Athara felt numb inside as she stood in the Carbon-freeze chamber, waiting for the three rebel prisoners to arrive from their holding cell. It was the only way she could conceive of getting through what she knew was coming.
Vader was going to carbon freeze Han. Her friend. She had scarcely a hope that he would survive. And after Han? Her Master was going to try it on Luke. The roiling nausea that Vader’s callous explanation had caused in her gut had only intensified. It was unfathomable. But that didn’t seem to deter Vader.
It was a means to an end for him. A desperate means. She couldn’t wrap her head around what he was doing. He had refused to bring her before the Emperor; but then, she was a threat to Palpatine. She was loyal to Vader, and the Emperor knew that. She would never betray her Master for him. Yet Vader so eager to bring him Luke, and she couldn’t fathom why. Was it to distract the Emperor? To appease him? She knew she shouldn’t be surprised that Palpatine wanted to get his hands on her Farmboy. Even though he was too old to be molded the way The Emperor preferred, Luke was far more powerful than anyone else she had encountered, save Palpatine himself and Vader.
It stood to reason, then, that Luke was intended to be more than a Hand to the Emperor. But Vader had to realize Palpatine meant to replace him with Luke! Almost the instant Athara had considered why the Emperor must want Luke, the realization that he was meant to replace her Master at Palpatine’s side hit her like a physical blow. How could Vader not see it? Even though her tenuous faith in her Master had been explosively shaken yet again, she couldn’t turn from him completely. There had to be something more! Something she was missing. There was no logic to what Vader was doing. After years of thinking she knew Vader better than anyone, Athara was beginning to realize she had barely known him at all. There was more to this than just delivering the Emperor a prize, and it was driving her mad.
Thankfully, Qui-gon’s presence had stayed with her since she found out the true extent of Vader’s plan. Never had she been more grateful for his support than in the underbelly of Cloud City. It was all she could do to keep from screaming, shaking, or crying, by keeping the numbness in place. On one hand, her rage was beginning to simmer just below the surface, fueled by the helplessness that seemed to press against her chest, making it hard to breathe. On the other her pain threatened to cripple her, as it seemed to physically cause her body to ache with it. But with the Force-spirit’s steady calm, she was able to keep it all below the surface. On the outside, she was cool and unaffected. Inside, she was on the verge of falling apart. She had run out of time. She had failed to save her friends. It was only Qui-gon ’s presence and his reminder that she had a purpose that gave her the means to stay strong. Though she wasn’t able to shed any of her fears or her anger, his presence was a constant reminder that she had to at least keep it under control. If she didn’t let herself feel anything, she could get through this.
If only her hands would stop shaking beneath her cloak…
Her first test came when the prisoners were escorted into the Carbon Freeze Chamber. She almost didn’t pass, feeling faint as they entered the hazy, sour-smelling room. At her sides, her fists clenched tighter, the pain of her nails digging into her flesh clearing her mind ever so slightly. It was enough. Around them, the Ugnaughts were busy bustling around, seeing to last minute preparations. Behind her, Vader entered the Chamber the same time as her friends, coming to stand beside her. His armour gleamed dully as he stared ahead to the machinery before him. He was so deep in thought Athara wasn’t quite sure if he had even noticed Fett approaching them. She noticed.
She saw every detail; the stricken look on Calrissian’s face when Han sidled up next to him, the almost comical way the dismembered Threepio was strapped to Chewie’s back, the murderous way Leia was staring at her. It was actually that stare that almost undid the sith apprentice. She recognized the loathing in the Princess’s eyes; in that moment, she felt the same way about herself. As the Troopers had brought the small group to a stop, Fett stopped at Vader’s side, stepping in front of Athara, his hands on his blaster. It was likely an unconscious gesture, but a little part of Athara hoped Vader would take offense and remove the Bounty Hunter, preferably permanently. Unfortunately, he was too focused on the impending procedure to care about the Bounty Hunter’s aggression.
“What if he doesn't survive? He's worth a lot to me,” Fett’s tone was clipped and angry. It would seem he was just about as unhappy about Vader’s experiment as everyone else. Vader dismissed his concern with a curt gesture.
“The Empire will compensate you if he dies. Put him in!” On the other side of the platform, Chewie wailed, though that wail quickly turned to a roar as he began to lay about with his fearsome claws and long arms, sending Troopers flying. From his back Threepio began wailing himself, though the raging wookiee mostly drowned him out.
Beside Vader, Fett sprang into action, whipping his blaster up even as more Troopers arrived to subdue Chewie. Athara didn’t even realize she had stepped forward herself until she felt her hand close over the barrel of the Bounty Hunter’s weapon, forcing it down. Though she knew he couldn’t see into her cowl, she fixed the Mandalorian with a stare that still managed to make him shift uneasily. Behind him, Vader fixed her with a stare of his own. But just what that stare meant, she couldn’t tell.
Across the way, Han broke away from the Trooper holding him. A nod from Vader stilled the Trooper as he tried to grab his wayward prisoner. It was a good thing too, because the sound of Han’s voice stilled his raging co-pilot.
“Stop, Chewie! Hey, Hey! Listen to me! Chewie!” With one final moan Chewie’s rage deflated, and a pair of Troopers finally managed to wrestle a set of binders around his wrists. All fight went out of him only to be replaced with despair at Han’s intense look. Leia glared daggers at Athara and Vader. Han didn’t notice, though. He was too focused on calming his friend.
“Chewie, this won't help me. Hey! Save your strength. There'll be another time.” Athara started when the smuggler shot her a fleeting glance. It was so quick she almost thought she had imagined it, but he had. But it wasn’t reproach or hatred in his eyes, it was something else, something she hadn’t expected or dared hope for; consideration. Maybe he had seen how she grabbed Fett’s blaster, or how she had wavered when the troopers brought them in? Somehow he suspected she was still on their side, and they both knew there was nothing she could do to stop this.
The wookiee looked balefully away from his friend, but after a moment he swallowed whatever objections he had, though he still refused to look Han in the eye. Solo wasn’t perturbed though. “The princess - you have to take care of her. You hear me?” The intensity in Han’s eyes as he gave Chewie his final order was heart wrenching, and it was all Athara could do not to let her tears fall.
He loved the Princess; that was why he said that. As it was, Athara couldn’t withhold the pained sigh that escaped her lips. Beside them, Leia stepped forward, burying her hands in the wookiee’s fur as she took hold of his arm. The Princess and the wookiee’s eyes met for a moment, Leia almost managing a tiny, reassuring smile as Chewie once again found his resolve, his shoulders straightening ever so slightly. Athara could see the change in his eyes. He intended to witness what ever happened with dignity, in honour of his friend, no matter how distraught and heartbroken he really felt. It was then that Han turned to Leia, the sorrow in his eyes a mirror of hers.
Their kiss was searing, passionate and tragic and Athara couldn’t bring herself to witness it. It was too private, something meant only for the two of them. So she allowed them that, even if no one else did. She couldn’t help but shift her glance to Vader, though. He was watching, his mask emotionless, but beneath…hope stirred within her.
There was so much turmoil there, so much pain and despair. It was a split second of insight, and then it was gone. But it was a hint of just how broken the man was. Somewhere, deep down, he did still feel. Yet he was resolved to his task anyway. A sob threatened to tear from Athara’s throat. She felt Qui-gon’s presence nudge against her consciousness, helping her regain control. She knew what was coming next. The Troopers had pulled the smuggler from his princess, backing him up to the platform. Tears began to stream down Leia’s face as she called out to him.
“I love you!” Her words brought the ghost of his crooked smile to Han’s lips.
“I know.” It was the last thing he said as a pair of Ugnaughts removed his binders before the platform began to lower, the mechanisms groaning ominously amid the hissing and shrieking within the cavernous chamber. Athara forced herself to watch. She may not have been able to stop it, but she could at least do that. Chewie began to wail again, a vow of sorts that Athara didn’t quite have the grasp of his language to understand. But it was heartrending. The tears began to stream down her cheeks, but she no longer cared.
Then Vader gestured to the technician, and Han was veiled from sight by the clouds of steam that flooded the chamber. As the steam cleared the freezing equipment went to work, and the great tongs lowered from above, enclosing her friend in their merciless grasp. The machine shrieked.
It echoed precisely the sound that Athara fought to hold inside.
Then it was over.
A great groaning and grinding filled the Chamber as the tongs lifted, revealing Han encased completely in carbonite. Athara nearly lost the contents of her stomach when she saw him, her hands flying up to cover her mouth in shock and revulsion. She longed to cover her eyes too, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away. Across the way, Leia and Chewie clung to each other; the horror and grief on both their faces was indescribable. Vader was as still as a statue. Calrissian started forward, only to be stopped in his tracks when he caught sight of Han’s face, frozen in agony. Two Ugnaughts ducked around him then, intent on their jobs as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Athara fought back her rage, struggling to keep it under control.
The two workers tipped the block of Carbonite that encased the pirate. The resounding clap of the block hitting the floor was deafening, and it rattled Athara to the core. It was then that Chewie finally turned away in pain. On his back, the golden droid nattered away, oblivious to the state of his companions.
“Oh... they've encased him in carbonite. He should be quite well-protected - if he survived the freezing process, that is.” Lando jerked slightly before sedately stepping forward to kneel beside his frozen friend, bending to examine the reading displayed on the block’s housing. Athara’s gaze shot to the Princess and the wookiee for a moment before it was drawn back to the Administrator. Everyone was watching the former pirate anxiously, Vader included, who even took an uneasy step forward. Lando didn’t say anything, his face curiously blank and only stared at the panel, making an adjustment after a moment. Vader’s impatience got the best of him, though he only beat Athara by a heartbeat.
“Well, Calrissian, did he survive?” Lando sighed heavily; the first real reaction he had given since kneeling beside Han.
“Yes, he's alive. And in perfect hibernation.” The entire room seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Athara’s eyes closed in thanks, mentally brushing against Qui-gon’s consciousness. Her friend had survived.
Cautiously, she reached out with the Force, brushing up against Han’s life force, confirming that he was indeed alive. She almost wished she hadn’t. Though feeling for herself that he was indeed alive was reassuring, she couldn’t help but recoil as quickly as possible. Once again, bile rose in her throat. It was so wrong. He was there, but wasn’t; frozen; alive, yet painfully lifeless. She couldn’t breath again. Vader nodded contentedly beside her before turning to the Bounty Hunter at his side.
“He's all yours, bounty hunter.” Before Fett could even respond, Vader had already turned away, “Reset the chamber for Skywalker.” As the Ugnaughts began scrambling around again, one of Vader’s officers hurried into the room, reaching Vader’s side in an instant. Thankfully, though, this officer seemed more anxious than excited, unlike the last few officers who had relayed updates to Vader. Had he been excited, well, Athara wasn’t sure she would have been able to restrain herself from crushing that excitement.
“Skywalker has just landed, my lord.” And then her rage deflated. There was no doubt that Vader was pleased by the news. Under his mask, he had to be smiling.
“Good. See to it that he finds his way here,” he paused, turning to the city’s administrator, “Calrissian, take the princess and the Wookiee to my ship.” The former pirate’s expression of shock and panic matched Athara’s precisely.
“You said they'd be left in the city under my supervision,” came his outraged protest.
“I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further.” Without another word, Vader turned, striding from the chamber after fixing Calrissian with one final stare. The administrator blanched at the threat, his hand unconsciously reaching for his throat, a gesture that Athara didn’t fail to notice.
It was then that an idea came to her.
As a series of troopers began to file into the chamber to assist Fett it taking away Han’s frozen form, Athara silently stepped up to Calrissian’s side. All eyes, including his, were fixed on the carbonite block being loaded onto the repulsorlift.
“I hear there is a lovely view from the Security Tower.” Cloud City’s Administrator jerked at the sound of her voice, his dark eyes flashing with a combination of confusion, mistrust and, perhaps most importantly, curiosity. Athara took that as a sign to continue, pitching her voice so that the din of the chamber prevented any unwanted listeners. “Perhaps some of our Imperial friends would appreciate seeing it before escorting the princess and the wookiee onto Vader’s shuttle. And, you know, Fett might as well…” She let the comment hang, waiting for the Administrator to process her words. Lando nodded slightly, a new focus in his gaze before he flashed her his winning smile.
“Perhaps you’re right. It would be a shame for them to miss out on such a lovely view.” Athara smiled within the depths of her hood and began to walk away, but a small thought made her turn back to him for a moment after a quick check that they were still largely unobserved.
“Best not to mention my—suggestion to the Princess, I think,” at Lando’s quizzical expression she quietly elaborated, “She doesn’t exactly trust me right now.” Lando gave her a skeptical look.
“And you think she trusts me? What did you do to earn her distrust? I helped Vader capture them.” Athara smiled as a response came to mind, but managed to hold back a sudden urge to laugh.
“Let’s just say I took her ship and leave it at that, shall we?” With a final smirk, she turned on her heel and strode away, not failing to notice Calrissian turning to conference with his aide, Lobot. Judging by the way the wheels seemed to be turning in Calrissian’s head, he already had a plan for putting Athara’s suggestion into action.
In the meantime, Athara had to figure out some plans of her own, namely, how to keep her Farmboy out of Vader’s hands. Thankfully, the Troop Commander she cornered outside of the Freezing Chamber had the information she needed; the Landing Platform where Luke’s ship had just landed. If she hurried, there was a good chance she could head him off. They could figure out what to do from there, but she needed to find Luke first.
As she rushed through the cramped lower corridors toward the Upper Concourse, she commed N3, instructing him to meet her at Platform 113 with the few possessions she had left in her temporary quarters. She would need the little droid to confirm the X-wing was untouched and help her see to transportation of her own. After all, there was no way she was getting out on the Falcon with the Princess and Chewie. Plus there was the added complication that, if she had heard right earlier, the hyperdrive on the Falcon was deactivated anyway.
It took what felt like a painfully long time to make it out of the bowels of the City to the upper levels, and longer still to reach the Landing Platform. Thankfully, N3 was already waiting for her when she arrived and there were only two troopers standing watch over the rebel ship, and it was laughably easy to convince them to allow N3 access to the fighter. She hadn’t even needed to use any mind-tricks.
Unfortunately, though, Athara hadn’t encountered Luke on her dash up to the Platform. Panic flared within her for a brief moment at the prospect of having missed him, but she soon had the feeling under control. She still needed to figure out what to do next. By now Lando should have taken care of the Stormtroopers escorting the two remaining Rebels, and with them should be about to head off Fett and Han.
Then she remembered Luke had Artoo with him. As the Platform itself was devoid of anyone save Athara and N3 and the two troopers by the platform entrance, he must have followed Luke for as long as he could. She doubted that the little droid would managed to accompany her Farmboy terribly far, and would invariably find his way back to the Falcon, likely after plugging into the city’s central computer at least once; a more indomitable little droid Athara had never met. Looking down to where N3 chortled along beside her, a second idea popped into her head. It was a long shot, but it was worth a try. Spotting a terminal near the doors to the Platform, she immediately directed N3 over to it, relating her idea to the little green droid as they went.
As her astro droid left her message with the city’s computer, Athara reached out with the Force, trying to discern where Luke was at that moment. She needed to find him and get him out quickly. After a few heart-pounding moments, she finally managed to locate him.
Her heart sank to her boots.
He was already with Vader, he just didn’t know it yet. Fear welled in her throat, and before she could think on it she was already racing back toward the Carbon-Freeze Chambers.
If the trip up from the City’s underbelly had seemed long, the journey back down seemed to take a lifetime. Athara’s heart was in her throat the entire time, relentlessly tearing at her control over her feelings. It was only thanks to Qui-gon’s calming presence at her side that she didn’t give in and let her rage take over. Somehow, she managed to keep her darkness at bay, though she worried at just how long she would manage to keep it in check.
Especially as she could now feel that Luke had met Vader.
For the first time since she was racing toward Hoth, the sense of foreboding that stemmed from her now rare visions returned in full force. It would seem that the looming fight between her Master and her Farmboy was destined. That didn’t make her like it any more, though. Especially as that foreboding was accompanied by dread. But, as she got closer, she pushed the feelings away; any minute she’d catch up with the fighting pair as they wound their way through the Processing Vane that housed the Carbon-freezing facility. She could stop it.
It was not going to be easy, though.
As she reached the entrance to the Transport Tunnel that connected the Vane to the rest of the City’s facilities, the young sith was waylaid by a handful of Troopers.
“I’m sorry, Milady. Lord Vader has given strict instructions that no one is to enter until he sends word himself,” the Commander said to her. Normally, she would have talked him around to letting her pass; she was Vader’s Shadow, surely the Commander had to realize that it was not Vader’s intention for him to prevent her entrance, etc. But she didn’t have the patience and simply wasn’t in the mood to spend the time necessary to bend the Commander’s will to her own. She could feel Qui-gon cautioning her to be careful, and she was sure that had he decided to speak, he would have reminded her not to give into her frustration. She took the reminder to heart…a little.
With a single, almost lazy wave of her hand, she slammed Troopers back against the walls of the vestibule, not even waiting for their unconscious bodies to hit the ground before surging forward through the tunnel, probing with the Force as she went to try and discern Luke’s location.
But Vader had apparently felt her coming. He was blocking her, making it impossible to pinpoint precisely where they were within the structure. Thankfully for her, at that moment, Vader let out a surge of energy with the Force, causing the Processing Vane to shudder.
Its strength nearly threw Athara off balance, but it was enough to lead her directly to him. Nearby, many of the myriad monitoring stations that littered the facility began to flash and wail, signaling a Pressurization breech.
Thanking the Force for her stroke of luck, Athara was at the panel in seconds, pinpointing the exact location of the breeched Viewport that she was willing to bet Vader was responsible for.
Athara had never considered herself to be claustrophobic, but the ride up to the Level where the breech had occurred was one of the most harrowing of her life, the very walls of the lift feeling as though they were crushing in on her, such was the strength of her anxiety. She could feel Vader’s frustration at Luke’s unwillingness to submit, alongside a measure of satisfaction that the Force was so strong with Luke.
The instant the doors opened she once again shot forward, wending her way through the dimly lit corridors. It was easy to follow the path that her Master and Luke had taken, as there was a great deal of unmistakable lightsabre damage scarring the walls leading right to the shattered Viewport that was the source of the Pressurization breech. The instant she entered the control room where the Viewport was located, the cowl was torn from her face, the fierce gusts from the Reactor Shaft outside tugging at her cloak, pulling and winding it around her. But there was no sign of Luke or Vader. She didn’t understand; they had to be here.
Then, amid the howling of the wind blowing over the now open Viewport, she heard the distinctive sound of Lightsabres.
They were out in the Reactor Shaft.
In an instant, Athara was at the gaping hole in the plexi, though she had to hold tight to the remaining frame to prevent being pulled out of the viewport herself. Despite the pressure equalizing since the plexi was shattered, the drafts out in the shaft were still strong enough to suck a person clear out of the chamber. Then she saw them.
Both Vader and Luke were edging their way along the walkway toward the sensor array projecting onto the centre of the Reactor Shaft. Her Farmboy was visibly beginning to tire and he was quickly losing ground against Vader’s assault. Desperately, she tried to reach out to Luke through the Force, but Vader was blocking her. She had no way to reach Luke. He likely didn’t even know she was there. He just continued to retreat from his adversary’s ruby blade, his parries coming slower as Vader kept on relentlessly. In one last desperate exchange, the young Jedi managed to land a glancing blow to Vader’s shoulder, allowing him an instant to dash away, but he had nowhere to go. He had reached the end of the gantry. So he turned to fight. Even from where Athara was she could see from his body language that he was resigned to whatever fate was coming. Athara wasn’t; the panic once more surged within her, and she could barely breathe for fear. It took almost nothing for Vader to turn her Farmboy’s pale blade away; Luke had nothing left.
And then the blade sliced through his wrist. Athara nearly screamed as she watched the red blade that was nearly as familiar as her own take Luke’s hand. The sweep of Vader’s blade had seemed to come out of nowhere, changing its trajectory faster than the eye could blink. Luke never had a chance to block. Even through the almost deafening gusts that filled the shaft, Athara could hear Luke’s howl of pain. It was with agonizing fascination that she saw his hand spiraling away into the depths of the reactor shaft, buffeted by the very gusts that where tugging so insistently at her. All she saw was Luke’s lightsabre falling away. The fury had begun rising within her, her eyes burning ever so slightly as the colour began to change, and Qui-gon was conspicuously absent. Vader still had her lightsabre, and she had left Kenobi’s blue blade safely hidden in one of N3’s many compartments.
So she reached out through the Force, prying Luke’s lightsabre from the lingering grip of his lost hand and calling it into her own palm. The metal of the hilt was still warm from Luke’s touch. Then she prepared to jump, her anger growing unchecked within her.
She was jolted from her growing fury when a wave of anguish and disbelief from her Farmboy surged through her from the Force. Her gaze shot to Luke where he dangled from the Sensor Array, Vader standing menacingly over him. Over the wind another howl came to her, echoing the feelings she was sensing through the Force.
Unlike mere moments earlier, when Vader took Luke’s hand, what happened next seemed like it was happening in slow motion. Her Master stood over her Farmboy, his hand outstretched, beseeching the young Jedi, though she was too far away to hear a word over the violent gusts. He dangled precariously over the chasm of the Reactor, clinging to the Sensor Array with his maimed arm clutched close to his chest. Then the Force grew calm, the disturbance created by Luke’s pain melting away. And Luke let go.
This time Athara did scream. Without thinking, she leaped from the shattered Viewport to the gantry below. As soon as her boots met the walkway she was off, racing to the railing that looked out into the Reactor Shaft. But she could only watch as Luke plummeted down, buffeted by the gusts that filled the Shaft. And then he was gone, sucked into one of the exhaust ports that permeated the walls of the Reactor Shaft.
And then she was alone with Vader. She could feel him edging back along the walkway toward her, grimly satisfied. The fury began to build within her again. As the Dark Lord reached her, she spun to face him, her golden eyes glinting in the low light.
At first neither of them spoke, each surveying the other. The lightsabre in her hand ignited almost of its own volition, bathing her in its blue glow. Her Master’s sabre remained unlit in his hand. It would be so easy…
Around them the wind still howled, but standing as close to the Vane walls as they were, its volume was substantially lessened. She could actually hear Vader’s respirator. Athara finally drew a breath to speak, but Vader was the first to break the silence between them.
“You have fallen in love with him, haven’t you.” It was not at all what she expected him to say, and it was enough to once again jolt her from the rage growing within her. She couldn’t answer him, but she knew that he wasn’t expecting her to. She had stopped hiding her feelings the instant Vader sliced off her Farmboy’s hand; her fear for him had given the depth of her feelings away.
The lightsabre in her hand snapped off.
If he’d been capable, Athara was sure that he would have sighed. His gaze dropped from her face, falling to the lightsabre she still had clutched in her fist. The swirl of emotion coming from him was baffling. His posture shifted, suggesting another stymied sigh, though this one would have been distinctively regretful if she could trust what she sensed from him.
“I should have known Obi-wan would have given him my old Lightsabre,” he intoned. It was spoken as if only to himself, but Athara heard it as easily as if he had yelled at her. Her own gaze dropped to Luke’s lightsabre. It was a long moment before the gravity of what he said sunk in. As if of its own accord, her gaze was drawn to the lightsabre Vader held in his own fist, the one Athara recognized as readily as her own.
The two blades were brothers. Athara couldn’t breathe. The final pieces of the puzzle had clicked into place.
He’d been hunting his own son.