One Missed Strike
Part II

(The Empire Strikes Back)

Deep within the inky blackness of space, in the cold expanse between the flaming stars, a massive, gleaming white shape slowly came to a halt. The gigantic arrowhead-shaped vessel opened the cavernous bay doors on its underside, and with multiple flashes, like an extremely organized meteor shower, a swarm of probe droids scattered in all directions.

The Imperial Star Destroyer paused only long enough to ensure that the droids were well on their way before speeding up and vanishing into hyperspace, leaving the probe droids alone in the utter darkness.

One of the droids, programmed to search a nearby system, sped up, hurtling through the void for hours on end until it finally entered the remote system of Hoth.

No one came to Hoth. Not only were all eight planets orbiting the elderly yellow sun nearly uninhabitable, it just wasn't near anything important, and so it remained a quiet, unobtrusive corner of the galaxy, visited only by those with something to hide or someone to hide from.

But, Emperor Anakin Skywalker, known to most by his Sith title Darth Vader, was obsessed with finding the Rebellion, and so probe droids were scattered to every corner of the galaxy, cataloguing every unauthorized and undocumented sign of habitation they could find in hopes of locating the secret Rebel base.

After the Battle of Yavin, in which two squadrons of Rebel pilots in snub fighters delivered a crippling, humbling blow to the mighty flagship of the Imperial fleet, Lord Vader's Super Star Destroyer Executor, the Empire had cracked down even more severely on the Alliance to Restore the Republic. Lord Vader became merciless in his pursuit of what he publicly denounced as a terrorist organization, ransacking and destroying Rebel bases whenever he found them.

Those who kept track of such things began to speculate that Lord Vader was searching for something, for one particular Rebel among the thousands who gathered under the Alliance banner in their quest to bring freedom back to the galaxy.

The speculators were right; Darth Vader had been searching relentlessly for the young Jedi known as Luke Skywalker for the last three years, but had so far been unable to capture him. In fact, only a few people in the galaxy knew exactly why the Sith Master hunted the young Jedi with such fervor; Luke Skywalker was Darth Vader's son.

Neither Skywalker had ever spoken so much as one word to the other, and in fact had only seen each other once, during Luke's rescue of the Alderaanian Royal Family, which Vader had attempted to stop, killing Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the process.

But Vader was determined to find his child, and so he widened his search ever more, scouring the galaxy for the Rebellion and its hero, who was rapidly earning himself a reputation equal to his father's during the Clone Wars.

If droids could be bored, which they could not, especially the limited intelligence of probe droids, the unit dispatched to Hoth would have been. It streaked through the atmosphere of the sixth planet of the Hoth system without any attempt at stealth, almost certain there was nothing there.

However, droids had to follow their programming, so the probe droid extricated itself from its landing pod and set off across the icy wasteland of the planet, chasing Rebels that probably weren't there.

Luke Skywalker followed a flaming streak across the sky with his macrobinoculars, watching as it smashed into one of the endless snowbanks of frigid Hoth.

Atop his tauntaun, the only other living thing besides Luke himself for kilometers as far as he could see, the young Jedi debated with himself whether or not to investigate the meteor.

"Nothing better to do," Luke said to his tauntaun, who merely growled and whined in response.

The Rebellion had found a haven of sorts here on Hoth, a refuge from the merciless forces of Darth Vader. The Sith Master had been angry after his defeat at Yavin, and so devoted the full resources of the Imperial military to finding and rooting out the Rebellion. The defeat had cost him an eye and the respect of many a politician, who jumped on what they saw as a sign of weakness and began to attempt to acquire more power for themselves. In a fit of rage, Vader had reportedly threatened to completely disband the Senate and turn everything over the Imperial Governors, making his regime even more totalitarian. This rage had carried through to his pursuit of the Rebellion, and he'd personally destroyed several cells his intelligence network uncovered, leaving no one alive.

The Alliance had been fighting a rear-guard action for most of the last three years, unable to bring freedom to anyone under the heel of the Empire because they'd been fighting simply to survive. Now they hid here on Hoth, trying to stay under the Empire's radar until Vader's legendary temper cooled. So far, it seemed to Luke that Hoth had a greater chance of melting than Darth Vader had of giving up in his pursuit, but he hadn't said this to anyone else. Morale was low enough as it was.

Luke pulled the scarf from his face and raised his goggles out of the way, brushing the frost off the comlink built into his gauntlet.

"Echo Three to Echo Seven," he said. "Han, old buddy, do you read me?"

He received only static for a moment before a familiar voice cut through the interference. "Watch who you're calling 'old', kid," the Corellian smuggler responded, a hint of amusement in his tone. "What's up?"

Luke grinned at his friend's characteristic irreverence. "I've finished my circle and I haven't picked up any life readings," he said.

"There isn't enough life on this ice cube to fill a space cruiser," Han Solo replied amusedly. "My markers are placed; I'm heading back to base."

"Right, I'll see you shortly," Luke said, looking over at the plume of smoke about half a klick away. "I'm going to go check out a meteorite that hit the ground near here. I won't be long."

He turned off his comlink and put his heels to the tauntaun's flanks. "C'mon, girl, let's go," he said to the snow-lizard. The beast shook its head anxiously, pawing the ground, and he leaned over to pat her neck. "What's the matter, girl? You smell something?"

The tauntaun had indeed smelled something: its natural predator on the frozen plains. The Force prickled Luke's senses a moment before a massive furry white paw slapped him out of the tauntaun's saddle, sending him tumbling to the snow.

"Whoa!" Luke shouted as he got a good look at what had attacked him.

The creature was a wampa, an enormous muscular biped covered in thick white fur and armed with razor-sharp claws. Its wide, slavering jaws opened in a growl, and it bellowed fiercely at him, smashing Luke's tauntaun aside with what was almost certainly a fatal blow.

Luke scrambled backwards, tugging his lightsaber from his belt as the creature advanced. He ignited the shining sapphire blade and brandished it at the creature, but the wampa was unimpressed, and the enormous furry creature charged.

The young Jedi hurled himself out of the way in a Force-enhanced leap, slashing at the wampa as it went past. One of its long, muscular arms dropped to the snow with a meaty thump, and it bellowed in pain and fury, rounding on him with a snarl.

Luke dropped into a defensive crouch, holding his lightsaber in front of him, and the wampa paused, glaring at him suspiciously. It knew he'd cut off its arm somehow, and appeared to be debating whether to risk losing the other one or another appendage to have its revenge.

Luke sent out a subtle suggestion through the Force, telling the wampa that he was dangerous and that it should flee, and to his relieved surprise, it did just that, bounding away with long, heavy strides through the snow.

As he deactivated his lightsaber and returned it to his belt, Luke slowly stopped and frowned, looking over at his dead tauntaun and the endless, empty wastes beyond. "Great," he said to himself. "Now how am I supposed to get back to the base?"

There was no answer, only the howling of the wind over the ice and snow.

Han Solo slowly pulled his tauntaun to a halt, welcoming the relative warmth of the caves the Rebels' base occupied. He dismounted and tossed the reins of the snow-lizard to a nearby Rebel and pulled down the hood of his heavy coat, pocketing his goggles next.

He looked at the busy people around him, working hard to turn this frozen hole in the ground into a workable base, and he frowned to himself as he moved past the ships and speeders an army of mechanics worked on, sparks and curses flying with equal speed and frenzy as they struggled to adapt their machines to the cold.

Despite the fact that he'd been running and hiding with the Rebellion off and on for the last three years, Han still didn't really feel like he was one of them. They didn't share this opinion, though, and General Rieekan, the commander of the base, had more than once offered Han an officer's commission, which he'd so far turned down.

It was time for him to leave, to go back and do some good honest smuggling work in an effort to get Jabba the Hutt off his back. All these Rebels were too honest for his tastes. He hadn't made any real money since Yavin, which didn't help with the rather large sum he owed to Jabba for a shipment of spice he'd had to dump when he had been stopped by an Imperial patrol. Since it had been three years without payment, -which was not Han's fault but instead the result of a streak of spectacular bad luck- the Hutt crime lord was undoubtedly quite angry with him, evidenced by the increased bounty he'd placed on Han not long ago.

Hopefully after a few good runs he could calm Jabba down and get the price off of his head, but what he'd do after that, he didn't know.

Han looked up as he passed his ship, the Millennium Falcon, and shouted up to the huge furry Wookiee who was perched atop the hull, repairing one of the many temperamental systems on the battered freighter.

Chewbacca bellowed down in response, raising his welder as he grumbled at Han about being left behind to do all the work.

"All right, don't lose your temper," Han called back. "I'll come right back and give you a hand."

Chewbacca growled to himself and went back to work, putting his protective goggles back into place.

After shedding his heavy coat, Han found his way into the command center, adjusting his dark jacket as he looked around. His attention was drawn first to Princess Leia Organa, as it was usually, and he looked at her for a second through the crowd of people packed into the command center, monitoring the frozen wasteland that was their new home for now.

The princess was slender and petite, but fiery, and he found that that was what he liked most about her. Anyone who could hold her own in an argument with him instantly became interesting to the Corellian. Plus, it helped that she was easy on the eyes, too. With her long, rich brown hair bound up around her head in a simple but elegant braid, Leia somehow managed to seem dignified and beautiful even in her white combat uniform.

She glanced over in Han's direction, and he moved on before she could notice him staring at her. What was he, Luke? He hoped his interest wasn't as embarrassing as the young Jedi's obvious infatuation with Mara Jade, amusing as it may be to the rest of the base. The kid was deluding himself if he thought he was hiding it.

As he approached the commander of the base, a man in his early fifties with graying brown hair named Rieekan, Han stopped, leaning against the console the general was intently studying.

"Find anything, Solo?" the general asked, looking up from the blinking, flashing console.

"No sign of life out there, General," Han replied. "But the markers are set, so you'll know if anything comes around."

"Has Commander Skywalker reported in yet?" Rieekan asked.

"He's checking out a meteorite that hit near him," Han said. "He'll be in soon."

Rieekan frowned, looking at a radar screen on the console in front of him. "With all the meteor activity in this system, it's going to be difficult to spot approaching ships."

"General, I gotta leave," Han said before Rieekan could say any more. "I gotta move on."

His gaze was drawn to Leia again, and she glanced at him apparently without feeling, turning back to her console with cold aloofness.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Solo," Rieekan said.

"Well, I've got a price on my head, and if I don't pay off Jabba the Hutt, I'm a dead man."

Rieekan nodded understandingly. "A death mark's not an easy thing to live with. You're a good fighter, Solo. I hate to lose you."

Han nodded, and Rieekan went back to his readouts, issuing orders to the personnel nearby. Han went over to where Leia stood, and he smiled at her.

"Well, Your Highness, I guess this is it," he said, hoping for at least a smile in return.

"That's right," she replied coolly, glancing at him for only a moment before returning her attention to her console.

Han frowned. He thought he'd been developing a rapport with Leia, and he'd expected a little friendlier farewell than that. Well, if that's how it was…

"Well, don't get all mushy on me," he said irritably. "So long, Princess."

He stormed out of the command center, thinking all sorts of unfriendly things about the Alderaanian princess, but a little ways into the tunnel between the command center and the hangar, he heard running footsteps behind him and stopped as he heard Leia shout his name.

"Yes, Your Highnessness?" he said, spinning to face her.

"I thought you had decided to stay," she said. Was that concern in her voice? Han wasn't sure.

"Well, the bounty hunter we ran into on Ord Mantell changed my mind," he replied. "I'm going to pay off Jabba before he sends any more of his hunters after me. I have to get the price off my head while I still have a head."

"But we still need you," Leia said, looking up at him.

"We need?" Han said, looking down at her. "What about you need?"

Leia looked at him quizzically. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Han frowned again. "No, you probably don't," he said, irritated more with himself now than he was with her. He started off down the icy white corridor again, but the footsteps followed him.

"And what, precisely, am I supposed to know?" Leia asked, almost having to jog to keep up with him.

"Come on," Han said, still walking. "You want me to stay because of the way you feel about me."

"Well, of course," Leia replied, still not understanding what he meant. "You've been a great help to us. You're a natural leader-"

Han stopped suddenly and whirled to face the princess, raising a finger to point at her. "No," he said. "That's not it."

Leia's expression turned thoughtful and then derisive as she finally comprehended his meaning. "You're imagining things."

"Am I?" Han countered, leaning closer. A Rebel soldier pushed between them, and he moved back, but leaned forward again as soon as the man moved on. "What, were you afraid I was gonna leave without giving you a good-bye kiss?"

"I'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee!" she shot back, by all appearances insulted by the very suggestion.

Han raised a finger to point at her again, angry now. "I can arrange that," he said, walking off again. "You could use a good kiss!" he shouted back at her over his shoulder.

Leia stopped and watched him go, glaring at a Rebel who had the audacity to grin to himself as he passed.

Ridiculous, she thought to herself. But, as she stormed off in the opposite direction from the smuggler, she had to admit that some of what Han had said was right.

Anyone who dared suggest it to her face, though, would quickly regret it.

The Imperial probe droid continued on with its survey of the frozen planet of Hoth, measuring heat levels and searching for signs of civilization. It wasn't supposed to have the programming to feel boredom, but the tiny glimmer of intelligence within its evil-looking metal shell felt the electronic equivalent nevertheless, scanning what appeared to be yet another lifeless, uninhabitable lump of rock.

Upon discovering a hint of metal, the droid shot off in that direction, sensors attuned to something obviously artificial.

Perhaps Hoth was not so lifeless as the surveys had indicated.

Luke staggered through another snow drift, his heavy scarf wrapped around his face in a vain attempt to keep out the bitter cold. Hoth was nearing the end of its day and the temperatures were plummeting, sapping the heat from his body as easily as if he had been stumbling naked through the snow instead of wrapped in layer after layer of protective clothing.

The wampa's attack had broken his comlink, and the young Jedi was beginning to think that he would finally have to admit that he was lost. Hoth stretched out in icy plains around him, featureless snow extending in all directions. It was just as desolate and barren as Tatooine had been, but unbelievably cold. Luke hadn't ever been this cold in his entire life, and the chill was painful, making his bones ache. As he struggled to remember what Ben had taught him about using the Force to keep warm, he felt like his brain was frozen as well, his thoughts sluggish and dull.

He dragged himself another few steps, but stumbled on a chunk of ice and tumbled down the snowbank, groaning as he finally came to a stop. Shivering, Luke debated even getting back up.

C-3PO walked alongside his short, barrel-shaped companion R2-D2 through the ice tunnels of the Rebel base, and fussed at the shorter droid. "I merely commented that it was freezing in the Princess' chamber," he said. "I didn't ask you to turn on the thermal heater."

Artoo bleeped back a phrase, twittering up at his golden-colored human-shaped counterpart.

"It's supposed to be freezing," Threepio said irritably. "Oh, how are we ever going to dry out all her clothes?"

Artoo burbled in a way that made Threepio suspect his squat companion had deliberately misread his statement so he could make a fool out of the protocol droid. But no, he decided. Artoo simply didn't have that kind of programming.

Finally, the two droids drew close to the battered freighter Millennium Falcon, and after a brief search, located its captain.

"Master Solo, sir," Threepio said, "might I have a word with you?"

Han Solo himself noted the arrival of the two droids with some annoyance, and he expressed this through a curt, "What do you want?"

"Mistress Leia has been trying to reach you on the communicator," Threepio began, but Han cut him off.

"I turned it off," he said with clear irritation. "I don't want to talk to her." He turned back to whatever he had been working on, then glanced back at Threepio. "Why, what does she want?"

"She wanted to know if you've seen Master Luke-" Threepio began again, but again Han interrupted him.

"Luke hasn't come in yet?" he asked with concern, looking out at the darkening sky beyond the hangar doors.

"Mistress Leia thought he was with you," Threepio said. "She doesn't know where he is."

"I don't know where he is," Han said, concern beginning to draw across his features.

"Nobody knows where he is," Threepio replied.

"What do you mean, nobody knows?" Han demanded, glaring at the droid. He moved past Threepio to catch the attention of a nearby Rebel. "Deck Officer!" he said loudly, looking around for the man in question. The man he'd called to also began looking, and the deck officer came over shortly.

"Has Commander Skywalker reported in yet?" Han asked the man.

"I haven't seen him," the sergeant replied. "It's possible he came in through the south entrance."

"It's possible?" Han said, glaring at the man. "Why don't you go find out? It's getting dark out there."

The sergeant hurried off to check, and Artoo whistled nervously. "I don't know," Threepio replied. He turned to Han. "Might I inquire what's going on?" he asked.

"Why not?" Captain Solo said flippantly, watching for the sergeant's return.

Threepio imitated a human sound of annoyance. "Impossible man!" he grumbled to himself. He followed as Han walked off at a brisk pace, picking up his heavy coat from where it lay on a pile of machinery and putting it on as he approached the tauntaun pens.

"Commander Skywalker hasn't come in through the south entrance," the deck officer said as Han approached. "He might have forgotten to check in."

"Not likely," Han said, fastening his coat. "Are the speeders ready?"

"We're having some trouble adapting them to the cold," the sergeant replied. "Perhaps by morning-"

Han cut him off. There wasn't any time to waste on unreliable machines. "Then we'll have to go out on tauntauns," he said determinedly, approaching one of the snow-lizards.

"The temperature is dropping too rapidly!" another Rebel soldier said, following Han as he mounted the tauntaun.

"That's right," Han said, his tone making it clear he would suffer no objection. "And my friend's out in it!"

Han Solo was not the kind of man who made genuine friends easily, but once he'd decided you were his friend, you instantly came under his protection from that point onward. The thought of his young Jedi friend freezing out there in the desolate wastes filled Han with a kind of anger, a determination to make sure that the worst would not happen.

"Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker," the deck officer warned.

Han glared down at the man from atop his mount. "Then I'll see you in hell!" he growled. He kicked his tauntaun's sides and urged the animal outside into the freezing night in search of his friend.

Luke lay on his back in a pile of snow, staring up at the rapidly darkening sky. He was freezing, he knew, but he just didn't have the energy to get up and move. He tried to summon the Force, but his frozen brain couldn't quite figure out how, and he felt the world start to slowly slide away.

"Luke!" a commanding voice said above him suddenly. "Luke!"

Luke groaned. Was he hearing things now? He summoned the strength to roll over, and he looked for the source of the voice, but saw nothing. The cold ice beneath him seemed to almost hungrily sap his strength now, as if it were a parasitic organism, and his head drooped to the snow. It was cold against his cheek, but he no longer cared.

"Get up, Luke!" the voice said sharply, and the young Jedi raised his head again, straining to see through the swirling snow.

The familiar shape of Obi-Wan Kenobi slowly faded into view, dressed as he had been in life in the rough brown robes he'd worn on Tatooine. He looked down at Luke with caring eyes, and the young Jedi thought he surely must be going crazy.

"Ben?" he said disbelievingly, wondering how in the world his old master could be here.

"You will go to the Dagobah system," Obi-Wan said, not shouting but somehow making himself clear over the wind. "There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me."

Luke reached out a hand for the man who'd been a father to him for most of his life, but Obi-Wan disappeared, leaving him alone in the frozen wastes. Cold and alone, he finally succumbed to unconsciousness.

The Imperial probe droid approached the metal it had detected earlier, sensors and cameras fully primed. As it hovered around a formation of ice, an obviously artificial object came into view, looking like a series of disks stuck into the ground and connected by a length of pipe.

The droid began taking pictures, noting the shield generator as well as the hangar entrance and a few other outposts. When it noticed a human moving around next to the generator, it drew back behind the ice formation it had passed a minute earlier and watched as the human, a bit of long red-gold hair hanging out of its hood and heavy scarf, knelt by the generator and affixed something to one of the large disks.

Then, turning as if it knew the droid was there, the human looked directly at the droid and held up a hand. The droid tried to move away, but an unseen force held it in place. Alarmed, the droid nearly triggered its self-destruct program, but the human pointed a small device at it and beamed an Imperial recognition code into its processor.

The probe droid deactivated its alarm and waited obediently as the human approached, features unrecognizable beneath its heavy clothing and face mask. Pulling off one of its gloves, the human reached into a pocket of its heavy coat and withdrew a data chip. The droid swiveled to present the corresponding port to the human, who pulled up its goggles to reveal vibrant green eyes, penetrating and focused.

The human leaned forward, and the droid scanned its retinas before opening its data port. Operative 3152 inserted the data chip into the port and straightened. The probe droid was not designed to register human emotion, and so did not note the hint of regret in the woman's eyes as she watched the data port close over the chip containing her detailed report on Echo Base.

As she pulled her goggles back into place and tugged her glove back on, Mara Jade turned and walked away from the droid, who watched her go for a few moments before moving off to find a good place to transmit its data.

Han Solo almost didn't see the slumped shape in the snow, and in fact his tauntaun nearly stepped on it before he realized it was not a rock poking through the ice. Once he recognized the shape as human, Han pulled his tauntaun to a halt and hurriedly dismounted.

"Luke!" he shouted as he rolled the body over. "Come on, Luke, give me a sign here."

The young Jedi did not respond, and Han feared with momentary horror that he was too late, that Luke had already frozen to death, and he shook his friend by his coat.

"Don't do this, Luke," he said desperately, reaching up to gently slap the young Jedi's face. "Come on, buddy!"

After what seemed like an eternity, Luke groaned, moving his head slightly, and Han grinned beneath his heavy scarf. He made to pick the young warrior up, but as he did, his tauntaun bellowed tiredly and collapsed, its last breath leaving it in a great gust that formed a momentary cloud around its head.

Han frowned, knowing this was his fault. Usually these creatures had enough sense to get inside and insulated by this time of day, but he'd forced it out here in search of his friend. He looked back down at Luke and grabbed the young Jedi under the arms, dragging him over next to the tauntaun. His friend's life outweighed that of a beast any way you looked at it, Han thought, his mind racing.

It would take him a while to get the shelter up, and Luke looked half-dead as it was. An idea came to him suddenly, and while it was distasteful, it had a good chance of working, Han pulled Luke over next to the body of the tauntaun, which was as dead as the ice around it now, and pulled the lightsaber from the Jedi's belt.

"This may smell bad, kid," he said, "but it'll keep you warm 'til I get the shelter up."

Fumbling with the unfamiliar device, Han thought to himself that it might be a sort of sacrilege to use a Jedi Knight's weapon like this, but he didn't have anything that even came close to a lightsaber for cutting through the snow-lizard's thick skin. Igniting the bright blue blade, he swept it quickly through the creature's belly, slitting it open.

Han nearly gagged on the resultant stench, and as he deactivated the lightsaber, he pulled his scarf a little more tightly over his nose. He clipped the lightsaber to his belt and reached inside the dead tauntaun, pulling out its entrails and tossing them aside. He pushed Luke into the cavity, pulling the skin of the beast closed over him.

Eyes watering, Han rested on the snow-lizard's side for a moment. "Ugh," he panted. "And I thought they smelled bad… on the outside."

His friend relatively safe for now, Han moved off to the dead tauntaun's back, where his emergency shelter was stored, and set about freeing it from the storage container.

Admiral Firmus Piett, commander of the Super Star Destroyer Executor, looked at the data transmission beamed back to the flagship from a probe droid in the Hoth system, a system Piett had never heard of before today. It was on the list of uninhabited systems, but as he reviewed the images sent back from the droid, he suspected that this classification was inaccurate.

Perfectly regular footsteps quietly announced the arrival of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the commander of the Emperor's personal battle group. As one of the Empire's finest commanders and tactical thinkers, perhaps the best in the fleet, it was no surprise to anyone that Thrawn had been transferred to the Executor not long after Lord Vader's termination of his previous fleet admiral. The Emperor demanded the best in the Empire for his personal force, especially for anyone posted on his flagship.

"Those are the latest probe reports?" Thrawn inquired, standing out from the gray and black-uniformed officers not only because of his spotless white uniform, but due to his blue skin and subtly glowing red eyes, marking him as a member of an alien species Piett did not know.

"Yes, sir," Piett replied, moving aside slightly so that Thrawn could see the monitor.

The Grand Admiral studied the displayed image intently, advancing through several more in the series before he stopped at an image of a shield generator standing out in stark difference from the endless snow.

"The Hoth system was registered as uninhabited," Thrawn said, looking over at Piett. "Pirates or smugglers?"

"Or Rebels," Piett said, pointing to the shield generator. "We know the Alliance stole a generator of that model a few months ago."

"Perhaps so," Thrawn said thoughtfully, scanning through a few more of the images.

"You've found something?" an intensely familiar voice asked from behind the two men.

Piett turned to find himself looking up at the Emperor himself, Sith Master Darth Vader. Lord Vader was tall and broad-shouldered, with severely cut dark blond hair that was beginning to show signs of gray. He was dressed as usual in a black Imperial officer's uniform, a long, wide cloak of the same color hanging from his shoulders, and a black lightsaber clipped to his belt.

He looked back at Piett with a glowing blue photoreceptor in eerie counterpart to his natural ice-blue eye. The patch-like lens that covered the mechanical eye and acted as a filter was bolted directly to Lord Vader's skull, and combined with his other scars, gave him a fierce, grim appearance. Ever since his eye had been replaced with the blue photoreceptor, Piett had found it uncomfortable to meet his Emperor's gaze for very long.

"Yes, my lord. We believe we have found an outpost in the Hoth system," Piett replied.

Vader studied the images the probe droid had sent back for a moment, his mechanical eye moving in perfect synchronization with his natural one, and he stopped on the image of the shield generator, as Thrawn had.

"That's it," he said finally. "The Rebels are there. Set course immediately." He turned to another officer standing a few paces away, dressed in a green-gray uniform with matching cap. "General Veers," he said to the officer. "Prepare your men."

General Veers nodded crisply and moved off. Vader remained a moment longer, looking over the probe data and the officers next to it with his eerie mismatched gaze, then turned on his heel and marched off the bridge, his cloak billowing out behind him.

"Recall the patrol ships," Thrawn ordered, moving off to the comm station to address the officer seated there. "Ready the fleet for hyperspace."

Piett went about getting the flagship itself ready. The Executor was so huge it was practically a fleet's worth of responsibility by itself, a city-sized warship filled with hundreds of thousands of fighting men and women. It was little wonder some described the Executor as the Empire's mobile capital, since Lord Vader spent more time here than he did on Coruscant.

Piett himself thought ships this huge were unwieldy, but their effectiveness could not be denied. The debacle at Yavin aside, the Executor and the others of her class were capable of engaging entire fleets single-handedly, dwarfing any other capital ship out there by several orders of magnitude. Often, just the sight of a Super Star Destroyer was enough to terrify most rebellious systems into surrendering. Accompanied by the other dozen Star Destroyers of Lord Vader's personal fleet, the Emperor's flagship was virtually unstoppable.

It was rather too much firepower to deal with one small Rebel base, but Yavin had proved that overwhelming force was the only way to counter the Rebels' almost unnatural good luck.

The Star Destroyers arranged themselves into formation, a mighty hammer to crush the Rebellion once and for all.

Darth Vader entered his quarters on board the Executor, the only permanent home he maintained, and crossed immediately to his personal computer terminal. He accessed the coded data hidden in the probe droid's transmission, accessible only to him. Only he knew the data was there, having observed the momentary subliminal flash in the image of the shield generator with his mechanical eye.

Despite the pain of the wound that had cost him his natural right eye, Vader had made good use of its replacement, as he had with his earlier prosthetic, his right arm from the elbow down. He had installed a multitude of scanning devices in the mechanical eye, and had adjusted his personal set of codes and that of his network of personal spies accordingly, to make them even more impenetrable.

His computer terminal scanned both his natural eye and the systems of his mechanical one, then beeped three times and displayed the information his operative had hidden in the probe droid's transmission.

To protect her cover, only Grand Admiral Thrawn and Darth Vader himself knew Mara Jade was an undercover operative within the Rebel ranks. She had full authorization to participate in missions for the Rebellion, killing Imperial troops if necessary to maintain her cover and convince the Rebels she was one of them.

Jade had not reported for nearly a year, but this was understandable, since the Rebellion was rarely any place where she could transmit a report without any chance of being caught. The report, a text-only document, apologized for not reporting sooner, then went on to describe the armaments and defenses of Echo Base in detail, even going so far as to recommend a preliminary strategy.

She also included the schematics for the shield generator and the friend-or-foe recognition codes for the orbiting monitor satellites. These Vader downloaded into a data chip, then scanned the rest of the report into his mechanical eye's storage systems for later review. Once this was complete, he summoned Thrawn to his quarters.

The Grand Admiral responded with typical efficiency, appearing at the door only a few minutes later. Vader opened the door and the blue-skinned alien stepped inside his quarters, inclining his head respectfully in lieu of a salute.

Vader held up the data chip silently. Thrawn took it with equal silence, then nodded once and left without saying a word.

The Sith Master walked over to the wide viewport next to his lightsaber collection, staring out into the swirling blue tunnel of hyperspace as his fleet flew on for the Rebel base, his thoughts on his son. Today would be the day, he knew, that he finally brought Luke to his side, where he belonged.


Author's Note: After many delays and distractions, I'm finally starting this story up. It is completely written out, but the later chapters need some work, so posting will unfortunately not be as swift as 'Part I'. I'm shooting for at least two updates per week, depending on how long it takes me to get the rest of the story the way I want it.

And yes, much of the dialogue in this chapter is identical or extremely similar to that in the movie. Though this is an AU, I always thought Empire Strikes Back had the best dialogue of the series, so if it ain't broke, don't fix it. "I'd just as soon kiss a Wookiee" might be the funniest line in the whole saga, in my opinion. ;)

Thanks for reading!