Disclaimer: George Lucas owns Luke Skywalker et al in every conceivable way (except the part that Disney now owns... which is all of it, isn't it?). I'm just filling in the holes, and making no money off any of this. Poor me!
A/N: Thanks to yeahsureyoubetcha, Noxbait, and Noda for such wonderful writing encouragement, and to yeahsureyoubetcha for a great beta. 'Now I owe you one.'
A/N 2: This story is finished, with 11 chapters.
At the sound of the voice, the jumble of spare X-wing parts that had been serenely floating in midair fell back to the deck with a clang that echoed throughout Rebel Dream's reserve hangar bay.
Distracted, and wobbling now because of it, Luke let his left hand join his newly restored right one on the floor as he recaptured his teetering balance.
The voice sounded again in a much more apologetic vein. “Sir, I didn't mean to...”
Before Luke knew it, the fully equipped toolbox joined the spare parts on the currogated deck plate: thud! He heard an impatient Master Yoda's voice sound in his head as if the diminutive Jedi was right beside him: 'Control, control, you must learn control!'
So Luke instinctively fought for his lost control, tightening his muscles, gripping the deck plates with his fingers, opening his eyes wide to help him see the Force energy field surrounding everything he was currently levitating.
It was the worst thing he could have done. The harder he tried to control the Force, the more the Force seemed to vanish into thin air. A blink later, he could no longer sense the fields that he instinctively knew surrounded everything in the otherwise empty hangar bay.
Now the young male voice sounded panicked. “I thought I...”
With this third interruption, Luke's wavering control shattered completely, sending everything to the floor. The fuel hose, the old hydrospanners, the discarded wrench, and the ever-faithful R2D2 all succumbed to the pull of the ship's artificial gravity to join their fallen counterparts with one huge crash. The noise reverberated through the ship even as it continued on it's preset course through space.
The wall comm unit abruptly crackled to life. “Who's down there? The Captain didn't authorize any use of the hangar on deck seven! Explain yourself!”
This unseen person's command put an end to Luke's already patchy concentration. He was the one who fell this time, landing in an inelegant heap hardly worthy of a Jedi.
The imaginary Master Yoda instantly began a barrage of instructions, ending with the sage advice, 'Let the Force flow through you.'I should have remembered all of this, Luke silently chastised himself. Catching his breath, he gave a wry glance to the unlucky messenger... teenager, really. The young face of an unknown Rebel soldier stared back at him in obvious horror at having caused such chaos with his innocent interruptions.
“Sir! Jedi Skywalker! My apologies! I didn't dream that I would be such a distraction!”
Luke didn't bother to correct the teen on his supposed Jedi status. He was more concerned with answering the unseen person on the other end of the open comm channel.
The wry expression still creasing his face, Luke crossed to the comm box on the hangar's wall. “This is the Deck Seven Reserve Hangar Bay, Commander Skywalker reporting as ordered. Captain Lewis gave me permission to use this hangar any time I wanted for Jedi training. Since the Rebellion isn't currently engaged, this bay is on stand down, and he assured me that I wouldn't be a bother to anybody. I assumed you were informed of the change. My apologies.”
And the fealty that had dogged his every step since returning from Dagobah would start right about... now. “I must apologize, Jedi Commander, Sir! Your use of the hangar bay was unrecorded. I now have the new plan logged into the scheduling database. Again, my apologies! Command Center out.”
Luke was barely conscious of his own resigned sigh that issued along with a final burst of static as the connection was severed at the Command Center's end. Previous experience told him that it did no good to remind everyone that he was just a regular guy rather than 'Jedi Skywalker' or 'Commander,' or 'Sir,' so he simply switched the communication unit to 'off' and turned back to the messenger, who was still staring at him in idolatry.
But more concerning than the hero worship was that he didn't even recognize this young Rebel. Had he been gone so long that he'd missed something as momentous as the induction of new members into the Rebel Alliance? It hadn't seemed like he'd been on Dagobah for long at all, though Luke knew that months had passed.
Dagobah. The winner of the most-disgusting-planet-in-the-galaxy award, the ideal location for Jedi training. In spite of the relative success he'd known on that planet, Luke dreaded the idea of going back there now. He'd have to face Master Yoda if he went back; he was sure that Yoda would be only too happy to gaze pointedly at his young student's new mechanical right hand and say, 'A Jedi you are not.'
Fortunately, the only being besides Yoda who knew this for a fact was hundreds of light years away, and couldn't hurt him any further. After his resounding defeat at Cloud City, Luke didn't want to contemplate meeting up with Darth Vader again, ever. If he never laid eyes on that man in his life, it would be too soon as far as he was concerned.
The thought that his most hated enemy also happened to be his father nearly made him hyperventilate right there, followed by a deep desire to throw up. Fearing that such behavior in front of this unknown Rebel would do nothing for his reputation in the Alliance, Luke fought to calm himself, automatically utilizing the Force as he did so.
While concentrating on using the deep breathing methods that Master Yoda had prescribed to clear his mind of mental clutter, Luke wondered about the very clutter he was banishing; if he refused to claim his parental relationship, was that relationship still an incontrovertible fact? He didn't know.
However, the unknown Rebel was still talking, scattering Luke's wandering thoughts. “... and I've been instructed to tell you that you have command.”
Luke blinked, nausea forgotten. Command of what? “Uh...” He tried to sound intelligent. “I only got back yesterday from the rendezvous with Lando on Tatooine; how about if I talk to him first?” Maybe he knew what was going on.
“I've been instructed to tell you that you have Administrator Calrissian's full support.”
So much for that. “Princess Leia then.”
“Her Royal Highness is onboard her own ship, and unavailable.”
“Is General Rieekan back yet? Maybe he would be a better choice for command.”
“No, he's still on his mission to Coruscant, Sir.”
There the teen paused. “I'm honestly not sure what he thinks. He growled.”
Luke's brow rose in query. “Growled?”
The Rebel nodded. “I think he was in support of your command.”
“Command of what?” Luke finally had to ask. The teen wasn't exactly being a font of information.
“Command of the soldiers on a rescue mission of Captain Solo.” The Rebel gave a sheepish wince. “But Chewbacca might have been talking about the Falcon's repairs. It's so hard to tell.”
Luke suppressed his smile; yes, Wookie barks and growls were hard to tell apart. Even with his vast experience with Chewbacca, he had long since realized that fully understanding such an alien way of communication took more time and effort than Luke had ever been willing to invest. He didn't know how Han did it.
The memory that Han didn't do anything anymore hit him with the suddenness of a slap in the face. He was amazed that he had forgotten Han's fate even for a moment. He was quite sure that Leia never forgot.
This second thought of Princess Leia brought to mind the slight rivalry between Luke and his friend for the princess' attentions. There was no doubt in his mind now who Leia had chosen. She hadn't even had to tell him. The way her Force aura practically lit up like a new star at the mere mention of Solo's name was more than enough of a hint to Luke that his two best friends had finally discovered their shared love. Han's absence now made the subsequent hole in Leia's Force aura bigger than Mos Eisley.
But the Rebel was still talking, and Luke's concentration was so poor that he hadn't heard a single word for the last several moments. It was as if Master Yoda had never told him a thing about focus. What was wrong with him!
“... which is why they think you're perfect for the job.”
Perfect? Him? “I'm not perfect!”
“But, you're a Jedi,” the teen argued, echoing the disembodied voice from the Command Center.
I'm not a Jedi yet!
Hadn't Vader said basically the same thing? The thought caused Luke to automatically glance at his mechanical hand, remembering how he had lost so much more than that appendage at Cloud City. Master Yoda had been right; leaving Dagobah only half trained in the ways of the Force had made things so much worse for his friends. Now not only did Yoda and Obi-Wan know about Luke's lack of Jedi status, but so did Vader.
Sudden prickles of fear erupted across his scalp; did anybody else know? What if there was someone else who was Force sensitive in the galaxy? To assume that he was the only one to have been kept hidden from Vader and the Emperor was down right arrogant. But wouldn't he feel some sort of ripple in the Force if another used it, even in a periphery way? If not a ripple, then a crinkle, something? Master Yoda hadn't mentioned another Force sensitive individual, but what if he didn't know that one existed? Would the Jedi Master be able to feel something like that, considering he was surrounded by a swamp?
Luke told himself not to be silly; the swamp didn't have anything to do with it. He felt sure that Master Yoda would have known if another Force sensitive existed, and would have said something about it. He trusted Yoda.
His mind whispered that he had trusted Ben Kenobi, too, but Ben had told him that Vader had betrayed and murdered his father, not that he was his father. Luke gave another internal cringe at the thought of his supposed family, but again managed to ignore it. He distracted himself by wondering what he would have done if he had known the truth; joined his father to become an agent of evil?
Images of Luke at his father's side then accosted him, both of them twisted and malevolent. Such thoughts made him squirm. That eventuality, so alien just a few months before, was now uncomfortably possible.
There was still so much about the Force that Luke didn't know, and now he had no one he could ask. He was constantly so full of doubt as to how well he could control the Force that he was also doubting things he had previously taken for granted. How far was the range of the Force? Were these doubts somehow the responsibility of Vader? Could a Jedi... or former Jedi... cause someone to feel doubt? Or was this all due to his own personal lack of esteem? As with so many other issues, Luke wished he had asked Yoda when he'd had the chance.
Despair engulfed Luke; rushing off to 'save' his friends at Cloud City really hadn't accomplished anything. Facing Vader the way he had, as a naive bundle of unfinished bravado, had done nothing but cause a multitude of doubts about his parentage as well as to permanently separate him from his hand. Had he failed already, as if his failure was predetermined? Would he ever be a Jedi?
Now his tangled nerves made him feel less than useless. Luke fought to control his emotions, to focus, but his doubts remained, larger than ever.
“So,” the teen was saying, as if he'd been speaking for several moments, and gestured to the hangar door. “If you'll just follow me, I'll take you to meet your command.”
Not knowing what else to do, Luke simply denied to himself that his doubts existed in the first place. He set R2D2 upright, then with the jaunty, relaxed steps of feigned confidence, followed the teen out of the hangar.
In spite of appearing quite confident, Luke's doubts followed him into the war room, where twenty new recruits turned as he and the messenger entered. His arrival heralded their abrupt and eerie silence as they openly gawked at him.
Luke instinctively knew that they were gazing at Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight and magical savior of Captain Solo, not Luke Skywalker, farm boy from Tatooine, the one man sure to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to get his hand sliced off in the bargain. Doubt roared through him like a merciless fighter attack.
He didn't deserve to be in charge of anything, didn't want to be responsible for so many lives, didn't want to be the one known to have all the answers, and especially didn't want to be known as something he wasn't.
The sudden appearance of Leia at his side interrupted his dismal thoughts. She beamed up at him. “Commander Skywalker; just the man we need.”
“Leia!” Doubts abruptly gave way to delight. Even though he had seen Leia just the day before, he gave her an enthusiastic hug right in front of the twenty gaping witnesses. “I thought you were on your own ship?”
“And be absent for this strategy session?” Leia rhetorically teased. “I wouldn't miss this for anything!”
Concealed by the second hug he gave her, Luke whispered into Leia's ear, “I'm a pilot, Leia, not a strategist. Tell me what to do.”
“Perception is all that's important, Luke,” the princess whispered back. “It doesn't matter what you are, only what they think.” She leaned back then, and as if they hadn't just spoken to each other in guarded whispers, smiled a closed-lipped smile once more and said, “Han's in good hands.”
Ugh... not her, too. At least she hadn't called him 'Jedi Skywalker.' “Han's my friend. You know I'll do my best.”
Leia sat on one of the benches lining the wall. “I'm too close to this mission to plan it. What do you suggest?”
The cool quality in her voice would have fooled just about anybody else into thinking that she was only marginally interested in this strategy session, but Luke had known her too long. She was counting on him to rescue her one true love and bring him back to her unscathed. For a moment, Luke felt the pressure of the position he'd been thrust into become a weighty rock balanced on his shoulders. And not only was Leia counting on him, so was Han, in his own quiet way.
Again the doubt surged over him. He didn't know anything about strategy, not really. He was bound to fail, to get them all killed, to...
One mental shove later, Luke took back control of his thoughts, and hence, control of the proceedings. He didn't think anybody had been aware of his fumbling, and he wanted to keep it that way.
He took a deep breath, recalling what Leia had just told him. To that end, he automatically eyed Lando sitting between Chewie and the princess. The former Cloud City Administrator had forsaken his fancy cloak and was now dressed in the serviceable pants and vest typical of a pilot. The fact that Lando was a pilot reminded Luke that he too was a pilot, and recalled all those years that he had been in command of Rogue Squadron. This type of strategy briefing was really not much different than the briefings he had done for that group.
The second he had that thought, he knew exactly what to do. He'd begin with intel. “We know that Han owed money to the gangster Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine, and was on his way to pay off his debts when he was captured and carbonized by Darth Vader in Cloud City at Bespin. He was given to the bounty hunter Boba Fett, who, as far as we know, took him straight to Jabba on Tatooine, where both he and Captain Solo remain. So that's where we have to go if we have any hope of rescuing Han. Lando, you just returned from scouting out Jabba's Palace: what are your perceptions of the place?”
As if Luke hadn't just scoped out the exact same location, Lando leaned forward in his eagerness to report. “Jabba's Palace is definitely well named. It's a true fortress, with a throne room, death pits, dungeons... the works. Major Derlin circumvented Jabba's security forces by pretending to be a smuggler, and got all the way into the throne room, where our biggest coup went down; he saw Captain Solo with his own eyes. He's there all right, hanging on the West wall of Jabba's throne room.” As he spoke, he shot apologetic glances towards Leia, especially when he said the word 'hanging.'
Lando's comments were met only by the blank expression that Leia openly showed to her comrades. Luke, however, knew from past experience that the more unemotional Leia became, the more she cared about the topic under discussion. There was no getting around the fact that Han had been carbonized, and was currently nothing but a slab of rock. The man's heart was beating, and Luke assumed that there was minimal brain function, enough to keep the captain alive, but beyond that... Luke wasn't even sure if his friend could breathe, to say nothing of thinking, or if his time spent in carbon freeze was nothing but a dream to him.
And really, did it matter? It didn't change the fact that it wasn't going to be easy to take on Jabba's forces in order to get Han back.
When Leia remained silent, Lando continued, “He managed to take a video of the interior. We're having a simulation made based on it even now.”
Luke nodded at Lando, then meaningfully eyed his recruits. “I want to note that this is a rescue mission, not an outright attack, and on a volunteer basis only.” He knew that it had taken all of Leia's persuasive powers with the Rebel Council during the last month to get even that status. “You've heard the recon report; you know what we're up against. Anybody who wants to bow out should do it now... no hard feelings.”
To the recruits' credit, only one soldier guiltily slouched out of the room. Luke realized that these new recruits didn't really have any idea what was being asked of them in this rescue mission, or how difficult it was going to be, or how likely they were to become bantha fodder sometime in the near future. But since new recruits were what was being offered, and since Captain Solo was only one man, and since the Alliance really didn't have the manpower to operate a rescue mission right now, they had happily taken what was offered, firmly shelving their complaints.
“Nineteen soldiers, huh?” Luke now noted, counting them.
“Nineteen isn't going to be enough,” Lando quickly predicted. “Both Chewie and I think that we'll need at least 2000.”
2000! Holy shades of the Force! Luke's eyes shot to Leia to see what she thought of this pronouncement, only to see that she was staring in bleak despair at the floor. He doubted that she was even aware of him. There would be no help from that quarter, as much as Luke would have appreciated it.
Momentarily bamboozled, Luke swallowed the bitter taste of his mounting horror. Recoiling in a mental stumble, Luke finally recalled Leia's sage words and instinctive faith in him. It matters what they think. At the memory, Luke reflexively straightened. If he was horrified at Lando's prediction, those under his command didn't need to know it. “2000 soldiers would be nice, but we only have nineteen; let's make each one count.”
But Lando wasn't done. “That's a nice speech, Luke, but Jabba has an army made up mostly of Gammorians bent on killing, then dying a glorious death in order to attain their concept of immortality. Going up against something like that without careful planning will be suicide.”
Luke shrugged, lifting his brows in invitation. “Then I'm open to suggestions.”
Before anybody spoke, one brave voice echoed from the back of the room. “We don't need any army to fight our way in; we have a Jedi Knight! They won't know what hit them!”
Ugh... enough with the Jedi thing. Luke didn't need to be reminded of what he wasn't, no matter how innocent the reminder. “Maybe, but we shouldn't...”
“We may be a small force, but we're strong! And they won't expect a Jedi!”
“It's perfect!” a third soldier enthused. “Just get me within blaster range, and pow!” She pantomimed vaporizing an invisible enemy with an invisible weapon.
Crinkles of doubt encased Luke's eyes. “Have you even fired a blaster?”
“Of course I have,” the new recruit confidently replied. “On the farm, I did all the shooting.”
“The farm? You're from..?”
“Baveer,” she proudly informed. “You'll probably eat animals we raised at your next meal.” Her pride in Baveer was obvious just by her haughty tone.
However, haughtiness led to overconfidence, which often led to death. “Animals don't fight back.”
Clearly surprised, the girl nevertheless remembered to nod, and managed to respectfully say, “I know that, Sir.” Yet that edge of haughtiness remained.
Luke swallowed his resignation at her naivete. “They also aren't intent on killing you before you kill them.”
The girl bristled unconsciously. “Are you saying that I don't know what I'm doing?”
There was no point in making an enemy of her, but there was also no point in not being honest. “Of course not,” Luke instantly placated. “What I'm saying is that we're outnumbered, outgunned, and none of us really have the experience necessary to repel forces like Jabba the Hutt's. We can't let overconfidence minimize our chances of success. Lando's right; we need to have a great plan.”
“Forgive me for saying so, Sir, but won't the fact that we have a Jedi be..?”
“I don't want to rely on that,” he cut in, irritated with so many mentions of his Jedi status. “Careful planning and preparation will go a lot further in guaranteeing success than reliance on what one person can do.”
“But can't we try..?”
“No! Do, or do not. There is no try.” The words were out of Luke's mouth before he even had the time to think about what he was saying. Yoda would have been delighted at his involuntary behavior, but such an abruptly unforgiving manner was unsettling to the new recruits. Attempting to soften his demeanor, Luke went on to gently argue, “A man's life is at stake. To say nothing of that, your fellow soldier's lives depend on what you do. I'm sure you don't want to let them down. We have to be honest about our skills, to practice, to be as precise as we can be about the layout of the palace, to not overestimate our chances, then plan our attack down to the last minute detail. Preparation is the key,” he recited, quoting one of the mantras of Rogue Squadron, oft repeated, and firmly entrenched in his mind. “So, are you all sure you still want to volunteer for this mission? I won't lie to you; it's not going to be easy at all. At the same time, Captain Solo has done so much for the Rebellion. I owe him my life too many times to count. Princess Leia owes him her life. So does Lando, and Chewie. Losing him now would be a major blow in the war with the Empire. Besides, whether he knows it or not, he's counting on all of us. I, for one, don't plan on letting him down.”
Silence met that appeal, but it was the quiet of veneration at the unexpected pep talk. The soldiers looked at each other, their mouths agape, their awe palpable.
Princess Leia broke through that hushed emotion with a reverent gratitude that she had never displayed. “Thank you.”
“You did well this morning,” Leia commented to Luke as they relaxed over lunch onboard her small ship, The HWSS. Leia claimed her ship had been named after Han: Han Wyner Sebastian Solo, or The HWSS for short. But she had later confided to Luke that she had no idea what Han's middle name was, or even if he had one. The initials really meant 'Her Worship's Space Ship.' “If I hadn't known better, I'd say you knew exactly what you were doing.”
Luke gave a good natured half smile, and shrugged. He was proud of the way he'd handled himself, even if pride wasn't very Jedi of him. “It was a lot like a briefing for Rogue Squadron.” His voice grew wistful as memories once again accosted him. “I always liked leading Rogue Squadron.”
“Whatever you did, it was the right thing. Even I'm ready to follow you in an attack on Jabba's Palace, because I know you'll plan the attack well.”
Luke's smile turned mischievous. “Actually, I was faking it.”
As a response, Leia's expression became affectionately reproving, but she did nothing except swallow another bite of Rebel Hash. “What did you have in mind for the session this afternoon? Planning?”
Luke shook his head. “I want to get a grip on whatever skills they have before I start planning anything. We can do some combat training, then really get into planning a rescue mission that hopefully won't get us all killed.”
The Princess rested her fork on the side of her plate for a moment, a look of discomfort on her face. “Luke, I... I want to thank you for... for everything... and to...”
Luke laid a hand atop hers, halting to her stuttering words. “It's the least I can do. Please don't mention being grateful again.” Then he grinned. “Besides, if I didn't do anything, and Han was rescued in spite of me, he would make me work on The Falcon for a year for free.”
Leia's lips lifted. She didn't quite smile, but her expression lightened. Leia rarely smiled these days; that gesture he'd been gifted with in the war room was the first like it he'd seen from her in weeks. Her Force aura, however, blazed at his mention of Han. “I bet you're right; he would.”
A cloud abruptly shrouded the meal. “But are you sure I'm the right person to be in charge?” Luke diffidently asked without meeting her eyes. “Lando might be a better choice; he's more unbiased.”
Leia looked completely confused. “But, you're a Jedi.”
Luke heaved air, his fork clanging against his plate. “I'm no Jedi.”
More confusion clouded her eyes. “But, all that time and training.”
Luke confessed, “I've had two months of training. That hardly makes me a Jedi Knight.”
Her own meal abandoned as well, Leia carefully studied Luke. “Training where, and from whom?”
Luke's sadness was visceral. “Like I've already said, I can't tell you.” His pause was full of the discomfort of withholding information from her. But it was up to him not to give away the secret that Master Yoda was still alive and on Dagobah. Anybody he told might swear not to tell a soul, then someday have that information tortured out of them, and he didn't intend for that to be because of something he'd been unable to conceal, even if it meant keeping Leia in the dark as to his recent activities. “The life of a friend depends on my silence. You understand, don't you?”
Leia gave a brief nod, but the cloud of suspicion never left her eyes. “But I don't understand who could teach you anything about the Jedi when there reportedly aren't any Jedi left in the galaxy.” Alarm abruptly invaded her expression. “Surely you didn't find a way to go out of this galaxy!”
That made Luke grin. “No, I didn't leave the galaxy.”
“If not in some other galaxy, then...”
“Leia.” Luke sighed in exasperation.
“It can't be Obi-Wan... we both saw him die.”
Luke latched on to her argument. “But I've told you before that I'm certain I heard Ben talk to me while...”
“At the Death Star, yes, so you've said,” Leia finished for him, her voice clipped now in her frustration. “But training is so much more than talking.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “You'd be surprised how much talking goes into training new Jedi.”
She studied him even closer. “Is that where that saying 'there is no try' came from?”
Luke reddened in a deep blush. “The illustration of that particular lesson is still highly memorable.” Yeah, and not a good memory, either.
Princess Leia was silent for a minute as she once again considered his earlier argument. “'There is no try:' I'm not sure I agree with you. It sounds like a harsh decree, something the Empire would come up with.”
It's a good thing Master Yoda didn't hear her say that!
Outwardly, Luke shrugged. “You don't have to agree with it, only accept it.”
“Isn't acceptance the same as agreement?”
“Not at all.”
“Yes, it is.”
Again Luke gusted air. He wasn't surprised the princess disagreed with him; this concept had been difficult for him to grasp as well. “I can agree with you that Han was carbonized, though I didn't see it happen. I accept the fact that being carbonized means that he can't move, can't breathe, can't...”
“I know what it means to be carbonized!” Leia looked like the idea sickened her. “When we first got back, I made Lando explain what... what it was probably like...”
“This whole situation is really all my fault,” Luke suddenly interjected.
Leia gave her own expression of complete exasperation. “Luke, I've said before that...”
“I know you have, Leia, but hear me out. Vader was after me. If it hadn't been for me, Han would never have been...”
“If it hadn't been for you,” Leia now argued back, “Lando would never have been free to capture the stormtroopers guarding us. Chewie and I would have remained prisoners, and Han would have been carbonized, anyway. But now because of you, he's going to be rescued, I'm still alive, Chewie and Lando are still alive. You kept Vader's focus long enough to let us take advantage of his divided attention, even if you didn't know that's what you were doing at the time.” Her face fell. “I'm just glad that you only lost a hand. If you hadn't survived, and Han had...” This thought clearly bothered her so much that she was unable to go on, and quickly concealed her sudden tears.
Luke gently reminded her, “Neither Vader nor the Emperor wanted me dead. They just wanted me. It's more likely that I would have been captured, and then probably trained in the Dark Side.” Now it was Luke who attempted to conceal how much that possibility bothered him. While Leia looked on, he struggled, fighting to contain his anxieties over how easy it would have been to turn him to the Dark Side of the Force at that point. It was just as Yoda and Ben had predicted. He should have listened to them. Doubt again accosted him, leaving him panting in his effort to hold back the flood.
It was Leia who rescued him from himself. “At least you have proof as to how important you are. The Emperor wouldn't want you if he thought you weren't a threat. Your abilities must be substantial, even after only two months of training.” Luke's shrug conceded that she had a point. “Han on the other hand... he was instantly deemed 'expendable.'”
Again Luke rested a hand on hers, this time in instinctive comfort. “We'll get him back, Leia, I promise.”
Leia swallowed once more, tears again swimming in her eyes for just a second. Then she seemed to straighten without really moving a muscle, asking in a steady voice, “So, what kind of skills do you have that Palpatine prizes so much?”
Barely a breath later, Luke vaulted out of his seat to the ceiling, where he caught hold of any hand grip he could find, then flipped over backwards, landing on the floor again a heartbeat later. Leia had only blinked once during the entire exhibition.
Luke calmly resumed his seat. “That's how I avoided being carbonized myself in a one way trip to the Emperor.”
Leia's brows went up. “Impressive.”
That's exactly what his father's opinion had been of that move. Luke again felt the urge to throw up at just the thought of the relationship he shared with Vader. He knew it was true that he couldn't help who his father was, and that it was also true that he wasn't his father, and wouldn't necessarily follow in his footsteps. Yet, he feared that there was enough darkness in him to turn him into a Vader replica that would make the Emperor proud. It was his worst fear, and now the worry nearly overwhelmed him; he was panting again in seconds.
To distract himself from his thoughts, he said, “What I don't understand is since we know that Vader is looking for me to gift-wrap for his Emperor, why don't we just assume that I'll have to face him again at Jabba's Palace?”
Fortunately for Luke, the princess was already shaking her head no. “Vader doesn't consider Han to be of any importance, especially now that he's just a wall decoration. Who would rescue a decoration? Besides, Boba Fett is with Han at Jabba's Palace; his reputation is that he can handle anybody with ease, including you. You'll just be another bounty for him. Is the fact that he's there going to be a problem?”
Luke thoughtfully shook his head. “Boba Fett must be a good bounty hunter, or else he wouldn't still be alive. But even though I only saw him for a moment at Cloud City, I didn't get the impression that he's particularly Force sensitive. I should be able to handle him in spite of his fighting skills.”
“We shouldn't underestimate him, though,” Leia cautioned. “There must be a reason that Vader has so much faith in him.”
“If I'm not mistaken, he's prone to disintegrations, isn't he?”
“That's what he's known for, and I don't want you to give him his one lucky shot, either. It's more important to the Rebellion that you stay alive, not that Han gets rescued, as much as it pains me to say it.”
“I'm no more important than Han is,” Luke instantly contradicted.
“Yes, you are. You're more important to the war effort than Han is, than Lando, than I am.”
“You're wrong, Leia. The Rebel Alliance would be nothing without you, and Han is...”
“He's a good pilot, and has helped us out a number of times. But unfortunately, that's where it ends. He's gruff, irascible, contentious, argumentative... I won't kid myself; as a soldier, I know that his life isn't worth the price we'll most likely pay on this rescue mission.”
Luke's look turned gentle. “What does your heart tell you?”
“My heart...” There, Leia paused, at last declaring, “My heart shouldn't have anything to do with this.”
The princess swallowed uncomfortably, then confessed, “I might live if didn't make every effort to get him back, but I'd... die inside.” She turned bleak eyes onto Luke. “Every morning I remind myself that one life can't possibly be worth this much. But... at the same time... Han's is.”
A full-fledged smile overtook Luke. “And that is the difference between you and The Emperor.”
There wasn't a member of the Alliance able to lie well enough to fool the Force sensitive Luke into thinking that the afternoon's training sessions were anything but a disaster.
The first thing Luke did was give each of his recruits a blaster set on 'stun' and take them to the hold set up as a blaster range. Then he stood back while his command tried to shoot their way into the simulation he and Lando had created of Jabba's Palace in order to rescue Han.
Without a definite plan, they were doomed to failure, as Luke had expected, but they did more than just fail. Luke's innocent desire to impress on his recruits the ideas that they needed a definite plan and leader backfired so badly that his command fell to squabbling among themselves, leaving them wide open to an attack from Jabba's Gammorian guards. One by one, they were all picked off in a matter of seconds.
“What did we learn from this attack?” Luke inquired as soon as the simulation disappeared, light again flooding the ship's hold.
“That none of us can shoot straight,” one soldier immediately announced.
“That Baveer can't shoot straight,” another retorted.
“I'm not named 'Baveer.' It's Narla,” came the Baveer inhabitant's irritated reply.
“This is the Rebellion; get used to nicknames.”
Baveer belligerently infiltrated his personal space. “I didn't know that joining the Rebellion would be nothing but...”
“Calm down!” Luke broke in, hoping his forceful admonishment came off like a suggestion rather than a command. “If it's any consolation, I have the nickname 'Saber Boy.' What's more important is...”
“Saber Boy?” The recruit's perplexed voice illustrated his doubt. “How is that any kind of nick name?”
Another recruit answered before Luke could assuage the disbelief. “I bet it was because you carried a lightsaber.”
A third one replied, “You earned it, though, not like Baveer, who just stands there, shooting.”
Willing to say just about anything to head off the temper that he could see brewing in Baveer's eyes, Luke gamely replied, “Sure, I carried a lightsaber. I sometimes practiced with it. More often, I whipped it out for any excuse to show off. So yeah, you could say that I earned my nickname... but Baveer is a better shot than I was when I first joined up.” Whether his admittance was true or not wasn't important. One remark from him was all it took to boost a soldier's confidence enough to make a difference, and that's what he considered being a leader was all about.
A lying leader... that wasn't very Jedi of him. Luke gave an internal groan, but resolutely ignored his thoughts in order to return to the simulation. “As I was saying, I want you to...”
“Where is your lightsaber?” Baveer questioned then in a burst of misplaced curiosity. “I'd think that a Jedi would always carry one, just in case.”
“I...” Luke let his voice trail off. Once again, with no input from him, he recalled the way that Vader had so easily sliced off his hand, showing no remorse in the action. The hand, lightsaber included, had tumbled directly into the Cloud City reactor core as pain quickly consumed Luke. Vader had simply stood there and watched Luke's following one-handed struggles, wanting only for his son to renounce his life's goals and join him in darkness.
Luke fought the nausea that instantly churned his stomach at that thought, instinctively breathing deeply through his nose in the calming meditations that Master Yoda had taught him.
It was a pity that Yoda hadn't taught him how to better retain his lightsaber, instead. Then these meditation techniques wouldn't be necessary.
Baveer quietly watched him, ignorant of his struggles. “You..?” she eventually prompted.
Feeling slow and slightly numb, Luke finally gathered his wits enough to softly inform, “I... lost it.”
“You..?” Baveer began, incredulity slicing through her voice, but another recruit cut her off.
“We should get back to the Gammorians.”
Luke made a monumental effort to redirect his wandering attention back onto the training session. “Yes. You could say that we learned something today, didn't we?” But despite his efforts, his voice still held a tinge of vagueness.
The vagary didn't seem to affect the soldiers one bit. “It's a lot harder to hit a moving target than I thought,” one young woman said. “I did better than I expected, but Baveer lasted longer.” She turned in the direction of the Rim inhabitant. “What did you do?”
Baveer seemed only too happy to impart her knowledge. “I pretended it was a craw in a haller attack.”
The first soldier's exasperation was extreme. “Well, as I've never even seen a craw, to say nothing of a haller attack, that's hardly helpful. Tell me what you did.”
“I predicted the guards' possible movements,” Baveer testily told her. “It just makes sense that someone who doesn't want to get shot will move fast, and the only directions it can move depends on where it's standing. I made sure to back as many guards as I could against a wall or a large rock so that it could only move in three directions. If I was really good, I backed it into a corner, leaving me with a 50/50 chance of hitting it.” Her shrug indicated that all of these moves had been child's play. “I set my gun to wide dispersal beam, and fired in the guards' general direction. That's all.”
By now, Luke was much more in control of his actions, and felt better able to lead the session once more. Yet he knew that his reaction hadn't been very Jedi of him any more than his earlier lying had been.
Not that he could have helped that reaction, either. Talk about a nasty no-win situation! At this rate, nothing about him would be remotely like a Jedi by noon tomorrow!
With one mighty mental shove, Luke again took command of the training exercise. “It's just like she said: shooting at a moving target is a lot harder than shooting at an animal that just stands there waiting to be shot.” He pointedly eyed his soldiers, giving him another second to more fully push away his unpleasant memories. “No opponent will ever make it easy to kill him, or even overcome him. You have to out think him. Or, if using Han's first rule of any confrontation, you outtalk them... but since Gammorians don't do much more than grunt, talking will be overrated on this mission.” Laughter erupted throughout the room, though Luke hadn't meant to be funny. “We'd better learn to shoot straight instead.”
* * *
He next ran them through the flight simulator to determine their flying skills. They took seats at nineteen of the thirty chairs fronted by computers running the simulation programs while Luke positioned himself beside the main computer at the front of the room. Despite the fact that several of them maneuvered a simulated X-wing better than they performed at a simulated ground assault, they were still all wiped out before landing even one soldier anywhere near the simulation of Jabba's Palace.
“This isn't real,” one man claimed the moment they were done. “Pitting simulated X-wings against simulated gun emplacements isn't like shooting up real TIE fighters.”
Luke couldn't restrain his snort of humor. “You'd have lasted half the time if this had been a TIE fighter attack.”
“I still say this isn't a fair test of our skills,” the soldier stubbornly argued.
The first retort that came to Luke's mind was 'Life isn't fair; get used to it!' But he couldn't keep thoughts of his own unfair parental problem from once again surging to the front of his mind. At the same time, he knew that he couldn't go on feeling like he was constantly sick with who he was... or even with who he thought he was.
Logically, Luke knew that Vader was likely to have said whatever was necessary to obtain his objective, so he couldn't entirely believe what Vader had claimed at Cloud City. This new idea left him trembling in relief. Yet, his feelings told him that he couldn't completely discount what the Dark Lord had said, either. He wanted to ask Yoda or Ben if Vader's claim was true, but was simultaneously scared to ask either of them. What if they told him 'yes?'
But if he couldn't ask, then how did he stop feeling like this? In order to end this circle of doubt, would he just have to get used to the idea, whether he liked it or not? Was it like he'd told Leia at lunch an hour ago: that he didn't need to agree with it, just accept it?
Luke held his second snort inside: he didn't think he would ever accept the idea that Darth Vader was his father! In fact, he was quite sure that he didn't want to accept it.
He focused again on his soldiers to distract him, and that was when a new idea hit him. Without indicating that he'd been at all lost in thought, he declared, “All right, if you want to experience a real TIE fighter attack, I'll run a simulation. Stay in the simulator chairs while I re-program the computer.”
Moments later, Luke called, “Get ready... here they come!” And he started the best simulation of a TIE attack that he could find in the computer's archives.
His squad lasted thirteen seconds.
“We weren't ready!”
“I'll run another one,” Luke gamely replied. “Get ready.” He magnanimously gave them a minute to prepare themselves, though he knew that a true Imperial attack would do no such thing. “Go!”
They lasted thirty seconds this time.
“An improvement. Let's see if we can make it to forty seconds.”
Something must have made an impression on them, for the last X-wing blew up as the timer landed on fifty seconds.
“But you're not telling us how to improve,” one soldier objected. “You must have survived a hundred TIE fighter attacks; what should we do?”
“Relax,” Luke said. “Remember to breathe. I bet you're all holding your breath when you fire each shot. Holding your breath makes you subconsciously focus on your breathing, not your firing. Ignore yourself and relax into the controls.”
This was working. He was no longer thinking about his parents' claims, real or imagined. His entire focus was on his soldiers, where the advice he'd just given had nothing to do with their objective of rescuing Han, but must have done some good, for they lasted over a minute this time.
“But we'll be up against Gammorians,” one soldier argued. “Shouldn't we try going up against them?”
“Don't try; do,” Luke immediately reminded. “If you only try, your brain will know that you only have to try, and then you won't give it your all, and you'll fail. If you fail, you die. In real life, there are no second chances.”
“Can you go back to the program where we fly to Jabba's Palace, and then we'll get in from there?” Revi asked. “Those Gammorians don't stand a chance!”
Luke doubted this, but held his silence. “I'll reprogram the simulator again. Wait a minute.” He linked back to the simulation of Jabba's Palace. “All right.”
“Let's do it,” Baveer dictated. “Nando, you're in charge. Lead us in.”
“All right, Nando, you lead the squad,” Luke said in hidden amusement as to their chances, all the while wondering who Nando was.
A second later, one of the soldiers raised his hand. “All right, I'm Nando. Can you give me a different colored uniform, or something that shows I'm in charge?”
Luke liked the way this group of previously separate recruits was coming together to act like a cohesive unit without a single word of input from him. He had been a squad leader long enough to know that he shouldn't comment on it, though. He should just let it happen. “Stormtroopers wear a red shoulder epaulet to show command,” Luke noted. “How about that?”
“Ech! Let's not do what stormtroopers do! How about a bright red sash?”
“Good idea, Revi! Let's go with that.”
“A bright red sash equals squad commander,” Luke agreed, and keyed the command into the computer. “Nando, there's your sash. Everybody see it?”
Nineteen heads nodded.
“All right,” Luke called. “Then get ready!”
“Wait! What's our objective?”
Good; they were thinking about objectives already. “You're objective is to last as long as possible.”
“That's not much help,” Baveer argued.
“Stay low,” Nando instructed before Luke could utter a word. “Keep your head down. Keep moving. We have a Jedi to get inside. Let's do it!”
They sound like an Imperial recruitment vid, Luke thought.
“You sound like an Imperial Vid,” Baveer noted aloud.
“Can't help sounding like what I've been seeing all my life,” Nando argued back.
Baveer prompted, “You're from..?”
For a second, Luke let the surprise wash over him. “Edner Prime? That's been under Imperial control longer than I've been alive. How did you escape from being sent to the mines or nearest Imperial Academy?”
“I didn't. I was strongly 'encouraged' to join up with the Empire when I was sixteen, just like all the others. And I'll admit it, I was a stormtrooper,” Nando replied. “Then one day Teeno convinced me to jump ship with him at Camla, and here we are.”
“Wow!” another soldier said. “You went to the Academy? How long were you a stormtrooper? You ever been on Toosha? Troopers wiped out what family I had on Toosha.”
An uncomfortable silence immediately fell over the group.
Oh boy, how did we get on to this? But Luke knew just how to defuse possible Trooper Hate. Instead of mentioning how his aunt and uncle had died, he told them, “My best friend from Tatooine went to the Academy, then jumped ship to join the Rebellion. His name was Biggs Darklighter.”
Baveer was quick. “He died at the Battle of Yavin.”
“You were at the Battle of Yavin?”
“The Battle of Yavin was years ago,” Luke objected. “Let's keep our minds on what we're doing.”
But it was no good. Before he knew it, someone brought up the Death Star. “Did you know the guy who destroyed the Death Star?”
“Yeah, wasn't his name something like yours?” asked a soldier that Luke didn't know yet. “Starkiller, or something like that?”
“I thought it was Runwalker.”
“No, my grandma always said that it was Spacewalker.”
“I heard that it was Sunwalker.
“No, it had something to do with the sky.”
“Are you sure it was a Walker? What about a Runner?”
Luke was amazed at how varied the stories were. “Most of you were awfully young when the Death Star was destroyed. How do you even know about it?”
“Everyone knows about the destruction of the Death Star!” Teeno declared from one of the back simulator seats. “It's famous!”
“Yeah, we've even heard about it on Edner Prime.”
“But Edner Prime is an Imperial world,” Luke noted. “The Death Star was an Imperial outpost. In fact, it was the Imperial outpost. How did you hear about it?”
Nando shrugged. “We heard rumors, stuff from pilots on the Rim. The mine leaders whispered things when the Troopers were lookin' the other way. We all heard. Whoever blew it up has been a hero on Edner Prime since it happened.”
Luke knew that gloating about how he'd been the one to destroy the space station did nothing but bring on nightmares about flying through trenches that had no end. Besides, gloating wasn't a behavior worthy of a Jedi. “Enough chatter. Keep your eye...”
“What did you say your friend's name was?”
It was Baveer. Luke obviously needed to have a private word with her about not interrupting her commander. But the simulation room wasn't a particularly private place, so he answered the question, making a mental note that he should talk to the girl at a later time. “It was Biggs Darklighter. We lost a lot of good pilots that day. The man we're rescuing played a big role in that battle, so we owe it to him to...”
“That was Han Solo?”
Baveer again. Luke really needed to talk to her. “I told you that he'd helped out the Rebellion a number of times. You're rescuing the hero of Yavin.” He didn't want to gloat about his own hero status, but he had no trouble gloating about Han's.
“Did he really use the glare of the sun to confuse Imperial censors, and that was how he shot up a whole squad of TIE fighters?”
“I heard it was only one TIE fighter.”
“Yeah, but it was a Dark Lord's TIE fighter!”
“Did Biggs fight with him?”
“I bet the Rebellion tried to take that Dark Lord prisoner!”
“You don't just take a Dark Lord prisoner.”
“What do you know about it? Ever seen a Dark Lord?”
“No, and I don't want to, either!”
Nando admitted, “I saw a Dark Lord kill a man when I was a stormtrooper.”
“Really?! What was it like?”
Now Nando had a green cast to the edges of his face, and looked like he wished he'd kept his mouth shut. “It was awful. I've never felt so helpless.” Nando grimaced. “I don't want to talk about it.” His simulation computer suddenly became fascinating.
This was why Luke never mentioned anything about his earlier conquests; a lot of his good memories were attached to some very bad ones.
After another moment, Nando spoke again. “All I know is that whoever blew up that Death Star did the right thing. Teeno was almost assigned to the place, and would have been there when it blew, but his assignment changed at the last minute.”
“And boy, am I glad about that!” Teeno enthused. “I wouldn't want to go up against these Rebel pilots! You can tell that they've had really good training!”
Luke's lips curved up ever so slightly as he crossed his arms and leaned against the side of the simulation computer, waiting for them to remember that he was even there.
It was a good thing that Luke had found a comfortable position, for the conversation continued to swirl back and forth as the simulators, the reason for the simulations, as well as the commander of the squad were all completely forgotten in lieu of a sincere and deep discussion of what Han's role really had been at Yavin.
Luke's remorseful sigh quietly disappeared into the general babble. Yes, he ruminated, they clearly have a long way to go.
Four months later:
It had been months, and except for the recruits' skills, which had improved immeasurably, not much had personally changed for Luke. His time was spent between the simulation room, Jedi practice in the reserve hangar, and his quarters, where he fell into bed every night, but fretted instead of sleeping. Thankfully, no one had figured out his parental problem yet, nor had they pegged him as less than Jedi material. He was once again a hero in the Rebel fleet for facing Darth Vader and living to tell about it, and that caused many more problems than he'd ever anticipated.
He couldn't walk into a public dining room without experiencing every person in the room growing suddenly quiet and staring at him with almost rude avidity. He had trouble taking his X-wing out of the main hangar because so many people kept crowding around the ship that he was afraid to start the engines lest someone get burned. He couldn't even walk down the corridors without being stopped eight or ten times by someone wanting to fawn over 'Jedi Skywalker.' It hadn't been this bad even when he'd blown up the Death Star. The fact that he was still plagued by doubts as to his abilities with the Force had become icing on a very bitter cake.
Then it turned out that his student soldier, Teeno, was in fact an Imperial Agent sent by none other than Lord Vader himself. Luke had been forced to kill him in a very brutish final stand off. But before he could stop him, Teeno had announced over the shipwide PA system that it was odd how Luke Skywalker was never seen with his lightsaber, but that's right! It had disappeared when Vader had cut off Luke's right hand. Now all anyone did was stare at his hand to see if they could tell if it was a prosthetic or not. It gave him a very un-Jedi-like perverse satisfaction to use his right hand as much as possible so that everyone could get a good long look at it. He always gave a very sarcastic glare at anyone he caught staring at it, as if to ask what their problem was, but later decided that behavior wasn't very Jedi of him, either, as so little was.
It was then that he realized that becoming a Jedi wasn't so much a destination as a way of life, a mode of behavior, a symbol much like that of Leia's royalty. He slowly reached a much better appreciation for what Leia endured on a daily basis.
The Teeno problem kept his attention off his Jedi status for several days in a row, but other than that, he spent most of his time worrying about things he couldn't control, the most important being the Force.
It seemed like the harder he tried to control the Force, the harder it became to control any part of it. He felt as if he was moving further and further away from becoming a Jedi every day. Had he even met Master Yoda? It all seemed more like a half remembered dream than the events of the last year.
To counteract this sense of disconnection, he began keeping a record of every bit of wisdom that Yoda had ever told him, but it didn't help. Yoda had said that Luke would eventually be afraid, and he had been right: Luke was very afraid that his struggle with the Force was a lost cause. It was the same struggle he had with the idea that Darth Vader was his father. Both worries kept him awake at night, and trapped in dreams so bad they made him slick with sweat when he was unlucky enough to fall asleep.
Finally he realized that the soldiers under his command had sucked close to all the potential they could out of the simulations. It would soon be time to take them to Tatooine where they would have to do a careful reconnaissance of Jabba's Palace. He felt it was necessary to take all nineteen of them, and Princess Leia concurred. She did her best to stay away from Luke's command, but in this, her opinion was very definite.
“They all need to know what the place looks like, though for the inside recon, we can keep using the video that Major Derlin made. Besides, this will give you a chance to visit all your old haunts: doesn't Jabba live fairly close to the farm where you grew up?”
“If the other side of the Jundland wastes from my Uncle's farm is 'fairly close,' then yes. But I warn you, the Jundland wastes is a huge sea of sand and rocks and Tusken Raiders and Jawas and the occasional Sand Crawler, and not much else. It's just a big bunch of nothing.” Much like Tatooine itself.
“Maybe, and maybe not,” Leia announced. “Everything in our memory seems huge until we actually see it with our own eyes.”
“You might be interested to know that the Jundland wastes is where I first met Ben. He rescued me from becoming the next meal for two Tusken Raiders.”
“Rescued you?” Leia looked perplexed, as if she didn't understand how Luke Skywalker could ever need rescuing. “How did he do that? I don't think I've heard this story.”
That was funny; Luke thought he'd told Leia everything there was to know about himself. “Ben pretended to be a dragon,” Luke recalled now, a fond smile creasing his face.
Leia looked doubtful. “A dragon?”
“Scared those Tuskens half to death. He would have scared me, too, but I was unconscious at the time. Threepio fell down a sand dune and lost an arm. He wanted us to leave him there, saying that he was 'done for,' but neither of us paid any attention to what he wanted; Tusken Raiders are unpleasant even to droids. But for a droid who was done for, Threepio sure has been busy talking ever since.”
Leia actually laughed. “Yes, talking in six million different languages.”
Luke was thrilled to have made the princess laugh out loud. “I thought it was six million forms of communication.”
“Doesn't 'communication' just mean 'language?'”
Luke thought back to the way he'd learned to read Master Yoda's emotions just by the tilt of his ears. “I think there are more ways to communicate than just six million, and they don't all have to do with language.”
Leia grinned again. “I'd ask Threepio about it, but I don't want to endure the lecture that's sure to follow.”
Luke's chuckle rang out. “Right. Threepio does love a good lecture.
“Especially if he's the one giving it.”
Luke again gave a light laugh, noting that the earlier burst of enjoyment from Leia had already faded into a smile that was only marginally larger than the closed-lipped version that had passed for amusement for the princess ever since Han had...
Clearing his throat to ward off thoughts of being frozen in carbonite, and fates worse than death, Luke thoughtfully regarded the princess. “Actually, Leia, I do want to talk to you. Do you have a minute?”
The merriment immediately left Leia's face. “What do you need to talk about?”
Luke's own wan smile made up for the one she'd lost. “Well, it isn't about Threepio. You know that I've been practicing the Jedi training that I learned all those months ago.”
“Yes. I hear about how thrilled Captain Lewis is that you're using the reserve hangar bay every time I see him.” Leia's previous amusement had turned wry. “But how can I help? I don't know about being a Jedi or using the Force.”
Not for the first time, Luke wondered if Leia knew more about the Force than she was letting on. He clearly remembered the way he'd called to her while dangling one-handed from the bottom of Cloud City after his encounter with Vader. At the time, he'd accorded her positive response to his own abilities, but on later reflection, questioned if he'd been centered enough at the time to be heard by a non-Force-sensitive individual. His thoughts had caused him to look at Leia in a new light, but for the most part, she seemed like the same princess he'd known for years.
But again, this didn't really matter. He was once more getting sidetracked. It had happened so often lately, it was almost as if he did it on purpose. Luke focused once more on what he wanted from the princess. “The hangar space is perfect, but what I need from you now is...” How to phrase this? “I'm at a point where I need to practice using the Force to do the things that I didn't learn in training. I saw Ben make a few unusual moves, and I've copied them as best I could, but I know there are some moves that I haven't even seen. Only thing is, I don't know anyone who uses the Force except Vader.” Who is NOT my father if I don't want him to be. "I've practiced every way that Vader used the Force that I ever saw, but most of what I saw was in battle, and I admit that I wasn't exactly paying close attention. You, though...” Luke swallowed, knowing that he was probably forcing bad memories to the surface for Leia, but desperate enough to risk doing so. “You've seen Vader up close. You know what he can do. Can you think of anything?"
Luke expected Leia to either instantly dissolve into a myriad of traumatic emotions, or at the very least, beg time to think about what he was asking of her. He certainly hadn't anticipated her to immediately suggest a possibility. “Something you didn't see was what he did when he captured us at Cloud City.” A far off look invaded Leia's eyes, and Luke knew that she was reliving the scene in all its nuances. A spasm made her left cheek twitch, but that was her only reaction. “The minute we saw him in the dining room, Han fired his blaster straight at him, but none of the shots came even close to hitting him.”
“How's that possible? Han's an excellent shot. Are you sure Vader didn't dodge them?”
“He might have,” Leia admitted. “Han did push me behind him, and I might have missed something.” Her head shake negated what she was saying. “But I don't think so.”
“Then how did he get away?” Luke wondered. “Did he grab away Han's blaster?”
Leia nodded, that far off look still in her eyes. “Eventually. Before that, he used some kind of invisible shield.”
Luke's brows puckered. “A shield?”
“He held up his hand, and the blaster bolts just ricocheted off his hand and into the walls. It happened so fast that at first I wasn't sure what I was seeing.” Leia now squeezed her eyes shut in concentration. “The bolts just... didn't go where Han wanted them to. Then Vader pulled the blaster right out of Han's hand from all the way across the room.” She opened her eyes, her gaze trained on him. “I've only ever seen you do something like that.”
Luke felt instantly uncomfortable with even a periphery comparison to Darth Vader. “He held up his hand, like this?” He lifted his hand, palm up and open.
“No,” Leia objected, “it was like this.” She quickly demonstrated by holding her arm straight out in front of her, hand up. “It was almost like he was telling the blaster bolts to stop. They hit some kind of shield, and fell... somewhere.”
“He didn't use a lightsaber to deflect them?”
“No, I'm sure he didn't; I would have heard its hum. He just looked at us and...” She shuddered. “Sorry, I...” She couldn't finish, but instead sank into the nearest chair. “Are we ever going to get Han back, Luke?” she suddenly asked in a plaintive voice that Luke would never associate with the indomitable princess. “I'm never going to see him again, am I?”
Luke knelt beside her chair and soothingly announced, “Of course you are. I won't stop until we've done everything I can think of. I'll even trade myself for him if I have to. Surely a Jedi must be worth something.”
Leia almost smiled at hearing that. “But you said yourself that you're not a Jedi.”
Luke's own smile made up for her lack of one. “Jabba doesn't have to know that.”
Leia responded with a throaty laugh.
“See,” Luke said. “I'm already worth more than I thought possible.”
Now Leia's gaze was affectionately irritated. “I already made that case; I won't go into your worth again. But do you think a frontal assault is the best thing to do?”
Luke sat back on his heels, surprised. “Do you have another idea?”
Leia sighed. “No. I just have a bad feeling about this, and I can't shake it off.”
“We'll get him out, even if we have to carry him from Jabba's Palace still in the carbonite. Lando's giving me a crash course in thawing him even as we speak.”
Leia's wan smile was his reward for his lame joke. “It just seems to be taking so long to train your recruits.”
Luke sighed. “I know. But I want to give them as much hope of surviving this as I can. If we do this right, we'll get out alive. But doing it right takes time. Please be patient.”
“Always,” Leia whispered, sitting back, determination renewed. “You'll do this right; of that I have no doubt.”
* * *
Despite Leia's faith in him and his abilities, Luke wasn't able to produce anything close to the type of shield that Leia had described. His first attempt was laughable and had the Yoda in his head sighing mournfully at his ineptitude. The hydrospanners that the princess had tossed at him lay at his feet where they had fallen, quickly joined by a lead pipe, three wrenches, and a catalytic drill.
“Maybe you shouldn't try so hard,” Leia suggested. “Are you supposed to be frowning like that when using the Force?”
Luke became aware of his frown of concentration for the first time. As he felt it, he considered how his imaginary Yoda would be looking just then: not pleased!
Yet Luke's frown became deeper as his puzzlement grew. “I want to be able to shield all of us if I have to, so I need to work at this until that's what I can do.” His groan spoke to his mounting frustration. “Throw something else at me.”
Leia next tossed a set of wire clamps at him.
The clamps didn't even hesitate before careening right into him. “Ow!”
“I'm sorry! I didn't mean to..”
“No, that's okay. If I just did this right, there'd be no need to apologize.” Luke's second sigh was even more frustrated. “I must be doing something wrong.”
“Maybe if you relax, it'll work fine.”
Luke grimaced; even Leia knew that he had to relax. “All right, try again.”
She chose a small piece off the wing of a nearby ship of unfamiliar configuration this time. It also sailed right at him, clipping him on his outstretched hand.
The groan that Luke produced sounded positively annoyed. “Again.”
Leia tossed a Rebel flight helmet. In spite of Luke thinking stop! with as much energy as possible, it still bounced off his leg.
Luke kicked the helmet to bang against the landing strut of the closest ship. “Why isn't this working?”
Without giving Luke a chance to regroup, Leia immediately yanked her blaster from its hip holster and pumped four shots towards Luke in quick succession.
Luke instinctively raised his hand in a warding motion, and before he knew it, deflected the bolts into the walls, the floor, the ship, and right back at Leia, who dropped to the floor as fast as she could. The blaster bolts left smoking holes the length of a Wookie's foot everywhere. Horrified, Luke ran to help Leia to her feet. “I'm so sorry! I might have hit you!”
Leia allowed him to help her up. “Don't worry; I'm all right.” But she stopped dusting herself off to stare at the wreckage she'd just helped cause. “It was supposed to be set for 'stun.'”
Both she and Luke gaped at the smoking holes in surprise. “Oops,” Luke said in the biggest understatement of this life. Smoke curled serenely out of a hole in the nearest Y-wing fighter. “We're lucky I didn't hit the fuselage.”
The impact of what he'd just done hit Luke then. “Hey, I did it!”
“You did,” Leia agreed, still astounded. “How did it feel?”
“It felt...” Luke paused to consider. “Wrong.”
That triggered Leia's disbelief. “Wrong? After you tried so hard, it still felt wrong?”
Luke sank onto a nearby workbench, scattering tools as he sat, hardly aware of what he was doing. Beads of greasy sweat popped out on his forehead. “I can't describe it, Leia. It just felt... wrong. Off. Harmful, maybe.” In truth, what he felt reminded him of the oily itch he always experienced when his father was nearby. “I wasn't protecting so much as deflecting. If I'd hit you...” Trembling, Luke leaned his head down between his knees as nausea overwhelmed him. “Han would never forgive me. I would never forgive myself.”
She placed a soothing hand on his back, rubbing in comforting circles. “It was an accident, Luke. You can't be blamed for something you did on instinct.”
The way it had seemed so natural was the most disturbing aspect of it. “That's the problem.” He stared fixedly at his right hand, aware of the grinding of gears and clicks of motors on an entirely new level. Utterly horrified, he realized what this truly meant; he was slowly turning into his father in spite of everything he could possibly do to prevent it. Like a disease, the Dark Side was gaining ground every time he used the Force for anything.
Sickened, teeth tightly clenched against blossoming panic, Luke grunted, “Let's not do that again.”
Strong, ambient light flooded the transport's cockpit in a welcoming yellow hue.
Luke instinctively knew that the welcoming feel attached to that yellow glow was false. Tatooine was as welcoming as the typical stormtrooper. He had felt more at home on Dagobah.
Idle now, he watched as Lando expertly piloted the craft around an escarpment prior to landing. The Rebel transport hovered for a moment, then settled gently onto the hot surface of the planet. Sand swirled along the ship's hull and landing struts, and Luke couldn't resist holding his breath for just a moment as the ship carrying the nineteen new recruits as well as himself, the princess, Lando, and Chewie, came to a final stop. Before he knew it, Lando had powered down the engine.
“Jabba's Palace is a half mile that way. I have the cloaking device on, but who knows how long we actually have before we're seen. We have to move fast.”
They did. They were in and out in under an hour.
They climbed back into the transport in near silence. The door clanged shut, the engine powered up, and cool air pumped through the ventilation system. No one spoke, but the collective sigh of relief echoed throughout the compartment nonetheless.
Luke was the first to break that quiet. “I only hope that we've caught everything important on video. We need these images to make new simulations.”
“If we add this to the video that Major Derlin made of the palace's inside...”
“Han's as good as rescued.” Luke couldn't hide his grin. It was spooky how well things had gone. The Gammorian guards who were supposed to be on duty hadn't had an inkling of their presence. They hadn't made so much as an unexplained ripple on the sensors. Luke told himself that he should be more suspicious, more paranoid, on the lookout for trouble, but he just couldn't dredge up any enthusiasm for it.
Sailing on the high of success, something he hadn't experienced in a long time, Luke leaned over the back of the chair in front of him to talk to Lando. “What do you think if I ask a friend of mine to borrow his landspeeder to take a quick look at Ben's old hut while we're refilling our water reserves at Anchorhead?”
Lando looked surprised by Luke's request even if Leia didn't. “Ben's hut? There can't be anything of value left in that hut. Surely the scavengers have got it all by now.” Lando's nose wrinkled in puzzlement. “Are you sure you want to go there?”
Luke nodded. “I'm sure. This is too good of an opportunity to lose. Besides, the things I'm looking for aren't of value to anybody but me. There's a good chance that I'll find something there that everybody else has overlooked.”
“I have no objections,” Lando spluttered, “but your friend might. This friend might not even be in Anchorhead anymore. For that matter, Ben's hut might not be there anymore.”
Luke gazed at the endless sand flowing under the transport as it edged ever closer to the familiar town of Anchorhead. “It's there,” he softly announced, confident. “I can feel it, almost like it's calling to me.”
“What if it's one of those Tusken things calling to you?” Lando asked, wary. “Do you think it's a good idea, you going off alone? We should all stick together, shouldn't we?”
Luke peered at the pirate turned administrator turned Rebel. “I thought you said you didn't have any objections. Now you're objecting anyway?”
Lando heaved a sigh. “You're a hot commodity, Luke. I have no problem with you sticking your neck out alone, but if you get into trouble...”
Luke did everything but roll his eyes. “I won't get into trouble. I did grow up here, you know.”
Lando prepared the craft for landing at Anchorhead as the jumble of buildings grew ever closer. “As long as you're sure.”
“Princess? Do you have any objections?”
Blinking, Leia pulled herself out of a deep fog. “What?”
Luke chuckled. “Nothing. You were lost in thought.”
Leia's lips curled upward. “I suppose there are a lot worse things I could be lost in.”
“Trash compactors come to mind,” Luke sarcastically commented.
“Luke wants to go to Ben's hut for a look around,” Lando told her.
Leia glanced at Luke. “Do you expect to find something?”
Luke shrugged. “You never know. But all this hinges on if my friend in Anchorhead let's me borrow his landspeeder. If he won't, I might have to rent a landspeeder of some kind, or maybe a bike.” He grinned. “Maybe even an X-wing.”
Leia's lips curved even more. “If you have to use a TIE fighter, I want a picture.”
“Picture? Give me a holocon!” Lando glanced devilishly over his shoulder at Luke. Whirling back around before Luke could say anything, he concentrated on keeping the transport from rocking too much in the severe crosswind as he landed. Sand whirled as the craft settled for the second time that day. Hot air blasted through the already opened hatch.
“Welcome home,” Leia muttered to Luke as she passed by on her way into the unforgiving Tatooine sunshine.
Home. Neither Anchorhead nor Tatooine had been 'home' for years. Yet there was a familiar pull to the planet that Luke couldn't deny, as much as he wanted to.
He slowly followed the princess out the open hatch, taking everything in, alarmed at how much smaller things seemed. Lando led the group of recruits to the public water well in the center of town while Luke studied the long, low building where he'd spent most of his youth.
The station appeared not to have changed since he'd left. There was still that same hulk of an old speeder slowly decaying to one side, the wind blasting it bit by bit with sand so that the hull looked like someone had gouged it with a pick. Sand had begun to slowly eat away at the tinted canopy. Dunes crawled up the side of the building, obscuring it in shadow, and only the front entrance was kept clear of the perpetual sand. Luke knew that droids swept the offending sand away twice a day in order to make the place appear that little bit more welcoming.
Luke entered, but froze the moment he crossed the threshold, immediately overwhelmed by the familiar smell of engine oil and dirt. Now that he was inside, he couldn't move an inch, even if his life depended on it.
“There somethin' I can do for you?” came a voice from behind a desk.
Now Luke's gaze focused on the male mechanic that the voice belonged to. He was as unkempt as his desk, and it seemed that he and the mess had reached a mutual understanding to coexist in an uneasy tolerance. “Fixer?” Luke quietly called.
At the name, the man squinted at the door haloed in sunshine. “Yeah. Who wants to know?”
At that moment, Luke's nineteen recruits pushed their way through the door, clearly finished at the town well, and ready for some down time to cool off. Someone jostled Luke from the side, propelling him out of the light of the open door and farther into the room. The movement made Fixer squint at him again, this time followed by the creased brow of amazed recognition.
“Wormie?” one of the recruits derisively echoed as he gazed at Luke. “I thought your nickname was Saber Boy.”
“It is,” Luke responded without thinking.
“So what's with this Wormie stuff?”
Luke almost answered, but stopped himself at the last minute, realizing what an explanation would most likely conjur. He really didn't want to get involved in memories of the past just now. “Long story,” he said instead of embarking on the expected explanation.
The man slowly rose, negligently tossing a rag aside that he'd been using to polish an engine part. He walked purposely around the desk, stopping only when he was a foot from Luke, that look of recognition still in his squinted eyes. In spite of the recognition, he didn't say hello to his old friend, but instead declared, “You owe me twenty, if I'm not mistaken, including interest.”
A smile gradually crept over Luke's face. “Same old Fixer.”
An assessing look swept Luke from head to toe. “Same old Wormie, in spite of that Death Star thing.”
“Death Star?” It was Nando whose suspicions now cracked through the commotion of his fellow recruits gathered around the gaming table in the instrument room in back.
Fixer blinked away his surprise. “You mean he didn't tell you? This here's the heeeeero of Tatooine. Blew that Death thing straight to... um... death, from what I hear.” To Luke he asked, “You come back just to gloat about it one more time?”
Before Luke could answer, the princess interjected, “Luke's far too mature to gloat. He let's me do it for him.” She held out her hand to Fixer. “I'm Leia. Luke has told me all about you.”
Fixer wiped his hand on his none-too-clean trouser leg before enveloping Leia's hand in his own. “Woo-hoo, Wormie my boy! Movin' up in the world, I see.”
That comment brought a blush to Leia's cheeks, and also broke Luke out of the nostalgic fog he'd fallen into. “Not at all,” was his casual response. “Fixer, meet Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan. Princess, this is Fixer, who never could fix a darn thing. I even had to revamp his skyhopper for him, if I recall.”
Nando interrupted. “Commander Skywalker, what's this about the Death Star?”
Luke turned to take in his recruit. “Keep that to yourself, please,” he begged. “It just gives me bad dreams.”
“Commander!” Fixer chortled. “Our little Wormie, a commander?”
“How's Camie?” Luke instantly asked to push the focus of the conversation off his rank, something else he preferred not to discuss. Considering his own feelings on the matter, perhaps it hadn't been so wise to introduce the princess by her title, but it was too late to do anything about it now.
“Camie.” Fixer's expression wavered a bit. “She's married to some rich yahoo over at Mos Eisley, last I heard.”
“Oh.” Luke was surprisingly distressed to hear this. “I thought you two were going to be an item for eternity.”
“Yeah, well, her loss.” Fixer crossed his arms, either as a move of protection from these unwelcome topics, or to project an uncaring attitude. “Deak got himself married, too, to some girl from Edner Prime.”
“Hey! That's where I'm from!” Nando exclaimed, astonished.
“And Windy?” Luke ignored Nando's amazement to inquire.
The sigh that Fixer issued gave the impression of one who was long-suffering. “He's one of them Imperials.”
Luke's own expression faltered; while this came as a surprise, it somehow wasn't surprising at all. “Oh.”
Fixer snorted. “He always was one for following orders.”
“Do you know where he's stationed?” Nando asked.
“Nope,” Fixer brusquely replied. “And I don't wanna know, either. He made it through the Academy. From there, I don't know.” He gestured at Luke with his thumb. “Not like this guy. He's...”
“Yeah, I know.” Luke grinned, belying his dry tone. “I'm the Anchorhead heeeeeero.”
A smile slowly crept over Fixer's face. “So you are. Gotta stop calling you 'Wormie,' I guess, start calling you... what was it?”
“'Saber Boy,'” Nando told him.
“Saber Boy?” Fixer grimaced in disbelief. “What kind of fool name is that?”
Before anyone had the chance to expound on his Jedi calling, Luke distracted them. “Hey Fixer, I was thinking about visiting old Ben Kenobi's home while I'm here.”
Fixer, who was quickly distracted, wrinkled his nose in distaste. “That old wizard? What for? I would think you'd want to go to the old home place.”
Luke managed a crestfallen look. “Too many... uh... no time... uh... Bad memories,” he finally said.
“General Kenobi was...” Leia began, distracting as well.
“General?” Fixer barked a laugh. “That crazy old man?”
Luke went on with his request, hoping to distract again. “I was wondering if I can borrow your landspeeder for an hour or two? That is, if you don't need it.”
Fixer gave another snort. “Need it? To go where? One of the bigger towns? They just got more of the nothin' we have here in Anchorhead. So, knock yourself out, kid.”
Whoosh! The pet name instantly brought to mind an image of Han Solo, who used to call him by the same name. The image it conjured now was stronger than any Luke had had in months. Swallowing, he forced a smile. “Thanks, Fixer. I owe you one.”
Fixer gave a grin that was alarmingly like Lando's. “Wrong, you owe me twenty. This will make it an uneven twenty-one.”
* * *
Speeding across the desert in the direction of Ben's old home at the edge of the Dune Sea caused more memories to surge in Luke's mind, memories so strong that he was completely unaware of his surroundings. Instead, he pleasantly recalled the many times that he and his friends had defied their parents' specific orders to stay out of this area, charging recklessly into it anyway. The Dune Sea had the best cliffs and rocky outcroppings for racing, and as there was very little else to do on Tatooine, the youths often found themselves among the canyons and arroyos of their forbidden fruit.
Now, Luke was amazed that they had survived their childhood more or less unscathed, considering all they had done in the name of entertainment. For one thing, they had voluntarily put themselves right in the middle of the Tusken Raiders' undisputed territory. It was a miracle they had come out of each venture into the dunes with only minimal damage to souped-up landspeeders. That wasn't taking into account all the natural racing risks they had performed just to shave that extra second off their time stats. Now that Luke was older, he could better appreciate the nervous tic his uncle had developed over the years.
Before he knew it, Luke arrived at Ben's home, and parked the landspeeder next to the remains of the domed building. He cautiously examined the surrounding environs with the Force, but found nothing organic in the vicinity. He didn't know what he expected to find here, but trusted that he would know it when he saw it.
He slowly entered the interior of the stone hut, allowing his eyes ample time to adjust to the change from bright sunshine to dark interior. Just by the slightly damp feel of the inside air, he realized the building was deserted, and had been so for some time. It was also a disastrous mess, with spare parts, useless gadgets and gizmos, bones, and pieces of abandoned furniture scattered everywhere. The entire place had been picked clean years ago. A fine coating of dust covered everything in sight.
Fortunately, Luke wasn't interested in what he could see, but in what he couldn't. If he was going to find anything of importance in this hut, Ben would have hidden it so that not just anybody could find it. Luke needed to use the Force in an unorthodox sweep of the hut and its surroundings before being satisfied that what he could see with his eyes was all that was truly left of a fascinating man.
Since his eyes revealed nothing unusual, Luke slowly scanned the front room with sensations that had been honed on a jungle planet on the other side of the galaxy. Shadows played at the edge of everything, despite the fact that it was only mid day. Luke wasn't bothered by the shadows, though. They played no part in the Force sweep he currently utilized.
Nothing was too small for his attention. He studied everything, and when he was finished with the room's remaining contents, he went on to study the walls, the floor, the ceiling. When nothing so much as a bump arrested his attention, he went on to the next room, and the next. It was luck that Ben hadn't needed much in the way of living quarters, and therefore, there weren't many rooms that made up the hut. Two short corridors connected the three rooms, and an archway made of sandblasted stone finished off the circular pattern.
Stumped, Luke stood in the middle of the front room again, feeling like he had missed something of vital importance, but unsure of where to look next. So he closed his eyes, concentrating on opening his mind that little bit more. The Force washed over him like a bath on a hot day. It wasn't unpleasant at all, and quite benign as Force sensations went. Trusting his instincts, he turned a complete circle, probing every corner of the room with his mind, concentrating on how he felt at any given moment.
This room held the most personal memories for Luke: it was the place he had first gotten to know the old hermit who would eventually change his life. He had first seen the entire message sent by Princess Leia just over there, projected by R2D2 onto that small dais of stone. He had fixed the golden droid Threepio at the workbench set up against the far wall. Most importantly, he had come to know Ben as more than just a friend and companion within these walls. Luke felt as if his life had truly begun here.
He was so lost in the haze of memory that he almost missed it. But there it was again, a tickle in the Force, a ripple, a tiny bump that snagged Luke's attention. He automatically focused on it, letting it grow in his mind, letting it lead him straight to... the arch?
Befuddled, Luke stared at the piece of architecture that soared over his head. He'd already spent time studying this section of the room. But the more he tried to dismiss the area from his mind, the more insistent that tickle became.
Opening himself a little more, Luke turned under the arch, stretching out with his feelings, and was instantly rewarded. Something about where the arch met the floor right there intrigued him. Luke knelt down to examine it.
The smallest bump met his probing fingers, but it was enough to catch his attention. He felt around for some kind of hand grip, but was frustrated by the smoothness of the surrounding rock. He cast around for something hard to crumble the wall, and his gaze landed on the grip of the blaster resting on his hip. He quickly unholstered the weapon, removed the power supply, then mercilessly smashed the gun into the wall.
Ancient stone was no match for the pounding of the gun, and gave way instantly. Seconds later, chunks of white stone littered the floor all around the arch, but Luke hardly noticed the mess he was making. All his attention riveted to what he had discovered.
The demolition revealed a hole the size of his booted foot. Inside was some kind of object wrapped carefully in a scrap of material, covered in dust and debris. Luke held his breath as he reached into the hole to gently draw it out.
He impatiently brushed aside the debris until he could peel back the outer layer of covering material, only to reveal an inner layer made from something soft. Brushing that aside, too, he gazed in fixed astonishment at what he'd found: a lightsaber.
Luke caught his breath as he examined the weapon. Minute scratches checkered the handgrip, but that was the only indication that this lightsaber had ever been used before. He held it up to the sun so that light glinted off the casing and jewel in the handgrip, caught on the activation button and edging. Breath held again, he flipped the power switch to on.
A red beam of light instantly brightened the room, a friendly hum filling the hut. Luke gave the lightsaber an experimental wave, delighted when the weapon quickly responded to his slightest touch, his merest whim. Without a doubt, he knew that this was what he had been looking for. For the first time in the months since his defeat at Cloud City, Luke felt that all was not lost, that victory was still at hand. A peace that hadn't visited him in a long time stole over him as he studied the treasure that Ben had left behind. Feeling more centered than he'd felt in ages, Luke whispered to his unseen friend, “Thank you, Ben.”
* * *
Luke's racing thoughts matched the racing speed of the landspeeder as he traveled back towards Anchorhead. For the millionth time he wondered why in the name of the Force Ben hadn't told him the truth about his father. If he'd been thoughtful enough to hide a lightsaber, then why..?
It did no good to question the actions of someone who had died years before. There was no one but the wind to answer, and the wind wasn't very knowledgeable or forthcoming in this instance. Luke still felt unbalanced by the disparate claims of Vader and Obi-Wan, not completely understanding the truth, nor why it was kept from him. But the peace he had felt as he'd stared at Ben's concealed lightsaber was still with him, and somehow, the question and unsubstantiated claims and half truths of former master and apprentice seemed not gone, but... dulled.
Did it really matter who his father was? His father was not him, he reminded himself. If Darth Vader was indeed his biological father, that didn't mean the megalomaniac had been there to wipe his nose, to bandage his frequently skinned elbows, to try his best to thrust on him a way of life that wasn't meant for him. The life of a Rebellion pilot was what was meant for him, the call to rescue his friend, the pull of the good side of the Force.
Luke thought about Han then with an honesty that he hadn't had time for since he got back from Cloud City. Han wasn't sensitive in the Force, but that didn't mean he was only full of good intentions. Luke remembered the way that, years before, Han had initially left the Rebellion with a reward that the Alliance could ill afford to pay. Han had known this, and had taken the reward anyway. That action certainly didn't constitute his good qualities, but was perhaps the most selfish thing Luke had ever witnessed from the pirate. Han had, of course, turned that selfish action into a lifesaving move, but that didn't negate the original action. Leia had said at the time that everyone must follow their own path, thus explaining why Han was able to abandon them in their moment of dire need. Han was neither good, nor bad; he was part of both. Just like Leia was part of both, Luke supposed, and so was Ben... and so was Vader... and so was he, for that matter. Now Luke more fully understood how someone's path could be full of sunshine, yet that light cast shadows anyway.
This was a new concept for Luke to consider. He'd always thought of things in terms of black and white, good and bad, the Light Side of the Force versus the Dark Side. A person was either one or the other. Now Luke was able to see that a person was a part of both more so than a part of one or the other. That must be how it was for everybody, Luke now theorized, if even Han had his moments of darkness among the light. Yet, for all his dark decisions, Han was at heart a good man.
Which highlighted new thoughts for Luke: did that same dual personality hold true for everybody, including him?
That possibility disturbed Luke on several levels!
Aunt Beru used to say that there was too much of his father in him for him to find a life spent farming as anything remotely fulfilling. Did she simply mean that he was a good pilot, like his father was reputed to be? Or did she mean that his soul was full of darkness, and he would succumb to it just like his father had?
But now that Luke thought of it, his aunt hadn't made that comment with an air of gloom and doom. She'd said it like Luke yearned for adventure, just like his father must have yearned for the same thing, or he wouldn't have become Obi-Wan's apprentice in the first place.
That was when it hit Luke: his father had been Obi-Wan's apprentice, and long enough for Obi-Wan to think of him as a good friend. That meant that... like Luke... his father had been in training with a Jedi in order to become a Jedi. His intentions had initially been to serve the Good Side of the Force.
So what had happened? Where had things gone so terribly wrong?
And what of his mother? Luke had to remember that he had the blood of his mother as well as his father running through his veins. Had she been studying to be a Jedi, too? But that couldn't be the case, as Vader had killed all the Jedi... isn't that what Ben had told him? If that was true, then his father had killed his mother. This was a hideous idea! But Luke had never been given any indication that this was true, so until he heard it confirmed, he discounted this possibility.
But if she hadn't been a Jedi apprentice, then who was she? She must have been someone of importance for a Jedi to know her well enough to have a baby with.
Oh... what if Vader had forced her? That was something that a person consumed by darkness would do.
But if that was the case, then why had his mother gone on to give birth to him rather than taking any other option?
Luke gave a groan of frustration. Questioning the past like this did nothing but lead to more questions. It showed how very little Luke knew about his own history. Luke only knew for certain what Ben had told him. Simultaneously, he knew for certain what Vader had told him. Yet those two statements were at odds with each other. So who was telling the truth? His feelings said that Vader was. But his feelings also said that Ben was. How could they both be right?
Luke reminded himself that he also knew that he'd had a mother, one who had given him up either at birth or soon after, because she had... died? Had she gone on to a job where she couldn't have children? What had happened to her?
And if Vader had known about being Luke's father, then why had he just now come to claim that familial connection?
Or perhaps, he hadn't known?
Luke hadn't considered this before. After all, Vader had had many opportunities to come forth and claim his son, but he hadn't done or said anything until Luke had begun training in the ways of the Force. Had the Force told him, then? Had Luke made some kind of stirring in the Force, something that was enough to latch onto Vader's feelings? Is that how he found out he had a son? If that hadn't happened, then why hadn't he known before?
For that matter, why hadn't Luke known before Vader told him? He had always wanted a parent while growing up, someone who understood his wanderlust in a way that Uncle Owen was incapable of comprehending. But if the man who had become Vader could understand his son's yearning for adventure because he had felt his own yearning for adventure, and even had apprenticed with the Jedi order in answer to that yearning, then at one time, he had firmly endorsed the Light Side of the Force.
Could a man who had at one time been so suffused with Light be all Dark now?
It was a confusing mess of unanswered questions and half understood theories in Luke's brain. The truth of the situation was that he may never know what had actually happened to either of his parents. He couldn't ask Ben, who was dead. He didn't know who his mother was, or why she had given him up so soon after his birth. He couldn't completely trust anything Vader told him.
But could he trust what might be told him by the man who had become Darth Vader? Who was Vader's master now, since Obi-Wan wasn't any longer? The Emperor. Was it he who had originally turned the man who had been Luke's father into Darth Vader?
Luke had trouble thinking that the man who had killed his former master and friend was filled with anything but darkness.
On the other hand, Vader hadn't killed his son. Of course, that might have been because he wanted his son to join him in order for them to rule the galaxy together, like he'd said. But that decision to let Luke live might also point to the fact that Vader was unable to kill his son, even if the Emperor had commanded him to do it.
Again, Luke groaned. There were just too many unknowns in this argument for him to come to any definitive conclusions. What he did know was that Obi-Wan had also been called Ben, and that Ben had been his friend. Vader had also been Ben's friend. Vader said that he was Luke's father, though Ben claimed that Vader had murdered his father. He had no knowledge of his mother. His father, once a good man, was now an agent of evil. And Ben had left behind a concealed lightsaber, and he had found it.
Luke pushed aside his feelings of frustration concerning his parentage, and let the peace attached to the lightsaber suffuse him anew. If anything, he needed an amount of peace and calm just now. What had Yoda said? Only when he was calm and at peace would he be able to tell the good side of the Force from the bad. That was what should concern Luke, now and forever. He needed to be calm, to let the Force in, to become one with the Force.
He was amazed at how he had so quickly forgotten that simple lesson. None of these other distractions really mattered. It was up to him whether or not he was good, or evil. It wasn't up to his father, to Ben, to his mother, or the Emperor. It was his decision.
As far as Luke was concerned, no deliberation on his part was necessary; he wanted to endorse the Good Side of the Force. And he wanted to rescue Han. To do that, he needed to do more Force training, as well as strategizing, as well as train his troops to be lethal enough to undertake such a venture if they were to succeed.
Clearly, he had a lot of work yet to do.
He had work to do, yes, but unfortunately he'd run out of time to do it in. The minute Anchorhead rose out of the desert like a wart in the sand, he knew from just the noise level that something was very wrong. Agitated yells and curt cries of orders carried to him on the wind, curses broke through the general melee, and the ominous sound of blaster fire occasionally echoed within the jumble of buildings.
In reaction, Luke slowed the landspeeder to a crawl. He couldn't see with his unaided eyes any details of what had transpired in his absence, but he still carried the macrobinoculars they had used to scout Jabba's Palace. He swiftly pulled them free now and jumped out of the stopped landspeeder on the far side of a dune. He trained the binoc sights on the small town, paying specific attention to the last place he had been, instinctively knowing that hope of apprehending him played some part in whatever was happening.
What was happening appalled him. Pressed against the outside of Tosche Station was his entire group of recruits, with Lando, the princess, Chewie, and Fixer sequestered to one side. They all had been forced to put their hands on their heads in surrender, held at blaster point by a squad of white armored stormtroopers, led by none other than an out-of-uniform Nando.
It was a good thing that Luke was still quite a way from the outskirts of Anchorhead, or those troopers would have surely heard his gasp of surprise at the sight of one of his star recruits at the head of a column of stormtroopers. But it made sense, really. Nando had confessed that he'd once been a stormtrooper, had even taken charge like a pro at some of the simulation attacks on Jabba's Palace. He'd taken it upon himself to help Luke teach the recruits how to shoot, how to fly, and how to fight hand to hand. His disguise among the Rebel troops had been so successful that Luke had been on the verge of offering him a field commission in the regular Rebel fleet.
Now it appeared that Nando's true colors had come out at last. He was a stormtrooper all right, just not one that had abandoned his calling. Luke made a mental note to speak to Princess Leia in the near future about keeping a much closer eye on former trooper recruits, not entirely trusting them.
This, of course, did nothing to help him out of his current predicament. The princess might not make it through this debacle to speak to, so everything that had just passed through his mind might be a moot point if he didn't do something fast. But what?
Luke lowered the binocs to better study the terrain surrounding Anchorhead. What he saw was disheartening: the town hadn't gained any cover in the years that he'd been gone. It looked more like a jumble of houses that had been mercilessly bleached by Tatooine's double suns than a proper town. The dirt streets all met at the town center, near the well where an underground spring bubbled in perpetual lethargy. It was the reason that Anchorhead had even been built. That spring 'anchored' the houses to each other and to it in a link that was stronger than a Tusken Raider's gaffee stick, which was nigh on unbreakable. How could he possibly sneak into town to take the troopers by surprise when there was virtually no cover?
He next saw that at least one trooper was facing each direction, ever watchful. These scouts had to be on the lookout for him. Nando would have known ahead of time about the scouting trip to Jabba's Palace, and the following visit to Anchorhead, and planned to take advantage of those circumstances. There was much less natural cover at Anchorhead than in the area surrounding Jabba's Palace.
Luke realized at this unfortunate moment that in making room on his hip for his new lightsaber, he had forgotten to reholster his blaster at Ben's stone hut. The gun was still laying on the floor where he'd dropped it after using it to smash the stone arch. He wouldn't have used it in the altercation sure to happen momentarily, but he would have been sure to pass it on to someone who would use it, like Fixer or the princess. A curse almost passed his lips, until he remembered that a Jedi didn't curse.
Hmph! A Jedi! He could really use one of those right about now. But all he had was himself... therefore, he would have to suffice.
Luke bit the inside of his cheek as a daring idea suddenly flitted into mind. If he didn't have any cover for a surprise attack, then come in at such a high speed that the troopers wouldn't be able to react fast enough to stop him. It was something that Han would do. Resolved, Luke fingered the grip of the lightsaber he'd just acquired, thankful to Ben once more, and made one last scope of the area before melting backwards down the dune in preparation for perhaps the stupidest thing he'd ever done in his life.
It was so stupid, in fact, that it worked. The speeder Luke had borrowed from Fixer went several kilometers beyond the speed that it had been manufactured to achieve. Luke thought of those 'special modifications' that he and Biggs had performed on it one very boring summer, thoughts of Han and his tinkering on The Millennium Falcon coming to mind. Han was always trying to squeeze just a bit more speed out of the ship's engines, making those modifications himself. Maybe the pirate and Luke had more in common than Luke had first thought. His assignment to rescue Han was making more and more sense by the moment.
But in the here and now, Luke would have done anything for the distraction provided by a Falcon flyby. As it was, he didn't have that, so he improvised.
The souped-up landspeeder became his Millennium Falcon. The roar of its engine at high speed burst over the collection of buildings like an unexpected explosion. The vehicle flung sand and grit over the buildings, the scouts, the prisoners, and the troopers themselves. They all flung protective hands over their eyes and tilted their heads away from the flying dirt. Luke had counted on this. It gave him time to vault from where he'd been crouching on the racing landspeeder's pitted hull into a complete revolution, somersaulting over the scout trooper's head to land in a storm of sand in between the gun-toting troopers and their unarmed prisoners.
Those prisoners didn't remain unarmed for long. Luke extended his left hand towards the five nearest troopers and quickly ripped their wicked looking Imperial rifles right out of their hands, flinging them several feet behind him to land among the group of recruits. Like he'd been hoping they would, a recruit pounced on each of the rifles and instantly opened fire at the troopers.
Chaos ensued. The troopers fired back, leaving Luke with an idea of just how vulnerable his recruits really were, because he was now that vulnerable, too. With no hesitation, he flung his left hand out, palm up, and thought the word Protect! with all his might. The blaster bolts hit something that acted like an invisible wall that had suddenly sprung up between the troopers and their targets. Rather than ricocheting off his hand, as had happened in the hangar bay with Princess Leia, the blaster bolts disappeared into that wall of unseen energy. Luke wasn't even sure how he knew how to make an invisible wall like that. The reaction had been instinctual. In his head, he heard Yoda chuckle a gleeful Good, good! Through everything the Force flows, even the air!
Fighting to remain calm and do what Yoda had instructed him so long ago on another planet, Luke fingered the activation button on the hilt of the lightsaber he had only discovered twenty minutes before.
The red blade hissed to life just in time to deflect three blaster bolts aimed directly for his head. Without wasting the time to see where those bolts had been deflected to, he somersaulted his way to his right. Three troopers quickly lost their trigger fingers, then their lives. A twinge of guilt accosted him at their deaths, but he sloughed it off; a Jedi didn't have time for regrets when outnumbered twenty to one.
He was preparing to slash his way to the left when he felt the cold end of a metal gun barrel stick into his temple.
Luke's instinctive reaction was to do anything but freeze. He automatically yanked the lightsaber up to cut the rifle threatening him off at his attacker's wrist, then while that attacker was distracted by the pain he had caused, took the opportunity to slash the other direction, cutting right through him.
The man's fellow troopers were now falling with every swing of Luke's lightsaber. Two more rifle bolts deflected with the glowing blade left two more stormtroopers with smoking holes in their armor. Before they could hit the ground to join a growing pile of white suited comrades, two more lost arms and another lost his legs. Luke reached out again with his left hand, and used the Force to yank down a crumbling wall atop three more troopers preparing to fire in his general direction. Rocky debris and trooper bodies rolled everywhere.
He was just gathering his muscles to make another leaping somersault when one of the faceless stormtroopers stopped him in the most effective way possible. He hauled Leia into sight, the muzzle of his rifle aimed at her head. “Freeze! Or she dies!”
As if he'd also hit that invisible wall he'd produced, Luke jerked to a stop.
“Turn it off!”
Muscles bunched, Luke hesitated.
The trooper pulled Leia closer to the gun. “I said turn it off!”
Luke didn't see that he had any alternative; the saber blade hissed as it disappeared.
“Scum!” one trooper scathingly growled as another yanked Leia nearly off her feet.
“I'll take that.” A third trooper grabbed hold of the lightsaber and pulled it away, handing it off to yet another trooper, who carried it across the central plaza to a conveyance of some kind.
Luke's heart hammered, fear for the princess churning his stomach to ash. He fought to regain that earlier sense of peace, to channel the Force, to do anything except escape. There was no thought of escaping with Leia captured.
“Get a transport,” the trooper ordered. “I'll hold them here.”
Luke's harried gaze met Leia's defiant one as the clarifying moment of capture sparked around them.
It stunned them all alike when suddenly the trooper holding Leia none too gently vaulted backwards, a blaster hole in his head, a victim of one of the temporarily forgotten recruits behind them.
At the same time, the trooper that was about to lock down Luke's lightsaber flew backwards when another rifle bolt smacked a hole in his chest.
The distraction was all that Luke needed. He held out his hand, and the lightsaber flew instantly to him, seemingly yanked by an invisible chord. He ignited it the minute it hit his hand, and in the next breath, had somersaulted several paces to the left where he landed on the packed dirt of the street just in time to deflect laser bolts from a larger gun placed just at the edge of a building. He took a breath to make sure of Leia's safety, but realized a second later that he should have known better. She had already pulled one nearby trooper into the other, and blasted them both.
Luke let more blaster bolts from across the street slip by him to slam into the chests of the troopers sneaking up behind him. A series of whirling steps put him between another set of troopers and the large gun. He deflected the gun's second blast, then whipped around to deflect more blaster bolts from the stormtroopers. Not giving them time to regroup, he yanked their guns from their hands into the dirt. Three of them had the presence of mind to reach for grappling lines coiled at their belts, but Luke took the split second they needed to uncoil the rope to separate their torsos from their legs.
Using the Force, Luke pulled an ancient, boxy droid from its resting place beside a house and threw it against another trooper, knocking him off balance. He deflected a blaster bolt, slashed an unlucky trooper in half, and caused an obscuring dust storm, finally getting close enough to the large gun to slice it in half with one manic swing of the lightsaber. With one more whirl, he neutralized the threat of Nando's Imperial rifle by cutting his hand off at the wrist. The rifle fell to the dirt with a dull thud as Luke held the humming, glowing, powerful saber blade to Nando's throat.
Breathing hard, he ordered, “Stop, or join your comrades.” A shrug of his right shoulder indicated the piles of dead stormtroopers.
There was no doubt as to what that shrug meant. Even as Nando fell groaning to the sand, clutching his arm, understanding of that gesture showed in his eyes. What must have been a moment filled with pain passed, then he raised his arms in the universal sign of surrender.
“Smart man,” Luke stated, and lowered his blade in return, but didn't deactivate it, or even move it to the side. He didn't trust Nando now any farther than the princess could throw him. “What's this all about?”
Now that Nando was weaponless, his troopers vanquished, he was surprisingly forthcoming. “Lord Vader assigned... Teeno and me to... inform him if you were... alive.”
“What?” Though that had also been what Teeno had said when he'd been discovered, Luke had automatically discounted it as an outright lie. But now, hearing it a second time... That validated the command more than Luke wanted. “I suppose he's under orders from the Emperor himself to capture me?” That was the only thing that would make any sense out of this.
“I don't know,” Nando unhelpfully replied on a wheeze of air. “He just wanted to know... if you were alive, and if we found you alive.. then Teeno and I were to deliver you... to him. But none of us knew that... you were so good with... the Force.” He gave a shrug of his own in the direction of the pile of armored men.
Luke smiled grimly. “He wouldn't know.”
At that point, Leia curled herself into Luke's left arm in a desperate hug born of sheer terror while his right still unflinchingly held Nando with his lightsaber. Leia gave him a squeeze and said, “When I saw the landspeeder explode on that wall, I thought you were dead! Then when you were captured..!”
The landspeeder had exploded? Luke hadn't even noticed. If he remembered right, Fixer loved that landspeeder. He and Biggs had had to beg for days to get anywhere near it in order to modify its engines that boring summer. And now he'd destroyed it. Fixer was going to kill him!
Unaware of how ludicrous that worry was now, given his recent display, he fought the tickle of dusty brown hair against his nose while comforting the princess. “Leia, I'm all right, thanks to Ben.” He hefted the lightsaber in his hand.
Baveer followed on the heels of the princess, hefting her own weapon. “Commander, should I shoot him?” And she gestured wildly at Nando with the rifle in her hands.
Luke stilled her gesticulating. “No, that's ok. Losing his hand will be worse than death for someone like him. You don't have to kill him.” There had been enough death that day, anyway.
Baveer looked disappointed by the order. “We can't let him live. If we do, he'll learn to shoot left handed, find a way back to the Empire, and be as big a threat to the Rebellion as he is now.”
“Probably.” The thought to send Vader the hand still clutching the Imperial issued rifle invaded Luke's mind and made him smirk, but he decided a moment later that sending the hand to Vader was nothing but gloating, and would clue in the dark lord as to his level of skill with the Force. Luke did not want the Rebellion's most wicked enemy to have such knowledge just because of a childish gesture on his part. “Let's leave him here. Tatooine holds many charms for the one-handed.”
Luke knew by that night that he was without doubt the son of the Jedi Padawan known as Anakin Skywalker, apprentice to Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Alliance history Net supplied him with the information. Anakin and his Jedi Master had at last recording been assigned to protect the life of one Senator Padme Amidala, whoever she was. Luke briefly wondered if this was his unknown mother, but there was no record of a marriage between Padme and Anakin, and no record of a child, either. In fact, there was no record of any kind of joining ceremony prior to his birth, though that hardly indicated anything relevant.
Luke allowed himself one night to dig for more information. After that, he cleared his mind of questions, just as Master Yoda had taught him. None of these facts really mattered, anyway. The truth as he knew it was that Anakin Skywalker was his father, Anakin had become Darth Vader for reasons best left buried in history, his mother had disappeared for reasons of her own, Ben knew the answers that Luke sought, but Ben was dead, and the only other being alive who knew about Luke's history, Yoda, was on the other side of the galaxy on the uncharted planet Dagobah. Right now, Luke didn't have time to bother uncovering past events; he had work to do.
The next month took on something of a bizarre schedule. During the day, he did his best to continue training his recruits, with a lot of practice time spent with the older simulations while he and Lando worked far into the nights to create believable scenarios from the images they had collected on their recent trip to Jabba's Palace. He booked more time on the blaster range, working with several of the best marksmen that the Alliance had to offer, often as favors from fellow friends, but just as often on a skill trade basis with his expertise as a fighter pilot as the bargaining point. What little free time he had was spent in the hangar bay on deck seven, where he worked hard to perfect the skills he had learned from Master Yoda.
The ships in the hangar proved to be excellent for running around, hurdling over, landing on, somersaulting, and for perfecting his balance techniques. Luke found himself in the process of performing a complicated workout involving levitating R2D2 while balancing on one leg on the nose of an X-wing fighter, and simultaneously anticipating the shots from a practice remote. It was a very difficult thing to predict the shots emerging from the remote, yet simultaneously remain calm in order to channel the Force so those predictions could occur. He had to reach a state of blanketed awareness, to be half asleep, yet awake enough to control the Force and to be controlled by it. Things were going well until Luke became aware of Leia's agitation.
She burst into the hangar bay where she knew he was currently practicing, but didn't say anything aloud to gain his attention. Not that she needed to speak; her Force aura sparked with red, angry energy that arced across it like lightning bolts.
Luke noticed her anger, but when she merely paced near the hangar door rather than speak, he returned to his practicing, lifting Artoo again to hover beside him while he regained his balance in time to deflect the remote's stun blast with the lightsaber he'd acquired from Ben.
When next he looked up, balance restored, Leia had disappeared through the open hangar door. He noted her absence, decided that if she needed to talk about something, she would, and went back to his lesson in Force concentration.
The second time she appeared a few moments later, her Force aura was now so red hot that Luke feared for the safety of the ships stored in the hangar bay. Such anger was conducive to an emotional explosion violent enough to produce unexpected results. But Luke had never known Leia to act on her angry impulses before, and expected that she simply needed space to vent for the moment, and went back to practicing without a word. This interruption had once again been strong enough in its intensity to startle him into almost dropping Artoo to the floor. He righted the droid in time to successfully deflect another series of blasts from the remote.
But the third time she entered the bay, her angry muttering infiltrated his concentration to such a degree that it was all he could do to not fall off the nose of the X-wing, to say nothing of lowering Artoo gently to the floor. As it was, he heard the thudding clang as the hapless droid struck the deck plates just as he managed to shut off his lightsaber in time to join his metal friend in an undignified heap of lost balance and tangled limbs. He lay on the floor for a moment to catch his breath, then sat up with a groan, rubbing his right shoulder.
Hardly sympathetic, Leia asked, “Did you hurt something?”
“Yeah, my dignity,” Luke wryly replied, and climbed to his feet so that he could set Artoo upright, then looked towards the princess. “Leia, you're so angry, you're glowing, and I don't need to be Force sensitive to see it. Why don't you tell me what's wrong rather than stomping holes in the deck plates?”
Leia turned away from him to glare defiantly at the closest wall, hands firmly braced on her hips. A second later, she whirled back to turn her glare on him. “I'll tell you what's wrong! You're doing your job too well, that's what wrong!”
Surprised, Luke regrouped enough to ask, “I'm doing what?”
Leia turned an entire circle, her expression full of emotional contortions. “The Rebel Council just assigned your recruits to other duties!”
Surprise again washed over Luke. “They did what?”
Still furious, though calm enough to explain now, Leia regarded him. “The council just voted: they say you're doing much better training your recruits than they expected. Given the time frame of our next attack, they reassigned everybody. You and I have even been reassigned.”
Understanding bit through Luke like a snake. “What about Han?”
“His rescue is still on the mission list, just no longer a priority.”
Luke furrowed his brows in growing alarm. “That's ridiculous!”
“I tried to dissuade them, but 'The Rebel Council has spoken,'” Leia quoted, obviously mimicking something she'd just heard. “There was no changing their minds. After that display on Tatooine, they think you're too important to waste on simple training exercises. My delegation skills are needed elsewhere, and even Lando has been reassigned. That leaves only Chewie free to rescue Han, and though he's strong, I doubt that even Chewie can carry off a rescue like this all alone.”
Forcing himself to stay calm and ignore his desire to give in to suddenly rampaging emotions, Luke stared at Ben's lightsaber, quickly thinking. He didn't want to be reassigned. He wanted to rescue Han. Han would never forgive him if he didn't. Well, no, Han would probably understand, but Luke would never forgive himself. He doubted that he would ever become a Jedi if he wasn't able to forgive himself for something, and he wanted to become a Jedi, badly. Therefore, the Rebel Council had unwittingly left only one course of action open to him.
“You say that you just learned this?” Luke questioned Leia, who nodded. “Then the council is still in session?”
“It is,” Leia curtly informed. “I was so angry that I walked out of the council meeting.”
Once more Luke found himself too surprised to speak. Princess Leia took her leadership role in the Rebellion very seriously; he had never known her to walk out of a council meeting before, no matter how badly she disagreed with the council's directives.
Luke grimly headed for the hangar door. “Let's go interrupt a council meeting.”
* * *
“Do we agree on Councilor Mertac's solution?” the Rebellion leader Mon Mothma was saying just as Luke and the princess burst through the council chamber's door. The heads of all thirty council members turned to look. “These council meetings are classified,” Mon Mothma patiently explained. “While Princess Leia already has clearance, Commander Skywalker, you must...”
“I regretfully withdraw my membership from the Alliance,” Luke announced, making sure to say it loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Mon Mothma was so stunned that in spite of being an expert political analyst where nothing fazed her, she blinked her surprise. “Excuse me?”
Luke then took a moment to gaze at everyone seated at the round council table. They all stared back at him with widened eyes full of anything from surprise to outright fear that the Rebel Alliance was on the verge of losing one of its best strategic advantages in the war against the Empire. Lest there be any confusion, Luke repeated himself. “I absolutely cannot be reassigned at this moment, and since the council sees fit to reassign me anyway, I therefore am forced to withdraw my membership in the Alliance. I will rescue Captain Solo without Alliance approval.”
Mon Mothma pulled her cloak close about her like a mantle of leadership. “We naturally approve of rescuing Captain Solo, just not right now.”
“Every minute he spends in carbonite is a minute too long,” Luke shot back. “Since the Alliance no longer endorses my mission to bring him back right now, I must leave the Alliance.”
Councilor General Mertac's eyes held the most fear. “Now don't do anything hasty! There must be some kind of compromise we can reach.”
“I doubt it.” Luke's voice was respectful but firm. “You have reassigned my squad and myself without my input. Though I'm aware that you don't need my input for reassignment, you do know that Captain Solo is waiting for rescue, and I...”
Mertac interrupted, “We feel the Emperor will use this rescue opportunity to capture you, and at best utilize your skills, at worst, turn you to the Dark Side of the Force. The Rebellion cannot afford to have two Dark Lords to contend with.”
Luke blinked in surprise as well. “So this is about my Jedi standing?” he asked, and when no one answered immediately, added, “You're scared that I'll become your enemy?”
“We can't fight even your untried abilities,” Mertac told him.
“So you're willing to let Captain Solo rot so you can make sure that I don't fall into the hands of the Emperor?” Luke reiterated.
“That's putting it a bit bluntly,” General Allora, the man seated next to General Mertac, noted.
“This is the time for bluntness,” Luke cut in, angry now too, but endeavoring to calm the emotion. “Let's be honest with each other: you're worried that the Empire will grab me if I try to rescue Han, so worried in fact that you're willing to sacrifice Han to keep me out of Imperial hands.”
“If we have to, yes.” It was General Allora again.
Luke testily repeated, “Then I'll say one more time that unless you endorse a rescue mission, the Rebellion will lose a member, and I will continue with this mission on my own.”
“I'm going with him.” Leia's voice rang through the chamber.
Mon Mothma did more than blink this time; she gaped. “You'd leave over this, Princess Leia?”
“You leave me no choice.”
Admiral Akbar broke in to insist, “Perhaps a compromise can be reached, as General Mertac suggested.”
Another councilor that Luke didn't know added, “Let's not be so stubborn that we can't see what we're doing. Whether we want to admit it or not, Luke Skywalker is the Rebellion's best hope. Without him and his Jedi skills, we have no hope of ever beating either the Emperor or Darth Vader, and if we don't contend with them, we don't win this war.”
“Which is why we don't want to risk him falling into enemy hands!” Allora insisted.
“You risk that with every mission you send me on,” Luke told him. “I'm flattered that you think my skills are so important, but if you cancel this mission, you lose me anyway. I'll rescue Han without your help.” At that critical juncture, he turned to leave the room.
He was at the door when someone desperately said, “We approve your mission!”
Luke paused, but didn't turn.
The voice continued, “We'll back your mission, and you, right now. But your squad is still reassigned.”
Luke hesitated again. “If I don't have my squad, I get Lando and Princess Leia, Chewbacca and the droids Artoo and Threepio, but I stay with the Rebellion. Agreed?”
Speaking for them all, this unknown person quickly came to a decision. “Agreed.”
Luke had to fight to keep the triumphant grin from showing on his face. “Thank you.”
“No, Jedi Skywalker, thank you.”
Luke finished making his way through the door, closing it quietly behind him and Leia.
The princess was astounded. “How..?”
“Not here,” Luke whispered. “Back in the hangar.
It took them several moments to regain the empty space of the deck seven hangar bay. Once through the door, Luke shut it behind them, but didn't even have time to look at Leia before her acerbic commentary began.
“I made those same arguments! They didn't do any good! How did you do it?”
“'The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded,'” Luke quoted Ben Kenobi from what seemed like centuries ago.
It was Leia who gaped this time. “You were using a Jedi mind trick on them?”
Just as suddenly, Luke grinned. “No, but that would have been a good idea.”
“Then what..? How..?”
Luke's grin dissolved into grimness. “Remember when you told me that I'm more important to the Rebellion than basically anyone else? And I didn't believe you?”
Leia obviously didn't know where Luke was going with this. “Well, yes, I still think you're...”
“I decided to see if you're right,” he confessed, and winced.
Amazed, Leia repeated, “You decided to..?”
“Yep. And I found out that you really were right.” His grimness darkened. “The minute I mentioned leaving the Rebellion, I saw fear in most every council members' eyes. They're terrified that I might go someday, and they'll lose their precious weapon.” The bitterness he felt at being reduced to a weapon was deep.
Leia softened in response to that bitterness. “The council has never seen you as nothing but a weapon, Luke.”
“Really? Then what am I?”
Leia closely regarded him in silence, at last saying, “You're a man who is about to change in ways that even you can't predict. You've already changed, in fact. The Luke Skywalker I knew just last month would never have had the presence of mind to play political games to get what he wants.”
“Well...” Luke was at a loss as to how to explain the shift inside himself that he had been been aware of for quite some time. “Things that I thought were very important suddenly... aren't anymore.”
Again came Leia's penetrating stare. “I've been watching you struggle with something ever since we got back from Cloud City. I considered asking you what it was, so many times, but you didn't seem to want to talk about it.”
She was referring to his unfavorable reaction to the news that Darth Vader was his father, though she didn't know it. Oddly enough, articulating that idea now, even in his mind, didn't bother Luke as much as it used to. “Thank you for not asking. Maybe I'll tell you about it someday.” Someday... but he wasn't ready for that to be common knowledge just yet.
Wordlessly, the princess nodded, then changed the subject. “What do you think we should do now?”
Luke gusted a sigh. “I need to talk to Lando... and my squad. After that...” His listless shrug illustrated his lack of ideas. “I need to think this through.”
Leia only nodded once more. “If you need time, you've got it.”
Luke's look became apologetic. “I'm still no strategist, Leia.”
Leia cocked her head, one corner of her lips lifting in a cocky half smile reminiscent of Han Solo. “You could have fooled me.”
That very afternoon, Luke bluntly relayed the latest news to his squadron of recruits. “We've all been reassigned.”
Silence met his brusk announcement. “Reassigned?” a brave recruit eventually asked. “We're no longer going to rescue Captain Solo?”
“You're not,” Luke told them, “I am. The Rebel Council thinks you're too skilled to waste on a rescue mission.”
“And you're not?” It was Baveer this time, speaking for all of them. “We've all seen your skills! What you did on Tatooine was...”
“I had a lot of help on Tatooine,” Luke reminded, not wanting to focus on his abilities. “Skills or no skills, I'll have help here, too; I'm not doing this alone. Now, let's get to your new assignments.” All business, Luke gave his attention to the tiny palm computer in his hand to hide the fact that he was probably showing just how much losing this squad meant to him. “Revi, you're with Red Flight. You'll report to Commander Wedge Antilles tomorrow morning. Anzi and Nelson, you're with Captain Rollins in Blue Fight.”
Three heads gave desultory nods. Luke pretended not to notice the general lack of enthusiasm. Change was always hard.
“Belson, you're with the culinary crew.”
“Culinary?” he sneered. “That's hardly death defying!”
“You'll have the power to poison us!” someone yelled. “If that's not death defying, I don't know what is!”
They all laughed, even Luke.
“Pauls, Rowel, Peerson, and Garbage, you're to see Master Sergeant Rodrigo in weapons manufacture.”
“What? Garbage isn't moving to the garbage?” They all laughed again, much to Garbage's annoyance.
“Lander and Lender, you're new duties are aids to Princess Leia... but she's coming with me on this rescue mission, so you might want to check with her first to see what she wants you to do while she's with me rescuing Han. Tester, you're in with the Regulars commanded by Rieeken... not the General, but the Lieutenant Commander. Herbie, you're with the Noncoms, speeder division, Captain Calrissian... except he's with me, too...”
“And the princess; the power of three!”
“There will be four of us,” Luke absently announced.
All merriment ceased immediately as they all suddenly gaped at him. “They're only sending in four of you? You'll be slaughtered!”
Luke grimaced. “We never had much of a chance, even with nineteen.”
“Phooey!” It was Baveer again, with an overdose of her typical optimism. “We had an excellent chance! They wouldn't have reassigned us if we weren't so good.”
“Baveer is right,” Luke instantly noted, chastened that he'd doubted their abilities even for a moment. “You've all improved so much since we started training. You're so good, I don't even recognize you as recruits anymore... and keeping with that, Tellers, Finn, Winn, and Ginn, you're with Ground Assault, and...”
“The council never thought we would succeed, did they?” The quiet question flattened the mood of triumph.
Luke sighed his regret. “It doesn't look like it.” More silence. Then Luke grinned. “Showed them, didn't we?”
“Hey, what about me?” Baveer asked. “What's my new assignment?”
Luke glanced once more at his palmcom to make sure he'd read it right, then announced, “Everybody, we have a hotshot in our midst. Bow down and scrape the floor: Baveer goes to Queller's Squad of marksmen.”
But instead of showing instant admiration, Revi incredulously yelled, “Baveer? She still can't shoot straight!”
* * *
That night found Luke looking at his palmcom again, this time with incredulity of his own. In any simulation he ran of the four of them storming Jabba's Palace to rescue Han, no matter how he rearranged the players plus two droids, they all died painful deaths before even managing to thaw Captain Solo. “Lando, Leia, Chewie, one of you has got to help me come up with some kind of a plan, preferably one that doesn't get us all killed!”
The four of them currently sat gathered in the common area of Leia's ship still attached to the Rebel Dream's docking bay. Artoo Detoo and See Threepio had taken the time to quietly recharge while the humans decided their fate. Luke wished that he could be as unconcerned.
“No matter what I come up with, nothing works.”
Instead of suggesting any plans, Leia groused, “I feel like these last months have been wasted on training recruits for a rescue that the council never intended them to carry out.”
Luke now looked up at the disheartened princess. “It wasn't time that was wasted,” he gently argued. “Because I had that time and those recruits, the Rebellion now has nineteen more exceptionally skilled members. They may not be physically rescuing Han, but they are in their hearts.”
Leia was hardly mollified by this unusual burst of pride on Luke's part. “That doesn't make me feel any less like we've been marking time for months. You're not still thinking of a frontal assault, are you?” she questioned as she played with the fringe of a pillow fastened to the seating arch across the hold.
“No,” Luke admitted, eyes practically attached to his palmcom. “Now that there's only four of us, I don't see how directly attacking Jabba will get any of us anything more than a quick death. But I don't know what else to do, either.” Disgusted, he tossed aside the palmcom, barely aware of the tantrum he was indulging in. “I told you I'm no strategist.”
He had only just dropped the tiny computer to the seat next to him before Leia jumped up to storm across the hold. “Stop it!”
The fierce look on her face startled Luke. “Stop what?”
“Stop this 'I'm no strategist' stuff! You've got more strategy in your little finger than most do in their whole body, and you know it! You're just not thinking about this the right way.”
Puzzled, Luke's brows lowered. “How so?”
“Setting up this mission isn't like leading Rogue Squadron; there's only four of us. We can't repel the enemy with only four. It's not like we have ninety ships, or the thirty pilots of Red Flight, or even nineteen recruits. The goal isn't to go in and blast up the place, all the while miraculously avoiding becoming a prisoner. The goal is to rescue Han. What's the best way to do that?”
It made Luke immediately uncomfortable to realize that Leia was right. He'd been thinking about this mission the wrong way for months. They'd never had the numbers for any kind of an assault, but had to get in undetected. “What we need is a diversion.”
Leia's fierceness relaxed. “Now you're thinking. What kind of diversion?”
Luke sat up, energized for the first time, remembering how he'd longed for a Falcon flyby during the fight on Tatooine. “We can use the Falcon or my X-wing... though someone will need to fly them.”
“Can they be flown by remote?” Lando asked. “I know the Falcon can... how about your X-wing?”
Luke considered. “I can rig it if I have to.”
Leia shook her head. “Sounds like a waste of time. You need to practice as much as you can in case we need you.”
Not again! “Are we really going to rely on what one person can do? What if I get captured before I have the chance to do anything?” Luke firmly shook his head. “I don't think it's a good idea to rush in and throw the Force in Jabba's face. With my luck, he's got a Force sensitive of his own in his ranks. I don't want it to come down to a contest between me and someone like that.”
Chewie growled his opinion, and Threepio piped up from the alcove where he and Artoo were recharging. “I agree, Chewbacca. There's never been a report of a Force individual living among Jabba's people.”
“Oh, and Jabba always tells the truth on those reports, does he?” Luke sarcastically pointed out.
Threepio looked taken aback, but conceded. “I see your point.”
Frustrated, Leia burst out, “There must be some way we can get in without getting killed!”
“Sure there's a way in,” Luke snarked. “Let's all get captured. That way, they can torture us with...”
“That's it!” Lando excitedly yelled.
His outburst brought everyone's attention directly to him. They looked, but no one had any luck reading his mind. “What is?”
“We get captured!” Lando exclaimed.
Luke deflated on his couch. “I thought you had a good idea for a minute. How is getting captured going to help anybody but Jabba's guards?”
“What if we are the guards?”
Luke appeared to wilt all over again. “How are we going to get in with Jabba's guards? If I recall, his guards are Gammorians. Last time I looked, none of us would exactly fit in.”
It was Lando's turn to wilt. “Good point.”
“But that's the kind of thinking we need,” Luke added, remembering how Baveer's optimism had been a welcome tonic during the session with the recruits. He should take lessons from her. Positive thought had as much power behind it as the Force if used correctly.
Luke turned his attention back to the problem at hand. How to get in to Jabba's Palace?
“We could pretend to be the main course at one of his banquets,” Leia flippantly suggested.
Luke immediately replied, “If we're not careful, we won't have to pretend.”
“Luke's right,” Lando agreed. “Han needs rescue, not company.”
“Even if we get by Jabba's guards,” Luke noted, “there's still the problem of how do we procure weapons? There's no way that we can get in with weapons.”
“Store the weapons in Artoo's head dome,” Lando suggested.
“How do we get Artoo into a place where humans have trouble getting into?”
Lando scowled. “I didn't know you're such a killjoy, Luke.”
“Just trying to stay realistic.”
“Well, knock it off.”
After several more silent moments, Luke climbed laboriously to his feet. “I'm going to practice. We need to think, anyway. Let me know if you come up with something.” He was through the hatch before anybody could stop him.
As he slowly made his way towards the deck seven hangar bay, Luke idly wondered if Leia had any residual feelings of anger towards Lando for being the instrument of Han's carbonization. But Lando was as much a victim in all this as Leia was. They'd both been used by Vader. They all had.
Again came the sensation that he was being overwhelmed by circumstances not in his control. A panic attack hovered on the edge of his consciousness, threatening to overpower him in seconds. His breathing came in quick bursts, and for the first time in weeks he found himself utilizing the breathing techniques that Master Yoda had taught him in order to regain his sense of peace.
Luke guiltily realized that he hadn't thought of Yoda for several days. His thoughts had been centered around Ben and the lightsaber he had found in his hut. Now Luke remembered how Yoda had been adamant about the way he hadn't needed weapons for most of the tasks he'd undertaken on Dagobah. Perhaps he shouldn't rely so heavily on Ben's lightsaber? Maybe he should be learning how to use the Force without a weapon?
Doubts he hadn't entertained in a long time roared back to life. What did Luke really know about the Jedi besides the fact that he wanted to be one? He wasn't even sure how to become one. He simply assumed that practicing a lot came with the territory of becoming a Jedi.
But the problem of how to become a Jedi was solved easily enough, Luke suddenly realized. All he would have to do was some research on the Alliance Net. Surely, something as important as Jedi history had been archived?
Foregoing practice, Luke quickly headed to his quarters and the wall unit computer kept there.
By the end of the night, he knew several things about the Jedi, though fewer specific things about how to go about becoming a Jedi. One thing he did know was that he needed to start constructing his own lightsaber as soon as possible.
There was just one problem: how did one go about constructing a lightsaber? It wasn't like he could run down to a shop and buy the parts whenever he felt like it.
Slowly, Luke unhooked Ben's lightsaber from his belt to study it in closer detail than he'd studied a lightsaber in years. He noted in some surprise that the emitter had a fine crack no bigger than a hair running the entire length of it. His nail didn't even catch on it when he ran his finger carefully over its surface, but he could see it. More importantly, he could feel it. All he had to do was pay attention.
As if in a dream, he hit the power button. The red blade snapped to life, crackling and humming softly. A shift of his weight, and the blade responded with its own infinitesimal shift. Luke adjusted his weight to his other leg, and the blade followed with a slight tilt in the other direction. The walls of his quarters reflected the lightsaber's red glow back to him.
Luke hit the power button again, and the blade instantly disappeared. He now studied the hilt, felt the scratches from some previous user, sensing a subtle tug to history, linking past to present. But that link yielded none of its secrets, nor whispered to Luke how he should go about making his own lightsaber.
Luke felt frustration grow in him, and fought to tamp it back down, just as Master Yoda had instructed him. As interesting as this study session was, it still didn't help him one bit. He had no emitter, nor did he know where he could get one. He didn't even have a metal casing! How was he possibly going to construct his own lightsaber?
Again, Luke felt the stirrings of frustration, quickly growing to anger. He dropped his arm in disgust, clipping the weapon back on his belt. Studying an old saber of Ben's only helped him so much. He had to make his own saber to become a Jedi, not copy somebody else's.
But what was he supposed to do? Use the Force to conjure a saber of his own out of mid air?
Abruptly, Luke realized what he was doing. He sounded like a whiny baby who hadn't gotten enough sleep at nap time. This indecision, these doubts... they led to frustration, guilt, anger, tantrums, and ultimately to emotions he didn't want to deal with yet again.
That was when for the first time he wondered if the doubts he'd suffered almost since the moment he'd returned to the fleet were somehow connected to the Dark Side of the Force. Had his encounter with Vader marred him in more ways than the obvious? Luke looked at his prosthetic right hand, unable to distinguish it from its healthy mate. Eyes wide, he curled his right hand into a fist while his left remained open to caress the innocent hilt of the hanging lightsaber. He felt its energy course through the metal of the hilt even when the weapon lay dormant next to his hip.
Passive now, the frustration and doubts gone or controlled, Luke again wondered what he was going to do. He didn't know how to go about rescuing Han any better than he understood how to make his own lightsaber. His doleful sigh echoed through the room.
Sleep was a long time coming that night.
Luke dreamed about Yoda in such detail that he still had an image of the small Jedi Master in his head when he woke up the next morning. His dream ears wiggling in time with his dream mouth, Yoda kept looking morose while saying something, but Luke couldn't hear him no matter what he did. It was like he was on a different channel than Yoda for the duration of the night. He was left with the feeling that he was missing something simple that, despite its simplicity, was of great importance.
Frustrated anew, his ears ringing, his stomach growling, Luke thought absently about finding something for breakfast, but got distracted by his list of Yoda sayings before he even reached the door. He grabbed the palmcom where he'd recorded everything he could recall Yoda had ever said. Without meaning to, his eyes landed on one short comment the Jedi Master had made when Luke had unsuccessfully tried to raise his drowning X-wing from a Dagobah swamp, convinced he couldn't do it: 'Always with you it cannot be done.'
The comment now sounded so loud in his head, it was as if he had never left Dagobah. Luke fancied he could even smell the dank odor of the Jedi's chosen home planet as he said it, feel the humid air on his skin, sense Yoda's weight on his back as he went through the paces of yet another training exercise. He could even hear the gurgling of the swamp water as it reluctantly relinquished his X-wing. Luke now recalled the amazement he'd felt when Yoda had used the Force to effortlessly lift Luke's fighter from where it had landed in the swamp. It had been a lesson in humility, in prejudice against size, of Luke's understanding of how detrimental were the limitations he automatically set on himself. It can't be done, he always thought. It's impossible, I don't have the proper skills, the right equipment, the right mind set... the list went on and on.
But what it all boiled down to was that when it came to using the Force, Luke consistently sabotaged himself. His inner thoughts were just negative enough to insure failure before he'd begun with even the most menial of tasks.
It was no different right now. Leia had said that he was thinking about Han's rescue the wrong way, and without even meaning to, he was thinking the same way about making his own lightsaber.
Self disgust welled up in Luke, clouding out everything else in seconds. This was ridiculous. There was nothing stopping him from accomplishing either the rescue of Han or the construction of his own weapon except himself.
He didn't need some kind of special emitter in order to energize a lightsaber. He needed a power source. What kind didn't really matter.
Do, Luke reminded himself. There is no try.
Grimly determined, he headed for the door, but not to breakfast. He aimed for Alliance stores, resolved to scrounge what he needed, and if he couldn't find what he needed, to make do with what he could find.
* * *
Even Luke was surprised at how easy it was. Once he had the necessary components, he used the Force to fit it all together. Each item nestled beside its brother like it had been specifically designed for this particular purpose. The finished product didn't even need lubricant in order to work correctly. It just did.
An hour after he'd started, Luke triggered the power button, the lightsaber's green blade snapping to life almost with nothing but his thoughts. He swung the blade to the left, and it moved so fluidly, it was like it was alive. A swing to the right gave him the same sensation. Ben's lightsaber had always moved easily when he'd wanted it to, but this was different. This felt right, somehow more personal, and simultaneously, more powerful.
As Luke swung the blade left, then right again, swished it up, then back down, he was sure that he had never felt more like Anakin Skywalker's son. Even more oddly, he acknowledged that while his parental relationship wasn't exactly a happy thing, he was okay with it.
It was as if Luke had woken at last from an unpleasantly long nap. With no effort on his part, he felt stronger than he'd felt in a long time, and his life no longer seemed so directionless. Thoughts about his parentage didn't send his emotions into a dizzy spin any longer, and he was even able to contemplate his immediate future without any nausea or stomach churning. He found that he'd inadvertently gained muscles from his many practice sessions, though he'd lost weight overall.
Most profound was the change that had come over his spirit. He was more centered, more confident, and because of it, more balanced, both on a personal level and as a Force sensitive.
Most amazing were his views on what Darth Vader had revealed to him at Cloud City. If Vader was his father, so be it. There was nothing he could do about it at this point. He didn't like it very much, but he accepted it. Besides, he also realized that Darth Vader was not quite the same man that had once held the name of Anakin Skywalker. Being able to view the two men as separate entities helped immensely in finding an inner acceptance of this news.
Probably the one thing about his change that the other members of the Alliance noted the fastest was his chosen style of dress. Mindful of what the princess had once whispered to him, that it didn't matter what he was, but what other people thought he was, he purposely dressed in a way that would exude power. He wanted there to be no doubt as to his abilities. Such an image could do nothing but benefit his future dealings with Jabba (if he ever had any), and instill confidence in his mission to rescue Han as well as to successfully deal with Vader and the Emperor so the Rebels could at last win this war with the Empire. He felt self-conscious at first, as if the black outfit he had chosen to wear drew attention to himself in a way that his previous flight suits hadn't. But he also acknowledged that if he ever fully attained the rank of a Jedi Knight, then he was going to have to get used to a certain amount of attention. He did, however, stop introducing Leia to people using her title, for which he suspected she was eternally grateful.
His new lightsaber drew little attention, probably because few ever saw it ignited, thus no one noted that the color of the blade was different than the one he'd found at Ben's hut. He kept that one as a back up, but set it aside, just as Ben had many years before. The new saber put a whole new spin on his practice sessions in the hangar bay.
The X-wings and Y-wings and other personal ships had been moved out of the hangar, not at his insistence, but to be kept in readiness as the massive offensive that the Rebellion was planning grew ever closer. Since he now had so much empty space to use, he'd lined the remaining components and tools and fuel equipment against the far wall so that it would be out of his way. He now had as unlimited an area to practice in as one could get on a ship in space, and he planned to make use of it.
Setting the firing remote to shoot stun blasts at an accelerated rate, Luke tossed the ball into the air, and took a moment to find that peaceful center inside himself that made it easy for him to channel the Force. Then he ignited his saber, the prearranged signal for the remote to begin its routine.
It began immediately to shoot stun beams at Luke from different angles in fast succession. The barrage didn't faze Luke, who danced left, then right, forward, and back in a complicated maze of constant footwork. Almost as if he was unaware of what he was doing, he swung the saber back and forth, behind him, to the side, two handed, then one handed, then both again as the blade circled around in a blaze of green light. The white walls mirrored the green glow, the deflected stun blasts harmlessly bouncing off those walls without scoring the polished metal. He didn't want to mark up the hangar bay any more than he already had the day he and the princess had practiced together. His lightsaber was a satisfying blur of green as the deflection drill continued all the way across the cavernous hangar bay.
At the farthest corner from the door, he straightened, almost saluting, then flicked his wrist in a prearranged signal for the remote to end its program. The heavy ball fell to the floor with a dull thud.
Leia spoke from where she'd been observing near the door. “Luke, I know it's been months since you began to focus on your own training, but I still didn't know that you could do something like that!”
It didn't take a Force sensitive to know that she was lying. She knew very well what he was capable of.
Luke had been aware that Leia had been watching him for some time. At first he'd been offended by her covert surveillance, as if she didn't quite trust him to take care of himself, but later was rather glad to have her opinions on his training. If she was going to watch anyway, he might as well ask her how he could improve their chances in the coming mission to rescue Han.
He was glad he'd done that; she had a unique political way of looking at things, and had offered several suggestions on the best way to treat Jabba in order to get the outcome he desired. She had even come up with the idea to pretend to be a bounty hunter who had captured Chewbacca as a way to get the Wookie into the palace. Her role in rescuing Han had doubled in importance at that point.
His own role as their ultimate trump card all hinged on if Leia was successful in thawing Han and getting him out of the palace or not. Either he had to rescue Chewie and the droids from Jabba's incarceration, or if things turned bad, as he suspected they would, he would end up rescuing all of them. His abilities had grown by leaps and bounds since Leia had started giving her input into his training, but he was secretly reluctant to try out his skills for the first time in a combat situation.
However, he had yet to expound on these concerns to the princess. Since he knew that he had to radiate confidence in himself as well as this mission in order to encourage the others to believe that they could pull this off, Luke realized that it was to his advantage just now to pretend he didn't notice her bluffing.
When had he become such an able manipulator? Had it all really started with the princess whispering to him that it only mattered what others thought he was? Luke now realized how that quiet and hurried conversation had truly begun his own understanding of the power of perception.
Right at this moment, instead of saying more that pertained to the training exercise he'd just finished, Leia glanced at the lethal green blade still humming at Luke's side. “When did you get that lightsaber? I thought the one you got from Ben had a red blade. I've never seen you use this one.”
Luke fingered the power switch, the blade vanished, and he carefully attached it to his belt. “I made this one.”
Leia did her best not to react to this news, but she gaped anyway. “You made it?” she echoed in flat astonishment. “When did you find the time to make it?”
Luke did his own bluffing now, vaguely admitting, “Recently.”
“I didn't know you knew how to do that.”
Luke smothered his smile until only a hint of emotion showed. “I didn't either. It was just one of those things.” His shrug was as noncommittal as his words.
Leia next gestured to the remote. “That was an impressive display.”
He wasn't so successful at strangling his emotion this time, his pride in his skill with a lightsaber showing just a bit. “At least in that session, I didn't cut the remote in half. We're running out of the big ones that I can program to be fast enough to do me any good.” He hadn't meant to be anything but informative, but Leia's eyes bugged out so much that he knew he'd made another mistake in spite of his good intentions. “That sounded like I was gloating; sorry.” Master Yoda would have been highly displeased with him.
Leia's look of surprise turned into eyes slitted in calculation. “Perhaps you have the right to gloat.”
But Luke shook his head. “A Jedi never gloats.”
“A Jedi?” Her tone held just enough incredulity in it to make him uncomfortable. “When did you start thinking of yourself as a Jedi?”
If he'd been uncomfortable before, it was nothing compared to how he was feeling now. Instead of answering her, though, he asked, “Is there something I can do for you, Princess?”
In spite of the formality, or perhaps because of it, Leia's eyes narrowed even more. “You can cut out the princess stuff, for one thing. I want to discuss Han's rescue plans with you one more time, not to be given the royal treatment.”
Abashed, Luke had to smile his amusement. “I'll let Han do that when he gets back. He does it so well.”
“Yes, I can't wait.” Her tone now held a hint of sarcastic cynicism that made Luke laugh.
“I'm going to tell him that you said that.”
Merriment suddenly gone, Leia flatly remarked, “I hope you can, Luke.”
Always sensitive to her slightest moods, Luke too grew serious. “Hey, what's the matter?”
“Just worrying,” Leia admitted in sudden exhaustion.
That statement took Luke aback. “You've never been the type to worry about something you can't control. What's worrying you specifically?”
Leia defensively crossed her arms over her stomach. “We never did decide what to do if you get captured, but Jabba decides to torture you indefinitely instead of throwing you into the Sarlacc pit right away.”
Luke gave a tolerant half smile. “I don't think you have anything to worry about on that score. Remember the intel that Major Derlin brought back from his last reconnaissance to Jabba's Palace?”
This reminder did nothing to alleviate Leia's anxiety. “The fact that Major Derlin was able to tell us that Jabba frequently goes out on his sail barge to 'deal with prisoners,' meaning feed them to the Sarlacc, doesn't make me feel much better in this instance.”
“But don't forget all the stories that Lando's been able to tell us from his undercover position as one of Jabba's few human guards.”
Leia scowled. “The fact that Lando's cover is still secret doesn't encourage me much right now, either.”
Luke gave a disbelieving laugh. “Jabba's fed his last thirteen victims to 'the almighty Sarlacc.'”
“I just don't want you to become victim number fourteen.”
Again came his laugh of incredulity. “You know that won't happen, Leia. We've planned this mission so well that it can't fail. We have contingency plans for everything, then contingency plans for those contingency plans.” He shrugged, giving her his half smile again. “What more do you want?”
Leia closed her eyes and sighed before looking at him in remorse. “I want this to be over, and both you and Han back safe and sound. I won't sleep until then.”
Luke gusted a sigh of exasperation. “Leia, none of us have ever led what you would call safe lives. We'd be bored if we did.”
That statement brought out one of Leia's rare smiles. “What I wouldn't do for a little boredom right about now.”
Luke chuckled as he placed the remote on a workbench for later use. Then he and Leia headed out of the hangar and into the corridors of the Alliance ship.
“It's getting more and more crowded around here,” Luke softly commented as they walked. “I'll almost be relieved to get to Tatooine where there is more space than even I could want.”
At that innocent comment, Leia frowned. “You've become quite the solitary person, Luke. Even General Rieekan has noticed it.”
Luke shrugged. “I like my privacy as much as the next man.” With a sly look at the princess walking at his side, added, “Or woman.” It was an oblique reference to the way that Leia had always fiercely guarded her privacy ever since he'd known her. Commissioning her own ship was her latest endeavor in finding an hour or two of uninterrupted solitude per day.
“Have you recorded your message for Jabba yet?” Leia asked instead of responding to his teasing.
“No, I plan to do that tonight,” Luke answered, dancing around several passing crew members as he did.
“I can't believe we'll be leaving for Tosche Station tomorrow. It seems like it's taken ages to reach this point, and at the same time like we just got back from Cloud City last week.”
Luke eyed Leia. “Are you sure that you'll be able to trust Lando if it comes to him helping you in case of an emergency?”
Leia heaved a beleaguered sigh, and rolled her eyes. “You mean, have I forgiven Lando for the role he played in Han's carbonization so that I can accept his help now?”
Luke gave a small wince. “I've always wondered if you held some kind of a grudge against Lando for what he did.”
“It wasn't what he did, but what Vader did.” The amount of rancor in her voice was substantial.
Luke winced again, wondering how Leia would take it if he was ever brave enough to tell her of his parental relationship with Vader. He suspected that she wouldn't take it particularly well.
“Are you sure that Artoo understands what he has to do?”
“Artoo is one intelligent little droid,” Luke said. “You know that.”
Leia almost smiled. “It won't be the first time that Artoo unit has held someone's destiny in his databanks.”
“As long as he has room enough to hold my lightsaber, he can do whatever he wants with his databanks.”
“Don't tell Threepio anything about this mission,” Leia suddenly warned.
“You don't have to remind me,” Luke dryly remarked back. “Threepio is great at what he does, but unfortunately, keeping secrets isn't what he does. He'd be blabbing to Jabba the Hutt every single detail about this mission if he knew a thing about it. It's best that he knows nothing.”
Leia agreed. “He can't tell what he doesn't know.”
“Artoo, on the other hand...” Luke was now thinking of how the droid had said nothing even to Threepio about Dagobah or Yoda since their return. “I know we can trust him with anything... even messages from desperate princesses.” And he bumped Leia's hip lightly with his own.
Leia glanced up at him out of the corners of her eyes. “Are you flirting with me, Skywalker?”
Luke looked innocent. “And incur Han's wrath?” he joked. “It would be like flirting with my sister.”
“What do you know about sisters?” Leia asked just as teasingly. “It isn't like you've ever had one.”
Luke smiled warmly. “I'll be your honorary brother if you'll be my honorary sister.”
Another of Leia's rare smiles beamed out of her; it was obvious that she felt delighted at this suggestion. “I bet even Han could live with that.”
“Well then, honorary sister, how about some dinner?”
Leia linked her arm with his. “Honorary brother, it would be my pleasure.”
A multitude of Rebels surreptitiously stared at Luke throughout dinner, but he pretended not to notice. All that attention came with being a Jedi.
Determined not to worry about the mission he was leaving on tomorrow, he ate his dinner with good humor, even the parts he didn't like, and cheerfully bid Leia good-night at the cross corridor that led to his quarters and to her ship. A minute later, he was surrounded by the silence of his cabin.
“Artoo,” he called the second he had entered. “I want you to record a message to be played only to Jabba the Hutt. Do you understand?”
The little droid beeped some whistles that Luke hoped was an affirmative. He made certain his lightsaber was attached to his belt and took his place in front of the astromech droid, once again reminding himself that it wasn't what he was or wasn't that was important, but what the recipient of this message thought he was. If he showed his own unwavering belief in what he was saying, then others would have that belief, too. It was all a matter of perception. Without giving himself time to question what he was going to say, he began speaking in the most pleasantly authoritative voice that he could.
*"Greetings, Exalted One. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight and friend to Captain Solo.”
*from 'Return of the Jedi' by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas
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