Of course Hoth had to be cold.
Athara lowered the Amaran Flame through the atmosphere of the frozen planet, beginning to feel cold just at the sight of the unending blanket of snow and ice that covered the surface. She didn’t like to be cold, especially when there was no chance of getting warm without layers upon layers of clothing or blankets. That was precisely the situation on Hoth. It was always cold; no warm sun, no warm shelters, only huge parkas that only kept their wearers tolerably less chilled than they would be without the thick garments. She swallowed a string of profanity that threatened to escape her lips as the atmosphere gave way to the barren wasteland that was the surface of the planet. Instead, she only allowed herself a resentful groan as her ship soared over the crags and valleys of ice, rock and snow.
After transmitting her code clearance and identification, she was permitted to land the red corvette in one of the recently completed landing bays. She was eager to get off the ship, but not so eager to be out in the frigid temperatures. Nevertheless need drove her.
Nearly a year had passed since she officially threw her support behind the Rebel Alliance and she had not shirked her new commitments in the slightest. In that year she had proven herself useful over and over again. As it happened, many of the skills that had made her an invaluable Imperial Agent had made her equally invaluable to the Rebellion. She was an effective leader, was incredibly persuasive (thanks in part to her secret Force abilities), was a good tactician and was a relatively decent pilot. Plus, she had been an Imperial Agent and Commander.
Most Imperial Commanders followed procedure and standard maneuvers to a fault and many had very distinctive ways of doing things. Having once been a part of that life, she had an intimate knowledge of how those commanders would respond in any given situation. There were even occasions when she was able to discern the particular Commanders the Alliance was facing off against just from their particular strategies. It allowed her to gain the upper hand on several occasions, much to the delight of the Rebel Leaders. Luckily, she had thus far kept her background wholly to herself, and had skillfully managed to avoid awkward questions about how she was able to deal with the Imperials so effectively when she encountered them.
So, like Luke and Captain Solo, she rose quickly through the ranks within the Alliance until she was periodically commanding missions on her own. This particular mission to Rodia was one of many missions she had been assigned as the Alliance struggled to maintain their equipment. While not the most successful of missions, she had still managed to broker a small deal that would supply the Alliance with some decent tools and diagnostic equipment for many of the fleet’s ships. Still, she was not all that happy about the outcome, as the original prerogative of the mission had been to acquire some new ships.
Now she was on approach to the most unappealing planet she could think of, especially because she was not overly fond of being cold. It was just her luck that the only planet they had found recently that was suitable for a base was an ice planet. Overall, it was not turning out to be her day. Shortly before she was set to depart Rodia for Hoth, one of the most intense feelings of foreboding she had yet experienced began to grow in the pit of her stomach.
She was still plagued by the fleeting, elusive visions that she had been having for years before the destruction of the Death Star. Only now they were increasingly pressing on her mind as she almost always woke from dreams or meditation with the intense anxiety of those visions lingering in her thoughts, despite being unable to remember a single coherent image or event. The presence that had originally made itself known through the visions had become a permanent fixture in her life, but she had no idea what its purpose was. It was connected to the visions, and it wanted her to understand something. Unfortunately, that something was even more elusive than the presence itself; and that was saying something.
Of one thing, and one thing only, she was absolutely certain; the visions centered on people she knew and knew well. Most prominent among them was Luke. Her Farmboy was central to whatever events her dreams alluded to, that much she had been able to discern. However, as she had hurtled toward Hoth she became increasingly convinced that something from those visions was coming to pass at that moment, and it scared her terribly as she was equally convinced that it was something bad and had something to do with Luke.
Part of her had looked on her new commitment to the Alliance as an opportunity to work more closely with Luke to work on his promising skills. The complete opposite seemed to happen though. Instead of being able to get away more frequently, she found that their sessions had become far less common than she hoped as the Leaders of the Alliance recognized the value of both Luke’s skills and her own. As they crossed paths less often, Athara soon began to realize just how close she had become to the blue-eyed pilot.
She missed their sessions.
At first she denied the attachment, fearing it was turning her soft; she had never needed attachments before. Besides, they were a potential liability. Her time with the Empire had taught her that. But as time passed and weeks turned into months, and her meetings with Luke began to increase again, her attitude began to shift. It still made her nervous though. Luke had become a very dear friend, but she worried about just where that friendship might lead. There was a different dynamic to the bond growing between the two Force-users. She had become very good friends with many different people she had met since leaving the Empire and again since joining the Alliance; Reem, Madal, Solo and Chewie, Antilles, several of the other pilots and so on. But her relationship with Luke had always been a little different. She had initially attributed it to their shared connection to the Force and the shared secret of that connection, but recently she was beginning to think differently. It was that change more than anything else she feared, so much so that she refused to acknowledge the possibility the first time it came to mind and every occasion after.
Regardless of whether or not she was avoiding some great truth about her relationship to Skywalker, the anxiety that had been gnawing at her since she left Rodia refused to abate. And she knew it would not ease until she had assurances that Luke was safe.
For once, the comforting presence wasn’t quite so comforting.
As soon as the Flame was settled she was off the ship in a flash, leaving the rest of the landing cycle in the hands of the Rebel crew she had taken on since joining the Alliance. She was so anxious to find the source of her unease, she nearly forgot to don her thick parka over the high-necked burgundy top and cream jacket that had sufficed on board ship but was too thin for Hoth. The first deck officer she saw upon reaching the main landing bay was subject to her anxious interrogation. She was normally quite calm and collected, keeping her emotions under tight control. The anxiety was having an adverse effect on her self-control, and that realization alone was further wearing at her patience. Thankfully, the officer knew what she wanted to know and apprised her of the situation.
It turned out that her fear had been wholly justified. Luke had been attacked by one of Hoth’s more deadly indigenous creatures and had been in very bad shape when he was brought back to base. He would have died had it not been for Captain Solo’s tenacity in finding him and keeping him alive despite the lethal temperatures of a Hoth night. As Athara listened she could feel the blood draining from her face, and no sooner had the deck officer finished talking than she was racing toward the Medical Centre.
It only took moments to traverse the base, but it felt like an age before she reached the Medical Centre. Slowing her pace to prevent being barred from the hospital area, she was directed to the room where Luke was under observation.
As she approached, the all too familiar sound of Han and the Princess bickering greeted her. Part of her wished they would just hurry up and confess that their feelings for each other went far deeper than either one wanted to admit to. It would be easier on everyone, she thought somewhat sardonically, not just on Han and Leia.
She liked Han. He had been a little abrasive at first, but as Athara worked closer with him, she came to realize that underneath the cocky pirate there was a deeply honour-driven man who was incredibly loyal once you earned his respect, and that he had a keen appreciation for a range of different talents. Now she counted him among one of her closest friends.
Leia, on the other hand, Athara had not grown close to. The Princess was wary about the former sith apprentice but, luckily, had yet to figure out why. As a result, Athara steered clear of the Princess whenever possible to prevent such an epiphany that would destroy everything she had worked to build for herself. Also, she just couldn’t stand the way Luke tended to get all sappy and sentimental when the former senator was around. Part of her knew it was jealousy, but she wasn’t ready to admit to that yet as it would mean admitting she had stronger feelings for Luke than she was ready to own to herself.
Whether she admitted to being jealous of Luke’s habit of fawning over Leia or not, Athara all but bristled when she walked into Luke’s room at the precise moment that Leia stormed out. The Princess was oozing irritation while a glimmer of satisfaction reflected in her eyes as she passed the former sith apprentice. Taken aback, Athara entered the room only to be met with an equally disgruntled Han, an amused Chewie and a delighted Luke. Irritation of her own began to grow as Luke leaned back against his pillows, a rather silly smile on his face. She almost didn’t need to skim over his unshielded thoughts to see what had just happened.
She also had to vigorously suppress the sudden urge to chase down the Princess and deal with her in a decidedly unfriendly way, likely using the lightsabre hidden within the depths of her flight jacket.
Overhead, there was a call for headquarters personnel to report to the command centre. Han reluctantly turned, hesitating for a moment when he saw Athara to give her a brief ‘welcome back’ before all but storming out himself, Chewie close behind. Only once they were left alone was Athara able to focus on the young Jedi left in the room with her. The annoyance she felt dissipated almost immediately.
He had obviously undergone several intensive Bacta treatments, and had already gone through a great deal of healing. Yet it didn’t diminish the evidence that he had been badly hurt. Before she could stop it, she felt her composure melt and distress spring to her features. The satisfied smirk had faded from Luke’s face when Han and Chewie left the room, and he now looked at Athara with a slightly guilty expression.
“What were you thinking?” It was all Athara could do to keep her voice from shaking as she lowered herself onto the edge of the cot beside him. Luke reached over, tentatively taking her hand. Athara was tempted to pull away as a means of displaying her aggravation. Instead, she gently touched the rapidly healing wounds on his face with her other hand. The entire right side of his face had to have been all but crushed for this amount of swelling and bruising to be left after multiple Bacta treatments. He winced as her gentle fingers found a particularly tender spot. Her concerned frown deepened, causing Luke to sigh.
“It’s okay, Tamara. I’m fine. Han found me, and the Medical droids say I’ll be as good as new in a day or so.” Athara wasn’t convinced, especially since the worry roiling about in her gut wasn’t abating.
“You still could have been killed, Farmboy.” Luke tried not to groan at the nickname she had been using since shortly after they met. Athara almost grinned at his chagrin.
“I’m fine. You shouldn’t worry so much. Besides, Ben was watching over me.” Athara started. She hadn’t heard of anything like this before. It started her thinking about the calming Force presence she felt from time to time. She pushed the spontaneous thought away.
“Kenobi? You felt him?” Luke frowned absently as he thought for a moment.
“Yeah, I mean, I think so. I was in bad shape when he appeared to me.”
“Appeared? You mean you actually saw him?” She couldn’t keep the astonishment from her voice as she stared at the young Jedi. She had never heard of anything like that in her studies under Vader’s tutelage. Luke nodded, still focusing on nothing.
“I’m not sure, really. I might have just hallucinated him, I suppose. But he told me to go to the Dagobah system. And that, well, it feels like the right thing to do.” Athara frowned herself. That was an odd request. The former sith apprentice struggled to recall anything she knew about the system. There wasn’t much.
“There’s nothing in that system, just a little, uninhabited planet. Why would he want you to go there?” Luke shrugged, finally turning his gaze to meet hers.
“Something about training with a Jedi there; his old master.” Athara’s eyes widened as surprise surged through her.
“A Jedi, on Dagobah?” Luke nodded before suddenly sitting up straighter, having obviously just had an idea.
“You should come too! Think about it, a real, honest to goodness Jedi Master.”
A brief sensation of fear and panic stabbed through her as she considered going with him to meet a true Jedi, but then excitement began to surface, drowning out the fear. A Jedi Master may have the answers she craved, especially about the soothing presence. Besides, the years hadn’t dimmed her curiosity about Kenobi. Luke, despite having been a pupil of his for a time, didn’t know all that much about the Jedi since he simply hadn’t had enough time to get to know him.
If Kenobi was sending Luke to this Jedi, that meant there was a good chance that the Jedi had known Kenobi in life, especially if this Jedi had been Kenobi’s master.
“I’m still unhappy with you, but I do want to meet a real Jedi.” Luke beamed at her.
The two of them continued to talk for several more minutes, with Athara briefly relating her mission and Luke telling her what he remembered of the ice creature’s attack. He was impressed when she related how she had evaded the Imperial presence on Rodia, including a small skirmish the first day. She also related, with a hint of annoyance, how she had been forced to dodge one particular bounty hunter, an Ubese hunter named Boushh, for nearly the entire time she was on Rodia. She was equally impressed when Luke told her about how he managed to escape the ice creature’s cave by summoning his lightsabre using the Force. He had been having a great deal of trouble with some tasks, like using the Force to move objects, so this was a substantial breakthrough for him.
They talked until the Medical Droid requested she leave to allow the blue-eyed pilot to rest. Reluctant to go, she nevertheless submitted to the droid’s insistence and left Luke to 2-1B’s expert care. Unable to think of a reason to delay, she decided she should probably check in with the Command Centre and brief at least one of the Leaders on the limited success of her mission.
It took her several minutes to locate and brief the Commander on Duty, and when she found General Rieekan a few minutes later he was huddled around a screen with the Princess. As she approached, she heard Han’s voice coming from the comlink. Coming up beside the General, he gave her a brief nod of acknowledgement before returning his focus to the images Solo was transmitting.
“I’m afraid there’s not much left,” came Han’s voice as Athara looked over Rieekan’s shoulder to get a glance at the images herself.
“What was it?” Unlike Leia, Athara didn’t even need to ask, as she recognized the object right away, despite the graininess of the image. Han responded, a hint of his unease evident even through the comlink.
“Droid of some kind. I didn't hit it that hard. It must have had a self-destruct.”
“It’s an Imperial Probe Droid,” Athara said softly. Rieekan and the Princess exchanged a concerned look. Han was the next to speak, disappointed resignation in his voice.
“Then it’s a good bet the Empire knows we’re here.” Athara groaned. It had taken her, Han, Luke and most of Rogue Squadron ages to find this planet. Yay for another tedious search… if they managed to get away before the Empire destroyed them. Given that the droid had apparently already completed its transmission, it wasn’t going to be long before the Imperial Fleet arrived. Rieekan let out a loaded sigh.
“We’d better begin the evacuations.” He turned to the Princess. “This is not going to be easy.” She nodded in agreement, laying her headset on the console in front of her before standing.
“I’ll get started on organizing the transports. Hopefully we’ll have enough. We have a lot of ships out of the system.” Immediately the General and the Princess began to move off. A thought jumped to the forefront of Athara’s mind, and before she could stop herself she followed them, the words out of her mouth before she could stop them.
“Take the Flame.” The Princess and the General paused, turning to face her. The suspicious look that tended to appear on Leia’s face when she was listening to Athara appeared, but the former sith apprentice ignored it, turning to the General.
“Give me a snub fighter with Hyperspace capabilities. My current crew can handle her without me and I’ll leave N4 to help run the ship. You’ll need all the space you can get, whether for personnel or cargo. I know it’s not much, but it’s one more ship.” Rieekan pondered her proposition for a moment. Leia looked on the verge of rejecting the offer even as her logical side saw the value of the red corvette. Athara bristled at the look, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. “Besides, it’s practically the princess’s ship already anyway.” The look of confusion and shock on Leia’s face removed the condescending expression completely, but the instant Athara felt the words leave her lips she cursed herself for being so impulsive. Leia frowned deeply, accusation glimmering in her brown eyes.
“What do you mean?” Good job, Athara. There was no avoiding this now. She now had to lie and make it convincing. Luckily, she’d had a vague story worked out for several years already in case the Flame’s previous identity came to light.
“I salvaged her shortly after Alderaan was destroyed. She was free-floating in space with a timed system failure meant to overload the engine coils and destroy her. Unfortunately, the name Tantive IV would have drawn a little too much attention since she was supposed to have been blown to pieces, so I had to rename her… and give her some upgrades.” The surprise had returned to Leia’s face, but the vulnerability that also appeared startled the young captain. She hadn’t expected that. Oh well, at least the survival of the Alderaanian ship had distracted the Princess from the weakness of the salvaging story. Rieekan looked equally surprised, but not so mush so that he was speechless.
“Well, then technically the ship is yours, Captain. Galactic Salvage Laws dictate it so.” Athara shrugged. She was suddenly eager to get away from the Princess as a strange light was beginning to surface in her eyes.
“Think of it as a friendly donation.”
“That’s very generous of you, Captain. You’ll have your fighter.” Athara forced a gracious smile onto her face, hiding the unease that Leia’s considering expression was triggering. Oh boy, had she just messed up.
Not a moment too soon, other matters became pressing and Leia and the General were drawn away. Holding in a faint sigh of relief, Athara turned and retreated to the Flame.
Nearly the entire time she was onboard the blockade-runner she was silently cursing her impulsive comment. It was only when she relayed the news to her co-pilot Grobner that the internal string of profanity ceased. He was taken aback at first, but the idea of being in solely charge of the Flame was exciting to the rebel. She called her two astrodroids to follow her as she went to collect her few possessions from her quarters.
She left specific instruction for N4 to relay where the original décor and remaining vestiges from the Tantive IV were being stored to the Princess, as well as provided a recording giving Madal permission to allow the Princess to collect the items if she wished. After a moment of further thought, she renewed the protocol in both the droids that ensured that if anyone questioned them too much or tried to download information about who she was or where they had come from their memory systems would automatically be wiped. She sincerely hoped that such a protocol would never be necessary, as she had grown fond of the personalities the little droids had developed.
With her small bag of possessions over her shoulder, she departed the ship, turning to look back one last time as she left another chapter of her life behind. A worried warble came from the droid beside her. Forcing another smile to her face, she laid a hand on his green dome.
“Well, N3, let’s see what ship Rieekan had found for us.”