Shadows of Blood
by Kaz Cloney
(previously printed in "I Have A Bad Feeling About This")The cantina was packed, the sound of leisure and business almost, but not quite, drowning out the din of the band crammed into one corner. She peered through the smoke, searching the room for the man she had come here to meet.
He was sitting quietly in the corner behind a group of humans, the raucous laughter and revelry masking him from any casual inspection.
She leaned against the bar, ordering a beer, watching him stare into his drink as he rolled the glass between his hands. The barman placed her beer on a soggy mat and she handed over some credits. Taking a mouthful of the bitter liquid, smooth against her tongue, her eyes played across the rest of the cantina, searching for any friends he may have brought with him.
Satisfying herself that there was no one of any importance, she sauntered over to the table. "You Antilles?"
He lifted his heed to look up at her, "Who wants to know?"
He smiled, "Right answer. Care to join me?"
She slid into the seat on the opposite side of the booth, immediately discarding the niceties. "You got the money?"
He looked at her for a second, caustic remark on the tip of his tongue. But he held it in check. He was here on business: the woman had information that they needed. A clever comment could send her away; taking with her the whereabouts of one of the few people in the galaxy who could help them locate Han Solo. So he said nothing and reached down to lift the small, grey satchel from the floor, placing it on the seat beside him. Sheltered from prying eyes in the cantina it was in the full view of the woman sitting across from him.
She looked at the bag calmly her features never changing, telling Wedge nothing. Then, suddenly, she smiled. Wedge didn't return the smile, noticing that it didn't quite reach her eyes.
"The man you want will be at the old Imperial outpost on Yeltarn for three more days. He knows you're coming but won't wait for you. Arrive after that and you've blown it."
She reached into her pocket, pulling out a folded print-out and pushing it towards him across the table, "This is the layout of the base."
Wedge moved to take it.
"Ah-ah," she admonished, shaking her head slightly and pulling the print-out back towards her. "Money!"
Wedge smiled, lopsidedly, lifting the satchel onto the table. She stood, leaning cross to kiss him on the lips, pushing the printout into his hand as she lifted the money. The she pulled away, patting his face.
"So long, fly boy"
Wedge watched as she disappeared into the smoke and the revelry, unsure of her. Then he gave a soft laugh, shaking his head.
From the other side of the cantina another figure observed the transaction, watching as the couple kissed before the woman broke away, waiting until she had gone before rising and moving towards the man still sitting in the booth.
"Can't take you anywhere!"
Wedge grinned at Luke Skywalker as the pilot slid into the booth, "Hey! She kissed me!"
Luke shook his head, "Yeah, sure What did you get?"
Wedge's grin widened and Luke grimaced, throwing his friend and evil glance, "That's not what I meant!"
Antilles laughed, handing over the print-out to Luke, "That's where we go. He'll be there for the next three days, but won't wait any longer."
Luke unfolded the plan, reading it, "Where is this?"
"The old Imperial outpost on Yeltarn."
"Was that all she said?" Luke asked.
Wedge nodded, repeating her message word for word, "The man you want will be at the old Imperial outpost on Yeltarn for the next three days. He knows you're coming but won't wait for you. Arrive after that and you've blown it."
Wedge sat silently as Luke poured over the map, unable to shake the feeling of unease. He didn't trust the woman. There was nothing that he could identify, but he didn't trust her. Yet, this was the only lead they had, the only indication of the possible whereabouts of Han Solo. No one had heard from Chewbacca or Lando Calrissian since the Millennium Falcon had left to track down Bobba Fett.
Everything else slipped together perfectly. All the information that had brought them here to this cantina had checked out
He sighed softly, shaking his heed.
Wedge forced a smile, meeting Luke's concerned gaze. "Nothing, he dismissed. "I just need a drink."
Luke smiled back, shoving himself to his feet, "No time."
"How did I know that you were going to say that," Wedge groused.
Luke sat back down, harrumphing in mock disgust, "Okay! One beer!"
Wedge shook his head, sliding out of the booth, "The beer can wait. Han won't"
As the two Rebel pilots headed for the door of the cantina, a third man watched them from a table near the opposite door. He stood, tossing some coins onto the table before muttering something to his associate. Laughing he slapped the other man on the back. Then he turned, following the two Rebels.
The Lord Darth Vader unfolded from his meditation, rising with liquid grace as the door opened. He turned his gaze on the officer who took two paces into the room then halted. Vader said nothing, merely stood watching, a dark shadow in the gloom, the mechanical rasp of his breathing cutting through the silence.
The officer forced himself not to gulp, his mouth suddenly dry as the full weight of Vader's attention focussed on him. "Sir," he began, correctly interpreting the question in the silence. "Surveillance reports two ships dropping out of hyperspace, now en-route to the asteroid belt."
The question jarred at the officer and he swallowed hard, trying to suppress the feeling that it was his fault, personally, that two ships had appeared instead of the single fighter that Vader had been expecting. "Yes, Sir," he replied, mildly surprised at the confidence he heard in his own voice.
"You have them identified?"
It was not a question. The officer flinched. "No, Sir. You asked to be informed as soon as we picked anything up."
Vader turned, cloak flowing around him, "You are dismissed."
The Sith Lord waited until the door closed behind the officer, then he reached out through the Force to confirm the identity of the prey lured to the trap, careful to keep his own presence shielded. Luke Skywalker was not yet totally ensnared and any hint of the Vader's proximity would ruin everything before it began.
He turned, striding out of the room, moving through the corridors of the ship towards the command centre, dark determination settling around him.
The Emperor had expressed concern at the speed with which Vader wanted to act, warning that perhaps he moved too quickly, but Palpatine had not witnessed Skywalker's devastation on Bespin. Vader had. And he knew that he should push home the partial success he had achieved on the Cloud City before the boy had had time to fully recover.
The bait had been obvious - information on where the bounty hunter Fett had taken Solo's carbon-frozen body. Vader's sources had informed him of the Millennium Falcon's departure for Tatooine and Jabba the Hutt, confirming that the search for the Corellian had begun. All that had been required was misinformation aimed at Luke.
There had been a risk that Luke would see through the ploy. Vader had used Solo in the last attempt to gain control of the boy, but Vader had sensed his son's fierce loyalty to the Corellian and had taken that chance.
Until now, however, until he felt Luke's presence in one of the approaching ships he had not been certain. Unknown factors could still have stopped Skywalker's deliverance unto the jaws of the carefully laid trap, even though everything had been examined in minute detail to eradicate any information or actions that would ring untrue and bring the painstaking preparations crashing into nothing.
He reached the Command Centre and stood watching the long range screens as the two X-wings slowed, slipping through the asteroid field with ease, heading for the planet beyond and disappearing into the planet's atmosphere.
Obi-Wan had taught Luke well, but the training was incomplete. Luke did not yet understand the potential of the gift he had inherited. Now he, Vader, would lead Luke to his destiny, guide him to full Jedi status and show him the potency and the unqualified power of the dark Side.
He had nearly succeeded on Bespin, but Luke had chosen death over the Dark Side. This time, death would not be an option.
Vader considered the new situation. Skywalker's companion would help begin Luke's training and would allow Vader to let Luke taste the bitterness of absolute defeat yet gain. This time with no escape.
He turned to the Captain, ordering simply, "Move in!"
Not waiting for acknowledgement, he swung round, issuing new orders to the white-armoured Commander standing a discrete distance behind.
The two Rebel pilots slowed as they approached an intersection, the lamp Luke held penetrating the darkness for only a few feet around them, throwing their shadows, large and grotesque across the walls, the corridors closing rapidly into blackness on all sides.
Wedge Antilles glanced down at the map.
It had all seemed so straight forward in the cantina. Come here, meet the man and buy his information, then get Han wherever he was
But now Now he realised that things weren't so simple. Nothing was ever that simple. "Left," he informed Luke.
Skywalker forced a smile, reading his friend's mood, "He'll be here"
Wedge looked up, flashing Luke a grin, missing the lie in Luke's smile. "Left"
Luke turned away, moving into the corridor before Wedge could see his unease. Something about this wasn't right something elusive that slipped away as he reached out, staying just beyond his ability to identify it.
At first he'd dismissed the feeling. He had been so keyed up, so desperate to meet with this man, but the sight of the deserted base and the darkness of the landing bay had brought him back to reality. This could be another trail that would ultimately lead them nowhere. The man they were due to meet may not have the information they needed about Han, the search dead-ending here.
So he had dismissed the feeling of unease, convinced that it was nothing more than the aftermath of the rush of hope
But as he moved deeper into the corridors, the feeling was growing stronger. He was no longer sure of his reasoning. There was something about this place Something
His gut twisted, fear icing along his veins as the elusive quality coalesced into a dark, evil presence in his mind.
He turned, clutching at Wedge, beginning to push his friend back down the corridor.
"It's a trap!" Luke cut in, finding his voice. "Vader's here!"
Wedge swore, breaking into a run, fear beginning to pump adrenalin, reaching for the blaster at his hip and pulling it free from the holster.
The light from the lamp danced crazily on the walls as they raced back along the corridors in the direction of the X-wings. The pounding of their feet filled the corridors with hollow, menacing echoes that seemed to snigger, mocking their frantic attempt to escape.
Luke ran, fighting down the wave of emotions that threatened to engulf him at the sudden reappearance of Vader. The disbelief when Vader had told him of his heritage; the hurt and betrayal that neither Ben nor Yoda had told him, that it had had to come from Vader himself; the confusion inside him as he refused to accept the unthinkable - all of it rushing back to the surface with absolute clarity, hurting him in their intensity. Anger at not listening to his first instincts, at not realising before that this was, after all, a trap. Fear and despair as he faced the very real possibility that they wouldn't escape.
Once before Vader had laid a trap for him and he had walked straight into it. Now, again, the same thing had happened. That was the only possible reason for the Dark Lord's presence and, as before, Luke was not the only one ensnared.
They turned a corner, the landing bay doors lying ahead. Luke swore, skidding to a halt, reaching out to stop Wedge from running through to meet the Imperial soldiers he sensed waiting for them.
The doors burst open, the stormtroopers immediately dropping to their knees, blasters coming to bear.
In the brief silence before the firing began, Wedge started to run, stumbling as he turned, feeling the heat of the first few laser bolts sizzling over his head. He half-turned as he ran, aiming back in the direction of the stormtroopers, aware that Luke had reached the corner where the side corridor intersected with the main.
Then he was lifted off his feet, a blaster shot hitting him high in the chest, twisting him backwards. There was a brief awareness of agony, cut short as he slammed against the wall and tumbled to the floor. He heard Luke scream his name then darkness crashed in to smother him.
No! Please, no!
Luke crawled out, catching hold of his friend's uniform, desperation tearing at him, dragging Wedge back into the relative cover of the corner as the blaster fire thudded into the walls around them, showering the two Rebels with dust and debris.
Without warning, the firing stopped, the corridor lights snapping on. Luke shielded his eyes against the sudden brilliance, squinting against the light, seeing the stormtroopers positioned at either end of the corridor, knowing that there would be no way out.
The breath caught in his throat as he heard the manufactured voice. The anger, hurt and despair of before, that had been swept away when Wedge went down, came crashing back in on him. He squeezed his eyes closed, forcing himself to breath, fighting the emotions and searching for the calm that he knew would be their only help now.
Cradled in Luke's arms, Wedge moaned softly.
There was movement from down the corridor to his left and Luke opened his eyes, lifting his gaze to meet Vader's. For a long moment, Father and Son considered each other: Vader standing quite at ease, Luke on his knees, holding Wedge in his arms, blaster clutched in his hand.
"Stop this," Vader offered finally, "and he will receive medical attention. Continue and he dies. Either way, you will be taken alive. The choice is yours."
Luke dragged his gaze way from the obsidian mask, staring down at Wedge, at the gaping wound; at the blood that soaked the front of Wedge's uniform: knowing that, even with medical attention his chances of survival weren't good.
Luke cursed himself. He should have returned to Yoda, completed his training, instead of infantiley ignoring the Jedi Master. Fully trained he would have been better able to protect Wedge, would have sensed Vader and the trap sooner, could have faced Vader, buying time for Wedge to escape.
Instead his friend was lying here badly wounded, so badly wounded
There was only one possible decision.
I'm sorry, Wedge. I should have come alone. It was me he wanted, no one else
Slowly, gently, Luke laid Wedge on the floor. Then he pushed himself to his feet, dropping the blaster, having to hold the wall for support.
The stormtroopers flooded in, pulling Luke away from the wall, binding his hands behind him as Vader turned, striding out of view. The soldiers moved in front of Luke, blocking the last few moments with Wedge, before a push from the muzzle of a blaster sent him stumbling forward.
The Lord Darth Vader knelt before the holographic image of the Emperor Palpatine. The only being in the galaxy that Vader feared, that could cause a tremor of terror in the dark soul.
The shrouded form of Palpatine moved his hand. "Rise, my Servant."
Vader unfolded, standing before the Emperor, head bowed. "Skywalker has been taken," he reported.
Palpatine sighed in dark delight. "Good, Lord Vader. Very good. You will keep me informed of his progress!"
Vader inclined his head, "Yes, my Master"
The hologram snapped into darkness, leaving Vader alone in the gloom.
Luke lay curled on the floor of the cell, unable to sleep in the cold and the glare of the lights, his mind going over and over the situation, always returning to his last sight of Wedge, lying unconscious, his face so terribly pale against the orange of his ruined uniform, surrounded by stormtroopers.
He had no idea how long he had been here. They had drugged him before throwing him inside, knocking him unconscious almost before he hit the floor.
It was obvious why the trap had been set. He knew what Vader wanted of him, had more than a vague idea of what lay ahead. But in all the hours that he'd been awake, he had seen no one, had heard no one. That, more than anything else, was slowly destroying him. Terror for himself; anxiety over Wedge; guilt for this whole situation: all combining to make the waiting interminable, his spirit growing weaker and weaker as each minute dragged towards yet another hour, robbing him of the strength to fight against the despair that settled more and more heavily around him.
He should have returned to Dagobah after the confrontation with Vader on Bespin. He should have finished his training with the little Jedi Master. But
There had been so much hurt, sill was so much pain. How could Ben have lied to him? Why hadn't Yoda told him? He had been so confused, so damned terrified, unable to comprehend his own feelings. The most hated and feared being in the Galaxy after the Emperor, suddenly announcing that he was his father. The man he had watched cut down Ben in cold blood. The man who had tortured his friends.
So he had avoided returning to Dagobah until the last possible moment.
And then had come the news of Han, and he had pushed aside thoughts of Yoda and Ben, throwing himself into the search, desperate to find the Corellian and relieve his own conscience because he was responsible for the mess that Han was in. If Vader hadn't wanted him so badly, then Han and Leia and Chewie would have been safe on Bespin.
Hoping to rid himself of the pain and the confusion in the hunt he had succeeded only in walking straight into another trap, getting another friend involved.
If only he'd gone back to Yoda
If only he'd listened to Yoda's warning in the first place. If you leave now, help them, you could. But you will destroy all for which they have fought and suffered
He had been so sure of himself, so convinced that he was doing the right thing. Instead of which he had delivered himself into Vader's hands.
Sure, he had escaped that time just
Only to fall into Vader's clutches once more.
Why hadn't Ben or Yoda told him the truth? Told him why he could destroy the Rebellion? Explained
Yet, could he have remained on Dagobah knowing that his friends were suffering because of him? Wouldn't it have been more dangerous to tell him?
"I cannot protect you, Luke," the old man had warned him. "If you chose to face Vader, you will do it alone"
He should have listened to them. Damn it, he should have listened
The door hissed open, pulling Luke from an uneasy sleep, back to reality. Two stormtroopers clumped into the cell, dragging Luke to his feet, marching him out and along the corridors.
They hauled him to a stop, removing the binders before pushing him through opening doors into a large, empty room. Luke stumbled, putting his hands out to stop his fall, landing badly, the pain jarring up his arms.
The tail of Darth Vader's cloak brushed against him.
He looked up, starting to pull away but Vader caught hold of his wrist, drawing him to his feet. The pressure of the Dark Lord's fingers triggered a release mechanism in the younger man's cybernetic hand. The small access panel popped open.
Luke stared at him, breathing heavily.
Vader considered the automation then let Luke go, sweeping away. "Why do you deny your heritage, my son? It makes you grow weak."
Luke said nothing, cringing at Vader's use of "son", memories of Bespin flooding back, washing through him as he pressed the access panel back into place.
The Dark Lord turned, "You let the fear and hatred reach you."
Luke pulled his breathing into long, deep breaths, calming himself. He couldn't let Vader get to him. He had to remain passive, not rise to the provocation. It was the only way to protect himself.
The Dark Side was not stronger, only easier to follow.
"Good!" Vader was moving towards him, "You bring your fear under control, but I still feel the anger."
Luke gathered his strength, staying his ground as Vader loomed over him.
"Obi-Wan taught you well, Luke, but your training is not yet complete. You are still not a Jedi!"
The comment caught Vader off guard. He had expected fear, hatred, and resignation: not flippancy. He stepped back, watching his son, seeing the determination in Luke's eyes.
He turned away, deciding to ignore the comment. "Your training will be completed here."
"I will never turn to the Dark Side, Vader!"
"Your future lies with the Dark Side. Your destiny lies with me."
Vader cut off the vehement denial, "There is no escape for you, Luke. The Emperor wishes you to join us or be destroyed"
"Then you will have to destroy me! I"
"Do not remain under the misapprehension that you will be allowed to die! You are too valuable to the Empire for that to be an option. You are the future of the galaxy, Luke. You have the power to destroy the Emperor. He fears you."
He moved closer, towering over Luke, "You will be Jedi! You will stand by my side! You have no choice! It is your birthright!"
Luke stepped back, moving away, unable to bear the evil and oppression that flowed from Vader. The Dark Lord stopped him with a flick of his hand, holding the boy immobile as he struggled against Vader's hold.
"Your training begins now!"
Luke lay on the floor of the cell where the stormtroopers had dumped him, too exhausted to move; too tired to sleep: his whole body aching.
Vader had drilled him, coming at him again and again, testing him, pushing him, driving him on when all he wanted to do was drop - pushing him to the edge of his endurance.
He rolled onto his back, groaning, feeling the discomfort ease slightly, unable to stop his thoughts running.
He had tried not to co-operate, but Vader hadn't allowed that. He'd had no choice but to comply, pushing away the hostility and belligerence to meet each situation as calmly and methodically as he could, Yoda's warning always in his thoughts.
Anger, fear, aggression. The Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join a fight
Perhaps that was the answer
To run with Vader, allow Vader to complete his training, but always staying alert to the Dark Side. Vader would not try to turn him until he was almost fully trained, and it would be easier for both himself and Wedge
The despair settled in on him again. He had no idea if Wedge was alive or dead. Vader had said nothing and he couldn't risk asking. If Wedge was alive, the last thing he needed was Vader's attention on him.
Wedge, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
He turned onto his side, curling his knees to his chest in a fetal position. He should have listened to Ben and Yoda. He should have finished his training and faced Vader on his own terms.
Darth Vader stood, a dark presence watching as his son battled against the energy bolts from the seeker balls darting around him, never still, always moving.
The boy manoeuvred, turning the staff in his hands to catch the blasts streaming from the spheres, twisting to protect his back, bringing the staff up a heartbeat too late. The blast hit him low in the spine, pitching him towards the floor. Another blast caught him on the shoulder as he fell, driving him sideways onto his back. The globes hovered, finally still as Luke lay paralysed, pain flaring as he fought to breathe.
Vader turned, moving to the door. Luke's strength was building each day, his reflexes growing faster with each exercise thrown at him, the Force flowing more strongly.
But his concentration was total. He exceeded the targets Vader expected of him, but there was nothing to break that focus.
That was about to change.
Wedge Antilles surfaced slowly, the nagging ache in his chest and along his collarbone pulling him sluggishly back to reality. He reached up, tying to brush away the gentle pain, still only half-aware
His eyes drifted open, the white ceiling telling him nothing. He turned his head, confused and unsure.
The stormtrooper at the door glanced at him before leaving.
Fear brought Wedge to his feet immediately. Instinct pulled his attention round the room, searching for an escape route, knowing that there wouldn't be one but still looking, his memory returning in a rush, fragmented
What, in the name of the goddess, had Vader been doing here? Where had he come from? Wedge vaguely remembered Luke saying something about a trap but why? What did Vader want from them?
Deep down, Wedge knew that it had to have something to do with the events on Bespin. He knew that Vader had been on Cloud City. He also knew that Luke refused to talk about it. What had happened there that had been
The door opened.
Wedge grabbed the sheet from the bed, covering himself as the stormtrooper returned momentarily, tossing a bundle of clothes at the Rebel before leaving.
Wedge made no move to catch them, letting them sprawl on the floor.
As the door closed, he leaned against the wall, sliding down it to sit on the floor, feeling totally alone, totally defenceless.
Why was he still alive and being taken care of? The lack of scar tissue on his chest and shoulder could only mean that they had used Bacta Imperials did not waste Bacta on Rebel prisoners!
He pulled his knees up, hugging them to his chest. What was happening here?
And where the hells was Luke?
He closed his eyes, resting his head against his arms. He had a dreadful feeling that he would find out sooner than he would ever be prepared for.
Luke concentrated on the Force, feeling it flow through him, deflecting everything that Vader threw at him. Conscious only of the power of the Force, he was unaware of the door sliding open, of the two stormtroopers hauling in a struggling Wedge Antilles.
Vader turned, momentarily, noting Antilles' arrival, reaching out with the Force, effortlessly picking up another crate and sending it hurtling towards Luke. At the same time, he turned his attention upward, loosening one of the heavy roof panels directly above the apprentice Jedi.
Despite the stormtroopers' grip on his arms, Wedge stopped short at the sight of the black-clad Luke, watching, fascinated as crates bounced away before even reaching him, falling harmlessly to the floor yards away. Wedge knew the significance of the lightsaber. He had been aware that Luke was somehow different, but this was something else, something totally alien to him. This had to be the Force that Skywalker had told him about.
A movement above Luke caught his attention and, horrified, Wedge saw the roof panelling above Luke breaking free, almost ready to crash to the floor. All thoughts of Luke's strange powers fled, forgotten, as he shouted Luke's name, desperately trying to warn him of the danger.
Skywalker's eyes snapped open, suddenly aware that Wedge was there, relief flooding through him as he saw Antilles alive and well, concentration broken. Understanding in that same instance that Vader could have brought Wedge here for only one purpose, his mind began to race. He had thought he was prepared, dreading this moment from the very beginning. Now, he realised, his gut twisting, that nothing would ever ease the horror of watching someone suffer because of him.
Wedge screamed his name, trying to pull free of his captors.
Distracted, Luke felt the movement above him too late to move successfully. The panel smashed down on him, crushing him to the floor.
Vader turned back to the struggling Wedge, weaving the Force, wrapping it around the young Rebel, slowly strangling him.
Wedge gagged, battling for breath. Throat constricting, his struggle against the stormtroopers' grip weakened as his sight blurred. His lungs cried out for the air denied them, his consciousness beginning to fade, held upright in the grip of the white-armoured soldiers.
Luke turned his head, fighting against the flare of pain, seeing Wedge deliberately suffocated.
Focussing on the weight of the panel pinning him to the floor, Luke summoned the Force, feeling the pressure lessen as the panel slowly moved, ignoring the rush of agony. He used the Force to lever himself to his feet, determined that Vader would not defeat him. Centring his attention on Wedge, Luke challenged the power that crushed the young pilot.
As suddenly as it began, the choking stopped. Great gulps of air flooded into Wedge's burning lungs as he sagged against the stormtroopers. He lifted his head.
Luke stood, struggling to remain on his feet, arm dangling uselessly at his side.
"Yes," Vader hissed, moving towards him. "Your fear and anger grow! Let it flow through you, Luke! Feel it grow! Embrace it!"
Vader's power was overwhelming, battering against him, a foul shadow looming darker and darker.
"This is only the beginning, Luke!" Vader warned. "Do you really think I will not use Antilles against you again? Your foolish attempt at saving him this time has only ensured his continuing agony!"
Vader watched the emotion flit across Luke' face, seeing his taunt hit home, feeling the boy's hatred and despair growing. He took another step, relishing the power that flowed through him. "Let your anger possess you! Use it to stop me!"
He could feel Luke beginning to respond. Beneath the mask he smiled. Soon, Luke. Very soon you will be mine.
"Your family are dead by my hand! Obi-Wan dead by my hand! Han Solo dead by my hand! Now Antilles will also fall!"
Grief clawed through Luke, the news of Han's death delivered so bluntly, pushing him further towards the abyss. First Ben, now Han, and after Vader had finished with them, Wedge too would die or worse
"Wedge" I'm sorry, Wedge, so sorry
Luke stumbled back a step, everything disintegrating around him.
Vader advanced, slowly, menacingly, manoeuvring ever closer. "I feel your anger, your fear, your hatred! Let it own you!"
Luke dropped his head, closing his eyes. Struggling with the darkness that pushed against him, Vader's voice hypnotic, demanding, drawing him, the rage and hostility building inside him.
"Use it to stop me! Take your revenge! Stop this now and save at least one of your friends!"
Luke could taste blood in his mouth. He could feel the power of the Dark Side of the Force slowing around him, centred on the ever more feasible figure of Vader. It pulled at him, dragging at his resistance.
I cannot protect you Luke I cannot interfere.
Kenobi's warning on Dagobah echoed in his mind. Vader had almost reached him, hand outstretched.
"Join me, Luke! Stand at my side! Together we can rid the Empire of Palpatine and rule in his stead! Together we will be invincible. Join me, Luke! Join me! Look to your anger. Allow it to claim you!"
Luke's mind whirled, Vader's influence coercing him. He heard the screams of his friends in his head, fought to maintain his hold on reality, the influence of the Dark Side all around him.
If once you start down the Dark Side, forever will it dominate your destiny.
Your hatred can give you the power to destroy me! Use it!
The pain was overwhelming, weakening him, the power of the Dark Side battering at the last of his defences, drawing him, the urge to lash out at Vader, to destroy him and stop the pain, almost overwhelming.
Your future lies with me. Now you will embrace the Dark Side. Obi-Wan knew this to be true.
Consume you it will as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice.
Beware a heavy price is paid forever will it dominate your destiny
Clouded is your fate
Luke's mind reeled under the attack, images and voices racing through him, dragging at him.
Your future lies with me
Clouded is your fate Beware
you will embrace the Dark Side your future
Your future lies with me Obi-Wan knew
Consume you give you the power to destroy you will embrace the Dark Side
lies with me Obi-Wan's apprentice
give you the power to destroydestroy all for which they have fought
Luke's scream echoed around the room. He turned towards Wedge, desperate to find an anchor against insanity, almost breaking the hold of the Dark Side.
Vader's voice lured him back.
Then, at the edge of his vision, he saw Wedge breaking free, starting towards him, getting only a few feet before being brought down by the stormtroopers, his attention drawn to the struggling figure on the floor.
He took an uncertain step towards Wedge, but his legs finally gave way and he crumpled to the floor, crying out as pain and nausea battered at him. Darkness pushed against his consciousness and he let it flood over him, no longer able to fight the power Vader wielded against him.
It was over, all over. Yoda and Ben had warned him, but he had known better, He had been their only hope and he had failed them. There was no strength left to resist the Dark Side
Vader had won
Wedge struggled as the troopers dragged him up, lashing out, succeeding only in being doubled over, his arms twisted up his back. Then he was hauled upright, yelping as his shoulders protested. The black figure of Darth Vader loomed over him, the evil emanating from the awesome form moving as if it had a life of its own, caressing him. He stared; unable to drag his eyes away from the ebony mask, his breath coming in fast, panicked gulps.
Vader considered him.
It had been so close. Luke had been almost totally within his power, the Dark Side beginning its seduction. Then the influence had been broken by a simple act from this boy.
Vader began to turn away then swung back, smashing the rebel pilot across the face. Wedge's head snapped back, blood beginning to trickle down his face from the split cheek.
"Take him away!"
A grey uniformed officer stepped through the door as the troopers carried Wedge out. Watching the crumpled figure behind Vader, the officer didn't dare to move until the Dark Lord ordered her to.
Vader did not acknowledge the medic's presence. Turning back to Luke's unconscious form, he stood, watching him for a moment.
So close, my son. Almost within its power. So close
The medic hurried to Vader's side as the Dark Lord began to speak. "Do what you must to keep him alive, but no more!"
"Sire," she answered, making no other comment.
"If he dies" Vader trailed off, the threat unvoiced.
The medic managed to keep her tension from showing, replying to the intimidation calmly and evenly. "I understand, Lord Vader."
Vader said nothing more, sweeping away, leaving his son to the tender mercies of the Imperial medic.
The woman stood for a moment, watching the still form, the hate swelling inside her. So this was the great Skywalker, this brilliant fighter pilot, instrument of the Death Star's destruction.
The garbage who had killed her brother.
She shook her head, slowly. "Ironic, isn't it, Skywalker," she murmured softly, "that Vader should entrust you to me."
She turned, smiling coldly, snapping orders at the troopers outside as she walked through the door, making her way to the tiny medical centre, checking the instruments once more as she waited for Skywalker to arrive.
Wedge pushed himself to his feet, swaying groggily as he made for the cot against the far wall, his face throbbing, his head pounding.
He collapsed onto the cot with a groan, lying still for a moment before lifting his hand to his face. His cheek was wet with blood, the touch sending a thump of pain through his head.
He dropped his hand, lying still.
Shit, Luke What have we walked into?
The holographic image of Palpatine flickered into being. Darth Vader dropped to his knees in respect.
The Emperor moved his hand, "Stand, my friend, and tell me what progress you make."
Vader lifted his head, rising to his feet. "The boy is close to turning, my Master. The Dark Side is drawing closer to him. We will not have to wait much longer."
The cowled head moved in acknowledgement, "Good! Good! With Skywalker at our side the Rebellion will soon be crushed You have done well, my friend. Inform me as soon as Skywalker has complied!"
Palpatine's hologram began to flicker and Vader bowed his head in homage s the image disappeared. He slipped to the floor, kneeling in preparation for meditation,
He would indeed inform Palpatine of Luke's turn to the Dark Side. Things, however, would not go according to the Emperor's schemes. Vader had other plans for his son.
Luke moaned softly, his eyes flickering open, feeling the pressure of Vader's influence all round him. The presence of the Dark Side still lurked within him, flowing through and round him.
He closed his eyes against the light of the room, pain washing through his body. It was only a matter of time. He would not be able to fight Vader or resist the influence of the Dark Side for much longer.
He had very little strength left, the continual ache from his injuries slowly draining it away. Each breath sent pain spasming through his chest, making it an effort to breathe.
There was movement to his left, pressure against his arm. He half-opened his eyes, watching the grey-uniformed officer check the read-out panel on the medi-unit attached to his arm. Cold fluid dripped into his vein.
An idea began to form in his mind.
If he remained here he was lost, the Dark Side would take him. And Wedge thrown into the Spice mines if Vader didn't destroy him first.
Slowly, Luke began to concentrate, gathering the Force.
There was a risk that Vader would feel the change in the Force and would realise what was happening, but this was their only chance of getting out, of escaping. He had to take the risk.
He reached out to the officer, feeling the anger and hatred aimed at him, seeing in her feelings that a brother had died on the Death Star. Luke pushed the thoughts aside. The emotion would make it easier to reach her.
Tentatively, he touched the officer's mind.
Antilles is dying. You must bring him here!
The effort drained him, leaving him unable to say any more or to try again. Darkness began to edge in. There was no more time.
He heard the officer walking towards the door, hoping that the suggestion had worked. If it hadn't then everything was lost.
Slowly, the darkness began to recede. Luke felt the tiredness ebb away, his strength returning and he realised that the drug seeping into his system was not to kill the pain, but a stimulant to keep him aware and continually conscious through the pain.
Vader was taking no chances. If they didn't get out now
Luke moaned softly, grand escape plan crashing down around him as he realised that Wedge was probably already dead. He had been instrumental in breaking the Dark Side's hold. Vader would have taken his revenge.
Han was dead. Wedge was dead. How many more would die because of him?
Wedge heard the door open, but remained motionless, hoping that the pretence of unconsciousness would fool them.
"Bring him!" a voice ordered after a moment's silence.
Wedge didn't struggle as hands dragged him off the cot. He wanted to know where he was being taken and wasn't going to risk being clubbed into unconsciousness.
The two troopers dragged him through the corridors behind an officer, finally hauling him into a room, dropping him on the floor.
He half-opened his good eye, seeing the door shut before someone turned him onto his back. A hand caught his chin, turning his head. He stifled a groan as the slash on his cheek was inspected roughly.
The doctor gave a cold laugh, "Playing games, are we?"
Wedge abandoned the pretence, squinting up at the woman. She gave him an icy smile, before standing up and turning away.
Wedge took a chance. He kicked his legs out, tripping her, lunging at her across the floor. She scrambled out from under him, pushing herself to her feet and reaching for the blaster at her hip. Wedge dived at her legs, tackling her back to the floor. She punched him in the face, sending a spasm of pain through him, but he held onto her, catching hold of her wrist. Twisting it, he smashed it against the floor, trying to make her drop the blaster.
She punched him in the face again, pushing him off of her, wriggling out, scrambling backwards and trying to buy time to shoot him.
Wedge hauled himself to his knees, diving at her shoulders to push her backwards against the wall. She started to aim, but Wedge slammed into her, sending her falling backwards. Her head smacked against the wall.
Wedge rolled away, breathing heavily, ready to lunge for the blaster but she slid sideways to the floor, unconscious.
Wedge sat for a moment then pushed himself to his feet, looking round the room for the exit, stopping short as he saw Luke. He crossed to the table in two, quick strides. "Luke?"
The blue eyes opened.
Wedge sighed in relief, reaching out to release the straps holding Luke to the table. Then he pulled the medi-unit off his arm, "Can't lie here all day! We gotta go!"
Luke stared at the swollen face, the eye already starting to bruise, the fresh blood seeping down Wedge's cheek. He winced as Wedge helped him to his feet, biting his lip to stop crying out. He pushed his friend away gently as he got his balance. "I'm okay"
Wedge watched him warily, but said nothing, turning towards the door. He stopped at the fallen officer, scooping up her discarded blaster.
Luke was leaning against the wall by the door.
"The two goons who brought me here will probably be outside," Wedge told him.
Luke nodded in acknowledgement, already seeing Wedge's plan, "I'll be decoy"
Wedge tried to grin, wincing as his swollen face rebelled. Moving to the door opposite Luke, he keyed it open, pressing himself against the wall. For a moment there was silence, then the shuffle of booted feet.
Luke moved into the doorway, making sure the guards saw him before staggering back.
A stormtrooper raced through the door, tumbling to the ground as Wedge fired. Wedge twisted in the doorway, firing at the other trooper before he had time to react. Then he turned, throwing the blaster at Luke before crawling out to drag the trooper into the room.
Luke caught the weapon just. He stepped over the inert soldier as Wedge dumped the other trooper on the floor, handing the blaster back to Wedge. It was an effort to keep himself upright without the added problem of using a weapon.
Wedge glanced out of the door, checking the corridor. "It's clear," he called back over his shoulder then stepped out into the passageway.
Luke followed him, steadying himself momentarily against the doorway. Wedge looked from one end of the corridor to the other, suddenly realising that he had no idea where they were or how to get to the landing bay.
"Any idea how we get out of here?" he asked, turning back to Luke.
Luke leant against the wall, suddenly terribly tired. If he used the Force, Vader would be aware of it, but it was the only way they had to guide them out of this labyrinth. Damned if he did, damned if he didn't.
Then again, Vader obviously hadn't been conscious of his manipulation of the woman Or was he letting them make the attempt at escape?
It was not a decision he could make on his own. Wedge's life was also at stake. He looked at his friend, "If I use the Force, Vader will know"
He watched the expression on Wedge's battered face, change. "So either we blunder round here for aeons, or we find the way and have Vader on our tail?"
Wedge's answer was almost immediate. He shrugged, his grin turning to a grimace. "We can outrun Vader"
Luke said nothing more, gathering his strength, reaching out through the Force.
Wedge stood, nervously glancing down the corridor, straining to here the sound of booted feet or the hiss of mechanical breathing The chances of them getting out of here were dreadfully slim and Wedge's only hope was that neither of them would be taken alive.
Luke pushed himself off the wall, "This way"
Wedge took his arm, supporting his friend as they made their way down the corridor. They turned a corner, down another corridor, into yet another. Luke guided Wedge, Wedge trusting his friend implicitly as they made their way through the base.
Then behind them, finally, they heard the sound of running feet.
Luke pulled on the last of his strength, breaking into a hobbling run. Wedge followed him, glancing behind, blaster held ready to fire. They rounded a corner and there, ahead of them, the doors to the landing bay lay open, the X-wings visible in the background.
Wedge quickened his pace, running past Luke to get the spare suits from the fighters, leaving Luke to follow at his own pace, knowing that he would need help to suit up.
Luke ignored the pain that stabbed through him, forcing himself on, pushing against the encroaching shadows. He could not let Vader stop him
Skywalker skittered to a halt, the voice in his mind insistent, demanding, the embrace of the Dark Side reasserting itself. He turned, fighting Vader's hold, aware that they were perilously close to being taken again.
"Luke?" Wedge had stopped and was starting back for him.
Two stormtroopers turned into the corridor at a run, dropping to their knees in battle position as they saw the two Rebels. Luke stood transfixed, his breathing shallow and rapid, fear and hopelessness welling inside him. Vader was almost here. In his mind, Luke could see him striding through the corridors towards them.
"Luke! Come on!" Wedge dragged at him frantically. Then he changed tactic, realising that things were going dreadfully wrong. He fired at the stormtroopers, downing one, aiming at the other.
Luke saw the stormtrooper fit the blaster against his shoulder, aiming, starting to squeeze the trigger. He saw the dark shadow of the man who claimed to be his father sweep into view. He saw the energy bolt from the trooper's blaster slice out towards Wedge.
Realisation snapped into focus.
He could not allow himself to be taken. The lure of the Dark Side had grown too strong, pulled too powerfully for him to resist it successfully.
And Wedge Vader was interested in his son alone. If he was dead then there was a chance, however slim, for Wedge to get out
The sudden calm of his decision broke the paralysis, pushing him sideways into the heat of the laser bolt. The blow lifted him, throwing him against Wedge, sending both of them, tumbling to the ground.
The brief impression of his son's decision slammed at Vader, a wall of emotion clouding his response. The blow to the stormtrooper was already too late, but it fell, smashing the soldier against the wall.
Vader stepped forward watching in slow motion as Luke moved into the line of fire, the blast pushing him into the other Rebel, pitching them both to the floor. He started towards them, caught between a desire to own his son and to hold him.
He stopped suddenly.
Luke was being drawn to the Dark Side, pulled strongly enough that he had tried to escape. The transformation was almost complete, he was very close to having Luke join him and stay by his side.
Once again, however, his son had chosen death rather than face the full force of the Dark Side. If he went to Luke now, if he kept Luke with him, the boy would die, even if the other Rebel were allowed to go. If he pushed now, Luke would break. The only strategy left to him was to allow his son to go, giving him the chance to survive.
He stood for a moment, watching as the other Rebel moved towards Luke. Then he turned, moving away, letting them go.
Wedge scrambled across to Luke, fear, shock and disbelief threatening hysteria. "Shit shit shit shit shit"
Luke was conscious, agony clouding his eyes. Wedge glanced along the few feet of corridor separating them from the ships in the landing bay. Freedom lay tantalisingly close.
He looked back, decision made.
Luke tried desperately to lift his arm, to push Wedge away, but was unable to summon the strength. Wedge saw the movement, the denial form on Luke's lips and ignored them. They had come too far; Luke had endured too much for him to be left to Vader now.
Blocking out what lay behind, too terrified to consider the next blaster shot, or Vader, he grabbed Luke's arms, heaving him up, half carrying, half dragging him along the corridor, concentrating solely on the landing bay and the ships.
The X-wings were still sitting where they'd been left, an eternity before. Wedge ignored them. There was no time to suit up. Instead, he headed for the small shuttlecraft sitting in front of the X-wings.
The gantry was down and he increased his pace, desperate to get inside the ship before the troopers arrived, his body vibrating as the blood pumped, fear and adrenalin pushing him on.
Where were they? Why weren't they here?
With every step he expected to hear the thudding of booted feet, a shout to stop but there was nothing, only the white noise of his blood loud in his ears and the sound of his breathing.
He reached the gantry, pulling Luke into the shuttle and slapping the door switch before gently lowering his friend to the floor. There was no time to check on him now
He moved to the flight deck, dropping into the pilot's seat, searching side pocket for the checklist. He had flown a simulator for one of these ages before at the academy, but only once. Without the checklist
He took a deep breath, calming himself. If he panicked now they would both be dead.
Think, damn you! Think!
Slowly, he began the start-up, dredging the routine from the depths of his memory, moving more quickly as the procedure returned. The engine kicked in, the shuttle shuddering slightly. He finished all he could remember of the checks then slowly eased the shuttle off the ground. The soft vibration died as it lifted from the floor of the landing bay, rising into the air.
The Lord Darth Vader watched the view screen as the shuttle lifted out of the atmosphere, sailing through the steroid belt before disappearing into hyperspace, taking with it the future of the galaxy.
He turned away, his mood dark. Palpatine would not take kindly to this turn of events.
The commander of the stormtroopers stood near the door. Vader advanced on him, "How did they escape?"
"Sir, I" he began.
Vader didn't wait for the futile attempt at an explanation, picking him up, smashing him against the far wall. The Commander dropped to the floor, his body twitching. The other officers stood silent and unmoving, averting their eyes from the fallen trooper.
Vader swept out of the room, already forming in his mind the speech that he would be required to give the Emperor.
Wedge punched in the coordinates to send the shuttle in the direction of the Rebel sector, pushing the shuttle into hyperspace before rushing aft to search for a medi-pak.
Luke lay on his side where Wedge had left him, his breathing coming in rapid, shallow gasps, rasping in his throat. His face was ghostly white against the black tunic, the blood slowly beginning to pool under him.
Wedge found the pak, tearing it open as he dropped to his knees beside Luke. He slowly eased Luke away from the bulkhead, turning him onto his back before cutting away his tunic. He ignored the blood, forcing himself not to see the extent of the wound, concentrating solely on spraying the pressure bandage over Luke's chest.
Luke was already slipping into shock, his body beginning to shake. Wedge pulled a rehydration pad from the pak and applied it to Luke's upper arm. He was no medic, but he'd had to deal with blaster wounds before.
He climbed to his feet, reaching for the thermostat, turning it up fully. Luke had to be kept warm. Then he checked their progress in the flight deck before returning to Luke's side, pushing damp, blond hair from Skywalker's forehead.
"We're out of there, Luke," he told his friend, persuading himself that Luke could hear him. "Out of there and on our way home"
"Hells," he continued. Trying to sound light hearted, not wanting to let Luke hear how desperately afraid he was, "The Deck Officer's gonna kill us for leaving the X-wings. There's few enough as it is And I really don't think that the Princess Leia's gonna be too happy at you getting yourself blasted either"
Another thought crossed his mind, "And what in the name of the goddess am I going to tell the surgeon droid, having to patch you up three times in as many months"
Undoing the top buttons of his tunic, pushing his sleeves up as the temperature in the shuttle became uncomfortable hot, he manoeuvred to sit with his back against the bulkhead. He cradled Luke's head, gently lifting his friend's shoulders, shifting himself along to rest Skywalker's head on his lap, hearing the laboured breathing ease slightly.
"Don't you dare die on me," he whispered, too softly for Luke to hear. "Don't even consider it!"
He took a breath, starting to talk, rambling on about anything and everything that came to mind: jokes, stories, events both of them had shared; talking continually as the time dragged on, to let Luke know he was not alone, to calm his own fears, stopping only once to change the re-hydration pack on Luke's arm. He watched his friend's condition slowly worsen; willing him to stay alive.
The soft chime from the flight deck warned him that they were bout to drop from hyperspace.
"Got to go, Luke"
He eased Luke onto the floor before moving to the flight deck, walking backwards, loathed to leave him. "Don't give up on me now," he breathed. "Not much further, just hold on!"
He slid into the pilot's seat, turning his attention to their imminent arrival in Rebel space in an Imperial shuttle. The engines cut in to decelerate, the starscape blossoming, bursting into myriad colours before settling into normal space.
Wedge keyed the sensors online, searching for the Rebel cruisers that had been in this sector before they had left for Yeltarn, prying that they hadn't moved. If he had to hunt for any length of time, Luke was dead.
The sensor display sounded and Wedge whooped with delight. They were still here! He changed course, heading towards the nearest echo, watching the screen as the small blips of fighters detached themselves from the large mass of the cruiser and rushed to intercept the shuttle before it reached attack distance.
Wedge reached across, searching for the radio, flipping the wave-band to talk to the pilot in charge of the fighters racing towards the shuttle.
"Flight Leader, this is the shuttlecraft approaching you! Come in! Flight Leader, this is the shuttle approaching you! Come in!"
There was a hiss of static, then, "Shuttle craft, this is the Flight Leader. Pass your message."
Wedge recognised the voice. "Gold Leader this is Commander Wedge Antilles. I have Commander Skywalker aboard. He is badly injured and needs urgent medical attention. Repeat, this is Red Leader. Rogue Leader is badly injured. He needs urgent medical attention."
"Red Leader, that's copied. Standby."
There was a frantic moment's silence, then, "Red Leader, follow us in. A tractor beam will catch you further on."
"Roger, Gold Leader. I'm on your tail."
Wedge flew the shuttle towards the cruiser, following the Y-wing, two more flying alongside, the others heading back. Wedge watched the massive ship ahead growing larger and larger, bulk slowly blocking out the stars. He glanced back into the cabin, checking on Luke.
The shuttle shuddered slightly as the tractor beam lanced out, catching it.
"Tractor is locked, Wedge," Gold Leader reported. "You're on your way home"
"Roger, Gold Leader"
He shut the engines down, allowing the tractor beam to do the rest of the work, before moving back to Luke, dropping down beside him. Suddenly afraid, unable to see Luke breathing, Wedge searched for a pulse, leaning over Luke and listening for a breath. There was a beat, weak but there, a soft draught against his cheek, shallow and rapid.
"We're nearly there, Luke," he promised. "We're almost home, damn it! Don't die on me now! Don't you dare die on me! Luke! Do you hear me? We're almost there!"
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, before continuing more rationally, "Gold Leader's with us, Luke, bringing us in. The medics are waiting for you. It's going to be okay. Just hang on!"
He half stood, looking out of the front of the shuttle towards the docking bay, at the approach lights strobing in towards the open doors, sequence changing automatically to guide the shuttle in.
"Nearly there, now. Almost setting down."
It was virtually over; they were floating through the doors. He could see the medics already moving towards the shuttle. Relief flooded through him as he stood up, a slight jar trembling through the shuttle and confirming that they had touched down. Wedge activated the switch to lower the ramp, turning back to Luke.
He dropped to his knees. "We made it, Luke! We"
He trailed off, reaching desperately to find the pulse in Luke's wrist, bending to feel the breath on his cheek.
Wedge pulled back slowly, staring at Luke's body, unable to believe the cold reality of the situation. "No No No No! No!"
The sobs tore at him, silent, cold, dry.
Concerned hands lifted him to his feet, pulling him away to allow the medics and droids in. His legs gave way, but he was caught, lowered to the floor. Someone was talking to him, far away. He couldn't understand the words, his attention focussed on the body of his friend. After all that had happened, after all that they had gone through
"Sir? Sir, we need to get you to the med centre"
Another voice, "Wedge! Look at me!"
A hand caught his chin, forcing his gaze away from Luke. Wedge gaped at the man, totally disoriented, his mind beginning to shut out the shock of Luke's death.
"Wedge, we've got to get you to the med centre" The voice was calm, persuasive.
He recognised the man suddenly. The Deck Officer.
"The X-wings" he began. "We had to leave them."
The Deck Officer nodded in acknowledgement, "I know, Wedge. It's okay. Come on, let's get you to the med centre"
Wedge looked at him, totally lost, an impression beginning to surface through the fog blanketing his mind. "Luke's hurt"
"They're taking care of him. He's going to the med centre. Come on, Wedge, we need to get you down there too."
Wedge allowed himself to be lifted to his feet and guided out of the shuttle. "We had to leave the X-wings"
"That's okay, Wedge. Don't worry about it."
He squeezed his eyes closed, shaking his head, trying to clear his vision as they led him out of the hangar, but the shadows remained. Everything moved in slow motion, unreal. He lifted his hand to his face, the wound on his cheek beginning to burn, pressure beginning to ache behind his swollen eye.
The Deck Officer's grip tightened as he stumbled, steadying him.
He tried to open his good eye, recognising the voice, unable to focus on the face, his vision swimming, his head pounding. "Your Highness I"
The Deck Officer swore, catching him as he crumpled to the floor, lowering him gently to the ground and screaming for the medics.
Leia stood at the door, reluctant to leave but conscious that Wedge would want time alone with Luke.
He'd been almost frantic to see Luke, as if he couldn't accept the fact that Luke was alive until he had seen him with his own eyes. And then, for a long moment, he had stood by the door, as if scared to go to Luke's side.
Wedge looked down on the sleeping face of his friend, fighting back the emotion, the images and memories flowing through his mind, nightmare scenes of the days they had spent in Vader's grasp.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to Leia. "I thought."
Leia nodded, her eyes on Luke. "We almost didn't get him down here in time. It was touch and go"
She smiled sadly, "But he pulled through."
She turned to face Wedge, searching his face, desperate to find out what had happened, what they had gone through, but unwilling to ask, knowing that any debrief should be left to the professionals.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness," Wedge began, misinterpreting the expression on her face. "Han wasn't"
The chill of Vader's voice echoed in his mind again, informing them that Han Solo was dead and he changed track. He couldn't tell her, not now. There had been too much pain, too much grief already for him to cope. "It was all a trap to get Luke. Darth Vader was waiting for us"
Leia's eyes widened in horror and Wedge turned away, unable to bear her emotion.
"There was no man No information Just Vader Everything set up to get Luke And then we got back here and I thought I thought" His voice caught on a sob and he stopped, taking deep breaths, fighting back the tears that stung his eyelids, swallowing the tight pain in his throat.
Now was not the time or the place.
Leia watched his reaction, saying nothing, waiting for his control to return, then quietly told him, "Han's on Tatooine."
Wedge spun round, "What?"
"Bobba Fett took him to Jabba the Hutt"
Leia nodded, frowning, "From what we've heard"
Wedge clutched at her, "But"
He pulled away, turning to Luke, gripping his friend's arm. "Luke? Do you hear that? Han's alive! Vader lied to us! Han's alive! He's with Jabba the Hutt! Can you her me, Luke? Han's alive!"
Leia pulled him away, suddenly afraid, "Wedge?"
He looked at her, "Vader told us that Han was dead, told us he'd killed him. Luke crumbled He still thinks Han is dead"
Leia took his hands in hers, holding them tight, "It's okay, Wedge! Believe me, it's going to be okay."
She held him tightly, willing him to believe her lie. She had no idea how things would turn out. Luke was only just out of danger, Han still carbon-frozen and in the hands of Jabba the Hutt, news coming in of a second Death Star being built
The door hummed open and Leia let Wedge go, turning as SeeThreepio shuffled in. "I am so sorry, Your Highness, but Commander Antilles is required in debrief. However if"
"Not, it's okay, Threepio," Wedge told him, "I'll be with you in a minute."
He turned back to Luke, squeezing his friend's arm, "I'll be back as soon as I can"
Leia watched him go before pulling a chair across to Luke's bedside.
They had won the first battle, the Death Star had been destroyed, but at what cost? How much more would they have to give before they had freedom from the Empire? How many more would have to die?
She took Luke's hand, talking to him softly. So much stood against them, there was still so much to overcome and they had lost such a lot on Hoth.
And yet how could they give up now?
Those who had died had given their lives willingly, flocked to the Rebellion knowing that the penalty would be death, ignoring that in the desperation to rid themselves of the evil of the Empire, craving freedom more than life itself.
And how many new faces did she see every day? All those men and women still joining up
So despite all that stood against them, they couldn't give up now. They had to go on. They would go on.
They owed it to their dead as well as the living.
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