"I'm ready," said Luke. "Going into hyperspace in three... two..."
He was just about to activate the hyperdrive of his X-Wing, awaiting the inescapable view of darkness phasing into traps of light. He exhaled, tightening his grip and tensing into his seat, prepared.
Over the comm, however, a deep voice suddenly crackled through: "Don't even think about it, kid."
Luke lifted his gloved hands off the controls, startled.
"Risking your life, and for what? An oversized flashlight with a laser setting... And just when I think you couldn't get more off-the-wall."
Luke closed his eyes and sighed in disbelief. So much for his plan to leave quietly without anyone noticing...
"And guess what?" the voice continued dryly. "The Falcon's anchored on a gravity lock getting repaired, so I can't go and save your sorry hide for the umpteenth time. Swell timing, huh?"
Han, back at the Rebel spaceport not far from Luke's floating starfighter, was no doubt frowning readily at him.
"Now you listen: I don't care how mystical and magical that Jedi stuff is, it's not worth dyin' over. You hear me, Luke? You better hear me—"
From his stationary area outside the X-Wing, Artoo vocalized something. The droid's translated words appeared on the computer screen, and Luke held back a laugh.
"Yeah, Artoo... I can almost see the lines on his forehead, too."
"Luke," Han went on, in that I-know-better-than-you voice. "This is crazy. You're crazy."
Luke half-grinned. "I think I'd be worried if you didn't think so, Han."
The other man sounded like he was about to say something more heated, but another voice suddenly took over.
"Luke — I'll tell you this only once: return to the port." Leia's tone was softer, but as usual it left no room for argument. "You're a lieutenant of the Rebel Alliance. You can't just sneak off without permission to go on your own mission just because it's personal for you. That's not how we do things in the Alliance."
Luke's hands lifted from the controls slightly, then tightened, then loosened again.
"...I'm sorry, Leia," he said, and he was. He fervently wished he'd just kept his idea to go on this mission for himself, to himself. He had told them both that he wanted to go. They hadn't talked him out of it then, and they wouldn't now.
Resisting the temptation to close the comms right then and there, he added, "But I'm not leaving my lightsaber on that rock. I'm not."
Luke swallowed, remembering the moment of shock hours ago, when he'd realized that silvery hilt that always hung on his belt — his lightsaber, the Jedi weapon that Ben had entrusted to him, his father's heirloom... he, Luke, had lost it.
And there was only one explanation: before they had all retreated from their previous battle, he had been captured by Imperial troopers. He'd boarded their shuttle, having been knocked out and only half-aware of what was going on. There had been so much chaos that day, starting with the aerial onslaughts — and the presence of Darth Vader...
But the shuttle must have either been damaged or a substandard vessel, as it had swiftly and suddenly broke down not far above the terrain. Miraculously, he'd survived the crash and escaped, apparently as the only survivor. In the midst of that and their swift takeoff from the dusty planet afterwards, Luke hadn't thought to check himself, like any sensible Rebel fighter would. To make sure the guards hadn't unarmed him when he was unconscious...
Turns out, they had.
"Whatever chance that it's still there, I'll take it," he declared over the comm, his thoughts charging him now with a new fill of determination. "It's all I have left, Leia. It's my responsibility to get it back."
"Luke, this is ridiculous. I would expect this type of loner selfishness from Han..." The authority in Leia's voice was now dropping to something worse: disappointment. "...but not from you, Luke."
At this, Luke felt an inevitable wave of shame. Leia was adept at brutal honesty. He could only imagine the look on Han's face right now.
"Luke... I know that lightsaber means a lot to you," she went on patiently. "But Vrogas Vas will be under Imperial surveillance. It's the location of a former Rebel base. You can't risk—"
"It's my risk, Leia—"
Han's voice came through again. "Look, kid, you can't go tip-toeing into battle remains like it's playtime in a holo-house. That's just—"
A series of spirited growls interrupted him.
"What... what dy'a mean "he's faced worse before"? Why you stupid — hairy heap of —"
Leia cut in, "Luke, please. The Alliance needs you. You were there... you saw what happened over Vrogas Vas. We can't afford to lose a pilot like you, especially after—"
"Well, if that doesn't tug at his heartstrings." Han couldn't have sounded more incredulous. "Yeah, Luke, our friend who's walking straight into the enemy—come back, okay? We don't have enough pilots."
There was silence, and Luke was more than thankful to be as far away as he was. He also felt an echo of sadness, thinking of all the Rebels who had been mercilessly shot down over Vrogas Vas... And that had been before the Imperials knew of their base...
Then Leia's voice came back, soft and level as ever. "Luke. If you're going to go through with this..." He heard her sigh, something she rarely did. "...You understand that if something happens... we can't send help. We can't come after you. We've suffered too much on Vrogas Vas already. We can't..."
Her words trailed away, followed by a dull quietness. In his cockpit with nothing but the perpetual blackness of space before him, Luke now suddenly felt very alone.
The low whirring of the X-Wing engines continued.
Alone it is then, he thought, his hands steady on the control sticks. He couldn't back out now. After all, he had faced worse before. He wasn't helpless. He still had his blaster, his droid, his ship...
And greatest of all, the Force.
"Look... I understand. It's okay," he said, genuinely trying to assure her, Han, all of them. "Don't worry. I'll be back. I promise I'll be back."
With that, he pushed at the controls, and vanished from their scopes as he was swept into hyperspace.
The Dark Lord walked through the halls of the Imperial Palace, a shadow that drifted from one room to the next, past the walkways, up one turbolift and off another. The guards standing watch surveyed Vader in silence, noting the silver container that hovered at his side.
He reached the lift that led to the Emperor's quarters and hurried in, eager to get this meeting over with. He was wasting enough time coming here, but he had to see the Emperor face-to-face for this matter.
As he rode the lift, he tried to gather the swell of frustration he still felt from his recent mission, to focus it into a black haze of anger, always present as his master expected. But as he glanced at the box beside him, the outrage and disappointment only resurfaced, burrowing into his mind.
He had just returned from Vrogas Vas, and his whole mission, his whole purpose there, had been foiled. Even Vader's accomplice had been lost, taken in by the Rebels, carrying information that could ruin his hidden plans — a problem he had to rectify. He had faced battle after battle on Vrogas Vas, by air and on land, confronted numerous Rebels...
But not the one that actually mattered. And the reason only made the whole ordeal all the more infuriating.
Commander Karbin, a four-armed Mon Calamarian cyborg — a living definition of abomination — had prevented him. His mission had been the same as Vader's: to capture the Rebel who had destroyed the Death Star. Karbin had fought Vader, delaying him while his men had captured the boy. Vader had managed to use the Force to bring down the shuttle that had carried him, allowing the boy to flee with the rest of his Rebel companions. It was the only morsel of success to come from the whole venture.
So his son was still out of his reach... but also out of reach of those who could prove troublesome, as Karbin had.
The Mon Calamarian had been modified by a scientist named Cylo, an acquaintance of the Emperor, and there were others like him. Their "enhancements", he'd proposed, made them superior to Vader. They were replacements, he'd said, especially in the wake of Vader's recent failures...
Apparently, this idea was taken seriously by his master.
It enraged him. To blame him for the destruction of the Death Star was one thing — he had made a serious error in letting the Rebels escape, and had failed to stop the attack on the reactor core. He had admitted this and accepted the responsibility. But putting him under the command of Tagge — whose promotion had only further shown what a self-applauding swine he was, assigning Vader prying adjutants meant to "assist" him — and the Emperor pitting him against these cybernetic creatures who thought themselves greater than the Force itself...
It was more than insulting and sacrilegious; it was an utter waste.
The turbolift stopped and Vader walked off. He made his way to a large door where two red-garbed sentries stood. Seeing the Dark Lord, they stood aside and allowed him access. He paced into the well-lit room with the container, letting the sharp intake of his breath announce his presence.
"Ah, Lord Vader."
The Emperor sat at a table, hands folded, surrounded by two similar red-robed guards.
"You bring me tribute? A present?" he said, his pale face serene. "How considerate." Behind his chair, the Coruscant afternoon could be seen through the large window, which was fashioned into an Imperial insignia. Its shape cast web-like shadows on the floor and walls.
Vader stopped just a few feet away from the steps that led to the Emperor. "You have been seeking Commander Karbin," he said, and motioned to the container. The lid of the vessel unlocked with the Force, and out fell a Mon Calamarian head. It was attached to half of a battered, metallic torso which had clearly been cut in two. Vader pushed the half of the lifeless body with his boot, turning it over, letting his master better observe it. The flesh was an off-white orange, the protruding eyes wide open.
"I found him," said Vader. His gaze was locked on the old man, waiting for his reaction.
The Emperor sat silent, yellow eyes unblinking as he looked at the sight with a frown.
"Hmm..." he murmured. "Are these lightsaber wounds, Vader?"
"You wish me to prove myself, Master." Vader's cynical tone transferred through his mask, sharp and even. "Give me a fight worthy of my time."
The Emperor rose from his chair. He walked to the massive window, slightly hunching, black sleeves touching the floor. "Your are in luck. I have a certain... problem. Despite our warning, the ore-barons of Shu-Torun are rebelling."
Vader hadn't expected this. He recalled his visit to Shu-Torun: its royal family had shown resistance to the Empire, and the king had tried to assassinate him, using his youngest daughter as a means to do. She had led Vader into a trap that was meant to kill both of them; in the end Vader had had the conspiring family killed, save for the youngest daughter, who was left as queen, compliant to serve the Empire. Evidently, their fates had not left enough of an impact on the planet.
"I require a full military intervention," the Emperor said, now heading back to his chair. "You will bring the Empire's assistance to Queen Trios. This must be achieved swiftly. Shu-Torun is a fountain of rare metals and minerals. The Empire's greatest martial achievements rely upon it. The Empire cannot strike against its foes without their riches."
Not his choice mission, but it was an important one, and an improvement from performing Tagge's menial tasks and dealing with abominations.
"It will be done," he affirmed, and he turned away, his black cape slightly brushing over the Mon Calamarian corpse as he went.
"Oh..." He heard the Emperor let out a drawling sigh. "There is one other matter."
Vader stopped and listened, making no movement.
"At Grand General Tagge's insistence," the Emperor continued, "Doctor Cylo will join you in the task."
Vader looked back at his master. The white face was draped in the black hood, smiling.
"Why?" he rumbled.
"There is a reason. You are student and I am master. I will explain all when you return from this task."
At that, Vader turned away without another word, reining in his displeasure. Before he reached the exit he heard the Emperor add in a soft croak: "Show your merit, Vader. I rely on you more than you can understand."
Vader passed through the door and left.
So, finding his son would be put on hold once again... but the sooner he proved himself, the sooner he would be free of these distractions, elevated in power, with more resources at his disposal to find him. And insuring Shu-Torun's aide would be a significant victory for the Empire — as well as a possible opportunity for him to dispose of more "rivals"...
One abomination down. Four to go.
"Putting up the shields, Artoo," Luke said, baring his teeth as an uneasiness built up in his stomach.
As they fell out of hyperspace, readings picked up two small objects, far enough to be unidentifiable on the computer, but he was sure they were Imperial satellites. From the distance he could also make out an Imperial cargo ship, large and arrow-shaped, lingering above Vrogas Vas. Likely where the Imperials were storing anything they deemed retrievable, both from the battlefield and the Rebel base.
Luke let out a breath, his visor clouding slightly as he did so. Transport ships like this didn't usually have advanced weaponry or tracking, but still...
Settling to take control of the X-Wing's laser cannons, he prepared to approach the planet. To defend himself, speed his way through — dubious a plan as that was — but then he paused.
Something had caught his eye. Several klicks away was a string of glowing points, leaving behind blue tails as they were darting towards Vrogas Vas.
A comet storm? Luke guessed. He remembered that Vrogas Vas had gaseous emissions on its surface regularly; perhaps these storms were the reason. He thought for a moment.
If he could reach it, find a place within it, keep up with it... he could not only live, but use the storm to his advantage. Surely nothing could detect or shoot down a starfighter that was shielded by such a torrent. But to fly in the middle of a deadly space storm... the risk would be...
Artoo made a series of chirps and beeps.
"No," Luke responded, his voice low. He then pulled back on the control sticks, reversing the ship. "Let's move around them, Artoo. Keep our distance. We have to stay undetected before we can get to that comet storm."
Artoo made a questioning whistle as Luke maneuvered his way slowly, but surely. The storm was moving at a steady pace, and he managed to fly around the view of the Imperial ship's hull. No lasers firing his way... so far, so good. He looked at the state of the blazing display on his screen, radiated in waves that hid anything behind it.
Then he paused, and eyed the angle of the descending trail. He made his way forward, swerved his hands at the controls, and the X-Wing turned sideways. Luke closed his eyes. He dove toward the storm at top speed.
The light was blinding even through his visor, but he kept to his maneuver, determined to let nothing but instinct guide him, remembering Ben's words... He felt the storm, the intensity, astronomic and entrapping...
Something seemed to open within him, sharpening his mind, guiding him... Yes. He knew that power...
Compelled, he flew further forward and downward. He shut out the sounds of the ship sensors going haywire, the spastic bleating from Artoo, the unstable force surrounding and gripping the X-Wing... gripping, but not crushing. He found a certain calmness in himself.
He realized he was within the storm now. Part of it, as he'd meant to be...
A certain awareness was running through him, telling him to scroll away here, slow down here, avoid this spot. It wasn't a flawlessly smooth procedure; the ship took hits and bumps and he jumped at them. The danger was now wavering his concentration.
Artoo made several high-pitched curses, while Luke tried to fly the best he could, and all the while they were indeed descending toward their destination, toward Vrogas Vas.
Through the downpour of light, Luke could view the earthy surface of the planet below. He smiled as it became more and more clear.
Within moments, he had reached the atmosphere. Luke waited, searching for an opening through the storm's blazing clutter and when one came, he dodged through it, leaving the storm behind. He heard the violent crashes upon land, saw the rubble splitting away in the dusky sky.
Luke blew out in relief.
"Thank the Force," he whispered, and continued flying, edging closer to the dark, mountainous terrain. The rough ground, yellow in the day, was now covered in twilight. Amazingly, he realized he wasn't far from the Rebel battle site... Again, he thanked the Force.
It wasn't long before he spotted the Imperial presence; it was hard to miss. Huge white containment ships were spread for miles, alight in the darkening fields. Luke immediately stopped his ship, his upper body propelled forward in his seat, and taking a breath he descended to land. As good as his X-Wing was, it wasn't built for stealth, and the hot-blue flare of the engines couldn't be concealed. He worried for a split second that he may have already been seen.
Luke lifted the hatch and removed his helmet. It was nearly black outside. He sat up and took out a pair of black goggles from a compartment and put them on. Turning on night vision, he opened the storage space and took out his supplies, attaching them to his belt while Artoo departed from the ship. The droid casually wheeled off the ship's wing and landed with a thud.
"Quiet, Artoo," Luke hissed, tucking his gun in its holster. He stepped out. "And disable your lights."
After settling the little droid upright, Luke led him forward. He viewed the area, zooming in and out. The region ahead was littered with scorched debris and indistinguishable heaps, and Luke shuddered, thinking of what they were. Unavoidable memories flashed in his mind: static screams, orange bursts in the air...
Ahead, droids with head-lights were fluttering around, and stormtroopers were standing near a group of containers.
"Artoo... can you pick up anything? Any sign of an Imperial shuttle?" he asked.
The droid made a quiet beep and began scanning.
All was silent as they walked, viewing everything they could in the darkness. Jagged rocks and boulders, cracked formations in the ground... Vrogas Vas was as empty as he remembered. They walked on, the green screen of the goggles picking up nothing that looked like an Imperial shuttle.
All of a sudden, a strange sensation came over Luke. He looked away, as if drawn. Then he made a step, then another, and then darted off in that direction. The path he headed to had a lighted area; it was being surveyed, but he continued in a hurry. He came to a halt when he spotted a series of crumbled pillars, stairs, and statues.
The remains of the Jedi temple.
It had been the very reason he first came to this once-obscure world, seeking Jedi history and knowledge of the Force. The remoteness of Vrogas Vas had been why he told the Alliance about it, thinking it would make a good location for a Rebel base. Now standing near this place again, Luke could feel something — a calm, mistful feeling — and it appealed to him. He had felt the Force here before, but only briefly, not having the chance to really explore as he'd wished...
He knew he shouldn't go closer, shouldn't risk it, but the Force felt so strong here...
Artoo suddenly touched his side with an extended mechanical claw, and buzzed at him in protest. Luke patted him away and moved forward.
A bright light shone over towards them, nearly blinding Luke. He sidestepped out of the way, Artoo twirling behind him.
The scout droid lingered a while... then it slowly flew away.
Abashed, Luke let out a stricken breath as he looked at the astromech droid.
"Alright, alright... just the lightsaber, then we go," he whispered, holding up his hands in defeat. Artoo's body made a nodding motion and his round head swiveled. He headed the other direction. Luke sighed, but let him lead the way.
They walked for a long time, avoiding the Imperials' lines of sight and keeping to the taller formations of rock whenever they could. Gradually, Luke was spotting more materials — various scraps of plastoid and titanium — but no sights that seemed familiar. Artoo was silent.
Then Artoo stopped. His dome turned to Luke earnestly and he let out a a few lively beeps.
"Really, Artoo? You... you found it?"
The young man stepped away and went towards him.
Luke started, and jerked his knees back. He looked around him, blaster pointed.
"You must leave this place, and quickly."
He withdrew his gun, heart pounding, followed by a whiff of relief. He knew that voice...
Artoo's dome spun backward, and he made a questioning chime.
"Leave, Luke." The voice of his friend and mentor was unmistakable, and seemed to echo as if carried through a cave. But Ben's voice didn't have its usual warmth and kindness — it was stern. Uneasily, Luke remembered that he'd heard Ben's voice on Vrogas Vas before, that he'd warned him then... but that battle was over now.
"You were not ready before," Ben's voice said. "And you are not ready now. Turn back."
"But... but Ben!..." Luke couldn't help raising his voice. "How do I... Ben, I know this is dangerous, but I had to come back for my father's lightsaber! How... how can I ever become a Jedi if I don't have a lightsaber—"
"Patience," Ben urged him. "You will find another way. But now, you must leave. You must leave now, Luke. Hurry!"
Luke's answer was quick, and simply spilled out his mouth:
Luke stood there a moment, bewildered and taken aback by his own words. Silently, he waited for an answer, almost hoping for a reproach.
Ben's voice, however, did not return.
Instead, there came a sharp tap, like metal being struck with a rod.
"A lightsaber... did I hear that right?" said a voice, and the metallic tap was heard again.
Luke moved, and again yanked out his blaster. He inched closer to the origin of the voice, which was definitely not Ben's — it was coarser, deeper. Alive.
In the distance, a large mass showed up on his lenses' screen. On the ground there were bodies of robed guards. As he came closer, Luke could see the details of the mass: a dorsal-shaped plate stuck out, there were vents from an engine, and folded triangular wings that were now mostly buried in sand...
The Imperial shuttle!
Tap. The sound came again, but it hit the ground this time, followed by footsteps. From the left side of the crashed shuttle, something had emerged behind a reflective container. The heatwaves of a human body came through the night vision, slowly approaching.
"Stay where you are. I'm armed," Luke warned, taking a step back. He heard Artoo beep and shake anxiously behind him.
The person did as Luke told them, and was still. But a glowrod emitted; they were holding it out to see. The only thing that seemed to be picked up electronically from them was a comlink, and a strange energy coming from one side of their face, perhaps an implant of some kind. Squinting, Luke could see the stranger was a man, who held a walking cane in his other hand, slightly leaning on it.
Luke paused. He lifted the goggles from his eyes, slightly lowering his blaster.
Then he realized the man was wearing an Imperial uniform.
"Artoo — cut off comm signals," Luke commanded. The droid obeyed, bringing out his detection device, which maneuvered side-to-side, now blocking all communications near them.
"Hmm," Luke heard the man sound out, as if he were pondering something.
"Don't move," Luke told him, his voice cold. "You can see I have a gun. I'll use it."
"Ah, yes..." The old man lightly tapped his cane — the source of the sound Luke had heard earlier. "An A280 blaster-rifle. Cheap, common weapon... I'm sure you would use it, especially since it's only set to stun."
Luke raised his eyebrows, his insides now whirling with a mix of caution and confusion. He looked at the blaster in his hands and swallowed dryly, wondering if he should change the setting... How had the Imperial observed all this in the dark?
"I gather you are a Rebel fighter," said the man in his rough voice, speaking as if he was greeting a visitor. "A pilot no less, judging from the orange jumpsuit."
This Imperial was remarkably calm for someone being held at gunpoint, Luke thought; he didn't seem ruffled at all. Luke didn't know what he was playing at, but he felt an edge of impatience as he eyed the shuttle. It was only a few feet away. He didn't have time for this... and Ben's words of warning were still fresh on his mind. He needed to leave, but he was so close now... All he needed was to get inside...
"Stun is all I need to take you down." He clutched the blaster, taking small steps towards the shuttle. "So don't try anything. I don't want trouble... I just need to..."
"Fetch your lightsaber, yes I know. I heard you." The Imperial tipped his head towards the shuttle, gesturing with the glowrod. "However... I'm afraid you won't find it there."
Luke stared at him, and moved closer. The light of the glowrod wasn't the brightest, but he could make out the man's face; it was aged and blemished, with a shaggy mustache grown out to the sides of his face. He wore a standard Imperial cap on his head, and a monocle over one eye.
"My name is Thanoth," the man said, making an earnest nod at him. The light on his face shifted as he gestured towards him, still holding the tiny lamp, and he made a shadowy smile.
"...Luke Skywalker, I presume?"