The mission had been well planned. It wasn't any mistake on the part of the Alliance command staff or the ground exploration team that led to its failure. It was the sudden, unexpected appearance of aliens that descended on the team and their enemy, and killed all but two.
Luke Skywalker gave credit where it was due: the Force saved him. If it hadn't heightened his senses so he could detect the strange presence, if it hadn't given him incredible physical skills that enabled him to leap high in the air, he would be dead, too. As it was, he was... treed.
He felt incredibly foolish. He knew he should feel bad for his comrades, but they were dead and beyond his sympathy. So he simply felt sorry for himself, an inexperienced eighteen-year-old clinging to the scratchy upper branches of a very tall tree, and wondered how he would get down. There was no sturdy trunk to hold his weight so he could climb; he had a death-grip on three lean branches, and he wasn't certain how long they would hold him. If Ben Kenobi hadn't been killed a few weeks earlier, he could have asked if the Force--since it had gotten him in this predicament--would condescend to float him down to the ground. He could try, of course, but he didn't want to end up with a body made of broken bones and then discover that those...things...ate people.
The Creatures had dragged away his companions as well as the stormtroopers who had discovered the Rebels' quest for a new base and followed them down to this cursed planet. Luke knew that soon another team would be sent to find them, and more stormtroopers would come looking for their fellows. The Creatures would kill them all.
Somehow he had to get out of this tree and off the planet to send a warning before anyone else walked blindly into danger. He leaned forward, forcing the branches to bend, and craned his neck to peer through the leaves. There was a movement off to his left; he shifted to see and lost his grip, sliding down a few feet before his leg caught in a fork and he was again, for the moment, safe.
"Are you planning on vacating your perch, young one?"
The booming voice startled him, and he let go. Moments later, he found himself hanging upside down on a branch that was slowly cracking under his weight.
"Release your hold. Come down from there."
The voice sounded like it was used to being obeyed, but Luke would be damned if he'd deliberately fall through this mass of tangled twigs and sharp, scratchy--
The branch snapped.
"Yow!" With a stifled shriek, he fell. Just before he would have struck the ground, something he could only describe as "fat air" cushioned him and deposited him gently on a mound of dirt.
Gingerly, he poked his legs and ribs. Nothing broken. Before he could rise, darkness filled his vision and a black glove grasped his hand. He was hauled to his feet. Confused, he looked up. And up.
A giant of a man pondered him. Luke could see nothing but black--a highly polished helmet that was marred by scratches and a light dusting of the native grey soil; a mask with a breathing apparatus that testified this man could not tolerate oxygen; a chestplate with lights and monitors; a uniform and a long cloak--
"You're not a stormtrooper!" Luke exclaimed, then stammered, annoyed by his foolishness, "I mean-- I can see you're not-- But you were with them, weren't you? Or do you live here--well, of course not, or you could breathe the atmosphere. You're not with the Creatures, are you? Are you their--"
One black hand raised and halted his questions. "Answers can wait, young one. I suggest we seek shelter before the Creatures return."
"Do you know where they went?" he asked curiously.
"Presumably they have taken away their prey for later consumption," the other said tightly. "Follow me."
He followed, hastening his pace to a trot to keep up with his companion. "Where are we going?"
"Up," was the unhelpful reply.
Obstinately, Luke lagged behind, clambering up the hill, leaping lightly over the small rocky outcroppings that began to appear as they ascended, and pausing to study the rocks and soil. Finally he ran to catch up with the man, and the black cloak whipped him in the face. He batted it irritably. "Hey!"
His protest was ignored, and he didn't repeat it. Couldn't repeat it as his breath began to catch. He'd thought he was in good shape, but he could barely keep up with the giant, whose measured breaths never faltered. Luke was grudgingly impressed and wondered again if the man was an Imperial. He'd never seen anyone dressed all in black, except for some of the beings in that memorable cantina in Mos Eisley--and that man who'd killed Ben.
He'd barely noticed the man because his horrified gaze had been locked on his new mentor, but there'd been a lightsaber and--
"Hey!" he called again. He grabbed the cloak and yanked at it. The man stopped. Luke wrapped the fabric around his fist and pulled. And stared.
With a gasp that was part snarl, Luke drew his own saber and ignited it. The man simply stared at him.
"You propose a duel now, when our lives are in danger from a mutual enemy?"
"It was you!" Luke blurted. "You were on the Death Star--you killed Ben Kenobi!"
There was a pause, then the man's voice rumbled, "Which has nothing to do with you, child. Put down your weapon."
"He was my friend!"
"He was my enemy."
Luke hesitated. There was no animosity in those words; evidently the man didn't consider Luke to be his enemy, too. And he could scarcely cut down a man who wouldn't fight him, could he? That wasn't the Jedi way. Making his decision, he turned off the saber--truth be told, he wasn't certain he could have handled it anyway--and rehooked it on his belt.
"Thank you," the man said dryly. He turned and began climbing again.
Luke looked after him for a moment. He twisted his head and stared down the hill. Most of the view was obscured by trees that grew twisted and gnarled. There was nowhere else to go. It occurred to him that he might never be found. If another Rebel team came down to the surface, they would find the remains of the first team and assume he was dead. He glanced back at his fellow survivor and saw, with some alarm, that the man was very far in front of him.
"Wait for me!" he called and began running, stumbling in the loose gravel. When he reached with the man, they were at the top of the hill--which also happened to be the base of a sheer cliff.
The man in black was staring upward. Luke joined him, squinting at the solid rock face towering above. "We're not going to climb that...are we?" he asked doubtfully.
"Good." His gaze wandered and locked on a dark feature on the landscape. "Look, a cave!"
"I know. We will shelter there."
"Oh. You already knew." This was the way Uncle Owen had made him feel: useless and not too bright.
"I arrived before you and thus had the opportunity to see it first."
He glanced curiously at the man. It almost sounded as if this stranger was reassuring him. "What about the Creatures? If we stop, won't they find us?"
"I have noted that they appear to dislike climbing. Perhaps they will be reluctant to follow us. If they do, from here we can see them coming and hold them off."
The black mask turned toward him. "Your blaster."
Luke's hand brushed it protectively. "You don't carry one," he observed unnecessarily.
The man ignored his statement. "And, when they close in, two lightsabers."
Luke shrugged. "I don't actually... know how to use it."
The man didn't reply. "Come," he said and led the way to the cave.
It was obvious from the pristine state of the cave floor that no animal made a home here. With the Creatures on this planet, perhaps no other animal life was left. With a sigh, Luke dropped onto the ground and crossed his legs, resting his elbows on them.
"What are we going to do for food and water?"
The man prowled the cave. He had to bend slightly because the ceiling didn't accommodate his great height. "Do you not carry rations?"
"A little." Luke shrugged. "Do you have any?"
"Well," he reflected, "I suppose we should wait until we're very hungry. It won't last long between the two of us."
"You would share your rations with me?" The man sounded surprised.
After a hesitation, the man sat beside him. "I am allied with the Imperium."
"I figured that out," Luke snapped. "But you still have to eat, don't you?"
The man chuckled. "Indeed, that has often been a matter of speculation."
Before Luke could ask what he meant, the other drew a small black pouch from his belt. "Berries," he said.
"I picked them while we climbed. Eat. They will not harm you."
He trusted the stranger. If the man wanted to hurt him, he would have already done it. "I didn't see any berries." Cautiously, he bit into a plump, round fruit. It was juicy and flavorful, but a little tart.
"Your powers of observation are not well honed."
Nothing about me is well honed, he thought glumly. "I don't know much. I grew up in a desert. There was nothing to look at."
"There is always something to look at, boy. What planet are you from?"
"Tatooine," the man echoed thoughtfully. "How extraordinary."
"There's nothing extraordinary about Tatooine," Luke replied bitterly.
"Then you were glad to leave?"
"Yes, but... Imperial troops killed my guardians."
"You were fortunate they did not kill you."
Luke pulled his knees together and rested his chin on them. "I wasn't there when it happened. I came home...after. If I'd been there...." He shrugged. "I guess I'd be dead, too."
The man was quiet, and Luke tilted his face to study the boots that were slowly being stretched out. He asked the question that he'd wondered since he saw the lightsaber: "Are you a Jedi?"
The stretching movement halted. "No," the man said shortly. With economic, graceful moves, he folded his legs and stood. "I will set up an alarm system for the night. Tomorrow we will seek water and a further source of food."
"Someone might come for us," Luke offered, rising.
"We may be here for some time," the man countered.
"We may be here forever," Luke whispered, frightening himself with the observation.
"We will not," the man said with such certainty that Luke was reassured. "We must make the most of the time we have."
He watched the man stride from the cave, curiosity rising as he considered the words. Make the most of what? "Wait for me," he called as he hastened from the cave. "Hey! What's your name?"
From the opposite end of the rocky ledge, the giant turned. "Call me...Kin."
"Kin?" Luke repeated. "As in 'relative'?"
The man made an odd sound that might have been a chuckle. "Very good. Yes. Kin."
He grinned. "Okay...Kin. I'm Luke."
"How could you know that?" Luke scoffed. He followed the man's example and broke twigs off the scrubby brush to lay across the trail.
Kin pointed to the breastpocket of Luke's uniform.
"Oh," Luke said. He fingered the namepatch. "But it only says 'Skywalker'."
"You're famous," Kin said lightly.
"Really?" He considered it, wondering if the stranger was teasing him. Still, he had destroyed the Death Star, so maybe his name was known among Imperials. "That's not necessarily a good thing."
"Not necessarily," the man agreed companionably.
He rather liked this odd Imperial. "Do you have any kids?" he asked impulsively.
The man squatted, his cloak dragging in the dirt and made a strange movement with his hand as if he were putting a spell on the sticks. "I have a son."
"Oh." Luke imitated the motion, but felt nothing magical. "Do you miss him?"
Kin straightened. "Yes. What are you doing?"
He flushed. "I was doing... whatever you were doing. Is that a Force thing?"
"I was brushing away an insect."
Luke rolled his eyes, disgusted with himself. "Oh.... My father abandoned me," he blurted and immediately wondered why he was telling a stranger such a personal thing.
"Did he indeed? Who told you that?"
"My Uncle Owen." Luke snapped off a few more twigs and laid them on the pile. "Aunt Beru said that wasn't quite true."
"Huh? Oh, yeah, that's right. Women are...gentler about what they say. Do we have enough branches now? We should be able to hear them coming."
The man stared across the valley that spread out below their high roost. "The Force will tell me when they come."
"You said you weren't a Jedi. How can you use the Force?"
"Many can use the Force, child. The Jedi were simply a quasi-military organization whose glory days passed centuries ago."
Luke put his hands on his hips. "My father was a Jedi!" he protested indignantly. "And I'm going to be one--just like him!"
"Aren't you a little old for blind hero worship?" Kin asked slowly. He turned. "Come, we will scavenge, then light a fire and retire to the protection of the cave for the night. The sun will soon set."
The man was correct. This planet had very short days, Luke reflected, and wondered how long the night might be. He shivered, feeling a hint of coolness slip into the air, an indication of freezing temperatures to come.
Two hours later, his intuition was proven right. If not for the fire, they would have been miserably cold. Luke finished his meager meal of berries and a nutribar, followed it with a swig of precious water, and leaned back against the cave wall, shifting to get comfortable. Kin hadn't eaten--or at least hadn't ingested food. He said his suit supplied him with nutrients--a handy idea that Luke thought he would recommend to the Alliance command. If he ever got back to them.
"Do you really think we'll be rescued?" he whispered to the darkness that lurked in the shadows behind the fire.
He waited, but there were no more words. He longed for words; they would banish his uneasiness. "Can we...talk?"
There was a gleam as the black helmet shifted and flame-light danced off it. "Yes." Kin paused. "Tell me more of this Jedi father who abandoned you."
"I don't really know any more," Luke admitted wistfully. "Uncle Owen told me he was a navigator. Ben Kenobi told me he was a Jedi and gave me this lightsaber. He said it belonged to my father. It's the only thing I have of his, so...I guess it must be true. That he was a Jedi, I mean."
"People have deceived you." Kin must have seen his nod in the dimness. "Are you so certain that he is dead?"
"If he were alive, he would have come for me," Luke said simply.
The silence lengthened. Luke drew circles in the dirt with his boot heel, then erased them. "Can I sit by you?" he asked finally, feeling childish but needing companionship.
He crawled around the fire and settled himself cross-legged next to the man. "You don't say much, do you?"
"You, child, say enough for both of us."
Luke grinned. "I've been told that before."
"Chastisement evidently did not curb your tongue."
He ducked his head. "Yeah. I...like the way your voice sounds. Is it because of the helmet or does it always sound that way?"
"I have a vocoder."
Was he supposed to know what that was? "Oh."
There was a pause. "It amplifies my voice," Kin explained further. "Adds resonance."
"I wish I had a deep voice." He waited a few minutes and added: "And was taller."
Kin would make a good imaginary father. Luke wondered if his own father had been a runt like him or a near-giant like Kin.
"So you don't know what he looked like?"
His eyes widened. "Can you read my mind?"
Kin shrugged. "You broadcast your thoughts strongly."
"Do I?" he wondered. "Is that the Force? Do you think I'll be able to read minds when I'm a Jedi?"
Another deep chuckle came from the man. "Are you planning on training to become a Jedi or do you think it will happen overnight?"
"I hope it will happen overnight," Luke replied flippantly, covering his misgivings, "because I have no idea how to be one. And there's no one left to teach me. Ben said the Emperor and a Jedi named Vader killed all the other Jedi. Including my father."
"How...unfortunate." The words oozed sarcasm, and Luke flinched.
"Well, it certainly was unfortunate for me. I would have liked having a father instead of being stuck in that hell-hole with a cranky old uncle!"
He'd expected Kin to laugh, but he didn't. "I'm certain your father felt the same way. What if...." Kin hesitated.
"What if what?"
One dark glove made a small gesture. "What if you discovered that your father was alive? How would you feel?"
"You mean if he was hiding from the Emperor or if he'd been wounded and gotten amnesia? I've thought about all those things." Luke sighed. "But why wouldn't he have remembered me? Why didn't...wouldn't he want me?"
"Perhaps he is keeping you safe."
"Safe from what? No," Luke said decisively, "I'll bet he has another life, another family-- Or he's dead. That's all. Dead."
"And you want to be like him."
"Not the dead part! But the rest...yes. I'll be a Jedi like my father."
"What if he wasn't a Jedi?"
Luke shifted uncomfortably and peered at the mask. "Of course he was a Jedi! I have his lightsaber."
"Are you certain that is your father's lightsaber?"
"Yes. Ben told me so, and he was a Jedi so he wouldn't lie. Anyway, I have to be a Jedi. I don't know how to do anything else. Except fly."
Luke unhooked the saber from his belt and ran his fingers over the hilt. "My father built this himself. I wonder if he fought Vader with it? Ben didn't say exactly how he died, just that Vader killed him. And I think...." He stared into the fire. "I think I'll use it to kill Vader."
Kin didn't speak for a long time. Luke lost himself to his dreams of vengeance and loneliness and was startled when the low voice said: "Be cautious of the vows you make. Be certain of their wisdom, be assured of the veracity of the ones who whisper secrets... or you may make a mistake so terrible that you will burdened with it forever."
Despite the nearness of the flames, Luke shivered. "I don't know why I'm saying all this."
"On some level, you feel close to me."
He could think of no reply, so he settled back against the wall, sliding down to find a place where he could rest. Kin meant the Force...somehow the Force had connected them, Rebel and Imperial.
It was a strange thought, ultimately comforting, but for now-- Wrapping his arms around himself for warmth, Luke drifted easily into oblivion.
Sometime in the night he woke briefly. The fire had been freshly tended and was flickering brightly. He was wrapped in soft black fabric, and his head was pillowed on something distinctly unrock-like. Drowsily, he opened his eyes and rubbed his cheek against a darkly padded...arm? Murmuring an indistinct sound of appreciation, he fell back into nothingness.
Light woke him. Brilliant light. The rising sun shone directly into the cave's opening, casting shadows across the interior walls. He sat up and held himself very still as a wave of dizziness swept over him. When it passed, he looked curiously at the fabric twisted between his fingers. Kin's cloak was around him. It was soft, but thick and heavy. Kin must be wealthy to afford such luxury.
With a sigh, Luke stood cautiously, dragging the cloak with him. He shook it out and coughed as a cloud of dirt fell from it. Folding it around and around his arm, he stepped outside and took stock of his situation.
Kin was nowhere in sight. Nor were any of the Creatures. Their small trap of twigs lay intact; no one had approached them during the night. Luke spent several minutes readying himself for the day then, still clutching the cloak that was growing heavier, he set off to find his strange comrade.
He found him frozen in a terrifying tableau. Kin was standing at the base of the slope beside a bush of ruby berries. One hand clasped a pouch, the other was outstretched, palm facing the Creatures, holding them at bay by a means Luke couldn't see. Quietly, he approached and drew his blaster, but waited. The Creatures didn't move, and he took the opportunity to study them. They appeared to be quadrupeds, but they stood on two limbs. Their heads were enormous, bigger than their bodies, and were wedge-shaped. Their skin appeared thick and scaly, and seeped a thin, shiny fluid that was coated with loose soil, vegetation and bugs. Luke felt a flicker of distaste.
Kin backed away a few steps. The largest Creature snarled and moved toward him. Luke raised his blaster and took aim.
"No!" Kin shouted, but Luke had already pulled the trigger.
The Creature fell, and almost immediately something struck Luke from behind. He was thrown violently to the ground, his arms pinned behind him, and a great weight pressed across his back. Fluid dropped onto his face, clogging his nostrils and dripping into his mouth. Furiously he struggled with the Creature, but he was helpless. His limbs felt like they were moving in slow motion and he couldn't think clearly, couldn't grab the monster, couldn't--
The reassuring hum of a lightsaber sounded nearby, and it was followed by a terrible howl.
He was free.
Frantic, he pulled the stickiness away from his mouth and nose, struggling to breathe again. He inhaled and choked on the substance, gagged and spit it out. It clung to his tongue. Nothing in his life had prepared him for such a horrifying experience, and he shuddered as hysteria tried to claim his senses. Blood--not his own--was splattered on his hands and clothes, and it repulsed him.
Then Kin was there, fingers helping clear his airway. Soothing messages drifted into his mind, and slowly he calmed. But his body began to shake, and he knew there was something else wrong.
"P-poison?" he asked through chattering teeth. He was so cold. He'd never been this cold; in all his life, he'd been warm, there'd always been sun, but now--
"No." Kin wrapped the cloak around him and lifted him effortlessly.
Luke made no attempt to assist; nothing about his body obeyed his command. He hung limply in the giant's arms. Before they reached the cave, he felt his muscles begin to spasm, and then his awareness passed away.
He had vague memories of being sick; aside from that, he remembered nothing when he finally woke. Luke opened his eyes and gave a small moan, weakly drawing up his hand to protect his eyes from the light.
A shadow moved between him and the brightness. Kin. Luke regarded him tiredly.
"I can see that." Kin wiped his face with a damp cloth. "You have been very ill."
"Two days. Stay still," the older man cautioned when Luke tried to rise. "You are weak from lack of food and partial dehydration. You require time to regain your strength before moving about."
He swallowed a groan before dropping his head back on softness that he knew must be the cloak. Handy thing, that. Maybe he should think about getting one. "Thank you for taking care of me."
His gratitude was banished with a wave of one hand. "Drink."
A cup had been roughly fashioned from a piece of bark, and Luke drank thirstily from it. After a few gulps, he pulled back, and the fingers that had supported his head released him. He coughed a few times and licked his lips to capture the last of the moisture.
"Have they come back?"
"The Creatures? No. I suspect they are unwilling to return to a battle they cannot win."
"They almost won that one," Luke said groggily. "I thought I'd save you and you ended up saving me." He studied the expressionless mask curiously. "Why?"
Kin didn't answer. He was suddenly very busy folding the cloth he'd used to wipe Luke's face.
Luke reached out and slid his fingers around the softness. "Your cloak--you tore it?" He didn't know why that was significant to him--it was only fabric, after all. But it had symbolized something he didn't understand; it was beautiful and exotic, and an air of leadership and security clung to it. Its mutilation made him want to cry; though, of course, he did not.
"I have others."
"But not this one," he answered stubbornly. "It's ruined." He wound the long strip around his fingers and clutched it to his chest. His eyelids were heavy again. Reluctantly, he acknowledged his tiredness.
"Sleep now," Kin said gruffly.
Luke smiled and tightened his grip on the small piece of fabric.
He dreamed he was in a meadow, his weakened body leaning against Kin for support. One big hand was under his armpit, forcing him to stand. To his right were white-armored stormtroopers; to his left, Han Solo and his blaster. Luke smiled faintly. I knew you'd come for me, he said. I knew you wouldn't give up looking.
From the ramp of the Millennium Falcon, Chewie howled and waved his bowcaster threateningly.
I won't let them hurt you, he told Kin drowsily.
"I am not worried."
Luke blinked, woken by the very real sound of the voice vibrating across the top of his head. He staggered and stared.
It wasn't a dream.
"Take it easy, kid." The blaster was aimed at him--or Kin. "Give him here--or you won't live to see tomorrow."
"My lord--" A Imperial officer dressed in grey addressed Kin. "We can take him out easily. Your prisoner--"
"This is not my prisoner," Kin interrupted harshly. The officer flinched. "You may have your friend." Kin raised his voice to address Han. "And you may leave unmolested. But he cannot walk alone. I will bring him to you."
Chewie howled a protest. Luke smiled sleepily. He dragged his feet as Kin walked forward. "My lord?" he quoted questioningly. " 'S nice."
"Walk," Kin commanded in a low voice. "You're being rescued."
"I know. But...." His mind stumbled over a question, and he struggled to say it. "Why.... How come I'm not your prisoner? You caught me."
Kin stopped and pulled Luke straighter. "Stand up."
"I'm trying. But...why?"
The black mask looked down at him. "And what would I do with you, little prisoner?" Kin asked softly. "I could not keep you. The Emperor...."
"What?" he asked irritably as the voice trailed into silence. "What about the Emperor? What do you mean?"
Kin made him walk another short distance. "Nothing of importance. Can you manage the last steps to your friend? His anxiety level is rising with your every hesitation."
Luke centered himself and straightened. Kin released him cautiously, and he was relieved to find he could stand alone. "Thank you," he told the black figure. "I wish we could have talked more."
The dark helmet inclined slightly. "May the Force be with you," Kin said. Then he turned and strode away.
Luke stared at his back. "May the Force be with you," he whispered and hoped Kin heard him. He staggered the last few yards to Han and let himself be helped toward the Falcon.
Chewie swept him into his furry arms and carried him inside, depositing him in the rec area. Han stalked through, muttering to himself.
"Of all the crazy stunts--! How did you let yourself get mixed up with Vader anyway? Why the hell did he help you?"
"Vader?" Luke felt his mind go numb. "That was Vader?"
"Who'd you think it was, kid? Buckle yourself in. We're gettin' out of here before they change their mind and blast us to bits."
The enormity of the betrayal slammed into him. The man who killed his father--this man, the one who'd saved his life, tended his illness, listened to his confidences, this gentle, violent giant-- This was his most hated foe--Vader!
Furious and disappointed, he slammed his fist against the bulkhead.
Damn you for being Vader....
He threw himself onto the bench and pulled the safety strap tightly around his hips. His vision blurred, and he scrubbed at his eyes. The Falcon shuddered as it blasted into the sky. Luke's body shook in the restraints and his stomach twisted again, but he swallowed his nausea and opened his right fist. With painstaking precision, he straightened the strip of heavy fabric that had crumpled in his grasp and folded it into neat squares.
You killed my father. No--'betrayed and murdered'. But to 'betray', you must have known him well. You were his...friend? You saved me because you murdered him? You saved me to repay a debt?
There was more here, a mystery that he couldn't begin to fathom.
He stared at the black square for a long minute before slipping it into his breastpocket.
There would be time enough later to consider Darth Vader.
And anyway, it was unlikely that they would ever meet again.