The Protege'Author :
jedinemoRating and disclaimer :
Rated PG-13. The Star Wars Universe belongs to George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd, and I have gained nothing but satisfaction from this fanfic.Summary :
Darth Vader has an unsettling encounter within the Imperial Palace that changes the course of Galactic history.Timeline :
A few years before the events of ANH
I will be out of town until 6/29, so if you don't hear from me, I have no internet accessChapter Fourteen
The briefing room erupted into a flurry of movement. Anakin rose with the other men, the idea that the mission required a Force sensitive pilot still with him. It wasn't a conscious thought; instead he had the sensation of being thrust forward by some great current in the Force. Only Luke's hand on his forearm restrained him.
"Where are you going?" Luke said.
"You heard the captain," he said, pulling his arm free and moving towards the exit. "It's time to go to our posts."
Luke followed him. "We don't have
"You're the one who said flying would be easy with the Force," Anakin said.
"Yeah, but I didn't mean..."
"Think about it," Anakin said, interrupting. "We're the only ones who can
succeed in this."
Luke looked around quickly, as if he was worried they'd been overheard."You don't know that."
"But what if I'm right?" Anakin said, lowering his voice to meet Luke's cue. "Could you live with yourself if they fail because we stayed behind?"
"No," Luke said, his brow furrowed. "Of course I want to help."
"Then we have to go," Anakin said. They were almost the last ones in the room.
Luke thought for a moment. "You'll have to lead. You're better at using the Force."
"But you're the better pilot," he said. "We'll do it together."
Now, except for the captain, they were
the last ones in the room. The officer walked up between them and clapped one hand on each of them. "Time to get your flightsuits on, boys," the captain said."You'll be all right."
Darth Vader had to admit that it was a bit disconcerting to have Obi-Wan sitting next to him in the shuttle's co-pilot's seat. But there wasn't any other place to put him, the rear passenger compartment currently filled with thirty hand-selected members of the 501st. Still, he could have done without the sense of deja-vu Obi-Wan's presence imparted. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, seemed to have benefited from being included in the mission, a new keenness showing in his face.
The Death Star lay dead ahead in the viewscreen of the shuttle, while at their flank the fleet moved into position to engage Tarkin's Star Destroyers. It had been a long time since he'd been involved in a battle of this magnitude and he realized he shared Obi-Wan's eagerness. He set a course for an open sector of the Death Star, aiming the shuttle at the lower hemisphere.
"What, you're just going to fly right into that thing?" Obi-Wan asked, gesturing towards the viewscreen.
Vader turned to Obi-Wan. As a matter of fact he was. "Have you got a better idea?"
Obi-Wan stared at him, arms crossed. "Well, no. What's your plan when we get there?"
"I have not yet made that decision," he said, raising his chin.
"You haven't decided yet?" Obi-Wan said. "Then it is a good thing you brought me."
Vader opened his mouth to make a retort, but then decided there was some truth in that statement. He could have hardly found an operative more seasoned in this type of covert insertion. And to have the strength of another Force-user at his side, that was a luxury he hadn't had since... His thoughts trailed off at the conclusion.
"Do you think it's moving?" Obi-Wan said.
He peered at the Death Star. He was having to make course corrections to stay on target. "Possibly."
"It looks like it's still heading towards the planet, "Obi-Wan said. "Our presence hasn't deterred them."
"That is why there is another team assigned to disrupt the superlaser," he said.
"Still, we'd better hurry," Obi-Wan said.
He clenched his jaw. Count on Obi-Wan to belabor the obvious. He engaged the hyperdrive, counted to two and shut it back off, making a microjump. The viewscreen went black for a moment and then the Death Star reappeared, looking a thousand times larger. Good thing he hadn't counted to three.
"That was a little close, don't you think?"
"You said to hurry," he replied, bringing the shuttle around to skim the surface of the Death Star. "Alert me if you see anything that resembles a hangar."
Obi-Wan looked at him incredulously.
"We need access to the inhabited sections, " he shrugged. "Just find me a hangar."
Obi-Wan shook his head, but obliged by sitting forward and staring out the side viewscreen. They cruised by section after section in silence.
"There," Obi-Wan said finally, pointing out the viewport.
He glanced over and caught sight of the structure in the edge of his vision. "Hold on," he said, rolling the shuttle back hard. There was a clatter of armor and a few curses from the rear compartment, and Vader realized he should have warned the troopers as well.
"You're the reason I hate flying," Obi-Wan said.
"No, you always hated flying," he said.
"Well, you certainly didn't help," Obi-Wan said.
"Then close your eyes," he said, angling the shuttle downward. If his approach was steep enough, they would be inside before the hangar's intruder alert system could raise the shields. He aimed the ship for a patch of floor and hit the throttle.
------Thrusters. Dampeners. Repulsors.
Anakin reviewed every instruction Luke had ever given him about flying as his TIE lurched forward in the launching rack. The motion was rythmic, repeating at precise intervals, as each TIE in sequence was catapulted from the hangar into space.
"Remember to hit your repulsors as soon as the launcher releases you."
The sound of Luke's voice coming through his headset comforted Anakin. His ship's status screen glowed red with the call sign - RKD5 - of Luke's ship directly ahead of him. Anakin fumbled to reply, unused to the the thick gloves and full breathing helmet required for TIE pilots. "Got it," he finally managed to send back.
"Then just before you pass through the hangar bay doors, cut the repulsors and hit your thrusters, hard."
He nodded, not thinking about the fact that Luke couldn't see him. Every other time they'd practiced flying, they'd been side by side. "Will do."
"I'm up next. I'll see you out there."
Luke's TIE appeared to vibrate, and then the launching arm activated, accelerating the fighter forward. Anakin watched Luke's ship sink briefly when it broke free of the launcher, but then it rose smoothly. He kept his eyes focused on it as it left Devastator
and became just another dot among the stars. He refused to look away, even when the launching arm clamped onto his ship, making it rock in the mechanism.
Abruptly, acceleration pinned him back against his seat as his own ship was thrown towards space. The blackness loomed larger and larger, and then he had the sensation of falling. He sucked in a breath, momentarily panicked, until he remembered Luke's words. He pressed the right control on the TIE's yoke, and to his relief the ship stopped its descent towards the hangar floor. How embarrassing would that have been to crash inside
the Star Destroyer?
When the flashing markers on the edge of the hangar bay doors were at his sides, he gunned the thrusters, shooting his TIE free of Devastator
. With literally nothing beneath him, it felt like he'd fallen off the end of the universe. This was so different from flying on Imperial Center, where no matter how high he'd gone, it was impossible to escape the evidence of civilization. But here there was only a black morass that grabbed at his ship and threatened to swallow it. In a few short seconds, Devastator
seemed to have moved a lifetime away.
The sound of his own breathing echoed off the panels of the cockpit, amplified some how, until he realized it was only the contrast with the absolute silence surrounding the TIE. No loudspeaker announcements, no whir of machinery, no shouts from crew members, there was only the hard vacuum of space. The thin metal shell of the hull and the small reserve of air in his space suit were all that stood between him and disaster. A sweat broke out on his brow. He'd never felt so alone.
He looked quickly to the small viewports, realizing he'd completely lost sight of Luke's ship. Other TIEs were visible, but they were close enough that they must have launched with him. The space station and its attendant Star Destroyers were hard to miss in the foreground, and he swung the TIE towards them while asking the thrusters for more. Luke would be gamely following orders and was probably approaching the target already. The feeling of hard acceleration made his stomach queasy, and he dialed up the inertial dampeners until the sensation faded.
Fortunately, he was soon rewarded by the sight of the tail end of a swarm of TIEs. He had the sudden thought that it was possible
these were enemy fighters. But wouldn't they be pointed away from the station, not towards it? He activated his transponder, and when there was an answering chirp, he signaled on his comm. "RKD Five, are you there?"
"Affirmative, RKD Six," came Luke's reply, and relief flooded through Anakin.
"You took off so fast," Anakin said. "I lost track of you."
"Cut the chatter, Six," interjected a voice, the call sign RKD1 flashing on Anakin's console. "You don't know who's listening out there."
Anakin shut off his headset, feeling more chastised than when Vader corrected him. He didn't want to endanger the mission through ignorance. He drifted his ship over until he was flying in formation with the rest of the TIES. He still wasn't sure exactly which one was Luke's, but as long as the group stayed together, he supposed it didn't matter. He exhaled deeply and settled into the business of flying. As he relaxed, he began to notice details that had escaped his attention in the chaos of leaving Devastator
. The instrument gauges he should have been watching all along, the way his protective flightsuit creaked everytime he moved, the way he could sense Luke, after all, glowing brightly in the Force. That same brilliance that had so annoyed him the first time they met was now a beacon in the dark, and he locked onto it.
Luke urged his fighter forward, his eyes on the ship that had launched just before his. They were all together now that Anakin had caught up to them. This was better than Beggar's Canyon, better than flying his T-16, better than anything. He'd taken the T-16 to its limits, to the boundary where the sky wavered between blue and black, and the air had been thin enough that he felt a little faint, but he'd still been planet bound. To feel the absolute freedom of space in a ship that didn't seem to run out of thrust, this was flying.
He dialed down the inertial dampeners until he could feel every movement of the ship in the pit of his stomach.
The squad of TIEs moved right and Luke shifted his ship with them without even thinking. It wasn't just the responsiveness of his fighter that made him feel so alive. It was the sense of purpose that they all shared, like back home when the settlers banded together to defend against a raid by the Tuskens. This space station had caused the deaths of billions and they were the ones who were going to stop it. Doing something important, saving lives, the idea spoke to his very soul, as if he had been born to do this.
The squad leader altered course again and the rest of the ships followed. It looked to Luke that the leader was taking them around the back side of the space station instead of approaching it head on. Looming larger with each passing kilometer, it seemed unbelievable that the station was an artificial structure. But as the group skirted the massive sphere, any doubt Luke had about that fact was erased. Now that they were flying away from the station, Luke could see that the station was moving
towards the planet. Despite the Imperial Star Destroyers massing an offense, Tarkin apparently still intended to destroy the Mon Calamari homeworld.
Luke increased his speed, filled with a renewed sense of urgency. Something else tickled at the back of his mind: a feeling that everything wasn't quite right. He looked down at his sensors, but nothing registered except the five ships in their squad. The leader banked them around the curve of the station and they straightened their course, storming towards an open section of the space station. The uneasy feeling strengthened and then his comm squawked out a single word: "Incoming!"
Luke didn't even have to ask where, because suddenly four other TIEs crossed his viewport and cannon fire sprayed towards his ship. Luke's squad widened their formation to return fire, then dodged upward and resumed course towards the space station. Their leader seemed determined to outrun Tarkin's fighters and Luke pressed the throttle until it had no travel left. Turning back was no longer an option, and the only shelter they'd find was inside the space station. They were going in.
Though the unexpected descent of Vader's shuttle into the Death Star had scattered Tarkin's crew like frightened nunas, they quickly regrouped, assuming a defensive posture around the periphery of the hangar. Stormtroopers knelt with E-11 rifles aimed at the ship. Darth Vader gestured to his 501st commander, and the trooper lowered the shuttle's ramp. The first squad of 501st soldiers sprinted down the ramp, quickly finding protection behind the ship. They aimed their own rifles back at Tarkin's men, covering the rest of their bretheren while they exited.
The hangar was eerily quiet as the two groups of stormtroopers faced each other. Watching Tarkin's men through the shuttle's viewscreen, Vader decided the stand-off was likely to continue unless he precipitated a reaction. He turned to Obi-Wan, who stood next to him in the cockpit. "Wait here."
Vader summoned his lightsaber, igniting it before he started down the ramp. For a few moments, the only sound was the heavy thump of his boots on the metal ramp, but then the hangar erupted in a blizzard of blasterfire. He swung his lightsaber to meet the incoming bolts, intercepting them easily because, he realized, very few were actually aimed at him. Most of the exchange was between the stormtroopers, as if Tarkin's crew was afraid to shoot at him. They may have had their orders, but he was still their Emperor.
Seizing upon their hesitation, he advanced towards the opposing soldiers and the hangar exit. The 501st followed him, moving in fits and stops as they ran forward, then dropped low again to minimize their exposure. He could see Tarkin's troops edging backwards, and then the incoming blasterfire tapered to nothing. Vader powered off his lightsaber and clipped it to his belt. The 501st remained in close quarters behind him, steadfastly maintaining kneeling positions.
Admist the trepidation he sensed coming from his opponents, one determined presence burned alone. The Force hummed around Vader, and he raised one gloved hand just in time to deflect a spray of blaster bolts.The bolts bounced harmlessly off the micronite in his armored gloves, and after that the rebellious light faded away. Very few of the Imperial Forces had ever really seen him in action, and while his reputation preceded him, the reality of him was even more intimidating.
"Surrender now," he boomed into the hangar, "and you will not be charged with treason."
The hangar echoed with the sound of blasters hitting the polished floor, and then troopers walked forward, arms raised in the universal signal of surrender. He motioned a squad of 501st troopers forward. "Collect their weapons and keep these men secured."
"Yes, sir," the senior trooper replied.
Behind him he heard the sound of Obi-Wan's boots on the ramp, and his old master soon joined him.
"Well, that was easy," Obi-Wan said. "Is the whole mission going to be like that?"
"If we're lucky," he said, even though he knew how unlikely that was. "If we're lucky."
The space station filled Anakin's entire viewscreen, eclipsing the Mon Calamari planet. The closer he came, the more intricate the structure that was revealed. Girders and support braces crisscrossed through areas that had appeared open from a distance. With Tarkin's fighters hot on their tail there was no place to go but straight into the superstructure. The Imperial TIEs condensed to a single file line and plunged down a narrow channel formed by durasteel beams. In space, relative speed was difficult to assess, but with metal struts flashing by his viewport like some strobe in an Imperial Center nightclub, Anakin now saw that they were flying sickeningly fast.
Laser cannon fire erupted forward from the rear of the line of TIEs and Anakin suddenly realized that whoever was last in their line was in an almost indefensible position. The leader of their group seemed to be aware of that fact, too, and the TIE in front of him leapt forward as the group accelerated to find escape from the trap they'd entered. Anakin laid on the throttle to keep up, a faint whine transmitting into the cockpit from the engine compartment. Glowing fingers of ignited gas crept forward along the walls of the channel, and Anakin knew they'd lost a ship. He reached out for the Force to steady himself, struggling to keep his fear from overtaking him.
He could feel Luke's presence somewhere in the line ahead of him, and he focused on it, no longer relying on his eyes to pilot the ship, but rather mirroring Luke's actions in the Force. Abruptly the channel ended, dumping them out into a vast open area of unfinished space station. Beyond the spherical frame he caught a glimpse of several Star Destroyers exchanging fire, surrounded by smaller ships. He felt Luke guide his fighter into a dive, and he unconsciously followed him, splitting their TIE group as the others veered upward. Tarkin's pursuers bobbled for a moment in confusion, then turned after the rising group of TIEs.
Anakin felt Luke's relief in the Force, and he allowed himself to feel a little too. Luke's ship banked left and swung towards the enormous convex disc visible in the upper hemisphere of the space station. Anakin recognized the structure and he angled his fighter to match Luke's path. They flew up and over darkened lengths of metal, impossible to see except in the Force. Often he passed over an obstacle just as the TIE's collision avoidance alarm began to sound.
As they rose within the unfinished space the density of girders increased, heralding the approach of construction zones. Anakin nosed his ship upwards when Luke's TIE began a steep climb. With the change in perspective, he could now see the long gantry that ran from the focusing disc into the core of the space station. The twinkling lights he saw were not stars peeking through the framework, but the glowing interiors of inhabited sections of the station.
Luke's fighter suddenly jogged sideways, and Anakin quickly echoed the motion, his TIE's cooling panels barely clearing a protruding ledge. They skimmed along a platform where men in sealed suits worked side by side with squat droids. The men pointed as the TIEs swept by, and prickle of unease came to Anakin. When the platform ended, they rose another level, and began cruising under the shelter of an overhang. It felt safer here, less exposed. Even though he could only see the bottom curve of the focusing disc from here, Anakin knew they were getting closer to their target. Luke's determination flowed to him, and he tightened his grip on the yoke, feeling the same drive to win.
Their fighters howled in unison as they raced in the shadow of the overhang. But even as it seemed that they were now invulnerable, Anakin's unease graduated to a sense of danger. He tried to ignore it, but it refused to leave. A shadow appeared in his left viewport, and then two blips registered on his sensors. He turned his head, relying on the Force to keep his ship on a straight track. Two TIEs were pacing him, holding position slightly behind his ship.
He blinked rapidly, trying to decide what to do. The ships hadn't fired, but it was impossible to tell whether they were Imperial craft or mutineers. Maybe these fighters were trying to decide the same thing about him. He wanted to warn Luke, but comm contact would give them away for sure. He activated his transponder and hoped for the best. Seconds became like hours as he waited for a response. When none came, he sent the code one more time.
He swallowed hard. That meant only one thing: these were Tarkin's men.
Darth Vader knew he had to be getting close to Tarkin's sanctum. With each level they had risen within the Death Star, the resistance had grown stronger. They had moved past the crew who offered a fight only out of duty, to some inner circle who acted as though they expected to get something out of this battle. These were soldiers who had to be personally pledged to Tarkin's side, who dreamed of promotions and positions of influence within the Grand Moff's new empire.
By that measure, the troops he faced now were Tarkin's closest friends, which was unfortunate because he was almost out of troopers. Only a remnant of the original thirty remained with he and Obi-Wan, the rest of the 501st having been left to guard each level they had secured and to prevent an attack from launching to their rear. Advancement in the sometimes narrow corridors of the space station was difficult with a lightsaber, the broad reach of the weapon easily hitting the walls on either side. In the places where there were doorway alcoves, they counted on the 501st to dodge forward and provide cover. In turn, when there were long stretches of uninterrupted metal panels, he and Obi-Wan led the way, deflecting blasterfire with their lightsabers. They were currently in a section of the former, and Vader glanced at Obi-Wan across the corridor. Both of them were holed up in a alcove, waiting for the 501st troopers to complete their part.
Obi-Wan engaged him with a serious look. "Maybe we should have been the ones to disable the laser. What if this thing is in firing range of the planet?"
"We are the only ones who can capture Tarkin," he said. "The team will reach the laser in time, I can feel it."
"Are we close, then?" Obi-Wan said, frowning.
Vader paused to reach deeply into the Force. Yes, he did sense a presence with an almost unequaled arrogance and sense of superiority, the one that at times reminded him of Palpatine. "Very."
Obi-Wan nodded, and then Vader's comm vibrated in his hand. "Time for you, sir," was the whispered message from the device. Vader motioned to Obi-Wan and they cautiously made their way forward in the corridor, lightsabers in hand. They encountered an odd calm, and when they reached the 501st soldiers, they were camped in front of a double doored room with no opponents in sight.
One trooper came to him. "The corridor ends here, sir, and we've got them trapped inside. We could use explosives to blow the doors, but I thought I should inform you first."
"Thank you, Commander," he said. "Explosives won't be necessary."
Vader turned to Obi-Wan, knowing that he didn't have to explain what should come next. They both ignited their lightsabers, and thrust them through the durasteel of the doors, cutting man-sized holes within a matter of minutes. The freed slabs of metal hit the floor with a loud clank
, and Vader gestured to the troopers to come forward. Two of them shoved blasters through one hole, and Vader extended his hand towards the other. "After you," he said to Obi-Wan.
"How kind of you," Obi-Wan replied, though he didn't hesitate in angling his lightsaber into the opening and following it on through.
Vader ducked to pass through the door, and once inside he saw a mixed line of stormtroopers and Imperial officers with riots of blue and red over the left side of their uniforms. These were the command elite, then, though they didn't look the part at the moment. Instead they were frozen in surprise as they stood plastered against the back wall of the room. At the end of the line he caught sight of a familiar face.
"Admiral Motti," he said, "what an unpleasant surprise."
"You're not fit to be the Emperor," the blond officer said, his lip curled. "You with your sorcerer's ways."
He sniffed at the irony, because still very few knew that Palpatine had been a Sith Lord. "I find your lack of confidence disturbing."
"You won't win," Motti said, undaunted.
"Apparently you don't know him very well," Obi-Wan said.
Motti gestured and his stormtroopers opened fire. Vader and Obi-Wan swung their lightsabers in answer, absorbing the blaster bolts as if they were nothing. Despite Motti's urgings, the troopers soon lowered their weapons. They at least had enough sense to see when resistance was futile. Vader advanced on the mutineers, stopping in front of Motti as he motioned the 501st troopers forward.
"Hold this group here," he said to his remaining commander, and then pointed to Motti. "This one you have permission to shoot if he doesn't co-operate."
"Yes, sir," the commander said, moving to collect the weapons of their prisoners.
Vader turned to Obi-Wan. It was time to make the final push. "Are you ready? It will be just you and me."