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Title: The Father
Author: frodogenic (http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1080220/)
Rating: PG-13
Category: Adventure, drama
Characters: Vader, Luke

Disclaimer – Not my characters, well most of them, and not my universe.

Summary: Ten years after the events of ROTS, Darth Vader is unable to avoid tormenting visions of his unborn child. But hope might still exist for him somewhere in the farthest flung regions of the galaxy.


As much as he denied it to the galaxy—as much as he denied it to himself—the nightmare was proof that Darth Vader still possessed a heart.

It was proof to him, at least. Fiercely unwelcome proof it might be, a haunting ghost that tormented his dark sleep at unexpected intervals, coming when he had not slaved hard enough to completely silence the background whispering of the man he once had been. But to this man, the erstwhile Chosen One of the Jedi and the second most feared being in the galaxy, the validity of nightmares had long since been proven, and he needed no other evidence. Oh, yes. He had a heart still.

In the beginning, when his wounds were raw beneath the rigid black mask and within his mind, he had not known a single night of respite from the nightmares. His master had been pleased with his rapid growth in the dark side, unaware that the fear his new apprentice used to increase his power sprang from the memories of a past master. In the beginning the nightmares had sometimes followed him through the day, even; legendary as his capricious temper was, he was infinitely more controlled and patient now than then.

For now, he had mastered the nightmares almost entirely—a feat he had dreamed of since those first hated visions of his mother. The memory of Obi-Wan’s friendship was now completely banished; not for seven years had his old master made an appearance in his nightmares. After him had gone the Jedi he had once thought family. Whenever he now remembered his deeds in the Temple that night, he could no longer recall the faces of those he had killed. And then—Padme.

She was gone now, after years of racking grief and nightmares, waking and trying again to remember why she was not at his side, of watching the senate proceedings and searching the banks of pods for that one precious face. There had been dozens upon dozens of nightmares of his beautiful guardian angel. How many times had he watched in his dreams as his yet-unmutilated self reached that fateful hand out, grasping at her neck with the darkness and crushing it, while he screamed pleas that could not be heard, knowing the outcome could not be changed but driven each time by the desperate hope.? It had been years, but finally sheer agony forced the memory of her away, totally away. He had ordered her name wiped from the galaxy’s databanks, erased every memory of her presence, bombarded Naboo from orbit until Varykino and Theed were barren, radiation-poisoned wastelands. And in the end, he had triumphed. It was rare that he thought of her now.

Yes—one by one, the nightmares had subsided to his overpowering will to defeat them.

All but one.

It was that one which had woken him tonight, as it had now for the past several nights. Now in full armor and pacing before the great viewport adorning his private quarters aboard Epsilon One, the images of the nightmare still sprang before the Dark Lord’s mind.

He had frequently used new projects to banish troublesome nightmares in the past, and he had hoped that by focusing his energies on Epsilon One as well as his ongoing efforts to root out the nascent Rebellion, this one would also leave him in peace. Epsilon One was the prototype for a new class of Star Destroyer, the first new one since the Imperials entered the Navy six years ago. He did not anticipate that these gargantuan Super-class ships would soon replace them—cost alone was prohibitive, especially when one considered the vast leech plaguing the Imperial treasury that only recently had been dubbed the Death Star. Generally Lord Vader did not approve of enormous ships when more compact, efficient, cost-effective models could be made, but the pilot in him had been unable to refuse Sienar’s proposal for Executor.

She lay out in space ahead of him, still nothing more than bare durasteel framework, discounting a small test patch of hull plating that had been laid down at the destroyer’s nose just yesterday. When she was complete she would include thousands of specialized systems and engineering unique to her design, much of which he was personally designing. Between the Executor and her scaled-down prototype Epsilone One, and the cursed Rebellion, Lord Vader scarcely had time to sleep, let alone dream. But the more he sought to avoid the nightmare, the more it plagued him.

Even as he reflected on the fact, the images again leapt into his mind, and he very nearly flinched at the renewed sight of a small boy, smiling up at him with arms raised. Every time the dream was the same. He would again find himself at Mustafar, in the moments before Padme—

But those details were the same with many dreams; in the background of this one, he could see a small boy, certainly no more than five years old. And he watched as the child too pleaded silently with him, arms raised up, until his anger latched onto to Padme—and then the child would begin also to gasp for air, clutch at his throat, reaching out desperately towards—

His father. It was their child he saw in these nightmares. Generally it was a boy he saw, but sometimes a girl, and hair and eye color were different each time. Of course he could never know what their little one would have looked like.

“This is the happiest day of my life.” How well he remembered those words!

Much had changed, but the instinctive love he had known the moment Padme told him of her pregnancy had not yet been shed, though the child it was directed for had perished ten years ago without ever seeing the light of day—murdered by his own father. It was an altogether different agony from anything else he had ever felt, and if anyone was an expert on pain in this galaxy it was Lord Vader. The child had done nothing, whatever betrayal he might believe its mother guilty of. He was the only innocent Darth Vader would admit to killing.

Generally he thought of their baby as a boy, though he had been sure at the time it would be a girl.

What he would not give for a second chance, to prove how much he had loved his child! Palpatine could have the cursed galaxy, if only it would restore that precious child to him. He called nothing his own that he would not now sacrifice for the son (or perhaps daughter) he had essentially thrown away.

Exhausted, he set his guilt aside once more. This was pointless, a waste of time. The past could never be changed, and it was best that he forget it had even existed. Sleep now being out of the question for the remainder of the night, the Dark Lord stalked from his private chambers in the direction of his hyperbaric chamber, intent upon making use of these hours. If he could not rest, he would spend the time working on the designs.


One month later…

Coruscant was as Vader remembered it, though his duties with the fleet had kept him away from the capital for the past two years. It was not a planet that changed much. There were few marks to denote the great upheavals of a decade ago, let alone any minor happenings that may have occurred during his extended absence. The only outward indications of the New Order were the bulk of the Imperial Palace and his own castle, which rose out of the skyline near the Senate Rotunda, in the district of Imperial City. From the rooftop gardens of his castle, Vader could still see the Jedi Temple, long since converted into the headquarters of the Imperial Navy.

The final design schematics for the Executor had been completed last week, and a decisive battle at Kashyyyk had crippled the Rebellion into silence. The unexpected lull in his schedule had coincided neatly with the upcoming tenth Empire Day, and there had really been no choice but to return to Coruscant. His master would have been most irate were he to be absent at so significant a time, even if his every minute had been under demand.

After a harrowing week of the oily, sycophantic company of politicians and untold hours of pompous ceremony, the holiday had finally run its course. His patience being completely threadbare, the Dark Lord had ordered that any business be cancelled for the next several weeks. His master had not objected. Likely the Emperor understood the maintenance of Lord Vader’s sanity was necessary for the survival of his Navy’s commanding officers.

This day had been the first in years that he had done no work whatsoever. He had certainly not been idle, spending his hours in meditation or in his dueling salle, but such activities were not work. Although he had felt rather absurd for much of the day, it seemed that he adjusted quickly to vacations. His mood was the best it had been in years. He might even have smiled, had such an exercise not been manifestly unsuited to a Sith Lord.

He was none too happy, therefore, when his peaceful, untroubled, solitary rambling through the rooftop gardens was interrupted by his chief assistant.

“My Lord?” the colonel’s tremulous voice came from over his shoulder.

He took a moment to remind himself that the man would not have disturbed him had this matter not been of some urgency. “What is it?”

The colonel blanched at the threatening tone, but forged ahead. “My Lord, one of your personal agents has arrived. He claims that you will wish to see him immediately, that he has information of a significant nature to deliver. I attempted to persuade him to await your convenience until morning, at least, but—”

“Which of my agents is it?” he growled irritably.

“He gave his name as Baranne, my lo—”

But Vader had already brushed past the assistant, striding towards the garden entrances as though the path were on fire behind him, ordering the man over his shoulder to see the agent to the private conference room. He was there in two minutes, and in two more the doors hissed open to admit a man of middle age and middle height, distinguished by keen gray eyes and a prominent scar down the left cheekbone.

“Lord Vader,” he nodded smoothly. He bowed from the waist, and there was a healthy respect in his gaze, but his professional manner was unburdened by fear. “I apologize for interrupting your solstice, but I am sure you would desire to have this information as quickly as possible.”

“You are correct, Agent Baranne.” Vader reached out a massive glove to accept the briefcase the agent held out to him.

“I was able to unearth more files, as well as some more physical items,” the agent continued. “Some of the items are of a delicate nature, my lord.”

“A delicate nature?” Vader pressed.

“I was able to procure a genetic sample,” Baranne answered. “It was found at a small clinic in the rural regions, along with some childhood medical documentation. The other items are miscellaneous in nature: a few historical articles, education records, media holos. I also included a security hologram from Kamino that I thought you might be interested in, although it did not strictly fit your stated objectives.”

Vader’s grip on the briefcase had imperceptibly tightened. “You have done well, Baranne. Continue your work as before.”

The agent nodded, bowed a second time, and left the conference room.

The Dark Lord himself made quick time up to his chambers, sealing the entrances to both his rooms and his mind before setting the briefcase reverently on his desk and unlocking it.

Several data chips met his eye, and there was a palm projector containing the holos Baranne had mentioned. But he had eyes only for the vials strapped down to the inner wall of the case. He gently removed one from its secure slot, cradling it in his enormous black palm. They were nothing more than a dozen clear tubes, capped at both ends and filled with a typical blue preservation fluid.

But they were the closest he had come to touching his wife in ten years.

He made one attempt to sleep, but abandoned the enterprise quickly. The nightmare was especially strong tonight. Instead he went through the contents of the data chips. As Baranne had indicated, there was nothing very significant. Aside from the childhood medical records, Padme made only very perfunctory appearances in the other information—a background face in some Senate panorama shot, a name on a list of university graduates, a brief mention in some article. He quickly destroyed all of it.

The last item was the security recording from Kamino.

Two seconds after the recording began to run, he stiffened in his seat, every real muscle left to him clenching tight. For a moment his reaction overrode the breathing regulator, and his right hand flashed to the hilt of his lightsaber almost of its own accord.

Obi-Wan!

It was indeed his old master depicted there in the security hologram, meandering along a walkway. He was accompanied by a tall, slim-necked alien, presumably a native Kaminoan—and when his fury had cooled enough for him notice, he saw the banks of cloning tanks filling the interior of a vast chamber.

The recording must date from just before the Clone Wars, when the two of them had been assigned to the protection of a certain senator he would rather not think much more on. He was sure of it. Obi-Wan had certainly not been to Kamino again during the war; they had been together for nearly all of that time. He would not find any information here useful to tracking down his elusive old master.

His temper re-ignited, the target this time being Baranne. What had the agent been thinking, including this recording? It fell entirely outside the task he had given the man. Baranne was supposed to be hunting solely for any remaining evidence of Padme, collecting what he found and bringing it to Vader. He wanted all mention of her gone—he could not bear to think of her, could not stand the thought that he might somehow be reminded of her by a chance surviving hologram.

Obi-Wan, though, was a different matter altogether.

A black rage consumed the Dark Lord at the mere thought of that man. No insult would suffice, no torment compensate. Kenobi would have had to die a thousand times over to sate his searing desire for revenge! He did not concern himself with tracking down information about Kenobi, unless that information could point him towards the traitor. He could worry about erasing the man’s memory after he had seen to the erasing of his life. A pity that he must ultimately be satisfied with killing him only once—when he at last got his prosthetic hands on the Jedi who had robbed him of the real hands, he planned on making the most of that one time. Dear Force, the man had robbed him of his body, of his life, of his dear, dear Padme, of his child

…His child. His fury dissipated before the resurrected image of that small face with its irresolute features. Just lately it had been a boy, with Padme’s soft dark curls and his own blue eyes. Oh, my little one…I never meant you harm…

The furniture around him had been flipped and splintered when he was again aware of his surroundings; the durasteel walls bore enormous dents. He could hardly have cared less. Such incidents had not been uncommon in the past two years. Walls and chairs could be easily repaired or replaced.

Not so a child. No day passed without his awareness of the gaping wound in his mind where he had once, for a brief time, been able to sense the presence of the baby. After so many years, the torn edges of the bond should have healed; but the pain was never any less sharp. He had merely learned to ignore it through distraction.

His masked gaze fell again on the security hologram, still playing its cycle continuously through the desk holoprojector, alongside the open briefcase with the vials. Bleakly he regarded them in turn. Shreds of his past, both of them; excruciating reminders of what he had suffered. The losses, the years of war, the nights spent bent beneath the whip of his nightmares…all represented in the banks of the Kamino clones, and in the genetic records of his murdered angel. Back and forth, back and forth…

Of a sudden the Dark Lord leapt forward, leaning rapt over projector and case, hands gripping at the edge of the desk. A second chance…might it be possible after all? Back and forth the insectoid eyes of the mask flashed over the two, connecting, hoping beyond hope—surely such hope could not be!

Yet why not? It was done everywhere by the wealthy, those who had no time or lacked the ability. Money he had—apart from the Force money was all he really had, in fact—and his own genetic information was of course on file, privately—

No—there was no reason why not! No reason at all! And he had several weeks at his disposal; he could easily see to the matter privately. No one need know, so long as he was careful in his dealings. Palpatine need not know.

He pulled the chair back upright with a thought and promptly collapsed in it, overcome with excitement for the first time since he had been a small boy. The prospect was enough to nearly make him giddy. Such a miraculous, redeeming possibility! He could not bear to wait a minute—

Thankfully, ten years had taught him something of patience, or else he would have blasted away from Coruscant in his private fighter and aroused his master’s darkest suspicion. He waited until well into the morning before ordering his personal shuttle prepared for immediate departure to Vjun and his private retreat of Bast Castle.


It was again raining on Vjun. The permacrete skies and streaked transparisteel brought Kamino strongly to Darth Vader’s mind. But then, nearly everything around him reminded him of that planet presently.

As was his habit whenever he discovered himself unemployed, the Dark Lord stood pensively staring out a panoramic bank of transparisteel, surveying the stormy vista of Vjun’s surface from the castle’s vantage position atop the cliffs. As a Jedi, Anakin Skywalker had been a thorough failure in the art of meditation; and as a Sith, Darth Vader had fared little better. He had eventually discovered that the observance of broad views could inspire him to a state of deep reflection, which was a tolerable substitute.

When at Bast Castle, his favorite window for such purposes was the viewport in the library. It had an impressive view of the valley and distant ocean, and usually he would watch as a storm rode in from the sea, brooding on its dark majesty. Yet though there was a particularly impressive bank of thunderheads on the approach, seeming to swallow up the sky into its black maw, shot through with lightning, he could not pay it any mind. He was far too impatient to reflect on anything but the matter at hand.

Yesterday morning, his guests had arrived from Kamino, accompanied by all their lab and procedural equipment. They had been sequestered in the underbelly of the castle ever since touching down, running tests on the genetic samples. He had no idea when they would emerge, but it had certainly better be soon, for his patience was rapidly wearing thin. The suspense had only grown sharper and sharper since the idea first came to him two weeks ago—he must know soon whether it would prove workable! They had been there all the past day, all the night, and now it was nearly evening.

He stiffened, beating down his nervous excitement. Patience. The results would be available when they were available and that was that. He was a Sith Lord, one with the dark side, and he had no use for such petty surges of pointless emotion. Very, very deliberately, he placed his personal comm on an empty desk, went to the computer terminal on the opposite side of the library, and began checking his personal files for any new business that might have arisen since he had last dealt with affairs.

There were several messages from the naval headquarters. It seemed the Rebellion had gotten its breath back, and there were reports of violent incidents in several Outer Rim systems—and, most disturbingly, a full-fledged attack upon two Imperial-class destroyers by a group of unidentified Corellian corvettes. Although the destroyers had emerged alive, the majority of the corvettes had escaped, and had inflicted significant damage. It was the boldest move the Rebels had made yet. He could not afford to be absent from his duties for much longer, given the conflict’s rising intensity. Many of the chief naval officers felt the Rebellion an insignificant trifle, but Vader did not share their assessment. If the Emperor did not give him leave to act decisively now, while the Rebels’ efforts were still limited and sporadic, they might yet have a civil war on their hands—

Across the room, his personal com buzzed sharply. His pretense of industrious indifference died a quick death, as he rushed from the terminal to the desk. “Lord Vader,” he rumbled into the mouthpiece.

One of his assistants answered promptly. “My lord, the chief technician had informed me that preliminary testing is complete. He would like to speak with you at your convenience.”

“Escort him to the library immediately.” Quickly Vader reached out with his mind, finding and deactivating the security systems, and raising a shield around the library to ensure against eavesdropping. Then he seated himself at the head of the library conference table and waited.

It seemed like an eternity before the doors opened to admit a tall, slender alien, with a bulbous head set on a long stalk of a neck. By the wrinkling and discoloration of his pale skin, Vader judged the being to be well advanced in age for its race.

“Good evening, Lord Vader,” the Kaminoan nodded. Vader rose to greet him with a nod. “I am Doctor We K’do. I understand you have need of my area of expertise.”

“That will depend, Doctor, on whether this endeavor has the possibility of success.”

“I have personally seen to the examination of the genetic specimens you provided. All of the materials were in excellent condition. Rest assured, my lord; if you decide to pursue this, I have every reason to expect an unqualified success.”

The Dark Lord’s first instinct was to slump in the nearest chair with relief, and his second to leap for joy. Fortunately he reminded himself immediately that he was a Sith Lord, and pushed emotions aside with all the strength of the darkness.

“Will you be able to conduct the procedure here on Vjun?” he asked.

“I took the liberty of bringing all the necessary equipment from Kamino. So long as you can provide an appropriate location for us to assemble, I think we could begin by tomorrow.” The doctor paused for a moment, but soon resumed. “In the interests of security, it is possible to increase the growth rate, thereby reducing the amount of time our presence here must be kept secret.”

The Dark Lord shook his head immediately. “No, there will be no genetic tampering.” He wanted the procedure to be as natural as possible, given the circumstances. “You have my permission to begin work. How much space will be required?”

“I believe if you could provide us with two rooms of a size with the laboratory, we would have sufficient space for the equipment; and of course, we will require standard medical facilities and living quarters….”

Vader did not waste a moment. Within two hours, the equipment the Kaminoans had brought was assembled in the topmost level of the castle, across the hall from his personal medical bay, behind a dozen layers of heavy security. By midnight, the work was begun.


“Finally,” Owen Lars sighed, settling down at the kitchen table. “I thought that boy would never settle down.”

“He was quite energetic today, wasn’t he?” Beru agreed, passing a cup of caf across to him.

Own shook his head and took a swallow. “It’s going to take me a month to get that garage wall repaired. Not to mention the speeder.”

“He didn’t mean any harm,” Beru defended. “And it’s only a few dents in the landspeeder. He was just excited that you let him drive.”

“Yeah, well, remind me not to let him pull into the garage next time.” Owen’s gruff tone, though, was undermined by the amused glint in his eyes. “At least he’s finally asleep.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the rapid patter of footsteps was heard approaching, and in another moment a small, blond-headed boy had appeared in the kitchen entrance. He was rather shamefaced as he met Owen’s exasperated stare with two very confused blue eyes.

“Uncle Owen?” he asked softly.

“Luke, why aren’t you in bed?” Owen sighed. “It’s well past time, and we have to be up early tomorrow for that trip in to Mos Eisley.”

“I had a dream,” Luke persisted. “It woke me up.”

“Did it frighten you?” Beru cut in.

His ten-year-old brow furrowed in a very adult manner. “I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” Owen demanded irritably. Beru shot him a covert glare as she reached her arms out.

“Come here and tell me about it.” It was a mark of the boy’s unease that he settled himself on her lap; usually he refused such little-kid behaviors, particularly since his birthday.

“There was a man in it, mostly,” Luke said softly. “At least I think he was a man. He had some sort of helmet on so I couldn’t tell for sure.” He paused thoughtfully. “It didn’t look very nice.”

“And did the man frighten you?”

Luke frowned again. “I think he wanted to scare me,” he decided. “He was tall and all covered in black, but he—he just sort of felt warm, so I wasn’t really scared, I don’t think…”

Beru’s eyes flashed to Owen’s in sharp, sudden fear, and she wrapped her arms more tightly around her nephew.

“…And what was really weird was I think I saw a baby, too. Why would I dream about a baby?” Luke was staring up at her with rampant consternation in his young face.

“It’s probably nothing, Luke,” his aunt immediately reassured him. “Let’s go back up to bed.” She nodded at Owen as she left with Luke’s hand in hers, pointing to their comm. Unit with her eyes.

Owen sighed with distaste, but went. No matter how much he disliked Obi-Wan Kenobi, the man would have a better understanding of what this disturbing incident might mean than either of them could.


Eight months later…

The Senate had always been a stressful workplace, for as long as Bail Organa had been serving in it—nearly fifteen years now. He groaned and leaned back in his office chair, massaging his temple. Had it only been that long? Recently it had seemed as though he didn’t even exist outside the confines of the Senate Rotunda.

Affairs had been especially tricky since the rise of the Empire. The task of representing Alderaan safely had begun to feel as though he was cartwheeling across a wire strung between two of Coruscant’s gigantic starscrapers. With the mounting clashes between the Rebellion and the Imperial Navy, Organa had been appointed chairman of the committee “supervising” the Navy’s handling of the situation; and of course he had an even more personal role in those conflicts behind the scenes, which did not ease his workload any.

And just in case that wasn’t enough to frazzle every cell in his brain, his daughter had been hopelessly plagued by disconcerting dreams and vivid nightmares for the past several months. No doctor could help her, whether droid, human, or alien; no medication could ensure her safe sleep. Not even heavy tranquilizers could prevent her growing insomnia. Most of the time, the dream was the same—his daughter would whisper to him a description of a tall, masked figure all in black, terrifying and soothing at the same time to her, and often added that she had seen a baby.

He was so close to contacting Kenobi, it frightened him. He dared not risk it; yet how else was he to help Leia?

He was almost sure it was Vader the little girl saw in her dreams; and as for the baby, the only explanation that made sense was that she retained some subconscious memory of her twin brother. Neither of these things put him at ease. Not a day went by that he did not fear for Leia’s safety.

These days especially he was tightly strung; his duties as chairman of the supervisory committee brought him into almost daily contact with none other than Lord Vader himself. Usually it was through the Holonet, at a distance of many lightyears—but even that much was enough to give him nervous fits, and he could only hope the Dark Lord did not pick up his irrational emotional state. At galactic distances, he felt sure his thoughts were intact from the man.

But he was not nearly so confident when it came to a personal, face-to-mask conversation with the Emperor’s right hand. And this morning his assistant had informed him that Vader had requested to meet with him following midday in his capacity as committee chairman.

He could not imagine why—they were not due for another meeting with Navy Command until next week. And besides that, Vader wasn’t even supposed to be on Coruscant! The last he had heard, the Dark Lord had been engaged at the front, spearheading the efforts against the Rebellion. Only a day ago they had received word of an Imperial victory at Munto Codru, where Lord Vader had been in command.

Did the Sith suspect him after all? Bail felt shivers run quietly down his spine at the thought. He couldn’t. Force, he had to watch out for Leia!

Yet there was no way he could avoid this summons. If he failed to appear, or made excuses, he would certainly arouse suspicion. So at thirteen hundred hours, his speeder arrived at the Naval Command Center.

And, upon arrival, he was immediately redirected to the Dark Lord’s castle and there shown to a Spartan foyer. He had plenty of time in which to wonder about the strange turn of events. Vader invariably dealt with Fleet business from the headquarters. If Bail could say nothing else good about him, it was that the man knew how to keep things in their place; all their previous such meetings had been held in the same briefing room at the NCC, attended by a selection of admirals and the rest of the committee board.

Furthermore, Vader was not one to change a meeting’s location without notifying the other attendees. Neither did he tend to make others wait beyond the time set for said meeting; yet Bail was left to twiddle his thumbs in the foyer for a good half hour before the doors hissed open to admit the Empire’s second in command.

“Senator Organa,” the Dark Lord rumbled. Bail noticed that he seemed hurried—extremely out of character. Darth Vader did not hurry. He was expedient, but never rushed. “I regret that it will be impossible to conduct this briefing as is customary. I have had all new information compiled for the committee”—he set a data chip firmly in the senator’s tentatively outstretched hand—“and given instructions to Admiral Randon to speak with the senators tomorrow. I myself am leaving system on urgent business no later than tonight.” And with that, he continued on past Bail towards the opposite door.

Just before leaving, though, he paused and turned back. “I am told the princess is unwell.”

The senator only barely managed to keep his jaw from dropping clear to the ground levels of Coruscant. “She is somewhat troubled by nightmares, nothing more,” he finally responded.

Vader was silent for just a moment. Then, with a very perfunctory, “Accept my wishes for her quick recovery,” he strode swiftly away, cape flagging behind him.

It occurred more than once to the Dark Lord that his behavior must have struck Organa as decidedly unusual; but he was far too preoccupied to care. His afternoon was taken up with rushing around Imperial City, in a whirlwind of meetings with senators and admirals, as he fought to clear himself of business in time to depart the capital system that day.

So turbulent was Vader’s state of mind, it did not even occur to him to wonder why his master had not been more suspicious when he announced that he would be leaving for Vjun on urgent business. Palpatine had merely nodded, and had very nearly shooed him out the door like some hovering mother; apparently both of them were too preoccupied to give much thought to anything else. He was sure his master’s apathy towards his activities would not last long; probably he should take a couple of Star Destroyers and bombard a few planets under the pretense of rooting out Rebel bases, to cover himself…

But he could not make the detailed plans necessary now. His every thought was focused on getting to Vjun as soon as possible—and on what would await him there.

His chief assistant on Bast Castle had contacted him early that morning—the first word he had had from Vjun since leaving eight months. It should not yet be time for him to return, but for some reason K’do must have decided that affairs could not wait any longer. The assistant had said they would hold for five days at the doctor’s orders before proceeding; if he left by midnight he should reach Vjun in time. There had been no further explanation.

Vader was able to board his shuttle with an hour to spare; and it was only once he was in hyperspace that he began to worry. Had something gone wrong after all? K’do had assured him before he left that everything was stable and proceeding beautifully; there had been absolutely no indication that anything was faulty. The technicians had run careful scans and analyses, more than a dozen of them daily, to ensure that no development escaped scrutiny. Why was it necessary that the time be cut short?

He tried to calm his mind through meditation, and failed even more spectacularly than was typical of him. Even staring out the viewport of the cockpit at the violent beauty of hyperspace could not bring him any vestige of peace. Eventually he retreated to his cabin and busied himself with dismantling and reassembling a maintenance droid, modifying it as ideas came to him; but one could not tinker with droids for four days nonstop. By the last day of the trip, he had locked himself in his hyperbaric chamber and was brooding darkly, half-mad with impatience and worry and anxiety. The most intense battle he had ever flown in had not inspired half as much nervous energy as this interminable suspense!

The Dark Lord practically exploded from the shuttle when it finally touched down at Bast Castle. He scarce saw anything as he marched swiftly up to the topmost level where he had set the Kaminoans to their work—only his destination.

K’do met him outside the medical ward. “Lord Vader,” he nodded. “I’m glad you were able to make good time. I don’t believe we have three hours to spare.” His voice took on a note of bewilderment at the last.

“Why have affairs suddenly become so rushed?” the Dark Lord rumbled dangerously. “Have complications arisen?”

“They have indeed, my lord—but I assure you, not of a dangerous nature. It’s not so much a lack of time as it is a lack of room.”

Vader frowned beneath the mask, crossing his arms. “A lack of room?”

K’do spread his hands out in a bewildered gesture. “I believe you will soon understand the issue at hand, my lord,” was all he answered. “If you will follow me in, we will proceed.”

His heart, one of the few fully natural organs left in his body, was pounding furiously as he entered the medical ward behind the doctor. In the center of the third room, a small white tank stood, attached to dozens of cords and monitors, surrounded by Kaminoan technicians running diagnostics and checking readouts.

“We are prepared to proceed?” K’do asked them briskly.

A technician nodded, handing K’do a flimsy printout. “All vital signs are reading perfectly, and the preliminary systems preparations have been completed. Shall we begin?”

K’do nodded. With a few commands the tank was gently taken from its place and moved to a softer room, painted in pastel blue. The technicians locked in into a new frame and began manning their consoles. Slowly the tank was tilted down on its side, and the top was connected to a vinyl-padded table with raised edges and a gentle downward slant. K’do gestured sharply some more and issued orders in Kaminoan as two women in lab coats took up position at the table. There was a pause as everyone made ready; K’do glanced back at Vader, who stood towards the back of the room. The doctor beckoned him closer with the first smile the Dark Lord had seen from him. “You will be able to see better from here,” he informed him. Then he nodded to the technicians. “Begin.”

Vader watched raptly as the plate sealing the tank at the top retracted, and a tube was extended outward. The women at the table edged a bit closer to its end as it began to pulse slowly, rhythmically—

The Dark Lord jerked as a small, primitive stab of fear shot through the Force. That had not come from him—which meant it must have been—

One of the women called something excitedly, and then both of them were huddled around the tank so tightly he could not see. Grins burst onto the technicians’ faces. K’do was receiving status reports in Kaminoan, and the room was so bustling with activity Vader couldn’t get a sense of what was going on—

After a few minutes, one of the women broke away from the table and came slowly towards with a radiant smile. “Here you are, my lord,” she said softly, extending her arms.

There, cradled gently in blankets and already swabbed clean, a tiny infant lay whimpering quietly.

“It’s a girl, my lord,” K’do said from beside him. Slowly, disbelieving, Vader finally took the child from the nurse.

He could not believe how perfect she was—how beautiful! She was nearly nothing in his arms, hardly any weight at all; he could cradle almost all of her in one hand. Hesitantly, he reached out through the Force and touched his daughter’s mind for the first time.

And though it was painful, he smiled broadly beneath the mask. Such a bright little star in the Force she was already! And precocious—he could feel her subconscious recognition of the touch, and the baby even reached back to him reflexively.

For now, the rest of the universe didn’t even exist. He felt as though he was holding all of it right here in his arms.

What should he name her? He thought briefly of naming her for her mother—

“My lord?” K’do was tapping him on the shoulder. “My lord, I regret to disrupt you, but I’m afraid we’re only half done.”

Of course—they would need to take his daughter, run the post-birth tests and scans to make sure she was in perfect health…

And then his heart all but stopped entirely as the other nurse approached him again from the table, a second bundle held in her arms. The shock quite nearly made him drop the baby he was already carrying. “Doctor…”

K’do gave him another broad smile. “It’s two girls, my lord,” he said wryly.


Several hours had passed since the whirling activity and emotional maelstrom of the twins’ birth, but now the doctors, nurses, and techs had ceased their fussing and examining, leaving Vader to acquaint himself with his newborn children.

His little girls lay peacefully asleep now, both laid in the same crib as a spare had not been brought. The Dark Lord hovered above them, as silent as it was possible for him to be. Initially he had feared the noise of the respirator would wake them, but K’do assured him the twins would be very used to it, saying that as per standard procedure recordings of his voice had been played several hours a day around the artificial womb. And for the past hour, neither of them had stirred under his watchful gaze.

They seemed so very small. K’do had agreed that they were tinier than most newborns, but it did not seem to worry the doctor. Twins were often born early, and generally weighed less. He seemed much more concerned with the fact that there even were twins.

Apparently, it should have been completely impossible for another child to result from the procedure the Kaminoans had used; or at least, impossible that another set of vital signs should go unnoticed for so long. K’do had told him that although they had been a little suspicious of a few of the readings they collected, it was not until they did a direct visual scan of the tank that the technicians realized a second infant was present. Understandably, the doctor had been especially worried about the newcomer when she made her entrance, and had whisked her off for more detailed examination than the first baby had undergone.

But everything seemed to have come out all right, in spite of the ancient Murphy’s Law, and now he had his children to himself.

He still could not think what to name them. He didn’t feel it would be fair to call one of them Padme now; there was a special significance in that name to him, and he did not want any sort of favoritism between his daughters. He supposed he could have called the other Shmi; but somehow his mother’s name didn’t seem to fit either of them.

Leia? Instantly his mind recoiled, a fresh ache arising at the memory of sitting on the veranda with his wife, mulling over possible names for their baby. They had both liked Leia, about the only female name they agreed on—but that name was reserved for his un-firstborn.

No. It would not be Leia.

He sighed, abandoning the question of names for now, and let himself simply enjoy the twins’ presence. Their glows were hazy and warm now in the Force, muddled by sleep, utterly untroubled by dreams. Unlike their haunted father.

Not for the first time in the last eight months, sharp doubt surged up in him. He was not fit to be any child’s father, not after causing the death of his mother, wife, and child! What kind of blind, arrogant fool was he to think he could suddenly manage as a parent now? To what horror had he doomed these little ones?

He very nearly laughed at himself after the momentary panic receded. A Sith Lord, nearly seven feet tall, armed with the Force and master of the lightsaber, who had endured the loss of every limb he possessed and survived massive burning—and he was afraid of two infant girls not even a day old! Oh, but he did not deserve these beautiful little ones, not in the slightest, no more than he had deserved their mother. A slave boy and a queen…he should have known better than to think something so preposterous could end happily. The universe did not work that way, as Sidious had aptly shown him. She had been far too good for him, too good for the galaxy, an angel queen…and already he felt sure these two little princesses would take after their mother.

Princesses?

What about Sara? He mulled the name around a little. Yes…yes. Sara. It was a good name. Gently he caressed the mind of the older child. Sara. There was something so powerful in giving her a name! All of a sudden, she seemed twice as precious as before. Hello, Sara

Once he had one name chosen, the second came quickly. Her face was a dim memory—but still he chose to remember her, unlike most of the Jedi he had known. She had been an apprentice, a bit younger than he, and they had followed their masters to some dispute settlement or other in the Outer Rim when he had been fourteen. He had long since forgotten what the conflict had entailed. Everything else had paled when Sandra was killed by a mistaken assassin during their stay. He still remembered watching his second Jedi cremation.

His second daughter would be Sandra. Sara and Sandra. He smiled beneath the mask and reached a tentative hand out to touch them.


Elsewhere in the galaxy…

Most children who had spent their entire lives in one place would not take well to being uprooted in the blink of an eye, going to bed in their room and almost literally waking up on the opposite side of the galaxy. Most children would have shrieked, fled crying through their new surroundings, and would definitely not have been happy to find themselves in the sole company of a virtual stranger.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was profoundly grateful that Luke Skywalker was not most children. He might have run around the ship shrieking, but every sound had been an expression of pure delight. Young Luke had been totally caught up in the exhilaration of going on his very first space venture (or at least, he thought it was his first).

The erstwhile Jedi Master had not shared the lad’s excitement, unless being sick to your stomach with worry counted as the same thing. The nausea had eased a little over the last several months, but not much. Especially not in the face of Luke’s continued dreams.

Upon receiving Owen’s call and hearing what alarming description the boy had given of his dreams, Obi-Wan had practically melted the sand into glass on his rapid transit to the homestead. He had gone straight up to Luke’s room with both Larses in tow and carefully examined the boy’s memory of the dream.

It had really been more of a vision.

Most terrifying was the crystalline image of his masked and robed former apprentice carrying an infant. He still didn’t know how he had managed to keep from bursting with apprehension as he waited for the call to Bail Organa to be put through. The signal refused to reach the Aldera Palace, but thankfully Elle had come to the rescue.

Padme’s former handmaiden had been perhaps the most resourceful one she ever chose, and she had followed the trail to Polis Massa’s medical records. She had known of her mistress’ pregnancy, and upon learning of his involvement had demanded Obi-Wan allow her to stay on Alderaan and keep a sharp eye on the little princess. Likely he could not have stopped her; but he was mightily grateful for her watchful presence now. She had reassured him that Leia was fine—even, at his insistence, made a covert trip to the palace to make absolutely sure.

Events had Alderaan had given him no alarm for the past eight months. But scarcely a night went by now that Luke did not dream that same image.

Who else could that baby be but one of the twins? The Jedi was a firm believer in Force visions, particularly those having to do with Anakin. The best he could do for Leia was have Elle keep a razor watch on her; but Luke was not so visible to the galaxy. Few people would notice the disappearance of one reclusive moisture-farming family; terrified that Luke’s dream might signify the impending arrival of his mechanized former apprentice, Obi-Wan had not wasted a breath.

They had left the same night, in the landspeeder and a third-hand shuttle. Luke had been carefully moved onto the shuttle in his sleep; Obi-Wan had feared the boy’s emotional reaction to events might be noticed, and such a reaction would be far less difficult for the Sith to trace if he was safely in hyperspace.

As it happened, Luke’s distress had been minimal, especially once Obi-Wan had arranged a com connection with his uncle and aunt. Owen and Beru were now safely on Krytoa, a world rather similar to Tatooine in regions; he and Luke had been jumping constantly from system to system, changing ships at every stop, until he was beginning to feel sure he had created a sufficiently convoluted trail. Neither had there been any reports of searches.

Still, he did not dare return Luke to his family. And he did not think it at all wise to take the boy to Bail Organa, nor to his Aunt Sola on Naboo.

He sighed and leaned back in his chair in the cockpit, surveying the suspended map of the galaxy despairingly. None of these systems seemed safe enough to him now. Yet he could not very well give the child a proper upbringing aboard a series of ships, constantly hopping about the galaxy like a gigantic Neimoidian frog. They would have to find somewhere to settle themselves. Not Tatooine, not Naboo, not Alderaan or Krytoa, ABSOLUTELY not Coruscant or anything in the Inner Rim—Force, the Unknown Regions were looking better every minute—

Obi-Wan abruptly jerked upright in his seat as an intense wave of fright and denial and general distress exploded through the Force. It was so overwhelming he could only barely identify it as being Luke. He staggered from his seat and got as far as the passage before a second blast of emotion all but knocked him unconscious. His ears rang so badly he almost could not hear the wails from down the corridor, and the pounding of feet.

He recovered in time to catch Luke as the boy barreled into him. The child was sobbing so hard he could barely breathe, and his eyes darted all around, without seeing Obi-Wan.

“Luke!” The boy made as though he would keep running; Obi-Wan grabbed his shoulders and tried to shake him out of his daze. He had to take the boy’s chin and force him to meet his eyes. “Hush,” he soothed. “Hush, it’s all right.”

His sobbing grew quieter, but Luke was still shaking all over. Obi-Wan pulled his young charge against his chest, rubbing his back until his hysteria died.

“Better?” He leaned Luke away from him.

The boy nodded, taking a deep, shaky breath.

“Was it the dream again?” Usually his recurring dream did not alarm Luke (which in itself was enough to terrify Obi-Wan).

“Uh-uh,” Luke answered. “Not the same one.” He shivered again violently. “This was a new one.”

“It frightened you.”

He could only nod, blue eyes wide.

“What was this one about?” Obi-Wan pressed.

“It was the same man again,” Luke whispered. “The one with the black mask. And I know there was a fire or something, and…” He trailed off, swallowing, unable to voice what he had seen. In the end he whimpered, “Just look, please just look this time.”

“All right,” Obi-Wan agreed slowly. Once Luke had learned the Jedi could probe his mind and see his dreams, he was always wanting Obi-Wan to just do that rather than make him describe his dreams. Usually Obi-Wan didn’t comply, feeling it was valuable practice for the boy; but Luke’s distress was so great this time he had not the heart to put him through anything more. Carefully he reached into Luke’s memories with the Force.

There was indeed a fire involved, a blazing bonfire filling Luke’s mind, so hot it was mostly blue. An unholy medley of screams erupted, so intense and lifelike Obi-Wan was at a loss for how so innocent a child could have dreamed them. Peering around, he could indeed see Vader’s ambiguous image, and recoiled as he realized that one of those screams came from him—a raw, continuous shriek of fury and anguish. But why?

Skeletal images flashed in the background, such as a child would surely find frightening; but he did not think this enough to give Luke a fit of hysterics—

Then he saw the tiny form in the midst of the flames and heartrending shrieks, slowly being blackened and consumed by the fire; yet still recognizable as the baby of Luke’s previous dreams.

He retreated from the boy’s throbbing mind, horror flooding through him, and his arms tightened instinctively around Luke. Too much like Mustafar—far too much like Mustafar for a child to see! Force, it was no wonder the boy had been hysterical at such an awful sight!

It was some time before he could consider what such a horrible nightmare could signify. When he did, his first fear was that something had happened to Leia. He had received a brief note from Elle just an hour earlier, and she had assured him of the princess’ continued safety. Could something have gone so wrong so suddenly?

But further consideration of the dream calmed some of his apprehension. It hardly took a Jedi Master to deduce that the nightmare anticipated death; the skeletons, the freakish screams…the fire. Surely he would sense it if Leia were to die. Luke, of course, was hanging on to him like his life depended on it.

Almost absently, he brushed against Luke’s mind. The boy’s initial terror was gone, but he had been well and truly traumatized. Likely there would be no more sleeping for him tonight.

At least, not alone. He might as well bite the bullet and take the child straight to his own bunk.

Even snuggled against Obi-Wan, his mind safely shielded against further nightmares, Luke was still awake hours later.

“Obi-Wan?” he finally whispered.

“What is it?”

“Where’d Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru go?” He sounded so forlorn Obi-Wan didn’t have the heart to be annoyed about having a conversation at so ungodly an hour. It seemed homesickness had finally caught up.

“They’re safe, Luke. They’re not on Tatooine anymore.”

“Where are they?”

Obi-Wan sighed. “I can’t tell you, Luke. The less people who know, the safer your aunt and uncle will be.”

“Does that mean I can’t see them?”

“No, we can’t go see them. Not for a while, anyway.”

“So are we just going to keep flying?”

“Well, I was looking for someplace we could stop. I think we’ve done enough flying.”

“The bad people aren’t going to find us now?”

Obi-Wan smiled a little, and reached around to hug the boy reassuringly. “No, I don’t think they will.”


About a week later…

Definitely this had not been one of his better days. Coronet, as much as he liked its liveliness, had its dark sides. And he’d found an awful lot of them today. Krethin’ slavers, he was always dodging them. Corellia was just far enough from Coruscant that Imperial favoritism towards humans didn’t matter. Of course, given his general lifestyle, if he were on Coruscant he’d be wandering along with the rest of the local scum and probably there’d be slavers after him anyway. Just here on Corellia they didn’t keep any secrets about it.

But anyhow slavers were old news, practically a staple of life. Like stealing was. Krethin’ sith, he didn’t have much choice about it. He’d starve otherwise. Course it wasn’t like he had many moral objections to it either. He smirked a bit despite his black mood. Nah. When you grew up running the streets of Coronet, you didn’t get much in the way of ethics. He did pretty much anything he cared to, as long as he figured he could get away with it.

Today hadn’t been a day for luck, though. Krethin’ CorSec must have had a holocam spy tailing him to catch him as often as they had today! One of the vendors he’d tried to snatch nerf sausages from had even turned out to be a CorSec covert officer! How unlucky could a kid possibly get? Hadn’t stopped at CorSec and slavers, either. Half the gangs in Coronet had figured him for an interloper or some other underworlder’s spy. He wasn’t sure, but he thought his eyebrows were still smoking from the last encounter. Nearly run over three times to boot, plus somehow he’d got on the wrong side of a Wookiee.

The fourteen-year-old massaged his arm with a scowl. Sith, but he hated Wookiees.

It was getting on dark out in the city, at least as dark as it ever got. Given the kind of day he’d had, he preferred to stay safely within the confines of somewhere CorSec kept a good eye on, but where there were still enough nooks for a kid to hide out in for the night.

Obviously, the Strip would be that place.

On the west side of Coronet, there was a long avenue of ship hangars where most of the incoming traffic docked. Sure, there was plenty of funny business out on the Strip, but generally it was of a more covert nature. That was to say, the riffraff didn’t pull out blasters and start shooting at someone they didn’t like the looks of, mostly cause they knew they’d be caught on holocam, plus CorSec ran biosensors and gene-readers all through the Strip. If you pulled something that obvious, your genetic data had a good chance of being recorded and they’d hunt you down at lightspeed. Nobody’d bother him on the Strip. And he knew for a fact that Hangar 1138 had some good hiding holes. Aside from that, it was sorta run-down and ships didn’t tend to pick it for a landing spot. Should be empty.

The public city lifts got him there quickly. The back way in was still good; either the hangar’s owner didn’t know it existed, or he didn’t much care. Probably didn’t care. And like he’d predicted, the bay’s expanse was ship-free. There was a crewmen’s bunkroom on the far side of the hangar; he could kick out the door or the window and sack out there, out of the holocams’ sightlines.

But although he made it into the bunkroom, and promptly dropped off to an exhausted sleep, his scant luck did not hold. He couldn’t have been asleep two hours before he was awakened by the throbbing drone of ship engines and the strobe of landing lights.

“Kreth!” He exploded out of the bed—a painful incident, as he had forgotten he was on the top of a three-tiered bunk. His head smacked something harder than it on the way down, and he was so dazed by the blow that when he finally began to stumble out towards his back exit, the shuttle’s landing ramp was already deploying as the shutdown cycle ran. He broke into a shaky run, but before he could reach the shadows a figure appeared on the landing ramp, and somehow or other the hangar floodlights switched on.

“Hello there?” the arrival shouted at him. “Hello?”

The smart thing to do would have been to run for the door, and any other time that’s exactly what he would have done. He never afterwards could discover what made him stop and turn around instead; but whatever the reason, he found himself facing a man of medium height, with graying brownish-red hair, garbed in an old brown cloak and a gray jumpsuit.

“Yeah?” His every nerve was on edge, but he did his best to retain his customary insolence.

The man took a closer look at him. “I’m supposing you do not own this hangar.”

He hated nothing more than being called a kid. So maybe the guy hadn’t said it outright, but it was implied! The fact that he really didn’t own the hangar was entirely irrelevant—it was the principle of the matter, even though he wasn’t generally much on principles—

“Nah, I don’t,” he heard himself answering with an uncharacteristic degree of civility. Sith, what was wrong with him?

“Well, perhaps you can help us regardless,” the man continued optimistically, after an extremely long pause full of staring. He had an odd accent—all clipped and tight-like, kinda like the Diktat’s accent whenever he was on the public holo channels giving a speech. “Myself and one companion are intended a prolonged stay here on Corellia. I receive the impression you would know of locations where we would be able to reside anonymously.”

The young street rat blinked, trying to translate the meaning. “You don’t want CorSec findin’ you?”

“Corellian Security?”

“Yeah—CorSec.”

“Not so much them as the Imperial Navy,” the other amended. “They are not yet aware of us, and I prefer to maintain that state.”

He perked up. What a prime opportunity! “It ain’t easy keepin’ a low profile here in Coronet, old man.”

“Yes, I’m aware there will be costs involved,” the other said smoothly. Sheesh, the guy didn’t try to haggle out of it at all! What a loser. “This is my offer; if you can find us a suitable residence, you will be paid the equivalent of two months of rent, not to exceed five thousand credits.” He leaned back a little. “How does that sound?”

Actually, as crazy as this guy had to be to trust him so much, it sounded pretty darned good. Way too good. “What’s the catch?” he demanded irritably.

“No catch, as you put it. I only desire you to find us a quiet, covert home where we can easily go unnoticed, without there being excessive danger. If you find us a place to fit this description, and if I decide to accept it, I will pay you whatever is owed as per our agreement. In fact, I will pay you a thousand upfront simply for taking on the job.” He raised his eyebrows, held out his hand. “Do we have an accord?”

Warily, the youngster took the man’s offered hand, and winced as the other’s grip tightened on his slack hand. “When you shake a hand, you should mean it, son.” The man’s eyes were stern, but his mood quickly lightened. “Now; what might your name be?”

A little of the young man’s rebelliousness returned to him. “You first,” he demanded, grabbing his hand away the better to point his finger at the man. “And don’t you lie to me.” Wow. That sounded pathetic, he realized belatedly. Real intelligent. Like I’d know if he gave me an alias.

The man meshed his fingers together in front of him, considering.

“Your real name or no deal,” the boy pressed fiercely, deciding he might as well look consistently ridiculous.

“Very well.” He took a deep breath. “I am Obi-Wan Kenobi. But I prefer to be called Ben. And what is your name?”

“Han Solo.”

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Han—”

Kenobi cut off sharply and turned his head back towards the ship, as though he’d heard something Han hadn’t. Strain as he would, Han couldn’t determine anything amiss; but after a few moments, he caught the patter of footsteps, and Kenobi’s companion emerged from the shuttle.

A kid? What had he gotten himself into?

“Obi-Wan, who’s that?” The kid sure was pretty short, maybe looked about eight; but Han thought he seemed older than that. “D’ya know him?”

Kenobi gestured the kid closer, held a hand out toward Han. “This is Han Solo. Master Solo, this is my companion, Luke.”

“Heya, kid,” Han said dubiously, sorta waving at the kid and nodding.

They set out of the hangar onto the streets in search of a less-than-noticeable cantina with edible fare, at Kenobi’s insistence. Han’s opinion of the kid quickly shot up a few notches as they went. He might be short, but he sure as the nine hells wasn’t stupid. Those bright blue eyes didn’t miss anything that went on around him, yet he managed to avoid looking like a tourist. Wasn’t a slouch on his feet either.

Actually, neither of them was making it hard for him to take them through Coronet unnoticed. They moved along snappily, keeping to the shadows, and refrained from gawking at the sights. Not that there were many exceptional sights in these parts of the city, unless you had the tastes of a Hutt.

Han was pleasantly surprised when he managed to smuggle the two of them clear across Coronet, without incident, to an underground cantina he remembered from a chase last year. Finally—a break in his luck! Maybe he’d keep these two around; they seemed to be having a good effect.

Kenobi surveyed the dismal exterior of the cantina for a moment before shooting a glance at Han. “It seems safe enough,” he muttered.

“I’m not a little kid,” Luke grumbled darkly. And he glared at Han so convincingly that the Corellian found himself nearly agreeing.

“Well, maybe ya ain’t, kid,” Han shrugged, “but some places of Corellia can get pretty nasty. Nasty enough some adults wouldn’t want to be runnin’ around.”

Luke met him with a regal glower. “You’re not that much older than me. And it isn’t any nastier than—”

“Enough,” Kenobi said shortly. Luke was immediately contrite. “Let’s go in and get something to eat. You too, Han. Everything is on me this time.”

Han was beginning to suspect his circumstances had taken a definite turn for the better.


Two years later…

It was three in the morning. All the mountains outside Leia’s window were nothing but great black shapes, and above them all the stars of the galaxies pinpricked the night, undimmed by bright city lights (night lights were prohibited in Aldera, except for street glowstrips). It was a beautiful sight.

But it was not one she should have been seeing, not so late. Or early, if you wanted to look at it that way. Beliefs depend on our points of view, she chanted to herself. Points of view, points of view… That was her Galactic Politics professor’s favorite mantra; he had been a teacher at Corusca University during the Republic, where he had taught special lectures to Jedi padawans. He’d told her a little about Jedi.

Stop it, Leia you’re distracting yourself. She needed to sleep—she wanted to sleep. But she couldn’t anymore, because she was scared of the dreams. They’d begun when she turned ten, and they hadn’t stopped getting worse since. Two years ago she had decided she would stop telling anyone else about them. She knew her father was worried about her, and that had been when the dreams weren’t so very scary.

All this week, she had stopped even trying to sleep until she was so tired she could not keep her eyes open another second. Only when she was deathly exhausted could she get the nightmares to leave her alone. She felt tears well up. It wasn’t fair, she wanted to sleep! She wanted to sleep without having to hear the screaming and the flames and the dying baby, without seeing people she didn’t know but who wouldn’t leave her alone! Why couldn’t she get rid of them? There was nothing her doctors hadn’t tried, and no doctor that she hadn’t tried.

She had begun lying to her father after it became clear that nothing was going to work. No point in two of them being miserable about affairs, and Leia was nothing if not supremely practical. She was a princess, after all. She was supposed to be strong and set a good example for everyone, keep up appearances.

Except she didn’t think she could keep looking like a princess much longer, not without wearing an actual mask. She was so tired anymore, and she had to steal from her nurse’s makeup to hide the circles under her eyes. Fortunately she was a good enough actress to act like she wasn’t utterly exhausted, and disciplined enough to keep pace with her studies the same as before. She was determined to spare her father the added stress. He was so busy all the time; especially now.

She sat cross-legged on her bed, staring blankly at the opposite wall, her desklight on. She couldn’t remember when she’d turned it on.

Last night there had been a new dream. Thank the Force it hadn’t been a nightmare, but she was objecting to it on principle this time. She had clearly seen two boys, wandering through black streets, highlighted as though by a stagelight; one short and blonde, wearing a dull green jumpsuit; one taller and dark, in shirt and trousers. Just wandering around, both of them, through the darkness.

She hotly denied to herself that she felt any attraction to either of the boys. First of all, it would be completely ridiculous to have a crush on a dream. Secondly, she had long since decided to hate all of her dreams, and she would be cursed if this one was going to be any different!

Not only was Leia practical; she was also fiercely democratic.

Sighing, the little princess dragged herself out of her bed, finding it rather difficult to keep her footing. Her dreams had been even worse than normal this whole last week. But she blamed it on the added stress of their guest. Anybody would be extra nervous around him, although of course being a princess it was her duty not to betray any such sentiment. She must not be frightened; she must be twice as gracious and regal as normal.

Actually, she really wasn’t scared of him. Well—at least not nearly as scared as everyone else seemed to be. Leia was always very perceptive of others’ emotions; it was just a gift she had, being able to tell how they were feeling. She supposed it was the way they carried themselves, or maybe a slightly different inflection of the voice, but she could see plain as day that the whole royal court was terrified of its half-imposed guest.

Although he hadn’t exactly invited himself over for a visit—indeed, he seemed about as happy with the arrangement as the courtiers—neither Bail Organa nor Darth Vader were about to refuse the Emperor’s suggestion that the Dark Lord retire himself to Alderaan while his command, Fifth Fleet, underwent its annual upgrades and repairs in the nearby Kuati system’s Navy shipyards.

Why Lord Vader objected to the suggestion was something Leia could not quite fathom. She felt quite sure he did not want to be on Alderaan, but that left one to wonder where it was that he did want to be. Surely not with the fleet—there would be nothing for him to do while the ships were upgraded, and from what she knew of Lord Vader he was not one to be idle.

She knew a great more about him, too—not good things. He was a horrid, dark, evil man by all accounts. She had been entirely prepared to hate him when he arrived, and to be very studious in hiding that dislike. But, though she was constantly aware of his dislike of the circumstances, he had proven more equable than anyone had expected. His temper was the stuff of legends, but Leia had yet to hear him raise his voice significantly. In fact, she didn’t hear him much at all. Except for meals and other such required appearances, he generally kept to himself.

Being as she was still only twelve, Bail did not generally have Leia come to the state dinners and other formal occasions; so in the week that he had been here Lord Vader had crossed her path only three or four times, and that at a distance. Still, whether she saw much of him or not, his presence seemed to hang over the palace grounds and darken everyone’ s moods; she was sure the general stress was affecting her nightmares.

That did not make her situation any less frustrating.

Wearily, she trudged across the expanse of her room to her closet and groped around for something warm. She probably wasn’t supposed to, but she was going to go for a walk in the gardens. Nobody had specifically told her it wasn’t allowed, so her father wouldn’t have any grounds to punish her. And just right now, she was so miserable she really wouldn’t have cared anyway. She just had to find some sort of respite. It was almost as if she was being dragged out there by an invisible leash.

She perked up a little as she slipped out into the hall, padding softly so as to avoid waking anyone, past the moss painting on the wall, towards the private terrace. There was a bigger pavilion out front, adjacent to the main dining chamber, which was used for the formal parties and such; this smaller one was reserved for the family and guests. It opened out into the gardens in the center of the palace. There were walkways through the flowers, hidden little bowers and fountains. It was soothing there. Maybe she would even manage to fall asleep.

Yeah, right.

The gardens were breezy and cool when she got there, wrapped up in a blanket that had happened to be close at hand when she opened her closet room. She immediately felt herself calmer as the soft scents and sounds washed over her. Slowly the small girl began meandering through, blinking in bleary exhaustion, moving in a kind of daze.

She was nearly sleepwalking after a few minutes, but a sudden whisper of a sound managed to penetrate the haziness and snapped her back to attention. What was that? She was sure she had heard something! There, again—it seemed to be coming from the big fountain in the center. Feeling suddenly adventurous, she scampered off the path into the bushes and began crawling through. The sound began to be clearer; definitely there was a rhythm to it, but it must be from the opposite side of the fountain courtyard. She emerged from the bushes cautiously and cautiously lifted her head up just enough that she could peer over the top of the fountain rim at the far side.

Her blood seemed to freeze. Darth Vader was standing right over there, his back to the fountain, his head tilted up towards the sky, motionless. It was rather as though she had been walking along a river and had stumbled across an inert crocodile.

Breathe very, very quietly, and maybe he won’t notice

But the second she thought it, he turned around and stared directly at her. Good Force, could he read what she was thinking?

“It is entirely too late for a child to be awake,” he rumbled at her. “Should you not be in bed, little princess?”

She swallowed and stood up. “I couldn’t sleep.” She was a little surprised that she didn’t stutter, and even more that she dared speak again an instant later. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

He circled around the fountain slowly. “I find this preferable.”

“So you couldn’t sleep either,” she muttered. He heard her anyway.

“No,” he returned, sounding a bit amused.

She hadn’t expected a Sith Lord to act so congenially. Especially not to a little girl.

“Why could you not sleep, little one?”

She didn’t understand, not at all! Why would he be interested in her? This didn’t seem like the Darth Vader she’d heard about—the one who had destroyed the Jedi, who had bombed out cities full of people without warning, who strangled his officers at the slightest offense. A man who had done all that—and he had—shouldn’t care about one young girl!

He was standing some feet in front of her now, obviously expecting that she answer.

“Nightmares,” she mumbled, a bit ashamed and a lot confused.

There was a silence before he answered. “I understand that.” His voice had not changed, but she sensed a definite empathy. He really did understand. Maybe that was why he was awake? “Your father mentioned a few months ago that you had been troubled by them.”

She was immediately indignant. Her father hardly needed to go around telling everybody on Coruscant about her personal life! It wasn’t right!

“Your father does not constantly chatter about your health. I specifically asked him.”

Her eyes flashed up. “Why did you ask—wait! How did you know that? I don’t want you reading my mind!” Defensiveness flared up immediately; through her indignation she faintly noticed he was surprised by her outburst.

They stood in a tense silence for a minute or so. Leia clutched her blanket a little more tightly around her, chilled by the unwelcome reminder of why everyone around her was so very scared of this man. All of a sudden she was struck by how big he was.

She almost cringed as he abruptly moved towards her, frightened, but he only reached out and lifted her chin carefully. “Have these nightmares persisted long?” he asked her, rather like a doctor would.

She didn’t answer him at first, beginning to feel very uncomfortable indeed; but his grip tightened just enough that she decided it might be dangerous not to tell him. And if her father might not want her telling Darth Vader about her dreams, he certainly wouldn’t want her hurt. “Yes,” she finally whispered.

“How long?”

“A-about three years.” She could feel herself starting to tremble. She’d come to the garden to get away from her nightmares—but this was beginning to feel like one of them. Full of darkness and mounting fear—and Lord Vader even reminded her very strongly of that dark man of her dreams.

“What do you dream of?”

But now she was shaking all over. All of her dreams were pouring down on top of her, crushing her down beneath their weight—it was worse than even the experience of them had been. Every horrific, mysterious image seemed magnified a thousand times over—they were spilling out, surrounding her, filling up the gardens with their ghastly, terrifying forms. The fires were burning again, burning all around her, trapping her—dimly she heard the screaming start again, and that was the last thing she could remember.

Vader had sensed the young princess’ rising fright, but he was thoroughly startled nonetheless. No sooner had he asked her about her dreams than she began to shake, so violently it was almost a convulsive fit. He reached out with his other hand to take her arm, trying to steady her. But it was to no avail; she didn’t even seem to be registering her surroundings anymore. Her eyes and mouth opened wide in pure terror—she wrenched her head around desperately in his grip until he let go of her altogether.

He watched in admitted consternation as the child stumbled back from him, gasping, twisting in circles. Was this one of the “nightmares” that had been plaguing her? He didn’t know what else it could be. But it was certainly no ordinary nightmare, and his interference might make it worse.

When Leia began to scream and sob, though, he decided it was time to summon help. He reached for his com and brought up Bail’s private line.

He felt an unexpected rush of relief when the man answered promptly. “Lord Vader?” he asked, obviously bewildered. To his credit, he recovered quickly. “I take it there has been an incident of some sort.” The small holographic figure cocked his head. “Is someone screaming?”

“Your daughter,” Vader answered him shortly. “She seems to be suffering from a nightmare of some kind; I suggest you come to the gardens immediately.”

“The gardens? Why—”

“Not now, Senator,” he snapped. “I will supervise her until you arrive.” He switched the com off.

By the time Organa arrived, little Leia was huddled against the rim of the fountain, sobbing so hard she could scarcely breathe, shoving violently at the air as though to push away some hideous assailant. The Dark Lord had put up a Force shield to keep her shrieks from waking the entire palace. Bail came running down the path, nightrobe flapping in the breeze, wearing an expression of panic to rival his daughter’s.

“What’s the matter with her?” the Senator gasped, as soon as he could hear the poor girl. “Leia!”

She only wailed and turned in against the wall, hands pressed against her ears, staring wildly at invisible horrors.

Vader turned to him. “I took it to be one of her nightmares.”

“No—no, she’s never acted this way, I’ve never seen her like this!” He started towards his daughter again, but Vader caught his shoulder.

“Stop. It may be harmful to disturb her if this is similar to sleepwalking.”

Bail halted, hands hanging helplessly at his side. “Force, we can’t just leave her that way,” he breathed. “This is harming her too!”

Vader nodded, considering. As far as he could tell, this seemed to be a Force trance of sorts. If Leia had been a Force sensitive, he could have directly touched her troubled mind and coaxed her out of the semi-trance; but the child had certainly been tested a dozen times for that by now, as per Imperial regulations. Perhaps Leia had a tiny edge of enhanced sensitivity when she dreamed, but not enough that he could deal with the problem in that manner.

He saw only one other possibility. He reached quickly out with the Force and found the pressure points on her head before she could react to his intervention. In a few seconds, the girl slumped forward.

“She is unconscious,” he announced after checking her. The Senator quickly joined them at the fountain rim, helping lower her to the pavement.

“Is she all right?” he asked nervously, already feeling her pulse.

Vader did a quick scan of her presence. Though she seemed badly traumatized, he found no indication of injury. “She does not appear to have suffered any damage.”

Bail shot a shrewd gaze upward. “I find it curious she is even here.”

With you, the unspoken words hung between them.

“She said that she had not been able to sleep.”

Bail frowned. “Did she say why?”

“Nightmares. You said some time ago she had been suffering from them, did you not?”

“Yes, but she hasn’t complained of them almost since then.” Bail stroked Leia’s hair with deep concern. “In fact, she said outright she wasn’t having any trouble sleeping.”

“Your daughter is an impressive liar,” Vader noted dryly, ignoring the other man’s stab of irritation.

“It could have been an isolated incident.”

“She informed me she had been suffering from them consistently for nearly three years,” Vader objected.

Bail shook his head in disbelief. “She’s too stubborn,” he muttered. “Much too stubborn.” A silence fell briefly. “But what caused this to happen? If she was talking to you, she can’t have been in any trouble initially.” His gaze was again suspicious—fearfully so.

“I asked her what her nightmares were about. She began shaking, and then fell into much the same state as you saw her in. Presumably memories of her nightmares were to blame.” The Dark Lord stood. The intimacy of the situation was suddenly impressing itself upon him to a very undesirable degree.

“Force, they must have gotten worse than before,” Bail murmured. “Or she didn’t tell me everything to start with.”

“I would not be surprised if she did not,” Vader said sharply. “She is indeed entirely too stubborn, and you would do well to break her of it before she injures herself further.” And with that he stalked out of the gardens to his chambers, in a truly fearsome mood.

He was getting soft, he growled at himself—concerning himself with that girl! Sith Lords did not concern themselves with the petty nightmares of children.

He stopped in his tracks. Actually, Sith Lords were not supposed to concern themselves with children at all. Yet he could not even think that without an ache rising in him to be back at Bast Castle.

How big his daughters must be getting by now! Today they were two years old, his precious little girls. Sara and Sandra. He wanted nothing more than to get on the next ship off Alderaan and fly back to see the twins. He had in fact seriously contemplated doing it, and even had gone so far as to order his shuttle readied before coming to his senses and revoking the command. If he began to behave erratically, and cause the Emperor’s suspicion, Palpatine would kill him, and not only would he never see the twins again, they would be left orphans—potentially at the nonexistent mercy of the Emperor himself, should he take any interest in Vader’s holdings on Vjun.

Yet fatherhood was undeniably having its effect on him, as evidenced by his encounter with young Leia, whose very name made it impossible for him not to think of his children. The fact that the little girl reminded him so strongly of Padme likely had not helped matters. So fiery, so practical and bold. She would make her politician father proud someday. He would certainly be proud, were she his daughter.

Force, but he had to be more careful! He could not afford to be soft again, not like that. It was all well and good to love his daughters—but they must not be allowed to affect him beyond the confines of Vjun, or he would not have much longer to love them.


Meanwhile, in a certain seedy cantina…

Han sighed with relief as he finally turned the final corner and covered the remaining distance to the underground cantina. At last, somewhere with at least a modicum of safety. It hadn’t been as bad as that memorable day two years ago, but he was more than ready for the rest.

He trotted towards the bar—but a small mop of blond hair caught his eye before he quite got all the way. He could hardly believe his eyes as he recognized that kid from the hangar two years back—what was his name again, Trevor? Nah…

The kid—who’d gotten at least a bit taller—was with old what’s-his-name, the guy with the weird accent and graying hair, and both of them were bent over a holoboard. Good grief—that wasn’t dejarik the old man had the kid playing! Kreth, how would he ever survive in the real world? Han was almost beginning to feel a duty to give the boy a sabacc education, cause for sure the kid wasn’t gonna learn it from the old man, and he wasn’t gonna make it too far without knowing the galaxy’s most basic pastime. Someone’d probably shoot him out of pure disgust.

Not that he was good at it himself really. Pretty much that was what had happened to his money for finding a flat for those two—he couldn’t quite give up his hopes of getting his own ship, and he could see no way of accomplishing that except winning one in a game.

But he’d saved fifteen hundred credits. He wasn’t an idiot.

He actually wondered for a few moments whether or not he would sidle over and say hello—but then he came to his senses and headed straight for the bar…

…Only to be flagged down by a calm “Hello, Han,” from the old man.

“Yeah, hey,” he gritted out, turning slowly, his hand resting on his blaster (the only profitable investment he’d made of his money from the old man).

“You seem to be looking well, my young friend,” the guy continued, leaning back as he finished a move.

Han scowled, but before he could find a suitably stinging reply, the man gave an inviting gesture. “Unless you’re meeting someone?”

“Nah,” he sighed, and sat himself reluctantly down on the seat next to the kid. The youngster did not look up at him; he was too engaged in frowning at the game board. Neither did the old guy—Kennedy? nah—start up a conversation; he seemed as intent on the kid as the kid was on the game.

They spent a good minute in silence before the boy abruptly reached out and tapped an empty square on the board, then pointed at one of the old guy’s players, with quite an air of triumph.

“Very good, Luke,” the old man said approvingly. Luke—yeah, he remembered that now. But what was the old guy’s name again? Aha! Kenobi, that was it.

Han frowned at the board. “Isn’t he supposed to make a move?” he finally asked aloud.

“Oh, no, it was my move,” said Kenobi; and he reached out and moved the monster to the square Luke had pointed out.

Though he would not of course be caught dead playing the game, Han figured it wasn’t exactly playing by the rules to allow your opponent to tell you where you were supposed to move.

It ought to be Luke’s move now, he guessed—but Luke leaned back into his seat, arms folded, small mouth set almost grimly, as Kenobi leaned over the board. Where Luke had taken at least a minute, the old man sat back up in about twelve seconds. “The rancor, to H7,” he announced; and Luke’s face fell. “You did better that time,” the old man added encouragingly. Still somewhat morose, the boy obediently directed his monster to H7.

“Hey, I don’t get it,” Han finally demanded, after this bizarre procedure had continued for several moves on either side. “How come you tell each other where to move?”

“I’m not telling him where to move,” Kenobi said serenely. “I am telling him where he is planning to move.”

Han blinked. “You’re telling him what he’s thinking?”

“Yes, after a fashion. Of course, some of it is interpreted from the board.”

“Krakana to A12,” Luke announced suddenly. Kenobi shook his head.

“That’s not right.”

Luke sat back sourly. “Well, you should have moved there,” he muttered, as Kenobi selected a different monster. “Now you left the vaapad open.” He moved another of his monsters to slay the vaapad, which let out a convincing death howl.

“Oh,” the old man smiled mystically, “I think it all depends on your point of view.” He made his next move—and effectively crushed Luke’s krayt dragon. “Game over, I’m afraid.”

Luke glared at him for a second, but recovered his equanimity speedily. “Is that enough now?”

“Yes, I think that’s enough practice of that for one day. You are improving, certainly.”

“The longest I made it was twenty seconds,” Luke objected.

“Four better than last time,” Kenobi pointed out.

“Well, if I’m improving so much, shouldn’t I deserve a reward?”

Kenobi laughed. “This time won’t hurt, I suppose.” He waved to the bartender, and ordered three drinks up. Han, having long since been introduced to Corellian whiskey, was downright scornful of the mild stuff that arrived; but out of some misplaced sense of courtesy, he didn’t object.

“So, you think you’re some kinda Jedi, Kenobi?” Han finally asked, swirling his drink around in his mug. “Playing that mind-readin’ game or whatever?”

Had he been a littler older and wiser, Han would have noticed Kenobi stiffen just a touch; and he would have been watching Luke too, and would have seen the boy cast a sharp glance around the nearby booths. But he didn’t.

“Merely a mental pastime, young Master Solo,” Kenobi answered smoothly. “Good for a young mind.” He nodded to Luke, who Han now noticed was staring fixedly at his mug.

The conversation wound on, away from the topic of the strange game, on to Han’s recent exploits and those of his companions during the two years that had passed, on to the most interesting events of Coronet, through numerous anecdotes and sharp repartee on the part of Kenobi, who despite his general weirdness had a wit to rival any of the spacers Han could name.

“Well, Master Solo, I fear Luke and I must take leave of you,” Kenobi finally wound down. “A pleasure to meet with you again.”

Oddly enough, Han found himself agreeing. “See ya sometime, kid,” he said, tousling Luke’s hair in what he supposed was a friendly sort of way. The three of them left and went their separate ways from the door of the cantina.


When Leia awoke, there seemed to be a thick haziness floating around her. It was rather like a cloud had floated into the room. But although everything was blurry, she could still tell that she was not in her own room.

Rack her brains as she would, she couldn’t remember why.

“Leia?”

It took her a moment to recognize her father’s voice, as it too seemed to be distorted. Slowly she turned her head to the left—and saw to her surprise that he was sitting beside the bed, holding her hand. She could feel his other hand now, brushing back her hair.

“Daddy?”

He nodded. “You gave me quite a scare, young lady.”

Young lady? Oh, no… Gently spoken as it was right now, she knew perfectly well that that phrase could only mean trouble for her. The problem was, she hadn’t the faintest idea what he could be upset about.

“What did I do?” she asked meekly. The haziness was going away now, thank goodness.

Her father’s expression immediately became as concerned as she had ever seen it. “Do you not remember what happened last night?”

“Last night? Wasn’t I asleep?”

“No. Do you remember getting up and going for a walk?”

She frowned, pondered—and abruptly remembered how she had been unable to sleep and had gone out to the gardens. “Now I do—but I just—I just wanted—I mean I thought that maybe I could go to sleep again if I walked—”

“Shh,” her father cut in. “I’m not upset that you went for a walk.”

“—And you never said I couldn’t—you’re not?”

“No, I’m not.” Her father smiled a little at her and squeezed her hand. “Now, do you remember what happened there?”

Something was definitely nagging at her memory now. “I remember crawling through the bushes,” she said softly. “I think I was looking for something—I heard something, that was it, and it didn’t sound normal…”

The noise she had heard came rushing back—it sounded like a respirator…

She almost sat bolt upright as she remembered. “It was Lord Vader!” she yelped suddenly. She rolled frantically over towards her father. “Daddy, I promise I didn’t know he was there—I wouldn’t have gone if I thought he would be there!”

“Leia, I know it’s not your fault,” Bail sighed. “But you should have left as soon as you knew he was there.”

“I was going to—but he saw me and came over, and I couldn’t just run away!”

“Yes, you can—you can, and if that ever happens again, until I say otherwise, that’s what you do.”

“But he could have caught me easy!”

“He wouldn’t have done that.”

She was so confused. “If he wouldn’t try to catch me, why should it matter if I stay or not?”

“Leia, there are a great many things you do not know about Darth Vader. He does not always seem so very dangerous—but what have your professors and I told you about appearances?”

“That they’re deceiving,” she recited.

“Just because he might not try to physically harm you does not mean he cannot hurt you in other ways,” her father said grimly. “Remember that until I come back.”

Leia blinked. “Come back?”

“I have to go back to Aldera.”

“But—where are we then?”

“I brought you to Castanta. You’ve been here before, remember?”

Of course she did—Castanta was a small, remote seaside town, and the Organa family had a summer home here. But they did not come to it often, because it was on the clear opposite side of Alderaan from Aldera.

“Daddy, what happened?” she demanded.

“I need to know exactly what you said to Lord Vader.”

“Why?”

“Leia, I have to know everything!” Her father’s hand tightened on hers—he grabbed her shoulder and pulled her to face him head on. “Leia, he is a dangerous man to anyone, but you are in much greater peril than most—you must tell me everything!”

“Why is he so much more dangerous to me?” she cried out. She tried to get up, but her father held her still.

“Leia, hush—I want you to rest. Lie down. I can’t explain everything to you right now. You’re going to have to take my word for it right now.”

“If he’s so dangerous why didn’t he hurt me?”

“I said, not right now. I will explain some of it to you later, but not now.”

She felt like crying. And she never cried. “Why not now?”

“Because I do not know what Lord Vader may or may not think about what happened last night. And I most certainly do not want you in Aldera until he is gone.”

“Daddy, what happened last night?”

“I’m not quite sure what happened, Leia, but from what I saw it’s perhaps best you don’t remember,” Bail said gently.

“No! Please, what if I remember what it was while you’re gone and I can’t come back yet? What if it happens again?”

Bail was silent for a moment. “All right,” he said finally. “It was a nightmare of sorts, Leia. Apparently Lord Vader asked you—”

What do you dream of?...

And that was all it took—she remembered. “I was seeing all my nightmares,” she whispered. “It was like they were in the garden all around me. And then—I don’t remember anything else.”

“You were screaming when I got there,” Bail told her. “Do you remember that?”

She shook her head.

“What nightmares were these?”

And suddenly she remembered that he had said young lady. Obviously her father realized that she had not been telling him about her dreams as he had wanted. But even that was not the main reason she did not want to describe what she’d seen. They were just too horrible to speak about.

Bail cajoled and commanded and begged for nearly an hour, trying to get a description of the dream from her, and the farthest he got was an admission that a Vader-like figure had been involved. Finally he switched back to digging out the conversation that had transpired between his daughter and the Dark Lord, with more success.

He spent a few more precious moments making sure she was quite calmed down, reassuring her that she was safe here in Castanta, before he finally left Leia to the capable hands of the housekeepers—and several concealed bodyguards on alert within the grounds and throughout the city. He reboarded his shuttle and broke every speeding law on Alderaan to get back to the capital city and the palace before eight of the morning in their zone. The Force willing, the Dark Lord would not recognize anything amiss; and he could only pray Vader’s fatal suspicion had not been aroused.

He ought to have sent Leia away to Castanta as soon as he knew Vader was coming, he berated himself. Force, what had he been thinking to let biological father and daughter come into such close range? Nothing good could ever result from such carelessness—and the incident that had occurred might well prove to be a disaster. He could think of no excuse, glimpse no future wherein the Dark Lord remained completely unsuspicious of the events of last night and made no attempts to investigate House Organa.

It was in a state of the utmost dread that he landed at Aldera Palace and disembarked—to the veritably horrific sight of Darth Vader himself storming out of the palace building into the hangar, accompanied by a cadre of armored stormtroopers.

In desperation, he turned back and murmured to his aide, who moved back up the shuttle ramp to the task of wiping the ship-log—probably a futile measure, but there was a chance that it might keep Leia safer a little longer. After that there was nothing to do but put on a pleasant expression and walk down to meet his ominous guest, all the while wondering how he was to explain himself, and whether any explanation even mattered anymore.

“Senator Organa,” Vader said tersely. “I apologize for the short notice”—he did not sound even remotely contrite—“but certain developments require my immediate departure. Accept my thanks for your kind hospitality.”

As abrupt as that strange day of the belated, perfunctory briefing almost a year ago—and already, the Dark Lord was striding past him towards the Imperial shuttle on the landing pad outside the hangar; which, since Bail’s departure with Leia, had been joined by an identical twin.

“Farewell, my lord,” Bail called after him helplessly. In a few more moments the Imperials had all boarded, and the shuttles launched up towards the skies. Utterly unable to believe his good luck, Bail contacted System Control as soon as he reached a com unit, demanding the status of the Imperial warships overhead—and soon received confirmation that the destroyer and its two corvettes had all made the jump to hyperspace.

What in the galaxy could have been so urgent as to cause Vader to quit the system with such abruptness? Surely not the Rebellion—even had a major battle occurred, there was little the Dark Lord could accomplish by arriving in its aftermath sooner rather than later. Had there perhaps been some crisis on Coruscant? Perhaps, even, the Emperor…?

No; that would be entirely too fortuitous, much as he would love to see that shriveled, venomous beast of a being drop dead out of the blue.

Bail retired himself to his office and paced back and forth, going over the stressful turn events had recently taken. Gone though Vader might now be, he felt it would not be wise to bring Leia back to Aldera just yet—not until he was very sure the Empire’s second-in-command had no intentions of returning—and indeed, the more he thought about it, perhaps it would be safest if the girl simply vanished from the public for a good long while. The last thing he needed was any further Imperial attention.

On the other hand, her absence might in itself be conspicuous. Force, what was he to do?

Finally, he resolved himself. Leave Leia at Castanta for the next two weeks, and as soon as possible, contact Master Kenobi. This was getting beyond his control; at the very least, he needed to know whether it was likely the Dark Lord would be much suspicious of his little princess. How, how he hated to risk Kenobi’s cover—but it would be worse to see Leia dead.


Darth Vader waited on the bridge until the Vindicator and her accompanying corvettes were safely in hyperspace; then he whirled from the viewport and marched away to his personal conference room. It was empty—except for one, a man of middle age with gray eyes and a scar.

“Agent Baranne,” he acknowledged, waving the man back into his seat while he himself paced the length of the conference table. “Have you had any further intelligence?”

“I’m afraid not, my lord,” Baranne shook his head, flipping open a dossier. “I have sent orders to my contact on Corellia to stand down; if this is indeed Kenobi, we would appear to have a significant advantage at the moment, and I felt it would be unwise to risk alerting him.”

Vader continued pacing, trying to contain his agitation. Baranne was right, certainly. He had come to the conclusion that the agent usually was. “Has your Corellian contact been trailing the suspect prior?”

“No, my lord—the information was entirely accidental. It would seem he overheard a chance remark in the cantina, directed to a Kenobi.”

“There are thousands of Kenobis,” Vader growled.

Baranne’s only answer was to withdraw a data chip from the dossier and plug it into the table media system. It was strictly audio. The bustle of what sounded like some sort of bar or cantina began. A discussion was being held in some language Vader did not know. Then, during a lull in the conversation, he heard a young man’s voice in the background.

“So, you think you’re some kinda Jedi, Kenobi?”

He listened harder as the conversation resumed, trying to hear those background voices through the prattle; but soon the recording cut off.

“We’ve done some analysis on the voices,” Baranne continued. “We were able to isolate one that produced a seventy-point-two percent match with the vocal profile of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Considering the rather poor quality of the recording and the passage of time, I felt this was a strong enough lead to put forth a significant effort. I trust you think my decision justifiable?”

“It is indeed justified,” Vader concurred. Blood-lust raged in him already—he could feel the dark side reverberating with anticipation of the inevitable. Finally! After eleven years, his suffering would at last be avenged. “Should this venture prove successful, you will have earned my gratitude, Baranne.”

In fact, the Dark Lord reflected as he swept out of the conference room, Baranne had earned that gratitude already. The agent had all but given his daughters to him, between the genetic samples and the recording from Kamino. But of course he could not express any of that to the agent, even had he so desired.

He brooded darkly in his hyperbaric chamber as the Vindicator leapt through time and space, reviewing all of his reasons for hating his old master, building his rage. Yet at the same, he cautioned himself to be prepared for disappointment. There was a chance that this was not even the Kenobi he was looking for; or worse yet, that his sly old master had caught on, and was already fleeing the system.

But something felt different in the Force—a throb of destiny was in its currents and ebbs, and he knew that this time he would not meet with failure.


On Corellia…

It was rare that Obi-Wan could not sleep at nights—nowadays, anyway. The first two or so years after Mustafar, he had been painfully familiar with insomnia. But that was easily explained, given the…traumatic nature of what he had experienced. He was at a loss for what could be causing his restlessness now.

He sat bleary-eyed at the small table in the apartment he and Luke shared on the west side of Coronet, glancing around his surroundings. They had only arrived here last night—after young Solo’s unfortunate remark in the cantina, he had felt it was wisest to relocate them. Of course, he had waited until Han was well away before going back to the cantina and examining the minds of everyone who had been within earshot of their table. He felt a little more at ease in the knowledge that none of them had paid the comment any mind, or indeed even noticed it. It was not, he had decided, worth uprooting Luke again from the system—but it could not hurt to move to a new home.

Sitting here now, he was beginning to reconsider his decision. Maybe it would indeed be for the best to just pack up altogether and leave the system. Firstly, better safe than sorry. Secondly, Luke had been acting decidedly out of character for the past few days, ever since the cantina conversation. The boy was quiet, restless, startled easily when they were on the streets, and had trouble focusing. They had been reviewing the levitation of objects yesterday—Luke had been utterly unable to keep anything in the air for more than a few seconds, and even then whatever he was lifting would waver and tilt crazily. Though he’d kept the boy practicing for an hour, Luke had only gotten worse with each try, until they were both too frustrated to continue.

But only last week, the boy had astounded him by levitating several dozen miniature starfighter models and whizzing them around in a carefully orchestrated battle. That was a far cry from the miserable performance he’d given yesterday.

Neither did the boy’s distraction limit itself to matters of the Force. He was all but unable to do math of even the simplest level, a subject at which he usually excelled. Obi-Wan had to repeat instructions several times before he could be sure Luke would hear and remember everything. The boy could not fall asleep until very late, and was up before his Master; he claimed he was being awakened by dreams, but he was unable to remember them.

Maybe most alarmingly, he was constantly pressing for more information about his aunt and uncle’s whereabouts, and asking whether the two of them were safe here in the new house, and whether Obi-Wan thought anyone had noticed them in the cantina. Never to his recollection had Luke been so uneasy.

Obi-Wan let out a shaky sigh. He admitted it—the boy’s behavior was scaring him enormously. As the sky began to lighten outside, he decided that they would go out that very morning and find a ship off-planet. He hadn’t the faintest idea where to take the boy, nor did he like the thought of Luke enduring another long period of homelessness. But better safe than sorry.

Six of the morning found the two of them in a hangar on the Strip of Coronet, negotiating the price for a small and shamefully battered freighter. The owner, a grungy-looking humanoid, eventually agreed to part with it for the outrageous price of 50,000 credits, but Obi-Wan was too relieved to have a ship to feel much indignation over what it cost him. They could sell it again in the next system and find something newer, anyway.

As they made their way down the Strip, headed back for the apartment to pack what they had and load the freighter, a commotion arose, and a familiar head of dark hair caught Luke’s attention. It was indeed young Han Solo, darting through the crowds, and clearly fleeing the large, multi-armed, furious alien a dozen strides behind him. “Solo, you street scum!” it shouted—and the creature brandished a blaster, firing shots into the shrieking crowd.

Obi-Wan caught the youngster by the arm and dragged both Han and Luke into the skylift on the side of the street, rushing the door closed with the Force and shooting it up at twice its normal speed to the city transit platform overhead. Fortunately a turbotrain whistled to a stop at the platform before the irate alien chasing Solo could get to them, and in another few seconds they were safely on their way to the western side of the city.

“Thanks,” Han panted, leaning over to catch his breath.

“Isn’t it a bit early in the morning to have someone shooting at you?” Obi-Wan remarked wryly. He peered a bit closer at young Solo, and saw the scorched fabric of his shirt. “You took a bolt, it seems.”

Han glanced at his arm and winced. “Yeah, looks so.” He swore under his breath in Huttese, apparently believing Obi-Wan would not understand it. Nor did he in detail, but Luke certainly followed it well enough, and Obi-Wan sensed a spike of reproach from the twelve-year-old—if not shock.

“Come with us; I can see to that burn for you,” Obi-Wan offered.

“Nah, that’s okay—”

“I insist,” Obi-Wan interrupted firmly. He could feel the Force nagging at him—demanding that he bring Han back to their soon-to-be-quitted house, for some purpose beyond his ability to fathom.

Han seemed a little subdued by the older man, and came with them to their sparse flat, where Obi-Wan sat him down firmly at the table and told Luke to pack up his things while he saw to the wound.

“You two goin’ somewhere?” Han asked, as Obi-Wan dug through the cabinet for the box of meds.

“We’re leaving system,” was the short reply.

“Huh.” Han looked around the small kitchen/living room, and peered into the door at the far end, where Luke was busily stuffing his clothes and a model T-23 into a backpack. Obi-Wan came back, rolled up the shirt sleeve, and began daubing it briskly with disinfectant.

“Hold still,” he ordered, carefully putting down a patch of synthflesh over the burn. The blaster bolt appeared to have done no more than graze the teenager; the synthflesh should be sufficient to heal the damage. He swept the meds back into the box as Han flexed his arm experimentally.

“Thanks,” he offered. “Hey, uh—do you need some help packing up?” He looked awkward and hesitant, and Obi-Wan could tell he was not in the habit of offering assistance for free.

Even though there really wasn’t much to be done, he nodded. “Yes, thank you. That’s very generous of you.” He pulled one of their packing cases out of the apartment’s closet and set Han to filling it with the books and data chips stacked on the shelves. They talked as they worked.

“So—what precisely do you do with yourself all the time, young master Solo?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Ah, odds and ends,” Han said evasively, studiously keeping his eyes glued to the shelves. “I’m aiming to get myself a ship one of these days.”

“A pilot, are you?”

Han grinned. “That’s right.” He forced the packing case lid shut and hefted the whole thing over to the door.

“And what do you plan to do with a ship?”

“Ah, I dunno. Probably sign on with a merchant fleet or something.” He took Obi-Wan’s filled packing case and put it on top of the first. “I thought about sendin’ out an application to Academy.”

Obi-Wan nodded. He couldn’t fault the boy for wanting to pursue his dreams, and unfortunately the Imperial Academy was the best flight school the galaxy boasted. Besides, not every graduate of the Academy went to the Imperial Navy.

Luke emerged from his room, carrying his outsized backpack.

“You have everything?” Obi-Wan asked him. The boy nodded, shifting on his feet. He was looking very uneasy indeed.

Obi-Wan conducted a final survey of the little apartment; then all three of them picked up a bag and left it for good.


Vader clenched his fists sharply as the twisting panorama of hyperspace shrank down into the pinpoints of stars—ahead, through the bridge viewport, the planet of Corellia ballooned out of the void, the line of the sunrise splitting it into equal halves of dark and light. And just as suddenly as the presence of the world ahead loomed that of his old master—reaching slyly out, he caught the sense of the man, and a feral joy arose within him.

Indeed Baranne had not failed him.

No sooner was the Vindicator settled into orbit than Vader was descending to the capital city of the planet in his personal shuttle, where he sensed his onetime master and comrade was currently located. His hand itched on the hilt of his lightsaber, every nerve—both real and artificial—trembled with anticipation. So, so close, after such a long deprivation…so close to his vengeance…


Han Solo and his two mismatched companions were halfway down the Strip to the hangar holding the freighter when Kenobi inexplicably missed a step. The case dropped to the ground, but the old man paid it no mind—his blue eyes were staring into the distance, with a vague hint of horror in them.

Beside him, Han heard Luke actually whimper, and he looked over to see the boy shifting from foot to foot as though he expected someone to whip around a corner and put a blaster bolt through his head. “Hey, kid, settle down,” he ordered. “You all right, old man?”

Kenobi shook himself out of his daze. “Han, can you take a ship to hyperspace?” he demanded abruptly.

“Huh? Yeah, I guess so…”

Kenobi shoved the case at him, and reached into his belt beneath the cloak. “Take Luke—go to the hangar.” He pulled some data chips and a flimsy printout from his belt pouch and pushed them into Han’s hands. “The freighter is yours—just please, take Luke to the address on this chip, as quickly as you can.”

Han stood dumfounded, staring at the yet-unsigned ownership deed and the chips. Kenobi reached down and took Luke by the shoulders. “Go with Han—he’s going to take you to your aunt and uncle,” he said hurriedly.

“Obi-Wan, what is it?” Luke whispered in terror.

Kenobi took a breath. “It’s going to be all right, Luke. Just go with Han. If all goes well, I should rejoin you in a month or two.” He lifted Luke’s chin gently. “The Force will be with you, young one.”

Luke just threw his arms tightly around Kenobi, and for a second there was stillness. Then they broke apart; Kenobi strode over to Han. “Whatever you do,” he murmured, “make sure you keep that boy away from the Empire. Do you understand?”

Han nodded, standing a little taller. “Yessir.” He turned to Luke. “Come on, kid.” Grabbing the extra case up in the same hand as the first, Han seized the youngster by his arm.

“Quickly!” Kenobi shouted after them. They broke into a run.

Han was almost dizzy after several panting minutes of running through the swirling crowd, and so was Luke—but then an Imperial shuttle blasted overhead, and his energy was renewed. Keep that boy away from the Empire.

Finally, there it was—Hangar 2187 loomed ahead. They raced through the entrance and up the ramp of what might just be the most dilapidated-looking hunk of junk Han had ever seen in his life (and he’d seen a lot of ships). But it couldn’t very well be helped now—he was going to have to work with what he had. He dropped the cases as soon as they were inside the old freighter and hit the key to retract the boarding ramp, then shouted at Luke to follow him to the cockpit.

It took him a moment or two to find it, but once he was there he was relieved to find that the controls were pretty standard. It was a YT-1300, a good old classic—and despite its apparent age it started smoothly and lifted up at his command. Luke arrived behind him and was ordered into the enormous copilot’s seat, where he had to sit on his knees in order to see the control panels.

Within a few more minutes they were clear of the planet—only to find themselves staring in the teeth of a full-fledged, bona fide Star Destroyer and a corvette escort. Han punched numbers desperately for the only system coordinates he knew besides Coruscant, veering as fast away from that Destroyer as he could—TIEs were deploying, he could see them on the sensors between power fritzes—

Then the boys both let out a gasp as the starlines extended around them, and the cumbersome freighter leapt cleanly into hyperspace.


Planetside

Obi-Wan darted down the Strip in the exact opposite direction from Hangar 2187 and the boys, trying very hard not to reflect overmuch on the fact that he had just left the galaxy’s last hope—and a child very dear to his heart—in the care of a teenage street rat, who might or might not know how to fly passably, and who might wind up crashing that dilapidated excuse of a ship even if he did. He tried to push the details of Luke’s predicament out of his mind, focusing on navigating the crowds and putting plenty of distance between himself and the hangar holding the freighter. Without the Force, he would surely have been trampled repeatedly, for he kept glancing up to the skies, watching for the freighter.

A wave of coldness seemed to shoot through to his bones all of sudden, and he did not need to look up to know that the engine he heard now belonged to an Imperial shuttle. He looked anyway, and felt his blood run cold as he saw the shuttle being swallowed into the hangar only one down from where the freighter awaited.

But a few moments later, the saucer-shaped ship leapt with surprising smoothness from its berth, and without wasting an instant angled its nose towards the stars. In a heartbeat or two, it had vanished into the atmosphere.

Luke’s fledgling presence dwindled into vagueness as the distance between them increased, until Kenobi had no way of knowing where the boy was. He would hope and pray that the ship made it into hyperspace. If only Vader had not been here, he could have reached out with the Force and simply asked Luke; but he dared not do anything to draw attention to the boy. As far as he could tell right now, Vader seemed to be quite single-minded—the only thing he was interested in was Obi-Wan. It was possible the Sith was still unaware Luke even existed.

If that was the case, and he dearly hoped that it was, the best thing he could do was put as much distance between himself and Luke as he could manage on short notice.

He had done the best he could in sending Luke quickly away from Corellia with young Han Solo; hopefully Krytoa would prove safe. As for himself…the onetime Jedi dashed down the Strip, glancing at every departure manifest he passed, hunting for a fast ship out of the system. He did not fear for his own life—death brought nothing more fearsome than unity with the Force, a final and long-desired reunion with all those of his comrades who had now gone before. There was nothing in this to be feared.

But Luke had a lot of living to do yet, and a great deal to learn—and if there was any way he could manage it, Obi-Wan intended to be around to see to that learning. The young boy was as a son to him. Force, how he hated the thought of leaving that child like this, with little to no knowledge of himself and his ancestry! Belatedly, it occurred to him that he had never once mentioned Padme’s name to her son.

Quickly he recognized the fatal danger such a thought could be right now, and with a stern stroke of discipline put all further ponderings of Luke—and Leia—out of his mind. He drew his hood up as the barking orders of stormtroopers became audible behind him and tried to merge a little more fully with the crowds. This was not a good place for Vader to find him, given the black mood of the man and the environment. The spaceport had been locked down now anyway; he needed to get to somewhere more isolated, where bystanders would not lose limbs or lives to the Dark Lord’s blind rage. He sidestepped into the next lift he saw and won a space on a transit train headed for the construction projects—just as the crowds cleared to the sides below, packing themselves against the buildings and each other to avoid the tall figure garbed in black barreling down the Strip.


Like a great black juggernaut, Vader propelled his way down the spaceport, heedless of both the citizens fleeing before him and the stormtroopers trotting behind him. He had attention only for the beckoning Force presence of his master, no emotion but feral anticipation of the kill. He swept the crowds with the helmet’s optical sensors, using their special features to zoom in on faces as he sought that of his enemy—what a perverse delight it gave him, that the hideous results of the injuries he had suffered were now to be used against the man who had dealt them out. Oh, but it was fitting—

There! His fists clenched tightly as he recognized his former master, standing upon a transit platform several levels up. As he watched, a train drew alongside the platform, and when the shifting and milling of passengers was over, Kenobi was nowhere to be seen.

Did the old fool think he would be thwarted so easily? It was almost enough to make him laugh.

He spun on the officer leading the troops. “Contact the public transportation office. Find out where that train is going.” The officer—thank the Force, he was one of the ones with some sense—promptly whipped out his comlink and began punching numbers. Either he was Corellian, or he had an admirable practical knowledge of city communications; for in the span of two minutes, the officer had presented him with a list of possible destinations.

“City Center, Treasure Ship Row, Salvador Street, Antilles Way…” The officer kept reading destinations off the list, a total of ten. “They’re all on the east side of the city, my lord.”

Vader pondered for a moment. “Get me a transport.” Fortunately for the officer’s continued health, there was a speeder rental a little farther up the boulevard, and a craft large enough to accommodate himself, the officer, and two of the troopers was soon commandeered. Vader took the helm—a complete disregard of naval protocol, but at such a time as this he could not have cared less—and wove the speeder haphazardly between traffic lanes to the east side of the city, tracing his former master’s presence.

They soon caught up with the transit—he could tell Kenobi was still aboard—but just as they drew above the train it came to a halt at another platform, and when it left, Obi-Wan was still in the vicinity.

Vader directed the speeder between two buildings, out of the line of traffic, and took a quick survey of their new surroundings. They seemed to be amidst several large construction buildings—apartment complexes, he would venture—and there was little in the way of living presences in the place. The work was being done by massive construction droids, of course, under the watch of a few supervisors. They—and Obi-Wan—were the only life in the buildings.

If his old master’s intention was to escape him, he had chosen the worst possible place in the city. There was nothing here to distract him from identifying Obi-Wan’s Force signature, no other sources of life to confuse him. In this comparative wasteland, the Jedi’s presence had all the subtlety of a nuclear explosion.

And as much as he hated the man, Vader knew very well that he was not stupid. Clearly, escape was not Obi-Wan’s plan.

What, then? The Jedi evidently intended to face him; and Kenobi had to know that could only mean a fight. Either the old man meant to kill, or be killed. It was imperative that he know which. This could potentially be a trap—but he doubted it. Very strongly, he doubted it.

After all…we had a policy on traps…He recoiled at the surprising fond memory—then after a moment embraced it as fuel. He stoked the fires of his rage with the thought of their onetime friendship, and how Obi-Wan had betrayed him—turned Padme against him—mutilated his body—left him to burn alive in the fires of Mustafar—put him in this cursed suit, never to eat or breathe on his own or see with his own eyes again—never even able to touch his little daughters with his own hands!

He let his fury cool, like the blade of a new-forged sword, into something of more control, more cohesion—a tool, a weapon to be used. Deeply he drew on the dark side, and his fingers caressed the hilt of his saber. Obi-Wan was below him, in the ground floor of that nearest building.

Destiny beckoned.


Obi-Wan leaned shakily against the wall as looming hulk of his adversary appeared in the doorway of the ground floor. His memories of Mustafar came crashing back upon his mind, after years of repression—how clearly those hellish scenes now danced in his mind’s eye. The vicious hatred in the eyes of his brother, the great drama of their duel across the vast stage of the lava fields, with the bodies of the dead and dying for spectators—the culminating duet of agony. He shuddered against the cold duracrete. For every one of Anakin’s screams as he lay burning on the ash banks, his own heart had cried out one to match, and he still heard both in nightmares sometimes.

He stared now at Anakin’s walking, artificially breathing corpse in rampant horror. It was one thing to see this frightful image on the holos—it was quite another to see and hear in person the mobile mausoleum, to try and fathom how this mechanized beast could ever have any connection to the vibrant, handsome Anakin Skywalker. Force, but he should have killed him on that lava bank! Indeed, he found himself agreeing that his former friend had every reason to hate his master for slicing off his limbs, leaving him to burn on the lava bank, for not having the strength to go back and deliver just one more merciful blow.

Let me go after the Emperor…I will not kill Anakin…

No, he would not. Not even when it was the most merciful, just, loving gesture he could give his friend. And looking back again on the remnants of that past failure, Obi-Wan knew that he could not do it now, either. Whatever mental tricks he tried to execute to separate Anakin and Vader, ultimately he could not forget the face that pined behind the mask. Never, not in this galaxy nor any other, could he bring himself to kill Anakin Skywalker.

Which meant, of course, that their decade-long battle could only end in one way.

Slowly Obi-Wan straightened. He should have seen this before.

why do I get the feeling you’ll be the death of me…

The black helmet swiveled around, scanning the room, and in only a moment the great insectoid eyeplates came to a rest on him. The Dark Lord stood still, and his lightsaber hung untouched from his belt, but Obi-Wan was not fooled. He could feel rage pouring from the man like a volcanic explosion, all but ripping the Force asunder.

“Anakin,” he acknowledged, an infinity of sorrow in his heart.

“That name no longer has any meaning to me,” retorted the Emperor’s apprentice.

“I should imagine not,” Obi-Wan sighed. They stood at a silent impasse for a time, broken only by the all-too-symbolic hissing of the respirator.

“Indeed I did fail you,” Obi-Wan finally murmured. He shook his head slowly, still staring at Vader.

Vader did not quite seem know what answer to make to that. But Obi-Wan could sense his bitter agreement.

“As master and friend, I failed you,” Obi-Wan continued. He didn’t really know why he was bothering to say any of this. It was not as though it would make any difference. He had spoken much the same words on Mustafar, and look how that had ended.

As he suspected, Vader was no more interested in his regrets now than before. “Perhaps you will find you are less the master now,” he rumbled, very dangerously indeed. With a distinctive snap-hiss, a blood-red saber blade burst into being.

A fresh wave of despair struck Obi-Wan, sharper than anything he’d felt since Mustafar. He knew that as surely as the law gravity, there was no hope left for Anakin—he was dead, long dead—that mask was his tombstone. But the knowledge had not been able to strip him of the faint, aching hope that he might catch just one more glimpse of his friend.

Reluctantly he drew his own lightsaber from beneath his cloak, and mechanically ignited the shimmering blue blade. Almost in slow motion, the two of them shifted into classic ready-stance…

And then, in a sudden burst of strange new resolution, Obi-Wan flung his lightsaber away from him. The blade went out as the hilt clattered across the floor. Startled by this unanticipated tactic, Vader screeched to a halt in mid-strike, barely managing to contain his own momentum.

“What do you mean by this, old fool?” he snarled.

Obi-Wan only shook his head, with a smile on his face. “I will not fight you, Anakin.”


“I will not fight you…” The words rattled around in Vader’s head, eliciting fresh outpourings of rage and incredulity. After all the injury and betrayal he had suffered, was Kenobi now to deny him even the satisfaction of vengeance? How much more was he to endure from this man?

Kenobi stood in silence a few feet before him, suddenly wearing an inexplicable grin.

“What do you mean?” Vader demanded again, so furious and shocked he was practically beside himself.

“Once was more than enough,” Obi-Wan returned. The smile fell away, thankfully. “More than enough.”

“You will not deny me this!” Vader bellowed, utterly lost to rage. He slashed in the general direction of Obi-Wan’s discarded lightsaber. “Pick it up!”

Kenobi only shook his head. “I will not.”

“Would you prefer to be killed where you stand?” the Dark Lord hissed, snapping the tip of the blade up to his unwilling opponent’s neck.

“Yes.”

Vader flicked the saber down, drawing a vicious slash down the man’s upper arm. Obi-Wan hissed in pain and staggered back a step, but he made no move towards his lightsaber. Further angered, Vader snapped his wrist around again, inflicting a second slash.

“We can play this game for hours,” he snarled. “Days, if you want.”

Obi-Wan leaned back against a pillar and closed his eyes, letting his injured arm hang. “Then so be it,” he sighed. Not a pleasant prospect, to be minced to death. And perhaps it would have been more the right thing to go down fighting against the darkness of the Sith. But there simply was no will in him to endure a second such battle.

He gasped as the lightsaber sliced into his shoulder with a vengeance; if not for the column at his back he might have fallen. There is no death; there is the Force…

A fresh wave of peace suddenly came to him through the Force. He could not say how he knew it—but a certainty came to him that Luke would be safe. Luke would be safe; and if the price of that safety was his life, it was in his opinion an acceptable cost.

The lightsaber burned down the back of his right leg, and the sudden pain sent him to his knees. He had no qualms about sacrificing his own life—but was it absolutely necessary that it be so painful? Sometimes he really did wonder if the galaxy intentionally had it out for him.

I certainly do,” snarled Vader from above. A fifth blow of the saber caught him across his shoulder blades and drove him to hands and knees.

There was a long pause after that—Vader was circling him like some great cat patrolling a bird cage, apparently re-evaluating his strategy. Presently his lightsaber hilt was kicked back in front of him.

“You seek death, evidently,” Vader began, his filtered voice demonstrating a degree of self-control he had never attained as a Jedi. “I offer you a choice. You can either pick that blade up and die an honorable death, or you can be taken to prison—where, I give you my sincere word,” he finished maliciously, “you most certainly will not die.”

Obi-Wan could see quite clearly what was intended in that threat. Decades of isolated confinement stretched before his mind’s eye—doubtless Vader intended that separation to include the Force. Half a lifetime of pain and loneliness, dragging out minute by minute, without the possibility of an escape until old age should at last claim him.

But it was not that threat that made him pick up his lightsaber. It was the knowledge that, should he be imprisoned and left at Vader’s mercy, he would as a matter of course be subjected to a thorough interrogation, and in the end Vader would simply rip directly into his mind to recover any information that might be useful.

And that would mean the discovery of Luke. Above all else, that could not happen.

He ignored Vader’s abrupt rush of triumph as he curled his fingers around the hilt of the lightsaber one last time and concentrated on pulling himself back up. It was painful and difficult, particularly given the wound in his leg, and even more painful was the idea of launching any kind of attack on his lost friend.

He did not think anything in the universe could have made him do it but Luke.

With a final effort, he stood straight, looking Vader in the eye, and drew deep on the Force to push away the pain. If he was going to fight after all, he would by the Force fight well. Taking a deep breath, he pressed the activation switch.


In the maze of hyperspace…

Luke’s nerves didn’t seem to have calmed down yet. The kid was fidgeting on the bench in the rec room, where Han had tried to engage him in a game of dejarik, and kept glancing around, and after Han’s last move, had burst into tears clear out of the blue.

Han figured that was okay. He wasn’t feeling too calm just yet either, after all the sudden turns his life had taken in the last hour—and in his opinion, the kid had every reason to be terrified about the old man. The guy was creepy in his own right; throw in Imperial headhunters, and you had a recipe for a nervous breakdown.

Luke now had his head down on the table in his arms, shoulders still shaking violently; Han was collapsed into the seat, watching him a bit blankly, at a loss for what to do. Krethin’ Force, he wasn’t some kind of babysitter! What in the Empire was he supposed to do with this kid?

Abruptly he remembered the data chips Kenobi had thrown in his hands—hadn’t the old man said something about an address? Yeah, that was right. He was supposed to take the kid to some address; it must be listed somewhere in the chips. He rummaged around in his pockets and scattered them onto the game table amidst the hunkered down monsters. There were four of them, all of the same model; he could find nothing to distinguish one from another.

Well, they weren’t going to be any good without a reader. He cast a futile glance around the rec room of the ship, and finally went back to watching Luke. The youngster seemed to be calming down some now. Probably he ought to do something.

Uncertainly, he shifted himself over beside the kid. “Hey, uh…you okay?”

Luke didn’t respond at all. Clumsily Han reached over and patted his shoulders. “Hey, it’s all right,” he tried. “We got away just fine, and I bet the old—uh, your friend—will too.”

Luke shuddered afresh, and broke into outright sobbing, shaking his head violently. Sheesh, what had he said this time?

After a while Luke finally answered, sounding breathless and despairing. “No—no.”

“No what?”

“He’s not gonna get away.” The kid sounded as though he’d read the entire story of Kenobi’s life, or seen a documentary on him or something—there was absolutely no hope in his voice.

“Hey, how about a little optimism?” Han countered. “He could get away, ya know—nothin’s for certain.”

Luke just shook his head gravely again; Han decided it was probably better to get off the subject of Kenobi altogether. “Okay, well, first off we gotta find that address I’m supposed to be takin’ you to. I don’t suppose you’d happen to know it?”

Luke shook his head, wiping his face. “I don’t know where they are,” he said softly.

“Your uncle and aunt, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Got a datapad?” Luke frowned and reached down to his backpack on the floor, rummaging through it for a couple minutes, but came up empty-handed. They then tried the cockpit systems, which should have been a sure bet. But the ship was apparently older than either of them had thought. The darned cockpit systems were actually too outdated to handle the data chips.

After Han had expressed his opinion of the ship—or more accurately, impressed it upon the control panels, to the tune of several scratches on his fists—they spread out through the corridors to hunt for anything resembling a modern data reader. But none of the ship’s systems were compatible. They met again in the rec room.

“What kind of krethin’ sith-spawned son-of-a—“ Han cut his rant off short at the disapproving glare Luke shot him from the seats. “What kind of an idiot owned this crate?” he amended.

“I think the owner was a third-rate dealer,” Luke offered. “Probably nobody’s flown her for years.”

“Ya think?” Han groaned. “Any pilot with a working brain cell would’ve updated the systems by now!”

“Maybe there’s a datapad in the cases,” Luke mused.


On Alderaan…

Bail Organa paced nervously in front of his desk. He’d waited a good two days, to be sure that Vader’s departure was permanent, before daring to activate a call to the emergency com number that Obi-Wan had given him on Polis Massa. He was still a bit reticent about using it now; but he had no idea what kind of danger Leia might be in, how much Vader might suspect, and there were only two beings in the galaxy that had a better clue than he did. And between Yoda and Obi-Wan, the latter would know more about Vader than the former.

Besides that, he didn’t have a com number for Yoda.

So now he strode back and forth before his desk, casting impatient, nervous glances at the com system and the locked door. It would likely take quite a while for the call to be put through, at interstellar distances. And he had no idea anymore where the Jedi master was in the galaxy—he could be clear on the opposite side of it, in which case the call would still go through, but could take as much as twelve hours to connect. Possibly more, if Kenobi had ventured into the Unknown Regions…

No, he would not have done that. Not with the boy—too risky, certainly.

Bail sighed and sat himself back down in his chair. He had been waiting for three hours now—Force, but he hoped the call went through soon—

It chimed a ready signal, suddenly—Bail leaned quickly forward and keyed for the connection.


Corellia…

It was not quite so dramatic a setting as their last clash—the empty, bare-walled ground floor of a construction project, lit only by emergency lights and their clashing sabers. No fiery lava to illuminate the scene, or to make them watch their step—in fact it was eerily like the times they had used to hold practice duels in the blackout rooms at the Temple.

Except that even the blackout rooms had been equipped with ledges, sloping ground, rough uneven patches of flooring, obstacles—and this vast room was just flat.

Not a good setup for Obi-Wan. Given a demanding terrain, he might have gotten the better of Vader by virtue of being more nimble, and have possibly escaped him. But here the Dark Lord could use the superior strength of his prosthetic limbs, his height, to their full advantage.

He needed to find better terrain, or else he would shortly be made mincemeat. If he had to fight, he would certainly prefer escape to self-sacrifice. Desperately he wrenched his saber up into another block, and darted back several steps from Vader to gain a short reprieve, panting. His arm and leg and back all burned angrily, but thank the Force the injuries were not debilitating.

Vader circled for a moment before closing the distance quickly, and another rapid flurry of feints and parries cast sparks and the crazy flash of the blades across the bare permacrete. Obi-Wan broke apart again, barely escaping a slash that would have taken off his good arm. He shot a quick glance around the room, trying to find an exit—if not to freedom, then at least to more favorable ground.

There! A turboli—

The Force warned him and he ducked and rolled, pulled himself back up and had his lightsaber into a guard scarcely in time to deflect a particularly vicious attack from Vader. Thankfully his reflexes had not left him yet—he got quickly back into a two-hand defensive stance, before Vader could take advantage of his one-handed grip and slice his hand off.

A new strategy congealed in his mind—abruptly he switched to the attack, as hard and sudden and fierce as possible, driving Vader back several steps with the sheer speed of his attack and surprise. But if he had not anticipated an attack, even less had Vader expected him to break off mid-assault and tear across the room into the turbolift.


The Dark Lord snarled with rage beneath the mask as Kenobi fled him, slipping into a lift and sending it up. He had previously and still did know better than to assume the Jedi master a coward, but this!

Most likely Kenobi was hoping that farther up in the structure, they would encounter construction and the terrain would be friendlier. Or perhaps he simply wished to regroup. Either way, it seemed to be rather in contrast with his earlier sacrificial mood…not that Vader was in any way displeased by the prospect of a good fight. If Kenobi dragged this game of hide-and-seek on for too long, well, he would order his men to the construction control site and have them take over the building systems to slow the Jedi down.

But he was not averse to a bit of hunting…


Obi-Wan leaned wearily against the wall of the turbolift, and was trying to think where it would be best to stop when his thoughts were interrupted by a steady beeping.

It took him a moment to realize it was his—oh, Force, it was his emergency com! Was it even possible for life to get more hectic at present?

He seized it, switched it on, dreading the news he might have—and Bail Organa’s voice came over the speaker.

“Master Kenobi?” he asked.

“Senator Organa,” he gasped, still trying to catch his breath from the fighting. “Is she all right?” There was no need to identify she.

Bail frowned. “Other than suffering from some severe nightmares, she appears to be well enough at the moment,” he answered. “But there was a worrying incident two days ago between her and a guest of the palace…”

“Quickly, please, Senator,” Obi-Wan cut in, glancing at the lights on the lift. He wasn’t far from the top—and he didn’t want to leave himself trapped at the top. He stopped the lift and practically fled out of it. He had to keep Vader on the run long enough to speak with Bail.

“She fell into some sort of trance; our guest was with her at the time—apparently she was reacting to her nightmares, screaming and clearly terrified—I saw some of it myself. I fear that this may cause our guest to suspect her.”

“Who was this guest?” Obi-Wan ducked down a side hall quickly. Vader was approaching via the lift he had used; but there was another at the end of this hall that he could take several levels back down.

Bail took a deep breath. “It was Lord Vader.”

Obi-Wan nearly froze mid-stride.

“Master Kenobi, do you think he will suspect her?”

Obi-Wan dodged into the lift—he could hear the respirator growing louder as the doors sealed and the car plunged down. “Perhaps I could just ask him for you,” he said darkly.

Bail stiffened. “What?”

Obi-Wan sighed. “Let’s just say you may well not hear from me again.”

“Master Kenobi—Force, what about—”

“Have a ship standing by for her with these coordinates,” Obi-Wan cut him off, thinking quickly. He punched a well-memorized code into the com and transmitted it. “If the Empire comes after her, send her there. She will be cared for. Also—contact this number as soon as possible.” He transmitted a second code as he ran from the turbolift to find another—he could sense Vader descending quickly after him. “It’s the Lars’ emergency com—there should be an important delivery en route. Check it until they tell you it has arrived. If it does not”—he racked his brains for a third code and transmitted it as soon as he had it—“tell them to begin searching for the ship with this transponder code.” He arrived at another lift and desperately hit the activation key—but it did not respond. Vader must have had his men shut down the building’s system. Desperate for just a little more time, he dashed down the first convenient hallway and discovered an emergency staircase.

Was that all he needed to tell Organa? “Did Vader give any indication he was suspicious of the incident?”

Bail shook his head. “Not in my presence,” he said. “And I had her repeat their conversation—I don’t believe there was anything suspicious. At least, not in what my daughter said. He seemed to be acting rather out of character.”

“How so?”

“He was enquiring as to the reason why she could not sleep, and asking about the nature of her dreams and how long they had persisted—and according to her, even admitting that he himself had been unable to sleep.”

Obi-Wan frowned as he ran down the steps. Indeed it did not sound like a Sith Lord, particularly not one who had slaughtered children previously. The memory of the Temple recordings came sharply back to his mind.

Did Vader suspect the little princess’ Force sensitivity? Was that why he had demonstrated an interest in her? Force, he could only hope not. “Keep a sharp eye,” he finally said. “And do not let her go aboard any ship without having those hyperspace coordinates preprogrammed in. It would be best to keep her near the palace for a year—if nothing has happened by then, you may take it that she is safe.” He emerged from the stairs, panting—and already could sense that Vader was on the floor. Of course. If he had men controlling the systems, he could easily order them to activate an individual lift for his use.

He didn’t have much time.

“If there is anything I can do, I will do it,” Obi-Wan said. “This com will not be good again.”

“Yes, Master Kenobi.” He paused, and then said softly, “May the Force be with you.”

“And with you,” Obi-Wan said tersely. He could hear the respirator again, faintly. “Kenobi out.” He switched off the com, tossed it to the ground, ignited his saber, and drove it repeatedly through the device until he was absolutely sure nothing could be retrieved from its remains.

Thank the Force he’d been in the turbolift when that com went off—

The sound of the respirator came stronger to his ears. Desperately he glanced around, but in vain. If anything his situation was worse. He now found himself in a narrow corridor that permitted even less maneuverability than the ground floor had. And the turbolifts were down. On the rooftop, he might have managed to even the odds, given the rough constructions and scaffolding and other obstacles that were sure to have been present—but there was no way he would get up to the top levels now, not with Vader in command of the turbolifts.

His best bet would be back on the stairs, where he could at least perhaps gain the advantage of high ground. He spun in his tracks, decision made—and stopped promptly as a tall, ominous, black figure rounded the corner down the hallway.

Nothing for it now. Wearily the Jedi adopted his defensive stance once more.

“Your games gain you nothing,” Vader hissed as he approached, clearly irritated by their little chase. “You cannot escape the power of the dark side.”

Obi-Wan rather wanted to roll his eyes and remind Vader of the outcome of Mustafar; but he was still a Jedi, and Jedi did not taunt their opponents…

Suddenly he remembered Bail’s frantic call; the possibility that Vader might suspect Leia’s Force potential. There was no doubt in Obi-Wan’s mind that Vader would indeed find such a peculiar trance most suspicious—the man had not been the Chosen One of the Jedi for nothing. Likely only word that he was on Corellia had distracted Vader from the incident…the Force had granted him only one chance to protect both Bail and Leia from the Empire.

Oh, Force, no, not this too…The mere idea was nearly enough to make him sick. I cannot do that to Anakin! I cannot!

Oh, but yes he could. He had to—else risk the lives of a leader of the Rebellion and one of that same Rebellion’s best hopes. There was really no choice. It might or might not work. It was a great risk—and the price must necessarily be his life, in the event that it succeeded. Yet he had to try. It was either this or kill Vader outright—and that he could not do.

The first step…taunting, unfortunately. “You may have forgotten,” he spoke up, “but Sith Lords are my speciality.”

A spike of rage went up from Vader at the reference to the duel aboard Grievous’ flagship with Dooku, and all the memories that went with it.

“And,” Obi-Wan continued mercilessly, ignoring his conscience as much as possible, “I believe my ability to handle this particular Sith Lord has been conclusively proven.” He gestured up and down the Dark Lord’s mechanized hulk with his lightsaber.

The onslaught was so vengeful it was a wonder he survived it, but he contrived to dodge past Vader and give him a good distracting slash to a prosthetic leg. It didn’t disable the unit, but it destroyed enough connections to play havoc with the impulses, causing the limb to go out from underneath the Dark Lord’s hulk briefly—and distracted him just enough for Obi-Wan’s grim purposes.

In terms of physical strength, Obi-Wan was the weaker—but when it came to dexterity in the Force, his greater experience still accorded him the superiority. With Vader momentarily distracted and in a blind fury, he was able to break cleanly through the weakened walls around the man’s mind.

Lightsabers were immediately forgotten.

A howl of incredulous fury erupted from the mask’s vocabulator as Vader realized his opponent’s intent. To his credit, he regathered himself and renewed his defense—but he could not get rid of Obi-Wan’s presence in his mind, for the Jedi master was still the stronger of the two on this front. Quickly Obi-Wan sifted through memories, until he found the one he wanted. It proved simple enough to alter—it was much harder to cement the fabricated memory irreplaceably in Vader’s mind. He had to make very sure it was no less vivid and realistic than any other memory the man had, to ensure that time would not fade it and cause Vader to realize where precisely he had tampered—that might be as fatal as the original memory. And upon seeing this one, he did not doubt that Leia’s life depended upon his success.

The shrieks of rage continued; Obi-Wan flinched as they took on a note of pain. Darth Vader was no less stubborn than Anakin Skywalker, and he was having to rip and tear and wrench all over to get the memory satisfactorily altered. And at no small cost of injury to himself, due to the man’s fierce efforts to thrust him out—but Force, if it had been the other way around, he’d be doing no less—

Done. Obi-Wan made a final check, but he had missed nothing.

All memory of the incident with Leia had been stripped from Vader’s mind. There was absolutely nothing left to give him any cause for suspecting her. And just as importantly, he had left no hint behind him as to which memory had been subjected to tampering. It was as strong and perfect a mend as he could make—and Obi-Wan was if nothing else a very deft hand at mental tricks.

He held behind a few seconds more—he knew all too well what had to happen as soon as he withdrew from Vader’s mind, in order to ensure that the man did not attack his mind in turn and recover the information that had been taken. His hand was ready on his lightsaber hilt—subtly he turned it around, aiming it away from the Dark Lord, angling it up towards his own chin.

I’m sorry, Anakin, he sent gently to the raging mind around him. I loved you, brother. Nothing but raw fury answered him. One last time, he touched his lost apprentice’s mind, trying to convey the depth of his sorrow and regret.

In one smooth, sudden retreat, he withdrew from Vader’s ravaged mind—and before the Dark Lord could react, the blue lightsaber ignited, and Obi-Wan Kenobi was one with the Force.


Aboard a certain battered freighter…

Han and Luke were standing over the game table, fiddling busily with the locks on one of the cases when a bone-deep shudder shook Luke from head to toe. He dropped to his knees, and one hand was clenched around the edge of the table.

“Luke! You okay?” Han demanded desperately, not knowing what he’d do if the kid wasn’t okay.

“He’s gone,” Luke whispered. Unlike before, there was no sign of tears—just utter shock.

“Huh? Who’s gone? Kenobi?”

Luke nodded slowly, brow furrowed, as trying to understand the depth of the loss.

“Come on, kid, show a little optimism,” Han tried. “We don’t know he’s dead.”

“Yes, I do,” Luke answered quietly.

Han laughed shakily. “How could you possibly know that?”

“The Force,” was the simple reply.

“The Force?” Han’s mind shot back abruptly to the strange mind-reading version of dejarik the two of them had been playing in the cantina only a few days ago. “For cryin’ out loud, kid—don’t tell me you actually buy all that Jedi mind-readin’ sithspit,” he scoffed. “A whole load of magic tricks and luck is all it—”

The young Corellian broke off mid-sentence as the case on the table abruptly leapt into midair and took itself on a weaving tour of the rec room before settling back down. He turned and found Luke watching him with a challenging spark in his blue eyes. There was a very long and uncomfortable silence.

“My father was a Jedi Knight,” Luke finally said quietly. “So was Obi-Wan.”

Han blinked. “You’re tellin’ me that crazy old man was a Jedi Knight?”

Luke nodded gravely.

And all of sudden, it made perfect sense why Kenobi had been so keen to avoid Imperial notice, and why he had ordered Han to keep Luke away from the Empire. If the Empire caught this kid—well, Han could pretty well guess how the story would end.

Fast.

He found himself doubting less and less that the kid might actually know something about what had happened to Kenobi. Which kind of made him a bit sickened, thinking about the old guy lying dead somewhere—sure, he’d been weird, but all around he’d been a pretty decent kind of guy…

Well—if Kenobi was dead, he was dead, and if Luke was wrong, he had no way of knowing, and either way there wasn’t anything they could do about it, so they might as well get on with figuring out where he was supposed to be taking Luke.

“Hey—if you want, you could go settle down somewhere for a while,” Han offered, doing his best to be sympathetic to the boy’s evident grief. “I’ll take care of getting this open and stuff, if you’d like to be alone.”

Luke nodded, getting slowly to his feet; he vanished into the back of ship, and Han didn’t see him again for several hours.

It took him awhile to get the case opened, without any of the passcodes, but the lock wasn’t the greatest, and he got it picked eventually. Looking around some at the contents, he could tell that Kenobi must have packed this one, because he didn’t recognize anything in it. Mostly it was just a bunch of random stuff—another sealed container with a sophisticated biometric lock, data chips, clothes, a compact training remote…and there (about time!) was a datapad. Almost gingerly he tried to insert one of the data chips…

“Aha!” It clicked in neatly, and the pad powered on to display the chip’s information, just like technology was supposed to work. He skimmed through the information on the first chip, but found no address. The same with the second…but the third finally paid off his search. Home Code 56-1138-44B, Antilles City, Kytoa. Simple enough. He read it over once more to memorize it and went to the cockpit to consult the nav computer. Kytoa, Kytoa…there it was. Like you’d expect, given Kenobi’s paranoia of the Empire, Kytoa was an outlying planet, even further out than Tatooine. He couldn’t get a detailed planetary map now—probably he’d have to get it from the planet transportation department when they arrived in system. But he had the hyperspace coordinates for the place.

First, of course, they would have to complete the current jump. Han only knew three planetary hyperspace coordinates off the top of his head. Of course, he knew what Corellia’s were—44-1-22-1-44, one of the easiest ones out there—and every idiot in the galaxy knew the coordinates to Coruscant, 00-0-00-0-00. Due to a rough street life, mixing around with crime lords and smuggling rings, Han had quickly picked up one more—15-6-33-2-75, Nal Hutta and Nar Shadda.

He didn’t much want to go gallivanting into Hutt space; but at least he could be sure that the system would not be crawling with Imperials, which was more than he could say for Coruscant. Hopefully they could be in and out of the system without any trouble; all he needed was a few minutes to activate the next jump. He could work out the series he needed before they left hyperspace to save on time.

And hopefully Luke would be in something resembling a normal mood by the time they got to Nal Hutta. If not, well, he’d be dropping Luke off soon at this Kytoa.


Corellia…

Darth Vader stood frozen in stunned, utterly impotent fury, staring at the body of his master. And as he watched, even that faded before his eyes. He was left with absolutely nothing.

He could not quite stand to comprehend that the man had managed to rob him of his vengeance. It would not fathom. It was unacceptable. He would not allow it. Such a thing was impossible.

But there it was.

He would never now have revenge for the injuries done to him, never seize payment for the hideous betrayal—nor for the man’s most recent offense.

A fresh rage swept through him—curse Kenobi, to all nine hells of Corellia and beyond! The pain in his mind launched him out of his stunned stupor—he slashed in mindless wrath at anything that came to hand, hacking great gashes in the wall and floor, shredding what was left of the man’s empty robes, seizing up his lightsaber and almost physically tearing it apart—but nothing at hand could satisfy the dragon of his rage. Force, he had never felt so helpless, not even on the operating tables after Mustafar—

His rage quadrupled at the thought of Mustafar. Utterly impotent, seething as he never had before in his life, the Dark Lord stalked from the construction project.

His men promptly brought the landspeeder down to meet him.

“Lord Va—” That was as far as the officer got before a blood-red plasma blade sliced him into mincemeat; the two stormtroopers followed only seconds after him. His rage the slightest bit placated, Vader found himself sufficiently controlled to fly the speeder back to the Strip, where the crew of the shuttle met precisely the same fate as that of the speeder. He went back up to the Vindicator, and by heading straight for the detention block was able to avoid massacring the bridge officers who came to meet him.

When he left the detention block twelve hours later, there was not a single operational probe droid or living prisoner remaining aboard the Star Destroyer. His fury was far from spent—but Kenobi had inflicted plenty of very painful damage on his mind, and he could withstand the pain no more without rest and an effort to heal.


On Vjun…

The sudden wails jerked Miyr from her sleep in an instant. She had been well conditioned over the past two years to be alert to such sounds—particularly those first several months. But it was rare for her to be awakened in the middle of the night now, and she was quite worried as she rushed across her bedroom and down the hall to the nursery.

Sure enough, the twins were wide awake, and were huddled together whimpering at the head of their bed.

Both sets of big, soft blue eyes leapt up to meet her, wide with fear, and the little girls rushed over to her.

“Sara, Sandra! Shhh! What’s the matter?” Miyr reached down to pick both of the two-year-olds up, and carried them over to the bed, settling down with one twin cuddled under each arm. She hugged them both tightly. “What’s the matter?” she crooned gently.

But neither Sara nor Sandra seemed able to articulate what the matter was. As best Miyr could understand, it had been some sort of mutual nightmare. They were, however, easily soothed, and soon she had them back asleep.

She sat for a while watching over the two. They were such lovely little girls—tiny to be sure, but darlings, with their matching bright blonde curls and big blue eyes. Such a contrast to their father! Even after two years, Miyr still found it difficult to believe such angels were the daughters of a Sith Lord. They were bright, precocious little girls, both of them. They had spirits, certainly, and could be something of a handful when they put their minds to it these days…but that was the extent to which they resembled their father. Discounting, naturally, their growing propensity for odd little tricks—which Vader had wisely thought to warn her about on his last visit to Bast Castle.

That man was gone from here entirely too much, she thought severely. He had not been to see the twins in months—in fact it might be nearly a year now. They had been greatly disappointed that he had missed their birthday.

But the more rational side of her knew that he could not very well help being gone. The man was running an Empire and a Navy—no, he could not very well take many vacations.

And he certainly did his best to make up for it when he was here. There was no doubting that he loved being with his daughters. Miyr knew well enough Vader’s reputation throughout the galaxy; yet as harsh and cruel as he was said to be, he treated Sara and Sandra nearly as if they were made of crystal. As far as she saw him with them, at least—usually he preferred to be left alone when with the girls. But she did not doubt that he was no less gentle to them then, for they certainly were not afraid of him. She smiled at that. They were probably the only two people in the galaxy who weren’t.

Satisfied that the twins would not awaken again, Miyr left for her own bed.

The next day passed as days usually did at Bast Castle. Miyr had been hired nearly three years ago as a sort of glorified housekeeper for the castle Vader owned on Coruscant; she ran the building in Lord Vader’s absence as per his directives, which encompassed quite a broad span of duties—supervising finances, organizing personnel, and in general keeping the place functional. Two years ago, those duties had taken on a much more personal note with the arrival of Sara and Sandra.

She remembered well the day the Dark Lord had summoned her up to his private chambers on Coruscant.

She had been horribly nervous. She did not generally interact much with the dark lord, other than the occasional, “Yes, my lord.” Yet she had been brought up to his personal chambers and all but interrogated for a full three hours, as to her background, her political opinions, her likes and dislikes—any question in the galaxy. She had actually been sweating by the time he stopped, so frightened had she been.

But at length, he stood, and said, “I have a task for you, Miyr.” She had understood quite clearly that it must be one of some significance—but when he took her with him to his holdings on Vjun, she had not expected to be introduced to a pair of newborns.

Ever since, she had been the one to care for the little ones, by far the greatest part of her new duties at Bast Castle. She suspected he had hired her expressly because he thought she would be suited to the task. Well, if so, he’d been right.

She could not, of course, be with Sara and Sandra every moment of the day, any more than their father could—but she woke them in the mornings, ate breakfast and dinner with them for the most part, and made sure they got four hours of her time every day at the least. Every so often—three to four times a month, as she could manage it—she would set aside the entire day for the girls. Their delight was well worth the extra hours it took to make the time.

Today was one such day. The three of them were ensconced in the twins’ playroom, and had been playing games most of the day, aside from a trip to the castle’s indoor gardens. For the most part, Vader preferred the twins kept in the safety of the cordoned uppermost floor, so a venture to the lower levels always excited them to no end. But once they had worn themselves out running around in the gardens, Miyr had brought them back upstairs for a holovid—and predictably, they were now snuggled up on either side of her. Sandra was already asleep, and by the looks of it Sara wasn’t far behind her.

Come to think of it, a nap wasn’t such a bad idea…

Just as she started to drift off herself, an insistent buzzing started on the other side of the room—it was her comlink, chirping away on the side table. With a yawn, she eased the twins off of her and settled them onto the floor so she could answer it.

“Ma’am?” A confident baritone voice spoke up as soon as she switched it on.

It was Captain Landre—immediately Miyr straightened, totally alert. Landre was the naval officer stationed to command Bast Castle’s security forces and communications, the military equivalent of her post. A more competent officer was not to be found in the Imperial Navy; he would not have called without very good reason.

“What is it, Captain?”

“Ma’am, we have received a hail from an incoming Star Destroyer,” Landre reported promptly. “Lord Vader is due for arrival within the hour—”

Miyr didn’t need to hear another word. She stammered out something to indicate she understood, switched the com off, and dashed to the closet of the playroom, where a nanny droid was waiting. She powered the droid on and ordered it to watch the girls until further notice, and then rushed to her own room to put on something more appropriate for welcoming the master of the estate. She barely had enough time to change and issue an alert to the castle’s personnel before Landre called her again to inform her that Vader’s shuttle was approaching.

She had best be at the platform to meet him.


Darth Vader would have been brooding angrily the whole ride from Corellia to Vjun, if it were not for two reasons.

Firstly, his daughters were waiting ahead—he could not go into the castle without seeing them first thing, for they would know that he was home, and he dared not come near them while enraged. Force, the very thought of it made him sick. He had made that mistake once with someone he loved dearly, and it had cost him the galaxy.

Secondly, he was suffering from the most awful headache he had ever had in his life; it was so painful that it even overwhelmed his anger.

His head was throbbing with such a vengeance that he hardly registered it when the shuttle at last set down on the landing pad at Bast Castle. On every other visit he had made here in the past two years, he had made a point of stretching out with the Force to Sara and Sandra, letting them know he was there, and enjoying their immediate excitement—but he knew better than to try it now. Using the Force might make the injuries worse, and it certainly wouldn’t be pleasant.

Had his legs still been flesh and bone, he would probably have stumbled out of the shuttle onto the landing pad, but the prostheses would not permit such indignity, and for once he was glad of them and the armor to keep him standing straight. As it was, the only sign of his poor state was that he walked more slowly than usual.

At the bottom of the landing ramp, standing a respectful distance off, was his castle’s caretaker, Miyr, as calm and collected as she always was. His anger abated a little more when he saw her, for she offered him a genuine smile and inclined her head, holding herself easily, just as though she had been expecting his arrival for a month ahead of time, and not a mere thirty minutes. Her competence was forever refreshing.

“Welcome home, my lord,” she said as he came up to her, turning to walk alongside him into the castle.

“You seem to have done well with such short notice,” he observed, working very hard to ignore the pounding headache.

“I confess I was somewhat surprised to hear of your arrival,” she said. That was another reason he had chosen her—she was honest. No conniving and flattering and backstabbing like the politicians and admirals he was normally forced to endure. “I was given to understand you were on Alderaan, my lord.”

“Events arose,” he said tersely. “I will be here for some several months.”

She blinked in surprise. He could hear all the questions she wanted to ask. Several months? What about the war? Does the Emperor approve? To her further credit, she did not voice them. “I am afraid I did not expect you to remain so long,” she said carefully. “Will any special adjustments be required to your usual arrangements?”

“I have no immediate requirements,” he answered. They arrived at one of the turbolifts and ascended to the topmost floor, where the security guards knew Vader well enough to halt both of them and do biometric identity checks before letting them inside the level. The Dark Lord viewed nothing as an inconvenience that contributed to the safety of his daughters.

Here, it was at last safe to talk about the things at Bast Castle that actually interested him. “They are well?”

“Quite well indeed,” Miyr reported confidently. “Sandra came down slightly sick last week, but it was only for a day. They were sleeping when I left them. I believe I wore them out running around in the gardens.”

“Where are they?”

“The playroom, my lord.”

He nodded and dismissed her as he entered his private quarters. As soon as the doors hissed shut, he leaned against the wall for a moment, trying to beat down the pain from his headache. Finally, accepting that it was not going to go away, he pushed himself back upright and made his way slowly through his chambers to the playroom tucked towards the back.

As he came up to the door, a small high voice came to his ears—and even though he was angry and hurt and tired, a smile came to him. They could always make him smile…

The moment the door was open, two little blurs tore across the room, as though they had been caught in some kind of magnetic field, and latched onto his boots, bouncing up and down with excitement, squealing with delight.

“Dadda! Dadda!”

He knelt down between them so that he could see them more closely. “Are you surprised?” he rumbled.

Affirmative shrieks and bright smiles answered him—they snuggled up against him, not minding the hard armor at all, Sara twisting herself up in his cape as she always did. He wrapped his arms around them and lifted them up one on either side, and carried them over to the large chair that always was reserved for him when he was here. They settled happily into his lap.

He could feel his black rage over the events on Corellia fading away as he held his precious daughters, stroking their soft curls, feeling the rhythm of their breathing beneath his hands, listening to their excited chatter. It amazed him how their vocabulary had grown since last he had seen them—in fact, how much they had grown in the past several months. Much of the baby fat had left them; their bodies were growing more into proportion, and he could tell how much nimbler and coordinated they had become. He laughed to himself at the thought of the trouble they must be giving Miyr.

They chattered away at him for a full half an hour, occasionally jumping up off his lap to fetch some item for exhibition, whether it was Sandra’s latest piece of artwork or the model speeder Sara had put together with Miyr’s help. But eventually their energy wore out, and they were content to be cuddled and caressed.

After a while, he winced as one of them reached out shyly and brushed his mind in the Force—it hurt enough that he could not tell which twin it had been. He immediately tried to steel himself, keep the pain contained so as not to alarm them. But he was forced to admit he had underestimated them. A concerned murmur rose from both twins and they turned their gazes up at him before beginning a somber little conference between themselves.

“Dadda’s hurt,” announced Sara, entirely as though he was not listening.

Sandra nodded in solemn agreement. “Hurt bad?”

“I dunno,” the other frowned. She reached out to him again, more carefully than before, and maintained her contact as long as she could manage, watching his mask critically the entire time. “Yeah,” she finally decided sorrowfully. “Does it hurt, Dadda?”

“I’ll be all right,” he reassured them gently; but he had to repeat it a few times before they would believe him.

“How’d you get hurt?” Sara demanded.

He stiffened somewhat, and the twins both frowned again—doubtless they had caught his spike of anger. He stroked them gently to reassure them that he was not angry with them. “I was in a fight,” he answered.

Mistake. They were already sitting up expectantly, eyes glued to him—very obviously anticipating a story. There was no getting out of it now.

After a very child-friendly version of the battle on Corellia, with several details omitted, carefully rephrased, or reinvented altogether, they got him to regale them with two more of his mildest war stories. By then it was time for their dinner, but they were both in such high spirits, he might as well have tried to get a logical bill passed in the Senate. He decided to concede the battle after he got them to eat five bites apiece.

He had to shake his head at himself. He had managed to destroy the entire Jedi Order, and inspired terror in the entire Navy with the twitch of a finger—but he couldn’t compel two little girls to clean their plates. Parenthood was indeed a strange and mystifying experience. And from what he’d heard of it, it was only going to get more so.

They quickly grew tired as the night came on, but neither of them would admit to it. When he announced it was time for bed, both of them protested fiercely in between yawns.

“Uh-uh, Dadda,” Sandra objected.

“Don’ wanna go to sleep,” Sara added. They both made a concerted effort to show just how awake they were, but their earlier energy was long gone.

He picked both of them up, ignoring the complaints. “You are both tired and ready for bed.”

“Uh-uh, Dadda, uh-uh…” They kept it up all the way to the nursery, all through being changed into their pajamas, right up until he settled them into their shared bed. Still they would not lie down—they stuck to him like magnets.

“Enough, Sara, Sandra,” he finally said. “I will be here in the morning.”

“Promise?” they demanded in unison.

“I promise. I will be here for a long visit this time, until I am healthy. Now go to sleep.”

Both of them finally settled down; he waited until they were soundly asleep before leaving the nursery.

He wanted nothing more than to go straight to his hyperbaric chamber and collapse. But he had a call to make that had already been neglected far, far too long.


Nar Shadda, the Nal Hutta system…

There were few places in the galaxy to which Imperial authority did not extend, and Nal Hutta was not one of them. However, there were plenty of places in the galaxy where that authority was nothing more than a general theory. In the Nal Hutta system, and in Hutt space in general, Imperial officers were humored to their faces rather like senile, cranky old family members, and the rules were freely broken behind their self-important backs. Dogfights were common enough between smugglers and the Imperial Navy, but as long as a lawbreaker kept his hands to himself he could expect to travel through Hutt space without Imperial trouble. Trouble from the other lawbreakers was more to be feared.

But most people coming through Nal Hutta didn’t go looking for trouble. Probably the shady traffic in system wasn’t going to bother Han’s freighter—unless the old crate happened to have belonged to the mortal enemy of somebody, and given the years this sucker had spent rusting Han felt confident that no one was out to fry them.

He’d spent the time in hyperspace plotting the jumps. It was a lot harder than he’d expected it to be—the math wasn’t too easy, and his nav computer could have been a lot more dependable. But he was pretty sure he had everything worked out—a series of three jumps should take them cleanly to Kytoa.

When Luke showed up again, looking much calmer, he’d run over the process of making the next jump. And ten minutes later they had dropped back into realspace.

They had to wait at least five minutes to let the engines finish cycling down before they could start the next jump, so the two of them were waiting in the cockpit. Han was leaning forward over the control panels on his elbows, watching the timer, and Luke was curled in the copilot’s chair, staring blankly out at Nal Hutta and the Smuggler’s Moon. Both of them jumped when the alarm buzzed.

“Okay, kid, here we go,” Han announced unnecessarily. “Next stop Bananjur.” That was the system where they would switch vectors again.

Luke strapped into his seat and gripped the armrests for extra measure—not a bad idea, seeing how loose his crash webbing was.

Han reached out and flicked a few switches to prep the engines—then pulled the hyperdrive lever, holding his breath…

Nothing.

Well, not precisely nothing. From the rear of the ship they both heard the engines rev up and then weakly throb back down, sounding out of breath. Han swore under his breath as one of the lights on the control panel began to flash red.

Luke pulled himself out of the copilot’s seat and surveyed the panel. “Cooling system’s blown,” he said.

“Yeah, thanks for the update,” Han retorted, more snappishly than he meant. It wasn’t the kid he was mad at, it was the krethin’ ship, and that blasted old man for leaving him to deal with this mess. Why the Force couldn’t this crate have waited until the next system to blow its drive? Of all places you didn’t want to be stuck…

Han finally shook himself out of it. Being mad wasn’t going to fix the ship. He checked his scanners; lucky for them, nothing seemed to be nearby. All the rest of the traffic was closer to the planet and the moon. With any luck they’d be able to get this thing fixed up before somebody shot at them. He reached out and turned on whatever crappy shields the ship had.

“Hey kid, you know anything about repairs?” It was mostly a joke, but Luke surprised him by nodding promptly.

“We were jumping around for a long time, switching ships,” he said. “We had to do a lot of repairs.”

“Well, let’s go see how much you know about cooling systems,” Han said, a bit more cheerfully.

But one diagnostic of the faulty hyperdrive was enough to dash any hopes of their being able to fix it. Practically the entire cooling system was shot, and further examination of the hyperdrive itself left them wondering how they’d even managed the first jump out of Corellia. They were left with no choice but to go down to Nar Shadda and try to weasel somebody out of a hyperdrive.

Han didn’t much like the idea of taking a kid down to Nar Shadda, not from what he’d heard of it, but leaving Luke by himself on the dilapidated freighter was hardly any better an option, so they brought the ship down to the surface together and did a rapid search for funds. Han was beginning to think they might just have to sell the freighter for scrap and components and hope it was enough to get them passage to Kytoa, but then he remembered the chips Kenobi had given him. Sure enough, the fourth one that he hadn’t read before contained the critical information for several separate accounts, coming to a handsome total of nearly a hundred thousand. That ought to be enough to get them a pretty decent hyperdrive.

They left the ship warily. Han had his blaster on beneath his jacket, and Luke was totally enveloped in his desert coat with its big floppy sleeves and hood, sealed all the way down the front, and wearing gloves and boots a couple sizes too large—hopefully people would decide he was some kind of shortish alien, and not a kid. Outside the hangars the streets were lined with cantinas and bars and cabarets and clubs of every kind, plus the occasional nondescript prefab buildings that were probably housing enormous nests of criminals. The thoroughfares were choked with traffic—pedestrians, droids of every model, speeders and bikes and pretty much whatever vehicle you could name. They heard plenty of blasters firing as they hunted for a repair shop.

Finally, after two hours of winding their way through the crowds, they agreed to stop at the safest-looking cantina for something to eat, and found themselves a table at “The Rancor’s Den.” For Nar Shadda, it was a pretty tame cantina—Luke noted brightly that he’d seen much worse, and Han had to admit it was better than anything he’d expected to find on the notorious Smuggler’s Moon. They placed orders with a droid and Han went up to the bar, keeping a careful eye on Luke.

He called the bartender, an overweight Twi’lek with a sickly green hide, and tossed a credit coin on the bar. “You have any idea where we’d find a shop that carries components for a YT-1300?” he asked.

The bartender picked up the money and scrutinized it for a few seconds before pocketing it with a shrug. “None in particular,” he said. “But you might try that fella over there.” He nodded towards a table.

Han turned and saw a youngish human talking business of some kind with a Rodian—he couldn’t tell how tall, but the man was dark-skinned, with a burgeoning moustache and a head of curly black hair.

“He runs some kinda special components business,” the bartender continued. “He might have something. I wouldn’t expect much if I were you, though, lookin’ around for YT-1300 pieces.” His expression clearly said what he thought of such an outdated craft as a Corellian YT-1300. Han nodded to him and went back to his table with Luke, and when the droid came by with their food he told it to invite the dark fellow over.


Vjun…

Due to his extreme exhaustion, Vader did not awaken so early as was his habit. In fact, he was somewhat disgusted with himself when he realized what time it was. He had not been so lazy since…well, his teenage years at least. And not very much then either. Obi-Wan had always—

His thoughts cut off quickly in cold anger, half of it due to all that Kenobi had done to him and half due to the fact that those memories could still bring a surge of regret—even of longing for what once had been.

He shook anger and remembrances away altogether. The matter was finished. Kenobi was dead. And while he might detest the man even more for that, there was no changing what had happened on Corellia. His old master had paid in the end with his life for all he had done—true, it had not been on Vader’s blade as he had desired, but the end result was after all the same. He may as well accept it.

As for the final damage the man had done him…he gingerly flexed his mind, and found that much of the pain from yesterday had already gone. He did not even want to think about using the Force, but that headache was mostly gone. It seemed that sleeping late had done him some good. He was still confident that it would be several months before he was again healthy.

Luckily for him, the Emperor had agreed with his decision.

It had not been a pleasant call last night. For one, there was the fact that he had left first the Alderaan and then the Corellia system without once notifying Coruscant of his movements. For another, he had been laboring under that unholy headache. And lastly—he had had to reveal a weakness he would much rather not have brought so directly to Palpatine’s attention. Namely, that his mental defenses could be made vulnerable to devastating attack.

Not the best thing to tell a Sith Master. It was a good thing he was currently assured of his position, or he might have feared for his life. As it was, he would not be safe until the next decade had gone by without Palpatine’s discovering a suitable replacement for him. By that time experience would surely have mended his fault. Not that he intended to leave such a glaring weakness to the hands of fate. No other skill would he pursue until he was absolutely sure that no such attack on his mind could again succeed.

He had spent several minutes speaking with his master, explaining himself first of all, describing with reluctant honesty what precisely had occurred on Corellia, and detailing the injury he had suffered. His master had been appropriately alarmed by the grim catalogue of damage, and in the end had endorsed his decision to remain at Bast Castle until such time as he should be healed.

He felt sure there would be no spies sent. His master, having decided that he could not yet dispense with his uniquely powerful apprentice, would therefore be most anxious that said apprentice should not suffer deprivation of his valuable powers for want of adequately peaceful healing. He would be left undisturbed; Palpatine would not inflict stress in the form of spies, or in ordering him back to Coruscant, where both of them would be keenly aware of his momentary vulnerability.

Still, a little extra caution would certainly not hurt. There would be no going downstairs for Sara and Sandra until he left. Perhaps he could take them for joyrides in his starfighter when he felt more confident of his ability to handle any attacks that might occur, but no downstairs.

Speaking of Sara and Sandra…they would surely be wondering where he was. Anxiously wondering, if he knew them at all. He began the process of re-donning his mask and armor.

Half an hour later, he emerged from his hyperbaric sleep chamber, and made his way to the twins’ rooms. Miyr was there, trying to get the energetic duo out of pajamas and into proper clothes; she threw up her hands in despair as he entered and the girls immediately scrambled over to him, only half dressed.

“That will be all, Miyr,” he rumbled, as Sara and Sandra ducked behind him under his cloak and peeked out around at their caretaker, giggling.

She just shook her head at the girls and walked towards them, handing him the remaining pieces of the outfits she had been trying to assemble. “As you wish, my lord,” she answered wryly. “I wish you luck.”

It took him another half hour to get them calm enough for dressing. Why was it that though the entire galaxy trembled when he issued a threat, they only laughed and wriggled their way under the bed? Their mother would have done so much better with them. He was certain of it.

But their mother was not here. It was very strange to think that Sara and Sandra’s mother had died nearly eleven years before their birth.

And now, as the time drew nearer to Empire Day once more, his thoughts returned with increasing frequency to his lost wife and child. Particularly the child. Although the nightmare was almost entirely gone, it still recurred from time to time, often accompanied now by stranger dreams—again, sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, features and coloration always changing—of that same child as he or she might have been now. Nearly thirteen, that little one would have been.

Sara shifted suddenly on his lap, where she sat with her sister watching one of their favorite holos. The next minute she was standing up on his leg, and reaching up to his mask with a concerned look. “Don’t be sad, Dadda,” she implored. She stretched up as far as she could reach, trying to get her arms around his neck.

“Why Dadda sad?” Sandra wanted to know.

He debated whether he should get into any kind of detail, and decided against it. They were too little for stories of such violent grief. Instead, he merely said, “I miss your mother.”

“Mamma?” They both liked to hear him describe Padme; it surprised him that he was able to do so for them. He had decided not long after they were born that no secrets would be kept about their birth, and accordingly when they had begun to call Miyr “Mamma” had sat down to tell them about Padme. When next Baranne turned up an image of Padme, he planned to preserve it for the two of them, but until then his descriptions of her would suffice.

“Mamma was very pretty, wasn’t she?” Sara asked, though of course she had heard his answer plenty of times before.

“She was very beautiful.”

“The most prettiest mamma in the whole galaxy,” Sandra affirmed loyally.

“Yes,” he agreed gently, hugging them closer.

“But she died,” Sara continued the story sorrowfully.

“Yes, many years ago.”

“I miss Mamma too,” Sandra announced. He laughed despite the strangling ache in his chest.

“You never met your Mamma,” he reminded her.

“Well, I miss her anyways.” He laughed again and tucked her closer under his cape. Somehow even the most painful of his memories lost their edge when he was with his daughters.

At his belt, his com abruptly began to buzz, and immediately the most doleful expressions imaginable came over the twins’ faces. They knew well that when his com went off, it meant he would be leaving.

“I will return,” he promised them, lifting them off his lap so he could stand.

Halfway to the door, he paused as a soft effort at a Force suggestion caused his mind to waver a little, and he turned around to fix a curious gaze on the twins. They were still watching him, quite miserably—and if he was not very much mistaken, those two had just unconsciously tried to use a classic mind trick on him to get him to stay!

He could not have been prouder of them. But his com demanded his attention; praise would have to wait. He directed their attention to the holoprojector and went quickly into his chambers.

“Lord Vader,” he said tersely into the mike.

“Agent Baranne, my lord,” came the response. “I apologize for disrupting your solstice, but I have had further information from my Corellian sources. This line is secure?”

“It is. Continue.” He took a seat deliberately.

“My contacts have traced Kenobi to a series of apartments on Corellia. In one of the more recent ones, Kenobi neglected or was unaware of a secondary archival system, which still contained records of his communications over the six months he was in residence there. Most of these are irrelevant local contacts, but we have the dates and times of two interstellar contacts, both directed from the same destination.”

“What was the destination?”

“Housing Unit 56-1138-44B, Antilles City, Krytoa,” Baranne reported. “I have not received information back about the residents, but I felt this might be of some interest to you.”

“It is indeed.” Though he racked his brains, Vader could not think of any reason why the name Krytoa should be significant to Obi-Wan. It was not a planet they had been to together, or that he had visited at any time since their meeting. Though he did not know whether the planet had an indigenous race, he could not recall Obi-Wan knowing any Krytoans. It was quite perplexing…

But the planet, if his memory of the galactic map served him, was an Outer Rim world, situated in a particularly remote area. Perhaps some surviving Jedi were encamped on Krytoa?

In any case, he felt it best that the place be immediately dealt with before any alarm could be raised. “You did well to bring this to my attention,” he told the agent finally. “Continue your investigations on Corellia. I shall deal with this matter.”

“My lord.”

Vader immediately ended the contact and sent through a call to the acting flagship of Fifth Fleet and Admiral Drean. The admiral straightened quickly as he saw who had contacted him. “Lord Vader! This is a most welcome surprise.”

“You may dispense with the pleasantries, Admiral,” he said shortly. “Detach the flag division immediately to the planet Krytoa. Upon arrival your troops are to immediately proceed to Housing Unit 56-1138-44B, Antilles City, Krytoa, and arrest all in residence, whether officially or not. You may use any means necessary, but ensure that none escape. You will forward any prisoners taken to Vjun.”

“It shall be done immediately, my lord.”


In Hutt space…

A shadow fell over Han and Luke’s table. They looked up from their plates to see the dark-skinned young man standing in front of them. He flashed them a broad grin from beneath his moustache.

“Lando Calrissian,” he announced, swinging a seat over from another table. “I understand you boys wanted to talk business.”

Han slid his chair over enough to let the guy sit down. “Lookin’ for some components,” he explained briefly. “We’ve got a YT-1300 with a blown drive on our hands.”

Calrissian whistled softly. “Buddy, you’re probably better off sellin’ the thing.”

Han laughed. In Nal Hutta? They’d be lucky to scrape one passenger liner ticket out of the thing. If passenger liners even came to this system…

“Look, can you help me or not?”

Calrissian leaned back, stroking the black fuzz on his chin. “Here’s the thing. I don’t have any way to get my hands on a hyperdrive that old, and even if I could find one it probably wouldn’t last you more than one jump. The only way you can probably fix your ship is if you gut the systems and rebuild ‘em.”

Han shook his head slowly. He was pretty sure he didn’t have the money for that…

“How functional are the rest of your systems?”

Han rubbed the scar on his chin glumly. “Well, leavin’ out the hyperdrive and the nav unit and the scanners, everything reads operational.”

Calrissian sat up straighter. “What’s the problem with your scanners?”

“Well, nothin’s wrong with the actual scanners,” Han amended. “Problem is the stupid things are so pre-Clone Wars they use hull map ID, and of course now all the battle shields block laser mapping—”

“Hold on—you said you have hull ID scanners? And they work?”

Han nodded slowly, totally freaked out by the kiddish excitement on the guy’s face.

“Pre-Clone Wars—what’s the model?”

Luke promptly rattled off the model number of the scanners, and Calrissian looked like he was about to explode out of his seat and start bouncing off the roof. Han’s hand drifted unconsciously toward his blaster…

“Buddy—ah—what’s your name?” Calrissian said excitably.

“Han Solo,” Han said reluctantly, tossing a glance at the nearby window to see if it was a viable escape hatch.

“Well, Han Solo, I’ll make you a deal,” Calrissian said. “As it so happens, one of the crime lords on Nal Hutta collects classic and antique war equipment on the side. He buys a lot from me, and I can tell you he’d be delighted to pick up those scanners of yours—you don’t find many that are still functional—”

“Perfect,” Han said quickly. “We’ll go find him.” Force knew, they’d get better value going straight to the guy himself instead of this wacked-out middle man—

“Hey, hey, hold on a second!” Calrissian tossed up his hands. “For one, I obviously know better than you what those babies are worth; you’ll get more this way. Second, I can arrange to get your ship revamped.”

Han perked up immediately. “Run that by me again?”

“What I was going to say was, you give me those scanners. In return, I’ll give you a high-performance hyperdrive I have in stock—and for an extra fee, I’ll have your freighter’s systems updated.”

Han shared a glance with Luke, who raised his eyebrows beneath the big hood. “Just how high-performance are we talkin’?”

Calrissian leaned in close. “A Sienar Beta drive,” he whispered.

Han jerked back in shock. Sienar Systems was not the galaxy’s biggest shipyards—Kuat came first, Corellia second—but it was the most successful, for every single one of His Majesty’s warships came from them. From TIE fighter to the brand new Super Star Destroyer, every craft in the Navy bore the Sienar stamp, and so did all their hyperdrives, which gave the best size-to-power ratios in the galaxy.

And of all the hyperdrives Sienar Systems produced, the fastest was the Beta-class drive, designed for light hyper-capable starcraft like shuttles and multi-man snub fighters.

He would be a complete idiot to turn down a Beta drive—if it was real, and if he could get his hands on it without losing life, limb, or starship.

“Buddy,” he said severely, “you are gonna have to prove that, and I mean but good.”

“Of course I’ll give you proof,” Calrissian reassured him. “If you’ll accompany me to my warehouse I’ll show you the drive, I’ll run diagnostics on it for you—anything you like. It’s real and it’s functional—straight out of the yards, never been used.”

Force—this was just too good to be true.

“What kinda fee are we talking?” Han said, switching back to the question of renovating the ship.

Calrissian frowned. “Well, your wiring is probably all good enough to work with, if your sublight engines still can run the systems. I’d say a rough minimal estimate would be twenty-seven to thirty thousand. Of course, your ship will have to be appraised before I can say for certain.”

Well, he had that hundred thousand in the old man’s accounts. And with this kind of a deal, you really couldn’t make a better investment with it. The ship could always be sold afterwards at profit.

“How long do you figure that revamp would take?” He definitely needed to get Luke to this Kytoa as quick as he could—for sure inside a month.

“No more than four days,” Calrissian promised. “It’s not like it’ll involve all that much rebuilding—just some installation work.”

Luke nodded his eyes at Han, and he shrugged, tossing some credit coins on the table to cover their tab. “Okay. Let’s go see this drive of yours.”


In Antilles City…

In this part of the planet, there wasn’t really all that much difference between Tatooine and Krytoa. Both were basically desert. Krytoa was more of a hard-baked sort of desert, flat and rocky, and not as hot as Tatooine, but it was no less a desert, and there were several moisture farming communities roundabouts. Owen and Beru Lars slipped right into the pattern, discounting a bit of fumbling at the start.

And also discounting the startling absence of a certain blond mop of hair.

Owen had been startled by how much he missed Luke once they resumed a somewhat normal home life. Beru at least had anticipated how much she would miss her nephew, but all the expectation in the galaxy didn’t make it any easier to deal with him being gone. It was so quiet without that boy in their house.

She was in the kitchen of their little home just now, and often over the last two years when she cooked in here she would be reminded of Luke—usually when she found herself baking something he had particularly liked. It was hard to believe she hadn’t seen him for two whole years. How big he must be getting! She sighed as she stirred away at a soup pot on the heating pad.

They didn’t hear much from Kenobi, save for notifications every now and then to reassure them that the two were safe, wherever safe might be. Certainly not enough to satisfy Beru’s maternal tendencies towards their nephew—

She jumped as the com station in the kitchen buzzed, and very nearly dropped her spoon into the soup. Truth be told, they didn’t hear much from anyone, not just Obi-Wan, which was why she’d been so startled. Generally the only reason they got a call was if Owen had gone out into a town for something or other and was letting her know he was on his way home. But Owen was home, working out on a vaporator. And this was their secure communication link, besides, for which only Obi-Wan had the number.

“Hello?” she said warily when she got to it at last, fearing the worst.

The projector activated, displaying a person she couldn’t recognize to save her life—finely dressed, dark-haired. Certainly nobody from Krytoa, whoever she was. And definitely not Obi-Wan.

“Is this the Lars residence?” the woman asked quickly.

She wasn’t sure if she should answer or not, but something told her it was best she did. “Yes,” she answered carefully.

The woman visibly relaxed. “Is your line secure?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Good. My name is Elle. I…I have some unfortunate news.”

“Unfortunate?” Beru whispered.

Elle nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid so. We…we have a mutual friend who gave me this number and asked that I deliver a message from him.”

When Owen came in an hour later for dinner, he found his wife sitting numbly at the kitchen table, staring at the wall.

“Beru?” he asked, his irritation at the dysfunctional vaporator immediately vanishing. “Beru, what is it?”

“I…I got a call today,” she said slowly. “On the secure line.”

Owen stiffened.

“They were found,” she continued numbly. “There—there is an important delivery coming here.”

Owen rushed to sit beside her. “Then it’s just fine,” he said soothingly. “That means Luke is on his way here—he’s safe.”

She shook her head, beginning to cry. “No—no—he’s not—he’s in terrible danger—Force, he could be dead right now!” Her voice rose into a despairing shriek.

“It’s going to be fine,” Owen reassured her, rubbing her shoulders. “As soon as he gets here, we’ll be ready to go and find somewhere else—we’ll move for as long as we have to, whatever it takes to keep him safe. We’ll all go with Obi-Wan this time.” Curse his stepbrother for putting them all in this mess in the first place, he thought darkly—but there was no changing what had happened.

“Owen—it wasn’t Obi-Wan who called,” she sobbed. “It was someone else he gave the number to—a woman, I didn’t know her. It wasn’t Obi-Wan!”

Owen’s reasonableness began to fade immediately. There couldn’t be many reasons why Obi-Wan would be unable to contact them personally. “Did she say anything else?” he asked carefully.

Beru settled back, wiping her eyes, trying to calm down. “Nothing else,” she sighed. “Except that we should call her when our delivery arrives.”

Owen could feel his stomach turning with apprehension. It seemed clear enough that Luke and Obi-Wan had been separated; if Kenobi had been coming to Krytoa with their nephew, there would have been no need to risk communication.

“Come on,” he said finally. “We need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

It didn’t take them more than a couple of hours to pack all of their necessities. The next week was a taut one. Beru was continually fussing at the house, cleaning things that she’d scrubbed to a polish three times already, and when she could think of nothing else to clean would wear away the pavement in the kitchen with pacing until an imaginary spot of scum or film presented itself. Owen soon spent as much time as possible outside the house, trying to distract himself by working on the vaporators, but nothing could hold his attention for long. There was no further preparation they could make—only wait helplessly and hope that their nephew would arrive safely.

Six days after they had received the alarming call, the two of them were sitting at the table trying to eat the results of Beru’s stressed culinary efforts when a violent explosion rocked their little house.

Beru shrieked—Owen bolted out of his chair and seized his old blast rifle from the cabinet. His first two shots ripped through the secure com unit, blasting it into shrapnel. Then he rushed in the direction of the explosion, leaving Beru trembling in the kitchen corner.

All of Owen’s worst fears were confirmed when he saw white-armored troops pouring through the smoking front door.


The desert homestead was just barely a blip on his scopes, only a couple of klicks away from the other local houses. Captain Soontir Fel certainly couldn’t see anything remarkable about the place as he swept his TIE fighter in wide arcs around the standard patrolling radius of twelve kilometers, scanners alert for any vehicles trying to escape from the Imperial cordon around the house. But Soontir Fel had been serving with the Fighting 501st long enough to know a few things about the commander of his fleet.

The first was that you never, ever went against Darth Vader’s orders. The second was that in the end, he was generally right. The third was that the man could outfly anybody in the galaxy, but that was beside the point.

The point was, if Darth Vader said this place needed to be taken out, Soontir Fel for one was going to do what he could to make sure that happened. For the most part, this mess was a ground operation, the priority of the army, but a couple of fighters were needed overhead to keep a sharp eye, so he had volunteered himself and another 501ster for the job.

His visual scanners claimed that down below the strike teams had entered the house, as evidenced by the rising smoke from where they had blown their way through, and his scanners were corroborated by the ongoing com chatter.

“Put down the blaster!” the squadron commander’s voice crackled over the speakers. There was a pause and the general sound of activity. “Hands up, Rebel!”

“I’m not a Rebel!” a voice protested distantly. Soontir snorted as he adjusted the curve of his flight path.

“Sure you’re not,” the commander sneered, voicing the TIE pilot’s thoughts precisely. “Hands up!” The Rebel must have complied, for there was another flurry of activity sounds. “You, search the house for other occupants!”

A few minutes later, as the fighter swung back towards the north side of its loop, his scanners picked up the soldiers emerging from the building, dragging two prisoners. “Ground to Vindicator,” the commander addressed the ships overhead. “Building has been searched and we have taken both residents, one male and one female. Commencing interrogation.”

Soontir shook his head disdainfully. He wouldn’t stick himself down in the army if they paid him a million a month. He much preferred the clean, black-and-white realm of piloting his starfighter—his job was to shoot, plain and simple, and not get himself shot in the process. None of this arrest and investigation nonsense…

Shots and shouts suddenly rang out of the speakers—he quickly focused back in on the visual screen, and saw to his dismay that one of the prisoners had pulled a handgun and started shooting at random. Or maybe not at random, he quickly amended—the man dropped several of the troopers before a soldier finally nailed him cleanly in the back. Somewhere in there the other prisoner was screaming, terrified—but then the screams abruptly sliced off, with unmistakable finality.

Vindicator to ground,” Admiral Drean demanded over the com. “What is your status?”

A subordinate quickly answered. “Firefight, Black One,” the lieutenant reported. “Prisoners attempted attack and were incapacitated.”

“Are they alive?” the admiral pressed.

There was a silence. “We lost the woman,” the lieutenant finally responded. “Our medic is stabilizing the man. He’s in critical condition.”

Soontir scowled. Vader would be most unhappy if they lost both.

“Get him up to the ship med bay as quickly as possible,” Admiral Drean ordered from the bridge. “Search the building for any information. Black One, we are sending another shuttle down to the site. Stand by.”

“Yes, sir,” Soontir reported snappily. “Black One standing by. You catch that, Celchu?”

“Yes, sir,” came a quick answer from the TIE on the opposite side of the patrol loop. “Standing by.” Tycho Celchu was one of the 501st’s freshest pilots, just out of Academy—this was a good breaking-in mission to take him one. And so far, he hadn’t missed a beat.

Nor did the youngster slip up even a little when the shuttle arrived from overhead—Soontir let him handle the challenge and ID confirmation, which Celchu managed with the ease of a much more practiced pilot. Promising, that kid. Even if he was from Alderaan.

“Black One, our shuttle is on the ground,” a bridge officer reported over his com. “Continue to stand by.”

“Yes, sir,” Soontir sighed, continuing the TIE around its monotonous circle.


The landing ramp extended swiftly down onto the baked desert of southern Krytoa, and Agent Baranne winced as the heat wave hit him. He kept on down nonetheless, which was as well, because in another moment the medics rushed up the ramp bearing the wounded prisoner on a stretcher and he would have been run over by them in their haste.

Ahead of him a modest home stretched languidly on the desert plateau, the rising smoke the only sign of the recent drama until he came around to the front and saw the milling troops and the sprawled body of the woman who had been struck in the firefight. He shook his head dolefully. What had the man been thinking to pull that pocket blaster? Surely he hadn’t believed he could win?

Until they had the man stabilized and on the mend, Baranne would however be forcibly confined to speculation. It would be a better use of his time to search the house along with the troops. Hopefully he would find some further clues as to why Kenobi should have had any connections to this place.

The first thing to catch his eye in the little dwelling was the blasted-out com unit in the kitchen—he immediately ordered it removed to the Star Destroyer overhead for examination. Obviously the residents had tried to hide sensitive information—possibly related to Kenobi. They had done their best to wreck the thing, but his intelligence team might yet be able to recover information from its memory systems.

There was not much else of interest in the home. He was about to leave when he glimpsed one of the soldiers dully scanning through a file of images from one of the handful of datachips recovered.

“Back that up,” he ordered the man sharply. The soldier flipped back through the images, until the one that had caught the agent’s attention was back.

It seemed to be a sort of family portrait. He quickly recognized the man and woman as the two prisoners—but what had seized his interest was the young boy also in the picture. Baranne took the data reader from the soldier and began skimming through the images. Sure enough, the boy turned up several times, at varying stages of maturity—ranging from infancy to perhaps ten years of age. The newest of them was almost three years old.

So—the couple had had a child. Yet there were no signs in the home that a young teenager lived there.

Baranne’s eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed. Perhaps the boy had died, or had been sent to school elsewhere. If there was some such innocent explanation for his absence, it would be easy to discover. And if nothing could be found…well, in that case, he would turn his attention on the matter.

But the first priorities now were the continuing investigation on Corellia, and interrogating the man when he stabilized.


The dark world of Vjun…

The past several days had done much to ease Darth Vader’s anger. Withdrawn from official business as he was, and unable to train or improve his Force skills, he had had nothing to distract him from spending the majority of his time with Sara and Sandra. And it was utterly impossible to be around them so long without their bright, cheerful spirits having a rapid effect on his own mood.

By now their initial euphoria had settled, at least to levels he supposed were normal for two-year-olds. In the main part, they were content to let him occupy his chair pensively and play between themselves nearby. He would watch them, and think quietly of how fortunate he was to have them. To think of the depths of his misery three years ago, bereft of any hope and drowning in insurmountable guilt…they were nothing less than his little saviors. He didn’t know what he would do without these two angels.

K’do had never been able to figure out how there had come to be two girls instead of one, despite spending a solid year of research on it. Vader attributed it to the will of the Force. It could really be nothing else.

And besides that, they seemed to be having a bit of therapeutic effect on his ravaged mind. He could now use the Force to a small extent—no more than a few seconds at a time, and not very many times in a day. But it at least allowed him to touch his daughters’ minds, and they could touch him without it being too painful. Sara’s motherly concern for him was much eased by these facts.

He smiled now as she clambered up onto his lap to give him another checkup. Starting from the first day Sara had taken it upon herself to monitor his progress towards health—she regularly would settle herself down gravely on his knees and carefully check his mind’s injuries.

“How is you now, Dadda?” she asked him somberly once she was settled.

“Better already,” he gave his standard answer. Unless he reported progress, her concern would skyrocket and she would take to following at his heels wherever she could, constantly asking whether or not he should go to a doctor.

She nodded, pleased with the answer, and reached to pick up his wrist. “Still hurts?” she asked.

“Not as bad as before,” he dodged. She nodded, not looking up from his wrist. He smiled again beneath his mask as he watched her studious imitation of the monthly checkup she and her sister received. Of course, she did not know the point of feeling his wrist was to check the pulse, and understood even less that there was no pulse to find in the bionic limb.

From his wrist, she moved on to tapping his knees—fortunately the prosthetic did react to the stimulus as a normal limb would, or else there would have been cause for immediate worry. She finished her little regimen by leaning against his chest plate and listening to his breathing. Assured that his respirator was working flawlessly, she pronounced his progress satisfactory and bounced back down to the floor to resume playing.

He stood after watching her for a few moments and went over to the corner of the room, where Sandra was drowsing on a cushion. Kneeling beside her, he held his hand against her forehead for a moment. She had awoken this morning with a mild fever, and had been napping most of the day. He knew it was not cause for alarm.

Her condition in general worried him, though. Sandra was very prone to such minor illnesses—but Sara had not contracted so much as a cold since the two of them were born. The doctor he kept here for them claimed it was because Sandra had gone unnoticed for the first part of her development, therefore receiving less nutrition. Hence Sara was stronger.

Having an explanation, though, did not make him any less concerned for his daughter’s health. For now she was sleeping soundly, which was the best thing for her fever. He stroked her hair gently before going back to lively Sara, who was busy playing the little engineer with a pile of snap-together blocks in all sizes and shapes.

Just now Sara was trying to cobble together a crude version of a TIE fighter. He swept her up into his lap, basking in her giggles, and settled down to build it with her. Just as he was helping her put the finishing touches on the model, the com screen on the wall switched on.

It was Miyr. “Lord Vader?” she asked softly.

He set Sara down on the floor with the fighter to distract her. “What is it?”

“My lord, one of your agents has contacted the castle from Krytoa. He requests a brief conference with you—if it is convenient.”

“Reroute him to my private conference suite,” he ordered. “I will speak with him.” He cut the connection. It went without saying that Miyr was to come immediately up to the twins while he conducted his business with Baranne. He activated one of the nanny droids to see to them until she arrived, checked once more on Sandra, and went into his private quarters.

Baranne was waiting on his holoscreen when he arrived and stepped into the reception area. “My lord,” the agent nodded. “Thank you for hearing me on such short notice.”

“Proceed,” he said shortly.

Baranne nodded again. “We have carried out our strike on the housing unit I specified in our last conversation,” he continued. “Two prisoners were initially taken captive from the residence. Unfortunately, in the course of investigation afterwards, one of them initiated a firefight with a hidden blaster; four of our men were wounded, one fatally. One of the prisoners was also killed by a stray shot. The other is currently in critical condition aboard the Vindicator.”

Vader scowled. “How critical?”

Baranne looked the tiniest bit nervous. “Extremely,” he admitted. “The medics are not sure he will survive. At the moment I am told he is in emergency operation.”

He drew his rein in sharply on his temper. Baranne was too valuable to lose to a fit of emotion. “Have you identified them?” he demanded.

“Yes, my lord. Owen and Beru Lars, initially of Tatooine.”

Vader stiffened. His stepbrother? Why would Kenobi be in contact with his stepbrother? It made no sense. “Have you uncovered anything else?”

Baranne nodded, flipping through one of his dossiers. “A damaged secure com module was recovered from the house,” he continued. “My specialists are working to recover its memory now. There was only one other anomaly I noted. Some of the files found in the house contained images of a boy with the Larses. There were enough of them, over a long enough spread of years, that I feel sure the child is their son. However, the house gave no indication of a third resident.”

“Perhaps they anticipated the strike and hid the boy?” Vader mused thoughtfully.

“I doubt it, my lord,” Baranne said. “There was only one bedroom in the house. Furthermore, each image was dated. They begin at infancy and stop approximately three years ago. I thought it was possible the boy was dead, but I found no indication of any such event in the items and data recovered from the home.”

Vader leaned back thoughtfully. Perhaps Kenobi’s connection to the Larses centered around the boy? “You do not have a name for him?”

“He does not appear anywhere else in the data I have recovered,” Baranne shook his head. “There is no mention of a child, even in files dating from the same period as the images. I currently have contacts tracing the couple’s presence on Tatooine. Information may perhaps be uncovered there.”

Vader nodded. “Is there any other information?”

“Not as yet, my lord.”

“You will inform me of any developments in the status of the prisoner you took,” the Dark Lord decided. “Continue your investigation.”

“My lord.”

Vader cut the connection and sat for a while in his chair, pondering this strange turn of events which had brought his stepbrother back to his mind. He’d forgotten about Owen Lars…

Still, from what he knew of the man, he didn’t seem the kind to leave his moisture farm on Tatooine. And he could think of no reason in the galaxy why Lars should be in contact with Kenobi…

Unless the child should happen to be Force sensitive? Ah—that made sense. Kenobi might well have hidden a Jedi child with the Larses. Perhaps he had later reclaimed the boy as an apprentice, and thus there were no images from the last three years…

In which case, where was the apprentice? His eyes narrowed. The last thing he needed was a renegade Jedi apprentice running around the galaxy right now. The brat would have all the time he needed to melt back into the masses while the Dark Lord was recovering and could not give chase.

Of course, he reminded himself, it was still only a speculation that an apprentice even existed. His irritation eased a little. Accepting that for now the matter was in the hands of his agents, he stood to leave.

But just as he reached the door the unit reactivated. It was Baranne again. “My apologies, my lord,” he said, with an unusual expression of resignation. “I’m afraid we have a development.”

Vader gave a world-weary sigh which the vocabulator did not recognize.

“You lost the prisoner.”

Baranne spread his hands. “Apparently there was nothing the medics could do. He collapsed under the shock of the operation. If they had not proceeded, the injury would have killed him. I apologize, my lord.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “Continue the investigation.” Baranne could hardly be blamed for the actions of troops not under his command. The work would have to proceed without the benefit of whatever Owen Lars might have known. The man’s death was, in the end, inconsequential.

Still, there was a strange sort of ache in his chest as he left the conference suite.


The hangars of Nar Shadda…

Han was impressed despite himself. Calrissian’s workers had stripped out the freighter’s old systems and installed the hyperdrive and modern equipment in three days flat—and at a pretty fair price, too, thirty-seven thousand. More than Calrissian’s “estimate,” of course, but that was a given.

And a Sienar beta drive! Han was nearly woozy with delight every time he thought of it. It was indeed genuine, and in flawless condition. Shoot, the Imperial seal had even still been on the packaging. Brand new, and latest generation to boot! He couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a catch.

“I can’t believe there’s no catch,” Luke muttered from beside him. They were both standing over the new hyperdrive, basking in the mechanical magnificence of the thing.

“Well, keep your eyes open,” Han conceded, “but once we get down there and pay off this Lando guy, we’re home free for Kytoa.”

Luke frowned as he followed Han from the hold down the boarding ramp, where Calrissian was waiting with that polished grin of his. Han just pulled a battered envelope out of his pocket and tossed it at the guy. “Enjoy,” he said dryly.

Calrissian took the credit chip out of the envelope for examination, and stuck it into a reader. Finally he nodded. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Han Solo,” he said, sticking a hand out. Han shook it a bit reluctantly.

When you shake a hand, you should mean it, son… The old man’s words from their first meeting ran softly through his head—involuntarily Han tightened his grip and nodded firmly at Calrissian. “See you,” he said.

“See you too, kid,” Lando called to Luke, who was standing close at the base of the ramp. The boy just nodded—but suddenly he jerked up straight, and shouted something Han didn’t hear, because at the same instant he noticed the armed aliens boiling through the hangar entrance, raising their blasters.

He whipped out his blaster quickly and began reeling off answering shots, trying to raise smoke if nothing else—but they were quickly overwhelming him with return fire, there were too many of them—he found someone grabbing his hand and dragging back up into the ship.

It was Luke, who of the three of them seemed to be the only one who’d kept his sense—he’d gotten Calrissian onto the freighter too. Already the kid was shouting at them to come to the cockpit, and finally Han’s mind cleared. He reached the cockpit just as Luke finished switching on the engines and quickly lifted the freighter clear of the hangar.

But the fun wasn’t over yet. All of his brand new scanners were speckled with incoming ships, and suddenly the saucer-shaped ship lurched as a cannon laser grazed its hull.

“Calrissian, make yourself useful and get on the cannon!” Han shouted over his shoulder. Beside him Luke was feverishly punching coordinates for their planned jump to Bananjur—but the kid heard him first and pushed Calrissian into the copilot’s chair in his place while he ran to the cannon.

A minute later, though, he had yet to fire the thing. “What are you waiting for, kid?” Han shouted at him through the com. “Peg those guys!”

“There’s too much civilian traffic!” Luke objected. Which was true—Han was swerving and looping wildly through the atmospheric and orbital traffic around Nar Shadda in a desperate effort to throw the pursuit at least a little.

“Kid, this is Hutt space! Shoot, will ya?”

Luke saw his point—a second later their cannon sang return fire.

For several seconds tensions ran high—then Han crowed in delight as his scanners blinked. “Good shot, Luke!” He’d nailed one of the fighters in the engines, sending the small craft spiraling down planetside.

His jubilation was short-lived when another shot slammed into the freighter, setting lights to flashing on his control panels and an alarm to shrieking. “Hurry that up, Lando, my shields are going!” he bellowed at his copilot.

“Got it!” Calrissian yelped.

Han lunged for the lever—and smooth as Corellian whiskey, the freighter shot into hyper.

All three of them slumped back in their seats with sighs of relief. “Who was that?” Luke wondered aloud.

Han turned in his seat to glare at Calrissian. “Anyone we know?” he snapped.

Calrissian threw up his hands. “Yeah, they were after me,” he sighed. “Thanks for getting me on here.”

“You can save the thanks until I know what’s going on,” Han retorted. “There any particular reason they chose my ship as the ideal location to shoot at you?”

Calrissian pursed his lips reluctantly. “Maybe they heard about your hyperdrive,” he tried.

Han stood up, leaning with raised fist over the guy. “What’s the deal with the hyperdrive?” he snarled.

“Ahhh…it might have been liberated from a previous owner, or something like that…”

Luke ground his head into the back of the seat. “I told you there had to be a catch,” he groaned.

“You tellin’ me you stole that thing from another dealer?” Han said in disbelief. “And ditched it on us?”

“Ah…you might be hitting close.”

“Kreth!” Han swore viciously in Huttese, stomping back and forth across the cockpit’s confines. “So you got those cretins after us now?” he snarled at length. “Thanks, Calrissian. You know what? I’ll leave your thank-you note in the airlock.”

“Hey, hey, give me a chance here!” Calrissian yelped. “I thought you two would be out of system before they got a clue!”

“Well, I guess you thought wrong, huh?” Han’s hand was on his blaster, his fingers twitching. “How about you tell us who ‘they’ are?”

“Just your average component runners,” Calrissian said. “Blackmarketers like the rest of them.”

Han drew the blaster and aimed it squarely for Calrissian’s chin. “Mind takin’ a guess about where these average component runners picked up armed spacecraft and ground troops?” he hissed. Luke straightened in his seat in alarm.

“T-they’re hired by one of the Hutts,” Calrissian stammered. “Jabba.”

Great. Just sithin’ great. In utter rage and disgust, Han switched the blaster setting to stun and pulled the trigger. Calrissian collapsed out of the chair.

Luke climbed out of his chair, brandishing a hydrospanner and wearing a scowl. “Cool off,” he snapped at Han. “Shooting him isn’t gonna fix anything. I don’t know what you’re so mad about anyway.”

“Kid, we got Jabba the freakin’ Hutt on us now!” Han burst out. “You know who he is, right?”

Luke rolled his eyes. “I used to live on Tatooine.”

“And you’re askin’ me why I’m mad?” Han shook his head and reholstered his blaster.

“Hey—you got a brand new Beta drive, a revamped ship, and an extra crew member for free,” Luke shrugged. “And we made it out of system. Just mess around with the drive signatures a little if you think they can track us.”

Han stopped to consider. The kid was actually pretty much right. But still…

“It’s the principle of the thing,” he muttered irritably.

Luke burst out laughing as he headed out of the cockpit.

“What?” Han demanded. “What’s so funny?”

“You—principles—” was as far as he got before collapsing into laughter.

“Hey! I have principles! Hey!”


Vjun…

The afternoon several days later found the dark master of the castle once again pacing back and forth in front of his conference suite projector, waiting for Baranne’s call to be put through. There had been no word from the agent since he had notified Vader of Owen Lars’ death, and the Dark Lord admitted he was anxious to know if there had been any significant progress in the investigation—particularly when it came to the enigmatic figure of the boy…

The projector abruptly came to life, and the agent’s face materialized in front of him. “My lord,” Baranne gave his customary greeting.

“What news?” Vader demanded.

“We have uncovered some…well, some very interesting information from Corellia and Tatooine regarding recent incidents,” Baranne continued. “My contacts on Corellia have affirmed that a boy was seen with Kenobi in Coronet. Those of my informants who saw him firsthand described him as similar to the images I transmitted from the house on Krytoa.”

It was an apprentice, then—precisely as he had conjectured.

“We have combed all the planets for him, but I suspect he has already left Corellia,” Baranne continued. “He has certainly had more than enough time to escape the system.” Vader agreed darkly.

“As for Tatooine…the Lars family previously owned a moisture farm in the province of Mos Eisley. According to the information gathered from neighboring homesteads, the Larses disappeared from their farm not quite three years ago. When shown images of the boy, neighbors were able to identify him as the couple’s nephew.”

A convenient cover, the Dark Lord mused, and one that would not have been difficult for locals to accept when Kenobi brought the child in.

“Do we have a name yet?” Vader rumbled. Likely the name would not be of much use—it was probably false to begin with, and if the Padawan had any sense he had already abandoned it, perhaps even as far back as Tatooine. But one never knew…

“Yes, my lord. Luke Skywalker.”


Aboard a certain freighter

Lando had been in friendlier situations, he supposed—but all things considered, this one could be a lot worse. That Solo kid had settled down some by now. Apparently shooting him with a stun blast had taken some of the anger out of the Corellian’s system. And Solo’s short copilot wasn’t half bad for a kid.

Solo was in the back now, tinkering at his new systems. With nothing else to do, Lando had asked the kid what games he knew.

So here he was, playing dejarik with a kid whose name he still didn’t know, en route to the Emperor knew where on a nameless battered old ship, with no idea of where the next few days would take him.

“Krakana to G9,” the kid announced abruptly, tapping at his control panel. Lando scowled at the situation that left the board in. He wasn’t much hand at this dejarik mess, but the kid sure was. Lando was beginning to think he might need medical attention for his rear end before this little venture was over.

“Where’d you get so good at this?” he demanded sourly.

He was surprised to see a shadow come over the youngster’s face. The boy stared into the distance for a few minutes before shaking himself out of his daze. “I just practiced a lot,” he mumbled. “Your move.”

Lando leaned back and looked at the kid. “What’s your name, anyway?”

He looked up sharply. Man, but that kid had some intense eyes. “Luke,” he answered.

“Luke what?”

“Your move,” Luke repeated, ignoring the question. Lando shrugged and turned his attention back to board. The kid might be young, but he seemed to know a thing or two when it came to street sense.

In fact, he probably had more street sense than Lando had dejarik sense, as the board reminded him. With a sigh, he moved one of his monsters to destroy Luke’s piranha beetle—which left his krayt dragon wide open to Luke’s lurking vaapad. “Should’ve moved your rancor,” Luke chided as he finished the game. Lando frowned at the game table, and smacked his forehead as he spotted the move that would have saved his hide.

“You’re way ahead me on this game, Luke,” the erstwhile special components dealer groaned.

They sat in silence for a while. Finally Lando spoke up again. “So where are we going?”

“Bananjur.”

“What’s on Bananjur?”

Luke shrugged. “We’re just switching vectors.”

“So where after Bananjur?”

“Teer. Then Kytoa.”

“So we’re going to Kytoa?” Luke nodded. “Well, what’s on Kytoa?”

“We’re meeting some people.”

“Alright, alright,” Lando muttered, “I won’t push.” Obviously the boy would rather not spread information. He sure was a sharp youngster. “So, are you two brothers or something?”

No answer. He could tell that line of questioning was dead too.

“Well, how old are you?”

“Almost thirteen.”

“Thirteen, huh?” That was a bit older than he’d expected. He was getting ready to ask another question, but Luke jumped out of his seat and was out of the rec room before he could say anything.

Sith, but it was going to be a long ride. He hoped these two would let him off at Bananjur.


“Almost to Bananjur,” Han announced several hours later. “Strap your lousy self in, Calrissian.” Lando scowled, but strapped on his crash webbing. In the copilot chair, Luke followed suit. If you asked Lando (which neither of them had) the kid might as well leave it off, it was so outsized for him…

Solo reached out and drew back on the hyperspace lever. The starlines shrank quickly back into pinpoints as the freighter decelerated, and ahead through the viewport the planet Bananjur rapidly swelled into view.

“Well,” Solo said happily, “seems like your drive works well enough so far, Calriss—holy Sith!”

The freighter jolted again crazily and sirens set off all through the cockpit, accompanied by warning lights.

“Incoming!” Luke shouted, pointing at the scanners. “Star Destroyer!” Sure enough, there was an Imperial-class warship floating towards them, with its tractor beam homed in on the ship.

“Kreth!” Solo swore venomously in Huttese and fired up the shields as fast as he could—in the middle of the melee the com system abruptly woke up.

“Unidentified freighter, this is His Majesty’s Warship Judicator. State your identity and purpose in system,” an officer intoned over the comlink. “Failure to comply will result in your arrest. Repeat, unidentified freighter…”

Han seized the com desperately. “We copy, we copy!”

“State your identity and purpose in system,” the officer repeated sternly.

“Ah, we are the independent merchant freighter, ah…” Han racked his brain desperately, glanced around the cockpit, and seized the first two words that came to mind. “The Millennium Falcon.”

There was a pause. “Your purpose in system?”

“We’re, ah, changing hyperspace vectors.” That was innocent enough, wasn’t it?

Again, a strained pause. “Millennium Falcon, I do not find a match for your ship in our archives. Transmit your shipboard identification.”

Han scrambled through his pocket for the chips and the flimsy printout of the title deed. Hastily he changed the name on the deed, loaded it into his computer, and beamed it out to the Destroyer. “Identification en route, Judicator,” he stammered.

There was a very, very long pause. Han swore he could the blood pounding in every vein of his body.

“Identification confirmed, Millennium Falcon,” the officer finally said. “Next time check the travel manifests so you don’t schedule a jump into the middle of an Imperial blockade.”

“Yes, sir,” Han breathed. “Sorry, sir.”

“Get the kreth out of system,” the officer sighed. The tractor beam switched off—Han punched the coordinates in feverishly and yanked the lever back. Thankfully, the freighter shot smoothly into hyperspace.

“Force, that was close,” Han breathed, slumping back into his seat.

“The Millennium Falcon?” Luke demanded. “Where in the galaxy did that come from?”

Han shrugged. “I think it was in a song that was on earlier.”

“That’s probably the stupidest ship name in the galaxy.”

“Hey, they bought it!”

“I’m with Luke on that one,” Lando chimed in.

“Calrissian, shut up.”

Aboard His Majesty’s Warship Vindicator

“Mr. Baranne?” The agent looked up from his data reader screen. One of the tech specialists was at the door.

“Yes?”

The tech came forward and handed him a data chip. “We were able to extract a few message fragments from the destroyed communications module,” he announced. “I have restored them as best as possible and placed them on this for your convenience.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Baranne nodded, taking the chip. “Will this be all the data you can retrieve?”

The tech nodded. “The rest of the memory was lost. Profile data for the module is also recorded on the chip.”

Baranne nodded and dismissed the tech. He popped the chip into his data reader and began examining the message fragments, starting with the most recent.

The projector lit up with the image of a woman, and Baranne jumped in his seat. Force, for a moment he’d thought it was none other than Padme Amidala! He froze the image and scrutinized it more closely. No, it was not Padme Amidala—he’d certainly seen enough images of the former Senator to know that. Suspiciously, he ordered the recording to play again.

“…od. My name…Elle. I…some unfortunate news.”

Elle? Excitement flashed through the agent’s mind. As he had suspected, the woman was indeed one of the late Padme Amidala’s look-alike handmaids.

“…a mutual friend who gave me…asked that I deliver a message from him. An important delivery is en…” The woman’s image flickered out again—there was no more.

En route—he was sure that was how the sentence had ended. So—the Larses were connected to Kenobi, who Baranne felt certain was the mutual friend who had been mentioned by this woman Elle, former handmaiden and bodyguard to Padme Amidala.

So how did all this fit together? The boy, the dead Jedi master, the handmaiden, the moisture farmers…what had drawn them into this intrigue? What intrigue was it?

Baranne leaned thoughtfully back in his chair. Perhaps his employer would have a better understanding of it than he did. It was time to place another call to Bast Castle.


The planet of Vjun…

The sun was rising up from behind the ocean, out the great library viewport, but the magnificent vista could not distract Vader from his pacing and pondering.

Luke Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Luke Skywalker…The name had been singing through his head ever since Baranne first spoke it, taunting him with all it might or might not mean. So distraught was Vader that he was unable to even consider going to sleep the entire night. He had put his daughters to bed early and spent the dark hours pacing in the library, trying to calm his whirling mind, organize his thoughts.

Luke Skywalker, the name of the missing boy—the boy who would now be nearly thirteen by the dates of the images, exactly the right age…dear Force, it could not be! It could not! He had seen the funeral procession on Naboo—in fact he had forced himself to watch Padme’s funeral procession over and over, reaffirming every time her still-swollen belly. It was impossible—he had concrete evidence that it was impossible!

Perhaps Kenobi had just given the apprentice that name, to pass him as the Larses’ nephew more accurately. Yes—that was it, that must be what had happened.

But why the Force would Kenobi choose that name of all names? There were dozens of childless moisture farmers across Tatooine to choose from, surely—there was no reason he should deliberately select the only ones with a connection to a Dark Lord of the Sith! It was stupid of him, thick, senseless—borderline suicidal, in fact—anything but characteristic of the shrewd, subtle man he had once known.

I must find him, was the only thing he could decide on. The boy had to be found, had to be brought here to Bast Castle so he could touch the child, look him in the eye, examine him, test his genetic data—reaffirm the foundations of his life for the past thirteen years. Because if their child had lived, it must mean—would mean that—

He shrank back from what that would mean. It was too dangerous to even contemplate. Too much emotion, too much upheaval—too much relief...

His comlink went off at his belt. It was again Miyr, summoning him up to his conference suite for another discussion with Baranne. He went quickly. Perhaps the agent had turned up something that would erase all these painful conjectures.

“My lord, we have retrieved some message fragments from the secure communications module found in the house on Krytoa,” Baranne began. “I could not determine a date for the message, but it did not come from Kenobi.” He clicked an image up on the screen—Vader actually started in his seat. Force—he’d nearly thought it was—

“The recording gives her name as Elle,” Baranne continued. “It’s very disjointed, so I’ll summarize for you. I ran image and voice confirmation to verify that she is indeed Elle Edarie, former handmaiden to the individual whose records you hired me to collect. In the recording, she states that a ‘mutual friend’ has asked her to deliver the message that an important delivery is en route. Presumably, my lord, this mutual friend would be Kenobi. I have no conjectures as to the nature of the delivery. There was no date, however, so the message could be up to several years old.”

“Do you know the origin of the message?” he demanded.

“No, my lord. It is a secure transmission, as I noted. No origin could be discovered.”

Vader stared at the screen helplessly. “Do you have any other new information?”

“I have had more information from Corellia, yes,” Baranne continued. “Eyewitnesses have confirmed that Kenobi purchased a ship a few hours before you arrived in system, my lord. We do not have any records for the craft, which departed system the same day Kenobi purchased it, but it is most likely a Corellian YT series freighter. Unfortunately neither of those narrows the search parameters significantly.”

Vader nodded, agreeing distantly. Thousands upon thousands of ships came in and out of Corellia on a daily basis; and the Corellian YT series ships were the most popular small-scale business craft in the galaxy. Every corporation, large and small, had one of the things to its name. Without specific information, it would be all but impossible to find the one Kenobi had purchased.

But not totally impossible. He had to find that boy—now more than ever, with Elle’s involvement in the matter.

“Continue the investigation,” he ordered finally. “Focus on that boy. I want him found as quickly as possible. Inform Admiral Drean to regroup with the Fleet. We have no further business in Krytoa.”

Baranne nodded—Vader cut the transmission to resume his pacing, even more disturbed than he had been before this communiqué. Now Elle was involved, pointing back to—he forced himself to think it—to Padme. This new information, far from alleviating his distress, had brought added speed and confusion to the whirling emotion and thoughts, had dragged him even closer to the most dangerous, haunting ghosts of his past.

He sank back down into his chair, switching on the images in the files. The most recent picture of the boy who had brought him all this violent emotion appeared on the projector at actual size. Small, blond as he had been—but it was the eyes that dragged him away from reason every time he looked at them. No matter how he tried to reassure himself with the memory of Padme’s appearance at her funeral or with conjecturings, there was no denying that those were his eyes. Force, it was like looking into history’s mirror.

He sat for hours, staring at the images, but no answers would come. No matter what other evidence Baranne managed to turn up, he knew there could be no absolution until he met this mysterious boy in person. He would search as best he could from Bast Castle until he was strong again—and if the boy had not been found by then, he would hunt for the child himself.


Somewhere in hyperspace…

All three passengers aboard the haphazardly-christened Millennium Falcon breathed a huge sigh of relief when they slipped through the Teer system totally without incident. Lando had thought about lobbying to be let off the ship then and there, but he’d taken advantage of the shipboard encyclopedia to see what might be there. And a good thing he had, too. There wasn’t much of anything beyond a couple of down-on-their-luck mining companies. So he’d settled back for the ride to Kytoa, which looked more promising from its file.

“Strap your—”

“—lousy self in, I know,” Lando finished irritably. Solo shot a glare at him over the top of his seat; Lando sighed and reached for the crash webbing again.

“Well, kid,” Han said to Luke, “here goes nothin’.” He drew back on the hyperspace lever easily, and the ship dropped into sublight as smooth as you please.

“There she is,” Han observed. “Kytoa. Now, Antilles City, wasn’t it?” He pulled the data reader out of his pocket and popped the chip in. “Yep, Antilles City… Housing Unit 56-1138-44B. Hey, Luke, see if you can pick up the planetary net yet.”

“Yeah, it’s reading,” Luke told him from the communications console.

“Go ahead and upload the address. It should give you the coordinates.”

They spent a few peaceful minutes cruising towards the planet, waiting for the results from the net. After a while, Luke frowned at the screen. “Sorry, it mixed up,” he said. “Let me try it again.” There was another short wait.

Finally Luke looked up sharply. “It’s not reading the address,” he said in confusion.

“Huh? Ah, scoot over, lemme try it.” Han and Luke switched seats and Lando leaned back and twiddled his thumbs while they tried again.

“This is weird,” Han finally murmured. “It keeps tellin’ me that the address isn’t in the system. How the kreth did that old man expect us to find an address that’s not listed?”

“Try just asking for Antilles City,” Lando suggested. Han shrugged and punched buttons again. Sure enough…

“It ain’t here,” he said in disbelief. “There isn’t an Antilles City here!”

Luke’s eyes narrowed. “Where’s the datapad?” he demanded. Han handed it to him.

“Gah!” Luke tossed it back at him and slumped into the pilot’s seat. “Nice going.”

“What?”

“It says Krytoa, you nerf herder! Not Kytoa!”

“It does not,” Han denied. “I read it over twice to make sure!” He grabbed the datapad—and soon smacked his forehead with a groan. “Sith.”

Lando was trying pretty hard not to keel over laughing. Instead he said, “Well, let’s go ahead and look up Krytoa.”

Han leaned glumly back over the control panels and entered the correct system name into the nav computer. When the map pointed it out relative to their position, both he and Luke groaned again—Krytoa was clear on the opposite side of the galaxy from Kytoa.

“This sucks,” Luke announced point-blank.

“You can say that again,” Han agreed.

“Should take about a week,” Lando surmised. “Hey, here’s a bright idea—how about we check the travel manifests this time?”

He had to duck to the floor to avoid being hit in the head by the datapad.


One week later…

“Again? No way this could happen again!”

Han stared in morbid disbelief at his scanners. They had just entered the Krytoa system—and according to his sensors, the system was all but crawling with Imperials.

Lando leaned over Han’s shoulder to look at the readouts. “You did check the manifests, right?”

“Yes, I checked!” Han snarled. “There was nothing out for Krytoa!”

“Two Star Destroyers and four corvettes,” Luke said softly.

“That’s a full division,” Lando murmured. “What in the galaxy are they doing here?”

“I dunno, but I ain’t stickin’ around to find out,” Han answered grimly. “Plug me in some coordinates.”

“Wait,” Luke said. “They’re going into formation.” All three of them leaned back over the screen.

“Hey,” Han said after a moment, “it almost looks like they’re leavin’—”

Sure enough, the screen blinked—all the threatening warships vanished smoothly into hyperspace.

“Well, that’s convenient,” Lando shrugged, strapping himself back into the navigator’s chair.

Han shook his head. “Guess it’s about time we got lucky,” he decided. “Plug that address into the planetary net, kid.”

In no time, the computer spat back the appropriate vector. Han set the ship into the proper approach, and a few minutes later they were sweeping across a baked desert landscape, passing houses every few klicks. “Ain’t much here, is there?” Han frowned.

“Coming up,” Lando announced. “Probably you can set down on that plateau.”

“Yeah, looks flat enough.” Carefully Han cut the engines and settled the ship down on her landing gear. Outside the cockpit viewport, the three of them could see a low-lying house, surrounded by nothing but vaporators.

“Well,” Han shrugged, “let’s go see if that uncle and aunt of yours are roundabouts.”

They were out of the ship and halfway to the house when Luke suddenly broke into a dead run. Han and Lando shared a glance and trotted after him around the corner of the building…

“Holy Sith…” Han murmured. The front entrance had been blasted out by somebody or other—fragments of it lay in charred ruin around the rocky ground. Luke stood frozen before it for a moment longer before forging on into the house.

“I got a real bad feeling about this,” Lando muttered.

Inside the damage was evident, although the place hadn’t quite been ransacked. There were traces of blaster shots around the door and in the kitchen a whole corner was charred and burned out. All the information systems in the house had had their memories removed, sometimes forcibly. The power cells had been blasted too.

Han found Luke after a few minutes curled up in one of the chairs at the kitchen table, staring at the wall silently. “Hey, kid, you okay?” he asked, feeling clumsy again.

Luke looked up at him, tears glittering in his eyes. “Where am I supposed to go now?” he asked softly.

“Look, Luke…” Han sat down in the other chair and scooted it up alongside the kid. “I dunno what happened here, and I dunno where your aunt and uncle are. But the worst turns up—well—well, I got a ship now, and she needs a copilot. So if you wanna stay with me, we’ll—ah, Sith, I ain’t sure what we’ll do, but I’ll try, anyhow.”

Luke fixed a strange look on him. “You don’t have to take care of me,” he said.

“Yeah, I know.” Han gave him a lopsided grin. “But we get along okay, don’t we?”

“Yeah, we do.”


They walked over to one of the neighboring farmhouses to ask about what might have happened at the Lars home. A portly farmwife answered their knocks on the front door.

“Hello, ma’am,” Han began awkwardly, sticking his fingers in his belt and trying to look presentable. “We’re friends of the Larses. Do you know where they might have gone?”

The woman paled. “The house off that way?” she answered. “Young man, you’re best off forgetting you ever knew them.” She started to close the door, but Han grabbed the edge with his hand.

“Please, ma’am—can you at least tell us what happened?”

“The Empire,” she said shortly. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t stick my nose into Imperial business if I can avoid it.” She started to slam the door again—but suddenly her eyes came to rest on Luke.

“You,” she breathed. The next second her finger was pointed at him. “You’re the boy in those pictures they kept showing us!”

Luke started backwards, but the woman came quickly out of the house after him. “They’re looking for you,” she burst out. “They went to all the houses around here to ask if anyone had seen you.”

“Did they say why they wanted him?” Han asked quickly.

She turned to him. “They found his picture in the Larses’ house when they raided it last week,” she breathed. “They thought he was a relative.”

Luke abruptly spoke up. “Please, do you know what happened to them?”

The woman moved back to her door, almost trembling. “Dead,” she said. “They were shot.”

Han gripped Luke’s shoulder to steady him.

“I should turn you in,” the woman whispered.

Han stiffened, fingers resting on his blaster…

“If you’re smart you’ll get out of Krytoa now,” she breathed finally, backing into her house. “I won’t speak up, but if they come asking again, don’t expect me to hide you. I have children.”

Han slowly let go of the blaster as the woman retreated into her house and closed the door. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” he said heavily.


Later, aboard the Falcon…

“Well, kid, we got some thinkin’ to do,” Han announced. The two of them were seated at the game table in the rec room while Lando tried to cook something or other in the galley.

“Guess so,” Luke agreed softly. They were several hours away from Krytoa now, almost a day—enough that the kid seemed to be coming to terms with this latest loss and thinking ahead.

“For starters, just how recent were the pictures they mighta gotten of ya?”

Luke shook his head. “Almost three years old.” He remembered once wanting to send his aunt and uncle a picture of him, and Obi-Wan had quickly shot that idea down, saying it would be too dangerous. It looked like he’d been right.

“Well, that’s good. All the same I figure we oughta change your appearance a little, like maybe dye your hair brown.”

Luke nodded, wondering how he might look with dark hair.

“And probably we better drop that last name of yours to be on the safe side,” Han continued.

“No!” Luke jerked upright, eyes ablaze.

“Hey, hey, I didn’t mean permanently!” Han objected. “Just I think we should call you somethin’ else around other people in case the Empire got your name from somewhere.”

“Like what?” Luke said testily.

“We’ll make it easy and pretend we’re brothers, huh?” Han offered. “How’s that? Anyhow, it’s not like there’s anything real special about a name, is there?”

“It is for me,” Luke said quietly. He didn’t feel yet like telling Han anything about his father. “But Solo’s okay, I guess.”

Han rolled his eyes. “Glad you approve.”

“So what are we gonna do?” Luke asked after a short pause.

“About what?”

“Well, everything,” Luke shrugged. “Where are we going?”

Han shrugged. “I told Lando to just plug in whatever coordinates for wherever he wanted to go as long as it wasn’t occupied by the Empire. I think maybe it’s Alderaan.”

“You gonna get a job or something?” Luke asked a bit timidly.

Han frowned. “Yeah, I suppose I probably should. And I guess you oughta go to school or something.”

“Haven’t been in school for years,” Luke shrugged. “I’m used to learning at home.”

Han shifted in his seat. “Well, we don’t have to decide right off. We still have some money from that old—ah, from Kenobi—that we can use till we figure somethin’ out. Let’s just see how Alderaan goes.”

“Okay.”


Six months later, on the galaxy’s most populated planet…

“Welcome home, my friend. I trust your sojourn was restful?”

“It was indeed, my master.” Oh, it most certainly had been restful—Darth Vader would certainly not have returned to Coruscant if he had not been absolutely sure there was no remaining weakness from his injuries on Corellia.

The Emperor favored him with a sickly grin. “Excellent.”

Vader would have heaved a sigh of relief if the respirator would have permitted it. His relationship with his master always entailed a certain degree of uncertainty, even in the best of circumstances; he had feared this latest episode might leave it balancing on a high wire. But his master seemed as relieved as he that his momentary vulnerability had come and gone. The regular rules of the game, which they both understood, were again in force. The tension, rather than being increased, seemed actually to be at its lowest for the past ten years.

“Well, my friend, I am sure your business with the Fleet has accumulated over your absence. I shall not detain you from it any longer.”

Vader bowed and strode from the throne room, glad that the mask hid his sour expression. Force, the very idea of how much he was going to be slaving to catch up…and as if regular work would not be enough to occupy his hours, he had also to deal with the issue of that boy.

His lips twisted into a snarl of frustration as he wound his way out of Imperial Palace to the private hangar bay where his shuttle awaited him. Six months, and not a single sign of the blasted Padawan! Even Baranne had not been able to turn up any more information useful for tracing the boy. He had dredged the databanks of Tatooine to the bottom, sifted through all the birth records of every registered facility in the galaxy—and could find neither hide nor hair of a Luke Skywalker. What information he had discovered since, had been discovered by interrogating the Tatooine locals. Thanks to them, they knew that the boy had attended the local primary school for five years, that he had loved flying…most disturbingly, that he had spoken often with a Biggs Darklighter on the subject of his deceased father Anakin Skywalker.

Though none of this helped Vader to hunt the boy, it certainly helped to increase his anxiety and emotional discord.

All across the galaxy, Imperial ships were detaining YT-series freighters, examining their crews and owners, scouring the hyperspace lanes for a blond thirteen-year-old who resembled an outdated picture. Already dozens of unfortunate children had been shipped to Bast Castle for his examination—but there had been no Force-sensitives among them, and he had ordered all returned to wherever they’d come from. Well, excepting two, one retrieved from a slave ship and the other being wanted by Alderaan Security for theft…

Warships were even venturing into Hutt space, but in the process of detainment they were encountering so many criminals and expensive dogfights that their searches were of doubtful efficiency. At Baranne’s suggestion, the Dark Lord had recently declared a massive bounty on both freighter and child, but it would be at least a month before he began to see results from that ploy. Bounty hunters had been hired several months ago, as well, with the notorious Boba Fett being the foremost of them, but they had yet to turn up anything.

Chaos take it all! Where was the boy?


“Han, where in the heck are we?” Luke sighed, flipping through the projected city map on his datapad.

Han just shook his head, turning around slowly. “Well, that blasted map of yours says we’re on Aldray Avenue.”

“Aldray Avenue runs clear from Southern Underground to the Manarai District!” Luke snapped irritably. “That’s practically across the whole continent!”

“Hey, blame Lando, not me,” Han snorted. “He’s the one who gave the directions.”

“What’s he want us to do, walk the whole length of it till we find the place?”

“Probably he figured we’d put it into the planetary system and find the address.”

“We’ve been over that,” Luke groaned. “You have to pay by account to use to system, which means you have to give your bank information, which means they’ll link you up to the ship, which means we’ll both get snapped up by stormtroopers before you can say Millennium Falcon.”

“Gimme a break already, kid,” Han growled. “It’s not that bad a name.”

“Yes, it is. It’s senseless.”

“Is not.”

“Is too!”

“Is not…”

But for all the bantering, Luke was absolutely right. The Empire’s cross reference network would indeed immediately match his name with ownership of the Millennium Falcon—and since they had slipped into system hiding in another, larger ship’s shadow to avoid being detained, the network would raise an alert in seconds that an unauthorized ship was on Coruscant. He’d have a stormtrooper platoon on their tail inside five minutes—and worse, he’d never be able to get out of system.

As long as they didn’t raise any kind of alert, it wasn’t that dangerous to bring Luke here to the center of the Empire. Three and a half years older than the Empire’s most recent picture of him, with his hair dyed the same shade of brown as Han’s and green contact lenses, Luke looked nothing like the boy the Imperials were hunting.

However, they would be much safer to wander the galaxy freely if Luke could get a convincing fake ID created for him. And at this point, Lando Calrissian had actually come to the rescue—he had referred them to the best ID forgers in the galaxy, who reputedly would be able to create medical, educational, and all other files for the newly invented Luke Solo and register him in the Imperial and Corellian databases. Han hoped there was enough of Kenobi’s money left to pay for it.

But, of course, the biggest catch was that in order for these people to be the galaxy’s best ID forgers, they had to have easy access to the Imperial databases, and that meant going to Coruscant. So here they were, with no more information than that the people they were looking for were located in the top floor of the Baer’bal First Tower on Aldray Avenue. It had taken some doing just to find Aldray Avenue without daring to use the planetary information systems—but as for finding a single building on a street that practically ran halfway around the planet…

It took them four hours, but finally they ran into a being that did, in fact, have a vague idea where Baer’bal First Tower might happen to be. They stole onto the next public transport easily enough and rode the shuttles northward. When they disembarked at the platform the being had given them, both of them grew a little uneasy—only a few kilometers away the boys could see the distinctive outlines of the galaxy’s two most famous buildings, the Senate Rotunda and Imperial Palace.

They were right at the edge of Imperial City, the cornerstone of the Galactic Empire.

“Relax, kid,” Han told Luke, rather shaky himself. “Let’s just go find this tower.”

They weren’t far, as it turned out—Baer’bal First Tower ended up being a block closer to Imperial City on the other side of the vast avenue. On the top floor, Han cautiously pushed the intercom and asked for the name Lando had given him, expecting something fatal to happen every instant. But in just a few moments they were directed to one of the apartments.

It was a large apartment, owned by a wealthy and very shrewd Falleen. The two quickly learned his wealth came from just such unfortunates as themselves—and indeed, he cleaned them out of sixty thousand credits for the task of creating Luke Solo.

“Come back tonight,” he said shortly, once they had paid sixty percent down in cold credits withdrawn before they came to Coruscant. “I’ll be done by twenty-two hundred hours. Go on, see the sights for a few hours.”

They found themselves standing aimlessly back on the bustling walkways of Aldray Avenue, staring at the kiosks and billboards for ideas.

“What about the Galactic Museum?” Luke said abruptly. “It says they’re opening a new Clone Wars gallery today.”

Han shook his head. He was thinking more along the lines of heading down towards the surface and finding a couple of good bars or cantinas. Obviously, he couldn’t take Luke down there, so he’d have to scratch that plan, but that didn’t mean he had to go to the sithin’ Galactic Museum instead…

Hey…wait a sec…

“How about this,” Han finally decided. “I’ll run you over to the Museum, and you can look around there for a few hours, and I can go find some sabacc or something, and we can meet back up at the Museum at…ah, say eight.” He figured you couldn’t find a much safer place to leave a kid than the Galactic Museum. There were sure to be dozens of field trips and such from schools, plenty of bigwigs and their security people there for opening the new gallery…with a good-sized crowd like that, Luke would blend in easy and be as safe as a Wookiee in a tree.

Luke perked up. “Sounds good.”

“Now once I take you there, you better stay there until I come back,” Han warned. “You for sure better not go gallivantin’ off around Imperial City.”

Luke nodded seriously. “I won’t,” he said—and Han knew he meant it. The kid might have a bold streak, but he had plenty of common sense too.

“Right. Let’s catch a shuttle.”


Darth Vader scowled blackly beneath the mask as he swept his gaze across the new gallery. In a fit of warrior’s nostalgia, he had agreed to the curator’s request that he be on hand for the opening of the Galactic Museum’s Clone Wars gallery. Though he’d derived some momentary amusement from going around before the gallery was opened to the public and viewing the historical plaques recording the events of battles in which he’d fought, the polite standing around with fellow VIPs afterwards had hours ago made him sincerely regret his decision.

But it had been made, and now he was compelled to spend at least another hour here before he could beat a retreat. Force, he was so sick of talking flattering nonsense with all these celebrated officials…desperately he cast a side glance into an adjoining weaponry display room in search of someone more interesting to speak with.

He would have raised his eyebrows, had he had any left—the room seemed to be mostly empty, except for a brown-haired boy quietly circling a display case. It was the one containing a lightsaber; the boy was studying it with immense curiosity. Well, at least this would give him an opportunity to speak about something he actually had an interest in…

He broke away from the gaggle of quacking museum patrons and made his way to the boy. For a moment the young man remained unaware of him, so focused was he on examining the lightsaber. But then he froze, and an instant later jerked his head up with an expression of the utmost alarm.

“You seem to find this rather interesting, young one,” the Dark Lord rumbled from a careful distance.

“Ah—I—yes, I s-suppose…” The boy trailed off almost incoherently, backing up a step.

“What do you think of it?” Vader asked him, gesturing to the case, his eyes on the boy in what he hoped translated as a friendly way.

“It’s—I, I like it,” he finally got out, a bit more easily than before. “It’s very—very graceful.”

“It is an adequate example of the weapon,” Vader said critically, turning his gaze back on the lightsaber on its stand. It did indeed have a very artistic appearance, constructed along a gentle curve, very smooth, decorated with carefully engraved patterns. “It is rather too artistic to function for many of the lightsaber forms used by the Jedi.”

“Is it?” The boy looked up at him briefly, curiosity slowly joining the alarm in his bright green eyes.

He nodded, directing the boy’s attention to the case. “The handle is too smooth for the Ataro or Djem-So forms, which require a great deal of dexterous grip changes. Neither would it be suited to the Shien form, which requires the fighter to make powerful blocks.”

“What form is it—is it good for?”

“Most likely its owner intended it for the Makashi form, which relies primarily on light parrying. Have you ever seen traditional Alderaan fencing?”

The boy nodded. “Once on—on the holo.”

“Makashi would appear quite similar to that.”

Not willing to drop the conversation there and be relegated back to the sycophantic company of the exalted guests of the curator, Vader took his own lightsaber from his belt. “Do you see how this one is different?”

The boy had started when he reached for the lightsaber, but settled back down into his previous controlled state of alarm when he saw the Dark Lord did not intend to take his head off with it. “It’s blockier,” he said.

“What about the grip?” Vader pressed, extending the weapon with the activation plate towards himself.

The boy edged closer, very warily. He jumped again when Vader set the hilt into his hand. “You may look, but do not activate it,” he warned.

The boy nodded and turned the hilt over slowly. “It doesn’t slip,” he announced after wrapping his smaller hand around the grip. He looked up again. “What is it made of? The grip, I mean.”

“Prexlyne,” Vader answered. “You may have seen it in walkways or on stairs.”

The boy nodded with an air of realization. “What color is it?” he asked a bit shyly, handing the hilt back.

“Red, due to the crystal used. They can produce many colors; blue and green are most common, but I have seen purple and orange as well.”

“Does that gauge change intensity or length?” the boy asked, pointing to a control set into the base.

“Intensity.”

The boy nodded once again, shifting uneasily on his feet. “It’s very nice,” he said.

Vader returned the weapon to his belt. “Have you seen much of the gallery?” he asked.

The boy nodded. “Most of it,” he said. His gaze flickered off Vader for a moment to the other wing of the gallery. “I like the ships the best.”

Vader was not surprised. “They have a good selection,” he agreed. “Did you have a favorite?”

The boy hesitated. “The—the Jedi starfighter,” he admitted. Vader understood why he would be reluctant to voice that.

“It is also my favorite,” he announced. “I once flew them. Their agility was remarkable given the period.”

“Did you fly in the war?” the boy asked him.

“I did.” Vader decided it might be best to end the conversation before pressing on into that ground. Besides, he had ignored the prestigious company long enough, and further such behavior might be perceived as an insult, and the last thing he felt like was apologizing to indignant politicos who enjoyed his master’s favor and thus were untouchable. “Enjoy the gallery, young man.”


As soon as Vader had left, a badly shaken Luke fled the Clone Wars gallery, fled deep into the opposite side of the museum into a band of schoolkids wandering en masse around the xenobiology exhibits. He tried desperately to ward off an after-attack of panic, but soon he had to dodge into a ‘fresher and lock himself into a stall, because he was starting to shudder all over and hyperventilate. It took fifteen minutes before he could compose himself again, and it was all he could do in the meantime to keep his presence blocked in the Force.

Force, Force…he had been so close to losing control back there, when the Sith Lord appeared out of nowhere, towering over him—so close to losing all of his shields and revealing himself for a Force-sensitive. So close to dying. Because if Darth Vader ever got hold of him, Luke had no illusions about his fate—he would go the way of every other Jedi, the way of Obi-Wan, felled by a clean blow of a lightsaber. Or maybe a shot through the back of the head in the Imperial prisons.

Just thinking about it started him shaking and breathing hard again. He wanted Han to come back now, right now, wanted to get off Coruscant as fast as he could and fly clear out into the Unknown Regions. But it was not yet seven in the night—he had another hour before he could meet Han again at the entrance, which meant he had to stay here at the Museum—in the same building with Darth Vader, the man who had killed all of the Jedi, probably including his own father.

If he’d known this was how adventure felt, he’d never, ever have wanted one.


Han was a few minutes late trotting up the grand staircase outside the Galactic Museum, where he’d promised to meet Luke, but he figured the kid would have gotten engrossed in that Clone Wars gallery and would probably be running late too.

Except he wasn’t—he was waiting behind a pillar, tucked back into the shadows, and as soon as he saw Han his face took on a look of visible relief. “Can we go please?” he pleaded almost in a whisper. “Please, we gotta go now.”

“Take it easy, kid, we’re goin’,” Han said, frowning as they started back down the stairs. “Sheesh, what’s got you so touchy?”

Luke wouldn’t answer him until they were on a shuttle back out of Imperial City. “I—Vader was in the gallery,” he finally whispered.

Han laughed shakily. “That ain’t funny, kid—”

“Sithin’ right it wasn’t!” Luke retorted sharply. Han did a double-take. It was totally unlike the kid to swear—he must be really, really on edge to snap like that.

Which meant he was probably telling the truth.

Oh, holy freakin’ Sith…

“Look, he was just there cause they’re openin’ that new gallery,” Han tried to reassure him. “I’m sure he didn’t notice you—kreth, he might not even’a seen you—”

“He came right freakin’ up to me and started a conversation,” Luke hissed beneath his breath.

Han felt his heart skip a beat. “Why’d he do that?” he whispered hoarsely.

“I don’t know.” Luke leaned back against the wall of the shuttle, staring out the window on the opposite side. “I mean, he didn’t just say hello, he was telling me about combat forms and giving me his lightsaber to look at!”

“Did he ask your name?”

Luke shook his head.

Han blew out a breath. “Well, that’s somethin’. So—he didn’t act all suspicious or anything?”

“I don’t think so,” Luke said slowly, thinking back on the terrifying encounter. “I—I don’t think he recognized me. I mean, not like he’s ever seen me before, but I suppose he’s seen the pictures at least.”

“Well, kid, you don’t look anything like those,” Han reassured him. “If that’s all he’s got to look with, I betcha you’re just fine. Heck, maybe he was just bored or somethin’.”

Luke breathed in deep. “Maybe.”

“We still got a couple hours before we head back to the tower,” Han said, checking his chrono. “How about we go get you somethin’ to eat? I got lucky in sabacc, so it’s on me.”

“Sounds good.”


Vader’s relief was inexpressible when he was able to politely extricate himself from the goings-on at the museum and escape via shuttle back to his castle. There might be work aplenty waiting on him, but at least he could see to it in peace.

And see to it in peace he did until about fifteen minutes after ten, which was when his screen lit up with a security officer.

“My lord, you asked to be alerted to any possible Rebel activity on Coruscant?” the officer prefaced.

“I did.” Some days it seemed nobody was sufficiently concerned about the Rebellion save himself, which meant if anyone was going to be vigilant about keeping the Rebels off Coruscant it would have to be him. Which did not, of course, in any way decrease his anger towards the apathetic planetary officials who were putting him in this position…

“My lord, our undercover officers in the North Aldray District have conducted a sting operation and nabbed an identification forger with access to the Imperial databases. I suspect he may have Rebel involvement based on his records.”

Vader considered for a moment. “Bring all your captives to my castle,” he ordered. “I will interrogate them myself.” It would be a productive break from paperwork.


“Luke, we officially have the galaxy’s worst luck,” Han growled, slumping against the cell wall.

Luke fired a glare at the ID forger, who looked supremely annoyed. “Thanks a million.”

“Hey,” said the forger, “it happens in this line of work. Not my fault you came back in time to get arrested.”

“Yeah,” Han agreed. “I for one plan on blaming Lando.”

“Once we get out of prison, right?” Luke scowled.

“Eh, what’s the worst we’re gonna get? We ain’t the ones doin’ the forgin’, that’s Gorgeous over there.”

The forger scowled at them both.

“I figure we’ll get a year at worst. And I mean absolute top-notch worst. Generally I don’t think you get more’n six months. Plus you’re a kid, they’ll probably take it easy on you.”

“I’ll remember that,” Luke muttered darkly. “And I’m not a kid.”

“Yeah, well, don’t tell them that, huh?”

In the pause, the prison shuttle abruptly lurched, slowing down—then a thud jolted all three of them as the craft set down. “Here we go,” Han sighed. Sure enough, the door to the containment room hissed open and the guards marched in. All of them were filed out of the ship in their manacles, into a pretty nondescript hangar, and across the hangar to a door that Han supposed would lead into a prison corridor or processing office of some sort.

He was therefore surprised to find himself being marched a broad, open hallway, well lit and lined with office doors, from which civilian aides and uniformed officers were constantly emerging. On down the hall they went, drawing occasional glances—which Han thought was pretty odd, considering this was a prison. What did these people expect to see if not prisoners?

They reached a bank of turbolifts and went up, clear to the third to topmost floor, which didn’t seem to Han like a convenient way to do things. Out they were headed into another hallway—this one actually had artwork on the walls. He glanced over his shoulder at Luke with a frown, and saw the boy was turning pale. So he didn’t feel so good about the way this was heading either.

Finally the guards turned them to the left and took them through a side door indicated by the officer in charge, who had been joined by someone else with a colonel’s insignia. “The interrogation rooms are down this wall,” announced the colonel. “One to a room, make it quick.”

Within a few seconds Han was yanked away from Luke and the forger and tossed into one of the interrogation rooms, despite his yells of protest. Inside it could’ve been worse. Han had been expecting racks of torture equipment, from what he’d heard, but the room had contained nothing more threatening than stark white walls, a bench for sleeping on, and a chair opposite the bench.

Guess he’d just have to wait this out.


It was nearly eleven at night when Vader arrived on the detention level of his castle to inspect the prisoners taken in the raid. He learned upon arrival that three had been captured, two of them mere clients. Likely those two were of no importance, but there was a chance they could be involved with the Rebellion—he would see to them after the forger.

He rather enjoyed his…discussion with the forger. The man had entirely too much insolence to be good for his health, which Vader took pleasure in demonstrating for him a few times. By the time he left, the forger was very subservient, nursing a bruised windpipe, and had given him several hints as to Rebels he’d previously worked with. It should prove useful information for ferreting out Rebel activity here on Coruscant.

He entered the next cell, and found within a dark-haired teenager, perhaps seventeen or even eighteen, rather scruffily dressed, who jumped nearly to the ceiling when he saw who had come to visit him. “Holy Sith,” the young man breathed, backing against the wall.

Vader’s annoyance was already piqued. He would get this particular interrogation out of the way as quickly as possible. “Cooperate and you may expect to be treated reasonably given your situation,” he announced. “Your name?”

“H-han.” Vader fixed a stare on him until he added, “Solo.”

The Dark Lord sensed no lie. “That is a Corellian name, is it not?”

“Yeah.”

“Tell me about your involvement with the Rebellion.”

“Don’t have any,” Solo denied. “I swear I never had anything to do with it!”

Again it seemed that Solo was not lying to him. In that case, the extent of his crimes seemed to be soliciting the services of an ID forger, which was a matter he would leave to the local security. “That will be all, Solo,” he said, and left room quickly.

Sith Lord or no Sith Lord, Vader did a sharp double-take when he entered the final cell and found himself face to face with the same boy he had spoken to earlier at the museum. The boy drew a sharp, terrified gasp and practically fled back into the corner of the cell. But he had no way to escape.

Vader tilted his helmet and regarded the frightened child for a moment. It was curious that he should thus encounter the boy again—a very strange coincidence. Unfortunately, the Dark Lord was a Sith, and a Jedi before that, and he did not believe in coincidences. This was no mistake—he was sure of it.

“We meet again, child,” he rumbled, stepping further into the cell. The boy was unduly fearful, he could see that—he was actually shaking this time, and looked as though he might start hyperventilating in sheer terror.

He would not, Vader mused, be so fearful if he did not have something to hide. The Dark Lord had best ferret out just what that something was.

“Cooperate, and you will not be harmed,” Vader told him. “Now. Give me your name.”

Even on that very basic question the boy quailed for several seconds, until Vader shifted impatiently.

“Luke Solo,” he finally answered.

His first reaction was to start at the familiar first name, before he reminded himself that there were thousands upon thousands of Lukes in the galaxy. His second reaction was to cross the cell and lock his hand around the boy’s chin and jaw, forcing the boy to meet his gaze.

“Do not lie to me,” he ordered angrily, tightening his grip enough that the child flinched. “What is your name?”


Luke gasped as the Sith stormed over to him and seized him by the chin, demanding again that he give his name. He could feel through the man’s grip his rising anger as he held his silence, could sense that he might soon be in serious danger. But he couldn’t tell the man his real name—Force, he would die if he did. Hardly the way to get himself out of danger.

What was he supposed to do? Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan… What he wouldn’t give to have his teacher back—Obi-Wan would have known what to do. Or his father. Surely his father—

He yelped, his train of thought broken, as the hand let go only to slap him across the face, knocking him down on the bench.


The boy’s obstinacy was proving to be considerable. The Dark Lord had had occasion to question children before this, though not frequently—the stubbornest of them had not defied him further than one blow. This one looked to be of an age where he should still carry an instinctive respect for his elders; considering how afraid he was, that slap should have been more than enough to break down his resistance.

It had not been a very hard blow—only hard enough to startle him, to sting some. Enough that he should have succumbed to his fear of his questioner.

But the young one had not done so. He had recovered by now—he was backed against the wall again, and had an arm up to try and ward off any further blows. Vader did, however, sense an increase of fear. Perhaps once more would be enough…

…Unless he was not the cause of the boy’s fear? He frowned at that thought. He could tell the fear was directed at him, but that did not necessarily mean it was centered on him. Perhaps…perhaps the boy was afraid not of him, but of revealing his name to the Dark Lord?

Did he fear, even, for his life?

Vader regarded the boy silently, pondering. If he thought he was in danger of death, the boy’s fear no longer appeared so unreasonable. In fact, he was controlling it rather well. But what name could he have that would cause him to feel such danger? The child did not strike him as irrational—quite the opposite, he seemed a very intelligent young one from their encounter in the museum, from the questions he had asked and the careful way he had handled the lightsaber…

Suddenly the conversation came back to him. Does that gauge change intensity or length?

It was not the question an amateur would have asked. An amateur might not even have noticed the small control setting in the first place, let alone have had any idea what it might be used for. And he knew the case at the museum had had no such information posted about the blade on display. He had read it.

So where had this young one, who certainly could not remember the Jedi, gotten his ideas?

He decided to switch questions.

“We will come back to the name,” he announced finally. The boy lowered his guard warily. “Tell me how old you are.”

That was more productive. “Thirteen,” he answered readily.

Vader felt a pang despite himself. His own child would have been thirteen—might be thirteen, as he no longer knew for certain.

“And where are you from?” But the young one evidently sensed danger along those lines too—rather than try a lie this time, he shut down immediately, bringing his arm back up.

Vader was growing very impatient with the obstinate child, very impatient indeed. “Where is your family?” he demanded instead.

A surprising spark of anger entered those frightened green eyes. “Dead,” he said shortly.

There was a story there. “For how long?”

The boy showed some hesitancy again, but Vader had had enough of it. He drew the chair up directly to the bench, dragged the boy out of the corner by the head, and forced the child to meet his gaze with one glove while holding the boy’s hands down with the other. “For how long?” he repeated coldly.

“I-I never knew my parents,” he gasped finally.

“You have no siblings?”

A brief pause before he began, “My brother is here—”

Lie. He immediately dealt out a second slap—the boy gave a startled yelp. That had been a harder blow, more painful. “Lie to me again, and there will be much harsher punishment awaiting you,” he threatened, yanking the boy’s head back up. “Do you understand?”

He tightened his grip on the boy’s chin until he got a whispered, “Yes.”

“Good. Now answer the question.”

“No, I don’t have any.”

“Good boy,” he approved. Perhaps it was time to return to one of the questions he had refused to answer, while he was still a bit intimidated. “Where are you from?”

The boy trembled, trying to pull back—but Vader’s grip on him was relentless. “You will give me an answer,” he promised darkly. “I have plenty of ways to persuade you, none of which will be pleasant.”

“I-I lived on Corellia.”

He was being truthful, but that did not answer the question. “I did not ask where you have lived,” he said. “I asked where you were from.”

“The Outer Rim,” the boy tried to dodge again. He flinched as his head was pulled up even more sharply.

“I am losing my patience, young one,” the Dark Lord snarled. “Name a system.”

Once more the boy tried to shut down, but Vader would have none of it. He reached out with the dark side and sent a spike of very genuine pain reeling down the boy’s spine. The boy twisted desperately for thirty seconds before Vader let the pain fade away. It was not much more intense than a bad backache, but it was enough to warn the young one of what would follow if he did not obey. It worked.

“Tatooine,” came a whimpered answer, full of fear and hurt.

The Dark Lord jerked backwards, letting go of the boy in shock. He knew. He knew that Vader would find the name Tatooine significant—and if he were so afraid, he must know a little of the reasons why, as well.

There were only three people who could have warned this child—Owen and Beru Lars, or Obi-Wan.

Dear Force…was this child…?

Thirteen years old…terrified of revealing his name…had lived on Corellia…asked that question about the lightsaber…

It was too coincidental that he should simply run into the child—and on Coruscant, of all places! In the Galactic Museum!

Could it really be possible?

Much, much more gently, he reached out to the boy. He was curled up now on the bench, head tucked down, trembling—at Vader’s touch he flinched sharply. “Look at me, boy,” he ordered, in what he hoped came across as a softer sort of rumble. The boy let him lift his head again.

The Dark Lord looked long at the frightened young face opposite him. The boy did not look anything like the images Vader had from the house on Krytoa—he was several years older, his hair dark, his eyes green. Of course that hair and those eyes could very easily be a disguise, but he could not now see past them.

Still…there was one other way he could test the boy. He remembered well being able to sense his baby while Padme was pregnant, remembered the little one’s unique presence in the Force, how there had been a place in his mind where the child’s mind connected—a place still gaping and aching with the old loss.

Hesitantly, afraid of what he might find, Vader reached towards the boy’s mind and probed. No outward sign of Force sensitivity met his searches—but that could be due to Kenobi. His wily onetime Jedi master would surely have taught the child to conceal his Force presence. Such good shielding would be evidence of the boy’s great prowess in the Force.

Unfortunately it also left him with a dilemma. He could, of course, force his way past the boy’s defenses—being so young, so much less experienced, the child certainly could not stop him. But an intrusion of that sort would, at the very least, terrify him—at worst inflict painful damage. He knew quite well how agonizing that could be, and had no desire to put this boy through such suffering, whether the young one proved to be his son or not.

Yet how was he to know otherwise?

“Tell me what your name is,” he ordered instead.


Again the man demanded his name, and again Luke’s terror surged. He had already given in on Tatooine, and he was terrified that that much might have betrayed him. But it wasn’t a sure thing—whereas he knew his name would finish him.

Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan…

Luke?

Luke jerked upright, actually shaking off Vader’s grip on his chin. His fear faded a little as he swept his eyes back and forth across the room, at a loss for where that voice could possibly be coming from—because it sounded exactly like Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan wasn’t here.

Luke...

Obi-Wan? he answered mentally.

Luke, the ghostly voice echoed affirmatively in his head.

But you’re dead!

There is no death, his master reminded him. There is the Force.

Well, yeah… Luke thought, but…

All will be well, young one, the voice continued. Do as he says.

But, he’ll kill me—

Do as he says…


Vader watched in confusion as the fear in the boy’s eyes was abruptly replaced by surprise. The boy jerked out of his grip and turned around, back and forth, searching the small interrogation room, as though he had heard something. But there had been no noise. As he looked on, bewildered, the young one abruptly became still again, staring into space. It was a good minute before his eyes refocused again on Vader.

The Dark Lord reached out again to take hold of the boy, but this time he did not shake or even flinch. He was still afraid, but something else was there—something Vader could not quite identify. They sat quietly for some seconds, watching each other. Finally the Sith Lord spoke.

“Tell me your name,” he repeated.

Miraculously, the boy actually opened his mouth after a pause—and exactly as he did so, the cell door hissed open, distracting both of them.

“My lord?” It was one of his personal aides; the man’s name escaped him at present.

Snarling to himself, Vader stood, releasing the boy, who scrambled backwards. “I gave orders not to be disturbed,” he hissed dangerously, advancing on the man.

“I—I realize that, my lord, but the Emperor has contacted the castle,” the colonel got out. “He is waiting on your private conference line. He was insistent that he speak with you immediately.”

Vader growled angrily. Trapped, that was what he was—he couldn’t very well keep the Emperor waiting, not with this latest episode so shortly behind them. Besides, the little one wasn’t going anywhere.

He turned to face the boy, pointing a finger at him. “I will return shortly, young one,” he promised. The boy only stared at him. Furious at the interruption, the Dark Lord stormed from the cell.


Part 2


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