Wilton took a slow breath and let it hiss slowly out through his teeth, as if he couldn’t believe that he was even considering this. They stood silently in unmoving groups as the awkward moment stretched out into several moments. At long last, Wilton said, “Count me in, Jedi,” and stuck his hand out to shake on it and seal the deal.
Luke clasped Wilton’s hand in turn. “With the Force on our side, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Wilton moved to stand in front of Tank, his hand outstretched for another shake. “No hard feelings.”
That was easy for him to say! Tank stared into the other man’s face, a feeling of aversion washing over him. He knew that he was letting Luke down by not being immediately magnanimous towards Captain Wilton, but he couldn’t help himself. “You refused to hear me out when I first wanted to discuss the idea of Rebel and Imperial coming together. Then, to make matters worse, you threw me into a detention cell for ‘an indeterminate amount of time’ to think over my error of not making Luke an instant prisoner. And now I’m supposed to forget and forgive, just like that?” Tank shook his head. “I’m just a stormtrooper, and was never taught basic diplomacy. I’m not sure I have any use for it.”
Luke appeared at his side in the next second. “A friend once told me that diplomacy looks easy, but is more difficult than I could ever imagine, much harder than becoming a Jedi. I didn’t believe her at the time.” His look turned self-deprecating. “Now I know what she meant.”
Tank didn’t miss the irony of Luke’s comment, and knew that now was the time to say something particularly profound. But all he could do was debate with himself as to whether to take Wilton’s hand or not. He could cement Luke’s deal with one simple hand movement, or he could ignore the possibilities being presented in this moment, and doom the war between Empire and Rebellion to continue for the foreseeable future.
Wilton went on holding his hand out to shake, and Tank continued to debate with himself. Neither withdrew, and neither pressed forward. The moment seemed as frozen as a slab of carbonite.
Tank’s lips quivered in indecision. Luke’s friend had definitely been right; this wasn’t easy.
Then again, nothing worth doing ever was. Tank gave a relieved sigh, glad to have finally made a decision about this. Hoping he wouldn’t regret it, he warily took Wilton’s hand into his own, silently mocking himself for being the probable idiot that he was. “Step one for the archives.”
Luke’s blazing smile eclipsed Tanks’ uncertainty. “First steps always seem small, but trust me, this is bigger than anything we’ve ever done.”
Tank never had the chance to respond. Two troopers believed to be stunned suddenly became dangerously reanimated. Small palm blasters stored in their boots transferred straight into their waiting gloved hands as one trooper aimed at Luke, and the other targeted Captain Wilton.
Tank acted without thinking, throwing himself at the nearest trooper. From the other side of the corridor cross section, Solo did the same.
But none of them was as fast as Luke. It was as if his instincts never quite turned off even if he considered his current situation to be perfectly safe. Prepared to fire as they were, there was no possible way the two troopers could miss at such close range, yet when Luke simply flicked his finger to the side, they did. It was yet one more bizarre example of the Force in action. The laser bolts buried themselves in the wall directly behind Luke and Wilton.
In the next second, Tank clobbered the nearest trooper with all the pent up frustration of a man who’d spent the last month in a room the size of a box. Arms and legs and blaster all tangled together when they crashed into a rolling heap on the floor. Solo and his trooper suffered a similar fate, rolling into their comrades to come to a jarring halt.
Before any of them could even draw breath, Luke’s discarded lightsaber lifted out of the pile of weapons at the end of the corridor and flew into his hand. A hiss sounded as it immediately ignited, the green blade coming to rest directly in front of the assassine troopers.
Luke’s command rang with more dangerous authority than any of his words had so far. Tank didn’t know if the Jedi’s directive pertained to him as well as the trooper he was currently tangled with, but he didn’t intend to find out.
Not so for the second trooper. Solo was suddenly energetically shoved to the side, and the discrete palm blaster once again winked in the hand of the downed trooper. He fired at Wilton half a blink later.
Luke blocked the shot, sending the laser bolt back along its path to make a smoking hole in the assassin’s chest. Without giving his actions a chance to sink in, he brought his weapon to bear on the other assassin. “Don’t make me.”
The voice lacked the warmth that Luke had so far displayed, leaving the impression to every witness that the fairly pleasant man they had been dealing with who insisted on stunning his adversaries rather than killing them had abruptly changed into a dangerous Jedi wielding a deadly weapon.
Neither Tank nor the stormtrooper under him did more than gulp shallow breaths. The blood from the first trooper continued to pool on the floor, coagulating an inch from Tank’s nose.
Luke wouldn’t really cut me in half, would he? Hot coils of irrational panic had started to worm its way through Tank’s frozen insides when to his infinite relief, the trooper under him slowly raised his hands in surrender.
“Good. I don’t want to kill you, too.” Luke’s clipped tone promised that he’d do just that, no matter what he said. “Tank, roll to the side.”
Holding his breath, Tank very slowly slid off the armored man and onto the floor.
To the surrendering assassin, Luke ordered, “Stand up, slowly. No sudden moves, or you’ll join your friend.” The trooper slowly stood. Luke’s gaze never once wavered from the trooper. “I know you’re working for someone. I’ll find him. When I do, I won’t be this accommodating.”
Still catching his breath after such a quick unfolding of events, Wilton helped Solo to his feet, then shakily took the man into custody, shackling his arms, then attaching the handcuffs right to the uniform’s utility belt. Then he offered his hand to Tank.
As shaky as Wilton, Tank took the captain’s offered hand without thinking and climbed to his feet. He’d barely straightened when the trooper turned his frowning helmet to face him. “Traitor,” he hissed. “No matter where you go, we’ll find you!”
“You can try,” Tank retorted, refusing to be intimidated in spite of his still pounding heart.
Wilton jerked the man back away from Tank while Luke warned, ”No heroics.”
The trooper unwisely lunged in Luke’s direction, and Wilton’s second jerk was far less considerate than his first. He used his weight to expertly unbalance the surprised trooper, shackling him tightly to a ring embedded in the wall before anyone could protest.
“What do we do with him?” Tank asked, his voice faltering. He roughly cleared his throat.
“Leave him there,” Lando said. “The others will wake up soon enough; they’ll find him.”
At that suggestion, Wilton whipped off his cap and secured it to the trooper’s shoulder armor, pinning his name tag to the front of the cap. “There. That should let them know who left this little present.”
Luke piped up, “They’ll think we kidnapped you when they find you gone, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Wilton said. “To them, there’s no other explanation for the disappearance of an Imperial Officer.”
“I’ll tell them what a traitor you are,” the assassin sneered at Wilton, “right before I tell them that I’m gonna kill you.”
Not unaffected by the death threat, the captain’s bravado instantly flared, but it was Luke who replied, “I dare you to try.”
Then in a voice that was oddly reasonable considering the chaos, Solo interjected, “As much as making death threats makes my insides go soft, we should take these last moments before the others wake up to quietly disappear.”
“Good idea,” Luke agreed, and Wedge and Lando nodded their assent.
“Always the strategist, aren’t you, Solo?” Tank observed. “My unit used to call you ‘The
Solo grimaced uneasily. “Well right now, my strategic brain is tellin’ me that we have a minute, maybe two, before this calm erupts into a trooper storm we could have avoided.”
Lando asked, “Which way to..?”
“Ah!” Tank yelled to stop him mid question. He gestured to the assassin trooper as a way of explanation. “We don’t want ole’ Trigger Happy here to tell everyone where we went. Let’s surprise them.”
Luke retrieved their weapons from the pile at the end of the corridor and they all rearmed themselves. Wilton sent a friendly elbow prod into Tank’s side as the six skirted stunned troopers and took off down an empty corridor. “Maybe you should be the strategy instructor instead of me.”
Tank shook his head, grinning. “I’m no strategist, just a sensor mechanic.”
Wilton invited, “Improve my shuttles’ sensors, and I’ll teach the other courses while you teach what you’re good at, sensor mechanics.”
This was a better arrangement than even Luke had suggested. “Deal!” Then Wilton’s words registered. “Wait. Your shuttle?”
Wilton suddenly smiled. “My own shuttle… in my own hangar bay. One of the perks of command. This way.” He led them to an elevator, and they crowded in.
The elevator opened onto an empty corridor, and they continued on, encountering no one.
“Empty corridors,” Lando anxiously muttered.
“Yeah, whoever heard of empty corridors on a Star Destroyer?” Solo asked. “Why does this make me worried?”
Wilton then said, “You are a suspicious lot. The corridors are empty because I didn’t request the use of my shuttle.”
Solo nodded in sudden understanding. “No shuttle to pilot, no crew necessary. Good thing we’re all pilots here. We can fight over the controls.”
Tank spoke up just as they passed into a second empty corridor. “Weren’t you a captain of your own starship before becoming a general, General?”
Luke chimed in, “Han pilots, I navigate, Wedge backseat flies, and Lando tends to crew comfort.” Luke shrugged as Wilton looked back at that in surprise. “I know most people don’t care about crew comfort, but he’s good at it.”
Two more corridors later, they entered an eerily empty hangar bay. One Imperial shuttle sat serenely in the ready position, pointed towards the shielded bay door. “It’s always ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
“Do all the higher ups have their own hangar bays?” Tank demanded.
Wilton never even blinked. “You should see an admiral’s. I heard that Admiral Piet’s hangar had a tether for his own personal TIE fighter as well as two fully equipped shuttles and a crew on constant standby.”
“Just as long as you don’t have a crew on constant standby,” Luke said.
Wilton laughed, something that Tank would never suspect that he was capable of doing. “You really are a suspicious lot, aren’t you?”
They were striding up the loading ramp when a clatter from behind stopped them. Tank was astonished again when three unarmed troopers came to a halt next to Luke. “We’d like to join your academy.”
Luke peered at them, clearly hesitant and suspicious in spite of the seeming openness of the troopers. “Any hidden blasters in your boots?”
Each of the three troopers reached down to pull a wicked looking palm blaster from their right boot. They handed the weapons to Wilton. “No.”
Did all the stormtroopers on this ship carry extra blasters in their boots? This must be a new uniform directive, Tank said to himself. If I’d known, I would have warned Luke.
Although it looked like Luke was doing just fine on his own. He was eerily calm now as he held his arms wide. “Then for what it’s worth, welcome to the shuttle newly named Future’s Hope.”
Solo instantly grimaced. “Future’s Hope?! What kind of fool name for a ship is that?”
Luke groaned. “Let me guess, you’d rather name it The Millenium Future, right?”
Wedge plowed through the stalled group to enter the shuttle. “How about The Falcon’s Hope?”
Luke rolled his eyes. “It’s about a hopefully bright future for the galaxy, so naming it after The Falcon doesn’t make much sense.”
“Always the critic,” Solo grumbled, following Wedge.
One of the new trooper recruits said, “That grumpy one must be General Solo.”
“I heard that!” floated back down the ramp to the others.
“And I’m Luke, and this is Tank, and Lando, and… Captain Wilton, I don’t know your first name.”
“It’s Jalen. And it’s my shuttle, so I should get to name it.”
“A shuttle’s kind of small for an academy, isn’t it?” Lando argued. “Shouldn’t we get a bigger ship? Or a bigger place?”
“What about the Yavin IV base?” Wedge suggested from just inside the shuttle. “The Empire didn’t destroy it, did they?”
“I can’t remember,” Luke said. “That was so many bases ago.” He glanced up at the four Imperials facing him. “Does the Empire happen to have another Death Star just hanging around?”
The three troopers uncomfortably looked at each other, at Tank, then one of them blurted, “No. But we have a Star Destroyer right here.”
Startled, the rescuers all drew back as one as if to ask why they hadn’t thought of such an obvious thing before now.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Solo muttered from the cockpit area. “I told Leia this mission was going to be an easy one. Should have kept my mouth shut.”
Solo went on muttering when all of a sudden, Tank blurted, “If we plan to commandeer this Star Destroyer, I want some clothes first. I don’t want to steal a ship in nothing but my underwear!”