Bren Derlin grinned, peeling off his gloves and stuffing them into the pocket of his jacket before taking the proffered beaker of thick, sweet kaffin from his Lieutenant. "Thank you..."
The Lieutenant returned the grin, telling him, "Thought you would appreciate it, Sir."
Derlin wrapped his hands around the warmth and closed his eyes: lifting the beaker to his lips and inhaling the rich, bitter aroma.
The heat seeped into his hands. He opened his eyes, looking at the synthetic 'skin' of his cybernetic arm. The sensation in that hand was slightly different from the other: almost the same, but not quite. He was so used to it now that he forgot, most of the time, that it wasn't real flesh and bone.
Today, however, it had been playing on his mind.
He took a mouthful of the kaffin, turning to look at the chronometer. Swallowing the hot liquid, he asked, "No notifications of delay?"
"No, Sir," the Lieutenant confirmed, knowing exactly what Derlin was referring to. "The ship's estimate for arrival is still good."
Wedge Antilles and Samoc Farr were returning to duty. They'd both been reassigned to the Rogues and the ship bringing them to Echo Base would be dropping into orbit very soon.
Derlin nodded, taking another mouthful of kaffin. He looked around the hangar then asked, "Is it just my imagination, or is there a sense of anticipation about the place?"
The Lieutenant grinned at him. "I'd say that 'anticipation' was a bit of an understatement, Sir."
Skywalker had told the pilots about Farr and Antilles' return, and the news had spread like flashfire. There had been a buzz of excitement in the Base since, tinged with apprehension, especially amongst the pilots.
Farr had been brought back from the dead: posted killed-in-action following the Alliance attack on the Bilbringi shipyards. Alliance Intelligence had only discovered that she was still alive, and languishing in one of the facilities on Orinackra, when a Rebel agent had infiltrated the Möerdaast penal facility. Farr had been rescued in an extraction operation that had coincided with the mission to the Möerdaast: the mission that had rescued Wedge Antilles, but cost Derlin his arm.
Antilles… The rescued hero: the man who hadn't been left behind.
However, Derlin had overheard a conversation between Hobbie Klivian and Alissha Downhigher, and knew that the pilots were concerned about Antilles, about what his treatment at the hands of the Imperials might have done.
"But what if it's not him, Hobbie? What if he's changed? What he went through..."
"Shhh," Hobbie had replied, softly, assuring her, "We'll deal with it. We treat him like we always did... He might not be Wedge when he gets here, but after a few days of the normal banter, he'll start coming back to us. Nejes promised us, back on the Home One, remember?"
Downhigher had made a soft, non-committal sound.
"And Samoc's coming back too, don't forget," Hobbie had pressed the point. "She's been gone since Bilbringi and Luke says she's doing fine..."
Almost as if she could read his train of thought, Derlin saw Major Toryn Farr appear on the far side of the hangar. Assigned to Echo Base as the Chief Communications Officer, Toryn was Samoc's older sister.
Draining his already-cooling kaffin, Derlin dumped the empty beaker on what passed as his desk, and headed across to Farr through a hangar that appeared to be getting more crowded. She saw him moving towards her and began making her way to him.
"Hello, beautiful," Derlin greeted as he reached her, teasing, "So, were you on time for duty this morning?"
She glared at him, good-naturedly, returning, "Yes, I was, no thanks to you!"
He grinned at her, reminding, "I offered to fold the game... You were the one who wanted to play out the hand…"
"Only because I knew you were cheating," she countered. "And it's a damned good job I've sat across a sabbac table from you before, mister!" she accused. "Fleecing Palo Torshan like that… Thank the Gods I arrived when I did!"
"I'd have given him his money back!" Derlin chuckled before telling her, "You were a far more interesting opponent!"
"Practice makes perfect," she offered, "especially when you're getting coached by a Wookiee! But enough of that," she went on, turning the conversation towards her reason for being in the hangar, "Samoc and Antilles are here... The transport just hit the atmosphere..."
Derlin's grin widened. "I figured it might be when I saw that smile on your face... Are Skywalker and Solo heading back?" he asked as he turned and headed back to his 'desk'.
Both men were out on Tauntauns doing reconnaissance of the area around the base. Not a way either men would have chosen to spend their morning's duty, but one of the inbound transports had reported seeing movement the day before. Solo had taken the Millennium Falcon to have a look, but found nothing. With the possibility of the engine noise scaring any indigenous life into hiding, and with the snowspeeders offline, General Rieekan had ordered reconnaissance of the area by Tauntaun.
Toryn dropped into step beside Derlin, confirming, "They are… but the ship will reach us before they do."
Derlin nodded, pulling his comlink from his pocket and ordering, "Chizg, hit the warning klaxon and patch me into the hangar comms." There were entirely too many personnel congregating in the hangar for his liking. Not that he blamed them. Everyone knew that Antilles and Farr's arrival was imminent, but as duty Deck Officer, it was his job to ensure the safety of everyone in the hangar.
The soft wail of an alarm cut across the cold air and a voice confirmed, "Patched in now, Major."
"Transport inbound!"Derlin announced, hearing his own voice echo through the hangar. "Transport inbound! All non-essential personnel vacate the main hangar. All non-essential personnel vacate the main hangar."
Jenniiya Elleba, Manwah of the Diazez Cartel, walked out into the warm, afternoon sunshine of the Gehndaarian afternoon. A soft breeze swirled around her, tugging gently at the brightly-coloured curtains that screened the interior of the gazebo in the centre of the garden.
Jenniiya walked down the path towards it, relishing the heat of the sun on her back. The Growing Season had moved into Harvest and the sky would soon cloud over into the storms of the Rainy Season. For now, though, the sun was still warm.
She reached the gazebo, pushing a curtain aside and ducking inside.
Yolan Nabrood dozed in one of the chairs, long legs stretched out in front of him, arms crossed over his chest. Jenniiya watched him for a moment, smiling.
In the months since the Rebel Alliance had delivered him safely home, his wounds had healed and his strength had returned, but the physicians had been unable to completely repair the damage to his lungs. There were still occasions when the breath would catch in his chest, sending him into a spasm of coughing that left him fighting to breathe.
Only when Yolan had been returned to them, had Jenniiya realised how much she truly valued him: his strength, his warmth, his courage, his loyalty. Only when she had held him, talking softly to him as he fought to breathe in the aftermath of a coughing fit that first evening, had she realised how scared she was of losing him again. She had lain beside him for the rest of the night, simply watching him sleep, afraid to leave him.
And when tiredness had finally overtaken her, she had woken to find herself wrapped in his arms, her head pillowed against his shoulder.
The coughing episodes were growing less frequent, but the physicians had warned that they would never entirely leave him and had advocated that he spend the Rains in the high, dry air of the mountains.
The thought of not having him with her, had sent a pang of loneliness through her. Nabrood had said nothing, but she had seen the resolute denial in his eyes.
"Is there something I can do for you, Manwah?" he rumbled softly, eyes still closed. "Or do you simply wish to gaze at the gods-given grace of my mortal frame?"
Jenniiya chuckled, moving towards him, teasing, "Such disrespect for your Manwah! I should have you flogged! Have you forgotten that, as your Manwah, you have given over your mortal frame to me, to do with as I wish."
Opening his eyes, grinning up at her, he countered, "But only in the defence of, and for the good of, the Diazez, Manwah. In all other ways, I am a free man..."
"Aha! Politics!" she responded, sinking into the chair beside him, turning the conversation towards the reason she had sought him out, "If you wish to talk politics, let us talk politics! There is a matter I would have your council on."
Pushing himself straight, sitting up, he uncrossed his arms, catching her hand, drawing it to his lips and kissing her fingers. "What council does the Manwah wish of me?"
She smiled at him, telling him, "I have received news... and it appears that the time may have come to place proposal before the Council: the intention of the Manwah to take a consort..."
He frowned, looking at her, his eyes searching her face. "What…" he began. "What news have you received that brings you to such conclusion?"
Her smile widened. "If all goes well," she told him, "the start of the Growing Season will bring us a child..."
Yolan looked at her, then at her belly, then back to her face. He blinked, swallowing and clearing his throat before managing, "What?"
Jenniiya laughed, reaching up to brush the back of her fingers down his cheek. "You are going to be a father, my love... I have suspected for a few weeks, but physician Vezlentz has just confirmed it..."
A slow, wide smile spread across Nabrood's face. "A child..."
She nodded, confirming, "By the start of Growing Season... And I will need all your help, yours and Lyn's, to stay ahead of the Council, the Alliance and, most importantly, the Empire. Oston is vile and honourless and will come in for the kill if he senses any weakness."
Yolan shook his head, joy and an all-consuming protectiveness surging in his chest. Grasping her hands in his, voice earnest, he assured her, "It will not happen. You will be guarded. The Diazez will be guarded. But, as of now," he went on, "there are no risks taken. Everything is planned, set out, all possibilities examined. As of now, we must be far more clever..."
He stopped, a smile tugging at his lips again as he caressed the back of her hands with his thumbs. "A child..."
Imperial Advisor Alec Pradeux turned, looking towards the door of the Emperor's audience chamber as it opened.
Pradeux had not seen former-Senator Bail Organa since the last time the Rebel had been brought before the Emperor. The situation this time, however, was far different. There was no escort of Imperial guards, nor were there any restraints around Organa's wrists. Instead he was accompanied solely by Ljana Castell.
The ISB officer had been promoted to full Colonel and assigned to head a new department within ISB itself. The continued existence of that department rested on the results of Organa's interview with Palpatine.
After the success of Antilles' public denunciation of Rebel sedition, Bail Organa had been assigned to the same fate. The Emperor had gleefully pronounced that there was far more political value in re-educating his opponents, than in ridding himself of them… and turning them into martyrs.
Pradeux watched Organa as he walked across the floor. He still held himself with a regal bearing. He still moved with the authority Pradeux remembered from before his arrest. His treatment at the hands of Colonel Castell appeared to have had no detrimental affect… except for the dark smudges beneath his eyes.
He slowed as he reached the assembled Imperial Advisors, arranged either side of Palpatine's throne. He ignored them, his attention fixed on Palpatine. Sinking to one knee, bowing his head, he greeted, "Majesty."
Palpatine rose to his feet, stepping off the dais and moving towards him. "Senator Organa," he began, voice dripping with condescension, "you have very much disappointed us. We thought you to be a trusted friend. Instead we find that, even as the Empire was being founded, you were colluding with traitors and plotting sedition with the Jedi: contriving terror at the very heart of our Empire…"
He stopped, looking down at the Rebel sympathiser. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Majesty, I am guilty of all charges laid against me," Organa told him.
Palpatine made a small sound of distaste and then turned, mounting the steps to his throne and sinking into it. Organa didn't move; remaining on his knees with his head bowed.
"And is this all you have to say, Senator?" Palpatine demanded.
Gaze still fixed on the floor, Organa shook his head. Emotion coursed through him: anger at his own foolishness, fear that Palpatine might not execute him but throw him back into the hell of darkness and isolation instead. He closed his eyes, taking a moment to calm himself before admitting softly, "I allowed my heart to rule my actions. I allowed my relationship with the Jedi to cloud my judgement. In my grief at the loss of those I held as friends, despite the horror of the Jedi assassination attempt on your august person, I formed conclusions that were… unsound…"
An image swept up from the depths of his memories: a young Jedi boy, standing in an open doorway, fending off blaster bolts before being cut down. Sorrow and guilt constricted Bail's chest: at the senseless loss, at the line the Jedi had spun to gain his support, at his own gullibility.
Lifting his head, he looked up at the scarred, mutilated face of the Emperor. The Jedi were responsible for the disfigurement. In their lust for power they had tried to murder him, believing that his death would leave the way open for them to seize control of the galaxy. They had reckoned, however, without Palpatine's foresight.
"In my flawed conviction," he told the Emperor, "I failed to see with the clarity you possessed. In my grief, I failed to realise that the Jedi Council coveted the power given to you by the people themselves… In trying to find answers, I railed against your new order. In my anguish, I believed the Empire, not the Jedi, to be flawed."
He paused, taking a deep, steadying breath before admitting to the most heinous crime of all, "I aided Jedi to escape. I helped Kenobi and Yoda hide Anakin Skywalker's children…"
The announcement pulled Palpatine up short. Children…
This was unforeseen… and yet it answered questions: about the small tremors in the Force he had sensed, deep in the absorption of meditation.
Vader had encountered the Skywalker boy at Yavin. The security recordings had confirmed the striking resemblance between the youngster and Anakin Skywalker. Kenobi's presence had only given weight to the suspicions about the boy's heritage. Palpatine had questioned Vader closely about young Skywalker but Vader had reported sensing no apparent Force abilities in him.
Palpatine had begun to suspect that conclusion when the presence had appeared within the Force: fleeting, unfocussed and untrained but hinting of power…
He had not foreseen a second or, possibly, third child; one who was apparently coming into their Force legacy. Now that he knew of another Skywalker's existence, however, he would investigate further.
He studied the kneeling figure of Bail Organa. The Senator and Kenobi had been right to hide Skywalker's brats from him. Had he known about the children, he would have had them hunted down and killed with the rest of the Jedi plague. And yet, ultimately, Organa and Kenobi had been unable to keep their deception silent in the face of the power of the Dark Side of the Force.
All that subterfuge, all that planning, come to nothing.
I helped Kenobi hide Anakin Skywalker's children…
A memory surfaced: of Vader, reporting that they had allowed Organa's daughter to leave the Death Star aboard a ship that would lead them to a Rebel base. She would not give up the Rebellion. Her resistance to the mind probe was considerable.
Palpatine took a long, deep breath as realisation swept in.
Her resistance was considerable…
Organa had hidden another of Skywalker's children in his own family. Vader had, unwittingly, held Skywalker's daughter within his grasp on the Death Star.
The information about the daughter and her identity would, of course, have to be kept from Vader. The Sith Lord was distracted enough by his encounter with Kenobi and memories of Amidala.
Palpatine leaned back in his chair. "Did you think," he accused, the lie falling easily from his lips, "that we were unaware of Kenobi taking the boy to Tatooine while you hid the girl in plain sight as your own daughter?"
He heard the intake of breath from Alec Pradeux but kept his attention on Organa…
The Senator bowed his head. "Majesty," he began, "I allowed my relationship with the Jedi to cloud my judgement."
"And we are greatly pleased that you have found clarity, Senator," Palpatine countered, keeping his voice soft and unthreatening. "We will speak more on this later."
Rising to his feet, looking at Castell he continued, "Colonel, your assignment is now permanent. You will have your orders within the hour."
Heart hammering in her chest, trying desperately to keep her composure and not allow the pride and excitement to show on her face, Castell drew herself up straighter, saluting the Emperor as he turned, "Thank you, your Highness."
"Have the Senator returned to his quarters," Palpatine told Pradeux, moving past him towards his private rooms. "See to his needs. There are other matters to which I must attend."
Samoc Farr stood at the ship's main hatch. The soft vibration through the soles of her feet died away as the engines spooled down. She tugged on her jacket again, nervous and excited about returning to duty.
She hadn't expected this. As the long weeks had drawn into months and no rescue had come, Samoc had given up hope of ever returning to Rebel lines. Instead, she had focussed all of her energy on simply staying alive… and sane.
It hadn't been easy. The scars on her back and the slightly crooked fingers of her left hand were testament to that: an enduring reminder of what she had survived. As persisting as the memory of watching the life fade from the eyes of the big, brute of a man who had decided she was easy pickings.
She had given him due warning. He hadn't been thinking with his brain, however. Being twice as big as her, he hadn't believed her, either.
Wrenåk, the other Rebel pilot thrown with her into the detention facility, had tried to help but he had been in worse shape than she had been. She had pushed him back, dealing with her would-be attacker herself. Weak from interrogation, only her combat training had saved her…
The man had looked at her in disbelief as he had fallen backwards onto the ground. She had knelt beside him, yelling at him for being stupid and not believing her, as the blood had choked his lungs and slowly suffocated him. It had earned her a respect that had helped keep her and Wrenåk alive when others had died.
Despite the careful, guilt-freeing counselling of Nejes, she had watched him die again in her dreams only the night before.
She sighed, softly.
"Are you okay, Lieutenant?" Nejes' soft voice asked from behind her.
Samoc turned, looking at the Medical Specialist, giving her a wan smile. "Nervous," she admitted. "Excited… but nervous..."
"That's perfectly understandable," Nejes smiled back. "You've been out of the loop for a while. Everything will seem familiar," she reminded gently, "but different… Don't forget that this is a new base, though, so everyone is pretty much still getting used to it."
She turned her attention to the pilot standing beside Samoc. "What about you, Lieutenant-Commander?"
Wedge Antilles looked at her, considering the question for a moment before nodding and assuring her, "I'm okay…"
Nejes smiled. "Well," she told them, stepping back away from them as the hatch opened, "you both know where I am. My door will always be open."
Frigid air rushed in, stinging Wedge's face. He blinked, taken aback, glancing at Samoc, who had quirked an eyebrow in surprise at seeing her breath misting in the sudden influx of icy air. They'd been warned that Echo Base was on an ice planet… but the knowledge hadn't quite prepared either of them for the freezing reality.
"Chilly," Nejes chuckled from behind them, "isn't it?"
The steps had folded down, and locked into place with a clunk. A tall, slender man walked up into the ship, followed by a smaller, slighter figure. Both were wrapped up against the cold.
All three Alliance officers saluted them. Carlist Rieekan returned their salutes, ordering, "At ease, people," before introducing, "General Rieekan, commanding officer of Echo Base." He turned, introducing, "Princess Leia Organa."
Leia gave them a warm smile, acknowledging Nejes with a nod before telling Antilles and Farr, "We are pleased to welcome both of you to Echo Base."
"Thank you, Your Highness," Samoc replied.
"Thank you, Ma'am," Wedge also acknowledged.
Rieekan considered the pilots for a moment before telling them, "Neither the Princess nor I thought you would want any pomp or circumstance about returning to duty… but the folks here have had a hard graft to get this base running and we agreed that some pageantry would be good for morale."
"Your colleagues are assembling in the hangar to greet you," the Princess explained. "The engineers and ground staff too… But there's nothing too formal," she assured them.
"There is, however," she went on, "the matter of Commendations you're both being awarded."
The quickly concealed dismay on both pilots' faces confirmed for Leia what Nejes had reported before signing them both fit for light duty: neither pilot was comfortable with the fact that they were being viewed as heroes. Leia understood that. She had refused to accept a commendation herself, after Yavin. She had cited her rank, her position within the Rebel Alliance: persuading Mon Mothma that it would mean far more to the Alliance personnel if she was to present the medals, rather than receive one.
Luke, Han and Chewbacca had been the heroes of Yavin. All she had done was stay alive long enough to be rescued.
"The Princess and I have both agreed," Rieekan was continuing, "that it's too damned cold to stand around out there for a ceremony, so we have decided to present them here, where there's at least some warmth."
"General Rieekan," Wedge interrupted, unable to stay silent any longer, a small flutter of panic trembling through his gut.
Leia stepped forward, laying a staying hand on the General's arm. Rieekan looked at her, but fell silent.
"You are about to tell us that you have done nothing to warrant a Commendation," Leia began softly. She watched him swallow, and then nod.
Looking at Farr, she asked, "Is this what you also feel?"
The dark-haired woman nodded, confirming, "Yes, Ma'am."
Leia smiled gently at them both, shaking her head in disgreement.
"Wedge," she began, using the pilot's given name, rather than his rank, "I know that your memories of what happened are… sketchy… at best, but your courage in the face of overwhelming odds, along with the courage of the other pilots sent to Gehndaaria, is almost entirely responsible for the Diazez Cartel forging a treaty with the Rebel Alliance. The Diazez honour bravery. Allying themselves with the Rebel Alliance was done in honour of your bravery. Moreover, Yolan Nabrood has confirmed that without your strength and courage, he would have died in a xylpher fire in the mines. You got him out. Only three of you survived the fire."
She stopped, letting him take all of that in.
Turning to Farr, she began, "Samoc… Your resistance to Imperial questioning frustrated them so much that you earned yourself a death sentence. That bravery alone is grounds for this commendation. And when, instead," she went on, "you were consigned to Orinackra, despite having a broken hand, you ensured the survival of both yourself and another pilot who was badly injured. According to Wrenåk Vey, he is only alive because you kept him alive in those first days."
She paused again, looking from Wedge to Samoc. Drawing two, long, flat boxes from the pocket of her duffel, holding them in her hand, she went on, "More importantly, these medals are a sign of hope for everyone out there in that hangar. Just like the medals given to Commander Skywalker and Captain Solo after Yavin, these are a sign of the Empire's ultimate downfall: a tangible reminder that the Empire is not all-powerful, that it can be, and has been, defeated."
Leia's words struck a chord with Wedge. He looked at the boxes in her hand, emotion welling up in his chest. He swallowed it down, fighting for composure.
The Princess was right. The medals were a sign that the Empire wasn't all powerful, that it could be defeated. They echoed his very presence, here and now, on this ship, about to step out into a Rebel Alliance base. The Empire had tried to mind-wipe him: turn him away from everything he believed. For a time, they had succeeded… but only for a time.
That he had saved Nabrood's life was a revelation: although it explained the curved daggers currently packed in his belongings, with the Yolan family crest engraved on the handles, and the accompanying parchment that had read, simply, "Brother, you have always a place within our halls. Stay strong and return home soon."
He had very little memory of Gehndaaria and the aftermath. Everything was distorted, fragmented. He remembered Nabrood; he remembered the blond woman in Imperial uniform; he remembered the warmth of the Gehndaarian sun on his face… and a cold, never-ending darkness…
He had been shown the media footage of his forced confession, but he had no recollection of it: nor of being on Corscant.
His mind, Nejes had explained, was protecting him. He might slowly recover his memory, it might all come back, in a flood, at once… or he might never remember.
There were still times when he found himself thinking the Imperial propaganda he had been fed, but those occasions were growing less and less frequent. And the thoughts were easily banished by reaching for one of the data crystal that had arrived for him, regularly, during his convalescence. They held all the get-well wishes and general everyday idiocy from Luke, Hobbie, Alissha, Brin, Janson and others he had flown with. And the occasional messages from a rather gorgeous brunette called Lyn Areese: whom he had apparently met on Gehndaaria, although he didn't remember it.
Pulling himself up, squaring his shoulders, he swallowed down the constriction in his throat, clearing his voice. "Your Highness, General," he began, "Please accept my apologies. I…"
He trailed off, searching for the words to explain what he had just been thinking.
"The Princess Leia is right," he began, finally. "Those medals are a sign of hope… a symbol that the Empire can be stopped. They tried to turn me; they trooped me out in front of the entire galaxy to denounce the Rebel Alliance… but it failed. Instead, it brought more people to the cause. It did the opposite of everything the Empire intended."
He paused, a slow smile pulling his lips. "Those aren't medals for bravery," he told the Princess, "they're medals for tenacity. And on those grounds I will gladly accept one, on behalf of the Rebel Alliance."
Samoc looked at him. Wedge was right. It was sheer bloody-mindedness that had kept her alive on Orinackra. And, if what the Princess said was correct, she had survived despite an execution order. Despite everything the Empire had thrown at her, she was still here.
Samoc grinned then laughed softly, shaking her head. Looking at the Princess, she announced, "Antilles is right. And on those grounds, I will also accept one on behalf of the Rebel Alliance."
Leia was also smiling. She handed the boxes over to the pilots, ordering, "Open them, please."
Stepping forward, she lifted Samoc's medal out of the box, placing it over her head to settle around her neck. Then she turned, lifting Wedge's medal and settling it around his neck.
Rieekan saluted them, telling them, "It is an honour to serve with both of you."
Then he turned, heading out of the hatch and down the steps. Wedge heard him bark, "Parade! Parade, atten-shun!"
The sound of hundreds of personnel moving to attention in unison ricocheted around the ice walls of the hangar. Leia gave both pilots another, wide smile then told them, "After you, Lieutenant, Lieutenant-Commander."
Wedge moved towards the hatch, pausing only to tug his jacket straight. He glanced at Samoc, giving her a quick nod. Samoc took a deep breath, returning the nod. Then, together, they stepped off the ship, back into the ranks of the Rebel Alliance.