'It's good to be back,' I think as the Falcon's gear settles to the landing bay floor on Home One.
Leia sat behind me once we cleared our 'Imperial Entanglements'. I can feel her concern. She can always tell when something's off with me. Even from the depths of her longing and worry for Han, she manages to keep an eye on me. She loosens her crash webbing and wraps her arms around my shoulders from behind, with the pilot's chair still between us.
'Thanks for coming after me…..' she says, but she said that when she first came into the cockpit. This time I can see her watching the side of my face. I can feel she's confused by my behaviour since she came in from the turrets.
The sheer terror of running for our lives from Imperial Centre wore off quickly, but I replayed the battle many times in my head during our hyperspace journey. I've been much less talkative than usual, unless you count those first awful weeks after Bespin.
'I'm okay,' I tell her. 'Just don't do that to us again, Leia. Please.'
'I won't,' she says, but her expression doesn't change and she makes no move to release me from her arms.
My deflection hasn't fooled her. It never does. I half-turn towards her.
'I'll be okay,' I amend.
Her eyes shift - I unconsciously brought my right forearm into my left hand and flexed the prosthetic.
'Executor turning up at the end was tense.' I offer and stop.
She nods once, firmly. 'My offer stands,' she says. Her arms tighten briefly in support, and then she leaves me to my thoughts, knowing I won't say more.
Guilt blasts me again. Am I betraying Leia and my friends in keeping my secret? I'm putting them in danger. That's not new, but Vader's revelation puts a very different spin on it. And I have no idea where to begin filing the latter moments of our departure from Imperial Centre.
I am relieved on some level.
Leia's investigations were successful in identifying the culprit behind the recent assassination attempts against me.
I was a little irritated that she chose to go after that sleemo on her own.
Crown Prince Xizor and Black Sun were dangerous adversaries. Leia's capture and the attempted seduction proved that. Lando and me got her out of there just fine.
I'm glad for that.
The same cannot be said for the complex she was held in. Xizor escaped the explosion, but he's not going to be a problem again, because he's now dead…
I am back to what has me in greater turmoil than I've been in some time.
The SSD Executor, flagship of the Imperial Fleets, arrived over Imperial Centre not long after we broke out of the planet's atmosphere. We were already engaged in dogfights with the TIEs from Black Sun's Skyhook and Planetary Defence, and badly outnumbered.
Vader was aboard the Executor when it entered the system.
There is no mistaking his aura in the force:
Overwhelming power, vibrating black and red with odd streaks of brilliant blue occasionally flashing over, spreading over Imperial Centre's atmosphere, and the battle, reaching, searching, brushing over, invading everything, pressing close over my shoulder, over my mind, but not into it, and then a swift, unexpected retreat.
I felt him presiding over the battle, knew he was ordering his men.
Wedge's voice to the Rogues confirmed Executor's presence.
I felt Executor's TIEs launch.
Instantly my fear poked out from that place of serene concentration that desperate battle forces. We'd be killed or worse, soon….. 'There is no try.' I tamped that fear down. I could 'not' let Leia fall into Vader's hands again. I did not lose touch with the flying or the force. I barked orders to the Falcon's team and the Rogues, resetting a rendezvous point, plotting co-ordinates, twisting, diving… so many of the TIEs now tearing after the Falcon, explosions blossomed around her…. in locations impossible for the Rogues or the Falcon's gunners to have shot them…
Wedge's voice came over the com… 'Executor's TIEs are shooting Black Sun's!' His moment of confusion….
I ordered him to take advantage. We checked the programmed jumps… waited for the computers…. fought to survive the seconds before safety….
I felt a larger explosion somewhere above and behind me, deaths in the force, but I released my fear. Not one of ours, and too small to be Executor herself….
Wedge was on the com again… 'The Skyhook's gone! Exec's main turbolaser shot her out of orbit!'
The Falcon's computers were ready for the jump at that moment. I oriented the ship, pulled back the lever, and we left Imperial Centre behind.
SSD Executor, Flagship of the Imperial Fleets, fired on the Skyhook of a well-known Imperial Business Leader, the head of Xizor Transport Systems. Executor turned her TIE's against the Falleen's in battle, and ultimately destroyed their mother ship. Why?
Lando and Leia had theories. Xizor was the vigo of the vast Crime Syndicate Black Sun, and Vader despised corruption. The Crown Prince was also a favoured Imperial Courtier and ally of Palpatine's, a rival of Vader's at court. With Palpatine away from the capital Vader had simply seized his opportunity.
I was not convinced. Xizor and Vader co-existed for years, even before Leia became a Senator. Why the open hostility now? A lot can happen in four years, but enough for one Imperial vessel to suddenly turn on another in a battle against a common enemy?
Xizor instigated the recent assassination attempts against me, and if Leia figured it out I'm sure Vader did too…..
Did Lord Vader's personal ship shoot down the Being who dared to plot the demise of his Son?
If yes, then why?
Was it to preserve me as a potential Imperial asset? The cost/ benefit for the Empire in this case made no sense.
Dare I entertain the other option?
A feeling has nestled in my traumatized mind. I want to believe so badly it's like a wild-but-thrilling dream. My right wrist throbs. My heart thumps and my stomach churns at the possibility. I struggle to find calm.
Don't think, feel. Know.
I reflect on his force sense when he entered orbit, reaching so far, searching so thoroughly, then the quick brush and tactical retreat.
Once he found me his attention turned to the battle. He decided against any attempt at capture in favour of my survival. I know.
He chose me today. Was it above his Master's orders? Did we witness a skirting of Treason, or something more?
Systematically I recall other close encounters with him. More feelings flitter.
He has not tried to kill me since my bounty became alive-only and skyrocketed. He placed that bounty. Before it, there were regular attempts to assassinate me, but few after.
He released me to the natives on Jazbina.
He maimed me on Bespin, but he could have taken my head as easily as he did my hand when I refused him. Instead he let me fall, reaching for me, pleading in my mind, but not truly forcing the issue…...
Hope rekindles within me as I accept that he's chosen me for years now.
I know what I must do.
I cannot join the Darkness, but when my next chance comes I will choose him, and I will make sure he knows.