to."
"Our intelligence data has already determined they are being held on Coruscant. I think two hours is a reasonable time frame to gather them up."
"Would you be willing to exchange my son for another hostage?"
"The Empire would regard anyone else as an acceptable loss."
"What about myself?"
The leader seemed taken aback for a moment. He glanced towards the guard, who nodded enthusiastically.
"No!" Luke tried again to break free, but only succeeded in hurting his arm.
"Give us a moment to discuss this," the leader said.
The holocom was momentarily disabled, and the leader turned back to the guard.
"That is too good an opportunity to pass up!" the guard insisted. "The publicity it would generate alone would do more good than -"
"It's dangerous," the leader replied. "It could be a trap."
Luke tried to speak, but his words came out as muffled garble.
"It's worth the risk!" the guard insisted.
"We don't know enough about his abilities," the leader said. "We don't know what is exaggerated, and what is fact. They say blasters mean nothing to him."
"They said the same about the Jedi. Where are they now?"
"Destroyed by the Sith," the leader said, pointedly.
The guard relented, and the leader reactivated the holocom.
"We have decided to decline your offer," he said. "But you needn't worry about your son. As long as you give us what we want in two hours."
"And during that time, I have your assurance my son will remain unharmed?"
"You have my word."
"Very well. Transmit the list of people, and I will contact you again when they have been found."
"I'll look forward to hearing from you."
The leader cut the call, and pressed a few buttons on a nearby terminal. He then turned to the guard, and they exchanged a look.
"I don't like it," the guard said. "The kid told me earlier that Vader never negotiates. This could all be some Sith-hell trap to stall for time."
"Or it could be genuine. This is his son we're talking about."
Luke looked from one to the other, wondering himself. His father had seemed co-operative ... very unusual, for him. Maybe he was planning something ...
"We'll wait and see," the leader said, as he stood up to leave. "Stay alert. The other Imperial prisoners have been rowdy - I wouldn't put it past one of them to try something."
"Should we keep the kid in here?"
"Why not? Just remember to keep the door locked this time." The leader left the room, leaving Luke and the guard alone.
The guard took the seat at the desk, and leaned back, tapping his fingers against the armrests. Luke looked around for a while, before placing himself back on the couch. Nothing to do but wait for something to happen ...
Surprisingly, something happened a lot sooner than he had expected. He had scarcely sat down, before he felt a familiar presence tug at his mind.
Good. You can hear me. Now, pay attention.
I'm listening, Luke sent. What's your plan? What do you want me to do?
Stay put. Do exactly as they tell you - don't give them any trouble. Don't, under any circumstances, make any attempt to escape. It is too dangerous.
Luke sighed. He should've expected as much. His father thought he was a helpless child.
He saw the guard watching him curiously, and he quickly lay down on the couch as if planning a nap, to avoid the guard's suspicion.
What are you going to do?
I am going to sort this out. Don't be afraid - you will be safe as soon as possible.
I'm not afraid, Luke sent.
His father was rightly skeptical, but he did not say anything, to Luke's relief.
I must go and speak with the Emperor. If anything should happen, you know how to contact me.
Okay ... Father?
In case anything happens ... I want you to know I'm sorry. I'm sorry for pressuring you to let me stay ... you were right to be worried. This is all my fault ... I should have come back with you.
Son, last I knew of it, you did not have the ability to foresee the future. You could not have anticipated this. What's done is done.
We will talk more when we are reunited.
Bye, Luke sent, somewhat reluctantly.
Goodbye for now.
Luke felt the link dissolve, and felt a wave of loneliness. A few hours earlier, he'd been mortally embarrassed to wake up next to his father, but if he was honest with himself, he knew he was wishing that's where he was right now.
"I really fail to see the problem here, Lord Vader," the Emperor said, sounding bored.
Vader frowned to himself. His master was being somewhat ... difficult.
"This incident will reflect badly on us, master," Vader said. "If it can be shown our security can be compromised so easily, then -"
"Really, Lord Vader. You don't imagine this was the result of some security mishap?"
"You knew about this." It wasn't a question. Everything was starting to make sense in Vader's mind, even as the Emperor began to explain.
"Our agent working with the Abyssians organized this little hostage drama. Conveniently, he has gained the trust of both the royal family and those Abyssians opposed to our presence. They are both easily manipulated."
"You feel having the royal family held hostage by rebel Abyssians will generate hatred for the rebellion on Abyssia?"
"Not simply held hostage, Lord Vader ... they will be killed, and quite spectacularly, I might add. A planet in mourning for its leaders will be easily suppressed."
Vader had to admit it was a near perfect plan. Removing the existing leaders, while setting up their own ... and all while generating hatred for the rebellion. His master's plans were always like this.
Except, this time, there was an unforeseen complication.
"But what of my son?" Vader asked. "Will he be safe?"
"I can make no guarantee of that. I still cannot understand why you left the child aboard the ship in the first place. You are fortunate he wasn't assassinated immediately by a disgruntled Abyssian."
I wouldn't have if I'd known what you were planning , Vader thought, annoyed.
"I did not foresee this, master," Vader said out loud, with more diplomacy.
"I didn't regard this incident as worthy of your attention, my friend. I had heard you were leaving the ship as soon as the treaty was signed, and moving on to other matters of more importance. But what's done is done. Now, you will simply have to wait and see if the boy survives. We cannot do anything that would cause the hostage-takers to abandon their mission."
"What if I arranged to rescue him? The traitors would still have the royal family and the other Imperials as prisoners. The spy will no doubt reassure them that they don't need my son to continue their mission."
"You overestimate the usefulness of the boy, Lord Vader," the Emperor said. "Why would you go to so much trouble?"
Vader was silent, suspecting his master already knew the answer.
"I believe you have two hours," the Emperor said, finally giving in. "But I should warn you - the spy is under strict orders to immediately proceed with the execution if the hostage-takers begin to have second thoughts. It is doubtful that anyone left on the ship will still be alive once his mission is complete."
The Emperor cut the call, and Vader stared at the blank projector in frustration. This could all be over in an hour if they simply handed over what the hostage-takers wanted and left the royal family in place. After all, what was a hundred prisoners in the grand scheme of things? They could easily be recaptured. The Emperor could order his spy to withdraw, and leave this entire mission for another day.
Still, at least his master had given him the opportunity to get Luke off the ship. He should be grateful for that.
He turned and left the communications vault, and found the captain waiting for him outside.
"Will we proceed with locating the prisoners, sir?"
"No. The Emperor has made it clear that we will not be meeting their demands."
"What are your orders then, sir?"
"Gather your senior staff. We will need to formulate a rescue plan."
"How long do we have, sir?" the captain asked, struggling to keep up with his frantic pace.
"Two hours," Vader said, pointedly.
Luke woke up with a start. In only took a second for him to take in the situation - someone was dropping down through the roof, blaster in hand.
The guard dived for his comlink, but he was too slow. In another second, he was backed up in the corner with his hands up. The new arrival fired off a stun shot, causing the guard to slump against the wall. The man then turned to face Luke.
"Admiral Reallis?" Luke could hardly believe it. "Where did you come from?"
"Hello, Luke. Help me tie this guy up - he won't stay out for long."
Luke obliged, breaking off the cord from a nearby lamp.
"Where is the royal family?" he asked, as the admiral began binding the guard to the desk.
"They're holding everyone down in the main ballroom. The Abyssians seem quite sympathetic to their cause."
"They want some prisoners released," Luke explained. "They talked to my father. They gave him two hours to gather them up."
"We'll be out of here before then," the admiral said, stepping back from the bound and gagged guard. He picked up the guard's blaster, and tossed it to Luke. "Let's get going. There are service tunnels throughout the ship ... I hope you're not claustrophobic."
"Anything to get out of here!" Luke said, inspecting the blaster.
Before he followed the admiral back up into the roof, he couldn't help but remember his father's last instructions. Don't, under any circumstances, make any attempt to escape.
This doesn't count, Luke insisted, climbing up onto a chair and dragging himself up into the hole. Besides, this was exciting. He'd never been a fugitive before.
"Follow me, and keep quiet," the admiral whispered, in front of him. "I'm not sure how soundproof these tunnels are."
"Sure," Luke whispered back. "Where are we going?"
"To the escape pods," the admiral said.
"And that is the best you can come up with?" Vader demanded.
The tactical officer looked at the captain nervously, then stammered a reply. "May I ask which part of this plan doesn't meet with your approval, my lord?"
"All of it," Vader said, stepping forward and switching off the display. "All of it places Luke at unnecessary risk. That is unacceptable."
The tactical officer returned to his seat at the conference table, looking somewhat dejected. The captain appeared to think for a moment, and then spoke up.
"What if we could introduce some kind of gas into the air system ... knock them all out, giving us freedom to board."
"They are wearing helmets ... it's possible they could have filters," the first officer said.
There was a lengthy period of silence, while the officers stared at each other, clearly wondering who would dare to offer a suggestion next. Vader was quickly becoming impatient.
"Perhaps we could offer a counter threat."
Vader turned to look at the senior weapons specialist. "What do you mean?"
"We have another portion of our fleet in position around Abyssia, plus numerous troops on the ground. We could threaten to lay waste to their planet unless they release him."
"And you are so sure that they would rather release my son than see their planet destroyed?"
"I think it's a reasonable assumption."
He was the first officer among them to stand up to Vader in any way, and the others quickly became nervous. Vader stepped closer.
"And why is that?" he asked.
"Because they will gain nothing by killing your son - and as far as they know, your son may very well be regarded as expendable by the Empire."
Vader was a hair's width away from choking the man, but the captain, as if sensing this, quickly stood up.
"We cannot rely on these ... traitors acting in a rational manner. If they feel threatened in any way, they may very well put the ship on a collision course with Imperial city, and we could have a major disaster on our hands. I suggest we work from the assumption that these people are only motivated by fanaticism."
There was another period of tension-filled silence, when finally a younger officer spoke up quietly.
"You know, maybe we could invent some kind of invisibility shield for a person ... a bit like a ship's cloak, but just for a single person."
Everyone in the room stared, causing him to slump down in his seat.
"Just an idea," he added, nervously.
Vader made a noise of vague disgust, and stormed out of the room. If he stayed in there a moment longer, it was likely the ship would no longer have a senior staff.
Luke was glad of a chance to rest, while Admiral Reallis consulted a schematic on the side of a tunnel. They had crawled for what felt like half the ship to Luke.
"I've had an idea," the admiral said, "for a way to contact one of the ships. We'll need a room on the port side of the ship with a large window."
"Have you found one?"
"Yes, I think so. It is not far from a line of escape pods. I think that's our best bet." He glanced at Luke. "How're you doing? Ready to move on?"
"Sure," Luke said, returning to his hands and knees. "I'm ready for anything."
The admiral smiled to himself, and led the path onwards. "The adventurous type," he mumbled.
"Who, me?" Luke said, with mock surprise.
"I bet it irks your father."
"Yeah," Luke said. "He would rather have me living in a bunker being safe. But I say sitting in a bunker being safe isn't living at all."
"It seems like he cares for you a great deal."
"I guess," Luke said. He watched the floor going past for a while, considering it. Was it his imagination, or did the admiral's tone sound a little disbelieving. "Why did you say 'seems'? Don't you think he does care about me? Is this still about those stupid rumors, because -"
The admiral paused at the mouth of a descending ladder, and sat at the top.
"It's not that. It's just ... this may be hard for you to understand, but we in the navy only tend to see one side of your father. And that side makes it a little hard for us to imagine him having a personal life. Having a family."
"I understand," Luke said. "But he has many sides."
"I'm beginning to see that."
Luke fidgeted for a moment. "Thanks for rescuing me," he said. "I was really surprised to see you. Especially after ..."
"Well, I thought you and the governor hated me."
"I never had anything against you," the admiral said, resuming the journey by starting to descend the ladder. "Governor Fersons is - was, thank the stars - my superior. I show him respect out of necessity. Imperial politics is a dangerous world ... saying or doing the wrong thing can be fatal."
"If you don't like him, then why did you believe him when he said I wasn't my father's real son?"
"Your daughter sure did."
"I never told her. Governor Fersons went to her, without my knowledge, and explained that he needed to use her as a means to get you to confess that you were adopted. He even gave her a recording device to use while talking to you ... he wanted some hard evidence, you see, when he went to the Emperor."
"Why would he waste his time with all this?" Luke said. "Shouldn't he have something more important to do?"
"Governor Fersons had big plans for Abyssia. He intended to use it as a staging ground for launching an assault on a suspected rebel cell hidden in the nearby Clonsea asteroid belt. Through this, he intended to gain back the favor he'd lost with the Emperor, during an earlier strike by the Rebels. When the Emperor decided to pass the entire project over to Governor Halifax, he was angry, naturally. He was desperate to find some way to curry favor with the Emperor. You were it."
"Great," Luke said. "Nice to know someone finds me useful. But I still don't understand why he used your daughter," Luke said.
"Because he thought you might say something to someone your own age you wouldn't say to an adult. But he wouldn't put his own child at risk," the admiral said, bitterly. "Believe me, I did not know about this. He only told me he needed me to keep an eye on you, and he suggested I attend the pre-treaty signing party with my daughter. I did not know that he had spoken to her without my consent."
"Maybe if he'd simply asked me himself, I could have set him straight," Luke said. "For a start, the Emperor already hates me ... all he'd need to do to curry favor with the Emperor is start up a 'Luke Skywalker haters anonymous' society. The Emperor only lets my father keep me around on the condition that I'm not trained to use my Force potential. And my father is loyal to the Emperor ... don't ask me why, but he is. I'm not allowed to speak one word against him."
"Then you are Force sensitive?" the admiral asked. "You could potentially be a Sith?"
"According to my father," Luke said. "Why?"
"Just curious, that's all. I suppose you inherited this from your father."
"How much further?" Luke asked, deciding to change the subject. He didn't know if his father would approve of him discussing this subject.
The admiral gave him a curious glance, but did not press the issue. "Not long."
Vader had placed himself in front of the bridge observation windows, and was eyeing the Abyssian ship with an ominous melancholy.
The so-called 'plans' the officers had come up with had all involved some risk to his son. Any risk was completely unacceptable, as far as he was concerned. There had to be a solution somewhere in this mess, if only he could focus enough to find it. But instead, all he could think about was how terrible it would be to lose his son. Especially through his own stupidity.
It was like torture... there he was, only a few kilometers away from him, yet he was quite unable to protect him.
When he was a Jedi, he had planned and executed hundreds of rescue missions, often with a substantial amount of risk. It had never bothered him before ... in fact, he had enjoyed the risk and thrilled at the thought of beating the odds. What had happened to make him so incapacitated now? Was it maturity, which had stripped him of his aptitude for spontaneous plans and reckless willingness to carry them out? Or was it fatherhood, his new role as the guardian, caregiver and protector of his offspring that made him consider his every action in a new responsible light.
He glared at the ship, becoming increasingly agitated. One mistake ... one tiny mistake, and look at what it had cost him. If he got Luke back in one piece ... he would never let him out of his sight again.
Vader turned, seeing the ship's captain. Strange, he had not sensed his approach.
"We just received a message from Admiral Reallis sir ... he has escaped the hostage-takers, and he says he has your son."
"Through the holocom?"
"No, sir ... in a somewhat more traditional method."
"This is a code?" Luke asked in disbelief.
They had dropped out of the service tunnels, and were in a small observation room. Out the window, Luke could see several star destroyers, only a couple of klicks away. Admiral Reallis was flicking the lights on and off, in a pattern Luke couldn't make head or tail of.
"A very old navy code," Admiral Reallis explained. "They used this back in the days of sailing ships."
"Didn't they have comlinks?"
"They had something similar called 'radio', but you couldn't always guarantee it would work."
"I just hope someone is looking out the window," Luke said, pressing himself against the glass.
"So do I."
"What are you telling them?"
"That you and I are going to eject from one of the escape pods. We're going to need a pick-up, and fast, before the hostage-takers can warm up their guns."
Luke considered whether or not to tell Admiral Reallis that he and his father were capable of communicating, but then decided against it. Not even the Emperor knew about that. It wasn't something he should share with a stranger, except in an emergency, and this wasn't an emergency. Not yet, anyhow.
"Come on, let's get going," the admiral said, picking up his commandeered blaster.
Luke followed, eager to get off this ship. They hadn't met any resistance so far, but sooner or later, they were going to discover he was missing. Better they were gone before that happened.
"The next question is, where are the nearest escape pods?"
"Directly under us, two floors down," Luke said. "I saw them when we were docking."
"We'll have to take the stairs," Admiral Reallis said, pointing the direction with his blaster."They could cut power to all the elevators while we're in there."
"I don't think they know I'm missing yet," Luke said, looking around nervously as he spoke.
"Don't be so sure. There's only eight of them, you know."
"Yes. They came aboard disguised as a dance troupe."
"I saw two ... so the other six are keeping the rest of the ship's passengers hostage? No wonder you managed to escape."
"The vast majority of the Abyssians are co-operating with them. They are keeping the diplomats and the royal family under close guard, however. Here's the stairwell."
Luke followed the admiral, and then came to a sudden halt.
Luke? What are you doing?
"What is it?" Admiral Reallis asked, glancing back at him.
"Nothing," Luke said, starting down the stairs. "Just thought I heard something."
The admiral didn't reply, but he quickened his pace.
You got our message? Luke asked. We should be at the escape pods any minute now.
It's too dangerous! They could shoot you down in seconds!
It's dangerous here, Luke reasoned.
His father didn't reply in words, he simply sent a general feeling of disapproval.
Luke grinned, despite the situation. See you soon, he sent, and closed off the link.
At the bottom of the stairwell, they stepped out into the corridor, and quickly looked left and right.
"Clear," the admiral said. "And I can see the escape pods. Come on!"
They ran down the corridor, and Luke never took his eyes off the escape pod hatch. Only a few more steps ...
"I just hope there's a ship waiting to pick us up," Admiral Reallis said, pulling open the hatch. "Get in, Luke."
Luke was about to do just that, when a hot red laser bolt zipped past his ear, and shattered the hatch, causing glass and durasteel to explode in all directions.
Luke dived to the ground, and dragged himself into the escape pod. It wasn't going anywhere now, but at least it offered him some protection from their unseen attacker.
He peeked around the edge, only to see one of the black-helmeted men. It appeared they had been found, at last.
There was an exchange of fire, and Luke guessed the admiral had shifted to safety as well. He looked down at his own blaster, trying to figure out how to use it. He hadn't fired a blaster since farm days, when helping his uncle fight off Tusken Raiders. He felt around for the safety catch, and then heard the click that meant it was ready to fire.
He took aim at the attacker, and was about to shoot, when he felt some stirring in the back of his mind. The man was masked, and Luke couldn't see one millimeter of his skin, but still ... he felt familiar, somehow. He had seen this man without the disguise ...
"Luke!" he heard the admiral yell. "Get in a pod and eject! I'll cover you!"
Luke shook his head, trying to shake off the odd sensation.
"What about you?" he yelled back.
"I'll follow afterwards. Just go!"
Luke was about to brace himself, and do as the admiral said, when the masked attacker spoke up.
"Don't do it, Luke! It's a trap!"
Now that he heard the voice, Luke was sure. It was the Emperor's spy ... the one he had first 'met' at the meeting, and had seen a few hours earlier in the refresher. This guy sure had a lot of disguises.
"What are you talking about?"
"He's trying to kill you!" the attacker yelled. "He's working with them ... he's already contacted the bridge, and they're going to shoot you down as soon as you leave the ship."
The firing stopped, making the corridor suddenly quiet.
"He's just trying to confuse you, Luke," the admiral called.
Luke stepped out of the pod, now in clear view of the man, should he wish to fire at him. He didn't, though.
"You're working for the Abyssians yourself," he said. "I saw you."
"I'm an Imperial spy ... you know that. We met at the palace. I'm undercover."
"For an ally, you certainly did a good job of nearly killing Luke a moment ago," the admiral said, not stepping out from the alcove where he'd taken cover.
"I was aiming for you, traitor," the spy said, brandishing the blaster in the admiral's direction. "Luke, he's trying to kill you. Come with me, and you'll be safe."
Luke took a step towards the man, somewhat hesitantly. Was this right?
"Luke, don't be stupid," the admiral said. "If I had wanted to kill you, I could have done so anytime since I rescued you from the guard. I don't know who this man is, but he's lying."
He has a point , Luke thought. The admiral had been nothing but helpful so far.
"You just wanted to make it look like their fault," the spy said. "Convenient way to get rid of the kid while avoiding suspicion."
Luke glanced from one to the other, at a complete loss. Were either of them telling the truth? Blast it, he just didn't know!
"Why would I want to kill Luke?" the admiral replied. "I'm an admiral, not a power-hungry politician."
"Of course you are," the spy countered, with a sarcastic tone. "No Imperial admiral has ever made a bid for political power, after all. And what use would the Emperor's favor possibly be to an admiral?"
"I would say the favor of the navy's commander would be far more useful to an admiral," came the counter-argument. "Who happens to be Luke's father."
Luke frowned. "You mean you only rescued me to curry favor with my father?!"
"Of course not," the admiral protested. "But even that is a far more likely scenario than the one this man is proposing. Luke, please. Get in a pod ... I won't let him stop you."
"Yes, Luke," the spy said. "Get in a pod. I guarantee you'll be shot down as soon as you eject. But, if that's what you want ..."
Luke looked at the ceiling, wondering again why his father had never covered this situation in all his social training. He thought for a moment, until he suddenly had a brainwave.
"You go first," he said, turning to the admiral. "And give me your comlink. If you eject, and are safely picked up, then I will follow."
"Very well." The admiral bent down and slid his comlink across the deck. Luke retrieved it, and turned back to the spy.
"Let him go."
The spy lowered his blaster, giving the admiral a chance to enter a nearby escape pod. With a blast of energy, the capsule shot away from the ship, and Luke quickly moved to the now vacant gap, to watch its fate. It was hard to see through the narrow viewport ... was that shuttle coming in to retrieve, or was it simply on a patrol run?
Unfortunately, he had his back to the spy. A decision he would soon come to regret.
The first sign was when he heard the click of a loading blaster round. The second came when the man spoke.
"All right. You're coming with me, now."
Luke turned to find the spy's blaster pointed directly at him.
Great going, Skywalker, he thought. You're a hostage, once again!
As he was forced away from the escape pods, he couldn't help but wonder what his father was going to say when he found out about this. If he ever found out.
"The shuttle has successfully retrieved the pod!"
Vader was already on his way to the docking bay, anticipating the update from shuttle-ops. It was good news, but he wouldn't celebrate until he could see Luke was safe for himself.
It was a long and nerve wracking elevator trip through the length of the ship. Anything could happen in the crucial minutes it would take the shuttle to dock. Anything at all.
The hissing of the opening elevator doors coincided with his sigh of relief at the sight of a safely docked shuttle.
The lack of response caused Vader to move forward quickly. Was he hurt? Was he unconscious? More importantly ... where was he?
The shuttle's pilots and Admiral Reallis were walking slowly down the ramp, but his son was not among them. As they became aware of his waiting presence, the pilots backed away hastily, leaving the admiral to offer an explanation.
"Where is he?!" Vader struggled to sound impassive, but he knew he could not hope to succeed.
"On the ship -"
"You left him behind!?"
The admiral gasped for air, struggling to offer more, but unable to talk through the invisible force crushing his throat. Vader struggled with his anger for a few seconds, before finally gaining enough control to release the hold. He wouldn't achieve anything by killing the man. Yet, at least.
The admiral stumbled back, gasping in much-needed air.
"He ... he wouldn't come with me," the admiral explained, quickly trying to take advantage of this respite. "There was another man claiming to be an Imperial spy. Luke seemed to know him - he said he and Luke had met at the palace." He gasped for more air, as if to reassure himself he could still breathe. "I tried! I tried to get him to come with me, but he wouldn't listen!"
As always, Vader thought.
"He refused to go unless I went first ... and he said he would follow me, but he didn't. There was nothing I could do!" the admiral insisted.
"Any officer with one iota of honor would never have left him," Vader said, pointing at the man. "He's a child!"
"The spy said he had a ship ... he said he would take Luke to the ship, and get them both off safely. Perhaps he was telling the truth, sir."
Vader turned away from the admiral, having heard enough. Hadn't Luke learnt anything? How could he trust one of the Emperor's spies? How many times had he told him to -
Thinking back, Vader realized he had never actually told Luke to be wary of the Emperor's sinister agents. Politicians, yes; Grand Moffs, yes ... but one category had been left off that list. How could he be so stupid? All this worthless social training, when what he really should have been teaching his son is who to trust and who to avoid like a sandstorm.
Vader waited impatiently. Why wasn't he responding?!
A few excruciating seconds passed, which felt like minutes to Vader, until an annoyed presence flared on the other end of the bond.
What are you doing?
The link dissolved, closed from the other end. Vader felt his temper rise.
Luke! Listen to me!
Silence. Why was he being so stubborn in such a critical situation?
I know you can hear me, young one, and if you don't answer me -
The link reopened in a flash.
Don't call me that!
You should have gone with the admiral!
Oh, so now you tell me! You said it was too dangerous! Make up your mind!
That spy does not have your best interests in mind.
Boy, I'd never have guessed that one.
Why, what is he doing? Where are you?
Forget it. You'll only get all worried and start treating me like a helpless child.
Vader mentally sighed at the tone, and unfortunately, Luke picked it up over the link.
I don't need anymore of your useless help!
No, Luke, listen to me!
But the link had dissolved. Vader turned to leave the docking bay, angrily striding towards the lifts. The admiral and the pilots were staring after him in confusion, but he wouldn't bother to provide an explanation.
Of all the stubborn, reckless ...
Vader entered the elevator, and pushed a button to return to the bridge. He needed to brood. He might never see his son again, and all because the boy was ... was ...
Overly eager to prove himself. Convinced he was immortal. Unwilling to listen to anyone else once he'd made up his mind.
Where did he get this behavior?
Why does he have to treat me like I'm useless? Luke thought, angrily, I'm not afraid!
His angry thoughts didn't help him feel any better about his situation, though. He was feeling increasingly miserable as he trudged along in front of the spy. It seemed like they'd been walking through these corridors for twenty minutes now. Surely, they had to be getting near his ship soon?
If there even is a ship.
"Where are you taking me?" Luke asked. "To your ship? How much longer?"
"Do you have to keep asking that?! Stop whining!"
"I have a right to know!"
A beeping sound interrupted them, and the spy took out his comm, carefully balancing it in one hand in order to keep his blaster trained on Luke.
Luke immediately recognized the voice on the other end as belonging to the leader, who'd negotiated the terms with his father.
"Have you found him?"
"Yes, I've got him."
"Who was in that escape pod, then?"
"An Imperial admiral. Must've missed him in the sweeps. No big deal."
"No big deal? He might have sabotaged the ship!"
"This is an Imperial we're talking about - he was more interested in saving his own neck. Forget it - we've got the kid, that's what's important."
"Are you willing to stake our lives on that? I'm not. I've spoken to the others - we're ready to chuck it in and make a break for it. They'll be other times."
The words seemed to cause the spy to tense.
"No! Don't you see? If we hold out just a little bit longer, we're going to get what we came for. Risk nothing, gain nothing."
"We had a plan. The plan did not involve an Imperial officer escaping the ship."
"You can't always rely on plans!"
They continued to argue, causing Luke to become increasingly confused. Wasn't the spy working for the Emperor? Wouldn't he want the hostage-takers to abandon the ship? Why was he arguing?
"Give me ten more minutes!" the spy insisted. "Ten more, and I'll be on the bridge, and we can discuss this in person."
He switched off the comm, and then reattached it to his utility belt.
"I don't get it," Luke said. "Why are you arguing with them?"
"None of your business, kid," the spy said, curtly. He had knelt down in front of a computer terminal, built into the wall of the ship.
"What are you doing?" Luke asked. "I thought we were going to the docking bay."
"Quiet." He gestured with the barrel end of his blaster. "Stand against the wall, and don't move."
Luke obeyed, sensing that an opportunity to escape might arise any second now. The spy couldn't use a computer and watch him at the same time. He was holding the blaster somewhat loosely, while he entered a long sequence of letters and numbers with his left hand.
Luke held his breath, and counted to five, slowly. He then gathered his courage, and rushed the spy, jumping on his arm and wrestling the blaster away. He was completely taken by surprise, but he quickly gained the upper hand, being bigger and stronger. When they got back to their feet, Luke was still holding his blaster, though.
The spy didn't seem too upset.
"Enjoy what's left of your life, kid," he said, shrugging, and he sprinted off in the direction of the hangar. Luke stared after him in confusion, then glanced at the computer screen.
Suddenly, white lettering appeared on the screen in a bright red square.
Self Destruct Sequence Activated - counting 15:00
"Self destruct!" Luke shouted, in panic.
He brought his fist down on the terminal controls, then stood back and blasted the electronics. The timer wouldn't stop though ... it was down to fourteen minutes now.
What to do? Run for an escape pod? But could he really leave all the passengers and crew to die? By the time he reached them, time would be up!
He looked around desperately, before spotting something lying on the corridor floor. It was a comlink ... the spy's comlink! He must have dropped it during their struggle.
Luke dived on it, and hit the buttons until an image of the leader appeared.
"What now?! Oh -"
"Hi," Luke said. "Listen, your friend - he's an Imperial spy. He's set a self-destruct - the ship is going to explode in fourteen minutes! Wait, make that 13 minutes, 50 seconds! You have to get everybody off the ship now!"
"Why are you using his comlink?"
"That's not important now!" Luke said, angrily. Why did adults never take him seriously? "He dropped it and ran off! Listen, you're running out of time!"
The leader was about to reply, when he was interrupted by loud shouts in the background. The panicky tone indicated someone had confirmed the self-destruct.
"By the stars, you're serious!" he said. "Is there any way to disarm it?"
"I fried the controls, but nothing happened!" Luke said. "I think its already spread throughout the entire ship's network!"
"We'll have to evacuate!"
"I'm already looking for a docking bay," Luke said, studying a map on the wall. "Any help would be nice!"
"Get in an elevator, and go to the lowest floor," the leader said, quickly. "Then head to the bow of the ship."
Luke was already running. "Thanks," he gasped.
"Thank you - you've saved all our lives. Good luck."
The image disappeared, and Luke threw the comlink away. He skidded into an elevator, and pressed the button for the lowest floor, as the leader had said. He could only hope he was heading in the right direction.
The duration of the elevator ride gave Luke a moment to catch his breath. He gazed around at the walls, feeling trapped. He was fearful the ship would explode at any moment. How long to go now? Perhaps it was better that he didn't know.
The doors slid open, and Luke ran out, looking around desperately. Which way to the front of the ship? There were no signs anywhere, and he was lost.
No choice, but to pick a direction and hope it was the right one.
Vader had been sensing his son's fear growing ever stronger by the second. He tried desperately to get some kind of response from his son ... if only he knew what was going on, he might be able to help him. But he had completely shut him out.
Vader turned, seeing the admiral and the captain conferring with an officer in the crew pit.
"Is there a change?"
"Yes, my lord - we're detecting one - no make that two escape pods."
Vader quickly walked over, and they stood aside to allow him to see the readouts.
"There's more of them ..." the captain added, just as more blips appeared on the starboard side of the ship.
"Lifeforms?" Vader asked.
The science station hurried to find an answer to his question. Within ten seconds, a junior officer shouted a reply. "They're all occupied ... to full capacity!"
"More ... by the stars, there must be hundreds of them!" the captain said.
"Perhaps the passengers have overpowered the hostage takers ..." Admiral Reallis suggested.
"See if you can get them on the comm," Vader said. "Meanwhile, send shuttles to retrieve the escape pods."
The bridge crew rushed to carry out his order, but the captain was still intently studying the readouts. "Now there's a ship," he said. "It's a shuttle ... judging by their speed, I'd say they're going to attempt a jump to hyperspace. They should be out of range of the Interdictor in ... 20 minutes."
"Send TIEs to disable them," Vader said. "Not one ship must leave."
He was all too aware of the possibility of Luke being on that shuttle. If his kidnappers should succeed in making hyperspace ... his son could be lost forever! Perhaps the spy was piloting that shuttle ... perhaps Luke was unconscious ...
Father! I need your help!
Clearly not ...
Luke! What is going on?
The ship is going to self destruct!
What?! Are you responsible for this?
No! I swear! It was the spy, remember him?
How long until detonation?
I don't know! Soon ... it was fifteen minutes, but that was ages ago.
"Move the fleet away from the Abyssian ship!" Vader ordered, suddenly. "Quickly! It is going to self-destruct."
The captain stared at him dumbly for a second, but the admiral, clearly trying to get back on his good side, instantly moved to make it happen.
Vader was more concerned about his son, however.
Luke, where are you?
I'm in a docking bay ... in a ship. I'm trying to get it started, but, thanks to you and your lack of piloting lessons, I can't figure out these controls!
Tell me what you see.
There's a round button ... and a lever. One of the lights is glowing.
Show me! Focus on the controls!
Luke did so, and for an instant, Vader received a clear image of what his son could see. It only lasted a second, but a second was all he needed.
On your right ... press and hold the green button, and then pull the closest lever towards you.
The engines have powered up!
Good ... now, switch on the computer ...
Already done - I do know something about flying a ship! It says I'm in neutral ... I've switched it to flight mode.
Are you facing the exit?
No, I'm facing a wall ... the exit is behind the ship.
Vader sighed ... that would make it more difficult.
There is a lever on your left, which can be set to one of five positions. You need to pull it towards you, and then slip it into the notch marked 'reverse thrusters'.
There's no lever!
Above the fuel gauge readout!
I can't find it!
Because you are panicking! Calm down!
It's not here!
Show me again!
Luke did so, but this time he was focusing on the right side of the controls.
On the other side!
Oh ... you mean that left! Found it!
"There's a power surge in the ship's interior!" the captain shouted. "What's our distance?"
Vader ignored the shouts, and focused his gaze on the doomed ship which still filled the observation windows, despite their hasty retreat.
Luke, pull the stick towards you!
There was silence on the other end.
Hang on, just trying to get the shields up ...
Don't worry about that ... you need to get out of the ship now!
I'm getting there! I'm moving!
The Abyssian ship was beginning to shudder. Vader didn't need to study the sensor equipment to see the ship was starting to disintegrate.
Tell that to this rustbucket!
The words had only just echoed in Vader's mind, before a window-shaking boom rang through the ship, and a blinding light caused the crew to shield their eyes.
There was glowing debris and spinning pieces of starship everywhere. Little meteors of durasteel and engine casing were bouncing off their shields, causing a mini-explosion wherever they hit.
The bridge crew began to shout status reports.
"Shields are at 43, but holding!"
"Minor damage reported by the Stormshead and the Detonator!"
"One shuttle has made it into hyperspace!"
Vader was searching the starfield desperately, straining to see some sign ... some confirmation that the worst hadn't occurred.
Luke? he called. Son?
Wow! came a joyous reply, Did you see that?
Vader released a long, slow breath. It was hard to miss.
His son immediately became serious. Did the passengers make it?
There were hundreds of escape pods released before the explosion. Shuttles are picking them up. I will direct one to your location if you give me the co-ordinates.
Don't worry, I've got the hang of this now! I'll be there in a minute.
Docking with a star destroyer is a complex procedure!>
I can handle it!
Vader released the mind-link and scanned the bridge until he located the captain. He was by the comm station, trying to deal with a backlog of transmissions.
He looked up as Vader approached.
"Lord Vader! Several ships are requesting orders regarding the survivors - are we to detain them?"
"Do whatever you like," Vader said, waving a dismissive hand. "You and the admiral can handle this situation, Captain. I have no doubt the Abyssian government will soon be contacting you regarding the return of their royal family."
"Yes, sir," the captain said. "Admiral Reallis is in the docking bay ... he is overseeing the arrival of the survivors."
"Good. Tell him I am on my way."
Vader turned to leave, then paused for a moment.
"Captain, is the tractor beam functioning?"
The captain frowned. "I wouldn't risk it, sir - the amount of debris surrounding the ship is too great."
Vader nodded, and quickly resumed his journey to the elevator bay. If the tractor beam was not a possibility, then he could only hope Luke had inherited some piloting skills, along with his tendency to get himself into ridiculous situations.
I heard that!
You were supposed to, Vader sent back. Where are you?
Just flying underneath the bow. You know, I never realized how big a star destroyer really was before!
Stop sightseeing, and pay attention to your scopes. You will be coming up on the entrance to the docking bays soon. When you do so, lower your speed to -
I can see it! There's a shuttle going in!
Follow it! Vader sent. The elevator doors slid open in front of him, and he quickly stepped out into the docking bay. Through the main airlock, he could see a shuttle in the process of extending its landing gear. Luke must be seconds away.
Admiral Reallis came to greet him.
"Lord Vader! We are detecting an unauthorized ship approaching the docking bay - it is not transmitting any identification codes."
"Allow it through," Vader said. "The piloting may be somewhat erratic - Luke is at the controls."
"Will he be able to dock?"
"We are about to find out," Vader said, resting his hands on the safety railing. "It may be wise to clear the area."
The admiral nodded, and flicked a switch on a nearby terminal. A warning klaxon began to echo through the bay, and the stormtroopers on the deck rushed to the safety areas.
A small utility craft appeared against the starfield, weaving from side to side as if an engine was failing. Vader could sense Luke's Force presence radiating from it.
Lower your speed! Vader sent, becoming nervous as the craft began to swing to the left.
It can't go any lower! I'm barely moving as it is!
A likely story.
There's a warning light - I don't know what it means.
The craft suddenly dipped, and the nose dropped below the minimum entry angle.
I'm trying! There's something interfering with the guidance system - I think the ship was damaged in the explosion.
"Half the port-side wing has been torn off," the admiral said, as if privy to the private conversation. "It's listing badly."
Luke must have done so, because the craft shifted back on course.
You're about to hit the force field, Vader explained. You may experience some turbulence.
Once I'm through, what then?
Reverse thrusters, aim for the ground, and cut the engine.
Come on! That's a crash landing!
Try not to hit anything, Vader added.
The craft began to shake as it passed through the force field, and under the bright lights of the docking bay, Vader could now see how badly the craft was damaged. It was a miracle it was in one piece at all. At the last second, the nose dropped again, putting the craft on a collision course with the floor.
Reverse thrusters! Vader sent.
I just did! Nothing happened!
Cut the engines!
Too late. The craft squealed against the deck, and spun around in a shower of sparks as its momentum sent it skidding towards the line of parked shuttles.
Vader stretched out a hand, and gathered the Force. The energy quickly responded to his need, and the craft began to screech to a halt. Its right wing clipped the nearest shuttle, sending it into another spin, before it finally came to a rest against the wall.
The admiral released an audible sigh of relief and quickly approached the wreck, with Vader close behind. Stormtroopers were already dousing the smoking hull in a fire-resistant chemical, and one was attempting to pry open the hatch using the manual emergency release.
By the time Vader reached the scene, an exhausted, but otherwise healthy Luke was jumping down on to the deck. His face lit up when he saw Vader.
Before Vader could stop him, he opened his arms and clung to him like a sarlacc snatching its prey. Vader was mortified. He looked down at the blonde mop pressed against his armor, then back at the crew. The stormtroopers had stopped their work and were staring blankly, while the admiral had politely looked in the other direction. It was fairly clear that he was smiling, though.
"Luke," Vader said.
There was no reaction from his son.
Vader attempted to pry Luke away, and then his eye fell on one of the fire-extinguishers. Maybe he could use it to spray Luke off.
Luke finally let go, and stepped back.
"Where's the fresher?" he asked, glancing around.
"Over there," Vader said, gratefully giving Luke a push in the right direction.
As Luke hurried away, Vader looked back at the troopers. They hastily resumed their work, pretending they had seen nothing.
Vader turned to the admiral.
"I am returning to Coruscant. You are now in command here."
"Yes, Lord Vader."
Vader started to leave, and then paused.
"And if you value your life," he added. "You will not tell anyone of what you just saw."
"I wouldn't dream of it, sir," the admiral hastily replied.
After arriving safely back home, Luke had eagerly shared the story of his capture and escape with his droids over a large meal. It had been harrowing, nerve-wracking, and frightening at times, but now that he was safe, it seemed like an exciting adventure. Not one he'd want to have again in a hurry, but thrilling all the same.
"And then when I got to a ship, I powered it up and flew out of there," Luke said. "Right before it exploded!"
Artoo whistled, sounding awed, but Threepio was becoming increasingly distressed. "My goodness, Master Luke! You could have been killed!"
"Relax Threepio, I'm here, I made it," Luke said. "Although, you should have seen the landing -"
He was cut off by the repeated beeping of his door comm. Luke glanced over at his bedside chronometer, and saw it was nearing midnight. It could only be his father.
"Sorry guys," Luke said, as the door slid open. "I think the show's over. I'll tell you the rest tomorrow."
Artoo whistled sadly, but Threepio seemed somewhat relieved. They quickly made an exit, having to navigate their way around a somewhat puzzled Sith Lord in the process.
"What is going on?" he said, stepping into the room. "Why are you still awake?"
"I was waiting up for you," Luke said, standing up.
"I told you I was going to report to the Emperor ... it took longer than I anticipated to explain -" he suddenly broke off, and looked aside in clear disgust.
"What?" Luke said. "I like these pajamas!"
"'Blinding' does not do them justice."
"You think anything besides pitch black is blinding."
"It is," his father replied. He came closer, and held out a datapad. "I received a message from the Abyssian monarchy. They escaped from the explosion, and made it safely to hyperspace. It seems they are under the impression you had something to do with the survival of the passengers."
Luke accepted the datapad, and walked back to his bed as he read it. There was a message included at the end from Lilly, addressed to him.
Everyone is talking about how you saved all our lives. No one would have made it off the ship in time if you hadn't told us about the self-destruct. How does a feel to be a hero?
I hope this incident hasn't put you off Abyssia. You're welcome to visit anytime. Besides, we still need to finish our game ... I believe the score was 10-9.
Luke grinned. "The princess wants a beep-ball rematch," he said to his father. "Can we go visit them sometime on Abyssia? I could pilot!"
"Don't get ahead of yourself," his father said, pointing at him. "Today was an exceptional circumstance. It does not mean you are ready to go joyriding around the galaxy."
"But I did okay for my first time, right?" Luke said.
His father hesitated for a moment. "Remarkably well," he admitted, finally.
"Then can we go for another lesson tomorrow? Can we, can we, can we?"
"Maybe when you're older," his father said. "And you need to learn to pilot an air-speeder, first."
"I was driving landspeeders when my feet could reach the pedals!" Luke insisted, folding his arms. "Just show me the controls, and I can fly it -" Luke paused to yawn. "- anywhere," he added, sleepily. He glanced over at his bed, and then tugged at the bedclothes. They were all in a knotted heap at one end of the bed.
His father noticed the mess, and Luke knew a remark couldn't be far behind.
"Are you planning to sleep in that?"
"Why? Are you offering to let me sleep in your room?"
His father quickly moved to help him. When all the sheets were straightened out, Luke crawled underneath. Then, to Luke's embarrassment, his father began to tuck him in.
"I'm too old for that!" Luke complained.
"And yet too young to make your bed properly in the first place," his father said, sitting on the side of the freshly made and tucked-in bed. "It must be a very convenient age."
"It would be if you thought I was old enough to fly," Luke said, meeting his father's masked gaze. "I bet you were flying when you were my age."
"Goodnight," his father said, starting to stand up.
Luke reached out to stop him. "Wait a moment. Do I have to go to anymore of these parties?"
"Really? You mean I proved myself?"
"No. You were doing adequately up until you ... you ... attacked me in the docking bay. But I have decided that public appearances are too dangerous for you, unless they are absolutely necessary."
"Attacked you? That was a hug!"
"Whatever it was, never do it again. Especially not in front of other people."
"But weren't you pleased to see me?"
His father looked away for a moment, as if fighting some sort of inner conflict.
"I was ... relieved that you were unharmed," he said, finally.
"You know," Luke said, fidgeting with the bedcover. "When I woke up, and found I was a hostage ... I was kinda ... well, I was worried."
"You were scared?"
"No! I was ... all right, I was afraid I might never see you again. And I felt guilty about what happened ... about thinking you weren't really my father. Because, at that moment, I realized that I didn't want to be anyone else except your son. And I realized how lucky I am to have you as my father. Not because you can use the Force, and own the coolest speeders in the universe. But because you care about me."
"Does this mean you're going to start cleaning your room and making your bed?" his father asked, seriously.
Luke grinned. "Maybe."
"What about getting to bed at a reasonable hour and staying out of trouble?"
"Well ..." Luke frowned. It was a lot to ask.
"In other words, my life is going to remain in a constant state of disorder, for many long years to come."
"I know," Luke said. "And I love you too."
His father appeared uncomfortable for a moment, before he let out a sigh of defeat.
"Mess and disorder aside, I too am pleased to have you as my son," his father said. He then quickly stood up. "And I am going to leave now, before this conversation descends into sentimentality."
"That's okay," Luke said. "You did pretty well."
"Sleep well, my son."
He switched out the room lights on his way out, and Luke heard the doors slide closed. He waited a few seconds, just to make sure his father had really gone, and then debated with himself whether or not to add 'your lordship'. It was unlikely his father would hear, but then, you never could be sure. Not with a Sith Lord.
No, you most certainly cannot.
Luke started. You said you couldn't read my private thoughts!
Only when you are debating whether or not to insult me.
Can I have my t-shirt back? The one about the problems of having a Sith Lord for a father? Luke asked.
His father's mood darkened. No.