Dengar stood on the bridge of the Star Destroyer with a strange feeling of deja vu, only this time there was only him standing waiting for commands.
The air-conditioning was pelting out cold air just by his barely healed legs, making them ache.
He suppressed a sigh; the Imperials thought little of bounty hunters, even when they had to use them, although he had heard that this Grand Admiral was different. Apparently not.
He rocked back and forth on his heels surreptitiously, trying to get some life back into his legs.
Eventually, a young officer appeared and requested for him to follow. Dengar revised his ideas about Thrawn being different, for the officer was very unusual for an Imperial. The officer was a woman. He followed, admiring her neat bottom moving inside the tight trousers she wore.
Some things never changed, however, he thought, watching as the staff they passed cringed away from him, and then turned to whisper to each other, contempt written all over their faces.
As they progressed down the white corridors, Dengar realised, even with his limited experience of Star Destroyers, that he was being led to the admiral’s official chambers. They had gone down several levels in the cramped lifts that these old ships tended to have.
The officer, though young, had stood stiffly and impassively all the while; not ignoring his presence exactly, but not acknowledging him either. Clearly she also thought that he was no more than the scum most Imperials thought all bounty hunters to be, but was too professional to let it show.
Finally, they reached their destination. The officer punched a code into the door, and it slid open without a sound. Dengar steeled himself to meet the fabled Grand Admiral, but when he looked around, he saw only an empty antechamber.
Voices could be heard on the other side of the next closed door. Dengar could not make them out at first; then a female voice shouted out quite clearly, “well, I don’t see why we have to deal with bounty hunters -” Dengar heard the loathing in the woman’s voice just as clearly, and it got louder, implying the owner of the voice was approaching rapidly, “when our weaponry should rip out their bases with ease! Grand Admiral Thrawn, I think you are misguided in the extreme!”
A woman burst through the door in front of him, dressed in the tight black uniform that marked her as a general; she paused very slightly when she realised that she was not alone in the room, her cold gaze swept over him and her lip curled up into a sneer.
The young officer stood without moving, hardly breathing, and stared resolutely ahead of her; he tried to copy her stance, and refused to meet the woman’s eye. She swept out of the room, and the door closed behind her.
Only after she had gone did the officer move forward and walk smartly into the room beyond, her face expressionless. He watched her stop in front of the desk, click her heels together and salute.
“The bounty hunter has been brought to your chamber, sir!”
A surprisingly quiet voice answered her, “very well, bring him in.”
Within a minute he was standing in front of the highest ranking officer left to the Empire, letting the Admiral’s red eyes assess him. A tall, solidly built humanoid with pale blue skin, Thrawn looked imposing in the white uniform that denoted his rank. He studied Dengar for a moment before speaking, but again, when he did, it was in a dangerously mild voice.
“So, you are Dengar, are you not? A seasoned bounty hunter whose successes are only slightly more innumerable than his credits - or so I am told.” He leaned forward suddenly, and pleasant edge went out of his voice. “And yet you have consistently failed when Boba Fett has also been in the race.”
There was a tight, breathless pause. Then, the half smile returned to the man’s face and he said, “that must rankle. To know that you are so nearly the best of your type, and just to have one above you.”
Dengar felt anger rise in him.
“Sir,” he began, “Is this what you have said to all the other bounty hunters that you surely have employed? Is this the sort of foolish trickery that you think will ensnare us? If so, you are mistaken.”
But, of course, he was thinking, of course it rankles, you bastard.
Thrawn smiled, although the expression failed to reach his eyes. It was obvious to Dengar that the Grand Admiral held him in as much contempt as did his inferiors.
“Maybe,” he said, making Dengar jump, and making him wonder also whether Thrawn was referring to his last remark, or to his last thought. He swallowed.
“Maybe you are correct that I have hired others, bounty hunter, but I think we have a goal in common when it comes to this mission. It seemed to me that you were the ideal man for the job.”
Dengar was silent, wondering how much Thrawn knew. Memories of his lover came unbidden into his mind; his hand clenched into a fist, seeing her hair staining red with her own blood.
“It is not just Boba Fett I have an interest in.” he got out through clenched teeth.
“No. I realise that. I have little interest in the woman. Dispose of her as you wish.”
Dengar’s eyes gleamed, but he suppressed his grin. Gen would die, he would see to that, but, “and Fett? What do you want doing with him? He does not seem to be on Coruscant, with Gen.”
Thrawn looked thoughtful.
“No. You are correct. He left just over two weeks ago. He is now on Tatooine, but I believe he will return when we go to Coruscant. There is an attachment between him and the woman.” Thrawn paused, as if considering how much to tell him. Dengar scowled a little at the thought of the lovely redhead, walking corpse though she was now, sleeping with Fett.
Thrawn continued, “despite that weakness, I do not wish Fett to die. I want him brought to me, unharmed - he is too valuable to lose. Wait until he returns to Coruscant, then collect him - and kill the woman.” Thrawn observed the badly disguised anger on Dengar’s face, and frowned. “ I repeat, I do not want Fett harmed.”
“He will not be easy to capture, and will resist. If he should die because of that resistance?”
Thrawn leaned forward again, and said in a frosty voice, “let me put it this way; Fett is the only bounty hunter in which I have any interest.” He sat back, and waved his hand dismissively at Dengar. “Your life is of little interest to me. You have your instructions.”
Dengar left, feeling angry and cheated. The young female officer was waiting outside to escort him to his ship.
Arla took a deep breath, and began the slow haul along the corridor that would take her to the meeting. Her head pounded, not because of a hangover, as you have to have been asleep to get to the hangover stage, and Arla had not yet accomplished that feat. Her head ached because of simple tiredness, and having spent too long gazing at the flickering holo-images of her movie collection. Her mouth felt like someone had died there, and her eyes felt as if someone had thrown a bucket of ash at them; she rubbed at them for the third time in as many minutes, and yawned heavily. Even though she had showered, she still felt mangy and grubby.
She had been just drifting away into a sort of sleep as the sun had been coming up that morning, as her brain was by that time beginning to stop functioning, and become soupy and confused; this had meant that she no longer thought about her appalling actions of the night. She groaned, thinking about them again, and shook her head at herself. A mistake, that, as the dull ache briefly dimmed her senses into pain; she tentatively put her hand up to run her fingers through her hair, forgetting that she had tortured it into a respectable plait for this meeting. She winced as a chewed loose bit of skin caught on her hair as she smoothed it down; glancing down at it, she noticed she had drawn blood, and sucked at her finger, frowning to herself.
The summons this morning had woken her out of the half doze she had slipped into by blaring an alarm into her rooms. She had virtually vaulted straight out her chair into the door, knocking her forgotten drink over in her hasty awakening. An unpleasant aroma of stale alcohol permeated the room, making her retch a little.
She blinked stupidly, looking about for the source of the reveille; then her vis-comm had sputtered into life and Mon Mothma’s weary features sprang into view. The woman coughed slightly, and the sound reverberated around inside Arla’s head.
Then Mothma stared at a point beyond Arla, suggesting to her that, thank any of the ninety gods that happened to be listening, the Mon had not opened links to see her.
Mothma said one curt sentence, “good morning. Your presence is requested at a Council meeting at 0900 hours in meeting room 56; please attend. Thank you.”
The link had immediately snapped out, leaving Arla groaning. Why did they want her to come anyway, she thought as she stepped out of her shorts and pulled off her vest and headed slowly for the shower.
Now the meeting room was in sight, she noted without enthusiasm. Not that she would have known, but, to her absolute delight, Han and Luke were talking outside it, and she saw General Madine’s retreating back as he headed inside. She stifled another groan and plodded nearer.
She saw Han nod significantly in her direction, and give her a black look, then turn back to talking to the shorter man. Luke turned round to look at her, and giving her a bitter glance, he stalked into the room. Her spirits sank, and then sunk even further as Han started striding towards her.
She muttered, “fuck, fuck, fuck” under her breath.
He walked right up close to her, his features twisted into contempt, and gripped her arm, hard. She tried to twist away, but he held her too tight, and she only succeeded in bruising her wrist in the process. She let out a low moan of pain.
“Good,.” said Han, his voice harder than any time she had ever heard it, “I hope it hurts. It’ll give you a little back for how much you’ve hurt him.”
She opened her mouth to say something placatory, but instead found herself saying, “oh gods, Han, has he gone blabbing all to everyone?”
“Shut up. I thought you were at least halfway decent, bounty hunter, but you must have changed a lot since I knew you. Back then you would have thought twice about hurting an innocent kid.”
“Kid?! He’s not a kid, Han. Firelord, he’s twenty four! I think he has to accept some responsibility for his own actions by now. Han, I said to him that it was just sex and that my heart was attached elsewhere. He said he could deal with it!”
Han was shaking his head throughout her little speech, his lips stretched thin over his teeth; when she had finished he spat out at her, “God! you have no idea, have you? He thinks you’re wonderful, can’t you tell? He’s fancied you since he first clapped eyes on you. Okay, he’s dumb, he wouldn’t know what to do with a woman like you if you were interested, but there is no need to trample all over him. He might be twenty four, but he’s still a kid in many ways.”
“Yeah, obviously,” Arla flung back at him, feeling ten years of affection for this man dwindling rapidly away, “he gets you to do his dirty work for him - did he tell you to come up and insult me!” She looked into his eyes for the first time in the conversation, and noting how bloodshot they were, snapped, “or are you just doing this because you’ve had a row with your girlfriend, and have to take it out on someone. Hah! That’s it, isn’t it? Nothing to do with Luke at all!”
Han gave her arm a vicious twist at that.
“Luke is my buddy; and no one hurts my buddies and gets away with it.”
“Ah, gods, Han, get a life,” she sneered, “and let go of my arm!” she said as she applied a tiny bit of the Force, breaking his grip.
“Ow!” exclaimed Han, shaking his stinging hand. “Bitch!” he said, and turned and went into the meeting room. After taking a few deep breaths, Arla followed him.
She surveyed the room with a total lack of enthusiasm.
Apparently, most were assembled well ahead of her and Han, as there were only four empty spaces left. The table was headed by Mon Mothma, looking impatient and thin lipped at the delay in her meeting. Next to her on either side, and ranged around the top of the table sat Admiral Ackbar representing the navy, and General Madine, General Dodonna and General Reeikan for the army. Arla couldn’t but being faintly amused, as, including Han, this meant that there were no less than four generals in the room, which seemed just a little bit of overkill. She felt slightly sorry for Ackbar, not only the sole naval officer, but only one of two non-humans.
Next to the military presence sat two people she did not recognise, but who looked official in a government sort of way. One was plump and obviously usually looked pompous, but now only looked nervous, with a thin sheen of sweat over his brow and upper lip. Arla frowned as she recognised him, thinking that this must be a very important meeting, as that was the new governor of Coruscant. She couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to Moff Nevoy, the Imperial governor.
Then, she scowled, thinking that he probably knew her parents. She had no idea who the other being was, except that he was a Sullustian, but presumed him to be high up in the New Republic.
Next to him sat Leia, who looked ill and wan, faintly green around the edges, she noted. She was sipping cautiously at a glass of water; Arla assumed she had woken up to vomiting that morning, and smiled inwardly, thanking the gods that she was sterilised. Leia was the only one who had not looked up as she had entered the room. Han sat next to her, though he was faced slightly away from him; and there were three empty seats next to him. Opposite him sat Luke, who looked red-eyed and rough. He hadn’t even shaved - not that that made much difference, she thought; and was staring stupidly at the table top in front of him in a distracted manner; he had only given her the barest glance before looking back down again. In between him and the governor was seated a very young man, no more than nineteen or so, if that. He had very short, mousy brown hair, and was sitting up very straight, with an air of excitement and expectancy gleaming in his eyes. His tight fitting grey suit was modelled very closely on Luke’s black Jedi suit, so that he looked like a keen, pale shadow of the man next to him. Realising that he must represent Luke’s baby Jedis she dismissed him from her thoughts.
Mon Mothma gestured for her to take the vacant seat next to Luke; Arla rolled her eyes and slid into the chair beside him.
“Thank you for joining us, Arla Gen.” said Mon Mothma, “I wanted you to be here as I hope we will be able to rely on your help in the coming battle, both as a trainee Jedi Knight,” she did not sound convinced about that, “and as the seasoned pilot and fighter that Han assures me you are.”
Arla’s heart had thumped at the mention of the word battle. Had Thrawn arrived, she wondered. She opened her mouth to reply, but the Mon was moving onto other things, sounding tired and slightly irritated.
“And Han, where are the people you promised would be here? Is there a problem of which I am not aware? And,” she spoke before Han could get any further than opening his mouth, “where is your friend Calrissian? My life-scanners told me that he was in his rooms when I sent out the message this morning.”
Han sighed, “I asked him to wait for my guests, as he knows them better than I do;” a touch of sarcasm entered his voice, “so I guess that is what he doing.”
Mon Mothma seemed to accept his tone as par for the course, but General Madine gave him an openly contemptuous glance and said in too loud a whisper to the governor next to him, “heaven knows why we need more smugglers,” he shot another glance at Han, “one is bad enough, and as for the bounty hunter . . .” he shook his head.
More sweat broke out on the brow of the governor at those words, although he twitched a nervous smile at Madine.
Arla started to leap up at Madine’s words, even though she knew in her heart that it was not worth even wasting her breath on it - all army bods thought that bounty hunters were scum, whether they were Republican or Imperial. To her irritation she felt herself being pressed back into her seat again.
She glanced at the man she sat next to, and frowned slightly. To her surprise, he gave her a slightly ironic glance. Her heart leapt slightly, and she smiled tentatively at him, but his expression turned hang-dog at her smile, and he looked away.
She sighed, suddenly hating everyone in room, and wished herself far away in her little Vert III. With a tug of yearning, she wished for Fett’s presence here; although with a sudden jolt she thought of what of his response to her might be if he learnt that she’d slept with Luke; she closed her eyes and swallowed, thinking, he probably wouldn’t even react at all, wouldn’t even care. Then, with an inward snort, she thought, no, he’d probably just laugh.
Mon Mothma broke into the tense silence of the room with a sigh.
“Well,” she said, “If we are going to have to wait for Lando and your guests, Han, then I think I will order coffee. Does anyone else want one?”
There were several grunts or answers to the affirmative; in fact, only Leia refused, but helped herself to another glass of water from the jug in front of her without looking at anyone. She looked very ill, and very miserable.
Mothma got up and went to the control panel which the room, like every other in the building, sported. She tapped in her request and then went to sit down again. Her small action seemed to do much for easing the tension in the room. Ackbar and the unknown official started up a sotto voce conversation, and Han placed a hand on Leia’s arm and murmured some worried sounding words at her. Leia twisted her arm so that her hand was clasped in Han’s and she smiled wanly at him.
Arla hissed at Luke, “we have to talk.”
His face fell at that, and he looked utterly miserable, like he was going to burst into tears at any point.
“I suppose so.” he muttered without looking at her directly.
A few minutes later a droid brought the coffees, but they had only had time to take a couple of sips when Lando burst in, followed by the two mysterious guests.
“Hello everyone!” he said, seeming obscenely chirpy for the time of the morning. “Sorry we’re a bit late, but they’ve only just landed.” He looked over at Han, “Han, they’re your guests, do you want to?
Han stood up, and beckoned the two travel worn figures into the room. He grinned at them, and they smiled back at him, although their expressions were so weary that it was difficult to tell how enthusiastic they were to see him.
“Everyone,” he said, “I’d like to introduce two friends of Lando’s and mine, who will, I hope have a lot of useful information for us. And yes, General, they are smugglers, just like me, so deal with it. This,” he indicated the woman, “is Mon Silva, and this,” the man, “is Mar Garno. They have spent a lot of time in the Unknown Regions, and know quite a lot about this mysterious Grand Admiral who has popped up.”
Arla choked back a laugh, and opened her mouth to speak, but before she could Mon Mothma stood up and said, “you are Chandrilans?”
“Yes,” she said, and Arla noticed they had the same accent as the Head of State, “you must be Mon Mothma, then. Han is so good at doing introductions don’t you think? We left many years ago though.”
Mothma looked confused for a moment, then said, “I thought - your names, they seem familiar, I don’t know, but;” she paused, as if trying to work out how to ask something delicately without offending half the people in the room, “I mean, are you - well, if you are like me, then why are you smugglers?”
This time it was Silva’s turn to open her mouth and get nowhere, as Arla jumped up and said, “but they are not smugglers, they’re spice runners.” She scowled at them.
“And there’s a difference?” he said. Dodonna gave him a sharp glance, but said nothing.
Arla glared at Madine, and said darkly, “oh yes - they never just smuggle - they deal in drugs.” She looked around the group, but particularly at Luke, who looked concerned, “ I do not think they should be trusted.”
“Well. Excuse us, I’m sure.” Silva flicked her long hair back, and looked around the group with the ease of a consummate actor. “And we get this from one who deals in peoples lives - and their deaths. I’m sure you are so innocent, Arla Gen. How many trust you here?”
“Oh,” said Arla, “none, I’m sure; but then, they don’t need to, do they?”
Mon Mothma stood up at that point.
“I don’t know,” she began, sounding very calm - too calm; the group quickly shut up, “what devil has infected our group this morning; but -”
“I think that the word “hangover” could be used here,” muttered Leia, staring at the table.
Mon Mothma took a very deep breath.
“But,” she continued, “I think that now we’d better continue with the very important business of the day. We are all aware, I’m sure, of the danger we, and perhaps more importantly, the city of Coruscant are in -”
Silva raised her hand, looking subdued.
“Yes, Mon Silva?” said Mon Mothma in a tired voice.
“I’m sorry to interrupt again, but Han wanted us to report on something else, and I’ve only just remembered. Could I?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Han. You’ll be happy to hear that your fears appear to be unfounded. We found him on Tatooine, and he didn’t appear to have any idea about what Thrawn was doing - indeed, he seemed faintly insulted when I insinuated that he might be working for the Imperials. We don’t know what he’s actually doing on Tatooine - I mean, what does anyone do there - he was in Mos Eisley -”
“Who are you talking about?” The question came from Luke, his first words of the meeting.
“Oh! I’m sorry. I’m talking about Boba Fett, of course.”
Luke looked surprised.
“Boba Fett? He wouldn’t work for Thrawn - he’s my pupil.” Then he thought, my, that sounds dumb, considering his past, “I mean, I sensed a change in him.”
Leia shook her head.
“Oh Luke, don’t be so naive.” said Leia, “we had to take this into account. He left, and then it was only days later that we found out that Thrawn was planning on attacking. Even if there was no connection, then we still had to investigate. Try and understand.”
“I still think -”, but a glance from Mon Mothma quelled him.
Arla did not hear the Mon’s next few words at all. She sat and stared at the table in front of her, ignoring all around her. Her heart was racing. What, she thought, is he doing on Tatooine - I would have thought that was the last place he would to go. But, considering it a little further, she began to get a glimmer of understanding, he must have been upset, she thought, to have gone there - we all thought that the - incident - there had not really affected him, but it must have done. Maybe, just maybe, he will come back.
She had not allowed herself to hope before, but somehow, now there was hope. She tried to concentrate on the twins reports on Thrawn’s strategies and manoeuvres, but was too wrapped up in her feelings for Fett to really pay attention; although she did stop to wonder how, if they were just spice runners, they knew all this rather specific information about the Grand Admiral, and Imperial practices. A worm of suspicion began to nibble at her senses, but Fett was foremost in her thoughts.
She was so lost in thoughts that she virtually fell out of her chair when the alarm klaxon sounded.
Everyone else seemed just as surprised, but before anyone could react, the vis-comm sprang into life above Mon Mothma’s head, and Wedge Antille’s head appeared, larger than life on the viewscreen. Behind him could be seen the hangar that contained most of the X-wings and other battle ships; there were lots of orange clad figures running between the craft.
Wedge looked harassed, but drawled out his message with ease, “I’m sorry to interrupt your meeting, but we have a problem here. The Imperial Fleet of Grand Admiral Thrawn has just come out of hyperspace very, very near Coruscant. I think the time for talking has just ended. I request all naval command present - and you, Admiral - at the main hanger, thank you.”
The link blinked out, and everyone began to talk at once; until Luke’s quiet orders stopped them all. The pilots, and Admiral Ackbar made their way to the hanger, and Mon Mothma, Leia, the generals, and the other members of the meeting headed off to convene with their own staff.
“As ever you are intriguing, Boba Fett,”
On hearing that familiar voice, Fett’s first, instinctive, reaction had been to get his helmet back on fast, so he would not be seen by the person behind him.
His second reaction was brief panic -they’d all been wrong, he thought, he wasn’t dead. He thought, or, can you hear mirages? He took a deep breath, and turned around.
To look straight into the black mask of Darth Vader.
Without thinking, he took a step backwards.
Vader stood as he often had on his Star Destroyers, legs braced apart, his hands placed on his hips, staring at him arrogantly.
Fett had never been afraid of Vader before - wary, yes, you’d have to be completely stupid not to be, but not actually afraid - but that had been in the normal venue of Star Destroyers, not in the middle of Tatooine’s Dune Sea.
And not over a year after Vader had died.
On closer inspection, however, Vader looked odd; sort of shimmering around with blue - like a mirage, in fact. Something else niggled at the back of his mind, as well, but he couldn’t quite identify it.
Without allowing himself to relax, Fett took a step forward again.
“I am not a mirage, Boba Fett. I see that my foolish son has not told you many things about the Jedi,” said Vader.
Fett identified what else wrong. Vader’s characteristic wheezing breathing was not there, like the Dark Lord was holding his breath.
“What hasn’t Skywalker told me?” he asked cautiously, edging his lightsaber into his hand, just in case.
“Do you doubt that I am dead, bounty hunter? Your lightsaber can do me no harm. Use the Force, am I really here?”
Doing as he was told, Fett reached out and touched with the Force the area where Vader appeared to stand. What he found was puzzling; Vader certainly did not feel like a person, but there was something there, a feeling of almost, well, raw energy. Skywalker had told him that the Force was in every living thing; if he reached out here, he could feel the life force of the Sarlacc below - a shiver ran across his shoulder blades as he felt faint lives of those digesting within it - and the small desert creatures waiting out of the day deep in the sand.
He licked his lips.
“Well,” he began, hating the hesitancy he heard in his voice, “you do not feel like the creatures that live here, but there is an energy force in the place where you stand, so I would say that you are here, but that you are - are, uh.” His imagination failed him, and he stopped.
The image of Vader chuckled softly.
“Impressive. You have great sensitivity to the Force.” He paused, as if searching for the right words. “A Jedi has great control of the Force, but cannot defeat death. I died during the Battle of Endor, after killing the Emperor, but, like others of the Jedi, I have gone on to another plane. If necessary, we can come back into the plane of the living. One day, my children will join me here. As would you, if you become a Jedi.”
Fett licked his lips again, tasting sand, and salt from his own sweat. He cleared his throat, feeling hopelessly exposed without his helmet protecting his expressions.
“It does not matter.” he said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt - of course, with his ruined voice, there was less emotion there anyway, but still. “What is important is why you are here.”
More amused sounds emerged from within Vader’s helmet, but were swiftly cut short.
“Good. I have always appreciated your efficiency. It is, of course, why you are still alive today.” A trickle of sweat ran uncomfortably down Fett’s head into the jack at the base of his neck as he listened.
Vader continued, “my son is a good teacher, but he is young. He can easily teach the children - and the woman, for she is also somewhat immature; but you are a more complex character than he imagines, as well as being over ten years older than him. It would be difficult for him to teach you fully. My old master, Obi Wan Kenobi, helped Luke after he died, and I propose to do the same for you.”
Vader paused long enough for that to sink in, but Fett was confused.
“You approve of my - and Arla’s - Jedi training? You always treated bounty hunters with disdain.”
“I am different to how I was. I am no longer the Dark Lord you encountered while I lived; and neither are you the same man I saw on those encounters. Your past is of little consequence to the Force. Your relentless efficiency would make you as good a Jedi knight as you are a bounty hunter. The woman, too, would make a good Jedi. But you had early potential.”
Fett’s head snapped up at that, his hand unconsciously clutching at his lightsaber just a little tighter. He felt his mouth go even drier than it already was, and a prickle of unease ran through him, settling tightly in his stomach.
A muscle on his face twitched as a buried memory resurfaced at Vader’s mental prodding.
The sharp zing of blaster fire was music to his ears, as was the dull thud as, once again, the shot found its mark in the now rather battered target. Fett felt pleased, though he did not let any emotion play across his rather sullen features. The fact that he could do it with only eye was encouraging, as the other was still squeezed shut by the purple and brown swollen puff where his master had struck him earlier in the day, for some imagined insubordination. He scowled inwardly as he thought of his master, hating him more than ever, and wished himself free, and a million miles away.
Absently he reloaded the blaster full of blanks, all that were supplied to him. One day, he thought, these will not be blanks, and I will be out of here. He puzzled a little, as he always did, at the blaster in his hand, and asked himself for the umpteenth time why he was allowed to train with the things - not to mention the pilot training he also received. He shivered slightly, wondering if it was just a distraction for him because his master was going to dispose of him soon, and it didn’t matter what he learnt.
After all, he was now losing the childish good looks that had got him into this in the first place and kept him alive since he had been started being traded around five years before. His stomach twisted as he remembered, but it couldn’t be helped. He was twelve years old now, stupidly young to learn how to use a blaster and fly a ship.
He shook his head to dispel the ideas, the only outward sign of his disturbed thoughts. He had learnt long ago to hide his thoughts and feeling behind the mask of his face, and little ever showed there now that was real.
He sighed a little, got ready to fire the blaster again, when a thought struck him. He shrugged, thinking it unlikely, but closed his eyes anyway, as the thought returned with slightly more pressure. He raised the blaster, and reached out with his mind to where he thought the target was. Got it! He thought, exultantly, and fired. He opened his eyes and grinned unguardedly for a moment when he saw the new, smoking, hole in the centre of the target. Then shuttered his face down again on hearing a sound behind him.
“Very impressive.” said a vaguely familiar voice, which then breathed out and then in with a mechanical wheeze. Fett spun around to face the intruder, his blaster ready in his hand - even blanks could hurt.
It was casually whipped away by the black clad figure who stood in front of him. Fett instantly recognised him as his master’s master, the Emperor’s second-in-command, Darth Vader.
His master stood nervously behind him, eyes flicking from Vader to his slave’s impassive face.
“Well, Admiral —, I do not approve of your means of slaking your . . preferences. The Emperor agrees on this and will stop this within the officers ranks. Most of the boys will be disposed of, but your boy has great potential. I will use him. Prepare him to come to me within five days. You do not want me to come here again.” And with a swish of his long black cloak, the tall figure strode out of the room.
Fett swallowed, dragging himself back to the present, his mind reeling with the sights and sounds of his life of well over twenty years before.
“I - I had forgotten -” his voice hardened. “Or I had tried to. What did you want with me, all those years ago?”
Vader folded his arms,
“It was only two years after Palpatine became Emperor, but we looked to the future. The people soon forgot the Jedi, but we did not. The Emperor had no children with potential in the Force, and I, of course, did not know that I was a father of two who were strong in the Force. At that time, we thought to build a new band of Jedi to serve the Empire. You would have become part of that, you were still young enough to be moulded to his will.”
“But I escaped - what happened then? There were no other “dark” Jedi, were there?”
“No, the Emperor’s megalomania grew - as did mine. It was then considered unnecessary until we became aware of my son’s potential.”
Fett nodded, feeling more than a little dazed. He remembered escaping, of course, but had forgotten why he had been given the opportunity to do so. He wondered, for a moment, what his life would have been like had he reached his destination, but quickly dismissed the thought. No point on thinking about it, he thought, it did not happen. Besides, he had had the better life, he suspected, shuddering at the thought of his going to be another man’s slave again, as he would have been if the he had gone to the Emperor. That was the reason he had called his first ship Slave I, as it was, perhaps, his first real possession as a truly free agent.
“It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the one who has been sending Arla and me those nightmares, aren’t you? If you can do all this, why drag me to this hellhole to remind me of my past. You could have done that anywhere, on Coruscant, even.” then maybe I would not have been such as fool and left, he thought bitterly.
“I could have just shown you that memory and left, but I would not have done much good. People do not just change overnight, however that may sometimes seem to outsiders. I thought it best to bring to this place you feared so much and let you learn by yourself. Leave your past behind, there is no need to hide behind masks now. I did for many years, but my body was so ruined that I could have no second chance - you do not have that problem -”
“You still wear it now you are dead,” Fett pointed out.
“I thought you would be more comfortable with this image. And would you know Anakin Skywalker’s face?” Vader’s voice was dangerously patient. “As a Jedi, you would have all the control you have wanted; not over others - that was the way I thought was important - but of yourself. Yoda and Obi Wan were wrong; they believed that you could only be a Jedi if you were pure in everything. That is not true, it is more complex than that - my son is not pure, but he is a good Jedi, and Obi-wan still could not tell the whole truth to Luke even after he died, but he is very powerful. What is needed is purity of purpose, and you have always had that. You could be important to my children’s New Republic as a Jedi.”
Fett, who had been listening calmly to Vader’s words, felt a sudden dislocation at those last words.
He became aware of the oddness of the situation at last, standing on a sand dune talking to a blue glowing dead Lord Vader, listening to him urge him to become a Jedi. He felt a deep tug of longing for Arla, and for his own life.
“Stop!” he said, his voice loud to his own ears. “Enough. If I do choose to become a Jedi, then it is my own decision, and no one else’s. I left that behind when I escaped slavery. You have never had power over me, and I will not let you now. I am returning to Coruscant, where I have unfinished business. I thank you for what you have done,” his hand indicated the spread of Tatooine’s desert sands, and the Sarlacc pit, and his voice grew harsh and hard, “but I will not be used in power struggles from beyond the grave. Do not touch me or mine again,” and he began to take apart the tent.
Vader did not go immediately.
“I feel your anger,” he said, “use it well.”
Then the image winked out, leaving Fett alone in the desert.
Controlling his emotions, he took the tent apart and brought it back down to the landspeeder. He quickly brushed the worst of the sand out of his hair, and used a small blower to remove sand from the jack for his helmet, giving it a quick clean as he did so. The mundane need for a shower rose desperately in his mind, but he eased a clean cloth mask on nonetheless, ignoring the itching of his scalp as his still sand clogged hair was pressed against it. He grabbed his helmet, giving it a good shake to dislodge the sand that had got inside during the little sand storm that Vader had created, and placed it on his head.
He then hopped into the speeder and drove as fast as he could to the nearest settlement, feeling a deep sense of urgency rising in him as he did so. At the settlement he intimidated the farmers to give him their skyhopper in exchange for the new landspeeder he had taken into the Dune Sea. He suspected they had the better deal, in the end, as the Skyhopper was an old model. Nevertheless, it was fast, and more comfortable than the speeder, and ridiculously easy to fly.
He arrived soon after in Mos Eisley and abandoned the hopper to go and collect his ship, feeling great anticipation both for the shower he intended to have immediately he boarded the ship, and also for his next meeting with Arla. He had had plenty of time to think on the way back from the desert, and had come to many decisions regarding the woman, if she were to be amenable. He collected a pizza - Roonian pepperoni and four cheeses - on the way back to the ship, feeling a need for real food after the survival rations he’d taken into the desert; it was devoured almost instantly he got into his quarters. Within an hour of arriving in Mos Eisley he was out in hyperspace, vowing never, ever, to return to Tatooine.
Chaos appeared to reign in Coruscant from the minute the Imperial Star Destroyers appeared above the planet, and the military realised they were there. The civilians - the large bulk of people on Coruscant despite its status as the headquarters of government for centuries - were not immediately informed of the threat, but of course it was leaked out very quickly, there were so many people in the city attached to the government sending messages back to loved ones over their personal comm-links that the city was soon heaving with people trying to leave, by land to get to the hills and their comparative safety, but more popular were the routes to the various hangers.
Watching on her monitor’s screens as route by route clogged up with panic-stricken people trying to escape, Leia reflected that it was much, much easier to evacuate a military base than a city full of private citizens, each with their own agenda. After years of spending much of her time with people who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause some of the scenes she saw were so depressing she could hardly watch long enough to tap in the instructions for the ground military to follow to get the people out without half the city being crushed in stampedes.
At least, she thought, it keeps me busy - oh Han, please don’t take too many risks. She cursed their stupidity, which meant that she had to sit in this room ordering civilians about, rather than being out there with him on the Falcon. I’m only twenty four, she thought, bitterly, I thought I’d have a few more years of freedom left. She sighed, and brushed a hand gently across her still flat belly; she was happy about it really, but this was not the time. But, when would be? she mused, listening absently to the girl - usually one of Mon Mothma’s aides - sitting on the other side of the screen talking urgently to the police about two children just gone missing in the rush; she sighed again, more sharply, attending to her work again.
Over on the other side of the city her lover was also cursing, worry churning his belly up. The cursing was just the steady litany that usually accompanied any trip to be taken in the Falcon, and, as per usual, Chewie’s sarcastic comments about the ship didn’t help much. But, of course, it was Leia that was topmost on his mind; panic had set in when he had found out about the babies, and they had been sniping at each other since they had found out. And now the city was under threat, and who knew what weapons that bloody Grand Admiral had in his battered Star Destroyers.
He thought of Alderaan, and his stomach twisted uncomfortably; Leia spoke of what she had seen only very occasionally, but sometimes she would wake up crying out for the only parents see could really remember and had to be held until she quieted down again. No doubt at all, bloody Thrawn would have the technology to destroy the whole city in one fell swoop, but there was no way he could simply go and get her and drag her onto the Falcon as he had done on Hoth. He desperately cranked some of the outer shell back into place again, thumping it hard when it immediately sprang back out again, and swore loudly. Chewie growled his concern at him.
While Han was tussling with his ship, and the high ranking officers were locked away discussing which emergency strategy would be the best to use in this circumstance; and the Imperial force serenely sat above them all, waiting for - something, Arla stood disconsolately by her ship watching the huddle of orange clad fighter pilots around Wedge being hyped up by him.
He was very good at it, but still, very sensible; the pilots had come in far too excitable after months of calm, but now they were back to the honed professionals that they must be. Arla was pleased to note a scattering of women standing among them, but was nevertheless distressed somewhat by the lack of numbers there seemed to be.
She knew that much of the fleet was elsewhere, quelling the pockets of Imperials, and helping planets that needed assistance on a large scale, but with all the important people clustered here on Coruscant she would have thought that there should have been more to protect the government. Her mouth twitched, thinking, maybe they agree with me on what all those officials are worth!
Still, with all that, she felt rather left out - even those two damned spice-runners were in on the decision making, and now, when it came to the crunch, she was out here waiting to be told what to do. She tried an experimental nibble of her already ravaged fingernails, for want of anything better to do with her time, and carefully flayed the skin around her nails with her teeth as she fretted.
She worried, too, about Silva and Garno, and their motives. She felt that everyone was too trusting - I mean, she thought, everyone knows that Luke is too trusting, but it seems that even Han and Lando can fall into that trap these days. Had Han forgotten what had happened when he had first trusted Lando? They’re getting soft, she thought, her top lip curling into a slight sneer. But then, maybe she was being too edgy and cautious, maybe the spice-runners had no ulterior motive - after all, why should they be in league with the Empire? She yawned, wishing that something would happen.
At that, the alarms began to sound, and Arla jumped and looked wildly around to see what was happening. Nobody was paying any attention; she soon found out why as a metallic voice boomed across the docking area.
“Attention, attention. Incoming ship in docking bay twenty two. Stand well back. Stand well back.”
Arla shook her head at herself, and giggled slightly, but soon snapped her head up again as she heard someone calling her name. She looked up to see Luke’s slender, black clad figure heading towards her, waving wildly.
“Arla!” he called, “Arla, you have to come with me.”
When she just stood and stared stupidly at him, he actually ran up to her and grabbing her arm, started to pull her with him. She rolled her eyes, but still followed him.
“What’s the big deal?” she got out as they sped across the hanger.
Luke’s voice in reply was rather strange, almost bitter, but somewhat relieved as well.
“You’ll see.” he said.
An alarm meeped at him, and his eyes fluttered open, turning on the vision inside the helmet as they did so. As he moved into a more upright position, the lights brightened from the gentle, dim light he had generated while he slept to a more normal light.
He shook himself slightly, his limbs feeling a little stiff from sleeping upright, and checked the readings. They told him that the ship was just coming near to the place to come out of hyperspace for Coruscant. Fett yawned, and took control of his ship again, flipping it easily into manual. He had just begun the procedure for coming out of lightspeed when a tingle of unease ran straight through him. He stopped, and reached out into the void, then shrugged. Still to far away to feel anything, he thought, but nevertheless he put the cloaking mechanism on, just in case, and came out of lightspeed.
His mouth dropped open.
“Shit.” he murmured, looking out at the Star Destroyers arrayed above the planet, concentrated around the city.
He sneaked closer to the surface, horrified to be aware of the waves of panic coming from the city as he approached. He threw the Imperial ships another glance, then shrugged to himself again, knowing that the decisions had been made that would put him outside any Imperial contracts forever now.
He smiled grimly.
That meant that the Imperial army had to be removed, so he could work again, without hindrance. If, he thought, if I decide to stay a bounty hunter, of course.
He opened up a channel to the station below, knowing they couldn’t break through his cloak to find him up there.
“Coruscant,” he began, “this is Boba Fett, pilot of the Slave III, requesting permission to dock in.”
A pause, then, “Slave III? Where are you? We read your message, but not your ship -”
Fett sighed, an impatient sound.
“The ship is cloaked. There are quite a few Star Destroyers and TIE fighters up here, and, oddly enough, I don’t want them to see me. Do I have permission to land?”
Another pause, shorter than the first.
“Please give the clearance code.”
Fett gave it, and was granted permission. He cruised in, uncloaking only as he entered the atmosphere of the planet, which was very bad for the device, but safer than coming out in full view of the Imperial navy.
As the hangar doors opened and the large vessel edged its way inside, Arla gasped, and put on a burst of speed that made her overtake Luke. She arrived at the docking pad just as the ship settled onto it, Luke arriving just behind her.
He touched his hand to her shoulder, and murmured, “good luck,” in a very still voice.
She turned to look at him.
“Luke?” she began, “why?”
“Never mind,” he said, “just - good luck, okay?”
She glanced back at the ship, as the engines powered down, and swallowed.
“Thanks,” she said, really meaning it.
Fett pressed the button to open the craft, and watched the door lower itself with some trepidation. He felt the cold air sucked in from the outside around his legs, and shivered slightly, though perhaps not quite from the cold. Now he was here he felt, well, a little nervous about what his reception would be here.
The gangway clanked down onto the floor of the pad and he peered out. He did not get much time to look about, or indeed, do anything much at all before he was slammed back against the wall as a miniature hurricane flew into his arms.
“Arla!” he cried, as she flung herself into his embrace, holding her back just as tightly as she held him.
“Oh gods, gods,” she was muttering to his shoulder, her voice sounding breathless, and thick with tears.
He just held her, until she pulled back a little from him, her face twisting into a scowl behind the tears.
“You bastard!” she cried, feeling delirious, “why the fuck did you leave?”
Then her face crumpled, and she said in a quieter voice, “ah, but what does it matter? You’re back now. You are, aren’t you?”, that last being delivered somewhat desperately.
Fett just nodded, then said, “yes, I’m back, and, Arla, I -”
But she interrupted him, “no, don’t say anything.”
She frowned a little, glancing back at the pilots running about, towards their ships. Something must be happening, she thought. “I don’t think we’ve got time now. Just - just promise me that when this,” she waved a hand at the chaos below them, “is over, we’ll sort everything out - and you’ll never leave again.”
Fett studied her face for a small time before answering, then said, “yes, I promise.”
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