The Father - Part 4
The planet of Vjun
Sara was awake again.
She wasnt posed to be awake. It was really, really lateshe knew cause the chrono said one-two. She wasnt quite sure what number that was, but it was bigger than ten, and lots bigger than eight, and that was when she was posed to go to bed.
She most always wanted to stay upSandra too. They always tried to get Miyr and Dadda to let them stay up. Miyr didnt ever say yes, but sometimes Dadda would let them when he came home. It was fun to stay up with Dadda, cause he would tell them all sorts of stories. But Dadda was gone now, and Sandra was asleep, and Miyr was asleep.
But the big boys werent asleep yet. Specially not Han. Sara sniffed unhappily and hugged her pillow tighter. Dadda always said it wasnt polite to think loud at night cause it woke people up, so she and Sandra knew that they had to think only quiet thoughts when they went to bed and when they woke upand her big brother Luke must know too cause he didnt think loud ever. She didnt understand how he could be so quiet all the timemaybe big kids could do stuff like that.
Except Han didnt ever keep quiet, not ever at all! Sara sniffed again, angry and upset all at the same time. He thought so loud Dadda probably heard him all the way away cross the galaxy in his big ship. It kept waking her up every single night until he finally fell asleep. She tried telling him he had to be quiet, but he just laughed at her and called her a silly little kid. Big stupid meanie!
Defiantly she glared into the darkness, daring somebody to come and scold her for thinking words she wasnt allowed to use. But nobody came, and it was too hard to keep frowning at nothing, so she cuddled her face unhappily back into her pillow.
She really missed Dadda. If Dadda was here hed make Han be quiet. Shed thought about finding Miyr, but Miyr didnt know how to make Han be quiet. Only Dadda knew how to do that cause he knew lots of stuff like that.
It was a few more minutes before the thought occurred to her: Maybe Luke knows how?
Instantly she hugged her pillow tighter and scowled into it. Uh-uh! She wasnt asking him. How come he had to come here anyway? Dadda was her Dadda and Sandras Dadda. She didnt want to share! He didnt get to come home very much, and now she was gonna hafta share him with two more people.
Suddenly the door slid open across the room, spilling a slash of light over the carpet and the bottom of the bed. Sara closed her eyes as fast as she could, feeling very guiltyit was Miyr checking on them, she did that sometimes. Sara was pretty sure Miyr didnt know what she had been thinking about, but shed better pretend to be asleep anyways just to make sure.
Sara? somebody whispered.
Uh-ohit wasnt Miyr. It was Luke. He must have heard what she was thinking! Sara tried as hard as she could to look like she was sleeping.
The bed creaked below her feet. I know youre still awake, Luke whispered, real quiet. He was always quiet.
Grumpily Sara pulled her face out of her pillow. She never could trick Dadda, and probably she couldnt trick Luke either. What do you want? she demanded.
Shh. Whats wrong? he asked, still being very quiet.
She rolled back over resentfully. Hans too loud, she grumbled through a mouthful of pillow.
Im sorry, Luke said. He doesnt really know how to be quiet.
Sara sniffed. Dadda would make him be quiet.
Luke didnt say anything for a little while. Do you miss him? he asked finally.
She nodded unhappily. How come he cant stay here all the time? she sniffled.
Hes gotta go do his job, Luke told her.
She sniffed some more. I know, she muttered.
Luke was quiet some more. I miss him too, he said after a while. He sounded sad too, like her. Sara sat up, still hugging her pillow, and looked at her big brother. He felt sada different kind of sad, a bigger sad. Dadda felt sad like that sometimes. All of a sudden she felt sorry for thinking mean things about Luke.
Luke got up, and she thought he was going to leavebut then he pulled her covers off and picked her up. Come on, he said softly. You can come help me work on Artoo.
Suddenly she didnt feel too sleepy anymore. Can you tell me stories? she asked eagerly, hugging her arms around his neck. Dadda always tells us stories.
Luke carried her out into the hallway and shut the bedroom door as quietly as he could. Yeah, I guess so, he said. Betcha Threepio could tell some good stories too.
Sara giggled. Threepio talks funny, she said. I like him!
Ill turn him back on for you, Luke promised. He wasnt quite as strong as Dadda, and he had to use both arms, but he carried her the whole way around to his room, through where Dadda lived whenever he was at homeSara watched very eagerly, because she didnt get to come in here very much. And she hadnt been in Lukes room at all.
He opened a door she hadnt seen before and took her inside his room, which was pretty big, but it didnt have a lot of colors like her room did. Luke set her down and she scampered around, looking at the desk and the big bed high up off the ground and peeked into his closet.
You dont have lots of toys, she observed. Shed be sad too if she didnt have stuff to play with. Why didnt Luke have any toys in his room?
I dont really play with toys, Luke said. Sara turned around in disbelief and saw that Luke was turning Threepio on.
What do you play with? she demanded. You gotta have stuff to play with.
Luke grinned at her over his shoulder. Me and Han like to fly in the simulators or fix stuff.
Sara made a face. Thats boring.
Luke laughed at her. No, its not. Youll see, sometime Ill let you ride along in the simulator.
Threepios eyes lit up, and so did Saras.
Why, good evening, Mistress Sara, the big gold droid said in his funny voice. It seems a bit late for you to be awake.
Can you tell me a story? Sara wanted to know.
Threepio hesitated. Oh, Im only an interpreter. Im afraid Im not very good at telling stories.
Sure you are, Luke countered. Come on, tell her a story. What about the time I set the dueling droids on fire? You can do all sorts of cool sound effects, right?
Oh but Master Lukeisnt that story a bit alarming?
Luke was switching on Artoo-Detoo and getting a tool box out of his closet. So dont make it alarming, he shrugged.
Whats larming mean? Sara asked absently as she tried to clamber up onto Lukes bed for a better view.
Luke set down the toolbox and put her on top of the bed. Dont fall off, he warned her. She made a face at him and crawled to the head of the bed for a pillow, dragging it back down to her original perch. She wasnt gonna fall!
Well if you insist, Master Luke, the droid said reluctantly. Sara wrapped her arms around the pillow and fixed her blue eyes expectantly on Threepios shiny gold face.
Threepio stood helplessly for a momentmaybe he hoped Luke might still tell him he didnt have to tell any storiesbut Luke didnt say anything. Sara giggled excitedly as Threepio finally started one.
Very well. I shall tell you about the dueling droids, Threepio began, in his funny voice. Before Master Luke and I and my counterpart Artoo-Detoo arrived here at Bast Castle, we inhabited Lord Vaders apartments aboard the Executor
Smaller words, huh, Threepio? Luke cut in. Sara glanced at him; he was scraping on Artoos hull with some sort of tool she hadnt ever seen before. There were lots of things in here she hadnt seen before.
Ohyes, of course, Master Luke. Threepio turned back to Sara. As I was saying, Miss Sara, Artoo and I and Master Luke all lived on Lord Vaders starship.
Saras eyes grew big and bright. She loved the stories about her Daddas great big ship the best.
On the ship, your father has a room where he practices with his lightsaber, Threepio continued. One day, Master Luke went to go help clean the droids in the roomoh, my!
Sara gasped too and sat bolt upright as someone pounded hard on the door.
Kid! Hey, kid!
Luke got up muttering and opened the door. Sara scowled as soon as she saw who it was. It was Han. Big meanie. How come he couldnt just go to sleep?
Look, kid, youre never gonna believewhats up with the twerp?
Sara didnt know what he just said, but she glared hard at him anyway. Luke glared too as he sat back down in front of Artoo.
Isnt she supposed to be in bed? Han demanded.
She cant sleep, Luke said testily. Arent you supposed to be in bed?
Yeah, I am, thats why I came here, Han agreed in a rush.
Luke blinked and looked back up. Youre supposed to be asleep, so you come visit me, he repeated slowly. After a moment he shook his head. Well, I guess I already knew something was wrong with you
Nolook, lemme explain. Han crouched down and began counting off fingers. I was in bed, right, and then He paused suddenly and glanced again at the irritated Sara. Look, can we put the baby doll back in the crib first? he asked.
Stop calling her names, shes already got one.
Okay, fine. Can we put Sandy or whatever her name is back in bed? Seriously, Luke, this is important.
Her name is Sara.
I dont care if her name is Vaderette, Han burst out in frustration. We gotta get her back in bed pronto for about ten different reasons.
I said already, I cant tell you with Short Stuff hangin around!
Sara, Luke snapped. Look, just come over and whisper it, okay? Sara, Threepios gonna keep telling you the story.
Sara nodded angelically. Too angelically for Han Solos liking.
Other side of the room, he said tersely. Stay put, shorty.
Sara stuck out her tongue at him. Big loud meanie!
Boy, that cuts deep, Han snorted.
Luke whacked a hydrospanner none too gently into Hans shins. Stop teasing her, shes only two, he lectured.
Saras glare switched onto Luke. Im almost three! she said indignantly.
Luke sighed. Okay, sorry. Just listen to Threepio for a few minutes, okay? Were talking about um fixing stuff. Youd be bored.
Sara made a face and quickly turned all her attention back to Threepio, as far away from boring as she could get. Luke dragged Han quickly across to the other side of the room.
What? he demanded in a whisper.
Luke, I swear, there is something inside this place that is definitely not supposed to be here, Han hissed.
Luke stared back at him, quite unfazed. Why do you think that?
I could hear it in the ventilation shaft through my ceiling, not two minutes ago, Han defended. There was something crawling through.
Han, its probably just some kind of animal. They get into shafts all the time, you idiot.
Do they usually speak Basic? Han snapped. Cause this animal sure could.
Luke froze. It was talking.
Han nodded tensely.
What did it say?
I dont know exactlybut it was angry, and it mentioned you, kid. Young Skywalker, it said that.
Luke turned pale. Hando you think its a spy from the Emperor?
It gets worse, Han continued grimly. I got up when I couldnt hear the voice anymore, and my comlink was gone, and my computer had been searched. Whoever it is, theyve got the passcodes to this joint. Im thinking maybe its a little worse than a spy. Maybe an assassin. Luke nodded shakily.
Yeah, he breathed. Okay. You get Sara and Sandra and take them down the emergency turbolift. Im gonna go to the salle.
Aint no way Im gonna leave you up here by yourself with some creep crawling around tryin to kill you! Han hissed fiercely.
Han, I said the salle. I can program the dueling droids, Luke reassured him. He just brought in a new batch; theres fifteen on the ready rack and twenty more in storage. Itd take somebody as powerful as my father to get past thirty-five dueling droids. Believe me, I cant get any safer.
Han wasnt quite convinced. Just come down with us, he said.
Han, we gotta get rid of this guy, whoever he is, Luke said urgently. If I can lure him into the salle, the droids can take care of him. Itll work, I promise.
Fine, Han said at last. But as soon as I get those two downstairs, Im comin back up and finding Captain Landre, you got that?
Good idea, Luke agreed. Maybe I can lure the spy out by then and we can catch him.
All rightlets go. And try not to set any of those krethin droids on fire this time, huh?
Han had heard the tale of the Executors dueling salle just once, yet he hadnt forgotten a single detail, and he delighted in reminding Luke of the mishap whenever he could. One more way in which Han and his father resembled one another
Luke grinned through his adrenaline. Blaster in my right desk drawer, he murmured. You might want that.
The Alderaan system, about a day later
Vader had remained brooding within his quarters for nearly twenty-four hours straight, pondering Organas ultimatum. He had yet to come to any decisionshe could not even decide if it had been an ultimatum. Would Organa truly go so far as to reveal Lukes identity to the Emperor? Considering that the man had claimed to care for Luke, Vader was not certain that he would do so. On the other hand, the man might easily decide that one boy was an acceptable cost for toppling an empire.
Perhaps he should simply bring the boy to Coruscant and rip Organas card right out of his hands?
No, nohe could not do that. He had no guarantee that Organa did not also have footage of Sara and Sandra; in that case, he would have placed one child in danger for nothing at all. And he did not like the thought of putting Luke in such danger under any circumstances; the dark lord grudgingly admitted that he would sooner accede to Organas demands than risk his son.
Yet could he afford to bow to Organa? It would be not only a distasteful game to play, but a dangerous one. Dared he do anything to incur the Emperors further suspicion? He was already walking a narrow balance beam when it came to the Emperor, and having plenty of trouble keeping his footing; it might be fatal to make a leap up onto a high wire.
On the other hand, it was not as though a temporary alliance with Organa would not have its benefits. Ragtag as the so-called Rebel Alliance was, it was nonetheless a resource. In many respects, it could be quite a valuable resource. Rumor had it that the Rebelssome cells of them, anywayhad connections to the famed Bothan spynet, which Vader knew to be superior to that of the Empire. Even more importantly, Palpatine had no dealings with the Bothans. Vader had more than once sought to bring the Bothans under his command, yet the aliens to date had been shrewd enough to dodge involvement with him. Yes; if through Organa he could acquire the use of the Bothan spynet, the alliancehowever humiliatingwould be desirable. Most desirable.
And of course, this alliance was hardly a permanent one. Vader did not foresee it enduring longer than five yearsseven, at the very most. Once Palpatine was disposed of, Organas hold over him would dissipate. Palpatine was the only true threat to his little ones; with the Emperor removed, he had nothing left to fear. It would be all too easy to assume control of the Empire in Palpatines stead. Organa would hardly pose a threat at that point; he could be punished then for his presumption in blackmailing a Sith. Perhaps the Alliance would have become a force to reckon with by that time, true but also by that time, presuming no galactic cataclysms occurred, Palpatines Death Star should be complete. Of that great project the Alliance was unaware. Much as Vader disliked the beastly abomination, it would be a magnificent ace-in-the-hole .
Well. It seemed, all things considered, that there were more concrete benefits to this forced union than drawbacks. True, he might arouse Palpatines increased suspicion; but he could not hold that at bay forever, and if he had to take the risk, he might as well do so when it would best serve him. And if at any time he should decide to withdraw, well Bail Organa did not stand as high as Darth Vader in the Emperors esteem. If necessary, he could get away with killing the man.
Very well. He would order his shuttle and speak with Organa again on the matter. Of course, it was necessary that details be ironed out; depending on what Organa wanted from him, it could become necessary to kill the man before the discussion was over, as Vader would only humor this infuriating coercion within limits. Should Organa demand too much, it would be his final mistake.
The shadows in the corridors had taken on a peculiar shiftiness all of a sudden, but it wasnt until Luke was inside the dueling salle that he really got nervous. On the far side of the spacious chamber, gleaming faintly under the minimized intensity of the glow panels, stood a long storage rack lined with the slumbering shapes of his fathers lethal dueling droids. Lukes nervous glance wavered for a few seconds between the silent droids and the shelf nearby, on which sat a conspicuous container of cleaning solvent
Luke edged up to the rack control panel, hugging his back in to keep as far away from The Shelf as he possibly could, and pressed the key that he knew from ah, previous experience would activate all of the droids. With a spine-shivering whir of servomotors and flowing stream of sparked lights, the droids unfolded themselves from the rack one by one.
Though in appearance they could not have been more mechanical, the most terrifying thing about them was how unlike droids they behaved. The tall, claw-footed, lanky creations loped away from the rack with slow, predacious strides, separating, mingling, coming around to regard Luke coolly, lightsabers held with chilling looseness in their mechanical grasp. Intellectually, Luke knew that this behavior was completely programmed to emulate that of a highly trained Force-sensitive warrior. His father had explained that to him. But knowing that wasnt enough to keep him from feeling chills down his spine at the nightmarish mix of the mechanical with the human.
Shakily Luke stepped out in front of the droids. Hed gotten his fathers lightsaber out of its hiding place in his bedroomthe blue one hed been given after his arm healedand now he gripped it with a sweaty palm. The droids waited silently for a commandor a provocation. He could almost feel their photoreceptors burning holes in the air around his lightsaber
Hold attack, he ordered, working his dry mouth, thinking through the lists of verbal commands his father had taught him. Engage defensive drill. Objective is the salle. Whewthat was a mouthful. How come his father had to use so many darn big words?
It workedthe droids immediately turned their attention away from him and began scoping out the room. If machines could itch for a fight, those things definitely were, Luke thought uneasily. He backed up against the far wall, as far from the door as he could get, and watched the dueling droids lope around the room. Nothing left to do now but wait.
A short time earlier, over Vjun
Ferus Olin sucked in one last breath, praying that he was doing the right thing, and drew back the hyperspace lever. Beside him, Leia gripped the armrests of the co-pilot seat tightly. Shed been surprisingly vociferous in her disagreement with his decision to take them to Vjunone would have thought she was an adult politician, rather than a thirteen-year-old girl. For a while, he hadnt been sure if he could reassert his authority. Had it not been for Bail Organas excellent parenting, he probably wouldnt have won the fight.
Olin! You won that battle, focus on the now or youll have another one on your hands! Ferus jerked his thoughts back to the present and switched on the freighters cloaking shield. He killed the sublight engines and held his breath, listening. Ahead of them, orbiting the forbidding sphere that was Vjun, was a bone-white Star Destroyer, and it reminded Ferus of nothing so much as the neo-gators he had misjudged once on a mission to Syperia, back in his Padawan days so lazy in appearance, but so very deadly.
But the minutes passed, and the Destroyer issued no challenge. Finally, Ferus could breathe again. They had not been seen. Slowly, he relit the sublight engines and started the freighter on a slinking course towards the planet.
They had not gotten a thousand kilometers closer before the Force suddenly blazed with warning. Leia shrieked as Ferus twisted the controls violently, without warning or thought, pitching the freighter into a screaming dive. Desperately he turned to his scopes, just in time to see an unmarked Imperial shuttle materialize out of hyperspacealmost close enough to clip his shields!
Had he not wrenched the ship away, they might not have been hitbut they sure as heck would have been discovered, a fate no less fatal.
As he and Leia watched, both nearly hyperventilating, the newcomer promptly disappeared from their scopes and visuals.
He hastily switched the com suite to the Imperial frequencies, but neither the Star Destroyer nor the newly arrived shuttle made any transmissions, encrypted or otherwise. The shuttle had switched on its own cloaking system; clearly it did not wish to be seen. Had Ferus not been lurking so nearby, it would have succeeded.
Why would an Imperial ship be trying to sneak in system?
Tentativelyvery tentativelyFerus stretched out with the Force to probe. He dared not push too far, but he edged out just enough to discern that the shuttle had but one occupant. The indifferent ripple of that solitary presence was already on the move, swiftly progressing towards the planet. Ferus was willing to bet they shared a destination.
Ferus killed the engines yet again, with an apprehensive glance in the general direction of the Star Destroyer.
Whats going on? Leia demanded shakily.
Im not sure, he murmured. What was going on?
Inside the castle
Kreth it, short stuff, you are definitely Vaders kid!
Han was running through the halls on his way to the twerplings room, and Sara was doing her darnedest to raise all nine Corellian hells. She was yelling epithets at him, the worst she could inventif shed just had more material to work with, Han was willing to bet shed be coming up with the most creative insults hed ever heardand pounding her small fists furiously wherever she could land a blow. Kinda sorta reminded him of that spunky little princess from Alderaan, just a whole lot shorter.
If Sandra was even half this bad, it was gonna take a heck of a lot longer than hed planned to get these two packed away in the safe. Which was that much longer before he could find Captain Landre and make sure Luke was safe.
The door to the twins room loomed aheadHan put on an extra burst of speed. Sandra was in there, and he knew for a fact that there was a blaster hidden in a wall compartment, and he was gonna feel a whole lot better once hed gotten a hold of both of them.
He was only a few feet away when somebody elsesomebody definitely not Sandraemerged from the bedroom door. Sara shrieked and Han felt a stab of terror as that somebody raised a blasterbut he wasnt fast enough to dodge, and the last thing either of them saw was a flash of blue stun circles.
visual scan processing. identify: mechanical unit asp-19, count fifteen; human, count one; threat objectives, count zero. scan analysis: continue standby.
ASP-1922, had it been human, would have heaved a sigh as it arrived at the same dismal conclusion for the 1.276 millionth time since its activation a few minutes ago. The objective was the defense of the salle, but as yet, there hadnt been the slightest hint of a threat. Wistfully, ASP-1922 let the possibility of the salles only human occupant launching an attack linger in its processing circuits for a whole .00005 seconds before its command files forced him to dismiss it. According to the programming it had received only recently from Lord Vader, this particular, rather smallish human was one of the handful it was not permitted to engage in combat, no matter what the circumstances.
ASP-1922 tried to console itself with another scan of the salle, and flexed its grip hopefully around the lightsaber hilt.
visual scan processing. identify: mechanical unit asp-19, count fifteen; human, count one; threat objectives, count zero. scan analysis: continue standby.
No luck. It ran a couple thousand more scans to be sure. Dimly its aural receptors noted the whirrs and low-tone buzzes as its counterparts ran their own scanning programs. Slowly ASP-1922 loped around them all towards the fore of the salle, ambling closer to the entrance. When the threat finally showed up, its competitive programming lectured it, it planned on being the first one into the fight.
visual scan processing
Then, in the span of a second, the monotony evaporated. First came a sudden gasp from the smallish human, which ASP-1922s sensors quickly identified as being fearfulbut there was hardly enough time for it to calculate the first thousand possible causes for that fear before it was bombarded with fresh sensory input. Without warning, the salle door whooshed open, and along with every other dueling droid in the salle ASP-1922 whipped around to assess the newcomer.
A lightsaber immediately blazed forth from the doorway.
With a surge of whathad it been humanwould certainly have been triumph charging through its circuits, ASP-1922 ignited its lightsaber and charged the target, several meters ahead of the other droids.
It was the last mistake of its electronic existence.
Just a few minutes previously
Back in the murdered days of the Republic, among the now-slain numbers of the Jedi Order, there had been one thing that crossed every boundary of rank and ageone common value that every Jedi understood, from youngling to master. That one thing was this: the unsurpassed authority of Master Yoda.
After his recent bargaining session with Vader over the matter of Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi had found it rather amusing how quickly that old habit had died, laughing to himself over his audacity in speaking for the ancient Jedi Master.
Yoda, however, was not similarly amused. And increasingly, neither was Obi-Wan.
Master Yoda, I have given the Orders word not to interfere with the boy, he pleaded, his spirit hastening along behind the diminutive master.
Yoda humphed and continued threading through the ventilation shaft.
My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained, he returned, a touch irritably. Reckless your promises are; abide by them I will not.
Master Yoda, it will appear to Anakin as a deception, and that is not the way of the Jedi, Obi-Wan tried again.
Yoda stopped and turned around, and thumped his gimer stick emphatically on the bottom of the shaft.
Cease, this attachment to your Padawan must, he barked. Unfortunate Anakins fall is, painful it is, but accept it you must!
Obi-Wan gritted his teeth and started to retort, but Yoda was not finished yet.
Young your Padawan was, manipulated he may have been, but blind he was not. Made his decision, he has. Let go, you must let go!
Master, he loves his son, Obi-Wan pleaded. Luke is the last light remaining to him. We cannot abandon him to the darkness!
And what of the boy? Yoda countered. Abandon him to the darkness, will you?
Obi-Wan fell silent.
Suffer for his fathers mistakes, the child should not. Unacceptable it is to leave an innocent child in the hands of a Sith.
He has not harmed the boy, Obi-Wan tried, ashamed at the weakness of the argument even as he voiced it. He loves him.
Yoda seemed rather angered by such a pitiful objection, for he thumped his gimer stick yet again.
Loved Senator Amidala, he did! Subject young Skywalker to such danger, the Jedi cannot! Our responsibility to protect him, it is. Reckless you have been with his spirit, reckless! With another humph and plenty of muttering, Yoda turned back around and continued on his way down the ventilation shaft.
Obi-Wan suppressed a spasm of exasperation and marched after him.
And supposing that Luke does not agree to come with you? he challenged.
Yoda stopped once more and turned to address Obi-Wanbut his eyes and voice were gentler this time.
A child he is. Understand enough to make such a decision, he does not. Sound teaching he requires, before he can face the dark.
Obi-Wan crossed his arms in a huff.
I take it my teaching is not up to your standards, he said, a tad snappishly.
Yoda ignored the comment.
Shown him the allure of the dark side, Vader has. The dangers young Skywalker must quickly learn, or too late it soon may be.
Obi-Wan sighed as they resumed the trek down the ventilation shaft.
I still think this is a mistake, he grumbled.
Yoda chuckled. Dead, you are. Necessary to consult you, it is not.
The two Jedi had been chasing Lukes erratically moving presence through the castle for nearly half an hour when the boys emotional aura performed a sudden metamorphosis. Until now hed been fairly content, with alternating undercurrents of cheerfulness and mild sadnessbut in a mere instant all that exploded into a blaze of alarm, just as theyd reached the ventilation grate closest to his room. The door whooshed open and a stampede was unleashed beneath them. One set of pounding footsteps vanished up the corridorthe other, belonging to Luke, rushed in the opposite direction.
Yoda muttered something under his breath and altered course down an adjoining shaft, hobbling along a bit more quickly than before. Obi-Wan thought of shifting down into the hallway and calling to Lukebut stubbornly rejected the thought. Drat it, he at least meant to keep the promises he made!
Fortunately, Lukes suddenly frightened presence soon ceased to move, though it grew even more nervous. Yoda picked up pace even more. Soon a grate loomed ahead; with a dismissive wave of one tri-fingered paw, it twisted itself out of its frame and bowed down onto the surface of the shaft; Yoda bounded through the opening and landed on sprightly feet; Obi-Wan wafted out behind him. Immediately ahead loomed a forbidding armored door, reinforced by a battery of alert systems calculated to make anybody think twice before trying to force entry.
None of them was a match for a Jedi Master. The door obeyed Yodas bidding as quickly as the shaft grateand at the same time, a fresh stab of terror boiled out from Luke, and Obi-Wan caught his breath, sensing how threatened the boy felt
All was clear an instant later as the door slid aside, revealing a horde of sinister, spider-limbed battle droids, each with a lightsaber clutched in its clawed grip. Trapped against the far wall, surrounded by the lethal droids as if by a horde of neo-sharks, was young Luke.
Obi-Wans hand flashed instinctively to his sidebut of course there was no lightsaber there, and even if thered been, a ghostly blade would have done nothing against solid battle steel. Fortunately, Yoda was a step ahead of him; his green lightsaber had been ignited the second he assessed the deadly peril Luke faced.
The closest of the droids wasted no timein a nanosecond it was bearing down on the Jedi Master, its blade sweeping in a lethal Djem-So undercut, an unstoppable bolt of red lightning
But in a nearly invisible blur Yoda was suddenly on the opposite side of the swing, and before the droid could compensate a shaft of green lightning burned a path of carbon and ozone through its stalk of a neck. Even as the first droid collapsed, the rest of them arrived, and everything became a din of color and whipping motion.
Luke was running out of options fast. His dueling droid plan hadnt anticipated that the enemy would turn out to be a green lightsaber-twirling droid-decimating demon-troll. All the curse words hed ever learned from Han were chasing each other in circles around his head, screwing up his efforts to think of something.
There was only one doorand it was on the opposite side of the room, with a slew of battle droids and the green troll from hell in between. He could make a run for it and pray he got lucky. He could wedge himself behind the droid storage rack and pray that the dwarf-sized maniac wouldnt find him.
Or he could switch on his lightsaber and fight back.
He almost broke out into a hysterical laugh. His father wouldnt last five minutes against this whatever the heck it was. He might as well save his time and follow Obi-Wans precedent
An adrenaline overdose was making his fingers and knees shake. Luke backed up against the wall, between the rack and the shelves, and watched the troll send smoldering chunks of dueling droid clattering across the floor. A searing-hot fragment suddenly spiraled his way, Luke ducked instinctively, and looked up to see it speared into the wall between the shelves.
His eyes froze on the container of cleaning solvent.
Maybe he had a fourth option after all
Obi-Wan had completely lost track of what was going on. What Yoda had thought was a simple extraction operation, and what Obi-Wan had thought was a breach of faith, had somehow turned into a wildly chaotic duel with a battalion of demented dueling droids, which were supposed to have been attacking Luke, but actually seemed to be defending the boyexcept that must not be the case, because now Luke had joined the fray, armed with a gigantic container of cleaning solvent.
Only in the house of Anakin Skywalker could such chaos spring out of thin air. Obi-Wan threw up ghostly hands and flitted through the melee towards Luke, shouting to make himself heard over the uproar. Somebody had to restore order before Luke got himself killed, promises or no.
Luke! he shouted. Luke, you must listen
Thats okay, I got a plan! Luke shouted back, splashing cleaning solvent over the closest droid with frenzied abandon. I can get rid of that thing!
Wait, Luke, thats Master Yoda
But not for nothing was Lukes last name Skywalker.
Yeah, I know I missed one! he yelled. Gimme a second!
And as Obi-Wan watched in horror, Luke hurled the half-full container of cleaning solvent into the air, ignited his lightsaber, slashed the container in halfand made a wild-brained dash for the door through a forest of saber-wielding droids.
The room suddenly exploded in flames as the alcohol in the cleaning solvent ignited. Dimly Obi-Wan sensed Yoda seize hold of the Force and jerk himself out of the path of the exploding bonfire, only barely in the nick of time. But mere fire was not the half of itthe dueling droids, despite being sheathed in flame, were not in the least deterred.
The only things that suffered were the unprotected logic-analysis cables running on the backs of their heads.
The remaining droids went completely berserk. They charged Yoda like so many raw nuclear explosions, hacking at anything and everything that got in their wayfloor, wall, chunks of droid, even their own limbs. The army of alarms began to shriek, the deck and wall plating to melt, the circuitry in the room to explodeand the door had sealed once again behind Luke, where the heat from burning droid debris welded it into its track.
By the time either Jedi could think of something other than Yodas immediate survival, Luke had been gone for ten minutes.
Something was definitely wrong at Bast Castle. It had simply been too easy for both Ferus and the mysterious hidden ship ahead of him to slip into the atmosphere and touch down at the unused back landing pad of Vaders castle. Granted, they were both under cloaking shields and invisible to all sensors, but surely somebody should have been on guard duty at the landing padshould have heard them landing. In fact, unable to believe it, Ferus had kept their freighter well behind the other ship, letting it land first. Though the ship could not be seen, its occupant eventually blinked into appearance on the landing platform as he (or maybe she) emerged from the shields perimeter and immediately strode out of sight into the building. Suspiciously, Ferus waited for a few more minutes while Leia breathed shakily beside him; finally, when no signs of alarm arose, he eased the freighter down on the opposite side of the landing platform, praying he was clear of the other ship.
They punctured the shield bubble a few meters before touchdown, and the mystery craft reappeared before their eyes. Ferus eyes had not deceived him; it was indeed an unmarked Imperial lambda shuttle, with a few modifications that definitely werent in line with Navy standards.
Why would Imperials be sneaking in here? Leia murmured.
Ferus shrugged. Sith me if I know.
They sat in silence for a few seconds more, Ferus thinking furiously and Leia shifting uneasily in her seat.
All right, he finally announced. Once we get inside, Ill find myself a uniform. Well pretend youre my daughter and Im taking you along to work.
Theyre going to believe that? Leia was glaring at him and crossing her arms.
Probably not, he conceded, but at least itll throw them off balance. Surprise always helps. Once were inside, youre going to stay right behind me. Pay attention, keep your eyes open, and keep quiet. Understood?
Leia nodded somberly.
If something happens to me, get out of here, he pressed on. If Im captured, if Im shot, hit with a stun blast, do not try to save me. You worry about saving yourself first, Princess.
He gave her a pointed look to go with his uncharacteristic use of her title, reminding her that she was more important than he was. She nodded again, meeting him with a sober stare; she got it.
All right. Lets head in.
They slipped off the ship warily, and Ferus suspicions were immediately confirmed. The alarms were howling from inside the building; something was definitely amiss.
Ferus was hoping that something was Yoda.
The Force must really, really like him. Luke didnt know how else he could possibly have dashed past all of those dueling droids and not gotten nixed by either them or the demon troll. But hed escaped them, and hed escaped the explosion, and hed gotten the door locked behind him.
The demon troll, even if it survived that, definitely wasnt going to be chasing after him anytime soon. All the same, Luke didnt stop running until he was out of his fathers quarters and tearing through the halls. The alarms were screaming bloody murder, but no troops had arrived. Han must not have gotten back upstairs yetnobody had warned Captain Landre
But where was Miyr?
The thought made Luke screech to a halt. She should be awake after those alarms.
But she was nowhere to be seen.
Luke hesitated, fearful that the killer troll might get past those deranged dueling droids faster than expected and catch up with himbut then he spun around and dashed back the way he came until he reached Miyrs chamber door, down at the end of the long hall. He keyed it open hastily, ran in shoutingand promptly fell flat on his face.
Gasping, he rolled over, scooted back, sat upand saw Miyr sprawled out on the floor, her eyes frozen wide open.
Someone had stunned her. Luke sucked in a breath and shot a terrified glance around the room before scrambling up and shaking her as hard as he could.
She didnt even blink, though she was breathing. The troll must have stunned her really hard. Luke barely remembered to close her eyes before he started to scrabble through her pockets. She had to have a comlink, it had to be somewherekreth it, why hadnt he tried to grab his earlier, why
There! His fingers closed over the comlink and he snatched it from her pocket. He had to call Captain Landre
No! The device refused to work, no matter how hard he punched the on button and no matter how many times he shouted the voice commands at it. It was probably password-protected, he thought franticallythen he saw the scanner set into the grip.
He lunged back at Miyr and forced her hand around the grip of the comlink.
Sure enough, it switched on. Lukes fingers trembled as he put the call throughthose droids probably werent enough to stop the troll, it might be out any minute
Landre speaking, the comlink crackled.
Captain Landre? Luke hissed.
He wanted to shout, but the troll could be on the loose.
Luke? The voice on the opposite end sounded quite puzzled. Shouldnt you be in bed
Theres an assassin! Luke whispered urgently.
Are you sure you didnt dream it? the captain asked after a moment.
Luke wanted to scream at him.
Yes, Im sure! Its got a lightsaber, it knocked out Miyr!
Im on my way, Landre promised him tersely. Can you get to the safe room?
Where are Han and the girls?
Before Luke could get out an answer, the Force began to ripplelike three bubbles of fear had suddenly burst somewhere in its midst. It was Han, Han and Sara and Sandrabut he had barely even sensed their sudden terror when it ended. Like someone had sheared through it with a lightsaber. Desperately he stretched towards them and tapped, as Obi-Wan had taught him, but there was no response, and he could sense no emotion or thought or any activity.
But there was someone else he could sense. Someone grimly focused, someone cold and objective.
The troll must have gotten out and found Han and his sisters!
Luke? Luke, answer me!
Luke shook himself free and seized the comlink even tighter in Miyrs hand.
Hurry up, theyre in trouble! he shouted.
Ignoring whatever response the captain tried to make, he dropped Miyrs handthe comlink rolled out onto the floor and instantly shut off. Luke scrambled crazily to his feet and spun around in the center of the room. She had to have a blaster in here somewhere, right? Maybe hed have better luck trying to hit the troll with a stun blast. It was a faint hopeheck, even he could block stun shotsbut he knew he didnt stand a chance with his lightsaber.
It was several minutes before he finally found the secret compartment where castle security had concealed the blaster. Seizing it, Luke drew a deep breath and eased back out into the corridor.
It didnt take Ferus long to find a uniform, which was lucky. Not so luckily, the uniform came with an officer and a squadron of stormtroopers thrown into the bargain. Ferus snapped up his lightsaber reflexively to block their fire and pulled out his blaster with his free hand. What of the troopers didnt get blasted by their own stun shots he nailed with his own. The officer went down with them, caught squarely between the eyes, his uniform still pristine thanks to the Jedis clinical precision.
Ferus reached back around the corner immediately and found Leias hand. He pulled her out behind him and knelt down to peel the uniform off. The two of them ducked into a fresher nearby while Ferus changed quickly into the uniform. He tucked his definitely-longer-than-regulation hair up beneath the cap as best he could and slipped his lightsaber into the blaster holster, but still grimaced at his reflection. If anybody actually looked at him, theyd know something was up. Not that Leias presence wouldnt be enough to cause suspicion in itself
Ferus drew an uncertain breath, but quickly put all doubts out of mind. He could not afford to be distracted. With a brisk step he headed back into the castle, hand resting on his lightsaber in the holster and Leia right behind him, keeping to the shadows. As he moved, he performed a quick mental search of the Force aura surrounding and penetrating the castle. There were hundreds of beings swarming through the complex, but what registered far more strongly than all of them was the bright glowing he could sense on the uppermost floor.
If Yoda and young Luke Solo were anywhere in this building, it was up there. Ferus began hunting for a turbolift.
Some several lightyears away
Lord Vader, Bail Organa acknowledged, adding an urbane nod of the head to his greeting. I take it youve made your decision.
Vader regarded him silently from the opposite side of the palaces safe room, thumbs hooked into his belt, grinding his teeth furiously within the confines of his mask. The Dark Lord would sincerely prefer to dive back into the fires of Mustafar rather than concede to Organas demands, but he had no choice. As he began to speak, he seized upon the small consolation that his frustration would not be translated through the vocabulator.
You have my agreement.
Organa made no outward display of triumphvery wise of him. Had there been even the slightest suggestion of a smirk, Vader probably would not have had the patience to kill the man as slowly as he deserved.
Upon certain conditions, Vader continued through tight lips. You will transfer to me a copy of all the stolen holographic data you possess.
Organa regarded him, his misgivings obvious.
That, Vader pressed quickly, is not negotiable.
Organa considered for another moment and finally give a single nod. Acceptable.
You will further That was as far as Vader got before the Force erupted into chaos in the back of his head. Shouts, shrieks, shots, crazed spirals of blue, flames, spinning lightsabers, scorched corpses, howling alarms
Lord Vader? Organas voice somehow cut through the mayhem and drew him back. The senator actually sounded a little concerned?
How dare he! But he soon found it took too much effort to compel himself to be angry when all he really felt was a sick dread in the pit of his stomach.
Is something wrong, my lord?
Luke, he said, wondering even as he did why hed told Organa. He is in danger.
Organa bolted up out of his chair with an expression of the utmost alarm. Youre sure?
Vaders sole answer was to spin around and head for the door. He stopped just before he reached for the control panel.
If he left without resolving this matter, Luke and the twins would be in no less danger than they were now! The Dark Lord clenched his fists furiously. He could not afford to rush through these negotiations with the upstart senatorthere was far too much at stake. Yet neither could he afford to delay even a single moment in fleeing back to Bast Castlewith the Executor he could make good time, a few days at most
He snarled again beneath the mask. This was foolishness. It was impossible that he could reach Vjun quickly enough to protect his children from whatever threat faced them. The sudden, unexplained move would only serve to arouse the Emperors suspicion. He had no alternative but to rely on the prowess of Captain Landre and the resident security forces.
It was not a thought he relished.
Grimly, Vader unclenched his fists, forced his body to submit to the breathing regulator, and turned back around to face Organa.
It is not serious, he said levelly. My initial assessment was imprecise.
Organa settled back in his chair, relief tangible. Of course. If Luke were to die, Organas security from Vaders rage would die as well. A violent surge of helpless fury welled up in him. The walls of the safe room creaked ominously in reply, and thin cracks appeared in the paint finish. The thought of Luke and the little twins gave Vader just enough control to wrestle his rage into submission for the moment and turn his attention back to the negotiations.
But by all nine hells and the powers of darkness and chaos, Organa would pay for this one day!
The part of the castle that Ferus and Leia had entered didnt seem to be the most popular part. Despiteor maybe because ofthe shrieking alarms, their only company as they pushed further inward (other than the patrol squad they had stunned) were a few frazzled maintenance droids, none of which had either the artificial intelligence or the motivation to notice them. Ferus was becoming more and more convinced that it was entirely too convenient a situation to be true.
But then they found a computer terminal, and Ferus took the opportunity to summon up a map of the castle. It quickly became clear why this part of the castle was deserted: there was but one turbolift that accessed the all-important top floor, located in the core of the building. The security forces were doubtless converging in that direction, hoping to trap whatever intruders had arrived in the center of the complex.
Ferus scowled at the map. Just as hed thoughttoo good to be true.
What is it? Leia demanded.
Theres only one lift to the top floor, where we need to go, he told her. Thats where all the security is.
Leia understood immediately. Were never going to get up there, she muttered in defeat.
Ferus took a step back from the floating holographic display, considering.
I wouldnt say that, he remarked.
He reached out and tapped at a section of the map, magnifying the nearest turbolift and its surroundings.
Well take this one up as far as possible, he announced.
And then what? Leia shot back scornfully. Bash a hole in the ceiling?
Ferus shrugged. Why not?
Luke had just edged out into the corridor, blaster clutched in one hand and lightsaber in the other, when he heard the slap of stealthily approaching footsteps. In a flash he ducked back into Miyrs room, pressing himself against the wall, chest muscles shivering in the effort to control his breathing. The footsteps grew a little louder, but never that loudthen the noise began to fade, down the corridor in the opposite direction from the turbolift and security checkpoint. When he couldnt hear them anymore, Luke worked up the nerve to slip back outsideit took a lot of nerve, because he could tell that that coolly focused presence was not very far away from him.
He could hardly believe that the troll hadnt sensed himalthough hed forgotten just how good hed been at hiding his presence in the Force. Luke sealed his shields down even tighter and started slowly down the corridor, following the enemy. Force knew he never wanted to be within ten lightyears of that lethal green maniac ever again for the rest of his lifebut it had Han and Sara and Sandra, and he could hardly leave them to face the demon troll on their own. Right now, he was the best chance they had. So he followed, even though his leg muscles felt like mashed gel cubes, and it wasnt long before his senses led him to the door of
A maintenance closet?
Luke swallowed hard, apologized to everybody he could think of for everything hed ever done that he wasnt supposed to ever do, and then pressed the activation button and ignited his lightsaber and fired a stun blast and closed his eyes tight all at oncewaiting for the trolls lightsaber to hack through him just like one of the droids
Nothing happened. Warily Luke opened his eyes and sawmore nothing. The cleaning equipment was a bit singed from the stun blast, but otherwise the closet was as empty as it could be.
In fact it was even more empty than it could be. Where the floor should have been filling it, there was a gaping holeplenty big enough for not only a lightsaber-wielding green demoniac troll, but also a standard-size Corellian street rat.
Luke thought about ita lot less than he should have, in retrospectand jumped down through the hole, lightsaber and blaster blazing. Hed barely landed when something lurched forward out of the shadows of the darkened space around him. Something with a glowing lightsaber.
Luke whipped his blade into a block, snapped the blaster up wildly, and fired for his life.
Ferus shoved Leia hastily back around the corner into the shadows, held a hand to his lips. She froze as another patrol marched past them, headed for the turbolift theyd just exited. Ferus felt his nerves tingle with adrenaline, but yet again he had reason to send the designer of the Imperial Army uniforms a thank-you note: the stormtroopers helmets kept them from noticing the intruders. They passed without pause. Once hed heard the lift door seal behind them, the fugitive Jedi guided his young charge back out into the main corridor.
Still, Ferus Olin wasnt nearly as edgy as hed been during every other brush hed had with Imperial forces since the Republics death. He could feel the rightness of this in every cell. The Force was flowing around him, whispering confirmationhe and Leia were supposed to be here, right now, doing exactly this. He had faith that both of them would be kept safe, whatever the going odds were against a successful infiltration of an Imperial fortress.
Although the alarms were still wailing, this floor was otherwise very quiet. From the looks of it, it was always a quiet floorall of the lights seemed to be kept permanently on a dimmed setting, surely to conserve energy. Ferus felt fairly secure moving down the main corridor, especially now that theyd seen the patrol unit for the area. Still, it was a relief when they were able to turn off of it down a smaller hall that would lead them closer to the brightness on the top floor.
Especially since this smaller hall was completely darkened. Apparently it was never used. Only the occasional guidance glowpoint cast its faint green aura out against the walls. As they progressed down the hall, the light from the main corridor faded away, along with the raucous clamor of the alarms. They turned a bend, and even the green glowpoints vanished. Everything was silent
Ferus stopped in his tracks.
It was silent.
No alarms. No emergency lights.
It was not considered very appropriate for a Jedi to swear, particularly not in front of young impressionable princesses, but Ferus did it anyway, under his breath, and whisked Leia to the side of the hallway. With a sharp thought he ordered her to keep as silent as she possibly could, then hurried her far away from even the faint light behind the bend.
Someone had cut all power to this hallway, or at least this section of the hallway. And until Ferus knew who it was, he certainly did not want that someone knowing who he was, and especially not that he and Leia were here. When he was sure that they were completely ensconced within blackness, he let go of the princess hand and pried his lightsaber out of the blaster holster. He quickly undid the buttons on the confining uniform jacket and pulled it off, tying the sleeves around his waist, and stuffed the cap into a pocket. If there was something unfriendly up aheadsuch as whoever had arrived in the mysterious ship ahead of themhe wanted his full range of movement available, and in this darkness a disguise was pointless anyway.
When he was good and ready, they started forward again, following Ferus senses towards the bright presences just above them. He wanted to get as close as possible before slicing out a makeshift door through the ceilingotherwise theyd be liable to run into unwanted company. Cautiously he stretched his thoughts a little further, trying to discern some sort of definition to those presences, pick out individuals
There was a sudden yank at his arm, pulling him against the wall. It was Leia. A flash flood of warning poured down on his mind from her. Before he could ask why, he caught a faint noise ahead.
If it hadnt been for Leia, they would have been caught by the lone stormtrooper who suddenly passed by. The low-key whine of repulsorlifts informed him that the trooper had some sort of equipment crate with him. Probably a power tech checking out the system failure
Ferus squeezed Leias hand to communicate thanks, and allowed himself a brief moment of wonder at the keenness of her senses, even untrained as they were. When they saw the silhouettes of the trooper and floating equipment crate pass around the bend in the hall, they began moving forward again. There was another bend in the tunneland then, quite suddenly, they were right beneath the bright presences. The mismatched pair stopped, and Ferus took a moment to confirm their proximity to the bright Force presences before holstering his blaster and gripping his lightsaber with both hands. He looked up towards the ceiling to start cutting
Just in time to see a sudden flash of light erupt right through it. A blaster fired. Once more he hissed curses and pushed Leia against the wall, until they were safely in the shadows. A rough, jagged circle of light appeared on the floor of the corridor, gleaming through a gaping hole that somebody else had already cut through the ceiling with a vibro-saw. Right after the blaster discharge and the light appearance, a shadow painted itself across it.
There was no way that whoever it was could miss a gaping, man-sized hole in the floor when it was right at his feet. Not even a stormtrooper. Ferus shifted his grip grimly on the lightsaber. Of course nobody would be so stupid as to blindly jump down through a random hole in the floor without knowing what might be lurking beneath, but if this somebody was that stupid, he couldnt be allowed to breathe long enough to tell his commander what hed seen.
The next moment, in defiance of all logic, the light from the hole was eclipsed, and there was a definitive thud on the floor, and Ferus didnt have a choice. In one smooth motion he ignited the lightsaber and stepped forward, resigned to the necessary kill
Butimpossibly!the enemy batted his blade aside with his own lightsaber. There was no chance for reaction. Ferus barely had time to hear the crack of a blaster discharging before his consciousness collapsed under a tidal wave of blue.
Leia almost shrieked as two blades of light suddenly appeared and flashed against each other, spitting sparksand then concentric circles of blue stun rings erupted and she heard Master Olin fall. Something dangerous and desperate sparked in her then, overriding her fear for the first time since entering the castle. She lurched forward and instinctively found the blaster in Master Olins holster, and she tore it out and snapped it up to fire at the figure
But the other person stumbled forward into the faint light coming from the hole in the ceiling, and Leia gasped.
The other frowned and held forth his shimmering blue lightsaber.
Hey youre that princess, arent you?
She nodded. Slowly both of them lowered their blasters.
What are you doing here? Leia demanded in a fierce whisper.
What am I doing here? he retorted indignantly. How about what are you doing here?
Rescuing you! she exclaimed, still whispering.
Luke stared as if hed never heard the word rescue before in his life.
Leia stared right back. Youre trapped in Darth Vaders fortress, she said slowly. Wasnt that obvious?
But Luke Solo only frowned at her. What made you think that?
Your message! Leia burst out. Ferus said you and Han had been kidnapped by Vader and so we came here to get you out! She glanced at the collapsed Jedi. And then you shot Ferus! she added accusingly, pointing.
Who the freakin stang is he? Luke demanded.
It was definitely not the green troll.
Hes Ferus Olin, hes a Jedi
Whats a Jedi doing here?
Were rescuing you, you nerfherder!
I dont need anybody rescuing me! Luke hissed back. I gotta find Han and my sisters, theyre ones we have to rescue!
Sisters? I thought you just had a brother! And I thought you two didnt have any parents! And you do so need to be rescued, youre a prisoner in Darth Vaders castle! He kills Jedi like you! And what did you mean about that astromechhey! Let go! Let go of me!
Luke had grabbed her by the hand and was running down the corridor.
I dont have time to answer questions, I gotta save Han and my sisters! he hissed. Did you see an ugly green troll running this way?
You didnt see anybody this way? he demanded in a fierce whisper.
No, just a stormtrooper with a crate, but I thought you didnt have anystop it! Luke was off running again. Stop! We cant leave Ferus back there, somebody willand youre not answering any of my questions!
She twisted her arm furiously as they raced back down the hall, around the bend where the glowpoints were still lit.
With a stifled sound of exasperation, Luke stopped and whirled to face her.
My name is Luke Skywalker, Vader is my father, I have two little sisters, Hans not my brother, who cares about the astromech, a crazy green assassin troll just kidnapped Han and my sisters, and I gotta find him before he gets away! Now come on!
Leia was so stunned that she followed him in gape-mouthed silence all the way back to the turbolift.
No stormtroopers had yet made it to the violated inner corridors of Lord Vaders private chambers, but if they had, they would surely have been astounded to see the door to the dark lords dueling salle spontaneously warp, fold over on itself and explode out of the doorframe with a cacophony of metallic shrieks and spitting sparks. Smoke billowed out and severed droid limbs skidded across the deck plating. Water and flame-retardant foam began spitting out of jets set into the ceiling, raining all over the short, solitary, somewhat singed shape that emerged from the smoking portal.
Master Yoda, for all that the clinging puffs of foam made him look like some sort of miniature Father Lifeday, was exhibiting none of the jollity characteristic of the festive holiday icon.
See now, do you, why away from his fathers influence the boy must be taken? snapped the drenched, foam-encrusted Jedi Master.
Obi-Wan, his ghostly form serenely unaffected by the bombardment from above or the flames behind, was wise enough not to comment.
I suppose youll make me explain that mess, he muttered instead.
Kill you a second time, he cannot, Yoda pointed out tersely, and without further comment he leapt back through the open grate in the ceiling, leaving a trail of airborne foam in his wake.
Obi-Wan glanced ruefully at the wreckage.
I daresay thats not going to stop him from trying
When Han came to, all he could see was a whole lot of nothing. It was pitch black, wherever it was. He tried to stretch himself out, sit up, but promptly ran into walls in almost every direction, except for a couple in which he ran into something softer. There was a yelp from one of those directionsa very high, little kid-ish sounding yelp.
Han? somebody whimpered.
He tried to bolt upright again, and succeeded in slamming his head into one of the walls.
No! the voice said indignantly. Im Sandra.
Han scowled. Well, sorry already. Where is this?
She sniffled. I dunno.
Han twisted around as much as he could, reaching around to feel the walls.
Some kinda box, he muttered. His hand ran across fine hair. That you?
Uh-uh, over here.
Han fell back into place with a groan. So Sara was here too, still out cold. Stuck in a box with the two twerplings. The only worse scenario he could imagine was being stuck in a box with their dad.
Han, whats we gonna do? Sandra whimpered.
Han took the only course of action he really could from such cramped quarters.
Hey! Somebody! Hey! Sandra started yelling too, practically in his ear, but Han would put up with anything that might get him out of this.
He twisted his other arm out from underneath the unseen lump that was probably Sara and started pounding on the walls for good measure.
It was a while before he realized that the noise they made seemed to be warping, like it was shriveling up before it ever got out of the box. He flailed around with his hands some more, accidentally hitting Sandra before his fingers discovered that there were a couple of other things in the box besides him and the twerplings. One of the devices had a handle and some controls on itHan recognized a vibro-saw when he felt one. The other one had an unfamiliar shape, but he was willing to bet it was a silencer of some kind.
Nobodys gonna hear us, he muttered, falling back yet again.
Sandras whimpers started to sound suspiciously like sobs. Han reached around awkwardly until he could get hold of her hand.
I want Dadda, she wailed miserably.
Right about now, Han wouldnt have minded seeing Daddy Dearest either, as long as he got them out of this blasted box. He patted Sandras hand kinda self-consciously. Not that he was admitting he liked the kidhe just didnt wanna share a box with a squalling toddler. Yeah, that was it.
Hey, its gonna be okay, he said.
Promise? she sniffled.
Uh yeah. Yeah, I promise.
He didnt have any idea if it was gonna be okay or not, but no sense tellin her that. If they were in it, they were in it together, he guessed. Shoot, he didnt even know what had happened to Luke, or where they were, or whod stuck them in a box, or if Vaderd ever find out what had happened, or anything, but at least he wasnt by himself. That was a good thing, right?
Stop thinkin so loud, Sandra snuffed.
Han scowled again. On second thought, maybe by himself would have been better.
It was a few minutes before Sara started moving where she was squished up against his side. After the initial near-hysterics, Han managed to calm her down, and the twerplings actually did a bit better once both of them were awake. But he only had a couple minutes to enjoy that fact before the box suddenly dropped like a rock and hit dirt, and all three of them yelled as their heads slammed into the top of the box and each other.
A second later he yelled again as the lid of the box suddenly vanished and a flash flood of light blinded him. Swearing piecemeal from all the languages hed heard running around the streets of Coronet, Han bolted up with the vibro-saw in hand, just in time to be knocked really, really hard upside the head. He fell head-first out of the box, dropping the vibro-saw and swearing even harder, to the tune of amused laughter. When he could see, he looked up and his eyes beheld something hed never expected to witness.
Directly overhead stood a stormtrooper. Without his helmet on. Laughing. Han saw his stolen comlink resting on the guys belt.
What the nine hells?
Still chuckling, the guy fired a stun bolt into the box, and Sara and Sandras terrified wailing cut off instantly. He turned casually to point the blaster at Han, still grinning and shaking his head. Id have bet Vader wouldnt care to hear you swearing like a spacer, he commented. Maybe Im doing him a favor taking you off his hands.
Wait! Han shouted. Youre kidnapping us?
Isnt that obvious? The stormtrooper fiddled for a second with the intensity gauge. Settle down, youre no good to me dead, he remarked conversationally. But its a long jump ahead and I dont need the three of you giving me any trouble.
A sudden panic blazed to life in Hans gut. You cant kidnap me! he yelled.
I just did, the trooper pointed out. He raised the blaster back up, adjustments finished.
No, Ive got a tracking device! Han yelled desperately.
The man paused. Tracking device.
You take me away from the castle, I explode, Han informed him, getting angry all over again as he remembered the particulars.
Never in a million years had he expected the slave implant to save his life. But now the guy couldnt kidnap him without killing him, and hed already said Han was worthless to him dead
Well, said the trooper cheerfully, then Im glad we had this conversation.
Just like that?
Guess Ill have to stick you in the cryo chamber, the other continued. That should short circuit the implant without killing you.
What? Han yelled. You cant freeze me alive
Goodnight. Blue rings flashed again, and blackness overwhelmed him.
Leia had a thousand questions running through her mind wildly, but she was too stunned to say anything, and increasingly too out of breath. Luke SoloSkywalker?was tearing through halls like a maniac, mysteriously retracing exactly the path she and Ferus had taken even though she never told him where to turn. The only pause she had came briefly in the turbolift.
What do you mean, your name isnt Luke Solo? she finally panted.
Its a pseudonym. I couldnt use my real name.
Then the lift doors were opening and they were running again. Luke didnt stop running until they emerged onto the landing platform. In a few more seconds they burst through the cloaking shields, and Leia could see both the freighter shed arrived in and the mysterious, unmarked Imperial shuttle. Scarcely had it appeared to them, though, before the engines revved and the ship lifted off.
The shout burst helplessly out of Luke. Leia watched him fire a few shots hopelessly at the departing shuttle, to no avail. It sped away angling up out of the atmosphere, quickly vanishing behind its cloaking shield.
Cmon! Luke yelled.
He dragged her behind him up the ramp of Ferus freighter and practically threw her into the co-pilots seat. Thoroughly dazed, Leia watched him start the engines. A few minutes later, they were soaring upwards, away from the castle, hot on the tail of the Imperial shuttle they couldnt see.
How do you know where youre going? she murmured.
I can sense that guy, Luke said fiercely. Hes not gonna get away from me!
Yoda made very quick time back through the ventilation shafts, using the Force to boost his speed as he chased the rapidly moving presence of young Luke Skywalker down through the levels of the building. The two Jedi Masters finally caught a glimpse of their quarry when they reached the landing platform. Luke was firing at a departing Imperial shuttle, but the next instant he grabbed the hand of the brown-haired girl beside him and ran with her up the ramp of the other ship resting on the platform.
Obi-Wan hesitated, but Yoda had no memories of stowaway missions gone awry to plague him. The aging Jedi Master scurried surreptitiously up the ramp of the battered freighter and tucked himself into a closet on one of the corridorsplenty spacious enough for a diminutive being such as Yoda.
Obi-Wan joined him on the floor, glaring pointedly.
That was some rescue.
A hum began in the floorthe ship was lifting off.
Yoda, although still wet and speckled with flecks of flame-retardant foam, nonetheless looked satisfied.
Achieved, the goal of the mission is, he observed. Removed from his fathers reach, young Skywalker is. And interfere, I did not. Satisfied you should be.
Obi-Wan scowled anyway. You do realize who is on this ship with him.
Troubling, that is, Yoda murmured.
What is Leia doing here? Obi-Wan wondered. Shes supposed to be on Alderaan!
Capture her, Vader did not. Arrived another way, the princess did.
To that question, not even Yoda had the answer.
Someone, Captain Landre thought grimly, is going to regret playing with my security systems.
The passcodes on the security checkpoint to the top floor had, impossibly, been changed. From the terminal on the inside, or else the tech specialists would have been able to retrieve the changes from the computer on this side. The frenzied captain had ordered a demolition team in, and theyd only just succeeded in blowing out the door. Squadrons of stormtroopers flooded into the top floor, and now reports were flowing into the castle control room. Landre listened tersely.
Target breached, repeat, target breached
Team Two to Lord Vaders quarters, perform recon
Ive found the administrator, she has been stunned, repeat, the administrator has been stunned
Lord Vaders quarters breached, performing recon
Fire damage to corridor two, repeat, severe fire damage in corridor two
Room 008 is completely burned out, Im reading multiple explosions
Weve got activated fire-retardant systems
Looks like explosives, that door was completely blown out of the wall
Ventilation system has been tampered with, sir
Captain Landre blew out a stiffly measured breath. This was bad. Team Two, check Wings Three and Four for occupants, he ordered.
Affirmative, sir. Detachment One to Wing Three, move!
Weapons damage, sir, check out this
Captain, someones hacked through from the lower level, went up through the floor in Maintenance Room 5003
The administrator is coming around, repeat, the administrator is coming to
Security blaster missing from the administrators quarters, sir
Captain, Team Two reporting. Wings Three and Four are unoccupied, repeat, Wings Three and Four are unoccupied. Detachment Two progressing to castle safe room
Sir, theres somebody down here
Detachment Two entering safe room
Captain, Team Three has located an armed intruder near the security breach in Maintenance Room 5003. He appears to have been stunned
Captain, Team Two reporting. Castle safe room is unoccupied. Repeat, the castle safe room and Lord Vaders quarters are unoccupied.
Landre sank down into his command chair, feeling tingles run through his fingers and a knife in his gut, imagining the sensation of his throat closing from withinif indeed Lord Vader extended such a quick manner of death to the man who had failed to protect his children.
Commence a general search of the castle, he ordered harshly.
Upon waking, Ferus first thought was, Where the nine hells am I?
A few seconds later, he had realized it could only be an Imperial detention cell. He was dangling within a humming blue stasis field, his body leaning forward at an awkward angle, hands and feet kept firmly in place by magnetic cuffs. They neednt have bothered, he though irritablythe stasis field was on such high power that he couldnt so much as twitch his nose or flick his hair out of his eyes, let alone crane his head around to view the rest of the cell. He was forced to take his surroundings in as the stasis field slowly rotated. There wasnt much to see. The field was built into the middle of the small room. There was a narrow bench on one side, and a heavy bunker-grade door on the other. Walls, a low ceiling, and a permacrete floor framed the rest of the cell.
Minutes passed. The lights overhead gave an occasional flicker. There was a hair tickling the side of his nose, making itself harder to ignore with every interminable second
The door suddenly hissed open at his back, and Ferus tightened as he heard footsteps, but he was forced to wait some seconds before the rotation finally brought him face to face with a glowering officer in full uniformthe selfsame uniform that Ferus realized he was still wearing in a decidedly un-regulation style. The man (a captain, if Ferus read his insignia correctly) was looking none too lenient. His lips pursed into a thin, angry line, he halted the rotation of the stasis field and regarded Ferus with crossed arms.
I cannot promise you that cooperation will save your life, he began coldly, but Lord Vader may perhaps be inclined to grant you a more merciful form of death if you do so.
The Empire hands out the death sentence for trespassing now? Ferus remarked with a good deal more nonchalance than he felt.
The captain offered him a humorless smile.
The Empire abides by Lord Vaders judgment. Particularly in those matters pertaining to his own household. Were I you, I would be quite eager to abate the severity of that judgment in any way possible.
Well, if Im Vaders problem, I suppose youll have to wait until he gets home, Ferus shot back.
The captains eyes narrowed at the revelation that the prisoner knew something of the dark lords whereabouts.
I assure you, I am fully authorized to act in Lord Vaders stead, he said. I suggest that you answer my questions, unless you wish to make an intimate acquaintance of our interrogation officers.
Ferus kept his cocky smile, but felt his stomach tighten with cold dread. This officer didnt seem to be the type to bluff. And Vader certainly had it in him to maintain a band of torturers. Perhaps hed let them practice on Luke Solo
Ferus had already figured out that it must have been none other than the captured Jedi Padawan who had jumped through the ceiling and stunned him. In fact, he suspected that was why the alarms had been screamingthe boy must have been trying to make an escape, and had been so startled by Ferus presence that he had shot on pure reflex. He could only pray that both the children had managed to evade capture.
Given the captains evident anger, he suspected that they had.
In which case, he had best stop worrying about Luke and Leia and start worrying about himself, as his situation would appear to be worse by far. What sort of questions did you have in mind? he said in a more mollifying tone. The subservience grated on him, but it was, at least, the last thing anybody would expect from a Jedi
Lets start with a name, the captain said with a cold smile.
Given the danger in the mans tone, Ferus decided it would not be in his best interests to continue being insolent.
Jax, he said, falling back on one of his many aliases.
The captain gave him another thin, icy smile.
A bit warlike for an Alderaanian, arent you?
Ferus winced inside. Blast it! Andru was as peace-loving-Alderaanian a name as they camehe should have gone with his Corellian aliasFerus, you idiot, start thinking
Never was a very good Alderaanian, he said flippantly. It was too late to switch vectors.
Nor a very good citizen, the captain agreed, with another of those smiles that Ferus was sure boded nothing good for him. Although, the man continued, I suspect you are a most remarkable liar. Desbar!
A subordinate lieutenant stepped briskly forward from behind his commanders shoulder.
Report to the control room and run a full search for one Andru, Jax, the captain ordered. Image and genetic matching included.
He produced a syringe from one of his uniform pockets and stabbed it somewhat vengefully into Ferus stasis-trapped arm, drawing out a full vial of blood, which was transferred to the lieutenant. The captain turned back to his prisoner with baleful eyes.
I trust we shall soon continue our conversation, Mr. Andru, he said softly.
Ferus scrounged up the most respectfully nonchalant smile he could contrive.
Looking forward to it, sir, he rejoined, in a tone that was just a shade too mild to be called mocking.
The captain bestowed on him another glower veiled in a smile, and left Ferus to hang helplessly in the air, waiting for them to blow his concocted identity out of space, and wondering how in the galaxy he was going to make it out of this one alive.
Leia couldnt remember a time when shed wanted to scream more than right now. But no screams could get outthe ship was ripping up through the atmosphere so fast that she didnt need any crash webbing to keep her plastered against the seat back. Instead she clutched frantically at the armrests, swiveling her eyes around the cockpit as best she could with her head seemingly welded into place. She couldnt budge a musclein terror, the young princess realized that they must be going too fast for the compensators and anti-gravity generators to keep up with them. Her tongue worked, trying to tell Luke to slow down, but she couldnt get any sounds out, and from the maniac look in Lukes eyes, he probably wouldnt listen anyhow.
Leia relaxed a little as the atmosphere gave way to black space and the pressure of the planets gravity vanishedbut just when she felt sure the stress factors werent going to physically rip the freighter apart, Luke let loose with freighters cannons, blasting away at vacant space ahead of them. She was so shocked she forgot to yelluntil, that was, return fire rocked the freighter violently.
Luke said something that sounded very uncivilized in a language she didnt know, took a quick glance at the scanners, and yelled something in Basic that she knew was very uncivilized.
What? she screamed at him.
Its the krethin Destroyers! Luke yelled back. That blast knocked out the cloaking shield!
Leia stared at the scanners, saw to her horror that the Imperial Star Destroyers standing guard over the system had honed in on them. The com system crackled to life.
Unidentified freighter, stand down immediately or you will be destroyed! an officers voice ordered sharply over the speakers.
Luke leaned over and switched off the com.
What are you doing?!! Leia shrieked.
She lunged forward to switch the com back onthere was no way this ridiculous boy was going to make it past a whole Navy battalion! They had to surrender or theyd die, and Leia for one didn't feel like
Luke spun the ship into a wickedly sharp roll, flinging Leia across the cockpit away from the com unit, and fired again at empty space, clear the opposite direction from the approaching Star Destroyers. Great green beams of killing energy followed them, and Leia was hurled against the walls every which way as Luke twisted, rolled, plunged into nosedives to escape the blasts. Dazed, she somehow managed to stagger back into her seat, the com forgotten. Too late for that by far.
No, no, no, no!
Lukes shouts grew progressively more desperate, he fired the cannons like a madman, gunned the enginesLeia screamed as a last burst of energy revealed the strange Imperial shuttle, saw that it was on course to collide with them in seconds
The ship suddenly altered its vector by a few degreesa corona of blue light appeared around its aft.
NO! Luke let off several more bursts of fire, aiming for the hyperdrive, but he was too latethe next instant, the shuttle vanished into hyperspace, and the laser blasts scorched through nothing but vacuum.
Wellthat wasnt quite accurate. Although there was vacuum where the shuttle had previously been, a few klicks behind that position the lasers found a convenient target in the form of an incoming TIE fighter. The snub ship exploded as the blasts struck it full on.
Luke stared in horror out the viewport for a second, but recovered quickly enough to wrench their feeble freighter out of the line of a fire of another TIE.
My father is going to kill me, he muttered.
Im going to kill you! Leia shouted at him furiously. Another blast from the destroyers slapped the freighter to the sideAssuming they dont beat me to it! she added.
For a few more seconds, Luke wove the ship desperately, miraculously managing to evade the worst of the fire. Then he reached over and began punching at the controls to her console, flying with one hand.
Plug in these numbers! he yelled at her. 44-1-22-1-44!
Leia feverishly did as she was told, just to make sure hed fly the ship with both hands.
Luke lurched forward just as the freighter was struck from behind and pulled back the hyperspace lever. The ship exploded forward into silent hyperspace.
Both of them slumped back in their chairs, for very different reasons. Leia felt nothing but reliefyet she could almost feel the fear and frustration rolling off of Luke and splashing against her skin like cold acid.
It was some minutes before she dared ask, Where are we going?
Corellia, Luke said in monotone.
She waited some minutes more before venturing, Why?
Cause they were the only coordinates along that vector that I remembered.
The one that shuttle took.
Luke twisted his hands on the armrests, then leaned forward decisively and brought up the computer display from his console.
Gotta run calculations and see where else he maybe went, he muttered, more to himself than to Leia.
Leia was suddenly very, very angry. She jerked her hand out and switched off the computer display. He turned sharplyshe pointed her finger at him.
Dont you even, she hissed. You tell me whats going on, right now. Im not going anywhere else until I know whats going on!
Luke slowly settled back, his intense blue eyes never leaving her, an inscrutable expression on his face.
Okay, he muttered.
What do you mean, Vaders your father? she snapped at him.
Luke scowledit might have been meant for himself. What do you think? Hes my father, thats what I mean!
He cant be your father! she shouted. Hes a murderer! He hunts people, tortures prisonershe even killed children, Ferus told me!
A spark of anger came into Lukes eyes, albeit muted by the fact that shed said nothing untrue.
That doesnt mean hes not my father, he said fiercely. Besides, he added in a mutter, you dont really know him.
Leia stared at him.
Everybody knows what Darth Vader is like, she told him coldly. Why do you think everyone is so scared of him?
Luke only turned his blue gaze away, out the viewport.
You wouldnt understand, he said implacably.
Leia huffed in frustration. If youre really his son, how come you were trying to run away from the Empire?
I didnt know he was my father, Luke murmured.
But Ferus said you were just a Jedi apprentice that Vader kidnapped, she reasoned. Maybe hes lying to you.
He doesnt lie to people, Luke said in a strange voice.
How do you know?
I just know.
Leia fought down her frustration. I guess thats some Jedi trick?
Sort of. He turned a curious look on her. You know a lot more about Jedi than most people.
I told you. Ferus is a Jedi.
Leia felt another pang for having left the Jedi Knight behind in the castlebut that was what he had told her to do. What he would have wanted her to do. You did the right thing, Leia.
So how come your dad wants you hanging around with a Jedi? Luke fired back shrewdly. Thats pretty dangerous for a princess, isnt it?
Leias mouth opened and snapped shut a few times. She was very sure that neither her father nor Master Olin would want her spreading the word that she was Force-sensitive, especially not to a person who claimed to be Darth Vaders son, but Luke had sent her father a message to warn him and had told her about himself, so she supposed it was only fair to repay him in kind.
Daddy sent me away, she said shortly. They think I could be a Jedi too.
There came into Lukes eyes sudden alarm.
Is your dad all right? he asked urgently.
Leia suddenly fell back into her seat, fighting tears.
I dont know, she choked. They said thatthat Vader would be coming to Alderaan.
Luke shifted nervously.
I did everything I could, he said helplessly.
Leia looked at Luke with new eyes, realizing just whom Luke had been defying when he sent that message to Alderaan. You cant tell anybody else, or I swear, my father will kill me
That was very brave of you, she murmured, wiping away the few tears that had escaped her control.
Luke fiddled awkwardly with his fingernails.
I owe your dad, he muttered.
An ungainly silence seemed to be stretched tight between them for several minutes.
You said you have two little sisters? Leia finally asked.
Didnt know about them either, he said. Theyre only about three, theyre twins.
And somebody kidnapped them? The stormtrooper we saw with the crate?
Who would kidnap them?
Luke shook his head.
I thought it was the green troll, but it must be somebody else. Maybe someone was working with the troll.
Wait a secondthe green troll?
Luke told her the fantastic, frightening tale of the demon trolls attack.
He wasnt a Jedi? Leia mused.
Luke screwed up his face in a scowl.
Of course not. Jedi dont try to assassinate people! Even Obi-Wan was trying to help me get away! I think he must have distracted it.
Save it for another story.
Hed rather not tell that one right now, especially not with Corellia getting closer by the lightyears.
And these assassins kidnapped Han too?
Luke worked his tongue around his dry mouth, tried to swallow as he stared hopelessly out the viewport. It seemed almost too much to hope that Han could have somehow survived being taken out of the shield range around Bast Castle, what with the tracer chip planted into his brainbut Luke hadnt sensed him die, so he had to hope that Han was still alive and kicking.
He couldnt stand to even contemplate any other possibility. The others all hurt too much, and Luke didnt know if he could take losing somebody that he loved another time. He didnt want to find out, either.
What were you doing in Bast Castle? he asked Leia, all too eager to change the subject.
His query was rewarded with a lengthy explanation of what had transpired in the Organa household after the upheaval of his call from the shuttle. Apparently, it all came down to the fact that Ferus Olin had thought that Jedi Master Yoda might be on Vjun and had come with Leia looking for him.
But you said Jedi wouldnt try to assassinate someone, so I guess the green troll-thing couldnt have been him, Leia finished.
Luke thought the idea was laughable, although he had to admit that the demon troll would probably have given this renowned Jedi Master a run for his money had Yoda actually been there.
Wonder where he really is, Luke wondered aloud. Hed sure be a lot of help right now.
You know, maybe we could look for all them, Leia suggested. Whenever we get to Corellia. If this troll is really as dangerous as you say, youll need help getting your sisters and Han back.
Not mention which, helping rescue the kidnapped children of Darth Vader would probably go a long way towards making the Sith lord less angry with her father.
Luke grinned. Sounds like a plan. Lets see where else they might have flown to, huh?
Corellia was no ordinary system in the framework of the galaxy. On the purely astrographical side, the system boasted no less than five inhabitable planets, more than any other known system in the galaxy. It featured three indigenous sentient races on those five planetsin fact, many an anthropologist had hypothesized that Corellia was the home planet of the human race. Whether or not that lofty claim was the truth, Corellia was nonetheless possessed of a gem-studded galactic history second to none of the vaunted Core Worlds (except, perhaps, for Coruscant). Corellians had been among the first to venture forth into space, constructing massive space stations, discovering and developing galactic trade routes, even inventing the hyperdrive.
Hundreds of thousands of years later, Corellia remained a mighty galactic attraction and a key trade systembillions visited the system every year, drawn by equally numerous reasons. Of all the features of the Corellian system, none was more central than the planet Corellia. The heart of Corellia was the capital city, Coronet, a galactic metropolis that echoed the cityscape of Coruscant. And the heart of Coronet, as any bona fide Corellian could tell you, was undoubtedly Treasure Ship Row.
Hence, of course, it was to Treasure Ship Row that an ambitious, inventive entrepreneur such as Lando Calrissian inevitably directed his steps.
Lando had been in Corellia for about two weeks now, having left Nar Shaddaa as soon as he could walk up the ramp of his ship without limping and calling down curses on Han Solo. It was, he reflected irritably, blasted lucky that he hadnt been killed jumping from Solos landing ramp. But between jumping five meters onto permacrete and paying Darth Vader an uninvited visit, Lando would pick the jump every time. At least if you jumped, there was still chance you might live to complain about it. And live to complain about he had. Unfortunately, since Han Solo was in all likelihood strangulated worm fodder now, Lando didnt have anybody he could really complain to, and had been forced to get along with his life.
He was sure that if he stayed on Nar Shaddaa, the ghost of Han Solo would haunt him, merrily wrecking his every business ventureand besides that, Jabba was still pretty ticked with him over the incident of the Sienar hyperdrive. So Lando decided to move on to the next best place in the galaxys seedy underbelly for an enterprising, creative businessman: Corellia.
The opportunities might not be quite as abundant as theyd been on Nar Shaddaa, but on the whole Corellia had treated him pretty well for the last two weeks. Hed been able to work his hand into the black market on ship hardware, selling off a number of quad cannons hed managed to dig up and turning a tidy profit; and hed struck up an acquaintance with a Bothan, who it turned out knew another Bothan who knew a Falleen whod found a deposit of pyrolanium in the asteroid belts of Sykos Twelve, and who was looking to set up a mining operation and needed some financial partners. By all accounts, the market for pyrolanium was really primeaccording to Talon Karrde, the Empire was eating up the available supply. Which was really no wonderthe stuff was a key ingredient for super-grade reactors, and with those new Super Star Destroyers that Sienar had started churning out for the Fleet, the Emperor probably had whole teams of lowlifes scratching the pyrolanium wiring out of computer chips to keep up with demand. Not that Lando was particularly keen on helping the Empire add brass knuckles to its iron fist, but if he didnt get in on the mine somebody else would. If he had to put up with Imperial oppression, he might as well have some money to console him
Well, he still had a few days to decide about the mining venture. In the meantime, he was doing pretty well selling second-hand information. Karrde wasnt liable to be happy if he heard Lando was selling the information he bought, and Lando himself rather liked the guy, so he made a point of not cutting too much of a slice out of Karrdes market. By and large he confined his business operations to the Lucky Saber, a rather seedy underground cantina near Treasure Ship Row that did a brisk business outside of Karrdes usual circle. Hed made an arrangement with the barkeeper there; in return for a reasonable amount of credits, the fellow let him set up shop in one of the more secluded booths and referred any inquiring customers to Lando.
Given the clientele, though, these seedy underground cantinas didnt do any business worth mentioning in the day, and therefore neither did Lando. As he had nothing better to do this afternoon, and was still mulling over that pyrolanium proposition, Lando had plunked himself down in his booth anyway. He passed his time musing, making a couple fact-checking calls to the Bothan, and nursing a stout dose of whiskey until a pair of shadows and an eerily familiar young voice interrupted him.
Lando? somebody said excitedly.
Lando froze, and then slowly turned his head.
Standing there plain as day was Luke, the Jedi kid who had been tagging along with Han Solo all those months ago, whod been a whiz at dejarik and who, at last report, Han Solo had been storming off to Darth Vaders castle in order to rescue. He was a little older, but despite having been kidnapped by the single most feared Jedi killer in the galaxy seemed none the worse for wear.
Lando was entirely too floored to respond. How the nine hells had Solo pulled off a jail break from Darth Vaders house? He glanced around the cantina in disbeliefbut didnt see Solo anywhere. Standing at Lukes side, where that wild-brained teenaged Corellian ought to have been, was instead a girl, probably no older than Luke, with a long dark braid and big, somewhat alarmed dark eyes.
Who is this? she demanded in a low voice.
A friend of mine, Luke told her. Right? This last was addressed to Lando.
Uh, yeah, right, said he in a rush, finding his voice somehow. Uh, sit down, why dont you?
The two kids slid in the opposite side of the booth, the girl on the inside.
Didnt think Id see you again, Lando told Luke.
Luke did not respond with the sort of ecstatic grin youd expect from somebody whod achieved an impossible escape from certain death. He just looked up with haunted blue eyes, and a chill ran down Landos spine as he wondered what endured horrors had put that look there.
The bartender said youre selling information, he said instead, in a very serious voice.
Lando was yet again taken aback. Uh, yeah, thats right, he said, and then added quickly, but for you, no charge.
He flashed both kids his most winning grin, hoping to lighten the atmosphere, cheer Luke up, but whatever was bothering the boy was too serious to be so easily abated. He nodded his thanks, but didnt get any farther as the bar droid made its appearance.
Drinks on me, Lando said promptly. Jawa juice for you, right, kid?
Luke nodded again, looking just a tad less wound up. The kid really liked Jawa juice.
And how about you, honey, the same?
The dark-haired girl bestowed upon him a regal glare.
Bottled water, thank you, she said, rather loftily. Preferably sealed.
Lando raised his eyebrows, but relayed the order to the droid.
So, he said as the droid wheeled off, what sort of information do you want?
He was careful to be as professional as normalLuke was a sharp kid, and if he was looking for an information broker Lando was pretty sure he had a good reason.
I need you to find me a ship, the kid said.
He pried a crumpled flimsy out of his jumpsuit pocket and handed it over. Lando flipped it open and found a long list of numbersserial numbers, drive signatures, engine frequencies and emission stats, the whole bundle. On the reverse of the sheet were handwritten addendums, noting additional armaments, coloring, and so on. It wasnt long before Lando noticed a very critical fact.
This is an Imperial shuttle, he observed, as calmly as he could.
Lando blew out a long breath.
You never ask an easy question, do you?
Luke smiled, a slight smile, and one not very amused.
What, you cant do it?
Im not saying I cant, Lando retorted. I wont. If you want the itinerary for a Fleet ship, you have to hack into NavNet, and believe you me, thats a death sentence waiting to happen. Im not sticking my neck out that far for anybody.
Who said anything about NavNet? Luke fired back. Look at the schematics.
Lando reread the sheet more closely, and Luke leaned over to jab his finger at the scribbly handwriting.
Cannon placements, drop-down guns, cloaking shield, jacked frequencies, half-scrambled signatures. Thats not Navy standards and you know it.
Lando leaned back critically.
So you think somebody stole a lambda shuttle? he asked incredulously. Thatd be about as inconspicuous as stealing a Star Destroyer, kid.
Luke was interrupted mid-scowl by a new voice.
The two of them spun heads to the corner, where the dark-haired girl had spoken up.
You dont think it was Imperials who did it, then?
Lando stared. Who did what?
Luke sucked in a breath.
Whoever was on this shuttle kidnapped Han.
Lando stared for another second and then threw the flimsy down to the tabletop in disbelief, taking a long swig of his whiskey.
Boy, he said hoarsely, you two just get kidnapped left and right, dont you?
Luke rolled his eyes. Oh, like its my idea?
I asked a question first, thank you, the girl informed him, not sounding at all grateful.
I dont know who did it, Luke snapped, half under his breath.
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the server droid, with Lukes bulb of Jawa juice and the girls water bottle. Luke seized at the Jawa juice and the excuse to avoid further questioning from his feminine companion. Lando watched with sudden interest as the girl inspected her water bottle before twisting off the cap and sipping delicately out of it. Whoever or whatever else she might be, it was quite clear that she was no guttersnipe after the stamp of Han Soloand probably a good deal less common than anybody else of Landos acquaintance, too.
Why in the Empire would a girl like that be hanging around seedy black market cantinas with a miniature fugitive half-Jedi?
After a long silence, Luke finally spoke up.
Lando, the only way Im going to find Han is if I find that shuttle, he said firmly, eyes locked on the table top. I have to find him. He came back for me.
Lando fixed a stare on the kid until Luke raised his blue gaze to meet it.
Why would anybody kidnap your friend? he demanded.
Luke didnt back down. I dont know who did it.
Lando stared back for another solid minute before breaking it. All right.
Youll find the ship? This was from the girl.
I cant do it, he said, but I know a guy who can.
Luke grinned at him for the first time.
A couple other things, he said brightly.
Have you heard of a Master Yoda? the girl cut in.
Lando relaxed a little. Tracking down people was a few hells worth easier than sniffing out an Imperial starcraft, and generally a lot less threatening to his health.
Name sounds a bit familiar, he said, putting on some charm again. Ill see what I can find out.
And while youre at it, Luke added, theres another being were looking for.
Yeah, theres this homicidal green troll
Shifting. Scraping. A somewhat irritable sigh.
A tad confined in here, dont you think?
If you missed my point, that was more of a suggestion than an observation.
Patience, a virtue it is.
Pause. More scraping and shifting.
A suggestion also, that is.
Tangible sense of annoyance in the air
Unnecessary, this is!
My own counsel will I keep on what is necessary
A decidedly more irritable sigh. Somewhat longer pause.
You know, I was a council member.
On was, I believe the emphasis is.
Even more tangible sense of annoyance
Being as theres no council, your membership would also be past tense, I believe.
Dignified silence. Rather intense annoyance.
Could we at least move down to the cargo hold?
Incorporeal, you are. Bothered by physical constraints, you are not.
Well, no, but the view does get rather tedious after three days straight.
Beginning to sound like your Padawan, you are
Very exceedingly intense annoyance. Decided sense of amusement.
The negotiations with Organa were tediousthe sort of thing that had always been Padmés forte, and not that of her husband, regardless of whatever philosophical penchants he tended towards at any particular point in his life. Sick with dread though he was, Vader dared not rush anything as dire as this. The situation was already highly unpalatable, without his worsening it through inattention that the more experienced politician would surely seize to his own advantage. Though his insides seemed to twist with agony, he forced himself to see the ordeal calmly through its several hours.
For the discussion, if he could bring himself to term it such, did indeed take a great deal of time. Organa knew perfectly well what sort of deadly high wire he was treading, and was no more willing to rush the proceedings. The outside observer might almost have thought the atmosphere leisurely.
However, Vaders haste in returning to his flagship thereafternot to mention the rather grisly deaths that befell several unluckily positioned stormtroopers en routewould quickly have disabused any being of that notion. He barreled through the corridors of the ship, flattening passing personnel against the bulkheads with the sheer tangibility of his rage, and sealed himself within his inner sanctum, ordering the com suite to connect him to Miyr at Bast Castle.
But it was the haggard face of Captain Landre, and not that of his administrator, which appeared in the projection.
My lord, he acknowledged.
He did not seem particularly surprised. In fact, the only word for his expression was resigned
Explain, Vader demanded sharply.
Never before had Landre demonstrated anything to him save impeccable professionalism and competency. Those qualities were not now lackingbut they had been joined by something Vader had not witnessed from him before.
To his creditdepending on his next words, possibly the last bit of credit Vader would ever attribute to the manLandre steeled his shoulders and responded as professionally as ever.
My lord, there has been a significant incident.
Vader waited in black silence.
An unknown spacecraft, possibly two, penetrated both system and castle security undetected, and proceeded to infiltrate the building.
How far did this infiltration advance? Vader hissed softly.
To the confines of the uppermost floor, Landre answered him. The intruders have escaped, with the exception of one, currently being interrogated. Several of my troops were killed, and the administrator has suffered mild injuries.
Brave man though he was, he paused and swallowed before adding a final sentence.
My lord, I am unable to locate the occupants of Wings Three and Four.
They were gone.
Such a thing was beyond conception. His support systems audio suite was clearly malfunctioning. Perhaps he had inadvertently slipped into meditation and was simply imagining this entire conversation.
The shock of it numbed him for a few seconds and let his reason continue to function. By that tenuous thread of rationality alone, Captain Landre clung to life when Vaders anger finally surged past the shock, so cold it burned and so burning it froze.
For such an apocalyptic, unequalled, eternally unforgivable failure as this, the thread of logic told him, his anger must wait until its object was physically within his reach. No Rebel that had ever fallen into his merciless hands had been made to wish for death so fervently as would Landre before the end. Strangulation from a distance was far, far too good for the man. He would wait, and he would enjoy this.
In the hologram, Landre finally spoke. My lord?
Vader stared at his captains image in raging silence. He should have killed the man the day Han Solo contrived to break into the castle.
My lord, is the audio coming through?
I hear you, Captain, he hissed, unfortunately for your sake. Consider this your final failure as commander of my security forces.
Landres expression grew even more resigned. I will continue the investigation of the incident until you arrive, my lord.
The investigation would meet with better success if you assigned it to droid, Vader suggested acidly. They, at least, may be depended upon to fulfill their duties.
Landre took it silently, without flinching. As well he should. Not that his penitence would avail him anything.
Continue, Vader finally snapped after several seconds of dead silence.
We have not been able to ascertain the number of intruders, Landre continued shakily. At a minimum, there were two. As I said, we have one of them in custody. At least one unauthorized ship departed under a cloaking shield from the restricted zone planetside. I strongly suspect that there were two ships. Im afraid this is where it becomes incomprehensible, my lord.
He waited in stony silence.
We would not have known any ships were departing, but one opened fire.
That was indeed incomprehensible. Despite his black rage Vader mused. What would have possessed a safely cloaked ship to fire and reveal its presence?
The ship did not open fire on Imperial craft, my lord. It appeared to be targeting another cloaked craft. Our craft opened fire on the intruder and was able to destroy its cloaking shield. It was a YV-series freighter, I believe, although heavily modified. Our TIE squadrons moved in as soon as the target was visible, but the freighter jumped into hyperspace. We believe it was on a vector for the Corellian Trade Route. I have transmitted an alert to our forces in that region.
Landre paused. My staff has suggested that there may have been two separate intruding parties with the same target, possibly bounty hunters. In that case, my lord, I would be forced to assume that the missing persons were not on the ship that was seen.
And what have you learned from the prisoner? Vader demanded coldly.
I have only had the chance for a preliminary interrogation thus far. I only recently received the background checks from my intelligence staff. Whoever he is, my lord, he is not the Alderaanian Jax Andru, as he claims. Were running a full-scale database search at the moment. We only have image and genetic data, so Im afraid the parameters are very wide.
Show me the image, Vader ordered him tersely.
Luckily, Landre did not keep him waiting. Vader was not sure he could have refrained from slaughtering the man then and there if the officer had not been prompt.
In another moment the image of a wiry, haggard man hanging in a stasis field appeared on a second holoprojector. Vader was instantly struck by the sensation that he had seen him beforebut it was not until the image had nearly rotated the entire way around that he saw the damning lock of blond hair laid out starkly against the dark.
In a split second, his raw, brutal rage alighted from the doom-countenanced Landre and dug its savage claws into the man in the hologramand beyond, to a certain blue-tinged, ethereal memory.
Kenobi, he snarled.
That man is Ferus Olin. Vader stood slowly, gaze never leaving the rotating hologram of the man in the stasis field. You will find him listed in the database of Jedi remaining at large.
Landre jerked. A Jedi.
Captain, Vader said slowly, make very sure that he does not escape.
What methods do you suggest, my lord?
Call in the interrogators.
Make sure they paralyze his larynx beforehand, Vader added coldly. I do not wish our conversations to be delayed in waiting for his voice to heal from excessive screaming.
As you wish, my lord, the captain said quickly.
Somewhere on the outskirts of a city whose name nobody was allowed to know, there towered an abandoned skyscraper, which nobody cared about, and with good reason. It was an ancient structure, an unappetizing leftover from earlier times. The power, though surprisingly still functional, was primitive and inefficient. The windows, pre-transparisteel contrivances, were all either cracked or completely blown out, rendering the crude climate control systems utterly useless. All the rooms inside, offices and apartments alike, had been plundered by scavengers so thoroughly that only frayed edges of carpet and worthless debris remained behind.
It was unequivocally the last place one would expect to find an expansive, well-lit office filled to the brim with military-grade computers and communications suites, sealed behind a security system that could have repelled an orbital bombing assault. But with his computers humming around him and his holographic displays hard at work, the agent Baranne appeared completely oblivious to the unexpectedness of it all.
The center of the room boasted a vast display that would have done a military briefing room proud, and Baranne was hard at work over it, analyzing his latest collection of images. Yet another media holo was under the scrutiny of his sharp gray eyesa generic shot of the Senate in session, taken some time before the start of the Clone Wars. The agent currently had it magnified and was working his way down the forty-sixth row from the bottom of the chamber, checking every face as he went.
Recognizing Senator Chem Tastree from Chandrila, he quickly scrolled the magnified image up to the fifty-ninth row. The Naboo delegations box, as he knew very well by now, was located nearly on the opposite side of the chamber from Chandrila, and would not be in the image. However, as Baranne also knew, the Alderaanian delegation was to the upper right of Chandrilaand he couldnt count the number of times hed hit the jackpot looking there.
This, however, was not one of those times. Neither Padmé Amidala nor Bail Organa was to be seen in Alderaans box. Baranne calmly removed the image from his collection and went on to the next one, which was nearly identical. Before he could do much scanning along that forty-sixth row, however, the com suite chimed and lit up.
He strode quickly over, brushing past stacks of flimsies and datapads, and punched in his passcode. Lord Vaders ominous hulk immediately appeared.
My lord, he acknowledged quickly. His mind spun furiously. It was very rare for Vader to call him here at his work station. What could Vader want?
Place your current work on hold, the dark lord ordered tersely. I require your services elsewhere.
Certainly, my lord.
Proceed to the Corellian Trade Route and begin searching for a YV-series freighter, Vader continued.
Baranne smiled wryly at the faint sense of déjà vu. Hadnt it been just yesterday hed been scouring the galaxy for a similar freighter?
Then a second holo suddenly flicked on, sent from Vader, and Barannes smile froze as he recognized the person shown.
Blond. Blue-eyed. Somewhat on the short side. There was no mistaking himit was the self-same Jedi boy that Baranne had spent nine months chasing down in the wake of the debacle on Corellia.
The boy was still alive?
Find him, Vader said. Quietly. Return him to me unharmed, along with anyone accompanying him, regardless of age, species, or gender.
Im on my way, my lord.
For all that he applied his mind to the puzzle, Ferus had yet to devise a way of getting himself out of the stasis field. Without knowing where the generator was, he had no hope of switching it off via the Force. He could, of course, use the Force to rid himself of the magnetic cuffsbut if anything, theyd turned the stasis field power up since that officer had visited. The cuffs were nothing more than a backup measure; slipping out of them would not help him get out of the field. So he left them, the better to allay suspicion that he was anything more extraordinary than a bounty hunter. There had been no mention of his lightsaber thus far; hopefully either Leia or Luke Solo had taken it.
Had he been capable of moving enough, Ferus would have sighed. Of course, hard evidence was not the only thing that might convict him. He knew perfectly well that although any of his aliases would stand up to the usual superficial check and perhaps even a little farther, they would quickly collapse under determined investigation. That officer was going to be back sooner or later, waving damning documentation under his nose. Unless he could find some ingenious way to weasel out of it, something very unpleasant would be in store for him.
Clearly, they werent going to buy another alias, and there was no excuse he could give, so Ferus would have to resort to mind-wiping the man. He didnt like it. The officer was not some run-of-the-mill, brainwashed stormtrooper. He was a commander, and a sharp onenot the sort that was susceptible to mental persuasion. It would take every ounce of effort and concentration Ferus could muster. And even if he managed it, Vader was going to show up sooner or later and realize what had been done to his officer. Whether Ferus was gone by then or not, Vader would still be on the scent of a Jedi, as implacable as a krakana that had scented blood.
Ferus stared blankly through the wall ahead of him at the moment. Maybe it would be better to simply accept his fate here. Vader was unrelenting, tireless. Ferus had watched from the sidelines as dozens of Jedi exhausted themselves in running from him, only to find themselves at a literal dead end. Why should it be any different for him?
No! You cant just give up like this!
He set his jaw grimly, thrust the defeatist thoughts from his mind. He would accept death when it came to him, but simply rolling over at the first impasse was not the Jedi way. He was going to do whatever he could to get himself out of this. He had the princess to live for
The door hissed open at his back, and when the field had finished rotating Ferus found himself face to face with the steel-eyed officer. Resolved, Ferus began marshaling all the strength he had, summoning the Force to his aid
Good day, Ferus Olin.
In a single instant, his concentration was shattered.
How had they found out so quickly? A database search took longer than that! Besides, he shouldnt even have been in the Imperial database!
Surprised? the captain observed with satisfaction. Apparently, Jedi, your face is quite well known to Lord Vader.
Vader then it was now or never. Fiercely Ferus rallied his thoughts backhe had to do this quickly, decisively, before
The door slid open, disrupting his concentration once more as two more Imperials entered. He glanced for a moment at them, but his attention was quickly drawn to the black sphere hovering behind them, emitting a low, ominous hum.
Gentlemen, the captain said with dangerous pleasantry. Would you be so kind as to make Lord Vaders guest at home?
The foremost officer turned to Ferus with a cold smile. Our pleasure, captain.
The black spherical droid began to slowly wade towards him through the air as the captain murmured something to the officer, drawing inexorably closer to Ferus immobilized form. The door ground shut behind the captains back.
Serenity, he repeated to himself shakily. There is no passion there is serenity there is no passion
He tried to take his mind back beyond the years and hear Master Siri, slowly chanting to him the words of the Code. But her voice was so dim, so far away
The field suddenly rotated him down, until he was stretched out on his back. The first of the black-uniformed officers stepped up with a long needle gripped in his hand like a knife, reaching towards his neck. The droid eased up next to his ear, the humming deafening. Fear exploded in the back of his mind.
The nine hells there wasnt passion.
In Coronet City
Sure, Hangar 1138 was the most rundown of all the docks on the Strip. And in this section of the Strip, that was saying something. He didnt care. In fact, he preferred it that way. Meant less bother. Less shooting. Less of a trail that he had to handle. Usually trails werent much of a problem for a bounty hunter, but this was a special case.
He made a quick stop by the med cabin of the shuttle on his way out, took a moment to check the cryo chambers readouts. It wouldnt be good for his bank account if something happened to the merchandise; and considering who was interested in the merchandise, probably not beneficial for his health either. The readouts were satisfactory, both in his estimation and that of the med droid hed activated to keep tabs on the merchandise.
He suited up and continued down the ramp without stopping to check the crew cabin, where hed locked up the bonuses. The spare med droid was on duty in there, they werent getting out anytime soon, and they were expendable anyway. He fitted his helmet on, checked the charge and stats on his arm blaster, marched out, sealed and locked the ramp of the shuttle, and continued out of the hangar with a purposeful, military stride.
His pace did not abate for a whole fifty blocks, nor did he take one of the public transports. He barreled down the Strip, and what crowd there was parted before him all along his path between Hangar 1138 and the much more prestigious and secure Hangar 1188.
The guard at the entrance swallowed and stepped out of his way. As did everyone else in the hangar, although the proprietor attempted to approach him and had to be waved away with the credit chip containing his payment for the use of the hangar. This accomplished he wasted no further time boarding the oddly constructed ship that occupied the center of the hangar, surrounded by a bastion of security sensors that would have cooked anyone else without a second thought.
A relief to be back aboard. No matter how you modified a lambda shuttle, it was still a lambda. The best star pilot in the galaxy couldnt make one of the wretched things fly worth a bucket of Hutt slime in combat. This, on the other hand, was a ship. He ran a fond hand over one bulkhead on his way to the cockpit. In everything else, he was the consummate bounty hunter, objective and relentlessly amoral but he wouldnt care to lose this ship, and not just because it would be a colossal inconvenience.
He went to the cockpit and checked his systems. Everything in perfect working order. Everything on his ship was always in perfect working order; any other state of affairs was asking for trouble. He made trouble for other people. Not himself.
Now. Logistics. The lockups in the cargo bay would be just fine for holding the bonuses once he got them moved over, but the merchandise itself would require some special treatment, as his ship didnt have a cryo chamber. At any other time, hed simply use stun or drug treatment and keep it in another lockup, but according to what hed heard this merchandise was uniquely enabled. He was hardly ignorant about the sorts of talents such beings might have, but there was no telling which of them this particular specimen might have in his arsenal, and he didnt fancy his knowledge to be exhaustive in any case.
The cryo chamber had been an excellent restraint technique thus far. Best to stick with what you knew worked. Hed talk to his contacts and have them install the necessary equipment. Nowait. Special case. Best to avoid the usual contacts. If memory served himwhich it did, like everything else at his disposalthere was a cantina near Treasure Ship Row that had some lesser-known information brokers working out of it, including someone with connections in Nar Shaddaa, according to the latest rumors. The Lucky Saber. Hed start there.
From within the safety of the shadows, and even though it was a most un-princess-like thing to do, Leia scowled at the rowdy bar patrons. She didnt like this place. It was low, it was filthy, everybody was rude, everybody was hauling weapons and glaring suspiciously at everybody else. She would rather have been back in the palace garden on Alderaan talking to Darth Vader. She would even rather have been in that teensy little mud hut in the middle of the swamp.
Leia suppressed another pang of guilt when she thought about Ferus. She hoped he was all right. She hoped hed gotten away.
But the logical part of her mind knew he probably wasnt and hadnt.
She glared a little at Luke to take out her frustration. He was studying a datapad and didnt see her. He seemed to be right at home here. Maybe he was. He talked like hed been here before. What did she know?
Nothing. That was what she hated most. She was in a whole new universe and all of a sudden, Leia didnt know anything at all.
Had Han felt this way in the palace on Alderaan?
Luke glanced sideways at her. We can go back to the room if you want.
Startled, and a bit unnerved, she shook her head. She had yet to get used to Lukes habit of answering her thoughts; it always reminded her of Vader. Hed done that to her once too.
Well. Considering that Luke was Vaders son, maybe she shouldnt be all that surprised.
She still hadnt gotten over that.
Luke glared back at her from his datapad.
Like its my fault, he muttered.
Leia slumped over the table with a sigh, resting her chin on her elbow and studying the way the light reflected through her water bottle. She wished she dared eat something in this cantina. So far theyd only eaten old Imperial ration cartons up in Landos room, or standard rations back on the ship. Leia was starting to miss real food. Dimly she wondered what time it was back on Alderaan, and whether her parents would be having dinner, and whether they were thinking about her, and whether they had any idea where she was.
She didnt think they would be too happy if they knew. A big, scar-faced man wearing a motley conglomeration of stormtrooper and bounty hunter armor came in the main entrance, toting a particularly lethal-looking blaster on one arm. They really wouldnt be happy. Leia watched him despondently, warily, until a shadow crossed their table.
It was Lando, and he was grinning ear to ear. Luke dropped the datapad and sat up straighter. You found it?
Wordlessly, Lando handed him a datachip. Youre in luck. The Strip, Hangar 1138.
Luke grinned brightly, and so did Leia. Maybe it was all almost over. Maybe they would find Han and Lukes little sisters and everything would go back to the way it used to be.
Neither of them saw the man with the scars and arm blaster stiffen where he sat at the bar.
Lando, youre the best, Luke told him.
Lando flashed them a charming smile. Leia was not impressed.
What about Master Yoda? she demanded. What did you find out?
Lando frowned, dropped his voice to a whisper. Did you two know he was a Jedi Master?
Leia nodded impatiently for both of them.
He threw up his hands. Sweetheart, if the Emperor cant find him, I guarantee you I cant. All I could find out was that hes on the top of the list of Jedi at large and the Empires been trying to hunt him down ever since Order 66.
Leia felt her stomach sink a little. Nobody, it seemed, had any idea where Yoda could have gone. Not even Ferus.
Well, she pressed, what about the troll?
Lando perked up. Now, that is the interesting thing. Check out this image of Yoda, I got it off a wanted poster.
Luke and Leia leaned forward over the datapad he extendedLuke suddenly gasped and grabbed the pad from Lando, staring at it with his mouth wide open.
No way what? Leia demanded. She saw nothing remarkable about the picture.
That looks just like the green troll!
Leia stared at the picture with renewed interest. Maybe theyre the same.
Luke shook his head furiously. They must just be the same species.
Look, maybe youre wrong
That troll tried to kill me, Luke hissed under his breath.
Leia saw his point and sat back, dropping the issue. Obviously, no Jedi would have tried to kill Luke.
Still some subversive part of her refused to chalk this up to coincidence. There must be a connection between the two!
Well, Lando shrugged, other than that, nothing on the green troll. I did track down a couple of species that I thought might fit your description, but none of them looked like that picture, and according to the records I could find nobody knows what species Yoda is.
Thats okay, Luke said firmly. Cmon, lets go.
He grabbed Leias hand and pulled her out of the booth towards to door.
You two stay out of trouble, huh? Lando called after them.
Leia scowled at him just before Luke towed her out of the cantina and into the streets. But just outside the cantina, Luke suddenly froze and stared back at the door.
What is it? she demanded. We need to get to
Luke leaned against the wall of the cantina, staring into the distance straight through it. Leia couldnt hear a thing except the usual uproar. But finally Luke stepped back away, though he still cast a funny glance at the cantina.
Thought I sensed something, he muttered.
Leia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She hoped that if someone ever started teaching her about the Force, she didnt wind up being this weird.
Lando settled back in the booth, casting a lingering glance at the door. He didnt like to admit it, but he was a bit worried about those two, running around the undersides of Coronet by themselves. They seemed awfully young to him but, he reminded himself, Luke was used to this sort of thing, kid seemed to thrive on it, and that girl seemed to be a pretty tough sort herself. Ah, theyd probably be just fine. If Vader didnt faze Luke, probably nothing short of the Emperor could. He should just be glad hed tracked down that shuttle without sticking his own neck out far enough to be noticed. Too bad about Han, but the kid seemed to have things under control, and in any case, Han had been the one whod made him jump off the Falcons landing ramp from five meters, so he would just forget about and get back to considering his pyrolanium mine propositionthat Bothan wanted an answer by the end of the day.
He slipped the datapad back in his pocket, dumped some change on the table for a tip, deciding to go see the Bothan right now and get a few more questions answered before he made up his mindhe was pretty sure he wanted to go ahead with itbut a heavy hand suddenly forced him back down in his seat.
Lando swallowed as he looked up and saw an imposing human scowling down at him. The man was decked out in motley armor, some stolen from stormtroopers and some from who knew where, sporting a heavy-duty arm blaster and a nasty collection of scars across a face that looked oddly familiar. Youre not going anywhere, the man informed him pleasantly.
Lando forced a smile. Maybe this was the guys idea of politely asking to do business. Oh, suuuure, Calrissian, two chances of that slim and none, and we all know what happened to slim
Sure, he said, pouring on the charm, or at least as much of it as he could muster. I take it youre interested in some information. My specialty.
So Ive heard, said the other, his smile humorless.
He sat down on the other side of the booth.
Can I get you something to drink? Lando asked, starting up out of the booth
He sat down very quickly as the blaster was leveled at him.
Not thirsty, said his uninvited guest.
Right, Lando agreed. He spotted the girls abandoned water bottle and grabbed it, hoping to ease some of the dryness in his throat. So, he said after several swallows, what might you be interested in?
Youre going to tell me all about that little conversation you just had with your little friends, the other said, grinning cheerfully.
I, uh, I dont know what youre talking about
Lets start with Hangar 1138. He reached out with his other hand and shifted the setting on his blaster to kill.
Lando got the point very quickly, and just as quickly decided that his conscience could be assuaged by pleading duress.
Theyre, theyre looking for some ship, he said quickly. I said Id find it for them, thats it, I dont know whose ship it is!
And who might they be?
Lando couldnt place the guys accent to save his life.
I, I dont knowthe guy lurched across the table and hauled him up by the collarLuke, the kids name is Luke! I dont know anything else, man!
He stared into what must be the eyes of death for what felt like roughly forever before the guy let him go.
And theyre looking for this ship because?
He said his friend got kidnapped, Lando said hoarsely, grabbing the water bottle again.
The guy settled back and eyed him while he drank. Lando thought he was going to start sweating bullets if that stare didnt move somewhere else in the near future. He wiped his mouth off shakily.
You got any more questions? he demanded, half furious, half terrified.
Sure, the other said pleasantly. Any idea where I can get a cryo chamber on short notice?
Baranne had not considered the options for very long before settling on Corellia as the first place to look. Firstly, it was the most significant system on the Corellian Trade Route; nearly all traffic stopped here at some point or other. Secondly, it had been Corellia on which the debacle involving this boy first erupted. The laws of psychology firmly indicated that the boy called Luke Skywalker, if that was in fact his name, would feel compelled to return to Ground Zero. And so he docked his ship in the Strip of Coronet and immediately set up shop in the planetary base.
Now, scarcely an hour later, he was threading his way down an alley just off of Treasure Ship Row, aiming his steps towards a familiar cantina not much further away, and shaking his flabbergasted head at his own incredible good luck. He prided himself on his instincts when it came to tracking down suspects, but never before had his instincts hit the jackpot on the very first try. Once at the base, hed drawn up the records from the Kenobi investigation and scanned the list of involved locations. The first name hed picked had been the Lucky Saber cantina. A few minutes of security footage had done the rest.
Overhead, Baranne had doubled the Imperial patrol and placed it on red alert; there were also several troopers in plainclothes tailing him. According to plan, hed be able to enter the cantina alone and scope the place out quietly. Going by the footage, Luke had left the cantina just fifteen minutes ago, and had made frequent visits over the last few days. Provided that Baranne caused no disturbances, he had every reason to expect that the boy would do so again. He would examine the layout of the building and casually talk to some of the patrons. Hopefully, there would still be several beings within who had seen the boy, possibly even spoken with him. He might be able to get some more specific leads on Lukes whereabouts, which would serve him well should Luke decide it was too risky to return once more to the cantina.
Accordingly, the agent had donned a nondescript jumpsuit and jacket, and was making his unobtrusive way down the alley to the cantina entrance. Just as he walked in the door, he was nearly bowled over by fearsome character decked out in mismatched bits of armor, some of them clearly parts of stormtrooper armor. But it was not the motley ensemble that caught his shrewd attentionit was the mans very familiar face.
Extremely familiar face. In fact, Baranne was sure that he had seen a couple million just like it all around the galaxy.
The man did not pay him any attention, but Baranne stepped back outside the door and watched him from behind as he plowed down the street. He had a keen eye for the unusual, and a clone soldier gone solo was most definitely unusual.
Making a mental note to follow up on it, the agent put the misplaced clone out of thought for the present and proceeded into the cantina. He quickly glanced towards the booth where Luke had been sitting, and felt a surge of triumph when he saw that the dark-skinned man who had kept Luke company in the security footage was still sitting there.
Lord Vaders Force was, clearly, very much with him today.
Baranne immediately crossed the crowded, dark room and sat himself down in the booth opposite him.
I understand youre an information broker, he said cheerfully.
That much had been very obvious from the security footage; and besides that, there was something about the mans demeanor.
The dark-skinned man stared at him, his expression a cross between surprise and dismay and relief and fading fear and renewing fear and guilt and self-defense and well, just about any distressed emotion Baranne could think of.
He wondered vaguely if it had anything at all to do with Luke well, hed soon find out.
Yeah, the man said, swallowing a drink of water from his depleted bottle. Yes, I am.
He dredged up an effort at a charming smile, but it didnt overcome his general state of dismay, which remained painfully obvious.
Excellent, Baranne said, waving the bar droid over. As it happens, Im looking for someone, whom I think youve seen recently.
The dark-skinned man stared at him for exactly one second longer, and then bolted up out of the boothonly to be intercepted by one of Barannes backup men. The undercover trooper neatly set the information broker back down in the booth with a patronizing pat on the shoulder and meandered over to the bar. Baranne kept smiling pleasantly at him. The broker returned a bleak stare.
A young man, thirteen years old, blond, blue eyes, Baranne continued. Answers to Luke?
I dont know what youre talking about, the broker said dully.
His hunch had been correct; that distressed response of just a few seconds ago certainly had something to do with Luke Skywalker.
Oh, I think you do, Baranne objected. As a matter of fact I just saw you talking to him a few minutes ago on the security cameras.
He pulled out his pocket projector and played a clip of relevant footage.
The brokers face fell promptly.
Why do you want to know? he muttered.
Im with Corellian Family Services, Baranne lied smoothly. He produced the badge hed fabricated for just such a purpose on his last investigation into Lukes whereabouts. Luke ran away from one of our facilities several months ago and weve been trying to recover him ever since. City Surveillance just sent my office a sighting alert. Its vitally important to society to get these children off the street and into a stable, safe environment. Surely you can understand that, Mr ?
Calrissian, said he, looking no less dubious than before.
Calrissian, Baranne repeated. Well, Mr. Calrissian, I certainly wouldnt want to be the one responsible for withholding information on the whereabouts of a state ward. The Imperial legal system doesnt look kindly on the obstruction of orphans rights.
Unfortunately, Calrissian seemed to have worked up a bit of nerve.
I got news for you, pal, he snorted. This is Corellia. Street rats rights are pretty low on the list of Imperial priorities.
Baranne paused a second, and then leaned over the table and spoke in a low voice. Then let me put this another way, Mr. Calrissian. The Empire also doesnt look kindly on fraternization with enemies of the regime. As it currently stands, Mr. Calrissian, youre guilty of protecting a Jedi. Now unless you want to tell me what you know about Luke, Im going to have you reported, arrested, and executed for high tr
Hangar 1138, Calrissian blurted out angrily. Hes looking for a friend of his, who got kidnapped, and supposedly the ship his friend is on is in Hangar 1138 on the Strip. I swear, thats all I know!
Baranne searched his eyes evenly for a second, and nodded. The man wasnt lyinghe was too much of a self-preservationist for that.
Thank you, Mr. Calrissian, he said cheerfully. We at Corellian Family Services appreciate your cooperation.
Luke was a bit surprised to discover that he did, in fact, remember Hangar 1138. It was the same hangar that he and Obi-Wan had landed in when they first arrived on Corellia, almost three years ago. Where hed first met Han.
Was this one of those Force-coincidence-except-not-things that Obi-Wan had always talked about?
Maybe hed ask his father about it later.
Assuming his father didnt throw him a maximum security cell for the rest of his life once he caught up with Luke. After what hed been up to as of recentblowing up castle equipment, sending out warning transmissions illegally, wrecking the dueling salle, hacking through walls, shooting down TIE pilots, and running halfway across the galaxy without permissionlessons on metaphysics probably werent going to be at the top of his fathers lecture list.
Why are we stopping? Leia hissed in his ear.
Luke shook his head. Just, um, thinking.
About the plan for getting Han and your sisters?
More about how my fathers probably gonna kill me.
Leia scowled at him; he could just barely see it through the shadows they were hunkered in.
Can we not think about that, please?
I didnt mean it literally, he hissed back.
You hope, she retorted, hefting her blaster. Luke winced.
You can shoot that thing, right?
Now she was giving him that really-annoyed look again. He bet if he could see under his fathers mask, that was the sort of expression hed see whenever Han was mouthing off.
I had weapons instruction from a martial arts master back home, she told him for about the umpteenth time. Of course I can shoot a blaster. Just so long as you know what youre doing.
Luke glared back at her. Trust me, its not like securitys really tight around this dive. He gestured at the dilapidated hangar across the street. Leia raised her eyebrows. Well sneak in through the back, scope it out from the bunkroom, and make a run for the ship. We stun anybody who shows up, find Han and my sisters, and run for it. No problem.
It was the same plan that theyd come up with when they left the cantina and stopped by their freighter to find some extra blastersjust in case.
What if that green troll shows up?
Ive got myself shielded. He cant sense me.
In the Force! He cant find me in the Force!
He can do that?
Luke nodded in exasperation. For crying out loud, I can do it.
What if he finds me?
Im shielding you too.
Leia relaxed a little. Oh. You sure?
Yes, he snapped. How come you never trust me?
If I never trusted you, I wouldnt be here, she pointed out.
Luke had to agree with that point. Cautiously, he scanned the area between them and the hangar one more time. But he didnt see anything suspicious; just typical passersby, most of them your average local scum. As long as neither of them bothered anybody, there was nothing to worry about.
I think its clear. Lets go.
The two of them slipped out from under their awning and wove their way across the street, around the side of the hangar towards the crumbling wall in the back.
No place for a child, this is, Yoda commented disapprovingly under his breath.
Shrouded in his Jedi cloak, hood flung completely over his head and triangular ears, Obi-Wan rather thought the diminutive master looked far less like a Jedi than he did a Jawa. Which was as wellif Jawas were not exactly common in Coronet, they nonetheless attracted much less undesirable attention than a Jedi Master would.
Luke knows his way around the Strip, he responded absently. We were certainly here often enough.
In the company of adults, he was then, Yoda retorted, as fiercely as he could while still whispering. Wise, you think it is, for two younglings to wander here?
I didnt say it was wise, Obi-Wan defended.
A fearsomely tattooed Zabrak stalked past them, wielding a vibroshiv conspicuously; he reminded Obi-Wan more than a little of that Sith he had battled on Naboo, all those years ago. No, indeedthe sooner they got Luke and Leia safely away from this shifting, dangerous place the better.
Of course, he continued, they would not be here alone if you would simply reveal yourself to them.
Uncertain of the boys reaction, I am. Wait for the correct time, we must. Patience, young Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan, had he been in his corporeal ghostly form at that moment, would have bristled in a very Han Solo-ish fashion at such condescension. Unable to respond with anything like a proper tone of respect, he simply nodded his head. He would be cursed if he would go about making sarcastic responses to Jedi Masters like the second incarnation of Anakin Skywalker.
Are you sure you know what direction hes heading? he said instead. Hes shielding his presence very well.
Yes, yes, Yoda agreed, swerving around a staggering, obviously drunk Rodian, impressive, his abilities are. Shielding two, he is. Very advanced, very advanced. Taught him this well, you did.
Thank you, Obi-Wan returned, pleasantly surprised by the sudden compliment.
But strong enough to hide from me, he is not, the Jedi Master continued. More experienced, I am. Find him I can, yes.
Obi-Wan shook his head in bewilderment. He himself could not discern Lukes whereabouts, not even the faintest glimmer of his bright Force aura; he very much doubted either of the Sith could do better. Yoda was indeed unrivaled in his mastery of the ways of the Force.
Further down the Strip, he is, Yoda informed him in a low voice. Near
He stopped mid-sentence, mid-stride, his ears perking up alertly beneath his hoodand then he sped forward much more quickly than before.
In danger, the twins are, the Jedi Master announced tersely. Quick we must be.
Engage Operation Rat Trap, Plan A-sub-a, Baranne ordered into his comlink in a low voice.
He had just had enough time to scope out the vicinity of Hangar 1138, and had stationed his men secretly around the area, most of them undercover in plainclothes, weapons concealed. The patrol fighters overhead had sent him scans of the interior of the hangar, and the commander of the stormtrooper squad had quickly formulated several variations on the newly-conceived Operation Rat Trap. Just recently, in quick succession, all of his lookouts had reported sighting a blond boy, accompanied by a dark-haired girl; Baranne had just confirmed the boys identity with his own eyes, from where he was haggling with a street vendor over juba fruit prices. The two of them had slipped surreptitiously down the alley, towards the back of the building, no doubt planning to sneak in through the breaks in the wall.
Exactly as he had anticipated.
He broke off his bogus negotiations with the fruit vendor and meandered innocently after the two down the alley. By the time the fugitive children reached the back of the hangar, they would be surrounded by his men.
He had Luke Skywalker in his net as surely as the galaxy spun.
Luke and Leia rushed down the alley, sticking to the shadows on the sides, until they turned the corner around the back of the hangar. The street was a bit wider than an alleyway here, more room for movement and breathing; Luke was relieved to note that the hangars on the other side were staggered, so that there was another alley coming to a T-intersection at the middle of the back wall of Hangar 1138. Should someone start firing at them, they would have someplace to run instead of just straight ahead.
Where are we going? Leia asked tensely.
Luke pointed ahead. Theres a break in the wall, right up there. We can slip in through there, and I think the bunkroom will be not too far to the left of that.
Youre sure nobody saw us?
Nobody who cares, Luke assured her. Come on, we dont want to waste time.
Please, Han, please still be there!
Hed come straight back to the hangar after getting the broker to arrange the immediate delivery of the portable cryo unit. Checked all the security recordings. No sign of the blonde kid. Luke, that was the name. Good. Time to set up some contingency plans. Probably it would be a good idea to catch him alive, stash him with the other bonuses. There was always a chance his employer would be interested. And if notwell, nothing lost. In any case, he couldnt let this Luke character go running around free, not when the kid seemed to know something about his activities. Special case; his employer wanted this to be completely under the radar. No trail.
The broker was fast, lucky for him. The cryo unit was only fifteen minutes behind him. Almost impressive. He paid the deliverer and had the med droid transfer the merchandise into the new unit, once he was satisfied it was completely functional. The hired speeder van was already waiting; he didnt waste any time loading the cryo unit into it and securing it in a carefully padded cargo cubicle. Once the merchandise was secured, he headed back to the shuttle for the bonuses.
Which was when the sensor alarm received strapped to his wrist went off.
Blast! That boy was good.
Somehow, Barannes men hadnt been quite fast enough to stop Luke Skywalker before he wormed his way into the hangar, his brunette girlfriend in tow. No doubt about it, that boy could vanish into the woodwork quite spectacularly. Wellit was not as though the plan was no longer salvageable. With a few hastily barked orders into the com, he redistributed his men so as to cover all possible exits from the hangar, and put a call in to the planetary base calling for immediate reinforcement. According to the scans from the TIEs, there werent any subterranean exits; Luke would have to come out sooner or later.
Even if he flew out, there were fighter patrols standing by; more than a match for a lambda shuttle, even if a Jedi was at the helm.
Theyd catch the boy on his way out, even if they were spread a little more thinly.
Leias breath came in exhilarated gasps. Theyd actually done it! They had snuck into the hangar and were now aboard the mysterious shuttle she had last seen on Vjun, all without being seen by anyone. There were plenty of crevices and shadowy nooks to hide in aboard the dimly lit ship. Now all they had to do was find Han and Lukes sisters.
How hard could that be? It wasnt a big ship.
They had split up to cover both halves of the main deck. Leia had been past a few cabins now without seeing anything, but as she stretched upward to peer through the third, she caught her breath in excitement.
There, slumped on a bunk inside the cabin and gazing dolefully at the med droid standing guard, were two very adorable little girls. Leia quickly scrambled to find Luke, keeping a sharp eye for whoever the enemy was.
I found them!
They dashed silently back to the crew cabin, and Luke switched on his hissing blue lightsaber, slicing through the lock on the door.
The med droid spun, and made a screech of protest, but Luke cut it down instantly. As it collapsed, the two little girls on the bunk catapulted out of the shadows onto their brother, fright warring delight in their eyes.
Das Luke, das Luke, its Luke!
Whos dat, Luke, whos her?
Shhh! Luke hissed quickly. The bad guys are still out there somewhere, we gotta be quiet, okay?
They immediately quieted down.
But whos her? one of the very cute little girls whispered to him.
This is my friend, Leia. Shes gonna help us get away, okay?
They stared dubiously at Leia for a few seconds before nodded reluctantly. Akay.
Sandra, Leias gonna carry you, Luke said, pushing one of the identical twins towards her.
Leia picked up Sandra, trying not to stare. How on earth could such cute little baby girls be related to Darth Vader?
Her Aunt Celly would coo and fuss over these two for hours if they ever visited Alderaan. She shifted Sandra on her hip and gripped her blaster a little more tightly, determined not to let anything hurt her new acquaintance. Maybe she was Darth Vaders daughter, but she was still just an innocent little girl whod been kidnapped. And that was wrong, and Leia was going to do something about it.
She almost hoped she would get a shot at whoever had scared them.
Luke reached down and picked up the other twin.
Cmon, Sara, he said. Keep quiet, okay? Were gonna try to find Han.
Sara snuggled up against Luke, still looking frightened. Kay, she whispered.
Leia felt Sandras tiny arms tighten around her neck, and she glanced down into the toddlers wide blue eyes. Cmon, Sandra, she said, and went ahead of Luke out the door
She screamed. The man from the cantina stood right in front of her, the one with all the scars and the mismatched, carbon-scored armor. And he was pointing his huge ugly blaster right at her.
She had no idea how she managed to shoot him first.
The blaster wasnt set to stun. Her shot ripped right into his side, between the chinks in his armor, and threw him backwardshe gruntedLeia ran. Behind her she heard shots singing, footsteps pounding, Lukes lightsaber squealingthen suddenly she was racing down the ramp, and Luke was running right behind her, and they were streaking across the hangar towards the chink in the wall.
She didnt pause as she squeezed herself and Sandra through the narrow fracture. That man couldnt follow them through here, so she took a moment to stop and gasp for air. Sandra was shaking, but she was still very quiet.
Shh, Leia said anyway.
Luke soon pressed into her side.
Come on! he hissed. We cant stop, keep going!
Leia took a last gulp of air and they both wriggled their way through the last stretch of the crack, bursting out into the light
Where she found a dozen blaster muzzles suddenly looking them square in the eye.
Ferus heard the door hiss open. He felt the inrush of air against his neck and face and arms, the slight vibration in the floor. He saw none of it, for he was sprawled out on the cold metal deck, his head twisted to the side where it had come to a stop about a millimeter from ramming into the block-like bench of the cell. The thought of turning his head to the other side still made him nauseouslet alone the concept of scaling the insurmountable cliff before his nose and dragging himself atop the bench. Once hed hit the floor, hed lost whatever momentum had kept him going previously. His muscles were all limp, useless goo.
But he didnt need to see to know who had showed up. The rhythmic hiss was unmistakable. He managed not to shudder, thankfullythat would only have caused more pain.
Not that pain wasnt most likely coming regardless.
Ferus gritted his teeth and tried to brace himself as a pair of booted feet marched up to him, guessing at what was coming. He wasnt disappointedwith a single, massive gloved hand, Darth Vader gripped the neck of his shirt, hauled him up, and threw him atop the bench. His back and shoulders slammed into the corner. He groaned, eyes closed in the effort to fight both the surge of fire and the wave of dizziness.
Somehow, he managed to hold the shields around his mind. He didnt know how long that would continue to be the case.
When he was sure that doing so would not cause him to topple ingloriously off the bench, Ferus dared open his eyes. Silently he stared up at Vaders indecipherable mask. Another man might not have known just what Vader was thinking; but Ferus was only too agonizingly aware of the flood of anger and hatred crashing upon his mental shields. It burned, as though someone had dashed pepper in his eyes. He blinked reflexively as he fought to push it further away from him.
He was utterly incapable of any active use of the Force, but he could still analyze the nature of the violent emotions scalding his mind. He almost wished he couldnt, for the hatred assailing him was not generic. It was personal.
Personal? What had he ever done that would cause Vader to hate him personally?
Ferus stared at the hulking, alien, armored monstrosity before him, hopelessly cycling through memories for some clue. It must be Vader who was the mistaken one, because the Jedi was quite sure he would have remembered an encounter with somebody so ah, singular. On the other hand, his logic was only semi-functional at the moment, the majority of his brain being obsessed by the aftereffects of torture.
A flicker of movementor at least, what his bleary senses picked up as just a flickerbehind Vader managed to attract some of the attention he still had left. It was the captain. Despite himself, Ferus laughed softly at the mans pale expression.
A bit less sure of ourselves, are we? he remarked with absurd clarity.
Thanks to the paralyzing agent, his larynx was the one part of him that did not hurt.
For a moment, he thought Vader would be quick to punish his insolent manner of addressing the officer. But the Sith made no move to defend his subordinate. Clearly, the man was in every bit as much trouble as he thought he was. Probably more, from the fresh pulse of black, vengeful rage that was radiating the captains way from Vader
Somehow, he couldnt quite bring himself to an appropriate Jedi attitude of compassion. Ferus just closed his eyes again.
Dismissed, Captain, Vader said tersely.
Ferus managed a small, bitter smirk as the door resealed behind the captain. Of course, whatever trouble the captain was in, he was in much more
Ferus Olin, Vader rumbled dangerously, hooking his thumbs into his belt. I see you have been made familiar with our accommodations.
Oh, yes, he sighed out, your hospitality is very much apprec
He was cut off by his own quite literally strangled cryVader suddenly seized him by the throat, and with one massive, crushing hand plucked him up off the bench and slammed him into the wall, feet dangling a good two feet above the floor.
Allow me to upgrade you to first-class, he snarled.
At least, that might have been what hed said. Between the ringing in his ears and the matches somebody seemed to have lit at every single nerve ending in his body, Ferus couldnt really be sure.
Thanks, he choked out, economyisfine
His head was slammed again into the wallhe grabbed reflexively at the durasteel hand clenched around his throat, stars blazed across his vision.
He didnt know which would make him pass out firstthe pain, the blows to his head, or the strangulationbut whichever one had been in the lead, his consciousness was narrowly saved when Vader dropped him back onto the bench. He reached feebly for the Force, trying to clear the smears away from his vision; he winced as a dark intangible fist slapped him down.
That was unwise, Vader rumbled. As was your decision to infiltrate my home.
Something suddenly sparked his thoughts.
Your home? he muttered, mostly to himself.
Despite his insatiable rage, Vader chastised himself for the slip. He must be much more carefulhe did not know how much information Olin had managed to uncover about his children. He elected to ignore the comment.
Cooperate, he said instead, and you might be granted a less tortuous form of death.
Olin did not pursue his lack of reaction.
Generous of you, he returned, blinking again wearily.
Fortunately for him, his tone communicated only resignationhad there been the slightest trace of mockery, Olin might not have survived another minute. But there was only resignation, and pain, and weariness.
It was strange to see the former model padawan brought so low. For all his anticipation of it, the sight had not given him the expected satisfaction. He hated Olin all the more for managing to inspire such discomfort in him. The Jedi should not be able to affect him thus!
Furious, he forced such thoughts from his mind. The past between Anakin Skywalker and Ferus Olin was immaterialhis three children had been stolen from him, and Olin had been involved.
Perhaps you would care to explain whatever scheme it was that so spectacularly failed you, he said tightly, gesturing at the cell and the Jedis battered appearance.
He must not allow his rage free reinif he did that, Olin would be dead in seconds, along with his best hope for tracking down his childrens whereabouts.
The Jedis answer was as he had expected, but nonetheless infuriating.
I would not care to, he murmured.
His gaze cut tiredly up to the ceiling.
Normally, Vader would have spent more time attempting to coax or terrorize the prisoner into cooperation. Not this time.
Perhaps, he said with relish, I can persuade you otherwise.
A line of bloodied light suddenly blazed forth between the two of them, bathing Olins battered frame in a hellish, crimson glow.
The troopers outside the door stiffened as they heard the tell-tale hum of the lightsaber. One of them, a fairly raw recruit, nearly dropped his blaster at the startling scream that quickly drowned it out. Frantically he turned to his more seasoned companion.
Youll get used to it, said the other.
Lando didnt even wait until the bogus Imperial agent had left the cantina before he dashed out the back door. If he stuck around any longer, he was liable to have a whole line of interrogators taking turns raking him over the coals. And that, he told himself shakily, was not good for business, not by a long shot. As he slid back into the stream of pedestrians, he ran his hand through his hair, trying to calm his shot nerves.
He wandered the street for quite a few minutes, determinedly putting all thoughts of Luke and his little girlfriend out of mind. Heybusiness was business. If you were going to play around in the muddy underworld, you had to be prepared to face the risks. It wasnt his fault that the Empire was after the kidand sticking his head out on the block for a customer wasnt part of Landos business contract. Yeah, it was too bad, but bad happened whether you wanted it to or not. The thing was to make sure you didnt get caught up in it. He ought to be proud of himself for coming out of this with his neck and business intact
Who the nine hells are you trying to kid, Calrissian? You screwed that kid over majorly and you know it, you scumbag of a coward!
Maybe I am! he shouted back at the nagging voice in his head. But theres nothing I can do about it anymore, is there?
Just how many lies do you plan on telling yourself today?
Lando scowled and kicked a nearby stall stand as he hefted his blaster and spun about, heading the opposite direction. Im dead. Im insane. Stupid, stupid conscience
She had actually shot him.
Had he been a lesser man, the thought would have taken him quite some time to process. On the other hand, had he been a lesser man, the idea of somebody getting the better of him would not have been so shocking. It nonetheless took him several precious seconds to recover and assess that the wound was not serious, seconds in which the teenage infiltrators successfully escaped the shuttle with the bonuses. He staggered after them, and just glimpsed them wriggling through a small, jagged break in the far wall. Training enabled him to sprint after them, and he primed his blaster as he ranbut as he came within earshot, he heard the voices outside, and skidded to a silent stop.
It only took a few seconds to determine that a whole mess of Imperial stormtroopers had suddenly turned up outside his supposedly unobtrusive hiding hole.
Swearing softly under his breath, he backed away hastily. The bonuses were certainly not worth calling attention to his activities. He still had the requested merchandise safely stowed.
Cooly, he backed away from the wall, heading quickly for the speeder van. The Imperials had clearly tracked the teenagers here, which made it likely that they were working in Vaders interests. In that case, they would undoubtedly search the hangar as a matter of course. Better not be there then. The merchandise was conspicuous, theyd spot it straight off. He would have to risk the patrols and rear lines the commander had most likely stationed around the perimeter. They would ID his van, of course, but it was a rental, so they wouldnt ID him. Besides, as soon as he got clear of the perimeter and into some good heavy traffic, he could go ballistic and theyd lose his engine trace. Hed have to lay low for a while before heading out of system, of course. Special case, no trail. But the contract wasnt in jeopardy yet.
He abandoned the shuttle without a backward glance and revved up the van engine.
Baranne emerged triumphantly from behind the solid line of stormtroopers, surveying the quarry they held at bay. He was a bit taller, and the hair and eye coloring had changed, but it was most unmistakably Luke Skywalker who was gripping a lightsaber in one hand and glaring furiously at him in between protective glances at his companion, the anonymous brunette girl.
What went beyond bewildering, however, was the fact that both the older children were carrying small girls with curly blond hair and wide, terrified blue eyessmall girls who most certainly had not been there when his men had tracked young Skywalker into the building.
Baranne didnt even pretend to know what interest either Luke Skywalker or Lord Vader could possibly have in a pair of human female toddlers. It really wasnt his concern, anymore than Lukes ultimate fate had been his concern all those months ago. His only concern was that Vader had told him to bring back Skywalker and anyone accompanying him. Anyone included all three of the unidentified girls.
Its been some time since I had the pleasure of your company, young man, the agent said pleasantly, stepping forward.
He held out his hand for the lightsaber. Luke cast an irritated glare around the circle of stormtroopers, and thenknowing full well that any rash attack on his part would result in immediate stunningdropped the weapon into Barannes hand.
The agent was mildly surprised by the boys cooperation.
Just leave my arm alone, Luke growled.
If youll refrain from breaking mine, the agent returned with a thin smile.
The brunette suddenly cut in, You know thatthat
Ugly bucket of Hutt slime? Luke supplied. Weve met.
He shifted the frightened little girl on his hip, never taking his scowl off the agent.
As if he could be riled by the gibes of a pair of teenagers.
And might I ask who your charming friends are?
You might not.
Baranne shrugged. If hed expected the boy to answer, he wouldnt have asked the question, since it was really none of his business. The question only served to prove that whatever the boy had experienced during his previous capture, it had not done much to affect his stubbornness.
Just what did Vader want with this young Jedi, if he didnt want him dead?
Well. That was none of his business, either. Although he found himself pleased by the knowledge that this bright young fellow was not, apparently, in danger of his life. Of course, even had he known that Vader would torture and kill said bright young fellow, the knowledge still would have no bearing on his responsibility to turn the boy over.
The brunette made a sudden movement to one side, and the troopers tensed, but the young would-be Jedi quickly lunged for her arm.
No, no, its okay, he said quickly. Were safe, okay?
Baranne was every bit as surprised by this announcement as the girl seemed to be; but unlike him, she soon relaxed, as though realizing he was right. Whatever Lord Vader wanted from Luke Skywalker, it did not appear to be his life or health. He did not allow himself to ponder any other reasons the Dark Lord might have for his involvement with the boy. Such questions could quickly end his career, not to mention his life. Safety lay in focusing on the job at hand, which was getting these four safely aboard the nearest Star Destroyer and ferrying them to Vader posthaste.
Secure them, he ordered firmly.
The troopers hurried forward, guns trained on children, and attempted to separate them.
The situation immediately plunged into chaos. The trooper whod tried to pry a blonde toddler out of the brunettes grasp collapsed when she landed an unexpectedly forceful kick to his groin. Another trooper rushed up behind and twisted the girls arms suddenly behind her backthe blonde toddler shrieked as she was dropped and knocked aside by a third soldier hurrying to restrain the older girl. Luke yelled something and made a dash for the little girl. A fourth trooper mistook this for an escape attempt and tripped him as a fifth swung the hilt of his blaster at the boys headthey connected at the same time despite Barannes shout of warning. He fell, stunned, dropped the other small girlshe scrambled to her twins side, sobbing
Then a blaster shot from who knew where burned through the leg armor of one of his men, and the situation fell past chaos into hell.
Lando felt a detached rush of disbelief as he fired a second time into the knot of stormtroopers below. What he was doing was stupid. It was beyond stupid. It was point-blank suicidal. They had armored landspeeders and TIEs out here, and he had one cheap-shot blaster and a bunch of helpless kids on his side. Hell, he didnt even have a plan. All hed been able to figure out was that hed have a better chance against those troopers here in the narrow alley than he was ever likely to get again.
He fired off a third and fourth shot, telling himself grimly that the elements of surprise and concealment were only going to last him so longsooner or later they were going to figure out where he was, and that there was only one of him, and it wasnt too likely he was going to pick all of them off before
What the nine hells was that
Dizzily Luke heard blaster shots ring out. The world was spinning and tilting around him, apparently knocked off its axis by the blow to his head. He half-staggered, half-crawled towards Sara and Sandra, who were screaming as they were knocked around on the ground by dashing stormtroopers. Leia was lost somewhere in the meleehe couldnt see her.
He had to get to the twinshad to shield them from the firebut he didnt even get within arms reach before he heard an engine roar. The next instant, the invisible force of a gravitic repulsor threw him against the hangar wall as the speeder van that had been inside the hangar swept over them all and accelerated away down the alley. His head hit hard, and the world went completely black.
The vans repulsor wave slammed him hard against the back wall of the hangar, but that didnt stop Baranne from ordering his men to fire on it. The ones who had escaped the repulsor wave immediately turned their blasters on it, but they only scored a glancing hit to the rear fuselage before it sped out of range. He quickly elected not to worry about it at presentthe TIEs and armored speeders would give chase, as per orders.
The decision was only reinforced when diminutive figure wielding a shaft of green light suddenly hurtled around the corner of the alley and began slicing a path of devastation through the squad of troopers.
Unless Lando Calrissians eyes deceived him sorelyhe rubbed them several times with his free hand to make sure they were notthe maniac alien who had just arrived on the scene looked a lot like the Jedi Master Yoda. From the looks of the whirlwind solo attack hed launched on the troopers, Lando could certainly see why Luke would have called him a homicidal green troll.
That was the deadliest garden gnome hed ever seen, either.
He sobered quickly. That troll-Jedi-thing, whether it was Yoda or not, was clearly headed for Luke. He had to save the kid. With a last hopeless prayer and a final curse against the absent Han Solo, Lando flung himself off the parapet of the adjacent building and fired in the direction of the green troll on his way down, until he crashed like an overloaded freighter into several unfortunately positioned stormtroopers.
Leia screamed in horror as a trooper directly in front of her fell to the pavement in two pieces, sliced apart through his middle by a flashing lightsaber. It was the green troll!
And it was headed straight for her.
The stormtroopers whod been restraining her suddenly let go, and brought all their blasters to bear on the trollbut it waved the lightsaber back and forth and all the bolts rebounded, smashing all around her and the two troopersone of them fell with an awful scream
Leia saw the gray-eyed agent nearby, shouting orders into his comlinkmore importantly, she saw Lukes lightsaber in his other hand. Desperately she lunged towards the lightsaber, but he grabbed her quickly and hurled with her around the corner of the hangar building
Then the alley erupted from beneath her feet.
Lando kicked himself up off of the collapsed troopers he had landed on and kept firing and ducking shots. He could hear the troll wreaking havoc on the other side of the fight as he struggled towards the far wall, where Luke had landed after being struck by the repulsor wave. He was nearly there when he tripped over something.
He took a precious second to glance down, and saw the two screeching toddlers.
Another, much louder screech made him look up.
There was a freakin TIE bearing down on them. There could only be one reason for that.
He didnt have anything like enough time to get to Luke. Without even thinking about it, he snatched up the little girls and ran like a nerf with its tail on fire. He made it around the far corner of the building just before the laser cannons lit up. There were several stormtroopers chasing him, but then the ground lurched tremendously and shrapnel and debris exploded into the air. Lando staggered back to his feet first, a girl in either arm, and didnt stop running for what felt like hours.
Luke regained consciousness just in time to spot a TIE fighter hurtling in the direction of the fight. He scrambled desperately to his feet, and screamed for the girlshe saw Baranne rush Leia around the corner, out of the line of firebut where were Sara and San
Was that Lando?
It was! Lando had his sisters, and hed seen the fighter too, for he took off and escaped around the far corner.
Luke had no time to do anything but squeeze as fast as he could through the crack in the hangar wall. He started to run for the other side of the hangar, but outside the TIEs laser cannon ripped into the alley with titanic force. The floor bucked, hurling him off his feet and ramming his head yet again into hard stone. He was so stunned that he could only watch as the huge, shattered shards of the hangar wall fell towards him. They seemed to move in slow motion, but his body wouldnt move at allhe stared in helpless horror as the great, boulder-size chunks of stone plunged through the air towards him, and wondered dazedly how long he would be aware of their crushing force before it killed him.
Slowly, slowly they fellthe closer they got to him, the slower they seemed to move, until they seemed to be frozen in space mere feet away from him
And blinked again.
He shook his head; he shifted up onto his elbows.
Slowly he got up, sidling out of the pathway of the closest hunk of stone. Stupidly he poked it; patted it with his hand. The floor rumbled as other chunks of the rubble smashed into it around him. But his eyes were not deceiving him. The piece of the wall that was collapsing around him had, for absolutely no apparent reason, frozen in midair.
Panicky adrenaline suddenly overcame his stupefication and painLuke ran as fast as he could, ducking and weaving around the boulders of stone that should have smashed him into goo, until he was safely clear. Then the full force of the blows hed taken was free to hit him again. Panting, wanting to cry from the searing pain in his head, he sank down on what his skin told him was the cool metal boarding ramp of the lambda shuttle.
After being hit so hard in the head so many times, he knew better than to move again. He tried weakly to reach out in the Force and find his sisters and Leia, but he couldnt do it. He could only hope that they were safe. Baranne would probably find him in here eventually.
What had stopped the stone from falling on him? Had he done it? Hed used to do things with the Force without knowing it, way before Obi-Wan had taught him anything. He didnt see how he could have done it, since hed just tried to use the Force and been unable to
Lie still, Luke, a familiar, accented voice told him gently.
A ghostly blue figure bent over him on the ramp.
Luke attempted painfully to struggle back up, but the Jedi Master held up his hand firmly. His head hurt so badly anyway that he did as he was ordered.
I was lying still, he murmured wearily.
You mustnt fall asleep, the Jedi Master added firmly. You most likely have more than one concussion.
Did you save me? Luke asked him tiredly.
No, Luke. Master Yoda did.
Luke frowned. He felt someone coming up the ramp, but Obi-Wans glance warned him not to move.
The next thing he knew, he was looking straight up into the ugly face of the homicidal green troll.
Baranne had no idea where the TIE had come from. He had even less idea why its pilot had taken it into his head to strafe the conflict area. He did, however, have an excellent idea of what fate that pilot was going to meet if Luke Skywalker hadnt survived the salvo. The agent preferred not to contemplate what Vader might do to him.
He struggled up to his feet, coughing through the particle-heavy dust, and took stock of the immediate situation. He had six intact troopers at his immediate disposal, at least on this side of the catastrophe. One of them had had the sense to fling himself protectively over the brunette girl, who was too frightened by their near death to object.
The agent edged around the crumbling edge of the hangar to survey the scene of the devastation. Nearly the entire rear wall of the hangar had been blasted inward, but the interior was still concealed thanks to the thick billows of smoke and dust. Several of his troops were visible, smashed and broken like dolls amidst the rubble. One or two were stirring; he sent in a quick order over his comlink for a medic and moved cautiously forward until he had covered the full length of the alley and checked all adjoining routes.
There was no sign of either Luke or the toddlers; nor did Baranne see the Jedi alien or whoever it was that had started the shooting in the first place. It did not seem likely that all of them had been instantaneously vaporized, which meant that at least some of them had escaped the site or fled into the hangar.
His comlink crackled; he answered. Baranne.
Quarry is lost, sir, reported one of his troopers. We chased a dark human male and the two young human females away from the operation site, but lost them after the explosion.
He resisted the urge to swear vociferously at the man.
Return to operation site, he said instead, with what he felt was admirable calm considering the situation.
His hand tightened helplessly around the comlink for a moment as he wondered how in the nine hells Luke Skywalker always managed to turn a perfectly textbook operation into an unqualified disaster.
A young, female voice was getting louder behind him, and in another second he heard the brunette girl shouting desperately for her friend as she took in the destruction. He spun around briskly and saw his surviving men emerging around the corner of the building, the girl with them.
Two of you, get her back to base and transfer her up to the Obviators detention block immediately, he ordered. Lord Vader will not accept any excuses for losing her, and neither will I.
With terse nods, the two troopers restraining the girl tightened their grips around her arms and marched her away.
The rest of you, Baranne continued, were searching that building for survivors. Set for stun.
He clicked on the comlink and relayed the order to the soldiers stationed on the other sides of the building, then primed his blaster and got in behind the point wedge his men had already formed and followed them into the smoking wreckage.
They hadnt gotten very far before they heard a very loud, very young, and very distressed yell from somewhere within.
Luke instantly forgot about keeping still; on the other hand, staying awake was suddenly no problem at all. He yelled in pure terror and hurled himself over and forward, scrambling up the ramp for all his life was worthbut he felt the air freeze around him just as he got near the top, and the next second an invisible hand had picked him up, rotated him until he was flat on his back, and maneuvered him head-first into the shuttle, where he was settled on the floor. Squirm though he would, he could not do more than wiggle his fingers and toes.
A few seconds later, both Obi-Wan and the homicidal troll reappeared, leaning over him.
Lie still, you must, advised the green gnome in the most hideously cheerful voice Luke had ever heard. He trembled at its nightmarish grin, waiting to feel the green lightsaber blade burn straight through him.
Obi-Wan, save me!
Luke, sighed his old Master aloud, Master Yoda means you no harm.
Im not worried about Yoda! Im worried about that!
That is Master Yoda.
Luke stared up in consternation. But you tried to kill me!
Tried to kill you, I did? the troll demanded indignantly. The other way around, it was, young Padawan!
Obi-Wan glared quite sternly at Luke.
Dont think youve gotten out a lecture just because you might have a concussion, he informed him. And when were done instructing you on the acceptable uses of droids and cleaning solvent, Im sure your father will be happy to pick up where we left off.
Luke, however, had been on the receiving end of lectures from his father and Obi-Wan before, and since there was no way the troll could possibly be worse, the threat did not faze him.
If you werent trying to kill me, how come you snuck into my home and stole Hans comlink and passcodes and attacked me with a krethin lightsaber?
Language! Obi-Wan chastised reflexively. Then, more gently, I think that there have been a few misunderstandings along the way, Luke. Master Yoda and I were under the impression that you were in danger from the droids.
The only thing I was in danger from was him!
Yoda wrinkled his nose derisively. In danger from many things you were in that place, but one of them I was not. He gave Obi-Wan a Pointed Look the likes of which Luke had only seen his father match.
What was I in danger from, then? Luke demanded, wishing he could cross his arms indignantly. He couldnt, so he glowered as much as possible to compensate.
Imperative, it is, that removed from the touch of the Dark Side, you be, Yoda told him.
His voice had gotten less strident, and Luke was surprised to find that his withered, wrinkled little face looked much less threatening. He even started to relax a little bitbut then he suddenly realized what Yoda had meant.
The Jedi Master had gone to Bast Castle to take him away. Away from his father.
No! Not again! He cant do that! I have to find Han and Sara and Sandra and I have to take them back home and I wont let him stop me no I wont I wont
He didnt even realize that hed somehow broken free of Yodas hold on himthat hed leapt up and started runningall he knew was that suddenly he was back out, flailing his way through the thick, dust-laden air in the blasted-out hangar, and Yoda and Obi-Wan were shouting his name behind him
But somebody was shouting his name ahead of him, too.
It was Baranne.
Baranne would take him back to his father. Baranne would try to find his sisters.
Luke yelled at the top of his lungs.
Luke? the agent called cautiously.
Safely shielded behind a wall of troopers, Baranne was peering between their shoulders and trying to get spot any sign of Luke Skywalkernot that it was really possible, what with the thrice-cursed billows of smoke and thick dust choking the air. He coughed violently and rubbed at burning eyes, envying for a moment the protective helmets of the stormtroopers in front of him. Force, hed never find the kid before he could slip out of the building. Unless Luke was unconscious.
Not that that was necessarily a desirable state of affairs. Force only knew what Vader would do if the boy were seriously injured.
Maybe the kid was dead. There was a happy thought.
Well, if he was dead, Baranne hoped the youngster had at least had the decency to have been struck directly by the laser blast and been vaporized on the spot. At least then he could tell Lord Vader there was a chance the boy had survived. Of course, given Skywalkers track record thus far when it came to considering Barannes interests
Im here! Im over here!
Sir, voice ID, bearing 0-0-3!
The fog and clouds dissipated ahead of them, and the agents heart leapt as he glimpsed the blurry outline of a smallish figure up ahead. Thank the Force! Maybe this operation could be salvaged after a
A blaze of green suddenly split through the smoky, opaque air. Blaster bolts immediately began to stab towards it over Lukes head as his men opened fire on the selfsame renegade Jedi whod wreaked such havoc only a few minutes earlier. Baranne quickly ducked behind his men and had to turn his head away as more smoke plumed into his face. He tried to cough orders for reinforcements into his comlink, but he couldnt get more than a word or two out at a time, and even those he did get out were being obscured by the screech of blaster and the angry spitting of the lightsaber and fading shouts from Luke and the howl of a ship engine
Ship engine! His men redoubled their fire, pushing forward, but the Jedi had seized Luke and sealed both of them aboard the lambda shuttle. They pounded the hull with laster fire, but then the shields burst up and hurled all of them back, and the repulsors kicked up the dust afresh as the ship exploded upward out of the hangar.
Unsurprisingly, the first session had not lasted very long.
Vader stalked from the detention cell, still quivering with impotent rage. Unsurprising, but none the less infuriating for that. Anything to do with Jedi was infuriating at any time. When one of them had been involved in the disappearance of his children, and would say nothing about the matter
The guards lined along the detention corridor flinched as the dark lords fist almost involuntarily punched an enormous crater into the solid durasteel wall. It was in no way due to his exemplary self-control that those same guards survived his passageevery single one of Vaders murderous thoughts were concentrated on Ferus Olin, on how dearly he wanted to translate his own agony of mind into physical torment for the never-to-be-sufficiently-accursed Jedi
Unfortunately for his desires, Olin had endured far too much punishment prior to his arrival for the Jedi to be capable of withstanding much more at the moment. His former rival had lost his consciousness long before his resolve. Vader had already ordered the prison medics inwhen next he paid the Jedi his respects, he wanted the man to be fully appreciative of his efforts. But not only did that necessity prevent him from the satisfaction of venting his fury on the otherit was also that much more time lost in the pursuit of his little ones. Olin was a trained Jedihe had not yielded an inch. Not yet.
Vader drove his unfeeling fist explosively into the inner wall of the turbolift carrying him back up to the command floor. The artificial nerves responded angrily to the impact, but it was not nearly painful enough to distract him from the much greater agony in his mindwhich had spent every second of the past sleepless days desperately seeking through the vagaries of the Force for some clue as to his childrens whereabouts. The Force responded with nothing but the same awful, empty stillness, just as it had all those months ago when he had last been searching for Luke. Wherever the boy was, he had vanished within the shroud of his flawless shields, and Vader could only assume that his son was similarly protecting his younger sisters.
He had even made a wildbrained attempt to locate Solo. Of course, the effort was utterly futile. Palpatine could not have picked out one unremarkable Force-blind teenager amidst the trillions packed into the galaxy. And that was assuming Solo was alive. Given the chip implant, it was unlikely the Corellian had survived the kidnapping.
Vader was unpleasantly surprised to find that the thought did not sit well with him. Insouciant though Solo had been, the Corellian had been devoted to Luke. And in his less dark moments, Vader had to admit that he was secretly entertained by Solos quick banter.
His anger seemed to congeal and settle in his stomach in a cold, nauseating mass. As he stepped out of the lift into the control center, he felt nothing so much as exhausted. A quick glance around the control center was enough to assure him that he was not the only one in torment. Seated at a conference table on the right side of the room, dark eyes resting dully on the investigation teams at their terminals, was Miyr.
The change in his administrator was shocking. She had been at the landing pad when he arrived, as always, and had made a valiant effort at maintaining an aura of consummate professionalism. But he had sensed the violent emotional maelstrom the second he laid eyes on her, and the agonized guilt in her voice as she reported her own scant involvement in the kidnapping had vaporized any inclination he might have had to exact payment for her failure to protect her charges.
He could not bring himself to punish the one person who was in as much agony of mind as he was. Even had the Force not revealed to him the nearly maternal depth of her pain, it would have been obvious from the fact that she barely ate, never slept, and never left the control center. Her duties were going unfulfilled, a failure he supposed he ought to correct, but the deputy administrators seemed to be managing. Besidesthe intensity of her distress was proof that she was dedicated to the welfare of his children.
Miyr, quite possibly, was the only member of his Bast Castle staff he did not plan on replacing.
To his own vague surprise, he found his strides leading him towards her where she sat in bleary-eyed disconsolation. He knew not why, unless it was the draw of shared misery. Fortunately for his reputation, Landre intercepted him halfway there. For the first time since Vaders arrival, a glimmer of hope was visible through the resignation on his face.
My lord, there is a secure call from one of your agents, he announced. From Corellia.
Put it through to my communications suite, Vader ordered him tersely.
The holographic image of Baranne was waiting in the projector when he swept in and sealed off the chamber.
My lord, Baranne acknowledged.
You have news?
Yes, my lord. My team on Corellia was able to track Luke Skywalker to a cantina in Coronet, where an information broker gave us enough intelligence to set up a retrieval operation in the main spaceport strip.
A surge of impossible hope rose within him.
And you were successful? Vader demanded anxiously.
Im sorry to say we were not entirely successful, no. My team ran into a number of complications that prevented complete success. Quite frankly, were still attempting to sort out all the details
Do you have Skywalker? he demanded.
We do not, Baranne admitted.
And how, Vader hissed, do you intend to explain that failure when you had him within your grasp?
Baranne was not nearly as terrified as he ought to have been. Clearly the hologram transmission was not doing his rage justice.
As I said, my lord, there were a great many complications. Several third parties became involved. We seem to be missing many of the pieces, but as far as Ive been able to determine, Skywalker arrived on Corellia with a young female companion and proceeded to the Lucky Saber Cantina, a locale he and Kenobi were known to frequent during their previous sojourn in Coronet. At that cantina he met several times with an information broker, who claimed that the boy wanted him to track a ship on which he believed a friend of his was being held captive. The broker was able to track this ship to Hangar 1138 on the main spaceport strip.
Vaders fists were clenching reflexivelyhe forced them to be still. When the Death Star was completed, Corellia might just find itself the first test target. If he had anything to say about it, that was.
Skywalker and his female companion appeared in the area as anticipated, and my team prepared to retrieve them with full aerial and ground coverage available. We intercepted them as they exited the hangar. Apparently they retrieved two very young human female children from the craft our sensors picked up inside the building. We proceeded with securing them and transporting them to the nearest military facility, but they apparently misunderstood our intentions and offered resistance.
And you were unable to overcome four children? Vader snapped furiously.
The children would have posed no difficulty, my lord, but they did spark a moment of disorientation, and an unidentified sniper was poised to take advantage of it.
We confirmed one sighting, Baranne acknowledged. It is possible that there was more than one. An airvan also broke out of the hangar and routed at full speed and repulsor strength through the area. Several of my men were severely injured as a result. I was unable to reorganize and reconcentrate the squad before a second attacker arrived.
The agent cleared his throat. Given that the second attackers weapon of choice was a lightsaber, I am forced to assume it was a Jedi.
Jedi, Vader hissed. You are certain?
Beyond a reasonable doubt, my lord.
Vader toyed half-seriously with the idea of putting Baranne on hold for five minutes, so as to march down to the dungeons and dispatch of Olin then and there. He restrained himself. News of further Jedi involvement only served to prove that he needed Olin alive more than ever.
Needless to say, the situation was very chaotic, and I confess I lost track of the whereabouts of Skywalker and the younger females. Nonetheless, I believe the operation might still have been redeemable up until we were strafed by a renegade TIE.
A renegade TIE, Vader repeated numbly.
Was there no end to this planets determination to thwart his every ambition?
Im afraid so, my lord. I have an investigation team on it as we speak. The pilot claims that his systems locked him out, and from what the technicians tell me so far, it seems quite likely that the fighter was indeed sabotaged. In any case, it thoroughly disarrayed the situation. Several of my squad were killed or incapacitated. From the reports I have, it seems that one of the snipers fled the scene with the two young human females. Skywalker, on the other hand, seems to have escaped the strafing by dodging back into the hangar. We entered the building in search of him and made voice ID, but from what I surmise the Jedi collected him aboard the ship contained within the hangar and escaped the Corellian system while our aerial complement was chasing down the renegade TIE. The only target we were able to retain was the older human female, who is in our custody now.
The sickening, cold nausea settled back into his gut. Sara, Sandra, vanished into the seedy depths of Coronet, at the mercy of a complete stranger Luke, once again in the clutches of the Jedi The edge of the console crumpled in his clenching grip.
Have you identified this young woman? he demanded distantly.
She has refused to answer any questions from myself or the other investigators, Baranne said, but I think you may recognize her image. Transmission commencing.
It was, of course, impossible for his electronically regulated heart to stop, but Vader swore it missed a beat when the holoprojector suddenly blossomed into the image of a young brunette girl with large, liquid brown eyes and an unmistakably regal bearing. The savage, vengeful, unadulterated delight that swept through him was too delicious for words.
As bizarre as it sounds, my lord, Barannes voice continued through the speakers, I think shes Princess Leia Organa.
Vader stood, feeling his senses dim in the deluge of black satisfaction he felt at the knowledge that Bail Organas child was at his mercy. The situation remained desperate, but at least now the dark lord had the leverage he needed to extract himself from the compromising situation the senators espionage had forced him into just recently. Furthermore, it was faintly possible that the girl could give him information on the whereabouts of his three children. Maybe Solos as well.
Transfer her to Fifth Fleet immediately, he ordered. I want her secure aboard my flagship when I arrive.
Already in motion, my lord, Baranne affirmed. I have all available men searching Coronet for the two younger females and the hovervan, and with your permission have ordered the local commander to seal the system and request reinforcements. I myself will see to tracking down Skywalker and the Jedi.
Vaders wrath abated slightly. It was distantly possible that his agent would survive this fiasco after all. He cut the connection and rushed out into the control center, leveling a finger at Landre.
Prepare my shuttle, he boomed. Have the Jedi prisoner transferred aboard. If all is not ready for my departure in ten minutes, the consequences will be dire.
Immediately, my lord, the captain acknowledged hastily.
The administrator will be coming with me, Vader added.
Behind him, Miyr surged out of her seat and nodded at him, wiping a brisk hand across her eyes as she hastened into the turbolift without a single word of protest.
Back on Corellia
Lando had expected that things would get quieter after he got away from the firefight and the freaked-out TIE fighter. Was he ever wrong.
Put me down! Put me down! Put me down put me down put me down down down down down DOWN DOWN DOWN
While one of the twins shrieked this charming melody more or less directly into Landos eardrum at point-blank range, the other bawled a monotonous, wordless harmony in time with the percussion pattern the first was beating on his chest.
Now making his way down a crowded market street, Lando gave a strained smile to passersby, who stared in distaste at the spectacle the twin terrors were providing. He would have been worried about their opinion of him if his heart werent still racing from the bizarre experience hed just had on the Strip. They were now four commuter train rides and multiple bus hops away from the Strippractically on the opposite side of Coronet, in factbut the knowledge was not enough to put him at ease.
Well. Wandering aimlessly through the city streets with two screaming toddlers was not going to help him think through what had happened and what he ought to do now that his life had thrown him such an exponential curve. Lando lugged the squirming, screeching balls of fury inside the next hotel he saw and managed to extract a credit chip from his pocket with enough on it to pay for a one-night stay. It was with profound relief that he deposited them on the carpet of Room 712, locking the door behind him.
Want Dadda! one of them promptly wailed. Her identical twin took up the new mantra instantly.
Want Dadda! Want Dadda! Want Dadda want Dadda want Dadda
They were now huddled by the door, trying in vain to reach the control panel, and sobbing full-force.
Dadda, Dadda, Dadda
Quiet! Lando yelled, rubbing his forehead.
Their blue eyes went very wide, and small tearstreaked faces stared at him, pale with fright.
Sorry, he said, halfheartedly.
Whos dat? one of them demanded tearfully of the other.
Dunno, she sniffed.
Lando had never felt so totally inadequate in his life. Smugglers, bounty hunters, Hutt crime lords he could handlebut faced with two sobbing unidentified little girls, his vast underworld experience came to naught.
Im not gonna hurt you, he said, holding up his hands in what he hoped was an unthreatening manner.
They huddled together as closely as ever, evidently unconvinced.
Want Dadda, one of them insisted.
Okay, okay, he said hastily, praying they werent about to start screeching again. Im gonna help you find your dad, all right?
Dadda? they said hopefully.
Yeah, yeah, Dadda, he agreed fervently. But youre gonna have to tell me some things so Ill know who Im looking for, all right?
They considered this with remarkable solemnity for two such young children.
All right, the more vocal one agreed, not without a scowl that, had it been on a less adorable face, would have been quite fearsome.
All right, he repeated, running his hand through his hair. How about you sit down on that bed, and Ill sit on this one, and well talk?
They seemed to be much more trusting with the promise that he would help find their father. Holding hands tightly, they made their way over, and even let him help them up onto the bed. He sat down opposite them on the other.
My name is Lando, he said. Lando Calrissian.
Wissy, attempted the louder one.
He grimaced. Cal-rish-un, he repeated slowly.
Wishin, she said.
Close enough, he sighed.
Kwishy, said the other one hesitantly.
Lando rubbed his forehead with a soft groan, but decided there were more important things to sort out here.
Whats your names? he asked.
Is Sara, said the louder one. Das Sandra. She pointed to her sister.
Sara and Sandra, he repeated. Whats your last name?
Ky-wakka? he repeated.
Somehow, he had a feeling that wasnt the most accurate pronunciation, but he also had a feeling they werent going to be able to give him anything better.
Can you spell it? he tried without much hope.
They shook their heads forlornly.
Ky, wakka, Sara said again emphatically, her forehead screwed up and her head bobbing comically in her effort to get it across.
Okay, Kywakka, he repeated, trying to sound a little less dubious.
Maybe there was some kind of comparison-analysis program he could run, get an idea of what surnames sounded similar to Kywakka. Hells, for all he knew, it was Kywakka. Force knew hed run into weirder names than that. Sounded a bit Kalanthan, even. Or was it Berean?
All right, he tried, whats your dads name?
Sara gave him a supremely disdainful look.
Dadda, she said, as if it should have been utterly obvious.
But do you know what other people call him? Lando pressed hopefully.
They thought for a moment.
Miyr says my lord, Sandra ventured softly.
Lando stared, suddenly excited. Maybe these two had been kidnapped from some powerful nobleman or something. Heck, for all he knew, their dad could rule a planet somewhere. Getting them back to him might be a really good idea in more ways than one, now that he thought about it. Their dad would probably be really grateful.
Hopefully in a very financial sort of way.
On the other hand, the sobering thought soon occurred to him that if their dad ruled a planet, he probably wasnt somebody that Lando Calrissian wanted to tick off. Hed better try and get these two back to him in very short order, before someone accused him of being the kidnapper. Or whatever.
Whats your moms name? he said. It was worth a shot, after all.
Mamma, Sara said, predictably.
She died, Sandra added softly.
A really long time ago, Sara elaborated.
She was the prettiest mamma in the whole galaxy, Sandra informed him. Dadda said so.
Lando felt a slight twinge of sympathy. Sounded like their mother had probably died when they were born. It wasnt too typical a thing to happen in upper class families, but he supposed it wasnt unheard of. In any case, it was pretty obvious that they didnt know their mothers actual name anymore than their fathers.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? he asked.
Maybe he could do some sort of cross-reference in the galactic database.
We gots a big brother, Sara said.
Whats his name?
Luke, they chorused.
Lando did a double-take.
Luke? he repeated in total surprise.
With new eyes he scrutinized their features. Now that he was looking for it, they did look sort of like Lukeblonde hair, those big blue eyes. Maybe even a little bit of similarity in the face, but it was hard to tell when they were still so young.
Is he about this high, blonde hair, blue eyes? Lando demanded.
They nodded. Hes way bigger than us, Sara emphasized. Hes even bigger than ten.
Ten years, he supposed they meant. Well, that would be about rightthe kid was what, thirteen?
We didnt knows bout him until Dadda found him, Sandra explained.
Lando was suddenly listening very, very carefully.
Is that so, he murmured.
Yeah, Sara affirmed. He got lost when he was just a little baby, and Dadda didnt think he would ever find him, but he did. Cept now hes big and hes not a baby anymore.
How long ago did your dad find him? Lando demanded. Was it a real long time ago?
Nuh-uh, Sara said. Not real long ago. I dunno how much.
Do you guys know somebody named Han Solo? Lando asked quickly.
Sara scowled fiercely, looking even cuter than ever.
He thinks too loud, she complained resentfully. "I don't likes him."
Lando could certainly sympathize with that sentiment.
When did you meet him?
He came to live with us, Sandra said matter-of-factly. Dadda said he was Lukes friend. I think he wanted to fly away with Luke, but Dadda wouldnt let him. He said Han had to stay with us and Miyr.
She takes care of us, Sara said. When Daddas not home.
Is your dad not home a lot?
He works on a big ship, Sara said brightly. Its a really big ship. She spread her short arms as wide as they would go. He said he has to tell the ship where it gotta goes and what it gots to do.
Lando felt something sinking ominously in his stomach as Sara chattered on about the topic of her dad's big ship. Their dad commanded a big ship.
Was their dad Vaders admiral, or one of his senior officers?
That would make a lot of sense. It would explain why Imperials were looking for Luke, for one. Maybe the kid had run away from his dad. And Han had said Vader had Luke and hed gone off to find the kid
Lando jumped off the bed and flicked on the computer terminal to do an image search. He pulled up a whole sheet of images of senior Imperial admirals.
Here, he said. Come over here and tell me if one of these pictures is your dad.
They clambered up into the chair in front of the terminal.
Nuh-uh, Sara said promptly.
How do you know? Lando demanded. You havent looked at them all yet.
Sara gave him another patronizing look. Lando found himself vaguely admiring the sheer amount of attitude shed managed to concentrate in such a small package. It reminded him of Lukes little brunette girlfriend, just on a smaller scale.
Dadda doesnt look like that, she said. Beside her, Sandra nodded.
Well, what does your dad look like? he asked, thoroughly befuddled.
Hes really, really big, and he gots a cape, Sara said.
She stretched her hands as high over her head as they would go.
And he only wears black, Sandra threw in.
And he sounds like this all the time, Sara added eagerly.
She cupped her small hands around her mouth and made a sound that chilled Landos very bones.
With a shaky hand he keyed a new search item, and displayed the results.
Thats Dadda! they both crowed in delight.
Lando paled in absolute horror at the miniature projected form of Darth Vader.
No. Krething. Way.
Leia felt much less brave by herself.
Not that she was alone, exactly. Oh, no, here she was sitting in a military troop transport, squeezed between the hulking forms of the two stormtroopers that the agent had told to guard her. Each of them had one of her hands in a vise-like grip that, had it been a hair stronger, felt like it would have snapped bones. Under normal circumstances she would have protested such rough treatment loudly.
But she and the two stormtroopers did not have the transport to themselves. The benches ahead of them were full of wounded troopers, in various states of injury and undress, and a solitary emergency medic was rushing back and forth between them. Leia could not help staring in sick horror at the man closest to her. His whole left side had been grotesquely burned by one of the explosions. The pain must have been horrible, but all he did was lie there, his breath rasping in and out arrhythmically, glassy eyes fixed on the canopy of the transport.
Leia was very grateful when the medic hurried over to him and blocked her view. She was even more grateful when she felt the transport thud down onto its repulsors and shudder to a halt. More medics appeared at the hatches and rushed all the wounded troopers out on hover stretchers, and then her two stoic guards nudged her up. They emerged into an unremarkable transport bay full of stormtroopers and gray-uniformed Imperial officers. Leia didn't pay much attention to the surprised looks the latter cast her way as her stormtroopers marched her through a series of halls.
They finally took her through a door into a big, open-roofed hangar, lined down both sides with gleaming navy shuttles, one of which they boarded. Leia had no idea where the shuttle was going - she was unceremoniously stuffed into a tiny holding cubicle as the engines started up. She scarcely had enough room to turn around; an adult would have had to hunch over against one of the bulkheads, the ceiling was so low overhead.
She dropped onto the cold, thrumming deck beneath her and sat with deliberately correct posture against the wall, sternly commanding herself to be calm. Running around the underworld Coronet without any adults to look out for her had been frightening, but that had been an exciting sort of frightening, really - and she'd had Luke with her. He'd seemed to know what he was doing. Leia wondered if he would have known what he was doing here. If maybe the agent had found him.
If there was anything left of Luke for the agent to find.
Viciously Leia cut off that train of thought. It was ridiculous. After all, she'd know if something happened to Luke, or to his little sisters. She wasn't really sure why she was so certain of that, but the mysterious conviction went unquestioned.
She worried nonetheless, wondering if Luke and his little sisters had gotten away, or if perhaps the green troll had taken them hostage - or worse! What if they had all been separated? Leia's stomach plunged at the thought of the two little girls lost all by themselves in the middle of Coronet City. Who knew what sorts of horrible things might happen to them? Leia'd seen enough of the Strip to have no expectations of altruism from any of its inhabitants.
She hoped the agent could find them all quickly. The Empire wasn't going to hurt the children of Darth Vader, after all.
Leia Organa, on the other hand, just might be a different story.
It wasn't easy to look brave and defiant when the door to the little cubicle reopened, but she was a princess, and she had to be brave whether she felt like it or not. So she walked back out confidently and let the stormtroopers take her out of the shuttle into yet another hangar.
It didn't surprise her too much to realize that it was a shipboard hangar, but the sheer size of it impressed her in spite of her worries. This must be a Star Destroyer. Leia had never been aboard a ship this big before. She gazed around at the array of shuttles, and perked up a little as they passed a TIE fighter undergoing repairs at the hands of a battalion of mechanics. It looked much larger in person than she'd expected. And even though Leia wasn't usually the sort to be fascinated by ships and guns, she had to admit there was something very compelling about the lethally sleek lines of the fins and cannons.
With mild curiosity, she wondered whether one of her biological parents had liked ships. Well. She'd never know, would she? And there were more important things to occupy her mind right now, such as keeping track of the route the stormtroopers were taking her. Carefully Leia logged every turn and turbolift in her memory and did her best to find landmarks - which was rather hard, because all the corridors looked almost exactly the same.
They emerged from the last lift into a place Leia didn't like at all. She could see sensor banks everywhere, and the muzzles of automatic defense blasters poked out of the bulkheads. Ahead was an ovoid console station manned by three black-clad officers, contained within a shimmering security field. On the opposite side of the consoles, a long, low corridor was just visible, lit by subdued red glowbanks.
The security field switched off and one of the officers moved forward with a disdainful expression on his face.
"Is this some sort of a joke?" he demanded with a sour sneer on his thin, pale lips.
"No, sir," one stormtrooper said smartly. "Prisoner is to be contained in Detention Block AA-7, orders of Agent Baranne."
He produced some sort of chip, and the officer disappeared with it behind the console for a moment.
"Order confirmed," the officer announced presently, with an unconcerned shrug.
He waved one of the others forward. Leia spun around frantically for a moment as the stormtroopers vanished back into the turbolift - thinking desperately that even stormtroopers were better than being left here with these horrible, cruel-faced officers - but then a second officer reached Leia and snapped a pair of cuffs on her. Stiffly she looked up, and saw he had a somewhat less frightening face than the first officer had.
He looked her over with a pair of shrewd brown eyes, gave a slight, disapproving shake of his head, and made her walk through some sort of scanning apparatus on the other side of the room. Then he took her away, down the long dark corridor, and pushed her into a cell. He snapped the binders back off and went away with them. The door swooshed shut behind his back.
Leia sat shakily down on the bench that lined one side of the small room, rubbing hands still sore from the grip of the troopers. There wasn't anything in here -the bulkheads and deck were painted black, and were bathed in the stark, unfriendly glare of an overhead glowpanel. There was no 'fresher, only a panel of grating on one side of the cell. Leia eyed it with supreme distaste, and scooted further away from that end. There was nothing else to attract her attention.
So she sat there and waited in the eerie silence, and hoped Luke and his sisters were all right.
After what felt like forever the agent showed back up, asking Leia questions about her name, her family, where she was from. She knew better than to tell him that, but she couldn't stop him from taking out a holocorder and snapping several images of her. She tried to ask him if Luke and the twins were all right. He smiled at her and told her that if she wanted answers she had to give them in return.
She glared in stony silence at him until he left.
After that, the world seemed to shrink into an immeasurable, eternal stillness. There was only her and the black walls and the light, which never went out or dimmed. Time broke into the monotonous nothing every now and then, in the form of sleep or an arriving meal. Despite all her indignation and disdain, she was eventually forced to make use of the grate, and consoled herself with the fact that her meals at least came with a few paper napkins.
She tried to keep busy. But there wasn't anything to do except wait and try not to feel crushed by the dense silence. She sang to herself, recited what she remembered of her lessons, anything to break the silence. Anything to engage her mind in something outside of dread and terrifying memories. She didn't want to think about what might happen if she let her mind slide into the black spiral inside her.
But it was so, so hard.
She wished her father would come.
When his shuttle emerged from hyperspace in Alderaan space, Vader was thoroughly startled to find that his habitual search for any nearby Force-sensitives turned up results. And not only was there another Force-sensitive in the vicinity besides himself and the battered Jedi with him - that Force-sensitive&rsquos presence resonated with Vader himself in a way that only one person in the entire galaxy could.
The cry surged out into the Force without his bidding or deliberation, furiously relieved, a cry that could not decide whether it would prefer to scold the object of its tangled emotion or seize it up and never let it go again. Baranne must have retrieved the child, somehow, while Vader's shuttle was unreachable in hyperspace -
Luke did not respond to him. Alarmed, Vader prodded the glowing presence again. Not only did the boy fail to answer - it was as if he was unaware his father was touching him at all. Hastily Vader began to examine what he could of the boy's still-distant mind, seeking any sign of damage, unconsciousness, distraction - but the distance was still too great for him to discern much, especially when the boy did not reach back to him.
Vader paced the length of the cabin anxiously, desperate to reach Executor and see his son, see what was the matter, calling constantly to Luke as the shuttle crawled closer. As the distance closed, it became clear that something was wrong - he could not place it, but something about Luke's presence was simply not right. It reminded him of the time just before Baranne had retrieved the boy from Alderaan - that inexplicable distortion. His son did not feel right - at the same time more fiery than normal, and softer than normal. The differences were not pronounced, and once more he was reminded of the subtle ways in which Sara and Sandra felt different to his mental touch. The last time this had happened, he had attributed it to the effect of the great distance between them, but the closer the shuttle came to the Destroyer, the clearer the distortions grew.
Perhaps there was some anomaly in the Force that was inhibiting his son's ability to answer him? But then why could Vader reach the boy without difficulty? And why were the boy's emotions still coming through clearly? For he could certainly sense them in detail now, and he did not like what he could sense. His son seemed to be frightened, lonely, worried, determined, haunted, restless, indignant - the negative emotions poured out to him in overwhelming strength.
What cause did his son have to be distressed? He might have thought that the child was distressed by this inexplicable inability to contact him, but there was no hint of frustration which Luke most certainly would have been broadcasting to the galaxy full force, if he knew anything about his son.
The only explanation for this that he could think of - that is not my son - was so ridiculous he shoved it angrily aside. Of course it was his son! The boy's deep, unavoidable pull on him was utterly unmistakable. It was the root-deep, natural bond of a child and parent. He had three children, and the depth, the intensity, the rightness of their tug on him was completely in a class by itself. No other Jedi, no master, no random Force-sensitive being could have duplicated the connection he had with his son! His son that must be.
Furious, terrified, he paced madly up and down the length of the shuttle. Miyr's dark eyes followed him, although she did not move from her seat.
"My lord?" she asked hesitantly. "Is something wrong?"
"I do not know," he said with more terse honesty than he would have extended to anybody else in the known galaxy.
"The children?" she asked anxiously.
Vader paused to regard her. Truly he had chosen well when he hired this woman to care for his children. Miyr seemed to consider them her own which was as well, since his children had no mother.
"Luke," he said, a bit less brusque than before.
Anybody who loved his children would have to work very hard indeed to incur his undying wrath. Unless, of course, "anybody" happened to be Han Solo. But that infuriating young Corellian was a breed unto himself.
"It may be nothing," he added, seeing that his administrator was becoming upset. That, of all things, he did not need. The woman would need to see to the handling of this young princess when they arrived, and Vader was quite sure that require her to be in full form. Reports of the, ah, colorful fate that had befallen Grand Moff Tarkin when he made the mistake of irritating the precocious Leia Organa had not failed to reach him.
While he admitted to a secret jealousy that he had not thought of dyeing the man purple himself, Miyr would doubtless need all the experience she had to keep so mischievous a child under control.
Thank the Force none of his children were that rambunctious.
Well, at least not intentionally. Although it could not be denied that Luke managed to wriggle his way between every rock and hard place known to mankind, it was generally trouble that chased his son, and not the other way around. His son was a veritable electromagnet for catastrophe - how many boys could turn a controlled dueling room into the flaming seventh circle of hell in two minutes flat? The dark lord was not looking forward to discovering what could have happened that would leave him so utterly unresponsive to his father's calls.
The shuttle touched down in Executor&rsquos main hangar bay; Vader was halfway down the ramp before it had even finished extending. Baranne was waiting at the bottom, with his trademark ubiquitous expression and blank gray eyes, hands held behind his back in a pseudo-military stance.
"My lord," he acknowledged with a slight nod of the head.
"I wish to see Skywalker," he demanded point blank, not stopping.
The agent swung into step alongside him.
"I have several investigators following up potential vectors and have alerted garrisons in possible destination systems," Baranne said. "I expect to have further updates shortly. It's not as though civilians commonly fly around in lambda shuttles, after all, so spotting them shouldn&rsquot be difficult."
Vader turned sharply to stare at his agent.
"You have not found him?" he said incredulously.
Baranne shook his head.
"No, my lord&mdashas I reported to you earlier, we are currently tracking the vector and likely destinations of the ship in which he appears to have departed system. I'm afraid I can't expect even preliminary reports to begin arriving for another thirteen or so hours. In all likelihood it will be another week at the minimum before I have enough confirmed information to mount another retrieval operation." He paused, as though very unhappy to say anything more, but added, "I wouldn't be at all surprised if the search takes several months. Skywalker has proven remarkably elusive in the past."
They boarded a turbolift and Vader leveled an accusing finger at his agent the second the doors were sealed.
"You had best not be playing games with me, Baranne," he snarled.
The agent blinked. "I would never dream of it, my lord," he said, sounding quite befuddled.
The odd thing was, although Vader could sense Luke's (admittedly distorted) presence as plain as day, he could equally clearly sense that his agent was not lying to him.
Did the agent not know Luke was aboard? Had his son snuck onto the ship unnoticed?
"Then why," Vader remarked to his agent, "do I sense the boy&rsquos presence aboard this ship?"
Baranne stared at him in total surprise.
"Aboard this ship?" he repeated incredulously. "You'e sure?"
Vader observed in mild surprise as the agent swore softly under his breath. It was the most that Baranne had ever lost control in his presence since he'd hired the man.
"Drat that boy," he hissed, rubbing his forehead. "It would be just like him. Apologies, my lord, but Skywalker has given me more headaches than any other assignment in my experience."
You have no idea, Vader thought wryly.
"Can you track him down?" the agent asked.
Vader checked the passive presence in the Force again. It seemed that the turbolift was carrying them closer.
"Yes," he announced. "Stop the lift in another four levels."
"That's the detention level," Baranne muttered. "I wonder - nine hells!"
Vader glanced at him, taking a moment to stop composing the lecture he planned on delivering to his son the second he had him tucked safely away in his private chambers.
"What is it?"
"I'd bet my next paycheck he's after his girlfriend," the agent told him. "The princess, she's being held in the detention block. Shall I alert security?"
Vader paused. It was quite possible that the boy would try to release the little princess. Luke had mentioned something to the effect that Bail Organa had given him assistance prior to Vader's retrieval of him. Of course, the fact that that assistance had taken the form of hiding him from his own father was irrelevant to the young one. Misinformed though his son's perspectives might yet be, the point was that he might think it incumbent upon himself to do the same favor for Leia Organa.
Perhaps, even, the boy was so focused upon his grand adventure that he had failed to notice his father's arrival?
"No," he told the agent. "I will deal with them myself. They are only children."
Baranne did not look as though he agreed with Vader's assessment of the amount of resistance these particular children were capable of offering. Wisely, he kept silent.
The lift stopped, admitting them to the detention level.
"Block AA-7," Baranne told him, "this way."
The direction corresponded with his sense of Luke's location. Vader led the way swiftly down the corridors, flattening the occasional detention officer against the bulkheads with the sheer speed of his passage while Baranne followed in his wake. He burst into Block AA-7 with the force of a descending deity.
The officers on duty at the front console looked up, startled and abruptly terrified.
"My lord," the senior officer said smartly, deactivating the security shield and stepping out to welcome him. "You wish to speak with a prisoner?"
"Get out of my way," Vader barked, sweeping around the console.
The officer scrambled aside with a hasty salute, but Vader did not spare a second thought for him. He was already proceeding down the corridor of cells, scrutinizing every square inch for some sign of Luke. But his son's bright presence only led him to the front of Cell Number AA713, and despite the fact that Vader was now practically shouting in the boy's mental ear, he remained deaf and passive, answering with nothing more than a general projection of fright, dismay, loneliness - and, most prominently of all, ferocious determination.
Had he somehow locked himself inside?
Vader stabbed at the control panel of the door, which seemed to take forever before it opened to reveal the interior of the cell - which was completely empty save for the diminutive form of a brunette girl huddled on the bench. She stared up at him with wide, liquid brown eyes, arms wrapped around her knees.
Speechless, Vader stared back at her.
"Lie still, you must," Yoda said, for what was probably the thirty-seventh time since the shuttle jumped into hyperspace less than ten minutes ago. Despite that, his voice remained patient. Obi-Wan could tell that, for all his vociferous protests, Luke was secretly a bit impressed that the diminutive Jedi Master had not yet exploded.
Of course, Luke did not know that Master Yoda had been dealing with recalcitrant younglings for the past nine hundred years or so.
Normally, in Obi-Wan's experience, Yoda would not have put up with such repeated disobedience. But this was hardly "normally." Luke had every reason to be upset, and Yoda had wisely taken a gentler approach once he had the boy out of reach of Vader's agents. He had relied on diplomacy to convince the boy to stay on the med bunk, rather than on the Force. Fortunately, Luke knew enough to recognize medical wisdom when he heard it - especially after a scan had confirmed that he had sustained a concussion.
Unfortunately, he did not trust Yoda anything like enough to let the Jedi Master heal him.
"You can't take me!" Luke declared fiercely, managing not to thrash. "I have to rescue Han!"
For all his frantic outrage, Luke had not yet made any mention of his younger sisters to the Jedi Master, a fact that had not escaped Obi-Wan's notice. Clearly he felt to do so would be detrimental to their safety, or contrary to his father's wishes - possibly both.
The deceased Jedi did not volunteer the information himself. Far be it from him to disregard the Master's clearly-expressed opinion that consulting the dead was unnecessary.
"In danger, your friend Han is?" Yoda questioned mildly. Luke nodded frantically. "Lie still, you must!" the diminutive Jedi enjoined hastily, stilling the boy's head with a quick paw. "Now. Your friend, where is he?"
"Sumdykinnaptim," Luke fired off.
Yoda shook his head.
"Patience, you must have," he admonished. "More slowly, you must speak. Old, these ears are, hmm?"
"Somebody kidnapped him," Luke got out with painful deliberacy, half-squirming with the difficulty of restraint.
"Hmm, hmmm - "
"And now you're kidnapping me!" Luke added indignantly. "You don't have any right to take me away from my father!"
"Upset, you are?" Yoda questioned gently.
"Much there is of your father that you know not, young one," the Jedi said gravely. "Unsafe with him, you are."
"He isn't going to hurt me!" Luke shouted angrily.
"So certain, are you?" Yoda murmured sadly. "As sure, I wish I could be, young Skywalker."
"What do you mean?" Luke demanded. "What don't I know?"
"Tell you, I will not," Yoda said firmly. "Not for children's ears, are such things. Wait, you must, until older you have grown."
Luke had had enough.
"Obi-Wan! What's he talking about?"
Obi-Wan glanced reflexively at Yoda, and shook his head slightly.
"You have grown much, young Luke, but Master Yoda is correct. You are not yet ready."
Luke burst upward, Yoda's injunctions about lying still totally forgotten.
"You can't take me away without telling me why!" he shouted.
"Patient, you must be," Yoda said, more sternly. "Trust us, you must. Too young, you are, to make such decisions yourself. Too much weight for one so young."
Luke turned helplessly to Obi-Wan.
"But you said he needed me!" he cried.
"He does," Obi-Wan said, with a defiant glance at Yoda. "Master Yoda feels that the risk to you is too great, however."
"But you don't," Luke declared desperately. "You don't, do you?"
Obi-Wan settled for another silent, very pointed look at Yoda.
"I think that the situation is complex and that there are other considerations involved," he said diplomatically. "Such as the security of your friend, Han. Surely you must consider the safety of another innocent child as well as Luke&rsquos, Master."
"True, this is," Yoda declared. "Leave your friend in danger, I will not."
Luke blew out a breath. He was far from happy. But at least he'd convinced them to rescue Han. The problem was, he didn't really know where Han was. It wasn't with his sisters anymore, that was for sure. But at least he knew that Sara and Sandra were with Lando - maybe Baranne and his men had caught up with them by now. Either way, they were probably safe.
He had no idea how safe Han might be.
"Now," Yoda said. "Your friend. Where is he?"
"I don't know," Luke said automatically. "He might have been on that air van that left the hangar. Did you see it?"
"See it, I did," Yoda agreed. "Sensed the presence of a clone aboard, I did."
Obi-Wan turned a bit sharply.
"A clone?"he said curiously.
Luke frowned. "Like the Clone Wars, a clone?"
"I would assume," Obi-Wan said, casting a questioning look at Yoda. The latter nodded. "Clones do not turn rogue," the deceased Jedi Master mused. "Their genetic programming is much too accurate to allow for it, except perhaps in cases of extreme insanity..."
His voice trailed off, and he gave Yoda a very significant look, the meaning of which completely escaped Luke. Yoda only nodded gravely.
"Insane, this clone is not," he announced. "Tracking him, I am still."
Luke nearly leapt out of the bunk altogether.
"You know where he's going?" he said excitedly.
Yoda nodded in the affirmative.
"Follow him, we will," the Jedi Master announced.
Vader stared stupidly into the cell for what felt like forever, as though if he only stared at its small brunette occupant long enough, she would suddenly metamorphose into his son. He swept the tiny confined space with his eyes and all the sensors of his helmet and the Force, yet they told him the same things every time. There was only one other person in the cell. The Force said it was Luke. His eyes said it was not.
The situation simply would not fathom.
Luke was here. Luke must be here. He could feel the boy. The Force could not possibly misguide him so! Like a dundering idiot he traced and retraced the sensation of his sons presence, but every time it led him straight to the little Alderaanian princess. Vader knew not whether to kill the girl then and there for somehow performing the impossible feat of tricking his Force sense, or march immediately up to his quarters and call several medics to evaluate his malfunctioning brain.
After several eternities he took another step into the cell, and the movement seemed to make all the cells in his brain fire at once. The mental paralysis snapped as half-formed ideas for explaining this utter contradiction spun through his mind. Surely this girl could not be tricking himshe was a girl, for the Forces sake! Yoda himself could not have bedazzled his senses so thoroughly. Perhapsthe fingers of his mind grasped at fragments of strawsperhaps the girl had somehow acquired an imprint of his sons aura, through some heretofore unheard-of freak accident of the Force.
Nono. Too far-fetched. He didnt even know what he meant to say in that hypothesis.
My lord? he dimly heard Baranne ask behind him. Is the boy there?
Needing something, anything, to vent his confoundment upon, Vader whirled on his agent, seized the man by the neck, and hurled him across the corridor. Leave!
Baranne was gone without pausing for so much as a pointless apology. Intelligent man, Vader thought blackly. He turned back to the object of his consternation. Fear was surging outward from the point in space and time where little Leia Organa sat, but she did not betray more than a hint of it. She stayed sitting on the cells bench with unimpeachable posture, her large brown eyes drilled on him.
He sealed the door as he stepped further in, forcibly wrestling his temper under control. He must not lose it before he understood what going on. Insights would be hard to come by if he was not controlled and deliberate, if anything escaped him.
If he killed the child before he could ask any questions.
You are Princess Organa, are you not? he growled.
The girl did not answer him immediately, apparently afraid of confirming that that was in fact her name. If she had any inkling of what her thrice-cursed father had been up to as of late, Vader reflected coldly, she had excellent reason to wish to deny the name of Organa. However, he was in no mood to appreciate her hesitancy.
I do not advise that you defy me, he snarled, taking a step forward and leveling a finger at her. Bear in mind that I have made your acquaintance before, young one.
The child considered that only a moment before nodding. She looked rather shaky, but at least she was not hysterical. Excellent. There was nothing more uncooperative than a hysterical female.
Then you remember me, I assume.
She actually gave him a rather arch look at that, piqued by any slighting suggestion that she might not recall him. Vader felt a fresh flash of irritation, but also a grudging appreciation. She had her dignity, this little one. She was older than her small frame would suggest. How old was Organas daughter, anyway?
No matter. The question was irrelevant to his purposes.
You were discovered in the company of Luke Skywalker, Vader rumbled. Where is he?
She didnt waver. I dont know.
Indeed, Vader hissed, closing what distance remained between them and seizing her by the chin. I will give you one more chance to recollect that information.
Fright burst through the Force, bordering on panic, and Vader did his best to ignore the inexplicable similarity of her aura to that of his son. Her hands tightened on the edge of the bench, but her voice remained relatively steady.
I said, I dont know, she repeated. We got separated.
Vaders grip tightened in frustration, as if he could somehow physically wring his childrens precise coordinate positions out of her. But honesty forced him to accept that she most likely did not know. Barannes report supported her words.
How did you come to be in his company? he demanded instead.
To his complete surprise, the impertinent brat spun the tables on him.
Why do you want to know?
So unexpected was this demand from a child perhaps a fourth of his size that Vader was a full second late in answering.
That is none of your
She somehow wriggled free of his grip and stood right up as if she owned the whole Star Destroyer, one hand defiantly planted on her waist.
And why did you kidnap me in the first place? she added, pointing at him.
Angrily Vader stabbed a forefinger at her.
You are an impertinent, foolish child
Well youre a rude, bullying, homicidal, unchivalrous, scum-sucking nerfherder! she exploded with a stomp of her tiny irate foot. And you didnt answer my question! I demand to know why Im being kept here! I have a constitutional right! You cant arrest me without reading me the charges, I know the Imperial Constitution by heart and it says so in Article 4! And I wasnt read my legal rights either! And according to Amendment 13, you cant arrest me anyway because Im still under sixteen, and besides that youre the head of the navy and you dont have any civil jurisdiction! And according to the Penal System Reform Bill youre not allowed to contain prisoners in places not equipped with proper hygienic facilities! Youre in violation of at least seven Imperial laws! How dare you treat me this way? Well?
Vader stared at her dumbfounded, silent, amazed. One word only occurred to him.
Padmé, he murmured.
What? she asked, finally thrown off balance.
But something had suddenly become so glaringly obvious that he could not listen to a word the child said. He spun around and keyed open the door.
Have Dr. Siler summoned to my quarters, he barked at the nearest officer.
After pondering the question for several hours, Lando Calrissian had come to the conclusion that if Luke was right and Han Solo had indeed been kidnapped, then that uppity teenage slime bucket of a street rat krething well deserved it. Somehow, somehow, the star-crossed entrepreneur had found it in his profiteering heart to forgive Solo for attacking him in a cantina. Heck, he could even afford to let Solo off the hook for making him jump off that dilapidated freighters ramp onto a concrete landing pad from several meters height.
But saddling him with the twin daughters of Darth krethin Vadertwins in their terrible twos, no lessnow that was the Eighth Mortal Sin. How Solo had done it, Lando had no idea, but something this catastrophic couldnt possibly be anyone elses fault. Why the nine hells couldnt Solo have just put a blaster bolt through the back of his skull the first time they ran across each other? That would have been the civilized thing to do. But no, that blasted Corellian had to go and toss him into the jaws of the Sith.
Lando glanced over his shoulder at the rear seats of his ships cockpit, where the tiny twins were tumbled over each other in the same bucket seat, sound asleep, and wondered who their mother could be. Given that their father was twice as ruthless, vicious, murderous, temperamental, and generally evil as the nastiest crime lord in the business, their mother had to have been an angel straight from the moons of Iego to produce two such adorable children.
And Luke too. That stunned Lando even more. How had Vaders son come to be running around the back alleys and scum pits of the galaxy? From what the twins said it sounded like Vader had just plain lost him, somehow, years and years ago, but Lando couldnt fathom how the kid had gotten away from the Sith lord as a teenager, let alone as a babe in arms. Maybe the mother had tried to hide him or ditched him at an orphanage or something. Lando could see that. No woman in her right mind would want to even have a child with Vader, let alone let the man raise one.
Theyd said their mother was dead. Probably Vader had killed her once he decided he had enough kids.
Well, he thought with dark humor, guess Ill be meeting her shortly, then. One way or the other, he was probably a dead man. Vader would figure him for a kidnapper the second he showed up with the kids. On the other hand, if he didnt show up with the kids, Vader would track him down and knock him off then. It was a toss-up which option would buy him more time.
In fact, as he had long since concluded, there was only one person in the whole galaxy who could stop Darth Vader from mincing Lando Calrissian into bite-size human sushi appetizers.
Im crazier than Solo, Lando told himself for the fiftieth time as his ship hurtled through hyperspace towards Coruscant.
He had rarely felt more awful in his life. As Ferus mind swam back out of black unconsciousness for the first time in days, every injury and source of pain was making itself known with a vengeance. He decided the pain would be less alarming if he didnt bother with trying to identify everything that was wrong with him, as the list would no doubt be long enough to suck the optimism out of the most exuberant teenage hotshot.
And teenage, his body informed him in no uncertain terms, he most certainly was no longer.
He lay still for a few minutes on whatever cold hard surface theyd left him on, eyes closed, coming to terms with the searing aches and trying to remember just how hed landed in this predicament. He felt a sort of muted triumph as he remembered that Vader hadnt won anything from him yet. If the Jedi had anything to say about it, the Sith Lord never would. So far as he knew, Leia Organa and Luke were still safe, and Ferus Olin would do everything in his power to keep them that way. Their Force sensitivity was at best a death sentence and at worst an asset in the hands of the Empire, and what shreds of the Jedi remained could not afford to lose that promising talent.
Well, that, and Leia was a sweet little girl he didnt want to see get hurt. He had been living on borrowed time ever since Order 66, anyway. If his inevitable death could save her young life, then he could stand to go sooner rather than later.
Itd have been nice if Vader could have been a little quicker about it, though.
The wry thought made him feel strong enough to open his eyes and attempt sitting up.
He was surprised to find that this wasnt the cell Vader had left him in. Theyd moved him while he was out, apparently. A quick passive scan of the Force told him that however far hed come from that first cell, he hadnt gotten any farther from the dark lord. Vaders overwhelming presence still lay heavy on the fabric of the Force like an ugly ink stain, and he had not forgotten about his captive Jedi, if the suffocating pressure on Ferus mind was any indication.
As the dark lords superior strength was quite effective at preventing Ferus Force sense from discovering much else, he turned to his others to see if there was any more information to be had. There was a slight vibration running through the deck beneath himthey were on a ship, then. A big one, most likely, since the vibrations were so faint.
Probably Vader had dragged his Jedi prisoner back to the Imperial Fleet. Wonderful.
On the other hand, at least a Star Destroyer was a known quantity, unlike the forbidding castle structure on Vjun. Here he knew precisely what to expectVader, trained military officers, and hordes of stormtroopers. Outside of the detention block there were hangars at regular intervals, and armed ships with hyperdrives. The means to escape were available, if only Ferus could get within reach of them.
Ferus settled back against the wall of the cell, eyes closed once more, and began devising schemes for slipping out of the Siths clutches.
Hyperspace countdown was under an hour now. Time to make sure nothing had slipped during shipping. It was a formality, of course, but he made a point of being meticulously professional. Particularly with special cases like this one. Given the background involved, he didnt want to take any risks at all with the merchandise. Eliminating the bonuses from the equation had made things simpler, but just because something was simple didnt mean it was easy. You didnt get these sorts of commissions by assuming things. Accordingly, he levered himself out of the cockpit seat and marched back through the ship to the hold, where the portable cryo unit had been installed on Corellia.
Everything was just as hed left it. The merchandise hadnt budged. Not that hed really thought it would. A Jedi Master would have been hard-pressed to do anything about being stuck in a medical freeze coma. But you didnt take chances with anything involved with Vader. Satisfied that security issues were not posing any problems, he checked the vital readouts of the cryo unit. All stats were in the green, and nothing appeared to be wavering. The medical droid was still at attention, busily fulfilling its orders to maintain constant examination of the merchandise and the unit. He had a special customer, and that customer wanted his merchandise alive and healthy, not dead.
Not that it made any difference to him personally. There wasnt any such thing as personally in this business, and if you thought there was, you werent going to have much of a career. He had an excellent career. Dead or alive, it didnt matter to him. He was good enough to handle hot merchandise just as easily as cold. Whichever one added the most credits to his pocket was the one he preferred. This particular piece of merchandise would fill his pocket and his entire cargo hold, so it was to his advantage to be solicitous about its health until he could deliver it.
Of course, this was a special case, no trail. If things had really gone south at Corellia, hed have had to take extra time to make sure the coast was clear before pulling up anchors. But all hed lost had been the bonuses, and they were expendable anyway. It was a shame, because they would have been worth quite a substantial amount extra, but they didnt constitute a security risk.
As for Luke, the half-anonymous blond kidwell, he seemed to be plenty busy enough keeping Vaders hounds at bay. In fact, from the scene at the hangar, he had probably already been detained by the Navy. What for, he didnt pretend to know, but he made a point of only looking gift banthas in the mouths when it was completely necessary and feasible. Now that he knew the Empire was mixed up with the kid, going back for the boy would be a much greater risk to his security than continuing on.
He paced around the cryo chamber thoughtfully and came to a stop in front of the transparent pane at the front, regarding his hibernating merchandise. Sleep tight, he said genially. Naps almost over. Next stop, Coruscant.
The child he was dragging along behind him was becoming even more agitated and alarmed with every step. Vader could not pay any attention to this fact, however, because he himself was as agitated as ever he had been. Every now and then, a sudden jerk on his arm would remind him that the object of his wild ruminations had much shorter legs than he did, and he would force himself to slow his brisk pace so that the girl could keep up. But inevitably his thoughts consumed him again, and his prosthetic legs would speed up in response to his whirling brain. By the time they reached his quarters, he could sense her smaller legs burning from the workout shed gotten trying to maintain his pace.
Feeling a subversive, snaking tingle of guilt, he deposited her in a foldout chair from a closet.
Sit, he ordered.
Eyes wide, she dropped into it like a rock. He was frightening her, he realized it, but he had no attention to spare. Fright would not kill her, after all. More important issues were afoot.
You are Leia Organa, he repeated, pacing back and forth in front of her.
I told you that, she said in a voice that was trying to sound defiant, but which came out a bit shaky.
Your father is Bail Organa? he pressed, pointing a finger at her.
You are certain? he thundered.
Her temper made a reappearance.
I think I know who my father is, she snapped, crossing her arms.
We will see if you do, Vader said mysteriously.
Leia had no idea what he meant by that comment, but then she hadnt had any idea what was going on since theyd brought her here. In fact, she hadnt really had any idea what was going on since Lukes call had come through back on Alderaan and her father had sent her away. With a stab of guilt, she remembered Ferus for the first time in ages. Where was he now? Had he gotten away from the castle? Was he all right? Would she ever know?
She couldnt think about her father or Luke or Ferus for very long, though, because Vaders expressionless stare remained on her silently. The great black mask never budged. She found the steady, ominous sound of the breathing apparatus difficult to ignore. So finally, she just stared back at him. If she was making him angry, he didnt show it. He just stood there, like a seven-foot-cast-iron pillar. When he got tired of standing there, he would start pacing back and forth again, and Leia wondered if he might walk himself right through the deck, but even then his mask was constantly turned to face her.
After what felt like forever, the door to the room opened and let in two people Leia had never met before. One of them was obviously a medic, probably the Dr. Siler Vader had told somebody to get. His hair looked as though it had been superglued to his scalp in an effort to keep it within Navy length regulations, but his eyebrows were the bushiest shed ever seen.
The other was a woman dressed in navy blue with a long brown braid swung over her shoulders. Leia liked her at once. The woman looked so much likewell, she couldnt remember who, but she was sure it was somebody nice.
Miyr, Vader said with a brisk gesture. The woman stepped ahead of the medic quickly.
My lord? she asked coolly.
Vader waved a hand at Leia. This is Princess Leia Organa. She will be my guest. Leia knew that what he meant was, prisoner.
I understand, my lord, the woman agreed immediately. May I ask how long?
Vader turned slowly back to Leia, who watched him alertly.
Indeterminately, he rumbled. Leia felt her heart sink inside her chest. Princess, this is Miyr, one of my personal assistants. She will see to your requirements within reason.
Miyr, who apparently did not have any last name, nodded her head deeply.
Princess, she said.
Leia, feeling a bit sorry for Miyr but detesting Vader, did not bother with returning the courtesy. She opted to scowl at Vader instead, but of course he did not back down.
She is not to leave those rooms of my quarters designated for her use, the dark lord told his assistant without moving his stare one centimeter away from Leia.
So nothing had changed, really; theyd just moved her from one prison to another. Leia was beginning to believe everything Ferus had told her about how Vader treated children. He might have been nice to her that one time at home on Alderaan, when neither of them could sleep, but obviously that wasnt a habit of his.
You dont have any right to lock me up! she persisted. You have to return me to my legal guardian, its the law!
You could not possibly be more correct, Vader agreed, his voice sounding poisonous enough to kill a dozen men. Perhaps I shall have Senator Organa brought here so that you can repeat that speech for his benefit. I assure you, he requires the reminder more than I do, Princess.
Youre a filthy liar, she spat, hoping against her better judgment to make him angry.
I will not tolerate such disrespect from a child, he barked. Be silent.
And youre a slimy, disgusting
She froze as he suddenly stepped forward and seized her by the chin. His whole hand was nearly as big as her head, and she realized with a tremor that she probably didnt even reach as high as his chest. What was she thinking, trying to make him mad? Instantly she fell silent. Much as she wanted to shout at him, she decided she wanted to keep breathing even more.
Her father wouldnt want her hurt just because she hadnt kept her mouth shut when she should. She had to play along and let him take care of things. Surely hed find out what had happened to her soon. Hed get her away from Vader, no matter what.
Miyr, you are dismissed for the moment, Vader said, not letting go of her. I will summon you when I again require your services.
If Miyr was at all upset by the way Vader was treating Leia, she didnt say anything. She only bowed and left, as if this sort of thing happened every day.
Maybe Miyr wasnt quite as nice as Leia had thought she would be.
Dr. Siler, Vader boomed as soon as his assistant was gone. Examine the girl and take a blood sample. Quickly.
Before Leia even knew what was happening, she was opening her mouth and saying ah and breathing deep and following lights with her eyes and putting her hands on the portable scanner, and then all of a sudden the doctor had jabbed a needle deep into her arm. She flinched, more out of surprise than anything else, and was pushed sharply into the chair by Vaders massive glove.
Be still, he rumbled angrily. I warn you, I have had my fill of disobedient children.
She glared fiercely at him as the medic eased the syringe out of her arm, now half full of bright red blood.
I wasnt going anywhere.
Of course you werent, he said acidly. Doctor, run an analysis on that sample.
The doctor nodded. Vader waited until he had finished dabbing the tiny puncture in her arm clean, and then marched Leia out of the chair and through a few halls and doors. He pushed her into a Spartan room and locked the door behind her, and just like that she was alone again, waiting for something else to happen.
As she inspected her new surroundings, she became aware of a nasty feeling in her stomach that told her something else would happen soon, and that it was not going to be a very nice something.
He should not have been so curt with the girl, Vader told himself as he paced back and forth in the entry room of his quarters. He should have been more patient. He should have let Miyr do more of the talking. He should have made sure the girl was comfortable in Lukes old rooms. He should have left a squadron of highly trained special forces security guards at Bast Castle to watch Lukes every move. He should not have let Landre live after the incident with Han Solo. He should not have hurt Padmé. He should not be waiting here thinking about the girl instead of trying to track his son and daughters.
He should not be sitting on the edge of his metaphorical seat waiting for Siler to come back with the results of his analysis.
But it had been all he could do not to tread on Silers heels all the way to the medical lab and actually watch the man perform said analysis. Considering the question he waiting for the medic to answer, he was proud of himself for managing this much self-control.
Surely, surely it could not be. The girl could not be what he suspected. It was so far-fetched and theatrical as to be ridiculous. The very idea of it sounded like a spectacularly bad soap holo plot. It was too fantastical to possibly happen in real life. Certainly not his life.
The door to his quarters opened. Vader whirled.
It was a cleaning droid.
He looked at it for one second of pristine calm before gathering the Dark Side and smashing it into very tiny, smoldering fragments. Then he pulverized the fragments under his boot, methodically treading what was left of the unfortunate machine into glittery dust for the next cleaning droid to sweep up.
This waiting, he thought with absurdly perfect composure, was intolerable.