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Title: Jungles and Gemstones
Author: Maia (maia@bastcastle.org)
Rating: PG
Characters: Vader, OFC, a few other OC’s, and familiar faces.
Category: AU, Adventure, Romance, some Angst.
Disclaimer: I am not making any money from this, and he doesn’t belong to me. Darn.

Summary: The Sith Lord has a misadventure on Mimban. Extracted from the AU ‘The Sith Lord and the Scientist.’


The Executor, N’Zoth, C’Rel system, Month 4, Year 2.

DAY 22.

I set aside the datapad and glance again through the entrance to his office towards the main door of Ani’s quarters. He still isn’t back from the shipyards and I am starting to worry. What little I have read about the Yevethans is not at all encouraging. Xenophobic, strictly hierarchical, and male-dominated - their society and culture is rather frightening, brutal and harsh, matching their homeworld’s climate.

‘Mama,’ Mikal calls to me.

I look over at my son. He’s busy with his blocks and wants some attention. With a smile, I settle myself on the floor beside him and play ‘build a tower’ for a while. When he is bored with that, I shift to working his Force abilities, rolling various colored balls back and forth between us, until he is tried of that game as well.

‘Suppertime,’ I finally tell him.

Mikal happily takes my hand and walks with me back to the kitchen. At least he isn’t teething this month and will eat without too much fuss. Last month when he was cutting teeth was a trial.

‘Up you go,’ I say as I lift him into his chair, using the Force to ease most of his weight from my hands.

As I eat my own meal, Mikal manages to get most of his in his mouth instead of on the floor or all over himself. His co-ordination is improving rapidly. I won’t have to give him a second bath today. With a sigh, I clean him up a bit and set him on the floor. My son promptly goes to the one compartment he is allowed into and starts pulling out the pots and pans I store in there for him to play with. Loud crashes and banging quickly follows.

‘Busy, aren’t you?’ I ask him.

Babbling and more noise is his response while I tidy up the kitchen. The sound of the main door opening interrupts Mikal’s fun.

‘Dada!’ he calls.

The pots are abandoned as my son makes a beeline for his father. I follow him and watch as the Sith Lord catches our son and lifts him up to carry him back to me.

‘I think someone missed me today,’ Ani teases.

‘He’s not the only one,’ I admit.

‘Let me put him to bed so we can talk without being interrupted,’ he offers.

Ani takes Mikal to his bedroom while I put the pots and pans away. I can hear my husband reading ‘The Lost Bantha Cub’ yet again and our son’s happy responses as the pages of the book are turned. Eventually only the Sith Lord’s voice is audible, so I go and peer in at the two of them. Mikal is sound asleep on his father’s lap and Ani is sitting there watching him.

He won’t wake until morning, Ani tells me as he gets up and tucks Mikal into his crib.

Good, I reply, he was busy all day and refused to have his afternoon nap. I think he was upset that you weren’t here at lunchtime.

With a touch Ani closes the door, first checking that Mikal is still sleeping. The Sith Lord sacrificed part of his workshop to give our son his own room which is accessible through the workshop as well as our bedroom. There is enough space to eventually put our twin daughters in there, too.

‘Let’s go sit and talk for a while,’ Ani suggests.

He slides an arm around me and guides me along to his office, settling me on the couch before taking his place beside me. I curl up in his arms and wait.

‘You are starting to get big again,’ he observes, brushing a hand across my stomach.

‘Can’t be helped,’ I tease, ‘there’s not much room in there with two of them.’

‘And they are starting to move around, too,’ he notes as I feel the evening squirms start up.

I catch his hand in mine and hold it tight.

‘My work here is done for the moment,’ Ani reveals, ‘and I will soon be off on another tedious errand for the Emperor.’

Somehow I stop a resigned sigh. Ever since the Emperor recalled him from his temporary exile, the Sith Lord has been kept tightly reined in, sent on the most insignificant of tasks, and his every decision and move noted and reported back to his master. Ani hasn’t complained publicly or to Palpatine, but I know he is getting frustrated by the restrictions imposed on him.

‘It won’t last,’ I reassure him. ‘Sooner or later he will relent.’

‘It will be sooner,’ the Sith Lord decides.

I raise a questioning eyebrow. He knows something I don’t.

‘Three weeks ago the rebels staged a successful surprise attack on the Ordinance Center on Onderon, completely crippling resupply efforts in the Airon sector. A few days later, they managed to evacuate their base on Nentan, and earlier today the Yinchorri, with rebel assistance, overthrew Governor Wessel,’ he tells me.

‘And,...’ I lead him on.

‘Palpatine has delegated most of the responsibility for running the Empire to Sate Pestage who has little competence in military matters,’ he adds, ‘so I will be called on quite quickly to take the situation in hand and resume my pursuit of the rebels. In fact, I suspect...’

His comment is interrupted by the comm chiming.

‘Right on time,’ he notes, sounding rather pleased. ‘Wait here. This won’t take long.’

I watch him hurry to the holopad in the room next door. He steps onto it, waves a hand at the controls, closing his office door and activating the Holonet. Guess this is one conversation I won’t be privy to.

A few minutes later, he returns.

‘Back on active duty,’ Ani happily reveals. ‘No more time to waste. I need to be elsewhere immediately.’

I don’t know if I like the sound of that or not. Just about every time he starts chasing after rebels, he gets hurt.

The comm chimes again. Rats. This is probably orders for where he has to go.

‘Gyndine?’ Ani questions as he goes to his desk to see where the call is coming from. ‘A bit obscure. I wonder what the problem is.’

The Sith Lord activates the comm with a touch. I stay motionless and silent, curious to see what the message is about, and knowing he is distracted enough to let me stay if I don’t draw attention to myself.

I watch the image of an Imperial Governor appear. He’s overweight, heavily jowled and obviously hasn’t bothered to keep in shape.

‘This is Governor Bin Essada on Gyndine,’ the official states.

‘Yes?’ Ani prods.

‘I have important information for you, Lord Vader,’ Essada says.

‘And, ...’ the Sith Lord prompts.

‘One of the Supervisors of our energy mining operations stumbled onto something rather interesting earlier today,’ the Governor reveals.

‘Well, out with it, then,’ Ani snaps, letting his impatience show.

He’s getting annoyed at the officer’s dithering.

‘It would be easier to show you,’ Essada decides.

Two images appear. I jump in surprise. It’s Luke and Leia, two of the rebels I had met and spent some time with on Garqi.

‘They were captured on Circarpous V with an unusually radiant gemstone in their possession,’ the Governor adds.

Ani tips his head, thinking about that.

‘Hold them under maximum security,’ the Sith Lord finally orders. ‘I will take them into custody and question them personally.’ After a pause, he adds, with a touch of threat in his voice, ‘And Governor they are to be unharmed when I arrive.’

I hear Essada give a few hasty assurances that his underling will make sure everything is in order before Ani ends the transmission. He quickly contacts Piett on the bridge.

‘Captain Piett, we are leaving for Circarpous IV immediately, at maximum speed, and I expect regular reports on our status once we are underway,’ he orders.

A curt, ‘Yes, milord,’ is all Ani allows before cutting that conversation off.

I stare at him. There is something familiar about all of this. I shut my eyes and go rooting through my memories. Nothing, but I am sure I knew what this is all about.

‘Ani,’ I quietly tell him, ‘I knew something about this once.’

He looks over at me with a start. Obviously he had forgotten I was there.

‘Perhaps it will come back to you after you read about the place,’ he suggests. ‘In the meantime, you need to rest and I have work to do.’

He must intend for me to do some analysis for him before he has to go planetside. I want to ask him about the gemstone which caught his attention, but stop myself. Despite my professional curiosity, that’s his business and not mine to pry into. Maybe he will tell me something about it later.

I look up and take his hand. Bedtime for me.

Soon I have been tucked in, fussed over for a few minutes and am dozing off.

‘Don’t work too late,’ I sleepily scold when he moves to leave me.

‘Go to sleep, little goddess,’ he insists.

I stop fighting my heavy eyelids and do as I am told.

***

I leave her to rest and return to my office. There is the report from Supervisor Grammel to read, and I need to contact Jixton as well.

Report first, I decide.

After a few minutes I set it aside. There is little in it which is of much use to me. But reading between the lines has given some insight into Grammel’s character. Grammel is another mediocre officer who has been essentially exiled to a dead end positing. He’s the type I have avoided having on my flagship.

At least he recognized that there was more to Luke and Leia than their lame cover story and contacted Essada. And he had enough common sense to hold them under heavy security. It won’t be easy for those two to escape from me this time. Perhaps he is more competent than his brief suggests. I will ask Maia to give me her opinion of it in the morning.

Maia.

She’s halfway through her pregnancy and thankfully over the worst of her sickness now. Soon she will be too uncomfortable, too big to do very much. I know Reena has already discussed bed rest with her, just as she had a few quiet words with me in private about refraining from sex after the end of this month. My wife won’t be very happy about that, but we will both do as the doctor orders.

I won’t risk losing my wife or daughters.

Thoughts of my wife bring up another issue. It’s been over a year since she was poisoned and I still do not know who was ultimately responsible for that.

I know Mia put the tainted nausea patches into the storage compartment down in medical. But the trail back from her has led only to dead ends. All Jix discovered after months of work was the technician who in ignorance delivered the patches to her, and the dead Falleen chemist who manufactured them. There has been no trace, no clue as to who ordered their preparation. Unfortunately the chemist had other clients who took a dim view of some shoddy merchandise he had produced. Black Sun eliminated him and destroyed his lab mere days after Mia received her package from him.

For a while, I had hoped locating the stolen sound slugs would provide more clues, but that trail, too, went cold. By using several layers of intermediaries with the network and the composer, whoever Mia sent the data chips to managed to effectively conceal their identity. The best lead Jix found died in an airspeeder crash before he could bring that particular Rodian to me for questioning.

It has been a most fruitless and frustrating experience.

Perhaps Jix has some new information for me today.

***


The Executor, hyperspace, en route to Cicarpous IV

DAY 23

Ani was busy in his office last night. When I checked on him, right after I woke up this morning, he was still completely absorbed in researching something, but even after asking my opinion of the report he had received from the governor, he refused to tell me what was so important to him that he had to stay awake all night working on it. Frustrated, I returned to our bedroom to concentrate my attention on my datapad, which is what I am still doing an hour or so later. Rather than annoy my husband by hovering over him, I will track down a few new children’s stories to read to Mikal.

***

I glance up from the screen as Maia leaves my office. Mimban has triggered something in her subconscious memories. Her worrying is a manifestation of that, but until she can be more specific, I am not going to allow her concerns to influence my decision to go collect Luke and Leia in person. Instead of asking her to try recalling what is bothering her, I have focussed my efforts on discovering anything about that world’s history.

Unfortunately, I have not found very much of use to me.

The radiant gem Essada mentioned, and which Grammel has seized from the rebels, most closely resembles the Kaiburr crystals used by the Jedi. I cannot recall any Jedi missions to Mimban nor is there any record of such in what I histories I have access to on the Executor. So, where did that stone come from? Mimban? Or did Luke acquire it elsewhere?

A frown crosses my face. This world has raised too many unanswered questions which I won’t have time to investigate. It is even possible that one of the Jedi who escaped Order 66 has taken refuge there and remained hidden from detection. Few have braved the dense jungle and hostile native populations, or ventured away from the settlements. The scientists and historians assigned to the planetary survey missions gave only sketchy and superficial reports. Of those, the most useful was the ethnohistory containing the legend of a large luminescent stone with the power to heal. Perhaps I will pursue that, once I have Luke safely in hand where he cannot escape. If the stories are true, that gemstone should be able to free me from my armour, and if not, it still might be of some value to me.

I log out from my terminal and shut off the screen. It’s time to go for a walk , and after sitting in one position for most of the night, I want to check on our progress with Piett.

‘Maia,’ I tell my wife, once I have found her in our bedroom. ‘I must go to the Command Deck for a while.’

She looks up at me, smiles, and takes my hand when I offer it. I can sense she is trying to hide her trepidation about the situation from me.

‘I won’t be long,’ I reassure her, as I squeeze then release her fingers.

As I walk to the bridge, I make a decision. My wife and our son need some time alone with me, off ship, and away from public view. A short holiday to the Emperor’s retreat on Naboo will be perfect. Once Luke’s position as my apprentice is approved of by my master, I will do exactly that.

‘Give me a status report, Captain Piett,’ I order when I reach my destination. ‘How long until we achieve orbit around Circarpous IV?’

‘The Executor is performing at peak efficiency,’ he replies. ‘Estimated time of arrival is twenty-seven hours and forty-two minutes.’

‘Tell the navigator if we arrive one minute after his estimate,’ I warn, ‘that he won’t need to worry about a return trip.’

‘Yes, Lord Vader,’ Piett promptly replies.

‘I won’t countenance any delay,’ I reveal. ‘I have a score to settle with Skywalker and the girl.’

He salutes and goes to deliver my message. I move to the front of the bridge and stare out, into the swirls of hyperspace. My pursuit of Luke, as the pilot who destroyed the Death Star, is well known, and Organa is a rebel leader who needs to be neutralized. For now, it is best that my officers and crew think that is why I am so determined to capture both of them.

***


The Executor, Circarpous IV, Circarpous system.

DAY 24

I hold Ani close as he kisses me goodbye and reluctantly release him to finish putting on his armour. For the past few days, I have been filled with forebodings about what will happen on Circarpous V. Stop being silly, I scold myself as Ani seals his helmet. Everything will be fine. He just has to go to the neighbouring planet, pick up the two rebels and bring them back. Nothing will go wrong.

We walk together to his quarter’s main entrance, and a gloved hand gently brushes down my face.

‘You are worrying far too much, Maia,’ he quietly scolds.

‘I can’t help it,’ I admit. ‘The feeling that something bad will happen just won’t go away.’

‘Come here a moment,’ he offers, opening his arms to me.

I step into his embrace and wrap myself around him.

‘Why can’t you send someone else?’ I ask. ‘Anyone could go and pick them up.’

‘Not when it is those two rebels,’ he decides. ‘They are too important to risk losing.’

I latch on tight. I really don’t want him to leave me. Not today.

‘I must go,’ Ani insists, firmly pulling my arms from around his waist.

I reluctantly step back and let him go, holding the door open with my hand so I can watch him walk along the corridor until he is out of my sight. With a sigh, I pull my hand away and let it slide shut again. He will take his shuttle to the mining settlement, collect Luke and Leia and be back in a matter of hours. Fussing and worrying won’t speed things along and will only annoy him.

My steps are slow as I return to our bedroom. It’s too early to be up and about. Mikal won’t be awake for another two hours, and he will not be happy his father has left without playing with him for a few minutes. I crawl back into bed and go to sleep.

***

I lean back into my shuttle’s seat and tap my fingers on the armrest. There have been no communications with Grammel or the mining colony on Mimban since the Executor arrived, and I suspect that Luke and Leia are in some way responsible for that. Despite telling my wife that this will be a simple retrieval, I doubt it will be as easy as I had planned.

I look ahead, out the cockpit window, and watch Circarpous V, Mimban, growing larger. Soon, I will find out exactly what has happened.

My pilot acknowledges the control tower, giving my code clearance. So, whatever the problem was with their comm system, it has been repaired. I impatiently wait for the ship to touch down, and stalk down the ramp.

Standing there on the landing pad, expecting my arrival, is the man in charge of the mining colony, his face recently repaired on the right side. He is flanked by two troopers but neither of the prisoners I expect to see are present. Another incompetent fool, I think, furious. Keeping Skywalker and Organa under wraps for a few days should have been a simple enough task to do.

‘Captain-Supervisor Grammel,’ I growl at him, ‘you now have fifteen seconds to explain why Skywalker and the girl are not lying bound at my feet.’

‘Lord Vader,’ he starts what I expect to be a lame apology and attempt to divert my wrath. ‘They escaped with the help of some powerful friends... one a Jedi Master, I’m told. My men have tracked them to a remote area of Mimban...’

I cut Grammel off before he can say any more.

‘Your men are now under my direct command,’ I decide. ‘I trust that will increase their efficiency levels significantly. We leave immediately, and once we are underway, I want your full report.’

***

Maia, Ani calls, waking me up.

Yes, I promptly answer.

The fool in charge here let the rebels escape into the jungle. I will have to go after them. It may be a day or two before I am back, he informs me.

Rats. I just knew this wasn’t going to be as easy or straightforward as he expected.

Be careful, love, I tell him, and stay in touch.

I send him a burst of support and love across our bond, receive the same in return, and then his focus is again on the problem in front of him and what he has to do.

I toss aside the covers to begin my day, but the feelings of impending doom never go away. If anything, they get stronger as the day progresses.


DAY 31

***

Seven days, I note, my temper rising. I have been pursuing Luke through the jungle on this Force-forsaken, mudhole of a world for seven days. If the company imposed on me was anyone else, I would perhaps be in a better mood, but after more than a week of tolerating Grammel, I will welcome any opportunity to be rid of him.

‘Still no signs of them, my Lord,’ he reports. ‘Perhaps one of the planet’s many predators...’

‘They are still alive, Grammel,’ I snap at him, ‘and are now travelling underground as I told you yesterday.’

Reaching out with the Force, I confirm this fact yet again. Luke is beneath our feet, heading in the same direction he has been since we came across the wrecked swamp crawler they had stolen.

‘Stop the troop carrier,’ I order as I leap from my vantage point to the ground.

Ignoring the surprised reactions above and behind me, I take a few steps towards what is a recently abandoned campsite. Enhancing my senses with the Force, I scan the area.

‘Two droids,’ I note, indicating the tracks to one side of the stone-ringed ashes with a wave of my hand. ‘Two Yuzzem,’ I add as I pick both dark and light hairs from the thorn covered bushes they had pushed their way through. ‘One human,’ I finish, pointing a finger at the spot where the old woman, who aided in their escape, must have slept.

I poke one of the fire blackened rocks with my boot. The charcoal produced by their fire is still solid and dry, and has not been dampened by the early morning rain as yet.

‘They slept here last night and cannot be far away because they are travelling on foot,’ I reveal. ‘No doubt they are searching for a way to reach Skywalker, so be on the lookout for a cave or Thrella well like the one we found yesterday.’

Grammel, wisely, doesn’t argue with my conclusions after I return to the troop carrier.

‘Continue on our previous course,’ I order.

A few hours later, I feel Luke tap into the Force. He’s quite close, but still underground. I reach out to him, trying to determine if there is a way to draw him to me, but my son abruptly pulls his presence away, frightened by my attempt to contact him. There is no reaction from the supposed ‘Jedi Master.’ Days ago, I had determined that her abilities had been vastly exaggerated by the Captain-Supervisor to cover for his troopers lack of training and his own incompetence.

Frustrated, I stare out at the jungle. Until I find Luke and his friends, or a way to into the tunnels they are travelling in, there is nothing I can do but continue tracking their progress. Hopefully tomorrow will prove more fruitful than today has been.

***


DAY 32

***

A sudden motion catches my eye. Two of the Coway, the more isolated and aggressive natives of Mimban, have been spying on us. Before they can flee and reveal our presence, I signal one of the stormtroopers to dispose of them. The blaster fire prompts no response from anyone else who might be hidden, and I sense no others in the immediate vicinity. We should have the advantage of surprise.

‘Search the area,’ I tell the ‘troopers after the carrier has stopped. ‘They were gathering food, so there must be a tunnel down to their settlement nearby.’

Within minutes, what I need to get to Luke has been found. I stare at the half-concealed entrance. Its camouflage of leaves, vines, and bushes is very effective. If I had not suspected it was there, it might have been overlooked. The locals will be armed with primitive weapons, but I can only assume that the humans have blasters of some sort. Luke will have his lightsaber, my old lightsaber, and the others what few arms they were able to salvage from the swamp crawler. A rather limited arsenal, at worst. This should be a simple enough capture.

‘Send in a few advance scouts,’ I order. ‘I need to know what the terrain is like.’

An hour later, I have my answer.

‘It’s too narrow and rubble filled to use even the smallest personnel carrier, my Lord,’ the Commander reports, ‘and there are plenty of places for the Coway to lay an ambush.’

‘We will have to go in on foot,’ I agree, annoyed that we will be far more exposed than I would like.

‘Surely a few primitives won’t be a problem?’ Grammel volunteers. ‘My men will have no trouble wiping them out.’

‘Nevertheless,’ I decide, ‘I will accompany you and your men.’

‘I had thought to...’

‘Supervise the battle from here?’ I cut in. ‘No, Grammel, you will come with me.’

He blanches at that but does not argue further. Coward, I think, disgusted. No wonder his men see him as an arrogant fool. Grammel never risks himself if he can send someone else to do the dirty work instead. A few of the ‘troopers have overheard our exchange, but they quickly glance away when they see I am watching them. Once I have no more need of him, Grammel will be removed and someone more capable sent here.

‘Go see that your men are prepared, Commander,’ I dismiss the man who is still standing at attention. ‘We will leave as soon as they are ready.’

Turning away to stare into the depths of the jungle, I reach out and lightly brush against my wife’s presence. She’s sleeping so it must be late afternoon naptime. Rather than wake her, I simply let the quiet, undisturbed state of her mind relax me.

All too soon my brief meditation is disturbed by another.

Luke.

Even though he is still somewhere beneath my feet, he is much closer to me than he has been in the past few days. Hopefully he will be in custody shortly.

Luke, I am coming for you, I send out to him.

He abruptly yanks himself away and tries to hide from me. That won’t work, my son, I note with a smile. I can find you wherever you run to. Despite knowing how near I am, Luke won’t be able to prepare much in the way of defenses before I can get to him. There simply isn’t enough time for him to do so.

The Commander approaches and waits for me to acknowledge him. His men are ready and so am I. It’s time to head underground.

Twenty minutes later, the forward scouts have their first encounter with the local Coway. Blaster fire echoes through the tunnel we are forced to walk through in single-file.

‘Two kills,’ I hear the report come in over Grammel’s comm. ‘Lookouts. Most likely the shots have alerted the rest of them. Look sharp, men.’

I curl my fist in annoyance, but say nothing. The ‘troopers are exposed and vulnerable. This is where an attack will come. We need to move ahead, into the larger cavern the scouts had found, and out of this tunnel which is a death trap.

Luke, I sense is ahead, waiting for me to arrive. His nervous anticipation and fear is obvious to me through the Force. Soon, my son, soon.

Silence falls again. The only sounds are that of boot-clad feet on barren rock and the occasional crunch of a broken stalactite or stalagmite underfoot. I am sure my wife would enjoy looking at the geology, but at the moment, it is more of a hazard than anything else.

The Force stills. Something is about to happen. Then I feel the deaths. Four ‘troopers, no doubt our advance scouts have been ambushed, and quietly enough that no alarm has been raised amoung those following them.

‘Grammel, tell the men....,’ I begin to order a warning to be sent out, but my words are cut off by a shout from ahead and above us.

That one voice is joined by others, and magnified a thousandfold in echoes as the yells of the Coway reflect off the cavern walls. The startled and shocked ‘troopers react in turn, adding their own screams of surprise to the cries of the locals. Commlinks will prove useless in this auditory chaos, and effective communication is now impossible, which is what they must have intended.

As I watch, unable to physically force myself through the tightly bunched men to the front of the battle, the Coway drop rocks from the ceiling onto the soldiers who are pinned in place. Others drag them into pits, and from a perch somewhere blaster bolts rain down. I am sure that the snipers are Luke and his friends.

The natives begin to engage in hand to hand combat, mingling friend and foe in an unorganized melee. Luke, I see, has abandoned his hiding spot and ran down to aid his allies, lightsaber ignited and in hand. The Princess has followed him, and is somehow avoiding the randomly fired bolts from the troops who are still alive and attempting to defend themselves.

I should have brought Thirsk and the 501st with me, I think, disgusted. Grammel’s men have grown soft and careless. Properly trained and seasoned personnel would never have reacted in this unprofessional manner, nor would they have been so easily surprised.

I move forward, intending to salvage what I can of this mess. Luke sees me and pauses before heading into the area with the heaviest fighting. He intends to come after me, given that he is on a path straight for me. Organa is going in the opposite direction, away from the fray, so perhaps she has had her fill of combat for today.

‘Vader!’ Luke shouts a challenge at me. ‘Darth Vader!’

Surprised that he wants a confrontation right here and now, I ignite my lightsaber and try to cut my way through the fighting to him. Sooner or later someone might get lucky and hit him with a blaster bolt. It’s time to for me to take him into custody and put an end to this.

I see Grammel rally ten or so of his men around himself, directing them to higher ground. Protecting himself, I note, furious, instead of organizing a strategic retreat, but the Captain-Supervisor’s safe haven is short lived. A Yuzzem and several Coway, who had remained concealed above, drop onto the Captain-Supervisor and those who are protecting him. Their enjoyment as they pick up and smash the helpless troopers to the ground is rather obvious.

I pause, survey the carnage, and shake my fist at Luke. This mess is partially his doing. The locals, according to Grammel, are not sophisticated enough to plan traps or stage a resistance of this sort.

‘Grammel!’ I shout at the shaken officer, who has somehow escaped and made his way to my side. ‘Re-form all survivors at the surface!’

‘Yes, my Lord,’ he promptly replies.

The retreat signal goes out, and those who can break away from the Coway and rush for the safety of the surface.

‘All troops pull back to the surface!’ Grammel repeats over the comm.

‘Our time will come, young Skywalker,’ I warn Luke.

He merely stares at me in return and backs away. I watch the remaining troops flee up the tunnel, then turn and walk in that direction myself. There is no point in staying here any longer. Once I know how many men remain, I will plan my next move.

Nets drop from the ceiling, and a large boulder falls, crushing six men beneath it. I turn to motion those who were behind them ahead, only to feel a searing blast of pain from an energy bolt. Dropping to the ground, I beat at the smoke which is rising from my cloak with my hands. Beneath my surcoat, my leather bodysuit is singed, and the edge of my chest box melted. A grazing shot, no more. It will sting for a while, and leave a red mark on my flesh, but I can ignore that.

I rise slowly to my feet and fix a stare at the location that bolt was fired from. The Princess is there, concealed, and I can sense her frustration that her shot was not lethal. Without showing any pain, I resume my upward progress with a bit more energy. Grammel joins me and points at my side.

‘Lord Vader, your cloak,’ he says, indicating the hole left by Organa’s shot.

‘It’s nothing,’ I brush him off. ‘Follow me, Captain-Supervisor.’

Another blaster bolt explodes against the ceiling. I ignore it. We are out of her range and sight now, so the Princess is no longer a threat.

As I make my way to the surface, my anger spikes. This should have been a simple retrieval mission, and Grammel was incapable of keeping Skywalker and Organa in custody. It should have been easy to defeat the Coway, and again, the Captain-Supervisor failed - failed due to his incompetence, laziness, and unwillingness to run the mining colony as he should. His troops were poorly trained and inexperienced.

I ignore Grammel as he sees that his men regroup. Of the seventy we set out with, only twenty have survived. A massacre of good men. Leaving Grammel in charge was a mistake, and one I intend to correct.

‘We will head to the Temple of Pomojema, Commander,’ I decide, ‘and leave most of your men here to guard the entrance. When Skywalker tries to escape, stun him and Organa and hold them in custody, but kill the rest.’

The swamp crawler is well armed. This should be a simple enough assignment for the men who will be left behind. My errand won’t take long, and I need that gemstone. I can’t risk it falling into Luke’s hands.

‘You,’ I point at Grammel as I decide his fate, ‘will accompany me and explain to me exactly what went wrong.’

He follows me into the large troop carrier and sits down, but says nothing until we have been underway for a few minutes.

‘I’m sorry, my Lord, most sorry I am,’ he begins an apology. ‘Who was to guess they were so well armed, or that the underground abos would put up such a battle?’

Fool, I fume. You should have been aware of what their capabilities are. As the local authority, that is part of your job, as is making sure your men are well-disciplined and ready for any fight.

‘The weapons were of small consequences,’ I growl, dismissing his excuse. ‘A few guns, all in the hands of wanted criminals.’ Stepping closer, I bend over slightly, see him cringe in response, and add, ‘Admit it, Captain-Supervisor. Your troops were inadequately prepared, and poorly trained. Discipline and morale were absent and you were routed by a mob of ignorant savages!’

‘They took us completely by surprise, my Lord,’ he argues back. ‘No native group has ever resisted the Imperial presence on Mimban before.’

‘No native group previously had the benefit of human advice and aid,’ I snap at him. ‘They did not employ wholly aboriginal tactics. You should have recognized the differences early and taken appropriate countermeasures.’

I look away from him, into the mists which are rising from the bog we are passing by. No matter what he says, his fate is sealed.

‘I know which parties were responsible for that,’ I admit. ‘When I hold in my hand the balance of the crystal, I will mete out justice accordingly.’

‘I’d hoped for that privilege myself,’ he mutters in a low voice, obviously thinking I won’t hear him.

I stare back down at him, and let him know where he stands, ‘You have no privileges, Captain-Supervisor Grammel. You have blundered badly. Not critically, I hope, but badly. I curse myself for assuming you knew what you were doing.’

‘I told you, my Lord,’ he protests again, ‘their surprise was complete.’

My patience with him is at an end, I decide.

‘I am not interested in excuses for debacles, only successful results,’ I pointedly declare. ‘Grammel, your existence befouls me.’

‘My Lord,’ he begins babbling, realizing what my intentions are. ‘If I...’

Before he can say another word, my lightsaber is lit and moving. I strike downwards with it, bisecting him from the top of his head through his torso, shoving his body aside when I am finished. It tumbles backwards, over the side of the troop carrier and falls to the plant covered ground below us. The driver freezes in place and halts the vehicle, clearly terrified of what I might do next.

‘We will travel faster without such dead weight to slow us, trooper,’ I tell him. ‘Return to your controls - now!’

‘Y-yes, my lord,’ he stammers as his attention is again on his driving.

The transport begins to move forward once more. As I watch Grammel’s body recede in the distance, one of the jungle’s predators emerges from cover to investigate.

‘Whoever is you lord now,’ I murmur quietly to myself, ‘it is not I.’

As darkness begins to fall, I take the crystal fragment, which Grammel had confiscated from Luke, out of a pocket. It glows a soft crimson in the twilight in response to my Force presence. The motion from the transport causes it to sway back and forth in my fingers. Somewhere ahead lies the rest of it. I can clearly sense that now. It will draw me in like an insect to the flame, and I will find it.

I replace the shard and let my mind wander, musing about other things than tomorrow. Once I have its parent gemstone, I will give this fragment to my wife. It will be a most fitting gift for her.

***

It’s after dinner, when I am busy playing with Mikal, that it hits me. A searing pain along my ribs, on my left side, leaves me gasping for a moment. Sucking in my breath, I quickly pull up the loose tunic I am wearing and take a look. There is a bright red streak along my side. Ani’s taken a near miss by a blaster bolt. Not a serious injury, but it will sting for an hour or so. And he will shrug it off and ignore it as usual.

‘Mama!’ Mikal calls, sensing my pain.

‘It’s alright, Mikal,’ I tell him, ‘Mama’s just going to be a bit sore for an hour or two.’

I pull him into my lap and quietly soothe him, but wait until he is in bed, asleep, before calling to my husband.

Anakin, I scold, what have you been up to?

Being shot at, of course, he wryly admits. The troops were ill prepared, poorly trained, and their commanding officer was completely incompetent. I have permanently removed him.

And? I prod him.

I am busy tracking down a rather peculiar gemstone. The rebels are after it as well. It should be simple enough to catch them once they reach the temple it is hidden in, and I have a headstart on them, he calmly reveals. I plan on setting a trap and ambushing them.

Ani, I growl, you had better be more careful.

I will be, he reassures me. So stop your fussing.

Promise? I prod.

Of course, little goddess, he promptly replies. Now, it is late for you and you should go to sleep.

Now who is the fussbudget, I tease.

Go to sleep, wife, he orders. My three girls need their rest.

Three girls? I start to laugh once I figure out what he meant by that. That was funny.

As I reach for his pillow to snuggle up to, I bid him, Goodnight, Anakin. I love you, my husband.


DAY 35

***

I sense our proximity to the temple and the stone within it long before the two black basalt spires which rise above the pyramidal structure become visible.

‘Don’t approach from the front,’ I caution the transport’s driver. ‘Go to the back. Skywalker and Organa will not realize we are here if they see no signs of our presence.’

‘Yes, my Lord,’ he replies as he complies with my commands.

Shortly after we left the site of the battle with the Coway, three days ago, a garbled message reached us over the comm. From what I heard and have sensed, Luke and his friends managed to escape. I should have expected that. However, all is not lost. I will set a trap for them here, instead.

‘Stay with the transport,’ I order the troops who have come with me. ‘I will see to them myself.’

The temple is old, overgrown with jungle plants and clearly long abandoned by its builders. I cautiously enter from the side, my senses alert to any danger. There is something alive in here - something large, decidedly unfriendly, and best avoided. Stepping around a pile of rubble, I make my way towards where I can sense the Kaiburr crystal.

In the center of the structure, I discover a large, column filled hall. Two piles of debris lie below holes in the roof where the ceiling has collapsed. On a diagonal from my position is a large enthroned statue of a god. Two large wings sweep up and to its sides, clawed hands and feet grasp the armrests and footstool, and the face has no mouth, only tentacles.

‘The great god Pomojema,’ I whisper to myself.

In his chest, undisturbed despite the ruin around him, is the stone I seek. I resist the urge to retrieve it immediately. That can wait. For now, the gem will draw Luke inside the temple.

A low hiss sounds to my left, so I slowly turn and tip my mask up to examine a large lizard-like creature which is scrutinizing me in turn. I stretch out my hand and soothe it with the Force, gradually convincing it I am harmless. Anyone else who enters will be seen as an enemy and attacked. It settles in response to my simple mental commands and rests its head on its front feet, half-closing its eyes while it waits.

‘Perhaps you will be of some use to me, my scaly friend,’ I tell it.

The crystal will prompt my son to investigate, but once inside, he will need a distraction. Hopefully the lizard will dispose of a few of his friends and tire Luke in the process. The less he is able to resist me, the easier this will be.

For a moment, I stare at the ruby gem in front of me. It is very tempting to take it now and see what I can do with it, but that will alert Luke to my presence here. Capturing him is more important. Experimenting can wait.

I turn my back on the statue and walk towards the front entrance of the temple, avoiding rubble which has fallen from the walls and ceiling. Looking out into the jungle reveals that I will have little time to conceal myself. The troop carrier I had left behind is making its way towards the temple at a rapid pace. An alcove I passed will do, so I retreat into it, shroud myself in shadows, and use the Force to hide myself from easy detection and still the sound of my breathing.

Silence falls over the temple.

***

I restlessly pace back and forth through our quarters. Something is going to happen to Ani today, I just know it. As the day progresses, the feelings of dread get stronger until I can stand it no longer.

With a touch I activate the comm.

‘Thirsk here,’ my Commando friend promptly replies.

‘I need to speak with you in private immediately,’ I tell him.

Five minutes later he is standing in Ani’s office, waiting for me to start talking.

‘Something’s wrong, Commander. I don’t know what, but I need to get to Mimban,’ I decide.

‘My Lady,..’ he starts to protest.

‘I don’t want to hear it,’ I growl. ‘His Lordship has managed to get himself into trouble he can’t get out of. Someone has to go save his hide and I can locate him far faster than anyone else.’

‘He won’t be very happy,...’ Thirsk begins another objection.

I start to sway a bit. Ani just had a close call of some sort.

‘We can’t wait any longer, Commander,’ I insist.

There is an extremely reluctant nod from him. Thirsk is well aware his head is the one on the line, not mine.

‘I will take complete responsibility for this,’ I reassure him.

A few minutes later, I am dressed in my ‘working’ clothes - tunic, leggings, high boots, and cloak with my ‘saber at my waist and a blaster supplied by Thirsk strapped on my right side. Mikal’s guardians are in place, Cyran is playing with him in Ani’s office, and Thirsk, myself, and the Executor’s elite Commando unit from the 501st legion are on our way to the hangar. I glance over at the Commander. Using jungle based training exercises as an excuse to commandeer a shuttle was brilliant.

We run into Reena partway to the hangar bay.

‘My Lady, where do you think you are going?’ she scolds me.

‘For a walk,’ I try to mislead her.

There is a snort and the comment, ‘Likely story, my Lady,’ from her as she runs her eyes down my attire. ‘Wherever you are off to, I am going too. Someone needs to look after you and keep you out of trouble.’

Well this is just perfect. We really don’t need her to worry about. I consider arguing a moment, then rethink the matter. Having a doctor along might be a good idea, especially if Ani is hurt.

‘Hurry up, then,’ I tell her. ‘Grab your medkit and meet us at the shuttle.’

She races off to her office and is seated in the shuttle when the rest of us arrive. That was fast. Reena must be quite determined to come along on our adventure.

***

The sound of a vehicle approaching, slowing, then stopping echoes through the hallway. I wait, patiently, for its occupants to disembark.

‘You droids stay here and keep watch,’ I hear an old woman order.

She must be Halla, the local who helped Luke escape, and Grammel’s so-called ‘Jedi Master.’ From the way the Force swirls around her, she can tap into it a little, but not really control it. She is no threat to me. The Jedi would have sent her to the Agri-Corps rather than waste much time training her.

‘Best of all Vader isn’t here!’ Luke shouts, sounding confident. ‘He’s not here. There’s no sign of a crawler or anything else! I’m certain I’d feel it of he were here.’

I refrain from laughing. My son has much to learn.

‘We still have to find the crystal,’ Halla reminds him.

‘It’s light inside,’ Luke notes. ‘Part of the roof has caved in, but it looks safe enough.’

‘Go ahead, boy,’ Halla urges, ‘but quietly quiet.’

They pass in front of me, moving from light into shadow, then back into light again. Luke and the Princess are in the lead, followed by Halla and the two Yuzzem. I stay where I am, listening to their conversation. There’s no reason to reveal myself until I am ready to and the moment is right.

‘The holes in the roof let in plenty of light,’ Organa observes, ‘but they don’t appear terribly stable.’

‘Hopefully we won’t be here long enough to find out,’ Luke answers her.

Their voices fade as they continue deeper into the building. Soon they will see the statue and the gem.

‘It’s Pomojema, god of the Kaiburr,’ Halla whispers, her words echoing against the walls. ‘It almost seems familiar, but that’s crazy.’ Her voice grows louder and more excited when she sees the stone. ‘It’s there... I knew it! I knew it.’

‘It’s real,’ the Princess states. ‘The crystal is real.’

The lizard should have seen them by now. I push at its mind, triggering its protective, defensive instincts. It should attack Luke and his friends immediately. There is the sound of a single blaster shot, then three more ring out in unison. When those prove ineffective, they retreat, drawing closer to my position.

‘Hin, Kee,’ Luke calls, presumably to the Yuzzem. ‘Go back to the crawler and get the rifles.’

I wait until Hin and Kee have ran by me, then follow after them. It’s time to remove two of Luke’s allies. Once we are out of sight, behind the swamp crawler, I act. With one sweeping move, I take my lightsaber from my belt, ignite it and swing it upwards, decapitating the one while giving the second, beside him, a fatal blow to the skull. The two Yuzzem fall to the ground.

Shutting off my blade, I climb up, into the crawler. Inside are two droids, and ones I recognize, too.

‘Oh, good gracious me,’ C-3PO exclaims when he sees me. ‘We must warn master Luke!’

Artoo sounds a few panicked whistles and backs away.

‘Code shutdown,’ I order them both, using what I had programmed into them twenty years ago against them. ‘Recognition words: Anakin, Padme, Naboo.’

Both promptly freeze in place and fall silent.

Now to see to Luke and the two women.

I return to the alcove, positioning myself so I can observe the battle without being seen myself. Luke has opted to use his lightsaber and the lizard is busily stalking him. The Princess and Halla are continuing to fire their blasters at the creature. Shaking my head, I silently ask myself why they haven’t abandoned their ineffective tactics and sent someone to see what has happened to the Yuzzem.

‘Useless,’ the Princess states, finally accepting the obvious. ‘Hin! Kee!’

‘They’ll get here,’ Halla assures her. ‘They’d better.’

No, they won’t, I think in response.

The lizard lunges forward, snapping at Luke who ducks and cuts the creature’s lower jaw with his lightsaber. His concerned glance towards the entrance tells me that my son is worried about what is keeping his two friends. I sense him make a decision. Turning about, he slices through the base of the pillar behind him. The stones in the ceiling above shift as their support post starts to collapse. That was not the wisest choice, given where Luke is standing, I note, as explosive sounding cracking noises ensue. My son realizes the same thing at about the same time as I do.

‘Halla, Leia ... run!’ he yells at them as he flees from what he has wrought.

The roof continues to shift and cracks widen, spread, as the lizard chases after his prey. In seconds, the pillar collapses, bringing the ceiling above it down as well, crushing my scaly, temporary ally beneath blocks of carved stone. How unfortunate, but I did expect Luke to dispose of the lizard sooner or later.

Luke, Leia, and Halla stand away from the dying lizard, within easy listening distance of where I am.

‘What happened to Hin and Kee?’ Luke asks. ‘That thing hand me cornered. I could have become its next meal.’

‘They are probably arguing,’ the Princess says, disgusted. ‘Pretty soon they will remember what they were sent for and come rushing in, begging your forgiveness.’

‘I’ll bawl them out then,’ Luke sighs. ‘Right now, I’m...’

He breaks off when he sees Halla heading to the idol, presumably to retrieve the stone.

‘Halla!’ he yells after her, but she ignores him.

‘Let her go,’ Organa dismisses the old woman’s abandonment as she starts to follow after her. ‘She’s not running anywhere with it, and she will need our help to get it down anyway.’ When Luke stays in place, Leia asks, ‘Aren’t you coming , too?’

‘In a minute,’ he answers. ‘I want to make certain this thing is dead.’

I feel the Force sound a warning. Luke is about to foolishly put himself into danger, but I can mitigate some of that. He goes over to the lizard and buries his lightsaber in its side, producing no response from the dead creature. Another example of his inexperience and lack of training, I decide. He should have simply reached out with the Force and checked it for signs of life instead of risking his own safety.

A rumble of rock slipping on rock prompts both of us to look up.

‘Luke!’ the two women scream at him.

His reaction is not quick enough. The hole in the ceiling widens as blocks of stone rain down. I tap into the Force, subtly influencing how they fall. I want him pinned in place and immobilized, but not permanently harmed. When the last of the dust settles, Luke is trapped, his leg buried beneath a pile of rubble. Halla ignores his plight and continues to the statue. The Princess is the one who comes to his aid.

‘I’m over here,’ Luke calls to her.

While I watch, Leia tries to lift the block, but she is not strong enough to shift it. In tandem they make several attempts, with no success.

‘It’s not pressing on me with its full weight,’ Luke reassures her. ‘If it was, I wouldn’t have a leg to pull free now.’ His eyes move towards the entrance and his thoughts are obvious. ‘Dammit, where are those two? They could move this easily.’

This is the moment to reveal myself.

‘I am afraid your slow-witted companions will no longer be able to help you or anyone else, Skywalker,’ I tell them, stepping into the light and onto the top of a debris heap. ‘They’re both dead. I killed them. As for your ‘droids, they are conditioned to obey orders. I had them turn themselves off.’

The Princess silently mouths my name.

I slowly pick my way down the rubble, speaking to them all the while.

‘You know, Skywalker,’ I disclose. ‘I had a difficult time finding out that it was you who shot up my TIE above the Death Star. Rebellion spies are expensive and hard to come by. I also found out it was you who fired the torpedo which destroyed the station. You have a great deal to atone to me for, and I have waited a long time for it.’

There’s no reason to reveal our relationship as yet, and that is information I don’t want to make public. It’s best to let him think I am angry and have pursued him because of those actions.

To amuse myself, I draw my lightsaber and playfully swing the activated blade at the decaying carvings on the walls, sending chips of rock flying in the process. Luke frantically pulls at his leg and claws at the stone it is trapped beneath.

‘You were lucky that time in the snubship,’ I continue to verbally taunt him and the Princess. ‘I probably won’t have the patience to let you last as long as you deserve. You should consider yourself lucky.’ Focussing my anger elsewhere, I let my fury colour my tone, ‘I expect no such difficulty in restraining myself where you are concerned, Leia Organa. In several ways, you are more responsible for my setbacks than this simple boy.’

I will make her suffer for what she has done, but not kill her. She will be my guarantee that Luke behaves himself. If he doesn’t, her life will be forfeit.

‘Monster,’ she spits at me, her voice full of venom and fear.

‘Do you remember that day back on the station,’ I ask, intending to unnerve her, ‘when the late Governor Takin and I interviewed you?’

Her hands move to her shoulders and she begins to shiver. Oh, yes, Princess, you remember that, don’t you? Your nightmares of that day, those hours, haunt you in your sleep still, even now.

‘Yes,’ I observe, letting my amusement show. ‘I can see that you do. I am truly sorry that I have nothing as elaborate to treat you to now. However, one can do some interesting things with a lightsaber. I will try to show you them all, if you will co-operate by not passing out.’

I toss my lightsaber from one hand to the other, allowing the blade to move in graceful arcs. To make my point, I will hurt her a little and leave a few scars on her body as reminders. The demonstration of what I am capable of will serve as a warning to both of them.

She stills herself in body and mind, forcing her fear back. Her hands fall to her sides, then she reaches down and picks up Luke’s lightsaber. This should be entertaining.

‘Good,’ I note, ‘you are going to fight. That will make it interesting.’

‘The Force give me leave to kill you before I die,’ the Princess snarls at me.

An untrained senator against a Sith Lord? Her overconfidence amuses me, so I laugh at her.

‘Foolish child,’ I mock her as I shift into a ready stance. ‘The Force is with me, not you, but we shall see. Come, now, amuse me.’

She slowly moves towards me, so I decide to draw her in. I drop my right hand, the one holding my lightsaber, to my side and wait.

‘Leia, don’t!’ Luke tries to warn her. ‘It’s a feint! He’s daring you. Kill me, then yourself. It’s hopeless now.’

I glance over at him, then return my attention to my opponent. If she tries to harm Luke, I will kill her without any hesitation.

‘Go on,’ I goad her, ‘let him fight for you if you want, but I won’t let you kill him. I’ve been robbed too often.’

The Princess hesitates, unsure what to do, then lunges straight at me. I snap my blade into a parry, swatting hers away. That’s a tactic my wife has used before, and it’s one which comes from her experience with an edged and tipped metal blade. Organa’s training might be similar so I now have some idea what I could expect from her.

She spins next, bringing her ‘saber downwards, coming close to my mask before I flinch away in reaction. Another trick like the one Maia once tried on me.

‘Almost, little Princess, almost,’ I calmly acknowledge as I shift my stance. ‘I have been guilty of overconfidence before. I will not be guilty again.’

I swing my lightsaber in an arc, aiming it downwards. She parries and barley manages to backpedal. Organa is no match for my strength, speed, and years of practice. It is only a matter of time before I wear her down. Another step forward and another attack on my part, which is just deflected on hers. Pressing forward, I continue to force her to back away.

Cutting downwards, I change the direction of my blade as she moves to parry. The tip of my lightsaber slices through the fabric of her jumpsuit, leaving a fine black burn on her skin beneath. She flinches in pain and grabs at her midsection, but makes no sound. Giving her no respite. I step forward again. A careful swing and twist leaves a scar upon her cheek, marring her features. Tears begin to fall as she slows, fatigue finally catching up to her.

‘Come, Princess-Senator Organa,’ I mock her, where is your noble fortitude, your traitor’s determination? Surely two little burns cannot hurt so much?’

A surge of anger spurs her into wildly swinging at me. I easily parry her attack and go to cut her again, this time on the arm. She blocks that, but the force of the blow knocks her to the ground. When she tries to crawl away to regain her feet, I draw a long gash down the back of her left leg.

For the first time, she screams. I allow her to roll over and stand up. When she tries to walk, she limps in pain.

‘Come, little Princess,’ I encourage her. ‘Now is the time for spirit. You still have a chance.’

I stalk her, randomly throwing feints at her as she backs away. Her blocks are weak now, her defenses useless, but I want to break her.

‘Stand and fight,’ I urge.

Instead of a false attack, I swing down and across her chest, opening the fabric again. In reaction, she gasps, bends over, and almost falls. After this, there is no point in injuring her further. She is defeated and knows it. All I need to do is unarm her and render her unconscious.

A grinding sound echoes against the walls. I turn to see what has caused it and discover that the Yuzzem I had thought mortally wounded has somehow survived. Silently, I curse myself for not making sure both were dead. It has lifted the stone block and freed Luke, who is on his feet and running towards me.

‘Leia!’ Luke shouts.

She switches off his lightsaber and throws it. I miss snatching it out of the air by a finger-length and catch the exhausted Princess instead. Furious at this turn of events, I start cursing in Huttese and shove her away. She falls hard to the floor and lies there, at my feet. I quickly step away from her, planning to retrieve the ‘saber before Luke does, but he dives to the ground, rolls and grabs it. My swing downwards which I had intended to destroy the weapon, cuts into the floor of the temple instead.

I stare at him, debating what to do. He is now between Organa and I. She is, temporarily, out of my reach and cannot be used as leverage.

‘Leia?’ he calls, then looks backwards. ‘Princess?’

‘Don’t worry about me, Luke,’ she finally replies in a sorrowful, pain filled voice.

‘No, Skywalker,’ I tell him, making my decision. ‘Don’t worry about her. Worry about yourself.’

If I am forced to hurt him in order to capture him, I will do so.

‘I’m not worried about anything, Vader,’ he responds to my warning. ‘I have no more worries and only one concern. I am going to kill you, Darth Vader.’

My laughter escapes before I can stop it.

‘What a high opinion you hold of yourself, Skywalker,’ I retort, amused.

‘I’m... I’m Ben Kenobi,’ he half-whispers to himself.

What?

‘Obi-Wan Kenobi is dead,’ I remind him. ‘I killed him myself. You are simple Luke Skywalker, an ex-farmboy from Tatooine. You are no master of the Force and the equal of Kenobi you will never be.’

‘Ben Kenobi is with me,’ Luke snaps back, ‘and the Force is with me, too.’

‘You do have something of the Force about you,’ I admit. ‘A master of it, you are not. This dooms you. Only a master could so this.’

With my last words, I lunge, catching my son off-guard and forcing him to spin away. At the same time, I levitate a fragment of the shattered ceiling from the floor. I aim that block at Luke’s head, but he lifts a much smaller one, smashes it into mine and deflects my larger stone away. It passes over his shoulder and smashes against the wall behind him. The effort, however, leaves him breathless.

‘Good, boy,’ I praise, pleased he has grasped the basics of that Force skill. ‘Very good, but my stone was the heavier. My powers are the stronger.’

‘Not strong enough,’ he insists as he charges forward.

I parry his attacks, blocking each in turn as I backpedal. He will eventually tire, as all beginners do, but to give myself a break and rest for a moment, I will need to interrupt his pattern. Glancing upwards, I spot a loose roof section. With a tug, it comes free, falling to the floor. Luke jumps backwards before it can strike him. He paces, gasping for air, while I rest as best I can. This duel has gone on longer than I expected it to, and I need to finish it.

‘You are good Skywalker,’ I compliment him. ‘Very good indeed, for a child, but the end will be the same.’

With that, I bring my lightsaber up, and run at him over the pile of rubble I just created. For the next few minutes, I bombard him with a mixture of stone fragments thrown with the Force and ‘saber cuts. Somehow he manages to counter them all.

***

As we leave the Executor, I let myself slip into a light trance. Ani’s involved in a duel with Luke and it isn’t going as the Sith Lord expected. Damn. I should have known it would come to that. Pulling my senses back, I stare out the shuttle’s front view ports. Circarpous V, Mimban, is close, and growing larger. We should be entering orbit around it soon.

I let my senses zero in on Ani again.

‘Northern hemisphere,’ I tell Thirsk who alters course accordingly.

‘About thirty degrees north,’ I add a minute or so later.

***

We are circling in the center of the temple, when I decide to end our duel. If it continues for much longer, and I lose my temper, I might harm him far more than I want to.

‘Kenobi trained you well,’ I admit, ‘and you have some natural ability of your own. You have proven to be a challenge, and I enjoy a challenge.’

‘Too much of a challenge for you!’ he defiantly crows.

‘No,’ I assure him. ‘No. You overestimate yourself, child. I have finished playing with you.’

I step back, out of his reach, and spin my saber until it is a blur. Jumping upwards, I throw it at him, knowing that the energy in it will be difficult to counter. Luke parries, but the Force I had charged my own blade with rips his from his hands, sending both weapons to the floor, near one of the temple’s sacrificial wells. Before my feet return to the pavement, I release the rest of the Force I had gathered. Grasping my right wrist with my left hand, I project that energy outwards, concentrating it in a brilliant white ball.

Luke stares at the energy globe which I have sent at him and throws up his hands, foolishly trying to resist it. Instead of tossing him across the room, it bounces away from him back towards me. Knowing what will happen, I can only raise my own hands as I touch the floor, shift all my Force shielding forward, and hope I can deflect it.

The kinetite contacts my gloves and knocks me backwards. I slam into the stone floor, and feel and hear my helmet impact with a resounding crash. That has probably left a few bruises. My wife is not going to be very pleased with me once this adventure is over. Carefully, slowly, I roll onto my side and shake my head. Luke has recovered faster and is crawling over to his lightsaber. He should not have been able to do that. Only someone well-trained in reflective shielding can stop or deflect an energy globe or Force lightening.

***

I jerk backwards in my seat. Ani was just knocked flying. Reena’s eyes go wide as she unstraps herself and comes to my side. She’s never seen our bond in action when I have been this attuned to my husband.

‘My Lady?’ she asks, touching my face.

I open my eyes.

‘No harm done,’ I assure her. ‘His Lordship, though, is probably a bit banged up from that one.’

Reena resumes her place, but she continues to watch me closely.

***

‘Not possible,’ I mutter to myself as I crawl towards my own weapon. ‘Such power in an untrained child. Not possible!’

I totter unsteadily to my feet, only to be rushed at by Luke, his lightsaber held above his head. Unprepared for his attack, and still slightly shaken by the effects of the energy globe, I cannot mount a defense. His blade impacts mine and slides down it, severing my arm. Luke falls forward and lands on the floor, rolling away from me as fast as he can. When he finally comes to a stop, he lies there, gasping for air, obviously exhausted at last.

I stare at my missing limb, then walk over to it, reach down, step on it with my foot and remove my lightsaber from its grasp with my left hand. If Luke still insists on resisting, I will fight with my offhand. With that intention, I lift my lightsaber up, and step forward. Unfortunately, my foot catches on my severed arm.

I stagger sideways, my balance lost, my right foot finding only air rather than solid floor beneath it.

The sacrificial well.

I had forgotten about it in my haste to deal with Luke.

‘Nooo!’ I cry as I find myself falling.

My feet contact the ledge first, then the rest of my body and my head.

I should have listened to my wife is the last thought I have before everything goes black.

***

‘We’ve gone too far west,’ I tell Thirsk next. ‘Correct your course and tune the short-range scanners to pick up metal. You should be able to find the swamp crawler that way.’

Several loud pings sound as various large metal objects are detected. The Commander adjusts the scanners again as we sweep over the general area.

I grab my upper right arm and hiss in pain. That hurt. Ani must have taken a ‘saber slash.

‘Hurry, Thirsk,’ I urge as he narrows the search area.

The Force is resonating with feelings of imminent disaster.

There is the sensation of disorientation. Falling. Then impact and blackness.

Reena gently shakes me awake.

‘You blacked out, my Lady,’ she tells me.

Ani.

I sit bolt upright and reach for our bond. The Sith Lord is there, alive, but I can barely feel him.

I look up at Thirsk who is standing beside the doctor.

‘He’s badly injured,’ I tell them both. ‘We don’t have much time.’

‘Then it’s a good thing we just landed,’ he admits.

Dropping the landing ramp seems to take forever, and Thirsk insists on being cautious. The squad of troopers is sent out first, but it is obvious that anyone who once might have been here has left the area in a hurry.

I quickly make my way out once the Commander decides it is safe and stare at the massive temple we have landed next to. Built of some sort of volcanic stone, it is iron metallic in color and covered with jungle plants. When I poke at the rock, it crumbles a bit at my touch. Old and rotten. Going inside will be dangerous. I carefully go in through the collapsed entrance and clamber over heaps of debris. Some of the damage is centuries old, but most of what I see is new.

The odd ‘saber cut is visible on the walls. Ani was here from the look of things. A quick survey of the interior, and I spot a large, nasty looking and thankfully dead lizard buried under fresh rubble, a huge statue of some alien god in the center, and a circular hole in the floor near the base of the statue. What I see next to the pit makes my blood turn cold.

Ani’s severed cybernetic right arm.

Throwing caution aside, I race to the hole, stop a few meters back from it and stare. He must be down there. I carefully ease myself to my hands and knees, and crawl to the edge of the well. Thirsk and Reena quickly join me in peering down into it.

‘He’s down there,’ I whisper, to hear my words echoing back up at us.

One of the commandos who has followed us ignites and tosses a few flares down the hole. They bounce off the walls until one lands on a small ledge ten meters down, at Ani’s feet. He’s sprawled on his back, completely filling the rock projection, with one leg hanging over the edge.

Thirsk rolls away from the lip of the well and starts cursing.

‘How are we supposed to get him out of there?’ he asks. ‘If he’s as badly injured as he looks, we will need a hoist and hover stretcher to lift him out and keep him immobile. We need to contact Piett right now and get a full evac team down here.’

‘No time,’ I decide. ‘This place is unstable. If we wait, the roof might collapse completely or he could wake up enough to move without knowing where he is and fall even further.’

‘I suppose you have a plan for getting him out of there, my Lady?’ he wonders.

I shift back from the edge to sit and consider the situation. There is only one solution for this problem.

‘Someone needs to go get the stretcher from the shuttle,’ I order.

Two ‘troopers quickly disappear on that task. The rest of the squad, Reena, and Thirsk simply stare at me. I ignore them and slide into a trance. Concentrate, I tell myself. You can’t afford to screw this up. The Force swirls around me, so I tug on it, pull it under Ani, cushioning and keeping him in place. He won’t fall any further now, not while I am holding him secure.

Next step. I slowly, gently levitate him upwards. Careful, Maia, I warn myself as the Sith Lord emerges from the hole to the surprised gasps of my audience, don’t let them distract you. With a gesture I push him sideways, away from danger, and lower him onto the stretcher which has just arrived. Reena is instantly at his side. I let my hand fall and take a few deep breaths while I watch the doctor start to work.

‘Heavy concussion, a few broken ribs, various deep bruises, and he will need a replacement for the arm he lost,’ she states, looking at her med-scanner. ‘His life support systems are fortunately intact, so he is in better shape than I first thought. Moving him shouldn’t be a problem.’

Thirsk scrambles to his feet and helps me up. The Commander retrieves Ani’s severed arm, sets it by his feet and starts to head out of the temple with Reena and the stretcher. Something is still missing, though. His lightsaber. I run my eyes around the temple but see no signs of it. It must be down in the hole still. I inch my way back to the edge, look down and spot the ‘saber resting on the ledge below. With a beckoning motion, I call it to me then make my way quickly out to the waiting shuttle and my impromptu rescue team.

I settle myself next to the Sith Lord and hold his hand. Reena has hooked up a series of monitors to him and is busy speaking with Trever on the Executor, setting up the medical suite they will need to look after Ani. I ignore them and concentrate on my husband.

My poor love, you really took a beating this time, and an even worse one than the one you had as a result of your encounter with Luke on Aridus. I shut my eyes and hold in the tears. Why won’t he just stay on the ship with me where it is safe? Or if he must go, at least take reliable back-up with him? There was no real reason to go after Luke and Leia by himself. Thirsk could have gone with him or any one of half a dozen competent officers. Some of the Noghri would have happily volunteered to go. Even the annoying Jixton would have been of some use. But no. He had to go alone.

Stubborn, stubborn, Sith Lord, I think to myself. Next time I might not be able to save your sorry butt for you.

There is a light squeeze to my hand.

Ani? I wonder.

I feel terrible, the Sith Lord groggily admits.

I refrain from giving him the sound scolding he deserves.

Stay quiet and relax, I suggest. You’ve been hurt and have a wicked concussion.

The Sith Lord behaves himself until the shuttle reaches the Executor, then he tries to move from the stretcher regardless of my warning, so I shove him back down and hold him in place.

‘If you won’t stay put,’ I threaten, ‘I will stun you.’

‘Maia,’ he growls.

Reena moves to stand beside me.

‘And if she doesn’t,’ the doctor warns, ‘I will.’

An angry hiss sounds in answer to that threat.

‘Very well, your Lordship,’ Reena gives in, ‘go ahead and try to stand up.’

Ani manages to get to his feet, then sways drunkenly for a few seconds before collapsing again. Reena and I catch and guide him back onto the stretcher.

‘Never argue with the attending medic,’ she scolds him, waving her finger in front of his mask.

‘Don’t bother,’ I tell her as Ani goes limp. ‘He’s out again.’

A few hours later, Ani is settled in his medical suite in sickbay. Trever had enough sense to sedate him and remove his armor from the room, so the Sith Lord is not going anywhere at the moment. I have brought Mikal down with me and our son is happily playing with his model TIE while I sit beside his father and wait for some sign he is awake and aware.

He looks like hell, I decide as I watch Ani’s chest rise with each regulated breath. The cracked and broken ribs have terrible bruises over them, and the fall covered his back with more of the same. Only the areas protected by his solid armor remained unscathed.

I brush my fingers lightly through his hair then down his cheek, avoiding the respirator covering much of his face and the purple marks where his temple hit the inside of his helmet. In response to my touch, his eyes slowly open, survey his surroundings and shut again for a moment before reopening and looking over at me.

How bad is it? he asks me.

Mostly bruises, a few busted ribs, and a banged up head, I answer.

And a new arm, he adds.

That too, I admit, glancing over at the stump on his right side. It looks worse than it is, I guess.

I should have listened to you, he finally admits. Your mangled memories knew this would happen.

Hindsight, I tell him with a sigh.

He raises his left hand, so I catch it between my own and hold it close.

Thank you for coming after me, Ani says. You have shown far more good sense this last week than I have.

He’s drifting off, fighting to stay awake, so I lean over and kiss his forehead.

Go to sleep, love, I suggest. I’ll be back in the morning to keep you company.

I rest his hand on his chest once he is soundly asleep, collect Mikal from the corner and go to get some rest myself.



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