The bright light pouring from the doorway was harsh on his eyes. Sky raised his arm to block the blinding light but it still hurt. The prison cell he was in was kept dark, hidden away from the main populace of the prison. Traitors to the Empire weren't human. Traitors to the Empire were below the lowest alien scum in the galaxy. Traitors of the Empire didn't deserve to live. That was essentially the way he was viewed by everyone who knew about him. A traitor who didn't deserve the time and money the Empire was wasting by keeping him alive in a prison.
Commander Essential was spared though, because of his distinguished career as an Imperial combatant. Sky would have preferred the quick death after the torture he was put through. The Imperial Security Bureau was in a habit of being untrusting and always suspicious of anyone. Being convicted of treason just increased the amount of unwanted attention.
Sky couldn't remember how many days he had been subjected to the combination of ruthless torture and unrelenting questioning. They wanted to know his Rebel contacts, how long he worked for them. They were looking for a reason to have him killed.
"Commander Skyline N. Essential. You have been found guilty on the charges of treason, disobeying a direct order from a superior officer and actions unbecoming of an officer of the Imperial Army. You are sentenced to a term in prison, no longer than twenty-five standard years, with the possibility of parole. During this time you will be subject to further investigation into your past by the Imperial Security Bureau. You are to be discharged from the armed services, stripped of all your privileges of rank and all your commendations will be removed from record. Let it be known that it is your record of service that has kept you from execution, but you will forever live with this knowledge: you are a disgrace to the Empire."
Sky remembered looking down at his chest, seeing his medals, commendations and operations tags disappearing before his eyes, his boyhood dream evaporating faster than he could grasp. It was over. What hurt the most was what the military tribunal judge of the show trial said at the end.
You are a disgrace to the Empire.
Those words still rang in his bloodied ears. He lived for the Empire. It was gone now. Reduced in rank, thrown in prison and essentially forgotten. Skyline Essential had fallen a long way. So far that he was even beginning to understand the Rebellion and why they fought—although he would never admit that to any of the ISB operatives.
"Stand up," said the harsh filtered voice of the guard standing in the door way. The stormtrooper stood with a blaster rifle leveled at Sky's forehead, another behind him holding shackles.
"Tell those ISB fracks to go ahead and kill me. I have had enough of this torture," Sky said, slowly backing into the corner of the cell.
"You are not reporting to Colonel Park. Now stand up," order the trooper.
Sky lowered his arm and stared at the stormtrooper. With his plasteel helmet, Sky couldn't read the man's expression. Maybe this was it, maybe they finally decided to execute him and get it over with. If so, he wasn't going peacefully. "No."
The lead trooper nodded and the second man pulled up a stun baton and walked over to Sky. Sky inched farther back and went from kneeling to a crouch. The stormtrooper taunted Sky with the stun baton and swung. Reacting, Sky blocked the swing by knocking the troopers hand up and away, narrowly missing Sky's face. The trooper tried to bring his fist up, but before he could connect, Sky leapt up with his fist catching the trooper under his helmet on his chin. The trooper stumbled back and turned to the obvious leader, whose weapon stilled remain aimed at Sky.
"I really didn't want to have to drag you," he said, squeezing the trigger and releasing a stun bolt that dropped Sky to the ground.
* * * * *
A while later, Sky regained consciousness and looked around, immediately startled by his surroundings. It was a briefing room, with a large podium in the center and stadium seating all around. Imperial banners hung from the ceiling and swayed silently as the air conditioning moved the stale air around. There were two sets of doors, one to his right and one to his rear, both with a pair of armed guards. Sky looked down at his hands—he was unbound and able to move freely.
He stood up to get a better view of the room and stretch when the door to his right opened. Two men entered, one in black, one in gray. The man in gray went immediately to the podium while the one in black took a seat just across the aisle from Sky. The man at the podium, whom Sky decided was a commander, began punching something on a datapad.
"What is going on?" Sky asked bluntly, still standing up and looking around the room. He decided that an attempt to escape would certainly be his death.
"I am Commander Igar," said the man at the podium. "That is Major Ulo."
Sky looked back to the major at his side. The man nodded once and kept his ice blue eyes focused on Sky, as if he was looking for weakness in Sky, or trying to understand him. Either way, the piercing gaze made Sky nervous. The Commander, though… there was something familiar about him. Sky took a few steps down to the first row, trying to get a better view of the man. Even the name, the name was also familiar. Then it hit him. "I recognize you."
"Yes, Mr. Essential," said Igar. Sky winced at the lack of rank, it was still painful. "We were at the Academy together. I looked up to your example and that… that is why I want you." Sky had to sit down, he had no idea what was going on and his perception of the situation had changed drastically. Igar continued.
"The investigation by the ISB into your past and actions turned up nothing incriminating towards you. They determined that your treason was nothing more than a combination of stupidity and gullibility, thus your sentence was shortened and you are eligible for parole. You were recommissioned as a Captain, but no one wanted you in their command. Not Veers, not K'erys, no one wanted you. Your name was passed by me one day after one of my commanders was killed in a speeder accident. Remembering you from the Academy, I decided to take a chance.
"You are being released into my command. The Empire has come short of qualified AT-AT commanders since Hoth, commanders have been requesting transfers right and left because they feel the AT-AT is too susceptible to vulnerabilities." He paused, only for a moment. "I am in command of a squad of AT-ATs, Tempest, and we are being shipped off to guard an important defensive structure. All information on the structure is classified. We just need to protect it."
Sky sat there, trying to sort this mess out. Someone out there was giving him a walker command. Someone still trusted him enough to let him into a combat position. It was a second chance. "And what does he want with me?" Sky said, referring to the Major a few rows behind him.
"The Major is a condition of your release. He is a Security Bureau operative. He will report on your every activity," Igar said grimly. "There will be no other chances, this is your last."
"To put it even more simply, you are still in our custody. A forced combatant. I will be with you where ever you are deployed and in combat," said the Major. His voice was as hard as durasteel and colder than the hard vacuum of space. "Make no mistake, you stray from your orders, I won't stray from mine. I have the authority to execute you on the spot."
Sky turned his gaze to the ground and began to think this through. It was a second chance, not the command of a division that he'd had a chance at, but he would still be serving the Empire.
You are a disgrace to the Empire.
* * * * *
The weeks leading up to his assignment were hectic. Between Commander Igar's constant training sessions and Major Ulo's constant watch, the new Captain was uncertain how he would perform and of his future in the Imperial Army. He was confident he would do well, it was in his nature. He was born to serve, and being the legitimate government, the Empire was his master. But the recent events were causing him to think back to his early days—graduating from the Academy, getting his first command, and his first combat situation. Days he used to remember without worry.
Ever since the trial, he had looked back with fear. Fear of things he did and fear of things he didn't do, not sure of which one would come back and haunt him. If the Major could read his thoughts, Sky was sure he would have been executed instantly.
"Alright, Captain. I believe you are ready," said Igar, laying a datapad down on his desk. "Your recent simulator runs have been excellent and show that those days in prison didn't crush your will to serve the Empire."
Sky hid his irritation. This man had no idea what he went through in there. Torture of prisoners was not something that was broadcast over the HoloNet for the public to see, nor was it common knowledge of those in the service. The Imperial Security Bureau did their cloak and dagger work very well.
"Thank you, sir," he said, still standing. Major Ulo sat next to Sky, his eyes locked onto the Captain.
The commander's office was in high contrast to what Sky had when he was in a command position. Igar had holos of his family, his wife and his three children on his desk and his walls. Places that weren't taken by sentimental pictures were filled with different images of Imperial war machines. AT-ATs on Hoth, TIEs over Coruscant, the list went on. There were also images of men in front of different vehicles, no doubt squadrons and units the Commander had been assigned to in his past. Sky was too young to remember his parents when they died and he always served as the commander of one unit. The future moved fast.
Commander Igar stood up and turned to face the parade grounds across from his office. A company of stormtroopers were working on drills; the shouts from their CO could barely be heard. "It's about time I let you in on where we are going." He turned to face Sky, then nodded to the Major.
Major Ulo stood up and retrieved a datapad from the table near the door, then proceeded to a filing cabinet, pulling out a few datacards. "Take this one," he said, handing Sky the one on top as well as the datapad. "Your username and your access code have not changed, just your security clearance."
Major Ulo took every shot he could to remind Sky that he as a disgrace to the Empire. No shot was too cheap and no blow below the belt. The Major took pleasure in humiliating Sky.
The information that began scrolling across his screen was slightly confusing, and made him feel as if the Empire really lost it. "A shield generator? You are sending a squadron of AT-ATs and supporting personnel to guard a shield generator?"
Commander Igar frowned. "This assignment is very important. The Emperor has assigned us to it personally, despite the fact you were assigned to us. This is more than your usual planetary shield generator."
"How is it different?" Sky snorted, tossing the datapad on the desk. Major Ulo shifted his weight in the chair and placed his hand on his sidearm, just waiting for Sky to provide a reason.
"First off, it is covering an orbital station above the moon," Igar said, turning back to the parade grounds. "Second, the Rebellion knows about its location and will attack it."
Sky sat down. "What do you mean?
"It's a trap."
* * * * *
"Oh man, you should have been there. Those Aqualish had no idea it was coming. I took my pistol from my holster and shot him in the arm. He turned and did that bark and gurgle they call a language, so I shot him in the face. The second just stood there, like I was going to rob them, so I shot it in the stomach, or I think it was the stomach, who knows. Then I shot it in the knee caps. It was hilarious!" said the man across from Sky, Lieutenant Foster. He was making the trip to Endor one Sky couldn't stand much longer. But Major Ulo and Sergeant Wilkes were laughing with the Lieutenant.
"Weren't you punished for that?" Sky asked, about to be sick to his stomach.
"Fierfek, you think my commander would care? He was standing next to me." The man puffed out his chest. "I even got a medal for it. The way I see it, if he decides to disrespect an officer, he can suffer the consequences."
"He was standing in front of you in line to see a show!" Sky said, rage building.
"And the respectful thing would have been to let Lieutenant Foster take his place," said Major Ulo, hand resting dangerously close to his pistol.
Sky calmed down and leaned back against the bulkhead. That was horrible. He'd heard stories before, but none like that. Of course, he didn't know how much of Foster's story he believed. The thought of it turned his stomach inside out, though. "This happens a lot?"
"Ask Wilkes what his nickname is," said the Major. Wilkes looked up and gave an evil toothless grin.
Sky shrugged. "What?"
"Hammer," he said.
Sky shrugged again.
The Sergeant's grin grew wider. "I like to get in close to kill, use blunt tools to do my dirty work. Blasters are too clean."
"I only kill if I have to," Sky said, looking up to the ceiling.
"Let me tell you something: we have to kill these mongrels before they ruin the Empire. Why? Because they don't share the same morals as we do."
Yeah, you have morals, Sky thought, pretending to be asleep, he closed his eyes.
"I expect you to do the same," said the Major.
"Self-defense? Fierfek, yeah, I'll drop anyone who draws a bead on me. I won't kill just for fun though," he said, wondering how these men could be proud. He had nightmares after his first close-encounter fight. He shot a rebel trooper in the face, completely destroying the man's identity. That image haunted him early on in his career. These men probably would have laughed after that. Sky actually shook in fear.
"You should give it a try. I think you would enjoy it."
* * * * *
A month or so passed before anything eventful happened. Minor raids by the Ewoks caused issues, but no Rebel attack, no breaches of security, nothing. It seemed as though the Emperor was going nuts. Sky spent his days roaming the dense forests of Endor on patrol for anything suspicious. Sky hated those missions, they should have been left for the biker scouts, or Tree Dodgers as he liked to refer to them. The AT-AT was too hard to control in the narrow confines of such a dense wooded area. Not to mention their field of view was so limited they could barely see a hundred meters in front of them.
"Sir, I am picking up a life form ahead of us, it's human," said his Lieutenant. Sky couldn't remember his name and didn't want to. This man was not what he viewed the Empire to be. He was pure evil, ever since the transport ride to Endor, Sky made it a point to avoid him. Unfortunately, Major Ulo assigned the man to his walker.
"Are you sure, Lieutenant?" he asked, sitting forward in his command chair.
"Is it one of ours?" asked Ulo from behind Sky. "Maybe he got lost from his patrol?"
"Not this far out, only the walkers are allowed this far. Too easy for the Tree Dodgers to get lost way out here," Sky said. "How far ahead?"
Sky didn't need to hear the answer from the Lieutenant—a man suddenly appeared in the view port, only sixty meters ahead. It seemed strange, he was wearing all black and something silver flashed on his belt, definitely not a trooper of any kind.
"Tell Wilkes we have a prisoner," said Major Ulo.
"Wait," Sky said, he stood up and moved towards hatch. "Major, I say we take this one ourselves. Lieutenant, set us down."
The walker lumbered forward a few more meters and then jerked and bobbed as it lowered itself to its knees. Sky grabbed two stormtroopers and walked down the ramp. The smell hit him instantly. He wasn't sure how to describe it. It was the smell of plants, animals and fresh air. A big difference from the sweat and machinery of the AT. The man was already moving towards them hands in front of him, away from the cylinder on his belt.
"Freeze," said Major Ulo. "Who are you?"
The man stopped, looking at Sky, then to Major Ulo. "My name is of no importance, I am a lone rebel scout."
"Troopers, arrest him. We will take him back to base. I will be able to interrogate him better there."
Then, for the first time, the man made a move. A small subtle gesture with his hand, all while speaking. "You will inform Lord Vader that you have me in custody."
"I will inform Lord Vader we have you in custody," he said. Sky stood there, confused on what just happened. This Rebel was turning himself in and the Major was taking orders from him. The man looked at Sky again, holding his hands out. "Troopers, arrest him and search him for weapons. Lord Vader will not be kept waiting."
The two troopers stepped forward and put binders around his hands, then took the lightsaber from his belt, handing it to Skyline. He could release this prisoner and sneak away with him to join the Rebellion. It was tempting, but something in the back of his mind was not letting him. Telling him now would not be a good time for such an attempt.
"Clear quarters for him and the inform Commander Igar we have a prisoner. Have him inform Lord Vader," he said, climbing back up the ramp, heading to his personal computer terminal to write the report. The Rebels were going to attack soon and they had managed to capture a scout.
* * * * *
A day later, Sky was patrolling the forests yet again. Commander Igar believed there were more of them out there and frankly, so did Sky. The Rebel refused to provide any information and was taken to Lord Vader. A lone scout just doesn't turn himself in. There was something in the works. Maybe he had a locator beacon on his person, so they could find the main base, or maybe he was an expert escape artist, who would note the location and sneak back to his comrades. Either way, he was certain the attack was imminent. He was pondering the different outcomes when…
"Captain! We found the unauthorized shuttle!" exclaimed the Lieutenant, who was staring down at his scanners.
"Are you sure?" Sky asked, leaning forward in his chair to look over the Lieutenant's shoulder.
"As sure as I can be. It's a Lambda, no doubt about it. Bearing is 142, about eight-hundred meters," the Lieutenant turned to face Sky. "We've got the Rebel scum now, sir."
"Change course to 142 degrees. We need to see if the Lieutenant is right." Sky sat back in his chair and lost himself in thought. The Rebels were not stupid, they would not hang around the shuttle. It was most likely wiped clean of all intelligence the Empire would have seen as useful. Maybe, though, they would be able to track their movements from there.
Time passed slowly as the lumbering walker twisted and maneuvered through the foliage. Finally, they made it to the shuttle. "Set us down, let's have a look. Sergeant Wilkes?"
"Yes sir," said the stormtrooper behind him.
"Put up a perimeter. I want to go over this ship with the confidence your men won't allow any rebels to distract us," said Sky, making his way to the armory. He pulled his personal armor off the rack, grabbed two standard issue blaster rifles, a belt full of ammunition and a small pack of grenades. Major Ulo was doing the same—except he grabbed explosive satchels so they could destroy the ship if they had to. "Sergeant, give me you best computer expert."
"Gofer, get up here," Wilkes barked at the ranks forming at the bottom of the ramp. One stormtrooper turned back around and up the ramp.
"That's his name?" Sky asked.
"No, sir. Loving nickname assigned by Sarge, sir," Gofer said, standing at rigid attention. "I tend to make people go for things, rather than doing them myself."
"You are with me and the Major here. We need to go over every meter of this shuttle."
"Yes, sir," he said, following behind them. The Sergeant was already placing his men around the area as best as he could.
The three men marched over to the shuttle with weapons drawn. Sky found the door controls and switched them on. The hatch let out a hiss he was sure all of Endor heard. Slowly it lowered itself to the ground. "Not locked? That's a little scary," said Captain Essential.
"Why? I bet they planned this as a suicide mission. Attack and die, but get the job done." The Major didn't seem worried at all. "Or they are as stupid as we originally thought, take your pick."
The three men made it up the ramp with no problems and they began to go over the shuttle. The Major and Sky were going over the various quarters and storage bays while Gofer was going through the ship's databank and other computer systems. Every container and every crawl space was empty. No pieces of flimsi, no weapons, nothing. When the Rebels left, they took everything with them. Sky had enough and made his way to the cockpit where Gofer was still going through the computers.
"Sorry, sir. They wiped it clean before they left it. No hyper coordinates, no transmission fragments and no logs of any kind. Everything is clean. Even the transponder is clear," Gofer said, shaking his head. The Rebels had done a damn fine job of cleaning the shuttle out. "Only thing I managed to get is the name of the crate. Tyderium."
Sky was disappointed. The Rebels did do a good job erasing their tracks. He looked out of the canopy at the AT-AT, directly ahead but facing at an angle, and noticed movement in the bushes near the ramp of the walker. Then three round shiny objects arced from the bushes up the ramp.
"Get down!" Sky yelled while throwing Gofer to the ground. The explosion tore through the area around them, shaking the Lambda shuttle violently.
After the shockwaves passed and the deck plates stopped vibrating, Sky climbed to his feet, looking out over the damage. Those Rebels must have gotten lucky, one of the thermal detonators bounced down the corridor to the neck, separating the cockpit from the main body. Flames engulfed the cockpit and Sky could see that neither the pilot nor his co-pilot had escaped. The other two must have bounced around in the cargo hold because no visible damage could be seen except for the smoke drifting from the open hatch. In any event, the AT-AT just became a massive hunk of useless metal. Blaster fire began erupting from the bottom of the shuttle's own hatch. The stormtroopers were falling back. It was time to leave.
Sky ran to the hatch weapons drawn. "Get on board the shuttle! Get on board the shuttle!" He caught camouflaged movement in the corner of his eye and squeezed off a shot. A Rebel commando fell to his back, the bolt scorching his chest. A moan rose above the firing and caught his attention. He looked around for the source and found Major Ulo lying on his side, a piece of durasteel in his thigh. "Trooper, help me get him on board."
The trooper ignored the order and climbed up the ramp for his own safety. Sky threw down both of his weapons, helped the Major to his feet and began hauling him up the ramp towards the cargo area. He remembered seeing a few stretchers back there. Another trooper rushed past him, pausing only for a second at the sight of the Major's wound. Sky scanned the room. "We got a medic on board?"
Another trooper came up the ramp and slapped the door panel, sealing the hatch shut. "I'm the medic," he said, laying down his back pack and pulling out a series of tools Sky could never have hoped to identify.
"Take care of him, I am getting us out of here," Sky said as he made his way to the cockpit. Gofer was hiding behind the entry way, weapon drawn. "Fierfek, Gofer. You scared me."
"Sorry, sir. Didn't know who would be coming around the corner," he said, relaxing and sliding into the seat next to Sky.
"Well we need to get out of here. Stand by for take off," Sky said, running his hands over the controls. It had been nearly five years since his initial basic piloting courses, but he could remember most of it as if it was yesterday. His hands danced over the controls, first bringing power online, then shields and then the engines. Soon everything was operational, even the weapons. "I need troopers who know how to operate the weapons on this piece of junk to report to the gunnery stations and open fire. Anything that ain't friendly, blow it away," he announced as he lifted the shuttle off the makeshift landing pad.
Outside, he could se the Rebels falling back, helping wounded allies and dragging the dead if they couldn't lift them. The shuttle vibrated as one of the weapons open fired on the ground targets below. It wasn't much, but it was something.
Sky opened a channel on the Imperial Emergency Frequency. "This is Captain Skyline N. Essential, Imperial Army. My walker was destroyed and we commandeered an enemy shuttle, requesting…"
Before Sky could finish the sentence, he was interrupted by a brilliant flash as the main shield projector exploded. It was like looking directly into the sun and was so fast that the view screen didn't have time to darken to protect the men's eyes.
"We need to get out of here now," Sky said. Turning to Gofer, Sky pulled a datapad from his pockets and handed it to him. "Plug the coordinates into the computer. Those are our orders incase we're defeated and Endor is lost."
Gofer nodded once and began entering the sequence into the computer. "I guess the fleet is now on their own?"
"Nothing we can do about it. Plus they outnumber the Rebels and outgun them," Sky said, trying to be reassuring to Gofer. But any hope of that went out the window when they hit the cold hard vacuum of space just in time to see a symbol of the Empire collapse. The Executor was in the grasp of the second Death Star's artificial gravity and was acting like a dagger, stabbing deep into the uncompleted sphere. The explosion was so huge it engulfed the ship in seconds.
"Sir, I am not sure but I think we got incoming on us," said Gopher who was looking at the scanners. Sky didn't notice he had taken his helmet off.
"Are the coordinates in?" Sky asked, watching as his hopes and fears collided in such a fast pace that he had no idea what was going to happen to the government he had looked to and served for his entire life. Or what was going to happen to him.
"Yes, sir. Coordinates are in and... we have just cleared all gravity shadows."
"Good." He pushed the levers forward, and as just as Wedge Antilles escaped the Death Star's imploding superstructure, the shuttle Tyderium leapt forward into the bluish-white tunnel through space known as hyperspace. He never saw Lando Calrissian also escape, or the Death Star explode more violently than the first.
Endor had fallen, the two leaders of the Imperial Forces with it, and Captain Essential's eternal need to serve the Empire died with all of them.