Chapter 24 – Battle Plans
The gas giant Yavin dominated the cockpit view the moment the Falcon reverted to real-space. A placid planet by outward appearance, she kept her secrets cloaked under a heavy drape of baleful orange atmosphere, and masked the storms that raged beneath with a gentle brushing of pale yellow clouds. Three large moons and several smaller satellites hung in peaceful attendance to her deadly beauty. A fourth sizeable moon, the one in question, lay tucked behind her, hidden from view. Han wasn't taking any chances.
"Get that signal ready, Chewie," he ordered as he initiated a full scan of the system. "I don't know how trigger happy these guys are gunna be."
Chewbacca softly howled a concerned reply, and both pilot and co-pilot fell into a grim vigilance as they waited for their new hosts to show themselves. But no threat appeared to solidify their worries, and Han's scan for ships and technology was still reading all negative when Leia and Obi-Wan came forward to join them.
"Well, here we are," Han greeted them dryly. "System looks deserted. You sure you got the right place?"
Leia looked down on him sourly. "Just transmit the signal I gave you as soon as Yavin IV is in range."
"Absolutely, your worshipfulness." Han shook his head and turned back to his controls. "This is your show."
Leia's cold stare lingered for a moment, but instead of replying she reached for a headset and settled quietly into the communication's chair, apparently unwilling to rise to his bait. Just as well. Han was already more interested in the course ahead, still wary of stumbling into an ambush. He was in no mood for dealing with passengers now, and took little notice of Obi-Wan sitting down behind him. Yavin, looming ever larger before them, occupied all his attention, but still the Falcon's scanners kept quiet. Quiet through the gentle slope Han plotted around planet, quiet long after he was certain passive scans should have detected their approach. The emerald gem of a moon dubbed Yavin IV began rising ahead, and still nobody blinked. Either the system was truly deserted, or these Rebels were very cool customers indeed.
"Here goes nothing," Han said to Chewie as they began broadcasting Leia's hailing signal. The response took longer than Han thought it should have, but eventually the dead air over the com was replaced with crackling static followed by a stiff military voice.
"Transmission received. Requesting verbal confirmation."
"Avian coming to nest," Leia replied.
Han glanced back in amused disbelief at the hokey jargon, but Leia just ignored him. A moment later, the com crackled again.
"You are cleared for approach. Sending vectors now."
The Falcon's scanner readouts did light up briefly then, and Han turned back to see a full set of approach coordinates loaded into the automatic pilot. "Playing dead, huh?" he muttered to his unseen benefactor. "Nice."
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The hanger was impressive, Han had to give the Rebels that. Respectable for the amount and quality of hardware they'd managed to smuggle in to build it, and ingenious for the way they'd carved it out of an existing, primitive structure. From even low altitudes it had appeared to be just another ancient monument belonging to whatever ruined civilization that had once dwelled here. The sheer size and odd pyramidal design might attract the interest of the odd archeologist, but the jungle had so encompassed and covered it, almost to its lofty crest, that the more practical minded would considered it of no further use.
Han saw another picture now. Armed with the knowledge of the temple's true nature, he was able to appreciate how well the jungle shielded it from broad-range scans. The thick stone of the temple would easily block whatever dispersed and weakened signal that made it through. It would take a directed scan to unveil the secret within, and more than a passing interest to locate the tight clearing and small landing platform at the temple's base. The chances of it simply being stumbled over were so remote as to be nonexistent. The Empire would have to already suspect the Rebels were here in order to find them.
Which, according Obi-Wan, they now did.
Han glanced back across crowded bay, assessing the efficient two-man ground crew tending to one of the fighters with military-grade maintenance and refurbishment equipment. The whole hanger was staffed and outfitted similarly, with stockpiles of ordinance lining the walls at strategic locations and thirty some starships aligned neatly nose to tail so that not a square meter of space was wasted. X and Y-wings, Han saw, fighters and bombers, well maintained and ready to go. An excellent hit-run-force. But unless the Rebels had something more substantial hidden on the lower decks, they weren't going to last long against that battle station.
The personnel transport Han was riding on slowed, and he looked forward, past Obi-Wan and Leia sitting next to him, to see they were approaching the command center at the back of the bay. A distinguished older man in a crisp uniform was waiting for them, seeming anxious, and not at all interested in the first transport carrying Chewbacca and droids. Leia jumped off from the second before it stopped, and rushed up to meet him with an embrace.
The man returned her hug as if she were his daughter. "You're safe," he said with unconcealed emotion. "When we heard about Alderaan, we feared the worst." He pulled back and held her at arms length. "I'm sorry about your father."
"Thank you, commander Willard," Leia answered, nodding. Then she turned and gestured back toward Obi-Wan and Han getting off the transport. "You remember General Kenobi?"
Obi-Wan stepped up as Willard gazed at him in amazement. Han hung back and moved over to join Chewbacca and the droids so as not to disturb the reunion.
"My stars, is it possible?" Willard was saying. "I thought all the Jedi were lost." He grabbed Obi-Wan's hand and shook it vigorously. "It's a blessing to see you survived."
"And it's good to see you again, Commander," Obi-Wan replied warmly. "But we've no time for pleasantries now. I fear we've been tracked from Alderaan by that battle station."
The smile dropped from Willard face. "How much time do we have?"
Obi-Wan was quick with an answer. "Less than a day. Perhaps ten hours."
Han tightened his lips into an irritated line, annoyed that Obi-Wan had gotten it right and somewhat bothered by being so quickly brushed to the background. But then this wasn't his fight.
Willard had begun rubbing his chin worriedly. "We've been on high alert since Alderaan," he said thoughtfully. "All capital ships have been ordered to disperse. I doubt any could reach us in time for an evacuation."
"No commander, we can't risk any more lives," Leia said. "You must use the information stored in my R2 unit to plan an attack."
Artoo beeped and rolled up next her dutifully. Willard looked down at him skeptically, and then back up to Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "Bringing more ships in won't make a difference."
"Very well," Willard said with a curt nod and sigh. He turned to one of the men standing at attention behind him. "Lieutenant, take this R2 unit to the central tactical computer and start the analysis."
"Yes sir," the lieutenant answered. He moved to the side and gestured for Artoo to follow him.
"And initiate the active system scans," Willard added. "Secrecy will be of no use now. We need to know as soon as that station arrives."
"Oh my!" Threepio chattered worriedly. "Artoo, I think I had better come with you." He stepped forward to set of somber looks and began shuffling after Artoo and the lieutenant, oblivious of the conversation he had interrupted. Han snorted and shook his head, glad be rid of the droid.
"And you, Captain," Willard said to Han, suddenly seeming to notice him. "What are the capabilities of your ship?"
"Uh…" Han stammered.
Leia cut him off. "He's just hired transport, Commander," she explained. "He's done his duty. He'll be looking to get paid."
"I see," Willard said, looking slightly disappointed, but he quickly shifted to business. "You may wait in the pilot's ready room. Someone will be with you."
Han followed Willard's vague gesture off to his left, but could see nothing through the maze of fighter wings. When he looked back, Willard was already guiding Obi-Wan and Leia toward the command center ahead of them.
"Yeah, thanks," Han called after them, watching as they disappeared behind a door.
Chewbacca let out a soft whine, and Han shot a glare at him over his shoulder. "Come on, Chewie," he said, and started walking in the direction Willard had indicated. "Let's get this over with."
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Artoo was quickly handed off to a technician, who took him directly to a large computer bank. It was a small area with barely room for the two humanoid-interface terminals. Threepio was directed away, while Artoo was led to the input panel and plugged in.
"Input data size and type for analysis," the computer demanded, all stiff and business.
Artoo responded in kind and received a time estimate and a command to initiate download. "That's too long," he said.
"Improper input. Reformat data and initiate download," the computer spat back blandly.
"Accelerate analysis process," Artoo insisted, but the computer only blinked impatiently and repeated its demand. There would be no working with this rigid block of diodes. Artoo spun his doom and observed the operator bent over his terminal, busily typing commands. He couldn't communicate with the human either, not without Threepio. But he could control the data flow.
He started with the overview files, focusing on shielding and armaments. They were too much for the Rebel craft to overcome in a direct assault, he knew, but he'd seen miracles worked with single-man fighters before. Then he had an idea. In matter of microseconds, Artoo shuffled through the data files he'd been carrying, and reorganized them to prioritize the only battleship system he knew to be vulnerable to small fighters. The very heart of every beast – the main reactor. All they had to do was figure out how to get at it.
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"Where is Darth Arkus? Shouldn't he be here for this?"
Tarkin's tone was sharp, clearly showing his dislike of Arkus and of the secrecy Vader maintained around him. Apparently the time in hyperspace had done little to quell his suspicions.
"He is indisposed with a task I have set for him," Vader rumbled in reply. "His presence is not required." 'And I assure you, you would not welcome it,' he thought but didn't add.
Tarkin intensified his cold stare from his place at the head of his conference table, but Vader paid it no mind as he steadily made his way into the room. The Governor was standing stiff and impatient, his hands pressed hard against the surface of the table. For instant, his gaze dropped to the second lightsaber dangling from Vader's belt, then slid back up with measuring interest.
"Patrols have been dispatched," he ventured. "We will soon know if this is the correct system."
Vader nodded his acknowledgement and rested his hands on the back of one of the chairs as he turned to face Tarkin stoically. This drew a frown and a tightened jaw, but Tarkin did not press the issue, choosing instead to shift his attention to a report on the table. When the com panel buzzed, he punched it harshly. "Yes?" he demanded.
"We are approaching the planet Yavin," a voice replied. "The Rebel base is on a moon on the far side. We are preparing to orbit plant." The com fell silent, and Tarkin turned a thoughtful look toward Vader.
"You see, Governor," Vader said, biting at the end of every word to relieve his strained patience. "You have nothing to worry about."
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The ready room had filled quickly with pilots, who immediately took over the two rows of benches as they set about donning bright orange flight suits. They were divided into two squadrons, best Han could tell from the markings on their lockers. Most of the older pilots were in Gold Squadron - likely the bombers - and a group of hotshot kids made up most of Red. The young ones were talking in a steady stream of nervous mummers mixed with bursts of naïve bravado. Han did his best to ignore them, realizing grimly that they would likely all be dead by day's end.
No, Han much preferred to stay in the little conference area at the back of the room, where the older pilots had their lockers. These were seasoned men with a somber air about them as they silently prepared for battle. They had been there when he and the general's representative had finalized his deal, and they knew that he was just hanging around, waiting for the delivery of his payment. As such, they were content to leave him alone.
Another round of excited mumblings passed around the front of the room, of which Han caught one unmistakable word: "Jedi." The older pilots looked up at this, apparently unable to resist the conversation as they listened in with some interested thoughts of their own.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," one said, shaking his head as he worked the last buckle on his boot. "After all this time. Can you believe it?"
"Yeah," another said with an appreciative huff from the bench. He looked suddenly at Han. "Hey, why couldn't you've dug up Anakin Skywalker while you were at it? Then we might stand a chance against this thing. Hell, it'd be just like the Clone Wars."
Han responded with a detached, steady stare as a third pilot standing further back scoffed. "Hey, don't you guys remember? They lost that war."
"That's enough," Gold Leader broke in sternly, slamming his locker and turning to face his squadron. "We got our own fight. Stay focused on that."
As if on cue, two lights mounted near the ceiling at either end of the room lit up, silencing the pilots. Gold Leader nodded and made a final adjustment to his cuff. "The briefing's starting. Let's get going."
The sound of locker doors slamming erupted throughout the room as the pilots started filing out. Han watched the one who had spoken to him grab up his helmet and turn away, reflecting that he hadn't any idea what the man had been talking about.
Should we go with them? Chewbacca howled out softly.
"Yeah, why not. Beats sitting around here anyway," Han answered, refusing to admit he was actually curious to see what Kenobi and his friends had come up with. He moved slowly to push himself away from the table he'd been sitting at, and waited until the last of Gold squadron had left the room before trailing after them.
They made the short trek along the back of the hanger in a solemn procession, past ground crews already busy loading ordinance and prepping the fighters for flight with an assortment of hoses and electrical umbilicals. The place no longer felt neat and sterile, but was filled with the tension of coming battle. Not a moment was spared to take notice of the pilots crowding toward a room off the main bay. Han was among the last to arrive and found the small room to be already filled beyond capacity. Several rows of orange occupied the seats and lined the walls, dotted sporadically with older men dressed in more formal uniforms much the same as Willard, and a few representatives of the ground crew wearing worn coveralls.
Leia stood in stark contrast to them, still in that fancy dress of hers and looking as serious and determined as ever as she spoke at the head of the room with two men whose more formal dressing marked them as the rebel leadership. Obi-Wan was there as well, but was off to the side, conversing with Red and Gold Leader as they waited for the general to begin. Han found a spot off to one side of the entrance that afforded him and Chewbacca a clear view of the display screen, and propped himself lazily against the thick stone wall.
Leia moved suddenly to join Obi-Wan, and the bearded man she had been talking to picked up a presentation rod and cleared his throat. General Dodonna, Han realized, fixing the name he'd heard to a face. The room immediately fell silent.
"As you know," Dodonna began, "the Imperial Death Star responsible for the destruction of Alderaan has entered our system. We have little more than an hour before it will clear the planet. Our only hope for survival is to engage and destroy it before it is able to fire upon us. This meeting will be brief."
He paused to let this point settle in, then turned and took a few steps to the side, tapping his presentation rod once into the palm of his other hand. The display screen behind him came to life with an expanding outline of the Death Star highlighted with only the essential details. Every pair of eyes locked intensely on the screen, and Dodonna continued evenly, as though instructing a group of students rather than giving a briefing of unparalleled importance.
"The battle station is heavily shielded and carries a firepower greater than half the star fleet. Its defenses are designed around a direct large-scale assault. A small one-man fighter should be able to penetrate the outer defenses."
'And what's that gunna buy you?' Han balked silently, waving off Chewbacca's interested glanced at him. Not even the Falcon could put a dent in that station.
Several of the Rebel pilots seemed restless at this thought as well, and Gold Leader spoke up, his tone more controlled than Han could have managed. "Pardon me for asking, sir, but what good are snub fighters going to be against that?"
"Well," Dodonna answered patiently, "the Empire doesn't consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they'd have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station." He tapped his presentation rod again, and the display zoomed into a small sector of the station with a more detailed schematic and a running flight path over the surface. The information sped by quickly, too fast for the pilots to fully absorb, but the astromechs crowding the back of room were surely recording every second.
"The approach will not be easy," Dodonna warned, pointing to the screen. "You are required to maneuver straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point." The display froze and highlighted what appeared to be one of a series of vents. "The target area is only two meters wide. It's a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction, which should destroy the station. Only a precise hit," he emphasized," will set up a chain reaction." He cast a steadying gaze across the pilots in the front before adding almost off-hand, "The shaft is ray shielded, so you'll have to use proton torpedoes."
'Well, I'll be damned,' Han thought as mummers erupted through the pilots. But talk about a long shot. A two-meter target, at high speed, likely under fire, and only one shot with proton torpedoes…
"That's impossible, even for a computer."
Han turned to find the pilot who had completed his thought. He was just a kid, surely still in his teens and shaking his dark head worriedly to the sickened look of his companion. He was right. No computer could hit that. It would take skill, and enormous amount of luck.
Han shot a look at Obi-Wan, but he was already engaged with Gold and Red Leader. The meeting was falling apart.
"Any questions?" Dodonna called out loudly once. He met the eyes of several pilots, all of whom straightened their backs, accepting their mission. "Then man your ships. And may the Force be with you."
Han peeled away quickly, before the wave of pilots could catch him, and found himself face-to-face with a scowling ground technician.
"What are you doing over here?" the man snapped at him. "I've got your cargo ready over by the pilots' room." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "You'll have to load and transport it yourself from there."
"Great," Han said flatly, slightly taken aback. "'Bout time."
The technician responded with an expression plainly telling Han to go to hell, then hurried off to some other errand. Han blew him off with an equal amount sentiment, and headed directly for the ready-room.
"Pleasant group they got here, huh?" he muttered over his shoulder to Chewbacca as they made their way back.
We are abandoning them, Chewbacca barked in reply.
"Oh, shut up, will ya? They knew what they were gettin' themselves into when they joined this outfit. There's no reason for us to risk our skins, too. Now help me get this stuff loaded so we can get outta here."
Already Han could see the load of crates stacked hurriedly on the floor in two rows near the ready-room's outer wall, and an abandoned freight mover parked in the corner. It would take two trips to move it all with that, something Han was sure they didn't have time for.
"Hey, you finished with that?" he called out to a tech driving an empty ordnance loader. The ships in the area all seemed to be fully armed, and the long payload bay was just what Han needed.
The tech slowed and nodded. "I'm just getting' it out of the way. What do you want it for?"
"Pull it up here." Han pointed to the narrow space between the crate piles. The tech didn't even ask. He parked the loader, and rushed back in the direction he'd come from, leaving Han and Chewie to their task of loading it. They were almost finished when the call for flight groups to main their stations went out.
"I take it you're satisfied with your payment?"
Han looked over towards Obi-Wan's voice as he finished heaving a crate into place. He hadn't noticed the old man's approach in the wave of pilots that had walked by, and was surprised to see him standing calmly to the side, just watching.
"It'll do," Han answered, reaching for the next crate.
"You have ten minutes before the fighters will be launched. After that, you'll have to wait for clearance."
"Don't worry, I'll be gone." Han shoved the crate next its predecessor and turned back for another, taking in a glimpse of Obi-Wan's tattered robes. "Hey, why aren't you suited up? I figured you'd be leading this attack."
Obi-Wan smiled distantly. "No, I'm afraid piloting was never one of my strengths. I'll be in the command center."
Han paused after depositing his latest load, making as if to catch his breath as he struggled with a tugging thought. Chewbacca dropped another crate in place.
"I could get you and the princess out of here," Han suddenly offered over his better judgment. He turned stiffly back to Obi-Wan. "Take you back to Tatooine."
"That's very generous of you," Obi-Wan said graciously. "But I'm afraid it would be quite impossible to convince Leia to abandon her people."
"It's suicide, you know." Han couldn't keep the sour note out of his voice. It all seemed such a waste.
"That's a matter of perspective, Captain," Obi-Wan admonished, suddenly seeming a teacher to an errant student. Han braced for a speech over the importance of sacrifice, but the old Jedi only held up a hand in farewell. "I won't keep you," he said with a tight smile. "Spend your reward wisely."
Obi-Wan turned and began walking away, but for some reason, Han couldn't just let him go. "Hey," he called out, and drew himself up magnanimously when Obi-Wan looked back. "May the Force be with you."
"And with you, too, Captain." Obi-Wan nodded and smiled warmly this time, then disappeared into a crowd of bustling pilots.
Chewbacca howled mournfully at his departure. Han looked over to see the Wookie had stopped loading crates and was now assailing him with questioning eyes.
"What're you lookin' at?" Han lashed out bitterly, and then reached down to jerk the last crate up. "I know what I'm doin'."
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"Orbiting the planet at maximum velocity. The moon with the Rebel base will be in range in thirty minutes."
The main display on the Death Star overbridge quickly cycled through the astronomical data on the Yavin system, methodically deleting the orbits of moons until only one remained. Then the display flashed to a new graphic centered on the planet, with the moon of interest shown as an outlined ghost behind it. This graphic began updating in steady blinks, slowly marching the moon closer and closer to the planet's edge, where it would be hidden no longer.
Tarkin shifted tensely next to him, but Darth Vader's attention was locked solely on the display, his focus reaching out deeper into the screen until it found in the Force the one presence he was obsessed with. Obi-Wan was down there. The old fool had followed his old mantra. Recognizing a trap, he'd chosen to spring it. Face it head on, rather than run. Predictable. But how did he plan to deal with this one, now that he was cornered? He would try something, Vader was sure. Some ruse perhaps, or desperate attack. If there was a weakness to be exploited, Obi-Wan would find it.
But Vader was here to ensure he wouldn't succeed. This would be the end for Obi-Wan, and appropriate, too, that he would die with the Alliance formed under the same misguided Jedi idealism. The war would end today with the destruction of that one small moon.
And Arkus, his son… Arkus would be unconscious until it was done. When he woke it would be to a new galaxy, though the boy wouldn't recognize it. Not until Vader showed him what his betrayal would mean to the Emperor, and what an alliance with his father could gain him. The boy couldn't go back to Palpatine. Wouldn't go back, once he understood how his precious princess had been used as nothing but a pawn. Only Vader had tried to preserve her, and now only Vader could offer him a path toward retribution.
His son would come; Vader felt this truth. And with him a new future would dawn.
Only twenty-nine minutes...