Lando Calrissian—now known as Tamtel Skreej—lay in his bunk in the guard barracks of Jabba's Palace. He was on the bottom bed, and he stared up at the underside of the mattress above. It sagged sharply under the weight of his Gammorean bunk mate, and he wondered when the metal mesh that supported it would give way, bringing the porcine alien crashing down on top of him.
The snores of his bunkmate blended with a chorus of nocturnal sounds from dozens of others. It had been disconcerting to him when he'd first arrived, and he'd felt like he was in some kind of menagerie. The thought had seemed bigoted, until he realized Tamtel was certainly one of the beasts. But now, months later, the sounds had become white noise he barely noticed.
It was in the relative still of the night that Tamtel receded into the background and the inner voice of Lando Calrissian made himself heard. He often wished he could shut that voice up and stay submerged in the rough carelessness of his adopted persona. Tamtel hadn't come naturally to him—Lando was, after all, renowned for his smoothness. Playing the savage went very much against the grain, but it also provided a haven from the two emotions that defined his true self ever since Cloud City.
Guilt and fear.
The guilt was manageable. For one thing, he deserved it, and that somehow made it okay to live with. And it was a motivator. It fueled his determination to see the job through, despite the constant presence of his fear.
But it was the fear that Lando brought with him to Tamtel's bedside that made his presence so unwelcome. Secret identity notwithstanding, Tamtel stood a pretty decent chance of being murdered in bed on any given night. He had already fended off two attempts in his tenure here. Just being human seemed enough of a reason for some of the thugs to hate him. But if Lando Calrissian was recognized, they would filet him in a joyous frenzy. That thought stalked him every day, following behind him with soft footfalls that could always be heard.
He didn't want to die, but he also didn't fear death for its own sake.
The thought that chilled him was that if he was killed, Han could end up frozen forever. Not quite alive, not quite dead—trapped in eternal nothingness.
Lando checked his communicator's display. It was four in the morning. It was time for another walk. Maybe this time they forgot.
He touched his feet to the cool stone floor, and made his way into the dark corridor. He made a left at the first junction he came to, and continued onward until he reached a narrow staircase. It spiraled around the rounded outer wall of the palace, descending to subterranean levels. Finally, his feet struck sand, and he could hear the only nocturnal sound in the palace that still gave him pause, even after making this trip a dozen times. It was not the drunken snores of the rancor keepers, who slept on hard benches along the walls.
It was the subsonic rumble that pulsed rhythmically from the monster's keep. The sound of massive exhalations rushing through reptilian nostrils.
Keep snoozing you big bastard.
He stepped over to a computer terminal that was set against the wall. A cursor blinked invitingly. He hung his head in grateful relief.
Finally, after months of futile trips into the dungeon, he had caught his break. In their stupor, the keepers had forgotten to lock the computer down.
Lando looked at one of the sleeping men. He was clutching an empty bottle that rose and fell on his rotund gut with each breath. Lando tossed off a silent salute. What you tubs need with a computer I'll never know.
All of his careful planning and covert observation now came down to a message.
He started typing.
Princess Leia Organa opened her eyes in Yavin Victory's sickbay. She felt as though the thin mattress beneath her had been molded to her form. She pushed the sheets from her body, and it was like breaking out of a cocoon. She struggled to pull herself upright, and an orderly trotted over to assist her. She tried to speak, but her throat was so dry it was as if her vocal cords had seized. She was handed a glass of water, and she drank it greedily. The orderly signaled someone from his comm. unit. Leia motioned for another glass of water and it was given.
General Rieekan stepped into the sickbay and smiled warmly.
She lowered the glass from her lips. "How long?" she rasped.
"Five days," he said. "We almost lost you. Your immune system was apparently very susceptible to the Suuron virus. But you've been inoculated and your fever broke last night.
She nodded in understanding. "Our casualties?"
"Twenty two from the virus," he said. "We also lost the Antares III in the Mordus raid. And there were six killed from Rogue Squadron."
Her eyes went wide. "Luke?"
"Come on," Rieekan said, offering his hands to help her up. "Let's go see him."
Leia held Rieekan's arm for support in the turbolift. When the doors slid open, the cacophony of a full-on blaster fight assailed her ears. She reflexively clawed at the general.
"It's all right," he assured her. "Come on."
They stepped out onto the wide catwalk that surrounded the main hangar deck from one level up. Her jaw slowly fell as she watched the scene unfolding below.
Luke Skywalker, clad in all black, stood in the center of the docking bay. He gripped a titanium rod in both hands, and swung it back and forth faster than she had ever seen a man move. He deflected the training bolts in every direction, as dozens of crewmen fired from all around him. She looked to her left and right and saw sharpshooters with rifles raining fire down on him, and watched as one of the snipers growled in pain as a sting bolt came back into his shoulder. He dropped his weapon to the deck and sat down to rub the wound.
One by one, each of the attackers would wince from a hit and lay down on the deck to nurse their sore bodies and avoid anymore bolts. Finally, there was one man left standing. Luke yanked the blaster out of his hand with the force. The trooper threw up his hands and surrendered.
Luke remained where he stood. His shoulders heaved with each breath and perspiration matted his hair to his forehead. The fallen crewmen each rose to their feet, some still grimacing from the sting bolts. The pilots of Rogue Squadron struck up applause. The rest of the soldiers—some more reluctantly than others—joined in.
"You just beat fifty men, boss!" Wedge said, slapping him on the back. R2-D2, newly repaired after the crash on Veraant, rolled up to him and hooted excitedly. Luke patted his dome and shook hands with some of the crewmen.
His brow furrowed when he detected a familiar presence. He looked up at the catwalk and made eye contact with Leia. His expression softened, and a smile spread across his face.
She returned it.
The members of Rogue Squadron put on standard duty uniforms after hitting the showers. Pilots had their own facilities located off of their ready room, and they were currently the only occupants.
"I've never seen one man get so lucky," Janson said while combing his hair in front of a mirror.
Luke smiled. "In my experience, there's no such thing as luck."
"I'll second that," Hobbie said, sitting hunched over on a changing bench.
"Enough already," Janson sighed. "You were EV for less than a day before the rescue shuttle picked you up. And you didn't lose any more limbs. A banner day for you, my friend."
Hobbie flipped off a rude gesture. Janson shrugged.
"Anybody hear how Sivrak's doing?" Wedge asked.
"Another day in the bacta tank and then he's on bed rest for a few days," Tycho answered. "Which he'll hate."
"You sure you don't want to amend your previous statement, Luke?" Wedge asked. "All things considered, I think the squadron got real lucky on this last one."
"Perhaps," Luke said. He glanced around at the other men. "Could you guys give Wedge and me a few minutes?"
There was a muted chorus of 'yes sirs' and then Tycho, Janson, and Hobbie filed out of the locker room. Wedge looked at Luke questioningly.
"It wasn't luck that brought us all home safe," Luke said. "It was you."
Wedge looked down, embarrassed. "I just did what you would've done if you could have been there."
"Maybe so. We'll never really know for sure. It's impossible to say what any one of us might do when the call is ours."
Wedge nodded in agreement.
"But you made all the right calls back there. You saved the Alliance, and you saved me, against all odds."
He smiled just noticeably. "I'm a Corellian," he said simply.
"And there you have it," Luke said. "A man who can make the right decisions in combat and win against impossible odds is a hell of an asset. Too valuable to be riding second seat—even to a Jedi."
Wedge's head came up. "Are you transferring me? Because with all—
Luke held up a hand to stall him. "You're not going anywhere, Wedge. I am."
"What do you mean?"
"General Rieekan told me I could step down from my day-to-day role with the Alliance when the time was right. And I have to go to Tatooine."
Luke nodded. "After that, I need to finish my training. I have no idea where that will take me, or how long I'll be gone."
Wedge rose to his feet. "It will always be your squadron, Luke. I'll keep the lead seat warm for you. It'll be there when you're ready to come back."
Luke held out a case containing a rank insignia with his left hand. He shook Wedge's hand firmly with his right. "It's your squadron now, Wedge. A hundred percent. And don't worry about what I would do. Trust your own heart and mind."
"Besides—I'm the one who needs to be rescued all the time."
Wedge chuckled. "Well, I'm proud to be one the people who flew the Falcon to your aid."
Luke clapped him on the shoulder. "Congratulations, Commander."
Wedge gestured with the case Luke had handed him. "I don't know how you managed this after the resignation mess."
"Turns out Captain Antilles was deactivated. Putting you in as a Commander was the easiest way to get you back on the duty roster."
Wedge nodded. "Sounds good."
A tentative female voice came from outside the doorway. "Are you gentlemen decent?"
"No, but we are fully dressed," Luke answered.
Leia walked into the room.
"I'll excuse myself," Wedge said. "It's good to see you doing so well, Your Highness."
"Thank you, Wedge."
He bowed and left the room, and Luke and Leia were alone. He opened his arms wide and Leia embraced him. Luke closed his eyes and squeezed her tightly. He buried his face in her hair and kissed the top of her head.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Leia pulled back to look at him, her brow furrowed with concern. "Luke, what do you have to be sorry for?"
"It was my fault. The attack on Yavin Victory. The virus. Everything afterwards."
"You can't take responsibility for that. I know you feel pressured by the weight of your powers and potential, but you're only one man. You can't expect to single-handedly protect us from every threat in the galaxy."
"No," Luke said. "It's more than that. I—" he stopped. "I hid."
"Hid from what?" she asked.
"My path. My life."
"I don't understand."
"I hid from the force," he explained. "I couldn't face my destiny. I was afraid of what I would find through meditation. So I avoided it. And the few times a vision came to me in spite of myself, I shut it out."
"That still doesn't make you—"
"I saw you in danger," Luke said, his eyes tearing. "And I still looked away. I could have lost you. We almost lost everything."
Leia looked away for a moment and processed what he had said. She put her hands on her hips and sighed.
"We've been fighting this war for years without a break. We've all had to struggle with our demons along the way. Some of us more so than others."
A tear ran down Luke's cheek. "Yeah," he said softly.
She turned back to him. "This is part of your path. This lesson."
Luke swallowed and looked her in the eyes. "I won't hide again. I'll confront my destiny head on. And I'll always protect the people I love."
Luke dropped to the bench and let out a long, tired breath. Leia came and sat down beside him.
"So do you know what to do next?"
He nodded and turned to her.
"I received a message from Lando. It's time."
Mara Jade blinked open her eyes. She was lying on her back and could see daylight shining through the dense treetops of Veraant's evergreen forest. She tried to sit up and winced in pain. She had at least a few broken ribs. Her right wrist throbbed intensely where Vader had snapped it. She held it to her chest, and rolled gingerly to her left side, and used her good hand to push herself upright. She pulled the cloth mask off of her head, and the brisk morning air felt good against her face. She got to her feet and looked around.
She heard the constant rushing of the waterfall nearby, but aside from that, there was little to get her bearings by.
She plucked her comlink from her belt and thumbed it on.
"Agent One to fleet, please respond."
She tried a few times, but got only dead air in response. The Imperial ships had apparently left orbit. She was stranded.
She touched a button on her wrist chronograph and set it to compass mode. She knew she had originally set out due east from her crashed fighter. She oriented herself westward, and hoped to come upon it. If she could access the ship's computer, she might be able to get coordinates for whatever passed for a city on this rock.
She let out a frustrated sigh that caused sharp pains from her ribcage. She made a mental note not to do that again.
She started walking.
It was less than a kilometer when she sensed trouble. She reflexively reached for a weapon, but she had none. She slowly raised her hands above her head.
"Turn around slowly," a metallic voice said.
She did so.
Boba Fett pointed wrist blaster at her. He hobbled on one foot, with his other hand held against a tree for support. The stump at his ankle was covered by a military-issue coagulant brace, designed to contain bleeding from massive wounds. He had probably lost a lot of blood already, because his gun hand was wavering, and his balance seemed unsteady at best. His armor was battered to hell, and his jetpack sat crumpled on the ground.
"Vader?" she asked.
There was a pause before he answered. "The other." He sounded almost embarrassed.
Skywalker, then. He must be better than I gave him credit for.
Mara nodded. "They got me, too."
He continued to point his weapon at her.
She looked down at the ground, knowing the next question could be her last.
"So what now?" she asked.
"I should kill you," he said.
She nodded. "Next time you should. But this time, I have the legs."
"And I have the ship."
Luckily, they seemed to be on the same page. She gave him a small smile. "A lift for a lift?"
He lowered his wrist blaster. "Agreed."
She walked up to him slowly, and slung his left arm over her shoulders. She held onto him with her left hand, and kept her broken right wrist protectively against her torso. They began hobbling towards Fett's ship.
"Any interesting jobs lined up after this one?" she asked tentatively.
Fett slowly turned to look at her. "I don't make fracking small talk."
Mara blew out a relieved breath.
"Thank the stars."
Lord Vader's battered body was gently buffeted by the currents of the river. He had been carried past the choppy rapids of the canyon and had emerged at the far end, where the banks were steep grassy hills as opposed to sheer rock walls. The white water had faded into a babbling current. Floating on his back, he reached with his remaining hand to grab at the mossy surface of the bank. He found a purchase, and with great effort, he hauled himself onto land.
His cloak was in burnt tatters and his armor was bent, pitted, and dented all over. His right eye piece was broken, and his naked eye was bloodshot and heavy lidded with exhaustion. The rapids had shaken and pummeled him all through the night, and now, at dawn, he had now finally washed ashore, looking like a soaked raven that had narrowly escaped another predator.
Vader's signature breathing came out as metallic wheezes. Through pure will, he rolled himself onto his front, and began pulling himself up the hill. When he reached the top, he collapsed onto his chest and continued to wheeze, only more rapidly.
Vader looked up.
An Alliance trooper was pointing a blaster at him. The blood drained from the man's face when he realized who he had stumbled upon.
Vader made a hand gesture.
The man's gun hand jerked upwards and the barrel jammed into the flesh under his chin. A red blaster bolt shrieked through the top of his head and he dropped like a sack to the ground. The echo of the shot faded, and then there was only the sound of the forest.
Vader just wheezed for another few moments, then rolled onto his back and pulled himself upright. He stood up slowly, and looked around. His gaze finally froze on a point of interest that made his powerful shoulders sag in relief.
A reconnaissance shuttle sat serenely on the ground twenty meters away. Its boarding ramp was open.
Vader stood outside the massive doors of the Emperor's throne room on Coruscant. His black armor gleamed even in the muted light of the outer chamber. Externally, he was a new man, with virtually every part of him having been replaced by the droids in the palace medical ward.
Internally, he tried desperately to control the rage of his conflicting emotions.
He had come to the painful realization that he needed the Emperor's help to win over his son.
In his quest to unite with Luke, he had told himself that lightness and darkness did not matter. The philosophies and emotions behind one's actions were irrelevant. All that mattered was the result. And what he wanted to create—what he had always wanted to create—was a life where he was in absolute control of his own destiny, and could absolutely protect the people he loved.
What the Emperor had shown him was that the only way you could achieve that was through absolute power. It had taken him more than two decades to fully learn that lesson. He had understood it entirely when he stood in the silent vacuum of Polis Massa, watching a recording of Padme giving birth to his son. The Emperor had concealed this event from him. He had controlled the flow of knowledge, and in doing so controlled the flow of his apprentice's life from that point forward. He used absolute power to manipulate.
Vader was many things, but a liar was not one of them. That was not how he would rule. But before he could fulfill his ultimate destiny, he needed to avail himself of Palpatine's serpentine persuasiveness one last time.
To turn Luke to the dark side.
Luke was appalled by his father because he had never been set down the path that Palpatine had maneuvered Vader onto those many years ago. Luke would reject him unendingly until he had seen the world through the eyes of the Sith, and had been submersed in its well of hatred and despair. When Luke had pulled himself through that same blackness, they could emerge on the other side together, on whatever higher plain that might be, as an unstoppable force.
As father and son.
And until the end could be achieved, Vader would remain the Emperor's servant, lying in wait. He just had to conceal his innermost thoughts for a little longer.
The purple-cloaked herald stepped out of the shadows.
"His Excellency will see you, my lord."
Vader steeled himself, and strode into the chamber.
Master Yoda had dwelled in the dark side cave for what felt like an eternity, existing amid the horror and sadness and rage that saturated the place. The dark aura of the cave had masked his own powerful presence in the force, allowing him to elude the intensified searches of Darth Vader and the Emperor. From under the shroud of the dark side, it was difficult to tell if they were still looking for him, or to sense anything at all.
The dark side clouds everything.
Yoda trudged out of the twisted mouth of the cave, and stepped onto the hard, cool mud outside. He sighed in relief as he gazed upon the swamplands. There was no sunshine on Dagobah, but getting out into the open air made him feel as though he had stepped into paradise.
His gaze fell upon his home and the good feeling left him. The roof had been sliced off—clearly with a lightsaber—and vegetation had grown through the center of the hut and begun covering the outer walls.
He shook his head. More work to be done, before a rest I can take.
As Yoda made his way over to the hut, he remembered the glimmer of light that had penetrated the darkness of the cave. He smiled, knowing he would have a visitor soon.
Young Skywalker was coming.