Disclaimer: As much as I wish I owned them, I don’t. As much as I wish I made lots of money off them, I don’t. Alas, life just isn’t fair.
By Linda Bindner
A/N: This story is not beta read, so if you find a mistake or two, you are to assume that making mistakes is my destiny, and I did it on purpose.
Gazing hypnotically through The Falcon’s cockpit windows, Luke watched as the streaks of hyperspace warped by. The glow from those star streaks leaked into the cockpit to wash everything in a fractured, gauzy blue light, almost as if the ship were underwater, captured in a speeding current. He, too, was a slight shade of azure as the reflections bounced off his face. The greenish blue light had even tinted his clothes.
Yet, hyperspace had long since lost its appeal. The missions of the last few years had taught Luke that travelling through hyperspace was the perfect time not to hypnotically stargaze, but to cultivate the fine art of creative daydreaming in order to solve the more onerous problems besetting the Rebel Alliance, particularly the pilots of Rogue Squadron.
But ever since his time spent with Master Yoda, Luke found his hyperspace thoughts focused more in Force-induced trances than on technical daydreams. Now, Luke effortlessly relaxed, the shadowy peace wrapping around his mind. He was aware on some periphery level that he should be thinking about his friend Han Solo’s rescue, but instead was consumed with unbidden memories. Ones that concerned his recent encounter with Darth Vader were the most numerous, and by far the most unwelcome. The Force had made his memory so good that he could even hear the rumble of the Dark Lord’s voice as he spoke the clipped words that had been forever branded on his mind.
Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker.
It is useless to resist. Don’t let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did.
Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
I am your father.
It was always at this point that his mind crashed like it had hit an invisible shield, and mercifully shut down. It was a fortunate set of circumstances, since Luke had no idea what to do about the topic of those memories, anyway. He didn’t want to be Darth Vader’s son. He didn’t want to face a supposed destiny full of darkness. He didn’t want to be choiceless in the matter. In fact, he didn’t want to have to deal with any of this at all.
Now Luke drew in a quick breath in reaction to where those memories had inevitably led.
“Luke, you all right?”
Lando Calrissian’s voice acted like a bucket of ice cold water thrown over Luke. With a jerk, he fell out of his memories so fast that he almost fell out of The Falcon’s copilot chair as well. “What?”
The newest Rebel Alliance member gazed knowingly at his companion. “You’ve been lost in a trance since we left the fleet. What’s up?”
Luke stared at Lando in naked horror. The thought of telling this man that he barely knew what had really been on his mind was utterly impossible.
Lando wasn’t impressed by Luke’s sudden flurry of emotion. “I need your attention here with me if we’re going to pull off stealing back your X-wing, Luke. You did say that you need a ship for Han’s rescue, and as the Alliance doesn’t have a spare fighter at the moment…” His voice trailed off meaningfully, as if he was waiting for Luke to finish his statement for him.
But Luke didn’t say anything. The innocent comment had immediately brought to mind the many pilots that had joined the Rebellion during the months he’d been training on Dagobah. Those pilots were the reason that the Alliance was short on any kind of snub fighter at the moment, and why he and Lando were even on this mission. The newly recruited pilots had quickly become part of Rogue Squadron, now led by Wedge Antilles due to Luke’s long absence. Luke himself barely knew these new recruits. Knowing so little about them and this new Rogue Squadron made him feel even more left out than being the only Jedi in the galaxy usually did. His heart ached to think that he’d been so easily replaced, but that was the way of rebellions: people came and went very quickly. According to Han, it was always advantageous in such warlike times not to form ties with anyone, though that hadn’t stopped Luke from becoming good friends with many of the men and women under his command. A large part of that command had died at Hoth, and Luke was still privately mourning his many losses, including that of his carbonized friend.
At Luke’s continued silence, Lando finished his comment himself by cajoling, “You might as well tell me what’s on your mind, Luke. It’s gotta be better than being so distracted that you become toast to some lucky shot from a lucky stormtrooper.”
Unwilling to talk about his memories, not just to Lando, but to anybody, Luke instead asked, “Then you think we’ll run into stormtroopers in Cloud City?”
As a distraction, it worked perfectly. “Of course we will,” Lando immediately responded, arched eyebrows illustrating surprise at Luke’s apparent lack of Imperial experience. “Stormtroopers must be swarming all over Cloud City by now, just waiting for you to lay claim to that X-wing you left there. We have to be prepared for resistance. I thought you’d expect that.” Suspicion laced Lando’s usually cheerful expression.
Guilty, Luke tried to dredge up an amount of interest in his and Lando’s upcoming mission. “I did, and… I’ll be ready. You can count on me.”
Lando heaved an atypical sigh. “Did I ever tell you about how I lost The Falcon?”
Momentarily thrown by the change of subject, Luke paused, wondering where this topic was going. “Uh… since I more or less just met you, no.”
Lando leaned in close to Luke, as if fearing that someone might overhear him. “I knew that Han was in trouble at the time and needed a ship… so I let him take it.”
Luke jerked back again, astonished. “I’m pretty sure that Han never said anything about you letting him just take your ship.”
Lando conceded, “Ok, I didn’t exactly let him just take it. We played Sabacc for it, and I Iet him cheat.”
Luke still wasn’t convinced this was the truth. “As far as I know, Han doesn’t cheat, either. He doesn’t have to.”
“How would you know?” a surprised Lando exclaimed. His eyes abruptly took on a gleam full of intrigue. “You’ve played Sabacc with him, too. Was it for the Princess?”
“Um, no.” Laughing, Luke didn’t think he’d tell Leia that Lando had reduced her to a winning pot in a card game. Though now that he thought about it, playing cards for a chance at Leia’s attention was something he would have expected Han to suggest. “I just know that Han’s an accomplished gambler.”
“So am I.”
The atmosphere in the cockpit suddenly seemed much less convivial. “Meaning?”
“Meaning… I can tell when someone’s not being completely honest with me.”
Ah, here it was, the not-so-subtle dig into Luke’s private thoughts. Trying not to seem too petulant, he shifted uncomfortably in the copilot seat. “Look, Lando, I’m not really interested in talking about--
“I told you my secret… or Han’s,” Lando cut in persuasively. “Now you tell me yours.”
Luke heaved another sigh of exasperation. “I’m not--”
“If you don’t tell me, I’ll just assume it has something to do with the Princess.” Lando leaned into the pilot’s chair and feigned nonchalance.
Luke sighed in growing frustration, then automatically tamped down the emotion, grumbling to himself about the annoying persistence of gamblers. “I realize that you only want to help, but I--”
“Of course I want to help. I can’t let you go into this kind of a mission distracted.” Lando’s hands went to his chest in mock distress. “What kind of partner would I be if I did?”
Luke tried again. “Lando, I appreciate--”
“I owe it to you, Luke, so...” He leaned in close and lowered his voice to a confidential purr. “Let me save your life.”
Luke felt the pull of Lando’s charm, but had to regretfully say, “I can’t.”
It was Lando who jerked upright this time to stare at Luke with an alarmingly comprehending look on his face. “Can’t… or won’t?”
Frustration again bubbled in his mind, quickly threatening to boil over. Fighting to control his emotions, Luke also fought for control of the conversation. “That’s not the point.”
“Of course it’s the point,” Lando instantly objected, miffed. “I have to know if I can trust you or--”
“You can trust me.” Luke’s tone changed from placating to determined.
Lando balked. “That’s what Vader said, and look where that got me!”
That statement stopped Luke’s protests before they even got started. Lando’s comment had been innocent, but the fact that someone thought he shared anything, even words, with the Dark Lord made him rather ill.
“But I mean it,” Luke said at last, desperate to be judged worthwhile and honest by the gambler as well as by himself.
Obviously far from convinced, Lando gave a sarcastic snort. “I’m sure Vader meant it, too, until altering our deal meant more.”
“I’m not like that,” Luke insisted. “I don’t plan on altering a thing.”
The look the gambler gave him now was full of skepticism. “Not a thing?”
Luke solemnly shook his head. This point had clearly become more important to Lando than just part of a conversation, and Luke felt that in his bones. He put as much finality into his head shake as he could, instinctively knowing not to use the Force as an extra incentive.
Suddenly, Lando burst out in deep guffaws. “The Princess was right about you!”
Luke’s expression turned quizzical. “How so?”
“She said that with you, what you see is what you get. I’m glad that she was right.”
Luke’s smile grew less bemused. “I’m glad that I’m so open… I think.” Personally, Luke thought his openness was one of the most deceptive parts of his personality, but if it reassured Lando, he’d be as open as it was possible for a Jedi to be.
Pensive, Lando went on, “I’ve always thought that any Force user was nothing but a clever conman, but you’re different. I think I’m gonna like having you on my side.”
After the many issues plaguing Luke since his confrontation with Vader, this was music to his ears.
A blinking alarm brought their conversation to an abrupt end. Lando glanced at the flashing light on his panel, and instantly became all business. “We’re coming up on Bespin. Cloud City is in the atmosphere on the far side of the planet.” His fingers splayed comfortably across the controls as he adjusted their approach vector. “Coming out of light speed in three... two... one.” He pulled back on the appropriate lever, and the blurred streaks of stars rapidly slowed to the more typical pinpricks of sublight speed. The gas giant that was Bespin slowly rotated in front of them.
“How long will it take us to get to--”
“ETA, fifteen minutes.” Lando’s voice was unusually clipped, and when Luke glanced at him in question, admitted with a grimace, “I never thought I would be back here again. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
Luke immediately became apologetic. “I wouldn’t have asked you to come, but you’re the only one in the Alliance who might know--”
“-- the territory. I know. It’s just that--” A shudder cut off his voice. “Bad memories.”
Luke’s snort of agreement was far from polite. “You can say that again.” His right fingers unconsciously squeezed into a fist.
Lando saw his reactionary gesture. “Your memories must be ten times worse than mine.”
Unwilling to even court the possibilities of where that topic might lead, Luke tried a distraction again. “Let’s bet on who has the worst memories of this place.” It was unsettling how often he used the art of distraction to get out of letting anyone delve too deeply into the inner workings of Luke Skywalker.
Lando glanced sharply at him, then laughter again welled up from deep in his gut. “I’ll take that bet.”
As casually as possible, Luke said, “It’s Vader.”
Lando laughed harder yet. “I knew I liked you!”
Ten minutes later, they entered the atmosphere. Fourteen minutes after that, two twin pod cloud cars joined them on their approach to Bespin’s floating city. “State your business and maintain--”
Without even bothering to let what was clearly an import officer finish his statement, Lando punched some secret code into The Falcon’s controls.
There was a slight pause, then a rather wooden response came over the com. “Understood.” The cloud cars immediately backed off, then disappeared.
Luke stared out the front viewport, puzzled. He’d been prepared to use the Force to encourage the two cloud car pilots to suddenly want to be somewhere else, but he hadn’t anticipated how useful Lando was going to be on this trip. He’d thought that Lando would know his way around the physical realms of Cloud City, not that he would have a web of secret orders already established. “What did you tell them?”
“To ignore any ships with this particular configuration,” Lando complacently said. “It’s just lucky that whoever’s in charge of Cloud City now still uses the same security force as I used, and the codes still apply.”
Luke’s brow wrinkled in unbidden anxiety. “Won’t whoever got your message get in trouble with their superiors?” He was thinking about how the Empire, who was probably in charge of Cloud City, was reputed to kill their soldiers that disappointed them in any way.
Lando slowly confessed, “My orders left a bogus record in the database. According to those in charge, we’re a simple freighter delivering a cargo of foodstuffs bound for the common galley, and easy to ignore. It will be at least a week before those in charge realize they’ve been had. By then, we’ll have disappeared.”
“Won’t they know The Falcon’s registration number, and just look up our flight plan and follow us that way?”
Wounded, Lando asked, “Do I look like a guy who wouldn’t think to fake the registration number and flight plan ahead of time?”
A grin of appreciation blossomed on Luke’s face. “Riiiiight. So where are we going?”
Lando shrugged. “I’ve got a nice little secret hangar that--” At Luke’s look of disbelief in trusting to secrecy, Lando gestured to himself. “I’ve got this covered; trust me.”
Where have I heard that before? Forcing himself to relax, Luke settled back to more comfortably rest in his seat. “I keep forgetting that you did run this place for a long time.”
Lando carefully guided The Millennium Falcon through the magenta clouds surrounding the city. “Long before I made that deal with the Empire, I had some of the most unsavory customers in the galaxy. Not only did I have to give myself options of escape other than the typical routes, but sometimes I had to arrange… shall we say ‘clandestine…’ meetings for my more important customers.”
By ‘important,’ Luke was sure that Lando really meant they were wanted by the Empire. “This hangar is well hidden?”
“Besides me, only Lobot knows where it is.”
“My… He’s so many things that he’s difficult to explain.” With furrowed brow, Lando regarded Luke across the cockpit. “He’s a man with cybernetic implants who used to work for the Empire, but…” His voice trailed off into thought.
Suspicion roared through Luke, leaving his nerve endings tingling. “Can you trust him?”
“I have no doubt I can trust him,” Lando forcefully replied.
“But you did technically abandon him to the Empire just a few weeks ago,” Luke pointed out. “Perhaps he harbors bad feelings about that?”
“Perhaps he harbors worse feelings about the Empire,” Lando suggested. “They’re the ones behind his implants.”
“So… won’t the Imperials now in charge of Cloud City blame him if we manage to steal back my X-wing?”
“What do you mean ‘if?’” Lando’s sarcastic tone tore through Luke’s doubts like the veil they were. “We’re going to hit them where it counts, Jedi!”
Luke found Lando’s belief in their infallibility encouraging, but he was a realist at heart. “We have to remember that we’re going into enemy territory, and I’m pretty sure they’re expecting me. I’m also pretty sure that if they capture us, they’ll kill you and send me to the Emperor.”
Lando grimaced and sarcastically noted, “The Princess didn’t tell me about your optimistic streak, Luke.”
Optimistically ignoring that comment, Luke continued, “My question is, are you willing to trust this Lobot under these circumstances?”
Deadly serious, Lando said, “I trust Lobot with my life.”
Weighing the validity of Lando’s words, Luke paused for a moment to let the amount of faith the gambler had in his friend sink in. He at last summarized for himself that what Lando felt for Lobot was akin to how he felt about the droids, Han, Chewie, and the Princess. “Okay.”
“Well, now that we’ve got that settled…” Silence invaded the cockpit as The Falcon swooped around several white buildings towering into the fluffy clouds. “We’re coming up to the sensor-dead zone where my hangar is located.”
Sensor-dead zone? Luke’s appreciation mounted. He’s thought of everything.
Lando carefully guided The Falcon around several buildings and into a tunnel under an overhang. They were in between three buildings, the space dark compared to the bright sky they had been flying through. Flying blind themselves to remain hidden, The Falcon slowly turned a complete revolution, then another, while Lando counted audibly to four each time. Luke had the impression of flying by outcroppings of some kind, but since he couldn’t see outside the ship, and Lando had turned everything off but the sublight engines, he had to rely on shadowy Force echos. After the eighth such outcropping, the area widened, and suddenly Luke found himself in a well-equipped space housing many tools, a fuel tank, two fully stocked open repair pits that would have made his mechanic friend Fixer cry, fuel hoses, two twin pod cloud cars, and an Imperial shuttle. Lando brought The Falcon to a rest next to the shuttle.
The former administrator calmly said, “I instructed Lobot to meet us here with any information he has about where they’re keeping your X-wing.”
Luke realized that it would have taken him much longer to find his X-wing without Lando’s help. “Thanks. You just saved me a lot of time.”
Lando grinned disarmingly at Luke. “If we can shave off some time while the Imperials are scratching their...” He self-consciously cleared his throat, then stated. “Well, since it’s a good bet they know we’re coming, we can use all the help we can get.”
Lando shut down the engines, and after checking that their laser weapons were fully charged, they walked cautiously down the loading ramp. The dim light in the hangar played tricks on Luke’s eyes, making him think he was here with his pilot friend Han, but he knew better. Maybe he was in the throes of wishful thinking? Maybe.
A white shadowy door lifted quietly into the ceiling, and a balding man with cybernetic implants stood silently on the other side.
“Lobot,” Lando acknowledged. The single word seemed a cold greeting for someone he claimed was an old friend, but Lando somehow managed to infuse a large amount of warmth into that one word.
“Greetings, Baron,” Lobot responded in a similar way.
“I’m not a baron anymore,” Lando softly answered, leading the way through the door. “I joined up with the Rebellion.”
“I see you finally took my advice to do good deeds for the people of the galaxy.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, stop gloating,” Lando mysteriously replied to Lobot’s dry comment. “You’re sure you weren’t followed?”
“This hangar is still undetected,” Lobot announced. “Commander Wilton, the Imperial in charge, is too literal to imagine his way through the five locks and three holograms you have surrounding this place.”
Lando visibly relaxed at Lobot’s news. “Can’t say that doesn’t please me.” He then turned to Luke. “May I present my friend, Commander Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight.”
“Greetings, Jedi,” Lobot immediately said.
“Call me Luke,” Luke replied, instantly uncomfortable with such formality. Besides, he was almost one hundred percent certain he wasn’t a Jedi yet. It felt wrong to be called something he wasn’t.
“You know why we’re here, Lobot,” Lando said, getting right down to business. “Since we’re on something of a tight schedule, let--”
“Understood. This man’s X-wing starfighter is being held at the North Platform, landing pad 598, guarded by a squad of twenty stormtroopers on full alert.”
Luke’s stomach turned to ice. “Yep, it sounds just like I expected.”
His hands seeming to push down this added worry, Lando reminded, “This isn’t something we didn’t count on. We’ll just have to be extra careful when we do our stealing.”
Probably true. “You know more about this North Platform than I do; what’s the plan?”
Considering, Lando said, “First, I think we need to--”
“You should know, Baron, that --”
“Remember, Lobot, I’m not a baron anymore. Call me Lando.”
“Lando,” Lobot corrected himself without missing a beat. “You should know that the ship is under heavy guard by order of Lord Vader himself.”
The ice in Luke’s stomach congealed into a hard little ball that made voicing any sound at all extremely difficult.
Lando wasn’t similarly afflicted; his reluctant groan echoed throughout the empty area. “Not him again.”
“At least you aren’t making any deals with him,” Lobot deadpanned back.
Luke’s power of speech returned, though his heart beat a rhythm of terror through his body even while he fought to calm himself. “Is Vader… still here?”
Lobot switched his attention to Luke. “No, Jed… Luke. His ship left the Anoat sector not long after you and your friends disappeared several weeks ago. I’m not privy to the information as to where he is now.”
As long as he’s not here. Grateful, Luke said aloud, “That’s okay, Lobot. Just keep us informed.”
“As you wish.”
Lando now thoughtfully said, “Lobot, I think we need a new plan. How about you create a diversion far away, say on the East Platform, and--”
“The troopers guarding the ship are to remain at their posts no matter what happens,” Lobot interrupted.
Lando jerked back. “You interrupted me. You never used to do that.”
“As you frequently remind me, you are not a baron any longer. A humanoid without a title can be interrupted.”
Lando opened his mouth to respond, but stopped himself when he noticed Luke’s sudden anxiety. “Luke? Do you sense something?”
Looking around nervously, Luke said, “No, but perhaps we should get under cover anyway.”
Lobot again shifted his attention. “There is no need, Je… Luke. The Empire has yet to discover this place.”
“Yeah, and I would hate to be in it when they do discover it,” Luke replied with another quick, nervous look at the surroundings. “I don’t detect anyone lurking around, but we should get going anyway.”
“Then let’s do this,” Lando encouraged. “Luke, can you convince a few of the stormtroopers to… be more cooperative?”
That question was too vague even for Luke. “Cooperative how? Do you want me to just disarm them, or toss them into a wall, or throw them over a balcony, or--?”
“I want you to do that brain thing you Jedi do.”
“Oh.” A simple Jedi mind trick. “I can do that.” Convincing others to behave in a manner that would benefit him was one of the first things he had learned.
“Okay,” Lando softly continued. “Then this is what we should do.” And he leaned in close to Lobot and Luke to whisper his ideas.
Ten minutes later, Luke and the others found themselves hidden behind some fuel drums stored just inside the doorway leading to landing pad 598 of the North Platform. Luke’s X-wing gleamed invitingly at them from the end of the landing pad. “The pad door’s are even wide open,” Luke noted in a casual whisper. “It’s as if they want me to come right in, like I’m not even smart enough to sense such an obvious trap.”
“Of course they think you’re not smart; they’re Imperials,” Lando explained with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders. “Why don’t you teach them how smart you really are?”
Luke had trouble squashing the grin that threatened to overtake his expression. With a very un-Jedi-like relish, Luke Force-shoved a tool that had been left lying on top of a far off fuel drum to the floor. When its clatter arrested several of the guarding soldiers’ attentions, he darted across an open space till he was again hidden behind a convenient crate directly across from the two nearest troopers.
Hidden from view, Luke cautiously studied the troopers he’d targeted. One was short, the other taller by several inches. Their height discrepancy brought to mind his and Han’s first mission together when they had unexpectedly set out to rescue a princess scheduled for execution. They had hidden themselves inside stormtrooper armor that time rather than behind convenient crates, but the simple subterfuge had worked far better than--
The clatter of another tool, much closer this time, cut into his pleasant train of thought, stopping it cold; he had unwittingly nudged a wrench off the top of the crate. The two stormtroopers whipped their heads around as one, bringing not only their eyes to take in Luke, but aiming their deadly laser rifles straight at him as well.
Luke swiftly raised his hands in the universal sign of surrender. “You got me.”
Brandishing his rifle in as threatening a manner as possible, the sound of a deep inhalation warned Luke that the short trooper was on the verge of using his helmet intercom to inform his fellow squad members of the capture. Luke suddenly spoke in the calm and quiet tone of voice necessary when performing a Jedi mind trick, “You don’t need to tell the others about my capture.”
The shorter trooper straightened minutely and stood unmoving, at last parroting, “I don’t need to tell the others about your capture.”
Confused, the second trooper exclaimed, “What the--?”
Luke turned his attention to blanket the mind of the other stormtrooper with the Force. “Neither of you will even remember that I’m here.”
Like a bad holonovel caught in a repeating loop, they repeated Luke word for word. “Neither of us will remember that you’re here.”
“You will walk out the door and immediately turn left. You will fire at no one. You will not make a sound.”
Like automatons, the troopers echoed Luke with great diligence. It would have been comical if the situation hadn’t been so fraught with danger.
It wasn’t so dangerous that Luke didn’t think to add a positive incentive to his demands. “You’re sure to be commended for your actions.”
In lighter tones, the two agreed with Luke. “We’re sure to be commended for our actions.” As one, they turned to the door and marched through it straight to the waiting Lando and Lobot. Casting a mental shadow at the opposite end of the landing pad to capture all the other troopers’ attentions, Luke quickly joined his fellow Rebels while the stormtroopers on duty were looking the other way.
“They didn’t see a thing,” Luke instantly whispered when Lando glanced at him in question. “Where to now?”
Silent, Lando gestured with a thumb to the wall right next to him.
Puzzled, Luke nevertheless commanded the troopers, “Walk that way.”
Calmly and without thought, the troopers walked straight at the white wall… and vanished.
Luke was so surprised that he momentarily lost his Force connection with the two troopers, but reestablished it again the second he realized his slip. His face expressing his confusion, Luke followed Lando and Lobot right through what appeared to be a solid corridor wall.
They materialized in a small room where Lando immediately shot both troopers with a stun blast. Both of the white uniformed men lay sprawled near the holographic wall.
With a start, Luke suddenly recalled how Lobot had previously mentioned that Lando used holograms to conceal his secret hangar where they had parked The Millennium Falcon. Clearly, he had used the same method of concealment for other places as well.
“Just a small hideout for the wanted traveller or two,” Lando commented as he and Lobot yanked off the troopers’ helmets. “I’ve never had reason to use this particular holoroom before now.”
Luke wasn’t about to question the shady practises of Cloud City’s previous administration when those practises so clearly benefited him. “Good thinking. Now what?”
“We don this conveniently concealing armor, pretend to take you prisoner, then turn over ‘our prisoner’ to the head trooper. You break free, then we shoot the others while acting like we’re trying to shoot you, you board your ship, turn the laser cannons on the remaining troopers, blow them up, then fly away.”
Luke mentally reviewed the plan, admitting that it sounded too easy. “Don’t you think they’ll expect us to do something like that, and are prepared for it?”
Lando gave him an affronted look as he proceeded to strip the armor off one stormtrooper and strap it onto himself. “And that’s the brilliance of this plan. It’s so simple that they’ll never see it coming.”
Luke was far from convinced. “It still sounds too simple. We shouldn’t expect these troopers to be stupid.”
“I don’t expect them to be stupid,” Lando argued. “Just slow-witted, like all troopers are.”
Shaking his head, Luke commented, “The troopers on the Death Star were far from slow-witted if I remember right.”
“We’re not on the Death Star.”
Lando’s innocent statement made Luke pause. “Oh. Good point.”
“Commander Wilton also doesn’t seem slow-witted,” Lobot informed, unimpressed with Lando’s arguments, though he continued to don the second trooper’s uniform.
Lando snorted. “Of course he doesn’t. The person in charge needs to be imaginative and--”
“Nor does he seem to be imaginative,” Lobot abruptly added.
“What is he good at?” Lando asked as he reached for the binders that would eventually wrap around Luke’s wrists to give the impression he was their prisoner.
Lobot carefully considered. “He’s good at strategy.”
“That’s not exactly good for us,” Luke commented. The last thing they needed was an Imperial officer who saw his grounded Rebel X-wing for its strategic value. “Perhaps we should--”
“I meant to say that he’s good at space battle strategy,” Lobot clarified. “He expects you to come to Bespin with a back up of several ships in order to turn this into a battle for your X-wing. He then plans to capture you in that battle.”
That information relieved Luke’s new worries. “Then he’s sure to be disappointed.” He turned his attention to Lando. “How’s that uniform coming?”
Snapping the cuffs on Luke’s wrists, Lando jauntily said, “I’m ready when you are.”
Luke hesitantly gazed at his new friend. “Wouldn’t it help if you actually wore the helmet?”
“I was getting to that!” Lando testily whispered as he grabbed his helmet. “You Jedi have no patience.”
“I’m patient,” Luke instantly refuted. “I just don’t want to have to rescue you while I rescue my X-wing at the same time.”
In answer, Lando simply dropped the helmet onto his head. “Ugh; this thing is almost too small. And it stinks!”
“Noted,” Lobot said back in a dispassionate voice. “Perhaps you should request a recently fumigated helmet the next time we impersonate stormtroopers?”
Lando glared at him through the eyeholes of the helmet. “Perhaps you should just shut up.”
Lobot sighed, but dutifully said again, “Noted. What should we do with these two?” He indicated the two stunned troopers now laying on the floor in their underwear.
“Let them sleep,” Lando offhandedly suggested.
“Do you think we should incapacitate them?” Lobot asked.
“No need,” Luke said, then concentrated for a moment on the two slumbering men. “There.” Smiling benignly, he explained, “I just encouraged them to take a nice nap that’s at least several hours long. By the time they wake up, we’ll be gone.”
Lando gave an approving sigh. “I think I’m glad you’re on my side.”
Luke’s answering hum of thanks was soft. “My skills are nothing compared to what Vader can do.”
“Not yet they aren’t,” Lando tactfully reminded. “Give it a few months, and then - wham! He won’t know what hit him.”
Luke’s sigh was so quiet that neither Lando nor Lobot heard. “I hope it works out that way,” he said aloud, while cringing on the inside; he fervently hoped that his talent never grew to be anything like Darth Vader’s.
Lando, of course, knew none of what he was thinking. Taking Luke’s comment at face value, he continued with their plan by tightening the binders on Luke’s wrists. “How’s that?” His voice was faintly distorted by the helmet he was wearing, and if Luke didn’t know better, he’d say that he was currently in a heap of trouble as the prisoner of two stormtroopers.
Disliking that image, Luke requested, “Not so tight!”
Lando loosened them just the slightest. “Now?”
“At least now I can feel my fingers,” Luke grumbled.
Lando shrugged under the uniform. “Sorry. Any looser, and they’ll get suspicious.” He picked up his weapon from the armchair where he’d laid it. “Let’s go.”
Lobot slid the larger helmet on, his implants barely fitting. When they were both completely covered, they led the shackled Luke into the corridor.
Trying not to feel apprehensive, Luke did his best to look like the typically cowed Imperial prisoner. It wasn’t hard. He still had the occasional nightmare about the Death Star’s frowning stormtroopers doing their best to shoot him. The grip that Lando had on his arm was so tight, it hurt, and Lobot’s pace was so fast that Luke had to jog to keep up or be dragged along. It wasn’t a very dignified entrance that he made into landing pad 598, but then, nobody was expecting much dignity from a prisoner.
Dignity aside, their entrance still gained much attention.
The trio of stormtroopers nearest the door were the first to react. “Halt!” one trooper loudly cried, and the three of them instantly raised their weapons. “Who is this man?”
“We caught him lurking in the corridor outside,” Lobot replied in clipped, efficient tones. “Though he claims to be the spirit of Captain Solo, he matches the official description of Luke Skywalker.”
Luke had to fight to keep a straight face at Lobot’s comment about him claiming to be Han’s spirit. The trooper’s arrogant response acted as unwitting help in dousing his amusement.
“Ah, Skywalker trying to return for his X-wing, just as the commander predicted.” The trooper gestured towards the downed fighter with his rifle and jeered to Luke, “This is the closest you’ll be getting to any ship, Rebel.”
“Wanna bert?” Yanking his arm away from the uniformed Lando, Luke broke his shackles with an effortless tug and a great clanking of metal. He was mildly surprised it was so easy, even though he’d spent the last silent moments using the Force to thoroughly weaken the links in his handcuffs.
With one more swift yank, he called on the Force to pull the rifles away from the three surprised stormtroopers, sending two of the weapons hurtling over the edge of the landing platform, but one he caught.
“He’s armed!” Lobot convincingly yelled, then rounded on Luke and opened fire.
Or that’s how it looked. In actuality, Lobot fired on the four troopers running to intercept them. Two went down in a hail of laser fire, and one tripped when Luke drew a discarded crate into his path. He made the downed trooper collide with the fourth uniformed soldier, and they both went flying. Then he flipped into a somersault and landed behind the next nearest line of stormtrooper defense.
These troopers fared no better than their comrades. Two danced aside to avoid a suddenly airborne fuel drum, and another lost his weapon over the side right before an irresistible force made him collide with the wall. He slumped into a heap while three more troopers charged directly at Luke, who vaulted straight up into the air just in time for those troopers to run smack into the two troopers trying to sneak up on him from behind.
In the meantime, Lobot and Lando were firing a dizzying round of laser bolts in Luke’s general direction, doing their best to make this escape appear as realistic as possible. Some of those shots were so close to landing on Luke that he smelled singed clothing.
But Luke was too busy to pay much attention to his clothes, smoking or otherwise. He threw out his hands, and more stormtroopers fell over backwards, sliding out of the way to make an aisle of white uniforms that led haphazardly to his captured X-wing.
He used the Force to down even more troopers, spinning them several times for good measure before making them slide up the landing platform. Luke then depressed the X-wing’s cockpit canopy button while he was still ten yards away from his ship, and the canopy slowly rose. Making the distance appear unimportant, Luke jumped over another line of troopers, then effortlessly flipped up to land on his ship’s pilot seat. He jumped the rest of the way in, slamming his hand on the canopy button. It hissed closed to encase him in silence as his left hand reached for the firing button even while he hit the ignition.
Two heartbeats went by before Luke realized that nothing had happened.
He hit the two buttons a second time. Again nothing happened.
Frantic now, Luke hit them a third time, harder. Still nothing.
With a sinking heart, Luke risked a glance out his cockpit window. Line after line of armed stormtroopers met his gaze. He couldn’t pick Lando and Lobot out of the mass of white uniforms, but had no trouble finding the threat of each black laser rifle aimed his way. Every soldier seemed desperately itching to kill him; only the presence of their commanding officer kept them under control.
That green suited Imperial commander now climbed the mobile ladder that several more troopers had wheeled up to the X-wing cockpit, and released the canopy seals from the outside. Luke’s sinking heart fell to his toes as he looked straight into the commander’s gun.
In a tone that wasn’t the least gloating or officious, Commander Wilton announced, “Luke Skywalker I presume.”
Pretending that seeing him wasn’t a complete surprise, Luke dryly said, “Commander Wilton I presume.”
Both men nodded. “May I ask what you’re doing?” Wilton then queried.
Luke almost choked; that question had such an obvious answer. “Stealing back my X-wing, of course!”
Commander Wilton let a satisfied smile creep slowly onto his face. “Surely you didn’t think we would leave any fuel in a captured Rebel ship?”
Well, no, Luke hadn’t considered that, though he should have. “And the weapons?”
“We naturally took them off-line.”
Wilton’s following smirk was only partially subdued. “We’re not nearly as trusting as you are.”
“I’m beginning to come to that conclusion.”
Luke refused to admit that he had severely underestimated his opponents. “You can be sure that it won’t happen next time.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Commander Wilton promised. “The Emperor has special plans for you.” Before Luke could fully react to that statement, the man retreated to the landing pad’s floor. “Down,” he ordered.
Luke had only raised himself far enough to stand on the pilot’s seat when the commander stopped him again. “I wouldn’t bother to try anything, either. Lord Vader personally entrusted us with a dampening field specifically designed for your capture.”
A dampening field? As in, a Force dampening field? Luke couldn’t imagine Darth Vader designing anything other than a Force tampering device, though he had never heard of such a thing as a dampening field. In reaction, he instinctively reached out with the Force to flick a wrench off a nearby tool chest, and was dismayed at how little it moved.
“There is no escape,” the officer promised, and there was at last a hint of a gloating in that business-like voice.
Wherever Luke looked, a threatening stormtrooper met his gaze. It was the most unfriendly cadre of soldiers that he was likely to witness in the white confines of Cloud City . “Yes, I can see that.”
“Good. Then we won’t have to deal with any misguided heroics.” Commander Wilton flicked his gaze to the nearest trooper as Luke slowly climbed from his captured ship. “Inform Lord Vader that we have Skywalker.”
“Yes sir.” The trooper executed a smart salute before turning to swiftly approach a small wall communications unit. More troopers energetically forced Luke’s wrists into another set of binders, pulling them much tighter than Lando had done minutes before.
“These binders were also designed by Lord Vader himself,” Commander Wilton briskly informed.
Luke sighed in resignation when he heard that; so much for using the Force to encourage them to come apart at the molecular level.
Wilton’s smirk grew. “Resistance is useless.”
Luke grimaced, but mulishly insisted, “I’ve heard that before.”
Commander Wilton’s cold gaze met his. “You haven’t heard it from me.”
The formal tones of a reporting trooper then carried over to them. “Lord Vader is on his way, Commander.”
Wilton was, of course, unaware of the chill that swept over Luke at this news. “Good,” he simply said before gesturing to his prisoner. “This way.”
Full of trepidation, Luke preceded him from the landing platform.
The prison cells of Cloud City turned out to be an awful lot like prison cells throughout the galaxy. They were cold, sterile, and irrationally smelly, as if they’d housed many individuals who hadn’t seen a bath in a long time. Luke wasn’t particularly bothered by the sterility of the place, or its smell, having been raised on a world where baths were at a premium, but he grew instantly disheartened at the cold temperature. He’d been in ‘escape-proof’ cells before that he’d managed to overcome, but those cells had been a lot warmer, and he’d had energy enough to think. Now he only had enough energy to shiver.
It was as if he’d returned to the base on Hoth, and no one had remembered to tell him how he got there. He recalled how the Rebels at Echo Base had frequently turned blue from cold before learning how to properly dress for their environment. Unfortunately, Luke didn’t have the necessary clothing to spare himself from the cold, so he just sat on the metal slab meant for a sleeping bunk and miserably listened to his teeth chatter.
After a while, even the symphony from his chattering teeth couldn’t keep his guilt from overwhelming him. There was no nice way to put it; he had screwed up, and badly. He’d simply wanted his own X-wing back rather than have to break in a new one. That was the only reason he was even in Cloud City. Now that his life was once again in danger, and he had willingly introduced both Lando and Lobot to that same danger, he realized how very stupid he had been. While having his own ship under his control again had seemed extremely vital to the success of the plan to rescue Han, Luke now realized that instead of being in control, he’d convinced himself to indulge in a completely selfish personal desire. How could he have possibly thought that an X-wing was more important than his Force abilities were to the Rebellion? He should have instead pulled rank and claimed one of the Fleet’s newer X-wings as his own, and made one of the recently recruited pilots wait for a ship in the Rebel pilot reserve program.
Worse yet, on some level, he’d already known that’s what he should have done, or he would have explained to the Rebel Council how he needed a ship for Han’s rescue. Even worse than that, he’d persuaded Lando to join him on this wasted trip to Cloud City. It was the gambler’s life that Luke had played with. He couldn’t feel worse than if he had unwittingly turned over the entire Rebellion to the Emperor.
Yet, an answering voice that had the biting edge of his own conscience blasted through the icy cold to assault his mind: Turning over the Rebels to the Emperor is no worse than what Lando did to Han just a few months ago.
Luke recoiled again, astonished at his own mind. Where had that come from? Was he harboring a secret resentment towards Lando for what had happened to his pirate friend? But he argued with himself that Han’s carbonization was hardly Lando’s fault. In fact, Luke now owed the lives of Leia and Chewie to the former Cloud City administrator. That debt wasn’t something he took lightly.
Or, at least, he didn’t think it was. His own recent behavior said otherwise.
Luke glanced down at his now blue fingernails. Even his new prosthetic hand was so cold that he could hardly bend its fingers. If the stormtroopers hadn’t left his hands shackled with the binders that stifled his use of the Force, he’d excite the atoms in the air surrounding him to create friction, and thus make his own heat. However, that was impossible.
Yet he was so cold at this point that he didn’t have anything left to lose by trying.
Luke suddenly remembered one of the most difficult lessons that he had learned on Dagobah. He had to truly believe that the Force would produce the result he wanted for it to actually happen. If he truly had nothing left to lose, then he might as well believe with every fiber of his being that warming the air with the Force would really work.
Believe in success rather than failure. Don’t try; just do it.
The air had grown almost hot before Luke fully appreciated how completely he’d been duped.
He disbelievingly examine his handcuffs. “Force-dampening… riiiiiight.”
With that, the binders fell away to clatter at his feet.
So much for that Luke thought, and revelled in the warm air and unexpected return of his skills.
Several minutes later, Luke’s attention was again arrested by the binders on the cell’s metal floor. He recalled how he had tried to move that tool on the landing platform only a few minutes before, how it had remained unmoving, and how that non-reaction had horrified him.
Now, he was amazed that he’d been so unquestioning about what he’d been told. It was obvious that there was no such thing as handcuffs that limited Force abilities. If the cuffs had really been a ruse, Luke had to think that the unseen Force dampener that Vader had supposedly constructed was a ruse, too.
If that was the case, then Luke had to give Vader credit; the Dark Lord understood how to render opponents incapable of fighting without even being present. Luke could have done a great deal of damage at landing pad 598 if he’d just believed at the time that he was still Force capable. He had been rendered powerless just because someone had told him that he was powerless.
It was an amazing discovery about himself. And he had Darth Vader to thank for it.
Luke tried hard not to give an uncomfortable squirm at that thought.
But one thing that he did know was that it would not happen again. Luke swore to himself that the next time someone told him it was useless to resist, or that something was his destiny, he would laugh in their face.
Of course, it was then that he remembered who had been the last person to tell him that something was his destiny, and that it was useless to resist - Vader.
Without a doubt, Vader wanted him, not as a gift for his Emperor, not as a way to topple the Rebellion, but as a means to defeat the Emperor and rule the galaxy himself. And now, months later, Luke still felt sure that he had been right to choose almost certain death rather than join Vader in his mad galactic schemes.
Luke didn’t miss the fact that he faced another such possible death scenario right at this moment. This time, however, he was calm enough to think rationally about his choices.
As far as he knew, Vader had never faced a rational relation before.
Again Luke gave an internal cringe; he wasn’t sure that he was willing to go so far as to call himself a relation of Vader’s.
At the same time, the Force was busy telling him that he shouldn’t be unwilling, either.
What all this deep thought really meant was that when Vader…or any opponent of Luke’s for that matter… wanted him to behave in a certain way, all they had to do was suggest something, and he would do his best to make it so, even if he had to do nothing more than believe what they claimed was true.
So was he nothing but a Force sensitive fulfilling others’ plans?
Well, that wasn’t a nice idea.
If that was so, then why had he bothered to go to Dagobah to study with Master Yoda in the first place? It really came down to the question: did he want to become a Jedi or not?
Luke found himself facing a choice he thought he’d already made: join with Master Yoda, join with Vader, or take the easy way out and voluntarily join with death?
Death had seemed like his best choice just a few months ago, but fate and the Princess had saved him from himself. Next time, he might not be so fortunate; he could truly have only himself to rely on.
As he did right now. Lando and Lobot had both vanished, swallowed up by the masses of white uniformed stormtroopers stationed in Cloud City. He hoped they were hatching a plan to rescue him, but he also couldn’t count on them. He truly could only count on himself.
Amidst this flurry of deep thinking, the cell door abruptly lifted, jerking Luke out of his thoughts. He heard the respirator before he caught sight of the imposing black armor; it was Darth Vader, his… possible relation.
The young Rebel would have known it was Vader even with his eyes shut; an oily sheen of darkness surrounded the Sith Lord, as palpable as the black cloak that stretched across his broad shoulders. Luke had thought it couldn’t get any worse than it already was. He’d obviously thought wrong.
“So, young one, we meet again,” rumbled the Dark Lord as he impassively regarded Luke through his black mask. “It was most unwise of you to return.”
Wise or not, Luke decided that he really did have nothing left to lose, so offered what he thought would be the one thing sure to throw Vader off balance. “I came back for answers.”
Vader instantly stilled, as if all his muscles had gone rigid at the same time. Menacing and foul, towering over Luke like retribution itself, he hissed, “Do not lie to me.”
Gulping, Luke fought down a natural spike of fear. “I’m not lying,” he insisted, astonished to find that it was true.
The moment he understood that concept, Luke suddenly knew. In coming to Cloud City, he had subconsciously been hoping that a scenario exactly like this would transpire. He also hadn’t understood just how far he was willing to go to get answers to questions about his past. In a whoosh of painful comprehension, he now knew just what he had to do. The air buzzing with possibility, Luke purposely lowered the mental Force shields that he had automatically raised so that Vader could have easy access to his mind.
In response, Vader went even more rigid. Obviously, this was the last thing the Dark Lord expected. His first tentative probe was therefore more like a gentle caress. His second recoil let Luke know that Vader sensed the honesty blanketing his mind. The Dark Lord’s subsequent mind sweeps grew immediately less cautious, less friendly, almost harsh.
Luke’s heart pounded and sweat beaded on his forehead, yet he fought to remain calm enough to let Vader in. Shivering anew at the mental assault, Luke ground out, “You’re the only one alive who can give me those answers.”
Vader’s probe abruptly snapped off, and he stared at Luke in assessment, his respirator gurgling. “So, you admit to not fully accepting the truth.”
“I don’t fully know the truth.” The sweat continue to pop out on Luke’s face, but he refused to look away. “You have to tell me, all of it.”
The air hung heavy with unsaid words, with secrets, with half truths, with lies. Luke continued to stare in unwavering frustration. Vader stared with that same deep assessment, his mounting judgement threatening to bury them both in an avalanche of silence.
That assessment abruptly ended. “I have told you what I know,” Vader said in clipped tones. “You are not ready for the full truth.” The Dark Lord stomped from the cell, and the door clanged shut behind him with a burst of finality.
Luke gasped out the breath he’d been holding, sensation returning in a rush. Again came a moment of unforgiving understanding: there would be no friendly exchange of information between relations, no question and answer session, no uncovering of the truth. Vader had thoroughly supplanted Luke’s dreams of a noble, self-sacrificing father with shards of a dark, raw, and unbending reality.
The air was warmer inside the cell, but Luke shivered in the wake of Darth Vader. In spite of all the practising to manipulate the Force that he had done in the time since his earlier defeat at Vader’s hands, he was not yet ready to face the Sith Lord again, and after that encounter, he knew it. Sticky sweat greased the palm of his left hand, and his heart still pounded an erratic rhythm of fear. Had Vader entered Luke’s cell with the aim of finally conquering him, he doubted he could have done much to protect himself, especially without a lightsaber. Part of him wanted to run in a terrified panic through the corridors of the city, but he forced that part down with a ragged breath. His priority now was not to give in to his panic, but to escape this captivity and go back to the Rebel Fleet where he could practise and practise and practise some more until those ways of manipulating the Force revealed themselves fully to him, or….
There was no ‘or.’ It fell to him to rescue his carbonized friend from Jabba the Hutt. In order to do that, he had to become a Jedi, or at least a passable facsimile of one. Since Vader refused to be forthcoming, his lineage would remain shrouded in half truths and secrets. There was nothing he could do to draw any more revelations from the Sith Lord other than what he had already chosen to reveal. It was time for Luke to take responsibility for those things he could affect, and forget about those things he couldn’t. He was wasting his time here.
That conclusion came quickly to Luke, right on the heels of Darth Vader himself. Used to instant action once a decision had been made, Luke was just about to use the Force to encourage the cell door to open when it opened on its own. Two white armored stormtroopers clanked inside.
“Prisoner transfer. Follow us.”
The voice had been dispassionate and flat, but it had also been in Lobot’s unmistakeable tones.
Aware that the cell was most likely bugged, Luke slowly rose, holding out his hands. “Don’t you want to cuff me first?”
“No need,” the Lando trooper said at once. His helmet dipped down, indicating the cuffs on the floor. “Lord Vader wishes to see you.”
“Lord Vader?” Luke echoed in confusion. Hadn’t the Dark Lord just left in a scary temper? Had he changed his mind for some reason and would now tell him about his origins?
Or was this another ruse?
The inexpressive white armor gave him no clues.
But he had nothing to lose by following them, Vader or not. “Okay, let’s go.”
They moved as a group into the white Cloud City corridor. There were no windows here at the prison cell level, but the corridors were still wide and fairly clean. They went from corridor to corridor, always with one stormtrooper in front of Luke, and one behind, in the proper trooper formation, laser rifles cradled in their arms, not that weapons like those could really do anything if Luke chose to use the Force. But Luke wasn’t about to use the Force to give them away.
Unexpected temptation came in a sudden meeting with Commander Wilton.
“Halt!” Lando and Lobot had no choice but to come to a stop, Luke sandwiched between them. “Where are you taking this prisoner?”
Sweat threatening to pop out on Luke’s face, he gazed in incomprehension.
Lobot’s calm voice soothed Luke’s sudden anxiety. “Prisoner transfer.”
“Transfer?” Commander Wilton showed his puzzlement instead of the anger Luke expected to see. “Why wasn’t I notified?”
The response was thankfully immediate. “Lord Vader wishes to see the prisoner.”
“I’m aware of no such order,” Wilton objected. “As commander of Cloud City, I need to be informed of orders regarding prisoners.”
“Well, now you know,” Luke interjected. They began to move off down the corridor.
“Halt!” Wilton again commanded, his tone much less friendly. “What does Lord Vader wish to tell this prisoner?”
“The plans of the Emperor,” Lobot reported.
“I was told that was to be left for the Emperor himself. Lord Vader knows this.”
At Lobot’s sudden loss of speech, Luke smoothly jumped in. “This trooper is covering for me, Commander. Lord Vader plans to tell me of my origins.”
Wilton again looked perplexed. “Your origins?”
“I have a deal with Vader,” Luke said without thought. “He tells me what I want to know, and I come quietly. He doesn’t, and he has one angry Jedi on his hands who might or might not be delivered as promised to his Emperor.”
This news flummoxed Wilton even more. “I was not aware that Lord Vader made deals with Rebel prisoners.”
Calm flowed through Luke. “He does with this one.”
“And why would he do that?” Wilton’s tone was officious now, and arrogant, leaving Luke in no doubt that this man was an Imperial Officer.
“Because I asked him to,” Luke said without hesitation. His voice hardened as he added, “I’ll answer no more questions.” As further inducement of his sincerity, Luke used the Force to squeeze the man’s throat ever so slightly.
Even that slight persuasion was enough. Tugging uselessly at his high Imperial uniform collar, Wilton frantically waved them away. “Don’t keep Lord Vader waiting - as you were!”
Luke’s smile was almost nonexistent as his trooper guards marched him away.
The minute they were out of sight, the sweat really did encase Luke’s face. But still he didn’t say anything. It was a good bet that if the cells carried hidden listening devices, the corridors of the City held the same.
Their purposeful march didn’t waver; it would be only a matter of moments before Wilton thought to look into Lord Vader’s recent orders regarding prisoner transfers. Luke’s heart beat a steady refrain in his chest and sweat again slid across his left hand, but he was gratified with every step they took towards a hopefully safe destination.
Then the call came over the City com system: “Escaped prisoner with two unauthorised stormtroopers, last seen in the Carbon District. Detain at will. Use force if necessary.”
Luke knew immediately that the game was up. Legions of stormtroopers seemed to emerge from the walls themselves, ready to do their commanding officer’s bidding. It was clear that somehow between the prison cells and this stark corridor he had achieved the reputation of ‘Public Enemy Number One.’
Which was when the idea hit Luke: if he was going to have such a poor reputation, then he might as well earn it.
With the speed and strength of the ice storms on Hoth, Luke burst into action. Fully aware that he could no longer count on the familiarity of his lightsaber, Luke Force-jerked Lando’s laser weapon into his hand and fired the instant his fingers closed around the grip. Pumping laser bolts at random around the corridor, Luke focused on causing the most chaos he could while trying to keep track of Lando and Lobot in the mass of white armor.
Trooper Lobot was doing his best to cause even more chaos while looking like he was trying to apprehend the prisoner. He was unsurprisingly good at finding the weak spots in a stormtrooper’s armor.
The corridor soon filled with acrid smoke, and Luke was instantly reminded of the corridors of the Death Star. Half expecting to see Han and the Princess at his side, Luke turned to find a trooper right next to him instead. Reacting instinctively, Luke Force shoved the man into the wall, then immediately did the same to the five troopers in front of him.
Moving quickly now and with much less caution, Luke jumped to the side to avoid several laser bolts aimed his way, shoving the troopers who had fired at him to join the ones already on the floor. He yanked more weapons from hands, tossed a trooper to the ceiling, then threw several more into a closed doorway. Three troopers slid around the corner to careen into the far wall, and two clutched at their throats before falling unconscious to the floor. Suddenly, the corridor ahead was clear of hostiles, and Luke gathered the muscles in his legs to make a run for it.
The cold metal of an Imperial weapon biting into his temple stopped him. “Give me a reason, Jedi, and you’ll be space sludge.”
Luke froze, glancing over his shoulder to briefly take in the unfriendly frown emblazoned on the trooper’s helmet.
The action of holding a prisoner at bay by threatening to blow their brains out was typical for a stormtrooper even if the voice belonged to Lobot. Luke had to concede in the next instant that he really didn’t know this man, and had only Lando’s word that he was trustworthy. His actions hardly appeared to be anything but Imperial.
Making another instantaneous decision, Luke decided to trust Lando’s word. Taking a chance that he wasn’t about to do the stupidest thing in his life, Luke let his laser rifle clatter to the floor and raised his hands to again be cuffed.
Trooper Lobot obligingly cuffed him, seeming to relish the action, while trooper Lando carefully retrieved Luke’s fallen weapon and rose from the floor. Within seconds, Luke found himself surrounded by white armored soldiers holding black laser rifles trained warily on him. Lobot’s handcuffs dug into his wrists as he was yanked around to stare up at a frowning helmet.
“Back to the prison cells. Now march!” a trooper ordered, this time not in Lobot’s voice.
Luke glanced at the troopers surrounding him, looking like he was sizing up the group, weighing his chances of a second escape, but really trying to discern which of them was friendly. It was impossible; they all looked alike in that blazing white armor. For the first time, Luke understood the power of not having an individual identity. Imperial soldiers outnumbered Luke thirty to one, and there was truly no escape from being dragged down by sheer numbers. Even if he again sowed discord among the ranks, he couldn’t use the Force to successfully remove all that white armor to see what lay beneath before he was captured again. He simply couldn’t move that fast.
Knowing that his chances for escape might improve later, a defeated Luke grumbled his rancor. “Fine.” Shoved forward, he had no choice but to follow in the same direction as the troopers circling him.
Seven armored men marched him back in the direction of the prison cells. The cold efficiency of their single identity added to the aura of uncaring ferocity they exuded. If the Imperial aim was to dishearten prisoners, it worked. Thoughts of escape were far from Luke’s mind; his thoughts simply centered on surviving.
So it was an extreme surprise when someone behind opened fire on the troopers from surrounding him. In yet another reversal of fortune, Luke once again found himself in the midst of being liberated. Immediately dropping into a defensive crouch, he let the laser beams stream harmlessly above him. There wasn’t enough time for chaos to reinstate itself before five dead troopers littered the corridor, leaving two troopers alive with Luke at their center.
Hauling Luke roughly to his feet, Lobot tersely whispered into his ear, “Walk straight up this corridor, around the corner, then into the wall on the left.”
Luke unquestioningly did as he was told. The white of the corridor appeared unchanging, but the second he should have hit the left wall, Luke felt an energy field encompass him. The two troopers followed him straight through another concealing hologram.
The room they had entered was much smaller than the one before, barely big enough to hold the three of them even if they flattened themselves against the back wall. It was a niche more than a room.
“We’re here, Luke,” Lando thankfully whispered in the next moment. “I just want you to know that being thrown into a wall was not something I expected when you approached me at the Fleet about this mission. I want my pay doubled!”
“There is no mission,” Luke quickly replied, regret filling his voice, but determined to set the record straight.
Lando’s wariness was palpable. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I need to confess.” Luke ignored his paralyzing guilt, his pounding heart, his sweat and fear to admit, “I never spoke before the Rebel Council. There is no mission to steal back my X-wing. I’m sorry that I ever got you into this mess. I wanted to say something before we all get killed.”
To his credit, Lando didn’t explode into a fit of temper at Luke’s news. His trooper helmet hid his immediate reaction, but it didn’t cover his ironically calm voice. “I know, Luke.”
Astonished, Luke could only gape.
“You look like a Mon Calamari sucking air rather than a Jedi,” Lando casually commented.
Luke snapped his mouth shut. “Maybe that’s because I’m not a Jedi yet.”
“The way you use The Force? Could have fooled me.”
Again Luke’s amazement blossomed. “But compared to Vader, I--”
“You’re nothing like Vader,” Lando quietly argued. “Don’t go comparing yourself to a Sith.”
“Sh!” Lobot curtly ordered. With a clicking of boots on the floor, what sounded like an entire legion of stormtroopers hurried unseeingly past their hiding place until the clicks from those many boots faded away.
“Good to know that these holos work,” Lando nonchalantly said. “Though I never thought I’d be hiding myself with them.”
Luke grimaced. “What do we do now?”
Lobot said, “Our best hope lies in hiding you.”
Did that mean he planned for Luke to stay hidden in this holoroom for eternity? “We can’t stay here forever.”
“Put on my uniform,” Lobot ordered in the next second, and started removing his armor.
Luke took it, but reluctantly. “Won’t you need it?”
“As far as the Imperials know, I’m one of them,” Lobot pointed out. “They’re looking for you, not me.”
“Good thinking.” Luke put on the uniform as quickly as he could, doing his best to keep his elbows and knees well away from the holographic wall. “What do we do once no one can see me?”
Lando had a plan for that as well. “I say we head for the South side of the city. It should be easy enough to get to the landing pad where they’re storing your X-wing to--”
“I’m not stealing back my X-wing,” Luke informed while struggling with the armored chest plate.
Lando gaped at him. “Excuse me?”
Luke’s aggravated sigh sounded loud in the small room. “Going after that fighter was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I say we forget the fighter and head for the hangar. From there, we can head back to the Fleet.” We might even make it if we’re lucky.
But Lando wasn’t so willing to see the stupidity of their original plan. “How can we go back to the Fleet without an X-wing? You’ll still need a fighter ship in order to rescue Han, won’t you?”
Luke shrugged. “Well, yeah, but --”
“No buts!” Lando tensely whispered. “We came here to steal your X-wing, and we’re not leaving without it!”
Luke was mildly surprised that Lando cared so much about a ship that wasn’t his. “It’s too dangerous to--”
“You call this dangerous?” Lando scoffed. “This is nothing compared to what Lobot and I usually deal with.”
“You mean there’s worse things in the galaxy than hundreds of Imperial stormtroopers bent on our capture?”
“Way worse,” Lando assured. “Now put the rest of that armor on, and follow me. I know where they’re holding your ship.”
“I thought my ship was on landing pad 598.”
“I flew it somewhere else.”
Luke gaped. “But how could you fly it anywhere? There was no fuel in it!”
“I was conveniently ordered to fill it with enough fuel to fly it to a new landing pad, but no more. So if there’s not enough to get completely away, it’s not my fault.”
It’s not my fault must be a catch phrase among gamblers and pirates, Luke decided, but was impressed with Lando’s ability to think on his feet. “I still say--”
“Will you get going, Jedi!” a scowling Lando demanded as he handed Luke his laser rifle.
Taking the weapon, Luke’s wryness sounded easily through his helmet mic. “Okay, okay. Where are we going?“
“South Platform,” Lando said.
“Right,” Lando replied.
“Left,” Lobot said at the same time.
About to walk through the wall and back into sight, Luke fortunately hesitated. “Left or right?”
“Right,” Lando insisted.
“Left,” Lobot insisted as well. “I have an idea, but we’ll need Lando’s ship in order to carry it out.”
Lando asked, “Isn’t it better to sneak onto the X-wing’s landing pad from the front rather than from a ship? They don’t have stormtroopers guarding Luke’s X-wing anymore. It’ll be a cakewalk.”
“Where is the X-wing now?”
“Landing pad 91. What of it?” Lando asked his friend.
“Landing pad 91 has a reverse stabilizing cone built just underneath it,” Lobot argued. “The Jedi should find that easy enough to climb. Once on the pad, it will be a simple matter for him to jump aboard his ship and fly it out of here.”
“But without enough fuel to leave the system, how is he going to rejoin the Fleet?”
Lobot had figured this out as well. “There is enough fuel on hand in the secret hangar.”
“I need that fuel to refill The Falcon,” Lando softly protested.
“Then we have a problem.”
“Can we share the fuel?” Luke asked.
Shrugging, Lobot said, “There might be enough fuel for both ships to make it back to the Rebel Fleet. It depends where it’s located.”
“It’s worth more than my life to tell you that,” Luke flatly declared. “What about refueling my X-wing at landing pad 91?”
“That would look too suspicious,” Lobot instantly objected. “Why would a fighter need to be refueled if it’s just going to sit on a landing pad and collect dust?”
“Good point. Nothing says that we plan to fly it somewhere like refueling it right under Imperial noses.” Thinking fast, Luke tentatively suggested, “How about relocating the fuel from landing pad 91 to the secret hangar?”
Before Lobot could also shoot down that idea, Lando added, “Not from landing pad 91, but from some other landing pad. Maybe a pad on the East Platform? Or the West? Somewhere that has no connection to Luke Skywalker.”
“How do we move a drum full of fuel?” Luke asked before Lobot could agree or disagree. “We can’t lift a heavy fuel drum unless I lift it using the Force.”
“And that will look mighty suspicious,” Lando agreed. “We’ll need an antigrav sled. Where do we get one?”
“Leave that to me,” Lobot said.
“This is getting awfully complicated,” Luke cautioned. “Perhaps we should just cut our losses and--”
“We’re not leaving here without your X-wing, so stop suggesting it!” Lando hissed, cutting him off. “Lobot, what do you need?”
“Autonomy. Refuel your ship and I’ll meet you in the secret hangar.” Lobot simply pushed Luke aside so that he could walk through the holo wall and take off down the empty corridor.
Lando muttered something unintelligible about finding decent help, but followed his personal aid without further comment. Luke trailed behind.
The trip to the secret hangar went without incident. They had a slightly anxious moment while crossing a lounge full of relaxing officers, but were saved from performing some menial task by explaining how they were on a mission given them by their commander himself. They didn’t unveil the identity of that commander, and the officer didn’t ask.
Other than that, Cloud City might as well have been abandoned. Only the fact that the Force twinged just slightly with his presence even reminded Luke that Vader was in residence. On the whole, it was so quiet that except for a rubbing left boot, he forgot all about his disguise. They walked down pristine corridors, past windows showing TIE fighters on patrol, more lounging officers, billets for the stormtroopers, and the occasional trooper on foot patrol. Luke didn’t think he could move fast enough to avoid any more Imperial entanglements, so it was a good thing he had Lando’s cool nerves to rely on.
The former administrator led him on a circuitous route through little used corridors as often as possible, so it took several long minutes to reach the secret hangar.
Pulling off his restrictive armor, Luke said, “I’ll refuel The Falcon while you get her ready for take-off.”
“Will do,” Lando agreed, and disappeared up the loading ramp leading into the ship while Luke quickly gathered the tools he would need for his refueling job.
The Falcon, Luke knew, didn’t take much fuel, only enough to start the engines, but that little bit was essential to the smooth running of his pirate friend’s pet ship. Besides that, Luke knew that Chewbacca would never stop yelling at him if The Falcon got into a situation where he and Lando would have to abandon it simply because it ran out of fuel.
“Everything checks out,” Lando informed minutes later. “Finished refueling yet?”
“Filled the reserve tank, too. You should have enough fuel to fly to each side of the galaxy and back ten times or more,” Luke said, but glanced at the hangar door, consumed with worry. “Have you heard from Lobot?”
“Not yet. It takes a long time to get this far from the other side of the city, and he has an antigrav unit with him. It’ll take him even longer. Relax, Jedi,” Lando suggested. “If something happens to him, we’ll hear about it over our helmet links.”
Lando’s jaunty tone did nothing to reassure Luke. “Can they shut down the links to specific helmets?”
“If they can, then it’s a technology that I haven’t heard of. Now will you relax?”
Luke heaved an irritated sigh, still irrationally anxious. The Force was telling him that something was definitely wrong. “I’ll relax as soon as Lobot walks through that door.”
“Is that a promise?”
“For what it’s worth.”
“A Jedi’s promise… that has to be worth quite a lot.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “I already told you, I’m not--
“Not a Jedi yet, so you say.”
“So does Vader.”
The wryness in Lando’s voice was unmistakeable. “Big deal! That’s what--”
Lobot’s urgent whisper issuing out of Luke’s helmet comlink interrupted. “... now! Don’t waste any more time! Repeat: Leave now! They’re on their way - get out! Repeat: Leave now! They’re on their way - get--” Static abruptly ate through the rest of his words.
Luke was halfway up the loading ramp when the transmission came to its abrupt end. “Lando! Go, go!” He hit the button once inside to raise the ramp at the same time The Falcon’s main engines fired. The ship lifted off and spun around in a graceful arc prior to blasting straight up.
The second they left the ground, the door to the secret hangar melted in a fiery burst of orange and red. An entire squad of stormtroopers poured through the opening, firing as they ran. Laser cannons pumped bolts of red and yellow at the underbelly of the ship, some of them finding their marks, some of them glancing off the raising shields.
“Luke! Belly gun, now!”
Luke sprinted down the main passageway and slid down the ladder to practically fall into the seat for the gun emplacement on The Falcon’s underside. He opened fire before he was even settled firmly into the seat, splaying a return salvo of laser bolts at the gathering Imperial troops. He didn’t have time to grow tight with anxiety now, but instantly relaxed into the controls, letting the Force guide his actions, finding his targets with unnerving accuracy. If the stormtroopers hadn’t known beforehand that they were dealing with a Force sensitive, they did now.
Lando continued to guide the ship straight up, his voice counting loudly over Luke’s comlink as he went. They spun in a complete circle every fourth count, like the shaft was nothing but a musical measure to be conquered with a steady beat. Luke felt the Force echos of the unseen overhangs zip by again just as they’d done when landing what seemed like eons ago. He kept up a constant hail of laser fire long after the stormtroopers had disappeared from view. Several return blasts came close to his location only to impact harmlessly on the shields until something with much more punch landed almost on top of him. Metal screeched and sparks shot out in rains of fire as the belly gun absorbed the brunt of the impact. Only the fact that Luke instinctively jumped from his seat straight up to the passageway saved him from the heat of the fire as the gun melted into slag. Shards of metal rained down on him, but he was able only to think that Chewie was going to kill him if they ever managed to reach the Rebel Fleet.
Luke grabbed a manual fire extinguisher and sprayed. Clouds of foam quickly filled the gun turret, choking out the fire, but billowing smoke followed him as he sprinted towards the cockpit to assist Lando. Luke started flipping switches and pushing buttons the second he dropped into the copilot’s seat. “Something hit the belly gun. Han’s going to kill me if Chewie doesn’t do it first.”
“Kill you?!” Lando barked incredulously. “What’s he going to do to me?”
“Just fly this thing,” Luke advised. “I’ll worry enough for both of us.”
Clearly taking Luke’s advice, Lando continued counting off as they passed the overhangs, each eye wrinkled in concentration.
But eventually Luke felt he had to ask about their destination. “Won’t they know exactly where we’re coming out and be waiting for us?”
“Which is why we’re not coming out where they expect us to,” Lando replied, his voice casual even as his fingers tightened on the controls.
“We’re not?” Had they changed course? Luke felt like an idiot for not having noticed. “Oh, good. I wouldn’t want to be that commanding officer right now.” Luke grimaced, not feeling very sympathetic.
“Lobot really was right about landing pad 91 having a reverse cone below it,” Lando said.
“What’s the plan, since you’re so determined to steal my X-wing?”
“You know the main plan. I fly under landing pad 91 so you can climb out the top of The Falcon and up the cone. Then you jump into your ship, and blast off. They’ll never see it coming.”
Confusion washed over Luke. “Won’t they know that we’re aiming for my ship and meet us there, since they’ll miss us as we come out of this shaft?”
“Aaaand… you’re going to tell me why, right?”
Lando grinned. “Because they told me to land your ship on landing pad 191, but… oops!...I accidentally landed your ship on landing pad 91.”
Lando’s grin was infectious. “Good thinking. But what are we going to do about fuel? My X-wing isn’t like The Falcon. I’ll never make it back to the Fleet on nothing but fumes.”
“Head for Tunis first.” Lando shrugged when Luke glanced at him in question. “I know a guy. He’ll help us out.”
Unconvinced, Luke had to fight the urge to roll his eyes.
Lando saw his reaction. “Trust me!”
Sighing, Luke replied, “Where have I heard that before?”
Still counting, Lando flew The Falcon smoothly into another shaft, this one smaller and more straightforward, but no less dark. He flicked a switch the moment they entered, and light flooded the narrow passage, illuminating the sides of buildings and the occasional hangar door. It looked like Lando Calrissian hadn’t been the only resident of Cloud City who needed a way to get out undetected.
A moment later, The Falcon shot out of the man-made tunnel and into the rose colored clouds enshrouding Cloud City’s buildings. They were far from where they had entered the passage to Lando’s secret hangar. Now they only had the occasional cloud car or TIE fighter to worry about as they careened toward landing pad 91, giving Luke time to voice more nagging worries about Lobot.
“Lobot can take care of himself,” Lando assured.
“I don’t want him to get into trouble for helping us,” Luke persisted.
Ironically, Lando laughed. “He won’t. If I know him, he was already on his way to his own secret hangar when we heard from him. He’s probably safe and sound right now, worrying about us as he flies away from here.”
Luke gaped in surprise yet again. “You mean he had his own hangar?”
“Of course.” Lando looked bemused. “A good gambler always knows the odds, but stacks the deck in his favor just in case.”
An appreciative grin split Luke’s features. “I should have known.”
“Coming up on landing pad 91,” Lando said a second later.
Luke yelped his surprise they had arrived so quickly and with such little resistance.
“What’s wrong, Jedi?” Lando teased. “Now you’re worried that we had so few problems?”
Luke gave a harried grunt. “‘Few problems’ plus ‘stormtroopers’ don’t usually add up so well together.”
“Look on the bright side,” Lando advised. “We’re not out of here yet. There’s still plenty of time for something to go wrong.”
“That’s the bright side?”
“I like to be a realist when I can. Approaching 91 now. Open the top hatch and get ready to climb out. I’ll keep her as steady as I can till you jump away.”
Not at all sure of this plan, Luke nonetheless rose to exit the cockpit. “Remember, my jumping skills are only as good as your flying skills.”
“Then we have nothing to worry about.”
Luke wanted to comment on that statement, but thought it more prudent to use these few seconds to better prepare himself for his vault from the safety of The Millennium Falcon to the rough cone under his X-wing. He slowed his heartbeat, worked at taking deep and penetrating breaths, and made certain his leg muscles were stretched enough that they were up to vaulting through midair. It wasn’t as if he could rely on a safety net to catch him if he missed.
Sunshine spilled into the ship as Luke reached the final hatch on The Falcon’s outer hull. Sun blinding his eyes, the smells of Tibanna gas and exhaust fumes filling his nose, Luke hurtled back in memory to when he had dangled on a weather vane under this same city only a few months before. His right hand ached even now. He found himself subconsciously flexing his fingers as landing pad 91 drew ever closer. Wind buffeted him from all sides, making him tense his muscles just to stay standing in The Falcon’s upper hatch. He didn’t know what he was going to do when he actually had to crawl onto the freighter’s outer hull, to say nothing of when he jumped from ship to cone. Not for the first time, he questioned the sanity of this screwy plan, and even went so far as to consider calling the entire thing off when Lando’s voice stopped him.
“Luke, you’ll make this jump, no problem,” he said as if he could sense Luke’s paralyzing doubts. “I’ve got your back.”
Luke didn’t find that particularly reassuring, but didn’t have time to respond as The Falcon slowed to almost a complete stop near a roughened reverse cone that led to landing pad 91. His X-wing gleamed at him invitingly.
“I’ll wait till I’m sure you’ve made it, Luke,” Lando’s voice carried to him on the wind.
Sarcastically wondering what Lando planned to do if he missed his objective, Luke took one last calming breath, then, not giving himself time to think about the insanity of his next move, jumped.
It was closer to flying than he anticipated. Since Luke was partial to feeling the rush of wind under his legs, he gloried in that sensation of total freedom for the microsecond it lasted. Then he slammed into the rough side of the reverse cone, admitting to himself that he wasn’t nearly as partial to landings as he was to flying. He clung to any parts of the cone he could reach with scrabbling fingernails as he sucked air into his deflated lungs, desperate to restore his breathing before he passed out. True to his word, Lando held The Falcon as steady as he could in such strong winds.
Luke clung on tight and sucked in precious air, feeling his mind clear with every breath he took. His lungs expanded a little more each time, until at last he was able to uncurl the fingers of his left hand to raise the comlink he’d clipped to his belt up to his mouth and yell, “I’m fine; go!”
The Falcon obligingly dropped away several kilometers to patrol for enemy crafts even as Lando did his best to keep out of the sensor range of passing ships. Realizing he had limited time, Luke started to climb.
It was harder than he had expected. Luke finally resorted to throwing the hook he’d kept from the trooper armor over a convenient communications array module, attaching it to the line wound around his waist. Again without giving himself time to think, he swung over the gulf of open air, then shimmied up the rope like it was a vine attached to a giant tree on Dagobah. Handholds on the cone taunted him with their illusion of safety, but he managed to ignore them to pull himself over the edge of the pad a moment later.
Disregarding the dark images of when he had last made movements similar to this, Luke crouched low and ran, aiming for the minimal cover provided by one of his X-wing fighter’s landing struts. Now crouched almost double, Luke tried to catch his breath as he surveyed the scene.
Landing pad 91 was unnaturally quiet. No stormtroopers entered unexpectedly through the far door, and those people in ships flew right past him without catching sight of him at all. It didn’t make sense, Luke uneasily thought to himself. He certainly wasn’t wearing clothing that blended in with the stark whiteness of Cloud City, and even his blowing hair could give him away if this was some elaborate trap.
But no one threatened him, either by entering through the door or by shooting him from a passing ship. When the area remained quiet for several minutes, Luke crept slowly out from behind the landing strut to cautiously straighten beside his X-wing. There, standing in the whirling wind, one hand on the familiar nose of his ship, he used the Force to once again release the canopy, and jumped.
He’d known that the second he spent in the air was when he would be the most vulnerable. He carried neither lightsaber nor laser gun, wanting to weigh as little as possible when he made his many leaps, this one included. He’d have the X-wing’s laser cannons at his disposal once he was inside his fighter, and was counting on that to deter any resistance.
The second Luke landed near the canopy of his X-wing, he came to an abrupt halt, the Force telling him of another’s presence. Drawn of their own volition, his eyes landed on his dark relation standing near the landing pad’s door.
It was like it had been in his cell only hours before; the sense of assessment was high. Vader made no move to stop him, but didn’t come to his aid, either. Instead, he seemed to be racked with indecision, especially for such a usually decisive being.
Luke remained uncomfortably frozen near his X-wing’s open canopy, sure he would be shot down at any moment, cleaved in two by Vader’s lightsaber, or arrested and tortured by the Empire. He was not unaware of how foolhardy such a lack of motion was, but inexplicably did nothing to stop any of this from happening.
Vader continued to silently gaze at him through the blank eyeholes of his mask. Luke gazed back. The wind continued to howl and whip his hair into his eyes, but still neither he nor Vader moved a muscle. At long last, Luke had to straighten his stance or risk straining his back. The change in position made him abruptly aware of the words in his mind.
No, not words. They weren’t even images. They were more like mental sensations, color bursting onto an otherwise gray backdrop, one splash bleeding into another so that he had a hard time keeping up with the barrage of swift communication. With a start, Luke realized it was most like listening to Artoo’s beeping, where he couldn’t decipher the droid’s specific words, but had no trouble interpreting his tone.
A feeling of haste overwhelmed him, and then he caught the idea of ‘before.’ But before what? Or from what?
In another burst of color, he understood. This was Vader, thinking at him. This wasn’t the first time a Force communication link had happened between him and Vader, but the last time, the thoughts had been in definite words, meant as a not-so-subtle form of persuasion to a highly battered, exhausted, and very susceptible Luke. Now, they seemed almost like… an apology.
Not that a Dark Lord of the Sith ever apologized, but this was the closest that Vader was going to come to it, so Luke wasn’t complaining. Instead of noting what the message wasn’t saying, he concentrated on what it meant.
The thought wasn’t about haste before something that was going to happen, Luke decided, but that Vader had been hasty before, when they had met in Luke’s prison cell, when Vader had walked out on him. Now, Luke was practically flooded with the concept that he didn’t have to accept his and Vader’s familial connection, that nothing untoward was going to happen to him right at this moment because of it, that he didn’t have to choose between ruling a galaxy or jumping to his death. A second sensation flowed over him, this one filled with .... something. It wasn’t a dark something. It was… light.
Then came the unmistakeable question of what was his favorite color.
Green he immediately thought back before he could decide if answering at all was a such a good idea. Not because I grew up on a sandy planet, but because green is nice, a color that’s cool but not cold, warm but not hot. Pleasant. Shady. Nice.
And then they were back to staring at each other on a Cloud City landing pad, surrounded by harsh white sunlight, buffeted by strong gusts of wind, alone but for an echo in the Force that was so empty it made Luke ache. A minute passed, then another. Luke took a breath and prepared to drop into his X-wing.
Vader suddenly balled his right fist at his side. Luke crouched low at the abrupt motion, but as Vader did nothing more, relaxed at last. The Dark Lord was no less menacing for his general lack of movement, his Force aura still screaming with a kind of black, twisted evil. This was not a nice man that Luke confronted who could just as easily kill him as not.
At the same time, Vader wasn’t any of those things. He was both sides of the Force, and he was neither. He was conflicted about the many atrocities he had committed even as he was glad for the suffering he caused in others.
Luke didn’t entirely know what to make of the sensations that he felt, but now his gaze was drawn to his own hand that Vader had severed during their memorable encounter months before. It hurt. Without consciously deciding to do it, Luke balled his fingers into his own fist and laid it on the open canopy in plain sight.
Suddenly the haze of strangled communication ended as quickly as it had begun. When Vader still didn’t move, Luke dropped into his fighter ship and shoved his Rebel issue flight helmet in place. The canopy lowered to cut off any outside noise until it encased him in the familiar bubble of a pre-flight mode. Without another glance to see if Vader stayed on the landing pad or retreated back through the open door or activated his lightsaber just before throwing it into his snub fighter’s engines, Luke lifted off. He ordered the weapons online even as the landing struts retracted and the navigation system engaged.
Still he only hovered there. The Force flowed and eddied in time with the strange sensations accosting him. Luke swallowed, nervous and edgy, calm and relaxed. Then, he flew away without looking back.
Once again with the Rebel Fleet, Luke had only vague memories of his and Lando’s fight to get away from Cloud City. The minute they left, every TIE fighter from that corner of the galaxy had set upon them as the two ships fought side by side to leave the Anoat sector behind and return home. Twice Luke doubted that they would make it out alive, and both times, he woke as if he’d been in a trance to find the space in front of them wide open and inviting while Imperial ships burned in great fireballs in the sky behind them. Once back, Lando talked up Luke’s flying skills so much that he was forced to endure another round of hero worship from the younger members of the Alliance, something Princess Leia found highly amusing.
But Luke was under no illusions. The next time he and Darth Vader met, it would be just as volatile, just as violent, just as awful as ever. The only thing Luke felt certain of was that a meeting like that would happen, sometime. It was up to him to get ready for it.
So he practised in his free time from planning with the others to rescue his friend Captain Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt. The fact that this confrontation with Jabba was to take place on Tatooine was hardly a comfort to him. Luke knew that Tatooine was a harsh and unfriendly environment. The only thing these circumstances did was let him know that he couldn’t count on the planet to offer them anything but problems. It was up to him to predict those problems and solve them before they whirled out of control.
The one thing that he had never predicted at Cloud City was the unexpected appearance of a full tank of fuel in his X-wing. He’d puzzled over that fuel the rest of the way back to the Fleet. He hadn’t filled the tank, and Lando swore that he hadn’t, either. That left a stormtrooper to have filled it, ordered by…
Luke refused to finish that thought, choosing to instead dwell on the unexpected understanding of Lando Calrissian during this mission. Luke never actually told him about his parental dilemma, or even brought it up, but he caught the gambler looking at him in thoughtful calculation far too often not to wonder how much he suspected.
What that trip to Bespin did do was much more interesting to Luke. He now shared a deep affection for the former baron, valued his unusual insights into life, his sometimes shady contacts, his penchant for always stacking the deck in his favor. He became Luke’s go-to guy for when he didn’t know what to do or how to handle a situation. Better yet, Lando always somehow knew what was at stake without having to be told. Luke trusted him as much as he trusted Han, though if asked, he couldn’t explain that trust to anybody else.
As to Vader… Luke spent many hours during the next few months puzzling over Vader’s behavior on Cloud City. He was just as often consumed with hate for him as he was with… something he couldn’t name. Leia thought this confusion was ridiculous, that Darth Vader was nothing short of the black center of all evil in the Universe. But no matter what he did, Luke couldn’t quite bring himself to forget that moment when he’d caught a spark of… something that was almost good in him. Again the Princess didn’t see any problems with what she considered Luke’s overuse of his abilities in the Force.
Luke just let her talk at times like these, but wondered about Vader when she wasn’t around. Vader didn’t seem so black and white to him as he was to the Princess. Yet, he hadn’t been forced to watch while Vader helped to destroy his entire planet, either. Though he really didn’t have much love for Tatooine, losing it would still be a blow to him, and not hating the man who was partly responsible for that destruction would be difficult.
But that aside, Luke’s concepts of Darth Vader were not to as solid as they had been before that unsanctioned mission to retrieve his X-wing. He wanted to revile the man even while not letting his emotions consume him. Master Yoda had indicated that his destiny was tightly interwoven with the Sith Lord’s, and from what he understood, Vader wanted his help in ruling the galaxy as much as the Emperor wanted nothing more than to convert him like he’d done with Vader years earlier. But as much as any of them claimed to know about his destiny, Luke fully understood that it was his destiny. It would go where he wanted it to go, and right now he wanted to rescue his friend.
At the same time, he also knew that an encounter with Vader was coming. Whether the man was good, evil, or somewhere in between was immaterial to such a fight. All Luke could do now was practise as much as possible, trust in the Force, and be confident in himself and his abilities to handle what he had to handle. He had his friends, whom he trusted beyond measure. He only had to learn to trust himself in equal measure and not to worry about the future. The future would take care of itself.