It was several deck officers later before she was able to track down the X-Wing she had been given. It wasn’t much to look at, but then, very few of the Alliance ships were in prime condition. Still, it would do. After instructing N3 to get aboard and run any diagnostics he deemed necessary, she left the little droid to his own devices.
Around her, the base was buzzing with activity. Everywhere rebels were packing up what they could and preparing for the evacuation signal to be given. Pilots were scrambling to reach their fighters or their speeders. Captains and Deck Officers were relaying orders and instruction while transports were being loaded everywhere she looked. Faces flew past, and though she recognized many, she didn’t see the ones she wanted to see most.
Finally she managed to find the Falcon in the maze that made up Echo Base. As usual, Han and Chewie were working away at the junky-looking ship. Han was up on top of the Falcon, while his Wookiee Co-pilot was just barely visible in the cockpit. The two of them were calling back and forth, trading instructions, suggestions and profanity intermittently while they each struggled to restore and repair the one of the variety of systems on the Falcon with a habit of acting up. Athara shook her head with faint exasperation, a small grin coming to her face as Han began to yell and curse as a burst of smoke billowed up from the open panel he was standing over. Chewie, meanwhile, was wailing and snarling his own curses, though Athara, with her limited understanding of Shyriiwook, was sure they weren’t all directed at the temperamental freighter.
“Having problems, Han?” She called up to him. He all but snarled at her himself, causing her to laugh. After a moment Han took a break from whatever it was that he was tweaking this time, settling on the edge of the Falcon.
“So, how is Rodia this time of year?” Athara made a face
“Warmer than here, especially with Boushh trailing me the whole time.”
“He the one we ran into on Ord Mandel?” Athara rolled her eyes.
“One of them. I’m pretty sure he knows we work together, but I think he might actually have been after me this time, instead of you. He was awfully interested in trying to talk, though, which was—different, so I think he’s still after you, come to think of it.” This time it was Han who grimaced.
“Sorry ‘bout that. I think I pissed him off and made it personal last we saw him.” Athara wrinkled her nose at the comment. Boushh was good at his—her? It was hard to tell with Ubese—chosen profession and, despite being a bit bumbling compared to others like Fett, Bossk or Dengar, was still dangerous. While it was better to have him on your tail than one of the big Hunters, he was not a good one to have hunting you…especially not for fun. And he seemed to have it out for Han and, by extension, the rest of them.
“Pray he hasn’t, Han.” He shrugged, but Athara wasn’t kidding around. “I’m serious. There is nothing worse than Bounty Hunters with personal vendettas.” Han made a dismissive gesture, causing the former sith apprentice to frown.
“Well then, maybe he just likes us,” his tone was just as nonchalant as the gesture. Athara grimaced.
“I hope not. As if I don’t already have enough things to worry about.”
“Come on, Tamara, relax a bit. Loosen up.” She shot him a skeptical look.
“I could say the same to you.” Han turned, poking at a bit of exposed something or other before responding, his crooked smile securely in place.
“Okay, I’ll grant you that. It’s a little hard to take a day when the Imperial Fleet is breathing down our necks.” This time she managed to restrain herself from rolling her eyes, planting her hands on her hips instead.
“When are they not breathing down our necks?”
“Ah, well, I suppose it wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, would it?” Shaking her head at his indomitable cockiness, she waved at Chewie in the cockpit before leaving the two to keep working away at their ship.
She began to head for the Medical Centre to see if Luke had been released yet when the warning alarms began to blare in earnest, signaling that the Rebels had run out of time.
The Imperial Fleet had arrived.
Breaking into a light jog, she reached the Medical Centre only to find that the sandy-haired rebel had already been released and was set to lead Rogue group against the oncoming Imperial Ground troops, if they hadn’t left already. Just as quickly as she had reached the hospital unit she departed, anxious to find Luke.
She was stopped dead in her tracks though when she felt a familiar presence probing the Base through the Force. Clamping down on her mental shields, Athara leaned against the icy wall of the corridor, waiting until the sensation passed. This was bad. Vader was out to get Luke; of that she was certain. She wasn’t prepared to let her Master have him, no matter the loyalty she still felt toward the Dark Lord. She was finding herself increasingly torn between her past and what she was now devoted to.
As Vader continued to probe the base, Athara stretched out with her feelings to look for Luke. It took several moments to locate him, only to find his mind virtually unprotected as he lead Rogue Group out against the AT-AT’s that were slowly but surely ambling toward the Base. Being so far away, she wouldn’t be able to protect Luke and herself at the same time if she were to shield his Force signature; she wasn’t strong enough for that. Making a quick decision, she put her energy into shielding not just his mind but also his presence from the Dark Lord of the Sith. Every logical part of her screamed to protect her own mind first, but her feelings told her it was the right thing to do. She still couldn’t shake the feeling that he had an important role still to play.
Almost the instant her own mental shielding went down, Vader had sensed her. The flare of surprise and anger that came at her through the Force from her Master startled Athara. Not because he was angry, but because she could sense it so intensely. It was unlike Vader to allow his feelings to be broadcast in such a manner. He felt betrayed, and she couldn’t really blame him; but the intensity of the betrayal hit her like a punch in the gut. He was hurting, badly.
She needed to leave, and she needed to get Luke out of here. If a Jedi Master had hidden away on Dagobah for all these years, then that was the place to go. There had to be some quality to the planet that had effectively hidden the Jedi, and that same quality would help protect Luke until he was ready to face his destiny. Pulling herself back to the corridor she was standing in, she took another second to get her bearings before continuing toward the main hanger bay.
It felt like only seconds had passed, but in reality, long minutes had gone by. Around her the base was already showing signs of severe damage, with sections of ceiling jostled loose by Turbolaser fire and wires flailing and sparking as the base trembled under the relentless impacts. Remaining personnel were running every which way in borderline panic and a voice called out over the base comm-system whenever another set of ships made it safely away. Periodically the ground vibrated when the Rebel’s ion cannon let loose its own deadly barrage against the Star Destroyers that were likely blockading the planet. By now they would have effectively cut off the direct routes to safe Hyperspace lanes out of the system; that’s what she would’ve done, and that’s what she knew the Fleet Admiral was likely to do.
By the time she made it through the maze of corridors and collapsing tunnels, huge sections of the base were in serious danger of collapse. It had been several minutes since a massive explosion had signaled the Imperial Walkers’ success at destroying the main shield generators. The Base was failing. Most of the major transports had gone, and the remaining ground crews were making dash for the last ships.
Overhead, the final evacuation code signal had been given ages ago and the Comm-system had been relaying nothing but static for several minutes. The last thing that had been said was that the Imperial troops were now inside the base.
She was running out of time.
As she passed one of the last sets of hangers, she noticed with a twinge of relief that the Flame was long gone. The same couldn’t be said for the Falcon though.
As she got closer to the hanger where the older freighter sat, she could hear blaster fire over the sounds of the main engines struggling to start up. She couldn’t think about it long, though, as a blaster bolt struck the wall not far from her left shoulder.
Whirling around, she caught sight of a handful of Snowtroopers barreling toward her as they raised their weapons to fire. Unfortunately, thanks to the heavy parka she needed to wear on the ice planet, Kenobi’s lightsabre was out of reach. Cursing at the crude weapon, she was forced to rely on the blaster she carried on her hip. Usually just for display (after all, what pirate or smuggler didn’t have a blaster), she was nevertheless sufficiently trained with the weapon to make quick work of the Snowtroopers, no matter how uncivilized it seemed.
It took several precious moments to dispatch the troopers, but as the blaster fire ceased, she heard the Falcon’s primary engines roar to life. Sure that there were no more Imperials coming up behind her, she did a quick check that her mental shields around Luke were still intact before continuing on at a run towards the Falcon’s hanger.
Her heart in her throat, she reached the hanger just as the freighter lifted off, leaving behind the charred remnants of a laser cannon and several Snowtroopers. Lifting a hand to shield herself from another shower of ice shards and snow, she almost didn’t see Vader turn from his survey of the newly vacated hanger.
She froze as the Sith’s gaze fell on her where she stood in the crumbling corridor. A long moment passed without a word, but the emotions roiling around her Master through the Force said enough. He was intensely angry. Instinctively, she backed away, fear growing in the pit of her stomach. Never had this much of his anger been directed toward her.
He followed her into the corridor, a towering column of black amid the stark white of the icy base.
“You have not followed my instruction, my young apprentice.” Below his anger she sensed a hint of the betrayal and anguish she had felt earlier. Then the rage within her began to build of its own accord. It had been three years since she had stood face to face or even spoken with her master. A lot had changed since then, and different things were important now.
“Well, I haven’t been captured, have I?” A flash of annoyance came from the Sith Lord. “Besides, where better to hide from the Emperor than amid the only force to remain hidden from him, or to oppose him.” She didn’t bother to mask the bitterness from her voice.
“So you have turned against me.” Athara lowered her gaze at his deceptively calm and cold tone, letting out a pained sigh. She knew that tone; it was far worse than when he yelled. In many ways she had; she had thrown in her lot with those who fought against Vader, with his enemies. But yet, she had never had any desire fight him. She steeled her nerve. She may have no reason to fight her Master, but his master….the faces of her adoptive family floated to the forefront of her mind, stoking the anger beginning to build there. The ambiguous presence suddenly arrived, its concern and plea for caution obvious. She paid it little mind.
“No. But I cannot say that I have retained the same loyalty to Palpatine as I have to you.” She voice was soft, but the sentiment behind it was powerful. Vader stared at her silently as she spoke, now shielding his feelings as fully as his expressionless mask hid his face. “Why must you follow him? I know you do not—” Athara’s eyes widened as her windpipe was suddenly closed off by the invisible grip she had seen employed more times than she could count. She had never considered the need to protect herself against such an attack, and so was distressingly unprepared. Vader continued to stare out at her from behind the fathomless eye sockets of his mask as his leather-clad fingers tightened, controlling the phantom grasp at her throat.
“I have no choice but to follow, my very young apprentice. I must obey my Master.” She could feel an almost primeval panic begin to grow within her as her lungs began to scream for oxygen.
Struggling to calm her mind, she tried desperately to counter his attack even as her hands instinctively went to her throat. It was pointless; he was far stronger than she was.
She knew what she had done to him, and what he was feeling in response to that betrayal, but she could not quite believe what he was doing now. She was his apprentice, he had practically raised her; how could he even think of doing this? Fear; his fear and anger had to be clouding his judgment. There was no other explanation.
Desperate, she lashed out through the Force, trying to connect with him, to prove her loyalty by revealing her feelings to him directly. She trusted him; she had always trusted him to protect her—and now he was betraying her as he believed she had betrayed him. She needed to break through the rage that clouded his logic. As she let those feelings surge to the surface from where she had kept them buried, her eyes never left his mask.
She could feel the clash of her frantic thoughts against his dark ones, but they seemed to have little effect, and the pressure on her windpipe only seemed to increase. She was on the verge of losing consciousness.
Guilt and grief suddenly bloomed within him and before she could process the sudden change in his demeanor he had released her. Falling to the floor she gasped, coughing as air once again flooded into her lungs. After a moment, she looked up at him.
He hadn’t moved, and his eyes had never left her. She tried to speak, but her voice was little more than a gasp.
“Why?” There were so many questions tied up in that one little word; why must you follow the Emperor? Why does he hold such power over you? Why are you trapped? Why would you think I had betrayed you? Why did you try to kill me?
Why did you let me go?
Though he hadn’t moved a muscle, Vader suddenly carried a look of defeat and despair. It confused and disturbed the former sith apprentice greatly. Was this her answer? Was this why Vader was what he was? Is this what drove him to become one of the most feared figures in the galaxy? He had said once that the Emperor meant to break him using her death.
Now she was beginning to wonder if he had been broken long ago.
But before anything else could be said, the ground shuddered once again as another series of turbolaser blasts impacted on the surface. Blocks of ice and snow began to rain down from the ceiling as it threatened to cave in on top of them both. Looking up, Athara scrambled to her feet, diving out of the way as the roof began to collapse into the corridor between her and Vader. Through the cloud of snow and ice, Athara could just barely make out Vader throwing up his arms to shield himself as he too backed away from the debris.
For a long moment she just stood there as the cloud that hung in the air settled around her. She was stunned by Vader’s behaviour, first in nearly choking her to death and next in letting her go. There were far too many questions that lingered in the cool hallway, but there was now a wall of ice and snow and other debris between her and her Master.
Could she even still call him that?
However, knowing that there was nothing that could be done about any of it now, she pulled herself away from the blocked section of the base, forcing the troubling questions from her mind. She raced down the corridor toward her fighter, all but blind to the crumbling corridors and mounds of snow.
Luckily she was close to her destination, and in very little time she had reached her fighter. Thankfully, it was in one of the few sections of the base that had yet to be invaded by the encroaching Imperials. Most of the other fighters and ships were long gone, but the stragglers were lifting off or in the process of doing so. Though still shaky and troubled from her encounter with Vader, she reached out, searching for Luke. He was already gone, racing away from Hoth in his own X-wing.
Letting out a relieved sigh, she scrambled up the ladder into her own fighter, checking with N3 to make sure he was settled in. Hearing his reassuring warble she grabbed the standard-issue flightsuit lying in the cockpit and shrugged into it as fast as she could, pitching the heavy parka from the side of her fighter once she had retrieved Kenobi’s lightsabre. She had no room for it. Besides, she was never coming back to Hoth, that was for sure.
Already she could hear the blasts of the Troopers struggling to get through the blocked tunnels that lead to the bay. Settling into the cockpit she hit the control to seal the canopy and activated the main consoles before slipping on the helmet left for her. Thankfully, as N3 had seen her coming he’d had the good sense to fire up the converters and prepare for takeoff. Another moment and they were ready.
And not a moment too soon. As the repulsorlifts kicked in and the ship began its ascent into the air, she caught a glimpse of Snowtroopers flooding out into the bay, Vader close behind. An involuntary shudder coursed through her as she felt her Master reach out to her through the Force. But the rage she’d felt earlier was absent, replaced with a deep, bitter self-loathing, regret, and, to her surprise, even a trace of concern. He was doing nothing but confusing her and sending her through her own emotional acrobatics. Frankly, it was giving her a headache.
She shook her head as she angled the X-wing toward space, but she was unable to clear her thoughts. She could barely think straight. At once the comforting presence was there, helping to sooth her frazzled nerves through the Force. It was enough to allow her to bring her thoughts back under control. She was growing lax with her exercises and meditations.
Years earlier, something like this would’ve never happened, she never would’ve allowed her thoughts to become so uncontrolled. Then again, she had been trained to harness feelings like fear and anger, and she had recently been incredibly hesitant to do so. Not only was she concerned that her use of the Dark Side would draw unwelcome attention, but she was beginning to find the practice unsatisfying and even distasteful. But the Dark Side of the Force was all she really knew. Her Master had discouraged any attempts she had made to learn lighter practices, and she’d had little success trying to further her knowledge on her own.
Maybe there was more to be gained from visiting the mysterious Jedi on Dagobah than she had initially considered. She had already tentatively promised Luke she would join him there, but now she made the decision with conviction.
Before she was even out of the atmosphere she was punching in a course that would ultimately bring her to the planet Dagobah.
She needed answers, and she needed them badly. But more so, she needed guidance. Over the last year she had seriously begun to question everything she knew, and of one thing she had become quite certain; she had no desire to be a sith, especially if becoming a sith would lead her down a path that would damage her as it had Vader.
This mysterious Jedi seemed, at the moment, to be her best chance of finding what she needed, and she needed guidance.
Hopefully this wasn’t a wild bantha chase…