The Art of War - Part 6
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
Chapter 6 - Allies and Enemies
Talon Karrde was up late. Sitting in his office he was viewing the latest reports on the clashes between Rebel and Imperial troops. Solo had been right. The rebels were as close to winning as they could be. But he had additional information that he was sure the Corellian did not have: the Imperial Navy had a new commander. And according to rumors that man was a strategical genius. A fact that put everything in a new light. Nothing was sure anymore. Of course, he had already given Solo what he wanted. Too bad. Karrde would have rather preferred staying neutral in this. Unfortunately hed been forced to make his choice already. Now he could only hope that the Rebels did not break the trust he had been forced to put in them. But apparently now a new player had entered the game. Reviewing Aves report once more Karrde recalled the conversation hed had with his right-hand man concerning this particular piece of information.
"Where does it come from?" hed asked.
"One of Jabbas gang. I doubt that it is genuine. This is too good to be true. And Jabba is our fiercest rival."
"And what if?"
"Yes, what if. Aves, I want you to get to the bottom of this. Track the informants down and have them verify this. And if you stumble across the source, call me immediately."
Aves had left just yesterday and now there was nothing to do but wait. Still, if it were true there was a wealth of knowledge out there that would benefit either the Empire or the Rebellion. And if he could get his hands on it he would be able to enter the game on his own terms. Which would be much safer than to be dependent on either Thrawn or whoever was commanding the Alliance troops.
A change in the air made him turn around. His jaw locked tight when he saw someone standing not two meters away. The figure wore a long, hooded cloak, shadowing her face, but Karrde could just make out yellow glowing eyes and a smile on the strangers full lips. Taking a step forward she extended her gloved hands and although the pirate chief tried to duck out of the way he never saw it coming. His mind felt as if on fire, the inside of his skull was itching like hell. And then he slid to the floor, unconscious. The woman lowered one hand and nodded slowly, just before Karrdes computer exploded in a shower of white sparks amidst a cloud of black smoke. Laughing softly, the stranger left as silently as she had come, without turning back once.
Watching the planets spin on their quiet journey through eternity, Darth Sidious was smiling. Here on Wayland he had absolute control over an entire network of communication and information sources that allowed him to interfere in the game if necessary. And necessary it was. He had planted a rumor in various channels, one that would give Roj Kell a hard time, should he choose to leave Korriban. Knowledge, as the old man claimed, was the sole weapon one ever needed and Sidious had done the only thing he could do right now, apart from flying out there and confronting the ancient Sith. By turning Kells knowledge against him he could have him on the run and distracted for as long as it would take Thrawn to bring him down. And the Grand Admiral was not the only one who valued information above anything else. Brokers such as Talon Karrde would also be on the ancient ones trail. The rumors message was simple: somewhere out there was a man who knew more than anyone else alive. It did not specify the fields of his knowledge though. Let them guess...They would try to catch him anyway. The situation was too desperate not to take chances.
Some years back, when his scientists had assured him that such a thing could work, he had speculated on using a flash-print of Kells memory to finally break the bonds that still held him to his former teacher. And he had taken great delight in telling the old man just that. But Roj Kell had surprised him yet again. Growling softly Sidious closed his eyes, remembering the old mans cool gaze as he had dropped to his knees before him, surrendering his mind to him for the very first time. He had been spell-bound instantly.
Shaking with anticipation he lay his hands on Kells forehead gently as if that precious vessel of infinite wisdom might break under his delicate touch. The others breathing was deep and calm, his mind a tightly harnessed chaos that threatened to devour Sidious when he let himself slip past the lowered shields and barriers. For a second a primal fear took him into a suffocating grip as he realized that Kell needed only so little to trap him now. He could fight and defeat him, yes, but that moment of helplessness made him gasp with delicious dread. Shaking his head slowly he concentrated again. There was so much there. Too much. He felt dizzy from even trying to understand what the snippets of emotions and sounds and pictures and sensations meant at all. For a long time he fought the onslaught viciously, trying to control its flow by sheer force of will. To no avail. With a frustrated howl he let go again and in his rage flung the old man across half the room, a furious snarl fixed on his face.
"I do not need that!" he screamed. Then, making an effort at calming himself again, he added. "I do not need you."
Roj Kell smiled coldly as he rose deliberately slow, knowing full well that he had better not enrage the Sith Master further. When he spoke at last his voice was a gentle caress. "Chaos is what you seek, Lord Sidious, chaos is the essence of your very being. It is what gives you power." He walked toward him with measured steps, gliding across the floor majestically, his eyes sparkling in the gloom eerily. A slight frown appeared on his brow and was gone again. "But there is much order in chaos, if one knows how to read the patterns properly."
And that had been it. Sidious had realized that he would never be able to understand the ancient Siths mind. It would take too much time, too much effort. Kell could analyse a given situation in a heart-beat, using his experience and memory, handling a flood of information any machine would take decades to decipher and decode logically. But since that day things had changed between them. Even though he seemed reluctant about it, Roj Kell had answered his questions more freely, and his input had become a reliable source of information and analysis. Until now. Now Sidious had to think very hard on what purpose Kell might have pursued with his strategy, how his answers had manipulated his former student and to what end his scheme would come.
The musky, moist scent of the swamp filled the young Jedi's nose with its unmistakable fragrance as he hopped off his X-wings canopy upon the soft ground. Looking around, Luke smiled in remembrance of the long hours he had spent here under Master Yoda's tutelage, the exercises, the bitter defeats and disappointments. And meeting his father, still a stranger to his son back then.
"Returned you have, young Skywalker," the Jedi Masters voice rang clear and strong through the low hum of the jungle noises.
"To end my training," Luke answered, not without some pride, and turned to face Yoda.
"Yes, time it is to end what you have begun. Follow me." Gathering his gear together and lowering Artoo from his perch, Luke could not shed the feeling that there was more to Yodas words than he could fathom.
Leia was calmly studying her fathers expression over the top of the small table separating them. He had his eyes closed, deeply in thought, and she had been waiting for almost an hour for any reaction from his side. Another lesson in patience. And she was getting good at it. At first she would ponder all the things that had happened during the day, evaluate their meaning and importance, sort through them for as long as it took her to get the lines and connections straight, until she could see how all of it fit together somehow. Knowledge, her father had taught her, was the key to wisdom. And slowly she began to understand the magnitude of that teaching and it fascinated her. This was the way his mind worked and it was truly intriguing to trace his thoughts and compare them to her own. It was a great way of learning and she was quietly asking herself if Luke's training was anything like hers. Somehow she doubted it.
"A game," he said suddenly, trying to startle her, but Leia had anticipated him.
"I am ready," she answered and smiled when he opened his eyes.
"Very good. Imagine a base, three hangars, which function as exits and entrances at the same time. It is additionally secured by a planetary shield. You will defend, I will attack. Clear?"
"Good. A frontal assault with heavy machinery. No fighters. I have five heavy cruisers in orbit. Your shield is still intact. Make your move."
"How many ships do I have?"
"I do not know. Tell me."
"Well. Assume that our fleets are equal. "
"Okay. My troops will defend the shield and attack your ground forces, while my ships occupy yours."
"Knowledge, Leia, is to never ever trust your eyes, to never trust what your enemy wants you to believe. Do you understand?"
Leia narrowed her eyes, then nodded sharply: "I understand. Let us begin anew."
"Again, the same attack. What do you do?"
"I send a third of my troops to defend the shield, a third to defend the exits and another third to stop the advancing ground troops."
Just then Leia's comm chimed. Sighing, she accepted the call: "Yes?"
"Princess," a female voice answered, "I have the files ready that you wanted."
"Excellent. I will be with you in a minute." Deactivating the comm Leia looked up at her father apologetically: "I fear that we will have to postpone the battle until tonight. It seems that my investigation is making some progress."
"Very good. Meet me at my quarters at 700 tonight. Bring your combat dress." Standing up he gave her a tiny smile: "And until we meet I want you to think about two things: your troops and your motivation."
"I will. How did I do this time?"
"I am sorry having to tell you that you lost again."
"Do not worry. It will all become clear in time. And we do have time, for now."
"Good. I will leave you to your investigation then."
Leia watched him go pensively. Motivation? What did he mean? Just as the door slid close behind him her comm blurted again.
"The Millennium Falcon has just arrived."
"Finally some good news. Thank you."
Han Solo wore a smug smile on his lips as he walked forward to embrace the Princess. But before he could reach her, a huge shadow placed itself between them. Looking up at Anakin Skywalker Han for once wished that he could forget who the man was, or had been. But he couldnt. Not yet.
"You will join me in my office now," the Dark Lord ordered him coolly, without sparing even one glance for his daughter. Han turned towards Leia, shrugging uncomfortably. "See you later," he sighed and stalked after Skywalker. It was not that he had to fear anything from the man. He had succeeded on his mission after all. But there was still that fear lurking at the corners of his mind that Vader was just playing with them. Maybe he should talk to Leia about it and get some answers from her.
"So, what are we going to do with that nice little toy?" he asked when they were finally there and had both taken a seat.
"I am sure you can guess. We will install corresponding units in each of our Imperial ships."
"And the central unit?"
"We will find a quiet place for it somewhere, no doubt."
"Have you heard anything from Jix and Mara?"
"Not yet. But they will be back soon. I am giving the task of overseeing the installation to you. Make it quick. And report once you are finished."
"Is there anything else, Solo?"
"Just one question: who are we going to attack?"
"None of your concern. By the way, what did you offer Karrde in return for this?"
"I told him that I would get Jabba out of his way."
"I have no idea. You dont, by any chance, have some suggestions?"
Smiling, Anakin Skywalker leaned forward conspiratively: "I have just been waiting for you to ask."
"I knew it."
Captain Piett stood quietly on the bridge of the Relentless. They were ready to leave the system, had been for more than ten hours. But the Grand Admiral had been delayed. He had been summoned by the Emperors advisors, in Pietts mind men more dangerous and devious than anyone in the Imperial Navy. He shuddered with revulsion at the mere thought of these pasty-faced, purple-robed maggots with those cold, cold eyes. A den of vipers, that was what the Imperial Court was. And Thrawn had walked right into it. And he wasnt back yet. Maybe his feeling so nervous was justified after all.
"Captain," the Admirals well-modulated voice ended his dark broodings. Turning around Piett gave him a tiny smile:
"You are back, sir. Does this mean that we can leave now?"
"Indeed, it does. Although I had a hard time convincing those fools that Coruscant has nothing to fear."
"If you say so."
"You doubt my words, Captain?"
"Forgive me, Admiral."
"No, please. What did you want to say?"
"Well, the virus attack has literally ripped our belly open. If we leave now, the rebels will surely strike."
"They have made no attempt until now. And remember, Captain, our opponent is toying with us. He is trying to push us in one direction, we are pushing the other way. The capital will be safe for now. After all, he has just rid Coruscant of any strategic value. It is nothing but a symbol now. And he is not one for symbolism. No, Captain, the real battle will take place somewhere else."
Anakin Skywalker looked up from his computer screen and eyed the shadowy figure standing in front of his desk coolly: "No one saw you arrive?" She nodded. Sliding a datacard across the table, he closed the files: "Good. Then Karrde is taken care of. I have another task for you. And then you will return to Korriban."
She took the datacard, but hesitated before she said: "Lord Kell says you should take more care in deploying your troops."
"Does he now. Well, I do not care. If I make last-minute changes he is not to criticize them."
"I will tell him."
When she had left, his eyes narrowed slightly, became blue pits of ice for just a second. She did not belong to him anymore. As he no longer belonged with them.
"Peace," Master Yoda whispered and Luke straightened up, standing tall, his eyes closed. He tried to regain his composure, his calm, then continued to expand his mind outward. The most difficult thing was to go beyond the limited imagination of a farm boy. But he had learned so much in the past months. He would do it.
Yoda watched his student proudly. Luke was learning fast, and he was controlling his impatience. He had a natural sense for justice and the right deed at the right moment. He knew when to stand back. But there was still an innocence to him that the old Jedi Master hesitated to take away, but it made him vulnerable to the Dark Side. The day would come soon when Luke would have to face it. Knowing the boys father, Anakin would turn that lesson into a most unpleasant experience for his son. For they had agreed that it would be up to the Dark Lord to put Luke through the trials. And no one knew better than him what the young Jedi would have to face.
"The next lesson, Luke, is about knowledge and invincibility."
Mara was breathing hard, trying to suppress the pain she felt. Jix presence though was distracting. "Go away!" she hissed, but he simply shook his head. Taking another deep breath, she let her anger at his disobedience bleed out of her mind into his body. She watched him rise up and crash into the wall with a loud thud, but he did not seem to be surprised at all.
Picking himself up from the floor, Jix shrugged his shoulders once, then smiled: "I remember Vader trying to impress me with that too, but he used a bit more force. Why wont you just take these painkillers?"
"Because I know you. If I am not awake you will try landing this baby on your own."
"I will wake you up, I promise."
She shook her head weakly: "No way."
"Come on, trust me."
"Trust you? You must be kidding."
"Hey, I saved your life. Doesnt that count for something?"
"Maybe it was part of your orders."
Jix sighed. He should never have told her about his suspicions concerning their mission. Vader had given them both the same task: delete the Coruscant mainframe. At the first glance it looked like simple precaution, but Vader knew his agents, knew that they would not fail. Under normal circumstances. But now Thrawn was back.
Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the best strategists the Empire had ever seen. Mara knew about him and she had told Jix that Vaders move could only mean that he had known about Thrawns return beforehand. And, naturally, in the state she was in now, injured and helpless, dependent on a man who had once been her enemy, Mara had withdrawn and distrusted everyone and everything. But she needed rest, that he knew for sure. Sighing again he walked over to sit on the edge of her bunk.
"Mara, you need to sleep."
"I do?" she answered weakly, but with defiance.
He smiled: "Yep." Moving lightning quick he slapped the painkiller he had hidden in his palm against the side of her neck. She stared at him, shocked. Grinning, Jix patted her cheek patronizingly: "You know, that patch suits you really well," he said. Mara growled something unintelligible before sleep overwhelmed her. He sat by her side for a while longer, just watching. And he found that he had never felt as much as ease as he did when he was with her. Boy, would she be mad when she woke again.
"Your fleet?" Leaning forward again, he sought her gaze expectantly.
Leia hesitated: "I have them attack your ships."
"All right. My troops attack your ground forces, you are forced to relocate the troops inside the base to hold them back. Do you still want to defend the shield?"
"How is my fleet progressing?"
"If you are asking me, they are losing."
She grimaced in disgust: "I have them release their fighters."
"To what purpose, Leia? My agents are overwhelming your troops inside the base. You are beaten anyway."
"I dont understand "
"Then let me explain. First, a question: what is your motivation to fight?"
"I am defending the base."
"Because it is part of the exercise."
"Wrong. I told you that you are defending the base. I am your enemy. Never let your enemy dictate your actions. It has to be the other way around. Trust is not something you can afford."
"No but. Know your troops, know your enemy, and more important, know yourself. He is here because you want him to be here."
"Father, I cannot plan on everything!"
"But that is what you have to do. Control the enemy. Make him move the way you want him to. Attack where no attack is expected and defend where no defense is expected. This base is of no importance."
"How am I supposed to know that?"
"The most important weapons in a war are knowledge and planning."
She sighed: "I am a diplomat, not a strategist."
"You have to be both to succeed."
"This is no game, am I right?"
He nodded, smiling: "Life never is a game, Leia. Keep that in mind. And now we will do something else."
"Do I need the combat dress?"
"All right. Can I ask you something?"
"Did you put Mother through these mind games too?"
"We had real life to deal with."
She was walking cautiously, as if the ground might break underneath her feet. Chandrila had changed over the years, just like everything else. The city itself was pleasant enough, except for the presence of Imperial stormtroopers. Eyeing them warily, she sought the crowded streets around the main plaza, hiding her small, slim form in the mass of bodies around her. If she remembered correctly, her contacts shop was right behind the plaza, to the North. She had thought long and hard about what to tell him, what to ask. In the end the truth had been the only possibility. Fighting against tears of shame and anger rimming her dark eyes, she lowered her face to the ground, clenching her hands into fists in an effort to control her emotions. A long time ago that kind of control had been second nature to her, but yes, a lot had changed.
When she entered the shop she almost didnt recognize him. His hair, pitch-black in his youth, had turned a stark white, and his brown eyes had lost their warmth. "Kit," she whispered and smiled.
He swallowed once, stared at her disbelieving, then rushed out from behind the counter to embrace her tightly: "Oh my stars. You are back. I was so worried when I heard..." Trailing off he sought her eyes, "You know, dont you?" She nodded, her eyelids fluttering. For a moment hatred and fury fought love and despair and won.
"He has deserved it," she stated bitterly, her voice hard.
He took a step back, shaking his head: "Yes. Maybe. But what is more important is that you are here and alive. How can I help you?"
Sighing deeply she let her tears flow freely for once. "Thank you," she sobbed and threw her arms around him. "You cannot imagine how lonely I was, how desperate."
He patted her head gently, carefully, as if she might break under his big, powerful hands. "Why did you not come earlier?"
Her head came up sharply and her dark eyes narrowed dangerously.
"How could I? How? Tell me how I could have avoided his hunters, avoided himself. If he had found me... Obi-Wan is dead too."
"It is true. He killed him." His mouth hardened slightly.
"I haven't seen them in a long time. But I know that they are alive."
"What will you do now?"
"I will find them. That is why I came. You have to help me, Kit."
"Whatever you need."
"I have to contact the Alliance. My children are with them. But I do not know where to start."
Kit shook his head slowly: "I cannot help you there. But I know someone who could. Governor Tieman is friendly to the Rebellion. Maybe he knows something."
"Tieman," she pursed her lips thoughtfully, "I remember him. He is Naboo."
Looking back up at Kit, she smiled and squeezed his arm affectionately, then turned around to leave. Heard him call her name.
"May the Force be with you."
Luke Skywalker was tailor-seated on the soft ground, tendrils of mist wrapping themselves around his body, covering his cheeks with moist kisses. He did not even feel it. The sounds of the jungle had been muted to a low whisper, so that nothing could distract him, or break his concentration.
Invincibility, Master Yoda had taught him, meant to know oneself intimately, to know one's flaws and errors in order to erase them. Luke knew that once he had reached this perfected state he would be ready. But until then he would have to keep on improving his skills.
It was not easy though, having to bear his own scrutinizing gaze on his thoughts and emotions.
Standing apart from himself he could examine his own vulnerabilities and weaknesses better. Weaknesses: his innocence, lack of experience and impatience. Vulnerabilities: his friends and family, his sense for justice. But how to overcome those? Calling up the words of the Jedi Code in front of his inner eye, Luke's mouth hardened. He could not allow himself to let emotion get in the way of his duties. But then, experience was something he could only gain with time and exposure to the rest of the world. He could not stay here forever, musing about philosophy.
"Impatience, young Skywalker, the key to defeat it is," Master Yoda said quietly. Luke shook himself out of his trance and turned to face his teacher.
"It is not impatience, Master, it is the simple truth."
Yoda smiled and nodded: "Right you are. Experience you cannot learn here. But more lessons I have to teach you yet."
Standing up, Luke bowed towards the ancient Jedi earnestly: "Then teach me."
"Excuse me, your lordship." Rolling his eyes in exasperation Anakin Skywalker stopped in mid-stride, which was, considering his usual energetic and fast pace, not such an easy feat. He managed gracefully though and turned towards the speaker with a slight, mocking bow. "Mon Mothma," he said, smiling at her.
She stood next to General Dodonna at the rear of the 'Liberty's' bridge, a very good position to intercept her object of interest just after he had finished his daily round on the fleet's flagship. And he had obviously not managed to slip past her unnoticed, the way he would have preferred to. Holding her head high she arched her eyebrows coolly and returned his smile: "We need to talk, it would seem."
He nodded sharply, but did not bother to hide his displeasure at this unwelcome disruption of the flow of his planning. What did she want? Following both her and the general to the bridge's debriefing room, Anakin already was working on how to make up for the time this unnecessary meeting would cost him.
"Please, take a seat," the rebel leader told him amiably and gestured towards one of the chairs. But he hesitated shortly before taking the offer, throwing a suspicious glance at Dodonna, who stood a meter or so behind him.
"Will General Rieekan be joining us also?"
She simply nodded, but her eyes seemed distant. Anakin frowned slightly, then reached out with the Force and let his mind slip into hers very gently.
She was worried and he did not need the Force to guess that she was worrying about him. Apparently Mon Mothma doubted his loyalty. And most likely the entire Rebel High Command with her. "Lord Vader," she admonished him, shaking her head slightly. He would not pretend that he had done nothing to her and simply shrugged apologetically.
Just then Rieekan entered, threw a hard glance at the Dark Lord and took up his place standing about two meters away from Dodonna, legs planted wide apart. Anakin turned his head and smiled lazily at the two generals. They tried to ignore the unspoken threat behind his friendly expression, staring straight ahead. Laughing quietly he leaned back in chair slowly.
"What is this supposed to be? An interrogation?"
"That depends on you entirely."
"Get to the point."
"Very well. Lord Vader, we are concerned."
"In what way?"
"Let us show you something that was recorded two days ago on Hoth."
He had a bad feeling about this. And really, as the scene unfolded on the holoproj he could feel his old anger stir in the back of his mind, building slowly but inevitably into a roaring fire of outrage. He dared!
"Your explanation, Lord Vader?"
Mon Mothma shied away from his suddenly impossibly cold eyes.
"An agent of mine. Nothing more. I sent her on an errand."
"What errand? And how many agents are you hiding from us?"
Clenching his jaw he kept silent, trying to calm himself. She had done that on purpose, it was the only explanation for her blundering.
"There is a Super-class Star Destroyer under construction at the Kuat Drive Yards. She will make sure that it does not fall into the wrong hands."
He turned to look at Mon Mothma's smiling face, disbelieving. "A joke? You are turning this into a joke?" he growled.
"Calm down. You will introduce that agent to us. And no more secrets, Lord Vader. I want to know exactly how you are going to defeat the Imperial Navy. Now."
"The whole plan?" he smiled at her.
"We know your original plan, Lord Vader, but from the recent defeats we deduce that changes will have to be made or maybe have already been made."
"Indeed," his eyes narrowed slightly. "What defeats?"
Leia Organa had her eyes closed and was trying to relax. She had spent half the day sorting through the files of possible Imperial spies hidden among the rebels. Her father had not given her any time frame, so she tried to check everyone connected with a failed undercover mission. For there the most damage could be done by an enemy agent.
So far she had not been too successful. A lot of suspects, but none of them really caught her immediate attention, the way her father had said it should be. Trust your instincts, he had told her, right after a lesson on paying no attention to emotion in battle. But this was no battle. At least not in the common sense.
"Have you made any progress?"
Rubbing sleepy eyes she sighed, the sigh turning into a hearty yawn.
"You are tired. Go to bed." Leia shook her head slowly. "Is that the list?" he asked, pointing over her shoulder at the screen.
"Yes." His right index finger moved down, hesitated: "That name." Suddenly wide awake the Princess leaned forward.
"This one? What about it?" Turning her head she frowned up at him.
"Clear it from the list."
Leia smiled knowingly: "One of yours?"
He nodded: "Clear it."
"Of course," Leia did as ordered. When the name was no longer part of the list she stared at the space it had previously occupied, feeling curiously empty. "Strange."
"That name. I just had the feeling that it was wrong todelete it."
"You are getting good at that."
"Reading emotions." Again she turned to look at his face.
"Was it wrong to clear the name?"
"We shall see."
Leia was staring at him, as he leaned at the viewport's frame, a shadow against the darkness of space. His eyes were the only feature of his face that she could make out. And they frightened her. Something had changed, she could feel it. He had withdrawn from her, and she had to admit that she did not like that at all.
"Your friends distrust me."
"Yes. But I am sure that will change."
"They are trying to control me, and I do not like that at all."
"I am sorry to hear that."
"This is intolerable, Leia."
"But not my fault."
When he closed those burning eyes Leia inwardly heaved a sigh of relief. It had been hard looking at them, but her pride forbade her to simply avoid his gaze. They had shared so much in the past days and she did not want him to go back to being nothing more than a warlord doing his job.
Leia felt her scalp tingle. A warlord. Preparing for battle. The revelation sent her mind reeling and his suddenly whispered words nearly made her jump:
"As it turns out part of my orders have been recalled. We have suffered some losses."
"Do you think they know that you are alive?"
He smiled coldly: "Not yet."
Padmé was sitting on the edge of a small fountain, her legs hidden underneath her long, blood-red skirt, and waited, the way she had for the last three days while pondering the question on how to best approach Tieman. Her dark eyes' scrutinizing gaze never left the entrance of the building opposite from her: the governor's palace. Today he would receive local petitioners and already a throng of people had assembled in front of the huge gates to the palace. Padmé's mouth twisted in distaste. That there were so many told her two things: that people were not content with life on Chandrila, and that Governor Tieman was obviously well-liked. They trusted him. And that was a rare emotion these days, concerning any Imperial official.
When the gates slowly opened she stood and walked over unhurriedly, joining the crowd. She wrapped a red shawl around her head carefully, hiding all of her face except for the dark eyes. Slipping through the people pressed tightly together she wrestled her way to the front with surprising strength and continued her waiting. It didn't take long before the first group of petitioners was led into the palace. Padmé kept her face turned to the floor, ignoring the cold beauty of the hallways.
She had known Tieman for a long time and sincerely hoped that he could help her. No, he was obliged to help her in any way he could. Walking into the grand reception hall her first glance sought his face. Aged, worn, tired, were the words that came to her mind when she saw him sitting there. And then she was led towards him. Lowering herself to one knee demurely, Padmé closed her eyes for a moment to regain her calm, then turned her face up to meet his eyes.
He stared down at her, mouth slightly agape, then swallowed once. Waving his aide forward he whispered something, gesturing at the still kneeling woman. The aide nodded gently, then helped Padmé rise again. "My lady, if you would follow me?" he murmured at her with a smile and she nodded, letting him guide her towards a small door behind the governor's chair.
He offered a seat to her and left again, leaving her to examine her new surroundings closely. Here too only few furniture was spaced widely throughout the room. Clear lines and colors dominated. She smiled to herself. As straight and unbending as Tieman himself. Sighing she unwrapped the shawl and draped it around her shoulders, the soft fabric caressing her bare arms. It was a feeling that reminded her of times long past, of Naboo, the sunlit terrace, his hands on her shoulders, easing away the tension of the day.
No. She would not think of him now. That traitor. Suddenly angry, Padmé tore the long shawl away and threw it on the floor. Still upset she stood abruptly and walked over to the window, pounding a fist hard against the glass. A shame it did not break. She really needed to
She jumped when she heard the door open suddenly behind her. Where had her self-control gone to anyway? Turning around gracefully Padmé put on her most queenly expression. And stared. Tieman was not alone. A man was standing at his side, his pale eyes studying her intently. Despite the poor garments he wore she could see an experienced soldier in his rigid posture and hard gaze.
"We can speak freely, my friend," Tieman said with a smile and Padmé caught herself before she could utter an ironic remark on the court rules. He had not meant her, after all. Resuming her seat, she kept on watching the two men. The soldier was still looking at her, even as Tieman led him further away.
The man watched the stranger with interest. Her beauty was intriguing: haughty, sad, proud and otherworldly. A queen, that was what she was. Had to be. He smiled at her faintly.
"Lorth, I can think of only one reason for you to be here."
Turning around to face Tieman, the Captain nodded once.
"And your answer?"
"I need some assurance, my friend."
"We will win. With your help we will."
"What do you need?"
"Your promise that you will surrender the planet to us when the time is right."
"What about the Imperial garrison?"
"As I recall, the Tarkin Doctrine has given the governors complete and total control of their systems. Am I right?"
Tieman laughed: "In theory, yes. But with what has happened recently the military is acting as if they ruled Chandrila."
"Do not worry about them. What about the local rebels?"
"You want to contact them?"
"I may have to, but for now I have another question: who is she?"
Both men turned to face the small woman sitting as quiet as a statue on a chair in front of the tall window overlooking the open plaza. Tieman took Needa's arm and led him over to the window.
Lowering himself down on one knee he dragged the Captain down with him. Needa shot him a questioning, slightly bewildered glance, but knelt too.
"Rise, my friend," she said softly, but Needa noticed the cold edge in her voice.
Tieman did as ordered and the Captain frowned at the woman deeply.
"Lorth, this Queen Amidala of the Naboo."
"An honor, Your Majesty," he answered, bowing slightly. Naboo. What a coincidence. Or was it? When he looked up again she was smiling at him. So he had been right with his assumption.
"Tieman is exaggerating. I fear that I am not a queen anymore. I am simply Padmé Naberrie now. And who am I addressing?"
"I am Lorth Needa, formerly Captain of the Imperial Navy." He saw her straighten and tense. "But not anymore."
"So you serve the Rebellion now?"
"I am pleased to hear that."
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty, but I fear that I cannot stay any longer." Facing Tieman again he gave the governor a sharp nod. "Will you think about my offer?"
"Good. I will contact you again."
Tieman squeezed the Captain's shoulder in a friendly manner and smiled: "Best of luck to you, my friend."
"And to you."
Padmé watched Needa leave pensively. He had seemed taken aback at hearing her name. What did he know about her? Hopefully not too much.
"My Queen," Tieman began, but she silenced him with a gesture of her hand.
"Please. These times are over. Forever."
Suddenly the comm fastened at the governor's collar beeped discreetly.
"What is it?"
"Governor, the Star Destroyer Relentless has announced its arrival."
"The 'Relentless. Are you sure?"
"Thank you. I will welcome the Admiral here. Please send the rest of today's petitioners away and prepare everything."
Padmé saw him take a deep breath. Frowning, her gaze turned instinctively towards the window, as if the warship was already looming over the city.
"What does it mean?"
"Your Majesty, the Relentless is the flagship of the new Imperial commander. I do not know what he wants, but it would be a good idea for you to go back into hiding."
She hesitated. "I have a friend who is giving me shelter. But I would not want to endanger him..."
"I understand. And I will help you contact the rebels here."
Stepping closer to the forward viewport of the Grand Admiral's meditation chamber, Captain Piett looked down upon the green jewel of Chandrila. His homeworld. Behind him Thrawn had not stirred at all.
"Sir, if I may ask," his face hardened," why we are here?" If Thrawn wanted to press him into something by threatening that planet
"Captain, rest assured that your worries are unjustified."
Turning around slowly, Piett watched the alien Admiral rise gracefully and activate the two rings of holo-displays centering around his meditation chair. The images coming to life all around the dimly lit room, glowing in their own bluish light, brought back childhood memories. Piett remembered vases and statues like these standing on cupboards and tables in his parents' house.
"Then why are we here?"
"You are overstepping yourself, Captain. And I am warning you only once. This time."
"Very good." Studying the images intently, Thrawn started walking along the display-rings slowly. "You are a native of this planet, Captain. Would you describe the population as easily led or rather independent? "
Piett hesitated: "They trust in good leadership."
"Indeed. It makes them feel safe. Does it not?" Closing his eyes the Captain simply nodded. "These items are conveying to the onlooker a sense of great peace and profound calm. Nothing does disturb the surface. Perfect."
"Governor Tieman is no native. And my local informant tells me that he is conspiring with the rebels. A capital offence, don't you think?"
"We will need to talk to him, Captain."
"I will have your shuttle prepared immediately."
Wrenga Jixton concentrated on landing their ship on the icy deck of the Hoth base's South hangar, waiting for Mara's approval. But she simply snorted before heaving herself out of the copilot's chair to limp back into the ship's rec area.
He ignored her deliberately when he walked over to open the entry hatch. She did likewise.
"Do you want me to accompany you to the medical ward?" he asked her finally, sighing.
"That's all right. But let me tell you one thing: You got it all wrong."
"Really. Why don't you tell your favorite Uncle Dee?"
"I will, don't you worry."
Stalking through the icy corridors of the base, Jix was fuming. He would tell him all right.
Vader was seated at his desk, deeply immersed in reading some report.
"Jix. You are back," he said calmly.
"You bet I am."
"Your mission succeeded, I take it?"
"What about Mara?"
Vader looked up at him coolly. "What makes you think she did?"
"No, Jix. She did not fail at all."
"You had this planned."
"She could have died, you know?"
"Possibly. But I was certain that you would save her. And you did not disappoint me."
"You are mad, do you know that?"
"I do know that I don't like that sort of tone out of your mouth, Jixton."
"And you think I care?" Jix hissed in a low voice, truly angry. Leaning over the desk threateningly his blue eyes sought Vader's gaze.
"Calm down, will you?"
"I cannot believe this! She is too good to lose!"
"No need to tell me. But this will make her next mission that much more credible."
"Next mission? She is hardly in any shape for another mission!"
"Wrong. For this one her condition is just perfect."
"What are you gonna have her do then?"
"She will join Thrawn and keep an eye on him for me."
"And what will he get in turn for not having her executed on the spot for treason?"
"Some interesting information."
"You must be kidding."
"Not at all. I can contact Mara at any time and she will give me the information I need while we are distracting our precious Grand Admiral."
"No way. And besides, don't you think that just maybe she might have lost her trust in you?"
"Is it? Is it really? I shall say this only once, because I am pretty sure that the next time you will kill me: Mara is not the only one losing her trust in you. And if you lose your troops' trust you will lose their loyalty in the end."
Vader stared at him, cold blue eyes unblinking. His voice was a low growl when he hissed: "Go. Now."
Jix straightened abruptly: "Very well." Turning on his heels he took a few steps, then hesitated.
"You knew that Thrawn was back, didn't you?"
There was no answer. But he hadn't really expected one anyway.
Baring his teeth in a silent snarl Anakin Skywalker rose from his seat and, whirling around, smashed the computer screen with his left hand. It hurt, but that was just fine with him. It ought to. Staring at the broken glass, the sharp shards strewn across his desk, he shook his head furiously. He hated feeling on edge like this. Mon Mothma was trying to control him, Roj Kell deliberately countermanded his orders for Nuron, and Jix' outbreak had done nothing to ease the urgency he felt overcoming his senses slowly. Taking a deep breath, he fought down the angry fire burning in the back of his mind and left the room too.
"Interesting," was the Grand Admiral's only comment as he turned away from the mirror glass which allowed the two of them to look into the interrogation cell.
Piett didn't reply. He stared at Tieman's bruised and beaten form slumped over the chair beyond the window. Interesting indeed.
"Captain, have our troops search the planet. Alert the garrison to join the hunt."
"Yes, sir. What about him?"
"He will be executed, of course. Later. Come now, we have a traitor to capture."
Padmé had donned her brown combat uniform and her long hair was bound back in a simple braid. Tieman had given her detailed directions to the closest rebel camp. But it was not there anymore. Only burned bodies and earth remained. So. The Imperial troops had been faster. And someone was stalking her. Her lips tightening in a grim line she crawled back into the underbrush, moving deftly without making hardly any sound. But she could hear his breathing clearly. Turning around quickly she pressed the muzzle of her blaster to his forehead.
"What are you doing here?"
"I could ask the same of you."
"They are gone."
"Yes. I can see that. What do you propose to do now?"
"Come with me."
"Why should I trust you?"
"I cannot give you any reason save for your freedom, my Queen."
Padmé frowned, her thoughts congealing into a blank mass until she managed to defeat her own fear and distrust. The last time she had trusted anyone it had spelled disaster for all those she had ever loved. The last time... Shaking her head she gave Needa a tight smile.
Han Solo was pleased with his efforts. They had installed the units in every Star Destroyer they had and the central unit was safely embedded in the 'Liberty's' comm centre. Right now he was on his way to join Leia for dinner. She did look beautiful in a dark green combat suit and her chocolate eyes were sparkling in the dimly lit room. Eyeing the dinner table he felt his mouth watering.
"This looks just perfect."
"Hm-hm," he mumbled, kissing her deeply. Fending him off she laughed quietly:
"Come on, take a seat."
He did as ordered and smiled broadly at her. She was fairly glowing in his eyes and he knew that he loved her more than he ever had loved anyone before. The warm sensation of happiness filling him to bursting every time he looked at her was the only proof he needed.
"Have you uncovered the agents yet?"
She grimaced slightly: "Let's not talk about that now."
They ate in silence, each pondering their own thoughts and worries. Finally Han mused aloud:
"I've heard rumors..."
"The crews are talking, you know, about that mysterious, nameless ally we seem to have."
"I know. I have heard those too."
"I have talked to Father about it. He says that I should not worry about it."
"But if they find out who he is they will lynch him."
"Mon Mothma is suggesting to reveal his identity to the troops too. Not to his face, mind you. He is strictly against it."
She shrugged: "Part of his strategy, I would guess."
"I don't know, Han. I just think that he knows more than he is letting on."
"Yes. I get that impression too."
"Lord Vader, you here?" Mon Mothma greeted him cordially. He flashed her a smile and took a seat opposite from her.
"Do you remember me telling you about necessary deception and Imperial agents?"
"Good. The deception needs to hold for a little while longer. And I wanted to ask you to be patient until the time is right."
"People are already talking. I would rather tell them myself than have others do it."
"I think the same. But we have to hold on. For the sake of appearances."
"For the sake of appearances? What do you mean?"
"The Imperials think me dead. If they find out the truth we will be in trouble."
"Really? I would have thought that they would surrender more easily when knowing that you are leading our troops."
"A compliment. Charming. But unfortunately you are mistaken. By the way, my agents have returned from their latest mission."
"So I have heard."
"The debriefing starts in one hour."
"Good. I am looking forward to that."
Leaving the rebel leader's office Anakin could not help but smile to himself. If she thought that she had him under control she was in for a nasty surprise. Jix' report would shed light on a few things and if Mon Mothma was able to draw the right conclusions, and he knew she would, she would realize that controlling him would only blunt his edge. No. He needed to be able to move without having to justify his actions to anyone, or even reveal his plans beforehand. Especially with enemy spies around. She would realize it. And Jix would understand why losing the trust of his troops whas exactly what he was aiming at. In time he would.
Leia was eyeing her father closely. He was leaning against the wall, brooding, and ignored the quiet assembly totally. They were seated at the conference table. All of them, the entire Rebel High Command, Han, Chewie, and Jix, of course. Everyone except for Mara, who was still too weak to attend this meeting. Jix had just finished his report on the mission to Coruscant and there had been a heated discussion about the irresponsibility of having the mainframe deleted. Thus the icy silence filling the room. In the end it was Han who broke it, clearly weary of this and concerned about something else that Jix had said.
"I don't see a problem here. We have our own master strategist after all, right?"
All eyes turned towards the Dark Lord, who smiled faintly.
"I am afraid that Thrawn has beaten me in simulations for more times than I care to remember."
Leia watched Jix stare at her father suspiciously.
"And what are you planning to do now?"
"We will attack Obroa-Skai, of course."
"But they will expect us there," General Dodonna put in, exasperated.
"Yes and no."
"They will definitely expect an attack, but Thrawn will have concluded that I am trying to move him in a certain direction. And he will not tolerate that. This battle will be a test, our first exchange in real combat, where he can study my tactics. But he will strike in earnest somewhere else."
Mon Mothma gasped in surprise: "You sent Needa there on purpose, to discredit Tieman. Am I right?"
"Partly. Thrawn no doubt knew about Tieman's disloyalty. The governor's aide actually is a spy of the Imperial Court. And proper procedure," here he gave Mon Mothma a cold smile, "demand that Tieman be executed for treason."
"He is very well-liked by the population and our teams there have done good work. When he dies Chandrila will most certainly rebel. And we will support their efforts."
Mon Mothma stared at him, disbelieving. She shook her head slightly, closed her eyes. Leia smiled helplessly. What had they expected? He was cold, had to be. No need to be so surprised now.
"Will you lead the battle at Obroa-Skai yourself?" she asked her father quietly, anticipating his next move.
"No." She nodded, satisfied and he smiled at her proudly. Well done, he seemed to say.
But General Rieekan had no possibility to understand that exchange. Furious, he rose from his seat:
"But you just told us that this battle would be important!"
"Did I? I just said that Thrawn will expect to learn more about his opponent from it."
Now Mon Mothma got it: "But you will not grant him that opportunity."
"Exactly. General Dodonna will be in command of our fleet."
"Yes. If that is possible?" Anakin threw Dodonna a questioning glance and the man nodded slowly, indicating his approval.
Mon Mothma eyed the two of them speculatively, then rose form her seat:
"Lord Vader, although we all will have to get used to your methods I think it is time to put our distrust and enmities to rest. I give you full command of our fleet and troops." Staring hard at her generals she waited for them to grumble in acquiescence before continuing: "You will need someone to help you, no doubt."
"Good. I will find someone. Unless you want to choose yourself?"
"I trust your judgement there."
"Thank you. This meeting is closed."
Leia had an arm draped around Han's waist as they walked towards her quarters, and she leaned against his shoulder tiredly. It was good to feel his warmth at her side, his quiet strength, so much more soothing than her father's fiery presence that he knew so well to hide behind a cool exterior. They had ceased her strategy lessons some days ago. And his decision to take one of Mon Mothma's most trusted aides instead of his daughter told Leia that something else was going on. Anakin must realize that Mon Mothma had suggested this only to continue her control on a more subtle level. Despite that he had accepted. Clearly a concession on his part. But to what?
And this Thrawn. She could not believe that he had not known about him all along. He was playing with everyone, it seemed: the Alliance, the Imperials, even Jix and Mara.
She remembered that little conversation she had had with Jix after he had nearly run her over when storming out of the meeting room. "I heard that Mara is injured," she had told him gently and he had hissed back that it was not his fault, clearly convinced that her father had let the former Emperor's Hand run into that trap on purpose. Maybe he had. And most certainly he had his reasons for it.
Sitting on the edge of the infirmary bed Anakin watched Mara coolly. She was fast asleep and he would not disturb her. After all, she would need to regain her strength soon. Thrawn might not trust her at first, but if everything went as planned he would have no choice but to accept her help. And his sending a former Imperial, and furthermore Force-trained, agent to oversee Thrawn would soothe the Council immensely. Hopefully. They were suspicious enough. And he did not like their trying to interfere at all. No. Mara at Thrawn's side would benefit them both. Rising from his seat he threw a last glance at the sleeping agent and left.
"Jix!" the Corellian turned around to face him coldly.
"What do you want?"
"You will take a team and wipe out the agents Thrawn will no doubt send to uncover the files from Obroa-Skai."
"No. Then you are giving up?"
"No. I will not leave on any mission for you unless you tell me what you are planning."
"Jix, may I remind you that you agreed to follow my orders without questioning?"
"Maybe I will just leave."
"You haven't until now. And if you do I will kill you personally."
"Very convincing," Jix replied sarcastically and suppressed a small scream when Vader's hand shot out and grabbed his throat. But he caught himself quickly. "You tried that before," he croaked, "And it still doesn't work." When the Dark Lord increased his pressure on his throat Jix started choking. Still Vader did not stop.
"Too much is at stake here. You are lucky that I need you still." Close to losing his consciousness, his blood buzzing in his ears, Jix shivered when heard him whisper: "Do not try to defy me again, Wrenga Jixton." And then he blacked out.
Grand Admiral Thrawn was calmly studying the layout of the two fleets opposing each other over the peaceful planet of Obroa-Skai. The local government had tried hailing the Imperial fleet time and again, but Thrawn forbade any answer. "Let them worry," he had told Piett with a small smile and the Captain had simply nodded. Piett understood the importance of this battle too. It was a test, nothing more. It did not really matter who won it. They had received news from Coruscant that the damage done by the recent virus attack on the mainframe had been nearly repaired and that the city more or less functioned again. Meaning that this threat was over.
"Sir, they are moving," Piett said suddenly, keeping an eye on the advancing enemy ships.
"I can see that. Captain, have the Death's Head and the Chimaera move forward. Keep this ship on course and stand by."
Waiting, they watched the two Star Destroyers leave the protective line of the seven ships assembled on the Imperial side. The Rebels seemed to hesitate at first and Piett saw Thrawn's lips twitch in disgust. Then three ships moved over to intercept the Chimaera, whose position put them closer to the other armada than her sister ship.
"They will attack us from the rear. Release our fighters to intercept them."
"He is playing again, Captain."
"What do you mean?"
"That is not him leading those troops. This attack is too unimaginative for that. Which leaves the question where he is now. Captain, inform Captain Palleon of the Chimaera that he is to take over here. We are leaving. Set course for Chandrila."
"The Relentless is leaving," General Dodonna announced with a smile and turned around to face his crew. "Let's give our boys down there some more time and then we are out of here." When the comm officer waved discreetly to get his attention his smile froze.
"What is it?"
"It is a call from High Command."
"A call from?" Dodonna began, then rushed forward to take the call.
"Are they gone?" Vader asked coolly.
"Yes, the flagship has just left the system."
"Good, very good. Would you mind my taking over?"
"No," Dodonna answered weakly, "not at all."
Wrenga Jixton slipped into the empty hallway noiselessly and raised his hand slowly. The other five team members remained in their position and waited for him to move again. When he did they followed closely. He did not take any notice of them. His mind was on something else. And that was not good on a mission like this. Trying to concentrate, Jix' thoughts nevertheless once again slipped back to his discussion with Vader back on Hoth. Discussion! Jix snorted loudly, earning himself a few bewildered looks from his teammates. Vader was trying to push him into rebelling against him. Why, he did not care, but he knew one thing: he would not let the Sith do this to him.
"Jix," Page hissed from behind.
"We have to go in now. We are running out of time."
Walking the crowded corridors of the Dominator towards the bridge, Anakin Skywalker frowned deeply. The plan had moved well into its second phase and everything was in the right place. Now to move on to number three. The battle of Obroa-Skai was decided and Dodonna could handle mopping up easily. Jix would take care of the Imperial agents and bring back Mara's present for Thrawn: the missing files he would need very soon. Laughing softly, he shook his head. He loved this game. And once phase three was finished, he would be free to move on.
Thrawn had no choice but to believe that his opponent would strike on Chandrila. And he would not grant him any advantage. Anakin had ordered five cruisers to intercept the Relentless before it could reach the planet. Unfortunately that would not save Tieman, but he had to make this sacrifice. Once Chandrila joined the Rebellion, the Empire would seek revenge. At least that was what everyone would expect. Who cared that Thrawn' methods usually were much subtler than that? No one. Entering the bridge, he strode up to the viewport briskly and stared down at the ice planet of Hoth. Leia was down there, with Solo, no doubt. He had stopped her training for a while because he felt that it demanded too much of her at times. She had other obligations too. To herself, to the Rebels.
Just like he had his own obligations to someone else.
Holding the handle of his lightsaber tightly, Luke at the same time tried to keep his wrists flexible. He gave his opponent a sharp nod and concentrated. Opposite from him Obi-Wan Kenobi smiled and moved forward. Fighting a specter was, of course, not an ideal condition for improving his swordplay, but Master Yoda had refused to go beyond the theory. Luke didn't mind. Slashing his in a wide arc, he pushed his former teacher in the defensive, at the same time testing his reactions. The Jedi Master ducked out of the way instead of moving back and Luke just barely avoided the other's spectral blade.
Slightly surprised, he whirled around his opponent in a half-circle, stopped abruptly and turned back again. As expected, Obi-Wan had followed his movements and now had left his right side unprotected. Striking quickly, Luke had the satisfaction of seeing his teacher jump in surprise. Calling a break, Obi-Wan frowned at his student: "You are good. Much better than you should be after this short period of training." Luke's face was flushed not only with exhaustion and he avoided the other's scrutinizing gaze, busying himself with massaging his wrists.
"I practised a bit on my own," he answered finally.
"Only a bit?" The Jedi Master laughed: "I think even your father would have a hard time standing against you." The young Jedi was beaming with pride. "Once you have learned to defend yourself better," Obi-Wan added dryly and attacked again.
He stared at the small man sitting in the visitor chair in front of his desk, eyeing the office shyly. A bespeckled pale face, thick dark hair, light green eyes. "Who are you?" Anakin asked suspiciously. The man jumped up and inclined his head with a timid smile.
"Mon Mothma sent me. I am your new aide."
"Then you must be Jay Gerran."
"I have read your resume and your latest accomplishments. I am very pleased with Mon Mothma's choice."
"Thank you, sir."
Anakin smiled at him cruelly: "You know who I am?"
The man uttered a nervous laugh: "No, not really."
"Well, I have heard rumors."
"People say that, well. Some think that you are a Sith."
"Actually they are right. But I hope that won't bother you, Gerran."
"No, sir," the man answered weakly and swallowed once.
"Good. Here is your first task. You will inform the Captains of the following ships that I want to see them in five hours."
Just then Wrenga Jixton stormed into the room and stopped short upon spotting Gerran.
"I am back. Who the hell is that?"
"May I introduce Jay Gerran to you."
"Gerran. Great. What is he doing here?"
"He is my new aide."
"Can I talk to you? In private?"
"Of course. Gerran, I am sure you know what you have to do." Handing over a datacard Anakin dismissed the aide with a distant smile.
"Yes, sir." Throwing a suspicious and yet startled look at Jix, the man left.
The agent was grinning broadly at his retreating back. "What a twerp," he commented.
"Yes. Definitely. What do you want?"
Whirling around again to face him, Jix' face became grim:
"I just wanted to tell you that I won't let you push me around. If you are trying to make me quit, you won't succeed."
"I never would do that," the Dark Lord answered innocently.
"No? Good. What is my next assignment?"